Friday, December 30, 2011

What Was Exciting and Awesome In 2011?

lolcat

Looking back time! What did I write and think about the most this year?

Harry Potter!
Ah, Harry. Not only did I finish making my way through all the audiobooks, the final movie came out this year as well. Sadface. I gushed over Snape, wrote about HP's connection to WWII, completed surveys, and basically did all I could to break down, revive, and hold dear the series.

Twilight!
With Breaking Dawn, Part 1 coming out in November, naturally I came down with a touch of Twilight fever and reread New Moon, rewatched all the movies (Eclipse was actually pretty good, weirdly), and ate Twilight chocolate. Good times.

Photographs!
Wow, I read a lot of books about photography this year. Photographs of Yale and Detroit; photographs by George Hurrell, Emile Zola, and Man Ray; and a book about 19th-century western photography.

Jane Austen!
Okay, so maybe Jane Austen pops up frequently on my radar every year. But it seems like there was a lot of Austen-related articles and news and spin-offs this year, no?

Classic Hollywood!
I read about it, I watched it. I now know what the phrase pre-code means. I'm all up with it.

Drinking games!
I amused myself muchly this year by inventing drinking games, both for movies during Hitchfest and for books like The Magician King.

black swan
Caw, caw.

Ballet!
For some super-odd reason, this was the year of ballet for me. It all started when I saw Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo's Angels, on Charlie Rose. Then I read her book (well, actually just the first chapter, because that's all I could get for free on the Kindle). Then there was Black Swan, which I saw in the theaters; The Nutcracker that I wound up researching and then reading ETA Hoffmann's Nutcracker and Mouse King; I read The Ballerina, the Gymnast, and the Yoga Instructor; and I watched Mao's Last Dancer on TV. Why is ballet all of sudden the 'it' thing? And why am I watching movies about it? Do not know.


What was trending in your life this past year?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Audiobook Review: O JERUSALEM by Laurie R. King

o jerusalem cover

Dang, this book is long.

Mary Russell is the young partner-in-detection to the officially retired Sherlock Holmes. In the first Mary Russell "memoir," The Beekeeper's Apprentice, there is a small side note that she and Sherlock Holmes went to Palestine on a secret mission for the British government (and also to get out of the country) that's treated basically like this: "We went to Palestine for a year and it was kinda awesome and also the longest trip evar. Then we got back, yay!" O Jerusalem, the fourth book in the series, jumps back to that time period to tell us everything that went on during Russell's and Holmes' briefly-mentioned trip, to wit: they wander around Palestine for what isn't forty years but definitely feels like it; there are a lot of sheep; Sherlock Holmes gets almost-killed a bunch of times; and then they finally get to Jerusalem, where Russell starts geeking out and they stop a terrorist plot.

I can understand why Laurie R. King gave Russell's trip to Palestine its own book, because there was not way to do justice to it otherwise. As I mentioned before, this book is long. And meandery. It isn't quite that it doesn't have a plot, because it does; the reader just doesn't know what the plot is until maybe the final quarter of the book. They wander around and around with what appears to be no direction, and at some point it's like, "Just get to Jerusalem already!" Even worse, I listened to this on audio, which I really only do while cleaning or folding laundry, and thus it took me two months to finish.

I'm not going to say this book should have been shorter--mainly because I can't remember everything that went on at this point--but it does require a considerable amount of patience. It's well-researched and -written, as are all of King's novels; but I'm not a huge fan of "journey" books to begin with, and mystery books where the mystery is incidental outright annoy me most of the time, so I can't say I'm a huge fan right now.

What I did find really interesting, though, were the dynamics of Russell's and Holmes' relationship. Chronologically this is several years before they get married, before we even get a hint that their relationship is anything other than platonic. But in O Jerusalem, you definitely get the sense that the foundation of their marriage is being formed here, especially on the part of Holmes. It was more sentimental and sexual than I was expecting (not that, I'm sure, I would have interpreted it that way had I read the books in chronological rather than release order), and I think it's an awesome way to tell the story--to play with what we already know about the characters and add more layers to them that what would otherwise be there.

This probably won't be listed among my favorite Russell and Holmes books, but if you're already reading the series, naturally you want to read this one. If you're not reading the series, you're missing out on some great writing!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: THE THORN AND THE BLOSSOM by Theodora Goss

Proposed alternate title: It's Not Easy Being Green

thorn and blossom cover and illustration

Evelyn is an American studying at Oxford, when she decides to traipse down to Cornwall for a week. While there, she wanders into a used books shop and meets the handsome son of the store's owner, Brendan (this is my dream, by the way). But will they ever be able to get together after her vacation?

This book is marketed heavily for its binding, which is in an accordion style, with Brendan's story on one side and Evelyn's on the other. Hence the subtitle of "A Two-Sided Love Story" (fun fact: one-sided love stories are also called stalking). Plus, it's nicely illustrated and designed. Although the binding is an unusual idea, I wanted to read this book because of the story, not its packaging.

The story is based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (or at least a Cornish version of it), which I really enjoyed. I am totally down for any book that bases itself off Arthurian romances. You see, Evelyn and Brendan are locked in a 1000-year cycle of falling in love but never being together, thanks to a giantess' curse. The cyclical nature of these star-crossed lovers' relationship is reflected in the binding of the book. Clever, eh?

I started with Evelyn's story. Unfortunately, I didn't like her character at all and I thought her story was rather pointless. There were a lot of inconsistencies between what we're told about Evelyn and how she acts that don't make her believable. She's supposed to be in her last year at Oxford, so one would assume she's spent some time in England, but she acts like she's fresh off the boat. She's supposed to be studying literature, but on a week-long vacation by herself, she doesn't bring a single book. She writes poetry and sees fairies, but is supposed to be cynical. And so on.

As for character development, I didn't get anything from her. Emotionally, it felt like her story started and stopped in the exact same place (location-wise, it did, actually--that didn't help). Oh, girl's got problems, but those problems have nothing to do with Brendan. It was like at the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, where Belle sings, "Little town, full of little people, every day like the one before." Now imagine if Belle had stayed in the town and married Gaston, and you have an idea of my frustration with Evelyn. She's stupefyingly conventional and never seems to think through her decisions.

Thankfully, Brendan's story saved this book for me. Although he seemed like kind of a prat in Evelyn's side of the book, he clearly is the hero of this story and I felt like there were challenges he had to face during the course of the book that helped him grow emotionally and wind up in a place where he could achieve his dreams. It's interesting that even in books with "two sides" to the story, and ones written by women to boot, the female is still written as such a passive character. Not that Brendan is a particularly active character, of course, but at least he made conscious decisions and used his own judgment.

Although this book didn't blow me away, there's a lot packed into its eighty pages. It's definitely not your run-of-the-mill romance, either in the binding or the way the story is told. I would definitely recommend it if you're at all interested, especially if you happen to be an Anglophile or a medievalist.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Obligatory Christmas Post with Haiku



I'd like to share a
few Christmas songs here
as I do every year.



Be sure to click on
the snowflake at the
bottom for extra wassail



Happy happy lot
Happy happy much
Happy holidays to you!

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl Who Slept

girl asleep
Johannes Vermeer, Girl Asleep, 1657

Have you ever noticed that women in romance novels sleep a lot? Naturally we all need sleep, but with something so ordinary it doesn't seem worth mentioning in a book unless there's a point, like going to the bathroom. So what's the point of all the sleeping? Tired writers? A zombified nation of near-catatonic workaholics who can only sympathize with people in a similar state of ennui? Or does it mean something?

While rereading New Moon last month, I couldn't help but notice that Bella kept passing out--or almost passing out--a lot. And not during entirely appropriate moments (like, you know, bed time), either. Of course, the story is based on Sleeping Beauty, so I figured that had something to do with it, and set the issue aside to think of it no more.

BUT THEN, since I was already thinking about it (despite my resolve not to), I kept noticing heroines in nearly every romance I picked up afterward had a similar problem! It seemed as soon as these women encountered an extremely tense, emotionally-wrought, or high stress environment, they decided they needed a nap because they were super duper tired. "Here I am, alone in the house of a rake who wants to ravish me. Snnnnooorrrrzzzzzzz." Really?

At first I guessed that it was some passive-aggressive way of avoiding conflict--kind of like how Scott Pilgrim runs off to the bathroom as soon as he's faced with a potentially awkward situation. But it seemed odd that so many heroines would fall asleep in different books and situations. "What purpose does this serve the story?" I wondered to myself (actually it went more like, "WHAT THE HEEEEEEECK?!?"). Reading about women who keep falling asleep isn't exactly exciting.

the nightmare
John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

It was an embarrassingly long time afterward that I remembered sleeping women in art history=SEX ALL OVER THE PLACE! Exclamation mark! The most famous example being Fuseli's wildly popular The Nightmare. Pointed toes, arched back, and expression of combined agony and bliss--that woman is totally having an organism. And what's being done to the horse behind that curtain? You don't know; and judging by its expression, I don't want to know.

Aside from the pulled-out chair and open doorway that suggests recently vacated company, Vermeer's Girl Asleep is, according to your friendly neighborhood symbologists, full of allegories for temptation, love, and intercourse. It also looks like there's someone under the table, and I don't think they're picking up silverware. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.

In literature, too, a sleeping woman is often a symbol of passive sexuality--think of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for instance. Again, this is reflected in Twilight: there's a reason why the dynamics of Edward watching Bella sleep puts mamas' panties all in a twist. Or take the scene in New Moon when Jacob sneaks into Bella's room to tell her the Very Important Thing about him being a werewolf and she can barely keep her eyes open. Of course, the fact that she doesn't fall asleep while he's around could indicate that she's not as 'available' to him as he'd like her to be.

For hundreds of years, at the least, a sleeping woman has suggested a sexually available woman. Do I think romance novelists are deliberately using this imagery to make their heroines seem more sexualized? Perhaps--Meyer employs it very effectively--but I think at this point it's become such a part of our culture that we don't consciously take note of it, especially in contemporary-set novels. Most people aren't looking for allegories or subtext in books; if they were, it would make reading certain novels really uncomfortable (I'm looking at you, Lewis Carrol). Even if they aren't consciously aware of it, however, on some level it is clear that the heroine, while asleep, is more vulnerable to the hero. If she's dropping off to sleep, then obviously she trusts him.

elizabeth siddal
Elizabeth Siddal, 1860. Photo courtesy of lizziesiddal.com.

Have you ever noticed this narcoleptic heroine phenomenon? Do stories where the power dynamic is reversed and a woman observes a man who's sleeping have the same subtext?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Guest Post by Becky R.: JUDGING A COVER BY ITS MAN-FLESH

sekrit identity

Our last guest post before the holidays is from Becky at One Literature Nut! A few weeks ago Becky casually made an observation about romance novel covers that I thought was pretty brilliant, and I begged asked her to write a post about it. I'll let her tell you about her theory and you can judge for yourselves!



A couple of months ago, my good friend Tasha at Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books posted a great review of the romance novel Instant Attraction by Jill Shalvis. Having just come off a couple of quick contemporary romances myself, I thought it was interesting that the hero in the novel was a wounded soul. Here’s why that was interesting—the cover seemed to predict where we were headed. If our heroes could speak, here’s what I anticipate they might reveal to us:

Fully-Clothed Hero, Up Close:


"Hi. I’m a wounded soul. I’ve probably been through a terrible accident, been ditched by a woman, been a witness of a crime, or been emotionally shut down for years. Basically, someone close to me lets the girl know, and it melts her grown-girl, independent heart and allows her to wiggle into my world (take that as you will). I’m the quintessential softie that knows how to be a man’s man, but prefers to be a romantic bard at heart."

Partially-Clothed Hero, Up Close:


"I’m a bit trickier. Showing some man-flesh might just be showing my rugged, manly side to the world, but that’s not all to me. I still have a secret that keeps me aloof  and yet strangely appealing to women. Even though I might act like a jerk, I’m probably profanely dedicated to my woman (to the point of murder), and once I reveal that gut-jerking wound, the bond with my woman is eternal. Don’t mess with me!"

Fully-Clothed Hero with Fully or Partially-Clothed Heroine:


"Listen, girl. I’m not the type to 'need' to chase you. I can seem intimidating in my power suit or native dress, to the point of being unapproachable, but women throw themselves at me every day. I probably 'get around' quite a bit—just enough to make YOU think I’m the ultimate bad boy that you need to tame. I like to think that you don’t get me, and I’ll hold out to the very last second to let you know what I think. In fact, you better have some serious take charge brutishness of your own or powerful boardroom woman-power to catch my attention. No worries. Once I get that we both wear the 'pants' (so to say), I’ll be your bad boy that is secretly your good guy that you managed to tame."

Partially-Clothed Hero with Fully or Partially-Clothed Heroine:


"Nowadays, I don’t like to jerk a girl to my chest just to watch her heaving bosoms rage or flowing hair escape into the moonlight. Nope. Now I like to grab a girl to me to look her in the eyes to show her she has underestimated or misunderstood me on so many levels. Yes, I might look ruthless in my bare chest and jeans or ripped open shirt and kilt, but I’m a man-beast with some serious rage over some past wrong. Oh, and don’t call me a man-whore, because it’s probably pretty likely that I’m nowhere near that title—people just think I am. Unlock my wound, show me some nurturing, and my eyes (ahem, I mean hot bod) will be yours forever."


Of course we have some funny exceptions to these general, four heroes, but when you really take a look at the romance novels you’ve read recently, you might see some of these traits playing out. Gone is Fabio with his long hair, open shirt, and half-dressed vixen. Today we’re seeing more modern themes, paranormal characters, and strong female leads to match their men. It is kind of interesting though to see covers start to reveal even more about those leading men!

Which male lead is your favorite, and have you seen any covers to match their description?



Thank you so much, Becky! I love the phrase, 'unlock my wound,' someone should definitely put that on a cover! :)
You can find out more about Becky on her Twitter page as well as her blog.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Virtual Advent: NUTCRACKER AND MOUSE KING by ETA Hoffmann

the nutcracker
"She tossed her little coat on and flung open the door. Little Nutcracker was standing outside, with his bloody sword in his right hand and a wax candle in his left hand." Illustrations by Artus Scheiner, 1924.

It's not Christmas without The Nutcracker Ballet, which my mom makes me watch every year (the Mikhail Baryshnikov version). Although I do enjoy it now, when I was a kid I thought it was a little boring. For one, why is that girl all into a nutcracker? If I'd gotten that for a present at seven years old, I'd have been like, "What am I cracking again?" For another, once the nutcracker turns into a prince and things FINALLY start to get interesting, there's just a bunch of nonsensical dancing by people who are NOT the prince and princess for an hour and half. Plus, it has the type of ending I hate, where the girl wakes from the dream and says, "It was so real! And you were there, and you were there..." GAH.

I could say the ballet all makes sense these days, but honestly I feel the exact same way. I appreciate dancing and costumes more than I did when I was a kid, but my opinion of the plot is still pretty much what it was when I was seven. The Nutcracker is something that sounds great on paper--something that I always thought would make an awesome story--but in the end the ballet's never really about the story, so I'm disappointed.

I'd been under the impression for years that The Nutcracker was something Tchaikovsky had made-up; so imagine my surprise (and excitement) a few weeks ago when I learned that the ballet's actually based on a book! By famed Gothic writer ETA Hoffmann, written in 1816. I had never heard this before--or if I had, it didn't sink in--but naturally I immediately had to check it out and compare the two. I love it when the things I think will make a good book are actually books!

Pate Drosselmeier
"Indeed, the godfather was altogether a very artistic man, who even knew a thing or two about clocks..."

Tchaikovsky's ballet is actually pretty similar to Hoffmann's original story, although a simplified version (I have to say, he did an excellent job of adapting it). It's about a little girl who gets a nutcracker for Christmas, saves him from an evil mouse king, and travels with him to another land where everything is made of candy, including his marzipan castle. But Nutcracker and Mouse King is a more cleverly told story, less linear and less fantastical than the ballet. In tone it's closer to the magical realism of something like Pan's Labyrinth--the magic isn't confined to dreams, it exists in the waking world and can bite you pretty damn hard in the ass.

What makes the book creepy are two things: first of all, no one believes Marie about the Mouse King. She's on her own trying to protect herself and the nutcracker. Second of all, there's Pate Drosselmeier, who is a benevolent character in the ballet, but not so much in the book. It's not that he's necessarily bad, or good, but that no one knows WHAT he is. He makes mechanical toys for the kids, but they're so delicate and sophisticated the children can't really play with them (and don't really want to). He mocks Marie one second and tells her stories about the nutcracker the next. He's not entirely trustworthy, which is terrifying because he seems very powerful.

marie and the nutcracker
"Actually, Marie didn't want to leave the Christmas table, for she had discovered something that no one else had as yet noticed."

The scary factor didn't have too much of an impact on me as an adult reader, but what I did really like about the book version much more than the ballet is that Marie's interest in the nutcracker here seems logical: he's not a Christmas present, just something she notices and gloms onto in the weird way kids have. Her dad tells her specifically he's not her present, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that she's adopted him anyway. Once the nutcracker starts coming to life, he shows a great deal of personality, has sparkling eyes, fighting skillz, and a romantic streak. Who wouldn't like the little guy?

The other thing that really fascinated me in this novel was, weirdly, the glass cabinet. The glass cabinet has all of Herr Drosselmeier's "presents" to the kids on the top shelf, and Marie's and Fritz's toys on the two bottom shelves, and it's where the nutcracker lives. I loved this because, one, the German propensity to collect knickknacks and then put them into cabinets never ceases to amaze me. You should see my grandparents' house, for realz. And two, this reminded me that as a little kid I was totes obsessed with all the things that were in my mom's and grandparents' glass cabinets. I wasn't allowed to touch any of them, which was guaranteed to make me wonder WHY and really want to look at them. The glass cabinets seemed like chests of tiny treasures, full of mystery and possibility, which was the perfect tone to strike in this story.

Finally, I really liked that Hoffmann's tale had a happy ending. In the ballet, it's all a dream, and Marie has to resign herself to a normal life after living in a fairy tale castle, which is a total bummer. But in Nutcracker and Mouse King, it's all real--and like Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth, at the end she gets to return to the fairy tale castle with her prince.

dream
"Soon, rising like clouds of mist, Marie watched the silvery gauzes, in which the princesses, the pageboys, and Nutcracker swam."

This is definitely a story written to be read aloud to kids, and perfectly evokes the magic of Christmas from a child's perspective. There's not a much of a line between fantasy and reality, and Hoffmann makes no effort to draw one. The translation in my version was a little hinky (not that I have any of Hoffmann's other work to compare it to, whether German or English; but I'm going to go out on a limb and say he at least knew how to use pronouns correctly), but it was still a delight to read and reminded me what it was like to be a kid on Christmas Eve, which is awesome. I definitely recommend this book for kids of all ages!



Musical notes: "The Nutcracker Suite," of course!



virtual advent button
This post is part of the 2011 Virtual Advent Tour. Check out the website for more postings.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Guest Post by Penelope Watson: FESTIVE AND FROSTY, PENELOPE'S HOLIDAY INSPIRATION

christmas cocktail

It's almost Christmas! Are you in the holiday spirit yet? If you're not, I have the perfect person to help bring some cheer and wassail into your life: Penelope Watson is a blogger and romance author who writes Christmas romances. Welcome, Penny!


I have an unusual writing challenge. I write a holiday romance series about Santa Claus and the North Pole 365 days/year--The Klaus Brothers Series, published by The Wild Rose Press. Even during the hot, muggy months of summer, I need to feel frosty and festive. I accomplish this in several ways. One thing I do is surround myself with holiday decor all year long. Tiny Santas hang near my desk, whispering encouragement as I write. Wreaths adorn the windows. Antique Christmas knick-knacks line my shelves. Sometimes I play holiday music, especially my favorite Celine Dion Christmas album (don't laugh).

penny's office

In the fall and winter, I grab a gingerbread latte from Starbucks every morning before I start writing. It really gets me in the holiday mood. I also love to simmer hot apple cider for the family. I put cinnamon sticks, cloves and mulling spices in a pot with apple cider, and bring it to a simmer on the stove top. The kids love it. And the adults sip it with a shot of Calvados (apple brandy). When the whole house smells like cinnamon and cloves, it definitely inspires holiday spirit and creativity.

Christmas is a huge holiday at our house. We entertain the entire family with good food and festive cocktails. I serve "kiddie-friendly" drinks for the younger crowd... sparkling apple cider, or our own concoction we like to call "Gin and J." It's 1 part ginger ale mixed with 1 part orange juice. Put it in a festive glass with some fruit (orange slices, maraschino cherries, etc) and the kids feel like they are getting a big treat.

My new favorite grown-up Christmas cocktail is called The Gingerbread Man. It packs a wallop, and it's the perfect drink for the holidays. If you're feeling brave, give it a try! (Here's the original link from Drinknation.com). I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season, and a Happy New Year!

Please stop by my website for more information about The Klaus Brothers Series: http://www.pennywatsonbooks.com/.

snowman

The Gingerbread Man Cocktail
1 part Bailey's Irish Cream
1 part Goldschl├Ąger
1 part butterscotch Schnapps
1 part vodka
Combine in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake it up, strain into shot glasses. Enjoy!


Thank you, Penny! I don't have that much alcohol in my entire house, I don't think. :(
If you want to find out more Penelope and her books, check her out on her blog, twitter, and FaceBook. Also check out Penny's latest release, Sweet Magic!

sweet magic cover

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Guest Post by Colette Chmiel: ARROGANT HERO SYNDROME

hero lolcat

Today one of my blogging buddies, Colette from A Buckeye Girl Reads, is here to talk about her favorite type of romantic hero. Colette and I have a long-standing debate over one of the heroes she mentions in this post, so let's bring it! ;)



Everybody has a favorite type of hero. I'll be the first one to admit that I have a hero problem. I almost never go for the nice guy love interest for the heroine. No, I go to for the one that is moody, slightly boorish, demanding but has a heart of gold that only shows itself when he realizes he’s in love with the heroine. Yes, I have what I call the Arrogant Hero Syndrome. I just love those guys who with one line like: “One day you will kiss a man you can't breathe without, and find that breath is of little consequence.” (Barrons, Bloodfever by Karen Marie Moning) will totally win me over to their side with a blink of an eye.

I'm not sure when I developed the Arrogant Hero Syndrome, but  I blame it totally on James Mallory, the hero of the first real romance book I read. He was the hero in A Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey. He was this tougher then tough guy who totally melted for Georgie and I was hooked from that moment on for tough guys.

I don't know why I can't like the nice guy heroes. The ones who are charming, nice and would do anything for their heroine. With a few exceptions the nice guy heroes tend to bore me with their charm and obvious love for the heroine. They are open books, and what makes the arrogant hero so desirable to me is that you never know where they are coming from or going to. The ultimate example of the Arrogant Hero is Barrons from Karen Marie Moning's Fever series. There's almost nothing redeemable about him, but he's so mysterious, blunt and jerkish how can you not just love him? I'll be in the middle of wanting to smack him  for lines like this one:  “I'm sorry your pretty little world got all screwed up, but everybody's does, and you go on. It's how you go on that defines you.” (Bloodfever) Then we get a gem like this one: “You're leaving me, Rainbow Girl," (Dreamfever) and it makes me love him again. What can I say? I have book boyfriend issues!

Tell me, what kind of hero do you like best? The ones with the hidden heart of gold or the ones who are super sweet?


Some of my favorite Arrogant Hero Quotes:

"You undo me, Merit. Wholly and completely. You don't take me at my word. You challenge me at every opportunity. And that means when I'm with you, I am less than the head of this House... and I am more than the head of this House. I am a man." He stroked my cheeks with his thumbs. "In my very, very long life, I need you more than I have ever needed anything. (Ethan, Twice Bitten by Chloe Neill)

He paused, then tapped a finger against the box. “This is a wish,” he said quietly, “that even after four hundred years of existence, a man can be strong enough to accept the gifts he’s given.”
“Ethan—,” I began, but he shook his head.
“I’m prepared to wait for a positive response.”
“That’s going to take a while.”
Ethan lifted a single eyebrow, a grin lifting one corner of his mouth. “Sentinel, I am immortal.” (Ethan, Twice Bitten by Chloe Neill)

“You know I do, aye? Love you right, Chessiebomb.”  (Terrible, City of Ghosts by Stacia Kane)

“I am cursed with a terminal case of curiosity," he said. "I am jealous, selfish, acquisitive, territorial and possessive. I have a terrible temper, and I know I can be a cruel son of a bitch." He cocked his head. "I used to eat people, you know.” (Dragos, Dragon Bound)


Signs you have The Arrogant Hero Syndrome:

5. You find yourself skimming over parts of the book that don't have the bad guy love interest in them.
4. You have trouble reading books with Beta heroes in them.
3. Eye rolling occurs when the nice guy hero appears.
2. Shouting occurs when the heroine dares have a paragraph alone with the nice guy hero.
1. You find yourself defending heroes like Barrons and Ethan all over the place.

Thank you, Colette! I don't think I have arrogant hero syndrome, thank heavens. :)
You can find out more about Colette by checking her out on twitter and FaceBook.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: HURRELL'S HOLLYWOOD PORTRAITS by Mark A. Vieira

hollywood portraits cover

When people think of Hollywood's "Golden Era," images of beautiful actresses and formidable leading men captured in a black-and-white that seems sharper and more brilliant than any color film dominates in one's mind. To a great extent, the definable "look" of Classic Hollywood is attributable to one man: photographer George Hurrell.

In this book, film scholar and photographer Mark A. Vieira discusses Hurrell's career and photographic techniques from 1925 to just before WWII. The book isn't as scholarly--or gossipy--as Sin in Soft Focus, also by Vieira, but it is the best book book about Hurrell that I've encountered so far. It's true that Vieira doesn't break a lot of new ground here (most of the information he gives about Hurrell's encounters with Hollywood's famous stars and his technique can be found in Hurrell Style), but he does present what he wants to discuss in a very readable and accessible writing style. There are several themes running through the book, but Vieira isn't heavy-handed with them, and for the most part this is a straight-forward mini-biography of a photographer. Also, the pictures in this book are very well-chosen to both illustrate the text and demonstrate the best of Hurrell's technique.

Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits sketches the story of an artist always impatient and on the move--Hurrell rarely stayed in one place more than two years before boredom had him dropping everything and moving on to something new, and that included college. Whitney Stine described Hurrell as a painter who turned his hobby of photography into a chance career; but the fact was that even though Hurrell went to school to be a fine artist, he had years of experience working as a retoucher and portrait photographer in Chicago. Even though he kept painting throughout his life, by the time he moved to California in the 1920s, he knew painting was too slow a process for him to make a career out of.

ramon novarro
Please note this caption contains a typo; the subject's name is spelled Novarro.


The distinctive "Hurrell style" was characterized by sensuality, what Vieira calls an "almost-scientific" clarity, and abstraction achieved through unique lighting and framing of his subjects. When Hurrell started in photography, portraits where based on paintings (logically enough) and were very stiff and posed. They were also typically in soft-focus: the popular photographic style at the time was pictorialism, also known as the fuzzy-wuzzy school. Although pictorialism was artistic, there were practical reasons for it as well, since negatives at the time weren't very light-sensitive. Photographing someone in soft-focus was much easier on both the subject and the photographer.

Hurrell changed the soft-focus, posed portrait, at least within Hollywood. Partly because of new film and lenses that made it possible to create very sharp images, partly due to his new lighting technique, and partly due to the retouching techniques he adapted for both. Of all three, the lighting was probably the most innovative: Hurrell designed a boom light (like a boom mic, except for lighting) that he could hold and use to highlight the subject from any angle.

Traditionally portrait photographers used three stationary lights to highlight the subject from the front, back, and to shine on the backdrop. Hurrell didn't bother lighting the background, used the boom light to highlight their hair, and then had a reflective surface or another boom light them from below. And because he could move the boom light anywhere he wanted, he could pose the stars wherever he wanted, including the floor (incidentally, photographs of actresses lying on the floor were called "oomph" shots--and if you want to get an idea of what Hurrell's sessions for an oomph shot were like, according to the studio publicity department anyway, all you need to do is watch this scene from Blow-Up).

Flexibility with lighting and more light-sensitive film also gave Hurrell the opportunity to abstract his pictures into patterns of light of dark. He refused to let the stars wear foundation make-up while photographing them because he wanted to sculpt their faces with highlights and shadows that make-up flattened out.

jean harlow

Vieira's descriptions of Hurrell's photographic technique are solid and well worth the read if you're interested in photography. Not surprisingly, though, I was left wanting in his analysis of the images. He only briefly touches upon the abstraction that Hurrell was aiming for, and doesn't go into too much depth in placing Hurrell within the broader context of American photography or fine art.

Vieira also argues in some places that Hurrell captured some of the inner emotions and true character of his subjects. But I think in this case he's being torn between admiration for Hurrell and trying to make him appealing given our culture's current obsession with verism. If Hurrell did happen to catch a star's inner character, then I suspect that it was totally by accident and incidental in any event. From the very beginning, what Hurrell was really gifted at was making fantasy seem like reality. When Ramon Novarro, Hurrell's first celebrity client, showed his series of photographs by Hurrell to his friends, one of them said, "This isn't you, Ramon." That was the point--Novarro wanted to move from silent films to opera because of he was afraid his accent would make him unappealing in 'talkies,' but how to convince people he'd believable as an opera star? The answer was to pose in various operatic roles and have Hurrell photograph him.

And it worked! When Novarro showed the photographs to a studio exec, he was immediately cast in a movie where he could sing four light-opera songs. Likewise, Norma Shearer, Hurrell's next celebrity client, was such a straight-arrow that her own husband didn't believe she could star as a vamp in The Divorcee, until Hurrell took a series of photographs of her in a silk kimono.

What Hurrell and the studio publicity departments fed the public wasn't reality--it wasn't anything close to reality. Take, for example, this photograph of Joan Crawford before and after retouching. Even taken with my crappy cell phone camera, you can see a dramatic difference in the two images. Before retouching, Crawford has wrinkles, sunspots, and freckles; after retouching, she looks not just twenty years younger, but probably better than she looked when she was twenty years younger! The Joan Crawford of Hurrell photographs never existed, and the images in his portraits are idealizations, not reality.

joan crawford retouched

In the opening paragraph of this book, Vieira wrote, "Hollywood aped our culture, fed our culture, and to certain extent was our culture." Considering that, one has to wonder if he's drunk a bit of the glamor koolaid. If he has, one can hardly blame him--everyone drank the koolaid, even the people who were actually living the reality! Hurrell himself said of pre-War Hollywood, "Those days were like a storybook.... We were the children of the gods." When Cecil Beaton visited Hollywood in 1930, he wrote, "Apollos and Venuses are everywhere. It is as if the whole race of gods had come to California. Walking along the sidewalks... I see classic oval faces that might have sat to Praxiteles. The girls are all bleached and painted with sunburn enamel." Ann Sheridan reflected, "There was a certain kind of fantasy, a certain imagination that is not accepted now. The world is too small."

I think Sheridan has the right of it: pre-War Hollywood was a time and place where the line between fantasy and reality was indistinct, maybe even non-existent, and the pictures--both still and moving--that were based on fantasy were so powerful they produced their own reality. It's said that a picture is worth a thousand words. That may not be true--in fact, photographs often need words in order to make sense--but I do know a picture, no matter how fabricated, is more memorable and convincing than any description in words. The stars of Hurrell's portraits were envisioned as eternally young, beautiful, and ready, and thus that's their enduring image.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: SNOWBOUND WITH THE NOTORIOUS RAKE by Sarah Mallory

Proposed alternate title: Rosemary for Remembrance

snowbound cover

Rose, a sensible widow, is stranded in a hunting lodge over Christmas due to a blizzard. The lodge's owner, Sir Lawrence Daunton, is there all alone, drinking himself into oblivion and having a pity party. Although Sir Lawrence's rakish reputation precedes him and Rose is determined not to fall for another rogue, they decide to crank the spit and roast some chicken anyway--IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN--and they fall in love. But will Sir Lawrence be able to convince Rose he's a changed man before she marries someone else?

This book is what's called a "cabin romance"--kind of like a house party romance, but with only two people. Trapped alone together in a tiny space. Who knows what could happen?! The charm of a cabin romance is that two people who would otherwise not normally socialize have to cooperate and get to know one another very well by simple necessity. Unfortunately, in Snowbound with the Notorious Rake, Rose and Lawrence are of a similar social set and I'm not sure the 'cabin' part of their romance was necessary for them to 'fall in love.'

The book started out pretty good, if extremely silly. I really liked that Rose was practical and experienced, as well as the sexual aggressor in the relationship. Once the romance moved out of the hunting lodge, however, the story lost a lot of momentum and seemed to go into a rejection repeat cycle. There are reasons for Rose to be cautious about a relationship with Sir Lawrence, but since he never behaves in any way that's remotely rakish during the entire course of the novel and is pretty obviously reformed, her repeated rejections don't seem justified.

Any connection between the two characters is indicated through tell and not show--the author tells us they feel a connection, but Rose's actions suggest rather that she believes Sir Lawrence has the moral compass of a Goldman-Sachs executive. Furthermore, it gets more and more difficult to sympathize with Rose because she's actually kind of mean; at one point she says, "I cannot imagine any sensible person asking you to stand godparent to their child." Wow, really? It's not as if he's a pedophile. Instead of telling Rose to go eff herself in a snowbank--which is what I would have done in his shoes--Sir Lawrence just brushes it off; but one has to wonder exactly how and why Rose is in love with someone of whom she has such a low opinion.

As for Sir Lawrence, he's just kinda there. He's actually actually very nice and polite and thoroughly bland. Rose's fiancee-the-second-time-around (don't most people usually break up after one of them decides they shouldn't get married?) is a total prat, yet she persists in thinking he's an upstanding citizen, which is another nail in her relatability coffin.

Overall this book is way too long, with tons of silliness that quickly descends into nonsensicalness. The characters aren't believable, and nothing very interesting happens. I will say that Rose's son, Sam, was the perfect balance between incorrigible child and convenient plot device, but beyond that I didn't find a lot to enjoy in this book.



Musical notes: "Last Christmas" by Wham! Eighties fashions!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Guest Review II

romance month button

Hello, everyone! Just a heads up that Violet Crush has a post about Lisa Kleypas' Hathaway series up in honor of Romance Month. Check it out!

Guest Post by Evangeline Holland: THE ROMANCE OF HISTORY

betsy lolcat

Yesterday Magdalen from Promantica wrote about the difficulties of creating a contemporary romance; today we have Evangeline Holland from Edwardian Promenade here to tell us the pitfalls of writing a historical romance. Evangeline is a writer, scholar, and co-hosted the Downton Abbey twitter party earlier this year. Bonjour, Evangeline!


I not only write historical romance, but sew and wear vintage clothes, run a history blog, obsess over classic cinema, and try my hand at recreations of various historical topics (food, crafts, etc.)--so needless to say, I live, breathe, and eat history on a daily basis. However, until I got involved in the Steampunk community, I rarely reflected on my consumption of history. Of course I was aware of the oppression, racism, sexism, bigotry--and every other type of -ism and -phobia out there--of the past, but reading frothy historical romances and watching the umpteenth adaptation of Jane Austen made it easy to view the past through rose-colored glasses.

This is not to say that I wallow in the doom and gloom of the past, that I only want to read serious books about the iniquities of society, but come on! Not even Jane Austen was the bucolic, ballroom-obsessed lady writer those costume dramas like to portray. Beneath the padded shoulders of Mr. Darcy and the elegant Pump Room at Bath lay Austen's eagle-eyed critique of topics like love, marriage, classism, religion, and even slavery, during the late Georgian Era. The same could definitely be said of the Brontes, Gaskell, Eliot, Dickens, and any other 19th century English writer beloved by producers from the BBC or ITV.

Yet I can understand the desire to look back at the past and recreate it in our personal image: it's fun to imagine dressing for a ball that would end at 3 am, or meeting some of history's most famous (or infamous) characters, or taking part in historical events such as Waterloo or Gettysburg or the Somme. One of the reasons I write historicals is both to show how similar we are to our Edwardian counterparts and to understand what life may have been like when social norms were much stricter and less forgiving than today. And it's always enlightening to see how far we have come as a people, which increases my compassion a tad for people of yesteryear.

downton abbey sisters

A major reason for my enthusiasm over Downton Abbey is the wonderful mix of frothy costume romance+social critique+DRAMA+Edwardian era. I may be biased, but I consider that time period to be one of the few in history that is rife with natural drama and conflict stemming from the social unrest and last heyday of high society. In that short fourteen year period before the outbreak of WWI there was the rise of militant suffrage, the foundation of the Labour Party, the Dreadnought, the birth of the super ocean liners (and the sinking of the Titanic), the rise of hemlines, etc etc! What's not to love about the Edwardian era?

So as I write my books, I remain aware of the pitfalls one can fall into when viewing history through one perspective, yet also give myself tons of leeway since I am, after all, writing fiction! Now my biggest hurdle is actually getting to The End. XD What about you? What draws you to historical fiction of any genre, and if you aren't a fan of the past, why not?


Thank you, Evangeline! It does seem very easy to romanticize the past, even within one's own lifetime.
If you want to more about Evangeline, check out her author website, follow her on Twitter, or like her author page on FaceBook.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Guest Post by Magdalen Braden: CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE AUTHORS DO IT WITH LESS

magdalen braden

Magdalen is one of my favorite bloggers at Promantica. She doesn't review books, but she does blog about reading and writing, and her posts are invariably interesting! Today she's here to explain the art of writing a contemporary romance. Welcome, Magdalen!


You can get a reader in a romantic mood really quickly by setting the story in a romantic era, with romantic characters in a romantic setting. If you’re writing anything other than a contemporary romance, you’ve got it easy.

[Handy guide: Romantic eras include the Regency, pre-Revolutionary Paris, pre-American Revolution, and even some wars (all those yummy spies). Romantic creatures include vampires, mages, shapeshifters, and some literal Greek gods. Romantic settings include outer space, Atlantis, pirate ships, Almacks, and a sheikh’s Bedouin encampment.]

Contemporary romance writers have none of those things to work with. We’re required to dream up a romance from a few raw ingredients: one modern man, one modern woman, a plot, a real place that someone could visit today, and some realistic complications. Hey, it’s not easy. McGyver would have struggled with just those bits and pieces.



Everything in a contemporary romance has to sound plausible but also seem exotic. Billionaire sheikhs have to look like Oded Fehr: [Photo 1] And not like Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah: [Photo 2] Cowboy heroes are as sexy as the Marlboro Man, but don’t smell like an ashtray. Special Forces veterans never have PTSD severe enough to hamper their alpha hero status.

All of that is true because readers live in the same world as contemporary romances, but they don’t want a contemporary romance to remind them of their world. No broken toilets, no money problems, no screaming brats, no churlish in-laws, no cars that won’t start—unless the breakdown results in a meet-cute with the small-town chief of police who’s manning the switchboard, answers the frantic call for a tow truck, and comes out to rescue the heroine, only to discover she’s actually the straight-arrow auditor hired by the corrupt mayor to go over the police department’s books with a fine-tooth comb.

Ooh, I like that. I may have to write that...

In a contemporary romance, the laws of nature apply, the human body is limited to a narrow range of fang-less and fur-less specifications, and it’s a fine line between swoon-worthy and stalker. But we tackle all those limitations because, when it’s done right a contemporary romance reminds us that love really could be right around the corner. Sure, we’re not likely to meet a super-hot cowboy or an Italian magnate, but a well-written contemporary romance can let us dream.

After all, there’s no barrier of time, genetics, or science preventing a contemporary romance from coming true in the here and now.


Thank you, Magdalen! I'll take Oded Fehr any day. ;)
Magdalen is starting her own publishing company called Harmony Road Press and her series of legal romance novels, The Blackjack Quartet, is going to be published in 2012! To find out more about her and her work, please visit her author website at www.MagdalenBraden.com or her blog at www.Promantica.com.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Guest Review: PERSUADE ME by Juliet Archer

persuade me cover

Today we have a guest review from blogger and author Margay Leah Justice. The novel, Persuade Me, is an adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion and sounds quite excellent. Welcome, Margay!


I consider myself a romantic at heart. I like to watch romantic comedies, I get sappy at Happily Ever Afters, and I re-read tried and true romances to remind myself that they do exist – if only in the pages of beloved books. So it’s no surprise that I have a special affinity for Jane Austen. I love her stories, her affinity for recording the foibles of humans who dance the dance of love – and the idiosyncrasies of all the secondary players who make the heroes and heroines what they are. My one problem with Miss Austen is that she didn’t write enough stories! I feel like her main six are just a teaser – but oh, what a tease! So, to fill in the empty spaces left behind by what could have been had she written more, I like to read adaptations of her stories.

In my quest to get more of Jane Austen and the wonderful characters and worlds she created, I read just about every adaptation I can get my hands on. Some have been good, some not so much. But there’s a rare few that take my breath away and make me want to read them again. One of those stories is Persuade Me by Juliet Archer.

Persuade Me is a modern retelling of Persuasion and it has just enough quirks to make it original. The main characters, Anna and Rick, met and fell in love in France, but she, on the advice of an old family friend, broke it off, convinced it was a poor match, and then was whisked back to England by a father who can hardly bear the sight of her. Flash forward some years later and Anna has developed into a self-assured woman with a degree in Russian Literature and Rick is a marine biologist living in Australian who is making a splash in the world of literature having written a book with a somewhat provocative title. During his book tour – which inevitably leads him back to England – Rick crosses paths with Anna once again and the adventure begins.

I have to admit that Persuasion is one of my favorite Austen stories, so I was excited to read an adaptation of it. I don’t think it receives the attention Pride and Prejudice does, but it deserves it. This is such a classic story of lost love and second chances, ripe with likable characters and despicable ones and it translates well to modern times. In Ms. Archer’s hands, the story shines, taking on its own relevance and leading the reader by the hand through the story to the inevitable conclusion in such a way that, if one hadn’t read – or was even aware of – the original piece, it wouldn’t matter. They would still be enthralled by this story. Indeed after reading it, one might be encouraged to read the original to see how it compares.

I must admit that, sometimes, I’m hesitant to read adaptations because I’m afraid they won’t measure up to the original, but Persuade Me does not disappoint. It hits all the key points – the love story between Anna and Rick, the influence of the family friend, the despicable natures of Anna’s father and older sister, and the clingy, whiney nature of her younger sister – in the original, but does it in a way that makes it seem fresh. The idea of Rick being a biologist and writer rather than a captain is a stroke of genius. Anna being more self-reliant and not so much under the thumb of her family is a welcome relief. The book tour is a brilliant way to get all of the other key elements together and make it the author’s own. I had so much fun reading this book, I can’t wait to read it again. But first, I want to check out the first book in the Darcy and Friends series, The Importance of Being Emma.

Final verdict: Extremely enjoyable and I would recommend it to any Austen fan and anyone who just loves a darn good story.

A little more about it (from the author’s website):

Boy meets girl, falls in love and asks her to sail round the world with him. Girl loves boy - but listens to The Voice of Reason, an old family friend, and says no…

The words ‘forgive and forget’ are not in Rick Wentworth’s vocabulary. The word ‘regret’ is definitely in Anna Elliot’s.

When they meet again ten years later, he seems indifferent and intent on finding happiness elsewhere. Can she convince him that their lost love is worth a second chance?

Persuade Me, JA’s modern version of Persuasion, will be available in September 2011. In the meantime, you can read the prologue and first chapter here or feast your eyes on a certain Captain Wentworth.

JA says: Just as I felt Knightley needed updating for a 21st-century audience  in The Importance of Being Emma, I’ve given Anne Elliot similar treatment in Persuade Me. My Anna leads her own life and is financially independent of her father, although there’s enough baggage between them to fill an airport carousel! I’d love to know what you think of the extract - email me at juliet@julietarcher.com.

Thank you, Margay! That sounds like a great book.
Margay Leah Justice is the author of
Sloane Wolf, available at museituppublishing.com. You can also find her on FaceBook, Moonlight, Lace and Mayhem, Twitter, MySpace, and the Jane Austen Society Pages.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Author Interview: MANNA FRANCIS

manna francis

Manna Francis is the author the Administration Series, which I started reading on the recommendation of Kris from Kris 'n' Good Books. These are some of my favorite books of the year--they take place in an alternate world (governed by the Administration) and focus on the relationship between Val Toreth, a government investigator, and Keir Warrick, a corporate developer. I was thrilled when Francis agreed to an interview to answer some of my questions about the series!

Heidenkind: You say in your GoodReads profile that you identify as an "original slash" fiction author. For people not familiar with slash fiction, yaoi, etc., can you explain what you mean?

Manna Francis: Slash fan fiction is fan fiction which features a sexual/romantic relationship between two same sex characters.  It's a genre that's primarily written by and for women, and it generally has a different and distinctive style to m/m fiction written by and for men.  Rather like porn, it's hard to explain but 'I know it when I see it'.

So for me, the original slash label was something of a marker for slash fanfic readers that this could be something that they'd like to try. I first put the Adminstration series online in 2002, when the original  m/m fiction scene wasn't anything like as large as it's become today.

H: Would you call the Administration a dystopian world? Is there a specific event in the history of the Administration that diverted it from our own?

MF: Well, it certainly isn't a utopia! It's described as a dystopia in a couple of places on the website.  I like dystopia as a description, because it packs in a lot of tropes for the reader to expect.

I've never been specific about when the Administration world diverged from the real world, as it's something I haven't yet fixed in a story. I wouldn't like to speculate about it, lest I narrow my options for future stories.

H: Why is Warrick so obsessed with creating an artificial world that feels real?

MF: I think that kind of obsessive approach is in his nature.  The ultimate evolution of the Sim would be something in which there would be no way to tell if it was real or not, so that's the goal he sets himself. Whatever he ended up doing with his life, he'd approach it in the same way as he does the Sim. When he was working on Administration security systems, he had the same dedication, and that's one of the things that caught Carnac's eye. If he'd become, say, a chef, he'd be an Administration Heston Blumenthal, engineering every dish to absolute perfection.

If guess that if you wanted to, you could make a connection between his growing up in an essentially artificial family and his desire to create a perfect world under his control.  Or something along those lines.  I don't generally go down that path with characters, though, as I don't find it helpful in writing them.

H: Do Sara and Warrick feel morally superior to Toreth?

MF: Morally superior in the sense of feeling that they actually have morals, or morally superior because he's a Para and they aren't?

I think they both feel that he's missing something that they have.

Sara doesn't see anything wrong with being a Para. Warrick never makes any secret out of his distaste for I&I.  On the other hand, he's happy  to take advantage of his corporate perks, and happy to see Toreth, so I don't think that he'd want to give any lectures on his moral superiority within the Administration. Not that Toreth would care if he did.

H: In several of the books, people accuse Toreth of being psychotic. Do you think he is?

MF: They accuse him of being a sociopath, which isn't the same thing. He has a very firm grasp on reality.

This is something I get asked a lot about Toreth, and I always say the same thing -- read the books, and make up your own mind about it. I think it's the kind of topic about which it's very unproductive for an author to shove in her two penn'orth. Certainly, no one has ever changed their opinion of Toreth's mental state because of what I said about it.

(The other question I never answer is 'does Toreth love Warrick?'. Because, really, where's the fun in giving people a flat yes or no about that?)

H: You make a lot of classical references in the books, especially in Quis Custodiet. Are you drawing from classical literature for your novels? Is the story of Toreth and Warrick's relationship going to follow the format of a Greek tragedy or comedy?

MF: No, and no. I really just liked the title.

Bonus question: Would Toreth ever be able to handle owning a pet?

MF: Ha! I can't imagine how he'd get it in the first place. It would have to be a very robust pet that could handle total neglect.  The closest thing I could imagine would be maybe a wild rat living in his kitchen--where at least it would be able to find plenty to eat.


Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Manna! 
To find out more about Manna Francis' novels, please check out her website at http://www.mannazone.org/, or go to her GoodReads Author profile page.








Saturday, December 10, 2011

Schnauzer Saturday

Pearl likes to watch TV sometimes, and she likes being adorable while she's doing it:

pearl on the couch

pearl on the couch 2

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review: THE CONCUBINE by Jade Lee

concubine cover

Sun Bo Tao is a notorious playboy and the Emperor's best friend. When he criticizes the Emperor's foreign policy, however, Xian Feng punishes Bo Tao by making him Master of the Festival of Fertility, wherein eligible noblewomen throughout China come to the Forbidden City to compete for the position of Empress. I know what you're thinking: a playboy surrounded by desperate virgins... how could this POSSIBLY go wrong?

I love Jade Lee's Tigress series, which also takes place in Imperial China (although during a different time period), and this novel has all the elements from those books that I like: well-drawn characters, an awesome setting, and a wonderful story. It starts off with a great meet-cute between Bo Tao and Ji Yue, one of the Imperial Virgins, and is pretty much unputdownable from then on. There's never a lull in the narrative, and every character gets as much time on the page as they warrant. Ji Yue and Bo Tao go from hating one another's guts to pulling each other's clothes off perhaps a little too abruptly, but I think that can largely be attributed to the length of the book. And they definitely have chemistry, so it's not unbelievable even if it does seem a bit rushed.

Jade Lee really has a gift for writing historical romances set in China: they feel exotic, but at the same time there's always something familiar from a Western perspective to make the characters relatable, despite the cultural and historical gulf. It wouldn't be unreasonable to say this novel is like The Bachelor, but set in Imperial China; except that for Ji Yue and the other virgins the stakes are much higher than being sent home 'broken-hearted.' They can't go home if they fail the tests--that would shame their families. Their only options are to remain in the Emperor's harems forever, become prostitutes in Peking, or kill themselves. Those are pretty high stakes for a woman to face and still pursue another relationship! Ji Yue might have come off as an idiot for choosing Bo Tao over all that, but she doesn't because the choices she make are for herself.

The romance between Bo Tao and Ji Yue also draws upon the European literary device of courtly love (that Meghan mentioned in her guest post on medieval romance), in that there's nothing but shame and death that can come from their relationship. This is a modern-day romance novel, though, so thankfully things work out.

As for the exoticism, I don't think it comes so much from the setting as what Lee does with it. Imagining characters and stories set in China seems to give her the freedom to be much more creative and unconventional with how she builds her characters and plot than she is with romances set in prototypical nineteenth-century London, like The Devil's Bargain. She really has never failed to surprise and entertain me with either the Tigress series, The Dragon Earl, or this book; which is a shame, because as far as I can tell, Lee has no more novels set in China in the works.

To say I'm super-disappointed over this--and how other writers who set romances in unusual time periods and places are often either dropped or redirected to more popular settings by publishers--would be an understatement. I know they probably claim that readers don't seem interested in different settings as some bullshit excuse, but let me tell you something, publishers of historical romances: I AM YOUR AUDIENCE. I am the proverbial choir to your preacher; I am going to smell what the Rock is cooking. But to be honest, the whole Regency romance thing was getting a little tired in the late '90s. So trust me, I'm interested. I will take any unusual setting you have to offer: China, India, Canada, even nineteenth-century Paris, but PLEASE allow a book set somewhere other than nineteenth-century London to be published on a regular basis. Please! /public service announcement

If, like me, you enjoy historical romances but are looking for something a little different, I highly recommend any of Jade Lee's books. The Concubine I think is one of her more accessible novels, and probably your best bet if the prospect of reading--in detail--about Taoist sex cult practices makes you a little nervous. There's no sex-as-a-spiritual-practice in The Concubine as there is in the Tigress books; it's just a delightful romance novel set in the Forbidden City with top-notch research and great storytelling. Definitely a keeper!



Musical Notes: "All I Ever Wanted" by Airborne Toxic Event

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Guest Post by Meghan Burton: MEDIEVAL ROMANCE




Today I asked Meghan from Medieval Bookworm to tell us about the roots of the modern-day romance novel, medieval romances. Meghan challenged me to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight last year as part of Classics Month, and I really enjoyed it! Now she's going to tell us about her favorite medieval romances. Welcome, Meghan!



Romance is not really a modern notion, although the happily-ever-after ending for couples certainly is. But in the Middle Ages, particularly the High Middle Ages which took place roughly from the year 1000-1300, romance was flourishing. The only caveat? It was the courtly kind - the breed of romance that was never really meant to be consummated, and which was disastrous when it was. You can't really expect much else in a culture which focused on marriages for political reasons. In fact, many of the tales can be seen as cautionary; while they’re meant to capture the heart, they’re also lessons on how not to rock the boat too much, and how to retain your honor while engaging in courtly love.



le morte d'arthur cover

This trend is very, very obvious when you start reading medieval literature. We have a lot of fantastic romances that take place through this veneer of respectability. The best known are, of course, the Arthurian legends. How much more romantic can you get than these stories? They have changed so much over time, first originating as Welsh myths, but many of the characters we know well appeared in Chretien de Troyes and later Sir Thomas Malory's medieval work on these legends. If you're looking for a romance, Guinevere and Lancelot are legendary, and the medieval period is when Lancelot du Lac actually appeared in the stories, which had previously focused on Arthur. But here? We have an entire civilization ruined more or less because two people fell in love.

elaine by speed

One of my personal favorite lovers, though, is Elaine of Astolat, who may not be the most appealing of heroines, but who is certainly a romantic one in the most medieval of molds. After watching Lancelot joust in a tournament and nursing him back to health after an accident, Elaine falls in love with him. Lancelot, famously, is deeply in love with Guinevere, and as a result, Elaine dies of heartbreak. Her last request is to be placed in a boat, a lily in one hand and a letter in the other, and sent to Camelot to show Lancelot what he’s done.  Yet another life destroyed because of the love between Lancelot and Guinevere.

characters from Canterbury tales

Outside of the Arthurian period, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales features a few romances – even raunchy ones – that demonstrate how we are the same and yet different even now. Chaucer doesn’t shy away from the facts of life, and at one point we even manage to get a young couple in each other’s arms. Over other tales, he also examines May-December romances, marriage, and courtly love, each in their own time. While no story is a romance in the way we’d call one, it’s hard to avoid the realization that, actually, love was as pervasive in their culture as it is in ours.

lady of shallot

Staying in King Arthur’s court, we can skip further ahead in time to Tennyson’s poems. Writing in the Victorian age, Tennyson interprets the stories traditionally around King Arthur in new and different ways, giving life to the romances and inspiring some of the most beautiful medieval-inspired paintings I’ve ever seen.

The Middle Ages have become very romanticized over the years, and the romantic relationships in the stories have enjoyed the same treatment. It’s still very much worth reading the originals. I’d always recommend starting with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.



Thank you, Meghan! I like how you said that the story of Lancelot and Guinevere is basically about how two people falling in love destroyed a civilization. Those are some pretty serious consequences!
If you want to find out more about Meghan, check out her excellent book blog, Medieval Bookworm or follow her on twitter @mbookworm.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Janeite Gift Guide!

mr darcy dressed as santa

I've been noticing these 'gift guides' popping up everywhere, and since I don't like recommending books to get people I don't know (it's hard enough figuring out books to get people I do know), I thought I would instead share with you these delightful Janeite items you can buy on Etsy.

Jane Austen bookmarks

Jane Austen bookmarks by CastleontheHill--$9.50 for 6

Aren't these adorable? The seller also has art prints with these original drawings of Jane Austen characters. I think this would be cute gift for a pre-teen just starting to read classics.

corner bookmarks

Jane Austen inspired corner bookmarks by FairestLJ--$10 for 2

These corner bookmarks are much fancier (and more expensive) than the previous bookmarks. Not sure how practical they are, either, but they certainly look good.

my other ride is a barouche

My Other Ride is a Barouche decal sticker by eaton--$3 for 1

Cars and Regency-era romance so rarely go together, but they can now with this perfect accessory for every driving Janeite!

mr darcy note cards

Mr. Darcy Note Cards by ecdesign--$14 for 10

Probably not the best card to use for an apology, but they would be awesome to send in lieu of a break-up text.

mr darcy holiday card

Mr. Darcy Holiday Card by bbInvitations--$5 for 1

Haha. Kidding! But kinda not.

mr darcy scarf

Mr. Darcy Proposal Scarf by Brookish--$24 for 1

You'll not only think but feel like Mr. Darcy in this snowy white women's cravat, which repeats the classic words of his proposal, right before he put his foot in his mouth.

mr. darcy ring

Mr. Darcy ring by CandleBrightCreation--$16 for 1

Mr. Darcy is literally wrapped around your finger.

p&p t-shirt

Pride & Prejudice locations typography t-shirt by Brookish--$22 for 1

Okay, this I really do need. Listing all the locations mentioned in P&P, this shirt is a subtle and clever way of identifying other Janeites, and may also double as a map in case you get lost. In Regency England.


Do you have any great gift ideas for lovers of Jane Austen novels?


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