Books to the Sky

Archive for the ‘romance’ Category

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.

+ 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?

Title: The Phoenix
Author(s): Ruth Sims
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2008
Genre: Victorian Epic
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Warning: There are some spoilers in this review, mostly because the part of the book I liked the least was the last quarter of it, and I don’t think this would be an adequate review without explaining what I didn’t like. I’ll try not to spoil it too badly, though.

So I picked up this book after reading this review. I thought, okay, midwestern grandma writes a Victorian epic at the center of which is a gay romance? Sign me up!

The Phoenix is a little first-novel-y, in that there are some structural problems, a little bit of head-hopping, and A LOT of plot (although that’s more a genre convention than a flaw). It’s surprisingly well put together, though. I think it falls short of other Victorian epics I’ve read in the same vain (examples: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters) but it was still a fun read and full of every Victorian Novel Cliché you can think of.

Jack Rourke is our Oliver Twist, a boy born to poverty with a viciously abusive father and a weak twin brother named Michael. At fourteen, he befriends an actress named Lizbet who helps him get a job as a stagehand at a theater. Lizbet also teaches him to read and speak properly. Jack comes home one night to find that his father has killed Michael, so Jack in turn kills his father, then runs to Lizbet for help. She smuggles him out of London to St. Denys Hill, her family’s home. Jack is taken in by Xavier St. Denys, Lizbet’s brother, who is happy to take in the boy because he knows he will never marry or have a son of his own. You can guess why. Although the house parties he hosts that are attended only by well-dressed men might be a clue. In an effort to disguise his identity, Xavier renames Jack Christopher, then he later adopts him, so he becomes Christopher St. Denys, called Kit. Kit soon becomes the most famous and well-respected actor in London. Read the rest of this entry »

Candy at Smart Bitches has a thought-provoking post up that gets into some interesting questions. I think a lot of romance readers probably have a love/hate relationship with some of the tropes of the genre, especially as pertains to gender roles. Candy certainly does, and she writes:

So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:

1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);

2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or

3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.

I think my greatest beef with the genre is its strict adherence to traditional gender roles and to the characterization of things that fall out of these strict binaries as being bad or villainous. It’s why I hate virgin heroines; I want a woman who owns her sexuality, but many, many romances still seem to subscribe to the idea that it’s not okay for a woman to want to be sexual. Sexual women in romance novels tend to be evil ex-wives, you know?

Candy finds a silver lining:

One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of m/m romance lately, and had a discussion with a friend of mine about why we like it so much: it’s because there is no clearly defined gender category for the two protagonists to fall into. They start as equals. I, for one, would like to see (especially in contemporaries) a male and a female protagonist for whom there is a presupposition of equality. (Maybe this is why I like Suzanne Brockmann’s books so much. She knows how to write a strong woman, one who can triumph even playing with/against a big ol’ alpha male.)

Anyway, read the whole post. There’s some interesting discussion going on in the comments, too.

Sorta kinda tangentially related: Amanda at Pandagon has a post up entitled Why don’t men read more romance novels? The post is really about why women don’t watch porn (in reaction to an article by Violet Blue arguing that women say they don’t like porn because women aren’t supposed to like porn; see also some of what I said here about women and sexual agency). But Amanda says:

But even with the availability of stuff that you can kind of guess won’t be overtly misogynist, women still don’t consume as much. Why?

On one hand, that’s like asking why men don’t read more romance novels. You can usually tell when you’re in the intended audience, you know. Women aren’t stupid.

Which… hmm. I think she has a point about porn; so much of it is so obviously made with male (gay or straight or whatever) viewers in mind, misogynist or not. Same deal with romances (gay or straight or whatever, come to think of it). So many of them cater to (stereotypical) female fantasies: men as protectors, men who are strong but also sensitive, any of the things Candy listed that I quoted above, even, you know, two hot guys making out with each other. (Which is where I kind of differ from Amanda’s POV. She goes on to critique porn because female orgasms are so obviously fake and male orgasms are so obviously real, but I’ve read that a lot of male orgasms in porn are fake, too, created with prosthetics and, no joke, Ivory dishsoap. More to the point, Amanda dismisses Violet Blue’s point about women liking gay porn; at least the commenters are all, “Fanfic, hello?” And also, Exhibit B: the vast amounts of m/m romance and erotica written by women for other women. Just saying.)

I can’t deny that the fantasy is part of the appeal. The first time I picked up a Nora Roberts novel, I thought, “Oh, I get it.” Roberts tends to write men who strike me as realistically drawn and also immensely appealing. The heroes seem to be pushed out there with a sign saying, “This is your fantasy!” She sells all those books for a reason, you know?

I’ve run into plenty of men who read romance, though, even on the DL. There’s also this guy, who argues that, “I had always thought that the idea of coercing the fairer sex into abandonment stemmed more from the male than the female gray matter.” Which is kind of interesting: are we so steeped in old patriarchal assumptions that romance novels are really female fantasies based on male fantasies? Wacky, yeah? Is that why gender roles are so confining in romances?

Still, I think there are some authors out there who do really interesting things, who turn gender roles on their heads, or who are just really good writers. For me, the appeal lies mostly in the way the genre tackles human relationships, which is on-face what any romance is about. Throw in some fantasy about falling in love in a week and happily ever after, and it’s fun and escapist but can also make you think. Or this is what a good romance does.

I’ve been thinking for a while that I wanted to do more reviewing on this here blog, but haven’t really followed through with that. So, here’s my attempt to establish some kind of book review format. Let’s do the basics up top:

Title: Cut and Run
Author(s): Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press, 2008
Genre: m/m romantic suspense/cop drama
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I chose this book to review because I had a lot to say about it. This can be good and bad; I tend to get most passionate about the books that almost get it, but fall short. This is one of those books. The characters are interesting and likable and the bare bones of a good story are here, but the narrative style drove me bonkers.

So, the gist: Zane Garrett is a stuffed shirt FBI agent who’s been on the straight and narrow in “cyber crimes.” He gets paired with a loose cannon by the name of Ty Grady, and together they’re supposed to find a serial killer in New York City who committed a string of murders so bizarre and random that the only way we know they’re connected is that the people running the investigation keep telling us they are. Then, twist! As the investigation proceeds (with basically no developments, just a lot of random violence), it’s revealed that Zane is actually a recovering alcoholic, more comfortable wearing a leather jacket than a suit. Zane is really the loose cannon, and Ty, especially after he winds up in the hospital with a serious concussion, is pretty sedate. Anyway, our heroes gallivant around New York, eventually cracking the case by finding the unlikely but sort of obvious pattern (and I am frankly ashamed that I didn’t figure it out sooner).

I mean, there’s a lot to like here. Two rogue FBI agents who are hot for each other; a serial killer who, it soon becomes clear, is gunning for the FBI agents; New York City; and lots of gunfire and explosions.

And still it kind of falls flat. I was warned in advance both by a review and by another book I read by this author team that there would be some head hopping. This is a narrative peeve of mine, but one I can forgive for some books. Here, not so much. This narrative head hops all over the place, sometimes switching POV within the same paragraph, and it’s chaotic and confusing.

The novel is also a lot longer than it needs to be, with the last chapter being largely unnecessary, IMHO, prolonging the suffering of the characters without a good enough pay off.

The biggest problem, though, is that the whodunnit is really obvious, like the murderer might as well be wearing a tee-shirt that says, “I am the killer.” He drops hints for Ty and Zane all over the darn book, and they never pick up on them. It got to the point where I was kind of hoping I was wrong about who the killer was (I wasn’t) because that, at least, would have been an interesting twist. This author team needs to learn the importance of a good red herring, because the person I suspected was the only logical suspect given the parameters of the genre.

The other thing that put me off this book a little is that the romance between Ty and Zane is a little too Gay for You, a convention I strongly dislike in m/m romance. (For those unfamiliar, Gay for You is a convention wherein one or more straight characters fall for someone of their own gender because the attraction to this one person is so overwhelming. I understand the need for its existence in fanfic, but in romance with original characters, I find it bothersome and unrealistic.) It’s implied that both Ty and Zane have had affairs with men before, but that both also primarily prefer women, so it’s just… what are the odds that two bisexual FBI agents would get paired together and also be attracted to each other? I was skeptical enough that it kept me from really enjoying the romance. There’s a throwaway line at one point implying that Ty mostly sleeps with women because he’s ashamed of the part of himself that lusts after men, but that’s never explored. More to the point, for the first quarter of the book, these characters read straight to me, and I almost wondered if there was going to be any romance at all.

Finally, if I can have a moment as a New Yorker, the stuff that takes place in New York City reads very “tourist” and not at all authentic. For example, at one point, Ty and Zane rent an apartment in “Greenwich,” and I’m guessing by all the references to the hippy dippy bohemians in the neighborhood that the authors mean Greenwich Village and not Greenwich, CT, and I feel like that’s something the editors really should have caught. (Not to mention that the Village is not so much populated by hippy dippy bohemians anymore.) Ty and Zane spend most of their time at hotels in TriBeCa, but then talk about Chinatown like it’s so far away and it’s… right there, dudes. Walk a couple of blocks. So that annoyed me, too. (Note to writers: if you want to set something in New York, at least do your research!)

I read the whole book anyway. It’s not completely irredeemable, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel the authors are rumored to be working on.


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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