Review – To Tame a Vixen – Anne Hampson (1978)

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In honor of the launch of Hollywood’s iteration of Fifty Shades of Grey, and my aching, silent love affair with Mr-Grey-will-see-you-now Jamie Dornan, I’ve found a vintage Harlequin romance that spanks.

They’re in Africa growing citrus. Three orphaned cousins at the finegaling of their aging uncle abandon their fiancées for a year to the old man’s farm. Because he doesn’t trust the boys they’ve chosen, he will withhold their inheritance if they don’t farm for a year.

Oddly enough, if, after the year, they return to their original boy-choices, he will still withhold their inheritance. But ah, well. Harlequin plots have seen less tenable bargains.

And this one promises spanking. On the back cover.

To Tame a Vixen

Beth couldn’t forget or forgive the humiliation.

An illustrious beginning.

Ten years before, Chad Barret had put Beth across his knee and spanked her with her own leather sandal.

Hmm. 1978. What might it have been? A huarache? A Bass Sunjun?

In any case, the heroine was twelve, and it happened off-screen. Bugger.

Worse, when it happens on-screen, it’s absent of everything we want in a hard, perverted slap on the ass.

When at last he held her from him she was ready; her hand came up and fetched him a slap across his smiling, triumphant face. He caught her hand, twisted her arm and her body at the same time. She gasped disbelievingly at the swiftness of the manoevre that brought her across his uplifted knee. He actually moved her dress before the beating began.

Well, actually, that was kind of hot.

But I had to delete the several sentences that follow. They’re outside a social club, and really. There’s been very little threatening build-up. No lip-biting or drafts of contracts promising titillating pain. It’s only page thirty. No more spanking follows. Only bruising kisses and upper arm bruises.

Chad is a brute, and Beth is a shrew. He calls her a bitch several times throughout the book. We know nothing about why he’s always threatening to bruise her, why he can’t just let his lips graze every so softly over her mouth.

Only that he’s dominant, domineering, manly. And doesn’t look good in black or beige.

It’s not a very good book. About it would seem on par with Fifty Shades, which after only a few hours in the theaters, has garnered little support from the masses, with 1 1/2 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

So, can I go see him now?

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Regulating Romance (and its byproducts)

A guest post on RomanceAndSmut.comRomanceAndSmutLogo

Even when they are accompanied by an alpha hero with parliamentary obligations, politics are rarely sexy. But this past year, in both the UK and the US, politicians lost sex appeal, utterly.

The UK added a list of ten sexual acts to the regulatory ban for UK-made pornography, including (but, oh, not limited to) spanking, squirting (female ejaculation), and facesitting.

Facesitting was actually deemed life-endangering, much to the chagrin of my husband, who had no idea he has been putting himself at risk. If you think the list is arbitrary and bizarre, many have agreed with you.

Facesitters protested the new regulations outside of Parliament. The US marches on Washington are sorely Puritanical in comparison.

Disssenters have complained that the regulatory list takes aim at pointedly female pleasures. I’m inclined to take up the feminist hue and cry and ague for a similar ban of male ejaculation. But squirting is odd. I’m loath to walk beneath its banner. And whatever would we do with our ejaculate, if not spray it all over the Internet?

The hilarious show of solidarity among sex workers outside Parliament made me imagine what we might do in reply to the most recent campaign in the US against, not porn, but popular romance. Romance hit the U.S. House floor (not a euphemism) when U.S. Representative Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill (also not a euphemism) this past summer proposing to prohibit the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) from funding the Popular Romance Project…or any similar project relating to love or romance.

Ouch.

Part of a larger effort to cut spending, Salmon called for the termination of the $914,000 Popular Romance Project even before he officially proposed to cut the NEH’s $154 million allocation altogether. He didn’t take aim at biogenetics, cloning, or stem cell research. A traitor to his English Lit degree, Salmon set his first sights on romance novels. Romance. Novels.

There are numerous ways into this discussion. And none of them are as fun or sexy as a face-sitting protest. We can say, rightly: Academic researchers should have the ability to study what they choose. But this speech isn’t free. The NEH is funded by U.S. taxpayers.

The NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) have been on chopping blocks before. Regularly, in fact, since 1989 when Sen. Jesse Helms got wind of Andres Serrano’s NEA-funded Piss Christ. But, if we agree to fund the NEH, then we agree to fund the NEH. And the NEH is about the democratization of ideas. Even something as low-brow as the popular romance is worthy of academic attention, right? Bloody well right.

Well, then maybe the prohibition on the popular romance has to do with its revenue stream. (No, still not a euphemism.) Perhaps low-brow is acceptable, but market viability is not.

“A $1.4 billion private leisure industry obviously doesn’t need federal assistance,” says Matt Philbin, managing editor at the Media Research Center. Excellent. Then we can have our tax dollars back from Time Warner, Disney, Sony and the Motion Picture Association of America. Private leisure industries receive in total billions of dollars in corporate welfare tax credits.

Hmm. Then that must not be it, either. Follow the puppet strings of the Republican representative from AZ, and you may find the same people who, in support of family values, argue against any depiction of violence or sex. If-then statements read: Kids play video games with the goal of killing zombies, and, when the game is turned off, they pick up dad’s gun and find the nearest 7-Eleven.

I myself have always bought into the idea that narrative – textual, visual, or other – does guide our behavior, our actions and what motivates them. Don Quixote swung his sword at windmills after reading “too many” stories of French chivalry. At age 15, after reading “too many” category romances, I expected to marry the ingenuous boy who took my virginity. (It was Bantam Book’s Loveswept line, if you must know.)

Rather than to pass it off as worthless, artless, wasteful, or pointless (three out of four adjectives used by Rep. Salmon), wouldn’t it instead be valuable to understand the power of romance? Unravel the everyday outcomes of regular, chin-soaking draughts of happily ever after?

Stories of romance are falling from the sky in buckets. And there was a bill on the US government floor not to study the rain. Not to study the air we breathe, nor the water we swim in. Why ever not?

I think we know the answer. It has to do with the fact that 84% of romance book buyers are women. And the percent of romance authors who are women is likely comparable. The same answer solves for why Viagra is U.S. government-subsidized, yet there’s no drug on the market to keep me wet while my estrogen wanes.

No wonder squirting made the list.

REVIEW – Dangerous Marriage – Mary Wibberley (1980)

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Dangerous Marriage by Mary Wibberley (1980)

Dangerous Marriage coverHarlequin Romance #2364

I’m not all about the sex. I’m not. Don’t believe me?

I’m reading The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity by Carol Thurston (1987).

Reading The Romance Revolution, it occurs to me just how smart women had to be in the academy in the 80s to be taken seriously. This book is rich with research and insight. Each chapter is a book unto itself by today’s standards.

My favorite analysis of popular romance, until now, was Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance. But I prefer Thurston’s methodology. Both Radway and Thurston explore readers’ responses to romance, but Thurston’s methods include a comprehensive analysis of plot and character, the texts themselves. Where Radway’s work is an ethnography, Thurston’s is a discourse analysis, one that takes the reader beyond the often self-referential textual analysis of New Criticism.

I suppose I should be grateful that at my age, I’m still thrilled by academic discovery. But this discovery would have been more helpful when I was a critic. Not just scanning for sex scenes…

So back to that.

Thurston in her opening chapter “The Romance Novel as Popular Culture” outlines her erotic romance data set. The Harlequin Romance line, of which I have been reviewing in my last posts, is not included. That’s what I’ve been saying about this line. No sex.

Thurston reports that, “With a few notable exceptions…the character of male-female relationships portrayed in [this] line remains…the incomprehensible/cruel hero and the insecure/masochistic heroine”.

That’s it. Utterly incomprehensible. I’m relieved to know it’s not just me.

It’s not just the frustrating absence of erotica that excludes this collection of books from Thurston’s analysis. She reports that critics of popular romance as a rule disregard these “classic” romances and cites a Romantic Times (1985) writer: “One wonders when Harlequin will realize that this is not romance at all.”

I can’t agree or disagree. Romance is too subjective a notion to disregard anything outright as not romance. Instead, I’ll argue it either scratches your itch, or it doesn’t.

Take Vargen Gilev.

Yes, ladies. Vargen Gilev. It bears repeating.

Vargen is the “handsome island entrepreneur” who is Mary Wibberley’s incomprehensible hero in Dangerous Marriage. He is a “hard-eyed, hard-faced stranger,” alpha all the way. In spite of the Marimekko shirt he’s wearing on the cover.

The heroine, Shelley, has arrived on Avala to buy a hotel. Her domineering father has demanded that she do so. Vargen also wants the hotel – has actually already purchased it – but more than that, he requires the respectability a marriage will give him. He persuades Shelley to marry him.

Hey, wait. We have a marriage plot. Chin up. There might be sex because they’re married.

Shelley could have been a vindicated heroine, the trope described in Kiss of a Tyrant. But the reader is offered no feeling of vindication. Although Vargen is incomprehensible, he is not cruel.

True, he consummates their marriage while she’s still groggy from the Russian vodka he’s made her throw up fifteen minutes before. But the author Wibberley has more cruelty than Vargen. Vargen by my account is a hottie, and I’ve been duly revved. But their consummation is oblique.

She felt the hard bed beneath her and was aware of having been lifted and placed there, and she lifted her arms to him, to pull him down to her, to hold him as she had never held anyone before…There was only darkness, and movement, and two bodies that became as one…

Only darkness? Only movement? What about his penis?

The plot’s twists are a righteous yoga pose designed to explain the hero’s actions for the previous 180 pages. It’ll just confuse us both if I try to recap.

Shelly, after a lifetime of emotional and psychological abuse by her father, is skittish. When Vargen grabs her to keep her from falling over the balcony, she rages. The typical fist flailing against his hard, broad chest. Shelley almost falls off two balconies, cuts her foot, nearly drowns, suffers alcohol poisoning, and is kidnapped.

Through it all, Vargen is impassive, hard. Incomprehensible.

Until the final scene, when he rescues her from her kidnappers and melts.

 ‘I love you Shelley, I love you very much…,’ he groaned. ‘Oh, my dearest…’

And more like that. Some darlings. Some my loves. I prefer my reserved heroes to remain reserved. His softening at the end of a book feels like a betrayal. He can love her but still look mean. That’s the point.

I’m so done with this line. Where the hell is Avala anyway?

Up next…Harlequin Temptations. I remember stealing these from my mother and hiding them under my bed. They’re included in Thurston’s analysis of erotic romance, and a box has just arrived on my front porch – an accidental pregnancy after a few tipsy minutes on Ebay.

Yeehaw.

Swan Bay

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SWAN BAY 
Swan Bay cover painted 11 14 14

Simon Low is a rake. His name travels across New York on whispers and titters. Owner of a luxury department store on the Ladies’ Mile, it’s his job to create desire.

He makes women want things. 

At least, that’s what Chloe Swan’s brothers tell her.

But her brothers must have the wrong man.

Simon is the most awkward man Chloe has ever met. When Simon visits his brother’s grave at the cemetery managed by Chloe’s family, he refuses to touch her. He can barely look at her, let alone seduce her.

What in the world could he make her want?

But Simon has a secret. He and his twin shared an extraordinary connection, one that was lost when the two were separated during the storm. He had always felt that connection. And then, with the single gulp of the river that had swallowed his twin, had not.

Until he meets Chloe.

Now, Simon has the devil of a time telling her the truth…that he can feel her from the inside out.

Set in New York against the Thousand Islands Region and Manhattan in 1893, Swan Bay continues the story of Wolfe Island.

Yes! Sign me up! I want to read SWAN BAY.

Kindle, Paperback Publication Date: February 14, 2016.

REVIEW – Kiss of a Tyrant – Margaret Pargeter (1980)

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Kiss of a Tyrant PargeterKiss of a Tyrant by Margaret Pargeter
Harlequin Romance #2375

The virgin’s vindication. One of my favorite tropes. If you don’t know of it yet, it’s a good one. It culminates with the hero – an angry man of the highest order – as his head snaps up to look in mute horror to study the face of the maiden beneath him after he’s inadvertently stolen her virginity. The inadvertent part is important.

But not as important as the hero’s grim belief that the heroine is not a virgin. And dammit, she should be.

What if I asked you to prove you’d never belonged to another man?

Such is the way with Kiss of a Tyrant.

Sloan Maddison is an Australian alpha male who finds himself in the English countryside where his widowed mother contemplates returning to live. In a country inn, he meets interior decorator Stacy Weldon. Stacy is “on leave” from her career, helping her mother and sister at the inn after being nearly raped by her boss. She is wounded and angry and not optimistic about her future.

Sloan is attracted to her. Pretty sure he wants to marry her. So uses his mother’s illness as an excuse to carry her off to Australia. But on the way out the door, he gets wind of that “affair” with her boss. And he’s hopping mad about it. She must have asked for it, and along the way, collected other affairs that now debases their own kindling desire.

The hero’s she-must-have-asked-for-it motivation is a hole in the plot that has widened over time. But it’s easy to jump across. Because Sloan is sexy in the way only an angry pants hero can be. Mean, misguided, and hard to get. Oh, but in love nonetheless.

The wrap-up is a bit holey, too, and would have been for readers even in 1980. Sloan is mean to Stacy up until the final moment, but claims he had known of her innocence for the preceding two whole days before the final page. He wanted to see if she could really adapt to his remote Australian way of life. Huh.

Sloan is mean as a billy goat. But, alas, sexier. So I can forgive the holes, even if Mr. Angrypants can’t.

REVIEW – The Angry Man by Joyce Dingwell (1979)

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The Angry Man Joyce DingwellThe Angry Man by Joyce Dingwell (1979) Harlequin Romance #2318 The Angry Man. How could I not?

First, a detour to cover art. I am working with an artist on the cover of book two of the RiverLust series, Simon’s Story. It’s called Swan Bay. I don’t believe you can paint a handsome man on the cover of a romance novel. Beautiful heroines? Yes. But the heroes always come off wrong.

Point in fact: The Angry Man cover hero is bleak. Crocodile Dundee with a longer face and shadowed, sunken cheeks. His hair is some kind of a poofy gray 70s mullet. Go ahead. Take a look at the cover of The Angry Man. Does he look angry to you? See that slight lift of his upper lip, over there on the right? The way his brows are furrowed together as he regards the heroine? Yes. The lovely doe-eyed one.

He is not angry; he’s sardonic, bemused. The man on this cover looks more perturbed than angry. Which is the perfect summation of Joyce Dingwell’s hero in this book.

English Polly loved her neighbor, who loved her sister, so her uncle sent her away. To Australia. Where after working on a statistics team as the resident non-statisician, she is told she has to stay another six months, because her former lover’s courtship of her sister is going more slowly than anticipated. So she takes the position of paid companion to Mrs. Clemance, young and beautiful wife of Thorn Clemance. Thorn is an ag specialist for a pharmaceutical company. A medical herbalist. But the beautiful Mrs. Clemance is not his wife. It’s his cousin’s widow. The hero is, in fact, not married. We learn this as the heroine does, and it’s a breathless beat.

Look at me, MissKendall, look at me, tell me what you see.’ ‘I-I don’t understand you.’ Polly tried to retreat a step, but he advanced, and at once they stood barely an inch apart. I think you do understand. I think you see a man who is a no-half-measures man. I think you see a man who would not be put off with subtleties, evasions and half-truths from any woman he made his wife. I think you see a man who would demand an entirety, a fulfillment, a conclusion, a completion.’ A pause. ‘I think you see a man who would be demanding four, not eight walls.”

Oh, dear. Here’s looking at you.

The ultimate logic of conflict? Unknown.

There is an ancestral puzzle requiring a flow chart to comprehend. And, for some reason, Thorn couldn’t tell Polly about his cousin’s widow’s recent sanitarium visit, her convalescence in his home, or the will that required that before she inherit, she must remain unmarried for two years. Which would have explained Polly’s charge to keep the young woman away from men.

The hero is in fact exactly like his picture (and the reader). Confused and frustrated. Not an awful book. Joyce Dingwell (b. 1908) wrote 80 of them. She knew how to write.

But for this one, in the end, I am left with only a single, bright nugget: Upon first introduction, her toes were dipped in the river until he found her and hauled her out. A shark had taken the hero’s dog from that very rock, only a week earlier.

There is no cure for a shark attack…When you put your gear on we’ll get back.’ ‘Gear? I’ve only removed my shoes and my pantyhose!’ He shrugged, saying almost uninterestingly: ‘Put ‘em on.’ Incensed, feeling a fool, hoping at least he would look away as she did so, Polly complied. It was not easy to wriggle discreetly into pantyhose, and she wished he would wander off. A tactful man would have. But he didn’t, he stood there right to the final hitch.

The final hitch? This whole line of books is worth reading for the settings. These girls get to go everywhere.

SWAN BAY cover sketch – Book Two

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Working again with Tracy Hetzel of Long Blue Straw on the cover for the Wolfe Island follow up, Swan Bay. Again, set in the thousand islands of upstate NY in 1893. Though historically ‘accurate,’ the setting is fictionalized representation of Thousand Island Park and the surrounding region.

This is Simon’s story.Swan Bay sketch Giulia Torre Longbluestraw

For text and image teasers, visit my Wolfe Island Pinterest Board.

My husband proposes that this be called the RIVERLUST series. Which is funny. So may just stick.

REVIEW – The Travelling Kind – Janet Dailey

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TThe Travelling Kind Janet Daileyhe Travelling Kind – Janet Dailey (1981)
Harlequin Presents #427

She noticed his kit before she noticed him. A firm leather saddle, smooth from riding. A promising start indeed. I’m a new country gal, and I love me a cowboy.

Charley Collins works an Idaho ranch with her brother, who has just broken his leg, so she needs a hired hand. She gets in her old truck and drives around looking for one.

She finds Shad.

No. No comment.

Shad Russell is a drifter. As the teaser promises, “Falling in love with a man like Shad would be asking for heartache.” He’s a loner, never settling in one place for long.

In the mean time, she hires him and he sleeps in the bedroom across the hall.

I’d never read a Janet Dailey book before. She wrote a romance for every state in the union. I’m embarrassed to admit that in 1981, I don’t know how many books that means, but somewhere close to 50. In the year The Travelling Kind was published, Harlequin saluted her as “the world’s No. 1 publisher of romance fiction!”

A little taste of the no-good-for-Charley drifter…

His mouth came down those last few inches to settle onto her lips with tantalizing ease. A sweet rush of forbidden joy ran through her veins as her hands slid around his neck and she melted into his arms. A steel band circled her waist to press her tighter to his length while his other hand tunneled under the thickness of her hair to cup the back of her head. The driving hunger of his kiss parted her lips, giving him access to the most intimate recesses of her mouth. She was caught in a whirl of sensation, all golden and consuming.

Although a stew of familiar now, this is a pretty great kiss for 1981. But with this book comes a few cock-blocks. Namely, the neighboring rancher, Chuck, who wants to marry her. Yeah, Chuck and Charley. Chuck is neither smart nor sexy. When Shad finally does leave, after Charley’s humiliating sobs (humiliating for Charley and the reader) and shouting at Shad that she won’t wait for him, she doesn’t. And she gets engaged to Chuck.

Until Shad returns two months later, the night of the engagement party. “I know I hurt you when I left but – Aren’t you glad to see me?” Banal cowboys must not be my thing. Because when he walks away, and Charley returns the ring to Chuck, I just want Shad to keep on drifting.

Sex in our Ears – Listening to Romance

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If the medium is the message, what does it mean that for the last several years, more and more readers are listening to books read aloud?

If the narration is good, I will listen to a book multiple times. If the narration is poor, or if the words do not hold up to the test of speech, I do not finish.

Yet not everyone can listen to audiobooks. Quintessential readers in my life cannot. They lose the plot, get distracted. Perhaps for the same reason readers avoid films of their favorite books. They prefer the voices created in their own heads to the ones put there by others.

The more I’ve listened to books, the more I hear my stories as I write them. When these stories are aloud between your ears, does writing becomes something different? Transcription. Dictation.

Writing with the ears. Not world building, or ensuring that, if your characters are outside, that there’s a bird, some rustling leaves, or the sound of a chainsaw. But actually hearing the story in your head as you read. As though so much space exists between your ears that the characters can stand up, walk around, and echo.

Orality. Literacy. Age-old questions. Can you listen?

REVIEW – Fool’s Paradise – Ann Cooper

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Fool’s Paradise by Ann CooperFoolsParadise
Harlequin Romance #2383 (1980)

Recently a girlfriend told me about a neighbor’s bachelor party she surveilled while crouched in the yard beneath a window. One stripper. A dozen men. Wouldn’t you know it? Two hours later she was watching these friends fight in the street.

It’s an age-old formula: sexual tension minus sexual release equals…

For one incredible moment she thought he was going to beat her.

Girls in these romances knew how to keep it close and tight. As a result, Fool’s Paradise features another angry-pants alpha male. I love a Mr. Angrypants when he’s dropped in an HEA…So long as he doesn’t leave me with a case of blue-box, which I’m realizing this era of Harlequin breeds in spades.

Meet-up: He’s the distant family relation (and former lover) newly appointed to save from bankruptcy her historic heirloom home. (cf. The Grass is Always Greener with Debra Kerr, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum c. 1960).

Conflict: He is angry because she ran away when he proposed marriage. She loved him, but he’s city refined and she’s country estate, so she thought he was proposing marriage to get into her panties. Which would have been my preference.

Although some highly-prized petting does occur off-scene:

He kissed her toes – no one had ever kissed her toes before – then he kissed her knees and finally, a long time afterwards, he was kissing the tips of her fingers. There wasn’t anywhere at all left undiscovered.

Nowhere? Nowhere at all?

In the end, their consummation had me chucking the book onto the nightstand:

It was a long time later when Emma finally woke up in Nicholas’ bedroom.

Am I angry? Not really. It was a good, fast read. And a house full of blue-boxed women won’t result in fighting in the streets.