TBR Challenge – Back to the Classics

seventearsforapollo This month’s TBR challenge, reading one of the classics, had me scratching my head for a little bit. Did I want to reach for one of those books that could be considered part of the romance canon(to the degree we have one), or did I want to pick a classic trope or author? In the end, I decided on Seven Tears for Apollo. When we start talking about old school romantic suspense or gothics online, certain names tend to pop up. Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels – all have their fans. However, Phyllis Whitney is one of those names that seems to be mentioned almost as an afterthought.

I’ve read a few Phyllis Whitney novels, all historicals, and I did enjoy them. However, I had yet to read one of her contemporaries and so I gave this one a whirl. Written in 1962, it captures a world that for 21st century readers feels like a curious blend of old and new. Continue reading

When Romance Mirrors Your Own Romance

Children-dressed-up-as-bride-and-groom-252x300A few years ago, my husband gave me an anniversary card that looked something like the picture on the left. “Look!,” he wrote inside. “They found one of our wedding pictures!” It was a joke, of course. I mean, we weren’t nineBut we were both nineteen, which even in 1989 was really young. I am pretty sure people thought we were crazy, and when I look back, there may have been something to that. My mom was completely horrified. She’d married at the ripe old age of twenty-three, and in her mind, getting married meant that you immediately dropped out of college and started having babies right and left, which was not the life she pictured for her honor student daughter. It doesn’t have to mean that. In my case, it did mean that I switched universities (ending up at one that was likely better suited to me anyway), but my husband and I both graduated a year early and didn’t have children right away. With time and perspective though, I can see exactly why my mom was worried. As I went on in life and discovered others who married young, I found that I was the exception rather than the rule. Most people either got married because they were expecting, or married with the intention of both partners remaining in school only to have one drop out to support the other. It’s not that getting married very young is an impossible road, but it creates some unique obstacles that older couples don’t necessarily have to face.

A few years ago I read a very interesting article (which of course I couldn’t find for the life of me when I wrote this piece) that spoke to the challenges of marrying young. It was actually written in sort of a blue state/red state context, and addressed marriage differences and why divorce rates were lower in blue states. The article phrased the dichotomy in a way that stuck with me: “Adults creating families vs. families creating adults.” Do you grow up, meet someone, and build a family together, or meet someone, build a family together, and then grow up? It’s the challenge of an early marriage in a nutshell. My husband and I are in our forties, now addressing some of the issues that a lot of people addressed in their twenties. I love my husband, and we’re still married as we approach our 25th anniversary. But would I advise my daughters (20 and 22) to make a similar choice? Probably not, and they haven’t.

Why do I bring this up? Well, partly it’s because I am at a stage where I am talking and thinking a lot about my marriage and my choices. But it’s also because the heroine of the book I’m reading is eighteen. Granted, she is eighteen in 1812, which is a lot different than being eighteen in 1988 or 2014. It takes us longer to grow up now because life is complicated in ways that it wasn’t 200 years ago. But still, she’s eighteen. The hero thinks she’s young, and she is. And because I married young, because I’ve walked down that road, I know what is ahead of her better than most. I believe that young love is real, because I’ve lived it. But I also understand the intricacies and nuances of what’s ahead. It’s a little harder for me to romanticize it.

It made me wonder whether we seek out romances that mirror our own love story, or avoid them because they are too real. On one hand, if it has worked for you, you know it can work. Linda Hurst, who used to co-write Pandora’s Box with me years ago, was a firm defender of love at first sight romances. She fell head over heels crazy in love with her husband in a moment and knew that it was real and could work outside a romance novel. I’ve also defended young love over the years because I’ve lived young love. Periodically I’ve seen someone say (on our message boards) that you can’t possibly be in love with someone you met at fifteen. Yes, I personally know otherwise. But I am not exactly sure that I seek out romances where couples face the problems I faced.

Do any of us? If your spouse is in the military and suffering from PTSD, do you enjoy military romances? Or do you think they downplay the struggles? If you’re raising step-children, do you enjoy reading about step-families in romance? Or is it all just too real? If we didn’t need desire fantasies, we probably wouldn’t read books with bizarre will stipulations, secret babies, or shapeshifting wolves.

Where do you stand? Do you like romances that remind you of your own romance? Or do you just think, “I can get that at home” and seek out something completely different?

 

 

TBR Challenge: Lots to Choose From

midnightangel Today we’re taking a little break from the RT author interviews for May’s installment of the TBR Challenge. For this month’s adventure through the TBR pile, I went looking for a book by an author represented multiple times in my stash of books waiting to be read. I’ve read a lot of Lisa Kleypas, but I still have plenty of her books in the TBR. The Russian angle of her 1995 historical, Midnight Angel appealed to me, so I decided to give that one a whirl.

Though the heroine is Russian, most of the book is set in England as we are treated to a governess and employer romance. Early on in the book, we as readers learn Tasia’s big secret.
She is actually a Russian aristocrat in disguise who has fled the country as she has been sentenced to death for killing her betrothed. Tasia has no memory of what happened to the man or whether she may have harmed him, but she is determined to live. Conveniently, she has relatives in England who give her a new identity and find a place for her as governess to Lucas(Luke) Stokehurst, Marquess of Stokehurst. Continue reading

What’s Your (Guilty) Pleasure?

cuttingedgeAs I was reading A Wedding by Dawn, a book I had to admit was pretty bad, I also noticed that I was sort of enjoying it. Not because it got better (because eventually, it kind of did), but because it was kind of ridiculous. What do I mean by that? Well, the heroine is determined not to marry the hero, who has come looking for her in Malta because her dad has promised him 50,000 pounds if he marries her. She escapes (so many times I lost count) throwing herself into increasingly ridiculous situations and almost deciding several times that losing her virginity to a random stranger would be a great idea. Ridiculous. And yet, so silly and ridiculous that I didn’t mind reading it. Somewhere along the line, silly books have become a new guilty pleasure.

I’m not sure this was always the case. Early on in my reviewing career, think I took myself more seriously, and I think I probably took romances more seriously too. Funny was great, but silly? Weren’t we too intelligent and important for that? I scoffed at madcap Regencies by Emily Hendrickson and Sandra Heath, wondering why we hadn’t gotten beyond such ridiculous fare. On the other hand, I felt no guilt liking funny regencies by Diane Farr or Emma Jensen.

I’m not sure what changed. It isn’t my grading, because something truly ridiculous would rarely merit higher than a C in my book. Nonetheless, I find myself kind of enjoying the occasional stupid heroine or far-fetched plot line. You know, the stuff that verges on parody with cross-dressing heroines who manage to fool people, silly will provisions, zany bluestocking archeologists and the like. I can’t in good conscience recommend them per se, but I don’t exactly mind reading them either – probably because I am laughing too hard.

In order to meet my guilty pleasure needs, it really needs to be so bad it’s good. And lord knows, it can’t be boring. Boring doesn’t qualify. It also works best for me in romance. I recently attempted to get through Clara and Mr. Tiffany, an historical fiction novel, for my book club. I let myself stop after fifty pages of tortuous prose, stilted dialogue, and flat characterization. It was ridiculous alright, but it was no pleasure.

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I’d put the Fifty Shades books in the guilty pleasure category. Granted, I was laughing too hard at the end of the second one to bother with the third, but the point is that I was laughing.

One of my guiltiest pleasures is our own bad reviews. Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I’ll look up old D and F reviews in the database and read them for hours, laughing at how funny they are (because even when a bad book is hard to read, the review is often fun to read and write).

My family’s cinematic guilty pleasure is The Cutting Edge. If you’ve never seen it, you’re missing some of the cheesiest dialogue ever written. It’s a romantic comedy featuring a washed up hockey player and almost washed-up figure skater who skate their way to (presumably) an Olympic gold medal in pairs skating – and of course, fall in love along the way. It’s horrible. And yet brilliant. If you don’t love lines like: “There are two things I do well…and skating’s the other one”…well, you’re probably a better person than I.

How about you? What’s your guilty pleasure, whether cinematic or bookish? And do you like a good, silly book once in a while?

TBR Challenge – Modern Love

returntotomorrow When I saw that this month’s TBR Challenge category called on us to read a contemporary romance, I found almost an embarrassment of choices. Did I want to go mainstream or inspy? Small town or big city? Something serious or more chick lit in tone? In the end, the setting drew me into Return to Tomorrow, a 2010 re-release of a 1990 title.

The premise of this novel is definitely not run of the mill. The characters were all shaped by their experiences in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and even 20+ years on, the author shows how the war affected them. Rachel McKendrick spent years in a prison camp in Laos, and not surprisingly, has a lot of emotional issues to work through. After her rescue, she never intended to return to the region but a promise made to a priest she respected deeply brings her to a refugee camp.

There she meets Brett “Tiger” Jackson, a man with a dangerous reputation. Tiger fought in the war and has stayed behind working a variety of shadowy jobs and living among a trusted group of expats who, like him, never could quite return home after the war. Rachel’s brother back home knew and trusted him, but on the ground in Thailand, he has a reputation as a dangerous drug smuggler. There is obviously more to him than meets the eye, but readers are only slightly ahead of Rachel in learning this. Continue reading

Because…Romance Novel!

james-macarthur_57154759Years ago, I used to do aerobics with an aspiring writer. One day she told me about the book for young readers that she was working on, which involved a villain who went back through time to take Joseph out of the Christmas story. “That’s interesting,” I said. “Why?” It turned out she had never thought about “why,” or what his motivation was, or what he was accomplishing by his actions, or what difference it made. But she told me she was glad I asked. No one had ever put it that way to her.

Sometimes snark can be our stock in trade as reviewers. We have genres we deplore, stock characters that we consider ridiculous, and tired tropes we hate (and at AAR, we privately used to make fun of the word trope, which we considered pretentious until we started using it all the time too). But the fact is, that when a good author uses any of these, we can buy into it, because that’s what good writing and characterization is all about.

Not everyone has that level of persuasiveness, of course. Sometimes, it makes complete sense in the author’s head but doesn’t stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny, like my friend’s Joseph-napping story. Sometimes the author just fails utterly to convince the reader of the character’s motivation. We understand what the author was trying to do, but it isn’t believable to us. Or, to paraphrase a long ago reader on our message boards, “we get it, but we don’t buy it.”

I think we see this both in contemporaries and historicals. In contemporaries the tough-sell premises include elaborate will stipulations (“You can’t inherit the family ranch unless you live here for one year with Bill, the handsome foreman, because romance novel!”) and marriages of convenience (Come on, it’s 2014). Thankfully I think we’re kind of moving away from sheikhs, whose allure utterly escaped me (“Come with me, my beauty, and live in my awesome country where women can’t drive! It’ll be great!”). In historicals the classic tends to be the heroine disguised as a man. I always like when the hero is completely fooled by this ruse and confused by his burgeoning same-sex attraction, then has sex with the heroine the minute he discovers the truth.

Sometimes it can be so over the top that it becomes fun and we just don’t care. Did anyone else watch Swiss Family Robinson as a child? My sister and I watched it obsessively for a while. Not only does it feature the aforementioned cross dressing, there is a long scene at the end where they throw logs at hordes of pirates, all of whom are easily felled even though they vastly outnumber the Swiss Family. The production values were bad even to the 80s eye, but it was fun anyway. And besides, I wanted to live in that tree house, preferably with Fritz (the picture above was my favorite scene). There are plenty of modern book equivalents to that. Do I really believe that the wealthy Roarke runs his empire just fine on no sleep and has plenty of time to assist Eve in every single investigation? Not really. Does it matter? Not really.

But I also think a really good author can simply sell us on the tough sell, even though long time readers can get a little jaded. There have been a few times in recent months when an author has made me buy into a premise I don’t usually like. I’ve seen people carry off romances with socially unequal heroes and heroines, Big Secrets, Big Misunderstandings, prostitutes, and thieves. None of these are favorites with me, but if you can sell me on the characters’ motivation, if you can make it make sense, then I’ll go along for the ride. My most recent example, Meredith Duran’s Fool Me Twice, had three of those things, and it still worked for me.

And when don’t those themes work? Pretty often. You have to have a reason you’re not sharing your Big Secret, a reason you became a prostitute, and probably a convincing villain for your Big Misunderstanding. We’re not going to buy it if you just use romance novel shorthand and depend on the hard work of better writers who have gone before.

So here’s my nickel’s worth of free reviewer advice: You can go one of two routes. The first is to go big or go home, a la Swiss Family. If you are going to have a beat a bunch of armed pirates, you should probably have them do it with a nine year old on an elephant, a log booby trap, and…wasn’t there a zebra? Or have your twenty-seven year old, Fifty Shades of Fucked Up anti-hero make more money than Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, because your whole story is already silly anyway.

Second route: Sell it. Have a reason your villain is taking Joseph out of the Christmas story, or your heroine is stealing documents, or your dashing, rich hero refuses to marry. A reason that makes sense and holds up to scrutiny. There are no shortcuts with this, and your reason can’t be “Because Romance Novel”.  Believe me, we’ll know.

 

 

TBR Challenge – New to Me Books

fairshine I went back to “Sunday” in the Back to School Challenge this month, to read the second of the books I’d chosen for that day.

The prompt was

- Read a book that has in its title the word “Sunday”, “Sun”, “light”, “shine”, “hot, “star” or “day”, or any variation of these words, or a word you think might have a similar connotation.

and I’d chosen a book by the British author, Sylvia Thorpe called Fair Shine the Day, which is a piece of historical fiction with romantic elements set during the time of the English Civil War. This period of English history seems to get a lot less attention than Tudor times, the Regency, or Victorian eras when it comes to historical romance and I can’t quite work out why. There’s plenty of actual history to get one’s teeth into, and of course, that whole Royalist/Puritan divide is, I’d have thought, a romance writer’s dream. Continue reading

TBR Challenge – Back to School and Some Catching Up to Do

gatheringstorm February proved to be quite the “challenging” month for me and I finished only four books that applied to my challenges. The good news is that reading three of those books helped me finish off my geography challenge. None of the books were standouts to me unfortunately, although A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore was certainly the most memorable.

In Hore’s novel, Lucy Cardwell’s father seemed to have some sort of breakdown shortly after his mother’s death. He divorced his wife and seemed obsessed with some strange branch of family history. When Lucy sorts through his papers she finds out about an uncle she never knew she had. Intrigued she finds herself visiting her father’s childhood home, the once beautiful Carlyon Manor. The house has burned down but the village near it is still around and it is there that she meets Beatrice, an old woman who knows all the secrets of Lucy’s family. Starting in the 1930’s and ending shortly after the war we learn of a boy, a girl and a breathtaking adventure. Continue reading