Category Archives: Romance

In Bed with a Highlander – Maya Banks

In my quest to decipher just what inspires a seven-figure advance to a romance novelist, I tucked into a different series by Maya Banks. In Bed with a Highlander was definitely a better story than the  quasi-military pandering and weird paranormal oddities in the last Banks book I read. This one has a classic story of gruff lord of the keep–laird in this case as we are in Scotland–falling under the spell of the obstinate and spunky young woman who enters his protection unwillingly but eventually romps with great enthusiasm in his bed. Plots of regicide, internal perfidy, threats and violence abound. The characters were as unstable as romance characters usually are–tough and then unaccountably shy and then tough again, no real substance to them. But attractive, volatile, highly-sexed, multi-orgasmic and beset by battles at every turn.

The oddest thing is the way these books are slapped together and marketed, as if the story there is exists only to fill the pages with predictable dangers and sex–and then more danger and more sex, punctuated by startling moments of personal enlightenment in which the main players admit that they love each other. It’s a convention of the genre; it’s fine. But the cover! The cover of In Bed… was truly weird. A battle-scarred Scottish laird, muscled and shaggy, is depicted as a hairless, shirtless bodybuilder from Venice, California wearing a pair of shorts. The heroine, a Scottish bastard with green eyes, Celtic curling hair and clothes of the period is a sinuous Asian vamp with long dark hair and a sort of blue teddy-like thing that has just a little too much fabric in it to be from Victoria’s Secret.  Does this indicate that the publisher believes the intended audience for a Scottish period romance is too stupid to require more than half-naked bodies in a clinch set against a backdrop of green tartan? Tacky.

I’m getting this genre a bit now.  I’ll probably need a few more books to suss out why it is so appealing as a storyline to so many people.  Romance sells like hotcakes–hot romance like hotcakes with real maple syrup. Is it Cinderella for grown-ups, or Sleeping Beauty maybe? I’m puzzled at the flattened-out nature of it but that might just be because I’m not reading more complex, nuanced versions of the basic plot. Murder mysteries are more satisfying, in general, although the badly written ones are as bad as anything unreadable, whatever the genre. So, no more contemporary military types with their bulging jeans and Wal-Mart spectrum of emotions.  I might hunt for historical romantica so there is at least some marginal world-building to examine in between the sighs, moans, poisoned goblets of ale and clashing of bloody swords.

In Bed with a Highlander (McCabe Trilogy)   Maya Banks | Ballantine Books  2011

The Twelfth Enchantment – David Liss

Very odd mystery story, this. The Twelfth Enchantment is a conflict of magic and machinery in England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. David Liss has created a very vivid heroine, Lucy Derrick, impoverished after the death of her father, living at the mercy of a distant relation who despises her, promised to a mill owner she doesn’t want to marry but out of options. At sixteen Lucy ran away with a man much older than she was and her father came after her and brought her home. In the four days she was away, her father’s favorite, her sister Emily, died. Lucy has struggled with a damaged reputation and horrible guilt ever since.

Then a bizarre encounter with Lord Byron sets tongues wagging again and starts a series of inexplicable coincidences and encounters that change Lucy’s life–and put her and her remaining sister in grave danger. It’s complicated. You have to hang on in the beginning for a good long while because no one in this story is what they seem. Even Lucy isn’t who she always thought she was. But she is enormously clever and sharp with a retort and seems to be the one everyone wants. Not everyone who wants her is on her side. In fact, it gets harder and harder for her to find anyone on her side.

The alchemical magic and ancient enchantments are thick on the page. Liss has woven the dark and darker threads of magic into his world-building so well that it feels entirely believable.  There’s a touch of Philip Pullman in this twisted English countryside and smoky, grimy London. Demons (not daemons) abound. Evil lives. Books hold powerful magic. The Twelfth Enchantment is a romance but just barely. It’s much more a mystery and adventure tale with shapeshifters, hordes of undead who are not zombies or vampires, a changeling and some political intrigue for good measure. In the end, the people are stronger than the magic–but the magic is powerful enough to spark mayhem and madness and keep you turning pages.

The Twelfth Enchantment: A Novel   David Liss | Random House   2011

Whispers in the Dark – Maya Banks

Maya Banks writes romances that people apparently scoop up like candy. Whispers in the Dark is sexy but not quite erotica. It also features nearly constant special ops–if you like pages and pages of torture, heavily-armed military rescues, stealth choppers, guarded compounds, a mushrooming number of bad guys, a blond target on the lam and the whole instant soul-mate thing, this is your book.

Shea is a telepath who can take on others’ pain and calm them in dire circumstances. Her sister Grace goes one better, she can actually heal people. The two have split up after their home was invaded, their parents murdered and unknown assailants hunted them, trying to use their paranormal capabilities for unexplained purposes. Very very evil but no clear motives. One day Shea hears and feels the agony of an American soldier captured in Afghanistan, held in a cave in the mountains and tortured with the rest of his unit. A few chapters of unusual connections and perilous “saves” go by and then the soldier is rescued, barely, due to Shea’s intervention. So is his wounded buddy Swanny. Nathan, the soldier, goes home to his family’s compound but he keeps to himself, desolate at the loss of connection to his “angel” and half-certain he hallucinated the whole thing. One day, months later, he hears Shea’s voice again in his head. She is in trouble, extreme pain and fear, and she is reaching out to him for help.

It’s a really fast-paced action adventure and Nathan and Shea waste no time sharing the deepest yearnings of their hearts and other body parts and declaring undying fealty to each other.  So perfect. They both have scars but they are gorgeous anyway. They adore each other and take every opportunity to repeat and repeat how much, and how safe they are now, and how they complete each other. And here’s the tricky part. The extensive Kelly clan, Nathan’s family, are all ex-military who run a paramilitary for-hire organization with the latest weapons, private planes,  sophisticated surveillance and computer systems,  “teams” (as in special forces), guarded compound on which the whole family lives, trains and houses their SUVs, gun  range, training grounds, helipad and vehicles. The family is everything–most brothers are married to women who seem to hang out cooking and such. The place is in flyover country and if that exposes a coastal prejudice in me, so be it. Some books scream: This is my demographic! and this book is one of them.

It was a fast read, pretty fluent but formulaic. The whole telepathy thing was weird, and convenient. All the Kellys loved Shea and Shea loved all the Kellys. Good for them. The compound, the family, the outside enemies, the God-and-family, the obsession with all things military–cult. Supposed to be a kind of safe nirvana but really a classic cult. It almost delivered what it promised–I wanted to find out what happened but not all the pieces were in the puzzle by the end. There are prequels and sequels to Whispers in the Dark. I’m 100 percent certain they are crammed with military operations and earnestly blissful life in the family compound. This cynical peace-loving hippie will probably skip the ongoing saga in favor of watching bootleg Downton Abbey episodes and reading Jane Austen.

Whispers in the Dark   Maya Banks – Berkley Sensations   2012

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor – Lisa Kleypas

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor is a light, contemporary romance with a terrific setting, interesting set-up, cast of beautiful characters, an adorable child, a seriously ugly dog and a lovely blond girlfriend on the mainland.  Mark Nolan runs a coffee roasting company on San Juan Island. His brother Sam has a vineyard and a ramshackle old Victorian house badly in need of repair. Their sister who lives in Seattle has a six-year-old daughter, no father in sight, and a letter of guardianship tucked in her will. When Victoria, the sister, is killed in a car crash, Holly, her little girl, comes to live with Mark, who promptly moves them in with Sam and starts trying to figure out how to be a parent.

Holly doesn’t say a word after the crash–until one day Mark has her in a toy store in the town of Friday Harbor where they live and the proprietor tells her about the magic of sea shells and fairy houses. Maggie Conroy is rebuilding her life after nursing her new husband through terminal cancer. She is determined never to be so vulnerable to devastating loss and pain again. She’s quite charming, runs a delightful toy store, gets little girls perfectly and resists her instantaneous attraction to Holly’s Uncle Mark with stubborn tenacity.

It’s a very nice story with all kinds of warm family moments, the shadows of Nolan family dysfunction haunting the brothers, a reluctant heroine and her well-meaning friends sparring over blind dates, a kid who writes to Santa requesting a mother. The dog is a rescue with every kind of unattractive medical problem known to canines and a secure sense of his own fabulousness. Maggie is fostering him, of course. And she can cook. And Mark blows up the Thanksgiving turkey. And we have seen where all this is heading from the beginning but it’s still an entertaining ride. Is there such a category as “wholesome romance”? This would be it. The only really ugly thing in the story is the dog and he’s floppy and lovable. Good escape book.

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor   Lisa Kleypas | St. Martin’s Press  2010

The Eagle and the Dove – Jane Feather

The Eagle and the Dove probably isn’t the greatest name for this fifteenth-century romance set in Moorish Granada.  Eagles are predators and doves are prey but the romantic duo in this richly woven tale are anything but stock characters. Sarita is a Christian gypsy and Abdul is the caliph of the Alhambra but who is predator and who prey I couldn’t tell you by the end of the story. Jane Feather (another odd name) has written a decent adventure tale, disguised as a romance, with plenty of sex, an overlay of history, nicely detailed descriptions of life in the seraglio and the rough justice of the caravans and towns.

Sarita is a slight but extremely feisty redhead who steals away from her camp to meet with her forbidden lover. When the camp leader declares he will marry her, disaster follows and Sarita escapes her fate, brokenhearted and perilously unaccompanied on the dirt road to the border. Not for long. The mounted caliph, who spied her slipping back into her camp after a clandestine meeting earlier in the day, sends his men out to discover what they can of the intrepid girl–they find the girl herself and she is taken to the Alhambra at the caliph’s pleasure. Willing suspension of disbelief time–he is so taken with this strange bird he has captured that his natural chivalry asserts itself and he determines to win her over, however long that might take.

Lots of passionate teasing, fabulous silks, sensual baths and platters of figs and cheese follow. Sarita refuses to be consoled at landing in the lap of luxury, pretty much  literally, and the battles begin. It’s very entertaining and the sex and romance are offset by the evil plotting of the head wife who is a total bitch and recognizes a threat when she sees one. Saying much more would just involve a whole list of spoilers. But Feather’s novel is a good read. The dialog tends to be both British and modern–not so credible for an Arabic-speaking Moorish noble and a Spanish-speaking itinerant Christian. The two of them could have met at Oxford but we’ll overlook that. Very steamy, moves fast, classic romance form hidden under the lacy arches, an end that screams Happily Ever After–too bad Feather couldn’t resist that big pink bow. But The Eagle and the Dove is a romance and it doesn’t stray from the genre, spicy history overlay or not. If you are lusting after a romance with a bit of substance and some hot chapters, this one will do.

Eagle and the Dove   Jane Feather | Avon   1991

Reckless Pleasures – Tori Carrington

For some reason which now escapes me, I checked out a bunch of romances from the library the other day. I haven’t read very much in the genre and I suppose I figured I might as well learn something about it. So far, it’s a little thin but probably safely true to form. Reckless Pleasures is a slightly graphic love/sex story that involves a longtime love affair between an ex-marine and an activated reserve (really, that wasn’t supposed to be an awful pun), a triangle with a best friend, topical references to Afghanistan and Iraq, a private security firm, an improbable search for a missing child in the Florida swamps and a ton of body heat, regret, guilt, heartbreak, etc., etc.

Tori Carrington is a duo with a number of hot paperback romances to their credit so I think this story line was created for a real demographic and likely appeals to its intended audience perfectly. Girl and guy have fabulous sex before he ships out. They can’t stand being away from each other. All kinds of love and heartbreak between two tough characters who wear their protective shells like Kevlar vests. They also wear Kevlar vests. Super-dramatic small-child-goes-missing-along-with-her-pink-bike event. Private security firm of ex-marines to the rescue. Some casual sex to relieve tension. Dude returns from service wounded. Uh oh.

There is more to the story than erotica but not much more. There is a lot of angst instead of sex for long stretches. The resolution leaves everyone sadder but wiser and throws in some revelations about families of origin that are meant to enlighten. If you like nearly perfect physical specimens getting it on with some actual story wrapped around the clinches, Reckless Pleasures works fine. Some of the other romances I grabbed are variations on the genre so I’m reserving judgment until I read a few more.

Reckless Pleasures (Harlequin Blaze)   Tori Carrington |  Harlequin   2011

Emily and Einstein – Linda Francis Lee


Emily and Einstein surprised me. I began reading it and set it aside after a chapter or two–the writing was awkward and the story was too farfetched for anything less than a fabulous novelist to pull off.  I planned to take it back to the library–I have a pile of books to read now and I couldn’t see slogging through this one. Then I picked it up again to flip through the chapters and got hooked. Sort of hooked. Linda Francis Lee has produced a formula modern romance light on eros and long on fantasy. She has really unappealing major characters who have to carry large parts of the story. The central idea is just nuts. But I stayed up reading it until dawn.

Emily is married to a Wall Street financial mogul from an old, wealthy, Upper East Side family. Emily herself is the daughter of an unknown father and a flagrantly feminist mother, a woman too colorful and too made up to have given Emily and her younger sister–different father–much of a stable life. She did, however, bequeath her the rights to a rent-controlled apartment in midtown that, unbelievably, is airy and large and desirable. Which Emily gives up when she marries Sandy, the aggressive rich guy who wants to be great but is actually just deluded. Sandy lives in prime real estate in the Dakota. You begin to see how this is going.

We get lots of Dakota–John Lennon was shot here (history! celebrity!) and the apartment is in this corner of the building (very large monthly maintenance fee) and these are the rooms (many) and the period decor (classic, to die for) and Sandy promises to deed the apartment to Emily so she will always have a home (right, sure he does). Then Sandy dies in a freak accident on a snowy evening as his hired car delivers him to the animal clinic where Emily, an editor at a small publishing house, volunteers on Friday nights. Also eliminated is a little white dog who runs out in front of a cab–wild fishtail skid–grinding crash–unable to resuscitate–uh oh. But Sandy refuses to stay dead.

An angel, or something, who is a cross between Samuel Clemens and Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts Sandy a deal that he can survive his own death but he won’t much like how. Sandy takes it and finds himself trapped inside the body of the scruffy, banged-up dog. Who goes into the clinic, barely alive, to be saved. Et cetera. Emily winds up with the dog. The pooch seems oddly smart and knowledgeable about her apartment and her life so she names him Einstein. At Sandy’s funeral, her horrible mother-in-law informs her that the family will be taking back the apartment and she will have to find some other place to live. Nice timing.

No one gives up an apartment at the Dakota without a struggle so part of the plot is set. A delicious hunk with secret sorrows and a hidden past is a neighbor (who knew?!) and begins to rescue and pursue Emily. (Emily, BTW, has long white-blonde hair and is very attractive but doesn’t care about clothes, which is supposed to make her more human, whatever.) A nasty bitch in the publishing firm takes credit for Emily’s work and a new boss who resembles Tina Brown displaces the kindly old publisher (who was in Emily’s court) and issues a challenge a minute. Work is not going well. Then Emily’s dissolute young sister turns up out of the blue and moves in. Einstein hates her. Always has, as a matter of fact.

Alternate chapters are told from Emily’s POV and the dog’s POV. The dog was a faithless cur when he was a human and now has some good deeds to do or Obi-WanColorfulAngelCharacter will make him disappear. The New York City Marathon enters the plot. People struggle to tap into their better natures–or they never had a better nature to begin with and their wicked ways hang out like old underwear. Emily discovers that Sandy was not at all what she thought and that her entire life is a tissue of lies. Sandy makes a seriously weird dog and takes a looonng time to evolve past the Enough About You, Now Let’s Talk About Me and How Much I Hate Dog Food stage. The little sister is a total loser slob.

I didn’t care a fig for Sandy, as a guy or as a dog. The sister wasn’t very sympathetic. The hunk was rather likable, when he was around. But I was curious to see what Emily would discover and decide about her life. So I finished it. It was OK. Guaranteed, you won’t find too many contemporary romances with the wonky plot of this one. It might seem more exotic to someone who didn’t walk past the Dakota about twenty times a week. But it was dawn when I closed the book so I cannot pan it because it was nowhere near unreadable. If you like romances, this one mixes cookie-cutter plot devices with a lot of dogwalking, famous architecture and coming to terms with heartbreak. I give it two or three solid stars. 

Emily and Einstein   Linda Francis Lee | St. Martin’s Press   2011

Juliet – Anne Fortier

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Juliet–long book, late night finish. The conceit is interesting: Romeo and Juliet took place in Siena, not Verona, and descendents of the star-crossed lovers are pulled into a contemporary adventure to  rewrite history. Anne Fortier’s story itself doesn’t quite fulfill its promise. There is a lot of history–some verifiable but a lot twisted in service to the really clunky plot. The details of Siena, its architecture and ancient feuds, would make a strong underpinning for a tale of murder, greed and fourteenth century curses. Unfortunately, the real stuff wasn’t allowed to stand so you can’t trust that you are getting an inside scoop on history or more solid info than Shakespeare had when he dramatized his fan-fiction.

Characters are oddly shallow in that way romance novelists sometimes create stock figures to perform preordained roles in standard tales. The relationship between the sisters was too awful to believe at first and reversed itself too spectacularly to believe later in the game. Hunky boyfriend was obvious to everyone except, apparently, heroine from page one. Bankers don’t act like bankers; hoteliers don’t act like hoteliers; the entire city seems far too provincial to be credible. Everything and everyone is other than they are first painted, a device that is brilliant in the hands of a master storyteller but more anticlimactic and slightly irritating in Juliet.    

The plot is very chaotic but key parts of it are easy to guess. Juliet is not a bad book but it is disappointing. Such a rich vein to tap for a story–but, in the end, not mined skillfully enough to yield pure gold.

Juliet: A Novel (Random House Reader’s Circle)   Anne Fortier | Ballantine Books   2010

Switched – Amanda Hocking

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Amanda Hocking has gotten a lot of ink for her non-ink success writing paranormal romance novels for e-readers and self-publishing and marketing them online. She’s also become a millionaire in the process and landed a hefty advance from a legacy publisher. So I read the first volume of her Trylle series in paperback. Switched tells the story of Wendy, a misfit who was nearly killed by her own mother at her sixth birthday party. She is a difficult, surly child and teen who gets kicked out of every school she attends and has grown up fatherless, with a mother confined to a mental asylum and a doting big brother and aunt who go to considerable lengths to protect her.

It’s a very lively story with plenty of violence, smoldering eyes, emotional conflicts, near-fatal misunderstandings and magical trappings. Wendy discovers that dear old homicidal mum isn’t really mum at all—something the woman has insisted since the infant was handed to her in the hospital. Wendy has been switched with a boy who disappears. She is a changeling, and something else—she is a troll.

Hocking says she researched what was selling in an effort to teach herself to write best sellers. She seems to have settled on a good strategy. Reliable YA readers tell me that Switched is a typical paranormal romance with a predictable plot. I thought the characters were flat and clichéd. Those shortcomings seem to make the book no less satisfying to its legions of avid fans. So, huge kudos to Amanda Hocking for pulling off a literary and financial coup.

Switched is readable but there are strange lapses of spelling and grammar that should have been smoothed out by the editors at St. Martin’s—here’s a quote from an educated member of royalty who is portrayed as one of the elite: “She looked at Finn, but gestured to me. ‘This is her?’ ” (sic) That was not meant as some type of colorful idiom. It was just horrible, incorrect English. Came a few paragraphs after a glaring misspelling. Even the open to the book is poor English, obviously so. “A couple things made that day stand out more than any other. It was my sixth birthday, and my mother was wielding a knife. Not a tiny steak knife, but some kind of massive butcher knife glinting in the light like in a bad horror movie. She definitely wanted to kill me.” (sic)

Aaack.

I wasn’t a fan of Twilight—thought it was a terrible example of how to be a vapid female and fall in love with and pursue an abusive and deadly male. Read a couple of the books to try to figure out their appeal and decided they were just stupid. Despaired of the state of intelligence of millions of teenage girls. Nasty bitchy clique books fall into the same discard pile. Now I’ve read the source of much Internet buzz and a personal fortune. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be but Switched does nothing to relieve my cynicism.

The English language is so magnificent and there are such powerful storytellers out there. Pandering to the least common denominator may be the way to amass a pile of money. But that’s all it is. Maybe Hocking will develop more sophisticated storytelling now that she doesn’t have to crank out a new book every couple of weeks—and maybe St. Martin’s press will gift her with a more rigorous editor.

Switched (Trylle Trilogy)   Amanda Hocking | St. Martin’s Griffin   2012

Hot Stuff – Janet Evanovich and Leanne Banks

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So there I was hunting in the mystery stacks at the St. Agnes library for some P.D. James I may not have read when I saw it—a slightly shabby paperback with the name Janet Evanovich on the crinkled spine. Curiosity got the better of me. The woman is a catrillionaire. She sells books by the container load. What are all those people reading? I slid it under the bar scanner, slipped it between the James Baldwin and the China Miéville and smuggled it home.

Hot Stuff is a riot of a read. Evanovich and co-writer Leanne Banks have concocted some wacky formula that merges romance with murder mystery and produces a hybrid that strongly resembles I Love Lucy, with corpses. The characters are pretty cliché but a few of them are downright endearing—in this case, one of the adorables is a large, slobbering dog. The protagonist is a heroine, attractive, high–achiever and a little too trusting. She has one of those big, affectionate, nosy Boston Irish families that believes a 26-year-old unmarried woman is a problem in need of a solution.

Cate has her own solutions in mind. She bartends at the local pub where a talented drag queen keeps the till full. She also rents a cheap room in his fab condo in exchange for minding the place when he travels to perform at private parties. Her intention is to finish school and become a first-grade teacher. Bravo for her. She also bakes very sought–after cakes at the drop of a hat. And she collects oddballs and pushy men like flypaper.

Her friends in the condo are a real estate agent obsessed with a mystery tenant no one has ever seen and a transplant from the Ozarks who acts like Dolly Parton’s brainless cousin but is writing the sort of genius roman à clef of her own life that is destined for the best seller list. Maybe Evanovich could write a novel with her. A hairy little basket case named Patrick Pugg attaches himself to Cate, intending to be her knight in shining armor and shagmeister. A hunk at the end of the bar is an ex-cop who doesn’t give too many details about his current occupation. A designer-label society dress hanger is a very nasty bitch.

One day the drag queen heads to Aruba, a massive bull mastiff puppy arrives unannounced, Cate can’t shake the shaggy hobbit and the hunk moves in on her. It’s not entirely logical—there is a lot of missing jewelry, some gangsta types that spring up like mushrooms, copious baking, break-ins and breakdowns and a few breakthroughs in the romance department. There’s a certain Keystone Cops flavor to the tale but it does have the requisite stiff and, as you might guess, it’s no one you have to care about.

Crazy, chaotic and cake-filled. The story ends “happily ever after” for some of the characters. The bad guys get theirs—actually almost everybody gets a little by the last page. Pretty funny and as effortlessly entertaining as a decent sitcom. No wonder travelers about to commit themselves to the tortures of modern aviation scarf these books up by the armload. I’d read one on a dismal flight, too. It would probably last from New York to Miami but you’d need at least two for the red eye coast-to-coast.

Hot Stuff   Janet Evanovich and Leanne Banks | St. Martin’s Paperbacks   2007