Confessions Of A Genre Virgin: First-Time Romance Readers Tell All

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Confessions of a Genre Virgin
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Going Cowboy Crazy By Katie Lane

She sits, feet tucked under her, upon his tattered, cushy couch. But he is miles away, and her only company is a small paperback full of large, well-spaced font. She tucks a lock of unwashed, dark brown hair—brown as burnt coffee and just as nicely scented—behind her ear, which is pierced by a large gold hoop. Like her shoulder-length hair, her skin and eyes and lips are brown. Her fingernails are chewed. She is tired. Still, she’s looking for Texas-style hetero sex between the pulpy pages of Katie Lane’s latest steamy endeavor, Going Cowboy Crazy .

It’s been quite some time since she’s read a book where you always know what outfits folks are wearing, what their hair is doing and, of course, what color their captivating eyes are.

Once, an English teacher told our couch-perching anti-heroine that there is an unusually high rate of blue and green—especially green—eyes in fiction (not to mention, she thinks to herself, an unusually high rate of white folks). Perhaps, she muses as she turns the page, it’s because brown eyes are hard to equate to seasons, vegetation or bodies of water. Eyes as brown as a potato? As brown as bark? As brown as … nope, only coffee is available for ocular metaphors. Unless there are flecks of gold to be found. But then one might be venturing into hazel territory.

The cowboy in question, the one making us crazy, his eyes are hazel—“a mixture of rich browns and deep greens." Slate is a small-town high school football coach who’s on a losing streak in the Lone Star State. The leading lady’s name is Faith—a sweet, pent-up, big-city girl. Her eyes are big and blue, as blue as the sky, as blue as the sky in September—not March, not December.

Faith’s on the hunt for a twin sister she was separated from at birth. Not to get into a lady’s age, but that was about three decades ago. She rolls in from Chicago, wearing mostly beige, a turtleneck and slacks. Once there, she pretends that she is her twin, Hope, who’s actually off trying to become a big deal in Hollywood.

Slate was her twin’s best friend, but he didn’t feel a spark with Hope because she is loud and pushy. Faith, on the other hand, is hesitant and sweet. Much better. (Take note, darlin’s.)

The costume changes and hair descriptions work to illustrate the emotional arc of our lead character. She likes red shoes—a sign that there’s a little something extra beneath her dull, businesslike exterior of muted tones. A little something like having detailed almost-sex with a chiseled cowboy in the front of his pickup truck an hour or so after meeting him. Demure indeed.

But that’s the deal here: Wholesome(ish) family values confounded by a twin snafu and frustratingly obvious miscommunications. At least the sex scenes are frequent and the writing descriptive.

Writing a good sex scene is no small task, either. It’s easy to lose track of the room, the furniture, the positions, what so-and-so’s hands are doing. Plus, how do you keep two people in a constant state of star-crossed desire for 345 pages, even though that fleshy yearning is quenched regularly?

Let’s get back to our monochromatically brown book reviewer with the badly chewed nails. She likes her some trash, no doubt. Count her in for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or even "Friday Night Lights" (which, by the way, seems to be an influence on
Going Cowboy Crazy ). As a nerdy, ugly kid, she tore through paperbacks the way she tore through flamin’ hot chips and cans of Squirt. She gets cheeseball escapism. She understands socially acceptable porno you can thumb through in an airport.

So, ignoring the broader issues of race and gender, she’d give this book a B-. The sex could be more interesting, and she’d swear that dainty heroine’s hairstyle morphed drastically over the course of a single conversation. Still, the story clips along at a nice pace, and there’s a kind of romping humor about the thing.

She turns the last page, tosses the paperback atop the coffee table and switches off the lamp. With the hum of the swamp cooler soothing her into dreamland, she can’t help but wonder if the day has come for a bisexual, multiracial werewolf chick who is neither quiet, hesitant nor small and who can tear apart enemies as easily as she tears through hearts. (Marisa Demarco)

A Courtesan’s Guide To Getting Your Man By Celeste Bradley And Susan Donovan

Prior to reading A Courtesan’s Guide to Getting Your Man , I had some preconceptions about what to expect from a romance novel. First, it would be about as much of an exercise in flawless narrative as something on late-night pay cable. Second, it would have the degree of social and moral awareness of a back-alley gang bang.

I was pleased to find that the newest work co-penned by
New York Times bestsellers Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan, was more along the lines of a thinking person’s She’s All That —if the ’90s rom-com were a hardcore porno with a raunchy Georgian-era London subplot.

The novel begins with Piper Chase-Pierpont, a newly 30-year-old senior curator at a Boston history museum whose career is faltering. Piper’s had her chastity belt—and overall mousy demeanor—on lock down ever since an awkward sexual encounter with her dream guy in college. She’s one hell of a neurotic, hapless heroine.

While working late one night, Piper stumbles upon the sex diaries of Boston’s foremost female abolitionist, Ophelia Harrington. Turns out the subject of Piper’s next exhibition was at one time the most desired courtesan in London. "Holy porno, Batman," exclaims Piper’s sexologist friend. "This shit is flaming hot! It’s like a two hundred-year-old guide to releasing your inner harlot!"

Even more shocking than this discovery is that, while the sex does come on hot and heavy, the writers also find room for a thrilling historical narrative and—dare I say—a message that is also about defiant feminism. Ophelia shows that she is not a person selling herself, but rather a confident woman using limited means in a conservative era to gain what she wants and deserves. "To give myself so ran contrary to every rule of propriety I had learned," reads the entry on her scandalous devirginizing. "It was a wicked, wanton act, a blatant and shameless act. It was an act of undeniable freewill."

Early on, the book takes on alternating plotlines, dividing time between Piper’s sexual awakening and Ophelia’s diaries. The book gets juicy in the passages relating Ophelia’s school of sin with a masked man known only as "Sir.” Forget the prim and proper early 18
th -century backdrop—Edith Wharton it ain’t. "I drove his cock deep into my mouth," writes Ophelia, "It swelled to such an enormous proportion I feared it would crack my jaw. He let out a deep, helpless roar even as his cock pulsated violently inside my mouth."

Old Ophelia could give Bukowski a run for his money.

The sex scenes are thrilling, but the book isn’t without the requisite dose of tongue-in-cheek camp. As Piper blossoms, she realizes that her beloved cat has been neglected during her world-shaking fuck festival. "Only one pussy had been getting attention around here, and it wasn’t the one with four legs." It’s hard to get too critical though—the trashy, self-effacing humor also pokes fun at its own genre, reminding the reader that this isn’t meant to be Shakespeare on Viagra.

One theme that wears a little thin is main heartthrob Mick Malloy’s over-the-top Irishness. The amount of times he says "feckin’ Jaysus"—coupled with the writers’ continuous pointing out that Murphy’s stout is the proper thing to drink in a pub—get a bit tiresome. It gets plain goofy when Piper pictures the McSteamy of the art history world "lying beneath her in the Irish heather, his waistcoat and shirt ripped open and his nankeen breeches undone." One almost expects the authors to ditch the whips and dildos for shillelaghs and bagpipes.

And as the sex gets hotter, the pulp only gets juicier. "His chest was as tan as his face and hands, again like a laborer in a field who worked bare to the waist. Would he leave my side in the morning to go plant a cornfield?"

On a side note, cornfield-planting has never done the trick for me.

All said, Bradley and Donovan concoct a novel that, even minus the sex, could probably translate into an epic costume chick flick. The narratives are expertly woven and the sex is outrageously fun. That it all works within the context of a liberal, feminist slant is only a cherry, er, lack thereof, on top. And what about the authors catering to a stereotypical demographic by showing how a shy, sexually closeted woman can be liberated through sex literature? A stroke of meta-marketing genius. (Sam Adams)

The Reckoners By Doranna Durgin

One time, in a college acting class, a professor had us roll an energy ball between our hands and then pass it around in a circle. We were supposed to be tangibly feeling it, building up power that we could then send to the person next to us. Right. I discovered I cannot push energy around.

Lisa McGarrity, on the other hand, is a Reckoner, meaning she can summon and push around ethereal breezes, which are spiritual energy. She does this to make ghosts do things, like go on to the afterlife or get off of her when they’re attacking. Apparently some supernatural beings are grumpy, lost or reluctant to move on, and so Garrie, as she likes to be called, has to direct them. Her team is here to help her with this: “spiritual empath” Lucia Reyes, “ethereal historian” Drew Ely, and “researcher and trivia master” Quinn Rossiter.

A few pages into
The Reckoners , the mysterious Trevarr enters the picture. A lot of space is dedicated to describing his eyes throughout the book, but once here should suffice: They are silver, kind of like a cat’s, and they look different depending on his mood. What he’s wearing never changes, but it’s also mentioned repeatedly, so here you go: a shirt with some laces at the chest, a long leather duster and boots with buckles. That he’s not entirely human is alluded to often, and the reader understands this long before any of the other characters catch on.

Garrie and company live happily in Albuquerque, and neighborhoods like the University area get recognizable descriptions. Then Trevarr recruits the team to reckon some ghosts at the Winchester House in San Jose, Calif. But what he really needs from her is more complicated and only hinted at through most of the book. Unexpected supernatural things happen when they get to San Jose, such as huge brown puddles of goo attacking a shoe store and angry ghosts attacking Garrie.

Even though she asks Trevarr multiple times to explain what’s going on, he is enigmatic and mostly silent. For some reason the team puts up with not being given any info at all. Readers can glean that something bad from another world is preying on California, and Trevarr is stuck on Earth until it gets sorted out. Luckily, for some reason he and Garrie can combine their special powers to fix the mess.

The book has several problems that weigh down the story. There’s too much description of irrelevant details and not enough of things that matter. We don’t really need to know what every character is wearing in detail at all times. It would be nice to understand more about Garrie’s powers, what’s going on and what’s at stake. Made-up terms—that aren’t contained in the glossary in the beginning of the book—are dropped in without explanation.

The rhythm is halting. Action is slowed by characters conversing about their frustrated emotions or thinking something snarky during scenes that should otherwise build tension. Garrie quipping, “Well, I
was looking for excitement,” in the heart of the book’s biggest climax diffuses the feeling of extreme danger she’s in.

A mishmash of language styles is jarring. Slang and wittiness are stuffed into the characters’ mouths, presumably to make the book hipper. This just causes bumps in the flow. Sometimes stream-of-consciousness sentences are confusing. Other times a lack of punctuation and omitted words—intended to create the feeling of sped-up action—just slow the reader down. Many sentences are clause-heavy or strangely ordered. Durgin may be trying to create more interesting writing, but an overall simplifying would make the book clearer and move faster.

That said, the characters are quirky and appealing. Garrie is tomboyish and scrappy, sometimes self-conscious and awkward. She’s an accessible heroine in a genre full of flowing-haired, large-breasted temptresses. Trevarr’s sidekick is a blob of energy that appears as a cat and likes to eat, well, pretty much everything. Scenes from his point of view are amusing.

Surprisingly, there is no sex in the book. No one kisses until page 194, and no one ever gets beyond first base. But the slowly intensifying emotional connection between Garrie and Trevarr is sweet and helps to up the stakes during dangerous moments. All told,
The Reckoners is the kind of book I might have loved at age 14, but it doesn’t quite hold my interest as an adult. It might do better in the hands of someone who’s on an airplane or killing time on the beach. Or someone who likes to hunt ghosts with leather-wearing, cat-eyed dudes. (Summer Olsson)

Make Mine A Bad Boy By Katie Lane

The cover of Make Mine a Bad Boy begs two questions. One: Would anyone find the headless, Nazi-super-cowboy body on the cover acceptable if it were a woman? No, the streets would flow with the blood of the artist and the author, disemboweled for being sexist pigs. Two: Is it too late for me to move to Texas and go cowboy crazy? I’m not gay, but with a piece of manwich that savory lurking about, I could learn. I could just as easily learn to love Odessa.

OK, roughly seven hours of staring have lapsed. It’s hard to read when paying rapt attention to hard nipples and silver eagle belt buckles. Lust coma. This is masturbatory material for people who either: A) hate rednecks but are secretly turned on by them, or B) love rednecks and want to relive their fourth wedding to Rickie Ray down at the VFW.

No sooner did I crack open
Make Mine a Bad Boy than I was transported to a magical place called West Texas. A place has to be enchanting to merit its own adjective in a state already as magical as the Super Great State of Texas.

Writer Katie Lane spares no stupidity, deep in the heart of cliché. We are at the wedding of—I shit you not—a guy named Slate Calhoun, the handsomest cowboy in all of West Texas. (See also
Going Cowboy Crazy .) There are a host of other characters with names like Hope Scroggs, Faith Scroggs, Shirlene, Aunt Mae, Kenny Gene, Twyla and, last but not least, the bad boy himself, Colt Lomax. It seems Hope wanted to marry Slate, but Slate married Hope’s long-lost twin Faith, and now Hope can’t shake Slate. And then there is … seriously, if anyone wrote about a community of, say, black people in this snide tone, Al Sharpton would haunt that author’s dreams forever.

I will leap to the defense of the poor, misunderstood country trailer trash of West Texas (real and imagined). It just ain’t right. Nobody makes Jell-O molds anymore. Nobody drinks Champagne out of Dixie Cups. They have plastic flutes for that now. And raspberry jelly on yeller cake? Please. I won’t stand for such intolerance.

Ironically, they, the trailer trash of West Texas, hunt people like me—falsely indignant liberals—for sport. I guess love may not win out in the end. (John Bear)

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