Books we're reading and mini-reviews . . .
Well, the dog days have hit, it’s a hundred degrees in Virginia, my grandson’s summer visit is over, and I feel like a starship drifting along on impulse. I can barely drag myself to the computer to complete the revisions on my “old” manuscripts in case anyone asks for them, much less fire up my creative spirit to do any new work. We all have these low-energy slumps, and I don’t fret over them. I pick up a book (or two, or seven) and read the results of someone else’s hard work.
The RWA National Conference is always a great source of new reading material (and new authors) and this year’s con was no different. I started with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the mother of all Scottish Highlander/time travel/ historical romances, one of the free giveaways at the authors’ opening panel speech in NY. Having read some of the “children” of this very popular subgenre—most notably Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander novels—I was curious about how such a huge trend could have found its start in what another panel at the conference called a “bumblebee book”.
When it came out in 1991, Outlander was a book that should never have flown—it was too long; it had too many historical details for a romance, too much romance for a historical; and there was this odd element of time travel—the heroine steps into a stone circle and is thrown back in time from 1945 to 1741. In the story the hero and heroine don’t meet right away, don’t begin their romance for another hundred pages; the author tends to go off on tangents about every little thing—medicinal plants, witchcraft, horse training, 18th Century European politics. And, perhaps bravest of all, the hero suffers abuse at the hands of the villain that would still be seen as shocking not only in historical romance, but in paranormal or urban fantasy as well.
Two things keep the book miraculously in the air, and both are the consequence of Gabaldon’s huge, uplifting talent. The first is the heroine’s remarkable voice. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (she has occasion to use all three last names in the course of the book) has such a unique way of seeing the world—endlessly curious, compassionate, intelligent and brave—that you can’t help but want to hear all about it. If she stops to take a detour through some lost battlefield or 18th Century hospital, you forgive her, because she makes it so damn interesting. The emotions she describes—her own and those of the people around her—are just as real and finely drawn, as vivid as if this were a diary written by a perceptive observer.
It is because Claire falls in love with him that we fall in love with Jamie Fraser, the hero of the story. We see him completely from her point of view, but she allows us a deep insight into his character because he holds nothing back from Claire and she accepts him as he is. Writing from the first person is an extraordinarily difficult task—there’s always something you need to tell from the other person’s POV—but Gabaldon has managed it here with skill.
The second engine keeping this book in flight is Gabaldon’s talent for keeping the pressure on her protagonists. When you are reading along and every few pages you find yourself yelping, “Oh, my God!” or “Oh, no, she didn’t!”, you know you’re in the hands of a master. I had a writing teacher once who explained the process of creating fiction as taking a protagonist and giving him or her problems to solve. Well, Gabaldon gives Clair and Jamie problems in spades. Piles them on. I wish I could give a brief recounting of one example of this, but paraphrasing it just wouldn’t do it justice. Let me simply say that in one chapter of the second book of the Outlander series, Dragonfly in Amber, there are about seven reversals of fortune in the span of ten pages, ending with Claire literally running into the villain in the midst of an escape from someone else. Oh, and then there was her escape from him, so I guess that makes eight.
By my mention of the second in the series, it’s obvious I’m hooked on Outlander. Of course, Gabaldon doesn’t help her readers by ending each of her books on a cliffhanger. I did stop myself after the second book, though, making myself wait and read something else in between “episodes” of the Claire and Jamie story. Otherwise I’d be wrapped in a tartan and talking like Montgomery Scott until my husband disowned me.
The change of pace I chose was quite dramatic—Barbara Elsborg’s contemporary erotic masterpiece Strangers. Here is another book in that category of bumblebees—things that soar when they shouldn’t even get off the ground—and that big buzz you hear is the sound of readers who LOVE this book. Include me now as one of them.
Strangers is the story of Charlie and Kate, two lovers who meet as they are trying to drown themselves in the ocean. Not a promising start, one would think, but again, the story is saved by Barbara’s (and I’ll use her first name since she’s a “blog friend”) great talent for creating two characters who seem so real, so vulnerable, so warm and willing to try again that we can’t help but love them.
Charlie, a musician/film star almost destroyed by his fame, and Kate, a waitress with hidden talents and a devastating past, find each other at the lowest point in their lives and make plenty of mistakes along the way to a better future together. They aren’t helped by Charlie’s scheming agent or Kate’s so-called friends, either. What is wonderful (and awful) about Barbara’s story is the depth of human detail, the sense of reality in the dialogue between these two damaged people. Barbara doesn’t hit a false note anywhere, even though the material is often difficult—child abuse, grief, betrayal, abandonment. And yet, Charlie and Kate often face their lives with humor, and their relationship uses it to good advantage—Charlie is attracted to Kate because she refuses to treat him with kid gloves. Even while the two are still in the ocean at the very beginning of the story that humor emerges to save the book from the maudlin.
The question arises (in my mind, at least) as to what separates this novel from any “mainstream” contemporary romance, aside from the fact that it comes from a recognized publisher of erotica (Ellora’s Cave) and contains rather more than the usual number of sex scenes. I certainly wouldn’t compare it to other erotic novels I’ve read lacking well-developed plot, defined characters or, ahem, redeeming social value. But then, Barbara’s work is always a cut above, no matter what label you give it.