My Summer Vacation

This year, it was all about reconnecting with my roots. First, there was a cousin’s wedding in Chicago. My son described this portion of the trip as two days of “enthusiastically hugging people and then being told how they are related to you.” My extended family on my mom’s side is big: my 93-year-old grandmother, 6 in my mom’s generation, 13 in mine (I’m oldest), and 14 so far in my kids’. Almost all of us made it to the wedding. Since I am The One Who Married a Canadian (and moved to the West Coast) I don’t get to see them often. It was great, although there isn’t much chance to catch up in a crowd. 

We also took in a couple of museums, including the Daniel Clowes show at the Museum of

Ours was the one on the left.

Ours was the one on the left.

Contemporary Art for my husband, and drove by the house where I lived until I was 12.

Then we spent a week with my parents and sister in the Lake Michigan beach town where my grandparents rented a summer house for many years. I’ve always been deeply attached to places, but I’d have said that was one I didn’t really miss–and also that I’d pretty much gotten over being homesick for the Midwest, where I haven’t lived since high school. But as soon as I stepped onto the

A little Lake Michigan on the Pacific Coast.

A little Lake Michigan on the Pacific Coast.

beach I was filled with memories from childhood, and I missed it like crazy. All the places that meant “home” to me as a child–our house, our Wisconsin cabin, that Michigan beach, my grandparents’ houses–are lost to me now. I love where I live, but I do feel cut off from the places, and to some extent the people, that are the bedrock of my life. I brought back a collection of tiny beach rocks so I can have a little bit of “home” in my office.

I always get less reading done on vacation than I think I will, but here’s what I did read:

Assignment in BrittanyHelen MacInnes: MacInnes had been recommended to me by a number of readers, including Janet Webb, so I was glad to see some of her books being reissued. I really enjoyed this classic WWII spy story, which is lowish on action, high on psychology, with a great portrayal of a village in occupied France. I mentioned to a friend of my dad’s that I was reading this, and he said he’d read all her books years ago–and is currently rereading Mary Stewart.

A Woman EntangledCecilia Grant: I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, because I knew a number of Grant fans found it a bit of a let-down. I loved it. On Goodreads, Molly O’Keefe called this “the most human” of Grant’s books, and I think that’s a good way of putting it. The action is internal (much of it takes place indoors, and inside the hearts and minds of the characters). Where her first two books were obviously doing Big Things with the genre (and I loved that about them), this one is quieter, though no less ambitious in its way–and ambition is one of its themes. For much of the novel, Nick and Kate are not really in a romance, or don’t realize that they are–they are each working out their own issues, and the way they bounce off of each other is an important part of doing so, but their issues aren’t really about each other, or caused by their relationship. I think this would be unsatisfying for some romance readers, but I enjoyed it, and the way their connection built slowly. It’s also appropriate for a novel that takes Pride and Prejudice as an intertext. I’m still working out what I think about this one, and would love to discuss it (perhaps I can even work up the energy for the proper review it deserves).

Just for fun, here’s a passage in which Kate’s sister, Viola, explains why she harangued a man in the library (much to Kate’s embarrassment):

“The more library clerks and booksellers I make aware of my project, the more likely it is that they’ll mention me in discussions with one another–perhaps even in discussions with publishers. . . . One day I may well be overheard, and approached by some enterprising man who sees that the time is ripe for a book like mine.”

My e-book annotatation: “LOL! Regency author spam!” This wasn’t the only moment where I felt the presence of Romancelandia and its debates in the book.

Fearless and Ruthless, HelenKay Dimon: I enjoyed Dimon’s 5-book Harlequin Intrigue series Mystery Men, so I was happy to start a new one. Her suspense pacing is great and fits the small package, her alpha heroes are never too jerky, her heroines not TSTL. These were perfect airplane reading, and I mean that as a compliment: they kept my attention engaged. I thought the romance worked best in Fearless, because re-united lovers are more convincing in such a short space. Reading them back to back reminded me of why I don’t glom, though, because I became too aware of the patterns in Dimon’s characters and tics of her writing, like gazes bouncing around. I often find her sentences awkward, and that began to bug me:

“Thanks for bringing dinner,” she said, verbally pulling Pax in another conversation direction with all her might.

But her story-telling is really solid. I can see three more potential heroes for this series (thankfully, they didn’t feel like sequel bait) and I’m in for their books.

I listened to another Amelia Peabody book, and am on to #4. I love this series, especially the first, which I’ve reread many many times, and was saddened to hear today of Elizabeth Peters’ death.

Now it’s on to reading books for class and for the literary magazine review I’ve agreed to do, as well as Gaffney’s Forever and Ever (I’ll do a discussion post on that for August 15). I’m also listening to The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling. I was not thrilled about the fake author bio, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the revelation of her authorship was a deliberate publicity stunt, but I figured if I’d heard of the book before all that came out I would have wanted to read it, so what the heck. I’m about halfway and enjoying it very much. Ironically, I don’t think the fake military/law enforcement experience attributed to Galbraith is significant in the story, but Rowling’s own experience with fame is.

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22 Responses to My Summer Vacation

  1. SuperWendy says:

    Re: HelenKay Dimon’s secondary characters not feeling like “sequel bait.” – I’m so glad someone else thinks this too! She is the one author who always seems to deliver interesting secondary characters that I actually hope get their own romances down the line. They’re never feel like hunky interchangeable faces that float on the page with the sole purpose of tempting me to buy every next book in the series.

    It’s sad, but the prevalence of the series (I think) has readers looking under every rock these days. Every time a secondary character pops up we immediate think, “Oh joy – sequel bait!” Which, you know, doesn’t always have to be the case. With Dimon though, I always want it to be the case. She’s got that mojo for incorporating secondary characters that peak my interest. Whatever that indefinable “it” maybe. If she knows she might want to bottle it and sell it to other writers 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think it’s partly that she gives them distinct personalities. But the suspense plots also really help–each of the 5 men here has a clear role to play on the team, so they are needed in the story even if they never get a book. Their parts aren’t walk-on.

      For instance, the boss of this team has an inexplicably absent wife and I would lay money on the fact that the last book in the series will be some kind of reunion/marriage in trouble story featuring them. But he’s not just waiting around for his book to come, he’s mentoring and directing the other characters, AND he’s interesting enough in his own right and the hints of trouble in his background are unobtrusive enough that I’m curious rather than annoyed by this certainty.

    • Sunita says:

      I came over to talk about the Dimon and Wendy was ahead of me! You know I agree completely with both of you. Dimon is hands down my favorite writer in category RS and one of my favorites in category, full stop. I have both of these in my TBR and meant to get to them already but I have been distracted by … whatever that stuff is that I do when I’m awake.

      And great point about the sequel bait. In both her contemporary and RS books, everyone has something to do. They aren’t just there to signal “next book, here I come!” and I so appreciate that in today’s environment. When authors feel as if they have to explain why a book is a stand-alone, as if that is something odd, we’re seriously out of whack. After reading and recommending 2 of the 3 books in her Carina contemporary series (I hadn’t read the first novella), I picked up the 4th and last one in audio because it was ridiculously inexpensive. It was just as good as the other three and while the characters from the earlier installments showed, it made sense that they did and they didn’t take over the story. And we learned new things about the patriarch.

    • Isobel Carr says:

      I get emails begging for “the book” of almost any secondary character I mention (often with little notes of “I don’t know how you plan to redeem so-and-so, but I’m looking forward to seeing you do it!”). Hence my propensity for killing off the villains.

      Recently I’ve begun getting nudges about when Thane’s book is coming and I’m hearing grumbling that he’s the anchor of the series and will be last. I think readers have become trained to see potential heroes in any and all characters.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I do think we’re trained–there are so many series where it’s clear which hero’s story is being saved for last/best and the wait for it becomes the focus of a lot of reader discussion. I’d think it’s hard for a writer to buck those expectations, in many cases. Sadly.

    • willaful says:

      I remember someone saying “sequel bait” about several uninteresting siblings in a Madeline Hunter novel, and thinking it totally improbable. As it turned out, I was right. But it kind of shows how suspicious and cynical we’ve gotten. And then there was the charming brother everyone thought would be in the next book, who died…

  2. Miss Bates says:

    I’m so glad that you loved Grant’s AWE. I absolutely loved it too, particularly for her references to Austen, but other authors too. Viola?, I think, mentions Wollstonecraft. And when we’re introduced to Nick, he’s thinking about writers important to the law. I thought all those references was terrific, not dry, or notecardish at all. I thought the book was a bit of a debate between PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and EMMA.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The part about all the people who went on from the Temple to greatness made me laugh, because my college used to have as its brand tagline [this is a rant I can’t have] “You can go anywhere from here.”

      Because I finished Grant’s Blackshear trilogy and then picked up the last of Gaffney’s Wyckerley trilogy, I keep thinking about connections (entirely unintended, since Grant had not read any Gaffney, I think) between them–like the fact that EMMA is alluded to in FOREVER AND EVER and both that and AWE are so attentive to class consciousness.

      A Goodreads friend (author Olivia Waite) made the point that unlike many romance novels, the misunderstandings decrease as AWE goes along, and I thought that was really interesting. I liked how the characters are so self-conscious about doing and saying the right things to get where they want to be (especially Kate, who is really, like her mother, an actress, using her body language, her expressions, her voice, in very conscious ways) and at the same time so lacking in self-awareness about some of their own feelings and needs (not just for each other). It’s so much a book about acting with integrity and the risks that involves, in a more subtle way than the previous books in the series–though I’d say that’s a connecting thread–and that’s something I could really identify with.

      • Miss Bates says:

        Yes, I learned so much here. I especially liked the idea of decreasing misunderstandings and integrity, an ethos very dear to my heart when I find it in romance. JANE EYRE had it so. And Austen’s beloved characters.

        The other thing I liked about AWE is the friendship between Nick and Kate/Kate’s family. I had the Chesire cat’s grin when I read about Kate’s scoffing thoughts about Lizzie’s initial rejection of Darcy. I agreed with her; I could relate to the idea of marrying all that money and prestige when one comes from the perspective of a struggling family. It would just be such a relief. Would Miss Bates have rejected Darcy’s initial suit? Ha. Recently, I read Kelly’s SUMMER CAMPAIGN, where the Cinderella-heroine confesses to the hero that she’d just like to walk into the milliner’s and buy any bonnet she wants. Yes. It sounds superficial, but I nodded away, as I did for Kate. In the end, though, because Nick and Kate do have integrity and friendship (which is why I think EMMA wins the debate here; she too chooses her friend, Mr. Knightly), they make the right but more difficult, at least socially and financially, choice. Which is also why I loved that final family dinner with everyone together like that. It was Dickensian in its togetherness.

        On a sadder note, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Micheals/Mertz … how I loved those Egypt-set books (and how different they’d be to write today). I read them all on a summer beach on the Aegean years and years ago and the yellowed and drying yellow copies are still knocking about somewhere. Well, it was a long and good life from the sounds of it and to go to one’s Maker having given so much pleasure to so many … that’s a fine fine legacy.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          SPOILERY COMMENT.

          I really liked the scenes with her family or Nick where Kate started arguing like a barrister and showed how much she’s like the rest of her family, even if she doesn’t want to be (“She’s a member,” as my husband’s family would say). For one thing, they kept me from seeing her as shallow and heartless.

          But I also think they exposed a flaw in Kate’s thinking and ultimately, for me, in the narrative–one that’s common to a lot of Romanceland thinking (and maybe to our society in general): Kate assumes that an aristocratic man wants a wife who is basically a pretty, socially graceful doll. She suppresses opinions and signs of her intelligence because a man will want to instruct her–she just listens prettily. But in fact a politically ambitious man might well not want a wife like that. I loved the idea of her hosting political salons as Nick’s wife, but I thought the baron (whose name is slipping my mind) might well want that in a wife too–witness his interest in Miss Smith. I wondered for a while if Kate and Miss Smith were going to go head to head for him and Kate was going to LOSE, because she had fundamentally misunderstood what a politically-ambitious member of the ton would want in a wife. THAT would have been a much darker book (for one thing, Kate would have lost a friend, at least for a while, and I loved that the heroine had one for once). But it would have been interesting, and in many ways more realistic.

          So often historical romance depicts aristocratic society as one big party, ignoring the work of landowning and politics. I really enjoy a romance that does not do that–and I liked the hints of politics in this one.

      • Miss Bates says:

        I loved Miss Smith and the friendship with Kate that is depicted; she’ll get her man I think. The Baron (I don’t remember his name either!) struck me as a a kind of liberal-minded aristocrat that was emerging at the time. Viola (how I loved Viola, as character, as foil), for one, is always scoffing at Kate and her conservative, practical-minded, conformist ways. And Grant makes a comment about how the world was changing, British society was changing … Nick and Kate are stuck in some notions of class and status that were slowly but surely passing away. And I thought, at the end of the novel, that it was as much a coming-of-age narrative for Nick and Kate as it was a romance. And I loved that about it.

        On another note and in keeping with your comment about historical romance’s depiction of aristocratic society as a monolith of partydom and ratafia, a fab depiction of a courtship and marriage amidst liberal politics is in the film AMAZING GRACE. Don’t know if you’ve seen it? With Ioan Gruffudd (num num!) as William Wilberforce and his quest to end the British slave trade and Romolai Garai as the woman who doesn’t listen pretty and brings him out of a funk of despair. She doesn’t mince words and she lets him know exactly how astute and informed she is. It’s a great scene. It’s a great film. If you have seen it, sorry for going on and on.

  3. Sunita says:

    I read all Helen MacInnes’ books when I was reading romantic suspense as a teenager, at pretty much the same time I was reading Mary Stewart. They’re much more time-bound, in that they are engaged with WW2 and the Cold War that followed, and they definitely have an ideology behind them. I enjoyed them immensely and reread some of them multiple times. It’s great to see them being digitized. Now if they would just digitize the Mary Stewart RS novels!

    I’m saving the Rowling/Galbraith audiobook for my upcoming cross-country drive, so I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying it. I didn’t like the biography fakery either, but I’m glad to see that her storytelling skills work in the mystery genre. Not that I need a new series to fall into.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I had to overlook some major German stereotyping (which I guess was understandable at the time) and I heard they get more rightwing. But then, I enjoy John Buchan, so….

      I like the narrator of the Galbraith book a lot. It’s quite character-driven and despite the urban, multicultural setting has a sort of cozy tone; I thought those were both true of Harry Potter, really, although I’d certainly never have picked this up and suspected it was Rowling.

  4. rosario001 says:

    I was very sad to hear about Barbara Mertz’s death. I discovered her really early in my reading life, long before amazon, when I was at the mercy of publishers and had to read whichever random books in English they decided to send off to Uruguay. I loved her books well enough that I haunted every bookstore that carried English-language books in the city. I still have what was clearly one of the first of hers that I picked up, where I’ve carefully crossed out (in different inks, clearly as I found them) the books in the “More by this author” list at the front. I’ve reread her books regularly for years, and they were amongst the few I’ve brought over to England with me.

    Re: The Cuckoo’s Calling: I didn’t particularly mind the fake author bio, and I would be very surprised if the revelation was a publicity stunt. It would take a lot of money to get an old and previously-respected law firm to basically trash their reputation by admitting that one of its partners had breached confidentiality, which is what they did. I completely agree about Rowling’s experience of fame (and with the vile nightmare that is the British tabloid press) being really prominent in the story, if you’re looking for it. I was particularly struck by the scene where Strike is escorting that model friend of Lula’s (Ciara, I think) into a nightclub where the paparazzi are waiting outside, and there’s a really vivid description of what it’s like walking through blinding camera flashes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Once it came out that the law firm was involved/exposed I did think it was less likely to be a planned publicity stunt. And honestly, I don’t much care.

      I think I have read Crocodile on the Sandbank about 20 times, but it has been years since I read anything else in the series. And I only read one Vicky Bliss book; I should remedy that. I think I read a Barbara Michaels book in HS.

  5. joopdeloop says:

    Just finished AWE, and was pleased to find it so delicious after skimming through some negative reviews/comments. I loved the unburdening conversation between Kate and Viola, the dynamics of the Westbrook family, and that Grant took the time to depict the fallout from Will and Lydia’s marriage. Speaking of series/sequel bait… this is how I like it done! I loved the organic development of this series and the couples depicted. Even though each book seems as if it would function well as stand alone reading, I really enjoyed the progression of the books. (A family written as a actual people with connections and not a stable of studs named Rinse, Lather & Repeat) I loved Nick’s slow evolution of thinking about his brother Will and his choices (alongside his honesty about Martha and her choices). I love that there were consequences (to Kate’s father marrying her mother, to Will marrying Lydia): Rose’s embroidery floss in knots every inch, Nick losing business, his wash of emotions from fear to self-disgust whenever people alluded to his brother’s marriage, the Harringdons one step-forward, two steps-back dance with Kate. It just makes the HEA that much sweeter, for acknowledging what was at stake for a hero and heroine to come together.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree about how well this worked as a series. You could absolutely pick up any one book and not be lost, and there are not actual sequel-bait characters in any of them. But I found reading all three fascinating, because they are quite different but there are themes running throughout and ways that each has some impact on the next. I’m sure I read them differently in the context of each other. I’d LOVE to see more series that worked like this, and where each new hero/heroine didn’t end up feeling like a carbon copy of the others once his/her book arrived (which I think is often what happens–the conventional demands of the hero role, in particular, often flatten out a character’s previous difference).

  6. Janine Ballard says:

    That Helen MacInnes sounds like something I should read.

    I wish I’d gotten as much out of A Woman Entangled you and Miss Bates did. I liked the last third a whole lot but the first half was kind of dry.

    All the talk about Rowling/Galbraith makes me wonder if I’d like The Cuckoo’s Calling. I am one of the few who was meh on Harry Potter and only finished the first two books in that series…

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think whether you’d like either of these depends on whether their genre/type of book is your thing. They’re both good, enjoyable examples of their kind but not really ground-breaking.

      Despite the London setting I think the Galbraith book is basically a cozy mystery–character-driven, taking place within a small community, like a village setting within the city. I really liked that about it and found the characters engaging. But it’s not like “OMG you must read this it’s the best thing ever/totally unique.” It’s solid and enjoyable. I hope (s)he writes more about these people, but wonder if that is less likely now.

  7. Ros says:

    Oh, please host an AWE discussion! I would love to chat about lots of the things in that book. I really, really liked it but I think it was also flawed in some respects.

  8. willaful says:

    I seem to be the only person who liked Peters/Michaels stand-alone romances more than her series. Got tired of Amelia decades ago, never got into Jacqueline or Vicky Bliss (I keep meaning to try them again, thinking I might like them better now that I’m an adult.) Summer of the Dragon was my favorite Peters, and The Love Talker; Shattered Silk my favorite Michaels. And of course as a Daughter of Time fan, I loved The Murders of Richard III/

    • Rosario says:

      I love her series, but I loved her stand-alones as well. She had a poll on her website a few years ago, before she wrote the last Vicky Bliss, asking what her readers would like, and I voted for a new Barbara Michaels. My favourites amongst them are the perfect ghost stories.

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