Sunday, February 7, 2021

Cleaning House, Part One: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and Minimalism

     I didn't want to use a stock photo of someone else's super-clean, chic house for this post, so here's a pic of my cat, Bean, the sentient beanie baby, formerly known as Cleopatra, formerly formerly known as "something ridiculous, like Snowball"-Jon. 
     I've been excited to write this post from the minute my Marie Kondo/Minimalism obsession began back in mid-December, but I wanted to let everything more or less play out before giving you something partial or misleading. Now that my brain has moved on to other obsessions (Knitting and Don't Starve: Shipwrecked), I can finally be reasonably sure that the changes I implemented survived the (inevitable) death of the obsession. I can honestly tell you that I made permanent changes, that those changes are working, and that my life is improved and improving as a result. 
    This whole tidying up my house and life endeavor made me realize a bunch of things about how my mind works and what a positive force my obsessive personality can be, but I'll get into that some other time. Suffice it to say that what I'm about to share with you is a string of major, all-consuming obsessions that began in mid-December and became habits and intentions that folded nicely into my regular, more stable life, toward the end of January. 

    Everything started with the Netflix show: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I don't even know why I started it. I don't remember thinking: I'm going to watch this and then I'm going to majorly overhaul my life. I'd just heard Marie's name around and was curious. Our house wasn't particularly cluttered by any standard. It's a small place: kitchen and living area separated only by a countertop, bathroom just large enough for a tub, and two bedrooms, one of which we've turned into a "study" or perhaps a "library" depending on which of us you ask. Storage space is scarce, particularly when it comes to closets and cabinets, and I chalked up any feeling of crowdedness or clutteredness to the smallness of the space as opposed to considering that perhaps we had some stuff we didn't exactly need. 

    Immediately after finishing the show (one season), I picked up Marie's book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up to be sure I understood her tidying philosophy and the KonMarie method that she's developed. I also started watching YouTube videos of people using her method. I tried her laundry-folding techniques immediately, before I even started decluttering, and I highly, highly recommend that. It creates way more space in your drawers and makes everything easier to find.

    The KonMarie method isn't about what you get rid of, it's what you keep and where and how and why you keep it. It's also the manner in which you determine what you want to keep. I subscribe to this method almost 100%. Marie is really strict about the method itself but really flexible when it comes to ultimate outcome. She recognizes that people are different, and that there's no set amount of books or clothes or things that work best for everyone. If an item "sparks joy" for you, then you keep it, even if that decision doesn't make sense to anyone else. 

    If you do things Marie's way you do not, under any circumstances, tidy room by room or zone by zone. You do not spread the process out over a month. You set aside a week and tackle all of your things type by type. Clothes first, then books, then papers, then komono (all your other stuff, by category: kitchen implements, electronics, cleaning supplies, etc.), and save anything sentimental for last. 

    You take everything out of where it is and evaluate it with like things in a neutral area. This puts the inertia of getting rid of things on your side. It forces you to be intentional about what you keep. This method also ensures that you evaluate everything in the context of like things, not in the context of wherever it's been living, because that may or may not be the place where it should live.

     Everything you get rid of (trash or donate or give away or sell), you thank. I thought that was silly at first, but it just releases you from any emotions you have tied to the item and any guilt you feel in getting rid of it. It helps you let go. Getting rid of things creates space for things you've crowded out: things you love, but you aren't using because you can't find them or they're just out of sight, out of mind. And sometimes it's not just physical things you've crowded out, but more than that.

    Let me give you an example: I wasn't using my cookbooks because I was keeping them in the library instead of in the kitchen. I didn't have a bookshelf in the kitchen/living area, which was the problem. But I wanted to use my cookbooks. They used to give me a lot of joy in discovering new things to create. The same was true for my knitting supplies and patterns. It was all out of sight out of mind in a bin high up in my closet. I didn't have anywhere more accessible to keep it, so I just didn't knit. Going through my books with a fine-toothed comb and donating everything I didn't see myself rereading or sharing with someone, created space. Suddenly I had freed up a small shelf that could go live in the kitchen/living area to hold cookbooks and reference books, knitting patterns and my vase of knitting needles, putting everything right in my daily line of sight. The shelf has also become the home of the bread maker, my tea cups, and that really beautiful turquoise punch bowl we got as a wedding present. It looks really good, and now I use my cookbooks and I knit.

   Only after you're done going through all the rest of your stuff, does Marie recommend tackling your sentimental items. Of all her advice, I think this is what had the most impact on me. She says that sentimental items should absolutely have a place in your life, but that we often keep items we've categorized as "sentimental" not because they bring us joy, but because we are tied to them in some way and feel an obligation to them. These bindings clog up both our regular lives and our emotional lives. 

    I was hanging on to gifts from old friends, gifts from people who meant the world to me and would never have stopped meaning the world to me if I hadn't stopped meaning anything to them. Those items were "sentimental" but they also kept me tied to memories that made me sad. I got rid of them. I got rid of anything I was keeping just out of a sense of obligation. I got rid of a whole bunch of sentimental items that didn't really mean as much to me as I told myself they did, and it just kind of made me feel free to move on with my life. 

   So that's the KonMarie method. I went through the house twice this way. Jon did his own items, and Marie is really strict about that. You do not decide for someone else whether their stuff is important to them or not. My first pass through the house, I just got rid of the obvious. The second time, I could see my way forward to what I wanted my life to look like, and it was suddenly much more clear what didn't belong in it. I got rid of far, far more than I imagined, and suddenly there was all this space in my life to breath and think clearly and see what I wanted to do next. 

   So I dove headfirst into a rabbit hole of minimalists on YouTube. Here are a few who had a significant impact on my final rounds of decluttering and the evolution my idea of how I wanted life to proceed in the decluttered space I'd created:

    And here's where it gets a little more individual. I think everyone should go through the KonMarie method with their homes. I don't think everyone should be a minimalist. Also minimalism means different things to different people. I'm not talking about minimalism as an aesthetic but minimalism as a lifestyle. The big principle is that everything you own has a purpose, and it's actively fulfilling its purpose. If it's not, it doesn't get to take up space in your life. 

    Jon and I are simple people with simple needs and simple tastes, so minimalism really works for us. We were practically there already, in theory if not in practice, before I even started the declutter. Listening to these voices on YouTube really firmed up what I was already thinking: Why would I follow someone else's standard of living when I know what I like and what works for me and it's just really simple? So I gave myself permission to set different rules based on what Jon and I wanted and what we knew would work because we know ourselves. 

    The minimalism rabbit hole led to a minimal wardrobe/Project 333/capsule wardrobe/personal style obsession that I'm still actively pursuing, albeit less obsessively. That led to a whole bunch of research on casual money management. Not so much the big stuff like investing and paying off debts (even though that's important), but the little stuff like not frittering away cash on clutter, not buying produce that's going to rot in your fridge, not buying clothes you won't end up loving: the little wastes that you don't really pay attention to week to week. 

    I made spreadsheets. I made two for groceries, (food and non-food), and one for clothing. I made a list of spending rules for myself with the twin goals of saving money and keeping the home in the state I'd brought it to. I started logging every single purchase in Every Dollar, as a way of keeping myself accountable to my own rules and intentions. It's been really good. Really, really good. 

    And there's a lot I'm still working on, tweaking, and researching. The initial tidying up opened a lot of doors in my mind. I remembered a lot of intentions I'd set for my my life back in highschool that I hadn't entirely followed through on. I remembered that I'm allowed to make changes to my norms and improve what's not working. I remembered that learned helplessness is stooopid. It was a relief.
And I'm going to finish with that. Thanks for reading!

You probably noticed this post has a "Part One" in the title. That's because I'm planning:

Cleaning House, Part Two: My Minimal Wardrobe, The Curated Closet, and What I've                    Always Gotten Wrong about Clothes

Cleaning House, Part Three: My Fridge/Pantry Overhaul and THE GROCERY SPREADSHEETS
And also:
Explaining my Obsessive Personality to You and Also Me

Let me know what you think. Have you seen Tidying Up? Did you try it out? I know the next few posts won't be about books. Is that okay? Excited to see your comments as usual! Bye!

Saturday, January 30, 2021

January Wrap-Up: How Am I Doing With Those Resolutions?


Alright, lovely readers, January is pretty much over. Is it just me, or was January the longest month ever? It hasn't been a bad month for me at all, but the time just stretched out in such a strange way. Anyone else feeling that?

A lot happened for me this month. I turned 26. I cut my hair. I got a fresh prescription and new glasses. I started implementing a bunch of personal resolutions, spending rules, spreadsheets, etc. in my daily life. I'm excited tell you all about that in (probably) my next post. I got a new little kitty, who we originally named Cleo, but have begun calling "Bean" because she is Waaay too derpy for a regal name like Cleopatra. I began rehearsing for my role as Margaret in Jupiter Theater Company's upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing.  I bought a car, which was super exciting. It's a gunmetal-grey 2018 Toyota Corolla, and it's the nicest thing I've ever owned. We're keeping my old 2007 Corolla until it dies, but we figured, better shop for a great deal now rather than scramble later when it inevitably dies on the side of the road.

Annd I finally got a new phone. For various reasons, I switched from an old iPhone 8 that had a 3-hour battery life at best, to a brand new, just released, Galaxy S21. That's right. I switched from Apple to Android. I never thought I would do that. I never thought I'd be buying a new model either, because that's usually a huge waste of money, but we were able to get the upgrade free. I'm really thankful for that. I'm really thankful for all the nice things that have come my way this month. 

So that's what's been going on in my life in general, but I wanted to take a moment to Not Actively Pretend like I didn't make a bunch of reading resolutions a month ago and check in on those intentions with you. Quick, place your bets. How do you think I'm doing?

 I'm going to hit them each one by one. 

1. I resolved to *only* read 200 books in 2021. And all I can say is I haven't exceeded that number yet, but I am ahead on my Goodreads goal so, I'm going to have to watch that. I do have a list of  21 books over 500 pages that I want to get to this year (and I've already read one), so I'm going to keep reaching for those whenever I get too far ahead, and hope that keeps me on track. 

2. I resolved to read fewer books under four stars. And I'm doing okay.  Of the 18 books I read (so far) this month, three were under four stars. One was three, one two, and one one*. And that last one really got to me. It started out a two, and I kept thinking it was going to get better but it Just Didn't, and I'm really mad at myself for not DNFing it after the first couple pages. I know better. I should not be wasting my time on bad books. Anyone else have this problem? You find it really hard to give up on a book? It's way easier for me if it's from the library--something I didn't pay for, but nearly impossible when I did. 

3. I resolved to get my 10 active series down to five active series. And right now I have 11, so I'm going in the wrong direction. But in my defense, that number grew because new books came out making inactive series active again. So it wasn't like I started anything new. Well I did. But it was only a little trilogy, and I'm halfway through the third book already, so leave me alone! And I Have been actively prioritizing the active series over other books, annnd I did finish one series. So there.

4. I resolved to read less YA. One-third of the books I read this month were YA. Sigh. Sigggghhhh,

5. I resolved to read more of the genres I'm intimidated by: Mystery/Thriller, Adult SFF, and Nonfiction, and I'm happy to report that I picked up one Thriller, one Adult Sci-fi, one Nonfiction, and one Mystery-Romance (which totally counts, I swear! Except that was the one I rated one star so...). As long as I'm working on what intimidates me a little bit each month, I'm okay with that. 

6. I resolved to go on a nearly-complete physical book-buying ban until I had read all 38 of the unread books on my shelf. I now have 34 books on that shelf. I read a few, donated a few, and got a few for my birthday, so I'm doing okay. 

7. And finally, I resolved to blog every weekend, and so far I Have Kept This Resolution, which even I am having trouble believing!!!

Overall, I'm happy with how I've done this month, and where I'm not happy, I can see what needs tweaking. The biggest thing is that reading books and buying books and thinking about books is not dominating my existence anymore, and that's good. That's what I needed. It's given me space to look at other areas of my life and work to make those better, which is, in turn, enriching my reading life. See how that works? 

Please don't get me wrong. Reading is a good thing. A very good thing, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and that is what I had in 2019 and 2020. Too much. Of a good thing. And it took me a really long time to realize it, mostly because it's a pretty rare problem to have too much reading in your life. The opposite is a Much more common problem. But you have to judge your situation by your situation and your needs, not where other people are at and what other people need from their lives.

Right, readers? I challenge you to comment one good thing in your life that you have too much of. And I'll leave you with that this week.  

*For the curious, the book I rated one star was A Lady's Guide to Mischief and Mayhem by Manda Collins. For that book review and to generally keep up with my reading shenanigans friend me on Goodreads!

Tune in next week for my Tidying Up post: Oh Hey, I'm a Minimalist!

Saturday, January 23, 2021

I'll Have a Steamy Romance Novel, Hold the Steam


Happy weekend, readers! Thank you so much for your feedback on my last post, discussing the Romance genre. A lot of you expressed, as I expected, varying degrees of comfort with content in Romance novels, so here are nearly all of my current favorites and recommendations in three parts: Hold the Steam, Hold Most of the Steam, and Moderate Steam is Okay for Me, Thanks.

Part One: Hold the Steam

*The characters in these books Only Kiss

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shafer and Annie Barrows

I'm only going to include one Classic (albeit a fairly recent one) on this list, because Classic Romances are almost guaranteed to be clean and we've all been talking about Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Elliot, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Gaskell for decades and decades.

Guernsey is an epistolary novel, told in letters between a variety of well-drawn characters. I really enjoy a story in which characters fall for each other purely for the mind and soul long before they see each other and have the chance to feel physical attraction. Our hero and heroine bond over their love of books and through the sharing of their disparate experiences of WWII as they live in the brand-new peace and try to learn, along with their communities, how to live normal lives again and let the war and its damage go. This story is an incredibly rich one, both as a Romance novel and as a Historical Fiction. 

Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters

 Would Like to Meet is an ode to classic Rom Coms and a hilarious deep dive into classic film Meet Cutes in all their ridiculous varieties. Our main lady works for a film agent, and must prove to a client that people really can meet and fall in love the way they do in Rom Coms in order to get him to fulfill his contract. You might think, as I did, that this reluctant screenwriter is the love interest of this story, but he is, in fact, only one leg of a surprisingly well-executed love triangle. The other leg is a widowed dad of a young, deaf girl, who plays a huge role in driving the story. I should mention that, while our main characters don't go farther than kissing, one side character is painfully and humorously scandalous.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I read this one in one evening, and I'm almost hesitant to call it a Romance novel, because our characters take an awfully long time to properly meet. Our hero's job is to monitor e-mails at his large company, and he finds himself falling for another employee over e-mails that pass between her and her best friend. Like Guernsey, this is a story in which our hero falls for his lady, not over her looks, but over her heart and soul as conveyed through writing that wasn't even directed at or tailored to him at all. I thought the story was cute, heartfelt, and thrived on the simplicity of its plot. 

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

 Sophie Kinsella is one of the first Romance authors I tried and also one of my favorites. She's British, and most of her audiobooks are narrated by Fiona Hardingham, my favorite female narrator, who's accent and lighthearted narration are simply lovely. Sophie's books never contain explicit sex scenes, and while most have a one or two fade to black scenes (including my favorite My Not So Perfect Life), this one doesn't. At least not between the hero and heroin who meet and form a friendship via texts over a discarded cell phone. Our heroine is engaged to another man for a big chunk of this book, and generally that's not something I enjoy as it usually involves a certain amount of emotional if not physical cheating, but in this case, it's handled well, and serves for a surprisingly tense plot for a Romance novel. I loved all the twists and the way everything came right in the end.


Beauty and the Clockwork Beast and The Kiss of the Spindle by Nancy Campbell Allen

All of Nancy's books are 100% clean. Some are better than others, but these two were top-tier for me. They're steampunk retellings of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty, respectively, adhering to only the barest bones of the original stories. Steampunk can be such a fun subgenre, and Nancy's Steampunk-Victorian world, complete with misunderstood Shifters, evil Vampires, and sassy Automatons, is my favorite Steampunk world I've discovered to date. 

*Here are a few YA titles. YA Romances are less likely to contain sexual content, but also less likely to make my favorites list. These are the ones that really stand out to me.

Midnight Sun by Stephanie Meyer

Am I even allowed to talk about YA Romance without mentioning Twilight? Also I'm so mad at this cover for being a pomegranate instead of a yellow apple (if you know, you know). Stephanie Meyer has written Twilight three times now, and each time she's improved it. This telling of the now classic/infamous story of a vampire falling for a mortal comes from Edward's perspective (which is honestly much more interesting than Bella's perspective). If you haven't read Twilight yet, you should, if only so you can know what everyone's been gushing/complaining about for all this time. The characters don't have sex until they're married (spoilers lol) in book four, and even then, Stephanie leaves out the gory details. If you don't want to read every single iteration of the first book, I'd suggest starting with Midnight Sun, then moving on to New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. Twilight was Stephanie's debut novel, and she's come a long way as an author since then.

Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Jonson

This is yet another of those books where two characters, who weren't previously attracted to each other fell in love just by communication. In this case it's through text messages. In fact, the entire story is told in text messages, which is an incredible feet, in my opinion. The two characters do know each other in person (or do they?), but for some reason, they can't seem to connect in real life. This book is adorable, and is one of those highschool stories that really transcends highschool, and just kind of speaks to the human experience. Just writing this makes me want to reread it immediately. 

Geekerella by Ashley Poston

Okay wow, I sense a theme. Apparently I SUPER like books where characters talk over text or e-mail or letters and are pretty much in love already before they even meet in person. I'm sorry. I really thought this post was going to be a little bit more of a diverse list. Sigggghhh. 

Anyway, Geekerella is similar to I've Got Your Number in that there's a lot of interaction between the characters through texts, but the book isn't entirely text messages. As the title implies, this story is Cinderella but with Geeks, and instead of a ball we have a Convention. It is super geeky and adorable. Perfect for people who love Cinderella or Star Trek, but preferably both. 

Part Two: Hold Most of the Steam

*The characters in these books only get to first or second base before the scene fades to black, and the author doesn't spend a lot of pages on these scenes.

Now, when I read these books, I didn't always pay That much attention to exactly when the scene cut, and it's been a while since I read a couple of these, so I apologize in advance if I've remembered incorrectly. 


The Tourist Attraction, Mistletoe and Mr. Right, and Enjoy the View by Sarah Morgenthaler

The Moose Springs series by Sarah Morgenthaler is an adorable, wholesome Romance series set in the fictional tourist town of Moose Springs, Alaska. Enjoy the View only came out a couple days ago, and my copy Just came in the mail today, so I haven't read it yet, SORRY, but I feel pretty confident recommending it all the same. As someone who grew up in a tourist area of Maine, I really enjoy the setting and the ongoing tension between the locals of Moose Springs and the annoying tourists who keep their businesses afloat. These books feature quiet/grumpy, local, Alaskan males, and tourist females with the Audacity to be In The Vicinity and Attractive. If you look closely at the covers, you'll see the same cute doggo on all three. This blind border collie is shared by a couple different characters and finds a way, along with the local, eccentric moose population, to be an adorable part of each plot. 

Things you Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

As a firefighter's wife, I generally don't like to consume any fire stories because they tend to unrealistically overdramatize the life and overpresent the dangers in a way that is not healthy for me personally, but that wasn't the case with this one. As far as I can tell, this book depicts the fire life accurately, from station politics to pranks to life off-shift (both main characters are firefighters). This is also a book that presents the aftermath of sexual assault really, really well, in my opinion. It's also just funny. I laughed a Lot.

99% Mine by Sally Thorne

99% Mine flips the Brooding Hero/Sweet Heroine trope that's so common to Romance on its head and gives us a Brooding Heroine and a Sweet Hero, who I really love. I saw a lot of similarities to Jon in him and found the relational commentary super helpful in our marriage. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne is also super well-loved in the book community, but it's a very different story, so if you like one, you may or may not like the other and vice versa. I liked both, but this one markedly more. 

Part Three: Moderate Steam is Okay for Me, Thanks

*These books contain sex and don't fade to black, but still aren't super intense and the authors still don't spend a lot of pages on the steamy scenes.  


Bringing Down the Duke and A Rogue of One's Own by Evie Dunmore

Evie Dunmore's A League of Extraordinary Women series, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above anything else available in the Historical Romance genre. Her female leads are all part of the English suffrage movement, and they way they handle their love interests in light of their convictions about women's rights, in a time and place where the laws very much didn't acknowledge women as more than property, is fascinating. Evie's books are well-researched, well-written and the kind of good that makes me want to push them on anyone and everyone who's comfortable with the content. 

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Emily Henry's writing is beautiful and almost too literary for the Romance genre, but I Adored this book. It's about two authors: one who writes Romance and one who writes Literary Fiction, who knew each other in college and reconnect on a vacation as they both struggle with their current projects. There's just so much depth to the themes in this book as each character works through what's holding them back both creatively and romantically. Very emotional. Actually not something I would think of as a beach read come to think of it...


The Bromance Book Club, Undercover Bromance, and Crazy, Stupid Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams

The Bromance Book Club is a hilarious series about a group of men who read and discuss Romance novels together in an attempt to gain insights into their own love lives. The first installment is about a married couple on the brink of divorce, who are saved by Romance novels, the second is about a guy who thinks he knows everything about relationships because He Reads Romance Novels, and the third, which I've just barely started, is about a guy who's been avoiding joining the club for a year despite tons of peer pressure, but he's getting Pretty Desperate to get out of the friend zone. There's also a cat cafe called Toe Beans, Adorable. **Update** I'm nearly finished Crazy, Stupid Bromance, and it's way steamier than I remembered the others being. I don't know if the series has changed or if my memory was wrong, but hey. Fair warning. 

And Everything I've Left Out

There's so much more out there including books for those in the Don't Hold Back Any Steam camp. Christina Lauren is an author duo who writes books in the light-medium steam range. Ditto Talia Hibbert. These authors aren't consistent from book to book as far as the details go, however. Sarah Maclean and Tessa Dare write excellent spicy Historical Fiction. Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen both have super spicy Hockey Romance series that I really enjoy, and the list goes on. I'm still discovering new authors, and I'm sure I'll have a whole new round of recommendations of all categories next year as well. 

And with that, dear reader, I will leave you. I hope that no matter where your boundaries and preferences are, that I've recommended something you might pick up and love. If you do, please let me know! If you've read some of these already, I'd love to hear about it! I have No Idea what I'm writing about next weekend, but I promise it won't be about Romance Novels. 

Until then, have a Lovely Week and Stay Warm!


Monday, January 18, 2021

I Have a Lot to Say About Romance Novels

Buckle up, kids. It's going to be a long post, and I'm going to use the word "sex" a bunch of times, so prepare yourselves. I think that, despite how small this blog's audience is, your views on the topic of Romance novels are quite varied, and I want you to know that I respect that. 

I grew up thinking a certain type of way about Romance novels, and now I'd like to, more or less, defend the genre to anyone who thinks like my younger self. That is, holds a strongly negative opinion not based on reality, but on a mishmash of assumptions, misconceptions, and poorly vetted thoughts from other people. 

If your view of Romance novels is based on actual facts and research and experience, my intention is not to change your mind. At all. If your view is decidedly negative, and you'd rather skip this post, I'm not offended. But if you'd like to read and chat with me at the other end, I'd really love that. 

Okay, I'm just going to tackle the things I used to believe about Romance novels one by one. 

1. Romance novels are basically pornography. 

The interesting thing about this teaching, that I heard over and over again from Christian sources, is that it's not about the questionable covers or the sex. Here's the argument: pornography presents male and female bodies, as well as sexual acts, in unattainably perfect ways. The models work full-time to keep their bodies looking perfect and all the angles, lighting, scripting, and airbrushing lift them to a plane that no mere mortal can reach. Pornography is unfair to both you and your partner because it gives you standards and expectations that you and you partner will never be able to hit, and you will always be disappointed. 

The sermons and Christian Living books I imbibed argued that Romance novels were functionally the same: that they set unattainably perfect standards for men, women, and relationships such that neither you nor your partner would ever be able to compete, and that those standards and expectations would destroy your relationships and marriages in the same way that pornography does. 

There's a lot to unpack there. First of all, I think the above is AN argument against pornography but not a complete one. Second of all, this isn't a post about the evils of pornography, and I don't want it to be. Third, no. I don't think Romance novels set unrealistic expectations for relationships. Yes, many Romance novels have really awkward covers and yes, many contain explicit sex scenes, but that is, I think, a separate issue. 

Now I'm not here to promise you that every Romance novel by every author forever presents sufficiently flawed characters and sufficiently flawed relationships, but most do. I have not found, at any point in the past couple years, that Romance novels have given me unfair expectations for my marriage or created any discontentment with Jon and our life together, at all. 

2. Romance novels have sex in them. 

Yes, they usually do. Not all. But most. Different authors write different content, and sometimes the cover will give you an indication of that content and sometimes it won't. The genre is a spectrum, and wherever your line is, there is a solid selection of books that won't cross it. As a starting point assume that if the people on the cover are in a state of undress, the characters are not going to just kiss.

And by now you might be thinking: I'll just stay on the safe side and read Christian Romance novels. I don't recommend it. Nothing I'm going to say in this entire post applies to my experience with Christian Romance novels. If you like Christian Romance novels, I'd love to hear from you about how wrong I am, but in my opinion, they do, unlike the rest of the genre, set unrealistic and unattainable expectations for men, women, and relationships, and they don't do well on any of the other points I'm about to discuss either. They just don't have sex. Great. If you want to read a couple really old posts by my sister demolishing the Christian Romance subgenre, here's the first and here's the second

But you Can find books outside of Christian Romance that don't go farther than kissing. You can also find books that always fade to black before a sex scene or just heavily imply without giving any details (the way most PG-13 movies of any genre do). You can find books where the characters get married first (usually Historical Romance or, oddly enough, the Mafia Romance subsubgenre). You can find books that give a few details, and you can find books that give a lot of details. You can also find books that veer into Fifty Shades of Grey (light BDSM) territory and beyond, but I don't. That's where my line is, surprise surprise. 

While I don't feel the need to defend my personal boundaries to the general public, I do want to offer my reasoning for the curious. This is going to be a little extra personal, so if you don't feel comfortable, I'll mark the section so it'll be easy to skip. 

*** As a homeschooled, Christian young lady, I received a very, very basic sex education. Basically: "The thing goes there, it'll hurt the first time, have fun!" So for me, detailed sex scenes in Romance novels have been super informative and helpful both scientifically and emotionally (making me more confident and less insecure). Much better than googling, watching a porno, or trying to yank detailed advice out of a Christian friend or family member. In my opinion, At Least once you're married, you're allowed to think about sex, and hear about sex, consider it in the context of a story, and research ways to get better at it. As far as the marital status of the characters in the book, I don't think it really matters. If you're married, you can't be tempted to have premarital sex anymore. If you're tempted to have sex, you can go have sex, and your husband will probably not complain. Your wife might think it's funny that you're reading Romance novels, but with the skills you'd be learning, I don't think she'd complain either. 
*** It's safe now. 

Wherever your line is, be it a moral or a personal preference one, stick to your guns. Don't let me talk you out of it. I'm planning a Squeaky Clean Romance Novels recommendation list for next week that'll be right up your alley. Mooooving on. 

3. Romance novels are poorly written. Untalented female authors who couldn't make it in other genres write Romance novels for empty-headed female audiences who don't know the difference. 

This is a surprisingly common opinion. I've been reading the genre for two years now, and I've found the ratio of good to bad authors to be about the same as any other genre. There are simply not enough truly great authors in the world to meet demand, and "just good", mediocre, and actually bad authors pick up the slack. I encourage you to not judge any genre by one book, even a highly-rated one. People's tastes are different and every genre has quite a lot of variety within it. 

One of my favorite things about the genre is that, because it usually only takes 300-400 pages to get a couple people to a happy ending, successful Romance authors tend to be prolific. They're not taking 10 years on each of their 1,000-page incredibly complex plots with multiple main characters, cultures, and magic systems. Romance authors tend to put out a book a year, loosely arranged in "series" where a supporting character you met in one book, becomes the lead in the next. All that to say, when you find an author you love, you won't have to find another for a while. 

And as far as I know, Romance authors are Romance authors because they love the genre and like writing it, not because they failed at another genre. 

4. Romance novels are all the same. Just like Hallmark movies. 

Yes and no. Romance novels tend to follow a certain structure in the same way that all stories tend to follow a certain structure and that structure naturally narrows within a genre. It would not be very interesting if two perfect people met, had a perfect relationship, minus a misunderstanding in the third act and proceeded to live happily ever after. That's why Hallmark movies are often so insipid.

The things that make a love story worth telling are the stakes and the obstacles, and unlike some genres, there are nearly infinite possibilities for these. You have two people who are attracted to each other or at least could be. You have at least one reason on both ends why they aren't together already and why they don't get together the minute they meet (usually). Those reasons are sometimes external, sometimes internal and sometimes both. 

Those reasons are generally thorny and take nuanced work on the part of the author to work out. Villains in Romance novels can't just be slain or jailed in order to resolve the conflict. The conflict has to actually be Resolved. Often there aren't any proper villains beyond the leads themselves and their personal demons.

The general structure of the story is usually this: the characters meet, or, if they have already met, some inciting incident throws them together in a way that forces them to face existing attractions/feelings. They struggle with their feelings and their obstacles for the first act, then get together. The second act generally involves the characters believing they have surmounted their obstacles or finding a way to temporarily pretend those obstacles don't exist. Then there's the breakup at the beginning of the third act when the obstacles reassert themselves that forces the characters to realize they would rather do the tough work to actually get rid of those obstacles rather than live apart. 

There's also, almost always, a subplot of some other genre, in the same way that most other genres have subplots of Romance. You have Workplace Drama Romances, you have Sports Romances, you have Mystery Romances, you have Action Romances, and so on and so forth. What I'm saying is, there is a ton of variety. Each subplot brings its own set of stakes that either run parallel to the stakes of the love story or cut against them, which can be really interesting.  

5. Romance novels are predictable. 

Yes they are. You know how it will end and you know that it will fall apart in the third act first, and you usually know, after the first act, how and why the breakup will happen. Most of the main plot (though not the subplot) is a forgone conclusion as soon as the characters and their obstacles are introduced. I love that about this genre. Romance novels are not Thrillers. Their purpose in life is not to be unpredictable. Their purpose is to get two people together. That's why we read them. To watch thorny  problems get fixed and to know, that no matter how bleak things look, that we are guaranteed a happy ending. That's what you get with a Romance novel. If you don't want that, then fine. The genre is not for you, and we can't be friends, but you're probably not a bad person. (JUST KIDDING. I have some really close friends who just don't enjoy Romance novels from a plot perspective for this very reason, and that's okay.)

But in another sense, Romance novels are not predictable for the same reason that people are not predictable, and Romance novels are, when boiled down, books about people. Every human relationship that exists in the world and all the ways those relationships can go wrong and complicated and broken gets discussed and that can be quite unpredictable, even within the confines of a very predictable genre. 

6. Romance novels are shallow. 

No. Well, some are. Like I said before, there will never be a shortage of mediocre books in the world, but no, shallowness does not define the Romance genre. I've have read a great many books that go deep into a great many topics and themes. Characters struggle through familial conflicts and generational curses. They work through trauma and abuse. They struggle with vices and character flaws, insecurities and lies they've been believing. They work through moral and social dilemmas and philosophical questions. The only thing that really separates Romance novels from Literary novels and Historical Fiction in terms of thematic potential is that Romance novels are not depressing. The happy ending is guaranteed. That doesn't, in my opinion, make the book shallow. It makes the tough topic being dealt with more palatable and the conclusion more hopeful. 

And because I was wrong about all these things, and for many more reasons than I could list or even properly articulate here, I don't just like the Romance genre, I love it, and often, I find myself choosing it over other genres. 

Okay, I could probably keep going, but I'm going to stop here. I would really appreciate your feedback on this post, readers, because there's a lot more I could say and would be happy to say if I knew you wanted to hear it. Hit me with your comments and questions. Let me know if you want recommendations, and I'll either tailor some to you individually, or do a whole post with recommendations in the category you're wanting. 

Or conversely, I can shut up about Romance altogether if this audience is entirely uninterested. Let me know!

Love you guys. 

Thanks for reading, as always. 

Coming Soon: 10 or So Squeaky Clean Romance Novels

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Abby's 2020 Book Awards

      Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to my living room for my 2020 book awards, the most unimportant and arbitrary awards show Ever Produced! I got the idea to do my own bookish awards from Daniel Greene, a Youtuber who puts out an awards show every year, so shout-out to him!

     I'm going to give these awards out in no particular order. The only qualification for these books is that I must have read them in 2020, though they can be published in any year, and they must not be rereads. Because that would be unfair. I'm not going to give an award in every single genre and subgenre, just the ones that really stood out. There's going to be far too many to say much about each, but you can easily find synopses of each on Goodreads or Amazon.

So without further ado....

The award for Best Fantasy goes to....

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Absolutely spectacular book. From the magic system to the main character, to the feel of the world, I ate it up. 

The award for Best Sci-fi goes to....

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

Aliens and Social Media Theory. This book and its sequel: A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor are hilarious and incredibly thoughtful. Big conversation starters.

The awards for Best Afrofuturism and Best Cover go to

Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden

It's fairly rare that I read something that feels derivative of nothing. Just entirely original. This was space travel at its most quirky and imaginative. Also SUCH a beautiful cover. 

The award for Best Plague Book goes to...

Severance by Ling Ma

Plague originates in China? Zombie Apocalypse? Heavily literary? Sounds perfect.

The award for Best Classic goes to...

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Netflix adaptation is less good, but still good. All the feels in this story of healing from WWII and German occupation.

The award for Best Food Book goes to...

Mast Brothers Chocolate by Rick and Michael Mast

The photographs. The recipes. The CHOCOLATE. Yummy. 

The award for Best Middle Grade goes to...

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This little book had HEART, adorable characters, and a really intriguing plot. 

The award for Best Nonfiction goes to... 

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carryrou

This book was fascinating. Holy crap. 

The award for Best Series I Completed in 2020 goes to...

The Queen's Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

This YA Fantasy series is excellent all the way through, and Return of the Thief was a fantastic way to wrap it up. 

The award for Best Audiobook goes to...

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is already my favorite nonfiction author, and content-wise this is my favorite of his books, but on top of that, the audiobook is produced like a podcast, read by the author, and just an audio treat.

The award for Most Immersive Book goes to...

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I could see, hear, smell, taste and touch the events of this book. Not really. But I Felt like I could.

The award for Best YA Fantasy Book goes to...IT'S A THREE-WAY TIE

Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare

These are staples of the YA genre, that I'm just now getting around to reading.

The award for Best YA Sci-fi goes to...

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

This was Excellent. Incredible aerial fight sequences. Intriguing plot. Top-tier. 

The award for Best YA Contemporary goes to...

Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Johnson

This is a really cute story told entirely in text messages. I read it in one sitting and adored it. 

The award for Now I'm Most Excited to See the Movie goes to...

Dune by Frank Herbert

Between reading the book and watching the previews that have dropped, Dune is officially the movie I'm most excited for in 2021. 

The award for Most Impact On My Life goes to...

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Netflix show led me to the book which got me off on a whole Tidying/Minimalist kick on Youtube, and I adore how my house looks as a result. I will write a whole blog post on this in a month or so when I can really see and quantify the results. 

The award for Best Political Book goes to...
Blackout by Candace Owens

Candace's perspective on race and race politics is unique, well-written, and well-argued.

And on that note, the award for Most Controversial Book I Read This Year goes to...

Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

Whenever there's a big hubbub (and there is/was a BIG hubbub), I like to see what it's about. This is not a Conservative book or an anti-trans book. It's a well-presented perspective/set of concerns on young girls seeking transition. I don't agree with all of it, but I think it's an important part of the conversation. 

And now to lighter things! 

The award for Best Contemporary Romance goes to...

Beach Read by Emily Henry

More literary than your typical Romance novel, I couldn't put this book down. 

The award for Best Historical Romance goes to...

A Rogue of One's Own by Evie Dunmore

Evie, who has graciously provided me with ARCS (Advanced Reader Copies) of her books, produces well-researched, well-written, smart Historical Romance. Planning to reread this one soon. 

And finally the award for Best Christmas Book goes to...

The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand

A modern day Christmas Carol, this one had a ton of heart and paid the sort of homage to Dickens that makes a Lit. major's heart sing. 

And that's it, everyone! Out of the 356 books I read in 2020, these are the ones that rose to the top, the ones that continue to occupy my thoughts, and the ones I'm most likely to recommend to friends and reread in the coming years. 

I hope you enjoyed! Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have questions about a book I awarded or simply want to know a little bit more. I wouldn't universally recommend some of these to everyone, so use your judgement!

Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? What books would you have awarded? 

See you next time, friends!

Coming Soon: I Discovered I Love Reading Romance, Here's Why