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?

 

 

Siege Warfare: Meditations on Medieval Romance with Author Elise Cyr

Besieged by love?  How many times have you read something like “her emotions were under siege” in a romance novel? I feel like this metaphor is common, and compelling, yet I’ve never really unpacked it. For one thing, it suggests a traditionally gendered experience, in which the hero is the pursuer, surrounding the heroine with his army of manly charms until she accepts and gives in to the inevitability of surrender/conquest.

What makes this work in genre romance is that while she may be “conquered” by the hero’s love, the heroine surrenders as much to the power of her own corresponding emotion as to the conquering male. The siege as romantic metaphor sort of circles in on itself, since the besieged is frequently “starving” herself of love/emotion while the besieger “attacks” by providing rather than depriving. (I know there must be examples of the metaphor used with the genders reversed and a pursuing heroine laying siege to her hero…I hope to hear of such in comments since I can’t find one at the moment!)

570px-Siege_castle_love_Louvre_OA6933

Ivory mirror back depicting “The Siege of the Castle of Love,” French, 14th century, now in the Louvre (via Wikimedia Commons)

Until last month, it’d been quite a while since I read a romance, or indeed any novel, where the hero wears chain mail.  Then I picked Sharon Kay Penman’s LIONHEART off a very dusty spot on my TBR shelf, for a “challenge” read involving Big Fat Books. Not a romance, but it reminded me how much I used to enjoy and immerse myself in historical fiction with medieval settings, and whetted my appetite. Also, here was a book brimming with literal historical examples of siege warfare, replete with all the implements (heavy weaponry, grappling hooks, scaling ladders) and strategies (starvation, persistence, ruthlessness) from which the literary & emotional metaphors derive.

I confess, I had to push myself a bit to get through this long book about England’s Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and his exploits in the Holy Land during the Second (?) Crusade in 1190-92. Based on my memories of Penman’s Welsh trilogy (it was nearly 20 years ago, but I treasure these books among my ‘best evers’), I had thought there’d be a stronger romantic element, and I found myself really missing the emotional satisfaction of a romance HEA. I also missed the sense that there is an end to the story at all, since this was just one long chunk of a multi-novel Angevin saga, and leaves off just as Richard is returning to England to deal with his treacherous relatives.

siegeoftheheart_FinalSo – time for a medieval romance.

Fortunately, hard on the heels of my March reading challenge came SIEGE OF THE HEART, a debut release from Elise Cyr, an author acquaintance from Twitter. I am thoroughly enjoying this romance between a Norman knight and a sword-wielding English heiress, and it’s got me re-examining some of my own assumptions about medieval romance novels, thinking about why I stopped reading them, whether they’re still as popular as ever, and what’s happening in this historical subgenre that’s new and fresh.

 Is harsh history romantic? Elise has graciously agreed to share some ideas about medievals – the chivalry, the history, and what makes a romance novel work in a setting where historical accuracy means a world with a challenging dominant belief system characterized by religious intolerance, a rigid feudal class system, very limited access to literacy and learning for most people, and marriage laws that left women with very few rights, even over their own bodies and children.

Pamela: I just read a great review of Jeannie Lin’s THE JADE TEMPTRESS in which Miss Bates referred to the setting – also medieval, but 9th century China – as a “harsh, hierarchical world” (I can’t wait to read this one, too!). What makes this kind of setting a good place to tell a compelling love story?

Elise: It comes down to stakes. In the medieval period, regardless of which continent we’re talking about, the “harsh, hierarchical world” often meant most people were so focused on their survival and that of their family, the concept of “love” we think of today was rare as a result. The medieval version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs often didn’t move beyond food and shelter for the vast majority of people living at the time. So when love did strike, the afflicted had a lot of barriers to work through. Not least of which was the concept of marriage, which was essentially a contract negotiated between families at the behest of their liege lord. Compatibility had more to do with dowries, ready coin, and the whims of nobility instead of attraction, passion, fidelity. So love not only had to exist, it had to be a love worth fighting for, since often the couple would be going against the wishes of their families and their liege lord, removing any security they had in society. It was a harsh world indeed for lovers of the time.

Pamela: What do you think is the particular appeal of the European-set medieval? Are there deeper associations with folklore and fairytales many English-speaking readers may have grown up with?

Elise: For me, the medieval time period comes closest to evoking the world of fairytales. Castles, knights, adventures, with the more unpleasant aspects blunted by the passage of time. I grew up on fairytales—the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang. This legacy is distinctly Europe-centric, so it makes sense to me that many historical romance authors keep returning to European history and the fairytale structure with the obligatory happily-ever-after in the stories we write for ourselves and others. (I wonder to what extent that would change had I been exposed to the fairy tales and myths from other cultures at such a formative age.)

Pamela: I kept thinking about your siege metaphor as I was reading about the Crusaders’ trebuchets and other siege implements and strategies, in Penman’s LIONHEART. That was a later period than SIEGE OF THE HEART, which is set immediately following the Norman Conquest, but the forced marriage as part of a strategy of conquest, alliance, and/or assimilation is a common theme. It’s a tried and true historical romance trope, but I think it can be particularly powerful in a medieval story – how does it work in medieval to become more, and to transcend the plot device that serves to throw the hero and heroine together?

Elise: The forced marriage trope is indeed common in historical romance. The reason I think it works in medievals is because the marriage is bigger than either partner, and more is riding on its success. Servants, townspeople, villeins, and vassals all had a stake in the success or failure of an alliance. The term “peace weaver” originates from the Anglo-Saxons where a woman was married off to a warring tribe to make peace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace-weaver). To have so much riding on a match raises the stakes for a relationship, and finding ways for the hero and heroine to connect, compromise, and complement each other are elements at the heart of any romance, regardless of the time period.

Pamela: Isabel faces a forced marriage like so many widowed or otherwise vulnerable women of the ruling class in her period, because a single woman can’t “hold” a castle, or a kingdom, for her liege lord, and needs to be married to another powerful lord.  But in what ways does she hold power? Can she hold on to her own inner “castle” – ie. her heart, at least until she chooses to open the gates…?

Elise: When I chose to write in this time period, I soon realized the cards would be stacked against my heroine Isabel. The fallout from the Norman Conquest threw so many lives in turmoil, including that of an unwed English noblewoman. So I had to figure out a way to not only make her someone worthy of a story, but also have enough agency to sustain one. That way a modern reader could respect her choices despite changes in culture and gender roles brought on by the march of time. It helps that my heroine is a bit spoiled by her father, still mourning the loss of his wife. Because of this, Isabel has been afforded opportunities to acquire certain skills and experiences not available to other women. Her power lies in the respect she commands from her father’s men and the rest of the household, her knowledge of the land and the vassals who tend it, and the passion she brings to her responsibilities. The result, I hope, is a strong character, cognizant of her place in the world, confident in her abilities, who realizes her heart is only hers to give.

800px-Bayeux_Tapestry_scene19_Dinan

Siege of a motte and bailey castle at Dinan as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Pamela: Beyond her inner qualities and skills such as strength of purpose or being politically astute, you also gave Isabel an outwardly fighting spirit and weaponry and badassery to go with it. She’s quite a shield-maiden, and in this way reminds me of the warrior maidens from a Tolkien saga, or the early Norse mythologies that inspired him. What made you decide to have Isabel be skilled at physical combat in her own right, in spite of needing to marry in order to retain dominion over her family’s lands?

Elise: Well, badassery was indeed a consideration. One thing I always disliked about fairy tales was the passive or secondary role women often played. I didn’t want that for my heroine, especially given the modern lens and the power dynamics of the time. So I wanted her skills with blade and bow to match her fighting spirit. She couldn’t be easily dismissed, politically, personally, physically. If you dig into the accounts of the Conquest, it wasn’t very pretty. I wanted a heroine who could transcend the brutality of the time period and be strong enough to pick up the pieces afterward.

Pamela: Alex is a wonderfully patient yet determined siege strategist. It’s refreshing to read a medieval warrior hero who’s open about his willingness to fall in love with the heiress he’s being commanded to marry, rather than bemoan his lost bachelorhood or succumbing to insta-lust for wedding, bedding, and then ignoring his new bride. He approaches Isabel as he would any worthy potential adversary or ally – and only once he realizes that he’s attracted to her, both physically and in terms of her character, does he decide upon a courtship strategy of emotional siege warfare. So many romance novels cast the hero as the protagonist whose deeper emotions are walled up behind a mental fortress – did you think about this as an inversion or subversion?

Elise: I did try to invert some expectations when it came to Alex, the Norman knight who throws Isabel’s world in turmoil. Going back to the brutality of the Conquest, it’s easy to assume that bloodlust is what defined the conquerors as they raped, pillaged, and razed the land on their trek from the coast to the heart of London. I felt not every man William brought to England could be ruled by such aggression—these very knights were the origins of chivalry after all, formalized roughly a hundred years later. As a conqueror, it’s easy to view Alex as a “bad guy.” So I tried to give Alex those honorable, chivalric impulses, while retaining the rough edges of the Norman culture. Having him in touch with his emotions, aware of how he’s perceived by others and how to manipulate that, were tools I used to keep him accessible to the reader. I also wanted to highlight his leadership qualities—he may be a landless knight, seeking his fortune in England, but he is still worthy of a noblewoman like Isabel.

Pamela: They do seem very well-matched, and I am looking forward to finishing their story.

800px-Mortagne_siege

Siege of Mortagne (Hundred Years War) from a 14th century Flemish manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am also feeling very pleased with myself for rediscovering the delights of a well-crafted medieval romance. It’s interesting there are some very popular mainstream television series with medieval or medieval-inspired settings, and I have been wondering if we’d start seeing more romance novels that show the influence of Game of Thrones or Vikings, at least in terms of setting, if not theme, but perhaps there is more epic fantasy that uses such settings these days, as opposed to traditional histrom?  I’ve gone back to find Jo Beverley’s medievals – new to me and, as expected, both satisfying and and complex — but I’m also eager for recommendations of newer titles.  Apart from the perennial popularity of Scottish-theme books (which tend to involve castles and claymores, even when set in a later century!), I’m having a hard time coming up with recent traditional medieval romances.  (Happily, Elise is working to fill the void.)

From the publisher, about SIEGE OF THE HEART: He fought for king and country, but that battle was nothing compared to the one he’ll wage for a woman’s heart.

Still reeling from the news of her father’s death during the Norman Conquest, Isabel Dumont is unprepared when trouble arrives at the castle gates. Alexandre d’Évreux, a Norman knight with close ties to England’s new king, has arrived to secure the land and the loyalties of the Dumont family. Desperate to protect her people, Isabel strives to keep the confounding knight at arm’s length and hide the truth about her father’s death.

For Alexandre, the spoils of war come with more than just a generous gift of land. They come with Isabel Dumont. Vowing to marry only for love, Alexandre finds himself in a difficult situation as a conqueror granted dominion over the land and its people. Isabel is the one person capable of helping him win the regard of those living in the war-torn country…if he chooses to accept her.

Just when Alexandre finds a spark of hope that he and Isabel have a chance at love, she vanishes. His quest to find her plunges him deeper into the conquest’s fallout. Was she taken? Or did she leave?

CONTENT WARNING: Entering into this novel may cause extreme affection toward knights of old, admiration for strong-willed women, and the overwhelming belief that love really can conquer all.

SIEGE OF THE HEART is available from Kensington as an e-book in the usual places. I believe a print edition is forthcoming. I’m grateful to the publisher and to Elise for sharing an e-ARC with me.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to my conversation with Laura, who suggested :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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