Women to Read: Romance & Speculative Fiction

One of the best things I discovered last month amongst all the various conversations is #womentoread on Twitter –I added lots of new writers to my completely unruly list of books to read (someday). Then I got to thinking: some people might be interested in reading outside their usual genres. So I thought I’d put together a couple of lists of romance that I think speculative fiction readers will enjoy along with explanations as to why and vice versa. The only limit I put on my recommendations was that the author needed to be someone who identified as a woman since what got me thinking about this was #womentoread.

Romance for Speculative Fiction Readers

Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta ChaseA Lady Awakened, Cecilia GrantThe Duchess War, Courtney Milan

I’m sticking with historical authors for this batch of recommendations because I think historical romance has a certain affinity for speculative fiction. Historical romances are, in my opinion, very much like fantasy novels and much like fantasy novels, the setting can and does inform the plot and characterization.

As in speculative fiction, historical romance relies upon an interlocking sequence of research and extrapolation that the story must rest upon–a strong foundation can hold up just about any kind of story. There are so many fantastic books in the subgenre that I had a difficult time picking just three writers to recommend!.

Loretta Chase: Chase is probably my absolute favorite romance author and I’m always recommending her–her books are smart, well-constructed, and thoroughly researched. I’d recommend either Lord of Scoundrels or Mr. Impossible–or both, if you want an idea of Chase’s range as a writer.

Lord of Scoundrels is one of her earlier novels–it was published in 1995–and yet it still feels fresh and revolutionary in so many ways. I can’t even imagine reading it when it was first published.  It must have been mind-blowing.

Jessica Trent is an intelligent and thoroughly self-possessed young woman and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain is a dissolute blackguard who has never been loved or loved anyone in his life. They have boatloads of chemistry together and it’s just fun to read their interactions. One of the key things about this book is that Dain is, on the surface, a stereotypical “alpha-hole” hero–but because the reader is given his backstory right at the beginning on the book, his alpha-hole-ness is subverted and the reader’s sympathy is gained. It’s a clever bit of storytelling and while it is a bit leaden, it’s also essential because otherwise Dain is essentially irredeemable. I’ve often been tempted to buy a copy of this book, remove the prologue, and hand it to someone who has never read it and see what they think. So much of the book’s success rests on the beginning.

Mr. Impossible is nearly the opposite: it’s funny and features a male protagonist who is basically a lovable and happy-go-lucky guy. Rupert Carsington is not book-smart, but he is emotionally intelligent and he basically falls in love with Daphne from the first moment he meets her. He is absolutely besotted with her intellect and he lets her take the lead on that front as they attempt to locate her kidnapped brother–the entire book is basically an extended rumination on how smart Daphne is and how very, very excellent that quality in her is. The villain of this book is, more or less, a standard issue British imperialist, but rest assured he does get his comeuppance in the end. There is also a completely ridiculous and over the top sex scene in a pyramid during a sand storm. It’s awesome. It’s also my very favorite romance novel of all time.

Cecilia Grant: A Lady Awakened was one of the best romances I read last year. There are many reasons for this but my favorite one is the truly epic bad sex and how it was absolutely right for the story and how, as the two protagonists came to care for each other their physical relationship transformed as well.

Martha is newly widowed and unless she is able to produce a boy child within the next 8 to 9 months, she will lose her home and become a poor relation. Theo is her new neighbor–the son of a minor nobleman, he’s been sent to the country to learn responsibility. Martha sees him as a possible solution to her problem and proposes that she pay him to try to get her pregnant in the next month–she knows this is unethical and it’s not what she wants to do but it is, literally, the only choice available to her. Watching Martha make this choice and still try to remain true to herself and her ideals is really something.

And Grant’s writing is simply gorgeous:

Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea. Or rather, one dead fish. The other still curled tight, like a brittle seashell with its soft sensate creature shrunk all the way inside.

That’s a sex scene. With dead fish. It’s wonderful. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of Martha at that point in the book–she is trying to be active but not being particularly successful at it–she hasn’t been taught how to be active in her own life: she’s all repressed and brittle and curled in upon herself. And the way she slowly, so slowly opens up is so very powerful. The ending is a bit rushed and didn’t quite work for me–there were too many coincidences–but for a debut novel, this was one hell of a book.

I also just love Grant’s take on romance as a whole, too.

Courtney Milan: I’m going to recommend the first two volumes in her current series, the Brothers Sinister. The first volume, “The Governess Affair” is a prequel novella that sets up the rest of the series–it’s not essential reading but it is useful background knowledge. The Duchess War is the first full-length book in the series and it’s fantastic. Milan is well aware of all the tropes in romance and she is explicitly playing with and exploding them while telling a compelling and moving story about people who feel so, so real.

Min is acutely conscious of her place in society–which is quite marginal, for reasons which are thoroughly explored within the text and which I don’t want to spoil here–and Clermont has bucketloads of unearned privilege that he’s very uncomfortable with. Milan is one of the few writers of historical fiction who is actively working within the restrictions on both women and those not of the upper classes–so often, characters in historical romances are able to move between social classes through the power of love (and buckets of money)–Milan’s body of work makes it evident that this oh-so-common genre convention is a fantasy and that while love is a powerful force, it cannot conquer all.

As for the trope-exploding, there are two very common things that occur in romance that drive a lot of readers up the wall. That would be the evil mother and the baby epilogue–Milan explodes both of them in The Duchess War, right down to the hushed dark room with a terrific amount of tension. And then when it becomes apparent what’s actually going on, it’s just a great ending to the book. And as for the evil mother–she has real motivations and isn’t just a cardboard character there for the purpose of causing trauma to her son.

There’s also a second novella in this series, “A Kiss for Midwinter” and it’s also wonderful–it’s about a couple of secondary characters and the theme of that one is knowledge and anger and horrifying Victorian medical practices. Good stuff. Can’t wait for the next one!

Speculative Fiction for Romance Readers

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette KowalThe Sharking Knife: Beguilement, Lois McMaster BujoldIn the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

My recommendations here have a certain something in common with my romance recommendations–these all have a strong thread of romance and they also have fully realized settings that the characters move within.

All three of these writers are firmly grounded in speculative fiction and it is mostly from these tropes these series spring–the romantic elements are essential but the stories wouldn’t be what they are without the speculative elements.

Mary Robinette Kowal: Her fantasy novels are Regency novels but with magic–they’re set during the Napoleonic Wars, a setting that should be very familiar to romance readers In the first book, Shades of Milk and Honey, Jane Ellsworth has a rare talent with glamour–the manipulation of which is considered essential for any well-bred young lady. Along with her sister, Melody, Jane’s life revolves around eligible young men and hopes of marriage. Naturally, Jane’s skill with glamour plays an important role in this book–one thing I found very interesting was the way Kowal subverts the use of magic in her book. Typically, in fantasy novels, magic is a prestigious or desirable activity and yet, in this book it’s an activity fit only for women and men on the fringes of society.

These books are an explicit exploration of women’s roles in society both in and out of marriage and how, even when entering into a marriage that both partners have agreed will be egalitarian, there is still a lot of internalized expectations that need to be overcome.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold is a favorite around these parts, but I’m going to be recommending a series we haven’t covered here and that’s the Sharing Knife quartet. These were written explicitly as an exploration of romance and, as such, the romantic element is explicitly foregrounded while the fantastical elements are much more subtle. There’s a lot going on in these books and I enjoyed them for what they were but many of Bujold’s core audience did not (warning: link contains a lot of “ew, girl cooties”) and wrote the series off after the first volume, Beguilement.

The heart of this book is the relationship between Fawn and Dag and how it develops while they are dealing with magical creatures called “malices”. These books take place in a society that’s trying to rebuild after some sort of magical apocalypse–the malices are a remnant of the catastrophe and the Lakewalkers, Dag’s people, are charged with dispatching them. Fawn comes from people who are more settled and there is a tremendous amount of tension and misinformation between the two groups–most of the tension and conflict in these books comes from the clash of these two (very essential) cultures, not from the fantastic elements.. These books are definitely an experiment on Bujold’s part and while I’m not sure they’re a completely successful experiment even a bad book from Bujold is head and shoulders above a good book from other authors.

Kage Baker: Baker’s Company series is about immortal time travelling cyborgs. Specifically, one named Mendoza who is bitter, prickly, and hates humanity (and for very good reason, i.e., the Spanish Inquisition). And yet they’re also gloriously romantic although it takes many books before Mendoza gets a happy ending. I will note here that the last few books do not work for everyone and even though they worked for me I can absolutely see how the ending is deeply unsatisfying and problematic for other readers. I’ll also note that Baker passed away in 2010 after a short and brutal battle with uterine cancer. She is, still, missed.

In the Garden of Iden is the first book and it’s wonderful–it’s a science fiction historical romance which ends badly (possible understatement of the year) but it’s such a compelling story and the way Baker writes a thoroughly unpleasant character like Mendoza in such a sympathetic way is incredible. Mendoza is made into a cyborg at the beginning of this book and she trains as a botanist–her hope is to be sent someplace far away from people for her first assignment but instead she’s sent to Elizabethan England where she meets Nicholas Harpole and falls in love. Note: things end badly here. There isn’t even a happy-for-now ending.

There is wonk and angst galore in these books and I can’t recommend them highly enough. There’s also a deep and evident authorial love for all the characters and the setting–these are books about California and secret histories and pop culture and nightmare dystopian futures. With immortal time traveling cyborgs.

So to summarize: there are awesome books in lots of different genres. It can’t hurt to try something new–at worst, it’s a DNF and at best you have a new favorite. I’m hoping to make this a regular feature here, so any and all suggestions will be considered for the future.

A Reviewer’s Manifesto

Stack of thin flexicover books on reflective table

photo credit: Horia Varlan, licensed under Creative Commons

Recently, my husband and I went to a small SF convention in our area. We had a pretty good time and met some cool people and I talked John Scalzi into buying a Loretta Chase novel (Mr. Impossible-the-best-romance-novel-ever). So as far as I’m concerned, the weekend was more or less a success. Frankly, I was amazed that he actually listened to my recommendation considering what I gave him the last time our paths crossed at a convention. But hey, the more people I can talk into the wonder that is Mr. Impossible, the happier I am.

One of the panels we attended was about reviewing and the purpose of reviews. This being extremely relevant to my interests, I was looking forward to a discussion about the process and hoping to pick up a few tips as I forge into the big scary world of independent reviewing (I have Goals, you know).

Instead, the panel more or less mirrored a lot of the discussions I’m seeing online about reviews. Questions included:

  • What can we do to get more reviews?
  • What can we do to get more positive reviews?
  • How do we deal with negative reviews? Should an author engage?
  • What is the purpose of reviews, period?
  • How do we game the system?

The consensus of the panel really left me somewhat discombobulated. I’ve reviewed books professionally for nearly a decade. And I very much believe that reviews are for the benefit of readers. Instead, it seems to be that reviews are perceived by many content creators as a way to promote their work (and some venues encourage this symbiosis). Have I been doing it wrong all this time? And no one told me?

Are reviews actually thinly disguised promotional tools? I suspect that some would say that they are–I know that it is definitely possible to purchase coverage in some publications, although they do not guarantee a positive review.

I mean, I do understand the author’s dilemma: you spend a lot of time and energy writing a book and getting it published and then some jackass on Amazon gives it one star because they don’t like the price or the font or something that is more or less beyond your control. And that crappy review then sits on your Amazon page and you can’t do anything about it. It must be such a temptation to ask some friendly souls to read your book and then say nice things in order to push that one star review down the page or to drive up the average ranking. Although honestly? If I’m looking to buy a book and the only reviews are someone complaining about something I know that the writer can’t control, I’m not taking those reviews very seriously. In other words, unless someone can definitely prove to me that the one star review of pettiness actually tangibly affects your placement in Amazon’s search results (i.e., I want numbers), then you can safely disregard it. Attempting to divine the mysteries of Amazon’s algorithm is, quite likely, time you can spend doing other things–like writing your next book.

So if reviews aren’t promotional tools intended to move large volumes of books from seller to consumer and thereby help to fuel the capitalist engine that is our economy, then what good are they? The answer is actually very simple.

Reviews are for readers. Reviews are not for authors, they are not for publishers. Reviews can be used as promotion, but ultimately, a review is written to let the reader know if a book is worth their money and, more importantly, their time.

I’ve seen recommendations that reviewers try to write reviews that can be used for promotion and just, no. That’s called blurbing and that is a different beast entirely. Conflate the two at your peril.

The instant a reviewer starts writing with the intent of being pull-quoted by the author or publisher is the moment when they are no longer a credible reviewer.

Let me phrase it a bit differently: The moment the audience for the review becomes the author or publisher, the reviewer’s opinion can no longer be trusted by the reader.

I am not anti-pull-quote. What I am is anti-writing-for-the-pull-quote. A review should be authentic and you shouldn’t be looking to content creators for validation.

Perhaps, you think, what greater validation can there be for a reviewer than seeing their words on the back of a book? How about:

  • What you wrote convinced a reader to give a book a try and it turned out that they loved it?
  • Or that your review let them know that their time and money would be better spent elsewhere?
  • Or that they completely disagree with your review and proceed to give you reasons which convince you to give the book another chance yourself?

These are all great things to have happen as a result of a review. They are, in many ways, much more satisfying than seeing four words from your review on the back of a book. At least to me they are.

At its best reviewing is a conversation between readers. At its worst, it is the regurgitation of press releases and a hard sell.

Authors have many different venues by which they can get criticism. And while authors are becoming more and more responsible for doing their own publicity and I do understand how frustrating that must be at times, they shouldn’t try to co-opt reviewers into being responsible for saying snappy things that will move copies off the shelves and servers and into people’s homes and e-readers.

I am also troubled by authors offering free copies of their books to readers in exchange for reviews. The implication there is that in return for the free book, you will say something nice about it in public or refrain from saying anything at all. The only time I think it’s okay for an author to offer copies directly to readers for review is if they are explicit about expectations and that expectation should always include the possibility that the reader did not like the book.

Review copies from publishers are a little bit easier to negotiate–there’s distance from the author and while the publisher is hoping for a positive write-up there is definitely less chance of blowback onto the reviewer, at least from the publisher and author’s direction.

Probably 70-80% of my reading material over much of the last decade has been in the form of review copies and I’ve written close to 600 reviews during that time. And there have absolutely been times when I’ve felt that I should “be nice”—because the book was advertised in the magazine, because I liked the author personally, because the author had a longstanding relationship with the magazine, because I didn’t want to deal with potential fall-out, because I was writing for an audience where niceness is the accepted form of public social discourse.

And then, after a while, I noticed other things: more and more often, I found myself selecting books that I knew I would probably like over those I knew I wouldn’t—so my average rankings were starting to creep upwards. I was challenging myself less. I felt like my writing was become flatter and more formulaic. I simply wasn’t enjoying the reading or the writing anymore. And that is when I knew it was time for something to change. And that change is this website.

I would like this post to be the start of a conversation–what do you think the role of reviewers should be? What kind of landscape do you think readers should encounter when they look for a book to read? I welcome responses from everyone involved in the peculiar transactions that are reading and writing–this is something that concerns everyone who loves books.

Ebooks: Why I Love Them

Juliet E. McKenna, a fantasy author, had a lot of really smart things to say about converting her backlist to ebooks back in June. I thought this was a really excellent series of posts that really highlights the challenges authors face around ebooks.

One of my favorite things about ebooks is that it lets me read backlist titles. A lot of bookstores simply don’t have them in stock and I am, after eight years of book reviewing, reluctant to buy a lot of physical books. Because, see, this is what my front entryway has looked like for the last few years:

Natalie's Entryway

Natalie’s Entryway

That’s about four months of accumulation from July of last year and I didn’t buy any of those books. People have told me many times about how awesome it must be to get free books and, well, when you have this happen over and over and over again (my entry way still looks like this), the bloom is OFF that rose. So ebooks are awesome because it means I can read (and buy!) new books and not have to deal with the physical objects. It is actually really challenging to get rid of a lot of books–I generally resort to my local Freecycle because then I can get some poor suckersomeone to come and take them away. Since I left RT, the volume of books has dropped off considerably, but it hasn’t stopped.

So anyways–when I discover a new author whose work I might like, I generally want to read their backlist. So the first thing I do is look for ebook editions. If I can’t find ebook editions, then I have to stop and think about how much I actually want to read the backlist. If it’s a romance author, the answer to that question is generally that I’m not going to bother. If it’s another genre, it’s going to depend on how much I feel my enjoyment will depend on whether or not I’ve read everything else they’ve written–this is important for SF/F books because there are, so often, series with lots of book in them. And then I have to think about whether or not I want to buy the books new or used–for my planned Heinlein reread, I decided to buy used because I didn’t feel like the ebook edition prices were particularly fair and I didn’t want to buy new because I knew that it was likely that I wouldn’t be keeping them after I reread them.

So prices. It’s a contentious subject, I know. My idea of a fair ebook price is actually pretty straightforward: It shouldn’t be more than the list price for the cheapest available paper edition and, ideally, should be a little bit lower (i.e., $6.99 for an ebook versus $7.99 for a mass market paperback). I don’t ever want to pay more for an ebook than I would for a paper book, but I also recognize that 99 cents is not the right price for every single ebook. I would be willing to pay more for ebooks that don’t lock me into one particular device and that don’t have DRM on them.

I’m also much more of an impulse shopper when it comes to ebooks. If the price is right and it looks interesting, chances are good that I’ll buy it. I’ve read a lot of stuff on my Kindle that I would never have bought in paper (Sarah McCarty’s Conception is a prime example of that–I read a brief  excerpt online, it looked completely cracktastic, the price was right, I bought it, and it was totally insane and hilarious to read–my friends were less thrilled because I insisted on doing dramatic readings–there were HEALING BLOWJOBS, people–I had a DUTY to share).

And finally, there’s just something wonderful about being able to have so many books available to me on so many different devices–on my phone, my Kindle, my iPad, my computer… It really is a kind of magic to think, “Self, it’s time to reread Mr. Impossible,” and be able to do so almost immediately no matter where I am. It might seriously be the very best thing about living in the future.* Even if we don’t have flying cars.

*Obviously, there is the issue of the digital divide here–not everyone has access to this kind of technology for a lot of different reasons and it is something I do think about a lot and something that does need to be resolved. This kind of access is so important and I hope that someday most people will be able to access it. My post here is not intended in any way to minimize or sideline those concerns.

Linkspam, 9/28/12 edition

  • A Brief History of the Vampire Novel Seriously brief. There’s a 25 year gap between Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris here. I was devouring vampire novels in the early 90’s; one of my particular favorites was Michael Romkey’s I, Vampire which no one else seems to have ever read (I suspect that it may not have held up very well–I seem to recall it being pretty overwrought at the time I read it, and I was an overwrought teenager at the time).
  • How not to write about libraries
  • Do Consumer Reviews Have a Future? Not sure what I think about Vinjamuri’s proposed solutions to the problem of sock-puppeting (also, is it just me or is the mainstream media’s discovery of sock-puppeting and subsequent reporting on it just adorable?).
  • Is This Book Bad, or Is It Just Me? The Anatomy of Book Reviews Really thought provoking essay about the anatomy of the book review. I know that for me, I’m reaching for something beyond just reaction and summary–that’s all I had room for in my reviews for RT, so there’s a pretty steep learning curve.
  • An Open Letter to Convention-Going Butt Photographers
  • An appreciation of the Besty-Tacy books I do love these books–I especially love the one where Betsy goes to Germany right before WWI breaks out and she is all, “O hai, is there going to be a war? Why are there all these soldiers around?” and then she has to try to get back to the US. There’s something about her relatively cluelessness that I find really charming (which is strange, because I don’t normally find that very charming).
  • Spot on review of Mr. Impossible, my very favoritest romance novel EVER I love this book so much that I am pretty much incoherent when it comes to discussing it.
  • An Open Letter to America’s Publishers from ALA President Maureen Sullivan regarding the refusal of half the Big 6 publishers (Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Penguin) to provide access to ebooks by libraries in the US. I know when I last checked my local library’s ebook collection (about a year ago) everything they had was purchased in 2005 and was focused mainly on how to find employment.
  • Women, Men And Fiction: Notes on How Not to Answer Hard Questions Note: The VIDA statistics cited look at most outlets that do review genre with one exception: They do not look at RT Book Reviews, which is mostly books written by women and reviewed by women.