2014 – a summary of my reading, historical romance edition

2014 was a busy year. My eldest started Kindergarten, my youngest hit her stride of the terrible, terrible threes (the twos have got nuthin’ on the threes. Yeesh. I’m a little surprised we all survived it.), things at work were consistently nuts, and I did a lot of things at that place where I volunteer a lot of my time (vague much, Kelly?). Oh, and I read a shit ton of books. Some of them were sooooooooo good, some of them were not.

I’m super disorganized; I don’t take notes when I read; and my memory (like anyone’s, if we’re being honest) tends to warp after a certain period of time, favoring the books I’ve loved recently to the ones I loved last January. All that to say, I’m not going to bother doing a formalized list of my favorite reads of the year. (Has anyone else noticed that, in my return to blogging, my voice is a bit more curmudgeonly? Damn kids get off my lawn! I just want to write about books over here *grumble grumble grumble* Ahem. I’ll try to be less ornery.)

Oh! And — because it’s already a week into January and most people in the book blogging world are much more timely than I — I’ve read a bunch of 2014 summary posts. So, if I’m copying your style (you know who you are), it’s because I think you’re awesome. And it’s late at night. Also, you do these things so much better than I do. Honestly. I applied some seriously half-assed organization and then alphabetized the books by title (because?). Then I wrote 1600 words about the first thirteen books on the list and realized I needed to split this shit up. Stay tuned for two more of these monster posts about all the books.

Right. So here are my favorite historical romances read in 2014. Not all of these books were published last year, but they’re all worth reading (again and again).

Historical romance – my first love:

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
A Lily Among Thorns by Rose Lerner
Almost a Scandal by Elizabeth Essex
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare
The Secret Heart / The Lover’s Knot by Erin Satie
Seduced by Molly O’Keefe
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Summer Chaparral by Genevieve Turner
Untamed by Anna Cowan

Y’all knew I love historical romance, right? I could happily do a top ten for 2014 from this list alone. A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong was one of my last reads of 2014 (and part of one of my best reading weeks ever, when I read 5 of the books on the above list). It’s a misadventure that starts with an ill-advised falcon purchase and ends with love, via a broken carriage, a loving community, and a dried apple pie. It is a celebration of compassion, family, community and love (and pie). A Lily Among Thorns is scrumptious, you guys. It’s got a former-courtesan-turned-innkeeper heroine (who’s also kind of a crime boss) matched with a grieving chemist. There is quite a lot of plot (in a good way), but my favorite scenes were the quieter moments between the characters. Honestly, though, it had me at Serena. She’s amazeballs.

I got a little bit manic after I finished Almost a Scandal. After her brother skips town to avoid joining the navy (the family business) the heroine assumes his identity and joins the navy in his place. (I need to put in some exclamation points here. !!!!!) The writing is rich in metaphor and a perfect complement to this story about identity, integrity and how little your genitals have to do with your ability to use trigonometry to chart a course. Kim and I wrote about Romancing the Duke earlier in the year, but — nearly twelve months later — it’s still one of my favorite books. It’s a perfect balance of wild humor and poignant emotion. (You know what, while I’m on the subject of Tessa Dare’s books, I should give a shout-out to Say Yes to the Marquess because cake. A whole room of cake. I happen to like the heroine of RtD a bit better, which tips the scales for me, but SYttM has 500% more cake. So.)

I read The Secret Heart and The Lover’s Knot during that epic reading week. The Secret Heart brings together a duke’s heir who’d rather be prizefighting and a money-challenged heroine who’d rather be dancing ballet (and avoiding her mostly horrible family). Together they solve a crime, have angry sex and fight the status quo with the power of ‘I don’t even give a fuck.” I loved it. The Lover’s Knot continues the series in a new locale with a memory-challenged ink merchant (former heiress) and the newly-minted duke to whom she was engaged for one whopping night, ten years prior. I’m going to review both books in the next week (ish), so I’ll leave it at that. Seduced is straight up beautiful, set in the post-bellum American West (Colorado, I think), with characters whose lives have been ravaged by the war. Miss Bates recommends this one, and I really can’t improve on her thoughts about it.

Strangers at the Altar is (I think) one of Kaye’s best books (and y’all might have noticed that I’m kind of a fan of hers). It’s a marriage of convenience story involving an advice columnist heroine matched with an engineer laird. My favorite moments are the parts where the heroine attempts to pen bedroom advice that won’t overset her readers, but — really — the whole thing was great. The Suffragette Scandal makes the best use of the exclamation point EVER, and it has my favorite of all of Milan’s characters (and that’s saying something, because Jonas from A Kiss for Midwinter set the bar until now). Free is, like all of Milan’s recent heroines, a force to be reckoned with but one who exists in a world that silences and obscures her (for her own safety, of course). The difference with Free is she asserts that it is the system that is wrong, not her, and that she can (and will) change it, woman by woman, and man by man. And Edward is… well, just read it, and you’ll see.

Summer Chaparral is at once a sweeping epic of time and place and a deeply personal tale of family loyalties and individual needs. It is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet (but without the downer ending and meddling Friar), set in the San Jacinto mountains of southern California at the end of the nineteenth century, and it grapples with systemic racism, urbanization, and reconciliation in subtly beautiful prose. Untamed was the recipient of a lot of buzz (some positive, some negative) in 2013, and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t get around to reading it until the last week of December (in that epic reading week). I happened to love it, even though it does some taboo things. You can’t talk about the book without mentioning that the hero spends more than half of the book dressed as a woman, but I — true to my nature — thought the heroine was the more remarkable and interesting character. Love it or hate it (and, yeah, I’m late to the party), every reader of historical romance should check this one out just to see where they fall on the continuum. (And it has adorable pet pig antics. Just saying.)

Assuming you got through all that, you now know why I decided to split this recap into three posts. Stay tuned over the next couple of days for my thoughts on all my favorite contemporary romances (including a few quirky ones that I think might appeal to folk who find sex scenes uncomfortable to read). Finally, I’ll do a separate post talking about my favorite erotic romances, works of erotica, and “other” books (one nonfiction, one…. poetry anthology/humor??).

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Some thoughts on romance novels and female friendship

I read Tawny Weber’s A SEAL’s Salvation last week.  I liked a lot of things about the book, but I found its depiction of female friendship rather problematic.  I’m hoping it’s just me.

 Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Where navy SEAL “Bad Ass” Brody Lane goes, trouble follows. Being run out of his hometown years ago for misbehaving with Genna Reilly—the sheriff’s daughter—was one thing. Now Brody is about to step into real danger. Not the suggestive letters he’s been exchanging with Genna, but the kind of trouble that can send a soldier home injured and broken inside…

Genna’s entire life has been orchestrated by her family. The right job. The right friends. Enough! Brody’s return offers the promise of lust-filled pleasures. Of flesh teased and tasted. She’s not expecting to find a soldier with distant eyes who has secluded himself from the world. But this good girl knows exactly how to bring a bad boy back to life….

Some of you probably know already why I wanted to read this book.  It’s that injured hero trope, calling out to my soul and promising compelling and emotionally satisfying entertainment.  And the blurb also hinted at one of my favorite heroine tropes: the heroine who gets her shit together and embraces her true self.  It was a foregone conclusion that I’d enjoy the story, considering the elements it’s composed of, and I did.

I loved Genna’s penchant for baking, for example, and her moxie and entrepreneurship.  I loved Brody’s Grandma.  I loved Brody.  And those letters Genna and Brody exchanged before his injury were absolutely my favorite part of the book.

In fact, I liked pretty much every element of the story except one: Genna’s friends.  Maybe I’m just the luckiest damn person on the planet for having truly awesome women as friends (I totally am), and maybe that extreme good luck skews my perception of reality, but I really find it jarring when female friends in romance novels are depicted as crazy bitches or just as bad friends.

At the beginning of A SEAL’s Salvation, Genna’s best friend Macy is living with her while planning all the last-minute details before her epic, but ultimately rather sad, wedding.  Macy spends a lot of time trying to convince Genna to date this guy whom Genna doesn’t like, doesn’t find attractive, and who kind of creeped her out on their first and only date (he collects troll dolls.).  When Genna points out all the reasons that she doesn’t want to date troll-collecting Stewart, Macy suggests that maybe Genna should go out with Stewart anyway, because it would make Genna’s parents so happy.

Later on, Macy — who thinks Brody is a Very Bad Guy — threatens to tell Genna’s outrageously overprotective parents about their relationship because… ?? Genna is 27 years old.  And this is Genna’s best friend.  In every appearance in the book, Macy is critical of Genna and dismissive of Brody (and not even because she’s genuinely concerned for Genna).  In Genna’s darkest hour towards the end of the book (between conflict and resolution), her last wish is to call her friends.  She’d rather be alone, and that makes perfect sense. Her friends suck.

Now… I’m sorry, but that’s just not friendship, and it makes me feel ragey.  And, again, maybe I’m just the luckiest woman alive to have such super awesome lady friends (and a few dudes, as well) — none of my friends would ever try to push me into dating any dude who didn’t light my fire (it’s moot, but whatever) and none of them would ever EVAR so disrespect my judgment as to tattle on me, a grown woman!, to my parents.  Come the fuck on — but I doubt I’m the only woman with fantastic friends, and it drives me wonky when this real friendship, often the most important thing in a woman’s life, doesn’t show up in the romance novels I read.

So, last week I wrote on Book Bloggers International about romance novels as entertainment, catharsis, and activism, and I paid particular attention to Courtney Milan’s entire body of work (but I highlighted her most recent release, The Countess Conspiracy), Tessa Dare’s latest, Romancing the Duke, and Robin York’s New Adult release, Deeper.  Do you know what else those three books have in common?  Awesome depictions of friendship.

The Countess Conspiracy is the latest in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series, and it tackles some pretty hefty subjects, most of which are best discovered while reading the book.  (As an aside, one of my favorite things about Milan’s writing is that she respects her characters’ privacy and allows them to reveal themselves to readers over the course of the book.)  This book so beautifully depicts female friendship.  Between Jane, Minnie, and Violet, there develops a true friendship based on mutual appreciation and respect (Jane and Minnie are the heroines of the first two full novels in this series.).  Between Violet and Alice there develops a friendship between equals and colleagues that is a wonder to behold because of its resemblance to friendship among male colleagues, and yet it is uniquely feminine and the more powerful because of that femininity.  I wish we got to see more of it (but I understand that it’s sort of beside the point, as far as the narrative is concerned.)

Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) and I wrote another of our dueling reviews (this one with an actual disagreement in it!) about Romancing the Duke, Tessa Dare’s latest, that discusses the important role friendship plays in the book.  I’m not going to bother reiterating our arguments here… so go check it out!  It’s pretty great, I think.

Finally, there’s Robin York’s Deeper, wherein heroine Caroline (I just had to put those three words together. Sorry.) finds herself the victim of revenge porn attacks started by her slimeball of an ex-boyfriend and picked up by a cadre of trolls who use images of her naked body to shame and dehumanize her.  In the wake of all these revenge porn attacks — that occur not just once and done but again and again and again — Caroline and West forge a cautious not-quite-friendship that is the focus of this book told in shifting-perspective, first-person-present narration.  But it is through Caroline’s friendships with her roommate, the members of the rugby team she joins, and, to an extent, with West’s roommate (Sorry — I’m awful with remembering character names, and I don’t have my copy of the book with me) that Caroline discovers her strength and begins to heal.

So, there you go.  If you find yourself interested in any of these books, just click on their cover images to be transported to their page on Goodreads.  A SEAL’s Salvation was released on January 21, 2014 by Harlequin.  For more information about Tawny Weber, check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of A SEAL’s Salvation from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I purchased the other books.*

My best and worst reads in 2013

I read a lot of books this year (172 as of my writing this), and I thought it might be fun to identify the outliers at both ends of the spectrum.

The Best:

1.  The Story Guy by Mary Ann Rivers – There is so much life in this novella, complete with joy and pain, disappointment and transcendence. It is, without doubt, the best book I read all year. (*)

2.  Big Boy by Ruthie Knox – Hands down my favorite Ruthie Knox book (which is really saying something, guys), Big Boy is remarkably atypical for the genre.  It features characters whose sole, necessary, act of selfishness in lives governed by sacrifice is the small amount of time they take from each other.  And when they shift to giving instead of taking? It’s magic. (<3)

3.  Snow-Kissed by Laura Florand – Infertility, grief, and a broken marriage, these are the subjects of this beautifully moving novella that explores the jagged edges of two people, long in love, who were blown apart by grief but who find a way back.   (<3)

4.  A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant – I don’t know that I have ever been more surprised by a romance novel than I was by Cecilia Grant’s debut.  Thematically, the novel discusses trust, intimacy, and the slow development of love with humor so sly it’s easy to miss.  But it’s most remarkable (I think) for its complete lack of instalust and magical chemistry.  If you haven’t read this book, you really should. (<3)

5.  About Last Night by Ruthie Knox – I read this book in one sitting and, when I was done, I started it again immediately, because I just wasn’t ready to let it go. Through this book, Knox taught me how to be a better reader (and, by extension, a better woman, perhaps), to sit and savor the moments of truth that can be found in a book, to rediscover and embrace the reason I read.  (<3)

6 and 7.  The Heiress Effect and The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan – My favorite thing about Courtney MIlan’s writing is that when you start reading her books, her characters always seem so damn mysterious, and that mystery never seems like a clever device to snag reader interest.  It’s just that her characters are so full, possess such depth, that it takes a few hundred pages to get to know them.  And then you do, and your heart just breaks, because their issues are real.  You’ve met women like Jane, and you know your history — and your current affairs — so you know her plight (and her sister’s) is not unusual.  You know that all the pieces of Violet’s character really existed, lived out by real women throughout the ages.  And it hurts so much to know it, so deeply, so viscerally, a punch.  But you also know men like Oliver and Sebastian.  And even though it hurts so much to read and experience all that reality, at the end you are gifted a triumph, and it gives you the strength to keep putting your back into it, to keep living your life. (<3)

8.  The Mistress by Tiffany Reisz – By the time I reached the end of The Mistress, I was crying a little, laughing a lot, pumping my fist in the air, feeling intellectually alive and overwhelmed by joy.  And I felt rather like I did after I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time, like this story that had always existed behind a veil had been revealed, and I’d had the good fortune to witness that unveiling.   (*)

9.  Too Hot to Handle by Victoria Dahl – This book is funny, but it isn’t lighthearted.  It’s like that moment when the seas of life have buffeted you about so much that you end up getting a mouthful of sea water, and you try to spit it out with some dignity, but it just comes out as warm, extra salty drool, and suddenly it’s fucking hilarious that — on top of everything else — you’ve just drooled, so instead of worrying about drowning, you just laugh.  Anyway, it’s kind of a coming of age story for people who waited until their thirties to figure themselves out, but it doesn’t have any of that angst because it just doesn’t have time for bullshit. (*)

10.  To Win Her Heart by Karen Witemeyer – This one made the list because it is probably the most romantic story I read all year.  I mean, come on: Eden and Levi fall in love writing letters to each other about Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.  It was a foregone conclusion that I would love this story, that it would stick with me all year. (<3)

 The Worst

Well, there are the obvious contenders for worst books read all year.  there’s even an obvious winner.  But there were also a slew of books that just disappointed me (or made me disappointed in myself).  Chief among these is:

Most disappointing book of 2013: And Then She Fell by Stephanie Laurens (<3 :~(…).  I cannot believe that I bought this, my 31st Laurens book.  I am deeply disappointed in myself.  On the other hand, it seems to have finally helped me break the cycle of addiction.  The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh, the next book in the series, has been out for six months, and I’ve had absolutely no desire to purchase it.

So there you have it.  Many of these books were published in 2013 but not all of them.  Some of these books were received as e-ARCs from publishers (marked with *) and some were purchased by me (marked with <3).

What are the best and worst books you read this year?

 

Blogging and genre – Armchair BEA Day 2

Well, it’s day 2 of Armchair BEA, and today, there are two topics: Blogger Development & Genre Fiction.

I’m certain I’m imposing my own insecurities on the question, but I have to be honest and admit that the very notion of assessing my development as a blogger makes me feel a bit inadequate.  The truth is that I consider this blog to be a hobby, a thing I do because I enjoy it, not because of any external pressure to perform.  Even if no one read this blog, I would still write it.  With that starting position, I feel very little compulsion to promote my blog, and if I drop off the map for three weeks because I’m unbelievably busy, I don’t feel at all bad about it.  That’s not to say that I don’t take this blog seriously — quite the opposite — but I don’t measure success in terms of popularity or marketability.  I have a job, and this blog isn’t it.

That said, I have developed quite a lot over the past year.  For one thing, I’m a better reader than I was.  For another, I’m a better writer.  Best of all, this past year of blogging has helped me to chip away at my habitual reserve, to make some friends (never easy for me to do), to say some true things and put them out there for all the world to see (should the world go out of its way to find my little corner of unreserve…), to try new things.  It has been a fantastic year, but these successes can be measured only on my peculiar scale.

Abrupt subject change: I’m all about genre fiction!  To be honest, I think all fiction can easily be categorized as genre fiction of some sort or other.  I know folk have a strong inclination to distinguish literary fiction from the sordid genre type, but this inclination seems like misplaced snobbery to me.  All fiction is the work of scribbling human hands to explain some part of the human experience.  Maybe that explanation comes in the form of alien planets or vampire stalkers or amorous dukes and barmaids or neurotic narrators recounting their entire misspent lives; the connecting thread running through each of those stories is the humanity of their authors.  (In case you’re curious, I did just lump Children of the MindTwilightAny Duchess Will Do, and In Search of Lost Time into one category, Aristotle be damned.)

Some authors undoubtedly write better than others, some come closer to achieving a real art, some have more skill at using the lies of story and narrative to tell a truth about who we are as humans, but when we assign categories to writers, we hobble ourselves as readers and limit the artistic reach of those writers.  (We also inflate the egos of those writers and critics fortunate enough to be the gatekeepers of literary quality.)

I suppose I should scramble down from my soap box now and talk about the kind of stories I most want to read.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good story.  When I was in elementary school and junior high, I read whatever I could get my hands on: library books, school books, my mother’s books, etc.  I didn’t precisely have a favorite genre because I was just obsessed with the written word and all the knowledge it contained.  The first book I read that truly took my breath away was Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming.  In junior high, I discovered fantasy books, and I read The Hobbit and tried to read The Lord of the Rings (I didn’t succeed in reading it until I was 20 and had achieved something like patience); I read Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony, and a bunch of truly terrible Dragonlance books.  Then I read Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series (books 1-4) and W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neil Gear’s The First North Americans Series.  Then I read Les Miserables and discovered that what I liked most in all those stories I’d read was any inkling of the redemptive power of love.  Strange as it might be, it was a short skip for me from Les Miserables to romance novels, because that’s where all the love stories hide.

These days, I read romance novels almost exclusively.  Some of them are terrible, and some of them are incandescently wonderful.  I highly recommend each of the following.

Reading with Analysis’s Birthday!

This blog’s first blogiversary is tomorrow, actually, and I want to celebrate a few things.  This year has been remarkable for me in a whole bunch of ways.  For starters, I came out of the romance-reading closet, and I discovered that a heck of a lot of truly brilliant women (and some amazing men) happily read that genre and find intellectual fulfillment in it.  I am not alone.  I know that, now.  In fact, I made friends!  (Anyone who knows me well will understand how big a thing it is for me to make a friend; it’s difficult for me… I’m way too neurotic for most people.)  I have had so much fun talking about books on this blog, on others’ blogs, on Goodreads, and on Twitter with other people who love books (especially love stories in their various forms) just as much as I do.

Anyway, who cares, right?  Let’s get to the good stuff.  I have assembled a somewhat random giveaway (why be boring?) to thank everyone who follows this blog and helps make this whole blogging thing rather an exciting experience for me.

First up is Simon the Fox, squshie extraordinaire.  I love these squshies… they are small felt plush animals (also, dinosaurs and monsters) with vaguely square shapes (hence the name: square plushies = squshies), which is awesome in itself, but my favorite thing about the squshies is that each animal has a totally random story.  Kiki the Tiger, for example, is an encyclopedia-reading cheerleader, and Jasper the Bear loves food on a stick.  For this giveaway, I selected Simon the Fox, who loves to make up stories and wants to write a mystery novel.  (To learn more about squshies, visit squshies.net)

Simon the Fox

Next up are the book prizes.  I agonized about whether I should give away specific books or just offer gift cards for quite a while… And (somewhat obviously) I decided to do specific books.  These books have really knocked my socks off, and I want to give other people the chance to read them (even folk who don’t normally read romance or erotica.  Trust me, these books are good, sexy times notwithstanding.).  Rest assured, winners will have the opportunity to choose their prize, on a first come, first served basis.

1.  The Courtney Milan starter pack, e-book only, available in Kindle or .epub format.  This starter pack includes the novella The Governess Affair and the full-length novel The Duchess War.

Cover image, the Duchess War

Cover image, the Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

2.  The Tiffany Reisz starter pack, e-book or paperback (you choose), includes one copy of The Siren, the first book in Reisz’s Original Sinners series.

Cover image, The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

3.  My favorite Elizabeth Hoyt book, paperback or e-book (you choose).  Includes one copy of The Raven Prince.

Cover image, The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

That’s great, Kel, how do we win these prizes?  Funny you should ask!  Here’s them rules:

  1. Leave a comment and answer any (or all) of the following arbitrarily-chosen questions: (1) What are you reading right now? (2) What’s the best book you’ve ever read? (3) How do you go about discussing the books you’ve read?  Are you lucky enough to have an in-person discussion network, or do you primarily conduct any discussions online?  (4) Do you ever read romance or erotica novels?  (5) Do you have a genre that you just can’t like (i.e., I have a tough time reading books set in space… for some reason, I’m just predisposed to dislike ’em.)?
  2. This giveaway is limited to folk who follow my blog.  If you want on this crazy train, just enter your email address in that little box on the sidebar; if you have a WordPress site, just click the follow button.
  3. You need to be willing to provide an email and/or postal address (if you want a real, paper book — or a Simon the Fox — to hold in your grubby hands) in order to claim your prize.

The giveaway will run through Thursday, February 21 at 11:59 p.m.  I’ll announce the 4 winners at some point on Friday, February 21.  My giveaways have traditionally been… less than stellar.  If fewer than four people sign up to participate in this one, I’ll let y’all duke it out to decide who wins what.  I’m flexible.

Thanks, y’all!  This year’s been a blast, and I’m looking forward to another year full of reading and analyzing.

Now let’s be reasonable…

I’ll be honest: there are a lot of things people say that I dislike hearing.  A few phrases come to mind.  “That’s a tall drink of water,” is one of my least favorites, both because it is an objectifying phrase and because it never refers to a glass of water.  While I’m on the height thing, it’s also extremely annoying when people tell me I’m tall.  “You’re tall!” they tell me, as though I somehow missed that fact.  I never know how to respond to statements like that, especially when the person making the statement is a stranger to me.  Is it rude if I say, “Really? I’d never noticed!”  Yes, probably.  I hate being rude, but I’m OK with awkward, so I usually just agree, “Yes, yes I am,” and then wait expectantly for the person to say something to which I can actually respond.

I am very tall for a lady (tall for a man, too, actually), so I get these comments a lot.  I strongly dislike them, but I understand that height is generally considered favorable in our culture, and most of the folk commenting on my extreme height are trying, in a strange (to me) fashion, to compliment me.

There are, of course, plenty more phrases that I dislike, but there are also a few that I outright hate.  One of them is, “Let’s be reasonable,” or any variant thereof (e.g., “I think, if you could be reasonable about this, that you’d see…” or “You’re being unreasonable…” or “Let’s think about this rationally…” or “Let’s put emotion aside for just a moment, shall we, and talk about this like adults…”).  I truly hate these types of phrases, and it amuses me to provide a list of reasons why, a rationale, if you will (hardy har).

  1. Reason and rationality are not absolutes but are subjective.  What is reasonable and rational to one person will not be so to another, so the phrase, “Let’s be reasonable,” contains within itself a logical flaw.  The person saying that phrase might as well say, “I wish you would just think like I do.”
  2. Building upon that first argument, “Let’s be reasonable” is pejorative, implying that the receiver of the phrase has succumbed to all manner of irrationality and needs to be brought back to a reasonable track.
  3. While not strictly logical, I find that my dislike of this phrase is influenced by some of the particulars of circumstance under which I have heard this phrase throughout my life.  When I think about the phrase, it’s always a man’s voice that I hear in my head.  The logic, reason, and rationality to which I feel chastened to stick is always a man’s logic, reason, and rationality, and, now that I am well and truly an adult, I most often hear this phrase uttered whenever I attempt to explain what it is like to be a woman in today’s world to a man.  It has become a gendered phrase to me.

Cover image, Unclaimed by Courtney Milan

Oh, come on… you knew all this would somehow relate to a romance novel.  (First, a distraction: the dude’s ring on the cover is laughably huge, right? You know what they say about giant rings…)  Anyway, don’t judge this book by the cover model’s ginormous jewelry–the book is fantastic.  After reading The Governess Affair, I went on a bit of a Courtney Milan reading kick and read all four books in the Turner series (Unveiled, Unlocked, Unclaimed & Unraveledon four consecutive days.  She has several more books out that I haven’t yet gobbled up, books that I am holding in reserve to savor while I wait for her upcoming books to be released.  Milan’s writing is like the best wine I’ve ever had: intoxicating but best enjoyed slowly and with deep appreciation for all of the nuances of flavor and texture.

Unclaimed is a beautiful love story set in the early Victorian era between two unlikely lovers, a man famous for his virtue and lifelong chastity and a courtesan who intends to seduce and betray him.  My favorite moment in the book comes near the end when Jessica (the heroine) confronts the villain of the piece, a former protector who did a bad, bad thing to her.  He, somewhat predictably, does not recognize that he did anything wrong, so she clues him in.  His response is to reject that any harm was done by suggesting that she’s just being unreasonable.

“Come now, Jess. You’re upset, I see that. But let’s be rational about this.”
Her voice was shaking. “I am not your victim. And I am being rational. The only way to win is to rid myself of you. You look at me and the only thing you can see is a possession, something that you can pick up and use however you want.”

When I read that line, I was reminded of a few lines from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Women can’t add, he once said, jokingly. When I asked him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don’t make four.
What do they make? I said, expecting five or three.
Just one and one and one and one, he said. (175)

What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. (179)

I am reasonably certain that there is not only one form of reason, only one way to be rational.  There may be different perspectives that one cannot understand, but one’s inability to comprehend another’s rationale is not in itself a sufficient argument that the incomprehensible rationale is flawed or invalid.  Sometimes it just means that one is a bit slow on the uptake.

I wanted to write that we as a society seem to have lost touch with our ability to validate perspectives that we do not personally share, but then I wondered if we ever had that ability in the first place.  Perhaps to be human is to presuppose that one is correct and that others are not only wrong but also stupid and crazy.

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?