Tag Archives: Romance novel

December Read-a-Thon: Put a Little Cowboy in Your Holiday with Cowboys & Angels by Vicki Lewis Thompson

27 Dec

Cowboys & Angels (Sons of Chance #13 – Trey and Elle) by Vicki Lewis Thompson (Harlequin Blaze, December 1, 2013)

There is a lot to love about Vicki Lewis Thompson – she’s an expert at writing heroes who aren’t bruising alphas (but who don’t lack sexiness or conviction); she’s phenomenally versatile with contemporary, paranormal, military and western books in her oeuvre; she’s prolific so fans never have to wait long before another great book of hers comes down the pike; and she seems like a great person, as evidenced by the love of family and animals expressed on her Facebook and Twitter accounts.

This holiday season, she’s given us yet another reason to appreciate her with the thirteenth installment of her wonderful western series, the Sons of Chance.

Based on the group of siblings who run a horse breeding operation and ranch not far from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Sons of Chance series not only focuses on the Chance siblings but also on their extended family, friends and ranch hands. Thompson writes these books so you can easily pick up one and understand everything (although be warned you’ll find the secondary characters interesting enough that you’ll go out and find their books to read after sampling them in a few pages).

In Cowboys & Angels, Trey Wheeler has never stopped looking for his angel. Last spring, distracted from a bad breakup with his girlfriend, he lost control of his car and ended up thrown into a snowbank. A woman rescued him – a blond angel with blue eyes and a musical voice – but he never discovered her name and his concussion made it hard to remember exactly what she looked like. After months of looking, he still hasn’t given up hope, but to commemorate her saving him he had a pair of angel’s wings tattooed on his arm.

In Jackson Hole for the wedding of longstanding friends (who have booked an entire ski resort for the weekend to the delight of the Chance family and their friends), he’s shocked to be in the local gift shop and hear the voice of his angel. One good look at her and he feels like he has another concussion – she’s gorgeous, modest about helping him, and a ski instructor at the resort. Elle Masterson is the total package and Trey’s already halfway to being in love with her. Too bad she’s looking at him like he’s a card short of a full deck.

Harlequin Blaze December 2013 Bundle – a terrific deal at only $9.99 for almost 700 pages of killer Blaze novels and anthologies.

Elle immediately recognizes the cowboy she helped out of a snowbank and into a hospital. His accident happened right before she left for her summer job teaching skiing in Argentina, but she’s back for her shift in Jackson Hole. He’s even better looking than she remembered (and that’s saying something) but his gratitude and the fact that he had brokenly called for a woman when he was injured tells Elle that Trey is a full-throttle kind of guy, and with her life split over two continents for her job, she can’t do anything but casual. Still, Trey doesn’t give up and a combination of the fact that he’s a great musician – who wrote her a song back when she was his anonymous angel, for goodness sake – and that he delivers knee-weakening kisses make her throw her “no relationships with guests” rule to the wind. But she’s worried that she’ll be nothing but heartache to a man who can’t give less than everything and that she’ll discover that the heart she’s guarded for so long can definitely be broken.

OMG – I love it that a common trope in Thompson’s work is the heroine who is definitely not ready for a long-term relationship, either because she’s been burned in the past or because her career is at a place where it’s hard to fit in. It’s always impressive that in the length of a category romance novel (which we all know isn’t long) she manages to give us enough backstory on Elle to understand her tough family situation and how she’s worked hard all her life to not get attached to people or places. That pathology forms an understandable barrier when it comes to resisting Trey and she’s only half-successful, because – my God – who could resist him? He’s such a romantic and the perfect gentlemen (respectful to women at all times and a tiger in the sack – yowza). Trey is tailor-made for breaking down Elle’s defenses and I liked that her epiphany was a little slow in coming, with the perfect denouement occurring at Christmas on the ranch.

Cowboys & Angels is a fantastic western holiday novel which moves quickly and to an excellent resolution. Keep in mind that Harlequin is also offering it as part of a four-novel holiday bundle for only $9.99, which includes Tawny Weber’s Naughty Christmas Nights as well as the anthology A Soldier’s Christmas featuring a wonderful reunion story by Leslie Kelly. Just the novel by itself will only set you back around $3.00, so either deal is a great holiday bargain.

Give yourself a hot, romantic cowboy for the holiday with this fantastic book from Vicki Lewis Thompson. You’ll find very quickly that you’re in the mood for country. 😉

Happy reading!

Over at Romance Novels in Color Today…

29 Nov

Hey, everyone! I’ve been fortunate enough to be offered a reviewer position at Romance Novels in Color, a website dedicated to highlighting romance novels which possess diversity in their heroes or heroines. I’ve loved getting their newsletter for a while, so it’s especially nice to add my own two cents. Sadly, I didn’t love my first book that I reviewed, but I was happy to do it! I think it will be fun to have the occasional post over there and I’ll be sure to link to it from here when I do.

Take a look at my post for the menage story of Relax, Bell by Lou Lou Winters or poke around the site to see what else is on there that might add to your Black Friday deals today. 🙂

Tonya Burrows Has Not One But TWO Great Series in HORNET and Wilde Security

5 Nov

SEAL of Honor (HORNET #1) by Tonya Burrows (Entangled Select, May 28, 2013)

I’m beginning to make Entangled a go-to publisher since I’ve yet to read a bad (or even a mediocre) book from these folks. With authors like Tessa Bailey, Gina Maxwell, Laura Kaye, and Samanthe Beck, they’ve earned quite a bit of my trust in finding outstanding fresh new voices in romance fiction, writers who combine emotion, intelligence, and singe the sheets sex for an unbeatable combination. Bless you, Entangled!

I now have another author to add to my pre-order pile, the wonderful Tonya Burrows. While I am classifying her under romantic suspense since each of her books has a strongly written suspense plot, military romance fans will find much to love as each hero is a former member of the armed forces.

But this author, who only began publishing this past May, has emerged with one not but TWO interrelated series – her HORNET series featuring a mercenary group made up of a hodge-podge of wounded males practically bleeding testosterone (yum) and her Wilde Security series about five brothers, orphaned at a young age, who one-by-one finally find the women meant to cut through their respective shells.

Let’s cover these in order, shall we?

SEAL of Honor – #1 in the HORNET series

Gabe Bristow definitely feels like his life is scraping rock bottom. Surviving a horrible car accident along with his best friend has left both of them without the direction of their SEAL careers and Gabe has to get around with a cane much of the time adding insult to his injury. Goaded by that same best friend, Quinn, Gabe agrees to take a job with a private mercenary hostage rescue group and quickly finds himself with a job.

Unfortunately he also has a motley team (at least Quinn is his XO), many with rather checkered pasts, who have had zero training time together. A billionaire has been kidnapped in Columbia and the insurance company has hired HORNET to get him back so they won’t have to pay his hefty $60 million insurance policy. Praying that his fledgling team can work well together, Gabe is astonished when he arrives on the ground to come face to face with a gorgeous and terrified woman, the victim’s baby sister, Audrey Van Amee.

Honor Reclaimed (HORNET #2) by Tonya Burrows (Entangled, May 27, 2014)

Audrey may be a free spirited artist living on the beach in Costa Rica and shunning all her brother’s attempts to support her, but he and his family are still all the family she’s got. With her fluency in Spanish and possessing the last clues of his disappearance (they were videoconferencing when he was taken), she wants to figure out how she can best help. Scared out of her mind after a group of burly military types break into her brother’s apartment and then knock her unconscious was not how she pictured the calvary arriving, but now that she knows of their existence, she’s determined to stick close. And sticking close to their leader, Gabe, is hardly a problem. She’s not sure she even likes him, but, boy, do they have chemistry in spades.

Gabe is more than aware of his chemistry with Audrey but getting involved with her while on a mission would not only be unprofessional but she’s the forever type and his outlook won’t let that be part of his future. He may be an okay brother, but with parents like his, he has no role model for being a good husband in a relationship. Yet as the case tightens around them both, they can’t help but succumb to the heat between them, even knowing that Gabe will feel the need to just walk away.

Gabe is the uptight, uber-Alpha with a mushy center when it comes to the right woman, and the fun, direct, artistic Audrey is definitely the right woman. It’s impossible not to fall for them both, particularly when, from the moment they meet, the air between them becomes combustible. Don’t believe me? Check out the entry I made for Entangled Brazen’s #dirtytalker Appreciation Month (and this book didn’t even come out under the Brazen line, but it should have):

Burrows, SEAL of Honor

*Fans self* Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to get a glass of water. Feeling better? Great. But there is going to be more, so I’m just warning you to brace yourself. 🙂

The first novel does an outstanding job setting up the rest of the series, with clear personality sketches for each member of the crew – a crew who carries so much collective baggage that it’s a wonder their mercenary group doesn’t need an additional plane for missions. SEAL of Honor not only possesses two smokin’ hot, sympathetic lead characters, but secondary characters to drool over while a taut romantic suspense plot unravels in interesting directions. What’s not to love? The next book will feature the man not even on the team roster yet, the much debated Seth Harlan, a phenomenal sniper just about broken from his torture and captivity. His book is entitled Honor Reclaimed and will come out in May 2014. And yes, I have already pre-ordered it.

Wilde Nights in Paradise (Wilde Security #1)

Wilde Nights in Paradise (Wilde Security #1 – Jude and Libby) by Tonya Burrows (Entangled Brazen, June 2013)

Jude Wilde is the baby of the family and it shows in his devil-may-care attitude and his shit-starting ability. While he acts like nothing ever affects him and he’s not about to get serious about life, there was one thing in his life he was once incredibly serious about, Libby Pruitt. A beautiful college student when he met her, he screwed their relationship up royally and has had to live without the one person he wanted more than anything for eight years. Now out of the Marines and working with his brothers, he’s startled to see her father and his former commander walk through the door with the announcement that Jude is the only one who can protect his daughter.

Libby is a successful assistant ADA but somewhere along the line she seems to have acquired a determined stalker. Believing it to be tied to a case soon to go to trial (and whose defendant is currently out on bail), her high-handed father has taken it upon himself to hire a bodyguard. Once Libby would have no problem handing over her body to Jude Wilde for guarding (or anything else), but his cheating on her after he had proposed two days before put the kibosh on her girlish dreams. Yet her father is right – being seen in Jude’s company simply looks like they’ve gotten back together – and an obvious attempt on her life while with Jude convinces her to accept his protection. But she doesn’t have to like it.

Yet both of them head to the house of Gabe’s sniper friend Seth Harlan (see the second book in the HORNET series above) in Key West to wait out Libby’s case posing undercover as a reclusive honeymooning couple. Despite her firm intentions, Libby can’t be around Jude without having him awaken all those lustful feelings like when she first met him. That’s exactly what Jude wants, and he’s determined to break down all Libby’s defenses in order to have a second chance at a relationship with her. She’s determined that any physical fling between them would be “just sex” and he’s just as determined to use all his talents to prove to her that they are meant to be together. And that eight-year-old fire between them? If anything it’s hotter. Here’s my entry for the #DirtyTalker entry for this book:

Burrows Wilde Nights 1

Oh, it is so worth it, let me tell you! Jude was as much a victim as Libby was all those years ago, and seeing these two fight to get Libby’s trust back is nothing short of heart-warming. As seen above, the sex scenes are certainly sheets-warming, 😉 so you get everything with Wilde Nights in Paradise – a reunion romance, hot sex in a romantic setting, and some pulse-pounding moments when the real danger to Libby emerges.

Wilde for Her (Wilde Security #2)

Wilde for Her (Wilde Security #2 – Eva and Cam) by Tonya Burrows (Entangled Brazen, October 28, 2013)

Wilde for Her actually opens on Libby and Jude’s wedding in Key West (and you’ll be interested to note that Gabe and Audrey from SEAL of Honor as well as Seth Harlan are all in attendance) with Cam Wilde standing up as groomsman with Jude as Libby comes down the aisle. Cam has brought his best friend and former cop partner, Eva Cardoso as his date, and seeing Eva dressed uncharacteristically in a sexy dress is twisting Cam up inside, giving him all kinds of naughty ideas. But he’s a player and Eva means too much to him to mess up their relationship. Right?

Eva had all her naughty thoughts about Cam when he first became her partner years ago, but after determining he wasn’t interested she put them all aside and simply valued him as her best friend. Having recently broken up with her boyfriend after realizing that he didn’t want to get married, she wants everything her mother never valued – marriage, children and security – and doesn’t plan on being with a man who doesn’t feel the same way. But being confronted with that same ex in the hotel bar – with his fiancee – deals her a serious blow to the ego. He just didn’t want to marry her and Cam decides to take her mind off her problems by daring her to a round of the most horrifying shots she can swallow. She accepts and, their inhibitions lowered, you can guess what takes place:

Burrows Wilde for Her

The sex between them is mind-blowing, but Eva – completely freaked out by how amazing it was – sneaks off the next morning, leaving a naked Cam to get kicked out by housekeeping, making him totally livid. Back in DC, he realizes that he is going to have to play it cool to make sure Eva doesn’t bolt on everything they might be able to be to each other. But wooing her takes backstage to the fact that someone has taken out a hit on Cam, and when that fact intersects with a case Eva is working, Cam is in a tight spot of wanting to protect the woman who means everything to him while not losing her with his deception.

Ohmigod. Where to begin with this one? Friends to lovers is one of my favorite tropes so this was actually the first Tonya Burrows book I read (and I think I was a third of the way through it when I went and bought the other two), so I was so on board with Eva and Cam getting together. We get to know the brothers much better in this book, particularly Cam’s dickish alpha twin, Vaughn (who I’m praying will be the love interest of the next book!) and it’s clear Cam and Eva are perfect for each other. This is in part because they are two of the most oblivious, stubborn people I know, so I’m really pulling for pre-marital counseling that helps them work out their communication issues. I swear, there were so many times I wanted to smack Cam – he of all people must understand Eva’s background and her insecurities yet he never comes out and says he (the notorious player) actually wants a serious relationship with her? WTF, Cam? It’s a good thing you are so freaking sexy and such a good guy otherwise I’d be pulling for the hit man. (Do yourself a favor and go over to Burrows’ website to take a look at her dossier – complete with pictures – of the various brothers. But take that cold drink you got a few paragraphs ago with you.)

There is no way that you don’t want more (lots more) of this series, with Vaughn clearly entangled with the woman Eva’s ex left her for and Eva’s just-pulling-it-together younger sister, Shelby, identifying the mystery man in the coffee shop who regularly eye-fucks her as being none other than Cam’s brother, Reece. Nice connections, and Burrows establishes enough sizzle between these parties that I find myself getting extremely impatient for their stories.

Tonya Burrows has taken her place in the stable of tremendous (often debut) talent at Entangled with these three books which were so excellent that I have clearly added her to my “pre-order it, dammit!” list. I’m grateful that her unique voice is added to the wonderful world of romance fiction and thank her for adding not one but TWO terrific series to the world of romantic suspense. Thanks, Tonya!!! 🙂

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!! 🙂

Operation Blind Date Brings Tenacious Romance and One Canny Dog to Romantic Suspense

18 Oct

Operation Blind Date (Cutter’s Code #3 – Teague and Laney) by Justine Davis (Harlequin, July 1, 2013)

I’m going to admit it, if you build a romantic suspense series around a dog with a sixth sense, it’s going to get read.

By me, that is!

That is the premise of prolific author Justine Davis’ Cutter’s Code series (which is sadly not properly linked on Goodreads, so I can’t connect to a nice string of all three books for you). Since the woman has published over 80 books since the 1980s, mostly in category romance, the fact that this book is a nice, tight, highly suspenseful read really shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In Operation Blind Date, private operative Teague Johnson is happy to go pick up his boss’ dog Cutter from the groomers. When he arrives, he’s surprised to discover that the lovely groomer, Laney Adams, has clearly been crying. While a woman’s tears make him distinctly uncomfortable, Teague realizes from Cutter’s behavior that the dog expects him to find out more, and while that seems crazy to anyone else, for the men who work for the Foxworths it means a new case is at hand.

Laney is incredibly worried about her best friend, Amber. Having inadvertently introduced her to a man that Laney repeatedly turned down for a date but who seemed innocuous enough, Laney has been getting strange texts and zero phone calls from her best friend since grade school – a woman who has never been out of regular contact for even a day. She’s gone to the police but they’ve told her that Amber is obviously blowing her off for the new guy in her life, but she knows something is very, very wrong. Her gut is telling her that Amber is in danger and that she’s responsible for it.

The gorgeous Belgian Malinois dogs are known for being outstanding police and military dogs due to their agile frame, high energy levels, and keen intelligence.

Fortunately for Laney, the Foxworths run an agency that gives help to people who can’t otherwise afford it. Even though Laney is astonished that the beautiful Belgian Malinois and his owner, the lovely fiancee of the head of the agency, take her concerns seriously, she’s not sorry to spend more time with Teague while investigating what happened to her friend. But Laney and Teague are blindsided by their attraction during what seems like the worst possible time, since Laney has to find her friend before it’s too late.

Because of the limited page length of a category romantic suspense novel, I usually go into them with low expectations. Davis startled me with her strong writing and good characterization in this novel, however, with a plot that kept twisting in expected (and very pleasurable) ways regarding what happened to Amber. There is definite heat between Teague and Laney, an attraction they try to fight, yet both are similar in that they aren’t used to that feeling, which is far outside the caution they normally exercise around the opposite sex.

My only complaint was with the ending, which I felt could have been more emotional than the calm, rather anti-climactic revelation it was. Nevertheless, I thought this book a delight for anyone who enjoys a quick dose of romantic suspense and I plan on reading the other books in the series. With great additional characters including the enigmatic sniper Rafe and the boss’ powerful and feared brother, Charlie, the author gives us a clear indication that other great love stories are coming down the pike (a fact Davis confirms on her website). Yay!

Cutter more than deserves a series built around his nose for someone who needs help. Let him lead you to the next book destined for your romantic suspense pile!

A Beauty Uncovered by Andrea Laurence Delivers Compelling Romance in a Great Desire Package

12 Oct

A Beauty Uncovered (Secrets of Eden #2) by Andrea Laurence (Harlequin Desire, October 1, 2013)

When you pick up a Harlequin Desire novel you know exactly what you are going to get. Feisty, stunning heroines partnered with gagillionaires with strong alpha tendencies and enough baggage to open their own Samsonite store.

Unfortunately for me, I never had read an Andrea Laurence book prior to A Beauty Uncovered, and I’m glad I finally remedied that mistake. Laurence has mastered the classic approach to category romance – the above elements, minimal additional characters, and, in her case, a compelling story arc for her Secrets of Eden series.

Based around a group of now highly successful men and women who all had the same loving foster parents, this second book in the series focuses on reclusive billionaire Brody Eden. He’s handling the situation of his personal assistant wanting to head off on a two-month cruise to celebrate her fortieth wedding anniversary. Luckily for him, her goddaughter is ready to take over and sign the necessary confidentiality agreement. That she’s an utter bombshell comes as a shock to this horribly scarred man who has arranged his entire life to interact as little as possible with the world.

Undeniable Demands (Secrets of Eden #1) by Andrea Laurence (Harlequin Desire, January 1, 2013)

Samantha Davis is startled at not only the ridiculous level of security around her new boss but at how lonely this attractive, damaged man is. His megawatt smile is rare but she wants to see it more, and she readily admits to her attraction for him. But Sam has been burned in her prior job, when she succumbed to having an affair with her boss – who turned out to be married to the head of accounting who arranged for Sam to be promptly fired.

All the great elements of a Desire romance are present with great clothes, trips, jewelry, etc. but Brody has a lot less of the obnoxious alpha behavior than is usually found in this type of category romance. His emotional damage from the circumstances of his disfigurement are clearly communicated but not belabored. Sam had a poor experience but she’s a bright, intelligent, incredibly giving person who is exactly what Brody needs to begin to think about a future different from the life he is currently living.

The reasons to love Brody are numerous. He adores his golden retriever, is a great brother with very normal relationships with his family, and admits to a beautiful woman that he’s a virgin! While this is the second book in the series about the foster siblings, it is completely unnecessary to have read the first book to understand the larger story arc. This terrific romance has a great couple and just enough angst to provide conflict but not so much that you are completely wrung out reading the last page. I’ll be purchasing other Andrea Laurence books for sure after A Beauty Uncovered!

When Romance Isn’t Romance at All – The Disappointment of Vristen Pierce’s Between Friends Erotic Novella

10 Oct

Between Friends by Vristen Pierce (Forever, October 1, 2013)

I’m going to try and not belabor this post. Normally, I only review books that I recommend for purchase, but in this case, I think this book makes a really important point that publishers need to listen to, particularly with the giant wave of erotica that the Big Six publishing houses have decided to surf. There is one simple rule of romance. One.

Romance novels have a happy ending between two people.

We can amend that to two or more people in the case of menage erotic romance, but it’s a hard and fast rule that you cannot break. If you do, your book isn’t romance.

Between Friends by Vristen Pierce is not romance.

Yet, Grand Central which publishes the very popular romance line of Forever, has chosen to publish this book under exactly that category, a choice that I believe has led directly to its abysmal ratings on Goodreads and Amazon. Romance readers pick up books because of this one rule (see above) and when you don’t deliver, we wind up like a Cy Young award pitcher, ready to hurl this book across the room and never, ever buy a book from the author again.

And I’m disappointed, because not only did this book have a tremendous amount of potential since there is a substantial following for menage erotic romance, but it also featured an African American heroine in an interracial relationship. That’s awesome and something we do not see enough in romance.

The novella starts off with Stacy Washington getting dumped by her boyfriend and heading out with a friend to have a good one-night stand to remember that she’s a desirable woman. In addition to the hot bartender Evan, she finds gorgeous Justin with whom she promptly fulfills her goal of the evening. The sex is great and a few days later she wants more, this time from Evan since her best friend has reminded Stacy of the rule of not going back to one-night stands (it smacks of relationship). Stacy ping-pongs between the two men (who happen to be friends) and it’s really just sex. Everyone likes each other, Stacy feels empowered at work and begins to make some changes, and before you know it, she’s headed off to England. Alone.

*needle screech* I’m sorry, what?

Yep, not only do we not see either guy develop into anything resembling a relationship (and we are told that she’s falling for each of them because they do end up hanging out but we are never shown any kind of deeper connection), but Stacy doesn’t want to choose so she figures it’s easier to just leave the country.

First of all, I get annoyed with first person erotica (it feels lazy to me and I want different perspectives) unless it’s in the hands of a maestro like Charlotte Stein, and Vristen Pierce is no maestro (and what is with her name – Vristen? If her parents named her that, it’s mean and if she chose it as a pen name, it’s weird). Because there is little to no emotional intimacy with the characters, the sex is flat (because good sex scenes are not about putting tab A in slot B), and we get zero happy ending. Second, it is not a mystery that this book is in the under 3 stars category on Goodreads, because the author and the publisher has literally betrayed its faithful romance readership by putting out this novella under their name. It’s not romance.

I’m going to stop here, but I think that Forever did Vristen Pierce a huge disservice not editing her novel differently and certainly by putting this out as a romance. I think she has succeeded in alienating readers (certainly me) when there was a terrific opportunity to put out a erotic romance novel with a fresh new perspective.

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

3 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Sheikh Romance: The Roots of Romance in Our Relationship with the Muslim Middle East and North Africa

23 Aug

After writing the review of Sarah Morgan’s excellent category romance novel, Lost to the Desert Warrior, I began to be slightly fascinated with the idea that, in a post 9/11 world, there exists an entire sub-genre of romance featuring Middle Eastern heroes (and sometimes heroines). How does this fit with our culture as Westerners, with the current political and economic climate, and with the larger genre of romance?

When you’re a librarian, your life is more than “ask a question, find an answer.” Rather, it’s closer to “ask a question, ask a bunch more questions, read a crap ton of interesting sources, and immerse yourself in a subject” but it’s a process I clearly enjoy otherwise I wouldn’t do it as often as I do. A large part of my happiness in learning about this topic came from the discovery of the book that has given me a framework and staring point for exploration, namely cultural historian Hsu-Ming Teo‘s outstanding academic work, Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

Incredibly well-written and exhaustively researched, Teo’s prose is riveting; this Australian author of both nonfiction and fiction makes the historical context of the sheikh in romance novels come alive. Because the subject is fascinating and lends itself to an understanding of current romance literature (both the writer and the reader can benefit greatly from the book), I’ve chosen to indulge myself in making this a multi-part blog post. This first installment will focus on the complex history of “the Orient” and the relationship of Western Europeans to this region.

First Things First. What Is a Sheikh?

A historical photo of a Bedouin family, circa the turn of the 20th century.

Let’s start first by defining some key terms, for example, what is a sheikh? Yes, that word can be spelled two ways “sheik” and “sheikh” and they both are correct with the same definition: simply put, a sheik is a title referring to man who is the head of a family. Done. That’s it.

Yet the word becomes more complex. It can be a gesture of respect toward a man who might also be a religious leader, but the term is largely rooted in the Bedouin community, indicating not just the head of a family but possibly of a tribe. The Bedouin people are the desert nomads of North Africa and the Middle East, traditionally focusing on animal husbandry as a way of life. Nowadays, Bedouins, who possess a rich culture of self-sufficiency and familial interdependence, are as likely to drive Land Rovers as ride a camel, particularly with government encroachment and nationalization of their lands. But no one disputes that the title of sheikh refers to a strong male leader in this environment.

The Orient Is Not a Place

The Orient can’t be found on any map…because it doesn’t exist.

So why the word “orientalism”? It’s a term confusing to modern readers since the Orient or the word Oriental has come to mean the many countries and cultures of Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.) but in actuality this word is usually a generational one which has fallen out of favor for a specific reason. That is, there is no such place as the Orient.

Really. Go find your globe or a modern map and look for it. It doesn’t exist. To find something labeled “the Orient” you’d have to dig up an antique map from the 1500s or earlier, back when cartographers read sketchy sailor accounts or interviewed drunken midshipmen at the local tavern in order to produce horrifyingly inaccurate maps which were then used to pitch “Let’s Discover the Riches of the Orient” sailing cruises to aristocratic funders who would likely feel at home one of those ruthless time-share sales environments. Next to “the Orient” was probably the picture of a giant sea-squid or a mermaid and the phrase “Here be monsters.”

For Western Europeans using the term “Orient” in this time period, they were referring to the North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Europe laying along the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

With this in mind, the Orient was then historically a synonym for the unknown East, and if that meant the Near East (like Turkey or Egypt) or the Far East (like China or Mongolia) Western Europeans didn’t care. It just meant “different from us and damn far away.” For most of the medieval and Renaissance periods, a geographic understanding of what areas are included in this sweeping term (which I refuse to use) can be absorbed by understanding where the Ottoman Empire existed from about the eighth century to 1918. North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey are the predominant regions which promoted so much fascination and antipathy on the part of Western Europe and later the Americas. These areas were and continue to be dominated by Islam as a unifying religion and the shared background of Arabic culture.

After it’s publication in 1978, Edward Said’s book Orientalism quickly became the seminal work used to understand the complex and troubled relationship between the West and the Middle East.

Orientalism is a whole different animal. While in the past this term was used to refer to Western art or literature which attempted to use the culture of the Middle East or North Africa as a theme, the modern definition is the one promoted by scholar Edward Said in his 1978 groundbreaking work, Orientalism. Said put forth the idea that orientalism was any academic, artistic or popular work which “imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.

For a variety of reasons (which I will explore in the posts on this topic) Western culture has become bizarrely focused on the “sexual fecundity and sensual appeal” of this area of the world. (Teo, p. 5) This is likely the historic juxtaposition between a culture which embraces love and sex in both a religious and cultural context, and the Western European tradition of Christian suppression and oppression of anything sexual in nature. Seeing how this juxtaposition has been handled throughout history actually gives us a tremendous opportunity to interpret modern sheikh romances with a new eye.

Modern sheikh novels often have compelling heroes and focus on emotional commonalities while still using the common trope of a character (usually the heroine) being immersed in a culture that is foreign, and one often laden with sensuality.

As Teo says in her book, “These novels certainly rehash classic Orientalist discourses, but not necessarily with the aim of differentiating, distancing and denigrating the Arab or Muslim in modern Western society. Because of the formal plot demands of the genre of romantic fiction…, cultural commonality and shared human interests and emotions are often emphasized instead of ineluctable difference.” (p. 10) In other words, while these books still oversimplify or gloss over the cultural meaning behind the “sheikh” title or have a hero who initially fits the stereotype of perhaps a powerful man unenlightened by modern gender politics (and this is not universal in these books), the same novels often celebrate the stability and strength of Arab families, contrasting this ideal against high Western divorce rates. This places modern sheikh novels in a strange limbo, one in which there are still orientalist themes present, but often where the novel itself promotes a view of Arab culture which actively fights the stereotypes prevalent in modern Western culture. (More on this in a later post!)

The Crusades: Bringing People Together Since the Eleventh Century

Even prior to the Crusades, trade with the Middle East was associated with items that delighted the senses – spices and aromatic oils. More fascinatingly is the fact that just like the majority of Western philosophy, history and medicine – which owes its preservation to the erudite Arab scholars which preserved all the Greek and Roman works that monasteries burned or didn’t preserve during it’s Dark Ages – the West owes its view of love to Arab culture.

The Muslim world had an established culture of romantic love long before the Europeans birthed courtly troubadours singing about knights satisfied by longing glances and a scarf around the arm prior to being killed while jousting. This ideal of unrequited, unconsummated love, which we associate with high medieval Western culture, is actually stolen kit and caboodle right from Arabic and Persian bards who felt this feeling was the ideal to aim for, a kind of martyr’s death, calling it “Udhrah love.” (Teo, p. 29)

Moorish architecture and art still abound throughout Spain and Portugal, dating back to this period where spreading the concept of Urdrah love through music and literature swept through European courts.

When the Muslim invaders decided the Spanish peninsula looked as good as where they currently stood in Morocco, the people who would become known as the Moors invaded that region, spreading art, music, advanced medicine – and thankfully the practice of bathing – to a group of Europeans living in comparatively barbaric conditions. This allowed translated Arabic poetry and literature to make the rounds of nearby European courts, stopping first in the French region of Provencal, where Udhrah love gained a toehold in the bardic traditions of those areas. Because of the scholarly understanding of where these stories originated, the Middle East and North Africa were seen as possessing “a sophisticated system of beliefs about love, seduction, sensuality, and the pleasure of the senses.” (Teo, pp. 30-31) Because of this association and various political factors, Islamic literature and poetry would spur Western literature’s attempt to interpret the relationship between the Near East and the West through the vehicle of romance.

The Crusade Romance: Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Pope Urban II giving the call to arms to warriors willing to take up the cross and take back the major historic sites of Christianity. Illumination from the Livre des Passages d’Outre-mer, of c 1490 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) via Wikipedia.

The first examples of sheikh-style romance actually were written at the time of the early Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Crusades were initially spurred by the exhortation of Pope Urban II in 1095 for knights “to take up the cross” (which the French translated as crusade) in order to reclaim the holy sites of Christianity for the Catholic Church and Western Europeans. Clearly not caring that there were holy sites for two other major religions in the region, Urban II also didn’t seem to be too perturbed that he had stirred up what would become a few centuries of warfare, with the much vaunted sacred locations vacillating back and forth between the Christians and the Ottoman Empire.

Yet more than one modern scholar has drawn strong connections between the code of honor held by European knights in the High Middle Ages and the Saracen or Turk of this same time period. Rules of combat, styles of warfare and the treatment of high-born prisoners aligned between these two groups separated by ethnicity and religion. These similarities, when contrasted so strongly by the startling differences of physical appearance and opposing religions, provided a great deal of fascination for Europeans, an obsession which emerged in Orientalist literature of the time period.

In the literature which used the Crusades as inspiration, “the ultimate triumph was not the death of the Saracen, but his or her conversion to Christianity through love and marriage.” (Teo, p. 31) The common trope was the one seen by modern sheikh romance readers today, namely that of a European, Christian woman kidnapped against her will due to her proximity to the conflict or involvement of her male relatives in the crusades who falls in love with her Arab Muslim captor. While some stories certainly espoused the ideals of romantic love (albeit with a Christian conversion by the hero as a key part of the happily ever after), other stories held horrible warnings for couples without this cleansing sacrament. A child of an Arab/European union is seen as being monstrously deformed until the holy water of baptism morphs him into a normal child; the hero’s dark skin similarly fades to white while undergoing that same religious introduction. (pp. 32-33) Early writers did not shy from laying the emphasis on religion thickly, just so there was no mistake regarding romance inspired by a religious war. Subtlety did not appear to be a High Medieval period trait.

“Count of Tripoli accepting the Surrender of the city of Tyre in 1124,” (1840) by Alexandre-Francois Caminade (Bridgeman Art Library / Chateau de Versailles, France / Giraudon)

The flip side of the gender coin was also visible in literature of this time. While the modern theme of “white Christian sold into slavery” held the test of time into the 20th century, crusade romance even had handsome knights, captured in battle, who fell for clever and beautiful Saracen princesses. These feisty ladies were willing to deceive their powerful fathers, free their lovers, only to run off and get baptized and then married. Hsu-ming Teo offers the excellent observation that while these women were seen by male readers of the time as lustful and unscrupulous (no man of the Middle Ages would encourage a daughter to defy a father), in actuality these women closely resemble our strong modern heroines and provide a contrast to the dishwater European women trapped as subservient pawns to men during this time. (p. 33) Despite cultural and religious differences the high Medieval period loved challenges to romance and was willing to use its heroes and heroines to illustrate how love (and Christianity) would always triumph in a successful marriage.

From Renaissance to Not Quite Enlightenment: A Turning Point Regarding Race

Perhaps the greatest twist for me in reading about the history of the sheikh romance has been the changing concept of what constitutes race, and therefore what a couple is capable of surmounting.  Initial European conceptions of race were that a certain skin color denoted an unacceptable religion; with this concept, baptism would render the individual romantically and socially acceptable as a means of repudiating their heritage and proof of embracing European and Christian ideals. (Teo, pp. 34-35) Once race was seen as an unalterable difference which was in itself insurmountable, the interracial love narrative also changed. (Since race is a social construct and not a scientific fact, I encourage anyone interested in exploring the concept from either a historical or biological perspective to take a look at the amazing website, Understanding Race.)

“Othello and Desdemona in Venice” by ThĂŠodore ChassĂŠriau (1819-1856) via Wikipedia

In Giraldi Cinthio’s short story “Un Capitano Moro” (published in Hecatommithi in 1565), we see the foundation for Shakespeare’s Othello, which was written roughly forty years later in the early 1600s. A Christianized Moor goes from being a hero who saved Venice to the monster who murdered his European wife, Disdemona (Cinthio’s spelling), a wife who, while fighting with her husband prior to her death, warns women not to wed men so totally different from themselves.

This story (seen in translation at the above link) is virtually the exact outline for Shakespeare’s play, with an evil Ensign inciting his normally even-keeled Captain to insane jealousy, planting the seed of his virtuous wife’s infidelity, and driving the man to murder. (Teo, p. 36) Upon realizing how much he loved his wife, the Moor sinks into melancholy and despair and grows to hate the evil Ensign. Arrested and tortured for information by the government of Venice, the Moor withstands the privations of his imprisonment and is finally released, after which time he is anti-climatically murdered by his wife’s kinsfolk in revenge.

“Desdemona Cursed by her Father (Desdemona maudite par son père)” – Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) (Brooklyn Museum) via Wikipedia

Aside from my astonishment at Shakespeare’s flagrant plagiarism (there was no such thing as copyright back then, but the librarian in me is horrified), this story represents a turning point in the romantic European view of race which went from being something linked to religion and therefore possible to “overcome” in the eyes of Europeans, to a deep-seated indicator of true nature. This paradigm shift rendered interracial love by and large an obstacle almost impossible to overcome.

There is also a simplicity in solidifying the view of the “other” by associating skin color with an insurmountable social barrier, a view which has served Western society throughout its history of oppression. In the United States almost a century after Cinthio’s work, the burgeoning American colonies, desperate for labor, had the problem of the discontented freeman without land of their own. Previously having worked for wealthy landowners, both indentured servants from Europe who had pledged their labor for a ticket to the New World and the Africans captured and sold for labor worked side by side in the fields. Both harbored a reasonable hope that they would one day be free of their obligations and certainly held the belief that their children would be free. At the time their contract ended, each worker regardless of race was given their “freedom dues” – usually a gun and a piece of land.

“Bacon’s Rebellion” by Sidney King (1907-2002), National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park

As long as the servant being freed was a Christian, there was no objection from any man being bumped up the social ladder from servant to freeman, a label which still would have been seen as being part of the peasant class. (PBS, Africans in America, “The Terrible Transition”) But by the late seventeenth century, Virginia’s system hit a speed bump when there simply wasn’t enough land for these young men. A group of discontented young men, white and black, rioted in 1676 in what would become known as Bacon’s Rebellion.

The answer to the banner’s question is that this person used to be both a man and a brother to the white men working alongside him in servitude.

The elite of Virginia responded by not only putting down the rebellion, but solving their labor problem by turning all their attention from indentured servitude as the answer to the men and women bringing brought over from Western Africa. Wanting an easy way of not only having a permanent servant class but also a simple way to identify who was in service, these governing men decided skin color was the easiest marker. As historian Edward Morgan puts it, “Slaves could be deprived of the opportunity for association and rebellion. They could be kept unarmed and unorganized. And since color disclosed their probable status, the rest of society could keep close watch on them…” (Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (June 1972): 5–29.) For two disparate societies to live cheek by jowl with one another, and for the dominant society to discourage interaction (and particularly to discourage anything resembling sanctioned interracial relationships), a visible difference was crucial. Whether it was the slave collar of ancient Rome or the skin color of the Saracen, this instant visual cue was needed to warn Western Europeans away from the perceived dangers of close association.

Whether it was the writers of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment or the Virginia landowners, this fiction and legislation all points to a key development regarding race. European nations were acquiring colonies which both required cheap labor and often provided non-Christians who appeared visibly different and could fulfill that need. The Ottoman Empire, which had shared a border with Western Europe for centuries, had become enough of an historical threat to warrant the changing view of the Turk or Corsair as having a skin color which provided a window into the person’s true nature, no matter his or her religion. While the adoption of views of race are inherently complex in any society, that this turning point occurred at a time when the Ottoman Empire was being seen as even more of a threat to European nations is hardly coincidental. In actuality the height of the Renaissance and scholarship of the Enlightenment would bring greater polarization between these cultures, with literature and music furthering the promotion of stereotypes and misunderstanding.

Proliferation of Captivity Narratives, and the Fear of “Turning Turk”

The Ottoman Empire was most definitely a threat to Europe, both economically in their stranglehold on the trade to the East using routes through the MIddle East and North Africa traversed for thousands of years, and also in the Ottoman hunger for empire expansion and for slave labor, resulting in them constantly tickling the borders of Western Europe. The trade monopoly was one of the biggest spurs to the courts of Europe to fund discovery expeditions in the hope of finding new routes to the East across seas not dominated by the Ottomans. Signing a peace treaty with Venice in 1573 allowed the empire to consolidate its North African holdings without threat, but a thirteen year war with the Austrian Hapsburgs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century drained resources on both sides.

Because of this constant tension between political powers, the late Renaissance and Enlightenment periods produced literature with themes involving the Ottomans, with the culture’s beauty and cruelty emphasized according to established Orientalist parameters. With the ongoing conflict with the Austrians and Turkish pirates regularly raiding the Irish and English coasts, captives were regularly taken either for ransom or enslavement.

Scholar Linda Colley in her 2002 work, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850, estimates that over 20,000 English and Irish men, women and children were sold in the slave markets of Algiers and Istanbul as a result of this accepted practice. Ohio State history professor Robert C. Davis in his 2003 work, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Early Modern History), asserts that as many as one million Europeans, taken from the tip of Spain all the way up to Iceland were enslaved by pirates who worked in tandem with the Ottoman Empire during this time period.

The fear this constant threat engendered played out in the over 47 plays written from 1558 to 1642 which held the theme of a European captive at the mercy of a powerful Ottoman overlord. Stories and epic poems produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also possessed this element, often being written from the perspective of the enslaved, a perspective often labeled “the captivity narrative.” Perhaps one of the most well-known fictional accounts of a captivity narrative occurs in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1604, a year after Othello). “The Captive’s Tale” relates the story of a Spaniard who arrives at a tavern with a veiled woman. He proceeds to tell the story of how he was captured and sent to Algeria, where he he fell in love with a wealthy Moorish princess, Zoraida. She returned his love, betrayed her tyrannical father, freed her lover and converted to Christianity in order to marry her man and return to his homeland. Cervantes himself was actually captured by Algerian pirates in 1575 and spent five years in captivity (attempting to escape four times without success) before being ransomed by his family and returning to Madrid. (Irwin Edman in the introduction to Don Quixote) Clearly he had a lot of personal experience to bring to this part of his story. Other narratives, for example, The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman” followed the almost identical premise.

The Arabian Nights is the English title for One Thousand and One Nights, with the majority of translations relying heavily on Gallard’s original work.

Probably the most famous story of a slave under a brutal Muslim overload is the Antoine Gallard novel, Les mille et une nuits (Tales from the Thousand and One Nights) published from 1704 to 1717 in multiple volumes which featured translated African and Persian tales. As Gallard was an archeologist – which in this period meant antiquities thief – he possessed some fluency in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Purportedly possessing a 14th century Syrian manuscript with the tales in it, Ali Baba and Aladdin are thought to be Gallard’s own invention.

Essentially a series of stories within a story, this collection (usually entitled Arabian Nights in English) uses the framework of a Persian king who, having executed his wife for flagrant infidelity comes to the conclusion that women are all the same. Each night this seemingly heartless ruler takes a new concubine to bed and then executes her the following morning to avoid disappointment. When his trusted vizier can no longer find suitable women for the king’s bed, his daughter, Scheherazade volunteers to go. She tells the king a tale but leaves him with the cliffhanger at sunrise, necessitating him calling her back to his bed that night and postponing her execution. This continues for 1,001 nights until the king comes to his senses and realizes that Scheherazade is actually nothing like his dead wife and that he is in love with this clever, loyal woman. Some men are seriously slow on the uptake.

Jean-LĂŠon GĂŠrĂ´me, “The Bath,” ca. 1880-85, Oil on canvas, 29 x 23-1/2 in. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Mildred Anna Williams Collection. An incredibly orientalist painting, the stool she sits on even resembles a cage denoting her captivity.

While captivity narratives attempted to convey the heinous Muslim slave-owners (at a time when Europeans were doing plenty of slave-owning themselves), a main piece of the narrative was the immense pressure placed on captives to convert to Islam, and the captives noble resistance of these efforts. In actuality many captives cheerfully converted to their captor’s religion, the men largely because it enabled them to rise through the ranks and even gain their freedom, while women felt Islam was a religion kinder to women (that’s not a huge compliment given the state of both Catholicism and Protestantism at this time) and offering more rights. (Teo, p. 40) Europeans derogatorily called this conversion process “turning Turk” and the phrase eventually morphed into one insinuating a love of the perceived sexual depravities captives might endure in a harem.

What is fascinating about the captivity narratives from this time period is that rarely are women seen as being in danger of sexual defilement; it is the male captives depicted at risk for rape through sodomy (a danger I would imagine far more of a likelihood in the British navy of the time). Since this theme disappeared in the mid-1700s, right after Britain consolidated its role as a global European power, modern scholars believe the fear of sodomy to indicate the greater cultural anxiety of being “invaded” rather than having any basis the routine rape of male captives, for which there appears to be no evidence. (pp. 42-43)

The harem and what went on behind closed doors became the subject of fascination for Europeans, both in literature and music, yet many works featuring it still managed to insert larger messages about the Western view of the Ottoman Empire and of European views of sexuality.

The Allure of the Harem

The entrance to the harem (women’s quarters) at the Topkapi Sarayi, the famous palace occupied by the head of the Ottoman Empire from 1465 to 1856. The Sultan’s mother, wives, concubines and children, along with the female servants and eunuchs who served them, lived in this wing containing over 100 rooms.

While Western culture saw the harem as a guarded place of sexual license and indulgence populated by sequestered slaves, the reality was anything but. Haram in Arabic means “forbidden” or “sacred” and refers actually to women who choose to wear the veil, keeping their face for their near relatives alone. (Teo, p. 41) While wealthier women were often isolated, most women in Islamic culture of this time enjoyed greater freedom than their Christian counterparts. While calling the women’s quarters a harem was likely to be inaccurate on many levels, the later stranger moniker of seraglio was easier to explain. The Turco-Persian word sarayi (meaning “palace”) was commonly heard by Westerners visiting cities like Istanbul, and confused with the Italian verb serrare meaning “to lock up.” By the end of the 1500s, the French word serail and the English word seraglio did not just refer to a Turkish women’s palace but had become synonymous with “brothel” giving a clear indication of a Western view of such a place. This association became even more popular after Samuel Johnson chose to include it in his dictionary (perhaps for his friend Bothwell who knew far more about brothels than Johnson).

While European men were sure to exclaim “oh, that’s horrible!” in front of the clergy, secretly they dined out on this fantasy of sexual free-for-all (with one man as a focus, ahem) behind harem doors. No matter how inaccurate their perceptions, I think we can safely guess they weren’t fantasizing about converting the ladies within to Christianity.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who not only published her first hand account of Turkey but also brought back the knowledge of smallpox inoculation (the predecessor of vaccination) to England.

Even faced with actual evidence of their misconceptions, artists continued to perpetuate the above perception of the harem and Turkish women. By the mid-18th century, many Western Europeans had visited Turkey, publishing their travel accounts. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), a good friend of Alexander Pope, traveled with her ambassador husband to Turkey, later publishing her first person accounts of what she saw in Turkey. Since actual first person accounts had been written by men (and many of them captives), Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters provide a completely different perspective on Turkish culture. Charming, lovely and full of wit, Montagu was received all over the country, and she avidly described the interiors and fashions of the women’s quarters she was invited into. While offering audiences plenty of titillation regarding feasts of the senses, she compared the harems she saw to the 18th century courts she had visited, declaring them in many ways enlightened since women could own property and had a degree of autonomy only dreamed of in the West. (Teo, p. 49) Rather than housing lesbian orgies and naked soaping, Montagu showed Turkish women and children living as loving families, engaging in domestic supervision and embroidery familiar to the middle and upper class women who would read her account. But this actual first-person reality check never quite made it into the male consciousness, at least not in literature, as fiction became more powerful than truth.

Pornography and the Harem Setting

I think what surprises me more than the somewhat pornographic quality of this picture is the lack of pubic hair seen on adult women in this time period.

Lord Byron, that truculent but handsome rake, is often thought by scholars to have successfully laid a titillating foundation for Orientalist pornography as the harem scenes he depicts in The Corsair (1814) and Don Juan (1819), painting the harem scenes in them with lush sensual images of naked women stretched as far as the male eye could see. (Teo, p. 57) By the 1820s, caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, a member of the Royal Academy who produced lovely artistic works, was also chased by poverty. He occasionally turned to political caricatures but also made money producing illustrations featuring swarthy, large-penised males presented with pale naked beauties who either preened for his pleasure or caressed him.

Not only is this book still around (and in the public domain, so don’t think you have to pay for it), but it’s been made into a pornographic film numerous times. I know you are shocked by that tidbit, right?

He illustrated one of the most famous pornographic novels, The Lustful Turk, which was never given a named author, but went through multiple revisions and printing throughout the 19th century, beginning in 1828. In this work, the English Emily Barlow is being shipped to a distant relative in India because the man she loves has no fortune (and lacks the gumption to grab her and elope to Gretna Green). On the way, her ship is overtaken by Barbary Pirates and Emily is sold to Ali, the dey of Algiers who rapes her.  Recovering from her ordeal she meets other European women in Ali’s harem who have a similar experience, down to the ineffectual European lover who didn’t so much as steal a kiss. Like her predecessors, Emily grows to enjoy sex with Ali, due to his physical endowments, with her fellow Europeans succumbing to his ardor as well.

Scholars argue that The Lustful Turk, like The Sheik which followed it practically a century later, provides the Orientalist opinion that European culture had emasculated its men and distanced its women from their sexuality, both conditions thrown into stark relief when said European women were confronted with hypersexualized Muslim males. The Lustful Turk spawned numerous subsequent novels along the same themes and content (and illustrated), perpetuating the harem motif for European men.

One of the later 20th century sheikh novels (originally published in 1977) sadly involving rape as a plot device. Don’t read it unless you have to do an academic paper on the topic.

Is this all offensive? Hell, yeah, but through these offensive stereotypes of Ottoman men, the real revelation is clearly what the author is saying about the stunted view of sex in Western society. The male view of rape as some terrific trigger to liberate women from the culturally induced frigidity would even be adopted by female novelists (who clearly knew nothing about rape) in the 20th century. This choice gave romance fiction as a whole a taint from which it still hasn’t recovered, with many critics still referring to all romance novels with sexual content as “bodice rippers,” a term which only describes that small subset of romance for which rape is the first sexual encounter between the hero and heroine. (Teo, p. 63)

In my next installment of this series, I will specifically focus on E. M. Hull’s phenomenon novel, The Sheik, detailing the reaction to it, some possible historical and cultural reasons why it illicit such a strong wave of interest and highlighting how this book became the mother of modern sheikh romance.

Sunday Reflections: Upcoming Books, Fun Stuff and Great Deals You Might Have Missed, Week Ending August 4th

4 Aug

Upcoming Books

For fans of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, the next book, Takedown Twenty, will be available as of November 19th, so pre-order your hilarious dose of Lula and Bob (the golden retriever) right now. Get ready to imagine the next demise of a vehicle driven by Stephanie as she attempts to track down Morelli’s mobster godfather so he doesn’t have to, while also helping the oh-so-sexy Ranger determine who killed an important client’s mother.

FYI, I mentioned the other week that Jaci Burton was coming out with a new series and the first book, Hope Flames, was going to out this fall. She just announced on her website that the publisher moved the date out to January 7, 2014 *shakes fist* because they think it will be more successful in that time slot. Far be it from me to deny success to Jaci Burton, but one solace was the publisher will be offering 200 copies of the book to random readers in November. A new novella, Holiday Games, for the Play-by-Play series will also be out by November 19th, starring none other than hot baseball player Gavin Riley and his favorite agent and wife, Elizabeth, as they reflect on a year of trying to unsuccessfully make a baby. Their full story can be found in the second book of the series, Changing the Game, and visiting with the Riley clan, particularly during a holiday, is always worthwhile. I think I’ll review this novella for my December holiday-themed posts. 🙂

Fun Stuff

It’s easy to forget all the great people in the world of romance who spread the word about how awesome our genre really is. One of them is Bobbi Dumas who has designated August “National Read a Romance” Month, and WOW am I glad she did! Take a look at her Read-A-Romance website to enjoy three famous romance writers posting daily (so that’s 93 best-selling authors for the month) about why they think romance is so important, while also entering the weekly contests for amazing prices like e-readers and romance novel collections (print and electronic). If you are interested, there’s even a grand prize drawing and you just need to write a short essay about why you think romance is so important to qualify to win an iPad mini and 31 Grand Central Forever ebooks! Twitter users, follow hashtag #RomanceMatters for plenty of updates and posts from name writers.

Ever wonder at what goes into making a great historical romance cover? History Hoydens shares the process with Isobel Carr’s latest self-published work and you’ll be dazzled at the process and the options. With great resources like Seductive Designs (Take a look at some of these covers! Yowza!) and The Illustrated Romance providing base stock images for authors to play with, New York publishers are going to have self-published works give them a run for their money. Do yourself a favor and glance at Illustrated Romance’s main page where you can see their image and the final book cover design to really appreciate the process.

Regency readers and writers be aware, there were LOTS of naughty terms for sex back in 1811, when the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue came out in England. The witty magazine Mental Floss has put together seventeen terms ranging from genteel to baffling for bow-chicka-wow-ow times from this resource. I’m going to see how many I can weave into casual conversation.

Great Deals

I’m really beginning to enjoy the themes of some of these awesome ebook bundles writers and publishers are pulling together! This one, Wicked Firsts, gives you six books by six different authors with every story involving a “first” – someone one of the characters lost their virginity to, doing something sexually adventurous for the first time, a first tattoo with your lost love as the artist, etc. Available as of August 19th, these novella length stories (total page count for all six is 450 pages so we’re looking at a 75 page average length for each one) are being offered for the asking price of $.99 for all of them, but this price will only be for the first week of publication, so move quickly. Since this includes such writing powerhouses as Elisabeth Naughton, Cynthia Eden and Alexandra Ivy, you are getting a lot for under a dollar!

Did you know that Overstock.com and Amazon are having a massive book price war? Overstock is currently underselling Amazon by 10% on a huge number of titles. Take a look at the romance section and see if there’s anything on your wish list that’s currently discounted. It has to be a paper book, but this might be the time to check on those backlist items or new releases you’ve been dying to have on your shelf.

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