Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Good Glom

At left:  The Childhood Glom: for me, it included Nancy Drew mysteries...
 Glom, vt to snatch or steal [from Gaelic gl\`am to seize, devour]                          -- The Chambers Dictionary & Thesaurus

Around the same time I stopped reading new (or new to me) authors, I also stopped glomming books.  This was the 1990s, a decade lost to law school and law jobs.  When I emerged in 2000, I had completely lost track of who was writing what.

Before the 90s, though, I used to fall under the spell of certain authors and have to read every single one of their books.  I spent the summer of 1976 tracking down obscure branches of the Borough of Camden Library looking for all the copies of romances written by . . . someone.  I'm embarrassed to admit I have no recollection of the author's name or of any of the titles.  I just remember the treasure hunt to find them all, which meant looking up the branches in a London A-to-Z, figuring out the bus routes, walking a lot, and coming home to my great-aunt's studio with a new-to-me book.  As you can tell, the hunt was more memorable than any of the books.

There are a lot of components that go into the urge to glom.  (I take the word to have its original Gaelic meeting, "to devour," in this context.)  The completion gene helps: that desire to make sure we have all of a collection.  But there's an atavistic, even visceral component -- a conviction that if this book felt good, then another will feel good, and another, and another.  Add to that the challenge to find them all, and you've got the makings of a good glom.

But there's another way to glom books: to feel the desire or even the need to read the same book -- or series of books -- all over again.  Like immediately after finishing them.  My glomming drought ended in 2009 when someone touted Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill series of mysteries.  I hadn't glommed mysteries since my love affair with Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books, and I didn't expect anything much with Spencer-Fleming.  Boy, was I wrong.  I got the first one, read it, read the next one, read the third . . . all the way through number 6.  When I closed the last one she had out, I immediately picked up the first one and read them all over again in order.  I'm waiting for a real publication date for number 7 so that I can re-reread them all, in order, timing it so I'm done just as the most recent one is downloaded to my Kindle.

Now that's a glom.

By contrast, I didn't glom all of Mary Balogh's Slightly series, but the final book, Slightly Dangerous, was glom worthy.  I only read it months ago, and I've already dipped into it for the good bits more than once.  If I sit here thinking about it too long, I'll want to go find it and re-reread it as well.

I'm fighting the urge to reread all of Cherise Sinclair's books days after finishing the last one.  Please believe me when I tell you that it's not the sexy bits that are calling me back to her books.  It's the heroes.  Because of the basic plot outline (as different as Sinclair's books are from Betty Neels's slew of English-Nurse-Marries-Dutch-Doctor books, these authors share a "if it works, keep working it" philosophy to their stories), the romance follows a well-worked pattern:
  1. Hero and heroine meet cute (heroine is often in some discomfort -- completely wet, very cold, etc. -- and hero takes pity on her because he hates to see anyone in distress)
  2. Hero challenges heroine to discover her true nature
  3. Heroine resists based on misunderstanding of what the hero is offering
  4. Hero demonstrates that he puts her needs first, takes care of her first, etc.  He may be kinky as hell, but he takes the time to learn what she wants (using biometrics as a homegrown lie detector), leads her step by step toward her own objectives, and never ever abandons her
  5. Hot sex
  6. Question arises for both protagonists: is this love?
  7. Hero had been, uh, playing the field but realizes there's merit in a more domestic and long term relationship with her.
  8. Heroine realizes he was right about her true nature, but even so, she doesn't feel any of that with anyone else.  But he doesn't/can't love her, so she's going to have to pick up the pieces and move on.  Find someone else, eventually.  Maybe in time she can face a life without him . . . ?
  9. Hero finds her, says he was wrong wrong wrong for sending her away, that he does love her, etc., etc.
  10. HEA
I'll leave the feminist issues for someone else to parse.  It's not the precise nature of the kink that seems questionable to me -- presumably liberated women are allowed to say, "Hey, I like this.  More please!"  and I defy anyone to find a moment in Sinclair's books where a heroine is coerced or forced into anything.  But Sinclair's heroes seem very much too good to be true.  They're not dominant to get what they want; they're dominant to give what she wants. 

Yeah, right.  My advice?  Don't try that at home.  I would worry if someone thought these guys a) exist in great numbers and b) can be identified at clubs called "Chains" and "The Dungeon."  Kissing toads is one way to find your prince, but I wouldn't want to try that approach in an alternative lifestyle situation.  As fate would have it, just as I was ready to publish, Twitter led me to this post about how important it is to be a bitch when dealing with unknown men.  Sinclair's heroines don't act wussy, but I can see how someone reading her books would think the downcast eyes and shy demeanor might be a way to get a Sinclair hero to look at you.  Not so.  She makes it very clear that her heroines can and do fight their own battles.  That's why her heroes love them.  So buy Gavin de Becker's book, The Gift of Fear if you have any questions about how to act around strangers.

Amazingly, there's a very satisfying romance in every one of Sinclair's stories.  By satisfying, I include an HEA the reader can believe.  Four of Sinclair's books are sequential, so we get to see the relationships of her earlier protagonists in later stories.  It's pretty clear she envisions for her couples a fairly modern give-and-take between two adults, except in the bedroom.  Any gender-specific inequalities aren't enforced in the domestic relationship.  But I can't help wondering if hardcore feminist readers wouldn't prefer the imbalance in sexual power and control to be reversed, so it's a woman calling the shots.

Here's why that wouldn't work for me.  The way Sinclair lays it out, the hero is dominant but solicitous and always focused on what the heroine wants.  These are fairy tale romances: Prince Charming finds and treasures Cinderella in a way most of us don't expect in real life but like to read about.  It would be easy to imagine a very selfish (even narcissistic) woman using the kindness and concerns for her own ends.  Similarly, it's all too easy to picture some boor faking the "I'm only concerned with you," crap and when the woman trusts him, pursuing his own agenda at her expense.

As the reader, I have to believe that both the hero and heroine care about and for each other.  Well, the way Sinclair writes them, her heroes are thrillingly focused on the heroine's needs, wants and pleasure.  If a woman exhibited the same behavior, I'd say, "Well, duh.  That's what we do."  Sinclair's heroes aren't self-abnegating, they just know they find the greatest satisfaction when they identify and address her needs.  They see something that unerringly tells them, "Ah, this is what she wants" and they are never wrong.  Her heroes like being sexual Santa Clauses!  That's what gets them off.

I finished the last of Sinclair's books a couple days ago, and immediately wanted to reread them.  Another author can provide a similar sexual dynamic, but Sinclair's heroes are dreamy, and the romances are just angsty enough to be emotionally satisfying.  She moved away from heroines with body or self-esteem issues to ones with The Doubtful Past, something they are convinced the hero won't forgive or understand.  But we watch as the hero learns he is emotionally vulnerable without this specific woman.

And that's the distillation of a lot of romance novels:  Strong, uber-competent male discovers his future will be a lifeless husk if this particular woman doesn't agree to be with him.

*sigh*

When an author can do that, it's glom-worthy.

Postscript:  What's the antidote to the urge to glom?  Another glom-worthy book.  I'm reading Carolyn Crane's Double Cross even though I know I'll be frantic for Book Three (which will have a Kick-Ass Title but which does not yet have a pub date) when I finish.  And then I'll probably give in to temptation and reread all the Cherise Sinclair books.  Because I have no will power.
.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Was So Wrong (Kindle Report, Part 2)

I was so wrong.

Not about the Kindle.  There I would say I was only a little wrong.

But about erotica and romance being mutually exclusive when done well.  (I've mentioned this opinion a couple times, most recently here.)  I just finished reading a charming (and very explicit) romance called Master of the Mountain by Cherise Sinclair.  (She has a website.  It's not shy about the sort of books she writes and thus NSFW.  As it doesn't have that "Are You Really Sure You Want To Read This Content" page, I thought I'd mention it before providing you with this link.)  MotM had both angsty goodness and . . . well, let's call it "creamy goodness," which at least won't be an obvious allusion for any youngsters stumbling by.

I won't go into detail about the plot, but the characters were fairly plausible, and the emotional tug of the story was right on target: Girl meets Boy, wild attraction ensues but her self-image isn't great, Boy has secret trauma so is reluctant to commit and sends Girl away, and Girl is miserable, convinced she'll never see Boy again.  I misted up at the end, I truly did.  (Other reactions to the book are left to your imagination.)

As you undoubtedly guessed from the title, this is kinky stuff.  I like that.  Lots of people with the Bad Childhoods like that.  Free country and all that.  But here's the part I find hysterically funny.  I contrast Sinclair's books (I've read another of hers, the first in her Shadowlands series, Club Shadowlands.  Not quite as wonderful as MotM, but still very enjoyable) with the Black Dagger Brotherhood.  The heroes in Sinclair's books *are* so much less butch than those 7-foot tall hawt vampires!  Sinclair's heroes are wildly fictional, it's true, but as she presents them, they're specialized in knowing what women want, when they want it, and just how to provide it to them.  And trust me, what Sinclair's heroines want is *not* anything against their will.  The conceit in her books is that some women naturally tend to want to have a certain restriction in their range of motion, shall we say.

Uh, rather like people who read m/m romances without wanting to try that at home, I don't think I want to try any of the things Sinclair's heroes & heroines most enjoy.  Presumably some of her readers are "in the life," hence the preface to Sinclair's books, which remind her readers that her book is not real life, and in real life practitioners need to take longer to get to know a partner.  Really, she's like a den mother reminding her scout troop to be prepared.  It's so maternal & caring.

What I'm trying to say is that these are not relationships -- romantic or sexual -- built on conflict, tension or hostility.  Frankly, the hero and heroine of Julie James's Practice Makes Perfect are nastier to each other than the protagonists of MotM.  (But then they were lawyers.  Sinclair's heroine is an artist and her hero runs a mountain lodge.  You do the math.)  What these relationships are all about is self-discovery.  The heroine doesn't understand why she doesn't much enjoy sex, and the hero recognizes something in her that answers that question.  She is, of course, a proper feminist, so getting her to understand that's it's not unliberated to let a guy give her pleasure takes a while.

Unless the reader simply can't imagine why any woman would want to have her choices taken away from her, Sinclair's romances are actually pretty straightforward.  The heroine doesn't understand something essential about who she is, the hero does, and finds her charming.  There's a period of education (for the heroine and the reader, but Sinclair avoids the dreaded info dump) but at the end of it, the suggestion is pretty strong that only this hero could make that heroine feel what she does.

Which, bizarrely, brings me back to the Kindle.  I, too, did not understand how wonderful it would be to have an e-reader.  I'm still a bit hesitant to assume I will never enjoy paper books again, or not as much, but I like the tardis-aspect of a slender device that has so much stuff packed in it.  And it's all too easy to fall in love with an author (like Sinclair, or my other happy find, Juniper Bell), nip over to Amazon, and buy a lot.  And look, it's immediately in my Kindle.  This feature thumbs its nose at the old joke, "Instant gratification takes too long."  In fact, I am reluctant to play too much with that bit, as it seems to have removed a barrier to shopping that I rather relied on.

Albeit without some kindly, mind-reading man at my side to help me past my inhibitions, I have come to enjoy -- a lot -- my Kindle.  And plain vanilla novel reading may never seem the same again.  (But then I open a package with two early Loretta Chase romances in a single volume, and I am pretty sure I can swing both ways.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Kindle (Part One)

I have to hand it to my post office.  This thing was mailed from Philadelphia on Saturday and in my roadside mailbox on Monday afternoon.

I'm charging it.

I have purchased 13 books, but haven't figured out how to download them.  I can't connect the Kindle to the WiFi network until Ross comes back from yoga & grocery shopping to tell me what the password to our network is.  And if there's any way to download them through my computer & its USB cable, I haven't figured it out.

So while we're all waiting for that exciting development, I will share with you the real source of my headache.

Picking books.

Let's start with a new Thomas Perry.  I adored his Jane Whitefield stories, absolutely love them.  I had thought (clearly wishful thinking) that he had a new Jane Whitefield book out, but I gather Strip does not feature her.  But it still seemed like an interesting book, so . . . I take out my psychological calculator and the thought process goes a bit like this:
  • Well, $12 is a lot of money, particularly as I could buy it used for $8.  
  • But if I bought it used, I'd have a hardcover.  I really don't want a hardcover, even of a book I adore.
  • But do I really want to wait until it comes out in paperback?  After all, it's one of the books I had tagged as being suitable for digital downloading.
  • But $12?
  • Oh, for goodness sake, it's a toy.  Buy something to play with on the toy.
  • Oh, all right.  (But I may hold this against the book you know.)

I'll let you know how that goes.

I did buy a couple books that I had tagged because they only came in digital, including Marie Force's Fatal Affair, which had been favorably reviewed in a bunch of places.  I totally would have bought Carolyn Crane's Double Cross (second in her Disillusionist series) but it's not available until next week.  And yes, I can pre-order it so it will magically be in my Kindle, but let's not go crazy here.  I can wait until next week.

I got some free books, if only to see if I would reject them on the grounds that they're free so they can't be worth anything.

And after that -- I bought smut.  Yup, smut is cheap; averaging about $3/book.  I love that -- that's cheap enough that I could buy one title by each pseudonymous author (for all I know, they're all written by some sweaty guy named Ralph) and see if any of them are any good.

[Sidebar on the topic of smut.  I like it.  I love Emma Holly's unabashedly smutty books, for example.  But it's not romance.  At least I don't think so.  Here's my reasoning:  We can be thinking about our hearts & lives or we can be thinking about our genitals & libido, but I really don't believe we can do both at the same time.

As a result, I think a book can deliver the angsty goodness, or it can deliver the smutty goodness, but not both.  I could well be unique in believing this, and lord knows I have enough quirks to rule out any chance I'm an average consumer.  This is just what I think.

Of course, most romances have sex in them.  We want our protagonists to be sexually compatible, if only to rule out a possible hiccup in their HEA.  But when I think back over the totality of my keepers, I remember a book because of its luscious romance, or its hawt sex, but never both at once.  There's a Susan Johnson -- one of the early ones, before she got difficult to read -- which I remember for the sex scenes but the romance itself was forgettable.  And if I pick a book where the romance is unforgettable, I don't recall the sex particularly.

Someone said once that she didn't believe anyone who claimed to read one sex scene and skipped the rest.  (I believe she felt this was up there with "the check is in the mail.")  Well, I tend to, unless the sex scenes are dramatic in some way and relate back to the emotional journey for the couple. 

When I think about my WIP, I'm pretty sure I could excise the sex and apart from a momentary annoyance that the hotel room door was just shut in their face -- twice -- the readers wouldn't miss it.  But hey, that's just me.  And this is not an area where I believe for a moment I'm right.]

Okay, Ross is home.  Stay tuned for Part Two.

The WIP-Whisperer

I may have mentioned that I belong to the tiniest RWA chapter.  I believe we have 17 members, although fewer than 10 attend anything, and never all 10 at once.  I've been to a chapter meeting with two board members and two general members.  Let's just say it's cozy.

We had another writing retreat on Saturday.  The chapter rents out a local B&B for the day: coffee/tea & a muffin in the morning, then writing followed by lunch & the monthly meeting, then more writing.  I'd done well at the April retreat; I wrote 5,000 words over the course of the day.  I was definitely looking forward to September's retreat.

One of the members I hadn't met yet is Tim.  Yes, a man.  He's published in science fiction and is working now in a couple of those blended genres that are currently popular: historical romance with fantasy elements in one case, and romantic suspense with paranormal elements in the other.

Tim responded to the group announcement about Saturday's retreat with a question: what actually happened at the retreat?  He was imagining that it would be more like a workshop, or at least a chance for members to share their concerns about their works-in-progress.  I guess Tim, like me, has enough time and quiet at home so there's no need to drive an hour plus for peace & quiet to write.

I offered to participate in a more collaborative session with Tim, so he said he would attend.  Which worked out great because we were the only two people who didn't want to retire, alone, to one of the bedrooms to write.  We got the parlor to ourselves and talked about our projects.

We started with Tim's romantic suspense.  I tried to share a female reader's perspective about the heroine; I didn't actually say to him, "She can't be too stupid to live or we'll be rooting for the bad guy to kill her," but I think he got my point that the heroine had to fix her own problems, thank you very much.  Having the hero do it was just not going to work.

I hope he found it helpful.  I could tell he was resistant.  He exudes self-confidence about his writing, so he was a bit resistant to my perspective.  Well, sure -- we all think our stuff is great.  Until someone shows that it isn't.

Which is where my WIP comes in.  Tim invited me to read the first page, then a bit more, then the whole first chapter.  And he's an awesome critique partner.  Seriously awesome.  With no insult intended to any one else who's read my WIP -- and either liked it or didn't -- Tim really helped improve it.  He's the WIP-whisperer.

Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer


I was most stunned by how blind I'd been to the little bumps and cracks he pointed out, but once he pointed them out I couldn't miss them.  That was almost spooky, like seeing the white-on-white trim on your sneakers under a black light.  What looks pretty uniform normally is suddenly glaringly obvious.  Only the first three pages changed a lot, but those three pages are either the most important or second most important in the book.  (I would vote for the ending being the most important, but I'll concede it's a close thing.)

And my opening is a challenge:  I have to convey my heroine, the fact that she looks, sounds & acts like her identical twin sister, how they are normally very different, and why she is doing this.  And all of it in show-not-tell.

It's still not perfect.  I doubt I'll ever get it perfect.  I'm still polishing things, and haven't even started to work with my writing coach yet, so nothing is final.  Those three pages could change subtly or dramatically . . . or disappear entirely!  For now, though, I can see they're much better.

I've updated the excerpt at MagdalenBraden.com -- click here to read it -- although it may seem unchanged to the casual reader.  If you want to know what it used to be, leave a comment and I'll post the old version for a compare and contrast.  And if you're very geeky, leave me a comment at MagdalenBraden.com and I will send you the first three pages as a redlined document so you can see precisely what was inserted and what was deleted.

Hmmm . . . Tim doesn't live too far from me.  Maybe we can meet up more often than twice a year.  I could use a WIP-whisperer in my back pocket.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bettysday

In case you missed it, Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of Betty Neels' birth.

If you aren't a fan of Betty Neels' rather distinctive series contemporary romances, you may want to skip this post - - or scroll down to the more academic sections to follow.

If you don't know who Betty Neels was, or don't know why I love her books, you could start here.

If you don't know about the Founding Bettys and their blog, The Uncrushable Jersey Dress, you could surf over there, or read here about my love for them.

If you still don't feel you really understand my relationship with Betty Neels' books (or are merely a glutton for punishment), here's a list of Promantica posts to trawl through.

Finally, we celebrated Bettysday in Philadelphia, and you can read about that here.  Oh, and there are photos, too.

The best part of the day -- yes, even better than the scones & clotted cream -- was meeting a fellow fan, JoDee. She's a kindred spirit despite the many differences in our lives. We had a lot of fun discussing several Neels books, an activity we'd accurately predicted would feel like playing Barbies.  (My husband suggests the term, "Playing Bettys," for this activity.)
I want to give JoDee credit for the ideas that occurred to me during Bettysday.  JoDee has a Ph.D. in history and a lively way of looking at the world.  For example, when I pointed out that Betty Neels (in the person of her writing) has been in my life for 40 years -- one year longer than BritHub 1.0, who was with us at the time, JoDee pointed out that BritHub 1.0 was always going to lose that race.  Which is true, of course -- only immediate family members have been in my life longer, and most them don't count for various reasons.  JoDee seemed to understand the connection I feel with an author whose books have been a recurring source of delight for almost my entire life.

In preparation for Bettysday, I had two t-shirts made.  The first reads:
Betty Neels:
1910 - Born in Devon, England
1930s - Trains as a nurse & midwife
1940s - Serves in WWII, marries Dutch patriot
1950s - Works as a nurse in Holland
1960s - Retires from nursing; writes first romance novel
1970s-90s - Writes 133 more romance novels
2001 - Dies peacefully in hospital

Bettysday 9 - 15 - 2010 

The second one seems more personalized; it reads:

Betty Neels was 59
when she wrote her
first romance novel.

I still have time

Bettysday
9/15/10

They both reflect something important to me, something about Betty Neels herself.  By the time she started writing romances that many now dismiss as regressive and anti-feminist, she'd already had more lives than most of us liberated women get around to.

My argument, then, is that Betty Neels wrote the romances she wanted to read.  Full stop.  They weren't manifestos on the value of premarital chastity; she just didn't want to read about couples who "went to Brighton" before marriage.  (Thanks to both BritHubs for explaining to JoDee and me that Brighton really was a popular destination for unmarried couples in the 60s and 70s who wanted to spend a discreet weekend together.  Usually checking in as Mr. & Mrs. Smith.  The equivalent of -- what?  Atlantic City?)

Did Betty Neels herself believe that women -- even women in the 1980s and 90s -- should "save themselves for marriage"?  Maybe.  But her characters never explicitly argue for that in the books, so we can't tell.  Did she feel strongly about that as a cultural issue, or did she just prefer books in which people don't go to Brighton?

I've argued before that certain books speak to certain readers for reasons that are inherently valid to them.  If someone starts writing the sort of books that appeal to her as a reader, and if there are sufficient other people who share her pleasure in that sort of book, then her success as an author may have less to do with her political, cultural or sociological views, and more to do with her aesthetic preferences.

So let's look at some of the ubiquitous elements of a Betty Neels romance.  (She will never be accused of having mixed it up a lot as an author.)

  • The Rich Dutch Doctor and English Nurse pairing.

Betty herself was born in 1910 to a civil service family in Somerset.  That says to me that her father had a solid job and the family would have been quite respectable without being posh.  (Approximately "upper middle class" by modern American standards.)  Thus, her childhood would presumably have been quite comfortable and she was well educated as a girl.  But whether the family fortune suffered a downturn in the 20s and 30s, or there was a death or divorce, who knows.  But I suspect something happened to cause Betty's adult life to be more financially precarious than her childhood.  (One clue is that when she's married and has a daughter, and they're very poor, it's her husband's family in Holland that takes them in.  Possibly she had no family left in the UK to help.)

Betty might have married in her twenties and raised a family, but for whatever reason (I'm guessing she wasn't the prettiest girl in her community but it could have been a lot of things), she chose to train as a nurse & midwife.  She served in World War II, and not just in army hospitals in the UK.  Being a nurse defined her for a decade or more before she married a Dutch patriot injured in the war, and when they struggled financially because of his injuries, she learned Dutch and worked in the Netherlands as a nurse for many years.  Again, being a nurse supported her family; at one point, her husband was in a Dutch hospital for a year.

Following "write what you know" after retiring from nursing, she wrote about English nurses and Dutch doctors.  Her heroines are rarely pretty while the hero is always good looking.  And yes, the doctors are always rich.  Very rich.  Rich enough that no matter what happens -- including global depressions and world wars -- their wives and children will never, ever be in financial straits.  Even so, I've never once read a Betty Neels and felt that the hero's wealth was fetishized.  The food?  Yes.  The clothing she can afford once she's married to him?  You bet.  Even his property and cars are described lovingly.  But his wealth is only a means to a happy end; no Neels heroine ever thinks, "Hey, look at me -- I landed a rich guy!"

This has to be wish-fulfillment fiction.  I'm sure Betty loved her husband deeply throughout the whole of their marriage.  But while she was committed to him "for poorer," she must have thought it would have been nice to have had a bit more money -- or even a lot more money.  And even nicer to have enough money that she didn't have to work full time even while there was a young child at home.

  • The Hero's Superpowers

JoDee brought this up, that Neels' heroes frequently know what the heroine is thinking, even sometimes when she doesn't know this herself.  We agreed: Do not try this at home.  Real life men do not possess even our bog-standard levels of perception, let alone the true x-ray vision needed to know what people want or need and why.  Now, fess up -- who among us has not wanted our significant other to bring us a sweater just because we shivered the teeniest bit, or hug us when we look a little blue.  (And not hug us when we're frowning that other way: in anger.  Then we want a sincere and effective apology.  The sing-song, "I'm sorry," so does not cut it.)

For an Englishwoman born in 1910 even to imagine a husband who talks to his wife might have been a bit of a leap.  My former parents-in-laws, whose marriage I observed over 35 years, said very little to each other that wasn't about gardening, travel, the household, etc.  They were British and born after Betty Neels.  It just wasn't a part of their marriage.  (I never saw them hug, for example.)  But at the end, Thomas took the opportunity when Anne was in hospital (and thus not home to hear him) to say how much she had always meant to him.  From the vantage point of the 21st century, that seems archaic and even backward.  But when I repeated Thomas's comments to her, Anne barely reacted.  (All anecdotal evidence, I concede.  I present it merely to point out that our standards in this area were not universal for that generation.)

  • The Heroine's Shrinking Skill Set

In her first 20 romances, the Neels heroine is a nurse currently employed by a hospital (invariably of Victorian vintage and in a bad neighborhood: large, rambling and ripe for a fire or bomb so that the heroine needs an alternate job in, say, Holland).  Given that Neels herself had kept working until nearly age 60, she was still knowledgeable about medical procedures and practices.  In one scene in a very early Neels, the heroine is carrying the needed liter of blood in a glass bottle along a causeway.  (Of course it breaks and of course she's the right type to donate directly into the patient!)  When were glass bottles replaced by vacuum-packed plastic?  Now think of all the medical advances in the last 40 years.

As Neels' own personal skill set became more and more obsolete, her nurses moved further away from the hospital (being a "special" or private nurse was less likely to involve new technology) until finally they just couldn't be nurses any more.  (Can you imagine some of the letters Betty Neels may have received from readers who were nurses?)

In the last few dozen books, her heroines have no computer skills (!) and virtually nothing in their education or training to suggest they could even survive in the 20th century.  Well, consider who Betty Neels was at the time: an 80-something grandmotherly type.  What did she know from mobile phones, CD-players, and the Internet?  Probably next to nothing.  And I'm personally disinclined to criticize her for failing to research what 20-something women were actually doing.  Those stories seem the most consistent with the culture and times of her very early childhood; possibly they reflect the road not taken, her life if she had not trained as a nurse.

  • Inter-class marriage

This may seem bizarre to American sensibilities, but I think there's something very subtly subversive in Neels's early romances.  All of her Rich Dutch Doctors are socially respectable (no bootstraps were necessary in their professional accomplishments), many are gentry (in a rather loose sense of being the owner of the "big house" in their respective communities), and some are members of the Adel or Dutch nobility.  Their English counterparts (who show up only in Neels's very late writings) never bear a hereditary title; if it's Sir Rich English Doctor, he's been knighted for contributions to queen and country.

I don't want to overstate my minimal understanding about the social complexity of the English class system, let alone try to explain how it has changed in the 40 years since I first lived there.  But I feel comfortable hypothesizing that one reason Neels did not marry English nurses to English doctors was that her nurses were middle class while her doctors were upper class.  Such marriages in the late 60s and early 70s may not have been prevalent or comfortable enough to suit her image of what would be a happy ending for her English nurses.  The age-appropriate houseman (US equivalent: intern or resident) was too callow, while the consultant in a UK hospital may have seemed snobby or avuncular or both.

All this makes me wonder if her experience working with Dutch doctors (real, live ones!) in the 50s conveyed to her a more relaxed attitude in the Netherlands about whom a rich man might marry.  Women in the same class or social circle as the RDD are invariably named Inga or Nina in Neels books and are frequently the cold, hard, bony competition for the RDD's hand in marriage.  (At the Uncrushable Jersey Dress, the other woman in a Neels's romance is known generically as "Veronica" to contrast her with all of us Bettys.)  Betty Neels had no love for the mature society figure or widow.  And any younger woman in the same social circle is much more likely to be related to the RDD than trying to marry him.

In Neels' world, a rich Dutch doctor, even a member of the Adel, is free to marry a pleasing English nurse who treats him more as a professional equal and less as someone outside her class.  Did Betty Neels find that she herself was treated more professionally by males in the medical profession in The Netherlands than she had been in the UK?

Conclusions:

If I'm right, then Neels' increasingly anachronistic universe starts to make a bit more sense.  She wrote what she knew at the time she knew it.  Throughout her life, she wrote about women with good sense and pleasing personalities who are loved by stalwart men who "get" their heroines.  Newly retired from nursing, her heroines are quite independent and skilled.  At the end, Neels heroines are defined more by the adverse circumstances that have restricted their choices (staying home to deal with a difficult relative is a favorite device) than by what they do.

I don't like the last quarter of the Neels Canon as much as the first, but I think that's more about her energy level as a writer.  I can't imagine how a Betty Neels book would come across to a modern 21st century reader.  I first read them as a dumpy, awkward teenager in the early 70s.  They gave me that most comforting of illusions, namely that if I was kind to animals, smart around men, and good at something, someone would love me for it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Here's What Caused Me to Buy a Kindle

Yes, I bought a Kindle 3, the cheaper kind that requires a wifi connection.

(No, not this model, which is just a tad lower tech than even I want.)

I'd slowly been heading toward this decision.  I'd started a list of books I would get if I ever got an e-reader, I'd seen that the prices were coming down, and I figured if I waited for an e-reader to do everything I wanted it to, I would be too decrepit to push the buttons.

But none of that was going to get me to buy one now.  Here's the enticement that did the trick.  I read this: 
A final note to AAR readers:  In the interest of full disclosure,  if you buy your Kindle 3 through the link in this blog or via the link in the box at the bottom of the home page, AAR will get a small commission from Amazon.  So, if you’re going to buy a Kindle and you enjoy our site, we hope you’ll consider using the link when you’re ready to buy.

That was the final paragraph of a blog post by the wonderful Sandy at AAR singing the praises of the Kindle 3.

Now, I could get pompous about how refreshing it is for bloggers to admit they make some money if you buy through them (and it is refreshing), but here's the truth.  I just wanted AAR to get the money.  The blog post didn't make me want an e-reader any more than I had before, but it did make we want to buy one through their website.  They'll barely make enough to order a venti anything at Starbucks, but if anyone (other than Jeff Bezos, that is) is going to get my money, I'd love it to be AAR.  As the song says, they work hard for the money.

I was in a B&B in Erie, Pennsylvania when I read Sandy's post so when I did click on the AAR Kindle ad I was on an unsecured network.  Ooops.  A week passed before I placed the order, and true to my original impulse I went back to AAR and got to Amazon through them.

I just got an email telling me that the Kindle should be here in two weeks.  I can wait.  My attitude about owning an e-reader is still lukewarm.  The most I can say is that a lot of my antipathy has dissipated, but I'm still neutral about it as a device.  Will it be like a cell phone (which I own and rarely use but do appreciate when I need one) or will it be like the iPod (which rocked my world -- you mean I can take my entire music collection with me?!) or something in between?

Fundamentally, it's affordable, so why not?  That's a rhetorical question, by the way, and I don't much care about the answer.  I gather the latest issue is what file types are supported by which e-readers.  Uh, okay.  The reality is that I daresay I'll have to replace the Kindle with something better at some time.  One thing is for sure, it's not going to be an iPad.  Check out this YouTube clip on that subject (NSFW because of the profanity):



It's only moderately laugh-out-loud funny, and you shouldn't watch it if you think your iPad is simply amazing (i.e., it's this decade's iPod for you), but it pretty much sums up why I'm not lining up to give Steve Jobs my money.  (That cell phone I have?  Definitely not an iPhone.  I don't even send texts on it.  Yup, I'm hopelessly mired in 1990s technology.)

I promise, though, that if I fall in love with the Kindle, I will faithfully report that here so that certain people (hello, Sharyn) can chortle as I eat my words.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

You're The Top


You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top! 

Cole Porter, "You're The Top"

Janet W. sent me her Top 100 Romance Novels list the other day.  She'd prepared it as part of AAR's Top 100 survey from 2004.   I gather there are 29 novels that appear on both AAR's list and Janet's.

I did a breakdown of Janet's list by author: 15 titles by Mary Balogh, 14 Georgette Heyers, 10 Jo Beverleys, two authors with 4 and two with 3 titles respectively, 8 with two titles, and the rest appear on the list only once.  AAR's #1 book, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, doesn't make Janet's list and her #1, Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child, doesn't make their list.

None of which is surprising.  With thousands of romance novels published every year, and different readers liking different things, I would hardly expect anyone's Top 100 list to match up with anyone's else's -- or even with their own from years before.

I've never attempted to write out a top 100 list.  For one thing, what precisely would I be using as the criteria?  How much I loved a book?  How good I thought the book was?  How likely I was to reread it?  How tightly I would be gripping it when the men in white jackets came to take me away?  And what do I do with the books I have yet to read?  Assume they won't make the list, or leave some spots blank for the "player to be named later"?  As I pointed out to Janet, it's like hugging fog.

I understand better the lists of the top 100 movies ever made (AFI's being perhaps the most famous) because there's some distance between the moviegoer and the movie; I might not rank Citizen Kane as the best movie ever, but I can appreciate why it has that spot.  When I first read Lord of Scoundrels, on the other hand, I didn't like it enough even to keep, let alone love.  (That was before I knew it was famous.  I still don't love it, but I keep it because I adore so many other of Chase's books.)  I get it that other readers adore it, but I can't see why it was the best of the bunch in 2004.

All we can do to generate a Top 100 list is pool a bunch of people's relatively arbitrary lists.  That's because a book is like a piece of clothing: it either fits and flatters us, feels comfortable and does its job, or it doesn't.  And if a piece of clothing doesn't fit, it hardly matters if it's the most sumptuous garment ever made.  It just doesn't fit.

My hypothetical Top 100 list would list the books that fit me best as well as the ones whose fit was just okay but I can tell how masterful the work is.  Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold, for example:  I love its predecessor, To Love and To Cherish far more, but I can see why TH&TH is nearly always ranked higher.  It is the better book; TL&TC fits me better, that's all.

What's so wonderful about books is that we have a vocabulary to discuss them.  By contrast, I have next to nothing to say about music.  I know what I like, but I barely know why I like it -- and when I read a music review, I can't begin to tell if I would like what the reviewer liked.

So Janet W. and I can (and do!) debate books with passion and depth.  I don't suppose we've convinced each other yet of anything beyond our own fervor.  But I know a book better after I've discussed it with another reader.  That may be the appeal of the Top 100 lists; they force us to think about books in more concrete terms -- weighing them against each other.

In the end, though, we're each entitled to love the books we love for our own reasons.  And if those reasons provide the reader with sufficient basis to rank them, that's okay too.  After all, I wouldn't necessarily rate the Coliseum above, say, the Acropolis.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Very Definition of Romance

It wasn't quite a "pinch me" moment, but I will always remember last night as one of the happiest in my life.  I was working on my computer -- just checking e-mail & Twitter as one does periodically -- and I needed to have the earphones plugged in because across the room Henry and Ross (aka Brit Hubs 1.0 and 2.0 respectively) were solving the Sunday New York Times puzzle together.  What made the moment so special was this picture, which I will have to describe (with fewer than 1,000 words) because I didn't think to get a camera:

We're in a lovely B&B in Erie, Pennslvania.  Here's the room we're staying in, in fact.  Ross & Henry were sitting on the bed, side by side, with Ross's laptop open in front of them.  I was sitting in the sole armchair, listening to Baroque music so I didn't have to listen to them puzzling.  But it hit me as I looked over at them just how lucky I am.

There's sadness in this story.  My childhood was very ugly, and it's cost me the unique connection I should have with my three siblings.  Siblings are the people who will know you the longest, and they'll always share your childhood.  Mine do nothing of the sort.  But Henry and I met 39 years ago this month; that's long enough to substitute for siblings.  Truthfully, he's closer to me than my own brothers; at least Henry loves me.

When I divorced Henry, my siblings -- who are all older than me -- were bizarrely nasty about our break-up.  My sister, in particular, assumed I had behaved badly & broken Henry's heart.  That theory insulted both Henry (who was never that fragile) and me pretty equally.  I did try to get her to see that all three of us were happy & on good terms, but even bringing both Henry and Ross to her annual New Year's Day party in 2007 didn't do the trick.

That was the last time I saw her.  My last email from her was approximately 5 months later.  (My brothers, I hasten to add, have exchanged emails with me at least once in the past 3 years.)

So how did we end up so estranged?  You're thinking some huge argument, right?  Well, it was actually very simple.  I stopped sending birthday / holiday cards and presents.  That's it.  I've responded to every email I've gotten, and I would take any phone call (if I got any, which I haven't).  I wasn't mad at them; I was just tired of trying to get them to like me.

It makes sense now.  I'm not estranged now from siblings I used to be close to.  I was always estranged from them.  But rather than moan about it, what I did was to find my family of the heart, and build with them happy relationships.  That's what the picture from last night is about: my perfect happiness.

Henry and I were family first, and then we were married (which is where all the heart comes from).  But our relationship now -- which is some odd amalgam of friend/ex/quasi-sibling -- is perfect.  I don't need to talk to him every day, but I know he'll always take my call.  He's a solid friend, a tremendous resource, and I know we really matter to each other.

And he introduced me to Ross, who is the love of my heart and the heart of my life.  Last night at dinner, I asked both of them what they would do if they knew they had precisely one year to live.  Henry's answer centered around the miniature steam engines he's currently building in his basement, but Ross really wasn't sure what he'd do with a single final year.  He eventually offered this plan:  He would help me (the soon-to-be-grieving widow) find a house to live in after his death because he knows our current house is a lot of work for one person.

That's the very definition of romance:  I married a man who wouldn't exercise his right to be selfish in the face of death but instead would be even more loving & concerned for my happiness.

And me?  What was my answer to the same question?  Well, I would keep doing what I'm doing:  writing, undoing the damage of the past, and enjoying my two favorite people.

Here's a lovely photo of Presque Isle State Park, which we toured today.  Alas, I did not take this photo.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Haz a Sad (More on the Alchemy of Reading)

The lovely Janet loaned me three books, all rare & worth insuring. I started with Mary Balogh's, Dancing with Clara.

I gather it's the middle book in a series of Signet Regencies from the mid-90s.  In Courting Julia, the titular heroine is offered, in effect, as a prize in a contest among cousins.  Daniel wins her hand -- he's very heroic -- and Freddy is the loser & villain of the piece.  Freddy is then stuck with mounting debts and few prospects so he goes to Bath to find a rich bride.  He finds Clara, who is in a wheelchair and not particularly attractive.  (In book three, Tempting Harriet, Clara's companion is pursued by Freddy's rather louche friend, Archie, who already offered Harriet a carte blanche in Dancing with Clara but was turned down.)

Both Clara and Freddy struck me as sad characters.  Their lives have been shaped by misfortune and bad choices, but they themselves seemed very sad.  That's probably a rational response to what they have to endure, but I couldn't help but contrast Clara with Mrs. Smith in Jane Austen's Persuasion.  Mrs. Smith is Anne Elliot's school friend who had married poorly, been widowed, and was confined to a wheelchair.  But she is lively and fun and sees the world in a very jolly light indeed.

Clara is considerably more pragmatic about her situation.  She recognizes Freddy as a fortune hunter but she also figures that she won't do much better than a fortune hunter if she wishes to marry, so when he proposes, she accepts.  She doesn't believe his protestations of love; she sees them as part of a charade necessary to get her to marry him.  The deed is done, and they get a week together alone as a honeymoon.

Up until this point, the story was pleasant enough.  Freddy recognizes that he has to do right by Clara, and he's fulfilling his husbandly role nicely.  Clara adores being married and is enjoying Freddy more than she thought she would.  But once the honeymoon ends, things start to fall apart.  And that's when the entire book became very sad to read.  If Clara and Freddy were lonely before they married, they quickly learn they can be far lonelier after the wedding.  That loneliness spirals downward to uncomfortable depths, until finally in the last few pages, it All Works Out.

At this point I need to acknowledge that I was reading Dancing with Clara just after getting news that a member of my extended family had died in a tragic fashion.  Not anyone I knew well, but people I love very much had to deal with this shocking loss.  I have been grieving for them.

Did my awareness of my cousins' pain color the way I read Dancing with Clara?  It doesn't feel like it.  I feel as though I'd have found Dancing with Clara emotionally out of balance regardless of the circumstances.  But how can I be sure?  I can't read it again as if for the first time, so I may never know.

What I did feel as I read Dancing with Clara is that I wanted either less sadness or more happiness.  The recipe of sadness and sweet romance reminds me of a salty-peanut candy bar (Payday, for example); provided there's enough caramel & chocolaty goodness, the saltiness of the nuts is piquant and yummy.

Same thing with this sort of book.  I don't mind the sadness provided it's properly offset by the romance.  Through Clara's & Freddy's week-long honeymoon, I was happy.  But from that point onwards, there are just too many tears, too much depression, too much hopelessness.  Maybe it's all organic and character driven; maybe these two could not have snapped out of their malaise any quicker.  If that were true, then I'd have liked another chapter or three tacked on the end to show us more of their chocolaty happiness.

Oh, and more dancing would have been nice.

I'll send Dancing with Clara back to Janet with my compliments.  I'm not sorry I read it, and I can see how it can be a favorite for her and many other readers.  Hey, I'll admit I might have loved it more under other circumstances.  But I've ordered Tempting Harriet; I'm hoping that I'll get Freddy & Clara's yummy happiness in that book.
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