When is it a Romance?

Yes, I’ve been absent for a couple days. My daughter told me I don’t have to post every day, though that seems to defeat the purpose of this blog. But, I couldn’t think of anything Wednesday and was just too busy yesterday. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Okay, now it’s time to dive off into something I said I’d write about a few days back, and hopefully I won’t lose my membership in the Manly Club for talking about this. Just read it all the way through, okay?

Since I’ve been getting more serious about my writing I’ve been expanding the kinds of fiction I read. I do this because I believe that, even if I don’t intend to ever write some kind of thriller or Western, I can still learn from these types of writing. I might even be able to mix elements from other genres into my own writing.

Having said that, this does not, in the normal course of things, extend to reading romance. I can read stories with romance in them, but I have little or no interest in reading in the genre itself. I don’t mean this as a dis against those who like romance. I just don’t want to read it.

But I’ve noticed a trend lately at the bookstores: paranormal romance is popping up on both the romance shelves and the sf/f (science fiction/fantasy) shelves. Laurell K. Hamilton is a prime example, at least in the bookstore I frequent the most here (Hastings). I’ve never read any of her books, but I understand from a couple of people who have that her books have strong elements of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance (one of those people says that Hamilton’s books have degraded to smut).

I’ve read two books recently that, to me, fit in either category: Covet by JR Ward; and Mind Games by Carolyn Crane.

I originally obtained Covet at a local used bookstore for my daughter, who likes paranormal romance. She likes to write about angels and demons, and since Covet is the first in a new series called Fallen Angels, I thought it might be of interest to her. The premise of the series is that the protagonist, named Jim Heron, has been picked by both Heaven and Hell as an acceptable candidate to decide the fate of the universe for all time. The End Days are here and it’s all on his shoulders. He dies early in the book by electrocution, is told of his mission by four angels who appear to him as fussy British men playing croquet, and wakes up in the hospital. His mission amounts to saving seven people from the seven deadly sins, and he can’t fail. If he does, Hell will win. If he succeeds, Heaven will. No pressure whatsoever. He is a titular Fallen Angel in this scheme, and he ends up getting help from two Harley riding Fallen Angels.

As some additional subplot tension, it turns out that Jim is on reserve status from a black ops assassination squad that, somewhat like the Mafia (and Hotel California), you can join but never leave. Jim is on inactive leave, and the second book (coming out in October), called Crave (are you seeing the trend here?) will involve Jim going to Boston to take out another operative who has gone AWOL from this unit (which is never given a name in the first book, unless I missed it).

Covet is published by Signet and is classified by them as “fiction.” The word “romance” does not appear on the spine at all, though the cover picture is of a guy on a bike wearing a leather jacket. The jacket is unzipped and his bare, muscular chest is showing. I like his leather motorcycle jacket. However, if you read the author bio, you will learn that JR Ward is a winner of the RITA Award and has also been nominated for it several other times. The RITA Award is given by the Romance Writers of American (RWA). JR Ward also has a series called the Black Dagger Brotherhood that centers around vampires. JR Ward is the pen name of Jessica Bird, and under her real name she writes contemporary romance.

I have to say that I enjoyed Covet and I intend to read the entire series. I like the concept, and she pulls it off very well. She has some little quirks in her writing that I don’t care for, but overall she’s good enough that I want to see what Jim is able to do. There are three main characters in this book, two men and one woman. Jim helps the other man and the woman get together, though only after realizing that his job is not to keep the other man together with his current girlfriend. I like that touch, because it means the protagonist is wrong, and we don’t see much of that these days. The hero must always be right these days, or so it seems, which is leading in the direction that I call the Superman syndrome, wherein the hero/heroine has no faults (I may detail this a little more in another post, but I’m sure most writers are familiar with it, even if not by that name). So, the romance is there, and there is one sex scene that goes on for about seven pages (I was exhausted after reading this. Sex scenes aren’t my favorite thing anymore). But as I read the book, I kept asking myself: “What is it about this book that makes it a romance?” Romance is, without a doubt, a very strong subplot, but the main plot is Jim’s mission.

I’ve mentioned the other book, Mind Games, in a previous post. It’s published by Bantam’s Spectra imprint, which is their sf/f line. It is Carolyn Crane’s first novel, though the bio states that she’s made her living as a freelance writer for over a decade.

Mind Games is the story of Justine Jones, a hypochondriac who is convinced she will die of star vein syndrome, a condition that occurs when a vein in the brain bursts (I’m probably oversimplifying here, but this is not a medical blog). She is introduced to a man who is a “highcap,” individuals who have heightened psychic powers of one kind or another. This man, it turns out, is trapped in a restaurant called Mongolian Delites by his nemesis. A lot of this setting has a decidedly comic book flavor to it, with this  highcap, named Packard, even referring to himself as an evil overlord. He wants to take down his nemesis but has to be careful about it because if his nemesis, called Henji, dies, then he will be trapped in the restaurant forever.

Packard teaches Justine how to put all the fear she feels about vein star syndrome into some bad guys in order to “crash and reboot” them and turn them away from their evil ways. One of the first people they do this to is a con man who duped Justine’s father out of his life savings, so Justine has a decidedly biased motivation for going along with it.

I won’t give away all the surprises in case you want to read the book, but I will say that I have no intention of reading her second book about the same character. As I’ve stated before, one of the problems I have with this book is that it’s written in present tense, which I don’t care for. Also, she has a tendency to go into quite a bit of detail describing the clothes she’s wearing and how they match and complement one another. Sorry, but reading about a fashion victim doesn’t excite me. I can’t relate. And, last but not least, we are given several good shots of her telling us how dashingly handsome various male characters are. Again, who cares?

Ironically, to my mind, the romance elements in this book, published as an urban fantasy, are stronger than in Covet, which is written by a paranormal romance author. Very few pages go by without us being reminded of the way this man or that looks, how handsome and electrically sexy they are (?), or how fun it was to go to a hair dresser’s to get her hair colored.

There are some good story elements here, such as the protagonist being wrong in this book as well, but they seem so overwhelmed by the romance elements that I now wonder if perhaps this was written as a paranormal romance but was not accepted by a paranormal romance publisher. As I said, the line seems to be blurring these days, and I’ve even seen romance author MaryJanice Davidson with books that are straight up fantasy.

When it comes to these two books, at least, I can’t really answer the question I ask in the title to this post. I will read more of JR Ward’s Fallen Angels series and will leave Carolyn Crane’s, well, Justine Jones (there is no name given for this series, but since there’s a sequel listed on Fantastic Fiction, it is a series, I’m guessing) series alone. The romance is too strong in the urban fantasy but proportioned pretty much the way I can stand in the paranormal romance.

If you want to see if you can give a more definitive opinion, I’d be glad to hear it, because I can’t make up my mind what to call these books. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Later,

Gil

2 Comments

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2 responses to “When is it a Romance?

  1. From what you’ve got written here, neither of those books sound like romance books. They may have romance aspects, but that doesn’t make it a romance. What makes a romance novel a romance novel is that the very main plot revolves around the hero and heroine creating a relationship. Very boy meets girl type thing. Romance writers don’t always write just romance. That’s like saying your crime novel isn’t a crime novel because you mainly write sci-fi.

    Maybe I should mail you my Complete Idiot’s Guide to Romance book or you can see if any stores/libraries near you have Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies (which I think is a much better book than the former). Romance isn’t exactly like most of the ‘thoughts’ about it.

    • That’s basically, in my roundabout way, what I was trying to say. The romance aspect actually seemed stronger in the urban fantasy than it was in the book by the romance writer. And even the romance elements themselves were different, with the romance in the paranormal being more practical, while the urban fantasy’s seemed fluffy to me. And, yes, I admit that I’m largely ignorant of the romance genre. That’s why I’ll never write one.

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