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

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

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

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

But back to my conversation with Laura, who suggested :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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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.

AncillaryJustice

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!

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?

Five Fast Reasons to Love Loretta Chase All Over Again

… and read her new e-novella, THE MAD EARL’S BRIDE

It’s been a while since I’ve read a new Loretta Chase romance.  Well, about exactly as long as since the last one was published (2012). It pretty much goes without saying for this historical romance junkie that LC is on my DIK, must-read, auto-buy, and every other tip-top book list I’ve got.

The Mad Earl's Bride

So I was pretty excited to get my hands on the new re-issue of The Mad Earl’s Bride (originally anthologized in Three Weddings and a Kiss, 1995).  Something to hold me over until the next Dressmakers book is out!

While it’s not Lord Perfect, which was, for me, well…. perfect, this fun and funny novella is reminding me of all the reasons LC remains at the pinnacle of the genre for me.

Five fast reasons…

  1. There will be banter. And delicious long conversations. This one has steamy dialogue in a deliciously long steambath!
  2. The hero will somehow be both maddeningly and hilariously juvenile, and devastatingly badass.
  3. The heroine will be a self-directed, managing sort of female with the ability to deflate the hero’s ridiculousness at all the appropriate moments.
  4. The emotional connection will be potent, and forged from moments where H/h reveal layers of self-awareness which they usually mask beneath the trademark LC banter.
  5. If you are lucky enough to meet her in person at a book signing, she is gracious and charming and lovely and may not even mind if you are clutching a dog-eared, vintage copy of a treasured title from her backlist….

chase2  chase

In May at the NECRWA annual conference she signed my copy of Mr. Impossible and even told me it’s one of her favorite covers!!!  Love. That.

As an aside, I realized last night that the title of LC’s  new novella fits a certain category of title that might be called a “Possessive Hero Title” — there’s been a very interesting twitter conversation on this topic over the last couple of days.  Is it significant that there are literally hundreds of similar romance titles where a word representing the hero is used in its possessive form, and so few titles where the heroine receives this kind of titular signifier of ownership?

Disclosure: As a newly-minted Avon Addict, I received The Mad Earl’s Bride as a free download via Edelweiss, in exchange for honest review and/or commentary. I would have been purchasing this book regardless!

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.)