How many feisty heroines does it take to change a lightbulb?

How many feisty heroines does it take to change a lightbulb?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Favorite Tropes: The Blockheaded Proposal

One of my favourite tropes in historical romance novels is what I call the blockheaded proposal: a gentleman proposing to his lady love so thoughtlessly that she inevitably rejects him. The granddaddy of these is, of course, Mr. Darcy’s offer of marriage to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, which he defends by stating that:

“Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? - to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?"

How could she possibly say no, right? Swoon.

So why do I like this trope so much? Because it sets the hero on the path to seeking that second chance, and the heroine on her own journey to reassess her perception of him. And for this to happen, there needs to be a transformation in the way each approaches the other, based on a renewed understanding of character. Because Mr. Darcy, after all, had logical explanations for Elizabeth’s accusations of his having foiled Bingley’s courtship of Jane and having left Mr. Wickham destitute. He just doesn’t see fit to share them, and it is this lack of transparency that hinders his own efforts with Elizabeth. He realizes this by the next day, and pens a long letter defending himself.

But, to his core, Darcy is a man for whom actions mean more than words, and who has no patience for social niceties and idle chatter. We see this in the way he handles the family scandal that eventually befalls Elizabeth. And because she has not understood his true nature yet, she believes that he has once more turned away from her, when in reality he’s protecting both of them as he makes arrangements for her youngest sister. At the same time, he has once again failed to make his behaviour understood to Elizabeth. The result is that what is to him merely the most efficient course of action to him seems like an act of mistrust and ruthlessness to Elizabeth. Happily, with Bingley’s return to Hertfordshire comes Elizabeth’s understanding that this is his way of making amends for his past treatment of Jane, and Darcy eventually gets his second chance. 

Another author who does this kind of misguided proposal/second chance story very elegantly is Mary Balogh. In Slightly Dangerous, for instance, Wulfric stumbles his way through not one but two blockheaded proposals - one of them in two parts. The first time he approaches Christine, though, it is to offer her a position as his mistress, since his mistress of ten years had recently died. He is, of course, in love with Christine, but avoiding any thoughts of marriage. He claims that it would be a “position of considerable prestige” and that she would have respect and every material comfort she could want. Except, of course, that she would be shunned by the ton. Christine is a widow, and therefore not an innocent; she’s impoverished in part due to a quarrel with her in-laws, but she likes her simple life and is not lured by the promise of jewels and carriages. She’s also mad at receiving this proposal:

“There is a world of difference, ma’am, between a whore and a duke’s mistress,” he said stiffly.

“Is there?” she asked him. “Merely because a whore ruts in a doorway for a penny while the mistress performs between silk sheets for a small fortune? Yet each one sells her body for money. I will not sell mine, your grace, though I thank you for your kind offer. I am honoured.” (Chapter 6)

Wulfric repeats this offer once more during their final evening at the house party, after their tryst at the lake. Or rather, he was about to propose marriage, but Christine interrupts him and he doesn’t correct her assumption that he was once again seeking to make her his mistress.

A short time after the house party, Wulfric travels to Christine’s village, with a marriage proposal that has echoes of Mr. Darcy’s:

“I find myself unable to stop thinking about you,” he said. “I have asked myself why I offered to make you my mistress rather than my wife and can find no satisfactory answer. There is no law to state that my position demands I marry a virgin or a lady who has not been previously married. There is no law that states that I must marry my social equal. And if your childless state after a marriage of several years denotes an inability to conceive, then that is no prohibitive impediment either… I choose to have you as my wife. I beg you to accept me.” (Chapter 10)

There are two layers to this proposal. One, from Wulfric’s perspective, is a declaration of choice. He is, as he states, free to choose any wife he wishes, and he has chosen Christine. It is as close to a declaration of love as he can attempt at this point in his romantic development. Also, it underlines his sense of duty to his family and title; Wulfric entered into his ducal duties at a young age, and he sometimes has a difficult time seeing - and showing - the man underneath the mantle.

Unfortunately, it is this arrogant determination that comes through for Christine. The words she fixates upon are the ones with negative connotations for her own station: virgin, not previously married, social equal. All the things she is not, with a presumed barrenness thrown in for good measure. Thus, Christine sees his choice as a capitulation instead of a heartfelt desire to be with her, and she calls him on what she feels is the most hurtful facet of his personality:

“A husband with a warm personality and human kindness and a sense of humour? Someone who loves people and children and frolicking and absurdity? Someone who is not obsessed with himself and his own consequence? Someone who is not ice to the very core? Someone with a heart? Someone to be a companion and friend and lover? This is everything I have ever dreamed of, your grace. Can offer it all to me? Or any of it? Any one thing?” (Chapter 10)

Wulfric does not believe he can, and this of course is the obstacle he will have to overcome if he wants a second - or third, in this case - chance to court Christine. But he does accept the challenge, and sets about the monumental task of hosting his own house party and showing Christine the carefree side he’s had to bury since his adolescence. Christine, for her part, will have to regain her own confidence following a widowhood fraught with bad memories and a reputation she has never understood could be atributed to her. That Wulfric helps her face her own demons and restore her good name and family relations ultimately helps strengthen the bond between them.

One final example, also by Balogh, is in The Proposal, the first book of her new Survivor’s Club series. The unique aspect of this story lies in the fact that Hugo Emes, though now a titled man, belongs to the middle class both by birth and mentality. The hardworking son of an equally hardworking businessman, he has a poor opinion of the idle nobility, and handles his attraction to Lady Muir with a great deal of resentment. He could marry her, but he does not want their worlds to cross.

Unfortunately, he soon finds himself needing help for his sister Constance, who does want to enjoy her newfound status by attending some ton events and being presented to upperclass society. Hugo, practical man that he is, thinks that having Gwen as a wife would make for a perfect solution:

“I need a wife. A woman who is accustomed to the life of the beau monde. A lady."

...

“Did you really expect me to marry you merely because your sister wishes to attend a ton ball?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Why did you come, then?” she asked.

...

Because I have not been able to get you out of my mind. Pride prevented him from saying any such thing. (Chapter 12)

Gwen eventually draws the truth from him - that his sister’s social life was not the only reason for the proposal - and invites him to court her while she sponsors Constance. And so the challenge is set. Hugo, of course, must overcome his insecurities and fear of losing his middle-class principles by joining the world of the nobility. He also as a good dose of survivor’s guilt to deal with concerning the events that earned him his title. For her own part, Gwen also has a suffocating web of traumatic memories to untangle herself from and make sense of. She feels reponsible for two deaths herself, and is also not always at ease in her social circles. How these two characters negotiate their pasts and find common ground defines that courtship that follows. They are, after all, not so very different.

There are many other novels we could discuss here: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, for example, where a high-handed “proposal” leads to the heroine shooting her suitor; or Stephanie Laurens’ Devil’s Bride, whose hero is not much better at expressing his wishes to marry. The titles I discussed in length here were recent reads that made me realize how much I enjoy this element.

The improper proposal trope is, as I mentioned, inevitably tied to the second chance trope, and for me this combination is irresistible. I especially enjoy it in historicals, where the rigid social rules make many of these relationships - and certainly the interactions they require - more of a challenge than in most contemporaries.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Drive Me Crazy... With Repetition! The Great Cut-and-Paste Disappointment

Book Links

Crash Into Me (Shaken Dirty 1), by Tracy Wolff

Drive Me Crazy (Shaken Dirty 2), by Tracy Wolff

Tease Me, by Tracy Wolff

 

I’ve been on a contemporary romance binge for the past few weeks (see my earlier post on Tessa Bailey for the extent of my obsession). Specifically, I’ve been reading through several titles in Entangled’s Brazen line. These are along the lines of Harlequin Blaze titles, for those more familiar with Harlequin; the only difference is that the Brazen titles are more explicit, with more emphasis on the alpha-ness of the heroes.

One of the latest titles I’ve enjoyed is Drive Me Crazy by Tracy Wolff. It’s the second in an ongoing series about a rock band called Shaken Dirty (the first book in the series is Crash Into Me), and I found the writing and characters very engaging. The third book seems to be slated for this year, with a fourth and fifth also in the works. I’ve tried preordering, since the titles of all five are on Goodreads, but can’t find them on Amazon or Kobo yet.

So I decided to check out more titles by Wolff, and went with Tease Me, a 2010 novel published by HEAT. The story concerns a true-crime author who also writes an anonymous erotic blog to give free rein to her fantasies, and a stockbroker-turned-carpenter who is the author’s neighbour and discovers her identity. Lacey has escaped an abusive relationship, and her current research is leading her to believe that the prostitution ring she had been writing about is actually a sex trafficking operation. I found this mix (her conflicted past, the subject matter of her research, and the way she handles her pent-up desires after a period of enforced celibacy) interesting because it added depth to Lacey’s character. Her chemistry with Byron was also well played.

But I started getting a sense of deja vu about the love scenes... So I checked, and sure enough, there are at least two sex scenes in Drive Me Crazy that are word-for-word the same (minus the names, obviously) as in Tease Me. I say "at least" because I'm only 1/4 of the way into Tease Me, so there may be more. But the actions, the dialogue, the exact freaking words were copied from one to the other.

Now this is an author repeating herself, which I guess isn't strictly plagiarism. Still, it's a lazy tactic, and really disappointing for this reader. The books may be four years apart, but for those reading them back-to-back, it's glaringly obvious and frustrating to see cut-and-paste writing like this.

I hope I don't run into any more examples like these in Tease Me/Drive Me Crazy. I also do plan to read more of the Shaken Dirty series, because I find the characters to be very engaging (if a wee bit angsty for my taste). I just hope I don't have more deja-vu moments like the one I just encountered. Because, as much as I’m also liking Tease Me, I’m wary of reading on and finding out that more scenes have been poached for later titles.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Author Spotlight: Tessa Bailey

Links

Tessa Bailey’s Website

Line of Duty Series

  1. Protecting What’s His, plus companion novella Protecting What’s Theirs
  2. His Risk to Take
  3. Officer Off Limits
  4. Asking for Trouble
  5. Staking His Claim

Unfixable (starring Willa from Protecting What’s His)

Baiting the Maid of Honor (part of the multi-author Wedding Dare series)

 

It’s hot over here at the Professor’s, and not just because of the summer temperatures. A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Mandi’s review over at Smexy Books and the web ads I’d been seeing everywhere, I picked up Baiting the Maid of Honor by Tessa Bailey. And then I picked up another book of hers. And another. And another. Suffice it to say that I, hardly a fast reader, went through her entire backlist in about a week. I’m still fanning myself.

So in the interest of any readers of hot contemporary romance who haven’t read any of Ms. Bailey’s books yet, I thought I’d do a different type of review post. First, though, keep in mind that Tessa Bailey’s heroes are:

  • total alphas
  • usually have a military/police background
  • super dirty talkers
  • fond of some of the kinkier varieties of sexytimes: you’ll be treated to some bondage, a bit of spanking, and lots of dominance in the bedroom (and the alley, and the countertop, and the pool table…)

The Line of Duty series is where Bailey has written most of her books. These take place between Chicago and New York City, and the heroes are all in the police force, with some also having military pasts. They’re used to being obeyed and thinking quickly and calmly through explosive situations (one is actually an explosives expert, another a hostage negotiator). So when each one in turn runs into a feisty gal, what could possibly go wrong?

Enter Bailey’s heroines: pool hustlers, runaways, schoolteachers, socialites… They come from all walks of life, but have many things in common. For one, they’re not going to let a domineering man push them around… unless they want him to. One of the things I enjoyed about the heroines in these novels was the fact that they really enjoyed their sexual encounters, even when these took them way out of their comfort zones. There were scenes that could have felt awkward, or even coerced, until we realize that the heroine is very much into the activity, trusts her man to see to her pleasure, and knows that she’s ultimately in control of the experience.

There’s also a sense of community, both friendship and family-based, that helps solidify the characters’ personalities. Most of the Line of Duty books feature the same circle of friends, as one after another of the tough cops falls for his lady. The women, too, have supportive, and often hilarious friendships. There’s a scene between two of the heroines, in Officer Off Limits that takes place in a bar during karaoke night and had my laughing so hard even my cat looked worried. Few books do this for me. The men, too, are shown in their wider circles of family and friends, so that even though these are not very long novels there’s a very definite sense of place and community established.

And then, of course, there’s the sex, which as I mentioned above is hot, hot, hot. Most of these (except Unfixable) are part of Entangled’s Brazen line, which according to its submission guidelines, requires at least 5 explicit sex scenes per manuscript. They’re also on the lookout for dirty talkers, for you aspiring (or veteran) authors out there.

So for the most part, I had a great week of reading. The only exceptions were the novella Protecting What’s Theirs and the new adult novel Unfixable. The former is a sequel to Derek and Ginger’s story in Protecting What’s His, and has the couple dealing with a potentially relationship-ending pair of conflicts. I must admit that I’m not terribly fond of sequels, although I do like to see former couples appear in later books of a series. I was happy with the ending of Protecting What’s His, and didn’t see the need for a follow-up. Also, I felt that Derek and Ginger did some things in the sequel that were really out of character for them.

As for Unfixable, the fact that it’s a new adult title means it comes with a set of quirks that I’m also not too much into: first-person narrative, lots of angst, and characters younger than I normally enjoy reading about. However, I did like Willa’s story. She and Ginger have a great relationship in Protecting What’s His, and I found her first-person voice to be sharp, funny, and insightful. And Shane, though also of the alpha variety, is not afraid to let his own vulnerabilities show. The biggest problem I had with Unfixable was its unexplainably poor editing. There were errors that should have been caught during the proofreading/editing process, including sentences that had been changed at some point but still contained fragments of their earlier versions. This might not bother some readers, but perhaps because I proofread and edit for a living, it drove me bonkers and generally interrupted the flow of the story. But again, I found the story very engrossing and read it in no time.

So there you go. A week’s worth of reading well spent with Tessa Bailey, whose name is now one of the few on my auto-buy list for romance authors.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review. Faro's Daughter, by Georgette Heyer

Book Link

Faro's Daughter, by Georgette Heyer

 

Faro’s Daughter has been my introduction to Georgette Heyer, and I had a blast reading this novel. After a string of bad-boy contemporaries, some better written than others, reading Heyer was like sipping a refreshing trou normand after a too-heavy first course. It also made me realize how much I’d missed reading good dialogue. Sometimes, I feel like physical interaction is used to replace a need for creative, intelligent conversation. Lengthy tales of emotional angst or repeated expressions of desire - hot as these may be- don’t usually count as creative and smart for me; they often seem to be just overtures to the sex scenes.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love hot reads, and in fact just glommed the entire Tessa Bailey catalogue in a week. But I also like to switch gears, and novels like Faro’s Daughter are perfect for this. Here’s a book where the hero and heroine don’t kiss until the last page, and whose ending leaves some interesting questions unanswered. Max and Deb do, indeed, agree to marry at the very end, but there’s no syrupy epilogue set months down the line, with a happily pregnant Deb or a completely changed-for-the-better Max. No, instead we’re left to wonder what the engagement announcement will do to the already tenuous relationship between Deb and Max’s families, and to imagine how they will handle the fallout. I really like that, because I’m not dead-set as a romance reader on having all ends tied neatly together. Love and family are messy, and unions have consequences.

One of these consequences will surely be the fireworks between Max and Deb as they renegotiate their relationship. For much of the novel, Max has been led to believe that Deb means to marry his cousin; Deb, for her part, thinks that Max hates her with a passion. The ultimate declaration of love has shades of Sense and Sensibility, with a shocked Deb bursting into tears at having her secret hopes dragged out into the light and fulfilled.

And, again, there’s the dialogue. Max and Deb’s exchanges are both elegant and punishing. Neither can back down from a challenge, nor stow away their pride, and they engage in an almost painful game to best each other. But we understand that these two fundamentally respect one another, and accept each other as worthy rivals. This leads to some hilarious scenes, like the dinner in Vauxhall or the cellar caper; but even at their craziest, Max and Deb play by honourable (to them) rules, and don’t strike out recklessly at one another.

Faro’s Daughter is a novel about gambling: not just because Deb works at a gambling house, but because every one of her daily actions feels like a carefully calculated risk. She plays matchmaker and saviour for various other characters based on her intuition of an outcome, but is also tricked herself on more than one occasion. And, while she steps on a few toes on the way to her own reckoning, she makes sure to soothe as many hurts as possible.

Serial Review. The Kraken King Part 8, by Meljean Brook (Plus Some Final Thoughts)

Book Link

The Kraken King Part 8, by Meljean Brook

 

And so it ends, right where it began: in Krakentown, with Ariq in command. This time, however, Zenobia is no longer the Scribbling Spinster (I won’t spoil the nickname she finally chooses for herself at the close of the instalment) and is no longer forever running from danger. In fact she decides to head straight for it, with a firm conviction that the pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. In other words, because she knows that the victor writes the story, she has decided that no matter the outcome of Ariq’s final battle, the truth will be out there.

This final instalment has breathtaking scenes: the rallying of Krakentown, the uncovering of the Skybreaker, and Zenobia’s rebirth as a chronicler of truth and justice and victory. Because, in the end, The Kraken King is a story of stories: the stories we tell to chase away the darkness, to give us courage, and to find kindred spirits across time and space.

I’m glad I took this journey, and more so that I stuck to my resolve and read just one episode per week. Far from forgetting details or losing interest, I found myself constantly haunted by The Kraken King’s characters and conflicts. I filled my reading time from one Sunday to the next with other books: historicals, contemporaries, fantasy, science fiction… But throughout the week, my thoughts would inevitably return to Ariq and Zenobia: wondering whether they’d finally surrender to one another, whether they could work out their fears and differences, and whether Krakentown would be saved without a bloodbath.

Serials are not, from the online conversations I’ve read, a favourite of many readers. It’s hard to trust an author enough to believe that there will be a next instalment, that it will be worth the wait, and that it’s not just a chopped-up novel presented in parts. For me, each episode of The Kraken King felt self-contained (thanks to a different setting for each) while retaining continuity; there were some cliffhangers, but for me they just heightened the anticipation rather than instilling frustration.

I’ll be returning to the Iron Seas world soon. But until then: So long, and thanks for all the kraken!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Serial Review. The Kraken King Part 7, by Meljean Brook

Book Link

The Kraken King Part 7, by Meljean Brook

 

Following the schedule I’d set for myself, I did actually read this a week ago; I’m just late with the review. In fact, yesterday I finished the last part of the serial, so it will be a double-Kraken week here at the Professor’s.

So, what to say about Part 7? In terms of the broader plot of the novel (Ariq’s fight to save his town, and his and Zenobia’s captivity), this instalment provides an important turning point. Ariq is, by this point, fully committed to winning over Zenobia; however, he also needs to see to his political duties, and he finds himself fighting a battle on two fronts. However, both parts come together once the Empress and her Captain decide they want the location of the Skybreaker.

Once again, Brook creates incredible secondary characters in the Empress (or rather, the automaton that represents her) and her Captain, a woman who brings an uneasy combination of honor-bound duty and grudging respect towards Ariq to the negotiation table.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that this episode is quite harrowing at times; Ariq has a plan to best the Empress, but it might mean destroying his relationship with Zenobia. He also has an argument with Zenobia that has her rethinking their relationship until a series of events force her to make a final decision. The final scene is exhilarating, and begins a journey back to the place where it all started: Krakentown.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review. Whisper Falls, by Toni Blake

Book Link

Whisper Falls, by Toni Blake

 

Sometimes, I'm glad when I decide to give a book a second chance. My usual reading rule is that, if I don't like what I'm reading by the time I've hit the 10% mark (I usually read on my Kindle), it's off to the DNF pile. But some books seem to demand a bit more, because while I may not like them at 10%, I have this feeling that if I just hang on a little longer...

And this is what happened with Whisper Falls. At the start of the novel, I was put off by certain stylistic quirks that, while they never disappeared, seemed to fade into the background once I got into the story. Also, this is a novel whose heroine has Crohn's Disease, an illness that for many people means a serious disruption in their intimate relationships. I found this a fascinating enough premise that I decided to keep reading.

Nevertheless, while Tessa has an illness that has forced her to give up a beloved job in the big city and move back to her small hometown, Crohn's does not define her. She has a couple of flare-up episodes throughout the novel, but her illness is just one part of who she is. She herself has decided that her health issues will not define her, so while this aspect of the novel is important, it never becomes a heavy focus for either Tessa or the reader. We accept early on that Tessa is sick enough that she's had to make important changes in her life, but her determination to enjoy life shines right through these circumstances, and is one of the aspects that attracts Lucky to her.

I found Lucky himself to be a welcome change from previous bad boy heroes I'd read recently. I read Whisper Falls on the heels of Motorcycle Man and, though Lucky and Tack have shared many of the same life experiences as members of motorcycle clubs, I found that of the two Lucky seemed more real, like someone I might acually run into. While Tack is larger than life, Lucky is a quiet man who has decided to play the part of prodigal son and try to make amends for his past. When we meet him, he has set up shop in an isolated house next to Tessa's property. Both Lucky and Tessa want to be alone, albeit for different reasons. Tessa wants a safe place close to nature where she can retreat during her health episodes; Lucky's home is more like a base of operations, where he can rebuild and redefine himself before re-entering society. Lucky returns to Destiny to escape a dangerous past, run his motorcycle painting business, and create a comfortable part-time home for the ten-year-old son he recently discovered he had. They're both hermits with very specific reasons for not wanting romantic entanglements, but once they meet they find themselves negotiating a place for the other in their lives.

One of the things I really liked about Tessa and Lucky's relationship is that its slow, tentative progress seemed very true to life. It takes them time to trust each other; Tessa especially needs to trust that Lucky will eventually reveal certain details about his past that he thinks might put her in danger. She does falter at a crucial moment in their relationship, when he's contemplating something that she can't just accept as part of who he is now. But, for much of the story, Tessa defends Lucky with all her heart agains the family and friends who refuse to believe he's a changed man. Best of all, the resolution to their central conflict is, again, realistic: with some rough edges and the understanding that they might have to face similar issues in the future. There's a happily-ever-after for sure, but tempered with the knowledge that Lucky's past might return to haunt them in the future. The novel doesn't shy away from the fact that Lucky has done some terrible things, and that consequences don't simply disappear when one falls in love.

And those quirks that had put me off at the beginning? My biggest issue was one of writing style: the constant, repeated use of ellipses in both internal monologue and dialogue. Every character thinks and speaks like this, and I found it very distracting once in a while. I think ellipses are best used very sparingly, lest they make the text sound unintentionally overwrought with drama. The other problems, as I said, faded into the background as I kept reading, to the point where now I only remember a wonderfully bittersweet story with complex characters and a well-developed setting. Whisper Falls is just one novel in Blake's Destiny series, and I'll definitely revisit this town in the near future.