Giving Myself Permission

After a number of weeks on the waiting list at my local library, I received notice that a book was awaiting me. It is an epic fantasy novel, almost 900 pages, 13th in a series that will conclude with book 14 later this year. For most of my reading life, that description would have implied, “Yes! I’ll be spending every free minute with this book, gobbling it down as fast as I can.” But not these days.

I’ve discovered that I don’t enjoy all long epics as much as I used to, and those that I do enjoy require a certain amount of time and space (literal and figurative). I’ve read only one book more than 500 pages long since my father died 14 months ago. I’ve read some intense fantasy works, but I need to break them up by reading something lighter at the same time, alternating in my evening reading times. Gone, for now, are the days when I just plop myself down with a huge fantasy tome and lose myself in the world.

I can’t put my finger on why this is. I say, “I’m too busy,” and then I remember reading GRRM’s A Game of Thrones in 1996, when my kids were 14, 11, 5 and 3, and I was working full-time and doing two plays a year, at least. I have a lot more free time now, and I spend a lot of it reading, but not epic fantasy. Even books I’ve been dying to read and know I’ll love, like Wise Man’s Fear, languish unread while I reader shorter, lighter books.

In trying to figure this out, the best conclusion I’ve reached is that my mind is scattered these days. I still haven’t adjusted to the fundamental shift required to live in a world without Dad in it. I have to force myself to focus on work sometimes, to make lists in order to remember things I need to get done, and to write down appointments that before I would have stored in my head. I have forgotten birthdays and other milestones, including my own anniversary. (Lucky for me he remembered and mentioned it!)  The attention and mental energy required to follow detailed fantasy world-building and complex epic plots seem mostly beyond me right now.

That’s not to say that the books I am reading and enjoying, mostly the various romance genres, are easy or fluffy reads. But the mental and emotional energy to follow a romance plot through to completion uplifts me; it makes me feel optimistic.  Which I’m sure the eventual end of an epic fantasy would, too — but I don’t have the energy these days to get there.

I promised certain people (you know who you are) that I’d give myself permission to grieve my father however I needed to, even if it made me unproductive, inattentive or self-centered. So today I made the decision to take Towers of Midnight back to the library with fewer than 100 pages read, and the sense of relief and liberation was almost ridiculous.

As readers, we find different books that fit our moods and mindsets at different times; our tastes fluctuate, our needs change, and sometimes a book you expect to approach eagerly just isn’t the right book right now. My advice? If you possibly can, give yourself permission to skip that book for now. It will still be there when you are ready for it, and who wants to ruin a potentially good reading experience by forcing the timing? Certainly not romance readers, who know how important timing can be!

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TBR Challenge Post: Western!

I really enjoy historical romances set on the U.S. frontier; Jo Goodman, in particular, writes some wonderful American western historicals. They make me think of my father, dead just over a year now, whose specialty as a historian was theatre on the American frontier.

I’m less likely, however, to read contemporary western romances.  Sure, I’ve read a few, but for the most part I find the bronc-busting, bull-riding cowboy hero more palatable in a century other than my own. Fortunately I had one in my TBR pile from RomCon 2010 for this month’s challenge.

Linda Lael Miller’s The McKettricks of Texas: Tate is a reunion story, which normally would be a hit with me.  But this particular reunion bugged me for a number of reasons. First, there’s the reason the main characters aren’t together in the beginning of the novel: he cheated on her, got another woman pregnant, so did “the right thing” and married the mother of his twin daughters.  Cheating isn’t the deal-breaker for me that it is for some romance readers, but cheating without a condom whacks my stupid-meter. So does marrying a woman whom you know you don’t love — this is a real issue for me in a contemporary setting.  Capping off the set-up are a few more clichés that bug me. The ex-wife is a manipulative bitch (of course) and not a very good mother; she uses the children to try to get her ex back (for the money? the sex? that’s not clear, really, but of course it isn’t for love). The hero is filthy rich, while the heroine is barely scraping by running a coffee shop (this could almost be a Presents). The heroine, Libby, hasn’t had a good relationship since being cheated on and dumped (after she had to drop out of college to care for her sick father), and she has never gotten over the hero.  Oh, and she has two sisters, while the hero has two brothers; I kept thinking that there should be four more in each family so we could have Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Libby, the heroine, didn’t make sense to me. She’s kind of a victim, kind of a fighter, but then she’s a victim again. She occasionally stands up for herself, but not in a way that really makes a difference. She seems resigned to being alone because Tate dumped her; she will always love him, but she feels that he could hurt her and she couldn’t take that again — that and she doesn’t seem to think she’s good enough for him, and the plot devices used to give her self-esteem (too spoilery to list here) seemed contrived to me.

Tate, of course, doesn’t think he deserves another chance with Libby — at least he understands that!  He has been avoiding her, so as not to make things awkward for her; the early events of the book run roughshod over that, which also seemed contrived, so that almost immediately they are interacting regularly after several years of no contact.

Even once they have acknowledged their mutual attraction, they don’t act like mature adults — they have (SPOILER!) unprotected sex, and they don’t really talk to each other about their feelings, or whether they might have a future.  They both care about the welfare of his daughters, which would seem a powerful motivation to just talk things out — but they don’t, and the only real reason I saw for it was to keep the book from ending too soon.  The individual incidents in the books just didn’t hang together for me as a strong story, nor did the individual actions and choices of the characters come together to make sense. Certain events in the book made a pattern that ended up with them together, but there wasn’t enough connection for me between the big external events and the characters’ internal lives and feelings.

As a Western, this book works well enough. Each of the brothers has some interaction with ranching that seems to be part of necessary personal growth (heavily foreshadowed for the two whose books follow this), and the ranch setting is depicted well, with elements of it being integral to the story (if somewhat predictably). There’s a definite sense of the importance of family legacy that probably connects these books to Miller’s others, for her regular readers; I would be interested in reading another, if anyone has a recommendation. PASS

Wot I Read in March

Looking back at last month’s reading, I think I must have forgotten some books. The list is unusually short. Of course I had my daughter here for a week (better than a book!), but I also had a week of spring break. I did start several books that I didn’t finish, too; not Did Not Finish, but haven’t finished, which is a big difference. And then there was that whole NetGalley thing; it was a worthwhile, discussion, I think, but it did take up a lot of my “free” (ha!) time.

So, the totals: I finished and remembered eleven books, of which five were historical (three romance, two mystery with strong romantic elements). Then there were three contemporary romances (one of which is technically literary fiction, but whatever), one fantasy novel, one science fiction romance, and a crime fiction short story. Five of the eleven were digital (two ARCs, one loan and two purchases), four were borrowed from the library, and two were purchased mass-market paperback. (One of the library loans was also a paperback, and I’ll be buying my own copy of that to keep.)

Historical

The Forbidden Rose, by Joanna Bourne. This was a DABWAHA book, so I wrote about it here.

An Unlikely Countess, by Jo Beverley. This one started out a little slowly for me, and there were some dimensions of the premise that strained credence a bit, but that’s typical of Jo Beverley. Once the main characters got together (it’s sort of a marriage of convenience story), it really picked up for me. By the end I couldn’t bring myself to put it down to refill my teacup. WIN.

A Marriage of Inconvenience, by Susanna Fraser. I worried that I might be doing this book a disservice, reading it in proximity to Beverley’s book, but for the most part it held its own. Both books deal with marriages between aristocratic men and women who are below their station; this really interested me, since many “married beneath him/her” romances are marriages for love, but these two are closer to marriages of convenience/necessity. In Fraser’s book, the main characters must marry because they are found in a compromising situation, but then there are numerous obstacles for them to overcome regarding sexual intimacy and trust. Through most of the story it is the heroine, Lucy, who needs to learn to trust her new husband James and, even more, herself in order to find sexual fulfillment. However, almost as soon as that is achieved, there is another issue of trust and communication that comes between the couple. While I thought that issue was a little too heavily foreshadowed, and I thought James’ reaction was overblown and slightly out of character, I was able to look past that to consider the larger picture. The book juxtaposes the idea of sexual trust and personal trust within a relationship in an interesting way, in spite of the somewhat melodramatic highs and lows to which both protagonists are prone. I look forward to reading Fraser’s earlier connected novel, which follows this one chronologically. WIN

When Gods Die, by C.S. Harris. The second book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series was as fascinating as the first; I’m really going to have to pace myself not to gobble this series up. The continuing characters are delightful. WIN

Dark Road to Darjeeling, by Deanna Raybourne. This was another DABWAHA book, and also my TBR Challenge book for March. I talked about it here before I had finished it. The rest of the book pretty much lived up to my early expectations. WIN

Contemporary

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. I waited a long time to get this book from the library, but it was worth it. It was nominated for DABWAHA; I wrote about it here.

A Lot Like Love, by Julie James. This was a great read, definitely my favorite James so far. (Congrats to her on winning DABWAHA, too, for last year’s Something About You.) I enjoyed the real tension and slowly growing connection between the main characters, and the suspense and action elements fed but didn’t overpower the romance. The elements of the story having to do with wine and the wine business were handled well (a pet peeve of mine in contemporary fiction). WIN

Willing Victim, by Cara McKenna. This is an erotic short that got great buzz during DABWAHA; having read it, I now see why. It’s hot and sexy, but also very romantic; it deals with rape fantasy and rough sex, but it goes beyond that, too. McKenna has the sense not to try to bring the story to a happy-ever-after ending; happy for now, with the potential for more, was a good resolution for these complex characters. WIN

The Lost Coast, by Barry Eisler. This short piece, featuring a character from one of Eisler’s longer novels, was a very difficult read for me. It is very violent, including a forced sex act, which I found very troubling. The plot and narrative devices used to justify the violence bothered me, because there is no hint in the writing that what happened isn’t okay. There was no character I could like in this story, and that’s just not my thing. FAIL

Fantasy/Science Fiction

The Bards of Bone Plain, by Patricia McKillip. I started and stopped this book a couple of times before finding myself in the right frame of mind to read it. McKillip is a brilliant writer, lyrical and layered, particularly when she’s writing about music, as she does here and in The Riddlemaster of Hed. (That’s my favorite of her books and one of my most frequent re-reads.) This reminds me of that masterpiece more than any of her other recent books, and yet it is a completely fresh world and story. I particularly loved the character of Princess Beatrice. McKillip has a subtle hand with romance, and she’s very careful about each couple being equals in the relationship. This book gave me joy. WIN

Song of Scarabaeus, by Sara Creasey. This was a DABWAHA book, but sadly not one I finished before it was eliminated from the tournament. I am pretty picky about science fiction romance, and too often I find that the science fiction part doesn’t work for me. This book was a terrific exception, and I’m eager to read the sequel. I’ve been recommending this book to many people; Jane at Dear Author wrote a great review of it. WIN

DABWAHA Final Four

Voting is this weekend between the Final Four competitors in the March Madness of romance reading. My bracket, and my second chance bracket, are both totally destroyed at this point. As usual, may I add. So now I just get to say hurrah for all the great books that were released last year, and here are my thoughts about the ones remaining:

Winning Region 1, historical romance and crossover novels: Trial by Desire by Courtney Milan. I love this authors smart romances; I particularly appreciate how her characters deal with challenges that, while different in the Victoria Age than our own, are still ones we face today. I wrote about it here.

Winning Region 2, novella/short story and category romance: “No Strings Attached” by Jaci Burton. I haven’t read anything by this author, but I’m obviously out of the loop. I wanted to read this story, but the anthology is trade paper, so the ebook is $13. Um, no.  I loved the cover of her latest book and have it TBR, however.

Winning Region 3, paranormal romance and young adult romance: Archangel’s Kiss by Nalini Singh. I really enjoyed this book; balance of power in romance is important to me, and this book addresses it throughout. I wrote about it here.

Winning Region 4, contemporary romance and LGBTQ romance: Something About You by Julie James. This book made James an auto-buy author for me; a great romance, between intelligent adults, with an opening scene that may be the best EVER in a contemporary romance novel.

I expect both the semi-finals to be hard-fought contests, and of course the championship round will be wild. Don’t miss it!