A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

I happened across a mention of this while reading a critical review of The Year of Reading Dangerously, and I have to agree that this book is far more engaging in describing the book-reader experience. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve read almost every book Ellis talks about, which range from What Katy Did to The Bell Jar — but even when I hadn’t read the book, or don’t really remember it, her intimate knowledge and enthusiasm for the books made it easy to follow her points. I think it’s telling that while TYoRD didn’t inspire me to want to read anything the author read, this sent me dashing to the library site several times.

It’s curious that our youthful reading choices were so similar, because it’s hard to imagine someone from a more different background than mine. Ellis’s parents were immigrants from Iraq to England, and fairly devout and traditional Jews. She not only had a bat mitzvah, but a tier from the cake was pointedly saved for her wedding day. Much of her reading as she got older centered around the idea of escape from the life being rigidly prescribed for her, while mine was escape from a life without any protective boundaries.

Yet we read the same… and not just the obvious classics like Little Women, but more obscure books like Frost in May by Antonia White. Virago Modern Classic girls, both of us. All the books center women — who may or may not be appropriate heroines — and only two that I recall were written by men. (Franny and Zooey and Marjorie Morningstar.)

The theme of the memoir is how books helped Ellis become an independent woman doing what she loves, and she writes from two perspectives: what she remembers of her feelings when originally reading the books, and what she takes away from rereading them now. It made me think of a quote which sadly I can’t entirely remember, something along the lives of “Don’t think me superficial for reading novels; I’m trying to build a life.” Her insights are personal and not necessarily particularly deep; I’m sure there are far more thorough and complex feminists examinations of Gone With the Wind, for example. But seeing her react and think and rethink the roles of women in her favorite books, and come to peace with her own life, is captivating.

As a romance reader, I was also intrigued by the conflicting thoughts in Ellis around love and romance. She’s drawn to the bad boys of fiction — Heathcliff and Rhett — but her desire for fictional happy endings is at war with her desire to live a very different kind of life herself. And so she searches for heroine role models amongst spinster characters. (I’m reminded of a discussion I had recently on twitter about the difference between a happy ending and a HEA. To me, a HEA is inherently fairy tale in meaning, and so has to be a fairy tale ending. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a couple ride off into the sunset together to have a happy ending.) Ellis ends the book on a note of satisfaction and reconciliation, just the right note for this reader’s journey.


Semi-reviews: Holiday Weirdness Edition


I’ve had a perfect storm of blogging weirdness lately. My computer’s fan broke, making a ghastly noise whenever I used it.  The holidays. A new phone to drive me crazy and distract me with games. Some very hard to write reviews. And a whole lot of feeling like I’m not doing a good enough job, and having trouble concentrating, and being stressed by review books.

I’m going to tackle it by doing what I did after my “review vacation”a few months ago: I’m going to attempt to write something about everything I’ve read recently — which isn’t much — but give myself permission for it to be very short and/or meaningless. Just whatever it is I have to say, who cares if it’s any good. I’m hoping that will help me break out of the perfectionism trap.

I’m also reading some out of genre, to try and recapture my reading excitement.  I seem to be most drawn towards memoirs.

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan. Historical romance. Grade: B

What tickled my fancy: A wonderful plot surprise; intriguing insights into Victorian England.

What ticked me off: As often with Milan’s work, felt too deliberate.

Who might like it: Everyone seems to love it but me.

This one is causing me a lot of angst; I may review it, but I’ll have to reread first and I’m not sure I’m up to it. Not that it was bad — there are some terrific ideas and strong characters. But I’m having a hard enough time reading without rereading. Who knows though, maybe it would help.

Fairyland by Alysia Abbott. Nonfiction: memoir. Grade: A-

What tickled my fancy: Testify!

What ticked me off: Veered into memoir cliche at times.

Who might like it: Anyone who grew up in a less traditional home or who enjoys reading about people who lived in unusual ways.

This was kind of a stunning read for me, because I grew up in a very similar situation to the author – in the midst of the counterculture of the 1970’s — and I almost never get to read anything that reflects my reality. In fact, one way in which the author and I differed is that she loved sitcoms like “Family Ties” and I loathed it, because to me it was nothing but lies lies lies.  This does a really good job of depicting the time as it was for the kids, who had to deal with not having the structure and established cultural norms than most kids yearn for. And it shows some of the benefits of living in an experimental, questioning way as well.  Abbott is really honest and unsparing of herself, and she creates a very loving picture of her father that made me cry for him.

Iron and Velvet by Alexis Hall. Urban fantasy pastiche; f/f. Grade: C

What tickled my fancy: Sharp, funny prose. Delightfully British.

What ticked me off: It didn’t seem to go anywhere much and I kept stalling.

Who might like it: I’m not sure. I can’t pinpoint its audience.

I did review this at Goodreads, but it was like pulling teeth.  It took me so long to read it and I had so much trouble following it, and I just didn’t know what was the book and what was me. Add in the author being a friend and oh bother. I gave it 3 stars mainly because at different times I might have gone with either 4 or 2.

A Lost Love by Carole Mortimer. Category romance. Grade: B

What tickled my fancy: Delightfully nutty.

What ticked me off: Could’ve used more redemption for the cruel, rapey hero.

Who might like it: Fans of older Harlequin Presents.

A woman estranged from her husband and kept away from her baby son fakes her own death after an accident and has plastic surgery so she can see her baby. What can you say but wow.  The prose is basically adequate, but the passion runs thrillingly high. There’s also a side-story which at first I thought was a waste of space, but turned out to have an unusual point of view about children and adoption. (Heroine’s sister-in-law is freaked out because her husband wants to adopt an older child and she doesn’t know if she can cope, and this is shown more sympathetically than judgmentally. Of course all ends happily.)


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