Reading challenge update
I’m still plugging away at my various reading challenges. There’s no way I’ll read 20 books by Labor Day for the #20booksofsummer challenge, but I’ll be curious to see how many I do read. I’ve finished four books since I last posted.
Worth the Risk by Sarah Morgan. This is the first book by one of my favorite romance authors, published in the Mills & Boon Medical Romance line. It was somehow NOT in my TBR, but my library had the re-released version and I wanted a comfort read. Morgan’s has a number of early books set in villages in northern England and Scotland, and this is one of a series focusing on characters who do mountain rescue work. It features traditional tropes (sort-of secret baby, unexpected virgin, bad boy hero, etc.), but Morgan was putting interesting spins on these tropes from the very beginning of her writing career.
Ally McGuire is a doctor who enjoys her job and focuses her life around Charlotte, AKA Charlie. Then Sean Nicholson walks into both her medical practice and her life, upending her carefully established equilibrium. Sean and Ally are attracted from the outset (there is a meet-cute involving abseiling and rescue), but Sean has enough baggage to sail across the Pacific. There is medical stuff and romance stuff, all mixed together in a recipe that worked well for me. I haven’t been reading much romance lately, but there are certain styles and stories I always return to, and this is one of them.
The Advent of Lady Madeline by Pamela Sherwood. I went from an autobuy romance author to a new-to-me romance author who had flown totally under my radar, despite being interviewed years ago at DA. Janine recommended the first full novel in Sherwood’s Lyon’s Pride series, but I wasn’t quite willing to commit that much time and energy so I opted for the prequel novella. Hugh Lowell, Viscount Saxby, goes to a house party at the estate of the Duke of Whitborough in order to keep an eye on his young relative. Hugh is planning to propose to a very appropriate young lady, but he is taken with the somewhat on the shelf, fascinating daughter of the Duke, Lady Madeline.
The good: the main characters are refreshingly mature and enjoyable to be with, there are no manufactured conflicts to keep them apart, and the supporting characters add to the story without screaming Sequel Bait even though this is the first in a series. Much of the story is structured around the rehearsals and performance of a house-party theatrical, in this case Romeo and Juliet. The bad: Despite being explicitly set in 1879, there was almost no sense of place, and apart from some references to train travel and Gilbert & Sullivan, it could have been a Regency. Indeed, it felt very much like a Zebra or Signet Regency Trad from the 1980s/1990s, complete with a sprinkling of Americanisms and anachronisms. There were lots of ducal families who somehow did not all know of each other, and no industrial types. Still, it was a pleasant read, and for me and Historical Romance these days, that’s saying something.
Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. Part of the problem of reading historical fiction when you’re reading fiction actually written in that same era is that you notice the differences, or at least I do. Framley Parsonage, which is the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series, is accessible stylistically and the language isn’t overly ornate, but it sounds so different to historical fiction written today. That isn’t a knock on contemporary writing, we wouldn’t expect it to sound exactly the same, but is is more evident to my ear. But on to this book. It was a delight to read. I don’t know where it stands in the critical rankings, but I found the various characters and their stories completely engrossing. The character of Lady Lufton, in particular, stood out to me. Trollope’s ability to invest his characters with deep humanity really comes through in her. She is snobbish but loving, managing but concerned about those around her, strong-minded but able to see when she is wrong. She doesn’t come around easily to another’s point of view, but when she does it’s wholehearted. Trollope writes such interesting women; not all of them, of course, but his middle-aged women are complex and interesting.
The story has lots of romance and lots of politics. The plot centers on Mark Robarts, the young vicar at Framley who gets himself into financial trouble when he mixes with people who are less scrupulous than he is. At the same time, his sister Lucy and the young Lord Lufton become attracted to each other, which puts Lady Lufton’s plans to marry her son to Griselda Grantly at risk. Trollope incorporates quite a few characters from the earlier novels, including the redoubtable Miss Dunstable and the awful, wonderful, Mrs. Proudie.
You get a hint in this book of what the Palliser novels will focus on in terms of Parliamentary politics, and I really enjoyed the mixture of Church and State.
The Spring of the Ram by Dorothy Dunnett. Book 2 in the Niccolò series. I managed to polish this off in less than a week, thanks to airplane travel. In this installment Nicholas is making his way to the Empire of Trebizond, trading as a representative of the Medici in Florence and also trying to track down his stepdaughter Catherine, who has run off with a man who is Not What He Seems. Intrigue is piled upon intrigue at every level (personal, professional, international). As in the Lymond series, our hero and his immediate circle are caught up in real-world events, some small, some cataclysmic.
Nicholas is clearly coming into his own in this volume. He’s miles ahead of everyone around him in terms of plotting and planning (although not always far enough ahead of his rivals and ill-wishers). You can see how much Dunnett enjoys creating a Mythic Hero type, but whereas Lymond arrived basically full-blown, Nicholas is taking his time. After two volumes, I’m finding Nicholas easier to live with than Lymond (who is so theatrically brilliant and wonderful that he becomes exhausting).
The settings are depicted at the level of detail and complexity we expect from a Dunnett novel. This is an era of warring principalities in Italy, imperial clashes between Europe and Asia, and the Ottoman Empire coming to power. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of the people and the places, but as with other Dunnett books, I just keep reading and eventually I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. I enjoyed the Trebizond setting a lot. The way homosexual/bisexual, non-Christian, and non-white characters are depicted was often discomfiting, though, and I get the feeling it fits more with 20thC attitudes than with the way people would necessarily have behaved and responded in 15thC Europe (I’m talking less about the actual behavior than the way the behavior is processed by POV characters and the narrative).
Nevertheless, the writing is lushly descriptive and the settings themselves are fascinating. I really appreciate seeing this era from the point of view of successful merchants and traders rather than the standard aristocratic and royal perspectives. Dunnett may occasionally be too clever (at times it feels as if Nicholas is starring in The Perils of Pauline), and the historical bits can sound quite modern (see above), but she’s a terrific storyteller and builder of worlds.
Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture by Catherine Roach. Finally, a DNF. I gave up on this one and sent it back to the library. The author appears to be trying to straddle the line between scholarly monograph and popular nonfiction, and for me the product fell between two stools. The book is really about the author’s journey to becoming a romance novelist, and I found the self-conscious ethnographic approach unconvincing. The previous studies from which she draws this particular ethnographic framework have been challenged in important ways and there is no acknowledgment of this in the text or in the way the framework is deployed. There’s also a heavy emphasis on the sexual aspect of romance novels, which I guess makes sense given the author’s previous scholarly work, but it gives a skewed view of the industry and the range of novels within it. The focus is on American romance novels, especially mainstream historical and contemporary. The discussions of diversity, minority readers and authors, and non-traditional couples and contexts are brief and superficial. I’m just not that interested in an author-centric view of the traditional romance genre and industry unless it tells me stuff I don’t know, and I didn’t get that here.
Up next: I’m finishing a novella by Sonya Clark and starting Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence. Neither is on my original challenge list, but those were just suggestions, right? 🙂
What an interesting list! I am really looking forward to your thoughts on the Sonya Clark when you read it. I need to read more of her!
Re. The Advent of Lady Madeline, yes to everything you said. I also thought that the family issues almost overshadowed the romantic relationship because the latter was so quiet and low-conflict. But I liked the novella and gave it a B in my review of it.
With that said, for me Devices & Desires was a much more satisfying reading experience. It still has some of the same issues you noted here. There are some anachronisms and Americanisms there too, though I didn’t notice as many of those as I notice in a lot of the newer crop of historical romances. Devices & Desires feels more Victorian than The Advent of Lady Madeline, partly because we actually see the characters on the train. Most of the book still takes place in one house party, though, which makes it feel somewhat closed off from the world.
But I loved the characters and their relationship so much more in Devices & Desires. I felt they had more layers to them. Part of it is that I love the trope in which the hero has carried a torch for the heroine for years and she’s unaware of it. I also appreciated that the hero was the quiet one in his family and less flashy than his brothers. So many heroes these days dominate the heroine in bed. Gervase was a good friend to Margaret and listened to her instead. This shouldn’t feel refreshing and revolutionary when it’s such a simple and basic concept in human interactions.
I dunno, the book was satisfying to me on a whole other level than the Lady Madeline novella, even though it was not without flaws. I can’t say if you would feel the same. I’ve also reviewed a couple of other things by Pamela Sherwood in the past — A Song at Twilight was a DNF for me, but I liked her fantasy collection, Awakened and Other Tales, better. I think I gave it a B-. I still need to read Waltz with a Stranger, which was recommended to me by friends years ago, and one other novella.
The Sonya Clark is the second of two linked novellas which she writes more or less as she has time and feels like it. It’s interesting because it cuts across various paranormal categories and tropes.
You’re convincing me to read Devices and Desires! I liked Gervase in the novella. And you’re right that on the Americanism/anachronism scale, Sherwood is way better than a lot of HistRom today (although much of that seems to be intentional now rather than accidental). I really liked the slow burn of their relationship in this one, and I appreciated that they acted like grownups.
Did you review the first of the linked Sonya Clark novellas? I think I missed that and would love to read it if you have.
Yes, I think you’re right that the proliferation of Americanisms and anachronisms has become deliberate in many of today’s historical romances. Sigh.I so wish that genre weren’t moving in that direction. I can live with a few anachronistic sentences in a book, but when they’re peppered through practically every page, it’s incredibly distracting.
The acting like grownups thing is common to all four of the Sherwood books I’ve read so far. I do so appreciate that emotional maturity because she writes it very well.
I wrote a brief note at Library Thing about it but didn’t do a proper review (link: http://www.librarything.com/work/17394528/reviews/127698056). The series is called The Bradbury Institute.
I get the feeling that for a number of authors the Regency is now a world unto itself, quite apart from the historical one. Tessa Dare’s “Recency” term is a good one. They’re using the period the way they might use the Star Trek/Star Wars universes. And in some ways it’s not that different from the way Regency Trad writers used Heyer’s Regency world rather than the more complicated, fuller world beyond the parts Heyer abstracted.
It’s a dilemma for readers like us. As Barb says below, it’s not clear how many readers would want more authentic (or just plain messy) worlds that reflected ways of life and thought that are quite distant from ours. On the other hand, when your stacking anachronisms on top of language that mimics Austen, Trollope, etc., I’m not sure what the point of the mashup is.
Thanks for the Library Thing link!
Yes, you’re right about the alternate world Regency/Recency. But we’ll never know what readers want if there is no attempt made to provide an alternative (and that is a piece of why I appreciated the Sherwood as much as I did).
I also don’t think it’s a simple matter of what readers want. I suspect that in these days of short publication schedules and a dearth of editing, it may be less work to write that sort of book. The writer doesn’t have to do as much research, fact checking, or even looking up of words in the OED. The publishers don’t have to worry about that stuff as much either.
Meanwhile the genre is less popular than it’s been in a long time, and I can’t help but think that it’s because as you say, readers like us are presented with a dilemma instead of a diverse (in all meanings of that word) selection of books.
I think there is another factor though, too. The market is so flooded with books right now that flashier (for lack of a better word) books get more reader attention and word of mouth than quiet ones. I see that with contemporary romances, too.
There may still be a handful of historicals by new or little known authors that don’t follow the Recency model out there, but it’s a bigger project now to search for them.
I agree that discoverability is a huge problem now; there are just so many books, as you say, and blogs tend to review the same books at the same time thanks to NetGalley and blog tours. A book that doesn’t get that treatment can really get lost. I feel so fortunate that Allison tweeted about Sonya Clark and piqued my interest or I never would have found Good Time Bad Boy.
I wonder, sometimes, if the type of historical romance we’re talking about wasn’t successful in part because the receptive audience was there at the right time. 30 years ago, books were one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a different world. Now we have everything from games to TV shows to movies to direct interactions with people all over the world, and travel is also easier and cheaper compared to those days. Historical Romance is still going to be sufficiently constrained by the structure of the genre to be limited in the ways in which it can be authentic/accurate, and times have changed. Books that I embraced 20 years ago don’t work for me today, for a variety of reasons (including the fact that I’m no longer happy just to have books on underrepresented characters and settings, regardless of how they do it).
But I agree that flashier books get more attention across the genre. Authors are still writing quieter, more realistic (for lack of a better word) romances. I wonder how well they sell now though. Are newer readers buying those? I just don’t know.
That’s a great point about travel and other immersive experiences being easier to access now. And yeah, times have definitely changed (in multiple ways) and that has had an effect on a variety of genres, and on other mediums too. For example, I’ve been griping to my husband for a couple of years now about how tired I am of the antihero trend in television shows, and they’re still going strong! And I think that started around the time of The Sopranos.
As for how quieter, more realistic books are selling now, I don’t know, but I suspect not well. But I also wonder, when I hear that sales are down for a particular genre or type of book, whether that means they are down in aggregate, per capita, or both? How much of the loss of sales is due to the pie shrinking, and how much to the fact that more authors are sharing it? Of course, less sales per author can make authors risk averse. But yeah, it is harder for those quieter books to stand out right now.
I finished Game of Kings last night! 3rd (4th?) time is the charm, I guess. It completed a row on my Summer Book Bingo card, too.
I think I am way over 20 books but only because I have been wasting a lot of time lying on the couch listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks, so I’m not sure that counts as “reading” –but I think it was the summer I needed. I am trying to read some of the Booker long list before the short list is announced. I won’t be able to keep up with the impressive people reading them all.
I need to catch up on my blogging but I’ve had a very enjoyable reading summer. Glad yours is going well too. You, Janine and SonomaLass have sold me on trying Sherwood.
I finished Roach’s book but felt the same way about it. I wondered if there is an audience for whom it would be new and interesting information–perhaps you and I are also too much between two stools, as both “fans” and academics, to be that audience. I felt like I was reading yet another “my first sale” or “RWA is so awesome” blog post. I guess I think we don’t need anthropological immersion in a culture like romance authors which speaks such volumes for/about itself. And like you, I am not interested in an author-centric account. I wished she had focused more on the texts and the reader community and was annoyed by the implication that authorship is the teleology of fandom (not that there’s anything wrong with people wanting to write, but that isn’t the “true” mark of fandom).
Congratulations on finishing Lymond #1! I tell myself that my page count will be respectable even if my number of books isn’t. Then again, I’ve put in a couple of novellas and should finish an abridged audiobook (horrors, I know, but it’s John Le Carre reading his own work so I went for it). So they all even out. My summer reading is more enjoyable, I think, because I’m reading whatever feels right at the moment rather than according to a set list. After the Trollope and Dunnett, I was really stumped for a while, but then I noticed the Fitzgerald on my shelf and though she would be a good followup; something totally different but undoubtedly really good.
I have Thoughts about historical fiction after reading one 19thC, one HistRom, and one Historical Fiction novel, but I’m not sure I can pull them together enough to make a blog post. I’m thinking it’s time to go back to Mazzoni, though, because that’s historical fiction written in the 19thC with a political intent. And I am partly through a book set in the Spanish Civil war, which is really interesting as well. And the Shankly book. So many big fat books, so little time and school is about to start!
The most disappointing thing to me about the Roach from a romance-reader point of view was that it came back, again, to being about what’s it’s like to be an author. And as you say, authorship felt like the pinnacle of engagement with the genre. And not only that, what it’s like to be a middle-aged educated white woman writing a traditional historical romance. Not that there’s anything wrong with either, but there is so much more going on in the industry now, and these are not the topics and approaches that are exactly under-studied or understood. She’s clearly a smart and very knowledgeable scholar, too, so it was a bigger letdown. But once she decided on that ethnographic angle, that was the road we were going down.
Thanks for mentioning SonomaLass, Liz. I had missed her tweets on the Sherwood. Cecilia B. (@CeeBell14) also enjoyed it, as did a friend of mine who no longer participates in Romancelandia and to whom I loaned the book. It’s good to hear since with few reviews of it, I worried about recommending it. $4.99 is on the expensive end for a self-published ebook.
The Roach sounds disappointing, from your description and from Sunita’s, but it is good to know to avoid it.
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I think that you can read the first chapter of the Roach online (or some excerpts, anyway). It may read differently to someone who isn’t in the academic trenches. I’d be curious to know whether it works for you if you do pick it up.
Re: Spring of the Ram. I agree that Nicholas is a lot easier on the nerves than Lymond. He is clever and smart and young and these attributes work well for him, except for when they don’t! I also got the feeling, while reading this series, that Dunnett had her tendency to show off her research under better control. One reason I so enjoyed reading her books was that she expected her readers to keep up. This expectation had a bonus for this history nerd–I read a lot of background materiel because of the bits she worked into the books.
Re: the discomfiting bits–I also agree. But it never really bothered me enough to pull me out of the story. I often chalk it up to the novelists’ lack of access to a time machine so they could go back and actually see and hear the attitudes of the people and places that they are attempting to portray. But would we, their readers, believe or be interested in their portrayals if totally historically accurate?
btw, it was after reading this book that I got the first glimmer that this wasn’t going to be the trilogy that had been announced when the first book came out. (Little did I realize that it was going to be 8 books all together, with a wait of 2-3 years between books! Oh, the agony…).
I totally agree that Dunnett seems to have her craft and her quirks more under control in this series than in the first one. The Lymond books are terrifically engaging, but these feel more disciplined (in a good way), even as she employs many of the same approaches and techniques.
What I found interesting about the discomfiting bits was that in some cases the 20thC perspective felt more constrained and hidebound than the 15thC one. That earlier time was in some ways more culturally heterogeneous and had more symmetrical political conflicts (as opposed to imperialism/colonialism and all its justifications for dominance). It reminded me of the ways in which Heyer reflected Edwardian and mid-20thC views rather than Georgian ones, if that makes sense.
I cannot even imagine having to wait 2-3 years between books. I didn’t find Dunnett until 10-15 years ago, so all the books had been published (I think found her soon after Gemini came out). I burned through the Lymond books one summer and it was too fast, so I’m taking the Niccolo ones more slowly.
I’m enjoying reading about your summer reading. You recommended “The Warden” to me, which I enjoyed thoroughly, so I’m thinking to pick up “Framley Parsonage.” Is it OK to skip the other Barsetshire novels before picking this one up?
Noooo, because Barchester Towers is so much fun! (You can skip around, though–characters recur but each book stands alone fine).
Ah, better perhaps then to read in order then. Thanks for letting me know.
What Liz said. They definitely stand alone in terms of plot, but you won’t have as rich an understanding of why the people who hate/love each other hate/love each other.
And Barchester Towers is just brilliant.
*waves* Oh great! You’re still going. Good. I quit my challenge since I’m down to one book a month if that. I’m working on some stuff so it’s monopolizing time. Def. need to get to Dorothy Dunnett. I own both series. Great titles there. I’ll have to look into a few of those.
I think I’ll get to 15, tops. But that would still be pretty good for me. I’ve carved out some reading time but the next two weeks are full of travel and semester prep, so I don’t know how well I’ll do then. I just need to stay away from the TV and the intertubes. 🙂
My reaction to Devices and Desires can be summed up as, “Meh.” I didn’t hate it, but if I had a paper copy, I’d be giving it to the Friends of the Library store. While Gervase and Lady Bellamy were likeable enough, I found the Reg and Alicia storyline both unsatisfying and unrealistic.
I’m about 30 pages from finishing D&D, and I’m in the same place as you. I’ll try to get a post up about it when I’m done. I found it unsatisfying too, and I agree with you on the Reg/Alicia storyline. It made no sense to me.
The book exemplifies the problems that can arise when you move characters from one context to another. We are all products of our environments to some extent, and what forms us in one place doesn’t necessarily carry over to another. And in this case there’s a tension between the film (which seems to have been the primary source) and the real historical characters, with what worked on screen not being straightforwardly portable to a textual format.