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REVIEW: Painted Faces by L.H. Cosway

Painted Faces by L.H. CoswayDo It Like A Dude – Painted Faces

I must confess that when I first start reading Painted Faces I was pretty convinced the book should have actually been about two lines long:

Fantastically hot drag artist: Hey, do you want have sex?
Heroine: Yes.

 And then I realised I was being churlish because you can approach pretty much any book this reductively.  It’s just the hero of Painted Faces is just so off-the-scale shagtastic I had trouble suspending disbelief that anyone would hesitate for two seconds, let alone half a book.

In terms of plot, there isn’t much going on here: our heroine, Freda, lives in Dublin with her best friend, Nora. A hot guy, Nicholas, moves in next door.  He turns out to be a drag artist.  They fall in love.  The end.  This is not, by the way, a criticism.  It just happens to be a book about two people, take it or leave it, and I’m cool with that.

I had a very mixed response to Painted Faces.  On principle, I liked that it was trying to do something different, although part of me did occasionally wonder whether there was a touch of smoke and mirrors going on here because, dude in a frock aside, it didn’t strike me as noticeably dissimilar to the other romances I’ve read so far.  Career choice notwithstanding, the book goes out of its way to emphasise Nicholas’s masculinity – he’s alpha-levels of protective and Cullen-levels of obsessed – and his relationship with Freda basically boils down to a sexually aggressive, promiscuous male in pursuit of a resisting, semi-inexperienced female. So there was an extent to which I felt (perhaps uncharitably) that the book was ultimately saying ‘hey, things might look different on the outside but, don’t worry, they’re basically the same underneath’ rather than ‘hey, different is okay too’.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.  The truth is, I’m so glutted on dickheads (oh, that sounds so wrong) at the moment that I’m rolling out the red carpet for even a hint of a non-traditional hero.  So, even if I was a bit dubious about the execution, I was very happy to encounter Nicholas.  I think I like drag artists even more than I like angels, and that is saying something. I also found that it was an unanticipated pleasure to read a book set somewhere I actually recognised.  Dublin is very well realised, the city, its idiosyncrasies and its denizens evoked with what felt like real and deep affection.  Equally, although I struggled with the narration and the dialogue (more on this later), the characters sounded, to an extent at least, a bit like me and the people I know.  When you’re reading, a moment of true recognition can be very powerful and I did very much enjoy the feeling that Painted Faces was set in a world I knew and understood.

Even so, I found the first half of the book something of a slog.

I’ve realised I’ve got to be more careful when talking about heroines because I’m coming at them from a privileged perspective and I keep forgetting that what works, and what doesn’t work, for me has no bearing on what is valuable or meaningful to other people.  A couple of columns back I blithely laid into Annwyl the Bloody from Dragon Actually for disappointing me, and quite a few people – entirely fairly because I was being a prick – picked me up on it.  I don’t get to stand here like Mr Darcy being all “not cool enough to tempt me.”  For a lot of the commenters, Annwyl was a really important heroine.  She’s strong, she’s a warrior, she gets what she wants.  She’s not there to live up to my completely irrelevant expectations, and it was utterly wrong of me to whinge about it.

But, equally, I’m a human being and I will have personal reactions to characters and Freda got on my nerves.  I’m sorry, but there it is.  This doesn’t mean I can’t see all the ways she might speak to someone else.  She’s brash and loud, swears and drinks a lot, has bad hair, and she doesn’t fit the usual stereotypes of “feminine” behaviour.  She is, in short, a very human sort of character, a woman who might actually exist, and I understand why this might be incredibly refreshing.  But, as much as I valued the sense of reality to her as a character, she was, perhaps, real enough to annoy the heck out of me.  It was like being trapped in conversation with a self-consciously edgy undergraduate – which would have been fine when I was younger (hell, I was a self-consciously edgy undergraduate) but I’ve kind of played that scene.  And it’s not that I don’t appreciate a certain, shall we say, Rebelaisian humour but half the time it felt like Freda, and the book itself, were trying way too hard. For example, there’s a moment when they’re talking about charity shops and, err, soiled clothing:

 “What comes in between white stains and yellow?” Nicholas asks with a smirk. “In my experience they both come out of the same… pipe. I’m not aware of any in between in that area.”

Oh, he’s trying to out shock factor me. Well, he’s met his match. “I’m not sure, possibly pre-cum.” (p. 58)

Well, yeah, it’s a fair point, I guess, but the set-up is too unwieldy and the exchange too laboured for this to be anything other than a ‘had to be there’ moment between two imaginary people.  Nicholas, however, treats the whole thing like it’s pure comedy gold:

 Nicholas almost falls off his stool he’s laughing so hard. “Fuck that was a good one, Fred.” (p. 59)

The joke, such as it is, is so inconsequential and Nicholas’s reaction is so exaggerated that it just left me feeling confused and faintly alienated. I mean, I was glad they were getting on so well, and I know reading is arguably a voyeuristic act anyway but I don’t get much out of playing fictional gooseberry.

Again, it’s difficult – and in my case, kind of inappropriate – to make moral judgements on characters because there’s always the danger of inadvertently reflecting socially conditioned ideas about what constitutes inherently correct behaviour for women, or men, or small furry creatures from alpha centauri.  But, early on, I honestly found Freda pretty mean.  And that sounds like I’m saying women aren’t supposed to be mean, or can’t be attractive if they are, but she just happened to be mean in ways that I personally react against.

She’s kind of horrid both to and about Nora, who is supposed to be her best friend.   I know I should blame the author for this, rather than Freda, but, for the first half of the book, the sole purpose of Nora’s textual existence seems to be making Freda look good.  Nora is conventionally beautiful and initially fancies Nicholas but she’s completely freaked out by his cross-dressing, thus allowing Freda to exposit how cool, tolerant and generally awesome she is compared to her more attractive friend:

 I have a very open mind about most things … Nora has much more “traditional” values. She’s not some crazy religious freak, but let’s just say that her idea of a fetish wouldn’t go any further than a pair of furry pink toy hand cuffs. (p. 54)

Again, I might be reading too much into this but since Freda is constantly telling us all about how Nora is posh, neat-freaky, stupid, gossipy and generally rubbish it comes across as dismissal, not just a difference in values.  Take this:

 I hate this picture of her because it makes her look like a vacuous tramp, and despite how she sometimes comes across, Nora’s got a brain inside that head of hers. She just thinks it’s cooler to pretend to be shallow. (p. 222).

So, basically Freda, what you’re telling us is that you have no respect for Nora’s choices because she doesn’t subscribe to your notions of how she should dress and behave?  Sweetie, with friends like you…  There’s even an incident early on in which Nicholas flusters Freda by hitting on her with all the subtlety of a brick to the balls and Freda, get this, takes it out on Nora, who has just innocently come out of the bathroom:

 Deciding to take the piss to cover up my embarrassment at Nicholas’ compliment, I say, “You might want to crack a window in there Nora, you were in for a while, number two was it?” (p. 24)

Again, I know we all take the piss out of our nearest and dearest but we don’t throw them to the wolves to cover our own social discomfort.  Especially not in front of people we know they fancy. That’s just plain shitty.  Isn’t there some kind of … chicks before dicks rule or something? And, don’t get me wrong, I find Nora kind of annoying too, but she’s not supposed to be my friend.

As well as dissing her best mate, Freda enjoys baking cupcakes and condemning other people for their sexual behaviour:

[Anny] really has no shame. I feel kind of bad that I’ve never had a deep enough conversation with her where she could have told me what caused her to become so slutty. (p. 317)

Well, I don’t know, Freda. Maybe what caused this woman to have a lot of sex is that she enjoys having a lot of sex.  Just a suggestion.

It’s obvious Freda has had some pretty bad experiences and that these have left their marks on her.  She has a stalker ex-boyfriend who made her life difficult in the past (and, needless to say, shows up later in the book in order to make her life difficult again).  I thought this was pretty well done, actually, because he’s low key and only implicitly abusive, rather than explicitly cackling.  People don’t have to be pantomime villains (with the handles of their riding crops fashioned into phalluses) to have genuinely harmful and long-lasting effects on the lives of others.  Freda’s also overweight, in the romance heroine sense of being completely average.  No, really, she’s a size 14, a small size 14 apparently.  I’m sorry I keep making a fuss about this but it’s just so utterly ridiculous.  I’ve already ranted about it at length on my review of Bet Me so I won’t re-tread the same ground.

My response to Nicholas was pretty similar to my response to Freda, mediated slightly by the fact drag artists are hot as all hell, which made me slightly less impatient with him.  Like Freda, he’s obviously damaged by his past experiences and, like Freda, he was initially deeply annoying to me.  His behaviour to her – to me, at least – bordered on sexual harassment.  I respected him for cutting straight to the chase and inviting Freda to bang him about half a day after they meet, but when she turns him down he continues to flirt heavily with her, both verbally and physically.  To the extent of randomly grabbing her nipple on one occasion. Dude, you just don’t do that.   Like, ever.

Also, any sensible man recognises just how deeply creepy it is to keep hanging around a woman, trying to have sex with her, when she’s told you she doesn’t want to have sex with you. Yes, of course you can befriend her in good faith but Nicholas befriends Freda as a pretext for trying to get into her pants.  And, cards on the table here, we’ve all done it.  I don’t know why it seems like a good idea to play at being best mates with a woman you fancy in the hope that if you stick around long enough and someone else treats her badly enough, she’ll bonk you in a moment of weakness she’ll probably regret for the rest of her life.  But sometimes it does, even though it’s deeply stupid and wrong.   I know being a romantic hero doesn’t necessarily mean behaving better than the rest of us (to be honest, it usually seems to entail behaving much worse) but the ‘let’s be friends’ stunt is just so low-grade dubious that I found it hard to find anything romantic in it.  But maybe I wasn’t supposed to.  Most of Nicholas’s actions and responses are twisted by his abuse experiences, so there’s an extent to which everything he does is slightly broken (gaaaw), but I couldn’t get a read on this situation.  I mean, pursuing your loved one (occasionally against her will) seems fairly standard practice, but I think this particular tangle of sex, friendship and deception made it all a bit borderline ick for me.

The other thing I found difficult about Nicholas was the way his feelings for Freda are often validated through his poor treatment of other people. Just like Freda is repeatedly shown to be better than her stupid friend Nora, the specialness of Nicholas’s relationship with Freda is repeatedly demonstrated by having him be a complete cockweasel to every other woman he encounters.  It runs the full spectrum from acts of minor wtf (pointlessly pretending to be in an incestuous relationship with Freda when some other girl tries to hit on him at a club) all the way to wholesale arsedom.  Again, I know Nicholas is messed up but sacrificing other people to your personal demons, although understandable, is so profoundly not okay that it’s genuinely difficult to know how to respond to it. Especially when it’s meant to be secretly a positive reflection of his respect for the heroine.

Since Freda won’t sleep with him, Nicholas shags a hot, older Italian woman called Dorotea, who seemed perfectly charming to me, although the text jumps on the opportunity to sneer a bit at the fading attractiveness of women over the age of thirty.  Sorry, my friends, some of you may be past it. Anyway, Nicholas spends the rest of the book proving to Freda how little this encounter meant to him by treating Dorotea really, really badly.    Dorotea finally freaks out, though at Freda, because Dorotea is pointlessly jealous of the heroine instead of spitting mad at the man who has been a complete dickweed to her, and I just found the whole thing more than slightly grotesque.  I mean, either Dorotea is so mind-bogglingly deluded that she has no understanding of what casual sex means or Nicholas is so mind-bogglingly selfish that he didn’t bother to establish any boundaries or expectations before putting his cock in her mouth.  Regardless, it just makes everybody look incredibly bad.

Adding insult to injury, we learn later that Dorotea wasn’t even permitted to fuck Nicholas in his bed, as that sanctum sanctorum is reserved solely for snuggling with Freda.  I have no words.  And when Freda runs into them the morning after, there’s a brief exchange in which it is made pretty damn clear that Dorotea went down on Nicholas and he failed to return the favour.   She challenges him about this and he responds as follows:

 Nicholas’ eyes are levelled on me when he replies to Dorotea, “My apologies, but I only visit the lady garden under very special circumstances.” (p. 126).

By this stage, I’m starting to feel this guy is demonstrating Brandon Birmingham levels of holy flaming monkey nuts.  Is he seriously trying to seduce one woman into his bed by emphasising the exclusivity of his oral sex practices in front of a different woman he’s just banged?  That’s up there with Richard III and his coffin-side wooing of Lady Anne, except way less classy.  Also, there’s an issue of basic common decency here.  Maybe it’s just because I’m English but, as far as I’m concerned, casual sex is as governed by kindness and courtesy as anything else.  You put your baggage in storage and if you expect someone to go down on you, then you damn well go down on them.   It’s Sexiquette 101.  Of course, it’s entirely reasonable to have personal limits but you sort that stuff out pre-bonk, not post-bonk.

I know this is turning into a rampage of frustration but, weirdly enough, I did sort of come round by the halfway point of the book.  It’s possible I just developed some kind of textual Stockholm syndrome but something had to give – and it turned out to be me.  It was a case of stop reading or get over it, and I kind of got over it.  Freda and Nicholas calm down a lot once they’re actually sort of with each other and, although I’m never going to be their greatest fan, the urge to bash their heads together gradually receded.  There’s a scene in which Freda performs Combine Harvester as an ironic-seduction for Nicholas, which is just – frankly – totes adorbs (thank you, Twitter, for expanding my vocabulary).  If somebody did that for me, I think I might fall in love with them too.  By the same token, as Freda has pretty much accepted that she wants Nicholas, and communicated this to him, his sexual behaviour is way less iffy.  And, since they’re largely absorbed with each other, they stop being arbitrarily horrid to anyone else who has the misfortune to cross their paths.  It’s a bit like that line from Pride & Prejudice about general incivility being the very essence of love – except without the irony.  But, to put it more kindly, it was almost as if, in reaching a place of equilibrium with each other, they both stopped performing.  I’d like to give Painted Faces the benefit of the doubt and say this was a piece of tremendously subtle and sophisticated writing but I’m still not entirely happy about the 50% of a book I was obliged to spend sighing and rolling my eyes at a pair of complete numptys.

I ended Painted Faces more positively than I began it.  Well, no, that’s not strictly speaking true, I started it incredibly positively because it has a stunningly beautiful cover and I’m incredibly shallow.   So I finished the book more positively than I middled it.  There were certainly aspects of the text that came across quite well to me.  As I said earlier, I appreciated the non-melodramatic portrayal of Freda’s stalker ex, although he’s also – unnecessarily – a straw bigot, and he does seem to go away fairly unproblematically for someone who previously ruined her life.  Harry the chubby gay is kind of endearing, and I liked the fact he wasn’t a generically chiselled twink.  There’s a bit of discussion about the objectification of men (though this is somewhat framed around Freda being awesome enough to be aware that it exists), which doesn’t end up dismissing the reality of the institutionalised objectification of women. So that was nice.  There’s also an engagement with queerbashing and the way it impacts on Nicholas’s life, even though he’s straight, which I thought was well handled, actually, since it’s a complicated intersectionality issue. And you can’t really tell people their hatred is misguided without implicitly justifying it: “no, no, dear friends, I’m normal like you, go and find a proper homosexual to beat up.” And, as much as Nicholas is, well, let’s go with difficult, I thought his juxtaposition of masculine-coded traits and behaviours and feminine ones was deftly portrayed.  I mean, the book does keep having to stop every once in a while to remind us just how very very masculine he is really, in case we were starting to fancy him less, but he buys a totally girly car in the second half of the book and Freda is explicitly attracted to the whole package: Nicholas and Vivica Blue. She even fantasises about him in a bra.  Frankly, it’s her most interesting sexual moment in the whole book, and I dug it.

But even though I ended in a moderately happy place of non-hate, I was still, in general, left somewhat troubled.  I guess I feel that if you’re portraying something that’s already considered ‘alternative’, you have to be pretty careful. And, although there’s no doubt that Nicholas is hot and manly, despite his cross-dressing, it’s also very clear it comes from a deeply, deeply messed up place.  Initially a reaction to the loss of his mother, it becomes his space of resistance against sexual abuse, which is wildly sad, but at the same time, Nicholas explains:

 If it hadn’t been for [the man who abused me] then I probably would have outgrown my little obsession with the dresses and the make-up. (p. 288)

That just makes me slightly uncomfortable because essentially what Nicholas is saying, here, is that he does something “abnormal” because something “abnormal” was done to him, and if it hadn’t, he’d probably have been “normal.”  And I just don’t think that’s a very nice take-home message.  Yes, art can be a response to suffering, yes we can build something beautiful out of something terrible, but sometimes a fellow just wants to wear a frock. And that’s okay.

Everything about life and love I learned from reading Painted Faces: Kill your best friend now because she probably hates you. It’s totally okay to pinch a woman’s nipples for no readily apparent reason. I really don’t like first person present tense narration. Drag artists are hot (but I knew that already).

34 Comments

  1. Megan
    May 24, 2013 @ 12:21:46

    I am fascinated by your review, because I had many of the same feelings (but couldn’t articulate them until I read them here and started nodding my head). I felt like the language was almost too real, written too much in a vernacular I didn’t get, and I thought Freda was a jerk in a lot of her responses. I couldn’t figure out why Nicholas wanted her so much, nor why she even had the friends she did, because she could be really unpleasant.
    Thanks for this, it does help me sort out what I was thinking, because like you, I sort of liked it? Only not really.

  2. Janine
    May 24, 2013 @ 12:37:22

    The truth is, I’m so glutted on dickheads (oh, that sounds so wrong) at the moment that I’m rolling out the red carpet for even a hint of a non-traditional hero.

    I’ve got six words for you: Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney.

  3. Ridley
    May 24, 2013 @ 13:40:28

    @Janine: Eh. Wild at Heart underwhelmed me.

    If you want a non-traditional hero, try the blushing, prudish hero in Victoria Dahl’s Talk Me Down or the patient, sensitive hero in Lead Me On. There’s the humble, earnest hero of Pamela Morsi’s Simple Jess, and pretty much any of Sarah Mayberry’s and Carla Kelly’s heroes. None of them dress in drag, but these guys exist outside of romance’s fairly narrow definition of masculinity. They’re flower gardeners, good listeners and emotionally vulnerable.

  4. pamelia
    May 24, 2013 @ 13:45:00

    Another great review. I read this book a few months ago and somewhat enjoyed it, but not enough for it to stick with me except for the “OMG, I read a book where the HERO was a drag-queen!” factor. Like you I just didn’t relate all too well to Fred and I didn’t think Nicholas was so very far removed from average stalkery/grabby/alpha dickishness.
    I will say, I must credit the book with introducing me to “Combine Harvester” as a truly holy-crapballs WTF was that??! visit to Youtube.
    I’ve read “different” themes which were handled so much better than this book; Charlotte Stein’s books come to mind almost immediately and while I hesitate to recommend YET ANOTHER must read to you… aw, who am I kidding?! Read some Charlotte Stein! (“Deep Desires” and “Addicted” are both really good novellas about some rather strange/not often explored character types.)

  5. Estara
    May 24, 2013 @ 13:49:26

    Aww, I had hoped this would be a wish-fulfilment Eddie Izzard fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off. Not so much. That quote with his laughing reaction is a classical “tell, don’t show” moment, is it.

    Also, I find the fact that the hero cross-dresses because of his mother’s death highly problematic especially with regard to Izzard’s personal history. Was this hero also born in Jemen? Did his mother die when he was six?

    Good to hear the brilliance of stand-up comedy wasn’t also implied, because that only works if the author has an amazing sense of humoristic timing themselves.

    The cover is gorgeous, agreed, and the outward plot is at least not the same-old.

  6. Ridley
    May 24, 2013 @ 13:50:59

    @pamelia: I *loved* Restraint by Charlotte Stein. The sexually aggressive heroine unraveling the repressed hero was totally awesome. I have a bunch of her books to read, and if they’re anything like that one, I’m in for a treat.

  7. P. Kirby
    May 24, 2013 @ 14:01:32

    “On principle, I liked that it was trying to do something different, although part of me did occasionally wonder whether there was a touch of smoke and mirrors going on here because, dude in a frock aside, it didn’t strike me as noticeably dissimilar to the other romances I’ve read so far.”

    This. I approached this novel with high expectations and was disappointed accordingly. Because I’m not ashamed of my “dickishness,” I’ll state that I though the hero was pretty much every other alpha, “Come ‘ere, woman, let’s make the beast with two backs” hero. In a dress. The story worked so hard to convince me that “despite” Nicholas’s fondness for frocks, he was all man, manly man, that it essentially obliterated any rationale for making him a drag queen in the first place.

    And my impression of Freda varied from “dull” to “annoying.” I didn’t believe in Freda and Nicholas’s love story at all.

    Ah, the curse of high expectations.

  8. joopdeloop
    May 24, 2013 @ 14:58:06

    I read Painted Faces a few months back and found it a refreshing change from all the macho alphas prevailing out there. And I have always had a thing for gender transgressive heroes and heroines. But reading through your review, I am wincing a bit at some of the issues and examples you pull up. (Although I do sometimes like jerky people, IRL and to read about).

    I was getting so excited by Anna Cowan’s guest post, and then sadly deflated reading the reviews and comments. I’m rifling through memory for a quick list of heroes who buck the profile, and this is what pops to into mind: Megan Hart for endowing the hero of Dirty with a wang of average size! Woot! ( She is quite clear about it, and the sexytimes are still volcanic.) Cara McKenna (ok Skin Game was erotica, so not really H/h in a traditional sense) has the girl wind up with an Asian American (hapa Korean guy from Detroit who breakdances and beatboxes). Nope, never ever met an Asian American romance hero (Samuel – tho ninja and virgin and yummy -was white), and as for non exotified Asian hero? Jeannie Lin, we want more company for you (or I do). And Joey Hill does this complex dance where her uber alpha guys/vamps/ what-have-you can be submissive in their kink (knights serving their queen), but they are still very muscle bound and sort of ‘roid ragey to me. I find the Charlotte Stein can make her heroes weirdly vulnerable and beta and submissive (Control, Power Play) in ways that tickle my brain (ok and other parts), but develops relationships that are oddly very emotional and romantic. I think I read a Susan Fraser historical romance, just excited that the hero was short.

    I read Painted Faces after I read Anne Stewart’s Shadow Dance (ok, she has featured Asian American heroes, I take it back, tho somehow not supersatisfying to me), where the heroine and hero’s brother are in drag. But I found the the gender dynamics (and portrayal of the gay villain) were Old Skool in a less than entertaining way. Maybe that’s my explanation for why I found PF so refreshing. But I do wish there were more heroes and heroines genuinely liberated from male (Size-centric, Eurocentric, alphaholic, rake-tastic) and female romance stereotypes.

  9. AJH
    May 24, 2013 @ 14:59:23

    @Megan:

    I was initially quite flustered as well – because there’d been a bit of a buzz about the book being ‘different’ (whatever that means) and I was kind of desperate to like it, except I just … couldn’t. But I can’t decide to what extent that was my own expectations getting in the way – I don’t know if it was actually *trying* to be different, or if I’m just arbitrarily criticising it for something I’ve basically made up in my head.

    But, yes, I also found the characters deeply incomprehensible – apart from the fact he’s hawt and looks good in a frock, he’s so sexually harassing to her, I couldn’t see why she liked him. And she’s kind of awful too, so I couldn’t see why he was into her. So in the end it basically came down to watching two people I didn’t like get it on – like, I don’t know, watching slugs mate on the living room carpet or something.

    @Janine:

    Invoking your superpower, I see? I’m so doomed.

    @pamelia:

    Haha, well, it was probably worth it for the Combine Harvester experience if nothing else ;)

    There are lots of quite nice little touches in the book (like that one) but, oh dear, I just couldn’t get on with the characters or the tone or … argh, much of it.

    I didn’t mind that Nicholas was conventionally masculine in many ways because, well, why not? Wearing a frock doesn’t necessarily make you less of a man (unless you want it to) BUT it seems to me that the code for masculine is “dickhead” which was just annoying to me. Also I found him a low-grade, creepy dickhead – as opposed to that sort anti-hero/hero immorality that Gaffney carries off so well in Sebastian or something. So, yeah, *frown face*

    And I’ll certainly take that rec – I’m sure someone has mentioned Charlotte Stein to me before, actually, but I might have forgotten to put her on the list.

    @Estara:

    Oh, I would totally have taken wish fulfilment Eddie Izzard fan fiction. But even with exceptionally Izzard-ish backstory , I genuinely didn’t get the sense the author was trying to rip him off. Nicholas is very unlike Izzard, actually, and his whole persona is much more cabaret – also he’s very much a drag artist, not a transvestite or, y’know, an executive transvestite ;)

    I seem to recall that Nicholas is actually from New Zealand, which makes me wonder if LH Cosway and I see the same boylesque shows, as my own favourite drag queen is from New Zealand. It just seemed like an odd correspondence because I’m pretty sure NZ isn’t the land where the drag queens come from.

    I also hadn’t really filed the joke incident under telling-not-showing – I’d just sat there thinking, this is meant to be amusing, and I am Not Amused, and feeling bad about it. I tend to forget that dialogue can be used that way, though – as you know, your father the laboured joke…

    @P. Kirby:

    Expectations are a real killer, aren’t they? I genuinely can’t tell to what extent my negative reactions are fair and to what extent I’m just peeved because the book isn’t what I thought it was going to be, which is hardly a legitimate criticism. I don’t know whether it was ever really trying or wanting to be ‘different. ‘ It’s just it makes such a big deal out of its own alternativeness (or whatever) that it seems to be wanting to blow your tiny mind, so when you’re sitting there with your tiny mind resolutely unblown you feel a bit confused. Or I did anyway.

    I didn’t mind that Nicholas was quite conventionally masculine because, hey, it’s perfectly possible to wear a frock and be so – it was more that the text kept ramming it down my throat, and that his ‘conventionally masculine’ behaviour seemed to be deeply unpleasant. As you say the ‘come ‘ere woman’ approach to sex and relationships. But then I just finished Untamed and whinged about the cross-dressing hero of that being too ‘negatively feminised’ and vulnerable. So I might just be impossible to please.

    I did kind of believe in the love story, but only in the sense that I wanted them to go off together and leave me the hell alone.

  10. Shelly
    May 24, 2013 @ 15:25:52

    I liked the novel a lot and I didn’t see the hero as just a “dude in a frock.” To have a hero who is seriously grappling with the loss of his mother and sexual abuse he endured as a teenager IS something that is “noticeably dissimilar to other romances” that I’VE read so far, though I guess we must be reading totally different romances. And though Freda was slightly annoying in some portions of the book, I still found her imperfections endearing. She could be flighty, irrational, and insecure, which isn’t rare for a woman in her early 20s still discovering herself. My biggest issue with the novel is its ending. That’s when it goes from a quirky romance to kind of boiler-plate, but overall I liked it and recommended it to others on Goodreads.

  11. Jen
    May 24, 2013 @ 15:47:53

    I just wanted to say that I personally really appreciate the obvious sensitivity with which you approach your reviews (and I guarantee others here do too). It’s not easy to give your own take on something while still respecting that this genre, maybe more than any other, is tied up in an incredibly complex way with people’s (i.e., women’s) ideas about themselves, about their hopes, about expectations, about desires, etc. As an “outsider”, your effort to be aware and sensitive is apparent and commendable.

    That said, please do continue to tell it like it is, as it’s what makes your reviews so interesting. ;)

  12. Anne
    May 24, 2013 @ 16:07:11

    @AJH
    Wow.
    I must have been doing a LOT more skimming when I read this book than I realized. It wasn’t until reading your review that it struck me just how true your impressions were, and suddenly I’m baffled by why I liked it as much as I did. I think that Nicholas was just SO DIFFERENT as a person and with where he came from and had gone through than any guy I have ever known, that I was reading it more to understand him, and though there were many things he did along the way that I was repelled by, somehow at the end of the day I liked him. But maybe I just felt sorry for him.
    I tried to read some of this author’s other stuff and just HATED it for all of the reasons you didn’t like this book. At the time I couldn’t understand how the author had written such completely different caliber of books. But now, in retrospect, it occurs to me that, maybe, she didn’t.
    Good review.

  13. CD
    May 24, 2013 @ 16:29:52

    I haven’t read this book but I’m very disappointed to hear the author seemingly did everything she could to avoid doing anything remotely subversive with such a delicious premise. And the hero/heroine both sound dickish and immature to an annoying degree: the hero being an old skool alphahole in his treatment of other women, and the heroine being such a terrible awful friend. And I agree that the extract you quoted rates little more than a snort, possibly a smirk if you’re feeling generous, unless of course you’re trying to get into her pants. Oh, I get it now – there’s the subversion: it’s the GUY laughing at the girl’s lame jokes…

    I don’t know – maybe they are supposed to be immature and jerkish? Is this book framed as a coming of age type romance where they become aware of just how annoying they are and try to become less so?

    “Yes, art can be a response to suffering, yes we can build something beautiful out of something terrible, but sometimes a fellow just wants to wear a frock.”

    Or stockings and suspenders, for that matter ;-)… Seriously, are there any men, women or aliens from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse who hasn’t fancied the pants off Tim Curry as Dr Frant n Furter?

    “Also, any sensible man recognises just how deeply creepy it is to keep hanging around a woman, trying to have sex with her, when she’s told you she doesn’t want to have sex with you. Yes, of course you can befriend her in good faith but Nicholas befriends Freda as a pretext for trying to get into her pants. “

    Oh, that really pisses me off. It’s like those lame articles by guys complaining that because female friends only shag “bad boys” instead of them, that that means that being a woman’s friend is a complete waste of time. Which obviously then justifies them treating women like shit from then on. As a guy friend of mine noted, if you’re only friends with a woman because you want to shag her, you are not a real friend and are, in face, an arse.

    @Janine:

    Oh, I did like WILD AT HEART – who can resist a Tarzan book with a virgin hero?

    I would also highly recommend Ivory’s THE PROPOSITION – it’s basically a retelling of PYGMALION but with the genders reversed. Hero is a rat-catcher. And absolutely eat him up with chocolate delicious… And it’s one of the few romances where sex is both toe-curdling and FUN.
    Here’s a review:
    http://likesbooks.com/cgi-bin/bookReview.pl?BookReviewId=2838

    @joopdeloop:

    “Samuel – tho ninja and virgin and yummy”

    NINJA VIRGINS!! Yeh!!

  14. mari
    May 24, 2013 @ 16:40:41

    OMG! LOL! “Like watching two slugs mate on the living room floor!” I am dying! The only thing is, I would actually find what the slugs are doing to be somewhat interesting. I believe (someone correct me if I am wrong and I know that someone here can) slugs actually contain both male and female parts, which makes what they are doing much more interesting and transgressive than anything in this book.

    On another note entirely, I have a feeling that if I approached this book as literature, rather than a romance, I might find it more palatable. For some reason, I expect and even enjoy reading about unpleasant people in literary books. But not ever in romance. No justification for my reading quirks at all. It is what it is.

  15. AJH
    May 24, 2013 @ 16:42:06

    @joopdeloop:

    Yes, I’m interested in that sort of thing as well, but there was simply too much in this book that didn’t work for me. Also, the things that bugged me were just that, things that bugged me – I can completely see why they wouldn’t annoy someone else, or possibly even me on a different day, in a different mood :)

    I feel quite bad about Untamed as well, to be honest, because mine was one of the voices raised in meh. I did, however, like it considerably more than I liked Painted Faces, possibly because although I had issues with sexual politics, I found it really well written and the characters genuinely engaging, which was not the case with Painted Faces. But, again, it’s a personal preference thing and lots of people have made very good cases for Untamed which I see as well.

    I don’t mean to be all holding out for a hero about things, I don’t actually mind alphas, I’ve just happened to encounter greater variety in heroine flavour than hero so far, so it makes me interested in outliers. But, again, that might just be the books I’ve read.
    I definitely need to try some Charlotte Stein, I think. And I know Megan Hart and Cara McKenna are on the list somewhere in the middle. I’ve actually read a couple of Joey Hill’s books, largely because of conversations with Sarah Frantz. I’ve read Rough Canvas which is her m/m and which – purely personally – didn’t work for me. No comment on the book, just my own tastes. I’ve also read … argh what’s it called … the one about the submissive cop? I can absolutely kind of see where the juxtaposition of extreme masculinity and sexual submissiveness comes from since there’s such a lot of unpleasant submission = weakness/unmanliness rhetoric out there, which is, frankly, argh. But, of course, it also reinforces the One Twu Manliness ideal – and then my head explodes because I can’t untangle it all, and I’m like “this is good … but this bad … but this good … yet this is bad” and blah.

    Also I hope I didn’t make you feel you had to defend your right to find PF refreshing – I think it has some problems, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely valueless in other ways. Some of the gender dynamics are done quite well – I liked the fact Freda is just as into Vivica Blue as she is into Nicholas, I liked the secondary gay characters and it doesn’t really have on-page villains, I mean there’s an absent father, a child molester and a stalker but they’re all shadows really.

    Also I know what you mean about jerky people – I really liked Sebastian in THATH, for example, and he’s *awful*. I think non-sympathetic characters are, in some ways, tremendously sympathetic and interesting (because they read like us) but there was just something so deeply not-okay to me about the way these two behaved that I didn’t enjoy them. Sorry, I’m babbling. Shut up, AJH.

    @Shelly:

    My issues with the book were very personal – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with liking it or recommending it to others. I think I might have just read an unrepresentative sample of romances but I seem to have encountered quite a few sexually abused heroes (just two weeks ago there was Rhys in The Iron Duke) or heroes with otherwise traumatic backstories.

    To be absolutely honest with you and, again, this is just my take on it, I found the depiction of Nicholas’s abuse quite difficult. Obviously it’s a very complex and delicate issue, and people have different perceptions and reactions, but I was quite troubled by the connection between sexual abuse and alternative lifestyle choices. Also, I personally felt that a lot of Nicholas’s worst behaviours were supposed to be ‘excused’ by his backstory, rather than merely contextualised against it. Of course this isn’t to pass generalised judgements on real people and sexual abuse survivors certainly don’t have to be sparkly angels of courage and compassion but treating other people as badly as Nicholas does is still not okay.

    Similarly, I can see how someone could like Freda, but I personally didn’t.
    I do agree with you, however, about the ending – I’m not sure if I found it boilerplate but I didn’t like the whole “he’s wrecking himself so you’d better date him” conclusion. I would have liked Nicholas to take at least some responsibility for having been a dong.

    @Jen:

    I, err, try but I’m sure I’ll put my foot in it and say something completely wanktastic at some point, just by the law of averages and on account of being human. But hopefully growing familiarity with the genre helps as well.

    I don’t think I’m changing style any time soon, however :) On the other hand, liking books is much more enjoyable than not liking them – so I always feel slightly bad when I have negative reactions.

    @Anne:

    Oh God, I feel terrible now.

    I think it’s important to recognise that it’s not wrong to like things, even if they contain problematic elements, and even if you are, or later become aware, of their flaws. There are tonnes of things I really like, or I liked when I was younger, and have re-visited to discover they’re either racist, sexist or just plain bad. But, then I try to remind myself that it doesn’t undo my previous pleasure or reduce the value of my previous experiences.

    I honestly did sort of like Nicholas too – he’s such a beautiful, broken mess it’s hard not to, really. He was the main reason I was reading, in the end, just to see what the author was doing with him. I found his behaviour completely unacceptable most of the time and I found his general concept deeply problematic for all the reasons I’ve babbled on about, but there’s still something quite fascinating about that sort of character. I’d like to see another take on it, frankly.

    I, err, will probably not be reading this author’s other books. I don’t think we’re going to be friends.

  16. leftcoaster
    May 24, 2013 @ 16:50:29

    I was entertained by the book, but was angered by the idea that he was a drag queen because he was molested. That really bugged me. The aggressive posturing to make sure we all knew he was still alpha in the sack and kinda a douche out of it, and the older woman being a hag was annoying too but not unbearable. I didn’t mind the heroine’s obnoxiousness that much because I get sick of all the saints, but I didn’t like all the agonizing about having sex and the whole “hot but doesn’t realize it” thing. C’mon woman, own it.

    I totally agree on the rec for Sarah Mayberry and Charolotte Stein. Two of my favorite authors, I feel like I can pick up anything by them and be entertained and not end up pissed about something. I read _Lily_ by Gaffney and it made me so freaking angry she’s on my “don’t read ever again” list even though I had bought 3 of her books at once, so the rec does surprise me, but I’m fairly certain at this point none of us reads the same book ever (even when we read the same book).

  17. L Burns
    May 24, 2013 @ 17:02:45

    After all the hype this one got on the Amazon Romance forum I have to say it was rather disappointing. Freda was the typical faux-overweight heroine (Read: US size 8/10) with tedious self-esteem issues, and Nick is the beautiful guy who falls for her because…well, just because. I mean the man tells her he wants to sleep with her within about 5 minutes of meeting her! The “we’re-just-friends” stage was ridiculous, consisting of a few episodes of one-sided sex where Nick makes Freda come and she just lays there like a lawn ornament. Meh.

    I wasn’t feeling the love for Nick; the whole incident with Dorothea made him look like a total douche (albeit a douche in heels and false eyelashes), and it annoyed me that Freda got all tingly listening to him denigrate another woman.

    In the end though I can’t say that I hated it. It was “OK”, a “C” or 3 star read for me. I felt like the author captured what it’s like to be young and in love for the first time; the characters acted their age (with all that that entails). The writing was very reminiscent of Marianne Keyes (though not as polished).

    Overall it wasn’t all that “different” to me. It was your standard contemporary with unique wrapping paper.

  18. Audra
    May 24, 2013 @ 17:32:41

    What is Combine Harvester? I live in Maine, and it really is just a big piece of farm machinery here so I am horribly confused.

  19. Anne
    May 24, 2013 @ 17:55:20

    @AJH:
    Don’t feel horrible. You pointed out all of the normal reasons I usually quit reading a book and just press DELETE from my Kindle no matter how far along I am. If people treat other people like crap or with disrespect, I simply am not interested in their story.
    That being said, I AM glad I read this book, but, I TOO will not be reading any of her others after trying what sounded to be the most promising and highly rated only to eye roll and growl the majority of the way through it.

  20. Ducky
    May 24, 2013 @ 17:57:28

    I thought this was an okay book. I found the hero interesting and I think the heroine is a realistic portrayal of a judgmental young woman with self-esteem issues. I don’t regret reading it but the execution of the story did not live up to the premise for me.

    It didn’t help that I read this right after I did a marathon of both Megan Hart’s “Broken” and “Dirty”. Which meant I went from a devastating and dazzling reading experience to a pretty mediocre one.

  21. Ridley
    May 24, 2013 @ 18:20:55

    @AJH:

    I think it’s important to recognise that it’s not wrong to like things, even if they contain problematic elements, and even if you are, or later become aware, of their flaws. There are tonnes of things I really like, or I liked when I was younger, and have re-visited to discover they’re either racist, sexist or just plain bad. But, then I try to remind myself that it doesn’t undo my previous pleasure or reduce the value of my previous experiences.

    Hmmm. Well, for me, sometimes it does undo my previous pleasure. My feeling on retroactively noticing problematic elements is that my having liked the work doesn’t mean I did anything wrong and doesn’t indicate a personality flaw. The very nature of privilege renders it invisible, and everyone’s going to miss things from time to time. Sometimes I’m able to say I liked it despite the problems, and sometimes I end up disgusted with the work. Nothing’s set in stone.

  22. Jennifer W.
    May 24, 2013 @ 18:23:44

    I haven’t read this book and now I know I shouldn’t bother. Whenever I read about a female character who treats other women like dirt or delights in them being treated like dirt it is a giant signal to run the other direction. Sometimes it amazes me how admiring and liking characters in a romance is intrinsic to enjoying the book in general. If I actively dislike one of the romance protagonists than I can’t enjoy their romance and the entire point of reading the book is lost. It really isn’t the same with any other kind of fiction that I read.
    I was wondering if you could elaborate on this comment:

    “Also, I personally felt that a lot of Nicholas’s worst behaviours were supposed to be ‘excused’ by his backstory, rather than merely contextualised against it.”

    What exactly do you think is the difference? Could the author have written this story differently so that you didn’t think the backstory was just excusing his bad behavior? Whenever I read heros or heroines with tragic or abusive histories I always feel it is supposed to explain away their present behavior or circumstances. Or possible to make you admire them for overcoming their pasts to become rich, successful, well adjusted, or whatever. Though I can’t think of any character right now that overcame a tragic history to become well adjusted, but they might be out there.
    Also, I second the recommendation for Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi. Delightful characters all around.

  23. Anna Cowan
    May 24, 2013 @ 18:45:48

    Your invitation for not-douchebag heroes made me immediately think of Rose Lerner’s A LILY AMONG THORNS. Solomon’s a dye-chemist who makes the heroine hot chocolate in the middle of the night when she needs it and is basically the nicest person ever. It’s hard to get your hands on at the moment, because it was originally published with Dorchester, but there are still paper copies on Amazon, and I’m assuming it’ll be re-released early next year with Lerner’s next book.

    Also thoroughly agree with the Stein/Mayberry recs. Stein’s DEEP DESIRES was completely absorbing and heartbreaking and repulsive and crazy hot. And Mayberry’s HER BEST WORST MISTAKE was easily one of the best romances last year.

  24. AJH
    May 25, 2013 @ 04:46:12

    @CD:

    I think subversiveness is one of those relative values, in the eye of the beholder and all that – it kind of depends where you’re coming from. I mean, coming from mainstream dude fantasy, I often find heroines a bit subversive because of their agency and people are like ‘dude, that’s normal’ and I’m like ‘oh’. So, equally, I think the concept of Nicholas just on its own terms could be pretty subversive – and I’m really not trying to play a game of ‘more subversive than thou’ here, but maybe there’s more burlesque/boylesque in the UK or something because I was kind of like “okay, drag artist and…?” So what I’m saying in a really roundabout way is that, while I agree with you, I feel a bit dubious at condemning the writer for … ah … ‘not being subversive enough to to tempt me’ because I think that’s an arbitrary standard.

    But, God, yes, the premise is delicious, isn’t it?

    I genuinely wasn’t sure if the book was supposed to be a portrayal of some immature idiots getting it together – I did toy with this interpretation at about the point I started getting slightly less annoyed with them but I wasn’t able to make it stick, at least to my own satisfaction. I can see, as some other people have said, that Freda is – to them – a plausible depiction of an immature, insecure young woman but, uh, I’m not sure. It troubles me that a certain group or type of people would be defined so negatively – it’s like when people say Capslock!Harry was a plausible depiction of an awful teenager in HP5. I just think if you’re going to write about individuals at a certain stage of development you do it with respect and understanding – no teenager would self-identify as being awful or immature (and, tbh, this is a stereotype I dislike – I know plenty of teenagers who, although they are clearly maturing, are not remotely awful) and I read tonnes of YA, where the teenagers are very much NOT portrayed this way. So if, for example, I was in my early 20s, I would not thank LH Cosway for this depiction of me.

    My personal favourite Frank ‘n’ Furter is David Badella but whorses for courses ;)

    “As a guy friend of mine noted, if you’re only friends with a woman because you want to shag her, you are not a real friend and are, in fact, an arse.”

    And he would be right.

    @mari:

    Oh gosh, I probably shouldn’t have said that. *eyes empty wine bottle accusingly*

    Okay, I can’t believe I know this but you are, in fact, correct – some slugs are hermaphroditic and they mate by uh … coiling themselves around a thread of mucus, suspended in mid-air. It’s weirdly beautiful in a completely icky way because it looks so intimate and almost dance-like. I’m also kinda slugphobic (they really really squick me the hell out) so the fact that I find anything involving them even borderline non-grotesque will tell you just how extraordinary this is. You can, uh, Google if you’re feeling brave.

    I don’t think I personally make much distinction between literature and genre fiction – literatchoore is, after all, a genre too. I also enjoy reading about unsympathetic and unpleasant people (what can I say, I identify) but even if I wasn’t trying to invest in the romance at face value, I think I’d still have been quite frustrated by the characters, the writing and everything else that bugged me. And reading quirks should require no justification, we all have ‘em ;)

    @leftcoaster:

    Yes, basically, yes. I felt pretty much the same way. I didn’t have an issue with the drag artistry or the sexual abuse individually, but the direct causal link struck me as deeply, deeply problematic. I think it was sort of okay that it became a space of resistance for him against the sexual abuse, but when he explicitly says he would have stopped cross-dressing if he hadn’t been abused, I was not thrilled.

    I haven’t read enough romances to be annoyed by saintly heroines – so far I’ve liked most of the heroines I’ve encountered, and found them pretty varied actually although I agree they’re often less completely immoral and dickheadly than heroes, and maybe there should be equal opportunities in Being An Arse. So I can see why you might value Freda, even though she made me want to throw things round the room.

    Again, I don’t really feel it’s my place to make judgements on the sexuality of imaginary women but I was a bit … surprised, I guess? … that a very ‘modern’ contemporary (it’s set pretty much NOW, I think) would have exactly the same sexual dynamic of aggressive, experienced dude, uncertain, passive female as … y’know … books set in the Regency.

    Time for a list reshuffle I think – I’ll try and move Mayberry and Stein up.

    I haven’t read LILY, only THATH, which was incredibly difficult but I found it so skilfully written I’d definitely be up for another Gaffney. On the other hand, I’d can totally see why she’d be on a ‘arrrgh, never again’ list :)

    “I’m fairly certain at this point none of us reads the same book ever (even when we read the same book).”

    Haha, yes, yes very much so.

    @L Burns:

    I actually didn’t mind Nicholas being all “let’s bang right now” five minutes after meeting Freda. Since it’s clear he’s into casual sex, not relationships, this is a slightly abrupt but otherwise non-hypocritical way to negotiate something like that. Way less creepy than pretending to be friends, for example. And I find insta!attraction pretty plausible, though insta!wuv much less so.

    Lawn ornament, oh dear. You are so right. I found the whole build-up to PIV sex a bit odd, actually, it’s like Nicholas was having to level up to it or something –kind of prove his worthiness to put his dick in Freda by giving her orgasms without hope of reciprocation. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I thought sex was supposed to be, y’know, mutual.
    I know it probably sounds like I am full of hate but I’m actually not – I would agree with you on the thought “meh” rather than the “grrrr” although there was plenty of stuff in here that troubled me. I’m a bit dubious on the ‘act their age’ front because although I look back on my early 20s and recognise that I was a complete bell end, I wouldn’t necessarily consider something that portrayed me as a complete bell end remotely fair. I think if you’re writing about an age group then you have to depict them as they would see themselves, not as you would see them with the benefit of hindsight or from a “more mature perspective.”

    Also, this is completely spurious and I have no grounds for thinking it, let alone saying it but I didn’t get any sense the writer thought the characters were behaving badly.

    @Audra:

    Oh Audra, Audra! Prepare to have your life changed:

    This is a genre of music known as, err, scrumpy (a cider drink) and western which should tell you everything you need to know.

  25. AJH
    May 25, 2013 @ 05:26:16

    @Anne:

    Weirdly, I don’t think I mind unsympathetic people in general and as tropes go I’m really into “horrible people in love” (Blair and Chuck, from *cough* Gossip Girl make me insanely happy for some reason). I think as long as the text recognises that bad behaviour is going on, I’m untroubled but I didn’t get that sense from Painted Faces. But, again, that’s down to interpretation. Also I think their bad behaviour is of such a mean, petty sort of variety that I didn’t find it very interesting.

    @Ducky:

    Yes, you’re right, reading can be so much about context, I think. I’d just finished FMLH so I practically got whiplash in turning to Painted Faces.
    I know it sounds like a whole rampage of hate and frustration, but I was – as you say “okay” with the book by the end. I didn’t think particularly love it, and I found lots of it troubling, but I didn’t feel I could have more profitably spent my time setting my own hand on fire or anything like that.

    I definitely found Nicholas interesting – and it was interest in what the author was going to do with him that kept my reading, tbh – but equally I found his behaviour pretty dodgy, and all the sexual abuse = drag artist thing left me with my peeved face on.

    I genuinely didn’t get a sense from the text that Freda was supposed to come across as horrendously judgemental – I thought she was meant to be someone who, y’know, told it like it is. But, again, interpretation, and I was probably being ungenerous.

    @Ridley:

    I think that’s very fair – I over-stated my case, because I don’t like to make people feel bad for liking what they like. As you’ve said here, it’s not a personality flaw or a moral ill. I think what I should have said ‘doesn’t necessarily undo my previous pleasure’ – though, as you point out, it can on some occasions. I mean, of course it can’t literally change a response you had in the past (which may have been valuable at the time) but I agree that sometimes greater awareness can taint the memory of previous enjoyment.

    @Jennifer W.:

    I feel I should emphasise this is just my take on it – and the things that jumped out to me as being problematic could very much not trouble someone else.
    Jayne reviewed it here a while ago and was far more positive about it ( http://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-b-reviews/b-reviews/review-painted-faces-by-lh-cosway/) which might give you a different perspective. Although I felt very differently about the book, I can see why she liked it enough to give it a B.

    For what it’s worth, if I was feeling super charitable, I would say that both Nicholas and Freda are obviously very lonely people, who are just a little bit scared of the world in general, so there’s a degree to which the way they cleave together through the ill-treatment of others is … uh … understandable? Plausible? But, yeah, it didn’t make me very happy.

    I’ve read a couple of romances where I’ve kind of disliked the hero, and I haven’t found it too much of an issue if I’ve very much liked the heroine. Essentially I just think “well, if he’s what you want, you go girl” – but it’s not exactly … romantic is it?

    Re sexual abuse, I don’t like to go too far into thinking about how things could have (or, worse, should have) been done differently because I don’t think it’s an entirely helpful way to think about texts. I’m a reader, not an editor, and I believe the book is what it is, as it currently exists.

    For me, it’s the difference between “explaining” and “explaining away” – i.e. the difference between “this character is an arsehole because x” and “this character is an arsehole because x and that makes it okay.” It’s sort of comparable but I recently read Bet Me, where the hero’s semi-evil psychologist ex-girlfriend uses her knowledge of his upbringing and insecurities to cause him to flip out at the heroine. And I really liked this scene because it’s completely understandable why he does what he does, but the book doesn’t for a minute suggest that his behaviour is excusable.

    To put it another way, a reason is not an excuse. Again, from a different book, in The Iron Duke, Rhys is an arsehole and has a traumatic backstory but, as I read it, we were asked to forgive him for being an arsehole not because of his traumatic backstory but because he’s genuinely trying to change.

    In Painted Faces, I very much felt that Nicholas’s past was supposed to justify his bad behaviour rather than merely clarifying it. It’s like, he has lots of casual sex that makes him feel dirty and used. This is an understandable and well-documented response to abuse – but neither Nicholas, nor the book, stop to think about all the people he himself used and abused as part of his self-harm cycle, and instead just want us to go “oh poor Nicholas, there, there.”

    Pamela Morsi. Got it :)

    @Anna Cowan:

    Awwww, that sounds super lovely, thank you :) I have some tame librarians, although I’m rapidly running out of favours having had them chasing down out of print romances from the last 40 years, so I should be able to get hold of a paper copy.

    Right, let me reshuffle that list. I think because there were so many more recs for historicals, I ended up having to space everything out a little bit ludicrously so that I wasn’t just reading massive chunks of historicals.

  26. DS
    May 25, 2013 @ 07:34:23

    Entertaining review. I didn’t catch Jayne’s review but it’s not a book I would be likely to run into on a casual basis so your review is much appreciated.

    The sexual abuse/drag thing really annoys me when I run into it whether in fiction or as an opinion in real life.

    As an aside, as a woman I find peacocky men attractive. The 18th century is one of my favorite eras for male costume. Male drag artists can be very attractive. Cherie Priest in her UF Cheshire Red books (Hellbent and Bloodshot) introduces a secondary character who is ex-special forces current drag queen that I have found interesting.

  27. L Burns
    May 25, 2013 @ 09:40:46

    @AJH:

    Aside from Nick, I didn’t see the characters as behaving all that badly. There was an undercurrent of jealousy in the Nora/Freda relationship that cut both ways. Freda liked to think she was “deeper” than Nora, but I had the feeling she would have loved to be the “hot” girl getting all the attention. The little digs and cutting remarks? Insecurity and jealousy. For Nora’s part, I think she envied the fact that Freda was more at ease with herself and didn’t feel the need to be “on” at all times. As Nick starts showering Freda with attention, Nora’s caught off guard – “What’s going on here? I’m the one men are always trying to get in the sack”. The balance in their relationship had shifted, and it revealed that their “friendship” was more of an old habit than a mutual regard for each other.

    This was actually the part that saved the book for me. Your early to mid-twenties can be a time when you realize you’ve outgrown some of your relationships; they’ve run their course. You’re no longer comfortable with established roles. I liked that (for the most part) they all had pretty normal “just payin’ the rent” jobs, money was in short supply and a big night out was going to a club and drinking too much. Much more realistic than many contemporaries where the 25 year old h is at the pinnacle of her career and surrounded by BFFs that would gladly take a bullet for her.

  28. cleo
    May 25, 2013 @ 16:51:35

    @Jennifer W.I can think of at least one well adjusted character with a tragic background – Anna in the first Chesepeake Bay book by Nora Roberts (Seaswept?). She was raped as a child, had a rough time growing up, but by the time we met her in the book she’s got her shit pretty much together (the scene where Cam tells her that she didn’t just survive, she triumphed, makes me cry every time.) And Jaime in Between Sinners and Saints – I’m not sure he counts as well adjusted but he’s definitely not an asshole.

  29. Audra
    May 26, 2013 @ 02:40:03

    I’m seriously shocked that I have never heard that before. I went to a high school where people drove their tractors to school…….. that said I may now have to read the book just for this.

  30. AJH
    May 26, 2013 @ 05:10:20

    @DS:

    Yes, it was totally off-list but Jane told me about it and I was intrigued enough to give it a go. I’m a bit sad I didn’t like it more.

    And, yes, I wasn’t very happy with the sexual abuse / drag thing either. Again, it wasn’t so much the fact that Nicholas was abused, it was the fact he explicitly said the one sort of … confirmed (?) the other.

    I did, however, like the fact a drag artist was presented as a potential object of desire for a female heroine (and, consequently, readers, whatever their gender or sexual orientation). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to tell people who they can and can’t fancy, but in general I think I like characters who push against conventionally-defined notions of what’s attractive, again, whether they’re women or men.

    And I’m right with you on Georgian England – the blingest shoes in history and by far the best coats. Where do I sign up?

    @L Burns:

    I agree Nick behaves genuinely objectionably (sexual harassment, hello?) whereas I found Nora just unpleasant in a way that meant I didn’t want to spend a lot of time hanging out in her head and listening to her voice.

    I absolutely see your reading, but it leaves me a bit nonplussed to be honest. I mean obviously I’m not judging Freda as an accurate or inaccurate portrayal of being a young woman in her early 20s, because what do I know? But I always thought the thing about women being friends other women because they secretly hate each other was … y’know … a negative stereotype? I mean, in school maybe, but even in my early 20s most of my female friends seemed to actually, um, like each other and be nice to each other. And you’re right that people can and do drift apart, especially in transitional periods of their lives, but I wasn’t sure if that was what the book was consciously trying to portray.
    The best friend that you’re snide about in your head seems to be recurring trope in YA and, to be honest, I don’t even like it then – but it seems reasonably understandable in the context of being about 16.

    On the other hand, I did like, as you say, the ‘normality’ of their lifestyle: sharing a slightly dingy flat, not having much money, going clubbing and drinking a lot. Thank God I’m no longer in my mid-20s.

    @Audra:

    It’s a cute scene – one of the, ah, few liked in the book, to be honest.

  31. L Burns
    May 26, 2013 @ 10:10:10

    @AJH:

    Ah, but that’s the point. I don’t think that Nora and Freda were ‘friends who secretly hated each other’, I think that their friendship had run its course and they were both just starting to realize it. They were sort of “stuck” with each other due to financial/living circumstances, no? Agree that they were both annoying, Freda perhaps more than Nora in my eyes.

  32. Jennifer W.
    May 26, 2013 @ 15:44:05

    @cleo: Thank you for reminding me of Nora Roberts. She is the queen of well adjusted characters. I hadn’t really realized that was one of the reasons I enjoy her writing. I haven’t read Seaswept in years. Maybe even a decade. Where does the time go? Between Sinners and Saints was not on my radar, but I am adding it to my tbr shelf. Perhaps that is where the time goes? So many wonderful books.

    @AJH: Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. These conversastions are so interesting.

  33. cleo
    May 27, 2013 @ 08:48:24

    @Jennifer W.: BSaS is mm and really intense but good. There’s a good da review of it.

  34. AJH
    May 29, 2013 @ 06:32:57

    @L Burns:

    Ahh – an entirely reasonable take. I didn’t entirely pick up on that, but I definitely see it as an interpretation.

    @Jennifer W.:

    My pleasure – as I say, it’s just my take :) And possibly an uncharitable one.

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