Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


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Trigger Warning

amazonwarnings

I can’t stop laughing about John Dopp’s Suggested Amazon Warning Labels.

Only I’d call them trigger warnings, because I’ve spotted at least three that make me lose my mind: plot that erodes suspension of disbelief, unrelatable protagonist and books apparently edited by chimpanzees. I won’t provide you with any examples of chimpanzee books, because I never make it past the third page.

I would like to add a few of my own, special to romance, but unfortunately I don’t have the skill to create those little warning signs, so I will just describe them:

  • Heroine dropped into wrong century: I picture a little heroine with a nose ring and tattoos wearing an empire-style gown and carrying a parasol. If the book is a time travel romance — 21st century woman, with all implied attitudes and speech patterns, inexplicably becomes the heroine of a Regency-era story — please tell me.
  • Series-itis warning: a little hero being flogged by tiny books that represent the other books in his book’s series. If the book doesn’t stand alone, please tell me. And if the book should ostensibly stand alone, make appearances/references to characters/plot threads from other books meaningful, or just leave them out.
  • Repetitive description/dialogue: three little heroines joined together, paper doll-style. If characters have the same conversations multiple times, or there are multiple identical descriptions of the hero/heroine’s childhood/home/clothing/ass, please tell me.
  • Copious mental lusting — a little hero with a cloud around his round head and drool coming out his mouth. Please don’t make me say any more about mental lusting. I’m so over it.

That’s all I can think of right now, but I’m sure I will add more from time to time. Which is your favorite? What warnings you wish you could find on books, lovelies?

UPDATE: Look everyone! Valancy at Blue Castle Considerations has made us some warning labels, bless her little heart:

warning-labels1-e1453894619578

Valancy, you are a diamond of the first water!

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Get Ready — Nocturne For a Widow Is On the Way!

Nocturne-for-a-Widow-Ebook

Here’s a first ever for Sweet Rocket — a cover reveal!

Ramping up the excitement for Nocturne for a Widow, the new historical romantic suspense novel from Amanda DeWees, here’s a teaser in the form of the cover for Nocturne, which will appear in ebook and paperback soon.

The heroine of Nocturne is none other than our favorite fictional Victorian-era actress, Sybil Ingram, who made a memorable appearance in DeWees’ recent With This Curse.  Sybil leaves the theater world (Under A Cloud, of course) to marry, but when she’s widowed and left nearly penniless, she latches on to an ill-starred inheritance from her late husband — a mysterious mansion in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley.

In short order, Sybil finds that life in her mansion is far from palatial. Strange doings in the house, a local society queen who is perhaps as dangerous as disapproving, and to cap it all, a challenge to her inheritance in the form of handsome, hot-tempered Roderick Brooke, whose own career as a violin maestro has ended in dark scandal.

Romantic comedy bred with gothic romance, Nocturne For a Widow will charm readers who loved With This Curse. “Sybil is one of the least gothic characters in With This Curse,” author DeWees says, “so I couldn’t resist plunking her down in gothic surroundings to see how she coped. Partly because of her personality, there’s a lot more comedy in Nocturne than in my previous gothics. I think of this story as Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick in a haunted house.”

Look for my review of Nocturne For a Widow here on Sweet Rocket soon, and for release news, follow Amanda on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorAmandaDeWees, or keep an eye on her website, amandadewees.com.

Until then, enjoy this gorgeous cover, designed by James T. Egan of Bookfly Design!


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Browse On By — Friday Link Love

I don’t know about you, but like Johnny Cash, I always prefer hiding under a shrub to eat strawberry cake with my hands.

Happy Friday! Happy Friday? Happy Friday?!?! I’ve not made my mind up yet, babies. But anyway, here are a few things you’ll love:

Guess what that is? A never-finished Regency-era sampler depicting the solar system! Or so they say over at the Museum of Childhood, where a wonderful blog post about Georgian-era asterism-themed samplers awaits you…

Say, did you know that Anne Mather’s classic Mills & Boon/Harlequin Leopard in the Snow was made into a movie? With Keir Dullea no less? Even if you did, you probably forgot about it, so you should get yourself right over to  the awesome Cinebeat blog to read a really good piece about the first (and only) major theatrical adaptation of a Harlequin romance.  The movie was evidently atrocious, but the information about Harlequin/Mills & Boon and the challenges inherent in bringing the mid-70s style heroine-centric romance to the screen is well worth reading. Also: Keir Dullea does not like leopards. At all.

Meanwhile, over at Digital Book World, people are very concerned that self-published e-books are mostly kind of porny…

from Amazon.com

…and, come to find out, all those porny books are probably Amazon’s fault, since Amazon and that pretty little Kindle Fire there are the worst thing that ever happened to books, according the New Yorker’s George Packer, by making it too easy for any old yahoo with a porny story to tell to publish it. 

So there! Have a wonderful weekend, or at least as good a weekend as Johnny Cash was having when he crawled under that shrub to eat his cake!


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Series-itis Sweeps the Shelves

If you’re a reader of popular fiction, especially in the romance and mystery genres, then you know what I’m talking about when I bemoan the dearth of unrelated books on the shelves. Bookstores, drugstores and Amazon listings are all suffering from an acute case of series-itis that shows no signs of clearing up anytime soon.

As a matter of course, I avoid series historicals like the plague. Since most of my popular fiction reading is in the historical romance genre, this is no mean feat. At first, I thought it was only my disdain for series books that accounted for the apparent deluge of series, but a cursory survey of the past 17 historical romance reviews at All About Romance proves that I am not imagining things. Only five of those 17 historical romances were not part of a series. Of that five, three were Harlequin Historicals.

It’s not that I haven’t given series a chance. I’ve even enjoyed a few. Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series is a favorite of mine, as is Liz Carlyle’s “Never” series and a few of Mary Balogh’s series. But increasingly, I find that I dislike series, and here’s why:

Too many characters. Most series historicals I’ve read are the literary equivalent of a too-crowded party — you’re so busy trying to keep up with everyone that it’s hard to pay attention to anyone. In a well-done historical series, the incidental mention of a character from another book in the series feels natural, and if they’re integral to the plot of  the book, then it  seems organic and believable. Most of the time, however, these other characters appear at intervals to give advice that’s usually common sense, or simply to create curiosity about these characters’ books in the series. These kinds of name-dropping seem tedious and/or forced — i.e. there’s no real purpose served by having Lord Such-and-Such reappear, but since this is a series, reappear he must. It’s irritating and distracting from the story at hand. Just keeping the names straight can be a headache — if you’ve ever attempted to read a Julia Quinn, you know just what I mean.

Too much backstory — or not enough. Some series writers are smart enough to realize that many readers will discover a series halfway through. Those writers often feel compelled insert backstory from every other character in the series that appears in the book in question, taking precious words and time away from the lead characters. It’s frustrating and repetitive if you’ve read the other books in the series, distracting and confusing if you have not. Other writers, however, are arrogant enough to assume that you have read or will read every other book in the series, and drop these characters in with no hint of who they are or why they are there. I really hate it when a character shows up for one scene, with no explanation, never to be seen or heard from again, or only tangentially, leaving you to wonder for the duration of the book whether this is a character worth remembering.

Writers with either problem would do well to pick up Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series; without presenting a synopsis of every character’s book, Putney always manages to work her cast of characters into other books in a natural, logical way, presenting just enough information about characters to make you curious about their stories without dumping information, or, on the other end of the spectrum, having them appear out of nowhere. It also helps that she never felt compelled to use every single character from every single book in every single book, if such a concept makes sense. Rather than having all of the Fallen Angels (the more I type that, the more I realize how trite that series title sounds, but never mind) appear in each book, only one or two appear, and only when necessary to the plot.

Too little of the main characters/story. The whole concept of the romance series seems to have changed in the past 10 years or so. Putney’s Fallen Angels series and several of Mary Balogh’s series from 12-15 years back, for instance, were more interrelated books than series; i.e. none of the action from one book depended upon action from another, nor was there any real continuation of action from one book to the next. Don’t get me wrong — there’s certainly nothing wrong with series where each book builds upon the other. But writers (romance writers in particular) need to decide whether the book will be able to stand alone, or will depend upon the other books. Unfortunately, many romance writers are trying to have it both ways, and the result is, well, almost every thing I’ve pointed out so far, plus something even more problematic.

When an author is confused about whether or not the book will stand alone or depend upon others, the most obvious sign of the struggle is that the main characters and/or plot are shortchanged. A textbook case of this is Elizabeth Hoyt’s latest book, Thief of Shadows,  which is, of course, part of a series. I won’t repeat everything I said on this subject already in my review of that book, but suffice to say that Thief of Shadows suffers from almost every ill I’ve listed here, and something even more dire: a hero and heroine whose story is sacrificed in order to segue into the stories of the other books.

Hoyt spent so much time on other characters from the series, and setting up situations for other books in the series that Thief of Shadows’  hero is, for lack of a better word, emasculated by the need for the series to go on. While reading the book, you feel that she should either have: A. written a longer book that lets the main characters’ story stretch out, while also incorporating the other characters from the series, or B. simply written the book as a standalone, throwing the premise of the series away. Either would have been better than the book as it is.

My biggest problem with the series books I’m seeing now, however, is less specific. To wit, it’s pure laziness. Most series books seem to me to be borne of laziness more than any desire to continue interrelated stories over a number of books. Why come up with an entirely new setting, new characters, new situations, even new verbal tics and slang, when you can just use-and-reuse those from previous books, and get away with it because you are “world building?”

It’s not world-building when nothing new but more character names and a slightly re-worked plot are added to each subsequent book in the series. You’re not building a world so much as moving dolls in and out of a dollhouse when the situations and characters are so similar from book to book that you can’t keep the names or situations straight.

For someone who doesn’t like series and finds Harlequin Historicals to be iffy in quality, series-itis is a disturbing trend. Good thing Carla Kelly, Elisabeth Fairchild and Diane Farr are re-releasing their old Traditional Regencies in e-book format, else I’d be looking for a new popular fiction genre altogether!


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A Very Gothic Week — Profile of Amanda DeWees, author of Sea of Secrets

It’s still a very Gothic week here at ye olde Sweet Rocket, but here’s a super sweet Sunday post — a profile of author Amanda DeWees, whose great new Gothic novel, Sea of Secrets, started the whole Gothic thing here earlier this week.

Author Amanda DeWees

By all rights, the author of a great Gothic novel should be dark and brooding, icy and forbidding. Fortunately, Amanda DeWees, author of Sea of Secrets, a wonderful new Gothic in the tradition of classics like Jane Eyre and Rebecca, is none of the above.

When I discovered Sea of Secrets, I found the book so compelling and exciting that I had to contact DeWees personally and let her know how much I’d enjoyed the book. A few mouse clicks later, I’d convinced her to let me profile her for Sweet Rocket.

I couldn’t wait to ask DeWees what compelled her to write a Gothic novel, at a time when quality Gothic romances are as rare as hen’s teeth in the romance market — or the exploding e-book market, for that matter. Turns out that DeWees, like me, had come to love Gothic romance long after the genre’s 1960s-1970s renaissance was long past, and likewise lamented the lack of Gothic romances on the market.

“I must confess that I wrote Sea of Secrets primarily for my own pleasure and only secondarily for publication, so I wasn’t trying to conform to the demands of the market,” says DeWees.

However, when she did decide to publish Sea of Secrets, even the book’s riveting story and accomplished prose was not enough to guarantee it a place in a romance market set on ignoring Gothic romance.

“When I first started submitting Sea of Secrets—and this feels like writing about another era of history, which in a sense it was—the place to start was the annual Writer’s Market,” DeWees recalled. “Well, out of the probably several thousand publishers listed there, maybe three listed Gothic romance as a genre they would accept. Literally, about three. I had absolutely missed that boat. “

By 2012, the explosive growth of e-readers and e-books gave Sea of Secrets a chance that traditional publishers would not.

“It had to wait until the e-publishing revolution to enter the world,” DeWees says. “When I began contemplating e-publishing, I knew at once that this was the manuscript of mine that most deserved a chance to find an audience. It’s the one I was proudest of and the one closest to my heart.”

Traditional Gothic novels rely on first person narrators to spin their tales of horror, and Sea of Secrets is no exception. The whole of a novel in written in first person depends upon the author’s ability to create a character that is both relatable and reliable, which is no mean feat, but add to it the constricted language and mores of a Victorian setting, and the challenge grows. It’s a feat, however, that DeWees accomplishes with unusual success.

In Oriel, the novel’s heroine/narrator, DeWees has created a memorable character whose wry humor and kindness recalls none other so much as that Gothic romance heroine for the ages, Jane Eyre herself.

Of Oriel, DeWees says, “Writing her was mainly a matter of trusting my instincts–and years of studying Victorian literature in grad school, which gave me a good education in what would and wouldn’t fly in her world. Her sense of humor… I think that’s part of what makes her relatable. Also, she’s confronting situations that are timeless: falling in love, experiencing loss, finding out who she is. Universal emotional themes like that, I believe, are why romances continue to speak to us so strongly.”

DeWees’ background in literature did more than just inform Oriel’s character. Sea of Secrets is full of literary references that serve to both steep it in the Victorian era and deepen the story, as well.

“Many of the literary references were deliberate and planned in advance,” DeWees explains. “Several, in fact, were central to the development of the story. Others just felt like they belonged to Oriel’s landscape, especially since I had decided that she would be unusually widely read for a young woman of her position and era. In one scene she finds a copy of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and that was a little inside joke about the antecedents of the Gothic romance.”

The very literary influences that appear in the novel helped make Sea of Secrets a Gothic novel. In it’s first incarnation, DeWees says, Sea of Secrets was, in fact, a romance novel. “Sea of Secrets started out as something very different from what it is now (but) the romance was always central to the story.” At some point during the novel’s writing, however, DeWees says it became clear that Sea of Secrets needed to be a Gothic.

“A lot of different factors contributed to the evolution of the story: advice from an editor, life (and love) experience, my studies in 19th-century Gothic literature … and of course my love for Gothic romances. “

Sea of Secrets’ transformation from romance to Gothic meant employing the intricate plotting that is essential to bringing all of the elements of a traditional Gothic romances together. This intricate plotting was not always easy, says DeWees.

“I have so much admiration for good plotting. I’ve always found it a challenge to create layered plots. It’s one of the areas I work hardest on when I’m outlining a story. One of my favorite writers (but about the least Gothic there is) is P.G. Wodehouse, and he was practically supernatural in his ability to create intricate, escalating plots.”

P.G. Wodehouse

An unlikely influence.

Wodehouse is one of many authors DeWees counts as an influence. Not surprisingly, Gothic authors and novels are also important references for her work, says DeWees, who says that classic Gothic novels like Jane Eyre and Lady Audley’s Secret, and authors who often wrote in the genre, Shirley Jackson and Joan Aiken, are a few of her favorites.

But her favorites and influences are more diverse than just the classics. Along with A.S. Byatt (Possession is a particular favorite of DeWees’), Ellis Peters, John Harwood, F.G. Cottam and Lemony Snicket, DeWees also counts humorists like Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde and Christopher Moore among her favorite authors.

“A standout is Robin McKinley; her fairy-tale novel Beauty influenced me on so many levels,” says DeWees, but if the influence of McKinley was not evident in Sea of Secrets, readers can look for it in forthcoming books. DeWees is currently working on a manuscript that reworks the ballad Tam Lin into a young adult paranormal romance.

Readers who loved Sea of Secrets and DeWees’ refreshing take on the Gothic romance shouldn’t despair that she’ll abandon the genre altogether. Her love of the foundations of Gothic romance will no doubt bring her back to the genre.

“I’ve always loved spooky stories…the elements of the supernatural and the wonderfully foreboding atmosphere.”

It wouldn’t be surprising, either, if some of DeWees’ future books take place in the past, a place DeWees loves to visit.

The photo that accompanies this profile was taken at the annual Somewhere in Time weekend on Mackinac Island, where the movie was filmed, says DeWees, who adds that “I’ve been a costume nut since I was a little girl — [readers] probably notice how lovingly I described the dresses in Sea of Secrets — so I jumped at the chance to make a 1912 dress to wear to the event. That’s what I’m wearing in the photo.”

 You can purchase Sea of Secrets in e-book format at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, or in print or e-book at Amazon.