Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ten Under-read Romance Novels: Part I

This past Monday the LimeWire Music Blog posted a list of ten “unsung” country songs, songs that were not the commercial hits of a particular artist but were well worth listening to and should have been more successful. I probably would never have read the blog except for the fact that Trisha Yearwood’s version of Gretchen Peters’s “On a Bus to St. Cloud” was #1 on the list. It’s a favorite of mine, one of those songs that move me to tears every time I listen to them. Some of you know that I love lists, so it should come as no surprise that my mind moved from unsung country songs to their equivalent among romance novels. I thought about those books that get less attention than others by the author or by an author who gets less attention than her work merits but that offer the reader so much that I find it difficult to understand why more people don’t read these books and rave about them.

Jo Beverley, Forbidden Magic (Signet, 2005)

No, I don’t mean Forbidden. Forbidden is part of Beverley’s Company of Rogues series, and it gets lots of attention. Some people love its virginal hero and sexually experienced heroine. Others decry it as a ‘rape book,” but either way, it is read and talked about. Forbidden Magic is a very different book. First it is has lots of humor, more than any other Jo Bev book, I think. Then, it’s a Christmas book, always a plus for me. It also has a touch of the paranormal, not usual fare for Beverley. Finally, the Earl of Saxonhurst is an eccentric and wonderfully engaging hero. He gathers misfits around him including a misogynistic parrot and a superlatively ugly dog, he throws temper tantrums (throw being the operative word since he literally throws bric-a-brac while his servants bet on which ugly object will be destroyed next), and he falls convincingly in love with the heroine after their convenient marriage. Sax is one of my all-time favorite heroes.

Connie Brockway, My Dearest Enemy (Dell, 1998)

My Dearest Enemy is not exactly a forgotten book. After all, it won a RITA in 1999, and I know several people who share my conviction that this is Brockway’s best book. Still, when discussions of Brockway’s work comes up in RL or online conversations, As You Desire and All Through the Night, polar opposites on the angst and darkness scale, are the books most often mentioned. Don’t get me wrong, When Harry Bickered with Dizzy (AYD) is a delightful romance, one I have reread and reread, and All Through the Night is the book against which I measure all wrenchingly emotional, darkly erotic romances, but if my house were on fire and I could save only one Brockway book, I’d reach for My Dearest Enemy. First, I know of no other book that pairs a young, suffragist heroine and a nerd-become-intrepid-explorer hero. Second, it’s in part an epistolary novel, and I love epistolary novels, especially when the letters are as wonderfully witty and genuine as the letters Avery and Lily exchange. When they meet again face-to-face, the sexual tension is superbly done, and the conflicts they must overcome are deftly and credibly developed. The secondary characters are richly drawn. Bernard, the boy who is part of Lily’s unusual household, is near the top of my list of characters whose story I long to read.

Loretta Chase, The Devil’s Delilah (Fawcett, 1990)

I confess that I am a total Loretta Chase fangirl. I think Lord of Scoundrels deserves its place at the top of all-time best romances, the hope of finding another novella as good as “The Mad Earl’s Bride” keeps me reading anthologies, and the Carsingtons are in my top five fictional families. I don’t want to take one iota of praise away from any of Chase’s other books; I just want more people to read and rejoice in The Devil’s Delilah. I thought once of creating a quiz using the choice of a favorite Chase hero to reveal personality. The only problem was I couldn’t choose one favorite Chase hero myself. The best I could do was an eight-way tie. Jack Langdon, the hero of The Devil’s Delilah was among the eight. I can’t resist a bookworm hero, and when you add a pistol-toting heroine with a plan to take care of those she loves, it’s hardly surprising that I find this book a comic gem that should be relished by romance readers everywhere. Delilah’s parents are also marvelous, even more charming than the Carsington parents. From time to time, I consider writing an article on fathers in Chase’s novels. If I ever do so, “Devil” Desmond will definitely feature prominently in the discussion.

Barbara Freethy, Daniel’s Gift (Avon, 1996)

When you think of Barbara Freethy, you may think of her recent secret-filled Angel’s Bay books or one of her character-driven romantic suspense titles (I know that seems oxymoronic) such as All She Ever Wanted or Silent Run, and I’ve read and enjoyed these books. But the first book that comes to mind when I hear her name is Daniel’s Gift, her first book and a 1996 RITA winner. It’s a great example of how a great story can overcome a reader’s prejudices. DG had three strikes against my even reading it: (1) it is a secret baby book, a trope I generally dislike; (2) the hero is a married man, which offends my moral code; and (3) it has a child in jeopardy plot, something I avoid like the plague. But I bought this book back in my pre-internet days, and I chose it because the cover copy promised a reunion romance with a guardian angel, neither of which I could resist. And I loved it! I loved Jenny’s strength and her commitment to providing for her son, I loved Danny, who seemed remarkably similar in his curiosity and determination to the little boys in my life and heart, and I adored Jacob, Danny’s guardian angel. I was much slower warming up to Luke, but I came to understand him—although he remained a distant fourth in my affections. My favorite books are those that move me to both laughter and tears. Daniel’s Gift accomplishes this so well that it’s been on a keeper shelf for more than fourteen years.

Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Till the Stars Fall (Onyx, 1994)

Seidel is an extraordinary writer, and Till the Stars Fall is one of the best romances I have ever read. I’ve lost count now of how many times I’ve read it. Just a few weeks ago, I pulled it off the shelf to find a passage I wanted to use as the Monday Puzzler, a weekly feature on the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board, and I ended up reading the full novel yet again. Seidel gives both the Minnesota mining town and the Princeton campus settings a reality that makes me feel as if I know them, although I’ve never visited either place. This book is one of the best examples I know of world building in a contemporary novel. Seidel’s world is so complete that she can include Rolling Stone articles, interviews, and other bits of the culture of the 70s and persuade me that I must have heard Dodd Hall sing the Cinnamon Girl songs. Krissa is one of my favorite heroines because she has the kind of quiet strength that holds together families and communities. She also places a high value on who she is as herself, a rare quality in romance heroine. And Quinn—a Renaissance man who is a musician, a writer, and a doctor—is an irresistible hero. Finally, there’s the wonder that is Seidel’s prose. I wish I could buy a copy of Till the Stars Fall and place it in the hands of every romance reader I know. “Please read it,” I would say, “and see all that a contemporary romance can be.”

What romances do you consider “under-read”? If you could choose one romance to place in the hands of all the romance readers you know, what would your choice be?

Next week I’ll post Part II of Ten Under-read Romance Novels, and I’ll reverse the ratio of contemporaries to historicals. I hope you’ll join me then.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reading Georgette Heyer

This week marks the 108th anniversary of the birth of Georgette Heyer, the founding mother of the Regency romance, born August 16, 1902. Celebrations of Heyer and her books are taking place throughout the blogosphere where Heyer enthusiasts are reviewing her books and sharing stories of their discovery and continuing love affair with this author who has maintained best-selling status for more than eight decades, since the 1926 publication of These Old Shades, her fifth novel.

If you are interested in some stellar review of many of Heyer’s books, I recommend Austenprose’s month-long celebration. Comments there will also earn you a chance at winning a copy of one of Heyer’s books. If you are interested in Heyer’s own words about her writing, I refer you to Jean Mason’s 1998 “interview” with Heyer at The Romance Reader. If you’re interested in a brief online biography of Heyer, I suggest Jay Dixon’s An Appreciation of Georgette Heyer. This blog is not a review, a sampling of Heyer quotes, or a biography, but it is a result of my having read all of these things and of some thoughts they inspired concerning my own experience as a Heyer reader.

Every Heyer enthusiast I know has a story of her—or his—first Heyer read. I’m no different. In the late 60s, my favorite reading material was Gothic romances by Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, etc.; Harlequin romances by Mary Burchell, Essie Summers, Sara Seale, and others; and gentle romances recommended by my mother by writers such as Emilie Loring, D. E. Stevenson, Grace Livingston Hill, and Elizabeth Cadell. On one visit to my local bookstore, I could find nothing that I hadn’t already read by any of my favorites and was persuaded by the salesclerk to give Heyer a try. That first book was Devil’s Cub. (If you look at the cover, I think you can see why I was sold on it.) I returned to the bookstore the next day to buy These Old Shades and left not only with Avon and Leonie’s story but also with Faro’s Daughter and Friday’s Child.

I went on to read nearly everything Heyer had written. So did my mother and my sister. Part of my joy in rereading Heyer is that each reading celebrates a connection with them as well as the wonders of Heyer’s world. I can almost hear my mother’s chuckle when I come to some of her favorite scenes. Friday’s Child was her favorite. I doubt if she knew how many times she read it. I still have that first copy. It’s coverless, and some of its pages are loose, but I can’t bear to discard it.

Heyer has another significance for me as well. She is a “respectable” romance writer, the only one that I found some colleagues in academia willing to admit they read. They might call the novels “froth,” but they didn’t deny their enjoyment of her work. So during all the years when I was a closet reader of romance, Heyer was the writer that I allowed myself to admit to reading, the one whose books I felt free to stick in a brief case or a book bag along with books by Faulkner, Woolf, and Proust. I wasn’t the only one discovering Heyer with those Bantam paperback editions in the 60s. Time placed her in exalted company in a 1964 review of False Colours:

By knowing more about Regency fops, rakes, routs and blades than anyone else alive, Georgette Heyer has turned what otherwise could be dismissed as a long series of sugary historical romances into a body of work that will probably be consulted by future scholars as the most detailed and accurate portrait of Regency life anywhere. She has also become the center of a genteel reading cult that has made her for years a runaway bestseller in England and now is spreading to the U.S., proliferating vociferously at ladies' luncheons and in lending libraries. But as with the late William Faulkner, you don't buy a book, you buy a world. If it suits you, you settle down forever.

Heyer’s world suits me admirably. I never tire of the time I spend there. In fact, I’ve read Heyer so often that I have a list of Heyer superlatives.

Most Admired Heroine: Sophy Stanton Lacy, The Grand Sophy

My favorite heroines tend to fall into two categories, those that I see something of myself in and those that possess characteristics I admire but to which I could never aspire. Sophy definitely falls into the second group. She is supremely confident of her ability to manage her own life and to solve the problems of those she cares about in the process. She’s wealthy, independent, daring, and tall—all things I’d love to be. She never allows herself to be intimidated by Charles Rivenhall’s censure or bested by Eugenia Wraxton’s meanness. She even manages an unethical moneylender. One of my favorite moments occurs when Sophy, goaded by Miss Wraxton’s efforts to advise her on proper behavior for a lady of quality, drives her down St. James Street—and in a high-perch phaeton no less.

Sophy says, “Of course, I should not have dared to do it without you sitting beside me to lend me credit, but you have assured me that your reputation is unassailable, and I see that I need have no scruple in gratifying my ambition. I daresay your consequence is great enough to make it quite a fashionable drive for ladies.”

And I want to cheer every time I read those words.

Best Loved Hero: Major Hugh Darracott,
The Unknown Ajax

Georgette Heyer began what continues to be the rule in Georgian/Regency romances. The heroes are men of rank and wealth. Among Heyer’s heroes are four dukes (including one who became a king), three marquises, five earls, three viscounts, three barons, five baronets, and an assortment of heirs and second sons with aristocratic connections but no titles.

The hero I love best belongs to the last group. The Unknown Ajax is not the most popular of Heyer’s books, although it is one she herself counted among her best, but it features a beta hero I adore: Hugh Darracott, a towering (six feet, four inches), Yorkshire-born, former military man and unwelcome heir to his grandfather’s title. The Darracott family expects the “weaver’s brat” forced upon them to be a graceless bumpkin, and he gives them what they expect—complete with a thick accent. But the bumpkin is a man of honor, intelligence, and humor, who saves the family name from scandal and wins the heroine’s respect and love.

Most Courageous Heroine: Mary Challoner, Devil’s Cub and Lady Hester Theale, Sprig Muslin

The practical, independent heroine who captures the heart and hand of a bad-boy hero is the stuff of which countless romances are made, but it was fresh when Heyer used it in one of her most popular books, and it continues to delight readers more than seventy years after its publication. Mary, fully aware that the fiery young Marquis of Vidal, forced to flee England because of a duel, has no honorable intentions toward her younger sister, determines to thwart silly Sophia’s plan to runaway with the arrogant lord. She takes her sister’s place, confident that once Vidal discovers the switch, he will leave her and her sister alone.

Instead, Vidal insists one woman is much like another and Mary’s brain may prove more effective than her sister’s beauty in alleviating his boredom during his exile. When reasoning with him fails, Mary defends her virtue by shooting him, thus persuading him that she is the “devilish strait-laced” young woman he first thought her to be. Vidal, who proves to have a most inconvenient code of honor that includes not ruining a virtuous young woman, insists that Mary must marry him. Mary refuses and has the strength to withstand Vidal’s determination to marry, to end a duel at considerable risk to herself, and to remain true to her own code when her emotions and society’s convention push her in the opposite direction.

Lady Hester Theale’s courage is quieter but no less real. Unmarried at twenty-nine, with no fortune and no congenial relatives, she refuses a marriage of convenience to the eminently eligible Sir Gareth Ludlow, despite the pressure her family brings to bear. Yet when Gareth needs her, she escapes her family, throws off the bonds of convention governing acceptable behavior for a spinster, and goes to his aid. Even after all of this, she accepts Gareth’s proposal only when she is certain love rather than just affection and respect motivate him.

Most Unforgettable Rake: Lord Jasper Damerel, Venetia

Damerel is no fake rake; he’s the genuine article, a libertine whose behavior is rumored to have killed his father, whose orgies scandalize the neighborhood for years afterwards, and whose reputation is so black that he has been used to frighten naughty children. Heyer’s first description of him reinforces the common perception: “He was taller than Venetia had first supposed, rather loose-limbed, and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swashbuckling arrogance. As he advanced upon her Venetia perceived that he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation. A smile was curling his lips, but Venetia though she had never seen eyes so cynically bored.” Little wonder that Venetia is diverted by the thought of the jealousy that will consume a neighbor’s Corsair-aspiring son when he is confronted by this Byronic hero.

Of course, Damerel is more than a quintessential rake. He is also a man of intelligence, humor, frustrated idealism, and the good taste to fall in love with the heroine. He proves his nobility of soul by befriending the heroine’s brother, a brilliant misfit with a physical disability, and by trying to save the virtuous heroine from the man he knows himself to be. Thank goodness Venetia is one of Heyer’s managing heroines. She, with a remarkably clear-eyed understanding of Damerel, manages her own HEA.

Best Explanation of Being in Love: Frederica and The Marquis of Alverstoke, Frederica

One of the things I like best about Heyer’s couples is that their relationship grows. Attraction may be instantaneous, and the sexual chemistry is certainly strong, perhaps strongest in Venetia, but the couples develop a friendship too. They come to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. One of my favorite Heyer scenes and one of my favorite descriptions of what being in love is occurs near the end of Frederica. Alverstoke has proposed to Frederica, who is not persuaded he can be in love with her. He responds, “It is merely that I find I cannot live without you, my adorable Frederica.”

She then says:
“Is it like that? Being in love? You see, I never was in love, so I don’t know. And I made up my mind years and years ago that I wouldn’t marry anyone unless I was truly in love with him. . . . It has always seemed to me that if one falls in love with a gentleman one becomes instantly blind to his faults. But I am not blind to your faults, and I do not think that everything you do and say is right! Only—is it being—not very comfortable—and cross—and not quite happy, when you aren’t there?

“That, my darling,” said his lordship, taking her ruthlessly into his arms, “is exactly what it is.”

Scene That Makes Me Laugh Hardest: Closing Chapter,                The Grand Sophy

When I think of Heyer’s books, I smile. I recall the scenes that struck me as the most humorous, and my smile broadens. I remember details, and I start to laugh quietly. Soon, if I’m at home, I’m pulling the book to reread the scene and laugh aloud. Choosing a favorite funny scene from the abundance of wit, incongruity, absurdity, and situational humor is not an easy task. Freddy Standen’s conversations with his father in Cotillion, Arabella’s foisting a mutt on Beaumaris in Arabella, the rescue of Richmond scene in The Unknown Ajax, the impenetrable egoism of the “Old Gentleman” in The Masqueraders, the irrepressible Felix in Frederica, the natural daughter scene in Sprig Muslin . . .

But the scene, or rather series of scenes, that never fails to leave me laughing till the tears run down my cheeks is the final chapter of The Grand Sophy with its wild assortment of characters--the wounded Charlbury (shot by Sophy), the newlywed Marquesa and Sir Vincent, the self-centered poet, the weeping Cecilia, the outraged Miss Wraxton, the pompous Lord Bromford, and the box of yellow ducklings—all managed superbly by the ever competent Sophy until the late-arriving Charles Rivenhall proposes and whisks her away. From the Marquesa’s demand that her new husband kill chickens for her through Charles’s unique proposal, I laugh.

Every few years I do a major rereading of Heyer’s Georgian/Regency novels. My last was in 2007, so it’s about time for another. Now which one should I reread first?

Are you a Heyer enthusiast? Which novels are your favorites? Do you have Heyer superlatives?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

White Christmas in August

I found a new way to cope with the worst heat wave within my memory. It’s still more than four months until Christmas, but I’m already reading Christmas books. In addition to giving me an early infusion of the holiday spirit, the books allow me to read about snow falling and people wearing sweaters and coats. For a few hours I inhabit a winter world, and in a Georgia August with the heat index regularly hitting 100 and beyond, that’s not a bad place to be.

I started reading Debbie Macomber’s Christmas books back in 1993 with A Season of Angels, the earliest adventures of Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy. I haven’t missed a Macomber Christmas book since. In fact, I often reread several during my Christmas reading ritual. But the angelic trio remains my favorite, so I was happy when they earned a mention in Macomber’s 2010 Christmas book.

Call Me Mrs. Miracle, due for a September 28 release, is a sequel to Mrs. Miracle (2005), and it is the same kind of sweet, feel-good story as its predecessor. This second book is Macomber’s take on The Miracle on 34th Street with Mrs. Miracle taking over Santa Claus’s role. It’s appropriate that Mrs. Miracle’s new mission takes her to New York City and Finley’s, the last of the Big Apple’s family-owned department stores. Although Christmas is crucial to the success of Finley’s, Jake Finley, heir to the chain of stores that bears the family name, and his grumpy father haven’t personally celebrated the holiday for many years, not since Jake’s mother and sister were killed in an accident one Christmas Eve.

Holly Larson has her own concerns about Christmas. With her parents working as medical volunteers in Haiti and her widowed brother Mickey in Afghanistan with his National Guard unit, she is the legal guardian of her young nephew Gabe, whose heart’s desire is the electronic toy Jake Finley has predicted will be the hottest toy of the season. Money is tight, and Holly worries that Santa may not deliver on Gabe’s request.

Enter Emily Merkle, better known as Mrs. Miracle. This time she’s a seasonal employee in the toy department at Finley’s rather than a housekeeper, but her uncanny knowledge of people's hearts and history and her matchmaking ways are still very much a part of the story. She gently nudges Jake and Holly and the other characters toward a happy ending that sees wounds from the past healed, lovers united, and a child’s dearest wishes granted.

I highly recommend this book for Debbie Macomber fans or for anyone who has a soft spot for sweet Christmas stories with an angelic accent. These same people will probably enjoy the Hallmark movie of Call Me Mrs. Miracle with Doris Roberts returning in the title role. It premieres in late November. I’ll be watching.

I haven’t been reading Sherryl Woods as long as I’ve been reading Debbie Macomber, But I have followed her to Charleston, the Rose Cottage at Chesapeake Bay, Serenity, and, more recently, Chesapeake Shores. I was delighted when I learned that she was writing a Christmas book about the O’Brien family.

A Chesapeake Shores Christmas , another September 28 release, is the fourth installment in Woods’s popular series of novels set in Chesapeake Shores, the Maryland town built by Mick O’Brien. While this story of Mick and Megan O’Brien finally working through all the obstacles to their remarriage can be read as a stand-alone, readers who have followed the series will take special delight in seeing Mick and Megan achieve their happiness together amid the bonds and brawls of the boisterous O’Briens.

Abby and Trace along with the twins Carrie and Caitlin (The Inn at Eagle Point), a pregnant Bree and Jake (Flowers on Main), and Kevin and Shanna with their blended family (Harbor Lights) make appearances. Second son Connor’s continued resentment of his mother and the complications in his own life are key parts of Mick and Megan’s story, and Jess, the youngest O’Brien, joins in the family plots and parties too. A Chesapeake Shores Christmas is a story of forgiveness and reconciliation and a hard-won happily ever after that is all the sweeter for being redeemed from what threatened to be a most unhappy ending to a love story. Even an occasional cynic may like something sweet at Christmas, and fans of small-town, family-centered books will be pleased with this addition to the subgenre.

Those who read and enjoyed the other O’Brien books will be happy to know that three more Chesapeake Shores books will be released in 2011: Driftwood Cottage (Connor’s story) in April, Moonlight Cove (Jess’s story) in May, and Beach Lane (cousin Susie’s story) in June.

Sometimes I want to read a romance with a sizzle factor, but I’m glad sweet romances are still around. Sometimes they are just the thing to appeal to this reader’s palate. Do you read sweet romances? Do you, like me, have a special affection for Christmas romances? What advice do you have for fighting the literal heat wave many of us in the U. S. are struggling with?

My thanks to Harlequin, publisher of both these books, and to NetGalley for providing me with free electronic advanced reading copies.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

This Is Not a Music Review

I don’t do music reviews. I am not a musician, and my knowledge of music’s technical aspects is severely limited. Then, I know if I tried to write a music review, I’d inevitably compare it to the entertaining, informative music reviews that Liz Bevarly used to do on Squawk Radio. I looked forward to those reviews. They educated me in musical genres and subgenres about which I was woefully ignorant and made me feel sophisticated and au courant on those rare occasions when I knew the music she reviewed. Remembering Liz’s music blogs would give me a severe case of writer’s block. So keep in mind that what you are about to read is not a review but an appreciation, a sharing of my delight in a CD that I’ve been listening to for a couple of months now.

I know a lot of writers listen to music when they write. Some of the best ones I know, including Julia Quinn and Jenny Crusie, share the soundtracks they create for each book. I do neither of those things. But I do turn to music when I get stuck on a particular scene or when I run into a dead end in my writing and have no idea how to turn around and head in a new direction. Music often gives me the answers I’m searching for. I’ve blogged before about finding inspiration for a scene in my first manuscript, "The Long Way Home," in Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in My Shirt.” But my favorite source for inspiration is Mary Chapin Carpenter, a singer/songwriter who found her biggest success as a country artist but whose music is an amalgam of country, folk, rock, and blues. I’ve been a fan since I first heard “Quittin’ Time” back in 1989 before her big commercial success of the early 90s. Her most recent CD, The Age of Miracles, is filled with the kind of intelligent, emotional, imaginative, truth-telling lyrics I love, lyrics that renew my own creativity.

Carpenter has been called “the most literary singer-songwriter to ever grace country music.” I think that quality is evident not only in the literary allusions one sometimes finds in her lyrics but also in her careful selection of richly connotative words and poetic turns of phrase. An avid reader, Carpenter finds inspiration in what she reads. She says, "Whether or not you actually write something from some source that you've read, or it provokes a thought that you eventually take to a song, either way it's definitely one of the places that I feel songs emanate from."

Carpenter wrote all twelve songs on Miracles. One of the most memorable songs, “Mrs. Hemingway” had its genesis in her reading of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about life in Paris in the 1920s. Carpenter found herself intrigued by Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway, of whom the reader catches only glimpses—and those always filtered through the perceptions of her husband. She wondered what happened to Hadley after Paris, after Hemingway left her for her best friend. The result of Carpenter’s wonderings and subsequent research is a lyrical portrait of the woman who found happiness and rejected bitterness while holding on to her memories. Any romance reader should appreciate the result, and the music, first only the piano and then a symphony of gorgeous strings, will capture a romantic’s heart as well.

Love is the greatest deceiver.
It hollows you out like a drum,
suddenly nothing is certain
As if all the clouds closed the curtains and
blocked the sun.
And friends now are strangers in this city of dangers
As cold and as cruel as they come.

Sometimes I look at old pictures
And smile at how happy we were,
How easy it was to be hungry.
wasn't for fame or for money;
It was for love.
Now my copper hair's gray
as the stones on the quay
In the city where magic was.

Living in
Paris, in attics and garrets,
Where the coal merchants climb every stair,
The dance hall next door is filled with sailors and whores,
And the
music floats up through the air.
There's Sancerre and oysters, and Notre
Dame's cloisters
And time with its unerring aim,
For now we can say we
were lucky most days
And throw a rose into the Seine.

Carpenter has described her songwriting as “excavation and exploration,” and while doubtless she excavates and explores her own life to find material, she also mines the culture. Her careful attention to both inner and outer worlds allows the listener myriad points of connection. “4 June 1989” is a surprising twist on the 1989 student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The voice the listener hears is not one of the protestors but rather that of Chen Guang, then one of the armed soldiers putting down the protest, now a dissident and an artist. The final two lines are among the most poignant I ever heard.

Ah, I was seventeen that spring.
Ah, we were just obeying orders.
Ah, I
still see everything
Through the factory's yellow windows,
In the dirty
stinking river,
In the messages that find you then vanish in the ether.
They vanish in the ether:

I told them not to fear me, but history
tells the tale.
The artists and the poets fill up every jail.
Before I
held a rifle, I held an artist's brush.
Before Tiananmen, I even dreamed of

If you know Carpenter only from her best-selling 1992 album, Come On, Come On, that won her the CMA female vocalist title and placed seven hits in the Top 20, including "I Feel Lucky," "Passionate Kisses," "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "I Take My Chances," the closest you’ll come to finding that MCC in this album is in the sounds-like-country-radio “I Put My Ring Back On,” which like many of Carpenter’s lyrics manages to be both personal and universal. The lyrics capture the ambivalence that is part of most long-term relationships.

We can't speak like the lovers we used to be.
We can't change ancient
And love wounds with such simplicity.
And I threw it down, down
down down, down
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Time was, I'd be as
good as gone,
But last night I didn't want to run
'Cause here with you
is where I belong.
Last night I put my ring back on.

Carpenter’s deep alto is particularly suited for the favorite, introspective, intimate ballads, and she is backed to perfection by a talented group of musicians that includes the heart of her band: Matt Rollings (piano, B-3 organ), Russ Kunkel (drums), Duke Levine (electric and acoustic guitar), and Glenn Worf (bass).

For years now, I’ve claimed Carpenter’s “The End of My Pirate Days” as my theme song, but I think I may have found a new theme on this latest album: “ I have a need for solitude / I'll never be safe in crowded rooms. “ Listen.

Do you have favorite albums that you listen to over and over again? Or are you strictly a playlist person? What’s your theme song?