Going back to the source

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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
(Act II, Scene II, lines 43–44)

I can’t believe it passed so quickly, but December 9 marks the one-year anniversary of
re: read pages. I’ve had a great year with this blog and the books I’ve read and shared with you. The fact that I have 55 followers fills me with a giddy delight.

I thought that after a year together, I should share my name. My name is from a novel and not from the above quoted play, though Romeo and Juliet plays a role. My name is from Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart.

But before we get to that novel, let me introduce myself.

Hello, my name is Bryony.

Pardon, you say. Yes, Bryony.

I love my name. I never get bothered by mispronunciations or repeating it to people the first (or third) time we meet or spelling it out to everyone from government employees to Starbucks baristas.

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I can thank my mother for my name. She received Touch Not the Cat from her father. It was 1976, the year it was published, and she was already the mother of two boys with classic names. When she finished reading it, she knew if she ever had a girl that she wanted to name her Bryony. Two years later, she finally got her chance.

One of my favourite stories about my name happened on the day I was born.

My mother delivered me and the doctor announced that I was girl and asked what my name would be, to which my mother responded, “Bryony.” And he said, “It’s a girl you know.” Ha ha ha. Makes me laugh every time.

But getting back to the novel that gave me my name, Touch Not the Cat was a best seller and, while Stewart’s novels are known for a blending of mystery and romance, Touch Not the Cat also has an element of the supernatural. The novel follows Bryony Ashley as she deals with the hit-and-run death of her father and the resulting legal fallout surrounding her childhood home, Ashley Court, a crumbling estate with more sentimental value than actual worth.

Her father left a death bed warning of an unnamed danger that Bryony hopes to uncover with the help of her lover, a person with whom she has had a lifelong telepathic connection but is not sure of his identity. She suspects one of her second cousins – twins, James and Emory, who has inherited the Court as a result of a trust, or their brother Francis – as the telepathy runs through the Ashley line. But as she picks apart the meaning of her father’s last message she is no longer sure of whom to trust, even her lifelong companion.

The mystery of her father’s final words requires Bryony to delve into her family’s history, especially that of Wicked Nick, a relative from the early 1800s with a poor reputation that brought about his untimely death when he was shot by the brothers of his lover. Stewart includes scenes from Nick’s life at the end of each chapter and quotes from Romeo and Juliet at the beginning. It was Nick’s father, William, who was obsessed with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, and who had the key to understanding the mystery Bryony is trying to solve.

Some of the novel falls a little hard on the ears of modern readers. For example, getting past her deep love for someone she calls cousin, no matter the distance, but more importantly her seeming disinterest in how her life will unfold following the upheaval the loss of her father represents. She is unconcerned for herself, beyond identifying her lover, and is focused only on deciphering her father’s message, and not even the danger he refers to but the mystery of “William’s brook.”

Perhaps, besides moving the plot along, Bryony’s focus also reflects Stewart’s stated viewpoint on the actions of her characters. Stewart said she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear….” With this in mind, it is easier to understand Bryony’s choices and rationales.

On a whole, Bryony is no pushover. She knows when to stand her ground and when to yield. She is observant, kind, and perseverant; a quality my mother appreciated when she read the book the first time.

As preparation for this post, I asked my mom for her thoughts on the novel and character from which I gained my name. She still likes (and recommends) Touch Not the Cat – she believes she has read it around six or seven times – and enjoys how the story of Bryony’s ancestors is brought forward into the present. While the character of Bryony didn’t influence her decision to choose it for me, my mom found the name to be romantic and full of an adventurous spirit. I like to think I am both of those things.

And, despite my experience of a lifetime of correcting people, my mom says she never had a problem pronouncing it correctly. Ever the teacher, she says she just followed “the phonetic rules.” For those who want to double check, Bryony is also in the dictionary as it is a poisonous climbing vine native to western Eurasia.

The story of my name is one that I’ve shared many, many times. And I love that I have a copy of the book that bears my name on my bookshelves. This past spring, in May, Mary Stewart died at the age of 97. She wrote 20 novels as well as three children’s books and a book of poetry. To celebrate the gift of her writing, the source of my name, and one year of re: read pages, I am giving away a copy of Touch Not the Cat. Just leave your favourite character name in the comments below and I will do a random draw to select a winner.

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Cut. It. Out.

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Last week I began a month-long discussion about description/exposition in fiction writing with a post of examples from the greats.

This week, I want to take a closer look at making each word count, cutting the fluff and the filler. The adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all” could easily apply to my editing strategy. If the words don’t improve or add to my story then they don’t need to be there.

Listen to Uncle Joey and Cut. It. Out.

For me, the extra words creep in as unnecessary adjectives and flowery language or direct exposition of the characters’ feelings. Reading it back to myself I feel like I am channeling my 14-year-old protagonist a little too closely when writing – she plays older than her age, thinks everyone either loves her or hates her, and, oh, the feels. There is too much wild emotion and it leads to wild writing.

No purpose, no plot, no book.

At the risk of completely embarrassing myself, I am going to share some of the lines that recently got hacked from my book.

 

Rosaline reached out and grasped the paper in his hand.

Um, in order to take something in your hand you must move your arm. No one is going to lift it, place an object in your hand and close your fingers for you. Delete!

 

Now seeing the last gift she had planned for Catalina gave her comfort; her loss was great because their love was great.

If the reader can’t tell how much Catalina means to Rosaline by the time she dies, than I need to do a lot more work on the beginning of this novel. This falls under the show don’t tell philosophy of writing. Delete!

 

“I know why you want to stay close to me,” Rosaline said, taking a step closer to him. She knew her head fit neatly below his chin. She could step three feet closer and lean against him and he would put his arm around her. “You like being close to me.”

Marco’s eyes glimmered and a faint smirk crossed his face before his low, rumbling laughter took over.

WTF. I love me some romance novels (see here, here and here) but, regardless of the fact that I changed the relationship between Rosaline and Marco, this is no YA love story. Ugh. Delete!

 

In an attempt to fill my head and my pages with better writing, I’ve started reading more about description. I am currently reading The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty. While the book uses poetry for examples, I’ve found the focus on how much can be inferred with only a few lines and well placed words to be illuminating. I’m going to keep up my secondary reading on description for the rest of the month as well. So if you have any books to recommend, let me know in the comments.

Love by the book: Part Two

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Previously, I started a comparison of romance novels with a post about Nora Roberts’ debut novel, Irish Thoroughbred. This week, I’ll look at a more recent release from Roberts, Dark Witch.

Quick refresher for why I picked these two books – the plots are somewhat similar as in both books an isolated young adult moves to another country (Ireland to America and America to Ireland, respectively) to live with family, ends up working with horses, and falls in love with her employer.

Dark Witch was published in November of last year, 32 years after Roberts’ debut, and was her fourth book published that year. It is the first in the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy; the second came out in March 2014 and the final installment is due out this November. As with my post in Part One, I will break down the comparison by the heroine, the man, and the romance/sex.

The Heroine

Iona Sheehan, of an indeterminate age, leaves her life in the States behind to live in Ireland and get to know her distant cousins. She has blonde hair that she cut into a short pixie style just before she left for Ireland and is described as being cute, short (5’ 3”), and slim with the body of a teenaged boy. To make up for her short stature, she wears heels and she prefers to wear bright colours.

Iona’s parents are alive but emotionally distant as are her grandparents except for her beloved Nan, her mother’s mother, who shared the family history and the twist in Dark Witch’s plot. The twist in Dark Witch is a centuries-old magical feud that ties the cousins together against an evil, seductive force named Cabhan that wants to consume their power. Iona has felt different, vaguely aware of her power, her whole life and wants to find herself in Ireland.

As with all her novels, Roberts peppers small examples of her characters’ idiosyncrasies. Iona babbles when she is nervous and, I can’t believe this is supposed to be endearing, flutters her hands. On the plus side, she doesn’t hide her feelings but just jumps right in to everything she tries, professionally and personally, including a relationship with Boyle McGrath.

The Man

I have no clue why Iona is attracted to Boyle. When she first meets him, Iona describes Boyle as a cowboy, pirate, and wild tribal horseman and compares him to the horse he is riding. He has caramel hair and gold/green eyes, a rawboned face, a strong jaw and stubborn mouth and a thin scar through his eyebrow. And he has that sexiest of attributes, a temper: “He’s all tough and cranky.” As in Irish Thoroughbred, Roberts uses Boyle’s relationship with horses to show his character – the horses in his stable are well treated boosting him in Iona’s estimation, and he gets into a physical fight with the abusive previous owner of one of his horses to protect it from going back under the other man’s care (the horse’s name is Darling, seriously).

But for all the buildup of Boyle’s attractiveness, I found him so boring and reserved. In many ways, I saw this relationship as a reversal of Travis and Adelia in Irish Thoroughbred. Like Adelia, Boyle is skittish about the romantic attention and Iona enjoys overwhelming him and watching him struggle with his attraction. In one instance, Boyle is leaving but turns back to come kiss her, which pleases Iona, “The reluctance in it only added a sexy edge.”

Boyle’s reservation is further highlighted when Iona suggests they have sex. Boyle gives several excuses to put off a night together, even though he imagines what it would be like, but Iona only jokes about his discomfort. “‘You want dinner first.’ Her smile perked up when she clearly saw he didn’t get the joke. ‘That’s fine…’” Boyle states they will go out for dinner in his “own time.” He is so hesitant it is almost like the virginal heroines of romance novels of the ’80s. When Iona shares the exchange with her cousin Branna, the tale is met with sarcastic surprise, but also highlights why I had a hard time feeling anything for this couple:

Too happy to be dampened, Iona laughed. “It’s a big step up from grunting at me. He thinks I’m a puzzle, can you imagine? I mean, seriously, who couldn’t figure me out? I’m as simple as they come.”

Ugh. This is where I stopped taking notes (on page 178 of 342). She is simple and he grunts and this is supposed to make me invested in their relationship? There really isn’t much depth to this relationship, just open spaces with lightning touching down occasionally.

The Romance/Sex

The view of the romance is one sided in the beginning with Iona being impressed by Boyle’s looks and fluttering her hands every time she talks about him. Their first kiss comes when he is picking her up to move her to her cousin’s home. She is practicing magick (as Roberts spells it to indicate we are to take this stuff as seriously as the characters; it’s for realzies magick) and he kisses her to shut her up: “‘You talk to bloody much.’ With that, he gave her a yank…And took her mouth like a man starving for it.” Just like Travis years ago, Boyle uses sexual contact as a way to make his love interest stop speaking.

The sex comes after Iona is attacked by the evil sorcerer Cabhan in the form of a wolf. She and Boyle are together and fight side-by-side; Boyle supporting Iona as she uses magick to create a wall of fire and throw balls of fire at Cabhan. Once they safe and back at Boyle’s place, they have fast, slightly awkward, sex.

The sex is where Dark Witch differs from Irish Thoroughbred the most. Roberts includes some of the first-time lovers fumbling, which matches the characters’ personalities as well, but once they are naked they become Superlovers having the best sex ever. It is described in detail, not with slang or erotic language, but clearly – hands here, mouth there, and thrust – but Roberts includes the emotions tied to the actions, too. I think when Roberts first started writing, these scenes would have been considered the stuff of erotic literature, similar to Fifty Shades of Grey territory now – the stuff in Dark Witch wouldn’t be found under general romance in the ’80s. It isn’t badly written, though the starlight in their hair and eyes get a little eye-rollie.

As for marriage, this is where the books differ as well as it isn’t forced on the couple but instead is the reward at the end of the book after overcoming all obstacles. In Dark Witch, in addition to the centuries-old curse she has to overcome, Iona overhears Boyle complain about how she pushed herself into his life and he needs some space. It is a misunderstanding, which he regrets but won’t apologize for at first, so she gives him his space. It doesn’t last long, though, as their dealings with Cabhan force Boyle to speed up his process and reconcile with Iona before their big battle. After the final (sort of) battle with Cabhan, in which Iona and Boyle risk their lives to save each other, Boyle confesses his love and they get engaged. As Iona puts it, “Love…given freely, taken willingly. There was no stronger magick.”

I haven’t really discussed the magick storyline, mostly because it was silly – the wording, the plot holes, the fact that it was supposed to be a main plot point but doesn’t get resolved properly. Roberts’ has written several series or interrelated novels (19 including the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy) and of the ones I’ve read there is a storyline that flows through each book before being fully resolved in the final installment, but it isn’t as integral to the main character as it is in Dark Witch. I felt endlessly frustrated by the conclusion of this novel, so much so that I have no interest in picking up the installment because it will happen again.

Between the two novels, despite its outdated relationship dynamic, I preferred Irish Thoroughbred. The lower page count made putting up with its more grating aspects easier and it really was a product of its time. Dark Witch was a disappointment and took for.ever. to read (maybe I don’t like magic in any form). I usually enjoy the mindless entertainment of a Nora Roberts romance – she isn’t the queen of the genre for no reason – but this one was not worth the time.

What is worth the time is an interview with Roberts that I found while researching her work for these posts. She talks about her decades as a romance writer, how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. It is a great read and gives a great taste of the woman behind the amazing writing success.

 

Love by the book: Part One

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I use to devour romance novels. Short, easy to read, page-turning plots: what’s not to love about books about love? Nora Roberts, the reigning queen of hearts, has published over 200 novels. She also publishes under the pseudonym J.D. Robb, which was created just to keep up with her output. By her own estimation, Roberts finishes a new novel every 45 days. What?!? You can argue about the quality (and we will), but you can’t deny that she still puts words on the page at a phenomenal rate.

Given her success and influence in the romance genre, I thought it would be an interesting comparison to read her first romance novel and one that was recently published.

Her first, Irish Thoroughbred, was published in 1981 with Silhouette Books. Irish Thoroughbred tells the story of Adelia Cunane who moves to America to live with her uncle and winds up training champion horses and falling in love with Travis Grant, the owner of Royal Meadows stables.

For comparison I chose Dark Witch, published in November 2013 with Berkley Books, though it isn’t the most recent as there were three other books published after this date. Dark Witch tells the story of Iona Sheehan who moves from the U.S. to live in Ireland with her distant cousins and winds up caring for horses at a local stable and falls in love with the owner, Boyle McGrath.

Despite the similar basic plots the books are wildly different in tone and focus and highlight the progression of Roberts’ writing and, as a result, the change to the romance genre in general.

The keystones of romance novels are the heroine, the man, and the romance/sex, so I’ll break down the novels by looking at these three areas, but to keep the posts a little more manageable, I’ll first discuss Roberts’ debut and make a separate post for her more recent publication.

So, let’s begin with Irish Thoroughbred.

The Heroine

Adelia Cunane is a 23-year-old orphan who was raised by her emotionally distant aunt from the age of 10. She took care of the family farm and eventually her aunt from the time of her parents’ death until she was called to live in America by her uncle. She is innately in tune with horses and empathizes with them. She is described as having wavy auburn hair, large, deep green eyes with thick lashes, tilted nose, full mouth, and, most importantly, tiny.

Adelia is referred to as “half pint,” “little lady,” and “little thing” and her nickname from her uncle is “little Dee.” Besides these references she is also referred to as a “girl” and “child” or, alternatively, depending on the situation, as a “little wench,” “green-eyed witch,” and “blonde witch” or “faerie queen” and “faerie goddess.”

To a modern reader, these references are occasionally cringe-inducing, as in this moment early in the romance: “‘You look like a child.’ Her chestnut hair hung loose and heavy over the shoulders of her robe, and he ran a hand down the length of it. ‘A child can’t be bundled off to bed with out a goodnight kiss’, he said softly.” Nothing is sexier than being referred to as a child, right? This exchange ends with him kissing her on the cheek, though it leaves her “unsatisfied.”

The emphasis on her size and youthfulness, despite being 23, does not change as the romance progresses. Near the end of the story, Travis says he wouldn’t feel so protective of Adelia if she “didn’t continually look fifteen instead of twenty-three.” Protective, okay, but remember he is supposed to be sexually attracted to her, a person he thinks looks like an underage half-pint. Creepy. Which brings us to…

The Man

Roberts provides an unintentionally amusing description of Travis as it is almost like that of a horse: tall, powerfully built, sharp blue eyes, tanned, muscular, black curly hair, and strong white teeth. The description of his teeth made me laugh. I pictured a vet opening a horse’s mouth for inspection. Yep, all good here.

But Travis makes a good first impression on Adelia before she even meets him. First through the opinion of her uncle and secondly by the way he treats his horses. Two awkward descriptions come from this first impression. When Adelia arrives at Royal Meadows she sees how the horses are treated and warmly thinks that he “knows how to care for what he owns.” This phrasing is a little disturbing, “what he owns,” given that he will soon be Adelia’s employer and the emphasis on ownership rather than what should be an expected behaviour. It stuck out to me the first time I read it and it stayed with me as they continued to interact.

Travis spends most of their relationship overwhelming and overriding Adelia. Their first kiss comes after a brief argument and he kisses her to shut her up, a reason given more than once. Giving orders and protecting Adelia, his half-pint, is really all there is to him. His character is not as well formed as Adelia’s; while she has a relationship with her uncle, befriends Travis’ twin sister and interacts with his nephews, he is only revealed in direct relation to Adelia.

The Romance/Sex

As already mentioned, Adelia, despite being in her 20s, is depicted as a little spitfire with emphasis on the little. While her stature is meant to make her seem vulnerable, it is also exploited.

In an unfortunately common scene in romance novels, Adelia is nearly raped by a co-worker but is saved by Travis. She tries to defend herself, of course, both verbally and physically, but is too small to fight him off. Travis comes and beats him near to death until Adelia calls him off. Travis’s anger is frightening to Adelia: “His face seemed to be caved from granite, his eyes steely blue and penetrating as he started at her. She trembled at the strong, harsh mask and offered up a silent prayer that she would never have that deadly fury directed at her.”

It is meant to show the intensity of his emotion but, especially on the heels of a rape scene, the mixture of violence and love is disturbing. (I won’t get into a detailed discussion of this issue here, but check out these two posts, here and here, from Romance Novels for Feminists for more information on this issue.) It is worth noting that in Irish Throughbred Adelia refuses to call the police out of fear of upsetting her beloved Uncle Paddy but in Roberts’ later works the heroines occasionally rescue themselves (or are rescued by their love interest) and do call the police.

Travis and Adelia continue to bond through the race horses as she accompanies him to several races where, of course, their horse wins. The relationship is sped up by the ill health of Uncle Paddy. After he has a heart attack, he asks Travis to marry Adelia so that he doesn’t have to worry that she will be left alone should he die. Travis agrees and Adelia goes along with the idea.

Within the confines of marriage, sex is now allowed and expected. A storm facilitates an opportunity and, weeks after their hospital bed-side wedding, they have sex. Their lovemaking is glossed over, referenced more in comparison to the storm, and then it is the next morning. Adelia’s lost virginity is only confirmed by her remark that she never had woken up with a man in her bed.

But their relationship isn’t completely solid until the “I love yous” are exchanged so one more complication is thrown up before the story can end. In this case, it is Travis’ ex-girlfriend, who comes to the house and implies that Travis will divorce Adelia and marry her. Adelia, despite her bond with her uncle, decides she can no longer live in America and leaves for the airport to head back to Ireland.

In one of my least favourite romance tropes, Adelia and Travis are yelling at each other before finally admitting they love each other. They go from yelling, with Travis physically restraining Adelia (while kissing her), to making love. What is strange is that despite the I love yous being the final act of the story, Roberts never has the characters actually say “I love you.” It is implied, said second hand, but not provided as dialogue. With so much of the story hinging on that realization, it seems to be an odd omission.

Overall, Irish Thoroughbred is typical for its time and follows a plot that most people would associate with a book in the romance genre. At just over 170 pages in the addition I read, it was a quick read. The pace and Adelia’s generally enjoyable, if dated, character makes it easy to see why Roberts was given another book deal.

Now I’m really looking forward to reading Dark Witch to see the differences; I’m sure there will be many. Roberts is a force within the romance genre and it should be interesting to see where she takes her writing. So come back next week to hear all about Dark Witch!