Tag Archives: romance fiction

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!

Romance Readers and Authors Can Increase Their Love IQ with Mating Intelligence Unleashed from Oxford University Press

30 Oct

When you read romance, you’re an armchair psychologist. “Oh, he’s got some commitment issues here” or “She’s still experiencing that inadequacy and body image baggage from before she lost the weight” are comments that run through most readers’ heads as we pick up the hints and character shadowing the writer has so carefully placed for us, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading us through the emotional forest of the story. Like all fiction readers, romance enthusiasts are damn smart – let’s face it, are you going to try to masquerade as your twin or not communicate after a misunderstanding? Nuh-uh, because you’ve seen how great that goes over in a relationship in the books you’ve read. We learn through reading.

Romance authors should have a fictional therapy license bestowed upon them, as their job involves metaphorically putting that character on a couch and listening to their deepest fears. Of course, their role is a more challenging one as the writer takes that understanding and translates it into visible action which hints at the mental makeup of our hero or heroine.

Thought I was joking, didn’t you?

But I’ve begun to worry that the creation of characters has grown to be based on secondary or tertiary sources (other romance works or stereotypes) rather than primary material (the personal experience of writers or actual psychological research). This makes a lot of romance reading derivative, like that moment when you say, “Yes, he’s a billionaire playboy doctor with mommy issues” and know every move said hero is going to make because, hey, you’ve not only seen it before, you’ve read it before, and so has the author writing the story. *bored glance to the left*

One of the areas that is super tricky for romance writers is the ephemeral moment of attraction or, even more complicated, when one of the characters decides that this person is IT with the writing solidifying the hero or heroine’s holy-cow-I-can’t-get-enough-of-this-person feeling. What really attracts two people to get them to that point? Enter a fantastic source for romance writers and readers everywhere, Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love by Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman. Both authors have Ph.D.s, Kaufman in cognitive psychology and Geher in social psychology (with a speciality in evolutionary psychology) and fortunately for us, both men are highly entertaining and thorough writers.

The book, published by Oxford University Press in January of this year, reads as a literature review of all the major research done recently on why people are attracted to one another, with the focus on what evolutionary advantage it offers us to be attracted to certain people. (Naturally this means that the research is heterosexual in nature – I really wanted to read about same sex attraction, but that wasn’t the focus of the book.) This in turn, offers an amazing insight into some key features of the process of mate-choice, insights so illuminating it made my mind reel with possibilities from a romance writing perspective. [Please note, I used both the paper version and the Kindle version of the book, so the references are sometimes the traditional page number or the Kindle location. Sorry that they vacillate!]

As Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University puts it in the forward, “We are witnessing the true fusion of biology and culture, of psychology and brain architecture, of personality, neurochemistry, genetics and evolution, of brain and mind.” (Kindle edition, Loc 45 of 5908) What better basis than to take the science of attraction and overlay with the thoughts and actions that make up a character? It would lend an authenticity often lacking when a couple goes from hot glances to tangoing between the sheets with minimum preliminaries.

couple-168191_640Geher and Kaufman have their own reasons for pursuing the topic (I’m sure they weren’t thinking about romance readers and writers), namely that human mating is undeniably important (duh) and that “mating success” is the biggest predictor for life satisfaction and happiness – more than your education, how much money you make or your occupational status. Keep in mind that they mean “mating” in the purest sense – all life has one purpose and that is to reproduce and have a genetic line (yours) continue, whether you are a bacteria, an orchid, or a stockbroker. Even in a modern age where many people choose to not have children, our partner choices still are driven by our biology, even when we don’t realize it. While I could easily do ten blog posts on all the awesome research, here are some of the highlights.

“I Just Knew It When I Saw Him/Her”

Famous celebrities often possess all the traits listed as attractive, for example Elizabeth Taylor in her stunning heyday.

Famous celebrities often possess all the traits listed as attractive, for example Elizabeth Taylor in her stunning heyday.

Physical attraction is based on a few key factors, with strong physical predictors for men and women regarding what body and facial types characterize the most desirable mates, and these traits supercede dominant cultural expectations, crossing racial lines into universal ideals of beauty. For women, full lips, large eyes, thick hair and smooth skin are all elements  men choose as being “beautiful” and highly attractive. When choosing the future mother of your offspring, these factors give you clear indication of where the woman is in her crucial reproductive years as these are the physical factors which degrade over time, giving a window into whether the woman is nearing the end or passed her prime reproductive capacity. Keep in mind that when presented with pictures of the same woman at various points in her menstrual cycle, men are able to pick out – with astonishing accuracy, I might add – when women are ovulating since that is when they seem most attractive to them. They are simply picking the image that shows that woman at her most appealing, but biology is sending men a message that this moment means “get your sperm in this woman ASAP.” How’s that for the basis of your key sex scene ending in a baby epilogue?

Brad Pitt - Cad or Dad?

Brad Pitt – Cad or Dad?

Men have even more pressure physically since their anatomy must not only transmit how virile they are, but also audition them for role of protector (and keep in mind that an astonishing number of children of long-term relationships would not pass a paternity test – women often choose different men for the impregnating versus the person who financially and physically supports your offspring). Men who rock the short-term dating scene (see your romance shelf for books starring the reformed rake or modern manwhore) are tall, extremely masculine in appearance (chiseled jaw indicating testosterone up the wahzoo), facially attractive and socially dominant. For men who would like to go beyond the one night stand, they need to demonstrate kindness, warmth and loving – what the authors call going from cad features to dad features in order to convince a woman her children will be well cared for.

Other physical elements include one that romance readers will be VERY familiar with – that moment where the smell and taste of the other person is so drugging that all good sense is lost and it’s all about getting down to business. But there is serious biology at play in this moment, as we can actually smell and taste the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) of one another. MHC is important because biology has set us up so we are not attracted to people whose genes, when combined with ours, would not produce strong offspring. You think I’m joking? A famous study took college men, analyzed their MHC and had them sleep in the same t-shirt for multiple days in a row, sealing the shirt in a plastic bag and sending it to the lab. Scientists then recruited college women after checking their MHC, and asked them to smell each t-shirt, rating the smell of the shirt to determine which ones they thought smelled the best. To the letter, each woman rated the t-shirt which had been worn by the man most genetically compatible with her as smelling the most desirable and the shirts they labeled least desirable were the ones where the genes of the man were too close to her own (offering no genetic advantage if mixed). In addition to scent, we can also taste MHC compatibility in the process of kissing or even tasting a person’s skin, so close contact is vital to determining good mate selection. See my post on the Science of Kissing for more information on this fascinating quirk.

Cave paintings...possibly the earliest form of "come up and see my etchings" in the mating world.

Cave paintings…possibly the earliest form of “come up and see my etchings” in the mating world.

Yet it’s not just looks (obviously) that determines attraction. Traits such as intelligence (people are more likely to be attracted to a mate of similar IQ) and creativity are extremely important in mate selection. Geher and Kaufman present the scientific hypothesis that many of the arts were developed by our ancestors to not just express ideas but to…wait for it…attract a mate. Missing out on that shoulder to hip ratio, Cro-Magnon man? How about delivering the old “come back to my furs and I’ll show you my cave paintings” line? It probably worked. This explanation of creativity as a mating lure could explain the magnetic pull of various rock stars and artists who are not the slightest bit physically attractive, yet inspire the lingerie sections of entire department stores to be thrown in their direction. (Mick Jagger or Keith Richards anyone? It’s a scientific fact that creative people, even the average ones, have more sex partners, although this seems to apply to mostly men.) You want to pass those creative genes onto your offspring, although probably not the lips or susceptibility to addiction.

Which also brings into play the concept of emotional or social intelligence. “Mating clearly includes socially relevant tasks such as acquiring and keeping a mate, and it inevitably involves a degree of social interactions and navigation. Not only must an individual possess the ability to read another’s thoughts and feelings, but this individual must also possess proficiency in interpreting complex social stimuli.” (Kindle edition, Loc 402 of 5908) A mate candidate who has this type of ability is one demonstrating their openness to experience, their agreeableness, social competence, the quality of their relationships as well as how well they can control their emotions to suit their mate’s needs and a social situation. The types of courtship displays which transmit this ideal are usually related to music, art, poetry, acts of extroversion or visible kindness.

Humor seems so simple - woman want a man who makes them laugh and men want a woman who thinks they are funny.

Humor seems so simple – woman want a man who makes them laugh and men want a woman who thinks they are funny.

My favorite area of research is the one relating to humor. Both men and women indicate this is important to them, but when someone lists “good sense of humor” on Match.com, they mean very different things by gender. “Women tend to prefer men who make them laugh, whereas men tend to prefer women who laugh at their jokes.” (Kindle edition, Loc 677 of 5908) But what does humor indicate in a mating context? Once again, it’s about an individual’s ability to function in society (which helps your offspring). In addition to indicating a person’s playfulness and their creativity, humor also demonstrates a person’s emotional IQ (Did you ever date someone who was a lame joke teller? They clearly couldn’t read the room which made you think about how they weren’t going to read you too well either). Humor transmits feelings of interpersonal warmth and someone laughing at your jokes is one of the early indicators of sexual interest. Interestingly enough, the research suggests that if a person happens to be of high social status (see previously mentioned billionaire playboy doctor) he or she should probably adopt self-deprecating forms of humor in the mating marketplace as this is what makes him or her approachable to potential short-term or long-term mates.

Abandonment Issues

The presence of caring parents is of vital importance when it comes to adults being able to forming long-term, loving attachments.

The presence of caring parents is of vital importance when it comes to adults being able to form long-term, loving attachments.

If I had a dollar for every time a romance hero or heroine had been abandoned by a parent, had emotionally detached family members or was a foster child, I wouldn’t have to work my day job and could just stay home and write. While so many of the characters we love and admire have made the best of crappy life situations and showed their inner steel, in actuality this is a major uphill climb. For men, a father figure bowing out of the picture early gives a tendency for increased delinquency and aggression for boys, and even accelerates the onset of puberty for both sexes. (Loc 115 of 5908) While boys are more likely to manifest increased aggression and delinquency, girls demonstrate greater levels of manipulative attitudes, more risk-taking behavior including sexual promiscuity, as well as a lower attachment to romantic partners and offspring.

Loving, Conscientiously

Attracting a person, as we can see, is all about putting your best face forward and while that clearly has a physical connotation, it also includes personality traits that prove you are a good bet in the mating game. Gehrer and Kaufman cover the research regarding combinations of traits that are particularly influential in attracting mates. Some are tagged “meta-traits” because they combine personality factors, for example, stability, which is defined as “a blend of emotional stability (low neuroticism), conscientiousness, and agreeableness…Those who score high in stability have a need to maintain a sense of order in their lives.” (Kindle edition, Loc 1177 of 5908) The second meta-trait is termed plasticity and is a blend of extraversion and openness to experience.

Not only do people want both stability and plasticity in a mate but “they also tend to seek mates who are somewhat higher than themselves in terms of their own perceived mate value in levels of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. People apparently want to feel as though they ‘acquired’ a partner of higher quality than themselves.” (Kindle edition, Loc 1199 of 5908) I’m thinking here of all the romance novels where each partner brings out something in the other which was underdeveloped or hesitant, helping that person become a healthier, more engaged person making positive decisions. Stability and plasticity at play, people.

Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Love

Keep in mind these traits also are directly correlated to actual love. Psychologist Robert Sternberg has actually developed a triarchic theory of love (don’t confuse it with a love triangle), demonstrating how different components produce various types of love. Prepare to be blown away:

Intimacy alone is “liking,” passion alone is “infatuation,” and commitment alone is “empty” love. Intimacy and passion combine to form romantic love, intimacy and commitment combine to form compassionate love, passion and commitment combine to form fatuous love, and if you can combine all three components, you get consummate love. (Kindle edition, Loc 1291 of 5908, emphasis added)

This fascinating theory reads like a litany of past relationships for either party in a romance novel, complete with lessons learned and the mistakes they don’t want to make again. How about the reunion trope which usually involves two people who had some form of romantic love (passion and intimacy) but lacked the commitment to make it the consummate ideal. Clearly the goal of the romance reader (and the writer) is to see the hero and heroine achieve consummate love which is going to sustain them in forming a successful mating partnership.

Crafting Your Villain: Using Narcissism

The myth of Narcissus, the boy who fell in love with his own reflection, forms the origins of the disorder narcissism.

We all know narcissists, those extraverted people who seem like they love the social scene, but in actuality these people have a high level of self-focus, self-importance and a sense of entitlement, always seeking to surround themselves with people who cater to their ego and avoiding anyone who might want to tell them the truth about themselves. (pp. 158-159) Narcissists suck at long-term relationships (the only one they want is with themselves) and fail at intimacy in general as their goal is always dominance, yet they inherently lack the self-control necessary for real success. While adolescents are naturally narcissistic (that feeling you had walking through the lunchroom when you were certain everyone was looking at you), it’s a stage we all grow out of. Well, not all of us.

There are different types of narcissists – check this list for the types that you have met:

  • leadership/authority – enjoys being a leader and being seen as an authority. Woe betide someone who challenges them or criticizes their work. You see these individuals not just in business but in classroom and coaching positions, as well as in doctor’s offices (and I’m not talking about the receptionist).
  • self-absorption/self-admiration –  focus strongly on their appearance and others’ perception of said appearance. Think of the date who spent her time admiring her reflection in a spoon rather than looking into your eyes, or the guy who spent more time looking at himself in the rear view mirror than making conversation.
  • superiority/arrogance – overestimate their own abilities. In adolescents this is very common, and I see teenagers all the time who have bought into their parent’s belief in how utterly special they are – hook, line and sinker. They usually are special but not because of the reason they think. This is the person who repeatedly says, “I’m really great at ________” but all evidence points to the contrary. They also have the gall to be super puffed up and arrogant about it. Barely okay in a 10 year old, and completely unacceptable in a 30 year old.
  • exploitativeness/entititlement – enjoys manipulating and exploiting others and expects favors from other people. My guess is that there are a lot of these people in politics (Lyndon B. Johnson fulfilled several of the narcissist criteria) but you can find them everywhere, sadly. From a mean girl clique to the White House, this brand of narcissist is around every corner.

I bet your blood pressure went up reading that list, because we all have known narcissists, but would it interest you realize that as a group they are more successful, at least initially in the mating game? Narcissism and attractiveness tend to go together and narcissists exhibit adaptive traits which offer success in the short-term mating game. If you want to spread your genetic material around quickly (leaving someone else holding the bag, or rather the baby), being a narcissist was probably a great evolutionary development. Narcissists are seen as being more attractive (they spend more time on their appearance), move with confidence, and are seen as being cheerful and outgoing. (p. 160)

But longer-term acquaintance has the scales falling from people’s eyes. Narcissists are sexually coercive, experiencing more fantasies about coercion and sadism and engaging in behaviors which support manipulation and power over the other person. Since their goal is to maintain power in any relationship, this can take the form of conversational narcissism (where they focus the topic always on themselves, use exaggerated hand gestures, a loud voice and express disinterest when others speak) or sexual narcissism when they are not focused on anyone’s gratification but their own (and BTW, there are more male narcissists than female ones – ladies, I know you are not surprised).

Promiscuity is the strategy that allows these people to maintain their hold on control since it enables them to feel like they have the most power by being the least committed (the other person needs to earn their loyalty). The more their partner is committed, the more likely a narcissist is to cheat since they believe they are more likely to get away with it. They get a rush out of high-risk behavior like cheating or in convincing their partners to perform behaviors out of their comfort zone. This entitlement has the flip side of narcissists becoming aggressive when sexually rejected, wanting to punish the person who denied them what they felt was their right. (p. 165)

Niccolo Machiavelli was so successful at manipulating princes and kings that he wrote a Renaissance best-seller, The Prince, which has become a foundational text for politicians.

There are some related disorders that romance villains seem prone to – Machiavellianism is the psychological trait of manipulating people (which involves a certain level of Emotional IQ) a quality that can be used for good, but often isn’t and psychopathy, which involves being callous or insensitive (wow, I think I just described several Harlequin Presents heroes!). The combination of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy is known in psychology as the Dark Triad. These traits are applied to individuals who will stop at nothing to manipulate others for their own gain and there is even a twelve-point assessment to determine where your villain/narcissist lands within them.

Arrogant Alpha or Laid-back Beta?

Both the alpha and the beta have something going for them (as paranormal romance writers and readers everywhere are well aware).

In the world of romance novels, we are far more likely to see the dominant alpha male than the supportive beta, but that beta is showing up more and more. The problem? Women seem to think of the beta as a “nice guy” and any chess player can tell you that particular label is the kiss of death. If the alpha qualities of dominance, pride, and ambition – maybe combined with a hesitancy if not an antipathy to being tied down – are crack cocaine to women, are we just attracted to the bad boy to our detriment? Or is there actual science at work here?

When surveyed, women clearly indicate that they want a “nice guy,” but as Geher and Kaufman state, “…when it comes right down to it, women choose the bad boy.” (author emphasis, p. 179) A main source of confusion seems to stem from early psychology studies which clearly interpreted non-dominant men as exhibiting truly submissive behavior, characteristics which naturally women did not find to be sexually attractive in a potential mate. More recent studies have narrowed women’s specific interest to men who fit the following description.

..it seems like the ideal man (for a date or romantic partner) is one who is assertive, confident, easygoing, and sensitive, without being aggressive, demanding, dominant, quiet, shy, or submissive…[other researchers] found across three studies that it wasn’t dominance alone, but rather the interaction of dominance and prosocial behaviors, that women reported were particularly sexually attractive. In other words, dominance only increased sexual attraction when the person was already high in agreeableness and altruism. (p. 182)

What emerges then, is that women don’t like assholes but do want men to be strong and confident, although men who practice dominance toward other men with over-the-top competition or physical force are quickly placed in the “jerk” category. Kindness and assertiveness are not exclusive traits; women feel both traits not only exist in the ideal man, but they are considered the sexiest attractant for both short-term and long-term affairs. Because these traits are heavily associated with prestigious, or high status, males, it’s not just their celebrity status that women find appealing. (p. 183)

Pretty close to the mark, actually, but not always.

If this is the reality then, that kind but assertive males have truckloads of women after them, why does the “nice guy” get such a bad rap? Geher and Kaufman conjecture that it’s because when women slap the label of celibacy on a man’s forehead “NICE GUY” in actuality “they mean overly nice guys.” (p. 184) This moniker speaks more about what the woman feels rather than says something about the guy. Women of high self-esteem and maturity are less negatively affected by incredibly generous behavior but less secure women don’t like how overly nice men make them feel – like they are a bad person but not being as altruistic or that they are unworthy of attention from such a giving man. But people in general don’t like over-the-top nice people – research supports that study participants looked with disfavor on individuals who were extremely competent, who offered too much help, or who adhered to a moral position strongly. (p. 184) Hey, goody-two-shoes, the angels want their loafers back.

But truly nice guys can finish last (and, ahem, often do, as the above generous traits of nice guys have women reporting more orgasms with them, and that they are more likely to perform oral sex on their partner – tuck that away for pondering, ladies). (p. 191) Bad boy traits may be fine for short-term relationships but women in it for the long haul are looking for good genes (men who are assertive, funny and physically attractive) and who demonstrate good parenting potential (kind and considerate). Clearly having both sets makes you a catch, but in studies, when a handsome asshole goes toe to toe with a homely nice guy, the nice guy always wins. (p. 187) Go beta!

So What Does All This Research Mean for Romance Fiction?

Naturally, this is the question I immediately asked myself on finishing the book. While entertained by the authors’ excellent writing and comprehensive approach to the evolutionary psychology of mating, I think they succeeded in blowing a few well-done (perhaps over-done) tropes out of the water.

Exactly. Love can only do so much and after that, it’s called therapy.

The first is that I’m calling for the death of the manwhore. A man who truly loves women and goes from woman to woman with intent and friendship (with hot sexy benefits) does not incur my ire, but all too often we get cold alpha heroes who use women like Kleenex and it’s explained away that “they knew the score.” I’m not sure a one-night stand where you barely can recall the person’s face and name actually says anything positive about a hero, who may very well not deserve that label until he can prove his worth. Consider that his inability or choice not to commit is often credited to a particular psychological trauma – his abandonment by a parent(s), a damaging first love, or his whole platoon blowing up in front of him and he’s working through the survivor’s guilt – and we have a recipe for our hero needing therapy, not a just a heroine who has what romance calls “the magic vagina” that cures all ills. Let’s not give the manwhore a pass without acknowledging his emotional damage and demonstrating that it takes more than the insta-lust and the love of a good woman to heal him. I’m just not a believer.

Villains might be able to have great dimension if the idea of the narcissist (or better yet, the Dark Triad) come into effect. There are numerous books on narcissism (and specifically narcissistic men) that have story after story to help flesh out what this personality disorder looks like in the context of women who have had relationships, either family or romantic ones, with a narcissist. When I read so many antagonists who are practically cardboard cutouts, I say, give the villain a backstory! Understanding his or her psychology is a big piece of writing that character well and infusing your story with conflict that will make the HEA that much more satisfying.

The Witness by Nora Roberts (Berkley, April 2012) – A great beta is just as sexy as any alpha.

Lastly, let’s bring back the beta. A great example of a book using a beta as hero is Nora Roberts’ The Witness. My mother and I not only adored this book, but had an entire conversation about how the small town police chief, Brooks Gleason, was certainly decisive and strong, but how his demeanor of a laid-back, easy going guy bent on protecting his town from any threats was very beta, and it was such a breath of fresh air. Let’s occasionally tone down the testosterone and demonstrate that some men can be the nice guy most of the time, and still show their dominance when they need it (and only then).

But more than anything else, I would ask that romance readers and writers be smart. We each have our own experiences upon which to draw in the world of sexual attraction but let’s not turn away or ignore what science can give us in insight into the dance that is the journey to a happily ever after. Glenn Geher and Scott Barry Kaufman have given us an outstanding resource in Mating Intelligence Unleashed, and we would all do well to use their efforts for good!

Happy reading!! 🙂

A Lady’s Secret Weapon by Tracey Devlyn Combines Old-Fashioned Spy Thrillers with Hot Historical Romance

16 Oct

A Lady’s Secret Weapon (Nexus #3 – Ethan and Sydney) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, October 1, 2013)

Back when I was cutting my teeth on historical romance in the 80s, there were many novels that heavily featured spies bent on foiling Napoleonic agents during the height of the Peninsular Wars. These books had complex spy plots and incorporated plenty of history in addition to the romance developing between the hero and heroine.

I loved them, but as Regency became modernized (and thank heavens it did) for some reason the spy piece seemed to suddenly take a back burner. Oh, it was still there, clearly, but not in the same smart way it existed before. The romance piece got better as well, and since I really did read them for the romance, that was a reasonable exchange, although I found myself still wistful for the well-written spies and villains.

Enter talented author Tracey Devlyn and I have no more reason to pine for the days of those page-turning plots. With her excellent Nexus series, readers manage three books in one: a pitch-perfect historical romance, a mystery as a new angle of the story arc is uncovered, and a thriller to heighten anticipation and keep those pages turning. Yum!

The Nexus is an elite group of British spies heavily involved with uncovering the next move of the Napoleonic network, either in France or right on England’s shores, and readers have already met several operatives in the first two books of the series. A Lady’s Secret Weapon in fact stars Ethan deBeau, the rogue Viscount renowned for charming one woman after another into his bed, only to ferret out their secrets for his cause. Less well-known are the many deaths for which he is responsible and the knowledge of the often innocent lives he’s compromised – as well as the dirty feeling he carries from his meaningless sexual encounters – have made him not just jaded, but someone who regularly takes refuge in alcohol and whores when frustrations arise.

Ethan made these sacrifices for his country so he can attain one goal, taking over the Nexus network and finally filling his dead father’s shoes in service to England. But when it seems that’s not going to happen, he’s not just thrown but resentful. A helpful distraction takes the form of one Sydney Hunt, a stunning young woman who Ethan feels he knows from somewhere although she’s not telling. Her focus on an orphanage that has come onto the Nexus’ radar is more than a coincidence and it quickly becomes apparent that there is much more to Miss Hunt than meets the eye.

A Lady’s Revenge (Nexus #1 – Cora and Guy) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, April 2012)

That’s the truth. Sydney hides her own painful past and while her work as the proprietress of an employment agency helping servants find safe positions in noble households is a priority, her secret work as “the Specter” has her using a network of underground spies to help the Nexus anonymously. Her time with Ethan has her rethinking her opinions about noblemen but she’s uncertain as to whether he won’t run just like other men in her past when he finds out the nature of her ghosts. For this man, Sydney realizes she might just be willing to take her stolen moments when she can, as his layers clearly hide more than just a talented rogue and spy.

It was a little hard for me to like Ethan initially as Devlyn shows him making the decision to pursue alcohol and visit a whorehouse after he’s met our heroine. Tsk, tsk. Granted, there’s nothing yet between them, but I always find myself having to overcome that mental hurdle (and sometimes, not managing it) when an author decides to show that side of the hero. Yet she manages to help him come back from it, with the incident simply illustrating just how damaged Ethan is that he needs this form of escape. He’s literally never let himself be in love and Sydney is really his first in many ways, despite all his experience of women.

Sydney was enormously easy to love, surrounded by people who care about her and with a deeply admirable mission, but she never strays into goody two-shoes territory. That she has channelled much of herself into both her day job and her secret spy work clearly is due to her being convinced that she will never have a romantic future due to her childhood. Ethan’s patient uncovering of each of her secrets breaches her walls one by one and his lack of judgement at each hurdle helps grow the trust between them. It’s actually quite lovely to witness, with their climatic love scene one of the most tender I’ve read in a while.

Checkmate, My Lord (Nexus #2 – Sebastian and Catherine) by Tracey Devlyn (Sourcebooks, February 2013)

For readers who have enjoyed the first two books in the series, there is plenty of time to revel in those characters (when exactly are they all getting married, anyway?) since they make regular appearances. But for people who want to try this book out first before making the investment, fear not – Devlyn’s writing is so deft that you will lack no understanding or appreciation if you start with A Lady’s Secret Weapon. Playing catch up is effortless regarding both story arc and characters in the hands of this talented author.

The important thing to keep in mind when reading a Devlyn book is that the spy element drives the romance. I initially found myself very impatient as a good portion of the book progressed before my hero and heroine began inching toward one another even though there was a strong attraction. Partly this was their personalities and backgrounds coming into play but it was also because the various elements of the plot had to be well-established. The delay has the nice side effect of making the descent into a relationship more natural in terms of the timeframe (no insta-love here) and – once I realized the intent – I was able to relax and enjoy it.

Keep in mind also that Devlyn’s intelligence, immediately apparent after just a few pages, bleeds into other areas of her professional life. She’s got an excellent website and strong social media presence, and is also a founder of the Romance University website which I follow religiously. How cool is that? I love it when an author’s talent is matched by her professional savvy, so yay for me at finding another woman who is cleverly making an impact on the world of romance publishing.

Tracey Devlyn’s entire Nexus series, but A Lady’s Secret Weapon in particular, combines outstanding writing with cross-genre appeal. Mystery, thriller, and historical romance lovers fear not – you’ve just got another author to add to your end table. Enjoy!

You’ll Find Yourself Getting Rowdy With Lori Foster’s Latest Addition to Her Love Undercover Series

24 Sep

Getting Rowdy (Love Undercover #3 – Rowdy and Avery) by Lori Foster (Harlequin, September 24, 2013) – ebook version out October 1, 2013

Oh, boy. I have been waiting for this book to come out ever since I read the first novel in Lori Foster‘s Love Undercover series, Run the Risk, starring the oh-so-sexy Logan Riske, a detective pretending to be a construction worker in order to seduce the mousy Pepper Yates into revealing her brother’s location.

Far from a wallflower (although she cultures that appearance), Pepper turns out to be a sexy firecracker and Logan falls hard and fast for her. But one of the best parts of the book is the close relationship Pepper has to her brother, Rowdy Yates (aren’t these great names?). Rowdy is an unparalleled manwhore happy to drown past demons in the women who regularly throw themselves at his feet.

Run the Risk (Love Undercover #1 – Logan and Pepper) by Lori Foster (Harlequin, October 2012)

Yet Foster’s brilliance is the slow development of Rowdy over the course of the first two books. In Run the Risk, we see Rowdy simultaneously as the police see him (through Logan’s eyes) as a smart, shady guy with a crappy childhood who has walked both sides of legality with his business dealings, but also through Pepper’s point of view, as a big brother who has literally protected and cared for his sister against the neglect of alcoholic parents since she was a child, all the way through to the threats she faces as an adult.

Rowdy’s anger at Logan’s ignorance of the actual situation (and how that lack of knowledge endangers Pepper) stems from worrying about his sister’s safety, as well as the fact that Logan is a cop. Rowdy and Pepper have had enough experience with corrupt cops and neglectful social workers to be wary of anyone claiming to be an authority. His anti-authority attitude is an important piece of Rowdy, as he’s found it far more effective to skirt the law and take matters into his own hands.

Bare It All (Love Underground #2; Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor #5 – Reese and Alice) by Lori Foster (Harlequin, May 2013)

Further character development of Rowdy takes place in the second book of the series, Bare It All, which Foster has connect to her equally as wonderful Men Who Walk The Edge of Honor series (about a private group who goes after human traffickers). Its hero, Reese Bareden, is also a good cop who is friends with Logan Riske. The one woman in his new building not throwing herself at him is the one he most wants to know, but Alice Appleton is only beginning to recover her life after being kidnapped and held for months. Reese must slowly win her trust, both physically and emotionally, and he is oh-so-patient while doing it that you can’t help but fall in love with him.

Throughout Bare It All, Rowdy is the peripheral character who not only provides comic relief (along with Reese’s dog) but also ends up – almost against his better judgement – counseling Alice through some of the sexual decisions and moves she wants to make with Reese. It’s not long before it’s incredibly obvious that this man – for all his good looks, charm, and bad boy persona – has the soul of an avenging angel when it comes to children or women who have been set up by life to be hurt. His friendship with Alice, who sees right to the heart of Rowdy, demonstrates that women can be more than relatives or booty calls for him, even if he doesn’t see that yet.

With there being so much to Rowdy in the early books of the series, fans of Love Undercover have been waiting with bated breath to see how his HEA could possibly play out. Enter Getting Rowdy, the novel devoted to Rowdy and his feisty, red-haired bartender Avery – a woman who has been resisting his advances and forced to watch him hook up night after night with the latest floozy. Once Rowdy gets it into his thick head that Avery has been refusing him because she wants to not be replaceable, that she wants him to show her that she’s worth a little bit of a wait, he’s more than willing to do it. For this woman who he thinks about all day and night, he realizes his “once and done” rule regarding women and sex is not going to apply.

When You Dare (Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor #1 – Dare and Molly) by Lori Foster (Harlequin, April 2011) – Since the second book of Love Undercover is the fifth book of Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor, readers who enjoy one will undoubtedly enjoy the other. Cross pollinate your shelves!!

I’ll admit that I was more than a little worried (Was Rowdy a sex addict? Could he be monogamous?) but it became clear that sex for him was more a confluence of learned behavior and ready accessibility with so many woman falling into his hands like ripe plums. Avery changes all Rowdy’s rules, and that’s as it should be.

Yet the beauty in this book comes primarily from Avery, who – despite her worries that a piece of her past has resurfaced at the worst time – really sees Rowdy in all his damage and takes that understanding a step further in giving him the kind of space he needs. She knows that their time together will end because he doesn’t do relationships, but she also knows that he’s special enough that she refuses to do anything but treasure their time together. She doesn’t lie to him (and we understand why she holds on as long as she can to what happened to her) or prevaricate and I love when he keeps demanding that she tell him she loves him, even when he’s incapable of saying it back.

Lori Foster has managed to push every emotional button in this novel, succeeding in living up to my extremely high expectations of this novel, which is saying something because for this character, I wanted everything. I’m interested to see the theme of love undercover continue with Logan’s brother Dash pushing his luck with Logan and Reese’s Lieutenant, Margo Petersen, in the next book of the series, Dash of Peril, due out at the end of March 2014.

This is a fantastic series worth reading (and re-reading in my case), with Getting Rowdy currently holding the “best book” title in it. Do yourself a favor and get a little rowdy while reading this series. You will not be sorry you did. 🙂

Warrior of the Nile by Veronica Scott Brings Ancient Egypt to Life With Vengeful Goddesses and Romance

16 Sep

Warrior of the Nile (#2 The Gods of Egypt – Khenet and Tiya) by Veronica Scott (Carina Press, September 16, 2013)

I have been lamenting the dearth of historical fiction not set in England and/or the Regency period, so I was naturally intrigued by the good reviews of Veronica Scott’s romance novels set in ancient Egypt around 1500 BC. When the second one, Warrior of the Nile became available via NetGalley, I snapped it up to see if I would enjoy a non-traditional historical romance.

Did I! I loved the premise of her The Gods of Egypt series – that Egyptian gods had the ability to become corporeal and interact with humans – and it lent a wonderful paranormal element to an already rich historical setting. In Warrior of the Nile, two people find themselves pawns caught in the machinations of the gods.

Khenet is the adopted brother of Pharaoh who reluctantly asks him for a favor. A region which previously harbored a usurper has suspicious reports of the nomarch (leader) engaging in black magic. The priests and priestesses of the goddess Nepthys have notified Pharaoh that she will be providing a bride for this man, a bride born dedicated to Nepthys’ service who will be sacrificed when the goddess takes over her body, killing the evil magician and shutting out the influence of destructive gods who would threaten Egypt. Part of her instruction includes the demand that only a single man to accompany the doomed bride on the dangerous journey to her husband, and the guard must be a man who means something to Pharaoh.

Priestess of the Nile (#1 The Gods of Egypt – Sobek and Merys) by Veronica Scott (Carina Press, January 23, 2013)

Khenet and his brother have faced enough danger and battles to realize that this is actually a dangerous trap, one Khenet might not return from. As an adopted sibling to the most powerful man in Egypt, Khenet has nevertheless felt caught between two worlds. More a rough soldier than a noble, he has had negative experiences with the court beauties who pursue him, preferring the no-strings-attached relationships with tavern wenches and dancing girls he can leave the next morning. Accompanying a blubbering aristocrat to her death sounds worse than battle, particularly if he might die in the attempt, yet his loyalty to his brother and his desire to help Egypt outweighs any personal discomfort.

Lady Tiya has always known of the dagger hanging over her head. Her family is descended from the goddess Nepthys, with many of its members choosing to go into her service. But she has been cursed with an extra layer of obligation, as the birthmark on her forearm and over her breast is an inherited one indicating that the goddess can take over body with ease. When she is called along with her cousins to the temple to be chosen, it’s an easy decision to volunteer – the other candidates are a little girl and Tiya’s weeping cousin who has just been betrothed. With her father’s remarriage, Tiya is being pressured by her stepmother to marry and Tiya would rather escape the match, even if it means being used by a goddess who might not care about hurting Tiya.

Dancer of the Nile (#3 The Gods of Egypt series – Kamin and Nima) by Veronica Scott (Carina Press, October 2013)

Tiya’s instincts are proven correct and she’s more than a little dismayed to discover the nature of her mission and more concerned that the handsome, brave soldier who is to guard her on the journey is also doomed. They slowly begin to get to know one another, each recognizing the other’s courage and intelligence, and cursing the fate that would bring them into each other’s lives just in time to take them away. Tiya calls upon another goddess for assistance while Khenet wrestles with the nightmares of his lost village, reemphasizing to him that he is the last of his people and burdened with an incomprehensible prophecy. Yet that prophecy might just offer the one loophole that could have Tiya and Khenet saving Egypt while escaping with their lives, although it might bring the wrath of a powerful goddess upon their heads.

I loved both characters and while the text is peppered with references to Egyptian religion and deities it’s nothing the reader doesn’t adjust to within a couple of chapters. While Khenet and Tiya have plenty of sexual tension, there really is only one tender, wonderful sex scene between our couple as they are kept pretty busy evading the machinations of evil sorcerers and deities.

A view of the Nile River which is probably not far from what an ancient Egyptian would have seen.

Scott has an excellent note on historical accuracy on her website, indicating that while she has done a tremendous amount of research (it shows in her wonderful descriptions of the religion and everyday life), she still took some liberties with the history, particularly with the Pharaoh who doesn’t appear on any list of kings. The bibliography of sources she lists is a nice start for anyone interested in learning more (even if, as a librarian, I wish she had included publisher and year information and/or links to an online bookstore).

Did I mention that this book is not just excellent but affordable? A full-length novel from Carina (and therefore only available in ebook form), Warrior of the Nile is only $1.99! While other books in the series appear to be set in the same world, they also are independent of one another, so you can break into the series at any point with impunity. I’ve already ordered the first book in the series, Priestess of the Nile about a singer who catches the eye of the Crocodile God in human form. Dancer of the Nile, the third book, will be published in October 2013, so if you find yourself liking Scott’s writing (and I think you will) you won’t have to wait long for the next installment.

Historical romance readers should definitely give Veronica Scott’s The Gods of Egypt series is a try as it delivers great characters, a rich setting, and strong plots filled with meddlesome gods and goddesses who love interfering with human lives. Happy Reading!

Temptation Bay by Anna Sullivan Delivers Angsty Romance and A Satisfying Mystery

10 Sep

Temptation Bay (Windfall Island #1) by Anna Sullivan (Forever Romance, September 3, 2013)

It’s been a looooonnnnnggg time since a romance novel actually delivered a mystery I couldn’t solve within the first thirty pages – which is probably why I was blown away by the complexity of the premise of new author Anna Sullivan’s first book in her Windfall Island series, Temptation Bay. This new offering gives us a flash of an intriguing mystery with roots in the bootlegging tradition of New England during the Depression, focusing on the present-day reality of an isolated Maine island and the eccentric citizens who live there.

Each book in the Windfall Island series opens with a chapter flashing back to a fateful night in the 1930s when a group of bootleggers smuggling illegal alcohol to and from a ship, the Perdition, watch from the shores as it suddenly explodes off the coast of their tiny Maine island. Having just delivered the booze and some of the partygoers, they are stunned at the thought of the many people now dead, and further astonished when a weak cry of an infant begins to emanate from the bow of their small boat. Someone, clearly from the ship, placed a baby girl – one with an expensive monogrammed blanket and a jeweled necklace – amidst the crates of gin, and the men must decide how to best to hide her since they are more than aware that they would appear complicit in the kidnapping were she to be found.

In the present day, pilot and owner of Temptation Bay’s only airport, Maggie Solomon, is due to pick up a lawyer from the mainland and ferry him to the island. Dexter Keegan is certainly easy on the eye and neither of them care to deny the instant spark between them, but Maggie doesn’t like outsiders, and a lawyer arriving past the tourist season means he’s investigating or suing one of her friends. Since Dexter pumps her for information at every opportunity, offering no information in return, Maggie is having none of it and he’s on his own.

Residents on these tiny Maine Islands couldn’t manage without the transportation (and delivery services) provided by independent pilots.

Dexter Keegan is not in fact a lawyer, but is instead a private investigator on the case of a lifetime. A wealthy family, having lost their baby girl during the Depression to a wayward nursemaid bent on a little Jazz Age partying, has never let go of the idea that the baby might have survived, with her possible descendants unaware that they are the heirs to a fortune. Solving such a cold case not only would result in a hefty finder’s fee but also would be the making of this former cop’s reputation, allowing him to establish his business and get him away from the cheating spouse/fraudulent insurance claim cases that are leaving him more jaded than he thought possible.

He also quickly realizes that he chose the wrong profession to impersonate, as none of these tough Yankees are about to open to anyone, particularly a lawyer. Every woman from eighteen to one foot in the grave want him in their bed except the beautiful, tough one who flew him in, and Maggie Solomon is the only one woman he dreams about. But her distrust of men and love seem well-earned when Dexter sees her military father attempt to garner press with his daughter in his bid for a Joint Chiefs position. It’s clear that this man has never accepted Maggie and when it’s revealed that he kicked her and her mother out of the house when she was a mere sixteen, well, that betrayal says it all. And while he’s definitely not out to fall in love, Dexter knows that he will do anything to breach those thick walls around Maggie to get into her bed in order to figure out just who exists under that tough layer.

Wow. Maggie is damaged-with-a-capital-D and this makes it hard going – it’s not so much as she’s unlikeable as she’s unbelievably prickly to the point of never being able to make herself vulnerable to Dex. Yet I still liked her and the insulated community of Windfall Island tremendously. The reason I would use “angsty” to describe the romance is because normally one walled off individual would mean the other half of the couple would be the type to storm the defenses and go all in – but we don’t get that with Dexter. He’s as hesitant and ignorant of his own feelings to the point where he steps in it again and again and you are forced to just watch the implosion, while muttering, “My God, what are you doing??” While all this killed me a little, the mystery and setting were so well done, I just hung in there for the great writing, which did result in a romance pay-off during the thrilling denouement. Wow again!

The story arc (and mystery) combining a kidnapped child and rum-running during the Great Depression will be compelling to mystery and historical readers alike, while the contemporary romance brings love into the present day.

This mystery is not only its own fantastic device, but provides the story arc for the entire series. The next book (a chapter or two of which is included at the tail end of this one) is Hideaway Cove, which will focus on Maggie best friend and business partner, Jessi, the plucky single mom trying to make ends meet. Genealogist and Southern sweet-talker Holden has already expressed an interest, but it will be great to see them both meet their match in this novel due to be published in late March of 2014.  Considering that both this hero and heroine are a lot less closed off than Maggie and Dexter (yet with their own baggage naturally), I’m hoping that the romance between them will be slightly less painful to read (yet still as satisfying to watch unfold).

If I have any criticism to offer, it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with Sullivan’s great writing or fantastic mystery, but rather needs to focus on her lack of marketing presence. In this day and age, I’m astonished to see a debut author of this caliber without a website or Twitter presence! Instead she merely has a basic Facebook author page and the minimum of information on her Goodreads account. I can’t help but notice that despite this book having been released on September 3rd, mine is only one of two ratings of the book on Goodreads (and this book was available via NetGalley as well)! With all the mediocre books being published, it’s unconscionable that one as well written as this – and by Forever Romance publishing, a division of Grand Central – would be unpromoted due to lack of a social presence. Please, Anna Sullivan, work on getting yourself out there! The romance world needs a voice like yours. Since Sullivan kindly cross promotes friend and author Ruth Ryan Langan, perhaps she can get some tips from her about these details (although Langan doesn’t have a Twitter presence either. What gives?)

[9/12/2013 – Publisher Forever Romance nicely contacted me via twitter to let me know that Anna Sullivan thankfully does have a webpage – http://annasullivanbooks.com/ – so I’m going to instead encourage her to get that link in her Facebook and Goodreads pages while fleshing those sources out a little more. Search Engine Optimization is also a must, since as a librarian, I’m pretty good with search engines and I could not find her site! Let’s get people finding you, Anna!]

Remember, Anna Sullivan, you write great mysteries but you shouldn’t be one to your readers. 🙂 You also write romance, so focus instead on making it easy for people to fall in love with you!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Deals You Might Have Missed, Week Ending September 8th

8 Sep

Upcoming Books (and some Great Deals)

Fans of Lynsay SandsArgeaneau Vampires series should take special note that Amazon has the paper version of the next book – One Lucky Vampire – deeply discounted at only $4.79 for this pre-order which will debut on September 24th. With the Kindle price above $6 it would be well worth getting the print copy for this latest addition to the long-running paranormal series.

Also part of this discounted group of upcoming novels is Julia Quinn‘s The Sum of All Kisses, the third book in her Smythe-Smith Quartet. This tale of an estranged couple reunited through circumstances only to find that the fire between them still burns hot is already a best-seller in the historical romance category on Amazon, even though it won’t be published until October 29th. Maybe it’s not just Quinn fans but bargain hunters snapping it up since this book is also priced at $4.79 right now.

Another great writer in the paranormal romance category is Gena Showalter and her Otherworld Assassins series (which I haven’t tackled) is now added to my to-read list with the soon-to-be-published book in the series, Black and Blue. The second novel in a series focusing on a paranormal black ops group and the romantic interests who bring them into the light, this book also bears the fantastic price of $4.79 for the print version, but you won’t get it until it’s release date of October 22nd.

If you are like me, you love Nora Roberts, particularly when she crosses over to the dark side. As of October 29th and just in time for Halloween, Roberts debuts the first book in her Cousins O’Dwyer series, Dark Witch, featuring an American who finds relatives and possibly the love of her life in Ireland only to have to face sinister forces determined to undermine her chance at happiness. Sadly this book isn’t part of the discounted pre-orders, and with the Kindle version at $7.99 versus the paperback price of $9.99, e-reader owners will save a little money.

Contests and Giveaways

I’m always wistful that there aren’t more historical romances set in the early twentieth century since it’s such an interesting time period, so I was excited to see the Goodreads giveaway of Kate Furnivall‘s Shadows on the Nile combining family secrets, impoverished aristocrats and sinister Egyptian artifacts in these early decades. Enter by September 15th to see if you can win a copy before its official release date of October 1st.

Lara Adrian‘s Midnight Breed series definitely has a big following, so fans might enjoy trying to win a copy of the prequel novella, A Touch of Midnight, featuring Gideon and Savannah’s story, as well as also winning some featured swag from the author! Enter the Goodreads giveaway by September 13th. The series now also has a companion book detailing the characters and world of the series, The Midnight Breed Companion, which you can also win if you enter before September 10th.

Mary Balogh‘s The Survivors Club series partners historical romance with damaged heroes and the women who finally pull them into the world, and the second full-length book, The Arrangement, is no exception. Published on August 27th, this book features a war hero battling his demons who is moved to a marriage of convenience when a woman standing up for him has her safety and reputation threatened. Enter the Goodreads giveaway before September 10th to see if you can win this novel.

It seems to be a fact of the romance world that – like Dukes in historical romances – there can never be too many billionaires. J. S. Scott is hosting a giveaway of a collection of four novels in her self-published The Billionaire’s Obsession series. Enter by September 11th to win. This collection could easily go in the “Great Deals” section as well, since all four books can be had for a mere $.99 for the ebook collection, so if you don’t win, it’s hardly a splurge to enjoy them!

A lot of romance readers also love mystery novels, particularly those with a strong romantic element, and Tasha Alexander‘s Lady Emily series is one of my top picks in this category. With the eighth book debuting on October 1st, Behind the Shattered Glass, we have the chance to see Lady Emily and her oh-so-sexy spy husband Colin, use their sleuthing partnership to see who murdered a Marquess on the cusp of his engagement. If you can’t wait for publication (or simply want to see if you can get it earlier), do yourself a favor and enter the giveaway before September 12th. (By the way, did you ever wonder about Emily and Colin’s wedding? Enjoy the free short story online which serves as a prequel to Tears of the Pearl.)

Fun Stuff

You know how I think the Good Men Project is a gold mine of great writing, and the post I read this week – Dads and Bras by William Lucas Walker – not only had tears running down my face from laughing at how difficult it is for a wonderful dad to support his blooming daughter in selecting foundation undergarments, but it simultaneously renewed my faith in smart parents who realize that the community of adults surrounding their children will enrich that child’s life in all ways. And yes, Mr. Walker, Spanx is a bizarre name for underwear, when you really think about it!

I think the first couple who I adored seeing live happily ever after (with all the highs and lows that this involves) was Anne and Gilbert Blythe, who were clearly meant for each other the minute Gilbert teased Anne to breaking a slate over his head in the one-room schoolhouse on Prince Edward Island. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series is legendary children’s literature, and I consider her an author who taught me that good literature has plenty of detail to show that ordinary life (and love is extraordinary). Enjoy this trip down memory lane as The Hairpin blog celebrates 105 years of book covers for this iconic novel.

Author Damon Suede has a fantastic post about the history of tropes in literature which for romance readers is fascinating – how many of us skim the publisher blurb to determine if this a “secret baby” or “friends to lovers” novel before buying it? In his post at Romance University, Suede explains to us that the use of tropes to communicate with readers or listeners goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks who knew way ahead of time how things were going to end (and in their stories, it was usually badly!).

That’s it for this week (the Good Deals were laced throughout), so I hope you have a terrific week of reading! Enjoy!

Love & Rugby Combine to Make Kat Latham’s Knowing the Score a Win

5 Aug

Knowing the Score (London Legends #1 – Spencer and Caitlyn) by Kat Latham (Carina Press, August 5, 2013)

I love a great sports romance, probably because it’s almost impossible to find a hero who isn’t incredibly confident and physically fit (six packs are a given, right?). Add to that the intricacies of a specific game and the challenges to a relationship with a public figure and you have a built-in conflict for the couple to overcome. Perfect.

That said, the best sports romances are the ones where the writer is damn smart about whatever game they have chosen as a focus. I don’t need a rulebook, but show me that you know your sport and that world becomes that much more believable. Great sports romance writers like Jaci Burton in her Play-by-Play series, Jill Shalvis’ Pacific Heat books, and most recently Alison Packard embarking on her new series featuring the San Francisco Blaze baseball team, all have that combination of intelligent detail and heartfelt emotion that make their books a winner.

Well, ladies, you’ve got one more member in the clubhouse, and she comes with a decidedly international flair. Kat Latham has just had her first book published by Carina Press, Knowing the Score, and MY GOD, it’s fantastic! Latham, a California native who lives in the Netherlands with her British husband, has traveled all of the world working as a writer for nonprofits specializing in human rights. I’m going to go out on a limb that she’s probably a pretty terrific person based on her altruistic interests and the fact that she sounds nice on her blog. Did I mention she just had a baby in April? What can this woman not do?

Knowing the Score could not have a more terrific premise. Spencer Bailey is a rugby superstar still haunted by an incident in his long distant past. Abandoned by his mom to the care of his grandparents, he’s horrified when his elderly grandfather is in the hospital from a heart attack. Luckily some good samaritan happened across him and gave him CPR until the ambulance arrived. When the curly haired redhead appears in the hospital room, Spencer is ready to do what it takes to get this gorgeous creature in his bed. He has strict rules that he only has sex in the off-season so as not to distract him from rugby (or chance a scandal while he’s playing) and the clock is ticking.

Caitlyn Sweeney may be a twenty-seven year old virgin, but she’s no fool. Spencer is sex-on-a-stick and she has no idea that he’s famous, despite walking past his underwear billboard advertisement everyday. If she can just turn off the negative voices and fear in her head, she knows that he would turn her on like a lightbulb, but she’s not sure that she’s capable of working past all the baggage she’s carried around for years. Her job at an international aid organization is rewarding but her Visa expires in December, so when she hears that Spencer is more than happy to patiently coax her along and that he only wants something for the off-season, it’s the perfect answer to her “rid me of this hymen already” prayers!

Rugby – full-contact, no padding, and lots of mud with men in shorts. What’s not to love?

What neither expect is how much they end up liking and admiring one another. And that feeling, combined with the trust and intimacy involved with the physical side of their relationship, results in both of them falling fast without knowing if there’s a real future with each other. Add to the mix that both Spencer and Caitlyn are keeping some pretty big secrets in reserve and this happily ever after might go off the rails quickly.

I cannot say enough about how much I adored this book! Spencer was wicked sexy, a man scarred by his past errors in judgment, who is so clearly smitten with Caitlyn (her obliviousness regarding his fame and his sport delights him) that he’s often unsure as to what he’s actually feeling. Caitlyn has had a crap childhood followed by a pretty awful young adulthood so – unlike too many of these stories involving older modern virgins – it’s very understandable that she’s waited until now to trust someone enough to have sex with them. I loved her work as well as her modesty and anyone reading this book has to also appreciate the delightful character of Spencer’s elderly grandfather, who is adorable in his machinations.

This book represents the first in a series, London Legends, and all I can say is THANK YOU!!! I’m not sure I could manage this novel as a one-off. Please note that ebook readers usually start you at the first page, which means that you’ve missed the introductory note from the author where she gives you some vocabulary regarding rugby. Unless you are a rugby aficionado, I suggest you read it before you start, otherwise you’re going to be more than a little lost. (A hooker is not what you think it is.)

I’ve got all my fingers and toes crossed I won’t have to wait too long for the next book in this series. Knowing the Score is going into my reread pile, for sure, and at a mere three dollars and change I would say every sports romance enthusiast needs to get off their bum and purchase this ebook post-haste.

Many thanks to Kat Latham for writing such a terrific romance!

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Deals You Might Have Missed, Week of July 28th

28 Jul

Upcoming Books

The latest book in the steampunk series The Ether Chronicles by Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso is due out on August 6th and Skies of Gold is already getting great reviews from ARC readers. At only $1.99 for over 350 pages, steampunk readers need to be asking themselves why they haven’t pre-ordered this one already.

Jaci Burton, the author of the wonderful Play-by-Play series, now has the next book on her roster available for pre-order. Hope Flames will be the first book in her new Hope series, with a pairing between a damaged veterinarian and a K-9 cop. With a release date of September 3rd, I’ve already got this one both pre-ordered and in my calendar. Love the German Shepherd on the cover!

lethal pursuit copyKaylea Cross now has the third book in her wonderful Bagram Special Ops series available for pre-order and Lethal Pursuit looks to be another hot pairing from this military suspense maven. Coming out on September 16th, Cross is not only talented but affordable, so I’ve already ordered my copy, considering it $3.03 well spent.

 

Fun Stuff

Quirk Books has put together a pretend collection of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Flavors based on popular books, and it’s hilarious. You’ll find yourself wishing you could settle down with the latest release and a pint of “Berry Potter and the Container of Secrets.”

Amanda at Vampire Book Club has put together a short list of her favorite urban fantasy and paranormal beach reads that’s worth checking out if you’re wondering what goes with sunblock and your big towel this summer.

Fabulous writer Cynthia Eden is knuckling down to write a holiday themed novella and is polling her readers as to whether they want a romantic suspense story or a paranormal one. Vote on her Facebook fan page with your preference!

Romance novels are feminist works. Not sure? Listen to the podcast at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books where Sarah Wendell interviews two sociologists, Dr. Joanna Gregson and Dr. Jen Lois embarking on a research project focusing on the interactions of romance readers and writers.

One of the best parts about reading category romance is how totally ludicrous it often is. A good writer will help you suspend that disbelief, at least enough for you to immerse yourself in the the dirty goodness that is category, but occasionally you stumble across a “whaa???” novel. For a laugh out loud parsing of the missable Enemies at the Altar, take a gander at guest blogger and Ph.D. candidate Jodi from Book Thingo’s hilarious analysis. Make sure you pee first.

Did you know that Amazon sells refurbished Kindles of all types? I shouldn’t be surprised (I got my Macbook through Apple’s refurbished site and it’s wonderful and a great deal), but this is a great way for someone to afford that Paperwhite or Fire they’ve been eyeing for a while.

Great Deals

Writers and publishers are not giving up on these amazing bundles of books for a pittance (so you know they are helping sales). Loving the CEO is a great collection of five novels by different authors, all with the theme of breaking down the barriers of a business tycoon and finding love. Over 1000 pages for only $.99 and you get a romance trope in several flavors. Yum.

The always brilliant Tessa Bailey is offering the third book in her Line of Duty series, Officer Off Limits, for only $.99! You do not need to have read the other books to appreciate every word of this one, so trot over and buy this author who I cannot get enough of.

Harlequin is offering a motherload of great deals on a ton of their ebooks with participating retailers, with authors like Maureen Child, Cindy Spencer Pape, and Michelle Willingham having free or heavily discounted titles available. All of their various lines are represented, so go to their Facebook page to drool over the titles and see if there’s anything there that floats your boat. I made a note of the ones I wanted and then hustled over to Amazon to “buy” them at zero dollars. I love books like that!

Another great romance trope is the “bodyguard” idea (even that sounds sexy) and there’s now a bundle of five books covering this corner of romantic suspense. Once again, $.99 is a great deal even if you just end up enjoying one or two of them, so if you are like me and enjoy the idea of an oh-so-hot guy whose job is to…um…guard your body, you might want to check this out.

If you read this blog, you are more than aware of my love for sports books, so an ebook that contains the first book in three different trilogies is a terrific way for me to sample some new authors of the genre. V. K. Sykes, Juliana Stone and Jennifer Lyons offer both male and female (!) sports protagonists in their ebook bundle Play Hard to fulfill my need for a little healthy competition. And yes, it’s only $.99 for 550 pages.

Have a super week reading!

Men Are Like Basketball Players, They Dribble A Little Before They Shoot: The Future of Condoms in Romance Novels

12 Jul

heartcondom_127721723

In a meeting last year in my local chapter of the Romance Writers Association, I was fascinated to hear some of the published authors discuss how much they hated having to write condoms into sex scenes. Some of them thought it interrupted the flow of the moment, others thought it was a pregnancy or disease reminder that the reader shouldn’t have.

But some of them, like me, were appalled at the idea that there would be sexual intimacy without them. Maybe it is the fact that I came of age in the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties, or perhaps it’s the fact that I majored in reproductive physiology, but if a guy doesn’t reach for a condom before having sex with a heroine, I classify him as a lunatic, asshole or shifter.

Dental dams – a small sheet of latex which allows for sensation but prevents the exchange of bodily fluids – come in all flavors.

In fact, many of the publishing houses, particularly the ones specializing in erotica, actually have the issue of condoms in their writing guidelines or editors will informally push for their inclusion – you HAVE to write them in. While the inference is that their inclusion is to model safe sex, the reality is that this is simply pregnancy prevention. I have yet to read oral sex scenes involving either gender where a barrier is part of the equation. Dental dams should be used on women (plastic wrap works great in a pinch) and condoms should be always be used when performing oral sex on a man. When they aren’t, as much as I try and suspend my disbelief and enjoy the writing, the back of my brain is actually shouting, “What about gonorrhea of the throat?!” or “Hello, herpes!”

In romance writing, there is the automatic assumption that the protagonists of a romance novel are automatically disease free, probably because having diseases doesn’t seem sexy (even though I’m sure there are lots of sexy people who are living with HIV and having great protected sex with their partners). Even if the hero is a the master of the one-night stand and has them all the time, readers are given the distinct impression that he has never, ever been without a condom, even if he chooses to go without this time. My favorite books are the ones where, in the heat of the moment, the couple draws away panting to have a brief conversation about the last time they got checked at the doctor’s office (thank heavens for the military and their stringent medical screening – what would all those SEALs do otherwise for information?) and how they haven’t been with anyone since then. The heroine indicates she’s using another method of contraception and then clothes fly…let the hot sex begin!

Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal or, the Problem with Penis Size

Shrimp sizing. The more you look, the more they appear like little penises, don’t they?

Back when I was a teaching assistant for the class “Contraception: Today and Tomorrow,” the professor and I would naturally go over all the available methods of contraception while detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each. One of the biggest problems with condoms (and there are more, detailed in the next section) is that the best condom is one which fits the penis well. Ideally this would mean that the man would buy a size of condom appropriate for his penis size, but while your high school boyfriend might not have minded buying a Hanes for Men t-shirt in a size small, there are few men who are comfortable reaching for the small size in a box of condoms!

Condom manufacturers actually looked at the shrimp industry *suppresses snicker* for sizing inspiration. The majority of shrimp sold are classified as Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal because, hey, shrimp people clearly have a wicked sense of humor. But it was still a no go. Kind of like me when I don’t want to look to find my size on the back of the Spanx package, men didn’t want the Trojans box to tell them they were merely Jumbo or the smallest size. Manufacturers stuck with one size fits all, only making an “extra large” size for the above average man.

Even that “extra large” size may be the same size or only a centimeter larger than the brands regular condom, so it’s not a guarantee of comfort and fit. Yet fit is vital. A condom that is too tight will not only uncomfortable to wear and decrease the ability to sustain an erection (and therefore be less likely to be used) but also is more likely to break in the midst of sex. Similarly, a condom that has too much room is far, far more likely to slip off (I had a friend in college who got pregnant that way). The need for condoms to match penis size is vital.

How Big Is the Average Man’s Penis and Can You Believe That These Research Conclusions Are Necessary?

meter-106419_640Just two days ago, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study Erect Penile Length and Circumference Dimensions of 1,661 Sexually Active Men in the United States which asked men to measure their erect penises (yes, the men did the measuring). The erect penises ranged between 4 and 26 cm or, for you non-metric folks, 1.57 inches to 10.23 inches. Can’t you imagine men feeling better about giving the measurement in centimeters? It’s like vanity sizing in dresses for women. The mean erect penis (no, it wasn’t angry, it’s another name for the mathematical construct of “average” but average is a word you don’t want to use with penises either) was 14.15 cm or 5.7 inches and the mean circumference of erect penises was 12.23 cm or 4.8 inches.

Interestingly, the researchers wanted to note any differences between how the subjects obtained their erect penis (I’m not making this up) and determined that men who used masturbation or hand play with a partner had smaller erect penises than those who received oral sex from a partner. This reminds me a lot of those “academic studies” proving that college students like to drink beer. Doesn’t really come as a shock, does it?

The Problem with Condoms, or LOTS of Problems with Condoms

basketball-100731_640Since people of my generation and younger have a synonymous association with condoms and sex (I hope), it often comes as a shock when you suggest that the condom has major flaws. I’m in NO WAY suggesting that they shouldn’t be used but people often place more confidence in condoms than they deserve. Back in college, I and many of my smart women friends would insist on the use of condoms along with another method of contraception – condoms and the Pill, condoms and vaginal sponges, condoms and spermicidal foam – you get the picture. This is because while condoms have a theoretical efficacy rate of 98% if used perfectly, the real efficacy rate factoring in user error is closer to 85%.

A large part of this error has to do with ignorance regarding the male sexual arousal process, specifically around what in romance novels is called “pre-cum” or that small amount of semen exuded on the tip of the penis as the man gets an erection. When I would do the condom lecture, I liked to emphasize that if that condom was going anywhere near someone else’s bodily fluids, it needed a condom on it, because:

A man is like a basketball player; he dribbles a little before he shoots.

When you see the problems people encounter using condoms, this adage immediately becomes highly relevant. That pre-ejaculate may or may not have sperm in it (studies vary on this with results showing both conditions) and it certainly can carry disease like any bodily fluid. The other types of mistakes in condom use comes from fumbling with latex condoms and/or getting caught up in the heat of the moment and making a mistake. For example, common condom mistakes are:

  • using them for only part of intercourse (never a good idea);
  • starting to roll the condom on the wrong way, and then flipping it over rather than using a new condom depositing the pre-ejaculate on the OUTSIDE of the condom;
  • not leaving room in the tip of the condom, which could cause it to burst;
  • using a too small (breaking issues) or too large condom (slippage);
  • not holding onto the condom while withdrawing.

Other more serious issues include a latex allergy or chemical sensitivity (to the lubricants used or to the spermicide on most condoms) or in many countries of the world, condom shortages which make them hard to get. With 15 billion condoms manufactured each year and 750 million people using them, that seems hard to believe, but it’s a major concern, particularly for countries still struggling economically or dealing with governments who do not support contraception or STI prevention.

The Condom of the Future

Enter the philanthropic team of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation. The Gates Foundation has my undying admiration for taking on all of the unsexy problems of the world (i.e., the ones that will never make money for anyone but affect millions of people) and tackling them one by one, approaching each problem with entrepreneurial spirit and encouraging outside of the box solutions. Because of the foundation’s intense focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and cures, condoms have naturally received a lot of attention from them. Back in March 2013, the Gates Foundation announced a $100,000 prize for the invention of a better and more pleasurable condom. Yes – more pleasurable – because the way to get people to use them is to make them feel good while doing it.

The various types of Orgami condoms, made from flexible silicone which has tactile accordion pleats to extend or contract to whatever size necessary and offer maximum sensation during intercourse.

The current frontrunner is the Orgami condom. I know, the name makes me think of folded paper swans too, but their condom concept is brilliant. Rather than using allergy inducing latex, Orgami condoms are made with the far more stable silicone. Size is no longer an issue as the accordion pleats in the material expand or contract to whatever size necessary. There is no unrolling, just a quick slide and the person is ready to go. You’ll notice there are three pictured here: the male condom (made with a larger tip to eliminate reservoir pinching), the female condom (designed for female pleasure as well as disease prevention and contraception) and the RAI Condom which is for anal intercourse, a particularly vulnerable act when discussing disease prevention, due to the lack of lubrication in this area which can lead to microinjuries.  All of Origami’s condoms are internally lubricated, meaning that the sensation provided to the penetrator mimics the heightened sensation of actual intercourse. Take a look at their informative video and tell me you’re not convinced.

Ms. French Manicure is a little naughty in this video, yes? Yet the brilliance of the product shines through. It’s hard not to imagine this condom feeling good for all parties involved, transforming it from a necessary toiletry to fun sex toy. That attitude change would definitely help sales and usage! What’s amazing is that Origami has been restricted by FCC regulations regarding television and radio from accurately advertising their product (when was the last condom ad you saw?), making it extremely difficult to get the word out. It’s hard to imagine a society where we can showcase sex in all its forms in video but can’t have a commercial advertising prophylactics, but that’s the United States. Origami’s condoms are expected to be available on the market in late 2014 or early 2015, pending regulatory approvals, according to their video press release.

Condoms in the Romance Genre: What’s the Future?

With condoms like this in the picture, designed to enhance everyone’s pleasure, I think the future is bright for the inclusion of them into the literature. Still common enough in novels, imagine how sexual partners would feel when the other person produces not just a condom but a super-duper pleasure inducing one? These condoms, which will undoubtedly be more expensive than the latex variety, will become de rigeur for the uber-rich heroes of the Harlequin Presents line (although there were be fewer secret babies), be issued along with a SIG Sauer to members of yet another elite professional security firm, or be the fantasy focus of that quiet heroine desperate to unleash her inner vixen.

While I would never recommend that authors write specifically to educate, I think we cannot deny the fact that romance fiction is likely to be a profound source of sexual education to its readers. Only 65% of high schools and middle schools taught about condom efficacy (see the above failure rate) and a mere 39% taught students how to use a condom. Keep in mind that these statistics are for the schools not adopting an abstinence only health education approach (about 23% of all schools in the U.S.) or the many private schools whose religions affiliation would also preclude this information. This is a lot of people who are becoming adults with NO formal health education surrounding condom use. I’ve always considered the romance genre to be one of the few outlets which encourages women to set high expectations regarding healthy relationships and sexual pleasure, but with numbers like the above I’m beginning to worry that popular magazines and our brand of fiction probably reach a larger number of readers who have gone without vital information about condoms and other aspects of their reproductive health.

So let’s keep this in mind, shall we, writers and editors? The next time you are confronted with a hero or heroine about to engage in sex, make sure that some thought of condoms are part of the equation. Having them think about them might very well help someone else also ponder that decision the next time they are ready for a little romance in their life.

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