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.* 

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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.*