Recent Reading, Cover Commentary, and Other Links

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.

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8 Responses to Recent Reading, Cover Commentary, and Other Links

  1. anna cowan says:

    I find myself becoming more and more troubled by the Alpha-ingenue trope. When I started reading romance it appealed to me – it was a way for me to think about my own heterosexuality, and sort of give myself up to the idea that I could be the female to my husband’s male.

    But the more I discover about gendered sexuality, the less it appeals to me. I agree that it’s positive for women to be able to be vulnerable and insecure and awkward – but I also think it’s important for women to be those things and also be able to be sexually powerful.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I find my responses to this are partly so personal it can be hard to talk about without TMI. I found them more appealing when I was young and ingenue-ish and could identify more with the heroines (though in saying that, I don’t want to imply that readers who like the trope are immature). I liked it more when I first started reading romance and read it purely for escape, too.

      I like your point about sexual power. In the Twilight/whatever type story, it seems like the heroine’s sexual (and other) power comes solely from being the object of the hero’s desire. That is a really appealing fantasy (or reality)–that someone would be swept away by desire for me–but it doesn’t have to preclude her taking an active role in her life and the relationship. I think, though I’m not an expert, that there’s a basic misunderstanding about D/s power dynamics in BDSM-flavored versions of this story that treat the sub as a passive object who doesn’t understand her own desires (um, I’m not referencing any particular book here, certainly not one I haven’t read; I’ve seen this in a number of erotic romance novellas and some Harlequin Presents, for instance).

      These stories, even when told from the heroine’s POV, are so often about the hero. She has no arc, she just wants him and hopes for him. Purely hero-focused romances are just not interesting to me. I am interested in a *couple*. I realize that part of why I enjoyed the Neels and Rodgers books I read is that the heroines have complicated thoughts and feelings about the heroes and their relationships, about what they themselves want, they don’t just obsess about how OMG gorgeous the hero is and how could he ever want me, though there’s some of that feeling.

      • anna cowan says:

        the idea that got me really interested in gendered sex, was that women are the object of desire, not the person who desires. (i.e. good sex = woman makes a series of hot poses and noises) So yes to everything you said! The kink that comes from “hot guy wants me” is all good – but I think it’s a want that’s so deeply ingrained in us, that it actually takes a conscious leap to have the kind of fantasy where we are the powerful object whose desires dictate the sex. It’s a leap that I hope romance will explore more and more. It’s a powerful genre to transform sex for women, whatever the discussion.

  2. “first, it seems unlikely an Earl would spend long stretches resident on his Jamaica plantation”

    Why?

    “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).”

    Make that 100%. They *were* slaves in 1817. It’d be roughly another ten years before Britain completely abolished slavery in all parts of her empire. There were changes and amendments during this ten-year period, but a complete ban didn’t happen until then.

    “I felt the book was eliding that history to make the hero a good guy.”

    I feel that when editors or authors do that to “soften” the historical picture, they make it more insulting. I mean, making him look good at expense of an actual group? Screw that. Like many people of his ilk, he made a lot of money off slavery, directly and indirectly. How could one work around that? You don’t. And shouldn’t. But most authors excel at ignoring this aspect of British history.

    Then again, they are also very good at ignoring another aspect: where does the money come from? Usually through exploitation, home and overseas. Authors seemingly prefer to make it so that their oh-so-noble blue-blooded heroes and heroines make money through “wise” stock investments and blah blah. The funny thing is, most of their investments are likely to be in companies producing coal, textile, cotton, tea, coffee, diamond, land purchase or similar – all had deeply dodgy ethical histories. So it returns to the same old thing. 😀 Romance authors and readers certainly do respect an old axiom of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

    As for the cover trend, I really don’t care that there’s copycatting going on because I prefer those over the damn naked torso / clinch / endless gown / generic flowers / landscape covers.

    “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?”

    I think it’s unfair to omit the ordinary girl’s part in that equation. From what I see, most ordinary girls (most aren’t, nowadays, as they’re often equal to heroes in terms of social status and wealth) have to work for it in form of being the mistresses of their fates. Would Cinderella have her Prince charming if she didn’t overcome those barriers to go to the ball? Would Jane get Mr Rochester if she hadn’t decided to accept an employment offer at his place and deal with all that crap along the way after that? She returned to Rochester and pretty much smugly saved his blind arse after his place burned to crisp, didn’t she? 😀

    Anyroad, did you notice how hero-centric US romance novel titles are?

    • lizmc2 says:

      Maili, I’m not sure why I think he wouldn’t live for years in Jamaica. It’s probably based on a vague impression that you send younger sons off, and maybe visit periodically like Sir Thomas in Sense and Sensibility, but stay in England where it matters. That could be totally wrong, so didn’t bother me the way the worker/slave thing did–about that I felt just as you say: eliding it is worse than giving me a slave-owning hero. It seems unethical, in a way.

      About the ordinary girl/wealthy man story: Jane Eyre, which I love, is a bad example, even though it seems like one inspiration for some of these romance tropes. Jane isn’t a passive object at all, and even the novel’s title (as opposed to A Night With The Wicked Duke of Slut or whatever) emphasizes that the book is HER story. The focus isn’t so much on getting Rochester as on being empowered. Maybe it isn’t so much that I dislike alpha-ingenue stories per se, as that I’ve read some bad examples that miss the elements of those stories I like.

  3. Jessica says:

    I keep meaning to read more of Victoria’s books. I have this weird thing, where I tend to be more enticed by trying new authors even over authors I’ve read and liked. Also, I haven’t been much for erotic romance this year at all. But you make me wan ot try her WWI series.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I love WWI as a setting for historical fiction, and have read a lot. I thought Janssen did the war bits well AND worked in erotic scenes and a hint of paranormal, and somehow it didn’t feel like too much. It certainly felt different from other things I’ve read lately, and that was nice. And it wasn’t erotica in the sense that sex took over the story, which is what I often find, and find dull in the end.

  4. Kaetrin says:

    Yeah, Eva gives Gideon some cufflinks in the story but there’s nothing terribly special about them. I like the Bradley cover too – but it makes me think of the old UK covers for the In Death series 😀

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