Are You Smarter Than A Romance Reader?

brain

So, you want to read some historical romance? You’ll have to take this qualifying exam.

To get the most out of your reading experience, you will have to know…

1. Some French

baignoire
plus qu’il n’en faut
c’est barbare, c’est vil!
perruque

2. A fairly wide range of literary references

Browning
Fieldingesque
Rabelasian
Hester Prynne
Turgenev
deus ex machina

3. A bit of the history of the material culture of Victorian Britain

Brougham
Burger
Drabbet
Phlegmatic
Camphor
Cravat
Furbelows

4. Familiarity with the flora and fauna of the English countryside

cob
tors
cowslips
speedwell
gorse bush

5. And some uncommon words

avidity
unguent
crenelated
raillery
desultory
scabrous
sybaritic

Got that? Ok, now you’re ready to read Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold.

Of course, this is a joke. But I am sitting here reading Gaffney while thinking about claim that romance is “dope for dupes”, and it’s just striking me how utterly untrue that is. You don’t even have to get into plot, characterization, style, and all the other things that make good fiction good.

You just have to open the damn book and look at the words.

Monday Morning Stepback

The Weekly Links, Opinion, and Inanity Post

1. Links of Interest:

Sandy of AAR was interviewed about vampire romance for a positive, nonderogatory story at CNN.com. One article doesn’t constitute a trend, but it’s something.

I found a new blog that focuses on audiobooks. Megan reads a wide range of books, including sci fi, young adult, thriller, and historical fiction. Check out her amazing bookshelves, organized by COLOR!

Nicola O. of Alpha Heroes and Jackie of Literary Escapism are doing a Saturday Short Story meme beginning next Saturday, Dec. 5. It’s genre-neutral, and you don’t have to review every short in an anthology to participate. I’m thinking I’ll try to participate, since the short story, in any genre except romance (oddly), is one of my favorite literary forms.

In my post last week on cultural studies takes on romance, the “placeholder heroine” concept reared its head. Well, Bev happened to be thinking about it, as well, and wrote two great posts, here and here.

An incredibly funny “review” of Outlander. thanks to @ScarletCorset

Lynne Connelly weighs in on the “pre”/”aspiring” writer debate at TGTBTU

I liked this post showcasing the journeys of two self-published writers at Erotic Horizon.

AnimeJune reviews the new Christmas anthology with Courtney Milan, Mary Balogh, and Nicola Cornick. If you haven’t been reading her reviews, you are missing out: she’s funny and thoughtful.

2. Kindle News

Got an email from Amazon letting me know about updates to my Kindle 2.0. It now has native PDF support and a battery update that improves battery life by 85%. Very nice!

A thorough comparison of B&N’s Nook v. Kindle (although the Nook is sold out and not shipping until January). Found via a new to me blog, Kindlevixen, which is the first blog I have found that focuses on Kindles and romance.

3. Women Who Want to Want in the NYT

An interesting article in Sunday’s NYT Magazine about research on women with low libido. One of the panel charged with revising DSM-IV’s section on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders (DSM-V due out spring 2012, with drafts for public view next year), and a researcher, psychologist Lori Brotto, is working on mindfulness as a way to overcome low libido in women. Notice anything familiar about her technique, other than the fact that it involves getting personal with …raisins?

They are sent home with assignments — to observe their bodies in the shower and describe themselves physically in precise and neutral language, in phrases that hold no judgment; and, after another session, to repeat over and over, “My body is alive and sexual,” no matter if they believe it. They are taught about research that shows that belief doesn’t matter, that the feeling will follow the declaration. And they are instructed, in their sessions, to place the raisins in their mouths, to “notice where the tongue is, notice the saliva building up in your mouth . . . notice the trajectory of the flavor as it bursts forth, the flood of saliva, how the flavor changes from your body’s chemistry.”

This exercise is among Brotto’s ways of training patients to immerse themselves in physical sensation. One hope is that such feelings will whisper to the women of their own erotic vitality. Another is that her patients will learn to be aware of the changes in their bodies — automatic reactions similar to salivating — before or during sex. An underlying theory is that while her patients’ genitals commonly pulse with blood in response to erotic images­ or their partners’ sexual touch, their minds are so detached — distracted by work or children or worries about the way they look unclothed, or fixated on fears that their libidos are dead — as to be oblivious to their bodies’ excitement, their bodies’ messages

Forget the raisins. I think she ought to have them read romance novels, don’t you?

4. Personal:

cape-town-baboons-001

December is always a crazy month, even for those of us who don’t do Christmas. Three birthdays (with parties), grading, Hanukkah, and this year we’re going to South Africa at the end of the month. I am worried enough about this trip, and then I see a story about baboon gangs running wild in Cape Town, breaking windows in cars at stop lights to get the food inside. I can’t help but giggle, though, that The Guardian reports the gang leader is named “Fred”.

This week I teach Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, and in preparation, I reread it this weekend. I had forgotten how explicit, long, and numerous the sex scenes were in this book. I have taught nonfiction academic takes on sexuality many times in my career, but never something like this. I am a bit nervous, and am not sure why it feels different than teaching about Foucault or female genital cutting, or contemporary sexual ethics, but it does. Will post on it later this week.

Happy week!

'Sup Saturday: Open Thread for Bloggers with Gift Cert Contest

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I really like talking about blogging, so I thought it might be interesting to try an occasional blogging advice/support/pimp/whine thread.

What’s happening with your romance blog? Want to share any news? Upcoming events? Contests?

Got a new blog? Give us the link and tell us what it’s all about.

Facing any vexing issues with your blog? Something technical? Annoying commenters? Funny spam? Fresh out of ideas? Blogging taking over your life?

If you’re a blog reader, let us know what blogs you have been enjoying lately. What you would like to see more of? Less of?

Contest: Enter to win a gift certificate of $15 to the online bookstore of your choice if you leave a comment by 7:00am EST Monday (that would be 12:00 GMT, I think).

fortune-cookie

I’ll cheat by starting with my own comment:

Images: my web host just informed me that I had used up all my disk space because I had so many hi res pictures. So I went and basically nuked all the images from all my 2008 posts, which made me very sad (I shed a few tears over the loss of the the orgasming lions from the Come for Me, Baby post). What was my alternative? Any advice?

Also, many of those images (I assume) were copyrighted, and I did not pay for permission. Here’s my rationalization: (1) no one who reads this blog could possibly think they are mine, and (2) I am not profiting from them in any way, (3) I would take them down if I got a takedown notice, (4) my readership is so small, what harm can it do. The problem with this argument is that it would likely justify stealing a lot of things.

How do you handle the question of images?

Review: Monster (No. 1), by Naoki Urasawa

150px-Monster

My son has been reading Naruto and Shukan Shonen (Weekly Boy) Jump for a couple of years, but I had never attempted to read manga myself. I knew it read from back to front, right to left, which I am sort of used to (Hebrew reads that way also), but I needed pointers on exactly how to read the boxes in proper order. Luckily, this graphic novel is idiot proof, with the following helpful diagram:

250px-Manga-reading-direction-567

Think of this post not so much as a “review”, but as a noobie’s impressions of an alien narrative form. Not only am I inexperienced with the graphic novel, but also with this style of Japanese drawing, so I am doubly naive. At first, it looked almost childlike to me, not visually interesting.I did not even realize until the end, where I found a glossary, that the exclamation marks and characters scattered among the text were the Japanese equivalent of “bam” “pow” in US comics.  I found this Japan Times Online article helpful in articulating some of the differences. For example,

the established styles of drawing — the use of lines — to express a character’s movements and emotions have become so engrained in Japanese readers that it is not easy for foreigners to “crack the code” when the comics are shipped overseas, he says.

He points to the difference in how movement is rendered in American comics, which, whatever the object, be it fighter jet or bullet, is shown from beginning to end. In contrast, he says, Japanese manga artists stop short of the end to give readers the chance to picture the motion in their minds and thus feel a part of the manga.

By the end of the novel I had forced myself to slow down, and did begin to appreciate the meaning of what was left out.

There are 18 volumes of Monster, which were published in Japan from 1994 to 2001. There is also an anime adaptation which is apparently going to be coming to English audiences. Wikipedia says the genre is “psychological horror”, and I am good with that.

Kenzo Tenma is a brilliant young neurosurgeon, already chief of his service, who practices in Düsseldorf in the mid 1980s. He is dating Eva, daughter of Dr. Heinemann, head director of the hospital, and life is good. He’s very ambitious, though, and we learn that Heinemann is using Tenma’s research and surgical feats to promote himself and the hospital, with Tenma’s tacit consent.  Right away we are presented with a kind of mirror in Dr. Becker, a surgeon whose career is kind of stalled, and who seems more interested in women and wine than doctoring. Becker’s been around long enough to offer useful, if quite cynical, advice on hospital politics to Tenma, who at the start of the novel is too idealistic to listen.

Although I did not find the portrayal of how a modern hospital in the developed world operates very accurate (there is no way a neurosurgeon would be asked to split his time with the riff raff in the ER, for example), it definitely got at some realistic themes. We are set up immediately with conflicting images of the various facets of modern doctoring: ambition v. satisfaction v. complacency, competent v. supreme skill, ego-entered v. patient-centered v. hospital centered care, and selfishness v. altruism.

Much of the book is Tenma’s struggle to define for himself what being a physician means, where his loyalties lie, and what he is willing to sacrifice to achieve his career goals on the one hand, and be able to live with himself on the other.

The catalyst for Tenma’s moral reappraisal is the realization that he was diverted by the director from saving the life of a Turkish immigrant in order to operate on a famous opera singer. Eva (a cardboard scheming superficial bitch — alsa there are few women here, none with central roles, and all are stereoptyped) is blunt, telling him, “After all, people’s lives aren’t created equal.” Her father says, “Our priority is to progress as medical scholars before saving lives, right Tenma?”. It’s clear to Eva and her father that saving the opera singer redounds to the reputation of the hospital, and of health care in Germany. But Tenma anguishes, asking “What was I supposed to do in that situation?” The novel comes close, but skirts, the complications of fragmented modern hospital care, i.e. the fact that in complex bureaucracies, suboptimal care happens, and it’s no one person’s fault, by focusing on characters. And it is not always clear whether Heinemann is sacrificing patients for medical research or for self-aggrandizement, although perhaps the message is that it’s hard to tell what motivates others and even harder to tell what motivates ourselves.

Tenma is comes to a fork in the road, and he chooses to care for a little boy whose twin sister and parents were murdered, rather than follow Dr. Heinemann’s instructions to lavish his talents elsewhere. The repercussions are swift and disastrous for Tenma’s career and love life, a realistic touch I appreciated. However, at this point, the mystery picks up, as several deaths occur in Tenma’s vicinity, casting some suspicion on the young doctor.

The book then traces the mystery, fast forwarding a decade, and reveals the identity of the killer at the very end. I believe subsequent installments follow Tenma’s relationship with the killer.

The medium seems well suited for twists, and there are many in this story. One thing I liked was the theme of responsibility and moral luck. Moral luck is a concept modern moral philosophers have some trouble with. I’ll give you an example. There are two men at a bar. Both are drunk. Both get into their cars and drive home, one heading west, the other east. It just so happens that the eastbound driver hits and kills a young woman. The westbound driver makes it home and sleeps it off.  The paradox here is that it was one driver’s good luck that a pedestrian was not in his way as he drove home, and the other driver’s bad luck that one was. The difference in outcome is due purely to luck. Yet we want to say the driver who hit the pedestrian did a much worse thing, a greater moral wrong. How can we reconcile those two disparate thoughts?

There’s religious and German nationalistic stuff as well. The novel begins with a quotation from the book of Revelation, for example. And, when it comes to the history of medicine and research on human subjects, Germany holds a historically significant place. Emigration of Japanese physicians to Germany (or anywhere) is not that common, and Tenma’s reason was not that convincing. I expect Germany attracted the author because of its well known history of physicians implicated in human evils.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, and plan to read subsequent installments (although at $10 a pop, I won’t be buying them all at once), and will be interested to see how these play out. I hope I gain some facility with the visual language, although I don’t know if that will happen naturally, or if I will have to read some kind of “how to”. Suggestions are welcome!

Romantic Fiction as Popular Culture

This is a summary of “Reading Romantic Fiction”, Chapter 4 of Joanne Hollows’ Feminism Femininity and Popular Culture.

I needed a short reading on romance fiction that required no background knowledge of cultural studies or feminist theory for my students in ethics and literature, and this fit the bill.

Cultural studies created a space in which romance fiction could be analyzed. Cites Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance” Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (first published in 1982, but revised edition out in 2007).

Hollows:

New cultural studies theories stopped equating culture with texts and started looking at relationship between texts and readers.

A difficulty with the study of romance fiction is the wide variety of texts that might be included.

Hollows uses a definition, from Jean Radford, a) the central narrative concerns a love relationship; b) the central relationship is between a hero and heroine; c) most romances have a female protagonist; and d) there is a close identification between reader and protagonist (Radford 1986,8).

Three problems with this definition:
1. Heterosexist, rules out m/m, f/f, trans, bi, etc.
2. Implies invidious distinction between romance fiction and literary fiction
3. Implies the question of whether something is “romantic” is defined purely by the text, leaving no room for readers’ interpretations — Hollows makes the interesting point that for readers highly sensitized to and knowledgeable about romance, fiction with romantic elements can be read as romance

Critiques of romance fiction:
It is “common sense” that romance is “escapist”, “formulaic”, “trivial”
One source of this is 19th century criticism of mass culture (Frankfurt School, for example)
Modes of industrial production applied to culture, producing standardized, formulaic mass culture which serves capitalism
Note how mass culture is figured as feminine in these critiques: it is emotional, passive, sentimental, easy addicting pleasure
And contrasted with modernist high art — masculine transcendent achievement, heroic, singular
From this Marxist perspective, mass culture transforms proletariat form a potentially potent force for revolution into docile apologists for capitalism

Very similar critique from feminists, but instead of capitalism, target is patriarchy
The “housewife” is a key figure in 1970s and 1980s feminist writing on romance fiction (and soap operas)
Stereotyped, cast as passive, dependent, childish, addicted
Must see feminist critique of romance fiction as part of wider critique of romantic love per se
Love as an ideology that perpetuates patriarchy. In the same way that capitalism makes the proletariat believe it serves their interests, patriarchy makes women believe it serves theirs. In the case of patriarchy, the ideology is romantic love.

Here’s a classic argument from Sulamith Firestone:

Romantic love is pathological, unequal:
1. love becomes a woman’s vocation, diverting her energies from other pursuits.
2. sense of identity and self-esteem depends on a man
3. makes women economically dependent on men, leaving women open to abuse.
4. centrally implicated in the reproduction of women’s oppression as a class, b/c of implication in reproducing the family structure

Problems with these feminist critiques of romance:
1. Treats romance fiction as a monolith
2. Assumes “hypodermic syringe” model of media effects: readers passively accept, cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality
3. Mistakes the thing on the page for the experience itself: need to know how women read it
4. Accepts critical double standard. that anything figured “feminine” (foe example, the emotions) is less valuable than what is figured as masculine. Another example is that in early feminist critiques, romance was associated with the feminine, but sexuality was associated with the masculine.

Foucault was the game changer, of course. After Foucault, we stopped seeing sexuality (or indeed the body itself) as a natural, pre-cultural force which can either be “expressed” or “repressed”

The idea that romance is a political ideology that distorts “natural” sexuality is abandoned, paving the way for more situated, historical, geographical, ethnographic critiques.

Tania Modleski: Hollows appreciates the way Modleski treats romance as worthy of serious analysis, as well as her focus on readers and why they read. She challenges the stereotype of the passive reader, recognizing that women read romance to cope with patriarchy (for example, by “bringing the hero to his knees”, romance is revenge fantasy).

However, Modeleski’s analysis suffers from its “one size fits all”, simplistic psychology, and tendency to obliterate differences between readers, and recreates a division between enlightened feminists and romance readers.

Janice Radway (Reading the Romance 1987): Radway also focused on readers, expanding her analysis to the practice of reading and what it means to romance readers. She did ethnographic research, (open ended interviews, for example) and explored the complex cultural relations and exchanges between the organization of the publishing industry, the texts produced, and the practices of readers.

Hollows points to an ambivalence throughout Radway’s book, in that on the one hand she wants to sympathetically reconstruct the readers’ interpretations based on their world-views, but at the same time subjugates their world view to her own, superior one, which shares many assumptions of the feminist views we’ve already looked at. For example, she constantly undercuts the pleasure that the readers gain from their reading by calling it ‘vicarious’, even though they experience it as ‘real’.

Radway ends up agreeing in the end with Modleski on the problematic “escapist” nature of romance fiction, although Radway does explore different meanings of escape (reading as a literal escape -“don’t bug Mommy, She’s reading”, and as a figurative meeting of desires which patriarchy invites but does not satisfy [for example, the idea that romantic love is a way of being taken care of, when in actuality, women bear unequal burdens of care in relationships])

For Radway, the texts reproduce patriarchy, but the practice of reading can be an act of rebellion. But she replicates the division between the “us-feminists” and the “them-readers”, blurs lines between readers, and infantilizes readers.

Hollows argues that romance critics have missed the importance of pleasure, sexual and otherwise, that romance readers enjoy. The moralizing of romance critics leads them to be suspicious of pleasure in the midst of injustice. But utopian dreams can be, not just escapist outs, but active imaginings of other possible worlds, dreams of change, and dreams of difference.

One LOL moment I had reading Hollows was her singling out lesbian readers’ relationship to traditional romance and the growth of lesbian romance as areas to be investigated. I guess nobody could predict in 2000 the growth of m/m.

Hollows concludes that:

Women and men are not passive recipients of an ideology of romance, instead romance narratives are a resource they draw upon in making sense of the emotional and social world. An acknowledgement of the importance of romance in everyday life makes it crucial to move beyond condemning romance narratives, to understand their diversity, their uses and how they might be subject to transformation.

We’ll read a romance novel next week, and I’ll use that time to update students a bit on where romance scholarship is today.

I hesitate to say much about my students’ reaction to this article without their express permission, but I’ll note that I teach at a state university in a rural, fairly poor state. There was, on the one hand, strong negative reaction to the perceived elitism of both kinds of leftist critiques of romance fiction, while at the same time almost complete agreement with the upshot of those critiques: that romance is dreck. Exploring the tension there made for a great discussion.

Review: The Proposition, by Judith Ivory

n99309

This is my third Judith Ivory, after Beast and Black Silk, and I am well on my way to falling madly in love with this author. I listened to this one on audio (click the link to listen to a sample), and if you are thinking about trying romance on audio, this is the place to start. I usually don’t like male narrators with third person romance (they make women sound shrill), but Steven Crossley did a terrific job, getting perfectly the Cockney-Cornish working class accent and dialect of the hero, and gradually changing them to a gentleman’s tones. Although Ivory’s writing conveyed the different voices, I believe the audio enhanced my experience of the book in this case.

Although the audio version is available, this book is out of print and not available for Kindle. I purchased my paper copy from a USB.

The book opens in a dress shop in Kensington. Mick Tremore, a virile rat catcher with a big bushy mustache who attracts the attentions of gentle ladies looking for a little “mud”, catches sight of a great pair of legs. Eventually, he finds out they belong to Lady Edwina Bollash, a buttoned up blustocking spinster, a linguist and expert in social graces and polite behavior who lives alone and gets by tutoring young ladies. The “proposition” of the title refers to Emile and Jeremy Lamont, brothers who make a bet against one another whether Lady Bollash turn Mick into a gentleman in 6 weeks. One brother thinks being a gentleman is all about behavior and comportment, while the other thinks it’s in the blood. The test will be Mick’s attendance at the annual ball held by Milford Xavier Bollash, 5th Duke of Arles, who happens to be Edwina’s uncle, a man who left her virtually penniless when he inherited her father’s estates. Both Edwina’s pride and the chance to pull one over on her uncle motivate her to accepts the challenge. For his part, Mick is offered 100 pounds, a tidy sum that will help him support his many siblings back in the country.

Mick moves into Edwina’s townhouse for his instruction and that’s where they stay until the last part of the book. This is one of my favorite kinds of romance: low conflict, lots of face time, liberal doses of humor, and the joy of sexual awakening and first love. Mick is a very confident, centered, smart man whose observational skills and pragmatism make him a quick study. He can appreciate the poshness of Edwina’s hospitality without lapsing into self-pity or an out of character rant about class injustice. Mick lives in the moment: he loves life, loves sex, and loves his ferrets and his dogs (I actually thought the bits about rat catching were very interesting, and I have a dread fear of rodents). He has no internal conflict about Edwina. What begins as lust and like (having seen those long gams in the dress shop, he’s not fooled by her plain buttoned up exterior) very naturally becomes true love.

While his exposure to Edwina’s lifestyle motivates a bit of reflection about whether rat catching is the best he can do, and while his clothing, toilette, speech, and mannerisms undergo radical changes, Mick Tremore’s character arc is shorter than Winnie’s. This incorrigible man is perfect for Edwina, and the reader can see this immediately. The real journey has to be taken by the heroine. Edwina is all head, no heart. She’s was dealt major blows as a child, essentially outcast from society when her Uncle abandoned her, and is now emotionally closed off, especially afraid of rejection by men (they’ve never shown an interest in her). Like Mick, though, she’s not “damaged”, and she doesn’t need “saving”. Her pragmatism is less about healthy acceptance, and more about fear of change and fear of failure. Her life is also “pretty good” but it could be so much better if she opened up to Mick and his invitation to seize the day.

If you like sexual tension, this is the book for you. In some ways, the entire book is Mick’s amusing, sincere, and loving attempt to seduce Edwina. But to give one example, Edwina decides early on that Mick’s mustache has to go. In exchange, Mick wants her to lift her skirts to show a bit of leg. The working out of the details of the wager (How much leg? How long? May he touch?) and its execution take a few chapters.

Ivory has a way of taking a thing and making it a kind of motif throughout the book. In Black Silk, it was .. er… black silk. In Beast, it was the ambergris. In this one, it’s Mick’s mustache, a symbol of his virility, his class, his larger than life personality. So much is happening beyond the sexual when he and Winnie battle over that facial hair.

The class distinctions are important to the book, but not a heavy handed imposition.  It’s probably fair to say poor country folk are portrayed as being closer to nature and to the body, less worked up about sex. Edwina hides behind her role as Mick’s teacher, which doubles as her role as upper class lady, when she needs to put distance between them, as in this exchange:

He asked bluntly, “Do you want me to kiss you?”

“No” she said instantly. Thought he shock in her face, he would’ve guessed was more for having her mind read than form the idea.

He turned her loose, pushing her away. “fine. If you ever do, just remember I like a little participation. A little share in the responsibility, Miss Bollash. If you want me to kiss you, it’d be right damn nice if you’d say so. Otherwise” — he reverted intentionally — “you ain’t havin’ a kiss from me.”

She glared and pressed her lips so hard together, they turned white. Her face was full of havoc, vexation, bewilderment — for what had just happened.

Then the mean witch of a woman said, “Instead of rightright nice or right fine — you should say quite or rather or even ratherish.”

He gave a snort. He wanted to hoot. “I’m not saying ratherish.”

Then he wanted to laugh outright. Here they were, him and Winnie, going at it again. Jesus, the woman was thick. Didn’t she feel it? Hell he wanted to shove her against a wall between the bridle straps, pull up her skirts — Or no, maybe in the carriage, flat out on the seat or — Jesus, he couldn’t think how to do it or rather, he could think of a hundred ways he wanted to. He wanted to have her, just have her — maybe the floor would do, if the dogs and ferrets didn’t mind.

He made himself ask instead, “What do you want me to say? What was the rest?”

She corrected him again. “Pardon. Remember, you’re supposed to say pardon when you want someone to repeat themselves.”

He raised his brow with theatrical impatience and said, “Pardon, Miss Bollash? What the bloody foke do you want me to day instead of right damn fine?”

She stared fixedly. “Quite fine. Or rather fine.”

“Rather,” he repeated. Rather. Mick could hear himself saying it right. He looked at Winnie. She waited for the whole phrase. Stupid woman. She was happier fixing him than admiring him. It was her way of connecting, her way of shagging him blind. “Rather fine, Miss Bollash.”

Toward the end of the book, Mick gets Edwina out of the house. This is really the climax of the book, literally and literarily. They have a series of adventures beginning in a tea room, moving onto a trolley, and finally a tavern. I think it’s one of the most fun and joyful stretches of romance I have ever read.

The book ends with the ball, of course, and the resolution of the external barrier to their relationship. What I say next contains spoilers.

spoiler_alert

Longtime romance readers could predict that Mick will not end the book a ratcatcher. It turns out that Jeremy and Emile are conmen who are trying to pass Mick off as the long lost grandson of the Duke, stolen as a baby by his wetnurse and taken to the country. Of course, Mick actually IS the long lost grandson. The Duke of Arles falls ill, he and Edwina make up, at least somewhat, and when he dies, our ratcatcher becomes the wealthiest and most powerful man in England.  I had no problem with this — it’s a romance novel after all, and there aren’t many HEAs for poor heroes — but the narrative lost steam for me once Mick and Edwina fell in love and consummated their relationship. So the final bits with the Duke almost read to me like an epilogue: nice, smile-inducing, but not gripping.

spoiler_alert

In each of he three Ivory books I have read, there is some feature that I found so historically or factually problematic, I had to work hard to not think about it. In this one, it’s the idea that Lady Bollash would have a man stay in her home, especially upstairs on the same floor where she sleeps, when her sterling reputation is what makes her attractive to clients. Also, she attends a ball with three single men. The book is set in Victorian London, not Regency, so perhaps it’s ok? I found it a bit jarring.

Ivory has becomes one of my top five romance writers. I highly recommend this book in print or audio. And if you like Judith Ivory, read or reread Black Silk and join us for a discussion of it Sunday December 6.

Megan Hart, Queen of the Start

Is there any erotic romance writer who sucks you into a story faster than Megan Hart? I doubt it:

Dirty

First lines of Dirty:

This is what happened…

I met him at the candy store.

He turned and smiled at me and I was surprised enough to smile back. This was not a children’s candy store, mind you–this was the kind of place you went to buy expensive imported chocolate truffles for your boss’s wife because you felt guilty for having sex with him when you were both at a conference in Milwaukee.

Broken

First lines of Broken:

This month, my name is Mary, and apparently, I’m as contrary as the nursery rhyme. First I said I wanted to fuck, but now I’m refusing to come out of the bathroom. What I don’t know is that Joe doesn’t like cock teases, nor does he suffer wasting time. He’s already bought the drinks, made the compliments. If I don’t put out in the next five minutes, he’ll put his coat on and go.

I don’t know this because I only met him three hours ago in a bar downtown. His names seemed as if it were a cosmic joke, but out of all the men I met tonight, Joe’s the only one who bothered trying to have a conversation with me. That’s why I picked him. That, and the fact that he’s hot and well-dressed, with a charming quirk of a smile that tries to look sincere but mostly doesn’t.

Tempted
First lines of Tempted:

Light and shadow painted him. On little cat feet, like the fog, I crept toward the bed. Tug-tugging. I slid the covers off to reveal his body.

I liked to watch him sleep, despite the way it sometimes made me want to pinch myself to prove I wasn’t dreaming. That this was my husband, my house, my life. Our perfect life. That there were good things to be had in the world and I had them.

Stranger
First lines of Stranger

I was looking for a stranger.

The Fishtank wasn’t my usual hangout, though I’d been inside it once or twice. Recently redecorated, it sought to compete with a bunch of brand new bars and restaurants that had opened in downtown Harrisburg, but though the tropical theme and aquariums were pretty and the drinks cheap enough, the Fishtank was too far away from restaurant row to really compete. What it did have that the other, newer, bars didn’t, was the attached hotel. The fishtank, ‘where you hook ‘em,’ was a sort of joke with the young and single crowd of central Pennsylvania. Or at least with me, and I was young. And blessedly, purposefully, single.

First lines of Deeper:

Now.

The sea remained the same. The sound and the smell of it wasn’t different, nor the push and pull of its waves. Twenty years ago, Bess Walsh had stood on this beach and looked forward to the rest of her life, and now …

Now she wasn’t sure she was ready for what lay ahead.

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Opening lines of Pleasure and Purpose: (the one I am reading now which prompted this post)

Stillness Fontaine had never been assigned to a house so modest it didn’t have a name. What sort of man was Edward Delaw, to hold such a high position within the Court of Firth and yet abide in a house as humble as this?

I feel like a real poser when I try to do literary criticism, so this may be way off, but in each of these novels (actually, the last is a novella, the first of three), so many intriguing things are communicated in just a few lines or a couple of paragraphs. In every case, there’s just plain old plot hookage: you want to know more, what is going to happen next.

But you also get important clues about character and conflict.

Like in Dirty, we get a sense of Elle’s personality, her expensive tastes, her cynicism. In Broken, we learn something important about Joe in the way Mary describes his smile. As for Tempted, we know that people never say “my life is perfect” unless it isn’t, and we want to know more about the disconnect between the Anne’s words and feelings. The first line of Stranger is great — connecting it to the title, and hooking you (it’s absurd, on the surface, to be “looking for a stranger”), but the last line of the excerpt tells us something about Grace that’s similar to Anne: she protests too much. Deeper’s hook is very straightforward: just the word “now” did it for me. there’s a now? what happened “then”? And why is it significant enough that this woman is on a beach at night thinking about it? As for Pleasure and Purpose, the whole premise is so bizarre (I’m having feminist angst over this one as I read it) to begin with — who is this woman, why is she at this man’s house? — added to the gap between the humble house and the high station of its inhabitant, that you want to know more.

I’m not sure if that’s a skill they teach at a writing workshop, or if its in the writer’s genes, but I have to end this post so I can get back to Pleasure and Purpose, because I’m dangling on the line after just a few pages.

Monday Morning Stepback

The weekly links, opinion, and randomness post.

1. Links of interest

the-links

YA author Justine Larbalestier (of the Liar cover controversy) on The Blank Page Heroine, with a link to Demon’s Lexicon author Sarah Rees Brennan’s musings about the romance genre, with discussion of Meredith Duran, Sherry Thomas, and Tessa Dare. (thanks to The Book Smugglers for the link)

Good discussion of Rape as a Plot Device at KMont’s Lurv a la Mode. As an aside, KMont is an exemplary blogger when it comes to responding to comments.

I’m always fascinated by the history of Romland. Romance Dish has a post on Squawk Radio — a kind of “where are they now” (poor things, all abject failures). The contest is over, but the many comments are worth a look.

Katie Mack is talking about The First Person Narrative Problem from the reader’s point of view at Kiss Me Goodnight. Technically, she lists more than one problem, but it is such a neat post, we’ll let it slide.

An interesting post on how cover art influences one reader’s decision to buy, featuring two very different John Scalzi covers (thanks to @NadiaLee)

Some concerns about m/m from Sparky, a self-described “rambling activist”, which I found via a link Ann Somerville provided on twitter.

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Harlequin comics are now available for Kindle and via Verizon and AT&T subscription. The initial batch is only $3.99 (about 25% off), but of course it’s all black and white. It’s optimized for the larger Kindle DX, so I don’t know how it looks on the smaller screens. I stood in the bookstore today trying to talk myself into buying a paper version, but the graphic novel craze just leaves me cold. And yes, I’ve tried the Buffy, the Death Note, the V for Vendetta. I think I am just too old.

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From Feministe, a Danish advocacy group has launched Hit the Bitch, a site that encourages users to hit an image of a woman, with her sustaining visible injuries after each hit. Surprisingly, the group doesn’t actually advocate violence against women, but hopes its little interactive website will discourage it. Hmmmm…. Due to high traffic, the site itself is closed to anyone outside Denmark.

2. Bloggers Responding to Comments

How do you feel about making comments on someone’s blog and not getting a nod from the blogger? Do you expect a response every time? At least some of the time? Does it matter if it’s a really long thread? If you “know” the blogger? If you are a frequent visitor?

If you are a blogger, do you feel compelled to acknowledge every comment? Do you give yourself slack if it’s a long thread? Does it matter who has commented? Would you leave Laura Kinsale hanging?

For my part, if I am asking readers for input (as in this paragraph) I feel I have to respond. But replying to comments takes me a long time, and I have usually already spent a long time writing the initial post. I enjoy reading every single comment, but sometimes I am just tired of the topic, or spent. I have to ask myself which I would rather do: write another blog post or respond to comments, and sometimes, it’s the former.

I added a comments policy, by the way. <a href="http://www.avivadirectory.com/blogger-law/&quot;I just learned that you own your comments. I am not allowed to delete or alter them without your permission, unless I have a stated policy, so I added one. It’s in the footer.

PS. You didn’t know I had a footer, did you?

3. Bloggers staying on their “home turf”.

From inspirational romance author Brenda Coulter’s RtB column:

I don’t think its wise for us to troop over to blogs we don’t ordinarily read and “tell off” bloggers who are complete strangers to us. When we rush into battle every single time somebody maligns the books we love, we risk appearing insecure and pathetic.

I agree that “telling off”, if it means being insulting or rude, is not a good idea, but the larger question of whether it makes sense to make a comment on a blog you never visit for the sole purpose of criticizing a post there is more interesting. Of course, you have the “right” to do it, whatever that means, but what purpose does it serve? Is it better to do that than to bring it to your own blog (like I’m doing right now. Maybe it’s more brave? to face them on their turf?). I think I’ve only had one post that drew nonRomanceland critics and I can honestly say that I didn’t enjoy it. But perhaps it was good for me to hear what they had to say?

4. Blog news

A. My column last week for Romancing the Blog was my final one. I get stressed out blogging for other people, on their schedule. In the interest of acknowledging my boundless capacity for hypocrisy, however, I should admit that I just agreed to write a Smugglivus post for The Book Smugglers.

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B. This week I will start an occasional “open blogger self-promotion post” in which you can pimp upcoming events on your own blogs or blogs you follow, talk about successes or struggles with blogging, call attention to brandy new blogs, announce retirements or hiatuses from blogging, or whatever. At first, I thought I would call it “Wazup Wednesday” but recalled that Wednesday is already taken by a feature so powerful that I have only dared deploy it 3 times in 17 months (What (Not) To Do Wednesday). Plus, I am too lazy to type “Wazup” when I can just type “Sup”. So, Sup Saturday will begin this week.

C. I have been reading some really atrocious m/m recently. I plan to do a review each night for Hannukah, a word which you can spell pretty much however you want, since there’s no literal translation from the Hebrew. So look for the Eight Nights of Ham/mukah in a couple of weeks. I’m sure my Rabbi would approve.

5. Personal

A. I gave a talk on Medicine 2.0 last week (basically, the uses of social networking in clinical practice and research), with a psychiatrist who used her time on the panel to rail against the dangers of internet addiction. I was happy to learn that we romance bloggers can relax, since only three types of internet addiction have been identified: sex, gaming, and text/email. Anyway, out of nowhere, she started criticizing, of all things, ebooks. She complained that one can’t smell or touch ebooks, and that a digital book is less permanent than a paper book. Naturally, I whipped out my iTouch and pointed out that if the conference room burned down, taking my iTouch with it, I could retrieve all of my books, while hers would be in ashes.

B. I am hosting Thanksgiving as usual this year. We have three days off, as do the kids, with no classes, no homework, no soccer, no music lessons, no NOTHIN’, and, even though I have work to do while at home, I am so looking forward to it! Our Slankets should arrive Tuesday, which is perfect timing.

I like the idea of being at “home” in real life so much, that I plan to replicate it in cyberspace. For the next week I won’t be on Twitter or checking email. You’ll find me holing up in my virtual home.

Happy Week!

The Racy Romance Reviews Questionaire Extraordinaire's Triumphant Return

With Azteclady, a longtime romance reader and resident of Romanceland, blogger/reviewer at Karen Knows Best, and thoughtful, funny commenter on this and many other blogs.

1. How long have you been reading romance novels? What got you started?

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I’ve been reading romance novels for about three fourths of my life (if you want numbers, some 33 years) and it all started one day when I found an old Vanidades magazine laying about at my grandmother’s house. Already an avid reader, I suddenly found myself sitting there without anything to read—the horror!—and when I saw this ratty tattered magazine, I grabbed like one would a lifeline. It so happens that in it I found the first part of a short romance novel by Caridad Bravo Adams—sadly, I never got to read the end, but I was very intrigued by what little I did read. Shortly after I found a copy of E.M. Hull’s The Sheik… and I’ve never stopped reading romance since.

2. What are your favorite subgenres?
How come this question is harder than it seems? I want to say that romantic suspense is my top favorite, but I think it’s more a question of which are my least favorites (inspirational romance and stuff that is closer to what is commonly called “chick lit” than to romance).

3. You blogged once that when it comes to reviews, you are a strict grader, and you can “think of one or two romance novels that deserve a 10″. Spill it. Which ones?

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My all-time favorite romance is LaVyrle Spencer’s Morning Glory—and that is definitely a 10. Silver Lining, by Maggie Osborne, is probably my second favorite, and also a 10 (despite having an issue with the last five or so pages…) The third and fourth ones I remember off the top of my head would be Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon.

4. How long have you been a citizen of Romanceland? What were some of your first visited sites?
Did I mention that these are harder than they seem? Or perhaps it’s just that I’m old, but it boils down to, I can’t quite remember how long it’s been. I know I started reading the now-defunct Suzanne Brockmann Message Board eons ago (I want to say that it was November 2001, but it could have been 2002). From there I followed some regulars to Elizabeth Lowell’s now-defunct forums and eventually visited AAR once or twice. Then one fateful day I stumbled upon the oh so young! Smart Bitches, which lead me to Karen Scott’s old blog, to Wendy the Super Librarian’s blog, to Kristie(J)’s Ramblings on Romance and a number of other places.

5. How have things changed in Romanceland in that time?
Things have changed as much as they remain the same, really. There seem to be many more blogs devoted to romance reviewing these days than there were way back when, but it could easily be that it only seems that way to me because I used to be shy about venturing into the unknown. :-D

It does seem to me, though, that for the most part things are cyclical. Some people I’ve come to love are saying goodbye for good *shedding tear for Barbara*, or taking sabbaticals *waving at Amy*, and others who were absent when I got here are coming back *waving at Maili* And people are… well, people. You have your chatterboxes, your extroverts, your introverts, your busybodies, your warm-fuzzy “can’t we all just get along?” people, your straight shooters, your philosophers (and not just you icon_razz by the way)

6. How long have you been blogging with Karen Scott, and how did that come about?
Ooooooooooooohhh! Well, it all started a day in February last year. I had written a review of Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace and posted it to what used to be the Lost Forum at ezSucks (now MyMedia-Forums). Karen liked it and asked me if I would like to blog with her. After I hyper-ventilated a little, I rushed to accept and… well, here we are.

7. How do you like blogging with Karen? She seems so… wishy washy. I can never tell what her opinions really are on anything.

Oh I know! It’s sad at times just how mild she is. One feels the need to prod her to speak her mind, you know?

*cough*

It’s great, actually. We don’t agree on a lot of stuff—I’ll say that we do agree about half the time if that much—so that makes discussions on posts lively :-D Occasionally I’ll ask for Karen’s opinion before posting on something, but the fact is that I’ve never felt that I’m required to submit stuff to her prior for approval to posting. I don’t believe I’m a timid flower, but of the two I’m definitely the wimpy one :-D

8. The KKB blog is like the Rainbow Coalition of Romanceland. Do you think this influences the way you blog at all? And why do you guys hate white people?
Well, we only hate those who hate us first—we are courteous like that icon_razz

You know, it’s funny but I hadn’t thought about the RCofR aspect until I read the question, but I do see what you mean. I don’t think the audience/readership affects how I blog—at least not consciously, though I can’t say whether there’s a subtle influence at play there or not—except that I do try to be very clear as to what I mean or don’t mean.

Then again, that is not a new thing; way back when, when I first started commenting online (SBMB, the early SBTB, etc.) I would really struggle to be as unambiguous as possible, because while it can be entertaining to watch the train wrecks happen, I don’t relish being embroiled in a misunderstanding that could have been avoided by a bit more careful wording.

Perhaps it comes from the fact that English is not my first language, perhaps it’s just my personality :-D

9. Do you read Spanish language romances? Are they different from English language roms?
*laughing ruefully* Well, see… other than those old Caridad Bravo Adams romances (set always in Spain, by the way) the early romances I read were all Spanish translations of English novels. Harlequin has been publishing categories in Latin America for ages—Deseo, Bianca, Julia and more I’ve forgotten. And the thing was, many of those translations annoyed the hell out of me for different reasons (including the occasional presence of a Latin hero who didn’t resemble any Latin American person I’ve ever met, male or female, or descriptions of places I’ve been to that didn’t resemble anything so much as a stereotypical postcard).

That was almost enough to put me off romance, because there didn’t seem to be any romances written originally in Spanish that I could find. Heaps and loads and piles of other fiction—excellent fiction too—but not romance. Then one fateful day some (holy cow, that long?) seventeen years ago, while living in Caracas, I discovered a few Avon romances in an English-only bookstore. Heaven, sheer and unadulterated. I haven’t looked back.

But to answer your question (at last!) those old Spanish by Caridad Bravo Adams romances were… well, innocent and extremely conservative. They were contemporaries but they resembled nothing as much as they did Barbara Cartland’s regencies. Sweet, syrupy and easy to leave behind.

10. What the hell is ETSY and why are people always Twittering about it?
:-D Etsy is fun, handmade, vintage and HUGE. You want it, you can find it there. You make it? You can sell it there!

(But I don’t know why people twitter about it, or anything else: Twitter scares me, I really don’t need another time-suck.)

11. Why did you open an ETSY store? Are you trying to make us broke? Do you intend to laugh all the way to the bank, or only halfway there?
a)    ‘Cause I have stuff I’d like to sell.
b)    Not really, and I’d be sorry if it happened to anyone. I like you guys!
c)    I wouldn’t laugh at all—it’s in bad taste and such a cliché! (now, cackling…)

12. Why do you pose like Mussolini? Are you secretly a fascist?

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Oh my God, that literally made me burst out laughing and scared the dog away!

The truth?

I feel ridiculous posing for pictures under the best of circumstances, but while “modeling” something I’ve made? Ohmygawdkillmeknowplz! *cough*

So I started playing around, being all diva like… and those were the pictures that came out better. Go figure!

13. Why are you named after the classic “big box” magic trick? Are you an illusion? When I interview you, am I talking to myself?
*snort* Well, see, I’m not named after the trick simply because I didn’t even know there was such a thing until a couple of years AFTER I’d chosen my handle.

Here’s the actual story: I’m Mexican, with a lot of European blood (mostly French and Catalán). My native Mexican blood is, family lore has it, from the Mixtecas in the sierra of the Pacific state of Oaxaca. I considered calling myself mixteclady, but I didn’t feel like explaining my nickname every time I posted something—since pretty much no one outside of Mexico would recognize it—so I went for the more widely known Aztecs.

However, I very much like the idea of being an illusion… but if I’m an illusion I cannot meet you, can I?

13b. Ms. Lady, do you have a middle name?
Nope, I don’t—and I’m in fact the only of my siblings (youngest of 5, mind) who doesn’t. I would love to say it’s ‘cause I’m special, but in all honesty I think that by the time I was born they had ran out of family members to name me after.

14. Have you ever thought about starting your own blog? Why or why not? If not, why exactly do you think you are too good for blogging while the rest of us slave away?
•    I’ve thought about it, yes, for a few seconds at a time here and there :grin:
•    Why? So that I can spew whatever I want on whatever topic I want.
•    Why not? ‘cause I already do that at Karen’s and elsewhere icon_razz
•    You mean I’m not?????

14b. Where else do you review/blog?
I cross-post my reviews to the library section at MyMedia-Forum and to a scrolling board that sprang from the old SBMB, as well as helping Mad with scheduling and formatting at RR@H Novel Thoughts. And this is exactly the second time I’ve done a ‘guest blog’ kinda thing (first at Will Work for Noodles). Dear Author also hosted my review of Morning Glory and The Good, The Bad and the Unread have a couple of my first reviews.

15. Other than the awesomeness that is RRR, what blogs have you been enjoying especially much lately?

Wendy’s always. Orannia’s Walkabout (love her). Tumperkin always makes me think—I hope she doesn’t go away :cry: Christine’s Romantic Life, Kmont’s Lurv à la Mode, Kristie’s Ramblings and many more, including a long list of authors.

16. On a scale of 9.9 to 10, how excited are you to meet me at RWA’10?
On a scale of one to ten, I’m around 15 excited to meet you in Nashville :-D

Awww, back atcha, and thanks, Azteclady!

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