Tuesday, March 30, 2010

TBR Tuesday: The Rashomon Effect in Reading Romances

It's TBR Tuesday, which means I've read another book from my TBR pile.  And there's a funny story about this one.

I've been reading a lot of contemporaries and near-contemporaries.  (I say "near-contemporaries" because with the folks at AAR asking if the 20th century is now long enough ago to be historical -- so that the Edwardian era, WWI, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and WWII can become grist for the historical romance author's mill -- and my reading 40 year old Harlequins, I predict we're going to have a rumble in the Eisenhower Era between rival gangs: the Contempos and the Histies!)  So, for today's TBR, I thought I would read a solidly 19th century romance: Jo Beverley's Dangerous Joy.  That's the next in the Rogue series for me.

Well, I'd started it before -- it's the one that involves the juvenile delinquent high spirited Irish ward -- I stalled about 40 pages in.  But how bad can it be; it's a Jo Beverley.  So I started up again, and again I was about 40 pages in when my friend Janet called.

Janet has put me onto a lot of great books, including Jo Beverleys that I've adored, so when I said I was starting Dangerous Joy again and she agreed it was a bit of a slog, I paid attention.  "It's a shame you don't have Forbidden Magic," she raved.  "Such a lovely book.  He seduces her with words.  She's innocent but not naive, and she's got these wonderfully embroidered undergarments.  I mean, she has magic but really he has the magic . . ."

With some careful questions, I was able to learn the following about Forbidden Magic: It's a stand-alone novel, so not part of the Rogue series.  It's delightful and definitely one of Janet's favorites.  (I learned later that she's read it more than once.)

As it happened, I had it right on top of a pile of Jo Beverleys.  Yippee!  I dived right in, certain I was going to have a lovely reading experience.

Here's what I'd extrapolated from Janet's glowing recommendation.  I figured it was going to be one of those "experienced hero and innocent heroine come to terms in the bedroom and out" books.  With embroidered undergarments.  Oh, and magic, but I could have deduced that from the title.  [Beverley isn't too allegorical with her titles; Dangerous Joy = Joy (Felicity's nom de guerre when she and Miles first encounter each other) + his attraction to her while still being her guardian (i.e., Dangerous).]

Here's what I actually got from Forbidden Magic (and if you've never read this book, and want all the delight of discovering this stuff on your own, then, sure There Be Some Spoilers Ahead.  But really?  Read this -- it will help keep the book from annoying you as much as it annoyed me):

Meg has two distinguishing features when we meet her:  Desperate Straits and Magical Powers.  If she doesn't use the Magical Powers before New Year's Eve, their Evil Landlord (who was the Old Family Friend but is now the Local Sexual Pervert) will claim Meg's beautiful 15 year-old sister as his sexual plaything.  Now, I rather assumed that Sir Arthur was a catalyst: not really part of the action, but necessary for the next step.  I assumed that also about the Dragon, the hero's maternal grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Daingerfield (you can call her Rodney; she gets no respect).  I was wrong, but you'll see in a moment why it wasn't an unreasonable assumption.

Okay, so Meg needs to use her Magic Powers to get her and her siblings out of the Desperate Straits.  That power involves having an orgasm (oh, yes, it so does -- this isn't even subtle imagery; frankly the secret embroidery gets less exposition than the Magical Orgasm does) while holding a sexually explicit female form called a sheelagh-ma-gig.  I finally decided that the sheelagh was a stone carving halfway between a mini-blow up doll, and an anatomically correct Barbie Doll with issues.  (We're assured in the author's notes that a sheelagh is A Real Thing.)

Now, Meg knows that the powers of the sheelagh always come with a "yes, but" clause; a sting in the tail, as she calls it.  So she wishes very carefully:  "I wish, that within the week, we shall all be provided for as befits our station, with honor and happiness."  Frankly, that's the last smart thing this woman thinks of.  After that, she's pretty close to Too Stupid to Live.

Meanwhile, our hero, the Earl of Saxonhurst, has to marry someone by the end of the week or the Dragon will pick someone for him.  He knows who, too -- Daphne, a second cousin who wears the ancestral betrothal ring from his family even though they are related on the distaff side; according to the Dragon, Sax has to marry Daphne because he stole her virtue when they were in their respective prams.  (Don't ask; thankfully this accusation isn't explained further.)  Not unreasonably with the Dragon as his only remaining family, Sax has anger issues.  He likes to break things to relieve stress and tension, so his servants ensure a ready supply of ugly stuff close to hand for the purpose.  Hey, presto, one of the maids knows of this genteel/shabby family in Desperate Straits, so she's sent off to propose marriage to Meg on Sax's behalf.

And here's where the book still seems okay.  They marry, he does just as Janet had said he would: seduces Meg with words.  There are glimmers of sexual tension.  There's even a hint of the embroidered undergarments.  (Hey, I like embroidery.  The illustration at left is one of the prettiest ever in any children's book:  "No More Twist" from Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester.  I wish I could stitch -- or draw -- that well!)  But Meg screws it up, royally.  She leaves the sheelagh behind in the house they were renting, the house owned by our skeevy landlord, Sir Arthur.  Girlfriend, what were you thinking?

I won't even attempt to explain why she's that bone-headed.  But it's a mistake that leads to the whole rest of the book, including Meg's being accused of murder, the real murderer revealed (and receiving his just desserts), more sexual perversion, more insanity, more misunderstandings, and a screwdriver.  The screwdriver is a nice touch, but the rest is Throw This Book At The Wall-worthy.

Yes, they finally have sex, but even that is obscured by covers and is more distracting than pleasant because it occurs a) in a cold house, and b) while Meg is Suspect Number One for a murder.  After that, the rest of the book was a teeter-totter of Danger! Meg!! signs and Sax is Sexy moments.  It was a relief to finish it.

I called Janet to complain -- how could she recommend a book with sexual perversion (of which we see more than we do the embroidered undergarments -- yes, I'm obsessed with the embroidery.  I was promised embroidery, and I wanted to enjoy the embroidery.  It, at least, is pretty), murders (lots of murders), actually scary stuff (new rule: when Meg being incarcerated in The Tower is presented as the rosy scenario, the book's too scary), and not enough good stuff.  (Because -- even if you don't share my interest in the needle-arts, there wasn't enough kissing, cuddling, touching, etc., etc. -- or at least not enough by people with healthy libidos!)

Janet seemed shocked that all that gross stuff was in the book, despite having read it several times.  I accused her of having taken an X-Acto knife to her copy and making a perfectly pleasant (if incoherent) slender volume out of the nice bits.  But I know what happened.  She read it on a sunny day and only saw the sunny bits -- the bits where Sax is nibbling on Meg's neck or buying her a Portuguese cap or dallying with her on the bed.  And sure, that book is in there.

But I read a completely different book.  I read a book with a panicky heroine with deeply flawed judgment (leaving the sheelagh behind was idiotic; telling Sax she won't sleep with him unless and until he patches things up with his grandmother is wrong from every single angle: none of her business, misplaced loyalty, insufficient information, etc.).  Meg also prefers to deal with monsters rather than trust any of the people disposed to help her, and is dimmer than dryer lint at many crucial points in the book.  Guess what: my version of Forbidden Magic is in there too.

Anyone else read this book?  If so, which one did you read?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Perfect Book

I'm reading Nora Roberts' Bed of Roses, and no, it's not the titular perfect book.  It is just the springboard to my thinking about the (possibly illusory) perfect book.

Nora Roberts has written a zillion books, and sold a bazillion.  She's as close as the romance genre gets to a celebrity out in the non-romance, non-Internet world.  (Hell, she's the only romance author my dinky county library carries; scads of Christian writers -- I know because there's a special sticker on the spine that says "Christian Book" so they're easy to spot -- but only one romance author.)

But Roberts has her detractors: readers, reviewers and other writers who fault her technique.  Yes, she "head-hops" (which, just in case someone doesn't know, is where the point-of-view jumps from the hero to the heroine with insufficient warning or clarity) and yes some of her turns of phrase are a bit clunky or dizzying in their imagery.  All the same, this a fun book.  I'm giving it a 9 out of 10 on the scale of fun; only Susan Elizabeth Phillips gets a 10, and even that's with only half her books.

Bed of Roses is the second in the Bride Quartet (number three is due out shortly); I was pleased to find Visions of White at the library shortly after it was published, but budget constraints delayed their purchase of Bed of Roses for, like, forever.  (I'm tickled to see I'm the first person to have checked out this copy.)  I'm enjoying it so much I had to write this post even before I finish it.  That's how excited I am.

Someone told me that Roberts recently said . . . Sidebar: yeah, I'm too lazy to try to find the interview myself and link to it; therefore, this is double hearsay and inadmissible in a court of law.  Moving on . . . Roberts recently said that writing romances isn't getting any easier for her.  Her writing is improving, she feels, so she's always trying to write better books and that isn't any easier than when she started.  Well, it may not be easier but I think it's working.

I remember reading a Nora Roberts back when I lived in Albany, NY (a fact I'm sure of only because I recall visualizing some aspect of the book in locations near my apartment and the image has stuck, even though I can remember nothing else about the plot, characters, or title).  That's more than 20 years ago.  I didn't like her writing back then, and so I didn't read anything else by her for a long, long time.  I've been catching up with the plethora of her back-list available at the library.  I've even blogged about her books before: here, for example.  But a little can go a long way: when someone recommended Midnight Bayou, I started it.  As soon as I realized it had ghosts in it, I stopped and eventually got the book back to the library, unread.  (I'd gotten my fill of the tragic ghost trope in the Garden Trilogy, where it seemed seemed less oppressive than in the Bayou.)

Why am I loving the Bride Quartet?  Okay, I like weddings.  I like to see other people's wedding albums and hear how they met, etc.  I was never obsessed about my own wedding, never dreamed of a big white dress or multi-tiered wedding cake.  And when I did finally have a wedding to plan with all the trimmings, I worked hard to avoid bridezilla behavior.  I didn't enjoy (at all) the bride-centric nature of the day, but I'll admit it was fun having pretty flowers and three wee bridesmaids (this was in England, where children traditionally make up the bridal party) in pretty dresses.

I understand that a little wedding frou-frou goes a long way; Roberts is right not to publish these books back-to-back lest we get insulin shock from the sweetness of so many rose swags.  But if you strip away the wedding planning details (hard to do, of course, because the four heroines run a wedding industry on a huge Connecticut estate; the titles are cunning references to each heroine's role in that venture:  Visions in White for photographer Mac, Bed of Roses for florist Emma, Savor the Moment for baker Laurel -- leaving nuptician-in-chief Parker for last.  Hmmm.  Planning for Love, perhaps?  Nope -- it's Happy Ever After.  Oh.  Okay, but I like my title better...) you get a really great series about everyone's favorite contemporary heroines:  sexually and professionally independent women.

And the dialogue!  Roberts is hardly in Aaron Sorkin territory, but some of the chatter among the women is lovely.  Take this exchange, for example, where the four women (and their housekeeper, Mrs. Grady) are talking about Emma, who's finally kissed longtime friend of the quartet Jack and discovered he exceeds the top of her "spark-o-meter" but is worried that Mac slept with Jack in the "way back" and so he's off-limits:
"I don't get why you ever thought Mac had been sleeping with Jack in the first place."  Laurel dumped syrup on her pancakes.  "If she had, she'd have bragged about it and talked about it until we all wanted her dead."

"No, I wouldn't"

"In the way back you would have."

Mac considered.  "Yes, that's true.  In the way back I would have.  I've evolved."

"How hot are the hots?" Parker wanted to know.

"Extremely.  He hit high prior to the [first kiss].  After, he set a record."

Nodding, Parker ate.  "He's an exceptional kisser."

"He really is.  He . . . How do you know?"  When Parker just smiled, Emma's jaw dropped.  "You?  You and Jack?  When?  How??"

"I think it's disgusting," Mac muttered.  "Yet another best pal moving in on my imaginary ex."

"Two kisses, my first year at Yale, after we ran into each other at a party and he walked me back to the dorm.  It was nice.  Very nice.  But as exceptional a kisser as he is, it was too much like kissing my brother.  And as exceptional a kisser as I am, I believe he felt it was too much like kissing his sister.  And that's how we left it.  I gather that wasn't an issue for you and Jack."

"We're nowhere in the vicinity of brother- or sisterhood.  Why didn't you ever tell us you kissed Jack?"

"I didn't realize we were supposed to report on every man we've ever kissed.  But I could make you a list."

Emma laughed.  "I bet you could.  Laurel?  Any Jack incidents to report?"

"I'm feeling very annoyed and deprived that I have none.  Even imaginary.  It seems like he could've hit on me at least once in all this time.  The bastard.  How about you, Mrs. G?"

"A very nice one under the mistletoe a few Christmases back.  But being the love them and leave them type, I let him off easy so as not to break his heart."

"I'd say Em plans to take him down, and take him down hard."  Mac arched her eyebrows.  "And that he doesn't have a prayer against the awesome power of Emmaline."

Isn't that fun?  Four -- make it five, as Mrs. G. seems up to snuff -- women who are close, comfortable with the role of sex in their lives, and supportive of each other.  It's not James Joyce, but it's way better than just "not bad."

Okay, so it's not perfect.  What book is?  What book has it all:  well-drawn characters, a satisfying plot, skillful writing, a progressive attitude toward women, men & romance, moving (or funny) dialogue, and a happy ending?

Because I want to know.  Not necessarily your favorite book (we have favorites for all sorts of reasons, and requiring the book to be perfect may not be on the list), but one you can find no flaws in.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In Celebration of Rereading

I've been schlepping books around for decades.  The one I'm rereading now, Fate is Remarkable by Betty Neels (I'm guest-reviewing it for The Uncrushable Jersey Dress; my review should be up in early April), is so old that not only was it published in 1970, but it was written back when shillings still meant something.  Even I was young in the 1960s.

At various times in my life, I've wondered if I'd ever read these books again.  The entire Betty Neels canon, for example, or all of Barbara Delinski's Harlequins, or Elizabeth Mansfield's Signet Regencies.  Everything Candace Camp wrote under every pseudonym she ever used.  All the books by Mary Jo Putney, Joan Wolf, Joan Smith, Mira Stables, Lynn Kerstan, Glenda Sanders, Laura Kinsale, LaVyrle Spencer, Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  I don't even remember many of these books; I just know I loved them when I read so much, I can't get rid of them.

But I did have doubts I'd ever reread them.  And here I am, rereading all of Betty Neels's books (although I'm still falling behind the juggernaut that is the Bettys of UJD -- two books a week is a rigorous workout), rereading Lynn Kerstan, Joan Wolf, Glenda Sanders, LaVyrle Spencer, and Mira Stables, to name a few.

You know what?  It's great.  All those books I saved because I loved them back then?  I still love them.  I can't recapture the feelings I had the first (or second, third, fourth . . .) time I read them, but I'm discovering new and exciting things even on the unpteenth reading.

I won't say anything substantive about Fate is Remarkable; I'll link to my guest-review when it's up.  But I can only attempt to describe my feeling upon reading the first few pages and meeting these characters all over again.  I'm (finally) older than the heroes in Neels's books, and now much older than the heroines.  (When I was 14, the 28-year-old Sarah seemed really grown up to me!)  Maybe they would seem TSTL to other readers, but I like them.  More importantly, I like them in a new way.  I like their dignity and composure; I could use more of that in my own life.  I like their willingness to help and make a difference in other people's lives; I would like to do more of that in my own life.  I like their relationships with colleagues and family, and with each other.  And I like their intelligence.

So hurray for rereading even very old books.  It's not like re-encountering old & familiar friends and being bored.  Rather, it's like meeting people again and appreciating things you'd previously overlooked.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

TBR Tuesday: Something About Julie James's Latest Book

Welcome to the inaugural TBR Tuesday, where I virtuously read one of the hundred or so books on the TBR bench (yes, they've effectively taken over an entire piece of furniture) and blog about it. (More below on the photograph at left.)

Now, I don't review books (to see why, go here), but virtually everything I read makes me think about something, so I figure I should be able to generate a blog post no matter what I'm reading.  First up (because it was the last addition; I'm clearly working on a LOFO approach to my TBR piles: Last On, First Off) is Julie James's Something About You.  Which I liked, a lot.  But which I didn't love, and that got me thinking about why not.

What is it about a book that makes us enjoy it but not love it?  When and why do we fall in love with some books?

I will admit I have not been a wild fan of Ms. James's books up to now.  I had a problem with Just the Sexiest Man Alive, in which a Chicago lawyer falls in love with the titular Sexiest Man Alive (a movie star); because Hollywood actors seem such a bad bet as "forever and ever" heroes, it was hard for me to believe in the HEA.  I enjoyed Practice Makes Perfect a bit more, although the "I hate him I hate him I hate him - ooh, wait, I love him" story arc isn't my favorite.  (And, as a lawyer, I found some of their antics to be distasteful.  I was assured on Twitter that such antics do happen in some large law firms, but I guess that strikes me as a weak defense at best.)

Julie James is clearly improving and growing as a writer; Something About You is much better than its predecessors.  The couple is believable together, the set up was interesting, the writing tight & well-paced, the sex was yummy, and the ending charming.  I even found myself, in my RWA meeting, thinking, "Can't wait to get back to my book."  That's always a good sign.

So why didn't I love it?  I had a couple objections pretty early on, but I know they weren't the problem.  [Just for the record, I am tired of her heroines all having uber-masculine first names: Taylor, Payton, Cameron, Jordan.  It was particularly confusing in SAY, where all the FBI agents and police officers are known simply by their surnames.  Wilkins, Pallas, Kamin, Phelps, Cameron, Briggs -- spot the girl's name?  That's right, it's Pallas (as in Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and heroic endeavor).  Wouldn't it have been cool if the heroine had been named Pallas Lynde, and the hero had been Jack Cameron?  My second objection came from a couple places where it seemed a heroine with that skill set would have been a lot smarter about the criminal investigation, and one place where I thought the FBI would have been a lot smarter.  Eh.  All minor quibbles.]

At first, I thought it was just that odd alchemy between reader and book such that a book that thrills you to your toes on one occasion doesn't have that effect upon re-reading years later.  (The converse can be true as well: I'm re-re-re-reading a book now and enjoying it for a whole raft of reasons I know I didn't have the last time I read it.  I still love it, but now I appreciate it even more.)  Maybe yesterday just wasn't the right day, or March the right month, or 2010 the right year for me to read SAY and love it.  Maybe I'll love it next week or next year.

Maybe.  But I don't think so.  And I think I know why not.

As it happened, last night was my third meeting with my new chapter of RWA.  The discussion was on public speaking, and we were requested to bring a book from which to read a couple pages.  I took Island Nights by Glenda Sanders because its ending is so moving, and I love it so much, that I have twice tried to read it to my husband.  (Once with each husband.)  I've never been able to read it without crying, though, and thus this seemed the greatest challenge I could set myself for public speaking.

I've written about Island Nights over at Monkey Bear Reviews, so I won't do a compare and contrast with SAY.  It wouldn't be fair to either book; one's a straight-up contemporary romance, the other a lighthearted thrillerish romance.  (It might be fairer to compare SAY with Linda Howard's Blair Mallory romances, To Die For and Drop Dead Gorgeous; they share the dead bodies, hot detective & occasionally funny perspective.)  But as I read the ending of Island Nights aloud for a third time (I teared up in a couple places but did not actually cry), I realized what was missing from SAY.

They never fall in love.  Or, to be more precise, they fall in love but we don't read about it.  With all the things that James does very well, in SAY she didn't even try to convey what it feels like to fall in love.  It's still a fun book to read, and it's still fast-paced, well written, sexy as hell, and satisfying in its way.

It's just not very romantic.

I promised you an explanation of the TBR bench.  Well, first of all, I couldn't photograph it as it had been: far too revealing about my inadequate housekeeping habits.  Second, it wasn't intact; a significant number of books were hanging out uselessly on my bedside table.  (I carried a full LLBean boat bag's worth of TBR books down and entered them into my database on Microsoft's OneNote.)  And finally, a certain amount of tidying of the adjacent areas had to occur before this photo was snapped.

The books are now all nicely organized into historicals, contemporaries, mysteries & thrillers, paranormals/fantasy/sci fi, general fiction, and non-fiction.

And it yielded my first-ever contest.  I have a brand-new copy of Eloisa James's Duchess by Night to give away.  That's right -- a two-year-old book you've all read already.  That's so perfectly consistent with me and with this blog that I can't resist offering the book to anyone who wants it.  Leave a comment saying you'd like to get this book, and I'll pick at random.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

For Laura & Kat: Copyright, Mashups & Who's / Whose Right?

Laura Kinsale & Kat (Book Thingo) have been having a conversation on Twitter about copyright.  Kat claims that she'll never write the ranty blog post that will allow them to express their ideas in longer, more comprehensive comments.

I thought I would take care of the blog post for them; they're on their own in leaving the comprehensive comments.

The issue is whether mashups (works of fiction that lift significant portions of an original work by one or more other authors and mash them together to make something new) is prohibited by copyright law.  Or, to put it another way, if it's okay to do it to Jane Austen because her works are in the public domain, why is it not okay to do it to, say, Laura Kinsale, whose works are all still protected by American and (through the Bern Convention) international copyright laws.
The theory of copyright law is that an original work of creativity -- a book, a sculpture, a painting, a movie -- belongs to the artist/writer and thus can't be used, copied, or exploited for another's profit until the copyright expires.  (Copyrights are currently in force for some number of years after the artist's death -- basically, the number of years is still being determined by Walt Disney's heirs.  Some copyrights generate a lot more money than others.)  The rationale is that the artist or her heirs should get the financial benefit of her work for a nice long time, but not forever; there is benefit to the rest of us to have works come out of copyright and enter the public domain.

There are exceptions to the copyright laws, most notably for fair use.  I could, for example, quote Laura or Kat's tweets in tiny doses -- but I can't replicate here their entire convo.  That would be, in effect, stealing their words.

But I am allowed to steal their ideas.  Laura feels, for example, that the copyright laws are right to restrict other people's access to her words and characters.  A mashup of Shadowheart would be wrong and illegal.  Kat, on the other hand, values mashups and feels that copyright law should be more like other intellectual property law, e.g., patent law, which allows the inventor a monopoly on her invention for only a handful of years because to extend it stifles innovation and progress by others.

So -- is a mashup plagiarism?  Or is it innovation that benefits the rest of us?

Here's where I take advantage of the Fair Use Doctrine and quote Kat's very last tweet on the subject:
One last thing...I love authors who take time to write their books. They're a dying breed in romance.
Now, on its face, Kat's complimenting Laura Kinsale on taking time (years, even) to write a novel.  But if you think about that in another context, it's an appreciation of authors who take time to ply their craft.  Why assume that an author's creativity (whether employed quickly or slowly) begins to "belong" to society as soon as it's published?  Yes, readers have their own interpretations of a novel's theme, characters, and effect, but none of that -- even for the most devoted Potterite or Twilighthead -- gives them any extra rights to the copyrighted material than, say, those available to the dustiest academic reading the dreariest tome on macroeconomics.

You can love a book to death, but you still can't then pick over its corpse.  Devotion (or extreme antipathy) doesn't give you any right to steal the words.

Oh, but what about the characters?  Fan fiction is a real close call.  JK Rowling has stopped fans from appropriating the characters in the Harry Potter books to, say, write an unauthorized biography, and I happen to know that television writers get paid whenever a character they created is used in a later episode, even an episode they themselves didn't write.  But fan fiction -- the creation of an original work of fiction that builds off an existing (and copyrighted) work of fiction by exploring the characters in new situations -- is a close call.  Here, Laura suggests the fan fiction writer should change the characters' names; she believes the fanfic writer will actually end up with a better piece of work as a result.  Maybe so, but that rather misses the point of fanfic.

Now, I'm no IP lawyer, so don't take anything I say on this subject as a legal opinion as to the limits of what may and may not be done with copyrighted works of fiction.  In fact, if you really want to know what your rights are -- as an author of original works or as a fanfic author -- hire a lawyer,  But in the meantime, I found a pretty comprehensive discussion (in the form of FAQs) here.  

Not surprisingly, I'm on the side of published authors of entirely original works.  I can see the appeal of fanfic, both of writing it and sharing it (it's the sharing that gets you in trouble; if you scribble stuff in your notebook at home, no problem but when you post it to the Internet, you run certain risks), but for the most part I believe authors of original material are entitled to copyright protection.  I also believe that protection is appropriately different from the monopoly granted by patent laws.  A successful patent pays more sooner, and is right to expire sooner, in the balance of benefit and incentive for the inventor vs. benefit to the industry in the form of additional invention that builds on the patented device.  With writing, the benefit to society of having a work enter the public domain is deemed less valuable than innovation and progress, so the law allows a hundred years or more to pass before the copyright expires.

Here's the one thing that neither Laura nor Kat mentioned:  What about the publisher?  What about out of print books?  Why does contract law trump readers' rights to make a legal purchase of copyrighted material?  Here's what I'm talking about:  Take your favorite book of all time, let's say it's Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale.  Let's say it's out of print.  Let's say Amazon no longer lists any used copies.  Let's say there's a SH fan club, and as the fan club blogs, comments, tweets, and otherwise publicly discusses SH, more people who've never read SH find they can't get a hold of a copy.

So they write a nice note to Laura and say, in effect, "Let us publish SH digitally; you'll get all the proceeds."  Only Laura maybe signed a contract with SH's publisher that restricts all further publication of SH.  She owns the copyright, sure, but she doesn't own the rights to publish.  We can say she needed a better lawyer back when the contract was signed, but sometimes authors have to take the contract as it's offered.  (This is particularly true for an author's very first book(s) -- and it's happened that completist readers can't get a copy of an early book by their favorite author for this very reason.)

Now we have an author, Laura, and readers (the fan club) with no legal way to make the precise transaction the copyright laws were meant to protect.  I don't have an answer for this situation, but I'll just say it worries me more than the fanfic that's being stifled by copyright laws.

Here are a few of the topics I'm aware I'm not discussing here:
  • Piracy, and its role as a straw horse in the digital publishing debate.
  • Parodies and the line between a parody and fanfic (i.e., just because I gush instead of mock, I'm infringing the author's copyright?)
  • Plagiarism, subconscious copying, and what can & cannot be copyrighted (e.g., plots, place, people).
And that's just the Ps!

Okay, Laura & Kat -- have at it in the comments section.  Enjoy!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Holiday Snaps, Vol. 2: Cornwall

That straggly white building up there is The Nare Hotel, a wondeful place that is designed to make you feel as though you're at a weekend house with a LOT of servants.  (Do please click on the link and see their wonderful photographs, including ones where it's all green and pretty.  Bluntly, we can't afford to stay at The Nare Hotel when it's all green & pretty.)

This place reminded me of Sharrow Bay, in Ullswater (the Lake District) where Brit Hub 1.0 and I stayed for a night back in 2005.  In addition to spectacular settings (lake vs. sea), both hotels have that "feel free to sit in the drawing room; tea is at 4" atmosphere, intended to evoke an Edwardian house party.  The difference is because we were at Sharrow Bay for only one night, Henry and I had time to appreciate the setting and accommodations (and the food -- which on that night was just as good as all the rave reviews led us to believe it would be) but not to get a good feel for our fellow guests. 

At The Nare Hotel, we stayed three nights, long enough for me to be struck by the rather homogeneous nature of the other guests -- almost cliché characters from an England that Americans might think is long lost.  (I'll have to make explaining this a post of its own.  It involves complicated thoughts about class, nationality, culture, ways of life, and a bunch of other things.  Frankly, blogging about that makes my recent post on Gaffney's To Have and To Hold seem like I was explaining an episode of Sesame Street.)

Nare Beach, with the hotel at the left.

Nare Beach, as seen from the Coastal Walk

We did do the bits of the South West Coast Path that went east and west from The Nare Hotel.  We didn't get all the way to Nare Head heading east; I'm not in good enough shape.  (We were warned that it was a lot of up and down -- it's not the up that I found difficult, but the down.  You think gravity's your friend in those situations, but it actually makes the strain on knees and ankles worse.  No excuse; just saying.)

The Coastal Walk (Ross says it's very famous in the UK) goes through fields like this one.  Eh, the sheep were quite used to the interruptions.

That's Nare Head, taken from all the way at the other end of the beach.

I should have taken a photo of our terrace, overlooking the beach.  One of the days got warm enough for us to sit outside, or inside but with the sliding glass door open.  Even though it wasn't very green, and didn't have all the flowers (go back and look at The Nare Hotel photo album again, or better yet, flip through the online brochure!), it was very very beautiful.  It's just not the sort of beautiful that can be photographed.  Some situations are so vibrantly enhanced by their circumstances -- vacation, relaxation, unexpected sunny weather in March -- that a photo showing dull grass and barren shrubbery wouldn't have captured the perfection.

And that's the best explanation I have for why we didn't race around trying to see anything other than this tiny corner of Cornwall -- sometimes perfection is enough.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Red Cabbage Juice (My thoughts on To Have and To Hold)

Yes.  Red cabbage juice.

I've even found you a picture. It is a dark purplish-blue liquid, and a natural color test for pH -- on the left, the juice turns turquoise in contact with a base, such as baking soda. On the right, it turns pink in contact with an acid like lemon juice. (You can read about this here.)

The point is, these color shifts are sudden, dramatic and complete. At one point you have a lovely indigo blue, the next you have magenta pink.  If you don't know this is going to happen, it's startling and just a trifle worrisome.

That's what I thought of as I read the second half of To Have and To Hold, the second of Patricia Gaffney's Wyckerley series.  It's the now-(in)famous romance in which there is forced sex (rape, if you prefer the term) between the hero and heroine.  That's in the first half.  In the second half, there is a tender generosity (he gives her a dog, three crates of books, and a conservatory complete with orangery -- you have to trust me that these are the most extraordinary kindnesses in context).  It's reconciling these two halves that is troubling me.

Turquoise, then magenta.

Mandatory Warning:  THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

I'm just going to assume everyone has read this book at some point in time.  If you haven't, I (and the rest of the world) highly recommend it.

Rachel Wade, married at age 18 to a sadist and pedophile, endures a week of his torture before he's found dead.  She's tried and convicted of his murder; only the visible evidence that she had been savagely beaten saved her from being hanged for her crime.  She is imprisoned in Dartmoor; upon her release she is found indigent and is brought up before the magistrates in Wyckerley on charges, basically, of being an unacceptable burden on the parish rolls.

One of the magistrates is Sebastian, Lord d'Aubrey, the new heir to Lynton Hall.  He hires Mrs. Wade as his housekeeper, thus saving her from imprisonment and possible transportation.  It never looks like an act of generosity, though -- we know from the outset that his object is to bed her.  And really, we quickly learn, it's not merely sexual congress he wants.  It's something more; his actions seem akin to those of the boy who takes the wings off insects to see what what happens.  He wants to use Mrs. Wade's predicament as a stepping stone to his own conviction of his debauchery.

Gaffney portrays all of this so perfectly: Sebastian's cruelty, Rachel's passivity borne more of hopelessness than stoicism, the ratcheting up of tension as he tries to get closer to her and she tries to stay away.  Eventually, he rapes her (where the word rape connotes, quite properly, sexual congress without consent).  But it's not an act of violence in the strictest sense.  She says no and he touches her, then penetrates her, against her will.  His actions are perversely gentle; he'd have preferred that she consented and even enjoyed it.  That she doesn't is simply too bad.

Now, I just don't care.  I really don't.  And I don't care to debate it.  My reaction to the entire first half of the book was horror at Sebastian's cruelty, which comes to a head when some really vile Londoners come to visit and join in the humiliation he knows Rachel will endure.  The sexual violation seems the lesser crime.  That's because I have endured both the sexual violation and the cruelty, and I know which destroyed me.  So, I respect everyone else's opinion on the subject, but my reaction is mine alone.

At the joinder of the two halves of the story, Sebastian changes.  One of the Londoners, Sully (not a subtle name), decides he wants to rape Rachel and sets off obviously for that purpose.  Only then does Sebastian choose the other path, the one where Rachel is a human being, his employee, someone he cares about, someone he's responsible for.  It's hard to say what finally flips the switch from callous disregard to concern.  My difficulty was in understanding his treatment of her up to that point.  She seems to fascinate him far more than a sexual object would: he learns her schedule, he studies her.

All I have are questions.  Does he hope to break her in half?  Does he hope she'll lose her innate decorum and play the bawd so that he can discard her as he's discarded other women?  Is she some intricate thing he needs to take apart to understand, knowing he'll never put her back together once he's finished?  Or is she a fly, buzzing helplessly on a tabletop after he's pulled off her wings?

Rachel's situation is easy to grasp -- she's had all her options forcibly removed for so long that endurance is her only goal.  She has no past worth remembering and no future worth planning.  She simply wants to survive.  By contrast, Sebastian seems overwhelmed and even bored by his choices.  Judging by his actions, he repeatedly chooses the more morally dissolute option . . . up to the point where he doesn't.

After he stops Sully's rape (and gets stabbed along his torso for his pains), their relationship completely changes.  He's apologetic, she's understanding, he's appreciative, she's more willing to be appreciated.  They become lovers, both sexually and emotionally.  The rest of the book is lovely to read.  We're charmed right along with Rachel as Sebastian reverses course, deciding to supply her with every thing her imprisonment took away.

The second half of the book is classic romance: two wounded people find love in their relationship, which is threatened by outside forces until all the mysteries and loose ends are tied up and secured.

But what's the first half?  A meditation on the politics of the mid-19th century nobleman who's got too little to do and too much time in which to do it?  A treatise on the sexual politics of the period, as women are possessions and thus objects of amusement, titillation, and even perverse satisfaction?  (There's some evidence to support this last theory, as a secondary character is badly beaten by her father.)  If Gaffney's point is political, why doesn't Sebastian reflect some on the effort to rise above the tawdry nature of his life?  Why is the only self-examination we're given a truly surreal explanation, at the very end, of the moment he must have fallen in love with her, when her instinct to reassure him was an act of emotional empathy that makes him realize that she is the better person, the one with a pure heart.

The easy explanation is personal psychology: he grew up in a sexually perverse but emotionally detached and embittered household, so his life -- up to the point of preventing Sully's rape -- is an escalating recreation of the moral vacuum of his upbringing.  Only after he acts to save Rachel from a horror he set in motion does he reclaim his own humanity.

I dunno.  I'm unconvinced by all of these theories.  There is something so personal, almost enmeshed, about Sebastian's choices in the first half that seem bigger than his upbringing.  At the same time, he's fully engaged in his campaign to hurt himself through hurting Rachel or committed to the prosecution of his own amorality by seeing her as again an innocent victim (there are even suggestions that he wonders if he's done the same things that Wade did to Rachel; he half hopes he has and half hopes he hasn't) that it seems unlikely a political and cultural sexism could explain it all.

Of course, the reality is more likely to be that of the unknowable alchemy that happens when complicated characters take up residence in the mind of a better-than-average novelist.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Gaffney was as shocked by some of Sebastian's actions while she was writing To Have and To Hold as we were to read about them.

A bit like seeing red cabbage juice change color all at once.

Holiday Snaps, Vol. 1: Sidmouth

I have some weightier things to blog about in the next few days, but Edie asked specifically for my photos from our trip.  I'll do these in a series of posts, starting with Sidmouth

 We flew last Monday from Philadelphia to Heathrow, hired a car, piled in the luggage and headed southwest.  (We drove right past Stonehenge -- frankly, your average service area off an American interstate highway is set farther from the roadside than Stonehenge is to the A303 -- but didn't stop to take photos.  Y'all know what it looks like, and it actually does look just like its pictures.)

Our first stop was here in Sidmouth, a quiet seaside town in East Devon, pictured above. Ross's reason for visiting Sidmouth was to see where his paternal grandparents retired to.  He had a flat in one of these buildings here -- they too face the sea and must be quite desirable residences now.  Ross remembers it as being a duplex; there's a basement that is at ground level to the rear, where it opens to a courtyard garden.  Grandpa Beresford had wirehaired dachshunds, which he used to go ottering or badgering.  (Pretty much what you would expect: go out at night and find wild animals and, uh, catch them.  Ross's cousin, Philip, joined us in Sidmouth for tea and said that Grandpa wasn't fooling around -- this was no nature walk where Philip and his brother looked for ickle aminals.  Grandpa killed what he caught.  (Ross's sisters were spared this "red in tooth & claw" stuff, although on one walk with Grandpa, he came across a rabbit infected with myxomatosis, a viral infection of some reknown.  Grandpa calmly snapped its neck, to the horror of one of Ross's sisters.

Sidmouth is rather charming in its small, 19th century way:

See that exposed red cliff face?  That's the result of erosion; a real problem along parts of England's coastlines.  Here, it's resulted in the cliff walk being closed off and quite visibly unsafe.

Ross has a photo from his childhood of the beach at Sidmouth, which was even more pebbly then than now. In his photo, there's a shark on the beach, quite dead but also quite scary. Today, the promenade yielded nothing more alarming than these quite tame gulls:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Desert Island Things

When I very first came to London, I was fifteen.  I'd been shipped off, alone, to take care of a great aunt with epilepsy.  The original plan was that I would be there for a year; I made it four months.  (There are so many aspects of this story that cast my immediate and extended family in a poor light that I won't even bother discussing them.  Pretty much all the people associated with that lunatic decision 40 years ago are dead, so what's the point.)

I liked my great aunt Dora (family nickname: Dorcle in the Germanic tradition of adding "le" on the end of names) well enough, but with a 60+ year difference in our ages it wasn't an easy relationship.  She'd married quite late in life and hadn't been able to have children.  Dorcle was an artist whose sculptures were just okay, but whose needlework was pure genius.  Unfortunately, fiber artistry (she designed her own allegorical needlepoint scenes, for example, confounding the snobs at the Royal School of Needlework) hadn't been recognized in the early 20th century, so she didn't enjoy the success she should have.

There were some fundamental problems with the arrangement of having a very sad American girl keeping house for a rather opinionated and distant relative, although there were some benefits as well.  (Notable among the benefits was the proximity to a Danish artist living in a tiny mews studio space across the courtyard; Inger would stay up later than Dorcle and invited me to come watch TV with her.  I think she could tell how I wasn't doing very well emotionally.  I recall her loving lectures to me on how I needed to behave better -- ie., be less depressed -- but I suspect she spent most of her time with me being quietly loving and accepting: balm to my spirit.)

One highlight to my time with Dorcle, though, was Desert Island Discs, the BBC 4 radio programme hosted back then by Roy Plomley in which guests would pick the eight musical selections they would want with them on a desert island.  (They also got one book other than the Bible and Shakespeare, and one luxury provided that luxury couldn't aid their escape from the island.)  Dorcle and I would listen to it faithfully every week.  Back then, almost all the guests were the sort who picked classical music for their 8 discs; I shudder to think what Dorcle would have made of current guests, who only occasionally have some classical music in with all the more modern stuff.

I listened to part of Desert Island Discs today.  The guest was Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a British woman of Nigerian descent who specializes in space engineering, in effect.  The show is only on its fourth host (Kirsty Young); and there's a fascinating discussion on Wikipedia of why for so long the BBC couldn't permit listeners to access the program through the Internet.  It turns out that Roy Plomley actually owned the copyright to the name "Desert Island Discs" and his heirs just came to an agreement with the BBC about rebroadcast rights in 2009.

Where this intellectual property dispute leaves the nice people who came up with the phrase Desert Island Keepers (DIK) to refer to those books you just couldn't live without, I have no idea.  I'm also not sure who did come up with that phrase, so I'll just link to as many as I can find: here, here, here, and here.  (Just to name a few...)  Interestingly, All About Romance seems to have folded their DIK reviews in with everything else.

If you are reading this and thinking, "Wow, I didn't even know there was a precursor to Desert Island Keepers," then I recommend you listen to Desert Island Discs just once.  Only recent programmes are available as podcasts, but you can read what various people picked as their eight discs, one book and one luxury.  Check out George Clooney's answers, for example (he knows from luxury), or Stephen King.

In the forty years since I first heard Desert Island Discs, I've spent more time trying to narrow my musical choices to just eight discs than I've spent figuring out which books I would take.  How about you?  Anyone have their list of music/books ready for that Robinson Crusoe experience?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Greetings from Cornwall

Greetings from Cornwall!

I didn't take the picture; it's not quite this green here in March, but it is the view from our hotel of Carne Beach, on the Roseland Peninsula

The amazing thing about this trip is that Ross planned it all.  All of it.  I used to be the family travel agent in my first marriage, a role I actually liked.  But I have to say, I like my new role (the person presented with options or, better yet, presented with a plan just short of booking and asked, "How does this look to you?").

What's surprised me most of all is how much like Scarborough Beach it is here.  That's the beach in Maine that played a huge role in my childhood.  My mother first went there at the age of 4, and returned every summer for ten years before her parents bought a weekend house north of New York City.  She mourned the loss of their beach vacations, so when she was married and had three children (and pregnant with me), she packed everyone up and went back.  Despite all my father's dire predictions that it would be different, it wasn't.  It was just as lovely in 1955 as it had been in 1934.

My parents ended up buying land close to Scarborough Beach and building a summer house there in 1962.  They rebuilt it into a year-round house in 1983 and retired there.  My siblings and I inherited it, but I really didn't feel the atavistic pull of the beach the way the others did.  I can't say why not, and I can't dispute my brother's comment that it's a magical place.  I just found that I resented time spent there as it wasn't Harmony, my current home.  Despite all the sea water in my childhood, I'd fallen in love with a tiny patch of the Endless Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania, and wanted to be there more than at the beach.

So here we are (again, not in as green a season as this photo would suggest) listening to the sound of the surf and collecting beach glass.  It should make me homesick for those lost times when I was happy to be at Scarborough Beach, but it doesn't.  It makes me happy to be married to a man who found this hotel on this beach in Cornwall.  I'm making more memories, ones that don't compete with my childhood recollections but complement them.

Of course, I'd love to come back here when it's sunny and warm (as opposed to sunny & chilly, the way it is today) but we're going to have to win the lottery or make a lot of money some other way.  But I'll tell you this: if health care reform (or something) doesn't happen in the US soon, I might seriously consider retiring to Cornwall.  It's very sleepy and quiet, but a whole lot less snowy than NE Pennsylvania.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I drove to Philadelphia on Thursday; I drive south most Thursdays, but I had to be in Center City by noon, and given that traffic on the Schuylkill Distressway Expressway tends to be slowest when you really need to get there on time, I allowed an extra hour.

Which is why I was listening to the second hour of the Bob Edwards Show on XM.  He had a delightfully rambling conversation with Barbara Heller, an architect and urban planner, about the long-overdue repairs to our infrastructure.  I actually like our interstate highway system; I was driving on I-476 as I listened to them talk.  But it was one of her wonderful ancillary points that really resonated with me.

She had been explaining that when Eisenhower called for the linking of the interstates, the system was built for an excess capacity for cars.  Of course we've filled and overflowed that capacity.  Similarly, Heller explained, a lot of airports were constructed then, and they too were designed to accommodate a lot more planes and passengers than they had to in the late 50s and early 60s.  Again, we've exceeded that capacity.

She said that today, as a nation, we don't seem to want to face the present let alone build for the future.  And then she floored me by discussing a column by Tom Shales of the Washington Post about the TV show Father Knows Best.   Heller said that the TV shows of the 50s and 60s represented the best of America -- not the best we were, but the best we could be.  They were aspirational.  Television viewers were meant to try to be the Cleavers or Donna Reed.  Shales's column mentions how lily white these shows were, and how the reality for the actors was hardly consistent with their TV lives; I don't think Heller was ignoring any of that when she referred to these shows as designed to show us at our best.

By contrast, Heller went on, TV today is about a lowest common denominator; it shows us people we can feel justifiably superior to.  Think about it: We're less desperate than the women on The Bachelor, more polite than Dr. Gregory House, better parents than those on Supernanny, less slutty than the characters on Gray's Anatomy, smarter than the people on Leno's "Jaywalking" segment, and we're demonstrably better in every regard to everyone on Jersey Shore.  Heller's point is that TV today allows us to be satisfied with who we are even if we could do better.

I love this point.  It's not that TV was better then; without a doubt an episode of House is better scripted, acted and directed than pretty much everything that was on in 1960 with the possible exception of a few episodes of The Twilight Zone or Playhouse 90.  What Heller's saying is that back then America wanted to do better, build bigger, exceed capacity, and excel.  Today, America seems to want to be stagnant, obstructive, and self-satisfied with the status quo.

This got me thinking about romance novels.  I don't believe that early romance novels (or precursors to romance novels like the series of "career girl" books in the 50s that always ended with her getting married and, presumably, quitting her job) presented their readers with anything to aspire to, just as romances today aren't filled with characters you can feel superior to.  I don't think we want to read about so-so heroines and he's-all-right-I-guess heroes.  There may be subtle sociological indicators in the rise of vampire and werewolf romances, or the increasing number of billionaire heroes, but I don't think it has anything to do with aspirations from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations versus the adversarial quagmire in the politics-of-no-change we see today.

But I do wonder about us as readers, whether we celebrate enough the really good books or do we prefer to feel superior to the mediocre ones.  Is this the appeal of #romfail, for example?  I've not participated in a #romfail session on Twitter, but I gather it involves laughing at a poorly written romance.  It may be good fun, but is it good fun the way laughing at the "bad" singers on American Idol is good fun?

Does this phenomenon -- if it exists in the context of judging romance novels at all -- also explain the review of Deidre Knight's Butterfly Tattoo on Dear Author?  Jane gives the book an A-, which is why it seems strange the the first paragraph of the review begins, "There are so many blocks against reading this book that I wonder you ever had the audacity to put pen to paper." and ends, "I got to the end of chapter 1 and emailed your editor, Angela James, and said, what the hell have you sent me?"  I can understand a D review starting out so negatively, but an A- minus review?  Was Jane disappointed that she loved this book?

What about us, the non-reviewing readers?  Do we pick up a romance expecting to like it well enough, or hoping we'll hate it?  I'd have thought it would be the other way around, that we pick up a romance (by an unknown author, say) hoping it's excellent, but rather expecting it to be just okay.  Are we in general impressed with romance authors or vaguely contemptuous, as if they only deserve our admiration if they write one of the great books.

Hey, I'm guilty of this -- I've not been kind to certain authors here.  I wonder now, though, if all of this -- the snarky reviews, the antagonism toward people on comment threads when they "out" themselves as authors, the running series of tweets about a book that's causing the tweeter's eyes to roll -- isn't part of the same phenomenon Heller's noticed on TV.  We like to feel superior.  Hell, we really think we *are* superior.  And we're just that extra bit happy when we find evidence of our superiority.

Without a doubt, reviewers and their blogs provide a valuable service and I'm grateful to them for their hard work.  In a genre with nearly 5,000 books published each year, it's tremendously useful that someone's sorting the wheat from the chaff; and they can't do that without being willing to say that the bad stuff is bad.  I just don't think that means we have to celebrate its badness.

This isn't a rallying cry -- what would I have people do?  Keep their eye-rolling to themselves?  That's as useful as decreeing how much sexual experience all heroines should have.  People are entirely free to read the books they want, write the books they can, and express any reaction they like about those books.

I'm just sad that we don't seem as eager to praise excellence as we are happy to sneer at mediocrity.  I don't think aspirations are bad things.  I think admiration for a well-written book and its author is a positive force in our community.  And I wish we didn't enjoy it quite so much when a book is bad.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Just a Couple Black Dagger Questions

As a palate cleanser from all my Betty Neels books, I'm finishing Lover Eternal, J.R. Ward's second romance in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series.  As with Dark Lover, this one's an amusement park ride: fast, fun, frivolous.

This time around, though, I've got a few questions.  Anyone who's farther along in the series and thus knows the answers (or can explain to me why they're dumb questions) please leave a comment.

In no particular order:

1.  I can understand why Wrath can't contract even the common rhinovirus from a human (and, more importantly, not HIV), but the rest of the Brotherhood aren't pure blood vampires, so why are they immune?  (If the answer is, "They just are, damn it," I'm cool with that.)

2.  Okay, so they're immune from human viruses.  And they can heal really fast from any wound short of amputation.  How do they get headaches, then?  As I understand it, there are tons of serious causes of headaches (e.g., Rift Valley Fever, subarachnoid hemorrhage,  and increased intercranial pressure) but basically, a headache occurs when something is irritating some pain receptors inside the head.  Well, wouldn't those same super-fast healing qualities make the headache go away super-fast?  (And, in case you're still doubting this is a sensible question, consider that other vascular-rich organ south of the border -- that certainly seems to recover super-fast, right?)

3.  There's something odd about this business of the Change.  For one thing, it seems like a really bad adaptation from an evolutionary point of view.  You can't be sure when it's going to happen, you are a 98-pound weakling before it happens, it can kill you really easily (inadvertent exposure to light; no one suitable around to uh, "feed" you; etc.), and so forth.  Heck, who cares about the Lessers:  there would seem to be enough "attrition" from sheer biological losses that you could just let vampires be and they'd die off on their own.  So -- why do they have to go through the Change?  And why in two millennia has it not gotten easier, safer, or developed a better set of warning signs?

4.  Does anyone else just skip all the sections dealing with Mr. X and the rest of the Lessers, or is that just me?  When a book is 450 pages long, and my TBR piles have eaten a six-foot-long bench, and Mr. X is just boring, why read that stuff?  I want more of the 7-foot-tall hawt vamps!

5.  Who stuck Wrath with the sobriquet, "The Blind King"?  The heck with the punishment for Rhage -- I want see the dude who came up with that name get whipped with the "three-tailed pinecone lash."  Wrath was a cool dude before that label was stuck on him; now he sounds like something out of Mother Goose or the Brothers Grimm.

6.  Why are none of these guys gay?  Now, I gather that as the series drags on develops, there are a couple male characters that fans would like to see together.  And yes, from a marketing point of view, that might be tricky for Ward to carry off.  But none of that is really what I'm getting at.  The Brothers are all walking embodiments of the leather subculture, aren't they?  And while I can hardly claim to have the largest or most diverse social network, I have to say that all the guys I know who wear that much leather are gay.  So none of the Brothers are?  Really?

7.  Oh, and about those leathers.  Who cleans them?  Or, more to the point (because I imagine poor Fritz gets stuck with that job -- there's a reason doggens have such a canine-sounding name: they are loyal and obedient to a fault), HOW does one clean Brotherhood leathers?  Take Rhage for example:  He goes commando, has some serious adventures that are either strenuous, arousing, or both, and then changes into fresh leathers.  But how does the pair he just stripped off get "fresh" for the next adventure?

8.  I understand about all the meaningless sex Rhage has to have to keep his inner beast in check.  And how he can wipe the memory of the female he's coupled with so they don't remember him.  But someone "normal" has to have noticed the fangs, right?  Particularly at restaurants, when he's eating and otherwise using his mouth for normal mouthy things.  Do the Brothers have some sort of blanket memory shield that keep the concepts "7-foot-tall gorgeous guy" and "fangs" from getting linked in anyone's short-term memory banks?

9.  This one is a stupid question, and I really don't mean to be annoying (which is to say, I realize I am annoying, I just lack the specific intent for it to be criminal), but I have to ask it.  We have a handful of gorgeous guys, and only one is mated when the series starts.  Why?  The Brothers have been alive for hundreds of years, met myriads of human and vampire women, and only now they're bonding?  Doesn't that seem implausible?

10.  Last question, I promise.  What's "Wellsie" short for?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Drowning in the Sea of Love

One of those delightful women who make The Uncrushable Jersey Dress such a fun blog recently wrote that she didn't like angst in a romance.

I so hate to disagree with her -- they are lovely over there and I want to stay on their good side! -- but I love angst.  It speaks to me.  (I'm completely mellow now, of course, but other periods of my life would score pretty high on the Angst-o-Meter.)

So here's an angsty book from my very dim past:  The Lonely Shore by Anne Weale (published by Mills & Boon in 1966, and by Harlequin in 1971).  Anne Weale (neé Jay Blakeney) died in 2007; she wrote 88 romances from 1955 to just before her death.  I like others of her romances, but this one -- still pretty early in her career -- is my favorite.

Clare Drake wants to get away from London, so she accepts a job as the secretary to David Lancaster, a botanist working at his home in Norfolk on a book about coastal plant life.  (I've been to Norfolk -- it can be pretty desolate and very beautiful.  The Norfolk fens are pictured here.)  He's a difficult employer who's had trouble keeping secretaries; Clare's predecessor was Miss Winifreda Bunberry -- you have to love a author willing to reference Oscar Wilde -- who burst into tears at the first sign of David's temper.  Clare figures she's up for the challenge.

Clare is beautiful in a not-entirely-implausible way.  This may be because her beauty (mostly the result of having, as David's Aunt Leo puts it, "true Titian red" hair) is actually a precipitating factor in her story.  David's niece, Jenny, who is precocious, speculates that Clare might end up with the local wealthy playboy, Paul Mallinson.  In fact, when Clare first sees David -- "a tall, dark-haired man in his early thirties" -- she thinks he must be Mallinson because she figures her employer will be a middle-aged scholar.  Nope, that's our hero entering, stage left.

She meets Mallinson later on; he's younger than David, wealthy enough not to need to work, and quite charming in a rather superficial way.  He woos Clare from the get-go, and they're about evenly matched in looks and social skills, but while Clare is amused by Paul, he doesn't make her feel the way David does.

David clearly comes from the Brontë line of heroes: dark, brooding, hair-trigger temper, and with a Tragic Past.  Clare finds him unreasonable and difficult, and it often takes a while for him to relax around her, but still there's a crackle of awareness when she's near him that's not there when Paul shows up.

David is smart about botany but stupid about women.  To his mind, Clare's looks are damning evidence that she's just like the gold-digger who threw David over when he was recovering from his wounds as a naval officer so that she could marry a richer guy.  Clare can see how superficially she's being judged by David, but sexual chemistry & tension is still sexual chemistry & tension, so she falls in love with him.

Now, in real life, a woman in Clare's position really ought to give Paul the heave-ho as soon as she realizes that she loves David, particularly as David has a bee in his bonnet about feckless and inconstant women, and she can see that David is warming to her charms.  But she doesn't.  And as little as I like that staple of many romances, the Misunderstood Clinch Between Heroine & Other Man, Weale is just a bit smarter than other authors.  Yes, David is blindingly jealous, and yes, Clare is fighting off a drunken Paul, and yes David punches Paul out.  But when David then turns his rage on Clare, she's chastises him for hypocrisy:
Twice you've forced your kisses on me and then implied that I lured you into it, and last night you lost control again and not ten minutes later you knocked a man down for the very offence which you had just committed.  I suppose I should be honoured by your attentions.  Well, I'm not!  Sincerity comes pretty high on my list of the virtues, Mr. Lancaster, and it seems to me that you are just about the worst hypocrite I've ever met.  Simply because you've been jilted once, you've let it warp and embitter you until you see your own cynicism reflected in everyone else . . . "

Wow.  She's in love with him, but she's willing to rip into him this way on principle?  I like this woman.  But it gets better.  In the next paragraph, Clare realizes that "[t]o accuse him of being self-centred and hypocritical was justified, but to drag up the past and taunt him with it was a cruelty which just appalled her."  All this, plus she's self-aware and self-critical (if just a bit prosy)?  Wonderful.

Back to the angst.  David's Aunt Leo isn't merely the convenient chaperon who makes it possible for Clare to live-in, she's also an artist.  Who paints a portrait of Clare as a mermaid.  (It's supposed to be lovely and the best thing Aunt Leo's ever done, but I couldn't get past the image that the description, "the flesh of the face and arms had a faintly greenish tinge" evoked.)  And just as Clare (who'd given notice with the whole "hypocrisy" speech) is getting ready to leave, someone throws something through Mermaid Clare's face.  Aunt Leo knows David did it but is unperturbed; when Clare assumes it means he must hate her, she tells Clare that David loves her but his pride won't let him show it.

In fact, Aunt Leo challenges Clare to be the one to admit to being in love.  Oh, but she just couldn't, Clare protests, and Aunt Leo calls her on it.
"Because of your pride?" Miss Lancaster asked.  "One of you must sacrifice that if you are to have happiness.  Pride is the enemy of love, my child.  Many hearts have been broken because pride was stronger than love."

Now, apart from an unfortunate rhythmic resemblance to the Mother Superior's speech to Maria in The Sound of Music, this seems like pretty good advice -- and it's advice that, if followed, would shortcut a lot of HEAs.  But of course our protagonists are not that smart (the best Clare can do is to stare at him one last time with "everything she felt for him . . . written on her face") and she exits stage right.

Fast forward a week.  Clare has dreary lodgings in Bayswater and is waiting for word from her brother in Kenya that it's cool to come stay with him.  Clare's reduced to walking along the Thames for hours, mesmerized by the swirling water and unaware of much else.  She loses track of time and realizes she'll be late getting back to the boardinghouse and thus might be locked out.  Sure enough, the door's locked!  Before she can knock, Clare hears something from the road and turns . . . and faints.  (She'd not been eating properly, silly girl.)

When she comes to, she's at David's brother's flat in London, and David's confessing that he tracked her down through the airlines.  He loves her, etc., etc.  There's a lovely epilogue while they're honeymooning in Italy: our Heathcliff hero has been replaced by an "ardent and demanding lover."  Clare thinks:
[It] amazed her that she should ever have thought him stiff and unemotional.  Sometimes she felt that she had married a stranger, for as the long golden days passed a new David gradually revealed himself.  She had loved him when he was at his most curt and off-hand, but now she discovered that her husband had an unexpected capacity of nonsense, a boyish hilarity which before he had kept strictly controlled.  With other people he was still quiet and self-contained, but with her he was all tenderness and warmth.
   She had accepted that that there would always be a part of himself which he would withhold from her, but instead she found herself in possession of his whole heart.

Now that's a happy ending.

Okay, I *know* this book can deliver the angsty goods when required.  It's done that for me more than once.  But rereading it for this post, I discovered I didn't need the emotional connection necessary to get that drug-like hit of angst.  I'm serious when I say it's like a drug -- I wouldn't be surprised if studies show that reading a particularly angsty HEA does stuff to our serotonin levels and affects our neuroreceptors in some way.  I just wasn't in the market for that drug this time.

Here's the super cool thing, though.  Because I wasn't reading for the angsty goodness, I actually paid attention to what the characters were saying to each other.  There are some pretty interesting philosophical debates going on in this book.  (It makes for rather clunky dialogue in places, but my eyes never rolled.)  My favorite was a discussion between Clare and David about the role of love in marriage.  He's being particularly cynical, insisting that women marry for financial security and not primarily for love.  Clare, who at 26 has been earning her own living for 8 years, disagrees.  "I've known several women whose standard of living went down with a jolt when they married."  This is the mid-60s, people.  Way to go, Anne Weale!

The other thread that weaves in and out of the book is the role that good looks play in a woman's life.  Weale clearly wants us to see Clare as a good person, not merely attractive.  Yes, she's beautiful, but when Paul suggests she should have been a model, she dismisses the supposed glamour; girls she knew who modeled ended up with fallen arches and badly stressed; it's not an easy or pleasant job.  Clare helps the vicar's daughter, Penny, make the most of her pale English looks, even sewing her a frock for the ball.  Penny's in love with Paul Mallinson, of course, but Weale doesn't pair them up by the end of the book.  She really doesn't approve of Paul; I suspect she thought Penny too good (and too young) for him.  An actual movie starlet shows up for the village fete; she's also lovely, but David's not attracted to her, and Clare's not particularly concerned about Paul's feelings for the woman.  When Paul says the actress wasn't very interesting as a person, Clare basically shrugs.  She's not surprised because good looks are no predictor of a woman's character, good or bad.

In Weale's philosophy, women's looks and their characters are unrelated, and so Penny isn't a better person when she looks prettier, she's just demonstrating common sense.  Clare's beauty stokes David's attraction to her, but it fuels his contempt as well.  He fights his attraction (we never get David's POV, but he explains himself pretty succinctly at the denouement) because Clare's beauty reminds him too much of the witch who threw him over while he was in hospital (and who ran off with a war-profiteer -- think Halliburton -- and informed David by letter delivered on the day they were to have been married).  That sort of evilness is just what beautiful women do, he thinks; getting him to see Clare as more than a beautiful woman is that last step needed.  Oh, and getting past his pride.

Discussion topic:  Aunt Leo says, "Pride is the enemy of love."  What do we think about this?  I could argue it either way, but I suspect I'm building things into the concept of "pride" when I do so.