Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Sound of Love

Hardly a new idea, of course, but don't you think it's just a matter of time before our ereaders (by then, I figure even I'll own one) have hypertext that links to a photo, a video, or music?  Maybe not to the models who posed for the cover photo -- how many of us think they look like the protagonists? -- but to something the author really wanted us to see or hear.

In the case of Simply Unforgettable, the hypertext link might be to this:

But before you click, if you've got the Balogh book handy, go find it.  Don't worry, we'll wait.

Okay, flip to page 144.  Lucius Marshall and Frances Allard have met, been stranded in a snowstorm, shared laughter and passion in a surprisingly isolated inn, separated and not quite been able to forget each other.  Frances teaches music and French at Miss Martin's School for Girls in Bath, so when Lucius travels to Bath to visit with his grandfather, the Earl of Edgecombe, he is determined not to look for Frances.

Meanwhile, Frances has no idea Lucius is in Bath.  She accepts an invitation to sing at a musical soirée, and this is the piece of music she selects.  She's accompanied by a single pianoforte (not the historically-correct instruments you hear in the recording above); when she starts singing "I Know My Redeemer Liveth," even the non-musical guests in the card room quiet and listen.  Lucius is transported by this anonymous voice.

When I got to this scene, I had to find my own copy of the Handel Messiah, a 1987 recording with Kathleen Battle.  Battle's voice is so exquisite, it conveyed precisely that sense of extraordinary beauty where one was expecting only a nice soprano.  Lucius doesn't fall in love with Frances on the strength of her voice alone; he had taken that tumble in a snowdrift months earlier.  But he learns something unexpected about her, and that both enrages him and entrances him.  The rage comes from the fact she never told him.  (When he confronts her about this omission, she points out that she could hardly have stated, "I have a singing voice that might impress you," or woken him with an aria.)  Lucius spends a lot of time angry at Frances, a fact that in other books might have annoyed me a lot, but here seemed consistent with his age and temperament.

I thought a lot about age while I was reading Simply Unforgettable.  Lucius's 17-year-old sister, Amy, is a solid presence in this book.  At one point I thought: she's only six years younger than Frances but they're worlds apart in their maturity.  Amy's not a frivolous girl, just understandably anxious to be grown up and out in the world.  But she seems very young compared to Frances, who had a difficult time after her father died when she was 18 and seems to have grown up a lot in the intervening five years.

Those six years -- from 17 to 23 -- are supposedly significant years for women in early 19th century.  If the mythology of Regency romance novels is to be believed, a female is a girl at 17, ready for her come out at 18, still marriageable at 19-20, and on the shelf older than that.  Twenty-three today strikes many of us as young, but back then it was "old."  Of course that's nonsense -- in both directions.  There are a lot of factors that go into a woman's sense of herself and her age, such that some 20-somethings are mature and responsible today, while women at the same age 200 years ago would still have been girlish, possibly even silly.

Balogh likes older heroines, and why not?  Even back then, not everyone thought a woman over 25 to be "on the shelf" and "an antidote."  I gather these themes will be explored in subsequent Simply books.  One thing is clear from Simply Unforgettable -- talent needs time and maturity to grow.  Had Lucius heard Frances sing Handel when she was eighteen, he might not have had the same reaction he had in Bath.  Regardless of what ton might have thought about their respective ages, they wouldn't -- either of them -- have been ready for their romance.

P.S.  Late in the book, Frances sings the Messiah excerpt and "Let the Bright Seraphim" from the opera Samson.  Here's Renée Fleming singing the latter:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Exploring New Worlds

I understand now why paranormal romances tend to develop into series -- you only need the reader to learn all the jargon, backstory, logistics, and contrivances once.  After that, the reader is returning to a familiar world; you might add more details but you don't have to start from scratch.

The problem with this system is the work the reader has getting through that first book, particular if the paranormal or fantasy element is not one for which we already know the mythology.  Vampires: yup, they drink blood (or its substitute); werewolves change into wolves either volitionally or at the full moon (or both), and so forth.

What about sylphs?  Anyone?  Nope, me neither.  All I could think of was the ballet, Les Sylphides, although I see now that there are two ballets and only the La Sylphide version has a plot to explain what a sylph is.  (According to that story, the sylph is a forest fairy that can disappear at will or take human form.)

Here's a picture, courtesy of Flickr:

Ethereal white-blond hair, killer bod, and Victoria's Secret satin bustier.  Works for me.

But in Lori McDonald's first sylph book, The Battle Sylph, there's a bit more to the mythology.  I've only read 20% of the book -- which is rather the point.  This post isn't about spoilers or the avoidance thereof, it's about all the front-end loaded stuff you need to learn about the world the author's built.  If you've read the book, this will remind you; if you haven't read it, this may be a useful primer.

Our first human character is Devon.  He has an air sylph named Airi.  (We get the impression later that the naming element -- critical to the ownership and control of a sylph -- is not a choice a person gets to linger over.  Which could explain why some of the names sylphs end up with seem a bit unimaginative.)  Airi is female but not especially corporeal.  No love match brewing there.

Which is the first thing I started thinking about.  With vampires and werewolves, we actually expect human/creature romance.  ("Creature" isn't intended to be pejorative; I just can't think of a more value-neutral noun that doesn't presuppose humanity.)  As soon as a character -- who thinks, feels, connects, etc. -- isn't human, that doesn't preclude a romance but it opens a bunch of questions.  Given that every male in romances these days is very sexual, I'm thinking the absence of a body is a deal-breaker.

Nonetheless, Devon and Airi have a nice relationship.  Somewhere between having a best friend-who's-a-girl-but-not-my-type-if-you-know-what-I-mean and having a dog.  They talk telepathically because, even though it's standard that sylphs be ordered not to speak, Devon is an enlightened owner.

The concept of owning a creature doesn't precisely pin down the historical era this novel is trying to evoke, but in the first few pages, we have a castle (complete with ramparts), trade ships, men on horseback, and a cart.  Not definitive, but I'm thinking it's the Middle Ages, roughly.  Later clothing choices seem to confirm this.  Just picture the movie The Princess Bride and you'll get close enough.

Devon isn't mentioned on the back cover blurb.  Only our human heroine, Solie, shows up on the back cover by name -- along with the titular battle sylph she comes to own.  The way she comes to own him is from a battle sylph capture gone wrong.  McDonald has some fun with this bit, although it's not a nice image.  Ordinarily, what happens is a human female virgin is captured, stripped, tied down and then the castle door is opened.  In sweeps the battle sylph, then the intended owner kills the sacrificial virgin, names the battle sylph and the deed is done.  Mind you, the battle sylph HATES his new owner, but the deed is done all the same.

In Solie's case, she gets snatched on the way to visit her decidedly independent aunt, a baker in a nearby village.  Aunt Masha has armed Solie with a knife cunningly fitted into a butterfly barrette, so when the time comes for the idiot prince to kill Solie and get the battle sylph for himself, she stabs and kills him instead.  Yay!  She's not stupid (of course she's not stupid; she's the heroine) so she's paid attention to the explanation to the late-prince about the importance of naming the battle sylph.  After killing the prince, she figures she had better name the creature herself.

"Hey, you," she says.  He's been named -- Heyou.

Okay, so at this point, I was a bit troubled.  Who used the expression, "Hey, you," before, say, the past 50 years?  It sounds modern and even a bit trendy.  It does not sound at all consistent with a landscape out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I don't expect the dialogue to be in Middle English but it seemed jarring to flash on a snippet of dialogue from Pretty Woman under the circumstances.  (Incidentally, I'm wrong.  Here's evidence that "hey" as an informal word to attract attention existed in the early 13th century.  So at least theoretically the words "hey" and "you" could have been strung together, allowing for accepted levels of transliteration to modern spellings.)

Heyou takes Solie off, rescuing her from the castle.  For the first time, we get Heyou's POV and learn more about how sylphs live and operate.  It's a hive system, with a queen at the center.  Battle sylphs have all kinds of special (if alarming) powers and attributes.  (Teeth made of lightning remain my personal fave.)  Solie, like Devon, is an enlightened owner who doesn't order Heyou as much as give him choices.  We might question that wisdom, given that he can flatten half a village in a fight, but still...

We also learn more about battle sylphs.  They are noncorporeal but can take human form.  They're male and when in human form know precisely what to do with the dangly bits.  They're amorous and unless they have been expressly ordered to do or not do a specific thing, all bets are off.  They're all about working the angles and finding the loopholes.

The Battle Sylph took off, for me, when we got to know Ril, a battle sylph belonging to the king's head of security, Leon.  Ril hates Leon because Leon killed Ril's queen (i.e., the virginal sacrifice used in Ril's capture), but Leon has daughters, and Ril -- permanently in the form of a bird of prey -- lurves those girls.  He finds sneaky ways to communicate with them without violating the letter of his orders from Leon, and his longing for the girls, and theirs for him, is so heartbreaking that I could happily have left Solie, Devon, Airi and Heyou to their own devices and just followed Ril around.  Bring back the Bird!

That's pretty much as far as I've gotten -- not very far vis a vis the plot, but a long way in exploring McDonald's sylphian world, necessary first steps to enjoying the story.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

TBR Tuesday -- What Was I Thinking?

This is a bit of a cheat, this post, because I'm not going to talk about the TBR book I'm currently reading.  That's Savor The Moment by Nora Roberts.  Basically, if you want to know what I think about it, go read my post here, only change the heroine's name to Laurel and the hero's name to Del.  Same diff.  This is not a criticism -- I am enjoying Savor just as much as its predecessors in the Bride Quartet and I'm still good for one more (the one in which queen bee Parker falls for ooh, Mal -- "poor" working stiff Mal, who's maybe not got a trust fund but did have a lucrative career in Hollywood and owns his own business).

But before I started Savor, I reread a book for the first time in close to 40 years.  Swift Water by Emilie Loring.  This is a truly bad book with only one redeeming virtue, namely that it is now a "historical" novel written as a contemporary.  It's set in New England (southwestern Connecticut, I think, based on how long it takes our heroine to drive her roadster from Fifth Avenue to her dad's place in the fictional town of Garston) in the late 20s, clearly before the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Thus, all the cant, costumes, and characterizations are presumably historically accurate.  Doesn't make it a good book, mind you.

I wrote recently about keepers.  I have read most of Emilie Loring's books but this is the only one I kept.  I thought I knew why; I thought it was because there was one delicious scene chock full of angsty goodness.  I am here today to tell you that angsty goodness does not always stand the test of time.  These Old Shades was published three years earlier than Swift Water -- its angsty goodness is still divine.  Not so here.

Ah, but you want to know about the plot.  [It is at this point that I wish I was naturally funny because there's a lot of raw material here.  But I'll have to leave the o_O reactions to the many funnier people on Twitter and the Interwebz.]  Our heroine is Jean Randolph, the distinctly high-strung only child of Hugh "Hughie" Randolph and an absent mother who is a famous author making scads of money and living on Fifth Avenue.  Jean's maternal grandmother, La Contessa di Fanfani (aka The Glorious Fanfani, World Renowned Opera Singer) just happens to live in a separate wing of Hughie's house, Hill Top.  (Incidentally, if you looked at the name "Hill Top," added the titular swift water and concluded that there would be a flood before the book ended but Hill Top would be spared, give yourself top marks for predicting obvious plot devices!)

Hughie (Jean's absurd childhood name for her pater) and mom have lived apart for years but won't get divorced because mom's fans might take a divorce amiss.  Uh, okay.  But Hughie's got a secret pash for Constance, the older sister of our hero, Christopher Wynne.  (Did you predict the death of author-mom in the flood, clearing the way for Hughie and Con to marry?  Good job.)  Christopher is the town's only man-of-the-cloth, the minister of a cunning if absurd conceit: the nondenominational community church, literally the amalgam of all the town's churches.  In that way, I figure, all Protestant readers will feel a kinship with the characters of the book, none of whom is Catholic or *gasp* worse.

So far, no one is too too bizarre.  Yes, La Contessa is way over the top but who knows, maybe opera stars back then were OTT.  Ah, but I've saved the best for last.  We have some truly risible characters.  Let's start with Jean herself.  In the opening scene, she speeds through town in her roadster (yellow, the better to set off her sleek black hair); when a man in uniform tries to stop her, she speeds up and almost hits him.  Yeah, I wasn't happy with this meet cute either.  (Sorry, you didn't guess that the man in the uniform was Christopher and the uniform was his WWI uniform complete with caduceus?  Yeah, that confused me too, until it was explained that he had been a physician before his decision to become a nondenominational Episcopal priest minister.  Oh, but surely you would have predicted that he also sings divinely and that La Contessa is convinced he would be an internationally famous opera star like her if only he'd give up his ministry?  And so she schemes, although it serves absolutely no purpose for the plot, unlike Jean's decision as a child to learn to play the organ.  Wow.  Music programs must have been a bit more ambitious in those days.)

Where was I?  Oh, yes, so they meet cute, but the problems start immediately.  Jean doesn't go to church.  No, don't gasp yet.  That's okay, but when she finds out that every unmarried woman for miles around attends the Garston church just because they've all got crushes on the divine Divine, she vows never to set foot in the church because of a man.  She even bets her roadster on it.  Here's the part you should gasp at:  Jean wouldn't marry a minister if he were the last man on earth!  (Ooh, fate just started printing the wedding invites, don't you think?)

Cue the other man (Harvey Brooke, who does actually babble, now that I think of it), the other woman (Sue Calvin, whose father Luther Calvin -- his rigidity and overt religiosity were preordained at the baptismal font -- holds the purse strings), some meddlesome teenage girls, a bank robber, a hypochondriac parishioner, and a whole lot of rain.  Jean is really bad news; the line between high spirits and neurotic narcissism is just not that fine, and she's definitely on the wrong side.  And it takes her a really long time to figure out that the reason she takes up carillon playing (so easy when one already knows how to play the organ) is that when the flood (of Biblical proportions!) comes, she will play the carillon until she can play no more, and then Hughie, Harvey & the divine Divine will all show up and rescue her, but only after Christopher confesses that only her bells kept him from drowning off the roof of the hypochondriac's house with the bank robber clinging to the other side.  Of the roof.

Sorry.  Is this not making sense?  Um, yes, well, there may be a good reason for that.

Okay, so no one read this book.  This is a bad book.  Of course, you might laugh.  I don't know.  I didn't laugh.  I got really impatient and wanted The Good Bits, which as pages went by I downgraded to The Good Bit and finally just The Angst.  Only if it was ever there -- and it must have been because c'mon I've been packing & unpacking this book for decades, people! -- it's not now.

What was I thinking?

Oh, but here's the one beacon of light, the one Proustian taste of the past:  My copy is one of the Bantam reissues from the late 60s and early 70s of all Emilie Loring's romances.  Swift Water is number 39 (I couldn't find a picture of SW, with its very Episcopal priest-looking hero and bizarrely cougar-ish heroine in a massive fur coat, sorry; but here's the amusingly titled Gay Courage, number 38, featuring the middle-aged  host of a fishing show and a 1960s era go-go dancer) and mid-way through rereading it, I noticed the distinctive typography of the hollow numbers in the upper right hand corner.

All of a sudden, I flashed on trips to Kresge's, one of three dime stores on State Street in Schenectady, NY and my favorite because it sold series romances.  That number in the upper right hand corner told me if it was a book I hadn't bought already.  That number was important.  Back then, Harlequin had only four titles a month, which for an avid if undiscriminating reader like me was barely enough to keep me going.  Thus, I bought everything I could:  Barbara Cartland, Emilie Loring, even some Grace Livingstone Hill.  All chaste, all poorly written (compared to my belle ideal, Betty Neels) but they were romance novels.  And I was an addict.

So that explains what I was thinking:  I wasn't.  Now, as to why I kept this book for 40 years?  Who knows.  I don't.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rereading the Classics (and some more thoughts about sex)

In the course of researching my keeper contemporaries I finally found my copy of Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades.  I'd been missing it, in the sense that when someone mentioned it a few weeks ago, I went looking for it and couldn't find it.  So, in that odd quirk we readers have sometimes, when I found it on Friday, I had to reread it.  Immediately.

Understand, I have read this book several times already.  Mine is a Bantam edition from 1970 or thereabouts.  (It cost 75 cents -- there's a clue how old it is.)  It's my favorite Heyer and it's a joy to reread.  Knowing the plot ruins nothing.  (Oh, which reminds me.  I'm going to discuss this book pretty thoroughly, so if you don't already know it and don't want the surprise (if there are any) to be ruined, stop reading pretty soon.  There be spoilers ahead!)

But first, a word about sex.  Or, to be precise, four words:
. . . her lips met his.
because that's all the sex there is in this book.  Worried I left the good bits out with that ellipsis?  Here's the entire passage:
  His Grace looked deep into her eyes, and then went down on one knee, and raised her hand to his lips.
  "Little one," he said, very low, "since you will stoop to wed me, I pledge you my word that you shall not in the future have cause to regret it."
  An insistent hand tugged at his shoulder.  He rose, and opened wide his arms.  Léonie flung herself into them, and they closed about her, and her lips met his.

There you go.  There's lots more hand-kissing elsewhere, but it's all gallantry and thus not sex, just as Avon's kissing Léonie's hand here is not sex.

Ah, but we know they are going to be sexually compatible.  His Grace the Duke of Avon is sans doute a Duke of Slut.  Léonie has a ferocious temper (red hair, you know), so we know she's not frigid.  But there isn't a bulge, peaking body part or discreet rearrangement of equipment in the entire book.

The absence of sex is consistent with a book originally published in 1926.  Heyer's not unaware of the sexual peccadilloes of the historical period; but she's a creature of her time and one simply didn't write of such matters.  Today, we do.  But if you read These Old Shades anytime soon, ask yourself this as you finish the last page:  did you miss the sex?  Was the book flawed without the sex?  Anemic?  Tepid?  Boring??

I personally don't think so. I think this is a wonderful romance, well-deserving of its classic status.  I get something new every time I read it.  For example, this time I noticed that the POV is close to omniscient.  We are being told a story, but not from inside anyone's head.  We learn what a character thinks in just a couple scenes, but those thoughts are presented as equivalent to dialogue.  Again, I don't think we miss it; Heyer does a wonderful job of telegraphing what our protagonists are thinking and feeling.  Lots of showing as opposed to telling.

Here's another thing I noticed.  This book is sublimely constructed.  Let me give you an example.  The Duke of Avon "buys" Léon to be his page because he recognizes her family resemblance to the villain, the Comte de Saint-Vire, a man Avon has his own reasons for despising.  At some point, Avon's desire for revenge strengthens because he learns what Léonie was subjected to as a result of Saint-Vire's villainy.  We don't see it right away, but gradually his icy rage at what Léonie suffered supplants Avon's original reason for seeking Saint-Vire's downfall until finally, when someone mentions the original 20-year-old grudge, Avon has completely forgotten it.

That's a subtle point, but necessary for us to see how Avon has come to love Léonie.  He no longer wants Saint-Vire's destruction for himself, but as justice for his beloved.  Of course, rumors swirl about that Léonie is Saint-Vire's base-born child -- both inside the inner circle of Avon's household, but also in society.  But Avon doesn't seek an admission that Léonie is legitimate so that she will be a suitable duchess, he does it so that the life stolen from her will be restored.  He is so certain that he himself is not worthy of her that he becomes blind to all evidence that her devotion is not a passing whim.  

I read the penultimate scene -- the one with our one chaste kiss, above -- with admiration for Heyer's understanding of human psychology.  Avon goes rushing off to find Léonie, but when he finds her, all he can think to do is deliver her to her biological family and renounce her in his own life.  It's actually pretty selfish on his part although he thinks he's being selfless (for once!) -- he is so wrapped up in his own insistence that he must give her up that he can't see how she only wants him.  A more generous person might have found it easier to give Léonie what she really wanted and said, "well, I'm a bad bet but if you are sure . . ."

The irony that Avon's beau geste -- in which he selfishly denies her what she wants solely because it is also what he wants -- makes sense because he knows self-indulgence has too often been his besetting sin and thus one of the many things that keeps him from being good enough for her.  

He gives her several jewels and trinkets (not to mention a fabulous array of frocks) during the time she lives in his household, first as his page and then as his ward.  When he finds her and explains that she is Mademoiselle de Saint-Vire, she asks why he didn't tell her sooner.  He says,
  "I thought to use you as a weapon to -- er -- punish [Saint-Vire] for something -- he had done to me."
  "Is -- is that why -- why you made me your ward, and gave me so many, many things?" she asked in a small voice.
  He rose and went to the window, and stood looking out.
  "Not entirely," he said, and forgot to drawl.

(emphasis added.) Now, if you're like me, you don't even read the speech tags.  But that one, "he said, and forgot to drawl," is so sublimely simple and eloquent.  It sums up everything about this man -- his deliberate manner and intentional rudeness -- and strips it away to reveal his heart.  He loves her but can't have her.  Giving Léonie gifts was permissible; marrying her would not be.

I'm not sure if I made the connection before now, but Justin Alistair, Duke of Avon (surely the granddaddy of all romance novel dukes!), is another in the Sherlock Holmes / House / Detective Goren school of omniscient heroes.  In fact, when I picture him, he comes out a bit like this:

(only twenty years younger, of course -- this photo might serve well for one's image of His Grace around the time of Devil's Cub).

That's Thomas Blanco White, my first father-in-law (technically my only father-in-law; he died before Brit Hub 1.0 and I divorced, and Brit Hub 2.0's father died in 1982, long before I met his son).  Thomas was a Sherlock Holmes-ish sort of fellow; at least he wanted you to think he was.  Here's his obituary in the Times of London; there's a sense in there of how Thomas might have reminded someone of the Duke of Avon.  (I stole the photo from here -- don't think the humor of stealing intellectual property from the IP Hall of Fame website is lost on me.)

Thomas was an impressive man to meet, but my favorite memories of him are from 2005 when Brit Hub 1.0 and I stayed in London for about three weeks while Anne was in hospital to have her hip replaced.  Thomas was nearly deaf at that point, so I would write him notes.  Turned out, that was the only time in the 35 years I knew him that he ever understood what I was saying; I learned after he died that he couldn't understand my American accent, not even when his hearing was fine.  Being American, I could ask him all sorts of questions no one British (which is to say, polite) would dream of asking him.  He was quite poignant talking about his love for his wife, even though I never saw them even touch each other.

They do fall in love, these Holmesian ducal types.

[I hesitate to state this explicitly, but just in case anyone got thinking too hard about this: Thomas may have been a bit ducal in his demeanor but his widow is not and never was anything like Léonie, neither Brit Hub 1.0 or his brother was anything like Dominic in Devil's Cub, and I never shot anyone.  Just saying.]

Friday, May 21, 2010

Swappable Books - And a Contest!

I conducted an unscientific experiment today.  I went down to my "keeper" bookshelves and counted all of the series contemporaries that were published by companies or lines now nestled under the corporate umbrella known as Harlequin Enterprises.  So, Silhouettes, Mills & Boon, and Harlequins -- I counted them all.

My real purpose was to divide them up by decade of publication by the original publisher.  I segregated the Betty Neels books simply because they otherwise overwhelm the sample.

Here's what I found:
From the 1960s: 10 (3 BN)
From the 1970s:  5 (43 BN)
From the 1980s:  35 (37 BN)
From the 1990s:  25 (46 BN)
From the 2000s:  4 (6 BN)
From 2010: none

There are some surprises here -- where are all the Mills & Boon and Harlequins from the seventies?  I would have thought I had more than a dozen Anne Hampsons and Anne Mathers and Anne Weales (all those Annes!) but if I did, I don't any more.  I hadn't realized I had so many (relatively speaking) books from the 1960s; mostly I was surprised that some of the books I love actually date back that far; their plots and characters seemed less dated (at least in my memory).

What doesn't surprise me is that I have so few books from the 2000s.  Of the four I have, two are by Linda Howard and two by Gina Wilkins -- both authors much better represented in the 80s and 90s.  What that means is I have no keepers among authors who a) write series contemporaries and b) got started in the late 90s or 2000s.

I do read those books.  I know this because I have 23 recent series contemporaries listed at PaperBackSwap.  They were all well recommended on AAR or elsewhere; one was even in someone's top ten list for 2009.  I enjoyed them all.  None is a keeper.  In fact, the idea for this post came as I was reading Nancy Warren's Under the Influence, a DIK at AAR.  I loved the book, was glad I got it, but I won't keep it.  There's nothing in there I need to hold onto for future rereading.  It's a swappable book.

What's up with this?  Why do I have 75 keepers from the last century and only 4 from the past decade?  Well, as we know, correlation is not the same as causation, so one thing I don't know for a fact is that Harlequin Enterprises isn't publishing as many keeper series contemporaries as they did back in the 80s and 90s.  That may turn out to be a true statement, but there are a lot of reasons why it might not be.  Let me count the ways:

§    I might not have kept a vast majority of the books I currently have shelved as "keepers" if I'd bought them in the 2000s.  I know it's not the null set -- I have reread a few of them recently enough to know they aren't going anywhere! -- but it could be a teeny-tiny number compared to what's there now.  Similarly, I might have kept most or all of the 23 books from the 2000s I'm offering to swap, had I read them back in the day.  That's just a fancy way of saying, I've grown up and my tastes have changed.

That's all okay, but it misses a key point.  As I've previously discussed here, I love angsty goodness, and a lot of the books (>30%, I'd guess) of the contemporaries I've held onto have lots of angsty goodness.  At that rate, I ought to have found a few angsty books among the 23 I'm swapping, but it's not happened.  Sex, yes -- there are body parts mentioned *by name* that weren't even hinted at back in the 80s! -- but not delicious angst.  I dunno, maybe the recommendations didn't reflect angst -- but that's not really evidence that there are other, angsty 21st century contemporaries out there that I'm missing because I didn't see the recommendations for them.

§   Contemporaries are out of favor, so the caliber of writing found in Harlequin or Silhouette series novels in the 80s and 90s is now found in paranormals or YA or urban fiction.  I guess I don't understand this argument, given the assumption we all have about the vast number of writers submitting to agents or directly to Harlequin.  Harlequin/Silhouette/M&B publishes dozens of contemporaries every month, and that number must pale in comparison to the number of writers' manuscripts that get rejected.   People are writing contemporaries and people are reading contemporaries, so why aren't more of the series contemporaries out there better?  Why aren't more of them up to the standards of Glenda Sanders or Barbara Delinsky, say?

§  I'm too fussy.  Well, that is a true statement, and maybe it explains why I'm swapping 23 books that others have opted to keep.  A corollary proposition may also be true, namely that as I'm trying to write a contemporary -- a book I rather suspect I wouldn't "keep" unless it undergoes some major "personality implants" in the second and third drafts! -- I'm going to be hypercritical of others' efforts in the same genre.  Hey, I may be the problem here.  That's always a plausible answer!

So here's the challenge/opportunity to my readers:

Recommend an angsty series contemporary from 2000 to today that I won't be able to swap and so will make me eat my words!  If I've already read it (and it's thus one of the 23 waiting for a new & loving home at PBS), I'll tell you and you can suggest an alternate title.  If it isn't, I'll get the book, read it & discuss it here at Promantica.  I'll even eat my words (if they can be written on Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies...).

The winner -- the first person to suggest a series contemporary published in the 2000s that I want to keep -- will get a prize: a $20 (or approximate value in the currency of your choice) gift certificate to the book store of your choice.

Here's the fine print:  one recommendation per commenter, comments will be logged by date & time and I'll read the books in the order in which they were suggested, all comments must be logged by June 1, 2010.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

TBR Tuesday -- SuperTrooper Liam Campbell

I have a confession to make.  I've already admitted to being a cranky reader but I need to admit I'm awfully casual with my choices here at Promantica.  Last week, I wrote about Laura Leone's book, Fallen From Grace.  I didn't hate the book; I actually enjoyed reading it.  When I wrote about it, though, I focused on the bits I didn't like.  I may have given you a negative impression of the book.  That wasn't my intention; I just didn't feel like writing about the daring choice Leone made in having a male prostitute as the hero, for example.  Blogging is easier if I write about what interests me.

Today, I'm going to write nice things about a book I didn't love.  Again, why?  I don't know.  They're the bits that caught my attention.  Like this description of the hero, putting on his uniform nearly at the end of the book:
And then he put on his uniform -- light blue shirt, dark blue slacks with a gold stripe down the outside of each leg, dark blue tie -- adjusting badge and nameplate, buckling on his belt and holster, shrugging into the shiny dark blue jacket, getting the round crown of the flat-brimmed hat just so.

Six pages later, the murderer sees Liam in his uniform:
Liam's appearance in uniform had been noticed before.  "The man's a walking recruitment poster," [his boss] had told a colleague privately, and it was true.  Liam didn't just put on his uniform, he merged with it.  When the last snap was fastened and the hat set just so, Liam Drusus Campbell became an Alaska state trooper from the bone marrow out.  The uniform was sword and buckler, an outward manifestation of the full power and majesty of the law, with Liam as its tool.  In uniform, Liam looked capable, incorruptible, and virtually invincible.
To [the murderer], he looked like the wrath of God.

Here's what I love about this.  Liam's our hero; the book's written almost entirely from his POV; we know nothing unless Liam was there to learn it first.  So for 270 pages, he's naked in a metaphorical sense, stumbling around (for a lot of different reasons) struggling to figure out his new posting.  Then he figures out whodunnit -- and also where he can press his own uniform.  At which point, he's invincible.

That one decision, to suggest he didn't pack his uniform in such a way that it could survive the flight from Anchorage to his new posting in fictional Newenham without getting hideously wrinkled, may be implausible, but it's necessary so that we see Liam as human and even a bit frail before he turns back into SuperTrooper.

(Went looking for a Flickr Photo of an Alaska State Trooper and here's what I came up with:

I can see why that was a photo op.  For both of them.)

Moving on.  The first book in Dana Stabenow's Liam Campbell series is Fire ad Ice.  Even the title gets a nice, late-in-the-book revelation, all about how fire destroys more quickly but they both get the job done.  And there's a lovely bit about how "Fate has to be a woman because men aren't smart enough to be that mean."
No, no, you're walking the straight and narrow, coping, productive, content, maybe even happy, and Fate comes along and says, "My, don't you look smug," and gives you a big shove and the next thing you know you're wandering around in the wilderness with no idea where you are or where you're going.  You can try to figure out where you've been and how you got there but that's pushing it.  All you can really do is feel your way through the brambles and pray you see daylight before you get cut to shreds.

It doesn't help your forward progress that during all this time you can hear Fate laughing at you.

He'd like to meet up with Fate in a dark alley sometime, he thought . . .  With a club in one hand.

He'd like that a lot.

I suppose you could rate Fire and Ice on three criteria: as a police procedural mystery, as the first in a series with an engaging protagonist and a hint of romance, and as a book about a foreign (to most of us) location.  It's not a great mystery, or at least I've read better.  It's an okay start to the series: I certainly came to love Liam by the end (the uniform gets a big thumbs-up!), but Stabenow has some heavy lifting to get Wyanet Chouinard, the love interest, up to snuff.  All the same, I am looking forward to So Sure of Death, book 2.  Be sure to read this one first, though, for that slow build up to the uniform.  (I don't have a thing for uniforms, really I don't.  You all know my type: brainy Brits who do cryptic crossword puzzles.) 

Finally, for me the descriptions of Newenham, a fishing village on Bristol Bay (fictional, but a glance at a map suggests it's based on Dillingham) were interesting, particularly as it's a part of Alaska that I didn't see as a tourist or watching The History Channel's show Tougher in Alaska (with the deliciously named Geo Beach).  I told Ross when he moved to the US that "everything is bigger and better" in America.  But if that's true, certainly everything is bigger in Alaska: land mass, coastline, mountains, and wild animals.

In Fire and Ice, though, we read about the smallness in Alaska: how interwoven the lives are of the people who live there, the limits on their options and opportunities, the pettiness of the motives.  But with all the crimes solved and the nasty element removed, the town seems intriguing and worth a second visit.  There are some characters in Fire and Ice I'll enjoy meeting again, starting with Liam in his uniform. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

In Paralysis: A Dream About Writer's Block

I've noticed some blog posts elsewhere about writer's block.  I actually have nothing helpful to say on the subject, so if you're a writer and have or have had writer's block, look further.  I have no answers.  Just a desire to describe my own experience.

Here's what I finally realized.  I'm afraid of three things simultaneously.  Any one of them would probably be sufficient to fuel writer's block; the three together are doing dirty, nasty things to my insides.  So, of course, I thought I'd blog about them.

Fear Number 1:  Fear of Rejection

This is pretty easy to explain.  My grandfather called it ordeal by market: you try to sell something that is, essentially, a part of yourself.  But you're selling it to people who can't afford to view it as anything other than another widget they would need to sell in a huge widget market.  It's not personal to them; widgets come in different colors and patterns, but all that really matters is whether this particular widget will sell.

So I'm afraid to write anything that's going to be rejected and deemed unmarketable.  Also contributing to this fear is my reading.  I read something pretty crappy and I think, "Oh, wow -- if that got published, and I get rejected, my work must be even worse than that." 

Fear of rejection is just fear of getting hurt.  We're hard-wired to fear getting physically hurt, to flinch or duck as the occasion requires.  That's actually smart genetic programing.  But no one will actually punch me when they reject my manuscript or refuse to represent me.  They'll just hurt my feelings.

I should have a thicker skin, built out of a logical analysis of publishing trends and percentages.  I shouldn't take it personally.  I shouldn't feel vulnerable with every scene I write that it will be deemed boring and lackluster.  (That's my current specific anxiety, by the way.)

I shouldn't.  But I do.

Fear Number 2:  Fear of Success

There's a theory that there is no such beast as "fear of success," that all humans want to succeed.  If I think I'm afraid of success, I'm actually wrong; what I fear is failure.  Thus "success" is a gateway to more failure, and that's why it scares me.

I don't agree.  It would be pretty easy to construct a childhood scenario in which an impressionable child came to equate "success" with bad things -- like if he got hit every time he got an A in school.  But that's overkill.  As any writer (pretty much anyone I can think of) can attest, success is a bit like a multi-course meal where one is expected to eat it all, the good stuff and the bad stuff.  We all have those foods we love and those we dislike.  I might hate something another person adores, but I would have to eat my share.

Well, I may never find out what this particular dish tastes like, but I know I fear it nonetheless: exposure.  I get a few dozen readers here each day, on average.  I just assume you all know me.  You aren't strangers, even when you actually are strangers.  I trust you, and feel as though I know you.  I don't feel exposed when I post here, or encourage the handful of people who follow me on Twitter to come over and read what I've written.

But if I were to get published, thousands of people will be reading a book with my name on it.  If they hate the book (see fear of rejection, above), that's one thing.  But if they love it -- well, it sounds delicious, but it could also mean some subset of readers would think they love me.  I'm not talking about stalkers.  I don't expect to prompt that degree of devotion!  I'm talking about the way I feel with certain writers -- they suddenly interest me, and I want to know more.

That's one reason why writers have their own websites, so that they can control the information their readers and fans can access.  That's actually a comfort to me, because here at Promantica I'm very relaxed and happy.  I figure the website is just like a more static blog.  Easy peasy.  Until 1,000 people I don't know follow me on Twitter.  I understand a "platform" is a good thing, and I'm game.  I am.  I'm just terrified.

Fear Number 3:  Fear of Doing Nothing

In ten weeks, I'll be going to Orlando for RWA's national convention.  I've never been before, but I have been to professional conferences, so I'm aware how they work and what they're like.  I understand there will be opportunities to meet with agents and editors to "pitch" my book.  I understand I shouldn't pitch anything I haven't finished.  (Especially after this post!)

So, what if I don't finish it?  It doesn't have to be completely polished, but it does have to be done.  And it can be; I'm not a slow writer.  I'm just paralyzed with fear (see fear of rejection and fear of exposure, above) and thus not writing a lot.

I don't need to write for the money, although the money could be useful when the time comes to get rid of the 1970s blue porcelain bathroom fixtures downstairs.  (Trust me: they're ugly.)  I could even (radical concept!) get a real job with a real salary.  But I want to write novels.  I think I could be good at writing novels.  I might even be good enough to get published.  Just not if I never finish anything.


I'm afraid of failing, succeeding, and doing nothing.  It's no wonder I have writer's block.  But I know that all of what I've written here is nonsense.  Yes, it will hurt my feelings when I get rejected and yes, it would make me nervous to have more people know who I am.  But I've survived worse things, so why worry?  Just write; hands on keyboards/butts in chairs, right?

I had a dream last night in which a young woman (not me; I have "movie dreams" in which all of the characters are fictional) is kidnapped and held hostage in a large, rambling flat on the top floor.  One guy did the kidnapping, and it's his intention that she not leave.  He has two buddies; at first, they help keep the woman captive but gradually they wonder if they're doing the right thing.

Here's the crazy dream-logic part: she never checks to see the doors and windows aren't locked.  She can probably leave any time she wants, but she doesn't because she's convinced she can't escape.  In the end, one of the less villainous guys brings her a lot of crochet cotton in cream and purple (pretty sure the color isn't significant, but I thought I'd mention it) and a pattern to make elaborate lace decorations for a linen garment.  But it's a lot of crochet cotton, and the captive woman realizes she can crochet all that cotton into ropes that can be fashioned into a ladder so she can escape.  (Or she could just walk out the door of the flat and down the stairs.  It simply wouldn't be as dramatic.)

Here's a tip about dreams:  Everyone in them is really the dreamer.  So I'm the captive (hello, paralysis) but I'm also the kidnapper and his feckless friends.  I need to supply the raw materials for the captive to crochet (using a keyboard and word processing program, don't you think?) her way out of this situation.  I need to realize that it's stupid to kidnap a nice storyteller and think that solves anything.  (I have no idea why she was kidnapped; I'm still working on that question.)  I need to see that what feels like an inescapable prison is actually just a cluttered flat with three messy guys living there, and how likely is it they don't have a spare key lying around.

Most of all, I have got to see this as farce and not as a paralytically terrifying horror show.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Oddness Factor

Keira over at Love, Passion, Romance has six reasons why the hero more often ends up the paranormal character in a romance.  I don't disagree with any of that, but I approach this problem a bit differently than Keira does.

Let me start with why I think the heroine is not paranormal (generally, so Mercy Thompson fans can stop growling).  One of the things that romances do is offer hope.  Even if the reader is already gorgeous, mated and successful, most women I know are able to identify with a heroine who has some doubts or concerns about herself or her life.  In the course of a romance, such heroines usually discover their inner strength and capacity to love and be loved.  That story arc -- from doubt to fulfillment -- relies on the heroine being somewhere in the range of "normal."

If you give the heroine supernatural powers, if you make her paranormal, she's no longer normal.  She's not like the average reader.  (For the purposes of this post, I will blithely assume all readers are uh, human.)  A paranormal heroine is empowered by her supernatural abilities.  Frankly, in that situation, why bother with a romance at all.  Why not let a paranormal heroine go be gloriously paranormal?  I think for most of us, paranormal abilities would be sufficient for hope & change & happiness. 

Plus, who's the right hero for a paranormal heroine?  A human male?  Not in our alpha-male-dominated culture.  Another paranormal?  Yeah, I guess.  A tortured hero that the paranormal heroine can rescue?  Okay, but why does she need to be paranormal in that last scenario?  Make her human, him paranormal but tortured and you have . . . Twilight, or True Blood.

So that's my theory on why the heroine isn't paranormal.  What about why the hero is?  Well, apart from the obvious point that someone has to be paranormal or the author misses out on the whole paranormal craze, I think the answer is all about The Oddness Factor.  {cue the Twilight Zone music}

I'm going to assume here two facts that aren't absolute truths, just predictable probabilities: All authors and readers of paranormal romances are straight women.  And even the most insightful woman finds some of the men she knows to be odd.  "Odd" as in unpredictable, inexplicable, or just, well, odd.  They don't seem to get it, they're hard-wired in odd ways, they miss the obvious but still retain the ability to thrill or charm us.  We love men but damned if we can understand them let alone predict their actions.

I'm still trying to figure out Brit Hub 2.0.  He's a very bright guy but in a stressful situation he loses 50 IQ points right before my eyes.  It's like he's a superhero 24-7 who changes back to his dweeby alter-ego just as things get tense.  (Can you guess how annoying that is?  Thought so.)  But I adore him, and have accepted that I need to relax, shrug, smile, give him a little kiss and let him go back to being Superbrit.

I think we all have stories like that -- love our men as much as we might, they're still oddballs part of the time.  That's The Oddness Factor.  And what's odder than a 7-foot-tall hawt vampire, or a guy who changes into a wolf, or who's half-fae?  Not a lot.

I read Christine Warren's Big Bad Wolf recently.  It has a delectable premise:  The most alpha Lupine around falls for a kindergarten teacher who feels dowdy next to the supermodels he normally dates.  What can he say?  He took one whiff of her and knew immediately that her vanilla sugar cookie smell was IT for him.  He was mated.

[I could write more about Warren's book here, but I think it's the romance novel equivalent of "fur coat, no knickers" -- a great premise and not a lot else going on.  Because, if the alpha dog says you're mated, you're mated.  No escaping that.  Sorry if this is a spoiler, but basically the big reveal at the end is the hero saying, "I love you," to soothe her human heart.  It's too bad, because the book had a lot of promise.]

What struck me about Big Bad Wolf, though, was how delightfully odd the hero was.  As the title suggests, he's the reformed rake, the Duke of Slut after he's met his duchess, the hyper-sexual hero who can't imagine sleeping with anyone else once he's met The One.  Now, as a general rule, hyper-sexual males in the Real World aren't great bets as Happily Ever After material.  But in Romlandia, they are delicious fodder as heroes because the prospect of bringing the manslut to his knees is just too too divine.

Take all the oddness of a Real World male, sprinkle Fiction Dust on top, tap it with the Paranormal Wand, say the magic words, and Hey Presto: you've got vampires and shapeshifters and angels, etc.  They're odd in ways that remind us Real World women of the men we know.  They're capable of the biggest transformation known to women, namely turning a hot blooded & promiscuous male into a domesticated & devoted partner.  And they're loaded with special features: hyper-acute sense of smell (the better to adore the heroine's unique aroma), the experiences of centuries' worth of lovemaking (only to devote all that ability to making the heroine have multiple multiple orgasms), and anatomically superior genitals.

And that's why we like our paranormal heroes:  They're New & Improved men: Odder and better.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

TBR Tuesday: How to Argue in Books

I have a question:  How long does a book have to sit waiting to be read before it's officially in the TBR pile?  If I buy a book and read it right out of the Barnes & Noble bag, I gotta think that doesn't count for the TBR Tuesday post.  But a book that's been on the bench for ages counts.  Where's the cut-off?  A week?  Longer?

Anyway, I read The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt.  Gosh, I love her books.  They have a subtly distinctive voice, especially the Prince series, which takes place in 1760.  I've learned more euphemisms for the erect external male member...  I had actually started The Serpent Prince before I realized it wasn't the next one in the series.  This "mistake" gave me permission to read #2 and then go back to #3 even though, as a general rule, I try to space out series to avoid the "they are all the same" syndrome.  I just like Hoyt's books that much.

But in between the two princes, I read Fallen From Grace by Laura Leone.  I'm going to count this as a TBR Tuesday book even though I ordered it recently and so it's not been in the house long.  Perhaps because I'm so late to the party (this book was published in 2003), it feels like a TBR book.

Quick précis:  Sara Diamond, a 35-year-old writer who has just been cut loose by her publisher, moves into an apartment building so reminiscent of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City that its address might as well have been on Barbary Lane.  Her apartment's front door is across the hall from Ryan Kinsmore's front door, but they share a balcony.  (It took me a while to figure out a floor plan configuration that would allow that, but I managed it.)  Ryan is a 26-year-old male prostitute.

Sara & Ryan fall in love.  Which isn't the thing that interests me about this book.  What interests me is how characters in this book argue.  Take Sara and her sister, Miriam.  Sara throws a housewarming party that lasts into the wee hours, and Miriam stays to help clean up.  Miriam announces that she's a lesbian and that her friend, Jan, is really her lover.  Sara takes this news badly.  Here's a snippet of that fight:
  [Sara] took a breath.  "Okay, I'm sorry.  I guess I'm not taking this very well."
  "Gee, y'think?"
  "But you've really kicked my legs out from under me," Sara said.
  "Right.  Because God forbid you should have a sister who's a lesbian."
  "I didn't mean it that way."
  "Didn't you?" Miriam challenged.
  "What did you expect me to say?"
  "Pretty much this, in fact!  You are so uptight, Sara!"
  "Miriam, that's not f--"
  "But I guess I hoped that because you've found someone," Miriam said, "you'd be happy that I've found someone."
  "Look, I just really never expected --"
  "Of course, that was before I knew --
  "--that your 'someone' --"
  "--that you don't even have the guts to tell Ryan how you feel about him!"
  "--was another woman!"

and so on.  I have a couple problems with this exchange but even less credible to me was the scene 20 pages later where the sisters make up, using phrases like "I was confrontational and defensive," with (one can only assume) a straight face.  Apologies, in my experience, never sound like they were prompted by Dr. Phil (more's the pity).

Of course people fight in different ways.  I recall visiting a friend's family when I was in college and discovering myself in one corner of their living room, my friend in another corner, her mom in a third and dad in the fourth -- and they were all yelling at, and over, each other.  Not the way it happened in my house, that was for sure.  (Way less alcohol was involved, for one thing, and fewer tears.)  But still -- this is fiction, and I had a hard time believing that a woman who could fall in love with a male prostitute (and stay in love with him after finding out he's not actually a "model") would be so freaked out because her sister is a lesbian.

I also found Sara's fights with Ryan to be a bit incredible.  Those arguments were also very angry and involved a lot of crosstalk.  Doesn't anyone breathe in these scenes?  Doesn't anyone stop and think about what they're saying or what's being said to them?  I'm not sure I believed these fights . . . but more importantly, they confused me.  It's not nice to make the reader go back and read dialogue twice just to figure out who's saying what and why.  Plus, that second read completely defeats the purpose of all that crosstalk, namely to show how angry the characters were.

Here's a situation where I suspect a little artfulness could have helped.  Maybe some internal dialogue would have made the fight clearer and thus more powerful.  Give these people a chance to react.  Give them some air.  Give the reader a break!

I mentioned at the top of this post that I love Elizabeth Hoyt's books so much I'm reading consecutive novels in her Prince series with barely a break in between.  The risk is that I'll get tired of her voice, that I'll start to notice phrases unique to her writing recurring with unseemly frequency.  Fallen From Grace reminded me that this problem can happen within a single volume.  Leone's writing is generally very good, a quality we notice more by the absence of annoyance than by the appearance of anything specific.  But when an author has coined an expression that no one else uses, it's good to know that and avoid using it more than once.

In Leone's case, the expression is "puff of laughter."  I know what she's trying to trying to express -- it's that "Huh," half-laugh that people use when they're not really amused (or not enough for "real" laughter).  But four times in one book?  Way too much.  It became noticeable, then annoying, then bad enough for me to blog about it.  As a general rule, nothing should stick out that much.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Box of Surprises

The before photo for my work surface

 And after (alas, this was an earlier "after" and it's messy again)

My efforts at organization resemble one of those flow charts with lots of if/then arrows.  Thus, if what I want to do is work on the quilt for my friend Laura, I end up thinking about it like this:
—> In order to start the quilt, I need to iron all the pre-washed fabric.

—> In order to iron the fabric, I need to clean off the ironing side of my work surface in my office/sewing room.

—> In order to clean off the the ironing side of my work surface in my office/sewing room, I need to sort through the books currently piled there.

—> In order to sort through the piles of books, I need to join Paperback Book Swap so I'll have some way of getting rid of the books I don't want to keep.

At which point -- and tell me you didn't see this coming! -- I spent several days happily posting books on PBS, printing out mailing labels, packaging up books for mailing, buying more stamps, inquiring about the federal regulations on packages over 13 ounces, etc.

And because I liked doing all that crap more than cleaning my office, I nattered on happily about this to Brit Hub 2.0, who surprised me by saying, "Well, do you want to do the books under my desk?"

You might be forgiven for assuming the boxes of books under his desk are his books, but no, it turns out they are books I culled out from the herd when we moved here three years ago, boxed up, and offered to Brit Hub 2.0 in case he wanted to list them on Amazon.  (He didn't.)  I had forgotten those boxes were even there.  So, the next thing I know, I'm pawing through two boxes of books that I don't remember reading.  (And it doesn't help that I am one of those readers who leaves the book looking like it's never been cracked open.  Good for the person who gets it next, but confusing as hell when I'm trying to figure out if I've ever even seen that book before!)

This provoked an odd reaction in me, I'll confess: When I can't remember reading a book, I can't remember why I didn't like it, so I'm not entirely sure why I packed it for disposal.  What if I really would like the book?  Maybe I should read it again to be sure I want to get rid of it?
Cue the men in white coats...

Okay, so I managed to convince myself that yes, I really did mean to get rid of all of these books.  But there were some surprises in there.  Books by authors I now know personally, which is triply embarrassing because at the time I met the authors (nope, no names) I really had no idea I'd read even one of their books.  But to have read it and forgotten it completely?  Those books I've set aside for rereading; I owe these nice women that much loyalty.

I also had some books in there I now wasn't sure I wanted to give away, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Hot Shot.  Yes, it's one of her "women's fiction" books and no, I didn't like it, but I have other SEP books I don't love and I keep those.  More loyalty, I'm afraid.

And then there was the complete shocker.  In the box was a book I would have sworn up and down I read for the first time in 2009 as a result of rave reviews in Romlandia.  A book that got me hooked on this author's work, exactly as Romlandia said it would.  A book -- okay, I will admit that I don't adore it the way some people in Romlandia adore it, but I understand its appeal.  (In contrast, I'm swapping both copies of Lisa Kleypas's Dreaming of You; I bought it, tried it, couldn't finish it then forgot about it so thoroughly that when someone else raved about it, I bought it again and relearned why it is a DNF for me.)

Guessed which book it is?  Well, I've already ruled out Dreaming of You, and as I have two copies of To Have and To Hold (and am keeping them both), and you know I hate Judith Ivory, there is only one book it can be.
Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels

Yes, you read that right.  I actually bought Lord of Scoundrels years ago, read it, didn't like it, didn't think I'd like anything else by her and actually rejected the book.  At least now I can understand why, when I was reading it last year, it seemed vaguely familiar -- although at no time did I actually think, "Oh, I'm sure I've read this before." As I say, it's not my favorite L.Chase book -- I vastly prefer Lord Perfect -- but I had no trouble in 2009 seeing what a good writer she is.  What was my problem back when I bought it?

Yet another reason why it's a good thing I'm not reviewing books -- this would shake my confidence that I know anything at all about which books are good and which aren't!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Thinking About Sex Scenes

Remember when I acknowledged I was writing a romance novel?  Well, I'm still working on it.  If "slow & steady wins the race," then don't bet on me.  I'm Aesop's jackrabbit: I'll write a large chunk then nothing for days.  (Or weeks.  Or months.)  (I know, it's bad.  You see now why I don't provide you with daily updates on my WIP...)

I have noticed a pattern though:  I tend to stall out just as my protagonists are on the verge of having sex.  Why?  Because as lovely as sex is, it's damned hard to write about.  I think I've figured out why, but that doesn't precisely solve the problem.  And it is a problem: I have 40% of a book done from last summer where I know exactly what happens next but don't much feel like writing about it.  You guessed it: they're having sex.

Here's my theory of what the problem is with writing sex scenes.  (Oh, and I'm willing to be wrong about this, so don't hesitate to disagree with me.  All alternative theories will be considered seriously.)

But before I get to the theory, I want to make clear I'm not particularly hung up on the "classification" of sensuality in my writing.  I figure I'll write the book and that will tell me how "warm" it is.  Clearly, if they're having sex, though, it's not one of the "chaste" sub-genres.

Okay, so my experience as a reader is that sex scenes in most romances "feel different" from the rest of the book.  The best way I could explain it was to speculate that the author goes from being very lyrical and expressive to writing very explicitly about anatomy.  It can be jarring.  I'm not the only reader who's said -- and no, I don't think this is a polite lie or self-delusion -- that I skip sex scenes.  Or read one (so as to be assured that the characters are sexually compatible) and skip the rest in that book.

As a writer though, I've really thought about this phenomenon.  I'm working on a contemporary novel, so I want to find the right balance between realism and romance-novel idealism.  This means I don't want my hero to attack the heroine -- it may seem sexy because it means her sexual appeal is so strong that he can't control his desire for her, but in real life it would suggest that he's (as my husband put it) "not a nice guy."  On the other hand, I want my hero & heroine to have "smooth" sex -- meaning her hair doesn't get trapped under his hand (ouch!) or the phone rings at the wrong time.  That would be as distracting to read about as it is to experience.

I'm very committed to making good use of point of view: if I'm in my hero's head, I want to limit myself to those thoughts, feelings, observations and experiences that he would naturally have.  Most of the time that's no limit at all; my hero's a bright guy.  But in the bedroom?  What do men really think about?

I asked my husband (pretty much the only guy I'm entitled to ask, if you think about it), "Honey, what do you think about during sex?"  He's a bright guy, too, but he didn't shock me much when he answered sardonically, "Not a lot."  Because of the four things we get from the hero's POV (thoughts, feelings, observations and experiences), thinking falls away dramatically as the moves and rituals of sex progress, feelings get very focused on a relatively small number of nerve endings, observations become more intense but monosyllabic (e.g., "that feels good,"), and experiences -- well, there's the rub.  (Please forgive all inadvertent but predictable double entendres in this post.)

Obviously, my hero's experiences are as lush and wonderful as we could wish them.  I can write about them too, but I risk pushing myself out of his head if I do so.  He's not cataloging his experiences as he has them, he's just having them.  And when in real life thinking, feeling & observations all reduce to a Dr. Seussian economy of words, why would it be appropriate for the text, in the hero's POV, to start noting all the places that body parts are going and all the things they're doing?

Go read a generic sex scene in a generic romance novel (but not a paranormal -- who knows what powers the 7-foot-tall hawt vamps have).  Ask yourself, Is it likely that a real human being in this situation would be aware of all the things I'm reading about?  I get it that those things are happening, but would the character be aware of all that?  Particularly as -- how do I put this? -- the experiences reach their intended conclusion.

Now, I'm not suggesting that sex scenes in romance novels (and here I'll explicitly exclude erotica from this discussion) should devolve into grunts of satisfaction or cries of passion.  That would be boring to read.  But why can't a sex scene be more realistic about the way a person's focus narrows and his/her cognitive sophistication shuts down?

I think what happens is that a lot of authors pan back in those scenes and start writing as an omniscient narrator while still claiming to be presenting one character's POV.  It just doesn't seem to be necessary.  There are a limited number of positions and acts that two protagonists engaging in consensual vanilla sex can get into.  Let the reader use her imagination -- if you really need the play-by-play commentary, have a character replay the scene in his or her mind after the fact.  Then you can have every last square inch of skin mapped out and written about in detail.  They may not be thinking a lot while they're doing it, but they can remember it all.

I've tested this theory this in my current WIP.  I think it went okay, although I know I'll need to add more depth to the scene in subsequent revisions.  I'll be the first one to admit, though, that no one will be able to get tips and pointers about the latest sexual techniques.  For that, you still need to read Penthouse Forum.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Goldilocks and the TBR Tuesday

A couple weeks ago, I started Redbreast by Jo Nesbø -- a book that has some people in Romlandia swooning.  (Not, I feel certain, because it's at all romantic.  Just a really swoon-worthy thriller.)  It was definitely a Daddy Bear book: long, complex, dark & twisty, and with significant chunks devoted to WWII.  Unfortunately, it didn't fit my mood (I was having a bad day, the details of which you just don't want to know), so although I made myself read 150 pages, I eventually put it aside.

Then a few days ago, I started Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road.  This is the Sullen Teen Bear book.  (Baby Bear's older sister; not in the fairy tale because she refused to participate in any subversive anti-ursine propaganda and she couldn't believe her parents would even think that she was willing to do anything that bourgeois and would they please stop coming into her room; can't they read the sign that says DO NOT DISTURB?!)  I didn't dislike it; it's obviously well-written and true to the teenage spirit it's evoking.  I just wasn't in the right mood.

Ah, but then I tried C.A. Belmond's A Rather Lovely Inheritance.  This was the ticket.  This is a Dotty Aunt Bear book, complete with a too-soft mattress and a champagne-colored satin duvet that slides off the bed.  It claims to be contemporary, but there's no way an 8-room flat in Belgravia these days is only worth £750,000.  (My ex-mother-in-law bought a garden flat in Belsize Park for that amount a few years ago, and it's not even that awesome a street or that large a flat.  So, no.  Tack a '1' onto the front of that number and maybe I'll believe it.)

ARLI is about Penny Nichols, a redhead heroine with a broad range of knowledge about historical arts and artifacts.  Her parents are clearly well-off, her English relatives are clearly well-off, and -- her protestations to the contrary -- Penny is well-off enough herself.  Nonetheless, she's agog when she inherits the contents of a garage in the South of France.  The garage is attached to a villa, which her cousin Jeremy inherits.

Now, I need to say something about Jeremy and, by extension, spoilers.  Anyone who has ever read a romance novel will recognize Jeremy immediately as a hero.  But he's her first cousin, so while it may be legal is several states for first cousins to marry, it's icky.  So what to do?  Well, either he's not the hero (in which case, who is?) or he's going to get his own romance (in which case, who's his heroine and what about poor Penny, the first-person narrator of the book -- is she really going to have to tell us all about how lovely Jeremy's beloved is while not minding that there's no hero for her?) or he's not really her first cousin.

Guess which it is.  Right.  He's not really her first cousin.  But I'm not going to tell you how that's explained.  Because, to my mind, one isn't a spoiler (heck, if you have the second book in the series, A Rather Curious Engagement, you know they end up engaged just from reading the back cover blurb) and the other one is.

Okay, so the rest of the book is about implausibly awesome (but fictitious) fast cars, scary villains, yummy locales, and a lame ending.  Yes, I'm sorry to say it, but C.A. Belmond needs to read a few (or a lot) more romances to get the hang of the Big Reveal and Resolution of the Misunderstanding.  For all that, it's a nice frothy read.

I do have one more cliché for Sandy's collection:  In chick lit books, could we stop with the Heroine Ends Up Looking Like a Lobster After a Trip to the Spa?  No one seems ever to go to the spa and come out happy with what was done, or even relaxed & rejuvenated.  It is almost Pavlovian:  if the heroine is going to a day spa, she will end up red & splotchy.  You can just about count on it.

Oh, Goldilocks also cheated on all those bears and read a vampire book.  Yup, I bought Lover Mine in hardcover.  (Which means I'm caught up on the Black Dagger Brotherhood.)  There's been some back and forth in Romlandia: Is it a good book?  Is it a bad book?  Is it a sign that it's time to stop reading these things?  Or is J.R. Ward back to form?

Well, here's one reader's take:  All of the above.  These books are a bit like a Chinese menu: unless you are allergic to MSG (or, in this case, black leather), there's something in there to like or dislike.  If tortured protagonists and their love for each other is your thing, it's in there.  On the other hand, if this is a case of one tattoo over the limit, then it may be the end of the line for you.

So I understand all the grades -- As, Bs, and Cs.  I didn't think it was her best, but a lot of that is the couple.  I thought I would like John & Xhex together, but they didn't spend enough time together and in many ways they'd already fallen in love so we didn't even get that thrill.  But then my favorite BDB couples are Rhage & Mary and Vishous & Doc Jane (the corporeal Doc Jane, btw -- I do find myself unable to suspend my disbelief about the engineering mechanics of making love to a non-corporeal being).  Other people loved it because they loved JM & Xhex.  I can see that.

One teeny leetle request of Ward's editors:  Could you limit her to one use per book of phrases like "a male of worth" and "conversate"?  The Brotherhood books are this close to fueling a drinking game: Take a shot every time you read the word "sh¡tkickers."  (Referring to them as boots will do -- we know they're badass black stomping-around boots.  Trust us.  We know.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

I Need Your Help

I have a phobia about online excerpts.  I could have convinced myself it was just some quirky aesthetic decision on my part until last week.  There was a tweet with a link to a website sponsored by Avon Books; the particular post invited readers to write something and leave it in the comments.  Something fiction.  In effect, excerpts.

When I figured this out, I clicked away from that site with the same nervous determination I would exhibit if I saw a snake in our pool enclosure.  Not freaking out, just deciding that I needed to be someplace else.  Like NOW.

Needless to say, I am afraid of snakes.  Which tells me that my, uh, reluctance to read writers' excerpts is more about fear than it is about anything rational.

Now, I'm not going to ask you to tell me what I'm afraid of and why.  I suspect I am afraid of reading something bad, something painfully ill-advised, something I could have written.  (I shudder just to imagine it.)

But I was just reading Justine Lee Musk's post about social media, authorial brand awareness, and so forth.  It's a bit cerebral, even for me, but it reminded me of my excerpt-phobia.

I'm working on my own website, which I daresay will include excerpts.  And if I hadn't already convinced you that I'm completely bonkers, this will:  I am not afraid to post excerpts of my own writing on the Internet.  Not at all.  Not even if I imagine someone reading them.  Not even, incredibly, if I imagine someone reading them and hating them.  (Of course, this may be like trying to recall specific physical pain.  There's a good reason why our brains can't easily remember pain.  Perhaps the same synaptic failure is keeping me from really comprehending the humiliation of having people read an excerpt of my work and hating it.)

Here's where you can help.  Do you read author's excerpts?  Only published authors you like, or authors you don't know yet?  How about unpublished writers?  And if you do read excerpts, how do you feel about the good ones, the bad ones, and the stuff in between?  Does it help you decide whose book(s) to read, or do you do it solely out of curiosity?

I can't assume other peoples' reactions are like my own.  After all, the one thing I will never have to do is read my own excerpt as if I'd never seen it before.