August Reading and September New Leaf

My holiday was great: a few relaxed days at either end with my parents (lake, porch, lots of reading time); a few days in Scotland (loved it!); and far too much time on planes and trains (I like trains, but they eventually palled). On my return, I parachuted right in to my new role as department chair, which along with preparing for teaching has kept me very busy for the past two weeks.

I’ve been in school one way or another as long as I can remember, so September always feels to me like the start of a new year. I’d like to get back to writing in-depth posts, especially on specific books I’ve read, so that’s my blogging goal for this fall. This post, however, will be a quick rundown of the reading I did in August. Thanks to vacation, there was a ton. I won’t be able to keep up this pace in September.

Lots of Romance! (Is My Mojo Back? Sort Of)

Rachel Bach, Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1): Space opera with a strong romantic element. I liked this so much that I bought the rest of the trilogy when I was only part way into it. Fun action-adventure and I really liked how the heroine, Devi, seemed like a mercenary: ambitious, tough, sometimes drank too much, liked her relationships casual (in retrospect, I guess she seemed like a typical male mercenary rather than a real reimagining of the role, but whatever). The romance didn’t wow me as much. It felt way more trope-driven than the rest of the book, although to be fair it might be that I’m just less familiar with space opera tropes. I was hoping that the character who walked onstage screaming “I’m romance hero material” would not turn out to be the love interest, but no dice. Still, the charming, gorgeous guy tormented by dark secrets is a pretty appealing trope. I’m not sorry I have two more to go.

Ginn Hale, “Black Blades” (Rifter #3): I continue to find this fantasy serial engrossing, though I’m reading it verrrry slowly because it’s quite dark and not my usual fare. I think Shannon may have given up on it, but it was pretty ambitious for a read-along. There’s a lot worth talking about in it. But I am lazy.

Piper Huguley, The Lawyer’s LuckI picked up this novella (and the novel that follows it) because they’re historicals featuring African American characters, and because the stories sounded interesting. I was also impressed by the gorgeous, historically-accurate covers. No stock photo brides here! There were a lot of interesting elements here: I liked that it featured religious characters without feeling preachy, that the characters aren’t wealthy and find happiness despite their precarious lives, that the hero ponders whether marriage wouldn’t be just another form of enslavement for the heroine. The writing was a bit rough and I found the romance not entirely convincing (I pretty much agree with Jayne’s Dear Author review), but this book was different and engaging and I look forward to more from the author.

HelenKay Dimon, Relentless (Corcoran Team): The first couple of books in this Harlequin Intrigue series came out last summer, and I read them on a plane. So this year, I continued the tradition. I find these books reliable, quick time-passers. Dimon’s plotting is solid and I like her female characters (there’s nothing wrong with the heroes, they just feel more typical of romantic suspense). Are they formulaic? Kind of–I wouldn’t want to read too many in quick succession. But it’s a formula that works for me, and there’s enough variety in the plots that they don’t feel identical at all. I’ve got the remaining two. If only I had another vacation coming up!

Rose Lerner, Sweet Disorder:  I wanted to love this but ended up with mixed feelings. In part, I think that’s because I expected a serious, political historical. But although it focuses on electioneering and the basic situation is well-researched, it felt quite modern in sensibility to me. They were cynical about politics in the 19th century, but not in the same way we are. And I couldn’t really believe in Regency aristocrats who took such a very hands-on approach to securing votes, though I’m no expert in this area. I think the nods to contemporary topics contributed to that feeling: “Men always wanted to explain things, didn’t they?” Phoebe thinks at one point (Regency mansplaining?) and there’s a defense of reading without shame that feels ripped from Romanceland Twitter. When I read a historical novel, I want to feel like I’m getting away from my own world, not seeing it reflected.

I also thought the ending was hasty and over-simplified secondary characters who had the potential to be more interesting (especially but not only Nick’s family). At the same time, I liked both Nick and Phoebe and believed in them as a couple.The way Phoebe’s writing contributed to her characterization made me smile–she chides herself for describing a smile as “oily” and “narrating” everyone or turning them into character types. And although I thought the sex scenes were longer and more detailed than they needed to be (don’t I always, these days–but really, why do we pretend titillation isn’t a big part of their job?) they did really contribute to the character development. Nick in particular has trouble asking for or even knowing what he wants, he’s denied himself for so long, and sex is one place they learn to do that.

I never really lost myself in this book, but I was reading it on and off on planes, hardly ideal immersion conditions. And really, very few (no?) books manage to give me that immersive feeling the whole time I’m reading them, so am I asking to much? Sweet Disorder had its immersive moments, for sure. It really deserves a whole post to unpack my reading but I’m not up to it.

Leah Ashton, Why Resist a Rebel? I picked this up because it won the RITA for Short Contemporary Series romance and a lot of writers I enjoy write for Harlequin’s now-defunct Kiss line, in which it appeared. (This might be the first Kiss book I’ve actually read *looks askance at TBR*). Reading it made me think about how hard it is for a book to stand out in this award category: there are so many series/category romances published each year, and part of what they have to do is fit in their line, so how can a book be truly outstanding? This one was a good, solid read but I bet there were a couple of dozen just as good this year.

The other thing that really struck me was that Ashton’s book has closed-door sex scenes but I had no trouble believing the hero and heroine were attracted to each other and having great sex. Closed-door doesn’t go with shame about sex (necessarily). Heroine Ruby sought comfort in male attention in the past–while a man wanted her, she felt important, special, something she didn’t feel as a foster child. (This pattern is something of a cliché, but also not uncommon in real life.) When she realizes these encounters aren’t making her happy, she stops, but she doesn’t stop having casual sexual hook-ups. She just doesn’t look for self-confidence or happiness there. There’s zero slut-shaming. I really liked this about the book, and that Ashton created such a character in a book that’s not explicit.

In retrospect, maybe I do think this is outstanding of its kind. I’m certainly glad the RITA made me pick it up.

Alyssa Everett, An Heir of Uncertainty: I’ve liked the previous Everett books I’ve read and this one started well, but I got bored by the end. The romantic conflict started to feel very repetitive and I thought the solution to the mystery was silly and came out of the blue. It won a place on my copy-editor-shaming Tumblr, too: the heroine made a big deal about how she’s named after Fanny Burney’s Evelina, but it was spelled “Evalina” throughout. Someone should have caught that.

And Plus:

I did, in fact, take another whack at Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings and I got about 25% in while I was in Scotland. It was great to read while I was seeing some of the places where it’s set (Stirling!). It went much more easily this time–after all, it’s my 3rd try–but jetlag and busy-busyness mean I’ve stalled out again. I hope to get back into it soon. (Please let life slow down a bit!)

Reading/Listening Now:

Lorraine Heath, Always to Remember A historical set in post-Bellum Texas. I got this from the library because of a Twitter conversation: war widow heroine and pacifist hero shunned by the town for refusing to fight? How could I resist? It’s more flowery and high-angst than is really my taste, but I’m liking it. The slow-building enemies (on Meg’s side, at least) to lovers romance is often very moving under the rather OTT emotions.

Jo Walton, Farthing (read by John Keating and Bianca Amato): really liking this. Kind of a golden-age style mystery but set in an alternate-historical Britain which has made a “peace with honor” with Hitler and is sliding into fascism. Hard to dismiss genre fiction as trivial when you’re reading this. I might have to buy extra credits and snag the rest of the trilogy.

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36 Responses to August Reading and September New Leaf

  1. merriank says:

    I loved the Bach trilogy because of Devi and the world building. I felt like the romance was more we were told they were in love rather than shown that it was really so. The love relationship worked for the plot it because it was a shortcut to connect Devi with the shipboard crew and to motivate her. I know the next books have a different hero/ine but I was quite intrigued by the Emperor and that he can see the same as Devi does and wonder how that might unfold over the next books. I liked that Devi is still quite naive about her world and that her reward reflects who she was and who she’s grown to be. I like drive and ambition in a girl 🙂

    • The next two books are about Devi as well. I thought the romance was very weak and forced in the first book, but in the next two… I can’t tell without spoiling, but Rachel Bach does something very interesting with a couple of familiar UF and PNR tropes (even thought this is a Space Opera) one of which involves the hero/love interest. The next two books are excellent, but overall the trilogy reads like a whole book split in three, so that first book isn’t entirely satisfying and has some forced and underdeveloped elements.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        OK, this is good to know. Because I *did* enjoy the wild ride of the first book, but wanted it to be a bit more complicated. So if she goes on to play with some of the tropes, I’m excited.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I like her ambition too, and how very cut-throat and unapologetic she is about pursuing it. I haven’t gotten to the Emperor (as an actual character) yet.

  2. willaful says:

    Your criticism of Sweet Disorder is exactly my issue with The Suffragette Scandal! I loved it otherwise, but parts were too much like a normal day on twitter. 🙂 Sorry SD didn’t work better for you.

    You’d consider Farthing genre fiction? I actually created a shelf called “genre-defying” for it… so I guess I sort of considered it genre fiction, but couldn’t figure out which genre. I also created a “made me shiver” shelf for it… if I had to pick one genre, it would likely be horror.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Your Suffragette Scandal review really helped me figure out some of the ways the Lerner book didn’t work for me. One of those passages you quoted sounded so much like a description of how women get trolled on the internet. And you know, women who publish/say things in public HAVE always been criticized, but not always in the same ways.

      I think Farthing is a blend of genres, yes, but it reads to me like a Golden Age-style mystery (although the alternating points of view aren’t traditional) set in an alternate-historical world. I think Walton is deliberately playing the comforting familiarity of that kind of mystery (for many readers) against the ways in which the world is askew from our own. Part of what makes it scary is how slight the differences are, and what a big difference that makes.

      • willaful says:

        Yes, I recall her writing about Josephine Tey as an inspiration. (Which was why I read Farthing in the first place.) Have you read Among Others? They’re my two favorites by her, not that I’ve read all that many. I should probably just give in and buy Half a Crown.

  3. sonomalass says:

    Jo Walton is just brilliant, IMO. I’m glad you’re enjoying her books. I will have to try Bach. And I agree about the Lerner; I liked it, but it definitely had a modern sensibility.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I wonder if I’d have got into the Lerner book more if my reading hadn’t been so interrupted. Because there were parts where I was really engrossed. And others where I just felt annoyed or thrown out of the story.

  4. Sunita says:

    So nice to have you back!

    I love the idea of Lerner’s books much more than the books themselves, which makes me very sad. I DNF’d this one because even though there was nothing specifically wrong with the setup, it just didn’t feel right to me for that era. I stopped before I got to the Twitterspeak parts, or I imagine I’d have less pleasant memories of it.

    I (and apparently Rohan Maitzen) are the only people I know who haven’t liked Farthing. I listened to the audiobook as well and kept on going to the end, but I found it very unsubtle. I am usually a sucker for alternate histories of this type, but everything was dialed up to 11 (although in proper British understatement terms, if that makes sense) and nothing was surprising. And given that the sisters are apparently modeled on the Mitfords, I’m definitely not going on to the next installments. I would term this genre fiction as well: your basic alternate-history mystery. Not a huge genre category in terms of volume, but it conforms to the norms of both.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t mean to exaggerate the Twitterspeak! But I certainly felt the echoes. It felt very “meta” at points. I do get that historical fiction is written NOW and will always reflect the time in which it’s produced in some ways, and that we can’t fully know the past. But in a way this kind of book bothers me more than fluffy wallpaper, because it appears to be seriously engaging the past (there’s some real research behind it) and yet in other ways it is not at all presenting the past as “another country.”

      I guess since the sisters were not point of view or sympathetic characters that didn’t bother me? I find both the point of view characters intriguing because the more I listen the more I start to see that their POV is constrained by their own histories and class positions; they’re critical outsiders of their society in some ways, and in others, they unconsciously embrace its attitudes.

      I agree that it isn’t exactly subtle. (Is there a *subtle* alternate history where Hitler wasn’t defeated? I read one by Stephen Fry that wasn’t subtle either). There are some funny little bits in here that I like, though–like I couldn’t figure out why she was making a big deal about tea, and then I realized (I think?) that she’d classed-flipped tea-drinking preferences, so the aristocrats were all drinking strong Indian tea and the outsiders liked delicate China tea.

      • Sunita says:

        The alt-WW2 novel I remember off the top of my head is Fatherland, which I don’t recall being unsubtle, but it’s been a long time since I read it. And while I haven’t read Phiip Roth’s (The Plot Against America, the reviews suggest it’s pretty nuanced (controlling for the fact that it’s Roth, obviously). I put Ian McLeod’s The Summer Isles on the TBR after I finished the Walton, just to compare, but I haven’t read it yet.

        But I didn’t mean the alt-history parts were where all the lack of subtlety was; I found the whole house-party-mystery-meets-horrors-of-Appeasement mashup to be jarring in terms of the switches in tone, and I didn’t find Lucy’s character arc all that believable. That is, I believed she was a total ditz, but I didn’t think she improved as much as the text told me she did. And the everyone-is-gay thing got really old after a while.

        It was very much a not-for-me book. I’ll have to read another Walton to see if its the book or her voice more generally; this was my first by her.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    I loved both the Lerner and the Milan so I may be the wrong person to talk, but I thought the Milan was much more meta than the Lerner. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of readers coming across the comparison of the two books and expecting that same level of meta from the Lerner that one typically gets from reading Courtney Milan. I’d love to hear if others who have read both agree with my assessment.

    And I couldn’t really believe in Regency aristocrats who took such a very hands-on approach to securing votes, though I’m no expert in this area.

    Maybe not to the same degree, but if I remember right, this book was conceived after Lerner Lerner came across a mention of an aristocratic woman engineering a marriage shortly before an election in order to secure the husband’s vote.

    I have the Rachel Bach out from the library but I’m having trouble getting into it. Devi doesn’t feel entirely real to me; more like a character written to be badass than a character who is actually badass. Does this make sense?

    I think it may be good that you are reading The Rifter slowly and with breaks between installments. I tried to read them close together and it got to feeling too monotonous and same-y for me. Part of the problem was that the PoV shifts / time shifts weren’t happening as fast as the beginning led me to expect. But also, #4 felt very bleak and claustrophobic and I just wanted to move on from the tower– so I’ll be interested to see what you think of that installment when you get there.

    ETA: I just found the relevant Lerner post.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree about the Bach–in some ways Devi was as much a cliche as Rupert. I just don’t read that many “badass heroine” books. I liked that she was pretty much unashamedly badass in the way male characters are allowed to be, though.

      I haven’t read that Milan book so I didn’t mean to compare the *degree* to which they are meta. The moments in Lerner’s book that feel like they’re riffing on current issues are pretty much a handful of asides. I did find them distracting.

      I’ve read that Lerner post before and this is the curse of writing a summary post instead of giving myself space to explain what I mean. Clearly the basic situation of Phoebe having a vote she can give to a husband is plausible and based on the historical record. But I didn’t read the anecdote about the marriage in the post you linked as going beyond paying some money, perhaps–certainly not finding a husband (still, we don’t have the context for that quote so I could be wrong). I found a lot of the way that is treated in the novel felt “off” in terms of historical sensibility. Nick helping Phoebe with her laundry? Riiiiiiight. Even things like the dinners Phoebe goes to: my sense, and I totally admit that this comes mostly from period novels and NOT from primary documents like letters, etc. is that it would be common for men to meet/dine etc. in public settings across class lines when dealing with business (you see this in Austen or Eliot, for instance) but much less likely for women to be involved in these events, especially across class lines. So things like the brother-in-law’s romance–I didn’t really believe those two would ever have met, certainly not gotten to know each other. (Are there exceptions to every rule and do authors write about these exceptions? Sure. But some exceptions are more plausible than others).

      Anyway, I think it has to be implausible in these ways to work as a ROMANCE (I mean, Phoebe and Nick somehow have to get intimate) and I didn’t really mind these departures. The romance itself was lovely. I guess the way books like this or Milans’ get talked about set up expectations that make me nit-pickier about the historical “feel” than I am when I pick up a book I expect to be wallpaper/mistorical. So part of my point was that I am not sure I am fair/consistent when I notice or complain about these issues. Sometimes it bothers me more than others.

      Is it fair to expect books that go beyond the ballroom to be somehow more “serious” or “accurate”? Probably not really. I guess my point is that these “different” books are as wallpapery in their own way as a fluffy Almackistan novel, though they don’t get talked about like that. The character motivations are in some ways not true to the period (e.g. no reformers motivated by religion). And that sense that the author is not really interested in how 19th-century people thought about the background for the story does affect my experience of the books.

      Sorry, super long-winded reply, but that’s what I would have tried to explain better in a longer post on the book.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Thanks, I really appreciate the detailed explanation. I don’t think I’m fair or consistent in my complaints about inaccuracies either (though I’m sure I notice them less in general). For me it often has to do with how absorbed I am in the story. If there’s a trope I really like, for example, I’m more likely to enjoy myself so much that such things don’t bother me as much. If I’m bored, they’ll jump out at me more.

        I think much also depends on the context in which we read. Though the defense of reading without shame in the Lerner was annoyingly meta, I didn’t see it as Twitterspeak. I think that’s because I’ve come across similar sentiments almost for as long as I’ve been reading romance. Very often when a hero or heroine in a historical romance is a novelist, there’s something said about how readers’ enjoyment of books is just as important as whether the books are serious. I can think of books I read long before Twitter that included similar passages.

        Is it fair to expect books that go beyond the ballroom to be somehow more “serious” or “accurate”? Probably not really. I guess my point is that these “different” books are as wallpapery in their own way as a fluffy Almackistan novel, though they don’t get talked about like that. The character motivations are in some ways not true to the period (e.g. no reformers motivated by religion). And that sense that the author is not really interested in how 19th-century people thought about the background for the story does affect my experience of the books.

        Point taken. But most readers aren’t scholars of the period and to them books that go beyond the ballroom may feel more substantial than books that don’t. Perhaps if there were more historical romances such as you describe readers would have a stronger sense of what they are missing. But then again maybe not. It’s hard to know.

        I’m curious if you’ve read any historical romances you would characterize as “really interested in how 19th-century thought about the background for the story”? It would help me have a fuller sense of what you’re looking for or hoping for.

      • willaful says:

        Yes, I had that same reaction. I somehow expected a more authentic “feel” and perhaps held it to a higher standard.

      • Sunita says:

        I was the one who used the term Twitterspeak, so I want to specify that I was referring to the “men … explain” comment. That read like “mansplain” to me too, in part because treating having things explained as a mark of condenscension is a fairly recent usage. At least I don’t remember seeing those kinds of comments in period or even older contemporary books. I’m wondering if the pejorative aspect dates back to the Christopher Durang play, but certainly the “Men Explain” meaning is more recent. There was anachronistic language in the first third to half of the book, which kept pulling me out of the story, and a mansplain reference would have been a step way too far for me.

        That anecdote, by the way, was not about a woman buying a vote for her husband; it’s both more complicated and more interesting than that. It took place during the 1754 national election, where the Oxfordshire contest was notorious for its partisanship, bribery, and generally OTT campaigning. I’ve been reading Chalus’s studies of 18thC electioneering by women, and it’s fascinating. Too much for a comment, but I’ll try to write it up in a blog post and explain why the historical-romance version is problematic.

  6. Sunita says:

    Argh! Philip Roth, not Phiip! And I proofread, too. Goes to show how well self-proofreading works for me.

  7. Janine Ballard says:

    Thanks, Sunita. I know you used the term Twitterspeak but I was actually referencing Liz’s statement that “there’s a defense of reading without shame that feels ripped from Romanceland Twitter. ” I’ve read at least a few such defenses over the decades I’ve been reading romance. They tend to irritate me because they make me think about the author instead of the characters, but I don’t associate them with Twitter specifically.

    The “Men always wanted to explain things, didn’t they?” line just puzzled me at the time I read it, but I can see why you would associate it to Twitter. I would love to learn more about the anecdote. I think that’s a great idea for a VM post.

    • Sunita says:

      Is that what you meant by the differences in “meta” in the two authors’ works? Because I agree that having a fictional author talk about real-world author issues is meta, but I felt that the present-in-the-past issues in the works is comparable, even though the ways these issues play out are different.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        What I meant is that with Milan I always feel the characters are forward thinking even for our own era, much less for the 19th century. In Milan’s books we’ve seen a heroine discover the chromosome, for example, and the heroes are so very wholeheartedly supportive of the heroines’ career and personal life choices. In some ways I feel I’m reading about characters from the future (not even the present), about humanity as we would like it to be. It’s a fantasy, for sure. The Suffragette Scandal made me buy into that fantasy in a bigger way than I had before, so in that sense it was very successful for me.

        I’ve only read two Lerner books, but Lerner’s characters don’t seem to me to be breaking new social ground the same way. They’re more concerned with everyday problems, down to earth issues they have to deal with to achieve personal happiness. So they don’t seem as meta to me. I don’t read Lerner’s books as an equally direct commentary on the injustices we are grappling with right now, at this moment, and haven’t solved yet and that Milan’s characters are halfway to solving.

        Both the heroine of The Suffragette Scandal and the heroine of Sweet Disorder work at a newspaper but whereas Phoebe and her brother-in-law are just trying to figure out if they should continue endorsing the party they’ve always supported in the past, Free’s newspaper is feminist (titled The Women’s Free Press) and she uses it to challenge social injustices on more than one front. Does what I’m saying make sense?

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Yes, it makes sense! I agree, that’s an important distinction between the two authors. Lerner’s first book, in particular, reminded me of a traditional Regency and Milan certainly never has (not just because her books are Victorian-set).

          I wouldn’t call this “meta” I guess but it is a difference in how the books “feel” to the reader, and in how the period in which they are set relates to the time in which they were written/are being read.

          This is such an interesting discussion! Thanks all.

          Also, re. criticism of reading: this is not JUST “meta” of course. 18th and 19th-century attacks on novels and novel-reading, and particularly of women reading and writing novels, often sound a lot like criticisms of women’s reading and writing (romance, YA) written today. So to raise the question in a novel can feel meta and distracting OR appropriate to the period or both (and that might depend on the reader). I think what made it feel especially Twitter-ish or Romland-ish to me in this case was the language. I am pretty sure it used the word “shame” in some way which felt very modern/meta and not period. But of course I took it off my reader so can’t easily check my highlights now. These defences of reading in a novel rarely work for me. Unless you are Jane Austen (“only a novel!”) or sometimes when it’s funny like Charlie’s romance-reading in Lia Silver’s book, which feels like an inside joke but also a celebration of romance-reading without being lectury.

      • Sunita says:

        @Janine: Ah, OK, now I understand, thanks! I tend to use “meta” in a slightly different way, so I wasn’t sure if I was reading you correctly. I agree that the way in which the non-period aspects manifest themselves are different; certainly Lerner is less obviously discussing contemporary issues and inserting contemporary heroines into the historical period. But I think that Lerner’s books also have heroes and heroines that don’t really operate the way people would in that era. It’s not an examination of issues of interest to us, but seeing how they play out in a different time.

  8. Janine Ballard says:

    Thanks for explaining Liz.

    These defences of reading in a novel rarely work for me. Unless you are Jane Austen (“only a novel!”) or sometimes when it’s funny like Charlie’s romance-reading in Lia Silver’s book, which feels like an inside joke but also a celebration of romance-reading without being lectury.

    I agree with you here. To me these can come across as the author (rather than the character) getting on a defensive soapbox about the fact that romance gets no respect.

  9. KeiraSoleore says:

    Books for women were few and mainly of the pulp fiction variety. Only female bluestockings read male books. And being a female bluestocking was considered low ton. Readers were derided (by women and by man) as not being, for lack of a better word, “cool” enough to hang out with the haut ton. So, yes, women who liked to read complex books and in large quantities were very defensive of their choices. There were very, very few confident women like Sappho. To me defense of reading does not feel at all Romancelandish or Twitterspeak. It feels historically authentic.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think we are talking at cross-purposes here. In the Lerner book, what’s being defended is not reading per se but “fun” reading–it is very much a parallel to the “readers should not be shamed for liking romance” discussions. And while I found the phrasing to be very evocative of current debates, criticism of novel-reading was very, very common from the mid-18th century on, and the terms of the critique WERE reminiscent of today’s romance-reader-criticisms: novel-reading will give women unrealistic expectations of love, romance and life; it’s morally corrupting, etc.

      I am not an expert in the early 19th century nor in aristocratic society of the 19th century at all, so what would be considered good ton I have no idea. And I’d certainly agree that serious study (e.g. of Latin, Greek and the classics, or of science) was seen as a male pursuit in this period, and many people believed it was physically/mentally harmful to women.

      But there was a large middle ground of literature between classics and pulp (by which I’m thinking you mean things like Minerva Press novels?), plenty of it aimed primarily at women: realist domestic novels (often written by men, like Richardson, but the *audience* was largely described as being female, although novels were read by men too), periodicals like The Female Spectator. There were tons of arguments that novel-reading was bad for women, and that they should be reading more “improving” things (sermons, histories, essays); The Spectator presented itself as improving reading for the idle. That’s the kind of criticism I’m referring to, and that Austen was responding to in her defense of novel-reading in Northanger Abbey.

      This article on the “moral panic” over novel-reading is sociological rather than literary, and pretty general, but it covers the kind of thing I meant to refer to:

      Sorry, this got all teachery, but I think I wasn’t clear in my initial reference to Lerner.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Thanks for that link. This is fascinating stuff. My exposure to the humanities is sparse at best, so discussions like this blog and that link you sent are all very interesting for me to read.

        And yes, I did mean Minerva Press as pulp. I agree that improving sermons were prescribed for those afflicted with an addiction to “those” novels (not all novels).

    • Janine Ballard says:

      The heroine of the Lerner was not a member of the ton. She was middle class.

  10. KeiraSoleore says:

    ^^ by men, not by man

  11. KeiraSoleore says:

    ^^ defense of reading without shame, not just defense of reading

  12. lawless says:

    Thanks for the discussion of the Huguley books, the content of which sounds interesting but which I have enough reservations about to read only if I can borrow them from the library. I appreciate you (and others) mentioning their deficiencies in the matter of craft matter of factly alongside their good points instead of making it all about craft deficiencies as the Romance Novels for Feminists website did. That was when I really started side eyeing that site’s concept of intersectionality.

    Your discussion of the Lerner book also raised the question with me, as it did with others, whether you’ve read Courtney Milan and if so whether your reaction to her books is similar to your reaction to Sweet Disorder. I happen to like Milan’s books a lot but recognize that some feel her books have too modern a sensibility.

    You’ve also hit on a pet peeve of mine in with your question about why we pretend that titillation is not one of the functions of most current romance novels. It’s probably got to do with the defensiveness about the description of romance as porn for women, but in fact the accusation is at least partially true. I don’t think it helps to deny that because it that makes it look like romance and other things women like are defensible only if they’re misrepresented.

    You may have sold me on Ashton’s Why Resist a Rebel, especially since it has closed door sex scenes yet the romance and attraction (and the idea that they are having great sex) are believable. I’ve been reading Sherry Thomas’ My Beautiful Enemy, which (surprisingly for her) has mostly closed door sex scenes as well, and find the same is true there — I’m more convinced of their attraction than I would be if the bedroom door were open because what’s described shows their longing for each other. Also, casual sex for its own sake and no slut-shaming? Yes!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve read some Milan (several novellas, and the first novel in the Brothers Sinister) and I have tons more in my TBR. And I really liked them but had similar niggles. (I should say I LOVED Lerner’s 1st book when I read it, and liked her 2nd a lot too; this is just my least favorite, and it’s not a blanket reaction to the author. The modern feel wasn’t my only issue but I’m not sure I can say what else was). Sunita and I have talked about this: sometimes inserting modern-feeling people into stories that deal with social reform can feel as if it’s erasing the actual historical reformers, who had different motives and attitudes but still did a lot that we value.

      I don’t think the writing/craft issues in Huguley’s books were any worse than things I’ve seen many times before, and not just from debut authors. Heck, there are highly praised (though not by me) books with far more problematic writing. For me, the different setting, story and perspective more than made up for the weaker spots. It didn’t feel same-old.

      Have you read other category romances? (I can’t remember). Because they all have narrative/characterization shortcuts to get the story across in a short length, and this is no exception. I mean, the hero is a movie star and he’s kind of an ass to the heroine at the start. (But he never seemed quite like an alphahole). And has secret manpain. When I was reading it I was thinking “well, this is fun but nothing special,” but the more I think about, the more I appreciated how she handled a number of things about the story. Including a number of things that are often handled in ways that really piss me off.

      • lawless says:

        I’ve read everything Milan’s written except the novella Unlocked, the last Brothers Sinister novel, The Suffragette Scandal, and the novella following it, Talk to Me Sweetly. Part of why I like her and her books is that I’m more familiar with the Victorian period than the Regency and part is that we share a hive mind; I’m hapa too, trained as a lawyer, and interested in social issues/social reform. What seems different to me is the general absence of religious motivation in hist rom in general, not Milan in particular, and Mark Turner in Unclaimed from her Turner Brothers series had a religious/ethical motivation that seemed at least partway authentic. So I guess I see her differently than you and Sunita do, particularly since I think it’s more the reformers of the Regency period (abolitionists like Wilberforce and Pitt the Younger, for example) that we’d have a hard time relating to today than the reformers of the mid- and late-Victorian period about which she writes.

        I’m kind of picky about writing/craft, but there are other things that bother me more, like when the main male character runs roughshod over his love interest’s wishes, and I don’t necessarily mean in bed. Things like throwing away an expensive bike computer a la the hero of Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me, who feels his love interest doesn’t take things spontaneously enough, and then offers to buy her another if she doesn’t like doing without it annoy me no end. As far as I’m concerned, that’s coercion and a consent violation and not at all appealing.

        Unless Sarah Mayberry’s Her Best Worst Mistake, which was well-written but I felt was kind of flat and predictable, is a category romance, no, I haven’t read one.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Well, that Mayberry was self-published, but not unlike her work for Harlequin. I think reading them takes some getting used to–they are their own type of book. (And the different lines vary a lot. I felt I had to “learn” how to read them with some expert guidance). But the Ashton book wouldn’t be bad as a test. It’s inexpensive and short.

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