It’s been a while since I posted, and that’s because for a couple of weeks most of my reading was student papers. But now, I have finished a book! A romance novel, even. I liked the first book in Emma Barry’s Washington, D.C.-set “Easy Part” series, Special Interests, but I’m reading so little romance these days that it took me a year or so to get around to book 2, Private Politics. [ETA: I am friendly with Emma Barry on Twitter. I forgot my disclosure!]
I’m lazy and I have a cold, so here’s the blurb from the author’s website and some bullet points:
New York socialite Alyse Philips is not the airhead people take her for-she’s great at convincing D.C.’s rich and powerful to open their wallets. Never one to coast on her family’s connections, her real dream is to help charities in a bigger way. Before she can pursue her ambitions, she discovers a money-laundering scandal that’s got her signature all over it. If Alyse can’t clear her name, she’ll never work in nonprofits again.
Political blogger Liam Nussbaum has been pining after Alyse for six months, certain she’d never go for a quiet guy like him. Helping her with the investigation is a no-brainer. But going up against a seedy network of money and influence isn’t just a romantic opportunity or a chance to grab the headline that will take him into the big time-it’s a gamble that could destroy his blog’s reputation.
As Liam and Alyse dig deeper, their hearts collide alongside their ambition. Will they choose love or politics? Because in Washington, everything comes at a price.
- Barry recently wrote a blog post about work in romance novels, and one of the things enjoy about this series is how seriously her characters take their work. In their late 20s (I think? maybe early 30s for some), her characters are at the point of settling into adult identities, deciding–or finally admitting to themselves–what they really want, and asking if the roles they started adulthood in, both professional and romantic, are the ones they really desire. It seems to me like a more mature stage of the coming of age of new adult romance: they’ve negotiated independence, but now they must make longer term choices. That’s an interesting life stage, and I like the fact that work is as big a part of the choices and changes they make as is love, and the way Barry connects the two. That certainly reflects my own experience.
- I really like the characters in this one. Alyse is someone we don’t see that much in romance–especially contemporary, maybe? she turns up in Regencies–a woman who is confident about her looks and sex appeal, who uses her “feminine” charm in the service of the non-profit she works for, which supports girls’ literacy. As a result of her social polish and conventional femininity, she’s often underestimated, and she can use that to her advantage. But she’s coming to realize that she has underestimated herself, that she doesn’t want to play at working for a few years and then go home to New York and make the kind of marriage her parents will approve of. She has other ambitions, and she’s not sure what kind of love fits in with them. I think it’s a neat trick not to make a character like this off-putting; she seems so old-fashioned in a way. And yet it is still hard for women to break out of social and familial expectations, whether those are to be a New York socialite or an ambitious careerist. I had a lot of sympathy with Alyse as she navigated her way through these roles, choosing what worked for her.
- I love a beta hero and I enjoyed Liam. He, too, is figuring out ambition. He runs a successful politics blog, Poindexter, that he started in college but that now has four employees (I pegged him as based on Matt Yglesias, more or less). He is torn between wanting the blog to break out really big and not wanting to give up control. He doesn’t think of himself as a “real” journalist. Alyse underestimates him at first partly because he underestimates himself. I like the ways he takes her by surprise, the way her attraction to him takes her by surprise. No insta-lust on her side.
- Liam has loved Alyse from afar but thinks of her as out of his league (like that real journalism career–sometimes the love/work parallels are maybe a little too obvious). He has to be willing to push to get what he wants. Alyse, the woman of always-polished surfaces and calculated gestures, has to learn to love someone who isn’t polished and perfect (and who sees past her surfaces to who she really is). She has to take the leap of choosing her own life, rather than following a prescribed path.
- So I liked the romance a lot. The rest of the plot wasn’t as strong. The financial scandal at Alyse’s work threatened to turn into a full-on suspense plot (which would have been fine) but never quite did, and was all wrapped up a little too easily. The end in general felt a bit anti-climactic; in these early books I think Barry is still figuring out how to write a convincing black moment and bring her characters back from it. I forgave this because I liked the characters and because it’s a short-ish book (70K words, so longer than a typical category romance but on the short side for single title) and they often take some shortcuts.
- When Carina Press first started, I found their quality reliable. But there was an inexcusable number of errors in this book–missing words, mostly, some typos. It was distracting. It’s not an issue of bad writing (I like Barry’s style) but inadequate editing. If genre e-presses want to compete with self-publishing, they need to nail this stuff. Because what else do they offer?