Recent Reading: Stress Relief?

It’s been a busy week of grading, giving an exam, and grading some more. Not to mention the elementary school Christmas concert, getting a Christmas tree, panicking about how close we are to Christmas. . . .

So maybe it’s no surprise that my stress relief reading hasn’t featured sweet Christmas romance but men with guns, murders and ghosts. These stories were more engrossing, and therefore more escapist. I put down the Christmas romances I tried; maybe I’ll binge on them after the holiday.

Romantic Suspense

I breezed through the last 2 books in HelenKay Dimon’s Corcoran Team series for Harlequin Intrigue. I think I read this whole series, which came out over a couple of years, either on a plane or during end-of-term madness. They offer fast paced-action featuring unstoppable alpha heroes who love smart, strong, independent women. And they’re short.

The Corcoran Team, a bunch of former black ops guys who do security and rescue work, produce a high body count as they help their women escape trouble. The lack of repercussions for this strains credulity (at least I hope it does) but the unreality is part of what makes the series perfect escapist fare. The romances in Lawless and Traceless work in the short page count because of the tropes: reunited lovers and marriage in trouble. The characters already love each other, they just have to work out their differences–which in typical fashion for the series is the men being clueless and thinking their dangerous, rootless lives don’t have room for a woman or require them to smother her with protectiveness. Corcoran boss Conner’s marriage in trouble story has been the obvious end-point since the start of the series. But it did introduce three new characters who are part of the travelling team, and thus the potential for more sequels. Dimon has branched out in several new writing directions, so that seems unlikely, but if she ever does write more, I’m in.  Continue reading

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The Sweetest Thing, by Deborah Fletcher Mello

I read Deborah Fletcher Mello’s The Sweetest Thing because Meoskop and several other people were going to. I would not have finished it otherwise, because I found the writing a slog. But I’m glad I did, because there were things I really liked, and a lot I want to talk about.

This is going to be a long one, so pour a drink and pull up a chair–or just skip out now. Above the fold I’ll discuss what I liked and what I didn’t, and below will be a more spoilery discussion of one plot thread, and some thoughts about the question of writing quality.

Blurb: 

When the owner of Memphis’s most mouthwatering bakery, Just Desserts, suddenly dies, pastry chef Quentin Elliott and his brother, office manager Troy Elliott, are distraught. Everett “Pop” Donovan was more than their boss, he was a beloved mentor. So they’re shocked to learn that Pop left the business to his beautiful, estranged daughter—a woman they know nothing about—and who knows nothing about running a bakery…

Harper Donovan intends to sell off Just Desserts as quickly as possible. She has no interest in Memphis, much less sweets. However, handsome Quentin has definitely sparked her appetite—and business aside, the feeling is irresistibly mutual. But soon a powerful, smooth-talking rival appears, vying for Harper’s heart and her bakery. Harper might have a taste for Memphis after all—and Quentin might have to prove he’s exactly what she craves…

The Good:

  • “Pop” was a great foster father (now that’s a nice change) but he’d been estranged from Harper, and though that seemed to be partly because her mother was messed up and vengeful, he also seemed to have earned some of that ire. Harper’s need to come to terms with never being able to have a relationship with him, her regret and her resentment at being around “strangers who knew more about him than she ever would” were realistic and nuanced.
  • Quentin and Harper’s romance is low conflict. There are good reasons for their initial reluctance to get involved and for Quentin’s struggles with trust, but Mello doesn’t belabor them or drag them out too long.
  • Mello either subverts some familiar tropes or is working in a strand of the romance tradition that uses them somewhat differently from what I’m used to. At first we seemed to have a stock Evil Other Woman and Vengeful Ex BFF, but Rachel and Dwayne turned out to be much more than that, and for me the most interesting part of the book. I also liked how eventually I figured out that Rachel was white, from descriptions, but it was never overtly stated or made an issue in their relationship.
  • This book was surprisingly dirty for a romance set in a bakery with church-going characters and wise grandmother types. I suspect–though I am in no way expert here–that this reflects a difference between African-American evangelicalism and white evangelicalism (the kind that produces sex-free inspirational romances). There’s talk here about saving yourself but that seems to be more about waiting for someone you love and respect than waiting for marriage. No one judges Harper for having had sex before Quentin. I liked this different style of religion in romance (I felt the same way about the religion in Piper Huguley’s historical with African-American characters, The Lawyer’s Luck). 

The Not So Good:

  • The writing was an almost constant distraction. I’ll talk about that more later.
  • There was a lot of building tension and I thought Dwayne and/or Rachel was going to do something really awful but then it all fizzled out and the main conflicts were resolved at 70 or 75%. I wondered if there were going to be a ton of samples in the back, but no, it went on and on–in part dealing with some secondary conflicts, which were interesting but also quickly/easily resolved, but mostly with Quentin and Harper going on vacation and having a lot of hot sex. I skipped most of this. I am less interested in reading sex scenes in general lately; I felt the characters were already as developed as they were going to be; and Mello’s writing of sex scenes didn’t really work for me. (If your sex scenes are longish, detailed, and not prim, I don’t think phrases like “the door of her treasure spot” and “her sweet nectar” really work. OK, they never work for me). YMMV on all this; it’s absolutely about my personal tastes.
  • Interesting as I found the Dwayne and Rachel plot and the way it subverted my expectations that they’d be villains, I also thought this aspect wasn’t entirely successful (and their characters were somewhat inconsistent). But most of what I have to say about that is spoilery and below the fold.
  • There were some plot holes/things that stretched credibility. Even a successful family-run bakery is surely not worth “a multi-million dollar bid.” I was willing to write that off as the romance fantasy of everyone being rich. But the tension of whether Harper would sell to Dwayne made little sense. We learn early on that Pop left seven-figure bank accounts (of course he was a genius investor) to Troy, Quentin, and Harper. So if Harper wants to sell the bakery, why can’t they just buy her out? Oh right, no plot. Actually Troy pointed out both of these things in the book. Despite my struggles to finish this, I plan to read Troy’s book: he’s running for mayor and the heroine is Muslim. Don’t disappoint me by turning into an idiot, Troy!

Spoilers below, or you can skip to my confused, tl;dr thoughts on writing quality.

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This Week’s Reading: Not a Bust

Let’s not talk about how little grading I got done. The rest of this week’s reading/listening was highly satisfactory.

I got well and truly hooked by Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair and stayed up too late finishing the last third. It’s been ages since I got engrossed in a romance like that, and I’m grateful to Dev for that pleasure. Samir reminded me of heroes from lighter-hearted Harlequin Presents like Sarah Morgan’s, or the movie star from Leah Ashton’s RITA-winning KISS book Why Resist a Rebel?. All of the alpha, none (or little) of the asshole, plenty of sweetness and charm. I liked Mili, too: she had elements of the naive/innocent doormat-ingenue of category romance, but the grounding in her cultural background made those elements more plausible, and she had strength and persistence, too. In retrospect, this book had some tropes I dislike (I feel like everyone had read this so I’m going to say some spoilerish things in the paragraph below the fold).

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Recent Reading: Fun Again!

Looking over my reading journal for October and November [my reading journal is basically a list of what I read when, a prompt to memory and an excuse to buy a nice notebook], I realized that I’ve been enjoying reading more lately. And then, flipping back further in my journal and looking at months where I’d mostly read books that were at least OK, but that I remembered more as blah reading droughts, I wondered if my recent enjoyment is partly because I haven’t had as much time to blog, and I haven’t been thinking as much about what I read, just . . . reading for fun. Does blogging make me more critical in the negative sense as well as in the thoughtful/analytical sense? And then my head exploded because my whole life is about reading critically and how that is a pleasure of its own kind and not the destruction of pleasure so how could I be thinking this?! Possibly I’ve just been busy and tired and have needed a break from thinking too deeply. I’m not going to question my vocation just yet. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been having fun with: Continue reading

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Shallow Reading and Shirley

*the title of this post is a tribute to Vassiliki Veros’ Shallowreader’s Blog. Much as I love deep/close reading, I also admire her insistence that people should read whatever they want, however they want. This week I didn’t want to think much about my reading.

I blasted through Hilary Mantel’s new short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, in a few days. I loved Wolf Hall, but the only contemporary Mantel novel I’ve read, Beyond Black, was too freaking weird for me. This has everything to do with my inveterate taste for literary realism, nothing to do with the novel’s quality. Even when I choose speculative fiction, I prefer a world built through the literary techniques and narrative strategies of realism.

But every once in a while I like to stretch myself, and I found that in short form, Mantel’s weirdness worked for me–or I was up to its challenge. Take the title story. The premise is far-fetched but nothing that couldn’t happen: a woman opens her door for the plumber, and finds instead that she’s admitted a would-be assassin who plans to take aim at the Prime Minister from her bedroom window. While they wait for Thatcher to present herself as a target, they chat and the narrator makes the killer cups of tea. And then suddenly there’s a passage where the story takes off (literally? figuratively? it’s not clear) into another dimension. The narrator shows her guest a door he might use to escape once his task is done (though he’s resigned to being killed by police) and then she imagines him stepping through it into somewhere else–preventing his crime. Continue reading

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