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Best of 2017 Part 2: Best Historical Romance and Paranormal Romance

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When I dove into romance I binged on Historical Romance to the point I burnt out. I had to challenge myself to read Historical Romance. Eventually I discovered that I needed to start reading outside Regency-wallpaper romances to rekindle my love for the sub-genre.  The last couple of years have been particularly rich in fantastic historical romance that goes beyond ballrooms and dukes. 

For Best Historical Romance my nominees were Fair, Bright and Terrible by Elizabeth Kingston, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole, & Lisa Kleypas’s A Devil in Spring but if I could nominated five I would have also nominated The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare and K.J. Charles 's An Unnatural Vice.

I adored Kingston's The King's Man, so I was really looking forward to the sequel,  Fair, Bright and Terrible by Elizabeth Kingston. I was shocked however to learn that the heroine would be Eluned, Gwellian's rebel mother, who was one of the chief antagonists in the King's Man. Kingston however compelled me to fall in love for this revenge-minded and vicious heroine.  It is a second chance at love story, as after the death of her mad abusive husband in the Holy Lands, King Edward seeks to solidify his hold on Welsh lands by forcing her to marry one his men, Robert de Lascaux.  Eluned and Robert had a costly affair when they were both young and Robert has never stopped loving her.  Eluned however paid a deep price for their love affair and is not eager to give up her power, lands and position to a new English Lord, even if he was once her beloved lover. Their journey from vengeance and pain to trust and love was amazing.  I loved the richness of Kingston's storytelling, the way she handles religion, personal faith and politics is intricate and remarkable. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it and if you are an audio fan, both the books are superbly narrated by Nicholas Boulton, one of the best romance narrators around.

516WEHK17LLAlyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union is a spy-thriller set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Ellie Burns's photographic memory once made her performer on the abolitionist circuit , but the former slave now serves the Union as part of the Loyal League, a network of black spies. She has infiltrated the home of a Confederate politician when her mission is endangered by the arrival of another Union spy, Malcom McCall, a Scottish immigrant and one of Pinkerton's agents.

I loved Ellie, righteous anger and disgust and incredibly bravery.  She is witty, cynical about men, white men in particular and determined to do all she can to make sure the Union wins. 

61DtVTVlHSLLisa Kleypas's Devil in Spring is the sequel I didn't really mean to read but that I loved anyway. I was distinctly underwhelmed by the first book in this series, as the hero and heroine hardly spent anytime together, and although I bought Marrying Winterbourne, I didn't ever get around to reading it. However, after hearing interesting things from trusted romance reading friends, I decided to try the sample and I was delighted by Pandora. One of the wild Ravenel sisters that steal the first book, Pandora is determined to avoid marriage, so she may launch her own game-manufacturing company. However an act of kindness and clumsiness entrap both Pandora and  Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, the son of Evie and Sebastian from Kleypas's treasured classic Devil in Winter, in an engagment.

This book has some flaws, mostly in the third half when the plot goes sideways, but Pandora is one of the most enjoyable Regency heroines I have read in a good while.

51P7cOTXSrLHowever I could have easily nominated Tessa Dare's delightful and fanciful, The Duchess Deal. The Duchess Deal is more fairy-tale than Regency romance, as many almost fantastical events move the plot forward but the romance was just so tender and sweet that like most Tessa Dare romances, it overcomes all sorts of ridiculous premises. It doesn't quite matter how ridiculous it would be that a Duke would insist on marrying an impoverished seamstress so that he may spite the fiancee that abandoned him when he returned dramatically scarred from the Continental Wars, because story feels right.  The book leans into the ridiculous at points, with Emma giving the Duke new nicknames each day and Ashbury's adventures as a nighttime vigilante.

I very  much enjoy Dare's sense of humor and find her fun to read. She frequently makes me laugh, which is something I look for in fluffy reads, but she also tackle a great deal emotional territory. I particularly appreciated the scene where the Duke struggles to understand and comfort the Emma when she is having a panic attack. It wasn't gritty or eloquent but it felt very very familiar.

She clung to his waistcoat. “This just h-happens sometimes.” He tightened his arms about her. “I’m here,” he murmured. “I’m here.” He didn’t ask her any further questions, but he couldn’t help but think them.

 

51EKw4JefHL._SY346_I adored K.J.Charles's Sins of the Cities series ( I reviewed the whole series for RT). The books are set in a colorful and diverse London that is rarely depicted in romance novels and never as vividly. An Unnatural Vice is the story of Nathaniel Roy, an investigative journalist pressured by his boss to take on the incredibly popular spiritualists, who were all the rage in Victorian London. His skepticism meets its match in Justin Lazarus, the gifted amoral grifter known as the Seer of London, and one my favorite K.J. Charles characters yet.  

K.J.Charles did a fantastic job juggling the overarching series mystery with the more personal and deadly danger Justin and Nathan find themselves caught up in.  I was fascinated by the way Charles was able to resolve the conflicts between Justin and Nathan, to provide them with a believable HEA. 

 

My nominations for Best Paranormal Romance were Wildfire (Book 3 in the Hidden Legacy series), Silver Silence by Nalini Singh (Book 1 in her new Psy-Changeling Series, Trinity) and Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop.

27422533There are very few authors for whom I consistently pay full price for on release day, no questions asked, that small circle includes these authors.

I have consistently enjoyed Gordon and Ilona Andrew's Urban Fantasy and PNR novels but the Hidden Legacy series has all the elements that made the other series work for me mixed together in just the right way.  I love Nevada, her self-sacrifice, and determination to take care of her family. I love her family, her wacky sisters, her funny cousins, and her quirky and determined mom and grandmother.  I really like Rogan and the arc the Andrews have given to him, from almost feral despot, to a dangerous and still unpredictable leader who trust Nevada as partner in all ways, and is determined to make sure the Nevada and her family have all the choices they deserve.

I really hope we see way more books set in this world. I am pretty done with Rogan and Nevada as leads, but I am eager to follow so many of the other characters in this series into magical mayhem.  These books are also excellent audio books. Renee Raudman once again pairs up with Andrews to deliver an engrossing performance.

51kN6kL1f7L._SY346_I was thrilled to see Nalini Singh embrace a new more inclusive direction in the her new Psy-Changeling series, Trinity.  Silver Silence is the story of Silver Mercant and Valentin Nikoleav.

Valentin is sweet, determined Bear Shifter who is determined to breakthrough Silver' icy silence, but he gets consent.  

In Silver Silence, Valentin does not proceed without Silver's explicit consent. He is blunt, determined and stubborn but he respects Silver's choices even when it hurts him.  He encourages her and makes sure she has everything she needs. His protectiveness does not make her world smaller. Silver is presented as more powerful than Valentin in all ways but the physically, and that he is not threatened by her prominent global position but instead actively supportive of it.  Valentin's love for Silver is self-sacrificial, and constant when many would have given up. Singh does a great job presenting this as fidelity not simply stubbornness.

"Who are you to me?" 
"Yours," he said, "I'm yours."

From my July 2017 review

51l5ne9mCDL._SY346_ Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop is the last book of a fascinating but often frustrating series for romance readers like myself who are used to more romantic progression and heat. But the series and its sprawling cast captured my heart and imagination.

In this novel Bishop resolves Meg and Simon's long-standing but unacknowledged love for one another. The whole world is changed by their relationship even if they don't know quite how to articulate what they are one another.  I left the series feeling satisfied and impressed after a few re-reads of the whole series highlighted to me how many themes and threads from the first books are tied up in the fifth book. 

However the book was also partly a set up for Bishop future novels set in the world of the Others as she expands the focus away from the Courtyard to new satellite communities.  I am eager to see what dangers and wonders those stories will dwell on.

 Next up:  Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Romance!


RT Book Review Round-up: An Unsuitable Heir by K.J. Charles

51cU572odJLI really loved An Unsuitable Heir by K.J. Charles.  My review for RT was super-positive, 4 1/2 Stars Top Pick, as I felt it was a fantastic conclusion to what has been a fantastic series by Charles.  

In her final Sins of the Cities novel, Charles once again makes consent, recognition and acceptance gloriously romantic and she crafts a tense and suspenseful story resolving the series-long mystery. When conflicting loyalties and differing definitions of security and safety lead to a betrayal that imperils Pen and Mark’s budding relationship, heartbreak seems inevitable. However, Charles’ solution is deeply satisfying. In this conclusion, Charles deftly ties together series events and themes and delivers an optimistic and sweet ending worthy of its captivating and resilient characters

However as I read reviews from trans and genderfluid folk, I've come to realize that I missed some dynamics that are worth noting particularly on the themes of recognition and acceptance. 

This thread by Corey Alexander was particularly helpful in recognizing what stuff I missed:

Particularly this section:

So while I still loved the book overall, these #ownvoices reviews illustrated for me the vital context I was missing that make me rethink my super-positive take on the book.

 


These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer (Alastair-Audley 1)

Heyer_These_Old_ShadesThese Old Shades was delightful. I really didn’t know what to make of it when I first started reading.  I love foppish heroes that are deceptive, perspective and dangerous and it was clear from the first page Justin Alastair would be all three.

“He walked mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose-lines, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast. A three-cornered hat, point-edged, was set upon his powdered wig and in his hand he carried a long beribboned cane.”

The book opens with Justin, the Duke of Avon buying a young man from his abusive older brother to turn him into his page.  The boy, Léon, is slavishly grateful, to the consternation of everyone but the Duke. The Duke of Avon is known to all as Satanas, He has a terrible reputation for heartlessness and selfishness.  In his youth he recklessly lost one fortune and won another and since then has cut a swath through polite society, careening from one scandal to another. He is untouchable, crowds part for him, and he floats through parties being coldly superior. He does have one good friend, Hugh Davenant, who is both kind and sober and hints that Justin is redeemable hero, but even he is concerned about what Justin might be up to with the boy.  

Of course, Léon does turns out to be Léonie. I am not actually a fan of most “girls in boys pants” books. Too often the books end up having homophobic or transphobic passages where the hero is discomfited by his increasing attraction to the young-man/heroine or angry at being mislead. However this is not just a girl-running-around-in boys-clothes-for-a-lark story.  Léonie has been living as as boy for all of her adolescence and is loathe to return to being a girl. Although she changes her clothes and grows out her hair, she never quite let go of her boyishness. And Avon never goes around objectifying her when she wears her trousers. Although she is much admired as Léon the page, it is accepted as a matter of course that one’s page should be decorative.  It is only Rupert, Avon’s clumsy and sometimes boorish brother that ever makes an overt comment about Léonie figure in her trousers. Img_4807

I did love how Léonie’s “boyish habits” are marked contrasts to Avon. Her impulsive physical responses, her blood-thirstiness contrast against Avon’s cold planning and reserve.  She is forever threatening people with guns or chasing them around with rapiers, while he defeats the villain not by physically overpowering him but by outmaneuvering him through insinuation and storytelling. Léonie is forever chasing or running and Avon is just there at the right time and place looking completely unruffled, his only weapon, his fan. He is masterful and powerful without the over-used masculine signifiers.

I was  amused and a bit surprised by the blatancy of the D/s dynamic in play in Justin and Léon’s interactions. Their is not merely a master-servant relationship as Heyer loves to contrast how Avon’s employee’s respond to him versus how Léon does. No other servant thirst for Avon’s approbation in the same way and he certainly does not pet them.  Maybe it is all the BDSM themed novels I read in the last few years talking, but I couldn’t unsee once I did.  

(Sidenote: Heyer does a fabulous job humanizing the servants both in their scenes below stairs and in their reactions to the many ridiculous tasks they are asked achieve and I particularly like the subtle ways Léon/Léonie interacts with them)

51iKLd8g-CL._AA300_I was worried early on that Heyer wouldn’t address the very real power-differential between them so I could accept Léonie’s ability to fully consent, since he had literally bought her but she managed to do while not abandoning their dynamic. Instead it morphs, Léonie becomes his ward, he informally adopts her and refers to her as his Infant. Thankfully she never calls him Daddy or Papa, Justin is always her “Monseigneur”.  Avon largely removes himself from Léonie’s life, sending her to stay in his country estate and  entrusting her to care of his sister and cousin. Under this arrangement Léonie grows in confidence, and tests out her assertiveness.  While she was Léon, the page,  Avon had already given her more leave to question and be contrary than he did with the rest of his employees, but as his ward, she test out her power against her new guardians, Avon’s sister Fanny, her poor duenna and Rupert.

14456161609Avon delights in spoiling Léonie, and letting her have her way, and she delights in provoking him into chastising her. His friends and family don’t fail to notice the dynamic is as much romantic as it is paternal and they debate whether the 20 year age gap in their ages is a pro or a con.  Avon persists in thinking of himself as unworthy of her because of those tarnished years till the end but for Léonie all younger men seem to be merely boys at play, when she only has eyes for him, her protector and provider.

I didn’t grow up re-reading dog-eared hand-me down copies of Heyer novels but I have really grown to love her wit and love for understatements to show the depth of emotion. The “Not entirely’, he said, and forgot to drawl.”  nearly killed me in that climatic scene, his cool demeanor collapsing as he tries convince Léonie she shouldn’t waste her love on him.

I also continue to be enchanted with her narrative voice as it is both indulgent & lightly sarcastic and her ability to creates a crowded yet vibrant cast of secondary characters. In this novel I particularly loved the little solo scenes she gives to the Marlings and Merivales. Their relationships are incredibly different than Léonie and Avon’s, but they are no less loving.  And best of all when I finished These Old Shades I had to immediately re-open Devil's cub and re-read that first chapter again, now that I know who all those people are.

INVITATION:

Every year in Aug Not-a-Book-Club (#notabc) reads a Heyer novel.  I was not a founding member of this book club but I crashed their discussion of Venetia that first year and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since. Our pick for this Aug is These Old Shades, if you have read this novel and want to discuss it please join us on Aug 20th (8PM EST) when we will discuss it on Twitter.


Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne (The Spymaster Series)

51ed+EIhtsL Severine de Cabrillac is a "retired" spy, cultivating a reputation as untouchable spinster who uses her clandestine skills as private inquiry agent. Although surrounded by family and loyal retainers she is haunted by the dark choices she made in the service of Military Intelligence during the wars in Spain.

Like Severine, Raoul Deverney bears the scars of his years in Spain and the consequences of the risky and youthful choices he made there during the wars. He needs Severine's help to find his late wife's child, Pilar, missing since her mother's murder. However he does not approach Severine as a client would instead confronting her in the dark of her bedroom, because he knows exactly how dangerous she is, she nearly cost him his life in a incident she claims to not remember.

Severine becomes intrigued by the case, determined to find Sanchia's killer and the missing child but she is also frustratingly captivated by the mysterious Raoul. Their courtship is all biting mistrustful flirtations, and unspoken feelings. They spar and get more and more entangled in each other as they grudgingly work to unravel why his estranged wife was killed and why Pilar would carve Severine's name before disappearing. 

"She used  light words that didn't say what she was thinking. He was doing the same. They leaned on each other and everything important between them went unsaid."

Raoul like her Papa Doyle and her brother-in-law Adrian Hawkhurst, respects her skills and talents. He is dangerous and skilled himself and able to taunt her in ways few others can, but he recognizes and values her sharp mind and the connections she can make and never attempts to diminish her. 

"One did not, he suspected, write poems to Severine's eyebrows. One slew dragons for her, or stood slightly to the left, holding her spare lance and buckler, while she did they slaying."

I adore the slightly off-kilter dynamics of the Bourne's families. Although Severine has been cultivating a deliberately "sensible, useful, careful life" since her return from Spain, and her family knows that everything is far from right with her. they trust her to heal and give the time to do so. They all  know she is made for more and they trust that she will want to live fully again someday.  So while Doyle and Hawker might want to shelter, protect her and even fuss over her they know better than to try. They just love her in wordless but powerful ways.

"At least she's armed,"
"A cogent summation of the women of my family."

I loved Pilar, yet another in a long line of children who find unlikely refuge and champions in these novels.  So many people hate children in romance novels but Bourne excels at creating sharply-smart vulnerable children surviving in dangerous situations. Severine was such a child before Doyle and Marguerite made room for her in their family.  Bourne never forgets that however remarkable they are, they are children.

Spymaster Series by Joanna Bourne is one of romance's modern classics and one of my all-time favorite series. The series is beautifully written, darkly suspenseful and incredibly romantic, and this highly anticipated installment does not disappoint.   

While Bourne's novels benefit from re-reading, you don't need to re-read or even read any of  the previous novels in order to love Sevie and Raoul's story. Everything you need to follow their courtship and become fascinated with the mystery of Pilar's disappearance and the missing Deverney locket is in this novel.  But I guarantee that you will want to find all the previous novels when you are done, especially Doyle, Hawker and Pax's stories. I suggest when you do go looking, you start with The Forbidden Rose, which I consider the narrative heart of the series.

 

I received an ARC for review consideration from Berkley Publishing Group via NetGalley.

Expected date of Publication is Aug 1, 2017 and it will be available at all the usual places in audio, print and ebook.

 


Sight Unseen: A Collection of Five Anonymous Novellas

Sight-unseen-b-small-2-377x600Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran, Erin Satie, Emma Barry and J.A. Rock contributed to this anthology/guessing game. I have read multiple books by 4 out of these 5 authors, so it was an easy decision to pick up this book.  Even not knowing who wrote which story, I could count on enjoying the anthology as whole.

The stories cover a gamut of sub-genres, from fantasy to historical. These stories are clearly experiments by the authors to write outside their usual niches and play with settings and tropes they aren't know for exploring and push the boundaries of the genre.

The book opens with "Lost That Feeling" about rebel witch who has erased 7 years of her life & needs to figure next step when she is rescued by her former rebel leaders. I loved the depiction of magic in this story and how it played with the amnesia trope within a magic fantasy setting. Alma is a living "what if" moment, and is conscious of the possibilities, while confused about the reasons that led her to that moment.  I would characterize this story as fantasy with romantic elements because the romance takes a far back seat to the philosophical questions of how to end injustice.

In "A Clear View of You", I adored the angry and cynical fake-psychic grad-student heroine, drowning in college debt. Harmony "Kate" Marsh is estranged from her hippie-magic obsessed mother, Pangaea.  North needs Kate's help to retrieve a magical orb in Pangaea's possession.  It is a fantastic story about truth, trust and family. I loved the interaction between North and Kate, and how he challenges her entrenched beliefs without forcing or coercing.  It had a lot of fun banter and humor through out.

In "Free," Brad is a timid accountant who finally builds up the courage to confront an oblivious biker princess, Wren Masters, about her father's biker club's drug dealing. It is a small town romance about unrequited crushes, growing up and moving on.  Of the novellas this was probably the most conventional in tone and style. The subversion is in how it reworks the the typical Biker romance, rejecting slut-shaming tropes, and elevating the law-abiding hero over well-hung arrogant biker.  I loved Wren was the sexual instigator and that her motivations are not simple or easy.

It is 1983, and CJ Crespo's band DonJon is falling apart. Donny, her creative but not romantic partner of a ten-years, has exchanged the excesses of the road for the strictures of religious conversion. Their careers are disintegrating but they are finally reaching toward each other. "Chariot of Desire" jumped forward and backward in time and it left me feeling pensive about passion & purpose & not terribly hopeful for CJ and Donny.

"The Heart is a Universe", the final novella is epic science fiction/romantic myth. Vitalis and Eleian are heroes to their planets.  Vitalis is the Chosen One, the brightest of her generation, chosen by her people as a child to face a deadly task that assures their ability to remain on their planet.  Eleian pulled his planet from the brink of chaos, facing off against a tyrant and helping them restore democracy, before retreating from public life. What most don't know is that he has been ill since birth, and only experiences brief moments of health and vitality.  He uses one of them to orchestrate a meeting with his hero and inspiration Vitalis.  I cried a lot reading this story, sympathetic frustrated tears, mostly as these two, struggled with anger, duty and doubt.  

As a whole this anthology was very interesting and ambitious. As a guessing game despite having read 4 out of the 5 authors and knowing for sure who wrote one of the stories, I don't feel any confidence in my authorial guesses but it was fun to read a set of stories without knowing who authored what. As a discovery tool, I will definitely try more books by the one author I had not read previously, J.A. Rock.


Mini-RT Book Review Round up: Danced Close by Annabeth Albert & KJ Charles's An Unnatural Vice

My reviews for Danced Close by Annabeth Albert and KJ Charles's An Unnatural Vice are now available for everyone to read: 

Danced CloseDanced Close:

Albert’s Portland Heat series continues to charm. Albert’s balances the excitement of  infatuation and romantic discovery with the tension and uncertainty of a new not-quite-defined relationship to craft a story that is both romantic and nearly-heartbreaking. Todd and Kendall are fascinating and frustrating as they struggle to define their feelings and reach beyond their self-imposed boundaries. ...for more go to RT BookReviews

51EKw4JefHLAn Unnatural Vice:

The fierce and frantic enemies-to-lovers romance in K.J. Charles second Sins of the Cities novel was a surprising contrast to the first book’s gentle friends-to-lovers story. Animosity and attraction surge in equal measures when Nathaniel Roy, investigative journalist, faces off against Justin Lazarus, the Seer of London. Their opposing vocations and radically different backgrounds create a powerful and fascinating conflict. Although An Unnatural Vice can be read as a stand-alone, Charles continues to build tension and add menace by deepening the overarching mystery introduced in the first novel. The series is building to a fire-cracker conclusion. ...for more go to RT BookReviews.


#RomBkLove Day 11: Historical Romance

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Phaetons & Petticoats; Wallpaper or Detailed? Who, what, when, where?

When I first really dove into reading romance I did it by binge reading Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, Stephanie Laurens, Christina Dodd, Amanda Quick and Lisa Kleypas, whose English Regency and Victorian-set romances, were immediately accessible to me as reader of Austen & Bronte and avid watcher of many British-set costume dramas. As I read these I accumulated little tidbits of shared world-building, from Brummell's fashion-setting ways to the vagaries of the English postal system.  These tidbits might or might not have been historically accurate but they read as if they were and thus they informed how I read the next book and the one after that.  Eventually I had read one too many and I needed a break and I fled into contemporaries.

But I kept trying, for a year I challenged myself to at least read one Historical Romance a month, which led me to finally break out of my Regency rut and read something set in another time and place and not featuring aristocrats. It  helped me realize that I wasn't done with Historical Romance but instead need to read new voices.  

Now my historical reading is more varied. I read in many more eras and about different kinds of people. I fell for Jeannie Lin's Chinese Tang dynasty-set romances & Courtney Milan's feminist vision. I found that I could love westerns  like Victoria Dahl, Edie Harris, Beverly Jenkins,  and Molly O'Keefe's if they didn't gloss over ugly parts of our expansionist history. Alyssa Cole interracial historical romances span eras from the Civil rights period to Medieval (Agnes Moor's Wild Knight) and they just get better and better. I am currently reading her most recent, An Extraordinary Union, set during the Civil War and I highly recommend it.  Piper Hugley Reconstruction-era romances, wrestle with faith and hope in unsettled times, and Emma Barry & Genevieve Turner's Space-Race set romances are fascinating and fun read in a little explored era.   Other new favorites include K.J. Charles & Cat Sebastian, whose queer stories, are beautifully written and rich in historical detail; Elizabeth Kingston's  Medievals are full of political intrigue and genuine emotion, Erin Satie's heroines are flinty and ambitious, and Rose Lerner & Joanna Bourne  continually prove that you can still tell fresh-stories in familiar settings, when you focus on people outside the Ton and the Regency is no exception. And when I do feel like reading  about Lords and Ladies, it is Tessa Dare I turn to because it has to be fun and just a little meta.

If you haven't yet tried some of these authors, please give them a try!

 

 


#RomBkLove Day 1: Gateway Romance

 

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My Gateway Romances were Deanna Raybourn's  Silent in the Grave, Nalini Singh's  Slave to Sensation and yes, as heretical as it is to say it among some romance purists, Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James.

Before I found romance I read YA, Fantasy and Urban Fantasy for the romantic arcs. It wasn't till I became a romance reader that I recognized the pattern.

As I was finishing up Grad School and had time to read again I read Twilight at a friend's urging and later read her copy of 50SoG because she had read it and wanted someone to talk to about it. There was certainly more sex on the page than I had ever previously encountered with the possible exception of the Jean Auel books I had to sneak read in middle school. I read a ton of erotica and books with black covers and inanimate objects on the covers immediately afterwards looking for something that would capture my attention in the same way. Most of it it didn't click with me, even though they were certainly hot but I kept trying looking for that X-factor that had caught my attention. In the midst of all them I did find a couple of Charlotte Stein books that told me I was on the right track.

At about the same time I became aware of Felicia Day's Vaginal Fantasy Book club's. I was drawn to the virtual bookclub because identified with Day and the rest of the VF crew as fellow geek girls,  women who had read a ton of SF/Fantasy and comics like I did.  For someone who never seriously considered reading romance, their enjoyment of genre romance novels was a powerful recommendation. I watched the first half-dozen episodes and  started checking out the books. The first two I read on Day's recommendation were Silent in the Grave and Slave to Sensation. They were immediately accessible to me. I had been a Austen and cozy mystery fan, so mystery series with a strong romantic core was in someways very familiar and it started opening the genre to me.  Slave to Sensation with its much more overt romantic arc was a bigger leap but Singh's fascinating world building and fast-moving and suspenseful action plot, eased me in.

I immediately read the rest of both those series and as I read them I realized the thing I was looking for was strong emotional conflicts.  Thankfully I had access to the NYPL and my local libraries eBook collections and they both had a wide variety of romance eBooks available. They had everything from Harlequins, e-rom, PNR and a gazillion regency romances. When I ran out of Psy-Changelings to read about I ended up trying Stephanie Laurens's Cynster books.  The bossy, over-protective heroes in those books had a lot in common with the Singh's changelings. They even worked as a pack, and they were essentially invulnerable. They made it possible for me to transition from binge-reading PNR, which I was still sort of classifying in my head as sexy SF to reading "real" traditional Historical Romances of which my library had hundreds. 

I eventually admitted to myself that I that I was a romance reader, not just a Mystery, Fantasy and SF reader crossing over Once I did I started exploring the RITA award winners, and seeking out romance blogs for recommendations.  It has been about 5 and half years and my reading preferences have evolved as I was introduced to new authors, tropes and trends but I will always have a fondness in my heart for the books that drew me into the romance genre.


#RomBkLove Prompts

I am so incredibly thankful to everyone who provided feedback, prompt suggestions and encouragement.  I look forward to a great month of romance-related conversations. Feel free to respond to these prompts however you want starting on May 1st. It can be a tweet, a blog post, an IG post, just add the #RomBkLove hashtag.   You can also comment with a link to your blog and I will post a round-up of everyone participating during the first week. I just want to hear from you and fill my timeline with romance-related chatter!

#RomBkLove (3)

The Prompts:

1: Gateway Romance
2: Tropes, Tropes, Tropes
3: Meet Cute 
4: Secondary Characters
5: Romantic Elements
6: Groveling
7: Diverse Romance
8: Heroes & Heroines
9: Category Romance
10: Pets
11: Historical
12: Most Read or Reread
13: Contemporaries
14: Covers
15: Bicker and Banter
16: Dark Moment
17: Dukes, Dukes, Dukes
18: Not a Duke in sight
19: Romantic Suspense
20: Unforgettable Line
21: Auto-buy
22: Adaptation
23: Romancelandia
24: All in a day's work
25: Series Love
26: PNR, SFR, Fantasy
27: Romance Icons
28: Novellas/Shorts
29: Friendships
30: Old School/Classics
31: HEAs

 


Indiscreet by Mary Balogh (Horsemen Trilogy Book 1)

51doIQDN7mL._SY346_Mary Balogh's Indiscreet  (1st book in the Horsemen Trilogy) was reissued last fall and I bought it last month when it went on sale ($2.99)

Balogh  was one of the first romance novelists I encountered when I started raiding my library's ebook collection in 2011.  Although I usually enjoy her novels, I found myself distressed about a quarter of the way into Indiscreet:

Indiscreet is the story of Catherine Winters and Rex Adams.  Catherine is a widow living  a quiet life in a small village.  Catherine lives alone in a small cozy cottage, has a playful dog and a peaceful routine of piano lessons and visiting shut-ins. Although no one in town knows much about Catherine's past, she has up to now given everyone little cause to speculate.

Rex disturbs all that. Rex has come with his friends to visit his twin brother Claude, resident of the grand manor home in the area. He is resigned to enduring two weeks of his sister-in-law's matchmaking efforts in order to enjoy some quality time with his brother and sister.  But as they parade through town his catches on the young widow when he receives Catherine's misdirected curtsy and smile (she thinks she is greeting Claude), and he sees in it invitation and flirtation. Seeing an opportunity for a convenient liason with the local widow, Rex eagerly pursues her.  Catherine is confused, mortified, offended and to her consternation a little turned on by  Rex attentions.

Catherine is lonely, and struggling with her aloneness in ways she hasn't had to struggle for the five years since she moved to the little village. She had thought those feelings and desires would no longer trouble her and even though she dislikes Rex's presumptions and assumptions she finds herself enjoying his kisses.  But in the end, she has too much to lose and he has too little respect for her and her concerns.

But it is too late, Rex in his self-centered pursuit, has taken too little care with guarding Catherine's reputation, and rebuffs his sister-in-law's efforts at matchmaking (she is set on pairing him with her younger sister) with little grace.  He fails to realize till much to late what kind of target he has placed on Catherine. 

I very much hated him at this point in the novel. His frustrated and hurtful words whenever she rejects him, are sharp and prick her more deeply than he knows because he knows nothing of her history.  At that point in the novel, I wasn't quite sure I could go on.  I just wasn't sure how he could grow enough, or do enough to make me have like him. My usual trick of jumping to the back of them book wasn't very effective and I was about to abandon it, despite adoring Catherine, because she is just the kind of heroine I adore. Prickly, wounded, but full of pride and determination and  above all fiercely independent.   Thankfully Janine Ballard happened to be on twitter right then. She is a huge fan of this book and she insisted that Balogh would address all the things that made me upset. The slut-shaming, the privilege and the callousness would all matter.   Thus encouraged I persevered.

 I have to agree with Janine. It was effective and powerful. Catherine's fall in the eyes of the community was sharp, painful and so believably rendered. But I am so thankful for Balogh's inclusion of Miss Downess, the late rector's spinster daughter, who reaches out to Catherine when no else does. Who risks her own reputation to show kindness and love to her.  That was such a magnificent grace note, that balanced the extreme viciousness of Mrs. Adams's behavior. Daphne and Clay's compassion was also genuine and necessary.

Clarissa and Claude Adams were an incredibly fascinating secondary characters.  Claude and Rex are twins, who used to be close and still share an emotional bond but have vastly different lives.  Claude married and settled down young. He has two children and doting wife. He is content.  Rex might have the title, and its vast inheritance but he has what Rex once though he wanted.   Another writer might have drawn Clarissa without any redeeming features, but in Balogh's hand she is dangerously petty, blind in her privilege and position and extremely vicious, but she is also a loving wife.  Her despair as she realizes how deeply she has disappointed Claude and how her behavior might cause lasting harm to her marriage was real. 

"They had discovered something new about each other during the past few weeks. He had discovered that in addition to the selfishness and arrogance that he had been able to tolerate with some humor down the years, she could occasionally be vicious. She had discovered that despite his kindness and indulgent nature, he could sometimes be implacable and unforgiving. It was not a happily-ever-after in which they lived." From Chapter 15

Clarissa like Rex will come to know real regret and remorse. While Clarissa and Claude encounter this threat to their marriage 10 years in,  Rex and Catherine face it at the start.  Can they come to love, respect and treasure each other when all they have tying them together is duty & guilt?

Balogh goes all in on guilt.  Catherine does not magically become less reticent and Rex is not magically less pushy. They grate on each other, they misunderstand each other, and above all they don't trust each other for a great deal of the novel.  Yet, a delicate relationship starts to develop and somewhere along the way their desire to make it work overcomes their desire for self-preservation.

 Rex's guilt and remorse are not a debilitating thing but a trans-formative force.  He seeks to restore to Catherine what has been taken from her, not just by himself but by others long before.  At one point in my conversation with Janine, I quipped that he better make her damn happy and in the end they are happy but not because he made her so. Instead he sets in motion actions that remind her of the the fire and life she used to want, the person she used to be and she is the one who stops being passive, and defeated.  The fact that she doesn't have to do this once but several times, it part of what makes Balogh a master. Nothing was simple or straight forward. Their victories are precarious and fragile things, their love is a fragile thing.  I could have smacked Rex again in that last chapter for putting Catherine through what he did but it was out of desire to set things right, instead of selfishness.

It was particularly interesting to read this novel on Easter. The beats of loss, sacrifice, despair, resurrection and restoration were very familiar and part of what keeps me reading romance.