Thursday, October 15, 2009
Anthology Appreciation Week
I’m writing this on Monday, not my favorite day of the week. I always think there should be a day between the end of the weekend and the start of the new week, a low-key day that makes little demands. Maybe then I would like Mondays better. It’s also raining today, and the song running through my head is an old one—“Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters.
Talkin' to myself and feelin' old,
Sometimes I'd like to quit.
Nothing ever seems to fit,
Nothing to do but frown.
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.
One thing that can raise my spirit on a Monday and a rainy day is a good book. Today I’m rereading the repackaged edition of Scottish Brides, a 1999 anthology featuring novellas by Christina Dodd, Stephanie Laurens, Karen Ranney, and Julia Quinn. My rereading has reminded me of how much I love anthologies. I hate piecemeal reading, but usually I’m forced into it. I don’t often have the luxury of the free hours it would take to read a book at one sitting. But I can read a novella in an hour or less and enjoy that satisfying feeling of having finished a good read. An added benefit is the occasional delight of discovering a new-to-me author whose voice I love.
Scottish Brides is such a delight that it set me to thinking about my favorite anthologies. Could I choose seven favorites, one for each day of a private observance of Anthology Appreciation Week? After checking my catalog of keepers, I decided that I could do so only if I imposed some limits.
No Christmas anthologies allowed on the list. I have so many Christmas favorites that they belong in a separate category.
No single-author anthologies allowed. Their keeper status was determined by a different criterion than multiple-author collections. This decision eliminates Here’s to the Ladies, a Carla Kelly collection of American frontier army stories that is a jewel.
No anthologies that are on the keeper shelf on the basis of a single story. These may merit the designation “favorite novella,” but they do not qualify as a favorite anthology. I strike Talk of the Ton and The One That Got Away with beloved stories by Eloisa James, Secrets of a Perfect Night with Rachel Gibson’s “Now and Forever,” which may be my favorite contemporary novella ever, and In Praise of Younger Men with Jo Beverley’s dark and steamy “The Demon’s Mistress.”
No short story collections permitted, only novellas. Now I cut collections by Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason, and the Mossy Creek stories.
I’m left with a more manageable list that, with difficulty, I cut to my top seven anthologies plus one honorable mention. These are the anthologies I reread most often, the ones that mix authors I love with new discoveries, the ones that include multiple novellas that entertain, delight, and move me. These are the anthologies that I find most deserving of celebration during this self-proclaimed Anthology Appreciation Week.
1. Irresistible Forces
Irresistible Forces is an anthology of SF/Fantasy romances that I bought solely for the stories by Putney and Beverley, both long-time autobuy authors for me. It is my #1 favorite anthology because I enjoyed every story in it, and it made me a fan of such blended genre tales. I expected to love the stories by Beverley and Putney, and I did. MJP’s contribution, “The Alchemical Marriage,” is an Elizabethan-set story with a Spanish Armada connection. It also serves as a sort of prequel for her Guardian books. Jo Bev’s “The Trouble with Heroes” is a layered piece filled with humor, pathos, philosophy, and politics. The themes of sacrifice and honor will be familiar ones to readers of her romance novels. My only quibble is that I wanted it to be longer.
I had heard friends rave about Bujold’s Vorkosigan tales, but since I almost never read science fiction, I doubt that I would ever have read them had I not read “Winterfair Gifts” and realized that Bujold was writing about relationships. And Catherine Asaro’s “Stained Glass Heart,” one of my favorite novellas ever, includes such beloved romance tropes as arranged marriage and lovers who were childhood friends. It has an innocence and joy that fills me with delight just remembering it. Deb Stover’s “Skin Deep” is an angel story that is great fun to read and left me thinking someone should turn it into a movie; Jennifer Roberson’s “Shadows in the Wood,” the shortest in the anthology, is a Robin Hood tale in which Merlin and Arthur’s sword Excalibur figure.
2. The Further Observations of Lady Whistledown
Like most Julia Quinn fans, I love Lady Whistledown, and I think the LW anthologies were a brilliant idea. This collection is my favorite. I love following the thread that links the stories. Suzanne Enoch’s “One True Love” is a lovely arranged marriage tale with lively exchanges between an H/H at odds and great sexual tension. Karen Hawkins’s contribution, “Two Hearts,” is a friends-to-lovers romance that tickles the funny bone and warms the heart. Hawkins’s gift for creating strong, endearing characters holds true here. Royce and Liza are my favorites in the anthology. Mia Ryan’s “A Dozen Kisses” features a wonderfully interesting hero, one with a brain injury that makes him appear slow-witted. I enjoyed the story, but I was frustrated because I felt it deserved to be more fully developed than the format allowed. “Thirty-six Valentines” is a typical Julia Quinn offering. The characters delight, the dialogue sparkles, the conflict amuses, and the story is an A all the way.
3. Where's My Hero?
Please don’t throw things at me if I admit I’ve only read two of the three stories in this anthology. I have the greatest admiration for Kinley McGregor/Sherrilyn Kenyon’s achievements. I have friends who are huge fans of her work, but it’s just not for me. This anthology ranks high on my list because I adored the other two stories by authors I consider brilliant in knowing what they do best and doing it better than anyone else.
I’m one of those readers who has a long list of secondary characters whose stories I long for. This anthology is perfect for readers like me in this respect. The heroine of Lisa Kleypas’s “Against the Odds” is the mathematician daughter of Sara and Derek Craven (Dreaming of You); the hero is Jake Linley, the interesting doctor who appears in four Kleypas novels (Someone to Watch Over Me, Where Dreams Begin, Lady Sophia’s Lover, and Worth Any Price). About time he got his own story. I enjoy watching the relationship between these atypical characters develop, but the parts of the story I like best are the scenes where Sara and Derek, one of the best H/H pairings ever, appear.
I read Splendid when it was first published and have been a Julia Quinn fan ever since. I was delighted to learn that “A Tale of Two Sisters” was the story of Ned Blyden, a secondary character in Quinn’s first three novels. I loved the character, and his story is a perfect fit for him. He and Charlotte are wonderful together, and Ned’s “poetic” composition makes me literally howl with laughter. “Charming” is a word that’s overused, but it is the best description I know for this story that truly is “highly pleasing, delightful to the mind and senses.”
4. Faery Magic
In this anthology, four writers, including three of my long-time autobuy authors, combine the magic of myth and legend with the enchantment of Georgian and Regency settings to tell stories of the intersection of the human world and the world of faery. The stories are connected by the world they share, but each offers unique delights. Jo Beverley’s “The Lord of Elphindale” is about a half-faery, half-human heroine who defies the very purpose for which she was created in an act of love. Karen Harbaugh’s “The Faery Braid,” a new take on the old tale Rapunzel, shows the hard choices life requires. “The Love Talker,” Barbara Samuel’s tale of a faery lord, cursed for his heartless seductions, who learns love and compassion from a simple country maid, is a lovely story made even more extraordinary by Samuel’s gorgeous prose. The heroine of Mary Jo Putney’s “Dangerous Gifts” learns that coveted gifts may come with too high a price.
5. Scottish Brides
The novellas in this anthology are all rooted in Scottish history and folklore, but they may be most notable for exemplifying so well the qualities readers look for in each of these authors. Christina Dodd’s “Under the Kilt” is a sexy tale featuring Hadden Fairchild, the brother of the heroine in A Well Pleasured Lady, a stubborn alpha who is all a Scots hero should be. “Rose in Bloom” by Stephanie Laurens is the tale of a rake reunited with the verbal sparring partner of his childhood, the Rose of the title. Julia Quinn’s “Gretna Green” has all the charm and fun I expect from a Quinn story and two likeable characters who share terrific chemistry and engaging banter. “The Glenlyon Bride” by Karen Ranney uses standard plots (arranged marriage and mistaken identity) to tell a sweet love story that is anything but standard in its development of a relationship that encompasses body, mind, and spirit.
6. Bride by Arrangement
I love Mary Jo Putney’s marriage of convenience tale, “Wedding of the Century,” in which an American heiress and a duke in need of a fortune discover how perfect they are for one another. Merline Lovelace’s “Mismatched Hearts” is a competent story of an H/H, engaged to the wrong people, whose honor is tested before their HEA is assured. “My Darling Echo” by Gayle Wilson is an unexpected treasure, the heart-warming tale of a blind earl and a struggling widow who marry first and fall in love afterwards.
7. Three Weddings and a Kiss
“The Kiss,” more short story than novella, is notable because it is the work of Kathleen Woodiwiss and features as hero Jeff Birmingham, brother of Brandon, the hero of Woodiwiss’s famous The Flame and the Flower. “Fancy Free” by Catherine Anderson is an American frontier tale of revenge and misunderstandings with some nice touches of humor, although I found it much less satisfying than Anderson’s best work like Annie’s Song and Phantom Waltz. Loretta Chase’s “The Mad Earl’s Bride” is among my top five novellas. There is nothing ordinary about this tale of a dying earl and the bluestocking heroine whose knowledge and stubbornness create a happy ending against all odds. The novella connects to Lord of Scoundrels, and Gwendolyn deserves a place beside Jessica Trent in the pantheon of romance heroines. “Promises” by Lisa Kleypas features a hero who is a shadow of Derek Craven and a heroine who persists in an inexplicable attachment to another man. Still, it’s Kleypas, and even a less than stellar Kleypas has much to recommend it.
Honorable Mention: It Happened One Night
All four novellas in this anthology tell the story of a man and a woman who meet serendipitously at an inn after years apart. Stephanie Laurens’s “The Fall of Rogue Gerrard,” which won a Rita for best novella, is vintage Laurens. A reformed rake meets a sensible woman from his past, is caught up in her most insensible scheme, and loses his heart. “Spellbound,” a tale of an estranged husband and wife who uncover the lies that separated them and rediscover their love, has the well-developed relationship, the emotional punch, and the memorable characters that have made Mary Balogh a legend in romance fiction. Jacquie D'Allesandro's “Only You,” a Rita finalist, is an interesting take on youthful lovers separated by class who are given a second chance. “From This Moment On” by Candice Hern ends her Merry Widows series. It’s my favorite among these stories. I love Wilhelmina, former courtesan and current widowed duchess. I love that she and Sam are mature characters. And I love that he was her first love. This one is a winner from an author who is underappreciated.
Do you appreciate anthologies? What are your favorites?