A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

You Never Forget Your First

CW: Violence

(Since we’re talking about romance gateways on Twitter today, here’s a reprint from H&H about my first romance.)

The internet helped me locate the very first genre romance I ever read as an adolescent, a book that made such a strong impression on me, I still can’t use the word “chiffon” in a crossword puzzle without thinking of it. (You never forget your first heroine’s dress with usefully inconvenient tiny buttons down the back…)

The book was The Romantic Spirit by Glenna Finley, a prolific author in the ’70s and ’80s who is now pretty obscure. I’ve never seen a mention of her in the last eight years or so I’ve hung out in online Romancelandia; her GoodReads ratings are high, yet there are only two short reviews. Rereading this book now, it doesn’t seem surprising that her books haven’t lasted: it is very much a product of its time, yet in a way that already seemed dated to me when I first read it, around a year after it was published. With its superficial descriptions of the counter-culture, coupled with the heroine’s extreme prudishness about sex, it reads like the last gasp of a fading world; the main character is a wide-eyed tourist, not just in California, but in society at large:

Maggie shook her head wonderingly as they passed a teen-aged twosome where the coloring of the girl’s tie-dyed jeans resembled the many-shaded bleach job in her hair. Her escort had his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail as he strode along in a garment that looked like a Moroccan caftan except for the Wild West fringe on the bottom.

‘If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was a “Come as you are” party,’ Maggie murmured to John.

Yet it’s not a bad book. Local color was Finley’s big selling point and it’s well done, even if I had to snort when the heroine finds a convenient parking spot in San Francisco. The writing is crisp and professional, the description are vivid, and the banter can be charming:

‘We simply went to another woman and had our fortunes told in tea leaves.’

John chuckled. ‘A real scientific approach.

‘Absolutely. She said I’d meet someone interesting in the water, so I started hanging around the swimming pool on campus.’

‘Nothing?’ he prompted.

‘Nothing. Since I was in the girls’ gym swimming pool, it wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t figure that out for several weeks.’

I was curious about how my memories of the book would hold up. I discovered with my reread of Anne Mather’s The Waterfalls of the Moon, another early favorite, that I had remembered the dramatic highlights of the plot, but got most of the details completely wrong. In this case, I largely remembered dialogue, and was intrigued to find that I had in fact got much of it word for word. What stuck with me was the meet-cute when Maggie drops a wrench on John’s foot (complete with his curse, “God damn it to hell!) and their angsty moment involving the difficult chiffon dress.  

But I completely forgot the plot, the suspenseful and vaguely paranormal elements, and the pun in the title. There’s a vivid scene in which Maggie is attacked, and it startles me that none of it stuck in my memory:

Frantically she tried to fight back but her resistance was hopeless against the other’s superior strength. Her startled, painful whimper was [unreadable] off ruthlessly when his fingers tightened their grip. Only her labored breathing rasped in the silence as she writhed in that suffocating grasp.

The agony was prolonged for an instant that seemed like a lifetime and her lungs were at the bursting point before darkness mercifully shuttered her senses. She was totally unconscious by the time her attacker released his grip and callously dumped her limp body on the floor.

Yow! Reading that now, it’s quite terrifying.

Comparing my memories of this book and others from that same first bout of romance reading, I think this book must have been the match set to tinder that was already laid, setting off a passionate love for romantic drama. The relationship is staid by the standards of later books, or even contemporaneous Harlequin Presents: a bit of uncertainty, a bit of jealousy, a bit of kissing, leading directly to marriage. The conflict could not be more dated: Maggie needs help undoing her dress, John thinks she’s coming on to him (which instantly makes her ”a carbon copy of all the other women he had known — charming, superficial and conveniently available“) and Maggie is shocked and outraged.

His voice roughened. ‘Come off your high horse, Maggie. Let’s not play any more games.’ He pulled her close against him suddenly, and she felt his strong fingers on the bare skin at her back. At the same time, his head bent to nuzzle the soft hollow of her shoulder. ‘You had me fooled,” he was murmuring against her satiny skin. ‘I was playing on a different set of rules. I didn’t think you were the type.’

Spoken as softly as they were, his words penetrated Maggie with hurricane force. Her eyes widened with shock. Dear God, he’d though she’d been angling for something like this ever since she’d knocked on his door. It was merely an excuse to fall into his arms.

It may be the nostalgia talking, but I still find that scene pretty hot.  Strong fingers and nuzzling and misunderstandings… it’s the stuff romance is made of.

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Be True to Yourself: Ten Life Lessons from Mary Balogh

(Because Heroes and Heartbreakers has closed, I’m reprinting some of my favorite pieces. By popular demand, this one is first.)

CW: Sexual abuse

In a career spanning almost 30 years to date, Mary Balogh has broken numerous boundaries in romance. Sex in traditional Regencies. A courtesan heroine. An adulterous sex addict hero. A heroine who molested her stepson. An ordinary shlub hero! Amidst her many rule-breaking stories and unusual characterizations, certain themes regularly recur, together creating the sense of a strong moral compass and philosophy of life.

1) Do the right thing, and “fake it til you make it.”

In the historical periods Balogh covers, societal constraints were extremely strong and her characters often find themselves forced to agree to unwanted marriages. Sometimes there is bitterness to work through, and they can be cruel to one another in the grip of despair. But that’s no excuse for Eleanor in A Christmas Promise to break her sacred vows, as she tells her former lover point blank: “My feelings for him have nothing to say to anything… The point is that I consented to marry him and did marry him and can no longer indulge my love for you.”

In Dark Angel, Gabriel speaks for many Balogh heroes and heroines when he tells his new bride, “It is a damnable mess I have got you into, but there is only one way out. We can go forward and try to make something workable out of what seems impossible tonight.” And he doesn’t intend for them to simply tolerate each other: “We are going to fall in love, Jennifer. We are going to be happy despite the seemingly insuperable odds, I promise you.”

2) Acceptance does not mean settling. Do not compromise your values or sense of self worth.

Personhood and valuing oneself are central themes in Balogh’s books, especially for heroines. Jane refuses a man she’s loved for years in An Unacceptable Offer, because he wants her primarily to take care of his children: “There is only one of me, I am unique… I am a person, not  a commodity, not a footstool.”

Harriet, a secondary character in Dancing With Clara, steadfastly refuses to become the mistress of the man she loves, choosing respectable marriage instead. When she finally gives in in Tempting Harriet, she regrets it:

“I thought that because I was a widow and you were still unmarried, I would have you and no one would be harmed. I was mistaken. I was harmed. It was wrong. That room. What we did there. It was devoid of everything but—itself.”

3) Physical attraction is not always trustworthy.

It’s quite possible to be strongly attracted to someone unprincipled and unworthy, as Samantha discovers after the Earl of Rushford basely uses her in his schemes. She initially turns to the less obviously attractive Hartly for safety in Lord Carew’s Bride, but discovers true love can grow from tenderness and friendship.

4) Similarly, lack of immediate attraction is not always a barrier to love.

Edmund and Alexandra, in The Gilded Web, have a singularly unpromising beginning: “He did not find her in any way attractive… She was totally untouchable. He tried to picture himself tasting her lips with his mouth and tongue. He could not imagine it… Yet she was to be his wife!” Only when he really gets to know her does Alexandra’s true appeal come to light.

5) Your first love may not be your last love.

It’s not unusual for a Balogh hero or heroine to have had a previous love—sometimes someone who turned out to be undeserving, sometimes someone whom circumstances took away—and affection and loyalty can lead to a conflicted heart. In Slightly Married, both main characters had dreams for a future with other mates, dreams ruined by their necessary marriage; there is some struggle before they accept that it’s not wrong to let go of those feelings, finally creating “something better than a dream” … “a dynamic, exciting, happy reality that they would work on together every day for as long as they both lived.”

6) People are only human, and can’t always live up to our ideals.

It’s not that a Balogh hero or heroine has to be perfect: sometimes they’re vindictive or scheming or simply make terrible mistakes. But expecting too much of someone is also a fault, and one that can damage a relationship. In The Plumed Bonnet, Stephanie idolizes Alastair and feels unworthy of him, not realizing that she completely misinterpreted his motives in helping her. “I tried so very hard to please you, because I thought you were like a god” she tells him. “I might have better spent the time pleasing myself.” Arabella’s disillusionment with her husband in The Obedient Bride, after she discovers he had no respect for his marriage vows, makes it hard for them to try again.

7) Because people aren’t perfect, forgiveness is essential.

Forgiveness comes in many forms in Balogh’s books. In A Christmas Bride, Gerald’s wife urges him to forgive his stepmother for trying to seduce him:

“Here is your chance for final peace. If you forgive her, you may finally forget… For our own sakes we must forgive as much as for the sake of the person we forgive.”

Helena has been suffering for her sin for years: “I would have begged your pardon… if I had felt the offense pardonable. But I did not feel it was… I will take the offense to the grave with me.” Seeing that Gerald is whole and at peace lets Helena finally forgive herself and allow herself some happiness.

In Dancing With Clara, Clara offers her tormented adulterous husband unconditional forgiveness:

“Yes, you have wronged me. But I forgive you. And I will keep on forgiving you as many times as you wrong me. For I love you and I know you will always be sorry if you stray. Don’t punish yourself any longer. By punishing yourself you will be punishing me.”

“Can it be done, then,” he asked, “by just trying and trying and trying? Failing and trying again? And so on?”

“I don’t think there is any easier way, Freddie,“ she said. ”Just a day-to-day effort.”

8) If forgiveness heals, revenge always hurts.

In Christmas Beau, Max achieves the perfect revenge and discovers he’s hurt himself far more than the woman who betrayed him:

“And this was what sweet revenge felt like. He had waited eight years for this. This was what it felt like. So empty, so very very empty that there was pain… She was going away in the morning. He would be as greedy for news of her as he had ever been.”

9) The sexual double standard is wrong.

This is a complicated idea for a historical writer to express, particularly a writer like Balogh, who works hard to maintain an authentic tone. Generally it arises from her characters’ strong sense of fairness and justice. In Secrets of the Heart, Sarah asserts her right to make love with her divorced husband: “don’t ask me to feel ashamed… I have done with shame.” Later, he apologizes for judging her for her lack of virginity, though still expressing it in the sexist language of the times: “I love you Sarah. It does not matter who possessed you before me.”

Although Harriet has her own personal shame about having an affair, she refuses to be looked down upon for it: “If I am a whore, then so are you. Why should women be considered to have fallen when they give themselves outside marriage, but not men?”

10) A true lover will always want you to be true to yourself.

Just as personhood is a central theme in Balogh, so is acceptance of ones lover’s true self and desires. This is particularly well expressed in her ”opposites attract“ romances. The lively Christine initially refuses a very correct and intimidating duke in Slightly Dangerous, telling him, ”I would be consumed by you. You would sap the energy and all the joy from me. You would put out all the fire of my vitality.“ He proves her wrong, so we can believe him when he tells her, ”If you were to agree to be my wife. I would not expect you to shape yourself into your image of what a duchess would be—or into anyone else’s image either. If anyone does not like your style of duchess, then to hell with that person.“ And Christine accept him as he is as well:

“I will always be the stern, aloof, rather cold aristocrat you so despise,“ he said. ”I have to be. I—”

“I know,“ she said, looking up quickly. ”I would neither expect nor want you to change. I love the Duke of Bewcastle as he is.”

Alistair redeems himself in The Plumed Bonnet by giving Stephanie back all the freedom she lost through marriage to him:

“I will not hold you against your will,” he said.

“Why not?” Her eyes were closed very tightly.

“Because I would rather live without a dream than with a spoiled one,” he said. And more softly, “Because I love you.”

“Alistair…” she looked up at him, all teary-eyed and wobbly-voiced. “It does not need to be a spoiled dream. I will live in it with you. You will never understand, perhaps, how wonderful it is to know that one may say no. How wonderful it is for a woman. For now I know beyond any doubt that I may say no to you, then I know too that I am free to say yes with all my heart.”

Perhaps the most powerful part of this acceptance is that it allows characters to become their very best selves. Angeline, the heroine of The Secret Mistress has always felt like a “great dark beanpole of a girl.” Looking through her lover’s eyes, “suddenly and gloriously she knew that she was beautiful, that she had grown into the tall, dark bloom that was herself, and that she was perfect. Perfectly who she was and who she was meant to be.”

Romances are often criticized, sometimes fairly, for being filled with negative messages about women, men, and relationships. Mary Balogh’s work shows that that doesn’t have to be true.


My thanks to Janet Webb for her invaluable suggestions and insights.

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We Interrupt Your Irregularly Scheduled Romance Posts

for some lists of Christmas songs from my husband’s mixes.

Christmas:
“carol of the bells”, windham hill
“welcome christmas”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“the christians and the pagans”, dar williams
l”ittle drummer boy/peace on earth”, bing crosby & david bowie
“a christmas wish”, kermit the frog
“first christmas away from home”, the black family
“star of wonder”, the roches
“christmastime is here”, vince guaraldi
“happy christmas (war is over)”, john lennon & yoko ono
“trim up the tree”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“dona nobis pacem”, windham hill
“god rest ye merry, gentlemen”, bruce cockburn
“the holly and the ivy”, george winston
“we three kings”, the roches
“a baby just like you”, john denver

XMAS:
“suddenly it’s christmas”, loudon wainwright iii
“you’re a mean one, mr. grinch”, how the grinch stole christmas soundtrack
“green chri$tma$”, stan freberg
“please daddy, don’t get drunk this christmas”, john denver
“the day after christmas”, martin azevedo
“father christmas”, the kinks
“christmas is pain”, roy zimmerman
“the lonely jew on christmas”, south park
“stand up for judas”, leon rosselson
“mr. snow miser”, the year without a santa claus
“a christmas wish”, steve martin
“fairytale of new york”, the pogues
“buy war toys for christmas”, the foremen
“a christmas carol”, tom lehrer
“you’re a mean one, mr. grinch” (a capella), metropolis barbershop quartet

Winter Howdies:
“Ring Out Solstice Bells”, Jethro Tull
“Calling on Mary”, Aimee Mann
“Christ the Messiah”, Evan and the Chipmunks
“The Island of Misfit Toys”, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Soundtrack
“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, Death Cab For Cutie
“Christmas Carol”, The Neilds
“Chiron Beta Prime”, Jonathan Coulton
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, Pete Nelson
“Christmas Bells”, John Gorka
“Deck the Halls”, Klezmonauts
“I Believe in Father Christmas”, U2
“Elf’s Lament”, Barenaked Ladies
“Shepherds”, Bruce Cockburn
“Welcome Christmas”, Sean Harkness
“ChristmaHanuRamaKaDonaKwanzaa”, Roy Zimmerman
“Christmas Song”, Dave Matthews
“Greensleeved”, Jethro Tull
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, Barenaked Ladies
“When a Child is Born”, Roy Zimmerman

HO:
“your holiday song”, indigo girls
“all that I want”, the weepies
“have yourself a merry little christmas”, daphne loves darby
“the lord’s bright blessing”, mr. magoo’s christmas carol
“family”, dar williams
“santa santa”, david sederis
“away in a manger”, kevin olusola
“christmas song”, bruce cockburn
“prayer of st. francis”, sarah mclachlan
“twelve days of christmas”, garrison keillor
“silent night”, cynthia bredfeldt
“the winter song”, eisley
“christmas eve (sarajevo 12/24)”, savatage
“the rebel jesus”, jackson browne
“glorious”, melissa etheridge
“rudolph (you don’t have to put on the red nose)”, mojochronic
“if it be your will”, leonard cohen
“first snow on brooklyn”, jethro tull
“bright morning star”, oysterband (with june tabor & chumbawamba)

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Thoughts?

I’m rethinking doing the diverse romance challenge. No one has said anything negative to me, but I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with the bingo square format in this context. Am I overthinking?

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Feeling Very Happy Tonight

Also, rather prescient.

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huh

“Since it was the beginning of October, he decided he would read Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. It was one of his favorite books about a fruit bat that was raised by birds.”

I  had no idea there were numerous books with that plotline.

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Today in Scanning Errors

“Who rims Cressida?”

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To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue

I’m reading Song of a Wren by Emma Darcy, and trying to decide whether the main character counts as a Mary Sue or not. I think my problem is that it’s such a pejorative term and I’m not sure it’s one the character really deserves, in that sense. She’s not bland, she’s just drawn that way. Or more specifically… I don’t think she’s a bad or dislikable character, in herself. It’s the combination of her thinking herself very ordinary and everyone around her lauding her to the skies that turns me off.

Perhaps I especially dislike it because it’s just the sort of fantasy I would’ve gone for when I was an adolescent. Which really gives me a much better understanding of the whole “Twilight” phenomenon.

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And The Hits Just Keep On Coming

My reviews are being stolen, posted under other people’s names, and used to sell books.

I give up.

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Review of the Kobo Mini ereader

My Nook Touch pretty much turned into a doorstop while I was on my review vacation, so I wound up doing a lot of reading on my Kobo Mini, which I hadn’t previously used much.  I wanted to share my impressions.  This post is not “sponsored” in any way — the Kobo Mini was purchased by me.

Pros:

The home page shows the 5 most recent books you added to your library, so it’s simple to switch between books. (Assuming you most want to read the books you recently added.)  And this includes sideloaded books, not just books purchased from Kobo. I prefer this to the way my Nook treats sideloaded books as inferior content.

UPDATE 7/20/15: The home page no longer works like this. It now shows just the book you’ve last read, plus a bunch of stats and other stuff Kobo wants you to look at. A real turn for the worse, in my opinion.

You can delete books from the ereader! A huge improvement over the Nook Touch.

You can choose to see all the books you own in your library, or just the ones currently downloaded. Another huge improvement over the NT.

The screen asks you if you want to connect to your computer when you plug it in, and has a screen reminding you that it’s connected.  (See also cons.)

There are numerous ways to customize a book’s appearance. (See also cons.)

Battery life seems to be comparable to other current generation ereaders.

The reader is very thin and light, but the “quilted” back gives it a little bulk for a nicer hand feel.

The Reading Life program is very silly, but cute. You get what are basically girl scout badges for reading at certain times of day, reading a lot of pages, and so on. My son loves seeing the new “awards” as I “earn” them.  The program works even with wifi off.

I was going to say that the exchangeable snapback feature is really dumb — the idea is you color coordinate with your outfits or something — but I just noticed I got a bad ink stain on the back of mine and I might buy a new one. (Yes, I am anal.)

The screen is not so small that it’s hard to read, but small enough that I can (usually) swipe forward while holding it in my left hand. (And I have small hands.) You can also set it to swipe in different areas.

There’s a slow but functional web browser which I actually used a fair bit, and a cute little sketch program that puts your finger sketches in your book library. This is an awkward but workable way to take a note if you have nothing else available. Adding a keyboard pop-up to the sketch program would make it awesome.

There are lots of options and ways to access them. This is also a con, because they get confusing and are not always intuitive.

All of the off screens — sleeping, powered off — have smiley faces on them. Okay, so my life is a little difficult at times.

Cons:

Oh, the slowness and unresponsiveness! It’s not so bad while reading, but when making any kind of change, such as to the font size, it’s excruciating.  The customizing features lose their allure when you have to keep futzing with them to get what you want.

The ereader skips a page regularly. I think this may be connected with the “page redraw” function, since it seems to happen about every six pages.

In addition to being unresponsive to actual touches, it’s very responsive to ghost touches. Definitions of words like “to” and “book” keep showing up on the page. Thanks for that.

Although I haven’t used Kobo customer service in regards to the ereader itself, my experiences with it in regards to ebooks have been fairly dismal. (Though still better than the cesspool that is B&N.)

When I disconnect the reader from my computer, the screen that says it’s connected stays on, which is disconcerting. It also takes a while to adjust after sideloading books.

Although it basically works with ADE and Calibre, there tend to be Issues.

There’s a “wifi” box to check, but you still need to go to another screen and scan for networks, at least the first time. I kept thinking I had wifi because the box was checked. The indicator is confusing.

No indicator light to show it’s charging. Hard to see what the battery life is.

UPDATE 7/20/15: There actually is an indicator light, it’s just at the top where I couldn’t see it.

The plug outlet is upside down. Just when I finally had that one figured out.

I didn’t realize there was more than one color choice and bought the white one. It’s shiny and glares. I much prefer dark colored, matte ereaders.

I had a problem initially with the reader not going to sleep automatically and consequently draining the battery very quickly. I’m not sure why it happened and it hasn’t happened since.

The details we see on the page change from book to book — presumably a publisher setting. Some books show all pages in the book, some show how many pages left in the current chapter. I hate that.

The process to see your library of books seems longer than it needs to be. First you bring up a menu, then choose from several mostly pointless options.

There aren’t many case options available. I’m using a cute little fabric one my mom made for me, because nothing I could find didn’t add a lot of bulk, ruining the whole point of a small ereader.

Conclusions:

On the whole, since I got this for $40 on sale AND used bookstore credit to buy it, I’m pretty happy with it. I’m not sure I’d buy another Kobo though and I certainly wouldn’t buy another Mini for full price.  If there’s another great sale, I just might buy the black one. 🙂

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