Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Three on a Theme: Romance Novels for Outlander Fans

For some completely incomprehensible reason, Season 3 of Outlander is currently on a 2-week hiatus, so I thought I'd post a few Outlander-esque romance novels to get us all through this mini-drought. 

You can also use these as alternatives to actually reading the Outlander books, if you love the TV show but also don't want to directly give Diana Gabaldon your time and money, given the way she bites the romance-reading hand that feeds her

All three of the recommendations here are rich in history, setting, characterisation and plot. Two are set - or partially set - in Scotland, while the last incorporates the time-travel element but has an enticingly different setting. 



In terms of content, Midnight Honor is by far the closest to Jamie-era Outlander, as it features the Forty-Five Jacobite Rebellion (including Culloden, just in case your heart hasn't been ripped out enough already!). It's a poignant romance based on the true story of Lady Anne Moy, and her husband Angus, chief of Clan Chattan: he fought for the British, and she for the Jacobites. I suppose because it's set in the same difficult time, it has that same sense of hard-won and potentially transitory HFN/HEA as Outlander (although there is a definite HEA here, don't worry), as do the other two books in the same series, The Pride of Lions and The Blood of Roses



2. Highland Rebel by Judith James
Highland Rebel is set during the Glorious Revolution when the Stuart King James II was deposed in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William. While campaigning in Scotland, English spy Jamie Sinclair marries Highland lass Catherine Drummond to keep her safe. As the Revolution unfolds, Jamie and Cat must navigate shifting political and religious alliances, as well as the finer points of their marriage. Jamie can be a bit of an alpha-hole at times, but it has the same saga-like feeling as Outlander, as well as the Scottish and Stuart elements. 



3. Beautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown
Since the previous two have adhered pretty closely to Outlander's Scottish setting, Beautiful Wreck is a bit of an outlier. But it has time-travel and a very Gothic, slow-burn vibe that I find very reminiscent of the first season of the TV show. It's set between the 22nd century, and 10th century Iceland, with the heroine being thrown back in time as she tests a machine that simulates the past. Brown conveys the harsh life and inhospitable environment faced by the early Icelandic settlers extremely well, as well as the sense of adapting to a new life. 

If anyone else has some more suggestions for Outlander-esque romances, hit me up! I'd love to hear from you. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Overview: September Reading

Books read in September: 25
Books read YTD: 181

Fiction Titles: 

  • 24 (11 historical romance, 7 contemporary romance, 5 speculative fiction romance)

Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 1 (History)

Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Settings

  • Beauiful Wreck by Larrisa Brown - this does double duty with cool settings. First is an futuristic Earth, where people are grouped by which era of the past they choose to emulate. Then the heroine is accidently sent back in time to 10th century Iceland, where the weather and isolation make for hard living. The whole thing feels wonderfully Gothic. 
  • Deep Diving by Cate Ellink - short, cute story about two professional athletes who meet while on holiday on Australia's Lord Howe Island. 
  • A Queen from the North by Erin McRae and Racheline Maltese - Set in a alternate England where the Yorkist/Lancastrian enmity of the War of the Roses continues into the present day. A young woman of the Yorkist nobility is given the opportunity to marry the Prince of Wales (although I'm not sure that title still holds) and thus improve the lives of Northerners. There were some elements of worldbuilding that I questioned, or that didn't quite work for me, but it was fun and inventive nonetheless.
  • Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis - Another alternate England this time based on the premise that Boudicea fought off the Romans and established a world in which women deal with politics, and men with magic.

Kick-ass Characters

  • A Taste of Honey by Rose Lerner - I've consistently loved the way this series shines a spotlight on the lives of Regency-era middle and lower classes, but Betsy and Robert struck a particular chord. They had very different ways of approaching everyday business concerns, and watching them figure this - and each other - out both charming and poignant. 
  • Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis - After losing her magic in an attempt to prove herself worthy, Cassandra is adrift, but by no means powerless.

From the Internet this Month


Romance
Other Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry

Other Media

Women & Feminism


Weird, Wacky and Wonderful

Monday, 25 September 2017

Review: Yuletide Truce by Sandra Schwab

3 stars
I received an ARC of this book from the A Novel Take PR (on behalf of the author) in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.



Yuletide Truce was a short and sweet m/m Christmas novella. As always, Schwab builds an excellent sense of time and place, but I wish that the romance had been a little bit more drawn out.

Bookseller Alan "Aigee" Garmond loves the Christmas season, but Christopher Foreman's scathing comments in About Town magazine about Aigee's humble book reviews are putting a damper on his mood. Foreman's antipathy upsets Aigee, but, when an incident occurs that strips both men of their defences, it provides an opportunity for the two men to call a Christmas truce, one that has the possibility to turn into something more.

Schwab is extremely talented at breathing life into the everyday world of her characters. Here, that's the Victorian middle-classes, and there were lots of small moments that brought me unexpected enjoyment: Aigee's reminiscences of his life as an apprentice, the descriptions of illustrations from an English translation of the Brothers Grimm, and a reference to the knocker-upper. 

An awareness of class underlies the whole novella, as Aigee doesn't feel completely at home in either the bourgeoisie literary world in which he works, or the world of the rookery where he grew up. 

While this sense of being caught between two worlds was poignant, I felt as though it was undermined by the lack of conflict in the men's developing romance. Despite the enemies-to-lovers trope, after the men's initial on-page meeting, there was very little tension between the characters, or resistance to a relationship. It all came a bit too easy, with almost no groveling on Foreman's part, or grudge-holding on Aigee's. 

That said, the lack of angst means that it fills a certain niche within the genre: everyone needs an easy, feel-good romance at times - particularly at Christmas, when many people are dealing with conflict-heavy or fraught family situations - and Yuletide Truce fills that need perfectly. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Overview: July and August Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Soo...what are the chances anyone would believe that I follow the pre-Julian Roman calendar, and that's why July didn't get its monthly overview, and absolutely nothing was posted during August? Because that sounds way better than 'I got really busy with real life and had to put the blog on the backburner'. Even as I apologise for that and tell you that I'm back now, the truth is that my blogging will probably continue to be sporadic over the next few months, as I face the unenviable but unavoidable task of finishing my thesis.

To avoid the last two months being completely lost, I'm combining their monthly round-ups here, in a slightly more abbreviated form than usual. On the upside, after months of reading relatively little, the vagaries of real life seem to have bolstered my reading, and I'm back on track for meeting my goal of 200 books in the Goodreads Reading Challenge. August also saw a lot of comfort re-reading, which is quicker than reading a book for the first time, making the total for that month is unusually high.

Books read in July: 26
Books read in August: 33
Books read YTD: 156

Fiction Titles (July): 
  • 24 (17 contemporary romance, 3 historical romance, 1 fantasy romance, 2 romance anthologies)

Fiction Titles (August): 
  • 32 (18 historical romance, 13 contemporary romances, 1 steampunk romance)

Non-Fiction Titles (July): 
  • 2 (1 history, 1 urban studies)

Non-Fiction Titles (August): 
  • 1 (Mythography)

Noteworthy Novels

Contemporary

Historical

Noteworthy Non-Fiction

Noteworthy Settings & Sense of Place

  • Safe Passage by Carla Kelly - set in Mexico during the Revolution, although readers should be aware that it centres the experiences of white Mormon colonists.
  • Freedom to Love by Susanna Fraser - touching and sweeping romance between a British officer and a woman of the gens de couleur libres during the War of 1812.
  • Starlight by Carrie Lofty - Incredible sense of place in working-class Glasgow, where mill owner meets one of his factory workers.

Kick-ass Characters

  • Starlight by Carrie Lofty - Unionist, factory-worker heroine Polly is not here for your bourgeoisie shit. 
  • Saving Mr. Perfect by Tamara Morgan - ex-jewel thief Penelope at a loose end now that her husband has put the nix on her career, and watching her and Grant trying to grope towards a new, happy life together is surprisingly poignant, partly because they are both so kick-ass in their respective fields. 
  • Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne - Sevie - sister of an infamous French spy, adopted daughter of an infamous English spy - was never not going to be awesome. See also: all of Joanna Bourne's other heroines. 
  • Rouge Desire Anthology - The heroes and heroines we need - but probably don't deserve - in these dark times. 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Review: Famous by Jenny Holiday

4 stars
I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. My opinion is my own.


Jenny Holiday is one of the masters of the genre when it comes to earnest and heartwarming romances with considerate and self-aware heroes, and heroines who are strong, independent and - sometimes - a little emotionally closed-off. 

In her latest book, Famous, she tackles the rock-star romance, but flips the script: instead of the trope's traditional and much-loved jaded and world-weary rock-star hero, we have an art historian hero, and it's the Taylor-Swiftesque heroine who is worn out by her fame, and the pressure her managers place on her to keep churning out hit after hit. 

When Evan and Emmy first meet at a wedding, Evan is dealing with the fallout of his father's high-profile conviction for art fraud, while Emmy is about to move to Los Angeles to try and make it as a singer. As they part ways, he tells her: let me know if there is ever anything I can do for you

Seven years later and Emmy is Emerson Quinn, one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She's meant to be writing her next album, and her managers - deciding she should abandon her teenage fanbase and skew towards an older demographic - have hired "co-writers" to write her songs. Worn-out and unable to work in the conditions her managers insist on, Emmy escapes to the man who once offered her help.

Emmy shows up on Evan's doorstep at a precarious time for him. He's trying to make tenure at his small Midwestern college, and his family's background means he can't afford even a hint of scandal, let alone a big-name pop star hiding out in his house. But he also sees Emerson's vulnerability, and in the end he can't turn her away. As Emmy, with her new, anonymous look of sunglasses, baggy clothes and badly dyed hair, makes changes around Evan's house and charms the townsfolk, Evan finds it harder and harder to accept that this is Emmy's "Summer of No Men" before she returns to the high-paced pop star life. 

In some ways, Famous is what I think of as a quiet romance. This has to do with the levels and presentation of angst or conflict, and also the way main characters support one another, and are mindful of the other's wellbeing and emotional state. Both Evan and Emmy were vulnerable in their own ways: Evan is still dealing with the emotional legacy of his father's actions and how these affect his present and future, while Emmy is struggling with her lack of self-determination in her career.

On the other hand, the sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop - for Emmy to be recognised, for their idyllic time together to come to an end - but not knowing how this would come about, was incredibly suspenseful. It offset the domesticity of Evan and Emmy's life together well, and was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

I also loved the way Emmy related to her teenaged fans, and the teenaged characters in the book. It was refreshing to see teenagers' opinions being treated as legitimate, as opposed to the subject of scorn. 

Overall, Famous was a cute and well-done small-town-slash-rock-star romance. It was close to being a favourite within each of those tropes. Partially, that's because I'm not a big reader of either, but it's also because I'm yet to meet a Jenny Holiday book I haven't enjoyed, even if this wasn't amongst my very favourites. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Review: Sight Unseen Anthology

Multiple ratings


The concept of this anthology was that well-known romance authors would each write a story outside of their usual genre, but their name would not be attached to it until some time after publication, leaving the reader to guess which author wrote which story. I thought the concept was clever and was executed well - although I am pretty sure I know the author of one story, I can only make guesses at the rest. 

Even though I auto-buy three of the five authors included in this anthology (Thomas, Barry and Satie), and regularly also read and enjoy Duran's books, I found the majority of stories (3/5) just okay. I've been thinking about this: on one hand, it's very common for anthologies to be a bit of a mixed bag, while, on the other, I think the experimental nature of the anthology could also be a contributing factor. Not having the authors name attached to their work means there's a lack of confirmation bias, because the reader can't go in thinking: 'I've loved all of this author's previous work, surely I will love this as well' and is thus more critical than they might otherwise be.

Nonetheless, I think that Sight Unseen is full of quick, interesting reads, and contains something for everyone, except maybe readers who heavily lean towards historical romance. The novelty factor also adds something fun and unique to the reading experience. 

Lost that Feeling - 3 stars
Before being captured as the leader of a rebellion, Alma used her magic to wipe her memory. When her fellow rebels break her out of the prison where she has been kept, she must relearn her place in this underground movement against the King, and begins to question her motives her wiping her memory, and her relationship to Driss, the man who helped her escape. 

Objectively, the world-building in Lost that Feeling was great. I'm sure most people would have enjoyed it more than I did, but I have very been particularly interested in the kind classical fantasy setting that appears here. Given a strong romance arc - like in Grace Draven's work - I can sometimes let myself go and enjoy such settings, but there were only the slightest hints of romance between Alma and Driss. Having said that, I did like the open and hopeful ending, which reminded me of the teasing ending of a prequel novella, before the book actually dedicated to unravelling the hero and heroine's relationship.

A Clear View of You - 3 stars
Kate works as a psychic to pay off her student debts, even though she hates it and the whole thing is obviously bogus. But then North shows up, offering her an obscene amount of money if she'll use her 'skills' to help him locate an object. 

As a Fey, North knows that Kate has no psychic talent, but what she does have is a mother who is meddling with powers beyond her control. He needs Kate's help to gain entrance to the compound where her mother's so-called 'coven' live, and take back a Fey orb whose power is being misused, before it is too late.

Again, I liked the world-building and backstory of this one more than the romance. Kate has issues from growing up with a hippy mother who believes she is a witch, and just wants to lead a normal life. North is more of an enigma as a character, but the differentiation between the mundane and fey worlds were well-explained and -constructed. However, I wasn't convinced by the romance arc, and feel like the story would have benefited from being a bit longer, or having a bit more characterisation on North's part. 

Free - 3 stars
In small-town Montana, Wren's father and uncle run the local second-hand car dealership and a motorcycle club. She's sure that the club just a social thing for bored guys for like motorbikes and wearing leather jackets until the dealership's dorky part-time accountant, clues her into some suspicious stuff on the books. 

Brad has had it bad for Wren for ages, but she's the town's unofficial first daughter, not to mention the on-again/off-again relationship with one of the guys in the motorcycle club. But when he accidentally lets Wren in on what's going on behind the scenes, assuming she was already in the know, she begins to make her own investigations, and needs someone to turn to when she uncovers something unpleasant. 

Heroes in motorcycle clubs are currently all the rage, and Free used this trope in a creative way that I really appreciated. Making it MC-adjacent meant that the reader doesn't have to tackle the moral greyness or suspension of disbelief involved when the hero is actually a biker. The story was also very well written and paced. I considered giving it a higher ranking, but didn't, because Wren's portrayal of the dumb-blonde-with-smokin'-body portrayal rankled. There's nothing inherently sexist about it - in fact, it is a good example of Butler's concept of performative gender, but it was continually a point of focus in a way that centred the male gaze, and it dampened my enjoyment of the whole thing a bit. 

Chariot of Desire - 3.5 stars
The 70's were good to the legendary band Donjon, but as the 1980's roll around, the rock'n'roll lifestyle has taken its toll. Lead singer Donny has joined a Christian sect, and is thus unwilling to sing any of their backlist that contains immoral themes. So, basically, all of it. With the stress on the band reaching breaking point, Donny turns to the band's drummer, CJ, as they try to find a balance between Donny's religion and demons, CJ's standoffishness and the good of the band.

I found Chariot of Desire interesting and different, for a number of reasons. There's the mid-to-late 20th century setting (which I think is massively underused in romance), the use of religion and sectism and the fact that the main characters are past their prime and live (or lived) for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. As with other stories in the anthology, there is an open ending without a definitive HFN or HEA, but for some reason it worked slightly better for me here, perhaps because it would have been too much of an about-face for the characters to commit to a relationship together. 

The Heart is a Universe - 5 stars
Every generation, on the planet of Pax Cara, a child is chosen and raised with the knowledge that, when they grow up, they will be a sacrifice to the old gods. With less than a month left until she must sacrifice herself, Vitalis is looking for a way out. A hero in his own right, Eleian of Terra Illustrata has watched the media coverage of Vitalis for many years. When they meet at an official function, he makes her a public offer of marriage. She accepts, but both of them are hiding things from the other, and the day of the sacrifice is growing ever closer. 

The Heart is a Universe was the anthology's stand-out story for me. The world-building, characterisation and plot were all amazing, and it several times it went in directions I genuinely did not expect. It has an unconventional HEA, and if someone else had told me about it, I would have scoffed and denied that anyone could ever pull that off, but somehow, the author does. 

Also, for those of you taking part it July's #RomBkLove on Twitter or elsewhere, yesterday's theme was "favourite Virgin Hero/Heroine", and many of us talked about our love for virgin heroes, and made some suggestions. I forgot to mention Eleian, but he is an awesome virgin hero, and I love the way this is worked into the story.

Concluding Thoughts
Looking back on what I've written, it strikes me that Sight Unseen is not just experimental in form, but is also pushing the romance boundaries in other ways, particularly in the way many of the endings do not fit genre conventions surrounding the HEA/HFN. That makes me feel bad about critiquing them, or - more accurately - critiquing some and accepting others. But I'm all about the HEA. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Overview: June Reading

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown


Books read in June: 19
Books read YTD: 93

Fiction Titles: 

  • 16 (9 contemporary romance, 5 historical romance, 1 paranormal romance, 1 romance anthology)

Non-Fiction Titles: 
  • 2 (History)

Other:
  • 1 Poetry

Noteworthy Novels


Noteworthy Non-Fiction



Noteworthy Settings


Kick-ass Characters

  • Small Change by Roan Parrish  - Heroine Ginger is not good at letting people get close, and it's lovely to see a spiky heroine and the hero who loves her.
  • The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian - the way the heroes were kind, caring and thoughtful to each other was absolutely my catnip.

From the Internet this Month


Romance
Literature, Craft and the Publishing Industry

Other Media

Women & Feminism

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