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 Luck: I 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.
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!)
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.