Tag Archives: Literature

December Read-a-Thon: Matzoh and Mistletoe by Jodie Griffin Delivers Emotion and Eroticism to a Blended Holiday

14 Dec

Matzoh and Mistletoe by Jodie Griffin (Carina Press, November 21, 2013)

The Jewish holidays are always given short shrift in the ocean of holiday romance that comes out this time of year, and it’s really a shame (I think I need to write a sexy, Hanukkah romance to prove to myself that it can be done more often). When I spotted Matzoh and Mistletoe, a novella by Jodie Griffin, I was elated to have a Jewish protagonist. What took me aback was how beautifully emotional this BDSM holiday romance was, and by the last page, Jodie Griffin had made a new fan.

Rebeccah Rickman is used to volunteering her time on Christmas and Easter at her local police precinct. For the last five years, she’s fulfilled her family’s tradition of doing a mitzvah, a good deed, by riding in the same car as First Officer Jeremy Kohler. Since she was a married woman, she’s managed to keep her attraction to him a secret, simply reveling in his company. Handsome, smart, dedicated and with a wicked sense of humor, he’s the total package. She’s seen him in the best and worst of situations observing him in his job during their time together.

Unfortunately for her, she’s been through a lot in the last several months, including an ugly divorce brought about by physical abuse suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, who had very specific ideas about what a “nice Jewish girl” should want in the bedroom (and out of it). Rebeccah has been made to feel guilty about her own desires and her time with a therapist has made it clear that her ex’s verbal abuse of her has left scars during the course of their years together. But she’s taking hold of her life and living it the way she wants, and that just might include Jeremy, if he’s interested.

Jeremy is no saint; he’s volunteered for Christmas and Easter duty because it was the two days of the year he has gotten with the chestnut-haired beauty doing a good deed. He’s actually forbidden the other officers to request her, keeping Rebeccah all to himself, although he knows she’s off limits as a married woman. When he’s startled by her tired but beautiful face and obvious weight loss, he asks her what’s wrong and is angry to hear that she’s been single for nine months – nine months without him knowing she was free for him to pursue. Seeing her reaction to his anger makes him realize an inkling what she’s been through, and her experience might be exactly what could keep them from acting on their attraction to one another.

Public domain image of mistletoe via Pixabay

Throughout much of history, mistletoe was seen as an embodiment of the divine male essence – which is why you kiss under it today. (Public domain image of mistletoe via Pixabay)

That’s because Jeremy is a Dom in the bedroom and while Rebeccah is a natural submissive with inclinations clearly geared toward that life, her abuse makes her associate the word “submissive” with anything but pleasure. Jeremy has never been with a woman who didn’t already know all about the lifestyle, and never with anyone with a history of abuse. He’s not sure that this woman he would risk everything for can adjust to his needs in the bedroom, even if she admits that it’s what she has always fantasized about. Just as Jeremy would never ask Rebeccah to be anyone other than who she is, he can’t be someone he’s not.

For a 100 page novella, this story managed to be outstandingly full-featured, with Rebeccah and Jeremy shown as compelling characters you instantly like and cheer for, yet each carrying baggage that presents an obstacle to their happily ever after. I liked that Rebeccah referred to her therapy and was conscious of how she was reacting to certain triggers based on her past with her ex-husband. Equally as helpful, Jeremy had clear experience and training regarding domestic situations, as well as being an experienced Dom, which has its own set of communication guidelines. This combination made it obvious that he was doing everything he needed to in order to set boundaries and help Rebeccah feel comfortable. The BDSM piece was a little more intellectual with some very interesting psychological twists I didn’t expect, and it made the sexual intimacy truly illustrative of the couple’s growing feeling for and trust in one another.

At a mere $2.51, I would recommend every erotic romance reader who wants something other than the small-town Christmas story (and I love those too, but change is good) to trot to their nearest e-bookseller and grab Matzoh and Mistletoe.

Happy reading!

Series Review: Marie Hall Twists Fairy Tales into Sexy and Romantic Stories in her Kingdom Series

31 May

Her Mad Hatter (#1 Kingdom Series – Hatter and Alice) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, July 2012)

I’m a sucker for romance novels based off fairy tales or classic literature but have found the quality of such books to be rather variable. Either it’s more about the romance with only a very loose reference to the original tale or the construct of the story is belabored to death and sucks all the sexy out the story.

Marie Hall‘s Kingdom series not only takes five well-known stories and sets them on their (very) sexy ear, but manages to also reinvent characters and twist plots until the reader is left with a delightful heartfelt romance not lacking in heat.

The overarching theme is that Danika is a fairy who has only a month to get each of her charges – her five bad boys – properly mated or they’ll die. She genuinely cares about each of these rogues who range from morosely unhappy to borderline insane due to the absence of the proper woman in their lives. She reveals that each man’s perfect match resides outside their world – the “Kingdom” – and that’s why they’ve not met her yet. But Danika has her mission.

Because the Mad Hatter is the most damaged and therefore the most in need of the healing power of his true mate, Danika picks him to go first, but the path of love is hardly easy. In Her Mad Hatter, Danika heads to the new cupcake parlor owned by Alice Lu, descendent of the same Alice who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland book. Alice is the spitting image of her great-grandmother, a fact that Danika realizes will hurt her more than help her as she whisks her away to Kingdom to meet Hatter.

You see, young Alice discovers that her great-grandmother was actually a colossal bitch who was taken to Kingdom – the Wonderland region – and duped Hatter into thinking that she loved him when in actuality she wanted the power he could offer her as his mate. But Wonderland never accepted her as it saw her true nature and she returned to earth. Alice is gobsmacked at the revelation – she was the perennial geeky goth kid, carrying around her Alice in Wonderland book since she had a major crush on the Mad Hatter, to the point where she believed that he came to her when she was dying in the hospital of brain cancer.

Alice is elated to finally meet the man literally of her dreams but quickly comprehends the hate in his eyes when Danika explains her great-grandmother’s deception. Hatter is unbearably sexy and clearly wants her, but blows hot and cold as he fails to believe that she is falling in love with him and with Wonderland. Alice wants his love as much as she wants to help his sanity but can’t fully leave her life behind, a decision that might come at too high a cost.

This book was sometimes a little on the psychedelic side but it made sense considering Hatter’s mental state. The characterization was excellent and I loved how fleshed out all the supporting characters were (a vital piece in a series). The Alice allusions were wonderful but the twist on so many of the established plot points made it an intellectual delight to read. Gobs of sexual tension existed between the characters and the consummation scene was pretty smokin’ hot so Marie Hall has good sexy writing chops to fall back on (a must for any romance book I read)! Finishing it put not only a smile on my face but made me want another one.

Gerard’s Beauty (#2 Kingdom series – Gerard and Betty) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, July 2012)

Gerard’s Beauty immediately found it’s way into my Kindle. For those of us who have always listed Belle from Beauty and the Beast as our favorite princess, this novella will make you think twice about your admiration. Gerard, whose legacy has been twisted into the pompous, good looking jock of the movie, is most definitely a gorgeous hunk of man and quite the man-whore. Danika has her fairy godmother hands full pulling him out of one seduction scrape after another, but he’s actually incredibly bitter.

He truly fell in love with Belle, who was a beautiful but calculating intellectual. She ditched Gerard, after mocking his illiteracy, for the Beast because of the wealth he could offer. Right now, Gerard is in big, big trouble because Prince Charming is claiming Gerard seduced his daughter by Cinderella. It was more like a hook-up, and one Gerard brought to a screeching halt when her wig tumbled off and he realized that it was a princess he was dealing with. That the chief bitch fairy Galeta still harbors a grudge from Gerard blowing off her sexual advances makes this more complicated.

Danika pleads his case, claiming that she knows that he is about to meet his true mate and won’t be the Kingdom’s playboy any longer. She transports him to the library where Betty Hart, a bespectled, superhero role-playing librarian has already fallen victim to the good-looking, “love ’em and leave ’em” type before and she’s having none of it. The crazy frenchman in the rain outside the library gets zero sympathy since he’s clearly a sexist pig with one thing on his mind, but he also seems homeless, so against her better judgement she brings him back to her place.

When a couple of fairies appear in her living room, spouting about how Gerard is in BIG trouble and dangling some necklace Betty must wear, she realizes that she’s not in Kansas anymore. Danika’s lobbying gets him a questionable reprieve – he has thirty days to make this mystery woman fall in love with him…and it’s thirty days where he is “unmanned,” completely unable to get an erection. That Betty has total control of him from that time on just makes him even more incensed.

For Gerard (any Frenchman?) this is intolerable since the core of his identity is tied to his sexuality. Until he looks past the situation and realizes that Betty is not using her power over him. She’s a fun, smart, beautiful woman, but not being able to use sex to keep his distance from her means that they are spending actual time together. He sees what a great aunt she is to her Down Syndrome-affected nephew and also sees how all the other geeks (none so hot in their costumes) cluster around her at her role-playing conventions. Most importantly, when she finds out he can’t read, she doesn’t judge him at all, just goes about teaching him after he reluctantly expresses an interest in learning.

Gerard is so physical and initially shallow that you despair for him until you see how his irritation with Betty blooms into something much more. Betty is a fantastic, quirky character who sees Gerard for who he really is and loves him expecting nothing in return. He’s sexy as hell and we are not deprived of the moment when Gerard gets his mojo back. Oo, la, la!

Red and Her Wolf (#3 Kingdom series – Ewan and Violet) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, September 2012)

The wolf has always been my favorite character (so many sexual overtones even in the sanitized version of this tale) so when it becomes clear in the story arc that the Wolf is angry and languishing because he already found his mate in little Red Riding Hood, but she’s disappeared, you’ve got to wonder about what’s really going on.

In Red and Her Wolf we find out just how dark this story can be. The Black Wolf transforms into Ewan, a phenomenally hot and usually naked Scotsman (yes, because being a wolf isn’t sexy enough, you have to be a Scottish wolf). Once working for the dark fairy desperate for power, he was sent with another wolf to kill the Heartsong, the embodiment of all the fairies’ evil, who had been hidden in the woods with one trusted fairy designated as her keeper.

One look at the stunning, blond Violet huddled in her red cape and hood – who has no idea of her origins or her fate – and Ewan realizes that she’s he’s mate. He slays the fairy she knows as her grandmother as well as the other assassin wolf since both were bent on seeing Violet dead. Other fairies arrive on the scene, one of them being Danika with her best friend Miriam, and they realize that the girl needs to be protected, despite the danger she poses. Ewan violently objects to the idea of them taking his mate from him when he has just found her, but they overpower him with magic and Miriam escapes to earth with the girl, whose memories are suspended.

Five hundred years later, and Violet knows that she and her Aunt Miriam are not mortal. They don’t age and recently Violet has noticed that she has strange powers and an attraction to dark feelings. Back in the Kingdom, it’s come to Danika’s attention that Violet’s whereabouts have been leaked to the dark forces who would use her power and she has to confess to Ewan that she has lied to him all these centuries, sending him on false errands to try and find the girl he calls Red. Enraged, he sets out to Alaska, finding Red suspended in death and the fairy Miriam waiting for him. She tells him he must take her back to the Kingdom to be revived and gives him a map with spy contacts to help smuggle Violet to the lair of the dark fairy. Only Violet has the power to destroy her and on the way she will begin to understand her powers with Ewan’s help.

What Ewan doesn’t bargain for is the notion that his Red has spent 500 years misunderstanding him. She’s gotten a sanitized version of what happened and even now, when her memories are beginning to leak back into her mind, she clings to her hatred of the wolf who slew her grandmother. But Ewan’s persistence and unfailing care of her open her heart to feelings she doesn’t want to have for this man, even though everything points to him being her perfect match and one who can save her from the darkness within her.

Ewan is probably my favorite hero of all the “bad five” Danika helps. His unfailing loyalty (500 years of looking for his mate!), his kindness, but most of all his wolfy sexiness and killer mentality makes him a fairy tale ideal. Using Red as a vehicle for understanding the fairy politics and power struggle was also an excellent device and one that sets the stage for other stories.

Jinni’s Wish (#4 Kingdom Series – Jinni and Paz) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, November 2012)

I really wondered about Jinni’s story. I mean, how much of a romance can you have when you don’t have a corporeal form? Jinni is at a point in his long life where he feels nothing but apathy. Born among the stars, he accepted his assignment as fierce guardian to a king but fell in love and was horribly betrayed by a woman. This wound has festered for a millennia resulting in Jinni’s abandonment of his body. He now just exists as an ephemeral floating body and waits for the moment where he can dissipate and fade into nothing.

In Jinni’s Wish, his fairy godmother Danika is beside herself, praying its not too late. She knows that he’s given up, content to simply exist in his cave and dwell on past mistakes, but his mate needs him. Really needs him.

Paz is a Chicago artist on the rise who wistfully wants what her brother Richard and his partner Todd have. They convince her to go a sketchy carnival because a friend has said the fortuneteller is amazing and Paz needs a reading. She’s shocked and disbelieving when the preternaturally beautiful woman behind the table tells her to purchase a ticket to Anchorage tomorrow otherwise she’ll never meet her soul mate.

Urged on by something bigger than she’s ever felt before, Paz does, and finds herself seated next to hot guy who seems kind of wooden, but she’s more nervous about flying. A justified feeling considering disaster ensues. Yet this diaster reveals Jinni to her and there is immediate recognition on both their sides. As Jinni reveals his tarnished history to his lovely artist, he finds himself making new memories and wishing he wasn’t too far gone, but his time is almost at an end.

This is easily the most spiritual and beautiful of all the love stories in the series. Jinni is a hot, sexy beast, but one from an era and culture filled with courtly love and it shows in his respectful handling of Paz. Because his magic is almost gone, he can only create a couple physical encounters for both of them and even they are of a lighter sensuality than the other books. Hall has written a heart-warming story which is creative in both its understanding of djinn (actually close to the original Arabic folklore) and of its resolution of a happily ever after for two people without bodies when they fall in love.

Hook’s Pan (#5 Kingdom Series – James and Trishelle) by Marie Hall (Marie Hall Publishing, April 2013)

After a long hiatus from the series, Hall finally came out with the fifth book in the series, Hook’s Pan last month. We’ve only seen a couple glimpses of Captain James Hook, but it’s enough to know that this tale is going to be turned on its head and it is.

James Hook has already known true love. Talia, his beautiful mermaid, stole his heart but the day before their wedding the incorrigible Peter Pan, running amok as usual, killed her. It was probably by accident, but still, his loss felt bottomless.

He’s drowned himself in drinking, wenching, and looting – not necessarily in that order – but nothing seems to help. Hook is more annoyed than anything else when his self-appointed fairy godmother informs him that she’s going to deliver his true mate, which he knows is a lie since he’s already found her before she died.

Trishelle works in the same library as Betty, Gerard’s wife, and is more than a little put out that she’s not spending meaningful time with her newlywed friend anymore. She gets that Betty would want to spend time with Gerard, but to just disappear for months at a time? What’s up with that?

After a rough couple of days remembering her sister’s death, Trish is donning her usual mask and getting ready to perform the role of Peter Pan at the local playhouse – she already plays the role of a happy person every day so what’s one more role? Before her rehearsal Betty and Gerard ask her to go to lunch, springing on her some crazy bull about “the Kingdom” where fairy tales and characters from stories actually exist. Hurt at their mocking, Trish huffs off to get her performance, only to be “rescued” from a fire by Betty and Gerard and…a demon bug.

It’s not actually a demon bug, but some kind of fairy claiming Trish is Hook’s true mate reincarnated. Dropped literally at Hook’s feet onboard his ship, she’s irritated to say the least. Yes, this guy with his sexy British accent and hard man flesh would be great for a tumble, but she’s not going to pretend to be something or someone she’s not and Trish doesn’t believe in love.

Hook can’t help but admire the curvaceous blonde in front of him despite her revolting Pan costume, although he doesn’t believe for a moment she’s his Talia. Her sass and feistiness has him grinning from ear to ear, much to the astonishment of his men. The two of them can agree on some key points, however. Peter Pan is a sociopath enabled by Tinkerbell, Trish and Hook have serious chemistry and there is no way they will fall in love with each other.

James is the classic wounded hero and the richly painted world of the ocean (above and below the water line) is amazingly done by Hall. Trish is pretty damaged herself, and while I’m pretty leery of the reincarnation trope, this was well-handled with everyone acknowledging Trish’s unique personality. Tinkerbell is the psycho helicopter Mom everyone has met, not realizing how her crappy mothering is actually creating the time bomb that is Peter Pan. The resolution is wonderful, although I did wonder why nothing came of her gift of the little sea horse.

The series also has the bonus of being infinitely affordable. I read Her Mad Hatter because it was free on Amazon, but none of the other books broke the bank at a mere $2.99 each (Hook’s Pan is a little more expensive, but still under $4.00), reasonable for a hefty novella  slightly smaller than a Harlequin novel. Hall even has a bundled deal, charging only $2.99 for the first three books, and now that the final book is out with Hook’s Pan, I’m thinking she’ll do another bundle. According to Marie Hall’s website, she’s planning on releasing a short about the fairy Danika (something naughty with the huntsman, perhaps?) and her afterword in Hook’s Pan clearly indicates that, while she’s doing other projects, she feels that there are lots of other bad boys in the Kingdom waiting to meet the woman who will redeem them.

Getting to read those stories at the hands of good writer like Marie Hall is a delight I’m looking forward to, particularly if there are little glimpses of my favorite couples while I’m there. Many thanks to Hall for taking what are often shopworn retellings and making them into something fresh, sexy and undeniably romantic.

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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