Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Monday, 10 March 2008


Woot! I just got Pamela Regis's A Natural History of the Romance Novel in the post today.

I've been meaning to read this forever (well, since the Bindel Fiasco) and the first 16 pages have been very instructive.

The book is a refutation of the claim that "the form of the romance novel genre - its ending in marriage - extinguishes the heroine and binds the reader." (11)

Regis argues that it's not in the HEA (or 'the betrothal') that the true meaning of a romance novel is found, but the 'barrier' and the 'point of ritual death.' The freedom our heroine achieves in overcoming these elements is what we the readers relate to. It is the heroine's freedom to choose the hero that we celebrate at the end of a novel.

I think.

That's me at page sixteen. I remain to be convinced, sitting somewhere in the middle of Bindel and Regis in this great never-to-end debate. Behold:

Wednesday, 5 March 2008


I've been meaning to write about this for an age, but a recent article in The Guardian tipped me into action mode. Where The Guardian leads, I follow.
"Unrequited love is nearly a universal experience. It is the stuff of literature (Cyrano de Bergerac had it badly but carried it nobly) and of deep despair. A study of 155 men and women in the Journal Of Personality And Psychology, from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, found that only 2% had never experienced unrequited love (defined as an intense, passionate yearning that is not reciprocated). The study counted being rejected and rejecting someone as such an 'experience'. Men were a third more likely to have suffered unrequited love because of rejection."

Continues the wise Dr Dillner,
"Some people are more prone to unrequited love. If you are anxious (about relationships), emotionally needy and fall in love rather easily, then you're courting disappointment. Passion is great, but too much, too soon can push people away."

What brought on my interest in this neglected area of romance were the lyrics of the Harrow Sparrow, our very own warbling and tweeting Kate Nash. I kind of love her album, and I was struck by two tracks in particular, which articulate so well the highs and particularly the lows of unrequited love, or a giant crush. Listening to them made me remember all those times I've been in the throes of an agonising infatuation: the sweaty palms and the clumsy tongue and the excruciating blushes.

Nash has songs that go on forever, so I've plucked some choice lyrics

We Get on
Simply knowing you exist
Ain't good enough for me
But asking for your telephone number
Seems highly inappropriate

Seeing as I can't
Even say hi
When you walk by

[After a very funny and rambling narrative, Nash concludes on these prosaic and sweet words]

I don't ever dream
About you and me
I don't ever make up stuff about us
That would be classed as insanity
I don't ever drive by your house to see if you're in
I don't even have an opinion
On that tramp that you're still seeing
I don't know your timetable
I don't know your face off by heart
But I must admit
That there is still a part of me
That thinks we might get on
That we could get on
That we should get on

And then The Nicest Thing, wistful and full of longing,

I wish I was your favourite girl
I wish you thought I was the reason you are in the world
I wish my smile was your favourite kind of smile
I wish the way that I dressed was your favourite kind of style...

I wish you had a favourite beauty spot
That you loved secretly
'Cause it was on a hidden bit
That nobody else could see
Basically, I wish that you loved me
I wish that you needed me
I wish that you knew when I said two sugars,
Actually I meant three

There's just something about the way Nash blends the everyday mundane with sadness and longing that really got me. I'm not usually a fan of yearning and angsting and wishin' and hopin' but these songs have made me want to read some romances that deal effectively with the torments and obsessiveness of unrequited love.

In the past, I've shied away from this type of romance, possibly because pining heroines in the classics I was forced to read as a kid - books like Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Villette, The Professor (the entire works of Charlotte Bronte, let's face it) - left me angry and frustrated. Do something, damnit! Stop moping, ladies! Not to mention, the object of all this repressed longing was rarely worth the trouble.

Another practitioner is Mr Charles Dickens, who creates intensely passionate feelings in the hearts of his male protagonists. The foolish passion Pip felt for Estella (I never had one hour's happiness in her society, and yet my mind all round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death); the deep love John felt for Bella in Our Mutual Friend, which was ultimately returned; and Sydney Carton's love for Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities ("You have been the last dream of my soul..." ).

Which brings me to my next point: I think men are intrinsically more sympathetic as the victims of unrequited love. Where Elenaor and Fanny made me gnash my teeth, Mr Darcy, Rhett Butler and Gilbert (Anne of Green Gables) made me sigh and melt. Perhaps it's a female thing: the thought of powerful, handsome men pining away for a woman must appeal on a wish-fulfillment level.

One of the few sympathetic portrayals of female unrequited love is Cassandra's for Simon in I Capture the Castle, an absolutely fantastic book about being young and in love.

More recently, romances I've read with one half of the couple secretly in love with the other include The Smoke Thief, That Linda Howard Sarah's Child - and - and -!

Not much else, really.

Some recommendations, please! Anything that makes you sigh with fellow feeling as you recall in excruciating detail the follies of your youth will do.

I leave you with the immortal words of Charlie Brown -
"Nothing spoils the taste of peanut butter like unrequited love."

Saturday, 1 March 2008


Are you afraid of falling, baby?
No, I’m afraid of landing.

[He’s laughing and I’m smiling.]
Stupid idiot smile, don’t you know what comes next?

Sirantha Jax is a jumper. A carrier of the J-gene, she has the rare ability to navigate through Grimspace (and if you want to know what that is, read the fragging book). The story opens with Jax incarcerated in a Corporation facility in the aftermath of a jump gone bad. She is the sole survivor of a crash that killed 82 souls, including her pilot and lover, Kai. Jax has been jumping for fifteen years - a record high; for jumpers burn out fast and end up either dying mid jump, or quitting when they sense they are close to burnout. She is in deep grieving for Kai and her mind is close to destroyed, in no small part thanks to the interrogation techniques employed by the Corp Psychs, who are trying to get her to confess to crashing The Sargasso.

Jax is rescued from her cell by a mysterious man called March, the leader of a renegade band of fighters seeking to break the Corp monopoly on intersteller travel - and they need Jax in order to create a new breed of jumper.

Right. I was worried when I started Grimspace that I would be ill-equipped to deal with the sci-fi aspect of the story, as I don’t read in the genre. Luckily, my background in TV sci-fi is fairly solid (the various incarnations of Star Trek, Firefly, the new Battlestar Galactica) and I found myself settling into Aguirre’s world comfortably enough. Too comfortably, perhaps: I kind of wish one of the reviewers hadn’t said it reminded her of Firefly/ Serenity, for I immediately began to make comparisons with the show, and Whedonverse in general:

A rag tag assembly of quirky characters who quip at the most importune of times? Check.

Small women with immense power? Check. (looking forward to finding out more about Kerri)

Scary intersteller organisation seeking to impose hegemony over all civilised worlds, against which our heroes are fighting? Check.

More generally, any sci-fi from Star Trek to Battlestar has a certain core group of characters aboard a ship - captain, hot shot pilot, grumpy engineer, Doc, and the alien who allows us to gain perspective on our own humanity. (I suppose in romance parlance, these characters are the equivalent of the Other Woman, the Bad Mommy, the Slimy Rapist, the Fairy God Mother etc etc).

So anyway, sci-fi conventions all present and correct. (‘Jumping’ is also a term I've encountered in Battlestar Galactica, although Aguirre has taken this beyond the FTL travel and into grimspace, which is a very cool and interesting concept, particularly in the interdependent relationship it creates between jumper and pilot.)

Indeed, as I was reading Grimspace, I noted it was like watching an action movie, lots of action, great visuals. And Aguirre creates a vivid set of characters and locations, each more strange and exotic than the next. It is an eminently readable book, with short, crisp chapters and a constantly moving story that picks up speed nicely towards the end. The immediacy of the present tense-first person narrative means we experience everything with Jax, which adds to the excitement. (On the down side, there are times when everything is exploding and lives are in danger and Jax is explaining something utterly mundane and I’m thinking - run now, cogitate later!)

What makes Grimspace stand out are three things. Firstly, the writing. Aguirre is good and shows promise of getting better. I loved bits like this - The sky looks like a boiled potato - and this - A smile like a corrupt halo file flickers at the edges of her mouth. Her evocation of Jax’s loss and emotional fragility is also very good. I liked reading this book.

Secondly, there is Jax herself. So often authors attempt to create tough female protagonists and end up with wimpy losers. With Jax, you get what it says on the label. She is tough; she fights first, thinks later (thinking isn’t her strong suit, she readily admits). When it comes to saving her own skin, she’s a committed survivor and when it comes to making hard decisions, she doesn’t think about the children, she thinks about the odds. I love it. Plus, she enjoys sex, is more than happy to have good sex with a hot guy if it ensures safe passage (seriously!) and even remarks at one point, I know I don't look as good as I did before the crash, but I’m a rocket in bed. Cool, no?

Thirdly, the body count. I appreciate an author who can kill off her characters, and Aguirre really piles up the body count.

What doesn’t work for me is the romance, and part of that is related to the character of March. In a story bristling with quirky, unusual characters, there is something depressingly familiar about March. He is a Romance Hero and there is no escaping it. His fate is revealed from the first, when he is described as having a 'rough hewn, authoritative face’ and a ‘saturnine smile.’ I have no idea what he looks like, but I know he’s the Romantic Interest. Show me a rough hewn face that isn’t.

The romance between Jax and March is almost shoehorned in, and most clumsily at first. Jax is annoyingly juvenile in her initial interactions with him - There’s a five year old inside me that wants to kick his shins. This sort of elementary school flirtation just sits wrong, particularly when she is simultaneously recovering from the recent death of her lover. I could have done with a less antagonistic relationship between these two, perhaps based on mutual, grudging respect and a strong attraction.

March has a troubled past and a hyperactive saviour complex. He develops over the course of the story, but I guess there’s no breaking the mold, for in the end he remains a familiar creature: an incredibly powerful male - he’d kill the world for me - with a tortured past. It is his love for Jax that saves him and any threat to her life that unleashes his terrifying power.

I thought the resolution to the story was rushed and a little too easy (did no one else think to check the agenda?), but like a well executed action movie, it left me with a good buzz.

A highly recommended B.

[An aside: I would be really interested to know what a sci-fi reader thought of Grimspace. Does it break new ground? What kind of sci-fi is it? Leave a comment.]