Eye candy, chest hair and the category romance cover

I love my category romance fiction books and, along with my love for the stories, I also love the schmaltzy cover art. For what can be more soothing at the end of a tiring day, than an easy-on-the-eyes image of a handsome man on the cover of your current read.

Mills and Boon Covers

Mills and Boon Covers

But for many years, I would get annoyed at the waxed, glistening pecs on a torso on so many covers.  Now, unless the book is about a male model/exotic dancer/personal trainer, I prefer the cover to reflect the character. You know, white coats for the medics, suits for the business man, kanduras for the sheiks, western shirts for the cowboys and a black T-shirt for the firies. And though I know that some readers like to see the muscle bound man on the cover, I find it very hard to reconcile myself to the hardened Montana cowboy or Australian outback station owner driving/flying to Helena or Barcaldine for their monthly manscaping appointment as it is contradictory to the character I am reading about. And the reality is, most men have chest hair. And it is lovely and it is normal.

I often wonder about historians in 3011. The apocalypse had been and gone with a second dark age where everything had been burnt and annihilated. However, there is a rare discovery of boxes of discarded category romances found during an archaeological dig. These boxes are the only insight into the early second millenium. After a long investigation, these learned historians come to the summation that thousands of years ago melodrama was the stance of the normal couple, women only wore flowing, backless dresses and men had no chest hair yet had really well-developed pecs and abs.

When I suggested on Twitter that cover artists were briefed to not make men hirsute, fellow romance reader and tweeter, McVane, reasoned:

@McVane: @VaVeros Instructed? I'm surprised. I had always assumed it was cos hairy chests are bloody too difficult to paint/illustrate.

This makes a lot of sense to me and I have to agree though, if you can be bothered searching, there are some fab cover illustrations from the 70s and 80s that are exceptions such as Anne Weale’s Passage to Paxos.

So, after a long hiatus from browsing the eharlequin website, I thought I’d have a quick look at the upcoming releases. And what a pleasant surprise it was to see a hairy chested man on the occasional cover. No longer did the men have prepubescent hairless physiques  but they represented a (kinda) norm. The buffed, oiled (squick me out) hero can still be seen in all his flexed (eww) glory over at the Blaze line. But the other lines are that tad bit more realistic (bwahahaha), and in my opinion, sexier. Though I wish HMB had used a  hot hot hot Westmoreland rather than a boring old stetson on a chair on this book. For the most part, cover heroes are all in suits (yum) and regular clothes (yay) with the occasional half-dressed-in-the-bedroom or sunset-on-the-beach-in-slightly-rolled-up-trousers scenes (hmmm).

I recall that sometime last year Harlequin/Mills and Boon ran a Twitter survey asking reader preferences for hair or no hair and I would like to think that the current changes are a reflection of the responses that they received.

And, for what it’s worth, I’d love to see more black haired, blue eyed heroes wearing a suit with their shirt opened only slightly at the neck.

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Australian Romance Readers Convention 2011 – Part 2

In my day to day life, I have a few acquaintances who read and enjoy romance novels but it is a rare occasion to be surrounded by romance novel enthusiasts and authors and attending the Australian Romance Readers Convention gives you a chance to talk talk talk about romance novels without the fear that you are getting tiresome.

Here is the second part of my twitter influenced take (that is: 140 words or less per session)

Dinner – Bling and the 2010 Australian Romance Readers Awards – Winners

The ARRC2011 dinner was a dressed up, blinged up affair. An unofficial bling off had been issued and everyone came dressed to the nines. I felt that my tiara might give me the edge on others but unfortunately, Christine Darcas out-blinged everyone in her ballroom dancing, white sequin dress. It was bright & beautiful and her win was well deserved. For more pics there’s Bookthingo and ObsidianTears13 Flickr sets.

As for the favourite authors – there really was a strong Australian/New Zealand bias. Congratulations to Anna Campbell, Nalini Singh, Paula Roe, Jess Dee, Kandy Shepherd and Helene Young. For more details on the winners go to ARRA or Bookthingo.

The food was lovely and the company was splendid. There was much talking and cheer amongst all that attended.

DAY 2

Keynote: Cindy Gerard

Coming from Iowa, corn-fed Cindy Gerard had no idea that romance was the ugly step-sister of the publishing world. She (naively) sent her manuscript to LaVryle Spencer to critique who suggested CG send it to RWA .

Cindy addressed that she knew that she was talking to readers not writers so her talk was not going to be on her craft. She spoke about how, regardless of what you undertake in your life, it is the ability “to confine, control and dominate self-doubt” that will help you succeed. “Self doubt is a sneaky bitch” and can derail any career.

Cindy Gerard was funny, friendly and a lovely person throughout the convention. Stupidly, on each day I kept forgetting to bring my Marriage, Outlaw Style fave Cindy Gerard Silhouette for her to autograph but we did talk cowboy heroes!

Contemporary – The Resurrection of Contemporary Romances

Cathleen Ross, Amy Andrews, Lisa Heidke, Christine Darcas, Ros Baxter

Moderator: Kandy Shepherd

I was excited about this session as it’s my fave sub-genre. Unfortunately, the title was a misnomer as only 2 of the authors wrote contemporary romance. The rest were chick lit authors writing in the first person not the third. This difference was evident when asked for their fave authors. The contemporary authors listed SEP, Rachel Gibson, Crusie, Roberts whereas the chicklit authors listed Marion Keyes & Maggie Alderson.

That said, discussion was fun and lively. Authors articulated their craft, drawing on life experiences. Lisa Hiedke openly admitted to stealing from her own life, Amy Andrews & Ros Baxter on collaborative writing, the use/non-use of children, how much sexual description is enough (at which point Denise Rosetti’s books were described as 3 knicker reads) and the use/non-use of condoms in romance (do they get in the way or is it necessary).

Overall, a great session which would have set different expectations if it had been named Contemporary Romance vs Chicklit.

Category Series – 100 years and still going strong

Kelly Hunter, Melanie Milburne, Michelle Douglas, Paula Roe, Haylee Kerans (Harlequin staff)

Moderator: Annie West

I adore this sub-genres’s short, intense, contemporary stories so attending an intimate talk with these authors was a bonus. Annie West opened questions not only to the panel but to the audience too. Everyone discussed their first ever category read and why they chose to write in the genre.

The authors discussed how satisfying it is to read about alpha males who are at the mercy of the heroine. Kelly Hunter finds the power balance in relationships is important. Paula Roe is still mourning the cancellation of Harlequin Temptations.

Other topics were male virgins, the economy of words and tightly delivered emotions in the short story, tackling issues and the 40 year shift from low sensuality yet broader moral views to high sensuality with more conservative views.

The love promise has stayed core to the category series. The authors said criticism is fine – the reader always owns their response to the story.

By invitation – delegates panel

Cindy Gerard, Helene Young, Anna Campbell, Nalini Singh, Lexxie Couper, Keri Arthur

Moderator: Pamela Diaz (Convention Co-ordinator)

I chose to not take notes at this session. I enjoyed listening to the authors banter with each other about their writing experiences, their favoured genres, what they imagine they would be doi

ng if they weren’t authors. Bookthingo asked them whether they read the last page of a book (I won’t steal BookThingo’s thunder here but I will say that it was a fifty/fifty response). For more details please go to her website!

The convention was wrapped up at this point. It was another fantastic, intense weekend full of romance reading suggestions. My highlight of the convention has to be meeting all the wonderful Twitter folk I have been tweeting with over the last two years. Authors, bloggers, booksellers and readers….oh – and meeting Cindy Gerard, author of one of my favourite ever category romance rereads.

On why more fairies will die

It is a well known fact that every time someone reads the ending of a book before they start – a fairy dies.  I am not making this up. It is true. If you want to know more about the origins of fairies dying you must read BookThingo’s Spoiling a Happy Ending where the whole idea is explained, in depth.

Readers, in general, fall into two categories – those that can’t bear to know the ending of a book, who enjoy a story unravelling around them and read in anticipation of the final moments, and then there are readere who like knowing how a book ends so that they can enjoy the journey without the page turning anxiety of needing to know if the hero and heroine will make it in the end. I am of the latter proclivity. I will read the ending, assure myself that ends in a way that satisfies me and then I will start the journey. It is particularly good for me to read reviews with *spoilers* so I don’t have to read the endings.

In the case of spoilers, a fairy is only maimed. Perhaps a missing limb.

But let me tell you why I am this way:

I started reading the end of books at about 12 years of age. Up until then, for the most part, I had grown up reading children’s fiction which was funny, positively conclusive, life affirming and, in general, a happy read. Then I started entering the world of tear jerkers. Books where you are torn apart with grief.

I remember sitting in Marrickville Children’s Library reading Lois Lowry’s A Summer To Die horrified that Meg’s sister Molly dies. Horrified! Firstly, I was reading and sobbing in a public space that I was not comfortable in. (That may sound odd but, in actual fact, my local library branch The Warren Library in South Marrickville had been closed down a year earlier. I no longer visited the library daily but could go only once a fortnight)…..so anyway….I’m sitting in the corner sobbing with red blotchy eyes but yet unable to stop reading a compelling, touching story.

I learnt my lesson that day. I never again read a book in the library. All books were to be consumed at home. Reading was no longer public.

By the time I read Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved I became used to the idea that crying was just part of the story, as were dying people, manipulative relationships and finding your own way in life. To counter-balance these sadness filled novels I discovered the wonderful world of romance novels. And in particular, Mills and Boon.

Short and contemporary, they were easy to hide in your foolscap folder so that your father couldn’t see them when he was checking that you were doing your homework. And best of all they ended happily.

That is, until Anne Weale’s A Portrait for Bethany. In A Portrait for Bethany, Bethany ends up with the WRONG man. WRONG MAN! YES I AM SHOUTING! IT’S IS NEARLY 25 YEARS LATER AND I STILL HAVEN’T RECOVERED. After traumatic Bethany, I never trusted a book again.

So it would have been about…ummm…let say…..25 years ago that I started reading the back page of every novel I read. I read about 100 books a year so that comes to approximately 2500 dead fairies. Now, I did slip into complacency at one stage and stopped reading the last pages of any Harlequin Mills and Boon that I purchased. They were a given Happily Ever After. Guaranteed. The “formula” said so. I was safe! (let’s quickly re-calculate that number. Perhaps drop it to 1800 dead fairies).

Then disaster struck. Late last year, I purchased an auto-buy Harlequin Mills and Boon author, Lynne Graham. Now I adore Lynne Graham’s books. They have incredulous plots with engaging, emotional narratives leading the reader to be enthralled at how she manages to pull it all together. I was on the edge with The Pregnancy Shock but when it ended without closure I was horrified. I would have loved to have thrown the book at my wall but my wall has some lovely prints hanging off it so the floor had to do.

How could the author, editor, publisher, marketing group, janitor and building supervisor do this to Harlequin Mills and Boon readers. How could they do this to fairies? How could they misunderstand the reasons that any woman will tolerate those awful titles and mostly stupid covers is because the HEA is king. Forget Content is King. HEA is the absolute rule here. As romance readers, we will tolerate awful plots, shocking phrases (I’m looking at you Miss Paullina “she looked up at his face but it was as closed as a bank on a public holiday” Simons), ludicrous premises and sometimes Alpha-Brutes that you wouldn’t let approach you with a ten-foot barge pole. We readers will put up with all that for an HEA.

(Please Note: most romances are beautiful, brilliant, well constructed , wonderfully researched, emotionally charged and full of snappy dialogue that would make Al Jaffee proud).

The thing is that since The Pregnancy Shock I now distrust Harlequin Mills and Boon again. I now read their back pages just as I read the back pages of all novels. And sadly, I have come across several that end in an “…there’s more to come” way. And even more sadly, more fairies are dying than needs to be the case.

PS. Should you be a fairy killer and use twitter, remember to use #afairydies.