Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Faking It to Making It, or Why I Love Fake Relationships

Happily never after?

Natural born charmer, Nate Mackenzie, is in the middle of a plus-one dilemma. Wedding dates inevitably take one look at the bride and measure Nate for a beach house, a chocolate Lab and a diamond solitaire. Worse, going stag will leave him at the mercy of a set-up by his ever-hopeful sisters.

Enter Saskia Bloom - a bohemian beauty researching online dating. She already has a house (ramshackle), and a dog (rescued), and an ex who turned commitment into a four letter word. And since there's no shortage of sexual attraction between them he’ll give her all the data she’ll ever need!

But when the fake affair starts to feel real, will they even make it to the wedding? Or can they beat the odds and make it happily ever after.
There are two versions of Faking It to Making It's book cover at the top this week - mainly because I got given the Harlequin Kiss version by the lovely Ally Blake, but the left hand version's the one available on the UK Market at the moment.

So I'm a bit of a sucker for the 'let's pretend we're boyfriend and girldfriend to get our family/friends/work colleagues off our backs' scenario.  It's the sort of the thing that makes you go a little weak at the knees and swoony.  It is also, however, quite difficult to do without rehashing every version of the story that's ever been done before.

This time, though, Blake pulls it off.  I personally think that this is - in part - to the way they meet.  Online.  Internet dating is in my opinion, fun, flirty and the best source of hysterical stories that I've ever come across.  At the time horrendous dates are simply that - horrendous - but afterwards they're the sort of things you regale your friends with over one too many glasses of wine.  Plus it works.  The bf and I met online and, considering we're still going strong 6 months later (despite his grumpiness when he's hungry), I think that's pretty good going.

So when it was made apparent within the first page that Saskia was doing research into the online dating market for her business, I was very happy.

And then there's Nate.  Firstly I'd like to point out that this is not the first time we've met Nate - the other book in this series (The Secret Wedding Dress) will be reviewed here later this month - but his character gets properly developed here, no more the puppy dog eagerness..  He's got all the classic signs of a commitmentphobe:  doesn't date, never brings anyone home to his family and is a workaholic.

Now all this sounds standard fare, but the thing that makes this stand out from other 'fake relationship' stories is the background to both characters.  Saskia's been royally screwed over by an ex-boyfriend and is having to work every hour of every day to pull her life back from the abyss it was teetering on.  Nate's a high flyer, but he's a high flyer who respects strong independent women - he comes from a family of them - and the things he likes most about Saskia are the things that make her unconventional.

Their relationship hurtles at breakneck speed as they soon realise that they can do the whole fake relationship in time for the wedding, and still have sex.  (Btw, really decent sex scenes.  Spicy and full of tension without being cheesy).  And of course they fall in love.

The thing is, that fake relationship books often don't work well because either their not attracted to each other enough (you've got to be able to sense the sexual tension through the writing) or it's all about sex, in which case it becomes implausible that it's something that can last.  Ally Blake manages to get the balance just right, and develops the characters and their backstories in a way that makes it quite clear that they are the answer to each others' problems. 

Utterly lovely, and for once, a blond over whom I'd happily go gaga.  Go read.

Mills & Boon Boy 5:
Sam (aka Sam the Man)

Reaction to Photograph Request: 
More than happy to do the photo, less than happy with the pinkness of my kindle cover.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Research Time: Paranormal Romances, or Giving Myself an Academic Excuse to Read Mills & Boon

As well as being a chick-lit junkie I’ve also pretensions to academia.  Most recently I’ve been consuming a number of issues that have been published by the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.  They’ve a number of specialist editions being released soon and I’m particularly interested in their Paranormal Romance edition.

In this post-Twilight world the number of paranormal heroes have increased by approximately 10000%, with particularly high number of vampires, werewolves and shapeshifters.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of well-written fantasy (it’s the only folder on my kindle that comes anywhere near challenging my romance folder) but I’ve always liked my men…well…human.  It doesn’t take much imagination to consider why vampires et al would make good alpha males and, though I appreciate the odd neck-nibbling every once in a while, they don’t particularly do it for me.

I do, on the other hand, love supernatural women paired with human men, possibly for the same reason why I love #ModernTempted.  These are strong women with their own businesses / careers / dreams; to all normal intents and purposes they don’t need a man, they just want one.  The inversion of the atypical power balance within a relationship means that the man has to be more than alpha to match her.  And I love a man who makes you feel feminine, no matter your intelligence or career.

So I have entered research mode – focusing on Mills & Boon Nocturne novels and Nocturne Cravings short stories that feature female paranormal/male human relationships.  I haven’t felt this buzzy about a research project in a very long time.  Currently looking at Elle James, Lori Devoti and Vivi Anna.  If anyone’s got any recs I’d be more than happy to hear them – preferably published post-Breaking Dawn.

Oh yes, and there’ll be a Mills & Boon boy posted tomorrow.  ;)

Friday, 16 August 2013

If You Can't Stand the Heat, or Why Delayed HEA are M&B's Answer to Nietzsche

Resisting temptation has never been so impossible…

Living on the edge used to make wild-card war reporter Jack Chapman feel alive. These days he needs some time out before he burns out. So what better distraction than delectable pastry chef Ellie Evans? She’s oh-so-tempting…and sleeping right next door! Perfect for a short-term fling!

Ellie knows it would be beyond stupid to fall for a guy with ice in his veins, who’s always on the move. But daredevil Jack is even more irresistible than her death-by-chocolate cake – and saying no has never been Ellie’s strong point!

There’s nothing more I like than a love story that features food in it somewhere.  I’ve written about it extensively (see previous blogposts) and personally feel that there’s nothing sexier than a Marks & Spencers advert.

So a pastry chef as our heroine?  Delectable!  And indeed she is.  Ellie Evans is feisty, lives in the perfect house and has an aversion to war reporters due to some extensive father issues.  Just her luck then that said father sends Jack to recover in her tiny part of the world.  Pile on top the fact that her business has to find a new home and she’s certainly got her hands full.

And my goodness I wouldn’t mind having my hands full of Jack Chapman.  The man is positively brimming with tension, as well as the fact that he is clearly damaged goods and needs fixing pronto.

Lusty comments aside, it’s what I’d class as an enchanting story – Ellie’s the kind of person who makes you think of your best friend.  She’s a business woman, passionate about what she does and is clearly far more savvy than I’ll ever be.  But Wood’s coup is the fact that, despite all this near-perfection, we like Ellie.  As I’ve previously stated, I dislike perfect heroines but the sheer loveliness and niceness of Ellie makes me smile.  She makes me think of the kind of person I’d want to be – sarcy comebacks and all.

Also, there’s the use of the delayed HEA: a more romantic version of delayed gratification.  Just as in sex delayed gratification can make the end the result all the more pleasurable, the delayed HEA actually makes a romantic ending seem more important.  Nietzsche (get me getting all English graduate-y!) argued that things only exist when we identify what they are not, and delaying the HEA does this also.  It’s only when Ellie and Jack realise what they are without each other, that what they are with each other truly makes sense.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

Fully satisfying and utterly charming, Joss Wood’s first #ModernTempted book’s definitely one to pop on your TBR list!

Mills & Boon Boy 4: 
Mike (aka D’Artagnan)

Reaction to Photograph Request: 
Drunken sage-like nodding, followed by a benevolent offer of posing sans shirt, a la 90s M&B covers.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Girl Least Likely to Marry, or Geek Chic Romance

Talk nerdy to me…

Samuel Tucker is absolutely the last person scientist Cassie Barclay would ever date. So when he asks her to dance at her friend Reese's non-wedding she's wondering why on earth she says yes!

Tuck is used to people assuming he's all brawn and no brain, but when he finally takes her to bed, suddenly it's Tuck who can show Cassie a thing or two! Can he convince her that love and sex have nothing to do with logic but everything to do with chemistry?

I like Amy Andrews’ writing.  And I mean a lot.  Innocent ‘Til Proven Otherwise is probably my favourite Riva book (this may have something to do with the best phonesex scene that I’ve ever read midway through) and was one of the first books that I downloaded onto my kindle due to its sheer awesomeness.  So understandably I was delighted to see that she was writing the second book in The Wedding Season Quartet, and even more delighted when it lived up to my expectation.

Firstly, Cassie Barclay, full name Cassiopeia, is pretty much a genius.  We’re talking Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory levels of genius.  Plus more than a little socially inept.  But I like this.  As previously highlighted, I’m not a massive fan of perfect heroines – I find perfection daunting real life, let alone in fiction – so Cassie suits me down to the ground.  And there’s one significant thing that makes her stand out; the fact that she’s a PhD student.

Those who know my background know that I had a place to my PhD at Nottingham (on Shakespeare and appropriation) a couple of years ago but lack of funding meant that my plans were thwarted.  Those who have known me even longer will remember my slight obsession (slight being an understatement) with astronomy as a child - at 10 I produced a one hundred page project, complete with hand-drawn diagrams of all the planets to the dismay of my primary school teacher who had to mark the thing. 

So yes.  I’m a fan of being geeky.  And Cassie is a geek.  So when she meets up with the divine Tuck, who’s sporty, male and more than a little dreamy, all her preconceptions about relationships, companionship and even sex get thrown off base.  Tuck’s patient with her and in some ways we see an inversion of the usual emotional roles in an “archetypical Mills & Boon relationship”.  (I’m using quotation marks there because I don’t actually think that there is an archetypical Mills & Boon relationship, beyond the fact that it’s usually heterosexual, and not even then in some of their Spice releases).

Cassie doesn’t recognise the strength of her feelings, or indeed that they are feelings, until far far later than Tuck.  He knows how he feels, and is even is acting on them, trying to persuade her that what she’s feeling is real before she fully comprehends the situation she’s in.

And the sex scenes are great.  Really great.  They’re sexy and saucy and also delightful innocent.  Despite the fact that Cassie’s no virgin, she seems to experiencing everything for the first time with Tuck – she also has a thing for his scent, and seems fascinated by his pheromones. 

All in all?  Utterly delightful.  And sets us up well for the next in the Quartet (Maid of Dishonour by Heidi Rice).

Mills & Boon Boy 3:
Nick (aka Man of Flame)

Response to Photograph Request:
Immediately got a beer and turned to the sauciest page he could find.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

How to Colonise a Bookshelf

It's all about starting small.  Just the odd book.  The mini paperbacks work best because they're not obtrusive and then BOOM!  Vintage Mills & Boon books snuck into a hardcore Catholic household.

Note the collection of vintage Mills & Boon books - just to the right of my Studio 60 DVD.
And as for my boyfriend's bookshelf - laden down as it is with thrillers and Sharpe (and a surprisingly large collection of Italian dictionaries) - there is still a corner for some of my books.  He made a space himself.  And every time we pop down to the beach, I drag him inside a tiny charity shop which has a surprisingly good collection of M&B.  And my space on his bookshelf is growing.

Second shelf, far right.  Mainly early 00s editions, with a Katie Fforde book on top.
Do I have too many?  Very probably.  Shall I get rid of them?  No.  Chris is just grateful that I have a Kindle; not that that'll stop me.

The Unexpected Wedding Guest, or How to Write a Perfectly Flawed Heroine

"Surprised to see me?"
Getting caught in her wedding dress by her drop-dead-gorgeous ex-husband is Reese Michael’s worst nightmare. Especially when her perfect-on-paper fiancĂ© then cancels their wedding!
Reese has spent years trying to forget how her marriage to Mason Hicks crashed and burned – yes, their chemistry was incredible, but a girl can’t live on lust alone! And what’s a jilted bride supposed to do when the one man she could never forget is back in her life, as irresistible as ever? Mason might be her own personal brand of Kryptonite, but surely life is meant to be lived a little dangerously…?
I resisted the pull of the Mills & Boon bride for so many years; my thought process being that I was far too young and independent to be interested in wedding stories, but once RIVA started telling stories of jilted grooms and fake fiancĂ©es I kind of gave in to the inevitable. So my excitement that four of Mills & Boon’s finest were working on a quartet together was tempered with the knowledge that it’s pretty damn hard to be original when it comes to weddings.

So The Unexpected Wedding Guest, Book One in The Wedding Season Quartet. How does it measure up, bridal-wise?

Well, firstly, the wedding gets cancelled. Reese is thrown a curveball when her ex-husband appears out of nowhere before her wedding, and then is horrified when her husband-to-be postpones the whole event. To be fair, if it’d been me I’d have stabbed them both with a centrepiece holder and then fled in Mason’s rickety old truck, but to give Reese her due, she’s more mature.

But why has Mason returned? It’s not to burst through the doors confessing his in an overly dramatic manner, but actually for closure. His therapist has told him he has to come and make amends, and then he’ll find himself able to move on with his life. Not your typical set-up. And I like the fact that the reason their marriage fell apart in the first place wasn’t due to some overwhelmingly tragedy, but rather that they messed up. Both were stubborn, both were really young, and neither knew what to do when they stopped communicating properly with each other.

It’s easy enough to do, especially when you’re still getting to know someone. One person’s silence can be mistaken for anger whilst one person’s argument is another’s debate (as I’ve discovered – my bf just loves arguing but sees it as healthy discussion. I see it as a pain in my derriere). So seeing these two characters interact with each other - years after it all fell apart - is actually really interesting.

And besides, Mason is fiiiiiiiiiiiiiine. As alpha males go, he’s right up there: strong … silent … a marine… It’s enough to make a girl swoon. Especially when he softens enough to tenderly care for Reese during her bout of illness. The chemistry? Clearly electric. And the dialogue’s pretty snappy. Plus I like Reese. She’s not sugar-coated and she’s nowhere near perfect – we get to see her realise that the failure of that original marriage is just as much her fault as it was his – and that’s nice to see. For those who say that Mills & Boon heroines are irritatingly perfect need to read this. I like strong, flawed female characters – case in point being that Becky Sharp, from Vanity Fair, is my favourite female character of all time and she’s a bitch – so yes. Good move Carson.

Aimee Carson herself is fairly new to me – I’ve only read one of her other books (The Best Mistake of Her Life from RIVA) – but I can’t wait for her new Modern Tempted (The First Time for Everything) to be released on the kindle. It’s going on my download list now…

Mills & Boon Boy 2: 
Matt G (aka Rasta Hagrid)

Reaction to Photograph Request: 
Nonchalant bemusement, followed by a dash to get the prettiest book cover.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

'The Right Mr Wrong', or Mills & Boon 'Sliding Doors'-style

"Will you marry me?"

Isn’t that the question every girl dreams of hearing? Victoria certainly used to think so. And safe, steady Oliver seemed perfect husband material. But that was until she met Liam, his rebellious, scorchingly hot best friend. Suddenly Victoria’s feeling things - crazy lust-fueled things! - she’s never felt before. But for the wrong guy…
Then Oliver goes down on one knee, and it’s decision time - head or hormones? Victoria’s about to discover the truth about guys like Liam - once you go bad you never go back!
I’m about to give away a massive spoiler: 

She says yes. 

And she says no.

Before I get regaled with emails bewailing this horrific betrayal of my readers’ trust, I’d like to point out that it’s alright – that’s the whole point of The Right Mr Wrong.  Actually, I’m really rather enamoured of the concept of a Mills & Boon version of Sliding Doors.

We spend so much time post-break ups reassuring each other that ‘if it was meant to be, it would have happened’ that it’s actually refreshing to look at a novel that considers this.  Is Victoria fated to be with Liam?  Therefore, in the long run, does her answer to Oliver even matter – life will play out the way it’s meant to.

But big existential debates aside, I really like it.  I like the fact that both Victorias – the softer artistic Victoria and the more sassy, uber-organised Vivi – have a depth to their characters that means that the short prologue is all the preamble needed as an introduction.  They have the independence that they lacked the first time round, making it easy for us to identify with them as we see echoes of our own career struggles mirrored in theirs.

And as for Liam Wilson…well let’s just say that he is broodily handsome enough to make Victoria swoon and me fan myself with my copy of the novel on an airplane crammed with crying babies and grumpily greying businessmen.

Mills & Boon Boy 1: 
Matt B (aka The Booth)

Reaction to Photograph Request: 
Acquiescence followed by a genuine request for a Mills & Boon recommendation…  I, of course, pointed him in the direction of Modern Tempted.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Introducing Modern Tempted...

I first encountered Mills&Boon on the bookshelf in my mum’s bedroom.  For those of you who know my mother, I’d like to point out that it was in her childhood bedroom in my grandparents’ house and I’m fairly certain that the omnibus in question belonged to my grandmother.  One arranged marriage, one doctor in need of a bride and one steamy office affair that scorched itself into my consciousness.

And I was hooked. 

Fourteen years down the line and I’m still addicted to them.  Back in 2011 – after a particularly messy night out on the town – I was browsing in WHSmith at London Victoria station (even when absolutely plastered I read on the train home) and came across Riva.  Billed as fun, flirty, sexy and stylish, it was replacing the ever popular Modern Heat and after just one book I was addicted.

Over the next year and a half I went on to buy every single Riva book in print and wasn’t far off devastated when the imprint took a prolonged hiatus.

So, why I am telling you all this?  Well, Riva has been reborn as Modern Tempted: fresh, flirty and stylish with a good dollop of sex on the side.  I’m delighted to see that they’ve also kept the thing that made Riva my favourite Mills & Boon imprint – these women are strong, feisty and independent.  They have careers and dreams and they’re not afraid to do what they want the most.

So for the rest of this week I’ll be blogging about September’s print offerings:  Natalie Anderson’s The Right Mr Wrong; The Unexpected Wedding Guest by Aimee Carson; Amy Andrew’s Girl Least Likely to Marry; and I You Can’t Stand the Heat by Joss Wood.

Join me and my Mills&Boon boys (four of my male friends whom I’ve coerced into posing with the books) as I introduce you to Modern Tempted!

And for those of you who were wondering what the name of the first steamy book I read was...