Books to the Sky

I am both a romance reader and a history nerd, so you can imagine the little thrill I felt when I stumbled upon this post on Racy Romance Reviews about Kathleen Winsor, “a romance foremother,” who wrote a book that frankly sounds awesome, if only because the Massachusetts government tried to ban it.

In honor of today being Ms. Winsor’s birthday, a bunch of romance bloggers are posting their 16 favorite romance novels, so I’ve wracked my brain to come up with mine. By which I mean I logged into my Goodreads account and made a list of the romances I gave 4 or 5 stars to. I think it’s a pretty serviceable list.

In no particular order:

Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale (Because obviously.)

Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Meyer (which is not strictly a romance, but I saw some other bloggers list it)

St. Nacho’s by Z.A. Maxfield (One of the heroes is a violinist and the other is deaf. What’s not to like? This was my introduction to a writer whose books I’ve really enjoyed.)

Faking It by Jennifer Crusie (My favorite Crusie. I figured I should pick one.)

Northern Lights by Nora Roberts (My favorite Roberts. It was one of the first of her novels that I read, so I didn’t recognize The Formula yet, but what I think makes this book stand out was the setting. It helps to read a book about Alaska during the summer, but I thought this little town was so well drawn, and all of the members of town seemed like real people.)

Lord of the Scoundrels by Loretta Chase (Oh, I love a historical with a scoundrel hero, and this is probably the best of the bunch, and it’s light-hearted and funny in a way a clever Regency should be.)

Dreaming of You by Ethan Day (The premise is a little hokey and it gets wrapped up too fast, but Day can write a protagonist that pops right off the page.)

Body Guard by Suzanne Brockmann (This is my favorite of her non-Troubleshooters books.)

Breathing Room by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (SEP annoys me sometimes, but I keep going back, and I really liked this one, perhaps because it takes place mostly in Italy, and, again, the setting is really well done.)

Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen (A really interesting treatment of a gay couple in Jazz Age New York, and a really sweet romance to boot.)

Heartbreaker by Julie Garwood (I love romantic suspense above all other genres, and this is a great example of it.)

The Loner by Geralyn Dawson (This was the first in a whole lot of Westerns I read this past winter, and the hero and heroine are both great in this novel.)

The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn (I like Quinn because her prose is clear and straightforward and her dialogue is witty; this is, I think, among my favorites of her books, though I have so far only gotten through the Duke and I in the Bridgerton series, so that’s subject to change)

Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen Woodiwuss (More of a sentimental favorite; I do love a good epic, and this one is so hokey, but somehow it works and I enjoyed reading it.)

The Dream Hunter by Laura Kinsale (The h/h hardly spend any time together in this one, which makes their reunion at the end that much more delicious.)

Can I site a whole series? I love Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series, among which Dark of Night is, to my mind, the best book (albeit the least romance-y). I could site a bunch of my favorites from the series here, too: Gone Too Far, Hot Target, Breaking Point, Forces of Nature, and All Through the Night.

Honorable mentions: the whole Quinn/Chesapeake Bay series by Nora Roberts; Josh Lanyon should be on this list, but my favorites of his books are really more mysteries than romances; I had some problems with False Colors by Alex Beecroft, but I feel it’s worth mentioning just because it seems so unique: a well-written gay romance that takes place during the Age of Sail; pretty much every other Crusie book would be on my list; and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen, which, again, I had some problems with, but it sure made me think.

I recently read Double Play by Jill Shalvis, which is a baseball romance.

I picked it up because I love baseball. The plot wasn’t even relevant when I first saw the title; I saw “baseball” and “romance” and clicked “buy.” It turned out to be a sweet little romance, on the fluffy side, but good for a long train ride, which is where I read it. The hero is Pace Martin, the superstar pitcher of the fictional Santa Barbara Heat. He’s, like, the Johan Santana or Joba Chamberlin of this season, with less injuries or more starts, depending on who you follow. Basically, he’s got the winningest record in the league, but he’s also got a shoulder injury that could end his career. The heroine, Holly, is a reporter sent to follow the Heat around and suss out secrets. She stumbles onto a steroids plot, which I had some mixed feelings about, but I’ll talk about that more below.

The problem here is that the book wasn’t really reflective of baseball as I think of it. Baseball fans are always quoting statistics at each other, for instance. And there wasn’t a whole lot of baseball lingo here, either. Not to mention that this team is basically all white, which struck me as not realistic.

But as I yearned for the writer to talk more about Pace’s ERA, it occurred to me that I am not the target audience for this book, that, in fact, a lot of the women who read this book probably have a limited (if any) knowledge of baseball. So all the stuff the fans get excited about—the stats, the numbers, the batting order, the game minutiae—would probably only render the narrative confusing for the non-baseball-fan reader.

And then there’s this steroids plot. It’s a predictable way to go in a baseball story, although (spoiler) our hero is, of course, not doping, but he tests positive because he takes a stimulant by accident. Ugh.

Maybe the lesson here is not to read romances about topics I know a lot about; I’ll inevitably be disappointed. Does this mean I should go read some of those NASCAR romances? I know nothing about NASCAR.

The most hotly-anticipated recap of the summer has finally arrived–this time, with sexxins!

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So there was an article in the Times over the weekend about teachers who let their students choose the books they read as part of a larger debate on the merits of required reading. It’s an interesting idea: the value of reading a book collectively and discussing it critically vs. not wanting kids to hate reading because they can’t get into the old classics. The article presents this as an either/or but I basically come down in the middle. Why not take both approaches?

There’s something about a required book that gets students up in arms. The classics are like lima beans: you know they’re good for you, but you just don’t want to consume them, or you don’t like them because you’re a kid and you’re not supposed to.

I’m, of course, a freak, because I went on to study English literature in college, so clearly required reading didn’t get me down. I was also on the AP track, and I had some teachers in high school who were basically like, “Yeah, you guys are smart, let’s futz with the curriculum,” so I wound up not reading some of the books that every other kid in my school read (No Homer or Of Mice and Men or Gatsby for me. Instead, my freshman English teacher let me read Rebecca.) I had the same teacher for 2 years of AP English who assigned independent reading off a pretty lengthy list, so there were books from the canon, but you got to choose. Some of what are still my favorite books of all time came from that list: Jane Eyre, The Sound and the Fury. I thought The Scarlet Letter was interesting (which I know is a wildly unpopular opinion) but couldn’t really get into The Catcher in the Rye (same), so I was at least thinking about the books as I read them.

And it’s not like I have anything against teenagers reading trashy books, either. I was reading Danielle Steel and pulpy mysteries when I was in high school, too. So I can see the value in letting kids read what they want so that, at least, they’re reading.

But I had to read a lot of assigned books, too, and somehow Lord of the Flies (which I read as a sophomore and hated) did not kill my love of reading. Maybe by then I’d gained enough perspective to say, “Well, I don’t like this book but I might like the next one the class reads.”

On the other hand, reading a book in high school just kills it for the most literate among us. I finally read The Great Gatsby my senior year in college and loved it. There was a clear divide in my class, though; those that had read the book in high school hated it, those that were reading it for the first time loved it. I was talking about this with a coworker who is reading it now, and she said, “I read this in high school, but I didn’t understand it. I like it much better now.” Which makes me think that maybe we’re teaching the wrong books in school. (Example: I read Great Expectations in high school and then again in college. I actually understood the book the second time. Although, come to think of it, I didn’t really like it better.) I mean, these books weren’t really written for high school kids.

And there’s a larger debate here about what should be in The Canon, which is largely full of dead white guys. I think there’s some expansion on that front: Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison are popping up on required reading lists, for example. And I’d bet contemporary readers would get a lot more out of The Bluest Eye than they would from My Antonia.

But, anyway, my point is that, although some of these books are a slog, they are still classics for a reason, and I think students should read and discuss them while also having some discretion over what else they read for class. Sometimes you need a palate cleanser.

So. Meg Cabot posted a rant about how much she hated all assigned books in school. I think she had bad teachers, or was predisposed to not like all things assigned because they were homework. She says:

I don’t think there should be mandatory reading lists in school. I cannot think of a single book I enjoyed that I was required to read in school….

…with the exceptions of books I had read before they were assigned to me in school, like To Kill A Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, which were then ruined by someone going on and on about all the “symbolism” in them, and what the authors really meant, which, as an author myself, I can tell you–THE PEOPLE WRITING ABOUT THESE BOOKS DO NOT KNOW. Seriously. THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE AUTHOR REALLY MEANT AT ALL, AND ARE MORE THAN LIKELY WRONG. THIS IS WHY THESE AUTHORS ARE IN HIDING.

O… kay. I’ll admit that I had some doubts about the symbolism in Lord of the Flies when we read it in school. My teacher at the time was teaching out of the Cliff’s Notes (not kidding) which went a long way towards convincing me that she was full of nonsense and that this was about nothing more than some boys on an island. I get the Hobbesian premise of it much better now as an adult. Sure, you can’t really know what the authors intended. Faulkner thought The Sound and the Fury was a mess, one of his worst books, for example. (But, see, I’ve read essays about the book by Faulkner. I wrote a thesis on Toni Morrison and used as support for my arguments real actual quotes from interviews where Toni Morrison explains what she meant in her novels. So sometimes you can know! Crazy!) Sure, there are misinterpretations, but I think there’s value in talking about books, too, in looking at them with a critical eye and culling out larger meanings.

But I’m a nerd that way, I guess.

SB Candy’s response is right on, for the most part. She responds to the above Meg Cabot quote:

Man, what kind of miserable-ass, misguided English teachers did she have? Because I feel that any teacher worth her salt would’ve taught the readers that sometimes, what the author meant and what the author expressed aren’t necessarily the same thing, and that reading is both personal and interactive—it’s a highly solitary activity, in that the reader generally reads alone, but the reader is engaged in a dialogue with the text itself. Reader insights may not have anything to do with what the author meant, and may have everything to do with the reader’s own experiences, and you know what? That’s OK. In fact, that’s great. Language is slippery, and meaning is even slipperier, and we all have something to contribute to the dialogue surrounding books and the reading experience.

Which yeah.

I mean, maybe I’m an exception, because I grew up in a house full of books and I’ve always loved reading. And my shelves at home are about 60/40 Literature/Trash, with the romance novels shelved next to the classics sometimes, and that, to me, is as it should be. I think both have value. Thus it seems wrong to say, “Oh, hey, kid, here’s a Gossip Girl, now you don’t have to read Wuthering Heights.”

I think this Jezebel headline says it all: Is “New Chick Lit” Just a Different Kind of Obnoxious?:

These tales of women overcoming obstacles to live independently of men and their bank accounts certainly sound inspiring — except that the obstacles aren’t really that big. In fact, it seems that divorce and financial devastation usually cause the heroines to do something fun and hip that they really wanted to do anyway. When her parents take away her credit cards, Mercury in Retrograde’s Lena “Lipstick” Lippencrass “discovers a talent for fashion design” — that noted path to financial security. The heroine of The Summer Kitchen is “forced to open a bakery,” also usually a capital-intensive and uncertain enterprise, at least in the real world. And Jill Kargman’s The Ex-Mrs. Hedgefund, has its heroine, post-divorce, “picking up the threads of a career built on her first love, rock ‘n’ roll.” These women don’t have to scrimp and save in menial jobs — instead, they embark on glamorous careers, with the implication that their lives are now more fulfilling than they were in the days of easy marital money.

It makes me think of that episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie goes apartment hunting only to find that things in her price range are tiny. The first time I saw it, I thought that it was maybe the first episode of the whole darn series that showed my New York. Carrie looks in a tiny closet and wonders where she’ll keep her shoes. Yeah, welcome to life for the rest of us. You may recall that the episode ends when Charlotte gives Carrie the money she needs to buy her old apartment, thus solving the problem handily in a half hour.

In other words, it’s hard to look at the plots of these books and not think, “Oh, you have slightly less disposable income so you pursue your dream job. Such problems!” This is appealing how?

Jezebel concludes:

The chick lit genre doesn’t deserve across-the-board opprobrium — at their best, these novels can be witty and wise, and their popularity supports many a female writer. But chick lit writers may be unconsciously buying into women’s magazine culture, with its idea that reading should inspire desire — for more stuff, or, in the new, recession-era formulation, for a life that is glamorous even in fallback mode. It’s neither realistic nor necessary to ask that writers produce only what Benfer calls “Great and Difficult works of art,” or that all chick lit novels be about unmitigated pain and suffering. But, as author Gigi Levangie Grazer says, “the idea that having the right bag buys you happiness-now that’s dark.” And there’s something dark, too, about the notion that even in a recession, heroines need to be better off than their readers. Do chick lit consumers want to read about working-class families dealing with layoffs, or women who find fulfillment in jobs that aren’t traditionally “cool”? We don’t know, because those books aren’t being written — yet.

+ Check out this review of the awesomely titled Pregnesia.

+ Check out All About Romance’s list of lists. If you’re a romance reader who likes specific themes (curvy heroines, for example, or the dread virginal heroines), it’s worth taking a gander.

There has been some discussion in the romance blogs of late about historical accuracy in romance novels. This is one of those things I always took with a grain of salt. Mostly I read historicals about periods I don’t know much about, so that the details don’t bother me or pull me out of the story.

Romance novels also rather famously ignore things like historical hygiene. Because, as you know, before the 20th century, people didn’t bathe to often. EvilAuntiePeril further points out

The thing is, I’m perpetually intrigued by what is justified in historical romance novels on the grounds of historical “authenticity” (eg. rape, abuse, swordsticks, Fabio in a Viking helmet) and what is extracted on grounds that it would put off the sensitive reader (eg. slavery, blatant racism, poor oral health, body hair). It’s not the removal of all ick. It’s selective historical sanitisation – and it’s not only in ye olde Romancelande that this takes place.

She goes on to say that historical novels are often more reflective of the period in which they are written, and certainly out contemporary obsession with cleanliness and hygiene comes across in novels written today. There are justifications for not describing the dank, dirty conditions of the time periods being written in, too: lack of hygiene would have been normal for all of the characters, so there’s no need to draw attention to it, or romance is fantasy and talking about body odor ruins the illusion.

Candy at Smart Bitches takes it further, point out that cleanliness = good, and lack of hygiene is often shorthand in romance novels for villainy. “If somebody in a romance novel has rotting teeth or smells weird, they’re not just going to bad, they’re going to be naaaaaaasty, and the hero and heroine are going to be distinguished from this nastiness, whatever the actual state of physical hygiene happened to be in Ye Olden Dayes of Yore for gently-bred people.” Candy brings up other examples: weird food as an explanation for Otherness in foreign characters; fat as shorthand for emasculation or even villainy (male obesity especially, since romance writers treat overweight heroines with a softer touch; Candy cites several fat male characters who are either emasculated—one is impotent—or else clearly the Bad Guy).

In the latter case, this is fishy because I can think of several historical figures known as well for their corpulence as their sexual prowess. Candy says this is beside the point, and also reflective more of 2009 than 1809.

What’s happening here has more to do with how contemporary culture desexualizes overweight people, and how overwhelmingly, we associate masculinity with muscularity. I particularly find the leap from emasculation to evil especially interesting, because it’s a theme you see quite a bit in literature in general and romance novels in particular. Oftentimes, I think the villainization is achieved via feminization, because emasculation often brings with it an identification/association with effeminacy, and that almost always leads to villainization of a character. You see it not only with men who are portrayed as fat and sexually impotent and are coded as womanish, but with men who are more explicitly coded as womanish, such as bisexuals, homosexuals or transvestites.

So there’s some food for thought. Um. Probably it’s improper to make a food pun when discussing obesity, eh?

Then there’s the entirely different matter of romance plots that would never have happened. Lynne Connolly at The Good, the Bad, and the Unread lists some things that could not or never happened in the real world:

* A known, famous courtesan marrying a peer of the realm and them being accepted into society with open arms.
* Peers of the realm becoming pirates.
* Regency gentlemen drinking whisky or whiskey from a decanter on the sideboard. [whiskey was illegal until 1823 and not a common drunk until the 1840s]
* A medieval Scottish warrior brandishing his claymore. ["No claymores until the late 16th century."]
* A medieval Scottish warrior wearing a skirted kilt in his clan’s tartan. [No kilts until the 19th century.]

I agree with Connolly that when you come across a detail that you know not to be true (this is why I don’t read a lot of American historicals, because I would find all of these errors) it takes you right out of the story. She says, “It’s an insult to say “it’s only a romance, so it’s okay, I can write what I like and get away with it” or something else I’ve overheard, “They’ll never notice.” So what? The other person a writer should respect is herself and her art.” Trust me, readers notice. (Actually, The Phoenix takes place in a time period I’ve been studying lately, and I think the portrayal of New York in the 1890s was mostly spot on, if vague in places. Except for the LES, Sims never really specifies neighborhoods. I kind of wanted more detail, actually, though I suspect that if she’d gotten things wrong, I would have gotten pulled out of the story.)

So. Does historical inaccuracy in fiction bother you? Does it matter? Should Regency heroines bathe less often?

Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
--Arnold Lobel

From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
--Groucho Marx

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We're looking for a few more people as devoted to guilty-pleasure reading as we are! Email bookssky (at) fshk (dot) net!
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