Recent Reading Round-Up: Mysteries, Romances, and Feminists

It isn’t that I haven’t done any reading since I posted on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name; it’s just that none of the reading has felt really notable, or else it has been reading for work and thus not something I necessarily have more to say about here. I’m actually looking forward to getting into a book with a bit of heft to it (it doesn’t have to be literally weighty, just something that matters when I read it): I have a number of candidates lying around. At a minimum, I’ll be starting on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s The Murderess soon for my book club, which meets at the end of the month. But that’s so short: surely I can read something else before then! In the meantime, here’s a quick catch-up post on my recent, and quite miscellaneous, desultory reading.

rebus

1. Saints of the Shadow Bible. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Rankin’s latest as Steve, who called it “rippingly good” in his review at Open Letters Weekly. It is good, but for me it was predictably so: it has all Rankin’s characteristic virtues, and now that I’ve gotten over my pleasure at having Rebus back in action, I feel (perhaps unfairly) a bit blasé about it. Rankin is very good at this kind of book, but as a result it doesn’t impress me very much when he does it again. This particular installment of the series is reliable but doesn’t take the characters or the genre in any new directions. I liked the ambition of some of the books from a few years back (Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead, for instance), which had a social and political agenda that broadened their scope. Here we’re just hunkered down with Rebus again. We are seeing Siobhan grow in stature: to me that remains the most promising direction Rebus could take the series in.

2. Mr. Impossible. Back in Ye Olden Days when I knew not what I was missing by not reading romance novels, Lord of Scoundrels was proposed as a possible conversion book. That did not go well (though the experiment as a whole was ultimately successful). I think that if Mr. Impossible had been proposed instead, it might have won me over, because it’s funnier. For some reason (OK, because I’m cynical), I prefer romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This was my second read of Mr. Impossible and I enjoyed it just as much. Actually, technically it was my second almost-read, or mostly-read, since I don’t read to the very end of many romance novels. The last pages (in some, the last chapters) almost always turn too cloying for my taste. Sure, all the way through I know pretty much how things are going to end, but often a lot of the energy goes out of the plot by the time the characters have overcome whatever is keeping them from their HEA. (Is that wrong or unusual of me? I can’t think of another genre in which I have fallen into this DNF habit. If I’m quite interested in the characters or the plot sustains some tension to the end, I’ll read it all, but sometimes I’ve just had enough. I also get most of my romance reading from the library, so I don’t feel any anxiety about dabbling in it rather than committing fully to it.)

3. Along those lines, I’ve been reading Nora Roberts’s Happy Every After, which is the 4th one in her “Bride Quartet.” It is hard to imagine a more anodyne series, really: sure, all of the main characters have tortured backstories of one kind or another, but there’s a bland formulaic simplicity to the novels that belies this attempt to give them depth. As a result, they are kind of relaxing, but the main thing I like about them is their “neepery.” Each protagonist in this quartet has a particular job, and there are lots of specifics about how it gets done. For whatever odd reason, I like that (I learned the wonderful term “neepery” from Victoria Janssen in a thread about the Dick Francis novels, which are full of it). I’m about half way through but I think I’m already about to DNF it for the reasons noted above. Plus, I already watched The Wedding Planner (speaking of predictable) so the neepery here isn’t as novel to me as the stuff about cakes or flowers in the other books.

paretsky

4. Now that I’ve finished with the new Rebus, I’m catching up on V.I. Warshawski with Critical Mass. I’m not very far along in it yet, but like Saints of the Shadow Bible it feels familiar: these are the people, these are the moves, this is the style I expect from Paretsky. In neither case is this a bad thing! I wrote in some detail about Paretsky in a review of Body Work in Open Letters a couple of years ago. I teach her often (we just finished discussing Indemnity Only in ‘Women & Detective Ficton’ today, in fact) and admire her principled determination to use the form of the detective novel to advocate for social justice. If the results are occasionally somewhat didactic, more often than not she integrates her political with her artistic purposes pretty effectively.

5. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. This too came to me by way of Victoria Janssen, and again I’m grateful! I was mentioning on Twitter that I’m working on A Room of One’s Own with my class, and she wondered if I’d ever paired it with Russ’s book. I haven’t, since I’d never read or even heard of How to Suppress Women’s Writing before, but I found it in our university library and have just finished reading it through. It certainly does pair up well with Woolf: I can imagine a lot of conversations that the juxtaposition would spark, not least because Woolf is a major figure in Russ’s own meditations on ways women writers have been opposed and discouraged through the ages. Her approach is (as she says herself) not systematic or scholarly but anecdotal and epigrammatic: she lines up examples under categories such as “Prohibitions,” “Bad Faith,” “False Categorizing,” and “Anomalousness.” Many of her earlier examples were familiar to me, especially those from the 19th century, but she carries her topics forward to her present (the book was published in 1983). At the same time I was preparing my lecture on women and writing and Woolf for my class and reading Russ’s book, an excellent essay by Anne Boyd Rioux on “Women’s Citizenship in the Republic of Letters” appeared at the VIDA site: while it would have been nicer to explain all this to my class as a historical phenomenon, it is good to be able to show them how the conversation we are having in class, through Woolf, is part of a larger ongoing one they might take an interest — and a part — in. And yet things have definitely changed. We read Woolf now in the context of decades of scholarship filling in the absences that preoccupy her; reading Russ I was happily struck by at least a few improvements, such as the availability of works such as Villette (which she recalls being unable to order for a class in 1971 because no US edition was in print) — or the impossibility (surely) that anyone at a university today would read Woolf’s novels “secretively and guiltily like bonbons,” as she describes herself doing, “ashamed of them because they were so ‘feminine.’”

5 Comments to Recent Reading Round-Up: Mysteries, Romances, and Feminists

  1. March 18, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I wasn’t that enamoured of the new Rankin either. I simply didn’t believe in the truce that develops between Rebus and Fox. Or if I did believe in it I was sorely disappointed in Rebus. Have you read Paretsky’s one off novel, ‘Burning Kansas’? It wouldn’t fit into your crime class but would definitely get some interesting debates going.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t read Burning Kansas, but your comment makes me curious about it.

  2. March 18, 2014 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I liked the 1st book in the Bride Quartet, but found them less and less interesting, and the 4th bored me senseless. Wedding planning neepery does not appeal to me, I guess! And the amounts of money obviously being thrown around didn’t appeal either, I admit. (I have a prejudice against super-expensive weddings).

    I wouldn’t say that I don’t finish romances that I’ve been enjoying, but I do often find romance endings unsatisfying–at least, as “literature.” I’m happy that things worked out in the way I am, in part, reading the book for, but actually reading about it can be boring. The surprises are gone, the tension is gone, endings can be too soppy. I also often don’t like some of the typical ways that romance novels resolve, like the grovel by the hero or the Big Public Declaration. I think a good romance ending is very, very hard to write. Convention/reader expectations really box people in at that point, and books that pushed the boundaries of the genre earlier may retreat into the center lane in the closing pages. So, I finish, but I can see why you don’t!

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      March 19, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      The grovel, the declaration – yes: I think these awkward (to me) conventions are part of the problem. I enjoy watching the relationships develop, and for me, the more cantankerous the better (which is probably why I like Mr Impossible so much) — or at least the more banter the better. But to pull off the HEA, those tensions have to resolve to a degree that I think I just find unbelievable, and then I’ve let go of the balloon and it drifts away into cloud-cuckoo land. Mind you, I’m not at all consistent: if I’m in a particularly mellow mood, I will stay in the moment and enjoy feeling sentimental.

  3. March 19, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Except for the first two In Death books, I’ve never been able to finish a Nora Roberts book. I did listen to all of on – Born in Fire — but there’s something so uncompelling about her voice. I hate to admit it, but your description “bland formulaic simplicity” comes as close to anything I’ve seen to my experience of them. There’s nothing wrong with them, in terms of editing, or syntax, or plot. But there’s no “there” there.

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