The Red Diary
by Toni Blake, contemporary (2004)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61486-6


As I shift, opening to him, water rushes over my skin, pooling around my hips and thighs. He studies me there, then lifts his gaze to mine. Rays of heat connect our eyes and for a long, spine-tingling moment, it is enough. But then I close my eyes again and lay my arms back over my head, ready for more.

The biggest problem I have with the premise of The Red Diary is that I'm supposed to believe that the supposedly all-man macho hero Nick Armstrong actually finds such writing so erotic that he is practically shuddering with unspent pleasure, as what the heroine Lauren Ash will write in her "sex diary". Is Toni Blake kidding? Most of the excerpts from Lauren's dairy is hysterically purple or just childish, like the ramblings of a thirteen-year old girl imagining in her diary how sex with her favorite pop star would be like.

While it's not exactly scientific sampling, I ask my husband to read a particularly long excerpt from Lauren's diary and walk off to make myself a glass of tea. When I return to the room, he is snoring away. He says he is just tired after a long day of working his fingers off at the remote control, so maybe the diary excerpts aren't that bad and maybe there are some men out there who are turned on by airy-fairy fantasies of woodland lovers and mermen swooping down with flowers and tumescent shafts. I don't know. But the idea of a bad boy hero reading such prose and realizing that the heroine has such an "erotic" side of her that he has to have her is laughable in The Red Diary.

Harlequin Temptation author Toni Blake's big-time debut with Warner is at heart a classic Madonna/Whore paean. Lauren Ash is rich but she spends her time moaning and whining about how money isn't everything. (I guess, therefore, Ms Blake won't mind if you buy all her books from the UBS from now on.) Lauren is viewed by all as a spoiled, flakey ice princess. Because her friend Carolyn is fast and loose, everyone including the hero now believes that Lauren is Nicole Richie to Carolyn's Paris Hilton. And, of course, while men ogle at these women, they also disapprove of these women because these men are written by a woman who has absorbed too much of the romance novel dogma about women who have an active sex life being such bad, bad people. So Lauren will have to prove to the hero that she isn't what he thinks she is, and this is mostly done with her having sex with him in a relationship that spans less than a month - and this is after Lauren spends chapters after chapters insisting that she has only slept with three men in her life because to her, sex is special. The contradiction between Lauren's actions and her lip-service to the What Good Romance Heroines Do doctrine seems to go unnoticed by Ms Blake.

Nick wants to seduce Lauren for less-than-carnal reasons: he bears a grudge against Lauren's father and when he stumbles upon her sex diary, he thinks nothing of striking at her father through her. Don't worry, she'll be so understanding when everything comes out - she only gets angry when she realizes that he has been seducing her using her fantasies in the diary. Somehow, a man reading your journal is now more offensive than a man seducing you just to get back at your father.

The Red Diary is everything good and bad about a typical Harlequin Temptation as it is a slightly longer version of such a book, epitomizing the ridiculous double standards of sexuality, the laughably overwrought Madonna with Sexy Fantasies premise, and an overwhelming atmosphere of Victorian-era style sexual repression (don't give out, woman, and you'll be rewarded by a hero who will sleep with you and then marry you) that are synonymous with a typical Harlequin Temptation offering. The story isn't erotic because Lauren's sexual fantasies, the catalysis of her sexual coming-of-age, are devoid of actual heat or sexual urgency, containing instead plenty of languid frolicking, staged extravagant fantasies straight out of a Fabio commercial, and plenty of metaphysical euphemisms to the point that all that are missing are unicorns and dancing Carebears. Lauren's sexual fantasies aren't sexy as much as they are like an overly-staged scene of penetration complete with overwrought mentions of waves crashing and rose petals raining on the lovers. Not as sexy as they are amusing for all the wrong reasons, these journal entries. Lauren will be a successful contemporary Brava romance author if she is a real person. That or a writer of Playgirl's ridiculous Fabio-approved ramblings that the magazine tends to have for their nude spreads of gay porn stars pretending to be firemen or cops.

What does work though is Nick's growing obsession to Lauren to the point that his defenses break down when he's with Lauren without him understanding what he is going through. Nick makes a very attractive bad boy hero despite the fact that he comes off as a very obvious "feminine ideal" of a hero for his finding Lauren's insipid prose erotic. It's a pity that Lauren is too much of a stereotype of a gullible sexually-repressed heroine so star-struck by her first functional orgasm that she becomes blind to the obvious or makes herself a victim to that man who gives her that orgasm. She is no match for Nick because she is his intellectual as well as sexual inferior in every way. If Lauren is less of a stereotype, her icy persona and her sexual coming-of-age would make an erotic study of contrasts. As it is, she is yet another typical luminously understanding heroine in a "sexy romance" that is just lucky because the hero who is out to use her ends up falling for her dubious charms that he stops short of completely degrading her to the bitter end. Even if he does, what the heck, she'll forgive him anyway because she loves him.

The Red Diary is one of those unusual books that manages to capture everything good or bad about the Harlequin Temptation line within its pages, from the premise to the characterization to the antiquated approach to sexual relationships. I suspect that the reader's enjoyment of this book will hinge on how much she enjoys those Harlequin Temptation books as a whole. Or in other words, fans of watered-down "sexy" stories written by authors who are too conscious of the lines they can't cross so they stop short from even coming close to those lines, stories featuring repressed heroines that have sex without taking responsibilities of their actions or libidos, well, these fans can jump right into The Red Diary and have fun. Me, I wish I've passed on this laughably boring "sexy" (not really) book.

Rating: 64


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