Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why I love romance novels and why some of them are bad

This past weekend, I checked out a couple romance novels I had requested from the San Francisco Book Review. The thing about being a volunteer and/or paid book reviewer, is you have to read a lot of bad books to get to a good one and the good ones are kind of like a little morsel of awesome in your life that you cling to for as long as possible before it's back to the crap-slog. There's no good recommends from your friends because you're the one discovering what's good and what's not.

Everyone feels the burnout. And when you read more than 50 books a year, you feel it acutely. It's hard to feel the earnestness and optimism from a new voice when you're so bitter and cynical about something you've just read the week before.

But let me talk about romance novels for a while because I'm kind of an enthusiast.

Here's a picture of an advance review copy of a romance novel. This one was literally a stack of papers held together by brass fasteners. Side note - I would kill (ok, not literally) to be a part of the book-creation process, whether it's acquisitions or copy editing. Literally my dream job. So if you're an important person in a publishing house and you're reading this, hit me up bae.

Reading a Regency-era romance is one of my most favorite things. It's like eating a pint of ice cream for dinner. I love Eloisa James the best because she brings this ethereal fairy-tale like style to her writing. In fact, most Regency romance is like a fairy tale. There are dresses, parties, dashing rich men and campy villains (sometimes.) But here's where it can go wrong:

Stockholm syndrome: When the story sets up the hero and heroine to be isolated in one spot and they fall in love that way. With the books I read, I wonder about the future. If my logical brain can't wrap itself around a romance novel relationship enduring, I tend not to enjoy it.

No hook: The characters have to endear themselves to me. Fast. With romance novels, it's tough because they read so quickly.

No focus: Romance novels are first and foremost about two people getting together. I don't mind politics, social stratification, family members, etc., having a part in the development of a relationship, but if there's too much of that, I can't stay focused because the novel isn't focused.

Dumb-as-bricks heroine: The heroine is supposed to be the pasteboard for your reader. That beautiful dress your heroine is wearing, that ball she just went to, that searing kiss she just received -- that's your reader's dress, your reader's ball and your reader's kiss. Your readers are smart. So make your heroine smart, too. Have her stand her ground and make her own decisions because it's what your reader would do.

Mansplainy hero: The dumb-as-bricks heroine and the mansplainy hero tend to go hand-in-hand. The dumb-as-bricks heroine doesn't know how to do something in life and the hero teaches her how to do it. Sometimes that thing is sex, which is an annoying relationship dynamic in Regency romance (seasoned man vs. virginal woman nonsense double standard trope,) but you just kind of deal with it. That's when modern romance is more fun. But then you get into situations with traditional gender dynamics and that's a story for another day.

So good.

I read "The Girl on the Train" this week, and that was a heart-pounder. What a good book. I started reading it Tuesday night and I stayed up until 3 a.m. finishing it. Don't you just love books like that? I'm not going to spoil it because I actually want you to read it. I only spoil books that I don't want you to read! A lot of people compare it to "Gone Girl." It's like a Lifetime movie on steroids. In fact, it's going to be a movie in August!

I also read Tom Brokaw's book, "A Lucky Life Interrupted." You can see my review here.

In the queue:
The Moreva of Astoreth
The Bourne Identity
The Circle
Clockwork Angel
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Our Kind of Traitor
Jessica Jones: Alias

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Selection series, exploitation literature, cynicism and literary burnout

I got myself a library card the other week and I'm addicted. I don't know why I didn't think to get one sooner. The library will help to supplement my steady diet of ARCs, romance and indie titles with older books that I've been meaning to read, but just haven't gotten around to buying/borrowing.

Here's my book queue. Three romance novels have since been added, and there's a scifi ebook that isn't in the pile.

So I found The Selection at the library because all of the other good books that I wanted were already checked out. It was just one of those books that I've always looked at and thought the cover was pretty and I was always meaning to get around to read. I've since learned that the movie version (which has not yet been greenlit) has a director.

Look at that. So pretty.

There are times when you CAN judge a book by its cover. Some of my indie books have horrendous covers that just make the book look SO unprofessional. Some of them I can't even talk about publicly.

But anyway, back to The Selection and its subsequent books.

The Selection takes place in the dystopian future, in a country called Illea, where there's a numbered caste system. Prince Maxon is looking for a wife. 35 women are selected for him to choose from, and they're all brought to the castle and given all of the dresses and awesome food they could possibly want. The book is told from the point of view of one of the contestants, America Singer (yup, that's her name). Her special gift is that... wait for it... SHE SINGS, though she doesn't do much of it in the book, you just have to take every other secondary character's word for it that she has a beautiful voice. She has red hair and blue eyes. You know, like the colors of AMERICA. Facepalm.

It's honestly not worth it to go into too much detail with the plot. Just know that our heroine, America Singer, is already in love with some guy named Aspen who is a caste below her, but she ends up falling in love with Maxon anyway in the usual conflicted love-triangle fashion. My library had the first book and the third book in the series, but not the second. I actually skipped the second book and had no trouble following the third one. So the second book is basically useless.

There are overarching themes of toxic masculinity, rape culture and slut shaming in this sad mashup of "The Bachelor" and "The Hunger Games" that would make any feminist weep with agony (and I did!) The teenagers in the book are so ridiculously petty and vapid, even though they're essentially training to run a country. They snipe at each other. They worry themselves over their dresses. Before America arrives at the palace, she meets with one of the Selection organizers, and he prods her about her virginity (because, you know, it's of the utmost importance) and says that if Maxon asks her to do anything (ANYTHING) that she should never ever ever reject him. America judges each of the other girls appropriately, remarking that she wears no makeup while one of her competitors, Celeste, wears a lot of makeup, and coincidentally, according to our beloved heroine, is too ambitious.

At any time, any adult character in the story could have stopped this whole trainwreck from happening, but the adults in the story aren't much better. In fact, it seems like every character, like the physical books, is beautiful to look at, but ugly on the inside. This book series perpetuates harmful stereotypes about adolescent behavior, and I would never recommend it for a teenage girl to read. There was nothing empowering or uplifting about its narrative.

Reading The Selection made me wonder if exploitation literature is A Thing. Exploitation films contain gratuitous sex, torture, violence and general mayhem, but the genre also refers to a film that's made cheaply to imitate another successful film. In some cases, it's meant to beat it to the theaters, but in other cases it rides on the coattails of the original's success. Some of them are created overseas. For every successful, meaningful book that is written, there's a handful of mediocre works that seek to capitalize on literary trends. I feel like The Selection series was published just to capitalize on the success of the Hunger Games. We've experienced "Twilight," then "Fifty Shades of Grey" was its imitation counterpart, achieving similar success, but it was a knockoff nonetheless. "The Hunger Games" was supposed to be a statement on the effects of war on children. "The Selection" just feels hollow in comparison, like the author was reading "The Hunger Games" with "The Bachelor" on TV in the background.

I've been reviewing books for a decade now, and I can't help but feel cynical about almost everything I read, and I honestly don't know what to do to escape this feeling other than just give up reading (which would be terrible.) I imagine this is how movie reviewers feel after a while. Everything I read feels unoriginal, like I've read it before. I experienced some serious burnout in January, and didn't pick up a single book for six months, and now that I'm reading again, I want to quit (again.) My issues with the book publishing industry, both traditional and indie, is a topic for another post. For now, I'm seeking something, anything to get me out of this funk and reading quality literature again.

At least I have my library card.

And also this podcast, in which I nerd out about Jane Austen in one of the episodes.

In the queue:
The Bourne Identity
The Circle
The Girl on the Train
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Jessica Jones: Alias
Once Upon A Wine
A Scandalous Proposal
The Untamed Earl
The Moreva of Astoreth

Monday, January 18, 2016

Cold sheeping

I'm reading a thread on Ravelry about knitters making commitments to destash in 2016.

I've always made this commitment early in the year, and it inevitably gets derailed by the time my birthday rolls around.

Not all of my sock yarn. Just the brightly colored stuff.

On Ravelry, you can calculate the yards of yarn you have and convert that to miles. The knitters on the thread I'm reading have 25 miles of yarn. 92 miles of yarn. 125 miles of yarn. The most I saw was 180 miles.

I feel like I have a lot of yarn. I could knit more than 30 pairs of socks without buying a single skein. However, I only have about eight miles. 14,737 yards. It's really difficult to wrap my brain around owning 180 miles of yarn.

I used to have a hard time carving out time to knit, but last year I finished two pairs of socks, a sweater, a shawl and a hefty pile of dishcloths. This year, I've already finished a hat, and it's only the third week of January.

My strategy is to knit hats and cowls for family members out of the sock yarn I have. I'm a weirdo, so I've written a spreadsheet, complete with the person I'm giving a hat and cowl to, the yarn I'll use, and the pattern I'll try. I'm sick of socks. They take too long and it's like knitting the same pattern twice in a row, which is boring. Maybe I'll find some new inspiration in 2016 and bust my stash for good.