Reading challenge update

by Sunita

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 coverWorth 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.

Lady Madeline coverThe 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 coverFramley 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.

Spring of the ram coverThe 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 coverHappily 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? 🙂