Thursday, September 27, 2018

Reading Romance, Part Four: Modern Contemporary Romance

Yes, it's nearly October, and the dog days of summer have now passed long behind us... but wouldn't you know it? I'm still not finished talking about my Summer 2018 Reading Romance Challenge. If you've been following along, you've seen me delve into the world of '80s and '90s vintage romance, expand my views with contemporary historical romance, and now, finally, we've reached the most dreaded subgenre: modern contemporary romance. 

Just to clarify: whereas August's discussion revolved around the contemporarily-published yet historically-set romance novel, this one's focused in on contemporarily-written romances set in today's day and age. If you know me well - or even a little - you know that in terms of YA fiction, this is probably my most-maligned subgenre, taking up zero space in my home shelves, and rarely warranting any form of checkout from the library. In terms of expectations as to how well this particular month of reading would go... let's just say that morale was not high.

how to choose?

The rules were as follows: these books must have been published within the last few years, or be a part of series that are still in the process of being completed. They must also be set during that time period.

Though, to be honest, I'd been juggling between whether I wanted to flex the rules in this category a little, and include YA romances as well, but in the end, I wanted to make the criteria for judging consistent. This entire challenge was formed on the basis of attempting to try something new, after all!

The difference is, you can really tell a vintage or historical romance by their cover... but the same cannot always be said for modern contemporary, whose covers often fit more in to the traditional fiction packaging. In an attempt to combat this, I tried looking for books in a slightly different fashion, turning more towards Internet recommendations and social media for my answers. Primarily, I looked for those with the typical sexy couple / male model on the cover (and found one), looked for any new and notable New Adult romance releases (and found one), and even briefly dipped my toe in romance novel YouTube to find inspiration (and found one on there, too!).

what I read

29422692Hate to Want You (Forbidden Hearts #1), Alisha Rai

It was never supposed to be about anything other than sex. For one night a year - for almost ten years - Livvy and Nicholas would put aside the pain of their shared past, for one night of pleasure. But now, Livvy has moved back home, and it's completely changed everything, for both of their influential families. Can the two undo ten years of anger, secrets, and frustration, in search of something more? Do they even want to?

  • The book is stocked with a diverse cast... as in, really diverse, with cultures that were clearly identified, and informed the relationships of our main characters with their community/family. 
  • I talked a little bit about the explicitly graphic nature of the scenes in some of the historical romance novels... so you can imagine the shenanigans these characters get up to without all those garters and petticoats in the way! As in, "cover your e-reader with your hand and turn down the brightness in public" sexy. Honestly, it was a lot. I was overwhelmed. 
  • A major way it differentiated from the other romances I've read, is its inclusion of independently successful and discrete characters, with personalized senses of self-governance and motivation when it came to their decisions. They had important ties to family and friends... but nothing that kept them from defining success on their own terms first. 
  • My favorite part? The fact that it was packed to the brim with background female characters whose choices and opinions also informed and guided the decisions of main characters. They weren't there just to provide background or necessary exposition, but they had real stakes involved in the outcome of this relationship. Not just those in the acquaintance of the female heroine, either... but for those surrounding the male love interest, too. 
  • "Society tells women that they have to be responsible for the emotional health of their relationships and then tells them they’re weak for feeling emotions. What kind of message is that?" A lot of the books I've read through this challenge that have been written in the past few years really leaned in to feminist messaging, but this one stated it the most directly and consistently across the narrative. Romances are consumed by more women than any other genre, and you never know which one of your readers is going to need to hear this message the most. I respected that a lot. 

Royally Screwed (Royally #1), Emma Chase

29991719Nicholas Pembrook - dubbed "His Royal Hotness" by the press - is in a tricky spot. His grandmother, the Queen, has just informed him of her prospective solution to the flagging patriotism and declining economics of their small nation: there needs to be a royal wedding, of course! Problem is, that he's the groom... and a noble-born bride is to be selected from the dossier sitting on his desk. But when he meets Olivia, the beautiful pie-maker at a down-on-its-luck Brooklyn coffee shop, all thoughts of rules and regulations go out the window. Can they fit the romance of a lifetime into only five months? What would Nicholas be willing to give up to stay with her?

  • First of all, the names were obnoxious. At first, when I saw the name "Genovia" mentioned as a neighboring country within the first few pages of the book, I thought it was a cute Easter egg of sorts, but when I learned the country the prince belongs to was named "Wessco" - which honestly sounds like a gas station chain - I decided the author just had a hard time coming up with what to call things. 
  • Then later, when I saw that characters were given surnames like "Littlecock" and "Titebottum" - with the latter being set up as a love interest in another novel in the series - I couldn't tell whether the author was making them this bad on purpose. 
  • Essentially, this was a Prince William self-insert fanfiction. The younger brother, party-boy prince is even named "Henry,: for goodness' sake. 
  • Definitely for fans of E!'s The Royals... but not necessarily if you're a fan of the actual royal family. 
  • I have to say, out of all of the books I've read as a part of this project so far... this was the first that filled all of the stereotypes of what I thought romance novels would be like, in a predominantly negative way. Between an under-performing plot, over-performing sexual stamina, cookie cutter characters, and presence of certain tropes that almost felt like an insult to my intelligence, I grew very frustrated with the novel, but still managed to power through.
  • Yes, I feel personally attacked by the fact this has a 4.08 on Goodreads. 

The Simple Wild, K. A. Tucker 

36373564Calla Fletcher left all thoughts of Alaska, and her estranged father, behind, when he disappointed her and her mother one too many times. But after a surprise phone call and a cancer diagnosis sends her packing, she finds herself leaving Toronto, and setting out for the birthplace she hasn't seen since her mom left with her at the age of two. There, she'll have to brave not just the uncompromising daylight and unfamiliar surroundings, but a bush pilot who just can't seem to be civil around her. But maybe there's more to rough-around-the-edges Jonah... and the small town full of people Calla can't help but love. Could one of them even be him? 
  • I know what you're thinking: this cover is definitely down at least one half-naked person. I had my doubts, too. But technically, this title is classified as a New Adult Contemporary Romance, which is how it is defined by not only the publisher, but the good people of Goodreads, so I think my choice to include it in this project stands. It might not have anyone making out or making a pouty face on the cover, but it is a story centered around a romance, and includes sexual themes and more than one explicit depiction of it, so I'm including it. 
  • Like Hate to Want You, the novel deliberately incorporates people of diverse backgrounds - both in keeping with the setting of Alaska, but also as a deliberate authorial choice and means of plot reflection - in a way that lends the story realness and relatability. 
  • Maybe it's because I read this right after Royally Screwed, but I was impressed by how this book was primarily plot-oriented, but still did so without taking away from comprehensive and unique characterizations for both the main and supporting cast
  • Out of all of the romances I've read over the course of the summer, this was the first of these books to really make me cry. As in, tears positively cascading down my face. 
  • The inclusion of sexual content doesn't hit until about 75% way through the book, which felt much more organic and less rushed than it did in the other books from this time period. Of course, after that point it was fairly no-holds-barred, but I kind of expected that. 
  • You know how I've complained about tropes before? There were tropes here, but they made such narrative sense and were so non-stereotypical, that I didn't mind. Case in point: There was bad weather. There was a small, remote cabin. There was one bed to share. I was near deliriously happy. 

some more random reading takeaways from modern contemporary

  • I'm growing desperate for these authors to stop describing outfits their characters are wearing, because more often than not, they're terrible. Especially when it comes to the sartorial choices of their main female characters, which are almost overwhelmingly disappointing, and sometimes severely inappropriate or gauche. (The one exception to this rule, was - unsurprisingly to me - the New Adult read.) 
  • It's interesting, discerning how important theming or genre is when it comes to choosing romance novels. On one hand, it's the primary thing I look for when choosing - like I referenced in my Vintage Romance post, it's not like I'm about to read novels set around things like baseball, airplanes, or cowboys if those aren't genres or topics that interest me - and yet, the greater knowledge you have about a certain topic or genre, the greater the likelihood that the novel is going to disappoint you.
  • In more than one of these picks, the ending hangs on an unresolved plot, but in a way that clearly establishes a setting and plot for other books in the series to come. I was able to recognize it every time, even before I knew there were more in the series... and I think it might be that romances these days seem to be automatically intended for continuation. 
  • Like I've mentioned, while every romance novel I've read so far has contained a semblance of feminist ideology - be it a somewhat generous classification due to claims that "a woman can do anything a man can do," or the inclusion of diverse and unique communities packed to bursting with supportive and independent women with their own motivations and principles - Modern Contemporary has, as a category, really performed that concept the best. Conversations and deliberate use of feminist language have been a pretty happy surprise in this category, and I've actually been fairly impressed by the comprehensive and specific nature of its inclusion. This will be touched on much more significantly in my next post... 

where to next?

Speaking of which, I'm already hard at work compiling some notes and reading materials for covering the next section of this series! While I didn't explicitly outline that this would warrant its own post when I first created the guidelines for this independent research, I wanted to make sure that I covered every facet of contemporary attitudes in regards to romance novels... which, naturally, means literary criticism and scholarship!

Stay tuned for a new update soon - and by that, I mean in the next couple of months - including discussions on the historical and cultural development of the mass-market paperback romance novel, what its continued popularity and modern renaissance mean for the course of its audience and genre, and explorations as to how these conversations are being held in the contemporary academic sphere.

What's been your favorite recent romance? Which of this list would you pick to read? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Fall 2018 TBR

I've never really been a TBR-oriented person: sure, I have bookshelves packed double-thick with titles I've purchased but never read, and I guess that counts as a TBR... but I'm not exactly one for setting out a stack of books for the month and saying, "These are the chosen few I'm going to dedicate my time to reading."

At least, it was that way, until I found myself building a list midway through a vacation this past August, after coming to the realization that if I continued to mood-read my books willy-nilly, then there was no way that I'd be tackling all of the tomes I was hoping to read come Fall. 

So, for the first time in forever, not only have I found myself in possession of a TBR list... but I'm sharing it with you all!

Image result for order of the phoenix goodreads1. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
My 2018 Resolution to reread all of the Harry Potter books - and rewatch all of the movies - is still well underway, but I can't help but feel like I've fallen a little behind. I'm trying to take care of numbers 5 and 6 before October is over, so that I can sneak a little Potter Party into the Halloween festivities at my house, but it's going to take some serious prioritization and snappy scheduling to fit these two into a less-than-two-month period!

2. Nick Hornby's column collections, starting with The Polysyllabic Spree
Image result for a tree grows in brooklyn betty smith goodreadsI've been waiting to read Hornby's collections of the "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns he wrote for The Believer until I had all of the copies I needed to read through them completely. I've got the last one on my birthday list for October, so hopefully that means I'll be going through them all soon!

3. Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Maybe it's the fact that my brother's copy has leaves on the cover, or that just thinking of trees kind of has me thinking of my favorite season to view them, but this one just gives the impression of gelling well with a late September afternoon.
Image result for fear street goodreads
4. R. L. Stine's Fear Street series reprints
The loudest I've ever been in a bookstore, was when I saw that they had begun issuing reprint double-feature copies of some of my favorite old Fear Street books. Now that they've not only continued churning out these old-new editions in order to make way for new Return to Fear Street material, I know I have to reread and catch up... and what better time to do so, than October?

5. Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond
I remember reading this one in the 7th grade, and feeling a little robbed by the fact that this book, realistically, has very, very little witchcraft, and just a whole lot of Puritanical overreacting (a summary for the Salem witch trials as a whole, really). But a reflection on the book the other day had me reminiscing fondly of the East Coast setting, and I figured it might be due for a visit this Fall.
Image result for the witch of blackbird pond goodreads
6. Libba Bray's The Diviners series
It has been an endless source of annoyance to my brother, that I have had a copy of Before the Devil Breaks You (the third intsallment in this series) in my possession since last year, but have never made the time to read it, mainly due to the fact that I'd want to reread the other books in the series first. Eventually, he got tired of waiting, and read it before I did... and has been impatiently waiting for me to pick up the slack ever since. What better time to revisit spooky ghosts and paranormal powers, than October?

7. April Tucholke's Slasher Girls and Monster Boys short story collection
Image result for down among the sticks and bones goodreadsI've waxed poetic on these books at length on this blog before, and thanks to my constant hyping, my Dad actually read through the collection this past summer, as well. This staid and stalwart fan of Stephen King ended up finding a whole lot to love in the works, too, and now that he's been won over, I'm trying to prod my sister into finally picking it up.

8. Seanan McGuire's Down Among the Sticks and Bones
Image result for beyond heaving bosoms goodreadsMcGuire's novella Every Heart a Doorway was so joyously enthralling and succint, that instead of packing it for an April vacation like I was supposed to do, I sat on my bed and spent the rest of the day smiling to myself and finishing it. The sequel, exploring the Gothic fantasy world twin sisters Jack and Jill found their way into before the events of the previous installment, seems to be just dark and twisted enough for a great October evening.

9. Romance Novel Literary Criticism
My Summer of Reading Romance may be over - yes, that August update is still forthcoming - but the fun is far from flagging. I'm preventing myself from grabbing any more of these distractingly fun titles until I've completed some of the work behind building this new habit, and tackling a few more complex collections of literary criticism on the publishing genre.

10. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way
I've been feeling a little burnt out and uninspired lately - back-to-back family vacations where you constantly have to share a room with your siblings can do that to you - and I've heard this book recommended enough times to recognize it when a creator I enjoy mentioned it in their Instagram Story. Without wasting a second, I put a hold on it at the local library, and have been leisurely perusing it, in the hopes I can create a little inspiration for myself, instead.

But of course, there are always more. In particular, my November looks like it will be including Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom - at the urgent behest of my impatient and eternally understanding little brother - and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden (which, spoiler alert, I'm pretty sure will be the basis for my NaNoWriMo challenge later this year!).

What's in your Top Ten? Let me know, in the comments below!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: Truthwitch

I'm a big fan of Dennard as an author, and gave this book a 3.5 - rounded up to a 4 - on Goodreads. I'm only saying this now, because it's going to take a little bit of this blogpost to get to the points I actually liked about the novel. Just be patient, and trust me on this one! 

Truthwitch (Witchlands #1), by Susan Dennard, follows the story of Safiya and Iseult, two young witches caught up in a storm of political turmoil and uncertain alliances they never bargained for. While Safiya's Truthwitch powers make her a hot commodity for the clashing kingdoms, Iseult's Threadwitch home tribe is overrun with a dark and mysterious power, placing them both at risk and on the run. With the help of Prince Merrick, they try to keep one step in front of the rapidly gaining enemies... but with a Bloodwitch on their heels, who knows how long they'll be able to stay ahead.

The story jumps in with both feet, the plot taking off with a frenetic pace, as so much happens in such a short amount of time that you're left desperate to find a sense of understanding amongst all the scenery flowing past you. Eventually, however, you find your groove, and begin to determine from between the multitude of new names, stereotypes, and personalities, what the story is actually about.

Even retroactively, I still feel like there was too much happening from the get-go, to the point of various holes not getting filled as they should have. If it's a question of plot versus character in the front seat, plot can undoubtedly be found driving, and it's got its gas pedal pressed to the floor. If things had been slowed down a little, and the reader been given a marked amount more detail of what they were seeing and experiencing, then it might have been easier to digest, while still keeping in time with the pacing necessary to the plot.

If it's even possible, I feel like there was almost too much showing, rather than telling: if things had just been explained a little better as they happened, no matter what narrator or framing the exposition would have come from, it wouldn't have taken so much effort to get caught up to speed.

The characters themselves seemed pretty standard for the roles needing to be filled in various YA Fantasy: the pretty, but weapon-wielding, tough girl who acts on impulse and serves as the main, the dashing and brooding prince who cares for his people despite cruel inter-family forces trying to take him down, the emotionally stunted and logical outcast who is privy to the secrets of the world, but cannot navigate her own feelings quite as easily.

That might be why I liked one of the other side characters - the Bloodwitch - so much, because I felt like I hadn't seen him in this format before. Granted, I'm pretty aware of his typecasting outside the realm of YA: maybe it's his jaded and cynical attitudes towards completing a task and getting paid for it, or the fact that he wears a white cloak, with its hood pulled down over his eyes, tons of leather armor, and scabbards absolutely bursting with gleaming metal, but the whole thing about this character felt very video game-y.

There were even elements of the plot that felt similarly formulaic, like pieces of an IKEA furniture set that needed to be snapped together to generate an acceptable outcome. Various choices characters made - which even in the moment, and with very little time to have met them, felt a little out of place - would eventually regain their clarity when it morphed into a meeting point or intersection with the plot or motivations of another character, that they needed at that time. It was a series of small deus ex machina moments that really came across as the author needing her characters to be somewhere, and just getting them there by any means necessary, regardless of plot.

Still, despite the fact that these elements were so recognizable, despite the plot that was too breakneck and unresolved... I think I really enjoyed this book. There were new and exciting systems of magic that reminded me a little of the Avatar the Last Airbender Universe, the various settings and communities described set things up for a fun and well-integrated world having been built, and overall, I enjoyed getting to know the characters, for all that they might be modeled after others. It was a good time, and I've already picked up the sequel, because sometimes, things that are recognizable - and even a little formulaic - can be the foundation for fun, easy reading.

Final Verdict: Already-established fans of YA Fantasy will definitely enjoy this fast-paced, wide-spanning, yet still recognizable, romp through a thoroughly built-out magical world. While I wouldn't recommend it to anyone new to the genre, or anyone looking for something unique or different, it's the perfect kind of thing to read on a cozy afternoon.

Have you read Truthwitch? Are you a fan of Dennard? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Review: Braving the Wilderness

Are you a fan of TED talks? I've gone through some major binges in my life before, but one of the speakers I always end up going back to, is Brene Brown. When I saw she had a recent release hitting my local library shelves, I knew I couldn't say no! 

Brene Brown is known for her insight and analysis into the complex social dynamics that make our lives more full: shame, vulnerability, and now, belonging. Her latest work, Braving the Wilderness, takes on the various ways we, as humans, construct communities around personality - based on the various principles of fitting in, versus truly feeling accepted while acting as ourselves - and how the failure to do so in a healthy or supportive way can detrimentally effect the ways we see ourselves, and even our perspectives on the humanity of the people around us.

Brown makes a point of saying that this book seemed especially difficult, but necessary, to write in the current political climate, and that it was the significant social divides criss-crossing our nation right now that provide the best examples of what it means to fit in, versus feel like you belong.

While I did agree with some of her points on this matter - that dehumanization of the opposite side on both parties is rampant and counter-productive, and that things like public humiliation and "calling out" behaviors that we see all the time in the news and on social media are not as productive as they are emotionally satisfying, which can be dangerous - there was still a lot I was left to contend with.

As someone who would consider herself to be fairly politically involved, and who is a part of several communities that are as well, I strongly disagreed with some of her statements in regards to what qualify as a boundary lines of considering the sense of humanity in others, and the road to bipartisanship, and wonder if her position about such matters have changed since writing and publishing the book.

Beyond that, one of the things I appreciate so much about Brown is her attention to language.... everything she writes seems to come from a place of deliberate kindness and support, and she really leans into the concept of having everything she says truly come from the heart. Even though I did have slight grievances with some of her material, there was such an underlying constant to everything she was explaining, which was so earnest and authentic, that I was easily able to take what I believe to be adverse perspectives in stride, because they are truly things that she believes.

I also appreciate that she never sacrifices those parts of herself that are authentic, strictly for the benefit of other people. She is a qualitative researcher who draws a lot of her examples from her own firsthand account, so her sense of project narrative is derived inexplicably from her personal experiences, which means that things like her faith and background will always be present in her works. It was some of her commentary on God in politics that struck me as so poignant, I actually took pictures of those pages, and saved them on my phone because I liked them so much.

Final Verdict: I'm still a fan of Brown, but this wasn't one of my favorites of her works. If you're looking to try her out for the first time, I'd recommend starting with Daring Greatly, and maybe working your way to this one once you've gotten the hang of her writing style!