Reader, I blogged.

Hello again. I tried the newsletter thing but it wasn’t for me. I’ve abandoned Twitter (I read my feed occasionally but don’t tweet now), and while I like Mastodon as a microblogging platform, it’s still finding its identity as a community, and the decentralization means it’s harder to find kindred spirits. So it’s a work in progress. But I still read a lot of blogs even though blogs are apparently dead dead dead, and they’re still my favorite form of conversation, especially about quotidian activities like reading and organizing my life. So I’m back.

Like a lot of people I know, I had trouble reading in the last quarter of 2016, especially after November 8. I found a bridge solution in reading fiction and nonfiction about people who had experienced or been raised in the shadow of collective traumas and managed to come out the other side. Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, and some post-apocalyptic genre fiction. Then this past January we took a week’s holiday where I read a lot in a short time, and I was off and running on the reading front, excepting times when work was overwhelming my waking hours.

I’m back to reading some romance, but only from a small handful of autobuy authors. Most of the romance novels being published today are emphatically Not For Me, at least not now. I’ve gone through these kinds of stretches before, where I read mostly other genres. Six years of reviewing at Dear Author meant that I neglected other types of fiction I’ve always enjoyed, and I’m catching up now.

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The Hating Game (a sort of review)

Work has been eating up my every waking moment for the last few weeks, so I’m behind on reading and blogging. I finally took a day off and decided, thanks to an interesting review by Liz at her blog and the subsequent Twitter conversation, to spend part of it reading the latest Hot New Romance. I encourage you to read Liz’s post as well as her discussion with Vassiliki (and also Vassiliki’s review).

This book got a ton of buzz in romance circles when it came out, and it has a load of 5-star reviews at GR and Amazon. I love a good enemies-to-lovers story, but the enemies part has to be well motivated for it to work. This wasn’t. The MCs are assistants to co-CEOs who hate each other (both the assistants and the CEOs hate each other), and aside from that tension, the main reason for their apparent mutual loathing seems to be that they have opposite personalities but are forced to work together after a merger that saved both firms.

I came close to DNFing in the first 75 pages, because I found the setup and the female MC, Lucy, so unappealing. If you take the workplace setting and rivalry as fantasy it is more palatable, but the text implies Lucy is adorable and likeable and I found her to be neither. But once Lucy and Josh stop needling each other and drop their guards a bit, the book improves. The romantic scenes between them are quite sweet.

Overall, though, the book is a misfire. The setting has been scrubbed of any identifying characteristics, so it could be set anywhere with English-speaking white people. Sometimes it feels Australian like the author, sometimes British, sometimes American. Mostly it’s a white fantasyland, which is fine but a bit sterile. There are some weird choices, for example Lucy’s parents own a strawberry farm and that apparently makes her an object of ridicule (there are no organic-food hipsters or farmers’ market aficionados in this world).

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Nazis heroes in romance novels

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to add to the cacophony around the RITA nomination of Kate Breslin’s inspirational historical romance, For Such A Time. This is a book set in 1944, primarily at the Theresienstadt camp, with a love story between the camp Kommandant and a Jewish young woman at its core.

I’ve written and rewritten paragraphs about the book, the controversy, etc., but I don’t think I really have much to add to that part. If you’re on Twitter, if you follow major blogs, or if you read online magazines, you’ve come across the debate. Many of the contributors to the debate have not read the book. There are all kinds of things being stated as fact, sometimes after reading the book, sometimes not. There is also a lot of “well, that’s what inspirational romance is.”

I am almost finished reading the book and will be participating in a joint discussion/review of it at Dear Author. I’ll link to that post when it is published, and for people who don’t read DA, I’ll provide a brief summary here and we can talk about it in comments if people are interested.

In the meantime, I want to talk about where this book fits in the larger historical romance (and historical fiction with romantic elements) category. This book clearly brings together a number of volatile, offensive, and arguably beyond-the-pale factors. However, when we take each of these factors in turn, it appears that they are all fairly well established in the romance genre (or at least the part of the romantic fiction genre that is reviewed and recognized by romance-centric sites and organizations).

I have no desire to defend the book, either in terms of its premise or its execution. I am interested in challenging the idea that this book is a unique specimen. To the extent it is unique, its uniqueness lies in combining elements which have gone relatively unremarked (and often praised) in other romance and romantic novels when they appear individually.

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Trust and Secrets in Romanceland

When I closed VM and started this blog I said I wouldn’t write about Romanceland anymore. And for the most part I haven’t wanted to. But Wendy’s post about the broken nature of the community struck a deep chord, one that writing a comment at her post can’t fully address. If you’re interested, read on. If you’re done with thinking about Romland, skip this and come back to read the next post.

When DA Jane told Romland that she was also author Jen, I was obviously at ground zero for the announcement. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the Jane/Jen revelation created a seismic shift. Not for everyone; some readers, mostly people who aren’t deeply invested in Romland relationships, will keep right on reading Dear Author and/or Jen Frederick’s books. They don’t care much about the connection. Other readers won’t. Authors and longtime members of Romland seemed to fall most frequently on the sense of betrayal side. Writing communities in this genre are a combination of professional development, friend circles, and expertise exchange, and the friend/bonding component appears to be stronger here than in many other professional settings with which I’m familiar. That, combined with DA’s loud and sustained emphasis on disclosure and reader-only spaces, led to a deep sense of resentment even among Romland people who didn’t personally encounter Jen Frederick.

I think that what the DA announcement did was put the final nail in the coffin of the idea and the reality of widely-followed, reader-run sites. if Dear Author is an author-run site (which it now turns out to be), then there are no water-cooler-type review and discussion sites in Romland which are are not author-directed zones (or industry-directed, in other cases). To a great extent I think this is a reflection of the way Romland has changed over the past decade. There is little incentive or ability for someone who is only a reader to own and operate a major review and reading blog, forum, or website. It takes an enormous amount of work and time, and you need to generate a lot of content to stay in the online public’s eye. At the same time, any site that does attract readers is also going to attract authors and industry professionals, partly for the conversation, but also because selling books is a difficult task and the word of mouth praise of readers is golden. So a reader-run site with a growing reach is going to face huge pressures to be coopted. Whether that’s by taking ARCs, featuring authors, running giveaways, or transitioning from reader-blogger to industry-blogger is going to depend on the individuals, but the incentives for cooptation are enormous.

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April TBR Challenge report

I signed myself up for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge as part of my effort to read more of the books I already have. I’ve reviewed the first three months’ books at Dear Author, and I’d planned to do the same for this one. April’s category is Contemporary Romance, which means I had a lot to choose from, so I chose a contemporary Harlequin romance that also filled a category in my PopSugar Challenge. It was by a new-to-me author, Sophie Pembroke, and it was her first book for Harlequin after a contemporary trilogy at a smaller press. I used to read a lot in the Harlequin Romance line but then fell away from it, so I looked forward to seeing what the more recent books looked like (this was a September 2013 release).

Spoilers for the book follow, so don’t read if you don’t want to know.

coverStranded With the Tycoon started out promisingly. Lucinda (Luce) is a university lecturer who runs into an old acquaintance from college when she’s attending a conference in Chester. The hotel has lost her reservation, but Ben is providentially standing by when it happens. This is providential because Ben’s company owns the hotel, and he just happens to be booked into a suite with two bedrooms. He offers one of them, she accepts, they spend a chaste night together, and they make plans to drive Luce to her home in Cardiff the next day. But a snowstorm requires them to divert to Ben’s cozy cottage in the Brecon Beacons.

Luce is academic, uptight, and the rock of her family. Ben is carefree, never spends two nights in a row with a woman, and does his hotel job well but it’s just a job (despite being the family business he runs with his brother). Opposites attract indeed. But Pembroke’s writing is smooth and she does the familiar with just enough individual touches to make it a good read.

I was enjoying this until the last quarter. The academic parts didn’t ring quite true, but they were close enough that it wasn’t a big deal. Luce and Ben’s will-they-won’t-they was augmented with plenty of scenes that brought them to life as individuals. I enjoyed when they finally got together (mostly fade to black, since the book is in Harlequin’s sweet-romance line), and I was glad Luce made it home to make a slapdash but well-received Christmas Eve dinner for her family.

And then there was a plot twist that made me stop reading. Completely. As in, I may have yelled, and I certainly put the book down. Then I reread to make sure that it was what I thought it was. And it was.

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