Jackie Barbosa sent me a copy of her new self-published novella, “The Lesson Plan.” Short and hot seemed perfect for this busy time of year, so last weekend I read that and two of Jackie’s Spice Briefs, “Grace Under Fire” (which is very loosely connected) and “Taking Liberties” (which is linked to “The Lesson Plan”). I joked that I was going to do a post called “Jackie Barbosa and Me” devoted to the various thoughts inspired by this reading. But really, there were too many for one post. So I dithered for a while about what to write. By this point, it’s clear that I’m not going to write any proper blog post until after Christmas. So, here are some notes towards the Jackie-inspired posts I would have written if I weren’t doing other things.
Get Your Own!
Jackie is giving away “The Lesson Plan” for Christmas. Details on her blog.
Reading and Reviewing a Twitter “Friend”
Jackie and I follow each other on Twitter, and through that discovered our two degrees of real-life separation: she and my mom shared a graduate advisor (many years apart, I hasten to add). I wouldn’t say that makes us friends, nor does it make me an unthinking shill for her books. But while some reviewers say that their social media interactions with writers and editors have no effect on their reviews, that isn’t my experience.
The consciousness that someone to whom I feel kindly disposed will be reading what I say about her writing does affect me. I’m aware of that link while I’m reading, which can make it harder to lose myself in the story. I’d say it affects the tone of my more critical comments rather than keeping me from making them, but if I really hated the book of a Twitter “friend,” I might just be silent. And for that reason, I prefer buying books myself (this is the first freebie I’ve been offered).
I interact with very few authors, and I do so because they’re readers, too, and I like the way they talk about books and the romance genre. I really value their perspective in Twitter conversations, but some pure reader-book relationship is lost when I’m aware of the third point of the triangle. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make, but to a limited extent.
The Review-ish Part
You could say each of these novellas focuses on a particular kink. There’s a light, playful tone to all of them that worked well for me.
In “Grace Under Fire,” Atticus and Colin are deeply bonded by a childhood trauma. As a result, they share everything, and now they’re looking for a wife to share. I’m not sure why this trope is so popular. Personally, I find a threesome hotter if not justified by trauma, and more romantic if truly polyamorous (that is, if there were also a romantic bond between the male partners). But this story wasn’t very angsty and the respect and affection between the three made a happy future seem possible.
The romance arc wasn’t fully developed. Atticus and Colin had never spoken to Grace before the story begins, and it’s not really clear why they target her as their future bride. Perhaps because her clumsiness has made her a marriage-market reject, but she’s hot. That seems like a poor start to a romance, but this story shows that being desired can give a woman confidence, and that love is more central to happiness than social acceptance. For a “hot” story, it’s really quite sweet.
“Taking Liberties” surprised me. The kink was kinkier than the blurb led me to expect. But I can see why it isn’t revealed, because it’s kind of a spoiler. It would be a deal-breaker for some romance readers, though, and that’s why I’d classify this as erotic romance even though the sex scenes aren’t particularly graphic. The discovery of their shared kink in a game that takes a serious turn makes Nash and Tish realize they are right for each other. It’s the fact that the story is really about being right for each other, finding someone to accept you, that makes this erotic romance. Because it’s a short story, the self-discovery and acceptance happens implausibly fast; I was okay with that as short-hand because the story feels like fantasy.
“The Lesson Plan” was definitely my favorite. It showed up as 20 pages longer in my Sony reader, and felt more developed. Freddie and Conrad have known and been attracted to each other for years, so a fast romance arc is plausible.
This isn’t a Christmas story, but it feels like a gift to romance readers, because the set-up is a bonanza of beloved tropes: tomboy Freddie (it’s really Winifred) has a crush on straight-laced Conrad, her best friend’s older brother; Conrad and Freddie’s older brother (Nash of “Taking Liberties”) concoct a fake “abduction by highwayman” plot to teach Freddie the danger of her hoydenish ways. I’m sure you can all imagine what happens once uptight Conrad’s got Freddie at his mercy . . . or is it the other way around?
The kink here is dominance/submission. If you can count it as a kink when it’s as mild as presented here. I mean, I’m just going by the internetz, of course, but is there a couple under 80 who hasn’t tried velcro handcuffs or spanking at least once? This was a couple I could believe would enjoy power games, and the sexual aspect of that was linked well to their personalities and other interactions. I liked the way they talked to each other and found the romance believable. This story was a lot of fun.
Let’s Talk About Sex
Someone commented on Twitter that in reading a particular book, she might have found her inner prude. I think reading romance has made me lose mine, if I ever had one. I have an outer prude, the one who makes me feel that when I write about my more erotic reading, I’m doing something embarrassingly personal. But I will read pretty much whatever without a blush. And my standards of what is “graphic” have changed. The door is wide open in these novellas, and there is some use of slang terms that are generally considered graphic, as well as your standard romance-novel euphemisms. But I didn’t consider them that “graphic” or “hot” compared to some things I’ve read. I have to think more about what “graphic” means to me now to explain that. There’s something about the tone or voice, I think, but that means “graphic” isn’t really the right word for the distinctions I’m making when I read. I’d like to write more about this, if I can get past my outer prude.
When Self-Publishing Works for Me
My favorite novella was the self-published one. It was definitely as well-written and edited as the traditionally-published pair. (That an e-only novella from Harlequin counts as “traditionally published” shows how quickly the landscape of genre publishing, in particular, is changing.)
I will read self-published when I know the author is having their work edited, and when I already know (from previous traditionally-published work or blog posts) that that person can write well. Or if recommended by a trusted friend. Otherwise, I’m not willing to venture. I’ve got plenty to read as is. I am already looking forward to Jackie’s next self-published novella, about Freddie’s twin. He’s going to be a vicar.
Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it! If not, December 25th is also my 44th birthday, so feel free to celebrate that instead, even though there was nothing miraculous about it.