Gritty in Glasgow: Carrie Lofty’s Starlight, Matters of Class, and Historical Romance

It’s hard to review, write about or even read, really, a historical without feeling the weight of all the heavy “what’s wrong with historical romancediscussions of the past several years. (Discussions that are both very valuable, I think, and very frustrating.) I find myself wanting to just think about this book in isolation, as a recent reading experience. Well, good luck with that… it’s the first traditional HistRom I’ve read in months, and, for better or worse, it’s arrived here at the blog with some baggage.

I first became aware of Carrie Lofty during RT14 in a discussion of “Gritty Historicals”  which also featured Courtney Milan, Zoe Archer, and Lorelei Brown. I wrote a bit about this panel, and the dearth of historical romance hoopla at the convention overall, shortly after returning from New Orleans. I must say that while I was very pleased to receive a signed copy of STARLIGHT just for being in the audience, I kept looking at the cover and feeling stymied. Gritty? Really? I can think of a lot of other adjectives that better describe the mood this cover evokes. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with “dreamy” (not dreamy as in a dreamy movie idol but dreamy as in twinkle, twinkle late at night, come hither bedroom eyes, backless boudoir wear, cool moonlit color palette and floral satin bedding strewn about).

downloadBut interestingly it was Lofty who made the excellent point about the disconnect between the publishing assumption that HistRom readers rely on the ballgown cover as the signifier for “historical romance,” and the issue of discoverability — that there are historicals which do indeed go “beyond the ballroom” into tough, gritty settings and/or themes, but they are often hard to identify if one relies on the marketing imagery. In this case it’s hard to imagine a book with a greater disconnect between content and cover. I know, cover disconnects are so commonplace it’s dull to even mention it, but I still really. Don’t. Get. This. One. At. All. Unless it’s some kind of working-girl-made-good fantasy…. but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I do still harbor a soft spot for Scottish-set historicals (especially if there is NO time travel involved, and NO heavy-handed kilt ogling), I decided to give Starlight‘s Victorian Glasgow a go. The opportunity to discover a new-to-me author with a nice backlist is always appealing, and now I wonder how I missed Lofty prior to the RT panel. This book certainly delivers on the grainy history, and a believably smoldering attraction and romance. There were distractions that prevented a wholly immersive reading experience, but I think these are as much about my HistRom baggage as about Lofty’s well-crafted romance. That is, although this was not sheer perfection for me, I admire the effort to tackle many of HistRom’s problems head-on, and the romantic energy and sexual tension of the central relationship worked.

The setting Glasgow, Scotland in the days of the Industrial Revolution — the book is permeated with Victorian-era urban squalor, class conflict, union-busting, corruption and capitalism. No dukes, no debutantes. Tenements, row houses, back alleys, pubs, and mills – no ballrooms, not even a lowly assembly room.

The master Alex Christie, widowed astronomy professor and reluctant mill owner. He’s thoughtful and fair, but doesn’t back down from a fight; an interesting mix of intellect, sentiment, and street tough. He didn’t expect to inherit the mill, and is forced to fight for its survival, and to retain custody of his infant son, due to the ill will and evil machinations of his dead wife’s abusive father.

The organizer Polly Gowan, mill worker, skilled orator, union leader,  and vigorous advocate for justice. I’m trying very hard to not use the word “feisty.” She’s unusually progressive (unmarried, but not a virgin), a dutiful daughter and respectful, caring leader within her community. She is politically savvy enough to be OK with being elected to lead the union while letting the mill owners and outside world think she is merely a stand-in for her ailing father, the longtime union boss.

The tropes Opponents to Lovers (Mill girl and Factory owner);Terms of Dictatorial Will set up hero’s Mission to Save Estate (must make mill profitable or lose it all); Fate of an Innocent Child at Stake; Pub Brawl requires Hero and Heroine to Fight Thugs Together; Heroine is Unusually Clever and has been raised by Wise Father who Recognizes Her Potential to take over His Life’s Work (leadership of the union).

The Weight of History?   It felt thoroughly fresh to read a period-piece Victorian-set romance about middle class and working class people that doesn’t rely on an upstairs/downstairs contrast with the ornate luxury of the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. I found myself rooting for Starlight as an effort to reframe historical romance in terms of ordinary people, ordinary lives, and ordinary jobs.

Both Alex and Polly come across as likable and deserving of each other, and I found their romance emotionally satisfying. They’ve got a lot of physical chemistry and Lofty got good mileage from casting Alex as a strong-shouldered Scotsman who reminded Polly more of the men in her family than of a professor or pampered factory owner. Her plotting and character development also managed to avoid wallowing in childhood trauma/redemption backstories or psychobabble, for which I’m grateful. This narrative choice in particular sets Starlight apart from what Dear Author reviewer Sunita and others have dubbed the “ahistorical historical.”  The class conflicts, financial straits, and labor relations issues that must be resolved in order for the romance to prevail are appropriate to the historical setting and organic to the circumstances. These obstacles make sense in the period setting, grounding the narrative rather than transplanting a modern thicket of angst-y pasts and/or inner demons.

While there were times when the mill setting, along with the chemistry embodied by this couple, caused dreamy North and South film-inspired imagery to mingle here with the particulars of Lofty’s tale, I kept having stray thoughts about the tension between the emotional aspects of the story and the socio-economic circumstances. Would these rank and file union men really defer to Polly’s authority? Even with the cover story that she was representing her ailing father, I felt skeptical about the union election where Lofty set up Polly’s male opponent as a flawed choice, rather than a serious, and in all likelihood successful, challenger.

What about Alex’s class status and worldview? He’s meant to represent the educated upper middle class of owners and investors, but he’s at home in a pub brawl or a bruising soccer match with the workers. And it turns out he eludes an easy label because he’s only a generation removed from the tenements of Calton, as he often reminds Polly. Do I really believe in the upward mobility and fluid identity this character embodies? Or is this “misleading whitewash” about the bitter history of classism in Britain, as Polly Toynbee, writing for the Guardian, recently asked in the context of much-adored Downton Abbey?

Actually, some of Alex’s traits seem deliberately deployed by Lofty in order to give him an ability to blur the line of class distinction between him and Polly. Here, when they’re sharing a bed, she asks him not to shave because she likes how he feels:

He sat up. “I’ll look like just another Scotsman if I keep the stubble. Seems like my father passed on a touch of ginger I hadn’t known was there”   …

“But I like Scotsmen. They look burly and strong, like I’d be protected forever.” She pressed her lips down along his nape. “Isn’t that what you’ve offered me, Alex? What you’ve promised my da?” (p.325)

What’s also interesting is that in spite of her personal ambition, independence, and level of autonomy, it’s clear that Polly not only honors tradition and family in considering the protection of marriage and a man, but that, as an authentically 19th-century character, genuinely desires a husband who makes her feel protected, at least as long as she feels she can love him …. and he respects her choices, of course. That’s always the rub, and one of the things that makes a historical romance succeed or fail for me is whether the hero comes across as plausibly respectful and respecting of women’s rights and personhood, within the context of the time and place in which the story is set. So much of this is as much about the male characters as it is about the female ones.

In spite of the intense financial pressures he’s facing, Alex is remarkably noble; the clear exception as a humane employer in a city where his fellow mill owners are a pack of standard-issue greedy, corrupt, self-interested bad guys. Because how could Polly fall in love with a man who would cut wages or jobs in order to turn a better profit?

Hard Questions  I admire the ways in which Lofty’s story tackles inequality and class along with gender, embodying a valuable, if not 100% successful, intersectional awareness.

Here’s a particularly interesting passage that demonstrates both the virtues, and the occasional missteps in Lofty’s historical contextualizing:

…she smiled at the sounds of her life. Her family. Her safe, familiar place.

Although she loved the security, a small part of her wished for some quiet – a place of her own. Then she imagined how lonely such a life would be. She needed the vigor and purpose and brazen, devil-may-care happiness of her community. She pushed out of her pallet and headed behind the curtain to change into her gown and apron.

After a quick trip to the communal bath…  The family living space was a hazard of rumpled blankets that needed to be layered in the corner. She picked her way over her brothers’ boots. (p.116)

I love the way the details of how a large family lives in a tenement flat are sketched out in a few sentences that suggest intimacy along with inconvenience, lack of privacy, discomfort and hygiene challenges. But I stumbled over the willful characterization of the working class community as happy-go-lucky, hard-working, “secure” poor people. While I applaud the deliberate and unusual (in a romance) strategy of choosing not to make this a grinding poverty, rags-to-riches story, and to show Polly’s home life as stable and happy, if poor, there were times when the vision of tenement life and the the plucky factory workers just felt off. Something about the casual language seems to replicate, rather than interrogate, an Every(wo)man factory worker stereotype, and I’m again reminded of Toynbee’s Downton critique about the happy servants and benevolent masters.

I’m having trouble deciding how much to dwell on the things that bothered me, because I really liked the idea of this romance and this couple, but maybe it’s just too much of a stretch — maybe they just both had to be so exceptional that it doesn’t quite hold together.

Still, exceptionality can make for terrific storytelling.  And here I can insert my customary Outlander reference: the tale of Jamie and Claire is a ripping good yarn and a romance for the ages, but as Abigail Nussbaum so effectively points out in her wonderful essay on the Starz series, it is “…nevertheless the story of a woman who is unique, who wins love and respect by not being like those other girls.”

This is the problem with Alex and Polly — in spite of the careful research and well-crafted historical setting, in order to make the story work they each have to be so unique, so “not like those other girls” (or boys) that it feels almost forced.  Polly is a lot like Nussbaum’s take on Outlander’s Claire:

Her success was achieved not by toppling the system that discriminated against her, but by being the exception to that rule, gaining the admiration of men and the love of one particularly hunky and special one. (Asking the Wrong Questions, October 9, 2014)

Even as I have an id response to charismatic couples and unique heroes and heroines like Polly and Alex, Jamie and Claire — they’re all true badasses in their own way, after all —  I feel tired of the sameness of the pattern. Romance between Two Exceptionals, and exceptionality itself, is more exposed in the context of HistRom than in contemporary romance, for example. Even if at the end of the story the Christie mill tops the list of Victorian Glasgow’s “Best Places to Work” survey, the compromise and change Alex and Polly achieve is still exceptional, because a happy ending with a side helping of systemic change is too tall an order.

Lofty is associated with the Unusual Historicals blog (she founded it, though is no longer an active contributor) and she outlined her strategy for “unusual historicals” in romance during the RT panel discussion. Yes, the genre finds itself forced to grapple with the tension between the historical status of women and contemporary post-feminist ideals of female agency and autonomy. To work within that tension, while preserving historical authenticity, immersing the reader in a place and time and avoiding the refuge of “lite” wallpaper-style fairytales, presents a real challenge. Lofty’s solution is to dig deep into the historical record to find intriguing and unusual circumstances, settings, and stories where an empowered heroine, or a feminist hero, could plausibly be situated. Nussbaum sees parallels with the “special girl” proto-feminist heroines of YA historical fiction my generation grew up reading. It’s a step in the right direction, and can work to make for a good story, but it takes a very nuanced and thoughtful approach to deliver both the charismatic, “special” protagonists while simultaneously interrogating and exploring the systems and conditions above and through which these exceptional people are held up.

So I’m left with a feeling of ambivalence, and I think this is why it’s taken me so long to make this post. It’s always easier to write a rave or a rant, and as with so many historicals I read nowadays, my response is necessarily happening on two levels. If the characters are strong and compelling and the romance sparkles, I find I still prefer historical romance, even when I find myself challenged by ahistorical content or considerations.

Starlight is book two of a series about the Christie siblings. Book one, Flawless, tells the story of Alex’s sister Vivienne, who must earn her inheritance by profitably running a diamond mine in colonial South Africa. Talk about going beyond the ballroom to an unusual historical circumstance ripe with possibility for intersectional exploration. I’ve also heard good things on twitter about her earlier medievals, so I’m looking forward to reading more Lofty.

Books, Blogs, Blackout: a small post for solidarity

Some of the people who find their way here to my intermittent and idiosyncratic romance/book blog will already be all too familiar with the story behind the book review & blogging blackout that has affected much of my online romance reading community this week. My dear friend in bloggery, Miss Bates, posted a succinctly perfect summary, and there are some very good lengthy analyses, both from within the book blogging community, and from broader online commentary and criticism sites.

Late last week a well-connected published YA author wrote, and The Guardian published, a lengthy memoir about her obsession with a negative online review of her book, subsequent research and identification of the psuedonymous reviewer, and her in-person unsolicited interactions with said reviewer. I’m sort of happy to report that until this controversy broke last weekend, I’d never heard of this author, or her apparently well-received debut novel. The bookish corners of the internet and twitter have exploded with the spectacle of an online feud (Salon called it a “battle of the trolls”) between an author and a reader that got taken way way offline into stalker territory.

thou shaltI don’t have much to add to the good summaries I just linked to and it’s a near-meaningless gesture for me to “blackout” Badass Romance for a week. Even at my most prolific, I barely manage a post a week, and lately it’s been barely a post a month. Plus, I don’t actually post very many straightforward book reviews. And here I am finally getting this post up on Friday – ugh, what a week! Still, I want to put this book blog on the record in this matter.

I am speaking up to add my voice in saying that as a lifelong reader (and bigtime consumer of the product that we call fiction), it’s not OK with me when authors seek to control reception and interpretation of their published work. If you’re not up to the challenge of either staying away from or putting up with whatever ideas and responses your published prose generates, then you should keep your prose to yourself and not ask people to pay for it. Even if someone is saying really “mean” things about your book, there’s no insisting that they’re wrong or that they “misread” or “misunderstood” — your prose is out in the world and is subject to review, criticism, and interpretation. I do understand that trolls do exist on the internet, but in terms of reviews that “attack” your book, please remember that once your book is published you are no longer in control of the “meaning” of your words. Every time someone reads them, meaning is created in the interaction between reader and text. Sometimes that interaction, or meaning, will be a compelling or profound insight. Sometimes it’s going to be a DNF. Either way, you get paid to put your words out there, and most online reviewers are there for the love of books and reading. If I want to speak/blog/review on condition of anonymity (or psuedonymity), so be it.

(I’m not going to waste time addressing the Goodreads mess in detail. I have an account but I never really spend time reviewing or discussing there and yes, I do know that some authors feel “bullied” by people who post 1-star reviews when they haven’t read the book. Is there meaning in that? I guess it depends on what else is going on that would cause someone to bother to do that for a particular book or author. I will say that I do believe book reviewing ought to involve a response to the words on the page and not so much engaging in critiques of an author’s persona or behavior, except inasmuch as they are in some ways public figures whose IRL words and actions are sometimes quoted/cited.)

The leap from twitter or Goodreads pushback against negative reviews to offline, IRL stalking of a so-called “bully” blogger (just to be clear, I think this is an appalling misuse of the term “bully”) is in some ways just an extreme (and illegal) extension of the misguided notion that when you put a product in the marketplace it’s somehow OK for you, as the seller of that product, to confront and harass consumers of your product into liking it, using it, and talking about it, only in ways acceptable to you. Were these authors who want to call reviewers and bloggers “bullies” all just overly helicopter-parented and endlessly “good job!!”-ed?? The behavior enshrined in the author’s memoir last week really does speak to me in some way of arrested development, though I hesitate to use such terms since I am so far from an expert in psychology.

The other way to look at the episode, and in particular to look at the case of a serious print and online media outlet that has legitimized the voice of a self-admitted obsessed reader-stalking author and given her a platform for her self-absorbed complaints about the online “bullies” and trolls of Goodreads and other book forums, is to frame it in the concise and terrifically apt words of Danielle Binks, on the writers/writing site Kill Your Darlings, as a case of “privilege feeding narcissim.”  And this is the element which I find so insidious and odious that it’s pushed me to stick my toe in the water of the controversy and join in saying #HaleNo by making this post.

I have other thoughts about author/reader spaces and authorial control of interpretation (yes, Outlander-related, for those who may be reading between these lines…) but will have to save them for another time since starting now, and for about a week (ETA: well, OK, probably longer), I’m not blogging.

Recent Reading: 3 books I’m still thinking about

I’ve been reading a lot since my late summer vacation gave me the time and space to delve back into longer fiction, non-romance novels, and a broader range of books than I’ve read in several years. I’m reading more, and blogging less. It’s a little ironic, when I think of how I’ve let the blog lapse in spite of all the good “material” about which I could be crafting posts — in contrast to months last year when I was having trouble finding books I really wanted to read, really thinking about my choices and feeling the constant urge to write about the few books I was managing to read.  I feel way too rusty to take on a long review post, but here’s a quick peek at 3 books I’ve read since Labor Day that have stayed with me, and made me glad to be reading more widely again.

8177577The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt  I agree with Laura Miller’s take on the Dickensian plot-twisty quality of Tartt’s obsessively readable tale. And like her, I was swept up in the novel’s evocation of the magical Manhattan of an earlier, childhood vision – the New York City of my own visits-to-Grandmommy childhood, and the touchstone books Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It’s a view of museum-going, antiques-aware, upper middle class privilege that feels dated and old-fashioned, possibly nostalgic for some readers.

When Miller interviews Tartt for Salon, the two have an interesting conversation about female protagonists and literary norms related to romance and marriage plots. If I had more of my blogging mojo these days, this would be the part where I spin off to deconstruct their discourse and challenge “literary” assumptions about the role of romance in fiction…. but not today. With regard to this particular book I also really liked the questions Evgenia Peretz asks about it, and about literary vs genre fiction, in her comprehensive and helpful summary of the critical battleground over The Goldfinch for Vanity Fair. I haven’t got much else to say about it — I just enjoyed the chance to sink into a dense (yes, I know some would say overwritten) and thoughtful novel of loss, identity, crime, and art that felt sort of like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Breaking Bad.

81xpholOZ8L._SL1500_The Secret River, by Kate Grenville To be honest, I found this book at the library after picking up one of its sequels, Sarah Thornhill, because it (the sequel, actually the third book in the loose trilogy) looked a bit like a romance novel. I saw that it was the 3rd book, and went hunting for the 1st. Which turned out to be the award-winning (Commonwealth Prize, Booker finalist) novel of one family’s journey from grinding poverty along the Thames to prosperity and prominence on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, by way of an early (1806) transport via convict ship and a violent massacre, the legacy of which leaves scars on the land and all who come after. Although The Secret River was new to me, it is of course widely read and discussed. To sum up with brevity what this book signifies, there’s not much I can say to add to this brilliantly spare note it received in The New Yorker.

The protagonist, William Thornhill, is at once haunted by his own complicity and actions, and determined to carve a life for his family that is recognizable to them, and their contemporaries, according to their limited worldview. The ways in which European customs in attempting to wrest a living from the land are in themselves a violence, and in stark contrast to the fluid ways of the people who lived on the land for centuries before, have seldom been so devastatingly and simply rendered, and I have read many many works of historical fiction set in the North American colonial context where Old and New Worlds also clashed with not-so-secret rivers of blood.

In the second book, The Lieutenant, Grenville went back to the exploratory voyage of the First Fleet in 1788 to tell the tale of a William Dawes-like astronomer and linguist and his very different journey, of discovery and friendship – sadly, I foundered reading this book after too many pages and pages of interactions where the protagonist and his Gadigal friends exchanged vocabulary words, and it was a DNF for me. This may have been simply because I did not find the earnest lieutenant as interesting as the morally ambiguous Thornhill. I did return to the Thornhill saga to read the 3rd book, the one that originally caught my eye, and found, again, the story of this family, and the families displaced by this family, much more compelling and emotional. In the end, Sarah Thornhill contained a romance of sorts, but it was a harsh and dispiriting tale that really had no way to offer a happy ending. Perhaps the best that can be said of Sarah and her descendants is that they craft lives around figuring out ways to make the best of a bad history and poor situation.

14568987The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro   I so rarely read contemporary fiction, yet in the wake of The Goldfinch this caught my eye. I was a little worried that it was going to be sort of Goldfinch-lite, maybe a “women’s fiction” version about a plucky artist (forger) and her exploits, but I was sucked in by its explicit use of the Gardner heist at the core of the central mystery. If you live in Boston and/or spend time in art museums, it’s hard not to be a little obsessed about the Gardner heist, particularly if one of the stolen paintings was the subject of a 10-page undergraduate Art History paper you wrote back in the early ’80’s.

What I found was indeed “lighter” in many ways than The Goldfinch, but this book offered a more powerful tale of authenticity and falsehood than I expected. For anyone who has visited the Gardner Museum, or speculated about the world’s most notorious art crime, this alternate history of the collection, with its oddly fascinating level of detail about the techniques and history of art forgery, is pretty good reading. At its heart, this is a deftly woven past/present exploration of female creativity, forced choices, and compromise in the male-dominated worlds of contemporary art (the painter protagonist, Claire Roth) and 19th century art collecting (the “scandalous” Isabella Stewart Gardner).

Still not springing for Starz: my vacation interlude with an Outlandish old flame

More about summer reading, and my vacation interlude with Jamie & Claire

I watched one episode of the new Outlander television series while vacationing on Cape Cod last week. Originally, I had hoped to watch the first episode (which Starz has made available to stream for free anywhere you can get online) together with my local Outlander posse – a small band of IRL reader friends and wicked smart ladies I met first in a fan forum – but we couldn’t make the timing work. Truthfully, I was more inclined to engage with this whole thing as a group activity, given the weird ambivalence I’ve been experiencing (and posting about), in having the object of such an intense personal reading and fan experience (nearly a decade ago now) become such a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.

I don’t pay for premium cable channels and I wasn’t going to change that policy, even for Outlander. I usually wait for a whole season of something good (Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire) to become available some other way, and felt prepared to do this for Outlander, even though it means putting blinders on for 4 months of weekly new episode buzz and reactions taking over my tweetstream.

photo (96)And – it was late August on the Cape in a wonderful rambling beach house with rooms to spare and comfy reading furniture, rope swings, and a cranberry bog down the lane. It was the classic unplugged vacation. No tv, and no wi fi in the house. I didn’t tell the girls I had season 1 of Black Sails (Arrrggh, perfect for vacationing in a historic area known as “the sea captain’s town”) on my laptop, nor that when I ran out of those episodes (watched late at night after they were asleep – it was OK, mostly because maniacal Toby Stephens is kind of fun) I would on a whim decide to use my 3G iPhone to stream the free Outlander premiere.

But this was the extent of my tv watching, and mostly I read, as did they. All of us reading together, for hours and hours, between walks on the flats in the Bay, flying kites, crafty tie dye projects and bike rides to the general store. The weather was gorgeous – like early fall, dry and mild, not even hot enough to make us want to swim all that much, and other than a gigantic bee sting that made my leg swell up, gout-like, it was idyllic and relaxing. The first such sojourn in a long time that evoked family vacations during my own adolescence, where my novel reading consumed huge chunks of the day, without comment or consequence.

So –  one of the hefty books I read was the newest installment in Diana Gabaldon’s epic Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD, dubbed “MOBY” in the Gabaldon fan canon for some inexplicable reason that also evokes a seafaring New England industry and accompanying literary tradition. More about my take on the new book in a future post, I hope. I think if not for the chance to read this new Jamie and Claire material over a fairly condensed and uninterrupted 4-5 day period, I might not have re-connected with the Frasers and Mackenzies sufficient to compel me to watch one episode of the show as a standalone. But I’ll admit, when I finished MOBY, I experienced a faint echo of the old “I need more!” that so intensely colored my original reading experience of the first 6 books, back in 2004-05. Where to turn? Starz.com of course.

Outlander S1E1: Sassenach  @RomanceProf asked me what I liked and didn’t like about the one hour of Outlander that I watched. And I realize now that while it feels like I liked it, overall, when I try to articulate anything specific, there are more things I didn’t like. So here’s my impressionistic summary – of both, likes and dislikes. Just one longtime Outlander reader, well past the first blush of intense obsession, possibly also past the unfortunate tipping point towards cynicism, but fairly well steeped in The Books, reacting to the first episode.

outlander-premiere-caitriona-balfe-vases-scene-starzOn Claire: Liked I loved the sequence with Claire and the vase in the shop window, with the voiceover exposition about her peripatetic, rootless childhood.  I don’t remember the bit about the vase from the book, but it was used effectively here, and I kept flashing forward in the story, to the numerous times she is displaced and forced to take up housekeeping again from scratch. Her comments about the vase reminded me of how I always felt about owning an ironing board. Once you did, you must be a settled grown-up.

Didn’t Like If only I didn’t feel like Caitriona Balfe as 1940’s Claire was playing the role as if playing Cate-Blanchett-Playing-Claire-Randall. There was a studied quality to her manner and movements that didn’t seem authentic. I’ve heard it gets better when she’s 1740’s Claire. As many have noted, she may have ClaireHair, but her physical presence is far more vintage Hollywood than ‘fine wide arse’.

On Sex and the Combat Nurse:  Liked I agree with early reviewers who commended the show for presenting an epic fantasy drama with a central female protagonist, where the sex is about female gratification and not yet another boobalicious vehicle for pleasuring the male gaze.

Outlander-Frank-Claire-Castle-Leoch

outlander-claire-frank-flashbacks-starzDidn’t Like But did there really have to be three un-sexy Claire/Frank sex scenes in the first 25 minutes?? Truth is, while the unique and compelling bawdiness of the books is definitely a Gabaldon hallmark, and perhaps the most immediately marketable element in translating to a cable series, I honestly don’t remember feeling like the sex was center stage all the time in the novel. I can’t decide whether the ick factor for me with watching Balfe and Tobias Menzies is just residual Jamie obsession annihilating any chance for the show to make Frank seem sexy, or if the show itself is (over)using these painfully awkward interludes to deflect/cushion the blow of Claire’s time traveling “adultery” for viewers new to the story.

On Swashbucklers and Genre:  Liked Again, I am 100% in favor of presenting a swashbuckling adventure drama that’s lusty and violent and heroic, as told via a feminine POV. Of course I wish it wasn’t so unusual as to require calling attention. But I find myself oddly gratified every time I read a positive or optimistic review of the series, especially those from “external” perspectives – anyone with little or no experience of the books. It’s not that I need or care about having my affinity for the books validated by new fans or (especially) highbrow and/or male critics and/or viewers, but the show does need to be considered on its own merits as mainstream entertainment, and I’m surprised to find it satisfying when someone expresses interest or admiration for it. I know I should probably be annoyed that people keep alluding to the book’s “bodice-ripper” elements, or praising the show when they clearly would never have considered reading the book which, for those outside the cultlike Outlander following has for so long been dismissed as romance even as it defies conventional genre categorization. I could and should probably unpack this odd mix of emotional/intellectual responses, but that will take more time and words than I have right now.

Didn’t Like Compared to the kickass title sequences of a show like Game of Thrones, HBO’s Rome (best titles ever, IMO) or even something completely different like Homeland (which also has a female protagonist), the opening titles are a total snooze – it was a great opportunity to do something visually powerful with strong, memorable graphics, and it just felt like a cheesy travel ministry video for Scotland blended with History Channel re-enactments of swordly battles and chick flick misty fairytale romantic images of the central couple, castles, and horses.  The music is too wistful. The whole thing just needed  to be BOLDER, and should have been more creative, to live up to Claire and Jamie as a badass power couple at the center of an epic drama about history, identity, war, loss, family, fealty, and community.

On Book-to-Screen Issues:  Liked The casting of many secondary characters is spot on, from James Fleet’s affable Reverend Wakefield to Tracey Wilkinson as Mrs. Graham the druid housekeeper, with furrowed brow over Claire’s palm revealing bifurcated love and marriage lines. And I know with only one short episode under my belt, there will be many more fun and revelatory “Aha!” moments where a casting choice clicks into place for me. The beauty of screen adaptations of beloved novels lies in such moments where the actors and surrounding visuals somehow inhabit and amplify the characters we’ve been carrying in our hearts and heads, supporting and expanding whatever alchemical connection has happened between individual reader and text. Like so many Outlander fans, I experienced at least passing worry that the casting of Jamie and/or Claire could somehow “ruin” or contaminate my inner view of them, or indeed of the whole narrative and my reading experience. Fortunately, as it turns out I’m already a decade past that first obsessive reading experience and at this distance the intensity of the connection is much diminished. I like Heughan and Balfe fine for the roles, and thoroughly enjoyed watching them together.

Outlander_Cast_Dougal_420x560_v2 Graham-McTavish-headshotDidn’t Like But ooohhh nooooooo, what have they done to Dougal??!? I really hate to find myself experiencing that odd, impotent fan outrage over a screen version of a fictional character. Who can take seriously the sort of whinging along the lines of  “but in the books he’s supposed to be…” that makes people poke fun at Outlander or Westeros fan communities? I must just go on the record with my personal view that Dougal would have looked younger, and that in the books he came alive as a pretty sexy, intense, if morally ambiguous, dude (GerryButler. Just saying.). And I’m not seeing that here. He only needs to be about 20 years older than Jamie, right?

Gabaldon has said, I think, that when she first began to write Outlander she thought the hero would be the leader of the clan’s war band — she gave him the name Dougal, for her husband Doug. But then the wounded young warrior in the corner, fiercely tended by Claire (apart from my issue with the casting — or maybe it’s just the fussy styling? — of Graham MacTavish, this scene was fantastic), took over the story, apparently. Still, I don’t think the show needed to make Dougal such a graybeard — MacTavish could certainly play a younger, sexier badass. In the novel, Dougal’s complexity and deep-rooted ambivalence about Jamie as a potential challenger is one of the real strengths, and it includes a significant dose of sexual magnetism and interest in Claire. I understand a choice to streamline the narrative, but Dougal’s ambiguous magnetism is a loss, in my view, at least in terms of how the dynamics appear in this first episode. And yes, I fully recognize that not everything can fit in the first hour and subsequent episodes may hold promise of more…but for me he just doesn’t feel right for the way I read Dougal and his story.

screen-shot-2014-08-05-at-8-50-08-pmOn Jamie:  Liked  The much-vaunted chemistry between Balfe and Sam Heughan was indeed satisfying, and I loved the scene where he holds her at swordpoint and prevents her escape. This follows a scene in which the villain, British officer Black Jack Randall, assaults Claire with a sword to the neck and near rape. In contrast, Heughan carries off his sword-wielding pursuit with the perfect blend of charm and force, ensuring that Jamie’s gentlemanly yet powerful use of the blade reads as heroic and hot — and of course by now the viewer also understands that in preventing her “escape” he is also rescuing Claire from falling into the clutches of Jack Randall again. The scene worked beautifully to establish the beginnings of his physical awareness of her (“ye don’t appear to weigh too much, I’ll throw ye over my shoulder…”), along with his Red Jamie urge to protect and possess. Also I really liked Claire’s mad face in this scene; their mutual respect and wariness was crystal clear.

Didn’t Like I keep tripping up on the question of whether I’d continue watching this show if I’d come to it as an Outlander virgin. It was sort of measured and dull, lots of exposition (which is the bane of any premiere episode) to set up the characters and plot, and I can’t help thinking that it didn’t do enough to hook someone who hasn’t already been bitten by the Jamie/Claire bug in some way. Some of the scenes with Frank lurking around the ruins and the stones, researching his ancestors, watching the local pagans on Samhain at Craigh na Dun, while loaded with portent if you know what to listen for, just came across as tedious and the stunning visuals of the sunrise ceremony were overplayed. Heughan and Balfe are compelling together but was there enough intriguing detail about who Jamie is and why he and Dougal et al are so bloody desperate?

Yes, the final scene, meant to draw us in and bring us back for episode 2, has the fugitives arriving at forbidding Castle Leoch, which Claire and Frank had explored in its ruined 1945 state. But as a cliffhanger ending it was more than a little flat, and without already knowing all that’s to come (there was minimal explanation yet given for why they are on the run from the British troops, other than the general offense of riding around the Highlands while Scottish), I’m not sure it would give me the fire in the belly to make sure I “tune in next week.”  What was missing was the complexity and challenge of the situation in the Highlands in 1743, which I have no doubt is already coming into much clearer focus as the weeks go by.

Bottom Line From what I’ve been hearing since I returned to the twitterverse and started catching up on all kinds of news, things really get going with the show in the second and third episodes, and I’m glad to hear it. Still, since I do already know what happens, I’m not rushing to pay Verizon to add Starz to my cable lineup.  It’ll be too late to be part of the Fall 2014 Outlander bandwagon, but I’ll probably end up binge watching the whole season on my next summer vacation.

 

Summer Reading and My Slacker Blogging Slump

The reading slump I noted in my last post continues. Also, it pains me to note that my last post was SIX WEEKS AGO. Without planning, strategy, or any kind of purposeful intention, I’ve basically been on a de facto hiatus from blogging. Feeling like a slacker, I’ve been on twitter only intermittently, and usually feel compelled to tweet about my slacker-ness. It’s partly about the reading slump, but only partly. I am still reading, but not as much, and in addition to reading fewer books I’m also not really keeping up with the wit and wisdom of my favorite bloggers.

photo (76)It’s not just about reading less, though, it’s also about feeling stuck and distracted and scattered. I have a review of a new-to-me HistRom author in progress and it’s been languishing since mid June, about 75% written. I have other stray thoughts for and about posts, but nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket. Where I usually find myself awash in ideas and connections generated by discussions I’m following on twitter and elsewhere, recently I’ve not been doing a good job keeping up with what fellow bloggers are talking about (though I have noticed other posts and twittering about reading slumps/challenges and blogging blahs, which has helped me feel less blogger shame!).

Summertime for me is sort of a mirage, in concept if not in calendar. Summer exists as a verb in my literary imagination (as in people who “summer” on the Cape, or in Maine), and this fuels the fantasy. Even though I’m working for at least 7 of the 10 weeks, I always think this is the year that summer will be an oasis of leisure and longer days. In fact, usually ends up being just as busy as the other seasons, only in different ways.

Planning and packing and unpacking for camps and trips. The jarring temporary routine of daycamp chauffeuring in place of kids just walking themselves to school. Having to reschedule 9 out of 10 meetings at work due to conflicting vacation schedules. Long drives for summer travel softball games on weeknights. Many family birthday celebrations, including my girls’ shared birthday next Monday — only this year they have requested separate, individual tween (girls only) parties in place of our usual twin birthday bash involving a horde of kids and families.  And of course there are the outdoor housekeeping chores around the yard and garden — these are all things I genuinely LOVE about summer, but I guess I’m finally realizing that it all means more time offline, and the leisure I have to be creative is going in many directions that are outside my online world of books and writing and thinking about reading.

Last weekend we decided to take a weedy, unsightly section of the back yard, and make a fairy garden. The girls had collected and made twig furniture and other fey adornments.

photo (90)

Boulder is to the left of shovel, not the minor rock on the shovel. Not a great pic but you get the idea.

We pulled up all the weeds and started digging. In the spot where I wanted to put a large-ish astilbe, I hit a rock that felt big. We always have to dig up LOTS of rocks when we plant. It’s New England. But this was a huge rock – when I finally got the hole big enough to see its edges, I realized I’d been digging for well over an hour. It was a boulder, at least 4 or 5 times as big as the shovel head.  The spot is over near the fence, so it was tricky to get leverage and there were numerous mini boulders that had to be removed before I could even get the shovel around all the edges. The time had passed unnoticed, as I was in a state of flow and absorption. Sometimes when I am working on a post, I find that same level of intense absorption, but when it doesn’t flow, I find I am no good at forcing it. Maybe I just lack the discipline for sustained regular installment blogging. I know I lack the discipline and/or skill to write regular concise book reviews (though I still harbor ambitions to get better at it!).

photo (89)But at least we did finish our fairy garden.  And the girls are literally plowing through books (Divergent, The Maze Runner (the whole trilogy), Island of the Blue Dolphins, Loki’s Wolves, Deenie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond – they are in a badass, eclectic YA reading jamboree) in spite of full-day camp programs. Just not having homework frees them up to rediscover the love of (near) binge-reading, and this alone almost makes up for my own reading slumpishness. The concept of summer reading evokes fantasies of hammocks and lazy afternoons and whiling away hours with one’s nose in a book.  When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to spend huge chunks of summer in just such ways.  But these days, not so much.

A few books I have managed to read in the last couple of months have made such an impression I’ve wanted to post about them, but somehow I haven’t had the right combination of time and attention. So these brief notes will have to suffice.

Ironically, the book I find myself thinking about most is Brigid Schulte’s OVERWHELMED: WORK, LOVE, AND PLAY WHEN NO ONE HAS THE TIME. I loved it, and I can’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction book of this ilk straight through, as compelled to keep turning the pages as if I were reading a novel. What made this different and better (for me) from every other book about the role of technology on how we live, gender disparities in the professions and in household “second shift” chores, work/parenting juggling and the “mommy wars” (I basically stopped reading all these kinds of books in the wake of the big flap & backlash over Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story back in 2012, just because I got exhausted by how circular it all seemed) was Schulte’s personal story, and the breadth of her inquiry into time studies, multi-tasking and our distracted work habits, the nature of leisure, the anthropology and history of labor. In spite of the Amazon blurb and other promotional copy, the heart of this book is not just for and about parents and parenting. I started to notice more what is going on when I am focused (in “flow” – a concept Schulte explores with various experts) and when I am not. It’s not like she arrives at any earth-shattering new discovery for how to achieve a better, more manageable life, or solve intractable systemic inequities, but I found her questions, both personal and academic, made compelling reading and her concept of “time confetti” resonated with my feelings of distraction and scattered-ness.

Sometimes a multi-tasking approach to reading works OK for me, and I can be in the middle of several books at once.  I am about 80 pages in to two rather challenging novels, and I honestly don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I’m reading both at once, and in minute segments of 4 or 5 pages at a time.  Given this fickle reading behavior, I’m sure Schulte’s time and labor study experts would say it’s ridiculous I even wonder why I am feeling distracted, but … this is where I’m at.

Galvanized by an inspiring and wickedly smart conversation about reading, challenging books, and Dorothy Dunnett in particular, I finally started reading GAME OF KINGS.  For so many years I’ve heard kiss-and-tell stories about Lymond — even in the Outlander fan community there were those who swore he was hotter and smarter and more of a badass than Jamie Fraser. I never gave Dunnett a real try, though, because I was always waiting for that mythical extra-long summer vacation where I’d have days on end to lie around and read. Instead, I’m haltingly pushing through what everyone says is the rough going of the first 100 pages. I’m hanging in because, well, LYMOND.

Oddly, instead of alternating Dunnett with something “easier” like a genre romance, I’m doing the same small-bites, incremental sort of thing with THE LUMINARIES, by Eleanor Catton. Having just watched Jane Campion’s wrenching, horrific, yet oddly beautiful (incredible cast) BBC series, Top of the Lake, my interest and fascination with New Zealand’s history and its particular legacy of colonialism is renewed. Both Catton and Campion wrestle with old and new worlds, violence, toxic families, racism, and exploitation, and in some ways the isolated yet wi-fi and coffeehouse-enabled community in Top of the Lake doesn’t really seem very far from Catton’s goldrush town of Hokitika in 1866. The Luminaries is certainly a challenge – I haven’t even yet “met” all twelve of the central characters. Starting and stopping this book is more disorienting than the Dunnett, but the twist-y mysteries and keen attention to describing human frailty and foibles are keeping me engaged.

A book I picked up 10 days ago at my favorite used paperback shop turned out to be my only other “page-turner” experience in quite a while: it was Emma Donaghue’s THE SEALED LETTER. Decidedly not a romance, it’s a sharp and compulsively readable fictional treatment of a Victorian-era divorce case that scandalized the media and the public. I loved Donoghue’s Slammerkin back in 2000 (and I can’t believe that was nearly 15 years ago). The Sealed Letter demonstrates she’s still a beautiful writer, with a gift for blending history and fiction in ways that bring me back to the immersive reading experiences of earlier, pre-blogging days. The protagonists are an unlucky triad (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that no one gets the HEA, except maybe the lawyers) of flawed characters: a solid but uninspiring husband, a self-absorbed aging ingenue wife, and a friend to both who has the misfortune to get in the middle of their mess of a marriage. The friend is the most intriguing character: Miss Emily (“Fido”) Faithfull, a printing press owner, literary figure, corset-refuser, implied lesbian, and women’s movement leader. It’s a pretty riveting portrait of  the complex layers of 19th-century female friendship, with its tortured intimacies and betrayals. The cover blurb says “a deliciously wicked little romp,” and I think Donoghue managed to re-create something of the experience of being a gossip-hungry newspaper reader eagerly salivating over each day’s prurient details as the notorious divorce trial took place and was so widely and salaciously reported. I read this book fast, took it with me on a weekend trip to Vermont, and felt keen desire to know what new detail would be revealed with each chapter, even as I experienced the authenticity of Fido’s painful rollercoaster ride through disgrace and the duplicity of her beloved friends.

I don’t know when I’ll finish that next review post. I’m not going to put the blog officially on hiatus, but I’m definitely in slow-blog mode. I may not be summering in the country or at a beach somewhere, but I am enjoying the act of summer, which really still is a time set apart from the long cold months of winter here. Spending as much time as possible outdoors comes with summer in New England. I miss the flow of blogging and twitter and online conversation, but I’m happy to have these moments of digging rocks and watching the girls build fairy houses.

photo (73)  photo (72)

 

 

Outlander Is The New Black

I’m not sure I’m ready for Outlander to be what everyone’s talking about

It’s been a month since RT (my fabulous, indulgent junket to New Orleans for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention) and I am now officially in a reading slump.  Which also means a blogging slump; as usual, lack of focus and engagement with books from the TBR correlates with lack of time to write. June is always a crazy busy month at my job, and this coincides with jam-packed weekends full of end-of-school-and-sports activities. I’m having a hard time keeping track of which potluck item I’m bringing to which end-of-season celebration.
bnde5kwciaamognThen a couple of weeks ago there was a development at work which pushed me over the edge into a really bad cycle of stress, insomnia, and exhaustion. I realize my treatment of choice was probably ill-advised, but what I did was start watching Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, along with apparently most of the twitterverse. For anyone who may not know or care, this is Jenji Kohan’s (creator of Weeds) acclaimed prison drama (dramedy?) about a 30-something slacker yuppie hipster who ends up incarcerated for drug muling she unwisely but crazy-in-love did while she was in her 20’s. It’s one of those Netflix original productions that are only available via Netflix streaming, and which, although produced as 13-episode series like a standard television drama, become available to watch instantly, all at once, a whole “season” of shows.

So with insomnia and overall stress-induced lack of willpower in the mix, I was binge-watching 2, 3, even 4 episodes a night, during the week, way way into the wee hours. I watched the 90-minute “season finale” (do such terms have any meaning at all in the context of this type of immersive, rushed, viewing??) on Tuesday night, June 10, which was also release day for Diana Gabaldon’s much-anticipated 8th Outlander book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. (I mean, I guess it’s much-anticipated. Is there a lot of buzz about the book outside the diehard fan forums? Seems like there’s been much more focus on the forthcoming Starz tv series… but I digress.)

I don’t have anything especially original to say about OITNB and its artistic merits, though it’s been fascinating to read some of the critical responses along with fun deconstructions of the show’s many pop culture references and homages. I have just been addictively watching the storylines unfold and allowing the mental escape into the detailed and nuanced exposition of a powerful collection of female protagonists that the show delivers, thanks to strong ensemble writing and acting.  I’m really only moved to post about this show because of a small moment in the final episode in which two powerful pop culture obsessions, one from my past and one from my present, collide.

A scene from Orange is the New Black: Two black women wearing prison garb standing in a library; one is holding a copy of Outlander.

Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks, Netflix still, via examiner.com

The scene is about love, forgiveness, imagination, and authenticity. Two characters who have spent most of the season at odds, struggling to come to terms with each other in the context of a violent betrayal, are sorting books together in the prison library.  To say much more about the context would involve spoilers, but both Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) have spent time sharing work detail in the library and here they are sorting books that have been water damaged by leaks during a tropical storm. In contrast to almost all of the other spaces in the prison, the library is colorful and suggests warmth and comfort. It’s the only space I noticed that has a carpet, it looks cleaner and less cold than many of the other spaces we see, except perhaps the kitchen, and it’s well-lit.  The inmates read a lot, and books are used as signifiers throughout the show, to the extent that there is an intriguing tumblr (Books of Orange Is The New Black) devoted to capturing each literary reference. (There’s even a post discussing whether the Leah Vincent book Alex is reading in the final episode of Season 2 is an ARC, because it was apparently not yet published at the time the episode was filmed; this cracked me up.)  The library is a place of ideas and emotion; the stacks and shelves of books themselves are the source of color, variety and fantasy in a bland prison world, and the rows and corners provide quiet and privacy for intense and personal conversations and exchanges.

This conversation, however, is playful, and it’s about reading for fun and pleasure. Poussey is stacking books in various stages of sogginess. Taystee grabs one from her — it’s a warped and waterlogged hardcover copy of Outlander.

Yo, shit, Outlander! You ever read this? Lady travels back in time, to Scotland and shit… she hooks up with this big sexy outlaw type and they be getting it…. day in and day out…! (Season 2, episode 13, about 1:04)

An enthusiastic time travel fantasy ensues in which we learn that Taystee doesn’t really fancy pale, pasty Scotsmen, however badass they are, and would prefer to go through the stones to an earlier time in Africa and get it on with a “Nubian king with a Nubian thing.” Take that, Jamie Fraser!

But later on we see her back in her bunk, with Outlander (presumably a re-read!). What do I make of this?  It’s just a moment, and it’s not as if there aren’t dozens of other books strewn about the landscape of this layered show. I thought I had spotted Taystee reading romance earlier in the season, and thanks to Books of Orange Is The New Black, it was easy to find out that indeed, she was reading Sinful Chocolate, by Adrianne Byrd. I thought it was hilarious when Piper got back to Litchfield from an unplanned visit to Chicago where she was required to testify in a drug case related to her own conviction, and went around grabbing back her books and possessions from the inmates who’d “adopted” them in her absence; it was all tasteful literary books like Orlando and Atonement.  But Taystee’s riff on Outlander was more than just the book showing up on somebody’s bunk.

Book cover: Outlander. A blue cover with gold lettering and thistle emblem.She is like every Outlander reader/fan I’ve ever met — the book was such an intense and memorable read that she can’t help herself, she has to (a) try and explain it and (b) try to pitch it to her friend. I love that she has no ambivalence, and boils the significance of the novel down to time travel, romance, and good sex.

Seeing this book as a cultural icon and touchpoint in the context of this hugely successful and widely acclaimed television series was a funny mash-up moment. Outlander is just such a peculiar institution — steadily, over 25 years since it was originally published in 1991, making its way from the relative obscurity of genre fiction, the RITA, and a pioneering early use of online communities, to international bestseller status and debates about whether it is or isn’t a romance novel, to a wildly uneven series of (also bestselling) epic novels, to an intense and prolific fandom obsessed with all things Scottish both online and IRL, to 2014 and the lavish big-budget mainstream Hollywood star treatment. Not that the actors of the Starz Outlander were big-budget mainstream stars before Ron Moore plucked them from relative obscurity, but that the Outlander phenomenon itself is (finally?) getting the star treatment, after decades of flirtation with various possible production partners.

I don’t know if the OITNB scene is sheer and shameless product placement, canny Summer 2014 zeitgeist texturing by the writers, or just a funny aside that provides shading for Taystee’s irrepressible, sometimes naive optimism.

I do know I’m not sure I’m ready for Outlander to be the story that everyone’s talking about.  I talked about this a little bit a few months ago when Jessica wrote a couple of great posts about her audio re-read of the book.  I commented how much I liked her post and my surprise to discover how much I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit Outlander and engage with it critically, without diminishing my prior experience as a very immersed reader and even an obsessed and prolific member of a fan forum at one time. I know it’s probably bad blogging etiquette to quote one’s own comment on another blog, but it would be weird to just say this again since it I posted these sentiments in a comment on Read React Review:

I’ll be honest – I was not expecting to enjoy much of anything about the fresh wave of Outlander commentary that’s coming with the Starz series and the new book. As you know, I came to online book discussions via Gabaldon fan forums (this was back in 2004, so not much earlier than your 2007). At first it was purely exhilarating to engage with other readers about the intense reading experience and these larger than life characters, then it grew exhausting in some ways, and when I felt the later books were inconsistent and disappointing, those were no longer the right forums for me. (The cycle of fandom… but that’s a topic for another time). At this point I feel simultaneously repelled by Outlander squee and compelled to follow and lurk, in spite of myself, whenever it comes up for serious discussion.

That was a few months ago.  I must have been extra cranky because I don’t think I’m actually feeling “repelled” by the Outlander buzz these days. But I’m still sort of skittish.  Another way I sometimes think about my relationship with this book is that the 2014 popularity of Outlander feels like bumping into an ex I was in an intense relationship with from about 2004-2009, who was crazy good fun but sort of intense, a little ridiculous, and whose antics eventually wore me out. This is not to say that I think it’s ridiculous to love Outlander, or to admire Gabaldon’s novels. It is not about a judgment of the book or its fans. I spent several years and devoted lots of time to Outlander fan forums engaging in deeply challenging and rich discussions with incredibly smart and thoughtful readers.

The series overall is very uneven, but the 4th novel, Drums of Autumn, is tight and beautiful and a complete DIK. This one has four main story arcs, and multiple POV, but it is well-structured and paced, almost seamless, and very moving. I sometimes wish people who stopped reading at Dragonfly in Amber or Voyager, had skipped ahead to book 4. I am not a re-reader, but I do re-read this one, and its epic and eloquent depiction of everyday life and social/political strife in 18th century rural America on the brink of war sparked and re-energized my lifelong interest in American history and the literature of and about the Revolution.

I think the thing that puzzles me is the level and intensity of my own fanhood, and then its dissipation and evaporation. How did I get from immersion to detachment? It’s not that I’ve completely abandoned Outlander, as have many who could not get past the second, or third, or fifth book (The Fiery Cross, with it’s 100-page opening day of rain and diapers is the one that really killed it for lots of people, I understand). I actually have read all of the principal books in the series, even up through 2009’s An Echo in the Bone, which I found at once deeply disappointing and intermittently delightful. For readers like me who have allowed themselves to become intimate with Jamie, Claire, John and the rest, there are bits of dialogue and scenes that one can’t help but read with sheer pleasure and relish. But the book overall is a mess of erratically paced and cobbled together sections of exhaustive research and explosively provocative plot developments. So I am still along for the ride, but it is almost with reluctance and certainly with detachment.

A dear friend and fellow Gabaldon reader texted me last week with surprise about Tuesday’s release day, wondering why we hadn’t been buzzing back and forth about the impending Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.  Neither of us had paid much attention to when the next installment would be available. I think it’s because we are ambivalent. How do I honor the special place in my heart for Jamie, John, Claire and (especially!) Ian, and keep reading, while harboring unease and lack of trust that the story will hold together and make sense?

These questions have preoccupied me for several years, whenever Outlander comes up in book discussions, even before the Starz series was announced and went into production. I was never the type of fan who wanted to insist on a certain actor for Jamie or Claire, and I only ever went so far in terms of the kilt fetish which is almost de rigueur in the fan community, so I only peripherally followed the hoopla around the casting of Hueghan and Balfe, the release of the first images of kilted Sam and Catriona with Claire’s wild hair. I haven’t watched any clips, and just the image of Jack Randall beating Jamie that was released as a still is enough to convince me that it’s going to be weird to watch a book I know so intimately brought to life onscreen in 16 detailed episodes. Some parts of the book were over the top to begin with, but perhaps that’s why people think it will make good television.  I’m really interested to see how they convincingly show Claire fighting off the wolf with her bare hands.

Now I wonder whether and what it will be like to find Outlander the subject of casual conversation with friends and co-workers. For a long time it has been part of my personal, private reading world, which is of course, not private in the sense that the discussions are taking place on the internet. I do have IRL friends who have read it, and/or are fans, but it really only comes up in conversation with people (women) who are pretty devoted readers, and usually not with litfic book group types of readers.  I have another good friend from the Outlander community(online friend to IRL friend; a testament to the power of online book discussions!) who reports regularly being met with disbelief and distaste when she brings up Gabaldon with her book group.

But now comes the big television event. Will it be a game changer, and in what ways? I haven’t ever forked over the cash to get a premium channel in my cable lineup — I am content to wait for shows like Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire to make their way to me via Netflix or other means. I haven’t figured out whether I will do the same with Outlander, or if it will be impossible for me not to engage with it as a weekly serial, in real time along with friends, fellow fans, and the twitterverse.

What do you think? Is it going to be big, like GoT and OITNB? Will it succeed in grabbing a mainstream audience of male and female fans? Will it continue to serve as a gateway to the romance genre for new fans who come to Outlander via the show, then find the books? Will I in fact find myself discussing the controversial wife beating scene with my co-workers over lunch? Like I said, I’m not sure I’m ready for that. But on the other hand, maybe it’s a breakthrough moment, and not just for the RITA-winning Best Romance of 1991.

 

Romantic Conversations, from Idle to Burning

More random musings in the aftermath of my RT convention adventures

book cover: SE Jakes, Free Falling, depicts shoulder and profile of rugged white man with black-ink spiral tattoos

In the romance genre, an author’s handling of sex scenes, and a novel’s overall “heat level” are among several principal axes along which readers and reviewers rate and compare books. Because of the centrality of the relationship to the narrative, in the modern romance novel, the depiction of physical, sexual intimacy, ranging along a scale of “Kisses” to “Burning” (these are the two ends of AAR’s longstanding sensuality rating scale), is one of the ways authors show readers what a couple, and the romance itself, is all about. Readers and reviewers use ratings schemes such as AAR’s to inform themselves and each other as they choose what to read.

I know I’m not alone in noticing the difference between when I was younger, and used to skim/anticipate getting to the steamy parts, and my current reading habits, which have me sometimes skimming over them. But regardless, the love scenes in a romance novel, if written well, are an integral part of the emotional journey I go on with the hero and heroine.  The thing is, I’m starting to notice that I only really stop and focus on these scenes if there’s good dialogue happening while the protagonists are in bed (or in a hayloft, or a limo, or a dark hallway, or a moving carriage, or… wherever).

Which made me realize that it’s the conversations, more than anything else, that really make or break a couple for me. And that frequently the verbal intercourse is more compelling than the other kind, regardless of where the scene is set. Even in a crowd, good conversation is a powerful form of intimacy. And an author’s ability to write good dialogue, sometimes interspersed with telling gestures, is a big deal for me in terms of whether I will keep reading, especially when I’m in the relatively unfamiliar territory (to me) of, say, a contemporary motorcycle romance, or a Harlequin Presents…

What are the conversational equivalents of “Kisses” or “Burning?”

After spending much of the holiday weekend browsing around in my ginormous bag of books from RT (The 2014 Romantic Times Booklovers Convention), I started to toy with the idea of a conversation rating or taxonomy… perhaps a way to capture the overall tone and quality of a the dialogue between hero and heroine in several key scenes. Or perhaps, as with sensuality ratings, to identify where the book ranks on a scale in terms of the most intense level of conversational intimacy achieved…?  It’s certainly not a perfect parallel, but I’m having fun pondering the possibilities.

Kisses = Idle Chatter? Subtle = Informational Interview? Warm = Overt Banter, or perhaps Deliberate Provocation? Hot = Heated Exchange? Burning = Massive Argument, or perhaps Intimate Confidence…? Of course it’s best when a novel levels up and among several of these — who wants to read a romance where the couple is always having conversations of the same intensity?  There are also many other categories of conversation that could be added in a more nuanced metric…. some of my additional favorites are the Veiled Accusation, the Flirting via Third-Party Conversation, and of course the time-honored Epic Grovel.

Clearly, this is just a lark (as a taxonomy it’s an unstable, unsustainable structure) …. but here are some examples, expressed as excerpts from books I’ve been reading and perusing. Of course there’s a huge problem isolating a section of dialogue and trying to use it to apply a label to the book overall.  A very vanilla conversation can be part of a very kinky book. So that’s why this is just for laughs.  Also, I should be clear that I’m not pointing to these as all-time top romance conversations (though I really do want to do a post about some of my favorites, if I ever have time for some rereading). I have been noticing as I’m reading around in a diverse and random cross-section of recent books, some of the ways the dialogue serves to reel me in, or not, to the rest of the novel, and the journey to the HEA.

The IDLE CHATTER (“Kisses”… or… avoidance?)

book cover, Own the Wind by Kristen Ashley, depicts chrome and tire of a motorcyle and motorcycle boot from extreme low vantage point, with wide shot of open highway

Tabitha and Shy, from OWN THE WIND, by Kristen Ashley, a Chaos novel, 2013

“What’re you doin’ here?” she asked quietly.

He lifted his to-go cup. “Coffee. Best in town. Come here all the time.”

She looked at his cup then at the two coffee mugs on the table in front of her before her fingers slid through her hair and she straightened in her chair.

When Shy recovered from watching her thick, shining hair move through her fingers and he realized she wasn’t speaking, he asked, “Studying?”

Her gaze went to her books like she’d never seen them before, it came back to him and she answered, “Yeah. I’ve got two tests this week.”

“Harsh,” he muttered, though he wouldn’t know. He’d never studied for tests. The fact that somewhere in the junk in his apartment was a high school diploma was a miracle.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I need to get back to it.” (Own the Wind, p.20)

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading; I can certainly see why/how the writing sucks the reader in, but I’m wary. Seems so derivative of Sons of Anarchy that I can’t really get past it. The opening scene with Shy waking up in bed in the clubhouse with two naked women feels like an exact description of a scene from the show.


 The INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW (“Subtle”… or not so much?)

Book cover, Undone by Lila DePasqua, depicts shirtless white man embracing white woman with dark hair in billowing red satin dressAngelica and Simon, from UNDONE, by Lila DiPasqua, Fiery Tales series, 2012

“I know you don’t understand, but we must return to the convent,” she said. “Transportation there is the only assistance we require.”

Back to that. “You are correct. I don’t understand.”

“It is our home.”

Did she know how beguiling her eyes were? “Then it’s a miserable one.”

“It’s been my home for ten years.”

Mentally, he groaned. Hidden in a convent for that much of her life made her more innocent than he could comfortably accept. Though his eager cock didn’t take exception to the news, his conscience was another matter. He still had a few scraps of honor left. No matter how desirable she was, he was not going to prey on her virtue.

“Why have you been there so long?”

He watched her give careful consideration to whether or not she would answer him.

“My parents are dead,” she said at last. “I’ve been part of the orphanage in the convent ever since.”

“Orphanage? An orphanage is for children. You are not a child.” (Undone, p, 29)

I want to keep trying with this one; I like the 17th century setting and the fairytale/folklore element, and the set-up has potential for good narrative conflict, though I’m a little worried about secret identities and/or a big misunderstanding.


The DELIBERATE PROVOCATION (“Warm” … or rubbing each other the wrong way…?)

book cover, Moonlight on My Mind by Jennifer McQuiston, depicting a white pillared portico with white woman in a yellow dress falling off her shoulders, in the moonlightJulianne and Patrick, from Moonlight on My Mind by Jennifer McQuiston, Avon, 2014

“You are the new Earl of Haversham, Patrick,” she told him. “And because of that, you must return now.”

His mouth opened. Closed. Opened again. “Do not call me that,” he all but growled.

“Which? Patrick? Or Haversham?”

“Either.”

“Then what should I call you? Channing no longer fits. You can deny it, you can hate me, but it will not make it any less true.”

*  *  *

“You had the means to lock the door and yet did not. Do you always abandon yourself to fate without thinking?”

She tilted her chin upward, ” I do not believe in fate.”

“No? You have a means of tempting it, Julianne. You left the door unlocked during your bath. That could have ended badly…not all gentlemen knock first.”

“You, sir, are no gentleman.” (Moonlight on My Mind, p. 50, p.80)

I am inclined to keep reading, though I noticed that much of the dialogue is embedded within paragraphs of the protagonists’ inner dialogue, which interrupts the flow of their banter.


The HEATED EXCHANGE (a.k.a. the MASSIVE SHITSTORM) (“Hot” or “Burning” ….. depends on whether it’s a real fight or a faux fight/Big Misunderstanding. This one’s a little of both.)

book cover, Maisey Yates, Avenge Me, depicts young white man in business suit and tie with stern facial expressionKaty and Austin, from AVENGE ME by Maisey Yates, Harlequin Presents, forthcoming June 2014

“How could you do that without talking to me first?” she asked.

“What?”

“I was handling it, Austin.”

“Oh, forgive me, I thought you were sitting here naked eating takeout.”

“Are you serious right now?” She slammed the carton down onto the blankets and a noodle spilled over the edge. “How much did you pay them?”

He named a figure that made her curse.

“I can never pay that back,” she said, “and you damn well know it. You took…everything from me. My power, and now you’re making me indebted to you in ways –”

“I fucking took everything from you?” he asked, his voice rising now. “Funny, I thought I gave you a whole bunch of stuff to balance it out. A place to stay, access to my father, and help with your revenge. Plus, I recall an orgasm or fifty.” (Avenge Me, pp. 217-18)

She’s a virgin, he’s a billionaire, they discover their kink together and seek justice for her sister’s killer. The BDSM content was not what I expected here, and I’m still not sure it made sense.


The INTIMATE CONFIDENCE (Burning … searing confessions?)

Mick and Blue from FREE FALLING by SE Jakes, Extreme Escapes series, Riptide, (2nd ed.), 2014

Blue tilted his head like he was seeing right through Mick. “Would you have done things differently if you hadn’t known me?”

“Don’t ask me that, Blue.”

“I have to believe you’d have saved whoever it was, even if you don’t believe that about yourself.”

*  *  *

Mick paused and then asked, “The stuff you steal…does all the money go to your sister?”

“I keep some for necessary things, like travel and expenses. And the rest I give to… ah, someone.”

Mick cocked his head and finally, Blue admitted, “I fund an LGBT youth hostel. For kids who get kicked out for being who they are.”

“You’re no criminal, Blue. Never were,” Mick murmured before he bent down and kissed him, a rough, deep kiss that held enough promise for Blue to hold on to. (Free Falling, pp. 89-91)

book cover: SE Jakes, Free Falling, depicts shoulder and profile of rugged white man with black-ink spiral tattoosThe one book I finished without getting totally distracted. Though I haven’t  finished everything listed here, this is my favorite romance of the group thus far. Tight and authentically emotional.

I did not purchase any of the books excerpted above; they are all books I was given by publishers and/or authors during the 2014 Romantic Times Convention in New Orleans.