THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

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THE ANNOTATED TBR: an autumn collection of recommendations and reviews from some of my favorite bloggers

Some badass book reviewers and my overly hopeful list of books for late fall reading…

I’m trying out a new feature, which looks to be an occasional round-up of great reviews of books from my TBR. The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of the pile.

This is also a way for me to share my enthusiasm for the art of the book review itself, and the incredible writing I’m so enjoying as I spend more time in the Romanceland bloggiverse.

I used to read reviews only after finishing a book, as a way of interrogating my own response, checking in with fellow readers, and and having some kind of “dialogue” about it. But since starting the blog I’ve discovered that many of the best conversations about the genre, and the romance reading experience, are happening in and around reviews and related comments threads. I’m reading lots of reviews for books I’ll probably never read.

So here are some fantastic essays about books I do want to read. And even if you don’t think the book sounds up your alley, be sure and check out the links, because these reviews are outstanding, insightful and fun reading in their own right.

THE GRAND SOPHY, by Georgette Heyer: Over at Something More, Liz takes another look at a classic Heyer, or rather, another listen. The Comments here are so good — I’m both inspired to do more re-reads of vintage and classic authors, and a little afraid of what I’ll find I may have been willing to overlook in a romance that I’d find egregious in other genres, or in a book published today. With this throwback review, Liz and her discussants dig into Heyer’s anti-Semitic characterization of the villain, and how interpretation and response may be variable when listening as opposed to reading the printed page.

LOVE, CONTINUANCE, AND INCREASING, by Julian Griffith: And then for a Regency which, I imagine, might make dear Miss Heyer blush. Natalie at Radish Reviews has written an intriguing and very persuasive review of a historical menage romance, which, actually, really makes me want to read it. It’s not the polyamorous part that makes me need persuading, it’s the historical part. I mean I know historical people had all kinds of intimacy just as people do now, but to make a menage work as a romance I have to believe in the love story and suspend disbelief about the practicalities involved in setting up housekeeping and achieving the HEA. Which is a LOT harder to do within the confines of a historical setting. But Natalie’s review gives Griffith kudos on this very challenge, along with the emotional intimacy, so I am definitely intrigued, in spite of the slightly creepy cover art and the fact that she didn’t love the ending.

RIVETED, by Meljean Brook: Nicola of AlphaHeroes is one of my favorite romance reviewers. She’s not posting new reviews this fall, but her weekly Sunday Soup posts are newsy, intelligent, sometimes opinionated summaries of Romanceland chatter and buzz …. and for an autumnal reading suggestion I love this review from September 2012 of the third book in Brook’s Iron Seas series. I’ve only read The Iron Duke (book one), which I found impressive, fascinating, and flawed. Nicola says RIVETED is the best of the three, so I’m planning to check it out.

FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, by Sandra Antonelli: I’ve been wanting to read this “older heroine” romance ever since I learned from twitter that Antonelli is doing her doctoral dissertation on the subject of representations of women and age in romance fiction. It takes alchemy to turn academic writers into romance novelists, and sometimes the wonk factor is much too evident, but Read React Review Jessica’s marvelous review (a guest post at Radish Reviews) has only moved this higher up on my TBR.

A LADY’S SECRET WEAPON, by Tracey Devlyn: If Miss Bates (Miss Bates Reads Romance) says Devlyn’s Regency spy romance beats out Joanna Bourne for delivering emotional and exciting historical suspense with a full and satisfying HEA, this is a book I need to read. I find myself so often in agreement with MissB (though never expressing myself with such clarity or elegance!) that I feel compelled to investigate further. I am a great admirer of Bourne’s beautiful Spymaster series and if MissB is calling my spies out with this polite yet clear challenge, I need to see what’s what! Also, Devlyn’s novel has just been nominated for an RT award for Best Innovative Historical Romance of 2013.

And finally, for the sheer pleasure of reading a great review of a book NOT receiving a recommendation, you can’t do better than Miss Bates’s delightfully proper yet hilariously underwhelmed post on THROUGH THE SMOKE by Brenda Novak.

So that’s what I’m hoping to read between now and the New Year (ha! As if.) – what about you? And what about book reviews? Do you enjoy reading them in their own right, even if it’s not a book you’re likely to read?

Throwback Reading Rec: Rumer Has It

My Favorite Novels by Rumer Godden: Stories of Nuns, Dolls, and British India

On the heels of my Betty Neels musings, I am awash in fresh nostalgia for another mid-century “modern” author who was already sort of “vintage” by the time I encountered her. Rumer Godden sits on my bookshelf near Mary Renault and along with Barbara Pym as one of the more “serious” novelists I adored and admired in late adolescence.

I’m inspired to try something new here on the blog – a short list of favorite titles from my vintage keeper shelves.

Thanks to AnimeJune of Gossamer Obsessions, who sometime last week tweeted when she finished IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE, one of my favorite novels about nuns, thus sparking this bout of Rumer-mongering.

I’m interested to hear from anyone else who has enjoyed these books — I am intrigued by the way in which Godden (1907 – 1998) encompasses so much that is light and wonderful (nursery tales, curious & bright children, bold and wonderful dolls) about British literary tradition along with such intense exploration of darker mainstream themes (colonialism, racism, sexual repression).

Also — what is it about nuns in fiction that is so incredibly fascinating for certain readers?? Who else has experienced the “nun phase” in their reading history?

ON NUNS

In This House of Brede (1969): This is a book I read and re-read numerous times during the time in my life when nuns — think Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1959) — seemed terribly romantic. The self-discipline, the sense of purpose, the strength of tradition and community, the connection to medieval ritual and practices… somehow it all becomes a captivating blend. The story of Philippa Talbot’s vocation and journey to final vows is as gripping and emotionally satisfying as a good romance. Sadly, the Diana Rigg film is sort of a ‘meh’ compared with the novel, and with the far more compelling Hepburn film.

Black Narcissus (1939): In this case the film is a work of art that stands up to the book in every respect, and I highly recommend both. What happens when English nuns take over a ‘harem’ palace to start a school in the Himalayas, cut off from British culture except for the disconcertingly rugged and boldly challenging agent, Mr. Dean? Desire, sexual tension, tragic consequences, and a riveting portrait of cultural imperialism and the limits of faith.

ON DOLLS

 

The Story of Holly and Ivy (1958): A sentimental Christmas favorite I read every year with my daughters, this is a classic love story about a girl, a doll, window shopping, and an orphan’s HEA.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (1961): The classic tale of how to feel at home by making a home for someone you love; also asserting the powerful magic of dolls, and casting chilly England against sunny India. Little Plum is the sequel.

ON BRITISH INDIA

 

The River (1946): Godden’s classic coming of age novel, a tribute to her childhood in India and a lyrical exploration of adolescent dreaming & disillusionment.

Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953): Taking her title from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Godden wrote this later novel partly inspired by her own experience as a young Englishwoman and mother in a remote part of India during the 1950s. The impoverished post-colonial village is emotionally torched by the effects of her presence, and the darkness she hinted at in the much earlier River, becomes menacing and tragic.

Other favorites: China Court, The Greengage Summer, The Peacock Spring

A final word, about romance — love stories and HEAs are not central to my reminiscences about reading Rumer Godden. In her adult novels she frequently explored the constraints and consequences of passions deemed “wrong” in certain social and cultural contexts, but love is at its most satisfyingly triumphant in her books for children.

Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? Armchair BEA Days 2 & 3

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Design Credit: Nina of Nina Reads

I’m still so new at this game, I can’t really say much about how I’ve developed as a blogger.  The blog is still in its infancy, and I find myself every day wishing I had an extra hour or two to spend working on future posts, reading other blogs, and researching best practices.  ArmchairBEA is pushing me to post more this week than I would normally be able to, although this kind of navel-gazing post is not the same as a review post or commentary on a bookish theme.  It’s less than 2 months since I drafted my About Me and Why Badass Romance posts, and then I just spent eleventy-two hours doing the long Liebster post last week, so it’s feeling like ENOUGH about me and not enough about books right now!

For this reason I’m going to segue right to Day 2’s bookish topic, which is genre (what draws you to a genre?), and Day 3’s related focus which is literary (artistic?) fiction.  The literary fiction prompt asks: Which works of art have changed your life?  Be creative and make a list outlining books featuring specific subjects (i.e., animals, recommended prize-winners, outstanding authors, etc.). Hmmm. What is it with this “art” label?? Is genre fiction a lower order of cultural production?

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As a result of the Liebster chain letter last week, I met a fellow blogger who, like me, has an academic background, has read classics, literary theory, and criticism, and now – at mid-life – prefers to read… you guessed it: (badass) romance.  Miss Bates is quite loquacious on this topic! Her new blog is a must-read, if you haven’t already checked it out.

We’ve been chatting back and forth in comments, and it’s helping me re-formulate some of my rather inchoate thoughts about why I don’t like a literary hierarchy that sets genre fiction (romance along with others, like fantasy, science fiction, mystery, etc – not to mention sub-genres) in opposition to literary fiction, thereby declaring that genre fiction is not Art. I realize no one is saying that genre fiction doesn’t have meaning or merit, but let’s face it, there is still a literary hierarchy and the main reason romance gets taken seriously at all may be its badass sales figures. But the main reason I don’t read much “highbrow” fiction anymore is that I started to feel unhappy and uncomfortable with books that felt chore-like — at times opaque, depressing, and/or pretentious. Life is too short to read books that feel like work.  I am not saying, however, that I don’t want to be challenged by what I read — to read books that spark me to think deeply and broadly about my values and assumptions and priorities. I’m just saying that I want to have this experience as a reader with books I actually enjoy reading, and at this point in my life as a reader I’m looking for happy endings.

While I recognize the importance of individual preferences in terms of genre, and the reality that there are going to be groupings of readers who read and blog mainly around literary fiction vs. any particular genre fiction, what’s important to me is enjoying what I read, and applying the same kind of critical thinking and analysis in formulating my response — whether it’s a romance novel or a Booker Prize nominee.  As a serious reader, I don’t want to have to prove I’m serious in spite of reading and reviewing romance.  I was delighted yesterday to read Book Riot’s Stop Apologizing for What You Like to Read, via new Armchair BEA blog friend Cheap Thrills.

But on the other hand, I don’t think the romance reading and blogging community should be without a robust critical discourse, nor should we shy away from thoughtful exchange of ideas about what’s political and or problematic in the books we also enjoy and celebrate. This week Emma Barry has posted a provocative set of questions about politics in romance, and there are some wonderful comments.  Also this week, at Radish Reviews, Natalie’s challenging post about reader shame and extreme romance, along with the incredible discussion it’s generating, has really got me thinking.

Although I’m new to blogging, I’ve been participating in online fan forums about books off and on for almost a decade. I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the strong negative response from such communities when a critical view of a challenging theme or book is put forth. Frequently, critical discourse is suppressed with “if you don’t really like this, why are you reading it?” Or, “how can you like this and call yourself a thinking person?” Of course I am thinking about polarization around the proliferation of erotic romance and erotica in the wake of 50 Shades. I’m also thinking back to a fan community where a post that critiqued a problematic aspect of a beloved book was frequently perceived as an attack. But this kind of suppression is side-stepping.

Why can’t we trust that we’re mainly going to read what we like and enjoy, and that it’s OK to enjoy reading something and yet still be deeply thoughtful and even troubled by it? And to express these “troubles” in the form of thoughtful interrogation of our own reading, in concert with the cross-blog discourse of reviews and commentary? Is it OK to be a romance blogger and say “negative” things about the genre?  My response is a hearty yes. But are romance readers especially sensitive to criticism of the books we enjoy, because there is always this problematic intersection of gender, identity, feminism, and the masculine hero archetypes which embody patriarchy?

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the discourse around feminism and romance which was (re)launched with vigor back in March (B.B.R. – Before Badass Romance), by way of an article in the Atlantic, and a series of wonderful author and blogger posts such as this one by Cecilia Grant, from which I will offer a favorite quote:

But “romance that might appeal to feminists” and “romance that actually is feminist” aren’t quite the same thing.

I also found this post at Bad Necklace extremely challenging and provocative, in a good-kind-of-uncomfortable way.

So, badass romance readers – what do you think? Is it possible to enjoy reading a book, and to equally enjoy a respectful critique that challenges our enjoyment? Are we stuck reading romance through the lens of feminism? Are such “-ism” lenses limiting or liberating?

Finally, as an aside, I must add that I am on pins and needles waiting to get my hands on a copy of Cecilia Grant’s forthcoming new release, A Woman Entangled! A Gentleman Undone is among my top 5 favorite books of 2012 (or top 5 reads of 2013 so far.)

Historical Romance – Lament, or Let it Die?

As a new blogger, an important piece of my learning curve is keeping up with the buzz on Twitter and on established romance and book blogs, and participating in discussions in order to exchange ideas and get to know some other bloggers.  I’m posting here at “home” now because there’s so much interesting content about this topic, and my own musings are growing too lengthy for commenting on other pages.

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For about a week I’ve been following a wide-ranging discussion about historical romance that’s happening on several of the major romance blogs.  (And before I go further, let me just say to my currently quite petite band of Badass Romance followers — if you haven’t checked out the blogs at All About Romance and Dear Author, you are really missing out on the best the romance community has to offer in the way of cross-cutting dialogue and commentary about everything from book covers to publishing trends to literary criticism, along with INDISPENSABLE book reviews.)

Lynn at All About Romance asked Where Have All the Historical Romances Gone?  Since the intersection of history and romance fiction is my personal reading sweet spot, this caught my attention right away, and I jumped in to comment, along with a host of other readers and — this is one of the (many) super cool things about AAR — a bunch of historical romance authors, including the actual people who are actually responsible for some of my favorite recent reads in this genre. (!!!) A squee!! moment — ok, and here I am just trying out this term frequently employed in romance bloglandia for when you sort of interact with an author and get all “fangirl” about it….

7756458So I don’t mind if you skip the rest of this post — if you are looking for an actual good new book to read, go right now and find yourself a copy of Libertine’s Kiss, by Judith James. A non-Regency historical romance that is not to be missed.  I have been meaning to make a review post about this book for weeks! A Restoration tale, it earned DIK status at All About Romance, and features one of my favorite romance tropes: second chance at love.

OK, back to the Big Picture.  Anyway, this week I also started more actively following some of these folks on Twitter.  So that’s how I “met”  Evangeline Holland,  an author of historical romance who also blogs about Edwardian history. Her post offered another angle on The Trouble With Historical Romance, and another blogspace to talk about this with, again, readers as well as writers.

Over at Dear Author, this morning Jane says We should let the historical genre die. Which is a bold statement, but I realize I agree with what she’s saying.  Or at least with what I think she might be saying.  Can I just say that I agree with my own interpretation of this bold post?  How ridiculous, but here is what I want to say:  although I have been commenting in a very lamentatious fashion on many of the blog posts this week, I realize that the books I have been feeling nostalgic about are mostly NOT the current crop of historical romances, which, as everyone has noted, are almost exclusively set in the British Isles of the 19th century (or feature expatriate English lords of that era who may find themselves elsewhere on the globe but for all intents and purposes are Regency or Victorian characters).

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed recent books from Liz Carlyle, Elizabeth Hoyt, Julie Anne Long, Tessa Dare, Anne Stuart, Anne Gracie, Jennifer Ashley, Meredith Duran, and at least a dozen others.   And there are standouts like Joanna Bourne’s exquisite Spymaster novels.  But what really got me feeling nostalgic about historical romance was thinking about great reads from a decade or two ago — an early Loretta Chase book like The Lion’s Daughter or Mr. Impossible, my first time reading Anya Seton’s Katherine, or a favorite “old school” historical like Elizabeth Lowell’s ONLY series. Why are there so many middling books about Regency lords, while it’s truly hard to find a gem like The Black Hawk, about a thief from St. Giles turned spy for the crown?  I’ve also really liked Pamela Clare’s MacKinnon’s Rangers trilogy, at least in part because of the alternate setting that appeals to my love for colonial American history — but, again, it’s hard to find a lot of books that do romance well in this setting.

Which I guess leaves me agreeing that if historical romance continues to occupy such a incredibly narrow band of history, a fairytale version of England overpopulated with aristocrats, I’m OK with the declining sales.  Jane/Dear Author is probably right that the genre needs to reinvent itself.  Why do we keep reading and buying books about the ton, and then complain about there not being enough historical accuracy, or variety?  Many readers in the AAR discussion suggested reading backlists and newly available e-books from the ’90s and earlier. Romantic Historical Fiction defines itself as a distinct genre these days, and I wonder if that’s another place readers are going…? And I suspect many historical romance readers are also quite happily reading newer titles in erotic, m/m and/or paranormal romance, particularly those well-crafted novels that also feature fundamental themes of honor, loyalty, kinship, defiance, courtliness, and characters who battle the odds to end up on the right side of history.

It may sound odd, but beneath surface trappings of daggers vs. claymores, sizzling sex scenes vs.  stopping at the bedroom door, the badasses of J.R.Ward’s Black Dagger Brothers and Lynn Kurland’s medieval De Piagets and MacLeods have a lot in common.  And it’s these underlying heroic tropes – a lethal combination of boldness, badassery, vulnerability, flaws, charm, and wit – that I respond to as a reader.50718

So perhaps historical romance as it’s currently being published is reaching an ebb that’s organic, cyclical, and necessary. Maybe it’s time to lament, but move on. What do you think? What is your most recent historical romance read? Or have you been reading something else entirely?

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Other links –

This topic has been taken up on many individual blogs, and in several review posts this week, too.  I’m including links here for several interesting posts that turned up in my recent reading, but this is by no means comprehensive.

Courtney Milan, Digital Strategy in Historical Romance (author, 19thc historicals)

Elise Cyr, Why Historical Romance? (author, medieval romance)

Dear Author’s  Review of Jack Absolute.  (Interesting discussion in the Comments here, about romance readers reading more straight historical fiction as we search out more interesting settings.)