Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Green-eyed Monster

Jealousy lies somewhere between sanity and madness, or so psychologists say. Among professionals, only doctors and actors are more susceptible to it than writers. Some writers seem to fear that someone else’s success is either undeserved recognition or an evaluation of their own work. The mad Salieri in the final scene of Amadeus gives voice to feelings that have tormented many creative minds: “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

Achievers as well as the aspirers fall prey to the attacks of the green-eyed monster. On August 27, 1938, Robert Frost, who according to writer Wallace Stegner was a “prima donna who was never content to share the center of the stage," heckled and humiliated fellow poet Archibald MacLeish, going so far as to set fire to papers to distract an audience gathered to hear MacLeish read. The sad thing is that professional jealousy is a double-edged weapon, wounding both parties. Frost lost a friend over his jealous tantrum, a friend who reportedly said to him after the MacLeish reading, “You’re a good poet, Robert, but you’re a bad man.”

Not many of us are going to lose control to such a degree that we show up to heckle a successful writer at her book signing or set fire to our conference notes when a competitor wins a Golden Heart or a Rita. But few of us are free from jealousy. Anne Lamott writes extensively about the emotion in Bird by Bird, warning “[I]f you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know - people who are, in other words, not you...”

We laugh at Lamott’s words, but we also recognize their truth. Breathes there a soul among us who has not at least felt the touch of the monster’s fangs upon hearing the jubilant announcement of another writer’s just-signed contract, upon seeing another writer’s book atop a best-seller list, upon listening to accolades heaped on another writer’s work? Is there one among us who has not been filled for a moment with self-pity, who has not been harassed for a heartbeat by self-doubt, who has not heard in the silent night a voice taunting us with our own mediocrity?

So what do we do with such feelings? I think I’m right in assuming that most of us want to be both good writers and good people. We don’t like sharing space with the monster. We want to rejoice sincerely in the blessings that have come to friends and acquaintances. What’s the answer?

I think we have to begin by acknowledging our feelings. Lamott continues her warning with these words: “You are going to feel awful beyond words. You are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don't believe in anything. If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed.” Yes, the feelings are negative and no, we don’t want to be controlled by them. But owning them is necessary. Denial is futile, and all attempts at comfort seem empty. Some people talk about their feelings with a trusted friend. Others find writing about them helpful. Don’t pull a Robert Frost, even if your version of burning paper consists of faint praise or sour grapes.

Second, recognize that someone else’s achievement does not diminish us. In fact, the reverse is true. The newly contracted writer gives us all reason to hope. If success comes to one unpublished writer, it means publishers are signing new writers. The title at the top of the bestseller list and more books sold are good not just for the writer who authored the book but also for the genre, good for all of us. Sure, the award winners bask in the recognition of peers and judges, but belonging to organizations that celebrate excellence is reason for us all to rejoice.

Then, use the monster. Turn the negative to a positive. I know from experience that someone else’s success can result in my self-evaluation and renewed determination to be more disciplined. We can use the monster in yet another way. When one of our characters experiences jealousy, we can pull from the well of personal knowledge to give credibility and vitality to our writing.

Finally, share the joy of the achievers. This is particularly important when the success story belongs to a friend. Bette Middler once said, "The worst part of success is to try finding someone who is happy for you." I find that statement poignant beyond words, and I never want to cause a friend to feel that way. Friends share the bad and the good. Most of us have no problem encouraging a friend dejected over rejection, and we all depend on friends who can empathize with us at such moments. But who wants a 50% friendship? Friends not only offer the shoulders to receive our tears; they also cheer at our parades. Sometimes they lead the band. The victory parade is more meaningful when it is shared with those who were there when the third draft still didn’t work, when the contest judge handed out a 59, when the fifth agent said, “No thanks.” I want to be there for my friends when hope seems like merely a pretty word, and I want to be cheering loudly when their moments of triumph arrive.

Jealousy may well be, as Anne Lamott says, an “occupational hazard” for writers, but it is not a hazard for which we have no effective response. “To cure jealousy,” writer Joan Didion says, “is to see it for what it is, a dissatisfaction with self.” Let’s take the cure and move beyond professional jealousy to confidence in our own worth and unfettered happiness in the good fortune of our colleagues and friends.

Writers are not the only ones who experience professional jealousy. Whether you are a writer, a teacher, a businesswoman, or a member of some other profession, have you ever been wounded by either edge of the green-eyed monster?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Coming Attractions: Part 2

Listing books by month and category is a strong reminder of the paucity of contemporaries. I only have three on my TBB list: two by auto-buy authors and one by a debut author who is already receiving a lot of buzz.


The Perfect Christmas(September 29), Debbie Macomber
I love Christmas books. I start buying new ones as they are released every fall, and then around Thanksgiving I take out all my Christmas keepers and read Christmas books through the end of the year. Debbie Macomber’s books are always part of this ritual, and I look forward to adding a new one to my collection each year. This year’s book sounds like great fun. A thirty-something heroine, ready for a husband and kids, hires a professional matchmaker, who assigns her three Christmas tasks: serve as a charity bell-ringer, dress up as Santa’s elf, and prepare a traditional Christmas dinner for her neighbors.

Lakeshore Christmas(September 29), Susan Wiggs
Wiggs takes readers back to Willow Lake in this sixth book in her best-selling Lakeshore Chronicles books. This one pairs an unlikely duo, a prim librarian and a long-haired, tattooed former child star, as directors of the annual Christmas pageant. While I’ve liked some of the Lakeshore Chronicles more than others, they have all been good reads. This one promises cheery fires, heartwarming carols, ample goodwill, and love story with an HEA. I’m sure there will be sightings of characters from former chronicles as well.

Note: If you, like me, have been waiting for Daisy’s story, Wiggs says we will have to wait a little longer. It will be a 2011 publication.

Can’t Stand the Heat(September 1), Louisa Edwards

The buzz on this romantic comedy has been enthusiastic. A light-hearted, fast-paced tale of the relationship between a food critic and a chef, Can’t Stand the Heat sounds promising. The word I heard is that if you like heat, you’ll love this kitchen. I’m looking forward to visiting. A second Recipe for Love book is due on shelves in March 2010.


Storm of Visions, Christina Dodd
I can take or leave paranormals; mostly I leave them. But I have been a Christina Dodd fan for ages. If La Dodd writes a book, I’m going to buy it. Like thousands of other readers, I thrilled to her Darkness Chosen Books and was delighted when I learned that CD was writing a spinoff series. The Romance Vagabonds were privileged to break the news of the new series, a fact that makes these books even more special to me. I loved Storm of Visions, which reached #5 on the NYT bestseller list. Storm of Shadows (September 1) promises to be just as great a read. I particularly love that the heroine of this book is a habituĂ© of universities and libraries and is seduced into danger by the promise of museum visits. Now That’s my kind of heroine! You can read an excerpt here.

Romantic Suspense

I read little romantic suspense. Some of the best authors in this subgenre write too scary for me. I avoid things that might give me nightmares. But a handful of writers manage to hook me despite my caution. Two of that small group have September releases.

The Perfect Liar, Brenda Novak
Trust Me introduced Novak’s Last Stand series about an organization that focuses on helping survivors of violent crimes. The Perfect Liar is the fifth book in that series, and it offers something different, an Air Force captain charged with rape. His accuser is a stalker who has evidence to support her claim. Ava Bixby of The Last Stand must determine who the victim is and where danger lies. Romantic Times gave this one 4.5 Stars. You can read an excerpt here.

Make Her Pay, Roxanne St. Claire
Someone gave me one of Roxanne St. Claire’s Bullet Catcher books more than a year ago. Since romantic suspense is not my favorite genre, Take Me Tonight languished on my TBR shelf until I hit several DNF historicals in a row and needed something different as a palate cleanser. I gave TMT a try, loved it, and I’ve been a Bullet Catchers fan ever since, glomming the older titles and looking forward to each new story. Make Her Pay (September 29) is Bullet Catchers #10, if you count novellas. It features a hero with a Greek name and a redemption plot. I’ll be at the bookstore on release day for this one. You can read an excerpt here.


Back in the day when bookstores were harder to find, I used to buy category romances by the armload. I read many fewer categories these days, but I still have favorite authors that I look for and a couple of lines that I check out each month.

The Piratical Miss Ravenhurst, Louise Allen
Harlequin Historicals offers readers some wonderful books by terrific authors. Louise Allen is one of the best. Allen’s Scandalous Ravenhurst series is up to #6 with Clemence’s book (release scheduled for September 1). The books have been a bit uneven--some terrific and others just ok, but TPMR sounds good. High seas adventures,cross-dressing heroine, honorable naval officer undercover—I like the ingredients. You can read an excerpt here.

Here to Stay, Margot Early
Harlequin Super Romance is my favorite contemporary category line because I like context with the love stories I read. I particularly like the Everlasting Love books. I was sorry to see Harlequin discontinue the EL line, but I’m glad that the stories after the conventional HEA survive in certain books within the Super Romance line. Here to Stay (September 8) weaves together rich girl/poor boy and big secret themes. The themes may be overused, but since it’s an Everlasting Love book and I've read books by Early that I really liked, I’ll give it a try. You can read an excerpt here.

A Marriage-Minded Man, Karen Templeton
Templeton is one of the category authors whose books I always look for. I was fortunate enough to win an early copy of this book, and I’ve already read it. I have a soft spot for reunion stories, and AMMM is a good one. Tess and Eli are likeable characters, and the issues they overcome are real issues in contemporary life. You can read an excerpt of this Silhouette Special Edition here.


A Christmas Ball
I love anthologies, and I especially love Christmas anthologies. A Christmas Ball (September 29) sounds like a terrific way to start celebrating early. It contains novellas by Emily Bryan, Jennifer Ashley, and Elissa Johnson. All three historical romances are set at the Christmas Ball of Lord and Lady Hartwell. Ashley is the only one of these authors I’ve read, and it is her story that puts the book on my list. “The Longest Night” is part of her Nvengaria series. Shapeshifter Valentin has returned to England at the command of Grand Duke Alexander (The Mad, Bad Duke), but he also has a second mission, to win the heart of Mary Cameron, who nursed him back to health. I’m eager to try Bryan’s story because I’ve “met” her viaTwitter and because “My Lady Below Stairs” sounds fresh. The heroine, Jane, is the bastard daughter of an aristocrat, and a stable hand vies with the betrothed of Jane’s runaway half-sister for the role as hero. Johnson’s “Traditions,” appropriately named, is a more traditional story. An earl in search of a bride finds his head and his heart at odds as he falls for a prim, bespectacled lady. All the stories sound like great fun.

What’s missing from my list? Any other early Christmas releases? I’d love to add more contemporaries.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Coming Attractions: Part 1--Historical Romances

I spent some time last week updating my book calendar, reflecting on my summer reading and anticipating books scheduled for September releases. I have nineteen romances on my TBB list for next month, so fall promises to be another glorious reading binge. I seem to be reading more and more historicals, and September will be no exception. Eight single-title historicals head my list.

Liz Carlyle’s Wicked All Day (September 29) continues her Neville series, connecting most directly with Tempted All Night. Zoe Armstrong, a secondary character in TAN, becomes the heroine of Wicked All Day. I depend upon Carlyle to provide richly developed characters and love scenes that are exactly that rather than just more sex scenes. I’ve read the excerpt, and the new book sounds like vintage Carlyle.

I find the premise behind Kathryn Caskie’s Seven Deadly Sins series fascinating: “The Sinclairs of Scotland are known throughout society as The Seven Deadly Sins. Cast out by their father and denied their inheritance unless they mend their wild ways, they travel to London to seek respectability.” The Most Wicked of Sins (September 22), the second book in the series, is Ivy’s story. Her sin? Envy. You can read the prologue and Chapter One here. I’m hooked.

A Lady of Persuasion (September 29), the final book in Tessa Dare’s first trilogy, is my favorite. First, Toby, the object of Lucy’s infatuation in Goddess of the Hunt, is the hero, and watching his revenge plot turn his world upside down is delicious. Then, the heroine Isabel is a rare character in romance, a politically ambitious woman who manages to be both idealistic and pragmatic. A bonus is getting all the interconnected characters from the series together in a single book in a manner that feels natural rather than staged. Even though I read this one in mss form, I’m eager to have a copy of the book. Not least because the covers are all so gorgeous, and the three are so obviously a set. You can find a very brief excerpt here, and Tessa will post a longer excerpt later this month.

Jo Goodman offers her readers a change of setting with Never Love a Lawman, a marriage of convenience tale set in 1882 in a Colorado mining town. I haven’t been able to find an excerpt, but since Goodman is known for her intelligent protagonists, I’m willing to take a chance on her. This is what she had to say about her characters in a Library Journal interview: “I give my heroines more freedom to speak their minds and step outside the strictures of their society than would have been tolerated. In some ways, it's the heroes who are anachronistic. They accept the heroines for their strength and tend to be more amused/aroused than emasculated by a clever woman. That's what makes my heroes exceedingly intelligent.” You can read the full interview here.

It has been a year since His Captive Lady, Book #2 in Anne Gracie's Devil Riders series was published, and a year is a long time without an Anne Gracie book. The first book in the series, The Stolen Princess, won the RWAustralia Romantic Book of the Year R*BY ("The Ruby") in the Long Romance category just a few days ago, and IMO His Captive Lady is even better. I do love Harry. To Catch a Bride (September 1), Book #3, is the story of Rafe Ramsey, son of the Earl of Axebridge. It is set in Cairo as well as in Regency England, and the heroine is first introduced as a cross-dressing street urchin. It sounds intriguing. I know I can depend on a Gracie book to make me laugh and cry, so I’m expecting another keeper. You can read an excerpt here.

Lisa Kleypas’s Hathaways are one of my addictions. I salivate just thinking about the third book in the series, Tempt Me at Twilight (September 22). Kleypas, who has created some of the most memorable heroes in romance fiction, matches Poppy Hathaway with a mysterious Alpha hero, the kind of self-made man Kleypas is especially skilled at crafting. Harry Rutledge sounds like another candidate for the Kleypas pantheon of heroes. John Charles in Booklist described TMAT as “brimming with superbly nuanced characters, simmering sexual chemistry, and wicked wit.” Sigh! You can read an excerpt here. I wonder how long we have to wait for Leo’s book.

Paranormals rarely found on my TBR lists, so I haven’t read Kathryn Smith in a while. But I love her character-driven historicals such as For the First Time and Still in My Heart. Predictably then I was delighted when I first heard that she was writing another historical, and I’m excited that the release day of a new historical is only weeks away now. When Seducing a Duke, the first book in a new series, sounds worth the wait. You can read an excerpt here.

Kasey Michaels books have been finding a home in my TBR stack since the mid-80s when she was writing engaging traditional Regencies like The Savage Miss Saxon and The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane. I read her European historicals (including all the Romney Marsh books), her contemporaries, and her Maggie mysteries. No way would I miss How to Tempt a Duke (September1), the first in a four-book (or more) Regency series featuring the Daughtrys. How to Tempt a Duke is a Romantic Times Top Pick. You can read an excerpt here. You can also purchase a special ebook prequel, How to Woo a Spinster, from Amazon and Harlequin, and Book #2, How To Tame a Lady will be released October 1.

While I’m waiting for September, I still have some August treasures to delight my romance-loving heart. Tessa Dare’s Surrender of a Siren, Laura Lee Guhrke’s With Seduction in Mind, Karen Hawkins’s The Laird Who Loved Me, and Tracy Anne Warren’s Seduced by His Touch all continue series that are must-reads for me, and all will be released on August 25.

Are you reading more historical in recent months? Are you anticipating one that I left off my list? Would you be as pleased as I would if all romance publishers would declare a moratorium on titles using “Duke”?

Note: I’ll post Part 2 with September books from other subgenres later in the week.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Savoring Children's Books

Some of the most important books I’ve ever read are children’s books. Their words dance in my head, their truths linger in my heart, and they keep alive a child-likeness I hope never to lose. As Judith Viorst says in the foreword to What the Dormouse Said: Lessons for Grown-ups from Children’s Books, "At their best, children's books offer insights we'll want to remember and ponder and savor and learn from and revel in."

I’m not sure I could make a list of all the children’s books I have relished. From the age of five, I was a voracious reader. In those early years I read not only the children’s books that were popular during my own childhood, but also those that my mother had loved as a child. Then in the 70s and 80s when my nephews were small, I discovered wonderful books from that time. For the past decade, the Grands have been introducing me to yet another generation of authors writing for children. Among those countless books I have enjoyed, I remember, ponder, and savor the following with particular affection.

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)
Alice is one of the books I knew before I could read it for myself. Being an imaginative child, I found Carroll’s Alice both endlessly fascinating and deliciously frightening. One measure of how deeply woven this book was into my childhood is the frequency with which I still quote it. Just last week in a conversation with a friend, I quoted the Cheshire Cat: “We’re all mad here.” And I quoted Alice and the Red Queen in my response to Julie’s comment on this blog

Alice: “There is no use trying; one can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
Oh, how I loved this book and all the Anne books. I read them over and over again. I was sure that Anne and I were “kindred spirits.” She gave voice to many things I felt but lacked words to express. She too thrilled to a world rich in wonders: "Isn't it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive--it's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There'd be no scope for imagination then, would there?"

She too knew what it felt like when all the pieces of her “self” sometimes failed to fit together: "There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting."

The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams (1922)
My mother read The Velveteen Rabbit to me. I read it to my nephews. When the oldest Grand, now ten, was still at the age when her very best friends were a stuffed bear named Button and a stuffed rabbit named Clover, this was her favorite book, the one she begged her daddy to read every night at bedtime. I like to think that one day, fifteen or twenty years from now, she will read Rabbit’s definition of REALNESS to a child of her own.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.
"When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Winie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne (1926)
My mother read Milne to us, but I didn’t truly appreciate his characters until I was an adult. I taught composition, freshman and advanced, to college students for more than two decades, and I often told my students that Winnie-the-Pooh was my favorite philosopher. I kept a couple of Milne quotations on my wall to remind me of things I believed about teaching composition and literature.

1. “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different
when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
2. “Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.”

Another two quotations are dear to my heart now because poignantly they link my own childhood with the childhoods of four little boys I once read to and the seven charmers they and I read to now.

1. “Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
2. “If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think, but the most important thing is, even if we're apart… I'll always be with you.”

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Maud Hart Lovelace (1943)
The very first book I checked out on my own library card was Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. For the rest of my childhood, I read and reread Lovelace’s thirteen Deep Valley books. I followed Betsy Ray’s life from the age of five, my age when I read the first books, through her early 20s and her first year of married life. The books are on a keeper shelf even today, and from time to time I revisit Betsy, Tacy, Tib, and all their friends. Because of Betsy, a place (Deep Valley, Minnesota) and a time (turn of the twentieth century) that are not my own feel as familiar as the Southern scenes of my own experience. I never enter my local library that I don’t remember Betsy’s bi-weekly library visits: "She thought of the library, so shining white and new; the rows and rows of unread books; the bliss of unhurried sojourns there . . . ."

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1943)
At one time I had six copies of The Little Prince, including a copy in French. It was one of those books that friends loved giving as gifts with a favorite quotation as inscription. One copy, a gift from a friend who named her son Antoine after the author, was inscribed with the book’s most famous passage: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Another copy, a gift from a man I wanted to fall in love with, reminded me “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst (1972)
I first read Viorst’s most famous book when I read it to my oldest nephew. Children and adults alike feel a kinship with Alexander from the opening lines: "I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." We read this one so often that “Alexander days” became family shorthand for the days that made one long to run away. I still have Alexander days. Don't you?

If I Found a Wistful Unicorn: A Gift of Love, Ann Ashford (1978)
This was the favorite book of my two younger nephews, who when they were very small loved shouting an enthusiastic “Yes!” to questions such as “If I found a wistful unicorn / And brought him to you, all forlorn, / Would you pet him? and “If my rainbow were to turn all gray / And wouldn’t shine at all today, / Would you paint it?” The questions end with “If any of these things you’ll do / I’ll never have to say to you, /"Do you love me?” By the time they were four, they had memorized the lines and “read” it to every family member and unsuspecting visitor. I love pulling out that same, now-battered book and reading it to the Grands. The four-year-old begs as eloquently as his father dead, "Read it again, please."

"I AM CHERRY ALIVE," THE LITTLE GIRL SANG, Delmore Schwartz (1979)

This edition of Schwartz’s poem, gorgeously illustrated by Barbara Cooney, offers one of the best examples of responding to poetry emotionally before you understand it intellectually. I have never read this to a child who didn’t feel the joy and freedom of the poem even though I suspect very few of them could explain its meaning. I don't think anyone can read it without remembering a time when all things seemed possible.

"I am cherry alive," the little girl sang,
"Each morning I am something new:
. . . . . . . . . . . .

But I don't tell the grown-ups: because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up and forgot what they knew
And they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!"

It saddens me that the book is out of print.

I Love You the Purplest, Barbara Joosse (1996)
Among my favorite books to give an older child when a new baby is born into the family is Barbara Joosse’s I Love You the Purplest. The mother answers the question “Who do you love best?” by assuring each of her sons of her love. I especially like Joosse’s use of colors to explain how a parent’s love for each child is superlative and unique. The active, adventurous Max is red; the more introspective Julian is blue. And her language is wonderful: “Why Max, I love you the reddest! I love you the color of the sky before it blazes into night. I love you the color of a leopard’s eyes when it prowls through the jungle, and the color of a campfire at the edge of the flame. A wide open hug. The swirl of a magic cape. The thunder of a shout.”

What are your favorite children’s books? Do you agree with Judith Viorst that the best children’s books have lessons for adult readers? Are there lines from children’s literature that dance in your head?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I Heart Contemporaries!

I spent a couple of hours last week catching up on my reading journal, and I was dismayed to realize that of the twenty-three books published May-July that I was adding to my keeper shelves, only four were contemporaries. I used to read more contemporaries than historicals. When did that change?

I still get as excited as ever about a new book from Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Robyn Carr, Toni Blake, or Rachel Gibson. I was wildly vocal about my delight when Nora Roberts returned to the straight contemporary with her new Wedding Quartet, and I’ll probably lead my own marching band if Jenny Crusie ever joins her. I think Lisa Kleypas’ contemporaries are just as wonderful as her historicals, and I’ve added Kristan Higgins and Julie James to my autobuy list. I drove all over town looking for a copy of Liz Bevarly’s Neck & Neck. So it’s not as if I’ve forsaken contemporaries.

But I can’t deny that I am reading fewer, and even fewer are joining my keepers. I think of five friends who have joined/will soon join the ranks of published authors, and I realize that all of them write historicals. I’m concerned. I not only read contemporaries, but I also write them. I’d like to think my dream of publication has some chance of being realized.

Sarah from Smart Bitches and Jane from Dear Author are promoting an ongoing Save the Contemporary movement. It sounds like an endangered species protection act to me, so this blog is my contribution to the action. Here’s my list of all-time favorite contemporary romances—single-title only. With Harlequin’s sales, I don’t think categories are endangered, so I’ll save favorite categories for another blog.

Till the Stars Fall, Kathleen Gilles Seidel
Lovers reunited is my favorite theme, so it’s not surprising that TTSF is one of my most beloved books. Seidel has the gift of creating characters so real the reader feels she might run into them at the supermarket or a neighborhood party. Krissa and Quinn are mature, intelligent, and flawed characters whose past is part of their present. I love the way Seidel weaves strands from the larger culture into their story. I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve read this book, but every time I do I sigh “Perfect” as I turn the last page.

In the Midnight Rain, Ruth Wind
This book by Barbara Samuel writing as Ruth Wind is an extraordinary book in every way. More than their professions make Ellie Connor, who writes about musicians, and Blue Reynard, who raises orchids, atypical as heroine and hero. They are wounded people whose strengths are hard-earned and whose pasts persist in intruding on the present. The same could be said of the town, Pine Bend, Texas, which becomes another character in the book.

A Place to Call Home, Deborah Smith
Claire Maloney, the daughter of a prominent family in Dunderry, Georgia, and Roan Sullivan, son of the town drunk, meet at a St. Patrick’s Day parade when she is five and he is ten. The bond they form as children cannot be destroyed by other people or by life’s vicissitudes. Twenty years after they are separated, they meet again. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. In APTCH too, the past proves its power in the present, but Claire and Roan share a love that overcome the obstacles of once-was and the now-is.

Sea Swept, Nora Roberts
I could easily write about my top ten Nora Roberts contemporaries. She has her own double-rowed keeper shelf in my house. But Sea Swept is my favorite. I love the premise of the Chesapeake Bay series: the childless couple who adopt three lost boys and the fourth lost boy who becomes the youngest brother, a last gift from their father. But Cameron Quinn, the baddest boy of the group, and the fiery Anna Spinelli—two people determined to remain unattached who are conquered by love--are my favorites.

Virgin River, Robyn Carr
I have a deep affection for community-based stories, and Robyn Carr’s Virgin Rover series is among the best. I particularly love Virgin River, the first book, because it shows a woman almost felled by an unbearable loss who is healed by a combination of her own resilience, a community’s acceptance, and the love of a man who won’t give up. Even in the other books in the series, I look for Mel and Jack. Theirs is an HEA to keep cherishing.

Dream a Little Dream, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
I’d hate to give up any of my SEP keepers, and choosing between DALD and First Lady as a top favorite was a difficult task. But DALD won out because it offers an angst-ridden love story between two wounded creatures, Rachel and Gabe, and a lighter, sweeter secondary love story between Kristy and Gabe’s minister-brother, Ethan. DALD is also rare in non-inspirational romance in that religious faith is part of the book. I appreciate Phillips’ giving a balanced portrait. Rachel’s former televangelist husband who perverted the faith he preached is offset by Ethan who struggles to reconcile a faith based on mercy and love with his all-too-human anger and thirst for revenge.

Smooth Talking Stranger, Lisa Kleypas
Kleypas brings the same mix of heat and heart to her contemporaries that have made her historical favorites. Sugar Daddy and Blue-Eyed Devil are both keepers for me too, but I will admit to my shallowness here. I chose Smooth Talking Stranger over the other two because I love Jack Travis. His combination of good-ole-boyness and tender nurturer just melts my heart. Ella evokes my sympathy, but it’s Jack that makes this book a winner.

Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie
Crusie’s description of her hero might have been enough on its on to make this book a favorite: Phineas Tucker "looked like every glossy frat boy in every nerd movie ever made, like every popular town boy who'd ever looked right through her in high school, like every rotten rich kid who'd ever belonged where she hadn't." But to that she adds the best lust-turns-to-love story I’ve ever read, a cast of memorable secondary characters, and the hilarity I look for in a Crusie. I love Bet Me and Fast Women, but WTT is the Crusie I return to most often.

My Man Pendleton, Elizabeth Bevarly
I’m a long-time Bevarly fan. She has written some of my favorite categories, but MMP is Bevarly at her best. Kit is just this side of ditzy, but if you are a fan of classic screwball comedies, as I am, you will love her. And Pendleton—ah, Pendleton! He’s smart, confident, and hot. His way with language alone captures my heart. I still laugh when I read his business advice: "In my opinion, sir, the implementation of such a visionary objective does seem to impact our mission statement, but I wonder if it won't be more productive in segmenting our quality group."

Just the Sexiest Man Alive, Julie James
Julie James is romantic comedy’s best hope. Her first book was such fun to read. The exchanges between successful lawyer Taylor Donovan and Jason Andrews, People's "Sexiest Man Alive” reminded me of a modernized Hepburn-Tracy verbal duel. Even more remarkable is than in an age of insert-sex-scene-here romances, James creates a book with irresistible appeal that has a ton of sexual tension but little sex.

Do you read contemporaries? What are your favorites? Do your part to save the contemporary and share.