PONDERING: My Year of Reading DangerouslySaturday, December 31, 2011 13:00
Last year I made the resolution to find a new-to-me historical romance author to love. I signed up with NetGalley for the Avon historical releases and let rip. I read them. Remembering that in the past, covers were no indication of the book inside (anyone remember the original Fabio cover for “Flowers From The Storm”?) I sniggered at the endless parade of garishly coloured prom dresses and set to reading.
Well, I succeeded. I found one.
My criteria were very personal. I’m British (no, I hear you cry, you don’t say!) and I was brought up with my history. Learning it, breathing it, experiencing it every day. I went to a school that was set next to a twelfth-century gatehouse and took its name from the landmark. I lived in a house that was an amalgam of history – actually three houses knocked into one, clumsily in places, so that our kitchen was down a sloped passageway and our bathroom was down two steps from the rest of the house. I didn’t just know British history, I lived it. And I loved it, so I read and read and read.
Because I’m used to subtle differences of lifestyle and attitude, sometimes the characters in historicals read a lot more like twenty-first century Americans. It’s harder to pin this one down, but it’s an attitude, an emphasis on individuality and the right of a person to live his or her life the way he or she wants to. Other things, too. Difficult, but it’s just there.
The language, too, but I don’t entirely blame the author for that. What seems normal speech and syntax can come over as awkward and foreign-sounding, definitely not something a Brit would say, then or now. I write books with American characters, but I have American editors who go through them and point out things the average American would never say or do. It constantly amazes me that, even after ten years of studying, visiting, trying to immerse myself in the culture, I still get things wrong, and I can only be grateful to the editors who put me right. Who knew that Americans don’t have cafetieres, for instance? They have French presses.
So it’s not snobbery or entitlement or any other stupid thing that makes me wail about a book’s inaccuracy. I can’t unlearn what I know. Don’t get me wrong, if a book carries me away, if the characters burst off the page, then I’ll swallow a few nits and bits. Who cares, because nobody can get a book entirely right. However, I do ask that the author transports me to another age, another time, and lets me vicariously live another life. Not much to ask, is it?
Apparently, it is.
Some historicals use so few historical details that they can claim to be accurate historically, because they don’t actually go into details. So they could be set in the 1810s, the 1830s, or even later. Did it matter? Well, yes, because it meant the characters’ dilemmas weren’t in sharp focus. They were generic, like not being able to attract a man or failing after a season. Historically, if you were rich enough or well-connected enough, that didn’t matter.
And the Regency spies! There weren’t any, not in the way that the books describe them. The Napoleonic wars were largely military. The big thing about spies, all pre-Bond spies (yes, Bond, James Bond started the turnaround) was that they were emphatically not gentlemen. This is an era way before Realpolitik, and because a spy’s stock in trade was to lie and cheat and betray his friends, they were despised, not admired. Spies were not gentlemen. They were even kept separate from the other troops in the army, because the other men looked down on them and would victimize them. So a book about a spy in Regency times has a big hill to climb to make it believable. I tend to avoid them, but I’ve read one or two that worked, mainly because the heroes weren’t also aristocrats.
I love detail. Not so much that it swamps a story, but enough to give me a real feel for the time and place. For that matter, that goes whether it’s a historical or a contemporary or a paranormal. I like books that have an individual voice and stand out as different and special. A generic book about “the season,” that has obligatory mentions of Almack’s, and seven zillion young, dark, handsome dukes isn’t going to hold my interest. Nor is a book about a small town where everything is sweetness and light, for that matter.
I started to list the books I read this year, but it just got more and more depressing and it just read as horrid. Most of them are here, and a few are on ERWA, so you can look them up if you like. But I really, really wanted to find a new author to love. Every time I opened a new romance by a new-to-me author, I thought, “Perhaps this is the one. Perhaps this time I’ll get sucked in and I won’t be able to put this book down.” It happened once. Does that mean I’d wasted my time? By no means.
I got into American authored romance in the nineties, via writers like Jo Beverley, Mary Balogh, and Laura Kinsale, who all knew how to write a good book with great characters and still keep the historical details on the button. I wanted another one of those. Not too much to ask, you might say? Well, it seems so. The publishers are dumbing down, as if a reader of romance won’t notice or won’t care about the details. They fail to see that with the homogenisation of the history and the plot comes the homogenisation of the characters. Types rule now, as if being tall, dark, handsome and ruthless is all there is. I want something else, something that makes me remember characters. I read Julie Ann Long’s latest the other week and it almost made me weep. She has a lovely, frothy style, well suited to a light Regency romance, but there must have been a historical error on almost every page, some of them enough to make the most anti-historical reader’s eyes boggle. Faberge eggs in the 1810’s? Doesn’t anybody bother fact checking anymore? That book could have been stellar, but the lack of attention to detail, the whole premise (there were very few, if any, girls’ schools in that era) was so unbelievable, it dragged me away from the start of the story. I’ve been told that this book was probably not the best place to start, but with this book she lost my trust, that essential compact between author and reader that means the reader will go wherever the author takes her. I made so many notes, I nearly doubled the size of the file on my Kindle. It wasn’t that I was looking for things to crit, I was just so sad that this could have been a great read, and instead, the lack of attention to history dragged it down and out. I really thought I’d found my second author to love, but I don’t think I can go through that again.
And I’m so sorry. Not just for that, but because with every review, people think I’m too fussy (maybe I am), or setting myself up as an expert (you don’t have to be an expert to notice the errors in most of these books, really you don’t), or I’m jealous (I don’t need to be that, either). I’ve had emails and comments that accuse me of being all of those things. I just want a good historical romance, that’s all. I want to be able to sit back, open my ereader and know I’m in for a good book. Something like opening the latest Sarah Morgan, Nalini Singh, or Desiree Holt and relaxing with a contented sigh to enter somebody else’s world.
By all means, if you want to write a book about a vague era, distantly related to the Regency, do so, but don’t call it a historical. Call it something else, I don’t know, Regency fantasy or something. Authors are doing that with great effect in the steampunk genre, so why not? Just let me know that nobody, from the author to the editor to the publishing house, cares about the historical background and I’ll give it a go.
To give an example of what I mean, try reading a book about New York where the Empire State Building is free to all comers and the Metropolitan Museum is the same place as the one that gives the opera performances. Or a book about American history, where Apaches roam freely among fashionable New York society and everyone accepts it as normal. Would you feel insulted, amused, bewildered? None of the above?
When I opened Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, I’d almost despaired. I’d waded through masses of dreck, and some even more frustrating “nearly there” books, where something jerked me out of the narrative and made me unable to go on. But Neville delivered. She introduced characters I cared for, enjoyed and could believe in, and they lived in an era that I could recognise as the historical Regency. Believe me, that hasn’t always been the case. She put her characters in unusual but believable and highly enjoyable situations. They were individual and they stood out, so that I can still remember them, months after reading the book. I loved it, and I want more.
So there you have it, my year of reading dangerously. I’ll continue to read, hoping that someday a new author will appear who I can rave about, but I’ll also go back to my old favorites. If you think I’ve overlooked a really great author, please put her my way, and I’ll give her book a go.
Don’t forget, I won’t review books by friends without mentioning that in the review, and I don’t review books put out by publishers that I’m with. That’s so I avoid favouritism and keep myself as unbiased as possible. But if you’ve got it, let me know.
Thanks for listening, as that great transatlantic journalist, Alistair Cooke, used to say.