Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Rating of Romance 1-2-3

Sometime last summer there was a romance book that I downloaded onto my nook either because it was Free Friday or because it was 99 cents.  I let my grown daughter Shey have the nook for the few days it took her to finish the book, and felt very generous.  She was happy, and told me that it was her favorite type of romance, historical and based in Britain.  It was Grace by Deanne Clark, and since Mark and I routinely tease her about her favorite books being smut, and I have long taken pride in finding the sex scenes in any of her racy Harlequins (slightly more than half way through, and then again at three-quarters), she let me know that this book was different because the sex scene wasn’t until the end.  I read it, I don’t remember it, but she amused me and so I bought her some romance books for our August vacation, sending them to the house we were staying at, thinking there would be extra if my daughter Cait or cousin Bridget or sister-in-law Kathy or brother's girlfriend Kelly wanted a beach or bed read. 

As it turned out, they didn’t,  and I didn’t want Shey to read alone (not sure why) so I joined in.  I had picked the books carefully on Amazon due to their good reviews and writing and plot so I was curious.  I was immensely stressed by this vacation due to many days of insomnia (yes, that came first) and the strains of running the house with 22 or 23 people in it each night and looking for relief from any corner.  After I finished the two library books I had brought and liked/loved (Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson and The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnely), I dove in. 

Relationship articles had been suggesting reading passages aloud, and while I did try this, one disturbing time when my  husband Mark nearly laughed me out of bed, I was undaunted.  The Men's and Women's Health book on sex and relationships had listed Emma Wildes’ Seducing the Highlander as the hands-down best for this purpose, and since I was months-into the Outlander audiobooks and thus living with a Highlander for at least two hours of every work day during my commute, I ordered this one and read it first.  It was scorching hot, so much so that I hid it from Sheyanne and moved onto a more conventional romance, A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran.  Also hot, but an addictably fast read for other reasons as well.
First, historical fiction is my favorite genre as well, and I was in the midst of reading All Things British this year with dozens of books, hundreds of scenes and thousands of pages read so far by Bill Bryson, Diana Gabaldon, Charles Finch, CJ Sansone, Kate Morton, Agatha Christie and Mary Stewart.  The class system of British nobility was interesting, if slightly nauseating, and a ripe setting for love stories, farces and comedies, all of which are included in the typical romance book.  

That some of the romances go beyond this, into other countries, the underworld, the underclasses, is even better.  I’m interested in castles, and clans, and cultures, and most historical books teach me something, even if it’s just how to make soap.  Since few are set in America I can’t see remains of the ancient keeps and lochs and towers and cliffs;  somehow imagining them is much more interesting than seeing the  equivalent in this country (mansions and plantations). 

Second, the writing is good.  With the exception of some e-books (all of which are inferior but I have still bought and read them because they are cheap, accessible and also interesting, just under-edited) the authors I have read so far are mostly witty and fun, their pacing is fast and smooth, their characters are well-drawn, embroiled in gripping drama and embody universal struggles and desires.  Since there are so many romance novels and the authors need every edge possible in the market their creativity is immense:  twins, ghosts, murders, mysteries, secrets, kidnappings, brandings, jailings, brothels, bastards, theft and discovery are all crafted into distinct stories with social farce and miscommunications to rival Shakespeare.  There is some descriptive imagery, but much less than in most books, filling in all the space with thoughts, feelings and human behavior.  The love stories especially are typically between two troubled souls, flawed but likeable enough that we pull for them to heal themselves with the balm of each other from the start.  

I am, apparently, a goner for a love story, and am never tired by the struggles of relationships and culture clashes and marriage and children.  The darkness of many of the characters, their damage, their traumas, make the stakes for their domestic dramas higher;  they are jaded, with few tries left in them to risk heartbreak, or seek redemption.  All readers (from the reviews I see) get emotionally drawn into the story from the beginning, or at most after a couple of chapters, and sign on for the ride to the endings.  Which are, I say with relief, happy.  I do not ever seem to tire of happy endings, problem resolution, misunderstanding clarifications.  Deep tragedy, loss and loneliness have to be balanced by joy and shared with loved ones for survival’s sake, in life or fiction. 

Third, the heroines are cool.  They are typically brainy outsiders who have given up on conventional marriage and are ostracized for it.  Sometimes they are na├»ve or coddled but more often toughened by being orphaned, abandoned, disinherited or ruined.  They are survivors who do not need any man to complete them, but are drawn to one nevertheless, almost against their will, and out of love rather than need.  The heroes are flawed in myriad ways, arrogant or broke or embittered or awkward but redeemed by the love of their woman and shown the error of their ways, and vice versa.  In the words of Ever After, they save each other. 

And last but not least, the sex scenes are very passionate and stirring, as they are intended to be. I gave Mark the down-low over dinner at Cabo the other night on how to successfully bed a virgin in the world of romance, again largely against his will but he's very tolerant of my conversational tracks.  It is so much more bearable to read than anything contemporary where its treated like the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Jennifer Jason Leigh meets a guy she’s flirted with at the mall at a baseball park and he painfully screws her in the dugout before leaving her numb.  Reality bites, but I also think that ugliness is overstated, since most girls do lose their virginity to boys and men they are in love with (or at least crushing on).  And the sex ongoing between a couple in love and in the early stages of their relationship, full of yearning and fear and insecurity and brashness is realistically bold and often beautiful.  

Since I can no longer stomach much violence in my fiction this is likely going to be the Main Event in terms of emotional apexes in the books I read.  To have it be guaranteed from the start, and early and often throughout the book in all kinds of iterations is truly fun, and a tremendous stress reliever—like baths and walks and massages and sex and bed and good meals this is a luscious sensory experience and we're not even (yet) talking about the erotic romances I've read.  I read a Diana Gabaldon blog where she mentioned she enjoyed the judging the competition for Best Erotic Scene undertaken annually at the Romance Writers annual convention.  They read them at midnight J  Who doesn’t enjoy this stuff, I want to know?  

There are of course things I don’t like about the books.  They are formulaic, and after a few weeks I could write the handbook on types characters, plots, settings and language (though I'm sure these are already written).  Heroines are usually between 20-30 years old, much younger than me, with the hero about five years older.    The guys are all incredibly handsome, which is a nice fantasy but not necessary;  since I’m not looking at them their thoughts, words and actions truly are the thing.  The behavior and dialogue is much more modern than the times and settings would demand, sometimes ludicrously so.  And some of the writing is repetitive, just in case the reader doesn’t pick up on the themes the first time they’re stated, or in less obvious ways. 

Still, I’m enjoying them at a blistering pace and it’s becoming a problem.  Most books I had read before took me 3-4 days, a pace which isn’t a problem because almost everything I read is a library book since I figured out how to do interlibrary loan state-wide and get any book I want.  The rest are free or “steals and deals” nook books, also convenient and cheap.  However, my type of romance book (not the tamer stuff) can only be bought, at 7.99 each, and they only last me a day or two.  At they are get-4-for-3 but that’s still $24 for a week’s worth of books, even if I’m interspersing other reading (a lot of which pales, honestly, in emotional intensity).  I've tried used book stores and in general love to support them but it's hard to compile a series that way, and on websites they are still $4-6 with shipping, and the author gets no royalties.  

So I begin to itch as my supply fades, putting them into my cart online and pondering how to get the money for the next batch.  A minor addiction as far as they go but one for me like wine and chocolate and coffee and texting and popcorn and Disney and shopping and reading in general which makes me wonder about my level of self-control.  Though I’m not one for TV or facebook or visual porn or bar-hopping we all have our pleasures and they exert a certain amount of control over us whether we indulge in them or if they are available, or not. 

What makes a guilty pleasure?  The closest I have come in reading before are the “mystery cozies” that I have read, especially the Coffeehouse Mysteries by Cleo Coyle, which are really romances in a contemporary mystery package.  From reading those I know that they are immensely pleasureable to read, without anything typically learned, the equivalent of eating Cool Ranch Doritos for their intense and transient taste.  

Many of the literary books that I really enjoyed last the past year or so were both memorable and taught me something, lingering in my mind for months—The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, The Widower’s Tale by Julie Glass, Left Neglected by Lisa Genova,  The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo—they are distinct worlds.  But they are full of pain, and I wouldn’t want to live there.  In contrast, the series I have enjoyed (see Brit-focused series above) have a higher balance of pleasure and pain, more realistic in my experience, so I do enjoy being there, and I want to return. 

Romance books that connect characters are especially wonderful in this way, as are those with a long epilogue that links the story to the outcome of their marriage.  I’ll read connected romance books, even if they are sappy or mediocre, because the characters have become partially real to me and I want to know what happens to them.  The House of Rohan books by Anne Stuart center around a debauched practice, the Heavenly Host orgies, not my favorite plot but the characters become heroic as they distance themselves from the grind and looked to save each other.  Not exactly the Lord of the Rings trilogy but still full of danger and drama about brotherhood, rescue, honor and love.  Another easy world to get lost in and if I did struggle, with a good amount of effort, to remember the names of each of the main characters and the exact plots as I moved from one book to the next, well there is always another book ahead to bring the same feelings to the forefront for me, with pleasure.  

That is, the best authors will.  I have read 100 romance books in the last eight months and have developed a system of rating them as a 0 (could not finish), 1 (good), 2 (great) or 3 (favorite) that not only tells me whether to read them again at some later date, but also whether to read more from that author.   Again, these are only historical romance, not contemporary or erotic.  That's for another day.

I imagine I'll compile a list of the actual books at a later date but the guide is to pick a good author, figure out the order of the books in any series you are considering reading (not as easy as it sounds) and then read them in order, suspending disbelief as required for full enjoyment of a fantasy series.  

Best Authors (3's) typically have constant wit and humor, interesting and well-drawn characters, complex situations which are dire but not tragedies and palpable heat between the main characters from the start.  All authors do these things in different measures, but these authors do all well.  
  • Kate Noble (especially quirky couples, fun if you are looking for fresh plots and characters)
  • Emma Wildes (her books are almost sex manuals, but the characters are smart and interesting).
  • Jennifer Ashley (Shey can't read these books, the first one has an autistic hero but I love him)
  • Grace Burrowes (her eight-part first series follows one large family and the tenderness between them is, while perhaps a modern variation on familial love, is what makes me pre-order each new book;  the fifth was just released last week and I it made my weekend wholly better).  
  • Elizabeth Hoyt (probably the best themes for her series, all tightly entwined with a mystery or mission that unfolds throughout the volumes)
  • Julie Anne Long (her Pennyroyal Green series is similar to Burrowes, but with the added twist of having two big, loving and warring families, going back and forth between them with each volume.  This one could end up being far more than eight volumes with the side trips she's taking into extended family as well).  
  • Courtney Milan (I find her books consistently great, they seem truly labored over, the only author whose every book I have given a "3.")
Great Authors (2's) are enjoyable but lack the vibrancy of the above authors, at least most of the time; these authors too are more than capable of sublime moments in their stories.  They might be new and need more polish, or established and need new ideas, but the writing is a bit more prosaic, the characters less well defined and, mostly, there are fewer moments that make me stop reading to either laugh or roll over and kiss my husband--I just keep reading, which in their field is probably good.   
  • Meredith Duran  (I like her books, I pre-order them, they're great)
  • Karen Hawkins  (she writes about Scotland and about big, extended clans of men in need of good women.  It makes all the sense in the world to volunteer).
  • Suzanne Enoch (she has some mighty original plot lines--a monkey on a shoulder, anyone?--and witty, funny banter)
  • Caroline Linden  (she is the archetype for me of this rating, with every book she's written being a "2" for me.  I read every one with pleasure)
  • Anne Stuart (who authored what I think might be my favorite book of all, Devil's Waltz)
  • Loretta Chase (she's on the edge between Great and Favorite, I have a few more to read for tie-breakers)
  • Sabrina Jeffries (similarly just started her books, might move up)
Good Authors (1's) are usually quick reads, fluffy, or they might be more gripping but marred by typos (in e-books, extremely distracting) or too much pedantic dialogue about the politics of the time (sorry, Laurel) or in other ways distance their characters from my emotions.  I have not, for the purpose of not being mean, listed all the books I hated.  So, these are still books I liked.  In fact, in the case of Michelle Sinclair, I am waiting with bated breath for her next volume--it's just that my expectations are more for a fun plot than strong writing. 
  • Laurel McKee (I wanted to love her books on Ireland, why does it pale so to Scotland in Romance-Land?)
  • Michelle Sinclair (I think she might have self-published these as they were cheap e-books only but she has a lovely hook, one that's been ignored for the months or year she hasn't published as she moves from bargain-basement to mainstream publishing, thankfully since I'm hoping she now gets a good editor)
  • Maya Banks (wanted to love her, but it hasn't happened yet)
  • Cara Eliot (came from Yale, I think she'll get there but still, in the end, remain annoyed that I could read her dialogue to Mark pool-side at Disney and we'd both be falling over giggling for the cliches, especially during the sex scenes.  Also needs a stronger editor, I think).  
That's it.  Eighteen authors, one hundred books, countless hours of fun and pleasure.  I thank you.  

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