I recently finished reading the reissue of Jennifer Crusie's Trust Me on This, which means I've now read all of her published books. And there's been some Twitter discussion about her books lately, which reminded me that I've been meaning to post about the ones I've read recently.
I should start with a recap:
I was introduced to her books by Jennifer Stevenson at WisCon in 2002. Read Welcome to Temptation and totally loved it (it's still my favorite of hers, despite the somewhat slow opening). Read several more of her books over the next couple years, and found that reading her books almost always just makes me happy. (There was only one, Crazy for You, that I didn't like.) They're full of really funny sharp dialogue, and smart (and sometimes wise) observations, and characters I adore, and healthy doses of pure charm. She's one of my favorite writers, and my only concern about picking up a new book of hers has usually been that it'll mean one less book of hers for me to look forward to.
That started to change a little in 2006, when I read Don't Look Down, her first collaboration with Bob Mayer: an action/romance mashup. It was okay, but it didn't thrill me; I like action movies, but I'm not generally a fan of action books, and I felt like the action and the romance didn't merge as well as I would've liked. But I didn't dislike it.
Around that time, I started picking up the reissues of her 1990s Harlequin books; they're short and slight, and fit more neatly than her later work does into Standard Romance Genre Conventions, but they're still fun and charming and enjoyable, and they still pretty much always cheered me up.
After Don't Look Down, the next new one of hers that I heard about was her next collaboration with Mayer, Agnes and the Hitman. I liked it a bit better than Don't Look Down, but still felt that Crusie's parts were significantly better (by which I mean “more to my taste”) than Mayer's.
Sometime around then, I picked up Santa Baby, an anthology of three romance novellas, one of which, “Hot Toy,” was a fun but fairly slight Crusie story. (I disliked the other two, by other authors. One of those other two stories featured, iIrc, a 40-page sex scene; I have no objection to that in principle, but I found that particular scene boring.) Then I came across Dogs and Goddesses, a collaboration between Crusie and two other romance writers; I basically liked the Crusie parts and was fairly neutral about the other two writers' parts. (I guessed immediately and correctly which of the three protagonists was Crusie's responsibility; when her first section came along, suddenly the prose was lively and fun and the character was interesting and had some depth.)
So with all of that as background, here are some thoughts about her books I've read recently.
I was delighted to learn, last August or so, that Crusie had a new solo novel coming out; as noted above, I haven't really clicked with her collaborations, or rather with her collaborators.
So I picked up Maybe This Time almost as soon as it came out, and I read it shortly after WorldCon.
And I started out liking it, though I didn't love it. But I gradually grew to like it less and less, and by the end of the book, I'm sorry to say, I wasn't enjoying it much at all.
Partly, probably, it was just that I wasn't in the mood for romance at that particular point in time. But partly it was that a lot of what I like about Crusie's work seemed to be missing. There was far less humor, for example. And the characters didn't grab me; I liked that the protagonists had known each other for a long time, but I didn't like that the female lead had apparently just kind of sat around doing nothing for the ten years since she had left the male lead.
The paranormal stuff also rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure why; there are other books with ghosts that I enjoy. (Even other romance novels; I loved Suzanne Brockmann's Infamous, which I read a couple months later.) Perhaps partly it was that the book felt to me like it was making a real-world argument in favor of the existence of ghosts and the non-charlatanhood of mediums? I don't understand why I read it as a real-world argument rather than as something true in the world of the book; that may well have been entirely in my head. But regardless, it turned me off.
And there's a scene near the end that I had significant political issues with. Can't discuss that in detail without major spoilers, but suffice it to say that there's a scene that reads to me like a coded rape scene (not a rape fantasy, but an actual rape) but that's handled very casually. (I have generally really liked Crusie's handling of the nuances of consensuality, but I felt this particular instance wasn't at all the same kind of thing.)
So all in all, the book left me cold. I was very disappointed. It's possible this is just the usual fanboy reaction when an artist attempts to expand into a new direction in their work, but I don't think that's all there is to it.
To attempt to move on from that book, I picked up a recent reissue of The Cinderella Deal, one of her two Bantam Loveswept books from the late 1990s.
And it fell kind of flat for me. It didn't have the charm or humor or sense of fun that her earlier Harlequin books had, nor the depth that her later less-genred St. Martins books have mostly had.
I took a Crusie break at that point; I read several other romance novels by other authors, and mostly found them seriously lacking. In particular, I determined that Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Julia Quinn are not to my taste. But I also read and loved the aforementioned Brockmann book around this time (late 2010), so it's not just that I was in a bad mood and unable to appreciate romance.
After reading through most of the stack of romances that Sonya and Twig had loaned me, I picked up another Crusie collaboration, The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes, with some trepidation. And my experience of that was much the same as with Dogs and Goddesses: it was obvious which of the three female leads was Crusie's, because she was the fun and interesting character with most of the good lines. It felt to me like another case of a third of a good Crusie book mixed with two-thirds of a book by other authors that I didn't have a lot of interest in.
(I feel bad about dissing her co-authors. I think they've all been popular best-selling writers in their own rights; there are obviously lots of people who love those authors' work. But those collaborations just haven't worked for me. I think that's true of most collaborations I encounter, in any genre; they often feel patched together to me.)
And so it was with significant trepidation that, having run out of Crusie to read, I picked up Wild Ride, her latest collaboration with Bob Mayer.
And I really enjoyed it.
For the first time with one of her collaborations, it didn't read to me like different partial novels by different writers that had been roughly stitched together. This reads to me like a Jennifer Crusie book. The elements that Mayer contributed are very obviously his, but the integration between the various aspects is, to my eye, nearly seamless, and almost all of the style reads to me like Crusie. I started out dubious—I wasn't really up for another supernatural plot, and I found the beginning a little confusing—but I liked it more and more as I kept reading, and by the end I was really pleased.
And I was even more pleased by a certain aspect of the romantic side of the book, which I can't discuss without huge spoilers. Let me just say that the book does not follow all the romance genre conventions I was expecting.
I was relieved to like this book. I gather that Crusie is mostly focused on collaborations these days (I've heard that that's because she doesn't write solo stuff as fast as her publishers would like), and her past collaborations had left me unhappy about that. But if Wild Ride is any indication of future directions, I'm very much looking forward to what she and Mayer will do together next time.
In the meantime, a week and a half ago in Pennsylvania I wandered through a bookstore's aisles and came across a Crusie paperback. It had a familiar typeface, a kind of generic title, and a picture of a dog on the front cover, and I thought, Oh, I've read this one. But I took a look anyway, to remind myself of which one it was, and was tentatively excited to discover that it was the second (and last) of the Bantam reissues of her 1990s Loveswept books: Trust Me on This.
As noted above, I hadn't been thrilled with the other Loveswept reissue (Cinderella Deal). But I figured reissued Crusie is better than no Crusie, so I picked it up—
—and I really enjoyed it. It's pretty much what I hoped these Bantams would be: a transition from earlier category romances into something with a little more substance. It's definitely a romance novel, complete with the usual genre conventions, but it has two romance plots (as a bunch of the ones I've read recently seem to), and the secondary one features a 62-year-old woman. And it's regularly laugh-out-loud funny, and charming, and it has just enough screwball-comedy to work for me (a lot of screwball comedy goes too far for my tastes).
So my faith in Crusie has been largely restored.
Hmm. Looking at her bibliography page again, I see that there are two stories I haven't read yet: “Wild Night” (free PDF version of prequel story to Wild Ride; written with Mayer) and “Sizzle,” a Silhouette piece from 1994. I'll have to read those.
And then I'll have to sit back and wait for her next book.
Or maybe I'll just start over and read them all again.
(Wrote most of this entry at various times over the past week or so.)