Tag Archives: romance

Review: The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

This short story introduces both Claire (who has recently discovered she is part-succubus, which explains a lot but is basically Bad News for her), and Lucas, who is an alpha werewolf (Bad News for other people).

Being a succubus means that there’s a risk that you may flip out and cause an orgy by pumping pheromones into the air around you. Being a werewolf means you can flip out and rip people into little pieces.

Pay attention, because these people are going to reappear in later books, I think.

What I Liked

Claire. I liked Claire immediately; her life has just been turned upside down by the news that she’s now classified as Supernatural, and Kovak gets a nice balance between too much complaining about the unfairness of it all (whiny and annoying) and too brave and calm (not believable). She comes off as real, and someone that I wouldn’t mind spending time with in real life.

Lucas. Now, this came as a real shock. Generally, I hate alpha male characters because they tend to be a) interchangeable and b) a$$holes who need to die. Lucas actually has a personality, and his role in the story is more than just object-of-heroine’s-lust. Kovak has put in some other things that made him different from the usual run of interchangeable alphas, which you will discover when you read the story.

The situation. Honestly, I don’t think that the blurb does this justice, because the blurb implies that we’re going to get a sort of standard unpopular-girl-does-something-embarrassing-in-class situation, and the alpha will feel sorry for her, mop up her tears, and they’ll get together…. Not happening. This is not one of those nasty, preachy books where the author tries to beat you over the head with Issues – but, really, people, the potential to accidentally cause a pheromone-induced orgy amongst a bunch of people who might be strangers (or, worse, family!) isn’t amusing. Who is to blame when people end up having sex with people they wouldn’t normally choose to? What might the consequences of removing everybody’s inhibitions be? Kovak has thought through the implications for the people involved; it’s not played for laughs, and we end up with a far more satisfying read for it.

The background world. This is a short story; we don’t find out much about the background because there just isn’t the space, but Kovak has set up something interesting. Reminds of me of some parallels in American history, which you will discover when you read the story.

What I Didn’t Like

Honestly, there wasn’t anything, and I can usually find something to bitch about.

Conclusion

  • The characters are young-adult, but the “feel” is more mature, so don’t be put off by that.
  • The sex is part of the plot, thanks for that, Kovak. Also, not overdone.
  • Thoroughly recommended; I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest. Kovak’s got a fan here, I think. 🙂

Review: To Have and to Hold

To Have and to Hold
To Have and to Hold by Lauren Layne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to say, I don’t ever read contemporary romance. Since this is the second I’ve read, I shan’t be able to say that any more!

I heard about this on the
Caffeinated Book Reviewer
blog and liked the idea. So I got a copy. Then I read it.

So, here we go. This is your traditional formula romance, so I wasn’t expecting Great Literature. I wasn’t even expecting the complexities of plotting and characterisation that I’d expect from Great Fantasy, or Great Sci Fi, which are the genres I usually read. This is formula romance: it’s supposed to be mind candy; it’s supposed to be a fast, fun read that gives you a happy pink feeling. And sometimes, that’s what you want out of a book. My star rating reflects what I expect from the book.

So, four stars.

Brooke is a wedding-planner, who’s just had the embarrassment of her professional and personal life when her fiance got arrested by the FBI at the altar. Upon which, she discovers he’s a con man – and she didn’t even know his real name.

Cue the end of Brooke’s business, and she flees up to New York to join a firm of wedding planners who’ve just lost a member to marriage. Her first wedding to plan is for Maya, a hotel heiress – and it’s being paid for by Maya’s brother, Seth, who suspects the groom is a wrong ‘un.

Insta-lust between Brooke and Seth, and the bone of contention is obviously Maya’s wedding.

Sooo…..

What I Liked
Brooke
The failure of Brooke’s business wasn’t her fault, and she’s trying to make a new start. The story did not require her to do something unutterably stupid and then get rescued from the consequences by a man.

Brooke wasn’t perfect – she was capable of saying, and doing, mean things in a fit of temper. Then she would apologise. Brooke might have been a bit too determined to look on the bright side, but she wasn’t so nicey-nicey that I wanted to smack her.

To be strictly fair, she’s not the kind of woman I’d probably spend much time with, but I could see that she was a decent person, and I wanted her to be happy.

Seth
Seth, I really liked. He had drive, commitment, and control; I do like a rational man. He wasn’t your typical chest-beating alpha male, so lots of extra points there. There was a certain amount of Mr Darcy to him – he’s the responsible, hard-working, control-freaky one who could do with learning to lighten up a bit.

Relationship: Brooke and Seth
This is make-or-break for me. I’ve read romances where I’ve just thought, “This is going to last, like, six months after the end of the book. The sex might be great, but you’ll bore each other to death.” Not so with Brooke and Seth. They’ve each got enough spine to stand up to each other, and their differences are complementary. Brooke tends to look on the bright side too much; Seth tends to be rather more of a cynic. They can each learn from each other, smooth each others’ rough edges, and have the kind of give-and-take that makes a relationship work. I think they’ll make it. 🙂

Also, this is not one of those books where you think, “If this were real, he’d be arrested for harassment or sexual assault.” You get insta-lust, but at least it’s mutual.

Maya
I loved that bit right at the end. You’ll know it when you get to it.

The Plot
This is a romance; it’s about the characters and their relationship, not about the actual plot, which is kind of fortunate because there wasn’t much of a one. But it worked.

The Writing
Layne can write. The book whizzes along, with cute banter between the characters. The editing could have been a bit better – tell me once, you don’t have to tell me again a few pages later – but it wasn’t enough to spoil the enjoyment of the story.

What I Didn’t Like
Brooke
Given what had happened to Brooke, I thought she’d be rather more suspicious of Maya’s fiance. Maybe the author was trying to get across that Brooke’s method of dealing with the issue was basically to ignore it and try to pretend it not only never happened but could never happen, but if so, that didn’t come through quite strongly enough to work properly. I was more like, WTF? Hello? Pollyanna.

Seth
There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about Seth. Apart from his name.

The Plot
The big thing that triggers the “boy loses girl” part of the book, I was left thinking, WTF? (again) Why is this such a big deal? Sounds like a sensible course of action to me. Then I thought, maybe it’s me? But no, it’s me and a bunch of other reviewers.

Overall
I really enjoyed this – hence the four stars. It’s like candy-floss: sweet and sugary and insubstantial, but great fun while it lasts. It does what it’s supposed to do: give you a nice, happy pink feeling. The world needs books that just give you a happy pink feeling without demanding much in the way of intellectual effort or being put through the emotional wringer.

Will I read another book by Lauren Layne? Quite possibly. There are two more in this series, apparently – the next one doesn’t attract me quite as much as the third.

View all my reviews

“With Me Now” – and culture shock

With Me Now, Heather Hambel Curley

With Me Now, Heather Hambel Curley

I’ve just finished reading With Me Now, which is Heather Hambel Curley’s first-published novel (though not the first-written – that’s Anything You Ask Of Me, which is due for publication in August). I’ve reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads, so I shan’t do that here.

My last post on this blog was about a book I’d expected to enjoy but ended up not being particularly thrilled with, because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. With Me Now was almost exactly the other way around – it’s a contemporary romance, and I don’t generally read them. But, because it was Heather’s book, I bought a copy and read it, and enjoyed it much, much more than I had thought. I read it in two sittings – would have been one, except that when I’m in the office, the boss actually expects me to do some work.

The difference is that with With Me Now, I connected to the main character immediately. At first, I wasn’t sure whether I liked her much (anyone who gets arrested for underage drinking less than a month before she can drink legally, knowing what’s going to happen if she gets caught, does not have my instant respect), but I was immediately interested in what happened to her.

For me, it just goes to show that an established author isn’t necessarily more likely to hit the spot than a new author.

The second thing that really hit me about With Me Now is the culture shock. I’m British (English if you want to be specific), and With Me Now is written by an American, about Americans, and set in America. Pretty much the first scene hammered me with the difference between the US and the UK: in the UK, not only is the legal age for buying alcohol 18 (so university hall of residence parties are perfectly legal unless the neighbours complain about the noise) but it’s legal for younger persons to drink alcohol on private premises. The legal drinking age for drinking on private premises (not buying alcohol) in the UK is five. So for Madison (the heroine) to get arrested just for drinking was really weird. I mean, she can vote, get married, have sex, but not drink a shandy? Deeply, deeply weird. But then, I suppose to an American, the idea of it being legal to give alcohol to a five-year-old is also pretty strange.

The other time I got hit with a culture-shock brick was just one throwaway line: Madison finds the way Mike (the love interest) changes gear in his jeep sexy. It’s manual, so he has to work the pedals, and this is obviously pretty unusual. Only, it’s not unusual over here. In America, most cars – or so I have heard – are automatics. Over here, most cars are manual. Automatics aren’t exactly rare, but they’re certainly not the norm. So changing gear doesn’t have the sexy mystique over here that it does for Madison (at least, not unless you have some fairly specialised sexual tastes, and I believe there are websites for that). It also doesn’t work the other way. I’ve never driven an automatic, but my husband has, and two impressions stuck with him:

1) He thought it was like driving a dodgem car at the fair and
2) He kept thinking that someone had stolen one of the pedals…

In a way, those moments of culture shock made With Me Now even better for me. Not only was the book a window into Madison’s and Mike’s world, but it was also a window into Heather’s – a world where it can be legal for a person to have sex but not to have a glass of wine; where pressing the clutch is sexy – and where ghosts exist.

Although maybe not that last…

Who has the right to write?

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about gay romances.

I read them. I also read heterosexual romances.

The reason I read the romances I do, and the reason I like reading them, is because both characters are intelligent, sensible human beings. None of this crap about the whole storyline basically being the result of one of them not telling the other one something important. No wilting. No getting pregnant by accident on a one-night stand. (Yes, I know it still happens despite the availability of contraception since the 1960s, but really do you expect me to respect a heroine who has sex with a stranger without using protection?)

Strangely, this pretty much limits my MF romances to historicals – most of the contemporary heroines seem to be wilting violets who run away a lot, or get themselves into stupid situations that require them to be rescued. By a man. It’s the historical heroines who do interesting things, who stand up for themselves or someone else, who won’t be pushed around.

On the other hand, in M/M romances, I don’t have to cope with one of the two protagonists being someone I want to slap some sense into. I like some vulnerability, but M/M romances tend to be a lot better at avoiding wimpy.

So, a story with two guys in it is a lot more likely to have two characters who are my kind of person.

And, a lot of M/M romances are written by women.

But if you look about on the internet a bit, you find that there’s quite a bit of debate about whether women have the right to write M/M romances.

This sounds awfully familiar. Nobody is saying “gay writers have no right to write about straight women”, but, hey presto, we’ve got a bunch of people trying to limit what women are allowed to do… again.

This isn’t universal; gay male opinion seems to be pretty much divided between “Women – get thee to the kitchen/get thee to Mills & Boon” and “I don’t care who is writing romances about gay couples as long as someone is; let’s have some books about gay characters who don’t die in the end.”

Because, let’s face it, until recently, writing realistic fiction about gay couples, whether male or female, probably wasn’t going to be very cheerful – but particularly for men. Not only was there AIDS to contend with, but society has always been much harsher on male homosexuality than female (usually because female homosexuality just gets ignored). But everyone needs some feel-good fiction at some point, and I’ve read several posts from gay men, basically saying that M/M romance may not be incredibly true to life, but they wanted a happy ending. Which gay fiction written by gay men wasn’t providing, being – as far as I can tell – the equivalent of literary fiction, which is not known for being bright and upbeat.

I wonder whether gay men, being men, have the same hang-up about reading romances as straight men? As in, real men just don’t . So although 16% of romances are bought by men (according to Romance Writers of America), gay men were – once again – deprived of something that straight men had. Not only the opportunity to openly have a relationship with the partner of their choice, but also to read about romantic happy endings that featured people like them.

OK, so a lot of M/M romance is read by heterosexual women. Why is that a bad thing? Gay men read about straight couples. Why shouldn’t everyone read what they want? Reading about people who are different from you is supposed to broaden the mind, isn’t it?

Then, of course, there is the politicisation of writing. That straight women shouldn’t be allowed to write about gay men, because it’s not their story.

So how come Oscar Wilde was allowed to write The Importance of Being Earnest? Which, as I recall, was all about straight couples. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless we’re trying to say that gay men can write what they like, but straight women have to do what they’re told? (Again.)

Of course, set against this, we have the calls for ‘diverse books’.

So, on one hand, straight female authors are being told that they should restrict their writing to straight characters; on the other hand, they are being told that the world needs more ‘diverse’ characters, i.e., gay and ethnic minorities (bearing in mind that everyone is an ethnic majority somewhere).

Both cannot be true.

We cannot say, on the one hand, that a straight white author is only allowed to write straight white characters (because anything else is not their story), and on the other, lambast that author for not writing gay or ethnic minority characters.

What is wrong with an author simply writing the story they have in their head? If a character in your head is gay, then they’re gay. You can’t suddenly swap their gender or sexual orientation – it just doesn’t work like that. Why should I have to censor my writing because I’m not gay? And why should I be made to feel guilty on the one hand for including gay character, and on the other hand for not including them?

The “you shouldn’t write about that because it’s not your story” idea, though, is worse than just making writers feel guilty for writing. It means that it limits who is allowed to write about what – it’s censorship under the guise of ‘respect’ and ‘political correctness’. And what happens, when only gay people are allowed to write about gay characters? Well, since gay people are a minority, how many books with gay characters do you think we’re going to get if we rely on gay people to write them all? An awful lot of gay people would have to give up their day jobs in order to write the requisite number of books.

Or, maybe, we should just let people who already want to write get on and write them. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t worry about political correctness, and whether the author is male or female, straight or gay, human or robot or dancing bear. Maybe we should just think about the quality of the writing. Maybe we should just be happy that somebody is including gay characters. Yes, m/m romances are cheesy a lot of the time – but then so is pretty much every m/f romance! The whole point of the romance genre is that it’s boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or whatever), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. It’s a fun read. It makes you think that there is happiness and love in the world, and that sometimes, love does conquer all.

It’s not meant to be politically correct, it’s not meant to send any kind of message other than ooh, that’s so lovely, and it’s meant to be fun.

Remember fun? That thing you had before you had political correctness? Before you had to worry about diversity and who had the right to write exactly what storylines?

And, to be topical, why, why, why are we praising Charlie Hebdo for publishing nasty, racist, disrespectful cartoons which mock a minority’s culture and religion and calling it “freedom of speech” when at the same time people are trying to argue that women should not be writing books that portray a minority in a generally positive (even if not exactly realistic) light?

I think I’ll let them all go to Hull and I’ll write whatever I like.

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

Review: Revenant

Revenant
Revenant by Kat Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this – thus, four stars out of five (but a strong four).

The action happens mostly in and around Lisbon (Portugal), where Carlos is from. Carlos is a major character in this book as the plot is mainly based on necromancy, and his old enemies – now working with Quinton’s father.

I’ve always liked the way Richardson portrayed the vampires in this series – they are reliable allies as well as enemies, and not always enmeshed in the kind of petty, pointless point-scoring that vampires are in many books. Here, Harper is working with Carlos directly, instead of just going to him for advice when she needs it, and we get to see a bit of more him. I have to admit, I do like ambiguous characters – I find those who are wholly good or wholly evil to be dull. So Carlos is one of my favourites: the man who makes his own choices, good or evil, and lives by the results. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, and he doesn’t repent. I like that.

Quinton and Harper work together well and without silly pissing-contests – though not without disagreement. Quinton is also a pleasant change from the usual fare. He’s not some gorgeous alpha-male hunk (or, worse, he’s not two of them). He and Harper have a relationship that’s based on love and friendship, not just sex and lust.

But the one thing I liked best about this book was the end. This is the last of the Greywalker books – as I suspected it might be, because there’s only so long that the situation with Quinton’s father could be made to last. While we could be pretty sure that Good Would Triumph in the end, as it does in the majority of fantasy series, in this case, the end was not without cost. Often, the reader gets the impression that having Saved The World, the heroes go home for tea and medals, and back to ordinary life. No muss, no fuss. In this book, Good might well Triumph, but not without cost. Harper will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

The book ends suddenly, and without all the loose ends tied up. But I like that. The heroes have to go home, but now they have a life to build. Their own life, free to make of it what they will, with gains having been made as well as losses suffered.

We don’t know what Harper, Quinton, et al will make of it, but whatever it is, they will probably be doing it off-page. I hope they will, because if there is anything worthy of writing a book about, it won’t be the happy life they deserve!

I shall certain look out for what Richardson writes next.

View all my reviews

Genre fiction and intellectual snobbery

Well, here we are again… As you can probably tell from the lack of posting, November is proving to be a month full of incident. Or, at least, full of work. I’ve handed in one essay and got a mark back for it, so I can stop quietly panicking about it – and start quietly panicking about the next thing.

Anyway, a proper post today.

This one is about genre fiction, which you probably figured out from the title. Now, I love genre fiction. Fantasy, science fiction, detective stories, thrillers, romances… This is mostly what I read. Very rarely do I venture into ‘literary’ fiction.

Many people seem to have a very sniffy, contemptuous attitude to genre fiction – and to fantasy, sci-fi and romance in particular. Fantasy and sci-fi are seen as the province of spotty seventeen-year-old boys with no social skills, and romances are for silly women without the brains to read Real Books.

I find myself wondering whether any of these critics have ever read any examples of the genre they criticise. While I would be the first to admit that there is some appalling trash published in the genre fiction market, I hardly think that the ‘literary’ fiction section is without its embarrassing volumes.

Take romances, which are possibly the most derided (especially with the mainstream popularity of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings which have made fantasy slightly more respectable). For a start, look at Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Both famous, both classics which have stood the test of time – and both of them are archetypal romances. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get together again. Happy ending. So what is it that makes Jane Eyre a classic that it’s acceptable to give to school children as a set book in literature class, but the output of the Mills and Boon publishing house into worthless trash that you can’t be seen reading in public without risking ridicule?

If we move into science fiction, Jane Eyre has been re-done as a science fiction story (Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn). So where do we go from there?

Well, one could say that genre fiction is easy to write. After all, the plan for romances is pretty simple: as above, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl get together again. This covers nearly all romance novels. Therefore, a romance can’t possibly be as good as a literary novel, can it, because the author doesn’t even have to come up with a plot!

But wait…

There’s a certain circularity to this. If one sets out to write a romance, then knowing the common plan is useful… but on the other hand, if you set out to write a book and it just happens to conform to the plan – then it’s still a romance!

And this leads us back to Jane Eyre, which, although it’s certainly a romance, gets filed with the classics and literary fiction. So clearly, it can’t be just about plot.

So it must be about characterisation and writing style, since those are the other elements to a book. Yet if characterisation and writing style, rather than plot, makes a novel literary rather than genre, it must be therefore inappropriate to classify a particular work as genre fiction rather than literary merely because it refers to magic (file it under ‘fantasy’) or it’s about boy-meets-girl (romance) or includes space-ships (sci-fi).

And yes, I have to admit that many romances I’ve read could never be described as great literature. They’re mind candy. I like romances because they’re intellectually undemanding, and they’re fun. But some of them are more than that. Look at Georgette Heyer, who’s been dead since 1974 but whose books are still in print. Personally, I think her novels are as well-written as Jane Austen’s, and Heyer certainly did her research. Do books which survive so long after their original publication and show such evidence of research deserve to be dismissed as mere ‘genre fiction’?

Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective fiction (mostly featuring Lord Peter Wimsey) is what made her name, but she also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. Her detective stories show her scholarship, in such widely divergent areas as chemistry, modern languages, and campanology. Sayers is credited with at least partial responsibility for making detective fiction ‘respectable’ – yet she still gets dismissed as ‘genre fiction’.

I would conclude, therefore, that the term ‘genre fiction’ is only useful for describing the basic premise of a book, and the assumption that genre fiction is less worthy of attention or praise than ‘literary’ fiction is quite without logical support. The literary worth of a book should be judged on the quality of the writing within, rather than on its not falling into a certain genre category.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This book, and its sequel, Paladin of Souls, are two of my favourite books. I have read both of them multiple times, and I will read them multiple more times.

Cazaril is a man who has hit rock bottom. Of noble birth, his military career has been one disaster after another, in the service of the perennially unlucky ruler of Chalion. His final posting, as a castle warder, resulted in a nine-month siege; it only ended when he was ordered by his superiors to surrender. All his officers were ransomed except for him; he and the other unransomed men were sold as galley slaves. So, after the ship on which he was a slave is captured by the navy of the neighbouring country, Ibra, Cazaril walks back to the castle where he was a page as a boy, intending to beg for a place as a servant. He has lost his sword, his money, his career, and his health. But he has not lost his honour.

A stroke of luck gives him a little money and some decent clothes, so he can beg for shelter as himself, rather than having to pretend to be a commoner. And so he eventually ends up as the new secretary-tutor to the Royesse (princess-equivalent) Iselle and her lady-companion, Betriz.

Iselle is an intelligent and energetic young woman, somewhat more clever than her younger brother, Teidez, who is the heir to Chalion – their much-older half-brother, the ruler, being childless. When both young people are called to Court, it is Cazaril’s task to steer Iselle and Betriz through the dangerous waters of diplomacy.

And it is at Court that he learns that the ruling family of Chalion is under a curse (hence their perennial bad luck), and the only way to break it is for a man to lay down his life three times for the House of Chalion.

This sounds impossible; a man might lay down his life once, but three times?

But Cazaril, wholly committed to the Royesse Iselle, is determined to save her, at whatever cost to him, body and soul, is necessary.

This is a story of love, honour, courage, tragedy, sacrifice, faith, and theology. It’s a story of destiny, and free will. But it is ultimately the story of Cazaril, a man who has lost everything, regained much, and is willing to lose everything again to save his Royesse and his country.

Sex!

Well, that got your attention, didn’t it?

So, what do you think of it? Personally, I’m all for it, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

This post, however, is going to be entirely devoted to sex in novels.

You’ve probably figured out by now that fantasy is my favourite genre, particularly urban fantasy. I do like a good romance, too (and yes, I believe in love at first sight – well, first decent conversation anyway – and in the existence of Mr or Miss Right). However, one can get rather sick of sex being inserted into a book in the following way:

Plotplotplotplot – STOP!!! [Insert sex scene here] GO! Plotplotplotplot….

Why is it, too, that urban fantasy heroines seem to either have no self-respect, appalling taste in men, or an inability to do the decent thing and pick the one they like and let the other one down gently – or all of the above?

It would be a pleasant change to read an urban fantasy novel with a heroine who isn’t a complete idiot where the opposite sex are concerned. Or one where she’s able to get on with her life without angsting over the lack of a man.

However, I’m certainly not against a love interest. I’d just like it to be a bit more complicated. I mean, when it gets to the point where you can identify the man the heroine is going to end up in bed with before you start reading, and, indeed, two-thirds of the way through the book, yep, sure enough, there’s the creak of bedsprings…. well, it’s a bit predictable.

Where’s the development of an actual relationship (guys, a relationship is about more than sexual attraction)? Where’s the development of sexual tension? Where’s the anticipation? Where’s the will-they-won’t-they?

Examples of ‘good practice’, for me, are Kim Harrison’s Hollows series; although the heroine, Rachel, can be irritating at times, Harrison has actually managed to keep the sexual tension between Rachel and one of the male characters ratcheting up throughout the series – and so far, they haven’t even kissed (although I haven’t read the latest book, so I don’t know what happens in that). Surely they’re going to end up together? You can see the relationship between them changing – come to think of it, there’s something almost Pride and Prejudice about the way they each have to acknowledge their own prejudices and re-evaluate their impressions and opinions of the other. And we still don’t know whether they’re going to get together.

Another is K. E. Stewart’s Jesse Dawson series that starts with A Devil in the Details. Astonishingly, Stewart has done something almost unknown in urban fantasy novels – his hero (male!) is actually happily married with a daughter. This gives the books an interesting extra dimension, as Jesse has the additional worries of supporting his family – he’s not the usual single guy/girl with no dependants.

Oh, yeah, and I may have mentioned before – please don’t assume that all your readers have the same turn-ons as you, the author, do. Laurell Hamilton, for example, is obviously turned on by men with long hair and thigh-high boots. While these two attributes are OK (although I do not admire long hair on men in general) it is possible to get tired of them really quite quickly when every allegedly-sexy male character in the book displays them. Let’s have a bit of variety, please!

For me, the following points are important:

  • There has to be some kind of development of a relationship that’s not just about sex – you know, romance like in Georgette Heyer.
  • It must not be obvious from page 1 (or before) who the main character is going to hook up with.
  • The two characters must actually be suited – it’s not satisfying if it’s obvious that shelf-life of the relationship is (as someone has said before me) somewhere between milk and yoghurt.
  • It’s OK for the course of true love not to run smoothly (obviously) or even for the two characters to look like they might not do well together – but we, the readers, should be able to see – not necessarily immediately – that in the end it’s all going to work out right.
  • And, of course, a love interest as a major plotline isn’t actually essential at all. Don’t try to shoehorn one in where there truly isn’t space. It only bends the whole plot out of shape and makes it look awkward.
  • OK, rant over. Well, that’s my opinion as a reader. What do you think?

    Romance

    They say romance is dead. Well, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the shelves in the local bookshop. I’ve never seen so many bared manly chests and swoony-looking young women.

    Or do they mean, romance in reality is dead?

    Well, if they do, then that indicates an extreme lack of effort on the part of those who are complaining of romantic insufficiency. Where do they think it comes from? Do they think it falls from the sky like rain? Or that the fairies bring it? Romance is like toast: if you want some, you have to make it yourself.

    Or are they complaining about the lack of suitable partners?

    Well, if you’re waiting for a knight in shining armour to come and sweep you off your feet, it’ll probably be a long wait. With the weather the way it is, any sensible knight is staying at home keeping his armour out of the rain – that stuff rusts like you wouldn’t believe. If you want to meet him, you have to track him down. Then you get to the hard part.

    As I mentioned, romance – or at least sex – is all over the place in books. But it comes in different forms, and the partners are chosen more, or less, well.

    My favourite literary couple is the pair who are friends as well as lovers – their relationship isn’t based just on mutual physical attractiveness and lust, but also on shared interests and outlook. You can tell that when they finally get it together, they’ll be happy. Think Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Intellectually and emotionally, they’re well matched. They respect each other’s opinions and they can stand up to each other when needed. They think similarly – although not necessarily identically – on important issues. Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin Vorsoisson in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Komarr and Civil Campaign are another match-made-in-heaven. The path of true love may not be smooth, but you can tell that they’ll be happy together, and anyone who tries to interfere is going to get annihilated. And not just by Miles.

    Sometimes, though, authors are clearly trying to set up the match-made-in-heaven, but they don’t quite achieve it. I saw the film of Sense and Sensibility, but I haven’t read the book – partly because I didn’t like the film. It left me feeling that Jane Austen had got the couples the wrong way round – I thought that Elinor would have been far happier with the intelligent, mature Colonel Brandon than with the weak and ineffectual Edward Ferrars. Equally, Marianne would bore the Colonel, who would soon regret tying himself to a silly child, and she herself would become equally bored with the Colonel’s calm and measured approach to life, but would likely be more in tune with Edward Ferrars. Possibly I ought to read the book to see if the film skewed the characters.

    Vicki Pettersson’s The Taken is another example: Griffin is a 1950s PI; almost a caricature of everything you think a 1950s PI ought to be (strong, silent, tough but protective of women). Kat is a reporter on her family’s newspaper, endlessly bubbly and cheerful, and who lives the ‘rockabilly’ lifestyle. You find yourself wondering whether Griffin is only attracted to Kat because she measures up to his 1950s-era yardstick of feminine beauty, and he is so taken in by her 1950s-retro lifestyle that he fails to appreciate that she is, in reality, a 21st century woman who is unlikely to fit in with his 1950s mores. Equally, is Kat attracted to Griffin because he is everything she thinks she wants – good-looking, strong, masterful, honourable. But will she find that such a man is compatible with her outgoing nature and independence of spirit? In some ways, for me, this mismatch between the two main characters who were obviously (right from the off) supposed to become a couple, spoiled the book for me. Maybe, however, Ms Pettersson will pull off a save and have them develop to be more compatible in future books in the series.

    Then, of course, there’s the unfortunately increasingly common story of the career woman who is unhappy with her successful career and life, and wants A Man to achieve fulfilment. This makes me want to throw the book across the room for two reasons:
    1. It assumes that no woman can be happy and/or truly successful unless she has a boyfriend/husband. In this type of book, there is no hint that the heroine is lonely, or that she misses the companionship of a soulmate. No, she just wants ‘a man’ because once she has that box ticked, she will feel validated. How depressing – take away all the modern trappings, and you have the message that a woman’s job is to be a wife and mother, and no woman is successful unless she has achieved these roles.
    2. This is equally disrespectful to men. The heroine might be seeking validation in society’s eyes rather than true love, but she is also treating men as a commodity, like shoes or handbags. She simply wishes to possess A Man; it doesn’t really matter which man, as long as he’s presentable and she can show him off to her friends. Even worse are the books where the ‘heroine’ is not even really seeking a man – what she really wants is A Baby (another fashion accessory) but finding A Man is only a preparatory step to acquiring A Baby. This is man-as-sperm-donor.

    Sex is easy; romance is hard. A durable relationship is beyond hard. But when an author manages to write a pair of characters whom you can imagine still being in love fifty years in their future, you know she’s got it right.