Recent Reading: Summer Break!

This is probably three posts’ worth of stuff, but I’m dumping it all at once because I’m about to go on summer vacation hiatus and I’m too lazy to schedule separate posts. I tried to provide good headers so you can scroll to bits that might interest you.

Reading Formats

I said that after finishing David Van Reybrouck’s Congo I was ready for some light and fluffy reading, and I was. But even though holding that big hardcover was a literal pain at times, I found myself wanting to pick up another big paper book. I think there’s something about that physical form that signals my brain immersive reading ahead. My eyes strayed to some of the fat, neglected tomes on my TBR shelves, but I restrained myself for now because I’m about to leave on a trip. I’ll be slipping a Mary Stewart paperback (This Rough Magic) into my carry-on bag along with my loaded e-reader and iPod, but no Big Fat Book for August.

Unless it’s digital. I’m thinking a train to Scotland might be the perfect place to give Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings another go. I have the whole Lymond series as ebooks, bought with a Kobo 90% off coupon (I still don’t know how it miraculously worked on Penguin books), but I wonder if I wouldn’t find it easier to lose myself in those long, complex books on paper.

Given these ponderings, I found Maria Konnikova’s New Yorker piece on “Being a Better Online Reader” fascinating (h/t @anacoqui). It’s a thoughtful, balanced look at recent studies of digital reading: it does seem to get in the way of “deep reading” (links, scrolling, the lack of the physical cues we’re used to, and even multiple columns of text may work against focus), but we can likely teach our brains to adapt.

Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention.

It’s something I keep working on, and it’s reassuring to know both that I’m not alone and that there’s hope!

I Read Romance and I Liked It!

Yes, at last my romance mojo seems to be returning (maybe I just need to jump start it regularly with some hefty non-fiction?).

Lia Silver, Prisoner

Not only did I buy Lia Silver’s Prisoner after it was recommended by both Jane of Dear Author and Victoria Janssen, I actually read it. And liked it! Prisoner is the first in a trilogy (I’d say they are category-length novels), and features DJ Torres, a werewolf Marine (I know, this does not sound like a Liz book) who’s captured by some kind of secret government (?) group that wants to experiment on him and use him as an assassin. There he meets Echo, a genetically engineered woman designed as a killing machine. Echo can’t escape because the baddies are holding her sick sister hostage; DJ must escape because he turned his buddy Roy into a wolf to save his life, and Roy needs him. The book ends on a hopeful note, but their path to a free, happy future together is still far from clear.

This book did one of my favorite things in genre fiction: it took tropes that could easily seem stale, kicked them around and freshened them up. The secret evil government lab thing manages not to be cheesy (mostly) because the emotional dilemmas of the characters are well-developed. Silver imagines werewolf pack dynamics in interesting ways: DJ’s family is his pack, and being a wolf makes him comfortable with (even somewhat dependent on) touch and companionship. He’s anything but a lone wolf, and he’s comfortable expressing emotion. He’s no domineering, possessive alpha, but he’s not submissive either. I liked seeing a hero who doesn’t fall into the alpha/beta dichotomy, boxes I’m very tired of. (DJ is also Filipino. I thought Silver did a good job of making his culture part of him but not an issue in the story, and of making him sexy and heroic–something Asian men are rarely seen as being in Western media–but without exoticizing him).

Echo’s attachment to her sister Charlie, and the way Charlie’s illness traps her, could make her into the typical self-sacrificing martyr heroine, but she’s more like the typical wounded, closed-off alpha hero, making character more complex than I expected at first. Echo isn’t the sweet care-taking woman DJ imagines marrying at the start of the book, except when she is: she cares for Charlie, and increasingly she cares for DJ, recognizing that though he’s physically strong, he’s emotionally vulnerable to her and she has to be careful not to hurt him. My favorite part was that DJ sees her as a “sister Marine.” DJ and Echo are partners by the end of the book, with neither needing to be in charge.

Charlie loves reading romances, and Silver had some gentle fun with the genre as a result–something that highlighted her departures from convention. The meta-fictional jokes sometimes felt a little belabored, but more often I loved them: when Echo wonders what DJ might think about her having condoms in her purse because of her penchant for one-night stands, DJ says “I hope you don’t disapprove, but I’m not a virgin either.” Honestly, the joking about books with “time-traveling billionaire Viking Navy SEAL[s]” helped me get past “werewolf Marine? are you kidding me?” Silver doesn’t take her story too seriously, but she also provides, at times, a thoughtful, subtle exploration of romance themes like power, possessiveness, and dichotomized gender roles. I’m looking forward to more of this trilogy.

Side Notes: Music and Disclosure

DJ is actually a DJ, and I started wondering if the music he played for Echo was real: yes, Gloc-9 and Bohemia exist. This is the second book in a row (after Congo) that led me to broaden my musical horizons. As it turns out, for this one I needn’t have relied on YouTube. Silver provides musical notes and links to MP3s in the back of the book. She also thanks Victoria Janssen for DJ’s musical taste.

Once again, I wish Romanceland were better about disclosure. Victoria recommended this book at Heroes & Heartbreakersas far as I have seen, the only disclosure on that site has been when they posted about a book written by one of their employees. But I’m aware of other connections that may have influenced which books posters chose to write about and recommend there, and I’m sure what I’ve glimpsed from my Twitter feed is the tip of that iceberg. I have Twitter-known Victoria for a while and we met in person this spring, and so even knowing that she has a connection to Silver, I trust her recommendation for the book. Relationships don’t make recommendations valueless. Still, if, for example, you had lunch at RWA last week with the person whose book you’re recommending today, I’d like to know that. I wish more sites had policies that emphasized the importance of mentioning these relationships. It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed: here’s a lovely example where the recommender talks about how her relationship with the author enriched her reading (h/t Brie).

Ridley tweeted a link to this disclosure by the editor of The Best American Sports Writing (scroll to the bottom). Given the nature of writing communities, he notes,

it is virtually impossible for either a Series or Guest Editor for any of the Best American titles not to have some kind of relationship with some authors of stories under consideration, either as friends, acquaintances, colleagues, or even as editors or publishers.

But he is scrupulous about checking with people about whether they perceive a conflict of interest in his dual roles, and about recommending pieces from SB Nation, for which he consults. That description above sure sounds like Romanceland. Can we not do as well as Glenn Stout at keeping recommendations open and honest in such a community?

Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground

I started this in May, set it aside for no particular reason, and when I picked it back up, zipped through the second half. A circus, a castle roof-top chase scene, and (be still my 12-year-old heart) Lipizzaner horses. I loved Vanessa, the courageous heroine; Tim, her worldly teenaged companion; and the understated way Stewart revealed the love and attraction between Vanessa and her husband Lewis. I like this review from Danielle of Romantic Armchair Traveller (I miss that blog!)

Given my feelings about vigilante violence in the genre, I was especially interested in Vanessa’s reaction when Lewis takes physical revenge on the villain for hitting her:

I could see myself that [Tim’s] admiration for Lewis had soared to the edge of idolatry. I thought with resignation that men seemed in some ways to pass their lives on an unregenerately primitive level. Well, I could hardly cavil. I had had a fairly primitive reaction myself to my husband’s eye-for-an-eye violence. . . . That I was coldly ashamed of it now proved nothing.

This psychologically astute passage made me think about how, in general, the genre moves between more traditional and more progressive visions of gender relations, and how in doing so it reflects a tension many of us feel in ourselves. It’s not as simple, I don’t think, as a tension between what we think we should want and what we really want, or between real life and fantasy, though it’s often presented that way. I think it reflects the way someone can feel or believe conflicting things simultaneously. (I can’t really say what I mean here).

Rosy Thornton, More Than Love Letters

I bought this ages ago on Brie’s recommendation, and decided to read it now more or less at random. I started it last night, stayed up too late, and lay on the couch reading it all morning when I really should have been doing other things. That hasn’t happened to me in ages. This is an epistolary novel (my catnip!) and a blend of chick lit, women’s fiction, and romance. It’s charming and light, but involves serious subjects like grief and homelessness and refugees. Margaret is a newly-fledged primary school teacher and social activist who likes to write letters to her MP. He thinks she’s an elderly crank, but finds she’s a beautiful young woman. His involvement with her is selfish at first, but he comes to care about the women in the refuge home she helps run (as part of a women’s collective whose acronym is WITCH–I think the book is mostly laughing with, not at, these women). Slowly, they fall in love. Margaret’s grandmother, landlady, and friend Becs are also part of the letter/e-mail writing circles of the book. (So is Richard’s colleague Michael, but this is really a woman-centered story and I loved that about it).

There’s a whiff of North and South fanfiction here: Thornton (hello, is that a pen name?) thanks the C19 message boards, which are replete with such fanfiction; Margaret’s vicar father loves Gaskell and named her after Margaret Hale; the hero’s name is Richard, à la Armitage; and they start more or less as political opponents, with the cynical, careerist Richard needing to be won back to his pre-New Labour passions by Margaret’s fervor for doing good and doing right. I thought it stayed on the right side of the line between homage and ripoff, and was its own original thing, but others might feel differently.

I may agree that the insistence on likable and “relatable” characters is problematic, but I enjoyed this book for its likable, relatable charm. It was exactly what I needed to while away the hours in which I read it.

My enjoyment of More Than Love Letters’ political angle also reminded me of my never-accomplished plan to read a bunch of political-themed romances. Maybe I’ll pick up another on my vacation. Or maybe not. My main goal is not to do any reading that feels like homework for the next two weeks. Lord knows, there will be plenty of that when I get back and find the start of term bearing down on me like a freight train.

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10 Responses to Recent Reading: Summer Break!

  1. willaful says:

    Ooo, my catnip too! Have to find that one.

    BTW, my mom did enjoy The Divorce Papers.

  2. Ros says:

    Hooray for some successful romance reading. Rosy Thornton is on my ‘to try’ list, as is Mary Stewart.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I don’t have much to add, since we’ve already discussed Prisoner and I haven’t read the other books you mention here, but I’m glad your romance mojo is back. I enjoyed this post.

    On second thought, I do have something to add. I only finished book one of Lymond, and that was years ago, and it took me over a month–but I had exactly the same thought about trying to tackle the series again in another format. Except I read The Game of Kings on paper, and if I try rereading it, it will only be in digital.

  4. kaetrin says:

    Have a great holiday Liz! 🙂

  5. Sunita says:

    I loved Airs Above the Ground when I first read it as a teenager and when I read it a couple of years ago it held up really well. I really do like the depiction of their marriage.

    Thanks for the heads-up that the Thornton may be fanfic/homage/whatever to Gaskell. Unless it’s a Thirkell-level re-imagining, I’ll stick to the originals.

  6. Rohan says:

    I really enjoyed the two Rosy Thornton novels I read – Tapestry of Love and Hearts and Minds. You’re spot on about the N&S fan fiction thing for More than Love Letters:

    Have a wonderful vacation!

  7. I hope Lymond goes well! I remember the first 50 pages or so were a slog for me, but the last third of the first book took off like a rocket.

    Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground – I read this one in high school and really loved the twist involving the narrator’s husband. Also the horses.

    On disclosure – in general, I feel like getting personal is sometimes important and sometimes less so; It feels weird to constantly give the exact particulars of how you know someone, particularly when you know a LOT of writers. (I feel it would be different if, say, the author was a spouse or partner or sibling.) In a brief rec, I don’t always bother to disclose; but then again, I don’t rec things for the H&H “best of” column unless I truly enjoyed them. I have plenty of writer friends whose work I’ve never recced at all, or never even read. Though I guess there’s no reason for anyone to know all that! I do know Lia Silver (mostly online; we have met in person twice, but that was years ago), and I made sure to tell her I was reccing her book because I truly did love it, not just because I knew her. i did consider more disclosure, given that she cited me in the acknowledgements, but worried it might be considered bragging, so I didn’t. I had no input whatsoever into the story, I just did a mix for her after the first Werewolf Marines book came out and I read it (she’d cited a band I’d turned her on to, years ago). And that is probably way more than you wanted/needed to know….

  8. Liz Mc2 says:

    I have limited wifi access (mark of a real vacation!) but thanks for the comments, everyone.

    @Victoria, I would not expect any individual to mention relationships on a site where it wasn’t common practice to do so–I think that would feel awkward, and I can also understand your point about bragging. (so my comment was not meant as criticism of you personally) My own preference in these situations would be a brief sentence like “I contributed music suggestions to this book.” Maybe not calling it something other than disclosure would make it less legalistic and would make the bar seem less high–I don’t think we need to read the ins and outs of a relationship. I notice some bloggers say things like “I interact with the author on Twitter” and I appreciate that. It does color my reviews, I think, even when I am not aware of it, so I try to mention these things too.

  9. Janine Ballard says:

    I try to mention my conflicts of interest but it’s not always clear to me when something is a conflict. If someone is a friend or a critique partner, it’s a clear conflict. But if I occasionally exchange tweets with someone, is that a conflict? Sometimes people will tweet me and I feel it would be rude not to reply. That doesn’t necessarily feel like enough of a relationship to mention it in a review. Or sometimes I like someone but have no idea how she feels about me. Again, that doesn’t seem worth mentioning.

    Or what about the opposite situation, where I get the cold shoulder from someone? That *could* be a conflict if I let it affect my feelings enough, but if I don’t feel it’s reached that point, surely mentioning it in a review would be a bad idea? (I can just see it: “Dear Ms Author, I met you at wherever and you treated me coldly. Was that because I review for DA? Whatever the reason, I think I can still be fair and separate you from your book, so I’ve decided to review it. [Launch into body of review.] Sincerely, Janine.” )

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