Archive | August, 2013

Brenda Jackson’s Latest Westmoreland Novel, Stern, Hits All the Soft Spots

26 Aug

Stern (Westmoreland #27 – Stern and JoJo’s story) by Brenda Jackson (Harlequin Desire, August 27, 2013)

I know what you are thinking. Stern? Maybe after writing no fewer than twenty-freaking-seven books in an incredibly popular series, you’ve got to pull out all the stops in the name department. After all, this guy’s brothers are Canyon and Zane! At least they are all cowboy businessmen – it’s hard to imagine someone from Minneapolis pulling Stern off.

Stern is the 27th book in the ever popular and always heart warming Westmoreland series (and is that the reason it debuts on the 27th? If so, clever, clever Harlequin!). As with so many larger series, this one is broken up into several smaller “series within a series,” usually in the form of trilogies centering around a group of siblings.

Stern Westmoreland is a self-confessed ladies man who has never been tempted to have even a long term relationship with a girlfriend, to say nothing of marriage. He’s baffled by his brothers’ and cousins’ recent rush to the altar and while he’s happy for them, he’s pretty smug in his lifestyle.

But a wrench is about to be thrown in the cogs of his life. His best friend, JoJo, has been there for him since middle school and they’ve always looked out for one another. Stern knows that she’s never been serious about anyone, preferring to learn hunting and cars at her father’s knee. She can usually outshoot Stern at the hunting lodge he bought for their regular getaways and she’s definitely kept up the thriving auto shop she inherited after her dad’s death. But JoJo is acting strange, asking Stern how to attract a man, and it’s making him damn unsettled.

Brenda Jackson with a few of her recent blockbuster novels (Zane is the same trilogy as Stern).

JoJo is feeling pretty unsettled herself. She came to the head-smacking realization a few months ago that she was actually having feelings for her best friend and she knows not only is she not his type but she doesn’t want to endanger their friendship. She has fixed the car of a handsome and dapper man who actually reminds her of Stern and her best idea is to start something up with this guy to divert herself away from the impossible. But she’s worried that her casual clothes and outdoorsy tastes are not exactly the bombshell qualities that attract most men. Who better than Stern to teach her what to do to dazzle a man’s eye?

While Stern tries to make JoJo see that any man should be more than glad to get her just as she is (he’s beaten up guys in high school for making her feel inadequate), he can’t believe he blurted out the piece about how most women do makeovers. Now he has to watch JoJo come back from a city trip with his female relatives looking absolutely edible. As relatives cast knowing glances in his direction, Stern must face the fact that the reason he’s never considered having a long-term woman in his life is that he already had one…and she’s perfect for him.

I adore “best friends to lovers” romances because of the long-standing comfort level and knowledge each character has of the other. Watching Stern absorb his brother’s comments and analyze his feelings for JoJo is priceless, as is his sneaky determination to derail any interest she might have in someone else. JoJo is a bit naive – despite her being in her late twenties – but I chose to see this as she is just so trusting of Stern’s character that even after he agrees to give her “kissing lessons” she doesn’t see his obvious physical reaction as being an expression of genuine passion.

There were a few points to this book that I thought felt the tiniest bit off. JoJo is nearing thirty and not only is she a virgin (!) but she also has never been kissed aside from some slobbering in the 10th grade. When she and Stern hook up seriously for the first time, you get the impression that she’s never even had an orgasm before him. Um, how is this possible in this day and age? I absolutely believe that Stern is her best friend, but JoJo must have women friends, a health textbook, cable tv, etc. that would convince her to do a little healthy self-exploration, right? She sounds fabulous and with her traditionally male tastes I found it highly unlikely there wouldn’t be a host of guys flocking around her grateful that she speaks their language. These are pretty small detractions to the otherwise total buy-in I gave this novel, so maybe this is just me.

Canyon is the other brother in the same trilogy, along with Zane and Stern.

The Westmoreland series has the quality that draws so many of us to family-based series, namely that in the end, you can picture yourself as part of the crowd and you care enough to want to see each and every one of them get their happy ending. Family values also manage to come across the page with a talented writer like Jackson, who readily admits that her personal attraction to family series comes from having a large family herself.

Even if the name gives you pause, it should be balanced out by the name of that wonderful author, Brenda Jackson. The year 2013 actually represents a milestone for Jackson, with her 100th book being published the year she turns 60 - an incredible personal achievement for any author, but especially one who published her first novel in 1995. Married to her husband for over forty years (she still wears the steady ring he gave her when she was 15), Jackson amazingly worked full time for State Farm Insurance until her retirement a few years ago, always declaring her romance writing a “hobby.” While many writers who have achieved her level of success might be tempted to move onto longer romance books with a different imprint, Jackson has remained faithful to Harlequin and (if rumors are true regarding her book deals) she’s been appropriately rewarded for it.

In a world where African American readers can have a hard time finding protagonists who look like them, Jackson has also accomplished something very special. While imprints like Kimani Romance specialize in multicultural characters, I haven’t seen a lot of evidence suggesting that there is a strong white readership of these books (a shame because there are a lot of great writers in that line). Because Jackson’s Westmoreland series is based off the premise of a great-grandparent who had multiple wives and kept leaving one for another as he made his way out West, the Westmoreland family is one trying to find their relatives (perhaps mirroring the recent upsurge in genealogy). What they discover are both African American and European American branches of the same family. It’s a blending that I think has lent itself to many readers dipping their toes into books they would otherwise not have picked up and finding that the water is just right!

Please do note that the August 27th release of Stern actually has the bonus story, Bachelor Untamed (which wasn’t in my ARC from NetGalley so I can’t comment on it), giving rise to the slightly higher price tag. If Stern is all you want, there is a standalone version of that book coming out on September 3rd that goes for a couple of dollars less.

I’ve loved all the Westmoreland novels I’ve read and it’s a testimony to Jackson’s writing style that I’ve never felt like I needed to read all the books in the series to understand what’s going on – they work together and as stand alone novels. Stern is a fabulous addition to the series and I dare you to stop at reading just this one. Many thanks to Brenda Jackson for all her quality writing and congratulations on hitting all her significant milestones this year!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, Week Ending August 25th

25 Aug

Contests and Giveaways

Robyn Carr has a justified reputation for damaged heroes and strong heroines so her fans are undoubtedly holding their breath for the release of her latest Thunder Point series release, The Hero, due out on August 27th. Lucky for them, there is a Goodreads giveaway to win a copy, so hustle over prior to the 27th and enter to win.

Nalini Singh is making everyone chomp at the bit for the latest book in her Guild Huntress series, Archangel’s Legion, and to tantalize us even more, this doyenne of paranormal romance and urban fantasy is giving away five ARC’s of the book! Just follow the instructions on her blog in sending an email to her assistant by August 26th to enter.

If I’m going to enjoy a cowboy romance, nine times out of ten I let Linda Lael Miller take me there. On August 27th, she’s got her latest novel in the Swoon-Worthy Cowboys series (great name, yes?), Big Sky Wedding, coming out and there is a giveaway in its honor over at Goodreads. Enter by the 27th and saddle up your horse to enjoy!

The I Heart Harlequin Presents blog is offering a Royal Giveaway of four of the imprint’s recent novelsLost to the Desert Warrior (which I reviewed this week – awesome!), Prince of Secrets, A Royal Without Rules, and Duty at What Cost?. All you have to do is leave a comment on the post saying where you were when the royal prince was born to enter. Get that comment in by midnight August 29th!

Carla Swafford delights in writing angsty, suspenseful romance as readers of her The Circle series know. The third book, Circle of Deception, was released back in January, but if you haven’t gotten to it yet, you might enjoy the prompt of trying to win the Goodreads giveaway for it! Be sure to enter by September 1st.

The Book Pushers blog is giving away five copies of Lisa Gardners’ latest romantic suspense novel, Maggie’s Man, written under her new pen name of Alicia Scott. It’s the first book in her Family Secrets trilogy about three half-siblings working to find out the truth about their family which just debuted on August 6th. Leave a comment with your favorite romantic suspense author before August 28th and you might win a free copy!

Fun Stuff

In case you worried that there were no good men out there who understood what it takes to not just fall in love but stay in love, read this inspiring post by Jackson Bliss about how he gives his all in his marriage. You’ll be forwarding it to your friends, male and female, I promise.

It’s a lamp, it’s an ampersand, it’s a “lampersand”! From the wonderful buyers at ModCloth, comes this household accessory for your favorite writer or reader, in textured metal and romance red. It’s 20 by 20 inches, so it’s a decent size, but you can hand on the wall or place on your favorite bookshelf. Wouldn’t it be fun to have two canvases, each with a couple’s name and this in the center? For $89.99, this household accessory is worth adding to your domicile.

As romance readers we spend a lot of time reading about character’s body language, whether it’s the alpha male crowding a rival or the heroine battling it out in the boardroom. This great article from buffer gives some great insight on body language and how it conveys power. You’ll find yourself never crossing your arms again!

Great Deals

wounded heroes box set copyWe’ve got three more additions to the uber-cheap boxed sets of themed collections so you can experience some new authors and series. First up is the Wounded Heroes boxed set (yes, please!) featuring physically and emotionally damaged horse trainers, military men and detectives who all need to find the woman meant for them to push them into dealing with what life has thrown them. As with all the collections in this series, this one is also only $.99 for over a thousand pages.

Also from the same author collective is the fantastic Bad Boys Boxed Set with four books (historical and contemporary) highlighting naughty boys who are ready to make the commitment to the right woman to limit their bad boy persona to just her. On the flip side is the Good Guys Heroes Boxed Set of five novels filled with men who make a living out of doing the right thing. Both are only $.99 for this leading man smorgasbord.

So many historical romance readers cut their teeth on Kathleen E. Woodiwiss and those readers might be interested to note that her best-seller, Shanna, is available on huge discount in ebook form on Amazon, currently costing only $2.99. Woodiwiss didn’t write small, so you are getting 672 pages of a condemned prisoner, a hasty marriage and hot consummation, followed by freedom and a Caribbean paradise. This is a saga, people, so brace yourself for a reminder for what romance novels were like in the late 1970s.

If you thought sets of four or five books for $.99 was great, how about ten of them? The Perfect Ten boxed set features such amazing authors as Alexa Grace and Adrienne Giordano and gives readers a slice of all the major subgenres of romance – romantic suspense, urban fantasy, time travel romance, mystery, thriller, paranormal, etc. – in one tidy package.

Jill Shalvis’ Forever and a Day, from her Lucky Harbor series, is on deep discount in ebook form on Amazon – down to $1.99. If you are someone who appreciates a small town populated by characters (many of them who fit the description “eccentric”) in each other’s business, plenty of humor and smoking hot sex scenes filled with emotion, you need to hop into this series ASAP. Not sure? Take a look at my review for more details.

Happy reading this week, everyone!

Understanding the Sheikh Romance: The Roots of Romance in Our Relationship with the Muslim Middle East and North Africa

23 Aug

After writing the review of Sarah Morgan’s excellent category romance novel, Lost to the Desert Warrior, I began to be slightly fascinated with the idea that, in a post 9/11 world, there exists an entire sub-genre of romance featuring Middle Eastern heroes (and sometimes heroines). How does this fit with our culture as Westerners, with the current political and economic climate, and with the larger genre of romance?

When you’re a librarian, your life is more than “ask a question, find an answer.” Rather, it’s closer to “ask a question, ask a bunch more questions, read a crap ton of interesting sources, and immerse yourself in a subject” but it’s a process I clearly enjoy otherwise I wouldn’t do it as often as I do. A large part of my happiness in learning about this topic came from the discovery of the book that has given me a framework and staring point for exploration, namely cultural historian Hsu-Ming Teo‘s outstanding academic work, Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

Incredibly well-written and exhaustively researched, Teo’s prose is riveting; this Australian author of both nonfiction and fiction makes the historical context of the sheikh in romance novels come alive. Because the subject is fascinating and lends itself to an understanding of current romance literature (both the writer and the reader can benefit greatly from the book), I’ve chosen to indulge myself in making this a multi-part blog post. This first installment will focus on the complex history of “the Orient” and the relationship of Western Europeans to this region.

First Things First. What Is a Sheikh?

A historical photo of a Bedouin family, circa the turn of the 20th century.

Let’s start first by defining some key terms, for example, what is a sheikh? Yes, that word can be spelled two ways “sheik” and “sheikh” and they both are correct with the same definition: simply put, a sheik is a title referring to man who is the head of a family. Done. That’s it.

Yet the word becomes more complex. It can be a gesture of respect toward a man who might also be a religious leader, but the term is largely rooted in the Bedouin community, indicating not just the head of a family but possibly of a tribe. The Bedouin people are the desert nomads of North Africa and the Middle East, traditionally focusing on animal husbandry as a way of life. Nowadays, Bedouins, who possess a rich culture of self-sufficiency and familial interdependence, are as likely to drive Land Rovers as ride a camel, particularly with government encroachment and nationalization of their lands. But no one disputes that the title of sheikh refers to a strong male leader in this environment.

The Orient Is Not a Place

The Orient can’t be found on any map…because it doesn’t exist.

So why the word “orientalism”? It’s a term confusing to modern readers since the Orient or the word Oriental has come to mean the many countries and cultures of Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.) but in actuality this word is usually a generational one which has fallen out of favor for a specific reason. That is, there is no such place as the Orient.

Really. Go find your globe or a modern map and look for it. It doesn’t exist. To find something labeled “the Orient” you’d have to dig up an antique map from the 1500s or earlier, back when cartographers read sketchy sailor accounts or interviewed drunken midshipmen at the local tavern in order to produce horrifyingly inaccurate maps which were then used to pitch “Let’s Discover the Riches of the Orient” sailing cruises to aristocratic funders who would likely feel at home one of those ruthless time-share sales environments. Next to “the Orient” was probably the picture of a giant sea-squid or a mermaid and the phrase “Here be monsters.”

For Western Europeans using the term “Orient” in this time period, they were referring to the North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Europe laying along the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

With this in mind, the Orient was then historically a synonym for the unknown East, and if that meant the Near East (like Turkey or Egypt) or the Far East (like China or Mongolia) Western Europeans didn’t care. It just meant “different from us and damn far away.” For most of the medieval and Renaissance periods, a geographic understanding of what areas are included in this sweeping term (which I refuse to use) can be absorbed by understanding where the Ottoman Empire existed from about the eighth century to 1918. North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey are the predominant regions which promoted so much fascination and antipathy on the part of Western Europe and later the Americas. These areas were and continue to be dominated by Islam as a unifying religion and the shared background of Arabic culture.

After it’s publication in 1978, Edward Said’s book Orientalism quickly became the seminal work used to understand the complex and troubled relationship between the West and the Middle East.

Orientalism is a whole different animal. While in the past this term was used to refer to Western art or literature which attempted to use the culture of the Middle East or North Africa as a theme, the modern definition is the one promoted by scholar Edward Said in his 1978 groundbreaking work, Orientalism. Said put forth the idea that orientalism was any academic, artistic or popular work which “imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.

For a variety of reasons (which I will explore in the posts on this topic) Western culture has become bizarrely focused on the “sexual fecundity and sensual appeal” of this area of the world. (Teo, p. 5) This is likely the historic juxtaposition between a culture which embraces love and sex in both a religious and cultural context, and the Western European tradition of Christian suppression and oppression of anything sexual in nature. Seeing how this juxtaposition has been handled throughout history actually gives us a tremendous opportunity to interpret modern sheikh romances with a new eye.

Modern sheikh novels often have compelling heroes and focus on emotional commonalities while still using the common trope of a character (usually the heroine) being immersed in a culture that is foreign, and one often laden with sensuality.

As Teo says in her book, “These novels certainly rehash classic Orientalist discourses, but not necessarily with the aim of differentiating, distancing and denigrating the Arab or Muslim in modern Western society. Because of the formal plot demands of the genre of romantic fiction…, cultural commonality and shared human interests and emotions are often emphasized instead of ineluctable difference.” (p. 10) In other words, while these books still oversimplify or gloss over the cultural meaning behind the “sheikh” title or have a hero who initially fits the stereotype of perhaps a powerful man unenlightened by modern gender politics (and this is not universal in these books), the same novels often celebrate the stability and strength of Arab families, contrasting this ideal against high Western divorce rates. This places modern sheikh novels in a strange limbo, one in which there are still orientalist themes present, but often where the novel itself promotes a view of Arab culture which actively fights the stereotypes prevalent in modern Western culture. (More on this in a later post!)

The Crusades: Bringing People Together Since the Eleventh Century

Even prior to the Crusades, trade with the Middle East was associated with items that delighted the senses – spices and aromatic oils. More fascinatingly is the fact that just like the majority of Western philosophy, history and medicine – which owes its preservation to the erudite Arab scholars which preserved all the Greek and Roman works that monasteries burned or didn’t preserve during it’s Dark Ages – the West owes its view of love to Arab culture.

The Muslim world had an established culture of romantic love long before the Europeans birthed courtly troubadours singing about knights satisfied by longing glances and a scarf around the arm prior to being killed while jousting. This ideal of unrequited, unconsummated love, which we associate with high medieval Western culture, is actually stolen kit and caboodle right from Arabic and Persian bards who felt this feeling was the ideal to aim for, a kind of martyr’s death, calling it “Udhrah love.” (Teo, p. 29)

Moorish architecture and art still abound throughout Spain and Portugal, dating back to this period where spreading the concept of Urdrah love through music and literature swept through European courts.

When the Muslim invaders decided the Spanish peninsula looked as good as where they currently stood in Morocco, the people who would become known as the Moors invaded that region, spreading art, music, advanced medicine – and thankfully the practice of bathing – to a group of Europeans living in comparatively barbaric conditions. This allowed translated Arabic poetry and literature to make the rounds of nearby European courts, stopping first in the French region of Provencal, where Udhrah love gained a toehold in the bardic traditions of those areas. Because of the scholarly understanding of where these stories originated, the Middle East and North Africa were seen as possessing “a sophisticated system of beliefs about love, seduction, sensuality, and the pleasure of the senses.” (Teo, pp. 30-31) Because of this association and various political factors, Islamic literature and poetry would spur Western literature’s attempt to interpret the relationship between the Near East and the West through the vehicle of romance.

The Crusade Romance: Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Pope Urban II giving the call to arms to warriors willing to take up the cross and take back the major historic sites of Christianity. Illumination from the Livre des Passages d’Outre-mer, of c 1490 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) via Wikipedia.

The first examples of sheikh-style romance actually were written at the time of the early Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Crusades were initially spurred by the exhortation of Pope Urban II in 1095 for knights “to take up the cross” (which the French translated as crusade) in order to reclaim the holy sites of Christianity for the Catholic Church and Western Europeans. Clearly not caring that there were holy sites for two other major religions in the region, Urban II also didn’t seem to be too perturbed that he had stirred up what would become a few centuries of warfare, with the much vaunted sacred locations vacillating back and forth between the Christians and the Ottoman Empire.

Yet more than one modern scholar has drawn strong connections between the code of honor held by European knights in the High Middle Ages and the Saracen or Turk of this same time period. Rules of combat, styles of warfare and the treatment of high-born prisoners aligned between these two groups separated by ethnicity and religion. These similarities, when contrasted so strongly by the startling differences of physical appearance and opposing religions, provided a great deal of fascination for Europeans, an obsession which emerged in Orientalist literature of the time period.

In the literature which used the Crusades as inspiration, “the ultimate triumph was not the death of the Saracen, but his or her conversion to Christianity through love and marriage.” (Teo, p. 31) The common trope was the one seen by modern sheikh romance readers today, namely that of a European, Christian woman kidnapped against her will due to her proximity to the conflict or involvement of her male relatives in the crusades who falls in love with her Arab Muslim captor. While some stories certainly espoused the ideals of romantic love (albeit with a Christian conversion by the hero as a key part of the happily ever after), other stories held horrible warnings for couples without this cleansing sacrament. A child of an Arab/European union is seen as being monstrously deformed until the holy water of baptism morphs him into a normal child; the hero’s dark skin similarly fades to white while undergoing that same religious introduction. (pp. 32-33) Early writers did not shy from laying the emphasis on religion thickly, just so there was no mistake regarding romance inspired by a religious war. Subtlety did not appear to be a High Medieval period trait.

“Count of Tripoli accepting the Surrender of the city of Tyre in 1124,” (1840) by Alexandre-Francois Caminade (Bridgeman Art Library / Chateau de Versailles, France / Giraudon)

The flip side of the gender coin was also visible in literature of this time. While the modern theme of “white Christian sold into slavery” held the test of time into the 20th century, crusade romance even had handsome knights, captured in battle, who fell for clever and beautiful Saracen princesses. These feisty ladies were willing to deceive their powerful fathers, free their lovers, only to run off and get baptized and then married. Hsu-ming Teo offers the excellent observation that while these women were seen by male readers of the time as lustful and unscrupulous (no man of the Middle Ages would encourage a daughter to defy a father), in actuality these women closely resemble our strong modern heroines and provide a contrast to the dishwater European women trapped as subservient pawns to men during this time. (p. 33) Despite cultural and religious differences the high Medieval period loved challenges to romance and was willing to use its heroes and heroines to illustrate how love (and Christianity) would always triumph in a successful marriage.

From Renaissance to Not Quite Enlightenment: A Turning Point Regarding Race

Perhaps the greatest twist for me in reading about the history of the sheikh romance has been the changing concept of what constitutes race, and therefore what a couple is capable of surmounting.  Initial European conceptions of race were that a certain skin color denoted an unacceptable religion; with this concept, baptism would render the individual romantically and socially acceptable as a means of repudiating their heritage and proof of embracing European and Christian ideals. (Teo, pp. 34-35) Once race was seen as an unalterable difference which was in itself insurmountable, the interracial love narrative also changed. (Since race is a social construct and not a scientific fact, I encourage anyone interested in exploring the concept from either a historical or biological perspective to take a look at the amazing website, Understanding Race.)

“Othello and Desdemona in Venice” by Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) via Wikipedia

In Giraldi Cinthio’s short story “Un Capitano Moro” (published in Hecatommithi in 1565), we see the foundation for Shakespeare’s Othello, which was written roughly forty years later in the early 1600s. A Christianized Moor goes from being a hero who saved Venice to the monster who murdered his European wife, Disdemona (Cinthio’s spelling), a wife who, while fighting with her husband prior to her death, warns women not to wed men so totally different from themselves.

This story (seen in translation at the above link) is virtually the exact outline for Shakespeare’s play, with an evil Ensign inciting his normally even-keeled Captain to insane jealousy, planting the seed of his virtuous wife’s infidelity, and driving the man to murder. (Teo, p. 36) Upon realizing how much he loved his wife, the Moor sinks into melancholy and despair and grows to hate the evil Ensign. Arrested and tortured for information by the government of Venice, the Moor withstands the privations of his imprisonment and is finally released, after which time he is anti-climatically murdered by his wife’s kinsfolk in revenge.

“Desdemona Cursed by her Father (Desdemona maudite par son père)” – Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) (Brooklyn Museum) via Wikipedia

Aside from my astonishment at Shakespeare’s flagrant plagiarism (there was no such thing as copyright back then, but the librarian in me is horrified), this story represents a turning point in the romantic European view of race which went from being something linked to religion and therefore possible to “overcome” in the eyes of Europeans, to a deep-seated indicator of true nature. This paradigm shift rendered interracial love by and large an obstacle almost impossible to overcome.

There is also a simplicity in solidifying the view of the “other” by associating skin color with an insurmountable social barrier, a view which has served Western society throughout its history of oppression. In the United States almost a century after Cinthio’s work, the burgeoning American colonies, desperate for labor, had the problem of the discontented freeman without land of their own. Previously having worked for wealthy landowners, both indentured servants from Europe who had pledged their labor for a ticket to the New World and the Africans captured and sold for labor worked side by side in the fields. Both harbored a reasonable hope that they would one day be free of their obligations and certainly held the belief that their children would be free. At the time their contract ended, each worker regardless of race was given their “freedom dues” – usually a gun and a piece of land.

“Bacon’s Rebellion” by Sidney King (1907-2002), National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park

As long as the servant being freed was a Christian, there was no objection from any man being bumped up the social ladder from servant to freeman, a label which still would have been seen as being part of the peasant class. (PBS, Africans in America, “The Terrible Transition”) But by the late seventeenth century, Virginia’s system hit a speed bump when there simply wasn’t enough land for these young men. A group of discontented young men, white and black, rioted in 1676 in what would become known as Bacon’s Rebellion.

The answer to the banner’s question is that this person used to be both a man and a brother to the white men working alongside him in servitude.

The elite of Virginia responded by not only putting down the rebellion, but solving their labor problem by turning all their attention from indentured servitude as the answer to the men and women bringing brought over from Western Africa. Wanting an easy way of not only having a permanent servant class but also a simple way to identify who was in service, these governing men decided skin color was the easiest marker. As historian Edward Morgan puts it, “Slaves could be deprived of the opportunity for association and rebellion. They could be kept unarmed and unorganized. And since color disclosed their probable status, the rest of society could keep close watch on them…” (Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (June 1972): 5–29.) For two disparate societies to live cheek by jowl with one another, and for the dominant society to discourage interaction (and particularly to discourage anything resembling sanctioned interracial relationships), a visible difference was crucial. Whether it was the slave collar of ancient Rome or the skin color of the Saracen, this instant visual cue was needed to warn Western Europeans away from the perceived dangers of close association.

Whether it was the writers of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment or the Virginia landowners, this fiction and legislation all points to a key development regarding race. European nations were acquiring colonies which both required cheap labor and often provided non-Christians who appeared visibly different and could fulfill that need. The Ottoman Empire, which had shared a border with Western Europe for centuries, had become enough of an historical threat to warrant the changing view of the Turk or Corsair as having a skin color which provided a window into the person’s true nature, no matter his or her religion. While the adoption of views of race are inherently complex in any society, that this turning point occurred at a time when the Ottoman Empire was being seen as even more of a threat to European nations is hardly coincidental. In actuality the height of the Renaissance and scholarship of the Enlightenment would bring greater polarization between these cultures, with literature and music furthering the promotion of stereotypes and misunderstanding.

Proliferation of Captivity Narratives, and the Fear of “Turning Turk”

The Ottoman Empire was most definitely a threat to Europe, both economically in their stranglehold on the trade to the East using routes through the MIddle East and North Africa traversed for thousands of years, and also in the Ottoman hunger for empire expansion and for slave labor, resulting in them constantly tickling the borders of Western Europe. The trade monopoly was one of the biggest spurs to the courts of Europe to fund discovery expeditions in the hope of finding new routes to the East across seas not dominated by the Ottomans. Signing a peace treaty with Venice in 1573 allowed the empire to consolidate its North African holdings without threat, but a thirteen year war with the Austrian Hapsburgs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century drained resources on both sides.

Because of this constant tension between political powers, the late Renaissance and Enlightenment periods produced literature with themes involving the Ottomans, with the culture’s beauty and cruelty emphasized according to established Orientalist parameters. With the ongoing conflict with the Austrians and Turkish pirates regularly raiding the Irish and English coasts, captives were regularly taken either for ransom or enslavement.

Scholar Linda Colley in her 2002 work, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850, estimates that over 20,000 English and Irish men, women and children were sold in the slave markets of Algiers and Istanbul as a result of this accepted practice. Ohio State history professor Robert C. Davis in his 2003 work, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Early Modern History), asserts that as many as one million Europeans, taken from the tip of Spain all the way up to Iceland were enslaved by pirates who worked in tandem with the Ottoman Empire during this time period.

The fear this constant threat engendered played out in the over 47 plays written from 1558 to 1642 which held the theme of a European captive at the mercy of a powerful Ottoman overlord. Stories and epic poems produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also possessed this element, often being written from the perspective of the enslaved, a perspective often labeled “the captivity narrative.” Perhaps one of the most well-known fictional accounts of a captivity narrative occurs in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1604, a year after Othello). “The Captive’s Tale” relates the story of a Spaniard who arrives at a tavern with a veiled woman. He proceeds to tell the story of how he was captured and sent to Algeria, where he he fell in love with a wealthy Moorish princess, Zoraida. She returned his love, betrayed her tyrannical father, freed her lover and converted to Christianity in order to marry her man and return to his homeland. Cervantes himself was actually captured by Algerian pirates in 1575 and spent five years in captivity (attempting to escape four times without success) before being ransomed by his family and returning to Madrid. (Irwin Edman in the introduction to Don Quixote) Clearly he had a lot of personal experience to bring to this part of his story. Other narratives, for example, The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman” followed the almost identical premise.

The Arabian Nights is the English title for One Thousand and One Nights, with the majority of translations relying heavily on Gallard’s original work.

Probably the most famous story of a slave under a brutal Muslim overload is the Antoine Gallard novel, Les mille et une nuits (Tales from the Thousand and One Nights) published from 1704 to 1717 in multiple volumes which featured translated African and Persian tales. As Gallard was an archeologist – which in this period meant antiquities thief – he possessed some fluency in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Purportedly possessing a 14th century Syrian manuscript with the tales in it, Ali Baba and Aladdin are thought to be Gallard’s own invention.

Essentially a series of stories within a story, this collection (usually entitled Arabian Nights in English) uses the framework of a Persian king who, having executed his wife for flagrant infidelity comes to the conclusion that women are all the same. Each night this seemingly heartless ruler takes a new concubine to bed and then executes her the following morning to avoid disappointment. When his trusted vizier can no longer find suitable women for the king’s bed, his daughter, Scheherazade volunteers to go. She tells the king a tale but leaves him with the cliffhanger at sunrise, necessitating him calling her back to his bed that night and postponing her execution. This continues for 1,001 nights until the king comes to his senses and realizes that Scheherazade is actually nothing like his dead wife and that he is in love with this clever, loyal woman. Some men are seriously slow on the uptake.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “The Bath,” ca. 1880-85, Oil on canvas, 29 x 23-1/2 in. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Mildred Anna Williams Collection. An incredibly orientalist painting, the stool she sits on even resembles a cage denoting her captivity.

While captivity narratives attempted to convey the heinous Muslim slave-owners (at a time when Europeans were doing plenty of slave-owning themselves), a main piece of the narrative was the immense pressure placed on captives to convert to Islam, and the captives noble resistance of these efforts. In actuality many captives cheerfully converted to their captor’s religion, the men largely because it enabled them to rise through the ranks and even gain their freedom, while women felt Islam was a religion kinder to women (that’s not a huge compliment given the state of both Catholicism and Protestantism at this time) and offering more rights. (Teo, p. 40) Europeans derogatorily called this conversion process “turning Turk” and the phrase eventually morphed into one insinuating a love of the perceived sexual depravities captives might endure in a harem.

What is fascinating about the captivity narratives from this time period is that rarely are women seen as being in danger of sexual defilement; it is the male captives depicted at risk for rape through sodomy (a danger I would imagine far more of a likelihood in the British navy of the time). Since this theme disappeared in the mid-1700s, right after Britain consolidated its role as a global European power, modern scholars believe the fear of sodomy to indicate the greater cultural anxiety of being “invaded” rather than having any basis the routine rape of male captives, for which there appears to be no evidence. (pp. 42-43)

The harem and what went on behind closed doors became the subject of fascination for Europeans, both in literature and music, yet many works featuring it still managed to insert larger messages about the Western view of the Ottoman Empire and of European views of sexuality.

The Allure of the Harem

The entrance to the harem (women’s quarters) at the Topkapi Sarayi, the famous palace occupied by the head of the Ottoman Empire from 1465 to 1856. The Sultan’s mother, wives, concubines and children, along with the female servants and eunuchs who served them, lived in this wing containing over 100 rooms.

While Western culture saw the harem as a guarded place of sexual license and indulgence populated by sequestered slaves, the reality was anything but. Haram in Arabic means “forbidden” or “sacred” and refers actually to women who choose to wear the veil, keeping their face for their near relatives alone. (Teo, p. 41) While wealthier women were often isolated, most women in Islamic culture of this time enjoyed greater freedom than their Christian counterparts. While calling the women’s quarters a harem was likely to be inaccurate on many levels, the later stranger moniker of seraglio was easier to explain. The Turco-Persian word sarayi (meaning “palace”) was commonly heard by Westerners visiting cities like Istanbul, and confused with the Italian verb serrare meaning “to lock up.” By the end of the 1500s, the French word serail and the English word seraglio did not just refer to a Turkish women’s palace but had become synonymous with “brothel” giving a clear indication of a Western view of such a place. This association became even more popular after Samuel Johnson chose to include it in his dictionary (perhaps for his friend Bothwell who knew far more about brothels than Johnson).

While European men were sure to exclaim “oh, that’s horrible!” in front of the clergy, secretly they dined out on this fantasy of sexual free-for-all (with one man as a focus, ahem) behind harem doors. No matter how inaccurate their perceptions, I think we can safely guess they weren’t fantasizing about converting the ladies within to Christianity.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who not only published her first hand account of Turkey but also brought back the knowledge of smallpox inoculation (the predecessor of vaccination) to England.

Even faced with actual evidence of their misconceptions, artists continued to perpetuate the above perception of the harem and Turkish women. By the mid-18th century, many Western Europeans had visited Turkey, publishing their travel accounts. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), a good friend of Alexander Pope, traveled with her ambassador husband to Turkey, later publishing her first person accounts of what she saw in Turkey. Since actual first person accounts had been written by men (and many of them captives), Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters provide a completely different perspective on Turkish culture. Charming, lovely and full of wit, Montagu was received all over the country, and she avidly described the interiors and fashions of the women’s quarters she was invited into. While offering audiences plenty of titillation regarding feasts of the senses, she compared the harems she saw to the 18th century courts she had visited, declaring them in many ways enlightened since women could own property and had a degree of autonomy only dreamed of in the West. (Teo, p. 49) Rather than housing lesbian orgies and naked soaping, Montagu showed Turkish women and children living as loving families, engaging in domestic supervision and embroidery familiar to the middle and upper class women who would read her account. But this actual first-person reality check never quite made it into the male consciousness, at least not in literature, as fiction became more powerful than truth.

Pornography and the Harem Setting

I think what surprises me more than the somewhat pornographic quality of this picture is the lack of pubic hair seen on adult women in this time period.

Lord Byron, that truculent but handsome rake, is often thought by scholars to have successfully laid a titillating foundation for Orientalist pornography as the harem scenes he depicts in The Corsair (1814) and Don Juan (1819), painting the harem scenes in them with lush sensual images of naked women stretched as far as the male eye could see. (Teo, p. 57) By the 1820s, caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, a member of the Royal Academy who produced lovely artistic works, was also chased by poverty. He occasionally turned to political caricatures but also made money producing illustrations featuring swarthy, large-penised males presented with pale naked beauties who either preened for his pleasure or caressed him.

Not only is this book still around (and in the public domain, so don’t think you have to pay for it), but it’s been made into a pornographic film numerous times. I know you are shocked by that tidbit, right?

He illustrated one of the most famous pornographic novels, The Lustful Turk, which was never given a named author, but went through multiple revisions and printing throughout the 19th century, beginning in 1828. In this work, the English Emily Barlow is being shipped to a distant relative in India because the man she loves has no fortune (and lacks the gumption to grab her and elope to Gretna Green). On the way, her ship is overtaken by Barbary Pirates and Emily is sold to Ali, the dey of Algiers who rapes her.  Recovering from her ordeal she meets other European women in Ali’s harem who have a similar experience, down to the ineffectual European lover who didn’t so much as steal a kiss. Like her predecessors, Emily grows to enjoy sex with Ali, due to his physical endowments, with her fellow Europeans succumbing to his ardor as well.

Scholars argue that The Lustful Turk, like The Sheik which followed it practically a century later, provides the Orientalist opinion that European culture had emasculated its men and distanced its women from their sexuality, both conditions thrown into stark relief when said European women were confronted with hypersexualized Muslim males. The Lustful Turk spawned numerous subsequent novels along the same themes and content (and illustrated), perpetuating the harem motif for European men.

One of the later 20th century sheikh novels (originally published in 1977) sadly involving rape as a plot device. Don’t read it unless you have to do an academic paper on the topic.

Is this all offensive? Hell, yeah, but through these offensive stereotypes of Ottoman men, the real revelation is clearly what the author is saying about the stunted view of sex in Western society. The male view of rape as some terrific trigger to liberate women from the culturally induced frigidity would even be adopted by female novelists (who clearly knew nothing about rape) in the 20th century. This choice gave romance fiction as a whole a taint from which it still hasn’t recovered, with many critics still referring to all romance novels with sexual content as “bodice rippers,” a term which only describes that small subset of romance for which rape is the first sexual encounter between the hero and heroine. (Teo, p. 63)

In my next installment of this series, I will specifically focus on E. M. Hull’s phenomenon novel, The Sheik, detailing the reaction to it, some possible historical and cultural reasons why it illicit such a strong wave of interest and highlighting how this book became the mother of modern sheikh romance.

The Desert’s Heat Melts Icy Hearts in Sarah Morgan’s Lost to the Desert Warrior

20 Aug

Lost to the Desert Warrior by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Presents, August 20, 2013)

If category romance was the horse world, Sarah Morgan would be a top flight thoroughbred, or – in the case of her latest book, Lost to the Desert Warrior - a gorgeous and swift Arabian.

I plan on outlining the cultural (and complex) phenomenon that is the Sheikh romance, but being a critical reader doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy these story lines, it just means you need to be careful to place your trust in authors whose intelligence and respect ensure they are not going to succumb to ethnic stereotypes or scathing cultural judgement.

Morgan has always been a four star author for me and I never mind plunking down my cash to get her next Harlequin romance. Lost to the Desert Warrior did not disappoint.

Layla and her sister are both princesses of Tazkhan, virtual prisoners of an uncaring father and his brutal regime. Hiding to witness their father’s death, the two young women hear his final demand that Layla marry a prominent and corrupt politician (he’s lived in the palace forever terrorizing the sisters and servants) who will only continue her father’s oppressive policies. Her sister is supposed to be shipped off the United States and never heard from again.

It’s a given that these two young women are brave enough to buck their cruel father’s last wish. They steal a fast stallion and head to the desert in the dead of night, dressed as boys, in order to find the Bedouin warrior and next-in-line ruler, Sheikh Raz Al Zahki. This is a very calculated risk as Al Zahki has every reason to despise them. Their father was responsible for the death of Raz’s father and the beautiful wife he loved. Layla, unused to riding and scared of horses, falls off and her sister, unable to control the stallion they chose for its speed careens off into the desert night, leaving Layla to face Raz and his men alone. He sees through her disguise and listens to her logical proposal, specifically that the two of them make a political marriage which would stabilize the country.

A Night of No Return by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Presents, October 2012)

It’s easy to empathize with Raz. He naturally thinks that Layla is what my husband terms “a frontrunner” – someone who switches allegiance when the going gets tough – and while he clearly knows the marriage is the right thing to do for his people, he also feels that he’s betraying the memory of his beloved wife. They immediately marry and since neither wants to leave any loophole in the marriage, consummate it right away.

Layla is a very sheltered woman in her early twenties and a prolific reader since books have been her only way of really experiencing life outside the palace walls. While she brought a copy of the Kama Sutra with her on her escape (along with her worn copy of One Thousand and One Nights), she hasn’t had a chance to study it to know what Raz might expect from her. Cold and distant, he’s shocked to discover the amazing sexual chemistry between the two of them. After a night of incredible sexual passion (one that actually has Raz leaving the tent afterward), they set off for a safe nearby oasis and the intrigue and complications begin.

It’s impossible not to fall for the characters in this novel. Layla, while naive and inexperienced is still very intelligent, and like many abuse victims, can read people extremely well. She quiet and thoughtful but gives off a complex mixture of innocence and practicality. Her caring nature is readily apparent and being the sole caregiver for her only slightly younger sister means that she’s used to putting aside any personal needs and taking care of those around her.

Raz is not the total a-hole that you often find in sheikh romances. You get the immediate sense of a strong leader with an even stronger sense of duty to his country and people, but he’s not too high and mighty to slowly see Layla for what she is. They do some actual communicating and, even if he could be more forthcoming and says some hurtful things to her, he doesn’t wait until the last five pages until he admits he’s wrong. They are a great couple and while you can’t have very many secondary characters in a category romance novel due to the length, certain relatives and animals are nicely fleshed out and lend themselves to the character development of the hero and heroine.

Woman in a Sheikh’s World by Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Presents, December 2012)

A major frustration with Harlequin romances (and I think Harlequin Presents commits this sin far more than the Blaze line) is that they often have intertwined romances – sometimes across authors – and make zero effort to clue in the reader to what other books to read by doing something obvious, like having a series name or deliberately linking the books on Goodreads or Amazon. WTF, Harlequin?

For example, Avery and Malik, the neighboring rulers of another country on the border of Tazkhan which Layla and Raz visit,  are secondary characters in Lost to the Desert Warrior, but their rather heartbreaking story is brought to light as a small subplot in A Night of No Return and then concluded in full (with a well-deserved HEA) in Woman in a Sheik’s World. Both books are part of the Private Lives of Public Playboys series, of which Lost to the Desert Warrior is not a part. Confused yet? Me, too. You don’t need to read either of these books, but considering they are both excellent, it wouldn’t hurt you to do it!

Whether you read the associated books or not, Lost to the Desert Warrior is a fun, well-written novel of the sheikh sub-genre and I wholeheartedly endorse it. My final wish is that Sarah Morgan will next publish the book about Layla’s sister, the one who disappeared into the desert on the feisty Arabian she and Layla stole to get to Raz. Raz sends his best tracker – his taciturn brother and former special forces operator to find her – and there are several references to his search in this book. Sounds like there’s going to be a chance for more heat in the desert soon!

Diamond Bras and Men Out of Uniform Make Rhonda Nelson’s The Closer a Winner

19 Aug

The Closer (Men Out of Uniform #15 – Griffin and Jessalyn) by Rhonda Nelson (Harlequin Blaze, August 20, 2013)

It is my intense pleasure to let you know that Rhonda Nelson has a new addition to her wonderful Men Out of Uniform series coming out tomorrow, August 20th entitled The Closer. I’ve yet to be disappointed with any of the previous 14 books in this series. The men are wicked hot and just a little bit damaged, the women are quirky and electrifying, and Nelson always places them in interesting settings and predicaments, often with more than a little humor present.

For those of you wondering about other books in the series, check out the Goodreads page detailing all of them (as of the writing of this blog post, The Closer wasn’t on there – a source of great frustration from me since every book in the series should have a click through series name next to it) or take a look at my reviews of the Christmas novella His First Noelle or the wonderful full-length novel, The Professional.

Griffin Wicklow thinks he’s just a responsible guy doing a job but he’s always lived up to his obligations no matter how hard they are. Starting in middle school when his father left him and his mother and sister to start a new family with the woman he made pregnant, Griff’s purpose in life has been to step in and provide where he was needed.

Did you know that there really are jewel encrusted bras?

His life in the special forces went along the same lines, until he was contacted by his father seventeen years after he abandoned his family. Griff’s half-brother Justin desperately needed a kidney transplant at age 17 and although he hated his father, he wasn’t about to jeopardize a kid’s life out of bitterness. Discovering he was a match meant an operation and long-term recovery, one that had him rethinking going back to the military. Discovering a great security firm stateside in Atlanta meant he could be close to his mother and sister while doing work he was meant to do.

What he did not expect was his first assignment guarding a diamond encrusted bra. Meeting the representative of the creator, none other than the stunning jeweler/stock car racer Jessalyn Rossi, rocks him further back on his heels. She’s beautiful, but her beauty is surpassed by her lively demeanor and good heart. It doesn’t take long before Griff realizes that she is a much bigger risk than the thief who has declared his intention of stealing the jewels.

Jessalyn can’t believe her violent reaction to the auburn-haired man hunk calling himself a security guard. She expected “mall cop” and got “male underwear model,” but she’s more impressed by Griff’s understated sense of duty and how he was willing to give up his chosen career for the family he loves. As they find themselves dealing with thieves, naughty elevator music and sparkling underwear, the couple succumb to the attraction between them, even knowing they live too far away to make a real relationship between them.

I’m only sorry I didn’t get to see Jessalyn race stock cars! These were two terrific people and I actually thought the suspense plot was exceedingly clever as well as being the perfect set up for the next book (and the next hero). Griff was a smoking hot guy whose sense of duty made him even sexier and I adore the way he and Jessalyn went “all in” for each other without the usual self-defensive, distancing behavior other couples feel the need to do in order to safeguard their hearts. This was a fantastic addition to an already outstanding series, so many thanks to Rhonda Nelson for getting each of these men out of their uniform!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, Week Ending August 18th

18 Aug

Upcoming and New Books

Historical romance writer Katharine Ashe is publishing the first book in her new series, The Prince Catchers, on August 27th, entitled I Married the Duke. With the cover blurb from Lisa Kleypas (who specializes in perfectly written historical heroes) and involving a duke disguised as a pirate and a gypsy curse borne by three sisters, this sounds like it’s a cut above your typical Regency romance. As of now, Avon has set the price on Amazon at a mere $3.59 for the paperback edition, a 40% discount from the list price of $5.99, so you might want to preorder it while this bargain is in effect!

Tired of billionaire Doms (seriously, how many of each of those categories can there be) and eager for a good shifter romance? Vivian Arend is releasing the third book in her Takhini wolves shifter series, and this time the hero is a billionaire bear who needs a political insider helping him understand the shifter community with which he’s working a deal. Who better than the leader’s former human girlfriend, recently freed up since her no-strings boyfriend just found his mate? Published by Samhain, Diamond Dust is a full-length novel priced at only $2.75 so the warmth you feel while reading it might not just be from Arend’s steamy writing, but also from the knowledge of the great bargain you just got.

I’m still reeling from Jeaniene Frost’s announcement this week that her seventh book in the incomparable Night Huntress series, Up from the Grave, will be her last Cat and Bones novel! Originally believing that her overall story arc would take nine books, Frost said on her blog that she and her editor agreed that it would be unfair to fans to put in filler simply to keep the series going as planned. As disappointed as I am, I appreciate Frost’s obvious commitment to give readers the highest quality writing. She has never written anything that didn’t blow my socks off and it’s not like she’s going to stop writing and take up creating macrame wall hangings from a beachside hut in Hawaii. She even admits that the couple might pop up in other books in the Night Huntress world (remember we still have another book in the Night Prince series and I’ve got my fingers crossed that Ian has evolved enough to be the hero in his own novel soon). There is also the pesky matter of the fourth man in the deported Australian chain gang who we’ve never seen but to whom Bones, Spade and Ian have referred. With those possible novels on the horizon (and having the utmost confidence in the creative imagination residing in Frost’s mind), I’m happy to thank her for finally offering Cat and Bones a happily ever after since they’ve been through a lot in their time together! January 28th will be a little bittersweet, but with Frost at the helm, I’m sure to enjoy every page.

As much as it pains me to say it (I’m an educator, so the school year is here), September 10th is just around the corner, so for those of you who still haven’t ordered the next installment of Jennifer Ashley’s Highland Pleasures series, get on it! The Untamed Mackenzie e-novella is priced at only $1.99 and stars the sexy but cranky Detective Inspector Lloyd Fellows, born on the wrong side of the Mackenzie tartan and Lady Louisa Scranton who is wrongly accused of murder. I’m not only going to love revisiting my favorite Victorian romance series but it’s going to always sate me long enough to wait for the next full-length novel, The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie, which will publish just a couple weeks later on October 1st.

Fun Stuff

The British newspaper The Guardian announced this week that the queen of romance, Barbara Cartland, had 160 previously unpublished novels in her estate upon her death and that these works, and some other published books, are going to be available for readers on her website. These unpublished novels join the 490 novels she wrote in her lifetime, stopping her output only a year prior to her passing away at the age of 98. If you picture romance writers penning their novels in canopy beds wearing a silk bedjacket surrounded by little dogs, Cartland is subconsciously who you have in mind. These books are only available in print so non-UK residents would have to pay more for shipping charges.

Did you know there was something called the Good Men Project? Envisioning themselves not as a magazine, but as a social movement, the people behind the Good Men Project believe in posing and answering the question, “What does it mean to be a good man?” Blogging about sports, ethics, sex, marriage, fatherhood and current affairs, the writing is high quality and well-researched while being always appropriate. And if your dad showed any prospective boyfriend his gun collection prior to that first date, you might enjoy reading an article which has been making the rounds “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex” by Ferrett Steinmetz, who just became my dad-hero. Steinmetz objects to the inference that he owns his daughter’s body or has the right to tell her what to do with it, particularly in the area of denying her the pleasure and intimacy which comes from sharing your body with someone you love. The article is simultaneously sweet, funny and thought-provoking and I recommend it for parents and for romance writers who would like to imagine what a positive father figure might look like in this century.

It’s rather dazzling to see the income of the top earning authors for this past year, particularly when you realize that E. L. James (author of the 50 Shades of Grey series) managed to total $95 million dollars in 2012-13 according to this Forbes magazine article. That’s a lot of handcuffs! Yet note that with the exception of nonfiction author and pundit Chris Matthews, virtually every author is either a YA powerhouse or specializes in genre fiction like romance, mystery or suspense. No wonder the literary fiction authors get so snobby – they’re cranky from eating ramen noodles.

Thinking About Publishing

This past week, Alex Crowley from Publisher’s Weekly posed the excellent question – Why Are We Still Not Bundling Ebooks? Seriously, why don’t publishers offer combination print/ebook bundles? If readers can get virtually every format, but not a discount on two types together, that seems to be denying publishers needed revenue. I know a lot of people like me who enjoy having a paper copy and an ebook copy of favorite books, so there would be some takers, for sure.

Contests and Giveaways

Fans of Jayne Ann Krentz knows she writes her awesome paranormal books as Jayne Castle, and they probably are also aware that the 10th book in the Harmony series, Deception Cove, is coming out on August 27th. There is a Goodreads giveaway with a deadline of August 19th for the lucky winner who gets an early copy, so if you’d like a modern marriage of convenience with a paranormal twist, get over there to see how lucky you are!

I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering the enduring phenomena of the Middle Eastern sheikh in category romance and erotica, and a big part of that inspiration came from reading an early copy of Sarah Morgan’s Lost to the Desert Warrior which is awesome if you love this subgenre! You can get a free copy of this Harlequin gem if you win the Goodreads giveaway, but you have to enter before August 19th (the book comes out on the 20th, as does my review).

Susan Mallery is offering readers who purchase her Fool’s Gold Cookbook (companion to her romance series of the same name) a chance to win a spanking new KitchenAid mixer (!) if they send or email her their purchase receipt prior to August 31st. Do you know how much those cost? And she’s giving away the shiny chrome one, no less! There is a way to enter via postcard if you don’t plan on getting the cookbook, so look at the link for details.

If you have a thing for ancient Celtic warriors cursed by the Fae (and I do), you might want to take a look at Storm Warrior, the first book in Dani Harper’s Grim series, which features a Welshman who transforms into a black dog to save a woman…and finds not only his enchantment broken but that he’s living in a strange world which seems magical in itself. This giveaway ends on August 21st (the book came out on the 6th). Hopefully you’ll win it!

People may have been saying that zombies are the new vampires for a while, but when you take a look at the cover of Paige Tyler’s new book, Dead Sexy, you’ll find yourself agreeing! While the book was published on July 12th, you can still catch the Goodreads giveaway for a copy as long as you enter before August 23rd. When a romance author and a gorgeous hunk who has been cursed by a vindictive Voodoo priestess hit the sheets, you’ll find yourself wondering if there’s a zombie on your block.

Everyone knows that I think Bella Andre’s Sullivan series to be one of the best contemporary romance series, ever, right? Well, with Harlequin recently buying the print rights to this original ebook series, you’ve finally got paperbacks to enjoy in the bubble bath now. A Goodreads giveaway is offering the third book in the series, Can’t Help Falling in Love, starring sexy firefighter Gabe Sullivan and the woman and child he rescues. It’s awesome and you might win it! Get over there before August 23rd and find out.

Readers who love Highlanders more than likely already have some of Amanda Scott’s book on their shelves but this historical romance writer has the second book in her Lairds of the Loch series, The Knight’s Temptress, coming out on August 27th. There is a celebratory giveaway at Goodreads you can take advantage of if you’d like to read it, too, but be sure to enter by August 25th to participate.

Great Deals

The next book in Jill Shalvis’ amazing small-town romance series Lucky Harbor, Always on My Mind, is still – inexplicably – only $2.99 for the book version (the paperback is also the nice number of $4.80). Since this one stars not only the town firefighter (and we’ve all benefited from Jill Shalvis’ thing for firefighters – thanks, Jill!) and the town baker, I sense some steamy, food-based naughtiness in the cards. Since we don’t know how long this deal will last and with the looming publication date of September 24th, I’d recommend ordering this one sooner rather than later.

Fans of Sabrina Jeffries’ Swanlea Spinsters series, need to make sure their ereader battery is charged as there is a phenomenal sale on Amazon right now. This series is filled with Earl’s daughters, highwayman, and marriages of convenience galore, with great reviews abounding for Jeffries’ excellent historical writing. Right now, A Dangerous Love (#1), A Notorious Love (#2), After the Abduction (#3), and Married to the Viscount (#5) each have their Kindle version discounted from $7.99 to $1.99. WOW! No explanation why the fourth book in the series, Dance of Seduction, isn’t going along with this amazing deal, but beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.

Have a super week reading, everyone! :-)

Ladykillers, Seducers and Manwhores: Re-envisioning the Promiscuous Male via Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau

17 Aug

Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau (W. W. Norton & Co, February 4, 2013)

I’ve been remiss in not doing any nonfiction reviews for a while, and that’s a shame since I think there are a lot of materials out there which can inform romance readers and writers. One of the best books in this category that I’ve read in a while is Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau.

Prioleau, who has a Ph.D. from Duke University in American Literature and is a tenured professor at Manhattan College, wrote Swoon while a Scholar-in-Residence at NYU and her total immersion into this project is apparent. Using modern psychological research, biographies and interviews of actual renowned seducers, and examples from modern romance novels to illustrate what women actually want, Prioleau elucidates the features that the majority of these men possess which keep women enthralled. The romance reader will find many common themes in terms of the personality traits of their favorite heroes, but the romance writer can mine numerous ideas from the data and the examples she offers.

The Elements of Seduction, or Anatomy of a Seducer

Not exactly what you think you’d run to, ladies, am I right? Yet rock star Rod Stewart never had a problem getting women even prior to his immense success, despite his physical appearance resembling a legally blind electrician (which would explain the hair and the poor clothing choices).

Perhaps the most interesting point when analyzing men considered prime seducers throughout history is that appearance has absolutely nothing to do with it. Prioleau’s book is filled with snaggle-toothed, short, bald, paunchy examples of men who had women literally stowing themselves into closets and brandishing pistols at rival lovers. The men in question obviously had qualities that made them irresistible and, before you scoff, think about a modern man who – based on appearance – wouldn’t normally get the time of day. Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart anyone? Neither of them are tops in the looks department but there are other qualities (besides being uber-rich rock stars) that give them that panty-tossing quality.

While ladykillers don’t necessarily have all these qualities, they usually possess the majority of them and romance readers and writers will readily identify these common personality themes.

Cary Grant’s romantic character of cat burglar John Robie in the film To Catch a Thief demonstrates the “honor among thieves” morality necessary for the seducer.

Morality – Even a bad boy has some kind of code that he lives by, even if it’s an “honor among thieves” system he uses to model his behavior. When examining the behavior of Prioleau’s seducers, I didn’t pick out any one of them who wasn’t upfront about his love of and need for women, with several of them actually going the route of serial monogamy rather than the bedhopping associated with a true playboy or manwhore.

Another side of the morality coin is the display of kindness or benevolence. The proverb “No love without goodness” seems to readily apply here. Followers of this blog know of my love for the Regency series by Stephanie Laurens, the Cynster series, and my fellow fans will remember the book that was the prequel to the series, The Promise in a Kiss, which chronicled the love story of Sebastian Cynster, the Duke of St. Ives and thirty-something rakehell, who nevertheless possesses a network of secret female admirers, not because he bedded them, but because he helped them with either personal or charitable concerns with complete anonymity and discretion.

Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice might be stuffy and stuck-up initially, but Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t really doubt his decency. The turning point in her heart comes not from seeing the grounds of Pemberley, but hearing his housekeeper sincerely extol his virtues as a person and as a master. From a psychological standpoint, our desire for this expression of morality isn’t shocking; picking a potential mate should involve someone we think we can trust. Determining the nature of our partner’s character is clearly an extension of the desire to choose a man we can rely upon.

Casanova so won the loyalty of the women with whom he had affairs that he had medical care and comforts lavished him on his deathbed by past lovers who heard of his plight.

Courage – Prioleau cites the recent study indicating that women actually value bravery more than kindness in men. This could take a traditional expression in the fictional romance heroes who have jobs requiring this quality (like firefighters or military heroes) but it can also simply refer to a man’s ability to put himself out there and take risks while being uncertain of the reward.

In Swoon, readers are treated to several examples of men who were fearless in their pursuit of a certain women, to the point of what might be alarming to a modern woman. Renowned lover Giacomo Casanova (who actually was a serial monogamist who loved women rather the manwhore his name has become synonymous with) escaped jail, uncovered a woman disguised as a man, and seduced women from right under their husband’s noses. Women reciprocated by falling head over heels with such a bold man. Like Casanova, a man who would run across traffic to meet a woman who caught his eye, risking not only life and limb but possible rejection, is a potential mate who will brave enough to get anything a woman or her offspring might require.

French actor, the award-winning Gerard Depardieu, whose raw sexuality and charisma has women of all nationalities flocking to him. And yes, this was one of the best pictures I could find of him, so this charisma thing is damn serious.

Charisma – This point was one that had a whole section of the book devoted to it, and it’s really the essence of the whole cachet of the seducer, isn’t it? I’ve seen absolutely beautiful men who really don’t earn a second look because they are missing several of the qualities in this list, yet a man who is a beanpole with coke-bottle glasses and unbrushed hair can get every woman (and some of the men) in a room to sit up and take notice.

It’s charisma, that “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others” which seems to ooze out of the pores and scent the air of certain men. Case in point, French actor Gerard Depardieu who on looks alone could easily play a live version of Shrek with his almost ogre-like physique and facial features. Yet Depardieu has been in public relationships with six renowned beauties, fathering children with four of them. He has made no bones about having dozens more in his bed, crediting two prostitutes from his rough neighborhood who became his sexual tutors and taught him how to bring pleasure to women. Sitting in on an acting class with a friend in Paris literally turned his life around, as he brought all that raw energy to play in his career and in his love life.

Seducer actor Richard Burton and the woman he loved so much he married her twice, the stunning Elizabeth Taylor.

Knowledge/Intelligence – Real sparks can’t fly when someone doesn’t have a lot of “there” there, so intelligence, even if it is confined to one or two hobbies or passions, seems to be a must. If a guy has never cracked a book but knows engines inside and out, there’s a partner out there who is going to be enraptured because his interests match hers. An offshoot of this quality is that a true seducer plies his arts through conversation, which is clinically shown in studies to be a way to prime a woman’s pleasure receptors. Talking can literally be foreplay to women!

With that in mind, the timbre of a man’s voice also offers it’s own erogenous capability. Elizabeth Taylor, in speaking glowingly about Richard Burton, a man she was so in love with she married him twice despite their tempestuous, alcohol-ridden relationship, said that one of the sexiest things Burton would do to her would be to whisper – in that low, Welsh voice – erotic lines of love poetry as he worshipped her body. *fans self* Check, please!

Twice-married David Niven was a chronic womanizer who genuinely loved women, so much so that they found it easy to forgive his indiscretions when confronted with the full force of his personality.

Social IQ aka “erotic intelligence” – While actual intelligence is vital for true seduction, emotional intelligence cannot be overstated. This social dexterity gifts its Mensa followers with the ability to read people and adjust tactics accordingly to get what they want. As Prioleau states, “…we owe civilized behavior today to women’s preference throughout history for interpersonal finesse – empathy, rapport, and good manners – over brute physical prowess.” (p. 79) Whether it’s the “fine divination” expressed by early 20th century sexologist (and Margaret Sanger’s lover) Havelock Ellis, or the “eighth sense” possessed by actor Warren Beatty according to his lovers, real seducers have the ability to say exactly what is needed at a given moment in order to demonstrate they are in sync with the person in front of them.

Actor David Niven was purportedly a maestro at this. His ability to read people and respond accordingly not only opened numerous career doors for him, but had dozens of women enthusiastically pulling back the bedsheets. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid-thirties, his conquests included Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Grace Kelly and he remained good friends with them throughout their lives, even through their various marriages. He didn’t lack a tortured past, having been born out of his mother’s affair with a prominent politician (who she later married and who refused to acknowledge David as his real son in order to avoid scandal). His mother and “step”father sent the young David off to boarding school where he suffered brutal sexual abuse from an older boy, leading Niven to wrestle with depression throughout his life, a strong counterpoint to the bonhomie which attracted so many women. He always named his first wife, Primmie, as the love of his life and never fully recovered from her sudden death at the age of 28 from a fall in Tyrone Power’s house while playing a parlor game. Yet the combination of past tragedy and scintillating conversation led practically everyone who fell into David Niven’s orbit to be pulled toward him, including the many women, one of whom called him “as delicious as a French pastry.”

Renowned satirical writer Kingsley Amis charmed women on both sides of the pond into bed with his humor and lack of inhibitions.

A sense of fun – So many of Niven’s lovers named his “playfulness” as the key piece of his personality which drew them, and that sense of fun is routinely listed as a major attractant for women. While romance novels are certainly populated with the stoic, strong silent type of hero who needs to learn to communicate and have fun (and the heroine is just the person to help him), a growing percentage of leading men fall into a category of cajoling, occasional betas, who can be plenty strong when needed, but in the meantime can help a too-serious heroine, perhaps recovering from past personal difficulties, loosen up and enjoy life.

This approach has its roots in our early hominid past, as prehistoric men were prone to violence toward stepchildren (and modern statistics support this as a continued issue). “Playfulness, as psychologists Geoffrey MIller and Kay Redfield Jamison observe, is an excellent fitness indicator, denoting youth, creativity, flexibility, intelligence, optimism, and nonaggression.” (Prioleau, p 196) A man who makes you laugh makes you feel safe, listened to, and appreciated all at the same time and this quality is often shown as being a key piece in long-term relationships.

British novelist and poet Kingsley Amis was no great shakes in the looks department, but in 1950s England and America his lack of sexual inhibition and humor had women lining up to get him in bed. Even after he was married, his personality could and did charm women into going into the garden during a party for a quickie, but his personality was such that no one seemed to hold a grudge. Case in point, after his second wife died, his first wife and her husband were happy to take him into their house to live his final days. From the man who said, “Only a world without love strikes me as instantly and decisively more terrible than one without music,” it seemed that there were plenty of women who were willing to agree with him, presumably with a smile on their face.

According to his lovers, Rubioso Porfirio’s height was the only thing small about him (ahem) but it was his legendary lovemaking skills and utter focus on the sexual gratification of his partner that made him the poster boy for the 1950s playboy.

Sexpertise – If there is anything that a romance reader can tell you, it’s that the sex scenes in romance follow a specific formula, namely that the hero adheres to the motto “She comes first.” Our heroines never have to worry about whether or not an orgasm is on the horizon, whether it be in a bed, shower, or in the front seat of Porsche with the door open for leverage. Chances are she’s even going to have number two or three and the oh-so-elusive simultaneous orgasm as the man ejaculates, perhaps with him commanding her to come at just the right moment. Yowza.

Yet these “sexperts” exist in real life (I promise), namely in the form of men who love being with women. These seducers understand women are more than their clitoris (although that’s important, too), creating sensual environments of sexy conversation, couples’ baths, and kisses that last forever and turn the woman’s whole body into an erogenous zone (which the man then plays like an instrument).

Dominican diplomat and playboy Porfiro Rubirosa in his 1950s heyday could control himself indefinitely having mastered the art of semen retention (like his contemporary counterpart, Aly Khan) and his rather sizable package could supposedly “go for hours” guaranteeing his partner’s gratification. Despite his mere 5′ 8″ height, he seduced some of the most beautiful women in the world, including Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Zsa Zsa Garbor, and married the two wealthiest non-royal women at the time, Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton. Seemingly the playboy model Harlequin designed its Presents line around, he was also a ranked polo player and a Formula One race car driver. His skill behind the wheel didn’t stop him from dying at age 56 from crashing his Ferrari, and women around the world went into mourning at the passing of such a legendary lover. Yet despite his bedding what could reasonably be totaled hundreds of women, he always refused to boast or speak intimately of his conquests, citing that it would be “ungentlemanly” to do so. (Cohen, 2002)

Former model Carla Bruni with her husband French President Nicolas Sarkozy. No he isn’t a step lower than her, he’s actually that much shorter.

Self-actualization – The ancient Greeks had it right when they espoused the philosophy “Know Thyself” and seducers can say the same. The most powerful ladykiller is one who truly knows himself, possessing depths to his character and confidence that naturally accompanies this understanding. Because so many of these men are also financially successful, the billionaire doctor playboy of Harlequin fame doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Yet women are far more likely to ignore material resources (particularly modern women who can support themselves) in favor of multi-dimensional men who can continually surprise and intrigue them. Benjamin Franklin was a lady’s man from his teenage days as a printer’s assistant in Boston to his septuagenarian years in Paris, charming French women out of their powdered wigs with his witty salon repartee, much to the horror of the Puritan-descended John and Abigail Adams.

Modern day lothario and former French president Nicholas Sarkozy conquered supermodel, singer and songwriter Carla Bruni with his intelligence and ambition, as evidenced by her comment to a reporter, “He has five or six brains which are remarkably well-irrigated.” Bruni is his third wife and he met and romanced her almost immediately after his divorce from his second wife. Unlike America where that would cause a scandal, in France this actually rose Sarkozy in the people’s estimation. Heck, they claim to have invented romantic love, so who am I to argue?

Modern Lady Killers

With this long list of attributes (and I only skimmed the surface of Prioleau’s list, which had several more additions with outstanding examples – past, present and fictional), who currently walks among us ready to take on the mantle of some of these renowned seducers?

All the women of his acquaintance were thrilled that actor Jack Nicholson worked past his premature ejaculation problem to become a renowned modern lover.

A name that shocked the heck of of me was none other than Jack Nicholson, a man who I don’t automatically think of when the word “seducer” is mentioned. Yet this moniker has undoubtedly been earned by this Hollywood actor, who started off life with a premature ejaculation problem. Going through years of psychotherapy, Nicholson confronted his demons and embraced a spiritual approach to lovemaking focusing utterly on the woman who he was with. Preferring women he harbors emotion for, Nicholson has learned how to massage women “into the mood” with lovers mentioning such romantic gestures as carrying them into bed and asking them for verbal feedback on what brought them closer to orgasm. His string of women do nothing but gush about his prowess.

Don’t let the hair fool you, actor, director and Twitter powerhouse Ashton Kutcher has hidden depths which the adoring women he seduces are happy to plumb.

Ashton Kutcher is a more likely modern ladykiller in terms of his appearance, but that same brand of boyish good looks leads people to underestimate this industry powerhouse. He embodies a personality component of successful seducers (versus the more shallow manwhore) in that he genuinely likes and respects women, a factor he attributes to his upbringing due to his close relationship with his mother and sister. He sees women as friends, equals and ultimately lovers and lives his mother’s directive to “treat women right, to take care of them, to respect them.”

Seduction Today

Yet men like Nicholson and Kutcher are the exception rather than the norm. Prioleau makes quite clear that modern men are at a loss when it comes to learning seduction techniques. No longer do we have a set etiquette of courtship as in past decades and the majority of men feel the lack of this structure. Spotty sex education, pornography, and callous pick up experts producing best-selling books are where the majority of young men are getting their “information” and it’s hardly edifying. Incorrect, unrealistic, and downright manipulative, this data results in the majority of men being adrift at how to express an interest in women or what techniques actually work to properly seduce women and keep them coming back.

“At a glance, it doesn’t seem like a season for romance; in fact, writes Maryanne Fisher in Psychology Today, there is none on the dating scene. Gone are the old rituals and rules, and in their place reign confusion, anomie, superficiality, and cynicism…Rather than grand amours, we have ‘cold heat,’ desire without passion, and plural, light attachments. Although an advance for sexual liberation, casual coupling, hookups, and turnstile partners have shriveled eros.” (p. 223)

Prioleau’s work has the potential for tremendous impact on helping writers and readers think about the would-be heroes in their lives (real or fictional) while also advancing the conversation about what truly constitutes love and seduction. Having enjoyed this book so much, I am eager to read its predecessor, Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and the Lost Art of Love (Penguin Books, 2004), but I have a feeling there will be similar themes of passion and charisma in the ladies featured in that volume.

In a world currently populated with pick-up workshops like those by Neil Strauss, author of the Rules of the Game, or the more straightforward and offensive, Bang: More Lays in 60 Days (which women should read simply to be on the defensive), it’s not exactly a miracle when men who truly love women and their pleasure stand out. Yet there is a flip side to the manwhore and it’s an obvious one. Unlike the romance hero who finds the heroine and changes his ways, the biographical details Prioleau shares of both famous people and her non-famous interviewees rarely have a happy ending. These are men whose hedonistic love of pleasure and intimacy has them going from one woman to another. It’s understandable given their outlook on life, but it’s nevertheless sad to read if you are someone who truly roots for a happy ending.

Like any book which sheds insight on the human condition known as love, Prioleau’s book opens a broad door, letting us see behind the facade of these ladykillers to understand what exactly makes them so irresistible to women. From history to psychology, from fiction to real-life examples, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them will leave your head spinning with understanding as to what truly seduces our senses.

Picking Out The Best Novella/Short Story from Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse Series

15 Aug

Night’s Edge, anthology containing “Dancers in the Dark” novella by Charlaine Harris (# 4.2 in the Sookie Stackhouse series) (Harlequin, 2009)

I haven’t done a series review of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, probably because they aren’t technically romance (but rather mystery or urban fantasy with strong romantic elements). Romance always has a happy ending, and Harris has made no bones about the fact that this is not her goal for the characters in this excellent paranormal series.

Even people who haven’t had the pleasure of reading this series have probably heard of the HBO companion series TrueBlood, which diverges from the books but keeps the spirit of Harris’ original work alive according to fans. The name of the series is clever considering that the entire premise of Harris’ world is built on the idea that, after Japanese researchers develop a synthetic blood substitute (one brand of which is named TrueBlood), vampires come “out of the coffin” and reveal themselves to humans so they can live alongside them. Major repercussions ensue from this announcement, particularly for small-town Louisiana barmaid and telepath, Sookie Stackhouse, who finds the stillness of vampire minds to be almost intoxicating.

Sookie, or rather the supernatural creatures drawn to her, attracts trouble like it’s going out of style and the thirteen full-length novels in this series chronicle her growth and romantic difficulties as she works alongside vampires, werecreatures, and fairies, often reluctantly. In addition to these stories, Harris has penned at least thirteen short stories and companion novellas, practically all of which star Sookie (and some of which you MUST read in order to understand the next full-length novel which follows it in the series).

The other day I discovered a novella I hadn’t read in the series and immediately set about rectifying my faux pas, only to discover that I had missed the best companion story out of all of them! Dancers in the Dark, published in the anthology Night’s Edge, stars Sean and Layla, the briefly glimpsed professional ballroom dancers seen in All Together Dead, the novel in which Sookie accompanies the Queen of Louisiana to the vampire summit so she can ferret out the undercurrents from the human minds standing alongside their vampire companions. Sookie along with everyone else is impressed and mesmerized by the two vampire dancers Sean and Layla who perform during the ball and I definitely felt that there was something extremely powerful about these two minor characters. When I heard that the novella I’d missed was the one fleshing out their story, it was a no brainer to snap it up.

All Together Dead (#7 Sookie Stackhouse series) by Charlaine Harris (Ace Books, 2008)

Layla, currently using the name Rue, is busy disguising herself in Rhome, Illinois, while she takes classes and desperately tries to find work as a dancer. When she sees the ad for Blue Moon, a known dance troupe specializing in vampire occasions, she heads off to audition. There she meets her new partner, the handsome, red-haired Irish vampire Sean. She not only admires his outstanding dancing but the fact that his almost expressionless demeanor offers her a safe, professional distance.

Rue/Layla knows that a few people see through her disguise, recognizing her as the Southern beauty queen raped and beaten almost to death by a favored son of her town, but most days she can fly under the radar and attempt to create a life for herself. At first she’s frightened when she realizes that Sean is secretly following her home each night after their nighttime practices and performances, but when she realizes there is no menace in his actions, she begins to relax and let a friendship develop. Soon there’s more than just a friendship at stake (no pun intended), but Layla has no idea if she’s capable of any relationship, particularly one which such a powerful creature.

Sean is intrigued by his stunning dance partner but he’s fallen in love a few times before in his long existence and it’s always ended badly. Yet he’s feeling things for Layla he’s never felt before and when he discovers on his own the hair-raising circumstances of not only her attack but her family’s callous treatment afterward, he knows his goal is to keep her safe and find her attacker, now released from the mental institution he talked his way into.

Unlike the Sookie Stackhouse novels which are written solely from Sookie’s perspective (common for urban fantasy), this novella thankfully switches between Layla and Sean’s POV, offering us insight into both wonderful characters. There is no way you can’t feel for Layla and find yourself gently falling in love with the stoic Sean as he coaxes her into trusting him by being so solid and dependable. I honestly found myself incredibly disappointed that Harris didn’t decide to make this a spin-off series since the dance troupe has so many fascinating characters (vampire and human) that it would be wonderful to develop each of their stories (romances preferred, naturally). Since the world is already well-established, I’m going to have to surf the web and see if any fan fiction exists (or maybe write it myself)!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, Week Ending August 11th

11 Aug

Upcoming and New Books

The ever-wonderful Lauren Dane just released her latest book in the erotic paranormal Cascadia Wolves series, Unconditional, and the good news is that you can easily read it even if you haven’t been a devoted fan of this world (yet). Even more fabulous is the fact that Dane announced she will be producing several books centered on the Hurley boys from the Delicious series, and I’ve already pointed out that the world needs more of the brothers of Damien Hurley! Since she says in her announcement that the books will be contemporary romance (the Delicious series is definitely erotic romance) and that she will be working with Angela James, I’m wondering if this will be a Carina Press series, but anything Dane writes (and James edits) is always pitch perfect, so no worries on my end -except for the fact I’ll have to wait until 2015 to buy them!

Fans of historical romance know that Sarah Maclean is one of the most talented writers of her genre, and they can finally sit back and anticipate her latest book, No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, which has gone up for pre-order on book sites everywhere. As we patiently wait for November 26th to roll around, read or re-read the first two books in the Rules of Scoundrels series and get ready to enjoy some of the best Regency romance on the market.

Fun Stuff

Enjoying your copy of Ilona Andrews Magic Rises? If you’re a Kate Daniels fan like I am, you’re already thinking about the next book in the series, Magic Breaks, and so is author Ilona Andrews. The husband and wife team already has a little teaser snippet from the upcoming book on their website and I for one would be happy to see what adventures my favorite couple gets up to when they go on vacation at Black Bear Lodge!

Contests and Giveaways

Sylvia Day’s latest Afterburn is tearing up Harlequin’s latest imprint, Cosmo’s Red Hot Reads (a partnership with Cosmopolitan magazine) and you can get in on the fun with their latest contest. Just write your ultimate wish and fill out the form and you may win $5000 toward making it come true!

A couple weeks ago I mentioned how Zoe Archer’s latest book in the Ether Chronicles, Skies of Gold, was debuting. Her publisher is offering a giveaway on Goodreads for a brand-spankin’ new copy, so check it out and get this one on your to-read list.

The Anatomist’s Wife was a critically acclaimed best-seller, and now readers have the second book in the Lady Darby series, Mortal Arts, to look forward to as it comes out on September 3rd. If you can’t wait that long, I’d suggest entering the Goodreads giveaway for the book, with a drawing happening on August 13th. Even with shipping time, you’re bound to be the first in your book group to read this one!

Also coming out on September 3rd are paranormal powerhouses Lyndsay Sands and Hannah Howell in their new collaboration, The Eternal Highlander, first in the new McNachton Vampires series. They are also offering a preview copy to readers prior to the release date, with their Goodreads contest concluding on August 15th, so vampire lovers, get a move on entering!

Biker romance fans love Julie Ann Walker for a reason, but if you’ve thought about reading her Black Knights series but not begun it, consider entering the Goodreads giveaway for the first book, Hell on Wheels. The drawing concludes on August 13th, so you won’t have to wait for long to discover if you can take this book on the road with you.

Vivian Arend has a new series, Adrenaline Search & Rescue, about a team based out of the gorgeous location of Banff, Alberta. The second book in the series, High Passion, is going to be published on September 3rd, but interested readers should know that there is a Goodreads giveaway for this one as well, with the drawing to be held on August 16th. It looks like you don’t need to read the first to enjoy the second, so if the scent of adrenaline gets your blood pumping, I’d enter this one.

Historical romance readers lamenting the glut of Regency books, might want to cleanse their palette with a Victorian romance, specifically Never Too Late by Amara Royce, set in London during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Starring a beautiful feisty widow who owns a bookshop and the aristocrat sent to investigate her inflammatory pamphlets, this sounds like a sexy romance with a lot more underwear than your usual Napoleonic Wars fare. There is a Goodreads giveaway with a deadline of August 16th for readers wanting to take a look at this novel which was published back in May (so if you don’t win, it’s easy to buy it).

Hotshot by Julie Garwood Continues Her Reputation for Solid Suspense

6 Aug

Hotshot (Buchanan-Renard #11) by Julie Garwood (Dutton, August 6, 2013)

I was a little leary about tackling Julie Garwood’s latest addition to her long-running Buchanan-Renard series, Hotshot. After all, I was not a fan of the last book in the series, Sweet Talk.

I did have a few criticisms similar to my concerns surrounding Sweet Talk. Rather than rich description, the narrative does sometimes lean to telling rather than showing. Garwood is excellent at creating a sincerely complex suspense plot with plenty of players, but it’s with her main characters that she needs to spend more time.

The book opens with a long prologue detailing how when the Lockhart family moves in next door to the MacBains, teenage Finn sees little five year old Peyton fall into the pool and almost drown. Luckily, the newly minted lifeguard rushes over and manages to save her. A bond is formed, one that continues long after Finn goes to college, the Olympics, law school and then later working for the FBI. Peyton always sends him a note on her birthday, thanking him for saving her all those years ago, and while he sometimes answers her and sometimes doesn’t she always thinks fondly of her “Hotshot” which she named him after all his medal wins in the Olympic games.

But she’s living her own life. Her parents are unhappy that she discarded her humanities degree to go to a presitigious French culinary school and pursued a chef career. Trying to find an opportunity back in the states is difficult, but she manages to astonishingly land a job at the premier food magazine as an assistant where she will train for a year and then become a reviewer. She packs herself up and moves to the middle of nowhere Minnesota in the middle of January to turn a new page of her life.

When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and Peyton discovers (over the course of the first fifth of the book) that the company’s CEO has recently lost his wife of many years, leaving the day to day in the hands of his grasping daughter and disgusting son-in-law. Peyton works for the son-in-law who makes it instantly clear that a big part of her job will be pleasing him in the bedroom. He doesn’t seem to take no for an answer and, with the support of a few friends, Peyton gets incriminating evidence of his sexual harassment and threats on her cell phone and then heads back to Texas as fast as she can. Pursued on the highway, she barely manages to get away, later discovering that her car actually has bullet holes in it from her boss’ henchman.

yokusuka-89827_640Home for his Navy brother’s wedding, Finn MacBain doesn’t recognize the amazing dark haired beauty approaching him with a smile in front of the church. He’s blown away to discover it’s little Peyton all grown up and the kiss they later share confirms that she’s got his vaunted control in the palm of her hand. Recognizing the bullet holes in her car, he drags her story out of her, putting her in contact with a lawyer friend who can help. Even though he knows he should stay away, they still fall into bed together for a cataclysmic night of sex and Finn is slightly horrified to discover (after the fact) that Peyton was a virgin.

She’s okay with knowing that nothing more can be between them, especially since she’s embarking on her own adventure. Her two sisters and Peyton have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime by their Uncle Len. He wants them to take over one of his resort properties in Florida and make it into a money-making prospect; if they succeed, they’ll inherit the multi-million dollar Bishop’s Cove and be set for life. With her older sister’s interior design prowess and Peyton’s culinary background it could work, and it’s a good excuse to move forward.

The FBI, bringing you taciturn and emotionally remote heroes.

The FBI, bringing you taciturn and emotionally remote heroes.

But Finn doesn’t seem to go away permanently. He shows up in Florida when the case against her boss further develops, offering life-rescuing help at every turn, and naturally they sleep together some more. While Finn is enormously helpful with protecting her and figuring out the next move against her boss who has her in his sights, he (eventually) makes clear when he leaves he has no intention of seeing her ever again. Ouch. That’s kind of dick move, if you want my opinion, particularly since he’s sleeping with her for days before he says anything. WTF?

Even after Finn leaves, the suspense plot keeps moving and it’s only after a major attack on Peyton that the anvil falls on Finn’s head and he realizes that he loves her (not that we are privy to that internal decision, just his panicked reaction to the notice she’s in the hospital). The suspense plot has a tidy wrap up with all the baddies discovered and a happily ever after mapped out for our hero and heroine.

Finn is just as non-communicative as the hero in Sweet Talk (is it an FBI requirement maybe? To be a non-chatty semi-dickhead?) and is completely resistant to any future with Peyton, although he doesn’t mind sleeping with her and leaving her in the dark. While Peyton does a good job rallying when she realizes that Finn has no plans to make a future with her (and that he’s totally resistant to marriage and kids, an attitude he never and explains and we are meant to assume it’s because of his crappy ex and the violence in his life), she acknowledges some sadness but just keeps herself busy.

She’s virgin in her mid-twenties (dude, she’s gorgeous and went away to college and FRANCE – how is this possible?) but I like how direct and no-nonsense she was. She did not strike me as a chef at all; people who work with food have a distinct approach to it and use passionate, descriptive terms when talking about it and that wasn’t present in the text. There was also something…old-fashioned about her, and I don’t mean that as a complement. Several references to her mother’s outdated views had me realizing that Peyton herself seemed old to me; I couldn’t imagine a young woman putting up with Finn’s crap and not letting him have it. At no time was I really convinced she was actually in love with him, nor he with her, because I didn’t see it. Were they likeable? Sure. Would I want to be friends with either of them? Not so much.

I’m beginning to wonder if my issues might stem from a lack of editing time dedicated to the manuscript. I found a few usage errors and I could easily see the publishing house giving valuable editing resources to burgeoning authors, knowing Julie Garwood will sell on her own merits and is a pro in terms of the years she’s been publishing. It’s just hard rereading Garwood’s excellent characterizations in her older historical romance novels and not seeing that level of attention in her recent suspense work.

I’m not sure I’d pay the new book price of $9.99 for the Kindle edition or in the $16 range for the hardcover, but I would absolutely recommend checking it out from your local library if you enjoy Garwood’s other suspense novels.

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