Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Review: Fatal Destiny

Fatal Destiny
By Marie Force
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: September 5, 2011
Five Stars

On September 5, “Fatal Destiny,” a novella that offers readers a look at the wedding week of Washington, D.C., Police Lieutenant Sam Holland and Senator Nick Cappuano, will be available free on the author’s website. Thanks to Carina Press and NetGalley, I had the opportunity to read the novella before the release. While the week before the wedding is filled with the tactics and tensions that fans of the series have come to expect, the wedding itself is perfection.

Sam is still grieving over her recent miscarriage and convinced that she can’t endure the risk of another pregnancy, but, fearful of an emotional meltdown if she talks to Nick about her decision, she has closed him out. Nick knows something is wrong, and he’s wondering if Sam is having second thoughts about the wedding.
Once the two work out their communication problems, Sam plays semantic games with a promise and ends up with another concussion after being shot at. Nick’s protective instincts save her when there’s another threat on her life. But she makes it to her wedding day with only a bruise and a headache.
The wedding itself is a dream from a Vera Wang bridal gown to an unexpected musical guest at the reception. It’s filled with family and sentiment and romance. For those who want visuals, Force has provided fan-voted choices for invitations, flowers, rings, etc. on her blog.
If you have read any of the other Fatal books, you won’t want to miss Sam and Nick’s wedding. If Sam and Nick are new to you, you can sneak in for the ceremony and the start of the honeymoon. My guess is that you’ll fall in love with the characters and go looking for the other Fatal books. Some readers have compared the series to J. D. Robb’s Eve and Roarke. I haven’t read enough of the In Death books to say aye or nay to similarities, but I will say this series now ranks just below Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott and Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ van Alstyne books on my must-read-every-book list of mysteries.
Fatal Affair (June 2010) opens the series.
Senator John O’Connor is found murdered. When Sam is assigned to the case, she finds that the senator’s chief of staff and best friend is Nick, a man with whom she’d spent an unforgettable night with six years earlier. Nick is a material witness in Sam’s case, and the last thing her career needs is for her to be involved in a scandal.   
Fatal Justice (January 2011) follows.
Sam and Nick’s personal and professional lives are filled with excitement and conflict. She has been promoted to Lieutenant, and Sam is about to be sworn in to fill his friend John O’Connor’s unexpired term as a U.S. senator from Virginia. The media is more interested in Nick’s love life than in his political positions, and Sam’s facing an internal affairs investigation because of her relationship with Nick. Then a Supreme Court nominee is murdered, and Sam’s past adds another layer of complications.
Fatal Consequences (July 2011) is the third book.
Sam and Nick are at her father’s wedding reception when a phone call involving a dead call girl and a senator once again entangle the cop and the politician in a case. Something’s rotten in Washington, D. C., and Sam’s on the trail. Her ex-husband is released from jail on a technicality, and he’s a threat she and Nick must live with. And they’re planning a wedding!
Fatal Destiny” (September 2011) is being billed as Fatal series 3.5.
Fatal Flaw (February 2012) is next to be released. I have a feeling the honeymoon will be over and conflict and complications will once again be the order of the day.

Have you read any of the Fatal series? What series are must-reads for you? How do you feel about weddings?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Don't Speak for This Reader!

I avoid writing soapbox blog posts as a rule for several reasons. Despite my online presence, I’m essentially a private person who is uncomfortable with personal revelations. I also think the things that drive me crazy don’t bother most other people, and thus to rant about them is to bore my readers. Also, my prose suffers when I rant. I don’t write clearly and gracefully when I’m driven by emotion.  But despite all these reasons for keeping the soapbox packed away, I’m making an exception today because the most recent claim I read that X knows what readers want was the straw that rent this particular reader’s frame, metaphorically speaking.

According to a 2009 report from the National Endowment of the Arts, 119 million Americans read books, and most of them are reading fiction. RWA says that 29 million of these regularly read romance.  Both readers generally and romance readers specifically are large enough groups that easy generalizations about what readers want or what they like seem specious to me.  The most read book of 2010, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, according to Publishers Weekly sales figures, sold 1,900,000 copies. Even if people who read library copies and second-hand copies tripled the number of readers, the best-selling book in America last year was read by less than 5 percent of those 119,000,000 readers. I wasn’t among the 5 percent.

Please understand that I’m not slamming Larsson’s book or any of the other 112 books on PW’s list of bestselling hardcover fiction that I didn’t read last year. My point is that anyone basing his/her conclusions about what readers want on that bestseller list clearly cannot speak for me. With one exception, the books I read that made the list were romance and women’s fiction, two of them by Nora Roberts. But even when I restrict the argument to romance fiction, large generalizations are problematic. RWA lists nine subgenres in romance fiction, and in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers were available, 9,089 new romance titles were released. I read a lot of romance fiction, several hundred books a year, but the books I read in 2009 were just a small fraction of those published.
Most of my romance reading falls into three categories—contemporaries, historicals, and Regencies. I would be most hesitant to describe my reading habits as typical or to draw conclusions about romance readers based on my reading habits or the reading habits of my circle of friends. Even within that relatively small circles, there are as many points of reading differences as there are commonalities. By the same token, anyone who bases her/his conclusions about what readers want only on the popularity of paranormal romance or romantic suspense is leaving me out of the equation.
I understand that publishers and marketers, and perhaps authors, need to make generalizations about readers. I’d just like to see those generalizations qualified. Maybe 85 percent of romance readers do want more novels about vampires, shape shifters, and fallen angels (not a real statistic), but the 15 percent that doesn’t adds up to more than 4 million readers. If just a tenth of that minority read a single book without paranormal elements, those readers would propel the book to bestsellerdom.
Just within the past few weeks I’ve been told by various voices that
1.     Readers want hotter romance. (I don’t especially. I’m more concerned with the power of the story and my engagement with the characters than the heat level. I read and enjoy romance novels that range from sweet to hot.)
2.     Readers are bored with details of setting. (I’m not. A sense of place is important to me, and I prefer enough details to make the world of the book feel real.)
3.     Readers look for action in the first paragraph. (I look for something that makes me want to keep reading in the first paragraph. It may be action, but it may also be a quirky character, a place I want to know more of, or prose that falls upon my inner ear like music.)
4.     Readers resent the use of unfamiliar words. (That depends. The best writers make the definition of unfamiliar words clear from the context, and I like expanding my vocabulary.)
I’m not suggesting the people who made these comments were deliberately misleading their audiences. I am saying that overgeneralizations are logical fallacies. A sweeping generalization is one in which there seems to be sufficient evidence offered to draw a conclusion, but the conclusion drawn far exceeds what the evidence supports. Simply adding “some,” “many,” or “most” to these claims would make them more accurate. Doing so would also make me feel less like a reader who is being misrepresented or ignored. I may belong to a minority of readers, but I like to think my voice and my dollars count. And I don’t think I’m alone.

Are you bothered by sweeping generalizations about readers? What are your “soapbox issues”?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tuesday Review on Wednesday: I'm Loving Loveswept, Part 2

The original Loveswept tagline was “Love stories you’ll never forget by authors you’ll always remember.” Random House is using the same tagline for the electronic reissues and original releases. In this case, I think the tagline is more than an advertising strategy; it’s an accurate description of the reading experience for many Loveswept books. I certainly found it true for my second Loveswept reread.

Remember the Time
By Annette Reynolds
Publisher: Random House/
A Loveswept Classic Romance Ebook
Release Date: August 8, 2011
(originally released 1997)
Four and a Half Stars

Paul Armstrong and Mike Fitzgerald have been best friends since third grade when Kate Moran walked into their high school English classroom one day and both of them fell for her.  At sixteen, Paul and Kate became a couple, and Mike had two best friends. But his love for Kate was a steady flame through their last two years of high school, through college, and through Kate and Paul’s thirteen years of marriage. Mike goes through a series of short term relationships, unable to commit because of his love for Kate. He even marries a woman who reminds him of Kate, but he can only regret the pain he causes his wife when she realizes that she has been a poor Kate substitute. Mike’s divorce is years behind him when Paul perishes in a flash flood and leaves Kate a grieving widow.
“Grieving widow” becomes Kate’s identity: “Paul Armstrong had died two and a half years ago, and the only thing Kate had shown any interest in since then was his grave.” She allows her home to deteriorate, bills to go unpaid, dishes to go unwashed. She drinks too much, eats too little, and keeps human contacts to a minimum. Through it all, Mike has been there—supporting her, loving her, enabling her to continue in her grief. One day he responds to a request help her avoid one more thing with a firm no: “Saying no to Kate was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do. He’d watched as she’d gone from vital Kate Moran to needy Kate Armstrong to ‘Paul’s wife’ with nothing left that resembled the girl he’d grown up with. He didn’t want to watch anymore.”
That moment marks a turning point as Kate slowly and painfully returns to life and begins to discover and return Mike’s love. There are real obstacles to overcome, more than either of them suspects. They must come to terms with the past, accepting the flawed, spoiled golden boy who was Paul Armstrong, major league baseball player, adulterous husband, selfish friend and acknowledging his strengths as well as his failures. Kate has to see Mike as he is, Mike has to forgive Kate, and they both have to forgive other betrayals. Every once in a great while, I read a romance novel that makes me doubt the HEA is possible. Even as a reread, this is one of those books.

Remember the Time is a powerful story. Reynolds uses flashbacks and multiple points of view to allow the reader to understand not only Kate and Mike but also Paul and a couple of important secondary characters as well. There are no perfect characters in this story, only imperfect, broken people—some of whom learn, to borrow words from Hemingway, to be “strong in the broken places.” Mike is a historical preservationist architect, and the story’s structure borrows from the vocabulary and activity of his profession in its main divisions: Abandonment and Ruin, Preservation, Renovation, Reconstruction, Restoration. Anyone who has battled through profound grief will sympathize with Kate’s experience, and if some of us think that grief was unduly prolonged, we might do well to remember that grief is also a peculiarly individual experience. Regardless, that’s a minor quibble in an emotionally intense, unforgettable book.
In addition to the two Loveswept novels I have reviewed, the August reissues include Talk, Dark and Lonesome by Debra Dixon, The Vow by Julianna Garnett, The Baron by Sally Goldenbaum, This Fierce Splendor by Iris Johansen, Legends by Deb Smith, and Dream Lover by Adrienne Staff.
This novel has some of my favorite romance tropes? What are your favorites?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday Review: I'm Loving Loveswept, Part One

For more than fifteen years at the end of the last century, Bantam published category romances under the Loveswept imprint. According to the RomanceWiki, 917 books were published between May 1983 and January 1999, beginning with Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price and ending with Fayrene Preston’s The Prize. Among the authors of the remaining 915 novels were some who became VIP romance authors (Jennifer Crusie, Suzanne Brockmann) and others who became bestsellers in other genres (Janet Evanovich,Tami Hoag).  Some of the writers on my auto-buy list now are writers I first read as Loveswept authors (Deborah Smith, Jill Shalvis). Helen Mittermeyer and Billie Green were two of my favorite Loveswept authors, and I remember how much I loved Kay Hooper’s revamped fairy tales.

I was among those cheering Random House’s announcement in late June that Loveswept was being revived as an ebook only line with the first titles being released in August 2011.  In addition to reissues, the new Loveswept line will include new romances. Jessica Scott, already a familiar name within the online romance community, will debut in November 2011 with Because of You, followed by Back to You (February 2012) and Until There Was You (April 2012). Prices for Loveswept ebooks will range from $2.99-$4.99.

When ARCs of the first reissues became available to reviewers through NetGalley, I requested two I remembered fondly.

Lightning That Lingers
By Sharon and Tom Curtis
Publisher: Random House/
A Loveswept Classic Romance Ebook
Release Date: August 8, 2011
(originally released in 1983)
Five Stars

Philip Brooks is an environmental biologist who lives alone on the summer estate, Lily Hill, all that remains of his family’s great wealth. To pay taxes so that the land can be preserved for wildlife, Philip works as the star attraction at the Cougar Club, a male strip club.

Jennifer Hamilton, very young and very shy, is the newest addition to the library staff of Emerald Lake, Wisconsin. On a night out with her co-workers, Jennifer reluctantly agrees to visit the Cougar Club.  Halfway through the first act, she retreats to the restroom. She’s even more embarrassed by the second act, and in trying to avoid looking at the stage, she exchanges a fraught look with “the most handsome man in the world.” She’s shocked but attracted when he turns out to be the third act, “the number one male dancer in the Midwest.”

Philip is equally attracted to Jennifer, and he pursues her, driving her home, going to the library, sharing with her his passion for the wildlife he protects. Determined to resist him at first, Jennifer eventually yields.  She wrecks her car on her way to him and almost freezes to death. Philip saves her from hypothermia, introduces her to his pets (a screech owl named Chaucer and a brown hen named Henrietta), and dances with her to music from an old gramophone before they make love. There’s still the problem of his profession, and it leads to the black moment when Jennifer’s mother writes that she’s planning to visit the Cougar Club. But this is a romance, and the dark night leads to a golden morning and a satisfying HEA.

I worried that I might find a twenty-eight-year-old contemporary romance dated. But aside from a reference to Jennifer’s Dorothy Hamil hairdo and the wounds inflicted by her illegitimacy, the story has worn very well. Twenty-first century readers may find Jennifer’s innocence unrealistic; even in 1983, she would have been extraordinary. But the authors present her as a woman not of her time, as unfledged as the baby owls Philip rescues. She thinks of herself as “Jennifer Hamilton, who’d spent a lifetime of twenty-three years misplaced in an era of sexual liberation.” Others may find the lush prose not to their liking, but I loved it. Phrases like “the lace-work caress of his hands” and sentences like “memories collected in her mind like intimate postcards” still sing in my head.

I’ll post my review for the second Loveswept reissue I read tomorrow.

Have you read any Loveswept romances in the originals or as reissues? What do you think about a stripper hero and a librarian heroine?


Friday, August 19, 2011

Gifts from a Writer’s Notebook

Today was an ordinary day. The things I did—reading, writing, running errands, spending time online and with family members are all part of my day-to-day life. To an onlooker, nothing I did would appear to offer fodder for a writer’s imagination. But I end the day with five gifts, notes about five scenes I observed today, one of which gives me exactly the details I need to revise a scene to give it greater immediacy and power. The other four will doubtless make their way in some form into other manuscripts.

1.     Waiting in line to check out books at the library, I watched a father and daughter. The line was long, and the little girl, whom I judged to be between three and four, grew impatient. She asked her dad, “Why are we here?” When her father reminded her they were getting books for “PawPaw,” who liked to read, she said. “I like to read.” Then with a great sigh, she added, “But books are better when we don’t have to wait.”  All of these details and more are carefully noted, and the next time I need to think about child speak . . .

2.     The teller at the bank is a sweet girl, the daughter of an old friend. She’s been officially engaged for five days, after a long relationship that her parents feared would never culminate in marriage. Her ring is lovely, and I dutifully admired it. But I made mental notes of the glances she kept darting at it, the gesticulations to display it, and the smile that seemed etched on her face. I suspected if I could have seen her feet that I would have found them several inches above the floor. She’s a secondary character just waiting to be written.

3.     I had to do a grocery store run too, and Thursdays are senior discount days. I followed a white-haired, 80ish couple through the deli, produce, and canned soup departments. In the bakery, the woman debated cheeses. The man said, “Anything but Gouda.” She bought Gouda. In the produce department, she considered three kinds of grapes. He said, “The purple’s better for us.” She bought white. On the soup aisle, he said, “I’m sick of tomato.” She said, “But it’s on sale” and dropped four cans in their buggy. I think there’s a subplot there.

4.     I was reading in my room when I heard a visiting relative--a soft-spoken, peace-loving soul—shout “You SOB, you don’t know what you’re talking about. The least you could do for what those idiots are paying you is get the damn facts straight, you asshole.” I rushed into the living room in alarm. The big guy was standing threateningly in front of the TV. When he saw me, he reddened, ducked his head, and apologized, explaining that a particular sportscaster didn’t know a certain body part from an aperture in the earth. I’m adding a scolding mother to the scene.

5.     I took an afternoon nap, something I rarely do but allowed myself today since I was awake late and up early. If one can have nightmares in daytime, I did. I awakened with my heart pounding, my brow sweaty, and my whole body shaking. For a few seconds when I first woke, the dream seemed dreadfully real. It took me a minute or so to recognize familiar furnishings and feel safe. Tonight I revised a nightmare scene with all these details fresh in my mind and in my notes.
Do you keep a notebook? What extraordinary things have you seen in your ordinary days?


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Tuesday Review: The Heroines of Maggie Osborne

Note: Another deadline, another re-run, folks. But this is one of my favorite posts after three years of blogging.

I sometimes read comments about unconventional, strong heroines as if they are the creations of today’s innovative writers, but Maggie Osborne was creating such characters before “kick-butt heroine” became a buzz word. She once said, “I like to take women out of their comfortable and safe milieu and place them in challenging situations that will allow them to discover themselves and grow.” She does exactly that.

Louise “Low Down” Downe, the heroine of Silver Lining, is strong, smart, independent, and proud that she can “give as good as she gets.”  The circumstances of her life have led her to think, speak, and look like a man in order to survive. At one point, she says of herself, “I’m mean and selfish. I’m cantankerous, stubborn and willful. So don’t go hanging any halos on me.” Not exactly typical heroine material. But Osborne’s characterization is so skillful that Low Down evokes sympathy from the reader who cheers for her success as she overcomes physical obstacles, emotional risks, and deep insecurities on her way to an HEA with a hero who experiences his own learning curve.

Fox of Foxfire Bride is just as atypical a heroine. She too dresses like a man, earns a reputation as a guide for people traveling in the frontier, and proves that she can shoot, fight, swear, and drink any man under the table. The goal of her life is to kill the man who is the father of the hero. The reader watches her become aware of herself as a woman and finally to accept that the difficulties she has endured have made her the woman she is, a woman she likes “just fine.” I don’t think there’s another scene in romance fiction to equal the one where she and the hero shake hands before they first make love.
Jenny Jones of The Promise of Jenny Jones is a mule driver, a buffalo skinner, and, in self-defense, a killer. She is awaiting death by firing squad when a dying woman offers to take her place on the condition that Jenny take the woman’s daughter to safety in California. What follows is the transformation of Jenny and the daughter in a gritty, funny, touching journey that ends in a totally satisfying HEA.
The transformation of Lily Dale, the heroine of A Stranger’s Wife, is even more dramatic.  Her story begins just as she is released in the Yuma State Prison for Women in New Mexico territory, where she has served five years for armed robbery and assault. This is no case of a wrongfully convicted innocent. Lily is guilty of the crime. It’s a measure of Osborne’s talent that the reader is able to suspend belief as she is turned into a lady, and not just any lady. She has been released into the custody of a powerful king-maker who is determined to turn her into a stand-in for the missing wife of the leading candidate for the first governor of the new state of Colorado.
Then there’s Rose Mary “Rosie” Mulvehey of The Wives of Bowie Stone, who just may be the most unusual heroine in all Romancelandia.  Abused by her stepfather, she turns to alcohol. Because she gets drunk and shoots up the saloon, she goes to jail. It’s actually a good thing she does go to jail because spending the night in jail means she takes a bath when she gets out. Rosie is most inappropriately named. She’s dirty, smelly, and perpetually hungover. She dresses like a man and does the work of several. She acquires a husband through means as unorthodox as her heroine’s role. In the 1880s in Passion’s Crossing, Kansas, a man can be saved from hanging if a woman of the town marries him. Rosie needs help to save her farm, and she chooses Bowie Stone from among our men scheduled to be hanged. Bowie has another wife. That’s right: the hero is a bigamist. But that’s the hero—and a blog for another day.
Have you read Maggie Osborne? Who is the most unusual heroine that you have encountered in romance fiction?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Latest Creation from Tessa Dare Studios

In March 2011, the romance community held an auction to help Fatin Soufan, a long-time member of the community, after she lost her husband. Tessa Dare, whose phenomenal first video production, The Stud Club Trilogy premiered in 2010, auctioned her services as Romance Video Producer Extraordinaire, and author Maya Banks was the lucky—and generous—winner. Here and at various other sites throughout Romanceladia, you can view Tessa’s latest video creation and learn about Maya’s sensational new trilogy.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tuesday Review: An O'Brien Family Christmas

An O'Brien Family Christmas
By Sherryl Woods
Publisher: Mira
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Three Stars

Laila Riley has spent most of her life trying to prove herself to her father. When her brother Trace finally convinced their father that Trace was not going to follow in his footsteps, Laila was given the job at the family-owned community bank that their father had intended for Trace. She finally had the chance to show her father she was the best person for the job. But her father learned of her affair with Matthew O’Brien, a younger man with a player’s reputation, and the resulting argument left Laila jobless and estranged from her parents. A few weeks later, resenting all that Matthew had cost her, Laila broke up with him, telling herself that all they shared was good sex.

Matthew, who is still in love with Laila, is delighted when his grandmother gentle manipulation results in Laila’s approaching Matthew, giving Matthew a chance to persuade her to join the O’Brien family on their trip to Ireland for Christmas. Laila, whose connection to the O’Briens is strong because of her life-long friendship with Abby O’Brien who is married to Laila’s brother, doesn’t take much persuation. Hoping that sharing time in Ireland will lead Laila to see that they were meant to be together, Matthew imposes a moratorium on sex while they date in a way that wasn’t possible before, given the furtive quality of their relationship that—at Laila’s insistence—was hidden from family and friends.

While Matthew courts the indecisive Laila, family matriarch Nell reconnects with a former love, much to the dismay of some family members, especially O’Brien Family Manager-in Chief, Mick. With four generations of O’Briens gathered, there is an impressive amount of chaos, interference, laughter, and love.

An O’Brien Family Christmas is the 8th book in Woods’s Chesapeake Shore series, following The Inn at Eagle Point (Abby O’Brien Winters and Trace Riley), Flowers on Main (Bree O’Brien and Jake Collins), Harbor Lights (Kevin O’Brien and Shanna Carlyle), A Chesapeake Shores Christmas (Mick and Megan O’Brien), Driftwood Cottage (Connor O’Brien and Heather Donovan), Moonlight Cove (Jess O’Brien and Will Lincoln), and Beach Lane (Susie O’Brien and Mack Franklin). I love Chesapeake Shores and find the O’Briens an engaging group, but I have found the series uneven, enjoying some books and being mildly irritated by some elements of others. The first Christmas book in the series, Mick and Megan’s reconciliation story is my favorite; An O’Brien Family Christmas is the one with which I had the most problems.

I loved Matthew. He has matured nicely since readers first met him, and he’s charming, funny, and incredibly patient with Laila. He’s willing to do whatever he needs to do to prove to her that he loves her, even giving up a plum designing job to stay in Chesapeake Shores. There is a gender reversal going on that should have been interesting. Matthew is the one who wants permanence, marriage, and family; Laila is the one who thinks the sex was extraordinary but is reluctant to consider a more committed relationship.

Had the reader been given more of the internal conflict in order to understand Laila’s choices, I would have found the book intriguing and different. But there is so much family stuff going on and Laila and Matthew are so busily involved in exchanges with various family members that their relationship impressed me as a lot of steam and little substance. I grew weary of Laila’s waverings, and when she does decide she’s ready to commit to Matthew, I wandered how much of the change was due to Matthew and how much was due to persuasive friends and family trappings. The same held true for her father’s abrupt change. It provided a sweet wedding moment, but it was too quick and unexplained for me to trust that Laila's relationship with her father was going to be substantially different.

I thought Nell’s romance was sweet. She's a great character, and I like the idea that romantic love is possible at any age. I also liked that there was no glossing over the potential problems with families and distance. I’m a sentimentalist when it comes to family Christmases, so I loved the holiday gathering and seeing the HEAs of earlier pairs in process. Fans of the series probably won’t want to miss another O’Brien story, but if you haven't read any of the series and want to sample it, I suggest you try Harbor Lights, A Chesapeake Shores Christmas, or Beach Lane.

Are you a series addict? What are your favorite series? Do you like series that go on and on with no end in sight?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Nice Is a Four Letter Word

I’m not sure when or why “nice” became a near-insult and the condition of being nice became something to avoid or to apologize for.  Etymology might explain the current attitude; the word is derived from the Anglo-Norman nice, nis, nise, Old French nice, and classical Latin nescius, all of which carried the meaning “foolish, silly, or ignorant”. But those meanings are now obsolete, and even if the semantic changes are unclear, since at least the late 18th century, “nice” has carried the meaning, when describing a person, of “pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured; attractive.” I see nothing in that definition to merit contempt. And I doubt that most of those who sneer at the word know about its etymology.

Many of us can recall parental cautions to “play nice” with siblings or other groups of children. Perhaps you have issued this instruction to your own children. Children, of course, can be unrepentant savages uninterested in considering the feelings of others and not yet aware of the rewards kindness holds for giver, receiver, and the surrounding world. But we are no longer children. We know that those who see being nice as weak and hypocritical create pain and humiliation for others, leaving a legacy of anger and resentment that sooner or later will rebound.

Recently a few trusted friends and I were discussing this issue, and one said, “I’m sick and tired of seeing ‘being nice’ derided as some kind of cowardly impulse. Being nice is HARD.”  Indeed, it is. Ignoring the feelings of others is easy. Saying what we feel with no consideration of how our words affect others is easy. Giving into an impulse that lets us feel superior is easy. It’s instant gratification—but at a cost. It's always easier to be snide and snarky and congratulate yourself on your own cleverness than it is to care about how others feel and to avoid dumping more negativity into the world. 

Conventional wisdom is wrong; being nice is not weak. As another friend added in that discussion, “Being nice . . . takes a #&*# load of strength.” That’s a sentiment with which some champions of niceness would concur. Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval built the Kaplan Thaler Group, one of the nation’s most successful advertising agencies (The Aflac duck is their creation) following a philosophy of niceness. In the corporate world where cut-throat strategies are commonplace, Thaler and Koval had the strength to go against common practice and reject intimidation, back stabbing, and egotism to practice kindness, consideration, and empathy. They emphasize that niceness is not a choice made from weakness. In their New York Times bestselling book The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness (2006), they describe “nice” as the “toughest four letter word you’ll ever know.” It’s a tough word they credit with helping them build a billion dollar business, a tough word that is central to their professional identities. My friend Santa understands that connection holds true for writers as well. She’s observed firsthand the kindness some of the best in our genre practice routinely—and the lack of thoughtfulness practiced by others. Choosing niceness, San says, “really boils down to being a professional.”
U.S. Representative Lois Capps of California is aother professional who understands the power of nice. In fact, Washingtonian Magazine four times has officially proclaimed her the Nicest Member of Congress, an award based on annual surveys of Capitol Hill staff. Capps’s opponents labeled her a “nice lady” too and failed to take her seriously. They discovered their mistake when the “nice lady” beat them at the polls and went on to become a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the House’s three most powerful committees. She has proved her toughness in fighting for health care, education, coastal protection, and offshore oil, and one local newspaper likens the power of the slender Capps within her district to that of an 800-pound gorilla. There’s nothing weak about this “nice lady.”
Thaler and Koval suggest essential steps in practicing niceness. The steps seem applicable not just to the world of business but also to our professional and personal worlds and to the larger world we all inhabit. Two of the steps particularly resonated with me because the failure to implement these steps goes to the heart of the incidents that provoked the discussion my friends and I had. Try to feel what the other person is experiencing, Thaler and Koval advise, and you will see beyond the limitations of your own point of view. Then, silence your ego sometimes and let go. Another friend in that discussion labeled people who won’t allow themselves to be empathetic “mental toddlers” whose determination to be first, to be right, to be smart feeds their “monster egos” but makes them as unhappy as they make others. She asked us to promise each other that we would never choose feeding our egos over feeling for people. We promised.
I assure you that none of us are all sweetness and light. We get angry, we deal with people we don’t like, and we have our share of self-centeredness. But we believe, as Samuel Johnson said, “Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not.” We believe “playing nice” is a tough choice, but it’s one we are committed to making. In the words of Thaler and Koval:

The power of nice is not about running around maniacally smiling and doing everyone's bidding, all the while calculating what you'll get in return. It's not about being phony or manipulative. It's about valuing niceness--in yourself and in others--the same way you respect intelligence, beauty, or talent. Niceness is a powerful force.

May the force be with you.
Where so you stand on the issue of niceness? Do you see it as a tough choice or a wimp out?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tuesday Review: The Bentleys Buy a Buick

The Bentleys Buy a Buick 
By Pamela Morsi
Publisher: Mira
Publication Date: August 23, 2011


Erica and Tom Bentley have been married for almost ten years. Erica has just returned to work in the medical records department of a local hospital after spending six years as a stay-at-home mom. Tom’s dream business, Bentley’s Classic Cars, is growing, and first-grader Quent is doing well in school with a teacher he adores. The Bentleys are not wealthy. They make do with old appliances, struggle to save for their son’s education, and juggle child care. They are an ordinary young family, extraordinarily happy with one another.

Then one day Tom falls in love with an older woman, a 1956 Buick Roadmaster convertible in two tones of blue, christened Clara by her 80ish owner. Tom knows that he can’t afford Clara, but he pours his heart and his considerable skills into restoring her. Taking care of Clara takes time, and Tom’s time is stretched further when his top employee, who is also his long-time, married best friend, slacks off work to have hot adulterous sex with an auto supplies clerk. Tom is working longer hours, missing family dinners, and growing increasingly uncomfortable with lying to cover for his friend.

Erica is doing well with her job, enjoying being part of the working world again and winning praise and added responsibility from her supervisor. But her co-workers are addicted to their lunchtime gossip and prone to airing their cynical views of men and marriage. When Tom starts exhibiting all the signs of adulterous behavior that the lunch bunch has warned against, Erica begins to wonder if the man she loves and trusts is just another faithless husband.

A summary fails to do justice to the humor, sweetness, and poignancy of this book.  Morsi has a history of creating memorable, engaging protagonists who are far removed from typical fare in romance and women’s fiction, and she is on her game here. Practical Erica, determined to avoid the mistakes of her many-times-married mother and devoted to her husband and son, is an appealing character. And the scene where she turns detective and follows Tom to the home of the “other woman” is a comic gem worthy of Lucy herself. Tom, a big bear of a man still crazily in love with his wife, is a heart-stealer. Having grown up with no father and an irresponsible mother, he is grateful for every day as part of a “real family” and thinks Erica is the best thing that ever happened to him.

The Bentleys Buy a Buick is a quiet book. There are no explosions here, no serial killers, no tycoons running the world, no great beauties enslaving with a glance. Instead Morsi gives us a couple much like people we know, perhaps much like the people you and your spouse are, and she shows us the glory and the risks of love for these ordinary people. Each character is drawn with such precision and grace that the reader feels as if she knows them. This is true not only of Erica and Tom but also of six-year-old Quent with his love of big words; of Letty, Erica’s younger sister, wise beyond her years; of Erica’s mom whose cynicism masks her insecurity; of Melvin who sees the cynicism and the insecurity and loves her anyway; of Guffy, Clara’s owner, who embraces life and accepts the imminence of death; of Briscoe, the young man Tom mentors, who is trying to grow up to his responsibilities.

Even the Buick becomes a pivotal character, one that brings to Tom a forgotten but defining moment when he learned that finding love and family could transform a life and causes him to consider the depth of his love for Erica.

I love you, he’d said that morning to his wife. Those were very small words that couldn’t begin to encompass the fullness of his feelings for her, about her. It was too big a meaning to be held in his brain. Too grand a concept for a regular guy to be able to express. He loved her. And that was a driving force, an engine that could never be contained with internal combustion.

 I’m so glad Pamela Morsi writes such books and so grateful that I can read them.

Have you read any of Pamela Morsi's books? How do you feel about quiet books?