One of the best things about being a reader is finding reading soul-mates, other readers who enjoy the same kinds of books and possibly wrestle with the same issues about them. Recently Jen, Kini and I had one of those, “you too?” moments over Kristen Ashley’s books. Kristen Ashley’s books are highly entertaining, frequently over-the-top, often problematic and we just can’t quit reading them. After going on about it on twitter we decided it would be fun to have a more formal conversation about KA’s books to try to see why her books work us despite the fact that they so often enrage us too.
Jen: When I was 12, I found a bag of romance novels in my Grandma’s basement and my life-long love affair with the genre was born. My romance reviews are hosted by The Book Queen at her site, www.tbqsbookpalace.com. I was reading At Peace after someone recommended it, and that caused our original twitter conversation. I also read Lady Luck and reread Mystery Man for this conversation.
Ana: Compared to Jen I am late-comer to Romance. I grew up reading fantasy, science-fiction and mysteries, only coming to realize after reading one too many YA dystopian novels that what I had always loved was the relationships, and once I found romance novels I haven’t looked back. I review here on my blog, Immersed in Books, and for RT Book Reviews. I first picked Kristen Ashley's books in 2013. The same week Jen was reading At Peace, I was re-reading it based I think on the very same rec. This year I’ve done a lot of re-reading in Kristen Ashley’s Colorado Mountain Series, including, Sweet Dreams, Lady Luck, Breathe and I most recently listened to her newest book, Complicated. My feeling about KA’s novels are complicated.
Kini: I come from a family of readers and books were one of my main escapes as a kid. Over the years I read a Harlequin here or
there but didn’t truly delve into romance until about 7-8 years ago when I got a Nook and women’s fiction was getting too expensive. I’m here for the HEA’s for all. After years of wearing Mandi & Tori down with my tweets, they brought me on to do reviews at smexybooks.com. I also host a podcast all about romance called Romance Romp. I have purchased and read over 30 of Kristen Ashley’s books, with Heaven and Hell and Lady Luck being my all time favorites as well as comfort reads for me. My feelings about KA’s novels are also complicated. For this conversation I did a re-read of Fire Inside: A Chaos Novel, but I am pretty familiar with most of the ones mentioned above.
- What is it exactly about her books that make them so cracktastic and propulsive?
Jen: I actually spent a lot of time thinking about this one when I was rereading that scene in Lady Luck where Ty throws Lexie out. (I really love it when there’s a devastating break up and I have no idea why. I think it’s because I love groveling.) Anyway, in that whole scene, all of their feelings are telegraphed through their actions. There’s not a whole lot of *characters sitting around thinking* in KA books. She really is the queen of Showing and not Telling. Maybe that’s why everything feels so action-packed? Because it literally is?!
Kini: The scenes when Ty throws Lexie out and then she send him away at the beach, gut me. Every single time. But both are very typical KA, high drama, high emotion leading to serious grovel and probably why I love it so much.
Ana: I had a friend who is not a KA-lover describe her style as stream-of-consciousness. A lot of the things I love and hate about KA books are tied up with what makes her voice unique. I love that we get every little emotional reaction her MCs feel. They have all these roll-coaster emotional journeys as they react to what they see and hear. I personally get highly annoyed at the endless pages of house, yard & outfit descriptions but I accept it as part and parcel of that POV, her characters are taking it all in and we get to read that input unfiltered. I love that her books are high-conflict. Her heroes drive me crazy, but the heroines want them so much and there is always some thing they are in conflict about.
Kini: I frequently try to put my finger on what makes them so cracktastic and I think it comes back to the stream-of-consciousness that Ana mentioned. I think it lends itself to really getting in the mind of the MC’s and understanding them. They are flawed people, some more than others. The heroes are frequently monosyllabic grunters, but when they fall for the heroine, they are all in.
- Some KA books work better for me than others, so I’m interested in the gap between what works and what doesn’t? What are the boundaries for you? Why?
Jen: I struggled with At Peace. One of the things that has always bugged me in KA books is that the world of women breaks down into two camps: good women and “bitches.” So there’s this part in At Peace where Joe slept with Vi a few times and then dumps her in a pretty awful way. They’re laying in bed, and he just says, “We’re done.” The next couple of times they meet, he gives her progressively more shit for being upset with him. He suggests she should get over it, and it escalates to the point where he calls her a bitch. I honestly almost DNF’d at that point. There was this really hard boundary I bumped into as a reader---something about some of these KA alpha-heroes, where their behavior is ALWAYS logical and right, but women’s response to that behavior is always policed by men. What kept me going was that Vi gives as good as she gets….but….
Ana: I love At Peace and Sweet Dreams, because although the hero does try to police the heroine’s reactions, and acts like he is being logical and in control, they are actually losing their shit, and scrambling like crazy. Joe is wrong and scared and acting stupid. His dumping of Vi is so incredibly cruel both times. He tries to make it about her, but in the end it isn’t really. She might have gotten ideas, she might have read into things that he didn’t actually say, but he was feeling those things and so in the end she isn’t wrong. She is vindicated for seeing things and feeling things. That to me feels like a very real conflict. I wouldn’t touch that hero with a ten-foot pole in real-life but it is very compelling.
Kini: As Jen mentioned the theme of good women and “bitches” is strong in KA novels. In several of her novels, the ex-wife is a bitchy horrible women. Some die, some just are cast off to live with their bitchy ways forever. And it feels like an easy crutch. In Fire Inside, not only is Hop’s ex a bitch, so is his mother. In fact, that is very similar to Ty from Lady Luck. But yet, this continued portrayal of the other woman as being the worst hasn’t stopped me from reading her books. There also tends to be some stereotyping of POC and LGBTQ folks in her books that has bothered me, yet she was one of the first authors I read that had a bi-racial hero (Ty from Lady Luck, Sam from Heaven & Hell). I much prefer her self-pubbed books and annoying tangents of pillows, clothes and jewelry aside, I think that avenue allows her story-telling voice to shine.
You both touch on the policing of behavior/emotions and that too is a common theme in her books. It’s annoying because in real life, I’d want to punch someone for that. Yet is always seems to work in the context of KA-world. The hero always has a way of backing up his behavior and frequently it seems to involve helping the heroine get out of her own head or way in order to be with the hero.
Part of the boundaries is also knowing what works for you as a reader and what doesn’t. Not every book, even KA ones, are the books for me. Her older books tend to be more problematic, but also have the best stories.
Ana: You are so right about the problematic rep of POC and LGBTQ folk. When I first found them I was so happy to just have POC and LGBTQ characters in a book, but the rep is so terrible it makes me cringe when re-reading. I used to resent she hadn’t given Elvira her own book in the Rock Chick series, but now I’m happy she didn’t.
Jen: I’ll just have to add a hearty “yeah” to the problematic rep of POC and LGBTQ. I recently wrote a review where I called for an author to make the setting of her books more inclusive. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if white authors shouldn’t do it at all if they can’t do it well? Worst fucking question of all time: is erasure better than misrepresentation?
Honestly, the combination of what you both said helps me understand why I keep going with these books. You’ve laid out two pieces of the puzzle. As Ana said, these are real conflicts. The push-pull between the characters is so believable. So maybe I can let myself enjoy a bossy hero if what he’s working towards is a way for their relationship to move forward.
- The gender politics of her world and the roles for men and women. What is problematic or troubling for you as a reader, even if it’s okay for the characters? Does that matter?
Jen: The thing I keep thinking about is how I literally wouldn’t want anything to do with a man who treated me like that. Okay. That’s fine. But most KA heroines are their match or are down for it. But then, the other crazy thing about KA books is that these women feel like my friends, or women I would want to be my friends. Well, I would warn my friends off of a man like this, too. Right?
Kini: Jen, I also want to be friends with all the women of KA world.
Ana: I agree that KA has very contradictory, inconsistent and frequently troubling messaging about women. There are these great moments of female friendship and solidarity (Vi with Feb and Cheryl in At Peace and Krystal and Lauren in Sweet Dreams ) and at the same time there is almost always some sort of bad-girl rival, (Susie in At Peace and Neeta in Sweet Dreams), whose conflict makes me cringe every time.
I do love that in the books the friends are almost always just a little torn about the men. They think they are hot, but they are right unsure whether they are worth the trouble. And these heroes are incredibly-high-maintenance trouble. I love that in At Peace, Cheryl is all, bang him but don’t get emotionally involved. It is only Feb who actually encourages Violet to keep giving Joe chances.
The gender politics are troubling for me in that I struggle to recommend these books to people. I know a lot of people who would love the crazy OTT action and conflict but who would DNF at the raw rudeness of some of the heroes.
Jen: Came across a terrible thing today when reading a new-to-me book, Kaleidoscope, which is that the heroine says that she doesn’t want kids. And instead of this being a valid life choice, it’s a sign of her being mentally shut down. I have quite a few girlfriends that aren’t interested in having kids. This isn’t because they’re emotional cripples. I actually *cringed* when I thought about what it would be like for a woman who doesn’t want to have kids to read this book.
Ana: Yes I agree with you that is terrible! She has plenty of heroines who haven’t had kids, but she almost always gives them kids in someway because most the heroes have kids from other relationships. I understand that for some readers children are necessary for the HEA but not wanting them should not be equated with a damaged psyche!
Kini: The female friendships can be one of the best things about KA novels. Tyra, Lanie, Elvira, Gwen, Mara and Tess from Dream Man/Chaos series. Lexie and her sisters/mother from Lady Luck. They are there when things fall apart and there when they put them back together. They are all interconnected and supportive. But the continued villianization of the ex is just horrible. It is hard to reconcile these examples of female friendship yet the continued talk of other women as skanks.
Because the bulk of her heroes are these OTT Alpha heroes, there is frequently discussion about clothing choices and it is often gross and things I have to skim through. In Fire Inside Lanie goes to a bar all dressed up and ends up in a bad situation and Hop “saves her from being raped” It felt victim blamey and icky and borders on something that I would DNF a book for. Many of her stories feature some situation that requires the heroine to be saved by one of the men. Just once I want a KA heroine to save herself.
Ana: Kini, in Complicated we do have a scene where there heroine does that. She gets attacked in her house by a stalker and is able to disable him and escape before tracking down the hero and calling him into to arrest the bad guy. But I agree those scenes are rare. I feel like in her most recent books exes over all are doing better. I no longer expect them to fall prey to serial killers or get killed in a horrible fashion, but instead learn their lesson and maybe co-parent amicably in the end.
Kini: Thanks for that update in regards to a heroine save herself. I’ll have to add that to my list.
- Morality, justice and vengeance in KA books.
Jen: One thing that I find really interesting in both Knight and Lady Luck, there are men who have the occupation of, basically, the good pimp. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely up to speed on the politics of sex-work, but I’ve read some really compelling arguments about how to think about sex work, and it’s interesting to me that KA at least admits that sex work happens?
Ana: I have a hard time with the good pimp narrative but I am glad that it gets acknowledged as something that exists and several of the heroines have lived right on the fringes of that world, working as strippers or dancers, for example Daisy from the Rock Chick series and Cheryl when she first appears in For You.
I tend of the heroes in KA books as having very hands-on male-centric ideas about Justice and Vengeance, as it is the man’s responsibility to make sure any insult to “their woman” is answered quickly and violently. I think for women who have fantasies about being protected and fought over, this is part of the appeal of KA heroes. The heroines almost always start out on their own, and the men step-in to protect them and fight for them.
Kini: I think morality is shaky at best in several of her novels. Even taking out the Unfinished Heroes, some of the heroes do bad things and don’t really regret it for it is frequently done in order to save their woman. All the investigative force from Lee Nightingale’s crew use questionable tactics to do what needs to be done. I think several of her heroes straddle the line of law abiding citizens.
The need for justice and vengeance is also a strong theme. Especially in her earlier series like The ‘Burg, Colorado Mountain, Dream Man and Rock Chicks, there is some outside force that the heroine needs to be saved and protected from. The men round of the troops, call in some markers and everything is resolved.
Jen: Basically, the men in KA books bond over kicking ass and taking revenge the same way the women do over throw pillows and KitchenAid mixers.
- Loners vs. family. This is a big theme in KA and one that’s pretty interesting. What does it mean to have a family, be a family? What about those who have to create a family for themselves?
Ana: Found families and how loners are folded into these extended packs of friends is one of the things that I do absolutely love in the KA books. There a lot of blended families, and characters who leave behind unhealthy relationships and are able to find a community. In At Peace, Vi, has lost her family (she is widowed and had to move away from her supportive in-laws and friends), she is adopted by her neighbors and then by Cal’s family, a family he had self-estranged from. Getting involved with Vi, is a catalyst for him to reconnect with them. In Sweet Dreams, Lauren had moved far from her loving family to follow her first husband’s materialistic ambitions. At the beginning of the novel, she is literally driving around the country, living out of suitcases, looking for a community. She finds it in Carnal and by the end of the book, she has extended community of friends, a new husband and a new family, in addition to reconnecting to her own.
Jen: I think the “finding a family” theme is absolutely the big draw for me, too. In Knight, Anya is basically an orphan. She has a crew of girlfriends, but they’re not without their issues--Sandrine is a straight-up gold digger, but Anya loves her anyways. Being with Knight makes her part of something bigger, part of a family. (Interesting, I think her calling him Daddy isn’t really for me, but when Ty calls Lexie Mama there is something really sexy about that! I guess I have my own issues. Lol.) In Mystery Man, both Gwen and Hawk have families they love. Gwen’s sister and birth Mom are an issue, but they have this rock solid foundation with family.
Kini: Ugh the families that extend from her books is amazing. When Ty brings Lexie home and the town just loves her instantly. That epilogue with the kids running all over the place and Julius and all the members of the family, it doesn’t get much better than that. In Heaven and Hell, Kia is traveling abroad when she meets Sam but she also falls in familial love with Celeste & Tom a couple who lost their own daughter. The hero/heroine is always accepting of the other’s children (I absolutely love this). She creates these huge extended families and makes me feel like I am part of them. She really drives home how family doesn’t have to be the one you are born into, it can be this collection of people that you’ve chosen. For KA families, once you’re in, you’re in and that family, they’ll do anything for you.
Kini: In summary: For me, I know that reading a KA novel is probably going to be problematic, the hero will do or say something that makes me ragey, the heroine might border on being TSTL, she’s probably going to give me too much description of jewelry and throw pillows, but in between all that messiness, I am going to get a couple that is probably slightly older than I’d find elsewhere and a love story that despite its problems is still really compelling to me. It is one of those things about how much realism I want in my romance, it’s such a fine line and changes constantly. And to top it off, she is the queen of epilogues. (I LOVE EPILOGUES) It should also be noted that I will probably be purchasing the next book in the Magdalene Series on or close to its release date. I have a sickness!
Ana: I’ve already pre-ordered it! I don’t read all her books but I am loyal to the series of hers I do read. I love the action and adventure in her books, and I just mentally edit out the stuff that bugs me. The core story of older couples finding love and community after a making mistakes or struggling, just really appeals to me and I’ll keep buying those. Nobody else quite fits that niche for me.
Jen: KA is an author I read in big gulps for a few books and then just hit the wall and have to take a break for a year. Her backlist is HUGE and I do love that. There’s always another one where that came from when I need to scratch that itch. Mostly, I’m glad this exercise allowed me to share my KA angst and know I’m not alone with loving these books that also make me squirm!