Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nowhere Near Respectable, by Mary Jo Putney - Review

I am such a fan of Mary Jo Putney.  While I didn't like her foray into historical paranormal, her non-paranormals are almost always among my favorites.

Nowhere Near Respectable is no exception -- another winner in Putney's impressive catalog.  I think my favorite thing about this story is that it has so many of the things I love about "old skool" romance-- the things that made me fall in love with the genre-- AND all the best elements of "modern-day" historicals.

Old-Skool: exotic traditions, royalty, bi-racial heroine, brutal bad guys, split-second heart-pounding rescues, manacles, smugglers, high stakes adventure, heroine in detective mode side-by-side with the hero.

New-Skool: mutual seduction, inverted power imbalance (she is well-born but he is not), cleaner pacing, no "victims" in the relationship.

If you love historical romance with a bit of smuggling, Napoleonic intrigue, assassination plots, and class commentary, this is one you should pick up.  Some of Putney's books have less of a center-stage plot, and I love those too, those quieter, character-focused stories, but this one has a non-stop page-turning mystery plot speeding along next to the characters falling in love.

When the story opens, Kiri makes a classic old-skool impetuous hair-tossing mistake.  Grievously insulted by any standard, she rides out on her own on a too-far, too-late journey and falls victim to the afore-mentioned brutal bad guys.  In the process, she becomes entangled in a far-reaching plot of kings and traitors.

One of the key plot points here is Kiri's nose.  Although I'm sure it's a very pretty nose, since Kiri is beautiful in the way of romance heroines, I'm referring to a talent rather than appearance.  Like musicians with perfect pitch, there is similar olfactory talent, which makes that person a nose or a perfumer.  Kiri is able to isolate specific notes of scent and can even identify individuals once she's given them a good sniff.

Did that make you snicker?  I have to admit, I didn't find that premise to be all that believable, but hey, it certainly makes for a bit of a change of pace in the usual "find the spy" plot.  I know, actually, that this is a real "thing," that there are famous noses who are in great demand in the fragrance business.  I've even seen them once or twice in romance before (I want to say Judith Ivory had one?).  Using the talent to sniff out (heh) a criminal is a bit over the top, but hey, if you can't be over the top in a romance, when can you?

Like the first Lost Lord book, NNR features a bi-racial protagonist -- this time it's the heroine rather than the hero.  My first reaction is that it's pretty unrealistic to have these characters accepted by the ton, but then I remember that England was more liberal about race than the US.  To be honest, I don't really know.  Surely with all the military and economic activity of the British in India this sort of thing must have happened sometimes, so I decided to just go with it.  I would be very interested to see an article about historical examples of English/Indian mixed-race individuals in the aristocracy.

I have to say, I'm a sucker for a couple who knows/believes that they cannot make a marriage but decides to go for it anyway (maybe my hedonist roots are showing).  I've run into this sort of thing a couple of times lately, where one or the other or both of the couple explicitly thinks or says, "even if I can't have this forever, I will seize this day, this moment."  And that just appeals to me.

Around the Blogosphere
Love Letters to a Library
Fiction Vixen
My Book Addiction
In the Hammock

As always, if you've reviewed this book and would like a link, just let me know by email or comments and I'll edit it in!

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Penis Mightier, for 200, Alex

(Title Reference-- My point -- The Penis sells page views.  Did it bring you here?)

It's always fun to rip on the romance genre -- it has everything! Sex, morality, paternalism, and, um, sex!  As a result, there is always someone doing it. (Er, ripping, that is.)  So by now most of us have seen Susan Quilliam's article about how Romance Ruins Lives and have dismissed it for the unsupported nonsense that it is and are well on our way to forgetting all about it.  I rather wish I had done the same.

I was contacted by a journalist, Katie Drummond, and asked to comment because of my "expertise."   I really did not want to participate in yet another throw-away article that implies that romance readers are idiots of one shade or another, but when I reviewed her past work, it seemed like she typically shows both sides of a question, even if she's leaning a bit to a certain conclusion.  And, I'll admit it, I hoped that maybe it would drive a little traffic here, so I agreed to the interview.

Unfortunately, after a good 15-minutes or so of discussion about the genre, what constitutes fact versus opinion, and expectations (eg: no one expects mystery fans to endanger themselves by interfering in police business) Ms. Drummond quoted me thusly:
“My husband isn’t somebody you’d call an alpha hero. Let’s just say he’s very in touch with his emotions,” Nicola Onychuk, whose blog, Alpha Heroes, covers the romance genre. “But we’re very happy. I can distinguish between fiction and reality.”
Which was pretty much a sidenote in the conversation that I thought we were having, not to mention much, much oversimplified.

But, I guess now that my name is attached to this, I need to make my opinion clear (as if there were any doubt).

FIFTEEN MINUTES: WIN! Congrats on your 15 minutes, Ms. Q. They say no publicity is bad publicity.

RESEARCH: FAIL  Quilliam has an opinion about romance and how it affects her patients.  Fine.  Interestingly, when she attempts to back up her opinions with facts, she uses one reference regarding condom usage which Linda Holmes at thoroughly debunked, starting with the fact that it's 11 years old (thanks Laura, for pointing me to that one).  The second study actually refuted her findings but she cites it anyway, saying
And yet … and yet... I would argue that a huge number of the issues that we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction.

Based on...what? Gut feel, apparently?  Oh, oh, wait:
It's not all gloom, though. Browse – as I did for this article – the ‘romantic fiction’ section of your local book shop, and {bla bla irrelevant snark about covers}, the sexual content inside can be very healthily presented.
She actually browsed some books on the shelf--browsed, not read-- which... also didn't support her claims. OOO KAAY, lady. Whatever.

CREDENTIAL: FAIL Who exactly is Ms. Q referring to when she mentions "our clinics and therapy rooms"? Is it me or is she implying that she is a practicing therapist? You can find her CV online, and I for one do not see any mention there of her ever actually seeing patients in any capacity.

MATH: FAIL  Quilliam states: some fans read up to 30 titles a month, one book every 2 days. OK, maybe this is just mean, and picking on a typo. But, really? this is a woman who is being cited and rehashed all over the internet (including here, sigh, which makes me part of the problem...) and... and.. .just look at what she writes!  (Hmmm.  Note to self for article idea- don't worry about cites-- "pop-psychology makes you stupid at math...")

I think that takes care of Quilliam.  Now, for young Ms. Drummond.

POP REFERENCE: FAIL Fabio? Really?  You couldn't do any better than the guy who was popular 30 years ago and then had a brief comeback satirizing himself with a fake butter product?  How about Nathan Kamp, Sam BondPaul Marron, or Jimmy Thomas?  Using a name that's outdated and a common object of ridicule gives you away as either lazy or biased or both.

FOCUS: FAIL Did you have a point here? Because your article really just rehashes stuff that Quilliam said without bringing anything new to to the table, and ends on just as wishy-washy of a note. I mean, apparently you got her to speak to you and give you some new quotes, but there were no new points, no other cites. I knew that when I responded to you I was running the risk of being made to look insipid or stupid or both, but one reader telling you that "my husband isn't like a romance hero and that's OK" is not much in the way of support for an argument.  Not that you had an argument that I could see.

Your email and your title vaguely indicate that you want to address the age-old (#4) question of whether romance readers have unrealistic expectations about their partners and their relationships.  Again, this was addressed in multiple studies cited by Quilliam which either explicitly conclude, "Nah," or indicate that romance readers skew toward better relationships and more satisfying romantic (yes, that means SEX) lives.

Perhaps what this means is that, if there is any effect at all, romance readers have REALISTICALLY HIGHER expectations of a mate*.  We expect a mate that treasures us, that connects with us emotionally, that will put some effort into overcoming obstacles-- internal or external-- to be with us, and, yes, good sex.  I'm trying to figure out what there is in there that a "relationship psychologist" could possibly object to.

If that's wrong, I don't want to be right.

Other People Who Think Quilliam Is Full of Shit Unconvincing
The Smart Bitches
Barbara Vey
Maya Rodale
Stephen Wenlock
Catherine Bennett (possibly my favorite)
Margery Kempe
KatieBabs, in her inimitable style
Laura Vivanco
Late add: Laura Mensch, who might be my new hero even if she did beat me to the point I wanted to make.

*if I were the angry militant feminist type**, I would add a comment here about how understandably scary that must be to the oppressive patriarchy.  Which incidentally, would not be incorrect. Or irrelevant.

**What does that even mean? angry militant feminists can make some pretty good points too, fyi.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Defiant, by Kris Kennedy - Review

Best New (to me) Author This Year
It's true, I do adore a good medieval.  I just do, as I have previously documented.  For escapist fantasy, there's nothing quite like the romance of castles and kings, and chivalrous warriors with those long sexy swords.

And the romance shelves these days just don't have enough of them.  Particularly ones where no one turns into a wolf or sprouts fangs.  Not that I don't love my paranormals, but you know.  Sometimes you just need a good Knight.

Defiant is what AAR refers to as a "road romance" - most of the story takes place while the hero and heroine are traveling together. This is a great device for throwing them together in more intimacy than a usual relationship might encounter, and especially in an historical setting, where sleeping and eating and the actual travel are more primitive.

In Defiant, the hero and heroine are both chasing after a priest who has become something of a pawn in the political machinations of King John, who, as we in the 21st century all know, is one of Western history's Ultimate Bad Guys.  The hero's motives appear to be Bad, while the heroine seeks only to protect the priest.

As the story unfolds however, there are generous hints that Jamie Lost's badness is ambiguous, as are his motives.  This is my very favorite kind of hero, I think. (Also, has there been a better hero name, ever?  I think not.)

Narrative Voice
(Wow, that's a terrible subtitle.  But I can't think of what else to put there).  I haven't fallen in love with a narrative voice like this since my first Joanna Bourne experience.  Like Annique, Eva has a French sensibility, political acuity, and is surprisingly good in a fight, although she's not quite the ninja that Annique is.  Near the beginning:
[the priest says:]

"I would not hand you a flower from a garden. I will surely not give you what may be the most powerful bargaining chip in these negotiations. Who knows whom you might sell it to next?"

To his credit, the bishop's shiny face flushed a bright red. "So be it, Peter of London," he snapped. "Ever have you brought these things on yourself."

He reached for the door, but by then, Eva had completed her slow circling of the room and come up behind. She reached out, her blade up, and placed it against the front of his throat.

The bishop froze.

"Now hush," she murmured. "You have brought this on yourself."

Not exactly a Mary Sue!  Another reason I love medievals - they somehow lend themselves better to really intense drama than Regency or Victorian eras.  Life was more brutal, politics more precarious, and while medieval European women may in reality have been just as cloistered and limited as in later centuries, it's somehow more believable when their fictional counterparts throw off convention and really wade into the action.

Things That Blow My Mind
There is an absolutely amazing passage in the book that starts out: "The heart hangs over a pit.  Strung up like a sacrifice, it swings in the winds of the world..." and really, that little piece of prose, about four paragraphs long, almost stopped my own heart. I started to excerpt it here, but for the first time, I've decided not to pull out this choice bit because you, readers, deserve to come upon it in context and  have your own breath knocked out of you. It's not a plot spoiler, but I think it would be an experience spoiler.

That Paralysis Thing Again
I'm still struggling with the paralyzed perfectionism that I wrote about awhile back. Seriously, I started this review more than a month ago.  And I just got stuck, because I didn't want to fail to do it justice.  I don't know how to finish this review; how to put a nice conclusion on it and make the whole thing feel cohesive.  And then I didn't want to post about other books because I really thought I should finish this one first.  Auggh.

So even though this seems unfinished to me, I'm going to post it anyway.

Bottom Line
I loved this book, and I would recommend it to a) everyone; b) everyone, especially medieval fans; c) everyone, especially Joanne Bourne fans.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Body At Rest

Sir Isaac Newton observed that "a body at rest will remain at rest; a body in motion will remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force."

More or less.

And while Newton meant this very literally, about physical things and velocity and acceleration, it's also true in other dimensions, including, of course, blogging.

It's so boring to read blog posts about not blogging.  So I'll keep this short.  I just felt weird about starting back in after radio silence for so long.  This is me, attempting to get back in motion!


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