Why fade to black doesn’t work for me. Except when it does.

I finished Susanna Kearsley’s The Shadowy Horses a few days ago and I started thinking about “fade to black” or “bedroom door closed” books.  As a generality, I prefer my fictional bedroom doors wide open and the lights left on.  But I started to wonder why that was – and why some books which do fade to black work really well for me.  And here’s what I came up with.

I think there are two aspects at play during a sex scene in a romance (as opposed to erotica) – there is (often) something physically arousing about it and there is something I’m going to call, emotionally arousing.  I can’t say I’m immune to the physical “symptoms” of a well written sex scene but for me, the bigger payoff is in the emotionality.  I think very often the sex scene creates a “shortcut” to the emotional arousal I’m seeking – the heightened emotions which are often present being key here.
Fade to black books, with only kisses (and few kisses) do not usually give me the emotional arousal I’m seeking when reading romance.  What causes this emotional arousal?  Well, it can be kissing or handholding, the hand on the small of her back as they walk, her hand in his (or his in his for that matter).  It might be internal dialogue or conversation (conversation is the better of the two) where the couple’s emotional connection resonates (“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’-ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”  Jamie to Claire in The Fiery Cross – although The Fiery Cross is in no way a fade to black book of course.).  In a sex scene it can be the desperation of one to physically connect to the other, the primal claiming of “mine”, a more tender or reverent loving after a crisis perhaps, the delight one partner takes in the body of the other, the care taken in ensuring his/her satisfaction – the physical display of the emotional connection.
I read the gamut from fairly tame to the erotic.  Susanna Kearsley’s books are on the “fairly tame” end of the scale.  I’ve read (well, listened to) 3 of her books at the time of writing this post and in each book, the emotional payoff for me has improved.  The Rose Garden was the first I read – I enjoyed it quite a bit but I thought that the romantic relationship was a bit rushed and underdeveloped – in other words, there was not enough of that emotional arousal I’m seeking.  In Mariana, there was more, but it was mostly toward the end of the book.  In The Shadowy Horses, the romantic aspects began early in the book and I found it much more satisfying.  (There are other reasons I read.  I have come to be a big fan of Ms. Kearsley’s books and nothing here is intended as criticism of her writing style as such – it is more that I’m exploring my reactions to it and why.  Susanna Kearsley writes beautiful lyrical prose usually with detailed (but never boring) historical information which fascinates me.  Frankly, I don’t think explicit love scenes would fit within the books she writes – so I’m not asking her to start writing them.)In thinking about The Shadowy Horses in particular, I pondered why that book held more emotional resonance for me than the earlier ones.  They are all pretty much fade to black – certainly not explicit.  But in The Shadowy Horses in particular there was a satisfying amount of touching, kissing, longing, even a bit of desperate clinging to one another – which caused my emotional arousal to spike in that satisfying “red zone”.  The zone where my heart rate speeds, there’s a little “zing” in the pit of my stomach and my romantic heart sighs a little.    Where a book can fade to black or be less than explicit but still give me the emotional climax I’m after, I tend to enjoy it.  Where it is lacking, I do not.
Sean Kennedy’s excellent Tigers and Devils is a m/m romance between a closeted gay AFL (Australian rules) football player and an out and proud gay man set in Melbourne.  It is not in the least explicit –  but emotionally, I found it entirely satisfying.  There was plenty of affection – verbal and physical and the emotional payoff level was very high.
I said in my recent review of Katie McGarry’s Pushing The Limits that the is no consummation of Noah and Echo’s physical relationship.  There are no explicit scenes.  There is plenty of making out and of Noah respecting Echo’s boundaries no matter how much he desires her.  The reader sees his desire in his physical interactions with her and also in his speech and thoughts.  This is another book where I found my emotional arousal satisfied.
Kristan Higgins’ Catch of the Day is a book where this didn’t occur.  I enjoyed the book but there was nowhere near enough of the emotional payoff for me.  As a comedic contemporary fiction piece it worked very well.  But as a romance?  Not so much.  There is barely any of the hero, Malone.  He hardly speaks and, as the book is told in the first person POV of the heroine, we don’t know what’s going on in his head either.  For much of the book, the couple aren’t together so there isn’t the physical affection, loving looks or courting conversation that I look for.  (Others of Ms. Higgins books have worked much better for me as romances however.)
On the other hand, Shannon McKenna writes very steamy explicit books.  They are like crack to me.  The plots are generally over the top and the villians pretty one dimensional  and super-eeeevil but the heroes are devoted to their heroines and their devotion leaps out of the page.  The sex scenes in a McKenna novel can be physically arousing as well, but the emotional payoff comes from the hero’s total devotion, his admiration of her beauty, even, strangely, how he gets hard and stays hard for hours and hours because SHE turns him on so much.   Lisa Marie Rice books have the same kind of thing.
KA Mitchell writes m/m romance.  The sex is explicit and frequent.  But, the sex serves the emotional story arc. The characters develop and deepen their emotional connection through physical intimacy.  It’s just hotter. (oh, boy, is it).  But it is as emotionally satisfying to me to read a KA Mitchell book as a Sean Kennedy.
In Cara McKenna’s Curio, Caroly and Didier bond almost entirely through sex.   But the emotions conveyed in those encounters warm the cockles of this little romance reader’s heart.
In some ways, I think books containing more explicit sex scenes more easily satisfy my emotional arousal requirements – I’m looking for evidence they can’t live without each other (or at least, don’t want to).    In a romance novel where the couple don’t spend much time together, I’m unlikely to get that emotional payoff unless there’s some explicit sex (where I might get a big punch of it – which *might* satisfy).  The fade to black books which have worked for me are generally ones where the main characters are frequently in each other’s company and there is plenty of (taken) opportunity for the author to show me the developing emotional connection between them.  Another factor which usually weighs in is the length of the book (- how much time to I have to reach my peak? :D).  In the examples I’ve mentioned here the bedroom door closed books are long – over 400 pages, which means there is more time for the emotional punch to develop.In many of the tamer romances I’ve read, there isn’t enough of that emotional connection for me and the book therefore fails to satisfy as a romance.  I have not come across all that many fade to black books which do satisfy me but the ones that do, do so because they are able to convey that emotional connection in other ways and frequently enough in the course of the book that I’m able to reach “emotional climax”.

April Reads

on Paper/eBook
Frat Boy and Toppy by Anne Tenino – B- Brad Feller is a college student on a fraternity and athletic scholarship who, at the beginning of the book, realises there’s no hiding from himself anymore – he’s gay.  Sebastian is a TA for one of Brad’s history classes and after Brad buys a paper online to get his attention, they start a relationship.  I found the second half of the book much more enjoyable than the first.  I was really struggling to get through the first half, but persisted because Sarah at DA liked it so much.  I didn’t really get the humour in the first part of the book and I did not like the phrase “the nail in the coffin” which Brad’s dad used when he was giving an example of why he thought Brad was gay – that seemed very negative to me.   Some of the phrasing confused me and I had to read over it a few times to work out what was being said and that threw me out of the story at times.  It’s a fairly gentle story with not a lot of conflict – Brad’s coming out is fairly easy from what I could see in the book and any struggle he may have had with being gay had been resolved before the book started.
However, thes scenes when Brad came out to his friend Kyle and later, to the frat itself, were very funny and the sex was definitely hot.  It’s a short book – only 165 pages but it retailed at $6.99 which I thought was pretty pricey.  Between that and the title, I don’t think I would have picked it up at all if not for Sarah’s recommendation. It was one of those rare books where her tastes and mine didn’t quite mesh – go figure.    Am I sorry?  Well, no.  But, I wish I’d managed to buy it on special somewhere.
Marathon Cowboys by Sarah Black First off, I really like this cover. Did I like the book though?  Well, I did. But.

It was one of those books where the more I thought about it, the more things I came up with that bothered me.  The men said “I love you” too fast for me to really believe. There was a bit at the end where it took me a few pages to work out what had actually happened.  I might be a bit dense but it wasn’t obvious to me WHAT had actually happened. I thought it was a stunt at first.  The resolution (or lack of) that part of the storyline was a problem too but there wasn’t time to develop the storyline (it took a sharp right turn) or to resolve it properly.
I was uncomfortable (to say the least) with what Jessie did as regards his painting and his betrayal of Lorenzo (I’m sorry, I just can’t call him Mary – Lorenzo’s last name is Maryboy-  or zo-zo – Jesse’s “sex” name for him) by his art.  I was uncomfortable that even though he knew Lorenzo would be upset he said up front he wouldn’t change anything and then he still expected not only forgiveness but happy families too.  After I came out of the book, I thought about how Jesse needed to go to San Francisco from time to time to get the vibe and take in the art scene and how he also needed to go to Marathon to get away.  I’m not sure that where Lorenzo fits in to this was dealt with.  I don’t know that I believed that Lorenzo would be able/happy/comfortable fitting in to the San Francisco scene where I gather things were pretty frenetic.  I wondered whether he’d forever feel an outsider.
I had more sympathy for Lorenzo overall – the story is told from his 1st person POV so I got to know him much better than I did Jesse but I don’t know that I trusted that Lorenzo would be happy with Jesse forever and ever.  He just seemed too flighty to me.  The book was just over 120 pages long so it was pretty short and I’m not sure I was sold on the HEA.  That said, I did enjoy the book while I was reading it.  I liked Lorenzo and I liked the way he thought and spoke.  I enjoyed the parts of the book about his comic strip and the thought process he took to get it up and running.  I liked “The Original” too.   Jesse, I’m not so sure about.   I found this very difficult to grade.  I’m going with a C.

According to Luke (The Gospel of Love #1) by Jackie Barbosa  – B-  Sexy short story about serial monogamist Luke, who finds unexpected love with a close friend.  It moved too fast for me fromt he getting together to the falling in love to the turn around to marriage (but then again, it is a short story).  Certainly entertaining and easy to read.  There aren’t many books told entirely from the male POV and while some of it seemed to me to be more what a woman would want to hear rather than what a man might actually say, a lot of it felt pretty authentic.
At 76 pages, I think $4.99 is too pricey, but I picked it up in the St. Patrick’s day sale at ARe and got a 50% rebate so it’s all good.

Nine Tenths of the Law by LA Witt – C+ Mostly enjoyable story about two guys who were unknowingly dating the same man – one for 6 months, the other for 4 years.  As they work through the betrayal they connect with one another, but the ex (Jake) tries to come between them and jealousy and lack of trust is a continuing problem.  Nathan in particular finds it hard to trust Zach and while that formed the conflict in the story, it did get old.  While I suppose that was the point (the story is told from Zach’s POV), it meant that the end kind of fizzled for me and I’m not sure I bought into Nathan’s about face – what?  he just decides and it’s all better? Some of the sex scenes seemed a bit on the repetitive side but overall, it was an enjoyable enough story.

Sweet Addiction by Maya Banks – see my full review here.

SomebodytoLoveSomebody to Love by Kristan Higgins – B – see my full review here

IsolationIsolation by AB Gayle – C/C-  I reviewed this one for ARRA. I’ll post a link when the review goes live.

Learning from Isaac by Dev Bentham – B/B+  Nathan Kohn is a college professor.  Isaac Wolf is one of his students and 17 years his junior.  It is of course, forbidden for Nathan to have a relationship with a student but it is clear that there is mutual interest and attraction.  Isaac is due to graduate in a few months so they plan to wait to do anything about it.  After Isaac came out to his family, he was disowned and he is now weighed down by student loans and tuition fees. In order to try to get out from under this mountain of debt, he works at a gay club in the back room.  He and Nathan have an encounter there when a friend of Nathan’s takes him out to “buy him a boy”.   In the Chicago area it seems that Isaac is easily recognised and even when he quits being a rent boy, he is constantly recognised and propositioned.  The main conflict between the two men is Isaac’s sex worker past. Nathan doesn’t have a moral conflict with it, but he dislikes being confronted with it all the time.  He starts to feel that Isaac has been with almost every gay man in the Chicago area.  I liked how this was eventually resolved – with Nathan taking responsibility for his own jealousy and their practical solution made sense. I also liked how not a lot was made of the age difference between the two.  At one point Isaac says that it’s Nathan’s hang up, not his and I think Nathan realised that he would only push Isaac away if he kept on worrying at the issue.
While I was reading the story, I was engaged and enjoyed the characters and the writing but after finishing I realised there were a couple of things missing for me.  Early on in the book Isaac comes to class bruised and battered.  It isn’t made clear but I inferred he’d been beaten by a client.  Nothing was made of this in the book at all and I would have liked that explored.    The other main thing which I felt was lacking was that I didn’t see on the page the reasons that Nathan and Isaac felt so deeply for each other.  Part of this might be because it was told from Nathan’s first person POV I guess and maybe because it’s not a super long story at 99 pages.   I saw the attraction and mutual lust but not how that changed into a desire for an long term exclusive relationship.  It just kind of happened without me seeing how it had.    It’s why I’ve dithered on the grade a bit.  It was a B+ when I was reading, but a B when I thought about it later.
There has been discussion around the place recently about the portrayal of female characters in m/m romance and how they are often cardboard, eeeevil and/or absent altogether.    This is one book where that is definitely not the case.  Nathan’s flower child mother is a positive force in his life and students Jane and Sue are also positively portrayed.  The “villains” in this book are all men.
I liked this one better than Moving in Rhythm and I’m looking forward to reading more from this author.
 Bared to You (Crossfire #1) by Sylvia Day – B+  See my full review here.

Two Tickets to Paradise Anthology (Dreamspinner Press).  Full review to come. (I’m only halfway through!).

Dark Citadel by Cherise Sinclair – C.  I read this after it was recommended on the “If you Like Fifty…” thread on Dear Author.  I hadn’t read this author before and a commenter said the reader “learned” about BDSM along with the main female character so I thought I’d check it out.  First $6.99 for 146 pages?  Really?
Kari goes to the Shadowlands BDSM club for some beginner’s classes with the man she’s been (briefly) dating.  After she doesn’t like his form of “dominance”, she is offered by the boss to continue the lesson with one of the Masters there – Master Dan.  The story takes place over the course of the three beginner’s classes.
It was okay but very heavy on the erotic part of erotic romance.  I can’t really say why I didn’t connect with it super well.  I’ve read very erotic books before and enjoyed them.  But this one was okay but didn’t set my romance loving heart on fire.  As a primer on BDSM, I’m not sure it answered many questions for me, but I did appreciate the “safe, sane and consensual” message of the book.

on Audio
Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann, narrated by Patrick Lawlor and Melanie Ewbank – C  See my full review here.
Ladies Man by Suzanne Brockmann, narrated by Kathe Mazur – B- This was one of Suzanne Brockmann’s earlier category books which was reissued a few years back.  Kathe Mazur does a good job narrating and I appreciated her slight New York accent for Sam and how she brought out his easygoing charm with her narration.    It’s a younger man/older woman story with limo sex!
Oracle’s Moon by Thea Harrison, narrated by Sophie Eastlake – B-  I reviewed this one for AAR.  You can find it in this column.
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley,  narrated by Angela Dawe – B  Angela Dawe does a great job of the narration of this book.  Her Scottish burr for the Mackenzie brothers was very good and I liked the gruffness she instilled in their voices.  I did think her English accent for Beth slipped once in a while towards American, but that didn’t bother me too much.  I actually found myself enjoying the story more in this format than I did in print.  As much as the book was raved over when it was released, I couldn’t find the same enthusiasm myself.  I liked, but did not love it.  On audio however, I found myself connecting more with Ian and Beth than I had before.  For those who haven’t read the book, Lord Ian Mackenzie has some sort of Autism Spectrum Disorder (probably Aspberger’s) but of course, in Queen Victoria’s time there was no name for it.  He is regarded as “mad”.  His father had him locked in an asylum when he was little more than a boy and upon the old Duke’s death, his eldest brother Hart, immediately removed him.  When Ian meets Beth Ackerley, a beautiful widow who has recently inherited some money from a old woman to whom she had been companion, Ian is instantly smitten.   Ian is not like other heroes. He speaks very bluntly.  He doesn’t understand many social cues or  facial expressions and he doesn’t lie or prevaricate.   Beth is the perfect foil for him and I liked how she accepted him, happily and for himself very early on in the piece, never thinking of him as “less”.  Even his brothers, who love him dearly, do this.  At the end of the book Ian comments that everyone has their own madness – perhaps it is just that his is more obvious than others – and so, through Beth, Ian is able to accept himself also.
First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones, narrated by Lorelie King –  B Charley Davidson is a grim reaper – she sees ghosts and helps them cross to “the other side”.  She’s also a Private Investigator who assists her uncle, police detective Bob Davidson in solving various crimes – usually the ghost can tell her who the killer was.  She is snarky, sarcastic, tough and feisty .  There is a fine line between what is funny to me and what is annoying and Charley skipped over it and back throughout the listen.  In the end, I liked it, but I could hope that the snark will be scaled back a little in future books.   The romance aspect of the story is more along the urban fantasy line than a PNR – there is no HEA/HFN, but more of a hopeful nod.  The love interest is Reyes (pronounced Ray-Us) a gorgeous supernatural being in human form – and it is not until the very end of the book that we find out who he actually is – so I won’t spoil it here.   There is also a bounty hunter called Garrett Swopes who could potentially form part of a love triangle, but it didn’t happen in this book. I’m not really sure what he’s doing in the book to be honest.
Lorelie King is an excellent narrator.  I have listened to her narrating Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series and it was a little challenging to remember that Charley and Mercy are very different characters.  There are some similarities but Charley is way more over the top than Mercy ever could be.  Lorelie King has the ability to do male voices (a variety of them) very convincingly and she has more than one female character voice too.  I think I would have enjoyed this book less in print and I plan to continue the series in audio.  I’m pretty sure that this is the author’s debut so I’m expecting her writing to only improve with time.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe, narrated by Rob Lowe – B Enjoyable listening from the sexy-voiced Rob Lowe.  I would have liked a lot more detail about The West Wing, but, otherwise, a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood and the 80’s movies I grew up with.

Somebody to Love by Kristan Higgins

Why I read it:  I picked up a copy from NetGalley and I’m a fan of this author.
What it’s about:  (blurb from Goodreads) After her father loses the family fortune in an insider-trading scheme, single mom Parker Welles is faced with some hard decisions. First order of business: go to Gideon’s Cove, Maine, to sell the only thing she now owns—a decrepit house in need of some serious flipping. When her father’s wingman, James Cahill, asks to go with her, she’s not thrilled — …even if he is fairly gorgeous and knows his way around a toolbox.

Having to fend for herself financially for the first time in her life, Parker signs on as a florist’s assistant and starts to find out who she really is. Maybe James isn’t the glib lawyer she always thought he was. And maybe the house isn’t the only thing that needs a little TLC.
What worked for me (and what didn’t):  First off, this is the second book Ms. Higgins has written in 3rd person POV and once again, we get (a lot – yay!) of the hero’s POV in this story.  As much as I have enjoyed her 1st person POV books (well, mostly), my continuing “complaint” was that there was not enough of the hero for me.  I’m a very hero-centric reader I have discovered.  More hero, in general, equals more win for me.  I hope that Ms. Higgins decides to stick with 3rd person and giving us the hero’s perspective because I just love it.
Now, on to this book.   I loved James, the hero.  He’s a genuinely nice guy – he’s kind, smart, humble, funny, handy, built, sexy, very good-looking and all round wonderful.  He does have a couple of darker secrets and something he’s been paying for for a very long time, which serve to round out his character and save him from being too good to be true and too good to be interesting.  I found myself extremely sympathetic to him as the book went on.  His love for Parker, almost from the first time he even sees her, is something which permeates his actions – even though for most of the time they have known each other Parker thinks he’s lower than a bug, he is unfailingly generous to her.  He decides to go to Maine and help her flip the house for sale – he wasn’t asked to by Parker or her father and he’s not getting paid for it.  He does it because he cares about Parker.  There’s something very attractive about a guy so steadfast.  It can be something which can come across as wimpy but James is not a doormat. He’s nice but he doesn’t let himself be walked on either.
As for Parker, well, mostly I liked her too.  She copes very well with the change in her circumstance, considering.  She doesn’t spend a lot of time complaining and she’s, for the most part, not a “rich bitch”.  Yes, she has had money all her life but she’s not afraid to work hard – she demonstrates this many times while in Maine and it is one of the things James loves about her.  She is also a devoted mother to Nicky – but she’s not an over protective gorgon and she doesn’t spoil him terribly rotten either –  (I think most parents would like to spoil their children – the more money you have the easier that must be) – Nicky is still required to use his manners and behave well.  She also has a healthy relationship with Nicky’s father Ethan and his wife Lucy (their book is the only Higgins I have not read)  – they are her best friends.  Her mother is on her 4th husband and tends to breeze in and out of her life but the impression I got was that while Parker would have liked to be closer to her mother, she was happy enough with the way things were – there was no strain there. Parker has a difficult relationship with her father, Harry and resents those closer to him than she is.   Which means, James.  Harry has two “minions” which Parker dubs “Thing One” and “Thing Two”.  The original “Thing One” retired and James took his place as Harry’s personal attorney.  Thereafter, Parker called him “Thing One”.  To me, this is unutterably rude.  It’s one thing, perhaps, to think of someone by a disparaging nickname but to call them that to their face?  Repeatedly?  Well, it was the one thing I disliked intensely about Parker.  While I understood that her rudeness to James was a reaction to her poor relationship with her father and her jealousy and confusion over his good relationship with him, it was still so very rude that I found it hard to reconcile.Parker has been writing a series of children’s books called the Holy Rollers (earthbound child-angels on skates).  The pitch was a joke but she’s been stuck with these characters for years and has finally managed to end the series.  (I did like the flat cat stuffed toy which appears later in the book. LOL!)  Problem is, she is having trouble coming up with a something new – her ideas are pretty funny but not setting her agent/publisher on fire.  Although she donated her earnings from the Holy Rollers to charity, now she actually needs to earn a living and she’s desperate to try and come up with a new series.  I liked what she ended up doing but no spoilers here!

Nicky, Parker’s son is a mostly sweet little boy but he’s not perfect and he’s not charmingly precocious either (what a relief).  Lavinia, Parker’s older cousin from Maine is a hoot – her descriptions of having steamy old people sex were hilarious and I nearly choked (as James did) when she described playing “Spank me, nanny” with the local Judge. 😀

For fans of Higgins, we also catch up with Maggie and Malone and Chantal and Jonah and various other Gideon’s Cove characters.  It didn’t feel too cutesy to me and it was nice to see what they were doing.  Although, I’ll probably have to go back and read Catch of the Day because I couldn’t remember a lot of it, I read it so long ago.
The bedroom door, while not firmly shut in this book, is a little more closed than I think it was in the previous 2 books – I’d be happy if the door opened again!
What else?  I can’t go into some of the best parts of the story without giving away spoilers but I’ll just say that there are some things towards the end of the book which I found very scary, emotional and moving and there were even some tears.
I could have done without the intervention from Leah but I appreciated that all of Parker’s problems weren’t solved overnight and that, while James found some measure of peace with his family and himself, things weren’t magically fixed there either.
I suppose some people will find the epilogue a bit cheesy, but I appreciated that it took place 18 months after the events of the book (thus I was sure that they were making things work) and that James took the time to ensure Nicky was okay with what was happening between he and Parker.
Parker is 35 at the start of the book and James is 30, so there was a bit of angst on her part about whether he was too young for her – it felt appropriate that she’d think about it and that it would be something of an issue, but I certainly appreciated that it wasn’t beaten to a pulp.  Parker gave James credit for knowing his own mind.  Plus, James didn’t come across as “young”. He and Parker seemed very much equals to me.
I liked this book very much.  James is a peach and once Parker stopped calling him “Thing One” she was pretty special too.
Grade:  B
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