Don’t Let Historical Romance Die


Dear Author recently published a controversial article calling for the death of the historical romance novel. The central idea was that the historical needs to die and be born again into something less predictable and formulaic.

I’ve been mulling over this proposition for a week, trying to figure out how I feel about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t love the idea. I find that with the historicals I love, I found because I want exactly what historicals have traditionally offered: the landed gentry, the restrained courtship of the day, the lovely subtlety that the Regency period in particular provides.

There are some who manage to produce amazing, vivid, beautiful, wrenching novels from these constraints. Authors like Sarah MacLean, Meredith Duran, and Sherry Thomas have lifelong fans in me. They respect the era while also delivering fresh stories. Other authors take the trope and try to infuse a modern sensibility into it and it fails. I’ve read historicals that really should be contemporaries. That’s always frustrating – I pick up historicals because I want historicals, not because I want a revised historical, sterilized of all controversy (i.e., the lack of women’s agency, slavery).

I concede that Regency novels may be overdone. But whose fault is that? The way I see it, if readers craved steampunk historicals or novels about Revolutionary America publishers would publish them.

Maybe authors are locked into the Regency period because that is such a romantic period, the low hanging fruit of lovely dresses, pretty balls, and rich, gallant dukes. Maybe it is lazy, but those books sure do go down easy.

And they’re not just fluff, at least not always. Meredith Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal brought to life London’s East End poverty in a way I’ve never experienced before, even through my own research. I actually learned something in that book. I’m not sure I could have really pictured the grittiness of Bethnal Green without that book. That book really stands out as an example of what historical romance can be.

I’m still waiting to find a romance set in the medieval period that would affect me the same way. I’ve read a lot of time travel romance from that era, and it is nearly always disappointing, but that means the market is wide open for both authors and publishers. And how about we move away from England and look at the rest of Europe? I’ve been craving some great French historicals and have found little to satisfy. The rest of the world – from China to the Caribbean – is also untapped. Secrets of Sin by Chloe Harris, an erotic romance, took place in the Caribbean, and while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t feel very historical.

There is a lot of room for expansion and improvement in the genre, but to see it wither before that great reformation? No way. I believe that I will try my hand at a Regency within the next three years. I might not actually succeed at it, but I have an idea brewing and I’d like to try.

I just hope the genre doesn’t die before I get my hands on it.

The Allure of Anna Jeffrey’s Characters

Today I ordered (on Amazon) “Sweet Return” by Anna Jeffrey. It has been many years since I bought an Anna Jeffrey book – mostly because I don’t think she’s very prolific. The series I read long ago consisted of “The Love Of A Cowboy”, “The Love Of A Lawman”, and “The Love Of A Stranger.” I remember enjoying those books for their realistic relationships, that feeling that two lonely and deserving people have finally met The One and the sizzling hot sex – though the details have dulled with time.

“Sweet Return” is in the same vein. An independent west Texas woman, a hard-headed west Texas man, and the inevitable clashing before the resolution. It is a good formula, but I’m trying to think what it is about Jeffrey’s portrayals that I like so much and I think it is that she doesn’t “wink” at the reader by condescending to the characters. She doesn’t make them foolish, she gives them real lives, and real risks.

She is also my first introduction to what I would call “Western Romance”. I’ve read almost nothing else in this genre because in general cowboys don’t really appeal to me. I’m open for that to change.

Jeffrey’s stories are plainspoken. There is always an undercurrent of loneliness that yawns as wide as the west Texas horizon, and two people who have been a little disappointed, a little roughed up by life and find the ultimate solace in each other.

I’m so excited about picking up her stuff again. I just wish she wrote faster. Because she is so slow, I might try to branch out to other authors in the genre. Meanwhile, I’ll savor whatever she producers.

Book Review: Temptation Ridge by Robyn Carr

Temptation Ridge is romance.

Twenty-five year old Shelby McIntyre is visiting Virgin River, a charmed and charming (fictional) Northern California town. Her mother has passed away and she’s somewhat sheltered so the small town seems like a good place to rest for the summer before she finishes her college degree and travels the world. Her future includes a debonaire, handsome Mr. Right.

Blackhawk pilot Luke Riordan is also visiting. He’s inherited some cabins by the river, and he’s fixing them up.
He is looking for a good time. When he sees Shelby, he instinctively knows that’s not her. She’s too innocent, too sweet, and too young to become involved. But she likes him.

As he is fixing up the cabins, he finds a mentally challenged young man sleeping in one of them. And thus began one of the sweetest, most truly touching relationships I’ve ever read in any kind of book. It turns out that Art has run away from a group home after being abused by the owners who are basically running a Social Security/disability scam on the state. What I liked so much about this relationship was that Luke didn’t patronize Art. He gave him responsibilities and Art fulfilled them. When Luke begins investigating Art’s departure from the group home, one of the bullies says, “These kids are great.”

Luke thinks, correctly, they’re not kids. I loved Luke for that. If I didn’t see Luke’s relationship with Art, I wouldn’t have thought his relationship with Shelby was nearly so evolved – seeing this side of him made me see what a truly good guy he was, how respectful he is of people. Mega points for adding that.

Luke likes Shelby but he knows he’s not settling down. Not now, not ever. And he recognizes that Shelby deserves someone who is passionately committed to her. But Shelby’s not one to demure from what she wants. They strike a deal. They’ll just go day by day with the understanding that Shelby will one day be leaving Virgin River and it will end.

The romance scenes were sweet, which suited the book very well. The first one, the reader knows Shelby’s a virgin but Luke doesn’t know that. It’s very sweet, watching him struggling with that.

Finally the end of summer is coming and true to his word, Luke doesn’t ask for more. Shelby decides to heck with it and leaves. She goes to Hawaii for a while, and Luke’s brother finds her on the beach and explains a little of Luke’s past. She then returns to Virgin River and basically says this is nonsense and he agrees and they have their happily ever after.

I really liked the give and take between the two characters, and I love the setting. Robyn Carr has developed Virgin River very well – the details are so clear – and it is obvious she loves it as if it were her hometown. There are many of these books in the series, all set in Virgin River. I’ve got three or four in my To Be Read pile, which I guess is the highest possible compliment one can pay to a writer’s characters and setting. I have a feeling you can start with any one of them and fall right into it, but Temptation Ridge was a terrific introduction.

Book Review: Executive’s Pregnancy Ultimatum by Emilie Rose

Executive’s Pregnancy Ultimatum is contemporary romance.

This is my first Harlequin Silhouette Desire book, and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. The cover did not render me hopeful, and the whole “oh no, I’m buying a book about a pregnancy ultimatum” anxiety was pretty potent. But my fears were unfounded. When reading category romance, I think you have to accept the book for what it is. It’s not meant to be serious as Tolstoy. So I met the book on its own terms, and it impressed me.

Renee Maddox thought she was divorced, but her husband’s brother (?) didn’t file the papers. So seven years later, Renee decides that since she’s now getting a real divorce, she wants half of Flynn Maddox’s assets – including a deposit made in a sperm bank back in college.

When Flynn discovers Renee is after his sperm, he is struck with a wild idea. He will win his wife back!

The problem is that Renee moves back in with Flynn before she actually decides to let him get her pregnant the old fashioned way. A more insane idea I can not imagine. But whatever, she moves from LA to San Francisco to shack up with her husband.

The deal is that he will get her pregnant, they will live together as man and wife, and they’ll divorce after the baby’s first birthday. (Happy birthday! Your parents are getting a divorce!)

Flynn is an “executive” (as described in the title) and he is now working for his family’s company – Maddox Communications. The problem is that he’s a VP. While VPs inside of huge companies can be a pretty senior position, that doesn’t seem very impressive for a company your family owns. But whatever. He’s not really into his job anyway – he wanted to be an architect before his father passed away, and he felt obligated to work for the family company.

Flynn uses his architecture skills to build Renee a beautiful office and kitchen in his basement for her catering company. She buys baby furniture. But she’s still not sure about this whole plan. She bristles when Flynn suggests they hold hands because he’s insisting they make their arrangement look like a genuine reconciliation, else the media would be all over them.

Please. The media doesn’t give a crap about a nuclear war with Iran. I seriously doubt that they care what two private citizens are doing.

That was a transparent plot device to push them together. Also, I find men who care about what other people say to be rather… ick. Men (or women) shouldn’t live by other people’s rules and expectations. So that turned me off.

Another problem I had was how they met. When her favorite paint store in Los Angeles (where she lives) doesn’t have the scentless paint she wants, she drives six hours to San Francisco to a store that carries it. First – excellent idea: “scentless paint”. Secondly: no. Nobody is going to drive six hours for paint. She can order it and have it mailed to her. So I found that annoying.

Also, Renee’s ambivalence was annoying. She frets that her hypothetical child would carry a gene for alcoholism if she has the baby. Since the alcoholism was hers, it seems to me she’d have that same problem if she used IVF with Flynn’s sperm, as she’d originally planned. But she goes back and forth between wanting a baby and being afraid.

Of course Flynn goes back to architecture, Renee solves her indecisiveness, and they fall back in love and live happily after after.

It’s a super quick read that puts absolutely no pressure on the reader. If you can overlook the few problems, it will be a fun read you can finish in a single afternoon.

Book Review: Secrets of Sin by Chloe Harris

Secrets of Sin is erotic romance.

Emiline du Ronde is mistress of a great Caribbean plantation, a successful businesswoman and a very lonely wife. It seems Reinier Barhydt, her husband, departed four years ago on a ship and has not returned. Instead, he and his best friend, Connor have a reputation for wild menage a trois and they are happily circling the globe doing everyone from the noblewomen of Europe to a virgin whore in some undisclosed location — yes, a virgin in a whorehouse. And they were lucky enough to have her (though I wonder if a virgin in a whorehouse would feel the same). I fully expected the two men to actually do each other – since they almost kiss in the first chapter – but no, apparently their enjoyment of sex with other men is limited to watching the other with a woman.

Meanwhile, on her little island, Emiline du Ronde has had quite enough, and she has her attorney draw up divorce papers. Connor overhears this, and for reasons I’m not quite clear on, he tells Reinier that she has taken a lover. Reinier returns to the island and makes a bargain with her. If she succumbs to his every wish for three days, he will grant her divorce.

I’ll stop here to just say the motivations of this book are preposterous. Reinier actually yells to a maid that, “I’m the one that was a prize she could brag to her friends about, something to laud over them and check off her list of ingredients for the perfect marriage…. She never loved me. It was all about bragging rights to her.”

Bragging rights. Okay. Whatever. Like some guy who cats around with whores is some huge catch. Way to go Emiline. But of course, none of the motives are actually the point.

Gettin-it-on is the point.

And that they do quite well. In the three days that Emiline is to submit to him, he takes a liking to spanking her, whipping her, caning her, and plain old doing her like a math problem. It was absolutely thrilling.

The writing itself, with its sweet descriptions of Caribbean life, were lustrous and beautiful. The attraction between the two main characters was very well defined, and the sex was extremely good. The fact that it was all hinged on a ridiculous structure did not matter in the least. These books are escapist, and they’re allowed to veer from reality.

I do have a question about the two men, however. To my eye, it appeared that the two men were lovers, but that the editing process deleted it. I could be entirely wrong about that, but there is a gap in the plot where that fact would have fit quite well indeed. As it is, their close friendship full of hugs and, of course, sharing sex with a woman, just seems undone and a little odd. It’s an intriguing line of inquiry: if they were lovers and that was cut out, why was it cut? Did the editors not believe that women would enjoy man-sex?

In any case, the existing book is lovely. A very enjoyable, fast read that ends with a happily ever after. One note: you might not want to read it in public. If it didn’t have a giant warning label on it, you could probably read it in public, with this label, you’d look a little odd:

Romantic Moments On Film, Part Two

(Again, I apologize for the poor quality of filmwork. Part One is here.)

This is the kissing scene from Rebel Without A Cause. But of course its much more than that. I don’t think I’ve ever scene a man play this sort of scene so openly. She asks “Why is it so easy now?” and he replies, “I don’t know. It’s easy for me too.” There’s something so utterly believable about him in that moment, so utterly true. It’s not anything he does, it’s just the chemistry between them. Beautiful.

This famous scene from Casablanca is the only romantic scene that has two men in it. Rick is at the bar, mumbling about “all the gin joints in all the world…” and then he smashes his hand on the bar, and his face crumples. It’s so realistic it hurts to watch. My heart contracts. Pinprick tears come to my eyes. It’s a perfect scene.

This scene in Gone With The Wind is controversial. It’s not all fuzzy, soft, romantic. What I like about it is that Rhett Butler is so completely masculine in this scene. He no longer cares what she wants – he wants something and he’s going to take it. And then, the next morning – which is why I let the tape roll – she is absolutely flushed and happy and gorgeous. She sings a sweet little song and giggles. It’s the only scene in the whole movie where she’s really absolutely content, and I love it for that (the only other possible scene where she’s happy is the first scene when she’s sitting on the porch with the Tarleton twins, and even then she’s manipulating them. This scene has the advantage in that she’s completely genuine.)
The emotion is real between Scarlett and Rhett in those moments, even when he’s not in the room. Of course she ruins it moments later when he comes to check on her and to apologize for his behavior last night. But for that moment, I absolutely believe these two people are perfect for one another.

Love Actually. This is one scene broken into two pieces. The first piece is when Juliet realizes that her husband’s best friend, Mark, is in love with her. The moment he covers his face with his hands crushes me.

This scene has the background pop song, and the beautiful man in the beautiful, urbane city of London. It could have been too contrived but I think it succeeds beautifully.

Magnolia. It’s a dark film, and it features Tom Cruise at his greasiest, but its one of my favorites. I think I relate to Claudia in a lot of ways – though not the drugs. A neighbor calls the cops on her because her music is too loud and Jim is the policeman who checks on her. After hysterically trying to get the coke off the living room table, she lets him in. He tells her to turn down the volume of the music, and she does, but he doesn’t leave. He’s awkward. He asks for a cup of coffee. She wants this guy out of her house, but she doesn’t dare just tell him to get out – he’s a cop. And she’s got coke all over the house. So she gives him a cup, and after a little talk, he invites her out on a date. To get rid of him as much as anything else, Claudia agrees. In this scene, she’s just come back from the lav where she did a bump of coke. She’s very vulnerable. You feel like she might shatter right before your eyes, just come loose with all her insecurities and worries. And she does have worries. She’s been molested. She hates her father, who is dying of cancer. She’s messed up in a serious way. She’s shaking, scared or hopped up on drugs, all this anxiety shoots through her constantly, you don’t even know anymore what’s her personality and what are all these problems? She tells Jim he’s so together, he’s not like her, he’s so solid, he’s a good person, he’s strong. He confesses that he lost his gun while on duty today. Then they talk, surging into these insecurities, you just know that together, they really could be strong. Apart, they’re dust motes.

Moonlighting. Maddie and David finally do what they’ve been wanting to do for three seasons. I can’t get enough of David’s style: he upends furniture, kicks over flowerpots, and still manages to seem gentle.

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