Tag Archives: Karen Marie Moning

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, December 29, 2013

29 Dec

Upcoming Books and New Releases

Courtney Milan fans have probably already purchased The Countess Conspiracy, the third book of her The Brothers Sinister series, but in case you haven’t, this full-length novel is only $3.99 on Amazon since its publication on December 17th, and hopefully will stay at that great price for a little while. With a hero who is a brilliant rake promoting scandalous revolutionary scientific theories and the heroine the woman to whom those theories actually belong, this is bound to have plenty of conflict and tension (sexual and otherwise).

Fans of Karen Marie Moning‘s urban fantasy Fever series should be aware that the seventh book in the series, Burned, is available for pre-order with a July 22, 2014 publication date. Because of the enormous popularity of these books, be warned that even the ebook price is steep at almost $12 (but that’s still a bargain since the paper version will be in hardcover format).

Yet another summer release to plan for re: beach reading is the next Kate Daniels book by the powerhouse writing team of Ilona Andrews. Magic Breaks will be available as of July 29th, so check your vacation dates to make sure you are somewhere you can get a copy at midnight to begin reading the next installment of this amazing urban fantasy series.

Also falling under the category of “series books I will cheerfully pay full price for” is Darynda Jones‘ next book in her Charley Davidson series, Sixth Grave on the Edge, which will be released May 20th. This urban fantasy series starring the hilarious and irrepressible Charley – who happens to be an irreverent grim reaper helping departed souls get to the other side – and her love interest, Reyes (the sexiest Son of Satan you’re ever going to meet), is always alternately funny, hot, and heart-stopping. I’ll be posting an entry on the whole series in honor of Darynda doing a workshop for my local Romance Writers Association chapter (woo-hooo PLRW Chapter!) For fans who would like an autographed copy of the hardcover version, Darynda has announced on her website that she has made arrangements through Author, Author, so if you order before the end of April, you can get the autographed book right around the release date.

Cat Johnson has quite a following for her hot military romance series, Red, Hot & Blue, and it was wonderful to read recently on the Samhain publishing blog that the next book, The Commander, features the leader of all those sexy, Special Ops guys we’ve seen find their HEA. Not only is this older hero in his forties, but he finds love with a sexy, older woman who is fifty and a single mom. It’s about time! The Commander comes out on New Year’s Eve and won’t take any prior knowledge of the series to enjoy it (she always writes these so you can pick up any one of them with no difficulty).

Gena Showalter recently blogged about her uber-enthusiastic reaction to the cover reveal of her latest Angels of the Dark paranormal series and – holy crap! – we can see why she loves it. Burning Dawn is now available for pre-order with a release date of April 29, 2014 and please note that the paperback version is significantly less right now than the Kindle version if you are open to the format you receive it. This series features violent angels on the brink of darkness who each find a woman who helps them find meaning in their fight for goodness and light – so good!

Harlequin’s partnership with Cosmo has produced their high quality (and successful) Red Hot Reads line and fans are eating up these steamy contemporary romances. To add to the success of such incredible stories like Cake by Lauren Dane and Ripped by Sarah Morgan, we can now add category romance superhero writer Heidi Rice whose story, 10 Ways to Handle the Best Man debuts on January 14th so pre-order now. Since it’s Rice, you’ll get a guarantee that you’ll want to be one getting handled by her hero, I promise!

Contests & Giveaways

If you’ve been intrigued by Harlequin Presents multi-author Sicily’s Coretti Dynasty series, you’ll definitely want to enter their contest to win all the books in this extremely successful series featuring a wealthy Sicilian family with more than the usual amount of scandal and vendettas to go around. Just leave a comment on the post about what you are most looking forward to in 2014 before January 6th for a chance to win!

The always wonderful blog TheBookPushers is clearing their shelves and offering a giveaway for readers who might be interested in some of their themed bundles of books. From contemporary to historical, erotic to New Adult, there’s something here for everyone, so comment before January 1st on what bundles look interesting to you to see if you could win!

Fun Stuff

Nalini Singh Psy-Changeling fans should be sure to take a look at her website in order to enjoy her bonus stories for Heart of Obsidian, which are now up on her story page. Keep in mind that newsletter subscribers got an incredible Christmas present from Singh this year, a bonus epilogue to her amazing novella, Declaration of Courtship, starring the hunky dominant SnowDancer lieutenant Cooper and his shy mechanic Grace, now mated and going to the celebration of their alpha’s mating (so it’s post Kiss of Snow). Such a great epilogue (be warned, you’ll go out and re-read Declaration of Courtship again – I did!)

Speaking of great presents, Ilona Andrews have put out a new, fully re-edited version of their Curran stories (specific scenes from the Kate Daniels novels told from the hero, Curran’s perspective) and are offering it to fans for free on their website for a time, available in all ebook formats, for devoted fans. No new stories as of yet, but it makes for a great read.

It’s not too late to give something to the reader in your life and what do they want more than uninterrupted reading time? Trust me, nothing. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books have a fantastic downloadable free gift certificate that you can make out for the reader in your life offering them a certain number of minutes (30, 60, and 90 minutes are the options and remember you can give a ton of the certificates to add up to whatever amount you want) devoted solely to their reading, all in a very attractive certificate form bound to appeal to romance readers. Show your romance reader how much you love them by offering them this particular gift for the New Year!

Business Insider magazine has made a wonderful interactive map of the U.S. featuring the most famous book set in that particular state, and it’s gotten a few of them on my to-read list for sure! Check out your favorite states while pondering what people who’ve never visited are gleaning about your home.

Harry Potter fans have always been annoyed that you can’t easily buy ebook versions of the series via retailers due to J. K. Rowling’s restrictions on them, but now Amazon users can purchase the whole series via the author’s Pottermore business and have them delivered in the proper file format right to their Kindle! For $57.54, this is actually a great deal for all seven books (over 4000 pages of Harry). With almost every possible format (I didn’t see iBooks, but pretty much every other reading app is an option), once purchased you can send your books to any and all your reading devices. Fans of the series who find the hardcover books too heavy for their bubble baths (What? It’s just me?) may want to indulge in the super cool collector’s paperback version which forms a fantastic image designed by artist Kazu Kibuishi when placed together.

Great Deals

Virna DePaul’s excellent Bedding the Wrong Brother novel is currently available for only $.99 and fans of friends to lovers have a lot to love in this story about a young woman who has been good friends to one twin brother while crushing on the other. After an ex tells her that she’s tepid in the sack, she asks her friend to help her hone her technique but ends up with her crush instead – a man who has interpreted her easy way with his brother and stiffness with him as disinterest. He decides to seize the opportunity to “tutor” her in the ways of the bedroom while convincing her she’s everything he could ever want, but her feelings of inadequacy when combined with her long-standing feelings for him might get in the way of any happiness they could have.

If you expected Santa to bring you a Kindle and his lines got crossed, you should know that Amazon is offering some pretty good deals where you can order one, paying only 25% of the cost up front (and they send it to you!) with reasonable installments spread out over the next year. I’ve also seen some great deals on the 2nd generation iPads and iPad Minis (Apple is on the third generation as of the latest release) on QVC and HSN, with installment plans and deep discounts available as well. If you’re looking for some basic apps, video and a great ereader, one of these deals might be useful. For romance readers, so many books are only available in ebook form, or the cost is so much lower, I definitely feel that purchasing a device could potentially pay for itself over a couple years for an avid reader. Just a thought!

Royal watchers and fans of movies like The Prince and Me are loving Megan Mulry’s Unruly Royals series, especially when you can get the books at a great discount. Right now, If the Shoe Fits, the second book in the series is on discount for only $2.99 for the ebook edition. When a modern playboy Earl becomes fascinated by a no-nonsense American not interested in his fast lifestyle, our hero finds himself having to dig deep for meaning in the hope of charming a woman who just might be everything to him, if he can get her to see beyond his reputation.

Happy reading and have a book-filled New Year in 2014!

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. 🙂

 

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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