I’ve looked at romance from both sides, now

There are all sorts of sub-genres that with within the romance genre.  I primarily stick to historical romances, but even among that sub-genre, there are different varieties according to time period (regency, Georgian, Victorian, medieval, etc.).  There are also different levels of ‘sensuality,’ and I’m not entirely certain that I understand the differences between a historical romance, a sensual historical romance, and an erotic historical romance.  There are also inspirational historical romances, and normally I would give these a wide berth (religion and romance seeming, to me, to be an odd combination), but I’ve discovered that, as with anything, with the right author, they can be wonderful.

Cover image, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen

In any book, isn’t it sometimes a lot of fun to read about a character who has a lot of growing to do? (Assuming that the character doesn’t piss you off so much that you can’t get through the book, of course…)  Authors really take a risk when they commit to the page a character who is so much like the rest of us–bratty, flawed, snarky, arrogant, selfish, etc.–because we readers (as humans) often want to forget that we possess all those qualities, and it’s always incredibly annoying to encounter one’s hated bad qualities in another person.  It’s like a judgment.  And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like feeling judgment when I’m reading for pleasure.  But when it’s done well, it can be magical to witness a character’s journey from spoiled jerk to sympathetic wonderfulness.  The heroine of The Maid of Fairbourne Hall goes on just that sort of journey, and it’s just one of the many things that I liked about the novel.

As the title would suggest, The Maid of Fairbourne Hall involves an upstairs/downstairs storyline.  I don’t actually know why I didn’t get annoyed by all the descriptions of Margaret’s duties as a downstairs maid–I mean, (over)description is often the death of a novel–but I suspect that it’s due entirely to Julie Klassen’s superior storytelling.  She never once lost her focus: even when she was describing all of Margaret’s daily chores, the focus remained on Margaret’s response to the work, on her discovery of the life of a maid, of her own insignificance (as Mr. Bennet would say), and of the hero’s worthiness.  In the end, this story really is all about discovery and realization.  Margaret discovers herself and her true feelings for Nathaniel.  Nathaniel similarly discovers Margaret (in a few ways) and recovers himself.  And the theme also connects some of the secondary characters in the story.  The end result is a lovely, deeply romantic story that is emotionally satisfying and (dare I say it) nourishing.

All right… I want to talk about romance for a bit.  I know that word doesn’t mean anything concrete… after all, Walter Scott wrote romances that satisfy the requirements of the term (as far as the heroic romance or medieval romance are concerned) but manage to be remarkably unsatisfying (Bride of Lammermoor, I’m looking right at you with angry eyes). So when we talk about romance in the modern age, what do we mean?  Are we still telling heroic romance stories about knights imbued with all the good qualities the world has to offer who go out on quests of some sort and end up winning the favors of their various ladies?  In our post-ERA age, do we really want to read stories where all the action and adventure are given to the hero while the heroine (always a Rowena) passively waits to be claimed?  Or do we even think about the origins of romance when we sit down to read?  Has romance as a type of story become merely a vehicle for sex?  Don’t get me wrong–sex is a-OK in my book (ha ha), but it isn’t exactly a substitute for romance.

I don’t really know what romance means to the general population, but I know what it means to me.  I want an emotional story about the connection or relationship between the main characters.  Other elements from romance are welcome (action/adventure/quest/magic/etc.), but I’m in it for emotional catharsis.  Sex scenes are not required for good romance, and sometimes they get in the way.  The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is a romance in all the best ways–its focus is on the emotional development of the two main characters as individuals and on the emotional development of their relationship–and it’s fantastic.  And there’s no sex at all, and I didn’t miss it.  I can’t wait to read more books by Julie Klassen.

I should have taken off my feminist pants before I read this book…

A few years ago, I had this friend who was a little weird around all the menfolk.  She was a nice enough girl, to be sure, but, if there were any men within a 20-foot radius, she felt this bizarre need to be reassured of her sexual attractiveness by each and every man present, married or single.  It got to be a trifle annoying.  I didn’t understand what could drive her to such heights of ridiculous behavior that she would flirt with husbands in front of their wives in order to feel OK about herself as a human being.  Why not just be content with commanding the sexual attention of all the single guys?  Better yet, leave sex out of it when among friends.  But apparently When Harry Met Sally had it right–men and women can’t be friends because sex is always lurking around the corner, waiting for its moment to strike.

Is it delusional of me to hope that I have some sort of identity beyond my capacity for sex?  When I’m going about my business throughout the day, I don’t usually think about sex all that often (and, if I do, my sexy sexy thoughts are limited to my husband).  I don’t know if any of my coworkers find me a attractive, and I’d really prefer if my attractiveness (or not) had no bearing on their thoughts about me.  What the hell does sex have to do with my job scheduling a busy woman’s life, planning her travel, writing her correspondence, etc.?

It really bugs me, this idea that the root of all interactions between men and women is sex and that no amount of enlightenment can ever change that basis.  If a man wants to have sex with you (and every man does, we are told, although they’re happier about wanting to have sex with some women more than others, and if you fall into that latter category, woe betide you), that’s all he’ll be able to think about when he’s around you, and you’re powerless to stop it.  The other side of that coin is that, as a woman, your value as a person derives from sex, and you really have no identity beyond it.  So my friend and all her sexual posturing make perfect sense: she’s just trying to be a good woman, and everyone knows that a good woman is one who is desired by men (not a man but all men).  The whole concept is yucky, to me.

So why the hell am I talking about this is relation to a book?  Have I been reading feminist manifestos?  Nope… I read a bunch of romance novels this week, and one of them made me bleed from both eyes.

Cover image, The Bride Sale by Candice Hern

Oh god, the cover!  The snow lay on the ground, so why is Lord Hotness prancing around without a shirt?  Well, at least he grabbed a fancy-looking cloak in deference to the cold.

Ok… full disclosure… I bought this book because Avon (the publisher) sponsored a sale during the month of June on bride-related books (get the tie-in?).  $1.99 for a full-length e-book is a pretty darn good price, and the blurb sounded relatively up my alley (seriously messed up hero rescues the heroine from an uncertain fate… yada yada yada).  With a few reservations relating to the heroine’s apparent (to her) lack of identity (see rant above), I actually enjoyed the first 85% of the book, and then something happened to make me HATE it.  And I mean lots of hate.  Virulent hate infecting every part of me with an impotent rage.

I’ll do my best to steer clear of spoiler territory, here, but I don’t think the mystery relating to the heroine is at all important to the overall story line.  So here’s the deal.  The heroine was married by an arranged marriage to a gay man (not that anyone besides the gay man and his partner knew about that), and he, on their wedding night, was so grossed out by the heroine’s girl parts that he couldn’t do the deed and actually vomited next to the bed.  Isn’t that nice.  The heroine, who remained a virgin after all of this, didn’t know her husband was gay, didn’t know anything about sex, really, and was convinced that she just had some seriously nasty girl parts that would drive any man to cast up his accounts and then leave her alone in a moldering house for two years.  Totally reasonable, right?

Anyway, at some point her lame-ass husband realizes that he can make some money off of her, so he takes her to the wilds of Cornwall and sells her (that’s the Bride Sale) in an open auction where she is bought by the seriously messed-up hero.  The heroine assumes that she will be installed as his mistress (because what other value is there in a woman?), but he’s an honorable man, serious issues notwithstanding, and he does his best to treat her with the respect he feels she deserves.  Ordinarily, that would be wonderful, but his apparent lack of interest is enough to convince the heroine that she really is a worthless human being, even though she has skills as a healer, saves the life of a young boy, and eases all the medical complaints of an entire village.  Blah blah blah, and we get to the part that pissed me off, when it is revealed that, in fact, the hero does find the heroine very attractive.  All of a sudden, the heroine finds her identity and raison d’être, both originating in her value as an attractive female that the hero wants to nail.  Awesome.

And, I’m not kidding, the book devotes a lot of time to explaining the heroine’s happiness at being found attractive.  Considering that she’s just been kidnapped by her husband, has stood up for herself for the first time in, like, ever, then was rescued by the hero, and then discovered that her husband is gay and that there’s a chance she could get the marriage annulled, you’d think she’d have all sorts of interesting things to dwell on in her mind, but no.  The only thing she can think about is her relief to discover that her girl parts aren’t nasty.  Thank God!  Men want to have sex with me!  That means my life will be perfect!  UGH!!!  Or, for the actual quote:

“Verity was so overcome by this revelation she was almost unable to breathe.  Of all the astonishing events of the last day–Gilbert’s arrival, James’s rescue, the possibility of an annulment, this exquisite lovemaking–nothing affected her as profoundly as this new knowledge that she was not, after all, defective in some way, undesirable to men.”

Note that Verity is concerned about her desirability to men.  And half-a-page later:

“In the space of a moment, she was a new woman.  The man she adored found her beautiful and desirable.  The pride she would now wear would be real and true, no longer a mask for shame.”

Do you want to know how angry that one page of the book made me?

Out of a sense of fairness, I gave the book 2 of 5 stars on Goodreads, because the story elements that did not relate to Verity were all very good.  In fact, I really liked everything else about the book, but this one thing totally destroyed it for me.

Double Review (what does it mean?) – A Scandalous Affair and Improper Relations

Cover image, A Scandalous Affair by Karen Erickson

When a novella is well written, it gives you a lovely, lunch-sized portion of your favorite meal.  It doesn’t take long to get through it, it is fulfilling, but, in the end, you still have room for dinner.  The following two novellas definitely fit in that category.  I decided to review them together because I liked them both and because I’ve got a bit of catching up to do… Here’s what the publisher (Carina Press) had to say about A Scandalous Affair:

From the moment Daphne, Lady Pomeroy, meets the mysterious Marquess of Hartwell at a masquerade ball, she’s determined to seduce him. The handsome, charming man cannot possibly be the cold, calculating lord who Society calls “Black Hart.” Risking everything, the lonely widow invites the elusive Hartwell to her dinner party…for two.

Hartwell’s arrogant reputation is built on a lie. For he has a shameful secret that keeps him in the shadows: a stutter-his downfall since childhood. He’d rather keep his mouth shut than look the fool. But he’s shocked to discover that in Daphne’s company-and in her bed-his stutter vanishes.

After one wanton evening together, Daphne is hurt when the lord lives up to his Black Hart name. Yet his reasons for leaving surprise even him. Now he must confess everything or risk losing Daphne forever…

22,000 words

First of all, I’ve got to admit that I love heroes with issues, and Hartwell is no exception.  Girls who like to read about strong male characters that will tell them what to do will probably find him to be a bit of a pansy, but I really like to read about characters who go on some sort of internal journey over the course of a book (novel, novella, short story, whatever).  When you have a character who starts out with a major issue or insecurity and gets to discover his strength and value as a human being, you (the reader) get to read a story of the redemptive power of love, and that’s my favorite kind of story.  Regarding Hartwell’s issues, I did find it a bit of a stretch to accept that no one else in his entire life (other than Daphne) had ever looked deeper to try to determine the reason for his apparent coldness.  Yes, a lot of people are shallow and self-absorbed, but not everyone is…

My favorite part of this novella is the fun relationship between Daphne and her brother.  Both characters are likable (which is lovely and sadly unusual) and they actually behave like siblings who know one another on a deeper-than-superficial level and are able to tease.  I’m a big fan of authors who manage to write engaging sibling relationships, and I thought Karen Erickson nailed this one.

The big conflict in the story was slightly underwhelming, but that didn’t bother me so much in a novella as it would in a full-length novel.  The emotional resolution to the story is extremely satisfying even though the conflict was a trifle lame.  Bottom line: this novella will provide a delightful hour or two of reading entertainment and leave you smiling, basking in the glow of a happy ending achieved by worthy characters.  It’s worth the read.

Cover image, Improper Relations by Juliana Ross

Improper Relations is steamy.  If you buy and read it, you won’t really be shocked by that.  It’s an erotic novel, and unlike the only other erotic novel I’ve discussed on my blog (that would be here), it actually earns its place in that genre. Here’s what the publisher (Carina Press) has to say about it:

Dorset, 1858

When Hannah’s caught watching her late husband’s cousin debauch the maid in the library, she’s mortified-but also intrigued. An unpaid companion to his aunt, she’s used to being ignored.

The black sheep of the family, Leo has nothing but his good looks and noble birth to recommend him. Hannah ought to be appalled at what she’s witnessed, but there’s something about Leo that draws her to him.

When Leo claims he can prove that women can feel desire as passionately as men, Hannah is incredulous. Her own experiences have been uninspiring. Yet she can’t bring herself to refuse his audacious proposal when he offers to tutor her in the art of lovemaking. As the tantalizing, wicked lessons continue, she begins to fear she’s losing not just her inhibitions, but her heart as well. The poorest of relations, she has nothing to offer Leo but herself. Will it be enough when their erotic education ends?

22,000 words

Note the word count.  This is another novella, and it is lovely.  The pacing, story, character development, etc. are all pitch perfect.  Beyond that, the story is told in an interesting way: it’s a first-person narrative, and isn’t that incredible, considering that it’s a steamy, erotic story?  And it really is steamy (seriously… I wouldn’t read this around my children…).  I was fascinated by how different it was to read sex scenes narrated by one of the participants (the female one, no less) than told through a switching-POV third-person god-like narrator.  For starters, we get a much more personal view of Leo, the male lead.  We also get the mystery of knowing only Hannah’s thoughts and feelings about the burgeoning relationship and having to wonder at Leo’s.  Even better, we don’t have to read a bunch of euphemisms for Hannah’s girly bits, and there’s no irritating mention of how “tight” she is (always annoys me…).  Brilliant.

As an erotic novel, the sex scenes are the central focus of the story, but they don’t come across as being tawdry or crude or gratuitous.  I never once thought while reading Improper Relations “Really, they’re having sex again?  Jeez…”  Instead, the sex scenes flowed seamlessly, buoyed by Hannah’s emotional journey and by the plot (the non-sex plot… and, yeah, there’s actually a non-sex plot!  Oh my god!).  I highly recommend this book to anyone who (1) is OK with quite detailed sex scenes and (2) wants a good story with plenty of emotional movement that is quite short (70-or-so pages).

*FTC Disclosure: I received review copies of both A Scandalous Affair and Improper Relations from Carina Press through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – Asher’s Invention by Coleen Kwan

Cover image, Asher’s Invention by Coleen Kwan

When I saw the description of this book on NetGalley, I thought, yeah, that’s pretty much up my alley.  It’s set in the Victorian era, and it’s a steampunk romance.  Honestly, they had me at “…prototype for a wondrous device…”  I’m a sucker for devices of all sorts.  Anyway, here’s the description from the publisher:

Five years ago, Asher Quigley broke his engagement to Minerva Lambkin, believing she was an accomplice in a scheme to steal his prototype for a wondrous device. Minerva swore she was innocent, though the thief-and Asher’s mentor-was her own father.

Now, sheer desperation has driven Minerva to Asher’s door. Her father has been kidnapped by investors furious that he’s never been able to make the machine work. Only Asher, now a rich and famous inventor in his own right, can replicate the device. He’s also become a hard, distant stranger far different from the young idealist she once loved.

Despite their troubled past, Asher agrees to help Minerva. He still harbors his suspicions about her, but their reunion stirs emotions and desires they both thought were buried forever. Can they rebuild their fragile relationship in time to save her father and their future together?

29,000 words

True to form, I loved all the gadgets and inventions, however implausible they might have been.  There are airships and nifty prosthetics and mechanical dogs and ray guns (!!), and, of course, there’s a “wondrous device.”  I loved that the author didn’t waste a lot of time explaining the devices but left that up to the reader’s imagination (maybe my version of a Viper Ray gun differs from Coleen Kwan’s version, but who cares?).

At about 94 pages (depending, I suppose, on one’s e-reader formatting), this book weighs in as a novella.  As such, it’s short on a lot of the story and character development that you would expect from a full-length novel, but there was still enough of a story to keep my interest, and I think it stands as a fairly strong example of ideal novella formatting and pacing, even if a lot of the story and character elements annoyed me.

I didn’t care for Asher very much, his inventions notwithstanding.  I had a difficult time connecting to him as a character, and not all of his actions made sense (particularly at the end… goodness); about halfway through the novella, he does a 180, and there isn’t enough of an explanation given to render it seamless.  I liked Minerva, and I liked how her character developed over the course of the book, but, again, it was a bit choppy, as though she developed in fits and starts, with huge changes taking place in the space of a moment rather than gradually.  This issue may be due to the space limitations of the novella format (what do I know?).

For a steampunk romance, I didn’t find it terribly romantic.  Asher’s kind of a jerk, and his big “finally not a jerk” moment isn’t given enough time and space to resonate with the reader.  The author (as the narrator) mentions twice how abrupt and strange his about-face is to Minerva, and I was left wondering why, since Coleen Kwan obviously noticed how abrupt and strange it is, she just left it that way.

Finally, it both amused me and irritated me that the author repeated herself a few times about some really strange things.  Minerva has some issues with vertigo, and I know this because the author mentions three times in the space of one scene (in the airship) that Minerva’s “stomach did another queasy tumble,” and that her “stomach was still rebelling,” and that she “had not yet mastered her stomach.”  If it’s absolutely necessary that the reader know about how Minerva’s stomach is doing (and I don’t think it is.  Minerva’s motion sickness doesn’t further either the story or her character development, so why should I, as the reader, care about it?) one mention would have been adequate.

Overall, it was an interesting story but it didn’t quite make it to my ‘i liked it’ list.

*FTC disclosure: I received a free e-galley of this book from Carina Press through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Liebster Award – full of win

Many thanks go to Pam at Moonlightreader for tagging me with the Liebster Award.  This award is for bloggers with fewer than 200 followers.  Awardees get to share 11 facts about themselves, answer the 11 questions written by the person who tagged them, choose 11 more questions, and tag 11 more bloggers to answer those 11 questions (makey sensey?).

11 facts about me:

  1. I love bacon.
  2. I have two kids, a 3-year-old and a 16-month-old.
  3. I am a Californian.
  4. I sing alto in my church’s choir.
  5. I have a really loud laugh.
  6. I tend to be too candid.
  7. I’m really tall (6’2″, when I actually stand up straight).
  8. I’m a total grammar Nazi, but I don’t think the rules of grammar should apply to informal speech (informal writing, yes, but spoken language and written language are two totally different monkeys), and it bugs me when folks correct other folks’ speech.
  9. I’m listening to Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” right now, and it always makes me think about South Park.
  10. I am a terrible dancer, and I have no shame…
  11. I wear flip-flops every day, unless it’s raining (they’re a death trap in the rain… no traction).

11 questions posed by Pam at Moonlight Reader:

  1. Name your all-time favorite book/series – My favorite series is Harry Potter, hands down.  My favorite book is Pride and Prejudice.
  2. Who is your favorite musician? – It’s a tie between Tori Amos and Radiohead
  3. Do you prefer Jay Leno or David Letterman? – Actually, I prefer Stephen Colbert, but if I have to choose between those two, I guess it’s Leno.  Letterman annoys me.
  4. What is your favorite dinner? – Meat loaf, cheesy mashed potatoes, and sautéed green beans, all made by my husband.  He’s a cook.
  5. What did you dress up as last Halloween? – I was ill-prepared, so I just slapped on some running clothes.  My favorite Halloween costume involved me wearing my normal clothes and carrying a sign: “Nudist on Strike.”  I like to be comfortable.
  6. What book are you currently anticipating being released? – A Lady by Midnight by Tessa Dare.  Love her books…
  7. What’s your favorite movie? – The Three Amigos.  🙂
  8. What blog/blogs do you frequent most often? – Well, I follow a bunch of blogs, but Beauty in Budget Blog wins because it’s written by one of my best friends. 🙂
  9. Do you stay up extra late to read a good book or just go to bed and finish it the next day? – Yes… I stay up as late as I can, but at some point my husband starts muttering in his sleep about how annoying it is that I don’t just go to bed….  But yeah, I forego sleep to keep following a good story more than I should.
  10. If you could have any car, what kind would it be? – I’d like to have a hybrid something or other (or a Tesla).
  11. What’s your favorite holiday? – Thanksgiving.  I absolutely love that meal, and my husband wraps our turkey in bacon (BACON!!!) when he cooks it.  Seriously:

Turkey with a bacon breastplate

My Liebster Award nominees (read: winners):

  1. Libby’s Book Blog
  2. 365 Books a Year
  3. Lightningpen’s Blog
  4. The Literary Bunny
  5. trinity’s world
  6. Reader’s Confession
  7. Love, Literature, Art, and Reason
  8. Feminist Fairy Tale Reviews
  9. Escapism from Reality
  10. Vicariously
  11. The Diary of a Book Addict

My 11 questions for these 11 blogs:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?
  3. What is your favorite food?
  4. Do you still like to fingerpaint?
  5. Regarding Mr. Clean: creepy cleaning supervisor or great helper?
  6. What got you into reading in the first place?
  7. What kind of books do you normally read?
  8. How long have you been blogging?
  9. What’s your favorite thing about blogging?
  10. Do you accept (or beg for, as the case may be) ARCs, or do you prefer to read/review your own books?
  11. If you know you’re going to write on your blog about a book that you’re reading, do you take notes?
Well, folks, that’s all.  I just want to thank Pam @ Moonlight Reader once again… I had such a blast running around and finding 11 blogs to tag!

Feature and Follow Friday

Feature and Follow Friday is a meme hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee.  It’s a blog hop–a way to connect with other bloggers and make new friends.  This week’s featured blogs are Head Stuck In A Book and Books and Blossoms.  So far, all four blogs seem pretty nifty, so if you haven’t checked them out, you should (assuming you have time to putz around on the Internet, that is…)

In addition to featuring a blog, the meme also asks participants to answer a question, and this week the question is: “If you could “unread” a book, which one would it be? Is it because you want to start over and experience it again for the first time? Or because it was THAT bad?”  

I’ve already posted this week about how much I would like to un-read Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, but it seems lame to me to answer the meme question with a post I wrote a few days ago…  So, if I could un-read a book, I would choose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.  It’s an amazing book–mysterious and creepy–and if not for one particular scene, I’d be happy to read it again and again (rather than deleting it from my mind).  But I’m a total pansy, and ten years after I read the book, I still occasionally have nightmares about this one scene.  If you’ve read the book, I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about.  I really wish that scene could be removed from my head.  I’m sick of reliving it.

I’m on WordPress, so the following options, should you choose to follow me, are somewhat limited.  I’ve been trying to figure out the mysteries of the RSS feed but no cigar just yet.  In the meantime, if you’d like to follow me, please do so by email, or you can follow me on Twitter.  Happy Friday!

Check out my guest post on Beauty in Budget Blog!

That’s me… If I see a camera pointed my way, I naturally make that face. It really bugs my Grandpa.  As an aside, I think that’s Joan Didion’s The White Album in my hand.

I’m not very good at taking care of my appearance… it all started with school uniforms, and by the time I got to public school, I didn’t recognize the difference between fashion and crazy.  Who was wearing lace-edged leggings three years past the fad?  I was!  Who was wearing pedal pushers five years before they got cool?  I was! (To be honest, they weren’t actually pedal pushers… they were regular jeans that were just way too short on me because I hit my growth spurt in 6th and 7th grades and grew 11 inches over the two school years… my inseams just couldn’t keep up.)  I sort of gave up on being hip or even marginally attractive.

That’s me in the middle, trying to pretend to be 5’4″ (I was actually 6’0″). I was 13, and I had really bad allergies.

Thank God for my friend Teresa, who has never accepted that slovenly homeliness is the best I can do.  And she’s right.  It really does feel good to take a tiny bit of care when selecting my clothing in the morning, and if I still can’t be bothered to brush or style my hair (employing, instead, the ubiquitous floppy pony tail… it ain’t pretty, but whatever), at least I’m moving in the right direction with my sartorial care.  Thank God also that Teresa started her blog about makeup, because I use it as an excellent and entertaining ‘how to be a girl’ reference manual.

And now I can add another plume to my sparsely feathered cap: Teresa has allowed me to write a guest review of e.l.f.’s Lip Balm SPF 15.  Please click on over to Beauty in Budget Blog (right here) to see the review and check out all the amazing advice on drugstore makeup: what’s available, what it costs, and whether it’s worth it.  I love this blog.