Monday, June 25, 2018

Reading Romance, Part One: Introduction

As I mentioned in my recent post on my summer reading goals, I'm trying to branch out a little bit in my genre scope, into the realm of romance novels: bare torsos, flowing locks, male smoldering, and all! However, I didn't include a lot of detail as to what that kind of adventuring is going to look like.

So, I wanted to give you all a little more background into my thought process... like how this self-organized reading challenge is going to play out, and the kinds of assigned reading I'm giving myself to augment my understanding! (And trust me: that's all going to be a lot more fun than it sounds.)

a little bit of background

So, when I say I'm a total romance newbie, that's not entirely true. Obviously I've made my way around some romances before... I mean, Pride and Prejudice is on pretty constant rotation on my reading list, and that's not counting the adaptations!

But even beyond that, I've read enough YA romances in middle and high school to fill a few bookshelves. Of course, some of those were of the vampire variety, but for the most part, my penchants were for those based on fairy tales or starring a shy and nerdy heroine, because I am nothing if not consistent, and my romance habits are nothing if not self-insert. In the mix were some various historical romances, as well as anything having to do with boarding schools or circuses.
Oh, and I absolutely love this movie.
But seriously, that's all the genre experience I got.

(Listen, I'm not saying I'm proud of it, I'm just saying it happened.)

As an adult, the only thing I've come close to reading a true straightforward romance novel, was Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but that was back in either late high school, or early college. Either way, I never blogged about it... mainly because I was too embarrassed. My mom ended up reading it after me, and totally hated it, so it never warranted much discussion around the house, anyways.

And, of course, due to the fan hype surrounding the show, I read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, so that I would be able to write up a College Fashion post on it, back in 2014! I wasn't a fan, as I talked about recently in a Top Ten Tuesday lineup, and definitely don't plan on revisiting the series.

But those two are still fairly wider-fiction romances, and that's really not what I'm trying to focus my attention on with this challenge. I'm not looking for something you might still be able to find tucked into a general reading section, I really want to make sure what I'm reading is above all a romance, before it's anything else. If I'm trying to read my way deeper into the genre - and find its place in the literary criticism pantheon - for myself, then I need to focus on the most extreme trajectory.

So, to orient my challenge into something that forms a little more structure, I had to break down exactly what that meant.

the categories

june - vintage romances

As you'll soon be hearing in a new blog post, I decided to start my romance journey by going as far back as I could... and that took the form of only romances written before the turn of the century. While I tried looking around various places on the internet to find the best recommendations for these kinds of novels, the actual answers were few and far between... something you'll be hearing more about in that particular update!

Rules for this romance: has to be written before the year 2000, has to be a mass market paperback, has to have some kind of flowery writing or dashing figure on the cover. As you'll be seeing in the post, I achieved that criteria many times over!

july - recently written historical romance

I don't know if it's just my own observations or what, but I feel that the world of the historical romance has really revved up its game within the scope of the past five years or so. At any rate, it's a phenomenon that's gained a lot of traction in the world of the book blogger!

Rules for this romance: has to have been written within the last three years, has to be a mass-market paperback, has to be set sometime before the 1900s... and for some reason, these also seem to be predominantly set somewhere European. (To give you a sneak preview: I've been looking forward to pick up something written by Tessa Dare or Julia Quinn!)

august - modern contemporary romance 

I'm leaving the category I'm perhaps the most wary of for last...

Rules for this romance: has to have been published within the last two years, and set within that time period, as well. I've decided it cannot be YA, so it has to come from either the New Adult or Adult Romance genres... and to be honest, I'm kind of trying to get to one of both, for a truly comprehensive experience.

I have very little point of reference for these categories, so I'm the most unsure of what titles to pick up. I've seen the name Colleen Hoover come up a couple of times, the title The Wedding Date, by Jasmine Guillory, has been flung my way, and I've also had The Simple Wild, by K. A. Tucker - which doesn't actually come out until August! - recommended to me for a choice, as well, but I'm keeping my card open for as long as possible here.

all summer - romance genre literary criticism and popular discourse 

Thankfully, I'm not alone on this journey, of trying to find the points of contact between popular romance and literary criticism: there are already plenty of people doing that same work!

From accessible and popular websites like Medium, XOJane, Jezebel, and Bustle, to staid and serious publications like The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Economist, there are plenty of articles worth reading when it comes to the greater cultural context of romance novels. There is even an academic journal completely dedicated to that singular subject: JPR Studies (the Journal of Popular Romance)! 

Furthermore, there are also books dedicated to such research. I've currently got Pamela Regis' A Natural History of the Romance Novel checked out from the library, with sticky flags sprouting from its pages. There are other books that have been written on the same topic - Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained by Maya Rodale, is currently sitting in my Amazon shopping cart, while I debate paying $10 to get it in paperback - that I would hope to have time to get around to, as well.

the project

So, there you have it! I'm not really dipping my toes in here, so much as diving in headfirst, having thought out exactly how I'm going to be doing the diving beforehand. 

By the end of the summer, I'll have read a minimum of 3 complete romance novels and at least one published work of literary criticism, as well as have consumed numerous other resources that I'll be happy to link to you all, as well.

Hope you're ready, and reading, for a really good time! 

Do you read in the popular romance genre? What are some books or authors you'd recommend to me next? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Summer 2018: Reading and Writing Goals

Well, after having already celebrated two graduations and a wedding shower, and gearing up for even more family events to come in the next couple of months, I think I'm pretty confident in saying that summer has finally arrived. Of course, it's not officially here until the 21st, but like every set of goals in your life, it's probably best to get them sorted out in advance.

Every summer since I was about 13, I've given myself a reading challenge over the course of my break, from completing 25 books (the standard throughout high school), to checking off library bingo cards, to last summer's podcast-inspired rereading of Twilight. Naturally, this year isn't any different... or is it?

Here are some of the challenges I've decided to undertake for Summer 2018...

ray bradbury challenge, and camp nano

Those who have been following my blog for a while might remember my NaNoWriMo project this past November: to use the course of the 50,000-words-in-a-month challenge to build out a collection of short stories, a medium I had only written for once before.

This summer, I'm trying something a little similar. Ray Bradbury was once quoted as giving this writing advice: "Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row." I've decided to adopt that mantra as a form of challenge for over the course of the summer: I'm going to try and write around one short story a week, with the objective that by the end of the challenge, I'll have at least five or six complete short stories before my family goes on vacation in August.

This way, I'll continue to flex those same concise-and-consistent storytelling muscles that I started to build up back in November, in the hopes that I'll keep improving in the medium. Thankfully, Camp NaNoWriMo is almost here (for the month of July!), so I'll be including my word counts towards that particular endeavor.

And who knows? Maybe in the end, I'll come up with something really worth reading... and maybe I'll have to test that theory on other people!

reading romance: an introduction to bodice-rippage 

For almost all of my reading life, I've traversed regularly over a consistent breadth of genres. Sure, I have my set of tried-and-true favorites - Biography and Memoir, Mystery, History, Self-Help, and Fantasy - but for the most part, I cover a significant amount of library ground.

Except, that is, when it comes to Romance!

And I'm not just talking about books with an undercurrent or subplot of romances, or even YA contemporaries that make romance the whole plot... I'm talking about dime-a-dozen '80s Harlequin mass market paperbacks. I'm talking about covers full of bare torsos and flowing dresses. I'm talking about the kinds of books I'm fully prepared to rent from the library or get on my Kindle, because I can't have the physical presence of those purchases manifested in the real world.

But why am I doing this, other than to make up for an area of bookish experience that I currently lack? I've been party to enough Gender and Women's Studies discussions on the feminist origins and theming of romance novels, without having actually gotten an up-close-and-personal look at the material, and I want that to change.

Keep your eyes out for an update soon on exactly what this kind of challenge is going to look like!

playing in the pages, on the 'gram

I've been toying with the idea for a while now of starting an Instagram account separate from my own personal one, on which to post all of my reading and writing updates that would be more in keeping with what I promote on this blog.

It's not that my own Instagram doesn't provide enough real estate for that kind of thing, but that it's geared a little more towards things like my family and friends, regular hobbies, and major life events, rather than reading time. It's not something I update terribly regularly, and honestly, I'd like to save it for some of the important stuff.

Additionally, I've been looking for a means of keeping myself a little more personally accountable for my reading and writing habits, and I wanted to start taking more pictures of these things that I do so frequently.

I figured that the best way to tick all of these boxes, was to start an Instagram profile specifically for these objectives: I can post daily accounts of how my writing is going, what I'm reading, and what I've been posting on the blog, while also upping the amount of pictures I take on a regular basis, and not bugging everybody in my regular life while doing so (while also hopefully making some new friends interested in the subject, too!).

other reading goals for 2018

Library Book Bingoes in Seattle and Tacoma

Another summer to me means, of course, another set of book bingo cards courtesy of the Seattle and Tacoma Public Libraries. This year, I'm not just aiming for another set of bingoes, but also looking to take on some of the more difficult blocks on the Tacoma card, like attending a library event, or utilizing some of their non-bookish resources, like the buildings index or cd rental systems. Others, like making a recipe from a library cookbook, or taking a shelfie at the library, are things my brother and I are already looking forward to completing together!

Continuing Harry Potter Rereads

I'm halfway through Goblet of Fire right now - I know, I know, the same thing I said in my most recent "Year with Harry" recap - and am looking forward to my next Potter Party with my brother, but I have to say, I thought I'd be further along in this journey by now! I'm trying to read at least the fifth book by the beginning of August, because we've still got a ways to go on this particular adventure.

Reading books from my TBR shelves instead of the Library

Out of all of my resolutions for 2018, this one is probably off to the roughest start, because out of the over 30 books I've recorded in my Goodreads Challenge for this year so far, only about 8 of them have come courtesy of my TBR shelves, the rest having been rereads or library checkouts. Yikes! That's got to change over the summer, which makes for the perfect time to tackle those tomes that might be a little too thick, intimidating, or otherwise require more attention than your average beach read.

What are some of your reading and writing goals for the summer? What are some projects you're trying to tackle in the sunshine? Let me know, in the comments below!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My Year with Harry: Prisoner of Azkaban

My new year started off with a bang - not unlike the ones heard during a game of Exploding Snap in the Gryffindor common room - when I decided to make it one of my 2018 resolutions to reread every book in the Harry Potter series. After a very successful return to the first novel, and an interesting series of revelations during the second, I was extremely excited to what had been my favorite novel from the series in my youth! 

personal history 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was published in the summer of 1999, and its movie followed five years later, in the summer of 2004. Without a doubt, this installment of Harry's adventures has always been my favorite, due to the compelling characters, the advancement of intrigue in regards to Harry's past, and a really spectacular film adaptation. 

I remember thinking about my age in terms of Harry Potter books as I grew up - comparing where I was at in my own life and drawing it up against the exploits of the Golden Trio - and this was one of the years where I began to give thought to things like, "Hermione is taking a million classes at once, and Harry spends every night practicing Quidditch until it's dark out... what am I doing with my life?" (To be fair, it's also the year I took fencing lessons, so at least I was doing something kind of cool with my free time.)

I must have read this over twenty times over the years, but have never really taken the opportunity to consider it critically, which I was almost a little nervous to do... I mean, what if I didn't end up liking it as much? The good news is, with a decent amount of personal removal from the narrative - being that I haven't read it in over a few years, and same with observing the film - I felt I was able to really appreciate it for what it was a little more upon the reread.

the reread 

And what I found it to be, was a solidly constructed, plot-driven novel, that demonstrates a successful beginning to the series' transition in writing style from the middle grade first installments, to the more YA-leaning later books. 

Specifically, the tonal differences are what start to demonstrate the audience shift. I talked a little about how dark Chamber of Secrets is in my last post on this subject, once you isolate the severity of the basilisk attacks, and understand how much danger a large group of vulnerable school children were obviously in. However, while I think Prisoner of Azkaban might not be able to reach Chamber's danger level in terms of scale and scope, it definitely makes up for it in angst, especially in interpersonal relationships. That conversation between the group of people in the Shrieking Shack, is probably one of the most emotionally fraught and plot-significant of the first half of the series.

In terms of characters, one thing I enjoyed most was the continued development of major players, who begin to take on greater depth and dynamism. In particular, I felt Hermione's character really started to come much more into her own in this book, which I think sets up well for her involvement in Goblet of Fire. The novel didn't just continue to prop her up as a the incredibly intelligent and somewhat remonstrative force she was in the first two books, but started to illustrate that more Gryffindor-esque side, someone who isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe for their beliefs, who breaks precedent in order to pursue radical goals, and most importantly, who is fully capable of smacking Malfoy in the face.

Some other thoughts I had: 

  • Prongs chose the worst animal as an Animagus, hands down. If your friends can all turn into a rat, a dog, and a wolf, why the actual hell would you choose a stag, of all things? The only information I can glean simply focused on how his Patronus took the form of a stag as well... but I don't know what that says about James. 
  • And furthermore, while on the subject of animals, why would any Hogwarts student choose a pet that's not an owl? I get it, Crookshanks ended up being very helpful, but as someone known for her intelligence and sense of pragmatism, Hermione's choice of a cat as a Hogwarts pet - even over her own professed interest in a more functional one, like an owl - is still a puzzle to me.
  • I think one of the key differences between the books and the movies - particularly where the innately endearing nature of Alan Rickman's trademark monotone are involved - is the highlighting of Snape's prolonged hatred for, and mistreatment of, any and all students who are not Slytherins. In any place of learning, a teacher demonstrating that level of consistent nepotism, antagonism, and lack of consideration for student safety or emotional well-being, would get a teacher fired five or six times over. 
  • Now that I started noticing them in Sorceror's Stone, I can't stop: there are still references to Hagrid being drunk again. Is this just more appropriate in British children's lit for some reason? Because beer is such a common place beverage - and drinking laws are more lenient - is this a more easily accepted behavioral pattern for someone supposed to be seen as an authority figure? 

favorite quotes

"Harry!" said Fred, elbowing Percy out of the way and bowing deeply. "Simply splendid to see you, old boy -" 
"Marvelous," said George, pushing Fred aside and seizing Harry's hand in turn. "Absolutely spiffing." 
Percy scowled. 
"That's enough, now," said Mrs. Weasley. 
"Mum!" said Fred as though he'd only just spotted her and seizing her hand too. "How really corking to see you-" 

"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

“You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?” 

the end 

In the end, while I never quite made it to that same level of adoration I felt when I was younger, I did appreciate viewing Prisoner of Azkaban through a more critical lens, in order to better observe its subtle nuances in tonal shifting and character development. It might just be that Hermione's more substantial placement in the novel was one of the reasons I remember liking it so much! 

I am incredibly excited to get to the books on the thicker end of the series, and am currently in the middle of Goblet of Fire, which is, to be honest, giving me a little more trouble than I bargained for.  We'll see how the rest of it goes, and hopefully I'll be able to check in again soon... and remember, I'll be reaching another movie point, so a Potter Party recap should be included in the next update! 

Is Prisoner of Azkaban your favorite? What would your Animagus form be? Let me know, in the comments below!