Finally! A Romance: Observation Note 94 and Reading Notes 37-38

Observation Note 94: Finally! I didn’t feel that I could go a whole month of blogging daily and not have read a romance in that time. It took me eight whole days to finish reading a novel which twenty, ten, eight, and even five years ago would have taken maybe two days to fly through. I don’t know if it was the book (doubtful), the person I now am (probably), or the anxiety brought on by the current Sydney lockdown (most likely) but I could not bring myself to read more than a chapter at a time. My attention was scattered, and the story didn’t resonate with me. In actual fact, there were elements that I quite disliked. I realise that I am an outlier on this.

Reading Note 37: A Romance – likes. So first I will touch on the parts of Talia Hibbert’s Take a hint, Dani Brown that were good. Those parts that made me persist in my reading of the book. Firstly, I really liked the characters. Zafir, the ex-rugby player turned security guard moonlighting as a coach for a youth team while giving them mental health support was a stellar character. He read romance, he was quiet and contemplative, that he was a Muslim man that embraced the tenets of his faith (lying is haram), that he understood himself, and he had experienced deep grief which had changed the person he was.

I liked Danika, her self confidence, her strength of convictions and her need to control her own narrative. I like that she was a witch, drawing on the tendrils of knowledge passed down to her from her grandmother. Her PhD life was ideal and her own anxieties over conferences and symposiums was relatable (anyone else curl up in a ball screaming with a panic attack a day before a presentation??? Yeah. Not doing that again).

Like the emotional grappling that both Zafir and Danika have to go through to reach an understanding of their own self and the way they wanted to lead their lives. I loved the way that they each were able to connect through laughter and through desire. Their compatibility and connection was palpable. Electric even. But this was not enough to make me like this story.

Now I have left for last my liking of the premise, I guess you could say the romance trope, that underpins this romance. I adore a fake relationship turned real. It usually buzzes with fun. As this one should have but sadly, it didn’t.

Reading Note 38: A romance – dislikes. I feel like I am the only person who became totally squicked out with the execution of fake relationship plot premise? The thing is that Zafir and Danika pretend to be in their fake relationship so that they can entice people to donate money to his mental health for kids organisation “Tackle it”. Part of the fake relationship include becoming fuck buddies for the duration of the public social media fundraiser and I did not feel comfortable with this at all. For two people who are so in touch with their emotions, especially Zafir and his aim for honesty and truth, falsifying his relationship with Danika for public consumption and monetary gain was never resolved for me. There was no remorse or even conscientious grappling with the ethical issues that it raised (I mean – there was a bit of a tussle that was glossed over with a “the end justifies the means” thought.

Then there was the constant mention of dick and cock and pussy and vagina in contexts which jarred the flow of the story. It felt overused and just threw me out of story, wondering why it was even mentioned (this is the point that I am annoyed with myself for not keeping notes while I read just so I can show examples but I can’t even bring myself to browse through the book to find one). The thing is, that a metaphor (bleh!) would not be good either. In the sex scenes, in the build up to intimacy, sure. There is a time and place. I just think that there were too many in this story. I am more than happy to be accused of being puritanical and uptight and that it is my prissy-ness that makes me feel this way but I personally don’t think I am any of these.

There was a library scene that just got my librarian (well former librarian) back up. Zafir finds Danika in the library and they get all hot and heavy and he gets an erection and they are performing for their social media fake relationship and I just wanted to shout at them to stop and that their PDA was not acceptable. Having had to interrupt many a young couple being WAY TOO AMOROUS in public libraries, being WAY TOO HORIZONTAL, being WAY TOO HEAVY BREATHING, I wanted to tear this scene up and scream NOOOOOOOOO! Be adults! Have some respect for the poor library staff.

And then there was the length. This is an old bug bear of mine. At 9pm tonight I still had 50 pages to go. 50! And they had only just had their big break up. My eyes feel like they are bleeding. 50 pages of black moment and make up/love/self realisation to sit through. Ugh. Too long. And then there were about 10 pages of fricken epilogue. Noooo! I mean, I finished the book by 10:30ish. But the length is my perennial complaint with most fiction. TOO LONG! Make it shorter. This is not about my focus or my attention span. I have plenty of that. This is about the propensity for navel gazing, copious amounts of backstory, and excuciatingly detailed filler angst in just about all fiction. YA fiction – too fucking long. Literary fiction – too fucking long. Fantasy fiction – too fucking long. Let me be clear here – my only ONLY reason for not reading 50 Shades of Grey has nothing to do with the story, the public perception, the kink, or any other alarmist shit. It has everything to do with 500 page doorstoppers per volume. *deep breath*

So yes. I felt Take a Hint, Dani Brown was too too long. I got bored when I should have just loved the whole story.

Desire, choosing your panels, and hinting (again): Observation Note 92-93 and Reading Note 36

Observation Note 92: Desire. When I woke up this morning, I propped myself up in bed with my computer and watched a New Yorker live event called Words of Desire with Alexandra Schwartz interviewing Emma Cline, Garth Greenwell and Ottessa Moshfegh. From the outset I want to point out that I have never read any of these writers’ books or essays so I cannot make any comment about their own work. I was however curious as to what these four literary writers could bring to the discussion of desire. Unsurprisingly, The New Yorker didn’t include any romance writers or romance scholars into their panel so I didn’t expect the discussion to be deeply nuanced on the subject of desire or even sex. I also want to point out that I still was groggy from sleep, and my coffee was brought to me a good ten minutes into the discussion (thanks wonderful Husband!), so my notes and my memory may be rather dodgy. All mistakes and misunderstandings are the fault of my morning brain.

The panel started out being asked about what they read – who were the masters of writing sex. Of course, none named romance writers, however Cline did point to Scott Spencer’s Endless Love and I was all “A-ha! Didn’t all teen girls read Endless Love like I did, hiding in the bathroom so that my older sister didn’t discover that I had stolen her copy that she had claimed I was much too young to read”. It made Cline feel that tad relatable to me (and then I realised that she was born nearly a decade after I read it as a new release, and seriously, she would have read it in the ‘noughts and it just made me furrow my brow that it was even still available then – but I digress). Greenwell pointed to poets Dickinson and Whitman as well as queer writers (whose names I missed – one might have been Carl Philips???). However, it was Moshfegh that was the least surprising who said (and I am paraphrasing here) that she had never read a successful sex scene and that she considered their plot use as failure or revulsion. *sigh* … *double sigh*.

I can’t fault Moshfegh for how she described the use of sex in plots or even the role of sex and desire in both her books as well as the books she had read. I am not at all interested in attacking or criticising these ideas. I completely understand their importance in the way that fiction is written and felt by reader/writers. I was totally on board with her description of her fiction writing approach. But I did feel sad that she had never read a good sex scene. But, damn!

The questions moved on to discuss different ideas around sex, deviance (huh??? was this a hint to 50 Shades and the changes it has brought in reading???) and its new space in society – Greenwell points out that there will always be forbidden topics to write about, as well as the challenge of writing happiness. The two women seem constrained in their answers on happiness as that they can only get themselves to write comedy or dogs. They only notice “the moments that aren’t happy”. But once again Greenwell answered eloquently saying that any human emotion can reveal insights (I especially liked Garth Greenwell as a panelist though all were very good. He’s now on my TBR). I found that the panelists kept slipping and calling it “sex writing” not “desire” and I personally think these are both quite different writing styles with possible overlaps.

What I did find interesting, and I can’t remember who on the panel said it, was the idea that in literary fiction, the sex scene was where the tension between two characters was created – it was the point that caused problems. This is so different to romance fiction where quite often, it is in the sex scene that the characters find congruence, where they find compatibility, love and connection.

Reading Note 36. Hinting again. So despite not really feeling warmly towards Talia Hibbert’ Take A Hint, Dani Brown, (Reading Note 35) I decided that I would continue to read the novel to completion. The chapter I am up to has the protagonists Zafir and Danika finally in her apartment with the agreement that they were to become “fuck buddies”. They quite clinically laid down their ground rules of how long their arrangement will last, how they will negotiate any affection between the two of them, and some other minutiae. From their, their sex (not love at all) scene just went off. A whole detailed chapter that sizzled with desire and sex. I wouldn’t call it beautiful but it certainly was emotional and carnal, suited to the story’s trajectory. And it certainly was not a failure.

Observation Note 93: Choosing your panel accordingly. Actually, having such low expectations for this panel meant I was pleasantly surprised that it was thoughtful even though the conversation lacked the depth of the dialogues I have become accustomed to when I attend romance writer panels or author talks, whether they are at writer’s festivals or scholars presenting on romance fiction at conferences. The one viewer question did address the topic of romance fiction but I got a phone call from my doctor right at that point so I didn’t hear the answer (seriously! how inopportune!!!).

The thing about this New Yorker panel was that it felt like a missed opportunity. I felt disappointed. Though there was an unspoken sense of romance fiction’s presence. From Endless Love, deviance in writing, the really uncomfortable suggestion that perhaps the writing was autobiographical which was diplomatically dismissed by Greenwell (but yeah – why does that stupid question always come up when sex is discussed? Isn’t that the deviant idea? As romance authors are always pointing out, would you ask a crime author if they are writing from an autobiographical lens? And there was of course the question on writing happiness – perhaps even for The New Yorker, it is too scandalous to ask literary authors about writing Happily Ever Afters.

This event was good but not great. Its promotion was very romance fiction-ish with all those red and black hearts and lips flowing out of an open book but that was just cosmetic. The panel could have benefitted from the richness of ideas that, say Beverly Jenkins or Jennifer Crusie or so many other erudite romance writers could have contributed. Unfortunately, this lack of at least one romance fiction panelist diminished the contribution of this event.

PS: I deeply appreciate that I can now attend so many wonderful events all over the world. A major shout out to my son who bought me my subscription to The New Yorker and is happy to keep giving me the same gift every year.

Starstruck, Hints and Smirking: Observations 91-92 and Reading Note 35

Observation Note 91: Starstruck. A few days ago, I asked friends for some comedy recommendations. I received some interesting suggestions, most of which I hadn’t heard. The one that was the most suggested was Starstruck – a BBC/HBO production starring Rose Matafeo and Nikesh Patel in a first season six episode show that reimagines the famous star falling in love with a commoner a la Notting Hill except this time the commoner is New Zealander Jessie (Matafeo) who is living the London 20something life who on New Year’s Eve hooks up with a famous superstar Tom (Patel) who she doesn’t even realise he is famous until the morning after. What ensues is the most delightful, funny, complicated, sharp, sad, sexy and ultimately romantic TV series I have seen since Schitts Creek. I adored every moment of it. The six episodes are pivotal plot points throughout the year that move Jessie and Tom’s story forward. I loved the spark between the two of them. It was more than a spark. It was just fireworks. I highly recommend it.

Reading Note 35: Taking Hints. On the other side of the rom-com spectrum, I am really struggling to get through Talia Hibbert’s Take a Hint, Dani Brown. I wasn’t particularly taken by Hibbert’s Get a Life, Chloe Brown and sadly, this book too is not giving me that happy joy I had while watching Starstruck. I started reading Take a Hint last Monday and I am only just half way through the book. To be fair, it is well-written, the dialogue feels like it is fun and sexy and I am totally on board with the serious mental health issues that the hero has, and that they are so well understood and clarified. But there is something that doesn’t resonate for me and so far, the only thing I can pinpoint is that Dani Brown has been described as “smirking” at the hero.

Observation Note 92: Smirk. Smirking to me is not a positive character trait. It is denotes derision and sarcasm. I realise that it is (over)used in romance fiction A LOT and in fan fiction even more. Perhaps I feel this way because the Australian prime minister is nicknamed Smirko because even in the most serious situations – megafires, floods and pandemics, he has a big sly smirk on his face and it just makes me want to scream. Applying smirks as a way of two characters flirting with each other in a romance does not sit well with me. It smacks of passive aggressive, of a sense of superiority. Now if this had been the black moment, or the moment when the relationship was falling apart, or even if the smirk was the thing that caused the break up – because sure as shit I would be getting out of any relationship if some ‘shithead pumped up on his own inflated sense of self dickhead’ smirked at me, sure thing. Smirk away if that is the cause of the break up. But smirking as part of the love narrative. Nope.

So yep. Maybe it is the smirk that has put me off. I’ll still finish reading the book. But yeah. I hope there is no more smirking.

New to me author and getting a life

I have surprised myself in that I have managed to read yet another novel! What is this new life of mine? I’m liking how being liberated from being a student feels. Unemployed for the while, I am listening to podcasts, reading, watching TV and attempting to clean the house. Reading is still super-slow as I had a whole lot of administrative things to do around the thesis as well as finally sinking my teeth into some research that I have had on hold for a while (now to get some funding!). Meanwhile, it’s SuperWendy’s TBR challenge once again and this month’s theme is a new-to-me author and as is my usual way – there are some vague spoilers.

Book: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

Blurb: Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.
• Ride a motorcycle.
• Go camping.
• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.
• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.
• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Continue reading