A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

February 2020 Reading

Recurring themes in my reading:

Tumors involving the optic nerve. Wives with seeeecrets. Families that take in lost boys. Closeted gay teachers. The scent of eucalyptus.

 

Anna and Her Daughters by D.E. Stevenson

Much more depressing than I was expecting — even the Nazi book was more lighthearted! It’s about selfish people and unrequited love, and it doesn’t help that the object of unrequited love is noble in a very annoying way. (I’m reminded of The Life and Death of Harriet Frean by May Sinclair, in which a girl nobly gives up her friend’s fiance; years later, she tells a young woman the story and the modern 1920’s girl is aghast by the stupidity of ruining three lives that way.) Also, anyone who’s selflessly noble without even thinking about how it might affect their child is beyond the pale.

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

So many chills. So many tears. A gorgeous vision of the future. I love Chambers’… optimism isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps faith? She shows us a future with plenty of problems, but isms aint one.

Mail Order Prairie Bride by Julianne Maclean

Little House on the Prairie, adult style. Great heroine, who doesn’t let being a damsel in considerable distress keep her asserting herself. The hero is a jerk at least once too often, but redeems himself.

Hey Harry, Hey Matilda by Rachel Hulin.

One of the most WTF reading experiences of my adult life.

Starting: This is such a cute epistolary novel between close siblings! I have to send it to my mom, because she’s a twin.

Then: Huh. These two are both deeply horrible people.

Then: INCEST????!!!!!

I need to stop reading fiction that hasn’t been vetted for me by romance readers. Or at least have a peek at GoodReads first, where this has a 2.6 rating from readers who had exactly the same response.

Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

Several threads tell stories about a Romani girl in 1500s Strausburg, where a “dancing sickness” is killing people, and two modern day teens, one with Romani ancestry and one whose family makes shoes. It’s about the importance of identity, and choosing your power. Though a bit too repetitive, it has the most glorious ending.

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January 2020 Reading pt. 1

I’ve decided to do my reading round-ups in sections, so they don’t get too unwieldy.

The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas. The primary appeal of this scholarly book is the many photographs of old, gorgeous, and sometimes hilariously inappropriate editions of Austen, but the text is interesting too, albeit weirdly repetitious. Serious romance scholars will likely find it underwhelming.

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe. Marvelous collection of letters the author wrote while working as a nanny in an notably literary London household. It’s filled with descriptions of little interactions between her and her employer and the children, which are just hilarious; all are bright and eccentric and not at all leery of cursing. Almost inadvertently, it’s also a coming of age story, as Nina discovers she can participate in academic life, despite her rather ramshackle upbringing. (There’s the barest smidge of romance, but it has a delightful punch line.)

A Delicate Deception by Cat Sebastian. My least favorite of Sebastian’s books, sadly, unless DNFing the previous one in this series counts. It suffers from what I’ve starting calling the “twitterization” of romance — in which passages seem to have been literally lifted from discussions on social media. I think it’s very valid to write historical characters who care about women’s rights and consent, and who aren’t homophobes, but it has to feel like it believably grew from something.

Other problems include a plot moppet who’s dramatically introduced and then almost immediately forgotten for several chapters — except it’s not even appropriate to call her a plot muppet, since she serves very little function in the plot. And I had a lot of trouble relating to the heroine, which is really sad since she’s an introvert with anxiety and I should totally get her. Her thoughts made sense, but her dialogue didn’t feel real. The hero with self-esteem issues is sweet and likeable, but the story is completely stolen by the hero’s brother-in-law/ex-lover, a newly blind and bereaved Duke who is sardonic as all get out but competently planning a happy life for himself.

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I Can Get Some Satisfaction

Me: “I know exactly what’s going to happen next. She’s going to be introduced to this guy that was just mentioned, and it’ll turn out to be the man she wants to kill.”

Me: “YES, it was!”

Hub: “And now they’re going to fall in love.”

Me: “God, no, she hates him because she watched him rape and murder her sister.”

Hub: “Oh. <pause> But he’s changed…”

 

(I love having a husband who riffs about romance with me.)

Isn’t it odd how sometimes seeing what’s coming is boring and cliched, and other times it’s completely satisfying? I guess it’s all in the skill of the writing. I think I’ve written before that all reading is, in a sense, being manipulated by the author… but when it works, you don’t feel like you were manipulated, or you recognize it and don’t care. Like when I read Glitterland, and a certain event was very obviously coming up, and it was so excruciating I could barely turn the page… but it had to happen. In this case, the suspense was built up in such a way that I really enjoyed knowing what was about to happen, and it would have felt so off if I were wrong.

 

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The State of the Reading

It’s early days yet, but so far I’m having a pretty good reading year! I haven’t made any official resolutions, but have been trying to keep self-care and enjoyment in mind. I think if I put it into words, my resolution is, I’m giving up self-imposed responsibilities. Not all responsibilities — I still have deadlines to meet. But any responsibilities towards goals or… fairness… or stretching or broader coverage.  I can’t fix the romance genre, and I certainly can’t help it by burning out.

One thing I’ve noticed is that it does me a tremendous amount of good to read books I specifically wanted to read. The TBR may only shrink by one book, but the effects are exponential. I guess it gives me a sense that I’m spending my life the way I want to be spending it?

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The 12 Stress Free Days of Christmas? Day 12

Securing the Greek’s  Legacy by Julia James.

This had the three elements I most dislike in James’s work: 1) an overwrought, obsessively maternal heroine, who makes constant speeches littered with exclamations points, 2) a hero who only gets interested in the heroine after she has a makeover, and 3) a secret that is no secret. It was also dull to the point that I almost gave it up, though did pick up towards the end.

~~

Kind of a downer end to the fun, but the knowledge that I have reviewing commitments to meet means an inevitable end to my stress free days. Sigh.

Stats, because that’s just who I am:

I read 15 books and started maybe 5 more. I officially DNF’d 2, but am still in the middle of several and some aren’t going to make it any further.

Two books were in print, the rest ebooks.

Star ratings ranged from 1 to 4 1/2. I read one book, The Understatement of the Year, that likely would’ve gone on my best of last year if I’d read it in time.

I made strides in 5 series and probably gave up on 1 (“Lords of Deliverance.”). Harlequin was the most represented publisher (quelle surprise!) with 5 books. Authors were largely personal favorites, with two New To Me (Susanna Carr and Gregory Sherl) and one Never Again (Yvonne Whittal.)

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The 12 Stress Free Days of Christmas? Day 11

What I’ve read the last few days.

(ETA: I forgot to mention that I read several chapters of Revenant by Larissa Ione, but doubt I’m going to finish it. Requires a much stronger stomach than I have these days.)

The Understatement of the Year by Sarina Bowen. I like Bowen’s voice, but this is the first of her books I’ve really loved. The emotions are powerful and the plotting is just excellent, smartly walking the fine line between giving readers what they want and not doing it in exactly the same way readers expect.

The one thing I didn’t like was the portrayal of a very sexually active young woman which is obviously intended to be positive and an antidote to NA slut-shaming, but has her coming on to men in a really harassing way that is never challenged. Would be nice if that were addressed when she gets her own book, which I suspect she will.

Anyway, I could not have chosen much better for a first book of the year! Very glad I didn’t ring it in with…

Season of Shadows by Yvonne Whittal. Oh. My. God. Horrific old skool cruel hero trainwreck. Imagine everything you’d be afraid to find in an old Harlequin and here it is.

Kissing Outside the Lines by Diane Farr. Okay, I’m stupid… I bought this thinking it was our Diane Farr, and that it would be fascinating to read about her interracial marriage. Several pages of offensive racist tripe later, I realized it was a completely different Diane Farr and I dislike her intensely. DNF.

Handful of Stardust by Yvonne Whittal. I’m going to chalk reading this one up to my getting ANOTHER concussion and the sequel to Illusion I’d started being simply beyond me. But I doubt I’ll ever read Whittal again. The South African settings are really uncomfortable — South Africa in the seventies is like the American South in the 30s — even aside from the kidnapping hero and pretty much literal Stockholm Syndrome.

I’m starting to feel the pressure of work commitments, but am going to try to give myself one more day of reading what I want. I have the concussion excuse, after all. I would’ve read more than this, but I spent most of yesterday with a ferocious migraine. 😦

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The 12 Stress Free Days of Christmas? Day 7

The Future for Curious People by Gregory Sherl.

Although the heroine is a librarian, this struck me as a very… cinematic book. The plot is somewhat similar to the movie “TiMER,” with a touch of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” thrown in — and as with “TiMER,” I was left uncertain about what I was supposed to take away from it, philosophically speaking.

A book comparison would be Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, because it’s a romance in which the main characters are involved with other people and don’t meet for a long time. (Although any book suffers in comparison to Attachments.) It’s funny, and the characters are sweet, so although it was a bit thin I mostly enjoyed reading it. One thing I found odd was a very British vibe that kept cropping up, in the names (Mark Thigpen?!) and the heroine’s using the term shite, and a few other things. I assumed the author was a Brit trying to sound American, and was surprised to find he lives in the U.S.

And, while doing a little research just now, I found a whole lot of sexual abuse allegations against him, which makes me glad I decided against reviewing this for “Dear Author.”

The Year We Hid Away by Sarina Bowen

I started this and found the premise overwhelming, so decided to skip to the next one. But I was curious enough to read the ending, and then wound up going back and reading most of the middle… so I sort of read it after all. My impression is it’s really quite a good book and packs a nice emotional punch.

So I’m finding that even these relatively brief notes are increasing my stress level; I’m going to take a break for a few days and just enjoy my books. Catch you on the flip side!

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The 12 Stress Free Days of Christmas? Day 4

I’m reading kind of promiscuously now, and didn’t finish anything today. My current books in progress:

Gate of Ivory by Doris Egan. Not feeling the fan love here; it seems very… sparse and shallow. I’m continuing to read it largely out of inertia. I think it goes in the category of, “would have enjoyed more when I was younger,” like Mary Stewart and Betty Neels.

Asperger Syndrome and Adolescence by Teresa Bolick. Not precisely stress free reading, but it comes under the header of “Books I’ve Wanted to Read But Haven’t Felt Like I Had the Time For.”

Illusion by Jean Ross Ewing. (Julia Ross.) I remember how thrilled I was to find this rare book by a favorite, non-prolific author. That was years ago. I got scared off by mentions of Waterloo and dangerous webs of intrigue in the blurb… but Ross really does write wonderful webs of intrigue, though I’m not loving it so far.

Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron. I’m reading a chapter of this every day as part of a program to reduce my anxiety and addiction to mindless entertainment.

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It’s the Little Things

I’m reading Half a Crown by Jo Walton, which is dystopian alternate reality rather than romance, but does feature a queer relationship. (At least one. I have some suspicions about a second.) In the chapter I just read, the main character Carmichael has taken his “manservant” to what we would now call a gay bar — the only place they can be reasonably safe in public. It’s really not Carmichael’s scene, but he puts up with it to make his lover happy. At the end of the evening, we discover that it’s their anniversary.

Such a sad chapter. The series is a chilling one, but nothing terrible happens here; for Carmichael it’s just boring. As a high ranking member of what’s basically the English Gestapo — working with an underground to rescue Jews when he can — his life is filled with excruciating compromises. Not being able to take his lover out for a nice dinner is probably one of the smallest. But it’s not unimportant.

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B is for Maya Banks, H is for Hmmm…

Trigger warning: violence and rape mentioned

This isn’t actually my next Alphabet Challenge read; the format just fit so perfectly, I couldn’t resist it.

Out of morbid curiosity, I’ve been reading parts of Maya Banks’s Taking it All, a book which upset quite a few readers. I find Banks a somewhat fascinating writer, because she’s an almost perfect chameleon: she takes a particular formula (category romance, romantic suspense, and whimsical Highland romance are the ones I’ve mostly read) and replicates it by meshing it with her own formula (group of guys who always wind up hurting their heroines, while cherishing their friends’ poor hurt heroines. I once joked that she had found a way to make even mainstream romance feel like menage.) When the starting formula is one I like, it can work really well; my favorite is the Silhouette Desire Wanted by Her Lost Love.

disguise

I don’t particularly like Bank’s style in erotic romance, which is why I haven’t read this series or the one that proceeded it. And I should make it very clear that I didn’t read this entire book and skipped over most of the sex scenes. What I was curious about what the dark moment that upset so many people, and then I got kind of sucked into the aftermath.

Basic plot: submissive Chessy is unhappy with her marriage because her dominant husband Tate has been neglecting her for work. He tries to make it up to her by staging a favorite scene — him in charge while another man dominates her. The other man goes off the rails, beats her, and begins to anally rape her; Tate is not only not paying enough attention, but actually takes a work call during the scene. Chessy is badly hurt and traumatized, and leaves Tate.

This scene was, understandably, way too much for many readers, but I thought that it’s a damn interesting as a conflict in a D/s relationship. It’s obviously a catastrophic failure of trust, one it would be very hard to come back from.

So what made me go hmmm. After the incident, when previous hero and heroine are succoring Chessy, previous hero says this about the fact that Chessy is badly bruised:

“It’s not something that should ever happen, honey. A Dominant is charged with the absolute safety and well-being of his submissive. He’s supposed to safeguard that gift and cherish it and her.”

That is classic Banks in a nutshell, but it made me very uncomfortable in this context. It leaves out so many aspects of negotiation and desire. Some people want to be bruised and marked. It’s not being a bad dominant to give your submissives what they want.

This also contributed to a sense I had throughout the book, that the dominant men give off far more of a submissive vibe. I don’t want to tell anyone how they should feel or label themselves, and it’s not like my experience is all that extensive, but the fact that they only play with other men, and the descriptions of how Tate loves to cook for Chessy and to tuck her in, “ensuring all the pillows are in the exact position she liked them” every single time she sleeps, seem more like fantasyland than a portrayal of a genuine D/s relationship.

Another big hmmmm. During the succoring, second previous heroine says this:

“We’ll do whatever you need us to. True friendship has no boundaries. No parameters. And certainly no conditions.”

She means well, but I’d put this on the top ten list of fucked up thing you could say to someone who just left her husband because he failed her.

Finally, the story ends in the most cliched, annoying, and disappointing way possible — giving a lot of credence to the theory that “50 Shades” style romances are basically a new way for people to enjoy the trappings of category romance. The conflict isn’t really resolved, just superseded. Since D/s is supposed to be a very important part of their relationship, I would really have liked to see that area addressed in a satisfying way.

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