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.

 

 

 

 

Badass RT: Not a Duke in Sight

In which I offer impressionistic reflections on a trip to New Orleans that I sense will have far-reaching effects on my reading & blogging & thinking about the romance genre

Corner of building in New Orleans with elaborate ironwork balconies, a photo I took in the French Quarter.Every time I turned a corner in the giant convention hotel with multiple floors of massive meeting rooms, there was another huge line of people clutching totes and books and swag. There was a constant restless feeling that you hadn’t correctly figured out where to be and when. The lobby was open and line-free, but like a giant all-day cocktail party where every time you passed through you had to shout to be heard. After easing into the convention with the cozy & cool blogger pre-con on Tuesday, I was definitely overwhelmed by the crowds and noise as the week grew in intensity. But even with the lines and the swag and the relentless promo, RT (the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention) was pretty much a giant love fest of romance readers and authors and, happily for me, bloggers.

I haven’t begun to digest all the ways in which the amazing women I met, and the conversations I was lucky enough to have, will inspire me and challenge me to keep thinking and writing about what I read, and how, and why. For now, I just want to record some early impressions.

Nicola (@alphaheroes) tweeted a pic we took at the first “morning mixer,” and it cracked me up to hear back from my twitterverse that I look a lot less scary than my handle. Heh. Because really nobody at RT really looks like a super badass — we are mainly geeky and charming women of all ages who like books and read obsessively. But badassery was definitely on display. After a couple of days, you grew numb to it, but who can forget stepping in to the elevator for the first time upon arrival?

Very large (over life size) poster covering rear wall of elevator; depicts a bare-chested white man in a kilt with the tagline "good romance never ages"

There was apparently an exercise/fitness meet-up early in the morning (not that I ever found or confirmed this) and they had shirts that look like old school gym shirts and say RT 2014/ Books/Love/Badass. I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up and I saw this on a blurry slide at the front of a cavernous ballroom at the welcome breakfast, so I’m not exactly sure about the first two words, but I know BADASS was the bottom line and I thought that was pretty cool (you know, because I am so incredibly badass).  I kept asking where to get one of these shirts, but I could never find anyone who knew what I was talking about, so I suppose it’s possible I hallucinated it.

What I didn’t hallucinate were the intensity and saturation of the imagery.

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Everyone (including me) has been tweeting pics of the elevator dudes — but it’s not just the elevators. On the main conference levels, no architectural feature had been left unadorned. Floors, walls, even windows! And curious special laminated round table tops.

Occasional table in lobby area, with laminated image of Lacy Danes book covers; images of fantasy heroes with tattoos and leather jackets

It feels like the vast majority of these giant, expensive promo graphics feature the growth-area subgenres: erotic romance, urban fantasy, romantic suspense, contemporary subthemes like sports romance, lots of super badass tats and abs and leather and weaponry.

Wall-size poster in elevator:

And lots of looming imagery that is dark and suspenseful.

Floor-to-ceiling window covering with Jo Gibson book cover that depicts close-up of one side of a white woman's face, with a very wide-eyed frightened expression. The title is AFRAID.

 

Lobby area wall and window posters, floor to ceiling, with fantasy and suspense book covers, looming over conference attendee seated in armchair.

Also well-represented: Contemporary romance, and m/m romance — and note that not a wall area is left un-promo’ed.

Wall-size posters over escalators, including m/m clinch cover.

The salad bowl elevator was so innocuous, relative to the others!

Another elevator wall poster, with torso of casually dressed white man holding a clear glass salad bowl and preparing and/or offering the salad.

All the edgier romance genres were living large,  from rock stars to BDSM.

photo (44)

photo (36)photo (43)

In spite of the presence at numerous panels and events of “romance royalty” like Mary Jo Putney, Lisa Kleypas, Eloisa James, Eileen Dreyer, Lorraine Heath and other queens of HistRom, there was nary a duke or duchess in sight as far as the high-impact imagery with which the publishers physically and visually surrounded conference-goers.

I am not whining or complaining about this, nor do I think historical romance was necessarily underrepresented in the conference agenda itself. I just think it’s interesting to look at what is represented, and what isn’t, in the visual culture of RT2014.

The first night I was there, someone tweeted a pic of herself or a friend literally straddling one of these super-size floor heroes in  a prone embrace. And then there are the cover models, some of whom I saw carrying around life-size stand-up cut-outs of themselves, for photo ops with fans — but that’s a whole long digression I won’t do here/now.

photo (42)

It’s not that badassery and historical romance are mutually exclusive categories. At Wednesday’s grand Author Chat session with several of the aforementioned Queens of HistRom, Eloisa James talked about her forthcoming book’s hero – a “rough duke, a boxer.” There was a lot of discussion about the challenge of making, and keeping, historical romance “relevant.”  And then there was the excellent and thought-provoking conversation at Zoe Archer’s “Beyond the Ballroom” panel discussion of “Gritty Historicals” with Courtney Milan, Lorelei Brown, and Carrie Lofty. I’m planning to write more in future post(s) about the substance of discussions around historical romance these days — it’s a fluid and important conversation I like to keep having. But back to the imagery…

Here are the promo posters that happened to be stationed outside the Historical Author Chat breakout room.

Freestanding lobby posters for contemporary and urban fantasy romance imprints.

So I started to actively search for representations of historical romance there at the New Orleans Marriott this week.

I found this high-impact floor-to-ceiling wallcovering featuring Blushing Books’s erotic historicals.

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An earl! I also found some spots in “Promo Alley” which featured familiar Regency imagery and other historical evocations.

Table-top tri-fold display of Regency book covers, with promo swag including pens and bookmarks.

The Promo Alley tables seemed to feature mainly small press and individually curated author displays, with swag.

Promotional table top display for Norwegian historical romance author Kris Tualla

The Hansen series: “Norway is the new Scotland” !

But you can tell where this is going.  Not one giant supersize ballgown cover to rub up against. Again, this is not a lament.  I’m never really sure what the ballgown covers are all about, though I admit, they’re lush and gorgeous and I love their brilliant use of color trends. And there are plenty of historicals with swashbuckling or Byronic man chest covers. But of the 8 elevators, the only one which referenced historical romance is the leather-kilted dude with the swords I posted up top — and he could easily be a fantasy hero.

I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m mulling it over.  Certainly the big promo dollars are going where the industry believes there is potential to grow audiences. Historical romance has a strong vanguard of established authors with loyal readership. But it doesn’t seem to function in the way it used to, to attract new readers to the romance genre. Among HistRom devotees, there seems to be a lot of talk about newer historicals being “lite” while some readers yearn for more angst-y, substantive reads.  On the other hand, just because a book has a ballgown on the cover, doesn’t mean nothing of substance is on offer.  But as Carrie Lofty pointed out in her panel remarks, for those seeking depth and challenge in historical romance, discoverability can be quite difficult since all the ballgown covers tend to blur, and unhelpfully to elide authors who may be writing with very different tones and voices.

As I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think the historical romance is dead or dying…but with most trends over time there are cycles. Will the effects of the trends in other romance subgenres, especially with regard to “grittiness” and badassery, counteract the frothy historical trend? What can historicals offer in the way of challenge and substance that other subgenres can’t? For me, this is an especially interesting question, and the “Gritty Historicals” panelists offered some intriguing ideas I’m still pondering, especially about exploring and problematizing issues of gender, class, and race, at particular historical moments, as a way of bringing depth and substance to the story, and creating space for heroines with agency.  So this is a To Be Continued, but I loved my time at RT.  I’m deeply grateful to everyone who took the time to talk with me and offer me so much food – and drink — for thought.

photo of RT pub crawl logo fan and street outside Pat O'Brien's bar.

Outside Pat O’Brien’s, abandoning the pub crawl in favor of dinner and conversation…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the HEA Takes a Village: Community, Connection & Romance Dude Groups (part 1)

lovely new cover/sorta silly series about a club for tall, dark & duke-ly war veterans who need a “last bastion” against marriage and “matchmaking mamas”

The lone hero, the lonely spinster, and what happens when they end up in a dude group romance?

What is your favorite term for brotherhoods in romance? Romance series built around a group of badass heroes – a man tribe, a dude group, a wolf pack – are so commonplace as to be almost unremarkable these days. There are aspects of the trope which have, rightfully, been skewered for being OTT silly (secret societies, saving the planet – or England – from evil villains bent on world domination, saving each other from “matchmaking mamas” …. Stephanie Laurens/Black Cobra & Bastion Club series, I’m looking at you…).

But the “band of brothers” structure remains a mainstay, for numerous reasons, many of them quite sensibly and pragmatically publishing/marketing related. When it moves beyond structure, however, in series where brotherhood, or a sense of “all for one and one for all”  is a fully explored theme and trope, the dude group becomes more interesting. And here, I’m thinking of some of my most favorite histrom series – Jo Beverley’s legendary Company of Rogues, or Sarah MacLean’s newer Fallen Angels.

In the hands of a thoughtful and nuanced author, a series centered on a dude group explores a powerful and appealing kind of intimacy that is, yes, about entering the “unknown” world of male friendship (for female readers), but also about the bonds of community and clan that transcend both romance and bromance and offer a vision of collective and communal problem-solving, emotional support, and practical assistance.  For me, this vision, utopian and unlikely as it may be, is often as appealing and satisfying as the HEA. In connected books series as different as Kit Rocha’s dystopian O’Kane chronicles (the Beyond series) and the aforementioned Rogues series, for example, it may take a village to raise a happy couple.

The fate of the individual

I have been pondering my taste for “clannish” communities in romance for several weeks now in light of a recent twitter conversation and a thoughtful  post by Laura Vivanco exploring romance fiction’s preference for protagonists, of both genders, who demonstrate “inner strength” and overcome adversity without being “whiny.”  Laura’s focused here more on the question of whether the genre offers space for characters who complain, or fail, or rail against fate and ill-fortune, than on themes of community. But she notes the connection between romance conventions – valorization of  resilience in order to achieve the HEA – and social pressure, especially for men, to repress complaint and personal emotions, bear up under internal conflict or external woes, and prevail against all odds, without showing weakness or dependence.

It’s possible I’m reading too much in here, but I was quite struck by the idea that the genre expresses a revealed preference for protagonists who are (a) unusually uncomplaining and resourceful and (b) independent go-it-alone-ers.

I often feel as though society, and consequently romance novels, take a very individualised view of personal success and failure which discourages social and economic critique. (Laura Vivanco, “Being Admirable, Repressing Complaint” posted April 15, 2014)

This makes sense when you consider many favored hero and heroine archetypes, from the embittered but valiant ex-soldier to the indomitable impoverished spinster (both of these types can be found in both contemporary and historical incarnations). Yes, all romances must have conflict, and one or both protagonists usually faces, and overcomes, seemingly insurmountable external challenges of one kind or another — severe financial hardship, physical or emotional trauma, bereavement, imminent danger, blackmail, estrangement, or an imperiled reputation…this is the stuff of which heroes and heroines are made. It really doesn’t seem as if there is any space for whiners, but I do think the romance genre offers space for some of its stoic protagonists to suffer in community, and to receive support.

The power of community

I don’t know what percentage of romance novels involve the hero and/or heroine relying on help from a strong community, but I do know that this is a theme that appeals to me, so I read a lot of them. A lot of the books that do this are dude group series. Along about the time I came across Laura’s wonderful post, I was also happily enmeshed in Jo Beverley’s newest Rogues romance, A SHOCKING DELIGHT, which further fueled my musings. I’ll write more about this book, and how the village of Rogues helps the romance along, in a part 2 post.  For now, I just want to throw some ideas at the wall like spaghetti. In terms of the importance of community to the outcome – the HEA – I’m not just talking about the sidekick secondary characters who help with logistics or clearing up the Big Misunderstanding. I’m talking about books where the friendships are as interesting and important (even if not receiving as much of the page count) as the central romance, and/or series where the family tree or secret club are meaningful elements of the emotional arc of the story, not just superficial hooks.

Strength in sisterhood: the Rarest Blooms series

Sometimes, it’s a band of sisters, not brothers, and the community is powerful in less obvious ways.  I’m grateful to tweeps @JanetNorCal and @_Marijana_ for helping me remember the Rarest Blooms series by Madeline Hunter.  The Blooms are female Rogues, in a sense, banding together to support one another through difficult times, and to serve as resource, rescuers and refuge. In the context of a historical romance, any such effort by women is necessarily going to be subversive inasmuch as it may involve challenges to the existing social order. Hunter’s protagonists live communally in a remote country village, supporting themselves with a nursery/floral business, and if I am remembering this right, they are each, for one reason or another, basically in hiding from the patriarchy in one guise or another (lack of financial stability/legal rights, an abusive male family member, or a trauma history). Here’s Dabney’s DIK review of DANGEROUS IN DIAMONDS for AAR, which reminded me that the Blooms series also touched on themes of class conflict and economic critique by exploring businesswoman Daphne’s and ducal libertine Tristan’s reactions to being swept up in labor riots.

Over on twitter, I linked to Laura’s post and a brief discussion ensued in which Donna Thorland proposed that story=suffering and referenced classical drama and the narrative hero arc.  This exchange with Laura and Donna raised all kinds of interesting questions for me about how characters suffer, whether certain modes of suffering “earn” the HEA, and whether the hero/ine must always “go it alone” in order to prevail. (I tried Storify for the first time in hopes of getting the tweets in coherent order, but I have no idea how to embed it so it’ll just have to be a link.)

Historical romance is certainly full of lonely protagonists who suffer their woes stoically, and also flawed heroes/heroines who must tread an individual path to redemption. I’m struck, though, by how many series are structured around communities that, I think, do act in small yet meaningful ways to challenge the status quo, whatever that may be given the setting of the narrative. I need to think more about this, and look more closely at some examples to figure out how these clannish (some are literally family clans, as in Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, or JoBev’s epic Mallorens) communities become more than window dressing or a series framing device.

I’d love to hear about other favorite dude group series, and especially some contemporary/fantasy ones. The Black Dagger Brotherhood has been in the back of my mind since J.R. Ward so clearly set out to write a community of brothers and the books are as much about the friendships as about the individual couples nominally at the center of each one. Where else do you find this? Do you think HEAs that get embraced by a strong community are (more?) satisfying in some way? Or is this whole dude group thing just overused?