“Random” is my daughter’s favorite all-purpose word. And a few random observations is all I can manage for a post right now. But I have reached the point where I think I’m going to pull off Christmas once again.

Love and Rockets Boats

This comment by Georgia Woods on a review of Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man gave me a little epiphany about why “crackalicious” books don’t appeal to me. Among other things, she says:

[I]t is hard to understand how these stories that push my limits seem to . . . make me love them. I think the reason we love these stories is because there’s no doubt ever that the guy is worthy of the leadership role. Most men we know nowadays aren’t worthy of being the captain of our ships – we know the men come and go, and we can’t trust them to put our needs, needs we may not even recognize, first . . . .

I think the secret is that any man worth his salt might be alpha-holeish at times, but that aggression and control are not used against the woman, but on her behalf.

I think Woods is right on about the appeal of these books, but I am so not part of the “we” she describes. Nothing about this description of men appeals to me or matches my experience. I do not want someone else having a leadership position in my life, don’t want a man captaining my ship, don’t think any man worth his salt is sometimes aggressive or an asshole, don’t like the idea of a man who knows my needs better than I do. This isn’t a criticism of people who feel like this. I just don’t. So I might find such a book interesting, but I don’t think I would ever experience it as emotional, can’t-put-it-down “crack” because too much of it would distance me or put me off.

My first response to that comment was “I’ll captain my own damn ship!” And I can, but on second thought, doing so isn’t my ideal vision of life or romance. That involves a rowboat (which seems like a more manageable image of life than a ship), and it comes from Little Women:

Amy had been dabbling her hand in the water during the little pause that fell between them, and when she looked up, Laurie was leaning on his oars, with an expression in his eyes that made her say hastily,–merely for the sake of saying something,– *

“You must be tired,–rest a little, and let me row; it will do me good, for since you came I have been altogether lazy and luxurious.”

“I’m not tired, but you may take an oar if you like. There’s room enough, though I have to sit nearly in the middle, else the boat won’t trim,” returned Laurie, as if he rather liked the arrangement.

Feeling she had not mended matters much, Amy took the offered third of a seat, shook her hair over her face, and accepted an oar. She rowed as well as she did many other things; and, though she used both hands, and Laurie but one, the oars kept time, and the boat went smoothly through the water.

“How well we pull together, don’t we?” said Amy, who objected to silence just then.

“So well, that I wish we might always pull in the same boat. Will you, Amy?” very tenderly.

“Yes, Laurie!” very low.

I identified like crazy with Jo, of course, but in this scene Amy made complete sense to me (maybe because she’s shy). Every one of the many times I read the book, it gave me that little thrill in the pit of my stomach that is part of why I read romance. And though it now seems kind of saccharine, it still thrills me. Amy and Laurie do things differently, but they complement each other; they don’t need each other, but they’re better together. I believe that in their future life, neither one will be the captain: this rowboat is a democracy. My favorite romances are those where I really believe in the couple as partners.

Recent Reading: The Importance of Being Wicked

I loved Miranda Neville’s Confessions from an Arranged Marriage because of the way Blake and Minerva learn to be partners and to support each other. Neville is great at showing her couples being affectionate friends as well as passionate lovers; I like the way they complement each other’s strengths.

I just read her latest book, The Importance of Being Wicked, and while it won’t bump Confessions from the top of my Neville list, it shared those qualities. I can’t write a proper review because 1) I’m so random right now, as my daughter would say, and 2) I shouldn’t have read the book yet: I’m not in a romance mood. I admired a lot about it, but wasn’t moved by it (until the end), and I think that was me. I broke my romance hiatus for a favorite author, but I should have brought my best to her. I’ll have to read it again (what a hardship!). I loved this joint review at Dear Author.

What I’m Not Reading

My Twitter feed is abuzz about some books I want to read: two Christmas novellas, Ruthie Knox’s Room at the Inn (in the Naughty and Nice anthology) and Anne Calhoun’s Breath on Embers, and Courtney Milan’s new novel The Duchess War. Lesson learned, though. I’ll wait until I’m really in the mood for romance so I have a fair shot at fully enjoying them. I haven’t even bought any of these yet so I won’t be tempted by the discussions into breaking my fast. 

What I Am Reading

On audio, Lloyd Alexander’s The High King, last of the Chronicles of Prydain fantasy series. Revisiting these childhood favorites over the course of the year has been a joy.  Like Little Women, they still speak to me, probably because they shaped me in some way.

Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers. The back cover (yes, I bought a paper copy) calls this “a modern-day Middlemarch,” which comparison seems to be de rigueur for any novel dealing with the broad social canvas of an English community. But it also describes Hensher’s book as “darkly hilarious,” which are not words I’d apply to Middlemarch. The dark part is definitely true. Hensher’s narrator utterly lacks (well, I don’t think he’s aiming for) Eliot’s sympathy for her characters; their nastiness, of one sort and another, is exposed to the reader by a pitiless eye. Privacy and exposure are themes of the novel, and arguably it’s asking questions about the way fiction strips privacy from characters–if that even makes sense, since they aren’t real people. I’m not sure I’d say I’m enjoying the book, but I’m interested, and unsurprisingly I find the contrasts with Eliot’s narrative ethos fascinating.

Now, if I can just figure out what we’re eating for Christmas dinner . . . .

*Oh, 19th-century punctuation, how excessive you are!

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21 Responses to Random

  1. willaful says:

    Aww, I love you for being pro Laurie-Amy! It seems to be generally expected that we should hate them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I always felt both Jo’s and Amy’s romances were kind of undercooked and Alcott’s heart wasn’t in it, but I love the rowboat scene (and, actually, Jo’s umbrella scene) and I don’t think Jo and Laurie would have been a happy match. So yeah, I’m fine with Laurie-Amy!

  2. sonomalass says:

    I wasn’t a Jo and Laurie fan either, although I understand why many romance readers are. Alcott’s romantic relationships have a strong pragmatic streak, and I accept that as I do with Austen’s. Alcott had me accepting compatibility as an important component of romance from a very young age, and as you say, those books shaped me. Interestingly, that was my stumbling block with the latest Neville; although I ended up liking it, comparability and trust were issues that resolved quite late for me. I hadn’t thought of the rowboat scene for a long time. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Ros says:

    “any man worth his salt might be alpha-holeish at times”

    Um, no. I do quite like the idea of heroes who can captain the ship, or whatever, but I don’t think that’s any excuse for alpha-hole behaviour. I like my heroes like Lord Peter, or Hornblower – or even Jamie Fraser – massively competent, able to take charge, but totally aware of it and careful not to use it to stamp all over other people.

    I still can’t get over the way books with such poor editing are being recommended all over the place. I just couldn’t ever suggest that someone else should read badly made books.

  4. Ros says:

    When you are ready for it, I shall be interested to see what you make of The Duchess War. It reminded me of Middlemarch and also of North and South. It’s not either of those, of course, since it is a romance novel, but I really, really liked it.

    I still ship Laurie/Jo with all the ardour of a lovesick teenager. Every time I read Good Wives I am hoping against hope that this time she will say yes. I do think Laurie and Amy make each other happy, as do Jo and Mr Bhaer. But they don’t make my heart flutter like Jo and Laurie.

  5. jillsorenson says:

    I swear I’ve read Little Women but I have no recollection of that scene or those characters. Maybe I read it when I was very young.

    The quote on Motorcycle Man stood out to me as well. Although I’m the last person to complain about a protective, manly hero or a heroine in need of rescue (there was a recent post at AAR that took a critical look at female victims) I totally agree with you about captaining my own ship. The idea of letting a man fight a bad guy for me because he’s stronger–fine. Letting him make my life decisions because he knows better? Aw hell no! But maybe these are two sides of the same coin. Or whatever that expression is.

    • Ros says:

      In the UK (and maybe other places?) Little Women is sold in two volumes, and that scene is from the second volume, called Good Wives. So maybe you only read the first.

  6. When I first read Little Women I hated that Laurie and Jo didn’t wind up together, but on my rereadings, as I got older the pairings made more sense to me. He really was too young for her she was far too strongminded for him. I remember that scene well, too; I think it reconciled me a bit, even when my young self was saying “noooooo!”

    That comment was chock full of WTFery. For me, the money quote was the one about the hero being someone the reader trusts to be good to the heroine. Really? The guy who makes her sleep with him to keep her job, or something equally wonderful?

    I haven’t been able to get through the Kindle Samples of an Ashley book, let alone an entire novel, so I have no idea whether these guys are redeemed or not in the course of their relationships. And I do love me those Anne Stuart bad boys, so it’s not as if I’m not interested in the type. I’ve thought a lot about why the latest crop of pseudo-anti-heroes don’t work for me (to me they’re just a-holes). I think it’s because either I need a redemptive arc or I need the character to be clearly nuanced in terms of how the author depicts him. The latter takes good writing skills, which Ashley does not have (I believe she’s a great storyteller, but her writing is just bad). And since I can’t gut my way through the prose, I never find out if they heroes have (by my standards) satisfactory redemption arcs.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Like you, I would see a lot of that “hero” behavior as needing redemption or at least change. But I think maybe it is an issue of reader consent. Readers who love the books say “Yes, he was a jerk but I always believed in his devotion,” so there is something in there that is making them consent to his behavior to some extent, just as the heroine does.

      I have yet to see a review quote that gives me personally any clue what that is, though, just the assertion that it is so. And I think that’s why I too still feel “WTF?” about reviews and praise I read. People say the romance is great but . . . I don’t get why. And I’m pretty confident from what I’ve seen that reading one won’t help *me* figure it out. I will just take other people’s word that something worked for *them.*

      • Yes, reader consent. That makes total sense, and I agree with you that the reviews and discussions never help me understand why and how they get there. Especially when the couple of samples I’ve tried have the heroes acting like total jerks to the heroines in the opening pages. In one case it was motivated by prior grief/guilt, I guess, but in the other it just seemed part of the personality.

        I was thinking about the Anne Stuart heroes that fit the a-hole category. There are at least four I can think of, and I give every one of them a pass. I’m not really sure that I believe they’ll be reliable in the HEA, but they are so interesting as people that they win me over, and also I do believe that they genuinely love the heroines, who seem like good matches for them.

    • Um, I’m reading Motorcycle Man right now, and while I’m not feeling the love, I don’t see where you get the idea that he makes her sleep with him to keep her job. Sure, he tells her that she’s going to work for him and sleep with him, but so far at least (I’m over 40% of the way in), he hasn’t made her do much of anything. Yeah, he bosses her constantly, but the way I see it, she does exactly what she wants most of the time and only complies when she wants to (with the exception of a time or two that she doesn’t argue with him because his kids are in the room and she doesn’t want to have a fight in front of them.)

      Anyhow, my problem with Ashely is how ridiculous this hero is. He keeps dictating to the heroine, but at the same time he is a total marshmallow. There’s something I find very incongruous about this. He puts her feelings ahead of his own almost all the time, so why all the bossiness? It’s like it’s there for readers who get off on it, and so that there can be some comedy when the heroine doesn’t take his guff, but it doesn’t fit the rest of him at all. He’s a big softie, and reminds me of nothing so much as JR Ward’s vampires who are supposed to be centuries old but speak in the latest slang as well supposed to be really tough but have these super-sensitive souls. Ack!

      I don’t mind an occasional alphahole, but I want such a character to be congruent and consistent. This hero is not really an alphahole to me, he’s more of a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

      Motorcycle Man is entertaining, mostly thanks to the heroine and the motorcycle club milieu. I didn’t even mind the prose at first, since I saw all those long-winded repetitions as part of the humor, but at the 40% mark, it’s starting to wear thin. I may or may not finish it, but I don’t think she’s crack to me.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        That’s really interesting. I wonder if the humor is part of accepting the hero, then–I mean, that readers (and maybe the heroine as well) don’t really take his alpha bluster seriously, and aren’t meant to? I only listened to the first J.R. Ward Black Dagger book and I kept thinking, “She’s taking the piss, right?” I found it kind of funny and ridiculous and not in the least sexy or romantic. Obviously I am missing some chemical receptor for these books!

        I’m glad you gave Ashley a try because I think you’ve explained some of the appeal in a way that makes sense to me better than anyone else has.

      • Thanks! I’m going to reply here because I don’t see a Reply link on your comment.

        I wonder if the humor is part of accepting the hero, then–I mean, that readers (and maybe the heroine as well) don’t really take his alpha bluster seriously, and aren’t meant to?

        Yes and no. I think I’m missing a chemical receptor too, to some degree, with this book, so my reply may not be accurate (maybe someone who gets this book will correct me if it’s not). But I think that for this book to work for a reader better than it does for me, the reader would have to take the hero a bit more seriously than I do (because he’s just absurd to me, and I can’t buy into him enough to have a vested interest in his fate), but at the same time, not so seriously that they take him at his word.

        I *think* his bossiness is supposed to read partly as protectiveness of the heroine (because it’s often around the issue of her safety that he’s bossiest) and partly as the kind of dominance that comes off as sexy in BDSM scenarios. But I don’t think we’re meant to believe he would ever force the heroine to do something that she doesn’t want to do.

        I feel like I sort of get that mainly because Nalini Singh also writes dominant and protective heroes, and I do find them sexy at the same time that their dominance can irritate a little, too. And when I find those heroes sexy, it’s definitely not on the level of wanting someone else to captain my ship, but more on an erotic level.

        Now, Nalini Singh’s heroes are way more appealing to me than Tack in Motorcycle Man, because even with all their supernatural abilities and heightened traits, they are more believable to me than Tack. Something similar could be said about Linda Howard’s heroes, too.

        I confess that I liked JR Ward’s first few books but more for the fact that she wove together multiple plot lines than for the heroes (with the possible exception of Butch). Weaving together of plots and subplots on that scale was very unusual at the time those books were published. I was hungry for that at the time, and I still wish it were more common in other genres of romance.

      • Apologies for the formatting of my comment above!

  7. Marilyn says:

    Knowing how much Little Women influenced the way I saw potential partners years later when I began to date, to know that the Lauries I met who made my heart pound and my hands shake were men who would not bring out my best – someone else’s surely, but not mine – makes me just a touch concerned about the girls of today reading Twilight or some of the books/series I see called cracktastic and thinking that this how one puts together a good relationship. Perhaps modern girls are less impressionable.

    [abrupt change of subject] I’ve been thinking over your wisdom, how I should not be reading books I know I could very well enjoy when I’m just not in the mood for romance. I’m wondering how many of my DNFs were simply books I read at the wrong time. You always give me something to think about.

  8. Kaetrin says:

    I hope you get your romance reading mojo back soon 🙂

  9. Erin Satie says:

    I have succumbed to a crackalicious read or two, but I’ve also come to realize that I really, really enjoy over-the-top domineering, controlling, demanding, etc., alpahole heroes…

    So long as the heroine is equally badass and the romance prominently involves the heroine drawing firm boundaries and then sticking to them.

    I’ve read two KA books & really enjoyed one, Sweet Dreams. I liked a lot of things about it. NOT that the hero deserved to be “captain of the ship”. The heroine of that book convincingly became more self-reliant, stronger, braver, more aware of her own desires & willing to pursue them than she was at the beginning. The book was long & had plenty of time for all kinds of little daily events to add up, and for her to go on a personal journey separate from the romance. I really appreciated that.

    If I recall correctly, the hero of Sweet Dreams pulled a bossy act on a couple of occasions. One had to do with the admittedly super lame serial killer subplot, which in retrospect I wish hadn’t been present at all. The other had to do with butting in on a family vacation in a way that was pushy but ultimately read, to me, as supportive rather than selfish or me-first.

  10. Merrian says:

    I drank the Kool Aid and have now read all of KA’s ‘Rock Chick’ books and the three in the ‘Dream Man’ series. I don’t normally do ‘cracktastic’ but wanted to see what the fuss was about and to read stuff that didn’t demand anything from me. They certainly met that need FTW. I have a bunch of semi-coherent observations in no particular order:

    Mystery Man could be read as an homage to Ranger in the Stephanie Plum books (All KA’s heroines are smarter that Stephanie Plum).

    Humour and good will is a key part of KA’s story telling and help hold the stories together.

    These books are about connecting to and building community as much as anything else and just as the the heroes bring the heroines into connection the heroines offer the heroes and connected people such as fathers and people on the wrong side of the law some means of redemption. There is a lot of exchanging going on.

    The focus on the heroes in discussing KA’s books intrigues me because my takeaway is the heroines’ journey. All the heroines move from not self-aware to aware – from isolation to connection and the relationship with the hero is her gateway to community and family. The barriers are not big-mis but the heroines’ need to consciously own herself and believe in her worth before she can be in relationship. This entails the heroine making a new narrative for her life and stepping away from an existing internal narrative.

    All the heroines work and continue to work in jobs that have some meaning to them even if it is in a bedding shop. These are books set in the working and lower middle-class although there are signs of wealth in some cases. Jules in ‘Rock Chick Renegade’ is the only TSTL heroine. KA does older heroines (Tyra is mid-30s and Tess early 40s) and ones who don’t want kids or end up as stepmothers and older side characters like Tex and Nancy end up in a relationship.

    The heroes not only do alpha care-taking but offer the heroine a home and support to be her best self. I don’t see the heroes as wanting to be the sole captains of the ship in these books at all. At the same time all the heroes engage in vaguely stalkerish behaviour that we readers consent too (thanks Liz :)) because they are the heroes and we know they mean well. I think the behaviour arises from the care taking function of their alpha-ness and that they know themselves and what they want.

    I’m one of those readers who like the house decor and clothing descriptions but hate a lot of the repetitions. At the same time I think the repetition of situations and responses is also part of how KA builds her world so it will be interesting to see how an editor would work with her on that.

    I think I would call KA on the way she has stereotypical sassy black women and gay guys as friends. She needs to give Darius his story before I could feel totally OK with her approach to POC and diversity.

    I am not a placeholder reader but I have been wondering if part of the success of KA’s style of story telling is that it invites the reader to see herself as part of this connected world of friends and family?

    My overall impression is that there is innovation created through tone and style within the genre formula and writer’s own formula not through plotting or devices (e.g. the villains are all Mafia types or drug users). I tried one paranormal title and I don’t think KA’s strengths translate well to this sub-genre because UF and PNR rely on world-building to create cohesion and momentum in story and the relationship and that isn’t what her style is about.

    The editing issues are no worse than anything that Lora Leigh has put out in the past few years with a main stream publisher.

  11. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thanks, Erin, Merrian and Janine! This discussion has given me a better sense than any reviews I’ve read of what Ashley’s appeal is and especially why people say they like her voice so much.

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