What are you reading at the moment?

What are you reading at the moment?

This, with variations, is a common question on social media. I suppose it’s due to the extra time some people are finding they have to read, during lockdown, working at home with no commute, etc.

The trouble is, I never know quite what to say. I usually have at least three books ‘on the go’ and sometimes more.

Let’s start upstairs.

The bathroom (with toilet) is dedicated as a rule to the week’s print magazines – at least New Statesman and New Scientist, with an occasional Private Eye (not at the moment because we’re random buyers and there’s a lockdown) or National Geographic (passed on by a friend and similarly absent). If those run out I have a carefully selected book: it must be something I can dip into and out of in between magazines. Not fiction, then. Mostly, books of art, poetry, etc. or perhaps things like Culpepper’s Herbal, or Harry Potter: A History of Magic (British Museum), a Dictionary of English Place Names. I’m sure you get the picture. I just finished The Making of the English Landscape and have given it five stars.

The bedroom has something non fiction but that nevertheless needs longer and more concentrated reading times. I don’t often read lying in bed – I find it uncomfortable and my glasses don’t quite cope – but I’ll sit propped up or on the edge. Currently I’m reading a fairly scholarly book about myth and gender. You’ll get a brief review eventually.

Downstairs next.

In the kitchen I often have two books. One will be recipes I have already read but need to re-read, finding and noting the ones I might actually follow rather than just enjoying in the abstract. The other might be fiction or non-fiction, in paperback. Something I can pick up while I’m waiting for things to cook, or take out into the yard with a cup of coffee. It should be something that can stand being abandoned when the potatoes boil or when the phone rings and I have to rush in. At the moment I’m alternating between Jamie Oliver’s Veg and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Both fascinating (both Christmas presents 2019) and I mustn’t let the pans boil dry. That happened with my previous kitchen book, Narrow Dog to Carcassonne.

Then there’s the lounge book which might be the one you’re asking about… It will almost certainly be fiction and equally almost certainly on my e-reader (though last week I had a Seanan McGuire urban fantasy paperback). It will stay in the lounge unless I’m going out (not likely just now) in which case it’s easy to slip into my bag if I remember. If I remember the book I will probably remember my mobile phone, and vice versa. I tend to ring the changes in my e-books. I like fantasy, crime, sci fi, mm romance, general romance, and some historical novels. If I find something that combines two or more of these, I’m really happy. Today I’m reading You Let Me In – a chiller that I’ve borrowed from the Amazon Prime Library. It’s very well written but I haven’t got far yet. I also keep dipping into an e-book about baking, written by one of those GBBO stars. I don’t really like reference books on e-readers because I worry about finding things again. I know there are bookmarks but somehow I’m not good at those till it’s too late. I just finished Keira Andrews’ Semper Fi which was a lovely mm historical novel. And I abandoned City of Brass even though it came highly recommended. It was another Amazon Library book so I had no qualms about giving up.

So there you have my reading habits. I should also say that I keep crosswords, sudoku and logic puzzles in the kitchen, bathroom and car, just in case…

And yes, I read the ingredients on sauce bottles, cereal packets, etc. In case you wondered.

Smashwords’ Read an E-book week.

Every year, Smashwords have a special Read an E-book week and authors are encouraged to offer their books at a discount.

Last year I participated in the Smashwords Read an E-book Week sale. I was startled by the number of downloads of my ‘freebies’ and hoped that might translate into ‘fans’ who’d actually buy some. It didn’t seem to. There were a few sales but not enough to make the whole exercise worthwhile so this year I haven’t bothered.

However, this year’s sale reminded me of something else. Last year, I wanted to show support for other authors – and for Smashwords, for that matter (I find them a great deal easier to deal with than the ‘other’ place) – so I trawled through a few of the sale categories and ended up with far too many free or incredibly cheap books which I have currently left in their own special file on my hard drive, so that I don’t get distracted from my already overloaded tbr list.

While I was going through, I found a fair number of books where the reader was invited to set their own price.

I found I wasn’t willing to do that and after a while I just stopped looking at the info on anything in that category. I didn’t feel able to download them for free as that might have felt insulting to the author. As I knew nothing whatsoever about them I didn’t feel able to ascribe any kind of sensible price. If they were wonderful and I’d paid very little I’d feel guilty – something that wouldn’t happen if the author themselves had set a low price. If they were awful I would feel cheated at having paid anything at all. I would rather an author gave me something free in the hopes that I’d continue with a series (as I did last year) or charged a low price for the first in a series as a lure. So I felt uncomfortable with this set-your-own-price thing.

Has anyone else felt that, or is it just me?

Meanwhile, the sale starts tomorrow and there are plenty of books at very low prices so go and have a look!

Why read mm romance?

I was recently asked about the preponderance of mm romance in my fiction reading. I thought I’d covered this before but apparently not. Maybe on one of my locked social media blogs way back a decade ago! It seemed a good idea to revisit the subject, anyway.

I enjoy romantic fiction, but although I love e.g. Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope, I have found that modern romance with the conventional hero and heroine tends towards tired tropes and stock characters. This is not to say I don’t read and enjoy it. A recent ‘find’ was The Cracked Slipper, and one of my all time favourites is A Suitable Boy. However, I have been looking for different approaches and am certainly interested in extending the concept of romance to the entire human race instead of just part of it.

Romance that features a same gender couple often fills this demand but I have tried lesbian (or ff) fiction and with a few exceptions this often seems to me to follow the path of the more conventional (het) stories.

Where both protagonists are male, (mm romance) there is a definite difference. There is, to begin with, a new power dynamic to explore, where there is the tension of not knowing how the couple will or can adjust to each other’s needs, especially given the social context within which they are operating. There is, if the story is set in the past, the added frisson of the dangers encountered by people who dared to love in an age where their preferences were illegal or taboo. There is, if the story is set in the future, the possibility of exploring different cultural and social attitudes towards what we currently think of as minorities. Finally, present day stories simply expand our horizons in terms of romance.

A further tension in mm romance is the knowledge that if the protagonists fail to meet each other’s needs, there isn’t necessarily someone else just waiting for them. There are fewer LGBTQ people around and in any particular locality they could be quite scarce, or not compatible. So in a sense, there’s more reason to hope desperately that the romance will succeed, sometimes against huge odds.

Of course, there is a lot of mm romance that, like its ff or mf counterparts simply doesn’t live up to its potential, but that’s true of every genre. In reading mm novels I seem to stand a better chance of finding something new and interesting to think about.

Having said that, I really do prefer novels in any of these gender combinations to have what I think of as ‘added value’. That means, for me, that they need to have an extra dimension so that I prefer them to be books about history, about crime (and police work), about fantasy, about science fiction, etc. with romance in the mix but not necessarily taking centre stage. This accords with all my fiction reading. I read a great deal of non-fiction (yes, a very great deal both in book and magazine form) and then turn to fiction to relax, and to be honest, the content of the average modern lit!fic novel is simply not either engaging or relaxing for me.

I also get easily bored by explicit sexual depiction, regardless of the participants, unless it furthers the plot or character development. There is, for me, too much sex-for-the-sake-of-it in a lot of modern ‘romance’ writing and whilst I have no desire for the ‘normal’ approach (to revert to ‘fade-to-black’) of the past, I find I just skim sex scenes in most cases. I’m aware, as a writer, that the authors have spent time trying to create something exciting, but for me as a reader it doesn’t often work. I prefer the UST (unresolved sexual tension) of a growing relationship, or the space to exercise my imagination, and an emphasis on feelings rather than physical detail.

To find books that meet my criteria I somehow find myself reading a lot, though as you will know from my reviews, I abandon some quite quickly. I have been following a few ‘trusted’ authors whose mm stories are intelligent and gripping. You can get a feel for whose work I mean from my reviews. I read almost anything by Charlie Cochrane, RJ Scott, Rhys Ford, Keira Andrews, Alexa Milne, Alex Beecroft, Jordan Castillo Price, JL Merrow and one or two others. Some good writers (e.g. Clare London) tend to deal mainly in short stories and novellas, which are less to my taste than long novels in which I can lose myself.

I could add a list of writers of conventional (mf or sometimes known as het) romance or of books that have no particular romance focus. One problem I encounter there is that my favourites tend to write very long books and only publish at random intervals. In between, I am in need of entertainment and I certainly find it in mm romance!

I probably haven’t covered even half my reasons for reading in this genre, but if you have any questions, that’s what the comment box is for!