Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Sarah Frantz

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

Posts by Sarah Frantz:

REVIEW: Where There’s Smoke by L.A. Witt

REVIEW: Where There’s Smoke by L.A. Witt

Dear Ms. Witt.

I really enjoyed the main characters in this book. I’m…ambivalent enough about the other characters and some of the plot that it affected my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

Where There's Smoke by L.A. WittJesse is running for Governor of California. He has no experience whatsoever in pretty much anything. He comes from acting royalty but is a semi-reality-show also-ran himself. He has very little life history before his decision to run except for the fact that he’s married to an Oscar-winning actress. So his decision to run was never fully explained to my satisfaction. Yes, the Republican candidate is horrible. Yes, Jesse has name recognition. But he claims throughout the book that he can handle the actual job of governor but doesn’t know how to campaign. But really, he’s never done either. What in his background allows anyone to believe, himself included, that he’d be a good governor?

Anyway, he’s also gay. His wife, Simone, knows about his sexuality and they’ve decided to divorce…right after the election. But until then, part of the campaign strategy, devised by Jesse’s senator uncle, is to play the happy-married, deeply-in-love couple. But Simone has Issues. She’s got a huge history with eating disorders that arises from her inability to access or process emotion. She tends to get vicious when she gets angry and she sublimates all stress into her eating disorder. So, it’s totally a good idea to put their sham marriage front-and-center of Jesse’s campaign, right? Right.

Jesse’s senator uncle’s former campaign manager becomes Jesse’s campaign manager. Anthony is driven, exceedingly competent, as principled as he can be, a smoker, gay, and totally hot for Jesse. Jesse in turn is totally hot for Anthony. Anthony is convinced that Jesse is straight. Jesse can’t tell if Anthony is gay or not. Commence sexual tension. One thing you do well, Ms. Witt, is build sexual tension. The slow bloom of a relationship, the realistic movement from lust to affection to love is something you do brilliantly, and this book is no different. The scene in which Jesse finally FINALLY comes out to Anthony is just perfectly done (I’d quote here, but Loose Id is securing their ARCs and I’m not typing out the whole damn excerpt — trust me, it’s an amazing scene).

The relationship between Jesse and Anthony builds so very slowly. For a long time, they can’t find time together to have sex because of the demands of the campaign, so they really have time to fall in love rather than just fuck like bunnies. I like that. I totally believed that these two guys love each other.

And really, only you would be able to make a smoker sexy because it’s so much a part of his personality. That was fascinating.

The book is long, more than 350 pages. So it’s almost inevitable, perhaps, that it sags badly in the middle. Once Jesse and Anthony have established their relationship as best they can, it’s pages and pages and PAGES of angst over the Catch-22 everyone is in. Simone is losing weight! But we can’t talk to her about it because she’ll just get mad and flounce away! But we’re hurting her! But we can’t help ourselves! And anyway, she pushed us together! But the voters! Over and over and around and around, with no solution until after the inevitable crisis point.

The character of Simone really bugged me. Women in m/m romance is a fraught issue. Usually there aren’t any. Some dedicated m/m readers will actively avoid books with women in them. So any woman who is a main character in m/m is bound to carry a lot on her shoulders. So on the one hand, Simone is an interesting character with her inability to access emotions and her need to exert control through her eating disorder. But on the other, she’s incredibly annoying because she’s so irrational no one can talk to her and it seems that she’s just the figurehead for the Conflict rather than a real character. And the saggy middle harping on that conflict without a solution made it all a bit much for me. It’d be nice to have a female character in m/m who doesn’t have Issues. (Admittedly, Jesse’s personal assistant is female and a wonderful sidekick character.)

So, as much as I loved Jesse and Anthony (and boy, did I!), the pacing issues and Simone’s whole character (and especially her final admission) really pulled this book down for me. The ending, though was a nice twist. I liked the reason for the Conflict and loved Jesse’s solution — even though it seemed a bit too cavalier, it did maintain his integrity. Overall, I couldn’t put this book down, but I did read some of it while squinting a bit.

Grade: B-

Best regards,
-Sarah F.


REVIEW: Escape Velocity by Anah Crow and Dianne Fox

REVIEW: Escape Velocity by Anah Crow and Dianne Fox

Dear Ms. Crow and Fox.

I would not have finished this book if I had not been listening to it on audio book instead of reading it. In fact, I tried multiple times to read it when it was released from Torquere Press and couldn’t. Now revised for and re-released through Carina, it was also made into an audio book, which I’ve been listening to for a week. I’m glad I did finish it, and I’m still thinking about the characters, but I absolutely would not have finished it if I’d been reading instead of listening.

Escape Velocity Anah CrowWhy not? Well, in The Natural History of the Romance Novel Pamela Regis offers eight essential elements that make a romance narrative a romance narrative: 1. society defined as corrupt, 2. the meeting between the protagonists, 3. their attraction to each other, 4. the barrier that keeps them apart, 5. the point of ritual death at which it looks like the relationship is doomed (authors call this the Dark Moment), 6. the realization of how to overcome the barrier, 7. the declaration of their love for each other, and 8. the betrothal or at least commitment to each other at the end (that also reconstructs an uncorrupt society). Regis stresses that these can come in any order in the novel, but usually, they go in the order she and I list them here.

The reason I couldn’t finish this book when I read it (rather than listened) is that the order of this book is: 1. Society defined as corrupt, 2. the meeting, 3. their attraction to each other, 7. their declaration of love, 4. the barrier, 5. the point of ritual death (two of them, in fact), 6. the realization, and 8. the betrothal.

In other words, for the first half of the novel (almost exactly), it’s a nice gentle love story with no narrative tension whatsoever. They meet, fall in love, fuck like bunnies, admit they love each other. Everything’s great…and boring. Then BAM! barrier. And they then spend most of the second half apart because it’s THAT much of a barrier. And while the literary critic in me was intrigued, the reader was…wondering what the point was for half the book. But the listener had spent more than $12 on that damn book and wasn’t stopping for nothing. And I’m glad I stuck with it.

Okay, so plot summary. Elios is a linguist working on Luna (yes, the Moon has a colony–this is far distant future) for the Pandora Project, attempting to decipher the transmissions of a huge, apparently dead ship on the outskirts of…the solar system? Somewhere. Sender is a lead pilot and trainer on the Pandora Project, flying Harpies, the small ships designed as protective fighter ships that will protect the Pandora Project when they go out on their own huge ship to investigate the Pandora. They meet when Elios gets to fly in a two-seater Harpy as a treat for good work. They are attracted, have sex, fall in love, start entwining their lives. Everything seems wonderful. Then Sender gets a message that his parents have died and he’s now sole guardian of his four year old sister.

And here’s the barrier. Sender is from Themis, a free-standing space colony (I imagine something like the Death Star from Star Wars). Themis is overcrowded (only one kid allowed at a time, which is why Katy’s so much younger than Sender, because their parents could only have her after he leaves Themis) and it’s basically the polluted, dreary, overpopulated, soul-destroying factory production hub for the solar system. And the religion on Themis is all about obedience and discipline. Happiness only comes from obedience, not from being…well, happy. Nice way to keep the legions of workers in line, of course, but the religion also condemns homosexuality. So in a far future world, where marriage equality is taken for granted, Themis is a throwback. And Sender hates himself. And Sender’s parents, in their will, want him to raise Katy on Themis, giving up everything he’s worked for (flying, being free, being happy, being loved) for their religion. And…he agrees. He goes back to Luna for a month to get ready to go back to Themis, tells Elios, who assumes Sender’s breaking up with him and leaves him (point of ritual death #1). Then Sender crashes his Harpy, spending weeks in the hospital (point of ritual death #2), so Elios has to take care of Katy, and they find their way back to each other.

So, I couldn’t READ this book because the first half had no tension and the barrier in the second half seemed…anachronistic. Which is a funny thing to say for a book set so far in the future. I just found Sender a little exasperating in his commitment to a religion, a colony, and parents who hated what he was. And I know that was the point, but I personally am pretty sick of “I can’t be gay because my parents will hate me” story-lines in contemporary romances, let alone far-future-set ones.

But, all of that aside, the person narating this book (Charles Carr) did a brilliant job with it. He made sex sound hot (which HAS to be tough to do). He made Sender and Elios obviously different, infusing their words with their characters. I *loved* how he read Sender’s emotional moments. He totally kept me listening and the sweet moments of the story were strong enough to keep me enjoying it, even with all the problems.

Grade: C+

Best regards,
-Sarah F.

P.S. That cover is a million billion times better than the one from Torquere.