Tour’s Books Blog

June 21, 2009

Erotic Romance and Ménage

Filed under: Editorial,erotic romance — toursbooks @ 5:00 pm
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Racy Romance Reviews had an interesting post about Polyamory, Ménage, Erotic Romance and Culture. I was one of a few erotic romance readers to respond.  I listed some of my favorite erotic romance to illustrate good writing that includes ménage.   Lauren Dane, author of several of the book on my list, chimed in that she tended to write her ménage in settings other than true contemporary to get away from the hurdle that contemporary has for making the story believable.  That kind of got me thinking about the ménage stories I’ve read and how I reacted to them.

Ignoring the fact that I read Thea Divine and Susan Johnson years ago, I only tried erotic romance by accident last year.  I had several cross-country flights for business and needed books.  One of the books I bought, thinking it romantic suspense à la Suzanne Brockman, was Dangerous Games by Lora Leigh.  I’d never heard of her or her books, but the cover looked like my kind of thing, so what the hell.  On the way out I read The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson (a good book for all you espionage/intrigue fans), an impulse buy at the airport bookstore, and finished it just before we hit the ground.  While there I read several mysteries, keeping Dangerous Games for the flight home because it was a long book.  As is my custom I carried extras, but just 1 shorter ‘back-up’ book was left, so Dangerous Games was the designated primary read.

Ahem.  I’d like to take this opportunity to remind everyone laughing at me that I never heard of Lora Leigh and had no idea exactly WHY her books were so popular!!!!!!!  I finished one of my mysteries while waiting for the flight and got out Dangerous Games and another mystery for the flight home.  Good thing I’d done that impulse buy of Berenson’s book or I”d be flying home bookless – not a happy event.  I settle into my bulkhead seat (hate those useless little pockets you get, but love the legroom and the fact the bathroom is close and no one can recline into your space.) and settle in.  I start the mystery, but meh, so-so.  I read way too any mysteries and it’s tough to fool me.  So as they start the meal service I pick up Dangerous Games.  Well, wasn’t THAT an uncomfortable surprise!  Now I’m no prude and I’ve read erotica – including Ann Rice’s Exit to Eden and one of her Sleeping Beauty books, but I was ready for them mentally and certainly did NOT read them on a plane.  So what now?  It’s the middle of the meal and I can’t reach the bulkhead pocket without sticking my boobs in the food, so I discretely tuck the book behind my butt and pretend I’m completely enthralled with my meal.  It might be first class, but it’s still airplane food, so this is something of an acting stretch for me.  (Except the ice cream sundaes, that takes no acting!)  After the meal, I replace the book in my roll-aboard and go back to my rather dull mystery and take out the one I already finished.  I did the crossword in the airline magazine too.  I was BORED!  (No, I don’t watch the movies unless it’s those little individual screens where I can pick the movie.)

After reading Dangerous Games at home I felt like I had wasted my money.  The whole ‘SEAL’ thing was just so not credible.  The technical errors and other issues (Can you imagine Dom’s as SEAL’s?  Like they’d get past the psychological testing!   Or the most basic thing – SEAL teams are all run from Coronado or Norfolk.  Atlanta?  SEAL’s based in ATLANTA?) had me gritting my teeth at times, but no question, it had some hot sex, though I found the whole D/s thing not remotely to my taste.  I figured there HAD to be erotic romance that I would like and did what I always did, I began sampling.  I was uncertain that erotic romance was something I’d like.  I certain didn’t enjoy Last Exit to Eden when I had read it years ago, though the story was well told.  Who agrees to be a sex slave?  And that one Beauty book was not my thing at all.  I was never a fan of Ann Rice anyway, so it was no loss.  I figured what the hell, I’d tossed plenty of romance and mysteries, so I gave Lora Leigh’s Forbidden Pleasure a try.  My first true ménage.  (There were ménage scenes in Rice’s books, but they were not what I would consider ménage books.)  My initial reaction was, “You have GOT to be kidding me!”  I didn’t get it.  Hot yes, romantic, well, not for me it wasn’t.  Again, I had credibility issues, especially about the acceptance by the local ‘grande dame’ at the end.  I could see the ménage, but remained unconvinced it was workable as a long term thing in this day and age.  Lube aside, her butt must have been so sore sitting was a problem.

So I tried a couple of more Lora Leigh, including some of her ‘breeds’ books (liked them) and two of the Nauti series books (not bad to quite good) and through Amazon’s ‘Customer’s also bought’ feature I found several more books to try, including Surrender by Kimberly Zant and Menagerie by Lara Santiago.  You know what, I ended up liking all of them, but it was Menagerie that snagged me and I got hooked on the potential of ménage stories when creatively done.  Through Leigh’s Tempting the Beast I discovered the Ellora’s Cave website and began trying erotic romance in ebooks.  A LOT cheaper than print and if you plan to ‘test drive’ a genre, a good way to do so providing the price is right!  Through EC, I had more losers than winners and then, ever so slowly, I began finding authors and stories I liked.  I was getting frustrated when I found Susie Charles, one of the best, but least known, erotic authors I’ve found.  She has four books on EC – and I’ve looked and found no more anywhere.  Two are paranormals, Candid Camera and Hanging by the Moment (Were Watching series), the third a novella/long short story, Velvet Strokes, with a ménage element and the last is Velvet Ties.  To this day Velvet Ties remains a personal favorite in contemporary ménage.  If I could find it in print, I’d buy it!  I did buy the Were Watching books.  In fact, I can find 3 of 4 of her books, just not Velvet Ties.   I’ve even tried used book sites, no luck.  But my concept that contemporary ménage was just not believable was sufficiently challenged that I tried some more by authors like Maya Banks, Shelley Bradley and Rhyannon Byrd.

I looked at what I’ve reread in ebook and print, that are basically ménage stories.  Each time a ménage cropped up, not just a book with some ménage elements, it tended to be a paranormal, urban fantasy, futuristic or alternate world.  In that group I found Bianca D’Arc, Jory Strong, Lauren Dane, Allyson James, Lara Santiago, Kaitlyn O’Connor, and Anne Douglas.  I looked at the contemporary and I got surprised by what I’ve traded away – Nichole Austin, Maya Banks, Shayla Black, Leah Brooks, and all but a very few of Lora Leigh.  What does that say about what I like?  Looking more closely, I seem to not be interested in re-reading books that are basically character studies without some surrounding story that reaches beyond the protagonists.  Automatically, many authors have books fall away a smaller number are left.  Next, the story, the raison d’être had to be more than just a sexual/personal relationship.  Many of the books I got rid of were much sought after on PaperbackSwap – Coulter’s Woman, Blackmailed, Be with Me, Stranded, Passionate Realities, Brazen, Finding Strength, etc..  They weren’t bad books, in fact several were very, very good, they were just books that I had no interest in keeping.  Not one of my ‘keepers’ has significant D/s or BDSM elements either.

I gave some serious thought to why I prefer ménage done in other genres than contemporary.  My initial reaction was that the ‘world’  allowed me to suspend my fundamental disbelief in the idea of an enduring ménage, I even stated as much on the Racy Romance forum.  Then I really gave it some thought.  My reasons go much deeper.  I have no religious or moral bias and ‘cultural’ issues are more a function of the reality of the social difficulty of keeping such an arrangement viable over time.  The other is the nature of what contemporary romance is – it’s character studies.  (I’m ignoring the whole ‘chick lit’ genre.)  Ménage aside, very few of my keepers are fundamentally character studies, mainstream or erotic.   I keep romantic suspense –  Tara Janzen, Anne Stuart, Marliss Melton, Roxanne St. Claire, and some Gennita Low.  You seeing a trend here?  True romance – as opposed to romantic suspense – it’s Loretta Chase, older Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz, some Johanna Lindsey, Elizabeth Lowell (Ann Maxwell), Linda Howard’s contemporaries,  and some paranormal/urban fantasy by Christine Warren, Lynsay Sands and few others. The books are character driven, but there is a strong surrounding story.  Obviously my favorite genres – intrigue, espionage, mystery, action thrillers, science fiction, fantasy – are all plot driven.  Often, character is the weak spot in many thrillers and intrigue.  The more I thought of it more I realized that the same sensibilities that draw me to these genres are what draw me to certain kinds of erotic and mainstream romance.

That made me think about favorite books across all genres.  I looked back over the last 10 years alone and if pressed to pick the ONE author who ‘made my day’ it would be Barry Eisler with his John Rain series.  He created a character, made him real and fallible, made him shrewd, intuitive, reluctant to change, yet yielding to it when needed – and piled up a body count that satisfied my bloodlust in wonderfully complex original plots with heart-stopping turns and twists.  . 🙂  Obviously, my other favorite character is Jack Reacher.  My board name on most forums about books is ReacherFan1909.  The last character is Bob Lee Swagger, until Stephen Hunter ruined him in later books.  For those keeping score – that’s one assassin, one former MP whose first book, The Killing Floor, has a stunning body count and a very memorable, gruesome murder scene, and the best sniper in modern warfare history who is a canny good old boy.  All are smart, all are violent and all have stories that make you wonder who dies next and how will the bad guy get his and will the hero get away with it.

So what the hell is someone who likes reading about an assassin whose expertise is making his ‘hits’ look like natural deaths, a wandering former MP who will extract his own brand of justice, and a tough old sniper who will do the same if you’re stupid enough to cross him, doing reading erotic romance?  Well,  there are times when I need a break from the body count.  But, look at the heroes in romance.  Would they not feel at home with these guys?  Ok, maybe a shade uncomfortable with an assassin and a sniper, but like romantic heroes, they they are their own men, following their own code of honor.  Sound familiar?  Now here’s the reality bite in the ass – I cannot see any one of these guys sharing a woman they care for.  Ever.  End of discussion.  But take the fundamental personalities, make them vampires, were-creatures, magicians, put them on alternate worlds and suddenly you have the makings of a romance hero.  Tough as nails Jack Reacher becomes a Galatic Gunslinger or futuristic bounty hunter.  Taciturn Bob Lee Swagger becomes a mythic vampire or a dragon hat has outlived all his kind.  Elusive John Rain is a prince of spies and assassins.  All of them get laid often, creatively, and interesting combinations.  Throw in outside forces beyond the hero’s control – mating fever, laws requiring multiple mates due to lack of females, an alpha female drawing multiple males that are of equal strength none of whom can vanquish the others and none willing to leave, and water down certain character elements and voilà!  Suddenly, you can have your cake and eat it too!  Sort of.  You’ll never get those characters in ménage simply because it’s outside their intrinsic personalities.  And there’s my real problem with contemporary ménage – the kind of contemporary male characters I like are very highly unlikely be part of a ménage as a long term commitment.

Back in April I did a post on erotic romance in general.  Far too many erotic romance writers rely on kink and sex, sex and more sex.  How many ways can you have sex is NOT what I care about in a book.  If that’s what I wanted I’d grab the Kama Sutra or a Japanese Pillow Book.  I hate to say it, but the sex can get BORING!  I will repeat here what I said then, it takes more than sex to make a good book.

So who hits ALL the marks and make my personal ‘keeper shelf’ – electronic and print for ménage?  Anne Douglas with her Witch, Vamp, Were? has the number 1 position!  This was a shock to me in some ways, yet not in others.  The book is #2 in the Huntingdawn Pack urban fantasy series and the plot has all the necessary elements, well developed characters, and what is the funniest voyeurism scene I’ve ever read.  The writing is excellent and it’s fast paced.  Ding, ding, ding – we have a winner!  Next – Velvet Ties by Susie Charles, that contemporary romance that finally hooked me with its feisty and outspoken heroine and two very different heroes who each have a history with her – separate histories.  I liked the characters but admit the plot is not as complex as the Anne Douglas’ book, but it does ring my bells and the characters get a huge thumbs up!  Next is Lauren Dane’s Thrice United, another urban fantasy that’s 4th in her Witches Knot series. It has heart, a good story and the characters just work.

After that, the overall quality of the writing and/or plotting drops a bit.  The books are still very good, they just miss that je ne sa qua that hits all my marks.  This is where Menagerie by Lara Santiago and one contemporary – Callista’s Men by Jory Strong, one of the ‘angsty’ books with ligh D/s, make it.  Wolfen by Madelaine Montague makes this cut as does The Cyborg Nation Series by Kaitlyn O’Connor.  Then suddenly everything starts falling off.  Either it was all character, all plot, all sex or is just ‘meh’.  And believe me, there is a LOT of C grade stuff out there with multiple partners.  But there’s a lot of C grade stuff in EVERY genre!  Then there are those that I actively hate – sick characters, revolting plots are the two most usual culprits – as are those books so damn dumb I can’t finish them.  I acknowledge I actively avoid most D/s and BDSM books, so if that rings your bell, hey go for it.  It annoys the crap out of me.

Widen the field to ALL erotic romance and more authors hit the list – starting with Shelly Laurenston, a personal favorite, N. J. Walters, Tielle St. Claire, early Christine Warren, and individual books by authors that don’t generally make my keeper list, like Elizabeth’s Wolf by Lora Leigh, or Mating Claire by Jenny Penn.

You’ll notice the ‘big names’ are absent for my top pick lists – except Lauren Dane who is making her mark in print now.  Why are Lora Leigh, Maya Banks, Trista Ann Michaels, Nichole Austin, and many others absent?  Angst.  Like BDSM, angst gets on my nerves.  Or they do purely character studies, have too much D/s or BDSM or the hero/heroine are in the too-stupid-to-live category.  I certainly admire Maya Banks’ style, I’m just not a big fan of her stories and even those I like don’t hit the ‘keeper’ button.  Trista Ann Michaels has a knack for hitting my ‘these people are idiots!’ button.  Leave Me Breathless is the perfect example of why contemporary ménage can be so freaking annoying even without any D/s or BDSM.  It came from Amazon, got read and got traded on PBS within 14 days.  Sweet Persuasion by Maya Banks will make the same rotation, but that goes to my hot button of D/s.

So why do so few contempoary ménage books have long term appeal to me?  The tropes are too repetitive.  I can almost tell you where the story will go within the first 10 pages.  Originality is certainly not their hallmark.  Too many cause eyerolling disbelief on my part or vein popping anger with certain kink.  Neither road leads to the keeper shelf.  In fact, fewer and fewer hit the shopping cart.  Ménage has run its course with me, particularly contemporary ménage.  Contemporary erotic ménage will be sourced from PaperbackSwap, not Amazon or BN wish lists or shopping carts.  A few on the ebook publisher sites will my money.  Alisha Rai, Bianca D’Arc and Anne Douglas come to mind as likely buys.  But the rest?  hummmmmmmmm  Sorry – it’s by trading, not purchase.  Getting tired of the high cost/low return.

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