Short and . . . Reviews: Part I

Short books–novellas and category-length novels–are perfect for times like this, when I’m busy and burnt out and often don’t have the mental energy for more than a few pages at bedtime. So, short reflections on some of my short reading:

Short and . . . sweet?

Some of the romances I’ve read lately are of the kind often referred to as “sweet” romance: that is, they don’t have sex scenes. That includes The Right Kind of Girl, the Betty Neels book reviewed earlier; a second Neels, Cobweb Morning, that I’m currently in the middle of; and Norma Lee Clark’s Hester, a traditional Regency (I have Janet W to thank for all of these; her box of paperbacks has been keeping me in much-needed bathtub reading).

These three  books made me think what an inadequate catch-all term “sweet” is. I wouldn’t describe their tone that way at all. It’s true that there’s something comforting about their familiar worlds and tropes. (Ros has a great post about the parallels between Neels’ world and the trad Regency one). But I find a lot of the emotions explored in Neels’ books quite dark: insecurity, loneliness, anger, resentment, despair. It’s not fair to judge on a book and a half, but I’m experiencing them as comforting because they’re cathartic, not because their picture of falling in love is a “sweet” one.

Neels’ Cobweb Morning has a rich Dutch doctor and a heroine who’s both pretty and a skilled nurse. I don’t know that I’m liking it more than The Right Kind of Girl, but I’m definitely finding fewer barriers to my enjoyment.

Clark’s Hester is a cheerier, less intense book, but its tone is more tart than sweet. Hester is an intelligent, competent heroine (she reads at least 10 years older than 19). She’s not sure at first whether she’s seriously interested in any of the three men courting her, and though she’s a bit discomfited by her uncertainty and by the first stirrings of romantic feeling (and sexual attraction), she’s confident all will be well. No rush to get married, she can go off and travel in Italy instead. I liked the beginning of this a lot–I really wasn’t sure at first who the hero was going to be, and the heroine was refreshingly independent without being foolishly opposed to falling in love. It quickly became more predictable, but Hester remained calm and competent, rescuing herself when the villain showed his true colors. A brisk, competent, not deeply emotional novel, rather like its heroine. Fun.

Short and . . . historical

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair. Milan is really good at romance novellas. In fact, though I’ve bought several of her novels, I’ve only read the novellas (I will read those novels eventually. Also, I’m trying to do something about my book-buying habit). I liked a lot about this: the hero is a coal-miner’s son, former prizefighter, and somewhat shady man of business. Bring on more non-aristocratic characters! Whenever the hero and heroine were on page together, I was totally hooked. They start as opponents, and their gradual shift from maneuvering for position to falling for each other was captured in great dialogue and little details of action. These two smart, damaged people, striving for a chance at a good life, were well-matched.

There’s only one sex scene, which I appreciated. Too often, writers seem to feel they have to cram a lot of sex into a novella, and it crowds out the story (unless they’re really using sex to develop the characters’ emotional arcs, but many writers don’t do that effectively). This scene is brilliant: clever, touching, and definitely advancing the story. Also, hot.

My favorite line (the heroine’s): “I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, am going to happen to things.” She’s earned that.

Another favorite: “There was an abyss of need inside him, but no woman was going to fill it.” Hot sex doesn’t solve their problems. Neither does falling in love. Love may inspire them to work out their problems so that they can manage to be together, but it isn’t a magic cure-all.

I did think The Governess Affair was a little too short, given the amount of baggage these two were carrying. Everything was wrapped up awfully quickly. I wanted to see more of these two, not an epilogue focused on the children who will grow up to be the heroes of the series this sets up.

Carla Kelly, Beau Crusoe 

This is a weird one. In other Kelly books I’ve read, she doesn’t shy away from exploring the dark side of war. Here, the naval officer hero has survived a shipwreck and years alone on a desert island. That survival entailed some difficult moral choices in a lifeboat. For a long time, the reader isn’t sure quite how difficult, and neither is the hero, who can’t remember some key moments of his experience. He’s suffering from what we’d now term PTSD.

Like Milan’s book, Kelly’s features two people who, despite being wounded, act like intelligent adults rather than (as so often seems the case in romance) petulant children. They help each other as they fall in love, but they aren’t magically cured by it.

I particularly liked the way Kelly explored the hero’s moral choices and their consequences. What I didn’t like: Lady Audley, the raging nympho villainess. Yep, the woman who really likes sex is bad, and when rejected, turns nasty. Her frank desire for sex leads the hero to compare her, explicitly, to a piece of meat. I think he’s meant to be disdaining his own uncontrolled appetite there, but it spills over into a revulsion a a woman’s uncontrolled sexuality that I found quite off-putting. I often feel that Kelly’s sex scenes are colored by a certain discomfort (she’s discussed this discomfort and has moved to writing inspirational romance), but this went a lot further.

For a longer discussion of Beau Crusoe, check out Ruthie Knox’s post at Wonk-o-Mance.

Next up: contemporary and erotica.

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7 Responses to Short and . . . Reviews: Part I

  1. Janet W says:

    What an enjoyable blog — and not just because I’ve read all the books you discuss (except for Milan’s novella — which I think I should buy because she really is the mistress of the historical novella). I’m ripping through some huge royal Diamond Jubilee tomes … I can safely say the day I tire of reading books about the royals I’ll be pushing up the daisies 🙂

    • lizmc2 says:

      I owe a lot of this reading to you! I think the books you sent + bubble baths got me through grading, so thanks.

      Hope you enjoy Milan’s novella. I liked a lot about it and really would have loved to spend more time with these characters, though it worked in the short form.

  2. mezzak says:

    I read Beau Crusoe after reading Ruthie Knox’ review. My copy has the most awful homemade-looking cover. I agree the sexually rapacious villainess lets the story down. I did like the way the couple’s story involves redeeming the family relationships as well (very Pamela Regis, making community) but wondered at the end about how they in a sense had to leave England to be happy (scientific voyage) not just that their work would take them overseas.

    Possibly this is on my mind because I read Susanna Fraser’s ‘The Sergeant’s Lady’ this weekend and they had to leave in the end (for India) as well because there was no place for them in the social structures and strictures of the times.

    Both stories give me the idea that the ideal outcome proposed by the authors is for the couples to be companions and partners in their work. So when the partners are roughly equal in social status they get to stay in England and live out their companionate marriage (unless there is a dreadful scanda)l but when the partners are disparate in social rank if we are to believe in their potential for a HEA it has to be taken across and ocean. I am just thinking about the contortions an author has to go through to give us a story that we can relate to and believe that is historically believable when the goal of the stories is the HEA found through companionate marriage.

    Also ellipses are now my favourite grammar tool as a change from ‘;’ 🙂

    • lizmc2 says:

      That’s a really interesting point, and you’re going to make me pay closer attention to how historical romances end now. I’d agree that if you’re seeking true historical accuracy, for some couples finding a place in the world can be tricky.

  3. Rosario says:

    Couldn’t agree more about Beau Crusoe. The demonisation of Lady Audley pretty much ruined the book for me, and I’ve been a bit leery of Kelly’s new releases since then.

  4. Lady Audley’s depiction really bothered me as well. Wasn’t a certain part of her anatomy even referred to as slimy? I felt like sexual assertiveness in women was being condemned via her character. I’ve enjoyed other Kelly books but this one was problematic in multiple ways — the heroine’s relationship to the hero seemed more maternal than romantic, and the nature of the hero’s trauma was a little too dark for me. Of the Kelly books I’ve read, this is the weakest.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Yes, I think you’re right about “slimy.” The fact that the hero gorges himself on sex with her and then comes to find her disgusting bothered me. The metaphorical association of sex with food seemed to align sexual appetite with cannibalism–is Lady Audley morally on a par with what’s-his-name in the boat? I kind of felt we were being asked to think so.

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