Reading Recommendations

BBQ, hooligans, high fantasy, and - yes - more romances.

First things first, an update on my romance reading challenge.

For newcomers: I’m reading 30-odd award-winning romances and doing some spurious analyses of the values they reinforce.

Dee Holmes’ Black Horse Island (1991, RITA Winner): Keely has inherited her father’s (titular) island, which is a camp for troubled youf. She has thirty days to prove herself, and that means she needs (for reasons?) a Man, and the right Man is Jed (JED!). Jed was a troubled youf himself, but, thanks to a successful stint at Black Horse Island and some meaningful man-time with Keely’s pa, Jed’s grown up. He’s now an emotionally-repressed man with no fixed address, no meaningful connections in society, a criminal record, a serious alcohol problem, and (seemingly) no underwear. Yet he’s apparently exactly the Positive Role Model that the youf need. Keely, with her emotional stability, multiple degrees, professional training and ovaries is obviously completely incapable of doing this herself.

The youf are actually more interesting than the adults in this one, which isn’t saying much, as that’s a very, very low bar. Keely and Jed paw one another and then decide that they’re in love (or always have been) and… ok. It is not great, on many levels, and even the steamy scenes are on the hilarious side of awful. After this inauspicious beginning, Dee Holmes went gone on to sell millions of copies of her other books, so I guess the RITA voters saw something in this that I didn’t. Values on display? I’ve said this is mostly about ‘Helpfulness’. Keely and Jed have … few … traits to build on, but this is a book about volunteering and getting stuck in.

Megan Chance’s A Candle in the Dark (1994, RITA Winner): Ana is a high-class prostitute in a late 1800s(?) New York brothel. Cain is - was - a doctor, and is now a full-time alcoholic (what is with the drinking in the early 1990s!?). Ana needs to flee to California, because she just killed a man, and believes that having a fake husband is the disguise that she, a striking woman with a distinctive accent and memorable beauty, will need. Cain has nothing better to do, so signs on as long as she provides unlimited bourbon.

As much as I like the fake marriage / marriage of convenience trope, I really dislike the battle with addiction trope, and, ultimately, this is about the latter. At the risk of going a bit r/relationship_advice, love is not all you need; sometimes counselling and modern therapeutic practices are necessary. The need for the ‘marriage’ goes out the window really quickly as the couple lustily yomp through the Panamanian jungle, and without that scrawny plothook, this descends into a dull yarn about two self-loathing people. It isn’t even particularly steamy. Values: Absolutely about Salvation and Self-Control.

Elizabeth Elliott’s The Warlord (1996, RITA Winner): Another historical with a marriage of convenience as the core conceit. Tess marries the ferocious Kenric because blah blah medieval politics. But beneath the pillar of scowling muscle that is ‘The Butcher of Wales’ is, uh, well, another pillar of muscle. Winkity nudge.

Unlike A Candle in the Window, the previous medieval historical with a marriage of convenience as its core conceit, Warlord tries very hard to not be anachronistic, and there’s no attempt to establish, say, the equality of the sexes. Kenric is in charge of everything, and Tess is damn grateful for it. When Tess does try to accomplish something on her own, she generally fails. (And when she succeeds, Kenric still finds a way to put her back in a box.) I don’t like alpha males or the trembling virgin trope and, yet, somehow, this book succeeded in being pretty fun. Tess deserves better, but, within the boundaries of the hand-wavey historical context, they’re sort of cute?

Values: This is one that’s actually about achieving Happiness. The two leads both believe they’re doing the right thing by getting married (and their other schemes and plots), and are going about it to the best of their ability. They never consider that they may… enjoy it. I think that’s kind of sweet.

Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date (2018, Option): Drew and Alexa get stuck in an elevator together. A brief flirtation leads to an impulse invitation: Drew really needs a date to his ex’s wedding that weekend. Alexa says yes. And… that’s actually the entire ‘plot’ portion of the book.

After the set-up, The Wedding Date is really about two beautiful, talented people in a terrific relationship who both have (for no clear reason) a horrible fear of commitment. Things go very, very well: lots of sex and donuts. Then there’s a forced misunderstanding. Then they are horribly mean to their (long-suffering) friends. They finally communicate like adults, resolve the obvious misunderstanding, and go back to bonking and pastries. Repeat. There’s absolutely no external conflict whatsoever.

This is a book that alludes to rather serious topics like cancer, politics, and racism, but doesn’t actually touch on any of them - which is a shame, as those fleeting moments are some of the book’s best parts, and add much-needed depth to the two excruciatingly hormonal protagonists. There’s one, rather telling, moment where the mother of a kid with cancer tales Drew something along the lines of ‘Get over yourself - you’re inventing problems when some of us have REAL shit to deal with’. Alas, the self-awareness is fleeting, and he immediately returns to his sulks.

Values: I’ve gone with Happiness here as well. I’m not sure they have earned it in the same way as Kenric and Tess - at least, in this case, all their barriers were self-constructed. However, they do eventually get over themselves, find the courage to speak clearly, and, most importantly, get over their fear of commitment. Honestly, I do not have high hopes for their marriage.

I do read more than romance, promise. Here’s the obligatory list of ‘books I really liked from 2022’, narrowed down to five (kinda) for each category. Starting, of course, with…

Romance

Stephanie Archer’s That Kind of Guy - The Queen’s Cove series was my favourite contemporary find of 2022. This one, the first, is my favourite, but the other two were fun as well. Archer does something clever here with the 70% break-up (basically… skips it?) - that, plus the ever-enjoyable ‘fake dating’ trope makes for a good time.

Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Seduction - This one had a nice balance of plot and hijinks. (The rest of the series wasn’t quite up to snuff. Once one needy sister marries the Regency equivalent of a billionaire, there’s less precarity available for a decent plot.)

Stephanie Feagan’s Show Her the Money - More here.

Georgette Heyer’s Frederica and Arabella (and The Reluctant Widow and Venetia) - I’m in a Heyer reading group on Discord with a bunch of total strangers on Discord, and it is a real joy.

Eloisa James’ The Taming of the Duke - Eloisa James was my introduction to Regency romances, and it is always a pleasure to revisit her.

Mystery

Chelsea Cain’s - Spy Island - Absolutely bonkers.

Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely - This goes for Hammett as well, but, oh my god, these guys were so good.

William L. DeAndrea’s Killed in the Act - The Matt Cobb series is something I found during my mysteries challenge. (It’d be great on Netflix.)

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History - Still holds up on the 95th read.

Young Adult

Ashley Elston’s Ten Blind Dates - Love the set-up, such a good idea. If you can recommend any other books with this shtick, please let me know.

Maureen Goo’s The Way You Make Me Feel - Food trucks!

Yasmin Rahman’s This is My Truth

William Sutcliffe’s The Summer We Turned Green - A very fun look at a suburban neighbourhood coming together to protest. It is a light-hearted (but surprisingly deep) look at activism and communities.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series - Finally decided to see what the fuss is, and I am now a SJM truther. This series is RIDICULOUS. Everyone is smokin’ hot and full of super-powers. Everyone has the same angst-snark tone of voice, the plot is completely improvised, and the ‘world-building’ is nonsensical. I loved every moment.

Emily McGovern’s Twelve Percent Dread - Reviewed.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Prime Meridian - Thoughtful ‘low SF’. I’d recommend pairing this with E.J. Swift’s “Saga’s Children” for another story with a very similar vibe.

Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup - Reviewed.

Carrie Summers’ Temple of Sorrow - I really want to like LitRPG, and, as much as I like the concept, my attempts have not turned up anything great. Summers’ Stonehaven League was a recommendation from a friend, and is probably the best I’ve found. (Also good: Rachel Aaron’s Forever Fantasy Online and Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s Slum Online.)

Non-fiction

Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs - Fantastic writing. Hunter S. Thompson without being pretentious or loathsome. Begins with an outsider, carnival spirit, and becomes incredibly insightful and empathetic.

Craig Calcaterra’s Rethinking Fandom - More on this.

Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl - I chaired a panel on Diary at Bradford Literature Festival and my first adult read of the book was - honestly - a lot harder than I expected. She’s got a wonderful voice, and her diary brings to life both the adaptability of humanity and the banality of evil.

Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue - This book is fabulous, both as a social history and a culinary one. I learned, I grew, I got really hungry.

Mannie Murphy’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden - A graphic novel that covers the rise of white nationalism in the Pacific Northwest, through the lens of River Phoenix. That sounds a lot more random than it is.

Today in cyberpunk

There are over twenty versions of the final report of the January 6th Commission available for sale on Amazon, most of which are just self-published scrape-and-cover jobs from ‘authors’ pretending to be the Committee. There’s something deeply disturbing about an era where any public domain content, including those produced and disseminated for the public good, is immediately repackaged and sold for profit.

A reminder that Amazon has zero content control for mis- and disinformation, so if someone wanted to, say, edit the findings to say that the Commission found Trump to have won the election and the entire insurrection was an antifa deepfake, there’d be nothing there to stop them. Or even report it.

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