Scare Tactics: How About a Little Violence with Your Romance?

This is a post-in-progress, which is to say it’s an invitation to a discussion….  

I’m still thinking through the questions I want to explore, and I’m hoping one or two fellow readers and/or bloggers will be willing to help me kick this around a little bit.  What’s your comfort level with graphic violence in romance fiction?  Does your level of ease/unease change according to the setting or sub-genre?

My previous post was a rave review for Donna Thorland’s The Turncoat.  I think — although I’m by no means able to state this with any kind of statistical certainty — that it’s more violent than most histrom novels I’ve read.  It’s a wartime romance, and the protagonists are engaged in espionage and counter-espionage on opposing sides. There are several scenes involving physical and psychological torture (of known and/or suspected spies, of ordinary citizens for the purposes of intimidation by the occupying British) that were intense enough to remind me of novels and films well outside the romance genre – painful WWII stories with Nazis, or at one point even the cable drama Homeland, which is sort of a maze-like essay on spying, love, illusion and torture. I thought perhaps the novel Thorland most evoked for me, in terms of the use of violence and fear as a theme in a love story, might be Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which some detractors dislike for its graphic no-holds-barred narrative (that’s the original cover from 1991, when it was published looking very much like a trad romance novel).

In a way, the grittiness of Thorland’s wonderful novel was oddly refreshing to my historical sensibilities, because I love this period and setting so much, and she made it a very real, very dangerous place and time, with safe domestic harbors few and far between. But there are other romance novels set in this period, even ones involving the spy networks, that don’t place the brutality of wartime so much at the forefront. It’s got me thinking about violence in the romance genre, and the delicate balance required to incorporate graphic episodes in a form of storytelling that is a lot about escape, fantasy, and happy endings.

We talk a lot about how rape or the threat of rape functions in romance, from “rapey” heroes and dubious consent to rape culture and assumptions about women who read BDSM erotica. These are important discussions, and what I’m talking about is certainly connected to these issues. But I’m pondering violence in romance more broadly — what do we find acceptable, and how does what we find acceptable change according to the different sub-genres or settings of particular novels? What about non-sexual violence?

Heroes are often called upon to be badass and perform a beatdown on the villain, or to annihilate random thugs. This is equally true in a Stephanie Laurens Regency or a Black Dagger Brotherhood urban fantasy from JR Ward. In some cases the heroine is also capable of delivering the beatdown – see for example Joanna Bourne’s female spies. Do we expect a certain level of badassery and capacity for violence in the hero across the romance genre? Do we look for a similar capacity in the heroine in selected contexts?

And what of violence and the threat of violence against hero and heroine? How much is too much? How much are we willing to let happen to our protagonists? And whatever has happened to them or whatever they endure, what level of detail are we willing to experience along with them?

If you’re still with me, I’m really curious to know what you think about the way violence gets used and incorporated in romance novels. Do you prefer the suspense to build via allusions to offscreen violence? Character development via potentially violent and/or abusive episodes from the past, not the present space of the novel? What about the function of plot devices such as last-minute rescues, subjecting a secondary character to violence to intensify the sense of danger to H/h, or going inside the villain’s head for sections or chapters involving evil deeds and/or graphically violent fantasies?

Even romance novels that are frothy and fun sometimes utilize danger or the threat of violence to drive the story. How does that work? When a novel is light in tone, how do authors elevate suspense if there is a plot involving hero or heroine in peril? I reviewed The Pirate Lord by Sabrina Jeffries a while back, and I struggled a bit with the romp-ish tone of the book given grim subject matter (pirates kidnap convict ship carrying female prisoners, for forced marriages so they can make a utopian community on a deserted island). Do some romance sub-genres depend on the element of danger as a plot device, yet avoid graphic depictions of violent crimes? How does this work without trivializing the emotional impact of fear, stress, etc. or reducing violent acts to the level of cartoonish evildoers?

Or are all these questions sort of meaningless since as readers we tend to instinctively choose books that will meet our needs within our comfort zone on several important measures? In romance fiction, people seem to frequently make choices based  on subgenre, “sensuality rating,” and the opinions of trusted recommenders. Perhaps level of violence, like level of explicit sexual content, is something about which we make instinctive judgments, thereby avoiding books that will make us uncomfortable? Or are we willing to tolerate more variability with violence, from book to book?

Finally, are there loose conventions that guide us as readers — that is, does level of violence correlate with particular subgenres within romance? Do you expect a certain amount of danger in paranormals or urban fantasy because of the use of suspense plots, while contemporaries tend to offer less violent forms of danger? What about historical romance? Are certain settings likely to involve more graphic violence, or just different types of violence — eg. the ritualized violence of the duel?

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Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, 1975
via amovieaweek.com

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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.

 

Road Warriors

ONLY HIS: Elizabeth Lowell’s badass Rocky Mountain westerns and reading on the road

The Badass: Caleb Black, mythic gunslinger in black, the Man from Yuma with a badass reputation as wide and wild as the West itself. He’s feared for his ruthless skill with weapons and survival skills but he earns respect for his decency, restraint, and sense of justice.

The Lady:  Willow Moran, West Virginian horse whisperer, survivor of the war-torn heartland, steel magnolia. He calls her “southern lady” but she’s tough as nails underneath the blond hair and husky drawl.

Only His (Only Series, #1)Brought To You By: Elizabeth Lowell, in Only His (2003, Avon (originally published 1996); also available as a 2009 e-book from HarperCollins. First of 4 novels in the ONLY series.

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Escaping the ravages of the Civil War, a gently reared lady must leave behind everything she knows — and trust her life and her future to a dangerous gunfighter with a passion for vengeance.

A team of prize Arabian horses is all that Willow Moran has left — and Caleb Black is the only man who can help her reach her brother in the Colorado Rockies. But she fears this stranger who burns to avenge the wrongs of treacherous men. For Caleb is as wild and unpredictable as the uncivilized land he loves. Yet, though she challenges him at every turn, the spirited southern lady knows this proud, enigmatic loner is her destiny. And no matter what peril awaits, they must face it together — for Willow has become a fever in Caleb′s blood … awakening a need so fierce that he would defeat the devil himself to possess her.

The Setting: the American West immediately following the U.S. Civil War; Colorado, Arizona and the wilderness of the Rockies; the San Juan Mountains to the southwest.

The Tropes: Virgin Mistaken for Prostitute (“Fancy Woman”); Road Romance (grueling journey across the mountains on horseback); Hero Vowing Vengeance Against Member of Heroine’s Family; Virgin Awakened to Her Sexual Nature; Lone Gunslinger; Steel Magnolia.

IMG_0734

Shiloh National Military Park, August 2013

Road Warriors   I had read the 3 other novels in Lowell’s ONLY series last winter, so when I found a copy of this one at my favorite bookshop, I snatched it up to read on vacation. What luck – it’s a road romance, and the travel hardships endured by Caleb and Willow made my own roadtrip’s minor inconveniences and long hours behind the wheel fade into insignificance. Although my own journey (some 3,600 miles from New England down through the Southeast and back) did not take me to the Rockies, I enjoyed Lowell’s vigorous rendering of a uniquely American landscape with its wide open spaces. This story unfolds with a powerful evocation of harsh and dangerous mountain passes, and the battle to conquer each peak and cover every hard-won mile. An incredible contrast to days spent on interstates and blue highways, but it helped keep me grounded in the period when we visited Gettysburg and Shiloh, or learned about the early 19th century exploration of Mammoth Caves, in Kentucky.

Both Caleb and especially Willow are scarred by their experiences surviving the War and its aftermath, and their story is set during the chaos that followed when so many bereaved and/or displaced Americans, from both North and South, were on the move, seeking to rebuild lives and find new places to call home. Since I got home, I’ve been watching new seasons of the dramas HELL ON WHEELS and COPPER, both also set in the aftermath of the Civil War — I won’t digress further here except to say it strikes me more than ever as a period of intensely violent upheaval and social and economic chaos with people from all over the world drifting across the landscape and fighting for a place in a raw new world. Also, Anson Mount’s bearded Cullen Bohannon (HELL ON WHEELS) strikes me as a dead ringer for bearded gunslinger Caleb Black.

With Only His I found much to like about the character-driven romance itself. Willow is straightforward and likably no-nonsense. She’s pretending to be married because it feels safer to travel alone that way. She hires Caleb as a wilderness guide to see her safely to her “husband’s” homestead in the San Juans. But she’s really taking her prize horses to join her brother, who may be her last remaining family. This deception is countered by Caleb’s withholding the fact that he seeks the same man — who he really doesn’t believe is her husband — for a blood vendetta.  It seemed clear to me from the start that Willow’s brother will turn out to be an OK guy (well, I also had already read Only You, in which he takes center stage as the hero), and I didn’t mind this device to drive the plot conflict as much as some other Big Misunderstandings, largely because for most of the book Caleb keeps his vengeful fixations to himself so Willow — and the reader — are spared a lot of angst-y melodrama getting in the way of the growing attraction and love between them.

Anson Mount as Confederate veteran and railroad builder Cullen Bohannon,
AMC’s Hell on Wheels (season 3 publicity image)

Lowell’s romances have an old school feel, with strong, ruthless heroes and plucky, virginal heroines. They’re well-crafted, cozy reads in which it’s easy to settle in and enjoy the slow build as the characters banter and get to know each other without a lot of tricky plot twists. There are villains, and enough shoot-outs to feel like the Wild West (Caleb’s gun-handling skills are legendary, after all, and Willow shows him she knows her way around a shotgun when it counts). But the main focus remains on their deepening emotional connection, and their shared love of horses and wilderness.

In terms of heat level, there are numerous explicit scenes where the slow build climaxes (if you will…) and the prose turns slightly purple, with lengthy passages devoted to the hero’s awakening of the virgin heroine’s innate sensuality. For me, this tendency to dwell on the gradual deflowering didn’t become tiresome because the pace of the novel allowed me plenty of time to genuinely like Caleb and Willow and enjoy their enjoyment of each other. Their physical awareness and increasing attraction is linked to growing respect and admiration. He is bent on seduction but respects her boundaries with graceful courtesy so we don’t stray into dangerous forced seduction territory and Lowell manages to make Caleb’s restraint and patience sexy – all that leashed power under tight control in a possessive, predatory yet patient hero. But  I did find myself skimming once or twice during a love scene that felt repetitive, and the patient trout-tickling metaphor is a little worn.

My favorite of the four ONLY books is Only Mine, which pairs a half-blood Cheyenne/English aristocrat hero (Wolfe Lonetree is a friend of Caleb’s who helps him rescue Willow in Only His) with a blueblood English miss. I’m pulling it out for a re-read this fall. I have a feeling I will enjoy running into Caleb and Willow again, and I’m very glad I had them along for the read while I was on my road trip. I only wish I could keep track of which book is which – the titles are no help at all, and it turns out I read the first book last.

Only His is available in several editions in the usual formats and places. I purchased it at my local used paperback shop.

 

Brave in Heart: A Contradiction Too Great for One Man to Bear?

A Civil War Romance in Which we find Many Intriguing Contradictions

The Hero: Theo Ward, dutiful son and attorney-at-law; justice-seeker on the side of right, abolitionist but not activist; mildly henpecked, professionally and emotionally stalled until a second chance at his failed romance galvanizes his enlistment as a Union officer.

Falls For:  Margaret Hampton, principled and devoted teacher, pragmatist and secret romantic.

Brave in HeartBrought To You By: Emma Barry, in Brave in Heart (July 2013 e-release from Crimson)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Theodore Ward is a man of deep passions and strong principles—none of which he acts on. So Margaret Hampton ends their engagement, breaking both of their hearts in the process.

Years after their estrangement, ardent but frozen Theo attempts to reconnect with Margaret. She is no longer trusting of the idea of romantic love, having become pragmatic and wary during decades alone. But with the drumbeat of the early days of the Civil War in the background, how can she refuse?

The courtship that results is hasty, reckless, and intense, fueled by contradictions between Theo’s willingness finally to change and Margaret’s fears about the future. Two smart, stubborn, fiery people will need to overcome the hesitancies of their hearts and the perils of battle if they’re ever to find happiness.

The Setting: Middletown, Connecticut, at the start of the U.S. Civil War, 1861 through 1863. The setting alone is going to get this book noticed within the histrom community, and Emma Barry has been eloquent in framing her enterprise in the long shadow of Margaret Mitchell, in spite of the fact that GWTW is not a romance, and Brave in Heart is not set in the South.

It’s a bold move to set a romance in a decidedly unglamorous wartime, and especially so when there is no plot device to put the couple together at the front (eg. working as spies, battlefield hospital, etc). In historical romance these days, when war is a major theme, it’s nearly always Napoleonic and it’s usually in the hero’s past, not his present. The history here is well-researched and authentic and the details of their lives as lawyer and teacher and members of the educated and privileged class of Connecticut society are skillfully rendered.

GWTW regimental ball scene, replica lobby card, via posterplace.com

Barry’s evocation of a Northern community on the brink of what we (but not they) know to be the massive and protracted trauma of the Civil War is moving and poignant without ever patronizing. I truly loved the opening sequence set during a ball in honor of departing Union regiments, with its heightened emotion and feverish sense of enthusiasm staving off grim realities and dread of what’s to come. The writing itself has an old-fashioned density and dignity that enhances the Victorian-era atmosphere, without making use of overt dialects or overwhelming the narrative.

The Tropes: Second Chance at Love, War Bride, Mother in Law Issues, Love Letters, Ordinary Heroes

Brave but not Badass: “Ardent but frozen” is a great tagline for Theo, asserting a hero who is by definition contradictory.  I couldn’t really figure him out and as a result I’m finding this a challenging book to review as a romance.  Let’s start with ardent: I badly wanted to connect with Theo as a man driven by strong emotion, but reluctantly concluded that, for me, this was a case of telling not showing.  He’s described as impassioned. I just couldn’t feel it, except maybe in his letters. He’s frustrated, with himself and with his life; he has strong political principles and inner yearnings to be an actor on a larger stage. I’m not sure these frustrations make him come across as passionate, though ardent is an interesting word choice because it suggests someone more youthful (even adolescent?) than a man in his late 30’s.

And how about frozen? We see him freeze up — and give up — in the Prologue when Margaret breaks off the original engagement, but WHY is he frozen? I couldn’t get past the fact that he’s 39 years old and the broken engagement happened two years prior – he would have been 37. What happened during almost two decades of adulthood to make him so passive and deferential to his mother? We do learn early on that the death of his father has caused his mother to rely on him and keep him close, but he seems to have almost no discernible personality beyond his politics, his love and admiration for Margaret, and his frustration with his own lack of backbone. I kept wishing that the Prologue had been long enough to help me understand what makes Theo tick, and why he has chosen to live such a narrow life for so many years. I just needed more back story to understand his pressures and priorities.

Arrested Development? Perhaps if Margaret and Theo had been written as younger characters — in their early 20’s, say — the romance might have made more sense to me.  Theo in particular comes across as a much younger person, flailing around trying to figure out how to match his actions with his dreams and fantasies. There are several references to the years he has suffered since the broken engagement, so it might have made more sense if they had been estranged for 10 or 12 years, rather than 2, which doesn’t really seem all that long if you are nearly 40. Because the wartime separation is part of the novel’s main story arc, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to  note that Theo suddenly enlists in the Union army immediately following an unsatisfying encounter with Margaret in which she gives him a reprise of her original rejection and dressing down.  At this point his thought process more resembles that of an “I’ll show her!” adolescent than a seasoned lawyer of 39 years. It also doesn’t come off as the bold, ruthless action of a man in control of his destiny — it feels reactive and hectic, rather than badass. Also, I know authors have little or no control over cover images, but this one, which uses sepia tones beautifully to convey the period, really misleads with its photo image of a young woman who looks decades younger than Margaret’s 37 years.

An Unusual Romance Hero: I’m very sympathetic to arguments for getting rid of rigid alpha/beta hero classifications, and Theo makes a strong case for the inadequacy of these definitions. He’s one of the most passive heroes I’ve ever encountered in romance. As I mentioned, I’m finding it challenging to sum up my response to Theo — on the one hand I appreciate the intellectual challenge of encountering and enjoying an unusual hero who’s not an up-in-your-face alpha. I also like Barry’s willingness to construct a hero who is hard to love, but not in the usual bad boy ways, and I do think Theo works quite well as a portrait of a young man riven by inner conflict, still seeking to live an authentic life in accordance with his beliefs as well as with his family’s (his domineering mama!) needs and expectations.

If I’m being honest, though, Theo’s To Be or Not To Be angst just irritated me for much of the novel, and, like Margaret, I kept wanting him to man up. Here’s how Margaret describes her man to a younger friend, during the wonderful ballroom scene where she re-encounters him for the first time since breaking the engagement:

He is a passionate man, but he submits, I think, too much to the desires of others. He…doesn’t achieve moderation. I grew weary of his inner intemperateness and his outward capitulation. It’s a contradiction too great for one man to bear.

The Age of Innocence

Ardent but frozen? Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis as Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the 1993 film adaptation of The Age of Innocence, via moviemail.com

I need to pause here to savor this language, with its old-fashioned restraint and cadence masking the ruthlessness of the judgment rendered. Barry’s gift for replicating the tone and flavor of period dialogue and prose is unique and tremendous.

Back to Theo — his quest for love, identity, and authenticity put me in mind of another 19th-century passive hero — the tragically trapped Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s masterful The Age of Innocence. So I am intrigued by all this, but not immersed in the romance. Neither hero nor heroine captured my heart in the way that larger-than-life characters do when I am reading a captivating romance in which the principle focus of my experience as a reader is the anticipation of their every interaction, and the ultimate HEA.

The fact that Brave in Heart, as a work of genre/romance fiction, ends with an HEA, is satisfying on one level, but doesn’t match my experience of these characters or this couple.   It just wasn’t a good sign when the hero refers to the heroine as a nag within the first chapters of the book — and not in a jokingly affectionate way.  This may be authentic, and how real people think, but it felt jarring and caused me to repeatedly question whether Theo and Margaret really liked each other.  She thinks he’s a mama’s boy; he thinks she’s demanding and impulsive. In a romance, I’m not sure I want to spend much time thinking about how the couple will probably drive each other crazy once they start actually having to live together.

A Successful Contradiction of Expectations: What this unusual book did achieve quite brilliantly was to evoke the experience of reading an authentic 19th-century story, and this in itself is quite captivating. Theo survives the great battle of Fredericksburg (again, I’m asserting this is not a spoiler since we know the book will have an HEA), but most of what we hear about his experience of the front is about surviving and enduring. I haven’t said much about Margaret as the heroine, but she, too, is a figure of stoicism and yearning, and I didn’t see her as impulsive or demanding. Her one truly impulsive act was breaking off an engagement with someone she appeared to love but not like very much. But what’s so interesting about this kind of protagonist — whether hero or heroine — is that it suggests the ordinary heroism to be found in endurance, perseverance, and constancy. The ability to love someone in spite of their fears and unredeemed flaws can also be an act of heroism.

In some ways this trope in particular reminds me more of mainstream fiction, or a 19th century novel.  It’s almost as if Theo and Margaret are literary characters from a period piece who have been given Romance H/h roles to play, and they do so somewhat awkwardly. In historical romance there is a strange alchemy that happens when the sexy times take us inside the bedroom for steamy sizzle without breaking into anachronism or allowing the characters to become ahistorical.  I can’t figure out why the love scenes felt uncomfortable, since there is indeed heat along with a sense of intimate discovery, and both characters remain fully authentic. For some reason I just felt like I would have been OK with letting this hesitant couple have their privacy! These contradictions kept taking me out of the romance itself, but may have served to enhance this novel as a work of nuanced historical fiction.

Bring Back the Epistolary Novel! Finally, the most distinctive feature of Brave in Heart as a romance in the style of a 19th century novel is its reliance on a long separation and correspondence between hero and heroine. The epistolary sections of the book are fiercely and beautifully written, and these passages where we hear the characters narrating in first person were the most effective in pulling me in and allowing me to connect with the genuine romance between Theo and Margaret. I am delighted to be reminded of how affecting an epistolary novel can be, and also how difficult to write an entire novel within the constraints of this format.  But if anyone has a chance at reviving this old-fashioned and challenging literary form with authenticity and verve, I’d venture to say it’s Ms. Barry, and I hope she may indeed consider it.

Brave in Heart is available today from Crimson Romance, and is available in the usual formats and places. I received a generous e-ARC of this novel from the author, for an honest review.

 

Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency

In which a Duke is Deceitful and the Badass Hero is a Spinster

The Badass:  Katherine (Kit) Sutherland, spinster sister of a countess and niece of an earl; fraying at the seams trying to keep her family’s manor home from going under, she’s a cynical, brusque, brooding hero who just wants to be left alone to take care of her family in the wake of her father’s ruinous gambling and emotional manipulations.

Falls For: Jude, His Grace the Duke of Darlington. Who is also Lady Rose, Darlington’s cousin. A cross-dressing Duke who follows Kit home to beard the badass in her den. They bond over painful childhood memories.

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Likes: Country ways, simple gowns, seeing her mother smile, reading her brother’s books. Oh, and wooing her sister’s eccentric, ducal lover.

Dislikes: Actually, she’s not really a negative person. She’s unhappy/tormented for a lot of the book, and under duress, but she struck me as having a pretty good attitude. She even notes that if not for her intensely protective possessiveness about Jude, she’d admire and respect the actions of her nemesis, Lady Marmotte.

Brought To You By: Anna Cowan, in Untamed

(2013 debut release ebook from Penguin Books Australia, which I obtained by purchasing it.)

From the publisher, courtesy of Goodreads: Outspoken and opinionated, Katherine Sutherland is ill at ease amongst the fine ladies of Regency London. She is more familiar with farmers and her blunt opinions and rough manners offend polite society. Yet when she hears the scandalous rumours involving her sister and the seductive Duke of Darlington, the fiercely loyal Katherine vows to save her sister’s marriage – whatever the cost.

Intrigued by Katherine’s interference in his affairs, the manipulative Duke is soon fascinated. He engages in a daring deception and follows her back to her country home. Here, their intense connection shocks them both. But the Duke’s games have dangerous consequences, and the potential to throw both their lives into chaos…

The Setting: Regency London & the Sutherland country manor and pig farm.

The Tropes: Genteel Poverty, Ruinous Gambling, Animal Husbandry, Long Suffering Elder Sister, Selfish Titled Younger Sister, Rakish Duke with Hellish Childhood, Eccentric Uninvited Female Houseguest, Vengeful Discarded Mistress, Loyal Well-Dressed Friend Group including GBF (Gay Best Friend) Sidekick, Traveling Under Assumed Identity

Badass Hero Moment: Liverpool’s Ball.  Can’t say more, there be spoilers here, but it is a big bold badass moment that reminded me of favorite ballroom declaration scenes. This may have been the point in the book where I began to feel emotionally engaged with Kit and Jude as a couple. As satisfying and heartstoppingly romantic as Colin and Penelope at the ball near the end of Julia Quinn’s near-incomparable Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, and in a weird way not unlike those thrilling Queer Eye big reveals at the end of that late, lamented, gone-but-not-forgotten makeover show.

Badass Annoying Moment: Tough call, because as is by now evident, I liked this unforgiving and relentless character. I can concede that the sequence of events and her eventual embrace and triumph among the political and social elite of London may require more suspension of disbelief than some readers are able to muster.

(too) Frequently Described As: Unattractive.  Some careful readers have objected to the language Cowan employs to convey Kit’s rough exterior and lack of feminine graces. I’m not sure her broken nose and unkempt hair are unfortunate signifiers or not, but I rather like this view of Kit coming in from a downpour, from Darlington’s POV:

Miss Sutherland… looked nothing like a kitten. Her dress and smock clung to her, and the hair was slick beside her face. She was pared back – all that might have been floss or sugar about her had melted away and left the hard, uncompromising core. Only her lashes became poetic when wet, conceding some relationship to stars.

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) as photographed by Mert and Marcus for Love #8, Autumn/Winter 2012, via The English Group

Casting:  For him, I’m really not sure, but I just kept thinking Johnny Depp.  Probably way too obvious. But possibly Jude-like: clever, funny, smoldering when he wants to be, master of ironic self-deprecation. Not averse to an I Feel Pretty moment. A friend, however, has suggested James Callis, from Battlestar Galactica, and I think she might have the right of it here.

For her, I’m going with Jessica Brown Findlay/Lady Sybil Crawley. Something about the stubborn stare.

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via fancarpet.com

Ten Reasons This Book Is Perfectly Imperfect

  1. This book risks a badass heroine without providing the familiar even-more-badass hero. I’m blurring my language here — I guess I could say she’s a badass heroine, but I’m more inclined to just view her as the hero. Kit is assigned many hero attributes and in effect she’s playing a cross-dressed role in this book much as Jude plays a cross-dressed role when he visits the Sutherlands at the Manor. He’s a beauty, and she’s really kind of a beast – untamed, and possibly untame-able. But not bitchy. Her sister Lydia can be bitchy (she has her reasons).
  2. This Regency hero/ine says “fuck.” And not as a verb. Or being coaxed to talk dirty by her man.
  3. This author takes risks, and so did the publisher. Here’s Anna Cowan’s kick-ass feature post for Dear Author about her motivation for crafting a sort of  ‘social experiment’ of a Regency (my words, not hers). Regardless of Cowan’s motivation, and whether a queering the hetero romance experiment intrigues you, for some readers the construction and artifice of the exercise may be too distracting, and cause a disconnect in place of emotional engagement with the romance and the story.
  4. This experiment demands a strong response — people are either loving it or hating on it, with dueling reviews appearing on release day a few weeks ago, and many, many thoughtful comments. I sat up and listened when Joanna Bourne tweeted a rave; when a writer of her level of badassery points out a good book, I’m THERE.
  5. This novel has flaws. The writing is at times so oblique that I had to re-read passages; more so in the first third of the book, while I was still getting to know the cast of characters. There’s a choppiness when the POV switches unevenly to secondary characters. As others have pointed out, the most damaging flaw, which can sink a novel with lesser compensations, may be that the hero/ine Jude doesn’t exactly come across as charismatic, charming, or desirable though we’re told he is all of these things via Kit’s POV. It’s telling, not showing, yes. But something raw and fresh is going on here, and there are moments of liquid silver when the language is effortlessly exquisite.
  6. This sentence, which I read over at least 8 times before turning the page:  “Mme. Soulier had indulged him as few adults had, managing him with words like pins tucked into the fabric of his wayward nature.” I love the idea of Words Like Pins.
  7. This cross-dressing duke may actually be the least compelling element of the book for me. He’s intellectually intriguing, as an exercise, and I appreciated his take-charge attitude towards addressing the resource constraints at the Manor. But my sense of him as a character in a play got in the way of the emotional connection I look for in a romance read, and it wasn’t until somewhere in the latter half of the book that I felt invested in the HEA for this couple.  He just didn’t get under my skin nearly as much as Kit, or even some of the secondary characters. But I was moved by the recurring theme of people, including Darlington, yearning to be “chosen” — to be seen, understood, and embraced.
  8. The Earl of BenRuin. This secondary hero, the “great Scottish lummox,” nearly overtakes Kit as my favorite character. I know some found him too much of a caricature. I just really fell for him and for damaged Lydia’s eventual repair. Their fragile conversations drew me in completely.
  9. This historical is somehow both detailed enough to beautifully convey domestic period authenticity (pig farming, running out of candles, carrot soup cookery, etc.) and freewheeling enough to rankle the history police (the divorce proceedings, the Corn Laws – neither are accounted for with historical accuracy, but these problems have been sufficiently explicated elsewhere).
  10. This writing has a loose tension and distinct voice that puts me in mind of haiku. At its best, it is sparkling and precise; when it falters, it can be frustrating. Artisanal, yet unruly.

Overall, I’m calling Untamed perfectly IMperfect — by which I mean this debut novel is uneven; flawed in many of the the right ways, and subversive in interesting ways, too. We have a queered “hero” who can be read as a heroine; an “unmanly” version of masculinity who is the object of female desire. A badass heroine who cross-dresses as the hero of the novel; once she fixes her desire on Jude she is as relentless, ruthless, and daring as any alpha (in fact the bold badassery with which she pursues and “wins” her mate reminded me a great deal of a classic alpha-pursuer hero in the Cynster/Laurens mode).

It’s rare to see the female pursuer in a historical romance, and maybe in romance in general, and this book explores female desire without reverting to focus on her desire to be desirable to him. Jude is passive, and fully objectified by her desire. And yet I’m not sure it’s entirely the swapping of roles that makes this book subversive, since one could view this as reinforcing heteronormative archetypes, even if they are “worn” by the opposite gender.

Subversiveness is in the eye of the beholder, and what makes this book most intriguing for me is its willingness to embrace the “same old” Regency tropes and turn them inside out. If a talented new writer like Anna Cowan is applying herself to historical romance, I take it as a welcome sign of vigorous — untamed — growth and life for the genre.

 

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

Armchair BEA 3

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.)