As a rule, I don’t gravitate to romance novels. I have a complicated relationship with them: I absolutely grew up rejecting the idea of them as being too femme, and I didn’t want to have a bar of that… even while knowing that I enjoyed a well-written romance in whatever books I was reading, or film I was watching (yes, I would watch Empire Strikes Back with just the Han/Leia scenes). As I grew up I realised what I was doing and finally started thinking more sensibly about romance as a genre. It will still never be my go-to genre, I think; while I have enjoyed romance/SF, for instance, I do prefer the balance to be on the SF narrative rather than the romance.
However. Every now and then someone recommends a romance novel to me, and I give it a go, and I have hugely enjoyed them. The Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan, for instance, was just lovely: the romance is the centre of each book but around it is a meaty, thoughtful and engaging narrative. (Although I haven’t read the last one, because the term suffragette wasn’t coined until about 1903, and the book seems to be set at least two decades too early.) And that’s what I like, it seems; a romance where the surrounding plot is as strong as the romance. Maybe there’s lots of stories like that; perhaps I’m continuing to do a disservice to romance – I have read a few where that’s not the case, but maybe I was misled by the person who gave them to me.
ANYWAY. The whole point is to explain that when I say I’ve read four books by Celia Lake in about a week, that’s a pretty serious recommendation from my perspective. The Mysterious Charm books are largely centred around the New Forest, in the 1920s. It’s a world where magic exists but those with magic keep pretty separate from the non-magical. It doesn’t seem to be as strict as in JK Rowling’s world, but it’s still significant. The date is a clue to some of what is significant in these books: it’s post WW1 Britain, with the issues that implies: returned soldiers with physical and mental ailments, people grieving their lost ones, survivors struggling with that, and so on. It’s also clear that Lake was influenced by Dorothy Sayers – in fact she says as much, and one of the books is very much a Lord Peter Whimsy story – and the story around the romance in each of the books is some sort of a mystery. There’s an archaeological story, there’s a mysterious drug story, a smuggling story, and a reappearing house story; in each, the pair who will end up involved have to figure out what’s going on. The magic is generally pretty low-key, but essential to the story.
The books aren’t perfect; there are a few idiosyncrasies in the writing style that bugged me at time, mostly around use of commas! But they’re not detrimental to the story. In each, the protagonists generally go chapter for chapter, so the reader gets insight into both sides, which I really enjoyed; there’s no agendas hidden from the reader, and while there are of course obstacles to true love, these are cosy stories, so you don’t have to be worried about where it will end up (not saying I was burnt, but I’m thinking of you, Roman Holiday, and I’m still angry). (These are also stories akin to the Mills&Boon ‘Dare’ or ‘Blaze’ imprints – relatively sexually explicit.)
The first story is “Outcrossing” and while I did think it was adorable I would honestly suggest starting with Goblin Fruit, because it was a meatier and generally more intriguing story. The four that are out so far are intertwined, with some of the same characters popping up, but there’s no real spoilers – if you know that things are going to end well for the characters anyway, it doesn’t matter if you see them happily together in a different book.
I may have signed up for the author’s newsletter so I know when the next one is due…
I was one of those girls – women – who was pretty down on romance as a genre. There are lots of complicated reasons for this. Partly it was a woman thing; I wanted to not be that sort of woman (what sort? I don’t know. I guess I associated liking romances with weakness or something?). Partly it was a genre thing: over here in the disregarded spec fic corner, it’s nice to disregard someone else.
But of course this was always both a) a completely stupid attitude for a multitude of reasons and b) hypocritical. Because I do like reading romances in the stories I’m reading.
I think I’ve finally figured out what doesn’t usually appeal: romances that exist purely by themselves. I’m certainly not saying that they are bad or stupid, but that as a rule they don’t appeal to me (like I don’t love vampire stories as a rule, although I do enjoy the Blade films). What helped me finally articulate this is having read three of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. (There is a fourth but I don’t plan to read it, partly because the main character doesn’t appeal and partly for Historical Snobbish reasons.) This is mostly because of Tansy.
These are Victorian romances, which means Milan gets to take advantage of some of the interesting social and political and scientific changes happening in the mid-19th century in England (and across Europe). The main point is always about a girl and a boy and how of course they ought to be together but there are all of these problems that might prevent their happiness: scandals in the past, problems in the present, nasty people, social expectations, etc. Some of these relationship problems ring a bit more true than others: I didn’t find Minnie’s ‘scandal’, in the first book, all that convincing, while the problems of the third book were magnificent. Overall, though, the characters are treated sympathetically and the problems carefully – no one of consequence dismisses anyone’s fears without regard, which I found quite a relief. I especially liked that both female and male protagonists get to tell the narrative from their point of view, making the stories much more rounded and feel more genuine than might otherwise be the case.
And around these relationship issues are the social and political themes that Milan uses to flesh out the world. In the first book it’s class relationships and working conditions and rape and marrying for money. In the second book it’s about race and political representation and social expectations and marrying for money and child guardianship and medical ethics and mental health. In the third it’s mostly about science (oh my, seduction by science I LOVED it) and gender expectations. Some of these issues play into the romance, and some of these issues are things that the characters are dealing with quite apart from their romance because of course life exists outside of does-she-love-me and Milan knows that very well. Milan is presenting complex and complicated individuals and worlds.
Of course, this is all within a fairly constrained society: the focus is on the wealthy, with a few not-nobles thrown in (not just as window-dressing but still, they have to meet the expectations of the Haves), almost everyone is white, and so on. There’s a lot of pretty dresses and balls and large houses. But… that’s the sort of book that Milan is writing. A romance set in the middle-class or working-class echelons would be very different and deal with different issues. And wouldn’t have the foofy dresses, which are – as you can see from the covers – important to the story.
I am not going to start reading nothing but romances (historical or otherwise), because I am still mostly interested in space ships and explosions and the odd dragon, and there are so MANY of those I haven’t read yet. But I am very glad I have grown up enough to acknowledge Old Me’s appalling attitude, and I’m very glad to have read and enjoyed these books.
I am amused that this is my first review for 2016. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous, given the last review I wrote…
Anyway, this book needed a serious edit.
Granted I’m not the world’s most enamoured romance reader, but I do understand the enjoyment of, and possible catharsis in, reading about the anguish of do-I-love-this-person or not. But this book could probably have been cut by a quarter (ok, maybe a fifth) and it would have been a much pacier read. Still keep the angst but lose all of the boring wallowing, and repetition.
Because there was indeed an interesting enough story here, revolving around two people struggling out from under the burden of difficult parents order to make good lives for themselves. There are other characters in the background being variously nefarious or sad or mischievous, and a couple of twists that were genuine twists and made the plot itself quite pleasing. Except for the repetitious angst.
The other thing that really annoyed me was the blaming of the woman for the man’s desire. Seriously that is not ever cool. He does seem to recognise eventually that it’s not actually her fault that he feels this desire, but the language of the book doesn’t recognise that. Describing a woman as sinfully beautiful is never, ever warranted.
Also, forcing someone to kiss you is gross.
Or, I read a (…nother…) Julia Quinn novel and quite liked it.
I am not a connoisseur of Regency romance (having only read… one? maybe two?) before this, so I have no idea what conventions Quinn might be playing, breaking, or taking outrageous advantage of. So I can only comment on the book itself, not its place in the genre.
Did the book still serve up a few surprises?
Yes, a couple. They were quite fun, actually, since most of the plot was predictable.
Did I enjoy reading it?
I read it in a sitting. So, yes. The writing is light and witty, winsome and undemanding. I liked the alternating perspective between Our Romantic Heroes. I liked (sorry Gail Carriger) that there wasn’t a big emphasis on the clothes, nor the food. I like banter, and this has quite a lot.
What about the characters?
Daphne is a forthright, sensible woman who holds out little hope of romance but would at least like to like her husband. She comes from a big, loving family. I liked her, overall; I was a bit disappointed by her eagerness to marry and have children as the be-all, but: a) why not? She’s allowed to desire that; b) as we’re reminded early on, she’s not allowed to go to university if she wants to, and she can’t aim for an awesome career – partly because she’s female, and partly because she’s gentry and they just… don’t work.
Simon had a damaged childhood. Now he’s the duke. He’s been a rake, has no intention of marrying… etc. While I sympathised with his experiences, he was certainly less interesting to me than Daphne.
Are there problematic bits?
Sure. I am always uncomfortable with the Mrs Bennett-ing of all mothers. Quinn turns the tables somewhat with Violet, and gives a marvellous hint at her actually being a very smart woman, but it wasn’t quite enough to stop me from sighing a few times at the ‘must catch the daughter a husband’ thing. Maybe it’s historical verisimilitude, but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read about.
There’s also an instance of maybe-taking-advantage-of-someone that made me uncomfortable, which then did get explored for ‘who did what’ but it still made me sad.
Will I read more?
Daphne is one of eight children. I did wonder why Quinn was ravishing so much attention on the beauty and allure of Daphne’s brothers… and then I discovered that there are, of course, eight novels in this series. Marrying off each of the children, one by one. I must admit to being somewhat intrigued, not least because I really want to find out who the gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown, is. Two of my candidates got blown out of the water by the last page, but I still have one possibility in mind…. So, maybe.
So there’s this girl I’ve known for about half of my life. She’s been foisting books on me for most of that time. Sometimes that works out really well; she threw a comic fantasy at me by a new Tasmanian author once, someone called Tansy Rayner Roberts, and that’s turned out ok. At other times, I have been less… enthused. Because much of what she has directed me to has been romance.
(Long time readers of this book, cue the eye-rolling.)
Mea culpa: I have been a member of that set who poo-poohed romance as a genre. I have been dismissive of the covers and presumed they genuinely represented the contents; I have dismissed romance as not worth reading; I have dismissed the people who loved reading it. The fact that some of my friends enjoyed reading it confused me no end, because how could they be part of that group? I dismissed it as mere escapism… even as I bared my teeth at people who did the same to me over reading science fiction.
I am not proud. I am still getting over this attitude. And what both makes this attitude bizarre and helped me get over it was, at the time grumpily, actually reading most of the books I was directed to… and realising that they were well-written. Yes there’s crap romance; there’s really crap SF too. This should be no surprise. Also, I finally admitted that I quite like good romance aspects to my SF&F, and that that is okay. Part of my problem had been dealing with rather anti-girl and anti-feminine aspects of my own character (this is something that’s years in the discarding).
Anyway, she gave me Freedom and Necessity, and… the world changed.
The aforementioned friend recently sent me a copy of Freedom and Necessity which she rescued just for me, thinking I should read it again. Oh, how I love this book.
It’s 1849, and the convulsions that threw Europe into confusion in 1848 – attempted revolutions all over the place – have mostly simmered down. The Chartist movement in England (wanting outrageous things like manhood suffrage, paying politicians – so you don’t have to be rich to stand for election – and a secret ballot) has also mostly been contained. James Cobham wakes up at a rural pub with, he writes to his cousin, no memory of the last two months, during which time he has been presumed dead by drowning.
The entire novel is constructed via letters and a few diary entries. This does mean an occasionally improbable concession towards memories being excellent, but also raises the intriguing possibility of unreliable narrators all the way through. Also, the friend pointed out that reading it on the days the letters are written is both a fascinating and excruciating experience – the latter because the urge to keep reading is just. so. strong.
There are four main letter-writers. James; his cousin Richard; James’ step-sister and Richard’s paramour, Kitty; and Susan, also a cousin. The family is aristocratic in that way that doesn’t entirely make sense for a modern Australian – they’re not dukes, but they are wealthy and landed. James has been the family’s black sheep for a long time and clearly has a dubious past; Richard is something of a dilettante and scandalous for living with Kitty; Kitty seems flighty and wilful, at least at first; and Susan is sensible, determined, and intimidatingly modern.
Susan is my favourite. Susan is on visiting terms with Friedrich Engels.
The plot wheels between political machinations, dastardly plots of a political and a personal nature, family in-fighting, pseudo-druidical secret societies, fairly in-depth philosophical arguments, and falling in love. The fact that it is written as letters between different people means there are four distinct voices, with their own personal ambitions, hang-ups, and secrets; people don’t have all the same knowledge at the same time; and sometimes letters don’t get to their intended recipient at the hoped-for time, leading to… well. You can imagine.
I love the romance aspect; I love the historical aspect; I love the thriller aspect. There are serious arguments about Hegel that leave me bewildered. This book is delightfully well-rounded, and I am so very thankful to Kate for giving it to me so I can read it again and again, and loan it to Very Special People.
(Kate, by the way, is the creator of incredible jams and chutneys from local Tasmanian ingredients. If you’re keen on suchlike, search her out on Twitter – @justaddmoon – seriously awesome! /end plug)
You can get it”> from Fishpond!
I watched The Mummy a couple of days ago, and The Mummy Returns tonight.
I’d really like to be able to say that I watch and enjoy them because of my joy at seeing archaeology and egyptology on the big screen, getting a cool rep; for the awesome FX; and for the manic action sequences.
Part of that is true – I leave it to you to figure out what’s a big fat lie from that statement. But the truth is, I like those movies for the same reason I like the original Star Wars movies.
Yes, it’s partly the action and the explosions – particularly in Star Wars. But the reality is, I watch them for one main reason: Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and their relationships with Evie/Leia.
This is my big guilty secret, that I am trying to come to grips with, and which outing myself here will hopefully help: I am a sucker for romance. It has to be surrounded by action, and explosions, and preferably lots of cool FX and a scifi bent; the heroine has to not be a wimp and the hero has to be a real hero (being a rogue helps as well) – and I love movies with no real romance, too – but, still, a bit of romance done well is not something I object to.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade or so building up an anti-romance persona; it hurts to tear it down! And there are certain friends to whom I will never admit this, ever. Because they will never let me live it down. Like they still tease me for getting married, after saying I never would (six years today). Kate – stop scheming right now!
I am not a big fan of romantic comedies. In fact, as a general rule, I avoid them as though they had something hanging out of their nostrils.
I really like 50 First Dates. I don’t tend to like Adam Sandler, but he’s ok in this; Drew Barrymore is wonderful. The thing is, I can’t stand the advertising it gets. The DVD cover – and the picture they use to advertise it on TV – has Barrymore looking utterly vapid and stupid. It misrepresents her character, and – once you know the film – misrepresents her character’s condition, too.
Yes, things like this really irk me.