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.* 

Series reading – to continue or not to continue?

When you read as much as I do, it’s probably inevitable that you find your auto-buys. (Unless you’re one of those strange creatures that actually deliberates every purchase.) Most of the book-happy people I know have a running (and evolving) list of auto-buy authors, and some of us also have auto-buy tropes or story types. (The really smart folk out there use their local library. Just saying. Note: I’m not one of those smart people…)

I have an auto-buy authors list and an auto-buy trope list, and I tend to get suckered into reading series books. I mean, you probably knew that, right? It’s not as though I’ve made much of a secret of my lamentable decision-making skills. The thing is, pain fades, and memory imperfectly recalls. (But I just have to interject for a second here… I was told that I’d forget about the pain of childbirth once I looked into my baby’s eyes. I didn’t. 4 and 5 years on, I still remember with stunning clarity the pains, twinges, humiliations, degradations, irritations and fear of childbirth. Maybe some women forget but not all.) Once I am no longer reading a book that I did not enjoy, I can tend to forget what I didn’t like about it, especially if it’s a book in a series. I can lose myself in the hope that the next book will be better. I rationalize: I’ve already taken the trouble of getting to know the secondary characters; wouldn’t it be nice to know where/how they end up? Don’t I want to see the overarching plot resolved? Enter The Disgraced Lords series by Bronwen Evans.

Independent and high-spirited, Lady Portia Flagstaff has never been afraid to take a risk, especially if it involves excitement and danger. But this time, being kidnapped and sold into an Arab harem is the outcome of one risk too many. Now, in order to regain her freedom, she has to rely on the deliciously packaged Grayson Devlin, Viscount Blackwood, a man who despises her reckless ways—and stirs in her a thirst for passion.
After losing his mother and two siblings in a carriage accident years ago, Grayson Devlin promised Portia’s dying brother that he’d always watch over his wayward sister. But having to travel to Egypt to rescue the foolhardy girl has made his blood boil. Grayson already has his hands full trying to clear his best friend and fellow Libertine Scholar of a crime he didn’t commit. Worse still, his dashing rescue has unleashed an unforeseen and undesired consequence: marriage. Now it’s more than Portia he has to protect . . . it’s his battered heart.

A Touch of Passion is book 3 in the series, and I ended up enjoying it (the first half was rough), although not unequivocally. But I probably should not ever have read it, because I didn’t much care for the first two books in the series. (I was particularly unimpressed by the second book.)

And now, of course, enough weeks have passed that I’m starting to forget the things I didn’t like about the book. So I thought I’d write it all down now, so I might stand a better chance at making a more informed decision when book 4 comes out. (Otherwise, I’ll almost certainly read it without any consideration at all. Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still probably read it, but wouldn’t it be better if I did so after putting some actual thought into it? Maybe?)

A Touch of Passion reminded me (favorably, but still) of the second Black Cobra book by Stephanie Laurens. (It also reminded me a bit of The Pleasure of Your Kiss by Teresa Medeiros. It’s closer in plot, perhaps, to this book, but the chapters of boat travel brought back memories of the Laurens book). The hero is an asshole for most of the book. It’s episodic and jumpy, and I continue to have a difficult time with the notion of the heroine being sold to a convenient Arabian harem yet still maintaining her virginity for the hero through a way too well-timed rescue. (Conversely, I’m disturbed by the idea that I might prefer for the heroine to have been sexually exploited for the sake of reality. It’s more accurate to say that I feel manipulated by the story line no matter how it goes. The threat of violence against women is often just as bad as actual violence against women, especially when it’s unclear exactly what narrative is served by that threat.) Finally, the book doesn’t really move forward the overall plot of the series all that much.

These are heavy misfortunes for a book to bear, and the book’s nearly excellent second half does not quite tip the scales back into a positive balance. To be fair, though, I should mention that the denouement was pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in an ending. I’m half convinced that Evans should undertake a public service project and take all the books that have shitty endings (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example, or Women in Love) and fit this ending in somehow. The world would be a better place.

So what do you think, friends? I have some good reasons to hope that book 4 will be spectacular (in either a good or a bad way; who knows). Where’s the line? When does hope cease to be rational? Have you ever continued a series even when all hope of its getting better was lost?

*Disclosure – I received an e-galley for review consideration from Loveswept via NetGalley.*

 

What I read in March – a wry confession

Not too long ago, I wrote about how I had set this wild goal for 2014 to read fewer books and to think about them more.  I want you to know how well I’m doing on that goal.  Are you ready? I read the following books from March 1-31. (Click on any of the covers to learn more about these books.)  Oh, and I’m listing them in the order in which they were read, from March 1 through to March 31.

That’s 22 books (9 novellas, 13 full-length novels). Maybe I jinxed myself when I so publicly stated my goal. Maybe it was just a coincidence that I ended up binge-reading several authors (Sarah Mayberry, whom I started reading in February, Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, Laura Florand, and Maisey Yates). Maybe I just really wanted to read during the month of March, and I should get off my own back.  Either way, I think we can conclude that I spectacularly failed at my goal last month.

But, OH, you guys…. I don’t even care, because some of these books were just so damn good.  If you’ve not read Charlotte Stein (and you’re in the market for erotica), you should do yourself a favor and pick up Control. That book is simply beautiful. And Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human will probably make my list of favorites for the year. And Unexpected was, well, unexpected — a contemporary, Oregon-set, cowboy-secret-baby-almost-engagement-of-convenience story that not only worked but also managed to fill me with hand-clapping, bouncing glee?! — and incredibly good (MissB: if you’re reading this, I think you’d love it.). And I really can’t wait until my bestest reading buddy Kim picks up Once Upon a Billionaire, so I can find out if she likes it as much as I did.

And don’t even get me started about those two Laura Florand books (or the one I just finished a few hours ago)… I didn’t think I could like a book better than I liked The Chocolate Touch but then I read The Chocolate Rose and realized maybe there could be a tie in my affections. But then I read The Chocolate Temptation (which I really want Tasha to read) and realized that, really, there’s no way to pick a favorite, and the best thing to do about it is just read all the books over and over and over again, the way my bestest friend in the whole wide world cycles through The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, there you have it. I may have failed at my goal, but I WON AT ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Stay tuned for future posts discussing these very books in greater detail. And happy Friday, everybody!

 

The ultimate in defies description – Blood Mate by Kitty Thomas

Most of the time, I find genre classifications very helpful.  On a certain level, I enjoy knowing what to expect when I approach a book.  It makes for an easier reading experience, right?  When you’re in the mood for a story with equal parts love and adventure, you might be happiest with a romp. When you’re in the mood for an adventure that pushes the boundaries of the known world, you might be happiest with some science fiction.  When you’re in the mood for a story that explores sexuality, you might enjoy some erotica.  Genres make it easier to match books to your reading mood, and that can make for happier reading.

But sometimes I wonder if it also produces more complacent reading.  If you know what to expect going into a book and if your expectations are usually met, isn’t it easy to start reading to your expectations, finding in your reading only what you expect to find?  And when that method of reading becomes your comfortable habit — it’s so easy — what’s going to make you break free?

When I started reading Blood Mate, I had no idea what to expect.  Was it paranormal? Yeah, I guess… I mean, it’s about a vampire, so I guess it qualifies.  Was it a romance? No, not really. Was it erotica? Ish? Was it dark erotica?  Sort of, but it’s not actually as dark as you’d expect.  So what is it?  It’s exactly what it says it is: a dark fairy tale.

Here’s the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Blood Mate, a dark fairy tale…

Nicole has been happily married to big shot attorney, Dominic Rose for ten years, but soon after their anniversary he grows cold—as if she doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, another man has been pursuing her far too intently for comfort.

August Corinth is a six-hundred-year-old vampire, cursed to kill and suffer the pain of his victims each night until he can find the one woman who can resist his thrall, his blood mate. Once he’s found her, there are no lines he won’t cross to claim the promised salvation even if it means taking away everything and everyone she loves.

I found, reading it, that when I took it at literal face value, I didn’t really get what was going on, and I didn’t like it much.  But I took an Olympics-induced break about halfway through and spent a few days thinking about the story, about my expectations, and about whether I was reading it properly.  I kept going back to that subtitle, a dark fairy tale.

Subtitles are important.

When I started reading Blood Mate as a fairy tale, it transformed.  So I went back to the beginning and started it again, approaching it the way I would a myth or epic poem.  August is full of that classic, epic arrogance and selfishness, character traits that seem out of place in a modern story but fit right in an epic tale.

(Epics are full of these douchey dude characters who manipulate and destroy — often specifically destroying the lady characters — and then bitch and moan when everything doesn’t turn out perfectly for them.  Often, it takes the intervention of the gods to rework the human ending and pitch it in favor of the douchey dude.  Hey, Odysseus, I’m looking at you.)

From his first appearance in Blood Mate, August Corinth typifies the epic douchebag.  He is remarkably self-centered, and his response to every hint of adversity is self-pity and a fundamental expectation that his happiness trumps everything.  He is, then, in addition to being an actual vampire with the fangs and the blood sucking, an emotional vampire, toxic in his selfishness, forever taking, demanding everything out of life.  The emotional vampirism goes one further as August uses his bond with Nicole to remove her painful emotions after the various traumas she experiences at his hands.

He’s not a damn romantic hero, and I don’t think he’s cast as one.

On the flip side, there’s Nicole, who’s kind of a cipher, clinging to seemingly insignificant pieces of identity as she lives in the shadow of first one then another man who claims her as mate.  With her husband, Nicole clings to her unnecessary job and preference for sweet coffee drinks.  With August, Nicole clings to her identity as Dominic’s beloved and struggles to maintain her sense of self as all her emotions are leeched away.

If you try to read the story in a straightforward and modern way, expecting the kinds of things you usually expect, you’ll probably be disappointed.  There isn’t really a resolution for August, Nicole, or Dominic.  August doesn’t exactly grow in self-awareness, and Nicole doesn’t achieve any clear peace or positive reward for all her sacrifice and struggle.  And Dominic… I think maybe that guy’s more of a winner than either August or Corinth.

But, if you abandon your expectations — more than that, if you actively question why you even have those expectations in the first place — you’re in for an interesting read and an even more interesting period of reflection after the reading is done.  Who is the hero in this book? Who is the victim? Whose path is righteous? Who wins at the end? And, honestly, why do we approach books expecting a clear winner or loser?

I’ll be honest… I’m not really sure what the ending of Blood Mate is all about.  I’m a reasonably intelligent human being, but the ending — kind of like the last scene of The Sopranos — leaves a big question mark for readers and refuses to make it easy on us.  So what happened and what does it all mean? That’s for you to decide. And isn’t it fucking awesome that you have that kind of power as a reader?

Blood Mate was released by the author on January 30, 2014.  For more information about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  If you’re curious about Kitty Thomas, check out her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley from the author in exchange for an honest review.*

Jane Austen January – Sense and Sensibility

Oh, Sense and Sensibility

Best synopsis ever.

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about Sense and Sensibility, and an equal number that I find troubling or downright irritating, but it is still my fourth favorite Austen novel and still ranks quite high on my list of all the books I’ve ever read.  As with most of Austen’s novels, my chief enjoyment is in the antics of the wide cast of secondary characters and in Austen’s witty, if harsh, take on those antics.  Who could not love the delightfully awful Mrs. Ferrars, Robert Ferrars (toothpick cases are important, after all), and John and Fanny Dashwood?  And what about Mr. and Mrs. Palmer?  I challenge any one to resist their charms.

Regarding the things I find troubling, most of them revolve around Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor seems to be the chief heroine of the piece, even though nobody much likes her, especially when she is in one of her disapproving moods.  Unlike Marianne, whose happy ending is sort of a throwaway and is actually Col. Brandon’s happy ending, after all (pun totally intended), Elinor achieves the full arc of her story.  My difficulty is that Elinor doesn’t go on any kind of internal journey throughout the story, so while I’m always happy that she gets her Edward (who doesn’t change much, either), it isn’t as satisfying as when Lizzy gets her Darcy, or Catherine her Henry, or Anne her Wentworth.

Can anyone really relate to Elinor as a character?  I certainly can’t, not because she’s so emotionally constipated (I am, too), but because she always behaves with the utmost propriety.  While I can comprehend showing a brave face and drawing as little attention as possible to one’s distress, I can’t imagine enduring all that Elinor does without at least a few episodes of histrionics or angry jazz hands.  Elinor’s adherence to strict propriety perhaps should, in being the exact opposite of her sister’s and mother’s wild expression of sensibility, be considered just as immoderate and intemperate as their behavior is.  But that’s not the case in this book.  Instead of Elinor being able to learn anything throughout the course of the story (instead of her story being able to have some point or purpose), she is instead depicted as the model for proper lady behavior.

“I am not wishing him too much good,” said Marianne at last with a sigh, “when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own.  He will suffer enough in them.”

“Do you compare your conduct with his?”

“No.  I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

Elinor learns no lessons (rather like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, come to think of it), and Sense and Sensibility is less interesting a book as a result.  I am not suggesting that her behavior is not model, but it does seem to me that a character who behaves perfectly on every occasion can have little claim to being realistically portrayed.  Further, if a character behaves so well all the time that no reader can identify with her, how can the reader be more than passively interested in her story?  I would like Sense and Sensibility much more if Edward and Elinor’s story received the treatment that Col. Brandon and Marianne’s does in the book and if the latter couple got more page time to show how their understanding came about.  Theirs is the more interesting story, right?

Given I mentioned that there were things I find irritating about the book, I should, at least, mention them.

  1. Why does Margaret exist as a character?  As far as I can tell, she serves no purpose at all.
  2. Elinor recognizes that Marianne is Mrs. Dashwood’s favorite daughter by rather a large margin, but she accepts this parental failing with all the philosophy of a totally disinterested party–except she isn’t one.  Of all Elinor’s unlikely traits, this one strikes me as being the least realistic.  Who wouldn’t be hurt or angered to be so slighted by one’s parent?  But Elinor in all her perfection accepts what love comes her way and feels justified in the righteousness of expecting no more.  Ugh!

For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January (and for those who aren’t–and here’s a shout-out to the lurkers: HOLLA!), I’d love to know what you think of Sense and Sensibility.  Theories as to why Margaret exists are also very welcome.

The Apothecary’s Daughter and my ridiculous memory

I possess an uncertain memory.  In some situations, I have astonishingly accurate, detailed recall, and in other situations I have no ability to recall a situation, conversation, book, etc.  I suspect it comes down to focus: at work, I generally focus on the emails I receive and read, and it’s amazing what I can recall (and how quickly).  Years after I emailed someone once, I’ll still remember the content of that email.  My freaky brain latches onto codes, so a full decade after I worked for a telephone answering service, I still remember the switchboard line numbers for some of our clients.  In my private life, I’m known for being flaky, ditzy, and generally forgetful.  I forget to tell my husband about appointments I’ve made; I forget to call people back; I forget to respond to emails.  I forget 80% of what I read.  It’s astonishing that I can be known for my cleverness and exceptional memory in one area of my life and can be famous for my ditzy forgetfulness in all the others.

That’s why it’s funny that I read a book about a character with an inescapably good memory.  And do you know what’s even funnier?  I finished the book last Thursday (July 5) and started writing a blog post about it on Monday (July 9).  In four days, I had managed to forget the main character’s name.  (That’s not all that uncommon for me, and you might notice that a lot of the time when I’m talking about the characters of a romance novel, I just call them the hero and the heroine, usually because I can’t remember the character’s names.  I guess I just don’t pay attention to names.)

Cover image, The Apothecary’s Daughter by Julie Klassen

I enjoyed this story, although I had an understandably difficult time relating to the main character (Lilly… I finally remembered her name this afternoon).  Lilly has fantastic recall for anything she’s read or anything she’s experienced/witnessed.  She remembers dialogue from conversations.  She remembers all the apothecary recipes she’s ever learned.  She longs to forget some things, but she doesn’t get her wish.  Lilly also has a taste for adventure and an ability to attract a horde of suitors.

It is typical for a romance novel to have two main characters, but this book really doesn’t.  It’s about Lilly, and there are a bunch of dudes twirling around her, trying to gain her favor, but none of them is treated as another main character.  In a way, that’s one of the strengths of the book.  Part of what drives the plot is the question of whom Lilly will choose (if anyone) at the end.  But by the time I reached the end of the book, I felt sort of manipulated, as though Klassen had lured me into caring about several characters who ended up having little importance by dangling the carroty chance that there would be a turnaround or a reveal and Lilly would end up loving them.  I felt that this story was a nearly-executed (very nearly… it almost made it) attempt to take a straightforward love story and make it more mysterious.

I suspect I’m being slightly unfair to the book because I could not relate to the main character.  I know that taste in reading is completely subjective, and a character that draws me in and seems to speak to my soul will be completely off-putting to another person.  I know that there is a lot to like about The Apothecary’s Daughter, but none of that likable stuff quite makes up for my not being able to connect to the main character (although I recognize that the disconnect is personal and has nothing to do with the book).  I just happen to be a not-very-adventurous homebody with a poor memory, and stories about people who yearn for new locales and who have problems adjusting to the horror of not ever forgetting anything just don’t appeal to me.

Ready for a horrifically abrupt subject change?  Here it is.  I don’t know how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I have certainly read it at least once a year for the past fifteen years.  I was in high school when the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P movie came out (thank you BBC/A&E!), and I got a trifle obsessed and watched it daily for months on end.  I can spot a snatched line from P&P at a hundred paces, so, naturally, a few lines from The Apothecary’s Daughter really stood out to me.

From page 100 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“I am ashamed to think of what I said then.”

Line from section 6 of the 1995 P&P miniseries

“I am ashamed to remember what I said then.”

From page 185 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“Mary Helen Mimpurse!  That is the first nearly unkind thing I believe I’ve ever heard you say about anyone.”

From page 815 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)

“That is the most unforgiving speech,” said Elizabeth, “that I ever heard you utter.  Good girl!  It would vex me, indeed, to see you again the dupe of Miss Bingley’s pretended regard.”

From page 314 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version

“I hope you will dance, especially should gentlemen be scarce and ladies be in want of a partner.”

From page 454 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)

“He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner.”

I should really start bookmarking while I read, because there was a fourth eerily familiar line, but I just can’t remember it now, and I don’t feel like skimming through the entire book just to find it.  I’m not trying to start some sort of odd Jane Austen plagiarism brigade (because a hell of a lot of authors would get rounded up in that one, including every author who ever wrote any JA fanfic), but I personally found these lines very jarring.  I’d be trucking along in the story, and then all of a sudden there would be this random P&P reference… and, to me, it was as jarring as a random Rocky Horror Picture Show reference would have been.  Every time I discovered a reference, I felt like I had gotten a joke that the author didn’t intend to make.  I was this guy:

Bottom line… for all that I’ve complained about not connecting with the main character, being irritated by the P&P references, and feeling slightly manipulated by the author, I did enjoy this book.  There are all of these lovely little bits of history woven into the story (history of medicine, apothecary’s lore, etc.), and these details added depth to the characters and explained a lot of the character’s motivations.  I loved Klassen’s descriptions of life in that little village whose name I’ve forgotten.  I loved the scene on Apothecary Row in London…  This book has all these delightful little facets (and a mystery or two!) that make it well worth the read, even if you don’t particularly enjoy the main character.

My favorite thing about The Apothecary’s Daughter is that Lilly learns a very important lesson.  She’s got this crazy-good memory, but that doesn’t always mean that she remembers things accurately.  She remembers all the dialogue of every conversation, but that doesn’t mean that she always perfectly understood the context.  Lilly has the opportunity to learn that things often aren’t what they seem, and that even the smartest of us can be surprised by things that were under our noses the whole time.  Lilly also has a difficulty noticing changes in people over time because her habit is to rely on her memory, using information from the past to inform the present.  The way Klassen allows Lilly to discover the other characters, those that she thought she knew so well (her father, Mary, Mrs. Mimpurse, Francis, etc.), is just lovely.  For this reason alone, you should  read The Apothecary’s Daughter, but, of course, there are many reasons to do so.

How Tess of the d’Urbervilles ruined me for (certain) other books

Have you ever thought, “Wow, I wish I could un-read that book…”?  I have that thought quite often, and you’d think it would be about the multitude of terrible romance novels I’ve read.  But you’d be wrong.  I really wish I hadn’t read Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I wouldn’t mind un-reading Jude the Obscure either, while we’re at it, but it’s Tess that really broke my heart.

Here’s a list of the top five things that I despise about Tess:

  1. After a horse-injuring accident that is totally not her fault (but she thinks it is), Tess gets shipped off by her parents to visit a distant relative whom she doesn’t meet but whose scapegrace son, after much ado, rapes her.  Tess manages to escape and returns home, ruined and in despair.  That’s bad enough on its own, but the absolute worst part about it is that Tess (and everyone else, frankly) believes that it was all her fault.  And she bears a child out of the union who lives only a few weeks and dies after being christened (by Tess) Sorrow.
  2. After that godawful experience, Tess goes to work as a dairy maid on a farm some distance from her home.  There she meets (again) the would-be hero Angel Clare, son of a Reverend, who is young and carefree (and careless) and ‘falls in love’ with Tess.  After they marry, he confesses that he’s not coming into the marriage a virgin, so Tess feels safe to confess the same.  Angel isn’t a fan of equality, though, so he abandons Tess, hours after marrying her.  What is poor Tess to do?  She goes to find another place to work.
  3. Remember the rapist?  He and Tess meet again by an odd twist of fate (or the author just being a total asshole) and, after a good deal of coercion involving her mother and sister being absolutely destitute and Alec (the rapist) being the only person in a position to help them (but only for a cost), forces her to stay with him as his mistress.
  4. Angel Clare… I really hate him, maybe more than I hate the rapist.  After he abandons his wife, he decides to head off to Brazil to start a new life.  On the road, he meets up with one of Tess’ former friends at the dairy and asks her to join him as his mistress (GOD!!!); she agrees, but eventually he realizes it wouldn’t be a good idea.  In Brazil, Angel has a bad time.  His farming venture fails and he falls very ill, and after a while, he begins to realize that maybe he wasn’t the world’s best husband.  He decides to head home and reclaim his happiness.
  5. The ending…. I mean, I pretty much hate everything about this book, but I really hate the ending.  Angel eventually finds Tess, but it’s too late.  She’s already become the rapist’s mistress, and she’s so overcome with shame, she knows she can’t just leave the rapist and recover things with Angel (or exist on her own, really).  The only thing she can do is kill the rapist (stabs him repeatedly).  After the murder, she sets off after Angel, and they spend a few days together in happiness until the law catches up with Tess and she is arrested and executed.  Tess charges Angel to care for her younger sister, Liza-Lu, and hopes that he will be happy with her.  The book ends with Angel and Liza-Lu holding hands as they watch the execution happen in the distance.

It’s been about ten years since I read Tess, but it made an indelible impression on me.  It’s not often that I absolutely hate a book and everything it stands for, but that’s how I feel about Tess.  That book and everything that happens in it fill me with an impotent rage against the whole history of the world and against that inclination that may occur naturally in females or may be cultivated in us to internalize all the horrible things that may or may not happen to us and conclude that they are our fault.  Blech.

Cover image, Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer

Anyway, this rant about Tess of the d’Urbervilles is brought to you by Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer.  Great cover, right?  Actually, it sort of reminds me of some of the stylized poses of Titian or Rubens painting Venus and Adonis…

 

Anyway, back to Barely a Lady… Actually, I really enjoyed it until I finished the book and realized how very much it reminded me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles… then I got a little angry at it, but I still think it was overall a good book.  Unlike Tess, I recommend that lovers of the romance genre read Barely a Lady, because it is well written and unwraps its intrigue and mystery very slowly like the best kind of present.  Honestly, if I’d never read TessBarely a Lady would probably have gotten a 5-star review out of me.  Instead, Tess has ruined me for books about long-suffering females.

I don’t want to write about the plot of Barely a Lady.  Most of the fun of reading the book is figuring out what’s going on, and I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone.  Suffice it to say, then, that Eileen Dreyer is masterful at unfolding backstory in a way that keeps you entertained and on your toes.  Most of the time backstory is murder on a plot, as all the action is on hold until the reader is brought up to speed on what are considered important details (but, usually, the backstory isn’t all that important to the reader’s experience).  But Dreyer weaves in the backstory very carefully, bringing in a bit here, a bit there, and always furthering the plot and character development (of the female characters, at least) with every pass.  There are a few flashbacks, but they didn’t annoy me very much.  Except the Mimi one… I could have done without that nonsense.

So here’s my problem with Barely a Lady: Jack.  He’s the hero, so you expect him to be heroic.  Or perhaps you expect him to be an anti-hero (those are OK too).  What you don’t expect is for him to have all the character of a petulant child who lashes out because he does not get his way.  And maybe he, like Angel Clare, at some point realizes that he was phenomenally in the wrong, but I just don’t think that he paid enough for what he did.  The ending was utterly implausible to me.  Maybe I’m just not enough of a long-suffering woman, but I think a lot more groveling was in order, and I would have enjoyed reading every page of it.  I know–way overkill–but the ending felt like a little betrayal, to me.

All that to say, damn you Tess of the d’Urbervilles!  I was really looking forward to that book, and you ruined it for me.

The Exclamation Point – a discussion and guide to usage

I’ve always been a bit exuberant.  I just have so much to say, and there never seems to be enough time or space to say it all.  I talk quickly, and I tend to be parenthetical.  I write quickly, and I am tangential.  I have this horror of being misunderstood, and I somehow think that tangents and parenthetical thoughts will help me to communicate exactly what I mean (will provide the context of my thoughts) in the least amount of time (if I’m speaking) or the fewest number of words (if I’m writing).  In my early school years, my teachers always had the same thing to say: “Kelly, you write well and with great enthusiasm, but you must limit the number of parenthetical references you include.”  When writing, I have to constantly battle my impulse to include a parenthetical thought (or two) in every damn sentence.  So if, while you read my blog, you think that there are perhaps a few too many tangents or parenthetical comments, you have no idea what I’m capable of bringing to the party.  This is me being restrained.

One could not be as exuberant as I without occasionally overusing that strange punctuation mark: the exclamation point.  I used to wonder why it even exists if there are such stringent rules limiting its use.  To me, the exclamation point (and all of the rules that attend/restrict it) is rather like a wooden spoon and a giant pot that one would hand to a toddler.  They’re obviously meant to be used as instruments of joy, to be banged upon in an explosion of obnoxious, creative energy, but the adults never like it when the children are so unconstrained, do they?  Instead that pot and spoon just sit there, taunting the child with their unusable potential.  That’s how I feel about exclamation points.  As a serious adult, I’m not supposed to use them, but, oh, how I want to!

Well… I don’t think anyone could confuse me with a serious adult.  I self-identify with toddlers…

Anyway, for all my enthusiasm for the dear exclamation point, I do think it’s possible to use it in ridiculous ways, and it really annoys me when my favorite punctuation mark is so misused.  To be honest, the main reason I haven’t bothered to read the 50 Shades of Grey series is that several book review blogs mentioned the author’s outrageous exclamation point use.  Ana entered the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor!   Sebastian was so angry!  (not actual quotes from the book(s).)

So I decided to write a quirky little guide to the exclamation point, and I’d love to hear/read feedback on whether I’m right or cracked in the head (could be both, honestly).

The Exclamation Point – A Guide to Usage

Correct usage:  to punctuate an exclamation, to denote enthusiasm, to provide commentary on questionable behavior, to convey silliness, to creep people out with inappropriate enthusiasm (workplace use).

Incorrect usage: to punctuate statements that are neither enthusiastic, ironic, nor silly.

Examples of Proper Usage

Look out!  There’s a bear coming right for you!
I can’t wait for dinner tonight; I’m going to eat a steak the size of my head!
While I was out on my walk last night, I saw a dude who was out jogging wearing nothing but his running shoes and a sweater (because it’s cold)… !!?!!
And then they fell in a ditch and died!
Thanks for responding so quickly and helping to coordinate this visit!!

Examples of Improper Usage

Jonathan was wearing jeans! (exception: if it’s completely bizarre that Jonathan would wear jeans, that exclamation point could justly indicate the writer’s surprise at encountering denim in connection with Jonathan.)
Betty made a stop on the way home to get some coffee. She added two sugar packets and some cream! Armed with her coffee, she headed home and planned to spend the evening watching Dancing with the Stars.
I went to a funeral yesterday! (This one is just a socially unacceptable usage… we aren’t supposed to be excited about death and its various celebrations.)

Exception

An exclamation point is an appropriate terminal mark to any sentence that references bacon (e.g. I ordered a BLT! or That macaroni and cheese has bacon in it!).  Bacon is always a reason to celebrate(!).