Friday, April 30, 2010

Angsty Goodness

I love to cry.

No, really, I do.

What I don't like is the experience of loss, pain, fear, depression, or any of the other conditions that can make me cry.  But the tears themselves are fine.  So as long as what's making me cry isn't also making me feel really bad, I'm all for it.

Cotton commercials, weepy Bette Davis movies, sad music, and romance novels filled with angsty goodness:  I love them all.  (By contrast, I suspect that a Nicholas Sparks novel/movie would just make me angry.  I'm not willing to test this theory though.)

I had started to read Mary Balogh's Simply Perfect when I realized that there had to be at least three previous novels, not counting the Slightlys, that needed to be read before I could fully appreciate all the people in Simply Perfect.  But which three?  You just about need a score card to keep straight who's going to show up in which novels.  I asked the Balogh-teers on Twitter and was told I had to read One Night For Love first, followed by A Summer to Remember.  As luck would have it, One Night For Love was sitting right in front of me!

Ah, talk about your angsty goodness -- I was crying by page 55.  The heroine, Lily, is positively festooned with angst: her father dies, the man she secretly loves marries her, then she "dies" and he's shot (all this is in the middle of the Peninsular Wars, so the bullets do rather make sense).  By the time he's recovered enough to inquire about his wife, he's told she died.  So he does what all good heirs to earldoms do: he returns home and prepares to marry the woman he was always supposed to marry.

When Lily is finally able to get to England, she does try to get to her beloved (now an earl) as quickly as possible, but she's so shabby looking that his servants (and the stray passing duke & duchess) shoo her along with the offer of sixpence.  She declines the sixpence, which seemed a bit shortsighted given how little money she had and how long it had been since she last ate.  But, in the manner of angsty heroines everywhere she won't accept charity: she might be starving, but she still has her pride.

All that sets up the cliché scene in which Lily appears at the church before he can commit bigamy.  And that, alas, is the last spoiler-free thing I can write about the plot.  Let's just say that page 55 was not the last place I shed happy tears!

It's not a unflawed book, mind you: it rather heaps on the melodrama, coincidence, and miracles.

In fact, if I actually think about it, it's not an entirely satisfying romance.  Neville, our hero, is eventually on board with this being his one True Love, and we know from the outset that Lily has only one True Love, but as for the Big Reason why they can't be together, it's all a bit muddled.  Class differences?  Not precisely.  Lily's deficiencies as a countess?  Not quite.  And it sure isn't sexual incompatibility, although there's a bit of authorial legerdemain here as well: a rather convenient wave of the wand to make certain awkward truths magically disappear.

So I'd have to say it's not a book I loved all the way through.  Except for the angsty goodness.  That, I ate up with a spoon!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Anatomy of a Bad Book

On the list of books I took with me to Philadelphia was one that had precisely one saving grace: it was a quick read.  While it wasn't laughably bad, and I really have no desire to mock the book or its author, it reminded me of nearly all the things that can go wrong in writing a romance novel.  Here, then, is the checklist of Faults & Flaws.  Let's see how many got ticked.  (I will say this: it's a contemporary romance, so some of the clangers we find in historical romances will be missing from this checklist.)

Heroine

    Impossibly beautiful with white-blond hair & perfect skin -- even after being kidnapped, trussed up & thrown into dirt cave, and (later) even after having scalp shaved for surgery.

   Immediately trusting of Hero despite the aforementioned kidnapping and his strange appearance and bad blood with her dad and Hero's own admission that he'd killed someone.  In fact, within 20 minutes, is able to convince Hero of his own worth after he's beaten himself up for five years.

   Sexually inexperienced.  Has had sex exactly once, didn't see the appeal, so when dating to the point of getting engaged, still doesn't sleep with guy -- who then sleeps with Heroine's BFF.

    Too stupid to live.  When villain enters the room with two cans of gasoline in hand, Heroine takes FOUR pages before thinking, "Oh, I get it -- [X] is gonna burn down the house."

    Has miraculous conversion from being shallow, rich daddy's girl to being woman of backbone & character with about a nanosecond of introspection.

Hero

    Has been living in one-room cabin on 200 acres with no visible means of financial support for five years, but still smells just fine when he comes across the kidnapped Heroine.

    Still retains alpha hero cred despite fleeing criminal justice when wife & kid turn up dead -- and he's a police detective.  (Like, didn't he trust his colleagues & CSI types to find evidence that guy actually responsible -- identity known by Hero, btw -- did it, not Hero?)

    Looks good in five-year-old beard.

    Not impossibly bitter despite senseless loss of wife & child in adultery-laden tragic shooting.

    Is only law enforcement officer -- in a case with both sheriff's office AND the FBI -- capable of figuring out whodunnit.

Plot

   Entire book is over at 35,000 words if Heroine just rides ONE mile on a speedy horse to where FBI and sheriff's deputies are.  Instead, she wheels around and rides back to where shots are being fired, thus getting herself shot (duh) and Hero accused of her kidnapping, complications requiring another 50,000 words to resolve.

    Entire book never happens at all if Hero doesn't take his brother's remark (offer of legal representation when Hero accused of shooting wife & child) as evidence that bro thinks he's a killer.

   Entire book also never happens if Heroine's father -- who supposedly is oil tycoon with incredible business acumen -- doesn't overlook fact that his ranch foreman is rustling cattle, stealing farm equipment ("funny, I thought I left a tractor here someplace"?), and taking/selling drugs.

    After straightforward us-versus-them sequence evading kidnappers in woods, plot devolves into Dynasty with Heroine's family (dad, mom, stepmom, dad's other wives, half-brother and his wife, plus servants) ALL having secrets, debts, and motives up the ying-yang.

Writing Style

   Lots and lots of Tell not Show.  Heroine (despite major trauma of kidnapping, which came 12 hours after seeing boyfriend in bed with BFF) immediately trusts and confides in Hero.  (To his credit, Hero takes slightly longer to fall in love with Heroine.)

    Headhopping to extraordinary degree.  In one three-sentence paragraph, both Hero and Heroine's POV are used.

   Clunky dialogue.  (I'd quote some, but you can trust me on this.)

    Convenient but implausible character development.  Hero goes from police detective to mountain man to successful rancher/husband/dad with no issues.  Heroine goes from rich girl to victim of successive traumas to bank teller to ESL tutor to successful rancher's wife/mom with no issues.

    Unconvincing romance.  Heroine's falling in love with guy who rescues her, keeps her safe, figures out whodunnit -- where's the depth in that?  Hero's falling in love with the kinder, gentler version of the same rich bitch his first wife was -- awfully convenient, isn't it?

Dog

Actually, the dog was lovely.  Points for the dog.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Magickal Post

Wherein I manage to convey how *almost* perfect The Fire Rose is without ruining any of the fun for a future reader...

Oh, and to honor both the alchemy of the book and the magick of this post, I've got some photos that look like fireworks but aren't and some photos that don't look like fireworks but are.

I posted yesterday about the bare bones plot -- all of which is conveyed by the cover art (okay, yeah, so I can't tell a wolf from a fox) and the back cover blurb -- destitute & orphaned scholar Rose takes a job with the mysterious Jason Cameron at his estate south of San Francisco.  He's a fire mage, she's expected to read archaic texts on alchemy to him.  Oh, and you know it's a variation on Beauty and the Beast, and you know it will have a happy ending.

But there are lots of ways in which the author, Mercedes Lackey, plays with the conventions of the Beauty and the Beast myth without losing its essential spirit.  At its heart, the story works because Beauty comes to love the Beast despite his beastly appearance.  Thus, it's a story much beloved by women, for Beauty almost always reveals herself to be so much more than a pretty face.

What makes The Fire Rose so much fun is that this is also an oblique coming-of-age story for Rose.  She learns about herself things that both complete her and expand her horizons.  She is still herself by the end of the story, but she has learned that she is special.  And -- for once -- she learns this not because Jason tells her but because she works it out rationally.

Rose is a thinker.  She reasons out problems that she encounters along the way.  She doesn't always get things right, but she never loses sight of her values and her goals.  The situation she finds herself in teaches Rose some valuable lessons about human nature, temptation, discipline, and rewards.

By contrast, Jason changes only a little, gaining a bit more patience and a kinder heart by the end.

So what makes this a wonderful book?  Alchemy, of course.  When you take a story about a heroine that really could stand on its own (frankly, make a few minor changes, and it's a Girl Power YA story par excellence) and a subplot about the hubris of men, stir them together with some fantastical revisions of history, mutter some quatrains in Latin . . . hey, presto you get a nice romance.

But I need to be honest.  There are two things the book lacks.  I can tell you about one but I can't explain the other.  The one I can write about here is sex.  There isn't any.  Well, that's not quite true:  there is sex in the book, but it's all the wrong sorts of sex.  There are hints that this couple will be fine in bed, but we are never actually shown or told that.  It's a shame, really, because it's a part of the HEA I was interested in.  Not in a "get to the good parts" way, but in a "this couple will need a particularly happy sex life" sort of way.  I'm afraid that will merely have to be inferred.

(In case you're thinking, Well, Magdalen, be fair -- it's a fantasy book that teens might read so it has to remain PG, I have to tell you that there are some tangential references to sexual matters that teens don't really need to be thinking about.  They just aren't nice sexual matters, and they have nothing to do with Rose and Jason  Having stuck them in there, I do feel Lackey could have counterbalanced them with some equally tangential references to nice sex that does have to do with Rose and Jason.)

The other thing? -- sorry, can't say.  Read the book and email me; we'll talk then.

One last point:  You want world building?  This book presents a very subtle but charming alternate reality that is quite believable.  A lot of thought went into the details, and it's a book that repays attention to those details.  I can't, of course, give you any examples.  But you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TBR Tuesday: It Always Happens This Way

(Subtitle:  When will I learn?)

I'm here in Philadelphia for my medical vacation.  I've gotten the colonoscopy and mammogram done and just have some blood work tomorrow.  I've had a lovely time hanging out with Brit Hub 1.0 -- we went to see How To Train a Dragon (in 3D) last night -- and I have a mediation session this afternoon and dinner with a good friend I don't see nearly enough.

What I haven't been doing enough of is reading.  Yes, I know I brought a bazillion books, but it's looking like I'll be lucky to get three of them finished by the time I leave on Thursday.  I always do this:  I imagine myself with time on my hands and books at my side, but I'm always overestimating the amount of time I'll actually have to just sit and read.

Take today, for example.  I actually got through the mammogram quite quickly (got there early and was out in just over an hour), so no long waits with my book in my hands.  I came back to the house only to find that I had to deal with one thing after another.  Heck, it's been two hours and I'm only now starting to blog.

I really want to have finish the current TBR read:  Mercedes Lackey's The Fire Rose.  It's (yet another) retelling of Beauty and the Beast, this time with a wonderful mix of historical accuracy, early feminist doctrine, and fantasy.  Rosalind Dawson is a scholar of ancient languages when her father (cliché #2: the feckless father) loses all their money in a shady banking deal in Chicago, circa 1890-1900.  She was going to get her doctorate from the University of Chicago, but when her father (a professor there) dies, she's saddled with immense debt, and no way to pay it.

The beast in this version is an intriguing character named Cameron.  No spoilers here, obviously, because I've not read far enough along to learn the spoilers myself!  Cameron is a fire mage; the cover art would suggest he's taken (or been forced to take) the form of a fox.   

Edited to add:  My bad.  If I had only read a bit farther along, I could have reported that Cameron is in wolf form.  But I'm leaving the fox photo because it's so pretty.   
He is very wealthy and lives in a gorgeous estate some two hours south of San Francisco.  He has lured Rosalind with the promise of a job as governess to two fictitious children who are so exception they need a tutor with knowledge of Greek, Latin, medieval French, archaic German, and the like.  When she gets there, though, she learns that no, her job will actually be to translate passages from books, speaking into a speaking tube, for Mr. Cameron's edification.

Rosalind is a smart heroine; when Cameron warns her that she may have to read texts that are odd and even disturbing, he's thinking of alchemy but she's thinking of something altogether different.
Mister Cameron -- I have read the unexpurgated Ovid, the love-poems of Sappho, the Decameron in the original, and a great many texts in Greek and Latin histories that were not thought fit for proper gentlemen to read, much less proper ladies.  I know in precise detail what Caligula did to, and with, his sisters, and I can quote it to you in Latin or my own translation if you wish.  I am interested in historical truth, and truth in history is often unpleasant and distasteful to those of fine sensibility.  I frankly doubt you will produce anything that will shock me.
Cameron is thrilled.  As he later muses, "I had expected a mouse, I have been given a lioness."

Alas, that is as far as I have gotten.  But I commend to anyone who likes fantasy almost all the books by Mercedes Lackey and Robin McKinley.  They are both wonderful writers, and they choose to write very gynocentric stories.  Lackey, in particular, has rethought fairy tale conventions to conform to a much more modern notion of what women can do but also what they don't do.  If you haven't read The Fairy Godmother and its immediate sequel, One Good Knight, you have a huge treat in store.  (Alas, there's a tiny little bit of actual sex in these books making them -- possibly -- unsuitable for little kids.  If you read them aloud, though, you can skip that page with no difficulty, and go back to brainwashing uh, educating your favorite children in the worth of women in this world.)  The third and fourth books in the "500 Kingdoms" series are not as good, but I'm delighted to see she has Sleeping Beauty coming out in July 2010.

Now, if you will excuse me -- I have a book to read.
.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why I Don't Own An E-Reader

I'm going to Philadelphia for a few days.  No biggie:  I need to have some routine medical tests done (cancer screening because I'm over 50) and all my doctors are in Philly, so it makes sense to bunch all the appointments up into one stretch.

I'll stay with BritHub 1.0, and -- if the weather clears -- I'll be able to sit out in his garden, which is lovely and has a fountain.  (I'll take pictures.)

I *say* I'll get a lot written on my laptop, but I *know* I'll get a lot of reading done.  Which means I need to take books.

Okay, so here's where every happy Kindle-cuddler, Nook-nuzzler, and iPad-petter comes around to insist that what I really need is an e-reader.  Because, they'll point out, if I had an e-reader, I'd be taking all my books with me.

And that is (I gather) a true statement.  But do I want all my books with me?  I remember a grocery shopping trip some decades ago where I knew I wanted to have cereal, but which one?  I stood in the cereal aisle for a long time, unable to decide.  If I had my entire TBR bench worth of books in an e-reader, how would I know what to read?  And wouldn't I risk cuing up one book only to think, "Maybe I'd rather start this other book?" and then cuing up another.  And another . . .

Yes, of course that can happen with a paperback, but it doesn't.  Once I have it in my hands, tucked into my handbag, or sitting on my bedside table, I've officially culled it from the pack and -- most of the time -- am committed to it until it's finished or declared a DNF.

Yes, there are those rare books that just don't sit right with me.  I blogged about "speed bump" books here -- books that have a higher-than-usual barrier to getting started, however delightful they may be once I get going.  Those tend to get shut and either returned to the TBR bench, or left lying someplace with a makeshift bookmark languishing in the early chapters.

Mostly, though, I'm excited about picking books for this trip.  Of course I'll take too many.  But they'll be too many specific books, not too much of an amorphous mass, which is how I imagine the e-books stored on an e-reader.  Like literary oatmeal: undifferentiated except by volume.

I know that's not fair.  I know that's not right.  I know I'm an ignorant cow for writing about a technology when I haven't even tried it.

But some toys and gadgets sound like an awesome idea.  And some don't.  At the present time -- and I'll let you know when this changes -- an e-reader doesn't sound like a great idea.  To me.

Ah, but in the scant minutes before I have to listen to the NPR Sunday Puzzle for my other blogging assignment, let's pick some books, shall we?

Laurie R. King's The Moor (I did start it but never got that far)
Mary Balogh's Simply Perfect (why not start a new series by Balogh?)
Julie Anne Long's Ways to be Wicked (haven't read one of hers in a long time, heh heh)
Loretta Chase's The Lion's Daughter (only one of her not-wildly-expensive-used books that I haven't read)
Sharon & Tom Curtis's Sunshine and Shadow (I may not like it; I *didn't* like The Windflower, but let's try this one and see if it goes better)
Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road (my Twitter friend, Kat, will approve!)
Jess Michael's Nothing Denied (because I need some heat, don't I?)
Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan (a book strongly recommended by Sonoma Lass)
Linda Warren's Deep in the Heart of Texas (a ten-year-old Harlequin Superromance I bought because it was on a receipt inside a book I blogged about here -- when I checked it on Amazon, it seemed intriguing)
Alan Bennett's An Uncommon Reader (sent to me by Janet W.; I now have two copies, so after I read it I think I'll pass it along to BritHub 1.0)
Susan Carroll's The Dark Queen (purchased to see if it was prohibitively "speed bumpy" -- it appears to be historical fiction with romantic and fantasy elements, but I liked her romances, so who knows)
Mercedes Lackey's The Fire Rose (because it sounds fun)

Will I get all these read?  No way.  But I know I'll have as much fun picking among them as I had picking them out.  No oatmeal here!

(P.S.  If you're wondering, that tote bag is from the Canton Public Library.  As the photo was posted to Flickr in 2008, I'm not sure if they still sell them for $3, but I sure want one!)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Thinly Veiled Excuse for a Photo Essay on New Zealand

I just finished Karina Bliss's What The Librarian Did.  I realize now I have no idea what the librarian did -- well, I mean, she did lots of things, but few of them are worth discussing.

Ah, but Where The Librarian Went?  Much more interesting.  She went to Waiheke Island, near Auckland, New Zealand.  She went there because the Retired Rock Star lives there.  And now I want to go there too.

I went to New Zealand in 1987.  (Which is right about when some of you were born, I realize -- I suppose I could just write "I went to New Zealand in the last century..."; I am that old.)  I have family there, mostly in the southern portion of the North Island.  I saw something of Christchurch and drove around Lake Taupo -- all of it was so amazingly beautiful that my photographs (alas, all pre-digital) didn't do it justice.

Now, I did fly into Auckland, but I saw nothing of the city, just the airport.  So a book based in Auckland was fascinating.  Let's see what I was missing, shall we?

First up, University of Auckland.  Bliss mentions the clock tower:


and a fountain in Albert Park, where Rachel waits to "accidentally" run into Devin, the RRS:


Here's where Rachel works:


and here's where Devin lives:


In fact, this might be his bedroom:


This could be Devin's pool:



Here's what Rachel sees on the ferry as she's leaving Waiheke Island:


and the view of Auckland from the ferry:


Finally, there's a wedding at the end of this book, and this is what the view is like from that scene:


Needless to say, I didn't take any of those pictures.  But thanks to Flickr, I can snitch borrow -- with proper attribution -- these photos of Auckland and Waiheke Island.

What?  You want to know what I thought of the book?  Let's put it this way:  stick it in the United States and it's not nearly so much fun.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

TBR [generic day starting with the letter T] -- A Quick Run-Down

Faithful reader Janet W. has called my attention to the fact that I'm late for TBR Tuesday uh, Thursday.  Let's see, what did I manage to read from my TBR bench while I was on holiday?

First up, "The Way Home" by Linda Howard.  It's a short story (or novella -- not sure what the word count is) that I found fascinating for any number of reasons, so I'll just dive in.

Anna and Saxon have just had a whole lot of really hot hot sex in his office -- but, no, we didn't get to watch.  Sorry.  Instead, the story starts the next day with Saxon telling Anna that she can be his secretary or his mistress but not both.  Anna -- mysteriously -- seems to understand this.  I have to say, I'm pretty sure in real life there be some more `splaining to do.

It turns out, Saxon means the kind of financial arrangement whereby he will pay all of Anna's bills, set her up in a glam apartment, and have lots of sex with her, but not move in or marry her.  (His tax accountant must have had conniptions about this -- think of all the tax breaks this guy was throwing away!)  "Mistress" -- it's such an anachronism these days.  Would a modern woman even know what a single guy meant by that?  Well, Anna must really have been on Saxon's wavelength because she just nods, thinks about it, and says, "Mistress, please," because as much as she loves her job, she loves Saxon more.

Two years later . . .  Yup, that's right -- two whole years of Linda Howard's patented hot hot sex go by and we see NONE of it -- Anna's ready to pack up and leave.  Because again, she's so completely dialed in on Saxon's mindset that she knows as soon as she tells him she's preggers, he's going to kick her out.

Ah, but she's wrong about him.  Even though he's repeatedly told her that he would never marry her -- and if she tried to trap him with pregnancy, he was outta there -- he does not react the way she expects.  As we quickly deduce, Saxon doesn't have commitment issues as much as "fear of abandonment" issues.

In no time -- because this is a novella (or short story) after all -- Saxon has moved in, proposed marriage, and allowed Anna to unravel his tortured backstory so that he can be a happy husband and father.  And it's delightfully angsty reading about Saxon's panic that Anna might leave him or, worse yet, throw away their baby.  But Anna's got her head screwed on about as straight as a woman who understood what would be involved in being a mistress can, and so she accommodates Saxon's issues and provides a nice counterbalance to his eccentricities.

It's even quite sweet in places.  Here's my favorite bit:  Saxon seems confused by Anna's assertion that they will need to turn a room into the nursery.  "Why?" he asks.  "Because otherwise there will be baby paraphernalia all over the apartment," she explains. "Where did you think the baby was going to sleep?"  He thinks about this, and then says, "Well, since it's the size of a skinned rabbit, I figured it could sleep with us.  I'd offer to let it sleep on my chest, but I understand they aren't housebroken..."

There are two other stories in the book, A Mother's Touch.  I did read them.

cue the crickets


Next up, The Homecoming by Gina Wilkins.  I really liked her books 20 years ago, so when I was in one of those weird remaindered book warehouse spaces, I decided to buy this Silhouette Special Edition from December 2004.  (Where has this book -- which had clearly never been sold before -- been for 5 years?)

If I tell you that this struck me as Susan Mallery-lite, would that be enough explanation?  But perhaps I'm being unfair to Ms. Wilkins, because as loony as the characters and plot were, it seems they weren't entirely of her choosing.  It turns out to have been a family saga carved up and written by six different authors, with Gina Wilkins having the last leg.  Daddy Dearest Walter Parks is in jail for killing his arch rival.  His precious daughter, Jessica, seems to be the only one of Walter's brood who cares that Mom has been locked up in a Swiss asylum for 20+ years.  So, even though Jessica has some real concerns that she's going crazy herself, she plots for THREE YEARS to buy a ticket to fly to Geneva and see for herself.

Eh, I should have thrown this book across the room at that point, but I didn't.  I think in some way I just wanted to see how loony it would turn out to be.  The answer was VERY loony.  So loony that it was almost fun.  Not good.  But fun.

This doesn't count as coming from my TBR bench, but I'm to be interviewed in May for Love Romance Passion and the answer to one of the questions turns out to be Bride to Be by Jane Ashford.  (You'll just have to wait until May to find out, Jeopardy-style, what the question was!)  I've owned this book for a while, but not read it in years.  So I thought I would see what it was like.

Basic Regency-era set up: Sensible girl with eccentric (but well-born) parents meets strange man under strange circumstances.  They meet again in London, where she learns he's a lord.  They finally start to like each other a bit when bullets start flying.  Someone's trying to kill him, her, both of them, or it's all a case of mistaken identity.  Candace Camp has used similar plots more recently.

Bride to Be isn't a great book.  I'm not sure I would even recommend that anyone hunt it down used.  But it was better than a lot of Regency-era romances I've read, and not at all a waste of my time.  If you stumble across a copy, there's no need to kick it aside.

Finally, I finished Jo Beverley's The Secret Duke last night.  Slow start, good finish, has a nice rhythm and you can dance to it.  (Oh, god -- I'm showing my age, aren't I?  No one the least bit younger than I has a clue about American Bandstand, hunh? *sigh*)  My only two problems with it were that I haven't read any other Malloren books and it rather suffered by comparison to that other "duke of consequence meets woman of spirit" book, Slightly Dangerous.  I suspect I'll have to reread it when I have read the rest of the Malloren stories, in their proper order.

So there you have it.  I may have been away, but I was reading.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Share The Joy"

Share the joy:  That's what my husband said I should do when I told him how much I was enjoying Slightly Sinful, Book 5 in Balogh's Bedwyn series.  He meant blogging about it here, but I just shrugged.  You've all read the series, you know how nice they are.  I'm the one late to the party, the one just catching up on the joy.

The fact of the matter is that I *should* have been reading a contemporary.  My TBR bench is somewhat organized by categories (historicals, paranormals, contemporaries, mysteries, etc.), and within the historical section are specific series.  I try to mix things up, reading books from different sub-genres and by different authors so that I don't get the reading equivalent of brain freeze from gobbling ice cream.  I'd read Bedwyn book #4, Slightly Tempted, -- and blogged about it here -- just a few days ago.  I really intended not reading the final two Slightly books right away, but when I asked on Twitter if I should be virtuous and read a contemporary (or be indulgent and read a Slightly book), you could hear the crickets.  (It was like everyone left Twitter at the exact same time.  What -- d'you all have lives?)

Oh, but who am I kidding.  I didn't much care about Slightly Sinful; I just wanted to get to Slightly Dangerous, the book in which Wulfric finally makes his match.  Others had said it was wonderful, and -- for once -- a book exceeded its hype.  In fact, it made me do something I haven't done in a long time.  It made me behave as though I was single again.

I didn't marry until I was 42, and I really didn't date or have romances before then.  That meant I had lots of time that was mine to spend, or waste, any way I wanted.  I spent (or wasted, depending on your perspective) a lot of it reading.  And if I wanted to read all day long, and I wasn't obligated to be somewhere else, like working, then I could.

Yesterday evening, when I had finished Slightly Sinful and put Slightly Dangerous on the stairs to go to bed with me, I had an inkling it was going to be a fun read.  But I was as surprised as Ross was when he asked me this morning why I hadn't checked my email or even turned the computer on yet.  And when, slightly before noon, he asked if I was getting dressed (!) so that we could attend to some domestic chores, I murmured something about yes, but it wasn't going to be soon.  I then settled into bed -- my favored haunt as a single woman -- and finished Wulf's & Christine's story.  And yes, it was a joyous experience.  When a certain character dives into the lake, I cried joyous tears.  When I closed the cover, I opened the book immediately back to a certain scene in the side garden at Hyacinth Cottage and read the last 30 pages over again.

Can I share that joy?  I don't see how.  If you've read it, and if you loved it as I clearly did, you already know some version of the same joy.  But reading is such a solitary activity, I don't know how to scoop up some of my joy and parcel it out.  I can write about it, but without recreating in a blog post the bits that maybe gave you joy when you read it -- and that's only nudging you toward reliving your own joy -- all I can expect to do is report that yes, I felt joy.

That's when it hit me.  One person shared the joy -- Mary Balogh.  That's what writers do, isn't it?  They share the love and happiness they create for their characters, and by so doing, they also share the love and happiness their characters give them.  At least, I suspect that's what all writers are striving to do.

Funny.  We think of writing as this very solitary activity, but I think reading is much more insular.  Writing is like making the yummy food that you want people to gobble up and enjoy.  You won't be there when they do -- like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield dreaming up a new ice cream flavor ("Slightly Decadent"?) while imagining customers someday eating it -- but you want to think they'll love your book.  So maybe writing is actually sharing the joy without spatial and temporal synchronicity.

Not every book gives every reader joy.  I daresay someone didn't actually like Slightly Dangerous.  I asked recently,
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?

and if I nominated Slightly Dangerous as just such a book, someone would have an objection.  But the only flaw I can see is its title, which is a bit generic for such a wonderful concluding volume of the Slighlyt series.  My choice would have been "Slightly Perfect."

And now comes my new problem:  What can I possibly read now that won't suffer by comparison?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Synergy of Reading

Sometimes it's the book.  Sometimes it's the reader.  But sometimes you need both: that specific book at that specific time.  There's a synergy between the elements of the book and the mood of the reader that either enhances the reading experience, or makes it nearly unbearable.

Count this as yet another reason why I don't review books.  (I think I'm up to 14 reasons by now.)  I think I can understand how most reviewers manage this issue, namely by reading books they plan to review with a critical filter in place.  When non-reviewer readers pick up a book, almost anything can happen: the reader falls in love with the book, hates the book, gets impatient, is soothed . . . and so forth.

What I do is read books that I want to read, mostly because someone has recommended that book.  Just to remind you, I got lost as a romance reader in the 1990s (something about law school derailed my reading habits, I think), so when I finally got back to the genre, there were scores of great books I knew nothing about.  I'm still trying to get caught up with 20 years of books while, at the same time, keeping up with new releases that people recommend.

Reading makes me think, and I blog about what I've been thinking.  So, sure, I'm writing about specific books, but I can't presume to say if a book is good or bad (I'm not sure I know).  Only if I enjoyed it.

Some days, my enjoyment of a book is shaped (warped, even) by what's going on inside my life, inside my head, on that day.  Yesterday was such a day.

I'd started JR Ward's Lover Unbound (the one with Vishous and Doc Jane) the night before.  I like the Black Dagger Brotherhood books, but my reaction has been a bit like watching cute cat videos on YouTube: amusement, affection, and then walk away essentially unchanged.  Not with this book, though.

At its heart, Lover Unbound is Romeo & Juliet.  Two angsty lovers who know the world will not let them be together but who cannot bear to be apart.  Part of the BDB mythology is the notion of mating as a "there is only one for me" phenomenon.  What in biology is referred to as "lock-and-key specificity."  But by Book 5, Ward has introduced the notion of the "confused lover" -- Vishous thinks he's in love with Butch, who's already mated with Marissa, and Phury is convinced he loves his twin's mate, Bella.  (Even believing they know their own hearts, how come their heads don't ask questions like "ah, but why isn't anyone smelling 'dark spice' if I love him/her so much?  And if there is no 'bonding scent,' is this really love?")

If I'd stayed in that place of bemusement, I'd be typing delicately snarky questions like, "Gee, when the series is all done and all the BDB are mated, d'ya suppose that mansion is going to smell like Macy's perfume department with spritzes of each brother's scent lingering on the air?"  Instead, Vishous sees Jane and thinks, "Mine," and I was hooked.

Which is stupid in a way, because "recognizing" your one-true-mate in a completely atavistic, non-cognitive way is almost cheating.  Whatever happened to falling in love, a process that takes time?  Eh, go read another book if that's what you want.  It ain't happening here.


No, what I got from Lover Unbound was that fizzy effervescence of first love: the tiny bubbles of hope and happiness rising and popping, non-stop.  It's the feeling kids get just before Christmas: Will I get what I most want?  It's the feeling girls get in 7th grade:  D'you think Bobby really likes me?  It's the joy of a romance in that perfect stage of promise not yet delivered: Is there a new text message from him?  Will he ask me out this weekend?

[It is also, on its dark side, the sensation of Magical Thinking Romance Theater, where elaborate fictional connections, attractions, and romances are staged, all without any hope of being real, let alone being reciprocated.  But MTRT is never discussed in romance novels, so I won't even bother admitting to discussing that.]

I'd only read a third of Lover Unbound when I had a conversation with a friend about that the twinkly feelings of new love.  I remember having had those feelings when I was in the early stages of my romance with BritHub 1.0; if I squint hard, I can almost recall how exciting it made turning on the computer and checking email in case, maybe, there might be a new message from him.  I experienced something similar with BritHub 2.0, a pleasant buzz just before I called him.

I'm married now, and while there are loads of wonderful benefits to marriage: stability, certainty, consistency (to name a few), the effervescence is more or less over.  Not because marriage is any less happy or the promise of joy is gone, but because the uncertainty has been lifted.  You can't have fizzy without a hint of the fear that it might all be taken away from you, or just not work out.  If the bubbles aren't popping, it's not carbonation.

The image of delicate threads of bubbles rising in a champagne flute is hardly consistent with the iconography of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.  Solid tumblers of Stoli or 14-year-old single malt is more their style.  But something about V's feelings for Jane -- and then Jane's feelings for V -- evoked that same exhilaration for me.

It helped that Ward allowed Jane's fearlessness and scientific curiosity to evaporate any terror in V's presence.  It helped that V allowed his attraction to Jane to wipe away a lot of pre-existing angst about his backstory in an efficient fashion.  And it helped that there was a bunch of non-silly reasons why they both thought that they wouldn't be together in a sensible fashion.

Okay, so the ending is amazingly stupid.  (And that's all I'm going to say about the ending.)  I ignore it.  There is a moment earlier on when V learns that he can have Jane, he can be with Jane, that is precious.

So I sat in a Barnes & Noble -- I was 130 miles away from home and literally preferred reading Lover Unbound in a public place to driving for two hours to read it at home -- and read and read and read.

I can't tell you if it's a good book, or even if it's better or worse than earlier books in the series.  All I know is that it was precisely the right book for me on the right day.

That's synergy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy Books

Cranky reader though I am, some books make me happy.

Mary Balogh's "Slightly" series has fulfilled that role, and amazingly each book has made me happier than the last.  I just finished Slightly Tempted (read devoured it in under 24 hours!) and it was like sinking into the most comfortable chair: pure bliss.

Here, then, is an abbreviated list of the things in Slightly Tempted that make me happy.
  • It's exquisitely plotted.  I can't say much more than that -- there are things it's best not to say -- but nothing seemed out of place, contrived, inexplicable, stupid, or hastily pasted together.  Characters acted in ways that seemed consistent with their personalities, while remaining human: both flawed and heroic in equal measure.
  • Lady Morgan is a wonderful heroine.  Smart but still young enough to seem, well, 18.  Definitely a Bedwyn.  And -- this isn't (I hope) a spoiler -- I particularly liked that she worked it all out on her own.  For once, Wulfric wasn't needed as deus ex machina to resolve the misunderstandings and pave the way for the couple's happiness.
  • Lady Morgan and Gervase actually talk to each other.  About stuff.  This is a plot element: it's necessary for the reader to see what they see in each other, but instead of just informing the reader, Balogh manages to write dialogue that demonstrates how smart each of them is.
  • For a long book (356 pages), it's well-paced.  Nothing dragged, nothing went by too fast.  That's saying a lot.  I'd tell you how she manages it, but I honestly don't know.
  • I was surprised by things -- ah, I can't say which things, but what was the last book you read (not a mystery or romantic suspense, mind you) that actually surprised you in its twists and turns?  If it happens a lot, do please share your reading list with me in the comments because it doesn't happen often enough for my taste.
  • Last, and yes least of all, the tone of the book pleased me.  I'm an unreasonably cranky reader of historical romances that sound too modern.  At the same time, I acknowledge that people today don't want to write or read books that sound like Jane Austen herself might have written them.  So the challenge is to make a book seem plausible as a modern account of a romance from 1815.  Balogh comes closest (with Jo Beverley a close second) in accomplishing this.  I could quibble with details here and there, but they are like dandelion fluff compared to the clankers one encounters in less successful historical romances.

    So color me happy.  The only hard part is not immediately diving in to Slightly Sinful, and then (best of all) Slightly Dangerous (aka the one in which Wulfric falls in love ::sigh::).  But I do know that it's best to save these for later -- particularly for when I need a book to make me happy.

    TBR Tuesday -- Stating the Obvious

    By the time I read a book off my TBR bench -- particularly if it's the only one by that author -- I've mostly forgotten why I bought it.  In the case of The Wrong Wife by Carolyn McSparren, I got a clue tucked inside the book: a badly faded receipt from August 2000 showing that someone bought Deep in the Heart of Texas by Linda Warren and Renegade Heart from a B. Dalton bookstore in San Francisco.  (And no, I can't tell you who the author is of the latter book -- two were published that month with the same title: a Harlequin Intrigue by Gayle Wilson and a Zebra Historical by Amy J. Fetzer.)  (No, wait, I lie -- the receipt includes the ISBN-10, and the winner is . . . Gayle Wilson.)

    So, I now know I got the McSparren book on my trip to Tiburon, visiting Janet W.  Whether it's one of the books she gave me, or one of the many I bought at a used bookstore in Petaluma -- not sure.

    The Wrong Wife -- an odd title, upon reflection -- is a Harlequin Superromance, which I think simply refers to the length, closer to 300 pages than 200.  When I first picked it up, I was underwhelmed.  Annabelle Langley, the heroine is having visual hallucinations.  I'm no psychiatrist, but visual hallucinations -- barring a conventional explanation like extreme intoxication -- are the sort of symptom that makes me wish the heroine would get to a professional and not into a romantic relationship.  The hero, Ben Jackson, is a local assistant district attorney in Memphis.  His father was, in no particular order, an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a defense attorney (ooh, guess which is the real badge of shame in that trilogy).  In fact, Ben's father got a guy (Elmer Bazemore -- do we even need more evidence to know he's guilty guilty guilty?) off for a lesser crime and then the guy stalks and kills Ben's high school sweetheart, Judy, just because he can.

    Okay, so Ben's got daddy issues.  But that's nothing compared to Annabelle's family saga.  Annabelle's mother, Chantal, was Cajan, sexually promiscuous, and volatile.  Someone shot her when Annabelle was four years old.  Annabelle's dad, Ray, confessed to the murder, copped a plea, went to prison, served his term and his parole and then disappeared, leaving Annabelle to be raised by his mother, Victoria Langley, aka "Grandmere."  Do I even have to tell you what a piece of work Grandmere is?  No, I didn't think so.

    Here's a family tree -- I had to guess at the great-grandparents, but I think I have the basic structure right.  (Click on it if you can't read it.)


    Now, here's my question:  If you were either protagonist, would you pick the other one as an appropriate mate?  Nah, me neither.  But supposedly Ben falls for Annabelle in a Big Way the moment he sees her.  He even climbs a tree.  (No, don't ask.)  She rebuffs him, rejects him, sleeps with him, refuses to date him, renounces him, then says yes.  You get whiplash watching their romance unfold.

    If the book had just been about their romance, it would have been a DNF or a TATW (Throw Against The Wall).  But, it has a murder to solve!  And before you know it, the Stupid Romance between two questionable characters is readable.  Can I figure out whodunnit?  (Yes.)  Can I see the Huge Plot Twist? (No, to McSparren's credit.)  Can I be happy that the Guilty Party or Parties is/are Brought To Justice?  (Sort of.)

    Here, then, is my statement of the obvious:  Even a little bit of suspense can make a ludicrous romance interesting.  Which I'm filing with a previous statement of the obvious:  Making your characters paranormal renders them a lot easier to make interesting to the reader.

    This may explain, just a little, why contemporary romances are currently out of favor.  To make a contemporary romance fun to read, the author has to go that extra distance to make "normal" characters seem vibrant, exciting, intriguing, compelling, and a lot of other "can't wait to see what happens next" adjectives.  Miss that mark, and your book will seem washed out compared to 7-foot-tall hawt vampires or whodunnits.

    In the worst case scenario, your characters will seem obvious.

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    Harder Than It Looks, But Easy Enough To Get Wrong

    I  went on a "Writer's Retreat" yesterday.  It was sponsored by my local RWA chapter, Southern Tier Authors of Romance (STAR).  This event alone was worth my dues -- they rented a local B&B for the day so that everyone got a room of their own to write in with NO phone calls, NO family obligations, NO Internet distractions.

    I got 5,000 words written.

    After it was over, I stopped by a nearby quilt shop and bought some fabric to cheer myself up.  (Hey, after being super-virtuous about my recent medically-imposed diet and passing on scones, clotted cream, lemon curd, fruit tart and croissants, I deserved a low-fat, low-sugar, low-carb treat: 100% cotton!)  The shop's owner, who recognized me, asked about the writer's retreat.

    When I said I was writing a romance novel, she said, "Are you looking forward to being published?"

    I had to laugh.  I explained that for every five thousand romance writers, one gets published.  (I made those numbers up, but I gather they may be approximately right: see the range of answers here.)

    Jennifer seemed perplexed, so I tried to explain.  "It's harder than it looks, but easy enough to get wrong."  She liked that so much, she wrote it down; it seemed to fit her experience running a business.

    Maybe all writing is like that, but it's certainly my experience with writing romance.  I don't suppose every single reader of a romance has thought, "I could do this," but enough have that they then go on to think of their own romance story.  Some may try to write that story.  Of those, some think, "Yes, I want to get published," join RWA, attend conferences, enter contests, query agents and/or publishers, investigate self-publishing or smaller publishers outside the mainstream commercial publishing model, and write write write.

    Some of those writers succeed, some give up, some are still trying.  I don't find the old saw, "I write because I have to," true in my case.  I could do something else, or a whole lot less of anything else.  I write because I think I can succeed.

    The challenge comes in improving my writing while I'm still doing it.  This past week, I focused on characterization.  What might I do better?  There are tons of online courses I could take, as well as conferences I could attend, and contests I could enter that would provide me with feedback.  I have books on writing that all say pretty much the same thing.  It's not the tips and techniques I need, but the wisdom to see how they apply to my writing, to see what I'm doing wrong.

    Reading is easier than writing.  We can read a novel and see what we like and and what we don't.  I'm reading Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt; it starts with a preposterous first chapter in which Lucy, the heroine, assaults the hero, kissing him to gain practice she can then use on this other fellow she thinks she's in love with.  I was irked by this -- it seemed egregiously modern, both in tone and temperament, for a young Englishwoman in 1817.  (I kept thinking, Another fifty years and they'll be locking up a girl like Lucy for being "hysterical.")

    But then Chapter Two starts this way:
    Lucy Waltham's appetite was insatiable.
    Henry liked to jest that when she married, he would provide her with a dowry of two cows, six pigs, and two dozen chickens -- just so her husband could keep her fed.  It was only a joke, of course.  In all likelihood, her dowry would be worth far less.

    Now that's more like it.  We learn a lot of Lucy's character, and Henry's, all in a lovely bit of economical writing.  That's characterization, folks.  That's how it's done.

    But that's reading.  I may be a cranky reader -- no, I am a cranky reader! -- but when I don't like what I'm reading, I know what I don't like and why I don't like it.  I can read my own work, but can I see what works and what doesn't?  Not really.  That's why we have critique partners.  (Mine is invaluable.  Note to self: time to send more bribes gifts to Switzerland.)  The responsibility to improve my writing skills is mine alone, though.  And that's a lot harder than it looks.

    At the same time, writing is easy.  Hey, if I can write 5,000 words in under five hours, I think I've earned the right to say it's easy.  How many of those words are any good, though?  It's easy enough to encourage a false confidence, even arrogance.  It's easy enough to get wrong.

    I could dash off an 80,000 word romance in a wild rush, then submit it to be savaged by agents and editors.  I might learn a lot, or I might learn nothing I didn't already know.  The problem is, I don't bounce back from the "ordeal by market" as quickly as others.  It's not that I don't recognize some basic facts about the process, namely that a) they're aren't actually trying to hurt my feelings, b) there are some really helpful insights in even the cruelest critique, and c) my writing will probably be better if I do what people suggest.  I get all that.  It's just that it's a crude approach.  I'd rather exhaust all my own best-efforts at editing and polishing before I ask others to find the flaws.

    Which leaves me here:  Aware that my work needs something, probably something I can't see, and possibly something I won't know how to fix.

    It's harder than it looks, but easy enough to get wrong.

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    TBR Tuesday -- Three for the Post of One

    I read three books from the TBR bench over the weekend; I guess that's the upside of having a nasty cold: time to read.

    First up: The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild.  Published in 1949, it's the story of an English family who move to California for six months to "cure" the father's depression so he can get back to writing.  There are three children: Rachel, 12, who's a gifted ballerina, Tim, 8, who's a gifted pianist, and Jane, 10, who's plain and not gifted at anything except being a brat.  Through the miraculous coincidences found only in fiction, Jane is cast as Mary in a film version of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett's story of three children healing each other as they rehabilitate a garden.  It's typecasting, of course -- Jane is a foul-tempered little English girl, as Mary was at the beginning of Burnett's book.

    Well, guess what.  Jane isn't magically rehabilitated by her stint as a movie star, and she leaves California pretty much as "black-doggish" as when she arrived.

    Oops -- was that a spoiler?  Sorry.  Actually, I suspect that would be a selling point for a lot of readers, as the book depicts children a bit more realistically than a lot of sunny happy books might.  But my problem with it as a story arc was that Jane's presented as bright and precocious.  In fact, her moods are often an intelligent response to the absurdities of adult rules.  So how come no one bothers to explain to her what's expected of her and why?  I kept thinking that would actually help Jane to know why people didn't like her, but almost all the adults stand around wringing their hands at her moods and sulks.  Is that just a reflection of the child-rearing principles of the day, or was Streatfeild (one is meant to imagine Jane is based the author herself) so bound and determined to not rehabilitate Jane that she overlooked Jane's own powers of self-evolution?

    I enjoyed The Painted Garden, but almost certainly not as much as other readers have and will continue to do.  So, I highly recommend it not because it suited me, but actually because it didn't so much, and I'm weird.  (I think I'll send it to my 10-year-old cousin and see what she thinks.)

    TBR Book Number Two:  The Raven Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt.  I read How to Beguile a Beast a while back and loved it so much I bought all her other books.  The Raven Prince is the first of her "Prince" trilogy.  (She weaves a fairy tale into each story.  It makes her happy, and she writes lovely books, so I begrudge her nothing.  I hope the Brothers Grimm continue to inspire her for years to come...)

    The widow heroine, Anna Wren, needs work, and the local irascible earl needs a secretary, so she gets the job.  First detail I loved: when the salary is announced, it's three pounds per month.  Okay, I'm pretty sure it would have been paid in four quarterly installments, but maybe I'm wrong about that.  What is great is that this is a rational sum of money for 1760.  I looked it up on my Parliamentary Cheat Sheet and three pounds in 1760 had the purchasing power of £323 in 1998.  Not a huge amount, but you can see how it would have paid a few bills at the local shops.  Good going, Ms. Hoyt.

    And here's a bit I liked:  A scullery maid at the earl's estate, upon meeting Mrs. Wren and learning she's to be the latest in a long series of secretaries, volunteers about the earl, "Gives me the chilly trembles, he does, when he shouts."  What a wonderful term.  I really don't care if she made it up (kudos for her imagination) or read it in a book from or about the period (kudos for her research skills); it made me smile.  (It also allowed me to forgive Hoyt for -- twice! -- referring to the hero's eyes as "obsidian."  As anyone who's tried to pair up a black blazer and black slacks purchased separately knows, there's black and then there's black.  But brown eyes so dark they look black?  Yeah, I don't think that color needs a special name.)

    The rest of the book is fairly conventional for a novel of this genre.  They're attracted to each other, they have hot hot sex (very well written hot hot sex, by the way) under contrived circumstances that allow the hero to "not know" with whom he was having hot hot sex for several chapters, and there are Villains and Problems to be gotten rid of.  About the Villains and Problems -- they were so contrived and stupid that I just skipped over them.  D'you suppose writers as good as Elizabeth Hoyt write lovely romances that don't need contrived and stupid Villains and Problems, but then editors say, "We need more Conflict.  We need more Suspense.  Please add Villains and Problems," and the writer dutifully does so?  One thing's for sure, I don't expect Ms. Hoyt to admit it if it were the case.

    Finally, I just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  (The book is not nearly as twee as the title would suggest -- although whether that is a recommendation or a warning, I don't know.)  I'm not going to say a lot about the book's plot (single writer gets a letter from someone who bought a book she'd once owned and that leads to her researching the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and specifically Guernsey, then visiting and . . . it has a happy ending), but I do want to comment on two things.

    First, this book reminded me a lot of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, which although not fictional, has very much the same book-loving feel.  They'd make a great two-book assignment for a book club, I think.  I read 84 Charing Cross Road in the 1980s when it was a big sensation. (For any young `uns out there, it's the real life correspondence between a bookseller in London and a writer in New York about books and various sundry matters.  It is also, in the vernacular, freaking awesome!)  It made a huge impression on me (although I can't now tell you what that impression was) and I was even moved to write a letter to Helene Hanff.  She wrote back, mostly to chastise me for writing in care of her publisher when her actual address was on most of the letters in the book.  (Well, excuse me.)  I know that a lot of authors think how great it is to get fan mail from readers, but my personal experience writing to authors has not inspired me to think it a very smart thing to do.  It's too easy, for me at least, to overly identify with the author and want to Know Her.  I don't blame authors who don't write back -- it's a very fragile barrier between authors and their fans, and I suspect it's a good thing to keep it intact.

    The other book GL&PPPS made me think of is the series of short pieces Dorothy Sayers wrote about Lord and Lady Peter Wimsey and their lives during WWII, which will be in Lord Peter, a collection.  As an American (and one whose only exposure to WWII is from the stories my parents told), the experience of the British during that war is fascinating, and chilling.  The stories of the German occupation of the Channel Islands are fascinating, but not always easy to read.

    Second thing.  What is it about epistolary novels?  They make me bawl my eyes out!  Seriously, it's like the taps are turn on full bore.  What's up with that? Whatever this phenomenon is about, it's had a huge effect on my reading choices.

    On some occasion during my stay in Albany, NY (1983-1992), I went to the library and took out an epistolary novel.  I can remember only a few things about it: it was a hardcover, contemporary fiction, epistolary, and it made me feel so acutely that I just stayed away from "straight" fiction after that.  (I've made a decent effort to figure out what book I'm talking about, but no joy.  It wasn't very famous, clearly.)  Thrillers, mysteries, romances -- all genre fiction was safe.  But I really did not enjoy having my emotions plucked that vigorously.  Oh, I remember one more thing: it had an unhappy ending.  But for that book, I might be reading oh, A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance instead of (or in addition to) The Raven Prince.  Can't say I mind how things worked out, though.


    So, about GL&PPPS -- keep a tissue or three handy if you plan on reading it.  Maybe you won't cry, but better to be prepared.

    Monday, April 5, 2010

    "Haven't We All?": My Foray Into Copyright Infringement

    I had dinner with Brit Hub 1.0, who for the purposes of this post will be known as "my Intellectual Property attorney."  I said to him, "I violated someone's copyright this week," and he responded, "Haven't we all."

    I gaped at him.  This is a man I know for a fact has violated none of the Ten Commandments, and that's a hard claim to make.  And he's a patent attorney -- what's he doing violating copyrights?

    "It's hard not to," he explained.  He pointed to some printouts of articles on the Internet he'd brought with him to dinner.  "Like those.  I don't know if I had tacit permission to copy those."  He shrugged.

    Now, there's no way Brit Hub 1.0 is cavalier about anyone's intellectual property rights, so I explained my situation.  I told him that I'd written a 5,000 word piece of "fan fiction" for The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, a website devoted to reviewing and discussing the books of Betty Neels, a now-deceased author of Mills & Boon romances.  (By the way, that fanfic is up and you can read it here.)  I explained that I'd used the names of the principal characters, the basic plot and some small amounts of dialogue from one of Neels's romances, Fate is Remarkable.  (I'm prepared to defend the use of the dialogue as permitted under the "fair use" doctrine; the rest of it is dodgy, at the very least.)

    BH 1.0 isn't so sure I've violated the copyright in the book, Fate is Remarkable.  According to him, federal courts held that Alice Randall, the author of The Wind Done Gone, didn't violate the copyright when she rewrote Gone With the Wind entirely from the black characters' perspective.  The court held that Randall's take on the story was sufficiently original.  By contrast, the guy who tried to write a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye had violated J.D. Salinger's copyright.

    So -- which is my fan fiction: infringing or sufficiently original?  What I did was to rewrite the same romance, but from the hero's perspective.  Sufficiently original?  I dunno.  At least with the The Wind Done Gone case plausibly on my side, I have what's known in the law as "a straight face" argument, meaning one you can make with a straight face and not feel embarrassed or ashamed or crack up laughing.

    I'm not worried about getting hit with a judgment for the statutory damages under US copyright law.  (In reality, the most that would happen would be that I would get a cease & desist letter, and my fan fiction would be removed as if it had never happened.  So go read it now!)  Here's four reasons why I'm unlikely to be hit with a lawsuit:
    1. I'm not making any money off my fan fiction.  I'm not selling it, and there isn't much of a revenue stream for the nice Bettys at the The Uncrushable Jersey Dress.
    2. I'm not cheating the copyright holder(s) out of any revenue.  If anything, the blog, and my contribution to the blog, may induce a tiny incremental increase in sales of Betty Neels books, and specifically Fate is Remarkable, the one I'm infringing.
    3. The author is deceased.  Yes, the copyright survives, and in theory all the author's rights and interests are passed along with the copyright.  But there is an undeniable interest the author has in her characters, her "babies."  Betty Neels could have come along and said, "I don't like that you're writing about my characters," and that would be a strong moral argument in favor of my ceasing & desisting.  For her heir(s) to come along and say the same thing may be a valid legal argument under US copyright law, but the moral argument is diluted when the heir(s) and I are all in the same position vis a vis the original characters: they're not our babies.
    4. My fan fiction respects the values that Betty Neels included in her books.  She's famous for keeping her characters out of the bedroom before marriage, and keeping the bedroom door shut after marriage.  If I'd written anything racy, that might have made my fan fiction more original, but it would have violated the tone and voice of Betty Neels' writing.
    I'm proud of my little foray into fan fiction -- it's not particularly well written (try condensing the events of an 80,000 word novel into 5,000 words and see how much subtlety and texture you can include!), but it does exactly what I wanted it to do.  It expresses my vision of how the other side of the romance may have gone.

    I'd like to think Betty Neels would have been amused (or perhaps bemused) by my tribute -- but if it had upset her, I'd have taken it down.  Because, while I'm willing to "borrow" the names and plot to write that tribute, I would never argue that I was entitled to do so, or that no infringement took place.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    It Was To Have Been So Nice

    My mother thought that was the saddest sentence in the English language: "It was to have been so nice."  It's a trivial matter to prove this wrong; there are scads of sadder things to say, hear, or read.  But one's sees what she was going for, that sense that if only things had gone differently we'd have enjoyed it so much more.

    Well, that pretty much sums up how I feel right now.  (Actually, I feel lousy.  I have a crappy cold -- the kind that never sounds as bad as you feel, so people don't get how bad you feel -- but even that's part of the same sentiment.  I wanted to have written this post earlier, but couldn't get to it.  And this post, of course, was to have been nicer if I hadn't caught this cold...)

    Back to romance novels.  Here's what I am really talking about.  On Thursday morning, I read Lynn Spencer's glowing review of In for a Penny, by Rose Lerner and thought, "Hey, maybe it's at the Barnes & Noble I go to on Thursdays and I can buy it!"

    This was good news because I've been having the TBR blues, where none of the books in your TBR pile is calling your name and whispering, "Read me."  So I set off with my then-current-read, The Painted Garden by Noel Streatfeild (yes, Ross, it's spelled that way), but not so secretly hoping that I would get the new Lerner romance.

    I was able to buy it, and even able to start it right away.  My first disappointment -- but entirely my fault -- was that it was set in the Regency Era.  I had clearly misread Lynn's review because I thought the book was set in 1919, just after WWI.  Because the plot relies on the hero, newly elevated to his rank as earl upon his father's death, marrying a brewer's daughter for her sizable fortune, my mistake wasn't entirely stupid.  A lot of the English aristrocracy had financial difficulties maintaining estates in the early 20th century.  I can't help thinking that Nev and Penny would have been more interesting in a post-Industrial setting: better educated, more worldly, and so forth.

    At first blush, it doesn't seem as though a century would make a lot of difference.  Plus, silly me minding something that was my own mistake.  So I skipped over that detail and got deeper into the book.  There are definitely some little things that can drive me crazy when I read a novel set in Regency England (overuse of the word "bloody" being one of them), but that's just me being picky and critical and a Bad Sport.  So I skipped over those things as well.  (And, to be fair to Ms. Lerner, she had a lot of historical detail that I can only assume is accurate, so kudos there.)

    As I got further along in the book, though, I discovered it wasn't making me happy the way I had thought it would.  I wondered if this wasn't precisely what people were thinking of when it was posited that writers can't be reviewers, or at the very least need to disclose the intention of having a career as a writer.  Was I bringing too critical an eye to Lerner's book, finding microscopic faults that a more relaxed reader would miss or dismiss as unimportant?

    Well, fair enough, I thought.  It's not the author's fault if all I can say is, "I just don't like it," in the manner of a petulant child.  I can't write about a bad reading experience if it's all just my own demons getting in the way of a good book.  But finally, as I finished it, I identified what the problem with In For a Penny is, for me at least.

    Penny and Nev, the protagonists, aren't allowed to have fun.  For one thing, they have complicated relationships with each other and everyone else who might help them deal with their problems.  No one is on hand to comfort and support them, and they aren't allowed to do that for each other.  Which might have been okay, except these kids have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and among the difficulties they're facing are all the problems that come from a hasty marriage to someone you don't know very well.

    What I mean is, I don't mind reading a well-written book (and this is a well-written book) where the hero and heroine work out their issues.  I don't mind a book where the hero and heroine band together to deal with issues external to themselves, as in, say, a romantic thriller or mystery.  But here's a book where the hero and heroine have to do it all, and aren't having a very good time in the process.  We have his poverty, her being a Cit, his former mistress, her former suitor, his mother & sister, some hinky financial dealings, his former friend, poaching, transportation to "Stralia," (as one little boy puts it) and a very Gothic ending.

    Now, if Penny and Nev had been allowed to fall almost all the way in love, consummate the marriage, get comfortable and start to trust and need each other before they had to deal with the plagues of locusts, boils and hail disaffected workers and greedy neighbors, they might have been a lot happier.  And I would then have been a lot happier.  Because I have to tell you: I can deal with angsty relationships (love `em, actually) or I can deal with the troubles a new couple is likely to face when establishing themselves in unfamiliar roles in a new location.  But to deal with both?  That's no longer delicious romantic angst.  That's stress.  I read romances to get rid of my stress, not to over-identify with the characters' travails.

    Others clearly love In For a Penny, and I think that's great.  I hope Ms. Lerner sells lots of copies and writes many more books.  But I also hope she's learned that she doesn't have to throw everything at her couple while they're trying to learn how to love each other.  Here, I think, less is definitely more.