Holiday Reading

I’m plotting my Reading Year in Review and Reading Resolutions post(s), but in the meantime, my Holiday Reading. I’m never sure whether I really like Christmas. I love seeing family, cooking, and giving presents. But it’s also a very stressful time of year–end-of-term grading, next term’s prep, Christmas shopping, and preparing for guests all squeezed in to too little time. And since I’m an introvert, I need quiet time away from a house full of people, even if they’re all people I love. This Christmas season, I spent that time with some great books.

Helen MacInnes, Friends and Lovers

Helen MacInnes’ books are all being re-released. I read and loved a couple of her spy novels two summers ago, and this one was highly recommended by both JanetNorCal and Sunita. My library hold on it finally came in just at the end of exam period. What a treat! It’s a slow-moving book, so I took a break from it right before Christmas when I wanted things with more action, then became totally absorbed in the second half in the quiet of Boxing Day.

Set in the early 1930s, and first published in 1945, Friends and Lovers is the story of David Bosworth and Penny Lorrimer falling in love and figuring out how to be together. It is, in fact–though the sensibility is very different–a New Adult romance, because David is in his last year at Oxford and Penny about to begin studying painting at the Slade School when they meet. Interwoven with their love story are their relationships with family and friends and their decisions about their future careers. Technically, this meets the RWA’s definition of romance and I think it probably has all of Pamela Regis’ eight elements, too. But it doesn’t “feel” like today’s genre romance at all: the pacing, the voice, the “beats” of the plot, the conflicts are all very different, both because MacInnes was writing in a different time and because she was writing “general” fiction, not bound by the stylistic conventions of a genre. Despite the wide variety of the romance genre, I think there are certain kinds of love stories, and ways of telling them, you don’t find there.

This is a lovely and very romantic story. MacInnes captures the desperate intensity of new young love (heightened by the fact that Penny and David live in a time when college students don’t just hook up if they’re attracted to each other) and its insecurities. They slowly learn to be honest with each other about just how deeply they love, and how vulnerable that makes them: “How afraid we all were, and out of fear how we held back what should be given without asking,” Penny thinks as she sits down to write her first real love letter to David. The main conflicts are external: Penny is from an upper middle class Scottish family that expects her to make a “good” marriage, and David, though brilliant and enterprising, is poor. The question of whether–and how soon–he can support a wife is a significant one. One thing I loved about the book is that I really wasn’t sure how these issues were going to be worked out.

Penny and David don’t exactly make sacrifices or compromises to be together; rather, their ambitions and dreams change because they love each other. Building a life together becomes as important to both of them as building a career does. That’s one way that Friends and Lovers feels quite contemporary, even though its attitudes to class, gender and sexuality can also feel very much of its time. David–encouraged by Penny’s grandfather–comes to see that love is just as important as work in his life, that it isn’t just women who should put love at the center of their lives.

Although it isn’t at all explicit, the novel also seems ahead of its time in its attitudes to sex. David definitely wants to sleep with Penny, and while Penny is slower to be ready (as she rightly points out, convention binds women more than men), she ultimately doesn’t wait for marriage. “We are our own conventions, our own morality. If we keep faith, then nothing we do is wrong,” she tells David. And part of his response is, “Marriage is a house you build, not a hotel room you can rent and move into.” They’re not advocating free love, but they are crossing many of the boundaries that existed in their parents’ lives and reaching for a freer, wider life–something that is especially poignant when the novel alludes to the growing threat of Nazism in Germany. You know that Penny and David will eventually need all their belief in the possibility of a better, happier world.

Fast and Fun

When I needed a break, I dipped into the Kindle app on my iPad to see what I’d been neglecting. Inspired by Jorrie Spencer, I began with a traditional Regency: in my case, The Nomad Harp by Laura Matthews. I liked the slightly older, pragmatic hero and heroine and the way they seriously considered the advantages and drawbacks of marriage. They plan a sort of marriage of convenience, break it off when the hero unexpectedly inherits a title, and then slowly discover they were perfect for each other all along. Although I like the brisk pace and wit of trad Regencies, this felt a bit too emotionally flat to me.

I’ve had Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge in my TBR forever because several reader friends liked it. This fast-paced, action-filled fantasy adventure was just right for the hectic days before Christmas. Heroine Amaranthe just wants to be a successful Enforcer (kind of the city police), but everything goes wrong when she comes to the attention of the wrong nefarious general. Soon she’s putting together a ragtag band of misfits, including the notorious assassin Sicarius, to carry out her plan to save the Emperor. There are a lot of familiar elements here, but that’s what this kind of story is for, and they’re put together in a fun and skillful, if sometimes credulity-straining, fashion. I liked watching Amaranthe come into her own and figure out how to be a leader. I’m interested in the world Buroker is building, too: since the Empire values warriors above all else, women run the businesses, and slowly they’re becoming a political power. I look forward to more in this series.

 

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21 Responses to Holiday Reading

  1. KeiraSoleore says:

    It was good to read your MacInnes review. I haven’t read a MacInnes yet, and @JanetNorCal recommended I start with The Venetian Affair, so it’s on my list for 2015. I’ve now added Friends and Lovers to the list, too. Are you going to be reading more MacInnes in the new year?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Definitely! I was just looking to see what else my library has (lots in e-book now. How handy).

      I read Assignment in Brittany and Pray for a Brave Heart and really liked both of those–they are spy/suspense stories. I kept waiting for a suspense element in Friends and Lovers until I realized it wasn’t that kind of book. It still has a lot of political awareness through David’s interests, though.

  2. Miss Bates says:

    I’m adding it too: you’ve made it sound most appealing and interesting.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think if you like Mary Stewart you will like MacInnes. Similar attention to setting and characterization, and strong, interesting suspense plots (though not in this book).

  3. lawless says:

    Your description of the MacInnes novel as fulfilling the RWA requirements but falling outside of genre romance stylistically reminded me of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense as well as Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon. Although I’ve only completed one (I just started another), Susanna Kearsley’s novels may be like that too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes! Sayers, Stewart and MacInnes are roughly contemporary, and I think there is a similarity. Satisfying to romance-loving readers without being genre romance (so it also satisfied other reading tastes, which genre romance seldom does–though it can).

      I am kind of hoarding Susanna Kearsley in my TBR, but I’m planning to read one soon. Because as Oprah taught me about your nice things, there’s no point having them if you don’t use them! (Sometimes Oprah-wisdom really is wise).

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I hit “reply” too soon, but I was thinking–for most of the novel’s history, happy romantic subplots (not to mention main plot) were incredibly common. The “marriage plot” was a mainstay of the form and a vehicle for exploring all kinds of other issues that many readers and authors now would tend to see as distinct from/not the province of romance fiction. I think these mid-century writers are still working in that tradition, to a great extent. Romance had become more the domain of commercial fiction, maybe, but it wasn’t seen as “trashy.” It’s much harder today to find general/commercially-minded fiction with a romance plot. Or maybe not quite that–but a romance in a spy story or thriller tends to be much more from a male point of view, and less likely to be happy over the long term. I’m sure now I’ve said this I’ll think of plenty of exceptions, but it does seem like there’s a shift (in the late 60s? earlier?) towards regarding these kinds of plots as more suspect and less interesting/important as subject matter. One thing I liked about the MacInnes is that she takes young love seriously–not in a deadly serious, high angst, or dull way, but as an important and meaningful part of life, something that shapes her characters.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        Like Sayers’s Whimsey romantic arc across novels, does MacInnes have a similar arc?

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I find that PD James, Deborah Crombie, and Elizabeth George are far more contemporary writers (well, the late PD James now, alas!) but follow the same Sayers Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey style of writing mystery novels. These British classic crime novels are very different from the contemporary male thriller novels.

  4. Sunita says:

    Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed Friends and Lovers! It makes me more confident about rereading it again. I borrowed it from my uni library and then let it sit, because I was afraid it wouldn’t hold up, or I wouldn’t appreciate it in the same way. That’s a great description of the ways in which it is both timebound and timeless. I haven’t read it in years, but I can picture some of the scenes you’re talking about.

    For people who aren’t familiar with MacInnes, I think it’s quite different from her suspense books (others might differ). It’s a real slice-of-life meets coming-of-age book, and it’s not nearly as plot-driven. The novel of hers it most resembles is probably Rest and Be Thankful,, which has a very different setting.

    I guess I disagree a bit that mysteries and gen fic books don’t have romantic subplots. Or at least, I’d say they don’t necessarily have romantic subplots so much as love stories. The arc of the relationship is often longer, especially in mystery series, and authors are also more likely to include relationships that don’t last (but don’t necessarily end in a fiery ball of awfulness).

    @Keira: The MacInnes suspense novels are all independent of each other so there is no story arc, romantic or otherwise, across them.

    • merriank says:

      I love Rest and Be Thankful so will look for Friends and Lovers. R&BT is about finding self, home and love just after WW2 in the deep heartlands of America with the cold war beginnings as part of the story.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      You’ll probably appreciate it differently–but I think you’ll still appreciate it. There’s a lot to like, including really well-drawn secondary characters.

      I think you said what I was trying to say about romantic arcs now, but more clearly. It’s less likely to be a neat HEA (lots of Golden Age mysteries I’ve read have a secondary romantic couple, it seems to me). Though there are lots of long-developing romance arcs, and plenty are not unhappy. The pacing of that, and the aspects of the relationship that can be explored, are just really different from the stand-alone suspense of Mary Stewart.

      Of course, stand-alone novels are just much less common in all genres now, because $$$. I miss them. Increasingly I don’t have the stamina for long series–there’s only so much time to read, and so many more characters to discover.

  5. Christine says:

    I read Friends and Lovers 30 or so years ago, and loved it so much. It is very different from her suspense books. I had a copy, and then lost it over the years. I was thrilled to see that they will be releasing it for Kindle! When I reread it, I was amazed at how much it still engaged me, after all these years.

  6. Barb in Maryland says:

    MacInnes was an auto read for me back in the day, starting with the (newly published)’Decision at Delphi’. She did have one set of books featuring the same intelligence group–Prelude to Terror, Hidden Target, Cloak of Darkness–wherein she was not afraid to kill off continuing characters! You have been warned. I gobbled up her backlist while waiting for her next book to come out. That’s when I discovered Friends and Lovers, Rest and Be Thankful, etc (Also, in warning, ‘I and My True Love’ broke my heart!).
    Over the years I have tried re-reading some of her Cold War era suspense stories and found them somewhat dated–her non-suspense stories, like ‘Friends and Lovers’ or her WWII era stories have held up better for me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One reason I love discovering older books is hearing from readers like you, Sunita and Christine for whom they are old favorites. I’m also happy when books other readers rave about finally become available again–a real benefit of e-books!

  7. Sunita says:

    You all are terrible enablers. I now have four more Helen MacInnes books on my ereader (including Rest and Be Thankful). 🙂

  8. kaetrin says:

    You make the McInnes sound so good Liz. I’ve never read her but I’m tempted to add it to my reading list now.

  9. Janine Ballard says:

    I have the Lindsay Buroker books in the neglected part of my TBR pile also. It’s good to hear you liked The Emperor’s Edge.

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