Believe It or Not

Romance is not the stronghold of the improbable: at the heart of the genre is the honest fact that humans often enjoy long, happy relationships. That aside, romance plots can and often do hang on events most of us would call unlikely, if not squarely unbelievable. Dry wit — especially when it directly confronts implausibility — can be a brilliant device for luring readers past those illogical moments. Even when an author has given herself a significant challenge, a character’s witty commentary can save a far-fetched plot twist. Take, for example, the challenge Christina Dodd faced in Wilder. She needed to make her hero alluring, despite the fact he was covered head to foot with an inch of coarse hair; when Alexandr Wilder introduces himself to the heroine by claiming indulgence “in an unwise use of Rogaine,” laughter suspends our skepticism. Each of these five novels takes a turn for the unbelievable, and yet sarcastic, sardonic characters keep the reader glued to the page, lured into ignoring the incongruities of plots that include explosion-mad Chinese spies, automobiles jolting down the Spanish Steps, and a hairy hero who manages not to smell (as the heroine notes) of flea shampoo.

The prototype of the “monster” in Christina Dodd’s Wilder is obviously the “beast” of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, and her hero’s fur is as provisional as that of his ancestor. But Dodd offers a far funnier, snappier version than did the Disney Corporation. For one thing, Charisma Fangorn is no innocent maiden; she is a warrior princess fighting the “world’s ultimate evil.” And the beast himself, Alexsandr Wilder, didn’t earn his fur by slighting a witch. His problems are more cosmic: various demons and supernatural creatures are rocketing around beneath the streets of New York, and his condition is a precursor to the coming apocalypse. What grounds the fairy tale is Charisma and Alexandr’s sassy interactions. It seems there’s a fantastic spa-like cave complete with waterfall under New York City (why not?), and Charisma drags over a seat to watch Alexandr bathing. Embarrassed by his hairy state, he accuses her of peeking. “I don’t have to peek,” Charisma retorts. “I’ve seen it, and I’ve felt it. This is more like after-season reruns.” This lively, playful tone carries through the book….even to the moment when Alexandr sheds his pelt and garners angel wings (don’t ask), landing naked in Central Park, an equally naked Charisma in his arms. An NYPD cop’s reaction to the nude “angel” is convincingly unruffled: “From where would you like him to produce this ID?” Perfect escapist reading!

Molly Harper’s The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires takes the opposite tack: rather than portraying our world turned wild, it gives a magical world a patina of the ordinary. In romance novels, vampires are legion, and readers understand the species pretty well. Vampires drink blood; “good” vampires fight “bad” ones; they live forever. Sometimes they wear rough-and-ready clothing such as “shit-kickers,” and sometimes they break out tuxedos, but there’s not much that can surprise us at this point. Harper’s novel makes fun of the ubiquity of vampires in the literary landscape. Her hero, Iris Scanlon, is a daytime concierge for vampires — who are, of course, incapacitated during the world’s business hours — handling everything from picking up dry cleaning to buying fruit-flavored sex aids for her undead clientele. In Harper’s world, the “special dietary needs” aisle is crowded with everything from synthetic blood to bronzers, and her demanding customers know exactly what they want: in short, this is a hilarious send-up of the Hollywood assistant novel. Iris has strict rules about not fraternizing with — or feeding — her employers (and she keeps vampire pepper stray in her pocket as a backup). That’s until a gorgeous, wounded vampire, Cal Calix, orders her to protect him by taking him home. Even though she threatens him by saying she’s “not above living out [her] fonder Buffy fantasies,” he does end up in her bedroom. Iris’s voice is a hilarious thread that carries the reader through the improbabilities of a murderous vampire community. Buffy’s fantasies, after all, consisted of more than juggling wooden stakes, and Cal is arguably as sexy as Spike.

Like Wilder, Juliana Gray’s A Lady Never Lies rewrites a classic, adding just a touch of the paranormal. The novel is set in a delightful welter of Victorian gowns, “horseless carriages,” and witty, emotional aristocrats. Lady Alexandra Morley is a young widow who discovers her jointure — her portion of her husband’s estate — has been invested in a dysfunctional automobile engine. Naturally, she leaps at the chance to meet Phineas Burke, a famous inventor designing a new vehicle, and fortuitously ends up staying in the same castle with him. The novel is loosely based on a Shakespeare play, Love’s Labor’s Lost, in which eight aristocrats — four female, four male — make an educational sortie into the countryside, vowing to eschew the opposite sex for three years. Speaking as a Shakespeare professor, I’d argue that the premise didn’t really work in the original play, and it is just as improbable in its modern guise. But Finn and Alexandra are delightful, erotic, and witty. Shakespeare’s comedy is best known for its clever conversation, and A Lady Never Lies offers a fascinating modernization of the early modern comedy of manners.  It was great fun to watch articulate and yet painfully honest characters fall into a passion that they are literally unable to curb. I can’t wait for the second book in the trilogy.

The touch of magic realism in A Lady Never Lies seems to be a trend: Lisa Kleypas’s Dream Lake adds a ghostly overlay to the present. Her hero, Alex Nolan, has a drinking problem, and if that wasn’t enough of a complication in a love story, he’s also haunted by the ghost of a World War II pilot, Tom Findlay. Tom is invisible and inaudible to everyone else, and even worse, he can’t seem to get more than a few feet away from Alex. What stops the reader from questioning the details of a ghost who flickers in and out like a bad cable station is the sardonic, rather heroic pilot himself. He proves the perfect foil for Alex, forcing him reluctantly into sobriety and honesty in his dealings with the heroine, Zoe Hoffman, a cook who hires Alex to renovate her cottage. When Alex demands to know whether the lanky ghost is an angel, Tom snaps back: “Do you see any wings?” It takes much of the implausibility out of a haunting when the ghost is as exasperated as the hauntee: “It’s not my idea of entertainment to watch you get sloppy on a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every night. I’ve been bored out of my gourd for months.” Tom provides an acid chorus to Alex’s stumbling attempts to grow closer to Zoe, spicing up a story that might have grown too sweet. Tom’s voice — and his own story — turn Dream Lake is a fascinating novel that weaves a touch of fantasy into a heartwarming tale of second chances. Zoe learns courage, as Alex learns sobriety… and even Tom finds his own happy ending. This is the kind of book that will leave you with a smile.

Unlike the other novels in this column, Nina Bruhns’s White Hot is set in a purportedly magic-free world, although given the number of bullets that whizz by the hero and heroine, one might suspect a lurking fairy godmother. White Hot is a romantic suspense, part of Bruhns’s Men in Uniform series. One wouldn’t think that there would be much room for wit in a novel about a U.S. Navy lieutenant fleeing across the Alaskan Bering Sea, chased by Chinese operatives seeking to retrieve stolen military plans. But the relationship between Lieutenant Commander Clint Walker and the captain of the fishing boat he hijacks, Samantha Richardson, makes the novel not only taunt and suspenseful, but also erotic and fun. Even after Samantha’s boat is seized by the enemy, a crewman murdered, and their lives endangered, Samantha and Clint make love on deck (remember that arctic setting?). But their dry, funny interaction eases the reader over incongruities. “She’d changed her mind about having sex with a raving lunatic on the cold, dirty deck, in the middle of a goddamn siege for godsakes,” Clint points out, after they do just that. He’s feeling a bit guilty, because in response to her acquiescence, “He’d gone all Blue Velvet on her.” As you can tell from that last reference, White Hot lives up to its name. The novel is a scorchingly intense adventure, and Samantha and Clint’s spats keep the plot from turning into a too-much-larger-than-life caper.

The Ugly Duchess Eloisa James’ new romance, The Ugly Duchess, will be available to purchase on August 28, but you can pre-order it here.  And her memoir of a year spent living in France, Paris in Love, is out now.

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