Taming the Harlequin TBR

Harlequin logo

Downloading my purchased Harlequins made me nostalgic for the days when I read a lot of categories and there were multiple online venues to talk about them with like-minded reader friends. Sadly, there aren’t as many anymore (either Harlequins I want to read or venues I want to hang out at). BUT! I have hundreds of them in my TBR, and now they’re reminding me of their presence. So I have hatched a plan to read them. 

My main reading device is a Kobo Aura H2O 2, and I like it very much. I like Kobo’s e-bookstore, I like being able to sync my library books to it, and for the most part I like the larger screen. But I still had my Nook Glowlight Plus in a drawer, and it’s a great travel ereader because it’s smaller and the cover doesn’t bulk it up too much. It occurred to me: why not charge it up and transfer all my Harlequins to it? So I did.

I deleted the books that I could immediately identify as ones I had read, which got me down to about 550.* I’m sure there are at least another 50 that will turn out to be familiar, probably more. Which still leaves me with so many books. And how do I choose the next one? 

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Recent Reading: Romances

I don’t read as many romance novels as I did a few years ago, but I never fully stop reading them. And a heavy dose of literary fiction almost demands some palate cleansers, in my case mysteries and romance with the occasional SFF novel thrown in. I usually turn to auto-buy authors or something in the TBR that’s been recommended by someone whose tastes align with me. This time it was Sarah Morgan, one of my favorite authors, who is now writing women’s fiction, and Kate Hewitt, who writes UK-set and UK-style romantic novels. They’re both still recognizably romances, but they have a larger cast of characters, fewer pages devoted to sex scenes without being necessarily closed-door, and characters who are older or at least not usually on their first relationship. 

The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan

Christmas Sisters cover

I’m always a sucker for Christmas stories from Morgan, and this one is set during the holidays in a remote village in Scotland. Three sisters gather at their parents’ house, two coming from New York and the third from down the road (she never left home). All three have family and relationship issues to deal with, as well as a shared trauma in their past that they’ve never really resolved. The trauma resurfaces in an unexpected way, shaping their interactions with each other as well as their romantic choices. This is an intergenerational story, with the parents’ history and contemporary circumstances getting equal billing with their adult childrens’ concerns. 

Many romance readers haven’t been thrilled with the shift to women’s fiction, but I haven’t minded it. I’ve always enjoyed books that straddle that boundary, and in the case of UK writers, the books remind me of the types of romantic novels that don’t always make it across the water. There is still enough focus on romance for me to enjoy the stories for that element, but there’s also more going on, and you can have lots of characters without feeling like they’re being set up for their own installments in a multi-volume series. 

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Washington Black wins the Giller Prize

The Giller Prize was awarded last night and the winner was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (my review is here). This is Canada’s biggest fiction award at $100,000, and it’s the second time Edugyan has won it. 

I thought the Giller longlist was interesting but I wasn’t thrilled with the shortlist. I decided not to read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, having had enough autofiction for the year, and the other two books I read didn’t impress me. Here are my reviews, cross-posted from Goodreads:

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

This is my first novel by DeWitt and probably not a good place to start. I found this very disappointing. There are flashes of wonderful writing, but the novel doesn’t hang together at all. It starts out as a wickedly satirical take on the obscenely wealthy and ends up as a sentimental fable. I went with the complete unreality of the first part because the writing was deft and I was impressed by DeWitt’s apparent commitment to creating characters who were unlikeable yet interesting (Malcolm was interesting despite being a complete blank in many ways). I didn’t really believe that someone as unpleasant as Frances could be so charismatic, but again, I was willing to buy the setup.

But when the setting shifted to Paris, the satire softened and we were confronted with psychic phenomena, uncomfortable scenes set in a reality that was much harder to hand-wave away as funny (a riot and police action against homeless immigrants in a park, watched by the wealthy and bored, from the vantage point of the latter? Why?), and redemption for people who had done absolutely nothing to get to that point, let alone earn it. The symbolism was on-the-nose (Frances buys Malcolm a bicycle), the coincidences started to pile up, and the characters became imbued with attitudes and beliefs that, had they had them from the beginning, would have saved them from their various fates. This is billed as a “tragedy of manners” but I’m not sure what’s tragic about people reaping what they have very clearly sown, despite more opportunities than most people have to take other paths. Unless the messages are that (a) money doesn’t buy happiness; (b) childhood trauma happens to the rich and the poor; and (c) friends are important even when you’re wealthy. No kidding.

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Review: Godsend by John Wray

This is a recent release in the US and will be published in January 2019 in the UK. It has received rave reviews from two critics I respect and frequently agree with, Dwight Garner at the New York Times and James Wood at The New Yorker. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but it is his fifth novel and he’s won various writing awards. I was intrigued by the book because I’ve been doing research and writing on why young women are attracted to Islamic extremist organizations like ISIS. I co-authored and presented a conference paper with an undergraduate student and we’re trying to figure out what direction to take it for revision and then submission to a journal. It’s a difficult topic to research because what systematic data exist are usually proprietary, and the topic combines psychology, sociology, and political science. I thought a novel could shed some interesting light on individual motivations and help me think about the project in a different way. Sometimes fiction can illuminate in ways social science can’t, and this seemed like one of those times. 

Godsend cover

Godsend is a relatively short book in terms of word and page count. The print version is 240 pages. The story is inspired by John Walker Lindh, the young American from California who converted to Islam, went to fight with the Taliban, and was captured, tried, and sentenced to prison in the years after 9/11. Wray was commissioned by Esquire to write a story about Lindh and went to Afghanistan in 2016 or thereabouts to find people who knew him. (This background should have been a red flag for me. As someone who does qualitative research, interviewing people 15 years after the time you’re interested in is not likely to get you factually accurate information, especially about a notorious individual.) While Wray was there, he heard a rumor about a girl who had also joined the insurgents. He was never able to pin down concrete information about her, even whether she really existed, and she was variously described as American, Dutch, or English (he doesn’t say she was white and/or non-Muslim, but that’s implied by the comparison to Lindh). He abandoned the feature story and decided to write a book about a girl using some of Lindh’s backstory.

The novel opens in late 2000 or early 2001 and introduces us to Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old who lives in Santa Rosa, California. Aden is preparing to leave home and fly to Pakistan to study Islam at a madrassa. She is leaving behind a life she is completely alienated from: her parents are separated, her mother is an alcoholic, and she has no friends. Her father, an Islamic Studies professor, mentions that he can get her a deferment, presumably for her college admission, but she is determined to go. Aden is accompanied by her friend-with-benefits, Dexter Yousufzai, whose family is from Pakistan via Dubai and who has found the madrassa through his connections. 

You might be asking how a young woman can attend an all-male madrassa in rural northwest Pakistan, and you’d be right to do so. Aden has this all figured out: she has shaved her head, acquired native garb and will be binding her breasts with an Ace bandage. As a romance reader I felt right at home. Aden has also been studying Arabic since she found the local mosque and converted to Islam, but she doesn’t speak Urdu or Pashto. She’s also very recognizably Western, given her fair skin, cultural ignorance, basic Arabic, and non-exist vernacular skills.

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TOB Longlist and Award Announcements

It has been a busy week. Oh, wait, I was supposed to be talking about awards and longlists. On Monday the Tournament of Books published its 76-book longlist, from which 16 books (plus two additional for play-in rounds) will be chosen for the tournament. The longlist is an amalgam of TOB regulars’ suggestions and books put forth by the TOB powers-that-be. 

I’ve been following the TOB for about 5 years, I think? I’ve known of it for at least a decade (this is its 15th year) but didn’t pay much attention unless I was reading a specific judge’s decision or looking for the winner. Then I started following the tournament closely over the two weeks it takes place, then I discovered the longlist, etc. etc. For the last couple of years I’ve picked up books from the longlist and read them over the course of the year, and I’ve found some real gems. I have fared less well with the actual tournament. I enjoy rubbernecking in the comments section, but the literary sensibilities of most of the judges and the regulars don’t overlap that much with mine. The choices try to reflect a broad range of Anglophone and a few translated novels and short stories, but they tend to be NYC/MFA in their approach. In other words, they’re definitely the books that are talked about in New York publishing, but not necessarily books that are finding audiences in the UK or Europe. And the Canadian selections rarely range beyond the obvious. 

This sounds grumpy, and I don’t want that to be the dominant tone. I’ve loved the sense of discovery I get from perusing the longlist, and while I am not much of a horse-race literature award/contest reader, I like reading the judges’ verdicts and readers’ reactions to them. I find new books and authors, which is the most important and fun thing. 

This year, thanks to reading so many awards-nominated books, I’ve managed to read 16 books on the longlist (definitely the most ever by a lot):

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Harlequin reminds us we don’t own our purchased ebooks

Last week I saw a discussion about a change Harlequin Books is making at its website with respect to how ebooks will be delivered to buyers. Until now they have used Adobe DRM and if you wanted to download your books you had to do it through Adobe Digital Editions. This was a pain, given how awful ADE is, but it meant the files were resident on your computer and could be transferred to any compatible ereader, i.e., one that read epub files and played nice with ADE. I’ve used it for my Sony, Nook, and Kobo ereaders over the years. I’ve also stripped the DRM and put the files on a Kindle. This was handy because Harlequin.com would occasionally have sales and it was worth buying from the site. Also, I found when checking my account that I bought my first Harlequin ebook back in June 2007, before Kindles or Nooks existed (I read it on my Palm phone, as I recall).

Anyway, at this point I have 620 books on the Harlequin site. I’m pretty sure I’ve downloaded most of them, since I long ago stopped trusting ebook retailers to stay in business. But Harlequin isn’t shutting down. Instead, they’re changing their DRM system from ADE to Overdrive. This seems like not a big deal, except that Overdrive system requires you to read the books in its app. In other words, you can’t put it on an ereader unless you can figure out a way to get it off the app (which may be straightforward, but I haven’t seen discussion of it). You can still buy the books at Kobo, Amazon, and other major retailers, of course, and maybe they will have sales and promotions there that are comparable to the ones Harlequin has had at their site in the past.

The biggest inconvenience for me is that I have to decide whether I want to download/re-download hundreds of books, or spend almost as much time checking to see if I have them already. The changeover date is November 12, so I have a week to decide. It’s not that big a deal; I have most of the books, I know, and it’s probably only the oldest ones that are likely to have gotten lost in a computer/ereader/platform transfer. Still, it’s a hassle I don’t really have time for now.

In addition, for me at least it’s a reminder of two things:

  • Ebooks are licensed, not bought in the same way as print books. As long as the DRM is applied, you are subject to the terms of the license. If ADE goes away, you can’t read ADE-DRM’d books anymore. In the future, if you don’t have an Overdrive app, or you don’t want to put it on your phone or tablet, you have to read Harlequins on a computer with a data connection. This is what I don’t like about Hoopla, by the way; I don’t like their app interface at all and it’s frequently glitchy.
  • Today’s Harlequin is not the Harlequin I bought from in 2007, or the Harlequin whose books I reviewed at Dear Author for years. It’s owned by HarperCollins and it’s a shadow of its former self. Some of my favorite authors still publish there, but a lot don’t. It’s less reader-focused and reader-friendly. It’s a Big 5 imprint and it feels like one.

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Milkman by Anna Burns wins the Booker Prize

I’m so happy. I really didn’t expect it to win, even though I thought it should. But the judges apparently chose it unanimously. The Guardian has a good rundown of the announcement here, alongside a rather ungenerous post by one of the Guardian Books people here. We get it, you wanted Sally Rooney or Daisy Johnson. But guess what? This was a flat-out better book. Val McDermid talks about the judging process in the Guardian and in the New York Times. I love the last line in the Times interview.

I really thought the New New Thing or the Big American Thing trends would swamp the Burns and the Robertson, which I ranked #1 and #2 on my short- and longlists. In reading my other longlist nominees and perusing reviews, discussions, and interviews, I’ve been struck by how much the industry is letting its desperation to hold onto its readership affect its decisions about what books deserve to be publicized and praised. Debuts win out over technically and substantively better novels by veteran authors almost every time. When they don’t, it’s often because the author herself is a Hot Commodity, someone who gets a lot of interview/profile press as part of the new release. I’ve read over half the NBA Fiction longlist and three books off the Giller longlist, and in both cases the second/third/fourth novels are better than the debuts, for all the reasons we would expect. Of course debuts are going to be less polished, on average. Yes, there are assured and impressive debut novels, but good authors tend to get even better because they hone their craft and learn to control their gifts.

I’m just about done with my long- and shortlist reading. I’ll read a few more NBA books but probably not all of them, and I’ll read one more of the Giller shortlist for sure and probably a couple of the longlisted books that didn’t make it. I’m a bit disappointed in the Giller shortlist. No First Nations books or authors (as far as I can tell) and three books by established, acclaimed authors which may or may not represent their best work. I loved last year’s list because I found new, interesting, quirky books. The established author won, but it was a challenging and interesting novel. I’m holding out hope for Eric Dupont’s Québecois novel, because otherwise the Heti or the DeWitt are really going to have to knock my socks off.

I have enjoyed reading all these nominees, and I’ll probably do it again next year. But I’m breaking up with the Tournament of Books; I’ll get reading ideas from the longlist but I won’t try to read the shortlist. After three years of close following and reading, I’ve learned my tastes and the TOB’s don’t really mesh. That leaves me the first half of the year to read much more from my TBR. Which is good, because I haven’t read nearly enough from it this year!

I’ve been out of town and away from the internet and/or super busy when in town, so I’m behind on posting here, but I’ll try to get back to posting reviews at least a couple of times a week. I’ve got plenty in the can, and I’m still reading.


NBA Longlist quick reviews

The NBA shortlists come out on Wednesday, October 10. I’ve read 5+ of the 10 books at this point. Here are three brief-ish reviews of books that were worth reading but not at the top of my list, and one DNF.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads cover

This is a debut collection of short stories, some of which have been published elsewhere. It’s uneven but well worth reading. The first and last stories deal with black men shot by police and the effects on those around them. They involve more than that, but I found it interesting that we begin and end the collection with those, because most of the stories have very different emphases. It’s as if the author was saying that we can’t escape that reality, and she’s right. Both are gut-punches in expected and unexpected ways, and I found them very effective.

The other stories that worked really well for me were the ones that featured Fatima, a young black girl and then woman who is one of only two black students in her majority-white private school in Southern California. We are introduced to her indirectly in an epistolary story in which the two mothers engage in escalating one-upmanship and hostility. I found this clever, but much more cruel than funny. But Fatima’s own stories are fully of empathy, nuance, and complexity.

There is one other pair of connected stories which felt more like vignettes than full stories. The characters aren’t well developed and they seem more designed to make a point than to illuminate the people in them. I found that to be a recurring issue in the rest of the collection. The author does write young women well; older women and men, not so much.

The writing is assured and stylish. It occasionally has that workshopped feel (one story’s ending is shocking as you read it and then completely predictable in retrospect), but these stories were workshopped. I read in an interview that Fatima’s stories began as a novella, and perhaps that’s why they worked so well for me. There’s just more there to engage with.

3.5 stars at Goodreads.

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