So, all during August I have been revising The Dark Turn of Winter. This is my second book for Saga, so my editor for this one is Navah Wolfe. I’m really, really glad she gave this book a thumbs up because a) I am quite fond of it myself; and b) it would be fairly difficult to write something else for Saga in, like, a month or whatever. What a nightmare that would have been, seriously. Unless she wound up approving something else of mine that I have already written, of course. That would have been okay. But thankfully the issue doesn’t come up because she approved Winter.
Also, I expect you have all forgotten this, but Navah is the one who had me revise The Mountain of Kept Memory by removing one of the two main protagonists, replacing him with a different character who had been secondary, and rearranging the plot to accommodate the change. Although I wound up with a tighter plot and I like the results quite a bit – and let me just remind you that Mountain comes out in November and you should all totally read it and then if you’re interested I will describe some of the changes – anyway, I was pretty relieved that Navah’s revision comments for Winter were a lot more, uh, restrained.
Nevertheless, revision. Revision takes not just time but also mental energy (Is this plot point clear enough now? Is this character more compelling? Is the relationship between the two primary protagonists out in the open enough so that readers can tell they are falling for each other? OHMY GOD THIS BOOK IS GETTING REALLY LONG IS THAT OKAY? (It looks like I’m going to tip over into 200,000 words during this revision (the final version of the rough draft was 184,000, which Navah didn’t comment about so I guess length is okay. I hope.))).
So, I have been reading some nonfiction during the revision process, but I really wanted to read fiction, too. There’s only so much time one can spend reading political blogs or Twitter, after all, especially this year, where the two are trying to merge (which I simply detest; of course people want different things from social media, but personally, I can’t tell you how many people I have unfollowed because they keep tweeting about politics).
Yet though I definitely wanted to read fiction, I couldn’t afford to let myself get totally distracted and pulled into other authors’ books. Romances turned out to be exactly what I needed. So this month so far I have read:
A Wedding Journey, The Lady’s Companion, and Softly Falling, all by Carla Kelly. Some of you recommended these. They are all historical novels where the romance is fairly central, yet presented in a fairly restrained way. There is no explicit sex, which as far as I’m concerned is a definite point in Kelly’s favor. Also, the protagonists often have a lot more to deal with than just getting their own lives and relationships in order. One can see that Kelly is primarily a historian who includes romances in her historical novels, rather than primarily a romance writer who is including history in her romance novels.
The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson. This is also a historical romance.
Truly by Ruthie Knox. This one is contemporary. Chachic recommended it ages ago for anyone who enjoys foodie details in their romance, which of course I totally do.
I also started and DNFed two mysteries, one cozy and one . . . whatever you call non-cozy mysteries? I didn’t get very far in them, though I wouldn’t want to try to pin down just what about them didn’t work for me because neither one was actually bad. In contrast, all these romances were a pleasure to read.
So let’s see. Taking Carla Kelly first. I don’t take notes on who recommended what to me, not being that organized, so I don’t recall. But I liked these a lot. A Wedding Journey is mainly though not exclusively from the point of view of Jesse, an assistant surgeon in the British army during the Napoleonic wars; and also occasionally from the pov of a young nurse attached to his marching hospital, Nell. Jesse and Nell and a couple soldiers and a few patients find themselves on their own during a retreat through Spain and I expect you can more or less anticipate the plot from there. The best touch: Jesse frequently makes little asides to Hippocrates. That was so charming. I kind of kept thinking of A Beacon at Alexandria, though the two books are nothing alike, of course. Anyway, the good guys were a little too good to be true, especially a couple of the secondary characters; and the villains were perhaps a little too villainous to be believable, but overall it was just right for the purpose; ie, fun to read without being particularly compelling.
So, I enjoyed that one, but overall I liked The Lady’s Companion better. This one involves Susan Hampton, an upper-class young lady whose spendthrift father rips through the money she need for her come-out and throws them both on the dubious charity of her aunt. So she gets a job as companion to old Lady Bushnell. David Wiggins is the bailiff at the estate. So there you go, basically, although the background details about the Bushnell family are quite complicated and fascinating. So this is one of the few – the very few – historical romances (or for that matter contemporary romances, probably) where the female lead winds up marrying way beneath herself socially. A very interesting touch. The bailiff is such an interesting character that as far as I’m concerned he kind of leaves Susan herself in the shade, though I don’t recall getting many (if any) scenes from his point of view. He works better as a secondary character, though, and Susan carries the pov just fine.
And then Softly Falling. It just happens that I read these three books in this order, which happens to be the order I’d line ’em up anyway. Softly Falling was definitely my favorite and guarantees that I’ll be coming back to Carla Kelly’s work in the future.
Nice cover, especially for a romance. No close-up of the naked chest of a guy. That’s a plus for me.
The primary protagonist here is Lily Carteret, whose father is British and mother was from Barbados. She’s an unwanted poor relation in her uncle’s house, so when the uncle marries, he sends her to her father, who has a job on a cattle ranch in Wyoming (this is in 1886). Now, here, for the first time, I thought the female lead was up to the weight of the male lead. I liked Lily a lot. She’s complex in all the best ways – resolute, kind, intelligent, competent. Of course she’s a little too good to be true, but that seems to be typical of Kelly’s work and I enjoy that in a romance anyway, within reason. And of course because Lily is new to Wyoming, her pov is excellent for letting the reader really see the setting.
The male lead is the foreman of the ranch, Jack Sinclair. I liked him at least as much as Lily, and since he’s totally familiar with Wyoming and the ranch and the life of a cowhand, he’s just the right kind of foil for Lily when it comes to bringing the setting to life. Let me add that I am SO GRATEFUL I don’t live on a Wyoming cattle ranch in 1886, particularly during an especially dreadful winter. So: Lily, Jack, a terrible winter, there you go.
Unsurprisingly, just as the good guys in Softly Falling are Very Good, the bad guys are Thoroughly Bad – in this case, that’s the owner of the cattle ranch and his equally awful wife. Naturally they get what they deserve, and good riddance to them. Frankly I thought this particular story would have worked just as well with a little bit of a lighter hand on the Badness, but it was fine, especially since we see relatively little of the bad guys.
Also, it could be coincidence, but in each of these three books, one of the lead protagonists has a father who is a wastrel, a spendthrift, an alcoholic, or all three. That set up might be kind of a thing for Kelly. But the father seemed substantially more complex and believable (and likeable) in Softly Falling than the other two books.
Overall Carla Kelly is a great discovery for me. She’s got plenty more books and I think they will be just right for me while I am revising – probably too distracting if I’m actually working on a first draft. Softly Falling was actually a little too distracting, which is a problem that by definition is a pleasure, of course.
So, then, moving on. I believe several people recommended Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret Countess to me. They were all correct. I greatly enjoyed it – mostly. This one involves Anna Grazinsky, whose noble Russian family lost everything when the tsars fell from power.
Anna winds up with her penniless mother in London, so naturally she takes a job as a housemaid at a country estate. The estate is being readied for the return of the Rupert, the new young Earl of Westerholme, who was injured during the war and is now taking over the impoverished estate because his older brother was killed. Luckily, considering the financial difficulties of the estate, he has a fiancée, a young woman of considerable wealth who greatly desires an aristocratic title. So there’s the plot, obviously.
Now, listen, talk about Too Good To Be True and WAY Too Bad To Be Believable. Perhaps I was sensitized by coming out of Carla Kelly’s novels, but wow.
Actually, Anna’s wonderfulness made me happy. I loved her. She reminded me so much of a scattering of other particularly wonderful characters, like in A Little Princess, remember Sara? I still love that book. In fact, Ibbotson pulls that part off perfectly; I totally believed in Anna. But the bad guys are SO BAD. Wow, that fiancée. She is just despicable. And the doctor who is into eugenics! Of course it took the Nazis and WWII to discredit eugenics, so that hadn’t happened yet. But ugh. I could hardly stand to read the doctor’s pov sections (luckily short). In fact, I mostly skimmed those.
On the other hand, this isn’t a straight romance like Carla Kelly’s work. It’s also something of a comedy of manners, where everyone important finds their plotlines intersecting and weaving together in the most complex way until at the end all the balls fall neatly into the appropriate holes, plink plink plink. It’s a very enjoyable denouement. It totally made me think of Wodehouse, though that is partly because it’s the butler who saves the day at the last moment. Lovely writing, too, though not a bit like Wodehouse. I expect I’ll be adding something else by Ibbotson to my TBR list, too.
Okay, so then I reached for the only other romance I currently have on my TBR pile. Truly had been there for a while, so it was about time to read it. I knew Chachic had recommended it and the male lead was a chef or ex-chef or something. And that it was contemporary. That’s all I knew about it.
Contemporaries are a harder sell for me than historicals, but I liked this one quite a bit. The writing is good; a few times I laughed out loud. There’s a good bit of explicit sex, but I wouldn’t say those scenes take over the book, thankfully. Truly is short on plot compared to any SFF story, or for that matter compared to the above romances. Nothing is going on except the protagonists getting their lives in order, but Knox has created a couple of really believable, likeable protagonists and set them in a network of complicated family relationships.
In this case, the romantic leads are not too good to be true, and there aren’t any villains – not even an antagonist like a terrible winter. The primary protagonist, May, let her life be taken over by her ex-boyfriend because it was the path of least resistance – I can actually completely understand that. But he’s not a bad guy. She’s never felt free to be herself; she feels all this pressure to be sensible and down-to-earth and bland, but that’s her; she’s the one who let herself be stuffed into that box. And she knows it, and knows she’s the one who has to let herself expand if she’s going to. I like how all that is shown. It’s all so true.
However, though I liked May, it was Ben I loved. He would drive me crazy if I were his friend, but as the secondary protagonist he was perfect. All that anger he’s carrying around, and anybody can see he should never, never, never open another high-stress restaurant. He’s got such a weird life right now, urban beekeeper, who would have thought of that as a hobby? (And would anybody really pay $35 for a jar of honey?) He’s got even more to sort out than May, and I really liked how that was shown, too. He also struck me as true and real.
And the secondary characters have their own lives and stuff to work out, too, especially May’s family. Also, as an added note, I so much appreciated that May is a big woman with ordinary good looks rather than a Barbie figure with super-model looks. And how Ben is good looking, but not male-model gorgeous with ripped abs. A lot more romances, imo, could stand to tone down the physical perfection of the lead characters.
So that’s August reading so far: unusually romance heavy. I’m out now, so I’ll have to read other stuff unless I want to buy more books (thus expanding the TBR pile). At the moment I’m re-reading Hunting by Andrea K Höst, but after that maybe I will dip into the historical fantasy bundle I picked up recently.
Until I finish revising The Dark Turn of Winter. After that I am totally going to take a break and read the most intense, compelling SFF novels I can find on my TBR pile.