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.
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 & Heartbreakers; as 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).
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.