Strip the Willow and Rip the Bodice

Because everyone needs a hobby …

For I Have Crossed the Rubicon! May 31, 2010

Barnes and Noble - My Mecca

Yes, I’ve done it. I went to the ‘Romance’ section in Barnes & Noble. Purchased two books. And had enough courage to go up and buy them.

Of course – I also bought Eliot’s Middlemarch and Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop so maybe I cheated (punishment being my new Dickens has no footnotes … again).

I can't just walk into that store and buy two trashy novels! Come on!

And to turn into a fashion blog for a mo’ – here’s the link where you can buy the dress I’m wearing. I am kind of obsessed with it – it’s all … flow-y and fun. (And yes, the room I share with mom in NY is covered with my LOTR posters from my high school years. Slowly, they’ve been falling off the walls but I haven’t made the actual attempt to actually take them down). Nostalgia, I guess.

Anyway. New week. New book. And oh god how I hated this one. I forced myself to read it in a day because I couldn’t imagine reading it longer (plus, I’m absolutely in love with North and South at the moment). Was it the romance? No. Was it too crude? No.

It was simply: boring.

Boring to the point where I would fall asleep. Boring to the point where I wondered why on earth this wasn’t just on FanFiction.net where one could be reading some crazy slash story, instead – that would probably be more entertaining to pick apart.

But I’ll get to the specifics in a moment. This week the book is – dun dun dun dun:

Hannah Howell's 'If He's Wild'

I picked out this book (at Walmart – the B&N books are for the next two weeks) for one reason: there was only a guy on the cover. Even under the sale sticker where that little lighted window is, there is no woman (if you don’t believe me, click on the picture where B&N will show you an unmarked cover). I wanted to sort of run a test – how important was the cover, first of all, to the novel. Also, would a redhead pop up? Would she be the heroine? The answer to the first two questions is – yes. The third, though, is no.

The heroine, for the first time, was not a redhead. I was a little surprised, but happy at the same time because it gave me more to question. A ginger is in the novel itself (and of course, it will make for a good ginger post), but she is not a main character. And, if the heroine isn’t a ginger – how will she be portrayed? The same way? Differently?

Does hair color really make that much of a difference?

Okay – this isn’t the ginger post. I want to start off, as usual, talking about the narrative voice because I think it really is important to situate where the narrator stands before getting further into the novel.

The narrative voice is very similar to what we have encountered before. It’s third-person limited with moments of free-indirect discourse. What I did like about this narrative was the use of practically no italicized thoughts. Everything was set in ‘regular’ save a few little things.

What I did not like about this narrative voice, though, was the way the story was told, the exposition, the way the characters were portrayed – and some of this actually ties back to the cover.

So what do I mean by the way the story is told? First of all, this is another series book, much like Mayhue’s. Apparently Howell’s written several ‘If He’s <insert sultry adjective here>’ and has also written about the families used in this novel. There’s a canon – which is easy enough to catch on to.

In a nutshell: Alethea (the dark-haired protagonist) is a virgin widow living with her uncle Iago (can’t make these names up). She has visions of this man named Hartley and of his possible death so they try to warn him. He’s known as a rake but surprise surprise, he’s only bedding women for information for the government. Really, that has nothing to do with anything. For some reason, his niece and nephew were almost killed so Alethea helps him find them, he marries her oddly (we’ll get to the oddly sometime later – in the sexy sex post), then they go back to the original plot and everything tries to resolve itself (with the help of some deus ex machinas), and Hartley and Aletha live happily ever after.

Convenience dominants this novel – especially in the beginning. The narrator fails to portray human doubt. Things are just … accepted. Alethea’s gift to see these visions? Sure, they’re questioned, but she’s trusted pretty much off the bat once she shakily convinces Hartley and his gang of her powers.

“‘I have no wonderfully logical or scientific explanation got my gift. It just is … Since it was given to me, I feel it is my duty to heed it. It told me that you were going to be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. From what little I have learned this night, I still believe in what I saw. Since, I suspect, you know more than we do, I would think you would at least consider the possibility that I am right, If you will not, it does not signify. If you do nothing, it is still my responsibility to try to ensure that my vision does not prove to be an accurate prophesy.’

‘Makes sense to me,’ said Aldus as he and Gifford retook their seats.” p.45

Yeah, I wasn’t too fond of – Yay! We all believe her! She makes total sense! Look at those convulsions she goes into when she has ‘visions’! Ooooo! Ahhhh!

The narrator quickly whisks over any conflict that believing in this ‘gift’ of Althea’s could cause. It’s so quickly taken as fact, I swore from the first twenty or so pages I really was reading fanfiction. It was self-indulgent – the heroine had this great amazing gift, she was also too perfect, then of course twice she finds herself almost getting killed then being saved by Hartley.

Hello Miss Mary Sue.

Another fanfiction quality of this story was really the amount of times Alethea’s character suffered. She is this innocent girl, early twenties, and gets beaten, shot, etc. It’s common for a lot of fanfic writers to torture their characters – I don’t know why but there it is. Don’t believe me? Look it up. It gives not only a chance to gain sympathy for the character, but also bedside scenes were the hero of the novel can sit beside her and whimper while the other characters make whispered remarks on how much he must love her.

It’s annoying.

And I felt like that was what the whole novel was – someone getting hurt, someone sitting by their bedside, promising retribution. Blah.

And then there is the exposition. While I didn’t have trouble catching on to the canon – I sort of like stories that begin in medias res, so I didn’t feel as though I was lacking too much so far as series canon – I actually had trouble catching on to the time period. We were never told when the story takes place – pretty much just that it’s in London.

Whoop.

So me being the awful time period freak I am, I just had to pay hopeful attention that something would give me a clue. I figured since they used the word rake so much it was around the 18th and 19th century and since when the danced it seemed to be more of a couple-ly thing (rather than line dancing), that would be more 19th century, I think (waltzing, if I’m not mistaken, became popular then – but I read that a long while ago and I don’t write ballroom scenes often so I could be wrong). Anyway, I guessed this was probably the 19th century (especially with what Alethea got from her husband’s death). So, maybe I liked solving the puzzle (okay, I did) but what does that say about the narrator? The setup? Why don’t we know this simple fact?

This leaves us with the characters. Beyond the self-indulgent female protagonist, the passionless male protagonist Hartley is just boring – and he isn’t the ‘rake’ everyone thinks he is. That’s why the cover confuses me – it’s not as though he is running around sleeping with everyone and needs to be tamed or she needs to be – both of them are level headed (beyond the supernatural gift Alethea has) and just flat characters. As are the rest of the lot. There is so much explaining of the gifts (I mean, pages of just ‘this works this way, he has this gift she has this one) and cooing over being rescued that the characters sort of self-destruct into boredom.

Mix with that a plot that I think the narrator wants the reader to take incredibly seriously – I mean, the book feels heavy-handed on a rather non-existant plot by explaining all these gifts and how they’ll work – the characters beyond the Mary Sue Alethea take a backseat.

I once called Twilight a self-indulgent mess of a book. While If He’s Wild isn’t in that league of horribleness, it is still poorly written and incredibly self-indulgent mini-mess.

Once I started - I had to finish it. Pencil in hand.

And so no one asks me again, North and South is NOT about the Civil War, but about industry vs. the country in England (ie: the north and the south of England).

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Reference

Howell, Hannah. If He’s Wild. New York: Zebra Books, 2010.

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I apologize for the lack of snarky-ness in my last post. May 18, 2010

Drink for Thought and/or Thank God for Wegmans

So – why am I apologizing for my lack of snarky-ness?

Well, I know that’s what a lot of you are here to read. And, let’s face it. Yesterday I went a little academic on all of you – I applaud whoever managed to get through that heap of ‘here are six points and me explaining those six points and aren’t you glad this is the first post?.’ Really, I blame it all on this kick I’ve been on lately – let’s call it … Dickens Mania. It isn’t just Dickens though – it’s Victorian writers, it’s theory – all my cups of tea.

So, tonight what I am saying is – be glad I am on my third Strongbow and am talking about canon, exposition, and the skipping of scenes.

Just to give you all a little background, I am drinking lots and lots not only to use up the obvious plentiful amounts of alcohol I have left, but also because I am packing. Packing, to me, is stressful beyond the usual ‘omg I have so much’. My OCD is through the roof plus it’s mixed with a lot of other problems that make packing/throwing things away an absolute nightmare. So the formula for today has been: Strongbow starting at 4:00 pm + the Little Dorrit mini-series starting a little earlier + a lot of music I can dance to since the morning. Happy to say – it’s working and my room is rather clear beyond my computer and a few other things that will be moved in the morning before I leave.

Anyway. Canon.

Canon - The Camera

Me and a cannon in Scotland (Sarah, either your Grandad or your Granny took this photo)

For those of you who have no idea what canon is – wiki that shit, I’m not your babysitter (god, I think I said that in my last blog almost word for word, but there you go – you know how to use google).

Before I actually get into the novel (which, as I told you last night, I would finish and I did – of course), I need to say that this particular book is part of a series. Not like Harry Potter but a series with an established canon, what I assume to be recurring characters, etc.

Thing is – canon in this book really doesn’t matter much. Exposition doesn’t matter either. I mean – the two things are there to a very small extent – but the reader isn’t treated to a warm up on the canon or even details into exposition.

For instance, look at this chapter transition – it contains these two points (lack of canon, lack of exposition):

Prologue (ending)

“With something of a plan formed, he pushed all thoughts from his mind. None of them mattered for the moment. When he finished the task his king had assigned him, nothing save death would keep him from his oath to see to the safety of Isabella MacGahan.” p.5

Chapter One (beginning)

“As it turned out, death was exactly what had kept Robert from fulfilling his oath to protect Isabella MacGahan. Or more precisely, the death he would have suffered had not Conner MacKiernan’s bride not whisked him more than seven hundred years into the future through the use of her Faerie Magic.” p.8.

While you’re digesting that – let me write out my marginal notes for you:

Are you joking?

What is this paragraph???

Done digesting? Good. Confused? Well, maybe not confused but left wanting at all? I mean … wtf? Seriously. Wtf.

I know I talked A LOT about transitions yesterday but that was from person to person – this chapter to chapter transition is unforgivable. And yet …

Okay, I’m not going to make excuses for the author. Clearly, this sucks. It just does. You can’t dance around the fact that is some shitty writing. There’s no exposition. There’s sudden introduction to canon we’re expected to know. Why I pause with that ‘and yet …’ is the whole ‘series’ aspect of this particular novel.

The plot itself is self contained, but the canon – the Magic – as a whole isn’t. It brings to light something rather interesting about these books – their following. Obviously, there is a following – I never doubted that. What I didn’t realize was how – at least in this book – how ‘insider’ it seems to be.

Let me go back to Harry Potter. And let me first say – I am not comparing. This happened in my seminar, funny enough. I made a comment – more of a joke that was misinterpreted by a few at first. I said that Stephenie Meyer needs to step away from the fog. Fog is Dickens territory. I didn’t mean that I was comparing the two. Same thing here, I’m not comparing Mayhue to Rowling. I’m just using an example to prove a point – like Dickens uses fog, Rowling uses exposition and canon. Mayhue – not so much.

Explain. Yes. I know. When you pick up a Harry Potter book, you obviously don’t start from book five and continue on. But, let’s say if you did, Rowling provides you with some backstory. Not an egregious amount of it – not an outlining of the books that preceded the fifth – just a bit of background, enough to remind the usual reader and let the newer reader slip in as best as possible (I can say this from experience. I read the first three books when I was Harry’s age (haha) and was rather out of the loop when then fifth came out so what exposition she gave was helpful as I couldn’t remember a damned thing).

But, in Mayhue’s work, we’re not really given that chance to … catch up. Granted, we gradually learn about this Faerie (god I hate that spelling and I cannot tell you why) Magic, but, in my opinion, it functions as this sort of deus ex machina (wiki that too if you don’t know what I mean). Oh the Faerie Magic can heal people! Oh it can send you back and forth in time! Oh it can control the weather! Blah blah blah – yadda yadda yadda.

Needless to say, I was the one at a disadvantage. I had no idea what the established canon of Mayhue’s world was, nor did I gain any information from her exposition … of which there’s rather little of. This time jump that occurs from the Prologue to the first chapter is strange. We never actually see this happen, we’re just told that it does.

This is where a good following comes in handy. This, I think, is one of the perks of writing a trashy romance novel – I may be wrong – I’m only hypothesizing at the moment so no one strike me down! You can get away with little to no explanation of canon or any exposition in a series because there are fans – fans who know the ins and outs and – let’s face it – probably don’t care too much about the specifics. I mean, what are these novels really centered around, one must remember.

Anyway, sum that up. Your canon is not explained – you just … tumble upon some of it and hope it’s enough to carry you through to the end. Your exposition is … to the point of hardly being tolerable, but again it’s unneeded. A plot is unneeded. In fact, when I finished the novel, I wondered why there was a plot at all, canon at all, exposition at all (though for the latter two there was very little) because we knew the ending, didn’t we? In fact, one of my marginal notes reads: ‘What does this have to do with anything?’ – strangely, it was concerning the actual plot. I’m not saying my mind was addled but plot becomes something annoying, brushed aside – not that I found it annoying, but in the flow of the novel it becomes a bump. It’s all sex sex sex PLOT sex sex sex. The poor dear plot … I wonder, at night, if it really was a good one. Needless to say, I don’t care much since it really wasn’t and I ended up ignoring it.

Moving on though – it’s important to keep this sort of … skipping in mind. The next sort of skipping doesn’t involve prior knowledge of former novels in the series explaining it away. Instead, it’s more of a time crunch.

“As the rains outside had gentled to a fine mist, he and Isa had talked long into the early morning hours. At first, she had wanted to know about her father, but soon she was asking questions about his own life. The battles he’d fought, his family, his home – she’d wanted to hear it all.

He had wanted to know everything about her life, hoping by some small miracle he could ease his sense of guilt at having abandoned her for so long.” p. 111.

“She’d spoken last night of readying her garden and of her ongoing battle with the small animals that raided her vegetables each season. Stepping out into the sunny morning, he’d decided that building a fence would be a good logical use of his time.” p. 112

Theme here is – all of this ‘talk’ they … talk about is never actually in dialogue form. We just sort of hear that it happened. I will say – all right, by pass some boring jabber but this struck me. And it has to do with the exposition and canon as well.

It is as if the author or narrator, whichever, wants to spend as little time possible going through the details between the couple. The main point is to get them together to have rather that romantic, unoriginal sex that you can pretty much find on any fanfiction website (again with the fanfiction!).

My personal preference takes over here. I like sometimes hearing mundane things. The build up is sort of fun – but we aren’t really given it. There was potential in the conversations mentioned above, for instance, for one-liners or even just to unravel the characters more … but no. This ‘skipping’ had a strange effect of me – I wrote it down almost immediately when I noticed it. As I said, there’s plenty of novels – fantastic novels – that I have read that don’t always go word for word in dialogue but the skipping of some of this vital information is strange.

But then again, not a strange choice.

Again and again, I remind myself what I’m reading – what the formula is – what the readers want from it. It’s a high – they don’t really care about Isa’s or Robbie’s background in detail … do they?

The great thing about this being the first novel I’ve read is that it’s raised a lot of questions in my mind about what I’m going to encounter in the other books I read. Will the narrative voice be similar? Will the exposition, canon, skipping be formulaic? I just may be. Or it may not be.

As I read more, I plan to compare the novels I read. I really want to see how this formula works – not just that it gives people thrills on the beach – but why people will spend $8 on these novels (if not for an academic reason …). Is it the easy reading? Just the thrill? Do they look for anything more?

There is something lacking … lacking lacking lacking (and I need to repeat that for that is how I felt for most of the novel). Not to mention that whole Ginger mess …

Right. I’ve talked about canon. About exposition. About skipping scenes. Hopefully that was more entertaining than the last post … though, you know I like that post. I was tired as hell when writing it, but I like it. Tomorrow I’m skipping a day – obviously with packing, riding in a car for a million hours, then unpacking doesn’t leave much time – or mood – for writing a post. But there will be five posts for this novel as there will be fore each I read.

Ah – and according to my outline, I tackle the Ginger problem next.

Know what it’s time for?

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Reference

Mayhue, Melissa. A Highlander’s Homecoming. New York: Pocket Books, 2010.

 

Serendipity … May 7, 2010

Well, I’ve been in this position before.

Starting a blog. Looking at the book I’m going to be ripping apart. Thinking “Oh Dear God What If I Run Out Of Things To Talk About?”

But I doubt that will be the case.

A few weeks ago, over a three or four day span, I chronicled my reading of the first Twilight book – chapter by chapter. You can find that here. My professor and I both agreed (though he voiced it and I did the agreeing) that it was beneficial. I explored the question: Why on earth is this crap so popular? And I ended up without really finding an answer, but exploring structure, theory, and whatnot. In a nutshell – no answer, but a fun exercise (even though I still maintain my detestation of Twilight). I like tearing apart texts – even bad ones.

So I had a thought.

I’m graduating. My summer is in flux – mom’s getting a divorce, where we’re living may change and that will involve A LOT of packing and arranging, I’ll probably be learning how to drive … Anyway, there isn’t much I can do besides read and write.

Not that I’m complaining.

I’d love to chronicle my experiences reading Dickens and Brontë and Gaskell and rinse and repeat – but that would just be a gushy blog of me lauding Dickens for his structure, admiring C. Brontë for her semi-sort-of biographical work, and finally reaching Gaskell, who I’ve been waiting to reading for ages. But – like I said – that would be self-indulgent and a complete bore for you to read.

So I decided to take a note from Twilight. I’d read some more bad literature – but of a different kind.

Yep. I’m going to read those trashy, bodice ripping, romance novels.

Let me make a quick disclaimer though – these novels are not the only books I’ll be reading over the summer. My plate is full with the authors I mentioned above (though I’ll probably finish reading Little Dorrit before I graduate) and a new Lit theory book coming in the mail (not to mention my own writing, subscribing to a lit journal and whatnot). Just making that clear …

A Visual: Me Reading "Little Dorrit"

Okay – so that’s done. Back to the bodice ripping.

What makes these novels different from Twilight is pretty much obvious: they aren’t works of fiction that people are venerating like a bible, unless it’s Lifetime and you’re Nora Roberts, the book will probably never be adapted into a screenplay. But – more importantly – the novels are taken more as is: trashy, gushy romance. And that is why I have more respect for these books than I ever will for Twilight. They don’t pretend to be something they’re not.

Bodice rippers are full-blown escapist books – I hardly expect to find characterization, plausible plot – anything that makes up the novels I usually read. People – women mostly, of course – read these not for the thrill of the structure or the narrative, but pretty much the thrill of the sex: the guy getting the girl and vise versa.

In no way in this blog am I planning to demean these books. In fact, I want to take a different approach than the one I took with Twilight. I’m not going to go chapter by chapter, character by character blah and blah and blah. Instead, I’m taking a book a week and subjecting it to theory and whatever else comes to mind in the … I don’t know … ‘literary realm.’ I’m not looking to answer a question like I was with the other blog – there’s no thesis, no problem to solve. I’m just … looking.

And probably over-reading – but there’s a bit of fun in that, isn’t there?

Of course, don’t worry: I’ve heard a lot of people liked the snark of my Twilight blog – that certainly won’t be missing here. When I say ‘respect,’ I don’t meant I’m going to treat these texts any less critically. (Come on – I mean, my mode of selecting these books boiled down to word choice – but more on that in a second).

So – there’s my plan. Once a week after I graduate (that is, starting the week of May 17th), one book – a few posts on the book and then a new book the next week for the whole of the summer.

Lucky for you – I’ve already got the first two week’s reading lined up – and here’s the story (no, I’m not going on a tangent – this is actually pretty interesting).

As a senior with all of her work done and graduation just … waiting to happen pretty much, my friends and I have been looking for things to do. Places to walk to, playing games out on our college green – little things, fun things. And one of these things was going to the fantastic used bookstore here in Lancaster Dogstar. It really is this great place – it’s like a little nook of wonderfulness with a great cafe across the street.

My friend Sarah and I decided to take a walk there on a particularly lovely day (meaning yesterday), when we had both finished work – everything handed in and done. My main goal: Find the trashiest book I could to kick this blog off with a good start.

Easier said than done. I think Dogstar is too classy for trashy romance (and I’m hardly going to say that’s a bad thing) and I ended up walking out with … yep, a Gaskell. North and South.

I once walked into an AT&T store for a Blackberry and came out with an iPhone so this has to be normal ...

$2 well spent.

Anyway, I thought after that experience that this was going to be hard. I mean, I knew where to find the darn genre, but to go into Barnes and Noble and pick one up? Just like that?

I need a bit thicker skin before I do that.

But today – today, Val, Caroline, Sarah and I went to Starbucks. And, thanks to a roommate who’s been eating my food, I’ve had to do a little bit of stocking up at Giant. So, I took my little cart and there was the beautiful revelation: while I couldn’t find what I was looking for in a used bookstore, there it was in multitudes – in Giant. A supermarket.

So – those words I mentioned before? I picked up a few and flipped through. I didn’t really know what to look for beyond a sort of Fabio, half-dressed cover so I made a list in my head of words. Throbbing. Bosoms. You get the picture. And, thankfully, in Giant there is self-checkout.

My first two bodice rippers were bought in complete anonymity – well, beyond the fact I whipped them out when I walked over to Starbucks for a good laugh with everyone (but I had Little Dorrit with me so I felt like I had enough ‘street lit cred’ to pull ’em out and joke).

So I named this post ‘Serendipity’ because the first book I chose just goes perfectly with the title of the blog. The title, for the curious, I came up with a few days ago. “Strip the Willow” was my favorite dance in Scotland. It’s pretty much a dance where you get swung around by big Scottish guys and get really dizzy and sometimes they spin you so fast (because they don’t realize you’re the human equivalent of an adult chihuahua) that your feet lift off the ground. Thus: Strip the Willow and Rip the Bodice. The second half should be self-explanitory by now.

And now, I introduce the first novel I will be reading:

A Highlander's Homecoming by Melissa Mayhue

Yes, those are REAL sparkles on the cover. I looked at that as a confirmation that this had to be the book I started with: Scottish (like the title) and it sparkles (like my last blog)? Perfect transition. Serendipity.

Downside? This blog doesn’t officially start until the week after I graduate so there’s some time to wait – but hey – I had to give a small preview of what’s to come.

But thinking back to how I stumbled upon this novel (and the other, which will remain a surprise, of course) is interesting. I found it not in a bookstore, but a supermarket. It’s like these books are at the ready – you don’t have to make a special trip to buy them. They’re just … there. Waiting.

And throbbing.

Okay – I’m going to take that as a sign I need to wrap this intro up.

A quick few things before I go to the midnight showing of Iron Man 2: the books I use will be cited, and if you click on the image of them (such as the one above) it will take you to the B&N order page (also summary page if you’re inclined to look it up before I tackle it). I’m completely open to comments, questions, and emails – suggestions even. I don’t want to be a bore so – if you’re reading this blog, following it, whatever – speak your mind! I’m sure I’ll think of a few other things that will come up from time to time but that’s it for now so …

Bookmark this page and check back starting the 17th!

(oh, and if you can’t read the captions of the pictures, just resize the page so the pictures fit better)

And, for those familiar with my Twilight blog – I offer a:

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