REVIEW: The Reluctant Nude by Meg Maguire
Readers please note: I found it difficult to discuss what did and didn’t work for me in this book without revealing SPOILERS. While the biggest spoiler is hidden, there are other spoilers visible in the review. — Janine
Dear Ms. Maguire,
Last year, after Jane reviewed it, I read and enjoyed your erotic novella, Willing Victim, written under your Cara McKenna pen name. When your contemporary romance The Reluctant Nude was released recently, I heard good things about it and picked it up, hoping it would have the same freshness and fine characterization of Willing Victim.
The Reluctant Nude opens with Fallon Frost arriving at a studio in Nova Scotia. The studio belongs to M.L. Emery, a famous and reclusive classical sculptor, and Fallon is the model for a commissioned sculpture. Fallon has been coerced into modeling in the nude for Emery by Donald Forrester, the millionaire who commissioned the sculpture, and her reluctance to pose doesn’t help her feel better about the man who will be sculpting her naked body. Fallon quickly discovers that Max Emery is French-born, younger and better looking than she supposed, and that he rubs her the wrong way.
Max is perceptive enough to realize something’s not quite right about Fallon’s presence in his studio when it’s clear she’d rather not be there, but since he’s not aware of the details of her arrangement with Forrester (these aren’t revealed to readers for quite some time, either), he doesn’t know the extent of it. Still, he’s concerned enough that despite the fact that he stands to make $700,000 on the commission from Forrester, Max decides to unsettle and discomfit Fallon to encourage her to leave.
Eventually Max realizes that whatever her motives, Fallon will stick it out in his studio, and at that point he starts to befriend her (Incidentally I wish I’d been shown how he arrived at this epiphany instead of the story skipping forward in time and thus glossing over it). It’s far from the end of Fallon’s trials, though, because Max’s creative process involves getting to know her on a deeper level than Fallon wants to be known by a man who will be sculpting her for someone she despises. But Fallon is drawn to Max and Max to Fallon, and of course, the complications resulting from the way their relationship begins don’t make the course of their romance a smooth road.
You make some daring choices with the hero in this book and I applaud them. It’s not every day you see a French-born sculptor given a central role in a romance (Nardi in Judy Cuevas’ Bliss is the only other one I can think of). It was really interesting to read about Max’s work and the way it had affected his life. And I loved the little nods to his nationality such as his love of red wine, his European sneakers and his soccer shirt.
However… Max was said to speak with a pronounced French accent despite the fact that he left France for England at age thirteeen. Thankfully, you convey his French accent with syntax only, but since I am a non-native speaker of English who didn’t learn to speak it fluently until almost age twelve myself, I still thought Max’s English was far too French-sounding given his background. An explanation for this was given eventually, but I found it only partially convincing, and wished it had been provided sooner because I spent a good chunk of the book irritated by the French syntax in his speech.
The early parts of the book didn’t draw me in that much because initially, Fallon was understandably reluctant to pose for Max, and the nature of Max’s work was such that it seemed to require him to violate her boundaries over and over by asking personal questions and insisting that she allow him to touch her, on top of the fact that she had to remove her clothes.
I don’t know enough about sculpting to have any concept of whether or not these are common practices among members of this profession, but like Fallon, I resented Max’s constant intrusiveness in the beginning. At the same time, I thought Fallon was unfair to Max in making snap judgments about everything from his motives for sculpting scarred people to his sex life. Fallon’s prickliness got on my nerves at first almost as much as Max’s disregard for her need to maintain her personal space.
The middle of the book was much better because this was where trust and understanding developed between them and it was clear that Max was falling hard for Fallon even before Fallon herself recognized it. Max, who began the book by annoying me with his paternalistic attempt to drive Fallon away for her own good revealed himself to be such an endearing, good hearted, lonely soul that all the reservations I’d had about him went out the window.
Max’s past was a painful one, and when he opened up to Fallon despite all his vulnerability, I could see how much he wanted not just sex, but closeness, from her. Also, his lovemaking. Fallon had some issues with sex and being touched and even though I’m not usually a fan of books in which the heroine at almost thirty has never been satisfied in bed before and yet she gets over this problem in one night, it worked for me better in this book than it typically does because Max was such a generous lover as well as because Fallon’s feelings – a mixture of desire and insecurity — were so well portrayed. This section of the book was mesmerizing partly because being able to respond to Max physically was such a personal triumph for Fallon.
Given Fallon’s issues, as well as Max’s good looks and fame, I totally got why Fallon felt out of her league with him in so many ways, and was afraid to give him her heart. Max and Fallon have some things in common in their pasts, but Fallon doesn’t share the events of her childhood with Max until very late in the book. Once I learned about the commonalities between them, I understood even more clearly why Fallon had been so drawn to Max, and why she felt that he was the one man who could break through her shell.
However, it was harder for me to fathom why Max would be so completely enchanted with the closed and rather prickly Fallon. In the absence of knowing about and understanding the events that shaped her, what was it about Fallon that made her the first and only woman Max had ever fallen for? He was such a loving person that it was hard to envision him not making a connection sooner, with someone less difficult to connect with than Fallon.
I found the ending frustrating because while Max makes a wonderfully romantic grand gesture, we weren’t shown how Max and Fallon negotiated their differences with regard to the futures they wanted for themselves.
[spoiler]Max really wanted a child, and Fallon wasn’t sure she wanted children. Instead of showing how this was worked out, the book simply skipped some years into the future to an epilogue in which they had a child. I felt this gave short shrift to how huge a choice starting a family can be. It isn’t for everyone, and Fallon’s resistance felt so real to me that I needed more than a grand gesture to explain her turnaround.
You made the characters in this book feel so real, their attraction palpable and the challenges their relationship faced felt substantial. I loved that about it, and I especially grew to adore Max. I also loved the specificity of details in your writing. Things like the quiet Nova Scotia setting, Max’s studio with its diversity of windows, Fallon’s co-ownership of a house with her best friend, served to make the story distinct. When Max and Fallon went on a date, I didn’t feel that I was reading what could be any couple’s date. When they made love, I felt that I was reading about something truly intimate between these two distinct, specific people.
Which is why, despite the stumbling blocks that kept me from loving this book, I’m not sorry I read it.
Naturally I’m disappointed that not every aspect of the book hit the mark for you, but thanks very much for your time and for the thoughtful [and spoiler-safe] write-up.
My very best,
I loved this book, but totally rolled my eyes at the ending. It didn’t match the tone of the story up until that point.
@Meg Maguire: You’re welcome, and thanks for responding in such a classy way.
@Ridley: Are you referring to the grand gesture, or to the epilogue?
I’ve been called classy on DA before… [scratches head, classily]
I fear my latest book may have finally caused Jane to bite down on her cyanide capsule, so this go-round is potentially a relatively gentle tenderizing, en route to a more brutal pummeling :-)
But in all seriousness, thanks muchly for your energy.
Having read many of Jane’s reviews, I think I can safely say it will take more than a book to make her turn to cyanide… And a pummeling from Jane has sold many a steak, I mean, book.
I didn’t connect as much as I wanted to. Like you I found the manner in which Emery engages his models cringing for Fallon, almost like each touch was a greater violation. I don’t know if I was meant to understand that the touching led to a level of intimacy and trust between them that Fallon, in particular, hadn’t felt.
I did like the archetypes presented and felt that Max was different but I just felt like there was something holding me back from enjoying the two of them and their romance.
And yes, unfortunately Trespass is/was a regretful read.
I had a lot of the same reactions as Janine to this book (i.e., not sure why Max fell for Fallon and a general dislike of the skip-ahead technique) but I probably would have rated it higher for the sheer amazingness of the author’s ability to transport me right into the book and make me believe in the characters.
I’m probably not expressing this well, but I get so sucked into the little moments of her books and micro-interactions of her characters more than I do the overall story lines. Her characters feel so real and flawed and interesting to me. It’s pretty rare that an author can make me so fascinated in her characters that I’d be content to read about them brushing their teeth or grocery shopping, plot be damned. I also appreciate that she doesn’t ever seem to repeat her characters from book to book. They are all quite unique.
I think this is why I prefer her Cara Mckenna books, where there tends to be more of a slightly unresolved HFN than a full-blown HEA, and where the external plot arcs are less pronounced. I don’t always relate to the characters, but I’m captivated by them, and I think the erotic stories lend themselves better than the romances to that fly-on-the-wall reading experience.
I really liked this book, mostly because of the enigmatic French hero (woo France!) and the emotional intensity between the h/h, which I thought was great. They were both such flawed characters that I found them interesting to read about. I can see why it doesn’t exactly work as a “believable” romance, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless, if that makes sense.
ETA: Just read JL’s comment above, and he/she expressed it much better, but yes, the characters are what suck you in.
@Jane: The beginning was uncomfortable reading for me. I felt that Fallon’s boundaries were being violated with the intrusive questions and the initial touching. The trust and intimacy developed in spite of that IMO, not because of it. IMO things really started thawing between them when Fallon read about Max’s past and when he later opened up to her about his teen years. I think that was what Fallon could relate to, not the encroachment on her personal space.
I’m looking forward to your review of Trespass.
I don’t mind skipping ahead in time in general, but it’s frustrating when what’s being skipped over is the resolution of a conflict and we aren’t shown how the relationship changed.
When Sunita visited me a month or two ago, my husband said he didn’t understand the tremendous appeal of a genre where you know always know a book will end happily, and she and I explained to him that romance is all about the how — how the conflict is resolved, how we get to the happy ending. So I think it’s a mistake to skip over the how.
Yes! I agree she is a very, very strong author in this regard. I think she builds her characters from small but distinctive details. For example, most heroines in the genre, if they own a house, don’t share a mortgage with anyone, because that is the more conventional choice, but Fallon co-owns a house with her best friend, a telling and specific detail.
So often when I read contemporaries, the characters are so conventional that they don’t resemble real people. Real people have at least one or two distinctive, unusual traits. McKenna/Maguire isn’t afraid to make her characters unconventional, and I love that.
You’re expressing it very well and it’s something I really appreciate in her writing. I came thisclose to giving the book a higher grade because of the characters’ specificity and realness. But when I looked over my review, I came to the conclusion that the number of issues I had warranted this grade.
I’ve only read this one and Willing Victim which was a B for me. Which of her McKenna books would you recommend I read next?
I’m not convinced that’s the case, but I do think there are more books in that vein in the erotica genre than in contemporary romance. We could probably have an interesting debate on why that is the case.
@KK: Agreed, there was a lot of emotional intensity, especially in the middle section.
Re. believability, my husband asked me what the book I was reading was about, so I described the story to him. When I came to the part about a millionaire coercing Fallon to pose for a statue, and how and why Forrester did that, my husband started laughing. His reaction made me realize that it’s a pretty far-fetched premise, though I didn’t think of that when I was writing my review.
I liked this one better than you did but Willing Victim is still my favorite McKenna/Maguire book. I do love her way with characterization though and her creation of Maxence Luc Émery made reading The Reluctant Nude worthwhile. Being prickly myself, I root for the prickly heroines of the romance world, so Fallon wasn’t as much of a problem for me. I do think her character lost out a bit to the larger-than-life Max and I wasn’t fully sold on two men being gaga over her. Maybe it’s those childbearing hips of hers.
This book had a definite category feel to it and I think would have made a perfect Mills & Boon Riva but the ending did have a rushed quality which left me feeling that the author wasn’t quite sure how to resolve things and went all Deus Ex Machina on us, especially given the baby epilogue. Overall though I enjoyed it and thought it was a very sweet romance-centered romance.
Max was very loveable once he stopped being so intrusive. I wasn’t sure if real life sculptors really have to touch their models and ask them all kinds of personal questions, or if Max’s artistic process was purely an authorial invention. That part of his character felt a little contrived to me, but maybe that’s just because I don’t know enough about sculpting.
Prickly heroines often appeal to me too. It’s not that Fallon was a problem for me, but rather that Max had such a history of isolating himself that in order to understand why Fallon was the one he’d fallen for, I needed Fallon to be exceptional in some way. Her standoffish personality didn’t help to explain it.
I enjoyed it too, just not as much as Willing Victim. It was a flawed book but I wasn’t sorry I spent my $$ on it.
Skin Game more or less blew my mind, I think because the plot itself, without giving too much away, was about the bizarre interactions of bizarre people in a beyond-bizarre situation. The characters literally are participants in a Survivor-type psychological experiment. I found it engrossing. But Willing Victim is still my favourite. I’m also in the minority of folks who liked Caught on Camera more than Reluctant Nude because it was such an intense slice of time in two people’s lives.
I think I mis-spoke (mis-wrote?) with regard to my fly-on-the-wall comment. I didn’t mean it so much in the voyeuristic way that it probably came off, where I enjoy the lusty scenes regardless of the characters. I meant it more in the sense that in contemporaries, I have to like and sympathize with the characters because I need to be rooting for their HEA to enjoy the book. But with erotica and erotic romance, it’s enough for me to be fascinated by the characters without liking them and there’s less investment in the end goal. I can still be captivated by the story of two screwed up or annoying in their most intimate, vulnerable and emotionally charged moments that (good) erotic stories often provide.
But either way, there’s definitely an interesting debate to be had.
Even a conflicted review can sell books! I bought this one because of the comments aboutthe attention to detail in building the characters. That’s something I really notice in novels.
Another big factor was the reasonable price, so that I was willing to take a chance to try a new author.
Would love to read a review of Skin Game (semi SPOILER-y woot woot for an Asian / hapa male protagonist! Who is not exotified) I really appreciate how specific maguire/mckenna’s characters are, nuanced and sharply observed. Can’t wait for the Trespass review
@Janine: Everything from the grand gesture on just disappointed me. I felt like the previous 90% of the book was overflowing with realism and then the final 10% was generic Romancelandia belief suspension pablum.
I’m probably in the minority on this, but I actually liked Ruin Me more than I did Willing Victim (and that says something, being the shameless Boston homer I am.) I am a character reader. Honestly, plot and prose are something I put up with in a quest to meet new make-believe people. I think this author works so well for me because she’s fabulous at characterization. Ruin Me was like someone telling me about their misspent youth, and I hung on every word. Robin was a great unreliable narrator and the erotica categorization freed the story to do things you couldn’t within genre romance. I thought it was a fabulous story of a relationship at a turning point told from the POV of a woman as confused and fallible as anyone else.
Also, she might be the best hand at sex scenes out there. I can’t think of anyone else who makes them as unique, meaningful and purposeful as she does.
That said, I’ve yet to read her Blaze novel or Trespass. I don’t know what I think of her romance voice yet. She’s nailed erotica though, no contest.
I’ve had my eye on this author. I think I’ll try Caught on Camera. Skin Game looks interesting also.
I loved this book. Loved it. I even liked the epilogue. The one mis-step was the grand gesture ending, imo. Very incongruous with the rest of the story.
In my review of it on Goodreads, I likened the reading experience of this book to watching an art house or indie film. I liked the limited cast, the lazier pace, the French hero. It felt like it took it’s time and allowed for thought and silence. Exactly the experience I get when I watch smaller, non-Hollywood films. This is also why I didn’t mind the jump ahead with the epilogue. It felt like a vignette, a quick little peek into their future. It worked for me, I didn’t need to know how they got there.
Regarding Max’s speech and syntax, I did not find that piece jarring. My grandparents were born and grew up in the South and moved north during the 2nd great migration. When they moved north their oldest children ranged in ages from 7 – 12. My grandparents & those three aunts who actually have been living in New York since the late 50’s early 60s, to this day still have a very strong Southern accent and speak sometimes idiomatically with “Southernisms”. The youngest siblings who were born in the North and all of my generation (the grandchildren) have the flat, middle New York State accent.
Add me to the list of people who really like the erotica by this author. Loved Ruin Me, Willing Victim and Dirty Thirty. Dirty Thirty was like a fun-house mirror reflection of Ruin Me. Similar but different. They make great companion reads to each other.
I have to agree with the person who loved Ruin Me. It’s a great story on power and relationship dynamics. The moral ambiguity and dysfunction make for an interesting story. I know on her website Meg Maguire/Cara McKenna says that she writes about the most intense period in a character’s life, but especially for Ruin Me and Ready and Willing I was DYING to know what happened afterwards.
I like to think there is room for flawed characters in both genres. I tend to prefer them myself even in romance, because main characters in the romance genre frequently annoy me by being too lacking in flaws to be believable, and I need to be able to suspend disbelief to enjoy any story. IMO it’s precisely the feeling that protagonists have to lack flaws to be deserving of a HEA that is the cause of this widespread weakness.
@Statch: I’m glad the review was helpful to you and hope you enjoy the book! And if you like edgy erotica, I also recommend Willing Victim.
@Joopdeloop: You and JL have me half sold on Skin Game, though I wish it wasn’t so darn pricey. Is it a novella or a full length novel?
@Ridley: Yeah, I think you and Tina have a point about the grand gesture.
Forrester’s turnaround wasn’t all that believable. Also, I was surprised that Max could sculpt something so huge as it seemed like a very different craft to me than his usual work, even more so since earlier he had emphasized needing to have his subject present in person in order to sculpt.
Ruin Me sounds terrific. I agree she writes awesome sex scenes.
@Jill Sorenson: I haven’t read Caught on Camera but I hope you enjoy it. I think she’s worth trying.
@Tina: Glad you enjoyed the book so much. I will agree that 80% or so is reminiscent of an art house movie, but there are other aspects — like Forrester’s going to such lengths to blackmail Fallon, Fallon’s getting over her issues with sex so fast, the grand gesture issues, and the standard-issue epilogue, that don’t fit that description IMO.
I think you’re describing a very different situation, though, for a few reasons.
1) Your grandparents and aunts learned their English in the South, but as far as I can tell Max learned his English not in France, but rather in London. Immersion is how people learn a language when they live in the country in which that language is spoken. In the years they learned English, your grandparents were immersed in the Southern dialect,but Max was immersed in the sound of British English when he learned to speak English.
2) Your grandparents and aunts continued to speak the same native language their whole lives, but Max switched primary languages when he made his home in England and later in New York. Incidentally I once read that the early teens (when Max switched languages) are when the capacity to learn a new language is at its absolute peak.
3) Presumably, your grandparents had your great-grandparents as their primary role models and the southern dialect was spoken in their home until they were old enough to leave the house. Max’s parents, however, were no longer mainstays in his life after the age of thirteen. Instead, the adults who took care of him and his other role models were all English speakers whose English, as far as I can tell, was not accented in French. Since children mimic their elders, I think this is an important factor.
While I’m on this topic, I’ll add that the reason I wasn’t wholly convinced by the explanation that Max spoke the way he did because he didn’t speak for a years after his move, is because based on my own experience of switching languages in seventh grade, I would say that hearing is a huge part of learning the grammar and syntax of a language — far more so than speaking. I could be wrong on this but it seems to me that whereas an accent is probably learned just as much by speaking, syntax is learned primarily by hearing native speakers speak. So unless Max stuck earplugs in his ears for several years, I don’t see how he could have retained a French syntax (as opposed to an accent) to such a pronounced degree.
Sorry to go on at such length — I guess I’m doing so because the differences between the Max’s characterization and my own experience of mastering English syntax pretty quickly were different enough that this was an ongoing distraction to me as I read the book.
Thanks for all the McKenna recommendations!
@Emily: Thanks! I really want to check out Ruin Me as well as Skin Game now.
I enjoyed Max very much but I don’t think I ever quite understood Fallon. Also, the cover image is so wrong – Fallon is described as having long(ish)curly red hair!!
This was the first Cara McKenna/Meg Maguire book I didn’t love. I really enjoyed willing victim, dirty thirty, ruin me, don’t call me angel and caught on camera. Conversely I didn’t love Skin game (kind of felt unfinished to me, and so a little unsatisfying). In contrast I wasn’t actually interested enough in this book to finish it. I didn’t connect with either Max or Fallon. Maybe it was the combination of frenchman and sculptor but Max just felt a bit fake to me, and Fallon was just annoying. It could have been my mood so I’m going to try again. First time round I didn’t finish Susan Elizabeth Phillips “Aint She Sweet”, second time I loved it so who knows what will happen when I try again.
Not having read this one, I don’t know whether I’d approve or not of how Max’s language is treated, but on a more general level:
I’m not sure where you read about the early teens being the best time for learning a new language, but your source was incorrect. The peak years for learning a language – any new language – is from birth until the age of seven. This is the so-called “critical period”. After this has passed, it is no longer possible to become a native speaker of any language; there are cognitive changes that appear after this point that change the way that new languages are learned. Many people are still able to become quite fluent in additional languages after they’ve passed the critical period, but they’ll never be completely perfect even if the difference between their version of the language and that of a genuine native speaker are extremely subtle.
While it’s true that immersion is the best way to learn a new language, the fact that Max’s first language is French rather than a different dialect of English is important. It’s not implausible that there would be some interference from his native language into his second language even if he was only hearing the second language produced by native English speakers. The same interference is going to impede his ability to completely shed a French accent; he wouldn’t be able to simply mimic his elders.
The part of your description that definitely rings false for me is the part about Max not speaking. I totally agree with you that if he’d spent a year or more just listening, one would think he’d do a better job working out the syntax. Maybe Max just doesn’t have a good ear for language. There’s a lot of individual variation here, so that’s not implausible. Your account of your own experience suggests that you probably have a particularly good ear for it.
Gaa, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to write so much. (I have a Ph.D. in linguistics, and it’s not often that it actually becomes relevant outside of work, so I think I got overly excited.)
@Tina Ruin Me was an interesting read particularly in conjunction with Don’t Call Her Angel because of the position the woman holds in the relationships. In both, I felt that the woman was getting her cake and eating it too without repercussions. I’m unsure what to make of that. In Ruin Me, I felt the title was particularly ironic given that it isn’t the heroine that is ruined by rather both men in her life. I also thought it strange how these two books read more like romances without satisfactory endings despite the author’s insistence that they are a) erotica and b) thus do not need to have satisfactory endings. Both books focus on relationships rather than the character growth of a character through sex because let’s face it, neither heroine learns anything. I found them unsatisfying from those standpoints. The main female protagonist (and I believe Ruin Me is written in the first person) remain remarkably static.
you (and the rest of the commenters) are giving me good food for thought here. I agree completely that flawless characters are down-right annoying and boring. But saying I need to like and sympathize with the characters isn’t the same as saying they need to be perfect. I need the journey of slowly coming around to a character that starts off flawed, and eventually growing to care for them. I just don’t need that last part in erotic novels. I think that was my problem with Reluctant Nude. I never came around to Fallon, never believed she gave enough to Max to deserve the uber-grand gesture at the end, so it pretty well fell flat for me as a romance. And yet, as someone who rarely comments on reviews, here I am blasting away my thoughts, so clearly there is something about this authors that resonates deeply with me.
Ooh, I am going to have read Don’t Call her Angel. Didn’t know there was another out there.
I had previously read your thoughts on Ruin me, Jane, and while i do think there was a having-cake-eating-it-too aspect to Robin (and she was awfully passive-aggressive), I don’t necessarily agree that there were no repercussions. It depends on how you read her relationship with Jay, possibly. For me, I thought after that last doomed dinner invite, that Robin finally saw the destructive impact of her desire. She did suffer a loss. Did she grow? maybe not. But I do think there was regret at what she lost.
@Kaetrin: I would have loved for the book to delve into Fallon’s past earlier and in a bit more depth. I think it might have made her more relatable.
@Bronte: Max felt a bit fake to me in the beginning though it got better in the middle of the book. If I had to pinpoint why I would say it was because of the way his artistic process required him to intrude on Fallon’s boundaries and because of the pronounced French syntax in his speech, both of which seemed unconvincing to me.
@cead: Thanks so much for correcting me.
I’m pretty confident I read about it in Time magazine, but it was a long time ago — maybe fifteen years? IIRC the article I read stated that the brain’s ability to learn a language started out strong at birth and kept expanding until reaching the peak in the early teens, at which point it started contracting. Perhaps I’m misremembering, perhaps the research on the subject has led to new findings since I read this article, or maybe they just had their facts wrong.
Thanks for this correction.
If you had read the book, you would see that his use of French syntax was quite heavy and pronounced (though I may have picked up on it more than other readers because my paternal grandparents were French speakers). I have a hard time believing that anyone could live in English speaking countries for so long and still retain that heavy a use of French syntax, after leaving France at age thirteen. Even my parents, who came to this country at age thirty-five, don’t speak with a Hebrew syntax and haven’t for a long, long time. And my dad has been deaf in one ear for much of that time. My parents still have an accent, but that is not the same thing, correct?
That could be. And I didn’t mean to imply that switching languages hasn’t affected me at all — my spelling was near perfect in Hebrew when we left, and I don’t have that in English (although English has a far bigger vocabulary). Also, my reading speed has slowed down considerably. But I’ve never had any problems with syntax — in fact I used to work as a proofreader/copyeditor.
No, don’t apologize. I’m glad you corrected my facts, and readers are always welcome to post long comments here.
@Tina She may have seen the destructive impact of her desire, but it didn’t turn Patrick away from her and as he said, what happened was her choice, not theirs. I never saw Jay as a real loss for her. It wasn’t like Patrick was her consolation prize. I mean, she got off with no messy confrontations and no recriminations.
@JL I think McKenna/Maguire is a very special author. But I think she really struggles at putting together a complete book. Her strongest works are the short ones. The longest ones are the most problematic for me, as if she cannot sustain a believable conflict over more than 40,000 words. Skin Game is emblematic of that I think it is more of a character study. It’s more like a writing exercise than a true book with overarching plot and development characters. It was an examination of several different characters within a controlled setting, but it didn’t read like a book to me.
I keep buying her books because her voice is so compelling, but ultimately I can’t just read on voice alone. Ever since Skin Game, I’ve felt like all of her stories read like writing exercises, as if she is trying to explore different methods of writing, different types of characters, different types of story structures but they are incomplete as stories because the characters’ growth is stunted or simply glossed over, or the plot takes a back seat while we explore the minutiae of life, or we get character sketches of 11 different people.
It’s frustrating for me because I really think her voice is amazing and hopefully it will just burgeon. I am greatly influenced by my read of Trespass, her most recent release which was just a big big disappointment.
I’m jumping in to comment for a couple of reasons. First of all because I read this book when it was just released and really loved it. It had two interesting and different characters, an unusual setting and was rarity of rarites- a modern romance with no murder mystery, supernatural element etc. It was wholly about the relationship developing between these two people. It was a great read- I really enjoy Meg/Cara’s voice.
I have to say I am always amazed at the varying grades and different standards applied to judging books here. I’m pretty much flabbergasted this book received a C/C+ grade. I’m even more flabbergasted when I compare it to a recent “A” grade book- Eleven Scandals To Start To Win A Duke’s Heart by Sarah Maclean.
I bring this book up in comparison not only because I thought it was remarkably foolish and derivative- there was nothing new or interesting in it, or because the hero was awful (he was) but because the French syntax of the hero in “Reluctant Nude” was heavily questioned and criticized while the ridiculous caricature of an Italian- Julianna in “Eleven Scandals” was praised as a great heroine. Maybe I am more sensitive because I am actually half Italian but Julianna was embarrasing and made me cringe. She’s feisty because she’s Italian! She’ll knee men in their privates because that’s what feisty Italian women do! And talk about her “Italian” English?! Horrible. Oddly enough this was never mentioned in that review.
Is there a different standard for a “modern” romance than a “nominally’ historical one? (I say nominally because no one in Eleven Scandals actually acted in any way like anyone of their period and station would.)
Cara/Meg was first brought to my attention by this site, and the truth is if Jane had not written a whole review article about “Willing Victim” I may never have heard of this author which would have been a shame as I greatly enjoy what I have read. I am however always amazed at how (IMHO) overly critical this site is of her work.
Jane put “Willing Victim” down as one of her favorites for 2010-one of the best things she read for the whole year. The letter grade for this interesting and memorable work? “B-”
Now to me a “B- work” is just a hair above average. I’ve never considered a piece of fiction that I have read and mentally graded as just above average a top read for me or even one that I would recommend to other readers.
It could also be that I am overly sensitive to grades as the review here of “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte did only earn a “B-” itself. So on that scale Cara/Meg is certainly doing alright!
Wow, thirty-three comments?!
I’d stepped out of this conversation shortly after it began yesterday, because I think it’s intrusive and stifling for an author to hover when their work is being discussed by readers and critics. But I did just want to stick my nose in briefly, to address one thing Jane said three or four comments earlier:
I’ve felt like all of her stories read like writing exercises, as if she is trying to explore different methods of writing, different types of characters, different types of story structures…
Firstly, it’s so bizarre to watch people discuss one’s writing style! Bizarre and flattering and terrifying. I’m not a defensive person, but I did feel compelled to assert that I’m not consciously or willfully trying out different approaches and methods. Rather, I don’t think I really know exactly what I’m doing yet, so I simply do what feels exciting. I’m very whim-driven.
I started writing barely three years ago and sort of woke up published, far quicker than expected (not a complaint). I am most certainly still learning—actively so—and I don’t yet have any brand or niche beyond my voice and my general heat level.
I mentioned to a friend on Twitter the other day that “all-over-the-placeness is probably not the most endearing author branding platform.” But that said, I’m not inconsistent and scattered because I approach my job as a series of exercises; I think that would be an insult to both my publishers and my tiny, delightfully wonky little fanbase. I merely write what interests me in a given month. Since I get restless easily, those interests swing wildly…and aptly enough, reader response to my various stories swings just as wildly. But at the end of the day, an author can only write for her- or himself, so that’s what I do.
I will most certainly get better with experience, but only time will tell if I ultimately “settle down” and find my niche, and become a more predictable, consistent writer. At this stage in my [cough cough] career, I’m far more interested in exploring than settling down. But rest assured my books amount to far more than simple exercises, to me at least. I always turn in the best work I’m capable of to my publishers.
Thanks to everyone for their time and energy on this thread! I’m flabbergasted to have spurred such a dynamic discussion.
Meg / Cara
@Christine I wrote a long comment and apparently my browser ate it so now you are getting the shorter version. To wit, everyone here has different opinions regarding the books that they read. Janine wrote this review. I wrote the review for Eleven Scandals. While WIlling Victim was memorable, it was very flawed. It lacked emotional development and I’m not sorry I gave it that grade even now. Lauren, the protagonist, started the book at a very low emotional point. She was using Flynn as a release, an emotional escape. Right at the point where she began to recognize what was happening to her, the book left off. Denouement was left to the reader’s imagination.
I’ve purchased every McKenna/Maguire book I’ve read except Caught on Camera and Reluctant Nude. I don’t have to buy any books. I get hundreds a month. The fact that I buy her books means that she has something that I find compelling. It’s just that she is equal parts compelling and equal parts frustration for me. As if there is more there, but I’m not getting it.
I definitely think that Eleven Scandals is a better written book. The characters both began at a certain emotional point and obvious growth took place. There was an overriding theme (scandal v. duty) that intertwined with each of the characters’ emotional arc and that was further developed within the plot itself. In the over 300 page book, there were no wasted and extraneous scenes. Every scene advanced the plot or the characters in a meaningful way. Those are the types of things that I look for in evaluating how “good” a book is. However, taste and quality can be subjective things.
What I believe is that Cara McKenna/Maguire has a powerful voice. She is a good storyteller. I am not convinced she could write a 400 page book about two people.
I didn’t have a problem with the hero’s french characterizations. That was an issue that arose for Janine. My problem, as I articulated in the comments, was that I didn’t connect emotionally with either of the characters. I was strongly put off by the hero’s invasiveness in the beginning and I don’t know that I ever recovered from it. I agree with Janine that the ending was very weak and denouements are particularly problematic in McKenna/Maguire books.
I am not a historian and thus if the characters in Eleven Scandals were historically inaccurate, I would not likely have recognized it nor would be able to articulate that as a problem in the novel. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think it should be historically accurate. I do believe that no book is made worse for being accurate. It just means that I would not be able to recognize it (in fact, I’ve always said that if I think that something is historically inaccurate, it must really really be wrong).
I appreciate that your response to 11 Scandals was not the same as mine was and maybe my recommendations of books won’t work for you in the future. The challenge with using reviews as a help (versus a hinderance and frustration) is seeing which reviewers’ taste is most closely aligned with each other.
@Christine Let me add one last thing. I actually think the fact that we talk about her books is a complement. Many authors never get mentioned on the site because we can’t even manage to finish one book of theirs or they are so boring we can’t be moved to write anything about them, positive or negative.
I never said you did. I said that is what it reads like to me. As an aside, I hope everyone will continue with their comments and not be affected by the author’s presence in this thread.
@Jane: I keep thinking that if she found her way to the right editor, someone who points at the denouement and says “not quite, flesh that out better and commit to a particular future for the characters,” her books would be really, really good.
I can understand why you might want to clarify this, but with all respect, Ms. Maguire, Jane never said that you approached your job as a series of exercises — she stated that ever since reading Skin Game she has felt like all your stories read like writing exercises, and there’s a distinction between these two statements.
@Jane: Cross-posted! I see you said the same thing. I will be back in less than an hour to reply to comments so I plan to continue the conversation. It’s been such an interesting discussion.
Coming up with a letter grade on a review is a tricky, balancing act, I think. I’ve read stories that were really gripping and memorable but I thought “man, I wish she had a stronger editor.” So, I would certainly recommend a B- book with caveats to someone I thought would like it.
I bought Willing Victim on the basis of the B- review. I’ve never read Wuthering Heights and have no desire to. If it had an A review which I’m sure it does somewhere, I think I’d have to be paid to read it.
Wowser, two epic smackdowns in a row. If I weren’t such a fearless bitch, I might not ever comment here again…
I agree, but I think some people confuse the two. I don’t know how otherwise to explain certain trends in romance, such as for example the number of self-sacrificing heroines. It seems like moral ambiguity, in particular, isn’t tolerated very much, and I think that’s shame.
I do too.
I think I want that from every novel, but it’s true that with romance, if I don’t care for the characters, I don’t care about their HEA either.
As I said before, I would have loved for Fallon’s history to be explored more. I think that could have been a key to opening up such a closed character to readers.
I can see why. She has some great strengths.
@Jane: I’ve only read Willing Victim and this book. This one didn’t feel like a writing exercise to me, just like a book with great strengths and great weaknesses. It was flawed and uneven, but for me, worth reading anyway. Willing Victim felt much less flawed for me. I did feel that the ending was abrupt. It didn’t read like a writing exercise to me. I can see why it might be viewed that way, but I felt there was subtle change in the characters. I typically like more growth than that, and would have loved to know a bit more about Flynn and Laurel, and where their lives took them, so it was a B read for me.
@GrowlyCub Epic smackdowns? Would it have helped if I put in a smiley face? I just don’t want readers discouraged from voicing their thoughts, either one way or another.
@Janine I think you and JL should both read Trespass (and Lazaraspaste too) because the heroine is definitely morally ambiguous. Would love to see what you all think of the female protag in that book.
@Christine: Glad you enjoyed The Reluctant Nude.
I think you are comparing apples and oranges. As of the last count I think there are ten of us who review for Dear Author. We all have our own tastes and opinions which differ and which we articulate differently. I am the reviewer of The Reluctant Nude, but I didn’t give Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart an A grade, Jane did.
After Jane recommended it I tried Eleven Scandals. I found it compelling but put it down due to the fact that I hadn’t read the earlier books in the series and contrary to what Jane said in her review, I didn’t feel that it stood on its own. Characters and events from the earlier books were heavily referred to and I felt like I was missing half the story. I noticed that the language sounded contemporary or American in places, and that bothered me a bit.
Like you, I also cringed at the Italian stereotyping. I’m a quarter Italian-Jewish — my maternal grandfather was born in Rome (boy, I seem to be trotting out my whole pedigree in this thread!) so that whole Italian or Mediterranean= feisty or hot blooded stereotype makes me uncomfortable.
But I did feel that the writing was compelling despite all these problems, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was missing the backstory, I think I would have kept reading. Since I didn’t finish, I can’t say what grade I might have given Eleven Scandals.
I can, however, tell you that I read Wuthering Heights in college and it was an A+ read for me. I would love to read it again sometime and when Jennie reviewed it, I wanted to write a rebuttal! Jennie is the reviewer here whose tastes probably align with mine most closely; we value many of the same things. But in this case, I thought she didn’t get the book at all. Which goes to show that even when those with similar tastes to us don’t have the same tastes as us.
I’m confused about why you compare my grades to Jane and Jennie’s. I don’t understand why the fact that we all blog for DA means our opinions should be taken as one opinion. We are different people and we each have our own sensibilities.
You can find each of our reviews by clicking on our names in the reviewer list at our For Readers section. If you click on “Janine” there, you will find most of my reviews and be able to compare them to my other reviews, rather than to anyone else’s. Reading them should give you an idea of how I approach reading and whether or not our tastes match up.
@GrowlyCub: I hope you continue to comment! Sorry if I sounded like I was giving a smackdown.
@Jane: Maybe I’ll try it sometime but my reading schedule is pretty packed so I don’t think it will be in the next month.
@Janine: No, I was referring to Jane’s comments which seemed a tad harsh to me.
Very interesting discussion! I enjoyed The Reluctant Nude immensely, though I agree with some of the negative points in the review here, particularly re: the ending. What sticks with me several months after having finished it is the setting — what a quirky, memorable mental picture Maguire paints of the studio in the opening scenes, and how the novel remains largely enclosed there, patiently tracking the relationship between these two flawed people. It’s rare to find a romance that zooms in so close and holds but also remains compelling and readable. I also thought the sexual aspect of their relationship was extremely well done.
I put some of my thoughts on Maguire and Trespass together in a blog post today here: http://bit.ly/qQw1ky. It’s definitely more fan letter than book review, though.
@MaryK: Coming up with a letter grade on a review is a tricky, balancing act, I think. I’ve read stories that were really gripping and memorable but I thought “man, I wish she had a stronger editor.” So, I would certainly recommend a B- book with caveats to someone I thought would like it.
For me, a B- is a good, solid grade, and I regularly recommend books I rate as a B-. By the time I hit B, I feel I’m giving a pretty damn high grade.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the reviewing and grading task lately, especially in light of my struggle to articulate why the new Miranda Neville book wasn’t an A read for me. I’ve come to understand that there are just so many things I consider when I’m reviewing a book that a review is a very diminished summary of my responses. There is quality of voice; use of tropes and other literary devices; freshness of language, characters, plot, etc.; verisimilitude; the extent to which I experience suspension of disbelief; tightness of plotting and consistency of characterization; thematic subtlety and coherence; plot and character arcs; tightness of plotting and language; quality of worldbuilding; extent to which all elements of the story fit and move together; general craftsmanship; mastery of the storytelling; my ability to understand the characters and follow their motivations and actions; my emotional response to the text; quality of editing; how long the book stays with me; extent to which I care about the protagonists and feel immersed in their story, etc. etc. etc.
Then there is the whole issue of how I respond to a book as a reader and how I evaluate a book as a reviewer. Sometimes a book may really strike a chord with me as a reader but not assess especially high in a review situation. That’s always a difficult situation to articulate effectively in a review, I think.
Ultimately, I think the best we can do is explain the terms upon which we’re evaluating and assessing a book and describe the ways in which a book did or did not meet the criteria we set. That way, readers can get a sense of how each of us read and our reviewing criteria.
From your blog post:
I think that’s what I was trying to get at in my discussion with JL. I haven’t read Trespass but I agree with you that a lot of romance suffers from too much carefulness to make the characters (heroines especially) likable. I don’t mean that it isn’t important to me to like the heroines, because it is. But what I mean is that I’m often more likely to dislike them for being too perfect, than for being too flawed. I’m glad when authors take chances.
I haven’t read the book. I thought it sounded v. interesting when I read Janine’s review, and it definitely sounds like it has both great strengths and major flaws. Those are the hardest books to give a bottom-line grade, at least they are for me.
The issues Jane raises for the Maguire/McKenna books are ones I run across frequently in books by new or new-ish authors. I think of them as issues of craft, not style. Style is more an intentional adoption of a certain linguistic and structural approach in creating a literary product. But obviously readers vary quite a bit on how much they care about either craft or style. Especially in genre (not just romance) the story trumps the writing, so a story with craft problems can still resonate strongly for readers.
I use the whole scale when I grade, so a B- from me is still a worthwhile book, either in its emotional/intellectual appeal to me or its technical merit.
I’d rather stab myself repeatedly with a fork than reread Wuthering Heights, but I appreciate that it is a quality novel.
@Janine: Well put. And me, too. I’d go further and say that I’d rather dislike a heroine than find her boring, and a hero who is nothing more than a tall, dark slab of perfect is similarly kind of *yawn.* But I expect I bring my readerly interests over from literary fiction, where less is expected of characters, likability-wise. (Can you say “Jonathan Franzen”?)
That reminds me of this photo from cartoonist Kate Beaton’s feed.
@Ruthie: I can’t read your blog post entirely, since you warn of Trespass spoilers, but I did want to say something about Cara/Meg characters. I also like that they’re idiots. I liked how Robin was a total P-A screwball in Ruin Me. Since she came by her stupidity honestly as part of who she was, not to allow convenient plot massaging, it made her interesting. Like you said, most of us are screw-ups ourselves.
The trick is, I think, to make the character’s stupid mistakes understandable in terms of the character’s personality. Ruin Me was a more complete book for me than Willing Victim was because her relationship with Patrick wasn’t really the point. It wasn’t really an ero rom with a love triangle, it was about a weak-willed, passive-aggressive anywoman deciding to shit or get off the pot and leave her safe, comfortable life with Jay to take a risk on the unsure thing she actually wants with Patrick. In short, she finally grew a pair.
Since it wasn’t a romance, I was content with the lack of heroic behavior. It was a story of messy relationships first and foremost and a romance second. For what it was, I enjoyed it immensely.
@Robin/Janet: There are many issues that affect the grade of a book for me as well, and I think in my case, sometimes it isn’t possible to articulate every single factor in a review without turning that review into something too detailed and technical. So I focus on the main ones and sometimes bring up others in the comment thread.
Also, the whole can sometimes be more or less than the sum of its parts. I sometimes agonize over grades and whether my grades reflect my reviews and vice versa.
I have seen other people say this and it always gets my back up. I mean, I can believe that it’s true for many readers but it isn’t true for me. I can’t force myself to finish a poorly written book no matter how compelling the story. OTOH, I agree that if the writing is beautiful but the story deadly dull that doesn’t work either. I think genre fiction should aspire to great storytelling and great craftsmanship both. That’s what makes for a great book IMO.
I think my B-‘s are also worthwhile books and a B- for Jane (Willing Victim, which Christine brought up) is definitely a good grade. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been following Jane’s reviews all that closely.
I don’t use the whole scale for the reason that I can’t force myself to finish F books. I try to compensate for that by doing the occasional DNF review but often it is hard to get even a hundred pages into those DNF books and then I don’t feel I can write even a DNF review.
@Ruthie: I’d probably rather dislike a heroine than find her boring too, but if she really grates on my nerves I may not finish an otherwise good book.
@Ruthie: I left a comment. Obviously I think about this author’s books quite a bit. Perhaps too much.
@GrowlyCub: Really? In what way? I felt like I was being sincere in my response and in no way rude or dismissive.
And if I offended anyone in the thread by my comments, I certainly apologize.
I got tired of Da Rulez.
I got tired of them in 1993 when they were just evolving and they started being beaten into me.
One day I turned around and there was this thing called “head-hopping” and it was BAD.
Pitch appointments. Elevator spiels. Snakes on a Plane!!! Hook ’em in the first page–better yet! the first sentence. The first three chapters of a book with any hint of a unique voice polished right out of it. The first three chapters of a published book so fantastic and plunk down the cash only to find out it falls apart immediately at chapter 4. In media res being so misunderstood and contorted the story begins completely incomprehensibly. And oh, by the way, each and every instance of the “be” verb has apparently been deemed passive voice.
And I fell for this bullshit.
(When a writer who is remarkably better than you, and you know it, tells you, “I’m amused by your creative verb choices,” you know you’re in deep shit. I immediately rekindled my relationship with all conjugations of “to be.”)
The books, the characters, the plots, have become formalized. Note, I didn’t say formulaic. They’re like a closet full of different-color sweater sets with the correctly matched shoes, purse, gloves, hat, and pearls. What happened to the rest of fashion? Hell, I’ll even take sackcloth and ashes at this point.
If I seem a little (a lot) peevish (bitter) it’s because I’ve spent good money on dud after dud from NY and major e-publishers lately and I’m sick of it. An interesting premise and pretty cover art is now suspect. If they’re not boring as hell and all alike, they’re badly written.
I don’t have money to waste (do any of us?) and these books are jacking with my bank balance. Thank heavens I’ve got two good library systems available to me.
I should probably not post this. I will anyway.
@Ridley: Well put. Meg/Cara’s characters are deeply flawed and her books are flawed as well, but there’s a quality to them I find incredibly appealing. For one thing, as unflattering a self-description as this is given some of the comments made on this thread about Laurel and especially Robin, I see myself much more in them than I do in the sweet, fiesty, always-honorable and generous-to-a-fault heroines I meet in other books. While I love the literary fantasy of imagining myself inhabiting the beautiful body and noble mind of a more heroic woman, it’s also refreshing to read about a character who’s got legitimate streaks of darkness within her, but who is always reaching or at least fumbling toward the light, towards joy, towards the connection she shied away from until the inciting event at the beginning of the book.
The stories I reread or remember with a piercing feeling in my heart are the ones that surprise me, that feel raw and human and nakedly risky. Meg/Cara does that for me. I finished a book yesterday that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but I’ve already forgotten almost everything that happened in it. I read Willing Victim and Ruin Me almost a year ago, and I can still remember scenes, turns of phrase, and the way I felt when I read them. Sometimes I was moved, sometimes I was intensely uncomfortable, but from the first page to the last I was completely immersed in what the main characters were feeling. A kind of raw honesty came through those stories that has stuck with me, and that’s a rare thing for a writer to pull off.
@Ridley: Interesting comment, and fascinating assessment of RUIN ME. That’s my favorite of her books that I’ve read. I’ve actually read it twice, and I think about it often. For what it was, I enjoyed it immensely, too. (Never thought of Robin as P-A, though. I rather identified with her. Not sure if that makes me inattentive or P-A, too. Yikes!)
@Janine: I know it’s not true for everyone. But it’s true for enough people that I try to keep it in mind when I do a review, or when I see lots of praise for books I think are not well written.
@Ridley: Great cartoon, I hadn’t seen that. Thanks!
@Ruthie: I saw the whole arrangement as her way of having the decision to stay with Jay or not made for her. At one point she even tells Patrick, “I’m probably never going to stop wanting you…Either Jay’s going to put a stop to all this or you are.” Then she also thinks to herself:
I think everyone’s a little passive-aggressive sometimes, and she struck me as a normal, flawed, weak woman. Her self-awareness about what a cockup this whole arrangement is saves it from convenient plot vehicle territory. It’s wacky, yes, but it’s reasonably so. I could see these people making these decisions.
@Moriah Jovan: I’m glad you went ahead and posted it anyway.
Crazy thing is, although you chose and meant formalized instead of formulaic—I, being the way I am, double checked the meanings—the secondary definition of formulaic uses the following as an example: “much romantic fiction is stylized, formulaic, and unrealistic.” We need to start an anti-homogenization effort pronto; or would that be as bad as head-hopping? Contrarily speaking, occasionally that sweater set is hand-knit from dreamy-soft cashmere in a particularly gorgeous shade of green.
Curious as to whether any of your issues with the genre apply to this particular book. For me, Maguire/McKenna, at her best, is far from formalized or formulaic. That might have something to do with the problems in this particular book though.
@Ridley: Ah, Ruin Me. McKenna had me guessing over what Robin was going to do. Loved that and loved the ending.
No, and I’m sorry about having posted my little rant here. It has nothing to do with this book. In fact, I didn’t read the review because I have it in my TBR and I don’t read reviews beforehand.
Totally wasn’t fair of me and I do apologize to the author.
I could go for an “anti-homogenization” campaign.
And I’m sorry, but I’m finished with sifting through racks and racks of acrylic-yarn sweater sets to find the cashmere, especially if they’re in a high-end store from a high-end manufacturer… :/
Sorry it took me so long to get back. I didn’t want to just post and run. There are a lot of interesting comments here.
@Jane- Jane said “While WIlling Victim was memorable, it was very flawed. It lacked emotional development and I’m not sorry I gave it that grade even now.”
I completely disagree about the emotional development. The heroine Lauren(and even the hero Flynn to some extent) definitely have emotional development over the course of that story. Lauren goes from completely cut off from life and drifting to agreeing to look for a job that uses her education and enters into the beginnings of a real relationship with Flynn. Considering how short a time frame this is- a few weeks if I remember correctly- it’s a completely believable amount of emotional development and IMHO perfect for this story. I felt at the time of your review and still feel now your problems with the story were not with what was on the page but what you wanted the story to be. It was a snapshot in time of these two interesting and flawed people. It was not a happy ever after full “romantic” novel. To me that emotional development was just as important and far more real than anything I saw in “Eleven Scandals.” I know these are entirely different genres but as you say this is a criteria you use when determining a grade for a work I think it’s a fair comparison.
@Jane again- I absolutely agree that being talked about on this website is a complement- when I first posted I specifically mentioned I probably never would have heard about Meg/Cara if it were not for your review. The reason why your review of “Willing Victim” has stuck in my head for so long was because of the disparity between your favorable review, its long term impact on you (A top pick for all of 2010) and what I consider a so-so grade.
@Jane, Janine and Sunita regarding “B-” being a good grade.
Janine said “I think my B-’s are also worthwhile books and a B- for Jane (Willing Victim, which Christine brought up) is definitely a good grade. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been following Jane’s reviews all that closely.”
I do follow Jane’s reviews pretty closely which is why they tend to stick with me probably more than others. I guess what it comes down to is how you look at a “B-”
To me a a “B-” is literally a small degree above average. That’s how the grading system worked at every school I’ve ever attended from Kindergarten to Law School. It’s not a terrible grade but let’s be honest it’s not a great one either. I never strived to be a “B-” student or do “B-” work. If someone evaluated you at work and said you were a “B-” worker would you be flattered? I certainly wouldn’t. Of course everyone has the right to grade as they see fit and any review is that person’s opinion. My personal opinion is that Meg/Cara’s work is not barely above average. I’ve read a lot of average work. Average work doesn’t resonate with you like her works do. My real point regarding Jane’s review of “Willing Victim” was a work that made that kind of impact on me and that I put in my top choices for the year could never be a “B-” for me. That’s just me and my opinion. I had a philosophy teacher announce pefectly seriously the first day of class that she thought a “D” was a perfectly good grade- it meant a student was doing all the work she required. It was her way of letting us know what the grading was going to be like for the semester.
@Janine- Janine said “I’m confused about why you compare my grades to Jane and Jennie’s. I don’t understand why the fact that we all blog for DA means our opinions should be taken as one opinion. We are different people and we each have our own sensibilities.”
Janine, I agree that you all have your own tastes and grades. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to compare a review of yours with one of Jane’s or Jennies. I wanted to make a comparison between what had received a “A” and what received a lower grade. I should have just compared Jane’s review of “Willing Victim” with her review of “Eleven Scandals.” However, the truth of the matter there is a common thread here despite different reviewers. You all review under the banner of “Dear Author” so if someone quotes a review or grade from here or any site it’s likely going to say “Dear Author gave this book an A review” or “AAR says this is a B+ read.”
@Kai- Kai said “I finished a book yesterday that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but I’ve already forgotten almost everything that happened in it. I read Willing Victim and Ruin Me almost a year ago, and I can still remember scenes, turns of phrase, and the way I felt when I read them.”
That is great way to put it and how I feel about this author’s work. These works are distinct and memorable. The emotions are powerful. To me that makes them far above “average” works.
I can’t speak for Jane but when I read or review a book, I can only do it from my own perspective, and not from another person’s. My thoughts on a book are always filtered through my personal priorities for what I want from a book. I do try to look at what a book is trying to be, as well, but in the end, if it doesn’t fully satisfy me, that is something that I have to mention in review and that my grade therefore has to reflect.
(I hope the points made in this review of The Reluctant Nude match the grade that goes along with the review. You’ve stated that you have a problem with the grade, but have said nothing about whether or not the review supports it).
Again, I’m not Jane, and my grade for Willing Victim was a bit higher than hers (straight B), but I think that grade reflects my feeling that the ending felt truncated and that I would have loved for the book to delve more deeply into who these people were outside of their sex lives.
This is a long way of saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with grading on the basis of what one wants a story to be. Reviews don’t purport to be objective, they are opinions, not scientific or mathematical calculations. They can’t help but be filtered through personal likes and dislikes.
If you got what you say you got out of Jane’s review, then the review did its job — it communicated to you that what didn’t work for Jane in Willing Victim would not be an issue for you. You purchased the book on the strength of the review and discovered an author that you’ve grown to love.
The way I see it, the Willing Victim review served you very well, despite the fact that you would grade the book differently. Since we all have different preferences and priorities in our reading and will never grade all books the exact same way, IMO that is all any reader can ask of a review.
That is a problem with using letter grades — people (at least here in the United States) associate them with schools.
However, our review grade explanation is posted in our For Readers section and it’s a bit different.
Based on the explanation that even with a C read it is only probable that a book will not be reread, I’ve always looked at it that a B is a book the reviewer will seriously consider keeping and rereading. The description of an A book as being one whose loss the reviewer would cry over means that straight A’s should only be given sparingly.
And indeed, I just looked through the archive for straight A reviews here at DA, and I see that in the past three years, Jane has only given out six straight A’s. So in that period she has averaged two straight A books per year. Given that, I think you can see how a B- book could end up on her top ten of the year list.
Thanks. I do understand that, but I have no more control over the grades Jane and Jennie give to books than they do over mine. We don’t grade by consensus, or even consult each other about what grade to give a book. And I think it’s better that way, don’t you?
@Janine- Hi and thanks for responding again to all my comments.
That part you posted about the review grades was very interesting. The “B” is probably considered a bit higher than I would have thought but the C is about where I thought it would be.So a “B-” would be barely above the line of “Eh. Not bad but I probably would never read it again.” That still seems like a low grade to me.
Grades are definitely associated with schoolwork and I think I have probably had way too many years in school not to associate grades here with my own years of being “graded.” It’s probably also why I have such a visceral reaction to what I think is a too low grade.
@Janine again- you said “I hope the points made in this review of The Reluctant Nude match the grade that goes along with the review. You’ve stated that you have a problem with the grade, but have said nothing about whether or not the review supports it).”
I’m sorry I got carried off on other’s reviews- I did actually read yours which was my kickoff point! I think you did give a good explanation of what didn’t work for you and it was a very complete review -you covered all the aspects of the book and mentioned all the things you liked.
While I share the general opinion about the unrealistic turn towards the end (new sculpture) the other 99% of the book worked so well for me I would grade it much higher.
I don’t mind a prickly heroine or hero for that matter, in fact I prefer it to the accepted standard of the cold proud hero I find in so many romance novels ( or worse- the Duke of Slut) or the saintly heroine. Also, I know enough about Meg/Cara’s writing to expect a flawed heroine and welcome it. If my expectations were different, maybe I would feel differently.
I also thought your personal experience regarding language was very interesting as well. I would never have dreamed English was your (second?) language. Your English is flawless so far as I can tell. I do think you are an exception to have master the language as you have- I know people who came to speak English in their teens who still retain a flavor of their original language. It seems the older a person is, the more difficult it is.
I didn’t question Max’s language in the book because it seems he never wanted to fully integrate into England and New York. It made sense to me that he would hold back and only learn as much as he needed to- that he wanted to retain as much about his life in France as possible. I also felt he was always a “loner” even before his self imposed isolation and that he wouldn’t be someone who would be conversing all the time and mastering a new language.
On the whole the difference comes down to I just plain enjoyed the book a lot more than you did. I definitely would read the book again (and have actually since I first read it when it was published). I find the quirks that didn’t work for you refreshing. In the end it just comes down to taste.
@Moriah Jovan: Crazier still, in the world of publishing, the acrylic and the cashmere are usually both $7.99.
Sometimes when I finish a book, I can say ‘mmm… satisfied’ or ‘meh… not.’ (could translate it A-F or 1-5 stars but usually dont). Other times though, after reaching the end, I’m left with the feeling, hoy, I definitely want the watercooler chat on this one. Usually that’s for A-B reads, but sometimes it could be for C or below. Maybe it’s especially true for those books that hook you in for whatever reason, but have those flaws or holes that you (the reader) want to fill in or poke at. For Reluctant Nude and maybe moreso Skin Game, I don’t find the flawed characters are the problem per se…(certainly their lack of perfection and dinstinctive qualities are what draw me in). But I was eager to read about the things (good and bad) that struck you, b/c there are things that nag at me about these stories and I hope you (reviewers, commanders) help me put my finger on it. Thanks for providing the watercooler DR (I think even if I hadn’t read this already the chatter would have piqued my interest… This part is more important to me than the letter grades).
Gratuitous p.s. I was curious to know if Skin Game wd get reviewed b/c it’s definitely not a romance per se, with a clearly defined h/h to zero in on immediately. I know that y’all do review outside of romance. It’s just that my reaction after finishing Skin Game (on a McKenna/ mcGuire glom triggered by Jane’s review of Caught on Camera and Willing Victim) was a funny mix of satisfied and frustrated– and my first thought was, have I been reading too much in the same genre? Does that explain the shape of my expectations for this book?
I disagree. I think a C+ is barely above the C line of “Eh. Not bad but I probably would never read it again” but a B- is much closer to “It’s good and I would buy it again, given the chance.”
I do understand and there is an interesting discussion of the review and of the author’s books on Twitter right now. One of the things Sunita and LizMc2 said that I agree with is that my review of The Reluctant Nude is a C range grade that, rather than connoting “meh” is more of the kind of C a student might get for scoring a 100 on one test and 50 on another. That is, the grade in this case reflects a mixed bag of both weaknesses and excellence.
I have to say that I find grading the most difficult part of reviewing for DA. I agonize over my grades because I don’t want them to be either too high or too low and often the way I know I have arrived at the correct grade is that I want to both raise and lower it at the same time! I almost never feel confident that the grade I am giving is the grade the book deserves, because a book is such a complex thing that its strengths and weaknesses cannot really be summed up in a letter.
As a reader grades are very useful to me, not just in recommending buying or avoiding a book, but also in helping me to decide whether or not to read the review. I take a number of factors into account, including my interest in the book or author being reviewed, who the reviewer is, how well constructed his or her reviews are, whether that reviewer typically includes spoilers, how much the reviewer’s tastes typically match mine, and also, the grade given. I glance over the info of book, author, reviewer, grade, and sometimes tags as well, and in less than a minute, I know how interested I am in reading the review.
All of this is just a long way of saying that while as a reviewer I would rather not give grades at all, as a reader I need them, and so I (the person who is both a reader and a reviewer, not to mention a fiction writer) ultimately see grades as a necessary evil.
I totally understand and I think diverse opinions are a big part of what makes online book reading communities so lively and interesting. I’m glad you posted your opinion and hope you feel welcome to do so here whenever you want to.
I don’t mind a prickly heroine either. I can even think of one who is in my top five or ten favorite heroines ever– Lessa from Anne McCaffrey’s SFR classic Dragonflight.
Someone else made a similar comment to yours upthread and I tried to explain that it wasn’t Fallon’s prickliness that bother me. I will try to articulate it in more detail. My issues with Fallon’s characterization follow:
(1) Her initial judgmental attitude toward Max bothered me. Prickliness doesn’t bother me at all, but jumping to conclusions about others based on no information at all does. Fallon decided that Max must be a slut without actually knowing a thing about his sex life. She also decided he sculpted scarred people out of total insensitivity to their pain, that he was fetishizing it, when the truth was that Max identified with their pain. Again, she had no basis for this at all. She was simply resentful of posing for him, and therefore projected all kind of judgments on him.
(2) While I sympathized tremendously with Fallon over the way Max kept asking her about things like her sex life, and insisting that she allow him to touch her, I also felt that Fallon never took responsibility for the fact that ultimately, it was her choice to pose for what would be Forrester’s statue.
Yes, Forrester went to great lengths to make sure there would be consequences Fallon didn’t like if she didn’t pose (and I find his doing so kind of absurd), but Fallon still could have said no. She didn’t, but she didn’t reconcile herself to her decision either. That’s human, but it bugged me that Fallon never took responsibility, even at the end of the book, for the fact that it was her choice whether to pose or not and Max was in no way to blame for her decision to come to his studio and take off her clothes.
I was annoyed by my feeling that the author was displacing all the responsibility for that onto Donald Forrester, and no one, not Fallon, not Rachel, not Max, not Forrester, or anyone else, acknowledged that Fallon had a choice to make and that indeed, she made a choice.
(3) I don’t mind prickliness in the least but I do think prickly people are more difficult to get close to. Their prickliness pushes a lot of people away. So what I didn’t understand was why it didn’t push Max away at all. There was never an explanation for it in Max’s POV thoughts. And Max was so loving, lonely and needy under the surface, that I couldn’t understand why, after being celibate for so long, it was Fallon of all people who was the one to whom he opened up.
So many other women would have been more welcoming of him. I needed some kind of reason for why he was drawn to Fallon specifically, other than that he was the hero and she was the heroine of the book and therefore he had to fall in love with her because the author wrote it that way.
(4) Which brings me to another point. Had Fallon or Rachel told Max about Fallon’s childhood, he would have seen all that they had in common and their attraction would have made sense. I would have liked for this to happen because it would have allowed us to see how Max and Fallon would have dealt with this in their relationship, as well as why he was attracted to her.
(5) My last problem was that although we learned about Fallon’s childhood and saw some of how that childhood affected her (such as her dislike of being touched) we never saw her psychologically grapple with how that childhood was stunting her. Instead we went very abruptly from conflict to grand gesture to epilogue, and no explanation in between for the change in Fallon’s position on having children — how she realized she could make a good mother despite her upbringing and that it was the right choice for her.
Therefore it felt to me like there was an underlying assumption that having children is the right choice for everyone so of course it was right for Fallon and all she needed was to see that Max loved her enough to build a statue of Gloria to realize that she should give him a baby. Blech.
I want to state here that flawed heroines are my favorite kind! Some of my favorites have included Zenia from Kinsale’s The Dream Hunter, Louise/Lulu from Ivory’s Beast, Deanie from Tabitha King’s One on One (Talk about prickly! She is far more so than Fallon) and I could go on. So my issue with Fallon isn’t that she is prickly or flawed, but rather that her characterization feels incomplete.
::blushing:: Thanks. It isn’t flawless but it’s nice to hear that it seems that way.
I agree it is harder the older you are, but as I stated above, my parents came to this country at age 35 and while they speak with an accent and their vocabulary isn’t as wide, their syntax does not reflect the fact they are immigrants. This to me was the problem with using a foreign language syntax to convey an accent in a book where the character is an immigrant who speaks the reader’s native tongue as his/her second language.
Cead made a good point and corrected me about the teen thing in comment #26. I do stand corrected on that, but I still can’t believe Max would speak with such a heavy French syntax.
The thing is that (though I stopped feeling this way a long time ago) when I first came to this country I didn’t want to integrate either. I missed my relatives and friends in Israel desperately. I missed the climate and the landscape. My parents had brought me here against my wishes and I even resented things like lush green trees and squirrels, simply because they represented all that was foreign to me. Things in the English language, like the ubiquity of the word “cross” offended me because I am not Christian. I could go on about how much I longed to go back to my homeland and how lonely and isolated I felt.
But none of that kept me from assimilating and integrating, or prevented me from picking up English grammar and syntax. That’s the thing about assimilation. Unless you live in an enclave of people from your country and don’t venture outside of it, so that all you hear is your native language, you cannot help but assimilate.
I don’t know if you read comment #26, but Cead, a linguistics PhD, explained at the bottom of her post that even a person who doesn’t converse will pick up on a new language just by listening when immersed in it. That was my experience also. I didn’t converse much when I first got here because I knew almost no English, but after three months here I had heard so much English that at night when asleep I started dreaming in English, rather than Hebrew. Even my thoughts switched languages soon after that.
Yes, it sounds that way. I want to make it clear that I did enjoy it, it was just a mixed bag of highly enjoyable parts and some parts that I could not enjoy at all.
Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. I hope you don’t mind the length of this comment, but you gave me a lot to think about.
@Joopdeloop: Thanks for the kind words on the review. I’m glad you enjoyed (and participated in) the discussion. I have enjoyed it too.
I would like to review it, but I can’t promise right now because I’ll be away from DA for two weeks in August and am also committed to doing two reviews in the near future for books I requested ARCs of from their publishers. After that, if I can swing purchasing Skin Game and Ruin Me, I really would like to read them. I wish those EC books weren’t so expensive on Amazon!
That would be me and congrats on a great review that spawned an even greater discussion. I like the way you articulated your problems with the character of Fallon. Honestly, I enjoyed her most when she was being rude for no other reason that that she was pissed about the entire situation she had gotten herself into. I do think Fallon’s characterization was more rote in nature, especially the tacked-on childhood issue. The set up with Forrester at the beginning made the whole story problematic but, if the initial set up and the denouement are the price I had to pay for the wonderful intimacy of the middle section, I’m quite okay with that. Also, there is potent fantasy in the idea of being loved by some sexy artistic genius simply because you’re you.
The explanation for Max’s syntax does seem strange and the story might have been better served by letting it just be Max being his malcontented self. I do know a lady, now in her 40s, who is originally from Puerto Rico. She has been living in the United States since her late teens and her accent, while noticeable, isn’t thick. Her syntax though, both in speech and in writing, is very difficult to follow. I suppose that different people react differently to learning new languages once they are past that magic native-speaking age. Even regional dialects within a language can take on syntax of their own. Unless the whole issue of syntax is a sticking point for you, you might enjoy reading Valerie by Joan Smith. The author, who taught French, does a masterful job with her character, Pierre St. Clair, who is so syntactically challenged and full of malapropisms that he appears to be speaking a separate language all his own. Smith doesn’t try to explain it away though and Pierre—or Peter, as he prefers to be called—is cheerfully oblivious to the fact that, no, he is not English nor does he sound English. It’s a gem of comedy and has playful fun with language. The premise would work just as well written by a French author with an Englishman who knows he is secretly French. It’s somewhat akin to White American teenagers who take on a faux British accent or speak like a homey.
On your problem with Ellora’s Cave. They do have DRM free mobipocket available on their website which should work on your Kindle. I can’t imagine why the authors for Ellora’s Cave haven’t staged a revolt over their pricing. It can’t be helping authors with their sales to have higher prices everywhere else, especially at the mighty Amazon.
@Meg Maguire: Meg, please don’t brand yourself. That would hurt, you know.