Love is on my mind (and TBR)
Six more romances reviews and overthinking links
Station identification: Hi. I’m a strategist and book-lover. This newsletter is sometimes about the former, sometimes about the latter, every now and then about both, and very often about nothing at all.
I’m currently reading through a pile of award-winning romances and analysing the values on display in each one. Why? ‘Cause! (Introduction, Progress, Reviews Batch #1, Reviews Batch #2, Reviews Batch #3, Reviews Batch #4). Over the past two months, between judging The Kitschies, I managed to read another half dozen - here goes.
Lynn Kurland’s Stardust of Yesterday (1996, RITA Winner): My very first ghost romance! Genevieve inherits a castle. It comes with Kendrick, a sexy ghost. They’re enemies! They’re friends! They’re something more!
This book is an exceedingly Hallmarkian tale full of improbabilities and good-natured shenanigans. I spent most of the book wondering how it would resolve. Practically speaking, how would Genevieve ever, y'know, “polter her geist”? Would she die?! Would she travel back in time? Reincarnation?! Alas, the resolution was somehow even less probable (and less satisfying).
Values: Comfortable Life. This is mostly lengthy wish-fulfillment about inheriting a castle. Yes, there are stipulations involved, and a lacklustre revenge plot and such. But this is a book about dreams coming true, and those particular dreams are lavishly furnished and come with a butler.
Adele Ashworth’s My Darling Caroline (1999, RITA Winner): Back in my Regency heartland! Caroline wants to be a botanist, but that is forbidden, ‘cause she herself is a delicate lady-flower. Brent, because he’s a brooding Regency hero, wants to NEVER KNOW LOVE. But also, he wants his horses back. (Don’t worry about the horses; they are a first act gun that never fires.)
I’m a fan of the marriage of convenience trope, and this is very much that. There’s a bit of a ticking clock: will Caroline actually go off and achieve her dreams in time? And, in a tumultuous act of ‘this is a debut and therefore has a few too many plot points’, there’s a random French assassin! Also, PTSD! In conclusion, it is a fine example of the genre, and pretty good fun.
My only complaint is somewhat tangentially-related to Caroline’s quest for recognition. She’s an actual, literal, capital-G Genius. And the sexism she faces is grossly, horribly unfair. I don’t mind the ‘anachronism’ of folks going out of their way to find ways for her succeed: every era had prescient, good-hearted people. It may be unrealistic, but it is sweet, and believable. But the book falls into the trap of exceptionalism: yes, it sucks that a genius like Caroline doesn’t get to study at university and can’t own property and is treated like chattel. But that sucks for all women, not just the genetically-blessed ones. Caroline is distinctly unique, and her situation is presented more as an individual tragedy than systemic oppression. Still, the trick to Regency romances is very much not overthinking them. So carry on, Caro.
Values: Freedom. A tough one, actually. Equality is never really on the cards. Nor is Social Recognition. And although Brent is a hot mess in need of Inner Harmony, Caroline’s story is the more important one. What she wants - and achieves (through, essentially, the mechanism of immense privilege) - is the opportunity to do what she wants to do, and has been previously barred from doing. Also a sexy hot spouse that’ll help her do it. And Do It. There's plenty of that.
Elizabeth English’s The Border Bride (2002, RITA Winner). Two families war on the England/Scotland border. In an attempt to make peace, Maude of the Darnleys is married to Jemmy of the Kirallens. But, wait, is this another ruse? And is Maude perhaps not even Maude?! Hijinks! So many hijinks!
This book has assumed identities and arranged marriages and conniving families and angry rivals and (for no particular reason) a ghost. Again, the one thing uniting virtually all these debut novels is a willingness to chuck the full real kitchen sink in terms of plot points and tropes.
The main tension, however, comes from the impending ‘small apocalypse’: unless someone resolves the feud between the families, everyone will die, as will the world they know. The Border Bride is slightly erratic, as this tension only arises occasionally, and at odd intervals - punctuating what is, otherwise, a fairly gentle romance.
Values: World at Peace. Not tricky.
Susan Crandall’s Back Roads (2004, RITA Winner): Leigh is a small-town Sheriff (thanks to her more popular and ambitious brother). Will Scott is a drifter with a mysterious past. They fall in lust right off the bat.
The sensible Leigh indulges herself with a fling, and the responsible Will stops his journey to spend more time with his new crush. When a horrible crime occurs, all eyes turn towards Will, and Leigh is torn between her responsibilities and her lady-parts.
Well, kinda. The story is shamelessly Team Will. This may be a book centred around a crime, but it is not a crime novel. The real mystery here is why Leigh is such a wet blanket - and, to be fair, there’s a decent reveal (and resolution) to it. I always like small town settings, but the one in Back Roads is so suffocating that I was contemplating some felonies of my own by the end.
Values: Social Recognition. Leigh’s just badly mistreated throughout the entire book. Y’all don’t deserve Leigh.
Darynda Jones’ First Grave on the Right (2012, RITA Winner). Charley Davidson is a private eye, a self-proclaimed ‘9 out of 10’, and the actual Grim Reaper. She sees dead people. They chat to her. And eventually they go through her, as a portal, to find the light. There’s a murder mystery here too, what with the small pile of bodies.
Mostly, there’s sass. Charley speaks entirely in quips and never gives a straight answer to anything. Even her internal monologue is a series of painstakingly-composed one-liners. Charley might actually be the most annoying person in the world.
The romance within First Grave arrives in the form of recurring ectoplasmic violation. I would hesitate to call it a “ghost romance” though, as it mostly about Charley being (mauled by a nameless astral projection - largely against her will, so consent is a real issue here. The ghost is later linked to someone that once assaulted her in real life. I guess this is a case of two wrongs somehow making a right, because, by the end, the groping ghoul is “revealed” as her soulmate. Not exactly the sort of HEA that I cheer for.
First Grave also culminates in a (spoilers!) sex scene that is makes Sarah J Maas looks like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Charley is quite literally banged back to the dawn of time, which is definitely a thing that happens in this book.
This is an extremely silly book, but it knows it, and doesn’t really care. The entire thing gives off a ‘fuck it, I’m writing my fanfic’ vibe that I can’t help but applaud. Despite having absolutely nothing nice to say about it, I had a lot of fun reading it. So there's that.
Values: Broad-mindedness. People either don’t ‘get’ Charley (who she is, what she’s like, and her cosmic role) or they do. Those in the first bucket are inevitably awesome; those in the second are objectively assholes. Charley herself has to go through a bit of a journey of acceptance: Am I really this awesome? Should I enjoy being molested by an ethereal being? Am I super hot or super-duper hot? So, sure. This.
Maurene Goo’s Since You Asked (2013, Option). This is one of the books I added to the pile because #RITASSoWhite. Goo is the author of many of my favourite romance-inflected YA books, but - oops - this is neither - a cheery, ‘coming of age’, Middle Grade. 15-year-old Holly Kim juggles family, friends and school - and learns how to stand up for herself a bit more.
And it really is very, very cheery. The book travels through an entire school year at pace. Holly’s adventures are extremely episodic. She tries something new, makes a mistake, gets over it, and moves on. There are a few constants: generational and cultural differences with her family, her adorbs friends, and a growing realisation that trying new things is rewarding. Very cute.
Values: Happiness! Holly’s got her more functional priorities (school, family obligations) sorted. Since You Asked is about discovering, well, dysfunctional ones. The importance of fun! Similarly, Courage is key as the instrumental value - unless you try, you’ll never know.
The most interesting thing about this book, value-wise, is that it is the only one where the ‘Romance’ values of True Love and Mature Love aren’t on display. I’ll be leaving this out of the final report, but I enjoyed it.
Believe it or not, progress has been made: that’s 22 of 38 romances read and reviewed. We’re in the home stretch!
This Sunday I’m at London’s MCM ComicCon, chairing a panel of (rather amazing) debut authors. Please join me - and Ravena Guron, Ayaan Mohamud and Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson - and the delightful Anne Perry - as we talk about the authors’ books and how they got made.
What I’m thinking about:
Stephen Statterfield and Black cuisine. (Also worth reading conversations with Adrian Miller, the Soul Food Scholar.)
I have been having (three, simultaneous, ongoing, identical) conversations about the importance of football in the wake of this year’s Premier League season. All three of my friends independently suggested that the role of football in British society is to permit British men to express emotions openly. It is fascinating. I think there’s a lot to consider about how Americans express themselves through and by their sports teams (and certainly when it comes to the stuff - we merch more and t-shirt more than our British counterparts) and how it is an essential familial and regional identity. But, here (Britain), football really does have a quasi-religious feel to it: less, perhaps, about the outward expression than the triangulation of faith, catharsis, and an environment that gives permission to open up. There I was feeling all clever for pondering this stuff, and whammo, there’s a brilliant Twitter thread about stadiums as cathedrals that puts all my thinking to shame.
It takes one overthinker to appreciate another: I really like what Rachel Kowert does as part of her ‘pyschgeist’ series, films that explore psychological concepts through the lens of popular games. (It is now turning into a book series, which is brilliant and well-deserved.)
I’m toying with Substack’s Notes. Not particularly seriously, but as a way of a) punting out interesting links more regularly than these emails and b) anything that annoys Elon Musk can’t be all bad. If you enjoy this limited grab bag of links, keep an eye out there. We’ll see what happens.
As a final note. With the somewhat-upcoming release of The Big Book of Cyberpunk, I’ll be sharing more cyberpunky ‘content’ in upcoming newsletters. The good news is: it won’t all be from me. I’ve asked some of the contributors to swing by and talk about their stories, their relevance, and the concepts behind them. Stick around.