Why is all the rum gone?

We’re back to our regularly scheduled programming.

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If Susan Wiggs’ Charm School was an ice cream, it would be a pina colada dream. For a book that begins in stuffy, pre-civil war Boston, Charm School is surprisingly decadent and exotic.

Isadora Peabody is the ugly duckling of her fashionable, rich family. She’s awkward, bookish, and worst of all, she hates herself. This self-hatred was a hard pill for me to swallow.  Usually my awkward,bookish heroines love themselves enough to do what makes themselves happy, but Isadore loathes that she doesn’t fit in and can’t please her mother etc. etc.  Her inner monologues are hard to bare for about half of the book.

Captain Ryan Calhoun is a charming southern rogue–who is given depth in his determination to reunite his best friend Journey (who happened to be Ryan’s former slave) and Journey’s wife and children. Ryan is basically a peacock who could be annoying, but he has that whole slavery-is-bullshit-and-I’m-going-to-do-something-about-it-thing going for him.

Isadora bullies her way into a role on Ryan’s ship because she knows she is drowning in Boston; she is having vaguely suicidal thoughts and realizes it’s time to get out of there. Ryan is drawn to her from the beginning, though at first just because she is such a pathetic specter.

Then they are trapped together on a ship for several months. I think I’d like to be trapped with a group of interesting people on a ship for several months. It always seems like positive growth occurs and interesting sights are seen and sparks fly, of course. Isadora sheds some of her bindings–like the glasses that make it harder for her to see, one of her many petticoats, and all the hair that was giving her headaches–with the help of Ryan’s devil-may-care attitude. Ryan starts to see Isadora for the smart, independent woman that Boston shunned because she wasn’t fashionable.

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They get to their destination: Rio De Janerio. Please, someone take me to Rio De Janerio. Perhaps because it is the horrible winter-spring season in Ohio where the temps fluctuate 30 degrees in a day and the sky is grey dawn-till-dusk, or perhaps because Rio De Janerio really is heaven on Earth, this setting is magical. There is a love scene that involves “hemp cigarettes” and a jungle water fall that has gone straight to my bucket list.   This is where the pina colada dream comes in. Isadora undergoes a sensual transformation, and Ryan completely falls in love with her.

Alas, he is on a desperate mission to reunite Journey and his family.  Ryan feels he cannot bring Isadora into what could ultimately become a hanging offense, so he keeps his love secret. However, since Isadora is her own woman now she joins the cause anyway–bringing Journey’s wife and children aboard.

The roll slavery plays in this novel is the best part of this book (yes, it even beats the succulent wonder of Rio De Janerio). The horrible institution is not glossed over or made glib.  While it is not the main emphasis of the drama at all times, it’s not cheapened. It’s ugly and horrible and an  evil to be battled. It was a breath of fresh air to read a romance that had this kind of depth.

The ending, however, is wayyy too quick.

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Self-Lovin in the Tub

Valentine’s day approaches and I am still on a romance reading strike. So instead of a review……

One of my favorite ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day was introduced to me while I was an undergrad. The faculty adviser of the student feminist organization (in which I was heavily involved) was a sexpert–not sure she would appreciate the label, but it fits.  She studied sex and wrote about it for her career.  I am still so jealous.

Every year she would give a masturbation seminar on or around Valentine’s Day. It was our most packed meeting of the year.

Valentine’s Day is becoming a day to love one’s self, and self-care is a burgeoning industry. One key component of taking care of one’s self, that seems to be largely missing from this self-care/love revolution is sex. Good, healthy, safe, satisfying sex. That can be hard to come by when you rely on other people. Viola: masturbation.

I have not read too many romance novels where masturbation is described.  Maybe that’s due to what I choose to read, or maybe the genre in generally is lacking. Here are my two suggestions for masturbation in romance (both written by the lovely Tessa Dare):

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In Surrender of a Siren, the heroine is talked through what appears to be her first orgasm by the hero.  He basically instructs her on how to masturbate. It is titillating. My problem with the scene is the aftermath when the heroine starts crying and the hero has to convince her masturbation is not something to be ashamed of. There is enough shame around female masturbation as it is–for me, it would be nice if it was left out of the fictional accounts.

 

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In When a Scot Ties the Knot,  there is a scene of mutual masturbation. They watch each other bring themselves to orgasm. Yes, it is as friggin’ hot as it seems. Also, it’s written from the heroine’s perspective, so it doesn’t come off all creepy male-gaze-esque.

 

 

And then, in my never-really-published-romance novel, I wrote a masturbation scene.  I’ll just leave that below:

You should try it. Masturbation. It evolves. It has always reflected the general vibe of my life in that moment. Whether I’m single, or not. Feeling adventurous, or conservative, or anxious, or sexy, or not. In that time of my life, I had a particular form of masturbation, a method, if you will. It was my favorite; it still is a favorite.

I’d bath or shower, it didn’t matter which one. If, during the bath, a certain mood struck, if I brushed a certain nerve, or a saw a certain image flash across my mind’s eye, I’d rush through the rest of the obligatory cleansing, and let the dirty water run down the drain.

Once the tub was clear, I’d plug the drain and set the faucet at a steady, tepid flow, checking the temperature and pressure with the inside of my knee, not wanting the water hot enough to cause my sensitive skin to flinch. When it was right, I’d lay back, letting the cool, creamy tub, cradle my flushed skin. I’d sink lower, until I was on my back, waiting to feel the timid warmth of the flowing water down my thighs.

At the thrill of that intimate caress, I’d press the soles of my feet against the wall that held the faucet. Sliding my feet down the wall, I’d bend my knees and spread my legs, drawing the water closer and creating the outline of a butterfly on the enclosed walls of the tub. Exposed, I let the water explore me. It penetrated the creases of my hips, rolling down the curve of my belly, diverting its direct flow to slither under each of my breasts.

Licking my fingers, I explored with the water, complementing its tracing of the lines of my body. I traced wet circles around my nipples until they prickled with the sensation, pinching the tip to watch the pink blush bloom. I’d roll one breast into the now filling tub to feel the sharp contrast of water and air.

My fingers slid down my stomach to part my folds of skin to the rush of the water. I’d arch to meet the water at its source and take in the constant pressure, then roll back into the pool of water to relish the gentle current pulling at my skin. I arched and rolled, feeling the lapping water like sucking kisses up and down my body.

Knowing myself, I pushed to my limit, almost succumbing to throbbing pleasure, but tucking away at the almost-peak to rock in the self-made waves. The outline of the butterfly fluttered against the walls as my legs quivered under the demanding stream and my teasing, tickling fingers.

I could feel my orgasm coming, but it always surprised me. I thought I could push it off a moment longer, relish in the tilt of the climax before tipping over. But then it came upon me, stealing my breath, clenching my core, carrying me off downstream. As I thrashed in the tub, reminding my thread of consciousness of an exotic fish caught in a net, I saw waterfalls with me in their midst.

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Going Back to my Roots

I used to be an English major, a snotty English major.  I looked down my nose at…well almost everything. I thought English Education majors were empty-headed.  I thought mass market genre fiction was trashy. I thought people with real jobs and health insurance were boring.

Things changed. I became an English teacher for a while. I now love romance. People with real jobs and health insurance are still boring, but I am one of them, so I can’t judge too much.

I decided to revisit the head-space of that snobby English major. She had a slim journal of quotes that touched her while she was reading. Rereading those hand-written notes from so long ago felt like reading someone else’s diary, but I can see even there my budding relationship with romance.

Here are a few of those quotes:

War, which is to say misplaced sexual aggression…

~Oryx and Crake (a lesser known Atwood novel)

Earth and Sky touch everywhere and nowhere, like sex between two strangers.

~The Antelope Wife by Lousie Erdrich 

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The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.

     ~Audre Lorde “Uses of the Erotic”

wedding-3508318_1920 Because wasn’t a kiss part of the start of loving? In truth? Honestly now? Wasn’t a kiss the tug of a string, a ribbon, a dance, a thread turned and interlocked that began with the lips and ended with his thing inside you?     ~Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

 

Now is the time to state, with absolute frankness and before the reader wastes anymore time reading, that the only truly infallible aphrodisiac is love. Nothing can stay the burning passion of two people in love. When love exists nothing else matters. Not life’s predicaments, not the fury of the years, not a physical winding down or scarcity of opportunity; lovers will find a way to love each other because, by definition, that is their fate.

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Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. 

     ~Aphrodite by Isabel Allendes

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The romance of self-care

If you read my last post you know I’m a little disenchanted with romance at the moment.  So I’ve decided to go a different direction for a post.

I’m pregnant, quite far along actually, with my second baby. When I was pregnant the first time I read all of these books about how to take care of baby, what to expect when expecting, and the like. This pregnancy my prep has been a little different. On the one hand, I had my first baby less than two years ago, so a lot of the details of pregnancy are fresh in my mind; on the other hand, this pregnancy has been physically harder than the first. (Chasing around a one-year-old is harder to do than sitting at a 9-5 desk job…go figure.)

img_5309I’ve just read one book: The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother by Heng Ou (see pictured above, along with me in all of my self-care glory). If this book was an ice cream, it would be organic and homemade with coconut milk instead of dairy. It would be sweetened with cacao nibs and raw honey.  It wouldn’t taste like the ice cream I normally eat, but it would taste good.

The First Forty Days is a beautiful book about how to replenish and prepare the new mother for motherhood. And while many of the suggestions seem extreme or impossible to me (example a. stay in bed with newborn for forty days example b. drink fish broth made from the whole fish and chew the bones), it’s not didactic in anyway, so I feel confident in the recipes or habits I can accommodate in my own recovery period (the blessed three weeks of paternity leave my husband gets).

While this book is fully on the trending, self-care bandwagon, it has historical, even ancient, roots. It makes the argument that human mothers used to follow some version of this routine in most cultures across the world.  Even in the early American colonies there was the tradition of neighbors, sisters, aunts, mothers, and mothers-in-law stepping in, keeping the household running, as well as the new mother and newborn well-fed and as rested as possible.

For better or worse (and this book believes it’s for the worse) our fast-paced, isolated, modern communities do not have time or space for this tradition. The argument is then that you make time for it. It’s a right of this passage into motherhood (no matter how many times you’ve done it before.)

So I’ll be freezing my own beef bone broth–because I just don’t think I could stomach fish bones–and prepping my husband for all of the housework I won’t be doing in those three weeks he’s off.  Supposedly I will emerge refreshed and ready to be the pillar of the family once more. In the least, any extra rest and nutrients I can replenish will be a blessing after this pregnancy and the foggy newborn days.

When Romance Isn’t Good

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If Marie Harte’s The Only Thing was an ice cream, it would be this one cone of soft serve vanilla I got on a whim from a crumby little corner shop in my hometown. It had a slight hint of olives.  And I don’t mean hipster-foodie-artisan olives, I mean weird-dirty-diner olives.

 

 

I checked with my mother, who was eating a chocolate cone right next to me. Yep hers tasted like olives too.  In the moment, and while I was reading this book, I was reminded that good things don’t always have to be good.

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I can take for granted that ice cream tastes good and that romance is a lovely thing to read.  In fact, not all ice cream tastes good and not all romance is good. There is an art to creating something enjoyable. Even if you start out with pretty basic ingredients, obvious directions, and a clear goal–things can still get fucked up.

So I will be a little more careful with my choices for the time being.  Savor and appreciate the good before me.  And hopefully avoid olives in my ice cream.

Scandinavian Mythology+Polar Bears=White Chocolate

bookIf Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George was an ice cream, it would be white chocolate frozen yogurt.  You see, my library’s online portal suggested the read to me, and I assumed it was a romance.  It’s not really a romance, hence the frozen yogurt, but it does have romance–between an unnamed Scandinavian girl and a Polar Bear or an isbjorn (Scandinavian words are tossed in for some flare and because it was the author’s minor in college). There is a lot of snow, and white mystical animals, and magical clean white parkas– so white chocolate it is.

The novel starts out like a myth, “Long ago, and far away, in the land of ice and snow…” In this stoic tone we get a lot of The Pika’s past (that’s the heroine whose mother didn’t love her enough to name her, so she is known as The Pika–girl in Scandinavian– or Lass).  Probably a third of the book is background, and not background that really gets used or has a purpose other than …entertainment? It really is just a story for the sake of a story about a good girl who has a rough life. It’s enjoyable, not a romance, but enjoyable.

Then the Pika–who has been gifted the ability to communicate with animals is taken by a polar bear in her 17th year during a horrible snow storm.  She goes because the bear promises her family wealth and comfort (which have been in short supply).  Her mother is happy to see her go.  Her father and oldest brother, Hans Peter, are devastated. But the girl is intrigued by this rather tame polar bear. Also she gets to take her pet wolf.  With this plot shift, the tone changes a lot too. It becomes more conversational and less in the frozen tone of mythology. It’s a nice shift.

The three reach this palace made of ice and jewels and clearly things are not right. There are fauns and gargoyles and centaurs to wait on The Lass–they are all wearing enchanted cords around their necks. The pet wolf, named Rolo, says the palace smells like death, rotting meat aka trolls. The lass realizes the walls are covered in the same strange carvings that Hans Peter taught her by the fireplace back home–the language of the trolls.

All the while the Lass and the Isbjorn  read poetry, discuss her family, and basically fall in love (a little beauty and the beast action), but every night a strange man sleeps next to her in bed. She barely notices. I guess when you are living in a troll castle of ice your guard is pretty far down anyway.

The story starts to evolve into a fairy-tale I’ve heard of before–but I’ve heard it with a raven not a polar bear. A beautiful young maiden spends her days with a beast and her nights (platonically) with a man. If she can do this for a year without sneaking a peek at the strange man, then they get to live happily-ever-after.  Except she never makes it the full year–and who can blame her!?!? Who doesn’t want to see the face of the person they are sleeping next to in the light??…Okay, I guess some people might not want to, but then they probably aren’t pure and virtuous maidens living in a fairy-tale.

Well the lass sneaks a peek only to realize her beloved polar bear/stranger/prince must now become the groom of the troll princess. The Pika can’t have this and drags Rolo to the palace farther east than east and farther west than west. They meet more interesting characters and find the troll princess has a troll queen mother who is even worse than her. Also Hans Peter was the last isjborn-by-day-man-by-night and his, girl friend who sacrificed herself to save him, is currently a servant in this new palace made of gold.

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May I just pause to say, this is not a long book.  It sounds like a saga–and maybe it should’ve been a series–but it is just your average length novel.  In a way that is too bad, because so much goes on and so many interesting characters are introduced. I want to know more about them, but there just isn’t time. The Lass only has four days before her beloved becomes a troll’s husband–a fate we are lead to believe worse than death.

With her wits, the help of Hans Peter’s GF, and some more enchanted creatures, the troll palace is brought down.  There is this interesting clash between old and new ideologies among the trolls that really brings down the palace; the lass and her prince only manage to set off this rift and then escape.  But this rift is just one more tid-bit that would be really cool if expanded upon.

Riding the back of the north wind, they all make it home to father and Hans Peter. And live happily-ever-after.  Even the nasty mother, who is presumably happy because her no-name-daughter is now a princess.

This book really makes me want to learn about Scandinavian mythology–I think that is where a lot of the interesting characters come from, no offense to Ms George if she dreamed them up all herself.  But there is a bibliography in the back of the book, so I think it’s safe to say there is a lot of lore incorporated here.  It’s fun.

Holiday Edition: The sad peppermint stick

In the final holiday review we have one of my favorite authors, Tessa Dare, and my least favorite books of hers.

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If Tessa Dare’s Once Upon A Winter’s Eve was a holiday treat it would be the last candy cane dangling from your tree.  Perhaps because I read this book in the post-Christmas holiday slump, and perhaps because it simply didn’t have a lot to do with Christmas, it left me a lot a bit underwhelmed.

Violet Winterbottom (love that last name) has been disappointed in love. I’d go so far as to say screwed over.  Literally screwed and then left the next day.  Then at the Spindle Cove Christmas ball, a washed up and badly beaten Breton reminds her of “The Disappointment.”

Turns out this washed up mystery is her disappointing Lord Christian Something-or-Other, come halfway a cross the world to beg Violet for forgiveness and confess his love.  He left her to become a spy but has caught wind that she is about to be shipped back to London’s marriage mart and wants her to wait for him.

What is decent about this book is the exciting, clandestine night Violet and Christian share together. There is a biting excitement of sneaking a spy back out to his spy ship in the dead of winter that reminded me of peppermint. Also, the characters have clearly grown since their last clandestine evening together. Christian has been humbled by his station as a farmhand, and Violet has been bolstered by the freedom and support of Spindle Cove.

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But there is nothing merry about this book. It could’ve been any damn Eve, and a person suffering from Christmas withdraws does not want that in her last holiday romance of the year. This is a novella where I felt the brevity. It feels too short, like nothing is fully developed and a lot is taken for granted.

I might have to lick my wounds and go back to Sarah McLean’s Duke of Christmas Present.