Sh*t, Babe! How SWEET DREAMS Bamboozled Two Intelligent Women: A Dialogue

Since I’m still buried under broken-down cardboard boxes and stacks of slightly wrinkled packing paper, two of my friends and colleagues from the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America have agreed to fill in for me today. I am pleased to welcome Penelope Watson and Bobbi Ruggiero.

Penelope is the author of the Klaus Brother series, whose first two books are Sweet Inspiration and Sweet Magik, and an obsessive reader of romantic fiction. She loves paranormal and historical romance novels, and also reads romantic suspense, time travel, and even a contemporary from time to time. Penny’s favorite things include plants, weenie dogs, and beards (not necessarily in that order). Find her on Twitter @pennyromance or visit her Web site at

Bobbi is an amateur wine aficionado, semi-professional groupie and vice president for the New England Chapter of the RWA. When she’s not chasing boys with guitars around the globe, she enjoys spending time with her very understanding husband and working on her award-winning manuscript about a dashing and swoony rock star who falls for the girl next door. Find her on Twitter @scorpiosister19 or visit her fledgling blog:

Please join Penny and Bobbi for a conversation in our comments section about fabulously imperfect books and other Magical Shit.

PENNY: Thanks to the ladies at Wonk-O-Mance for inviting me (Penelope) and Bobbi Baby (Bobbi Baby) to discuss an extremely wonky and disturbing topic. How two well-educated, well-grounded, and critical readers were completely bamboozled by the epic saga known as SWEET DREAMS, written by Kristen Ashley. We are going to attempt to dissect this topic in a scientific, rational and objective manner.

Bobbi Baby! *Penny sips martini* How ya doing?

BOBBI BABY: Oh, Penny, my Penny! Let me get settled… *Bobbi Baby takes out Screw Pull wine opener and grabs a bottle of Paraduxx*  Did you ever notice how dirty the name Screw Pull sounds?  But I digress….

If I look back at all the hours I’ve spent reading this book, talking about this book, recommending this book and laughing about this book, I could have likely finished my own epic novel. Maybe I could even have included a surprise child, serial killer, make-over theme, crazy ex-husband, near death experience and… WAIT, that all happens in Sweet Dreams.   Sweet Jesus, I can’t seem to stop yammering about this book.

First of all, I blame you and Ruthie Knox for all of this ridiculousness. When I stumbled upon your Twitter conversation about Sweet Dreams, way back when, I felt left out. And then you strong-armed me into downloading it. You are both evil bullies.

I think we wanted to touch upon the term “Magical Shit.”  (Can I swear in here? This is Wonk-O-Mance, for the love of all things sacred and holy! Surely I can cuss here and there?) Sweet Dreams is made out of all things magical. And just plain awful. All at the same time.

How does Kristen Ashley do this? How does she suck the reader in, keeping them hooked in spite of the endless sentences that begin with the same two words (chapter one, paragraphs two through seven: “I looked…” “I looked…” “I looked…”  “I looked…”  “I looked…” “I looked…” KA, we get it.  Our heroine, Lauren, is looking), paragraphs of nothing but jewelry, hair and clothing descriptions (Lauren has a thing for peachy-pink crystal jewelry, beads, crew neck shirts with little ruffles on the neck and up the sleeves….), and so many grammatical errors that I was apoplectic by the end of chapter three (Oh, did I fail to mention how you and Ruthie told me that to get through the first three chapters is nothing short of a miracle? Say, along the lines of someone who has never run a day in her life, but all of a sudden wakes up one day and runs a Tough Mudder race? And I still read it anyway? What is wrong with me?).

The hook comes in the form of our hero, Tate Jackson. He puts the magic in magical shit. He’s all kinds of excellent. Surly, broken, bounty-hunting, injured ex-football star Tate.  Swoon.  He had me swooning all over the place from the moment he appeared on the page. (And he says “shit” a lot. All the time.)   *Sips on glass #2 of Paraduxx*

PENNY: *sips mango martini*

I looked…..

Hee hee! Just kidding. OK. You’re right. Ruthie and I are evil. We knew the beginning of this book blew chunks, we knew there were POV problems, and huge grammatical errors, and piss-poor writing, and an overabundance of clothing descriptions, and we still coerced you into reading it.

My personal fave is how Tate’s dialogue at the end of the book uses the word “shit” as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and possibly pronouns. “Shit, it’s shittin’ shit that shit is shittin’ all over the shittin’ place. Shit.”

But I really like your term “Magical Shit” because there is something magic about this book. It’s addictive and entertaining and very engaging in spite of itself. In spite of the bad writing, rule-breaking, cussing, and confused and never-ending story lines.

And I find that fascinating.

I think you’re right that Tate has something to do with it. Creating a larger-than-life, romantic and rugged hero is a big bonus. But it’s more than that. There is something about the heroine’s journey that is appealing, too. Fat and dejected, she reinvents herself, falls in love, and helps others to heal. That’s pretty damned heroic. (And she does it all with a turquoise chunky necklace and wedge sandals).


BOBBI BABY: Babe! I’m back… *opens a bottle of Apothic Red and lets it breathe*

Yes, Lauren does save the entire town of Carnal, perfectly matched and accessorized, as all good heroines do!

Her makeover is the crowning makeover of all makeovers. She starts off as the slightly-overweight, cast-aside ex-wife with single-process color and becomes a totally bitchin’ biker babe with chunky highlights and a killer lingerie collection. It is a sight to behold.

But seriously, Lauren does rock. I realized that I was totally and utterly on her side the minute she decided not to take any shit from Tate. She handled his barbs and cutting remarks with grace and style. In fact, that initial exchange between her and Tate hooked me and kept me there, even throughout the plethora of plot twists, train wrecks and utterly ridiculous POV switches in the last few chapters.  Lauren and Tate’s romance is actually pretty great. He’s broken, angry and has lost his dream of being a football star. She’s a scorned, sad ex-trophy wife on the run from her past. And, somehow, through some pretty good storytelling, Ashley convinces us that more than anything, these two people deserve a happily ever after. And the reader is rooting for them the entire way. Through all 1,456,789 pages...

(It also helps that I pictured Tate as Joe Manganiello. Just sayin’.)

*Penny polishes off mango martini and starts mai tai……*

PENNY: Joe as Tate! Oh yeah!

I totally agree about liking how Lauren refused to take any crap from him, in spite of being smitten with him. The part that got me hooked (even as I was considering DNFing this baby. Babe. Hee heee!) was when Tate said (I’m paraphrasing)….“I know you heard the stuff I said about you—calling you fat and frumpy–just let it go. Move on.” For some reason, that whole interaction really intrigued me. I’d never seen that before in any romance novel. It was a cool way to start their relationship….as a reader, you were thinking, “Well how the heck is Kristen Ashley going to get these two together now?” But she did. In a really superb way.

So, in conclusion (*huge sip of mai tai*), in spite of suspect writing, overabundance of inane details, a length roughly equivalent to the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, cussing, too many storylines and POVs, and over-use of the term “babe,” I still totally loved this book.

So sue me.

BOBBI BABY: *Polishes off the Apothic…*  (I think maybe we have a teensy, tiny drinking problem?)

I agree wholeheartedly. I loved this book. Despite its plethora of mortal writing sins, I thought it was a pretty damn good story. I certainly won’t be re-reading it anytime soon, because I don’t think I can lose another month of my life, but I have to say, the story has definitely stayed with me.  For instance, when I’m getting dressed in the morning and looking at my jewelry, I think, “How would Lauren accessorize this outfit?”

But seriously, somehow, Kristen Ashley made this crazy book work! And when I’m working on my own stories and find myself tangled up in too many plot lines, or wishing I could just change the POV for the love of God,  I often think, if Kristen Ashley could do it, why can’t I?

P.S.  This needs to be made into a movie. Sure, it would have to be a five-part epic extravaganza, but if I could look at Joe Manganiello for that long, I’d be more than happy to suffer through.

PENNY: Mov-ie! Mov-ie! Mov-ie! Joe-y! Joe-y! Joe-y!

(Hey, if they can make a movie out of 50 Shades, then why not Sweet Dreams? Although I don’t think Lauren would EVER be caught dead in any shade of grey.)

…..And that concludes this totally professional, scientific analysis of SWEET DREAMS. Babe. I ain’t shittin’ you,

Most sincerely,

Penelope and Bobbi Baby

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 18 Comments

Formative Wonk: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

“I found no humor, only desperation and pathos.”

So begins one of a number of one-star reviews for Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist on Goodreads, where the novel has nearly 25,000 ratings. The Accidental Tourist is one of my all-time favorite novels, and while it’s not a romance novel — I’d call it literary fiction with romantic elements — it’s definitely high on my list of formative wonk. And yet I can understand why people would give the book only one star. There aren’t a lot of soft resting places or pleasant sentiments in it. This is a novel — a brilliant novel — about grieving and love and the quiet collapse of a life. And it’s also funny, in a very off-beat way. It’s my idea of wonkomance at its best.

The Accidental Tourist came out in 1985. I must have read it for the first time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when I was around ten years old. I was forever doing this — reading books that were too old for me and loving them for reasons that I cannot understand now and could not have articulated then. At least this one didn’t have any wild sex in it. The Accidental Tourist is not a sexy book, nor is it a particularly romantic one. The story is told through the point of view of the protagonist, Macon Leary, who is rigid, dour, and relentlessly unhappy.

And yet something about this novel pulls me back again and again. I think of it as a book about a man who’s adrift in his own life. A highly unlikely love becomes the anchor that helps him find purpose again.

The novel begins just after Macon’s wife of twenty years has left him. They had a child together, a twelve-year-old boy who was shot in a senseless act of random violence while he was away at summer camp. Macon doesn’t know how to cope with this loss — how to behave in the wake of such a catastrophe — except to carry on as he always has. One of four children of a feckless, flighty mother, Macon and his siblings were raised to cope. They all find life rather senseless and difficult, and they respond to it with stoicism and planning. In one of several metaphors for their condition, none of the Leary children has a sense of direction. They are forever leaving home and getting lost on the way to the hardware store, and then spending hours trying to find their way back again. What happens to a man like this when he loses the son who is the most joyful, most important, most beloved thing in his life?

He grieves. Badly. In the reading guide at the back of this novel, one of the questions put to Anne Tyler is why so many people in the novel are unhappy with the way Macon grieves his son’s death, and Tyler answers, “Because the way Macon is grieving doesn’t look like grieving at all.” He tries to give away his son’s possessions at the funeral, asking a neighbor with a young son whether he’d like Ethan’s bike. He doesn’t cry. He just . . . keeps going. And when Macon’s wife leaves him, he gets even worse, settling on all these systems to make his daily life more efficient and sensible. He strips the covers off the bed, folds sheets in half, sews them up, and sleeps on the bare mattress in the sheet sacks he’s made, convinced this produces less waste and is all-around more sensible. Instead of doing laundry all the time, he showers at night while stomping on his dirty clothes in the bottom of the shower. He sets an alarm clock timer to make him popcorn so he can eat it in bed, thus solving the problem of breakfast before he rises in the morning. These early scenes in the novel are humorous, ridiculous, and pitiful. Desperate and pathetic. But they’re also very touching.

Macon has a dog, Edward, who belonged to his son, and whereas Macon is gentle and mild-mannered in his grief, Edward is furious. He snarls at strangers, and then he begins to bite. As the novel progresses, the dog’s behavior worsens until Macon has no choice but to bring in a trainer, a woman named Muriel whom he met at the kennel where he boards the dog. A strange woman with big hair and bizarre thrift-shop clothes who comes on to him despite his complete lack of interest, and who pursues him — awkwardly, despite his passivity in the face of her pursuit — at the same time that she gives Edward harsh lessons in dominance.

Because Macon doesn’t particularly like Muriel, the reader finds it difficult to like her, too, at first. But she’s the only person in the book who really talks to him as if he’s alive and worth talking to — the only person who doesn’t feel as if she already knows everything he has to say. Macon is drawn to her, and she wants a man in her life — wants someone to share his opinions, to help her with her sickly, unappealing son, to eat her food and sleep in her bed. And Macon, I think, wants to feel like a man. He wants to be competent and useful to someone. So they fall into this unlikely, undefined sort of relationship where even when he’s essentially moved into her house and become friendly with all her neighbors and acquaintances, it’s difficult to believe that he actually loves her, or that they have any business spending time together. Macon’s siblings are understandably surprised and appalled by Muriel. The wife he’s separated from can’t quite believe that he’s really with her. And neither can Macon.

Yet they have something together, Macon and Muriel. I hesitate to call it lovebecause it isn’t marquee-lights, crazy-hot-sex, over-the-top romance love. It’s quiet and often subterranean. But it’s also a real thing, where very little in Macon’s life is real. We learn over the course of the novel that he’s always felt like a pretender in his own marriage, as though his wife has never actually known him because he’s been performing the version of himself she was initially attracted to. But for Muriel, he doesn’t perform, because he’s too caught up in his grief to bother trying to impress her. And yet she wants him anyway, and he finds, in the end, that he wants her, too. He discovers that he likes the man he is when he’s with her.

For elusive, inexplicable reasons, The Accidental Tourist is a formative romance for me. That idea — that two people who are broken and incompatible can come together because they like who they are with each other, rather than the people they’ve been trying to be in their separate lives — is one that’s worked its way into a recent draft of a novel, and I’ve also got a future book plotted out with a rather dour, rigid, suit-wearing hero and an eccentric, dog-training, oddly behaved heroine whom the hero doesn’t quite like, at first, but can’t get enough of. Which I think means the book imprinted on me, somehow, and shaped how I feel about romance.

How about you — Have you read The Accidental Tourist? Or, if not, what books were formative wonkomance for you?

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Movies, Talking Wonkomance, Writing Wonkomance | 8 Comments

Certified Wonkomance: Naughty Bankers Edition

Every once in a while there is a book that sucks me in, that turns me upside down. And then I want to automatically download it onto everyone’s Kindle and make everyone read it so they can FEEL AWESOME TOO. Recently that book was The Only Gold by Tamara Allen.

The problem is that when I really like a book I get spastic and incoherent. On that note, let’s begin.

Let me tell you about Jonah Woolner. He’s thin, he’s dour. He’s punctual. If staid could be a superpower, it would be his. This is the 1920s in New York during winter. Jonah has worked at the same bank for seventeen years, slowly and steadily moving up.

Finally it happens. The position for cashier, the top dog of the bank, opens up. Everyone knows Jonah is a shoe-in. He’s even working the job temporarily until the board officially grants the position.

That’s today, as the book opens.

Except he doesn’t get it, does he? Saw that one coming, probably, and the man who gets it is the very opposite of Jonah. Brash, outgoing… handsome. So they clash. Of course they do.

Oh yeah. I feel shivery just thinking about it.

This book is a study in the slow build. In fact, there were a few times I considered not finishing it because of that, but something kept me holding on. The quality of the writing, the meticulousness of the characterization. God, I do love a meticulous characterization.

I kept hoping, hoping, and the payoff was so grand. But the book never really sped up, in the conventional sense. It was more like a gradual tightening, slowly, careful now, until at the end, you have a beautiful perfect knot.

You know what word this book brings to mind? Craftmanship. Not necessarily about the writing, which was good, but about the story.

And the sex. I need to talk about the sex. That is, there’s not that much of it. This is most definitely romance. Well, it’s M/M romance, but it’s NOT erotic romance. And yet I read this book in a state of almost continual arousal. I can’t explain it! But man, every time Jonah didn’t send a furtive glance Reid’s way, that oh-so-careful restraint, it just made me crazy.

When they were together—fuck. So hot. But they weren’t too explicit, more like glimpses. This is not a book about anal anatomy, y’all. It’s about… love and passion and all that other mushy stuff, all set under a glass dome of stern banker vests! That make any sense? Nah, didn’t think so.

So it’s slow. No way around it. But if you’re willing to step inside and take a long walk in the snow with the careful Jonah and the golden-eyed Reid, well. The ride is sweet. I can’t stop thinking about even though I read it a month ago. It’s historical fiction meets love story, which is maybe what historical romance was always supposed to be.

BUY IT NOW: Amazon | B&N | ARe

Posted in Certified Wonktastical, Historical Wonktastical | 8 Comments