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.

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.

Adventures in reading – accidental corollaries

Hi again. I hope your summer is shaping up to be super awesome. I’ve been busy reading and learning how to play the ukulele and sort of kind of developing a business as a freelance copyeditor. (Very sort of kind of. I pretty much have the business acumen of a whale shark.) You know… the usual.

Anyway, this post is about reading, so let’s see if I can push through my ridiculous writer’s block and get to it. (By the way, I feel compelled to point out that I started writing this draft in the middle of June… so… it’s taking me an awfully long time to push through the ridiculous writer’s block.)

Do you guys have a process that you use to help decide what book to read next? I suspect that you do — it seems that all the people have a more methodical approach to everything in their lives than I have. I don’t plan things out. At all. So when I finish a book, I feel a kind of panic: Shit, what’s next?! If I were a better reader, I’d take some time to ruminate on what I’d just read… that’s the reason I started this blog three years ago, after all… but thinking about what I’ve read always seems like the kind of thing that will be better accomplished tomorrow. (So, it’s never actually accomplished.)

I have three basic rules that guide my reading choices:

  1. I read everything I buy (eventually), so I try always to scan through the unread titles in my library before making a choice.
  2. When reading ARCs, I try not to read them more than a month prior to the release date, because I know there’s probably no chance in hell that I’ll still remember the book sufficiently to write a review of it, assuming I decide to write a review, closer to the book’s release. I know — it’s sad both that my memory is so bad and that I have such low expectations of any given book’s memorability.
  3. If I start a book and it’s not holding my attention, I put it down in favor of something that works for whatever mood I’m in. I don’t see much point in forcing myself to read a historical romp when I’m in the mood for a more contemporary story. When I’m in the mood for that romp, I’ll come back to it.

Anyway, I shared all of that because I’m interested in hearing from other readers about what guides their reading choices. But what I really wanted to talk about today is accidental reading corollaries, the phenomenon that happens sometimes when you read two books in a row (chosen at random, in my case) that unexpectedly share certain characteristics and allow you to read the second book (and to remember the first book) more critically. For example, I might read a historical romance and follow it up with some erotica; I wouldn’t expect the two stories to have much in common, but maybe both stories deal with themes of self-acceptance. And, because reading is subjective and builds upon context and experience, my reading of the erotica will be influenced by my prior reading of the historical romance (and my memories of the historical romance will be colored by my experience of the erotica). When thinking about each book, I won’t be able to resist comparing them, considering them together.

Last month, I read an ARC of Lauren Dane’s Opening Up, and I followed it with Alexis Hall’s For Real. It happens that these books have an awful lot in common, though ostensibly quite different types of stories. Dane’s is a m/f tale set in a world of custom car shops. Its hero, Asa, a pierced, tattooed vet, co-owns a custom shop, dabbles in a bit of light BDSM, and prefers to keep things casual. Its heroine, PJ, a pierced, tattooed heiress from a prominent tire company, starts a high-end custom paint company, has issues with her family, and chases after the hero for all she’s worth (I loved that part.).

Hall’s tale, meanwhile, is a m/m tale that explores BDSM through the context of the relationship between two heroes: Laurie, an experienced and settled but emotionally unavailable submissive, and Toby, an inexperienced, somewhat lost, and endlessly courageous dominant.

As I said, I read Dane’s book first. I liked a lot of things about Opening Up, especially the heroine. PJ is young (mid-twenties) — which could easily have been her sole character trait, because it’s the thing that sets her apart from Asa, but Dane’s eye for character is much more nuanced — but she knows her own mind and heart and somewhat relentlessly pursues Asa, despite their 12-year age gap, because she recognizes that their attraction is not a thing to be missed. PJ’s confidence and tenacity continue even after the book takes a bit of turn into BDSM-lite territory. I’ll admit to mixed feelings about the book’s sex scenes — on the one hand, I liked the dynamic between Asa and PJ (and I particularly liked that Asa was shown trying things out with PJ, sometimes things that didn’t work), but I would have preferred if Asa’s sexual proclivities had made more sense for his character. Instead, it seemed that Asa was into certain things because contemporary romance heroes almost have to be into those things nowadays. My main complaint about the book is its pacing. After a great beginning, the book lost a little steam (I thought), mired in a bit too much day-to-day relationship drama, and it lost focus towards the end, becoming less about the love story and more about PJ’s troubled relationship with her family.

So that’s what I thought when I finished reading Opening Up. I mean, of course I noticed a few other things (real quick: I loved the frequent shout outs to feminism, and I loved PJ standing up to Asa on the age thing), but I started For Real almost immediately, so I didn’t take a lot of time to ruminate on anything but the broad strokes.

The first accidental corollary to hit me while reading For Real was the age gap between Laurie and Toby and how each responded to it. Laurie, being older, has this implicit bias that Toby can’t quite know what he wants, and Toby has to set him straight. Repeatedly. Toby’s indignation at having to defend his ability (his right?) to discern his own identity pretty closely mirrors PJ’s indignation toward Asa. I know what I want, both characters assert, and it’s damn annoying to be told that one can’t know something, particularly when one does. It’s entirely possible that I would have paid attention regardless, but with the age issue in Opening Up fresh on my mind, it jumped from the page. I found that I particularly appreciated For Real for making the age difference so much more notable — Toby’s 19 to Laurie’s 37 really is more remarkable than PJ’s 25 to Asa’s 37 — and for adding the nuanced discussion of identity as well as age.

For Real isn’t shy about what it is. I mean, look at the cover. (By contrast, Opening Up is rather coy with its — admittedly beautiful — cover and its mention of “the darker edge of desire…”) It is at its core a novel that explores a particular dynamic of BDSM between these two characters. I’d been anticipating the novel’s release for months, and I was thrilled to find it as thought-provoking, and as beautifully executed, as I’d hoped. And, of course, I couldn’t help the accidental corollary. I’d complained (to myself) that the BDSM elements of PJ and Asa’s relationship seemed a bit tacked on, but here was a book where these elements seemed inseparable from the story and characters. Laurie and Toby’s relationship provides the context wherein Hall examines BDSM, but the reverse is also true. It was fascinating to read the book twice, the first time paying more attention to the difference between Hall’s presentation of BDSM and that available in recent, more mainstream, works (of which Dane’s Opening Up could be called an exemplar), and the second thinking more about the sex scenes as an expression and development of character. Tending toward mental laziness (I’m sad to admit), I am certain that without the immediate influence of the first story, I would not have bothered thinking all that deeply about the second.

Speaking of mental laziness… I could go on detailing more points of comparison between these two books, but… I’m starting to run into that wall of writer’s block again. Besides, it’s probably more interesting for readers of this post who are so inclined (you know who you are) to read these two books (they’re both worth it) and talk about them. My memory is sufficiently bad that I plan to reread both books in a year’s time in reverse order. It will be very interesting to see how my thoughts of each may change based on something so happenstance as the order in which I read them.

*Disclosure – I received an ARC of Opening Up for review consideration. I purchased my copy of For Real.* 

When books make you go hmmm

While I certainly do not possess Jane Bennett’s sweetness of temper, angelic goodness, or locally famous beauty, I do have her habit of thinking well of people, making excuses for their less-than-savory behavior. I worry sometimes that this habit spills over into my reading, making me — perhaps — a sympathetic and uncritical reader. It’s not that I turn off my brain or fail to notice a book’s issues, exactly, yet I struggle with a reticence to expound on the things that didn’t work in favor of the things that did. If you’ve read more than four or five posts on this blog you realize that this reticence does not altogether stop me from making critical remarks, but it is difficult for me to be critical.

Perhaps now you understand why there’s been so much silence around here. I had things going on elsewhere in my life, and I couldn’t spare the expense of energy required to push through my inclination to just love everything (and ignore the things I can’t love). Well, I had two weeks off work to rest (including a few days that were completely free of obligations. It was wonderful, and I should make it more of a habit to take self-care days off from time to time..

Anyway, a while back, I read He’s No Prince Charming by debut author Elle Daniels, and I wanted (so much) to love it, but… well, read on.

A wounded beast . . .

It took Marcus Bradley forever to find a suitable bride. And then he lost her—all because some meddling matchmaker with a crazy notion about “true love” helped her elope with another man. Now, to save his sister from a terrible marriage alliance, he needs a replacement—an heiress, to be exact . . . and he knows just the woman to help him find one.

A spirited beauty . . .

Danielle Strafford believes everyone deserves a fairytale ending—even the monstrously scarred and notoriously brooding Marquis of Fleetwood. Not that he’s left her a choice. If she doesn’t help him secure a wife—by any means necessary—he’ll reveal her scandalous secrets.

A passion that will consume them both

The more time Marcus spends with Danielle, the less interested he is in any other woman. But the Beast must do the impossible: keep from losing his heart to a Beauty he is destined to lose.

As a reader of genre fiction, I know what kinds of stories appeal to me (generally) and which do not. This reading approach isn’t limited to genre romance, of course. Some SFF readers will prefer books that highlight adventure, perhaps, or are set in space, or depict alternate realities. In my romance fiction reading, I find the following tropes are safe bets (or are particularly interesting, if not necessarily “safe”):

  1. Fairy tale-based stories, especially beauty and the beast stories;
  2. Mythology-based stories or ones that draw on elements from the classics;
  3. Marriage of convenience, secret baby, friends to lovers, or unrequited love plots;
  4. The following character tropes: wounded hero, bluestocking heroine (this one is frequently problematic, but I find it interesting), tall heroines (for reasons), virgin heroes and/or experienced heroines, heroines who run their own businesses; grumpy heroes; characters based on Austen characters;
  5. Cross-class romances and/or other types of imbalances.

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s a long enough list for now. Anyway, just from reading the blurb, I could see that He’s No Prince Charming is a beauty and the beast story with a wounded hero (who might also be grumpy). That was enough to prompt me to request the book on Netgalley. Within the first few pages, I learned the heroine runs her own business (a clandestine service aiding women seeking to escape from unwelcome betrothals by eloping with their true loves; she runs this business out of a bookstore operated by her first clients.). So, you know, the book has quite a few ticks in its favor as far as my reading biases are concerned. Also, it’s Daniels’ first book, and I harbor a soft spot for debut novels.

So what went wrong, you ask? Be warned, there be spoilers ahead.

  1. The premise, that Marcus needs to marry an heiress in order to protect his sister from her betrothal to a dangerous man, takes a strange turn after Marcus sees Danni help his betrothed elope with another man; Marcus figures the only solution is to blackmail Danni into helping him kidnap an heiress. Look, I get that beauty and the beast stories pretty much always involve some element of Stockholm Syndrome, but I have a hard time caring about characters (that’s right: both of ’em) who break into a woman’s home, drug her, and carry her off to a waiting carriage. That Danni ends up knocked out and kidnapped herself doesn’t, ultimately, make that big a difference to me. She’s still a kidnapper.
  2. What happens next? All the things. On the road to Gretna Green, the villain hero and his victims are set upon by highwaymen (gypsy highwaymen, at that), their coachman is shot, and the true victim is kidnapped (again) by the highwaymen. Before the gypsies abscond with her, they threaten her with gang rape, but — you know — in a fun way. It’s all very lighthearted. The villains hero and heroine, take off on foot to kidnap her back rescue her, but they have no idea where they’re going and, after a storm blows up, they take shelter in an abandoned cabin, and the hero has an epic panic attack. Kissing happens, because reasons. The next day, the heroine is nearly trampled by a horse, but eventually they make their way to an inn. Over the next few days, they search for the gypsies while running from soldiers (who are trying to rescue the kidnap victim); the villain hero is shot (by the soldiers), but somehow they still manage to find the gypsy camp to re-kidnap rescue her. Eventually (of course), Marcus is arrested for kidnapping an Admiral’s daughter, but Danni convinces her MP father to reverse the charges against him (because love). It stretches plausibility that any all of those events would occur in one story. Kidnapping and highwaymen? and being shot?
  3. Danni makey no sensey. She believes in love matches so sincerely that she runs a business helping hapless women escape loveless marriages, yet she considers herself as good as betrothed to an earl she doesn’t love because she wants to please her depressive father. She goes along with Marcus’ blackmail and helps him kidnap the Admiral’s daughter, yet she thinks it’s wrong. At some point, Danni realizes that she loves Marcus (because?), but she’s reluctant to admit to him that she’s all the heiress he needs (because?). (What results is a dilemma for Marcus that the reader knows is bollocks: he thinks he has to fight his attraction to Danni in order to save his sister, but readers know that the only impediment is Danni’s dishonesty.) After Danni and Marcus’ awkward sex scene, she admits her heiress state, but he gets arrested almost immediately, so there’s no resolution.
  4. Oh, God, the ending. Danni manages to convince her father to have the charges against Marcus dropped (because love, but — really — the charges are absolutely just. He kidnapped that girl!). But then…. nothing. The ending peters off into anticlimax until the characters finally have the big I love you conversation. Of course, who cares?
  5. There’s a mystery fairy godmother (who may or may not be Marcus’ living — or even dead — mother). She provides a very strange deus ex machina via ballgowns but is otherwise completely unexplained.
  6. I  also had issues with voice (characters cracking unfunny jokes when they should be appalled by certain events).

Soooo, yeah. Why did I keep reading? I have no idea.

I was tempted just to ignore the book, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything nice to say about it (other than that I should have liked it, which isn’t all that positive, actually). But then I wondered, why does that matter? Do I need to be balanced? Do I need or want to be so stifled by my disinclination to give offense (unless I’m thoroughly pissed off by something) that I say nothing at all? And who would I be offending? What’s the point of blogging about books if I’m going to write only about the ones I loved, the ones I liked with some reservations, or the ones that made me Yosemite-Sam angry?

It’s all well and good to be a Jane Bennett in the world, to be easy-going and patient with others, but it’s not a rational way to read books. And, honestly, I don’t read books that way. Bad writing, strange plots, and questionable content stick out, and even though I finish nearly all the books I start, I do frequently regret my decision to keep reading. All of these things (and more) belong in book discussions. While I’m too tired right now to prove it, I think there must be a logical fallacy in assuming that kindness and honesty are mutually exclusive.

So, there it is. I’m really hoping that this is the end of my hiatus (and cowardice), because I read 200 books in 2014, and I think it’s time I started talking about (some of) them.

* FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley via NetGalley for review consideration. Somewhat obviously, my opinion is my own. *

What I’ve been reading lately – books about librarians and trouble

It’s true. I mean, I’ve been pretty much on hiatus for two months (I started writing this post on Sept. 5), so you can safely assume that I’ve been reading lots of books about lots of things, but isn’t it more interesting to focus on just the books about librarians and trouble? (And isn’t it interesting that there has been more than one such book published in the last few months?)

I like to believe that there’s a collective consciousness that binds all creation (read into that statement what you will). A number of years ago, I read Paolo Coelho’s By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, my introduction to this concept. Pardon the paraphrase — my memory is not fantastic, and it’s been about a decade since my last read. In Piedra, one of the characters talks about simultaneous leaps that occur in human and animal populations (I’m fairly certain the book mentions monkey populations — possibly on different islands of Papua New Guinea (or some other place with islands) — that spontaneously and simultaneously began a new practice of washing bananas and that those populations did not have any contact with each other to share the idea). I like to believe that this collective consciousness is the reason that Deep Impact and Armageddon were developed and released within months of each other (and also Volcano and Dante’s Peak.)

And, now, it’s brought us two books about librarians who are involved in some kind of trouble. It seems reasonable to me to discuss these books in the order of their release, so first up is Victoria Dahl’s Looking for Trouble.

A good reason to be bad…

Librarian Sophie Heyer has walked the straight and narrow her entire life to avoid paying for her mother’s mistakes. But in tiny Jackson Hole, Wyoming, juicy gossip just doesn’t go away, so the last thing she needs is for history to repeat itself. Falling hard for the sexiest biker who’s ever rode into town would undo everything she’s worked for. And to add insult to injury, the sexy stranger is none other than Alex Bishop–the son of the man her mother abandoned Sophie’s family for. He may be temptation on wheels, but Sophie’s not looking for trouble!

Maybe Sophie’s buttoned-up facade fools some, but Alex knows a naughty smile when he sees one. Despite their parents’ checkered pasts, he’s willing to take some risks to find out the truth about the town librarian. He figures a little fling might be just the ticket to get his mind off of family drama. But what he finds underneath Sophie’s prim demeanor might change his world in ways he never expected.

This book brings together secondary characters from two of Dahl’s previous books, Alex, the missing brother who is mentioned but does not appear in Too Hot to Handleand Sophie, the sassy and awesome friend in Fanning the Flames. I loved so many things about Looking for Trouble, and I’m just going to throw them in a list:

  1. Sophie has such a wonderful blend of vulnerability and strength. She is confident in her sexuality, despite the complications of her back story, yet she is (understandably) cautious and reserved in sharing her sexuality with anyone who might know the story of her past. This reserve causes some dissonance between her outward appearance and her inner life, and Dahl does amazing things with it. Sophie owns her sensuality — she wears beautiful lingerie because she loves it, because it makes her feel sexy, not because some dude is going to see it — and she shares it, a gift, when she wants. I loved how sex-positive the narrative is, that Sophie accepts and delights in her own sexuality even as she keeps it hidden from her neighbors, that she recognizes that the problem is not that she possesses any sexuality but rather that those who know the story of her family can’t seem to resist judging her and finding her amoral.
  2. One of my favorite things about Dahl’s writing is that I can always count on her to give her heroines awesome lady friends. There is a tendency in romance fiction, probably for no nefarious reason and just in the interest of tight plotting, to isolate heroines — and sometimes heroes, too — and focus exclusively on the central love story. (Tangent: the result is that if heroines are shown to have friends, their conversation revolves exclusively around the love interest. It bothers me when I read books wherein the heroes have a group of friends who discuss all kinds of things — business interests, perhaps, or recreational plans — but the heroines are either completely isolated or only shown talking to their girlfriend(s) about the hot guy./tangent) Looking for Trouble (and the super awesome novella that sets it up, Fanning the Flames, which has a librarian heroine and a firefighter hero, you guys) is a spin-off on Dahl’s Jackson [Hole] series and focuses on a group of lady friends and their romantic hijinks. These lady friends have a regular girls’ night out, so they can catch up with each other, talk about work and family frustrations, tell stories, support each other, and make questionable decisions due to alcohol consumption.
  3. Dahl writes some of the dirtiest love scenes you can find outside of erotica/erotic romance. (I’m comfortable with all levels of heat in books, from smoldering glances to surprise AP (and beyond), but I prefer when the heat level reflects the characters and fits within the rest of the book. There’s nothing more jarring than reading a sweet, small-town romance that suddenly feels as though it took a sharp left to Pornville.) The love scenes in Looking for Trouble are intense because the characters are, because their motivations and desires are complicated and go way beyond hand holding and gentle embraces. I know the lines between genre romance and erotic romance are sort of blurry, but I think one could make an argument that this book is borderline erom because the sex scenes are crucial to the story and one of the key ways the characters relate to and discover each other.
  4. There’s also some great discussion about shaming within communities.

But my favorite thing about the book is the way it handles compromise. This is one of those stories where the characters seem to be on divergent paths. Alex seems pretty much like this guy (except, you know, in a good way.)

And Sophie seems tied to her community, unwilling or unable to consider leaving it. For a while, I wasn’t sure how things could work out for these two, and that made it all the sweeter when they decided to work together, to be partners in finding a solution to their geography problem. Characters working together as partners? What a novel concept.

About a month after I read Dahl’s book, I picked up Lauren Dane’s The Best Kind of Trouble. I follow Dane on Twitter, and I’ve been curious about her books for a while (but I thought she was a PNR/UF author, and I don’t read much of that. Turns out I was wrong, anyway, and she’s a versatile author of all the things.) I mostly liked this book and am planning on reading the next book in the series (out later this month). Plenty of other folks have absolutely loved this book, but there were a few things about it that kind of annoyed me. It’s possible that it just ran into some of my pet peeves. Whatever. Overall, I liked it.

She has complete control… and he’s determined to take it away

A librarian in the small town of Hood River, Natalie Clayton’s world is very nearly perfect. After a turbulent childhood and her once-wild ways, life is now under control. But trouble has a way of turning up unexpectedly—especially in the tall, charismatically sexy form of Paddy Hurley….

And Paddy is the kind of trouble that Natalie has a taste for.

Even after years of the rock and roll lifestyle, Paddy never forgot the two wickedly hot weeks he once shared with Natalie. Now he wants more… even if it means tempting Natalie and her iron-grip control. But there’s a fine line between well-behaved and misbehaved—and the only compromise is between the sheets!

The Best Kind of Trouble has wonderful secondary characters (I absolutely loved Paddy’s family, and Natalie’s group of friends reminded me of the friends other people seemed to make in college. <– I made all my friends in junior high and made a whopping 2 friends in college because… wait for it… I spent all my time with my nose in a book — or headphones on my ears.) that, to me, really made the book. I had a few issues with the romance between Natalie and Paddy, but I still managed to enjoy the reading experience because there were so many fantastic characters (building so much promise for future books in the series).

This book reminded me a little bit of a Harlequin Superromance (to be clear: that’s my favorite kind of category romance. I love those books; they are my reading catnip.). Dane builds a world around this group of brother musicians, their extended families, and their home town, and she weaves in the heroine (who has settled down in that town after a tumultuous past) and her friends. When they’re not recording new music or going on tour, the brothers are working the family ranch (to earn their rugged physiques, perhaps), so they’re kind of a lethal combo: rock stars and cowboys.

I really liked Natalie. She’s fought for the life she loves. Her family sucks, so she formed a friend family and relies on them for support. She’s got issues, but she’s remarkably well-adjusted. She’s a grown up, and she’s someone I’d want to hang out with. (And I related to her coffee and sweets fixation.) I liked Paddy before he and Natalie got together; he’s charming, funny, a little bit intense, and I loved that he pursued Natalie without being creepy about it, respecting her boundaries even while pushing his suit.

To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed just about every aspect of The Best Kind of Trouble except Paddy and Natalie’s relationship. And I’m a little surprised that I didn’t like it. I mentioned that I go nuts for Superromance titles… one of the things I like about those books is that they show relationships set within the context of life — all the messy work and family issues that can make it hard for a relationship to thrive. This book shows exactly that sort of thing — Paddy and Natalie struggling to make it work, to work past their issues, to find time for each other in their busy (and full) adult lives — and I should have gone absolutely apeshit for it. But I didn’t. For me, it all came down to Paddy: I just didn’t think he was a good boyfriend. He’s fantastic in the sack, sure, but every time an issue or misunderstanding comes up, Paddy responds with this line, “This is my first real relationship, you know, and I’m doing the best I can!” And that got kind of old to me. Paddy does a whole bunch of unbelievably stupid and/or hurtful things, and all he can say is that he’s new at this whole relationship thing, so we shouldn’t judge him? It makes him seem so childish and whiny, which is ridiculous! I can’t remember how old he actually is, but I’ll tell you what — it’s old enough to behave like a fucking adult.

By the time the end rolled around, I was just done with him, and I’m not sure that any amount of groveling would have won me over. I wanted Natalie to end up with someone who wasn’t (or — to be more fair — didn’t act like) a self-obsessed asshole. I wanted to believe in the happily ever after, but…

Maybe I’m being too hard on Paddy. Maybe this is just my issue. I know a lot of readers who have a hard time with difficult heroines, and maybe I’m just a reader who has a hard time with difficult heroes. (tangent: I do tend to have an expectation of lots and lots of groveling — not just showing up in a limo with a cheap bouquet of flowers — whenever the hero’s douchebaggery has been the cause of conflict in a book, and I tend to be incredibly disappointed when the dude just rides in with his limo and flowers as though just showing up, just publicly (if lamely) professing his love for the heroine, or even just professing “Hey, I’m here!” or “I’m back!” is enough. It’s not enough./tangent)

Let’s talk! Have you ever read a book that, by all rights, you should have loved (but didn’t)? Do you have a reading bias? Have you read any other books about librarians and trouble? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter! I love to talk about books.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys of these books courtesy of Harlequin via NetGalley for review consideration.*