Monday, March 29, 2010

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Romance

Poor Lars here is a refugee from the Waxed Shirtless Era

The title: The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Romance
The author: Trisha Telep (editor)
Publication: Running Press, 2009
Got it from: MEC, Xmas 2009

Ah, time travel romance. When done right, it's so thoroughly enjoyable. When done wrong, it's oh so wrong.

I feel like I've been reading a lot of romantic short stories lately, and I have to say it's not an easy thing to do well. In the space of about a twenty or so pages you have to introduce your characters and make the reader believe in them and root for their romance. What makes a romance short story really excellent is making the reader feel as though she's seeing all the necessary parts. For instance, there were a number of stories in The Mammoth Book of Vampire Romance that I read last year that were part of a full-length series, and they all fell flat because of the confusing number of characters and unexplained world-building. An author should always assume that the reader is coming to the short story fresh, with no previous history of the characters or the world they inhabit. Short stories should always be able to stand on their own, even if the characters appear in fifty other novels. [End of two cents]

The twenty or so stories in this anthology varied in quality, from good to mediocre to huh? I didn't feel that any of them were worthy of my re-read list, but I did find a lot to amuse me. The hands-down best-written of the bunch was "Stepping Back" by Sara Mackenzie, who proves she's got more writing experience than many of the other authors in this anthology. Her story involves a woman in rural Australia (interesting location!) who is trying to piece together her connection to an abused woman living in the area in 1905. Interestingly, her short story barely has any romance in it and feels like it belongs more in a paranormal or straight time-travel anthology. Jean Johnson's "Steam" was my favourite, a lighthearted and funny steampunk story about a man who discovers sexy pictures of a bespectacled, Edwardian-era woman in his attic and puts together a time machine to meet her, with hilariously predictable results. Another highlight was "Future Date" by A.J. Menden about a kindergarten teacher who can't find a good man and is forced to join an online dating service where men from the future date women from the past. This was the only story that I wish had been book-length because I thought the logistical details would have been fun to tease out. The most truly romantic award definitely has to go to Gwyn Cready's "The Key to Happiness," and I can see why it was chosen to open the book. A woman at a wedding meets a mysterious older man who claims to have been in love with her all his life and that his younger self has, in fact, just been introduced to her as her future husband's best friend. The man has come to warn her about her future if she doesn't follow her heart.

Other stories, like Michelle Maddox's "The Eleventh Hour" have interesting concepts (a woman who helps a little boy is saved by his older self traveling from the future) but the stories fall flat on weak characterizations. Some stories get mired by too much technical jargon or would have been better suited to paranormal fantasies ("Time Trails," "The Walled Garden," "Iron and Hemlock.") "Lost and Found" by Maureen McGowan, about an acid-tripping hippie who keeps waking up on the same day in different years
introduced me to the only romance "hero" I've ever been repulsed by and the "romance" in the story felt genuinely creepy.

Overall, I was left with the impression that the book as a whole could have been a lot better. For starters, I wish authors would consider doing time-travel romance set in different eras besides the already oversaturated market of 18th-century Scotland (can you say Outlander rip-off?) and the 19th century American West. One of the best time-travel short stories I've ever read was set in Puritian New England - now that's unusual! I also wish the stories had dealt strictly with time-travel. That seems like enough to deal with without having to throw in all kinds of other elements like fairies and shape-shifters. Still, I'm willing to forge ahead with The Mammoth Book of Irish Romance (a recent purchase) and am seriously eying The Mammoth Book of Special Ops Romance. One thing you can say about me as a reader is that I'm eternally optimistic that next time things will be better.

If not, I can always go back in time a few months and fix things, right?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pondering the reader-heroine

Lately I have been so busy that I haven't had a lot of time for concentrated reading. Alas, then, not a lot of updates here. However, I have a couple of things in the works and there should be a new review up in the next day or so.

What I have been doing mostly the past few weeks is skim-reading a few things and re-reading favourite passages just before I go to bed because my head can't process any new information. One thing I have been enjoying skimming again for the umpteenth time is Beyond Heaving Bosoms. One of the passages, in particular, has been bouncing around in my head for the past few days and has given me much ponderating potential.

From "Chapter Corset: An In-Depth Investigation of the Romance Heroine, Emphasis, Obviously on 'Depth'":

"[Lisa] Kleypas's experience leads her to believe that readers engage in a symbiotic role-play with the heroine to the point where decisions made by the heroine that the reader disagrees with take on a very personal tone; the rigid code of conduct enforced on heroines points at the level to which readers put themselves in the heroine's place, whether or not they actually identify with the particular heroine herself. When the heroine behaves in ways that the reader approves of, she is able to immerse herself as the heroine, and the world of the story is smooth. When the heroine behaves in a way the reader finds unacceptable, however, that particular heroine suddenly stops being strictly a placeholder, and instead becomes a rival for the hero's affections." [emphasis mine]

I think this ties in quite nicely with a realization I had earlier this year, about the make-or-break for a romance novel for me is whether the heroine is more or less intelligent than I am. When a heroine is as smart or smarter than me, I immediately warm to her and enjoy the book thoroughly, with few exceptions. However, when the heroine is quite a few points down the I.Q. scale from me, I quickly become exasperated and lose all patience with the book. And when I say I.Q., I don't necessarily mean strictly book smarts, but social smarts as well. This is one of the reasons why I detested Dizzy from Connie Brockway's As You Desire, despite her being a so-called child prodigy fluent in a bazillion languages: I thought she was a moron.

What I found particularly fascinating is the notion of the heroine being a rival for the reader of the hero's affections. I think this is particularly true in cases where the hero is truly worthy. Dizzy's physical and mental perfection in As You Desire is indeed nauseating, but it would have been even worse if I thought Harry had been worth it (and considering his taste in women, he definitely wasn't). On the other hand, I had to continually fight stabbing pains of jealousy while reading Pride and Prejudice, despite the fact that I loved Lizzy as a heroine. Whether this may in fact be caused by the considerable similarities between myself and Jane Austen's heroine is an interesting notion to ponder.

I think there's definitely something to be said about the reader's identification with the heroine. We seem to be searching for a heroine who walks the fine line between being intelligent but not intimidatingly so. She can't be an idiot (that would disgust both the reader and the hero) but she can't be too perfect, either, or else the placeholder fantasy is broken. For me, romance novel reading isn't so much wish-fulfillment as trying out my own personality in different situations and with different heroes. The flawed heroine must lie somewhere between the impossible perfections of Dizzy and the bumbling foolishness of Bridget Jones (admit it - you'd like everything to work out for you like it did for her, but you sure as heck wouldn't want to be her). There's a reason why Jennifer Cruisie's average-looking, smart heroines are so popular* but the virginal, flawless beauties of old romances are not.

If anybody is reading this, I'd be curious to know: does having a heroine who's too different from you turn you off? Have you ever felt jealous of a heroine who's both wonderful and gets a wonderful hero? Have you ever felt the heroine just didn't deserve the hero (or vice versa)? Am I the only one who wishes the women in romance would behave with the same sense as smart women in real life?

*Although I still cannot see what all the fuss is about and have never warmed to her books.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Drive Me Crazy

The title: Drive Me Crazy
The author: Nancy Warren
Publication: Kensington, 2004
Got it from:

Alex Forrest is the town librarian in sleepy Swiftcurrent, Oregon. She loves her library and being organized and efficient, but her man prospects are dim. Enter rumpled, devil-may-care art professor Duncan Forbes. Duncan is in town ostensibly to work on a book, but this "Indiana Jones of the Art World" is really trying to track down a missing Van Gogh that may have been stolen by Alex's grandfather. Naturally, the professor and the librarian immediately dislike each other despite the sparks flying between them. On his first day in the library, Alex charges Duncan two hundred dollars for underlining in a book - ten dollars for the book, one hundred and ninety for defacing public property.

Things get more complicated the next day when Alex shows up to work and finds a dead body in the stacks - the art section. Naturally, Alex and Duncan have to put aside their differences to solve the mystery together. There's also a side plot involving Alex's troubled cousin Gillian and the town cop Tom Perkins, who was her high school crush.

While the book was fun and light, none of the characters seemed particularly memorable. I found myself not really warming to Duncan and Alex. Duncan seemed too pushy at times and bordered on being an a**hole. Warren played up Alex's prissy-but-dresses-like-a-hooker schtick a little too much. What I found more interesting was Gillian's relationship with Tom and their romance do-over. It seemed more natural and sweeter than Duncan and Alex's immediately hopping into bed routine.
My other problem was the obviousness of the solution to the mystery. You could spot it from so far away you'd have time to do your taxes and go out for coffee before it arrived.* I did enjoy this book, but I can't see myself re-reading it.

*Hint: Alex's key-shaped necklace that she got as a present from her grandfather is mentioned in the opening chapters.