Book Review Blackout

I was going to publish my week-late TBR Challenge review today — I was traveling last week and couldn’t post. Instead, I’m holding off on that review and all others that I have thought about writing or started writing. Recent events in publishing have made me, like many others, sad and angry about the treatment of and attitudes toward readers and amateur reviewers by most publishers, some so-called journalists, some agents, and too many authors. Not all, not most, but the chorus is too loud for me to continue believing that “badly behaving authors” are really outliers.

I’m not going to stop reading, or talking about books on Twitter and in other discussions online. But I won’t be getting advance copies of books, posting reviews on Amazon, or spotlighting titles here for a while. When I do go back to writing about books, I think I’ll be more interested in writing about books that others have already read and doing more “On the Same Page”-type read-along features.

I have some ARCs that I have read or planned to read of books being released in the next couple of months; I haven’t decided yet what to do about those. Mostly they are books by authors whom I admire and respect, as writers and as people, so I’ll be thinking about how to support them without feeling like I’m shilling for an industry that by and large does not respect me or what I do.

Ethical Conflict: When My Principles Collide

Most of you who visit my blog are probably well aware that publisher Ellora’s Cave is suing Dear Author, and Jane Litte, for defamation because of her blog post reporting on the publisher’s business difficulties. I agree with Sunita that this lawsuit is intended to scare bloggers and authors, and I greatly admire Courtney Milan’s #NotChilled responses. It’s been amazing to watch the community of romance readers, bloggers, reviewers, authors, editors, et al., come together in amazing support of Jane in this.

One recurring theme in all of the support has been a request for Jane to accept help towards the legal bills that fighting this lawsuit will entail. A lot of us want to be part of that, and today Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, announced a legal defense fund for Jane through Go Fund me. Last I checked, the donations were more than $30,000. In less than 12 hours. That’s how strongly people feel about this. And while I think that’s terrific, I haven’t been able to push that donate button, because I have been boycotting Go Fund Me for a while now.

Go Fund Me has had a lot of issues. There was the problem over abortion rights — Go Fund Me encourages people to use them to raise money for medical bills, but it has adopted a policy that excludes abortions from the category of medical expenses. They classify abortions as “terminating life,” and they won’t allow funds for that to be raised on their platform. But it’s okay to raise funds for anti-choice intiatives. I can’t support that.

Then there was the Ferguson problem. Go Fund Me was the platform used to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. (Money that I’m not sure is even needed, since he is on paid leave from his job and so far faces no charges.) Worse yet, in my opinion, when Go Fund Me was challenged by a civil rights group over this issue, they threatened to sue the organization to stop the criticism. That to me was the ultimate irony, given that the legal fund for Dear Author is to fight just such a lawsuit.

Go Fund Me takes 5 percent of all funds raised as their payment, so any payment I make through them is directly helping to support their policies and practices. As much as I want to support Jane and Dear Author, because I believe they are on the right side in this and I want to be part of it, I joined the Go Fund Me boycott a while ago and have as yet seen no reason to reconsider my opinion of their stance or tactics. I have said no to other causes because of this as well, but this one bothered me the most.

Fortunately there’s a silver lining here. Although Go Fund Me has gained, as of this writing, more than $1500 from this, none of it is mine. And Sarah has shared a PayPal address (jane AT dearauthor DOT com) for donations (which should be earmarked “JL/DA Defense Fund”). I donated that way. And Sarah invites others who want to donate, but won’t/can’t use Go Fund Me or PayPal, to email her (sarah AT smartbitches trashy books DOT com); she’ll respond after Yom Kippur.

I just wanted to put this all out there, in one place, to flesh out the Twitter conversations and other discussions I’ve had with various folks.

TBR Challenge: Freedom and Necessity

Gustave Wappers, Épisode des Journées de septembre 1830 (sur la place de l'Hôtel de Ville de Bruxelles), 1835

Cover of the novel Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull

It was about darn time I read this book. It was sent to me about a year ago by the delightful Anna M, whom I follow on Twitter (@helgagrace). It had come out of her TBR pile after several years, and she graciously passed it on to me when I squeed about it. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks was my TBR Challenge read two years ago, and I was excited to read another book by her (one of those fantasy authors I seem to have missed the first time around).

I won’t lie; this was truly a challenge. This is a 588-page novel, from 1997, in mass market paperback. I haven’t read one of those in quite a while; I missed my Kindle, especially the highlight and look-up functions. While I’m not sure this qualifies as a truly “big fat book,” it’s a lot longer than my usual reading material these days. More to the point, it is an epistolary novel — yes, all 588 pages are letters, journal entries, or news items. It’s a complex plot, with four primary first-person narrators, and it was definitely the most challenging ficion I’ve read in a wile. It was also a really good book, and I never had to force myself to go back to it, although it did take me more than a week to finish.

The book takes place in England and Wales in the last few months of 1849. The main protagonists are James Cobham, a sometime Chartist revolutionary whom family and friends believe dead by drowning, and his cousin Susan Voight, with whom he is obviously in love (although it takes him more than half the book to admit it). James is trying to figure out who might want him dead and why, while Susan is trying to keep track of him and help keep him alive. His stepsister Kitty, Susan’s best friend, and Kitty’s lover Richard, another cousin, are secondary characters who tell a lot of the story. The book is published as fantasy, and it does have hints of fantasy elements, or I suppose it could be considered alternate history, although I don’t know the period well enough to say how many liberties were taken. It has an intricate plot, as the four main characters try to figure out what is going on and then how to stop it, and this is made more complex by the epistolary format. It also is a book of elevated language and thought; Friedrich Engels is a character, and there are high-minded discussions of Hegel throughout the novel (this was where I wanted my Kindle look-up feature).

I don’t think I’m doing a very good job selling this novel — so far I’ve said it’s long, challenging to read, and full of philosophy. But it is also full of fun; Susan and James both have wicked senses of humor, and Richard and Kitty are just as funny, if in a slightly less skewering manner. It’s also full of adventure and risk; lots of hidden identity, undercover work, puzzle-solving, and several life-threatening situations. Events move pretty quickly, and there are few passages of time without action/narration — the reader lives the events almost at the pace of the characters. The plot twists and turns, and the letters and journals put the reader right there with the characters in trying to figure it all out. It is past tense, but immediate past, not the sort of past tense voice that comes when the whole story has already happened. This gives it a freshness and urgency without actually putting it in present tense. I admire the undertaking, and it succeeded for me.

This is definitely a novel with romantic elements; Susan and James, and secondarily Kitty and Richard, are important relationships that develop over the course of the book, and the reader very much wants them to end happily. The balance of that delighted me by the end. It’s also very much a book about being flawed and human, and learning to make the best of that; to forgive others, to forgive yourself, and to love and trust when it is warranted, no matter how much your trust has been abused in the past.

TBR Challenge: The Late, Great Mary Stewart

1967 cover image of The Gabriel Hounds by Mary StewardI bought this book last year at a charity sale in aid of the reconstruction of a Thomas Telford church in Ullapool, Scotland. I have never read anything by Mary Stewart except her Merlin books, which I read and loved in high school and college, so I bought this to try her Gothic/romantic suspense writing. I pulled it out when Ms. Stewart died in May, and this month I was home enough to actually read a printed book.

I don’t really worry about spoilers for a book published 47 years ago, but I won’t give too many details. I went into the book knowing nothing about the plot, and that was definitely part of its charm. I will say that it’s a romance with a happy ending, though.

The novel takes place in the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon. Our protagonist is Christy Mansel, an English heiress whose family lives in the USA. She comes on a package tour, but plans to stay on in Beirut a few extra days on her own. While in Damascus with the tour, she encounters her cousin Charles, who is in the area on business but has also been hoping to see her. Charles reminds Christy that they have an eccentric great-aunt who lives near Beirut in an old palace, seeing herself as a modern version of Lady Hester Stanhope. They plan to visit her together, but when Charles is delayed by business, Christy finds herself visiting the palace alone.

The emir’s palace is a good, spooky setting. There are mysterious and suspicious events that make Christy (and later Charles) worried about their relative, and they get caught up in dangerous activities trying to figure it all out. While some elements of the mystery seemed really obvious to me, the book was still enjoyable to read. I gather this is a hallmark of Gothic novels, that they may have elements of self-parody and melodrama that make some aspects of the plot seem obvious.

Christy is a great narrator. She is smart and funny, and brave when she needs to be, but she’s also a bit vain, selfish and, as she herself says early in the book, “rather spoiled.” Her commentary on other people, as well as herself, brings the book to life. The descriptions of scenery and events are engrossing, and it’s to Stewart’s credit that her eloquent descriptions sound believable coming from Christy.

Who else has read non-Arthurian Stewart? What are your favorite titles?

Classic Quality: TBR Challenge

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is “classic” romance – classic books, authors, themes, whatever. I thought I might do a classic trope like “amnesia” or “secret baby,” but in browsing through my TBR list, I found the perfect choice – a Georgette Heyer historical romance!

I was a latecomer to Heyer; I think I read one of her books in college, as an “Austen homage” (there were a LOT fewer of those before Colin Firth). When I started reading romance again (a little more than six years ago), Heyer’s name kept cropping up. I soon realized that some of the readers/bloggers/reviewers whose opinions I most valued were big Heyer fans, so I went to the library and checked one out. The book was Faro’s Daughter, and I got about four chapters in and hated it. But a few months later, I tried again – I think it was The Foundling – and I realized what all the fuss was about.

Since then, I’ve read quite a few Heyer novels, the mystery novels as well as the romances. I’ve liked some, loved others, hated only one (The Grand Sophy), and never finished Faro’s Daughter. I buy a bunch every time they go on sale, and I was pleased to find one that I hadn’t read lurking on my Kindle.

311156Beauvallet is unusual amongst Heyer’s historical romances, because it is not set in the Regency. Beauvallet, the main character, is an adventurous Elizabethan; when the book opens, he and the crew of his ship are defeating a much larger Spanish ship in naval combat. On that ship are a deathly ill Spanish nobleman and his beautiful daughter, Dominica, with whom Beauvallet falls in love. He agrees to return them to Spain, rather than leaving them somewhere to be rescued with the rest of the ship’s crew and passengers, even though it is risky for him to land his vessel on Spanish shores. More audaciously, he vows to return to Spain within a year to claim Dominica as his bride.

“El Beauvallet,” as he is known among the Spanish, is a larger-than-life personality. He believes absolutely in his personal good fortune, boldly taking risks and chances in the belief that he will not fail. He enjoys the life of a privateer (having previously been an explorer, sailing with Sir Francis Drake), and he has built up quite a reputation for reckless bravery and success in his ventures. He laughs always, even in the face of danger, and even when he knows he is taking a risk, he presents a brave and bold face to the world. For the most part, this is the face the reader sees, as well. The narrative voice rarely gives you a glimpse of Beauvallet questioning or uncertain, with the result that he is almost too perfect and rather inaccessible.

Dominica, on the other hand, is full of doubt and uncertainty. She has trouble reading Beauvallet; since he’s always laughing and joking, she doesn’t know when to take him seriously. She finds him charming and infuriating, and of course very attractive. Even though she doesn’t really believe that he can and will come find her in Spain, she can’t help being impressed by his determination and bravado in claiming that he will. When he actually shows up in Spain (in disguise), she loses her heart completely over his fidelity and willingness to risk his life to marry her.
As is the case in some other Heyer novels, all the character growth and development in this book is the heroine’s, making her a more interesting character to me. She’s young and somewhat sheltered, but she’s also spirited and intelligence – she has been raised in the West Indies, not Spain, so she is used to more freedom of both thought and action. She also has “heretical” (Lutheran) sympathies, making her even less suited to life in Spain and more suitable as a match for an English Protestant such as Beauvallet. She gets stronger and more sure of herself as the novel goes on, determined by the end to be a woman worthy of a man like Beauvallet. I was glad that the narration was fairly evenly divided between their two perspectives, since they spend most of the book separated.

There’s a lot of swashbuckling and adventure in this book – Beauvallet’s masquerade in King Philip’s court, followed by his escape and his elopement with Dominica, are a series of close calls, clever plots, and feats of agility and skill with a sword. The romance is the central motivation for the action, but this is definitely a story about overcoming external obstacles. The Elizabethan setting gives Heyer some new elements to play with, and as an adventure the book was fun to read. But as a romance, it was less satisfying to me than some of her other novels.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Title: TBR Challenge Review

This month’s TBR Challenge was to read a book by “an author who has more than one book in your TBR pile.” Bypassing romantic suspense (sorry, just not in the mood for that these days), I found that I didn’t have many options. One author whose books I’ve purchased more than once, but never read, is India Grey. Her work comes recommended by readers who like the other Harlequin Presents authors whose work I tend to enjoy — Sarah Morgan, Sarah Mayberry, Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, Abby Green, and a few others.

A dark-haired man in a black suit holding a dark-haired woman in his arms. She's wearing a purple dress with skimpy straps. They are standing in front of Italianate pillarsI remember reading in someone else’s review of this book that it was much better than the title suggests, and yet I’m sure it’s the title that kept me from picking it up until this challenge.

Sarah (short for Seraphina) is an never married single mom who recently lost her job with a big London catering firm under embarrassing circumstances. She has serious self-esteem issues, particularly over her appearance, and specifically over her weight. The first few chapters of the book are full of her references to dieting, failing to diet, being heavy, needing to lose a few pounds, and so on. (I got to the point that I was highlighting them.) Of course she’s actually not fat; she can squeeze into, although it doesn’t cover the gap above her jeans, a size small t-shirt. She’s just not skinny, and not athletically toned. I would have been angry at her being considered heavy, except that the only point of view from which she’s presented that way is her own — she has internalized skinny model beauty standards (as exemplified by her step-sister), and this becomes one more way in which she feels like she can’t measure up — as a woman, a mother, or a daughter.

Sarah meets her “powerful Italian,” film director Lorenzo, when he is visiting Oxfordshire and she’s attending her sister’s hen weekend (that’s bachelorette party in the US). They have an embarrassing meet-cute moment, but it’s more than that — he’s in the UK because he wants to make a movie of her dead father’s novel, set there in Oxfordshire. As he soon learns, she has control of the film rights, and she always refuses film offers.

When they meet again, it’s right before the wedding — she’s catering it at her stepsister’s new renovated barn home in Tuscany, which is adjacent to Lorenzo’s estate. Rain brings the roof down, so the whole wedding party ends up taking refuge with Lorenzo. He offers to let them have the festivities there, because he wants time to get to know Sarah and to get her to like him before trying to change her mind about the film. She has no idea that he’s the director interested in her father’s book, and she has a hard time believing that he’s interested in her. He keeps seeing her in embarrassing/partially clothed/messy hair situations, and he finds her beautiful and “natural,” unlike his movie star ex-wife who is all about image over substance. Sarah, of course, compares herself to his ex and thinks that he can’t possibly find her attractive after such glamor and beauty.

Lorenzo hires Sarah as his housekeeper for the summer, so that she and her daughter Lottie can stay longer in Italy, which they have come to love. This gives him more time to get close to her before asking about the film rights, although by this time he’s growing less concerned with those and more concerned with making Sarah happy and building up her self-esteem. Seeing her with her family and hearing her talk about her relationship with her father gave him insights into her reasons for being so hard on herself, and he is determined to show her how he sees her.

The reader can see the problems coming — the confrontation with his ex, the eventual revelation that he’s after the film rights — but each of those is handled with a unique spin. So is the issue of why he’s divorcing the pregnant actress but has no problem with Sarah’s daughter. (I’m resisting the spoiler, but I have to say that I rarely see this plot device in romance, especially the Presents line.) Amazingly, there is no last-minute appearance by Lottie’s father; I was shocked, because that seems de rigeur in romance, unless the father is dead. I guess it’s usually seen as tying up a potentially messy plot point, but I was glad that everyone accepted that Sarah was Lottie’s only real parent and didn’t keep trying to give authority or power to the man who walked out on them.

Of course, there’s the ugly duckling transformed into a swan moment, but again, it’s handled well. There’s a lot of work involved in achieving the “red carpet” look, and the story makes clear that even Sarah’s “natural beauty” needs professional help to meet film industry standards. Sarah’s issues about her appearance, especially her weight, vanished a little too unremarked for my taste; after all the references to excess weight at the beginning of the book, I thought there should be a real moment where she accepted her body, separate from the rest of her feelings about Lorenzo.

Despite that, I enjoyed this novel. Both characters were believable, and the romance really worked for me. I look forward to more of Ms Grey’s work.

Scary Places on the Way to Happy Endings: The Romance Safety Net

I recently read two books that got me thinking about why I read romance. Both of these books were about “long shot” relationships — pairings of people who have so many challenges that in real life, you know the odds would be stacked against them. I probably wouldn’t pick up either of these books in any other genre, but in romance, by authors whom I trust, I can read (heart in my throat much of the time) knowing that it HAS to work out, and it will.

hardtime_134 Hard Time, by Cara McKenna, features a librarian main character, one of my favorite romance devices. But the other main character is a prison inmate, doing time for violent crime, and that is WAY out of my comfort zone.
Here’s the blurb:

Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.

Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.

When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.

The first third or so of this book was hot and sexy, with an edge of the forbidden. I’m a sucker for epistolary devices, too, and the letters between Annie and Eric really worked for me as erotica. Annie’s sexuality really opens up under Eric’s attention, and of course her letters and their brief, chaste physical encounters add a much-needed positive dimension to Eric’s life in prison.

Eric’s release was handled pretty well; Annie doesn’t just rush to continue their relationship, and all the right questions get asked. Eric is patient, not really expecting her to want to be with him, and yet hoping that they can keep their connection and see where things go. The relationship doesn’t develop smoothly, as there are obvious bumps in the road, and yet the couple’s good times are easy to enjoy, even amidst the uncertainty. I really liked the back-and-forth of this part of the book; it felt believable, as Annie negotiated between the powerful emotional pull of Eric and the powerful rational pull of common sense.

The big problem is that Eric isn’t sorry for the assault that put him behind bars; in his world, you have to be willing to fight on behalf of your loved ones, and he’d do it again if he had to. This is a huge challenge for Annie, the daughter of a law enforcement officer who has always gone along with the social model that says that only “bad guys” break the law, especially in violent ways.

Eventually, Annie goes with Eric to visit his family in the rural Michigan trailer park where he grew up, and in that context she has to confront the ways in which his background has shaped him. This was the point in the book where I nearly gave up, because I don’t deal well with graphic violence, and it seemed to me that the potential for that was quite high. But I had a powerful emotional investment in Annie and Eric by that point, so I read on, trusting because this is a romance, it had to work out. And it did — better than I expected, and without the violent confrontation I feared. Annie and Eric’s connection actually got deeper as she realized that this place and these people shaped him into the man she loved — and that some of the qualities she found most attractive in him were part of that, not in spite of that.

beyondrepair_msrBeyond Repair, by Charlotte Stein, wasn’t as scary for me on the surface. But once I started reading the book, it felt very risky.
The blurb didn’t really capture that:

When Alice Evans finds a bona fide movie star on the floor of her living room, she has no idea what to do. Ordinary men are frightening enough, never mind someone as famous and frankly gorgeous as Holden Stark.

However, once she realizes that Holden is suffering behind that famous facade, she knows she has to help. He needs someone like her to give him a taste of sweetness and desire and love. He needs normality. The only problem is—Alice is hiding a secret that is far from normal. In fact, her name isn’t even Alice at all.

And once Holden finds out, the intense connection they are just beginning to build may well be torn apart.

Alice is weird, there’s no question about that. She makes odd mental connections, has strange fantasies, and is a big bundle of fears and phobias. That’s clear from very early in the book, although the extent of her fears and the reason for them are only gradually revealed. Holden (or Bernie, as Alice calls him) is less complicated — although the story begins with his suicide attempt, he has a pretty straightforward story arc towards health and healing, thanks to his connection with Alice. She brings joy, fun and love into his life for the first time, since she’s really the first person not to see him as a meal ticket or celebrity connection.

As their relationship develops, they engage sexually in ways that accommodate Alice’s many fears. Their exploration of sexual boundaries parallels their discovery of other things they have in common — movies, a quirky sense of humor, and a powerful emotional connection. But Alice’s problems make her want to hide away from the world, while Holden is a celebrity, and that seems to be an obstacle that love and compatibility may not be able to overcome. Alice’s reasons are good ones, so (like Holden) the reader wants her to get better without blaming her if she can’t. It makes for an involving story, which is very internal — there’s literally nothing keeping them apart towards the end except Alice’s very real, very crippling fears. In hindsight, the steps on their road make sense, but as I was reading it, it was messy and unpredictable, as seen through Alice’s eyes. I agonized for her, and was glad that I could trust that it would come out all right.

Usually when I talk about romance as comfort reading, I don’t mean books like these — these both had elements that were definitely outside my comfort zone. But the genre meant that I could go ahead and hope for these couples to find their path to happiness together, and that safety net was what I needed.

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