Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Is It Me? I Don't Think It's Me.

I said in my intro that I might be soft on my favorite authors. But then again, maybe not. Because when they disappoint me, I get *really* disappointed.

Take for example Cross My Heart, from Carly Phillips. Now, I really liked her first few stand-alones (a mis-nomer, since they were trilogies). The Hot Zone trio and the Chandler Brothers delivered the pacing, personality and humor that made her hugely successful, with a little boost from Kelly Ripa's short-lived reading club. But this latest one? The only way I can explain it is if Phillips found it in the bottom of a box of notebooks from her high school sophomore year handwritten on spiral paper with all of the i's dotted with little hearts, and her publisher was holding her dog hostage for a finished manuscript. Seriously, it's pretty bad; like a case study on the old creative writing saw "show, don't tell." These characters are flat and boring; they passively await the plot to happen around them while everything you ever wanted to know about them (and much, much more) is explicated in narrative like this:

Ty was as complex as the things surrounding him were simple. He was a deep man who kept his feelings inside but who gave of himself just by being there. He seemed to sense and show up when she needed him, and he knew when to give her space. Ten years apart and he knew her better than she even knew herself.

And there is more of the same before and after. Blah, blah cliche´ blah cliche´ blah blah.

Then there's the latest from Stephanie Laurens, whom I usually love. I mean, she is absolutely A-list in my book. But A Taste of Innocence really disappointed me. The hero, Charlie, is just too dumb to live: his father had gambled away the family fortune trying to support them, out of his crazy love for his wife. Therefore, Charlie decides to avoid true love at all costs because love=reckless + bad judgement. Yeah, too dumb to live. Meanwhile, the heroine had decided that she would only marry for love. Because that makes tons of sense for the era.

For some reason I also found the rhythm of the prose to be really repetitive, particularly in the love scenes: "paragraph paragraph subject verb supporting clause. Very repeat supporting clause. Supporting clause some more, paragraph paragraph paragraph." Over and over. I'm honestly not one to harp on things like sentence fragments but this happened so many times it was really noticeable and distracting.

I suspect that part of the problem is that the Cynster franchise is just getting old. In the last several books, I had a lot of trouble remembering the Malcom Sinclair thread from book to book, especially since Laurens was alternating Cynsters and Bastion Club books, which never seemed all that distinct from each other anyway, other than the shadowy spymaster of the Bastion books. However, I will say that the big redeemer for this book was in fact, the Malcom Sinclair twist at the end, which I won't spoil but I liked very much.

Lastly, a word about Mary Jo Putney's Marriage Spell. What the heck happened here? It was like Harry Potter meets Lifetime Television For Women. I like paranormals just fine, but I have to believe it just isn't MJP's forte. The magic element was forced and unimaginative, and the heroine was about as exciting as magical oatmeal. The only hook was with the hero's internal struggle-- Putney's signature theme and done far better in the Fallen Angels books.

I'm not giving up on any of these authors, because I know they can write great books. I just hope they get back to it. Soon.

Friday, November 23, 2007

What is it About Vampires?

J.R. Ward. Sherrilyn Kenyon. Christine Feehan. Christine Warren. Early entries in the hot paranormal subgenre, all of these authors (and others) are particularly known for um, plunging into erotic depths that more traditional romance authors have stopped short of.

Is it just that romance readers are ready for hotter and heavier, more erotic love scenes? Or is there something about the paranormal aspects of these not-quite-human guys that releases a psychic taboo?

Certainly the success of Ellora's Cave and the growing section of romantic erotica at Borders' seems to point to the first. But it seems to me that the vampire and were subgenres lend themselves particularly well to a certain kind of really down-and-dirty sex.

For one thing, the fantasy aspect allows the author to eliminate STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and oh yes, unfaithfulness with a wave of the magic word processor. Wow, not even The Pill could do that. That's sexual liberation, baby.

One of the more swoony aspects of Ward's universe is the way her vamps mate for life. When this bond is created, the couple is imbued with a particular scent, which gets stronger when either one is aroused. Talk about marking your territory. I would challenge anyone to read one of these scenes and not get a little hot under the, um, collar. Then of course there's the biting....

Let's see, why does any of that sound familiar? Oh yeah. Horses, dogs... in the worlds that Ward and Warren in particular have created, the heroes are allowed to ignore the niceties of "civilized" lovemaking. There is sweat; there are smells. There is blood. It might be beautiful in a muscular way, but it isn't "pretty" in a delicate-flower way. It is basic, instinctive. Driven.

In a word, animalistic.

So, what's taboo about that? you ask. We're 21st-century women. We're in touch with our sexuality. Sure. But in the 21st century, we also have to deal with safe sex & date rape drugs. There's growing controversy over what constitutes consensuality. And like it or not, there is still a madonna-whore sensibility about most historical romance fiction, if not the contemps as well. There is absolutely still a line in front of, let's call it rougher sex, that most romantic fiction doesn't cross. Sex that's athletic and sweaty. Sex that leaves marks. Men that don't have to ask permission, but never overstep. Women who can submit without being victims. This is the taboo realm that the paranormal subgenre is really pioneering.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Author Profile: Catherine Anderson

I thought I'd start off with an author that isn't exactly unknown, with more than two dozen titles and a number of NYT best sellers, but who may not be quite the household name of say, a Roberts or a Krentz.

Catherine Anderson writes both historicals and contemporaries, usually set in the American West. Her contemps have more than a dash of old-fashioned cowboy flavor, as many of her characters are ranchers or have dealings with animals--horse trainers/racers, veterinarians, etc.

The books that I'm wild about from Ms. Anderson are a subset of her "Kendrick/Coulter" line. The entire line can be called Cinderella stories, where the heroine struggles against some kind of seriously stacked-against-her odds, but the ones I like the best are a handful of titles featuring disabled heroines.

Romances have traditionally featured couples who were beautiful and, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way. Of course, there is always that "fatal flaw," which in most cases is a thinly-disguised virtue, along the lines of answering the job-interview question "What is your greatest flaw?" with "oh gosh, I'm such a workaholic, I really have to be careful to limit myself to no more than 75 hours a week." Or a trait that would be regarded as a horrible drawback for a woman of the times but admired by us more enlightened modern -day readers-- eg, an interest in politics, a flair for finance, etc.

Ms. Anderson takes a bit of a different approach to the "fatal flaw." In My Sunshine, the female lead, Laura, is brain-damaged. Yes, you read that right: "...a head injury [that] impaired her ability to use language and forced her to abandon a brilliant career," is how the back cover describes it. "Brain damage" is how it sounds to me. In Phantom Waltz, Bethany is a wheelchair-bound paraplegic; and in Blue Skies, Carly's romantic storyline is woven together with a roller-coaster ride of a disease that threatens her eyesight.

You might also think that it would be weird for a bunch of related people to all end up with disabled partners-- and you'd be right. Not all of the Kendrick/Coulter stories follow this pattern, so that helps. Those that do, relate back to the first of them in a believable way, I think, by insinuating that the first couple, Bethany and Ryan, paved the way, literally and figuratively, by illustrating that with love (and tons of money), all things are possible. Still, a certain extra measure of suspension of disbelief is needed on this particular account.

On the surface, these are situations and characters that are a bit extreme even by genre standards. But the reason that these work is that they are really just like any other romance: the girl gets her boy, who loves her not just in spite of her flaws, but loves the total person that she is, flaws, disabilities and all. As a side benefit, Anderson offers us a glimpse into the everyday lives of women with physical disabilities and the challenges of creating accessible environments, without making the stories feel like an After School Special on Noble Suffering Martyred Crippled Girls. The characters are fully three-dimensional and while their disabilities inform much of their everyday lives and activities, there is far more to the characters than the disability.

Some analyses of the appeal of fairy tales for children, especially the most gruesome, theorize that, by experiencing their own worst fears (lost in the woods, death of parents, etc) in a safe way-- ie, fictionally, through the characters' experience-- kids get a chance to process their fears on a subconscious level and be reassured that there is always Hope for a happily-ever-after.

I think that Anderson's stories function a little bit like that, at least for me. I'm sure I could think of more horrible fates, given time and perhaps a daily newspaper or two, but I have to tell you that losing my faculty with language, my ability to process information, and my career-- not only the one I have, but *any* career that I can imagine as fulfilling-- is one of my own worst adult fears. And yeah, I know it's fiction, but reading through to Laura's happily-ever-after is still satisfying on that very basic level.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Smile When You Say That

Coincidentally enough, the same week I started this blog, one of the two local free papers ran this article on the romance genre. Although the article is mainly about diversity in romance characters and writers, Mr. Miller employs the usual snarky hooks. In the print version, the teaser page starts off "Between the kitty litter and the toothpaste..." and ends with "A better question is: Why would anyone want to write them?"

Of course, this teaser has nothing to do with the rest of the article. But if you really want to know, Mr. Miller, you might check out
one of my favorite essays about the romance genre. A choice sampling:


Fairy tales, Luthi says, promise the reader a just universe, and so do the genres. Mystery fiction promises a morally just universe, and speculative fiction promises an intellectually just universe, but romance fiction trumps all of these because it makes the greatest promise of all. It says that if you truly open yourself to other people, if you do the hardest thing of all which is to make yourself vulnerable and reach out for love and connection and everything that makes life as a human being worth living, you will be rewarded; it promises, in short, an emotionally just universe.

The author, Jennifer Crusie, is a published and popular romance author and incidently possessed of some rather impressive literary creds.

And if that doesn't give you enough food for thought, Mr. Miller, before you let your disdain bubble over onto the works of an ENTIRE GENRE, you could try something really radical: you could try actually reading one.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Favorite Authors

OK, just a quick overview of some of my current favorite authors:

Contemporary:
Jennifer Crusie
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Catherine Anderson
Susan Anderson
Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Curtiss Ann Matlock
Deborah Smith-- When Venus Fell is my favorite thus far, tho there are newer ones. Check her out especially if you like southern gothic.
Luanne Rice
Nora Roberts
Jayne Ann Krentz
Robyn Carr -- sweet and gossipy
Sheryl Woods


Historicals:

Christina Dodd
Christina Skye
Loretta Chase
Stephanie Laurens
Bettina Krahn
Lisa Kleypas
Mary Balogh
Mary Jo Putney
Laura Kinsale
Madeline Hunter
Maggie Osborne--pretty much the only westerns I'll read. They're irresistible.

Paranormals:
JR Ward
Marjorie Liu
Christine Warren

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Things to know about me

Huh. So this is a blog. OK.

I could write about a lot of stuff. I have a husband and kids-- an endless source of amusement and other assorted emotions. Or my job-- project manager at an up-and-coming tech co in Seattle (I like it, but my objective is not to bore the internet to death). There's always my own navel; there's a blogger's favorite. But then there's that whole death-by-boredom thing again.

So what I'm going to blog about is romantic fiction. Reviews, and probably the occasional dissertation on the state of the genre. I have a few reviews up on Goodreads here. But that's kind of limiting-- so much of current romance is in short series, trilogies or what have you; it makes sense to review by author or group, I think.

Why should you care what I think about romance? Well, I guess you'll have to read a few reviews to see if I have anything to offer you. I'm a pretty die-hard fan. I read several hundred romances a year; I'm sure if I could remember all the titles going back to the early 80s when I got started on Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers and Bertrice Small, we'd be into the 5-digits.

I like regencies, medivals, contemporaries. I held out against the vampire/were genre for ages but have recently been sucked in (hah! get it?). JR Ward rocks my world.

I used to be very into the civil war era, looking to recapture the magic of Gone With the Wind, but that is an obsession that has faded. I am not such a fan of romantic suspense, especially the psycho-serial-killer flavor. (Karen Robards, I'm lookin' at you.) I almost never read westerns. I think the last time I read a straight-up category romance was 1989-- I need a longer read. Although being une dame d'une age certain, I am fond of the new Harlequin Next line. Although quick reads, they're fun and they're not about 19 year old virgins, so that's a good thing.

So, I read what I like. I'm loyal to my favorite authors to a fault-- you can figure that if I'm already a fan, my review of any individual book in the author's list might be a little skewed-- I will likely be kinder to the occasional clinker from a tried-and-true author than I would for an unknown.

What I look for in a great romance is character. Character, chemistry, character, and a reasonably interesting setting. I pretty much already know how it's going to end, so I'm not such a stickler for plotting, and our options are a bit limited these days with respect to eras and settings, so, as long as it's not out and out annoying on those fronts, it's not going to matter to me much. I want two real live, interesting characters who can't keep their hands and hearts off each other. I want to feel that moment of connection, when their eyes meet and they can't look away. I want them to be smart and brave and admirable and flawed, and I want their happy ending. I don't want the conflict between them to be contrived and to hinge upon stupidity or "but if I tell him/her about X in my past, s/he'll drop me like a hot potato!" Ugghh.

Also--just so you know-- I use a lot of dashes. If that annoys you, you probably want to move on. Buh-bye.

You won't see synopses from me. Go to Amazon or B&N and read the back cover. Anybody can give you that. I'll do my best to keep it spoiler-free so you can enjoy the same books I do. I'm just going to let you know what I thought of it.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

About

last update: 4/11/2013

About Me
I'm a technical project manager in the Seattle area. I spend most of my day working on knotty left-brained problems, so reading, writing about, and discussing fiction is my way of balancing that out with right-brained thought processes. You can find out more about my professional life at my LinkedIn profile.* My name is Nicola Onychuk; if you knew me a long time ago you may remember me as Nicola Aaron.  I had my nose in a book most of the time back then, too.

About This Blog

Alpha Heroes is a labor of love for me. I've been reading romance for an awfully long time now, and I like to think I know a little bit about what makes a good one. I like talking about them. I'm not a professional writer or reviewer; at present I do not take ads and I've stopped bothering with the associate thing for clicks to Amazon.  Everything I post is because it amuses or entertains me to do so, and I hope there are a few people out there who will enjoy it too.

Naughty or Nice?
I started blogging in 2007, but I've been posting on internet forums and bulletin boards since 1995. Over the years I've posted things I've regretted, encountered flame wars, and had my feelings hurt. These days, I have some simple rules about how I self-censor:
  • I won't post anything that would embarrass me if it were read by my mom, my kids, the local PTA, or my employer.
  • I won't say things to or about a person that I wouldn't be willing to say to his or her face. This includes authors, other bloggers, and anyone else.
  • That's it.
Negative Reviews
This question tends to stir a fair amount of controversy in the blog world. I don't have any hard and fast rules beyond what I posted above; however it is true that I tend to prefer posting about books I love. And books that impress me in a particular way. When I do post about something I don't like, I try to explain what it was that I didn't like, and readers can decide whether it's something that would bug them or not. I like to think that my less glowing reviews are kind and respectful, and perhaps constructive for authors. You can find examples of these by clicking on the tag in my label list "didn't like."

Review copies
I have accepted review copies in the past. As of December 2013, I've gone on hiatus for awhile and will focus on reading and reviewing books from my stash, and new books that I purchase.

Misc.
You like the header photo? I'm very proud of it-- I took that shot at a lavender farm in Sequim, WA in 2006. Purty, no?

Template: I do change this up every now and then, but I try to maintain a continuity of look and feel. Currently I'm using a free template from ourblogtemplates.com - I can strongly recommend these for Blogger users, as they're highly customizable using the Blogger interface for colors, fonts and layout without having to go into the HTML code.

Favicon: Free hosting for .ico files seems to come and go.  Currently I'm using IconJ with thanks to  Peter at Blogger Tips and Tricks for very detailed, easy-to-follow directions on where and how to insert the code.

Social Media:
I tweet sometimes here.
There's a Facebook page too.

*I have been regretfully declining most requests for connection at LinkedIn.  Please don't take this personally.  I reserve that network for professional contacts in my field.  Very happy to connect on the channels mentioned here though!


More detailed posts about what I do and how I do it

Weekly Geek's QA on posting style
How I write my reviews
An intro, and the beginning of it all

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