Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Bravery of Marriage

I've just finished Mary Balogh's Simply Love, the second of the "Simply" books.  I dare say another reader might see it as over-the-top in its emotional manipulation, but I found it very moving.  Not angsty, but actually touching.  And, for a work of fiction, surprisingly true.

This is not a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, even though Anne Jewell is undeniably beautiful and Sydnam Butler is one-half beastly.  (He's scarred on the right side of his face, and his right arm is missing.  He also wears an eye-patch.  On his left side, of course, he's very handsome.)  She's the mother of a child not only born out-of-wedlock but also borne of rape.  These protagonists are damaged when they meet, and their respective scars affect both how they feel about themselves but also how others treat them.  They're outsiders, determined to make the best of their lots in life.

Thankfully, Balogh cuts through all the nobility and self-sacrifice pretty quickly by having them, however implausibly, admit to each other the loneliness they experience.  That's not exactly a meet-cute, but it's honest and must surely have been necessary to allow them to get to know each other.  They don't precisely fall in love, but they marry nonetheless and that's when the real work starts.

Sydnam has the more obvious obstacles to overcome; he used to be a gifted painter but since his injuries in the Peninsular Wars, he's denied that part of his past and refused to consider painting as a possibility in the future.  In Balogh's hands, his struggles with that loss are much more obvious, so much so that Anne's internal devils -- the reasons for her being estranged from her family -- seem almost petty by comparison.

Balogh seems to understand that people only face their demons when they're able to.  Anne's reasons for not being able to face her family seem particularly flimsy, but they are her reasons.  Sydnam understands that even if I (speaking personally) had a hard time with it.  As I read of the early days of their marriage, I was annoyed that Anne could be so compassionate and empathetic to Sydnam's trauma, but so closed and hostile when he tried to return the favor.  Generosity of spirit, I thought, isn't just lending a hand to a loved one, it's also letting a loved one help you.

In the end, I realized that Balogh is smarter than I am.  Marriage (and now I am really speaking personally) provides a wonderful alchemy that makes it possible to face things that were too horrible to face before marriage.  Sydnam is tremendously brave, and was before he married.  It makes sense that he can face his demons first.

His bravery, though, makes it possible for Anne to be really brave for the first time in her life.  She's a survivor, true, and fiercely loyal and determined -- all honorable traits.  But not brave.  I think it is when she sees Sydnam learn to paint with the "wrong" arm that she finds the courage within herself to return to the family she hasn't seen for a decade.

I don't know how this works, I just know it does.  I was braver in my first marriage than I had been single, and I am braver still in my second marriage.  Like Anne, there are some things I cannot yet see how to do, but that list is shorter than ever, and may someday be fully marked as "Done."  I think it is reciprocal; I know that both my first husband and my current husband would say they have accomplished things as a result of marriage they would not otherwise have been able to do.  That's the bravery of marriage: our spouse can't give it to us, but we get it nonetheless.

We read a lot of books about falling in love.  Many evoke with power and insight the feelings of meeting, needing, losing, and finding that One True Love.  But marriage -- real marriage, where sex doesn't solve everything and love is necessary but not sufficient for happiness -- is a uncommon topic in our genre.  This book is about marriage, and as such is a rare and wonderful treat.

Simply Love could have had a different title:  Married Bravery.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

CKC Update: It's Me, Not You. Really.

I'm still working on the Contemporary Keeper Challenge, in which I asked people to recommend contemporary series romances (published since 2000) that they think I'd like enough to keep.  I've explored what makes a book a keeper:  it has something -- characters, their romance, or a specific scene -- just too wonderful to read only once.  I've read some books I felt were flawed, and thus not keepers, and other books that were fine but simply not special enough to be keepers.

I'm here today to claim responsibility for my failure (I should say: my failure so far -- I still have proposed CKC books to read!) to find a keeper among recent series contemporaries.  Here are two specific examples of that:

More than one person recommended Nora Roberts' Considering Kate.  Ironically, I just re-read The Perfect Neighbor, which is virtually the same book in one sense: they are both second-generation romances in sprawling family sagas.  In Considering Kate, our heroine is a retired prima ballerina, returned to her hometown, a college town in West Virginia.  (I may know the real-life prototype for that town; Ross has a cousin living in Buckhannon, home to West Virginia Wesleyan College where her husband had been a professor for decades.  However, there are other candidates, as you can see here.)  She purchases a property to convert to a ballet school and needs a contractor to handle the work.

I suppose it's not fair to suggest that it's a stretch for anyone who has ever hired a contractor to believe that a romance can flourish in an atmosphere of missed deadlines and cost overruns.  In any case, that wasn't a real obstacle for me.  I think I disliked Kate too much to care that she was philandering with the hired help.  I know there are those readers who would particularly appreciate her confidence in making the first move in the mating dance with Brody, but her moves came across to me as being on the wrong side of the self-confident & I-know-what-I-want versus slutty & I'll-go-after-anything-in-trousers divide.

Like I said: It's me, not you.  Really.

I gather one reason Considering Kate is a classic is because Brody is a devoted dad to his son, Jack.  There is a scene late in the book in which Jack does something so gosh-darn-adorable that it melts the hearts of many readers.  I had problems with that scene as well.  Once again, I'm far too cranky for my own good.

As between Considering Kate and The Perfect Neighbor, I'd have to pick The Perfect Neighbor: I liked the characters more and enjoyed their romance.  But it's back in the box waiting to be swapped, and I'm afraid Considering Kate is going to join it.

Here's the other example of why it's me, not you, really.  I read Bought: Damsel in Distress by Lucy King.  It has been well reviewed elsewhere, and I can see why.  It's got a nice set-up (Emily needs a way to get to the South of France for a wedding, and Luke just happens to be heading that way in his private jet) and the characters are enjoyable enough.  Add some high-end accommodations, jewels, and pottery, plus the obligatory hot-hot-hot sex, and it's all frothy & fun.

So why wasn't it a keeper for me?  While it was fun to read, I don't think it would be fun to reread.  That's what a keeper is: the book you finish and think, "I will want to read that again someday."

Bought: Damsel in Distress worked as a keeper for other readers, so what's wrong with me?  I suspect the fact that I'm trying to write a contemporary romance is very prejudicial to this process.  But is it an absolute bar?  I have a test for that.  I was at a book sale the other day (25 cents/paperback, or 6/$1.00 -- I got 18 books for a cool $3.00!) and bought two Harlequin Temptations from the 1980s.  They're both by favorite authors (Gina Wilkins & Kristin James) but I didn't recognize either book.  I probably read them back in the day, but I'm deliberately not checking to see if I still own them, i.e., they were deemed "keepers."

I'll read them and see if either one is a keeper for me today.  This makes sense to me, as I have keepers from series contemporaries published back then, and when I reread those I still think, "I'm going to want to reread this book yet again."  So -- is it that I'm just too curmudgeonly today, or have series romances lost their keeper qualities over the past 25 years?

I'll keep you informed!

Edited to add:

bafriva  has pointed out that Shepherdstown is a real place -- which I could have seen if I'd looked on the very list I linked to.  My bad.  Here's a photo of Reynolds Hall on the Shepherd University campus:


Thanks for keeping me honest -- and it does look like a lovely place to visit, so thanks for the travel recommendation!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Romance Characters Ripped From The Headlines (and from Seinfeld, too)

I've been preoccupied with my Great Office Clean-Up recently, and I'm slogging my way through a gargantuan Elizabeth George mystery, so this is just a quicky blog post.  It doesn't even qualify as a TBR Tuesday because the book I read yesterday -- Nora Roberts' The Perfect Neighbor -- wasn't in my TBR collection.  It was actually waiting to be swapped away.  It's just that when I came upon it while looking for a different book, I thought, "Do I even remember what this was about?"

Of course not.  So I reread it in record time.  It's a late entry in the MacGregor series: Silhouette contemporaries about an extended Scottish-American family.  It didn't take me long to find similarities with real life personalities.  Ever wondered where La Nora gets her inspiration?  Let's see if any of these characters sound familiar (answers at the bottom):
  • A Gaelic patriarch who lives is a grand estate in Hyannis, Massachusetts, and whose son becomes president;
  • The presidential son marries a woman with a French surname;
  • Her family is connected to a recluse cartoonist who specializes in cutting (but funny) political satire;
  • His daughter (heroine of The Perfect Neighbor) has a comic strip of her own about a young woman in the Big City -- and even gets a TV deal based on the comic strip;
  • Her hero is an award-winning playwright whose most famous play is made into a movie.
Okay, I make that: Joseph Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier; Garry Trudeau; Lea Thompson's character in the TV show Caroline in the City; and -- David Mamet? Sam Shepard?  I will admit that last one is less clear -- Shepard is better looking but Mamet is prickly the way Preston McQuinn was.

And that's just from one book.  Oh, and there was a snippet of dialogue, which I won't bother transcribing, between Cybil (the heroine) and her BFF that was pure Seinfeld.  BFF asks Cybil how her & Preston's first kiss rated on a scale from 1 to 10.  Cybil answers that there is no scale, and the BFF suddenly sounds like a female George Constanza when she says, "You got the fabled No Scale?!" and then riffs on that theme for quite a while.  (What a concept: a romance novel about nothing.)

The whole book was like that -- it had its own quirky charm, like opening a short-term time capsule from the 1990s.  I may have to read other MacGregor books (out of the library, of course) just to see if they were all that kicky.

BTW:  The Kennedy Compound, in real life, looks like this:



But based on Roberts' description, Castle MacGregor might have been a grayer stone version of this:

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Room Without a View

I took some time off from reading and writing to do something possibly even more important.  I recreated my office space.

Here's what my office looked like when it was Brit Hub 1.0's tool room:


(Go ahead & click it for the full effect.)

Here's what it looks like now:


That's with the flash on, which is pretty accurate as to colors, but is a bit glaring.  Here it is without the flash:



I have spared you the photos of "Before" meaning before I tidied it up. It was bad. I'm not a great housekeeper, mostly because -- well, no, I'm not sure why I'm a bad housekeeper. I just am.

Here's the rest of the room (which isn't big -- 14' by 16' maybe?):




That's where quilts are (in theory, at least) made.  I'm working on one now, but I've only just started to cut out the fabrics for it:


(Laura, if you're reading this, those are the fabrics -- your focus fabric is in the top left corner.)

Prior to this, there was a tiny Ikea desk and computer in the corner where my big comfy chair is now.  That was fine when I was doing the modicum of legal work I needed to do, but when I started writing, I bought a laptop and found myself doing all my blogging and other writing in an armchair upstairs.

There were advantages to this, and disadvantages.  Mostly, I think, it felt temporary.  I understand I can write anywhere, and I have.  But I had this pretty office, so why wasn't I using it?  So we moved the computer desk into Ross's office (to join his two other computers in there -- he does his software compiling there and his blogging upstairs) and took the comfy chair out and into my office.  Add a bed for the dog, clear out all the clobber, and hey presto, I have an office.

Without a view.  Because the only window is tiny and looks up at pine trees.  This is actually a good thing; sunlight would not be good for my quilting fabric.

(There are more pictures of my quilting stash here.  And if you really want to see how untidy it can get, just click on the Older Posts from there.  It's bad, though.  Very bad.)

But still, there's a view of a different sort.  Here's what I can see from my new workstation:

Friday, June 18, 2010

MMM - Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer

romance novelsThis is Ross here, aka Crossword Man, reporting on Magdalen's Mandatory Manread assignment. I can't say I was thrilled with the prospect of reading a romance novel, much less write about it, which is perhaps why it's taken me since January to "get around to" a post about the experience.

Why did I agree to do it then? Well, for one thing, I give in to Magdalen easily. She also went for the old trick of giving me lots of options about which book I could read, while making it clear I had to read something. Plus I had a certain curiosity about the bodice-ripping world into which Magdalen immerses herself. And, although thinking what to say isn't easy, I love choosing the pictures for a blog post.

Morning GloryOf the books on offer, I opted for Morning Glory by LaVyrle Spencer, largely because of its setting in the American South around the time of World War II. As a Brit recent arrived in the USA, I'm trying to immerse myself in American culture, current and historical, a challenge I write about every day in An Englishman Solves American Crosswords. The last thing I wanted to do was read a historical romance set in England, which (to judge by Magdalen's experience) would be sure to contain a host of actual or suspected inaccuracies.

Oliver TwistAt the start of Morning Glory, I immediately felt alienated from the hero Will Parker, who steals apples and buttermilk in the second paragraph. That made me a little uncertain of his character throughout the book, though less so as the story progresses. I particularly relate to his gradual tidying up of the heroine's property; this seems to be our lot in life too, although we haven't tried to keep bees yet. Anyway, the author paints an ambiguous picture of Will, quite unlike what I'm used to in a Dickens hero, who would rather die than steal from someone else.

The heroine Elly Dinsmore also starts out as a relatively unsympathetic character, seemingly still half-crazy after a childhood in which she isn't allowed out of the house (and then when forced to, to go to school, is of course teased mercilessly). She advertises for a husband (did that really happen??), as follows, which is how she meets and comes to marry Will (only falling in love with him after he proves himself in the early months of the marriage):
WANTED--A HUSBAND. Need
healthy man of any age willing
to work a spread and share the
place. See E. Dinsmore, top of
Rock Creek Road.

The lurching gyrations in the hero and heroine's life towards the end of the book are I gather par for the course for the romance genre: things seem to be going along swimmingly until Will is wrongly accused of murder and in a moment the relationship falls apart - admittedly Elly soon changes her mind about her husband's guilt, but Will goes to pieces in jail and imagines his wife couldn't love him. A few pages later, Will is cleared of the charges and the couple are back to normal just in time for the book to end.

I'm a librarian. Don't make me Shush your ass.The character I like the most is the librarian Gladys Beasley, and there's a hint at the end of the book that she'll belatedly get into a romance of her own with Robert Collins, the lawyer who saves Will from the murder charge. Miss Beasley is a wonderful comic character, who appears stern to start with, but sees the good side in Will and gives him a job as a janitor in the library.

Some of the other minor characters are less believable to the point of being clichéd: I've never come across anyone quite like Lula Peak, the town floozy who has the hots for Will; and the sadistic foreman Harley Overmire seems reminiscent of many movie villains.

Gordon County Courthouse - Calhoun, GAI'm puzzled about Whitney, GA, the town where Elly and Will live. Although there is a small place by that name in Georgia, I don't think it's the one in which the book is set. Will and/or Elly make trips into Calhoun, Georgia to get married and see movies such as Gone with the Wind (1939) there; it's also the setting for the climactic court case at the end of the book. Whitney, GA is presumably fictional then, set somewhere in Gordon County ... I imagine the courthouse as looking very like it does today (see right).

Here are some random things I learned from the book:

row houses in Atlanta
how to tell a row house from a frame house (terraced and detached houses in Britspeak)

Ball jar
that a Ball jar is like a Mason jar

Sen-Sen
civilians had to make do with the "rotten" Sen-Sen because Wrigley's gave all the gum to the troops

rural 1930s kitchen
if a kitchen didn't have a faucet, water was stored in a "reservoir", the lid of which was a great place for keeping food cool

To sum up, I enjoyed reading Morning Glory, but less for the romantic story than the picture it paints of the time and place, and the comic aspects. Clearly it is a well-regarded romance, winning a Romance Writers of America RITA Award. It's just not my fav genre and when I get a chance to read fiction, I'll stick to my preference for comedy (Wodehouse, Waugh et al) and classic fiction from Dickens onwards.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Makes a Hero Sexy?

Among the books suggested for my Contemporary Keeper Challenge was Linda Howard's A Game of Chance.  It's not eligible for the prize for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I already have it in my Keeper collection!  (Think about it -- if the challenge was simply to guess which books I have already Kept, a lot of people could win.)

I thought I would reread it anyway, just to honor the suggestion.  It has reminded me why Alpha Males as so popular, and why they don't do it for me quite so much.

Diana, who suggested this book, said quite firmly that if I didn't like it I shouldn't tell her.  Hey, Diana -- I like it.  I like Linda Howard's books.  I keep Linda Howard's books.  I just don't like Alpha Males quite as much as the next person.  And that's okay -- it's a huge genre, and we can all love the heroes we love.

In case you don't know the backstory, Linda Howard wrote a very famous book, Mackenzie's Mountain, in which a para-paranormal hero, Wolf Mackenzie, marries a dowdy virginal female named Mary.  Wolf Mackenzie has all the genetic traits of the classic Alpha Male: strong, knows what's his, doesn't take no for an answer, but underneath it all he's vulnerable and needs his mate.  When I very first got involved with romance novel readers on the Internet, the Mackenzie stories were the Black Dagger Brotherhood books of their day: they seemed to make readers swoon.

*  He's a para-paranormal because he's clearly a werewolf made wholly human, even if Howard doesn't say that.  Don't believe me?  Allow me to remind you of the first two paragraphs:
He needed a woman.  Bad.

Wolf Mackenzie spent a restless night, with the bright full moon throwing silver light on the empty pillow beside him.  His body ached with need, the sexual need of a healthy man, and the passing hours only intensified his frustration.  Finally he got out of bed and walked naked to the window, his big body moving with fluid power.  The wooden floor was icy beneath his bare feet but he welcomed the discomfort, for it cooled the undirected desire that heated his blood.

Well, does she miss any lycanthropic iconography?  Full moon, overheated body, extreme sexual need at a certain time of the month???

Anyway, Wolf & Mary get married, Wolf's son Joe gets married, a couple nearly-anonymous Mackenzie brothers get married without getting a book, Maris gets married in a novella, Zane gets on the Navy SEAL bandwagon and then gets married AND builds a secret lair.  Which leaves Chance.  Chance is your basic "I found him nearly dead on the side of the road, honey.  Can I keep him?  Hunh?  Hunh?!" foundling adoptive son.  I've commented on backstories that are just too traumatic in the case of Nora Roberts' Chesapeake Bay heroes, but I'm inclined to give Linda Howard a pass in the case of Chance.  He has an appropriate degree of neuroses (doesn't like to be touched, for example) but even he's aware he's come a long way.

The Mackenzie men have jobs that keep getting better.  Wolf is an almost pedestrian landowner in Wyoming, Joe ends up being the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Zane has a shadowy job in counter-terrorism, and Chance is a virtual ghost in the same field.  (Where do you apply for these shadowy jobs, The AlphaManpower Agency?)  He's looking for a way to get close to a European terrorist (the book was published prior to 9/11), and he figures he's found it when he discovers that Sunny Miller is actually Herr Terrorist's secret daughter.  She must be working with her dad, right?

Of course, she's not.  She's the heroine.  In A Game of Chance, all you really need to know is that Sunny is keeping secrets from Chance and Chance is keeping secrets from Sunny, and they do eventually get it all worked out.  And yes, all your favorite Mackenzies come back.  (Incidentally, if you like the thriller parts of these books, might I suggest the Jane Whitefield books by Thomas Perry.  Less romance, but a much more plausible set of crosses and double-crosses.)

Chance opens the book on his motorcycle:
Riding a motorcycle always gave him a hard-on, and his own visceral reaction to the speed and power never failed to amuse him.

Danger was sexy.  Every warrior knew it, though it wasn't something people were going to read about in their Sunday newspaper magazines.  His brother Josh freely admitted that landing a fighter on a carrier deck had always turned him on.  "It falls just short of an orgasm," was the way Josh put it.  Joe, who could fly any jet built, refrained from commenting but always smiled a slow, knowing smile.

Mind you, at the time that we learn this fascinating insight, Chance is riding his motorcycle without a helmet.  I guess danger is a broad enough category that it can include foolhardiness.  There's a similar moment after he and Sunny are faux-stranded in a Nevada box canyon with only 36 condoms -- enough for a week, Chance assures her.  Only the second time they "do it" -- yup, he's bareback.

Is that really what marks an Alpha Male?  I see now why I prefer the heroes in the mold of Sherlock Holmes: omniscient and able to see dozens of steps into the future.  The only way one of them is going to risk getting a woman pregnant is because he wants her to bear his child.

Is wearing a motorcycle helmet wimpy?  Would it kill one of these "I'm so carried away with passion for you, I cannot be bothered with protection" guys to think about the consequences?  I don't find that as much of a turn-on as this exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, the two greatest brains of their time:

MORIARTY: All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.
HOLMES: Then my answer to you has already crossed yours. 

I was a teenager when I first saw this play (Sherlock Holmes by William Gillette, a renowned American actor) on the stage in New York City.  I swooned when I saw this bit -- in effect, their powers of deduction are so great they don't even need the convention of actually saying things out loud.  Now that is sexy.

But that's just me.
.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

TBR Tuesday/CKC -- Hunt the Hill, Win the Hill

Before I get to today's TBR read, I want to make a little list of the books/authors that are in my Contemporary Keeper Challenge:
  • The Older Woman by Cheryl Reavis
  • Lost Cause by Janice Kay Johnson
  • Dr. Dad & Hidden Treasures by Judith Arnold
  • Stealing Shadows by Kay Hooper
  • Considering Kate by Nora Roberts
  • A Game of Chance by Linda Howard
  • The Passion of Patrick MacNeill by Virginia Kantra
  • Coming Home to You by Fay Robinson
If the title is in red, I've read it.  I'm going to read all of these books and see if there's a keeper in the bunch.  I would dearly love to give the prize because that would mean a) I was wrong, and b) I have a new keeper contemporary, and possibly even a new favorite author.

Today's book, Cheryl Reavis's The Older Woman is a daring but flawed book.  Here are the reasons it's daring:  The POV is entirely the hero's.  From start to finish.  And the narrative seems appropriately incomplete as a result.  He tells us some things (even what she's wearing in most scenes) but not other things (what's wrong with his legs, how much older she is, etc.).  And having the guy's POV was very effective in getting us to empathize with him even to the heroine's detriment.  When she says "No," to his offer of a date, we scratch our heads right along with him.  What's her problem?  Pah! Women!

Another reason it's great:  It's got a great love story.  Unfortunately, it's 60 years old, but great love is still great love.  Cal's landlady, Mrs. Bee (a former schoolteacher who maybe taught spelling -?), makes dinner for Cal and Kate: meatloaf, homemade rolls, sides, and two pies.  It's the anniversary of her marriage to Bud Gaffney, who shipped off to WWII and never came home.  He'd written her wonderful letters, asking her to make him his favorite meal when he got home.  Every year on their wedding anniversary, she does exactly that.  Try reading that scene with a dry eye.

I have some quibbles about The Other Woman -- it's a very slow starter for example, and Reavis could have gotten the various women in the story to drag out of Cal some of the details he wasn't revealing himself.  But overall I enjoyed seeing a romance from the guy's POV.  Here's a quick example of romance from Cal's perspective:
[I]n his opinion, [high maintenance women were] the only kind worth having.  Something was seriously wrong with a guy who could be happy with a doormat.

I really wanted to pick a fight with Cal at this point.  Uh, buddy, do you actually think women are either "high-maintenance" or "doormats"?  Seriously?  But for all I know, guys think like that.

On balance, then, this was a fun and emotionally affecting book.  So why isn't it a keeper?  A couple reasons.  In the discussions about keeper books I've had here recently, one thing keeps coming up:  We keep those books whose characters and stories we want (or need) to be able to revisit.  Keeper books make us feel something special and specific to that book, and as long as that feeling can be re-experienced, we keep the book.  (Thanks, specifically, to bafriva for her analysis on this point.)

I just didn't feel that with The Older Woman.  It was generically charming, and the gimmick of getting only Cal's POV didn't really elevate the story above that.  If Reavis had trimmed the lead-in but expanded -- a lot -- the relationship between Cal & Kate, and also shown us a lot more of who they were as people, then maybe.  But their relationship is fundamentally formulaic:
  1. Previously platonic situational relationship, 
  2. suddenly see each other in a new way, 
  3. romantically ambiguous date-or-is-it-just-friends-eating-together?, 
  4. The Kiss, 
  5. pursuit (which Cal, a paratrooper, refers to as "hunt the hill, win the hill"), 
  6. sexual consummation, 
  7. realization of feelings, 
  8. misunderstanding, 
  9. renewed effort to "win the hill," 
  10. HEA.
I found Cal and Kate to be charming people, and I very much enjoyed my time with them.  But I guess they weren't "high-maintenance" enough for me.
.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Unpleasantness

I'm reading Well Respected Book by Famous Author.  Book justly deserves its approving reviews; Author is appropriately well-loved.

I'm not going to tell you the title or Author's real name; you'll understand by the end of this post.  I was happily reading Well Respected Book this afternoon when I got to the tiniest amount (seriously: roughly 4%) of Book in which Something Bad happens to the heroine.  Bluntly, she's tortured.  But it's the way she's tortured.  She's tortured by someone who wants to impress upon her that he has all the power and she has none.  Oh, and she's friendless, and all hope is gone.

In the hands of a lesser writer than Famous Author, this would just be a bit of melodrama, some Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling with a nasty old henchman.  But Famous Author gets it.  She knows.

She knows that the worst feeling in the world (okay, the worst feeling in my world) is that sense that someone else has you in their control, there is no hope, and they have no compunction inflicting pain.  Of that triad, the infliction of pain is a sliver in the pie chart of horror.  Because the people with the power, the people who've made sure there is no hope, are people the heroine should be able to trust.

Right.  Back to my reading.  So I read this 4% bit of Well Respected Book and thought nothing of it.  Maybe there was a little chill, as if the fridge door was left open too long.  No more than that.  Then I'm futzing around on Facebook, where a woman I have never met and don't know very well politely informs me she can't help me with a game we're both playing.  It's a game.  It's not real.  I have no claim on this woman's assistance.  Doesn't matter -- I completely overreacted.  Now it doesn't feel like the fridge door is open; it's like the door's shut with me locked inside.  I started having really off-kilter thoughts, that somehow I'd committed some solecism, offended this woman somehow.  Bluntly, I went crazy.

Unpleasant.

This isn't the first time I've had a bad reaction to something Famous Author has written.  Her books are, for the most part, keepers for me.  But one of hers that other people adore was so difficult for me to read I suspect I never finished it, and it's not too surprising that I didn't read any others of hers for years.

Now, I don't know anything at all about Famous Author in real life.  I hope these tiny black holes in her books -- which suck me in but barely register with most readers -- aren't evidence that she too had a Bad Childhood.  I really hope that, but I can't think why else this stuff would make it into her books.

It reminds me of reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  When the Dementors are introduced, the description of how they make a person feel is easily recognized as the symptoms of clinical depression - - but only to a reader who has experienced depression.  To everyone else, they are just particularly nasty bogeymen.  But J.K. Rowling has admitted that she wrote them after a time in her life when she was clinically depressed.

I have been treated as the heroine in Well Respected Book was treated in that 4%.  The pain is negligible; it's looking at people who are supposed to be protecting you and seeing the opposite intention on their faces, that's where the coldness comes from.  And rather like Book's heroine, I assumed I deserved it.  That's not a rational assumption, but then nothing about the situation is rational.  The intent of the perpetrators is not rational, their actions are not rational, that there is no rescue and no one to seek help from is not rational.  So concluding that I have earned this treatment is both irrational and logically consistent with reality.

This isn't my favorite form of emotional synergy when reading.  Like brushing up against a Dementor, these experiences linger unpleasantly.  I suspect if these bits made up more than 4% of Book, I would decline to read Famous Author again with no real idea why.  Which would be a shame, because she's a great writer, and these are great books.

They certainly have the power to make me feel. 
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Friday, June 11, 2010

Emotional Synergy


I've written recently about keepers and about rereading.  Heraclitus (and Siddhartha) remarked that you can't go in the same river twice.  Without getting into elaborate angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin type arguments what what constitutes a river, I agree with the basic principle that you can't do the same thing in precisely the same way and get the same experience.  More to the point, you can't read the same book twice.  Having read it once, even decades earlier, even if you've completely forgotten it -- it's not the same book.

Oh, the book hasn't changed, but the reading of it has.  Who you are has changed, so the way you read it is different.  You might focus on different elements, different passages, you might read faster or slower, you might like characters in a new way while disliking others you'd previously not cared about.

And your emotional response to a book may have changed.

I'm a big believer in each of us being resonant to different things.  Bluntly, I believe in psychology; what has happened to us in our past (including five minutes ago) shapes the way we move through the present.  Something makes us cry because of its power to evoke emotion; we grant that power -- subconsciously at least -- because of that swirling mix of experiences and attitudes we have woven into our characters, into our souls.

Reading, like listening to music, can evoke emotions.  At a bare minimum, it makes us smile with the reflected glow of a solid HEA.  At its most potent, reading can rock our foundations, change our lives, trigger a personal epiphany, help us heal.  Well -- maybe it's not done any of those things for you, but it has for me.

Which is why rereading keeper books is such a risky proposition.  Will a book that moved me 20 years ago -- when I was single, underemployed but overeducated, and only just starting to find my place in the world (what can I say? I was a late bloomer) and so was very receptive to emotionally powerful books -- still move me today?  Or will the emotional synergy be missing?

I'm not keeping score, but so far most of the keepers I've reread have held up.  I'm clearly not the same person I was back then, but in the best books there's something that I can still relate to.  There may not be the same degree of emotional synergy, but it's still there.  I may not be having the same overwhelming experiences, but then so much about my life now is improved.  Maybe I don't need reading to do the same things.

What books affected you the most?  Do they hold up over time?

Upon reading this, my husband suggested I link to some books I've reread to see if they still have emotional resonance:  The Lonely Shore by Anne Weale; Fate is Remarkable by Betty Neels (here's a link to my Fate is Remarkable fan fiction over at The Uncrushable Jersey Dress); Island Nights by Glenda Sanders, These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer; and  To Have and To Hold by Patricia GaffneyAnd for comic relief, a dud: Swift Water by Emilie Loring

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

TBR Tuesday (+1) -- It's a Far Far Better Book I Read

Sorry that this is a day late.  I'm still working through the books recommended to me as part of the Keeper Contemporary Challenge.  But I was late getting to today's book, The Passion of Patrick MacNeill by Virginia Kantra, because of the deep, rich bittersweet chocolate that reading Joanna Bourne's The Forbidden Rose turned out to be.  The Bourne book, a prequel to The Spymaster's Lady and My Lord and Spymaster, is rather sad despite the requisite HEA.  Not sad in a bad way, in fact I think it's sad in just the way a spy novel set during the events of the French Revolution should be.

Here's where I confess that I did not read A Tale of Two Cities in high school.  I sat in the back of my English class and knit, a la Madame Defarge.  I just didn't bother to read the book.  (Bad me.)  But I asked Brit Hub 2.0, a Dickens aficionado, how sad AToTC is and he said a 7 or 8 out of 10.  Sounds about right to me.  I would say The Forbidden Rose was maybe a 4 out of 10 -- but if you think about it, that's pretty high for a romance novel.  Angstiness resolved by the HEA is very different from the lingering sadness caused by the upheaval and loss suffered by the protagonists, even if they make it out alive and together.  (It is still a great book; I am not damning it with faint praise, really.)

But that's not really the point of the title to this post.  I went to the library on Monday.  As we all know, library books are at the top of the hierarchy of any TBR pile because of that famous Anglo-American judicial axiom: You snooze you lose.  Either the book goes back or money flows in the form of fines.  But when I went to the library to collect the latest Lee Child thriller (mmm, Jack Reacher!) I picked three other books: a series romance by Nalini Singh, the latest Elizabeth George, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larssen.  None of those is a quick read, with the exception of the Nalini Singh. 

As a consequence, I'm going to be reading some non-romance novels for a while.  I'll report in, though, just so you know I am still reading.

However, before I dig into those library treasures, I wanted to get one of the KCC books read.  Patrick MacNeill was published in 1999, but I'm counting it for the KC Challenge because Kantra is primarily a 2000s author.  Patrick's brothers, Con and Sean, also have their romances, both published in the 2000s.  The three brothers grew up in a tight-knit Boston Irish family.  Patrick dated his high school sweetheart, Holly, married her around the time he was in the Marines, and started a family.  But when his son, Jack, was four months old, Holly's car was hit by a drunk driver.  Holly was killed and the baby was badly burned.  Dr. Kate Sinclair was in the hospital when the baby was brought in, but four years go by before she's back at that particular hospital's burn unit.  Jack isn't her patient, only he is, and so she runs into the dad a lot.

The rest of the book is a rather slow but steady progression through the development of their relationship.  There's no one reason why they shouldn't date, assuming the fact that Jack is technically not Kate's patient takes care of any professional conduct issues.  I don't know what the rules are for doctors, but lawyers aren't allowed to date their clients.  If there's any parallel between the two professions, then Jack is Kate's patient no matter what the chart says, and she probably shouldn't be dating the dad.  Enh, not that important an issue.

What struck me as important is that with that one ethical issue off the table, there's sod all reason for these two not to date.  Which means that more than half the book really makes no sense.  Get `em in a relationship -- there's still tension there.  Instead, all blood in the protagonists' heads pools in their groins and they stop thinking.  Alas, this made the ending particularly bloodless.  For me, at least.

So the book is going right back into my "TBS" (to be swapped) pile.  Not a bad book, but not nearly special enough.  And that made me think: what would be special enough?  Well, take the basic elements of a contemporary romance:
  • Hero
  • Heroine
  • Set-up
  • Story arc (for each of them and for their relationship)
  • Conflict and/or tension
  • Emotional dip as they think it might not work
  • Happy ever after ending
Some or all of those have to be special for me to think, "Wow, I'm not letting go of this book."  I fully admit I was more generous back then about what a book had to be like to be a keeper.  But a lot of the books I kept I would still keep.  I could write up specific books by Barbara Delinsky back when she wrote for Harlequin, or for Candace Camp (writing as Kristin James) when she wrote for Silhouette, but I have already done it for two other contemporary authors: Glenda Sanders and Beverly Sommers.  I'm not sure if Beverly Sommers would be a keeper author today the way she was 20 years ago, but the Glenda Sanders books were even better upon rereading.  (We lost an awesome talent the day she stopped writing.)

So I know there can be a series contemporary romance worth keeping.  It could be that some of those other books you recommended are going to be keepers, so keep checking back.  I will read them all, I promise.  And the prize is still on the table!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Cranky Reader Opines

In a phone conversation with my "industry insider" (a former editor for a Harlequin Enterprises line who currently works for one of the big NYC commercial publishers), I said out loud, "Julia Quinn killed the Regency romance."

This is a false statement in more than one way.  First, the Regency isn't strictly speaking "dead" as long Jo Beverley and Mary Balogh are publishing.  But Regency-era romances have taken a hit in recent years.  My insider-friend (I'm resisting calling her "Deep Throat" or any pun like it) told me that publishers resist publishing Regency romances because they don't sell enough copies.  Even if the heyday of Regencies, when Signet and Fawcett/Coventry both had consistent lines with some excellent authors, is past us, we're still getting new and satisfying single-title format books from the likes of Elizabeth Hoyt and Joanna Bourne (about whom more, below).

And it is unfair to blame this all on Julia Quinn.  She was hardly the first author to think it fun to write in a fast-and-loose style bearing the tiniest possible resemblance to a Jane Austen novel, or a Georgette Heyer romance.  I'm not enough of a historian to be able to point to the precise moment when readers were allowed to have candy in place of a healthy & wholesome supper.  But you have to admit that as frothy and fun as JQ's books are, they're not even pretending to be plausible.  The attitudes, issues and dialogue all point to modern American culture, not the culture of early 19th century England.

I don't have kids, but I babysat for 25 years.  Feeding kids candy for supper doesn't only ruin their appetite for healthy food, it gives them a sense of entitlement.  When next you provide them with meat and veg, they're apt to sneer at you and demand the Snickers.  Less of a market for the meat and veg.  (It's too bad this is a metaphor; if it were true that Julia Quinn really did cause a drop in the demand for beef, say, we might get another Oprah versus the Cattlemen showdown.)

Next opinion:  I'd never heard of Ann Herendeen's book, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander before yesterday.  I haven't read it, and I don't have an opinion about whether it's a good book or not.  Heck, I'm so ignorant about romances with three protagonists (in Phyllida's case, she marries a man she knows is inclined exclusively toward other men, but they get on all right and when another man enters the picture, all three of them get on all right . . . or so I've been led to believe) that I honestly don't know the significance of whether it's an M/M/F romance or M/F/M -- is it a matter of who gets into the bed first?  Because surely the point of a romance with three protagonists is that each member loves (emotionally and physically) two other people, regardless of who got there first.  We write the letters in a straight line, but they ought to be arrayed in a triangle, right?

But it got me thinking.  If the appeal of M/M romances is in some part voyeuristic, and the appeal for (some) (all?) M/F romances derives from the reader being able to put herself in the heroine's shoes (or bed), then what's the appeal of two Ms and one F, in any configuration?  In theory, it could be this: the reader (an F) puts herself in the M/M action -- a ringside seat, of sorts -- by virtue of the sole heroine's involvement in the story.  Only as others have pointed out, why would the reader want that?  Isn't the romantic paradigm "I am the one for my beloved," and not "I'm one of two."  I suppose these novels offer a completely different paradigm:  "I am loved by two, and get to watch them love each other."

It seems a hard paradigm to promote, though.

Finally, I'm reading The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne.  Now, here's an author who uses the building blocks of prose to awesome advantage.  I'm only on p. 119, but here are some of my favorite examples (context provided in italics):
She could not, not ever again for all of eternity, unknow what she knew of his body.  Someday, when she was old, she would take this knowledge out as if it were a letter she had treasured.  By then, the pain would be thin and crackly, like old paper.

She would be changed as well.  She was quite certain old women did not feel this sort of pain.  As if the air were knives that cut, going in and out of the throat.

[After seeing her naked as she changed into clothes he'd stolen for her, and then saving her life.]  He leaned to her breast . . . "I wanted this," he whispered.  "Couldn't get the picture out of my head.  You, by the fish fountain, dressed in nothing but morning.  That's not something a man forgets."


[Sitting together in the dark, talking.  The hero says . . .] "I had to walk away, once, and leave everything.  My books.  Ideas I'd written down.  Essays."  He didn't move, but his stillness changed in quality.  "My father burned it all."

She did not rush to fill the silence up, in case [he] might have a use for it.

I would argue that not one of those word-pictures is gratuitous or overly flowery.  And as you know, I have an innate aversion to flowery prose.

But as good as I think Bourne's writing is, why the hell is she writing about spies?  The world is hardly clamoring for another romance novel about "The Game."  In particular, unless John leCarré starts writing about British espionage in the late 18th and early 19th century, I'm not sure it's so easy to understand what British spies of the period did and why.  It's all very twisty and not necessarily England's finest hour in geopolitics.  (Here's a snippet on William Wickham for a taste of what was involved.)

No matter.  Authors are 100% entitled to write about what they want, so have at it, Ms. Bourne.  I'm in.

There's a saying, "Good enough for government work."  Back in the 1980s, my cousin and I rewrote that to make it more topical, "Good enough for an ABC sitcom."  Well, I'm tempted to rewrite another expression, "She could read the phone book and I'd listen to it," to this:  "She could write a spy romance and I would read it."  Because that's how good Joanna Bourne is.
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Friday, June 4, 2010

The Antidote

Anime June did a wonderful (and justly famous) guest blog post over at Babbling About Books in which she details (rather in the style of an anti-drug public service announcement) the ten worst cliches in romance novels.  Coincidentally, I had seen that Joan Smith wrote a book I was pretty sure I had never read, Sweet and Twenty.  Even more coincidentally, I started to read it just a day or two after reading Anime June's guest post.

Here are the two reasons why Sweet and Twenty isn't a great romance:

1.  It's not at all angsty.

2.  It's not very passionate.

I could write about those two reasons, but who cares.  What's cool about Sweet and Twenty is that it's the perfect antidote to many of AJ's cliches.

It starts by twitting the presumption that beauty and innocence in a heroine is always a good thing.  Sir Gerald Monteith married a beauty when he should have married a fortune and discovered too late that his bride's innocence was actually ignorance.  When their daughter Sara turns out to be as pretty as her mother had been, Sir Gerald knows what needs to be done:
This beautiful bloom was cultivated, nurtured, and tended with all the care given a rare orchid.  Her manners were groomed to please the highest-ranking suitors; her face and form were tended with oils and exercise respectively, for no excess of fat must be allowed to build up on that celestial body till she was profitably disposed of in marriage. . . . No matter weightier than the weather was ever discussed with Sara, for fear of bringing a wrinkle to her perfect brow or a crowsfoot to the corner of that incomparable eye.

Alas, Sir Gerald dies before the "disposal" of his daughter can be accomplished.  That explains why his sister, Martha Monteith, and a cousin, Lillian Watters, descend on the widowed Lady Monteith and her daughter.

Here's how Smith telegraphs the differences between the deliciously lovely Sara and the rather more ordinary Lillian.  After mentally itemizing her own superiority in looks to her cousin, Sara -- who is described as being "content to sit gazing at a flower or a canary for half an hour at a stretch, and a person of very little conversation could hold her captivated endlessly" -- reflects thusly:
She was afraid Cousin Lillian would be the kind of lady who asked her what books she liked, and whether she played whist, and even what she thought about Napoleon and Wellington or some of those soldiers who were always fighting wars in countries with funny names.  The war had been over since June, but Sara had not yet discovered it.  She was very happy to live in England where there were no wars, and never had been as far as she knew.

Sara admits to her cousin that her favorite book is Peter Pepper's Perfect Day, a novel so engrossing that Sara had read it six times, "once a year since she was eleven."
It was the best book ever written, and she often wished she could have such a perfect day.  So clever the way the writer could think of hundreds of words all starting with a P.  "Peter put pepper on his potato," and "Peter played a pipe," and "Peter pelted pips at people" -- dozens of P's on every single page.  There was never another book like it.

Cousin Lillian clearly gets the point -- no slow-top she! -- and as they get acquainted "by silently looking at the leaves together," Lillian says, "The lovely leaves look languid," and next, "And the grass is growing greatly," and then, to encourage Sara to show her the garden, "Lounging ladies lack liveliness."  Sara can tell there's something odd about this conversation, but isn't sure what.
Another frown creased Sara's brow.  Since her papa was no longer there to chide her for the habit, she was frowning two or three times a week.  "That rhymes," she said, having solved the mystery of her cousin's talk at last.
"Not quite, but you're on the track," Lillian replied, and gave Sara a hand to get up from the bench.
"Just like Peter Pepper!  Cousin, have you read a book too?" she demanded.
"I have read three or four," Lillian told her, "but I have never read one six times, so you needn't fear I'll outpace you."

Ah, the joys of a smart author.

But what of our hero?  Here's where Sweet and Twenty becomes downright subversive.  He's not titled!  He's not tortured!  We're not even sure he's got very much money!!  He's Matthew Hudson, a tall, dark man with grey hair at the temples but quite young-looking nonetheless.  (Several people think he looks like a judge.)  He is also the Whig whip and a whipper-in sent by the Whig leader, Lord Brougham, to get a Whig elected in the West Country riding the Monteiths live in.  He's putting up Mr. Anthony Fellows, a local land owner and, frankly, an idiot.  Aunt Martha's job is to get Sara married, but though she'll happily accept marriage for both her nieces she isn't at all sure that Matthew Hudson is enough of a catch to qualify.  (There's a Mr. Thorstein back in Yorkshire dangling after Lillian; he's in industry, which is bad, but it does mean that Aunt Martha gets some lovely woolens from time to time.)

At which point in the story, we get a by-election to focus on.  I may well have read this book 30 years ago and thought it dreadfully dull (see reason #1, above) but I see now that it's wildly satirical about politics and romance novels, both.  The candidates are William Alistair for the Conservatives, who's not nearly so dim as his opponent but is on the wrong side of the Corn Laws debate, and Tony Fellows for the Liberals.  I suspect Smith of having done some research but I can't find where she got this snippet: "A Tory is a Conservative.  He would conserve power and money to himself, principles to the Whigs, and hard work and poverty to the people."  Kudos if she thought of that epigram herself.

In order for Mr. Hudson to get his dimwitted candidate elected, he needs to make hay of local issues, in this case, the need for a bridge across the Severn to Chepstow.  Smith may have been using a mash-up of bridge construction history here; it's true that suspension bridges had been completed in the US by 1815 (over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia; who knew?), and she's right that Thomas Telford did design the bridge from Gloucester to Chepstow, but it wasn't in 1815 -- Telford built the Menai Straits bridge first.  But even here, there's humor in the situation.

The Tories have been promising a bridge to Chepstow for years but haven't bothered actually to build it.  The sitting Tory M.P. having died, the new Tory candidate, Alistair, also promises a bridge but that seems hollow given how often the constituents have heard it.  Tony seems confused about how politics work:
"Jolly glad to hear you mean to get that bridge for us," Fellows congratulated his opponent. [. . . ]

Mr. Hudson was in despair to see his candidate make such a fool of himself.  "Well, we'll believe it when we see it, eh, Tony?"

"If Alistair says he'll get it, we'll get it," Tony confirmed.  "But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it, ha ha." [ . . . ]

"That, of course, must depend on Mr. Alistair's getting elected.  Remember you are running against him, Tony," Hudson said.

"That's right.  And if I get in we won't see hide nor hair of the bridge, for the repressive Tories run the whole show, you know, and only give the goods to their own ridings." [ . . . ]

Hudson gazed in disbelief at Mr. Fellows.  He had never thought he was a clever man, but this was the first evidence he had that he was a complete and utter fool.

Good stuff.  Just goes to show how politics haven't changed much in 200 years.

Ah, but this is a romance.  How's that campaign getting on?  Not so well.  In his work as the party hack sent to get Fellows elected, Mr. Hudson has to toady up to everyone, even disenfranchised women like Miss Ratchett, whose father is a Cit and therefore very helpful to the campaign.  Lillian sees that she herself has engaged his interest, but only after his work on the campaign is done.  He's remarkably cheerful in the face of her tart reception.  When she points out that as she has "no influence and no vote," he's wasting his precious time talking to her, he says, "It is the unalloyed pleasure of your conversation that attracts me.  I come to bask myself in the glow of your insults and innuendo."

This makes Lillian sound nasty and unpleasant, but trust me -- our sympathies are with her all the way.  She proves to be an able helpmeet to Mr. Hudson's campaign tactics; it's his taking her for granted that rubs the wrong way.  Oh, and having to dance with Whig ninnyheads who think spouting French and Latin phrases is a sign of erudition:  "[Lillian] herself had only the minimal pleasure of standing up with Mr. Basingstoke and hearing his polyglot talk, one half of which she could not understand and two halves of which was not worth listening to in any case."

Even dukes come in for disdain.  While strategizing with Mr. Hudson, Lillian asks if there are no Whig peers to be brought in on Mr. Fellows' behalf.  Hudson is doubtful.  "Some of the dukes are Whigs, but they wouldn't put themselves to the bother of going out on the hustings.  Couldn't bear to tear themselves away from their mistresses."  Take that, Your Grace the Duke of Slut.

In the end [Warning: There Be Spoilers Ahead], Lillian and Matthew Hudson are able to foil the last dirty trick by the Tory whipper-in and get the impossibly stupid Mr. Fellows elected.  Sara is thrilled because she's fallen in love with Mr. Alistair and now he won't be leaving Crockett, but Lillian is unsure if Mr. Hudson intends to come back.  His attentions to her are still quite marked, but he hasn't proposed, and she can't marry a man who doesn't ask.  Aunt Martha, who has confirmed that Mr. Hudson is Lord Cecilford's nephew and thus heir to a barony as well as having a tidy estate of his own, is dubious as well.  But of course he shows up and is immediately sent out by Aunt Martha -- in the pouring rain and far too close to suppertime -- to take Lillian for a ride in his carriage so that he may have time and privacy to propose.  And Joan Smith has one last dirty political trick to reveal:  the grey hair at the temples?  Whitewash, and not waterproof, either.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

TBR Tuesday -- The Keeper Contemporary Contest Results, Part 1

A couple weeks ago I asked you to help me find a keeper among recent contemporary romances published as part of a series, e.g., Harlequin or Silhouette.  (I even offered a prize!)  The entries for that contest closed today, and as I've received some of the books you suggested, I got started reading them.  I need to say up front that I am truly grateful to you for all of the suggestions.  I will learn from every single one of them, so even if I didn't like the book, I loved the recommendation and thank the person who made it.

First up:  Hidden Treasures by Judith Arnold, a Harlequin Superromance published in 2003.

*sigh*

This book is not a keeper for me, I'm afraid.  In fact, I've had to come up with a new abbreviation for this sort of book: HTSA, short for Had To Skip Ahead.  This designation is for books that I did finish but not without skipping entire passages.  I'll explain why.

Erica Leitner is, as we're frequently told, a Harvard grad.  She also has a master's degree in teaching from Brown University.  After graduating, she chose to live in a small town in New Hampshire:  Rockwell, selected because it reminded her of that patron saint of Americana, Norman Rockwell.  She wants the small town experience, so she rents a cottage from John Willetz, a grandfatherly farmer.  After a few years, she buys the cottage and, as our story starts, she decides to plant a veggie garden.

Alfred Hitchcock used to explain his movies by pointing out the MacGuffin -- the thing that everyone is chasing, or looking for, or determined to destroy.  A MacGuffin isn't important to the plot, but you may need one to jump start the story.  The MacGuffin in Hidden Treasures is a small maple box buried (not very deeply) in the backyard of Erica's cottage.  Unlike Hitchcock's MacGuffins, this one just sits there while people around it go crazy for no good reason.  Erica contacts a professor of hers at Harvard who agrees to come inspect the box and help her unlock it and see what's inside.  Unfortunately, he can't get there for a few days, which is supposedly all the time it takes for this to become a national sensation sufficient to bring a Geraldo Rivera-wannabee to town with a camera crew.

[Here's the very best part of the book:  The TV guy, Derrick Messinger, hosts a talk show called, "Don't Blame The Messinger."  That made me smile.]

Erica's landlord died six months after selling her the cottage, so his farmhouse is unoccupied until his grandson, Jed Willetz, shows up to claim his inheritance.  Jed thinks maybe the box was actually on his property, despite a decrepit fence to suggest a boundary line.  The unscrupulous father of the kid who was helping Erica dig up the veggie garden is also threatening to sue.  The locals are all agog: What's in the box?

I won't spoil the surprise, but you could write down three guesses and the answer would be one of them.  The box and its contents are the MacGuffin, so really it's not the point of the novel.  The relationship between Erica and Jed is the point.  So why do we get so little of their relationship, particularly as this is a Superromance?  Maybe because Arnold fell into the usual trap of assuming that because two adults are compatible and have great sex, they will couple up right away and there goes all your tension.  Which is crazy -- there's a boatload of issues for these two to negotiate. 

For example, Jed turns out to have a cool job in Manhattan turning "junk" into trendy shabby chic pieces for resale while Erica is a third-grade teacher in a rural community.  Those aren't exactly compatible lifestyles.  In real life, two people like that would need to negotiate their future.  She's educated, he isn't -- not a problem, but not an automatic match either.  Erica is Jewish, and Jed Willetz presumably isn't; that's not a source of tension, of course, but why not have discussions about cultural versus religious identities, how to raise the kids, etc.?  (It's nice that Erica is Jewish in the sense that diversity in romances is nice, but why bother giving her a cultural/religious identity if there's going to be no discernible impact on her life as a result?)

I don't want to mock this book, but it's important for me (as a reader and also as a writer) to understand why it didn't work.  First of all, when Arnold chose to use a MacGuffin, she should have watched a lot of Hitchcock movies to see how it's done.  She didn't need a MacGuffin -- Jed could just have come back to sort out his inheritance, met Erica and found himself reluctant to return to Manhattan -- but I can see that it might have been tougher to get the 80,000 words needed for the Superromance line without the MacGuffin and all its resultant subplots. 

But once Arnold had decided to use her boxy MacGuffin, she should have used it hard.  Arnold may have been aiming for screwball comedy a la the Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan's Travels, with her plot: the tiniest thing grows wildly out of control until it has its own momentum and the protagonists can't stop it.  But to pull off madcap hijinks, the story's pacing needed to be a LOT faster.  For one thing, Erica can't find the box and then just sit on it calmly for a week.  I'm not saying the Harvard professor has to drop everything and rush up to the wilds of New Hampshire, but there could have been a lot more fuss and commotion with the box.  Have someone almost steal it, have the bank manager be a potential villain, and so forth.

In fact, the pacing was so slow that I sped it up.  I skipped.  Paragraphs, then pages, then chunks of pages.  Does this disqualify this post on the grounds that I can't discuss a book I didn't read all the way through?  Maybe, but I would argue not.  There's an implicit compact between the author and the reader: the author will hold the reader's interest and the reader will work to stay interested.  I feel I kept my side of that bargain, but a third of the way in, I had my doubts that Arnold was fulfilling her side.  As I wanted to know what was in the box, I skipped ahead to the Great Opening, two-thirds of the way through the book.  That's not how it's supposed to be; I'm supposed to want to know what happens on the very next page (or, at most, the very next chapter), not 100 pages later.

Another problem was the characterization.  There are aspects in Erica of Diane Keaton's harried executive in Baby Boom, but I found Erica not smart enough for the part of Big City Girl who doesn't fit in.  Take her decision to plant a vegetable garden.  Tell me this woman is smart enough to have learned online or in a library book how to do this.  It's not rocket science, but nonetheless she appears to have no clue about mulch, for example, and is shocked that there are weeds growing in with her tomatoes and zucchini.  I get it that small town life isn't necessarily what she'd imagined it would be, but let her at least be smart enough to grow some zucchini.

Derrick Messinger (aka Geraldo Rivera-lite) wasn't squicky enough, or wasn't sympathetic enough.  Contrast his lukewarm version of a ratings-at-any-price TV personality with Kirk Douglas's trying-to-make-a-comeback reporter in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole.  If you're going to vilify him, really make him "a 20-minute hardboiled egg."  Even Jed Willetz could have been a bit flintier.  Hey, when you've got 80,000 words, there's time for people to soften and learn to love.

No keeper here -- sorry, but all three of the movies I mentioned are well worth watching, if you get the chance.

For contrast, and a cute story about true love in a small New Hampshire town, check out the story that goes with this photo (just click on the photo or go to its Flickr page):


Devilish Tricky, These Mind Games

Last week, for no apparent reason, Carolyn Crane started to follow me on Twitter.  Which is, of course, perfectly acceptable.  But then I remembered that I had her book Mind Games tucked away somewhere in the approximately 9 cubic feet of books on my TBR bench.  It just seemed rude not to read her 371 page novel if she's unaccountably willing to read my 140 character tweets.

There is so much I can't tell you about Mind Games, and preciously little I can.  Other than the obvious: read it, if you haven't already; it's a heady trip.  Justine Jones has debilitating hypochondria; she's convinced she's going to die of "vein star syndrome."  (Don't worry, all the medical conditions in the book sound a bit like side effects that the writers of the Colbert Report have rejected for their Prescott Pharmaceuticals plugs as not funny enough: clearly not real but suggestive of some hypothetical medical malady.)  She comes to the attention of the mysterious Sterling Packard, who offers her a "cure" for her condition.

It works, but at a price and not a monetary one.  Justine finds herself working for Packard but she has serious misgivings about the nature of the job.  She's charged with "injecting" her own neurosis into people predisposed to suffer from hypochondria.  These injections of fear and panic -- the titular mind games -- serve to disillusion those people in the world who feel entitled to destroy others and who get away with it.  These murderers and con artists, once disillusioned, go from feeling invincible to extreme panic and imbalance.  The specific disillusionment varies for each target.  Justine has colleagues, also working for Packard, who can "zing" targets with ennui, gambling or alcohol addictions, weltschmerz, and so forth.

The initial promise is that Justine, by administering these quanta of anxiety, can free herself from her own insanity.  And it all works just as it should  . . . until it gets too complicated to be described here.  So, go read the book.  And then you too can be awash with panic about how long we have to go before the next book in the series.  (See how Carolyn Crane has infected all of us with this panic?  More Mind Games. Bwa-haha...)

I had a profound reaction to this book for two reasons.  First, because I have the teeniest amount possible of mental acuity myself.  I "read" people.  No, nothing like The Mentalist.  I can't read minds or tell while blindfolded what object someone is holding up.  But on a relatively small amount of information, I can tell a lot about a person.  It's not that great an ability to have; learning to temper my remarks when a friend asks for advice is an on-going process, as is keeping my mouth shut when they haven't asked for my advice.

I need to say a couple things here.  First, I did nothing to acquire or hone this skill; it's the result of a Bad Childhood, the kind of upbringing that I've also learned people don't really want to know the details of.  Second, it ought to be an awesome skill to have in a lot of jobs, but again, not so much.  It ought to help me be a better writer and it's not quite having that effect.

All that is beside the point, except to explain why Mind Games totally blew my mind.  I had no trouble accepting the other-worldly elements, like DNA that produces a tofu-like mutation children can shape into whatever skill they most want, like telekinesis so that a toy just out of reach is suddenly close at hand.  Yup, I can buy that.

The hypochondria, which is real, was harder for me to understand.  One of the truly blissful side effects of a Bad Childhood is a relatively rational approach to medical ailments.  I get all the screening tests done because it's the right thing to do, but I have no particular fear I'll actually get cancer.  I have some faith that I front-loaded all the bad stuff I'll ever have to endure; it's blue skies & happiness (oh, and decades of therapy, of course) from here on out.

Here's the other thing about reading Mind Games.  Crane herself shifted in my perceptions.  It's a wonderful book -- good enough a debut novel that she transmogrified in my head from Nice Person on Twitter to A Real Author.  It was like an instantaneous Plexiglas shield sprang up between us; she was no longer someone dwelling on the same plane as I do.

This isn't a nice linear issue.  I don't want to write this sort of book, nor is it too hard to see how it was plotted and laid out.  I might even be able to find a tiny filament of fault somewhere, as if that would show me she's not really Harry Houdini while I'm still practicing with a magic kit purchased from an ad in the back of my comic book.  I suspect she has bad hair days, or gets grumpy just like the rest of us.  And who knows, maybe I write well too.

No, this is my mishegas, my insanity.  I have written earlier on the Reader-Author Barrier, and my experience with Mind Games is another variation on that theme.  Because I went from casual acquaintance on Twitter to reader, my perception of Carolyn Crane also changed.  She's now the author, and as such is entitled to some psychic distance from readers.  I tease my friends on Twitter (yes, I'll say it: I twit them) and they tease me back.  But I wouldn't contact an author -- even one with a book as good as Mind Games -- and presume to behave as if I know her.

I am not postulating some rule of reader etiquette, or authorial responsibility.  Because this is about inchoate judgments, it must surely vary from person to person.  I can imagine other ways for reader-bloggers to behave; this is just the way I choose for myself.  So I contacted Carolyn Crane privately to ask if it was okay to write about her as a person, and not just tangentially as the author of a book I was interested in.  She was extraordinarily gracious and had no qualms.  And I do know a lot of people who might be horrified that I would suggest an author have the opportunity to affect the content of my blog.

I acted from a selfish sense of my own comfort.  I would not be comfortable presuming that I could write about an author as a person -- even if all I know about her is that she got confused one day and is following the wrong Magdalen -- unless I knew her very well, or not at all.

It's in the gray area between "very well" and "not at all" that the moral conundrums arise.  That's another thing to be learned from Mind Games.