Exorcising DNFs

Miss Bates has many a romance novel languishing in TBR purgatory: narratives half-read until boredom set in, others which triggered something in her she couldn’t abide, some which shifted drastically from their starting-point, and some which pestered her moral, political, or aesthetic sensibilities. She refers to this as her Shame-Ful TBR: books to throw into a dank corner with the exclamation, “What was I thinking?” Sometimes, it’s a book that excited her at time of acquisition, but her taste changed by the time she came to reading it. To whittle down the voluminous TBR and put closure to purgatorial reads, Miss Bates has decided to write an occasional DNF round-up as a cleansing reading régime. Sometimes, it’s as interesting to articulate why we abandon a book, as it to think about why we stuck with it. Thanks to Wendy for the inspiration. Miss Bates’ goal is to NOT to write such a post too often … 

Cowboy_Behind_BadgeWhen Miss Bates started reading romance after a 30-year hiatus (*sniff* at the thought of the romance novels she missed out), she mainly read romantic suspense. Maybe because she segued to romance via mystery novels. Dolores Fossen’s Cowboy Behind the Badge triggered all her nostalgia buttons, and some new ones too: babies in danger, virtuous heroine, Texas Ranger hero, a couple working together to save babies and fall in love and nookie! ‘Sides, did you take a good look at that cover? It promises so much sexy, denim-clad-thigh goodness! She made it to about 20% of this category romance before giving up. Her reasons be: a great opening chapter, humorous, yet, suspenseful, gave way to endless family back-story because SO MANY characters people the serial narrative. Miss Bates should have known she was in trouble when the author included a character list before chapter one: (the kiss of death to Miss B.) but she persisted. By chapter two, the character checklist was rolling out in the hero’s head; then, guns and shooting. This is a serviceable, smoothly written category romance and Miss Bates wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it. But her love of romantic suspense ain’t what it used to be … which explains why she still has all the Troubleshooters series in the Toddling TBR. (Miss B. received an e-ARC of Cowboy Behind the Badge from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.)

Long_SurrenderMiss Bates really tried with Charlotte Lamb’s The Long Surrender. She wanted to read and write about it for Wendy’s January TBR Challenge. She made it about halfway through this reunited husband-and-wife category romance. Warning: there be spoilers ahead. Selina is a sad sad character, obsessed with her weight (Miss Bates thought she was anorectic) and overly protective of her gambler brother.  Her ex-husband, Ashley Dent, blackmails her into remarrying him, thus saving her brother from the mob by paying his debts. It was obvious to Miss Bates these two shared an acrimonious relationship: Ashley wanted, still wants, Selina; they divorced because she refused to make love with him. She was terrified, buddy, didn’t that tell you something? Once remarried, he takes her to the Bahamas to seduce her gently… but when love-making progresses and she grows frightened, he calls her a tease, slaps her, calls her a “bitch” … and then asks to have a heart-to-heart about her stepfather sexually abusing her. He thinks it would help to talk about it. That was it for Miss B. Awful.

In_Your_DreamsLike Fossen’s romantic suspense, there was nothing terribly wrong with Kristen Higgins’ In Your Dreams. It contained her signature humour, ruefully down-on-herself, smart-mouthed smartie-pants heroine and glamorous looker of a hero. But there’s malaise for Miss Bates with narratives such as this: listing towards chick-lit (at least Higgins has given up first-person narration), complete with the heroine’s commentary about her expanding butt, in this case, Deputy Emmaline Neal’s snug uniform pants. The hero, Jack Holland, really is a hero (having rescued four teens from a car accident) former Navy, now EMT, also head-winemaker for his family’s business, and covered in blonde and lusciously muscled good looks. Why wouldn’t Miss Bates want to read this? Well, there are two de rigueur scenes in small-town cutesy contemporary romance that grate: they may be fun for other readers, but they carry Miss B. into an eye-rolling stupor. The first one is the segregated men-women cutesy party/shower/dinner/Super-Bowl get-together, with men in one room and women cackling and being womanly-ish in another. Yup, there it was by chapter three: Jack’s sister’s baby shower … his brother-in-law and soon-to-be-dad whispering “They’re talking about nipple infections,” and looking appropriately male-horrified at the mysteries of parturition. Ugh. Not to the nipple infections (which Miss Bates is sure ain’t no fun), but to this stereotypical great divide that some small-town contemporary romance deems humorous. It may be fun for some readers and Miss B. doesn’t fault them for reading it, but it turns her right off. There are sniggers in passages about Emmaline’s circle of friends too, the “Bitter Betrayeds,” like, “Allison, a Southern transplant and pediatrician, had divorced her husband after he became consumed with a passion for collecting antique cookie jars ‘and didn’t have the decency to turn gay,’ ” and “Grace Knapton, who ran the community theatre group and directed the school play, had been tricked into giving five grand to a Pakistani man she’d met online who professed to be in love with her.” Miss Bates didn’t stick around for the meet-cute … (Miss Bates received an e-ARC of In Your Dreams from Harlequin, via Netgalley.)

Scarred_HeartsBonnie Dee’s Scarred Hearts was a romance novel Miss Bates took a chance on. She’d never read the author before and the blurb, as well as the nearly 70%!! of it she read, showed great promise. Indeed, Miss Bates thought she’d found a keeper. It was fresh and compelling: Tobacco Road as romance. Set in 1919 rural Kentucky, hero and heroine are not your run-of-the-mill romance hero and heroine: Shadow Robeson, baby brother to a violent set of moon-shine-making brothers, and Lettie Calloway, daughter of the local, now deceased, prostitute, living alone, working the local bar. Shadow and Lettie live in a “dry” county that yet thrives on the selling of liquor, on the eve of Prohibition. Shadow is a Great War veteran who lost an eye and nearly a leg to the war. He’s quiet, reserved, and gentle in the amidst of a brutal clan. One evening, at the local bar, Shatner’s, he rescues Lettie from his brutish brothers, especially Cutter (socalled because he enjoys using his knife on others). Dee’s portrait of nature-child Lettie, with her cat Bathsheba, care for her dementia-ridden neighbour, Agnes Barrow, and love of the woods and birds, is wonderful. Shadow is broken in body, but gentle in manner, virginal, and loving to Lettie. Their love is secret and beautiful. They are the promise of a new Eve and Adam in a callous, harsh world. Can their idyllic world survive brutality? Shadow and Lettie hope to escape to a better life, as soon as they can evade Shadow’s family and gather sufficient funds. When their Edenic world is shattered, the violation is savage and disturbing; Miss Bates couldn’t read past it. (Scarred Hearts is self-published; Miss Bates received an e-ARC via Netgalley.)

20 thoughts on “Exorcising DNFs

  1. DNFing a book that isn’t working for you or is enraging isn’t shameful, and there’s often little way to know in advance whether a book will work for you, which means the time spent on them isn’t shameful either. I run into similar problems (though maybe with different material) as you do, such as the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and the author mocking female characters for the fun of it. That kind of thing not only annoys me, it’s cliched, lazy writing. Give me something either new and different or at least fresh and engaging.

    Because the kinds of romances we like are fairly different — the concept behind HP and most categories gives me hives — I don’t often comment, but I appreciate how thoughtful and detailed your reviews are. They are a treasure! I particularly appreciate the spoilers. Without spoilers, I would not have read A Lady Awakened because without knowing the reason why, Martha’s committing inheritance fraud would have turned me off completely. Spoilers also help me spot the books that look good but are filled with hidden misogyny or implausible situations that will throw me right out of the book.

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    • “I run into similar problems … such as the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and the author mocking female characters for the fun of it. That kind of thing not only annoys me, it’s cliched, lazy writing. Give me something either new and different or at least fresh and engaging.” I couldn’t have said it better, so I’m quoting you! Exactly this. Writing the post was a great relief. Phew. I don’t have to think about those titles again and I don’t have to live with that lingering disquiet of the lurking title, or as Wendy put it in her masterful post, going back to them carries “DNF stink.” So, thank you for absolving me! 🙂

      I DNF a lot, but I had much trepidation about writing a DNF post … full credit to Wendy, who is fearless and funny and totally smart.

      And thank you for the generous spirit that likes my reviews! I loved what you said about Grant’s A Lady Awakened because I picked that book up about ten times, the opening threw me so much, but, in its case, like you, I’m so glad that I stuck with it. Because it has given me the measuring rod for all things histrom and not much is measuring up these days. One thing that will make me stick with a book, even though there be feelings of disquiet, is a certain awareness on the author’s part: something that says, even in HPs, yes, I know the tropes, but I’m playing with them. Never underestimate, writers, the power of the tongue in your cheek.

      No, we can’t know what’s coming up in a book: certainly, blurbs are no help. That’s why, like you, I like spoilers and trigger warnings. I’m pretty good at discerning “hidden horrors,” but sometimes they can take you for a loop. And now that I’m on my fifth early-morning cliché, I’ll just leave you with how much I appreciated your comment, much.

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  2. I think these are great reviews! Interesting and insightful as always.

    I’m glad to hear that Higgins has given up on 1st person, but I am not in any way tempted to read a book about someone who makes commentary on the size of their backside. How tedious.

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    • Aw, thank you! I actually started to write the DNF reviews at the same time I wrote my year-end round-up post and have been adding to them with each bleh title … LOL and sadly, I’ve started my second one already.

      It is so totally tedious and overdone: why can’t everybody just get over Bridget Jones? She wasn’t that fanny … sorry, I couldn’t help myself. The moment that old and stale commentary starts, I’m done.

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  3. I always enjoy your reviews, even of the books that didn’t work for you. I’m in a bit of a slump right now and have been DNFing twice as many books as I’ve read. Most of them were no loss, but two of them I had really high hopes for–only to encounter the same old same old. Not that I have anything against familiarity, but I was hoping for something fresh from these new (to me) authors. Sigh.
    I am looking forward to your post on Miranda Neville’s newest. (Not meaning to pressure you…. *g*)

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    • Oh, meant to add–I read a boatload of HPs back in the day, including a lot of Charlotte Lamb’s titles. When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was off, I swore she hated women,else how could she have written such doormats.

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      • Yes to the Charlotte Lamb … I read HOT BLOOD and really liked it, admired it too. This one, though, you hit the nail on the head with its misogyny. Thinking about the hero, what we might have is misanthropy … men don’t come out smelling rosy either! 😉

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    • LOL!! You are not alone in your slump-hood, I’ve tried, actually today, since I’m at home in a snow deluge, to find a book to read (procrastination never really hurt anyone) and I’ve DNF-ed two! I started my second DNF post … Same old, same old, is the romance genre’s bane. Maybe try to read outre-genre? Though I did finally find something to get me through a grueling work week. Beloved author sometimes works too.

      I’m saving the Neville for a nice holiday period and also because I loved Julian so much, I don’t want to be disappointed.

      As always, so appreciate your comments! Hope you find something good to read soon!

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  4. Your reviews just shine – even the DNF ones. I agree with you on the Charlotte Lamb. I absolutely adore her writing but they can be quite misanthropic. The way I read these types of romances is that they are a courtship story – one I dislike and would never condone however there are plenty of dysfunctional real life stories that could possibly mirror these fictional ones. But then again, I never feel the need to like any of the characters in novels I read. I just want to understand their motivation.

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    • Aw, thank you! 🙂 I loved Hot Blood, which is the only other Lamb I’ve read. It had over-fifty protagonists and a surly heroine who’s going to be a grandma. I loved it and the writing, even in this one, and I did read about a third, was so crisp and clear and eloquent. But the “bitch-slapping” just turned me right off. I understood what motivated Ashley: he just wasn’t getting it; took it personally, that the Serena rejected him. But there was just no excuse for hitting, or verbally abusing such a vulnerable creature. It was distasteful and disappointing. I agree with what you’re saying: I didn’t like either of these and I would have stuck with the story, even if Ashley was an ass and Serena a passive dishrag. However, I have NOT given up on Lamb; I plan to read more. Just not this one.

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  5. I love this. I really should DNF more often, instead of pouring my time into something I’m never going to enjoy. In fact, this post encouraged me to give up on one of the most overwrought books I’ve ever picked up (full of unnecessary and confusing metaphor and more angst than a reader like me can appreciate). I was tempted to keep reading it because “The silver of her eyes was alight and sparkling like the sea at sunrise, emotions rippling through her gaze in bright patterns,” but… no.

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    • Thank you! I highly recommend the DNF post: it’s got just enough edge to exposing your shameful reading secrets to make it cathartic. And, in a way, I’ve given these books their due, not just left them lying around, languishing in purgatory. On the other hand, I’ve already started my second DNF post, so I may have created a monster here …

      Gosh, that clunker of a sentence that’s supposed to pass for “lyrical”, it’s exactly the kind of writing that sends me running for the hills. I’m glad you’ve ditched it. Ugh.

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  6. Perverse as always, I now want to read that Charlotte Lamb book. But I’ve gone completely off Higgins. After feeling iffy about several books in a row, the “She-Male” character did me in.

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    • LOL! I hope you do read it and review: even in a few lines, it’d be a hoot to hear about it from you. As for Higgins, I think this may be my last try. I quite liked some of her early books, though I’m not a fan of first-person narration.

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