Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Coming to My Bookshelves in 2010

My reading journal for 2010 is ready, and I should be getting a package very soon that will contain my first reads of the new year. I’m most excited about the debut novels of some writer friends, beginning with Courtney Milan’s Proof by Seduction, a January release, and continuing with Sara Lindsey’s Promise Me Tonight in February (Her second, Tempting the Marquess follows in June), Maggie Robinson’s Mistress by Mistake in May (and Tempting Eden by Margaret Rowe, her alter ego, in June), and Tiffany Clare’s The Surrender of a Lady sometime in the fall.

I really think January 26, the release day of Laura Kinsale’s Lessons in French, her first book since Shadowheart in 2004, should be a national holiday so everyone can rush to bookstores to buy the book. I feel almost that strongly about Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One was a Soldier. I’ve been waiting since May 2008 to know what happens to Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne. I expect complications. Also, I can’t wait for Tessa Dare’s Stud Club trilogy or for Eloisa James’ first stand-alone romance (a Cinderella tale!) or a new historical from Christina Dodd or the continuation of Nora’s Bride Quartet or Jennifer Ashley’s follow-up to The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie or. . . Well, you get the idea.

My book calendar already lists nearly 170 books that I look forward to reading in the coming year. I gloat over the riches on this list. In February, I have almost a book a day to anticipate. Romance (historical, contemporary, and a smattering of paranormal and suspense), women’s fiction, mysteries, general fiction, even a few reissues of old favorites—all are on my list. I know others will be added as friends recommend books, as some books generate buzz on the boards and blogs, and as more release dates are announced. Looking at my book calendar, I’m sure 2010 is going to be another very good reading year.

Before sharing what’s on my list of coming attractions, I need to warn you of some things:
• This is not an inclusive list; it is my list. It contains the genres and subgenres I read, the authors whose books I always check out and usually buy. It includes only print publications since I rarely read ebooks.
• Sometimes there are discrepancies about release dates. I used the date given by my source, and some sources list books released at the end of the month with the following month’s titles. I know Amazon gives the exact release date, but I’m not anal enough to check 168 titles on Amazon.
• The books for each month are not listed chronologically. I list them alphabetically by author under each month. If you are interested in specific release dates, you can probably find them on Amazon.
• The abbreviations are for me. I think they’re clear, but if anyone wants a key, let me know.
• I realized only when I put the list together for this blog that almost all the authors on the list are women. What can I say? These are the writers I read. Maybe my preference is my reaction to all those years in English classrooms where reading lists consisted mostly of works by DWMs.

What books are you most looking forward to in 2010?

The Book Calendar

January (14)
1. Death of a Valentine (Mys) M. C. Beaton
2. How I Met My Countess (H) Elizabeth Boyle
3. Forbidden Falls (C) Robyn Carr
4. Sleep No More (RS) Susan Crandall
5. Mistress Shakespeare (HF-pbR) Karen Harper
6. Ravishing in Red (H) Madeline Hunter
7. The Truth about Lord Stoneville (H) Sabrina Jeffries
8. Sinful Surrender (H) Beverley Kendall
9. Lessons in French (H) Laura Kinsale
10. Proof by Seduction (H) Courtney Milan
11. To Tempt a Saint (H) Kate Moore
12. The Secret of Everything (WF) Barbara O’Neal
13. At the Duke’s Pleasure (H) Tracy Anne Warren
14. The Prodigal Wife (HC-WF) Marcia Willett

February (28)
15. The Viscount’s Betrothal (HH) Louise Allen
16. Aunt Dimity Down Under (HC-Mys) Nancy Atherton
17. Dark Angel/Lord Carew’s Bride (H-R) Mary Balogh
18. A Rather Charming Invitation (RS) C. A. Belmond
19. The Stanforth Secrets (H-R) Jo Beverley
20. Naked Dragon (Fant) Annette Blair
21. Laced with Magic (ParaMys) Barbara Bretton
22. The Golden Season (H) Connie Brockway
23. If Books Could Kill (Mys) Kate Carlisle
24. Angel’s Peak (C)Robyn Carr
25. Tempt Me If You Can (C) Janet Chapman
26. The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (GF—HC) Jerome Charyn
27. Cool Hand Hank (SSE) Kathleen Eagle
28. Winter Garden (WF) Kristin Hannah
29. The Queen’s Governess (HF) Karen Harper
30. The Next Best Thing (C) Kristan Higgins
31. Provocative in Pearls (H)Madeline Hunter
32. Bound by Temptation (H) Lavinia Kent
33. The Brightest Star in the Sky (CL) Marian Keyes
34. Butterfly Tattoo (C) Deidre Knight
35. Promise Me Tonight (H) Sara Lindsey
36. Improper Relations (H—UK only Janet Mullany
37. Secrets of a Scandalous Bride (H) Sophia Nash
38. Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart (C) Beth Pattillo
39. Drive Time (Mys) Hank Phillippi Ryan
40. Blonde with a Wand (Para)Vicki Lewis Thompson
41. Brava, Valentine (WF--HC) Adriana Trigiani
42. The Summer Hideaway (C) Susan Wiggs

March (24)
43. The Girl Who Chased the Moon (GF—HC) Sarah Addison Allen
44. The Intrigue at Highbury (Or, Emma's Match) (HMys-HC) Carrie Bebris
45. She Shoots to Conquer (Mys) Dorothy Cannell
46. Moonlight Road (C) Robyn Carr
47. In Bed with the Duke (H) Christina Dodd
48. On the Steamy Side (C) Louisa Edwards
49. Something About You (C) Julie James
50. Our Lady of Immaculate Deception (HC--Mys) Nancy Martin
51. Wild Ride (F) Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer
52. The Family Man (HAR) Trish Milburn
53. On Shadow Beach (RS) Barbara Freethy
54. Lois Lane Tells All (C) Karen Hawkins
55. Match Made in Court (HSR) Janice Kay Johnson
56. Heart of Stone (AH) Jill Marie Landis
57. Mad, Bad, and Blonde (C) Cathy Linz
58. The Wild Marquis (H) Miranda Neville
59. House Rules (GF—HC) Jodi Picoult
60. The Dead Travel Fast (Mys) Deanna Raybourn
61. Miss Julia Delivers the Goods (Mys--pbR) Ann B. Ross
62. Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger (short stories—HC) Lee Smith
63. Hold Up the Sky (Mys) Patricia Sprinkle
64. She’s the One (HSR) Kay Stockham
65. Chick with a Charm (Para)Vicki Lewis Thompson
66. Magnolia Wednesdays (WF) Wendy Wax

April (22)
67. The Last Time I Saw You (WF—HC) Elizabeth Berg
68. The Secret Duke (H) Jo Beverley
69. Wicked Becomes You (H) Meredith Duran
70. One Was a Soldier (Mys) Julia Spencer-Fleming
71. In Shelter Cove (RS) Barbara Freethy
72. Laughed Till He Died (Mys) Carolyn Hart
73. A Touch of Scandal (H) Jennifer Haymore
74. Imperfect Birds (GF—HC) Anne Lamott
75. And Both Were Young (YA—HC—R) Madeleine L’Engle
76. Hannah’s List (WF) Debbie Macomber
77. Her Best Friend (HSR) Sarah Mayberry
78. Suddenly a Bride (H) Kasey Michaels
79. The Lake Shore Limited (GF) Sue Miller
80. The Social Climber of Davenport Heights (WF) Pamela Morsi
81. The Scent of Rain and Lightning (GF—HC) Nancy Pickard
82. Burning Lamp (H) Amanda Quick
83. Every Last One (WF) Anna Quindlen
84. Small Change (WF) Sheila Roberts
85. Miss Julia Renews Her Vows (Mys—HC) Ann B. Ross
86. The True Love Quilting Club (C) Lori Wilde
87. The Mapping of Love and Death (Mys) Jacqueline Winspear
88. Home in Carolina (C) Sherryl Woods

May (17)
89. Do You Take This Cop? (HSR)Beth Andrews
90. Death Threads (Mys) Elizabeth Lynn Casey
91. One Dance with a Duke (H) Tessa Dare
92. A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behavior (H) Suzanne Enoch
93. Nothing but Trouble (C) Rachel Gibson
94. Sex and the Single Earl (H) Vanessa Kelly
95. Uncertain Magic (H—R) Laura Kinsale
96. Married by Morning (H) Lisa Kleypas
97. Hannah’s List (HC--WF) Debbie Macomber
98. Chasing Perfect (C) Susan Mallery
99. Never Less Than a Lady (H) Mary Jo Putney
100. Savor the Moment (C) Nora Roberts
101. Mistress by Mistake (H) Maggie Robinson
102. His at Night (H) Sherry Thomas
103. Sweetest Little Sin (H) Christine Wells
104. On Folly Beach Karen White
105. Sweet Tea at Sunrise (C) Sherryl Woods

June (21)
106. A Secret Affair (H) Mary Balogh
107. The Stolen Bride (H--R) Jo Beverley
108. Sugar Creek (C) Toni Blake
109. The Forbidden Rose (H) Joanna Bourne
110. My Name is Memory (GF--HC) Ann Brashares
111. Along Came a Husband (HSR) Helen Brenna
112. My Reckless Surrender (H) Anna Campbell
113. Twice Tempted by a Rogue (H) Tessa Dare
114. The Carpenter’s Lady (SSE Classic R) Billie Douglass
115. A Colorful Death (HC--Mys) Carola Dunn
116. The Love Verb (CL—HC) Jane Green
117. The Irish Warrior (H) Kris Kennedy
118. Love in tha Afternoon (H) Lisa Kleypas
119. Tempting the Marquess (H) Sara Lindsey
120. One Season of Sunshine (C) Julia London
121. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (HC--Mys) Sharyn McCrumb
122. Tempting a Proper Lady (H) Debra Mullins
123. Ten Things I Love About You (H) Julia Quinn
124. Crush on You (C) Christie Ridgway
125. Tempting Eden (H) Margaret Rowe
126. Honeysuckle Summer (C) Sherryl Woods

July (18)
127. Stork Raving Mad (Mys) Donna Andrews
128. Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage (H) Jennifer Ashley
129. The Duke’s Captive (H) Adele Ashworth
130. Death by Diamonds (Para-Mys) Annette Blair
131. Last Night’s Scandal (H) Loretta Chase
132. Daring a Duke (H) Claudia Dain
133. Three Nights with a Scoundrel (H) Tessa Dare
134. Chains of Ice--Book 3: The Chosen Ones (Para) Christina Dodd
135. Katie Fforde (CL) The Perfect Proposal
136. My Dangerous Duke (H) Gaelen Foley
137. The Smuggler and the Society Bride (H) Julia Justiss
138. I Kissed an Earl (H) Julie Ann Long
139. Almost Perfect (C) Susan Mallery
140. The Wild Irish Sea (RS) Loucinda McGary
141. The Wicked Wyckerly (H) Patricia Rice
142. The Search (HC—RS) Nora Roberts
143. Money, Honey (C) Susan Sey
144. Home is where the Bark Is (C) Kandy Shepherd

August (7)
145. Bedeviled Angel (Para) Annette Blair
146. The Duke’s Night of Sin (H) Kathryn Caskie
147. Chains of Fire, The Chosen Ones: Book 4 (Para) Christina Dodd
148. Wicked Intentions (H) Elizabeth Hoyt
149. A Kiss at Midnight (H) Eloisa James
150. Summer Brides (C--anthology)- "The Borrowed Bride," Susan Wiggs; "Bridge to Dreams," Sheryl Woods; "Sister of the Bride," Susan Mallery
151. The Devil Wears Plaid (H) Teresa Medeiros

September (2)
152. 1022 Evergreen Place (WF) Debbie Macomber
153. Finding Perfect (C) Susan Mallery

October (7)
154. The Duke’s Captive (H) Adele Ashworth
155. Bespelling Jane (anthology) Mary Balogh et al.
156. Emily and the Dark Angel (H--R) Jo Beverley
157. You Again (C-Mys) Jennifer Crusie
158. Where Shadows Dance (H Mys) C.S. Harris
159. Call Me Mrs. Miracle (HC--C) Debbie Macomber
160. The Best of Friends (C) Susan Mallery

November (1)
161. A Christmas Promise (H--R) Mary Balogh

December (0)

Release Dates Added after Original Post(3)
162. The Goddess of Fried Okra (WF) Jean Brashear—April
163. The Surrender of a Lady (H) Tiffany Clare—October
164. Trial by Desire (H) Courtney Milan--September

Release Dates Unknown (5)
165. All I Ever Wanted (C) Kristan Higgins--Summer 2010
166. ? new Blaze Historical Betina Krahn--Summer 2010
167. The List (?) Connie Brockway, Eloisa James, Julia Quinn
168. The Guardian Angelinos (spinoff of Bullet Catchers)
Roxanne St. Claire—2010
169. Happily Ever After Nora Roberts –December ?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Christmas Wishes for You

I wish you peace when storms roll in.
I wish you light when darkness falls.
On lonely days, I wish you friends.
I wish you grace when trouble calls.
But every day, and most of all,
I wish you love.

I wish you warmth when the world is cold.
I wish you hope when yours is gone.
I wish you happiness untold.
I wish you joy with each day’s dawn.
But every day, and most of all,
I wish you love.

I wish you strength to make your climb.
I wish you dreams when old ones die.
I wish you songs and tales and rhymes.
I wish you wings—oh, may you fly!
But every day, and most of all,
I wish you love.

May your holiday season be a blessed one.

I’m taking a break from blogging until 2010. Drop by on January 4 for my take on the books of 2010 and a chance to win books.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Books 2009: A Mixed Bag

Santa’s book bag this year was a mix of many pleasant stories, almost a handful of true delights, and a few duds. I do miss the old Signet Christmas anthologies. I’ve read twenty-five newly published Christmas books this year (some were recycled in new configurations and at least one was a paperback edition of an earlier hardback), and not one had the appeal of those annual collections which I could count on giving me at least three stories I loved—and in a good year, five. I read ten 2009 anthologies, and the best ones gave me only a single story that I know I’ll be rereading for Christmases yet to come. But I’m not complaining. I love Christmas books, and any year that leaves me with additions to my Christmas keepers makes me happy.


1. The Heart of Christmas: “A Handful of Gold,” Mary Balogh; “The Season for Suitors,” Nicola Cornick; “This Wicked Gift.” Courtney Milan

“This Wicked Gift” is the only new story in this anthology, but it alone is worth the price of the book. It is one of those rare historical stories that feature protagonists from the ranks of ordinary people rather than aristocrats. Lavinia Spencer works in her family’s bookshop, struggling to save pennies to give her father and younger brother a Christmas worth celebrating. William Q. White is a poor clerk with the daring and the imagination to make an extravagant move. I loved these characters, and I loved the wit, the intelligence, and the passion of this novella—and I mean that last quality not just in the sense of sexual desire, although the story has plenty of sizzle, but in the larger sense of deep, strong emotion.

2. A Regency Christmas (Harlequin Historical): “Scarlet Ribbons,” Lyn Stone; “Christmas Promise,” Carla Kelly; “A Little Christmas,” Gail Ranstrom

Like “This Wicked Gift,” “Christmas Promise” gives readers a hero and heroine who are not part of aristocratic circles. Captain Jeremiah Faulk is at loose ends with the Napoleonic Wars finished. Ianthe Mears is a struggling widow with two children old enough for her to have real concerns about their futures. This is a friends-to-lovers story, one of my favorite themes, and it has a touch of Cyrano de Bergerac as well. Like all of Carla Kelly’s fiction, “Christmas Promise” is both intelligent and heartwarming.

3. Home for the Holidays, Sarah Mayberry (Harlequin SuperRomance)

I bought this one because I kept hearing buzz about Mayberry’s books, and I’m so glad I did. I like my stories with rich contexts, one reason I’m really picky about the categories I read. Many of them focus so exclusively on the H/H relationship that the characters never seem quite believable to me. This was definitely not the case with Mayberry. She gives Joe and Hannah both families who are relevant to the action. She shows them in a relationship that develops, encounters credible obstacles, and involves ordinary moments of conversation and family interactions as well as romantic moments. She left me smiling and teary-eyed in the process. Not only was Home for the Holidays a keeper for me, but Mayberry is set to become my first glom of 2010.

4. Merry, Merry Ghost, Carolyn Hart

OK, this one is a cozy mystery rather than a romance, but it does have a sweet romance thread with the promise of an HEA. More important in its becoming a keeper is Hart’s protagonist in her latest series, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an angel who has a fondness for earthly comforts like fashionable clothes and good food and a heart for helping. This second book in the series finds her aboard the Rescue Express, bound for her hometown Adelaide, Oklahoma, with another assignment from the Department of Good Intentions. The story has not only a murder, but also a resurrection of sorts, an orphaned child, a reconciled family, and Bailey Ruth wreaking havoc to the dismay of her supervisor, Wiggins. Merry, Merry Ghost left me very merry indeed.

The Others:


A Christmas Ball: “The Longest Night,” Jennifer Ashley;”My Lady Below Stairs,” Emily Bryan; “Traditions,” Alissa Johnson
A Highlander Christmas: “Winter Heat,” Dawn Halliday; “Yuletide Enchantment,” Sophie Renwick; “A Christmas Spirit,” Cindy Miles
I’ll Be Home for Christmas: “Christmas of the Red Chiefs,” Linda Lael Miller; “Once Upon a Christmas.” Catherine Mulvany; “Meltdown,” Julie Leto; “You Can Count On Me,” Roxanne St. Claire
Snow Angels: “Snow Angels,” Fern Michaels; “The Presents of Angels,” Marie Bostwick; “Decorations,” Janna McMahan; “Miracle on Main Street,” Rosalind Noonan
The Night Before Christmas: “On a Snowy Christmas,” Brenda Novak; “The Christmas Baby,” Day Leclaire; “The Christmas Eve Promise,” Molly O’Keefe
That Holiday Feeling: “Silver Bells,” Debbie Macomber; “The Perfect Holiday,” Sherryl Woods; “Under the Christmas Tree,” Robyn Carr
This Christmas: “Vacation,” Jane Green; “The Second Wife of Reilly,” Jennifer Coburn; “Mistletoe and Holly,” Liz Ireland
Together for Christmas: “The Unmasking of Lady Loveless,” Nicola Cornick; “Christmas Reunion,” Catherine George; “A Mistletoe Masquerade,” Louise Allen

Single Titles

The Christmas Clock, Kat Martin
A Christmas Scandal, Jane Goodger
Lakeshore Christmas, Susan Wiggs
The Perfect Christmas, Debbie Macomber

Category Romances

Her Patchwork Family, Lyn Cote (Love Inspired Historicals)
One Cowboy, One Christmas, Kathleen Eagle (Silhouette Special Edition)
Unexpected Gifts, Holly Jacobs (Harlequin SuperRomance)
A Mother’s Secret, Janice Kay Johnson (Harlequin SuperRomance)
A Weaver Holiday Homecoming, Allison Leigh (Silhouette Special Edition)
Baby Under the Mistletoe, Jamie Sobrato (Harlequin SuperRomance)
Twelve Nights, Hope Tarr (Blaze)
The Christmas Present, Tracy Woolf (Harlequin SuperRomance)
I’ll Be Home for Christmas/One Golden Christmas, Lenora Worth (Love Inspired Classics)

Have you read any 2009 holiday books? What are your favorites from Christmas present--and past?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chiming In: Janga's Top Ten of 2009

Booklist started the song in September, singing their praise of the romances they considered the best of 2009. In the months since then, Amazon and Library Journal have added their verses. Bloggers are joining the chorus now. I’ve read numerous tweets this week about top ten lists. Romantic Times announced nominees for their annual awards this week, an astounding list. AAR will sound a late note with their Annual Reader Poll January 18-31, and Rita nominations will supply the grand finale in March.

I love these lists. Even when I wonder about a particular choice, I am fascinated by what has been chosen. There are surprisingly few duplications. Both Booklist and Library Journal included Connie Brockway’s So Enchanting, and Eloisa James appears on the lists from Booklist and Amazon, although for different books. The RT nominees include several books that appear on other lists. Michelle Buonfiglio's list at Barnes & Noble’s Heart to Heart is a special delight because it is so clearly hers. She chose her own categories, and she names runners-up. I have to love the latter since I always agonize over limiting my choices to one. I’m already stressing over my AAR votes, and the ballot is not even online yet.

Since my affinity for lists is great, I could not resist adding my top ten romance reads to the babel of lists. But then I had to face the problem of choosing only ten. This year was a good reading year for me. I read more than I have in five years—almost six hundred books. Among them were 476 romance and women’s fiction titles, 306 of them published in 2009. Forty-six of those were A reads (about 15%); the remaining 261 are fairly evenly divided between Bs and Cs, with a handful of Ds. I don’t have any Fs because if the book has no appeal for me, I don’t finish it and I don’t count it in my stats. All these numbers translate to a single truth: I read a lot of good books this year.

Some of those good books were by authors I’ve been reading for decades. Mary Balogh’s Huxtables are a delight (even if I do wish they had a different name), and Loretta Chase, Carla Kelly, Teresa Medeiros, Julia Quinn, and Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal never fail me. Some recent additions to my autobuy authors proved the astuteness of my judgment—Meredith Duran, Kristan Higgins, Elizabeth Hoyt, Deanna Raybourn. Christina Dodd reminded me that as long as she’s writing them, I can’t claim not to be a fan of paranormals. Some of my favorite reads were by debut authors; I loved the first books of Vanessa Kelly and Kris Kennedy. I read more category romances than I have in ten years or more because I discovered so many gifted writers in this group—Beth Andrews, Helen Brenna, Sarah Mayberry. So as you read my top ten, I ask that you remember that there are another three dozen books that also made 2009 a very good year for this reader.

The Top Ten (in alphabetical order by author)

The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie by Jennifer Ashley
This is an unusual story with fascinating family dynamics, a hero who suffers from Asperger’s, a heroine with a sense of humor and a work history, and a non-Regency setting. For once, a book lived up to its hype.

Tempt the Devil by Anna Campbell
I loved that the heroine in this one has the stubbornness, pride, and honor typically found in heroes, and I loved that both the heroine and hero were flawed adults with a history. This is my favorite of AC’s novels.

A Lady of Persuasion by Tessa Dare
Tessa Dare’s first trilogy is a marvel of youthful folly, humor, passion, tenderness, and growth. Goddess of the Hunt and Surrender of a Siren were A reads for me, but A Lady of Persuasion is the best of the best. It has one of the best beta heroes ever written. I adore Toby!

Never Love a Lawman by Jo Goodman
I pretty much stopped reading Western/Frontier stories when Maggie Osborne retired. Jo Goodman made me change my mind by creating characters I cared about and placing them in a story that fully engaged me. And her prose is so good that I had to read the book a second time just to study it.

A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James
I am an unabashed Eloisa James fangirl. All of her novels and novellas are on my keeper shelves. I have two copies of most of them and three of my favorite, Pleasure for Pleasure (one in French). A Duke of Her Own is her best book. Every character from Villiers, who became more intriguing with each book in the series, to the heroine’s puppy is vivid and vital. The book has wit, intelligence, warmth, and passion—a splendid conclusion to a wonderful series.

Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
Nobody is better than Lisa Kleypas at taking the conventions of romance and reminding readers of why they became conventions. This one even has a secret baby--sort of; it also has a mother from hell, a heroine with a dysfunctional family, a hero with great wealth and a reputation with women. Yet somehow Kleypas makes these overworked elements fresh and irresistible. She even makes me understand the popularity of the alpha hero.

Make Me Yours by Betina Krahn
A rare Edwardian setting, a working class heroine who is smart and strong and self-knowing, a first marriage that was sexually fulfilling, a romance that manages to be both light and substantive—this is an extraordinary book. I liked it so much that it made me take another look at an imprint (Blaze) I thought would never work for me.

Red’s Hot Honky-Tonk Bar by Pamela Morsi
For years Pamela Morsi has been writing some of the best work being published in popular fiction. This one is another in a long line of exceptional stories with rich, unforgettable characters. Red is a fortysomething bar owner; she’s also a grandmother with an imperfect relationship with her daughter, two grandchildren she does not want to assume temporary responsibility for, and a hot, young lover who keeps breaking through the boundaries she has set up. If you haven’t read this one, find a copy today. Give a copy to a friend. More people need to be reading Morsi.

Vision in White by Nora Roberts
I still want to cheer when I remember Nora Roberts has written/is writing a straight contemporary quartet. Both Vision in White and Bed of Roses are terrific books. The look at the wedding industry is interesting, the friendship among the four women is real and heartwarming, and the love stories are vintage Roberts. Vision in White edged out Bed of Roses on my list because I love Carter Maguire, the awkward, blushing, English teacher hero, a gloriously distinctive star in a galaxy of alphas.

Not Quite a Husband by Sherry Thomas
Sherry Thomas has had three books published so far, and after I finished each one of them, I have found myself thinking about the characters long after I’ve closed their book and placed it on a keeper shelf. Her characters are always individuals; they are interesting not merely as hero and heroine but also as human beings with histories and flaws and scars. Leo Marsden is a brilliant mathematician and a golden boy beloved by all. Bryony Asquith is a doctor and a reserved, complicated woman. The Swat Valley Uprising of 1897 serves as the setting for much of the story. All of these things set Not Quite a Husband apart from the general run of historical romances. Then there’s Thomas’s prose. I read passages like the one below and weep with envy.

Then he had come into her life. And it was as if she’d been struck by lightning. Or a team of archeologists had dug up the familiar scenes of her mind to reveal a large, ancient warren of unmet hunger and frustrated hope.

Have you made your top ten list? What books are among your best of 2009 that I may have missed?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

’Tis the Time Before Christmas and All Through My House, We’re Reading

I love the rituals of Christmas; one that is particularly beloved is reading aloud favorite Christmas stories for children. I don’t know how far back the tradition goes, but I have vivid memories of my parents, my favorite uncle, and various aunts and cousins reading to me. By the time I was eight, I was reading a child’s version of the Nativity story and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to my younger siblings while my mother baked her Christmas cakes, and when my brother and sister grew too old, there were always younger cousins eager to listen. Later, four little boys in new Christmas pajamas, wriggling with the excitement the holiday awakens in kids of all ages, gathered close to hear those same stories plus some new ones. Now the grands are the listeners. The collection of Christmas stories has grown considerably, and we try to add at least one new book to the collection each year.

Saturday the eight-year-old and the five-year old are spending the day, and I’ve been choosing the first books. They asked Thanksgiving when we could start the Christmas reading, so I know they will be as happy as I will be to begin our holiday reading season. We will read the familiar stories—’Twas the Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a child’s edition of A Christmas Carol, but we will be reading some less famous stories too as we begin our celebration of the season. Perhaps we’ll begin with one of these favorites:

1. On Christmas Eve (originally published 1938; 2000 ed. shown)—
Margaret Wise Brown, author; Nancy Edwards Calder, illustrator
Many of you will know Brown as the author of Goodnight Moon, and although On Christmas Eve is for older children (4-8) than the more famous book, it has something of the same feel. Like the child I was and the children I’ve known, the three children in this book can’t sleep on Christmas Eve, certain they hear reindeer. So they creep downstairs just to “touch the tree and make a wish.” They find not only a marvelous tree but also stockings and presents and carolers. Illustrations are important in experiencing children’s books, and Calder’s add to the magic of this book.

2. This Is the Stable (2006)—
Cynthia Cotton, author; Delana Bettoli, illustrator
There are untold numbers of the Nativity story written for children. I love this one because the rhyming couplets appeal to children who love to repeat them and the simplicity of the narrative is perfect for this story of the first Christmas in a “stable, dusty and brown.” Bettoli’s illustrations are so richly colored that our little ones love to stroke them. The characters look as if they belong in this story, and the wise man riding an elephant makes a big impression.

3. Bear Noel (2000)--Olivier Dunrea, author and illustrator
"He is singing. . . . He is laughing. . . . He is jingling his bells. . . . He is coming."
He is Bear Noel, and all the animals in the forest are gathered on Christmas Eve, the one night of the year that they come together in peace and harmony, waiting for the arrival of Bear Noel with his bag full of gifts. The repetition in the story invites participation, and the illustrations create a snow-filled world real enough to evoke a shiver with animals who seem closer to reality than to cutesy cartoons.

4. Santa's Stuck (2004)--Rhonda Gowler Greene, author; Henry Cole, illustrator
Some of these books are sweet, many of them have important things to say, but this one is just for fun. Santa indulges in one too many of those snacks left for him by children, and he gets stuck in the chimney when he tries to leave. The reindeer try to pull him up, the house pets try to push him up, but it takes a clever mouse and a toy bulldozer to get Santa unstuck. Our crew dissolves in giggles, no matter how many times they hear this one, and one of them always begs, “Read it again, please.”

5. The Little Shepherd Girl (2007)-- Juliann Henry, author; Jim Madsen, illustrator
Until the first grand, a beautiful little girl, was born, I never realized that among all the Christmas stories about shepherd boys and drummer boys and littlest angel (boy), it was hard to find a story about a girl. I was jubilant when I discovered this one, written by a pastor and a mother for her daughter. Sarah longs to be a shepherd, but shepherding is a job for boys. Young Sarah is encouraged to weave and bake. It’s “just the way of things,” she’s told. But Sarah is persistent, and she practices the necessary skills. One night she’s allowed to go into the field, and her first night as a shepherd is the very night that angels appear in the night sky announcing the birth of the Christ Child. This story that tells of a shepherd girl loved by both her earthly father and her heavenly one is a terrific story for girls and boys.

6. The True Gift: A Christmas Story (2009)—
Patricia MacLachlan, author; Brian Floca, illustrator
The grands start their lists for Santa in the summer, and despite their tender years (1-10), they have Decembers packed with holiday parties and dinners with family and friends, most of which involve gifts for them. It isn’t easy to teach them that the season is about what we give rather than what we get. Stories do the job better than sermons, and The True Gift makes the point wonderfully. This is a chapter book, so we read it in several sessions, giving us time to talk about Liam, who worries about the loneliness of the White Cow on his grandparents’ farm, and his sister Lily, who worries about the size of the cow that frightens her. Liam’s sacrifice of his cherished books to end the loneliness of a creature and Lily’s gradual involvement in his gift show what a true gift is. The story is lovely, sentimental without becoming cloying, and the illustrations add a wondrous visual dimension to the tale.

This is a new book, and the recommended ages are 9-12. But I’m betting that read aloud in segments, intermingled with conversation, it will appeal to our younger ones as well.

7. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1972)--Barbara Robinson
This gem of a book begins with these sentences: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse." It, too, is recommended for ages 9-12, but I’ve read it to much younger children, to teenagers, and even to a Sunday School class of women 70-85—and they have all been captivated by Robinson’s tale of the Herdmans and their response to the Christmas pageant. It’s one I’d read if I were the only audience. The Herdmans may make us laugh in horror, but they end up teaching readers as much as their neighbors what the meaning of Christmas is.

8. Letters from Father Christmas (1995)--J.R.R. Tolkien
I confess I may be cheating by including this one. None of our kids would sit still long enough to listen to all of this collection of letters the famed Tolkien wrote for his own four children over more than twenty years. But they do love listening to a single letter that recounts an engaging account of life at the North Pole where the clumsy Polar Bear climbs the North Pole and falls through the roof of Father Christmas’s house or the one in which the same bear breaks the moon into four pieces, causing the Man in the Moon to fall into the garden. And if you are a Tolkien fan—or even if you think you aren’t—you may find yourself reading the rest after the children are fast asleep.

9. The Animal’s Christmas Carol (2001)--Helen Ward
“The Friendly Beasts” is a favorite carol in our family. This book is based on the carol, and our animal-loving crew adores it. In gorgeous, detailed illustrations, not just the cow, the donkey, the dove of the original carol but also the lion, the peacock, the camels, even the lowly woodworm offer their humble gifts to the baby in the manger. We love it!

10. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (1995)—
Susan Wojciechowski, author; P.J. Lynch, illustrator

"The village children called him Mr. Gloomy. But, in fact, his name was Toomey, Mr. Jonathan Toomey. And though it's not kind to call people names, this one fit quite well. For Jonathan Toomey seldom smiled and never laughed. He went about mumbling and grumbling, muttering and sputtering, grumping and griping. He complained that the church bells rang too often, that the birds sang too shrilly, that the children played too loudly...."

Thus begins the story of tormented woodworker whose pain has isolated him and the widow and her son who request that Toomey carve for them the figures of the Nativity to replace cherished ones they have lost. This is a poignant, powerful story about the transformation of three lives. It is, on many levels, a love story. And isn’t love, on many levels, what Christmas is all about?

What are your favorite Christmas stories—or Hanukah stories or Kwanzaa stories—for children?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Leftovers and Button Boxes

Yesterday was a national feast day; today may be less celebrated but surely it qualifies as National Leftovers Day. Leftovers get a bad rap. They serve as the center of jokes, elicit groans at the family table, and carry the image of something unwanted and unappreciated. I don’t think that’s fair. At my house we’ll be eating turkey sandwiches and making turkey salad and using the last bits of turkey as the base for soup. We will enjoy all of these dishes. They will be different from the roasted turkey that was the center of my family’s Thanksgiving gathering, but the difference is not a bad thing. And I am certainly grateful that the meals based on leftovers will mean less kitchen time for me. I’ll have more time to write this weekend because meals will be easier than usual. I’ll also save a few dollars, not a negligible consideration given current grocery prices and the Christmas shopping still to do.

Food is only one kind of leftover. I grew up with two sewing grandmothers, and one thing I learned from them is to never throw away leftover bits of fabric or trim. Scraps could be used for a child’s dress, doll clothes, quilt pieces, and Christmas ornaments. And buttons were always saved. My maternal grandmother had a huge tortoise-shell box that held buttons of every description. Anytime Mama needed to replace a lost button, add a decorative touch to a new item, or attach eyes on a handmade toy, she found what she needed in her button box.

It seemed beautifully apt when one of my mentors in graduate school cautioned me against throwing away a line he suggested I cut from a poem. “Never throw anything away,” he said. “Put it in your button box. You never know when you’ll find a use for it.” His advice has proved sound more times than I can count. My first published poem was built upon a single line that came to me one day as I was looking at a broken seashell. I tried to write the poem that day, but the rest was trash. The one line went in the button box, and when I took it out months later, it became the first line of an infinitely better poem.

My button box, filled by now with hundreds of fragments of poems and stories, is a computer file rather than a tortoise-shell box. But, like my grandmother, I keep finding new uses for the leftovers. One scene I had to write but cut early from The Long Way Home I keep to publish as a webpage freebie if TLWH ever finds a publisher. A drabble that proved too long for an EJ/JQ board Christmas anthology went in the button box and later served as a dream scene in my current project. A quick description of a scene I saw as I was driving one day will be the opening scene in my next writing project. I don’t know yet what I’ll keep and what I’ll cut from my NaNoWriMo words, but I’m sure my button box will have some additions from my November noodlings. Among them may be the seeds of an as yet undreamt of work.

Are you having leftovers today? Do you have any turkey recipes you’d like to share? Do you have a button box—real or metaphoric?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Reader's/Writer’s Gratitude List (in alphabetical order because no way could I rank them)

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a lovely, eleven-line poem called “Pied Beauty” that begins “Glory be to God for dappled things.” The speaker goes on to offer praise for the freckled, speckled beauty in the created world. I always read this Hopkins poem during the Thanksgiving season. It reminds me to be more attentive to all that is praiseworthy in my world. While I will certainly offer thanksgiving for big things—friends, family, faith—and small ones—a single, perfect, golden leaf, the curve of a baby’s plump cheek, the sound of rain at night—I will also give thanks for bookly things, and that will include the fun of coining a word like “bookly” when it suits my purpose.

So for Thanksgiving 2009, my bookly gratitude list includes the following:

1. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
I read lots of books on the craft of writing, and I have found useful tidbits in nearly everyone I’ve read. But my favorite continues to be this book by Anne Lamott. It’s wise and funny, and Lamott’s voice makes me feel that she’s someone I’d love to have lunch with. I’m thankful she wrote this book, and I’m thankful that I have all these pithy quotations from the book that I can copy and stick all over my desk. It’s as if she knew exactly what I most needed to hear.

I worry about whether my plotting is an irredeemable flaw, and Lamott says, “Plot grows out of character…. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are… The development of relationship creates plot.” I battle perfectionism, and Lamott says, “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I'm sure) forget to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here - and, by extension, what we're supposed to be writing.” I wonder if writing is too important to me, and Lamott says, “Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong."

2. Books on my keeper shelves
I have a couple of thousand keepers that I have collected over the years—mysteries, poetry, women’s fiction, and literary fiction as well as lots and lots of romances. The oldest ones belonged to my mother; others date from my childhood. These are books that I return to again and again, sometimes to reread in their entirety and sometimes to reread favorite passages. They make me laugh and weep and grow and remember. They hold within their pages pieces of the person I was when I first encountered them—the ten-year-old exhilarated and terrified by the idea of growing up, the twenty-something consumed with grief and finding healing in worlds that offered happy endings, the graduate student seeking escape from the “storm and stress” of literary studies.

3. Friends Who Are Fellow Aspiring Writers
When I feel that everything I’ve written is crap, when I want to shelter my progeny from the blasts of rejection, when an agent’s blog convinces me that in the current climate publication is an unattainable dream, I have friends who zap my self-pity, cheer for my word count, challenge me to send my offspring into the world, and give me the courage to get up again when I stumble. Each shares my dream of producing a publishable novel and battles the same demons that plague me. They inspire me and sustain me. I am immeasurably grateful for them individually and collectively.

4. Friends, Newly or About-to-be Published
This year had been filled with joy and excitement as friends have shared various stages of their journey to publication and beyond. Scarcely a week has gone by that has been unmarked by squees and virtual toasts to first sales, first covers, first Amazon listing, first reviews, and first sightings in bookstores. Four times I held in my hand a book I bought at a favorite bookstore that I had been given the privilege of seeing move from drafts to finished book. My jubilation was so great that I, shy sally though I be, buttonholed total strangers and persuaded them that they owed themselves the delight offered by these books. I’m grateful for each of these experiences, and I look forward to at least five repetitions in 2010.

5. Generosity of authors
I never cease to be amazed at the generosity of established romance writers to unknowns. I’ve had emails that left me smiling foolishly at my computer screen, rendered speechless by the thoughtfulness of authors who have taken the time to praise a blog, offer to talk about my writing, or speak of my publication as a matter of when rather than if. These emails replenish my hope and determination, and inspire renewed gratitude to the authors with every rereading.

6. More contemporary romances
Probably 70% of the romance novels I read are historical. I’d love to read more contemporary romances, but except for romantic suspense and erotica—not my favorite subgenres—contemporaries have been in short supply. But this year has given me wonderful contemporary reads by long-time favorites and new voices. I’m one grateful reader.

7. Libraries
My book budget is inadequate for the list of books I long to read, but thanks to my public library I get to read everything on my list. If I discover an OOP back title of a paperback romance that’s selling for $103 on, I can usually find a copy via my library. I have access not only to books on the shelves of my local library but to 9.6 million books on library shelves across the state,any one of which I can have delivered to my local library for me to pick up. Add to this bounty the more than 3 million volumes plus countless electronic copies available through my university library, which allows me to check out books for three months plus renewals, and the wonders of ILL and the resources are vast indeed. My gratitude is boundless.

8. Online romance community
The online romance community is huge and diverse. A quick google of the term offers 106,000 sites. I’m grateful for that larger community because it’s evidence of how large the romance umbrella is and how active romance readers are. But my greater gratitude is for my particular online community—the people I meet here at Just Janga and on the boards and other blogs I frequent, people who love the books I love (usually), read my raves and rants, make me laugh with their witty quips and bawdy humor, impress me with their intelligence and insight, and just generally make my world bigger, brighter, and better.

9. UBS
I’ve heard the arguments about the evils of the UBS, but I don’t buy them. I love my local UBS and I love the one in my university town even more. They make it possible for me to try new-to-me-authors upon whose books I am not yet willing to risk $, they allow me to fill in gaps in series that I start late, and the proprietors and their clerks are far more romance friendly than most of the new book venues around here. Probably half of my autobuy authors were first UBS finds. I’m so grateful they exist that the day after Thanksgiving when crowds are caught up in a shopping frenzy I plan to be leisurely wandering the aisles of mu local UBS.

10. Writers who keep writing
I’ve lost count of how many Nora Roberts books line my keeper shelves. I only know that I loved the most recent, Bed of Roses, as much as I loved the first one I read, All the Possibilities (1985). I grew misty-eyed this week as I finished To Love a Wicked Lord, knowing that it was the last Edith Layton book I’d read after more than two decades of reading her work. My Mary Balogh collection begins with A Masked Deception (1985) and ends with Seducing an Angel (2009). On shelves filled with books by Elizabeth Bevarly, Jo Beverley, Connie Brockway, Robyn Carr, Loretta Chase, Christina Dodd, Anne Gracie, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, Teresa Medeiros, Mary Jo Putney, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, and many others, tattered copies and shiny new covers coexist, mute testimony to my history with these authors. I love discovering new authors, and I am grateful for them; but my thanksgiving song is more fervent for those writers who after five years or ten or twenty-five are still giving me reasons to be glad I am a reader.

What about you, my reader and writer friends? What bookly things are on your gratitude list?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Are you all too young to remember that old Neil Sedaka hit from the 60s? Maybe you remember one of the covers. Everybody from Freddy Fender to Ruben Studdard on American Idol has sung it. The song’s been on my mental playlist recently because I’m party to a breakup. In fact, you might say that I’m the god of this breakup. The heroine of my NaNoWriMo book breaks up with her husband of five years. Theirs is not a highly emotional break up. It’s more becalmed sea than roaring tempest.

Still, goodbyes are never easy. I’ve found that they are not easy for the writer either, at least not for this writer. I wanted to show a relationship ending between two people who loved one another but had never been in love with one another. One is moving on to a new life; one fears she has nothing to move toward.

I didn’t capture what I wanted, but since NaNo is not about revision but about meeting goals, I succeeded in capturing 707 more words towards my goal of 50,000 (current total: 18,830). This scene and I have some major breaking up to do, but that’s for the future when I start revisions. Right now I still have 31,170 words to go on this #@%**& first draft, which seems more foully excremental with every reading. Wish me luck.

The First Draft of the Scene:

“Broken.” The sound of her own voice jerked Saja Hamilton from sleep. She pressed her hands tightly against her head. Why after all this time were old memories invading her dreams? The dull headache that had sent her to bed early was now steady hammer blows of pain. She weighed the relief a pill would bring against the worry she would see in Ben’s eyes. A particularly vicious blow above her left eye made the decision for her. Muttering obscenities in four languages, she staggered toward the door.

Ben was sitting at his desk staring at the telephone. The distant look in his eyes changed to concern when she entered the room. Without saying a word, he pushed her gently into a chair and flicked off the overhead light. Saja closed her eyes, feeling her heart keep pace with the waves of pain.

“Here.” Ben’s words were brisk, but his look was troubled as he handed her a glass of water and a pill.

She waited for the medicine to do its work. The silence was strangely soothing, devoid of the tension that had filled all the silences in this apartment in the three months she and Ben had shared the space as exes who couldn’t quite exit. She had almost dozed off when he spoke.

“I talked to Vic. Dad’s ill again.” He paused. “He asked about me. He wants to see me. She thinks he’s ready for a reconciliation.”

“He knows he almost lost the chance for one. You’re leaving.”

Saja’s words were a statement, not a question, but Ben chose to respond as though she had asked about his plans.

“Yes, I promised Vic I’d be home this week. She’s been patient.”

“So you and your Victoria are planning a summer wedding.”

“We hope to.”

“Be happy, Ben. Saja’s voice was suddenly fierce. “I do want you to be happy.”

“I will be. I’m ready to go home. Maybe it’s selfish, but I find I want the life I turned my back on years ago. Marriage to Vic, practice with my father, golf on Saturdays, church on Sundays.”

“And a child?”

“Maybe. Vic’s still young enough, or we may adopt. Vic’s brother and his wife have two daughters born in China.”

“Life in Chesney, Ohio. You once said you’d never go back.”

“I’m not going ‘back.’ I’m going home, but I know I’m not the same man who left Chesney seventeen years ago. The town’s not the same either, or the people I left there. But the connections are still in place. I can go home. You can too.”

“I don’t think so. It’s different for me. You have Vic and your father and a practice you’ll find rewarding, even if it’s a little dull.” Saja added the last bit with a twisted smile.

“You have people who love you.”

“But no one is waiting for me. An empty house and good friends who have full lives without me. Gentry’s not for me. I haven’t given up hope of talking Hammersmith into letting me return to DOM.”

“I hope you won’t succeed. I’m afraid you’ve used up all your extra lives, little cat. There’s a lot you can do for DOM here in the states, and there are children who need your skills here too.” Ben caught her hands with his and raised them to kiss her fingers. “I want you to be happy too. I do love you.”

“I believe you. Life would have been simpler if we had been honest enough to admit that we were meant to be friends, not lovers.”

“I can’t regret the comfort we found in each other when the world seemed comfortless.”

“Comfort’s not enough. Not when your heart belonged to someone else.”

“So did yours.”

“Maybe. But he was not as faithful to old vows as your Vic.”

“You left him without a word, sent his letters back unopened, refused to see him when he flew to Crete.”

“We fought all the time. I didn’t see any way to compromise when we wanted such different lives.”

“Well, if not Brody, there’s someone else for you. Just don’t close your heart to possibilities.”

Saja squeezed his hands without replying. She was making no more promises she couldn’t keep.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo 2009? Have you ever written a breakup scene or a #@%**& first draft? Have you ever read a breakup that you found particularly memorable?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dizzy . . .

Dizzy, I’m so dizzy my head is spinning;
Like a whirlpool it never ends.

Tommy Roe is singing my theme song today. Only unfortunately my vertigo is the result of an inner ear infection rather than love. I can’t stay on the computer long enough to type and post this week’s blog. It will go up late--Friday, or maybe Saturday. Check back then.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Connecting for Comfort

Among my fondest childhood memories are days, usually in winter, when I was just sick enough that my mother thought I should be kept home from school. The feeling of absolute comfort would start with my mother’s hand on my forehead and then her words, “I think you’d better stay home today.” Oh the joy of settling back in a warm bed and dozing for another hour or so, knowing that the day held TLC in the form of ginger ale and chicken soup and orders to “just take it easy and I’ll bring you a book.” A stuffy head might make me miserable for a bit or I might recall that I was missing showing off in a spelling bee or giggling at lunchtime with my BFF, but those were small sacrifices when weighed against hours of coddling and of losing myself in my favorite, familiar fictional worlds.

All these years later, when I hear the term “comfort read,” it is these memories I recall, and the books I consider comfort reads today are the ones that provide me with the same feelings of safety, warmth, and escape from temporary miseries that my mother and my childhood favorites offered then. Barbara Vey understands my idea of comfort reads. She once blogged about her own reading when she was feeling ill and out of sorts: “For me, the comfort book is all about spending time with characters I've grown to love and enjoy being around, even when I'm not fit for social situations.”

So when All About Romance announced they were polling for favorite comfort reads (along with favorite hanky reads and favorite holiday reads), I gave careful thoughts to the books I turn to when I need to forget the stress and strife that upon occasion overwhelms me.

Comfort reads and favorite reads are not synonymous, although they may overlap. For instance, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I expect when I next list my all-time top 100 romances that it will be on the list. But I would never consider it a comfort read. The same is true of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, Barbara Samuel’s No Place Like Home, and Carla Kelly’s Reforming Lord Ragsdale. These are all books I cherish, books I reread, but they are too emotionally wrenching to be comfort reads.

My comfort reads are not light reads, although many of them contain humor, but they are books in which hope is a steady presence, redemption—however it is defined for the particular book—is in process, and the happy resolution is never in doubt. They are books that remind me of simple pleasures, essential goodness, and subtle strengths. They are books that are heavy with memories of other readings. Rereading them is effortless, the way conversation with old friends whose company demands no pretenses or defenses is effortless.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I found it nearly impossible to limit my list to ten. Twenty-five would have been easier. After all, I have been reading a long time, and my keepers are in the four digits. But I persisted. I weighed choices, turned pages, reread passages, and finally settled on my ten favorite comfort reads. I had to rank them when I sent my AAR ballot, but since the ranking is subject to change at any moment, I present them here in alphabetical order by author.

1. Simply Love, Mary Balogh
I fell in love with the character of Sydnam Butler when I read A Summer to Remember and hoped then that Balogh would give him a happy ending. I had to wait through seven books (not a hardship when reading Balogh), but I did get the story I wanted. I wanted it badly enough to buy it in hardcover too.

Simply Love is the kind of story I love best. It’s all about character and internal conflict. Both Sydnam and his heroine, Anne Jewell, have torturous pasts, but they are not defined by those pasts. Each has built a life that has meaning and purpose. Together they create a life that is freer and richer than their separate lives, a life in which reconciliation takes place, impossible dreams are realized, and love—romantic and familial—is triumphant.

2. Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase
What is left to say about this book so beloved by readers that it ranks at or near the top of almost every list of all-time favorites? Like Simply Love, it’s a beauty and the beast story, a theme that I adore. It combines easy humor and emotional punch. It has a hero who captures my heart early in the story and a heroine who is one of the best ever created IMO. She is strong, intelligent, and sensually aware despite her lack of experience. Their exchanges exemplify what great banter is.

And I would love the book for this scene alone:

With the world securely in order, Dain was able to devote the leisurely bath time to editing his mental dictionary. He removed his wife from the general category labeled "Females" and gave her a section of her own. He made a note that she didn't find him revolting, and proposed several explanations: (a) bad eyesight and faulty hearing, (b) a defect in a portion of her otherwise sound intellect, (c) an inherited Trent eccentricity, or (d) an act of God. Since the Almighty had not done him a single act of kindness in at least twenty-five years, Dain thought it was about bloody time, but he thanked his Heavenly Father all the same, and promised to be as good as he was capable of being.

3. Frederica, Georgette Heyer
I classify all the Heyers I love as comfort reads. With the exception of An Infamous Army, they are easy, pleasurable reads filled with moments that linger in the memory and bring a smile. But Frederica is the one I turn to most frequently when my spirits need a lift. Both the love story and the family dynamics delight me. Rereading this one is as warming and reassuring as a hug.

4. Pleasure for Pleasure, Eloisa James
Since I met many of you on Eloisa James’s bulletin board, you know that I am a huge fan of her books. Even the couple of books that feature a character I don’t like are keepers for me because other qualities redeem them.. I think A Duke of Her Own is her best book, Rafe is my favorite of her heroes, but none of the other books can match the emotional investment I have in PFP. I even wrote an essay about all the reasons I was sure Mayne and Josie would end up together, and I can vividly recall the excitement of getting an ARC (my first one), ripping the package open, and reading the ending by the interior light of my car. Just thinking about Mayne in that pink dress, the garden scene, the consummation scene, and others makes me laugh or sigh with satisfaction.

5. Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand, Carla Kelly
Carla Kelly is a genius at creating characters I feel as if I might have known had I lived in Regency times, characters who are not movers and shakers, but who have a core of goodness and honesty, although they are not without faults. Roxanna Drew and Fletcher Rand are such characters. Mrs. Drew is a widow who genuinely grieves for her husband, a clergyman who is remembered in such loving detail by his wife and children that the reader knows him as well as she knows the characters in the book’s present. Fletch, another of Kelly’s military/ex-military heroes, is unusual in that he is being punished by his world for having divorced a faithless wife rather than accommodating her infidelities. He is also a lonely man with a great capacity for love. The two come together in a marriage of convenience that turns into a romance and a family story. Reading this book reaffirms my faith in people and in the romance genre.

6. Dreaming of You, Lisa Kleypas
This is another of those perennial favorite romances that shows up on most all-time best romances lists. Lisa Kleypas is the queen of the creators of the self-made hero, and Derek Craven gets my vote for the most unforgettable in a memorable group. Derek and Sara are opposites--a child of the streets who has used brains, brawn, and daring to achieve wealth and power and a sheltered innocent. But both are more than they seem. He is truly a romantic hero, not just a sexy one, capable of words and actions that melt the heart. Beneath a proper exterior, Sara is an intelligent, passionate woman who knows what she wants. And while Kleypas writes sizzling love scenes, she also knows the value of creating and increasing sexual tension.

7. Shattered Rainbows, Mary Jo Putney
Integrity is an old-fashioned word; some would say an old-fashioned concept in the 21st century, but it’s a word that comes to mind when I consider this book. Catherine and Michael are both characters who refuse to compromise their honor. Catherine is a nurturer who gives loyalty to her charming but weak husband, devotion to her young daughter, solid friendship to a few, and compassion to the deserving and undeserving. Michael is a man consumed with guilt over a past betrayal and determined to live the remainder of his life with honor, regardless of temptation. The two belong together, but their journey to an HEA is a difficult, dangerous one. The scene in which their intimacy finally encompasses the physical as well as the emotional is worth waiting for. It’s my favorite love scene.

Integrity is also an apt word for this author who stints on neither the history nor the romance in this near-perfect historical romance. The depiction of military life, the details of the Battle of Waterloo and its aftermath, the practice of medicine in horrific conditions, and the insularity of life on the island of Skoal are vividly and powerfully rendered.

8. For Now, Forever, Nora Roberts
I love Nora Roberts’s fictional families. I visit the MacKades, Stanislaskis, O’Hurleys, Quinns, Concannons, etc. regularly, but I am fondest of the MacGregors. First, I have known them longest. All the Possibilities (MacGregor #3) was my first Roberts book in 1985, and I fell in love with the managing, matchmaking patriarch of the clan in that first book. For Now, Forever is the story of Daniel MacGregor and his beloved Anna.

The book begins in the present with patriarch Daniel MacGregor in the hospital and his wife, Dr. Anna Whitfield MacGregor, at his side. The story then moves backward to the first meeting of a brash, young Scotsman well on his way to building a financial empire and the surprisingly rebellious daughter of prominent and proper Bostonians. The story of their courtship includes the things they must learn about themselves and one another. Anna’s struggles to become a doctor at a time when few women entered the profession, her rejection of her parents’ rigid standards, and her determination that Daniel allow her to be true to her own dream make this story an unforgettable example of all a gifted writer can accomplish within the limits of a category romance.

9. Till the Stars Fall, Kathleen Gilles Seidel
I don’t use the word “perfect” lightly, but for me this is the perfect contemporary romance. The heroine and hero are multi-dimensional characters—strong, creative, intelligent, vulnerable, and deeply human. The reader understands how the pieces of their separate and shared pasts have made them into the adults they are. The setting, both place (Minnesota, Princeton, concert circuit, Washington, D. C.) and time (1970s, 1990s), are integral to the story. The story itself with all the layered relationships is compelling, and Seidel’s use of reviews, interviews, and retrospectives of Dodd Hall give the reader both exterior and interior views of the band’s history.

The prose is pitch perfect; the voice is endlessly appealing. I saw a used copy of TTSF offered for sale online. The price was over $50. I wouldn’t sell my copy for that because I consider it priceless.

10. In the Midnight Rain, Ruth Wind
I wish Pine Bend, Texas were real. I’d love to talk writing with Ellie, check out Blue’s orchids, and listen to music with them both in companionable silence. I’d love to meet all the other Pine Bend characters too. I’d laugh at their jokes, listen with interest to their stories, and congratulate them on their town. Ellie and Blue are characters who have known loss, but they become strong at the broken places. Their lives, indeed all of this book, from the wonderful title to the final scene, are like a good blues song—slow, smooth, sad, but with redemption at hand. And just like a favorite piece of music, each experience with it intensifies the pleasure it offers.

What are your favorite comfort reads? Have you voted in the AAR poll? If not, you still have time to do so.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Delicacies to Delight: The Books of Eva Ibbotson

I have a deep affection for quiet books that are character-driven and invite me into a world where the extraordinariness of the ordinary is revealed, books that use language in such marvelous ways that I am forced to stop and read passages again and again to ponder the images and to delight in the rhythm. I have had such an experience this week. I have been rereading Eva Ibbotson.

Ibbotson said in a June 2009 interview with Anne Gracie at Word Wenches that she wanted to write “the kind of book I wanted to read myself when I had the flu.” I think she succeeds admirably. Reading one of her books for children, I become a child again and enter a world where magic is deliciously real and good can be depended upon to keep the darkness at bay. Reading one of her romances, I find magic of a different sort—a physical world rendered in such detail that I can hear the raindrops and see the faces of the flowers and an emotional world in which indifference and hatred loom large but never so large that love cannot insure a happy ending.

I discovered Ibbotson through her children’s books. I read Which Witch? to my nephews and enjoyed it even more than they did. We had such fun reading about Arriman the Awful whose boredom with all his evil doings prompt his search for a wife and Belladonna, the youngest witch whose best efforts to be a suitable bride and a dark witch only produce flowers. The boys grew up and started reading John Grisham and Stephen King, but I kept reading Ibbotson. I love them all: Dial-a-Ghost with its erroneously matched ghosts and loathsome villains, Fulton and Frieda Snodde-Brittle; Island of the Aunts with its eccentric, kidnapping aunts, its wondrous collection of creatures--real and mythical, and its environmental message clothed in fantasy; The Great Ghost Rescue with its homeless ghosts displaced by commercial development and its young hero who has a heart for all endangered species, ectoplasmic or otherwise.

But my favorite is The Secret of Platform 13. The kidnapping here is much less benign than in The Island of Aunts. Nine years before the story opens the baby prince of a magical island is kidnapped by wealthy, small-spirited Mrs. Trottle when his nurses take him to London through a portal called a “gump” located under platform 13 in a railway station. Nine sad years pass, and the gump, open for nine days every nine years, once again allows passage to London. The time has come to rescue the prince. The rescue team, a motley crew made up of an ancient wizard, a fey, a mostly invisible, yodeling ogre, and a young hag named Odge, rescue their prince and the kitchen boy Ben. Nine years of overindulgence have made the prince a selfish, spoiled brat. If only the endearing Ben were the prince, and therein lies the tale . . .

Part of the joy of reading Ibbotson is the details she includes. She describes Aunt Etta in Island of the Aunts as “a tall, bony woman who did fifty press-ups before breakfast and had a small but not at all unpleasant mustache on her upper lip." The evil Mrs. Trottle in The Secret of Platform 13 wears a perfume called “Maneater,” and the mists that protect the magical island emanate from the mouths of mystical sea creatures who respond to music by producing mists. This same richness characterizes Ibbotson’s romance novels as well. If the children’s books are fantasies rendered real by detail and dialogue, the romance novels are stories set in the real world of wars and want transformed into fairy tales by Ibbotson’s humor and happy endings.

A Countess Below Stairs (1981), renamed The Secret Countess when it was republished for the YA market in 2007, is the story of Anna Grazensky, a Russian aristocrat who loses her privileged life in the Revolution. With the help of her English governess, she, her mother, and younger brother escape to England. Anna accepts help with her brother’s schooling, but she is determined to make her own way. In post-World War I England, jobs are scarce, and the only one Anna can find is the position of maid at Mersham, the estate of Rupert, Earl of Westerholme. With the 2000+ pages of The Domestic Servants Compendium, a book she is convinced will tell her “everything,” in hand, Anna leaves for Mersham.

The Cinderella connections are strong: Anna is awesomely good, Rupert is staunchly honorable, and the evil stepsisters are replaced with an evil fiancĂ©e, wealthy and beautiful but with a repulsive world view. But this is more than a fairy tale. Although good, Anna is, as the butler Proom declares, never boring. The effects of war on Rupert’s world are not glossed over:

More than most great houses, Mersham had given its life’s blood to the Kaiser’s war. Upstairs it had taken Lord George, the heir, who fell at Ypres six months after his father, the sixth earl, succumbed to a second heart attack. Below stairs it had drained away almost every able-bodied man and few of those who left were destined to return. A groom had fallen on the Somme, an under-gardener at Jutland; the hall boy, who had lied about his age, was blown up at Verdun a week before his eighteenth birthday.

Magic Flutes (1982), renamed The Reluctant Heiress in the YA edition, is another tale of an unconventional aristocrat. The setting is 1920s Austria after the war, and Princess Theresa-Maria of Pfaffenstein, known as Tessa, has forsaken her lofty role to devote herself to a rag-tag opera company, even to the point of sacrificing her beautiful hair to make a wig for the diva. Guy Farne’s journey is a reversal of Tessa’s. From his beginnings as an abandoned, nameless baby, Guy has become an influential industrialist wealthy enough to buy Schloss Pfaffenstein, Tessa’s family castle. Could there be a more unlikely pair? Yet from their first meeting to their shared love of Vienna and the music that permeates the story, the reader falls in love with these two characters as they fall in love with one another. Tessa and Guy are admirably supported by an astonishing number of secondary characters, each one a multi-dimensional creation. This is my favorite of the romances. I was enchanted from the moment I read these words in the prologue:

Certainly it would seem to need the magic of star lore to link the life of the tiny,
dark-eyed Austrian princess--born in a famous castle and burdened, in the presence of the Emperor Franz Joseph, with a dozen sonorous Christian names--with that of the abandoned, gray-blanketed bundle found on the quayside of a grim, industrial English town: a bundle opened to reveal a day-old, naked, furiously screaming baby boy.

Ibbotson followed Magic Flutes with A Company of Swans (1985), an Edwardian romance that opens in Cambridge, England and follows its ballerina heroine to Brazil where she meets Rom Verney, a wealthy adventurer, and Madensky Square (1988), an atypical romance featuring a Viennese dress-shop owner, her customers, her neighbors and friends, and her lover, the married Field Marshal Gernot von Lindenberg. Although the ending of the latter is as unconventional as its heroine, Ibbotson’s gift for making a place and its people come to life is unfaltering.

The Morning Gift (1993), my most recent Ibbotson reread, is the most clearly autobiographical of the author’s novels. Born in Austria in 1925, Ibbotson lived in Vienna until she was eight. Her father, a scientist, who was “technically Jewish,” secured a job in Scotland before Hitler took power, and Eva ended up in London. She recalled those days in a newspaper article (one that includes a heartwarming, real life love story):

We came to London in 1934, a bedraggled party consisting of my fey, poetic mother, my irascible grandmother and confused aunt, and rented rooms in a dilapidated house in Belsize Park which, in those days, was a seedy, run-down part of the city. The house was full of suddenly impoverished refugees facing exile. On every floor were lonely and muddled professors, doctors and lawyers, mostly from German-speaking countries.

This world is the world of The Morning Gift. The well-to-do Berger family flees Vienna for London in the early days of Nazi power in Austria. They think their daughter Ruth is already in England, but she is caught in Austria, hiding in her father’s office. Quin Sommerville, a renowned British scientist and a one-time colleague of her father, finds her and persuades into a marriage of convenience that will give Ruth British citizenship and allow her to leave Austria. The plan is to keep the marriage secret and annul it once Ruth is safely in England. Of course, the plan goes agley due to complications--legal and emotional. The love story is predictable, but Ruth and Quin are distinctly drawn characters, much beloved within the novel and within the heart of the reader. The courage of the emigrants struggling to rebuild their lives and the shadow of World War II looming ground the novel in the real world.

A Song for Summer (1997) is the darkest of Ibbotson’s romances, but it begins with humor. Ellen Carr, brought up by a feminist mother and two aunts and the recipient of the best education available for a young woman of her time, wants to attend Domestic Science College. Ellen accepts a position at Hallendorf, an Austrian boarding school "specializing in Music, Drama, and the Dance." She arrives to find the progressive school filled with wild children, eccentric faculty, and a world clearly in need of her good sense and order. In one laugh-out-loud scene, Ellen meets the infant daughter of a “Ph.D. in Dramatic Movement”:

"That's her Natural Daughter. She's called Andromeda. Hermine got her at a conference but no one knows who the father is."

"I didn't see any nappies," said Ellen.

"She doesn't wear any," Sophie explained. "She's a self-regulating baby."

"What a good thing I like to be busy," said Ellen,“ for I can see that there's going to be a lot to do."

In contrast, there is the mysterious Marek, part-time groundskeeper and fencing teacher, who proves to be Marek Altenburg, musical genius and gifted composer-conductor, who is smuggling Jewish musicians out of Germany. The tale grows grimmer when Hitler invades, but the young lovers achieve their happy ending even in a world where war can shatter lives. A Song for Summer has often been compared to The Sound of Music.

One of my grandmother’s special dishes was a chocolate pie, rich and sweet and nourishing. Eating a piece of Mama’s pie was a totally satisfying experience, a feast for the senses and a gift to be remembered. Reading Ibbotson reminds me of Mama’s pie. I’m not the only reader who compares Ibbotson’s books to food. Janine of Dear Author says in a review of A Countess Below Stairs, that her “books are the meringue kisses of romance novels: simple and sophisticated at once; rich and sweet and awfully charming.” LFL, a reviewer for AAR, calls Madensky Square a “true confection” and terms Ibbotson’s writing “so rich that it melts in your mouth.” And Angie of Angieville declares, “Opening up an Eva Ibbotson book is like biting into a hot biscuit smothered with butter and jam--at once perfectly satisfying and extremely comforting.”

If your taste runs only to romances with sizzling love scenes and convoluted plots, Ibbotson is unlikely to appeal to you. But if you have a taste for stories that are sweet but never saccharine, worlds peopled by characters who move you to laughter and tears, and prose that delights the mind and the heart, you’ll be another Ibbotson convert. You’ll find your own food metaphors for the books of Eva Ibbotson.

Are you an Ibbotson fan? What's your favorite?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rambling On . . .

I had planned to blog on Eva Ibbotson today, but the weather interfered. I know that claim sounds absurd, but it’s true, honest. You see, cold weather has come to Georgia. Usually in October average temperatures in my hometown fall in the mid-70s, with lows in the low 50s. But this year somebody has stolen our Indian summer. I thought I had until the end of the month to exchange short-sleeved tops and cotton skirts and dresses for long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, and wool. But we’ve already switched from air conditioning to heat and put blankets on the beds, and I’ve been freezing in thin tees and jeans. So yesterday and today I have made the great wardrobe switch. Summer clothes are packed away, and my closet and chest are filled with darker colors and heavier fabrics.

While I was in domestic mode, I decided to clean off my desk and reorganize my bookshelves, both monumental tasks that required wrenching decisions such as whether I had any use for a four-month collection of library lists and which books to prune to make room for the new keepers. All this activity left me little time to complete my Ibbotson blog. It will have to wait for next week or perhaps the one following. I felt like a failure when I thought I would go blogless this Thursday, but then I had an epiphany. I could blog about my nightstand.

Caught in the power of my semi-annual cleaning frenzy, I also cleaned off my nightstand, a chore almost as demanding as cleaning off my desk. The top of said nightstand stays relatively neat because it is mostly utilitarian. It reveals little. At all times it holds a lamp, a clock, a box of Kleenex, a bottle of water, a glass case, a small notebook, a couple of pens, and the current bedtime book—all items that could belong to a busy mother, a businesswoman, a waitress, or a dozen other women. The flowers on lamp, clock, glass case, and notebook do suggest they are the property of a woman.

But the under shelf—ah, the tales it tells. Even after the cleaning, it holds twelve books, two of them hardbacks, a stack of CDs, and a white wicker basket with a blue and yellow lining. The basket is overflowing with stuff-an angel wing shell, a tube of lip gloss, a small orange bunny named Flannery, a paperback dictionary, a gift book of angel quotations, a book journal, a half dozen bookmarks, a handmade birthday card signed in large letters by my favorite pair of brothers (ages 5 and almost 8), a notebook with my latest efforts at rewriting a key section of my first ms, and another notebook filled with preliminary info about the novel I’m hoping to draft next month for NaNoWriMo. The books include The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, a battered copy of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, John Stott’s The Beatitudes, Stephanie Barron’s The White Garden, Eva Ibbotson’s Island of the Aunts, and seven recently-read or about-to-be-read romance paperbacks—a mix of historical and categories—with Jo Beverley’s reissued Lord Wraybourne’s Betrothed on top. The CDs are a mix of country, classical, Southern gospel, and just-for-me collections created by four of my fellow Bon Bons. Each item tells something about the person I am—the reader, the writer, the music lover, the Christian, the sentimentalist, the packrat.

What’s on your nightstand? Is it strictly utilitarian? Or does it hold clues to the person you are?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hurray! An Award!

Renee Lynn Scott at Unlocking History Through Romance was kind enough to give Just Janga a Neno Award last week. Since this blog is not quite three months old, I’m especially delighted to receive the award. Thank you, Renee!

Neno’s Award—-Rules and Regulations

1. A dedication for those who love blogging and love to encourage friendships through blogging.

2. Purpose: To seek the reasons why we all love blogging.

3. Put the award in one post as soon as you receive it.

4. Don’t forget to mention the person who gives you the award.

5. Answer the award’s question by writing the reason why you love blogging.

6. Tag and distribute the award to as many people as you like.

7. Don’t forget to notify the award receivers and put their links in your post.

Why I Love Blogging:

I love talking about books I love. I love sharing my struggles as a yet-to-be-published romance writer. I love the connections I make with interesting, intelligent people who share my interest in romance fiction. I love the opportunity to subvert my introverted self in an extroverted (semi, at least) persona. For all these reasons, I love blogging.

I’m tagging three of those interesting, intelligent people I mentioned to receive the Neno Award: MsHellion at Cheeky Wench’s Tavern, Maggie at Maggie Robinson Reads Romance, and Sabrina at Cheeky Reads.

Thanks again, Renee!

I'll be back tomorrow with my regular Thursday blog.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Anthology Appreciation Week

I’m writing this on Monday, not my favorite day of the week. I always think there should be a day between the end of the weekend and the start of the new week, a low-key day that makes little demands. Maybe then I would like Mondays better. It’s also raining today, and the song running through my head is an old one—“Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters.

Talkin' to myself and feelin' old,
Sometimes I'd like to quit.
Nothing ever seems to fit,
Hangin' around,
Nothing to do but frown.
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.

One thing that can raise my spirit on a Monday and a rainy day is a good book. Today I’m rereading the repackaged edition of Scottish Brides, a 1999 anthology featuring novellas by Christina Dodd, Stephanie Laurens, Karen Ranney, and Julia Quinn. My rereading has reminded me of how much I love anthologies. I hate piecemeal reading, but usually I’m forced into it. I don’t often have the luxury of the free hours it would take to read a book at one sitting. But I can read a novella in an hour or less and enjoy that satisfying feeling of having finished a good read. An added benefit is the occasional delight of discovering a new-to-me author whose voice I love.

Scottish Brides is such a delight that it set me to thinking about my favorite anthologies. Could I choose seven favorites, one for each day of a private observance of Anthology Appreciation Week? After checking my catalog of keepers, I decided that I could do so only if I imposed some limits.

No Christmas anthologies allowed on the list. I have so many Christmas favorites that they belong in a separate category.

No single-author anthologies allowed. Their keeper status was determined by a different criterion than multiple-author collections. This decision eliminates Here’s to the Ladies, a Carla Kelly collection of American frontier army stories that is a jewel.

No anthologies that are on the keeper shelf on the basis of a single story. These may merit the designation “favorite novella,” but they do not qualify as a favorite anthology. I strike Talk of the Ton and The One That Got Away with beloved stories by Eloisa James, Secrets of a Perfect Night with Rachel Gibson’s “Now and Forever,” which may be my favorite contemporary novella ever, and In Praise of Younger Men with Jo Beverley’s dark and steamy “The Demon’s Mistress.”

No short story collections permitted, only novellas. Now I cut collections by Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason, and the Mossy Creek stories.

I’m left with a more manageable list that, with difficulty, I cut to my top seven anthologies plus one honorable mention. These are the anthologies I reread most often, the ones that mix authors I love with new discoveries, the ones that include multiple novellas that entertain, delight, and move me. These are the anthologies that I find most deserving of celebration during this self-proclaimed Anthology Appreciation Week.

1. Irresistible Forces
Irresistible Forces is an anthology of SF/Fantasy romances that I bought solely for the stories by Putney and Beverley, both long-time autobuy authors for me. It is my #1 favorite anthology because I enjoyed every story in it, and it made me a fan of such blended genre tales. I expected to love the stories by Beverley and Putney, and I did. MJP’s contribution, “The Alchemical Marriage,” is an Elizabethan-set story with a Spanish Armada connection. It also serves as a sort of prequel for her Guardian books. Jo Bev’s “The Trouble with Heroes” is a layered piece filled with humor, pathos, philosophy, and politics. The themes of sacrifice and honor will be familiar ones to readers of her romance novels. My only quibble is that I wanted it to be longer.

I had heard friends rave about Bujold’s Vorkosigan tales, but since I almost never read science fiction, I doubt that I would ever have read them had I not read “Winterfair Gifts” and realized that Bujold was writing about relationships. And Catherine Asaro’s “Stained Glass Heart,” one of my favorite novellas ever, includes such beloved romance tropes as arranged marriage and lovers who were childhood friends. It has an innocence and joy that fills me with delight just remembering it. Deb Stover’s “Skin Deep” is an angel story that is great fun to read and left me thinking someone should turn it into a movie; Jennifer Roberson’s “Shadows in the Wood,” the shortest in the anthology, is a Robin Hood tale in which Merlin and Arthur’s sword Excalibur figure.

2. The Further Observations of Lady Whistledown
Like most Julia Quinn fans, I love Lady Whistledown, and I think the LW anthologies were a brilliant idea. This collection is my favorite. I love following the thread that links the stories. Suzanne Enoch’s “One True Love” is a lovely arranged marriage tale with lively exchanges between an H/H at odds and great sexual tension. Karen Hawkins’s contribution, “Two Hearts,” is a friends-to-lovers romance that tickles the funny bone and warms the heart. Hawkins’s gift for creating strong, endearing characters holds true here. Royce and Liza are my favorites in the anthology. Mia Ryan’s “A Dozen Kisses” features a wonderfully interesting hero, one with a brain injury that makes him appear slow-witted. I enjoyed the story, but I was frustrated because I felt it deserved to be more fully developed than the format allowed. “Thirty-six Valentines” is a typical Julia Quinn offering. The characters delight, the dialogue sparkles, the conflict amuses, and the story is an A all the way.

3. Where's My Hero?
Please don’t throw things at me if I admit I’ve only read two of the three stories in this anthology. I have the greatest admiration for Kinley McGregor/Sherrilyn Kenyon’s achievements. I have friends who are huge fans of her work, but it’s just not for me. This anthology ranks high on my list because I adored the other two stories by authors I consider brilliant in knowing what they do best and doing it better than anyone else.

I’m one of those readers who has a long list of secondary characters whose stories I long for. This anthology is perfect for readers like me in this respect. The heroine of Lisa Kleypas’s “Against the Odds” is the mathematician daughter of Sara and Derek Craven (Dreaming of You); the hero is Jake Linley, the interesting doctor who appears in four Kleypas novels (Someone to Watch Over Me, Where Dreams Begin, Lady Sophia’s Lover, and Worth Any Price). About time he got his own story. I enjoy watching the relationship between these atypical characters develop, but the parts of the story I like best are the scenes where Sara and Derek, one of the best H/H pairings ever, appear.

I read Splendid when it was first published and have been a Julia Quinn fan ever since. I was delighted to learn that “A Tale of Two Sisters” was the story of Ned Blyden, a secondary character in Quinn’s first three novels. I loved the character, and his story is a perfect fit for him. He and Charlotte are wonderful together, and Ned’s “poetic” composition makes me literally howl with laughter. “Charming” is a word that’s overused, but it is the best description I know for this story that truly is “highly pleasing, delightful to the mind and senses.”

4. Faery Magic
In this anthology, four writers, including three of my long-time autobuy authors, combine the magic of myth and legend with the enchantment of Georgian and Regency settings to tell stories of the intersection of the human world and the world of faery. The stories are connected by the world they share, but each offers unique delights. Jo Beverley’s “The Lord of Elphindale” is about a half-faery, half-human heroine who defies the very purpose for which she was created in an act of love. Karen Harbaugh’s “The Faery Braid,” a new take on the old tale Rapunzel, shows the hard choices life requires. “The Love Talker,” Barbara Samuel’s tale of a faery lord, cursed for his heartless seductions, who learns love and compassion from a simple country maid, is a lovely story made even more extraordinary by Samuel’s gorgeous prose. The heroine of Mary Jo Putney’s “Dangerous Gifts” learns that coveted gifts may come with too high a price.

5. Scottish Brides
The novellas in this anthology are all rooted in Scottish history and folklore, but they may be most notable for exemplifying so well the qualities readers look for in each of these authors. Christina Dodd’s “Under the Kilt” is a sexy tale featuring Hadden Fairchild, the brother of the heroine in A Well Pleasured Lady, a stubborn alpha who is all a Scots hero should be. “Rose in Bloom” by Stephanie Laurens is the tale of a rake reunited with the verbal sparring partner of his childhood, the Rose of the title. Julia Quinn’s “Gretna Green” has all the charm and fun I expect from a Quinn story and two likeable characters who share terrific chemistry and engaging banter. “The Glenlyon Bride” by Karen Ranney uses standard plots (arranged marriage and mistaken identity) to tell a sweet love story that is anything but standard in its development of a relationship that encompasses body, mind, and spirit.

6. Bride by Arrangement
I love Mary Jo Putney’s marriage of convenience tale, “Wedding of the Century,” in which an American heiress and a duke in need of a fortune discover how perfect they are for one another. Merline Lovelace’s “Mismatched Hearts” is a competent story of an H/H, engaged to the wrong people, whose honor is tested before their HEA is assured. “My Darling Echo” by Gayle Wilson is an unexpected treasure, the heart-warming tale of a blind earl and a struggling widow who marry first and fall in love afterwards.

7. Three Weddings and a Kiss
“The Kiss,” more short story than novella, is notable because it is the work of Kathleen Woodiwiss and features as hero Jeff Birmingham, brother of Brandon, the hero of Woodiwiss’s famous The Flame and the Flower. “Fancy Free” by Catherine Anderson is an American frontier tale of revenge and misunderstandings with some nice touches of humor, although I found it much less satisfying than Anderson’s best work like Annie’s Song and Phantom Waltz. Loretta Chase’s “The Mad Earl’s Bride” is among my top five novellas. There is nothing ordinary about this tale of a dying earl and the bluestocking heroine whose knowledge and stubbornness create a happy ending against all odds. The novella connects to Lord of Scoundrels, and Gwendolyn deserves a place beside Jessica Trent in the pantheon of romance heroines. “Promises” by Lisa Kleypas features a hero who is a shadow of Derek Craven and a heroine who persists in an inexplicable attachment to another man. Still, it’s Kleypas, and even a less than stellar Kleypas has much to recommend it.

Honorable Mention: It Happened One Night
All four novellas in this anthology tell the story of a man and a woman who meet serendipitously at an inn after years apart. Stephanie Laurens’s “The Fall of Rogue Gerrard,” which won a Rita for best novella, is vintage Laurens. A reformed rake meets a sensible woman from his past, is caught up in her most insensible scheme, and loses his heart. “Spellbound,” a tale of an estranged husband and wife who uncover the lies that separated them and rediscover their love, has the well-developed relationship, the emotional punch, and the memorable characters that have made Mary Balogh a legend in romance fiction. Jacquie D'Allesandro's “Only You,” a Rita finalist, is an interesting take on youthful lovers separated by class who are given a second chance. “From This Moment On” by Candice Hern ends her Merry Widows series. It’s my favorite among these stories. I love Wilhelmina, former courtesan and current widowed duchess. I love that she and Sam are mature characters. And I love that he was her first love. This one is a winner from an author who is underappreciated.

Do you appreciate anthologies? What are your favorites?