Jul 28 2008
We are starting a new series called “If You Like” which will be hosted by various readers, authors and bloggers of Dear Author. The purpose of the post and the comments is to explore what we like about a particular iconic author and what other authors have books like the iconic author. Dr. Sarah Frantz, Assistant Professor of Literature at Fayetteville State University, and regular contributor to the awesome blog called Teach Me Tonight, is hosting this If You Like entry on Suzanne Brockmann. Suzanne Brockmann’s latest release, Into the Fire, is the 13th book in her famed Troubleshooter series.
If you would like to host an “If You Like” post, please email me at Jane at dearauthor.com
Once upon a time, I was browsing in a Waldenbooks and saw a two-for-one deal: Suzanne Brockmann’s The Unsung Hero came free with a re-issue of her one and only time travel, Time Enough for Love. TEFL looked intriguing, so I bought the other book so I could get it. It was intriguing, but TUH, one of the most exquisitely plotted books I’ve ever read, truly rocked my world and I’ve been a rabid Brockmann Fan Grrl ever since.
Brockmann started out in 1993 writing tightly plotted Silhouette Intimate Moments and light, frothy Loveswepts (that are all slowly being reissued). But she really hit her stride in 1996 when she began her “Tall, Dark and Dangerous” SEAL Team Ten books from Silhouette Intimate Moments. In 2000, she created another SEAL team for her mainstream Troubleshooter series (Into the Fire [TS#13] released last week). In a post-9/11 world, her Troubleshooter books are topical, thoughtful, and exceptionally well-written. For a bleeding-heart liberal, she gets the military mindset-’the details of military life might not be 100% perfect, but the mindset, the way we think and the way we feel about our fellow service members and our commitment and loyalty to our country, is spot on. Additionally, her forty-six novels tangle with, stretch, and sometimes break romance genre conventions in innovative and fascinating ways. And finally, she’s just a genuinely nice person and understands the importance of a personal relationship with her readers. (As a bonus, she’s the host of the RITA Awards ceremony at RWA this year, so say Hi! to her for me if you’re going to San Francisco!)
So, without further ado:
Setting (era): Contemporary
Brockmann only writes novels set in the present day (even her one time travel novel only jumps back a few years). And by present day, they’re usually set the date the book comes out, or a little later. There are flashbacks to important points in the characters’ lives, but the action is relentlessly present to the extent that you’re convinced as you read it that you should be able to watch it instead on CNN. In fact, a large part of what she does is put a human face, with characters you care about deeply, on what we do watch on the evening news.
The exception to this, of course, is her World War Two subplots in her Troubleshooter books. There were seven such plots-’in the earlier books in the series-’and they all tell the stories of everyday heroism in WWII (French resistance, Danish Jews, Dunkirk, double agents, the genesis of the SEAL teams and of psychological warfare, the Tuskegee airmen and the Women Airforce Service Pilots [WASPs]) that eventually intertwine with the modern-day plot in intricate, essential ways.
Setting (geographic): USA and various hotbeds of terrorism
Most of Brockmann’s characters are relentlessly American with very few exceptions-’including her villains, as she deals with domestic terrorism as well as foreign-’and despite her focus on terrorism, she manages to set most of her novels on US soil. Two of her Troubleshooter novels are set in the fictional country of Kazbekistan, two are set in Indonesia, and her WWII subplots are obviously set mostly in Europe. More specifically, her Troubleshooter world is now anchored by Troubleshooters Inc., a private security firm founded by the hero of The Unsung Hero after the fifth installment of the series, but she still includes characters who work variously for the FBI, for police departments, for an unnamed “Black Ops” governmental organization, and of course, for SEAL Team 16.
Heroine Type: Competent professionals
Her most recent heroines have been, variously, a pediatrician, a linguist, a helicopter pilot, an appellate attorney, a member of the White House staff, an FBI agent, a computer specialist, a missionary, a movie producer and script-writer, and two former police officers. Sometimes their job is integral to the plot, sometimes its incidental, but they’re never Too Stupid To Live, they’re never incompetent, and they’re never unaware of their own issues. Savannah, in Out of Control, for instance, is a rich heiress whose never been so much as camping and she finds herself in an Indonesian jungle. While she does a few boneheaded things, she never whines, she never complains, and she usually does what her SEAL hero tells her to do, to the extent that her ability to be smart in the face of sheer ignorance is one of the things about her that he falls in love with. While you might violently disagree with their choices, they’re always true to character. Meg, in The Defiant Hero, is the queen of this particular point. Her daughter is kidnapped and she will do anything to save her, including ignoring and outright avoiding the help of her SEAL hero and his FBI buddies. While most people found this behavior TSTL, I think it’s perfectly within character and makes sense in the context of the story. Most of all, Brockmann’s heroines get their heroes; there is a true connection between them, usually symbolized by a shared sense of humor. The heroines understand what makes their men tick, and that understanding is what makes them fall in love. Above all, Brockmann’s genius is in writing individuals. You could give me a paragraph of a character thinking or speaking and I’d probably be able to tell you who it was, without any plot clues, just because the voices of her characters are so distinct.
Hero type: Competent, self-aware, Alpha males.
Brockmann’s heroes are all Alpha, all the time-’they’re SEALs and FBI agents and cops, after all-’but they’re also very aware of their feelings, of their reasons for reactions to situations and people. So, while they might fight falling in love, they know what they’re doing and why.
My personal favorite Brockmann hero is not a SEAL. Jed Beaumont from Heart Throb, Brockmann’s only stand-alone mainstream, is a recovering alcoholic, former A-list actor who is trying to get back into the movie business after burning all his bridges. His story, with nary an explosion in sight, is the tale of a man finding his way back to feeling and understanding his own emotions, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.
A game I like to play in all of Brockmann’s books is finding the tears. Because Brockmann’s heroes like to cry. The entire of personality of her most famous character, Sam Starrett, and his love affair with Alyssa is built around his relationship to his own tears, and they’re pretty powerful stuff:
But she was stuck there. Hypnotized by the sight of those eyes filled with tears, by the very idea that this tough, unbreakable man was capable of crying over anything. (Over the Edge 286)
Plot: (action-oriented / character-driven): Both
Brockmann not only writes, but also certainly popularized, if not outright pioneered, the genre of romantic military suspense, so her plots are all about action. Most take place over a week, or even a couple of days-’although if it’s only a couple of days, there are almost always flashbacks to the characters’ previous history. Because although you keep turning the pages because you have to know if the bomb is going to go off and the hero and heroine will save the world, you also turn the pages because you’re genuinely connected to these characters and need to see how they’re going to get their HEA. So although it’s all about the action, you also know that things would have turned out differently if the characters were different people, because they would not have made the same decisions.
Plot (slow/medium/fast): Fast
Even the construction of the plots heightens the suspense, with point of view breaks coming fast and furious (and sometimes confusing) at the denouement of the novel. They’re the type of book that you put down after finally finishing it in one long rush, and realize that it’s 3:30 am and you have to get up in two and a half hours to go to work, and you’re too jazzed by the good guys winning and the HEA to care.
Writing style (simple v. ornate): Simple
Brockmann has very few passages of description, whether long or short. And even the description you do have is told from deep point of view, so it reveals as much about the character whose head you’re in as it does about what they’re describing. Joan describes Mike in Into the Night:
It really was remarkable. The guy was right out of central casting. Hello, Gertrude? Yeah, we need a Navy SEAL hero type over on lot twenty-four this afternoon. Make sure he stands well over six feet tall, is built like a Greek god, has neon blue eyes, golden brown hair, and a face more handsome than Brad Pitt’s, will ya?
And he should definitely be ridiculously young, so as to make me feel as old as possible by actually addressing me as ma’am. (21-22)
Dialogue (lots/little/balanced): Lots
Brockmann’s books are heavily and increasingly dialogue driven. This only works, of course, because her characters are so distinct, but it also supports the suspense plots by keeping the pace fast and furious.
Even when dialogue is not front-and-center, Brockmann writes in (one might even say, again, pioneered and popularized) deep point of view, so even if a character is not actually talking with another character, their internal thoughts read like dialogue anyway.
But her characters actually talk to each other. No Big Mis for Brockmann. Or if there is, it gets worked out and the real problems raise their ugly heads to be dealt with. The hero and heroine MUST talk to each other to, as Brockmann puts it, “deserve” their HEA. They’re constantly talking around and through and to and finally with each other and that’s what makes these books so great:
Sam closed his mouth, biting back everything equally nasty that otherwise might’ve escaped. He was not going to do this again. He was not going to fight with Alyssa until one or both of them lay bleeding on the floor. Not, not, not.
Instead, he had to figure out what to say before he said it. Come on, Starrett. You’ve got a fairly large brain. Use it.
He also had to remember what he knew about this woman. She’d let him get close, and now she was probably pretty fricking scared. (Gone Too Far 354)
Humor (Yes/No-serious/some): Yes
The humor is, as everything with Brockmann’s books, very character-based, which means I am completely unable to find a short example of the humor that doesn’t need a long explanation. However:
“This is Max Bhagat. Connect me to the President.”
“I’m sorry, sir-’”
“Wrong answer.” . . .
“He’s in a meeting with the-’”
“Do you know who I am?
“I’m sorry, I’m new. This is my first day, sir. I’m trying-’”
“Connect me to someone who is not new, right now,” Max said, “or this will be your last day.” On earth.
Someone else picked up. “Peterson.”
“This is Max Bhagat-’”
“I’ll connect you to the President right away, sir.”
If certain characters are on the stage (Ken, Jules, Izzy), you know you’ll get some good one-liners. If certain pairs are on the stage (most of them, TBH), you know that they’ll have great and funny interaction with each other. Because while her books always deal with serious subjects, they deal with them in funny and heart-warming ways that make you think and don’t make you want to slit your wrists when you finish the book.
Emotional Angst (high/medium/low): Medium
The emotional angst is mostly on the reader’s side, to be honest. Brockmann’s innovative story arcs not only introduce future heroes and heroines in books way before their own, but actually start their relationships. Most series books, Nora Roberts most famously, will introduce future main characters in books before their own, and might even hint at their future partner, but very rarely actually start the romantic relationship before their own book. Sam and Alyssa, Brockmann’s first extended arc couple, sleep together in Books #2 and #3 before their own story in Book #6 of the Troubleshooter, Inc. series. Other authors, for example Susan Elizabeth Phillips, will often have two or three couples receive their HEA at the end of a single book. Brockmann, however, once said in an interview: “I have a contract with my readers: ‘Dear Reader: I promise I will give you a happy ending for the two main characters in this book. But I’m going to have subplots that may end unhappily or even in death. In ways you don’t expect, I will create different emotional responses in you.’” She’s a firm believer that the requisite happily-ever-after ending of romances denies readers “a lot of cathartic emotions” that take them out of their “comfort zone,” so her secondary characters almost never receive an HEA until their own book (with one exception). This creates lots of angst for her readers (see the end of her current novel, Into the Fire, which hints at an unexpected pairing for the main characters of her next book), and for the characters left hanging, but not necessarily for the main couples of the novel.
Conflict (externally driven/internally driven/both): Both
Again, Brockmann writes character-driven military suspense, so the characters must deserve their HEA by actually talking with each other, but they are also driven by the exigencies of their suspense plot. They might never have met or talked if it weren’t for the suspense plot. Brockmann does a brilliant job, IMO, of making the internal and external plots depend on each other fully, both of them unresolvable without resolution in the other. She does this better than almost anyone else I’ve read.
Heat level: (kisses/warm/hot/scorching): Hot
She’s not erotica-level scorching, but her sex scenes are nothing to be sneezed at, either.
Except for the closed-door nature of the scenes between gay FBI agent Jules and his partner Robin-’much to the disgust of some readers. She has explained that she felt like she was pushing enough boundaries to give Jules and Robin their HEA and, indeed, their own book, without pushing open the door of their bedroom, but many readers who have adored Jules since he first showed up were very unhappy.
She’s an expert at building sexual tension. Jones brings Molly (a missionary in a remote village in Indonesia) a book:
. . . “It’s a good one, huh?”
“They’re all good,” Molly told him from atop her bed. “If it’s got pages and a spine and I haven’t read it before, it’s fabulous. Even if it’s a how-to guide for building an igloo. But [Robert] Parker-For a new Parker, okay, yes, I’d have sex with you”
“Well, all right,” Jones said. “Let’s get naked.”
She got down off the bed. “I was kidding.”
“So was I.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “No, you weren’t.”
“Okay, I wasn’t,” he agreed.
He didn’t reach for her. He didn’t move closer. He just stood there, still by the door, smiling into her eyes.
“I love it when you smile,” she whispered. “You should do it more often.”
“Make love to me. I’ll smile the whole time, I promise.”
Neither of them was smiling now. Now there was only heat between them. (Out of Control 132-133)
And I think that quote sums up everything I’m trying to say about how freaking great Brockmann’s books are: humor, dialogue, character-driven, fast-paced, sexy, down-right addictive books. Go get one now! If you’re intimidated by the SEAL series (13 and counting), start with Heart Throb. You won’t be disappointed, I promise. If the SEALs intrigue you, start from the beginning: The Unsung Hero is still one of the most perfect books of all time. (As is Heart Throb, for that matter!)
If You Like Suzanne Brockmann, You’ll Like . . .:
Good question. I’ve never really found anyone to compare, but let’s try.
Linda Howard’s mid-career books remind me of Brockmann’s. After the Night, Dream Man, Mr. Perfect, and Open Season have similar dialogue, h/h interaction, tight plotting, and competent characters. I’ve never really liked her CIA/assassin books, but other Brockmann fans think that they compare.
Other military romance authors: Catherine Mann, who writes about the Air Force and is herself the wife of an Air Force pilot; Lindsay McKenna’s website claims that she “created the sub-genre of military adventure/romance” and I’ve often heard her compared with Brockmann.
Authors with similar “Bands of Brothers”: J.R. Ward immediately springs to mind. Although her Black Dagger Brotherhood is a lot more campy and unrealistic than Brockmann’s SEALs, their loyalty to each other and the rabidness of their readers are similar (with complete awareness that I am one of those rabid fans for both of them!). Ward herself claims a great debt to Brockmann-’she’s certainly emulated Brockmann’s expanded story arcs by starting the romances of some of her couples before their own books-’and she is herself a Brockmann Fan Grrl.
Brockmann’s humor and dialogue often reminds me of both Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, although she’s obviously further from SEP in tone and plotting. Going much further afield, I’m also reminded of Julia Quinn’s historical characters and the way they interact.
For competent heroines, check out Amanda Quick (Jayne Ann Krentz)’s historicals (well, her earlier single word titles-’I haven’t read her recent stuff). For self-aware males, check out Susan Johnson’s American-Indian Braddock-Black historicals (nothing like Cassie Edwards, I promise!).
For Alpha Males-well, where does one start? For the emotionally connected part, I’m going to throw out a shout-out to Joey Hill, especially Natural Law, but very little else about the books are similar, except their quality.
And for fabulously marvelous, character-driven, dialogue-heavy, steaming-but-not-erotica (although definitely open door), funny gay romance, go check out Matthew Haldeman-Time. His book, Off the Record might be a POD, but it’s one of the best romances I’ve ever read, right up there in my personal pantheon with Heart Throb. If you don’t want to risk it, read his short stories-’you won’t be disappointed, I promise.
But really, when you come right down to is, no one compares to Suz Brockmann. I’d love to find someone who does, so who would you recommend?