Tag Archives: Erotic Romance

Against the Ropes by Sarah Castille Takes You To Hot, Sexy, Slightly Disturbing Places

3 Sep

Against the Ropes by Sarah Castille (Sourcebooks Casablanca, September 3, 2013) – great cover although it’s missing Max’s phenomenal tattoos

In the world of romance, the only thing better than a hot, underground MMA fighter is a hot, millionaire, underground MMA fighter and that’s exactly what we get in Max “Torment” Huntingdon, the hero in Sarah Castille‘s fabulous novel, Against the Ropes.

Yet the entire book is told from the heroine, Makayla’s perspective, one that begins with her trying to help her best friend at the underground warehouse which serves as the training center and an official fight location for this local, unsanctioned MMA ring. Despite Makayla strong physical reaction to witnessing violence, the EMT in her can’t help but reach out and help when people get hurt. That she is wrestling with some very traumatic issues from her childhood regarding violence, makes this reaction easy to understand and the reader instantly comprehends Makayla’s bravery in entering into a relationship with Max despite his personality which craves the show of strength he gets by doing MMA.

Max is an irresistible yet flawed individual who you end up loving because of his flaws as much as due to his caring nature. He makes a lot of mistakes with Makayla (as she does with him) but you root for the two of them to make it work since they each give each other way more than they take. Love – true love – always creates more than the sum of two people, and this couple shows how that can become a reality. Castille’s sex scenes between Max and Makayla practically cause the pages to burst into flame and it’s not shocking she’s won numerous contests in the erotic romance category.

Should you be interested in beginning your own underground fighting ring, please note that the actual equipment can be rented easily (although I imagine you’ll have to pay extra for cleaning off all the blood).

It’s tough to go too much into the plot with a typical summary since this book lives inside Makayla’s head. There is a distinct progression in their relationship and if you like possessive alpha males you will have noooooooo problem with Max, particularly when you discover why he might be a tad hypervigilant. Makayla is also dealing with insane student loan issues (and I confess to thinking this was the most unrealistic part of the novel – underground millionaire MMA fighter with venture capitalist firm, no problem, but harassing phone calls with threats to repossess your parent’s house for YOUR student loans, not freakin’ likely). She is however, surrounded by good friends and plenty of male interest, and in the middle of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (she was pre-med at the top of her class). Perhaps because of that element, and since Castille uses the first person to tell this story, I actually feel that there were a lot of factors which place this novel in the “new adult” category, if that’s an interest of yours.

Castille’s writing is outstanding in the sense that this is an insightful, deeply psychological novel that delves into the heroine’s head and sifts through some pretty deep stuff. Makayla doesn’t initially realize that she craves the dominance Max offers her (although her body understands pretty quickly). Yet her hot, steamy, highly erotic encounters with him often trigger flashbacks to the violence in her childhood. At first it’s unbelievably disturbing and I found myself, like Makayla, resisting the idea that she could be sexually turned on by something that would dredge up these memories. But by the end of the book it’s clear that this tension exists because Makayla’s brain is helping her reconcile her memories of violence done out of anger by an unhealthy person with the reality in front of her – namely that Max’s violence is controlled and strategic, born of a desire to protect the people important to him.

The MMA part of this was smart – fans of Kele Moon’s Battered Hearts series would find a lot to love here – and Castille writes every character with respect and depth, no mean feat! I hate the first person (it takes an amazing author like Charlotte Stein to get me to get past that hurdle) but I loved Against the Ropes don’t plan on fighting the purchase of any future Sarah Castille books which are going right into my “must read” list.

Hot New Author Tessa Bailey Wows With Her Line of Duty Series

12 Jun

Protecting What’s His (Line of Duty #1 – Derek and Ginger) by Tessa Bailey (Entangled Publishing, February 2013)

I love being a voracious reader but the hobby comes with a hidden cost, namely that you end up reading some horrible books in between the good ones. With this week filled with more than my fair share of two star books (which to me means that they are written in English, mostly grammatically correct and had promise, albeit that went unfulfilled), it was a relief to read the latest installment of Tessa Bailey’s Line of Duty series. Her books are four star all the way (rich characters, strong plot and conflict, hot sex scenes, and deftly written) and I realized I couldn’t keep her to myself any longer.

I stumbled across the first in her series, Protecting What’s His, about a month ago and was blown away by her writing, so much so that I immediately purchased the second book in the series, His Risk to Take. Wow. Gobbling that one up had me pre-ordering the third in the series, Officer Off Limits, which just came out on June 10th. The third book clinched it – Tessa Bailey has moved into my “will buy anything she writes” category!

In Protecting What’s His, we meet exhausted Chicago cop Derek Tyler, who has recently lost a good friend in the field. Exhausted and guilt ridden, he finds himself annoyed at two young women who appear to be moving in next door. He goes to tell them to pipe down already when he gets a good look. One is just a teenage girl with a unique sense of style, but the other…WOW. The body is a 10 and the face an 11 but what strikes him most of all is the fire in her eye when she tells him off for yelling at new neighbors, and in a sexy Southern accent no less.

Ginger Peet feels the heat between her and her annoying but sexy neighbor, but nothing can come of it. She pegs him as a cop long before he tells her his occupation and that alone means he’s off limits. After all, Ginger has stolen $50,000 cash from her n’er-do-well mother in order for Ginger and her teenage sister to start over in a big city and leave the violence and sordidness of their childhood behind. The last thing Ginger wants is to become like her mother, falling into bed with any guy who expresses an interest only to watch them disappear afterward. Not going to happen – even if she does have hot make out sessions with Officer Tall, Dark, and Yowza.

What struck me when I read Protecting What’s His was Bailey’s strong voice, which stands out in a field saturated with mediocre points of view. Ginger and Derek are both damaged, flawed characters, yet are drawn so empathetically that you immediately fall in love with both of them. I liked the idea of the female protagonist being from very humble beginnings and her sexual experience, combined with Derek’s need for utter dominance in the bedroom, made for a surprisingly hot combination. Ginger is inexperienced yet extremely smart and it gives her a vulnerability while never having her venture into naive territory. Derek’s possessiveness and dominance are just an extension of his personality and (thankfully) don’t go into the BDSM territory that is becoming so common it’s practically a trope in erotic romance (and P.S. publishing industry, I’m tired of it). Rich secondary characters like Ginger’s sister and a pervasive sense of humor (the Dolly Parton mannequin?) make this book a winner in every respect.

His Risk to Take (Line of Duty #2 – Troy and Ruby) by Tessa Bailey (Entangled Publishing, May 2013)

In Bailey’s second book, His Risk to Take, we see one of Derek’s coworkers, Troy Bennett, who has also been torn apart by the death of his partner, so much so that he decides to leave the Windy City for a position in the NYPD. He’s working on busting some organized crime players which is demanding work, all the while congratulating himself that he’s not attached to anyone. Troy never wants to feel that sense of loss again, so better to cultivate the lone wolf lifestyle.

Or at least that’s what he thinks until a stunning woman walks into the pub where Troy and his buddies are having a drink and all bets are off. Watching her successfully hustle a bunch of arrogant guys just makes him want to know more about her and it’s clear that she feels the heat between them as well. Now he just has to figure out how to get her home and into his bed.

Ruby Elliott personifies the lone wolf, so she has no expectations of Troy beyond her reckless decision to have a one night stand with him…and that one night just keeps going. She was taught to hustle pool from an obscenely early age and is used to danger, but Troy’s relentless pursuit is breaking down barriers she can’t afford to lower. When she finds out that there’s a connection between his investigation and some old friends of hers, she can’t help him without betraying the code she’s been raised with.

Troy and Ruby are fabulous characters and the vivid Brooklyn landscape well drawn by Bailey, who lives in the borough. I loved that Ruby’s real love was making custom pool cues; she hustled to survive but clearly had an artist’s heart for the love of her craft. Troy’s pursuit of her toward the end of the book, when Ruby doesn’t think she’s going to give him another chance, was so bittersweet and heartwarming, you can’t help but chant, “Let him, Ruby!”

Officer Off Limits (Line of Duty #3 – Daniel and Story) by Tessa Bailey (Entangled Publishing, June 10, 2013)

Staying in NYC for the third book in the series, Officer Off Limits, Bailey focuses on Daniel Chase, a hostage negotiator taught by one of the best. His mentor, Jack Brooks, is lying in a hospital bed at the moment and Daniel realizes that he’s next in line in terms of experience. Going out to flirt with the nurse on duty, he spies an image that makes his heart stop – a gorgeous creature in a short skirt and tank top with curves to die for attempting to make a choice from a vending machine. He’s astonished and secretly delighted when she playfully shoots him down; he loves a challenge and getting this beauty into bed will be a great one. The rug is ripped out from under his feet however when she turns into Jack’s hospital room…because this is his estranged daughter from California, Story, someone who Jack makes clear is completely off limits.

Story has no desire to be another notch in this playboy’s belt and the truth is it was a relief to be called to her father’s bedside. Story’s fiancee had just broken off their engagement a mere two weeks before the wedding was to take place and this kindergarten teacher feels that some wound-licking is what the doctor ordered. That her best friend happens to be a highbrow socialite living in Manhattan makes the two weeks of staying in her dad’s apartment while visiting him in the hospital that much sweeter. Daniel proves more compelling than she could ever imagine, but how she can be experiencing real feelings for someone when she just broke up with man she supposedly loved enough to marry?

Officer Off Limits is a fantastic third book in this series. Daniel is someone who has drowned the demons of his rough childhood in both his work as a hostage negotiator and in women, but seeing how special Story is makes him want to be worthy of her. She brings out a nobility he didn’t know he had, while demonstrating to him how meaningless the sex he’s been having up to this point has been. Watching Daniel wrestle with his feelings for Story, while also watching her realize that she means more to him than just a fling, is funny and poignant, with the sex scenes out of this world hot (in the car at the end of the Mets game? OMG!!).

Tessa Bailey doesn’t have a lot on her bio page on her website, but it’s clear that she is a talent in the world of romance. That she emerged from the Entangled Publishing house is unsurprising considering their editors have a nose for finding outstanding writers. Kudos to both the author and publisher for putting out these books rapid fire within the space of a few months – it’s certainly clinched my loyalty. With hints dropped regarding sparks between Daniel’s cop friends and Story’s best friend, I for one look forward to the next book in the series!

[October 2013: check out the follow up novella to Protecting What’s His in the Lovers Unmasked anthology for more Derek and Ginger!]

[November 2013: Asking for Trouble is the latest amazing addition to this series – check out the review and see if you don’t agree.]

S. E. Gilchrist’s Darkon Warriors a Great Addition to Erotic SciFi Romance

8 Jun

Awakening the Warriors by S. E. Gilchrist (Escape Publishing, May 1, 2013)

I love scifi romance (the hotter, the better) but it’s often of variable quality. The good news is that it appears that there is a growing market for it, particularly in e-book form, so I’m seeing more and more out there. When I received the NetGalley short story, Awakening the Warriors, I confess I was so intrigued with the premise and the author’s voice that I went out and purchased the author’s full-length novel and other short and devoured all of them!

First off, I need to be upfront and mention that the author, S. E. Gilchrist, doesn’t have an actual name for this series so, to make it easy on myself, I’m just calling it the Darkon Warriors series since that’s the obvious binding factor. Maybe she didn’t want to imply that there was an order to the books since they technically could be read independently with little confusion, but I think it helps the reader to have the books clearly labeled in an order, so I’d encourage her to at least add that information to her Goodreads account. 🙂

The Darkons are a dying species who used to rule a large amount of territory but now are fighting the Elite Forces, a military controlled by a dictator who would enjoy seeing the Darkons completely extinguished from the galaxy. It may happen without his interference; the Darkons lost all of their women and children six years ago to a horrible virus and have been, um, “unawakened” ever since despite exposure to the females of other races.

Legend Beyond the Stars by S. E. Gilchrist (Escape Publishing, January 1, 2013).

I think it’s to a reader’s advantage to begin with the full-length novel, Legend Beyond the Stars, to get a sense of the world and the Darkon backstory. Captain Alana Knight awakens from her space stasis to more than just the requisite stomach cramping. It’s quickly apparent to her and the other female colonists supposedly bound for a new world that something is wrong. They’re no longer with the other colonists – no older women or men – leaving only women in their late teens to thirties in the spaceship transporting them to an unknown system.

Alana takes charge, finding the other leaders among the women and beginning to pump the aliens caring for them for more information. They discover that the space traders transporting them are not just providing a travel service but rather trade in flesh, a situation brought home when a group of extremely large alien males, clad in black armor and wearing helmets obscuring their features, inform the women that they have been purchased and are now Darkon slaves.

All the women take tremendous exception at this, with Alana shoving to the forefront and informing the leader, identified as one Commander Tarak El Rajan, that he is sadly mistaken if he thinks they will be slaves to anyone considering that they’ve been duped. The hard feelings lessen a little after they are taken on board the more comfortable Darkon ship, The Ark, and the men take their armor off. That they are all gorgeous provides at least a distraction from the women’s fear, which is further lessened when it’s made clear that, in Darkon culture, no man would ever take an unwilling woman.

Much to her dismay, Alana finds she’s not unwilling, and that there is a powerful connection between her and Tarak. He doesn’t understand why she’s not elated to be his slave and is baffled by her information that, in her culture, women are equals who fight alongside men. Before they all died, Darkon culture sequestered their women who were quiet and caring. But Tarak finds, along with his men, that human women, unlike any they have previously found, are capable of “awakening” Darkon men, and it’s not long before all but the youngest (Elise is only seventeen or eighteen) are “claimed” by the men. Alana’s spunky sidekick Jess is actually tied to two hot warriors and she’s not letting it worry her too much (who would?).

milky-way-67504_640The relationship between Tarak and Alana is obviously the focus, even as the political and social piece unfolds. Tarak is an uber-Alpha, so if you don’t like a man who finds it hard to let go of the “you’re my slave” piece, you probably won’t enjoy this book. His redeeming characteristics come in the form of his POV which reveals that while he’s saying that over and over, in actuality he is experiencing a tremendous amount of attraction and affection for this woman who frustrates him with her insistence on being treated as an equal. Alana naturally vacillates between her overwhelming attraction for Tarak, who can really burn up the sheets, and her knowledge that nothing can come of a relationship between too people so unequal. It’s that inequality which leads to much of the mistrust on her part, compounded by the fact that Tarak is the heir to the Darkon throne, and she doesn’t buy into a fairy tale ending.

Great world-building and compelling characters can be found in this novel. Aside from the mention of Jess’s menage relationship, I actually thought this book could have easily been labeled “scorcher” as much as “erotic” with the level of explicitness and language choice for it’s smoking hot sex scenes. All of the sex was very appropriate to the storyline and the characters’ relationship, making it always steamy and often a little heartbreaking as these two people struggled to express their love for one another.

Gilchrist did an excellent job at seeding conflict beyond the interpersonal throughout the book as well. There is a lot of evil in this world between the forces opposing the Darkons as well as their own brand of villain (who will make you shudder at how horrible they are). I loved that the only unmated Darkon warrior was Tarak’s slightly older second-in-command who was clearly attracted to Elise, but too much of a gentleman to make a move on someone so young. I’m hoping a future book will be their story set a few years in the future!

The Portal by S. E. Gilchrist (Escape Publishing, March 1, 2013)

Technically, the next book in the series is the short story (only 31 pages or so) The Portal, and people have expressed a lot of dissatisfaction about this one. It’s actually a very sweet tale of a Darkon warrior who had a brief interlude with a young salvager months before and has been looking for her since. I think that much of the complaining is due to its length (readers always want more) and the fact that it does jump back and forth in time. I wished for more heat, as the sex scene that bonded the two together was extremely brief. A little more of a tie-in to her having “awakened” him would have also helped, particularly if it had been made clearer that his experience was the cause of his pursuit.

The short story, Awakening the Warriors, has none of those problems, and even though its a mere 46 pages it packs quite a bit of heat between its e-covers. Fran is a geologist who signed on with a corporation to travel to a new world when her transport was intercepted by the Elite Forces. She’s being held in a cell with a group of other women of various species and they are becoming more horrified by the minute. Some of the females were taken away a few days ago and the remaining prisoners are beginning to think that it’s for experimentation. Word has gone out that a group of human women have succeeded in awakening the fierce Darkon race and clearly there is one government who would like to see them die out. The fact that their are Darkons in the next cell can’t be a coincidence.

prison-58320_640Because the only other human female is a sickly girl of 15, the other prisoners tell Fran it’s up to her to sneak into the nearby cell of the Darkons, who are regularly whipped and beaten, and use her sexual wiles to “awaken” them. Talk about pressure! By the time she breaks into their cell, she can tell one of the men is already dead and the other two are covered in blood. She washes away the blood and tends their wounds, all the while wondering at their beauty. While their encounter is out of necessity, Fran is astonished at the heat and tenderness with which they treat her. She’s attracted to both of them equally and it quickly becomes clear that Jerrell and Quain have no trouble with the idea of her being with both of them. Yet Fran knows that she plans on leaving for home at the first opportunity since there’s no future with two men with whom sex was a means of helping them literally break their chains and escape. Or is there?

This is a very tasteful and tender menage that is further understood after reading Legend Beyond the Stars. I would have liked to see a stronger tie to the overall story arc, namely with explaining why the warriors were being beaten – combined with the missing female prisoners, were the Elite Forces attempting to discover more about how or why the rumored Darkons were awakened?

Speaking of tiny discrepancies, in Awakening the Warriors, the point of Fran stealing into the adjoining cell with the Darkons is that if she “awakens” their lust, they will possess increased strength and fighting ability, enough to overcome their injuries and help the imprisoned. In Legend Beyond the Stars, while there was a LOT of awakening going on, this added piece was unaddressed. The warriors were certainly loyal and focused on the women with whom they bonded, but no one made reference to enhanced abilities. Hmmm.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed this author’s style and the world-building in which she engaged in all her works. I would say that anyone who loved Evangeline Anderson’s erotic Brides of the Kindred series might also find fun in the pages of Gilchrist’s science fiction romance (although keep in mind the men are waaayyyy more alpha than Anderson’s Kindred men!).

Shannon McKenna Has Nothing But the Best Moves in Her Latest Suspense Thriller, One Wrong Move

15 Oct

One Wrong Move (McClouds & Friends #9) by Shannon McKenna (Kensington, September 25, 2012)

There is always a little nervousness when you are given what sounds like a terrific galley to review, only to discover it’s part of a series. Immediately, you are bombarded by the abject fear that you will be subjected to hoards of previous characters and in-jokes that will allow for only a peripheral submersion in the plot. After being intrigued by NetGalley‘s description, I asked to take a look at suspense author Shannon McKenna‘s latest novel, One Wrong Move, knowing I had never tried anything by this author.

But I had heard good things about McKenna. Compared regularly by Goodreads reviewers to Lori Foster (who I enjoy), McKenna purportedly crafts books with cranky, over the top alpha males and feisty heroines trapped in seriously heinous situations which lead to rapid emotional progression and some fabulous erotic “we could die so let’s seize the moment” sex.

This  combination totally works for me. If I know ahead of time that the hero is going to be a major asshole, at least in the beginning, I can brace myself to discover, along with the heroine, what redeeming inner qualities he has. And wow, does McKenna know how to do this.

Our hero, Alex Aaro, had me blinking with some of the unbelievably rude and outrageous things he was comfortable saying to the heroine, Nina Christie. Nina has had a crappy 24 hours. Walking home from her social work at a women’s shelter, she is accosted by a screaming woman speaking a foreign language, who jabs her with a hypodermic needle. Realizing as she’s losing consciousness that this haggard woman is an old friend of Nina’s deceased mother who she hasn’t seen in years, she’s baffled as to what has happened.  Nina left her phone on in the middle of the 911 call for help so she has the entire rant from her attacker recorded and it’s in some kind of Russian. The hallucinations and people after her in the hospital only ramp up her fear, causing her to turn to her old friend, Lily Parr, especially since Lily now has a hunky fiancee (and father of her soon-to-born baby), Bruno, who is associated with a top of the line security company who can help.

Bruno realizes that one of his firm’s associates, Alex Aaro, is touching down in NYC on personal business and can be called in for the assist. Aaro has the added benefit of knowing a few languages, with Ukranian – the language of Nina’s attacker – as the first one he spoke as a child. But Aaro wants nothing to do with the situation. This friend of Lily’s can get an interpreter because he has bigger fish to fry. Alex Aaro is the assumed name he’s lived under for years to avoid his father, who is Vor, or deadly Russian mafia. Aaro wanted none of that legacy so he started over, now a respected cybersecurity expert who knows his way around a variety of weapons, to boot. He’s back in New York to visit his dying Aunt Tonya, the only person who ever cared about him, but he needs to get in and out as soon as possible.

Blood and Fire (McClouds & Friends #8 and Lily and Bruno’s story) by Shannon McKenna (Kensington, September 4, 2012)

Well, the road to good intentions, and all that. After telling Nina over the phone he won’t help her – and her reaming him out about it – she manages to escape a strange group of people in the hospital who seem to be getting inside her mind. She shuts them out and gets away, scuttling to try and find the driver who helped her the night before, but she’s realizing that she can hear people’s thoughts on the subway. Worried she’s having some bizarre side effects from whatever she was injected with, she discovers that her good samaritan has been tortured and murdered. This confirms that the weirdness is not just coming from her mystery drug and she scuttles home only to have her home broken into. Hiding in the hidden panel of her closet, Nina gets a frantic text to Lily with the situation and her friend calls in the calvalry, Aaro.

The moment when Aaro holds the naked Nina in his arms, he realizes that something in his life has altered in a big way, and it’s not the two guys he murdered downstairs. The two of them take off on the run, initially trying to figure out this strange drug cartel who manufactures some kind of psychic enhancement drug (which only seems to help people with a strong predisposition for the talent) with the layer added later of vengeful Russian mafia types from Aaro’s past. Oh, and they have to get the second part of the drug so Nina won’t die in a few days. No pressure. Yikes! Like one of these wouldn’t be enough.

Nina is naturally freaked but she’s trying to marshal all her strength and reserves to deal with the situation. She’s a survivor who had to deal with a physically and sexually abusive stepfather and the suicide of her mother, but she’s used her past to motivate her to help people in need so there’s an element of triumph in her personal life. A holdover though is that she’s always been able to make herself, well, easy to overlook, and her bulky drab wardrobe, glasses and tight hairstyles only add to her invisibility.

Aaro got a good look at what’s under all that shielding and it’s not drab. He’s not one for deception so while he’s berating Nina for not telling him the whole truth of their perilous situation he’s also telling her, in explicit detail, what he wants to do to her. It’s a bit much for Nina, especially because his blunt statements combined with her current mental state are about as welcome as the bullets fired at them, but the strange thing is, she’s incredibly attracted to this lean killer, in a way that she’s never experienced before. She realizes that she’s not the only badly damaged one in this unlikely partnership. Maybe its the drug that’s changing her, but she is beginning to see behind Aaro’s shields to the lonely and terrified person who exists within.

While I expected the alpha to end all alpha behavior (and I had no problem with it – Aaro is totally honest and with his own code of honor, so McKenna does a terrific job of giving you a glimmer of the man behind the jackass which makes you stick for the long haul), I was surprised by the paranormal element regarding the psychic-enhancement of the drugs. There was both a delightfully creepy villain thing happening with the cartel, but at the same time, many people, like Aaro and his family members, had a natural ability for some of the psychic talents. Very cool and an interesting layer to the story.

I was impressed with McKenna’s writing ability. The sex scenes were hot and terrific, deepening and ramping up the connection between the hero and heroine, to the point where it was entirely feasible that these two people would realize that they were in love after only a few days. I love it when authors can pull this off and McKenna is a master. Her characters were exceptionally three dimensional – villians, heroes, and supporting characters alike – and this plot, which could have been a nightmare with all these competing elements, was tightly drawn but left a few threads that will clearly be picked up in a future book.

And that future book better star Miles. Miles – you sexy nerd beast – I adored you! A vital supporting character and member of the firm, Miles factors heavily into the denouement of Aaro and Nina’s story and clearly has a near obsession with Nina’s childhood friend, the missing Lila, who was captured by the drug cartel and held to manipulate her now-dead mother. The other characters hint at the content of the previous books and I’m absolutely going to end up reading this series backwards. I love it that McKenna manages to have those previous characters woven throughout the story but never in a way that makes the reader feel like there’s something they are missing. That takes skill and enhances the potential for a reader (like me) falling into the series and buying the backlog of books.

One Wrong Move is a terrific romantic suspense novel that reminds me not only of Lori Foster but of a personal favorite, Lisa Marie Rice, in its alpha males, great supporting characters, excellent suspense plot and erotic sexual content. I’m elated to have found a new suspense author with all the right moves. Thanks, Shannon McKenna!

You’ll Want To Get In Bed with Undercover Alliance by Lilly Cain

19 Jul

Undercover Alliance (The Confederacy Treaty, #3) by Lilly Cain (Carina Press, June 25, 2012)

It’s easy to have a little trepidation when approaching a science fiction erotic novella. Science fiction, by its nature, is about world-building and a writer has to devote valuable word count toward while also developing their characters and the rapid attraction between them. Add to this dilemma the fact that Undercover Alliance is the third in a series and I was sweating bullets that had nothing to do with the warm summer weather.

In the excellent hands of writer Lilly Cain, however, I had nothing to worry about.

I was shocked that this beefy novella was around 100 pages since the emotional and intellectual journey it took me on felt equivalent to a full-length novel. It’s also a terrific value at a smidgen over $3 for the Kindle version; I’ve paid a lot more for writing that was not this good.

A space-travel capable Earth has made contact a few months prior to the books events with the Inarrii, a people bound by complex clan systems filled with warriors who follow a strong code of honor in order to reflect well on their families. The Inarrii are also covered with swirling tendrils of what looks like henna tattoos but are in actuality a system of visible nerves which give them outstanding sensitivity, particularly sexually. This is vital to their health as Inarrii must experience regular sexual release in order to deal with stress and maintain mental and physical health, a fact of life which endows them with a freedom and openness to sexuality reflected in their honest approach to life.

Sarina is a damaged Inarrii warrior, looked upon with pity by her people. In a battle during the previous book in the series, a portion of nerve system was damaged beyond repair, making her unable to orgasm, despite her healer’s best efforts. Denied the work as a warrior she loves, she knows that she is a ticking time bomb with her people waiting for her to go insane. When she is given a token assignment to guard a minor human who is part of the legal team negotiating the treaty between their planets, she takes it in the hope that her diligence and ability will be proof of her continued competence.

The Naked Truth (The Confederacy Treaty #2) by Lilly Cain (Carina Press, June 13, 2011)

John Benning is not what she expected however. A good looking, sleek bodied male who can move silently and knows martial arts doesn’t seem the typical prototype for a lawyer consumed with the fine print of contracts. She knows he’s not what he seems yet she can’t help feeling sexually attracted to him. The discovery that they share a mental bond, a rarity between two different species, means that she might be able to obtain orgasm with him by riding his pleasure and through it attaining her own.

John can’t believe the beautiful woman who is his bodyguard. She’s clearly a consummate warrior and her direct sexual approach is refreshing, even as they continually experience one attack after another. Sarina clearly knows he’s lying about being a minor player in the negotiation process, but due to the nature of his mission he is unable to tell her that he is a high-level spy. Ever since losing his partner years ago, John has only worked alone and for good reason – he can’t afford to be distracted worrying about someone other than himself. But this Inarrii beauty might be his undoing.

The emotions, and not just attraction and love but growing tenderness between our hero and heroine, are carefully built and bring the reader into a realm of total belief regarding a relationship between these two. The larger political conflict is easily understandable and introduced with a minimum of exposition but it’s the almost anthropological approach to understanding the Inarrii where Cain excels. When science fiction becomes erotic, it always runs the risk of seeming tawdry or sensationalist, but the reader comes away with a strong respect for the differing approach to sexuality the Inarrii possess, an understanding which does not diminish the hot attraction between the main characters.

I’ll be purchasing the previous books in this series in order to enjoy this world even more and to also revel in Cain’s writing. Both the science fiction and the erotic romance side of this equation will be quite the pleasurable experience thanks to her!

Something Wicked This Way Comes 2 Anthology Is Wickedly Delicious

5 Jun

Something Wicked This Way Comes 2 by Jaid Black, et. al. (Ellora’s Cave, May 1, 2012)

I’m not going to lie – I love short story anthologies. Other reviewers seem to get cranky and whine about how the stories aren’t long enough, they don’t know the author, they like shifter not BDSM, they didn’t like every story, blah, blah, blah.

Get over it, people.

Short story anthologies are just that, an anthology, which simply means a collection gathered together for consumption. You don’t have read it in order, you don’t have to read every story, you just pick and choose and enjoy what you get. Think of it like one of those fabulous Las Vegas buffets. Hate waffles, but love pancakes? Eat the pancakes and see if that kiwi fruit salad is as good as it looks even though you’ve never tried kiwi before. You’re not committing to a lifetime, it’s just a little bowl of fruit salad.

For me, anthologies satisfy a much-needed reconnaissance mission of scoping out new authors. With a three to 18 book per week habit, I am on the constant lookout for new authors (from any genre) to add to my repertoire. With that in mind, you can imagine I was thrilled to see this short story compilation available on Netgalley and snatched it right up to review.

I can honestly say I enjoyed all of the short stories, with a few standing out to the point where I have several authors’ works added to my “to-read” list. After reading that Jaid Black, the first listed contributor, is the pen name for Tina M. Engler, the owner of Ellora’s Cave Publishing, it’s no surprise about the quality of this anthology. Who better to get the best out of erotic authors than the woman who owns the publishing house synonymous with erotic fiction? Here’s my take on each contribution.

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“Fatman and Robyn” by Jaid Black

Jake Chamberlain is a star quarterback of the New York Bloods, but the Super Bowl ring on his finger just reminds him how actually empty is life is. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t warm up to the skinny supermodels he’s expected to date. Even when he fantasizes they are the lush, curvy woman of his dreams, one touch of their bony body and his erection takes a nosedive. He’s even sought out a therapist, but doctors don’t seem to have an answer either.

Resigned to his fate, he goes to enjoy a pastry in a small shop in Little Italy when a lush siren in a sundress highlighting more curves than the Pacific Coast Highway walks in and suddenly an erection is not a problem. Knowing he’s found the woman of his dreams is complicated when said woman, Robyn DiMarco, thinks the red-faced and muttering Jake is a madman. Correcting her misunderstanding, he begins to woo her, falling head over heels in love with both her and her crazy, loving Italian family. But when Robyn realizes that she doesn’t fit the mold of what people expect from a woman dating Jake, his longed-for happily ever after might never come true.

One of my starting points for reading more from this author

This story had me laughing like an idiot and alternately sighing over the poignant moments. I went through so many emotions, I had to recheck how long the story was – the impact of it was so hard that I felt like had read a full-length novel! Robyn and her wonderful family make you wish you were a DiMarco and Jake’s struggle to be respectful of Robyn when he really just wants to ravish her wins you over damn quick to this hero. I’ve added a bunch of Jaid Black books to my “to-read” list just on the basis of this amazing story.

“Scarred and Kilt” by Laurann Dohner

Do you know what makes a hot Scotsman in a kilt even hotter? Making him an uber-smoking sexy vampire, that’s what. Matty is a night owl who has appointed herself the neighborhood watch, a natural side effect of her attack from a would-be rapist. She fended him off, but it’s left her with some scars, both physical and otherwise. She’s enjoyed the eye candy of her neighbor who walks around in a kilt, always at night and gets regular deliveries from a blood bank. Yes, she’s figured out “Kilt” is a vampire, but since he doesn’t hurt anyone who is she to judge?

When some guy shows up with stakes and holy water and breaks into Kilt’s house, she grabs her stun gun to go help, much to Kilt’s astonishment. When he kisses her to heal an injury, the fire that leaps between them ends up with unbelievably hot sex on a desk (yowza) but Blaron (Kilt’s actual name) realizes that they are destined to be together, something Matty is not quite ready for, having just spoken to him for the first time five minutes earlier.

This story wrapped up a little quickly, but I still loved every word. The hero and heroine felt fleshed out and the vampire world is familiar enough to paranormal romance lovers that it was easy to understand some of the world details. Blaron was H-O-T and bringing Scotsmen and vampires together makes for a sexy mash any woman could get behind. I was interested to see that Laurann Dohner’s speciality tends towards more science fiction storylines. You could fooled me with the facility she handled this more purely paranormal one.

“Tinderbox” by Regina Carlysle

Jaguar Hunger by Regina Carlysle (Ellora’s Cave, January 2010)

Classic shifter menage, this was nevertheless nicely handled for a short story. When the local police bring in shifter P.I.s Nate and Daniel all they have is the footage of a pretty blond being kidnapped during a carjacking. But once they scent the purse she left behind they are stunned – not only is she a rare female jaguar but she’s also the mate they’ve searched for over a hundred years to find. They quickly catch up to her, freeing her from her kidnapper, but there’s a major complication. She’s in heat.

Oliva knows she should be elated to be free but biology is interfering with her enjoyment of being rescued by two unbelievably gorgeous men. Unable to shift until they go through their heat cycle and mate, female jaguars have a complicated biology that results in a tremendous amount of pain if they aren’t finding a sexual release with a mate.

This story is set in the same world as Regina Carlysle‘s previous work, Jaguar Hunger (a 68 page story) and the characters from that work pop up in this one. I was most impressed at how sensitively Regina handled the fact that Olivia is compelled to have sex with two strangers, albeit very caring ones. All three members of the partnership regret not being able to woo Olivia and gradually get to know one another, but the sex is smoking and the moment when she shifts emotionally charged and very sweet.

“Asterion” by Katalina Leon

Having lost her father and her betrothed in battle, Larisa is betrayed by the weak village chief. He rows her to a remote island where a gorgeous palace, dedicated to the Minotaur, stands and where she will be a virgin sacrifice. But rather than die at the horns of a god, Larisa finds herself used to give corporeal form to an alien being, one whose chosen form is that of a handsome man bent on pleasuring her and helping humanity.

This was one of my favorite stories! I felt the reader didn’t need the couple pages of explanation about the Minotaur prior to the story, but other than that blip, it was pitch perfect. Larisa is brave and bold and the “god” who takes such on a luscious form delights in his body and Larisa’s with such abandon that you have to smile for the thousand-plus year old virgin. I was surprised to discover that Katalina Leon has written a ton of books (she has a few listed on her Goodreads page) and none of them seem to be myth based like this story. I’ll be trying one of her books to see if she can delight me again.

“Decadent Dance” by Aubrey Ross

Another sci-fi erotic novel by Aubrey Ross

Choreographer Zoe purchased a dress in an odds and ends shop that came with a funny little booklet that she thought was fiction since it detailed wars between planets and men who guarded the far reaches of the universe. After she tried on the dress and got transported to an alien vessel, she’s taking its tale a little more seriously.

Vaden has been lonely for a while, waiting for his contract on his Decadent Dancer to come through, and now she claims she had no idea about the contract’s existence to say nothing of its terms. She says she’s a dancer but is seemingly surprised at the idea of intimate contact. What gives?

This was an interesting idea, but I worry that science fiction is something that involves a lot of world building (more than paranormal, since there are certain known tropes which readers can associate with those plotlines). It was easy to emphathize with Zoe for being startled about her sketchy dress transporting her to the ship and with Vaden for being so frustrated after waiting for sexual companionship to have a beautiful woman hemming and hawing about having sex with him. But where this stuttered to a stop for me was a crucial point in the story, namely where Zoe realizes that the race of people she has ended up with has no art or music…and she’s a dancer. This seemed like a big piece of culture to be missing and all those anthropology classes in college tell me that there really isn’t any such thing as a culture without some kind of music. That really threw me.

“Sahara Heat” by Diana Hunter

Another BDSM-themed novel from Diana Hunter

When an archeologist friend calls her from the desert to tell her about a fascinating find, romance writer Carla Braun agrees to meet with the colleague who is presenting the paper with all the details. But Carla is shocked that her friend’s colleague, Dr. Josef Anderson looks like a Nordic god…and seemingly has an ego to match. While he’s infuriating, she can’t help but notice the heat between them. With Josef about to leave New York in a day or two he could be the perfect fling, but she’s worried he’ll disappoint her like all the others.

Josef can’t believe that this red-haired beauty is a romance writer. Despite his being so cranky, she agrees to meet him for dinner. Maybe with a little too much hope in his heart, he goes to the nearest hardware store and buys the ropes and chains that are his stock in trade. What if he misread the situation? Or what if this spicy woman gives him the ultimate surrender?

This was another one of my favorites from the anthology. Diana Hunter shows how utterly respectful and caring a Dom/submissive relationship can be with her tender portrayal of Josef and Carla and the moment where they realize what they have found in one another. I was just sorry this story wasn’t longer!

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If there was any criticism I could constructively offer, it’s that several of the authors in the anthology were rather difficult to find on Twitter and nonexistent on Facebook. That’s tough for me since I like to keep track of authors through social networks, particularly if they don’t have a regularly updated blog I can put in my Google Reader.

I can’t help but connect the lack of social networking to the fact that many of these authors, who have clearly been producing at least a book or two per year for a few years, have very few reviews of each work on Goodreads. Without promoting them online through different venues, it makes sense that a talented author might very well go unnoticed versus a lesser one relentlessly promoting themselves to potential readers. It’s hard that an author has be both a writer and worry about promoting themselves on a platform, but I’d hate to see them lose publishing opportunities because they aren’t selling as well as they should. Please promote yourselves, authors! Readers want to hear from you. 🙂

While it doesn’t have a release date yet, I was happy to see that Something Wicked This Way Comes 3 has a designed book cover and will be coming out (fingers crossed) hopefully this year. Not only does it have new contributions by Jaid Black and Laurann Dohner (both of whom had stories I adored in this anthology) but there’s even a story from Kele Moon, who I just finished qvelling over in a previous blog post about her fabulous book, Defying the Odds. I’m also happy there are a few more authors I haven’t read since I’ll have a chance (again) to see if I can find a new favorite.

I’ll be purchasing Something Wicked This Way Comes 3 as soon as it hits the Kindle store. After all, any good buffet/anthology involves going back for second helpings.

Putting the Spicy in Spicy Short: Lord Atwood’s Lovers by Eva Clancy

19 May

Lord Atwood’s Lovers by Eva Clancy (Harlequin Spice Briefs, June 1, 2012)

I rarely support purchasing a true short story (not a novella) for anything above $.99, but in the case of the 35 page menage short story, Lord Atwood’s Lovers by Eva Clancy, I’ll make an exception. In fact, after I read a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review, I went and bought the actual copy from Amazon.com for it’s full $2.99 price, because I wanted the author and publisher to benefit from my enjoyment of the story!

A publication of the Harlequin Spice Briefs line (digital short stories 5,000 to 15,000 words of a highly erotic nature), this story lived up to the author’s tagline of writing “sexy, romantic, emotional fiction.”

Lord Charles Atwood didn’t expect to fall for the woman he would take as a wife, but Imogen’s combination of an open heart and wanton body brought him to his knees. Knowing her heartache from her previous husband, this widow recognizes that her husband harbors some dark hurt in his past.

When his estranged friend, Alexander Lambert, returns to town, she begins to realize that here is what is bothering her husband. But the closer she looks, the more she realizes that the feelings of these two men go beyond friendship and that whatever emotion they possess for each other is still there. Luckily for Imogen, she is just as attracted to Alex as her husband, and more than happy to welcome him into their marriage bed, providing she can convince the two of them to take the next step.

It’s hard not to be impressed when an author is able to suss out three very different characters, establish a strong sense of a historical time period, and infuse a story (particularly a menage story) with a tremendous amount of love and emotion, but Eva Clancy manages to do just that. Your heart aches for these three damaged people, who all share love for one another and together can manage to be a stronger whole.

If there was any complaint I could make about reading this, it’s that the author platform didn’t offer me any insight into her or her work. Her Goodreads account has virtually no information and there don’t seem to be any upcoming works. Start writing, Eva Clancy – I want to read more of your work!

How Racy is Racy? Exploring levels of sensuality in romance novels

10 Mar

All About Labels

As a lover of romance, I rely heavily on reviews, both from blogs I follow as well as from professional sources like Romantic Times magazine. One aspect of the reviews that still confuses me is the ratings system regarding the level of sensuality or sexuality in the novel itself. While I read all kinds of romance, I have to admit to liking the more sensual ones, probably because the content doesn’t embarrass me in the slightest as well as the fact that I love authors who can show the emotional progression of a couple in the context of the physical act of sex.

But I’ve also discovered that these rating systems vary from source to source and are incredibly vague. There is always a danger with labeling, however, as bookstores and libraries know. Right around the time Tipper Gore spoke before Congress regarding a labeling system for records (and they were vinyl records and tape cassettes back then, blast from the past!), there was yet another push for the physical labeling of books by reading level, a system the American Library Association spoke out strongly against.

This really meant by content (sex, violence, language, etc.) rather than by how hard the words were in the book, and libraries and bookstores resisted (just as music sellers did Tipper’s advocacy), knowing that labels tend to push readers away from books, rather than help them select the right book for the right time in their life. Having worked in libraries for most of my professional career, I can honestly say that each reader is different – a younger teen who has been through a lot in their life or is just more mature can easily handle a book with strong, more adult language and themes, while an immature 16 year old would be repelled and horrified by the content. Luckily, readers are extremely good at finding the book they need, usually through recommendations from librarians, friends, and booksellers who already know what they enjoy reading.  In helping literally thousands of readers make connections with books, I’ve never come across one who was corrupted by a book – they simply put it down if it was not what they wanted.

Ratings and Definitions

But this brohaha was about the physical labeling of books, versus the labeling in reviews about sexual content. I imagine the romance novel sensuality ratings system was probably an effort to help readers looking for a specific kind of romance sensuality level, or to assist readers actively wishing to avoid certain types of books to avoid discomfiture or disappointment. The most commonly used ratings system is the rather vague, but still helpful, “Sensuality Ratings” system employed by Romantic Times magazine, the romance industry’s major publication.

From RT Book Reviews in the description of their ratings system:

SENSUALITY RATINGS

Beginning with September 2006 issue reviews, these are the new sensuality ratings used for Historical Romance, Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books:

SCORCHER — Borders on erotic. Very graphic sex.

HOT — Most romance novels fall into this category. Ranges from conventional lovemaking to explicit sex.

MILD — May or may not include lovemaking. No explicit sex.

What’s interesting is the fact that the Romantic Times‘ previous sensuality ratings system had more categories, yet were just as open to interpretation.  I’m sure the editors felt the revised version was a simpler approach when they made the switch to the current system in 2006, and I prefer it, but there continue to be a few loopholes. For example, the “Hot” category – what exactly do they consider to be “conventional sex“? I’m guessing they mean a man and a woman, but are we talking about just the missionary position? Does foreplay involving oral sex lean more toward the “explicit sex” end of the rating or does “explicit” just refer to word choice or level of detail in the description of whatever sexual act in which our characters are currently engaged?

For “Scorcher”, what does “borders on erotic” mean? This probably includes maybe a little bondage (like the regency romances who have the newly deflowered heroine trusting her lover/husband to tie her hands with his cravat) but my feeling is that it probably doesn’t mean anal sex or the use of sex toys, since that never comes up in any romance not labeled erotica or erotic romance. The “Very graphic” detail (my conjecture) means the level of description and maybe the wording used to write the love scene, but does it mean something else?  I don’t know.

The contemplation of the nuances of “Scorcher” brings me to the other hurdle of understanding erotica, a term which many readers feel is interchangeable with the preferred label of “erotic romance“.  The erotica industry experienced a major infusion of cash and interest upon the advent of the ereader market, since suddenly people could buy this material in the comfort of their own living room and have it delivered instantly and wrapped simply in their standard Kindle or Nook reader.  No one would guess that the reader wasn’t reading the latest nonfiction best seller on economics unless they noticed the flush or sweating (and even then, maybe the person just REALLY likes economics!).

But erotica is still confused with pornography, and while I would imagine people who find that level of explicit sexual description or conduct against their personal morality would undoubtedly label it as such, in actuality from an industry standpoint it’s very different. According to Ellora’s Cave Publishing House, a highly respected e-publisher of erotica, they actually define the majority of their erotic offerings as “Romantica.” Here’s their take on Romantica, which seems to define rather well the industry push toward producing erotic romance meant for women.

Romantica® is the name for the line of erotic romance novels published by Ellora’s Cave Publishing. Erotic romance is defined by us as: any work of literature that is both romantic and sexually explicit in nature. Within this genre, the main protagonists develop “in love” feelings for one another that culminate in a monogamous relationship.

Romantica® doesn’t begin from the premise that women’s sexual experiences are dirty and therefore in need of being perfumed up by flowery phrases. The premise of Romantica™ is that women’s sexual experiences are legitimate, positive, and beautiful.

Ellora’s Cave Romantica® must be both erotic and romantic. (from the Ellora’s Cave website)

There’s a lot to love about this description.  First the clarification that a work can be both romantic and sexually explicit (Jaci Burton’s novels are often termed erotic romance and I think they would have an extremely broad appeal to romance readers who enjoy “Scorcher” novels), and the reassurance that these are still novels based on the premise of two people pursuing a monogamous relationship. But then the awesome addition (and let’s face it, the judgment) of the sentence regarding women’s sexuality as not being dirty? This really hit home for me, as the euphemisms often employed by romance writers can border on the ridiculous and occasionally the confusing, particularly if the reader has less sexual knowledge or experience (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books recent hymen tirade was a hilarious but totally spot on example of myths perpetuated by romance novels that do NOT accurately reflect the realities of human anatomy).

For readers interested in true erotica, which usually takes the form of an individual character interested in sexual experimentation and self-discovery, the process of which may or may not result in the main character ending up in a committed relationship, Ellora’s Cave publishes a line called EXOTIKA™ in order to distinguish it from the erotic romance novels they also sell.  But let’s get down to brass tacks regarding the sensuality levels so we can ATTEMPT to really figure out what they mean.

Levels of Sensuality in Romance Novels

Sweet Romance (Mild Sensuality)

Christie Craig and Faye Hughes in their book The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel defines a sweet romance as one that does not include “graphic depictions of sex or sexual situations.”  This could be a romance like those of the Avalon Publishing house (whose writer’s guidelines clearly state that there is no sexual content or profanity in any of their books) or an inspirational romance (which is also a sub-genre of romance) in which strong religious beliefs guide the main characters actions and usually don’t go beyond kissing without marriage.

An increasingly popular sub-sub-genre (can I say that?) of inspirational romance is the Amish romance, which naturally has a setting which subscribes to certain values.  I was interested to read that these Amish books have a strong readership in Hasidic Jewish communities along with Georgette Heyer‘s Regency romances.  It makes sense when you stop to think that the protagonists are in a culture which prescribes to strong morals regarding pre-marital sex, allowing the focus to be solely on the love and affection developing between our hero and heroine.

Some sweet romance novels have a history strongly rooted in the romance novels published decades ago in which there were sexual situations inferred but, rather than description, the author engaged in what became known in the industry as “shutting the bedroom door”.  The narrative leads up to the sexual situation with kissing, touching and conversation, and then stops, picking up again after the sex act has taken place with the reader reengaged in the narrative usually centering on the main characters’ feelings about what transpired. All About Romance.com refers type of book in their own sensuality rating chart as “subtle”.

Notice also the cover art.  Usually there is only ONE of our main characters on the cover, or if both are present, they are not kissing or embracing.  Cover art is often a terrific cue as to the sensuality content of the novel, but more on this later.

Historical RomanceContemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books (Hot Sensuality)

Let’s first begin the non-sweet romance with a look at what makes a book fall into the “Hot” sensuality rating.  All About Romance.com actually labels this level as “Warm” and gives the following definition.

While our lovers do make love, and the reader is there with them, physical details are described, but are not graphically depicted. Much is left to the reader’s imagination and/or possibly the use of euphemistic “code words.” But what’s most important are feelings and emotions, not body parts. While there is sexual tension, there may not be more than one or two love scenes in the whole book. The vast majority of single title romances feature “Warm” sensuality. (All About Romance Sensuality Ratings Guide)

The best way to envision this description in action is to connect it with specific authors or titles.  Nora Roberts, one of the most successful romance novelists since Barbara Cartland, is probably the best example.  No reader could accuse her characters of lacking heat or sexual tension, but there are usually just a few described love scenes in her books and they conclude quickly.  When I read her recent book, Chasing Fire, about the special wildfire firefighters who parachute into locations to battle fires (it was so interesting!) our two main characters (who were wonderful) had a few love scenes where I double checked the pages, flipping back to make sure I didn’t miss something.  It was over so quickly, yet the emotion and tenderness was there.  They didn’t just have sex those couple of times, since other interludes were referred to in the narrative, but the timeframe was also compressed, so it didn’t feel like I was missing anything (other than the description I was used to from my other reading, which usually falls into the “Scorcher” category).

In terms of book cover clues, you can see from both Robert’s cover above and Mary Balogh‘s Slightly Scandalous cover that the trend is for an extremely tame cover, usually with the author name and book title in elaborate, feminine script, and maybe an image which hints at the content.  I think a big piece of the move to this kind of cover is both the fact that I can’t imagine it’s expensive to produce and the idea that it’s very tasteful.  No danger of being judged reading one of these on a plane (and airport bookstores carry a full selection of novels in this category).

This choice can also be a deliberate attempt of the publishing industry to give legitimacy to the romance novel, which, as a genre, underwent a huge public opinion downturn in the 1970s and 80s when “bodice-rippers” became the norm.  You can all imagine the kind of cover I’m talking about – some painting version of Fabio in a pirate outfit (which lacks buttons of any kind, so it’s waxed chest city) and a heroine of the heaving bosom variety (think Johanna Lindsey’s Savage Hunter).  Romance fans and publishers are still clawing our way out of this hole.  A few publishing houses and authors are moving to the “dress” book cover, which often just features a heroine (often cut off at the neck, so it’s just her body we see) in appropriate dress (perhaps with the ties in the back gaping provocatively open).  This is usually for historical romances only, but the body language still hints at sensuality.

Historical RomanceContemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books (Scorcher Sensuality)

At the next sensuality level, we see books with more frequent, longer love scenes, often with more explicit language, or sometimes simply a higher incidence of euphemisms. As AllAboutRomance.com indicates “Both the emotions of the hero and heroine and the physical feelings of both are important during love scenes.” Stephanie Laurens, whose Cynster series I agree is one of the best Regency romance series EVER, is a master of this type of sensuality.  Her love scenes can last for seven pages easily, but the reader is gripped the whole time by both the physical orchestration of what is happening, and also the internal narrative of the character’s emotional process, as she switches deftly between the two viewpoints so we appreciate the emotion developing in our couple.

From a cover standpoint, you can see historical romances like Laurens’ still get the dress cover, but in the case of Karen Marie Moning‘s Highlander series, we begin to edge toward the what will be a determined trend in the erotic romance novel category, namely more skin on the cover and occasionally provocative poses that indicate a sexual connection. Moning is a good example for this category’s more explicit qualities.  While Stephanie Laurens got her start in writing Regency romance for traditional publishing houses (and her attachment to euphemisms continues even while what she’s describing gets hotter), Moning’s Highlander stories usually center around a modern woman zapped back into the past (medieval Scotland). This construct gives permission for the language to be more modern and explicit, shying away from the “throbbing manroot” brand of language (thank heavens!).  Other “Scorcher” authors include the ever fabulous Lisa Kleypas, paranormal princess Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie series, Linda Howard, my personal favorite Nalini Singh, and Nora Robert’s mystery persona of J. D. Robb.  Publishing houses to look for are some Harlequin Blaze books, Avon’s Red imprint, and the Berkley Sensation line.

Erotic Romance Novels (Erotic Sensuality)

Welcome to the skin factory, aka erotic romance novels.  It’s of particular interest to note that Romantic Times magazine, whose sensuality ratings system we have just finished exploring, bumps erotic romance novels into the erotica category (lumping it with traditional erotica as described above). The problem with this is that erotic romance novels are often just a shade more spicy than their scorcher predecessors, and therefore have much more in common with that category than with the more explicit and hedonistic forays undertaken by characters in traditional erotica.

With such amorphous lines determining sensuality content, I guess you can’t please everyone, but I worry that there are a lot of Romantic Times readers who just skip the erotica section not realizing there might be some content that fits their taste.  While people who enjoy sweet romances might check out the Inspirational category (which is also separate, I guess making Inspirational and Erotica opposite ends of the spectrum), erotica has a somewhat dirtier or even more masculine association (with pornography) that could have women shying away from it.

It would be a shame if readers comfortable with scorcher level romance don’t try erotic romance novels, since the focus is identical to traditional romance – two people falling in love (and lust) with the goal being a committed monogamous relationship.  The Harlequin Blaze line falls into this category (and also into the Scorcher category depending on the author) as well as novels from the Berkley Heat imprint (which gives us the Jaci Burton novels pictured above).  Lisa Marie Rice‘s books are terrific erotic romance novels (she’s queen of the Alpha males) and offer commanding love scenes that make you need to dump ice in your panties!

Content usually is inventive and explicitly described lovemaking, still with a strong emotional connection. Profanity is common, so expect the occasional f-bomb or name for female and male genitalia that many people would consider vulgar or common. But, the fact is, after you read these words for a little while, they seem (at least to me) just another euphemism, albeit one you might hear more often in your daily life (particularly if you walk by construction sites or basketball courts with pick-up games in progress).

The sexual content often goes beyond what is in the “Scorcher” category, including sometimes (and I mean sometimes, not all of them have this) sex toys and anal sex and maybe some mild BDSM.  I realize this might make some people uncomfortable and I confess that my eyebrows were initially embedded in my hairline when I read my first few books which included this content, but a good author makes the sex all about trust and love with these acts placed in that context, so the reader quickly adjusts.  I think a valued part of the increasing popularity of this category is that readers have a more varied understanding of a wide range of sexual activity, maybe helping those people who interests lie in these areas understand that they are part of a normal sexual spectrum.

I confess to buying my erotic romance in ebook format both for accessibility but also for toting around with zero embarrassment (and this article in Fast Company magazine says I’m not alone).  I’m not sure I would take a print version of these books into a doctor’s office or hair salon without garnering extra attention or comments! Authors and series to look for in this category include Angela Knight, steampunk and paranormal author Meljean Brook, J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, Hope Tarr, my favorite shifter writer Shelly Laurenston, Lisa Renee Jones, paranormal author Larissa Ione, and Kresley Cole.

Implications for the Romance Industry

The way we view the incidence of sensuality in romance novels can have interesting implications for the industry and for society.  Tracey Cooper Posey, erotic romance author and industry commentator, had an interesting analysis based on the trend analysis All Romance eBooks distributes to their publishers. Regarding the heat index in romance novels (which they grade by “flames”, one being the lowest level and five being the highest), they state:

Heat Rating = over 97% of sales are on books rated 3 or higher, of significance is that the 5 and 4 flame sales have see a combined drop of 4% over last year with most of the difference shifting to the 3 flame rating.

Does this mean that the reading public is moving to the tamer “mild” or “hot” books, leaving “scorcher” and erotic romance novels to gather dust?  Tracey has an interpretation I agree with, that publishers are marketing books that would have been previously considered erotic romance right alongside their “hot” and “scorcher” books.  Just like television, which used to cordon off certain sexual situations or levels of violence to prime time but that you can now watch during your dinner hour, the romance publishing industry has come to understand that reader interests (and perhaps, tolerance levels) in that hot/scorcher/erotic category are becoming more permissive and accepting.

I hope this overview has helped answer some questions or directed you to resources that can help figure out this unending puzzle.  Labels are never perfect, but with a good understanding of what they truly refer to, we can use them as a guide to find ever more new and wonderful books and authors.

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