Not quite a review of Maya Banks’ ENFORCER series

It’s always kind of bothered me when people say they’re tired of people talking about politics all the time. I happen to find politics super interesting (I studied it, after all), and it’s hard to remember that not everyone finds it so riveting, but also… Politics is everywhere, in everything, inescapable. And most often what people get tired of hearing people talking about all the time isn’t politics per se but rather political views or perspectives that differ from one’s own. And that’s a different sentiment altogether.

So when I see folks on Facebook asking with all politeness for a return to the time *before* politics got all tangled up with everything, I see them asking for a time when they didn’t have to think about anybody’s viewpoint besides their own, when their own politics could go innocently unexamined, even while people suffered, unseen.

I had the stomach flu last week, and I needed something to read that would keep me from dwelling on my misery but wouldn’t require a whole lot of my attention, so I browsed through my library app and decided to dip into a new(er) series by Maya Banks. I’ve read a bunch of her books in the past, and they range from not-altogether-bad to utterly bonkers. I was pretty sure this series would be on the bonkers end, so it seemed a perfect match for my flu-addled mind.

My God.

I’m going to focus on the first two books of the series, because the third one is (admittedly by comparison) pretty good, or at least not that bad, and rather entertaining.

I had the flu, so… I didn’t notice when I started the first book that these two are connected, two books telling a single story. Had I noticed, I wouldn’t have read them, because I HATE THAT. SO MUCH. All that to say, the end of the first book was a shock to me.

These books are real, real bad. So bad. Like… Banks’ books always come with a giant side dish of cray, but… with these books I got the sense that Banks had fallen in love with her own words, that she had maybe sent her manuscript off to her editor, and the editor said, Whoa girl. No. GIRL. This is… this is crazy. You gotta cut some of these scenes, because this shit is bonkers. You gotta have your characters talk to each other instead of making sweeping speeches in each other’s general direction. GIRL. This thing needs a rewrite. And it needs to be 80,000 words instead of 130,000. And Banks was like HOW COULD YOU NOT LOVE MY BOOK BABY, YOU’RE A HORRIBLE PERSON AND I’M A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR, I DON’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOU, NANANANANANA. And then she wrote a manuscript that was 260,000 words and got that shit published in two volumes. Because she’s New York Times Bestselling Author Maya Banks.

So. There’s a lot that’s crazy about the books. The writing is real bad. There are issues with basic grammar and homophone mixups (glaring stuff that ought to have been caught by a copyeditor). The dialogue is very strange, typically served in multiple-paragraph chunks that are jam-packed with exposition. The characters are surprisingly underdrawn, considering how many words Banks used for their story. It’s all those speeches! There’s a lot of repetition both in actual words and in craft. (The phrase “make/made me so very happy” appears several times, so that song’s been in my head for days.)

But the thing I want to talk about, the reason I decided to start writing a blog post after a year and a half away from blogging, is the politics underlying the book and its worldview.

The “hero” (though he isn’t particularly heroic), Drake, runs a business syndicate of dubious legality that functions an awful lot like a crime syndicate, a mob, though there are precious few details about his work. He’s a powerful man with powerful enemies, but the reader is supposed to code him as virtuous because he (1) had a hard upbringing, (2) worked hard for everything he got in life and (3) didn’t have anything handed to him. The reader is supposed to code his parents as villainous because they were (1) lazy, (2) relied on welfare, (3) and had Drake (rather than aborting him) only because he could get them more welfare.

So there’s that. Drake is surrounded by a cadre of men he calls his “brothers” who all came from similar situations — their families were awful, but they rose above their situation through the protestant work ethic and rugged individualism. They didn’t take any handouts — they had their pride, after all — and, therefore, they own their current success and are beholden to no one.

It’s like… Fox News porn. Like, take all the sex scenes out of these books, and you’re left with a spank bank for conservative punditry. It’s wacky.

And these books hate women, you guys. Like, so much. Until Drake meets Evangeline, the angelic, innocent, TSTL heroine, he assumes all women are money-grubbing bitches, only out for what they can get. Women as a monolithic entity are the foil for the hard-working individualism of Drake and the men. Women are interested only in a handout, in getting something from these men.

But Evangeline is different, because she’s a hard worker like Drake and his men. She has pride and, like the men, abhors the idea of accepting charity. She is interested in Drake the man, not Drake the sugar daddy. (There’s also a bunch of other bullshit thrown in to make sure readers know she’s good — she’s beautiful but has no idea, basically has no self esteem at all, she’s kind, self-effacing, honest; she takes care of her invalid parents, nurtures everyone around her, etc. etc. etc. She doesn’t have any negative qualities, and therefore she is worthy of regard. Meanwhile, every other female character in the book is bitchy, catty, jealous of Evangeline’s unselfconscious beauty, grasping, whorish, unworthy.)

Evangeline begins the book with three friends, but Drake promptly separates her from them, because he sees that they’re bitches. She ends up almost completely isolated, surrounded by men, but the reader is supposed to rejoice that in all these men Evangeline has finally found true friendship. She’s finally safe from all those awful women!

And… here’s the thing. The people who don’t want politics mixed up with their books probably wouldn’t notice how these books are just full to bursting with them.

It isn’t that they don’t want politics… they just don’t recognize their own, even when it’s dressed as a rags-to-riches ode to capitalism and The American Way.

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Inconsistent pet peeves – a musey thoughtsey

It’s entirely possible that all of my posts going forward will be of the more meandering style that I associate with the made-up term musey thoughtsey… But for now, I’m going to pretend that meandering through thoughts is an aberration for me rather than the norm. (It isn’t. Sometimes I tangent so far in telling a story that I cannot find my way back to whatever the hell I was talking about. It’s much easier to achieve coherence in writing.)

I worry I might be inconsistent in my reading tastes. I think we all might be, come to think of it.

I mean, I want to believe that I’m a rational creature and that when I dislike a certain element or style of storytelling I have a good reason for doing so (but not in an absolute sense: just because I’m leery of prologues and epilogues and dislike flashbacks with the burning intensity of a thousand suns doesn’t mean I think I’m right to dislike these things and that people who like them are wrong. It’s just my taste.).

But people aren’t rational. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, I’m just as irrational as everyone else.

I’ll assume you’re burning with curiosity and give you a (partial) list of my reading pet peeves:

  1. I really hate multiple volumes of a single story. An overwhelming percentage of the time, I conclude that what story there is could have been contained in a single volume had an editor just been a little more persnickety about cutting out scenes that did not further the narrative.
  2. I hate flashbacks. I do not like them in books or in film (or in a box or with a fox). There’s something so irritating about not being able to establish a strong sense of a narrative in time. I mean, I can put up with them… Honestly, it would probably be impossible to function as a reader or watcher in this age if one refused to tolerate this time fluidity… but it’s irksome!
  3. I kinda hate prologues and epilogues. Like, just tell me the story… And if you can’t convince me by the end of the story that these characters have a good shot at happiness, a baby epilogue isn’t going to do the trick.

My list is really a lot longer. I could go on and on and on about all the things I don’t like, but… I’ll leave it there for now. Besides! I have been known to like books that split a single story into multiple volumes. ( And just yesterday — and today — I was full of GAH and glee over a pair of books that are riddled with flashbacks and saddled with prologues. But last month I came real close to DNFing a book because of all the flashbacks.)

Never fall for your best friend…

Pushing thirty, with his reenlistment looming, decorated navy sniper Maddox Horvat is taking a long look at what he really wants in life. And what he wants is Ben Tovey. It isn’t smart, falling for his best friend and fellow SEAL, but ten years with Ben has forged a bond so intimate Maddox can’t ignore it. He needs Ben by his side forever—heart and soul.

Ben admits he likes what he’s seen—his friend’s full lower lip and the perfect muscles of his ass have proved distracting more than once. But Ben’s still reeling from a relationship gone to hell, and he’s not about to screw up his friendship with Maddox, too.

Until their next mission throws Ben and Maddox closer together than ever before, with only each other to depend on.

Now, in the lonely, desperate hours awaiting rescue, the real challenge—confronting themselves, their future and their desires—begins. Man to man, friend to friend, lover to lover.

Single title in a series doesn’t necessarily mean that the book can be read as a standalone with no consequences. Characters are often introduced in earlier books in the series, and sometimes subsequent books will assume that the reader has knowledge about a character or event. I know this. I do. And I usually try not to jump into the middle of a series. But… I like the friends-to-lovers trope, and I’d read a fabulous book by this author a few weeks before I saw this title on NetGalley, and… yeah.

I want to be clear — I’m glad I kept reading On Point, because the second half was really good; sweet, a little angsty, and complicated. But the first half was super annoying, because there were so many damn flashbacks!

The story begins several months into an escalation of sexual tension between the two characters, so it feels like it’s starting, all tightly wound, in the middle and then unwinding in both directions. The result is definitely too chaotic for my taste. With very little warning, I’d be taken from a tense mission-gone-awry in Indonesia to the start of the characters’ friendship, back to Indonesia, then off to a point 3 or 4 months before Indonesia, then back again. It’s bad enough that it was super confusing just trying to establish what was the present tense of the story; the worst thing about it was how hard it was to get an emotional bead on the story. It’s very hard to care about two characters when you can’t find the emotional thread of their story through all the jerking around.

But about halfway through, the flashbacks finally stopped, and I started to feel emotionally invested. I’m very glad I read it, and I immediately recommended it to my reading buddy because it’s totally her jam. (But, of course, I warned her about the stupid flashbacks.)

A few weeks later, I read a fantastic anthology and realized that I have been seriously missing out on an incredible author. (The good news is that I now have a bunch of books to read, but… honestly, where have I been? How did I miss these books? What other amazing books am I missing out on?) Anyway, at the recommendation of several folks on Twitter, I picked this one up first. Holy crackers, it’s good.

Their marriage lasted only slightly longer than the honeymoon—to no one’s surprise, not even Bryony Asquith’s. A man as talented, handsome, and sought after by society as Leo Marsden couldn’t possibly want to spend his entire life with a woman who rebelled against propriety by becoming a doctor. Why, then, three years after their annulment and half a world away, does he track her down at her clinic in the remotest corner of India?

Leo has no reason to think Bryony could ever forgive him for the way he treated her, but he won’t rest until he’s delivered an urgent message from her sister—and fulfilled his duty by escorting her safely back to England. But as they risk their lives for each other on the journey home, will the biggest danger be the treacherous war around them—or their rekindling passion?

Not Quite a Husband is one of the best books I’ve read this year (probably one of the best historical romance novels I have ever read…I’d have to spend a lot more time than I’m willing to spend to actually come up with my top 10, but I’m pretty sure it would make the cut.)

The thing is, it’s riddled with flashbacks. They aren’t quite as abrupt as the ones in On Point, possibly because the typography and/or inclusion of dates makes it a lot more clear whether you’re reading a flashback or the present time, but they’re everywhere. And I kept expecting to get annoyed, to feel as pissed as I usually do when I’m whipping around in time… but I just didn’t.

This book felt like an unfolding, like we meet these characters, and they’re so tightly wound with their memories of the past, with the things they know that the other doesn’t, with their assumptions about each other (and themselves), and the reader gets to see snippets of the reasons they’re so tightly wound while we watch them unfurl. It’s magical how well it works, and I can only wonder at the amount of work it took on Thomas’s part to make the experience so seamless, so smooth. If you haven’t read this book (and you’re game for second chance stories, complicated characters, and a book that evokes both Austen and Forster) you need to get on it.

But I don’t know… could it be that I’m just inconsistent? Maybe a flashback in a historical romance novel seems less distracting than a flashback in a contemporary? The truth is that I don’t know precisely why the one story seemed chaotic while the other seemed purposeful.

Have any of you had this experience, where you thought you hated a thing, and then you realize that you only sometimes hate the thing? (Or you definitely hate the thing, but there’s always an exception?) I’m kind of wondering why I’ve bothered to curate such an extensive list of the things I don’t like if it turns out that I just haven’t found the exceptions yet.

Reading as healing – a musey thoughtsey about The Billionaire Takes a Bride by Jessica Clare

I stalled out writing this post over a year ago, and I just… stopped. I’d hit a wall, and I couldn’t write anything. Read on, and perhaps you’ll see why.

For most of my life, I’ve answered the question, “How are you doing,” with, “I’m OK — I’ve been reading this book…” and then I go off on a tangent about that book. I have no idea if it’s deflection or if I actually contextualize my life through the books I read. (In other words: I have no idea if it’s healthy, this thing that I do, but I do it, so it’s normal to me.)

And it’s actually why I started this blog, so that I could get a better read (ha) on what I think about these books (and who I am). As a relatively reserved person, my choice to share all this on the Internet might seem odd. When I started this blog a few years ago, I really thought that no one would ever read it, and that was a comforting thought. Then I made friends, and I discovered that my life is so much better, richer, and more intellectually complex when I push past my shyness and reserve and engage in dialogue with people about all these thoughts I have. It’s complicated, of course. Sometimes I want to hide. Sometimes the books I’m reading hit too close to home, and it’s terrifying to share my thoughts about them. Sometimes I gag on my random neuroses, so afraid of being misunderstood that I say nothing, so convinced that I have to be the most eloquent writer to be worthy of saying anything.

I was talking to my best friend last night fifteen months ago about this book I read and mentioned that I wanted to write about it on the blog but that I was afraid. What if I’m wrong, I said. What if the truth shines through too clearly, I said. What if I’m not perfect, I said. (I said a lot of other stuff, too, most of it ridiculous.) And my best friend told me that I need to give myself permission to think out loud, to process stuff the way I process it, to be wrong and to learn, and to write occasionally inelegant sentences. I need to give myself permission to be me. (And if a random mob of judgey judgers happens to descend — which would be really strange, tbh, because in 200+ posts I have received exactly zero negative comments — I should give myself permission to tell them to fuck off.)

My best friend is… well, she’s awesome. Anyone who could listen to me agonizing over these debilitating yet completely unfounded (and ridiculous) fears and respond with patience, understanding, and acceptance is just… she’s like awesome covered in amazing and dipped in the very essence of friendship. Anyway.

I read a book.

Billionaire Sebastian Cabral loves his family, he just doesn’t love their reality TV show, The Cabral Empire. So when his ex-girlfriend tries to rekindle their relationship on camera, Sebastian decides that drastic measures are in order.
By day, Chelsea Hall is a happy-go-lucky, rough and tumble roller derby skater. By night, she’s still living in fear of her past. Most of all, she just doesn’t want to be alone. And she really, really doesn’t want to date.
So when their mutual friends’ upcoming wedding turns Chelsea and Sebastian into fast friends, they realize they can solve both of their problems with one life-changing lie: a quick trip down the aisle.
But with one kiss, Chelsea and Sebastian suddenly realize that their pretend relationship is more real than either of them expected…

I’m going to lead with a trigger warning. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the book based on its rather vague blurb (“…living in fear of her past” could mean almost anything), and I honestly would have preferred to be warned. I still would have read the book, but I would have known going into it that I’d have to reckon with some of the content. Anyway, for any of you who need it, this book and my thoughts about it come with a trigger warning for rape/sexual violence and PTSD.

Most of the story revolves around a marriage of convenience (and friends-to-lovers) story between Sebastian, an artist who values his privacy yet is saddled with a reality show family, and Chelsea, a soap-making roller derby player who is recovering from rape and a nasty case of PTSD.

I don’t particularly feel like giving a blow-by-blow, but the book starts off on a funny, if a bit wry, note, and it actually keeps the humor going throughout, even when things take a darker turn. The humor and the sweetness of the friends-to-lovers romance between Chelsea and Sebastian help to balance out the heavy issues, and I’m grateful to Clare for providing them. I don’t watch any reality TV at all, but my best friend said the reality show elements of the book sound like a hot-mess mashup of Keeping up With the Kardashians and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

There are a lot of great things about this book (all the roller derby, loads of Gretchen antics, etc., but I just want to talk about the romance as a path to recovery aspect of the book. For reasons.

Rape and sexual violence make frequent appearances in romance novels. I can think of a lot of reasons why: sexual violence disproportionately affects women and is, therefore, always going to be interesting and relevant as an issue to the women writing and reading in the genre; there’s nothing more dramatic than a traumatic backstory; something like 1 in 3 women experiences some form of sexual violence in her lifetime (and I would posit that 100% of women are impacted by sexual violence, whether from personal experience or the experience of a close friend or relative. Additionally, I’d say all women are impacted by it because of the fear and sense of inevitability that surrounds it, at least in the U.S.); the rapey-hero trope permeates old-skool romance novels and is sometimes reprised in modern ones; and the threat of violence (sexual or otherwise) adds tension and movement to a story. There are many more reasons, and some of them are actually good (many aren’t). I don’t shy away from stories that depict sexual violence, because I’m hungry for stories that give me hope, that show characters grappling with these issues and winning. Of the romance novels (that I’ve read) that depict sexual violence and its aftereffects, there are just a very few that do so in a thoughtful, compassionate, thoroughly good way. The Billionaire Takes a Bride is one of these.

Some context might be good… In the past, I’ve been perhaps a trifle coy about this subject. I’ve had my reasons for that reserve, but I’m kind of done with it.

About fifteen years ago, I was raped by a close friend of my then-boyfriend. It took me at least a decade to start calling it sexual assault (rather than an incident, an assault, or “that thing that happened to me”), and this is the first time, I think, that I’ve used the real word for it in anything as lasting as text. And I am even now choked with all the things that I suddenly want to explain in order to justify my use of the word. I hate that I feel the need to justify it in my own account, but…

So that’s my context. What was to that guy a throwaway thing, a thing he’s never had to justify or explain, dominated my early twenties until I learned to live with it. The PTSD was the worst part, because it was a weed that grew around so many other things and stayed. I got a back injury out of the experience, and I have (admittedly mild) flashbacks every time it flares up. It sucks, and this is me fifteen years out.

I felt the need to share these facts because I really wanted to write about this book, and I couldn’t think of a way to talk about what’s so awesome about it without talking about why it matters so much to me. (I know I haven’t told the story… I’m not quite ready for that yet, even though it’s nothing outside the ordinary. To be honest, though, I don’t think it much matters what the details are. The facts tell one story, but I still have a hard time ignoring all the other messages that for years prevented me from telling myself the truth.)

Chelsea, the heroine of The Billionaire Takes a Bride, was similarly choked (and yoked) by the conflicting messages that made it difficult for her to talk about her trauma and heal. She’d been roofied in a neighborhood bar and woke up in a dumpster. You might think, reading that bald sentence, that there’s no way her story could be anything but the one thing, but you really shouldn’t underestimate the insidious messages we tell our young women every day:

Be vigilant. Don’t go out alone. Never leave your drink unattended.

And while those are all good pieces of advice, on the other side lies the idea that if a woman isn’t vigilant or goes out alone or leaves her drink unattended and the “unthinkable” happens, it’s as much her responsibility as the rapist’s. After all, she knew better. We hear this victim-blaming every time there is a news story about sexual assault and the reporter or pundit or well-meaning family member sitting next to you comments on how alcohol is so dangerous or how young women should be careful about what they’re wearing in public or how women shouldn’t go out at night alone. Sadly, I don’t often hear a lot of pundits spending time talking about how men should stop raping women… funny, that.

Back to the book. So Chelsea withdraws from her life, pulling away from the friends and experiences that defined her before life. By chance, she attends a Roller Derby bout and decides to join a league, and she finds a workable new normal. She opens a small business selling handmade soaps online and devotes the rest of her energies to roller derby, an exercise that allows her to escape her reality for a bit and to recapture some of her lost joie de vivre. As Chesty La Rude, Chelsea can safely exhibit her now-dormant sexuality for a time, and then put it away again.

One of the things I like about romance as a genre is that the stories so often model the redemptive and/or healing power of love to set wayward or hurting humans back on a right or more healthy path. In The Billionaire Takes a Bride, Clare cleverly uses the marriage of convenience and friends-to-lovers tropes to enable these two characters to pursue a relationship in a way that isn’t traumatizing for Chelsea (and off-putting for readers). Their mutually-beneficial relationship and friendship that turns slowly into something more gives the characters a lot of time to get to know each other and explore physical intimacies with a strong foundation of trust.

And, lest you worry, there’s not a magic peen moment, and there’s this great line:

Then again, it was like she said: There’s no rape-victim guidebook on how to feel. She’d been through hell and emerged out the other side. If she took a bit longer to get turned on, then, well, he’d just have to wait for her.

As a character, Chelsea is pretty damn resilient. The woman who deals with crippling PTSD by restarting and creating a new, safe normal for herself isn’t going to passively endure a problem once she’s decided it’s untenable. She figures out a workaround that enables her to pursue a relationship with Sebastian. It helps that Sebastian, being first Chelsea’s friend, feels pretty damn strongly that she should have the right to reclaim her agency. Personally, I found it rather beneficial to read about the path these characters take toward healing. By the crisis point in the book, Chelsea is doing much better — starting to reach out to her before life, her old friends — and so is Sebastian, starting to share his art and find ways to solve the purposeless ennui of his privileged life.

Of course, I have a couple of criticisms of the book. Sebastian is almost too good a character. He’s a little aimless in his life, sure, but he doesn’t have many other rough edges to make you really want to engage in his story. (I mean, I understand… he’s kind of like the ideal soft landing space for Chelsea, but… it makes him a little one-dimensional.) And I would have preferred if the conflict in the book had focused on the two characters rather than on another character swooping in and perpetrating the worst sort of villainy upon Chelsea. Home girl had already been raped… she didn’t need any more trauma. Neither did I. The denouement is appropriately sweet, and Sebastian gets to be all heroic, but…

Anyway… disturbing conflict aside, I enjoyed reading The Billionaire Takes a Bride and I found it, on the whole, much more therapeutic than damaging, which cannot always be said about books involving characters recovering from sexual assault. After reading it, I felt much more inclined to look back on my old trauma and deal with some of the things I’ve been hiding from for years. And publishing this post is part of my process.

There is no guidebook for these things. There’s no right way to recover from the traumas we survive. For me, I find that there is a lot of power to be found in reading a good book. I get to practice empathy with characters, and sometimes I am even able to transfer that empathy to myself.

So how am I doing? Well… I read a book.

What’s conflict got to do with it? – Trust Me by Laura Florand

Hi.

I know. It’s been a hot minute. What can I say?… I have a bunch of posts in draft, but I got stuck on one of them and… yeah. Stuck. I might finish writing it at some point, but in the meantime… I read a book. (I mean, really… since my last post, I’ve read a few hundred books, but… whatever.) I important bit is that I read a book that I felt like writing about, and I actually managed to make it happen. If you’ve ever had 18 months of writer’s block, like me, you know how momentous this feels.

The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

She’s nobody’s damsel in distress…
Top Parisian pastry chef Lina Farah is used to fighting for her success. But when a violent attack shatters her security, she needs a new tactic to battle her dragons. What better way to banish the monsters under her bed than by inviting a sexy SEAL to tangle the sheets?

He’s a professional dragon slayer…
Elite operative Jake Adams has never stayed in one place long enough to form a lasting relationship. Lina’s fire and beauty tempt him to give her the hot affair she craves. But her spirit and courage make him long for more. Can he convince a woman seeking forgetfulness to dream of ever after…with him?

Laura Florand is one of my favorite writers in Romance and the author of a few of my favorite books. (The Chocolate Touch and All for You are my favorites of hers.) So I was really happy to hear that she had a book out this week, and I read it right away. And then I read it again (because that’s how I roll).

Trust Me occurs kind of in the middle of the action of the second book in the Paris Nights series, Chase Me. It brings together coworker/best friends of the main characters from that book, and I really think it would help to have read Chase Me if you’re planning on reading Trust Me. When I say it occurs in the middle of the action, I’m not overstating things. The violent attack referenced in the book’s blurb occurs in that book. (Bonus: Chase Me is really fun, violent attacks notwithstanding.)

Anyway, I was happy to have Lina get a book, because she’s super awesome. And, while his character is a lot slower to build than Lina’s, Jake ends up being a pretty decent match for all that awesome. I loved the freckles. And he’s got a pretty great smolder thing going on.

It used to be that the Kindle app on my phone would display a ticker at the bottom of the page, letting me know my reading progress. And then one day it disappeared, and I haven’t taken the time to figure out how to bring it back. But usually I don’t need it. I don’t mean to brag, but I read enough romance novels that I can usually guess where I am in a given book. Are things going great? It’s probably about 50%. Are things edging towards conflict? Probably about 75-80%. But a strange thing happened while I was reading the book.

I was happily reading Trust Me and guessing that I was about 50% through, and it felt right. Things were going well after a slightly bumpy beginning, and I was just starting to wonder what the conflict was going to end up being (there were hints here and there of possible conflicts, whether about their conflicting professions or their mutual relative inexperience with relationships) when the book ended. Like, Fin. The End.

And now I actually feel bereft.

The thing is, I think conflict is really necessary to support a believable happily ever after. (Also, it keeps things interesting. Just saying.) Any halfway decent love story (whether it’s in a book or from one’s own life) is, in some way, about how that love has overcome some obstacle. In our lives, it’s probably more common for the obstacles to be internal — can so-and-so ever learn to trust, maybe, or can these crazy kids learn how to use their words to communicate — but sometimes they’ll be external, too — anybody got a story about their love overcoming obnoxious family resistance? In a romance novel, the obstacles can be anything from the mundane to the outlandish, but there’s always something. There has to be a conflict!

Trust Me ends with an epilogue-like final chapter, so it’s not like the book doesn’t have an HEA (and it’s definitely happily ever after rather than happily for now. These two are committed by the end.). It’s just not a satisfying ending, because it doesn’t triumph over any odds. Far as I could tell, these characters didn’t slay any dragons (or, more accurately, they didn’t slay them together. More like they both individually realized that their dragons weren’t that big a deal, and then they shrugged and moved on.).

It’s like this story: two people met each other, flirted a bit, started a relationship that had a misunderstanding at its core, pretty quickly resolved the fairly mild misunderstanding, and then decided to make forever out of things. The end.

Is that a satisfying story? (Not to me.) ………………… Am I being too dramatic?

(I feel like the answer to that question is always going to be yes… but whatever.) Anyway… I leave you with a French cat.

I Can’t Stand the Rain! A Musey Thoughtsy from Marguerite Kaye

I’m happy to welcome Marguerite Kaye back to the blog today. (You know… I had planned to write this magnificent introductory paragraph, but… I got nothin’. Just imagine that I’m super smooth and professional over here, despite the sad reality.) Take it away, Marguerite!

The view at sunrise from Marguerite's window

The view at sunrise from Marguerite’s window

I’m lucky enough to live in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland. The view from my window is of the Firth of Clyde. Directly across the water, the sun rises over the gently rolling hills of Inverclyde. To the south I can see the Ayrshire coast, the Isles of Cumbrae, Arran and Bute. And to the north the Holy Loch, Loch Long, and the Trossachs, the mountains which form the gateway to the Highlands. All without leaving the house.

My view is stunningly beautiful and it’s endlessly inspiring, but for much of he year it’s also rain-drenched. My particular nook of the Cowal Peninsula boasts the second highest annual rainfall in the whole UK – trust me, that’s a LOT of rain. And though I love my home and adore my view, I can’t stand the rain.

It literally seeps into my stories. Today, right in the middle of writing a Regency sheikh set in the searing desert, I still managed to conjure up a storm. Flick through my various books set in Scotland, or featuring Scottish heroes, and you’ll find our damp, driech climate (we’ve got more words for rain than the eskimos have for snow). Between them, the skies and the sea can be up to fifty shades of grey in the space of a morning.

No conversation is complete without a comment on the weather. Here is Fergus, a Highland veteran of Waterloo, describing his home in Argyll to Katerina, a Russian tightrope walker, from The Officer’s Temptation, my contribution to Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, a duet I’ve written with Bronwyn Scott:

‘I’ve never been to Scotland,’ Katerina said. ‘You make it sound so beautiful.’
‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It is lovely, though it is also very wet. We have a hundred different ways of describing rain.’
Fergus rolled onto his side, leaning his head on his hand. Automatically, Katerina did the same. ‘Tell me some of them,’ she said.
‘Well, when the sky’s gunmetal grey, and a constant drizzle of soft rain drifts down in a fine mist like this,’ he said, brushing his fingers lightly along her forearm, ‘we say it’s gie driech.’
‘Guy dreeck.’
He laughed. ‘Not bad. And when it’s that heavy rain, the kind that cascades straight down like stair rods and soaks right into your bones,’ he said, drumming his fingers on her arm, ‘we say it’s pelting.’

The incessant rain can affect our mood and make us Scots seem dour, but our rugged landscape also reflects our rugged personalities. We’re stoic, and we’re stubborn. We’re proud, and we’re hardy. Our oppressive weather is also extremely volatile. Four seasons in one day is commonplace, and as a result, we’re eternally optimistic. But because we know perfectly well that most of the time our optimism is unfounded, we’re good at laughing at ourselves – witness our attitude to our soccer team. Our humour is heavily laced with irony.

Kyles of Bute - Ainsley's view

Kyles of Bute – Ainsley’s view

My Scots heroes are borne of the landscape that surrounds me. Like the rain, Argyll and its isles are scattered through my books, and one of my favourites, Strangers at the Altar, is set near Tighnabruaich (Tie Na Broo Aich), about thirty miles from my home, though only ten as the crow flies. I over-dosed on landscape in this book, invoking all my favourite childhood haunts, unashamedly infusing it with nostalgia. Here is hero Innes describing one of my favourite views to heroine Ainsley:

‘That’s the Kyles of Bute over there, the stretch of water with all the small islands that you sailed yesterday,’ Innes said. ‘And over there, the crescent of sand you can see, that’s Ettrick Bay on Bute, the other side of the island from which we set sail. And that bigger island you can just see in the distance, that’s Arran.’

There are pictures of me as a bairn (child) learning to swim in the shallow waters of Ettrick Bay, and photos of me swimming with my nieces and nephews in the same waters just last year, decades on. My siblings and I swam in Ostell Bay too, as Innes does, though I took the liberty of omitting the flying ants which infested our childhood picnics from my adult romance:

The breeze began to die down as they headed into St Ostell Bay. Directly across, the Isle of Arran lay like a sleeping lion, a bank of low, pinkish cloud that looked more like mist sitting behind it and giving it a mysterious air. In front of them stretched a crescent of beach, the sand turning from golden at the water’s edge, to silver where high dunes covered in rough grass formed the border. Behind, a dark forest made the bay feel completely secluded.

Marguerite's home town, Dunoon, Argyll

Marguerite’s home town, Dunoon, Argyll

I tried to instill not only my love but my affection for these childhood (and adult) haunts in Strangers at the Altar, which comes closer than any of my books to a homage to Argyll. The landscape, like my hero, is stark and stunning. Its beauty hides a dark nature. And the climate, our fickle climate, is reflected in the sweeping changes of poor, tortured Innes’s moods.

Innes is an engineer. Iain Hunter, the hero of Unwed an Unrepentant is a ship builder. Boats are another part of my landscape and my heritage that has been creeping ever more into my books. Ferries connect me across the peninsula to the mainland. Liners and tankers and yachts sail past my window every day. My maternal grandfather was a ship’s captain. My paternal grandfather built the things. (His claim to fame was that he made the boilers for the QEII. One of my lasting memories is of him taking a hammer to beat his artificial leg into shape!)

Argyll doesn’t feature in my current book, The Widow and the Sheikh, though my botanist heroine is from Cornwall and has a strong connection to the sea, and my sheikh’s dark broodiness is worthy of the lowering clouds which are scudding over the sky as I write. We’ve officially passed on a summer this year in Scotland, with the wettest, coldest July on record, so it’s probably not surprising that my fantasy desert landscape is all sweltering sands and celestial blue skies. I can take the cold. I can suffer the winds and the snow. But I really, really can’t stand the rain.

The Soldier’s Rebel Lover, the second of my Comrades in Arms duet, is out 1st October in print and digital, UK, US and Canada. The first two books in my Hot Desert Nights quartet, The Widow and the Sheikh, and The (deliberately anachronistic) Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride will be released in March and April 2016. Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, my duet with Bronwyn Scott, will be released in July 2016.
You can read excerpts all my books over on my website: http://www.margueritekaye.com. Or why not just come and chat to me about books and life in general on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/margueritekayepage or on Twitter: @margueritekaye

Thank you, Marguerite, for stopping by today (and for sharing the beautiful photos). I’m quite jealous of the view from your window. So for anyone stopping by, let’s chat about climate and its impact on our lives. Marguerite and I represent nearly opposite climates — she’s got all that lovely rain, cold, and changeability, and I’ve got nearly endless cloudless skies, long-ass summers, and 80 degree (F) days throughout winter. Our cultural narratives match our climates. How about yours?

Expectations and endings – a musey thoughtsy about The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye

In one of my recent(ish) email exchanges with Marguerite Kaye (who, in addition to writing some
of my favorite historical romance novels, is a fabulous correspondent), I mentioned that I wanted to start a new series of posts on my blog called musey thoughtsies, places where I or any guest posters could ramble on about whatever. It was just starting to get hot where I live, and there had just been a fire, and I 20150814_145838rambled on in my email about the impact of my home climate — drought-riddled chaparral — on my ability to sojourn in green lands. I spent a week in Ohio over the summer and found it claustrophobic: so much green growth reaching up to the sky and clouds reaching down, enclosing all around.

Anyway, Marguerite encouraged my musey thoughtsy idea, because she’s made of awesome. On Friday I’ll have her on with a guest musey thoughtsy about never-ending rain (something I can’t comprehend at all). But for now, I want to talk about her most recent book.

When Major Finlay Urquhart was last on the battlefield, he shared a sizzling moment with daring Isabella Romero. Two years later, Finlay has one final duty to perform for his country, one that reunites him with this rebellious senorita! Except Isabella has her own mission, which means that no matter how much she craves Finlay’s touch, she can never tell him the truth. But she’s underestimated Finlay’s determination to protect her, and soon she finds herself letting her guard down, one scorching kiss at a time!

God, that cover. It’s grown on me a little bit, but I can’t help but wonder exactly how uncomfortable that model was. Corsets aren’t comfortable when you’re vertical, but they’re about forty times worse when you’re lying down. And then having to be nose to nose with another model, trying not to breathe in his face when you can barely get a good breath anyway… It must have been awful. I guess it’s a good thing that I’m not part of the decision-making process for any covers, because I’m pretty sure I’d find something to complain about every time. Anyway… the book.

I opened The Soldier’s Rebel Lover with high expectations. There’s a good reason that I write about Kaye’s books so frequently on this blog (pretty much every time a new one comes out). They sing to my soul. It’s like she starts with an idea of a heroine, usually someone interesting and a little bit different and beset by a problem that I recognize, and then she builds the story around her.

Be honest: how many times when reading historical romance do you get the sense that the story was built around the heroine? Not often. It’s the heroes who are usually at the focus of both the narrative and our attention. As readers, we want to fall in love with the hero, and all we require from the heroine is that she be worthy of her hero, whatever that means, and not too “difficult.”

Kaye’s interest in her heroines — and through them her readers — and in the issues that impact those heroines — and continue to impact her readers (and herself) today — shines through her writing, even when she’s trying to write a series that is hero-centric. I still feel like what she’s really trying to do is to tell my story, to make sense of my world. And, selfish being that I am, I find that I love the experience. Continue reading

Books and love: The Professor by Charlotte Stein

So, I think by now it’s clear that I love me some Charlotte Stein. I love her books. I love her Twitter feed. I have aspirational thoughts sometimes — usually when I’m in the middle of one of her books — that I’ll overcome my intense dislike of travel and just, like, show up at her house (somehow) and… ? I usually stop there. Even I can’t think, despite my being rather charming in a painfully awkward kind of way, that my turning up at someone’s house unannounced could be anything but creepy and terrible.

(By the way, I’ve just revealed a grim truth: my aspirational thoughts deflate rather quickly under the pressure of my practical mental habits. Ask me about my hopes and dreams sometime, and you’ll see just how drab my mental landscape can be.)

Anyway… I read a book:

Esther wrote down her fantasies about her tutor, but she never intended for him to read them.
Once they cross the line there’s no going back.
Esther has always been an average student. She coasts through life on a sea of Bs, until a fatal mistake jolts her out of mediocrity and into something else entirely. She accidentally leaves a story in an essay for her teacher — one that no teacher should ever see. And especially not Professor Harding.
His lectures are legendary, and he is formidable. But most of all: he is devastatingly handsome, and now he has Esther’s most private and erotic fantasies. The stage is set for humiliation. Until the Professor presents her with a choice. He offers private tuition at his home.
And at first that’s exactly what she does, sure there remains a line between teacher and student that she would never cross it and that someone like Harding never would. He is far too cold and sharp, and so invested in all of his rules that breaking them seems unthinkable.
A single touch would be too much.
A wrong word could ignite an inferno.
So what happens when both of them want to burn?

I love how books figure in Stein’s writing, how often a love of books is what draws the characters together, as though their physical attraction is largely based on their discovery (their sense, sometimes like radar) of a shared love of books. Stein’s characters love books, tend to feel detached from others, and often take refuge in each other as fellow sojourners from alien planets (perhaps planets populated by readers, that bizarre species). The Professor takes this theme of Stein’s work (present in several of my favorites, including — most recently — Taken and Sweet Agony) and gives it pride of place. Amid book-strewn habitats and a wealth of literary references, these two readers (and writers) negotiate emotional and physical intimacy.

So maybe The Professor isn’t going to end up being one of my favorites of Stein’s work (there’s not quite enough connection to the hero and his conflicts (perhaps because he keeps fleeing the scene), and it’s also not quite as neurotically funny as my favorites tend to be), but… and maybe this doesn’t make any sense, but if the entire body of Stein’s work is a symphony in three or four parts (with her various themes being the three or four movements), then this book is the bass line to one of those movements: essential to any attempt to analyze what’s going on. I certainly feel as though, having read it, I have a better understanding of all the books that came before.

As usual, I’ve been dithering on this post. (I dithered so much that I read Taken again — for the fourth time — because I was trying to figure out what it was about it that I liked so much. I mean, these two books have an awful lot in common: older, somewhat restrained, massive (possibly secret werewolf) hero matched with younger, utterly neurotic, sexually unrestrained heroine. Both books have a slight Beauty and the Beast vibe (you get a hint of it in the cover of The Professor) with the heroine somehow compelled into their company at the beginning, the attraction developing out of a shared love of books, and all the hairy (literal and figurative) issues and fears. Here’s the thing: Taken is also damn charming and funny as hell. I can’t say that it would work for every reader — some folk might not share my love of neurotica, and Taken has a double dose. I mean, really:

“Now I know you’re screwing with me. Either that or trying to flatter me to get out of this — which by the way is even worse than begging for your life. You should not have to say nice things to get out of this. It is way worse if you have to say nice things to get out of this. I will probably get beat up in prison, if I’m not somehow mysteriously killed in the squad car on the way to the station first.”
“Well, before you are, could you maybe just speak a little of it for me?”
“Speak a little of what exactly? What are we talking about here?”
“We were talking about the German that you might possibly speak”
“I thought we were talking about me holding you against your will then being arrested and murdered in a police car, after which there will be a Lifetime movie based on my life called Ugly Hairy Guy Held Me Hostage: The Whatever Your Name Is Story,” he says.

So, yeah. There’s neurotic narration and a lot of neurotic dialogue, but it worked for me. Through the rambling, ever-so-slightly crazy dialogue, you really get to know Johann, and you’re rooting for him and Rosie both, even when they’re being ridiculous.

By contrast, The Professor is a bit more serious in its tone. To an extent, that’s a good thing. I mean, Stein is dealing with some hinky territory here with the professor/student dynamic. But the book is not quite as much fun, and… I missed the fun. Also, Harding is much more remote (sometimes actually remote, like when he just picks up and leaves several times over) and thus (for me) harder to root for as a hero.

But to get back to that bass line, I would probably not have noticed that Johann and Rosie’s courtship in Taken is so deeply dependent upon books were it not for The Professor. (And in Sweet Agony when Cyrian gives Molly full access to the library and reads to her — basically one of the most romantic gestures there ever could be — isn’t it the first indication that they’re kindred souls, despite her background and his otherworldliness?) So maybe The Professor isn’t quite better than the sum of its parts (to me), but those parts — the critiques Harding offers on Esther’s writing; the gut-punch of Harding’s writing; the epistolary scenes; the literary references; and Esther’s strength at the end — are better than most other wholes.

In case you’re curious (not sure why would be, but whatever), I purchased copies of all three books, but I also received an e-ARC of Sweet Agony for review consideration.