Posts from February 2017
February 13th, 2017
Our book today is a delectable trifle, the perfect thing to brighten up a day-long snowstorm: The Duke, the first of author Kerrigan Byrne’s romance novels to break the lock-step of glottal fricatives that characterized The Highwayman, The Hunter, and The Highlander and strike out into new consonantal territory (will it be followed by The Devil, and The Dermatologist? Only time will tell!).
A historical romp, but not a Regency: Byrne’s latest is a Victorian romance (the stern old sovereign herself makes a decidedly unamused appearance), with a “hero of the empire” at its center: Collin “Cole” Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, a handsome, rich paragon who, by the time we meet him, is weighted down by tragedies: the death of his family, the betrayal of his friend, and the serious wound he receives on the battlefield. It’s that hospital stay that brings him back into contact with Imogen Pritchard, with whom he shares something of a past: years ago, the two dropped their inhibitions and experienced a, erm, passionate interlude. In the present, the wounded, hospital-patient Cole seems to remember neither the interlude nor Imogen herself, but then, he’s been through a lot, and his disappearance has had all of London wondering:
Had he been lost to some Oriental jungle and the savages living there? Killed in the skirmishes between the Ottoman Turks and the Russians? Defected to the obscene wealth of a profligate sultan? Or made his own little tribal kingdom somewhere in the wild desert, complete with a harem to do his bidding?
That last alternative should be all the clue needed for a newcomer to Byrne’s fiction to know the lay of the land, as far as heavy-breathing is concerned. There’s plenty in The Duke to which Victorian prudes would have taken umbrage, but for all the snap of Byrne’s dialogue and for all the prettily-realized pauses that she works into her breakneck narrative, it’s not just the prudes who’ll be taking umbrage to disappointingly large portions of The Duke (and it’s not just the Irish, although they’ll be none too pleased with the quote we’re about to read) – even die-hard romance readers will find themselves bugged right out of the story by weird little speed-bumps like this moment that Imogen first glimpses Cole’s, er, member of Parliament:
He turned around, and Imogen couldn’t have swallowed had liquid been poured straight into her gaping mouth. Somehow, she knew that Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, had never in his life been afflicted with the Irish curse. His sex stood proudly erect from the sinewy definition of his lean hips. He glanced down, rather sheepishly, and flicked her a look full of pure, sinful invitation.
Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her. It wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly fit. Her mind recoiled, but her body … her body responded.
There’s a fine line between the good-natured anachronisms on which the modern historical romance depends and the kind of arch silliness that can spoil even the lightest confection – and that usually marks the work of an amateur. Byrne isn’t an amateur, but that just makes passages like this (and there are plenty throughout the book) all the more puzzling. Two well-raised and unmarried young people would simply never find themselves in such a moment in 1877 London, but such moments must be commonplace in order for modern historical romances to work, and so we content ourselves to suspend our disbelief. But if two young Victorians are going to find themselves in such a moment, it’s crucial that they not make things worse, as it were, by behaving even more anachronistically than the moment itself. Who, reading faithfully to such a moment, won’t feel their faith in an author badly fractured by arch silliness like “Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her”?
The conclusion of The Duke was so endearing (and so well-orchestrated) that I was able to limp around my own reading fracture at all these moments where Byrne’s characters knew as well as I did that they were in a 21st century novel playing costume-dress. But I’d much rather they not know that, so I’m hoping the next book in the “Victorian Rebels” series, The Scot Beds His Wife, will keep it’s fourth-wall mugging to a bare minimum. We shall see.
April 24th, 2015
As I ruffled through the stacks of new romance novels on my shelf, still stung by lingering accusations that I unthinkingly favor historicals over other sub-genres, I assembled three new titles that have no historical aspirations at all. These three novels feature iPads, laptops, semi-automatic weapons, and lots and lots of motorcycles, but as I settled in and started reading, I realized they mostly feature something else, too: prequels! You’ll see what I mean:
Give It All by Cara McKenna (Signet Eclipse) – This is the second book in what’s now going to be a series starring the disparate members of the “Desert Dogs” motorcycle club based in the small (and mystery-enshrouded, naturally) Nevada town of Fortuity, and it’s a fairly dauntingly direct sequel to the first book, Lay It Down. McKenna – fine and energetic storyteller that she is – does a lot of unobtrusive work in the book’s first couple of chapters to bring new readers up to speed, but the fact remains that Give It All is only half a book without its predecessor, in which we first meet fiery-tempered Raina Harper, the owner of Benji’s Saloon, Fortuity’s only bar, and in which we also meet Duncan Welch, the legal counsel for Sunnyside Industries. Duncan is a “fixer” for Sunnyside’s “development company,” which technically means he’s supposed to be helping clear the legal ground for Sunnyside to build a shady casino in Fortuity, but which really means he doesn’t have to keep office hours or fill out pay sheets or anything else that might stall him from making, er, headway in using his battered outsider image to seduce Raina, even though he’s, yes, a stranger in town:
Duncan’s image didn’t do him any favors, either. He was corporate. He was overdressed; he was a British expat; he was wealthy. He was cold and clean and calculating. He was wrong here, in every possible way. Wrong for Raina Harper’s bed, as wrong as her ex was right. And yet ex was the operative word, wasn’t it?
Duncan’s an odd hero to put it mildly. Not only is he pushing forty (nearly twice the age of the customary romance anti-hero), but he’s riddled with weaknesses (“At least he’d cut down on the Klonopin, in recent weeks,” we’re gamely told). And the whole time I was reading his latest adventure with Raina and the gang, I was wishing I’d met him just one book earlier.
Fragmented by Stephanie Tyler (Signet Eclipse) – This is the third in Tyler’s “Section 8” (where’s Corporal Klinger when you need him?) novels, following Surrender and Unbreakable, and if Give It All walks you into the middle of an ongoing plot, Fragmented drops you off a steep cliff into the middle of a fireworks display. The main character is Dr. Drea Timmons, who’s abusive boyfriend Danny is a member of yet another motorcycle club, this one nefariously called the Outlaw Angels, has vowed revenge for her involvement with a heroic vigilante group called Section 8, and if that all sounds confusing, it certainly doesn’t get any clearer from Drea’s perspective:
Jem had kidnapped her because he needed a doctor to save Avery, who was dying. Drea had saved her, but spending time with Jem had gotten her in trouble with Danny and the OA. S8 helped her get away from the OA, and she’d gone on the run with them, willingly. And when they had a job to do, one that involved a human trafficker who was after Gunner, she’d gotten involved as a decoy. Unfortunately, from what she’d been told, it’d gone wrong, and she’d been kidnapped.
That “from what she’d been told” is just as bad as it sounds: it turns out Drea has amnesia and so is unhelpfully unclear on why she’s being handed around like a shoplifted tchotchke, although she remembers what she likes (“Danger isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, his kind of danger makes me feel alive”), and that neatly coincides with a smooth-talking badass like Jem. You remember, Jem? The one who kidnapped her? One of the ones who kidnapped her? Or was he … wait a minute …
You Really Got Me by Erika Kelly (Berkley Sensation) – So it’s with an audible sigh of relief that I turned to You Really Got Me by Erika Kelly, since it’s called “A Rock Star Romance,” it’s also proudly billed as “First in a New Series”! I started it happy to know I wouldn’t stumble right out of the starting gate over the baggage let behind by previous books. Instead, I got the story of Emmie Valencia, an aspiring band manager who’s loud, overbearing boss never seems to give her the chance to prove herself. While said boss is out of the country, Emmie goes to Austin, Texas intent on showing that she, too, can be a star-maker.
There she’s introduced to Slater Vaughn, the lead singer for a band that’s not exactly burning up the charts. Emmie has only six weeks to change that, but the first impression she makes on loutish, oversexed Slater isn’t promising:
As Slater approached the table, he watched Derek clear out the groupies. They scattered – all of them except one. Only she didn’t look like a groupie. She looked … well, Slater didn’t know what she looked like, other than maybe a teacher. A kindergarten teacher. She wore her dark hair long and straight – no particular style – and he could actually see her complexion, uncovered as it was by makeup. What was she doing at their table? She glanced up at him and smiled. All sweet and innocent, like he was her date at the movie theater, bringing popcorn and soda.
That meeting happens around page 10, so it was around page 10 that I realized my initial impression was wrong: true, You Really Got Me wasn’t carrying around the baggage of previous books in the series (that’ll be left to its sequel, I Want You To Want Me, due in July) – instead, it was carrying around the baggage of every odd-couple romance novel ever written. Talk about prequels!
April 10th, 2015
Our books today are three new romances hot off the presses, and they quite accidentally nagged at a small corner of my guilty conscience when it comes to my foremost guilty pleasure. In the past, veteran romance readers have accused me of disproportionately favoring historical romances over all other kinds, and although I initially bridled at the thought, the more I thought about it the more I realized it was true. It’s understandable – after all, I make no secret of my love for historical fiction (and in fact make it my sole editorial preoccupation in my other web-lit home, the Historical Novel Review) – but it isn’t exactly fair to or representative of the huge remainder of the romance field, where sizzling-hot quasi-erotica set in the present day easily outsells the bodice-rippers that were once the genre’s mainstay.
The imbalance struck me as I read my way through some of this month’s new romances from the good folks at Berkley, so I moved a few contemporaries to the top of the pile for this little round-up, starting with:
Below the Belt by Jeanette Murray – This one stars athletic trainer Marianne Cook, who has the curious job of training the male members of the Marine Corps boxing team into a well-oiled professional unit. Marianne is pert and sexy, of course, and so she’s invariably the object of unwanted attention from all of those very young and nearly brainless Marines. The book opens with a fun scene in which she’s saved from one such encounter by the book’s hero, First Lieutenant Brad Costa, who Marianne spots right away as a member of the Corps himself:
“Marine? What gave it away?” The taller, older one smiled easily, but his grip on the young man never loosened. Like his younger friend, he wore the same distinctive military markers – medium brown hair in a high and tight, polo tucked into jeans without any designer rips or holes – but it wasn’t so much a definition of who he was as it was just something he wore comfortably. He was probably in his late twenties, early thirties tops, she’d guess. Not old. But old enough to flip a switch from thinking What a silly little infant over to Oh, boy, that’s good to look at.
That pointed mention of Brad Costa’s age is the twinkle in the book’s eye throughout. He’s a bit older than the usual mid-twenties, and nobody in the book mocks that idea more thoroughly than Costa himself. The book is a light-hearted affair, certainly, although nowhere near as fluffy as our next book:
Love After All by Jaci Burton – This author will be familiar to romance readers for, among other things, her “Play-by-Play” novels (in two of which, Melting the Ice and Taking a Shot, she advances the charming idea that professional hockey players are actually a form of humans), and her “Hope” novels ( Hope Flames, Hope Ignites, Hope Burns), of which this is the latest one. It tells the story of high school math teacher Chelsea Gardner (who could “weed out a decent man from a loser in the first fifteen minutes of a date”), who’s worked out a perfect list of the qualities she’s determined to find in her ideal man. He’s got to work a 9 to 5 job; he’s got to be a natty dresser; he’s got to have a great big manly dog; he’s got to have no relationship baggage, and so on. The one person she’s certain doesn’t qualify is Sebastian “Bash” Palmer, the owner of the No Hope at All bar:
Bash was the perfect example of the wrong type of guy. She mentally ticked off all the items on her list that he didn’t fit.
He was divorced. He was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. And while he might look super hot in said jeans and T-shirt, it still counted against him.
The list starts getting whittled away in the book’s opening pages, when one of his ex-girlfriends storms into the bar and hands Bash a terrified little dog she claims she only adopted to impress him. Little Lulu almost immediately becomes the cement that bonds Chelsea and Bash together, and the novel that follows is a happy, air-light thing, a perfect diversion for a snowy, sleety Boston April.
But much to my chagrin – and my pleasure – the book I enjoyed most this time around was, you guessed it, a historical novel:
This Gun for Hire by Jo Goodman – I wasn’t very familiar with Goodman’s books until I read her 2013 novel True to the Law, which was very satisfyingly substantial and mighty good. So I went into her new book This Gun for Hire with high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book is set in 1888, the story of former army cavalryman Quill McKenna, who’s the bodyguard of Ramsey Stonechurch, the main power broker and mine owner of Stonechurch, Colorado. When the Stonechurch family receives threats, Quill hires scout Calico Nash to protect Ramsey’s daughter from danger – and Quill begins to find himself attracted to her. Calico is a superb gunman, but after an unexpected demonstration, he’s willing to cede top honors to Quill:
Quill fell silent, thinking. After a few moments, he said, “Well, my father called it a preternatural bent. It was not a compliment. He didn’t trust that my talent wasn’t the devil’s doing, and he was certain I would come to grief for having it.”
“And your brother? Does Israel have the same bent?”
“No, but he’s done his best to prove that you can come to grief without it.” He smiled wryly. “If my father ever saw the irony there, he’s never said as much.”
Calico walked up to him, raised herself slightly on her toes, and kissed him on the mouth. “I appreciate the irony, and I am in awe of your gift. If I thought for a moment that I could be the shot you are, I might be envious, but what you can do is something extraordinary.”
“It’s probably a little important that I’m good at it, Calico, but it’s still only shooting.”
There’s very much more going on in this book than “only shooting – the action sequences are wonderfully done, the characters are sharply drawn (with a very refreshing minimum of anachronisms), and there’s a snarky note of narrative sub-commentary running alongside the story that ended up being my favorite aspect of the book.
The book – a historical novel! Dammit! I’ll try better in next month’s Romance Roundup!
October 14th, 2012
Our book today is 2005’s The Last Time I Saw Venice, by the indomitable Australian romance novelist Vivienne Wallington, a former librarian who wrote some twenty romances for Mills & Boon under the pen-name of Elizabeth Duke and then did a stint writing Silhouette romances for Harlequin under her own name, this one being (so far as I can tell) the last thing she’s written. It’s a torrid, tense tale that typifies one of the many motifs of fiction set in the Floating City: in this case, Venice as Scenery. This is by far the most popular of all the sub-flora of Venetian fiction, for understandable reasons – foremost being, it beats Akron. In Venice as Scenery novels, the main landmarks of the place are invoked with more or less mechanical duty, and the story’s participants might occasionally refer to indigenous “magic,” but they’ll spend the length of the plot so caught up in their own passions that you get the distinct impression they could be anywhere and not really care. The city is backdrop only, an easy way to add some picturesque color to the goings-on. Modern authors can’t really be faulted for writing this kind of Venice-story, since the pedigree for it is about as exalted as you can get: Shakespeare never a Venice story that wasn’t a Venice as Scenery story.
Wallington is no Shakespeare, naturally, but in The Last Time I Saw Venice she’s nevertheless at the height of her own powers. She’s an author who very much knows what she’s about – like most Mills & Boon veterans, she’s not exactly a complex plotter, and she lays on the tension with a trowel, and (again like Shakespeare, come to think of it) she never met a bald coincidence she didn’t like. She employs every trick of her trade in this headlong story about ambitious young attorney Annabel Hanson, who visited Venice four years ago, stood on her gondola-seat to get a good photo, fell into the Grand Canal, and was saved from its cold green water by Simon Pacino, a broad-shouldered black-haired blue-eyed Greek god of a man. A few moments’ conversation (all they allowed themselves before the clothes started flying off) revealed that they were both from Australia – he was a ‘top’ neurosurgeon in the same way she was a ‘top’ lawyer, and although they were both work-obsessed yuppies, they gave themselves over to the carnal abandon Venice tends to encourage. Simon’s condom broke, he convinced Annabel to keep the baby (at this point the Romney/Ryan team stopped reading), and in due time their daughter Lily arrived. Despite their overwhelming commitment to their jobs, they loved her – and were thus devastated when she was hit in her pram by a runaway car a year later (Annabel blamed herself for not being quick enough to snatch her out of the car’s path; Simon blamed himself because she died on the operating table – his operating table)(as mentioned, Wallington doesn’t kid around).
Years later, they meet in Venice by chance, where each has plenty of opportunity to reflect on just how quick they’d been to leap into marriage in the first place, as Annabel thinks:
It made her realize soberly how little she knew about the man she’d married. They’d both been such high-powered, single-minded workaholics, even after Lily had arrived, that they’d barely had time to talk about the things that had happened to them in the past, before they’d met. Simon’s past in particular – other than the career path, and the fact that his father had walked out on his family – had always been a closed book.
As for his part, Simon is no more certain about what all this means:
What better place to rediscover romance than here in romantic Venice, where they’d first found it? Maybe he should think no further than that … romancing her, wooing her all over again, rediscovering the passion they’d lost. Maybe even embarking on a romantic second honeymoon, to revive the old magic, the old chemistry, before they had to leave Venice and face reality again.
The couple enjoy plenty of Venetian food and wine, and they wait in line to see plenty of Venetian museums and masterpieces, but it’s all background noise – they’re ruling concern from the book’s opening scene is personal and tightly focused. As is universally the case with Venice as Scenery stories, the city is colorfully but lifelessly evoked, and our lovers leave it without any hesitation when their passions waft them in some other direction. The cynical old marketing guys at Harlequin could just as easily have picked Toledo or London or Sydney, for all the difference it would have made to Annabel or Simon.
The effect such stories have is, ironically, to increase the sense of Venice as fantasy place, a glittering faerie-city – good for stirring passion and revelation, but not at all real (the Venice interval in Brideshead Revisited is maybe the quintessential example of this). Those who come to know the city well will agree with the complicit dimensions of this kind of portrayal: Venice is suffused with the sounds of water in motion, so it’s not surprising that romance of all kinds flourishes there. But glorified weekend tourists like Annabel and Simon never get to know the real place – neither they nor all those Harlequin/Mills & Boon readers, one suspects, very much want to.
October 17th, 2011
When last we checked in on our chisel-cheeked hero Paul Marron, he’d done the seemingly impossible: he’d bounced back completely – and quickly! – from what my dear old friends “The Guys Next Door” would have called a “Bad Hair Day” (links to either of those quoted terms would be too cruel even for me – let’s just say there were dark by-waters of the ’90s where only the foolhardy went, and from which few returned unchanged). Paulie had regained his mojo by returning to his roots: brooding, brooding, and more brooding! Sometimes, you just have to get out of your own way and let your perky pecs and perfect puss do what they were made to do – this is the essential life-wisdom of the male model. Our boy has let his body lead him into the strangest places: extraterrestrial paramilitary outfits, corporate boardrooms, post-apocalyptic wastelands, the shackles of ravenous vampire queens; he’s seen Fortune’s Wheel turn, and at times perhaps he’s questioned whether or not he had what it takes to smolder for a living.
But the same pendulum-swing that brought him down so low he was toying with his hair color and considering going back to school (economics or environmental studies? Hmmm) has now begun its upward arc at last, and suddenly the feral confidence we all saw many months ago on the cover of our very first entry in this epic series. Suddenly, the Romance world knows that Paul Marron is synonymous with scandal, and it can’t get enough.
A fairly sedate start to this up-tick, then, in the decorous confines of Julia London‘s A Courtesan’s Scandal, in which Paul goes by the name of Grayson Christopher, the Duke of Darlington. In London’s fast-paced story, the Prince of Wales wants his good friend Paul to act as a kind of decoy, pretending to squire and conquer the beautiful Kate Bergeron so that polite society doesn’t realize the Prince himself is visiting her in the off-hours. Even here, in 1806, Paul is that classic male model combination of haughty and naughty as he accepts the arrangement and begins to lock horns – and other applicable parts – with the lady in question. Kate prides herself on her self-control, but which of us could count on much self-control around our boy Paul in a snug silk vest? Pretty soon, they’re both fogging up the windows:
Kate had never felt anything more than tolerance at the prospect of physical relations with a man, but tonight … tonight she felt urgency, a strong and natural flow of desire for Grayson. She sought his body, her hands beneath his shirt, raking down his chest and back. Her mouth was open beneath his, her tongue twirling around his. She pressed her breasts against him, and when he pushed her hands away to unbutton his shirt, she boldly moved her hand to the front of his trousers and slid her palm down his erection.
Grayson lifted his head as if he meant to say something, but he didn’t speak at first. He could only look at her with eyes darkened by his longing. She cupped him, rubbed her hand against him.
“Kate,” he said hoarsely.
Fans of well-done romance can’t go wrong with London, but fans of Paul will know that an arrangement such as the one cooked up here by the Prince of Wales is simply impossible – our molten little model masquerading as somebody else’s love-dupe? Hardly! Paul doesn’t feather his hair in the morning in order to have it tousled as some kind of consolation prize. There can only be one cock of this walk.
Paulie moves forward a generation – to 1848 – but appears to change very little in Liz Carlyle’s A Touch of Scandal, where he calls himself Adrian Forsythe, Lord Ruthveyn, he of the ‘impossibly’ black hair and eyebrows, a stern and sultry man very much in the Duke of Darlington mode, a hard, private man who’s spent a good deal of his life “Haring about Hindustan risking life and limb in the service of Her Majesty’s government and its well-shod bootheel, the East India Company.” Carlyle’s distressed heroine Grace Gauthier (whose shipping-magnate employer has just been brutally murdered, a crime of which the police believe she might not be entirely innocent) has a decidedly mixed first impression of our brooding hero:
The man – Ruthveyn – seemed disinclined to say more, and Grace resisted the impulse to ask anything. Save for his thick raven hair, sun-bronzed skin, and a nose that was perhaps a tad too strong, he could perhaps have been an Englishman – or Satan in a pair of Bond Street boots.
Naturally, that first impression isn’t quite mixed enough to stop them from flinging each other’s clothes off, but to her credit, Carlyle serves up a more complicated story than the simple fireball of lust we’ve all experienced with Paul so many times by now. Nothing is quite what it seems in One Touch of Scandal, and beneath his rough exterior, our hero is a haunted man:
“Do you see those shadows, Grace?” He was staring at the row of houses beyond the glass. “They come creeping relentlessly across the street, every day, without fail, ever destined to shroud us as the sun sets. That is what fate is like to me. Like an impending shadow that cannot be evaded. And we know that it is coming. Sometimes, just before the veil falls, we can even glimpse what lies within. And sometimes what we see is but a chimera – or the reflection of our fears.”
Since Barbara Cartland first put quill to parchment, the crux of all romance novels has been a fairly simple trade-off: the hero saves the heroine from some incipient danger (brigands, blackmailers, bad husbands, or all three), and in exchange, the heroine saves the hero from just that kind of creeping darkness. Carlyle stays true to this pattern, but she stocks her novel full of twists and turns – and even a slight element of the supernatural – so that the reader can’t comfortably predict where the happy ending will come from.
One thing readers can certainly predict – especially if they’re loyal Stevereads fans! – is that the pattern shown on One Touch of Scandal‘s covers is the one that will win the day. In the book’s inset, we see our boy sprawled on a red velvet couch, frilly shirt parted to reveal his V-neck and collarbone – an almost monkish arrangement that feels like a throwback to the timidity we know Paul has discarded like some clinging turtleneck. And so it is – on the book’s front cover, we see two of the essential Paul Marron elements on full display: nakedness, and indifference to whatever female happens to be sharing the frame. Those elements have never let our hero down, and they’re now carrying him to greatness.
They carry him one crucial step further, in our next chapter!
September 9th, 2011
OK, a little time has passed, and we’ve been able to gain a little perspective. When last we saw our hero Paul Marron, everything was fine in the lower latitudes: the curving thighs, the narrow waist, the neat little stack of abs, the bulging biceps, the deliciously rounded shoulders, that cut-glass chin and smoldering pout, those protractor cheekbones, and the sultry, piercing eyes – check, check, and check. The problem came just north of all that: in a madcap and heedless decision, our hero got his perfectly-feathered sandy-brown hair dyed blond. No doubt it seemed a good idea at the time, but no amount of Regency epaulettes, cowboy spurs, or spaceman armor could justify it in the unforgiving light of the morning after, and a young man as fashionable as Paulie must have seen that better than anybody. Friendly cousins can be blond; well-meaning village curates can be blond. But rakes and billionaires and werewolves? Let’s face it: peril and peroxide don’t mix. Marronites may have wondered if a shining career could possible recover – or what Paul would do next.
Turns out he did what comes naturally: to lick his wounds (and wait for that color to wash out), he returned to his jet-setting secretary-impregnating old haunt, Harlequin Books, whose always-reliable stable of loose-floozy writers has been titillating and entertaining the American book-buying public for decade after tastefully torrid decade. After being welcomed back into the fold (perhaps with some teary hugs in the office? With everybody trying hard not to look at that color?), Paul threw himself into the realms of international high finance, taking on the name Nicolas Dupre and becoming a powerful theater impresario in Australia in the wonderful Miranda Lee’s novel A Night, A Secret … a Child. Nicholas is on top of the world when he receives a card from his tiny home-town, where he was, we’re told, Mr. Popularity:
Not that the girls weren’t after him; they were. At eighteen, Nicholas had been tall and handsome, with wavy blond hair and Nordic-blue …
Obviously, Paul moved on.
His next port of call was broiling-hot Athens, where he called himself Talos Xenakis (surely a cry for help?) and busied himself impregnating beautiful young American Eve Craig – indeed, impregnating her so thoroughly she promptly lost her memory. This concoction was called Bought: The Greek’s Baby and was served up at breakneck pace by the delightful and hilarious Jennie Lucas, who’s no stranger to having Paul parade around on her covers (did he seek her out? Did he plead with her – in that honking Brooklyn accent – “Jennie, you have to help me!”?), and she falls to her appointed task like a trooper:
How was it possible for a man to be at once so masculine – and so beautiful? His black hair brushed the top of his ears. He had the face of an angel. Of a warrior. His Roman nose had been broken at least once, from the tiny imperfection of the angle. He had a full, sensual mouth, with a twist of his lip that revealed arrogance and perhaps more – cruelty?
Black hair! How Paul fans must have leapt for joy! Could it be? Could their long, national nightmare be over at last? With trembling anticipation they may have turned to The Melendez Forgotten Marriage by our old friend, the winning and elegant Melanie Milburne, in which our boy has switched passports yet again and is now calling himself Javier Melendez. We find him wooing delicate little Emelia – who’s also having trouble remembering things (what is it with these girls? After all, are they ever going to do anything more memorable in their lives than romp in the sack with Paul Marron? Geez):
A tall raven-haired stranger with coal-black deep set eyes stood at the end of the bed. There was nothing that was even vaguely familiar about him. She studied his face for endless seconds, her bruised brain struggling to place him. She didn’t recognise any one of his dark, classically handsome features. Not his tanned, intelligent-looking forehead or his dark thick brows over amazingly bottomless eyes or that not short, not long raven-black hair that looked as if it had last been groomed with his fingers. She didn’t recognise that prominent blade of a nose, and neither did she recognise that heavily shadowed jaw that looked as if it had an uncompromising set to it …
Uncompromising indeed – now that some essential lessons had been learned: coal black, dark, raven-black, raven-haired … surely the world got the hint? This was a new Paul – or rather, the return of the old Paul, and his rise would be higher and longer than ever before! We’ll begin to come to grips with it, in our next episode!
August 17th, 2011
Perhaps growing weary of his life as a multi-millionaire shape-shifting bounty-hunting alien werewolf bondage slave (yeesh – who wouldn’t grow weary of all that from time to time?), our hero Paul for a brief while returned to Merrie Olde England where he’d been relatively happy once before. And what more natural identity to assume once in England of 1809 than that of Lord Byron?
In truth, it was only a matter of time. Our Paul shares so many traits in common with Byron, after all – stunning physical beauty, identical height and body type, same husky, suggestive timbre to the voice, same compact yet fluid physicality, same studied-yet-involuntary sensual appeal (and perhaps one or two other things that slip the mind at the moment). For the better part of a decade, Byron held a wide reputation for being the most handsome man in England. The amazing thing is that it took romance writers so long to make the connection.
And the wait isn’t over yet, because the Byron our Paul turns out to be this time around isn’t that Lord Byron – he’s Lord Cade Byron, one of the brothers of the Duke of Clybourne, and like all his brothers, Paul – er, Cade – probably spends half his waking hours telling people he’s not related to the famous poet. But although they’re not related, the Byron brothers share something of the poet’s mythos – they’re headstrong and provocative (well, all except for egghead brother Drake, although even he has his moments), and they often choose to be snidely dismissive of the great society’s norms. Also, like the poet, they attract trouble and temptresses in equal measure.
In other words, we’ve entered the world of Tracy Anne Warren, who writes some of the most charmingly escapist Regency romances currently on the market, and whose covers had a brief, torrid affair with our chisel-cheeked hero back in 2009, starting with Tempted by His Kiss, which opens with pretty young orphan Meg Amberley seeking shelter from a blinding snowstorm at the remote estate of the aforementioned Lord Cade Byron. Cade is holed up away from the convivial haunts of his family, brooding over his capture and torture on the Continent six months earlier at the hands of a French agent known as Le Renard. Paul only barely escaped from that encounter, and he’s sequestered himself in his northern estate to let his scars (and his crippled leg) heal and generally feel sorry for himself. Meg’s arrival jars him out of his reverie, and soon he’s back in London – where he’s shocked to recognize Lord Everett, the hero of the hour, as his former torturer. Of course nobody believe him – except perhaps Meg, and it isn’t long before the two of them are facing Everett’s loaded pistol, and Paul is getting a treatment that seems a bit familiar:
Everett motioned Cade toward the chair. For a moment he looked as if he might resist, but a glance at the gun Everett was still pointing her way obviously changed his mind. Moving with a more pronounced limp than he had shown for a while, Cade crossed the room, pausing to lean his cane against the nearby wall before taking a seat. At the servant’s urging, Cade placed his hands around the tall back of the chair so his wrists could be tied together using a stout length of rope. Nearly finished, the man gave a last, hard tug that made Cade’s muscles visibly tense against the strain.
Readers of this series will recognize the tenor of revelations about Cade/Paul. “He knew all about how it felt to lose control,” Warren tells us. “To be denied free will while one trembled on the brink, a second shy of breaking, of begging, of agreeing to violate one’s most sacred oaths in order to make the agony stop…”
With admirable flexibility, Paul has no sooner conquered the villain (the old knife-up-the-frilly-sleeve trick that’s no doubt got him out of many a tight spot in Brooklyn) and taken the girl in his arms than he’s pivoting, dodging into the nearest storeroom, and emerging as … an entirely different Byron brother!
In Seduced by His Touch, Paul is going by the name Lord Jack Byron, a wastrel who falls so deeply into debt to a wealthy London merchant that he has no choice but to agree to marry the man’s daughter Grace in exchange for a clean slate. Naturally, Paul worries that this Grace has gone unmarried all this time because she’s, as he puts it, a “gorgon,” but the truth turns out to be far more pleasant, as romance novel truths invariably do (Warren, who can’t keep her sunny native ebullience out of her prose even at its most serious, writes infectiously happy books, despite the brutal backdrops of some of her plots). He finds her charming, and of course she returns the favor:
Glancing across the room, she found him talking with Edward and Cade. The three Byron men were all handsome, but to her, Jack far outshone his siblings. He was the epitome of masculine beauty, standing tall, dark, and dynamic in his stark black and white evening attire, his neatly combed hair already showing a charmingly rebellious bit of wave.
And lest you think Paul’s quick identity change frees him from the family duty of constantly clarifying, think again:
Her aunt’s eyes grew round. “Byron? No relation to the poet, I suppose?”
“No, ma’am. That particular gentleman and I share no familial ties, nor do I claim to have so much as an inkling of talent in the art of penning sonnets and odes. Let me say, however, that it is a distinct pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He bowed with a practiced flair that made her aunt’s cheeks pink like a schoolgirl’s despite her nearly sixty years.
Ah, our Paul! Such a charmer! Where will he turn up next?
July 27th, 2011
When last we left our hero, Paul Marron, his taut little body, bristly hair, and pouty lips were all in the taloned clutches of some very naughty ladies, the type who wear sunglasses at night, the type who deck themselves out in calf-length leather coats and strike poses in graveyards, the type who are openly and very proudly up to no good. And we could hardly say which was worse: the designs these naughty women had upon our boy Paul, or how much he seemed to enjoy it.
Certainly he’d been in tough clutches before, including being the semi-willing bondage-slave of a queen vampire, or being the business office boy-toy of one gold-digging secretary or other, or even scrapping his way across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with nothing but his smoldering eyes and his shoulder-mounted laser rifle to see him through. But these naughty ladies were different: they seemed almost to want to keep poor Paulie to themselves, when obviously his bounty is meant to be shared with the rest of the world (or at least the rest of some strategic locations in Brooklyn). Surely his legions of fans could wonder if he would ever struggle free of those lacquered nails – perhaps they could even wonder if Paul was such a patented bad boy that he might not even attract any other kind of hussy.
Ah, but those fans would be reckoning without the full wonder of our perennial subject, with his perky little pecs and his flexing thighs, and his acute business sense. We’ve watched our hero waver and perhaps even lose his way, but surely those days are behind him? After the cover of Lover Avenged, can there be any thought of Paul backsliding to the days when he let others write his destiny? No, all he needed to rescue him from the thrall of those naughty, naughty ladies was a good old-fashioned New England girl.
She came along in the form of romance author Hannah Howell, who’s written more Scottish Highland romance novels than you could cover with a tartan skirt and whose brief fling with Paul in 2008-2009 freed him from the tatts-and-harleys rut he was falling into.
It’s the oddest thing, this fascination romance authors have with Scottish Highlanders – the characters and setting are on equally stratospheric popular footing with the American Wild West and Regency London, and all three are mystifying to me. All three eras/settings were caked in filth, dried sweat, rotting teeth, and brutal, unthinking violence – not one of the three of them has any genuine nobility to recommend it, and yet nine-tenths of all romances written before the current all-supernatural-all-the-time craze are set in one of those three locales. Having read half a dozen of Hannah Howell’s books, I find it easy to doubt that she’s ever actually met a Scottish Highlander. I have, on more than one type of occasion, and the experience was never anything but infuriating – and not in a sexy way.
Nevertheless, our author his Highlander-happy, and her titles include Highland Wolf, Highland Champion, Highland Barbarian, Highland Savage, Highland Conqueror, Highland Sinner, Highland Promise, Highland Wedding, Highland Thirst, Highland Lover, Highland Groom, Highland Vow, Highland Hearts, Highland Honor, Highland Angel, Highland Knight, and, inevitably, Highland Vampire. Only her Highlanders are fat, greasy, inbred illiterates – they’re broad-shouldered, brooding, tousled-haired sexpots with a penchant for bearing flesh. Sound familiar?
Enter Paul, with kilt at the ready. In My Lady Captor (talk about sounding familiar), he’s English knight Ruari Kerr, and he’s taken hostage by fiery Scotswoman Sorcha Hay in 1388 and held for ransom to insure the release of her captured brother from his English prison. To Sorcha, Paul is just a means to an end, a big strapping piece of currency – but that kind of plan is pretty much always foiled by Paul’s rather pronounced sexual magnetism, and Sorcha will be no different – although she puts up a mighty good fight, as Paul confides to his friend Rosse:
“The lass shared your bed. Why wouldnae she wed a mon she took as her lover?”
Ruari wished he had not confided that to Rosse. He knew it was why the man kept pinching at him about Sorcha. In one drunken moment of weepy confession about a lost and much-missed passion, he had given Rosse a good-sized club to use against him. Now, to get the man to stop worrying the subject of Sorcha, he was going to have to confess something he found both painful and embarrassing. His life had never been so complicated or emotionally trying, and he freely blamed Sorcha for the unpleasant changes.
“She doesnae want me for a lover or a husband,” he finally said.
In Highland Fire, Paul switches sides and becomes the Highlander himself, one Tavig MacAlpin, who’s slowly falling in love with the beautiful woman he rescued from certain death, Moira Robertson. There’s more to Moira than meets the eye, however, including the slight element of the supernatural Howell (the big softy) likes to work into many of her books. Of course, fourteenth century Scotland is no place to be showing witchy ways, and in due course the requisite mob of villagers come looking for her, and she must think quickly in order to prevent the headstrong Paul from martyring himself for her:
“I’m sorry, Tavig,” she whispered and, swinging the bag he had shoved into her arms just before her accusers had arrived, she knocked the sword from his hands.
Tavig gaped at her then lunged for his sword. Geordie and another man moved faster, quickly pinning him in their hold. Another man rushed forward to grab her. She winced as he roughly yanked her arms behind her back and bound her wrists together.
“What did you do that for, lass?” Tavid asked, staring at her with a mixture of confusion and fear.
“I ken that ye are a good fighter,” she replied, smiling sadly. “Ye couldnae win against so many, howbeit.”
“Neither can you, dearling.”
“Mayhap not, but ’tis only me they are accusing. They would cut ye down to get to me, and I would still be taken. I decided I didnae really want to see ye die in some fruitless display of gallantry.”
“Which he may still try,” said Jeanne, stepping closer yet being very careful to stay out of a glaring Tavig’s reach. “I think he needs to be secured somewhere so that he doesn’t try to set her free. She could yet use her spell to draw him back to her.”
“What are ye going to do with her?” he demanded as his wrists were tied behind his back.
“We will take her to the priest,” replied Geordie. “Father Matthew will ken what to do with her.”
It’s pretty comfortable territory, isn’t it? A supernatural temptress, a danger-filled plot, and defiant, muscular Paul with his hands firmly tied behind his back. But for all Howell’s lively plot-twisting, this mucking around the Highlands looks almost like another rut, and we know there’s more to our boy than simple rutting! Tune in next time to see if he escapes the heather!
June 1st, 2011
When last we left our hero, Paul Marron, he was revealing more of his true self to his feisty British wife in the 19th century … not by granting her wish for long, heartfelt chats by the fireside at night, but by stripping off his frilly shirt and tossing it with a sideways wrist-action into the nearest hamper. For far too long, Paul had been compromising his innermost being, not to mention his lats, delts, traps, and pecs, by resorting to that last refuge of the scoundrel: clothing. And what had it won him? A hitch hunting aliens, a whirlwind werewolf weekend, and a couple of ditzy secretaries … hardly the universal acclaim every self-respecting pouty male model yearns for every time he wakes up in the morning! Something was missing, and as we’ve seen so far in our odyssey, Paul was slowly, gropingly coming to feel the rough outline of what he needed. It wasn’t hard: what he needed was to be himself, to breathe free, to go commando, as it were, ‘neath the trousers of life.
2008 would bring him the beginnings of that chance, after one initial stumble: Jayne Castle’s Dark Light, in which our Paulie is John Fontana, the new boss of the Crystal Guild of ghost-hunters on the distant planet Harmony.
It’s not that the book itself is a stumbling-block, not at all. Jayne Castle is one very experienced novelist who virtually never puts a foot wrong in telling a story – understandable when you consider that bestselling author Jayne Castle is also bestselling author Jayne Ann Krentz, and that both those bestselling authors are also bestselling author Amanda Quick (like our hero, this is a writer who knows a thing or two about alternate personae). And this particular book’s premise is intriguing: a human-race colony world cut off from Earth and forced to contend with the not-always-natural phenomena of their adopted world Harmony. Castle’s craft can’t be faulted either: she knows from long experience to jump right into her plot and to involve her readers by showing rather than telling. Dark Light is a fast-paced, gripping-trashy read (and noticeably different in tone and pace than the novels of Krentz or especially those of Quick … Castle has managed the knack of making all her various pseudonyms sound slightly different, a feat worthy of applause wherever it might occur …).
No, the problem, from a Paul-o-centric point of view, is that the book clearly wasn’t written with our pouty prince in mind. The first faint hint of trouble comes in the repeated mentions of Fontana’s “intensely thoughtful expression,” but it’s this astonishing description that really causes the trouble:
He was a couple of inches above average height; not so tall as to tower over everyone else in the room, yet somehow you would always know that he was the man in charge. No one would ever call him handsome, Sierra thought, but that did not matter, not to her at any rate. What he was, was fascinating.
Fascinating he well may be, but … no one would ever call him handsome? That not only jars with our long acquaintance with Paul, perhaps the single most handsome himbo model to come down the pike in 100 long, lonely years, but it also jars with this book’s very cover, on which we see our boy looking chiselled and surly against the freakish lightning of an alien sky. And the instant we look at that cover, we see the most likely source of the dissonance: once again, our hero is wearing clothes – in this case a long trench coat draped over his smooth, rippling upper body. It’s a depressing sight, especially when we thought we’d put those dark days behind us forever.
But it’s only a minor stumble, and oh, how sweet the recovery that starts with Erin McCarthy‘s 2008 mass market edition of You Don’t Know Jack!
Relief floods through us before we’ve even opened the book, because of that scrumptious cover: here is one of the first gestures toward the quintessential Paul Marron cover, the kind of cover that has finally realized not only that excess clothing must not be allowed to clutter up our view of Paul but that nothing must be allowed to clutter up that view, including the vixens of the books themselves: in this resplendantly simple image, Paul essentially stands alone – the only addition is an adoring one, that creeping, gently appraising hand (is it a woman’s hand? So hard to tell…) resting lightly on Paul’s taut, rippling chest. The point of the image is clear: Paul himself is the gateway to all the pleasures of this book – those pleasures are summed up in his feathered hair, his stylish stubble, and his pert little body.
Of course, there’s more to the book than that allure, however animalistic. McCarthy began her writing career as a contest-winner, and that always gives things an extra jolt: contest-winners start their careers with a burst of approval denied to more drudging rejection-collectors, and it tends to show in their work. You Don’t Know Jack is a light, breezy tale about New York social worker Jamie Lynn, whose sassy gay friend Beckwith predicts that she will meet the man of her dreams very soon and spill food on him. These words are hardly lisped when she quite literally runs into Jonathon “Jack” Davidson on a crowded subway and smears his shirt in the spaghetti lunch he was carrying. She immediately notices that “he had a strong jaw, and he smelled like soap and tomatoes,” and then she takes in the sight of him:
He shrugged, the movement drawing her attention to his broad shoulders. She fought the urge to squeeze his biceps. Beckwith hadn’t warned her about the sexy factor. This guy was built like a race horse. No, that didn’t sound right. He was … was …lickable.
No condescending chit-chat about anybody being ‘fascinating’ here! What she runs into on that crowded subway is a solid little plug of pure Paul Marron, complete with devilish grin and irreverent sense of humor (at one point – not much later! – he “felt such profound sympathy for the pain Jamie and her breasts were in that he decided to give her an orgasm to distract her. Free of charge” – that’s – er, more or less – our boy!). There follows a quick series of encounters featuring clothes flying off in all directions, erections that last all day like Mentos, and more tongue-licking than the chameleons in a David Attenborough special. And because McCarthy, underneath her at times strained sauciness, is a winningly sentimental writer, there are also plenty of what our dear departed Oprah would have called “awww moments,” as when Paul/Jack says, “I’ve never believed in fate, or love at first sight, or anything that couldn’t be planned or quantified. I’m not an impulsive man. Until now. Until you, Jamie Lynn.”
Fate is certainly on the prowl as You Don’t Know Jack comes to an end. The year 2008 was ending as well, and ending on a strong note in the continuing adventures of our hero. But even his greatest fans wouldn’t have predicted just how big, how truly engorged, his career would become in 2009. We’ll take that topic in hand next time!
April 3rd, 2011
When last we left our hero Paul (now the proprietor of a snazzy new website of his own! Those of you who are casting directors – and you know who you are – click on over and line up to offer him work!), he was beginning to grasp once again that elemental poutiness that launched him to romance-cover stardom, after perhaps losing faith for a time and finding solace, as we’ve all done from time to time, by taking mercenary work in distant galaxies and doing some freelance paranormal gigs in New York City. Those stints offered an anonymity that was no doubt healing, but they required a heavy price in return: they required Paul to be fully clothed. For a male model, a pound of body armor and worsted wool is far worse than a pound of flesh. Paul may have executed these various adventures with the cool hand and consummate professionalism that are his trademarks, but looking at those covers, you can almost hear his luscious pecs yearning to break out and breathe free. We saw the beginnings of that self-realization dawn on Paul last time, and what started as a trickle will soon spurt to a torrent.
Like so many epic adventures, it all begins in Egypt. 1820 Egypt, to be specific, the setting for the opening scene of the delightful Deb Marlowe‘s 2008 Harlequin historical romance An Improper Aristocrat, which begins with a mysterious femme fatale spying on our Paul as he sits alone in his tent in the Valley of Kings. Her motives might be nefarious, but she’s an excellent judge of model-meat:
Narrowing her gaze, she studied him. Ah, yes. The light might be dim, but it illuminated a feast for the discerning female eye: a strong, chiselled profile, impossibly broad shoulders, rugged muscles straining the fine linen of his shirt.
He set down his pen and indulged himself in a lengthy, catlike stretch. Even in so unwary a pose, she could sense his power, feel the pull of unwavering confidence and absolute masculinity. Inwardly, she smiled. This assignment, which she had objected to with vehemence, was going to be no hardship at all.
Ah, yes indeed – she no sooner parts his tent-flap than she’s straddling him like a subway turnstile, and our boy Paul, bless his randy soul, takes it all in stride. Howard Carter and other wimpy Egyptologists would probably have complained about the heat.
Their impromptu coupling is brought to an abrupt halt by the sound of a scream, and Paul – here calling himself the Earl of Treyford – rushes outside to find his excavation partner, Richard Latimer, lying on the ground with a knife sticking out of his chest. Despite the fact that ‘Trey’ (the equivalent of the Earl of Rutland calling himself ‘Rut,’ but Marlowe – like her literary namesake, come to think of it – will have her own way) cries out the requisite “No!” Richard dies in his arms – but not before handing over a mysterious ancient amulet and making Paul swear to return to England and protect Richard’s big sister Chione.
Paul swears (in all his adventures so far, he’s never yet refused a dying request, despite the fact that they always get him into trouble – you’d think by this point he wouldn’t bend over a dying friend until his iPod was safely blasting Lady Gaga into his ears, so his friend could gurgle impossible quests until the cows come home without Paul being the wiser), even though he has no love for England – where polite society views him as an unprincipled rake and adventurer – and no love for the idea of playing squire to some old maid and the two children she chaperones.
Needless to say, Chione in the flesh upends all his expectations (Marlowe is wonderful at crafting set-piece scenes that come off without a hitch; the chapter-section where Paul meets Chione is a pitch-perfect hoot, complete with a zinger at the end), and thanks to that mysterious amulet – and the sinister ancient society that’s after it – the two of them are quickly embroiled in one adventure after another. Readers who expect the usual dinner-and-ball-room Regency romance here will be surprised right out of their petticoats. As noted, Paul himself must wrestle with similarly toppled expectations – and other, more powerful feelings:
Trey muffled a heartfelt curse. His head was still bent in the low-ceilinged corridor, an awkward position made more so by the child resting against his shoulder. Danger lay behind and the unknown ahead, and he must face it saddled with a woman and two children. This was hardly the first scrape he’d found himself in, but it ranked right up there with the worst of the lot. And despite all this, still his body reacted to the nearness of hers. To the scent of her hair. To the sound of her breathing in the darkness. For some reason he did not fully comprehend, all of this infuriated him.
Ah, that last line speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And in the end what’s important isn’t that inexplicable rage – that’s just par for the course when it comes to brooding rakehells, after all – but rather the fact that by this point in our odyssey, we can bloody well guess why Paul is infuriated. Hell, we can see it plain as day! The old Harlequin historicals (four a month, no overlapping time-periods!) all featured a separate black-and-white illustration on the inside cover that was meant to further the action of the full-color front cover, and in the case of An Improper Aristocrat, we can see the way the wind is blowing – it’s blowing Paul’s frilly shirt clean off his smooth-muscled torso!
That wind is the breath of the future, and it’s blowing Paul toward his romance-cover destiny! We shall follow that blowing job in the next instalment!