March catch up: Readers Convention, Victoria Dahl and life

March has flown by. I have had some posts in my drafts but I decided to summarise them all into one because life has become busier than I anticipated.

 

Australian Romance Readers’ Convention 2015

With Kat Mayo, Kate Cuthbert and Adele Walsh at ARRC2015 Flickr user// Bookthingo

With Kat Mayo, Kate Cuthbert and Adele Walsh

I attended the Australian Romance Readers Convention 2015 this past weekend a fortnight ago (note: I drafted this post immediately after ARRC yet it has been sitting in drafts ever since). It was a mostly enjoyable weekend away. I say mostly because my husband was supposed to come with me but the day before we left he discovered he had scheduled eye surgery 8 months previously and forgotten the date. I ended up leaving a rather ailing hubs at home in the care of our teenage sons and the occasional care package from my mum and sister. As much as I enjoyed ARRC2015, he was in the back of my mind the whole time. He is slowly improving but it will be another month before he is 100% better.

ARRC of years gone by

As I have been to all 4 ARRCs, I found some interesting similarities and differences between this convention and others. There seemed to be more writers than readers at this convention than previously. Though I know that the organisers capped the author registrations, I do believe that many authors registered as readers. Which is OK as they too are readers but it made me wonder as to how accessible this made the event to readers who do not aspire to be writers. The first ARRC has been pivotal to changing my life so far. Prior to ARRC2009 I was quite happy in my workplace as a librarian but several moments during ARRC made me question what I wanted to do when I grew up. Part of that discovery was the academics panel which has not been repeated since the first conference. I would love for ARRC to shift some of their events to focusing on romance reading. Every event was author focused – and I LOVE listening to authors discussing their writing critically and these are authors who for the most part do not get invited to writers festivals so this convention is an absolutely important platform for them to share their work. However, I would like to see alongside author discussions, readers and their journey too, academics and their work in progressing the understanding of romance fiction – not in a self serving way but just with the knowledge that it made such a difference to me that it may just make a difference to someone else too.

Panels and speakers

Hangin' with Fabio

Hangin’ with Fabio

I attended many panels. I was quite happy to see Kat Mayo moderating the category romance panel. For regular readers here, you will know that I have a deep deep love for category romances and though in the previous years I have enjoyed their panel discussions, Kat Mayo managed to bring a depth of understanding of the category novel with critical commentary and serious questioning of the authors. Previous moderators had been authors themselves, so of course the questioning was going to take a different slant but Kat’s questions varied from feminism, writing and being socially responsible, and of course, sexy times. I also enjoyed the NA panel moderated by the wonderful Adele Walsh. It is impossible to attend all sessions as they are run concurrently but those I did attend were professional and mindful to all the participants and audience members. I also lurked lurked lurked and spent a stupid amount of money at Doreen Watts’s retro romance stand resulting in over 40 books to take home.

Nothing shits me like reader disdain

We are not a clique. We are readers of a certain type. The type who like photobooths

We are not a clique. We are readers of a certain type. The type who like photobooths

I thought carefully about whether to acknowledge the post from a few weeks ago but I feel that I need to place some of my own context here (I did consider responding to the blogger but I felt that her blog is her space and she has every right to feeling safe and not attacked or taken to task by too many people over there). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the post I speak of (I don’t want to link to it), an attendee that came to ARRC complained that no-one was friendly to her, that the attendees were fat and old and that ARRC was made up of cliques.

Up until 2009, I had never taken part in any online community, not on blogs, not on forums or listservs beyond necessary workplace groups. The day before ARRC09, I joined Twitter with the thought of live blogging as I knew only one person who was attending. By the end of the convention I had met wonderful welcoming, sharing friendly women who had all known each other for many years (from online and real life spaces). These same women and many more are still in that Australian Romance reading community, are still welcoming to newcomers and it was thrilling to meet up with them again. I saw people who have become dear friends, I also met people for the first time that I have known for many years through Twitter. The atmosphere at ARRC2015 was friendly and fun amongst the people I spoke to. Some of us did discuss though how difficult it must be if you were on your own and we were mindfully looking out to include those who looked lost into our conversations. So when that post came out, I was mightily annoyed. How on earth can you expect people to be friendly to you when you slink off to the bar everytime there is a break? How on earth would anyone know that you were part of the convention? I think that the blogger turned up thinking that she was better and smarter and ever so cleverer than everyone else. In her blog she writes about those over 40 year old, fat “readers of a type”, those who read categories because they don’t understand how awful they are – don’t they know that this prose is sooo awful and all my friends tell me my writing is sparkly balls in comparison (I’m paraphrasing here). Well, I am over 40, overweight and deeply in love with categories and perhaps one could say my reaction to her is personal. But I know myself well enough to say that it isn’t. My reaction is one that comes from an understanding of how the disdain of readers, the condescension in the voices of those who consider themselves to be superior readers, can impact people’s self worth and their confidence in their reading choices. Reader shaming is unacceptable. ARRC has been for years a safe place for readers who cop it regularly to gather without judgement and this woman shat on our space. No-one inadvertently spoke to her because she felt herself above everyone that was there. This was not a clique reaction. And as for a 33 year old thinking NA represents her age group….wellll……perhaps she should look up a definition of New Adult fiction. Personally, I don’t judge people by their age. I am just as comfortable chatting with a 19 year old as a 70 year old. But I do judge people by their attitudes to others.

Victoria Dahl

When I first heard that Victoria Dahl was coming to ARRC I was excited! Victoria Dahl was one of the first authors I followed in 2009 when I started tweeting. She followed me back. We have shared many a twitterchat over the years. I have read most of her books. I love some, I like the rest. She has yet to write a clunker. So I knew I was a fangirl. But when you are on twitter, you sometimes get a feeling that maybe you are that weird amalgam of fan/follower/friend/mindhive. Over the years, I have met many twitter authors in real life. Some have been interesting “lovely to meet you” and that is where it stays, a tiny number have made me grit my teeth and politely move away, others have been “we get on in Real Life as much as on Twitter how lovely is that” and there are others who end up becoming wonderful colleagues, friends, mentors, confidantes. And I was scared and weirded out that Victoria Dahl sat comfortably between those last 2 categories. She is that person that if I had met her on the first day of my kids schooling we would have hit it off. She isn’t a fan of babies (me too!), she is raunchy (I’m not *cough*), she drinks sangria and Pimms (yes please), she is funny (I am too – just ask my sons!), she is, her words not mine, a lazy feminist (same here) and her Keynote was possibly the best BEST keynote I have ever heard at an ARRC – and that is saying A LOT! That is some hard core competition. I seriously recommend you forking out the money to buy the ARRC2015 CD for this speech. She spoke about female heroines that are unlikeable, who have made mistakes and that as readers we need to give them the same level of love that we give broken heroes. Her speech kicked off International Women’s Day and was empowering and worthy of a Helen Reddy song. I just wanted to hang out with her all the time. I hope I didn’t make her feel uncomfortable (hah! I most probably did) but OMG! She was just like having a fun girlfriend to hang out with.  Despite being sick she carried herself with grace and humour. She was gorgeous. I tried hard not to be too clingy. She did seek me out once (was that to check my location so she can run away and sit elsewhere?) and she did say that Sarah Mayberry and I were her love train *swoon*. I’m happy to share her with Sarah who probably summed us up well by calling our love train “mildly stalkerish”. I think I am also the only person who got in trouble from a moderator for talking to Victoria too long and keeping her panel from starting. For shame!

Life

Aside from my husband’s eye operation and living with a manky, piratical eye glimmering at me, life is in full swing. I am once again teaching Information theory, this year to both undergraduates and postgraduate students. I am still working once a week in a public library faraway from home (the one hour commute each way equals reading time). Both my sons started in new (separate) high schools this year and the past 6-8 weeks has been an intense transition period for all of us. New routines, new institutional regimes. Their two schools are diametrically different in their teaching and discipline styles though they each suit our sons perfectly. One is on the habourside with no fences, flexible timetables and encourages longhand writing juxtoposed with study apps on devices. The other is at a suburban Catholic school (we are not Catholic) which does not allow phones, requires laptop use in class, has automatic prison like gates and has a strict uniform regime (damn it! more ironing!). Their very different styles of teaching environments seem to be having similar outcomes – 2 very engaged, young men who are learning.

I am finding that all this has taken over my reading life. I have only read a handful of books so far this year and I really need to up my reading game. How I will achieve this, I do not know as I also have my own thesis to continue working on too. But reading recreationally is not something I can give up – not even for a short amount of time. I find that everytime I do give it up I end up in a work slump. I have, however, become incredibly selective as to my reading choices as I cannot bear to waste any time on DNFs, 1 or even 2 star reads. Experimental reading has been left by the wayside as I just want guaranteed reads and many of the narratives I am enjoying are TV and youtube/Vine based (Thug Life – I love you). My blog reading has slowed down but some make me play with ideas on reading that they pose (I will return to Vacuous Minx‘s and Robin’s Dear Author posts on culture of buying vs the culture of reading in a later post). I relish my commuting time as I get to read first chapters (when I am not trying to catch up reading journal articles). Ultimately, recreational reading drives me as a person. It brings meaning to my workplaces and it gives substance and purpose to my own studies. Hopefully, I will manage the whole work/life/reading/socialmediaing and still manage to meet up with friends and get some sleep. Hopefully.

The Ultimate Seduction by Dani Collins

The Ultimate Seduction by Dani Collins

 

imageTiffany Davis takes her first delicious step into the exclusive masquerade ball hosted by the secretive Q Virtus gentleman’s club. Here, behind the mask, Tiffany can hide her scars and reveal her true self—a powerful businesswoman with an offer for the president of Bregnovia, Ryzard Vrbancic.
Astounded by her audacity, only the fire in Tiffany’s eyes makes Ryzard look twice. He has no interest in her business deal, but the promise of a woman who can match his ruthless determination makes him eager to seduce from her the one thing she’s not offering….

There is something disappointing in Mills & Boon blurbs of late. With so many publications to choose from I depend on blurbs to lead my reading choices. Had I not blind borrowed a stash of Mills & Boon in haste from my workplace, I would have read the back of this one and rejected it. It had sat on my shelves for a few months when I saw a tweet from Bookthingo’s Kat about Dani Collins which amused me and decided to give the book a go. And I am so glad.

This book has is typical of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Sexy line (Harlequin Presents in the US) in that the locations are exotic from Venezuela to Hungary to (made up country) Bregnovia, Italy and more and more. Jetsetting, mega yachts, paparazzi photos are the norm for our protagonists. But that doesn’t mean that they are inured from heartache and pain. The Ultimate Seduction has every trope that you want in an HP. There is the anonymous sex the day before a prospective business deal, the controlling parents, there is virginity loss, the scarred heroine and the ghosts of loves past. And Dani Collins writes each of those tropes beautifully and then subverts them.

Tiffany Davis is a heroine who is vulnerable due to her extensive burns scars from a car explosion killing her husband on the day of their wedding two years earlier. Her husband has left her an incredibly wealthy woman which gives her passage to an exclusive, private wealthy gentlemen’s club Q Virtus (sounds a bit Skull and Bones or Bullingdon club to me but anyway). At this club members are incognito as they all walk around with intricate masks and conduct super secret corporate deals with one another, as of course the 1%ers are wont to do. Tiffany attends the welcome night function and finds some freedom in being masked. For the first time since her accident she can pretend she was as beautiful as she previously felt. This leads to a rather cringe-worthy but necessary dancing scene in which Ryzard, our hero, spots her and approaches her. They dirty dance a bit until their hotness means they need to take it to a private space where they get the deed on and have hot, sexy, anonymous sex (and anonymous sex the day before you meet with a prospective business deal could never go wrong, right?). Tiffany sees this as her only chance to lose her virginity. She had never slept with her fiance/husband, as they had been betrothed from a young age they had a reap your wild oats agreement which she had chosen to not reap. Tiffany’s virginity loss is sexy but more importantly, made me laugh as she worries that he could tell she was a virgin. So when he says “I’m pleased I could make your first time memorable.” she balks until she realises that he means her first time at a Q Virtus function.

Meanwhile, Ryzard is the president of a yet to be acknowledged war torn new country and he is seeking business deals to help him firstly get enough international votes to have his country recognised and secondly to get assistance for the country he loves. Ryzard is rich in his own right as he invented and sold a “doodad” (Tiffany’s wry reference) to engineering companies. Ryzard is emotionally cut off as the love of his life, Luiza suicided when she was held captive during war time. He has dalliances but he doesn’t do relationships. He also needs the influence of Tiffany’s politician father to garner votes and Tiffany struggles to decipher whether Ryzard is honestly interested in her or if he is using her.

Tiffany is full of insecurities and rightfully so. She has to rebuild herself and she realises that she is forging a new self. She will never return to who she previously was. Her scars are never going to go away. People avert their eyes from her, her face has been reconstructed but she is still badly disfigured. The pain and adjustment that she must go through in accompanying Ryzard to public meetings is poignant. From hiding for 2 years, she is thrown into a public life that she grew up in but did not want to continue being part of and becomes more and more introverted. She says “I used to be [pretty] and it gave me confidence. Don’t deny that being physically attractive is powerful”. This point is so important. In a world where we want to be social responsible and sensitive to others, Tiffany’s observation frames how the world feels to her. It is a place where your good looks are an open door to success and she now lurks on the edges slowly building up here courage. When it comes, Tiffany turns her se seemingly quickly but the lead up to the novel, those story edges that we create ourselves, is the time that she spent preparing for an eventual change. This novel is all about her change.

This change results in Tiffany’s clashing with her parents which at first seemed to me to be the usual one-dimensional “ma family is so mean” trope  but what you discover is a family that deeply loves their daughter but they too felt awkwardness and despair in not knowing how to help her with her injuries. They also struggle with their daughter who toed the family line for so long that they are unsure of how to cope with her newfound independence. I love that Tiffany calls out her family with their attitudes to her previous compliance, their double standards as to what was acceptable behaviour for her brother and what is acceptable for her as a female and she acknowledges how they hurt her deeply yet she still continues to talk to them.

And then we have Ryzard. Ryzard is such a hero. HERO in this book. Dani Collins writes him like an alpha at the beginning and as you progress through the book you find a wonderful, caring, hurt man who is struggling with his own losses. He has a tattoo of his beloved Luiza on his chest and Tiffany despairs that even when they make love Luiza is present, Ryzard thinks the same of Tiffany’s scars as they are the presence of her late husband. Tiffany tells him that he is the only person to compliment her as having substance. This leads to perhaps one of the most beautiful love scenes (yes love – it was not a sex scene at all) I have read in years. There were no descriptions of erections or hardness or any other details – it was all heartfelt emotion. Scenes like these differentiate romance genre from sex and porn fiction. As @Liz_Mc2 recently tweeted “You know, it’s called “romance genre” rather than “sex genre” for a reason. Romance is a requirement. Sex is not.” The sex scenes in this book are good but it was that most romantic love scene that had me sighing.

Tiffany eventually regains trust in herself, giving her power and strength to leave Ryzard and starts running her life the way she wants and not in the eye of the media who are constantly following Ryzard and not the way her family expects her to do. And she does this successfully. Ryzard does not pursue her. In the end it is Tiffany who goes to him at a time where he is in need. It was a beautiful beautiful book. I loved Ryzard – he is an exceptional hero who does not heal the heroine but gives her the space to heal herself. However, Tiffany is the standout out in this story. She goes from a scared and unsure woman who has been disempowered over the years to finding that she was always strong, she was always capable and that she could face all obstacles that came her way and she can do it all on her own (but eventually chooses not to).

I really can’t do justice to this book with my review. I have so much more I want to write about it. I have been hanging onto the book and clocking up overdue fines just so I can absorb it. Tiffany is that rare heroine I seek out in Harlequin Presents – she is wry and funny. She is vulnerable and strong. She is a woman whom I could eimagine being my friend. She is a heroine, who by Miss Bates’s measure, gives good chin.

 

A copy of this book was borrowed from a New South Wales public library.

Library fine by me

I’m a shocking borrower. I am completely unreliable. I forget to renew my books, I forget my due dates, I am constantly late and I am forever paying overdue fines. I like to consider my overdue fines to be my annual donation to the betterment of the local library of which I am a patron.

A few months ago, my mum finally convinced my sisters and me to clean out her garage. This was a mammoth task. I threw out huge, and I mean HUGE amounts of my high school assignments and notes that I stored away over quarter of a century ago. I was impressed by my calligraphy, by my writing style but none of it deserved being kept. Except for this overdue notice:

Overdue Notice

Oh yes! The notice is on embossed paper! I feel so special! Digital overdues can’t compete. There is no mistakening my habitual nature. Here is another one:

Another overdue!

This one is not fancy. It must have only been a first notice. Every time I have overdues I have an excuse as to why I have been late:

– I forgot.

– I didn’t check my mail.

– I lost the due date slip.

– One book slipped under the driver’s seat when I was driving all 45 loans back to the library and the other 44 were on time (well, make that 38 because 6 were from a previous visit).

– My sister borrowed my books and we fought so I couldn’t ask her to return it because a stand off is a freakin’ stand off.

The point is though, that I always return the books. Always. And yes I accrue overdues which I always pay without complaint. A few weeks ago I paid $66. Yep. That is 6 romances just in that one overdue. This time my excuse was that I went away on holiday, lost my charger so I was offgrid for 4 days during which time my overdue notice arrived but I didn’t look at my email until my 13+ items had accrued at $1 a day. I know. A bit “dog ate my homework” but it is true. These overdues were from my uni library which is much more expensive than my local library.

Occasionally, feel good stories of people who return books 65 years after their due date AND pay a huge fine. Top marks to them but I really don’t think I could ever be that altruistic. Perhaps it is my knowledge of library processes that makes me feel this way but chances are that the library would have weeded that item at least 50 years ago. But let’s be clear here – I return my books and I pay my fines. Perhaps I became a librarian, not because I love being a smartass and enjoy finding answers where others have struggled, but because I could control my loans a bit easier. It’s a bit hard to forget to return your books when you are at work every day.

Having worked in plenty of libraries over the years I am always astounded by the type of people that argue fines. It is rarely people like myself who have fines in the high 60 and 70 dollars. Nor is it people who have genuine reasons such as chronic illnesses. They are usually calm and pay their dues, no complaint and quite philosophical about the whole process. However, I have been on the receiving end of many irate and angry borrowers who feel that they have had some grand injustice occur, who accuse workplaces of fixing fees purely to revenue raise (perhaps an innocent comment on my behalf here – but I have never worked in any library that depends on fine money for their services. It just isn’t the way budgets work). Oh no. The shouters and abusers usually only owe a few dollars. I once had a man throw a punch at me (he missed) and call me a “whore of the council” over a $2.20 fine. I felt affronted by his accusation. What an absolute dick. My library whoring is worth at least 66 dollars.

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Image from National Reading Campaign of Canada

 

Kiss Me, Katie: A TBR Challenge Review

This month’s challenge is to read a book in your TBR that was recommended to you. Rather than a single title, I decided to read an author that has been recommended to me. My sister loves Jill Shalvis’s novels and has been recommending them to me for many years. I have a stack of them on my shelves at home, both her early category romances and her later contemporary romances – including her latest release. Rather than reading her latest release – which has only been on the TBR since Christmas – I decided to start with Kiss Me, Katie! which in America was released in 2000 as a Harlequin Duet (which seemed to focus of romantic comedy) along with Shalvis’s accompanying novel Hug me, Holly! I read the Australian publication of Kiss Me, Katie! released as a Sexy Harlequin Mills & Boon. Katie is a cautious, sensible accountant working for a flight company and Bryan is a maverick, pilot who also performs stunts for the same company. The two are attracted to each other but Katie does not want to be with someone who is a risktaker.

Kiss Me, Katie  US Duet cover and Australian Sexy cover

Kiss Me, Katie
US Duet cover and Australian Sexy cover

For me, category romances are the most perfect narrative form for romance stories. At their best, they are tightly written with little superfluous prose and hardly any annoying secondary characters cluttering the two protagonists path to love. Kiss Me, Katie! appears to be Jill Shalvis’s 21st novel (and from what I can tell, her 21st category romance) and it would be another five years before she released her first standalone romance. However, it feels as though this is the first book in which she integrates a secondary story/romance as there is an accompanying book called Hug Me, Holly! Why does all this matter? Well, sadly, the secondary romance that builds through the primary romance takes away the necessary character development needed. I feel that category romances have little wiggle room and the moments this took away from  the necessary character understanding that I didn’t feel took place. Katie has a hangup about daredevil stuntmen because her stuntman father died during a stunt but this didn’t develop beyond a “Yep. I want to be safe and have a safe guy in my life”. I get this sentiment. I thought it worked well for the character’s motivations but her resentment of her father didn’t sit right with my reading of her character. And her one off phone call with her mother towards the end of the book reassuring her that her father loved her and her daughter as much as stunt flying also felt out of kilter. The introduction of yet another character, who could have easily stayed out of the dialogue interrupted the narrative rather than allow it to create the necessary arc for Katie to reconcile herself to loving a risk-taking man. I will discuss this more later in this post.

This book is most definitely a comedy, slapstick comedy and I deeply dislike slapstick humour in books. Comedy is my absolute favourite reading genre (even more so than romance but I will leave that idea to unpack itself in a future post) yet I think it is the most difficult writing of all as timing and intonation are critical to eliciting laughs. Slapstick to me is a visual medium, all Keystone Cops tripping and falling over one another. These actions are difficult to convey in text and did not work well for me in this book which is full of slapstick. From the opening scene where Katie is trying to corner Santa at the Christmas party to kiss him under the mistletoe to trips and spills throughout the book. Here is an excerpt where some company clients (called Teddy and Rocky) end up wrestling with Katie tripping her over:

That’s when Teddy slid in low and punched. Rocky evaded, and in a comical twist that rivaled any ranchy television wrestling show, Teddy swiveled with the follow-through that ended up going nowhere. He fell on his butt on the lobby floor. With an enraged bellow, he went for Rocky’s feet, wrapping his pudgy arms around them just as Katie leaned all the way over the counter and grabbed both envelopes. Her toes left the floor, making her gasp at the loss of balanced….

This reads more like a script for a movie to me, a document describing the actors movements rather than naturally flowing in the narrative. It would probably work well in a movie form, and with novels being written with movie options in mind perhaps this blow by blow (stumble by stumble?) seems to becoming more common in novels. I think of one of my favourite romantic comedies, Bringing Up Baby, and I know that it too would not be anywhere near as successful as a novel as some of the scenes such as the scene with Katharine Hepburn dragging the vicious tiger into the gaol (rather than Baby) or even the closing scene where the dinosaur collapses and Katharine Hepburn is dangling from the scaffolding just for Cary Grant to declare his love for her and save her are ludicrous and over the top and work wonderfully when you watch them but they would not work in text.

Other aspects of Kiss me, Katie! that did not work for me were sudden body issues. Just towards the end, right when the Katie and Bryan and getting down to the groove thang she starts apologising for her fat body. He looks at her incredulously, and I started flicking towards the beginning of the book, rather perplexed as I hadn’t picked up on any “OMG – my body is fat bet nobody likes me so I better where the white cotton undies” vibe from it. There are office shenanigans. Office romances happen. I mean, I’ve seen a couple in real life and it is very common in contemporary romance fiction but it always feels irksome. Katie and Bryan are colleagues in different departments so there is no power imbalance but there was an uncomfortable start to their romance as Katie actually was pursuing the Vice President of her company but accidently (yup – slapstick ooops! again) ends up kissing Bryan at the Christmas party, thus kicking off their “hilarious” romance comedy of errors.

To add to all this, I also have a most hated phrase in fiction that usually is enough for me to refuse to read further once it appears in a book and this book is peppered with “or so she/he thought”. It is foreshadowing and it drives me batty. I just don’t want to read it. To be fair to Jill Shalvis, I chose to continue reading a book that upfront, in its blurb, uses my most hated phrase, means that I was entering the reading experience knowing that this was going to be an issue. It was not going to surprise me 150 pages into a novel. It was used several times throughout the book. I won’t complain any further.

But the clincher in all of this for me was my lack of believing that character change that Katie goes through. Bryan flies planes. Katie, though fascinated by planes is also kinda scared of them. So let me tell you what Bryan does. In the space of a page of dialogue, he gets her in a plane and flies her into the sky. There did not seem to be a break for checking with air control, he did not stick his head out the window to check for oncoming traffic and Katie fails totally in being phobic as she is “scared” yet she enjoys her flight. Speaking (writing) on behalf of all phobic fliers, I cannot relate to this moment in the book whatsoever. I found it ridiculous. I just wanted to shout at him “STOP TALKING AND FLY THE FREAKIN’ PLANE!!!”. As a flying phobic, this scene made me break out into a sweat! And even more ridiculous is right at the end, as Katie is trying to process Bryan’s unexpected public declaration of love (which he did instead of breaking up with her because that is what people who get nervous do), she grabs another pilot and says “give me flying lessons” and then suddenly, with no preliminaries she is flying, nearly killing herself and her instructor, freaking out Bryan and I am sure a whole lot of other staff working in the hangar which she (haha slapstick again) clips and then she joyfully jumps out of the plane, declares that she is no longer Safe Katie and loves risk taking and tells Bryan she loves him.

 

 

Deeeeeep breath.

I think the problem here relates back to the overall problem that I opened with. In category romance, the story needs to be tightly told and frankly there was way too much going on plotwise.There were too many characters in the book, there was slapstick humour and the main character changed too quickly from being phobic to being a risk taker. There were moments in the writing which I liked. The quiet verandah scene when the two were talking was tense and promising (until a slapstick LOLCat moment happened) but even the sex scene was not drawn out enough. One moment Katie is all “ZOMG you are too huge you will never fit” and then a couple of lines later Bryan is all smirk and suaveness “Hey babe, I told you I would fit”…at least they used a condom. I didn’t feel the book had aged and it didn’t feel anachronistic despite it being 15 years old.

The book had too many doing scenes and action scenes and very little time was spent in building the emotional connections that I seek in romance. Kiss Me, Katie! didn’t work for me on quite a few levels. This does not mean that I won’t read Jill Shalvis again. There was enough in the story and the writing that I liked. I recognise that this book could possibly have been her first foray outside the category form (I say possibly as I don’t definitively know if any of her previous books are linked) and I really appreciate that romance fiction publishing has always been about both the story at hand but also the promise of stronger, better stories to come and building an author’s body of work. It has been 15 years since this book has been published which allows for a lot of writing changes. I always enjoy going binge reading an new to me author so I will definitely venture reading more Jill Shalvis titles despite a book that I will consider a false start.

 

I own this book. I have no recollection as to how I obtained it, however it has been sitting on my shelves for many years and has an op shop price marking of $2 on the first page.

 

 

 

 

 

My true love never gives books

Last week, the Guardian tweeted out

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I think that there is a great reason that books are not amongst the gifts given in the 12 days of Christmas song. It is such a nuanced, difficult prospect to give books to anyone other than a child.

I really struggled to come with a book I was given. Though we had lots of books in the house my parents didn’t give us books as presents.  I have had an active library card since I was 4. I’m a borrower first and foremostly. Do I count books that librarians have given me? But that is their job. They are employed to, amongst many other tasks, suggest books for me to read.

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.08.14 amIf I count librarians, then I would have to say I fell in love with Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays. The first of the Melendy Quartet, written in 1940, follows the Melendy children living in New York, pooling their pocket money and having an adventure in the city. Mona, Rush, Miranda and Oliver set about on their adventures and in the process introduced me to the Opera, Central Park, the Museum of Modern Art. It is a splendid book that I read to my own boys when they were younger. It has not dated. It remains fresh and relevant, contemporary when it was published, yet now it is a glimpse at a city from a historical perspective. When Adam Gopnik’s From the Children’s Gate came out several years ago, I read through it excitedly. A book about children growing up in New York City and Central Park and love and life just had to have this American classic included. Sadly, he did not mention this most beloved book.

I think I will have to count my Mad Magazines even though I stole my first one from my cousin John who years later claimed he knew that I was sneaking them home. He also said that it is the only way that Mad Magazine should be acquired. It would not be subversive to just give them.

Children are much more fun to give books. They are still open and indiscriminate in their reading. They lap up the opportunity to read. I gave my cousin’s son Where’s Wally when he was little. He is now in his mid-20s, he is a DJ and travel manager yet everytime he sees me he is sweetly excited and talks about how it was his favourite book. Last year, I gave my nephew a stash of Zac Power books, I bought my goddaughter a heap of picture books, and my niece received Fairy books. Kids are easy. Find the series they love and then buy up big. The secret is to give them bulk. As the Bookwhisperer discusses here reading researchers know that the key to reading is volume. It’s doing lots of reading which is why series books hit the gift giving reading mark every single time.

Adults are much harder when it comes to giving novels, in my opinion. I am selective about the types of plot lines that I will read, I adore books written in the third person from several character viewpoints but this is hardly the mindset that someone will have when they are choosing for me. Due to my own preferences, I know that only a couple of people I know have successfully chosen books for me; that would be two of my sisters. To date, my husband has given up trying to buy me novels. His first present to me was James Kelman’s How Late it was, How Late. I could not get past the first chapter. He has, over the years, tried to buy me romance novels but once again his selections don’t hit the mark. He buys me tropes that I dislike, category lines I don’t enjoy or books I already own (damn those reworked covers for different countries). Romance readers are the hardest of all fiction readers to choose from as there is so little guidance to call on. My lovely husband has worked out that when it comes to novels he needs to consult me first. Otherwise, the book risks being regifted which apparently is bad form (I personally have no problem with this practice).

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 8.07.10 amHowever, coffee table books, glossy reads filled with flashy photos are much easier to pick than novels. House design books, travel books, fashion and celebrity books. There is a beautiful book from Vogue called The Gown that I am coveting. Now that would be a great gift to receive. And as it is my 19th wedding anniversary tomorrow, I will leave this post accidently lying around. Someone may just take the hint.

Heartbreaker: A TBR Challenge Review

As part of SuperWendy’s TBR Reading Challenge I picked up this Charlotte Lamb novel that has been waiting on my shelf for several months. I am totally obsessed with Ms Lamb and she has once again delivered a strikingly dark story. Here is my (rambly) review:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 11.18.44 pm Heartbreaker

by Charlotte Lamb

published by Mills & Boon, 1981.

The back story is that Caroline had escaped her cruel and violent husband Peter. He was an alcoholic that used to beat her up but Caroline and his mother, Helen who lived with them, would make excuses for his behaviour and would cover up Caroline’s injuries so to protect him. But when Peter started hitting their daughter, Caroline leaves Yorkshire for the anonymity of London. Three years later, Caroline finds out that Peter has died and her former mother-in-law wants to see her granddaughter again. Caroline and Helen have a deep love and respect for each other. It is Helen’s nephew (and the hero of this story), Nick that finds Caroline and coerces her to return to the Yorkshire village. Nick is a menacing and mean. For a hero, I found him too rough and a tad violent in his first scene with Caroline. Though he does not hurt her, he certainly does his best to intimidate Caroline. He is convinced that his cousin’s alcoholism and subsequent death was due to his wife having left him.

All human beings are a tangled web of contradictions and confusions

I love the ideas that Charlotte Lamb weaves through this story. She explores the relationships that people have when they are part of a violent relationship and choose to hide and protect the abuser while protecting themselves. Lamb shows the complex relationship between two women, one who sees the failings of her son but still needs to stand by him through to the end yet loves her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law who feels connected to the same woman who asks her to hide her son’s misdeeds. The doctor who treated Caroline for her beatings is a mirror to Nick. He is a much nicer match for Caroline and though she recognises this she also sees that life and love and attraction cannot always be planned as clearly as this (I personally think that the doctor/patient relationship here would have been too thorny to contemplate). The compassion and understanding Caroline shows to Nick who verbally is abusive, exasperated me as he spends the majority of the book being kept in the dark about his cousin’s violent behaviour so he believes he is right in avenging his cousin.

As the story progresses you find out that Nick and Caroline had a happy friendship in the past and it isn’t until well into the book that you find out that this had changed when Nick kissed Caroline before she had left his cousin. This brought a new complication into their story. Caroline, who refuses to be dominated by Nick, has a moment of realisation that Nick is angry more at himself for he feels guilt for their kiss so long ago and he feels that she too should be filled with guilt. Nick feels he betrayed his cousin but Caroline does not feel that she betrayed her husband by kissing Nick as she had already mentally left the relationship. Nick was on his own with his guilt. When Nick finally discovers that his cousin had been abusive to Caroline he is remorseful and begs for Caroline’s forgiveness. We finally get a slight glimpse of the happy man that Caroline had considered her friend many years earlier. I was particularly taken by Caroline’s unapologetic lack of guilt about a joyful kiss shared while she was still married and the complex ways that people can escape relationships.

Settings are always important in Charlotte Lamb novels with characters communing with the land whether they are in a city or countryside setting and this book is a fine example of her sense of place. The settings of both London, where Caroline had escaped to hide from her husband, and the small Yorkshire village of Skeldale in the moors set the mood and pace. The manor home setting is rather gothic and reminiscent of Wuthering Heights particularly the dark and near fateful walk (and ultimately the catalyst to Nick discovering the truth) that Caroline takes through the moors. Helen talks on and on about the coldness of London and how people don’t know each other there, but as a reader you are keenly aware that in London Caroline’s neighbours had looked out for her and her daughter. Her neighbours had heard noises and called Caroline to check on her when Nick first turned up all angry and menacing whereas no neighbour helped Caroline out when she was being beaten by her husband in her “safe” village, not even Helen who lived with the young couple stood up for Caroline, instead begging her to not bring shame on the family by letting anyone know. This insistence on keeping up appearances upset Caroline but she concedes to the needs of her ailing mother-in-law. Caroline also thinks back to her early marriage (she was 17 and Peter only a few years older) and questions whether this brought her husband Peter to his alcoholism (along with his father’s abuse) and ponders “They had been too young to know what they were doing….he hadn’t been old enough to face the responsibilities of marriage…the strain had cracked him apart”. Lamb’s own questioning of this societal questioning gleans through in many of her books. Further in the book Caroline despairs at constantly being brought down and just wants to escape “male violence”.

I feel as though my desciption of this book is a bit fractured. There were so many different elements I wanted to explore. Domestic violence is a topic that even now does not get addressed much in romance novels. I feel that Lamb only makes a surface exploration of this topic and I felt rather uncomfortable with the “hero” (I use quotation marks because he is not at all heroic) and wish that Caroline had found a nicer man for herself. But perhaps she saw still remembered the lovely Nick that she knew before their kiss and is able to tolerate him. Who knows.

I did feel that Caroline had agency from the beginning of this book, as a woman who walked out on her abusive husband. Though she concedes to Nick’s angry demands, she does so on her terms. At the end of the book, Nick asks Caroline to marry him twice. The first time she refuses him and the second time she deflects his question, she puts him off. As happy as she is to accept his love declaration (and to make her own) she does not commit herself to him. Caroline lives life on her terms.

I own this book. I bought it in a secondhand bookshop on the Isle of Wight.

 

On Reading: The Shelf

Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading

by Phyllis Rose

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

In The Shelf  Phyllis Rose decides upon reading every book on a specific fiction shelf (LEQ-LES) in the New York Society Library (NYSL) allowing the library’s arbitrary alphabetised ordering principle (such as I discussed in my last post) to dictate her choices.  I really like the sub sub heading of Adventures in Extreme Reading. Extreme reading, I assumed for the risks the reader takes in serendipitous choice of a shelf that could introduce all manner of wild ideas to the reader. For if this is extreme reading then librarianship by default becomes an extreme profession, one which allows us to venture into readerships unphased and fearless. I also think that this concept of extreme reading is one that we in the library profession take for granted as we have our regulars who often tackle shelves without documenting their progress.

To begin with, I was surprised at Rose’s level of understanding of how libraries function. She understood the need for deaccessioning (weeding) in order to make room for new books. She understood all the different pressures and considerations that library staff have when they are assessing materials that need to be kept in a library. “Merely the fact that I checked out Leroux’s novels changed their fate. Since almost all formulas for deciding whether to keep or discard books in a library depend on how often a book is taken out and when it was last removed from the stacks, my interest alone will give these volumes another five years or so of life in the valuable real estate of a Manhattan Lending library” (p 23). Yes, folks. It is as easy as that. Borrow a book and you save it for at least another year or so. Everytime I hear some literary boffin bemoaning libraries deleting classics, consider the fact that many of those books have not been borrowed for 15, maybe 20 years. Lending libraries are not repositories, they are not museums and much as it is a knife stab to the heart of antiquarians, lending library staff are not keepers of the unread word.

So her choice of library was interesting in that it was a subscription library and not a public library. Subscription libraries are quite different to local libraries as their clients pay an annual fee to access the materials that are available to them. Rose is conscious too of the literary vetting that occurs for women to have any place on the library shelf. Phyllis Rose acknowledges the gatekeepers. She discusses VIDA Lit (where a few books ago, I felt that Stan Persky would have benefitted from including VIDA lit in his writing). She explores this idea that only 3 female authors are on her shelf of library reading and how this impacts her serendipitous reading. This represents only 27% of the total book titles on her shelf. Phyllis Rose further enamours me to her by referring to V. S. Naipaul who said that women writers were not more respected due to suffering  from “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” (pg 102) as Sir Grumpus Maximus. She explores the fine line between writing great books that men will laud but women will read too without being seen as a male author that women love for that would be the “kiss of death”. Her discussions of women reading mimic so many of those that I read and take part in both the twittersphere and the blogosphere but I had yet to see these opinions published in a print book. I feel as though the printed world has finally caught up. Libraries purchase their materials on the strength of reviews so gender bias affects reading and access to materials. Though there is some library scholarly discussion on this bias there is very little that discusses this perspective as a library user, as someone outside of the library institution but within literary institutions. I am mindful, that in the 27%, Rose does not encounter a romance author. I am a bit disappointed at this, as I think that she would have fully embraced the genre should it have occurred on her shelf. But even I am hard pressed to think of any romance authors whose surnames fit within the LEQ-LES span. However, I think that had she chosen the BAL-BAN shelf, she would have openly embraced Mary Balogh, or had she explored JAM-JAR she would have loved Julie James. But even then, the NYSL had few romance choices even if Rose had chosen a different shelf to explore. There is no Mary Balogh, Cecilia Grant or Julia Quinn and only Eloisa James’s Paris travel memoir is in their catalogue. I keep searching for more names – Laura Kinsale is missing as is Loretta Chase. Miranda Neville, Kristan Higgans, Victoria Dahl – they are all absent. But Jennifer Crusie, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Nora Roberts are all on the shelf. There are a few Suzanne Brockmann titles that could have shaken Phyllis Rose’s world and thankfully there were plenty of Georgette Heyer titles. Laughably, I did search for Harlequin and Mills and Boon titles and there were no titles at all held at this library. Not even in the Large Print section, possibly one of the few collections of category romances that have been known to sneak onto subscription library shelves (well – at least they have at the Sydney Mechanics for the Arts Library). However, and this will come as no surprise to many romance readers, there was plenty of crime fiction and it was certainly represented on Rose’s shelf. Not only did the library collect crime fiction but they also have a monthly newsletter with about 60 titles. Once again, my exasperation at libraries comes through. So much effort is placed in buying and reviewing crime, yet with romance the comments from buyers will often be “there is too much published in a month, we can’t buy, we don’t know where to start”. Yes. Well. There seems to be no problem with a starting point for crime. In my opinion, it is library selections that has impacted on the arbitrariness of Rose’s reading. But I digress.

The NYSL is one of the oldest in New York and it is evident in the breadth of age of the books that Rose reads. I love the way she explores each book, considering the text as only part of a story. Rose takes us down the rabbit holes that each book has sent her on. She meets authors who become friends, she discovers stories of authors dying before their time due to senseless duels, she creates reading maps with every book she reads. I wanted to stand on my chair and cheer her.

I am amused by her perspective. Phyllis Rose discusses grotty books and how “many people claim deep attachment to the feel of traditional books” without the acknowledgment that often the physical book can come between you and the text when it is a dirty, well used book. This is often the problem with library books. As sentimental as one may be, the dirt and grime of a well worn copy that is no longer in print leaves a library in a quandary as to delete or keep the book on the shelves.

I love that Phyllis Rose quotes Library Journal, she explores humour and domesticities and I find myself nodding and agreeing with her every line. She says that “spontaneity, inclusiveness and uniqueness are marks of great fiction” when discussing Jodi Picoult’s books and she asks “How do we make aesthetic judgements”(p 139) . This one phrase is of high importance to me. Phyllis Rose is exploring a library and reading a specific shelf. How did the librarians, the collection development and acquisitions staff make those aesthetic judgments over so many years that have in turn impacted so greatly on the discussions that appear in this book.

In reading and writing this book, Phyllis Rose writes that she read 23 books and 11 authors, she discovered short stories, novels, realistic, mythic, literary and detective fiction, American, European, old, contemporary, highly wrought and flabby fiction, inspired and uninspired fiction. She says that “My shelf covered a lot of ground”. Phyllis Rose was guided by the arbitrariness of the alphabet and in it discovered both forgettable books but more importantly, several keepers. I worry about people who will recreate Phyllis Rose’s experiment who walk into genrified libraries. How will this lack of arbitrariness impact the books they take home. I worry about the libraries who keep the majority of their stock in robotic stacks, buried deep and only searchable by the subject headings that are attached to them by cataloguers who have not necessarily read beyond the cover information made available to them. What secrets remain deeply buried in these stacks that will not be browsed upon, that there is no possibility for serendipitous discovery. Ross’s reading led her through labyrinths of discussions and other reading from reviews, to blogs to research and to the original authors themselves.

Phyllis Rose ends her book thusly “If The Shelf brings other readers to these novels, I will be happy, but even happier if it sends them into the stacks of libraries to find favorites of their own and to savor the beauties of what I hope is not a vanishing ecosystem”. This book sang to me. It was not only a pleasure but a celebration of my own reading ideals. Catherine Sheldrick Ross was already a match reading perception wise. However, this was not a surprise to me as I am in her (library) tribe. But I had yet to find an omnivorous, generous, aesthetic reader from within literary circles published in traditional print form. I know they exist – they are already in the virtual world and they are part of my real world but I had not found a book written by a literary that discussed their approach to reading with such equanimity as Phyllis Rose.   I love reading someone who has a deep understanding of not only how literature relates to the everyday person but is able to shift with how attitudes to reading has been changing over the past decades. I am so thrilled by this book. I love the shelf reading premise (shelf reading is a daily task for employees of libraries). I love that reading through a library shelf is considered extreme reading. I adored every single page of this book for Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf is everything that I look for in a book discusses discussing reading and how it relates to the world around us.

This book is worthy of fireworks.

 

The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.

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