Short and . . . Reviews: Part II

Short and  . . . not romance

It’s contemporary fiction, though, so I’m throwing it on the pile. The cover and blurb of Helen Smith’s Alison Wonderland led me to expect a chick-lit mystery:

“After Alison Temple discovers that her husband is cheating on her, she does what any jilted woman would do–she spray-paints a nasty message for him on her wedding dress and takes a job with the detective firm that found him out.” Blah blah blah, quirky best friend, poetry-writing neighbor who’s in love with her, all-women detective agency . . . .

I was annoyed at first by the blurb’s closing line: “Clever, quirky, and infused with just a hint of magic, Alison Wonderland is a literary novel about a memorable heroine coping with the everday complexities of modern life.” Why literary? But that, along with magic, was probably meant to be the tip-off that this is weirder than the cover and description might suggest. There’s a sort-of mystery plot vaguely involving eco-terrorism, but the book is fairly episodic, and there’s a hint of magic realism. It most certainly isn’t romance (the final word is “regret”), but it does have some interesting things to say about love. Alison begins by thinking, “Being loved is a huge responsibility.” She ends both regretting a missed chance at romantic love and loving and being responsible for a baby. 

There are some great lines and scenes in this book, funny and insightful. Love is a big theme, but Smith also reflects on the lack of privacy in contemporary life, the way we’re all under surveillance much of the time. In the end I didn’t quite feel the parts added up to a satisfactory whole, but I did enjoy it.

I bought a paper copy (published by Mariner/Houghton Mifflin) with a birthday gift card from my favorite indie bookstore. I discovered, though, that the book was originally published by AmazonEncore, and their Kindle edition is still available for $3.99 (at least, that’s the price it shows me, shopping from Canada). I don’t mind that I paid more, but for that price, I’d say it’s worth a flyer if the description interests you. This was both good enough and different enough to make me curious about what else Amazon’s publishing arms have to offer.

Short and  . . . contemporary

Maya Banks, Enticed By His Forgotten Lover (Harlequin Desire, part of her “Pregnancy and Passion” mini-series. Yes. Don’t ask). I read this because a couple of my Goodreads friends really enjoyed it and sometimes a crazy OTT amnesia plot is just what a girl needs. I’ve liked amnesia romances before (Miranda Neville’s Amorous Adventures of Celia Seton and Lucy Monroe’s The Greek’s Christmas Baby). I’ve enjoyed a Maya Banks category before, too (The Tycoon’s Rebel Bride). 

I think for a book like this to work for me, it has to be firmly in the realm of fantasy. A cruel Greek amnesiac tycoon in an unspecified business? Crank up the angst and, in a certain mood, I’m there! Move the plot to Texas and make him a resort developer, and . . . I can’t suspend disbelief. The heroine is a down-home girl who calls her grandmother “Mamaw.” That’s just not fantasy-land for me.

Also, the readings for my academic writing course are on urban livability. I’m not an expert, but I know a little about zoning and planning. While Texas is probably less regulated than a lot of places, I couldn’t believe that a town on an island in the Gulf of Mexico had no control over how a piece of land would be developed, and I definitely couldn’t believe they wouldn’t know it was happening until the bulldozers showed up. Hello, permits? Even in Texas, I bet you need them before you dig.

I admired Banks for taking her hero places many writers wouldn’t dare to (he really is kind of a bad guy), but this didn’t work for me. I was bored. There was Pregnancy, but for this reader, no Passion.

Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me (from Random House’s e-only revival of the Loveswept line) did work for me. A lot of people I know have already read this, so I’m tempted just to write “what Jessica said” and have done with it. But here are a few points to add to her nine:

The heroine is someone I recognize. She’s the student with a bag of different highlighters and perfectly neat, color-coded notes (but often boring, safe papers). Someone who’s so anxious about doing things right (or not doing them wrong) that she can’t take risks or fully enjoy herself. On a bike ride across the country, with the help of the hero, she learns to do that.

The cross-country bike trip isn’t just a fresh twist on the road romance, though like many a road romance, it’s a device for throwing two people together and making them figure out how to be a team. It’s also a true common interest for the couple, when in so many romances all the hero and heroine seem to have in common is physical attraction. I can imagine Tom and Lexie riding off on adventures, laughing and bickering and talking about everything under the sun, for years to come. Their shared love of riding, and of the beauty of the country they rode through, made for a really believable romance. I thought Knox’s own experience showed in the writing of these scenes, as when Lexie delights in riding through a rainstorm.

There are some really, really funny scenes with great dialogue. I loved their hot-sauce eating competition. I read with a smile on my face a lot of the time.

When Tom displays typical romance-hero “casual misogyny,” Lexie notes it as such. And she insists on being an equal. Tom likes to take charge, and she doesn’t entirely like that. She thinks, “He thought of her as his responsibility, not his partner. She could never spend her life with a man who wouldn’t meet her halfway, trust for trust, risk for risk.” I wrote notes like “Yes!” in my Kindle app.

I found the ending a bit disappointing. I completely believed that they would be happy together, and I thought the future Tom imagined for them would allow them to be true partners. But Tom imagined it, rather than the two finding their way to it together. One moment, Lexie’s thinking “It was no way to start a relationship. He couldn’t always be in charge,” and the next moment she’s going for it.

This was one of the places in the book where romance conventions undercut the freshness that characterized so much of it. There were a couple of others, like Lexie’s two (really? one wasn’t enough?) broken engagements. Reading this made me think about the role of convention in romance. Sometimes I feel the genre is too limited by rules and expectations. I want more variety and more realism. On the other hand, if we take seriously the idea that genre Romance has its origins in heroic/chivalric Romance, well, supernatural elements and larger-than-life characters are part of the tradition. There’s a reason we call the main characters “hero” and “heroine,” a reason they’re usually gorgeous, have amazing sex, exchange dialogue that’s wittier than any real-life conversation, why their endings are perfectly happy-ever-after. While the emotions need to feel real, they come in the context of a slightly–or more than slightly–fantastical story. Maybe what I want is not more realism in my Romance, but more realistic love stories in other kinds of fiction, to balance that reading.

A book that makes me think about all that is definitely one I’m glad I read. I look forward to seeing what Knox will do next. I’m already hearing praise of her next book, out next month.

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One Response to Short and . . . Reviews: Part II

  1. Jessica says:

    oh, I’m glad you liked the Knox. And I agree with your emendations. The classic challenge, I think, in contemps with a tortured hero, is to give the heroine enough of an arc beyond “healing him.” Also loved the “casual misogyny” line.

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