Challenges, TBR and Otherwise

Obviously I am way behind on the TBR Challenge post, which was due May 20. But it’s still May! And I did Kick it Old School and read (sort of) a romance published more than 10 years ago. More on that in a minute.

I’ve found reading in general a bit of a challenge this month. It’s always a busy one at work, and this year my department had to make a major decision about entry to our first-year courses that took a lot of time and energy. Then I was reading a couple of books to review for our literary magazine. I enjoy doing this (I write one every year or two), but it’s hard. The reading challenges me: I get small press fiction and non-fiction which is often quite different from my usual reading choices, and I have to read more attentively to prepare for a formal review; the writing challenges me: it’s only 1400 words but it’s not it’s less personal and I have less sense of audience than when I’m blogging, so I get writer’s block. It usually involves a lot of procrastination which does not, sadly, involve reading other books (although I am halfway through another go-round of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time saga on audio and have played a lot of solitaire). I’ve read only a couple of books in May besides the two review ones. And my TBR Challenge book, which took me forever and which I only really read half of.

When I looked at the TBR Challenge schedule back in January and saw that May’s theme was Kickin’ It Old School, I decided it was time to read Johanna Lindsey’s Gentle Rogue. I picked this up in a giant Lindsey sale a couple of years ago, on the theory that a) I should read something by this classic author and b) this one sounded not too crazysauce/rapey for my taste. It’s called Gentle Rogue, after all! Shipboard romance and cross-dressing heroine are tropes I’ve enjoyed before. So. Well. This book did indeed not outrage me, but it bored me. I got stuck in the middle forever (I avoided reading it) and finally got through by skimming the second half. Let me explain.

1. There’s hardly any plot. In the opening chapters we get a bunch of backstory about the hero and heroine: her money was stolen on the way to London to find her missing fiancé; he used to be a pirate, found his illegitimate son, and made peace with his family. Hang on, I thought, all the interesting stuff has already happened to these people. What’s left? Not much but bickering and having sex, it turns out. At one point a pirate ship turned up in the distance and I was like, Yay, plot! but the hero told his first mate to outrun it because he needed to have sex with the heroine. Boo, no plot! (I get that this is a sign of his unacknowledged love and how he now cares most about her but I still wanted something to happen!)

2. There are basically no conversations in Gentle Rogue that are not bickering. When Georgie and James are not bickering with each other, they are bickering with their many, many prequel- and sequel-baiting brothers (I cannot say how annoying all the extraneous Malory backstory in the first several chapters was. Irrelevant and confusing summaries of previous books. An object lesson in how not to do backstory/pique reader interest in your other books). While mired at 30% of Lindsey’s book, I got into a Twitter conversation about humor and how personal a taste it is. I could see how some people love this book and find it hilarious. I did not. I like witty banter and I can like full-on fights, but bickering is an in-between thing that does not work for me.

3. I always say I want longer romances but I wonder if that’s really true. I would have enjoyed this book more had it been pruned to about 250 pages, with repetitive and pointless scenes cut. Because there were elements I found charming and emotionally appealing. They just got drowned out. If books are going to be longer, I want more plot, more interesting characters/psychological depth, and better writing. (It wasn’t terrible, but it was wordy and rambling–not interesting in and of itself but only as a vehicle for the story). I felt reading this, “Be careful what you wish for.”

I never expected to love Johanna Lindsey, but I disliked this for reasons I wouldn’t have predicted. As I was reading, though, I found myself thinking that I probably would have enjoyed this more when I was new to genre romance, when the characters and conflict would have been fresher to me. And then I remembered that as a newbie romance-reader, because I thought of romance as “not very good,” I felt free to skim a lot. I skipped over the bits that bored me or seemed clumsy, and just read the moments that made me laugh or engaged me emotionally or when the plot got exciting. So that’s what I did here. And at that pace, I did find some scenes I enjoyed.

I’m not sure what the lesson in all this is for me. Except that I’ve realized I don’t care any more about “educating” myself as a romance-reader. I just want to read what I like. Also, don’t pick a 400-page book for a challenge in a busy month. I’d have finished on time if I’d gone for a traditional Regency, and enjoyed myself more too. So I think this was a successful challenge in that it might mean I give myself permission to dump some things I know aren’t for me but feel I should read from my TBR.

Anyway, some major work things are off my desk now and I hope to get my blogging mojo back and tell you soon about some of the books I liked more than this!

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30 Responses to Challenges, TBR and Otherwise

  1. anacoqui says:

    It understand that “educating” impulse, as someone else who is also relatively new to romance. For me it is a reaction to finding myself conversing with people who have been reading the genre for decades. I don’t want to feel un-informed or make the wrong assumptions based on current trends. But I just don’t see the point of using my limited reading time to read something I’m not actually enjoying. Thankfully my experiences reading older books have been pretty good and almost all unintentional (like stumbling onto Balogh & Loretta Chase re-issues in my library’s collection).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have definitely read older books I love–so it’s a matter of following the history that works for me, I think. There was never a time when all romance-readers loved all the books (or read all the books) although I think sometimes online conversations can make newcomers feel that way, because there are a lot of people who have read a lot.

      I think part of it for me was that at one stage I thought I might be interested in working on romance professionally, and now I know I’d rather just read it for fun. If there are discussions where I’m just the audience because I haven’t read enough, I’m OK with that!

  2. lawless says:

    So are you more likely to DNF a book that outrages you or one that’s boring? I was going to ask which is tougher to read, but on reflection, that’s probably not a sensible question. Boring books can be skimmed; books that outrage are fodder either for hate-reading or boycotting. There’s not much in between.

    I just want to read what I like.

    This seems to be my motto recently. Life is too short to spend reading books I don’t enjoy. In many cases, this limits what and who I read.

    Have fun with your summer reading, and enjoy your time off!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I’ve just gotten way better at guessing ahead of time whether a book will outrage me. Or annoy me. Sometimes those are very interesting to read, though, to think about why I have that reaction or what the author is up to. Strong responses are worth analyzing. And there are times I think I can learn a lot and have a worthwhile reading experience reading something that’s really antithetical to my own sensibilities.

      But boring? There’s just nothing to redeem that. That is where I most often DNF–books that sound like they will work for me but end up falling flat. I have been much more willing to stop chugging on with those.

  3. L. W. says:

    I second this statement: “I’ve realized I don’t care any more about ‘educating’ myself as a romance-reader. I just want to read what I like.” However, I do want to read books about the genre–for example, Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have that and am hoping to get to it this summer. For me that’s somewhat different because it’s something I might use in my teaching. So I don’t necessarily think about it as relevant to my romance reading as much as to my reading of the novel in general.

  4. Miss Bates says:

    I DNF-ed GENTLE ROGUE after the first chapter, by marking DNF on the ratty copy twice, on her and him, and tweeting the pic. And it was boring. I’m really impressed you made it to the end!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      LOL! This makes me feel much better, because I think you’re a more open-minded reader than I am and much more able to find the strengths in all kinds of books. The moment that killed me was when a pirate hove into view and then that literally went nowhere. I was thinking, Really? REALLY?!

  5. KeiraSoleore says:

    Like other readers upthread, I feel like my romance reading is not exhaustive and my store of “knowledge” about the genre or any literary avenue is zilch.

    I have read many, many, many books, but I’ve read indiscriminately, other than certain directed reading like some authors’ entire backlists. This year is the first year, I find myself consciously choosing books to fit within certain criteria (reading goals) , but the books themselves are random recs from people whose taste I trust.

    I find I admire the ability of people to contrast and compare with establish canon in different genres, but I don’t have the patience to try to acquire said exhaustive knowledge. I’m just not interested in being an “authority.” I’m happy to read what I find interesting, and I readily DNF what I don’t.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One (true) thing I’ve been telling myself since grad school is that no one can know EVERYTHING about a subject; to say something interesting (and even, in some cases, authoritative) you don’t have to. Indiscriminate reading can lead to a lot of useful knowledge. But also just happy reading experiences, which matter most!

      I think the kinds of patterns/comparisons you’re talking about are a habit of thought. Some readers are trained to do it or just like to think that way, and others have other interesting perspectives. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say about your reading.

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        One of the criticisms being levelled at male romance scholars is that they’re talking authoritatively about romance without the canonical knowledge AKA without having read widely. But like you said, so long as they’re reading in their niche and commenting on their niche…it’s all good. It’s when someone makes sweeping generalizations that they’re then on shaky ground.

  6. Sunita says:

    I’ve read widely in the romance genre and I’ve read for decades, but I consciously avoided the Woodiwiss, Lindsey, Rogers et al. books of the 1970s. That means I don’t have a background in the books that shaped American romance reading for many, many people. I’m OK with that. As you say, no one can read everything. Every reader in the genre has some kind of hole in her knowledge, because it’s such a huge corpus. Come to think of it, that’s probably true for almost every genre. Whether you’re reading for hobby-pleasure or for work, you have to draw boundaries somewhere.

    My hat it off to you that you made it through, however. That’s more than I could have done. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think “made it through” is a generous assessment of what I did (I’m still counting it, though!). There was a lot of skimming in the second half.

      And yes, and everyone has gaps even where she’s expert. I haven’t read all of Dickens, for example.

  7. Las says:

    “There are basically no conversations in Gentle Rogue that are not bickering.”
    I hadn’t realized it until you said it, but that pretty much describes every Lindsey book. Even in the stories with darker elements, “lighthearted” banter and bickering are staples.

    I loved Gentle Rogue, but your review is a good reminder of why I refuse to reread it and a lot of other old favorites. I know my current tastes well enough to know what will and will not work for me, and while I do occasionally like to challenge myself with tropes and themes I don’t usually like, these days it takes a lot of trust in the author and/or a really compelling review to get to take that risk.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Even not having been reading romance for long, I find rereading can be perilous. Books I loved have let me down on a second read (though not all of them, certainly). This is true of all my reading, of course–not all my childhood/teen favorites stand up to rereading either. And I really could see how some people loved this book, which is not always true of books I dislike.

  8. SuperWendy says:

    It’s shocking the authors I haven’t read within the genre. I blame this on starting to review almost immediately after rediscovering the genre, so I was reading those books – not pouring over the backlists of folks like Woodiwiss, Garwood, Lindsey, Small etc. etc. etc.

    I think you make an excellent point of reading “the history that works for you” – as I’ve been totally capable of loving books written 20 years ago. But they’re books that fit a certain mold. For example, I have a really hard time with “purple prose” – so reading Woodwiss would be a slog for me. Likewise the one Tom & Sharon Curtis book I read (Lightning That Lingers) left me largely unmoved because 1) it’s pretty absurd plot-wise and 2) I marveled at how much purple prose they crammed into a 200 page category romance novel. Really, if there is a such a thing as a gold medal for purple prose, they deserved to win one for that book.

    BUT! Like you, I can also recognize that some books would have worked a lot better for me had I read them upon first discovering the genre. Had I read Lightning That Lingers as a teenager? OMG, SWOON! Also, I should have read Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas straight away after I reconnected with romance in my early 20s. Instead I didn’t read it until I was more jaded, and it ended up being a hot and cold running read for yours truly.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I sometimes wish I had caught more genre classics at the right moment, because I feel left out of people’s reminiscing conversations and there are times at which I would have loved some of these books. Prose is part of it for me, too. I think that as I have read romance longer I have come to read it more the way I do other books, if that makes sense, rather than treating it as a secret/special thing apart. I want some of the same kinds of pleasure from it, and that includes prose which seems worth my while–which for me too is definitely not too purple, and not too sloppy either. It doesn’t have to be lyrical or beautifully written; I’m fine with clean and simple. But blathering wordiness–which is how this book struck me–does not cut it.

  9. Kathryn says:

    I’ve been reading romances since my pre-teens (so mid 1970s) and while I’ve read lots and lots, I have not read everything by any means. And there are a lot of books that I did read (and even finished and enjoyed) that I would not touch now because I recognized even back then that they were totally disposable one-offs (or skim-offs in some cases). Like Super Wendy I’m not a big fan of purple prose, so Small, Lindsey, Woodiwiss were at best one-offs and most of their books I never read (even fact I don’t think I even made all the way through any of Small’s books, although I started several). I’m one of those people who tried The Windflower back in the day and just couldn’t finish it. I’ve tried a couple of times since, but failed each time. And since I’m not planning to write a study on historical romances in the 80s and 90s, why do I keep bothering? I’ll just accept that The Windflower was break-through book for a lot of people who’ve read it, but it wasn’t for me.

    And as a historian it took me a long, long time to make my peace with a lot of the really bad history and inconsistent world-building and character development that a lot of those 70s and 80s longer historicals suffered from (that would be one of my problems with Windflower). You know the weak world-building I think was the biggest problem for me — even more than the often weak grasp of basic historical facts.

    I preferred (and still prefer) Heyer — there are definitely problems around the accuracy of historical representation in her books, but she was a great world-builder in her best books and her characters remained consistent and true to the world she established. And I think that is probably why I preferred and read lots of trad regencies in the 70s and 80s — because they participated in those well-established Regency convention (sort of like fan fiction that works within a well-established sff universe). Betty Neels’ books also function a clearly defined Betty-verse, which I think is why people still enjoy them today.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really like your points about world-building. The shipping stuff here felt as if it had cursory research behind it that gave that part of the world some texture, but most of it was lighter than air. (For instance, I noticed right off that the Malory brothers seem to have multiple titles that wouldn’t exist in the same family–I think there are two viscounts?–and titled people are referred to incorrectly). It is very much a fantasy world, which can be OK, but one that didn’t feel consistent or convincing, which is not OK.

      I agree 100% about Heyer. The world she creates is so convincing. I won’t always spot errors, for sure, but I also care less about them if the author builds a world I’m willing to buy into and can believe in.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh yes, and I absolutely agree about Neels. A world which never quite existed in actuality but feels completely real, fully developed, and internally consistent.

  10. Kaetrin says:

    My first Johanna Linsday was A Pirate’s Love and that WAS rape-tastic – but I was about 12 so I really didn’t know what I was reading at the time. As a teen I read most of the Linsdays that were in print at the time – including Savage Thunder (sex on a horse!) but then I moved onto other things. I tried to read a Lindsay book a couple years ago and found that her writing hadn’t really changed but I had. She’s a fond reading memory but not longer for me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I sometimes wonder what I would have liked if I had discovered genre romance in my early teens. I certainly liked romantic stories back then, but I wasn’t reading anything like this. It’s hard to say in retrospect whether I would have been thrilled or horrified by it.

  11. Janine Ballard says:

    Johanna Lindsey wrote the first bona fide romance I ever read, so I will always have a place in my heart for her books. Her books almost always have a lot of bickering, though sometimes they are more eventful and / or less humorous than Gentle Rogue. I did find the book hilarious when I read it, but I haven’t revisited it in years. At one point, about a dozen years ago, I tried to reread Man of My Dreams (another of the humorous ones) and found it didn’t work for me at all. The deal breaker in that case was the anachronistic language. I got rid of all the Lindsey books I had on my shelf (and I had many–in my early teen years I’d loved many of her books) and I’m not sure how I’d feel about them now.

    Strangely, I feel that in some ways historical romance is moving back to the kind of books she used to write, with anachronistic language and an emphasis on sex, attraction and humor, whereas the kind of thoughtful historical romances written by authors of that era whose work I now appreciate a great deal more are thinner on the ground. I’ve gone through a bunch of samples by new-to-me authors recently, and the anachronistic language — the main thing that got me to purge Lindsey’s books from my bookshelf — really jumps out, as does the mental lusting.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The language here did bother me. I don’t expect a book written today to sound like one written by Austen or even to use only words in use at the time, but I do want plausibly historical language that allows me to remain in that time period. I think this issue is very much related to the world-building Kathryn discusses. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to be plausible. (A big part of it was that the heroine is American and there’s so much of a big deal made about how she hates the English and the hero is so much the aristocratic Englishman blah blah but then he uses Americanisms in his speech so that really fell flat for me). Heyer is a good example here as well. I know her Regency slang drives people crazy and I really don’t know how accurate all of it is–I think she made some of it up?–but it all seems plausible to me and creates a sense of people who exist in a linguistic world with depth.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        “Heyer is a good example here as well. I know her Regency slang drives people crazy and I really don’t know how accurate all of it is–I think she made some of it up?–but it all seems plausible to me and creates a sense of people who exist in a linguistic world with depth.”

        Yes! Agreed.

      • Kathryn says:

        From everything I’ve read, all the slang that Heyer incorporates into her work existed in the time periods in which she set her works. She was relentless in tracking down contemporary sources –albeit mostly male-produced writings. So how much of the slang was actually used by men (and more especially by women) in polite society is much more open to question (that historical accuracy issue). Even Heyer recognizes that some of the slang was not really used by women or thought suitable for use in polite society or mixed company — she often has her heroines apologizing (albeit usually with laughter in their fine eyes) for using some shocking phrase to make a point or a more conventional character expressing dismay at the slang that another character is using during a social or family occasion.

        And I know that people often think that mysteries are about plots, romances about characters, and sff about world-building. But I think world-building is something that more authors in all genres should think about — even those who writing books set in present time.

        • Kaetrin says:

          Yes Yes Yes to your comment about world-building. It’s important in any story and there’s really no excuse for doing it badly in a contemporary – sources abound!!

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I agree about world-building. In contemporaries, for instance, professional worlds can throw the reader out (and if they are too thin, they can make the characters seem unreal).

          I think romance can sometimes get away with less world-building because it’s set in a shared world–e.g. trad Regencies, as you say, are drawing on Heyer’s world and the world they share. No one author has to recreate it (even current Regency-set books, though their Almackistan world looks somewhat different, are drafting in this wake and sharing the load with each other). I imagine other genres can do this too–there are a lot of fantasy worlds indebted to Tolkein of course, and what about space opera? More original worlds probably have more work to do.

  12. Janine Ballard says:

    I think romance can also rely on the attraction between the characters and the characters’ (heroes’ esp) personal charisma to act as a kind of sleight of hand and distract the reader from thin world-building.

  13. cleo says:

    “I’ve realized I don’t care any more about “educating” myself as a romance-reader. I just want to read what I like.”

    This is so true for me, and not just in romance. And it’s soooo liberating. I’ve never read a Lindsay – somehow I missed her when I was covertly reading romances in my teens / 1980s and I’m ok with that.

    I was talking with an acquaintance the other day who’s on a classic sf/f kick – Heinlein’s next on her list and I had to bite my tongue (shouting I HATE HIS BOOKS seemed inappropriate during church coffee hour) – I think I limited myself to warning her re the misogyny and saying he was ahead of his time but is behind ours.

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