Really?

Warning: This post is full – chock full – of spoilers for Just One Evil Act.

Fun fact: Elizabeth George taught English at my high school. I never had her as a teacher, and she wouldn’t know me from Adam, but the fact that she taught my school when her first book was published was the reason I read it, and nearly all her others. At this point, she’s been publishing and I’ve been reading for a quarter century, which I guess makes me old and her older. I went through a mystery-reading phase in junior high and high school, but obviously it’s not my primary genre of choice – or I’d be publishing All About Mysteries instead of All About Romance. Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with Elizabeth George because I liked her characters and settings.

But now, half way through Just One Evil Act, I think I might be done. I’m not sure if I’m even going to finish it, though maybe one of you can talk me into it if you promise me that things turn around. If you’ve kept up with George, you know where the problem started – with the death of Lady Helen and her unborn child at the hands of a young gunman. Has anyone in George’s readership truly forgiven her for that? I doubt it. I figured I forgave her more readily than most, since I pretty much kept reading (with the exception of What Came Before He Shot Her – because I couldn’t have cared less what came before he shot her). But I’ll defend Careless in Red, which revolves around the grieving Thomas Lynley, as a good book, even though I was still pissed about Helen and the baby. But then he started nailing his bitchy, alcoholic boss (who oddly enough actually seems to be a better person in Just One Evil Act) and pursuing an unlikely and only borderline interesting liaison with a roller derby-playing veterinarian. This didn’t really help my interest any.

But what’s made me stop cold (and here is where the huge spoilers begin, so if you want to wait so you can be disappointed and annoyed yourself, feel free to stop reading here) is the behavior of Barbara Havers and Taymullah Azhar in the latest book. Basically, Azhar plots to kidnap his daughter and spirit her away to Pakistan, and when I stopped reading, Barbara had just found out about it and was about to lie to her superiors (including Lynley, who over the course of the series has repeatedly gone to bat for her) and cover for him. Really?

Really? Can’t Barbara maintain her integrity? She’s had a rough go of it. She’s not wealthy. Her only family left is her mother, who suffers from dementia. She’s dumpy and unlucky in love. Can’t she at least have the courage of her convictions? And Azhar has already abandoned one family so he could pursue a flighty, attractive woman. On what planet are his actions here okay? Like Lynley and Barbara, He’s not the person I thought he was.

Which brings me full circle to the reason I read romance: I like happy endings. I realize that real life is not all sunshine and rainbows, and that real life happens after you get married and ride off into the sunset together. I’ve been married for almost 25 years myself, so I also know real life includes arguments about spending, kids who get in trouble and do stupid things, and plenty of laundry and job stress. But I also like books where all those things happen to people and they work it out together. Call me a cock-eyed optimist.

So tell me: Has anyone else read this? Will something happen that will turn my opinion around? Or should I just go compensate by baking cookies, watching The Holiday, and reading some dependable Julia Quinn?

The results of the AAR Top Ten Lists are in and the winner is….

loverawakenedBack in April, we began, on each Tuesday, publishing a reviewer’s Top Ten list. There were no rules other than the books be in the romance genre. Over the next five months, we published twenty-three lists. Out of the 230 entries, we listed 201 books. We hit every genre (although we have a definitive fondness for historical romance), and waxed upon the works of 121 authors. After every one had weighed in, only one book garnered five–the most–votes: J.R. Ward’s Lover Awakened. Continue reading

I’m Never – No, Never! Getting Married

no-weddingNick is a romance hero. He’s never – no, never! – going to get married. You can see why, of course; you need conflict to drive a plot forward, and if Nick sees Elizabeth, falls in love with Elizabeth, proposes to Elizabeth, and marries Elizabeth without a hitch you’ve got one short (and probably not all that interesting) book. A hero (or somewhat less frequently, heroine) who is never – no, never! – going to get married can provide that hitch in the relationship that makes for a good conflict and interesting reading. Well, except when it’s totally lame. If there is one knee jerk conflict that authors like to turn to, this is it. I see it more often in contemporary novels, likely because birth control is widely available and modern sexual mores more permissive. But if pops up fairly often in historicals too, usually for different reasons. I can hardly open a book without running into Nick or one of his ilk. Since the my most recent read with a marriage phobic hero got on my last nerve, I decided to provide this helpful list of acceptable and unacceptable reasons to never – no, never! get married. Continue reading

AAR Staff Top Ten Favorites – Blythe’s Picks

boundbyyourtouch I put off writing my top ten until the last possible moment for a variety of reasons. I wanted some time to think about it, but I knew even though I had lots of time I’d still be making choices at the last minute; it’s not unusual for me to make my Reviewer’s Choice top pick while I’m writing the column. I also decided my top seven fairly easily, and then got stuck on the final three. I agonized over which three deserved the final honors, and then ended up with some also rans. I’ve been reading romance for a long time, and that presented its own problems. Should I choose early, sentimental favorites, or more of the quality Johnny come lately offerings? Well, in reverse order, here’s my top ten (ish).

Also rans: Just for fun, my books that didn’t quite make the short list but almost did: Paradise by Judith McNaught (overwrought in all the best early 90s ways, and my favorite of all her books). Romancing Mister Bridgerton by Julia Quinn – the popular favorite of her Bridgerton books, and my favorite as well. In the obscure category, Dana Ransom’s Wild Texas Bride or any of the books from her Bass series. You want a good western? These are the real deal. Ditto for Maggie Osbourne’s I Do, I Do, I Do, which has the added bonus of being a wagon train story, a particular weakness of mine. Susan Elizabeth Phillips Nobody’s Baby But Mine (and yes, I know the heroine was manipulative and dishonest. No, I don’t care). And old Signet regencies by Diane Farr and Elisabeth Fairchild – just in general. Continue reading

Reading in the Great Outdoors

outsidegirl‘Tis the season for beach reading. But have you ever actually read on the beach? Unless you are shaded and in a chair, I’m not sure how well it works, really. The bright, glaring sun gets in your eyes and the sand is everywhere. If you’re primarily reading on a kindle, nook, or Ipad, it just seems like an all around bad idea.

I have a love/hate relationship with outdoor reading. In theory, it always sounds great, but in reality it’s hit or miss. I started outdoor reading as a child when my mother, who probably feared I was developing a vitamin D deficiency even though we had a pool in our backyard, would tell me to “put down that book and go outside.” I’d attempt to obey at least half of the directive, and just go outside with that book. But even though my yard had plenty of shady trees, it also had bugs (and worse, bees, which terrified me). It was never long before I tried to sneak back in to my relatively bug-free house. Continue reading

RWA 2013 Reflections

photo (23)I look forward to RWA all year long. Admittedly, a large part of it is the sheer fun. This year I kept gleefully telling my colleagues at work that I was off to spend a week going to cocktail parties and talking about books, and that they should feel very sorry for me. But beyond the parties, friends, and chatter, I enjoy the vibe of the conference itself, which is different every year. Since I’ve been able to attend the last four years in a row, I’ve enjoyed seeing how that changes. Where do we pick this up? Well, Lynn and I make a huge effort to attend as many publisher spotlights and tweet them when we can. We also watch our tweet streams to see what other attendees are talking about, and talk to authors at the literacy signing and publisher book signings. Here’s what was “in the water” this year:

Branding and New Adult: I believe we heard both of these terms at every single spotlight we attended, without exception. Last year, publishers seemed to be scrambling somewhat (especially after Stephanie Laurens’ evocative speech) to explain their relevance in the current wide open market. This year, they all seemed to by quite clear on what they brought to the table: Branding, packaging, and marketing. They are making coordinated efforts to turn each author into her own distinct and recognizable brand. All of them said they want multiple contracts and series. Now, to be clear, several clarified that “series” does not have to mean six shape-shifting brothers who all live in each other’s pockets; series can mean books set in the same world, even if that means they are more loosely connected. What publishers clearly do not want is an author who genre hops like mad. You can do it, mind you, but that probably means you have two distinct brands, and perhaps that you have them at different houses. If you are a newbie hoping to break into the field, you are better off picking something and sticking with it.

As for New Adult, my sense is that publishers are scrambling to hop onto this bandwagon and ride it while it’s hot. How long will it be hot? Who’s to say. But I did tell my 21 year old writing daughter that since she is writing about characters her age she should be submitting them now…while everyone is looking.

Paranormals are on the backburner: I admit to thinking I might never hear these words, and since I am not really a huge paranormal fan I admit to being pretty happy to hear these words. After several conferences spent hearing about how readers were clamoring for more vampires, shapeshifters, succubi, and just plain othersI’m a little glad that the enthusiasm has run its course for now. This also helps me out as Managing Editor of AAR. I’ve spent the last several years with a list full of complicated paranormal series books that reviewers struggled to follow because they could not always read the previous 37 books in the series.

Publishers still want paranormals. But if you’re a new author they are looking mostly for paranormals with humor, for which there is still more of a demand, or something very high concept (another big conference buzzword). However, if you love to write and read more traditional paranormals don’t despair, because…

Digital publishing makes nearly anything possible: Every traditional publisher has a digital arm, and many publishers who started out digital and gaining traction. The digital arms (and small but growing e-only or e-mostly pubs) are willing to take a chance on nearly any setting or subgenre if they think the writing is good enough. This is where they’ll publish your vampire book or your Colonial romance if you are not Christine Feehan or Pamela Clare. They’ll brand you and (hopefully) let you take off in a more niche market, which is much cheaper to do in the digital milieu. This can only be good news for readers who crave variety (if a little challenging at times for those of us who are trying to find all these great books and tell you about them). The other interesting thing that more than one publisher noted is that the digital market and print market are really not the same. Different types of books can perform better in each market, and what takes off digitally does not always translate to print (and vice versa).

Indy and e “friendly”: And speaking of e-publishing, I personally was thrilled to see the conference becoming more e-friendly. A few publishers – most notablyAvon – had their authors hand out ebooks as well as print versions. Those of us shipping books home to, say, Colorado – and who might have husbands who complain about the possibility of being killed in a book avalanche – were very grateful. RWA also held its first indy book signing, which was well attended and popular with both indy authors and conference attendees.

Usually, this is the spot where I talk about my conference workout photo, but working out at this hotel was kind of a drag and the view was not inspiring. I am more of an outdoor girl in the summertime, and this hotel in the heart of downtown Atlanta was not really situated in a good place to run outside (though the weather was really not bad). I took photos from the gym, but they were depressing. Instead, you can enjoy the cheery picture of our hands (Lynn’s and mine) – sporting the glowy, sparkly rings they were giving out at the Avon party. We’ll be reporting to you next year from San Antonio. Dare I ask if anyone runs along the River Walk?

 

RWA 2013 – News from the Literacy Signing

IMG_20130717_174858_689 There’s no better place to get news than in a room packed full of authors (more than 400 of them), readers and fans. After some Atlanta sightseeing, including – I am not making this up – a stop at the Georgia Aquarium, where you can find a dolphin show featuring a singing sea captain in a light-up cape, Lynn Spencer and I hit the literacy signing, where there seemed to be more authors than usual. I didn’t come close to talking to them all (and missed several I would have liked to chat with), but I did catch up with quite a few.

Two overwhelming messages tonight: Everyone, no really, everyone, is writing an enovella that ties into her next book. After hearing about twelve people in a row tell me that, someone (who prefers to remain nameless) shed some light on the subject: It’s a way that traditional publishers can compete on pricepoint with e-first or e-only publishers. And of course, if you like the novella enough maybe you’ll think about buying a full-length book – and perhaps paying a little more for it. The second message: The market for historicals is challenging right now. Unless, perhaps, they are e-novellas. Anyway, here is more specific author news from the women I managed to catch up with: Continue reading

World War II Romance – Can This Be a Thing?

the_kissI’m in the middle of a World War II romance right now that I’m reading for review. It’s okay, but not anything to write home about. I’ve been seeing more WWII stories come across my desk, but few are mainstream romances. There are inspirationals galore. Small press and indy books have always had them here and there. And they pop up in fiction, often with a romantic element. Mainstream romances, though? Not so much.

I feel like the time could be ripe for it, though. It’s not all that unusual for indie publishing to start a trend that New York later gloms onto (Fifty Shades, anyone?), and there’s a lot of appeal to the WWII setting. It comes complete with a built in conflict (the hero could die! Anyone could die!) and a cause that almost anyone could feel good about. Besides, those retro clothes are so cute. I can even overlook the fact that nearly everyone smokes (although I find that less cute). 

My so-so WWII romance got me thinking about others that I enjoyed a lot more. In no particular order:

Crossings by Danielle Steel – A huge caveat here: I read this when I was fifteen, and I have absolutely no idea whether it stands the test of time. Chances are it doesn’t. But it was the first Danielle Steel book I read (a lady I babysat for loaned it to me), and though I would soon decide that if you read one Danielle Steel book you’ve read them all, I loved this one. As I recall, it had a love triangle involving the heroine, an older husband who appeared to be working for the Vichy government in France but was secretly saving priceless French art from the Nazis, and an American soldier. And it ended with the fabulous cliched line, “Strong people cannot be defeated.” Or so I remember, anyway.

The Shell Seekers and Coming Home by Rosamunde Plicher - The Shell Seekers was a huge hit of the late eighties, and deservedly so. Coming Home came later and isn’t related, but is just as good. Both are sweeping sagas full of danger, competing love interests, and homefront sacrifices. Shell Seekers is more UK set, and if I remember correctly Coming Home wanders the globe a bit (or at least the heroine’s family gets spread out). They are worth seeking out if you’ve never read them.

Black Out and All Clear by Connie Willis – I am a straight up Connie Willis fan girl. I read both of these when they came out and considered reviewing them. But since I’d already written two DIK reviews of previous books, I decided that everyone already knew I loved Connie Willis. Many of her books (including these two) are loosely connected in that they feature time traveling British historians of the future who go back to various periods to study them. Black Out and All Clear are essentially one story in two books, and they cover several different historians who all get stuck in the past as they are observing various aspects of World War II. Most, but not all, all in London during the Blitz. If you like this setting at all, these books are not to be missed.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – Almost everyone I know loved this book, but it’s certainly a tear jerker. Keep a box of tissues handy for this one.

The Unsung Hero (and other early Troubleshooter books) by Suzanne Brockmann – remember how her early Troubleshooter books all had a WWII subplot woven in? That was awesome, and in some cases, better than the main plot. In Unsung Hero both plots are fabulous, and the hero is…hair challenged. You see that often in real life but rarely in romance novels.

I’m sure I am forgetting something fabulous. What great WWII books have you read? And will anyone admit to also reading Crossings? I can’t be the only one.

Tying it up in a Bow

tiedupbowAs romance readers we like happy endings. I still remember the book that pushed me firmly away from historical fiction into the romance camp. The heroine was a New England ship captain’s wife. It started out with a romantic meeting and courtship, and ended with plummeting fortunes and marital discord. I closed the book and tried to think why I had wanted to read it in the first place, or why anyone would want to read it. If I’m reading for pleasure, I want it to end happily. But I have to wonder whether ending happily means it also has to end neatly.

Because we also complain about hackneyed epilogues. You know what I mean. It’s a year later, and the heroine has just given birth to the adorable heir (because I swear it is usually a boy). Our hero and heroine look at each other with gooey eyes and perfect happiness. There’s no hint that the baby in question might get sick, or their financial fortunes will undergo an abrupt reversal, or even that the beloved family dog will pee on the priceless Aubusson carpet. In other words, there’s no inkling that the hero and heroine are about to experience life as we know it. If there’s any hint of discord in an epilogue, it tends to be in the form of angst for the couple’s friend/relative/old school chum who will be featured in the next sequel. 

What got me thinking about this in the first place? I read two with slipshod endings, both of which read as if the author got sick of writing and just ended the book with little thought or planning. One I have reviewed (and panned) already – Dusk with a Dangerous Duke. In this gem, the story ends with the hero and heroine professing their love as a house burns down around them (after bickering the book away), after which someone (no one ever says who) breaks down the door and presumably puts the fire out. The happy couple walks pout the door to live happily ever after (one assumes) without helping put the fire out, thanking the rescuer, or appearing in a happy epilogue with a dimpled baby in tow.

The second book is one I’m about to review (better than the first, but not by much), which leaves an ending with plot holes big enough to drive a semi through. My personal favorite was the way the hero’s brother had been grazed by a bullet and thought he was Russian. He stills thinks he’s Russian at the end of the book. Or was it the heroine’s brother, who was apparently kidnapped by Indians and renowned for his fiery red hair? Everyone knew about him (except the heroine apparently - she’d been trying to find him for five years). I’m pretty sure these loose ends will be addressed in the next book – which I will definitely not be sticking around to read.

Is there a happy medium somewhere? A non-gooey epilogue? A sunny – bot not completely unrealistic - ending? One where loose ends are tied up satisfactorily but not too neatly? One I can think of recently the struck all the right notes was Cecelia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. The hero and heroine are happy, but their life is a modest one. Their immediate, pressing issues are resolved, but they aren’t exactly living in fabulous wealth  - or bouncing a baby on both arms.

What kind of ending strikes the right note for you? Do you like the ooey-gooey love and babies? Do you need everything tied up in a bow?

– Blythe Barnhill

Sisters…Nailed It!

sisterEvery romance needs a hero and heroine, but sometimes a secondary relationship is so striking, so interesting, that it almost steals the show. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, about Elizabeth and Darcy. But it’s about Elizabeth and Jane too. Some of the best moments and the best dialog are about them, and about their relationship and their differences. Series and stories involving siblings are a dime a dozen, but books that really nail sibling relationships are a lot rarer. We see a lot more Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (with its very surface relationships…Bless her beautiful hide!) than we see the Bennett girls.

When someone gets it right, it feels like a bonus. My recent favorite is Courtney Milan’s novella, The Governess Affair. It is of course about a governess and a former boxer turned finance man of sorts. But it’s also about sisters. Serena (the titular governess) is the bolder sister who, after she is raped by the Duke of Claremont, stations herself outside his home every day, vowing to keep her vigil until he agrees to support her child. Her sister Frederica is basically agoraphobic. Frederica can’t understand why Serena takes so many risks. Serena can’t understand how Frederica can live like she does – or how it is even living. They love each other, though they don’t understand each other. Toward the end of the story, Serena thinks:

Maybe Freddy would always think Serena strangely broken, and Serena would always cringe, thinking of her sister ensconced in her rooms, slowly turning to stone. There was no convincing each other, no understanding each other.

But when Serena had most needed it, her sister had given her a place to stay. For all that Freddy made her stomach hurt, they still shared an affection made bittersweet by all that divided them. Perhaps God gave one sisters to teach one to love the inexplicable.

I was so struck by the last line that I texted it to my own sister – something I’m pretty sure I’ve never done before. She’s an artist, with all the creativity, originality, and free-spiritedness that implies. We love each other but tend to see life differently. I’m not sure she’s ever understood, for example, why anyone would spend years writing about romance novels when one could spend years writing romance novels (though she’s stopped saying that…at least out loud). We found common ground over the Milan quote, which she liked as much as I did. It was more insight than I’d bargained for in a novella.

While I have seen authors handle easy, companionable sibling relationships well (Nora Roberts comes to mind here, but there are others), I was hard-pressed to think of books that really went below the surface, or delved into more complicated sibling relationships. Who can you think of who “gets” the sibling relationship and does it right?

Total aside about sibling differences: I could tell you every detail of the t-shirt my sister is wearing in the picture above, but I’d be very surprised if she could (remembering things from thirty years ago is more in my wheelhouse). Although you can’t see it, it has Snoopy on it – in sunglasses, throwing a frisbee. It was the last one of its kind in the BYU bookstore, and she got it in a fair-and-square coin toss. I had to settle for the much less cool one with Snoopy sleeping on his house. It’s okay – now that it’s been thirty years, I’ve decided to let my resentment go.