Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fiction | A Proper Kind of Romance

When I discovered last month that it was Read-A-Romance Month and hatched my plan to introduce myself to the genre, I didn’t really consider the fact that the book I was reading at that particular moment was, in fact, a romance.

I would have never guessed, because Julianne Donaldson’s Edenbrooke isn’t a romance of the shirtless cover, steamy sex variety. In fact, its publisher, Shadow Mountain, used this title to debut its new line of romances dubbed “A Proper Romance.” (Guess Shadow Mountain isn’t as entertained by the creative use of impassioned adjectives as I am…) No matter, Edenbrooke is a perfectly fine novel, more in line with a Jane Austen-type love story than the sultry, seductive kind.

This was one of my few grabs at BEA last year when I was sick as a dog, and I picked it up for its historical, English countryside setting. Marianne is our heroine—a girl going stir crazy in Bath, living with a grandmother who disapproves of her independent, atypical ways. Marianne basically thinks the world she lives in is ridiculous. Women are expected to be meek and mild, preen for a husband, follow a designated path rather than live their own lives; and she wants no part of it. Marianne’s twin sister Cecily is basically her exact opposite—everything a woman of the times “should” be. Cecily’s been spending her time at a sprawling country estate called Edenbrooke, hatching a plan to marry the estate’s hier. When she invites her sister to Edenbrooke for a stay, Marianne jumps at the chance to get out of Bath and enjoy the countryside she so deeply loves, fully intending to keep to herself and stay far, far away from Cecily’s mission.

But of course plans go awry.

Marianne’s coach gets robbed by a highwayman. This somewhat obnoxious but dashing stranger keeps showing up. And Marianne generally feels that her entire way of being will both disgrace her grandmother and keep her single for life. But of course, I promised a romance with this post, so of course that “obnoxious but dashing stranger” plays a bigger role!

This story is really about Marianne, a very young woman (late teens, I think?), growing up and making peace with what’s expected of her and what she wants. She’s a likable character to follow as she navigates her place in the world. This is a “pretty” romance, with an idyllic setting and plot twists that entertain without overwhelming. And, following what I learned about Romance novels, you can rest assured everything will work out in the end.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Revisiting Potter, Part 1: The Sorcerer’s Stone

Since my Anne of Green Gables re-read is mostly over (I’ll get to the last two eventually…), I decided to start a fun new one. I discovered that the entire Harry Potter series is available in eBook format for checkout from my home city’s library, and this seemed like a fun re-reading project mixed in with my class readings for this, my last, semester of grad school! I read the Harry Potter series as it came out, but I usually confuse one with another and don’t remember details very well. I’ve been wanting to do a HP movie marathon for a long time (I haven’t seen them all), but that’s to be saved for a cold, rainy day. A reading project felt like something fun to do in the meantime!

I remember the summer when I was 15 and I heard buzz about this series called Harry Potter. (Where did I hear this buzz? Social media didn’t exist; I didn’t work at the library yet; and I was the bookworm that talked about books. Where could I have possibly heard about it?) I picked up the first two in the series from the library and quickly sped through them as I was visiting my sister who lived in Tampa at the time. The third had been recently released and I got my sis to drive me to Barnes & Noble to pick it up; I just couldn’t wait until I was home to read it. Since then, I read the rest of the series as it was released. It was always something to look forward to, yet something you always knew would have a definite conclusion. I remember when the series was finished (in both book and movie format), it felt very weird to be in a world that didn’t have a new Harry Potter on the horizon.

Anyway, this re-read of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is much how I remembered it; there was no new perspective on the second go-around, no new revelations reading as an adult instead of an adolescent. I think this is a wonderful introduction to the series. It’s full of action and humor; it has well-drawn characters that we feel we know after just one short book.

It’s hard to separate this introduction to Harry Potter’s world from the rest of the stories that follow, that we’re so used to. But this paints a clear picture of that world that’s easy to get lost in—the rest of the books just build upon it. I remember, upon seeing the first movie, that so much of the visuals were so similar to how I pictured it in my head. That’s a testament to how well this world is created on paper.

There are so many wonderful little tidbits contained in the pages of this book (and all the others). From the wonderful little drawings at the beginning of each chapter (that thankfully translated to the eBook version, as well!) to the profound musings summed up in thoughtful one-liners. Such as: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” And: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” And the story is funny. The characters are colorful; the writing is witty.

I’ve always appreciated how, much like Betsy-Tacy, this series ages along with its characters and its readers. What starts off as a fairly simple action-adventure grows increasingly complex, in both plot and with its characters, as the series continues. Looking back, you can see that Harry Potter always had this potential. Book One is simple but it has much more than just a plot; it sets the stage for what’s to come. Onward and upward we go!

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Romance Virgin’s First Time

[I fully intended to get this post out while it was still August but alas, that did not happen. Forgive me for the slight untimeliness of this!]

I got an email a few weeks ago that August is Read-A-Romance Month, and my interest was piqued; I’ve never read a romance before. I’d argue it’s one of the most popular AND most stereotyped genres of literature, but I’d never experienced it for myself. In my thesis class last semester, one fellow student did her research project on the changing face of the characters in romance novels. She analyzed the characteristics—physical features, background, economic status—of both the men and women to see if there is any change historically (from the 1980s to now) and across romance genre (historical, fantasy, etc).

Her answer, in a nutshell, was no. While details like background and economic class may vary, the vast majority of women are still saved by men; the men are still handsome. Ultimately, romances are formulaic; they always end happily, with the lovers (figuratively, sometimes literally) riding off into the sunset together. And that’s probably why romance readers love them so much (heck, it’s my general preference in stories, as well); no matter what happens throughout, there’s going to be a happy ending.

So, on top of getting this timely email about Read-A-Romance Month, a random copy of a romance mysteriously appeared on my office floor, getting passed around from desk to desk. It was like the stars had aligned, and the universe was offering me the chance to pop my proverbial Romance cherry. So I said yes.

The book in question was called The Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran. Its cover featured that stereotypically shirtless male chest of Romance novels, leading me to think, This is already the perfect book for this reading project! Duran, I learned, is new to the Romance-writing world (or at least was in 2008)—this is her Romance debut. I didn’t have much idea of the plot upon turning to page one, nor did I really care. I know Romance as a genre is stereotyped, but darn it, I wanted to read that stereotype. My only real thought was…This better have some good sex! I didn’t want a mild intro to Romance!

The plot of The Duke of Shadows was actually much more complex than I had expected. This would be categorized as historical romance, taking place in India during British occupation. Emmaline is our heroine that has already skirted death once and now finds herself amidst escalating rebellion and violence. A potentially violent encounter introduces her to Julian, a charming (duh!), handsome (of course!), mysterious (obviously!) man who seems to have more to him below the surface (all the charming, mysterious ones do!). The rest of the novel, to sum it up rather quickly because this post is getting rather long, follows their stories, both together and separate, from India back to Britain as they must each make peace with their pasts.

The story itself was intriguing and complex…and detailed! Yes, it had the steamy sex (thank goodness!) but it also had violence! Parts were shocking and dark and, though of course there’s a happy ending, the whole story didn’t fall victim to that sugarcoating. I’ll have to read more to find out of that’s common or if I got the fluke Romance that featured a sudden, random beheading.

I enjoyed this well enough as an entertaining read, and overall, I get it. I get the appeal of Romance, and I am constantly impressed with how devoted a fan base it attracts. Like anything else, different stories appeal to different people because we all have different interests. My outlook on books is that there is no right or wrong, or bad or good. As long as you’re reading.