Too Much of a Good Thing? I’m Having a Hard Time Keeping Up with Liz Carlyle

In which I revisit a favorite author, try to review a recent book (A Bride By Moonlight), and get tripped up by complications and connections

There are many moods and phases meandering across the chronology of my years as a faithful romance reader. Maybe one of these days I’m going to plot it out on some kind of timeline, or “family” tree of subgenres and series.

The novels of Liz Carlyle fall into the post-Outlander, pre-JoBev, very Black Dagger Brotherhood phase when I was parenting twin preschoolers and basically stuck at home (or the playground) with them whenever we weren’t at daycare and the office, respectively. Hectic, exhausting days, but kids in bed early and evenings to myself for second shift chores, or ignoring the laundry, binge-watching episodes of Sharpe, and reading. (In case anyone’s wondering, this is the phase when I also read about 29 versions of the same book by Stephanie Laurens.) Sometime during this phase I picked up a copy of Carlyle’s My False Heart because of its (then) unusual cover and was utterly charmed by its unusual blend of smoldering romance, good conversation, artsy ambience, and eccentric domestic goings-on.

I fell easily into this Regency world, which has more of Chase than of Laurens, is angsty in the right ways, and is populated by memorable characters who pop up across her overlapping series. And I’ve been a faithful reader. I’m not an “auto-buy” kind of consumer, but I’ve kept up, and this winter I found a copy of her recent A Bride By Moonlight at my local used paperback shop. I’ve been trying to write this “review” post for weeks now and I think I’m stuck because it was somehow both predictable and confusing.  And “meh” reviews are always the hardest to write. To help organize my thoughts, sometimes I just start with the basics:

The Hero Ruthless police commissioner Royden Napier, known in his line of work as Roughshod Roy, he proves disarmingly and appealingly open, self-aware, and compassionate. He’s patient with human frailty and weakness in spite of having made his living as a crimestopper and prosecutor.

The Heroine Live-by-her-wits journalist and living-under-assumed-identity/ies expert Lisette Colburne, prime suspect in a murder that happens in another book in the series. She’s a survivor, so her impregnable fortress of bitterness is understandable, but becomes tiresome.

The Setting 19th century England (1840s). London (a little bit) and Burlingame, stately estate of Napier’s grandfather, Lord Duncaster, and also home to an odd lot of assorted family members he’s suddenly got to get to know, and get on with. Son of Burlingame’s exiled third son, Napier never expected to inherit title or house, and now he’s also been asked by his boss (an old friend of his grandfather) to discreetly investigate two possibly questionable deaths which have taken place in the ancestral home.

The tropes  Heroine with shadowy past, assumed identity/ies and guilty secret, Hero suddenly becomes heir to a title, Multiple mysterious deaths, Hero and heroine as detective partners, Weak and selfish elderly aunt and her dysfunctional family, Implied lesbian secondary characters, Hero who falls in love first and does not withhold, Virgin heroine who wants sex but not truth-telling.

Nope, it didn’t really work.  My thoughts on this book remain thoroughly inchoate and disorganized. But I’m coming to understand that for me the story itself felt disorganized, and it’s because there are maybe too many connections to other books, and too much plottiness. In trying to write about this book I’m also realizing it’s nearly impossible to write about a Carlyle novel without talking about multiple books, and I’m guessing this post will be as confusing to read as A Bride by Moonlight.

ABBM is the fourth novel in a sequence of books set around a group of friends/acquaintances loosely connected to the MacLachlan family first met in Carlyle’s engaging “Devil” and “One Little, Two Little…” series. The first two books in this “series” — and I hesitate to call it a series for reasons that will become clear — were One Touch of Scandal and The Bride Wore Scarlet, and these were billed as the start of a new and exciting HistRom series with paranormal elements. The paranormal element was basically a secret society, the Fraternitas, charged with protecting the Vateis — individuals with supernatural visions who are vulnerable targets for evil-doers because of their ability to see the future. Okay, I was willing to go along.

Just to review… I loved My False Heart, which I still consider a near-perfect “mysterious stranger in our midst” romance novel. Carlyle is an author I purposefully glommed at one point, she writes intricately connected books with strong world-building, and I’m familiar with her canon. Her “Never” series (Never Lie to a Lady, etc.) still stands as one of my all-time favorite HistRom trilogies, with echoes of Gaskell in its treatment of class, enterprise, and industry.

Even though I felt the Fraternitas (which by the second book had been rechristened, in England, the St. James Society) was entirely unnecessary — here was an author who was writing strong, compelling Regency and mid-19thc historicals and managing to build a web of connected stories WITHOUT relying on a secret brotherhood of superheroes — I enjoyed these newer books because they still featured the crisp dialogue and authentic characters with real problems, that I expect from Carlyle.

But. Don’t add secret societies and paranormal elements when it’s already hard to follow what’s going on!  But even though I’m pretty lenient about crazy plotting if the characters work for me, it’s got to hang together at least a little…. which brings me to the third book in this sequence – The Bride Wore Pearls.  Here, it was actually my favorite two characters from the previous novels, Lady Anisha Stafford, and Rance Welham, Lord Lazonby. These two each brought something intriguing and smoldering to their appearances in earlier books and I was so ready to immerse myself in their combined story. But their book was a mess. Jean Wan’s review for AAR says it so much better, and more hilariously, than I can. She gives it a D+. And she has history with Carlyle, much as I do. But this book is nearly impossible to follow, there are so many things you need to know from earlier books that it’s difficult even if you have read all the earlier books. My only point of difference with Jean is that I, pathetically I guess, still did care about Nish and Rance…. and here they are again as a married couple in A Bride by Moonlight.

But even a ruthlessly uxorious Lazonby isn’t enough to make things work. Something is still very wrong in Carlyle’s world. Here, the heroine has had so many identities, both in this book and the one prior, that I literally kept forgetting who we were talking about, when someone referred to one of her other aliases. The suspense element and the multiple overlapping secrets and mysteries have outgrown my capacity to follow or care, when I’d rather be following and caring about Napier and Lisette. It’s also possible I just have less patience with whodunits, as a very reluctant mystery reader, and the set-up here throws the two together as partners in solving a new mystery, even as Napier seeks to uncover the truth about Lisette’s pose as a (male) muckraking journalist in the mysteries from the previous books.

Once again, Lisette is undercover, and once again there’s just too much subterfuge. I was truly sad not to like this book more, especially since there are wonderfully and characteristically skillful renderings of numerous secondary characters. I couldn’t connect to Napier and Lisette as a couple — I found myself wanting him to get what he deserved, and be happy, and wanting her to stop being such a ninny and give it to him. He’s much more sympathetic, I suppose, and this is actually quite interesting in terms of discourses around the “unlikeable heroine.” But I am finding it difficult to dig in and deconstruct either the characters or what happens to them, because it all just felt too jumbled.

With My False Heart, Carlyle laid the foundation for her careful architecture of a world in which loving families and the refuge of knowing there’s a place in the universe where you truly belong, mean everything. Orphans and neglected children are made whole through the power of love, and are embraced, not just by their romantic partners, but by Carlyle’s powerfully affecting tableaux of domestic intimacy, even among the privileged and titled families at the center of her world.

Sibling relationships are especially powerful, for good or ill – I fell in love with brother/sister combos like Anisha and her Raju (ruthless Ruthveyn, from One Touch of Scandal), and Kieran and Xanthia Neville, orphaned heirs to a vast shipping fortune (Never Lie to a Lady, Never Romance a Rake). Issues of difference, religion, race, class – it’s all there, and the best of Liz Carlyle delivers complicated characters and angsty historicals you can dig into.  In A Bride By Moonlight, there should be more of the same – both protagonists are crossing over class lines, grappling with questions of duty, honor, and reputation, and overcoming painful losses. I don’t know whether the introduction of the woo-woo Fraternitas stole the mojo or what, but I couldn’t happily go along on their journey, because something isn’t working anymore. I can’t recommend A Bride By Moonlight, but I strongly recommend fans of “meaty” angsty historicals try the “Never” books — my favorite Carlyles and much less cluttered with confusing connected stories.

The more I started re-reading reviews of Carlyle’s books as I thought about this post, the more I realized she has a reputation for taking the connected books craze too far and driving readers crazy with it. For everyone who loves George Kemble (a gay decorator and “fixer” who appears in many books), there seem to be just as many people head-desking over trying to keep track of the connections. Almost everyone seems to agree that My False Heart is an amazing novel, and that the treatment of anti-semitism in Regency England in Never Deceive a Duke is unique and compelling. In many ways, I haven’t got much new to add to what’s already been said, but I decided to go ahead with this post because of what Liz Carlyle’s books have meant to me in the past.

ETA: Lest there be further Carlyle confusion resulting from this post, I should clarify that A Bride By Moonlight is not her most recent release. In Love With a Wicked Man (October 2013) is the newest addition to the Carlyle canon, bringing us the story of Ned Quartermaine, another character who has appeared in many previous books, and I seem to remember he’s not always such a great guy. I haven’t read any reviews (yet) as I’m considering whether to read it…. the set-up seems promising since it takes us out of London and evokes My False Heart by having the hero unavoidably trapped by circumstances at the country estate where he’ll meet the heroine.  Based on my early love of Carlyle’s oeuvre, I know if I see a copy at my local shop, it’ll be coming home with me!

Some (More) Scattered Thoughts About Romancelandia, Overthinking, and Balance

This is sort of an experiment and, like most true experiments, has the real potential to go horribly wrong. I’m sitting here pulling together some truly off-the-cuff thoughts in response to several articles and posts I read last night and this morning, and a brief yet compelling twitter conversation last night about reading and responding with romance scholar @DrLauraVivanco.

Laura has posted a beautiful meditation on questioning what we read, critical distance, and the challenge of being both a romance reader and a romance “wonk.” I am incredibly flattered to be mentioned in her post. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to talk more about these questions and issues — whether on twitter or on the various blogs where there is/are exciting dialogue(s) swirling around these themes — I’m thinking about Olivia Waite’s tantalizing introductory post for her month of posts about intersectional feminism and romance, for example – this was all over my tweetstream last night and promises some very interesting conversations coming in April.

iPhone pics 2011.2012 4 005Since my usual post-writing process is labored and slow, it’s a challenge to try and “think out loud” here in this space and kind of toss some more ideas at the wall to see if anything sticks. A lot of what I’m thinking about relates to the rich and challenging discussions earlier this week at DA and Vacuous Minx. I’m hoping I can throw out some additional thoughts and links too lengthy to put in comments threads, without irrevocably annoying anyone or blowing up this experiment in blurt-blogging.

But back to my conversation with Laura, who suggested :

…in a utopia perhaps there’d be an inclusive, egalitarian, non-fun-spoiling, yet still critical way of discoursing.

If I try to boil down my response to Laura’s questions, the reflections on blogging and reviewing floating around Romancelandia this week, and the issues I’ve been pondering since I indulged in my navel-gazing “big fat anniversary post”, I think it comes down to a quest for balance — can I love what I read and surrender to the reading experience, and still think and write critically about it? In her (much too flattering) comment on my post earlier this month, Jessie (@RomanceProf) asked

So my question to you is this: can you read a romance purely for pleasure anymore?

For better or worse, once I became that academic, my approach to any book was never the same. It always come bundled with the disciplinary training I spent years acquiring. There are a few moments when I’m reading when I get sucked in and forget how I read now, but those moments are sporadic; the academic reader in me always breaks through, and while that way of reading doesn’t ruin the “spell” of transportation, it alters it by making me aware that it’s happening.

I am also more mindful now of the social nature of reading. As a kid, reading was a solo act I did as a means to get away from people; now it drives me _to people_. Today, I often feel driven to discuss what I read with someone else, someone who has the expertise to challenge and enlighten me. You did just that for me many years ago, and while it wasn’t in an academic setting, the nature of our conversations was grounded in our academic training and a drive to find someone we could have that type of conversation with.

If I do want to have fun with what I read, and immerse myself in an emotional journey along with the characters, is “overthinking” and writing a critical response part of the fun, or does it spoil the fun? Our fun, or other people’s fun, if one asks too many questions in the wrong space? What about the pleasure of reading as a social practice, which many bloggers have noted can deepen the reading experience?

My response to Jessie, and to Laura, is another question… Does critical thinking take me out of the immersive experience, or is writing a long analytic response that interrogates the mechanics and messages of a novel actually another way I immerse myself? Perhaps I seek to have my cake and eat it too, and this is possible for me because I’m actually unschooled in formal literary theory (I was trained as an art historian) and I have sort of an a’ la carte approach to critical thinking… that is, while I derive great satisfaction from reading romances that challenge me, questioning my choices, and seeking deeper meanings and connections, I also reserve the right to read just for fun and to share and compare notes about what I think is fun and entertaining and engaging, without always going deep. I can’t be one or the other; I want to be both.

I see these questions about my own emotional connection vs. critical detachment as separate from, yet obviously related to, the parallel set of questions that have been surfacing about academic or “wonky” participation in the fandom and/or author space that is the online romance community. I guess I really do find myself hopeful about Romancelandia’s capacity to grow a space for the kind of serious discussions Olivia proposes:

The question I most want to answer is this: What does this book do as a machine? I want something more about symbols/motifs/mechanics than the reviews at Dear Author and Smart Bitches, but something more accessible than the high-critical work being done by IASPR and academic journals. And nobody’s itching to write that kind of criticism except me. So I’m stepping up. (oliviawaite.com / March 28, 2014 / Blogging from April A-Z: Intersectional Feminism and Romance Series!)

I think a lot of people will be happy to see this kind of stepping up! Yesterday I couldn’t believe it when I saw bulb tips poking up in my frozen muddy garden. And I see other spring-like signs of a kind of “in-between” space for talking about romance reading, especially as Sunita, and others in the amazing comments thread that’s still going at Vacuous Minx, look at ways to create more connectivity between and among blogs and readers who seek a similar middle ground.

I also think it’s useful in this context, though it came as very sad news to me, to look at what’s being said about the announcement this week of the demise of Television Without Pity. I especially enjoyed what Margaret Lyon had to say, writing at Vulture about TV criticism pioneered by TWoP:

TWoP certainly popularized the recap concept — which is now utterly pervasive across entertainment-based and general-interest sites — but it also introduced a new vein of what TV coverage entails. At one side of the spectrum is obsessive, effusive fan coverage, and at the other is formal, detached criticism. There’s a place for both of these things in the universe, of course, because man is meant to live in balance. What TWoP did is insist that television criticism could be both arch and informed, that you could watch a lot of Roswell, you could care about Roswell, and you could still think Roswell is dumb garbage. Prestige shows like West Wing or The Sopranos don’t get a pass just for being fancy — even a recap praising a fabulous episode still had jokey nicknames for people, or wry labels for various TV clichés. Many of the recaps are incredibly funny, but there are plenty that had serious ideas about storytelling or costuming or characters’ gender politics, too. (Vulture/ March 28, 2014 / How Television Without Pity Shaped Pop Culture)

Now I realize the phrase “dumb garbage” is going to blow this up as a parallel for romance readers. “Junk” TV is not the same as “trashy” books, right? It’s got a lot to do with who gets to use the terms, and as a literary medium romance has a much more problematic history with snobbery and perceptions of trashiness than does television. (Also, I’m not even sure I’ve heard of the show Roswell, but I’m addicted to reading TWoP’s Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Boardwalk Empire, and Idol recaps, so I’m taking this news kind of hard.)

But I do think there are useful parallels across fandoms in different genres and media, and I like the idea that there is space to insist that writing about what we love can be serious and fun, “arch and informed”, emotional and critical. And that critical “academic” voices can be welcoming, and welcomed, rather than distancing. Utopian thinking?  Probably. The balance may shift depending on the book(s) under review, and the context, but I like listening to the voices that have this kind of range, and I think they’re out there.

Now if only I could get my own reviewing juices flowing again and write about books I’ve actually been reading this month…!

 

 

RevWar Swashbucklers: A conversation with REBEL PIRATE author Donna Thorland

In which we discuss swashbuckling novels, heroines in disguise, dangerous heroes, edgy historical romance, pirates (NOT witches!) in Salem, and Revolutionary women

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I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to THE REBEL PIRATE, which is the second book in Donna Thorland’s heart-stoppingly romantic Renegades of the Revolution series, and was released last week. Book one, THE TURNCOAT, which I reviewed last year, was one of my best reads of 2013, and it wasn’t just because the American Revolutionary period is my favorite setting for historical romance.  The new book, about a British naval officer (that’s right, a master and commander) and a rebel privateer, is set much closer to home for me, in Salem, Massachusetts, and I do want to talk about the history, but let me start by asking Donna about the romance…

Pamela: Your background in historic preservation and curatorial work certainly lends itself to writing historical fiction, and I’m wondering how you made the decision to write books that, for argument’s sake, I’ll call romances. With THE TURNCOAT, the love story was absolutely central, and you gave Kate and Peter a Happy Ending – I suppose it could have been HEA or HFN – did you leave that open for a possible sequel with their further adventures?

Donna Thorland:  I fell hard for historical romance when I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I loved all of the swashbuckling adventure, the quotations in Latin, French, and Spanish, the tangled familial relationships and the desperately fought duels, but it was the romance threaded through the series that made my heart beat faster, the palpable longing between Lymond and the heroine, whose name is a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the books. Dunnett’s work wouldn’t fit the current RWA definition. It takes six long volumes full of poisonings, politics, and fiendish plotting to get to Lymond’s happily ever after, but when it comes, it’s a profound union of equals, of two people who challenge each other to become their best selves. That’s the kind of book I wanted to write.

The next three Renegades books are standalones with new characters, but someday I’ll return to Peter and Kate, who go on to have further adventures, including foiling a plot to assassinate Franklin at the French Court…

Pamela: Glad to hear it! I really do like the trend towards following a married couple past the HEA into another book. But for their wartime courtship which was the focus of THE TURNCOAT, I loved the way you deconstructed some traditional romance tropes, like the charming and dangerous hero (I read Peter as more of a survivor than an alpha badass) and the sheltered and inexperienced heroine discovering her sexuality (Kate’s complicated sexual awakening that includes a man other than the hero was such a bold and risky plot move!). What led you to engage with traditional romance tropes so directly and centrally, rather than write the kind of historical fiction where the romance is merely an element among other central themes?

Donna Thorland:   After Dunnett I had a hard time finding the kind of adventure driven romance I was looking for—books that had the capacity to thrill and at the same move me. I found books in other genres that came close to striking the right balance—I love Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch books, George MacDonald’s Fraser’s Flashman, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series—but it was in romance that I most often discovered satisfyingly emotional storytelling.

Pamela: I think I know what you mean – it’s why I really loved Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, yet I always wanted the romance to be more central.  On the other hand, we both followed the rich discussion around Sunita’s “romantic vs. romance” post, so I know you define your genre somewhere at the edge of romance — as the “swashbuckler.”  Very apropos! And especially perfect for your new pirate-themed book. How does the swashbuckler relate and/or overlap with the traditionally defined romance genre?

 

Boston Herald Centerfold

Love this headline! The Boston Herald, March 10, 2014

Donna Thorland:   I define the swashbuckler as a blend of action, adventure, and romance in which single combat between a protagonist and an antagonist plays a crucial role. The Three Musketeers is a swashbuckler, and so is Steven Sommer’s excellent The Mummy. Not all swashbucklers end happily, but my books fall into the camp of those that do, like The Scarlet Pimpernell. You will not be surprised to learn that I am a huge Lauren Willig fan.

Pamela: OK, let me follow up about this notion that this genre — the swashbuckler — relies on single combat. Do you mean this literally as well as narratively? That is, must there be physical combat between hero (or heroine) and villain? Does it work if the combat is a battle of wits or strategies, or must there be swords involved?

This is interesting to me because it was reading THE TURNCOAT, which involves mortal danger and physical combat (in addition to torture) that made me want to explore the ways violence functions in the romance genre. And I’ve been thinking and writing about that theme in the months since then. Kate and Peter’s story was just that much more dangerously and graphically intense than typical historical romance novels. I guess that’s partly the wartime setting under an army of occupation, and partly the swash of the buckle!

Donna Thorland: Terrific question! Some day I really want to write an essay that surveys and defines the swashbuckler as I see it. The short answer, though, is that the combat can be a battle of wits. Dunnett uses it to devastating effect in Pawn in Frankincense. I don’t want to spoil those books for anyone but she builds up a ruthless villain who may in fact be cleverer than the hero and their climactic battle is one of wits, although the stakes are life and death not just for Lymond and his antagonist but for a whole cast of characters we have come to care about.

Pamela: What about American historical romance – I am always on the lookout for colonial and Revolutionary settings in romance, but I can’t tell if we are actually seeing a trend towards more books like this. Do you think it is more or less popular as a setting for HistRom these days? American romance readers seem to have an endless appetite for English and European settings, but are there audiences for RevWar books anywhere outside the US?

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Patriots Day reenactment near Lexington, April 2012

Donna Thorland:  I hear from readers in the UK and Australia who really enjoy this setting, so I think there is an audience. It’s a revolution after all—and why should the French have all the fun? I’m hoping that the enthusiasm for AMC’s TURN and Fox’s SLEEPY HOLLOW will bring more readers into the fold.

Pamela:  Both books involve heroines who undergo dramatic changes in circumstance that require them to transform their outward appearances.  Are the elements of disguise, assumed identities, deception, honor, and betrayal, among the hallmarks of your “Renegades of the Revolution”?

Donna Thorland:  Yes—definitely. When you study storytelling as a craft you discover that one of the most universal desires in fiction is the desire to be seen for your true self. I think this is especially true for female protagonists because so often gender obscures individual identity, and part of the heroine’s character arc is to break from her prescribed role. Disguise, cross-dressing, and assumed identities are also staples of 18th century drama. My third book, MISTRESS FIREBRAND, will be set in the world of the Georgian theater in America and might even contain a masque…

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Pamela: In THE TURNCOAT, although British officer Peter becomes the literal turncoat, it is patriot Kate who most radically “turns” her coat — or her dress — to become a completely different person on the outside. And it’s more than just taking on the persona of a wealthy Loyalist: I really felt as if your careful descriptions of her lavish clothing, powdered hair, and domestic accoutrements conveyed the sense that she was constructing an artificial gender identity. Not exactly a Deborah Sampson, but certainly perilously hiding in plain sight, and as a spy, in greater danger should the artifice be exposed? And it’s interesting to think about Kate as a “soldier” for the Revolution in disguise as the brittle Lydia, in contrast to Deborah’s literal enlistment as a man…? I just loved how you played around with themes of loyalty, identity, honor, and deception.

Donna Thorland:  One of the things that I really like about that title is that almost everyone in the book, at one time or another, could be considered a turncoat. Not just Kate and Peter, but Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold, Andre when he trades Kate’s whereabouts for the letters, and even Arthur Grey when he lets Peter go after the skirmish in the woods.

There’s a quick description of Kate’s preparations to meet Peter at the house in the Neck, and though it isn’t a full scene, in my mind, the clothing, the hair, the makeup, the jewelry, is how Kate arms herself to do battle. If I had the opportunity to shoot it for a film, I’d cover it the way Peter Jackson covered the arming of Theoden in The Two Towers.

If there is a geek meter on your blog, I have just broken it.

Pamela: Oh, I just re-watched that, this time with my daughters! It’s a great parallel. We join you in geekery. Though I know nothing about filmmaking, I’m very much a history geek, and they are digging into local colonial history right now in their 5th grade social studies unit. I hope they are getting a more balanced view of historical women than the one presented when I was their age.  Do you aim to educate as well as to entertain, by weaving your stories through and around the real history of women in the Revolution – ordinary women as well as women who took grave risks for love or patriotism, such as Kate?

Mrs. James (Mercy Otis) Warren, by John Singleton Copley, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (via WikiMedia)

Donna Thorland:  I want to reclaim early American women from their Victorian intercessors. I was reading Carol Berkin’s excellent Revolutionary Mothers and was intrigued by her mention of Elizabeth Ellet’s 19th century Women of the American Revolution. Ellet’s book kept the memory of Revolutionary women like Mercy Otis Warren alive, but also re-imagined them to appeal to Victorian ideals. Warren got herself on a British hanging list writing seditious plays and penned one of the first histories of the Revolution (and she’s the inspiration for the heroine of my third Renegades book). Ellet characterizes her as a pious homemaker who never put politics before family. Who is the real Mercy Otis Warren? Ellet describes the surface of a card table embroidered by Mercy as covered in flowers painstakingly copied from nature. The table is in Pilgrim Hall. It has got flowers on it. It has also got several hands of three-card Loo depicted, along with counters. This woman gambled. She was a person, not a paragon.

Pamela: Sounds like we may see a spectacular card table in a future book. As an erstwhile art historian myself, I especially appreciate your careful yet never pedantic attention to details of material culture, from costume and dress, to interiors and decorative arts. It’s a very tangible way the stories are enriched by your background in museum work, and your interest in the domestic environments which your characters inhabit.

Do you think we can view Kate’s act of performative and provocative femininity as both bold patriotism and a form of “turncoat” betrayal — or denial — of who she really is as a modest Quaker woman? Of course both identities become inextricably intertwined and equally authentic aspects of Kate as she grows and evolves through the novel, but I am curious about how you conceived such a wonderfully complex character. Is she an unassuming spinster who becomes a bold badass, or a bold spinster who was just waiting for the opportunity to break free of her unassuming surroundings?

Donna Thorland:  I wanted to give Kate something that more heroines deserve: a strong female role model. If Kate hadn’t met the widow, she wouldn’t have broken from her setting. It’s a common paradigm for male protagonists—for an experienced mentor to see promise in the young hero—but heroines are more often singled out for their beauty or kindness or other “feminine” characteristics, and then usually by the hero.

Pamela: With THE REBEL PIRATE’S  heroine, Sarah Ward, you have given us another protagonist who obscures her true identity, and in this case she meets the hero while disguised as a boy. And where there was a highly dangerous and uncomfortable love triangle in THE TURNCOAT, Jennifer McQuiston recently described what goes on in your new book as a “love rectangle.”  These are complicated, edgy romances, and a far cry from wallpaper-ish drawing-room historicals. Which other books and authors have most influenced your romantic, swashbuckling, yet hard-edged vision of Revolutionary heroes?

Donna Thorland:  In fiction, I think that what I write is closest to Dorothy Dunnett and George MacDonald Fraser’s work, but my perspective on the Revolution is informed by a lot of non-fiction as well. There is an acid tone to some 18th century journals—the engineer John Montresor had a particularly dry wit. A J Languth’s Patriots is one of my favorite general histories of the Revolution, because it highlights the role that character played in the conflict. Events turned on personalities, bold, flawed, timid, stalwart. Men and women of incredible ability—and fallibility.

Pamela: Speaking of fallibility…..  In general, I think people may know, or think they know, much more about the earlier period in Salem’s history, and the infamous persecutions of 1692.

Do you think people will be surprised by any of the history in this novel, especially how cosmopolitan and prosperous the city was in the late 18th century?

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Custom House and Salem wharf, Salem Maritime National Historic Park

Donna Thorland:  This was our daily challenge when I worked at the Peabody Essex Museum. The Witchcraft Trials of 1692 are a seminal event in American history—you can practically hear the door close on the Puritan hegemony and see the enlightenment beckoning on the other side—but the rest of Salem’s history is just as remarkable. During the Revolution, Salem took more British prizes and outfitted more privateers than any other American port. By 1804 she was the richest city, per capita, in the nation. She produced, arguably, the finest architect of the Federal period in Samuel McIntire, and the most important American novelist of the romantic period in Hawthorne (never mind that we practically ran him out of town on a rail for his unflattering portraits of local luminaries—hopefully I won’t meet the same fate…). 

Pamela: I doubt it! More likely a festive book signing at the House of Seven Gables… or the Salem Athenaeum…?

You also work in film and television – how has this influenced the way you construct novels? And what about your innovative use of short videos to promote historical novels – how fun and fabulous are these Vines?

DONNA THORLAND:  Novels are a bit like television in that readers are inviting your characters into their home. Your characters have to be people that your audience wants to spend time with, to learn more about—or they will change the channel or close the book.

Making the Vines was a crazy amount of fun. We shot several of them in Hamilton Hall—think a Regency-era assembly hall straight out of Jane Austen, but in Salem—built by Federal architect Samuel McIntire and in continuous operation for over two hundred years. It also happens to be around the block from my house, and friends and neighbors were able to drop by to lend a hand. When you live in a historic district, your friends and neighbors can also often lend you 18th century pistols or a spare neck stock.

Pamela:  I can’t decide which of the Vines is my favorite – the pirates turning pages or the badass delivery of the first line from THE REBEL PIRATE.  Watching them and checking out the links to Hamilton Hall and other Salem sites makes me want to spend more time in Salem this summer. I love bringing out-of-state visitors there, to experience the layers of history in a way seems closer to what an 18th century city may have felt like, than when you take people on the Freedom Trail walk through Boston.   But for now, I want to get back to reading about Sarah and Sparhawk and what they get up to, in Salem and aboard the Charming Sally

THE REBEL PIRATE (2014) and THE TURNCOAT (2013) are available from Penguin/New American Library in the usual formats and places. I received a review copy of The Rebel Pirate and purchased my copy of The Turncoat.

Big Fat Anniversary Post: Late Bloomer in Romancelandia

In which I do some Navel Gazing and contemplate a Paper Anniversary for my Internet “Relationship”

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Image credit: Folded Book Art by Luciana Frigerio via Etsy; these are gorgeous!

Sometime this month it’ll be the one-year anniversary of this blog. Is Paper still the traditional first anniversary gift? I hope so, because Internet. Ha. I write nothing on paper and nothing I write is ever printed. What lives here are transitory words that I write about books that I read. Admittedly, most of those are still on paper.

I thought about skipping the kinda sorta silly anniversary post tradition. But it’s been a milestone year for me in several ways, so I decided to try and organize some of my thoughts about this first year of Badass Romance. Once I started reflecting on the year in blogging, however, I couldn’t decide whether I feel more discouraged and overwhelmed, or energized and engaged. Depends on the day, I guess. Before I get to the part about being overwhelmed with the existential Why-ness of it all, I will indulge in a brief celebratory moment…

Happy Anniversary! I’m deeply grateful for friends new and old who love books and reading as much as I do, and who take the time to read my posts, share a comment or two, and perhaps also share in some of my other semi-addictive enthusiasms, from RevWar history to baseball to Sons of Anarchy and other serialized melodrama with intellectual pretensions. The blog was a sort of 50th birthday present to myself, but what it really unwrapped for me was an online party full of cool, thoughtful, funny people and ideas. You know who you are, but I think (I hope) I have most of my favorite blogs listed in the Blogs I Follow widget…

Favorite Posts? OK, here are a few, from the different ‘phases’ of Badass Romance’s rookie year:

  • Please Do Not Touch – an early effort at a review, with some art history thrown in
  • Pennyroyal Preacher Man – another early review-ish post, that ended up steering me towards the challenging novels of Patricia Gaffney, and related discussions
  • Never Say Die – ostensibly about Regency romance novels but really an excuse to post a lot of pictures of Sean Bean as Sharpe
  • Widow & Orphan – my love affair with Jane Eyre, and another excuse to post some great movie images (Toby Stephens & Ruth Wilson!)
  • A Subversive Regency – long-ass review of one of 2013′s most talked about historical romances
  • Scare Tactics – how about a little violence with your romance? representing a new focus for the blog, on the ways romance fiction uses (non-sexual) violence, whether there are limits to our tolerance for graphic episodes, and the eroticization of violent heroes

But. It’s overwhelming. I can’t believe I thought I’d manage a post a week. And I find it so much harder to write straight-up book reviews than my usual meandering, side-winding posts about one thing or another, usually book-related but rarely brief. I rarely have posts planned in advance and I never have them actually completed before the day they end up getting posted. I get weirdly anxious between posts when it feels like it’s been too long and I’m not inspired. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have time to read, let alone write a review or a post. So why the heck am I doing this….? (Apologies in advance that this post is going to be wicked long.)

The Blog is Dead As a late bloomer in so many aspects of life (see: first-time mom at 40), I suppose it really didn’t surprise me when I started a blog in 2013 only to discover that, according to a Harvard-certified media authority, and ensuing buzz all over the Internet, 2013 was the year the blog died as a dominant/relevant/exciting platform for the exchange of ideas.

More recently, and less provocatively, some internet and blogging pioneers reflected on the 20th anniversary of the blog and (of course) vehemently disputed the pronouncement of its death:

The people who say that are idiots. Blogging was never alive. It’s the people that matter. There will always be a small number who are what I call “natural born bloggers.” They were blogging before there were blogs, they just didn’t know what it was called. Julia Child was a blogger as was Benjamin Franklin and Patti Smith. (Dave Winer, interviewed for The blog turns 20: A conversation with three internet pioneers, by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, for The Guardian, January 28, 2014)

Blogging will persist the way other literary forms persist. I can imagine we’ll see articles about a resurgence in blogging in a few years, with people wondering if the post-Twitter generation now has a longer attention span. …. Is Twitter blogging on a micro-scale? Does it matter? What’s amazing is that we’ve seen the explosion of citizen access to tools formerly reserved for journalists and scribes. “Blogging as a specific online form might wax and wane. But blogging as a chance to exercise our voices doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – hurrah! (Justin Hall, interviewed for The blog turns 20: A conversation with three internet pioneers, by Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, for The Guardian, January 28, 2014)

Because I also have a family road trip & photo blog that I do with my kids and which is followed by no one, other than the grandparents, family friends, and a bunch of spam followers, I had realized early on that it was hardly likely anyone would read my book blog unless I decided to “promote” it in some way. Some dear book group friends were there to read my first tentative posts, and for a while I toyed with the idea that I was just writing it for myself anyway… the blog-as-reading-journal. Well that was a total bunch of horse-shite (pardon my Regency), because I was reading and commenting on other people’s blogs and it soon became clear to me that it was so much more fun when my posts found their way out into the wider world to join the fast-flowing river of romance-oriented literary critique and commentary, and to receive feedback and questions from authors, reviewers, and other bloggers. So – Twitter. I had declined to join Facebook all these years (still haven’t) but I deigned to try tweeting.

I learned to follow intense 140-character conversations about books, feminism, sports, snowstorms, what-have-you. This opened my world up to lots of people who might be interested in my blog, and, even better, gave me all kinds of inspiration and ideas that helped shape what I wanted the blog to be about. Being on Twitter was invaluable for pushing me to really look around at lots of other blogs and writers and figure out what was and wasn’t going to work for me as a blogger. Within the first couple of months there was a whole kerfuffle about whether historical romance was “dead” – and that conversation was energizing for me, inspiring some of my favorite posts. And it was an early lesson in the fun-tastic Internet party game of dramatically pronouncing the death of something in order to generate discussion and debate.

Never Say Die Since I don’t know anything different, I guess I’ve been OK with “The Blog is Dead; Long Live the Blog” — the notion that blogging is fundamentally different from what it was when many of my favorite bloggers got started, 10, or 8 or so years ago. It’s not death, it’s evolution, but there’s still this kind of talk about how Facebook and Twitter have taken over the discussion space. Perhaps it’s true that the exciting and dynamic back-and-forth no longer happens in Comments sections on individual blogs, since people can quote and link blog content in their own timelines or tweetstreams, and then talk about it there. While I’ve been flattered and honored by the wonderful insights that have been posted here in Comments, I don’t kid myself that it’s really bucking the trend, since I have more extensive conversations and discussions on Twitter — or on a few romance/reading blogs with longstanding reputations for rich & challenging discussion (I’m looking at you, Read React Review, Something More, Vacuous Minx, Radish) — with many of the same people who have graciously commented here.

Which brings me to my next reflection:  So maybe some of the really robust romance blogs ARE kind of bucking the trend? I mean there still does seem to be a lot of rich and lengthy discussion in Comments on the big blogs like DA and AAR, and, even better, on the individual blogs with thriving, well-established communities of thoughtful readers and writers. So maybe if I had to be so late to the party and start blogging in the year the blog died, at least I’m blogging about romance, which still has a flourishing and exhilarating blogosphere… right?  Or… wrong??

On the Wane? Because it turns out that not only is blogging (supposedly) kind of passe’ but maybe the online romance community — what some call Romancelandia (still? right?) — is also on the wane. Jessica at Read React Review posted recently about evolution in the romance blogging community, and she wasn’t the only one to describe the shifts in terms of a sense of decline, or fragmentation. Sunita helpfully framed this over at Vacuous Minx in terms of the loss of “pure” readers as the online community has become part of the romance industry “machine.” I actually think these two big shifts (in the nature of blogging, and in the cohesion / fracturing of the online romance community) are related, but it’s still all kind of forcing me to take a long hard look at what I’m doing, and why.

When “the waning of Romancelandia” came up on Twitter, I rather facilely posited that it might just feel that way to folks who have been part of it, operating as key actors &  insiders, for a while. Speaking as a newbie (to romance blogging, but not to romance reading) I suggested that when you are new to an online community it feels like a cohesive “thing” that you want to be part of, and for a time your very participation is an active engagement in the creation of community. But that once you’ve been inside for a while you start to see the divisions. Things you don’t like about other points of view become more apparent, sometimes conflicting opinions become more rigid, calcification occurs and you’re more aware that what looked like a community at one point now feels more like a very loose confederation of smaller sub-groups.

Maybe it feels like fragmentation, or silos or polarization. You become dimly aware that there are other communities talking about the same things your community talks about (books, ideas, films, whatever) but in completely separate places and spaces because they have come at the shared enthusiasm via other paths. And then there are the bizarre and exhausting flame wars – but I want to avoid that digression.

I still think the cyclical, and simultaneously clique-ish, nature of fan communities and online communities is true — it’s something that I have experienced in other fandoms. But as a theory that attempts to explain or mitigate the effects of shifts and evolutions in Romancelandia it’s also too reductive.

The Business of Book Blogging  I think there are (at least) two other major forces at play in the shifting landscape of romance bloggery. One is the publishing industry’s recognition and utilization of the blogger role, which, as Sunita and others noted, means that even reviewers and bloggers like me who really, truly, REALLY have no intention of becoming authors, nevertheless have an increasingly codified (and in some cases commercialized) role in the promotion of the genre and its products, via street teams, special blogger days at industry conferences, etc. And the role of book bloggers in keeping genre fiction, and romance, at the top of the publishing heap, is well established.

Nobody needs me to belabor this further – there are lots of places this point has been made by people with more experience across the years that romance blogging has become more professionalized  and commercialized (I use these terms very loosely — my understanding is that, unlike journalists or paid reviewers, very few people with individual book blogs actually receive or ever expect to receive financial compensation for the writing they do, regardless of insider status with publishers, ad revenues, or Amazon affiliate earnings). Since this is my personal “reflecting on blogging” post, I will add that I am still wrestling with my own conflicted feelings around various ways one can be “recognized” as a blogger, from my impulsive rookie decision that led to becoming one of Avon’s “Addicts” (though I don’t post the logo or do much else except read and review some of the books I receive) to my somewhat naive hope that I might occasionally receive free books (I had no idea how easy it was for anyone with a blog to get ARCs), to the direct interaction with authors who comment, re-blog, retweet, and sometimes re-purpose, one’s words about them. (I have been very fortunate in that all such interactions to date have been entirely flattering and positive).

Studying Romance But for me there’s another trend that’s affecting the online romance community, and this is the rise of academic and scholarly interest in our genre. I think about the theory that the romance community initially thrived online because there were so many people who moved back and forth across the lines between readers, reviewers, and authors — more (the theory goes) than in other genres. It was an inclusive, open space with fluid boundaries between and among roles.

Now I’m seeing a parallel blurring of the lines between readers, reviewers, and scholars. Academics (from any discipline, not just Literature) who read romance for pleasure now have more and better outlets for talking and writing seriously about the genre. There are numerous, some but not all new-ish, blogs that dig deep into questions about the genre itself, its conventions, tropes, trends, problems, and oversights – smart, thoughtful people (whether they are academics, or simply choose to write with more academic, analytical approaches) writing about romance in ways that are complex and challenging and offering more than reviews and recommendations of individual books (though they may still do this as well – here, I’m looking at you, Miss Bates Reads Romance, Love in the Margins, Reading With Analysis, Alpha Heroes, among others).

At the same time, people who have a formal academic role, eg. professors or Ph.D. candidates in Literature, Popular Culture, Media Studies, Womens Studies (etc, etc), who enjoy and/or are interested in romance, now also have opportunities to engage with the genre as a field ripe for exploration, study, and career-building. It’s another way in which readers who may have been ‘pure’ readers are now becoming something more, something different, as they seek to get published in journals, deliver papers at conferences, and position themselves as experts in a professional sense.

In many ways I love the explosion of more critical academic and/or formal writing about romance novels, both on independent websites and blogs and via academic associations or university-affiliated entities like IASPR and the Popular Romance Project. It is exciting and refreshing to see the outsider genre I have loved since I glommed Barbara Cartland novels in 7th grade treated with interest and respect, as the “badass,” literary phenomenon that it is.

Attention is being paid to romance’s status as the top-selling genre in publishing (this is also happening in mainstream media as well as progressive quasi-intellectual media), and also to the content, literary merit, authorship, and readership of specific novels and types of novels.  I often (semi-)joke on Twitter that if this kind of thing had been going on when I was doing my Ph.D., my entire career path might have been entirely different.

But… Do you sense the ‘but’ coming? I’m not even really sure what the ‘but’ is, because I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it. Something about my own ambivalence as a lapsed academic perhaps, and a feeling of discomfort around the edges of my fascination with romance scholarship. (I have a Ph.D. in History of Art and I work at a university, but I don’t teach or publish research myself and my department’s focus is social science research & policy).

Romancelandia has always enjoyed an incredible richness of experts when it comes to the deconstruction and analysis of texts and trends, but most of these voices have originated outside the academy and undertaken their interpretive work on an extracurricular basis. We have day jobs. Reading romance, and, maybe, writing about it, is a gift we give ourselves, or an obsession, or a habit…but whatever it is, it’s not usually a job (unless you’re lucky enough to work at RT, or Heroes&Heartbreakers, perhaps!). At the same time that I appreciate the ways in which academic interest is creating an expanded space for serious discussion of romance, there’s a part of me that wonders about the down sides of engaging with the academy — about hierarchies both actual and implied, and about elitism.

Should people participating in a conference at Princeton last year with romance authors and scholars be prefacing their remarks with “I’m only a reader, but…” as I have heard was common?  I suspect that many readers who spend a lot of time talking romance online may have academic credentials of one kind or another (there seem to be a lot of librarians and teachers in Romland, along with university types) but my sense is that there has been disinclination to cite these kinds of credentials when opining about one’s pleasure reading, even if it’s a discussion whose sophistication and intensity borders on a graduate-level seminar in literary criticism.

Romance is something we respond to emotionally, even if there is also an intellectual component. Even blogs which directly assert highbrow “smartness,” and have achieved thought-leader status in the industry as well as the reading community (Smart Bitches, Wonk-o-Mance) do so with an ironic edge, and steer clear of wonkery that is actually pedantic or overtly academic language or assertions. What is the relationship between “wonky” blogs, promo blogs, industry blogs, author group blogs, “squee” review blogs, etc? Surely there have always been diverse online neighborhoods within the loose confines of Romancelandia. Are our neighborhoods becoming more like silos? Is there less flow of people and ideas across perceived boundaries? People do choose where to get their news and information, in romance, as in everything else.

Is it possible that as more formal channels for critical discourse around romance reading have evolved in and around the online community, such expressions have inadvertently contributed to divisions by introducing challenging questions and themes that some readers aren’t interested in engaging with when choosing or reflecting on their pleasure reading? Yes, there are problematic books, and people who either do or don’t want to read them. But for every person who is interested in interrogating and contextualizing her own choices in reading material, I feel certain there are more people who just want to read what they want without over-thinking it or being questioned in any way. I guess I am trying in a clumsy roundabout way to figure out if there are ways in which academic or “wonky”  incursions into the online romance community are perceived as a negative development and, if so, where, and for whom?

I have been mulling over the potentially distancing effects of studying romance readers as a “population.”  There’s the danger of “talking down” to or about romance readers, which is something that always made me (and there were critics, I think) uncomfortable about Janice Radway’s pioneering book, Reading the Romance, the 30th anniversary of which will be celebrated with a special session at the upcoming Popular Culture Association annual meeting later this spring.

And at the same time there are all the blurred lines. It’s tricky if, as seems to be the case, many of the academics in the field are also readers and consumers of the genre. A few prominent academics are also authors, “stars” like Mary Bly (Eloisa James), or publishers — certainly romance insiders. But it’s not any easier for voices from “outside,” whether they’re unschooled pundits like Tom Ashbrook or academics who are interested in, but not devoted to, the genre.

Even an academic initiative which is much newer and more expansive than Radway’s limited focus group, such as the Popular Romance Project’s ambitious and inclusive website, can seem to reinforce the divide between the examined and the examining – and, really, who is to say which group has the deeper understanding of what is going on when people read romance? Perhaps these scholarly undertakings simply seem irrelevant to the majority of readers who have plenty of more emotionally engaging forums in which to discuss what they’re reading and thinking.

Copping to my own wonkery It’s quite possible I’m actually over-thinking this development myself, out of my own ambivalence and love/hate relationship with the academy. And I’m sure I am oversimplifying as I try to informally “map” the current landscape of Romancelandia and figure out which territories are connected by a lot of bridges and which ones are more like isolated valleys. I’m curious about the diversity of opinions and voices within the generic category I tend to think of as “wonky” for lack of a better term.  “Academic” is both noun and adjective, after all, and it’s especially interesting to consider whether formal scholarly efforts and informal yet equally “academic” critical voices, are talking to each other or talking around each other?

I guess I really have more questions than answers when it comes to understanding the effects of such contributions and interventions in the romance reader/blogger community, and I’m very curious what others think.  Do you still think of Romancelandia as a thing anyway, anymore? Is it more commercial, or was it ever thus, for book blogging?  Is it getting more wonky, or does it seem that way to me because of where I’m choosing to go?

What about the subgenres – is there more fragmentation of discussion as people segment themselves as Urban Fantasy or  Contemporary or HistRom readers? Do we all think of ourselves as romance readers, whether we’re from the home counties of Category and  Inspie or the frontier of BDSM erotica? Where do you see bridges (or tunnels?) and where are the canyons or mountains that make it hard to get from one region to another?

I realize I haven’t really answered the “why I’m blogging” question, but the best answer I can come up with is that I’m really still finding it appealing to ask such questions and explore multiple ways of answering them.

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Image credit: Folded Book Art by Luciana Frigerio via Etsy; these are gorgeous!

Romance 101: Can romance novels turn non-readers into booklovers?

A conversation about teaching, reading and romance with @RomanceProf Jessie Matthews

In the romance reading community we frequently talk about “converting” people. What we usually mean is getting friends or relatives who don’t read romance — and may even disdain romance — to open minds, to discover and enjoy romance novels. We talk about which books to put in the “conversion kit.”  For those who care about such things, there can be immense satisfaction in converting friends or relatives from uninitiated book snobs to romance aficionados.

But what about people who don’t like to read (fiction) at all?  My good friend and fellow romance reader Jessie Matthews teaches “the basics” of reading romance to undergraduates at George Mason University and many of her students arrive at the course not having read a novel since they were last required to in high school.  To get an idea of how she builds the course and chooses the required reading, check out Jessie’s recent star turn in this video and this one for the Popular Romance Project.

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Jessie’s course website banner, featuring Jeanne Etienne Liotard’s painting of Marie Adelaide of France (1753), now in the Uffizi, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about my lifelong relationship with the romance genre and the ongoing conversation about how we define what is or isn’t a romance novel, along with musings about how the genre is evolving (younger readers, New Adult, erotica, etc.), I thought it’d be interesting to talk with Jessie about what happens when her reluctant-reader college students meet up with some of the best and/or most widely-discussed novels that romance has to offer.

The truth is I’ve actually been begging Jessie to “visit” Badass Romance since the beginning. Without her cheerleading, pragmatism, and feedback, I’d never have gotten over the hump from thinking about a romance & book blog to actually starting a romance & book blog. Never mind that I had been writing nothing but grants and university administrative wonkery for my dayjob, for nearly two decades. Jessie is one of the true-blue book friends whose encouragement helped me rediscover my love of writing about reading. From the time we met — 10 years ago in an online fan community of booklovers — we have always had the kind of big, exhilarating discussions that get us both excited to read more and do more with our shared love of reading romance.

Jessie jumped in and persuaded her department to support a literature course about romance novels; she’s now a regular at the academic conferences that focus on our genre. It took me a little longer to get around to doing something about romance, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun with the blog and many new friends in the romance twitterverse.  And it is a long-awaited treat and tremendous delight to have Jessie join me to chat about her groundbreaking course.

Pamela: Your course isn’t actually called Romance 101, but are there ways it is kind of like a (mini?) survey course? My (totally guesstimating) sense is that there actually aren’t very many undergraduate courses that teach romance novels in such a concentrated way. At the graduate and post-doctoral level there has been a real explosion of scholarship about romance fiction, from dissertations to documentaries, journals and conferences. But this is using romance fiction to teach undergraduates the fundamentals of textual analysis and composition. What made you decide to try framing a college literature and composition course around the history of the romance novel?

Jessie: I teach best when I am teaching literature that fascinates me, and romance fiction fits that bill. I like the genre’s diversity, its history, and the questions it generates, such as why are romance novels so popular, and, in some circles, still so widely disparaged? But I chose to teach romance novels for a general education literature course, the one–just one–required literature course for undergraduates at my university, to see if studying the genre could change student attitudes toward literature overall.

So many of my students are resistant to anything literary because “literary” equals “difficult” and time-consuming. They proudly boast that they don’t read novels, hate poetry, and rarely, if ever, see a play. I wanted to see if I could change that “group think” and get students reading fiction (as well as poetry—we do a bit of that as well) by choosing a genre whose outsider status in the academy might make it less threatening, and a genre that focuses on a topic that is of great interest to college students: intimate relationships. I guess you could call this a pedagogical bait-and-switch, but so far it has worked.

Pamela: How did you pick the books for the syllabus? Had you read them all when you started out?

Jessie: Aaagghhh!! Choosing texts! It’s the love/hate moment of designing the course. I begin my course planning with maybe 20 novels in mind, all of which I have read and want to teach, and all of which I feel have much to offer my students. Then reality sets in, and I remember that my students will read no more than five to six novels in a 15-week semester, and my buzz vanishes: I know it’s time to get down to business and make the hard choices. In the end, choosing what to teach boils down to novels that are good ambassadors of the genre, novels that showcase a range of literary elements, and novels whose context offers a productive area of exploration for students. Romance fiction offers an abundance of riches for each of these criteria, and having to choose only a few is one of the great drawbacks of teaching the course.

GMU Bookstore 50 Shades Display Feb 2013

George Mason University Bookstore, Feb 2013

The first time I taught the course, I aimed for representation and some points of connection (e.g., Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary), but I learned that students dig more deeply into the literary aspects of the genre if there is an element that unites all the novels. So the next time I taught the course, I organized it around a theme. I used the Byronic Hero as the focus, and that made it easy to move from Jane Eyre to The Sheik to Rebecca to Fifty Shades of Grey. (This also made it possible to sneak in a little Byron and give my students at least some exposure to poetry). I would have called it the “Badass Hero” course, but you beat me to the punch on that title!

I want to emphasize, however, that there are many, many ways to organize a course like this.  Since my department requires that the class focus on context as well as literary analysis, I could have chosen romance novels that focus on activism (see Kelly’s recent post about social activism in the romance novel). I could also focus on a specific social issue, such as women and body image, where novels Jennifer Cruisie’s Bet Me and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ It Had to Be You would work quite well. I’ve thought about designing a course around a specific subgenre, such as romantic suspense or paranormal romance. Of all the romance subgenres I have taught, these two have generated the most interest in students.

In the end, choosing the novels to teach in my course makes me more aware of what I couldn’t include and how those omissions will affect my students’ grasp of the genre. For example, I am always asking myself if “representation” is even possible in a undergraduate course like mine. Have I really taught the romance novel if I haven’t taught a Regency by Heyer or a Harlequin? I can’t really say yet that students finish my course with a good grounding in the genre. All I can say is that they enjoy the reading experience and liked having their assumptions about romance novels overturned.

Pamela: I was fascinated when you told me virtually none of your students fell for Lord of Scoundrels. Can you share a little bit about your students’ reactions to an iconic historical romance novel like that? And Jane Eyre — how did they fare with my beloved Jane and Rochester? Did they actually read the book or was this one of the ones where students “movie-d” the assignment?

Jessie: Literature challenges my students primarily because of its heightened use of language. Why spend so much time untangling the words in a poem or a novel when you can get the “quick and dirty” about it from Sparks Notes? I want them to grapple with the language, but I needed a way to seduce them into the work first so that I could show them why it’s worthwhile to do so.

Because romance novels end happily (a criterion that is becoming more flexible when assessing romance series), they get painted with a broad brush as formulaic and trite, but romance readers and scholars know that isn’t true; romance fiction is very diverse, including its use of language (even Jane Austen and Helen Fielding differ), so I knew I could introduce a range of texts that represented various literary elements and rhetorical moves, and even literary theory (we cover post-structuralism in Dark Lover) in a way that would gently coax students into the world of literature.

Pamela: OK, I’m guessing they didn’t fall head over heels with Jane and Rochester… But do you think over the several years you’ve been teaching this course, any of your students have become romance “converts”? Have you spawned any serious fangirls or fanboys? Are they aware of and/or participating in the online romance community?

Jessie: So few men take my romance novel course, and of those who did, all but one took it because they thought it would be easy, or it was offered at the time they needed, or they just wanted to meet some women. None of them has become a convert to the romance genre.

But I always have a few women in my course who become enamored of some book and begin reading other romances. When I assigned a Nora Roberts novel, a great many of my students began reading her work. They find her writing compact, her plots appealing, and the characters easy to “relate to.” But I don’t see obsession in those who read Roberts; I see comfort in knowing what Roberts will deliver.

Then there are my “bitten” students who fall in love with a series like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. I’ve assigned Dark Lover and Lover Eternal and had plenty of women in the class finish the novel in two days rather than the two weeks I allow for it. Once they’ve embraced the world of the Brothers, they go on to complete three or four books in the series before the semester ends. I can see in their faces that look of obsession, and it’s these students who head to online communities. They come to class telling me facts about the brothers, their shellans, and Ward herself, all gleaned from online communities, and I hear them sharing those facts with each other before class begins. I love hearing them become fluent in the vocabulary of that series (“Because he’s her hellren, that’s why!), but what fascinates me is seeing the joy they experience in becoming an expert about the books. More than a few of them have come up to me several semesters after our course ended to tell me things like, “Hey–The King is coming out in April! Are you going to read it?”

Pamela: I love that. I hope they find their way to some other great series with badass worldbuilding — maybe the steampunk romances of Meljean Brook, or the intense and erotic dystopian Beyond series by Kit Rocha…

I could ask you at least a dozen more questions, but we’ll stop for now since this did turn into yet another longish post. I hope I can convince you to come back for another chat — as you know, I’ve got several topics in mind and I am very keen to get your take on the intersections and exchanges going on between the romance reader/blogger community and academic scholarship about the genre and its readers.  To be continued!

Jessie-Matthews-Romance-Bookshelves-Web

in the office of the romance professor

Defaulting to the Duke: A funny fairytale romance and seeing through and around titles

Making an exception for ROMANCING THE DUKE by Tessa Dare

I keep thinking I’m done with dukes. I read a great deal of historical romance but, like many others, I feel poor old England’s been duked to death with a surfeit of fictional aristocrats. I guess I did also make an exception for Sarah MacLean’s “Killer Duke,” but only because he suited my purposes so well as an example of the “brutal” hero with a violent way of life that is both redeemed and eroticized.

Now along comes an over the top romantic cliche’ of a duke from Tessa Dare: He’s brooding, surly, half blind, and living in sulky squalor at gloomy, bat-infested Gostley Castle. Oh, and he’s also a shining example of the once and forever popular Duke of Slut archetype, with an apparently near-constant cockstand (whenever the heroine is present) and delightfully dirty repartee. (My thanks to @PennyRomance, @IsobelCarr and @SmartBitches for the assist with Duke of Slut research!) He’s joined by our equally predictable heroine, a penniless, writerly spinster who believes she’s inherited said castle and arrives just in time to save him from himself, and turn the keep into a home. It’s book one of Dare’s new “Castles Ever After” series. (The series title alone should tell you this is either saccharine silliness, or it’s going OTT).

I know it sounds too predictably ridiculous, but this book. Cracked. Me. Up. And when I was done laughing, I realized there’s also a lot going on here, some of it very cool and clever.

The Setting Regency England, the aforementioned Gothic ruin of a castle:

‘To Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, I leave the property known as Gostley Castle.’ Is it pronounced like ‘Ghostly’ or ‘Ghastly’? Either one seems accurate.

Yet Another Duke Ransom William Dacre Vane, Duke of Rothbury

“So while I read, you’re just going to lie there. Like a matron reclining on her chaise longue.”

“No. I’m going to lie here like a duke, reposed in his own castle.”

Yet Another Penniless Spinster Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight

“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

The Tropes Clever Spinster Left In Poverty By Thoughtless Male Relatives; Wounded, Jilted Duke Doesn’t Trust Women; Loyal & Trustworthy Manservant Aids & Abets the Course of True Love; Female Friendship Where We Might Have Expected Rivalry (absolutely love that she pulled this off!); Spooky, Ruined Castle with Super-Romantic Turret Bedroom; Evil, Scheming Lawyers; Charming Band of Admiring Ordinary People become Main Couple’s Team Romance.

Romancing_the_DukeTruly Madly Deeply Romantic Comedy Romancing the Duke (Avon, January 2014) captivated me in ways I absolutely did not predict. Dare is a master at taking the tired and trite and refashioning it as something that’s somehow hilarious, sweet, and deeper than it seems at first glance. She succeeds because she’s so entirely willing to go over the top in a direction that is two parts farce and two parts sizzle, and she does it without taking anything about the enterprise too seriously. Her light touch results in a thoroughly enjoyable romance and a very satisfying, faux fairytale HEA.

So I’m glad I didn’t let my Put Away Your Dukes policy keep me from reading this. I have been a fan since Dare’s first trilogy, especially Goddess of the Hunt. I just had to google to find out what that trilogy was called, and I’m a little bemused to find …  The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy ..?? But that’s the thing about Dare — she’s always winking at the reader, and with the Spindle Cove series she impressively balances compelling love stories with fun and frothy ensemble romcom.

I do have a few quibbles. It really is a feat to strike the right balance between breathless comedy and compelling romantic tension, and there are a few wrong notes for me. I don’t love horny girl virgin lust-think, especially in a historical romance. This was the chief reason I really didn’t like the Spindle Cove cross-class romance novella that consisted almost entirely of a well-bred young lady ogling and lusting after the hardworking, hard-bodied village blacksmith. And there’s a bit too much of it here, with Izzy’s inner panting about Ransom’s buckskins and boots. I’m sure this actually says more about me and my own internalized heteronormative perspectives on male vs. female maturity and sexuality than about the writing. I can handle the hero’s inner horny adolescent in most cases, especially when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Somehow it doesn’t work for me in reverse, maybe because with this type of heroine it comes across as more clueless and breathless, instead of lusty and funny. Mostly, thank goodness however, there’s a lot of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that’s plenty lusty and funny.

“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.

Blind to Love? And then there’s the disability theme here. I’m not sure what I think about the blindness of the hero. Ransom’s visual disability, which is partial and recent — due to an injury sustained in a fight over a woman — is a major plot hinge.  There are a couple of minimal glimpses of self-pitying “you deserve better than me” nonsense, and there’s Izzy’s oddly swoony realization that he’s “overcome” his affliction through intense concentration on mapping the castle and its furnishings by feel. Plus the part about his refusal to eat in front of anyone, which causes a train wreck of a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get Ransom to “accept” help.

On the up side, there’s a whole back-and-forth theme running through the novel, about who, exactly, is “saving” who.  She’s penniless and fainting from hunger as the novel opens, and he picks her up in his strong arms and revives her in dashing romance-hero style. At the end of the story she is saving him emotionally, from himself  and his wounded isolation. He’s saving her, emotionally and sexually, from an oppressive and repressive public image as “England’s Storybook Girl” (more about that anon). She’s also, with his permission, “rescuing” him from the aspects of his disability he truly cannot overcome without aid (she reads and scribes for him), and which almost lead to a disastrous end (his lawyers have been skimming funds and selling property out from under him, while he’s been moping around ignoring his mail).

It’s frankly hard for me to tell whether all this comes across successfully as part of the ironic exploration of over-used romance conventions, or merely re-produces an unwelcome set of disability dynamics. Unlike other disabilities, blindness also works as an easy metaphor in romance — he can’t see her, but in the end, when he acknowledges his love for her he’s the only one who really sees her… for who she is… her inner beauty…. etc etc. I did like the fact that neither his blindness nor Izzy’s “plainness” are reversed in order for them to love or to HEA. And the question of Izzy’s appearance remains open-ended, which is also refreshing — there is no cheesy miracle recovery enabling Ransom to see her with his eyes and tell her, and us, that she’s really actually a paragon of beauty.

The Enduring Appeal of Gothic Tales Overall, I think the first half of the novel is cracking good fun and I loved the blend of frankly bawdy banter with burgeoning awareness between Izzy and Ransom of each other’s isolation and deep loneliness. In spite of the apparent effervescence, there are difficult emotions surfacing and real shadows lurking — poverty, neglect, exploitation.

Things decelerate and get more sentimental after they start having actual sex and figure out that someone is out to steal the duke’s fortune and title by having him declared incompetent. The final section of the story is a bit like a caper, as they join forces with Duncan (the trusty manservant) and Abigail (the friend from the village) and a roving band of enthusiastic LARPers, to prove the lawyers are defrauding the estate and the duke is neither insane nor unfit.

And yet in spite of the sentimentality, this is where I really got hooked. It was the nutty LARPers that did me in. You see, our heroine, Izzy Goodnight, is not just any old penniless, bookish spinster.  She’s a celebrity.  She has a dual identity as both the inspiration for a leading character in England’s best-selling serialized fairytale, and the daughter of its wildly famous author (recently deceased). The Goodnight Tales are the 19th-century equivalent of, say, a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings phenomenon, set in the fictional world of Moranglia, and featuring a princess in a tower, a dark brooding hero, and a Shadow Knight villain. Izzy is ambivalent about her public image as “England’s precious innocent.” She lusts, she’s pissed off at the injustice of her financial situation (her male cousin got everything), and she’s more steel than satin, with a hidden history of strength and unheralded accomplishment. Yet she is never cynical, and neither is this novel, in spite of the element of farce.

The existence of a massive Moranglian fandom, complete with LARPing knights and maidens, could easily have been the big joke here. Ransom is amused and mocking at first, while Izzy drops into character (“Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I’ll come thither anon!”) to welcome the clankingly costumed Knights of Moranglia and Cressida’s Handmaidens, who’ve tracked her down on the way to a re-enactment and encampment.  The “fancy-dress fools” are figures of fun, but in the end, it’s a shared belief in doing the right thing – sheer old-fashioned honor and loyalty – that forge bonds of trust and mutual respect between the ill-tempered duke and his newfound fans.

“Make up as many stories as you wish. Just don’t make me the hero in them.”

Of course the Moranglians, like the reader, can see plainly that he’s the romance hero — I loved how cleverly and yet simply Dare accomplished all this, without over-writing or over-thinking it.

“Even if you did read my father’s stories, I doubt you’d enjoy them. They require the reader to possess a certain amount of…”

“Gullibility?” he suggested. “Inexperience? Willful stupidity?”

“Heart. They require the reader to possess a heart.”

There are knowing winks and nods to medieval romance from Lord Tennyson to Laura Kinsale, but the meta-story is an unabashed appreciation and celebration of gallant deeds and happy endings.

“You don’t have to admire my father’s stories,” she said. “But don’t disparage the readers, or the notion of romance.”

Defaulting to the Duke? I so appreciate a book that can make me laugh, even as it’s teasing out something fundamentally important about the nature of fiction and fandom, romance and reading. I don’t even mind so much about the surfeit of dukes anymore, at least not in the context of a book that’s thoughtful and genuine. I recognize Euro- and Anglo-centric romances about white aristocrats offer a privilege-reinforcing fantasy for some readers. There’s no doubt the genre will be better off as we see more and more historical romances about other kinds and colors of people.

Bitch Media published a great interview with the Love in the Margins team from last week that provided an interesting foil – and rich array of other options – as I pondered the pros and cons of the mainstream dukely regency, which has become such a dominant default in the genre.  I’m still ambivalent about it overall. But a cleverly told fairytale is always welcome, and who wants to live in a world where readers are disparaged for the books they enjoy — as long as those readers, and the writers of such books, are willing to interrogate their choices?

ROMANCING THE DUKE is available from Avon in the usual formats and places. I received a copy from the publisher as part of the Avon Addicts program, in exchange for an honest review.

THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

Here’s another round-up of books from my TBR — women of endurance, breaking down gender & war is hell

Some of these are actually sitting on my shelves and some are on my mental list, waiting to be purchased or checked out, depending on the relative levels of my patience and my budget.  The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of my reading aspirations.

HILD by Nicola Griffith  reviewed by Natalie over at Radish Reviews  A historical novel that shatters conventional wisdom about the lives of ordinary women is based on the life of a medieval saint who lived at the court of King Edwin in 7th centrury England? With strong female communities plus a focus on material culture (textiles and tapestries)? Yay!  Back in my own Dark Ages (college) I studied English medieval architecture, and even read me some Venerable Bede, and I still harbor a lingering fascination with the “strange but true” tales of anchoresses and abbesses and other female acts of virtue (or vice) deemed important enough to find their way into the written record.  Natalie has mentioned this book on twitter often enough that it’s pretty much topping my wishlist right now. And then there’s the reviewer at NPR who says this book shatters the myth that women of the middle ages were too oppressed to make interesting subject matter for historians. I’m curious to see for myself how this work of meticulously researched historical fiction might “read” like fantasy. For some reason I want Hild to look and act a little bit like Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, but since I haven’t read this book yet I should probably refrain from ‘dream casting’.

REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers I am eager to read this not because of a particular review, but because once I saw it reviewed a couple of places, it just sounded like a book I need to read. RevWar history is one of my side obsessions. I live less than a mile from the path Paul Revere’s horse trod out to Lexington on April 19th, 1775  and last summer I tracked down the grave (in Blacksburg, Virginia) of an ancestor who served as a private in a Maryland regiment and, according to family lore, witnessed the surrender of the British at Yorktown. This novel tells the story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who hid her gender and fought as a man in the American Revolution. Alex Myers himself has experience living both male and female lives; he was recently interviewed by The Daily Beast about the book, and his life as a female-to-male transgender person. Of course this seems to be a big part of the buzz around this book, but it’s really not the main reason I’m interested in reading it. I am always on the hunt for a well-told Revolutionary tale and I’m hoping this one will soon have a place of honor on my Best Of Minutemen shelf.

AncillaryJustice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie   reviewed by Janine Ballard at Dear Author This is pretty far outside my usual territory, but Janine’s review grabbed my attention since she loved it so much and I consider her the right kind of tough critic. Also, she’s read Outlander and is willing to entertain a deconstructionist conversation about whether or not it’s a romance, so when she talks about falling “headlong” into a novel it makes me think something pretty interesting must be going on. So even though this is science fiction, and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence who may or may not be female, it sounds like this is a novel about relationships, loyalties, and the construction of gender, and I am happy to have a hold request for this book pending at my library.

THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley  I’ve been thinking a lot about JoBev recently, thanks partly to Janet Webb, who is a fellow appreciator and fans the flames of my Malloren/Rogues obsessions.  I’ve read nearly all of Beverley’s canon, but none of the medievals. When I posted about Lucien hitting Beth in An Unwilling Bride, the ensuing discussion revealed that The Shattered Rose also involves jealous anger and violence between hero and heroine.  Because Beverley can always be counted on to be challenging, even in the context of an engaging and absorbing romance, I’m very curious to see how this plays out in a medieval setting, especially with the story told from the hero’s POV.  A brief review and summary are here, at The Romance Reader.

THE OUTCASTS by Kathleen Kent I just feel like reading something western.  Also, Kent is the author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Heretic’s Daughter, both of which rank among the most beautiful and haunting historical novels I’ve read in decades. Possibly ever. Set in and around Puritan Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. Sigh. But on to Texas, and a book that sounds possibly even more menacing — a ruthless prostitute on the run from the law (after escaping from a brothel where she was a virtual prisoner).  In the Salem novels Kent’s portrayal of frontier justice and hard women chafing in the cages society places around them was breaththaking and I found I quite liked her female protagonists’ rough edges. Since the Dallas Morning News did not seem to like her very much, I’m very curious about Lucinda, and what happens when she runs into a Texas Ranger tracking a murderer. I’m a little afraid I may not like her, I’m not sure it’s going to be romantic, and I’m definitely not betting on an HEA, but I am definitely going to read this book.  

In fact, several of these books are making me think about female characters who are unsympathetic in one way or another. Since I haven’t yet read them, I can’t speak to their likeability but sometimes unlikeable heroines are actually my favorite kind.

Happy reading!