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Ruby Hill by Sarah Ballance a Great Addition to the World of Gothic Romance

30 Sep

Ruby Hill by Sarah Ballance (Entangled: Flirt, September 30, 2013)

One area of romance I feel is horribly neglected is gothic romance. Because gothic is by its nature a subset of horror literature, not only does a reader experience chills similar to that of a mystery or thriller, but there is a looming sense of evil and death which pervades the story, often with the setting itself providing an additional character (and it’s usually the villain).

Sarah Ballance’s new novella, Ruby Hill, certainly fits the bill, with an estranged couple (both investigators in their own way) and a haunted insane asylum harboring a serial killer. Ballance gives us lovely, spooky writing – the kind where the sentences feel good in your mouth while they send shivers down your spine – making this novella the perfect way to launch a ghost-filled October. Since I read and re-read tons of paranormal to get me in the Halloween mood, I was elated to find Ruby Hill to be a great way to get me in the mood for the upcoming holiday. Move aside, Pinterest!

The story opens with the arrival of our hero, Corbin Malone, a cop whose boss, frustrated by a rash of unsolved murders centered on an abandoned Victorian lunatic asylum, has decided to let in a group of paranormal investigators to see what they could find out on the “ghost” front. The police want to prove that there isn’t a ghost killing the victims, and this seems like the best (and least confrontational) way to go about it. The two major problems for Corbin are that 1) his brother Cash died in this exact spot six months ago and 2) the lead investigator is none other than Ashley Pearce, the woman who he kicked out of his life when he lost his brother.

Ashley Pearce has built a reputation as a solid paranormal investigator who not only tracks ghosts but can speak to them as well. She knows she’s not to blame for Cash’s death, but that fact doesn’t make the rejection by the man who she loved any less. She has strong ties to Ruby Hill (her great-grandfather was one of the founders) and is dismayed that this place she loves has taken on an overtone of evil. With the death of not only Cash but two beautiful young women, the police are baffled since all victims died of cardiac arrest with not a mark on them…as if they were scared to death.

Corbin has never believed in the paranormal, a fact that was the only tension between him and Ashley while they were together. When he establishes the connection that each of the victims (including his brother) all were descended from people who worked at the asylum, Corbin knows he has to get himself and Ashley to safety as they both fall into the same category and are therefore a likely target for a serial killer. The only difference is that while he believes he’s dealing with a live person, Ashley is even more certain that they are going to confront a dead one.

Decaying, abandoned insane asylums are PERFECT locations for a gothic novella!

Ballance paints a vivid picture of the hospital as an entity out for revenge, with the characters experiencing waking nightmares and conditions that fill your nostrils with decay while you are reading. The dynamic between Ashley and Corbin is poignant and rife with the tension of the situation, particularly as he denies again and again what he sees because it doesn’t fit with his belief system. By not believing in ghosts, he shows no respect for Ashley and her work, possibly leading to a personal rift that could cost both of them their lives.

I noticed on Goodreads that there were some reviewers who believed that the story felt unfinished or that the romance wasn’t strong enough. Okay, it’s true there was nothing more than some hot reunion kissing, but quite honestly, the asylum was disgusting and I would have looked serious askance if they had gone further in such an unhygenic environment!

If it were any other subgenre but horror, I could understand the reviewer complaints better, but Ballance does a pitch perfect job of crafting a horror story in Ruby Hill. Yes, there is a romantic element between these two lovers who have really never let go of each other and Ballance’s choice was to play up the gothic piece, which she does beautifully. The author’s main goal in a gothic romance novel is to get the couple out alive and relatively unscathed so they can go off (into the sunrise, in this case) and craft a happily ever after. Done. Romance readers are all about expectations however, so it’s possible that some people expected more on the romance and less on the gothic. I’m really pleased with the gothic emphasis, personally!

Entangled’s Ever After imprint (designed to deliver short stories and novellas between 20,000 and 40,000 words) is giving away some terrific prizes in honor of these debuts. I’ve put the links to the Rafflecopter giveaways at the bottom of the post, so be sure to enter them after you take a look at the descriptions. Lots of gift cards to your preferred bookstore to win as well as some cool jewelry and yummy gifts!

Here are a few of the stories they are releasing this week, covering a variety of genres, including the one I just reviewed:

Find Your Ever After in Under An Hour

Ruby Hill by Sarah Ballance

From her earliest memories, Ashley Pearce has been drawn to Ruby Hill Lunatic Asylum, and she’s not the only one. Decades after the abandoned hospital ended its institutional reign of torture and neglect, something lurks in the shadows. Since she’s a paranormal investigator, it’s Ashley’s job to find out what.

Crime scene expert Corbin Malone doesn’t believe in ghosts. A born skeptic, he has no interest in entertaining the hype surrounding the mysterious deaths at Ruby Hill, but he won’t turn his back while more women die. He agrees to an overnight investigation, never expecting his first encounter would be with the woman he pushed away a year ago. But when he discovers Ashley is a target, he learns his greatest fear isn’t living with his own demons, but losing her for good.

One Thousand and One Nights by Ruth Browne

Sheri spends her days fighting zombies and her nights chained to a wall, earning her every breath by telling stories to her captor Aleksy—stories that make them both forget the ruined world. Sheri could put up with the conditions—at least she knows her sister is safe in the community Aleksy leads—until she realizes she’s falling for him…even though he wants her dead.

When Aleksy allowed Sheri and her sister into his compound, he didn’t know about the zombie bite on her back. It’s only a matter of time before she turns into one of the rising dead and threatens their existence, but Aleksy has a secret need for Sheri and her stories. For everyone’s safety, he chains her to his bedroom wall, hoping for just one more day. But how long will the community allow Aleksy to ignore his own rule: always kill the infected. Always.

Mercy by Jan Coffey

Julia Klein’s life has begun to unravel—her daughter Amy has been suspended from school, Julia is about to lose her job, and her boyfriend Garrett is being transferred thousands of miles away. Overwhelmed, she and Amy leave for a weekend at a rambling old colonial inn. Julia never suspects that Garrett, desperate to find a way to keep Julia in his life, has decided to surprise her by joining them. Nor does she expect her daughter to befriend a mischievous ghost…or that she herself would be possessed by the malevolent spirit of a long-dead mother.

As a dark secret emerges, Julia, Amy, and Garrett find themselves pitted in a fight for survival against a savage presence that intends to resurrect/repeat/relive a horrible crime committed two centuries ago. And this time, Amy and Julia will be the victims.

Haunted Chemisty by Lindsey Loucks

When bookish college co-ed Alexis heads to the laundry room in her new apartment, she runs into Ian Reese, the chem lab partner she crushed on all last semester. And the guy who stood her up on their first date. But she’s down for an awkward reunion, and no better place than her creepy laundry room.

Ian has every intention of making amends, but just when Alexis begins to trust him again, a new threat calls more than their future together into question. A ghost from the apartment’s past is hellbent on revenge, and if he wants to get his girl, he’ll have to get the ghost first.

Wish Upon a Star by Michelle McLean

Ceri McKinley never stopped wishing that her ex-fiancé Jason Crickett would come back into her life. But when he finally does, he comes with a request that puts them both—and all of humanity—into jeopardy.

Jason only wants two things: to bury his brother properly and to convince Ceri to trust him again after he jilted her. But when Ceri agrees to help him get his brother back, they end up fighting for their lives as a zombie uprising threatens them all.

Northern Light by E.J. Russell

Nothing gives art fraud investigator Luke Morganstern a bigger rush than busting forgers, the low-life criminals who dare victimize true artists. But when his latest job sends him to a remote cabin in the Oregon Coast Range, he’s stunned to discover the alleged forger is his former lover, Stefan Cobbe, the most gifted painter Luke has ever known.

Stefan, left homeless and destitute after the death of his wealthy partner, doesn’t exactly deny the forgery — he claims he doesn’t remember, an excuse Luke can’t accept.

But Luke’s elderly client suggests Stefan may be telling the truth and presents another possibility – a dark presence in the woods, a supernatural fury simmering for decades. Luke must face down his fear of the uncanny – and admit his feelings for Stefan – if either of them is to survive.

Not to Be Missed Giveaways!

A skeleton key necklace and $25 gift card to Amazon or Barnes & Noble a Rafflecopter giveaway

A vintage sailing ship brooch and $20 Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card a Rafflecopter giveaway

A $50 Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card a Rafflecopter giveaway

A really cool looking Wish necklace and $20 Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card a Rafflecopter giveaway

A fantastic pottery handwarmer mug with Dark Chocolate Hot Chocolate mix (yum!) a Rafflecopter giveaway

I definitely felt like Ruby Hill was a terrific addition to the world of gothic romance, one so good that I’m now jonesing for other spooky-poo books to get me into the mood of gusting autumn leaves and the start of crackling fires in my living room fireplace. Thanks, Sarah Ballance, for getting me off to such a great start for the season! 🙂

Countdown to Christmas: Dark and Stormy Nights Need a Holiday, Too, So Check Out A Very Gothic Christmas For Delicious Shivers Down Your Spine

16 Dec

A Very Gothic Christmas with novellas by Christine Feehan and Melanie George (Pocket Books, January 11, 2002)

I’m not sure people really understand what makes a book “gothic” literature any more. Beginning with Horace Walpole‘s The Castle of Otranto in 1766, this genre combines horror and romance and is characterized by dark, brooding settings and often a paranormal element. Most romance readers have read works like Charlotte Bronte‘s Jane Eyre, Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, and Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca, enjoying both the books and the many film adaptations. Gothic literature continues into the modern day with some of the novels of Stephen King and Anne Rice easily falling into this literature category.

The way to know if you are reading a gothic romance is the observation of key elements. Strong archetypes are present in these stories: a virginal heroine, a tortured Byronic hero, the often twisted representation of religion and the presence of looming, forbidding gothic architecture, complete with secret passageways. Presence of the supernatural (while also having the real threat come from more corporeal villains) is combined with the frequent threat of rape or incest, as well as a heroine with a sensitivity to what’s going on around her when others do not perceive any danger.

I think that there is a strong percentage of romance readers who loved incredibly scary ghost stories growing up, the kind told with flashlights under your chin and the need to have clumps of your girlfriends go to the bathroom together afterward since God knows what was lurking behind the toilet tank. I think there is more gothic romance in YA literature, but we’ve inherited elements of gothic literature in much of the vampire romance subset (a lot of vampire literature is also gothic literature) and also some romantic suspense. I was still excited to see, when browsing for Christmas themed romance novels, this dual novella anthology from Christine Feehan and Melanie George. Both authors hit the gothic romance nail right on the head, with these stories prepared to send delicious shivers down your spine, both from the standpoint of the looming threat posed and the sexual tension between the hero and heroine.

“After the Music” by Christine Feehan (Christmas #1)

Magic in the Wind (Drake Sisters #1) by Christine Feehan (Berkley, September 2005)

Jessica was 13 when her mother went to work for rock star sensation Dillon and his troubled wife Vivian. She was happy to help her mother with the housekeeping and nanny chores to the couple’s newborn twins, Tara and Trevor. Vivian was troubled from the start but her latent instability rapidly degenerated into sexual infidelity, Satanic rituals and drug use endangering everyone around her. By age 18, Jessica and Dillon had feelings for each other but never verbalized or acted upon them due to his married status and her age. Nevertheless they were best friends with the common bonds of music and love of his children.

But one cataclysmic night, Vivian’s excess endangered Jessica in a way that sent Dillon over the edge, attacking his wife’s degenerate guests. The night ended with Vivian shot dead and six of her guests (and her) burned in the fire that reduceed Dillon’s home to ashes. Jessica managed to get the five year old children out of the house but Dillon suffered burns to his hands, arms and torso after rushing back in the house to save her and his twins as he didn’t know they’d escaped the inferno. In the subsequent medical treatments and two-year long trial (which absolves him of any guilt of the fire or the deaths), Dillon pushed away Jessica, her mother, and his children, giving them money to live comfortably but clearly wanting nothing to do with them as he became a recluse no longer producing music.

It’s been over a year since her mother died and twenty-six year old Jessica has done a great job raising Dillon’s children and forging a career as a talented sound engineer. Thirteen-year-old Tara and Trevor are fun, intelligent, and devoted to Jessica, but she’s worried for their safety. Her mother’s death was ruled an accident but Jessica has her suspicions, particularly after strange circumstances endanger her and the children. With Christmas a few weeks away, she makes the decision to brave the stormy weather and hire a boat to take the three of them to Dillon’s private island, an island where he has built a masterpiece to Gothic architecture not far from the ruin of his previous home.

The man who greets them is not the sunny, talented star of the past, but a truly tortured man (gothic hero, *check*) whose scars prevent him from playing the guitar and producing the music that was his life’s blood. The members of his former band (including the twins’ Aunt Brenda, Vivian’s sister, married to one of the band) are all in the house working with Dillon to produce a new album. Dillon hears music in his head all the time, but getting other people to realize his visions is an exercise in frustration.

Which is nothing to the frustration of seeing Jessica again. He feels like a monster in front of his children and her, but it’s minor to the longing he feels for all of them. Jessica – now a full-blown, stunning woman – calls to him, her presence always bringing light into his life. The vision of them as a family haunts him, breaking down his walls until he begins to see what his life could be. The fact that she is also able, in a way no one else seems capable, of helping him translate his musical dreams for others to understand and play makes his life worth living. But Jessica insists that there continues to be a real threat from one of the people living in Dillon’s home. Someone wants her and the children gone from his life, even if it means killing them.

I’ve read other Feehan books before and enjoyed them but I still was floored with the masterful writing in his novella. It’s rare for me to read a mystery where I can figure out who is the villain, but Feehan kept me guessing as she ladled suspicion on one character after another. Jessica and Dillon are a hot couple with a strong emotional and physical connection and the scene where they finally give into their passion for one another is both sexy and moving. The secondary characters are excellent, but Feehan nails the gothic setting with her description of the island and the mysterious happenings which continue to occur, endangering the children. Like the traditional gothic heroine, Jessica is virginal (she never wanted anyone but Dillon) and also sensitive to the paranormal and mysterious happenings around her, even as other people scoff at her suspicions.

“Lady of the Locket” by Melanie George

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down containing a novella by Melanie George (Pocket Books, February 2005)

This novella will appeal to to fans of Karen Marie Moning‘s Highlander series as it involves a similar time travel romance resulting in a passionate romance between a highlander from the past and a modern woman.

Rachel Hudson is not exactly in the Christmas spirit. It’s only a few days to the holiday and she’s alone in front of a dark castle not far from the bloody battlefield of Culloden. Her parents met one Christmas at this very castle, falling in love and married here exactly one year later. This Christmas would have been their 30th wedding anniversary and the whole family was going to celebrate it right here, but fate had different plans. Her mother died of cancer and her father followed her about a month ago, dropping dead of a heart attack. She’s here with the permission of the son of the castle owner to spend the holiday and spread their ashes on this place which meant so much to them.

Let in by the offsite caretaker, she’s immediately riveted by the portrait of the castle founder, Duncan MacGregor. It was painted in 1745 not long before his death and she’s left a little breathless at the compelling, handsome man with burning blue eyes. The castle itself is drafty and dark, with spotty electricity and the reputation of being one of the most haunted places in the world. Wanting to know more about Duncan, she cuddles up with a history book she picked up and discovered that his enemy, the head of the Gordon clan, is responsible for burning down the ruined East Wing in an act of revenge after being wounded by MacGregor. People believe he perished in the fire and that his malevolent ghost haunts the castle to this day.

With that thought in her mind as she drifts off to sleep, Rachel is awoken by the thunder of a vicious electrical storm and the sounds of battle. When she hears someone calling out, she worries that there might be a person caught in the storm and runs out in her pajamas to look for them. She ends up by the castle’s ring of stones dating back to the Druid era, the stones where Duncan MacGregor was ultimately killed and buried. Just as a bolt of lightening blasts the stone engraved with his name to pieces, she sees a man on a black horse emerge and run straight for her.

Landscape near Inverness, Scotland

It’s Duncan, of course, come straight from battle and angry that he cannot find his men. His first thought is that the sodden Rachel is a witch sent by Gordon, but as he follows her into his home – annoyed by her testy response to his ordering her about – he quickly realizes that his home is different. Very different. As it sinks in that he is no longer in his own time, her compassion reaches him, enough to unleash the passion he has felt from the first moment he spotted her. But unlike any woman he’s ever come in contact with before, she refuses him, although he can clearly see she wants him.

For Rachel, it’s self-preservation. In all her twenty-seven years, she’s never felt this overwhelming attraction to any man and as she’s begun to accept that this is the Duncan MacGregor from the eighteenth century, she knows he’ll have to leave and return to his own time at some point. Terrifyingly, it becomes quickly apparent that Duncan’s presence has given Gordon’s ghost power as well, and the enemy actually manifests and attacks them both at various points, intent on taking both their souls. For Duncan and Rachel, their coming together is bittersweet as they realize they have each found their soulmate but cannot keep them.

Stone circle in Scotland

Christmas Eve is especially poignant, with Duncan making her a snowman (she had mentioned her family’s tradition) and she gives him her mother’s locket which has Rachel’s picture in it. As the power of Christmas Day pulls Duncan back to the exact moment Gordon burns down the East Wing of the castle, Rachel is left bereft, although an expected person finds her after she thinks she’s lost everything she ever wanted.

Notice how this edition of Rebecca indicates it’s “a classic tale of romantic suspense”. While that may be partially true, it’s really a gothic romance.

George makes it very clear from the first page that this is a gothic romance, having Rachel look at the forbidding castle and think that it’s a place for Heathcliff and then quote her favorite passage from du Maurier’s Rebecca. While Rachel is not a virgin, she does say that the orgasm Duncan gives her is her first (astonishing at twenty-seven – did she go to a doctor?). With Gordon’s ghost, the paranormal element (to say nothing of the time travel) is well satisfied, and this castle is as dark and forbidding as they come. There were a few points at which I wish Rachel had a little more backbone, but I could easily empathize with her being a buttoned-up person who thought love like her parents possessed would never find her. She’s overwhelmed when that kind of passion turns up in her own life, particularly such a doomed love. I loved the ending and could easily picture Rachel being able to talk about what happened to her and moving on with her own life.

Melanie George is unique among the authors I review in that she appears to have fallen off the face of the earth after her last book was published in 2006. No website or social media presence (and other people have tried to figure out if she even still belongs to the Romance Writers of America) makes it seem like she never existed. This is so sad as her books appear to still be popular and I definitely enjoyed the writing in this story. I would love to see her still have a website with her booklist and some information even if she didn’t plan on writing anymore. I think all readers understand that sometimes life’s circumstances cause people to stop writing, but a little website with key information is still an acknowledgment that you appreciate your readers continuing to buy your books. With the advent of ebook backlists, readers can find you more easily so it’s not like no one knows who you are, even without a new book on the Barnes & Noble shelf twice a year. Christine Feehan fortunately is going strong with her Drake Sisters saga (and other series) and her website is an example to other romance authors. I just wish she was on Twitter!

This taste of gothic romance has given me a desire for more, and prompted me to think about the genre in general. I loved the way the magic of the holiday blended with the love in these two couples and think that this excellent book deserves to be on everyone’s Christmas shelf! Many thanks to Christine Feehan and Melanie George for reminding us why gothic romance can still send shivers down our spines. 🙂


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