This is Let’s Try Some Historical Romances (Two-)Month. I also put in a resolution on Goodreads to hit the modest goal of 36 books this year. I tend to crawl through fantasy books, so I wanted to give myself some room for that.
This time, I’m going to skip the genre sections and do this chronologically.
Before I even get into this, I want to state for the record, again, that I don’t disparage romance as a genre or think less of it because it’s a Lady Thing. I started reading it in the first place because characterization and the interactions of characters mean a lot to me in stories. In my usual genres, science fiction and fantasy, some of my favorite plot threads / elements are the character-focused ones. I wanted to try out a genre in which character motivations and relationships are central.
Romance (for fellow newbies) has a LOT of sub-genres and sub-sub-sub-genres, which, if you think about it, is true for just about any other large genre. A space opera is not the same as a military sf book, even if they are both shelved in science fiction. A book about Unseelie Court intrigue in the back alleys of New York City is not the same as a book about the Chosen Farm Boy taking the Magic Widget to defeat the Evil Overlord, even if they are both shelved in fantasy. Labels like fantasy/romance/sf are all very broad, and within them, readers often drill down to find their favorite niches.
So far, I’ve tried out some contemporary (present-day) romances and some cross-genre romances like fantasy romance and science fiction romance. What I haven’t touched much is the very large subgenre of historical romance, which is itself subdivided into historical eras – the most popular of which, as I gather, is the English Regency era (thanks, Jane Austen!).
I had kind of avoided historicals because of, well, world-building. I am trying to read as many of my TBRs as I can, so I sometimes balk a little at mega-tomes in fantasy with elaborate magical systems that I’ll have to get my head around, or, in this case, stories that are often (though not always) built on codes of etiquette and High Society that are just as foreign to me as the rules of sorcery. It’s easier to read a story in which I understand the playing field. That doesn’t mean that the story is any better or worse – just easier to jump into and out of.
And after a while, it seemed like high time to just throw up my hands, wade in, and deal with the world-building as best I could.
I’m very new to the historical genre, so a lot of the tropes that people are used to glossing over stick out like a sore thumb to me. If I seem really picky and contentious, that’s probably why. I’m still in the “but faster-than-light travel isn’t even a thing” stage of getting used to the standard tropes.
So, in chronological order, here’s what I read in my first intentional dive into historicals. I’d already scooped up all of these books previously, usually via recommendations or sales. It’s only a skimming of the surface, but here’s how it went.
Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare – From my newbie perspective, this felt a bit like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: bookish heroine fixes up ramshackle castle that contains angry, open-shirted hairy dude. Pluses: No high society blahblahblah. Fun overall. Heroine has a sense of humor, hero is pretty standard growly woe-is-me-ish but not a douche. (Tries to be, isn’t very good at it.) Had a virgin heroine without being gross and slut-shamey about it. And as a giant nerd, I was really tickled by the stuff about fandom. I want to group-hug all the medieval-pageantry nerds.
Minus: People have treated the heroine like dirt her whole life because… her hair is curly, or something? What? There’s “plain plain plain” parroted a lot, but what does that even mean? I’ve come across that before in my so-far-limited reading in romance, and I still don’t get it. Is it just code for “please relate to this character, she isn’t a Mary Sue,” or is it a word that actually means something?
You could say it’s all in her head, but it isn’t; she’s never been courted by anyone, and can only “land” a blind man. Oh, that’s another minus/ew, actually. She’s ugly (so we’re told), so she has to wind up with a blind guy who is under the mistaken impression that she’s beautiful. I am cringing once on his behalf and once on hers.
I think the outlandish physical perfectionism toward heroines in Historical Romancelandia is one of the things I have yet to get my head around. That “woe, one of your earlobes is a micrometer longer than the other, so you are a hateful beast that must die alone except for this one angry slab-chested manslut who will take pity on your uneven-earlobed monstrosity.” Fill in anything else. Anything. Oh noes, I have dark hair. Oh noes, I have a nose. Oh noes, stop.
In other newbie notes, not the fault of this author or any author, but a lot of the historical jargon isn’t on my Kindle dictionary. Clothes, mostly. “Nightrail” sounds like an early ’80s rock album and/or band to me, because I’m still not sure what makes it different from a nightgown. NOW ON STAGE: NIGHTRAIL! MOTORIN’!
I hope to understand all of this better as we progress.
Scandal by Carolyn Jewel – A few chapters of “she’s revolting, but I AM FASCINATED” before it gets better. I am still not 100% sure what the titular scandal was. The heroine’s late husband was a huge lush, but then, so is the hero (kind of), so that wasn’t the scandal? Lots of carriages in this one, and people are generally catatonic and withdrawn. It’s written just fine, but I had a hard time caring about anything. I also feel weird about the finale, in which the heroine still doesn’t seem to be happy. (On the other hand, at the point at which tragic things happen, at least something is happening.)
There is zero sense of humor in any character at any time, so I think that was my problem. I don’t need things to be jokey or parodic, just a trace of zing, somebody somewhere who doesn’t seem to feel overwhelming despair about their lives and everyone they encounter. Everyone in this book seemed to be despairing and kind of self-loathing 100% of the time, and it didn’t really seem to get better.
Secrets of a Summer Night by Lisa Kleypas – The twist in this one, I think, is that the dude is a self-made zillionaire instead of inheriting all his wealth. I thought it was fun. The heroine is oh my GOD single-minded about landing a rich husband, but at least a few characters call her on her mercenary behavior. Besides, she has a reason to be such a gold-digger (supporting her brother and mother). Sure, she has no other interests whatsoever and only thinks to make friends when she lands in the corner at a ball with a bunch of other spinsters (who will assumedly populate the rest of the series), but I’ll let it slide. Another plus: none of that “woe my eyebrows are one micron out of place, I am a horrible monster” ridiculously perfectionist jazz.
Again the Magic by Lisa Kleypas – Accidentally read these out of order; this comes before SoaSN. Not a big deal; it didn’t spoil anything major.
So… mixed feelings here. It’s got spark. The hero and heroine actually know one another for more than five seconds. The bickering/conflict feels believable instead of just depressing. On the other hand, the heroine has an ungodly stupid reason for dragging the conflict out in the third act, one that proves that she has no faith in the hero or his ability to not be a douche. Even the hero thinks it’s a stupid reason, and takes the news like AAGGHHH ARE YOU KIDDING ME except in historical style. You tell ’em, bro. Despite that spasm of ohmygodwhatthehell, overall it was fun.
Noted, though: once this book gets rolling on the nookie, it kind of doesn’t stop. It just swaps focus to the B-plot, which is also made of nookie. I am a little confused at this point about historical romances. A lot of the conflict in HR seems to revolve around Sex is Bad And If Anyone Knew I’d Be Ruined*. And yet, in some books, it looks like everyone is getting it all the time, seriously, like every five minutes. Why are you all such giant hypocrites, historical romance characters? In real life the answer is pretty much “Christianity,” but that doesn’t seem to come up much. (Which in itself seems sort of weird.)
* Define “ruined,” though. The idea of “ruin” is of crucial importance in these books, it seems. It seems to form the central conflict in a lot of them. But I don’t think I fully understand it. So far only one book, Scandal, has really made mention of what these heroines would do if they weren’t surfing on inherited money through one party after another. Mostly it comes off like “oh, people would be mean to me.” Okay then. Scandal at least touches on the potential risks, when the heroine contemplates a future as an impoverished governess. Which… doesn’t sound like the end of the world, actually. Granted, opportunities for women were severely limited back then, but… I just don’t feel the Struggle(tm) yet.
But basically, every hardship in the heroines’ lives boils down to “oh no, if people found out that I had sex, I will have to work, and people won’t like me.” And instead of thinking “Wow, all your friends and family are hypocritical assholes for judging you like that,” we’re just supposed to be happy that Angry Manchest came to the rescue. Mind you, that is how things were historically, in that women were only considered to be worth anything as arm candy or babymakers.
I did ask, in a previous round of capsule reviews, why historicals weren’t more historically accurate. I guess we have the attitudes here, except that people are still going off and bangin’ at every opportunity anyway, and nobody at all is religious somehow. It’s a weird whiplash effect.
This was the point where I took a break to read WTNV and start a book about the history of chairs.
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor – This was my intermission pick at the end of January. I’ve been a WTNV fan since the giant influx a couple of summers ago; my husband and I have gone to a couple of the live shows and oh wait, I actually am wearing a WTNV shirt right now as I post this. So. Uh.
Anyway. I’m weird about fanservice. It’s a fine balance between connecting the work to the previous stuff in the series and just tossing in references like HEY YOU GUYS KNOW THIS PART, RIGHT? HUH? REMEMBER? My opinion was that this book had more “hey let’s stop this narrative DEAD to explain something that happened in episode 9” rather than throwing in out-of-context references. It’s as though the authors couldn’t entirely decide whether the book was for fans or newcomers, and tried to catch up newcomers with a load of lore that’s now dozens of hours long.
I was fine with the new-story part of the new story; it was just the over-explaining that soured me.
(I did not finish the other book I started within the month. It’s easy to forget about paper books at this phase of my life.)
And we’re back.
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase – OK, now we’re in business. The heroine is just about as cranky as Angry Manchest, and girl has #goals. The book does go on at some enormous length about why we should feel bad for Angry Manchest, because HE is now the one who is a horrible monster for having a nose and non-blonde hair! So he is as thoroughgoing a jerk as he can manage to everyone in range, to prove it. So much chatter about being the literal devil. By “horrible devil beast” they mean Italian on his mother’s side, because ew, seriously? You’re going to triple down so hard on the Aryan obsession that you can be racist about slightly different types of white people? And when the book isn’t being “Italian people are literally the devil,” it’s being “Italian people are basically sexy aliens, not real normal people like the English.”
That’s a giant pile of ick to me. It just is. I do not get why we have to go there so hard. Maybe the English were enormously hardcore weird racists back then; I don’t know. I don’t particularly want to bathe in it now. Basically, though, this was my only squick-out about this book. Moving on.
The “rar I am the devil because my mom was Italian and/or my daddy is a jerk” thing is not the most attractive trait ever, but it’s a character motivation, and I can roll with it. So I am on board with both halves of the couple. Woo.
There’s an abrupt side-plot that ties everything up a bit too super-neatly, and the end. Even so, this was my favorite or second favorite thus far in this experiment, about even with Romancing the Duke.
A London Season by Joan Wolf – So, so, so much of this book made sense once I got to the copyright notice at the end. 1980, originally. This is a rerelease. With that in mind, I feel like I missed a gigantic rapey bullet. Happily, every romance from 1980 was NOT super-rapey. Things I learned this month!
Things that this book is not particularly about:
– London Seasons
– Fancy parties, a la the new cover
Things that this book is about:
– Childhood friendship
It’s pretty adorable. The heroine in this one comes off as endearingly odd, and not because she’s trying too hard to seem odd. She isn’t really quirky, just specific. She doesn’t care about ladylike fripperies, which is itself a cliche, but she isn’t so much a rebel as blankly oblivious. She likes horses and her magic golden manchild friend whom she’s known since they were approximately ten. Her custodial uncle is OK by her, too. Later, she likes horses and Golden Boy and art. Everything else is just not on her radar. I was on board with this, even if the “I pick this guy, I will be with him forever and ever” seemed a little arbitrary. She came across as an individual.
The plot, however… is 1980. Jealous rivals that serve no purpose in the story, except to ensure that the hero gets some before hooking up with the heroine. Secrets that were never remotely hinted about until they explode onto the scene. A conflict that was hammered on throughout the book, then evaporated whenever it’s time to end the book. A very convenient fate for the villain. And the prose style is flat, which I chalk up to the era, too. This happened. Then that happened. People don’t really feel anything, though they sometimes tell us that they do. Overall, pretty harmless.
Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins – So this is not a Regency or a Victorian, like the others. I kind of needed another break. Already. This book is a Western? I’m not entirely sure what qualifies a book as a Western – that’s another genre I know nothing about. It takes place in post-gold-rush California on a ranch. That seems pretty Western. If not, well, it’s a historical that is not a Regency.
This is another Slap Slap Kiss book, big time – I don’t generally have a problem with that, and despite its hoariness as a trope, will take it over “allow me to protect the wilting flower” any day and twice on Sundays.
More importantly, the leads are FLIPPING ADORABLE. As is the hero’s stepmother, one of the major supporting characters. The heroine’s unworldliness is chalked up partly to religion (finally!!) and partly to a Cinderella-esque emotionally abusive upbringing. But she is nobody’s fool, and the plot does not hinge on flimsy “I’m going to pretend I don’t like you for months on end” or “I mistakenly saw you with another person and got mad at you for no reason” hooks. Just… yay. Sweet, feisty, historical without being wallpapery about it, and organically plotted.
This ended up being my favorite of the month. That seems like cheating – I was trying to get my head around Historical Romance As A Thing, which tends to equal Regency. But I don’t care.
A Man Above Reproach by Evelyn Pryce – I’d originally picked this up outside my “I oughtta try some of that historical” spree, because a Facebook friend of mine, one of those people who knows absolutely everyone, is a friend of the author. However, I don’t know her. Like I said, the friend who plugged it seems to know everyone in the state. But I’m all for supporting locals, so I went for it.
So anyway, the book. It’s an odd one. It’s about an ardent anti-prostitution crusader who works as a piano player in a brothel, and a vaguely grumpy duke who has to do a lot of paperwork and is irritated at everything. Points for not going on and on and on about how enormous and hairy he is. I wondered when I was ever going to come across a non-slab hero. Here we are. The two of them snipe around, he reads her anti-prostitution manifesto, he throws a bunch of money around to try to fix her life. Fine so far. And the Standard Secret is addressed early instead of railroading in from nowhere (looking at you, London Season). And then it ends fast and hard, with the assumed problems shrugged off – oh noes, what if people Found Out?! Oh, they’re fine with it? OK, then. It’s a little vertiginous, but not that bad.
Then I realized that I had run out of historicals that I’d already bought. What? They always seemed to hang over my head like a small moon, taunting me for not having read them yet. I guess… that’s it.
So what’s my impression? I still don’t Get It on that visceral, happy-place level. The more we’re outside the high society, calling upon Lady Whatever stuff, the more I like it. There’s a fair bit of roving through the forest/meadow in Secrets of a Summer Night, Again the Magic, and A London Season and I enjoyed that. There’s a fine line between fighty/cranky and assholish, and it’s important to walk it carefully. I do not like plot contrivances. Otherwise… I think I have to try some more, sometime. Not all at once, though.
From there, I didn’t know where else to go, and decided to continue with Things I Learned About on Facebook. I don’t know the next author either, but my husband is a fan of her husband from their con-going days. I had completely forgotten what this book was about by the time I got around to reading it (which is why I’m trying to beat down my TBR pile in the first place).
Night at the Basking Iguana by Sandi Penniman – So what is this book about, with a title like that? It’s a foodie adventure-travel-mystery. The heroine is chasing clues around the globe to find the most elusive and legendary restaurant in the world, in time for the one night a year it’s open. Meanwhile, she is trying to unravel the mess that her life has become, and making friends with other questers and passers-by. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raunchy. It’s fairly short – probably a novella, technically. Nice palate cleanser.
The Descendants book 1: We Could Be Heroes by Landon Porter – From there I thought I’d start on the pile of indie-published stuff languishing on my Kindle. The Descendants is a superhero serial, originally a web serial (as far as I understand), and this book is a collection of short stories in that universe.
I bailed at seven percent. I feel like a jerk about this.
So… punctuation. I’m not adding a moralistic dimension to something that is not a moral question. I didn’t even get far enough into the story to tell whether it was good. For all I know, it is. But… sometimes you just can’t help but see things. Ex. semicolons and commas are two different things, and can’t be swapped out willy-nilly. And when you use the correct punctuation, it makes the story easier to read, and does not stab me in the eyeballs. When you say “Thanks, Name,” in dialogue, you need a comma between those two words. You just do. That’s the straw that broke my back, in the end.
I can’t not see these things, even though I don’t fully expect other people to know or follow those rules, and I don’t think it makes them bad people or bad writers. I’m just… a punctuation supertaster, or something. I’m the Princess and the Pea when it comes to grammar. I’m not guaranteed to be right in my own usage; I make plenty of mistakes. But non-standard/idiosyncratic usage just punches me in the eye and distracts me out of the story. So I bailed.
I think I missed a part of the story before this, too, because there were some blown-through summaries that make me think I should have “been there.” I was already confused. Which is a bummer, because the idea of web serials interests me, and I was ready for a genre shift. I may take another stab at it later.
I continued with more indies, but didn’t finish the next book before the end of February. So we’ll wrap it up on that note.
TBR at start of January: 121
TBR at end of February: 115 (also bought a few)
2016 Goodreads Goal 11/36
Finally: If you know more about historical romance than I do (which is a low bar, as I don’t know much), PLEASE, I would love love love love recommendations. There was a fracas online lately in which a columnist said “hey, romance heroes suck” and commenters said “there are soooo many who don’t,” and yet nobody was naming titles. A few author recs here and there, but that was it. I wanted titles! I’d love to read them! No “reluctant heroine / hero forces self onto heroine and she changes her mind” stuff from the ’80s, please. I will continue to try to look, but I’m really tired of feeling like I’m not a good fit for the genre. Maybe I am, in the end, but I’m willing to keep trying. I’m just not willing to keep wandering at random and grinding my teeth as I slog through books I don’t like.
So. Recs are, as always, golden.