Review: True Blood and Philosophy

There are now two series dedicated to philosophy and popular culture. The original, Popular Culture and Philosophy series (Open Court) began with Seinfeld and Philosophy in 2000 and is now on volume #52, Manga and Philosophy.  One of my very first publications was a review of Seinfeld and Philosophy, and I contributed to the 4th volume in that series, Buffy and Philosophy.

The newer series, Philosophy and Popular Culture (Blackwell) launched in 2007 with 24 and Philosophy. True Blood and Philosophy, which I received gratis as an examination copy, is the 20th volume in the series.

Within the philosophical community, there is some debate about the value of these books. And by “debate”, I mean that some critics see these books in the same way an evangelical Christian sees a darkened sky and oceans turning to blood. For two examples, check out this post, or this one.

My own feeling is that the discipline is in pretty bad shape if two lightweight and fun book series can destroy its credibility. The trick with these books, especially for the cynical professional philosopher, is to go in with the right expectations. As Blackwell puts it:

Our goal with the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series is to get philosophy out of the ivory tower by publishing books about smart popular culture for serious fans. With each volume in this series we seek to teach philosophy using the themes, characters, and ideas from your favorite TV shows, comic books, movies, music, games, and more.

Few if any of the essays in these books constitute philosophical research. The best of them of make contributions to the academic study of popular culture. But many don’t even do that: they are content to connect up a Philosophy 101 concept or problem (free will, personhood, the social contract, the problem of identity, etc.) with an aspect of popular culture in order to help readers (fans and students) understand philosophy in light of a pop culture phenomenon with which they are familiar.

If you read these volumes with the same expectations you would have for an issue of peer reviewed academic journal, you aren’t being fair.  I suppose some critics object to using examples from popular culture to teach philosophy (and by “teach”, I mean both in formal settings like classrooms, and the kind of self-teaching average fans might do when they pick up such books at Borders). That may be because they think popular culture is harmful (we should all be reading Proust instead), or because they don’t think using popular culture to teach philosophy works.

I have no comment on the former, but for the latter I will need to see some argument. What I know, after being in the front of a philosophy classroom for 12 years, is that starting from a place where students feel knowledgeable and comfortable can work very well to introduce them to a subject they have likely never directly encountered, a subject which in the absence of direct knowledge, signifies for many students obsolescence and irrelevance … if it signifies anything at all.

So what I look for first in such books is accurate philosophy. It is not easy to teach philosophy in the bite sizes necessitated by these short essays, and brevity can distort. Connecting philosophy up to popular culture also requires knowledge of and sensitivity towards the material. In reading this series, if I get something really insightful about the pop culture object of reflection  — something that could be developed and published in a peer reviewed popular culture studies journal —  I am delighted. And if I learn something about philosophy, or am made to see philosophical connections where I hadn’t, I consider it an unexpected bonus. A final requirement is restraint in the use of puns.

On most these counts, True Blood and Philosophy succeeds. It is divided into five sections, with three essays each: one on ethics, one on politics, one on sexuality and gender, one on the supernatural and divine, and one on metaphysics. The list price, $17.95 for a softcover, may be prohibitive for some readers, but Amazon has it new for $12.21 and there’s a Kindle edition for $9.99. As is typical for such collections, the contributors range in their connection to the discipline of philosophy, from tenured associate professors in the field to an undergraduate student (the latter being the daughter of one of the editors). There are also contributions from academics trained in art history, public policy, English, and political science. A few contributors hail from non-academic life: editors, contractors, and human resources specialists.

An initial concern I had about this volume was that at most two seasons of the TV show True Blood would have been aired before it went to press. Knowing that the book series on which it is based, Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, is now in its 10th installment, and that the show, which has great ratings, will likely continue into several more seasons, I questioned the rush to get this out. My concern was alleviated to some extent by two factors (1) most of the contributors seem to have read the books, and often make reference to them in the essays (so, a big spoiler warning for fans), and (2) the essays deal more with world itself, not on detailed character examinations or plot. Since most of the world building is complete in the first two books/seasons, it mostly works.

The volume focuses very heavily on vampires. Those looking for more on the shapeshifters, weres or fairies that populate Charlaine Harris’s world will be disappointed. Perhaps a casualty of taking their cue more from the show than the series, there is also less focus on Sookie than I would have liked. The books are written in the first person, and Sookie is a very complex and interesting character. Most of Sookie is lost in Alan Ball’s vision, which is extremely androcentric.  One essay,”I am Sookie. Hear Me Roar: Sookie Stackhouse and Feminist Ambivalence”, by Lillian E. Craton and Kathryn E. Jonell, reflects on the difficulties of feminist alliance (many of Sookie’s enemies are women), complicated by the different social locations women inhabit, some of which may place them (Tara) at a disadvantage relative to their white middle class sisters (i.e. Sookie), the double edged sword of female sexuality — both empowering and dangerous for women (Maryann, whom the authors see as the ultimate victim of female sexuality), and Sookie’s struggles to maintain her independence and autonomy while dating and working for men who have the potential to overpower her. On this last:

Sookie’s conflicted emotions about workplace relationships and her ongoing attraction to vampires complicate the potential of True Blood and the Southern Vampire Mysteries as feminist social commentary. Sookie’s biggest challenge doesn’t seem to be fighting oppression, but sorting out her own desires.

This essay raises several important issues, any one of which could constitute the subject of an independent investigation, and it is too bad the editors didn’t make room that that approach. It’s also compromised, in my view, by trying to cover both the television show and the books, which differ markedly in their treatment of these issues. Alan Ball’s version of  the character of Tara, for example, as a constantly victimized, ineffectually perpetually angry, shortsighted (to the point of stupidity) black woman is nearly unrecognizable to readers of the novels, who know Tara as a white woman with a level head who overcame a horrendous childhood (and, yes, who makes mistakes). The same goes for Maryann. And while the Sookie of the TV show is just a plucky gal with telepathic abilities, in the novels, Sookie is an incredibly astute, complex character, who recognizes that she is disadvantaged by her gender, her “disability”, and her economic status.

Some of the essays are very straightforward explications of basic philosophical concepts. For example, the first essay, “To Turn or Not To Turn”, by Christopher Robichaud, explicates the concept of informed consent using the example of Bill turning Jessica into a vampire (“vampires need explicit, informed, noncoercive consent before they’re permitted to turn the living into the undead”), while “Pets, Cattle and Higher Life forms on True Blood”, by Ariadne Blayde and George A. Dunn, is effective at exploring moral ranking among kinds of being (“The assumption that human beings occupy the highest rung on the great ladder of being ins challenged in True Blood by the existence of a species that seems to be superior to us in every way, possibly even in their kinship with the divine.”). “Signed in Blood: Rights and the Vampire-Human Social Contract”,  by Joseph J. Foy and “Honey, If We Can’t Kill People, What’s the Point Of Being a Vampire: Can Vampires Be Good Citizens?” by William M. Curtis, both consider what it would take for vampires to have rights and function as full citizens. Are vampires just another unique subculture claiming its rights, which our liberal democracy should accommodate, and what would that require (would a “life sentence” for a criminal vampire be cruel and unusual punishment?). The question of “what is natural” and how we define it, so important to debates over sexuality and new reproductive technologies, is addressed by Andrew Terjesen and Jenny Terjesen in “Are Vampires Unnatural”. Patricia Brace and Robert Arp explore connections between the social and moral status of vampires and and gays in “Coming Out of the Coffin and Coming out of the Closet”. Finally, criteria of personal identity are explored by Sarah Grubb’s “Vampires, Werewolves, and Shapeshifters: The more they change, the more they stay the same”.

A standout, especially for readers who know something about vampire mythology, is Bruce A. McClelland’s “Un-True Blood: The Politics of Artificiality.” McClelland, who has published a book on vampires and their slayers, situates True Blood within the evolving vampire lore. He wonders whether

the attempt to bring vampires into the human world  by encouraging them to consume TruBlood represents a drive to ensnare them in our same dependencies and lack of freedom that characterize our society, one that many would characterize as lacking belief, trust, or a deep link to nature.

Another very interesting essay is Fred Curry’s “Keeping Secrets from Sookie”, which explores the epistemological questions raised by Sookie’s telepathy, such as “whether anyone could possess any kind of knowledge that even the most powerful telepath couldn’t learn using her powers?”.

There is quite a bit of overlap in the essays, especially on the moral status of vampires, and their connections to other marginalized subgroups. This overlap was made even more manifest by the choice of the same quotations (Eric and Sookie’s discussion about whether humans are to antelopes and as vampires are to lions, for example) and sources (No fewer than three essays discuss Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”). Many of the essays rely on a pseudo documentary about vampires, from the first season’s DVD. something many readers will not have seen. And some of the essays, in trying to keep a light tone, go a bit too far, for example Brace and Arp’s final exhortation that:

coming out of the coffin or the closet these days requires courage. Let’s hope, pray, and act so that in the future anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, religions or race, whether living or dead, can find acceptance along with basic human and civil rights in Bon Temps and your hometown, too.

I wish the editors had waited a couple of years to publish this volume. Perhaps a few more seasons of True Blood would have drawn more essays on other aspects of the narrative, such as Sookie’s problematic conception of her telepathy as disability, fascinating communities like the werepanthers of Hotshot or the weres of Shreveport, the complex relationship of Southern identities to various forms of Christianity, to name just a few.

Overall, though, this is a fun book for fans of the show with no philosophical background, and a good resource for teaching our vampire-loving students some basic concepts in philosophy. The brevity of each essay left me with more questions than answers, but that’s what good philosophy teaching does.

Review: Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

Sunshine, a fantasy by Robin McKinley published in 2003 and reissued in 2008, won the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature (McKinley’s acceptance remarks here). I regret very much reading the screed against readers which the author posted on her blog. I’m sure we all feel that way at times about the people we deal with, but I think it says something when you let those kinds of comments stand as a public statement of your relationship with your audience. As a reader who just discovered McKinley and went to her website to find out more about her and her books, I felt insulted, slightly pissed, and deflated. I am not sure that’s what I would be going for with my author website.

But I will leave off that distressing discovery, surprising and interesting as it is, and talk about Sunshine, which was also surprising and interesting, but in a good way. I listened to Sunshine, which is written in the first person. First person often works quite well on audio, and the performer did a great job with it. Sample here.

I finished this book last week, but have had a hard time starting the review. And then I read this blurb by Neil Gaiman and figured out why:

A gripping, funny, page-turning pretty much perfect work of magical literature that exists more or less at the unlikely crossroads of Chocolat, Interview With a Vampire, Misery and the tale of Beauty and the Beast. It’s not quite SF, and it’s not really horror, and only kind of a love story, and it’s all three while still being solidly Fantastique.

Sunshine is the story of Rae — nicknamed Sunshine — a twenty something baker, content with her life working in her step-father’s cafe, where her boyfriend Mel is one of the cooks. She has the usual family issues, including a very strained relationship with her mother, and when she decides to head out one day to the lake to get away, Rae ends up being captured by vampires and brought to an abandoned mansion. The Others are known to exist in Rae’s world, where wars have decimated cities, and they include witches and demons, but vampires are the most feared and hated.

When Rae discovers she has been captured to provide a yummy temptation for Constantine, a vampire who is also a prisoner, she is sure this is the end. But Rae relearns some sorcery her grandmother had taught her as a child, and she and Con are able to escape. She learns that her father, whom her mother left and who has never been in her life, is (or was? We never know for sure.) a powerful sorcerer. Rae and Con now have a kind of bond, which develops as they realize they have to battle the vampire who held them captive if they ever hope to return to some semblance of a normal life.

In the meantime, The SOF — Special Other forces, a kind of CIA dedicated to the eradication and/or neutralization of Others — are interested in the events at the lake mansion, and in Rae’s mystical powers. Sensing an alliance with SOF is not in her — and certainly not in Con’s — interest, Rae has to finesse her relationship with them, while also keeping her family in the dark. She is confused about her growing relationship with Con, a creature she is supposed to revile, but who grows on her in unexpected ways.

Well, not entirely unexpected. The author mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an inspiration, and when a book has a female protagonist who has unexpected powers to fight the bad vamps alongside the one good vamp, who may or may not become her boyfriend, all the while keeping her concerned mother and regular human friends in the dark and keeping her normal human life afloat … well…

And yet, it feels worlds away from Buffy. For one thing, this is not a funny book (with all due respect to Gaiman). And Rae is not very likable.  She’s extremely egocentric, not just in that she’s most concerned for her own welfare, but in that she really doesn’t even think about much that doesn’t directly relate to herself. She isn’t funny or sharp or that insightful. So when you are in this book, you have to be willing to be deep inside the head of a very ordinary person. A person who is probably much more like you, the reader, than most protagonists.

For another, very little happens in this book. There’s the gangbusters kidnapping and escape in the opening chapters, which for my money was the best part of the book. But the next big action is the climax. There are several hundred pages in between of just sort of being with Rae in her world, as she copes with the events out on the lake, tries and fails to go back entirely to her old life, and eventually becomes a new, better and stronger person. But she knows herself, and I really liked that about her:

One of the things you need to understand is that I’m not a brave person. I don’t put up with being messed around, and I don’t suffer fools gladly. The short version of that is that I’m a bitch. Trust me, I can produce character references. But that’s something else. I’m not brave. Mel is brave. His oldest friend told me some stories about him once I could barely stand to listen to, about dispatch riding during the Wars, and Mel’d been pissed off when he found out, although he hadn’t denied they happened. Mom is brave: she left my dad with no money, no job, no prospects—her own parents had dumped her when she married my dad, and her younger sisters didn’t find her again till she resurfaced years later at Charlie’s—and a six-year-old daughter. Charlie is brave: he started a coffeehouse by talking his bank into giving him a loan on his house back in the days when you only saw rats, cockroaches, derelicts, and Charlie himself on the streets of Old Town.

I’m not brave. I make cinnamon rolls. I read a lot. My idea of excitement is Mel popping a wheelie driving away from a stoplight with me on pillion.

Another really great thing about this book is the way the Others and magic are described. The vampires are really really awful — including Con. They look terrifying, smell bad, move in ghastly ways. In this, McKinley keeps much closer to older vampire mythology than the latest heartthrob vamps. But I especially loved the way in which Rae’s growing sense of her own magical powers is described. For once, the magic felt to me, not like a Hollywood special effect, but truly magical:

I watched the wiggling bark. It occurred to me that this was new. I’d been seeing into shadows, but merely what was there, as if there was a rather erratic light on it. This was something else. Which gave me something I could bear to think about, so I thought about it. A few more minutes passed and it seemed to me it was as if I was watching the tree breathing. I found a leaf in shadow, and looked at it for a while; it twinkled, as if with tiny starbursts, but rather than thinking ugh—weird, I kept watching, till there seemed to be a pattern. I thought, it’s as if I’m watching its pores opening and closing. I looked down at my hands. The shadows between the fingers gleamed like a banked fire. The tiny shadows laid by the veins on the backs of them were a tiny, flickering dark green edged with a tinier, even more flickering red. The daylight part of the veins looked as it always did. In the shadow places I could see the blood moving.

I was sitting in sunlight, not shade. I automatically chose sun if there was any sun to be had. I remembered the sun on my back the first morning at the lake, like the arm of a friend. I closed my eyes.

Sunshine feels very much like the first book in a series. So little happens in its pages, compared to similar books in the subgenre, that it’s a shock when it ends as abruptly as it does. As a reader, I have had almost no contact with anyone besides Rae. I wanted to know more about her boyfriend Mel, her stepfather, her mother — who is virtually nonexistent — her powerful father and his family — also nonexistent.

I am on the fence about this. Part of me feels like the book is half baked, that some of these things really should have been explored to make the story complete. We don’t even get to know much about Constantine, and nothing about whether his odd alliance with Rae will become an intimate friendship, a romance, or something else. The other part of me just enjoyed the wonderful writing and marveled at how fresh this author could make an oft-told story feel.

About that Psychology Today Article on Harlequin…

Psychology Today has a blog column called “Love’s Evolver”, and a recent article called “How Much Do Romance novels Reflect Women’s Desires?” was getting some discussion on Twitter yesterday.

Taking down critics of the romance genre is not my usual bailiwick — there are other bloggers with much bigger audiences who can marshall community responses much more effectively – but I thought I might have a different perspective to share.

In the article, Maryanne Fisher, an associate professor of evolutionary psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, N.S., studies Harlequin romances (she doesn’t actually read them, finding them “formulaic”. Guess she doesn’t read mystery, thrillers, spy novels, sci fi or fantasy either!), and draws some conclusions about women’s desires. Here’s what her “research” shows:

So, basically, women are reading stories where they meet a ‘bad boy’ or cad and then he manages to turn around and become a doting dad. She gets the best of both worlds! And the way that this dual-hero is solved for readers is the hero claims that he’s loved the heroine since the very start, and that reason he had to behave so badly was to hide the fact that he was overwhelmed by his love for her. Either that, or she made him see the error in his ways.

What woman doesn’t swoon at this? What woman can resist wanting a daring, confident, attractive man who also is so deeply in love with her that he can’t even look at another woman? And he wants to marry her, on top of it all. She’s having her cake and eating it too. She gets all the benefits without any of the costs. The cad won’t expect hot, casual sex and then take off- he becomes the dad, who, given his history, isn’t boring.

A lot of romance readers chimed in, on Twitter and on the article itself, to point out the many problems here:

  • that all women read romance for the same reason
  • that all Harlequins – let alone the whole genre! — can be summarized in this way
  • that we can jump from what romance readers read to what romance readers actually desire in real life
  • and from there to what all women desire

The author’s “research” was reported in the Guardian earlier this year:

Theorising that mating instincts, developed over thousands of years, mean that women want a wealthy, fit, fertile, committed man, the researchers speculated that titles published by Harlequin – the owner of Mills & Boon – would be heavy on words such as baby, father and paternity; wealth, tycoon and billionaire; marriage, engagement and bride; and handsome, attractive and athletic.

Cox and Fisher concluded that Harlequin romance novel titles were “congruent with women’s sex-specific mating strategies, which is surmised to be the reason for their continued international success”.

(By the way, folks might be interested to know that several HQN authors, such as Sharon Kendrick and Penny Jordan, felt very positively about the study, which included scanning and retrieving these buzz words in some 15,000 Harlequins, narrative apparently being totally irrelevant to this study of … books.)

But here’s the thing: the author is an evolutionary psychologist, which means she doesn’t have to worry any of these things. She can read every romance novel in existence, and the conclusions she draws from it about human psychology will still be undermotivated. Leaping from small poorly chosen samples to grand claims about what all humans are wired to be like is what evolutionary psychologists do, and they do it with special relish when they are proving retrograde things about gender, love, and sex.

Take a recent Time Magazine article, “The Science of Cougar Sex: Why Older Women Lust”:

A new journal article suggests that evolutionary forces also push women to be more sexual, although in unexpected ways. University of Texas psychologist David Buss wrote the article, which appears in the July issue of Personality and Individual Differences, with the help of three graduate students, Judith Easton (who is listed as lead author), Jaime Confer and Cari Goetz. Buss, Easton and their colleagues found that women in their 30s and early 40s are significantly more sexual than younger women. Women ages 27 through 45 report not only having more sexual fantasies (and more intense sexual fantasies) than women ages 18 through 26 but also having more sex, period. And they are more willing than younger women to have casual sex, even one-night stands. In other words, despite the girls-gone-wild image of promiscuous college women, it is women in their middle years who are America’s most sexually industrious.

As per usual, Time breathlessly and uncritically reports this study. But doesn’t it worry a thinking person that some three-quarters of the participants in the study were recruited on Craigslist????? This isn’t just a limitation of the study, it is a tragic flaw.

Here are some more “findings” from a 2005 piece in by Amanda Schaffer:

One of EP’s academic stars, David Buss, argues in his salacious new book The Murderer Next Door that men are wired to kill unfaithful wives because this response would have benefited their distant forefathers. [Former Harvard President] Larry Summers took some cover from EP this winter after his remarks about women’s lesser capacity to become top scientists. And adaptive explanations of old sexist hobbyhorses—men like young women with perky breasts and can’t stop themselves from philandering because these urges aided ancestral reproduction—are commonly marshaled in defense of ever-more-ridiculous playboys.

Starting to see a theme here?

Check out about this gem on women’s innate preference for the color pink:

“We expected to find gender differences, but we were surprised at how robust they were,” said Anya Hurlbert, professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University. “They appear to give biological and not simply cultural substance to the old saying: pink for a girl and blue for a boy.” Using rapid reactions to flash cards, the survey, published in today’s issue of Current Biology, is the first to show that human colour preference can be broken down into two spectra: red-greenness and blue-yellowness. While men plumped for a wide variety of favourite tones across both, women overwhelmingly went for the red end of the red-green axis.

Yes, because getting adults in the west who have been socialized their entire lives to associate pink with feminine to respond to flash cards is the way to prove something about our prehistoric ancestors.

Or this (from a WSJ review of Adapting Minds)

Evolutionary psychology claims that men prefer fertile, nubile young women because men wired for this preference came out ahead in the contest for survival of the fittest. The key study here asked 10,047 people in 33 countries what age mate they would prefer. The men’s answer: a 25-year-old.

Evolutionary psychologists don’t bother taking the time to reject plausible alternatives to their view, for example, that our engagement in useful behavior could be an accident, a predisposition of our physiology rather than a trait selected by our environment, or learned behavior. Evolution is right, but there are a lot of other players in the game — other evolutionary pressures and non-evolutionary ones that must be accounted for. But evolutionary psychologists just … don’t care.

So rather than telling the author to read more romances, or to actually talk to romance readers, suggest she find a new research paradigm. Because no amount of knowledge of the romance genre or its readers will justify the leaps an evolutionary psychologist believes she is entitled to take.

Finally, if you object to the study, consider why Harlequin hired the author as a consultant. Is Harlequin hoping to increase sales by tapping into EP “research” to pick its titles? Looks like it to me.

Monday Morning Stepback: Jane Austen Fight Club, Metaphors, and Chocolate on My Tongue

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

Links of Interest:

I rarely embed videos, but Jane Austen’s Fight Club is too funny to make you click over (via Jezebel):

Via @shannonstacey, SluhPile Hell has the top 25 worst children’s books ever. The winner is this gem:

@MJsRetweet: Daddy Has an Itch. Mommy Smells Like Fish: A Child’s Rhyming Guide to STD’s

Amazon announced last week that its ebooks sales outpaced its hardcover sales. This article at CNET helped me decipher Amazon’s claim. Of special interest in the CNET piece was this comment:

Certain genres are doing very well on the Kindle. Romance novels, for instance. These titles are typically very big in paperback not hardcover. According to Wikipedia, in 2004, romance novels made up 54 percent of all paperbacks sold.

Levi Asher is wondering why philosophy gets no respect in Living in a Dark Age. After seeing The Twilight Saga: Eclipse today, in which Edward and Bella’s class valedictorian exhorted her peers to “major in philosophy cause there’s no way to make a career out of that!” I am wondering, too.

On the bright side, Feminism is not finished according to the Guardian. The article discusses F-Worders Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune’s Reclaiming the F Word: The New Feminist Movement.

From the LA Times’ Jacket Copy, The Library of America Launches a Blog

Called Reader’s Almanac, it focuses on joining the current online discussions that touch on the works and authors in the publisher’s catalog, such as William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.

From The Constant Conversation, “I couldn’t handle all the judging”, about a woman who actually uses newsprint to cover hardbacks of which she is ashamed to be seen reading, such as …  Charlaine Harris!

At HuffPo, Sonya Chung on Art Before Life: Questioning the Parenthood Question.

…it would seem that, “Will motherhood make me happy?” is a highly flawed, question to start with. “Will it enrich my life?” or “Will it enlarge my soul?” might be closer; and yet, ironically, the more accurate the question, the more abstract and less answerable. “Am I capable of being a good mother?” seems crucial, although one inevitably gets lost in the labyrinth of “capable” and “good,” unpacked and debated ad nauseum along with the others.

“Will I regret it if I don’t?” strikes me as the most fraught and least productive of all the questions. Regret for not doing something is inevitably a muddled emotion, since all you have on the other side of inaction are romantic notions of what could have been, as opposed to an actual appraisal of specific loss. And this question is often driven, I think, by negative impulses: a nagging sense of self-distrust (am I deluding myself with hedonism, clinging to autonomy?) and /or the habit of chronic discontentment (will I be tormented if I don’t have what everyone else has?).

Again from the Guardian, this time the Books Blog, The Novel is Centuries Older than We Have Been Told.

YA author Hannah Moskowitz on Boys and YA. This is a hot topic: 146 comments and counting.

Stop writing this boy you’ve imagined in your head and write a real boy. Make him gross or sweet or angry or well-adjusted or affectionate or uncomfortable or confused or ambitious or overwhelmed or smitten or anxious or depressed or desperate or happy. Write a boy the same way everyone has been telling everyone, forever, to write a girl; free of gender stereotypes, three-dimensional, and relatable.

From Nathan Bransford, Top Ten Myths About our EBook Future

Lorraine Ali wrote Behind the Veil for the NYT Fashion page. Then we had Martha Nussbaum’s NYT article in the Stone on the subject of Muslim women and veils. And now we have a response by Racialicious here.

I realize I don’t have many romance links this week. But here are a few:

Erotic romance author Victoria Janssen has a thoughtful post on Eroticism in Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold:

Therefore, I looked at Sebastian’s erotic journey. At first, he can sense the barriers between him and Rachel. The only way he can allow himself to think of removing those barriers is with sex; he’s a dissipated rake; seduction is what he does. He cannot change his character except through sex. He thus makes her into an erotic object, and seeks to break her down to his level. “Her passivity irked him.” “He felt pity for her, and curiosity, and an undeniably lurid sense of anticipation.” “She was in his power, a virtual slave. The situation was unquestionably provocative, but it ought to have been more so, more stimulating. He hadn’t really gotten to her yet. She simply didn’t care enough.” “Because of her reserve, touching her seemed a daring encroachment, almost like the breaking of a taboo. But wasn’t that what made her irresistible?” “…that master-servant simulation had piquant sexual overtones he found stimulating.”

Blogger and newly published f/f erotic romance author Katiebabs/ KT Grant is wondering Why Can’t GLBT and Straight Romances Go Hand in Hand? Great comments.

Jean at AAR is wondering Where Are all the Foreign Romances?

From Jackie, a late report on her wild and crazy doings at RomCon 2010.


U Chicago philosopher Ted Cohen gave a talk Saturday in Camden, at a conference in which I also participated, about jokes and metaphors. We got a lot of jokes, of course (“Why don’t Episcopalians have orgies? Too many thank you notes to write.”). During the Q and A, Cohen said there are two ways in which the world would be unbearable: one would be “if we had so little in common that we never laughed at the same jokes. The other would be if we had so much in common we always laughed at the same jokes.”

Cohen said some things about metaphor in particular that I wanted to relate.

He said that the literal use of language proceeds according to the rules, but the use of metaphor is about exercising a kind of freedom from rules (and “Freedom From Rules” was indeed the title of his talk). He acknowledges that there are constraints on metaphors, but they are not decisive. He mentioned Eliot’s Wasteland, and Donne’s words, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.  Eliot and Donne were not literally talking about a wasteland or a continent. To read it this way would be to see only literal falsehoods.

Rather, it takes something more to make a metaphor. It takes a kind of genius. No one can prove what a metaphor is about. Rather, there is a hope that there is something we can share. The author takes a chance on this. We are joined in our humanity. We share the world, or we are estranged.

In a really nice article at Novel Matters, The Care and Feeding of Metaphors, author Latayne Scoot quotes Aristotle:

The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblance.


I had a really nice time in Camden. After the conference, I attended a cocktail party and spent some time talking to people about — among other things — where to eat in Rockland (one town south, where I was headed later that evening). One woman recommended a few places to eat. Her name was Nancy Jenkins. I figured out the next morning that she was NY Times and Food and Wine and Mediterranean cuisine cookbooks writer Nancy Jenkins.  But that’s the coast of Maine in the summer for you.

My husband drove down and we attended a concert by the Wood Brothers Saturday night. I had spent eight hours that day talking with other philosophers about “what is the good” (the conference theme). I believe we can profitably use the tools of philosophy to think about that question, and I was happy to get the chance to do it.

But the Wood Brothers’ song, Chocolate on My Tongue (lyrics here), offers a much simpler meditation, equally valuable. Enjoy.

Wishing safe travels, professional advancement, lots of fun, and literary fulfillment to everyone attending RWA this week!

My top Disney World Tips for RWA goers

My family and I have spent our winter vacations at Walt Disney World every year for the past 8 years. We have stayed at most of the hotels on site, including the Swan/Dolphin, and we usually spend a few days at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando as well. We have eaten in, I think, 90% of the restaurants on site, and have spent probably a cumulative 500 hours touring the parks.

If you are attending RWA and plan to venture to the parks or other areas of WDW, I hope these tips help. Summer is an extremely busy time of year for WDW, rivaled only by the Christmas holiday. You can expect heavy crowds everywhere, but especially at the parks.

1. The following are the best resources on the web for planning a trip to WDW:

For easy to access information about each restaurant (including menus), hotel, theme park, and everything else,

If you have a last minute question you need answered, visit (you have to register. But it’s a community of half a million — which may or may not include yours truly — and you will get your answer within seconds)

For touring plans for the parks. (you have to pay $10.95 for access for a year). Or you can use the rip out touring plans in the back of their book, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, by Bob Selinger and Len Testa. They work, trust me.

A FAQ for the Dolphin hotel.

2. Advance Dining Reservations

Try if at all possible to make dining reservations in advance, even if it is just earlier on the same day, You can do it online, via phone (407-WDW-DINE (407-939-3463) or talk to your hotel’s concierge. This includes all  hotel restaurants. It’s totally ok if you can’t make it — there is no penalty for no shows  (although obviously you should try to call and cancel). It is better to have the reservation in hand.

3. Recommended restaurants:

A. At the Swan/Dolphin:

You can’t miss the karaoke at excellent sushi restaurant Kimonos in the Swan

I have had excellent meals at Blue Zoo and Shula’s, but they are very expensive.

B. At the nearby (walk to) Boardwalk area:

Flying Fish

C. In Epcot (you can walk here from the S/D, but you need a park ticket to enter Epcot):

For excellent food:

Chefs de France

Le Cellier (Canada)

For fun and ambiance:

Tutto Italia

San Angel Inn (Mexican)

Restaurant Marrakesh (Moroccan, with belly dancers)

D. Downtown Disney (Free area, but you will need to drive or take a WDW bus):

At Pleasure Island: Raglan Road (Irish pub with live entertainment)

At Disney’s West Side: House of Blues (amazing gospel brunch, but great atmo and music any time)

E. Animal Kingdom Lodge (you will have to drive or take the free WDW bus over): Two fantastic restaurants, well worth going in terms of seeing the hotel, the semi-exotic food, the animals wandering around — Boma  (buffet) or Jiko (more expensive)

*Boma is my number one recommended restaurant for singles or families. The food is terrific, but it’s the ambiance that makes it. AKL is our fave Disney hotel.

F. At Magic Kingdom (you will need a park ticket), your best bet is the lovely and cool Crystal Palace. Pooh and friends hang out here. We also enjoy meals at the Liberty Tree Tavern (only dinner is a character meal).

G. At Disney Studios (you will need a park ticket) all of the food is the same — mediocre. But for atmo, nothing beats eating inside a restaurant made to look like a drive-in, complete with old time sci fi movies and dining in old fashioned cars. Great milkshakes, too. It’s the Sci Fi Dine In theatre.

H. At Animal Kingdom park, we usually eat in the Rainforest Cafe because the kids like it. You can actually enter it from the parking lot, so you don’t need a park ticket. Tusker House has great atmo(you need a ticket)

I. At other resorts, California Grill is highly rated (contemporary resort), but we prefer Citricos at the Grand Floridian Resort.

4. Park touring.

If you are serious about touring the parks, especially with kids, then you should arrive 20 minutes prior to opening, with your park ticket, a touring plan and advance dining reservation for a sit down lunch in hand. Leave the parks after lunch for sun and swim and nap, then return around 4:00 pm.

Avoid any park that has an Extra Magic Hour for onsite guests, as these are always the most crowded.

Get a copy of the Unofficial Guide, and follow their touring plans, or subscribe to The online site has hundreds of touring plans, including many that start in the late morning or afternoon, that focus on little girls or boys, that focus on seniors, etc. A great investment.

USE FASTPASS. It is free!

Your Fastpass will give you a time window in which to visit the attraction later in the day with a minimal wait. Ignore the “end” time. Except for the absolute most popular rides (Soarin at Epcot, for example) at the height of popular times of the day, Cast Members will not turn you away if you arrive with an expired fastpass.

If you would rather spend more of your park time waiting in long lines than actually going on rides and attractions, then ignore everything I just wrote.

5. Parades and fireworks

Each parks has an afternoon and/or evening parade or show. We love the underrated afternoon parade at the Animal Kingdom park.

Try to catch at least one of of the night time spectaculars.  They are Disney magic at its best. Especially the fireworks that close each night at the Magic Kingdom, or the moving illuminations each night at Epcot. Fantasmic at the Studios is also excellent.

If you have any other questions, even something as miniscule as where to stand for the parades, or where you can get funnel cakes, I can probably answer it. Yes, I am that bad.

Hope this helps. Have a great trip!

Three Susan Napier Harlequin Presents: Win, Pass, Fail

A while ago, @Jane_l tweeted that New Zealand based Harlequin Presents author Susan Napier’s back list was available in e version for cheap, so I bought a couple, and it turns out I had already had one in my TBR. Here are three mini-reviews.

All three books had very unusual and complex plots, which kept my interest because they never crossed the line into rank implausibility. And each one had an unusual sexual trajectory, with the sex taking place between the hero and heroine prior to or at the very start of the action in each book. Finally, each book has what I have come to conclude is a Napier signature … a totally bizarre event.


The Revenge Affair (1999) is my exact least favorite kind of romance. Regan is a good girl whose husband took her for granted, cheated on her, and then went and died. She decides to secretly take the place of her “professional companion” cousin one Saturday night in order to get revenge on her husband’s ghost. She wants to prove to herself, as well as to her dead ex, that she is sexy.

Of course, the john in question is our hero, “Adam” and they share a night of rapturous lovemaking. This was actually pretty interesting: Adam was way late, so Regan kind of wandered around his luxury penthouse, Goldilocks style, making herself a drink, trying out the stereo, and figuring out what she’s supposed to do. Come morning, Regan sneaks out before “Adam” awakes, expecting never to see him again.

They cross paths again a few months later, when Regan is asked to help a distant relative with her wedding. The groom? You guessed it! But instead of feeling embarrassed that he paid for sex the night before he got engaged — or at all — our hero is sure she is up to something. He lashes out at Regan every chance he gets, getting irrationally jealous, calling her a “conniving little whore” … you know the drill. To top it off, he says patronizing and hypocritical things like, “It’s dangerous to make assumptions when you don’t have all the facts”. Pot, meet kettle.

Bizarro Napier Moment: Regan runs away from the hero and hides in a tree while he wanders around on the ground below calling her name. If only she had pitched a rock at him from that height…


Price of Passion (2008) (which I believe you can read free here) [Amazon tells me I downloaded this one back in December. It is no longer available for Kindle to US customers.] is another very unusual story: Kate works for the publisher who publishes bestselling suspense writer Drake Daniels’s books. Drake is known as a party boy when he is on his book tours, and totally reclusive when he is writing. Kate and Drake have been having and on again/off again, no strings attached affair for two years, but now Kate thinks she may be pregnant (I was surprised by this, but that’s because I hadn’t read the subtitle of the book: “Pregnant Mistresses”) so she figures out that Drake’s top secret writing hideaway is in the sleepy New Zealand beach community of Oyster Beach and rents the house next door to his.

See what I mean about Napier writing complex and unusual plots?

Kate is in love with Drake, but has always completely deferred to his “no emotions involved” approach to their affair, and to his long absences due to his work and travel schedules. Now that she is pregnant, she has to … I’m not sure actually. She doesn’t want to use her pregnancy to force him to do anything, like admit he loves her. She doesn’t intend to ask him for money. Heck, she doesn’t even want to tell him about it at all. So the whole stunt of ditching her job and renting the summer house seemed rather unmotivated and murky to me.

Good sexual tension, as Drake can’t figure out why Kate is suddenly refusing to serve as his booty call. And I enjoyed the growth of their relationship — Kate becomes less of a dishrag and Drake less of an asshole — although I’m not sure the relationship ever really passed my egalitarian sniff test, even at the end.

Bizarro Napier Moment: The heroine backs over the hero’s 3 legged dog in her car.

(The setting of Oyster Bay New Zealand and the profession of suspense writer hopefully allow this to qualify as my July TBR Challenge read, a challenge I’ve been very remiss about!)

Book Binge has a full review here.

3. WIN

In Bed with the Boss (1998)  (a bargain in the $2.50 Kindle version) was truly fun, sexy, and romantic. You had the same kind of hero, on the surface, as the hero in The Revenge Affair, but he was so over the top he was comical, and so obviously in love with the heroine, it made all his bluster ok.  Kalera has been Duncan’s secretary for three years, and in the opening chapter tells him she is resigning to marry his archrival. Kalera’s beloved husband, a man portrayed as a wonderful partner to Kalera and a friend of Duncan, had died about two years prior, and in her grief, Kalera had a one night stand with Duncan. Of course, they put it behind them immediately. although she is still attracted to Duncan, Kalera feels her new fiance will be a more suitable partner. He doesn’t make her crazy or mad with lust, he;s solid, and he loves her.

Duncan, who has been waiting for Kalera’s period of mourning to end, is flabbergasted that his archrival has scooped her up, and uses every devious hero trick in the book, including making excuses to get her to stay late at work and crashing her dinners out with her fiance, to get Kalera to change her mind. Of course, it’s a Presents, so Duncan is contractually barred from saying, “Kalera, when we slept together, it rocked my world. Out of respect, I followed your wishes and stayed away, but I have wanted you ever since. There hasn’t been anyone else. I love you. Please give me a chance.”

Instead, he does all the things that seem proof to Kalera that he is absolutely the wrong guy for her — warns her off her controlling fiance (he doubts her judgment!!), crashes her engagement party (It’s all about him all the time!!), and tries to mack on her occasionally (He doesn’t think she means what she says!! He doesn’t respect her boundaries!!).

Amazingly, the fiance — an interesting, if not consistently drawn, character —  is going through a bitter divorce and Napier manages to give us a kind of secondary romance where they are concerned.

Bizarro Napier Moment: It is not easy to choose, but I will pick the scene when Duncan shows up at the restaurant where Kalera and her fiance are dining in the outfit described below, plants himself at their table, rubs up against the heroine, and then takes her out onto the dance floor and practically ravishes her in front of her steaming mad fiance:

“He was dressed from head to toe in black, his sculpted silk velvet jacket cropped like a matador’s, the wide lapels and cuffs stiff with flamboyant gold embroidery.”  Duncan is wearing “soft black ankle boots”, and he also sports, not just any earring, but “an elongated jet and chased gold teardrop” which bespeaks his “wickedly frivolous elegance”, much like that of “an Elizabethan fop.”

Jane of Dear Author has a full review here.

I think I need to take a break from Presents, but I scored a couple more Napier’s in my supermarket book bin, and I do plan to read them. She definitely does interesting and unusual things within a pretty tightly controlled subgenre.


Carmen on Ice

Monday Morning Stepback: Links, A bit more about RomCon and Covers

The (semi) weekly links and opinion post

Links of Interest:

Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight on Representing Mothers and their Children. Thought provoking post and insightful comments.

Audible now has an Iphone/Ipod Touch/Blackberry App, making it a one step process to purchase and play your audiobooks. And the features in the Audible app — inclusive of cover art — are better than those in iTunes.

As reported by NPR, UVA has digitized and made available Faulkner’s talks given while he was in residence in the late 1950s.

“Because I’m the Batman!” — Batman sends an audio query to Janet Reid with hilarious results.

Mandi at Smexy Books has a great post and a wonderful thread on Urban Fantasy and the HEA.

An older post, but worth a look if you haven’t seen it: Women Writing Fantasy by Stella Matutine (hat tip to Kristin of Fantasy Cafe for the link).

Randy Cohen, “ethicist” (he’s actually a humorist) for the Sunday NYT Magazine wrote that trans people have an ethical obligation to expose themselves to their dates. This has not gone over well with several bloggers in the trans community. Lisa Harney has a particularly clear and incisive critique.

Tonight’s episode was definitely better, but I have had a very hard time watching True Blood this season on feminist grounds. Womanist Musings explains why.

The Book Smugglers have kicked off YA Appreciation event. Click the link for all the details and events.


Two quick points about my experience there that I did not get to put in the blog post:

  1. Many of the authors and readers I met at RomCon do not read blogs, at all. Or even know they exist. The only website I heard mentioned by name by anyone was AAR. At the panel on “How to be a fairy godmother to your favorite authors” (or whatever the name was), a small sheet was distributed with a list of sites to talk about books online, and in addition to Amazon, and Goodreads, you had Coffee Time Reviews. That was pretty much it. It was a forceful reminder that we cannot take our experiences in Romland as representative of romance readership.
  2. I felt unexpectedly hesitant to pimp my blog at RomCon. I had fancy business cards (*giggle*) made up, but I only gave them to two people. I actually had the feeling – and I may have been totally off base here — that it would put a wedge between me and whomever I was chatting with to mention that I had a review blog. I’m not sure what to make of it. It felt like admitting I was on an opposing team in some strange way. Irrational, but there it is.
  3. A few more post con reports have sprung up:

Kim from SOS Aloha has a great recap with a comprehensive list of all the bloggers in attendance.

Keynote speaker and author Lori Foster

Limecello, reviewer at TGTBTU

Author Nicole Peeler

Publisher’s Weekly, Beyond Her Book, Guest column by NYStacey

Author Carolyn Jewel, over at Risky Regencies


Why are we interested in book covers? I can think of a few reasons. For one, aesthetics. Humans are interested in beauty and design. We like well designed things, even when the design is unrelated to the function. Some readers likely collect covers, the way someone might collect coins or ladles, and display them.

For another, as fans, we are interested in how the covers represent not just the book, but our genre, and therefore us. It’s interesting to think about what covers say about our culture, about what attracts buyers, etc. When we talk about covers, we are talking about how the industry sees us, and about how we are portrayed to those outside the genre.

Covers also provide an easy shorthand for us as buyers. Even a badly designed or ugly cover can communicate something about a book. To that extent they can help us with buying decisions, especially when we are in a rush.

Of course, covers can mislead us and often do. Few of the heroes in the books actually look like the cover models, and often the hero is posed in ways no human other than a cover model would consent to. The heroine also often does not resemble the female cover model, especially when the author has written her to be less than classically beautiful, or, as we have seen in the whitewashing cases, when she is of other than white Angle race or ethnicity. Covers can also show situations or scenes that do not occur in the book. Some covers are much more misleading than these examples, leading readers to mistake the subgenre or genre of the book in question.

But covers have no relation to the main purposes for which most buyers will pick up a book. Whether we read for fun or escape or mental exercise or any other typical reason, the cover is not predictive or causally connected in any but the most generic ways to whether we our reading experience will be a good one. Bad, ugly, misleading covers adorn great books, and lovely covers adorn awful books. Exciting, unique books get boring, unimaginative covers while dull and uninspired books get covers that are visually cutting edge.

The usual understanding of rationality (or at least instrumental rationality) is that your means match your ends. You have goals, and you do the thing that is most likely to help you meet them. Given that definition, using covers to make buying decisions is irrational.

The covers and content so rarely go together that I am actually grateful I now read mostly digital, because I feel like I have a better chance of meeting my reading goals –namely, a terrific, well written, enjoyable book — without them.


We have decided to totally redo the kitchen. Those cabinets we had painted? Twice? Are getting ripped out. So is the floor. Hold me.

I got my instructor’s copy of True Blood and Philosophy. Expect a review in the next week or so.

I’m writing a talk for a conference on Saturday in Camden, so it’s a busy week.

We are also hosting a British soccer coach for my sons’ camp this week. Originally from London, he’s a university student at Leeds and an absolute delight. We are already learning a lot about English culture: I gave him a few cereals to choose from for breakfast and he poured a little of each into his bowl. It gives me an excellent excuse to fix a lobster dinner tonight.

Review: Adele Ashworth, Winter Garden

Adele Ashworth’s Winter Garden (Jove, 2000) is a favorite among romance readers, and ends up in the top third of the AAR Readers poll every year. It is out of print and I couldn’t find it in non-pirated digital (although in a TGTBTU interview in January of this year, Ashworth said not only is Winter Garden available in e, but that it is being reissued in the near future. Color me confuzzled.) I was attracted to the title, and the cover (A lone fully dressed man standing near a garden. How did that get by the Mandatory Mantitty Committee?) and obtained a rather expensive pre-read volume through Amazon. It was well worth it: Winter Garden is one of the most unusual, romantic, and thought-provoking romances I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

The book, set in Victorian England (1849) begins with Madeleine DuMais, a French spy for the British government, arriving at a cottage in Winter Garden to begin her new assignment. Madeleine’s father was a British naval officer, but she spent her childhood with her French mother, an actress who was selfish, neglectful, and addicted to opium. The resilience, cunning and determination that helped Madeleine survive her abusive childhood — not to mention her renowned beauty and charm — have served her well in her role as spy. When she is called by the British government to sleepy retreat of Winter Garden to help foil an opium smuggling operation, Madeleine knows only that she will pose as a French tutor to a fellow spy, Thomas Blackwood, who is himself posing as a reclusive scholar.

The cottage is quiet when she arrives, so Madeleine goes looking for her partner. She ends up in the back yard:

Then she saw the man. Madeleine came to an abrupt halt and stared open-mouthed. It was a ridiculous reaction on her part, she realized at once. Yet she’d never before, in her very experienced life, seen anyone like him. The graphic sexual thoughts suddenly rolling through her mind actually startled her.

He stood along the far end of the property, probably only ten feet away. His back was to her, legs spread wide in a chopping stance, naked from the hips up as he effortlessly lifted an ax and slammed it into the brush in an attempt to clear the overgrowth. He was huge of stature and beautifully muscled from his bunched shoulders and sculpted arms, through the cords of strength along his back, to his lean, tapered waist that disappeared into tight black pants hugging long, thick, booted legs.

Right away, two unusual characteristics of this heroine — Madeleine’s sexual experience, and her instant and strong attraction to Thomas — are conveyed to the reader. On the other hand, the description of the hero, while vivid, is pretty standard fare.

But then…

With another quick glance into her eyes, he took his first few steps toward her, and that’s when Madeleine understood his reluctance all too clearly. His limp was pronounced, shocking her in a measure he probably noticed. Or expected.

At first impression, she concluded it wasn’t a recent, healing injury. Thomas favored his right leg, although both appeared to be afflicted. From the way he moved, she knew it had to be an old wound that had likely left scars.

“Thomas—” He paused in midstride, effectively cutting her off, but he didn’t meet her gaze.

“It’s all right, Madeleine,” he replied in a deep whisper. Then he brushed by her so closely she felt the heat from his body, and she instinctively took a step away.

This first meeting sets up the dynamic in their relationship that carries us through quite a bit of the book: Madeleine wanting Thomas, and Thomas resisting her. Madeleine doesn’t understand why two adults can’t have a little mutually consenting fun, but the reader can sense right away that there is a lot more going on with Thomas than meets the eye. He has an agenda, and it involves Madeleine, but what it is doesn’t become clear until near the end of the book.

Thomas is clearly haunted by whatever caused his severe injuries, and is extremely vulnerable. He seems to want something of Madeleine, something deep and important. Madeleine is pretty much unaware of the turmoil she causes in Thomas, and approaches him in the same forthright, witty and intelligent manner she approaches everything.

Their work on identifying and foiling the opium ring is really just a pretext for the character development, although Ashworth populates Winter Garden with a number of interesting and vivid — but not stereotyped — secondary characters. It was refreshing to read a romance set in a functioning small town, other than London, with its own rules and intertwined personal histories.

But the real draw of this book for me was the relationship, which I relished both because it was unusual, and because it was so passionate and romantic. Here’s Thomas and Madeleine walking outside at night. Of course, they are supposed to be doing reconnaissance, but the real action is in their conversation with each other.

Madeleine is thinking aloud about a passionate kiss they recently shared:

“So, after days of reflection,” she concluded, “I decided that this was strictly because you were so centered in it. Our kiss totally consumed you—not in style or the desire to please, but in its sheer intensity. You put everything into it while restraining yourself from going farther physically, even after I practically begged you to.”

Madeleine dropped her voice to a husky whisper. “I don’t think I’ve ever before witnessed such a singular response in a man.”

He hesitated briefly in his stride, drawing a long, slow breath, and she took advantage of his momentary unsureness.

“And do you know what else I think, Thomas?”

“No, but I’m beginning to fear it.”

She grinned broadly and squeezed his hand. “I think it was the most wondrous of any kiss I’ve experienced in years.”

That comment, uttered in absolute honesty, drew him to a standstill. He turned to face her, gazing down into her eyes, his voice and features heavy with caution.

“If that’s a compliment, then I’m very flattered. But I have my doubts that a woman as sophisticated and lovely as you would consider an awkward kiss from me to be wondrous.”

“You find me lovely, Thomas?” she pressed softly, instantly filled with satisfaction, knowing he’d said this before, but sighting deeper meaning in it now.

Without pause, he whispered, “I find you breathtaking beyond adequate words, Madeleine.”

There are two major surprises in store for readers of this book, which I cannot talk about without spoiling it completely. They caused me to go back immediately to page one and start over. Now, when I reread even their very first meeting, I see it very differently. It’s kind of like watching The Usual Suspects again after you find out who Keyser Sose is.

My one question or quibble with the book involves the second of those surprises, so here is a spoiler warning:






Readers get Thomas’s full backstory — who he was prior to his injury, and what his real relationship to Maddie is — near the end of the book. We find out that he had in fact met her years ago, while he was newly injured, and fell in love with her instantly for her beauty and the respectful and caring way she interacted with him. I can believe that a chance encounter can be completely forgotten by one person, while it reorients and anchors another person’s broken life. It’s incredibly romantic, actually. A kind of “I came across time for you, Sarah” moment.

But Thomas’s revelations forced me to reevaluate both characters in a way that wasn’t totally comfortable for me. As a reader, I have been admiring Madeleine all along for her grit and success in a man’s world. Now I find out that their “mission” is a sham, and that she owes her very career to Thomas.

Also, I have been charmed from the beginning by Thomas’s combination of vulnerability and pride, but now I find out he has been manipulating things all along. He has been in total control, not only of Madeleine, but of the whole spy outfit. They are not equals, he is her superior.

And yet, Madeleine is truly strong (Thomas has a point that without his intervention, she may not have ever been given a chance), and Thomas is deeply vulnerable to Madeleine. So in the end, I decided these revelations served to complicate the characters in believable and interesting ways, and ultimately to deepen my appreciation of this book.






I had read and enjoyed one other title by Ashworth, Duke of Scandal Sin, and plan to read more. Unfortunately, Ashworth’s website is her Harper Collins author page, which doesn’t even list Winter Garden, so it’s not easy to get a full back list.

I can’t actually tell if Winter Garden is part of a series. Some sites say A Notorious Proposition (2008) is the “second book in the Winter Garden series”, and other sites say that Winter Garden is the sequel to Stolen Charms (1999).

The first of Ashworth’s dukes trilogy, The Duke’s Captive, was recently published.

Here are some other reviews:

Rosario, A+

All About Romance, A
and their Pandora’s Box on the book.

The Romance Reader, 5 hearts

The Bookkeeper, positive

Review: Scandal, by Carolyn Jewel

Scandal, published in 2009, is Carolyn Jewel’s second third fifth third full length historical. It is up for a RITA for Best Regency Romance later this month, and its nomination is well deserved, in my opinion.

Here’s the blurb:

The earl of Banallt is no stranger to scandal. But when he meets Sophie Evans, the young wife of a fellow libertine, even he is shocked by his reaction. This unconventional and intelligent woman proves to be far more than an amusing distraction– she threatens to drive him to distraction. Unlike the women who usually fall at Banallt’s feet, and into his bed, Sophie refuses to be seduced. And soon Banallt desires her more than ever– and for more than an illicit affair.

Years later, the widowed Sophie is free, and Banallt is determined to win the woman he still loves. Unfortunately, she doesn’t believe his declaration of love and chivalrous offer of marriage– her heart has already been broken by her scoundrel of a husband. And yet, Sophie is tempted to indulge in the torrid affair she’s always fantasized about. Caught between her logical mind and her long-denied desire, Sophie must thwart Banallt’s seduction– or risk being consumed by the one man she should avoid at all costs…

You can read Chapter One here.

According to my personal tastes, this book had two huge things going for it out of the gate: (1) it’s a reformed rake story, and (2) it begins in medias res, with Banallt having already seemingly destroyed his chances with Sophie, not only by mentoring her libertine husband in licentiousness, but by doing something else that the reader doesn’t discover until the second half of the book. I happen to love romances that deal centrally with trust issues raised by the hero’s past bad behavior, and internal conflict generated in a heroine whose sound judgment that this guy is very bad news conflicts with her deep attraction to him is one of my favorites.

I loved the first chapter of Scandal. Banallt is riding onto the Surrey estate of Havenwood with its owner, John Mercer, who is Sophie’s brother. Banallt spies Sophie sitting outside, and his physical reaction — not a sexual one so much as a romantic one — cues the reader in to how gone he is for this woman. The ensuing conversation among the three is mulitlayered: John has no idea that his sister and Banallt have a history; Sophie has little conception of how deeply she affects Banallt; and Banallt is not quite clear, as usual, on the guarded Sophie’s real feelings for him.

But rather than rely too long on this kind of ambiguity and misunderstanding to generate interest, Jewel, in short order, has Banallt explain the nature of his past relationship with Sophie to John, and declare his intention to propose. And in the beginning of Chapter Two, he does. When Sophie replies with “I would rather die that marry the man my husband wished he could be”, the game is officially on.

The feel of this book is dramatic and melancholy. Both Banallt and Sophie have lost loved ones, have suffered, and have hurt each other in ways unintentional and otherwise. It is very much a story of recovery for both of them. But it is also a story of growth: Sophie’s impulsive marriage at age 19 to a fortune hunting jerk was a poor choice, and she needs to see it as no more and no less, rather than letting it dictate her life and her attitude towards love for ever more. Banallt, for his part, needs to stop seeing the world only through his own eyes. Yes, he’s reformed — mainly, it appears, by falling in love with the morally upright Sophie, something that might not work for all readers — and good for him. But he needs to appreciate where Sophie is coming from, in order to understand her very legitimate fears of marriage in general, and marriage to him in particular.

Most of the present day action takes place in London, where Banallt is working closely with John and others on political matters (Napolean is at it again). Sophie gets a bit of the social life her early scandalous marriage denied her, and attracts several excellent men as suitors along the way (this was slightly puzzling to me, as she is connected to scandal, older, no longer rich, and not a beauty). Of course, Banallt is there, doing his best to compete. The sexual tension between Sophie and Banallt is wonderfully done.

I loved the conversations between Sophie and Banallt. They talked in a kind of elliptical way, always skirting and darting the painful things in their past, every word having the potential to dredge up bad memories. They changed subjects abruptly, let sentences hang half finished, and, paradoxically, used vagueness and silences to say things clearly and directly. The emotion between them was just so powerful, it was almost as if the words had trouble getting through. I can see this driving some readers crazy, but I loved it.

While I enjoyed what felt almost like a paranormal element in Jewel’s description of Banallt’s eyes (“black rimmed irises, the color bleeding slowly into a solid and unrelenting gray eerily flat of expression” — Jewel also writes paranormals) I did feel that a few phrases to describe Banallt and Sophie were overused. For example, references to Banallt’s inky black hair were a bit too rife. On the other hand, sometimes the repetition worked well, as in a running theme in which Sophie straightens Banallt’s always crooked cravat — an innocent gesture that says a lot in a book about a moral woman and a rake.

I love flashbacks, and they were used effectively to let the reader in on the past events which so strongly shadow the present for these two. When we finally discover the the specific hurt Banallt caused to Sophie, the scene Jewel waited as long as possible to bring us back to, the buildup has been worth it.

In the last third of the novel, something pretty tragic occurs, which has bad effects on Sophie. While the tragedy was earned, and affected me as a reader, I felt at this point that the obstacles to true love were not as compelling, and that Sophie was sort of throwing in lame excuses to avoid saying yes to Banallt. So the final third felt less compelling in general. This did not take away from the delight I took, however, in their HEA.

I really enjoyed Scandal, and will absolutely be reading more historicals by this author.

13 Hilarious, Heartbreaking, and Horrifying Moments of RomCon 2010. With Quiz.

A selective and impressionistic report of RomCon 2010, Denver, CO

I had a great time at Romcon. This won’t be my last romance conference, for sure.

RomCon 2010 Books

I took home maybe 1/4 of the books given to me. They put books on the chairs at meals and events — it was pretty funny to watch people choose their seats that way — and you could often win them throughout the weekend.

I am sorry I don’t have more pictures. You can read others’ reports — * = with pictures — here:

Author Courtney Milan

*Felicia, of Geeky Blogger’s Book Blog

Jane Litte, Dear Author, Day 1 and Day 2

*Katiebabs of Babbling About Books,  Day 1 and Day 2 and Day 3

Kristie(j) of Rambling son Romance, Day 1

Sarah Wendell, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Day 1 and Day 2 reports

Sister Golden Blog, Day 1 and Day 2

Sonomalass , my frequent partner in crime at the con. Word to the wise: she is NOT the right choice to help you maintain self-control at a book fair. I’m just sayin’.

There will be more reports to come from others. For one thing, I am pretty sure Stacey Agdern (@NYStacey), whom it was great to meet, is writing something for Barbara Vey’s Beyond Her Book.

The Moments:

1. Breakfast with Kim of SOS Aloha, Anna Campbell, Jo Beverley, Cathy Maxwell, and a few others, in which everyone revealed which beloved books they don’t love. On the list? Harry Potter, Outlander and Lord of Scoundrels. And, no, I will never tell who hates what.

2. Drinks in the lounge with UF authors Carolyn  “It’s not charades, really, it’s not” Crane (my awesome roomie), Jeanne Stein, and Nicole Peeler, and Tor Books editor Heather Osborn, as well as erotic romance author Monica Kaye, as we prepared a charades-type game for an event. They came up with a lot of — er — interesting ideas for any UF authors looking for new hero/ine names, although something tells me “Chunt” is not going to appeal.

3. Lunch with Kristie(j) of Ramblings on Romance and Sonomalass in which they shared how romance novels, authors and fellow readers helped them to cope with difficult times. Tears and laughter.

4. Thoroughly and irretrievably embarrassing myself at the book signing by thanking Elizabeth Hoyt for responding to Stacey Agdern’s guest post on Jewish identity in Never Deceive a Duke. As Ms. Hoyt diplomatically pointed out, she didn’t write that book.

5. Having a lovely non-romance moment, with @Growlycub, viewing pics of her prize winning Maine coons.

6. Team Cucumber meetup, with Carolyn Jewel, Sonomalass, Carolyn Crane, Katiebabs, Meljean Brook, and Amanda McCabe. Let’s just say you can have a lot of fun with plastic mini pickles, homemade cucumber pins, an RT magazine, and free flowing California wine.

7. A discussion about why violence is ok, but sex is not, in YA, over brunch with Carolyn Crane, Sonomalass, agent Louise Fury, Jeanne Stein, Nicole Peeler, Katiebabs, and Courtney Milan.

8. Stepping into an elevator with a NY times bestselling author whose work I admire who read my name tag and told me she reads this blog.

9. A late and long gab session with roomie Carolyn Crane and TGTBTU reviewer @limecello.

10. On the excellent “Meet Tor Books” panel  —  the best and most informative panel I hit over the weekend — author Carrie Vaughn saying she used to be a book buyer at an independent book store. She said publishers’ reps used to tell her over and over again that every new release was “the next big thing” and she’d better order them by the truckload or be sorry. The worst offender, she said, was the Scholastic rep. Having been burned too many times by him, one day in 1998 she finally said no. The book was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

11. Meeting uber blogger Sarah Wendell, who told me she read an article I wrote about, of all things, rural bioethics.

12. Saying, “I hate Highland romances” to a very nice woman on the hotel shuttle, only to realize 10 seconds later that her name was Monica McCarty.

13. Being served a gin and tonic at the hotel bar which was, in fact, comprised of gin, club soda, and sprite. “It tastes the same,” the bartender assured me. It doesn’t, I assure you.


1. Which force-of-nature Australian romance author tried to convince me to substitute an Aussie hero for a British one in the Boer War Romance I am not writing with my historian husband?

2. Which UF romance author boarded the Denver airport bus carrying a poster describing her 2nd-place-winning “perfect hero”, and mused aloud that had she only given him a second penis, he might have come in first?

3. Which historical romance author noted with wry amusement that in the same year she won the Best Long Historical Romance RITA for the same book that the AAR reader’s poll named “Worst Read” and “Most Disappointing” read?

4. Which UF romance author was a horror-movie-loving child who shocked her minister on her first day of Sunday school by answering his query as to what was on the church wall (a crucifix) with: “oh, that’s the thing you use to keep the vampires out!”?

5. Which historical romance author said, “I will write for yarn. Throw some Alpaca my way and I am all over you.”?

6. Which paranormal romance author said, “Believe it or not, I am a feminist.”?

7. Which UF romance author said, “I just don’t find zombies romantic. Maybe it’s the whole ‘falling off’ thing.”?

8. Which historical romance author said romance is not about merely happy endings, but “triumphant ones … emphasis on the ‘umph‘”?

9. Which UF author said she chose to write a half-selkie heroine because “Seals are pretty boring. They just lie around all day.”?

10. Which UF author loves Harlequin Presents, and, in fact, admitted they are what she turns to when in a romance reading slump?

11. Which multi-genre author is amazed and grateful that no reviewers have given away a key spoiler at the end of her latest book?

Authors (one is quoted more than once):

  • Julia Quinn
  • Jo Beverley
  • Meljean Brook
  • Janiene Frost
  • Pamela Clare
  • Elizabeth Boyle
  • Anna Campbell
  • Nicole Peeler
  • Christine Feehan
  • Jessa Slade

3. By far, the best part of the conference was just meeting and talking to other readers, especially those named in this post whom I have been interacting with online for months now — and I include some authors in that group, because I talked to them mostly as fellow readers in informal settings. I could have skipped every panel and enjoyed this weekend.

I did, of course, attend several panels and events, such as Anti-Heroes You Hate to Love, Author Fairy Godmothers to the Rescue, Readers Crown Awards, Bestill My Heart: Does your Favorite Hero’s Heart Beat?, Monsters & More Semi-Charades, Historical Authors Tea, the Blogger Oh Blogger panel, The Blogger/Reviewer Mixer, keynotes by Lori Foster and Carly Phillips, etc.. I certainly have my opinions on them, but didn’t feel like writing that kind of post for some reason. I am happy to answer any questions anyone has about those.

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