Thursday, April 28, 2016

My April Reading: The Romance Version

April was a banner month for romance-reading for me in a long time. I read TWELVE of them. The Martins and Wolfs were all re-reads. I also read three very interesting children's picture books.

The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: This is one of my top romances ever. I LOVE the laugh-out-loud humor in the story and it is all in conversation with quick ripostes, great timing, and wonderful play on words. This is my kind of humor. Michelle Martin wrote very few traditional Regencies and that is to my everlasting regret. Mistakes over aristocratic titles aside, you read her books for the people in her stories. They're so alive: breathing, laughing, living.

Kate Glyn has declared a great desire to remain a spinster all her life because she finds men ultimately disappointing She's similarly unimpressed by the haut ton, who treated her very badly her first season and since then has bored her season after season. With painstaking care, she's built up a reputation of respectability despite her sharp tongue and unpopular humor and tendency towards bluestocking pursuits.

This season, she's chaperoning her best friend, who's five years younger than her, through her first season. Her friend is an Incomparable, whose social success causes jealousy to burn in the breast of the Perfection Incarnate. The Incarnate's jealousy gets an added reason because the marquess she wants to marry seems to prefer Kate's laughing company to her more stoic, elegant one.

There's a lot of sturm und drang with various people trying to exact revenge on various other people and who foils whom. But in the end it all shakes out and Kate and her friend find the loves of their lives.

If you haven't read a Michelle Martin, you've got to read this one.

The Butler Who Laughed by Michelle Martin
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: Sarah Thorndike is an heiress and a duke's daughter, a timorous girl who's completely dominated by her parents. In this book, her marriage has been arranged to a Tulip of the First Stare of Fashion. Neither can abide the other and are completely dismayed upon first being introduced to each other. They want out and put their heads together to make it happen. In the meantime, there's some skullduggery going on to retrieve an incriminating letter (read: ill-thought impassioned letter to an opera dancer) from a blackmailer.

The setting of the story is very Agatha Cristie: a house party in a country manor. The blackmailer, Sarah's family, and some other members of the nobility have been invited. Despite her exalted position, Sarah has an egalitarian approach towards the help. She was raised by her nannies, the groom, the kitchen cook, etc. and she's closer to them than to her parents. Naturally, she gravitates to the butler, who's nice to her and is also fascinating.

Now the butler is a knight in disguise who's helping the Tulip to unmask the blackmailer. (I never claimed this story didn't have its fantastical elements.) In the meantime, his demeanor, his looks, his erudition are winning Sarah over. Of course, she knows that her love is hopeless. A duke's daughter cannot marry a butler. It's just not done.

The interesting part of the story is not how they fall in love but how they resolve their HEA.

The Rebellious Ward by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: There is not one Joan Wolf traditional Regency (or historical fiction) books that I have that I have not liked. This was a re-read of a book I've read often before. And it is so achingly lovely. Wolf does people really, really well.

The story begins with Catriona as a ten-year-old and continues through her come out at eighteen. Somewhere along the way she falls in love with her guardian, who's eleven years older than her, and he with her. The whole coming-of-age is done tenderly and sensitively. Catriona is like a flame and gets into her share of scrapes. He's the serious Cambridge student and a very responsible duke. But they share laughter and common interests. The maturation and opening up of their personalities to each other is lovely to watch. I enjoy watching two people fall bit-by-bit in love on the page.

Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: One thing I really love about Wolf's stories are how well-researched they are. I always learn something new. And this is not just surface sprinkling—the characters care deeply about the issues, are well-informed, and can discuss them intelligently.

These two people Julianne and John are so different from each other. Her wild teen years following the restless adventurous company of her father has made her crave security, safety, and domestic ties. His stifling childhood has made him wild for the freedom of living as he chooses. And yet, they have Egypt in common. Both love Africa and adventure is in their blood, reluctantly in hers and passionately in his. Julianne sees Africa through a writer's eyes, meticulous and creative. John sees Africa through an opportunist's eyes, where he makes money by applying his intelligence. Neither one cares for English society and the rules and strictures that cage guide the ton.

Best line in the book: "I would hardly call Egypt uncivilized. There was a civilization on the Nile before England was ever heard of."

The story's about her realizing who she really is and what she really cares about, and then reaching out for what she really wants.

A Double Deception by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: This is a story of trust and how trust plays one of the most important roles in marriage. I loved this book for the maturity shown by the hero and heroine in how they conducted their lives through their first unhappy marriages, in the interim, and how they do so after they meet. We read a lot of marriage of convenience plots in Romance where the hero and heroine labor under jealousies and misunderstandings and come to an understanding after external circumstances remove those doubts. In this story, when trouble strikes, the heroine assesses her situation intelligently, sees a pattern of behavior on part of the hero, and then makes the decision to trust him implicitly. The hero made up him mind to trust her from the day he married her. This allows them to resolve the mystery as a team rather than fighting each other and seeking outside validation. Trust came before love in this story. Such a refreshing story to behold.

Fool's Masquerade by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: There are some stories that you simply fall into and love to pieces. This is one of them. On the surface, it's not usual: She's an orphan and to survive, she dresses up as a boy and works in his household. She's eventually unmasked. He discovers she's of genteel blood who's been living unchaperoned in his castle, so he offers her marriage.

But she refuses him and runs away to her grandparents. She's in love with him but not he with her. She refuses to obligate him and ruin his life. However, they had become friends when she was a boy and he misses her. He makes everyone's life miserable in his castle, while she learns the graces of a young woman of genteel birth. When she goes to London for the Season, he goes off in hot pursuit. And that is where he falls in love with her as the woman she is now. She's still the friend she always was, but now she's also the woman who makes his heart race.

Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: I was sent a print ARC by Neville and my commentary is here. For a great dual review of the book, visit Dear Author.

Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper by India Grey
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Category
Comments: When I read the following on Susanna Kearsley's blog I knew immediately that I had to read this book. She highly recommended it.

It was a mechanical model of the solar system, showing everything in its relative position. There was something soothing about watching how the moons and planets followed their own unwavering path, each one taking its own specific place in a dance so intricate it was almost beyond human comprehension. Galileo had understood it, even though it went against everything he'd been brought up to believe.

I was glad my local library carried it. I loved it. This book has some improbabilities in it, but it's surrounded by excellent character-building, complex emotions, and a believable storyline. I enjoyed the story so much that I have now bought two of Grey's novels.

Lorenzo is a film director who's in love with a late author's sole travel poetry-prose book. However, all his attempts to option the book for a movie are rebuffed by his penniless daughter, Sarah. When said daughter shows up at his home due to said improbable circumstances, he becomes enamored of her and her daughter so much so that he's reluctant to bring up the book, which is painful to her. Of course, the book hangs over him like the Sword of Damocles and of course the Sword falls on his neck, but he saves his neck with élan.

I'm sensitive to how children are portrayed in books. Many times, they're shown to be interfering precocious twits and totally unbelievable. I have two kids, so I know what I'm talking about here. However, in this book, Lottie is done exactly right.

Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire's Pleasure by India Grey
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Category
Comments: The title and back cover copy are execrable and have nothing to do with the story at hand. This was another hit for me as far as Grey is concerned. I didn't love it as much as I loved the story above and it had more improbable elements, however, it was still a good read.

Rachael is a concert pianist and is about to be railroaded into marriage with a conductor who had raped her previously. She meets the hero Orlando and is so taken up with him that she runs away from her wedding to his estate, where, um, none of her wedding party ever finds her, though the manor is down a country lane road. Other than playing the piano, she's thoroughly inept at everything from cooking to driving to taking care of a baby.

OK, so you're wondering what it is I was smoking when I said I still liked this story. Nothing. I liked this story, because of what Grey does with such an improbable beginning of the story. Grey's strength is in the characterization.

The cutest moment is when Rachael calms the infant down by playing Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor to him. The worst moment is when she gives up being a concert pianist in order to be a wife and mother of Orlando's baby.

Emily and the Notorious Prince by India Grey
Categories: Contemporary, Romance, Category
Comments: This, unfortunately, did not work for me. An improbable plot combined with OTT writing made me realize that I'm not the correct market for this type of book. I mean, this is India Grey, whose above two novels I liked. But this was written in a different style that is popular with a lot of people, just not for me.

Luis is the playboy prince of a Portuguese-speaking kingdom. Emily is the heiress of a wealthy English father. They meet at the annual grand charity ball on her estate. He's interested in her but considers her still too young for him. She, on the hand, finds her first kiss a mind-blowing experience and is smitten.

Fast-forward a year, Luis is now the crown prince, since his brother and sister-in-law die in a helicopter crash. His father, the king, is ailing and he has sole custody of his very young niece to whom he's not close. In the meantime, Emily's mother, to whom she was very close, has passed away from a long illness and Emily has discovered that her father had a brief affair the night before his marriage and has a daughter from that union. Emily feels so betrayed by her father that on the night of her mother's funeral, with no warning or preparation, she decamps for London.

There she lives, undetected, for many months in a nasty bedsit and supports herself by working behind a bar in a lap-dancing establishment. Luis discovers her at a community center dance in a mean suburb of London that he's attending to burnish his image of a serious crown prince, not a playboy second son. He informs her father that he has found her, and then he hies her off to his country to teach ballet to his niece.

From Emily's immatureness to Luis's bossiness, from repeated phrases in successive or the same paragraphs to exoticizing the Portuguese language and Portuguese men, from detailed descriptions of Luis's sexual prowess to his physical magnificence, and so on, I realized that my not liking the book is certainly not the fault of the book. None of this style of storytelling is uncommon and is in fact quite popular, but this type of book is not for me. I liked India Grey's above two books and will perhaps like some of her other books.

If Wishes were Earls by Elizabeth Boyle
Categories: Regency, Romance
Comments: I have liked silly heroines before as well as implausible plots. Silly heroes, on the other hand...Yes, I have double standards. It takes quite a bit for a hero to carry off being silly. Heyer does it remarkably well. However, in this story, the hero wasn't trying to be silly. He was in fact in deadly earnest—trying to keep the heroine away from him because there was someone who had it in for him. His is not a courtesy title; he's a peer of the realm and I saw no evidence to support that other than him being referred to the earl and deferred to as My Lord. A case in point of immaturity was how he takes the innocence of the heroine, a lady, and then almost proposes marriage to another woman all in the guise of trying to keep the heroine away from him because of the dastardly plot against him. This was a story that just didn't work for me. I know when this book came out, it did very well, so it's a popular book by a very popular author.

False Angel by Edith Layton
Categories: Regency, Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Willaful. I have enjoyed other Edith Layton books, and I consider her The Duke's Wager one of my top books ever. However, this book was less successful for me. A majority of it is told in narrative. Quite a bit of the action happens off-stage and we hear about it when the heroine tells us about it, supplementing it with her thoughts. I simply couldn't sustain my interest in finding out what happened next to her. From the way the hero and heroine's characters are set up, I know I would've liked them and would've liked to have known their story. But the style of the book was against my enjoyment of it.

The Amazing Travels of Ibn Battuta by Fatima Sharafeddine
Categories: Children's, Picture
Diversity: Features people from Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, India, and China
Comments: I borrowed this book ostensibly for my kid, but really, for myself. I had heard so much about Ibn Battuta, the intrepid adventurer of the medieval world that I had to discover, at least in brief, his life's story. It was a fascinating book.

At twenty-one, this brave young man set out from Tangier, Morocco and traveled across Northern Africa, all over the Middle East, into Turkey, India, and China, and down the eastern African coast. He was a religious man and went thrice to Mecca on the Hajj. Everywhere he went he met with sultans and sheikhs, governors and legal scholars, and theologians and students. He carefully documented all his travels and all that he observed. He was warmly welcomed everywhere he went for all the foreign tales of adventure he brought to everyone.

He finally returned to Fez, Morocco at age 50 and settled down to being a judge at the sultan's behest and writing down his memoirs. His writing style was wry and humorous. Of China he wrote:

"When I reached the seaport of Quanzhou, I was amazed to see that even the poorest people in China wore silk. They also had porcelain pottery decorated with the finest artwork. I was even impressed by the hens, which were bigger than the geese in my country!"

A Masterpiece for Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of New Sights and the Marvels of Traveling is one his most famous books. The modern-day edited version of that book is The Travels of Ibn Battutah. Before tackling this dense book, I plan on reading Travels with a Tangerine: From Morocco to Turkey in the Footsteps of Islam's Greatest Traveler, the first of a three-book coverage of Battuta's travels by historian and British Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane
Categories: Children's Picture
Diversity: It's set in Mauritania, West Africa
Comments: The story is of a little girl wanting to grow up and wear the malafa [moo-lah-fuh] of the older girls and women of her village. A mulafa is a beautiful, colorful cloth that some Muslim women in Mauritania wear to cover their clothing and heads when they go out in public and when they pray.

In her quest to find out more about the mulafa, the little girl questions her mother, her grandmother, her older sister, her cousin, and the women of the village. They all tell her what a malafa isn't and in so doing they let her figure out what a malafa signifies in a woman's life. They say it's not for beauty, it's more than a mystery, it's more than all the gold on a bride's crown, it's more than being a grown-up, it's more than old tradition, and so on. Ultimately, the girl approaches her mother:

"Mama, more than all the dates in an oasis, I want a malafa so I can pray like you do."

And her mother realizes that her little girl is now ready for her own malafa. A malafa, the author explains in her note, is to keep the wearer's attention not on outer appearance of the body but on the inner, spiritual connection with God.

I loved this story because through this little girl, the reader discovers why Muslim women wear the veil. And in so doing, the story demystifies the western notion that it's a symbol of female repression, which it isn't. It's an expression of reverence to God and is synonymous with the men wearing the turban.

The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart
Categories: Children's Picture
Comments: In the ninth century, an Irish Benedictine monk wrote down the poem Pangur Bán in rhyming couplets in Old Irish. In it, the monk describes his beloved companion, a white cat who shares his small room. Both of them are seeking something: the cat's looking for mice, the monk's looking for knowledge and enlightenment in his books. Bogart says the poem was written at Reichenau Abbey in southern Germany and is now part of the book Reichenau Primer.

Pangur does not disturb me at my work, and I do not disturb him at his. We are each content with all we need to entertain us. Ours is a happy tale. He feels joy at catching his prey. I feel joy as I find, at last, the answer to my puzzle. In our tiny home, Pangur finds his mouse... and I find light in the darkness.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Picture Day Friday: The Milkmaid by Vermeer

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer
c. 1660
oil on canvas
h 45.5cm × w 41cm

From the Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands:
"A maidservant pours milk, entirely absorbed in her work. Except for the stream of milk, everything else is still. Vermeer took this simple everyday activity and made it the subject of an impressive painting – the woman stands like a statue in the brightly lit room. Vermeer also had an eye for how light by means of hundreds of colourful dots plays over the surface of objects."

[Image copyrighted by the Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands.]

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

#TBRChallenge Reading: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: A Long Walk to Water
Author: Linda Sue Park
My Categories: Children's, Contemporary
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Contemporary

This is a contemporary children's true story that's been partially fictionalized. It's set in 2008 and 1985 Sudan. It was recommended by my daughter.

As I read this book, my heart ached for the two children whose life story this is. They're so very young and have so much hardship in their lives.

The little girl, Nya's only job is to walk eight hours to the water hole every single day to fetch water for the family. She does nothing else other than that and occasionally has to cart a younger sister along with her on the journey. This is the story set in 2008.

The boy, Salva's story, set in 1985, is one of utter displacement from family. Under fire of an incoming battle, he is forced to run away from school and away from his family and village. Miraculously at some point on this walking journey across the plains and desert of Sudan to Kenya, he meets up with his uncle and makes a friend thus alleviating some of his loneliness. But like everyone he has loved, they, too, die.

While exhaustion and boredom are Nya's constant companions, exhaustion and fear are Salva's. And yet through superhuman effort almost, these children persist and survive. Salva goes on to survive the war, to move to America, and thrive. He returns to Africa digging wells all over Sudan. And it is because of a well, Nya and Salva meet. Two such different lives following such different trajectories come together over life-affirming water.

I cried over this story and even now as I'm typing this, my heart's so full. Go, read this story. It's short but so beautifully written. Sometimes, the best of stories don't need too many words to convey a wealth of meaning.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Commentary: Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I'm a huge fan of classical music and opera (and sing in choirs) so this musical book hit all the right notes for me. Neville is clearly knowledgeable of the Regency era opera scene and the life of famous singers. I enjoyed how authoritatively the story was written. We don't get "research"; we get competence and rich historical details.

I liked Max and Tessa's gentle love story—I'm fond of quiet tales. I bought into how their young love changed to suspicion and hurt feelings, then anger and resolution, and finally to genuine adult love. Neville does a wonderful job showing how Max and Tessa change and adjust to the events around them and how they make change happen instead of always being reactive. I like to see characters having agency.

I'm not fond of Le Big Mis (misunderstanding) trope. But Neville's sophisticated storytelling does not devolve to a clichéd retelling of a tired tale. Max and Tessa do go through the initial motions of being deeply hurt by the other, but they eventually get to a point where they talk and thrash out what happened in the past. And then they move on from there. They build on the embers of their young love. Max is the first one to fall in love all over again; Tessa is more cautious. Her experience with her faithless husband makes her leery of jumping in with both feet.

I enjoyed seeing how Tessa connected with her extended family and the joy it brought her. I liked seeing how her character matured in this short section. She had this picture in her mind about what she might want, but reality forced her to re-examine what was really important to her. And she came away being surer of herself and what she needs from life.

I had a tough time reconciling Tessa's tendency to throw things when agitated to the rest of her character. The way it's written, she feels anxiety coming on and relieves it by throwing ceramic and porcelain things. She was encouraged into this habit by her then husband, Domenico, to promote a diva-like persona. However, now that her husband is dead, she's ashamed of those tantrums and is trying to control them once by hitting a high note and other times by deep breathing. The times in the story, Tessa has felt the urge to throw things, i.e., the times she felt this acute anxiety happen is often enough, that I had to wonder if she needed therapy. Blaming Domenico for encouraging her is not explanation enough. That she feels such anxiety over not very stressful situations is the root cause.

She also has these genuine nightmares and terrors because of what Domenico did to her before he died. I can understand those panic attacks and her extreme reaction to them. However, the resolution of these terrors is very pat. Given how deeply-seated the fears are—there's an excellent scene between Max and Tessa about this—the one short sex scene that magically resolves this issue once and for all rings false. I would expect the impact lessening over time rather than in one fell swoop.

These quibbles aside, I enjoyed this musical story with its rich historical background very much.

For an excellent review of this book, visit All About Romance here.

[Please note: I received a print ARC of the book from the author.]

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part Four

This post covers sessions four and five of the Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference.

Diversity in Historical Romance

This session was devoted to Diversity in Historical Romance and featured a panel of authors: Rose Lerner (Jewish), Alyssa Cole (African-American), Lori A. Witt (LGBTQ, Ace), and Kianna Alexander/Eboni Manning (Gilded Age and Antebellum South African-American).

Diverse historical romance books have been written for a long time but visibility is a big issue. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: Believing that they're not going to sell, publishers don't buy them. Well, the audience is there as self- and indie-publishing is demonstrating. NY Publishers are showing ignorance of what readers are interested in reading. A lot of diverse romance is being published as self-pub.

Diversity in romance needs positive representation: where diverse characters don't die but find love and life.

Diverse historical characters don't always have to have social issues to be the central part of the conflict and plot. [See Talk Sweetly To Me by Courtney Milan. Disclosure: I was one of the editors for the book.]

The challenge of writing diverse historical characters and storylines is that when people don't know something about history, they assume it never happened. Or they think it is niche. Instead of making sweeping judgments of all people, know that individuals led unique lives. All things are possible. Diverse romances tell hidden stories that have never been told.

One author said that for historical research, she finds that old newspapers on microfiche convey thoughts, tone, and social culture much more accurately than books. [As an aspiring writer, I find this fascinating. Most of us gravitate towards books, rarely newspapers.]

In reference to that book, audience question: Are there any periods or settings that are no-go zones? All the authors said no. The answer was: Be sensitive about how what you write will affect the reader, since even hypothetically, it could happen.

Audience question: How much research do you do? All authors: Depends on the story.

Audience question: If there's no HEA, is it romance? All authors: No.

Audience question: Is the rom genre rule of HEA, restrictive or freeing? All authors: Freeing. Because the end is known, the process of getting there is where all the creativity lies.

Tropes, Traditions, and Transformations

The Other (Wo)Man: The Use of Doubling in Young Adult Supernatural Romance by Meghanne Flynn

From the abstract: [This paper] explores the genre subversive figure of the double in Young Adult Supernatural Romance novels. [It] aims to display ways in which the figure of the double is removed from the marginality to be given voice, desire, and autonomy.

I have no notes.

Lady Catherine's Descendents: Examples of the Older Other Woman in Romance Fiction by Olivia Waite

The older, other woman in romance is in the guise of evil stepmother or fairy godmother. Catherine de Bourgh from Pride & Prejudice is both: evil to Lizzie and benevolent to Mr. Collins.

She has a superpower—she says what she wants to and other people have to listen. Rules of propriety and courtesy are not relevant for her. She has the wherewithal to effect radical transformation in those around her.

She's the ultimate example of women's agency. She has a network of informants (through placing of governesses, running the parish, etc.) who keep her upraised of all that is going on.

Lady Cat is the one most instrumental in bringing Darcy and Lizzie together: first at Rosings and then in the end.

Lizzie now has a role model of power in front of her after her marriage.

Lady Danbury in Julia Quinn's Bridgerton books is an example of Lady Cat.

Do these powerful older other women lack sexuality? Do they have to give up sexuality in order to gain power? Yes! They're never depicted as happily married in the books. They're widows. [They cannot be spinsters, because spinsters lack money and title.]

A Short Inquiry into the Gothic Romance by Angela Toscano

Gothics emerged in 1790s; their heyday were in the 1950s and 1960s. Not popular these days since the 1980s.

Gothics are not paranormals, mysteries, or horrors.

Gothics are books featuring domestic scenes where the heroine is trapped in a house or a castle. She's being confined by location, means, or social rules. The stories revolve around a big secret and other things that the heroine doesn't know (antagonist unknown). There potentially can be lots of unknowns. Is there a threat? There's a mystery about whether there is a problem. There's no accumulation of knowledge like in a mystery story. However, the heroine works like a detective to uncover the secret that gets more and more secretive. Gothic terror is predicated on personal violence or the threat of violence.

Gothics are on the threshold of known/unknown, natural/supernatural—ambiguous duality in relations and personality.

Why were the Gothics popular in the 19th century and then in the mid-twentieth century? From Rose Lerner and Olivia Waite: Sexual repression and family privacy in those times gave rise to the Gothics as a place of freedom to explore. Nowadays, with the rise in erotic romance romance, we have a place for writers and readers to talk about tough things, so now the gothics are no longer needed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part Three

This is session three of the Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference.

American Romance, Then and Now

"Lifting as We Climb": Iola LeRoy and the Early African-American Romance by Pamela Regis

Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted was published in in 1892 by African-American novelist Frances E.W. Harper. This, according to Regis, is one of the earliest African-American romance novels.

Here, pregnancy implies society is made more orderly and productive. And yet, the novel challenges society-defined essential elements of romance.

The heroine, Iola, is African-American but is fair, blue-eyed. This novel is about racial identity in the era of the civil war and slavery and passing. It is about her heroine's right to both desire and democracy and the right to choose her own hero. The novel advocates female agency, self-sufficiency, and independence as Iola rejects her ability to pass as white and embraces her black heritage.

Regis made some reference to Beverley Jenkins's Indigo, but other than it being set in the era of slavery, I missed the connection.

Making It American: Epic Romance and the National Myth by Maryan Wherry

American literature is comprised of four parts:

Epic Literature: quest, calamity, single action, beginning/middle/end, exaggerated heroic journeys, moral ideas/taboos of dominant culture, maturation of hero/heroine, learning that love is more valuable than wealth in life.

Grand Narrative (1950s): consensus school of historiography, national myth, equates what makes one American with what makes one male (vigilante/outlaw hero and rugged individualism).

Second Wave of Feminism: strong heroine, her failings (abuse books, physically weaker, etc.) due to society repressions not inherently hers.

Revisionist History

Heroic quest for heroine in bodice rippers: naïve, unschooled, sexual object, all kinds of abuse, awakened in many ways, her self-image is important not the HEA, allowing women to be written into the Grand Epic American literature.

The Antebellum South and the Wild Wild West are the most romanticized periods of American history.

You Say Anal Like It's A Bad Thing by Meagan Gacke

Considers Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rodgers as one of the first of contemporary romance novels. Her other well-known one is Wicked Loving Lies. They're in the grand old style of bodice rippers and underscore patriarchal rules and lack of women's agency.

The Sheik by E.M. Hull brought orientalism and sexuality into American consciousness. It does not adhere to a western sexual script. It uses orientalism to engage in different sexual, envelope-pushing acts. Initially, the heroine is kidnapped by the sheikh and is repeatedly raped. However, in time, she comes to enjoy sex. (This book buys into the Stockholm Syndrome.) The normal sex act is not as pleasurable as anal sex to the heroine, but is set up as the ideal goal. It is not deviant like anal. Heroine enjoyed deviant sex in the East, and initially tries to enjoy the ideal when she comes back to the western world. But she ends up bringing her eastern sexuality to the west. Her new hero learns to pleasure her in the new way. And thus, she's no longer an acted upon object. She has claimed her subjectivity.

Muslim Love American Style: Islamic-American Hybrid Culture and Romance in Muslim Fiction by Layla Abdullah-Poulos

This was the most fascinating paper of the session, partly because I had not thought about this and partly because the presentation was excellent.

Abdullah-Poulos talked about Muslim love, American style, specifically, native African-American Muslims featured in Islamic-American Romance fiction. It's an amalgamation of American and Islamic ideals in romance. These books are referred to as Native Born American Black Muslim Romantic Fiction. Abdullah-Poulos used NbA as the acronym.

[During audience questions, I asked whether these stories are like Christian inspirationals or like stories featuring Black Muslim characters. I also asked if they're like Arab-Muslim romances. Abdullah-Poulos said these are inspies, where religion and conversion plays an important role. Religion is like the third aspect of the rom, as important as love and marriage. As a contrast, in Arab-American romances, Islam is more a cultural aspect than a religious aspect.]

In Eurocentric white books, class and social structure keep the hero and heroine apart. In NbA, structure brings them together.

NbA books focus more on anti-Muslim hate than on racial bigotry. So the focus is more on them being Muslim, than on them being black. Thus, the microaggressions in African-American romance versus NbA romance are different.

Hijab covering and uncovering and the politics and societal reactions to that feature prominently in the narratives.

Fact: 90% of Black Muslims are converts. So conversion is a huge part of NbA rom. Non-Muslims cannot marry Muslims, so before they can get together, the non-Muslim has to convert. Islamic faith can serve as a unifier and also as a barrier to the rom. Islamic but interracial marriages are not discussed.

Polygamy is very common in NbA rom and communities. For example, read Real Muslim Wives of Philly by Elle Muslimah.

The hero and heroine in NbA stories are successful business people, professional, and upwardly mobile.

There are references to colorism in the narratives, where writers potentially defer to white hegemony. Mulatto women with long hair are seen as more desirable.

The Muslims in these stories are strictly practicing Muslims, so no physical contact, chaperoned dating, and a lot of use of technology and social media for communication.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part Two

This is session two of the Romance Area of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference.

Please note that I'm a romance reader, not an academic. So these notes will be a lay analysis at best.

Romantic Masculinities

Poldark As Anti-Antihero: Rebooting Romantic Masculinity for an Age of Crisis by Kyle Sclabach

From the abstract: "Poldark’s charisma lies entirely in his ability to adopt, with chameleon-like perfection, any necessary guise from the entire catalog of nineteenth- and twentieth-century romantic male archetypes: stalwart soldier, bare-chested-laborer, heroic doctor, crusading lawyer, swashbuckling smuggler, self-made entrepreneur, paternalistic husband, doting father."

The 1970s Poldark series is second after the 1995 Pride & Prejudice series in popularity.

Polark's resurrection is like that of the Count of Monte Cristo. He's a charming rogue-like Indian Jones, Byronic Hero, Rochester (brooding, noble, secretive, morally ambiguous but with his heart in a good place), omni-competent, handsome, male protagonist under siege on every front. He has power, prestige, privilege, and some wealth, i.e., he's part of the nobility but he protects his tenants (lower orders) and interacts with investors (middle class). He's the idea paternalistic figure, worthy of his elite class status.

The thrust of the paper is that these days masculinity is under crisis from neoliberalism and progressive social change. So that is why Poldark, whose character reasserts all the concepts of the olden days, is so popular.

The romance between Poldark and Demelza follows the eight steps of romance as stated by Pamela Regis. (I display my ignorance here by being unaware of what those are. They're outlined in A Natural History of the Romance Novel.)

All Around Great Guys, Mostly: The Evolving Romantic Hero in Literary Webseries by Margaret Selinger

A literary webseries is a YouTube vlog episodic show with transmedia elements made for young people by young people. It adapts well-known literary classics and is a DIY low-budget film that's produced quickly to react to viewer response. The arc of a webseries follows a typical genre romance arc: a love story with a happy ending. Even Shakespeare's tragedies are adapted to end happily. Another characteristic of a webseries is that it defines what being "romantic" in the modern era entails and also includes romantic subplots featuring queer, multi-sexual, and pan-sexual characters having happy endings.

One of the first, and wildly popular, literary multiplatform webseries is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Just as this is an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, the webseries Nothing Much To Do is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Alpha, Beta, and the Ambiguous Omega: The Diversity of Heroes by Veera Mäkelä

Mäkelä talked about alpha, beta, and omega heroes.

[I have talked about gamma heroes before, the quieter ones who unlike beta heroes do not display alpha tendencies in highly stressful, highly emotional situations but retain their quiet competence. Mäkelä's omega heroes are distinctly different from these gamma heroes.]

Mäkelä made references to Maya Rodale's Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained and Sarah Wendell's Beyond Heaving Bosoms. She uses Wendell's definition of alpha, beta, and omega. [I have not verified this.]

An omega hero is one who is a blend of the hard and soft traits and shifts as the situation demands. Mary Balogh's Dark Angel, Lord Carew’s Bride, and The Famous Heroine are examples of omega heroes. Balogh sets up these heroes with various tropes in initial evaluations and then contradicts or subverts them. For example, in Dark Angel, the male hero cries over the relationship.

The definition of a good relationship is when beta characteristics are directed within the relationship and alpha characteristics are directed outside the relationship (like towards the villain).

According to Jayne Ann Krentz in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, betas need to exhibit an alpha core, where the alpha traits are: head and protector of family and core of steel.

Mobility between social classes can be an omega trait.
[Hmmm. So an earl marrying a cit's daughter for her money to save his bankrupt estate is a sign of his omega-ness? It's a sign of desperation, and to me, it's an alpha trait as defined by Krentz.]

Constructing Black Masculinities in Romance Fiction by Julie Moody-Freeman

While the abstract says that the paper discusses romance book and magazine covers for representation of black masculinities and compares publications by various publishers, the talk did not cover that. It covered depictions of black masculinity within the stories.

Romance books break societal norms of black masculinity to recreate men who sustain the inner lives of romantic heroes.

Who is a good black man? He's one who is TDH (tall, dark, and handsome), responsible, loving, strong, autonomous, and professional. He loves and advocates for himself and for his community. He's a person of good character as seen by the black community and by other people. He's continually challenged by the heroine and the community—challenges are the norm for black masculinity. Such a hero is not just a provider with money but he has to man-up, show up for his family and his community.

Romance novels have templates of black professions, which are respectable and marriageable. For example, a hero writing music is subverting a typical alpha male hero.

These stories are by African-American writers writing for African-American readers. They're an uplifting of race through fiction.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Popular Culture Association: National Conference: Romance Area #pcarom @pcaromance -- Part One

The Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association's national conference was on Tuesday, March 22 in Seattle. I attended five of the seven sessions in the Romance Area, which was chaired by Eric Selinger of DePaul University.

(Next year, the Romance area will be chaired by Heather Schell of George Washington University and Jodi McAlister of University of Tasmania.)

Here are my notes from the first session. Notes from the next four sessions will be in successive blog posts.

Please note that I'm a romance reader, not an academic. So these notes will be a lay analysis at best.

Readers, Authors, and Real-Life Lovers

"Novel" Representations of Female Sexuality in Popular Fiction Across Cultures by Claire Watson

Comparing Jane Austen's work to Zane's, Watson says how Austen promoted female empowerment and sexual agency and could be considered an intellectual ancestor of Zane. (FYI...Zane's sexually explicit, female-oriented plots empower black women to take agency in their sexual lives.)

Austen subverted the dominant culture—heroines created agency under patriarchal repression. One way they did this is by engaging in adventurous sexual relations with husband within the confines of respectable marriages. Thus sexuality was explored in Austen in a coded fashion, under love and marriage. However, even though the heroines appeared liberated on the surface, but in reality they were dominated by the sexual attitudes of society.

Lizzy and Jane from Pride & Prejudice experienced more freedom and respect because they operated within the confines of decorum, unlike, say, Lydia. Similarly, decorum allowed Lizzy and Jane to experience agency in their courtships, a revolutionary idea by Austen.

Aspirational Labor in the Creative Industries: Becoming a “Real” Romance Writer by Jen Lois

This paper by sociologist Lois was the most fascinating paper of the five sessions I attended. She and Joanna Gregson conducted 400 hours of fieldwork researching how to become a real romance writer. They also conducted 55 in-depth interviews. Overall, they covered 43 writers of which three were men, 11 POC, and 3 LBGTQ. (Hmmm...rather low on diversity.)

In the creative industries, self-actualization is a cross between artistic talent and business acumen.

For a romance writer (or any writer), the prolonged state of aspiration is a challenge for job satisfaction. Aspiring writers experience a calling, an epiphany ("what I was meant to do"), followed by discovery narratives, emotional connections (to the work and to the people in the industry), and emotional confirmations (via contest wins, acceptance from agents, fellow writers, etc.) These convince them that they're pursuing their dream career, which is the intersection of a calling and getting paid work.

However, despite the early optimism, it is hard to sustain morale over the long tail of aspiration. Reality checks in the form of rejections, constant need for outside validation, having to manage doubt and demoralization is difficult. Writers sometimes counter these negative messages via emotional labor, i.e., inspirational quotations and accolades from friends and fellow authors. Self-publishing is another form of emotional labor and it has helped ameliorate some of the dejection. It has been transformational.

Thus, the intersection of calling and getting paid work is also emotional labor AKA aspirational labor. This is defined as the emotional process of validating one's authentic identity through paid work.

Analyzing Dan Savage's "Monogamish" Claim by Shaun Miller

Is monogamy the preferred choice or by default?

According to Dan Savage, we are bad at monogamy. We should embrace polygamy.

What is important in a good sexual relationship? G G G. Good (skilled, being good); Giving (generous, enthused, enjoying); Game (up for anything, exploring within reason).

For flourishing in the sexual sphere, it matters in its own right but mainly without it families break apart. Sexual fulfillment is a basic need in order to flourish in a relationship. Partners have a moral obligation to help each other to find sexual fulfillment. Therefore if one is not G.G.G., one must be sexually flexible in one's relationship and partners should seek fulfillment outside the relationship.

Monogamy vs. Sexual Fulfillment
Monogamy is sexual fidelity, honest relationship, so be G.G.G. without judgment.
Sexual Fulfillment is more important so don't be sexually exclusive.

Lack of sexual fulfillment dooms a relationship because the people wouldn't flourish, i.e., lead a good life.

Audience Comments

McAllister quoted by Schell: Popular romance is characterized by compulsory demi-sexuality i.e., monogamy is the end all and be all of real love. Fidelity, i.e., not attracted to anyone else.

[I also think that the hero and heroine experiencing mind-blowing sex with The One for the first time in their lives adds to the compulsion towards fidelity.]

Pamela Regis: Is sexual desire a sexual need? Flourishing can happen within a relationship and within the confines of a relationship even if sexual fulfillment is not possible.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

My March Reading

March was a fog of the parents visiting for the month, the flu, and the passing away of one of the most wonderful men I've ever known—I was close to him and he was my brother in all but blood. As a result of this fog, my reading suffered. Nothing entertained. Nothing sustained. But in the interstices of the fog, I managed to read some good books.

Oreo by Fran Ross
Categories: Literary Fiction
Diversity: African-American and Jewish characters
Comments: This was a tough book to read, not so much for the content but for the style. The style is a hodge-podge collection of narrative jumps and stylistic weirdnesses. It's a book with a cult status and is acknowledged as being very influential to African-American literature. But I persevered with it and was richly rewarded. The heroine, Oreo, is widely different from anybody I've ever met or read about. She's brilliant and profane and smart and funny and she looks at the world upside down and sideways. Under the guise of setting out to look for her deserter father as her life's quest, Oreo sets about tilting windmills. Oreo was recommended by Liz McCausland and her excellent review is here.

Against Hasty Marriage: I & II
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Deciphering Middle English took a bit of work and consultation with a dictionary
Comments: The Trials and Joys of Marriage (2002) edited by Eve Salisbury is a collection of Middle English poems/lyrics from the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. These were my readings for World Poetry Day on March 21.

Against a hasty marriage, the author suggests caution. Know or thow knytte; prove or thow preyse yt. Before you leap into it and praise it, make sure you have proof of it being a good relationship. I'm assuming by proof, he means of the entire relationship, not just the carnal side of it.

For, the author laments: For "had y wyst" commeth to late for to lowse yt. For "had I known" comes too late in order to loosen the nuptial bond.

I think the author speaks from a bad experience. Even before the wooing, he warns that marriage is a "longe wo."

Admonitions against widows are not a Georgian/Regency societal norm as romance novels would have you believe. They go far back.
Wedowis be wol fals, iwys,
For they cun bothe halse and kys
Til onys purs pikyd is,
And they seyn, "Go, boy, goo!"

Apparently, widows seek remarriage under false pretenses, i.e., not for love, but for financial or sexual reasons. They will hug and kiss till they pick your purse then they'll discard you.

Even of maidens, this misogynistic author writes that they're false and fickle.
Of madenys I wil seyn but lytil,
For they be bothe fals and fekyl,

If he had his way, no one would enter into the state of holy matrimony.

The Lady Hellion by Joanna Shupe
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: This Regency romance was my TBR Challenge book for this month and my comments are here.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Categories: nonfiction, fiction, children's
Diversity: Sudanese children
Comments: In this partly fictionalized account of actual events, Park tells the story of two Sudanese children from 1985 and 2008 whose lives have widely variant trajectories but who come to a common meeting point at the end of the book. It's a shocking story of pain and hardship for such little ones in war-torn Sudan. A beautiful book. It's my TBR Challenge book for April. [Edited to add a link to the review here.]

A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross
Categories: Mystery, Regency
Comments: I read this with Sunita and Liz and our discussion post is here.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Discussion: A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross

Earlier in March, Sunita, Liz, and I read A Broken Vessel by Kate Ross, a Julian Kestrel Regency mystery. We will be discussing the book in the comments section of this post.

A Broken Vessel is the second book of the short four-book series by Kate Ross. I love this series so far and wish there were more books. If you're interested in historical mysteries and/or the Regency era, I highly recommend these books. Ross does the Regency so well—nothing overt but with complete immersion.

We read the first book Cut to the Quick in December, and that discussion is here.

While CTTQ was set in a country manor, ABV is set in London. In it, we're introduced to Sally, Kestrel's valet Digger's sister. She's a lady of the night, who is content with her lot and lifestyle. Due to her propensity for thieving from the coat tail pocket of her clients ("flats"), she comes across a letter which is a confessional note by Mary, a lady who made a mistake and was now labeled a harlot. She has sought refuge in a reformation house but feels herself watched and denigrated all the time. In time, Mary's murdered and this is her story.

In the meantime, one of Sally's flat injures her badly and in that state she enters Kestrel's life. Kestrel is angered and disturbed by what has happened to her. And this is where the best part of the book for me took off. There's of course the unfolding of the mystery and busy to-ing and fro-ing of Kestrel and Sally in search of clues. However, Kestrel's and Sally's burgeoning relationship from those improbable beginnings to an amicable coming together is superbly and sensitively handled. At no point is there any slut-shaming or a miraculous turning away from her lifestyle for Sally.

Before meeting Sally, this was Kestrel's opinion of prostitutes.

"I was subjected to interesting and indecent proposals by what Dipper calls public ledgers."
"Public ledgers?"
"I suppose because any man may make an entry."

This was Kestrel's first opinion after he meets Sally. In conversation with Digger:

"You know, I could help her find work. One of my friends would give her a character."
"That's good of you, sire, but I don't think she'd stick it. Why, sir, she can earn more blunt in a night, seeing company like she does, that she could in a month as a moll-slavey, or in one of them factories. And the works ain't so hard, and she's got more liberty, like. What's being on the square got to offer, compared to that?"
"Self-respect," suggested Julian doubtfully.
"Self-respect's a fine thing, sir, but you can't eat it, nor drink it, nor put a red feather on it and tie it under the chin."
Julian had no answer to this.

Sally expresses her interest in Kestrel but is rebuffed gently.

He regarded her thoughtfully. "Why have you been telling me all this?"
"'Coz you was blue-deviled, and I wanted to cheer you up. If you was any other cove, I'd've found better ways to do it than by talking, but you al'ays stalls me off when I make up to you. So I thought I'd talk about Dip, 'coz he's somebody you and me have in common, see?"
"Yes, I see. That was very kind of you, Sally."
"There ain't much I would've do for you, Lightening—if you'd let me."
"You've done more than enough. Would you think me rude if I asked to be alone for a while?"
She glared at him and got up. "Some folks," she said darkly, "wouldn't know a good think if it was to bite 'em in the cods!"

Despite his conversation with Digger, Kestrel tries to approach her directly about helping her to begin a new life.

"I'm proper grateful to you, I'm sure." She curtsied mockingly.
"I didn't mean to offend you. I only thought, if I can be of some use—"
"Well, you can't!" Her face closed up. "I don't want to talk to you no more."
"Wait, Sally, I don't want us to part like this."
"Well, maybe you won't get everything you want. Then you'll know what it's like."
"Would you mind telling me what we're quarrelling about? Just so that I can argue my side properly."

Over time, Kestrel's view of her changes.

"I really did make up my mind from the beginning to keep you at arm's length for Dipper's sake. The trouble was, you'd got under my skin more than I realized—after you left, I couldn't stop thinking about you. And the strangest thing is, I was forever asking myself what I saw in you. I don't know how I could have been in doubt. You're clever and courageous and wholly adorable. What I see in you is what any man with eyes, ears, and blood in his veins would see."

Her opinion of him also changes.

"I used to think a gentleman was a cove with swell togs and carriages, and a handle to his name. Now I knows different. A gentleman is just what it says: a cover as is gentle. Kind to people, treating 'em decent—'specially them as is weaker than you."

After their night of passion...

"If you tell me once more that you can take care of yourself, I'll lock you in the hall cupboard till the investigation is over."
"That's how it al'ays is with coves," she complained. "Lift your heels for 'em, and they thinks they owns you."
"I'm not going to argue with you about this. Do you think I could let anything happen to you, after last night?"

Another interesting aspect of ABV is the relationship between MacGregor, the doctor-surgeon, and Kestrel. They met first in CTTQ and their relationship was rather involved there. Here, there's just some bits of it, but what's there is good.

"Julian smiled and said quietly, "My dear fellow, than you for that lecture. You've proved that not all strengthening elixirs come out of bottles."

And so I turn over the comments to Sunita, Liz, and any of you who'd like to participate.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Tulips

This past weekend, we went to the northern part of Washington State to bask in its annual acres of tulips.