Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels, by Sara Wendell and Candy Tan (a joint review)

30 Jun

For those of you new to the world of romance novel blogland, the Smart Bitches are a couple of very smart, very funny, ultra-snarky bloggers who have a passion for romance novels; a passion that does not, however, blind them to the genre’s shortcomings, such as the over use of clichés, tropes, the godawful cover art, the often apostrophe-ridden, wince-worthy titles.

The Smart Bitches (SBSarah, aka Sarah Wendell of New Jersey, and SBCandy, aka Candy Tan of Oregon) have been around for a few years, providing continuous entertainment with their cover snark and an endless education. Their discussions have covered all aspects of the romance genre-from the use of rape as a metaphor for seduction to the evolution of the heroes and heroines from the stereotypes of the 1980s to the more realistic people of the late 1990s, to the use of ferrets to root out and demolish-metaphorically speaking-plagiarists.

How these two intelligent and educated women got together to create their very popular website, Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, is a different story entirely, but now, inevitably, they have collaborated on a book that has a bit of something for everyone who believes that romance novels should be treated no more, but certainly no less, respectfully than other genres. After all, romance novels account for a hefty percentage of all book sales worldwide-in fact, the biggest slice of the publishing pie for any single genre.

A warning to those readers who may be easily offended by “strong language” (e.g., the “f” word, the “c” word, the “p” word, the “s” word, the “mf” word and, probably, the “x”, “y” and “z” words, too): you may want to consider waiting for the expurgated version.

With all this said, azteclady and Issek present to you:

Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, by Sara Wendell and Candy Tan

Without further ado, here’s the back cover blurb:

The love that dare not speak its name…

We do it in the dark. Under the sheets. With a penlight. We wear sunglasses and a baseball hat at the bookstore. We have a “special place” where we store them. Let’s face it: not many folks are willing to publicly admit they love romance novels. Meanwhile, romance continues to be the bestselling fiction genre. Ever. So what’s with all the shame?

Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan-the creators of the wildly popular blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books-have no shame-they look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the world of romance novels and tackle the hard issues and questions:

~The heroine’s irresistible Magic Hoo Hoo and the hero’s untamable Wang of Mighty Lovin’
~Sexual trends. Simultaneous orgasms. Hymens. And is anal really the new oral?
~Romance novel cover requirements: man titty, camel toe, flowers, long hair, animals, and the O-face.
~Are romance novels really candy-coated porn or vehicles by which we understand our sexual and gender politics?

With insider advice for writing romances, fun games to discover your inner Viking warrior, and interviews with famous romance authors, Beyond Heaving Bosoms shows that while some romance novels are silly-maybe even tawdry-they can also be intelligent, savvy, feminist, and fabulous, just like their readers!

azteclady: Issek, as a relatively recent reader of romance *coughIcorruptedhimcough* what is your opinion of the genre?

Issek: I am new to romance but not to fiction and I tried to approach romance with an open mind, seeking out the ounces of grain amidst the pounds of chaff. Beyond Heaving Bosoms is a hoot, but for the discerning reader it is also quite an educational tour d’horizon. Within its covers (both of which are an education in themselves, by the way) you’ll find a bit of history, a discussion of common romance themes, common romance characters and plot devices, and insight into the two SB’s likes and dislikes-some  of which, they readily admit-are for quite subjective reasons. If I ever attempt to write a romance novel, for example, I will be sure to include pirates, thus guaranteeing myself at least one sale.

azteclady: Perhaps we should mention that the book covers such a wide range of themes that it has been found shelved in Essays, Mystery and Thrillers, Westerns, Literary Criticism, Humor and various others sections of the bookstore…

Issek: How the hell it got into Westerns is a Mystery… heh

azteclady: *crickets*

*cough*

… but to date, I can’t recall anyone finding it in the Romance section. With a scant ten chapters, and coming in at 285 pages, it would seem the work is a bit ambitious for its actual scope.

Issek: Given the book’s unstated purpose, to educate readers about the romance genre, how well do you think it succeeded?

azteclady: I have mixed feelings about it, actually. While I’m familiar with some of the titles they mention, there were a goodly number which were new to me. While I’m intrigued by what little they say about some of the titles, the point is that it would seem-to me-that the authors expect the reader to have at least a basic knowledge of the genre before reading Beyond Heaving Bosoms. Therefore… who are they educating, then? Readers who are already fans and who should know quite a bit of what the book covers? Or are they only entertaining romance fans?

Issek: I have to admit that I find it easier to recall the passages where they lampoon the ba-a-a-d romance books, than the ones where they praise the great ones. I think that this is really intended for readers who already have some knowledge about romance. Much easier for romance veterans to “get” some of the discussion and snark. At least I thought so.

azteclady: I agree-which still confuses me a bit. Is it a guide or not? It is non-fiction in the same way humor is not fiction? Or is it a more serious (if snark-covered) look at the genre? What is it?

Issek: Well, if I were coming to this book cold, so to speak, I’d still enjoy the humor in it, and I think I would be able to understand their discussion of the clichés, etc., without having read any of the books (which, in fact, is true in most cases). I wouldn’t call it fiction…  It’s non-fiction with a heaping dose of tongue-in-cheek and much slaughtering of sacred cows (yech, maybe not…)

azteclady: *snicker*

Agreed again. Which brings up the question: would you be intrigued, after reading BHB, enough to look for a romance novel? Any of the great ones either/both authors recommend?

Issek: Well, if I only had BHB to go by, I would certainly start by looking at the books they give their highest accolades to (darn, can’t remember them now) and then I’d see if my reactions to those books matched theirs. Let me ask you a question. With your broader knowledge of romance, would you use BHB as a guide?

azteclady: In answer to your question… no. Having read romance for *mumblemumble* years, and the SBs blog for almost four years, I know that my tastes and theirs differ quite a bit. Even when we like the same books, we do so for entirely different reasons . So you would say that the book succeeds in enticing non-romance fans to try the genre?

Issek: I really can’t answer that. Some might try romance just to see if the bad stuff is really as bad (and as snark-worthy) as they make it out to be. Others might say to themselves: “These ladies are obviously very smart (says so right on their webpage) so maybe I should try out one of these books that they recommend.”

azteclady: So far we have talked about the discussion part of the book-which contains a treasure trove of information regarding the romance genre.

Issek: Yes. Do I detect a “but……” looming on the horizon?

azteclady: Let’s now focus on the entertainment portion of the book-from the “Big Mis(understanding)” board game to the “Choose Your Own Man Titty” to the “Write Your Own Romance” and, pretty much, on to the last page. What was your take on all these?

Issek: Well, I have to admit I didn’t take the time to go all the way through the ” Write Your Own Romance” part, so I may have missed something incredibly pithy, humorous, and crucial to the enjoyment of the book.

azteclady: *color me skeptical*

Issek: Me too. After the fast-paced smart-alec comedy of the beginning of the book, the ending fell a little flat.

azteclady: Yes. With all due respect to the very smart Bitches, but a lot of that felt more like filler than anything else. Now, I am sure that many readers found those games and exercises hilarious, but frankly, I didn’t care one whit for them.

Issek: I wouldn’t say filler. I just think it was an idea that sounded better on the drawing board than it turned out to be in reality.

azteclady: *considering* Yes, I think you are closer to the mark there.

Issek: Is this a book you would return to on occasion?

azteclady: The first oh, hundred and fifty, hundred and sixty pages, perhaps.

Issek: Same here. I think these two are to be congratulated on their first effort. What’s your grade?

azteclady: *wince* must I?

Issek: Yes. You MUST!

azteclady: oh dear…

6.50 out of 10

Issek: OK. I am considerably more generous with my grade, on the grounds that humor, wherever we find it-so long as it is not hurtful, of course-should be encouraged. There is just not enough well-done humor being written. I happen to be an aficionado of what used to be called wise-cracking humor (think the Marx Brothers, numerous early Cary Grant films-Bringing up Baby, Arsenic and Old Lace, His Girl Friday), so my grade is higher than yours.

I give this book a…..

a…..

azteclady: (oh you rat, you are going to make me feel bad, aren’t you? yes you are-meanie!!!)

Issek: … a 7.785 (and don’t tell me I have to use your scale, either)

azteclady: *blink* hold on… a 7.785 out of… WHAT?

Issek: 10, obviously (a solid C plus)

azteclady: there is no ‘obviously’ when you whip out three numbers after the decimal point

Issek: It was a number that I agonized over, very scientifically derived, I’ll have you know.

azteclady: *snort*

Issek: You wound me.

azteclady: okay, the agonizing, I buy. The rest…? Not so much.

Issek: To finish this-I’m hoping the SBs will write an actual romance novel, incorporating as many of the bad elements they described in this book as they can. That would be a sure-fire bestseller.

azteclady: I am not sure the idea has not occurred to them already-and I would definitely buy it.

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