Spoiler: They Make Babies

The great experiment.

Posted in Romance Review by spoilerbaby on May 27, 2011

My Other of Some Significance (MOSS) is currently reading Slightly Dangerous, by Mary Balogh.  He is not, as they say, doing this especially for his health.  He’s reading the book because he has agreed to  do a podcast with me.  I chose a book that’s in my personal top ten.  (Balogh may be hit or rapey, but when she hits, she hits big with me.)  I chose one of my favorites because the purpose of the podcast is ostensibly to record a conversation between someone familiar with romance novel tropes (that would be me) and someone who has only minimal experience with the genre (him).  MOSS is not averse to romance novels, but since his experience with genre fiction is in sci-fi and fantasy, he’s coming to romances without any of the learned codes that have become near-instinct for me.

We already had a bit of a genre disconnect.  When I told MOSS about the book, I noted that it was part of a series.  MOSS hesitated and looked confused.  “A romance series,” I clarified.  He altered the degree of his eyebrow tilt, but did not look sufficiently illuminated. I explained that quite often, while books in a romance series are related, they are not precisely sequential.  Usually what constitutes a series is that the various heroes and heroines are somehow related to one another.  The previous book’s characters may show up to be happily wed and spawning in the next book, but that’s usually the extent of the continuity.

With that being said, here are the other titles in what I tend to refer to as the “Slightly series”:  Slightly Married, Slightly Wicked, Slightly Scandalous, Slightly Tempted, Slightly Sinful. (I didn’t say that my name for the series was imaginative.)

The books detail the marriages of the Bedwyn siblings.  In  Slightly Married, Lord Aidan Bedwyn, the second-born son, marries Eve Morris in order to save her estate, after promising her dying brother on the battlefield at Toulouse to take care of her no matter what.  In Slightly Scandalous, Joshua Moore (Marquess of Hallmere), takes a few punches to the nose from Freyja Bedwyn and lives to tell the married tale.  In Slightly Wicked, Judith Law is a parson’s daughter who pretends to be an actress, bangs Rannulf Bedwyn, and eventually marries him in spite of himself.  Slightly Tempted tells the story of Gervase Ashford (Earl of Rosthorn), who pursues Morgan Bedwyn to spite Wulfric, but ultimately falls in love.  Finally, Rachel York falls for Alleyne Bedwyn in Slightly Sinful, but does so while he has massive amnesia after a head trauma on the battlefield.

Slightly Dangerous, which tells the story of the eldest brother Wulfric Bedwyn, is my favorite of the series, with Slightly Scandalous running a close second.  These two novels are the strongest, in my opinion, because their female characters come the closest to real-life heroines.  They’re sharp, funny, and stubborn, and are neither perfect nor laughable.  In these novels, too, the woman of the pair is resistant to the man’s charms.  I’m interested to see what MOSS thinks of that.  It will probably just seem awfully familiar to the poor man.

Stay tuned for a link, which will come soon after we record the podcast.  And expect regular updates on Fridays each week!

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Update on updating, and a link.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on May 23, 2011

I know it’s been a while since I last updated. I think I’m going to put myself on a weekly schedule, so that this blog remains active. I’m also planning on doing a podcast with a friend of mine about romance novels, as an experiment. Consider yourself warned!

For now, though, I just have a link: at meloukhia.net, a straight-forward and sensible defense of chicklit as a genre.


Posted in Romance Review by firstmatejess on February 1, 2011

This Christmas, My Other of Some Significance (MOSS) included in his gifts a romance novel, which he had happened upon during a shopping trip at a superstore.  Purchasing romance novels for a fanatic can be a dicey process, since part of the pleasure of romance novels is whether or not they fulfill your particular interests.  I can read the heck out of a disability-themed novel (“I MAY BE A CRIPPLE, BUT YOU DON’T SEE ME CRYING ABOUT IT”), but I don’t have much patience for baby-themed books (“THIS BABY NEEDS A FATHER! I SURE HOPE A PENIS WANDERS OVER THIS WAY”).

Harlequin series romance is the most recognizable to the average non-romance reader, and it is statistically more likely to be baby-themed.1 Picking out a category romance is a far more difficult process, since non-romance readers aren’t familiar with the codes of romance publishing.  I can scan the spines of romances at the bookstore and have some idea of which ones are right for me.  To an average person, the array is bewildering, and the back copy seems all the same.

The book MOSS picked out, however, was a perfect gift; that is, it was something I wanted, but which I wouldn’t have bought for myself.  MOSS picked out J.R. Ward’s newest paperback,  Lover Mine; a reader of this blog had recommended that I check out Ward’s work, but I had yet to get around to it.  I ended up reading the book in two days. While I am a speedy reader, it’s still a positive sign when I finish a 600+ page book in less than a week.

Under the fold is a summary of the various plotlines of the book.   Caveats: Lover Mine is the last in a series, so there is a possibility of spoilers for the entire series; there are scenes of rape and imprisonment in the novel, which necessitate a trigger warning; and, finally, there are several vampire boners. Although if you have a problem with pointy-toothed men with raging boners you should just go away, because there’s nothing for you here.  Nothing.


Ladyparts be good! (Part 2.)

Posted in Romance Review by firstmatejess on May 26, 2010

In my first post on this subject, I wrote about Anna Campbell’s Untouched. Here, I’ll be discussing Georgina Gentry’s Diablo. This book is even MORE ridiculous than Untouched. One thing I’ll note, before I continue, is that there’s a lot of sexual assault mentioned and described in this book.  I have to mention some of it in my review, since it’s essential to the plotline.  This book (and as a result, this review) is one of those ones that deserves a trigger warning.

Ladyparts be good! (Part 1.)

Posted in Romance Review by firstmatejess on May 23, 2010

At a party this past weekend, the man my friend is dating was discussing romance novels with me.  I had admitted — as I have only recently begun admitting in person — that I read the dreaded things.  He expressed the usual surprise (with the usual soupçon of consternation) and asked, “So– are there good romance novels?”

I’ve gotten this question quite a few times before.  I’ve thought of so many answers, ranging from the obtuse to the snide.   In the moment, though, my answers always desert me.  “Oh, sure,” I said, “there’s lots!  There are even English professors who write romance novels.”  My cunning answers deserted me, in other words, and I was left with eager-to-please-itude.  Oh, please like my girly novels, despite their icky girliness!  THEY’RE BETTER THAN THE SUM OF THEIR (LADY)PARTS!

If I’d had any grasp on my brain or my tongue, I would have discussed what makes something good.  As with any genre, whether or not there are good romance novels really does depend on what you mean by ‘good.’  There are romance novels that I would recommend to anyone with an easy heart and a clear conscience, because they feature interesting plots, evocative writing, and funny bits. (Funny bits are very much required, in my thinking.)  Even if we agree on these characteristics, though, there will be debate about whether or not the book actually fulfills the requirements, because someone won’t like it. That’s really the whole phenomenon of popular aesthetics, right there: “I love this shit therefore it is SUBLIME and sublime is GOOD and therefore this shit I love is GOOD.”

More often than not, the romance novels I read are in a murky area of ‘good’ness.  A book might be nicely structured, well-written, funny, well-researched, fascinating, but because the plot is constructed out of High Dramatics, I can’t quite recommend it to your casual man-acquaintance.  Sometimes the book doesn’t have a damn thing to recommend it beyond its High Dramatics, and I hide the cover when I read it on the train.  Yet I find both kinds of books ‘good.’  What these kinds of romance novels have, what makes them good, is indulgence.

These kinds of books exist in every genre.  My Other of Some Significance is currently reading a novel in the fantasy genre that is indulgent to the extreme: the hero is a poor orphan who turns out to be a prodigy in magic.  The prodigy undergoes intense trials, of course, but he emerges victorious with a snappy comeback on his lips.  MOSS is loving this book.  These books might be embarrassing, after all, and you might not recommend them to your friends, but you can churn through them like a box of Ding Dongs.

I’ve read two highly indulgent romances recently.  The first is Anna Campbell’s Untouched, which I took out from the local library, and which I will cover in this post. The second is Georgina Gentry’s Diablo, which will have its own post.  If you continue below the fold, be prepared for spoilers! Millions of spoilers! DUDE THEY TOTALLY HAVE SEX AND MAKE BABIES– oh, sorry, forgot to put in the break.


Ripping bodices at unbelievable speeds.

Posted in General Talk by firstmatejess on May 15, 2010

My god, it’s been a little while, hasn’t it?  Well, I’m going to try to make up for it in the coming month.  And one way to make up for it?  Read lots and lots of romance novels.  (My life is deliriously hard.)

I’m something of a speed-reader.  It’s not a skill I developed consciously; I didn’t take a class or read a book on the subject.  I just read quickly.  How quickly?  If I’m really clicking along, I can read up to three decent-size (200 page) novels a day, which I learned during my comprehensive exams.  Those are Serious Business Novels, though, on which I planned to take a Serious Business Exam.  What I don’t know for certain is how many romance novels I can read in one day.  Generally I don’t take exams on those, and I bet I could read a lot more of them.  I want to find  out!

The only question I have for myself is what constitutes a “day.”  And because nothing is official unless it’s been voted on by others:

If you have another suggestion for some element of this “experiment,” post it in the comments!


Posted in General Talk by firstmatejess on April 5, 2010

Reader M.W. recently sent me a little box, packed to the brim with slim Signet and Harlequin volumes.  I’d never read category romance before.  With a hand-picked selection, though, how could I resist?  I’ve been gobbling them up at a breakneck speed — I’ve read five of them since March 19th, in between reading regular mass-market romances and writing my dissertation — and absolutely loving the indulgence.

Category romances distill the appeal of the romance novel.  Instead of attempting to appeal to a broad crowd through nuanced interpersonal interactions, category romances go straight for the prize.  A category romance is likely to give you a heroine who is soundly abused by her family and friends, but who maintains a flabbergasting meekness in the face of it.  One of the romances I recently read, The Youngest Dowager, had a heroine who believed that assault was normal during sex.  Yes!  I know!  AMAZING!

Since these books are thin, I can read them even more quickly than I do regular romances.  It goes even faster, because the books rely on well-trodden tropes of historical romance.  The minute a “gypsy” shows up, I know there’s going to be some brooding, or at the very least some Gypsy Superpowers.  I can fly right over the words, secure in the knowledge that everything is as it always is.

It’s that last phrase, thought idly to myself mid-read, that made me realize just how much these books rely on stereotypes to support their narrative.  The maids are plucky and friendly and Irish, for example, because the heroine needs her hair fixed and a confidant who won’t blab to the ton.  It reminded me of the point I’ve made to my students time and again: stereotypes serve a narrative purpose in our lives.  One of the benefits of reading these romances is that it makes visible to me the stereotypes I rely on or am encouraged to rely on as a white middle-class woman.  I may not be the ideal reader of these romances, after all, but I belong to the intended group.

So, because I am categorically incapable of taking things seriously, I made bingo cards featuring the tropes of historical romances.  Before you look at my frivolous offerings, though, check out these bingo cards based on conversations about marginalized groups:

Now, without further ado, Historical Romance Bingo cards:


Love me, love my “primitives.”

Posted in Romance Review by firstmatejess on March 27, 2010
Bad dog, no biscuit.

Jennifer Crusie's Cinderella Deal.

I had to give a presentation to a non-profit group recently, on contemporary gender theory and feminism. I pulled a pair of nylons out of my drawer, realized they had foot smudges on them, and carefully pulled them on so that the foot smudges were on the bottom of my feet again.

This scene is reminiscent of a lot of what’s called “chick lit”: a woman doing femininity, but doing it badly. While Jennifer Crusie writes for the same purposes as a lot of chick lit — for a long time she was shelved in the fiction section at my local Borders, same as The Devil Wears Prada — her heroines are absolute failures at femininity. They wear bizarre outfits, don’t want to have children, pack on extra pounds, leave their successful career to try to be an artist, and take in stray dogs. They’re usually a little miserable.

What appeals about the heroine who does femininity badly is that she’s still part of normal society, but I can relate to her. Crusie’s heroines are different. If they could just be a little different — a little more typically feminine or a little more tough-skinned — they could really make it. As it is, though, they’re just barely getting by.

I am a unremitting sucker for this narrative, as those of you who’ve met me might imagine. My daily life is less about smudgy stockings and more about making dirty jokes at staff meetings. (Goats are hilarious, and yet no one laughs at my goats-in-thongs jokes. What gives?)


Comedically romantic.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on March 20, 2010

I love a certain type of romantic comedy.  Lately the rom-coms on offer from Hollywood haven’t quite rung my bell, though; they’re all about an uppity woman getting put in her place, like Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or Jennifer Aniston in the execrable-looking Bounty Hunter.

There have been a few promotional trailers out and about that look promising to me, though.  Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman star in an adaptation of a Jeffrey Eugenides short story entitled The Switch:

Hortense at Jezebel observes that this is probably going to be mediocre and predictable — especially based on the standard rom-com trailer — but at least it made me smile, which is more than the trailers of Aniston’s other rom-coms did.

And of course there’s Date Night, starring Steven Carrell and the inimitable Tina Fey:

Which I pray will be at least semi-decent.

Have you seen any promising trailers lately?  Or did I miss an amazing romantic comedy in the recent past?

Heaven forfend!

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on March 16, 2010

Nicholas Sparks recently gave an interview with USA Today, putatively addressing his most recent book-to-movie transition, Last Song.  The interview begins, however, with the line, “Nicholas Sparks has no love for people who call his stories ‘romances.'”

“If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section,” he says toward the end of a long conversation. Sunshine streams in from Sunset Boulevard. He’s smiling. Hard.

“I don’t write romance novels.” His preferred terminology: “Love stories — it’s a very different genre. I would be rejected if I submitted any of my novels as romance novels.”

This would  explain why I don’t enjoy Nicholas Sparks’ “love stories.”  I always thought it was because they were treacly pap with pain-pornography, but it’s because they’re not part of my preferred genre!

Later in the interview, Sparks snottily distinguishes his work — authentically emotional drama — from melodrama.  The origin of melodrama, however, was in authentically emotional drama.  If you look at the history of sentimental fiction (see, for example, Jane Tompkins’s work, or read more here), it was dominated by women, and it was meant to provoke tears and emotional responses on the part of readers.  It was supposed to be popular.  Ideally, it was even supposed to effect political change (see the well-known example of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).  Romance is one child of domestic fiction; sentimental drama is another.  Sparks seems intent on denying any familial resemblance.

It’s a very gender-defined move.  “Sentimental” and “romance” are now associated with women, even though it wasn’t always so.  Even worse, “sentimental” and “romance” are seen as sub-par, weak, and superficial.  So instead of comparing himself to romance authors, Sparks compares his work to Greek tragedy.  It’s not only to save (manly) face, though.  It’s a smart business decision, although Sparks only alludes to it.  After all, as he says, his work would have been rejected if he had submitted it as romance.  Romance is a gated community, and publishers, booksellers, and even readers are careful to monitor its borders.

He has one weirdly interesting observation:

“(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You’ve got a woman, she’s down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he’s got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.”

It appears that he’s read a romance or two.  Bad ones, mind you, but apparently he’s read them.  If he hadn’t read any romances, he wouldn’t dismiss the whole genre like that.  Right?  Right!

Kudos to The Pursuit of Harpyness for the link.

— First Mate Jess

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