Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Harlequin Mills and Boon have a Dirty Secret

The Changing Faces of Harlequin Mills and Boon Romances.

They say if you stop growing you wither and die. Perhaps that's why, on the Harlequin community boards, the current buzzword is Change.  Things are changing.  They are looking for new and fresh authors offering new and fresh perspectives on the age old stories of love and romance.

The range of imprints, the different genre styles under the HM&B label is continually growing.  You can read romances that feature just about any scenario you can imagine.  Intrigue brings you husky military types and cops who will protect and defend the range of feisty or vulnerable heroines on offer, Paranormal romance introduces you to some pretty interesting Werewolves, Vampires, Shape Shifters and so on along including people with Powers. Yes that's a capital P.

Then of course you have the old favourites, Historical and Contemporary Romances and Medical.  But there are genres within genres. The most obvious being Toasty Warm, Hot, Hotter, Off the Chart.  In contemporary this translates, (depending on your country of origin), into Sweet/Romance, Sexy/Modern/Presents, Desire and Blaze.  There are of course a whole lot of other subsections like the Inspire and Heartwarming range that offer sweet wholesome stuff with minimal heat. More like a candle flame than a raging forest fire. If that isn't enough the eBook only, Carina brand, offers just about anything else, with the only notable exclusion, according to the writers guidelines, being Incest and Bestiality.

You would think then, that with something for everyone, there would be something for everyone.  I had a conversation today with the owner of a second hand book store that made me stop and think, "maybe not". Actually I had 40 minutes to think about it, as I was in a neighbouring town and had to drive home.  This particular shop had the HM&B section partitioned into the older romances and the newer ones, with slightly varying prices.  .75 cents for older, one dollar for newer.

The owner was telling me that, once upon a time, not so long ago, (nice start to the story), most of her romance customers would head straight for the newer more expensive books.  Now they target the older books.  The recession you think?  My first thought.  But the owner seemed to think differently. In her opinion the older books are offering something to the readers they can't find in the newer stories. We had quite a long discussion about favourite authors, and she brought up one of her long time best reads. She no longer reads that author for the reason that, in making her books contemporary, the author has started to bring in elements that annoyed and even dismayed her.  Another pet peeve for the bookshop owner are children.  Babies and children seemed to be proliferating (something I mention on a previous blog).  Medical in particular seem to have more babies even than the Sweet lines of stories.

In meditating on this conversation it occurred to me that perhaps in bringing in all these Changes, HM&B might be leaving behind a core demographic.  I understand why the changes.  They want their romances to reflect current trends to be more attractive to the modern woman.  They are trying to attract a younger readership, and contemporary stories that reflect the realities of modern life, they consider are more likely to build a following in that demographic.  I also believe they are trying desperately hard to rid themselves of what they believe to be the public perception of supposedly cliché ridden story lines and hack writing that has dogged the romance genre for decades.

I just hope that they haven't altogether thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  The success of Harlequin Mills & Boon over many decades has been built on a certain style of book.  For most readers over those decades the idea of "A Pleasant Book" was comforting.  They knew exactly what they were getting within the scope of the genre. Not that they were all the same but there were certain accepted "Rules" about what was acceptable, what they believed their readership wanted to read.   Mills and Boon knew this and that is why when they heated up a notch in the 70's they created the Presents line so that people had a choice. The multiple imprints available today confirm this. Choice is important because everyone has slightly different ideas about what constitutes a pleasant read.

I used to divide my reading into two nicely delineated slots.  Comfort reading that included my Romances and my Golden Age Murder Mysteries constituted one of these.  Everything else was, well, everything else.  It included things that might challenge me, upset me, even annoy me. It included things I read for research or because people are talking about it.  So it was easy to choose. Not up to being challenged, provoked or disturbed...go to the Prozac shelf and select a Harlequin Mills and Boon, a Heyer or a Christie.

Now I have a middle section that doesn't quite fit into either.  What might that be, you ask?  My recently published HM&B Romances.  Because they are no longer always safe reads.  At times they challenge me, provoke me, annoy the hell out of me, and sometimes are deeply distressing.  God forbid they've turned into <gasp> NOVELS. Yes gentle reader,  the modern HM&B romance has a dirty secret.  If you aren't careful you might find yourself reading a novel.  Like a REAL book that has more to do with reality than escapism. More to do with delving into motivation and psychology than presenting "types" that we can identify with while living the fantasy.

Is this what the reader wants?  Well obviously they do.  The sales continue to grow and the fresh authors introducing these story lines are writing brilliant stories of contemporary life and love with new and innovative plots that tantalise and tease.  Will I read them?  I almost certainly will.  But like that delineation I make between a novel and the (loosely based) movie of the same name, these books will not be going on the Prozac Shelves.

So if you see a frumpy middle aged woman in a battered trenchcoat slipping furtively into a second hand book shop, it will probably be me.  I'll be in search of a comfort read on the shelf of older HM&B romances, handling them carefully so the dust doesn't set off my allergy, then asking the book shop owner to wrap them in anonymous brown paper so the rest of the world doesn't see my sad addiction. And that's my dirty little secret.  Sssssshh!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Who's afraid of the big bad trope?

Today, it's me.  Yes, after wallowing in tropes for thirty five years, suddenly I'm running scared. I should mention perhaps I'm using the term trope in it's common usage among romance afficionados as a fancy word for Clichéed plot devices.

I love tropes because they are what makes Harlequin Mills and Boon romances so special.  Somewhere in every one of those adorable books is a trope.

Lovely sweet adorable tropes that we all recognise and love because of their very familiarity.  We like tropes because we know that they are like an insurance policy.  They are tried and true story lines that we like and feel comfortable with.  Sure there are variations, the characters, the location, the journey the protagonists take to the guaranteed Happy Ever After.  They are comfortable things, like that worn out jumper or sweater we put on at the end of a tough day that we know is a little frayed around the edges but is so soft and cuddly and warm that it doesn't matter.

Familiar things like our favourite soap opera that holds no surprises but is peopled by faces we know all doing the things we expect of them.  These are tropes.  The very things that cause outsiders to sneer about 'formulaic writing' and 'shallow plot lines.'  Sorry but there is nothing formulaic or shallow about the many and varied ways people meet and fall in love and struggle and find their happy ending.  These are core to every human beings experience of life.  Show me one person who doesn't want or hasn't experienced love in their life and I'll prove to you that they are not real but a trope in a romance novel. Everyone wants and needs love even if they don't know it or show it.

So getting back to business.  Wherein cometh this sudden fear of tropes?  It's been growing for some time, under the subtle heading of trends and a vague feeling of unease.  It burst forth fully grown with sharp teeth and wings poised for flight this afternoon as I finished one of the latest offerings from the HM&B stable and found myself faintly nauseous and tearful.  Not just the usual emotional residue of an angsty story that had me gripped in fear and anguish but ecstatic at the end, but a genuine grief.  A grief for something lost.

Lets back track a little to the dawn of time.  In my case this was 1976 when I first started to read Mills & Boon romances under the desk at boarding school.  The tropes at that time were starting to get a little daring.  Forced marriages, Marriage reunions, Even the odd child born out of wedlock.  But there were still a lot of the traditional tropes around, Millionaire boss, virgin secretary (just change that to Billionaire to update); Marriage of convenience; Rich Playboy, sweet vicars daughter in flower shop; May December romances; the odd widow or amnesiac. It was around this time that Mill's and Boon started to refine their tropes into lines like Presents which featured some of the more daring writers of the time.

The 70's also started to see a lot more of the feisty career woman stories where traditional alpha males tried unsuccessfully (sort of) to subjugate these burgeoning feminists.  The one place where these have been fairly consistent is one of the biggest tropes of all.  In every decade in my lifetime the doctor nurse romance has been liberally presented.  Nowadays the heroine may be someone of power in the hospital, whether doctor, nursing staff or even administration but they still fall for those gorgeous doctors who may be harsh and unfeeling until faced with a child or patient under their care.

Everyone say Aaaaw!

We've established that there are some tropes that have remained consistent over the decades but what about new tropes that reflect the times.   When you've read as many books as I have over the years of course you become aware of changing norms, but I hadn't really noticed that one of those subtle changes had become a trope of it's own until I went to the neighbouring town the other day to inspect the HM&B shelves at BigW (no we don't have a real bookshop locally).

It seemed like every second book had a pregnant or new mother as the heroine.  And the child was NOT the child of the hero. Whatthe!  Now I love a good pregnancy or baby book with the best of them, but a common trope that includes a heroine pregnant to another man while falling in love with the hero? That really rocked my boat and not in a good way. Of course I've read some and they've been around for at least a decade to my knowledge and probably more. Some of them I've loved and are on my keeper shelves, others, well not so much.  But I don't really understand why they are so popular.  I mean they must be popular if so many people are writing them.  Have HM&B gone into the business of providing hope, or maybe an instruction manual, for every unwed mother who has a child to a loser? Here, shack up with a loser, fall pregnant, and you too can end up with a stunningly handsome rich alpha male or dedicated surgeon with trust issues and a heart of gold under a surly exterior.  And they tell me this is all in the interests of adding realism to the books.

I did mention somewhere that I was crying over a trope this afternoon didn't I. Then I suppose the time has come to fess up about why.

There has always been the odd instance of infidelity in the HM&B lines I read.  Anne Mather's heroes are almost invariably unfaithful when separated from spouse or lover over a period of time.  Her studly guys are pretty much ruled by their ferocious libido.  It's part of her stock in trade.  Penny Jordan on the other hand had heroes who were quite often faithful for surprising lengths of time. You get to know these things so when you pick up a book you can make a choice about whether you want to go there. Sara Craven has written heroes that are unfaithful to their marriage vows, sometimes a small one off when the marriage has been difficult, sometimes more recently a little more spectacularly. But these instances were rare.  In most cases when the hero appeared to be unfaithful it turns out to be wrong and that knowledge, usually delivered at the climax of the story gives an added filip to the HEA.

That is starting to change.  Heroes are becoming unfaithful more often and more spectacularly as mentioned in the recent Sara Craven.  Lynne Graham has written several books recently where infidelity has been blatant and in one case results in a husband having a child by his mistress during a separation.  No I haven't read it yet but the spoilers in the Amazon reviews are fairly consistent. I love Lynne's writing and up until halfway through the Drakos Baby duet could have said I'd read everything she'd written. She's probably done a wonderful job on the books.  But I can't make myself read them.

Today I read a book I didn't plan to read. It was a book that advertised itself as being about a married couple dealing with the husbands infidelity while the soldier wife served overseas.  There's enough in that statement alone to bring on a severe case of nausea.  It's actually a really good book. Well written and dealing with a difficult issue in a very sensitive way.  But twice I had to put the book down and walk away.  Twice I had to force myself to pick it up and read it.  I told myself I had to be fair.  I had to read the book before I could comment on it. Before I could say whether the subject of infidelity was one I want to see more regularly in HM&B romances. 

Because you see that's what will happen.  This book will do well because it's a well written book.  So more books will be written around the topic of infidelity and it will have become a trope.  A regularly accepted story line that will feature more and more often in the interests of making HM&B romances more 'real'. There will come a time when I explore the romance shelves of the neighbouring towns BigW and find just as many infidelity stories as I did pregnant to another man stories this time.  Just as the brilliantly written and very popular story about a bad girl who's love life ended up on the internet will spawn imitators, and lovable spunky heroines with promiscuous backgrounds will become a trope.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.

But where then will I go to escape from reality when the books that have served me so well in that respect for thirty five years have chosen instead to give me painful reality instead of escape.

I suppose there's my collection of vintage Harlequin Mill's and Boon romances. In fact I might have to have one right away to take away that feeling of loss and betrayal.  I guess I really do understand how the wife in "Back in the Soldiers Arms" feels.  Because like her, I feel infidelity is a dealbreaker.  The question is how much can I forgive if I keep feeling betrayed.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Books I've reviewed on Goodreads recently

 Just in case you are interested to see what I've been reading lately I've included them here.  As I explain on the Goodreads site, my ratings are specific to the genre I'm reading.  If I think a book is amazing within the genre I will rate it five stars.  This is not to state that I believe the particular book is necessarily of equal stature to some some piece of literature that is destined to change mankind.  What I do claim is that if I give a book five stars in the romance genre it means I got to the end of the book feeling really good about the HEA and that there was something a little extra about it that put a smile on my face and a deep sense of satisfaction with the ending. 

Click on the picture of the book and it will take you to the Goodreads sites.
The Fiorenza Forced Marriage (Harlequin Presents #2807)
Ishbel'S Party
The Mediterranean Rebel's Bride
Remember Me, My Love
Lucifer's Angel (Harlequin Romance #593)
Wild Lady
The Baby Who Saved Dr Cynical (Mills & Boon Medical)
Two Loves Have I
Wild Justice (Beaumont Brides)
Blind Obsession
Except My Love
The Diakos Baby Scandal
The Sicilian's Defiant Mistress
A Secret Birthright
Billionaire, M.D.
Her Valentine Blind Date
Nocover-blank-111x148Marriage Behind the Facade by Lynn Raye Harris
Sumpah Sang Mempelai Pria (The Bridegroom's Vow)
To Tame a Sheikh (Pride Of Zohayd #1)

The Mediterranean Rebel's Bride


didn't like it it was ok liked it (my current rating) really liked it it was amazing