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.

 

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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.

 

Crooked Romance: what is it with Patricia Gaffney?

Know When to Walk Away, Know When to Run: a comedic, gambler-ific western romance that should have been fantastic

The Guy: Reuben Jones, veteran confidence man, wisecracker, card sharp. Always on the move, he’s a gambler with a million disguises, a secret yearning for home and family, and a crippling fear of knives.

The Girl:  Grace Russell, bold, scrappy con artist who can charm dollars out of wallets and into her pockets a million different ways, yet elude surrendering her virtue or her heart.

Crooked Hearts

Brought To You By: Patricia Gaffney in Crooked Hearts, Signet 2001 (originally published 1994).

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: 

THE CON MAN
Reuben Jones walks on the wrong side of the law — a card shark, a master of deception, a man who long ago buried the truth of his life so deep that no one would ever find it…

THE LADY
Grace Russell has had to learn a few tricks herself in order to hold on to the crumbling California vineyard that is the only thing in the world she can call her own…

CROOKED HEARTS
When Grace meets Reuben she’s dressed as a pious Catholic nun; he’s posing as a blind Spanish aristocrat. But he gets an eyeful when the pretty sister lifts her skirts to adjust the little silver derringer strapped to her thigh … So begins this sexy, rollicking ride through the gambling halls and sinful streets of 1880s San Francisco, where two “crooked hearts” discover that love is the most dangerous — and delicious — game of all.

The Setting: The multicultural California coast in the 1880’s; Monterey, San Francisco, the Russian River valley.

The Tropes: Hero who Reforms his Conniving Ways; Heroine who Reforms her Conniving Ways; Heroine Clueless that Hero Thinks She’s Married; Partners in Crime; Sham Wedding as Part of Long Con; Stagecoach Robbery; You Got to Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em; Captive Held in Gambling/Opium Den; Mysterious Chinese Villain.

“Sister Mary Augustine’s little silver derringer was cutting into her thigh.”  The first line was a dead giveaway. This book does NOT have a pokerface. Right away I knew it would be funny, and not to take it too seriously. The first chapters are utterly captivating. Grace and Reuben are extremely likeable, their conversations are hilarious, and it’s strangely refreshing, and rare to read a romance where hero and heroine are both Actual Criminals in need of reform.

In spite of the various dangerous and seedy places the couple finds themselves, this novel isn’t dark and it’s easy to root for the criminals in their various escapades. They’re usually of course up against other criminals who are much worse, and it’s clear that while they are thieves on the run from the law, they recoil from violence.

Reuben is an unusual hero; he’s described as powerful but he’s somehow much less physical than Grace. He’s not especially moody, and only moderately introspective. I haven’t read enough of Patricia Gaffney’s romances to know whether he is an atypical Gaffney hero or not (more about this later) but like the novel itself, he’s unusually blithe for a HistRom hero.

He’s not a badass — he rarely uses his strength to fight and only barely manages to knock out a villain bent on harming — and gang-raping –Grace at one point. Reuben’s badassery is that of the elegant mind game and of witty banter; he’s physically appealing but not physically intimidating. He’s so good at playing out a long con, where patience, control, and the ability to amuse and distract are the skills in his arsenal. But he seems almost passive when the fur is flying and people – even Grace who has become firmly established as the object of his desire – are in danger.  It’s hard to make a man who fleeces people, and runs rather than stand and fight (or face consequences), appealing and sexy, but somehow Gaffney manages to pull it off and I quite liked him.

Grace is equally appealing, and more of a badass in the customary ways: she knows her way around her firearms and she comes up with the bravura self-sacrificing move that saves the day at the end of the long con game. It’s all a bit of a romp, nicely infused with a strong feel for historical California and the early days of the wine industry there. So. If you’ve managed to read this far (Thank You!), you may be wondering why I said it should have been fantastic.

This is clearly the work of a gifted writer with a deft hand at historical fiction, character-driven romance, and funny dialogue. But then there are the parts that are so clumsy and so awfully NOT funny.  The terribly stereotyped villain, an opium-importing Chinese immigrant who runs a whorehouse and 19th century equivalent of a crack house. The horrible – and distracting – use of eye dialect to render the villain’s speech, along with that of Ah You, the ridiculously Confucian, epigrammatic, loyal house servant whose “ancient Chinese wisdom” pushes Grace and Reuben to acknowledge their destiny as man and wife.  And – AH YOU?!? In a romance novel? Ahh, you! Seriously. Unnecessarily. Bad.

Also, I had a bad reaction when Reuben’s suppressed childhood history was revealed and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to have had this particular background. I will endeavor to avoid going further into spoiler territory (except perhaps below in Comments), but between Reuben’s “secret” and the strangeness of his profession for a romance hero – he’s an avaricious pyramid schemer among other things – I am again left wondering at the lack of judgment on the part of both author and publisher with regard to ethnic and racial stereotyping. Unless I am just being dense – maybe for some readers this is all part of a spoof-y western quality a la Blazing Saddles, all broad humor and crass stereotypes?? If that’s so, it just didn’t work for me. It’s too sentimental to work as a spoof, especially in the case of the slow reveal of Reuben’s sad history, which, for me, just dragged down the story — he was interesting and vivid enough without it.

I hesitate to draw any comparisons to the only other Gaffney novel I’ve read, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to adequately address it. For one thing, I was unable to finish To Have and To Hold, which I had with me on vacation last month. For another, THatH has been the subject of intense and incredibly rich discussion in romance bloggery in recent months, with Liz’s discussion here at Something More offering both a lengthy and wonderful review as well as numerous illuminating contributions in the Comments, and links to the best of other reviews and discussions.  It’s probably a big mistake to even bring up this immensely controversial and widely discussed book.

But I admit I am just stumped by Patricia Gaffney. I read a lot of romance in the 90’s but hadn’t read the Wyckerley novels or any of her other romances. I first thought about reading To Love and To Cherish when I posted a review  of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green romance with a vicar for a hero (A Notorious Countess Confesses) and posed the question of whether a clergyman can be made into an appealing badass hero. Nicola from Alpha Heroes suggested looking at Christy, and I soon discovered that many other readers were looking at the Wyckerleys. Gaffney seemed to be everywhere this summer. Redemption and rape, cruelty and strength, interiority and connection — since I’ve returned home with THatH half-finished, I’ve schooled myself by catching up on the rich and challenging discussions that have taken place online recently around this unusual book. At the same time, I decided to give Gaffney another try, and I had Crooked Hearts on my TBR shelf along with Thief of Hearts and (still unread) TLatC.

What a relief it was to settle into a story that was clearly so different from Rachel and Sebastian’s tortured tale. The unusual setting and the humor drew me in right away. They meet on a stagecoach and it’s so clearly a partnership of equals. But then the disconnect started to distract me, even as I was enjoying Grace and Reuben’s various capers and escapades. Not only does Crooked Hearts lack the dark grimness of To Have and to Hold, but it also lacks the power and complexity. This in itself had me scratching my head because the difference goes deeper than the setting and tone. The two books are so vastly different I just couldn’t stop over-thinking every point of contrast. (If anyone’s read both and wants to argue they share some deep connections, I’d love to hear it!)

True, I did not (yet?) finish THatH  — I was unable to keep reading when I ran up against the worst of Sebastian’s humiliating treatment of Rachel. But this probably had something to do with being far from home and in need of a comfort read (my bad for even bringing it with me – I was supposed to only be reading road romances!).  I was deeply impressed by the writing itself, with its unsparing and multi-layered depiction of both characters’ inner lives.

In contrast, in place of raw and unsettlingly ambiguous elements of inequality, abuse of power, humiliation, and rape, Crooked Hearts serves up lighthearted criminal capers that should have been pure fun, with a side order of distraction and disappointment in the form of casual racism that doesn’t ring true as satire. Somehow it’s all just not adding up for me  — I am purely stumped by my forays into the crooked, curious, oddly challenging and uncomfortable romances of Patricia Gaffney.

I’d love to hear from others who’ve read any of Gaffney’s “lighter” western romances. There are some others set in 1890’s America with equally improbable storylines, that seem to have found favor with plenty of Goodreads reviewers, but I get nervous about these when I see that there are two such books where either the hero or the heroine is a mute. (Wild at Heart, Sweet Everlasting). Talk about an unequal power dynamic rife with risk for stereotyping of characters with disability. I think I may need to steer clear, but I would love to be persuaded otherwise, since Gaffney is so clearly a writer of depth and skill.

Finally, I can’t conclude without confessing how hard It’s been hard to get the Kenny Rogers lyrics out of my head while I’ve been thinking about Crooked Hearts. The Gambler is one of those big-sky songs that can sort of morph to fit almost any situation — perhaps even my take on the mixed bag of Patricia Gaffney’s wild west romance:  Now every gambler knows that the secret to surviving / Is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep / ‘Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser / [And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.] Crooked Hearts is both a winner and a loser – and maybe the best that I can hope for is to read something else tonight that totally takes my mind off of these long and winding musings!

Crooked Hearts is available in the usual formats and places. I purchased it at my local used paperback shop.

 

Horn of Plenty

Name: Gideon Horn, the Pirate Lord, terror of sea-going aristocrats, Robin Hood-like wealth re-distributor, Utopian visionary.

Falls For:  Miss Sara Willis, righteous prison reformer and champion of female convicts, stepsister of the Earl of Blackmore.

Story Recounted By:  Sabrina Jeffries, in The Pirate Lord (originally published 1998)

pirate lordpirate lord2

Hangs Out In/On: The high seas, aboard the Satyr; an uncharted island in the South Atlantic.

Likes: Flies a horn-y Jolly Roger, yearns for a mother’s love, dreams of a utopian colony, kidnaps a boatload of convict women to get things started.

Dislikes: Anyone with a title.

Badass Hero Moment: Capture of the Defiant.

Badass Annoying Moment: The Atlantis/Utopia concept is so flawed it’s hard to take Gideon’s insistence on the kidnapping and forced marriages seriously.

(too) Frequently Described As: Thunderous. Taut.

Might Look Like:  wallpapers-pirates-caribbean-1024

Not really, but it’s funny to think about.  I’m pretty sure the re-issue cover image is Avon’s attempt at a mash-up of Jack Sparrow-beadazzled style with traditional chiseled chest romance hero.

To Read Or Not To Read?  First and favorite in the Lord trilogy.  Somehow SJ mixes together pirates, convict ships, struggles for survival, and class conflict while keeping the whole thing frothy and fantastical.  Yet in spite of the fact that it lacks grit and substance (even the “mean” convicted prostitute is a pushover for Sara’s good nature, and the pirates are as tame as Disney — think Peter Pan or Pirates of the Caribbean), it works as a setting for Gideon’s and Sara’s character-driven story.  There are very nice secondary romances, and Sara’s determined and ruthless brother the Earl of Blackmore certainly got my attention as the future hero of the next book.

(Possibly) Amusing, Tangentially Related:

Information about St. Helena, the island SJ used as inspiration for the fictional “Atlantis”

Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19), official site

Pamela Poll:

What is your favorite pirate romance and/or  who is your favorite pirate badass?