Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

posted in: Reviews | 4

Last week I talked about covers and their importance in selling a book. I shied away from discussing the elements used in a cover except to mention that romance covers using images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. That’s a reader expectation which will attract some potential buyers and repel others. If you have animals on the cover with humans, and your book is listed under ‘paranormal’, people will expect a shifter novel. My own White Tiger is an example.  And if you’ve written in a certain category before you’ll earn a label as that sort of author. I’ve made that mistake myself, picking up an Elizabeth Moon novel expecting military space opera and finding (to my disappointment) that it was nothing of the kind.

One of my favourite authors is Nya Rawlyns who writes in a variety of genres which often overlap. Several of her more recent books seem to be classified as gay romance even if they’re not listed in the romance category. Which is sad, because often it isn’t true. Take The Eagle and the Fox. At first glance you might think it’s about an eagle and a fox and in a way it is. Let’s read the blurb.

TEaTFJosiah Foxglove is given a second chance when he takes over his family’s spread in the shadow of the Snowy Range. A veteran of the Gulf War, he came back broken in body and spirit.

Marcus Colton buried his long-time lover and best friend three years ago. Lonely and still grieving, Marcus finds solace in protecting Petilune, a girl with learning difficulties, who will surely become a victim of abuse and neglect without his help. But that doesn’t help him get through the long, dark nights.

When violence wracks the small community of Centurion, WY, it’s easy to place blame on Petilune’s mysterious new boyfriend, Ojibwe teen Kit Golden Eagle. It looks open and shut, but for Josiah and Marcus the facts simply don’t add up.

Something’s rotten in Centurion, something that smacks of a hate crime…

Unfortunately, this excellent book is diminished by reader expectations. Some look at the cover and expect a paranormal with shape shifters. (The eagle and the fox, you see.) Others will read the blurb and realise Kit Golden Eagle and Josiah Foxglove might be the eagle and the fox. That, and the fact no mention is made of shape-shifting and the book isn’t listed as paranormal. Heck, it’s not even listed as a romance, yet it has been judged as one.

Expectations, you see.

If it’s listed in gay literature, it has to be a romance, it has to be steamy. Except it’s not. Sure, there’s a romance arc – with sex, even. Life tends to be like that – love will find a way. But it’s a loooong way short of the whole story.

What this book is is a slice of life in a small American town, where the drought hits hard and despair hits harder. Foxglove is a war vet with PTSD. Marcus is an in-the-closet gay man who has lost his partner. Petilune is a vulnerable young girl with a learning disability and Kit Golden Eagle is an embittered Native American kid making his way in the world as best he can. And, as the blurb says, something’s rotten in Centurion which will enmesh the whole community.

The relationship between Marcus and Josiah develops slowly, helped by the mystery surrounding Petilune and Kit which brings them together in other ways. But it’s not a romance. By definition, a story can only be called a romance if the romance is the centre of the story. In this case, it’s not. Like it says in the sub-title, it’s ‘A Snowy Range Mystery’, with murder, kidnapping and violence.

I love the way Rawlyns brings the tiny town of Centurion, overshadowed by Wyoming’s Snowy Range, to life. You don’t have to be American to relate. Transfer the story to a dusty wheat belt town in Western Australia and it’ll still make sense. Because it’s about the characters, you see. It isn’t a boiler plate, paint by numbers romance, it’s a slice of life with all the complexity that involves. Nothing like the nasty, fantasy world of Christian Grey or the one-hundred-year-old vampire who’s re-enroled in high school.

This book is very difficult to slot into a box. I’ve spent some time considering where I’d put it on a bookshelf. Let’s see now… a slice of life starring a range of disadvantaged, damaged people. A small town mystery, hope and despair, starting again, love and loss… <Sigh> I guess it’s just going to have to go into Literature.

Oh – and for those to whom these things matter, it’s beautifully written. Go on, give it a try. There’s a link on the cover.

4 Responses

  1. Karen Berry

    I enjoyed your post on reader expectations. In fhort it backs up the old saying ” You cannot judge a book by jts cover.” Or to ACTUALLY “read what it says NOT what you think it says.”
    I must not follow the usual expectations when chosing a book. The author and or the cover draw me in first. Then if the title sounds interesting, I read the back. If the author is one I haven’t read before and the back story brief sounds interesting, I select a spot page, somewhere in the book, and read to see if the writing style and flow meet my personal preferances. The lucky book that passes goes home with me. Or now that I have been introduced to ebooks ( above still holds) the book ends up in my library.
    It takes a lot of books to meet my needs. I tend to resd 4 +/- hours daily.

    • Greta

      Your process is much the same as mine. (With a couple of exceptions where I’ve bought the book because of the author without looking deeper) . I don’t quite ‘get’ why people would expect certain things from a book which doesn’t flag any of them.

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