What I’m Up To
I always think I’ll be relaxed once grades are in, but right now much of my worklife is chairing my college’s academic governance committee, which is crazy busy in May and June. I’m trying to schedule so many meetings about policy revisions and curriculum changes that I actually had to draw myself a chart:
I find this work harder to manage than teaching, because it lacks the same clear deadlines (this has to be read for tomorrow’s class, these papers need to be graded for Monday, etc.). So I’m feeling tired, cranky and overwhelmed.
That means that a) I’m not reading a lot, and b) I probably shouldn’t be let anywhere near a book review. Still, here goes:
What I’ve Been Reading/Listening To
When I’m tired, I turn to audiobooks. I’ve been listening/re-listening to Jayne Ann Krentz in all her guises. Some of these books are (much) better than others, but they never fail to entertain me. I’ve complained about the repetition in Stephanie Laurens’ style and body of work; the same could be said about the equally prolific Krentz: there’s a pattern here (characters with intellectual pursuits and/or paranormal talents; a buttoned-up, restrained hero and a warmer, more open heroine who shakes him up; some kind of mystery). But in this case I don’t mind the repetition because I like the pattern and, mostly, Krentz’s style.
Listening to Charles Todd’s The Confession, latest in the long-running Post-WWI-set Ian Rutledge series, I was struck by the way history is a theme in these historical mysteries. Rutledge is very literally haunted by the war, and the mystery plots often revolve around the way the past lives on in the present. Here, I found that a bit implausible (it’s hard to talk about without being spoilerish, but though I could believe committing murder over something your parents did, doing so over events a couple of hundred years ago seemed too history-obsessed even for a small English village).
I liked the no-nonsense, generally happy heroine of Quentin Bates’ Cold Comfort, an Iceland-set mystery. The most interesting part of this book was the reflection on what the economic crash has done to Icelandic society and to individual characters’ lives. While some people were being destroyed, the rich who did the damage were swanning off to Spain untouched . . . at least until a murder mystery caught up to them.
I finished Victoria Janssen’s The Moonlight Mistress and read the follow-up short, Under Her Uniform (both set during WW I). I enjoyed them a lot, and they really deserve a post of their own, but highlights for me were: writing erotica, rather than romance, seemed to free Janssen from writing conventionally “likeable” heroines. I did like them, but they are odder and pricklier than women in romance are usually allowed to be (particularly Tanneken, the werewolf, who is definitely not quite human). Jessica’s post on sex and gender in another Janssen novel first put Janssen on my radar; the elements she discusses are less pronounced in the more realistic world of Moonlight Mistress, but I too appreciated the “naturalistic” sex. I also found the way these characters turned to sex for comfort and a link to life in the midst of wartime to be believable. Yes, they all found love of a sort and a happy-as-possible-in-wartime ending, but the sex often came first and could be separate from a romantic relationship.
I downloaded Shirley Kennedy’s London Belle when it was free on Amazon; it’s a self-published reissue of a Signet Regency. There were potentially fun plot elements here, but too many (father gambles away fortune, heroine is a classical scholar/good with kids and grumpy old men, buried treasure, Jamaica, misunderstandings), so none felt fully developed. I had problems with the way Jamaica was used, too: first, it seems unlikely an Earl would spend long stretches resident on his Jamaica plantation; second, the reference to his ability to be “firm but fair” with his 600 “workers” stopped me cold. I’m 99% sure those were slaves in 1817 (the slave trade, but not slavery itself, had been abolished in the British Empire ten years before). I felt the book was eliding that history to make the hero a good guy.
Cover Commentary: Same Old, Same New
Whatever they think of the contents, readers have been pretty universal in their praise of the iconic, non-explicit silver tie on the cover of That Book. Publishers seem to be getting this message, but to what effect?
Eden Bradley noted that Random House is rereleasing her erotic romance The Dark Garden with a new, Fifty-inspired cover. This one works for me: the simple, sensuous image clearly references the book’s title (for the original, more conventional corseted torso, see here).
But then there’s Sylvia Day’s originally self-published Bared to You, a book that’s getting a lot of mileage out of its recommendation as a Fifty follow-up, and which just got picked up by Berkley as a result. Day’s cover was fairly typical for erotica: bare female torso, man embracing it. Berkley is giving her . . . a pair of cufflinks. This strikes me as more ripoff than inspiration, and to judge by the comments on a Heroes & Heartbreakers post, I’m not alone. As far as I know, the cufflinks, unlike the tie, have nothing to do with the content of the book.
Am I surprised that authors and publishers are trying to capitalize on a giant, surprising success? No. Am I disappointed that there’s such literal copy-catting going on? Yes.
Historical romance author Joanna Bourne had a great post on the interchangeability of romance covers and titles, even as compared to other genre fiction, and what that (often wrongly) signals to possible readers about the sameness of the content. Magdalen has described this as marketing romances like snack food (again suggesting something about their value). I realize that covers clearly signalling “this is a romance, and of X kind” have value for publishers, but I’d like to think they could do that without such endless repetition.
The Same Old Story?
Covers that highlight an object of male attire seem to pitch the books at readers who read to fall for the hero (though that isn’t every reader’s favorite part of James’ or Day’s books). So I wonder how much alike the insides of these books are going to be (not just these two, but others that follow the trend). BDSM erotica or erotic romance or love story with kink does not have to feature ultra rich, gorgeous, troubled dominant heroes and inexperienced, innocent submissive heroines. But it often does.
Setting aside the kink, this is a story type–the alpha hero who falls for the ordinary girl, sweeps her off her feet, and takes care of her–that’s very popular in all kinds of romance, and has been since . . . um, Mr. Rochester? Prince Charming? Forever? Evangeline Holland has a great post on the appeal of this story type (and these character types) for many readers, and I agree whole-heartedly with her conclusion:
This scenario . . . gives women a safe space to feel vulnerable and insecure and awkward, yet know that the hero of the book will never hurt or humiliate them (there’s a reason most are written in first person POV). It’s actually a bit empowering when you look at those books in that context, and that is why I will never feel comfortable judging their popularity–or their readership.
I don’t see heroines as placeholders for me, or (usually) fall in love with heroes. I often don’t love this kind of Cinderella story, though there are writers (my recent Betty Neels experience comes to mind, as does Lucy Rodgers) who write it in ways I enjoy. I think that puts me in a minority among romance readers. But I’m pretty sure no one wants this to be the only story, or wants it to be told in ways that feel stale rather than fresh. Any time there’s a big hit, there will be attempts to capitalize on it. But we need the variety that will give us our next big hit, too.