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Sunday, March 18th, 2012 | Author:

I read a couple of essays today that really resonated with me. Link time!

First up is “All About Pleasure: The Politics of Arousal,” by Donna George Storey on the Erotica Readers and Writers Association blog. Storey talks about the recent PayPal censorship issue, and points out that fiction is generally meant to arouse something in the reader:

The truth is people read all fiction to be aroused. Erotica is assumed to focus only on sexual arousal. Literary and mainstream fiction are supposed to stay above the waist to arouse love and hate, our sense of justice and morality, and an identification with the fate of the characters. I can’t count how many times I’ve read advice for literary writers to give your poor protagonist as many trials and conflicts as possible, the better to create a sense of pleasurable release when she prevails. Eroticists are accused of manipulating their readers for a low purpose in that perhaps—or even hopefully [gasp]—the story will lead to what has traditionally been referred to as “self-abuse.”

Storey goes on to point out how frequently child abuse or childrens’ deaths crop up in more literary fiction, seemingly as an authorial shortcut to stirring the reader’s emotions. Which is kind of gross, right? I mean, that makes me a lot more uncomfortable than the vast majority of erotica does.

Link number two is “Romance, Arousal, and Condescension,” by SB Sarah over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I’ve seen people who care a lot about pointing out that romance writing is legitimate writing say “romance is not porn for women” many times, and it usually makes me wince a little, because I feel like there’s an invisible “because porn is inherently bad and romance is not!” tacked on, or maybe some icky evolutionary psychology bullshit about how women and men have totally different, hardwired arousal responses and whatnot. So when I see that phrase, I tend to go read something else. Sarah caught my attention with it this time, though, because she added in the same bold print:

Porn is porn for women.

There is nothing wrong with either one.

And whatever a woman employs to satisfy her own sexual curiosity and hornypants is her business, not yours.

She then writes about how hard it is to actually define stuff like porn and erotica (no kidding!), but what I really liked about the blog post is her discussion of how condescension and discomfort surrounding women reading romance is largely condescension and discomfort surrounding women being sexual. Which is kind of a big thing at the moment here in my country…as well as almost everywhere and everywhen else.

Very thought-provoking stuff. Go! Read!

Also, I promise you this is the last time I will beg for votes (well, for this, at least), but Cecilia Tan extended the deadline for voting on the poll at Circlet Press for the upcoming print anthology, so: If you happen to read this before March 19th, and you want to make me really happy, go here and vote for “A Woman of Uncommon Accomplishment” by Elizabeth Reeve (Sense and Sensuality), please!

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Monday, February 20th, 2012 | Author:

It’s been a couple of weeks since I posted about my resolution to cut down my TBR shelf, and I figure it’s time for a check-in. On the plus side, I’ve read 12 books from the tbr-in-2012 collection! On the minus side, I seem to have added…33.

Oh my god, it’s a sickness! These were all freebie books, at least, so I’m not breaking my secondary resolution about not buying anything new for a couple of months, but still.

Because they were free, though, I picked up lots of things I probably wouldn’t have taken a chance on if I was making a purchase, so I’m anticipating one of several desirable outcomes per book, here:

  • I like something new and unexpected! Hooray!
  • I dislike something new so much that I won’t be tempted to get more of it. Hooray!
  • I don’t finish the book, free of the “but you paid for it” obligation that often keeps me going with an unsatisfactory read. Hooray!

As for the 12 books that I’ve managed to remove from the TBR shelf… I have a few thoughts to share about a handful of them.

Primary Inversion, by Catherine Asaro, was one of the first things I read this year, and an interesting way to kick-start 2012. It’s very 90′s-space-opera-y, complete with a lot of specialized terminology for things that ends up reading like calling a rabbit a smeerp, except that the things being described don’t exist, or didn’t exist at the time the author was writing (unlike rabbits). That sounds like a heavy criticism, but I don’t mean it that way – futuristic tech and the technobabble that goes with it is a convention of the genre. I definitely noticed it more in Primary Inversion than I sometimes do, but it wasn’t any kind of barrier to getting sucked into the plot, which combines elements of romance with action-adventure and interplanetary politics. Fun!

Primary Inversion also has something that I don’t see a lot of in fiction of any stripe and really appreciated: therapy. I know, right? But really, psychologists and psychiatrists are usually shallowly portrayed as forces inimical to the heroes when they make it into something like a space opera at all, which is too bad. Because who needs therapy more than super soldiers? Asaro seems to have had similar thoughts, and the conversations between Sauscony, the heroine of Primary Inversion, and Jak Tager, the “heartbender” (aka psychiatrist), are well-written and affecting.

There was one barrier to my full enjoyment, which is that the version I was reading was riddled with minor typographical errors. I got it from the Baen Free Library, so I’m not inclined to complain much since the price was pretty excellent, but the errors are something that I would have happily done without. I have no idea if other editions of the novel are better copy-edited.

Earlier this month, I (re)read some really classic sci-fi in the form of Phillip K. Dick’s “Second Variety,” a novelette-length story that I first read as a preteen and which has haunted me ever since. I find the protagonist less interesting every time I read it, but my fascination with the story as a whole is constant. If you’ve never read it, you should get yourself a copy.

In “branching out a little from science fiction” reading, another thing I’ve read since January and heartily enjoyed is Wen Spencer’s A Brother’s Price, which reads more or less like fantasy, though there aren’t any magical elements. The speculative angle to the story is that male babies are very rare, creating an interesting social organization where sisters share a husband, and brothers and sons are trade commodities.

I read some reviews of the novel that take Spencer to task for “failing” to write a gender-swapped universe that is pro-feminist (because corruption and coercion exists even with women in charge and/or because there are female rapists, among other reasons), which I think are a little misguided, mostly because I don’t think A Brother’s Price is an attempt to write a gender-swapped universe, pro-feminist or otherwise (and also because I don’t subscribe to the form of feminism that holds that women are intrinsically better than men and that therefore a matriarchy would be automatically awesome, but that’s another issue entirely).

I can’t say that with any certainty, of course, since I haven’t the slightest notion what Spencer meant to do (this is a thing that I wish more reviewers would keep in mind!), but the writing is skillful and the plotting precise, and I don’t think it would have escaped an experienced writer’s notice as she worked that the society in this book isn’t just a flip-flop of our own, in terms of gender – the scarcity of one sex is what drives the (very interesting!) social organization, and it only works if the scarcity is of males, for pretty basic and obvious biological reasons.

That brothers are rare and must be protected against husband-raiders, etc., does set up some interesting gender-role stuff, though, in that Spencer’s young hero acts much like the sheltered heroines of fantasy romance. Which means that the royal princesses, sisters all heading into any prospective marriage together, are the hero, complete with a tendency toward romance-alpha-male-type seduction of the heroine.

So, it’s basically a historical-style romance where the hero is a bunch of princesses and the heroine is a young man with overbearing-but-loving sisters and there are all sorts of political machinations and skullduggery and battles and things. I loved it.

Okay, enough of that. It’s back to the book mines for me!

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Thursday, June 02nd, 2011 | Author:

I always mean to write thoughtful, in-depth reviews of the awesome books I read – and then never have time, or when I do have time, I’m babying my wrists with a computer time-out because I just got off a writing binge. But I read two really good books lately, and by god, I’m gonna review them. With as much depth as I can cram into 200 words or fewer each.

Cast the Cards, edited by S.L. Armstrong:

This one has been on my list for ages, because it has one of my buddy Marie Carlson‘s stories in it. And it’s a story that I didn’t see any part of during the draft phases (unusual, for us), so I was looking forward to a nice surprise. I loved it, predictably. “Blazing Star” has had favorable mention in many reviews, for very good reason. Marie has a talent for writing short stories that are self-contained and satisfying, but take place inside what is clearly a richly layered, larger narrative. Whether she’s actually developed more stories in any given world or not, her attention to backstory and world-building is fabulous, and it’s easy to imagine that they’re out there, waiting to be told.

The other stories in the collection were solid and enjoyable, though mostly not to my usual genre tastes. I liked them all, but I suspect they’d resonate better for readers who enjoy contemporary (as in, modern and not heavily speculative-flavored) stories more than I do. The other standout for me was Janine Ashbless’s “The Grief of the Bond-Maid,” which turns out to be the awesome Viking-inspired, symbolism-rich fantasy short that I never knew I always wanted.

Unlocked, by Courtney Milan:

OMFG. To use my friend Marianne’s favorite descriptor: AMAZEBALLS. I often feel like historical romance novellas are either too short or too long – either things happen super-duper fast (instant love!), or else there’s enough material for a really excellent short story…and then a lot of extraneous stuff, too.

But Milan nailed the length perfectly with Unlocked. She chose backstory elements that are familiar enough that she could put the focus on the particular details pertaining to her hero and heroine, making them feel unique and well-developed while still leaving space for the events of the story. And, awesomely, some room for a little growth for background characters, as well. I really want to say more about how thrilled I was by one particular development, but it would be a spoiler, so I’ll desist. (Hint: it’s the last scene before the epilogue!)

Anyway, if you like historicals and enjoy a well-paced shorter read, get yourself a copy of Unlocked. So worth it.

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Friday, August 13th, 2010 | Author:

When I read a romance novel (or romantic novel, or erotic novel, or novella, or short story… You get the idea) that I like, I always set it aside with a happy sigh and the very best intentions of writing a review. And then I get busy doing something else – Writing of my own, if all goes well. Usually, it’s dishes, alas – and never get around to it.

I recently burned through a short stack of Regency-or-thereabouts romances (a genre I really enjoy as a reader, though I doubt I’ll ever want to write in it) one after another, though, and they’re sitting here on the edge of my desk, reminding me to review them with haughty looks from elegantly-dressed ladies and men with no shirts on. Instead of putting it off and feeling guilty every time I see their pouty little lips on my bookshelf, I think I’ll quickly dash off some rapid-fire reviews.

First, I Kissed an Earl, by Julie Anne Long. This novel continues Long’s loosely-connected Pennyroyal Green series (which includes The Perils of Pleasure, which is one of my all-time favorites), and was a nice look at some familiar characters from a new angle. Beyond that, it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I found Violet Redmond more irritating than sympathetic, unfortunately, but what really got on my nerves was the number of mistakes in the manuscript that should have jumped out at an editor somewhere along the line at least as vividly as they jumped out at me. Long’s intricate plotting really deserves to be presented to the reader free of typographical errors and grammar flubs.

Next up is At Last Comes Love, by Mary Balogh. So, I sort of have a thing for marriage of convenience narratives. This book has one of those, written extremely well, with characters who I would totally hang out with in real life (assuming the existence of time travel, etc.). On top of that, the secondary characters aren’t just background – the heroine’s family are a big part of her life, and important to the progression of the story.

But what really set this book apart for me was that even though the plot is convoluted and sometimes farcical (in the good way!), the main characters actually do talk to each other and tell the truth about things, most of the time, instead of dragging misunderstandings out. And though a lot of the background plot material is really grim, the central love story is sweet in the best way. I’d never read any of Balogh’s books before this one, and am delighted that there are several for me to catch up with.

Third is Surrender of a Siren, by Tessa Dare. This one was definitely worth picking up. That characters fall in love within days of meeting each other all the time in historicals sometimes gets on my nerves, especially when I’m reading a handful of them back-to-back (notably, that’s not really the case for any of the books I’m reviewing today, but still!). Sophia and Gray spend a really long time together in a socially constrained space before their spark starts to transform into something more lasting, though, and I thought it was a very believable transition. Some aspects of the “big misunderstanding” phase of the story didn’t work very well for me, but on the whole it was a fun book, and had some interesting departures from the norm. And a scorching hot guided masturbation scene, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Finally, One Dance with a Duke, also by Tessa Dare. Now, this book, I loved. I sort of have a thing for marriage of convenience narratives, as I might have recently mentioned. Apparently, one of those combined with a hero who acts like an Alpha male in all of the most irritating ways and is viewed by other characters as being outrageous slams right on a button that I didn’t have a name for until now. And that name is One Dance with a Duke. If you like historicals, read it. If you like marriage of convenience stories, read it. If you actually genuinely like Alpha males, read it. If you… You know what? Just get a copy. You’ll thank me.

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Wednesday, March 03rd, 2010 | Author:

I meant to link to and endorse a review my friend Marie Carlson wrote a couple of weeks ago, and then got super-busy (reading and writing, naturally. Oh, and doing dishes. Much less glamorous) and forgot. But now I have remembered!

The reason I’m linking to Marie’s review instead of writing up my very own is pretty well summed up in her introduction:

I will start this mini-review with a bit of funny that happened. The other day I sat down to continue reading Wolf Signs, the awesome Elizabeth Reeve popped up on IM, and we had this exchange (mostly paraphrased):

Eliza: I read some short stories I liked. They were about werewolves. You like werewolves. Let me tell you about them! (She also thoughtfully provided links, because she is awesome. Because I am also awesome, I will pass those links on to you: “First Howl” and “Second Howl” by Vivian Arend.)
Eliza: *talks a little about the short stories and the things she likes about them*
Eliza: And a female lead who is deaf!
Me: *double take* I think I am reading these books! I was just going to tell you about this free book I got for the Kindle. (Because I am still awesome, I will include a link, though I can’t guarantee how long the freebie will last: Wolf Signs.)
Me: Shared brain for the win!

So, you can see that Marie and I had very similar thoughts on this series right from the beginning, including the “oh, hey, I want to recommend these stories to someone!” thought.

The rest of Marie’s review can be found here: I Recommend…Wolf Signs by Vivian Arend (spoilers). As you can guess from the title, she spoils bits of the plot of the first book of Vivian Arend‘s Granite Lake Wolves series, so be aware of that before you click through.

We continued to have very similar thoughts on Wolf Signs right through the end of reading it, so you can look to Marie’s review for a more in-depth take on some of the things about the book that didn’t quite work for me. But the things that did work were very appealing. I loved the heroine, Robyn Maxwell. She’s a fun character, and I was really pleased to see a deaf heroine whose disability wasn’t treated like some kind of horrific, over-the-top curse. Robyn’s deafness makes some things in life more complicated for her than they might be for a hearing person, but she’s resourceful, and perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

Arend also avoided going too far in the other direction in her portrayal of a character with a disability. Robyn isn’t some kind of inhuman (well, okay, a little bit inhuman, but not like that) paragon, either. She’s not a cautionary tale, or an object of pity, or an inspiration to “the rest of us.” She’s a person, and a well-developed heroine.

I would have enjoyed the book for Robyn alone, but the other characters in Wolf Signs are equally engaging. Combine that with a really appealing setting and an intriguing take on werewolves and pack politics, and you’ve got a series-starting book that I’m happy to recommend. And I’ll be picking up the next book in the Granite Lake Wolves series as soon as I’ve caught up some with my backlog of reading material.

And my dishes.

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