Category Archives: Romance

Dogs and Goddesses, by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

I love these women. I’ve never met them, of course (although I do have a signed copy of Faking It that my writer-mom got for me at RWA one year) but I read Argh Ink and ReFabbing It on a daily or more often basis – pretty much as soon as they post anything, I read it. I enjoy – okay, enjoy is not QUITE the right word – their progress through their struggles, and I especially like reading their articles about craft and rewriting. I remember when they first collaborated on Dogs and Goddesses, when they were working through plots and characters and scenes.

I wish I liked it better. It’s not that I didn’t like it – it was fun enough – but it wasn’t as tight as I was expecting or hoping, and certainly not as good as their individual titles. My all-time standard for Jennifer Crusie and similar authors is Bet Me,  which has an excellent mix of friendship, lust, manic madcap slapstick, family tension, etc. This book had a lot of that, even all of that, but it doesn’t work as well.

I’ve been thinking about it since I finished the book, and I actually think that my problem is with the romances – they’re too quick. All three women fall in lust, sparked by the “temple tonic” and their latent powers, and by the end they’re in “love”. But none of the relationships are much more than sex. The closest thing is Shar and Sam, who actually do communicate as she tries to teach him what modern life is like. The other two couples don’t even have that.

Even the female friendships, the strongest part of the book, aren’t exactly organic. They’re friends because Kammani says, “You Will Be Friends” and then, magically, they are all inseparable friends. Even Gen and Bun get pulled into it. I suppose it’s part of the whole past lives/inevitable reliving aspect, but it didn’t work that well for me. I suppose in a book that makes such a big deal out of free will versus required service, having none of the relationships come apart through free will doesn’t sit that well.

It’s not bad though. Certainly better than some others that I’ve read (not by these three). It’s just not as good as their standalone books.

PS Lani Diane Rich is another author that’s a hero like Sara Gruen. She finished NaNo, found a publisher, and is now writing full-time (and teaching writing via StoryWonk and Writewell).

Crusie and Krissie are heroes of mine as well, but for other reasons.

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Mills and Boon books

I haven’t finished anything in the last few weeks that I’ve felt the need to talk about. I’m still reading The Children’s Book, on which I will have much to say when I do finish it, and I’m a couple hundred pages into A Suitable Boy. But what I have mostly been focusing on for the last few weeks is romance novels. Specifically, Mills and Boon romance novels.

There are two reasons why I have spent the last few weeks buried in a pile of Mills and Boon. One is that I am an unabashed romance reader. They are my go-to books when I need to read but can’t focus on something heavy or dense. They’re a palate-cleanser when I’ve finished something and am not yet ready to start something else. They are fast, easy, predictable enough to be comforting, and unique enough (mostly) to be interesting.

The other reason is the contest. Mills and Boon/Harlequin is running a “first chapter” contest right now, and the grand prize includes publication. So, obviously, I’m entering. And, of course, one of the best ways to aim your writing at a specific publisher is to read as much as possible by that publisher. This is especially important for a publisher like Harlequin. There are several different lines, and they each have their own idiosyncracies. It’s incredibly important to get to know the lines so that you know where your book will fit.

I am fairly picky about the romance novels I read. Let me stress that the ones I don’t like are not “bad” per se. I don’t disapprove of them; they’re just not to my taste. I don’t personally like paranormal, although other-world fantasy can be okay. I don’t like secret babies or revenge marriages. I really don’t like secret babies born out of one-night stands. I’m also not a huge fine of “the first time they had sex she got pregnant” but that’s a more minor annoyance. Historicals are okay, but the sheer number of REgency books with no overlap is starting to stretch the bounds of my credibility. The ton was not THAT big. Also, there are other time periods that deserve exploration.

I do like romantic suspense and most contemporary romance, as long as it doesn’t have one of my pet peeve storylines. (Although, like I said, I’m not opposed to these storylines. I’m not going to give up on a book just because it has a secret baby. I’m just less likely to pick it up in the first place.)

The thing about these books is that, just like any other book, there has to be a suspension of disbelief. There have to be characters that behave in a realistic or understandable way. If they don’t have that, then I’m not going to keep reading, and I’m going to write my own.

Also, the book needs to know what it’s writing about. This is most often seen in historical novels, but it applies to modern-set ones as well. If it’s set in the present-day, don’t have your main character live in a boarding house, studying bookkeeping part-time at a votech in order to become a CPA. Even throwing in a mention of a cell phone and crystal meth won’t make it believable as 2007. That’s a book that I gave up on. Also, three chapters in and the hero has only been mentioned, not met? This book got published on name recognition, not quality.

It turns out that my limit for essentially uninterrupted MIlls and Boon is about 30. At least, that’s about how many I have read over the last three weeks. But now that my chapter entry is done, I’m going to give myself an M&B break, at least until I hear the results. (It’s such a longshot, though – they’re shortlisting 10 out of 824. I don’t hold out much hope.)

Feel free to read my chapter, though – the contest website is www.romanceisnotdead.com and from there you can search for my name or “Making Friends” which is the least pathetic title I came up with. Reactions are always welcome – both positive and negative (but be nice about the genre, or I will hurt you).

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In Defense of a Genre

I ran smack up against the romance-novel prejudice today at one of my volunteering gigs. The manager and book sorter were trying to decide whether and where to shelve a bunch of Danielle Steel/Catherine Cookson type books that they had gotten. I didn’t actually see the books, since I was on the computer at the time, but those were two of the names that they mentioned in their discussion. The books appeared to be “single title” books, the kind that are often about 500 pages long or so, densely plotted. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re not trash. And yet the manager and book sorter at the shop were trying to decide where to put them so that people could find them, but so that they wouldn’t be obvious. Because they don’t want anyone to think that they sell “that kind of book.”

Those were their words. “That kind of book.”

What kind of book exactly? Best-selling books? Danielle Steel (and again, let me clarify that I don’t know specifically that they were actually Danielle Steel books, just that they were Danielle Steel – like books) was on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list throughout the 80s and 90s. There were years when she had no less than three books on the best-seller list. Books they don’t like? Nobody’s going to like every book, or every type of book. If you limit what you sell in your store to books that you like, you’re going to run out of books and run out of customers. Books that are badly written? We sell Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have (to my eye) absolutely abhorrent writing styles. (I say this as someone who has read at least four of both those authors’ books.)

I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m pretty sure that by “that kind of book” they meant romance.

Because who would possibly want to read romance novels? Who would want to read books that usually have a female lead (and often a strong female lead), that portray relationships both platonic and romantic, that present fairly universal questions about character and human interaction and love? No, we’d much rather read something that preys on our fears both personal and global, that glorifies violence, that is usually racist (against whatever ethnicity is currently “the enemy”) and sexist. Or, even better, the agony memoirs of people – usually children – that have gone through horrific ordeals of abuse and neglect, so that we can feel appropriately guilty about the state of the world, slightly smug that our lives aren’t like that, and satisfied that we’re part of the solution simply by participating in the publicity of the problem.

Note: My problem is not with the authors or victims of the “Tragic Lives” genre. My problem is with the people who read them for the reasons that I’ve given above, which then lead to things like James Frey’s “memoir” because hard-life memoirs are what sell.

But, yeah, who would want to read romance? Who would want to believe that, even for a little while, happy endings are possible? Who would want to identify with someone whose life isn’t quite perfect, who doesn’t have their ideal job or their ideal house, or whatever, but still gets the guy (or girl) anyway? Who would want to fantasize about being a princess, historical or modern, dripping with jewels and dancing at balls, who finds the one man who doesn’t care about her money?

Yes, they’re escapist. They’re fiction. A lot of fiction is meant to be escapist. Yes, a lot of them are not very good. The same can be said about a lot of different genres, and yet those are still on the shelves, while romance is hidden away, shoved to one side or tucked on a lower shelf so that the “good” books take center stage.

Oh, and when it comes to the “sex” argument, I have read more explicit sex scenes in crime novels and “literary” fiction than I have in most romance novels.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if a requirement for “literary fiction” was to include at least one graphic sex scene. Sometimes a scene that only included one person.  (Ew.) (Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. You probably didn’t need to know that.)

Romance novels are a valid genre, and a valid choice for readers. Just like any genre – crime, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – is a valid choice for readers.  To limit that choice simply because of your personal preference is unprofessional at the very least.

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Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, by Marika Cobbold

I first heard about this book on a blog – can’t remember which one, sadly – and thought it sounded interesting. Interesting enough, at least, to put on my amazon wishlist (which is what I use as a reminder of books that sound interesting. You know, in case I ever run out of books to read). So when it was on one of the display shelves at the newly refurbished local library, I couldn’t resist.

And it is an interesting concept, for sure. Romance novelist turns cynical, Aphrodite and Eros try to help, etc. And I really wish I’d enjoyed it more. I didn’t not enjoy it, but it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations, given the glowing review that had made me put it on the wishlist in the first place.

I liked the main character perfectly well. I was incredibly happy when she walked out on her boyfriend, because he was emotionally abusive and icky. And I completely understand her cynicism about love and romance, since it’s something that I feel quite a lot (and I’m only 29).

But. The more I think about it, the less works.

The ending was absolutely the weakest part of the book. All of the character development, all of the story wrapped up in a “here’s what happened” epilogue. And the love story itself boils down to Cupid’s – sorry, Eros’s – arrow. Why do they love each other? Because Eros shot them at the right time. It’s the equivalent of the fairy godmother waving her wand, and it’s such a cop-out.

And the most frustrating part of the ending is that it doesn’t resolve any of the questions that the book poses, which are good, valid questions about the nature of romance and its place in modern life. The book is filled with valid cynicism about romance, the emphasis put on romance to the detriment of love and partnership, and the role and responsibility that romantic, escapist fiction plays in the world. These are perfectly good questions that deserve to be looked at. But all of the cynical doubts are resolved off-stage through a deus ex machine that’s not even seen, only reported.

It left me feeling hollow and disappointed. Yes, there was a happy ending in the traditional romance way (a wedding), but there was no resolution. And resolution is more important than a stock ending. The perfect ending is not the only reason that people (me) read romances. It’s nice, sure, but even more important than the perfect ending is the feeling that the happy ending is possible. That the problems will be overcome. And it’s not about the fact that there’s a wedding as much as the fact that there’s a relationship. There was no relationship in this book, at least not one to hope for. We weren’t given a picture of any relationship other than cynicism; we weren’t given any evidence to support the idea of “this time it will be different” at the end.

If the ending had been good, or at least satisfying, I could have overlooked some of my annoyances in the rest of the book. But since the ending didn’t resolve any of them, I have to wonder why they were there at all. Aphrodite’s behavior as a “therapist” completely mocked the seriousness of both main character’s mental conditions (he has OCD, she has hallucinations that worry and upset her). It may have been intended as comic relief, but it didn’t work. The mental problems of the characters were never resolved either. The hallucinations just sort of appear, probably as a shorthand for “my life is falling apart”, but since they’re neither taken seriously by anyone other than the main character who’s having them, nor resolved, they serve no purpose. (And why can’t a woman be dissatisfied with her romantic relationship and romance in general without seeming to go mad?) There’s also the ridiculous and unfair way that Rebecca is treated as the relationship guru, especially by her goddaughter. Seriously, this girl bases her cold feet on Rebecca’s attitude, and everyone backs her up on this. Since when did writing romances mean that you had to be the perfect romantic yourself? There’s also the previously mentioned lack of a redeeming love story. Every apparently happy couple is really unhappy and usually adulterous. Again, it’s not the ending that makes a romance worth reading, it’s the relationships that build up to that ending. And this book just didn’t have them.

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Do You Come Here Often? by Alexandra Potter

Writing a book that’s based, in plot and/or structure, on another work, is very difficult. There’s a fine line between an homage/inspiration and blatant stealing. Personally, I like the similarities to be there, but relatively subtle – although as I say that, I think of The Edge of Reason which lifts scenes almost word-for-word from Persuasion, and yet somehow I loved that and thought it worked pretty well, while I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because I kept hearing Howards End in my head and yes, I know that’s deliberate, but it didn’t work for me. Maybe I just know Forster too well – although you could say the same thing about Persuasion since the scene that tipped me off in Edge of Reason, while a major scene, isn’t one of the more obvious ones.

Anyway. For the most part, let’s say, I prefer things to be a bit more subtle. Or creative if they’re not subtle. The other Alexandra Potter book that I’ve read – Me and Mr. Darcy – is creative, but not really subtle. But then, it’s not meant to be. The title is “Me and Mr. Darcy”. The main point of the main character’s trip in the book is so that she can live out Pride and Prejudice. And she does. But it manages to be creative and interesting, which is why I kept it in my last book cull (even though there are a few British/American speech pattern things that don’t quite work, and I can’t believe that someone who’s so interested in Jane Austen really knows that little about England in general. Or packing for an air journey) and why, when I saw “new” Alexandra Potter books at the library and at the bookstores, I wanted to read them.

I put new in quotation marks because Do You Come Here Often? is a 2009 reissue of a 2004 book that was written probably in 2000/2001. There are a few year markers in the first part of the book, which is actually kind of annoying – if you’re going to specify the year, then the year should have some significance, should be meaningful somewhere else in the book. The type of references that these were, though, would have been just as effective if they’d been general and non-specific, instead of “look how I’m setting my book in a specific place and time!”  I forgot about it by the end, though.

Anyway, it’s a retelling of When Harry Met Sally, and it’s a lot more subtle about it than Me and Mr. Darcy was with Pride and Prejudice. There are also enough differences in the story to make it more of a homage than a retelling, including an extra subplot. But the basics are there: Hate at first sight between the main characters; lengthy gap before they see each other again, in a fairly random circumstance; they become platonic best friends; their best friends end up meeting and falling instantly in love; they sleep together when the heroine is in emotional turmoil over her ex, and then don’t speak again for weeks; the hero makes a big romantic gesture at the last minute. They even watch When Harry Met Sally together, and the hero quotes it near the end.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. It starts very slowly, Jimi isn’t really a likable character at the beginning (at least, his self-description made me shudder and go “Oh, one of Those Guys.”), the prologue was oddly coy/vague (until it was explained about three-quarters of the way through the book, at which point I had to go back to the prologue and go “….ohhhhhh.”). There were any number of things that, looking back on it from the distance of six hours, I wouldn’t have done if I’d written it, or would have done differently.  But, by the end, it works. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did (around the point where Grace leaves Spencer) I raced through to the end. (Plus, I felt smart when I figured out the When Harry Met Sally thing.)

I’ll keep it around, at least for now. I will also probably try to find Who’s That Girl at the library, and read it next time I’m there.  I’ll probably also watch When Harry Met Sally in the next day or so…..

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One Day, by David Nicholls

This is a book that was on my TBR list (which I will update very soon). I had read a review of it – I can’t remember now if I read the review on amazon or in a newspaper, probably an online paper – and it intrigued me.

It lived up to the description in the review. I read it in about four, maybe five hours over Christmas.

Let’s see if I can explain the basic concept: Dexter and Emma get to know each other the day of their graduation from university. The book touches in on their lives every July 15 (the day/morning after) for almost twenty years. I’ve put the book away so I can’t double-check exactly how many years it is – I think it’s about twenty years total. Sometimes they see each other or interact on these days, sometimes they don’t – but July 15 is the only day of each year when the reader sees them.

It works so, so well. By only dipping in to their lives once a year, we don’t get bogged down into the significant trivia of their lives. I understand that that seems like an oxymoron, but the book is about their relationship over the years, not about the moments that are significant to their lives in other ways. If the book were about one of them as a character, then it could be more focused on those events – their other relationships, their other life choices. But it’s not: it’s about their relationship. Events that are important to their individual lives – lovers, jobs, moves – are mentioned and explained on each day, like catching up with a friend that you only see once a year. Even more than that, their own view of their relationship is described through these reminiscences. As Emma is waiting to meet Dexter, for instance, she thinks about how she sees him and how she thinks he sees her (and she’s quite accurate – she knows him well at this point).

It also highlighted for me – and reassured me – how completely things can change in a year or two. They both sort of fall into careers. They work at them, of course, but something in one year will happen that would have been completely inconceivable the previous year. As someone who has no idea what lies ahead in her life, that is incredibly reassuring. I know they’re fictional characters, but there’s an element of “It could happen that way for me, too” (and one that’s much more realistic than my typical “if only” books, romance novels). There is a bit of “When Harry Met Sally” in it, too – their friendship for many of the years transcends other relationships that they are in.

I haven’t heard much about this book since I read that first review, months and months ago. I really enjoyed this book, though, and think that it should be much better known than it seems to be right now.

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Austenland, by Shannon Hale

Austen-based literature, especially based on Pride and Prejudice, is surprisingly common. I suppose a lot of that is due to the 1995 BBC adaptation and the 2005 movie. It’s all essentially Austen fan-fiction, and some of it is quite good. There are sequels, there are prequels, there are stories that focus on one of the more minor characters, and there are stories about people who, for whatever reason, relive one of the stories. Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which is based on Persuasion, are probably the most famous of these. Austenland and another book that I read last year called Me and Mr Darcy are both about women who go on vacation in order to actually relive Pride and Prejudice.

These books have a lot in common. They’re both perfectly fine books that are quite entertaining and they are more than just simple retreadings of the Pride and Prejudice plot. Another thing they have in common is something incredibly annoying: their heroines, in spite of claiming to be obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, have absolutely no memory of the first, oh, two-thirds of the book. Both of them complain about the man with whom they have a tense verbal relationship and say things like, “If only he could be more like Mr Darcy!”

Do they not remember the book? Elizabeth hates Darcy for the first part of the book. When he proposes she is genuinely surprised because she thinks that he hates her just as much. They banter, they insult each other, they misunderstand each other both deliberately and inadvertently. How can people who claim to be so obsessed with P&P look at a bantering relationship – especially one that uses almost exactly the same words as P&P – and NOT see it as a Darcy relationship? Honestly, if the main character is that clueless about the book and story that has been touted as her favourite, it makes me trust and like her a little bit less.

There are good moments in Austenland: Jane has a believably hard time letting go of her modern self and following the ‘rules’ of Regency England – something I think a lot of time travellers underestimate is the difficulty of letting go of the modern assumptions that make us who we are. And I had to laugh at the piano playing scene:

With professional suavity, Jane arranged her skirt, spread out the music, poised her fingers, and then with one hand played the black keys, singing along with the notes, “Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”

She rose and curtsied to the room. (p.111)

I think that showed great poise and humour and, as a pianist myself, I appreciated it.

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