Recent Reading: Not So Much

Things have been busy at work. The “how do I solve this problem?” kind of busy that leaves me tired and cranky. I looked at my pile of library books and thought “Ugh. I hate you all!” I requested them because they’re supposed to be good and I thought I’d like them. I just don’t feel like them right now.

Maybe because they’re supposed to be so good, they got sucked into my “I hate hype” vortex; or maybe their acclaim plus the need to read them before they’re due equals a sense of obligation that makes reading them seem like a chore. I’m going to return them. They’ll still be there weeks or months from now. And they’ll be just as good then–better, if I actually want to read them.

So I haven’t read a lot. I am (very slowly) reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Giftsa memoir of his walk across Europe in the mid-1930s (he was 18). Last night I grabbed a Betty Neels paperback, a used bookstore find, off my bedroom shelf and fell into Betty-world in the first few pages. Hype-free (though beloved by many) choices.

A couple of other January reads I haven’t got around to discussing yet:

Edie Harris, Wild Burn

[This is a pumped-up version of my Goodreads review]. I found this Western historical romance just OK, but it was a mixed bag of good and weaker stuff, not uniformly average.

Good: a setting you don’t see much these days, and great characters. Ex-nun schoolteacher and former-Confederate-soldier, Indian-hunting gunslinger, each haunted in their own way by the Civil War, in Colorado Territory? Yes!

Harris conveyed the physical hunger of falling in love really well. That’s no mean feat. I read plenty of books filled with mental lusting that don’t get across that feeling of seeing him across the room and needing to be touching him now, or never wanting to stop kissing. I liked some of the writing a lot: “He was a war machine, made of iron, hollow inside and unbreakable out” or “She’d fallen asleep with lambent pleasure still tripping along her nerve endings.”

Not so good: The editing was disappointing. Good sentences, yes, but also overly modern phrases like “skill set” and strange word choices like “unprepossessing” kiss (from the context I think Harris meant it wasn’t possessive). And then sentences like this: “Even as she heard John repeat her name questioningly, his hand having fallen away from her shoulder when she tripped, she glared up at the man toward whom she’d earlier decided deserved the brunt of her displeasure.” Say what? I suspect something got accidentally deleted, or not deleted, in an edit. If Delaney had been described as “hard” one more time, I would have hurled my Kobo at the wall.

Looking back on this book, it seems like one big hot make-out session occasionally interrupted by a somewhat under-developed plot. I prefer my romance the other way around. The characters were rather inconsistent, or underexplained. Yes, war changes people, but nothing about Del said “scion of a wealthy Savannah plantation” to me. I guess a romance hero has to be against slavery, and there was a semi-plausible reason for it in his Northern mother, but I still had trouble believing. Moira’s position was precarious and she wanted safety, so I found some of her actions with Del in semi-public places surprising, or at least I would have expected her to consider consequences more. I wondered why she didn’t befriend other women, like the mothers of her pupils, to help her feel secure. Aside from Moira, and the Mother Superior in flashback, there’s not a single adult woman with a speaking part. (Of course, the way the Mother Superior treats Moira may be part of why she doesn’t seek out other women). Secondary characters were under-developed, particularly the over-the-top villains who had no obvious motive for their actions.

The plot around the Dog Soldiers was disappointingly truncated. Just when I thought Del and the Marshal were going to work on solving the mystery, boom, there was a big action scene and the book was over. I was left with a lot of questions and no sense that this is a to-be-continued plot arc.

In a word, uneven. But the good stuff was good enough that I’ll try Harris again. This is her full-length début.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Barrayar (narrated by Grover Gardner)

The second (depending on how you count) book in the Vorkosigan saga. I don’t think the world needs me to summarize or review this one. So I’ll just say I really loved seeing Aral and Cordelia adjust to a marriage in which she’s left her world behind and is trying to adapt to his without losing herself. I moved to Canada a few weeks after my marriage. I was writing my dissertation and hardly knew anyone–it was a hard year. Sure, it wasn’t a patch on suddenly finding yourself married to the Imperial Regent of a warlike planet you regard as backward, but I identified with their struggles.

I got into a Twitter discussion about Romance series (series as interconnected books about 6 siblings, SEALs, werewolves, etc. vs. series as the currently hot trilogy about a single couple). I am not interested in pure romance series about one couple, as opposed to mysteries or speculative fiction with a romance thread. They seem to rely on the characters being really messed up, immature, and drama-llamatic to stretch out the conflict long enough. But I do like the idea of a couple from a previous book in an interconnected series coming back not in a “look at their perfect HEA” cameo but in a secondary storyline showing them adjusting to marriage. I don’t mean a marriage in trouble. I never had any doubt that Aral and Cordelia loved each other and would figure it out. I mean a marriage under construction. I think I am the only romance reader in the universe who would like this idea, though, so I’m not holding my breath.

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17 Responses to Recent Reading: Not So Much

  1. willaful says:

    I think we see quite a lot of that in the “in Death” books.

  2. kaetrin says:

    I like the “marriage under construction” thing too. So that makes at least 2 of us. 🙂

  3. Liz Mc2 says:

    Yes, I think you see a fair bit of “marriage (or relationship) under construction” in mystery or other series with a romance thread like In Death, where there is more than the relationship to carry the plot. But in straight-up romance, I think the idea that the HEA is ongoing work is off-putting to a lot of readers. So I will just keep finding it other places.

    • I don’t think the problem is that readers find the HEA as an ongoing work off-putting, I think what happens is that Romance is often about a very precise moment in time in the life of the couple: when they fall in love, when they reconcile or when they face one particular struggle in their relationship. It’s not as much about the bigger picture as it is about that one instant that’s exactly right for them to make their love work.

      But I’m with you. I wish there were more stories focusing on marriages or relationships under construction, or at least stories featuring established couples dealing with regular struggles instead of epic angst. But maybe that would be too boring for most readers.

  4. SonomaLass says:

    I do like books about making the HEA work, and as you say, that’s more common in other genres than romance. I did read a Carla Neggers book recently where the couple from the previous book was doing that alongside the main romance, but there I kind of felt like it was a distraction. To be fair, I hadn’t read their book, or I might have reacted differently.

    I was thinking of you, and library wish lists, today. I was picking up a book that I requested a few weeks ago when I saw it recommended and realized that It was too pricey in digital. Sure enough, it turns out that while I’d love to have it in my TBR, I’m not really in the mood for it right now. So I’ll keep it and see if I feel like reading it at some point in the three-week loan period. (The last book I did that with ended up being really good when I finally was in the right mood, but that was after renewing it. Twice.)

  5. Janet W says:

    Marriages under construction can be found occasionally–while I don’t necessarily see it often, I do see it and I like it. Particularly if the couple is very strong (thinking of Devil and Honoria in Lauren’s books), everything is simply not decided in “their” book. I may be one of the converted speaking to someone who is understandably skeptical, but a writer like Kristen Ashley, with a huge word count at her disposal, often re-visits relationships, particularly in her connected series. I would welcome that filtering into more mainstream, professionally edited romance.

    My library books are languishing, they just are. I resist the temptation, most of the time, to read the book equivalent of this month’s “It Girl” … I try to catch them after the buzz has died down and then I really do enjoy poking around and reading older blogs.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Janet, I think that would be a benefit of a longer word count, too. I know some people complain it detracts from the central couple, but I don’t think so, if done right. I’d love it if some of the genre-stretching “experiments” in popular self-published books encourage more experimenting from mainstream publishers as well.

  6. victoriajanssen says:

    I think Eileen Wilks does a great job with the ‘marriage under construction’ thing in her series – I am STILL not tired of Lily and Rule’s relationship.

  7. Wendy says:

    This reminds me that I need to get the Edie Harris book. There’s been some “hype” with it, but hot damn – it’s a western. That right there is enough for me to try it and see if it works for me.

  8. Sycorax Pine says:

    I would love to see more romance that *skillfully* stretches over multiple volumes. I often feel it as a loss, when I’ve gotten really attached to two characters in a romance, to know that when the book ends, that is the last I’ll see of their subjectivity (if not of them). If the characters are really vividly drawn, not just placeholders in conventional satisfying structures of falling-in-love narratives, then I want to think of them living a fuller life than can be covered in a single book. It’s depressing to think that the last page of the book is the last interesting thing that’s ever going to happen to or between them.

    This is the same reason I like marriage of convenience and friends-to-lovers narratives so much I think; they undercut what I think is one of the more troubling (even as it is soothing) aspects of romance conventions- the idea that all narrative interest ends with the “happily ever after,” or that there even is such a thing. Surely the “construction” of the relationship, the actual living with each other, isn’t just a misty afterthought, but the real meat of romance? (I have a whole rant relating this to the insidiousness of the “my wedding is going to be the best day of my life” rhetoric, but I’ll restrain myself.) I want to know not just that the protagonists recognized their love for each other, but how they actually made it work. It bothers me to think (as I’ve been told from time to time) that any conflict after the couple declare their love is a betrayal of their HEA: conflict and debate are a part of loving relationships, when the two people have maintained a healthy, self-respecting individuality. I wish there were more cultural representations of the pragmatics of this sort of love. (I’m think of you, Coach and Mrs. Taylor. Or of Katsa and Po in GRACELING.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was thinking about marriage of convenience when I wrote that; it’s a favorite trope of mine for this reason, too–how do they work out living together! I love books with a scene where one of them says “I think we can deal well together” in proposing a marriage of convenience, and I think, oh man, you so have the wrong end of the stick here, and then their nice rational bargain gets upended. Those are the best, for me.

      Also, I still remember waiting on hold to make an appointment at a wedding dress store MANY years ago, and the recorded messages saying something about “the most important day of your life.” I was thinking “I fucking hope not, there are a lot of days left afterwards!” I did NOT buy a dress there, although it was kind of fun trying them on.

  9. VacuousMinx says:

    I’m a huge fan of the story-after-the-HEA, but it’s hard to get them in straight romance. One of the reasons I love Mary Burchell’s Warrender series is that you see the first couple, Oscar and Anthea Warrender, pop up throughout the other books. Their story isn’t exactly advanced, but the way they interact reflects more than just their HEA and they’re not all syrupy. In one of the novels she gets quite angry with him, and it’s a scene that harkens back to their own book.

    Trollope’s Parliamentary (Palliser) novels are among the best at developing a marriage over several books, I think. And Thirkell’s take on Barsetshire has her revisiting earlier couples in later books. Frequently you’ll have a long-married couple with some kind of challenge to their happiness. But then her books usually combined a young romance with a more mature one, so that gave her more scope to do that.

    I’ve been tempted by the Edie Harris (and I agree a lot of the positive reviews seem to be by people unrelated to her). But in addition to what you’ve discussed here, the racism stuff I’ve heard about gives me pause.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Every time you mention Burchell I think WHY aren’t those available electronically! I think I have only read the first three Palliser novels, but I did like that about them (and I keep meaning to read the whole series one day).

      Actually, I’d love to hear a reader more expert than I am weigh in on the race and history aspects of Harris’ book. It wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it was going to be (the hero is the one with the most complex and changing point of view) but it wasn’t fully explored either. I know that’s pretty tricky in a romance.

  10. Ruthie says:

    Re: the post-HEA (or HFN) love story with no thread of mystery/suspense — I have been working on just this. And there are a number of reasons why it’s complicated. For starters, there is a sense that “readers don’t want that,” which I am having to try to surmount. But also, and I think more challenging, there is the whole question of conflict. Romantic conflict IS story in a straight-up contemporary romance, and I think part of readers’ squeamishness is that they hate to see characters who have surmounted their difficulties plunged back in again (and again and again). But of course, this is life — love is challenging, always, and the challenges shift over time. Watching a couple move through the stages of couplehood and life together is a very interesting thing to me. The trick is to try to keep the challenges/conflicts fresh while keeping the characters’ behavior true — because if your characters respond to new challenges the same way they did last time, they will seem to have learned nothing from the first experience (and also they will be boring). But if they respond in a completely new way, it might seem out of character.

    Also, love the Bujold books.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with all you say. That’s why I can see it more easily as a sub-plot (as it is in Bujold’s book). It does risk crossing a genre line. I will be curious to see what you come up with.

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