Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fandom Versus Criticism

An opinion piece from the New York Times popped up in my Twitter feed today that preempted today's planned review post. It was ostensibly about 50 Shades of Grey, but really, it wasn't. What it was about was the relationship of fandom to criticism, exploring the concept of whether critics are out of touch or fandom is superficially concerned with literal representation and uninterested in artistic merit. The author doesn't given an explicit answer, though he hints at one when he acknowledges how Twilight temporarily transformed him into a 13-year-old girl. In other words, there's a place for both.

Personally, I've been struggling a little with my blog over the past couple of months. There's a tension in what I do here at Cooking Up Romance between fandom and criticism. Broadly speaking, my "reviews" aren't criticism. They're personal reflections on media I consume largely for fun, interpreted through the lens of food. The most enthusiastic of them are more like fan letters than reviews, but because I am who I am, I tend to reflect more on thoughts than feelings, which might fool people into thinking I'm writing criticism. Reviewing implies a critical process at work in the body of the piece, which is mostly absent from my recipe reviews, if not necessarily from my overall selection process.

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I'm slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don't think I'll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. Some of them have robust marketing behind them and/or writers committed to getting sales. Some aren't even bad exactly. They're just...same-y. I'm tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat when there are stacks of books by authors I know I like and other books that come highly recommended by people whose taste I know I share. I've felt pressure to review the latest thing, the popular stuff, a breadth of work by a wide range of authors in all the sub-genres, particularly because what I do here is unique.

But I had stopped enjoying myself. I'd read so many bad books in a row--books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn't fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities. I enjoy thinking "deep" thoughts about the books I read, but a lack of underlying quality is supremely uninteresting for me to think about and talk about. Plus, in order to meet my Year of Doing Hard Things goals, I really need to be able to cook and photograph and write. I can't waste time scheduling in ARCs only to end up scrambling because I didn't particularly enjoy eight books in a row, which is what happened in February.

Reading that New York Times article though, I had an epiphany: I might be a critic at one level, but I'm also a romance fan. And being forced into the role of critic over and over by books that didn't work for me was making my inner fan super cranky. Like, tired, hungry toddler cranky. I wrote a review recently that I've since pulled from the blog because it was written by that tired, hungry toddler. I wouldn't have been so annoyed by perceived inconsistencies if I hadn't read a bunch of stuff in a row that I didn't enjoy. So instead, I'm going back to writing about books I may have read months or even years ago. I will also still likely write about some new things as I discover books and writers (like Shelley Ann Clark last year) whom I adore. But I'm also going to stop resisting the temptation to blog all the Laura Kinsale just because I worry that people will get sick of listening to me rave about her.

Being a fan doesn't mean I'm uncritical. Choosing to write fan-aligned reviews with pretty pictures of food doesn't mean I'm not making aesthetic and ethical decisions behind the scenes. And there have been ethical decisions, particularly as I make friends with authors whose books I also enjoy via Twitter and, more recently, in person. I will likely continue to write some essay-type posts (both here and elsewhere) because writing is how I process overarching critical issues. I'm just not going to process those issues through the lens of particular books like other critics do. It's not because I'm not capable of it. It's because it doesn't bring me joy. I had an innate sense that this would be the case going in, which is why I've always said I won't write negative reviews here. But I got to the point where I felt I had to start because if I didn't, I wouldn't write at all. Having something to write about isn't worth the price though. Not of feeling unhappy. Not for me. Nor, as a fan, do I feel the need to comment on a book's flaws if those flaws are outweighed by its' strengths. As a critic, both seem equally important to share.

Finally, there seems to be an ethos of disclosure, of separating the reviewers from the writers (born of the ethics of professional journalism) to book reviewing online. And while that seems to work very well for The New Yorker and even big romance reviewing blogs, that's not what I ever wanted to be or what I ever wanted to do. So from now on, I'm not going to fret so much about writing about books by people I know beyond the text (though I will continue to disclose those relationships, indicate where I've read a draft in any form and report when I've received a book free for the purposes of review). And that is likely to diminish my level of respectability in some peoples' eyes. But why, as a fan, would I want to give up relationships I enjoy, reading early versions of stuff (SO FUN) or writing about books I love because of an arbitrary standard of behavior that I never aspired to adhere to and don't necessarily value? As a critic, I felt guilty. As a fan, I don't have to care.

I didn't set out to write some kind of critical manifesto even though that's kind of where I ended up. Nor do I expect my conclusions to correlate to anyone else's conclusions. I just wanted to explain where I've been and where I am now and why there may be some subtle changes. For one thing, if I don't like my TBR Challenge book, I'm going to skip that month. Readers may see some of the same authors pop up more frequently because that's just reflective of the books I'm enjoying at any given time. There will probably be fewer reviews of new books and more reviews of "classic" books, though my definition of classic might include a random Harlequin Presents from 2007.

So that's where I am at the moment. It's extremely freeing.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Angels' Blood by Nalini Singh 2015 TBR Challenge

 The TBR Challenge this month was a "Recommended Read" and E from Bookpushers had been steadily insisting that I read Nalini Singh for...oh...roughly forever? I'd purchased a used paperback copy of Angels' Blood a while ago, but I have a tendency not to read paperbacks now that I have a Kindle. I mostly read in bed after the lights go out so having a book with its own built-in light source has quickly spoiled me.

Am I ever glad I picked up this one for the TBR Challenge though. I haven't read a lot of paranormal romance and the little I have read hasn't always worked well for me. This is a gross generalization, but a combination of world-building pickiness, a difficulty finding balance between romance and paranormal plots, and a tendency in some paranormals to over-subscribe to traditional gender roles (or maybe worse, insist than the heroine is So Very Strong, but still have the hero save her at every opportunity) biased me against them. Laura Kaye is one author that bucked that trend for me. I really enjoyed her Hearts of the Anemoi series (more fantasy than paranormal, but which tends toward the same subgenre issues). Delilah Dawson's Blud series was another that worked well. And I really loved Angels' Blood. So it's probable that I've been super unjust in my perceptions--judging an entire category of books by the vampire romances I've tried and failed to like over the years.

Angels' Blood does have vampires, but there were a couple crucial differences from the vampires I'm familiar with. These ancient vampires actually behave like I expect ancient vampires to behave. They're not perpetual emotional teenagers hellbent on sex and destiny. They have different thoughts and motivations and sense of time than a mortal. They can actually get a little bit bored with being unable to die. They've experienced lots of loss. They're not just paler, sexier, more dangerous humans. They are recognizably "other". The same can be said of the angels who rule them.

Speaking of which, vampires in this universe are created by and are subservient to angels. And the Cadre of Ten are archangels, the most powerful beings in the universe Singh has created. Raphael, the hero of Angels' Blood, is one of these archangels. And while this book doesn't have much in common with Christian mythology, the conception of angels is exactly like the Biblical one. When angels deign to acknowledge mortals, mortals cower and quake in fear. Raphael should be and is terrifying, just for the sheer amount of power and influence that he wields. But this hero isn't the most powerful being in his universe even though he's quite a bit more powerful than the heroine. The overarching plot is that of a rogue archangel who the hero and heroine team up to find, one who has tasted blood that has made him both more powerful and more unstable.

Elena, the heroine, is a hunter of rogue vampires who have escaped their angels before the term of their service contract is up. And while she can't quite match Raphael, she has a different kind of power, one that is gradually revealed over the course of the novel. She may not be able to blow up buildings with a flick of a finger, but her strength of will and her mortality allow her to exercise a control over the hero that he finds both alluring and terrifying. Plus, in a nod to Loretta Chase's classic historical romance Lord of Scoundrels, she shoots him. He needed shooting. But it isn't just the gun that causes damage. It's primarily the fact that his attraction to Elena has made him just the slightest bit mortal and therefore vulnerable. Not weak. He's never weak. But then, neither is she.

There are skills she has that he doesn't, mainly her ability as a hunter to scent vampires, one that now works on the rogue archangel. The two of them track him through his reign of terror over the streets of New York in a dramatic, gruesome, detective plot that also serves to heighten the romantic and dramatic tension between them. Seriously, the tension. Like the best detective buddy romances though, I thought the build-up was better than the sexual pay-off. I'll be curious to see if the sex holds more power in subsequent novels. Instead it felt almost but not quite like a Moonlighting scenario where I wanted them to stay apart for as long as possible. Their romantic friction was the best part of the romantic arc. That said, the denouement was terrific. On the off chance that folks haven't read it, I don't want to spoil the ending (though in fairness, I saw it coming from a fair distance).

What fascinated me most about Angels' Blood was the way the novel played with the power differentials between all the characters. I'm not sure I came to any strong conclusions about the nature of angeldom, humanity, femininity or masculinity as a result of the novel, but it sure did open up a lot of questions about how much control any of us (regardless of power) can be expected to be able to exert over our own environments. If I'm interpreting it correctly, nearly every character is forced to abandon themselves to a greater power at some point in the narrative, a real struggle when each of them is accustomed to ruling over whatever they consider their domain.

In a genre that seems ever more concerned with ensuring that each character is strong and independent--giving over both heroes and heroines to unreasoning stubbornness and unendingly arbitrary clashes of will--Angels' Blood was a breath of fresh, rain-scented air.
I'm very much looking forward to reading more by Singh, including her new rockstar series, which has been getting rave reviews.

And I'm very, very glad that my TBR yielded up a really satisfying read after last month's Anne Weale debacle. I'm totally in love with the TBR Challenge and can't wait for next month. The theme is "Series Catch-Up" so I'm going to pull out The Two Gentlemen of Altona, the first of Lisa Henry and J.A. Rock's Playing the Fool series. It's only been on my TBR for a few months, but I keep hearing lovely things about the second book so I'm eager to start in on it.

What have you been reading lately?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Guest Post at All About Romance

I'm at All About Romance today with Alexis Hall discussing Judith Ivory's 1997 historical romance Beast.

One fun romance-is-a-small-place intersection that occurred to me after Alexis and I chatted was that Laura Florand's new series starting with Once Upon a Rose, takes places in and around the same region of France as Beast and also features a hero who grows flowers for perfumes, about a hundred years apart. So now I really have to get to that book. I'm curious to see how the business changed!

And the next beauty and the beast trope book I'm really looking forward to is Erica Monroe's next historical, Beauty and the Rake, which comes out in April, but can be preordered now. It's a TOTALLY different take and since it's pretty much my favorite trope, I can't wait.
And stay tuned to AAR next month when Alexis and I will chat about Getting Dirty by Erin Nicholas. Everything is more fun with friends.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

RT Book Reviews Guest Post

Planning your Valentine's Day menu? I have a guest post up at the Romantic Times Book Reviews blog today with some ideas for an elegant, romantic meal. Including a cocktail that has never appeared on the blog. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Doing Hard Things February Update

A too-zoomed-in, oddly-angled, cluttered shot of Thai Beef Tacos from my first recipe review.

Well, guys, as it turns out, doing hard things is actually...uh...HARD. I spent a good portion of January feeling frustrated, discouraged and overwhelmed. But I also had a lot of good things happen. And the good news is that despite what it felt like, I'm making more progress than I think.

1. Learn to shoot in Manual mode.

I learned a few things this month. First, that I don't actually want to shoot in Manual mode most of the time. What I want is Aperture Priority mode. And I have been doing that, albeit with back-up non-flash automatic mode, which is the same thing I've been doing forever. The reason is that I don't want to have to remake recipes just because I didn't get the shots I needed. I feel a little guilty for using a crutch, but not so much that I'm going to stop doing it. Remaking recipes for the sake of photographs ranks among my top least favorite things when it comes to this blog.

I did find this set of tutorials: and I've done the first lesson, but I need to prioritize sitting down at set times and working through it. I did schedule times twice a week, but I was bad about sticking to them.

2. Post more photos of recipe steps to either Flickr/Picasa or Facebook.

I actually did post recipe step photos to Facebook for the cannoli recipe I posted on Monday. I'm not sure how well Facebook works for that and I'll probably only do it for the complicated recipes, but it was nice to be able to stash those extra photos somewhere. And hopefully helpful to people who might want to actually, ya know, cook.

3. Make my recipes easily downloadable/printable.

Ha! I didn't do this. I didn't even think about doing this. I've got a whole year though, right?

4. Develop more of my own recipes.

If you've noticed that I didn't post quite as many times in January as normal, this is the reason. For the recipes I posted, several were entirely of my own invention and I made much more than minor alterations to the others, which required a lot more testing and trial-and-error than I have typically done in the past. As a result, my posting schedule suffered a little bit. I can only assume I'll get better at this.

I also did a bunch of other stuff in January. I had this post on Wonkomance, two other guest posts on other blogs that will go up sometime in February, a sekrit project that I'll talk more about when it comes out, and I worked with Megan Mulry on planning this social gathering for people coming to DC for the Popular Romance Project screening and conference on February 11th. I also did my first TBR Challenge post and visited all the participating blogs, which was so fun and I discovered several great new ones like Feminist Fairy Tale Reviews. Plus there This is still a hobby, after all.

Actually, I went into this post feeling like I haven't been very successful at any of the things I set out to do this year. But you know what? Sometimes I just have to give myself more credit. I had occasion to look back at some of my old posts this past week for a guest post that will go up later in the month and my photography has improved a ton even in just the nine months I've been writing this blog. So I didn't exactly stick to my plan of doing photography tutorials twice a week. I guess in addition to Doing Hard Things, I also need to be Letting Myself Off The Hook.

Does that sounds familiar to anyone else?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Under His Touch Cannoli

Under His Touch by Jeffe Kennedy is a May-December boss-subordinate office romance, a setup that is complete catnip for me that nevertheless has epic potential to go really far wrong. I love huge age gaps in my romance (my husband and I are ten years apart) and I love the realism of office romances. But often neither of these storylines work so well. In any office romance, especially a boss-subordinate romance, and even more so with an age difference, there's a fine line to walk between hella hot and hella creeptastic. Kennedy manages to walk the line with room to spare, creating a delightful story of a precocious, ambitious young woman and her older, more experienced lover that worked for me on every level.

Amber Dolors is a bright, ambitious young woman who knows just what she wants, but not how to get it. Not quite yet anyway. She's had no trouble attracting harmless young men, but what she wants is a relationship that's quite different from that. Amber has developed an interest in BDSM and is eager to explore it with someone attractive, experienced and willing to teach. Her nascent kinkdar tells her that her boss, Alec Knight, might be her ticket into the world of dominance and submission. Maybe her only ticket since her local NYC kink scene is portrayed as being difficult for a youngster such as herself to break into.

Alec Knight is Amber's boss, many rungs above her in the corporate hierarchy. This presents a huge problem for him because not only is he in fact a dominant with a ex-wife in his past whose kinky standards he couldn't live up to, he's also a really good guy. He's painfully aware of the fact that getting involved with Amber could ruin his career, but mostly that it would open her up to accusations of having slept her way to the top, which is horrifically unfair because she's super bright and fully capable of getting there all on her own. After much resisting though, he finally gives into her pleas to teach her the, ahem, ropes.

One little fun thing for me was that Amber is also just a little bit geeky. She makes all these references to Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic series, which is the series that got me into comics and which hasn't ever been replaced in my affections. Seeing the myriad Sandman references just tickled me silly and probably significantly influenced my affection for this book. But they're not just Easter eggs for Sandman fans. Amber tries to share the series with Alec, who is fairly dismissive of them. It's a problem that isn't unique to May-December romances, but a lot of the time such issues signal death in them. Despite the relative youth of one partner, there still needs to be mutual respect and Alex spends much of the novel struggling with the fact that Amber is just so young.

Together the two of them eventually stumble their way through the minefields of all their various power dynamics (including the boss-subordinate one) in a way that felt believable to me, even given current human resource realities. It's mainly Alec's reticence to ruin Amber's career and her insistence on a sexual relationship that made this work for me. Alec really has a rough time trying to decide the best course of action. He veers a bit into over-protectiveness, which Amber neither needs or wants and which she makes very clear. I think it would be easy to say, "Nope, no way, always wrong" when confronted with a scenario like this. But I remember being a young woman eager to make my own decisions (even if they turned out to be wrong ones, against the wisdom of my friends and family) and sometimes big gambles pay off. It's part of growing up. And definitely makes Under His Touch one for my keeper shelf.

Jeffe Kennedy is a writer who keeps her characters very well fed. It's an aspect of her work that I very much appreciate. Her smoking hot erotic romance Ruby really belongs on every foodie romance lover's keeper shelf. The hero is a chef and, well, I reviewed it here so you can just go look at that if you're interested. Her latest effort is no exception. Even when her characters order in, they do it in style. When the hero and heroine get delivery, cannoli, an Italian filled pastry, is on the menu.

I made several batches of cannoli while testing out what might work best. At first, I thought I wanted the most traditional cannoli possible as Italian restaurants in New York City do not mess around. But sometimes what's possible in a restaurant isn't possible for the home baker. I suspect Italian pastry chefs likely roll this very stiff dough through a pasta machine. Just guessing since following a very traditional recipe, I was presented with a cannoli dough that was far too stiff to roll as thin as I'd have liked (and I have a MONSTER of a solid maple rolling pin). But adaptation is the name of the game.

I had made several pie crusts recently and the current trend in getting flaky, tender crusts is to use vodka in place of some of the water. The alcohol inhibits gluten formation. And well, this is basically pie crust dough. The proportions are almost the same. So I decided that rather than go completely toward the traditional Marsala, I'd replace some with vodka for a higher alcohol content. And OMIGOSH. Did that ever make a huge difference. They look like cannoli shells, they taste like cannoli shells, they get all blistered and crispy like cannoli shells. Teensy tiny little change, big damn result. I was pretty pleased with myself for figuring that out.

Anyway, once I'd added vodka, there was no looking back. Ricotta filling is a pretty traditional choice for cannoli and I did like this one just fine. I cut this filling recipe in half in case you want to do more than one filling. I also happened to have made a milk chocolate chantilly for a recipe over Christmas and thought it might be excellent as cannoli filling. Spoiler: it was. And I used the same technique to make a Nutella version. Make these two whipped ganache fillings a day ahead as they need to rest in the fridge overnight. You can double the recipes with no problem if you only want to make one type of filling. Otherwise, these are sized to fill 12 shells each and the shell recipe makes 24 so just pick two.

I stored the pre-fried, unfilled shells for 48 hours before filling and they were fine. Filled ones didn't last 4 hours in the fridge before they started to get a little soft and not as crispy. So it's best if you can fill them as you need them. I know I say this twice a month, but these cannoli are the best thing I've ever made for the blog. It's one of those horrible projects that takes forever and requires dipping molded baked goods into vats of boiling oil, but it's sadly completely worth the effort. Also, because it's a trifle complicated, I've included a dozen more photos of the process here.

I'm legendary among my friends for being able to resist my own baked goods, but I might have eaten a couple of these for breakfast. Okay, a few. And I maybe did it three days in a row. So there's that.

adapted from Canelle et Vanille and Food Network
Makes: 24 mini cannoli
Time: 2 hours (1 1/2 hours hands-on)

Nutella Filling (fills 12 cannoli)
250 grams heavy cream
90 grams Nutella
2 tablespoons chopped, toasted hazelnuts

1. Boil the cream and pour over the milk chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted. Cover with plastic wrap adhering to the surface so it doesn't form a skin. Let ganache rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Whip it as whipped cream.

2. Spoon into piping bag or ziploc bag with a corner cut off and use to fill cannoli shells. Sprinkle ends with chopped hazelnuts.

Milk Chocolate Chantilly Filling (fills 12 cannoli)

250 grams heavy cream
90 grams milk chocolate, chopped into small pieces

1. Boil the cream and pour over the milk chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted. Cover with plastic wrap adhering to the surface so it doesn't form a skin. Let ganache rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Whip it as whipped cream.

2. Spoon into piping bag or ziploc bag with a corner cut off and use to fill cannoli shells.

Ricotta Filling (fills 12 cannoli)
1 cup ricotta cheese (full-fat)
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon allspice
2 tablespoons heavy cream, whipped stiff
4 tablespoons of miniature chocolate chips, divided

1. Mix together the ricotta, powdered sugar, cinnamon and allspice. Gently fold in the whipped cream, then fold in 2 tablespoons of the mini chocolate chips.

2. Spoon into piping bag or ziploc bag with a corner cut off and use to fill cannoli shells. Sprinkle ends with remaining mini chocolate chips.

Cannoli Shells

2 cups all-purpose flour + more for work surface
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons butter, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1 egg yolk + 1 egg white, separated
5 tablespoons dry Marsala
3 tablespoons vodka
4 cups vegetable oil (or other neutral high heat oil like canola--do not use olive oil)

1. Combine flour, sugar and salt in a food processor, about 6 pulses. Add butter and combine, about 10 pulses. Add egg yolk, Marsala and vodka and process until the dough starts to come together, about 15-20 seconds.

2. Form into a ball and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Heat 4 cups of vegetable oil to 365 degrees Fahrenheit. Flour a work surface and roll out dough to about 1/16th of an inch. Shells will puff while cooking and thinner shells will cook more evenly. Cut circles using a 3" or slightly smaller biscuit cutter.

3. Working four at a time (or however many cannoli molds you have) wrap each circle around a cannoli mold and coat one edge with egg white. Press together VERY firmly and then flair the ends. This is the most important step because otherwise your cannoli shells will unmold themselves in the oil and look more like taco shells than cannoli tubes.

4. Once the oil reaches the proper temperature, fry each cannoli one at a time, about 2 minutes each. I used metal tongs to hold each cannoli suspended in the oil. If you let them rest on the bottom of the pan, they brown unevenly. If I did this again, I might rig up a way to fry more than one at a time because this step was very time-consuming.

5. When removing hot shells from the oil, using a clean kitchen towel, gently remove the mold from the shell and set both aside to cool. Repeat until all shells are fried. Fill as desired and serve.

For more photos of the process, visit the cannoli album on my Facebook page.

Disclosure: I am friends with the author and I received a complimentary copy of Under His Touch from NetGalley for review purposes.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...