Thursday, October 28, 2010

What Are You Doing Halloween?

Surely it's not too much for me to ask
What seasonal costume you plan--and what mask.
What are you doing this year

(with apologies to Frank Loesser and the more than 30 artists from Ella Fitzgerald to Rufus Wainwright who have covered his song “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”) Frank

My family is celebrating Halloween a day early. I’ll be spending Saturday with most of my family. Saturday afternoon will find us gathered around a big screen TV watching the Georgia-Florida game. We’re a lot more optimistic about the Dawgs than we were at the beginning of the season, and you can be sure than it will be a noisy few hours with lots of cautions from the great room language referees when the game doesn’t go the way the men in our family want it to.

Saturday night is for the kids. We’ll have a Cleopatra, an Iron Man, a Luke Skywalker, a couple of Bakugan Dragonoids, a cowboy, and a Tinkerbelle among the Trick or Treaters. My #1 nephew and his wife are going all out this year with a fog machine and talking ghosts. Their home will be our observation post to watch the reactions of the Grands and other costumed tweens and toddlers, as we nibble on brain dip (pink shrimp dip) and goblin cupcakes.

As always, I hope to be reading. If I can find a few hours between now and Sunday night, I’ll choose from among some thematically appropriate romance novels. Halloween books are far rarer on my shelves that Valentine and Christmas books, but there are a few. Sandra Heath has three traditional Regencies that are clearly Halloween books: two fun reads, The Halloween Husband (1994) with a matchmaking ghost and The Magic Jack o’ Lantern (1999) with a mischievous, invisible brownie, and a darker one, Halloween Magic (1996), in which a Halloween thunderstorm releases a Tudor witch 200 years after her death to seek revenge on the descendants of those who caused her death. It pits the ancient magic and evil purposes of the seductive witch against the goodness and innocence of the heroine.
A more recent addition to Halloween romances is Hallowe’en Husbands, an anthology with novellas by Lisa Plumley, Denise Lynn, and Christine Merrill. I particularly like Merrill’s Gothic romance, “Master of Penlowen.”  Vicki Lewis Thompson’s 2010 Babes on Brooms books are great fun. In the first, Blonde with a Wand, the heroine turns the hero into a cat. Oops! And in Chick with a Charm, the witchy, bar-tending heroine slips a love potion into the hero’s drink. Of course, if we count witch books as Halloween books, we can’t forget Nora Roberts’s Three Sisters Island trilogy: Dance Upon the Air, Heaven and Earth, and Face the Fire.


I reread Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) by Diana Wynne Jones, not exactly a romance but a YA fantasy, every time I have an excuse to do so, and Halloween is a good excuse. I love the story of Sophie, the eldest of three sisters who is turned into an old crone by the Witch of the Waste. She becomes the housekeeper of the infamous Howl and eventually they save each other and the kingdom. I might also watch the 2004 Miyazaki movie; it’s almost as good as the book.

So what are you doing Halloween? And do you have any Halloween reads to recommend?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Covering the Covers

Kanye West is making waves again. The cover of his upcoming album My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy has his label pushing for a different cover since Wal-Mart has indicated they are unwilling to sell the sexually graphic current cover in their stores. The controversy prompted Billboard to feature "20 Banned Album Covers" this week. I was interested to see that in most cases the new cover was just a covering up of parts of the original. One famous example of that is the nude shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono covered with brown paper. Viewing the slide show of the banned album covers made me think of book covers.  It wasn’t much of a jump because several things had worked together to put book covers on
my mind.

First, I recently looked at a couple of collections of book covers. Abe Books posted an exhibit of 25 Iconic Book Covers in their online Rare Book Room. Looking at those covers, I realized that about half of them were so distinctive and so familiar that I would have known the books even if the titles had been omitted from the covers. I have only to look at my own bookshelves to see some of these, such as The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I also viewed another collection of covers. AIGA, the professional association for design, selected 100 examples of outstanding book and book cover design produced in 2009. Most of these books I’d never heard of, and only one, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn, had I read. Frankly, it was only one of a handful that I would have found interesting enough to stop and check the book in a bookstore or library.

The third item that has me focused on book covers is that a few weeks ago I bought a supply of stretchy fabric book covers to hide the covers of my romance novels. I bought mine locally, but they are readily available. The one pictured is from Hide-a-Book on Etsy. I have never been a fan of clinch covers, but hiding the covers always seemed like surrendering to the critics of romance fiction. I had one cover I used for my purse book, whatever it happened to be at any given time, since I pulled it out everywhere from a jury room to a church committee meeting. But lately the questions about my romance covers from the Grands have persuaded me that the time has come to cover the covers.

When I first started reading my mother’s romance novels, the covers might have been dismissed by critics as silly and trite, but they didn’t need to be hidden from the eyes of children. I thought the covers were wonderfully romantic. Clinches, when they existed were strictly G rated. What I remember are the beautiful people and the glamorous settings. I was not a fan of the bodice rippers of the 1970s, although the covers of the two most influential, which I did read, were certainly inoffensive. The books I was reading during that period were Gothic romances, Clare Darcy’s Regencies, and categories by writers such as Essie Summers, Mary Burchell, and Sara Seale. The covers of the subgenres were distinctive from one another, but none of them would have embarrassed their readers.


When I think of what some have called the Golden Age of romance fiction, the 1980s, I think of the writers I was discovering during that time, writers like Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Mary Jo Putney, Nora Roberts, and Kathleen Gilles Seidel. Most of their books from that time are still on my keeper shelves, and while some may be labeled “clinch covers,” none makes me want to hide it from view. Even the cover of Seidel’s All Through the Years, the sexiest of the covers in this sample, seems mild to eyes accustomed to 21st-century covers.


Was it in the 90s that the shift began? I’m not sure. This is a rambling recollection of my experience with romance covers, not an academic study. I do know that it’s easy to see the forerunners of today’s sizzling covers in Loretta Chase’s acclaimed Lord of Scoundrels and in Lisa Kleypas’s popular Then Came You. On the other hand, some books that definitely merited the “Hot” warning such as Christina Dodd’s A Well-Pleasured Lady and Judith Ivory’s Sleeping Beauty have quite subtle covers, the kind I can still leave on a table or chair, careless of who may see them. 

That pattern can be seen in recent covers as well. Two of the books that prompted the Grands’s questions were Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed an Earl and Anne Mallory’s Seven Secrets of Seduction. Yet Toni Blake’s Sugar Creek, which has a higher sensuality level than the Long and the Mallory books, has a cover that I feel no need to hide.


Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating banning covers. Since they are so ubiquitous, I will concede that many readers must like the clinch covers and the experts insist they sell. Borders romance buyer Sue Grimshaw was quoted in a 2008 Publishers Weekly article saying, “A tastefully done clinch is a must-have for debut authors.” And in that same article, Carrie Ferron declared, “We're pro-clinch at Avon.” So I’m in a minority here not banning, just covering romance covers—some of them—and thinking nostalgically of the day when I could just leave my romances uncovered for all eyes to see and dream of a day when the covers of romance novel will be both distinctive and appealing to readers.

How do you vote on clinch covers—yea or nay? Have you ever used book covers on romance novels? What kind of covers do you prefer on the books you read?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reading the Seasons

Last weekend was a Grand time at our house. All seven of the grandest of grands arrived Saturday for an overnight visit. Evidently the changing of seasons had been a topic of discussion in K-6 classrooms last week because the five who are in school were all eager to talk about fall. The five-year-old brought in a leaf to show me. “It’s fall because the leaves are falling,” he said, and his almost-nine-year-old cousin’s patient explanation of the autumn equinox and light falling did nothing to change his mind. After all, he could see the falling leaves.

In keeping with our conversation about seasons, I read to them a wonderful book that celebrates all the seasons, Pieces: A Year in Poems and Quilts by Anna Grossnickle Hines. I don’t know a lot of books that work for an audience that ranges from just-turned-two to eleven going on thirty, but this book did. The little one loved the colors. We all laughed when she touched a page and lifted her hand to stare at it as if surprised to find slick paper beneath her fingers rather than the soft fabric the vibrant illustrations promised.

As I read aloud the poems and we looked at Hines’s amazing quilts—each one 12 by 18 inches, designed and hand-stitched by Hines to match seamlessly a poem about a season—I thought about the recent report that said the sales of picture books were suffering because parents were pushing even early readers into reading chapter books. All four of our readers are reading well above grade level, and they all have their favorite chapter books, Harry Potter, the Wimpy Kid, and Percy Jackson among them. But picture books were an important part of their learning to love books, and they are still frequent choices for reading aloud because of the memories and because they lend themselves so well to pausing for important discussions.

The book opens with a short poem: "Pieces of the seasons/ appear and disappear/ in a patchwork pattern/ making up a year." We spent a long time on that page, talking about what “patchwork” means and sharing images we associate with seasons and laughing at how funny it is that even here in Georgia where we don’t often have enough snow to build a snowman or snowwoman, the image says winter to us. The eleven-year-old wondered if she could learn to quilt. The ten-year-old, who has inherited the family allergy to math, was amazed at how much math Hines had used in creating her quilts. His just younger cousin, our artist, marveled at all the gradations of colors.

When we reached “Good Heavens,” my favorite poem in the collection, we ended up talking about new words and how imagination helps us see different views.

Here’s the poem and the quilt illustration:

Our lawn is astronomical
with dandelion blooms.
A green sky filled
with a thousand suns
and then
a thousand moons
that with a puff
of wind become
a hundred thousand stars.

The six-year-old loved the word “astronomical.” “It rhymes with comical,” said our red-haired, laughing imp and set the crew off on other rhyming words, most of them nonsense words such as "hippopomical" and "Bakugonical" that left everyone giggling.

On the following page, “Do You Know Green?” starts with spring green sleeping . . . waiting . . .  resting . . . but then “Green comes …. / tickling the tips / of twiggy tree fingers” and poking, springing, bursting until throughout the natural world “green grows.”  The words move on the page.
“It makes me want to dance,” the five-year-old shouted. He began to jump and twist and whirl around the room. The two-year-old joined him with a shriek of delight, and soon his other cousins and even his sister, who thinks she’s too old for such childish games, were whirling with him. The room was filled with dancing, laughing, happy children. So was my heart.
Another favorite, “To Each His Own,” carried us back to the autumn leaves that started our conversation. We all loved Hines’s images of leaves floating “lazily / wavily / and taking all / daysily."  The nine-year-old said, "She makes up words too."  And we all sighed in satisfaction to find a link between us and the writer who had given us such pleasure.

Just an ordinary Saturday became a series of special moments because we were reading the seasons.
If you have young ones to whom you read aloud, or if you are just someone who loves poetry and quilts, I highly recommend Pieces. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2001 to starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. It won the 2002 Hopkins Award for the best anthology or single volume poem written for children in the previous year. Hines published a second collection, Winter Lights: A Season in Poems and Quilts, in 2005, but it’s a subject for a holiday blog I'm planning for December.

Do you think picture books are important for children? Do you have memories of picture books from your own childhood or that you read to your children or grandchildren? What’s your favorite seasonal symbol? Can you see it in a quilt?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pity Parties and Blessing Counting

I’ve been having myself a grand pity party for the past week or so. Life’s being unfair, and I’ve been groaning and grousing, feeling sorry for myself and telling myself how much I deserved better times. But I can tolerate only so much of that self-defeating self-indulgence before I grow sick of myself. I reached that point yesterday, so I began searching for a cure.

Clearly the first thing I needed to do was stop singing “Gloom, despair, and agony on me /Deep, dark depression, excessive misery.” My mother’s cure for blues, “mean reds,” and other, multi-colored malcontent moods was to count blessings. When I was young, this solution produced the eye roll and shoulder shrug perfected by every child who has ever had a parent make a suggestion that was (a) antiquated (b) moronic, (c) irrelevant, or (d) all of the above. Years have taught me that my mother knew life and her daughter much better that my younger self dreamed. Mother’s rule was that the blessing had to be recent and specific. This insured that I couldn’t roll off a list of things that required little or no thought. For example, I couldn’t count my family’s love for me, but I could count a new book in the mail from a favorite aunt or the peach cobbler we were having for dinner because it was my favorite—gifts from loving family members.

Keeping in mind my mother’s rule and reminding myself that a blessing is anything that makes me happy or prosperous, I began to count blessings that had been boons during the same period during which I was immersed in self-pity.

10. The Falcons won Sunday.

Now I understand their win was not intended as a personal gift to me. But you have to understand that I belong to a football-mad family whose favorite college team is well on its way to its worse season since any of us have been old enough to follow a game. There is no joy in Mudville, the junkyard Dawgs have wimped out. But the Falcons’ win over the Saints and last Sunday’s win over the 49ers have raised hopes that while we may not have SEC champs in the state, we could have NFC South champs. That’s a blessing.

9. It’s only six weeks until the family will be in a theater watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.

Again, I understand that Warner Brothers, David Yates, and Steve Kloves didn’t have me in mind when they made the movie and decided on November 19 as the release date. But we are a three-generation Harry Potter fan family. We’ve read—and re-read—the books, watched—and re-watched--the movies, and kept countdown calendars. From the eight-year-old grand to the senior member of the family (me), who chooses not to disclose her age, we are all happy that we will soon be watching movie #7.

8. I read Robert Frost’s poem “October.”

October is my favorite month, and poetry enriches every day of my life. Receiving “October,” a Robert Frost poem that was new to me in my email on October 2 was a joy indeed. I must have read the poem a dozen times since then, and each reading brings me moments of happiness. I find myself repeating two lines at odd moments just for the delight they being: “Retard the sun with gentle mist; / Enchant the land with amethyst.”

7. Connie Brockway is working on Giles Strand’s story.

In Brockway’s debut novel, Promise Me Heaven, published in 1994, Giles Strand was a secondary character. In Brockway’s classic dark romance, All Through the Night, published in 1997, Giles Strand was again a secondary character. Like many Brockway readers, I longed for Giles to have his own book. Brockway said maybe someday. This week Connie Brockway’s new website debuted. In her Books section, she has a subsection she calls “Works in Progress.” In that section she says, “I'm also working on Giles Strand's story on the off chance I might find a publisher for it.” These words make me happy! Now I’m praying for a publisher for her.

6. A long, hot summer ended.

Summer 2010 began in May with temperatures we don’t usually see until much later, and we were still in the 90s into late September. When we dropped into the 80s two weeks ago, there was much rejoicing. This week has been gorgeous fall weather with cool mornings and nights and highs in the 70s. At church, in the doctor’s office, at the supermarket, the common refrain has been, “Isn’t this wonderful!” I’ve never seen so many people so happy about the weather. It’s a blessing for the pocketbook too since overworked air conditioners have sent utility bills soaring in records to match the temperatures.

5. I read a book I have long anticipated by an author whose books make me laugh and cry, and I got to review it.

Sometimes books we long for just don’t live up to our expectations, but I read one recently that did. It possessed all the writer’s trademark strengths, it gave me a hero and heroine that I loved in equal measure, and I had the joy of sharing my enthusiasm with others in a review. Look for it tomorrow at The Romance Dish.

4. I received an invitation to a reunion.

I love reunions in fiction and in life. This week I was invited to the 35th reunion of the Class of 1976 of the high school where I taught for a dozen years. The organizers are a group to whom I was particularly close, and I’m so excited that I will be seeing them again, some of them for the first time since the May evening in 1976 when they received their diplomas. [I should add that I taught this class early in my career when I was still quite young myself. :)]

3. I have a friend who is home again.

This friend is not far from 90, and she’s so active and alert she puts those of us many decades her junior to shame. In August, after a morning of working in her garden and an afternoon of making preserves and jellies, she fainted. After several weeks in the hospital and even longer recuperating in a daughter’s home in another city, she is back home—as independent and energetic as ever. She makes me laugh, and she inspires me. If the proverb is right and “Everyone is the age of their heart,” she is eternally young and forever a joy to those of us who know and love her.

2. Another friend will soon be a published author.

Many of you saw the announcement on Friday, September 24, that my good friend Manda Collins, former Romance Vagabond and forever Bon Bon, has accepted a three-book deal from St. Martin’s Press. A few of us had already begun celebrating with many squees, virtual toasts, and lots of laughter--mixed with a few tears of joy. Manda’s talent is immense, and her perseverance and professionalism are awesome. Good news couldn’t have come to a more deserving writer. I’ve read a draft of How to Dance with a Duke. It’s a terrific book, and reading it is going to make lots of people happy. This is a celebration that’s going to continue in various stages over the next several months. I’m happy I can be part of these squee days.

1. I have friends who understand the meanings.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.” I am blessed to have friends who listen to the words but understand all the words can’t say. They have borne my days of darkness with grace and have offered unfailing kindness and encouragement. They are my safe-zone sharers, my defenders from life’s slings and arrows, the ones who are never further away than a handclasp or an emergency email. They are the kind of friends that 19th-century English novelist Dinah Craik must have had in mind when she wrote these words:

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.
Mother was right. Counting blessings does banish self-pity. I think doing so may have banished writer’s block as well.

Have you ever thrown yourself a pity party? What good advice did your mother give you? What blessings can you count today?