Reading

Alexa Day Gets Medieval … Right After She Gets Victorian

Last week, I showed you a picture of the Big Bag of Historical Romances that I won at a drawing at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I arranged them in chronological order – because I am a dork like that, my friends – and now they’re stacked next to my TV, with Patricia Phillips on the top, waiting to take me to Wales in 1401. All I have to do is get out of Victorian England first.

Six weeks ago, none of this was my thing.

My mom gave me a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower a few Christmases ago, but that was mostly because she felt The Time Had Come To Give This Heirloom To Her Daughter. Then I won another Woodiwiss at a Romanticon giveaway – Joey W. Hill said it was on her keeper shelf, and I won it at a giveaway. Still, I only had a couple of historicals on my own shelves. I didn’t think I had much in common with the heroines, and when black characters did appear, they occupied the periphery of the story, which infuriates me, as you know.

But then – Festival magic!

To help out with the Virginia Romance Writers social media push in advance of the Festival, I got cozy with some historical fiction. I’d seen Deanna Raybourn at a VRW presentation some time ago, and so I tried the first of her Lady Julia Grey series, Silent in the Grave, in preparation for her Festival panel. She had me at the first page – she gets a lot of people like that – but what kept me going was the discovery that Lady Julia and I have a lot in common after all.

We both have large families, often charitably described as eccentric and unpredictable, who will go right to the wall for each other. We both enjoy our independence, although I have an easier time asserting mine than she does. Neither of us could have said no to the raven.

And so once I felt comfortable with Lady Julia, I could get comfortable within her story.

Tasha Alexander’s And Only to Deceive took me on a similar journey. The heroine reminded me of my childhood study of Latin and Greek classics, and from there, it was easy to get into the rest of the story.

Of course, having a rich “rest of the story” helps. Both Raybourn and Alexander present historical mysteries, and the romances that lie in the background are complicated. Alexander’s heroine never really got to know her husband. Raybourn’s didn’t know hers as well as she thought. Both situations make for tempting reads, against any backdrop.

Could it be that I was open to historical romances? Had I written off those heroines of the past too quickly? Was I missing out on other hot heroes and exotic settings?

I’d only started to explore these questions when I won the bag of books. Feels like a sign, right?

So here’s the reading list for my hot history course.

  • The Constant Flame, Patricia Phillips
  • The Laird of Stonehaven, Connie Mason
  • The Conquest, Jude Deveraux
  • Catriona, Jeanette Baker
  • Believe, Victoria Alexander
  • Defy the Storm, Kate O’Donnell
  • A Season Beyond a Kiss, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (it’s a sequel to The Flame and the Flower, so that comes first)
  • Merely the Groom, Rebecca Hagan Lee
  • Kiss Me Annabel, Eloisa James
  • The Italian, Elaine Coffman
  • Every Wish Fulfilled, Samantha James
  • The Glass Slipper, Linda O. Johnston – a contemporary disguised as a historical

I’ll keep you all posted as to my progress (including how the hell I plan to write a book with all this reading). This might be the only vacation I get to take this year, but I’ll send lots of postcards!

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Happy Hour, Afternoon Delight, and an Excerpt

My first novel, ILLICIT IMPULSE, made its debut yesterday at Ellora’s Cave. I didn’t have to work yesterday – yay, snow day! – so I got to sit here like a crazy person and watch the number of likes and tweets growing on my book page. Last night, I went for a walk in the snow to join some friends for a celebratory happy hour. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the book, and after all the time I’ve spent putting it together, I was only a little ashamed to feel relief about that.

When we did get to talking about it, I found I enjoyed the slight distance my friends allowed me to take from the story. One of my friends, new to the whole e-book thing, was looking for download and format advice. Others were curious about the next book. I found myself looking at this in a new way. After all the time hammering down the fine details, checking for flow, repetition, awkwardness, and what-have-you, all I really wanted was for them to find whatever they were looking for in a good book.

I hoped they would identify with the characters.

I hoped the action would pull them through the pages late at night.

And I hoped they would think the sex was hot.

I hope something similar for you. I hope you’ll decide to pick up ILLICIT IMPULSE. Once you start it, I hope you’ll find whatever makes a book good.

I also hope you’ll read this tiny pinch of it. This post is going up a little late in the day to call it a nooner, but maybe it counts as an afternoon delight? In any case, enjoy!

Grace met John’s gaze. “Tell me what you need me to do.”

His skin heated again. What was wrong with him?

“I need you…to take the pills…”

She lifted a fine eyebrow. “And?”

“And then have sex…”

She grinned then, her teeth very white against the burgundy of her lipstick. “With Tal. Right?”

He shrugged. That was, of course, who he’d had in mind. But what he needed already defied the fundamental tenets of scientific research. He definitely wasn’t going to go further out of bounds by telling her who to have sex with.

Grace chuckled, a throaty sound that might have been genuine amusement or something a bit less pleasant. “John, I hope you’re not thinking I’ll take these and then my eyes will be opened and I’ll see Tal doesn’t want to be in a relationship.” She put the pills back on the table next to her glass. “I mean, I know you have some kind of issue with him.”

“Issue” didn’t begin to cover it. Tal only saw her at his place, and only at night. After two years, she’d never mentioned meeting his family or going away for the weekend or celebrating an anniversary. Never mentioned flowers or Christmas gifts. So far as John knew, Tal never even took her to dinner. As happy as Grace said she was, John knew she deserved more than what she had.

“Grace, I’m not trying to pull anything. I need someone who’s not in a relationship. I need someone who’s willing to tell me everything. I even need Tal.” He hated the way that felt in his mouth. “Look, I don’t want you to get hurt. That’s no secret. And if these pills make you see things a little differently, then so much the better. But I really just need your help.”

“Good. Because I know Tal doesn’t want a girlfriend. So we’re all on the same page.”

John nodded, lifting both hands in surrender. “Right. I get it.”

“Okay.” Grace pursed her full lips. “If I do this, what would happen after the sex?”

John swallowed, hoping she didn’t sense the sudden rush of discomfort that seemed so painfully obvious to him. “Then you report back.” He cleared his throat. “To me.”

A mischievous giggle bubbled out of her. “You want me to have sex with Tal and then come back and tell you about it.” Coming from her mouth, the idea sounded ridiculous. “I presume you would need this to happen more than once.”

“Well…there are eight pills in a pack.”

Grace picked up the blister pack again and stared at it in silence. As John scrambled to scrape up the last of his persuasive powers, she said, “Deal.”

The tension that had been crushing him released its grip. She’d do it. “Oh, Grace. I owe you big time.”

She tucked the pills into her purse and laughed. “I have a feeling the pleasure’s going to be all mine. Just don’t be too disappointed if nothing changes between me and Tal,” she said. “And don’t be too shocked when you hear about what we do together.”

It’s Complicated, I Hope — Working with Complex Heroines

I love Lifetime movies. I can admit that without shame. I love spending a long Sunday afternoon stretched out on the couch with a nice, cool beverage and a long slate of Lifetime movies. So many different types. Bad Husband. True Crime. Don’t Trust the Babysitter. Prepare to Cry. These are only a few of the subgenres.

This month, presumably for Black History Month, Lifetime is airing three movies that prominently feature black women. (There are four Saturdays in February, but that’s another blog post.) You know I’m a sucker for the interracial romances, so I enjoyed the second one, Twist of Faith (the video at this link starts right up, but it includes a kiss). Then came Pastor Brown. From the promos, it looked like a story about a former stripper who becomes pastor of her church when the existing pastor dies.

And that is basically the story. It’s not the whole story, but that’s it in a very loose nutshell.

I hadn’t gotten very far into it before I noticed I was a little tense. At around the halfway point, I found I was even more tense. Once it was over, I had to ask myself what was so upsetting. I had a little trouble putting my finger on it, but with a little help from the world of adult film, I figured out the problem.

Almost all the women in Pastor Brown are horribly unpleasant. The ex-stripper’s sister is awful. The deacon’s wife is equally nasty. Her boss at the club in New York is nasty. Even her fair-weather friend is a piece of work.

The women who aren’t nasty are saintly. The former stripper is working HARD to atone for her sins (which, in fairness, have more to do with abandoning her son than with stripping). Along the way, we meet a woman escaping an abusive husband; she’s sleeping in the immense church because she has nowhere else to go. The old classmate whose wild past left her with HIV is now impossibly sweet; she sacrifices her chance to see the ailing pastor so that the ex-stripper (the pastor’s daughter) can have it.

There’s no middle ground. Everyone’s either terrible or on a pedestal. But that’s not the whole problem.

My problem, I realized, was that I worried that someone would see this and think it was the real world. The whole world of black women, divided neatly into nasty, abusive women and whores-turned-Madonnas. It reminded me a bit of Cindy Gallop’s Make Love Not Porn project. Cindy has no trouble with the porn industry in and of itself – her worry is that so many people believe that’s what sex is actually supposed to be like, because they’ve never been taught any differently. Sinnamon Love has a very thought-provoking article in Guernica on a similar subject. Black women are featured in adult film, she writes, but only in certain stereotypical capacities. She wants to see a wider spectrum of roles available to black women.

That was what I wanted from Pastor Brown. It’s what I hope to achieve in my own writing. My heroines are women first and foremost. They’re women like any other women. They have hopes and fears and desires. They’re not saints. They’re not nasty, judgmental harpies. They’re women, just like any other women.

If I’m doing my job, right, they’re just like us.

I’d like to say I made Grace Foley, the heroine of Illicit Impulse, just like us, but I can’t take the credit for that. After all, Grace came to me, not the other way around. (I know. It’s a writer thing. Work with me.) With a tough breakup in her recent past, she’s found a convenient place to land in Tal Crusoe’s bed. She’s deeply attracted to her best friend John (last week’s hot geek), but she’s afraid he’ll reject her. He won’t want a party girl like her. He won’t want to ruin their friendship.

He won’t want her.

And so she settles for what she has, which isn’t all that bad. Tal is any woman’s fantasy. John might not want her, but his friendship is too valuable to lose – especially now that he’s introduced her to Impulse. If only she didn’t want more.

Who among us hasn’t struggled with that? Not the trouble of having it all – the question of whether we should even want it?

That’s one of the forces driving Illicit Impulse, and it’s one of the things that made it such a challenge to write. I’m hoping that makes for good reading! Have a look at the excerpt up on Ellora’s Cave (click this, and then click the magnifying glass on the cover) and feel free to leave me a comment right here.

Blinded with Science: The Enduring Appeal of the Hot Geek

My love affair with the intellectual started early. I was in middle school, struggling with the choice between Dracula and Edward Rochester, when I fell in with Sherlock Holmes. He was absolutely brilliant, and he could not have been less interested in women. Sure, he was a bit of a bad boy. He smoked, and let’s face it, the man had a drug problem. Still. It was riveting to watch him think, and I loved that he wouldn’t engage in all sorts of foolishness to impress women.

(I’m still all about Holmes, but just the one from the Conan Doyle books. No other Holmes holds a candle to the original.)

The modern geek is something of a phenomenon these days. He’s a little different now. For one thing, he’s a lot more likely to be successful with the opposite sex. But his appeal is still based on the same few classic characteristics.

He seems unaware of his masculine wiles. His laser-beam focus is generally trained on something other than the pursuit of women, which paradoxically gives women the chance to observe him without interruption. He’ll frown at his notes, the cute little furrow appearing between his brows. He’ll rub his poor tired eyes. He’ll spend hours and hours in single-minded pursuit of his obsession, whatever it might be. He’s on fire with passion for something, whether it’s the secrets of space flight or a cure for disease, and what woman doesn’t want a man who can be passionate about his life’s work?

He has no game. At all. When he’s into you, it’s not just to make you another conquest. He’s not trying to get away with something. Honestly, he was probably paying attention to something else when you entered his world. Once he’s committed, though, he’ll choose to pursue you with his whole mind, even if he doesn’t really know what to do once he has your attention. It’s WYSIWYG at its finest.

And then there’s the physical. The little dorky touches like his bowtie, or his comic book t-shirts. The way his glasses draw attention to his eyes. The frustrated little twist that takes his mouth by the corner when he’s figuring something out. The long fingers on a keyboard or wrapped around a pencil. He’s hot, in a very specific way.

The hot geek isn’t rare, really. He’s just elusive. Since he has no game and has no idea that he’s attractive, he’s not out on the town looking for women. He’s got other things to occupy his time. When you find one in the wild, buy him a drink. It’ll make him blush and fidget in the cutest way.

My book, ILLICIT IMPULSE, features a hot geek, John March. His passion is women, actually; he studies the things that bring women and men together and the things they’ll do when they get there. So why can’t he figure out how to escape Grace Foley’s friend zone? Is he overcomplicating matters, or are things really not as they seem?

John’s going to discover the answers – the ones he asked for and some extras – in ILLICIT IMPULSE, which is available March 1 from Ellora’s Cave.

Diversity’s Never Looked Quite Like This

I’ve always written interracial romances featuring a black heroine. I’m like a lot of romance writers, in that I wanted to read and write about a heroine I could identify with. For years, I avoided reading romance altogether because I didn’t feel represented there. I might have stayed away from romance if it hadn’t been for law school. One of Mom’s friends sent me a couple of romances in a care package. I was so desperate to read about human beings and just enjoy the story, without the pressure of facing The Paper Chase the next day. I finished the first one very quickly and had to slow down and savor the others.

I still didn’t feel represented. But I was interested in what romance had to offer.

When I started reading romance, it looked like black women appeared in only two capacities – as the Sassy Black Friend, helping the heroine get the guy, or as the “exotic Creole” character. I was never clear on whether the Creole character was actually black. She always had dark hair and dark skin, but I always wondered why the author didn’t just say she was black, if she was in fact black.

I wanted to see – and, okay, maybe to be – a black heroine at center stage of her own romance novel. It wasn’t enough to help someone else get the guy and then be relegated to the end of a series (if she was lucky) with the only other black character in the books. I didn’t want to have to guess whether the heroine was black.

And that’s when I started thinking about writing romances. I had always written stories and I’d always wanted to write for publication. I just didn’t think I’d do it with romance. After all, I didn’t see anyone else publishing interracial romances, although I know now that there were a handful of them out there, scarce as hens’ teeth.

Then Sandra Kitt changed everything. The Color of Love is the romance novel I needed to see. The heroine is definitely black – she’s not olive-skinned or Creole – and she is definitely center stage. She and the hero, who is white, overcome the obstacles separating them (race-related and otherwise) to arrive at the end of the book with a declaration of love and a marriage proposal. I’d never read anything quite like it.

The Color of Love came out in 1995, so it was around when I got to law school. I just didn’t know about it. Once I found it, though, the game changed again. If she’d been published with an interracial romance (and Sandra Kitt has more than one such story out there), then I could do it, if I worked at it hard enough.

When my first novel, Illicit Impulse, comes out in three weeks, it will enter a very different world. I never thought I’d see a world with so many interracial relationships in books, television and movies. Interracial romances have long since made a place for themselves in electronic publishing, but TV and movies seem to be seeing the light, too. Finally.

I was the nut who stood up and cheered when Uhura kissed Spock in Star Trek. (Go easy on me. I’d been waiting YEARS for that.) I’m happy to see James Bond continuing a 40-year tradition of getting his swirl on. I was almost delirious with joy when ABC had two (three if we consider Grey’s Anatomy) well-established interracial relationships in prime time scripted television, although I miss 666 Park Avenue dearly now. Better still, television executives aren’t playing up the fact that their characters are falling in love across racial lines. These are just characters with their own needs and wants and dreams and problems. They just happen to be of different colors, and that’s the sort of romance I love the most.

I couldn’t be more excited to enter this field now, when the market exposure is growing. I’m part of a steadily growing audience, composed of people seeing these relationships for the first time and people who are saying “about damn time.” The sky is the limit now. I already know there are more interracial relationships on TV than I can keep track of. I claim the next book as my excuse, but I hope I can keep up with developments.

In the meantime, I need to make plans to see Skyfall.

Day on Bond on Bond

Mom and I have a long-running argument about who is the best James Bond. Don’t laugh. I bet you have debates like this in your family, too. Mom says it’s Sean Connery. I cannot agree.

“Roger Moore is the real James Bond,” I said.

Mom was incredulous. She could not believe that a well-educated, sophisticated woman like me would choose Roger Moore over Sean Connery. But I do. Roger Moore was my first Bond – A View to a Kill was the first Bond movie I ever saw – and I think everyone has a certain loyalty to her first Bond. Having seen all the other Bonds (except Daniel – it’s a personal thing), I find I would still choose Roger Moore. His Bond, with apologies to Yul Brynner, is Bond.

This Christmas, Mom acknowledged the special place in my heart that James and Roger share, and she gave me a copy of Bond on Bond, written by Sir Roger himself. The book is really a memoir of sorts, a guided tour through the Bond franchise, complete with insider stories and photos. The writing is wonderful; I feel like I’m sitting across the table from my favorite Bond. But if the pictures serve to remind me of the Bond I fell in love with all those years ago, the memoir as a whole is tailor-made for a woman on the cusp of a milestone birthday.

Roger Moore was 45 when he took up the mantle of Bond. Never too late to start doing something magical, is it? Our society starts trying to convince us that we’re too old to do things at 30 or so. I’m so inspired to hear that my favorite Bond was over 40 when he became 007.

Roger doesn’t take himself too seriously. The true joy of the book, the center of its conversational voice, is his gently self-deprecating humor. He doesn’t have anything to prove. He can look back on that remarkable period of his life, which includes Moonraker, the space movie, with the grace and confidence that can only come from someone who has thoroughly enjoyed his time in the sun but has moved on to another place, that is just as sunny in its own way.

He’s generous with praise for the other Bonds. No one’s a competitor, and no one’s an outsider (not even Daniel). Roger treats the other Bonds as if they’re part of a family. A really weird family where you might flip your car through a corkscrew turn on the way to the grocery store.

Back then, I wanted to be James Bond. Tonight, almost 30 years later, I still do.

Do I dare to open the debate here in the comments? I do. I do dare.

My Heart Belongs to Paper … but the Kindle is Pretty Awesome

This Christmas, Mom and I elected to join the 21st century, already in progress. We got each other Kindles. We do not need to do anything on the Kindle other than read, so we got the little one with the ads. We are both hard-core book addicts. Mom started me using when I was just a kid, and now I’m trying to make my own in my house after work. We do not see how ads for other books presented on a reading device could possibly be a problem. Seriously, if you were smoking crack, and in between rocks, your pipe lit up with ads for discounts on more crack, would you ever complain about that?

I’m digressing a little. But let me just say, at the outset, that I will probably always prefer the paper book.

I’m kind of old school in this regard. I like the weight of the paper book. I like the feel of the pages. Deckled edges? Oh, yes, please! Marbled endpapers? Indeed! And the spines on the shelf! My ex gave me a three-volume definitive Sherlock Holmes set (with annotations!) that just … reassures me when I look at it. When Ray Bradbury died, I held my autographed copy of Green Shadows, White Whale and thought of his hand on the page as he signed it. I first perused Reclaiming History just because it was a hefty, hefty tome, but I bought it for the promise of reading Bugliosi on the Kennedy assassination. Sixteen hundred glorious pages, plus so many notes he had to put them on a CD-ROM. I’m drooling a little just writing about it.

I said I was addicted.

The argument for the Kindle and its ilk with regard to my chosen genre is a powerful one. Some people evidently take issue with being seen in public reading erotica. I understand. I do! I just don’t have that problem.

One night I took my copy of Fortytude to a bar and met a good-looking soldier who was also celebrating a milestone birthday – his 30th. I met a handsome intellectual who saw me reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses on the bus. The paper book shows the world not only that I do read, but it shows the world what I read, and therefore just a bit of who I am. It’s like a nametag. I personally would not have minded showing the world that I am reading Held Captive by the Cavemen. That doesn’t trouble me at all. If it troubles those sheltered souls sitting nearby, then maybe they should look into minding their own business.

But one cannot purchase a paper copy of Held Captive by the Cavemen. If one has a Kindle, though, one can have it all ready to go in less than a minute. I think it took me three clicks to put it on the machine, and now it’s waiting for me. (I need to hurry this post along, actually, so I can start reading it.)

Then I started poking around, looking for other stuff to buy. This is where the Kindle gets dangerous. Scoring a paper book takes a little effort. Hardback? Paperback? Don’t even start me on the shipping. The Kindle takes you from whim to purchase in just seconds. And so, when I found Dirty for the Kindle for just a couple of bucks, I went for it. I love Megan Hart’s work – the world she creates would be very cool to live in, even without the sex … but then there’s sex in it. A win-win if I ever saw one.

This time it only took one click. Very nice.

There’s a lot to like about the Kindle, to be sure. It’s tiny but strong. It’s discreet. It’s fast. It’s not terribly expensive. And if I’m going to be working in the realm of e-publishing – and interracial erotica all but guarantees that – I need to get comfortable with all these advantages.

The paper book is my first love, though. I will probably end up being the little old lady sitting on the park bench with a paper copy of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. Over on the bench next to me, a mother will tell her little boy, “See, Jimmy? That lady has a paper book. Long ago, you could only get books on paper.”

And Jimmy’s going to say, “I thought they all came on rocks way back then!”

And then the little wise-ass and his mom are going to laugh. But I won’t care.

I will be too busy stealing glances over my book at that shirts vs. skins touch football game. Those guys won’t notice. The Jane Austen makes me look harmless.

You can’t do that with a Kindle. Can you?