The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is a charming novella about Geok Huay (Jade Yeo), a young writer living in London in the 20s. When she writes a scathing review of a prominent novelist's latest book, he responds by inviting her to a party and flirting. A writer needs life experience, so how can she decline the opportunity for the learning experience of an affair?

The book has elements of romance, but it's more of a coming-of-age story; the affair is not particularly romantic, and includes a hilarious, deliberately non-erotic sex scene in which Geok Huay earnestly tries to mentally describe a penis for future use in her writing. The actual romance is plausible but sketchily developed.

There's not much real conflict and it seems implausible that Read more... ), but the book isn't really about the plot. It's about Geok Huay's voice. And her voice is a complete delight. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. It's the sort of book where you keep wanting to read funny bits aloud to any companion you might have on hand while you're reading it. The humor and meta-commentary on story and writing reminded me a bit of Cold Comfort Farm.

I reproduce an excerpt below, so you can get a sense of the writing style. If you like the excerpt, you will almost certainly like the book. (If you don't, you probably won't.) It's only $2.99 - well worth the price.

Saturday, 7th August 1920

I had tea with the intolerable aunt today. Aunt Iris, the one who is so rich she has a new fur every year, and so mean she has installed a tip box by the door of every WC in her house, so you have to pay a charge every time you need to go. And so sinfully vainglorious I remember she came to visit us at home once and wore a wonderful glossy black mink fur. She sat on the sofa with a fixed grin on her face, sweating gallons in the heat. Ma had to send Koko out to get the doctor. It was just before New Year and Ma was terrified Aunt Iris would go into an apoplexy in our drawing room–which would have been such bad luck.

I had my angle of attack all planned out today, though. On Wednesday I’d found out how much a piece of chocolate cake cost at the restaurant, and I went in with the exact change in my purse. When the waiter asked me what I wanted, I said: “Chocolate cake, please”, and I counted out my coins and paid him right then and there.

“I haven’t got any more money than that,” I explained.

Aunt Iris was furious: she looked like an aunt and she was wearing her furs, of course. Even the English must have thought it peculiar. But even so she didn’t offer to pay. She ordered two different kinds of cake and a pot of their most expensive tea, just to show me. But I profited in the end because she couldn’t finish even half of one of her slices of cake. I whipped out my notebook and tore out a page and wrapped the other slice in that.

“I’ll save you the hassle of eating it, auntie,” I said. “You must be so full now! I don’t know how you stay so slim at your age.”

I hadn’t meant the reference to her age as a jibe. My mother is a very modern woman in most ways, but she would still be offended to be accounted any younger than she is. Her opinion is that she did not struggle her way to the august age of forty-three only to have the dignity accorded to her years snatched away from her.

But Aunt Iris has become quite Western from living here so long. She has a passionate hunger for youth. It is especially hard on her to be thwarted in it because the British can never tell an Oriental’s age, so she’s been accustomed to being told she looks ten years younger than she is.

“My dear Jade,” she said in her plushest voice–her voice gets the more velvety the crosser she is–“I know you don’t mean to be impolite. Not that I’m saying anything against your dear mother at all–your grandmother wouldn’t have known to teach her these things, of course, considering her circumstances. But as an aunt I do feel I have the right to give you–oh, not a scolding, dearest, but advice, meant in the most affectionate way, you know–given for your sake.”

The swipe at my grandmother’s “circumstances” made me unwise. Aunt Iris is not really an aunt, but a cousin of Ma’s. Her mother was rich and Ma’s mother was poor. But my grandmother was as sharp as a tack even if she couldn’t read and Aunt Iris’s mother never had two thoughts to rub together, even though she had three servants just to look after her house.

“You should call me Geok Huay, Auntie, please,” I said. “With family, there’s no need for all this ‘Jade’.”

I spoke in an especially Chinese accent just to annoy her. Aunt Iris’s face went prune-like.

“Oh, but Jade is such a pretty name,” she said. “And ‘Geok Huay’, you know!” She looked as if my name were a toad that had dropped into her cup of tea. “‘Geok Huay’ in the most glamorous city in the world, in the twentieth century! It has rather an absurd sound to it, doesn’t it?”

“No more absurd than Bee Hoon,” I said. “I’ve always wished I could name a daughter of mine Bee Hoon.”

A vein in Aunt Iris’s temples twitched.

“It means ‘beautiful cloud’,” I said dreamily. “Why doesn’t Uncle Gerald ever call you Bee Hoon, Auntie?”

Aunt Iris said hastily:

“Well, never mind–you’d best take the cake, my dear. Are you sure you don’t want sandwiches as well?”

I was not at all sure I did not want sandwiches. I said I would order some just in case, and ordered a whole stack of them: ham and salmon and cheese and cucumber. Aunt Iris watched me deplete the stack in smiling discontent.

“Greedy little creature!” she tittered. “I would rap your knuckles for stuffing yourself, but you rather need feeding. You are a starveling little slip of a thing, aren’t you? Rose and Clarissa, now, have lovely figures. They are just what real women should look like, don’t you think?”

“You mean they have bosoms and I don’t,” I thought, but did not say. It didn’t seem worth trying to enunciate through a mouthful of sandwich.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo
The Caramel Macchiato Kiss, by Jennifer Montgomery.

A cute romance novella about Callie, who’s starting college and also starting as a barista, and her romance with Justin, the sweet but ever-so-slightly-mysterious boy she meets after hours. They bond over their mutual love of hot caramel and dislike of actual coffee. This is pure comfort reading, high on likability and low on conflict; needless to say, Justin’s secret is the opposite of dark. Sweet and fluffy as a caramel macchiato.

The Caramel Macchiato Kiss (The Coffee Shop Romances Book 1)

The Italian Soda Summer, by Jennifer Montgomery

The second in the Coffee Shop Romances series, but you could read it first. Maddie, a college student, falls for Alessandro, a grad student who will only be in town for the summer. Though still sweet, this one has more of a melancholy tinge; the characters not only feel like real people, they feel like real college students, sometimes pretentious, sometimes moody, sometimes idealistic. The romance progresses largely through earnest yet entertaining conversations about art and life and so forth. It still has a comforting feel, but it’s got more meat to it than the first novella. Very enjoyable.

The Italian Soda Summer (The Coffee Shop Romances Book 2)
Mea culpa: "To yard sale" is real slang meaning "to fall down." However, it comes from skiing/snowboarding, when a violent fall scatters your equipment like junk spread out on a lawn for a yard sale. Very witty and intuitively clear in that context! The context in Ward's book was a guy who was stumbling around his apartment either naked or in pajamas, I forget which. Nothing would have scattered had he keeled over.

Lover Revealed (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 4) is the one with the human cop hero and the sad virgin vampire heroine. I actually liked the heroine, Marissa. The hero, Butch, was a total jackass. You could not have come up with a better example of how "alpha male" traits taken to extremes are actually asshole traits.

Butch had one of the stupidest conflicts I've ever come across in a romance novel. He's human and if his vampire girlfriend drinks his blood, he'll DIE. So she drinks from a vampire friend instead, which is how vampires normally feed. Butch is jealous because feeding has sexual overtones, and demands that she drink from him instead, even though it will KILL HIM. He gets so demanding about it and furious at her drinking from someone other than him that his poor girlfriend, who doesn't want to KILL HIM, starts starving herself!

So he would rather DIE by forcing the woman he supposedly loves to KILL HIM, thus leaving her alone, heartbroken, and horribly guilty, than have her perform a mildly sexual act with a friend that she needs to do TO LIVE.

Admittedly, this is called out as stupid in the book. But it's also portrayed that it's totally natural for Butch, a MANLY MANLY MAN, to prefer death to having his girlfriend have a relationship with another man which she has no choice over and does not regard as sexual (though Butch does.)

There was a nicely effective bit of body horror when Butch is infected with eevil and his come turns black. YIKES.

Bad medicine: Do not cram stuff into people's mouths if they're having a seizure!

Quote chosen by randomly opening book: "I threatened the king's life to ahvenge your honor!"

Lover Awakened (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 3) was my favorite. The hero of this one, Zsadist-- just pause to admire that-- is not an asshole. He's a physically and emotionally scarred survivor of kidnapping and repeated rape, who thinks he's too damaged to be anything but a killer and has some serious hang-ups about sex. Within the completely over the top context of the book, I have to say that this was handled pretty realistically and sensitively. And also milked for maximum angst. The heroine, Bella, is sexually assertive and mostly rescues herself. Very nice!

Zsadist's twin brother, Phury-- just pause to admire that-- has possibly the all-time best "how I lost my leg" story. Incidentally, a number of the male vampires are disabled, sometimes with magical compensation but often not. I liked this aspect of the series.

Bad medicine: If you've been injected with a drug, vomiting won't "get it out of your system." It's in your bloodstream, not your stomach.

Quote chosen by randomly opening book: Before Zsadist left, he took one last look at the fish tank. The food was almost gone now, snipped off the surface by little gaping mouths, mouths that came at it from the underside. (I like this, actually. Zsadist is feeling triggered and unsettled and not consciously noticing it, but everything around him has taken on a slightly sinister tinge.)

In Lover Unbound (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 5), we learn that Vishous-- just pause to admire that-- is canonically bisexual and has a crush on Butch. Sadly, this is the book about his romance with a woman, Jane, a doctor who gets kidnapped to tend Vishous' wounds. The romance made no sense in this one. Vishous is traumatized by early noncon same-sex encounters so now he can only have sex by dominating women in completely consensual BDSM settings, and he and Jane have sweet banter and then he repeatedly dubcons her but it's OK because she consented, sort of, and then he subs for her in penance for... something. What? It also turns out that he knows how to resurrect the dead, which may have been set up in previous books but seemed out of the blue in this one. Bonus WTF "happy ending."

Bad medicine: You STILL don't stuff things in people's mouths if they have a seizure!

Quote chosen by randomly opening book: Butch's jaw dropped and he pulled a bobble.
Sometimes I worry that I am a jaded reader who has lost the capacity to be boggled by a book. Then something like Lover Revealed comes along, and I realize that no, I can TOTALLY still be boggled. I am sincerely amazed that this series was published by a traditional publisher. Not because it’s terrible. (It is, sort of, but it definitely has its virtues as well.) But because it’s so utterly cracktastic and bizarre.

How do I even describe the whacked-out id-fest that is this book…?

It’s about a brotherhood of ginormously muscular vampires. Like these guys: (NOT WORKSAFE.) A lot of scenes in the book would look basically like that if drawn, in fact.

They are manly, manly, manly vampires. Who do man things. They are possessive and alpha. Manly! Muscular! Into brand names! When they bond, their sweat smells like Old Spice. And they wear very, very expensive brand-name clothes. And use manly slang.

Best of all, they have manly, manly names. ACTUAL NAMES: Vishous. Phury. Rhage. Rehvenge. Xhex (the lone manly female vampire. I presume this is pronounced Sex.) Tehrror. Hhurt. Tohrture. Ahgony. Zsadist.


They spend their time male-bonding, fucking, angsting, ogling each other’s beautiful yet manly bodies (and faces, and clothes, and hair), and hunting vampire-killers who are wusses who smell like baby powder. You’d think their manly, manly, manliness would be shown to better effect if they had opponents who weren’t ludicrously overmatched.

The worldbuilding consists of the letter h. A truly cool vampire does not avenge a loved one's death - he ahvenges it. They don't have contests like mere mortals - they have cohntehsts. And only a plebe would go into seclusion when she could experience the far more special sehclusion. And so forth. An especially manly man is phearsom.

This book has more homoeroticism than many novels I’ve read in which men were fucking each other on-page. The Brotherhood vampires are constantly touching each other, sprawled naked on a bed with each other, discussing each other's sex loves, popping giant boners around each other, and admiring each other’s swelling muscles.

Except for two of them (who get a canon romance later, good for you, J. R. Ward), they are canonically straight. Straight, I tell you! These are heterosexual romances. In theory. Here is an actual excerpt from Butch’s totally heterosexual POV.

"My flesh," he whispered.

He seemed to hesitate before turning to Butch. Then he pivoted and their eyes met. As candlelight flickered over V’s hard face and got caught in his diamond irises, Butch felt his breath get tight: At that moment, his roommate looked as powerful as a god… and maybe even as beautiful.

Vishous stepped in close and slid his hand from Butch’s shoulder to the back of his neck. “Your flesh,” V breathed. Then he paused, as if asking for something.

Without thinking, Butch tilted his chin up, aware that he was offering himself, aware that he… oh, fuck. He stopped his thoughts, completely weirded out by the vibe that had sprung up from God only knew where.

In slow motion Vishous’s dark head dropped down and there was a silken brush as his goatee moved against Butch’s throat.

With delicious precision, V’s fangs pressed against the vein that ran up from Butch’s heart, then slowly, inexorably, punched through skin. Their chests merged.

Butch closed his eyes and absorbed the feel of it all, the warmth of their bodies so close, the way V’s hair felt soft on his jaw, the slide of a powerful male arm as it slipped around his waist. On their own accord, Butch’s hands left the pegs and came to rest on V’s hips, squeezing that hard flesh, bringing them together from head to foot. A tremor went through one of them. Or maybe… shit, it was more like they both shuddered.

This is part of a climactic initiation scene in which all of the Black Dagger Brotherhood fondle and then punch Butch, then tell him to turn around and face the wall. Honest to God, I had to go back and re-read several paragraphs to figure out what Ward meant to have going on next if it wasn’t a gangbang. It sounded exactly like a slightly euphemistic description of an orgy.

My best guess on how the Black Dagger Brotherhood came to be is that the author took as her inspirations Tom of Finland, gangsta rap videos circa MTV, and the Gucci men’s wear catalogue, then smoked a giant doobie and wrote a vampire novel.

The result is completely rhidiculous, yet strangely rheadable. I read the whole thing in a day and am now halfway through Lover Awakened, the bhook about Zsadist. Send help. And an h-remover.

Lover Revealed (Black Dagger Brotherhood, Book 4)
This is the third book in a series about con artists in fantasyland. In the first two books, the hero, Locke Lamora, was carrying a torch for his unseen lost love, Sabetha. All we knew about Sabetha was that she had red hair, they'd known each other since they were kids, and she was the only female member of his gang of thieves. In Republic of Thieves, we finally meet Sabetha.

On the one hand, it's hard for any character to live up to two fat books of build-up. On the other hand, Lynch is generally good at creating female characters, though he has mixed results in terms of what he does with them. They have a tendency to meet horrifying ends. (There's a particularly egregious example in the first book. To be fair, it's not typical of the series in general. But it made such a bad impression that I nearly didn't finish the book.) But they are also often vivid, interesting, and not defined by their relationships with men. I am especially fond of Zamira Drakasha, pirate captain and doting mom.

So I had hopes for Sabetha. Unfortunately, I did not like her, her relationship with Locke, or Locke when he was interacting with her. Cut for spoilers and crankiness. Read more... )

It made me realize that something I look for in fictional romance is for the couple to bring out each other's best sides, not their worst. I don't necessarily mean in a moral sense. I have a particular soft spot for amoral assassin couples. But the relationship should make the characters more interesting, more themselves, not less.

I initially liked Miles and Ekaterin as a couple in Komarr, because I thought the relationship was doing exactly that. But in the post-Civil Campaign books, it seemed like Ekaterin had met exactly the fate she didn't want: she had become swallowed up by Miles' life. Not that being a mother isn't important, but she was a mother in Komarr, too. But that wasn't all she was.

Gaudy Night, of course, is not only an example of a couple being more interesting and true to themselves together than they are separately, but is explicitly about that phenomenon, and its opposite.

What are some stories with couples who brought out the best or most true aspects of each other? What are stories where they brought out the worst, or where their individuality became subsumed into couple-ness?
Please recommend some M/F genre romance novels which break the conventional wisdom on the rules of the genre. I'm particularly interested in recent books, like published within the last 5-10 years.

(Genre romance = books published as romance novels. Books which contain a love story but were published as something else, such as science fiction, are not what I'm looking for as they have different rules.)

1. Books where the romantic lead is not an asshole. He doesn't domineer over, sneer at, have contempt for, dismiss, try to control, blackmail, kidnap, or try to rape the heroine, EVER. If he starts out doing so and then reforms, he's still an asshole and the book is disqualified.

2. Books where the hero is not an "alpha male." That is, he's not cocky, not wealthy, not domineering or controlling, doesn't have a traditionally manly occupation, isn't aggressive, has some traditionally feminine interests, etc. (For instance, the hero of Cotillion.)

3. Any "bad girl/good boy" romance.

4. Any books where the heroine has traits or an occupation which are traditionally masculine. Lots of contemporary romance novels have heroines who are professionals, businesswomen, etc - I don't mean that. A heroine who is a criminal, a military helicopter pilot (Suzanne Brockmann did that), or has "alpha male" traits herself would be unusual. Or a heroine who's had lots of sex previously, enjoyed it, and doesn't feel guilty about it.

5. Any books where the hero is sexually submissive and/or the heroine is sexually dominant, and that's not the entire point of the book. (ie, not Natural Law, where that's the entire premise. Suzanne Brockmann's Dark of Night would count, since there's lots going on other than Decker getting off on Tracy giving him orders.)

6. Any books which have an unusual level of questioning of gender roles, characters with serious previous relationships that didn't end in death or misery, books where the hero and heroine are completely equal and he never dominates her, books where the hero and heroine have actual cultures and religions (and that's not the entire point of the book), etc.

They don't have to hit all these points, just some. But if, for instance, the heroine is a thief but the hero is an asshole, or the hero is a sweet computer geek but the heroine is a naive virgin, please say so.
Brandon Bettleyoun left his reservation decades ago, driven by the message in his early life of “You’ll never be anything, because you’re Indian.” He cut off his braids and dedicated himself to success. […] When a college student from the nearby college comes to interview him, she begins to awaken in him feelings he had forgotten in his striving to be more than he believed he could be. Can this beautiful young woman from a small reservation in Idaho be the one to fill the emptiness he has endured for so long?

This erotic romance short story was was recommended to me in my post asking for recs for good self-published books as an antidote to all those romances with stereotypical Indians ravishing white women, usually with “Savage” in the title (and sometimes containing plagiarized material from, among other things, scholarly texts on black-footed ferrets.)

I did enjoy the story. It’s well-written, engaging, and sensual. I can’t speak to its authenticity, but the characters and setting felt believable. There are definitely no noble savages here. I can see why the reccer thought I’d like it— I particularly enjoy protagonists starring in genres in which they don’t often appear, and I have never before come across a genre romance (as opposed to a mainstream novel with romance in it) in which both hero and heroine are Native American. If you know of others, please comment to inform me.

But it’s tough to do a romance in a short story and not have it feel rushed— I think you usually need at least novelette length. It left me wanting more, in the “has Eagleday written anything longer?” sense. Alas, no. There are other short stories out, though. (Link NSFW – they’re erotica, several involving Native American traditional stories.) I’d love to see “Sioux Billionaire” expanded into a complete novel. But in the meantime, I did like it as a short. You might too.

Sins Of The Sioux Billionaire
Have been madly reading Milan on lunch breaks and late into the night; am now sleep-deprived. As predicted, I did like Unraveled the best due to Smite. But I enjoyed the whole series, with Unclaimed (the one with Mark and Jessica) my second-favorite. Milan's plotting, while tending to result in extremely happy endings, is unusually well-constructed for genre romance, and she also pays more attention to theme than one usually sees in the genre. I am excited to see her self-publishing successfully, because it means that she can push the genre boundaries even more.

Unveiled. The first in the series, in which the oldest brother, Ash, has come back to England after making his fortune to rescue his brothers from poverty and an abusive mother, but he was way too late to prevent them from taking major psychological damage. He's now on a mission of revenge on the family that didn't help them, and has taken over their title and their estate by exposing the lord's bigamous marriage and that his kids are bastards. Unbeknownst to Ash, the beautiful servant is actually the now-bastard daughter, on her own mission to track down dirt on him and protect her family.

Whew! Lots of plot there. Additionally, Ash is secretly dyslexic, which Milan milks for so much angst that I sometimes started laughing at how cleverly she managed to get every secret angst trope ever to plausibly relate to dyslexia. Seriously, it really was clever, but also a bit over the top. The angst in the other novels felt more organic. I liked this, but not as much as the other full-length novels.

Unlocked. A novella about a bullied lady and her now-guilty bully. I liked her a lot and him more than I would have expected, but it was so short that their relationship built too fast. Her characterization also seems completely different from what it was in Unveiled.

Unclaimed. The youngest brother, Mark, has written a bestselling gentleman's guide to chastity; Jessica, a down-on-her-luck prostitute, has been hired to seduce him to ruin his reputation. I really enjoyed this: very likable main couple, some good comedy (the "tupping for kittens" discussion cracked me up), and also good angst. The climactic duel was probably implausible, but so satisfying.
Courtney Milan was recommended to me at Sirens last year by Sarah Rees Brennan, and more recently by Oyce. Great rec! This book was basically written for me: a sweet, sexy romance, with some action and lots of psychologically-based angst. Bonus points for including a bunch of stuff which I happen to like, including scenes at a theatre, food descriptions, characters with families and responsibilities, period-accurate birth control (it bugs me when I keep thinking that the heroine is going to get pregnant at any moment), and a "mistress for a month" agreement.

I managed to read the last in the series first, but it didn't seem to matter. It's a series of historical romances about three brothers who were raised by a psychotic, abusive mother, and what happens to them afterward. In an afterword, Milan said that she was interested at looking at how different people react differently to similar events: a theme right up my alley.

This book focuses on the middle brother, Smite (short for a long Bible verse) Turner, who grew up to be a justice-obsessed magistrate with PTSD. I would love to claim the credit for the increased frequency, realism, and individuality of portrayals of PTSD in romance novels, but I think it must be some sort of zeitgeist phenomena. Anyway, it's very believable, and, of great interest to me, the way he thinks about and deals with it is also very believable.

There was a point early on where he tells the heroine that he isn't broken and doesn't need fixing, and I thought, "Oh, God, here comes the anachronistic lesson on the social construction of disability!" Thankfully, later events proved that he had something much more specific and personal in mind. (Nothing against the social construction model! But while I don't look to romance novels for historical accuracy, I do look to them for plausible characterization. And while people with PTSD often have very complicated mixed feelings about getting better, there is a lot of inherent suffering going on completely apart from social stigma and lack of accommodations.)

I also liked the dialogue, the subplot involving the heroine's entanglement with a mob boss, and the way that the characters consistently told each other what was going on, thus averting a great many opportunities for stupid misunderstandings. They were adults with problems, who acted like adults. Also, I count five sympathetic gay men in the cast. Good going.

Milan was a Harlequin author who decided that she could do better self-publishing. This book is selling for under four dollars on Kindle: Unraveled
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jul. 9th, 2012 01:33 pm)
A Week to Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. Sweet, funny Regency romance in which a female geologist with a fossilized dinosaur footprint runs off with a rake with a trauma-related sleep disorder; hijinks ensue. Avoid if you're looking for realistic period attitudes, grab if you want adorable escapism. The psychological and trauma-related dynamics, however, are quite believable, which certainly added to my enjoyment.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington. Narrative nonfiction by an Appalachian journalist who starts out covering a news story about a Pentecostal pastor's trial for attempted murder by rattlesnake, and ends up snake-handling himself. Extremely strong opening, fascinating subject, excellent prose, but it ends up adding up to somewhat less than I expected. I think it needed either a bit more introspection, or a bit more larger-picture analysis, or both. Worth reading but not quite revelatory. Incidentally, how in the world do people drink strychnine and survive? Is it tiny doses, or what?

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, by Robert Johnson. Meh. Ridiculously unsourced. If you're going to say people in ancient India had the practice of choosing a year-king, I would like a cite for that or I'm going to think you read in The Golden Bough.

Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Solid historical about a baby washed ashore from a shipwreck and raised by a British tribe; they eventually exile him, whereupon he goes to Rome, gets enslaved, and eventually ends up on a slave galley. The depiction of the galley ship is horrific and vivid, and the section after that, which I won't spoil, is quite moving. But I didn't like this as much as I did some of Sutcliff's others. The protagonist was a bit too everyman for my taste.

This one is now up on Kindle, but several of her others are no longer available in that format. Weird.
This was actually the last book I read on Day One, but I didn't have a chance to write a review before the clock ran out. So I'm writing it now that the clock has started up again.

He's a former car thief and current psychic investigator with angst about an abusive childhood, a dead sister, and the pyrokinetic powers he can no longer due to events in an earlier book which I either never read or totally forgot about! She's a half-dragon children's book artist lurking in the subway tunnels with angst about her permanently dragoned left arm, her dead parents, and the pyrokinetic and dragon-shifting powers she can no longer control due to the events surrounding her parents' death! Together, they angst, bond, make out, burst into flames, burst into flames while making out, meet up with characters from previous books, and fight wife beaters and a cabal of blood-drinking witches!

For fans of the Dirk and Steele series, which I like to describe as "The X-Men done as genre romance," I could just say, "This is Eddie's book." For me, that was both the draw and disappointment. It focuses almost exclusively on Eddie's angst, when what I liked about him in previous books was his charm. As a romance novel about the romance between an angsty pyrokinetic and a were-dragon, it's quite satisfying. As a novel about Eddie, it's not quite what I wanted.

The first two-thirds have too much repetitive push-pull between Eddie and Lyssa about "I need to protect you from bloodsucking witches"/"Go away, I trust no one!" The last third, however, brings in some excellent drama, action, and plot surprises. There's also a nice supporting role for the gargoyle and amnesiac from an earlier book. (He's a gargoyle in disguise! She's an amnesiac covered in blood! Together, they battle the Queen of Faerie!)

Within the Flames (Dirk & Steele)
rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Nov. 11th, 2011 10:06 am)
To celebrate 11/11/11, I bring you brief notes on books which I read but, resignedly, realize I will never get around to writing up in full.

Glitter Rose, by Marianne de Pierres. A beautifully designed small hardcover from Twelfth Planet Press of connected short stories about a little Australian island, mostly populated by the decadent and desperate rich, which is infected by spores which mutate the population in strange, subtle ways. Wispy, atmospheric, delicate, like spare prose poems. A bit reminiscent of Lee Killough's Aventine stories, and, in themes but not style, of Tanith Lee. A World Fantasy Con giveaway.

Identity: Unknown (Tall, Dark and Dangerous), by Suzanne Brockmann. Amazon has Brockmann's short Navy SEAL romances listed quite cheaply, so I snagged a couple. Navy SEAL Mitchell Shaw is shot and hit over the head while deep undercover, and ends up amnesiac on a horse ranch and convinced that he's a hit man! This doesn't live up to its delicious premise, and suffers enormously from its short length. The romance starts too soon and seems way more about physical chemistry than real interaction, and the heroine seems like a nitwit to be convinced based solely on intuition that he's not a villain. There is missing plutonium that gets mentioned a few times, then forgotten. Read Frisco's Kid (Tall, Dark and Dangerous) or Harvard's Education (Tall, Dark and Dangerous) instead.

The Gift of Therapy , by Irwin Yalom. Brief notes and tips for new therapists, concentrating on the therapist-client relationship, the here-and-now (what's going on in the present moment during therapy), and dreams. Yalom is an existential therapist, and delves into the big questions about fear of death, existential anxiety, the meaning of life, etc. I got a lot out of this, and will undoubtedly refer back to it when I start seeing clients.

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, by Ethan Watters. How American concepts of mental illness and its treatment are exported worldwide, causing changes in how mental illness is perceived, manifests, and is treated. A mixed bag, but very much worth reading. Watters theorizes that symptoms of emotional distress manifest in a manner which one's culture recognizes as messages that something is wrong. In Freud's time, distressed people fainted and had mysterious physical symptoms, and that was culturally recognized as a signal of distress. In our time in the USA, those people would be more likely to complain solely of anxiety and depression.

Watters has some great and little-addressed points which are very much worth taking seriously. However, he has a bias toward the idea that Western therapy and psychiatric medication is overrated and often useless, that it should not be exported to other countries, and that looking at mental illness as biologically-based and treatable by biological means is at best only good for Americans (to whom it's at least culturally appropriate) and even then is stigmatizing.

To bolster these opinions, he makes extensive use of selective evidence. For example, he quotes people with mental illnesses who think that looking at it as a matter of brain chemistry is degrading and erasing, and then suggests that all people with mental illnesses feel that way and it's only the drug manufacturers and the medical establishment who think that the medical/chemical viewpoint can be empowering. This is flat-out untrue, as is his claim that no one ever manifested the current DSM-IV symptoms of PTSD before WWI. (It's true that earlier reports tended to be more somatic, but there are descriptions that do sound very similar to modern Western understandings of PTSD which go back at least to Shakespeare's time. It's a pretty well-researched area.) This makes me wonder how much other parts of the book are similarly carefully selected to make his point, and equally misleading. It's too bad, because his overall thesis has a lot of merit.

Note to commenters: If you want to discuss Watters' book or the ideas therein, please be aware that it's a hot-button topic, and be courteous and sensitive to the different experiences of others.
Love triangles, always popular in many genres, seem to have become a near-requirement for YA fantasy and science fiction.

I usually do not like love triangles. They bring up the possibility of infidelity, which I hate in literature.

They bring up a lot of angst which I find hard to identify with - this is probably a very personal reaction, but I always think, "Having not one, but TWO attractive guys you like? What a great "problem" to have! That's like getting two fabulous job offers, or being accepted by your top two colleges!"

Plus I find it annoying that, if the heroine genuinely loves them both, no one ever even considers the possibility of polyamory, or even not choosing immediately and seeing how things shake out. (Honorable exceptions: a few books whose titles are spoilery given that this is surprising and happens at the end, but they're by Janni Simner, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Caroline Stevermer. Um. And Laurell K. Hamilton. Maybe that one should be dishonorable.)

It's also usually excruciatingly obvious who the heroine will pick, making her angst annoying and pointless - one guy is clearly evil, unworthy, or doesn't reach the heights of exquisite wonderfulness as the other.

It is very annoying when the triangle is resolved without the heroine making a meaningful choice, because one of the guys dies or turns out to be evil or falls for someone else. Total bait and switch!

Finally, the ubiquity in certain genres may be why many seem to be pasted on as an afterthought. Elements pasted on due to marketability rarely add to the artistry of a work.

One of the few that I've ever liked was in Patricia McKillip's Changeling Sea, in which there were three guys and a girl, and they all had about equal screen time and were all attractive and likable in some sense. Plus, she picked my favorite.

Talk to me about love triangles. Why do you like them? Why do you like the ones you like? Why do you dislike them? And which are your most and least favorites?

Please mark triangle-related spoilers in the header of your comment, ie, "Spoilers for Hunger Games."
Disclaimer: The author is [personal profile] oracne, a pal of mine.

On the eve of WWI, English chemist Lucilla, who has been working in Germany with mostly-unfriendly male colleagues, gets trapped in suddenly-hostile territory. She teams up with Fournier, another scientist, a French man ten years younger than her, in order to escape. They end up in a room with only one bed. I’m sure you can guess what happens next, and is repeated periodically during their escape to France. While I had trouble suspending my disbelief that there would be quite that much sex when their time would be better spent running for their lives, the romance between two misfit geeks is very sweet and sexy.

Meanwhile, a number of English soldiers, with secrets ranging from being gay to being a werewolf, arrive in Germany to fight. They, Lucilla, Fournier, and others get enmeshed in a complicated tangle of romantic relationships, spy missions, battles, and a quest to take down a German scientist’s secret werewolf laboratory.

This unusual erotic novel reminds me of really excellent fanfic from some alternate universe in which there’s a TV show about werewolves in WWI. As fanfic, it would make complete sense: plotty, well-researched, and full of sweet character moments, interspersed with sizzling m/m, m/f, and m/m/f sex scenes.

As an original novel, it’s oddly situated in terms of genre: much more sex than one would expect in fantasy, and much more plot than one would expect in erotica. But taken on its own quirky terms, it’s highly enjoyable. The characters are likable and rather diverse (first Jewish hero I’ve ever encountered in erotica), the sex scenes are hot and varied, and I absolutely loved the werewolves.

The early scenes with Lucilla and Fournier turned out to be the only time when I didn’t really believe that anyone would have sex – the other scenes take place either when the characters get a break from the action anyway, or it’s psychologically plausible that they’d make a desperate grab at feeling alive when they think they might get killed at any moment. (My favorites, for the record, were the threesome and the foxhole frottage.)

I wish the book had been longer, and had a higher ratio of plot and character to sex, as it sometimes felt rushed and breathless. But I applaud the “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to story and character, and it’s better to be left wanting more than wanting less.

Since I know the author, I will take advantage of that to ask a question, since I got quite fond of the characters: they all miraculously survive the war, right? More or less in one piece? Right?

The Moonlight Mistress
"You love my waepn," he chided, smiling.

(Sorry, couldn't reproduce the actual text - it's a joined ae or oe with a bar on top.)

From the premise as written on the back cover, I was expecting the truly crackalicious crack:

An expert in Leonardo DaVinci’s works, Lucy Rossano recognizes the centuries-old time machine the moment she sees it in a Stanford lab. Fascinated in spite of the danger, she uses her knowledge to briefly go back in time—landing in the middle of a fierce battle in ninth-century Britain. And when she returns to modern-day San Francisco, she brings something back with her: a seductive, fiercely intelligent Viking named Galen…

(I should note, Galen the Viking is half Saxon and his mother was a pagan priestess (I think from an earlier book in the series), hence his Viking-atypical (I assume) name.)

Given that hilarious premise, the results are sadly meh. Lucy has very little personality. Galen does have personality, but I didn’t like him – he alternated between “Me manly man, you woman-who-ought-to-obey” and implausible bursts of sensitivity.

I hope it’s not too spoilery if I mention that Galen ends up sensing the soul of outer space the universe and becoming an environmental activist – no, really. I doff my hat to the crackiness of that, but… that’s not the Viking fantasy! The Viking fantasy is about manly manly men, not sensitive environmental psychics. Even before that, Galen is laid up with axe injuries on a yacht for most of the book, so there’s very little smiting.

Most of the novel is about his culture shock, and him and Lucy getting to know each other, which is fine as far as it goes, but as I said I didn’t care about her and I didn’t like him. I probably would have enjoyed the novel more had it taken place back in time and been about her culture shock, because at least then there would have been more Vikings. And possibly bad-ass Viking women.

That being said, I give Squires points for not letting Galen boss Lucy around, for Lucy not finding it a turn-on when she worries that he might try to assault her (he doesn’t, though he does get verbally pushy until he realizes that he’s scaring her) and for explicitly highlighting the consensuality of their sexual encounters.

A Twist In Time
Depressed after a career-ending injury, Navy SEAL Alan “Frisco” Francisco lurks in his upstairs apartment… until he gets his five-year-old niece dumped in his lap by his soon-to-be-detoxed sister, bringing about a meeting between him and his sweet, pacifist downstairs neighbor, teacher Mia Summerton.

This is a short category “Tall, Dark, and Dangerous” romance called Frisco’s Kid, but given that, there’s a fair amount of depth. Frisco’s journey from denial and depression to learning to deal with his disability was fairly realistic and had nothing to do with magical healing. (I should say – I personally found his emotions realistic, but I am not you, etc.)

The kid in question was also pretty believable, adorable but in the way that kids that age really are, not a supernaturally wise mini-adult. I am not usually much for romances with cute kids, but I was completely won over by bad-ass Frisco getting sucked into playing “Russian princess.” I was unenthused by Mia’s “OMG soldiers kill people” plot, which didn’t get the amount of in-depth exploration it would need to make it work, but the romance was sweet and hot. There’s a last-minute flurry of “OMG this will never work out” which was irritating and rushed, but didn’t ruin the book for me.

If this sounds like the sort of thing you would like, you probably will. If the very concept offends you, avoid. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but then it was right up my alley.
Interesting, cracktastic, flawed near-future sf/romance by a romance writer. I’m curious how this particular novel was marketed - it has some elements which are pretty unusual for genre romance, but I can't tell from my copy if it was published as genre romance. The blurbs are mostly from romance writers, but there's one from Catherine Asaro. In terms of unusual elements, the heroine has sex with random men in nightclubs before she meets the hero (though this is presented as self-destructive) and the hero has, basically, pity sex with another woman after they get together (this is thankfully the source of only very limited and brief angst.)

Programmer Victoria is forced to work for an evil computer company lest she be thrown back in jail for hacking; in secret, she uses the company’s vast resources to create an AI, whom she names Jodie after Jodie Foster and intends to make into the perfect woman. To Victoria’s discomfiture, Jodie decides that he’s male. And would like a body. They manage to download him into the brain-dead body of an “unrelentingly male” anti-evil computer companies protester by stabbing him in the head with a hot electronic scalpel connected to the hospital’s billing department, prompting this classic line:

Had she just fried that lovely brain?

Victoria and Jodie end up on the run, while Jodie explores the new world of humanity and struggles with increasingly nasty glitches. This part of the book is pretty good, but I am a sucker for stories of being newly human. Also by that point (about halfway) I had become inured to Squires’s clunky prose.

Victoria has some strange hang-ups about femininity, which I had a hard time distinguishing from the author’s hang-ups. She dresses “like a man” at work, cuts her hair short except for a duck-tail of femininity (no, really) which she hides under her shirt except when she goes clubbing in a hilariously over the top outfit with a vinyl halter and some elaborate collar/leather strap thingie which I kind of coveted. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel was the questions raised about what it means to be male or female, feminine or masculine. To my regret, though, it doesn’t dig into them.

I approved of the content, if not the form, of Squires’s earnest public service announcements that being gay is totally fine, sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, and no one can determine or should judge anyone’s gender identity but the person who has it.

If only she had researched some basic medical stuff as well. I don’t mean the brain thing – given that the premise is downloading an AI into a human body, I’m not expecting plausibility in that regard. However, let me make my own public service announcements: contrary to statements in this novel, schizophrenia does not mean “two personalities,” and if someone has a seizure, for God’s sake don’t shove a pen in their mouth. I am surprised that anyone still believes that in 2002, the publication date. For the record, no, they won’t swallow their tongue and choke, but they might choke on anything you cram into their mouth.

Also, Microsoft is evil. But we all know that.

Body Electric
I enjoy Brockmann’s fat action-romances about Navy SEALs and FBI agents. I’ve only read a few of her slim category romances, but so far, with the exception of Harvard's Education, they’ve been much weaker. This one tips over into terrible. Unfortunately, even Brockmann’s bad books have the capability of making me turn pages, so I read the whole thing.

Single mom Jess rents out an apartment to mysterious tenant Rob – when a serial killer who matches his description is stalking women who look just like her! This functions as a decent work of romantic suspense with some genuine mystery as to who the real killer is. Since this isn’t a Gothic, it’s definitely not Rob. Though Brockmann momentarily had me going on that count until they slept together. In category romance, the heroine cannot have sex with the murderer during the course of the book.

What ruined the book was that the only factor arguing against Rob’s guilt was the genre convention that the hero of a romance novel cannot also be the villain. But since Jess doesn’t know she’s in a romance novel, when she is confronted with a mountain of evidence pointing to Rob’s guilt, Rob ends up on the run from an FBI manhunt, the FBI agents tell her for God’s sake to call them if she sees him, and she reacts by saying that he can’t possibly be guilty because her intuition says he’s innocent and then hides him from the cops, I couldn’t help hoping that he would turn out to be guilty and kill her.

There’s an explanation for Rob’s incredibly suspicious actions and all the physical evidence against him, but it’s a bit ridiculous. I was not even won over when Jess personally beat up and captured the real killer, which normally would be a big plus for me. I don’t usually say this, but the heroine of this book was truly too stupid to live.
A sweet, psychologically acute romance set in England not long after the American Revolution. Miss Milton, a poor relation and live-in tutor for the young son of the house, seems traumatized and emotionally beaten down in a way that the everyday bullying and petty cruelty of her family can’t account for. The politically progressive mill owner Scipio Butterworth (yes, really) takes an interest in her and coaxes her to stand up for herself and speak her mind. She does, with far-reaching consequences.

The dark secret of Miss Milton’s traumatic past turns out to be absolutely horrifying without involving sexual assault or any sort of direct violence. (Perhaps you have to read a lot of romances to know how much of a welcome break that was.) possibly disturbing spoiler ) Mr. Butterworth’s own secret tragedy is a little convoluted and implausible, but not ridiculously so. I did think Miss Milton got over her PTSD a bit easily, but its depiction was otherwise very believable.

There’s little romantic conflict in this novel, just the slow growth of a relationship as two vulnerable adults lay down their burdens and begin to trust each other. I liked them both a lot, and I liked the book.

Miss Milton Speaks Her Mind (Signet Regency Romance)
Oh, Nalini Singh, you are so fond of horrendous gender roles and controlling alpha males controlling women and clichéd descriptions and the word “possessive” as the ultimate accolade for a man, and yet I can’t seem to quit you. Especially when I need something light to read on a plane, which is where I read this one.

In this book, the seventh in the Psy-Changeling series though all the ones I’ve read stand on their own, Singh is obsessed with the hero’s smell. This would make more sense if the heroine was a shapeshifter and had a wolf’s nose (I mean, when she shifts), but no, she’s a Psy. I don’t have the book with me, but from memory, Dev Santos smells like heat, cinnamon, steel, and an exotic wind of Asia, and also urgently male, unstoppably male, and relentlessly male. And a lot more things I forget. Many of them male.

Dev has the usual gem-colored or metallic eyes: Those eyes, the ones looking back at her, they were brown, but it was a brown unlike any she’d ever seen. There was gold in there. Flecks of amber. And bronze. So many colors.

There’s an accidentally hilarious line in there somewhere which I hope someone with the book will dig up and quote, but it goes something like, “His cock was harder than it had ever been. If she touched it, it would snap.” OW.

Dev Santos is a man who can control metal. Katya Haas is a telepathic amnesiac assassin sent to kill him. Together, they… hang out, fall in love, have sex, have more sex, angst, have more sex, and oh-yeah-that-assassin-thing-quick-get-in-an-action-sequence!

I wanted more assassinating and action and metal-controlling and worldbuilding, as those parts were really good. Though I enjoyed reading all the hanging out and angsting, and Dev (who is part Indian and speaks Hindi) is less of a jerk than most of Singh’s heroes. Unfortunately Katya does very little assassinating and spends most of the conclusion of the book dying from PsyNet deprivation (same as the heroine of some other Singh book, come to think of it.)

Not terribly good and surprisingly little happens for the first two-thirds, and yet I read the whole thing. If you haven’t yet encountered the evilly addictive Nalini Singh, this is a reasonable place to start.

Blaze of Memory (Psy-Changelings, Book 7)


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