Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane Series (Book 3)

This post is seriously overdue.  I read these books in August!  Quite a while ago, I wrote a post about the first two books in this series, and now I’m finally attempting to catch up.  My thoughts on book 4 are still to come (I know, right? Bated breath.).  If you’re one of those weird people (oh, you weird people) who cares about things like plot spoilers and surprise reveals, and you’re actually planning on reading these books, I suggest you stop reading this post and get to (but keep in mind that you ought not be put off by book 1 – it’s annoying, but the other books are quite good.  If annoying isn’t your speed: skip book 1 entirely.).

If you’re still reading, I’m just going to assume that you, like yours truly, don’t give two hoots or a holler about surprise reveals with dramatic music.  Or, well, not much.

A publisher’s blurb might actually be helpful here.  From Goodreads:

Can a pirate learn that the only true treasure lies in a woman’s heart?

Widowed Silence Hollingbrook is impoverished, lovely, and kind—and nine months ago she made a horrible mistake. She went to a river pirate for help in saving her husband and in the process made a bargain that cost her her marriage. That night wounded her so terribly that she hides in the foundling home she helps run with her brother. Except now that same river pirate is back . . . and he’s asking for her help.

“Charming” Mickey O’Connor is the most ruthless river pirate in London. Devastatingly handsome and fearsomely intelligent, he clawed his way up through London’s criminal underworld. Mickey has no use for tender emotions like compassion and love, and he sees people as pawns to be manipulated. And yet he’s never been able to forget the naive captain’s wife who came to him for help—and spent one memorable night in his bed . . . talking.

When his bastard baby girl was dumped in his lap—her mother having died—Mickey couldn’t resist the Machiavellian urge to leave the baby on Silence’s doorstep. The baby would be hidden from his enemies and he’d also bind Silence to him by her love for his daughter.

After telling Silence Hollingbrook’s back story over the course of the first two novels of this series, Hoyt finally gave Silence her own story.  She is married at the beginning of the series and just loves her husband all to pieces but feels vaguely disappointed in herself all the time.  She burns dinner and feels awful about it.  She wants fun sexy sexy times with her husband, but he’s somewhat reserved about that sort of thing (only in the dark, dear… Let’s think of England…), and she feels ashamed of her desire.  When her husband’s life and career are threatened after the notorious river pirate steals all the cargo from the ship he (the husband) captains, Silence goes to the pirate’s lair to ask that he return the loot (naive much?).  He agrees, with one stipulation: she must spend the night with him–talking–and must depart on foot the next morning in a disheveled state.  While it appears that she spent the night selling herself in exchange for her husband’s cargo, she didn’t.  Silence naively expects that her husband will believe her when she tells the truth about what happened, but, of course, he doesn’t.  No one does.  Instead, she becomes a ‘fallen woman,’ and her husband, ashamed of himself for not protecting his wife, ashamed of his wife for being defiled and for seeking to protect him (such a reversal of gender roles, that), leaves without ever resolving the issue.  Eventually he dies.

He had to die, right?  If they had experienced a healthy sexual relationship before he left, it might have been interesting to have him do the Angel Clare transformation (I know, I know… Tess of the d’Urbervilles, again?! Yes.  Much as I hated that book, it is an appropriate foil for many romances…) and come back to earn his wife’s trust, once freely given.  But they didn’t, and it wouldn’t be just, in a romance novel world, to  reward an interesting character with unsatisfying sex for the rest of her life.  In the interest of justice, then, Silence gets Mickey O’Connor.

Initially, I loved this book for being an entertaining, quick, and enjoyable read.  Silence’s blend of vulnerability and strength is engaging, and I enjoyed her bond with and attachment to Mary Darling, possibly because I have a child about Mary’s age and possibly because Mary Darling is a very well-written character, for a toddler.  Mickey O’Connor is a fairly solid anti-hero-turned-good-guy, and I thought he had a pretty good back story.  I’m not entirely sure why, but I liked Mickey O’Connor.  If I met someone like him in person, I’m fairly certain I’d take an instant dislike to him, but in what is essentially a fantasy novel, it’s safe to be drawn to personalities you’d normally despise, or, perhaps Mickey just reminds me a bit of myself.  Mickey self-represents as a Machiavellian dickhead, but he’s charming, and he’s a heck of a lot more interesting than Silence’s late husband.   While I expected the chemistry between these two characters to be a source of irritation to me, considering the harm Mickey did Silence in the previous books, I appreciated Hoyt’s take on the situation: her insistence that Mickey did not really harm Silence at all (and he didn’t).  In fact, it was Silence’s untrusting husband, family, society, etc. that actually harmed her.  In other words, all the people who had sworn to love and protect Silence ended up being the ones doing her harm with all their victim shaming.

Months after finishing the book, when I sat down to write a post about it, I discovered a giant pile of ambivalence had replaced my original, unconsidered “yup, I liked it.” response to the book.  I find that I am not completely content that Silence ended up with the man who was the architect of her betrayal.  Mickey acted in a remarkably selfish manner, and Silence ended up hurt.  It’s true that it was her husband and family who actually hurt her, but Mickey, bothered by Silence’s contentment with a life that was somewhat beneath her, acted to test that contentment, and Silence paid the price.  By giving Silence an HEA with Mickey, Hoyt forces me to ask some squirrelly questions about justice that don’t have any clear answers.  Was it really wrong for Mickey to test Silence’s husband’s love?  After all, if the husband had come up to snuff, had actually loved Silence (rather than an idea of ‘wife’), it would all be moot, a non-issue.  But he didn’t come up to snuff, and I’m tempted to blame Mickey for everything that came after, and that’s not right either.  Mickey poked at society’s view towards women, and it’s awful that he did so knowing how it would go, knowing that Silence would be unjustly punished and shamed by everyone, but shouldn’t my ruffled feathers and blame, as a reader, be directed against that society that shames victims and cares more about its wounded sensibilities than it cares about victims and what they might need?

If Silence’s story went a different direction, if she either continued on by herself (a respectable option, I think) or found someone else to love, it would be so easy to look back on Mickey O’Connor and consider him the true villain of the piece.  Instead, Silence finds happiness with Mickey (and he finds happiness with her), and the question of whether Mickey was right or wrong (or a mixture of the two) is forced to the forefront.  Maybe I liked this book so much because I enjoy uncomfortable conversations about difficult topics.  The more difficult and awkward the subject is, the more I want to talk about it, the more I think we need to talk about it.  But I digress.

I like adventures, stories with dastardly villains, and stories with the misunderstood hero trope (especially when he’s misunderstood by himself), and this book has all three.  That last is a bit of a conundrum, because I don’t tend to like stories where the heroine ‘saves’ the hero from his own dastardly self (he can change, ladies: keep the dream alive.); however, I want a hero character to go on a bit of an internal journey during the story, and an easy way to achieve that is to have the hero start out kind of a douche and, over the course of the story, discover that there is a value to changing his behavior.  Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough.  The point is, I like this book, even though I thought the ending was way too convenient (no consequences for a lifetime of crime? Really?) and even though I had to work through my own ruffled feathers in order to like it.

Is reality beautiful, or is it just too real?

Y’all know how I feel about romance novels (unless you’re new to this blog and have no idea, in which case, let me tell you: when they are done well, I love them, and when they are done poorly, I hate them with the burning intensity of a thousand suns; in other words, I have a fitting passion for the romance genre), but there are some aspects common to most romance novels that just burn my butt.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the way breasts are handled (ahem) in romance novels.  I think it’s still accurate to say that most readers of romance novels are women.  Most women have breasts.  Why, then, do authors need to describe breasts in minute detail?  There is some variation of description, sure; sometimes the breasts in question are ‘coral tipped globes’ and sometimes they are ‘creamy orbs,’ but they are almost always “perfectly formed” or otherwise “perfect.”  Just once I would like to read a romance novel that describes the heroine’s breasts as “uneven” or “lopsided” or ” a bit droopy.”  Honestly, if we must describe breasts, can’t we at least be realistic about the business?  It’s not as though it actually matters what the breasts look like, anyway.  Men are going to look regardless.

An engraving by W. Ridgway (published in 1878) after Daniel Huntington’s 1868 painting ”Philosophy and Christian Art’,’ U.S. public domain

I went on a bit of a reading binge this week and plowed through Tessa Dare’s Twice Temped by a Rogue, Courtney Milan’s Unveiled, Unlocked, Unclaimed and Unraveled and Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton.  5 of those 6 books use the word “perfect” or “perfection” in describing either the whole of the heroine’s bosom or some aspect of her bosom (her skin, her nipples, etc.).

I know… I’m being silly.  I enjoyed all six books immensely – those three authors represent some of the best talent in the romance genre today – but by the time I got to the sixth book (The Amorous Education), I found myself distracted by the heroine’s “well-shaped and pert, and practically perfect” breasts.  I longed for both variety and reality.

So this is my question: can reality be beautiful?  There’s the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that beholder’s eye is shaped by her culture.  Our culture celebrates artificial beauty: the shellac of makeup, the pastiche of Photoshop.  Women are bombarded with images of ideal beauty, most of which are manufactured in some way.

The romance novels that I enjoy are ones that celebrate women, that give commentary on some of the issues that are of import to women, that celebrate an active and confident sexuality, that break down double standards, that promote healthy relationships with an even balance of power, that are, at their core, rather feminist when you get right down to it.  Is it too pie-in-the-sky for me to hope to encounter, at some point, a book that, in addition to all of these traits, embraces a tad more realism in its physical descriptions (or, better: leaves off the detailed breasty descriptions altogether.  If I need to know what a breast looks like, I can just look down.)?  Does anyone have a good theory as to why there are so many detailed descriptions of lady parts (breasty and otherwise) in books primarily marketed to women?

A music post: Tori Amos rocks my world

Last December, I saw Tori Amos in concert in Los Angeles, and it was amazing.  It was stunning, actually.  I sat in my seat with wide, unblinking eyes and did my best to take everything in, to experience everything as fully as possible.  I was there with four of my friends, but once Tori came out on stage in her crazy dress and shiny leggings, my focus was set, and my experience was individual rather than collective.  I suspect the other three did the same.  When it was over, we gushed together.

I learned a few things that night.  I did not realize that I was so familiar with most of Tori’s songs that I would notice slight variations (an unexpected stress on a particular word in a song; a chord that used to be played differently; a slight lyric change).  I did not realize how much of my self was tied up with her music.

I’m one of those Tori fans for life.  It really doesn’t matter what she does (or doesn’t do); I will find a way to love everything she creates.  My experience of her music, my connection to it, has changed over the years.  I used to connect very emotionally to her music (possibly because I was a teenager at the time, possibly because the music itself was more emotional in nature), but my connection with her recent albums (except for Night of Hunters) has been more intellectual.  I want to figure out what the story is behind her songs; I want to hear and understand the architecture of the music and figure out how it contributes to the story; but I don’t often deliberately seek out the little personal corners of myself that connect to this or that piece of music or lyric.  My habit of intellectualizing Tori’s music ended on that evening in December when I sat in the Orpheum Theatre and listened to Tori play.

It was “Precious Things” that did me in.  Sitting there, I was reunited with all of my past selves who had listened to that song and found some comfort in it.

I am, of course, unable to listen to that song objectively.  All those past selves crowd in with their various connections to all the pretty girls, to all the pandering to boys whose faces I no longer remember, to all the times I cut myself down in an attempt to be what someone else may (or may not) have wanted.  I do not know whether that song is powerful in and of itself or if its power largely derives from my experience of it over the years.  Maybe it is infinitely more powerful to me because so many women of my acquaintance also connected with it.  Maybe that’s what music is.

Tori’s new album Gold Dust reminds me of that December concert.  I’ve grown up with Tori’s music as the soundtrack of my life, its ups and its downs.  Tori has grown up, too.  When she sings her songs now, “Precious Things” and “Hey Jupiter,” for instance, she can sing them as the girl she was 20 years ago when she wrote them, as a mature woman, as a mother.  Nothing about Tori’s music is static – every time she changes, it does, too – and I think that’s my favorite thing about her as an artist, that her art gives me the room I need to grow and change and still love what I loved before.

Feature and Follow Friday (3)

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 Book Liaison and Angela’s Anxious Life.  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: “What do you hope to accomplish with your blog? Is it to one day become an author yourself, just for fun, maybe get some online attention, or maybe something very different?”

Why in the world do I take time every week to tell the Internet what I think about life and romance novels?  Put like that, it seems very silly.  The thing is, I love to read.  I love it so much that I rarely allow myself the time to reflect on what I’ve read, what I thought about it, what new ideas it sparked, what new fragments of self it brought into existence.  Instead, my habit is to start a new book seconds after finishing the last, and that’s not best.  If one chooses, one can experience a book, taste and savor it rather than devouring it.  The purpose of this blog is to provide a space wherein I can discuss the books I read and, perhaps, learn a little something from the experience.  All that is my primary focus, but I also get a kick out of recommending books that I love (because books are meant to be read) and talking about these books with other people.

The fact is, I don’t have any close friends who like to read romance novels.  One of my friends actually gets kind of angry that I’m squandering my mental powers on such smutty reading material (or something like that), so I can’t talk about this part of my life with her.  It sucks.  I’m sure a lot of us have discovered that the Internet provides a glorious opportunity to meet people who share similar tastes (without a lot of the awkwardness attendant on face-to-face contact), and it’s been one of the great by-products of this blog.  Through my conversations with the folks I’ve met, I’ve been able to find quite a few new-to-me authors whose works I love, and I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun talking about these books in comments and emails and on Twitter.  It turns out I can make new friends (who knew?!).

So if the first paragraph describes why I started Reading with Analysis, the second paragraph describes why I continue.

I’m on WordPress, so the following options, should you choose to follow me, are somewhat limited.  I am no closer to discovering the mysteries of the RSS feed than I was the last time I participated in this meme, mostly because I have put zero effort into that endeavor……  In the meantime, if you’d like to follow me and are not also on WordPress, please do so by email, or you can follow me on Twitter.  Happy Friday!

Women and silence…and romance novels

I should start with a caveat or two:  (1) being long-overdue for an analysis, I am here introducing a somewhat difficult topic, and I do not reach any sort of conclusion about it, and (2) I wrote the second half of this post and edited it under the throes of a migraine…  I welcome all manner of comments, but I totally understand if this is a pond that no one wants to jump into.

There are a lot of things that women are told, whether by our mothers, through advertising, or through peer messages in school, that we should not talk about.  The results of this oppressive silence are never terribly pleasant.  We don’t have open, honest conversations with our daughters about sex or our bodies, so our daughters, flooded by confusing messages in the world (be thin, don’t be too thin, be sexy, don’t be too sexy, curves are good, fat is bad, be attractive so you don’t end up an old maid, don’t be too attractive or you’ll end up one of those girls), have no idea how to grow into their own sexuality or how to see that their sexuality is but a part of who and what they are.

And we don’t talk about it.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was horrified by exactly how much occurs during pregnancy that we don’t talk about at all.  I got the What to Expect books, and they casually mention a few things that a pregnant woman might experience: embarrassing gas, constipation, bone pain (pregnancy hormones soften your skeletal system so your bones can move, did you know that?), discomfort, itchiness from stretching skin, more embarrassing gas, heartburn, belching, etc.  But the neutral words do not prepare one for the realities of pregnancy.  Having gone through all of that nonsense twice now, I have become an advocate for speaking out.  Sometimes it’s awkward, like when I regale an entire dinner party with the real story of afterbirth (ewwww), but I would rather inflict momentary awkwardness on all my friends than act as if pregnancy/childbirth/life is shameful.

Silence has a way of stifling women (perhaps men, too, but I don’t know; I’ve never been a man).  I am wholeheartedly in favor of any works of art or social campaigns that promote openness and dialogue about topics that have long been considered taboo.  It is, of course, uncomfortable to talk about such subjects (e.g. the unpleasant aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting; rape; child abuse; etc.), but we are a better society when we openly acknowledge that such things happen (that, for example, June Cleaver is a fictional character, not a prescribed role model) and provide a space for a real dialogue to happen about what our expectations as a society are, what our reality is, what the difference between those two is, and why there is a difference.

But this is my blog, so, of course, there is a romance novel tie-in.  I don’t believe that literature (or nonfiction) holds the corner on the market of reading material that is thought-provoking.  In (many of) the romance novels that I read, I frequently encounter situations or treatments that make me stop and think about the world we actually live in and the kind of world I’d like to live in (balanced sometimes–since I mostly read historical romance–with the often stunning difference between the world that is presented in the novel and the world that one could reasonably imagine actually existed in the novel’s time period…).  The fact is, I like my romance novels to be modern and subversive even in a historical setting.

Cover image, The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Enter Courtney Milan and her novella The Governess Affair.  This book is historically subversive in the best possible way.

I mentioned earlier that I tend to stir up awkward conversations at dinner parties.  I wasn’t being hyperbolic.  A few weeks ago I stirred up a real whopper for all my guests to appreciate: rape, rape culture, and silence.  I suppose I exist as a cautionary tale of what not to do as a hostess…  Anyway, the conversation was fascinating, because we kept getting stuck on our own culture (in a conversation about how rape is rape regardless of what either party is wearing, it was still important to point out and consider that if one chooses to wear revealing clothing, one should not be surprised at the inevitable result.  That point seemed to me to be very strange: the very inevitability of rape, means, I think, something different to women than to men, as women are likely to be the inevitable victims whereas men are cast in the role of inevitable perpetrator.  Both bits of type-casting seem terrible to me…), and even when we tried to escape it, to listen to one another neutrally without the cultural dialogue of victim shaming, misogyny, and, failing anything else, quelling silence, it was overwhelming.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to have a casual or neutral conversation about rape.  (And ill-advised to have one about afterbirth. Just saying.)

As an aside, I am tempted to edit myself, to wonder why one would want to have a casual conversation about rape, but I don’t want to edit that word out.  This is a topic we should be able to talk about, and, as humans, we’ll never choose to have these conversations willingly if they are always fraught with difficulty, misunderstanding, sub-context, and emotional realities beyond comprehension.

Back to The Governess Affair: this book is all about breaking silence, and it is handled beautifully.  Once I caught on to what it was about, I was tempted to put it down, because I worried that it would be disturbing to me.  After all the political nonsense over the last few months, I have to admit that I’ve been having a difficult time dealing with my own sad story.  I am so glad that I continued to read this book.  It was comforting, healing, amusing, heart-warming, and relentlessly enjoyable.

This book takes a few modern ideals, including practicing openness and honesty towards one’s children and breaking silence, and applies them to a historical setting in which they are somewhat incongruous (but not jarringly so).  The story is set in London in 1835, and tells the compact tale of one Serena Barton, who is tired of the silence that has been forced on her by her gender and class, and one Hugo Marshall, who is tasked with ensuring Serena’s continued silence.  Both Serena and Hugo undergo significant but natural-seeming changes over the course of the short book, and the story ends with a teaser introduction to the new series.  The book provides a commentary on society–both the society of 1835 London and our modern society–but it’s like a commentary in negative space: in the absence of a narrator pointing out all the things that are wrong with both societies, the reader cannot help but jump in and reach a few conclusions.  It is brilliant and beautiful and bold.

I loved every single thing about this book, and I am so excited about the new series (the Brothers Sinister Series).