Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

About Jennie

http://dearauthor.com/author/jennie/

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

Posts by Jennie :

REVIEW:  Freeing by E.K. Blair

REVIEW: Freeing by E.K. Blair

freeingDear Ms. Blair:

I read books #1 and #3 in the Fading series, Fading and Falling, last year. The two books essentially told the same story from the perspective of the two main protagonists, Candace and Ryan. Book #2, Freeing, covers much of the same time period but focuses on Candace’s best friend, Jase, and his romance with Mark, a musician and fellow student at the University of Washington.

Surprising (to me, anyway) admission: I don’t think I’ve read a m/m romance before. I’ve read plenty of books with gay secondary characters, and some erotica featuring m/m pairings, but I can’t remember ever reading a straight (no pun intended) romance that was m/m. It’s probably not an accident that I haven’t joined the m/m romance craze. With all due respect to fans of the genre, who I know are numerous, there’s something about straight women reading m/m fiction that feels exploitative to me, particularly when that fiction written by another straight woman. I can’t get over the sense of “othering” that the subgenre gives me. I’ve read various pieces on the reasons women read and write m/m romance, but the reasons given don’t entirely assuage my concerns. (I especially don’t like the “two men are sexier than one” argument, because it feels vaguely to me like what’s really being said is “I like it better when there are no icky girls to read about”, which I find problematic in a whole ‘nother way.)

Anyway, on to Freeing – Jase is a fourth year architecture major, originally from San Diego. Back at home, in high school, Jase was deeply closeted and dealt with his shame over being gay by screwing his way through the female population of his high school. His home life was painful after the death of his beloved older sister in a car accident – his parents pretty much shut down, and Jase felt that they were three strangers simply existing in the same house, rather than a family. Add to this the confusion over his emerging sexuality, and his sure belief that his parents will not accept having a gay son, and going away to college was as much an escape for Jase as anything else. He’s managed to build a life in Seattle; he’s out (more or less; more on that in a moment) and he’s found a best friend in another student, Candace. While she can’t replace his sister, of course, Candace does fill that place in his life that his sister’s death left empty, and the two are extraordinarily close.

Jase’s relationships in college have mostly been of the one-night or at least extremely casual variety. He has sex with men, but he’s much warier about forming actual emotional attachments. Why, exactly, isn’t ever entirely examined, but it’s clear that Jase continues to have issues with being gay. He still hasn’t told his parents, and he’s very uncomfortable with outwardly showing affection to another man in public. When he runs into Mark, whom he knows from class (Mark is also an architecture major), at a club one night, Jase is attracted and pleased to discover that Mark is gay and also interested in him. Something tells Jase right away that he doesn’t want to treat Mark like just another hookup, so they start dating, taking things slowly.

But Jase still has all of the emotional baggage he brought from California, and he deliberately sabotages the budding relationship, a move he almost immediately regrets. While he’s trying to decide if he wants to try to get Mark back and really try to have a real relationship, Jase also has to deal with Candace’s devastating rape, as detailed in Fading and Falling.

I believe Freeing is novella-length (e-readers have made it impossible for me to tell how long a book is, but according to Amazon, Freeing is 294 pages, compared to Fading’s 458 and Falling’s 541).  So a lot of story gets packed into a relatively small space. Since some of the same ground was covered in the other two  books, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the same time I felt like there could have been more character development on some fronts.

Jase’s parents, for instance, are given no real personalities to speak of – I guess they had a happy family at one point, before his sister died, but there’s no sense of what they were really like. Now they are just cold and cardboard. Jase’s eventual coming-out scene felt stilted and cliché (“I’m your son!” “No. You’re not. Not anymore”), with his mother making a reference to his eternal damnation or some-such, which sort of came out of left field as there had been no previous indication that the family was religious.

Jase’s and Mark’s relationship is…nice, I guess. Even though they break up early on and then get back together, as a couple they are pretty low-conflict. Mark pushes Jase a bit to let Candace stand on her own two feet, both for her benefit and for the sake of their relationship (since when she’s staying with them they frequently sleep all three to a bed, which is, let’s face it, weird).

But really most of the conflict is Jase’s internal one. I felt sympathy for it but it never quite came alive for me. I sort of wished it had been dug into deeper, but I’m not sure there *was* much depth there. Jase seemed like he was basically a young and somewhat immature, even shallow guy who had internalized some pretty macho and backward attitudes. At one point he laughs about Mark being “emasculated” by doing girly stuff with Candace (mud masks, etc.); I can’t tell you how much the very concept of “emasculation” infuriates me. It goes without saying that Mark is no less a man for painting his nails (which I guess he does to bond with Candace, but if he just wanted to paint them, that would have NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM BEING A MAN). Sorry, I just hate hate hate the word “emasculate” and variations thereof.

Since I bitched about it in Falling, I’ll mention that here in Freeing there is also some pretty stale gender stereotyping. When Jase and Mark go to visit Mark’s family for Thanksgiving, there’s lots of “the wimmins do the cooking while the mens put up Christmas lights.” It’s not a big deal, but it still bothers me; I’d like at some point to move beyond the same old “girls do x and boys do y” hoary clichés. Also, Mark’s 18-year-old twin sisters are depicted as giggly, boy-crazy featherbrains who won’t be allowed to go to a party (again, they’re 18) unless chaperoned by Mark and Jase.

I actually feel a little weird about evaluating the Jase/Mark relationship, and it goes back to my unease with m/m romance, as well as my unfamiliarity with it as a genre. I don’t really have any inside knowledge on such relationships IRL, of course, and I don’t assume that they have to be different in some fundamental way that m/f relationships. Actually, I think I feel uneasy assuming either way: if I say that it feels like Jase and Mark’s relationship could be m/f (with some small modifications, chiefly having to do with Jase’s ambivalence about his sexuality), is that a good thing or a bad thing? I would mostly say it’s a good thing, because really, what is so different about a same-sex loving relationship? But I wonder if it means that the depiction is somewhat watered down; both Jase and Mark are fairly conventionally macho (Jase particularly). They aren’t involved in “gay things” like the Pride parade, and they don’t appear to have any gay friends.

Should that bother me? I don’t know. I mean, I can see that I might be irritated if the author did shoehorn in Pride references and Judy Garland worship; that would feel cartoonish and disrespectful. Rather than compare Jase and Mark to the gay men I know (while I know quite a few, and they run the gamut, I don’t think they constitute a large enough sample size to serve as anything other than anecdotal examples) I think of them in contrast to Mitchell and Cameron from ABC’s Modern Family. Mitchell and Cam are uber-gay; they’re culturally and socially gay. Their friends (at least most of them) are gay. I know some people (including some gay men) who find them too broadly drawn. Which is fair, though Modern Family being a network sitcom, I’d argue that all of the characters are broadly drawn.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that most of my gay friends are closer to being Mitchell and Cam than Jase and Mark. Maybe this is because I, like Homer Simpson, “prefer my homosexuals flaming”? I don’t think so. Maybe it’s because the former couple is a lot closer to my age than the latter; generational differences could be a part of it. All I know is that if I’m going to read about a gay couple, I want them to feel like a gay couple to me, and Jase and Mark never quite did.

Ultimately, though, a lot of the issues that I’m talking about are probably at least semi-unique to me, and may well not affect other readers’ enjoyment of Freeing. I would say that if you’re a fan of the other two books in the series, it’s worth reading, if only to get a more complete picture of all of the main characters and what they are going through during the time period covered in the story. My grade for Freeing is a C+.

Best regards,

Jennie

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REVIEW:  The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

countessDear Ms. Milan,

I believe I’m not alone in being in a serious historical romance funk. Among the readers I talk to, it seems that many of us who have been primarily historical romance fans for years are finding it hard to get excited about the current crop of books. That this malaise is shared by others suggests that the problem is not with the readers, but with the reading material. But I don’t know that this is necessarily true, at least for me, because even when I read what objectively (well, as objectively as a subjective judgement can be) is a perfectly fine historical romance, like The Countess Conspiracy, I remain somewhat unmoved.

Sebastian Malheur and Violet Waterfield have been friends forever, and co-conspirators of a sort for the past several years. They grew up together, and Sebastian stood by Violet during her difficult marriage (which ended with her husband’s death in a fall). Now he’s doing even more for her: for several years now he’s been pretending that Violet’s scientific discoveries are his own. He publishes papers and gives lectures on them, neither of which Violet can do. For one thing, her early attempts to submit her findings on plant reproduction* to scholarly publications were utterly ignored because she’s female. Even if she were to find someone who would publish her work, she would be subject to social approbation, something her very proper mother has drilled into her as a fate worse than death.

* Though it’s not presented in a particularly complex manner, I’m not going to even try to explain too much the nature of Violet’s work, for fear of getting something wrong.

It’s the subject matter of Violet’s research that makes it especially scandalous – her breeding and cross-breeding of various plant species is a shocking topic for delicate Victorian ears and eyes, with its vague but undeniable connection to S-E-X. It’s shocking when Sebastian delivers the lectures, too, but he’s a man, and a charming, rakish one at that, so the shock is more of the salacious “ooh!” variety. Still, Sebastian does receive some social disapproval, and it’s starting to wear on him. Even more wearing is the knowledge that he’s living a lie; he feels like a fraud, and it’s turning his naturally sunny disposition darker.

Sebastian has been in love with Violet for as long as he can remember. She’s a few years older than him, and he trailed after her as a child and then later included her in the “club” he has with his two best friends from school, Robert and Oliver. This detail felt a little false; a woman being included in a social quartet with three men she’s neither married nor related to, in Victorian times, seemed unlikely. But I guess it’s meant to show that Sebastian insists that Violet be included in everything, up to and including Oliver’s bachelor party,  because he adores Violet.

Both Sebastian and Violet have family baggage to deal with, in addition to their own fraught relationship. In Sebastian’s case, his carefree, happy and easy existence is upended by conflict with his older brother (in addition to his angst over the charade with Violet). Benedict is dying of some sort of unspecified heart ailment, and Sebastian is troubled to realize that Benedict doesn’t want to give guardianship of his only  son to his younger brother, preferring a more distant but upright relative. This leads to several discussions between the brothers which cause Sebastian to realize that Benedict has no respect for him, in spite of Sebastian’s supposed scientific accomplishments. Sebastian’s attempts to prove Benedict wrong only make things worse. This conflict was well-done – it felt real and I could understand the difficulty from both POVs; the brothers are just very different in a way that’s pretty much guaranteed to cause resentment.

Violet’s issues are more serious. Her father killed himself, a scandal that had to be hushed up and denied, and which lead to Violet’s mother instituting some very rigid rules for her daughters regarding proper deportment. Violet’s sister Lily takes to the rules with enthusiasm, marrying (happily) and producing an endless stream of children, and generally cleaving to the conventional model of Victorian womanhood with gusto. Violet loves her sister but is jealous of her in some respects; she feels that her only value to Lily is as a helper and fixer when things go wrong.

Her relationship with her mother is even more difficult; Violet resents the rigidity with which she was raised, especially after her father’s death. Though she follows her mother’s rules, she’s keenly aware of how they circumscribed her life during her marriage and how they continue to do so in the present. Further, she is sure that if her mother knew her secret she would turn on her without a second thought. Violet does not feel unconditionally loved by either her mother or her sister; there are rules and regulations attached to their continued approval and support.

It takes Violet a while to realize that this is not the case with Sebastian, and if I had any issue with her, that was it. She really does take him for granted. There’s a closed-off part of her that refuses to acknowledge what’s between them and what could be between them (there are reasons for that, but they aren’t explained for a while and by the time they were I was a bit frustrated with Violet). Also, Violet is portrayed as something of an absent-minded genius, one who isn’t even aware of her surroundings when she really gets going with her work. The latter depiction is a common one for scientists in fiction, and it may even have the ring of truth, but it sort of bugs me. I think it’s often played too broadly, or, as here, used to excuse someone being a bit of an insensitive ass.

Before I learned the deep, dark secret of Violet’s unhappy marriage (which was a bit different than what I’d expected), I also got a little tired of Violet’s interior monologue, which was all about how unlovable she was and how she drove everyone away eventually. Actually, even after Violet’s secrets are revealed, I’m not quite entirely sure how the pieces fit together to make her so self-loathing. I had to chalk it up to Violet’s pain over never really feeling like she could be her true self with the world. (Though in that, I’m not sure she was so unusual for her time and place.)

There’s plenty to like in The Countess Conspiracy. The writing is good. I liked Violet. I liked Sebastian. I liked the (somewhat unusual) role reversal, where he’s the charming, flighty one hiding an unrequited love, and she’s the dark and angsty genius. Still, it added up to a bit less than the sum of its parts for me, and I’m not sure why. Since I can’t find much fault with the book (well, I have found fault, but it’s all minor stuff in the larger scheme of things), I have to conclude that it’s part and parcel with my general historical romance malaise. Sigh.

My grade for The Countess Conspiracy is a straight B.

Best regards,

Jennie

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