Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Re-Reading Project: Lion’s Bride

December 3, 1188 Gates of Constantinople

“I have it!”

Thea whirled to see Selene running through the city gates toward her. The child’s red hair had come loose from her braid and was flowing wildly down her back, and her narrow chest was lifting and falling as she tried to catch her breath. She must have run all the way from the House of Nicholas.

Selene thrust a large straw basket at Thea. “I told you they wouldn’t see me do it.” She glanced at the long line of camels and wagons that had already begun moving down the road. “I couldn’t get away earlier. I think Maya was watching me.”

“You shouldn’t have taken the risk.” Thea set the basket on the ground and knelt to hug Selene. “I would have found a way to do without it.”

“But it will be easier now.” Selene’s thin arms tightened around Thea’s neck. “You’re taking so many risks. I had to do something.”

My last re-reading experience was a romance novel, The Princess, and in my post, I said of author Iris Johansen, “I thought her early thrillers and romance novels were wonderful, but that annoying Eve Duncan character just kept popping up and suddenly all of Johansen’s books seemed like 300-page cookie cutters with the names replaced. I’m afraid to re-read her romance novels, honestly, though I’ve considered trying in light of this project.” Pretty much the second I finished my post, I knew that I had just challenged myself to re-read one of Johansen’s romance novels. And very quickly, I knew I had to re-read the first of her romances I read. I had to go dig it out of storage, but I accepted my challenge and started reading.

I hadn’t re-read Lion’Lion's Brides Bride since 2005 and that was the last one of her romance novels that I read (except for The Treasure in 2011, for the first time). As I admitted in my last post (quoted above), I was afraid to re-read any of the romances, since I’d been increasingly disappointed with Iris Johansen’s thrillers in the past decade and especially in light of the way The Princess felt to me re-reading it now.

But I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable and easy it was to read Lion’s Bride after all this time. Yes, at times is was unrealistic and a tiny bit cheesy, and I could see the blueprint of later protagonists in the main character, Thea. So many times, Johansen uses stubbornness as a shortcut for strength in her female characters, male characters, too. There are very distinctive character types in the Johansen arsenal, whether she’s writing thriller or romance, and I feel like most of them exist here. But, in Lion’s Bride, it was easy to remember that these characters once blew my socks off, because before I read versions of them in dozens of later Johansen books, they felt unique and groundbreaking.

The setting, the Middle East during the Crusades with the Knights Templar and the Crusaders as more villains than heroes, was also incredibly unique. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a romance novel set during this time period. Johansen’s protagonist is a Greek woman who was raised as a slave in a silk house in Constantinople and Johansen used a period and culture where women were very restricted and showed how a woman would attempt to make a life for herself and her sister within it. I found that pretty interesting. Also, Thea embroiders a banner in the book that helps to put her in both a powerful and dangerous position and I liked that Thea used “women’s work” in order to protect and provide for herself.

Lion’s Bride came a pivotal juncture for Johansen, after decades of writing romances and right before she made the leap to thrillers. She might’ve already been paving the way for her transition with Thea and this story.

The first book I ever read of Johansen’s was The Ugly Duckling, her first stand alone thriller. I found it at a garage sale and read it in probably one sitting. This was most likely sometime in 1997, when I was fifteen years old. I’d been reading Dean Koontz books for years, had started reading Harlequins and “real” romance novels the year before and around this same time, I would become obsessed with the mystery/thrillers of Jonathan Kellerman. My mom started reading them too and we would swap them back and forth.

The Ugly Duckling was like nothing else I’d ever read and as soon as I finished, I made my mom take me to the bookstore to see if this Iris Johansen lady had any more books. I found her second thriller, Long After Midnight, and — what a coincidence — a romance novel called Lion’s Bride. I tried to act all nonchalant as I used my allowance to buy them both, but I think this was the first hardcore romance novel I bought new at a bookstore, instead of at a secondhand store or taken stealthily off my mom’s shelves as I did with The Princess. I read both of these two books and then when I went to do some research, I discovered that Johansen had started out writing Harlequins in the 80s. Her third thriller And Then You Die… wasn’t out yet, but she’d already published eight historical standalone romance novels and a trilogy which started out as historical and ended as contemporary. So, while I was waiting for that third thriller, I read lots and lots of romance novels by Iris Johansen.

I loved them, pure and simple. I think these were the books that kept me reading romance for a long time and while I’ve dabbled in other authors over the years, Johansen was the pinnacle of romance for me. Until I read Gaelen Foley’s books. She remains the only romance author who I still read each time a new book comes out.

Johansen’s fourth thriller was Face of Deception, her first featuring Eve Duncan and this was the beginning of my disappointment. I didn’t like Eve Duncan and to date, she’s written 18 novels featuring her. There were long stretches were there weren’t any new books that didn’t feature her. And what had felt unique and interesting in her novels before (both thrillers and romance) was starting to feel repetitive by 1999 when The Killing Game, the second Eve Duncan book came out.

Re-reading Lion’s Bride reminded me why my more recent disappointment with Johansen’s books has been so sharp – because I really, really loved her books when I was very young. I already knew I wanted to be a writer and she lived very close to my hometown. In fact, while doing research for this post, I saw something about her house being for sale and there are all these incredible photos of the mansion. It’s an incredible house, but the only room that makes me envious is the library/office space.

In addition to writing the 18 Eve Duncan books, Johansen writes books about other characters with her son Roy, none of which I’ve read yet. I recently made an attempt to catch up with all of Johansen’s recent books, including the Eve Duncan trilogy Eve, Quinn and Bonnie, where Bonnie’s disappearance/death is finally solved. I thought these were the last Eve Duncan books, but since my attempt to catch up a few years ago, Johansen has published another trilogy of Eve Duncan books and her website says that the character will return in 2015. There may be no finale for Eve Duncan, and as annoying as I find the character, as disappointed as I’ve been by the recent books, I’m probably going to read this new trilogy too, because I just have to know what happens. And I’m actually pretty excited to read the new standalone novel coming out in September.

So, even after all of these years, just when I think I’m done with Iris Johansen, she pulls me right back in.

 

 

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The Re-Reading Project: The Princess

Key West, Florida – 1942

J.T. Montgomery stretched his long legs out in the motorboat, resting his injured calf against one of the crates in the bottom of the boat. He was the remarkably handsome product of generations of remarkably handsome people. His dark hair had been cut too short by the navy but that did not detract from his good looks: brilliant blue eyes, lips that could be as cold as marble or as soft and sweet as the balmy air surrounding him, a slight cleft in his chin, and a nose that on a smaller man would have been too large. His mother called it the Montgomery nose and said it was God’s attempt to protect their faces from all the fists aimed by people who didn’t like the Montgomery hardheadedness.

This is the post in which I confess my early addiction to romance novels. It was the summer of 1996 and I was 14 years old. We lived in a suburb of Atlanta called Marietta. Everybody was going crazy finishing the preparations for the summer Olympics. I was bored and had read all of my books several times, so I snuck an inappropriate book off my mother’s bookshelf. That book was Jude Deveraux‘s The Princess, published in 1987 (when I was 5). Each day, I read for a few hours, memorized the page number and then slipped the book back on the shelf before my mom came home. It took me longer to read than normal because I had to be sneaky, since I thought I wasn’t supposed to be reading it. My mother never seemed particularly interested in censoring my reading (I read my first Dean Koontz at age 10!), but it didn’t seem like the kind of book I should carry around the house for all to see.

The Princess cover

In fact, I was so scared and later embarrassed to be seen reading romance that I later stuck the book into a slipcover, where it has remained, on my bookshelf, ever since.

It wasn’t my first romance novel, not quite. Once, while staying with my grandmother and aunt in Ohio, I discovered a shelf of Harlequin romance novels, all published around 1986 to maybe 1989. They all featured strong, career-minded women (in bold 80s power suits) falling in love with intractable men, often in exotic locales. They were, almost without exception, between 186 and 187 pages long, so I could easily read 2 a day, even though they already felt ridiculously dated just a few years after they were published. Because they were the same size as a lot of the books I was already reading (Christopher Pike, Richie Tankersly Cusick, Lurlene McDaniel and L.J. Smith) and because there wasn’t really any sex in them, the Harlequins didn’t seem inappropriate. My aunt even shipped her whole set of 1980s Harlequins to me after my visit and I must’ve re-read each of them several times before I bought new ones at the used bookstore (10 cents each, even in 1996).

There’s actually not a lot of sex in The Princess, either. More suggestions of sex. But when you’re a precocious bookworm of a 14 year old in 1996, a little sex seems like lurid stuff. I remember thinking this book was very romantic, a cross between Roman Holiday and Candleshoe, with some Anastasia thrown in. I have read lots and lots of romance novels since I was 14 (and I still read every Gaelen Foley book pretty much the second it’s published), but I’ve never re-read my first until now. In many ways, it has stood alone among all other romance novels in my imagination over the years – partly because it was my first “real” romance novel, partly because I don’t think I’ve ever read any others set during World War I and partly because while it is named The Princess, it is more J.T.’s story in many ways.

The fact that we start with him is a bit unusual (not exactly rare, but not typical, as romance novels are usually weighted more toward the female character, in my experience). The Princess (Aria) doesn’t appear until page 9 and doesn’t speak until page 11. We don’t get her perspective until Chapter Two (page 13). They’re both relatively stock types (I might be the only person on the planet who judges romance novels for their characters), but on the re-read, now, as a 32-year-old with lots more experience (with romance novels and in life), I just didn’t like either one of them. J.T. is autocratic and passionate, but I sometimes suspect he has a personality disorder. Aria is a shallow flake whose intelligence is really inconsistent, even taking into consideration she’s been kidnapped while on foreign soil and doesn’t understand a lot of what’s around her. They’re both incredibly mean and then randomly (and unbelievably) open and warm. I don’t buy that they’re falling for each other or that either one of them is learning or changing as an individual person (which are the things that characters usually do in romance novels). I was really disappointed.

Until about page 200, almost near the end of the book. Once they return to Aria’s homeland, I actually start caring a bit about them. It made me wish that the American misadventure of the first 200 pages had been collapsed down to about 50 pages, so we could get to the good stuff sooner. And then, of course, the nefarious plot to assassinate Aria (hardly the main point of the book, though it is the plot) is wrapped up in about a page and J.T. and Aria end up happily ever after in a surprise twist. That’s sarcasm, but not really, because it is surprising that two unlikable stock characters do end up somewhat convincingly in love with each other at the end.

I’m being a little harsh, because I’m grumpy that The Princess doesn’t stand the test of time for me. The same way I was getting grumpy reading the Stephanie Plumb books and the Sookie Stackhouse series. Once you read something that feels new, you really want it to follow through, and not resort to swiftly wrapped up plots and stock characters or easy tropes. Which reminds me of an author who makes me the grumpiest – Iris Johansen. I thought her early thrillers and romance novels were wonderful, but that annoying Eve Duncan character just kept popping up and suddenly all of Johansen’s books seemed like a 300-page cookie cutters with the names replaced. I’m afraid to re-read her romance novels, honestly, though I’ve considered trying in light of this project. But essentially, the grumpiness comes after the thrill of discovering a new author or character, of falling a little in love and being disappointed down the road. And, it’s got to be hard to write something that feels new every time, especially when you’re writing as much and as fast as romance writers generally do.

Jude Deveraux was already a well-established author when she published The Princess (the copyright is held by Deveraux Inc.) and as many romance novelists do, she wrote several books about the Montgomery/Taggert families, characters related to J.T. I was surprised to read, while researching the post, she lost $20 million when she was victimized by a ring of con artists posing as psychics after the death of her young son. Not only did she participate in the indictment of the matriarch of the con artists, but she used her experience as inspiration for her book Scarlet Nights.

And while I never read another Jude Deveraux book after The Princess, I was fully hooked on romance for a while. I could say that I’ve wasted a lot of time reading what are usually only mediocre books, but I think that it was an education. Because, in a genre that relies so heavily on format, stereotypes and tropes, a genre that is generally disregarded, you have to be inventive and inspired to rise even an inch above mediocre. If  you’ve written twenty romance novels and they each have four to eight sex scenes in them, you have to get pretty creative when you’re writing a new sex scene, mostly by writing as if it’s your first sex scene. There are several sex scenes in my novel The Winter Circus and I’ve been told that I’m very good at writing them. I probably owe a lot of that to my history as a romance novel reader. Beyond this obvious takeaway, I think they’ve taught me not to disregard the power of sentiment. How can romance novels (or romantic comedy movies) make us invest, even if we feel like they are silly and unrealistic? Because they’re grounded in very real sentiments that we all feel and they’re unafraid of dealing with sentiment nakedly, as if it is something new.

I’ve considered writing romance novels, of course, but I think what might have inspired me to write them was not so much any romance novel I’ve read or what I know about the genre and industry, but the fantasy inspired by Romancing the Stone (which is still one of my all-time comfort movies and face it, basically a romance novel come to life):

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