Reading for more than the feels

I don’t read just to feel, I read to think, and to be forced to think whether I feel like it or not. If my reading only involved feeling I’d stop reading fiction and find a different way to spend my time.

This sentiment has been rolling around inside my brain for months now, mostly in a muddy, inchoate form so that I can’t quite get a handle on it, and it refuses to go away. It crystallized for me this week through a series of conversations and articles. First, Jane wrote a piece on romance readers’ hard limits. Then there was a Twitter argument about whether books over 1088 pages are “just too long … no matter how skilled a writer you are.” And then this morning I read two articles on elitism and literature. Are we elitist because we think people who damn long, somewhat complex books as “boring” are missing important aspects of the reading experience, and of literature as an artistic form?

I thought Jane’s column was terrific and I wanted to comment. But I kept coming up against a barrier: I don’t really have hard limits. Every time someone asks what the no-go areas in romance are for me, I have to stop and think. Like every other romance reader I have storylines and characterizations I avoid. But a hard limit? There isn’t one.

I have learned that many genre authors don’t have the time and/or skill to provide the nuances I need in a book that features certain kinds of characters or certain historical settings. But that doesn’t mean no author will ever manage it, and I want to remain open to the possibility. Some readers have a rule that they will read all kinds of scenarios outside the genre but romances can’t have X, Y, or Z. I’m not that kind of reader either.

I think my lack of hard limits is due to the way I read romance, i.e., I read it the way I read all fiction. Continue reading

The difference between Romantic and Romance

Our HEA is still going strong.

Robin and I were talking yesterday about books that push genre boundaries, and she made an important distinction between whether something is Romance, as in conforming to genre standards, and romantic, as in something that fits the reader’s individual definition of a romantic story. I was complaining about a book that features torture and rape (you may call it noncon/dubcon, I call it rape) and asking when those aspects became accepted as romance. I’ve read plenty, but always in erotica, not genre romance.

Robin then gently reminded me that epic historical romances of old had lots of rape, captivity, and occasionally even torture, and we don’t exclude them from the category. To the contrary: we call them bodice rippers and consider them the foundation of at least part of today’s romance genre (certainly they are the precursors of many of the non-Regency “European historicals”). So slave and captivity tropes, main character in jeopardy, main character tortured, it’s all been part of the romance genre for decades, and there have been readers who have enjoyed reading these novels for those decades.

I am one of those veteran romance readers who has never finished a Woodiwiss or a Lindsey, and the one Catherine Coulter I read drove me away from the US romance market for years (it meant I missed Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley too, but thankfully I found them later). I stuck to Harlequins set in and written by UK authors, a handful of Regency trad authors that didn’t use too many Americanisms, and contemporary romances by authors like Rosamund Pilcher (not the sagas, just the shorter contemps). I was perfectly happy reading these, but it meant that even thought I found plenty of books to read that were romantic, it gave me a distorted view of what the entire Romance genre looked like. It’s analogous, I suppose, to people who think the genre began with The Flame and the Flower and ignore all the genre-conforming romance novels that preceded it.

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Will Amazon’s acquisition turn Goodreads into another Zappo’s, IMDB or Stanza?

The debate over how Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads will change the latter is rife with predictions, from those arguing GR will only get better, to those saying it won’t change, to those predicting GR will go down the tubes. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I find many things about the way GR operates to be problematic. I wrote about them last summer in a series of posts you can read here, here, here, here, and here. I had intended to write another series of posts, but I realized that they would essentially be data-free speculation at worst and data-poor speculation at best. We don’t know what is going to happen. Amazon bought Zappo’s and left it alone. Amazon bought IMDB and changed it in ways that some users loathe and some users barely notice. Amazon bought Stanza and essentially killed it. Where does GR fit in the Amazon “family” of purchases?

I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone, even the honchos at GR and Amazon, can answer that question definitively. They have plans and ideas, but so did HP when it acquired Palm and said that it wanted to develop WebOS. Amazon clearly considers GR’s social aspects and book discoverability techniques to be extremely desirable, and GR needs an infusion of money, talent, and personnel. A site that serves 16 million people but runs on 40 employees who won’t or can’t staff the site 24/7 is never going to run smoothly.

More than any site I can think of (feel free to provide examples in the comments), GR has been built by its members. GR’s genius has been in providing a friendly, easy-to-navigate site that members can contribute to without much knowledge or work. But if you look at the actual content, apart from the ads and the scaffolding itself, almost everything is contributed by the people who use it, not the people who are paid to run it. Even the changes and innovations come as much from member suggestions as from company initiatives. Do a thought experiment: consider what would happen if every member who has ever added something (a book, a comment, a review) to the site deleted her account and checked the box that says “delete all my data.” What would be left?

And yes, I’m well aware that GR is free, i.e., that you don’t have to pay a fee to use it. But you see ads, the content you create is distributed to other platforms, and much of the extremely useful book database has been contributed by member labor. Heavy GR users pay quite a bit in time and opportunity costs.

So rather than make predictions about what will happen, I’m just going to lay out some questions that occurred to me or that came up in comments to my previous post.

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Michael Nava’s The Little Death

I decided I really needed a reading change of pace, and I wanted something that I knew would be good. Michael Nava’s mystery series featuring California lawyer Henry Rios had been on my wish list for a long time, and the books finally showed up in ebook format this year. I climbed into bed with the dogs (TheH is away), downloaded the sample and read it, immediately bought the book, and made myself put it down a third of the way through. I finished it the next day at the first chance I had.

The Little Death introduces the reader to Henry Rios, a 33-year-old Linden Law (read: Stanford Law) grad who is working as a public defender. He’s assigned to the PD’s office in Palo Alto, which sounds like it would be interesting, right? Not in the 1980s, the era in which this book is set. Rios has been exiled to the Palo Alto branch from the central San Jose office because of fallout from a high-profile case. Palo Alto is sleepy, suburban, and generally uninteresting, and Rios has been demoted from felony trials to arraignment court.

But his boring job suddenly perks up when he represents Hugh Paris, distaff member of the wealthy and powerful family that established Linden University in Palo Alto and that still wields an enormous amount of influence in the region and the state. Paris is a drug addict who was arrested for possession and resisting arrest, but he’s also gorgeous, charismatic, and immensely appealing. He’s quickly bailed out by a “John Smith” and Rios thinks that’s the end of it, but Paris shows up on his doorstep asking for help. Rios gives him that and a bit more, and they begin a tentative affair. He knows this can’t end well, but he doesn’t realize how quickly and how badly it will end until Paris is discovered face down in a creek, apparently having committed suicide.

The relationship ends, and the investigation begins. Rios is convinced it wasn’t suicide because Paris suspected that someone was out to get him. As Rios slowly starts to unravel Paris’s history and the circumstances surrounding his death, the circle of people involved and at risk widens.

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More notes on Captive Prince (Vol. 1 & parts of Vol. 2)

spoiler lolcat

ALERT #1: SPOILERS AHOY FOR CAPTIVE PRINCE VOLS. 1 & 2. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK.  

ALERT #2: THIS IS A LONG-ASS POST. GRAB A CUP OF COFFEE OR WHATEVER KEEPS YOU AWAKE.

In a previous post I discussed my discomfort with the way slavery is ever-present in Captive Prince, and especially the use of slavery as part of the Orientalist presentation of Vere. In this post I talk more about why slavery is a hot button for me, generally and in this book, as well as other things that made my reading experience less than optimal. 

I want to note up front that I am talking here about the portrayal of institutional slavery and the mindset of slaves, not an individual master-slave relationship. I think a good author can make an individual relationship fascinating and avoid the traps of exploitation and stereotyping. But slavery as an institutional backdrop and an often casual treatment of how slaves think about their condition in a book that readers are asserting is “not really slavefic” is what really pisses me off. Yes, it’s an m/m romance. But it also falls within the category of slavefic, just as it falls within the category of historical fantasy.

SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT.

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