Recent Reading: Fun Again!

Looking over my reading journal for October and November [my reading journal is basically a list of what I read when, a prompt to memory and an excuse to buy a nice notebook], I realized that I’ve been enjoying reading more lately. And then, flipping back further in my journal and looking at months where I’d mostly read books that were at least OK, but that I remembered more as blah reading droughts, I wondered if my recent enjoyment is partly because I haven’t had as much time to blog, and I haven’t been thinking as much about what I read, just . . . reading for fun. Does blogging make me more critical in the negative sense as well as in the thoughtful/analytical sense? And then my head exploded because my whole life is about reading critically and how that is a pleasure of its own kind and not the destruction of pleasure so how could I be thinking this?! Possibly I’ve just been busy and tired and have needed a break from thinking too deeply. I’m not going to question my vocation just yet. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been having fun with:

Read:

Lesley Thomson, The Detective’s DaughterI can see why one of the blurbers compared Thomson to Kate Atkinson, because like Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, this is a character-driven book hung on a mystery genre framework. I didn’t find it as well-written or interesting as Atkinson, but that’s a high bar. It’s slow-moving, and the exploration of themes like memory, loss, the relationships between parents and children, and loneliness are as important as solving the mystery. That makes the book sound bleak, and it kind of is, but the end is hopeful. It’s also spooky and compelling, with some interesting characters and the mystery plot is smart–though you need to have a tolerance for honking coincidences. I do, in the right circumstances (after all, I’m a Victorianist, and it’s no accident that there’s a reference to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend here. A book I love and need to re-read, because I can’t believe I missed the clue it offered). I realized there’s a prequel of sorts that I might read, and also a sequel that I snapped up when I found it for less than $2 on Kobo.

Doris Egan, The Gate of Ivory: I read this because someone mentioned Egan in the epic “Which authors have quit writing who you wish would return” thread at Dear Author. I’m not sure why that mention made me Google her–maybe because I’d heard of most of the other authors in that thread, also because I wondered if Egan was a traditional Regency author. She’s not; the books are science fantasy–but I found this praise of the Ivory trilogy from Jo Walton that sold me:

They’re delightful rather than deep, and the world needs more delightful books. There’s not much beneath the surface, but the surface sparkles.

I found The Complete Ivory at Open Library, and the first book totally lived up to Walton’s billing. Egan doesn’t feel the need to explain everything about the world she builds (one with both starships and sorcery) or about her characters’ feelings and motivations, but she gives you enough to figure it out and fill in the gaps. This reminded me a bit of Moira J. Moore’s Heroes books–partly the narrative voice, and partly the professional and personal relationships between Theodora and Ran. One book is enough, for now–I’m not a glommer–but I might check this out again one day and finish the trilogy. My favorite line from Gate of Ivory:

There was no court but the one in my head, and its judgments were all life sentences.

Sparkly surface, but not stupid by any means.

Listened:

I finished Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley. Verdict: I’d forgotten a lot about it, including what an interesting mess it is (it’s kind of a classic “sophomore slump” novel although hardly terrible). I hope to talk about it with other listeners eventually, but here are two things that I’ve been thinking about–and it is a book I’m still thinking about:

The romantic story-lines are interesting. Like Jane Eyre, the men are older than the women (though the age difference isn’t as great). But while Jane Eyre is a female coming-of-age story, I felt Shirley and Caroline didn’t really change. They just waited with varying degrees of patience for the men they loved (older, more worldly and experienced, and in some ways wiser) to get over themselves, their scruples or blindnesses, and do the truly wise thing. That’s an interesting dynamic. The women don’t just wait around, either–they think about what to do with their lives if the men don’t come around, and act on those visions to the extent they can.

Jodi McAlister has an interesting piece on New Adult romance and the “new type of adulthood” it explores, in which she considers whether historical NA is possible:

While this “coming of age” thing is common to both YA and NA, I think this makes NA a very modern story in a way that YA doesn’t necessarily have to be. . . .  I think it would be extremely hard to write historical NA. . . . This is because the period of time that NA covers – that emerging early adulthood, tied to legal and financial independence – simply didn’t exist in the past. Historically speaking, the challenges of early adulthood are very recent. This is particularly true for women. . . .

Speaking in very general historical terms (consider this your Official Historian Disclaimer), the only culturally acceptable path to productive adulthood open for women in Western societies was establishing a companionate marriage with a partner who would treat them well. . . . Actual adult autonomy was just not something the vast majority of women had access to. This period of early adulthood that NA seeks to explore, where the protagonists work out how to be an independent adult – just wasn’t a thing.

I know what she means–and I appreciate the disclaimer–but I was struck, listening to Shirley and comparing it to both Jane Eyre and Gaskell’s North and South, by how much these books are about young 19th-century women working out how to be independent adults, or at least an adult with agency and an ethical code she’s determined for herself. (I guess it partly depends on what you mean by “independent”–legally and financially, a woman might not have been a person separate from her husband for much of the 19th century, but many novels of the period are partly about women’s struggles for “personhood” and self-determination).

For example, Jane won’t choose a life–with either Mr. Rochester or St. John Rivers–that would entirely subsume her to another person. The financial independence Jane, Shirley, and Margaret all inherit allows them other kinds of independence. They all think very deliberately about how to use their money and what kind of life it allows them to create, even though they are not fully independent in the modern sense. And the money means that marriage is really a choice for them, though clearly the best, most desirable choice.

I know I’m not exactly a modern new adult myself, but in many ways the questions of adulthood and independence wrestled with by these 19th century heroines–what do I believe in? what kind of person could I love and spend my life with? will I always need parents/mentors, or how will I get by without their help?–remind me more of my own coming of age than the kinds of stories offered in a lot of New Adult romance. (Though I haven’t read any so this is a superficial judgment, I know; just because a story features sex and a tattooed bad boy doesn’t mean it doesn’t wrestle with those other questions). And most NA romance doesn’t seem to address the real-life situations of many 18-25 year olds today–a lot of them aren’t fully independent, financially and in other ways.

Reading and Listening Now:

I’ve gotten hooked by Sonali Dev’s Bollywood Affair (I’m 60% in). I’m especially enjoying the deliberate play with tropes, like in the scene where Samir and Mili talk about the film she was named for. Mili reads its tropes romantically: “The love of her life takes her to America at the end.” But Samir, who is himself kind of a construct of romance genre/Bollywood hero tropes, and who deliberately uses that persona at times, is cynical (or realistic) about those same tropes–maybe because he knows them from the inside: “You mean the nasty drunk who’s mean to her for the whole film?”

The sweetness, charm, and tropes of Dev’s book remind me of something from the Harlequin Kiss or Romance lines so, I’m kind of surprised by its buzzy, glowing reception–not because I don’t like books in those lines (I do!), but they don’t get that kind of reception. This book seems familiar to me, except with Indian protagonists. That is a difference that matters, of course. I just find it interesting that a) some readers who don’t read category romance are praising this as something really different and b) “diverse” books sometimes get the best reception when they come in packages familiar to many readers. I haven’t worked out what I think about all this, exactly. But hey–the book is fun! Maybe I don’t need to work it out.

I just started listening to Daniel Brook’s History of Future Cities (right up my alley) and reading Simon Brett’s first Charles Paris mystery, Cast, In Order of Disappearance (what a charmingly/disingenuously self-effacing author website. Bodes well).

Next Up, Maybe

The problem with enjoying reading is that there’s so much more I want to read! But I just got a pile of research papers and then it’s final exams, so I’m not sure how much non-student reading time I’ll actually get in the next few weeks. I’m up next for the audiobook of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests at the library, and my hold on Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing just came in. I just picked up my holds on Ed Lin’s This Is a Bust, a mystery set in New York’s Chinatown in the 70s (I think I found this following a trail from the new books list at the library, though it isn’t new) and Jacqueline Baker’s The Broken Hours, a creepy-sounding historical ghost story about H. P. Lovecraft’s personal assistant (recommended to me on Twitter by Marina Endicott, whose own novels I really like). Yeah . . . something’s going to give there. But I am reading as my whimsy takes me, so that’s OK.

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12 Responses to Recent Reading: Fun Again!

  1. willaful says:

    I’m so glad you’re having fun again! I have the Ivory, but have been loath to start such a thick paperback. Yay for Open Library!

    With books, a lot of it is in the packaging. I have the Dev from the library, must start it. Kind of bogged down with end of the year stuff, alas.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Somehow I think if I had checked out a big paperback, I’d have felt obligated to read the whole thing. Too daunting! Somehow with Open Library I feel freer than with a “real” library book, and I told myself it was fine just to read the first book for now and return it. I can always get it again. I don’t know why remembering that is so hard for me. I’ve been better lately at cancelling holds that finally come in at a time when I just don’t feel like reading them, even if I want to read them *sometime.*

      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying reading more too. It’s no good when it starts to feel like an obligation or every book seems disappointing.

      I suspect I had also gotten into a mood of wanting every book to be *great.* When I relaxed and decided pretty darn good was good enough, I started having more fun.

      • willaful says:

        That’s interesting, because I also feel more relaxed with Open Library books and easily return them if I’m not in the mood. Maybe it’s because I don’t worry that they’ll be deselected and disappear? Or feel bad about my checkout counting against digital limits? (I swear, I can feel guilty about *anything*…)

  2. Sunita says:

    Oh yay, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the first Charles Paris! I rarely see cozy mystery fans recommending Brett online, which has always surprised me. He’s not exactly under the radar, since the Paris books have been made into BBC radio plays twice (most recently with Bill Nighy as Paris, which is a wonderful match for me). And I also recommend his Mrs. Pargeter series. TheH and I listened to last year Paris book with mixed feelings, because it’s more of a downer; it felt almost like a eulogy for Paris to us. But then Brett released another one this year and he did the narration, so of course I snapped it up and it’s in the TBR.

    I agree the Dev book is very much in the lines of other Harlequins; I’ve heard it described as similar to a Presents, an HR, and a Kiss now. I’m not sure which line I’d categorize it in, but I definitely agree it’s more like a category than anything else (and I mean that in the best possible way, because I think it’s strength are the strengths of categories, just with a higher word count). It is very much “different but the same” because the unusual Indian stuff is pitch-perfect but everything else is familiar, so it’s a reader win-win for someone looking for a POC/multicultural book. Also, it’s set mostly in the US, so that makes it more accessible too. By the time you get to the India-set part you’re completely enmeshed in the story and characters, so you can absorb the new setting more easily. That’s my theory, anyway.

    • willaful says:

      Oh, I missed the mention of Charles Paris. I used to love those, but then got frustrated at the lack of growth for the character. He makes the same mistakes over and over. The last one I read had some awareness of his aging, I think, and was sad for that reason — I wonder if that’s the same one you mention, Sunita.

      I love the first Mrs. Pargeter, but also got tired of the sameness of them. It might be different if I were more of a mystery person, I guess.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t think the Dev would fit neatly into any HQN line–but it does have elements familiar to several. That’s part of what I like about that, especially as I get into it and she seems to be weilding those tropes more consciously and confidently.

      ETA: I’m worried my comments about the book’s appeal could seem condescending or judgmental of other readers, so to be clear, I like it partly because it’s a nice mixture of the familiar and the different. I think that’s part of why it got such a good reception (vs. an actual Harlequin category OR most romances featuring non-white, non-American characters); but I also think the publisher seems to have done a great job promoting it–a lot of bloggers seemed to have it months ahead, and not just from Net Galley–and I’m sure that’s part of the reason for the buzz.

      Maybe because the Brett isn’t small-town cupcake/knitting/bookshop, like many of today’s popular cozies, it doesn’t get talked about as much? I love the theatre stuff, though, and it seems pretty spot on (though what do I know–but it’s a convincing world). I wonder if that version with Bill Nighy is available somewhere. I love him and it would be a good match. Nighy has played a lot of Charles-like characters in his day.

      • willaful says:

        Well, I just finished ABA and I’m in one of those “what the hell was all that buzz about?” places. I agree that it’s very similar to a category, with the cultural aspects adding some freshness…I might have enjoyed that more if I hadn’t found Mili so very tiresome. And I guess I expected something richer after all that great press. Seriously, when I got to the end and there was a *discussion guide*, I almost burst out laughing.

  3. willaful says:

    It just occurred to me, I think the reason A Bollywood Affair is bringing up multiple category comparisons is that it’s kind of a mash-up — it’s a Presents plot & hero but with a Kiss heroine. (I’m assuming… I don’t think I’ve read much of the Kiss line.) If it had had a more Presents type heroine, I might have enjoyed it more.

  4. There is one more book by Egan under the name Jane Emerson. It’s great but its sequel never came out. There is some Dunnett homage in there!

  5. Your comments about The Gate of Ivory reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones (whom I just recently started reading!)–Have to go and check Egan out now!

    Also, count me as one of those who loved A Bollywood Affair. Part of the charm was the humor that made me laugh out loud in a number of places (and that my husband enjoyed too when I read it out loud to him!) I think I’m going to think some more about why I enjoyed it as much as I did!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I absolutely love Diana Wynne Jones. I’d say the Egan book was less complex than many of hers but the mix of humor and serious themes is similar.

      That’s something I often appreciate in genre fiction and yes, it’s part of why I really liked A BOLLYWOOD AFFAIR. I often find romances with an element of humor touch me more than really angsty ones. I’m not sure if that’s because I resist the angst and don’t want to give in to a really emotional book, and the lighter ones slip past my defenses, or because I came to romance-reading by way of Austen and Heyer, or what, but it’s definitely true that most of my favorites have a sense of humor.

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