Deep Waters (the scarier kind of romance)


This past Christmas, one of my very best gifts was Lisa Kleypas’s Blue-Eyed Devil. It’s a contemporary romance featuring a smart, strong heroine who’s a survivor of domestic violence and has major, major issues to deal with before she can have any kind of healthy romantic relationship – but who meets a guy she wants so badly, he might just be worth it. If only her family didn’t hate him…

The issues Haven’s dealing with feel very real, the emotions are SO intense, the pain and the growth are so believable, and oh, the romance that develops for her is just wonderful – so hot, yes, but also so perfectly deserved, on an emotional level: Haven and the hero, Hardy, are so right for each other and so good for each other, too.

There’s one particular scene when Haven finally drops her shields around Hardy, tells him everything she’s been hiding, and waits for him to run…and what happens next is SO emotionally powerful that when I finished reading that scene I went straight back and read it right through all over again, twice, before I could move on with the rest of the book. It was that amazing.

I LOVED that book.

It happens to be Book 2 in a family-linked trilogy (that can be happily read out of order), and I’d never read Books 1 or 3, which feature two of Haven’s brothers. After falling so hard for Blue-Eyed Devil, of course I had to find more. So I reserved Books 1 (Sugar Daddy) and 3 (Smooth Talking Stranger) from the library, I waited eagerly for them, they both arrived almost a month ago…

…and yet I never seemed to get around to reading them. Because the thing is, Blue-Eyed Devil is INTENSE. It’s not just a fluffy, fun escape read. There’s all this real stuff in there about abuse and fear and growth along with the joy of finding something real and strong and wonderful. The pain in the beginning only intensifies the joy at the end, but still – I was a little nervous about jumping into such an emotional minefield again.

Then I got the flu, I tried five different Harlequins – all light and fluffy and apparently perfect escape reading – and none of them stuck, because none of them felt real enough to distract me from how miserable I felt…

…and I finally picked up Smooth Talking Stranger.

Yup. It happened all over again – the emotional whirlpool, sucking me right down into the book – and I loved it.

Ella, the heroine of Smooth Talking Stranger, grew up in an emotionally abusive family, with a childhood so bad (under the direction of her manipulative mother and her mother’s horrific boyfriends) that her younger sister has had to blank out major sections from her memory just to get by. Ella, though, went through lots of therapy in college, she’s living in Austin with a very nice boyfriend, she’s totally reinvented herself to match him and every single one of his principles, including veganism, so she can be healthy and normal just like he is, and she thinks everything’s fine now…

…until she gets a phone call letting her know that her younger sister Tara has had a baby and left it on their mom’s doorstep.

Ella ends up in Houston (the city is a major character in these novels, much more than just a setting – it’s described so colorfully and vividly, it takes on a real presence) with a baby on her hands and no sister in sight. Her first goal is to track down the baby’s father, and her first prospect is Jack Travis, a wealthy, macho Houston businessman who is the polar opposite of her boyfriend. Jack is not, in fact, the father of her sister’s baby (it turns out he was never even one of her sister’s partners), but he falls hard for Ella. So he steps in to help her when her sister announces she won’t be back for three months and her boyfriend back in Austin refuses to let a baby into his life.

Here’s where my own biases as a reader clash hard against the concept of the novel: I’m vegetarian, and I’m married to a vegan. I’m also really sick of veganism being used as a literary synonym for “uptight” and as a mistake that ALWAYS gets abandoned by every real heroine by the end of a novel. (Plus, why do strong, caring and protective romance heroes always have to eat meat? Why?) I was honestly expecting to be really annoyed by that part of this novel.

However. All that being said…in this case, the subplot genuinely works. Veganism for Ella is something she never would have chosen for herself, and the fact that she became a vegan in the first place was pure protective coloration; she was afraid not to do whatever her officially-normal boyfriend said was right, after her horrific childhood. Over the course of the book, and partly because of Jack, she really blossoms into her own, no longer standing in any guy’s shadow. She might start eating meat like Jack, but more importantly, she also figures out that she can have her own distinct opinions and think differently than her romantic partner while still having a healthy relationship.

Ella and Jack are great together, fun and funny. My favorite thing about them as a couple is perfectly expressed in her realization, partway through the novel: “My God. I love talking to this man.” They have the most fun talking to each other – they challenge each other in all the best ways, and the fact that their relationship is all based around how much they genuinely adore talking to each other and bouncing off each other makes their chemistry fantastic.

For once in a romance, though, they aren’t the main relationship of the novel, or the reason I ended up sobbing at one crucial point. The main relationship, the real emotional heart of the novel, is between Ella and her nephew, whom she takes in during his first week of life, and whom she’s going to have to give back to her sister by the time he’s three months old.

That’s the most painful and perfectly-pitched love story in the book, as she goes through all the sleep-deprivation and despair of early parenthood, and all the overwhelming bonding and love, too, her entire life is turned around forever – and yet she knows that there’s a ticking time bomb in the background, because after all this, she’s going to have to give him back. It just reinforces all the cruel emotional lessons of her childhood – and yes, I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

Watching Ella fall in love despite herself, after a childhood that taught her never to lose control that way, was incredibly powerful. The two relationships she enters into both change her in important ways. And for all the glitzy glamor of the backdrop, as she rubs shoulders with (and feels completely out of place around) Houston high society, this is no light escape novel. The reality is that she’ll never really escape her childhood – and her mother is still a horrible presence in her life, one who will never turn into the loving figure she really needed. Love can lead to incredible pain and loss…

…but the ending of the book is just perfect, and it made me cry again.

Once I finished it, first I re-read Blue-Eyed Devil (loving it all over again) and then I re-read Smooth Talking Stranger, just a day after finishing it the first time.

Usually I think of romance novels as my light escape from reality. These two novels, though, are deeper than that. They’re emotionally cathartic. It can feel scary to dive into that kind of emotional commitment…but oh, did I love them both. They’re very highly recommended.

(But oh, would I love to see a vegetarian or vegan alpha-male hero one day! Please?)

Time Out

This past week has been a bit of a nightmare, with child illness, exhaustion and worry all combined. It’s been a week when I’ve had a hard time settling into reading anything, partly because I’m so frustrated at not having the time/energy to do my own writing. But last night I found a book that let me escape and laugh and feel so much better as I was reading it, and yup, it was another Harlequin.

Wow, it was silly of me to avoid them all for so long.

Jill Shalvis‘s Time Out sits somewhere on the line between romance and romantic comedy, and I enjoyed it a LOT. The mood and the tone reminded me of Jennifer Crusie, in a very good way, but without the all-out wackiness of most Crusie plots and characters. It wasn’t an out-and-out comedy, but the tone was light and funny and there were a couple of really well-done moments that even skirted slapstick.

Most of all, I just loved that the hero and heroine enjoyed each other so much.

Rainey Saunders and Mark Diego grew up together, and Rainey – who was a good friend of Mark’s younger brother – had a crush on him for years. Unfortunately, it all exploded in a night of total humiliation for her when she tried to come on to him as a sixteen-year-old, and he – four years older than her and very aware of the age difference – turned her down flat. Fourteen years later, she still cringes every time she thinks back to it, and she’s avoided him every time he’s come back home since then. Still, she can’t forget him entirely because he’s stayed prominently in the news as a National Hockey League coach.

Now, Rainey’s working at the rec center that Mark’s younger brother runs, working with disadvantaged kids – and Mark and two of the members of his hockey team have come home for the summer to volunteer at the center. That means that they’re together ALL the time, and this time, Mark’s just as fascinated by Rainey as she always has been with him, like it or not.

This is one of those books that’s completely driven by the fact that one partner – Rainey, in this case – is utterly determined NOT to give in to her attraction or, worse yet, let herself really fall in love…but she can’t help giving in over and over and over again when they’re together (in a series of “just one more time” one-night stands), because the chemistry is SO intense – and like it or not, they really are perfect for each other on an emotional level as well.

They’re both incredibly likable characters, both of them total control freaks but also both incredibly strong and natural caretakers, determined to look after everyone around them. Rainey isn’t just attracted to Mark because she thinks he’s hot – rather, he has an intensity that’s incredibly compelling to her on a personal level, he’s just as smart as she is (which is very), and he has a wicked sense of humor, which she really desperately needs in her life. Similarly, the thing that Mark finds most appealing about Rainey is her strength and her air of unshakable competence.

Honestly, one of my only problems with the novel is that there really isn’t that much holding them apart and keeping them from their happily-ever-after until the end of the novel. I completely bought Rainey’s leftover emotional wounds from that early humiliation, and the fact that she had been telling herself for over a decade that Mark was the epitome of Unavailability. That part, I absolutely understood as it held her back from admitting, either to him or to herself, that she wanted anything more from him than sex. But what exactly was holding Mark back from trying for a real relationship? That part confused me.

There was one early moment in the novel when Mark recognized that Rainey saw him as a bad bet for a relationship. At that point, he thought to himself that other NHL coaches did manage real relationships despite the travel and the work pressure, so it wasn’t really a problem, despite her worries…

…but then later in the book, when Rainey finally admitted to him that she wanted more than a purely physical relationship, he told her that – sorry – he was only available on a day-to-day basis. And I thought, “Huh?”

Because honestly, that seemed to come out of nowhere. I really didn’t see any explanation in the book for that attitude on his part. It felt more like an issue that had popped up purely so that they couldn’t get together at that point, only 70% of the way through the book. By the end, of course, he realized he did want a real relationship, but my feeling was: Surprise? I had just never believed anything different about him.

So, I wished that there had been a more compelling issue at stake to keep them apart – or at least that Shalvis had seeded Mark’s relationship avoidance issues earlier in the book so that they would have felt real to me when they finally had an effect on the plot.

And okay, here’s my one other nit: Rainey feels insecure from the beginning about the fact that she’s just normal-looking, whereas Mark will have met and dated tons of supermodels while working with the NHL. Okay, I can buy that, and I think it’s a reasonable issue for her to have…

…or rather, it would have been except that every single nonattached male in the entire BOOK tries to seduce Rainey! (Or is restrained from trying to seduce her, in the case of Mark’s hockey players, whom he firmly warns off after their first sight of her.) I am not exaggerating. Every single non-partnered adult male Rainey comes into personal contact with in the entire book wants to date/sleep with her, with no exceptions. Add that to the fact that Mark describes her body as “perfect” from the first (and in an objective rather than biased way), and…well. What exactly is the physical difference between her and the incomparable supermodels? Maybe just the fact that she doesn’t wear makeup and does wear sporty clothes while at the rec center?

That part baffled and even slightly annoyed me, because I thought her worries about her appearance would have been a whole lot more compelling and reasonable if she had been pretty but not THE HOTTEST AND MOST IRRESISTIBLE WOMAN EVER. (Plus, lifelong insecurity or no, how could such an intelligent woman think of her looks as nothing special when she is constantly being hit on by every man she meets!)

So, those two issues kept this from being a book that I absolutely loved…but they didn’t stop me from liking and enjoying it a LOT. If I were giving out grades, I’d give this book a strong B+. The banter is so good throughout this book, both between Rainey and Mark – who have such a strong, fun connection – and between, well, basically everyone else in the book! This novel is populated by smart people who are fun to watch and listen to. The style of the book is frothy and funny and FUN.

In the end, I thought the title was perfect. This book is a perfect time-out entertainment. It made me smile as I read it, and at points it even made me laugh out loud. It isn’t deep, and I wished that the issues holding the characters apart had been better-developed – but I really enjoyed those characters and their interactions so much, and I’ll definitely be looking for more Jill Shalvis novels to read. Reading this book was a perfect time-out from reality.

(The cover, though, which is down to Harlequin rather than Jill Shalvis, did completely weird me out. The hero is named Mark Diego. His father came from Mexico. He identifies as Latino. Would you guess that for an instant from the cover? Sigh…)

Note: I read an e-galley of the book, which I got through Netgalley.

Snacks Between Meals (An Ode to Romance Novellas)

Here’s my favorite discovery since getting an e-reader: romance novellas.

I barely knew they existed beforehand. I mean, every so often I would see an anthology of 3 or 4 novellas at a bookstore, but those anthologies never had more than one author I liked inside, so I almost never ended up buying them (unless that author was Nalini Singh, doing a Psy-Changeling novella, in which case I would pay any price!!!!).

Then I got a Kindle and an iPad, and soon afterwards, I became aware that a LOT of romance authors are now releasing e-novellas, either as free promotions for their work, or else very, very cheaply.

Well. A novella isn’t a novel, any more than a snack is a full meal. But sometimes it’s delicious.

Tonight I just finished reading a novella that is free on smashwords until the end of tonight (January 13th) (so go, go, go! if you still have time): Bound in Sin, by Cynthia Eden.

Honestly? I’ve felt a little burned out on paranormal romance in the last year or so. I adore, adore, adore Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series, as noted before, and I’m enjoying Thea Harrison‘s Wyr series, too, but nowadays, I tend not to pick up many new paranormals. This time, though, the novella was free, and it had been linked to (on twitter) by one of my favorite contemporary romance authors, Julie James. I figured, I might as well download it now, check that the download had worked, and then save it to read tomorrow night on my iPad while waiting for my son to fall asleep.

Well. This is how it turned out. I opened it up to the first page, scanned it…then kept right on reading for the next hour, ignoring the TV show I’d intended to watch, not stopping for ANYTHING else until I had finished. It was totally over the top, and it was that much fun! It wasn’t strikingly original in concept – ten years ago, the werewolf hero and human heroine were in love, but then she disappeared; now she’s back to protect him from danger, and it turns out that she’s a vampire – and werewolves HATE vampires!

So, you know, I have read similar plots. And it didn’t have a ton of depth. But it was a novella. It didn’t have to. What it did have was an incredibly gripping style, fast pace, intense emotions, real conflicts, and a verve that swept me right through it. The moment I finished, I was back online, looking FOR MORE. I’d never read any Cynthia Eden before, but I will now – starting with her other two novellas, and then moving on to her novels (most of them published by Kensington).

Yes, novellas work like addictive drugs. Hook the reader with something short for cheap/free, and she WILL want more (and pay for it, too)!

Seriously, though, there’s something special about the novella length, and I’m trying to figure out what it is. A novella is long enough for the satisfaction of a real emotional drama and a more complicated, chewy plot than a short story. On the other hand, there isn’t the emotional investment of a full novel. I doubt, for example, that I’ll be thinking again about the characters in the novella I just read (even though I enjoyed it a lot), whereas in a novel I love, I feel like I know the characters so well by the end of the book, I’ll think back to them several times afterwards, just enjoying the act of remembering them.

A novel takes you into an entire world that you move into for a while, whereas a novella is more like…I don’t know. A weekend trip? Just long enough to look around, take pictures, enjoy a foreign cup of coffee or two and plan to come back again, soon? (But not an overnight trip, that’s just too short and unsatisfactory.)

Of course, when it comes to the novella form in romance, there can be the added satisfaction of getting that quick happy-ever-after buzz just when you need it, without going through quite as much angst and uncertainty along the way…

…but no, that’s not quite right, because I do love really SINKING into a romance novel and living there. But still…there’s something so appealing about just downloading a novella and knowing that I can lie down for an hour and devour the whole thing. Again, I’m back to the food theory: sometimes you just really want a muffin or a brownie instead of a lasagna.

(And yes, I have to admit: I am definitely feeling a sneaking urge to try writing one in my own genre!)

I also wanted to say: probably my favorite e-novella so far is Eloisa James’s wonderful “Winning the Wallflower” (a lovely, witty Regency romance). And in the sweeter end of the paranormal genre (I think it even gets shelved in the fantasy section), the first e-novella I ever read is still one I look back on and enjoy (and it introduced me to a whole series that I’ve also enjoyed), “Alpha and Omega”, by Patricia Briggs.

What about you guys? Have you read any e-novellas you’ve loved (or loathed)? And what do you think about the novella, as a form?

Surprising love – Sandra Hyatt’s Lessons in Seduction

I just finished reading a romance novel that made me make an “Ohhhhh” sound of pure happiness at the end of it…and it was a book I shouldn’t have liked at all, according to all my preconceptions!

First of all, until very recently, I was a romance reader who avoided reading Harlequin/Mills & Boon novels. I’d read so many I didn’t enjoy over the years that I just gave up…and that continued until a Kindle sale last year that led to me trying out and LOVING Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Friend. The friendship was so real, the chemistry was so great, the characters were so well-developed…okay, I finally got that there could definitely be great Harlequin novels. I just had to find more of them (including as many Sarah Mayberry novels as possible, please)!

But there are some fantasies I just can’t get into. One of them is the rich, arrogant, obnoxious megabillionaire alpha-hero, who still rules in a lot of the Harlequins I tried out, even ones recommended by other smart readers. Another big one, especially since I moved to the UK, is the whole royal fantasy. In my real life, I’m an anti-monarchist – I hate the whole concept of people getting bowed and curtseyed to, even in the 21st century, just because of the family they happened to be born into!

So even when I saw Sandra Hyatt’s novel Lessons in Seduction recommended by various blogs I like, I felt no interest in trying it out. The problem is, the hero is a prince in a contemporary European principality, the conflict (according to the cover copy) is that he falls in love with someone who wouldn’t be an appropriate princess… Whatever, I thought, and moved on from all the rave reviews without looking back.

Then I actually saw a review that included a snippet from the book – and I really, really liked it. I read another snippet, too, on the Harlequin website, and liked that, too. Finally, I thought, well, I’ll just give it a try…

And yes, I loved it. Head over heels LOVED it. I haven’t read a book that purely romantic in a very long time – and what makes it romantic is NOT the fact that he’s a prince. It’s the relationship between them, the absolute kinship and perfect friendship mingled with an attraction they’re both fighting so hard to resist.

They’re old friends who grew up together – her dad is one of the palace drivers – and who know each other better than anyone else knows either of them. That’s what makes him trust her enough to ask her for help on his completely pathetic dating style. And what really, truly made it work for me is that Adam, the prince, is NOT an arrogant alpha-male hero. Instead, he’s sweet, serious, smart, and completely geeky, while Danni’s the one who drives race cars and lives for action. But I loved the scene where he calls her out for pretending they have nothing in common, after a heated chess game.

“I’m nothing like you. You’re royalty, you’re a scholar, multilingual and let’s face it, a bit of a geek.”

“A geek? As in I like things like…chess?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, seeing immediately where he was going with this, “but I only ever learned because we were both laid up that time, you with your leg and me with chicken pox. I was bored and had gone through all the other games and you’d gotten banned from everything electronic for crashing the palace network.”

“The excuses won’t work, Danni. Admit it, you enjoy chess.”

“Yes,” she admitted. “But that doesn’t mean anything.”

The Lord of the Rings.” Adam had given her the books and insisted she read them prior to the first of the movie adaptations coming out. He’d re-read them at the same time and they’d had many lengthy discussions about them.

“Face it, Danni. Underneath the Action Woman exterior you’re part geek, too…”

A romance hero who loves Lord of the Rings, and a heroine who bonds with him over it? I was in total heaven. And there was such a sweetness to their romance – and so many perfect moments of humor mixed into it – that while I started out thinking, grr, monarchy in my grouchy anti-monarchist way, by midway in I was just loving both of them, totally caught up and rooting for them to Kiss! Kiss already!, and by the end I was completely enthralled, practically cooing with delight as they found their happy ending.

(I was also slightly appeased politically by the fact that the conflict is not over the fact that she’s a “commoner”, despite what the cover copy claims. Instead, the real problem is that he’s looking for someone who can enter into the everything’s-public lifestyle of a modern royal, living under the full glare of the media, and they both think that she would hate it.)

I’m so glad I own my own copy, so I can re-read it lots of times in the future, whenever I’ve got a bad cold and I need something to make me happy again.

I recommend it for any time you’re feeling grouchy or sad or disaffected with the world. Lessons in Seduction is perfect escapism, in the best possible way. And I’m so glad to have been proven completely wrong about it.

[Note: I bought my own copy, from The Book Depository.]

Reading Roundup: Smart, Non-Beautiful Women for the Win!

Today is a lazy Sunday morning full of knitting and romance-reading on my Kindle, so it feels like the perfect time for a weekly roundup. Here are the two romances I enjoyed reading this week, both of which inspired more general Thoughts To Share (TM).

The first one I read was Mary Balogh’s First Comes Marriage, the first book in her five-book Huxtable family series – and the fourth of them I’ve read, since I’ve been bouncing around the series, reading them completely out of order. (Actually it has been in AN order – just the order my library supplied them in, as I ordered them all from different branches of the library.)

Mary Balogh is kind of the opposite, in some ways, of Rose Lerner. Balogh’s books tend to use VERY traditional Regency plots and tropes – which probably isn’t surprising since she’s been one of the most established writers in the genre for decades now. There are features of her writing style that always feel slightly clunky to me, personally, and I don’t read her books expecting any great originality. However, I do find her a reliably entertaining writer, and I’m always happy to find a new book by her that I haven’t read yet.

First Comes Marriage did a lot of things that I enjoyed. First of all, it starts with a really lovely homage to Pride and Prejudice, as the cranky uppercrust hero, Elliott Wallace, Viscount Lyngate, is forced to attend a rural assembly ball with his much-more-sociable secretary/friend. He’s then introduced to lots of young ladies by a Sir William Lucas-lookalike (here called “Sir Humphrey Dew”), a tactless, jolly local squire who pressures him into ask one of the local young women (a woman who’s not at all beautiful but is clever and funny and very good at making others laugh) to dance in exactly the same way Mr Darcy was forced to ask Elizabeth Bennet to dance in a similar scene in Pride and Prejudice. It’s all done very knowingly and in a really fun way for P&P fans.

Unlike Elizabeth, though, Vanessa Dew (Sir Humphrey’s widowed daughter in law) doesn’t turn Elliott down. Instead, she makes the best of the situation, enjoys her dance, teases him for being so uptight, and even ends up getting him to tease her back. Then they part, she thinks she’ll never see him again…

…and then the next day he shows up at her genteel-but-impoverished family’s cottage to announce that her 17-year-old brother has just inherited a wealthy Earldom, and the hero is now her brother’s guardian. Needless to say, all three older sisters travel with their younger brother to his new estate, and when it becomes clear that one of the sisters will have to marry the guardian to supply the others with a social sponsor for the London Season, Vanessa is the one who very improperly proposes marriage to Elliott herself.

There weren’t any parts of this book that really surprised me (evil ex-mistress? check! I know what happens here…), and there were bits where, as I said, the writing style did grate slightly for me. (Her characters have a habit of summarizing to themselves everything that we’ve just seen happen before they move on to giving their emotional responses to it, and I want to hurry them up a bit – yes, we know what happened! You don’t have to tell us! Also, did she really need to take the whole first chapter just to tell us how much Elliott didn’t want to go to the dance?)

However, I also genuinely enjoyed the whole novel. It played on lots of familiar tropes, but it did it really well, and I enjoyed all the variations along the way, along with the moments of humor and real chemistry between the hero and heroine. Elliott is the archetype of a sulky, obnoxious hero at the beginning, but by the end, I genuinely believed not only that his earlier behavior was understandable (given his backstory) but also that he was going to be a wonderful husband for Vanessa from then onward – and Vanessa really deserved a wonderful husband. I love heroines who are smart and able to laugh at themselves. And I really loved her family dynamics – and the chance to see the backstory for the heroes and heroines I’ve enjoyed in the later books of this series.

As a matter of fact, I love family novels in general. It’s interesting because I’ve come across two really strong responses to the current trend of interconnected series of “family” romances. Some people really hate them, finding them – well, I don’t know, exactly. The problem is, I know that a lot of people react strongly against them, but I have a hard time completely understanding that because I love them so much. I love getting to stay within the same circle of characters over a series of novels, while still getting satisfying happy endings at the end of each book. I love getting to watch the characters, and the earlier marriages, develop over the course of the series. Mostly, I’m fascinated by family dynamics, as a person, as a writer, and as a reader.

So as far as I’m concerned: long may this trend continue!

You can read an excerpt from First Comes Marriage on Balogh’s website or buy a copy on

My other read this week, which I enjoyed even more, was a novella released as a VERY cheap “Avon Impulse” ebook (just 49p in the UK, and $0.78 in the US): Caroline Linden’s I Love the Earl. Remember how I complained about all those titles-of-rank included in historical romance titles? This is another one of THOSE titles. But oh, did I enjoy this novella!

Margaret de Lacey is plain, intelligent, in her 30s, and definitely a spinster in the late eighteenth century…until her brother suddenly and unexpectedly inherits a dukedom and settles a £40,000 dowry on her. Needless to say, she’s immediately besieged by fortune-hunters…including the hero. Rhys, Lord Dowling (yes, an Earl), is in possession of a crumbling estate driven to ruin by the actions of his father and then his guardian. His only chance is to marry a wealthy heiress…but Margaret is too smart to be caught by any fortune-hunter. And Rhys shocks everyone when he accidentally falls in love with her.

The writing is so smart and full of sparkiness, I thoroughly enjoyed it from the very beginning…but here’s where I really fell in love: when Rhys introduces himself with a lame pickup line, Margaret (sick to death of slimy fortune hunters) gives him a witty and absolutely devastating setdown and stalks off across the ballroom with everyone falling out of her way…and Rhys, left gaping after her, is absolutely knocked off his feet by just HOW AWESOME she is. That’s the moment he falls for her, blown away by her strength and intelligence. He ends up finding her really attractive by the end, too, but it’s her brains and sheer Attitude he falls for first, and that’s what made me fall for Rhys.

I really enjoyed the tension set up by their situation – because after all, when everyone knows that he needs her money desperately, how can she trust his feelings for her? I really enjoyed all the characters, too. But really, when it comes down to it, that first confrontation between them summarized everything that I loved most about this novella: the fact he adores her so much for all the right reasons, and that was so much fun to see.

I had exactly one very, very tiny nitpick with this novella, and it was a VERY small historical authenticity detail that didn’t affect the plot or main characters. One of the side characters, though, is introduced with reference to his strong Yorkshire accent, which made me think: …um??? Because I’m pretty sure that an upperclass man mingling in elite London Society, a man who attended Oxford and, presumably, Eton or Harrow beforehand, wouldn’t have that accent (or at least it wouldn’t be that strong). British accents were SO class-based at that point, vastly more so than they are now. If he did have such a strong local (and thus more provincial/lowerclass) accent, I’d expect him to be mocked ruthlessly for it in the ton – whereas no one in the novella seems to think anything of it.

Like I said, though, that was a VERY tiny nitpick that didn’t affect the huge enjoyment I got from this novella. It was enormously fun throughout, and it even made me want to pick up her new novel, which has possibly the worst cover I’ve seen for a recent romance. (I’m not including it here, that’s how much I dislike it!)

But as a writer, it did definitely leave me with a reminder of how good it is to release stuff like this novella – because I was happy to spend 49p to try out a novella, and now I want to spend lots and lots more money on Caroline Linden’s full-length novels because of it – whereas beforehand I was staying away from them like the plague because of that awful cover for the only one I’d seen. (And yes, as a writer who KNOWS writers don’t have control over their covers, I do feel ashamed to admit how much that cover affected me.)

You can read an excerpt from I Love the Earl on Linden’s website or buy it on

Looking back at these two books, it’s interesting to see the tropes that pop up in both – two women who are smart and witty but not hugely attractive; two unexpected inheritances. But Balogh and Linden took those tropes and went in opposite directions, which is part of the fun, for me, of reading Regency romances – seeing how the same tropes can be played out in such different ways.

What about you guys? What have you been reading recently?

(Note: I read a library copy of First Comes Marriage and bought myself a Kindle copy of I Love the Earl.)

Rose Lerner’s In For a Penny

Do you remember the list I mentioned in my last entry (lo, all those eons ago, before a variety of illnesses and Practical Life Matters ate up my brain), the list of my ingredients for an ideal romance? Well, it’s kind of scary how perfectly Rose Lerner’s first novel, In for a Penny, ticks them all off.

Original, plausible plot? Tick! Intelligent writing? Oh, wow. Tick, tick, tick! Real respect and caring between the hero and heroine? Smart, witty, conversation? Ohhh, yeah. And she even managed something I wasn’t honestly sure could be done: she took the Regency setting I love, delved into the serious class injustices that supported all that sparkly upperclass living – and made it really, really romantic. Seriously.

The basic concept of the novel is this: Nev is a young Viscount in his early twenties who has been raised by his high-gambling, hard-drinking father to live a drunken frat-boy lifestyle without compunction. He spends his nights drinking and gambling with his friends or hanging out at the opera house with his mistress. He never thinks twice about the money he’s spending or where it comes from.

Then his father is shot in a duel, happy-go-lucky Nev suddenly becomes Lord Bedlow…and he discovers that his father’s gambling has ruined the estate. They’re all going to lose everything – until, that is, he proposes to Penny Brown, a manufacturing heiress whom he’s met only once before, telling her honestly that he needs her money to save his family. Against her better judgment (and her parents’ warnings), Penny accepts his proposal…and the majority of the book follows their growing relationship as they travel to his ruined estate and run into a nightmarish set of very realistic problems waiting for them there.

This is a book all about class conflict, which doesn’t sound remotely romantic – but it is (ohhh, how it is!), because the truth is, Nev and Penny are perfect for each other in all the most important ways. They may come from drastically different backgrounds, but they share a sense of humor, a serious passion for music, and more than that a subtly perfect sense of kinship (much like the hero and heroine of Lerner’s second book, A Lily Among Thorns). But they have a LOT to deal with before they can have a real relationship and solid marriage.

Here’s one of the clichés that pops up in several old Regency romances: the evil former-mistress of the hero who wickedly continues to pursue him throughout the novel, making endless trouble for the sweet, innocent heroine. Oh, how loathsome the ex-mistress usually is!

Well. Nev, like most young nobleman, did have a mistress, whom he dumps (like all good, monogamous heroes) when he gets engaged to Penelope. However, not only is his ex-mistress, Amy, not evil, but she actually comes from Penelope’s old neighborhood and has a lot in common with her. Their mothers used to be friends before Penelope’s dad got rich and the Browns moved into a different class of society. There’s a real sense of injustice in the comparison between Penelope’s upbringing and outcome and Amy’s upbringing/outcome – and in the different ways the two women are treated by Nev. Not that the readers want him to end up with Amy – he and Penelope are clearly right for each other – but it’s equally clear that the careless way he treated Amy, while totally normal for his class and exactly what he was taught to do, is also deeply, deeply unfair, and that’s something both he and Penelope have to deal with.

Another cliché I’ve come across in lots of Regency novels? The hero’s estate full of happy tenants who all automatically love the hero because he’s So Special and their Natural Leader. Well, not here! Nev’s tenants are bitter for very, very good reason, because his dad ran the estate into the ground and turned a blind eye to their mistreatment. Now, Nev and Penny are working together to try to fix things, and Nev is genuinely idealistic and caring – but his tenants are not ready to be persuaded with sweet words and a heroic smile, and this is an age of serious and violent tenant uprisings, for some very excellent reasons.

There are so many serious issues to deal with, this could have been a really dark and even depressing novel. It isn’t at all, though, and part of the reason why is that Nev – who could so easily be a horribly unsympathetic character – is instead genuinely wonderful. He grows up through the book, often painfully, and has to really face the sometimes-intense mistakes he’s made – but even in the beginning, when he was running around partying his way through life, there was always a visible core of real sweetness and kindness in him, along with genuine intelligence (even if he wasn’t using it much at that point).

And Penny…oh, how I loved Penny! She’s so smart, so practical (she’s the one who takes over finances for Nev, who has no idea how to handle them), and yet with a hidden streak of deep romanticism that perfectly matches Nev’s own. She needs Nev with his sweetness just as he needs her with her practicality. I was rooting so desperately for them to solve their (very real) problems and come together – and while I sometimes got frustrated at Penny for not believing in Nev’s growing feelings for her, I absolutely understood why it was so hard for her to believe in them, after her background of being sneered at by the upperclass girls in her boarding school (not to mention her present-day experiences of being sneered at by the rest of Nev’s aristocratic family).

Here’s my one and only nitpick, the single thing that actually bothered me as I read: just a few times in the novel, a couple of anachronistic phrases popped up, phrases that sounded more 21st century than Regency. It wasn’t often, it was genuinely only very, very occasionally – but it came as a surprise after reading her second novel, where that NEVER happened. It certainly didn’t take away my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, though, which was clearly incredibly well-researched and based on a really solid understanding of the Regency era.

I think my favorite of Rose Lerner’s novels still has to be A Lily Among Thorns, because when it comes right down to it, I do most love zany romps like that one; but oh, how I did love In For a Penny. I bought it as an e-book on my Kindle, but I want to buy a paper copy, too, that’s how good it was.

And I am SO impatient to read whatever Rose Lerner chooses to write next!

In For a PennyYou can read the first chapter of In For a Penny on Rose Lerner’s website, read a fun interview with her on Kat Latham’s blog, or buy In For a Penny on Kindle or as a trade paperback.

Sheer Comfort (with a dollop of guilty pleasure)



When I think about the kind of romance I love most, a whole bunch of great adjectives come to mind. Witty! Smart! Fun! I even have a whole set of guidelines:

The hero should respect the heroine and vice versa. They should genuinely enjoy each other as people, as well as being attracted to each other. The plot should be original and plausible. The writing should be intelligent. If the novel is written by a multi-book author, each of their different books should be genuinely different enough to be interesting. And of course there are certain historical periods and settings that are icing on the cake for me, like Regency or Georgian England. If those settings feel real and compelling, I’ll love and respect the book even more.

These are the books that I’ll happily and confidently recommend to other people.

But then there are the other books, the books that I know are a bit…well, silly, maybe? But I love silliness in a book, so that isn’t the right word after all. OK, how about the books where some things just don’t make sense, or the plot is just crazy, or the setting bears no resemblance to history, or yes, OK, it is exactly the same plot as half the author’s other novels with only a few names and details changed…

…but I don’t care. Because when I’m sick or sad and I can’t bring myself to think hard, these are some of the books that simply make me happy. They’re not on my list of recommended reads; they’re on my list of comfort reads, like medicine when I’m feeling at my worst. Here are just a few of them from Julie Garwood, my guiltiest-pleasure comfort read:

Guardian Angel, the first book I ever read by Julie Garwood, and still one of my reluctant favorites, is set in a Regency-landia that never, ever was. In this alternate version of British history (which is the only way I can think of it), the heroine, Jade (yes, really, despite the era!), is secretly a much-feared pirate called Pagan (think: Dread Pirate Roberts) who possesses a knack for theft but very rigid morals. The hero is a nobleman on a mission to kill Pagan, who (he thinks) has killed his younger brother. Jade, on the other hand, in disguise as an ultra-feminine, helpless lady, is determined to physically protect him from a traitor in the War Office. The hero thinks no woman could be as smart as a man. He is of course proven wrong.

Things get very, very silly. It’s just completely ridiculous in so many ways. Jane Austen would stare at the historical worldbuilding in baffled incomprehension. The writing itself is full of boiled-down archetypes. It’s not smooth or clever or witty. It’s completely over-the-top. And yet…

The humor in it, broad and silly and completely unsophisticated, makes me laugh. Every single time, I read it and I laugh and laugh and feel better. There are a couple of scenes in the middle that are just hysterical. I can’t even count how many times I’ve dragged this book out when I most needed it. The honest truth is, I love it, guilty pleasure or not.

And the same could be said of several of her (many) Scottish medieval romances, which are probably just as far removed from medieval reality as her Regency novels, but luckily, I don’t know enough to notice. My very favorites of her Scottish novels are The Secret and Saving Grace, both of which include a whole bunch of female friendships and empowerment along with grumpy and monosyllabic (but deeply soft-hearted) Scottish lairds who get completely twisted around their heroines’ fingers, with plenty of slapstick humor throughout.

Sadly, I’ve never enjoyed any of her contemporary novels that I’ve tried – I’m a purely historical reader with Garwood – but those historicals, silly as they undoubtedly are, have made me feel better in some of my worst times, from my teenage years all the way through my thirties-so-far.

What about you guys? What are your guilty pleasures – or, rephrased, what are your total-comfort reads?

A Very Different Regency



I just finished Rose Lerner‘s A Lily Among Thorns, and ohhh, did I love it. I read it filled with delight and even exhilaration at certain points. Even a couple of scenes that felt slightly artificial to me, like the running gag of having a middle-aged Sir Percy Blakeney as a minor character (boring everyone with his endlessly-repeated reminiscences of his days as The Scarlet Pimpernel), still felt utterly forgivable as loving in-jokes for geeks like me who adore this period so, so much. Those brief bits swept me out of the book as I read them, reminding me that the other characters weren’t real either, so this really was just fiction after all – but I couldn’t help enjoying them anyway, possibly because I am pretty much the ideal target audience for this book.

Here is my second-favorite thing about A Lily Among Thorns (I’m leading up to my top favorite): it is not an ode to the British upper class. I love Regency novels, and I understand why so many of them are set among the haut ton, Britain’s wealthiest elite – it’s a setting full of glittering luxury, gorgeous clothes, fabulous parties, banquets and an awful lot of romantic dancing. Also, the characters don’t spend all their waking hours doing back-breaking work, so they have plenty of time and energy for flirtation and courtship. So all in all, it makes a lot of sense, even though I sometimes find the fantasy of wealth/luxury expressed a little too explicitly for my taste in the standard types of titles chosen for modern Regency romances, The Viscount Who Loved Me/The Taming of the Duke/etc. I actually love both of those novels I just mentioned, by the way – but over and over again, the man’s aristocratic title is used in historical romance titles as a shorthand description of why we should read the book, like a shorthand personals ad shouting: Rich! Powerful! Rich!

But guess what? The hero of A Lily Among Thorns, Solomon Hathaway, is…not a Marquis. Nor is he an Earl, a Viscount, or a Duke. He’s a tailor, and a hardworking chemist for his uncle’s tailoring business, with dye-stained hands, a practical focus and a living he has to earn. More than that, he comes from the kind of educated, intellectual middle-class family that reads Wollstonecraft and Bentham along with the Bible, espouses liberal, republican views, dislikes the institution of the royalty and disapproves of the class system. Which sets him up nicely for being open-minded enough to fall in love with the heroine, Lady Serena Blackthorn, who is – despite her title – an innkeeper and an infamously “fallen” woman, an ex-courtesan who’s fought her way out of prostitution but will never be seen as respectable.

The setup for the storyline is this: five years ago, Solomon was a Cambridge undergraduate hanging out with other students much wealthier and in a different class from his own. When they dragged him, drunk, to a brothel, he freaked out and ended up guiltily shoving all his money for the next term at the nameless (to him) girl he was meant to hire and running away instead of hiring her…leaving her with enough money to buy out her contract and be free. Using her own fierce determination and intelligence, she spent the next few years maneuvering for power (some of her background history is reminiscent of the real Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson) and finally became, first the part-owner, and then the full owner of her own inn, facing down every ex-client who leered at her and building a fearsome reputation within the London Underworld. But she never quite forgot the boy who started her on her path to freedom.

Solomon ends up meeting her again (without, at first, realizing who she is) when he’s sent to hire her help in tracking down stolen jewelry – her underworld connections can come in handy in cases like these. She immediately recognizes him, insists that he stay at her inn while they look for the jewelry – and then the plot zooms straight into a fast-moving rollercoaster of French spies, schemes, hidden compartments, mistaken identities, and much more.

It’s all zany and fun and it moves at an incredible pace…but here’s what is my very, very favorite thing of all about the book: Solomon and Serena really, really like each other. And I really do mean like. Romances are full of couples who spot each other across a crowded room and are smitten by the other’s beauty, who immediately want to get physical and start tearing at each other’s clothing…but that’s not the case here at all. (For one thing, because of her past, Serena has serious Issues about physical intimacy, and those are handled very believably.)

Instead, from the moment they meet again, what they immediately recognize in each other is a kindred spirit – someone they can genuinely talk to, despite the fact that (for very different reasons) they have both been living deeply emotionally-isolated lives. Their sense of instinctive intellectual and emotional connection – the way they lapse so quickly and easily into a mode of conversation that shows just how well they fit, as friends, and how desperate they have been to find someone who fits, as a true friend – felt infinitely more compelling to me than most of the insta-attraction storylines I’ve read lately. And oh, is it fun to read their conversations – and this is a book very much built on conversation. If you’re someone who devours good conversation in books, like me, it’s delicious.

I love the fact that Solomon is freckled, shy, and cares deeply about fine tailoring; I love the fact that Serena is prickly, has had to learn how to be scary, and finds such real sweetness in her relationship with Solomon. I love that they’re each as smart as each other, and they each call each other out on their evasions and half-truths. I love how much they admire each other for exactly what’s most important – and oh, how I love that they make each other laugh!

There’s also a lot of richness built into the world and the surrounding characters, of various ethnicities and classes. The secondary romance which makes up one subplot is between two men, and I thought the Regency issues involved in that – both legal and cultural – were handled really well. I also loved the fact that there was so much complexity even to most of the antagonists.

It wasn’t a perfect book, technically. A couple of the plot machinations felt a tiny bit clunky to me, especially near the beginning; the Scarlet Pimpernel gag did feel a little artificial and throw me out briefly from the world of the novel; and I wished there had been more resolution for the storyline of Serena’s father.

Those are all small niggles, though, when really what matters most is this: I read this book with a feeling of real delight, and the moment I finished, I thought: I want another one! Based on this (her second) book, Rose Lerner is my favorite new-to-me Regency author, and I’ll definitely be buying her first book very soon.

(Note: I read this book as a free e-ARC from Netgalley.)

You can read the Prologue and Chapter One on Rose Lerner’s website.

ETA: that review was written about the original edition of A Lily Among Thorns, on its original release through Dorchester Books. It’s now (1st September, 2014) been republished by Samhain Publishing, with a gorgeous new cover:


You can buy the book at Samhain or on Amazon.

And after you read it (but only after! Because: major spoilers included!), you can read this sweet followup short story, “The Way of a Man with a Maid,” about Solomon’s younger sister and her first days of married life with her new husband, set shortly after the events of A Lily Among Thorns. (It’s explicitly about their sex life, but I wouldn’t call it an erotic story – it’s more of a very human story about a young couple awkwardly and sweetly coming to figure things out in the days before sex ed, and it includes some great funny moments as well as some painfully true ones. You shouldn’t read it to get a sense of what the book might be like – “The Way of a Man With a Maid” has a very different, much less zany tone than Lily – but having already read Lily and loved those side-characters, I really enjoyed their followup story.)

Playing Favorites


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What are your personal favorite romance novels? They don’t have to be the best ones you’ve read (although they can be). Which ones do you go back to again and again, and really, truly love?

Here are some of mine, in no particular order:

1. The first three books of Loretta Chase’s Carsington Quartet: Miss Wonderful, Mr Impossible, and Lord Perfect. (They don’t need to be read in order.) I read Mr Impossible first and ended up dropping everything to finish it the same day – then re-read it two days later! The next day, I went into town and bought every Loretta Chase novel on the bookshelf in Borders, even though I was broke. I was obsessed!

Mr Impossible is set in 1820s Egypt with a sweet-but-dumb hero, a brilliant scholar heroine, and a fabulous adventure plot. It’s basically “The Mummy” with more romance and (alas) no magic. (Even my husband liked this one! And Patrick is not a romance reader.)

Miss Wonderful is a romance between a sensitive, romantic dandy of a hero and a pragmatic heroine who’s been running a massive estate for years and has no time for romance. I’ve read it at least four times in the last few years, and it makes me happy every time.

Finally, Lord Perfect is about a perfectly responsible, utterly respectable politician hero who ends up running off in a crazy adventure with an entirely disreputable (and fabulous) heroine who has one of the best daughters ever. (Really. Her daughter is hilariously awesome, and I was so happy to also read Chase’s later novel, Last Night’s Scandal, about that daughter all grown-up and causing trouble. It was really fun, unsurprisingly.)

I’ve never loved another Loretta Chase novel quite as much as I love these three Carsington books, but these three books…oh, I love them SO much!

2. Georgette Heyer…well, duh.😉 (My Kat books are basically a big Austen/Heyer homage!) Again, I don’t love every Heyer novel, but I enjoy almost all of them, and I love a lot of them.

My individual favorites keep on changing over the years, but The Talisman Ring is almost always my top favorite. (Smugglers! A fabulously romantic young heroine who’s based all her ideas about life on Gothic novels, and a smart older heroine who’s even MORE dangerous! Not to mention a great hero to match the older heroine. He starts out stuffy and becomes just perfect.) Right now, my second favorite is probably Faro’s Daughter (best battle-of-the-sexes romantic comedy EVER!), but I also really love the sweet, foppish beta-male hero of Cotillion and the writer-heroine of Sylvester, and, and, and…🙂

3. Nora Roberts’s In the Garden series, starting with Blue Dahlia. (This series really does need to be read in order.) Three strong women build a strong, supportive family of friendship at the same time as finding their romantic partners AND dealing with a very freaky ghost, almost-as-freaky gossip, and gardening that’s so lushly described, it even made me want to try gardening again. (And I am NOT a gardener, to say the least!)

Now that I’ve said that, here’s the really, really embarrassing part. I picked up Blue Dahlia in the library for unbelievably snobby and elitist reasons. I picked it up, all those years ago, ASSUMING that it would be terrible dreck (I don’t even know why – just because she’s so popular, maybe? yes, I’m cringing as I type this), but thinking “Well, so many women love her books, I ought to force myself to read one just to analyze what she does right”.

I took it home, I sighed heavily as I picked it up, I rolled my eyes as I turned to the first page…and then I stayed glued to the couch until I finished it, because I COULD NOT STOP. I bought a copy of the book to keep later that week, after buying the second and third even faster, because I NEEDED to read the other women’s stories. Needless to say, I did no professional analysis whatsoever. I just devoured them all, I have re-read every book in the trilogy again and again, and I’ve been a huge Nora Roberts fan ever since.

(Guess what? If a ton of women love her books – that’s probably because they’re really good. Surprise?)

What about you guys? What are your personal favorites?

Comfort and Pleasure


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I love reading romance. I’ve loved it ever since I was eight years old and read my first historical romance, pulled off one of my grandmothers’ shelves and hidden under my bed because it was so delicious, I was sure that it must be forbidden. Romance novels have never lost that exciting tinge of guilty pleasure for me, even as I became an adult and – after an insecure period – finally became assertive enough to argue against anyone who slammed romance as a genre.

Even during that insecure period in undergrad, when I told myself that I didn’t really read romance anymore, I still pulled out my old favorites – Amanda Quick novels and Julie Garwood Scottish historicals, mainly – whenever I got the flu. They were always my failsafe, go-to comfort novels. They were my secret comfort and pleasure when I was too sick or tired to be the person I thought I should be.

Later on, when I got REALLY sick – I was diagnosed with M.E./CFS in 2005, and spent months stuck on a couch or a bed almost 24 hours a day, finally losing my dayjob because I’d been ill for too long – romances were a big part of what saved my sanity, Georgette Heyer romances in particular – they were so sharp and witty and romantic and funny, they got me through that terrible period of fear and confusion and illness and even genuine despair, once my diagnosis came through and I found out that there would be no cure.

The other thing that saved me was my own writing, as I escaped my bedbound situation by writing a Heyer-and-Austen-inspired Regency fantasy adventure, with highwaymen and magic and romance and humor, just to escape my couch and make myself laugh. I’d been writing for years by then, determined to be a pro writer one day, but with that novel, I wrote purely for myself…and that novel turned into Kat, Incorrigible, the first in a trilogy. Selling that trilogy saved me, my family, and, in an awful lot of ways, my self-respect. (Anyone with chronic illness can tell you that being too sick to hold down a dayjob is absolute poison to your feelings of self-worth. No one wants to be too sick to support their family.) But I kept on reading and loving romance as life went up and down, my own first books came out, my wonderful son was born, and my health went up and down, too.

The only problem is: I write books aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds, which means that my author blog has to be appropriate for 10- to 15-year-olds, too. Different parents have different ideas about whether their children should be allowed to read adult romances, and I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by recommending books to their kids which they don’t feel are appropriate. I write on my author blog about my life, my family, and most of the books that I love…but because of that niggling worry about age issues and reading levels, I haven’t written much over there about the romances I read – and I love, love, love talking about romance with other romance-lovers.

Thus, this book blog devoted to romance. In times of trial, when I’m tired, when I’m scared, or when I’m sad, the one thing that always, always helps is curling up with dark chocolate and a romance novel. I hope you guys will join me here – and tell me which novels have gotten you through any tough times of your own!