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.*

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.

Kim and Kelly’s co-review of Tessa Dare’s Stud Club Trilogy

Over the past year, Kim over at Reflections of a Book Addict and I discovered that we have similar taste in books and that it’s a lot more fun to read books together and glory in the ensuing discussions.  We were both already fans of Tessa Dare’s books, but neither of us had read the Stud Club Trilogy, so we decided to give those books a try and then co-review them over at Kim’s blog.  We liked the books a lot, which is not entirely surprising considering we started out with a soft spot for the author’s voice.  What is slightly surprising is the variety of topics we were able to kick around when discussing the three books.

To read our lengthy review of all three books, follow the link to be magically whisked along the interwebs.

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?

Recommended for you: “The Damsel, the Duke and the Debacle”

I have a hard time finding new books to read.  Maybe you do too.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve used your Amazon account to purchase weird things: wiffle balls, magnetic puzzles, children’s toys, cat calendars, etc., and now Amazon has no idea what to make of your taste.  My Amazon recommendation list looks like this: an obscure french novel, another obscure french novel, yet another version of one of Sophocles’ plays that I already own in the Loeb Classical Library edition and have no interest in replacing, a Florence & the Machine album, a Deathcab for Cutie album, another obscure french novel, a romance novel that has something to do with a Duke (‘Dealing with the Duke’ or ‘The Dastardly Duke’ or ‘Touch Not the Duke’ or some other such nonsense… I don’t get Amazon’s Duke fetish, but whatever), more wiffle balls–because it’s not enough that I already bought 100… obviously I need more–gift tissue in ugly colors, etc….  So I don’t use Amazon to find new books to read.

I have a Nook, so I often shop for books through Barnes and Noble.  Unfortunately, my recent purchases seem to have convinced Barnes and Noble that I have a thing for bad writing and/or characters with serious psychological issues.  I suppose I must, but I hate having to admit that fact to myself.

Here’s a recap of my more messed-up reading over the past 6 weeks, some of these I’ve already discussed in other posts:

In One Week as Lovers by Victoria Dahl, Lancaster, the main male character, was seriously abused in his late teens, and Cynthia, the main female character, was pretty much raped… you get those two together, and you’ve got a whole lot of issues and baggage.  In To Seduce a Sinner by Elizabeth Hoyt, both the male and female main characters are carting around a hefty amount of emotional baggage.  In To Beguile a Beast, also by Elizabeth Hoyt, it’s the male main character who’s got the issues, having been tortured during a past event.  Reynaud from To Desire a Devil has a nasty case of PTSD from being held captive and repeatedly tortured for a period of seven years.  Frankly, Ian from The Duke’s Captive  by Adele Ashworth (he’s the Duke, by the way) also suffers from PTSD, and Viola, the female main character, doesn’t fare much better.  Colin from A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare watched his parents die when he was young from a violent carriage accident that he alone survived (that’ll mess you up).  Finally, Nicholas from Love’s Magic by Traci Hall was captured, drugged, and sexually abused for over a year before the story starts.

Is an intervention needed?  I mean, I pretty much read romance novels because (1) they are very easy reading, (2) I adore love stories, (3) I have a very hard time expressing my own emotions, but I recognize the need to feel them, and romance novels help me to vicariously lead an emotional life (does that make any sense at all?), and (4) they’re frequently funny, and I like funny.  But my recent crop of romance reading has tended more towards the very serious (Well, not A Week to be Wicked… I snorty-laughed all through that book…), with all these big, weighty emotional problems, and I’m a mite concerned about the idea that I find both entertainment and catharsis in these stories.  Then again, in addition to the 7 books I mentioned above, I’ve read at least 15 others in the past 6 weeks that are the more standard romance fare (or are just straight up terrible, come to think of it).  And, hey, at least I’m not into The Bachelor, right?

Maybe Amazon’s not totally wrong about me…I would totally buy and read “Touch Not the Duke,” if such a book existed.  Just saying.

Armchair BEA 2012: Best of 2012

Hello folks!  It’s day 2 of the Book Expo America in NYC, and I am, once again, participating virtually via Armchair BEA.  I’m not in an armchair, though.  I do all my blogging perched atop a giant blue bouncy ball.  It’s impossible to be unhappy when you’re bouncing like a little girl.

My “chair” and messy desk

Today’s topic for participation is: “Share some of your favorite books so far this year, and/or the the books being promoted at BEA that you hope will end up among your favorites for the year!”  I’m going to interpret that to mean any books I’ve read this year, regardless of their date of publication.

I should have kept a better account of what I have read so far this year.  By going through my Nook library (and trying to recall the few paper copy books I read this year), I’ve come up with 59 books read so far, but I might be missing a few, and I’m not counting in that number any of the nonsense I had to read for school or any of the re-reads that I did.

Cover image, The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

I have posted a few times–here and here and here–about Elizabeth Hoyt and how very good her books are.  My favorite is The Raven Prince, probably because it is the one that I arbitrarily chose to read first.  (A friend once told me that one’s favorite Tom Robbins book is whichever book of his one read first.  So my favorite is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, and that friend’s favorite is Still Life with Woodpecker.)  The Raven Prince is a delightful blend of whimsical fairy tale and earthy love story, and I loved every bit of it, even the parts that made me blush.  In fact, I loved it so much that I’m reading it again now, even though I just read it a month ago.  It’s just that good (and my memory sucks that much).

Cover image, A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

I love to laugh, and I really dig it when a book makes me laugh out loud.  There are books that are designed to make you laugh (I can’t read Laurie Notaro’s books in public…  That stuff is ‘privacy of my own home’ reading to me.  There’s just too great a chance that I’ll laugh until I drool or pee on myself…) and there are books that are not exactly humorous books but are hilarious regardless as a byproduct of great writing.  Catch-22 is one of these, and so is A Week to be Wicked.  Romance novels are often funny (unintentionally), but this one has sparkly dialogue and wit that are a perfect balance to the emotionally compelling aspects of the story.

Cover image, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

I participated in a workplace book club in February and March of this year at the same time that I was finishing up school and starting this blog.  It was a great experience all around, but mostly I was appreciative of the opportunity to read a book that I would never have picked up on my own.  To read more of my thoughts about the book, check out my posts here and here.  My favorite thing about Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock is that it did not insist on a happy ending.  In southern California, where I live, race relations are generally pretty good (comparatively), but that’s not really the case across the entire country.  I loved that Margolick had the moxie to tell the real story, not the story that we all wanted to read.

So that’s my shortlist of favorites for 2012 (so far).  I’m looking forward to reading some more great books through the second half of the year, and I’m looking forward to the terrible ones as well.