Tuesday, October 1, 2019


My September Reading


October is already well under way, and I am just now getting to my September reading blog post. The Romance reviews are towards the end of this post. I also have "thoughts" on the current notion that we should not read anything we find offensive. Those are at the bottom of this post as well as a short review of the Edith Layton book that inspired them.

My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys by Sherman Alexie
Category: Song Lyrics
Comments: I have always claimed a love of white westerns like Jo Goodman, Jodi Thomas, et al. Never before have I felt such distress over my favored choice as when I read Alexie's song lyrics.

Did you know that in 1492 every Indian instantly became an extra in the Great American Western?

Indians never lost their West, so how come I walk into the supermarket and find a dozen cowboy books telling How The West Was Won?

Every song remains the same here in America, this country of the Big Sky and Manifest Destiny, this country of John Wayne and broken treaties.

Arthur, I have no words which can save our lives, no words approaching forgiveness, no words promising either of us top billing. Extras, Arthur, we’re all extras.

About my distress, Rohan Maitzen said: "It’s a powerful poem, isn’t it? I think one reason it is so powerful is that it acknowledges the appeal of the very narratives it condemns: a lot of us probably have had the paradoxical experience of being drawn to or really enjoying something in popular culture that we also find morally or ideologically problematic or unacceptable. it is not as easy as just hating it: it’s also about that push and pull of different reactions." Rohan has pinpointed exactly what my amorphous thoughts were struggling to articulate.

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell
Category: Essay
Comments: A New York Times article castigating Trump's poor grasp of English led me to the discovery of George Orwell's 1945 essay Politics and the English Language.

In that, Orwell laments the loss of beauty of the language and how it is in general collapse much like our civilization. There are always critics who say that languages evolve. In fact, Orwell says they say, "Any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. While the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of an individual." This is in opposition to the NYT article that claims that Trump's poor use of language is causing "lexicographers and grammarians to worry about the permanent effect on language". But the article is on point when it quotes this from the essay: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." And that is what the linguists are afraid of from Trump's tweets.

An aside: Orwell seems to be lambasting authors of purple prose here: "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." ::wince:: Then he goes on to explain in great detail, with specific examples, various ways by which the "work of prose construction is habitually dodged."

Another aside: These days in the romance genre world, authors are facing accusations of their books becoming too political and using bad words. Take comfort in Orwell's opinion: "All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer."

Both the article and the essay are worth reading.

How Long 'Til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight by N.K. Jemisin
Category: Sci-Fi Short Story
Comments: I read this book on Willa's recommendation when she mentioned that Jemisin's story is influenced by Ursula Le Guin's famous Omelas story from 1973. I do not think I can do this wonderful Jemisin story justice, so please bear with me. I highly recommend you read it for yourself to find out exactly how the story unfolds.

The city of Um-Helat is filled with joy. This is no dystopian place where people are forced to confirm; in fact, people of different races and ages all mingle together in peace and harmony—even the homeless are cared for and protected. "The city's purpose is not merely to generate revenue or energy or products, but to shelter and nurture the people who do these things." Jemisin is telling the story directly to the reader and striving to explain how astonishing the city is. She even assures you that it doesn't have the dark overtones of Omelas. And then, after paragraph after paragraph of praise lulling you into believing in this harmless city of goodness, comes the first hint that all is not rosy in this world. Ah!

World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: The premise of this book is that making time for creativity is not trying to squeeze another thing on your overflowing ToDo list. In fact, it is the opposite. It is slowing your life down and dropping some of the balls you are juggling in order to invite creativity and contemplation into your life. This is the type of book you can read cover to cover, but would probably get more out of if you read chapter by chapter and even section by section and ruminated some on it. Not unlike the Slow Food movement, this is a Slow Time movement. There is spirituality, poetry, history, literature, and practical advice in this book from the author and also from a wide variety of people, dead and alive. At the end of each chapter, the author has you do a couple of activities and thought exercises that reflect on what she has covered in the chapter. This book is going to be an ongoing read for me, and one I will return to again and again, because there is so much rich material here that I cannot absorb in one reading.

A Study in Scandal by Caroline Linden
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I reviewed this book and the one below by Caroline Linden together because they are linked by the Duke of Rowland. He is the father of the two heroes and I was fascinated by the role he plays in the two books. I was delighted to note that he is very much alive and that the heroes have no quibbles about asking for his help. Usually in romance fiction, in order to make the hero more heroic, alpha, in charge, titled, what-have-you, fathers are killed off—as if a man cannot become fully a man until his father is dead. These books turn that notion on its head. Not only is the hero of this book a decent man—kind, hardworking, and very much in charge of his own life—he is heroic in his rescue and defense of the heroine and loving in his care of her. Despite the heroes' father being a powerhouse among his peers, in his family life, he is an affectionate father, and he helps his sons without belittling or infantilizing them. And the sons accept his help without feeling small. Thus, the heroes retain their heroism while being a part of a loving family. My review is here.

When the Marquess was Mine by Caroline Linden
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This book highlights that it is possible for people to change, to grow, to become better people, and that people are not doomed to be endlessly repeating their unenlightened selves. We all fall into bad habits that we can’t seem to get ourselves out of until something happens that snaps us out of apathy and allows us to examine our life anew. This is an independent book and stands alone despite the character connecting this book with the above book. Linden has been a new discovery for me with these two books, and I am so pleased. I look forward to her next books.

He is a, what else?, rake; she is a feisty innocent. He does A Bad Thing but then suffers amnesia, ends up under her care, and becomes a transformed man. And when he recovers his memory, he realizes that she misrepresented herself and repeatedly lied to him. So far, the plot follows the amnesia trope. What should come next is the hero decamping in high dudgeon and a Big Misunderstanding. However, Linden challenges the usual plotline. The hero and heroine take time to think through their respective situations while keeping in mind their attraction for each other. They weigh their values and desires and choose to act in thoughtful ways. My review is here.

Well Met by Jen DeLuca
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: “Good morrow and well met” is a standard greeting every year I go to our local medieval faire. I have considered joining a Renaissance faire group as an active participant, so I fell in love with this book from the first meeting the heroine has with her small town’s Faire group. DeLuca’s expertise with how the Faire performances go and her love of all things Renaissance shows through in this book.

She has just been dumped by her boyfriend who she supported through law school by giving up her education and working two jobs. The deal was that when he became a lawyer, he would support her and she would finish her education. But this newly-minted lawyer skedaddles out of town. Heartbroken and at loose ends, she moves to this small town to help her sister out because her sister has been in an accident. There she meets up with the Renn Faire's head honcho, who is hell-bent on shoehorning everyone into their roles and making sure everything runs perfectly. People being people, his temper flares sky high on a regular basis, and her laissez-faire attitude annoys the heck out of him. My review is here.

Highland Jewel by May McGoldrick
Category: Highland Regency Romance
Comments: This book covers the rarely known Radical War of 1820. When you say Regency, people think balls and pretty gowns. But the Radical War in the Highlands is a time of brutality and beauty.

The heroine and her family have found shelter at Dalmigavie Castle, the place at the heart of the resistance in the Royal Highlander series by May McGoldrick. She is committed to Scotland’s fight for freedom. For every success, betrayal is biting at her heels. Six months earlier, she had been the picture of docility, quiet and compliant in the eyes of her family. To her activist friends, however, she is a fearless crusader for women’s rights. In the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, she and a friend had founded the Edinburgh Female Reform Society, and she had carried the banner for universal suffrage. Caught up in the wave of her enthusiasm, she never expects to fall in love with the man who saves her life during one of their protests.

He is a hero of the wars and a decorated officer of the Royal Highland Regiment. He is battle weary and searching for stability in his life. A fierce warrior by training and a poet at heart, he walks away from the shining career that lies ahead of him, to the dismay of his superiors. Beautiful explanation towards the end of the story—dealing with British Imperialism—why he left the British Army and chose to join the resistance.

Scandalous by Minerva Spencer
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This was not a story that appealed to me and the entire reason lies with the protagonists, especially the hero's behavior towards the heroine.

I loved the setup of the story: He is an ex-slave who ran away from his oppressors in New Orleans and became a privateer on behalf of the British crown. He is independently wealth and commands his own ship along the African coastlines to rescue slaves and destroy slave ships. She's a white missionary who grew up in an Africa and was taken aboard a slave ship along with other villagers. He rescues her and that is how they meet. Marvelous premise, isn't it? And yet...the story falls on itself.

He is a promiscuous man, who is most comfortable in a brothel, despite his past as an ex-whore. He falls hard for the plain missionary and cannot explain to himself why he is so fascinated. He is constantly angry at her despite her taking on the task of teaching him to read. He is also a jealous alpha. The way the author shows the hero's fidelity is by having him repeatedly visit brothels and stay nights there, and despite being manually and otherwise manipulated, not be able to do the deed. This shows his devotion to the heroine. Naturally, she is devastated every time she finds out. But in the next breath, the author tells us the heroine is sexually and otherwise in thrall to the man and cannot "help herself."

While the author does a good job of showing that the hero is a very damaged individual, his poor behavior towards the heroine goes on for too long, and by the time he finally does start to show a bit of maturity and makes a dramatic change, it’s too little too late. I could not believe in their HEA or in its long-term stability.

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These days, there is much conversation in Twitterverse that bloggers and reviewers should stop reading a book if they read something offensive, because it causes harm to them. The thinking is that they can and should review the partially-read book and state why they stopped reading it. Anyone saying that the blogger's critique is invalid because they didn't finish the book to the end is wrong. There is no requirement that the blogger should read to the end to check whether the book redeems itself. Finishing an offensive book presumably protects the author, not the reader. If even a smidgeon of offensive material shows up, you should give up, because if there is a smidgeon, there is a plethora. You do not owe the author the emotional labor of finishing their book.

This is interesting to me on a number of levels, and I am totally going out on a limb to say this—I may face evisceration by the Twitterverse. On one hand, I totally agree with the above. For instance, if you are a rape victim, and there is no content warning on the book that there is a rape in it and you come across it on the page, you would immediately shut the book and declare it irremediable. This I fully understand. What I have a little harder time understanding are things like misogyny. A character could, in theory, exhibit these attitudes at the beginning of the book and have changed their attitude 180-degrees by the end. Is a person not to have this chance in a fiction novel or in real life to redeem themself? Is a racist always a racist? That defeats the purpose of education. Twitterverse loudly proclaims that people should educate themselves and change their attitudes. But then they give characters no chances to redeem their values even if that is the exact purpose of that character's growth arc.

We, in the reading world, loudly decry book banning. And yet, books have been banned because some people were deeply offended by those books that have challenged existing thinking. But education is all about challenging established norms. Finishing or not finishing a book gives the author nothing. Once the book is in your hands, it is all about you and your engagement with the text. If you find something offensive, should you give up, or should you wrestle with it and in so doing expand your thinking? Twitterverse would say that you should give up, because offensive material does not expand your thinking, just causes harm.

An example of an "offensive" romance novel is An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley. What I am about to say is a spoiler, so beware. There is a point in the story, where the hero slaps the heroine hard, and presumably, the hero is redeemed by the end of the book. This is a hotly debated book with readers falling on all sides of acceptability: Do they believe in his redemption? Why/Why not? This is precisely why JoBev wrote the book: to challenge the reader's thinking of what they will or will not allow in a person and if they will or will not believe that people can overcome faults in their characters. I once had a long, passionate, and civil discussion on Twitter with many people about this book. People vehemently disagreed with each other, but no one said this book should be banned or not read. That conversation was the point of the book. It brought up a social issue that was then debated in society—it set everyone thinking. The best books always make you think and puzzle things out; whether or not you agree with the author is besides the point.

"Summer's Fruit" from A Love for All Seasons by Edith Layton
Category: Regency Romance Long Story
Comments: All of the above is really a preamble to this Edith Layton novella. By the first few pages, I wanted to throw the book at the wall. No way, no how was I going to finish it. But then I went back to it and did finish it, because I have read other books by Layton and trust her as an author and also because I was curious: Why would someone write a romance with such a character? As the book progresses, the hero of the book does improve, does make changes in his attitudes, does self-reflect, does atone. The change is significant but that initial attitude still rankled for me, and I couldn't quite reconcile myself to him, but I was glad to see him mature and become self-aware of his failings.

The hero and heroine married young. They had fallen in deep lust and a quick love with each other and impulsively decided to marry two weeks before he was called away to war. They spent the two weeks of their honeymoon madly doing what you would expect them to do. They continue their besotted bliss through frequent letters during his months away. She describes in detail what's going on with her life and her pregnancy. His memories of their honeymoon save his sanity from the ugliness of war. He is soon compelled to return home when he ascends to his title of viscount.

Then comes his appalling reaction when he first sets sight on her: He is disgusted by how big she is. Some women show early as did she, and as he had visions of her slender lissome form in his mind, he is greatly taken aback when he sees her. She is devastated and furious. Not only has she been fighting body dysmorphia, but now seeing his reaction, she is convinced of her ugliness. On one hand he is repelled by her body, on the other hand, he loves her and wants to hold her, but fears her rejection and doesn't want her to think he has no restraint over his desires. She, in turn, wants him to hold her and sleep with her. But their emotions are too tangled to speak about.

As the days go by, his initial reaction fades as he adjusts to reality and impending fatherhood. But now, he and she are completely out of sync. Even if he does something out of consideration, she misunderstands because she does not trust him, and it compounds her misery. For example, he does not want her to go out to a party because he feels she might find it hard. She takes it as he is ashamed of her, and that she is no longer a person who can make amusing, interesting conversation.

How Layton takes this couple from point non plus to a viable marriage where they esteem each other again makes for a compelling story. For some readers, the ending will be satisfying, but for others, the hero will be irremediable. For all my reservations about the hero, I am glad I read the book, only to see how the talented Edith Layton handled the story.


4 comments:

willaful said...

Sounds like an intense month of reading.

I've fallen on both sides of the "finish it" argument. I've certainly read books that had strong redemptions. I've also read ones that were putting so much ugliness into the world it seemed hard to justify, no matter where it went. But I reserve the right to finish what I want to finish!

Vassiliki said...

"I may face evisceration by the Twitterverse" - I find this to be a really sad sentence. I used to have heated discussions, passionate in my opinions, and never felt that someone could eviscerate me. But unfortunately, this is where we are with Twitterverse. Well, I certainly agree with you. I would go even further and suggest that characters can be flawed and unlikeable and not even change or have remorse as long as the story makes sense, and it suits the narrative, I am on board. Having no offence, no difficult issues, and only OTT happy endings feels a bit like Stepford Romances, to me. Scarily Utopian.

Keira Soleore said...

@Willaful:

It indeed was an intense month of reading. I am so glad when I have a chance to read books other than just review books or just romance books.

I can totally see reserving the right to finish what you want to finish. There is certainly no compulsion that one must punish oneself when the going is so torturous and you've given the book "a chance."

I am concerned about those incoming freshmen Duke students who refused to even contemplate reading an assigned book because they prejudged the book. We do not want poorly educated students because they refuse to challenge themselves. There is such an increasing trend to give up on books at the slightest whiff of "offensive" material.

Keira Soleore said...

@Vassiliki:

Ain't that the truth? The Twitterverse these days is a vigilante mob--no wonder, I am there less and less and have blocked certain characters. Like you, I do not have a requirement for characters to be likeable or relatable. They need to make sense in the story and the plot needs to be organic to them--if so, I am on board. However, I am on the fence about the "no remorse for wrongdoing" part. I haven't read a book yet, where that has been the case. While I am all for sunny romances, I am also for difficult romances (Kinsale comes to mind).