Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don't Miss These!

January has been a great month for reading romance. I know that many of you have read and enjoyed many of the same books I have.

Coutney Milan’s Proof by Seduction started my year with an A read, really a reread. But it gets better with each reading, and Jenny has entered my list of favorite heroines.

Another debut, Beverley Kendall’s Sinful Surrender, is another great January title. Missy is one determined heroine—twenty proposals and she’s still waiting on her brother’s best friend James. Loved it!

Elizabeth Boyle’s How I Met My Countess starts a new series with connections to her Bachelor Chronicles. Boyle is a writer I love because her books usually move me to both laughter and tears. This one is no exception, and it’s a lovely reunited lovers tale—my favorite.

Sabrina Jeffries hooked me on her new series this month with The Truth about Lord Stoneville, book #1 in her Hellions of Halstead Hall. Fans of Jeffries’s School for Heiresses will recognize Stoneville; he was a favorite candidate for “Cousin Michael.” He’s a truly tortured, intriguing hero with an American heroine, who is definitely his match.

Forbidden Falls is book #8 in Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series (#9 if you include the recent Christmas novella), and she still makes me believe that Virgin River and its people are real. I expect to visit them someday, and I’m adding the preacher (Noah) and the stripper (Hope) to the people I want to chat with. And I’m looking forward to the next two books.

These last two books are books you may not have read. I suggest you rush to a bookstore today. :) I give both of these my highest recommendation.

Barbara O’Neal, whom some of you will know as Barbara Samuel and Ruth Wind, is a writer I reread to study her character building, her sense of place, and her rich, textured prose. The Secret of Everything has a damaged heroine who made my heart ache, a hero who lingers in my mind because he is exceptional in so many ways, a setting that makes me want to set out for New Mexico to see the beauty and taste the food for myself, and a child, Natalie, who is so real and so dear that in odd moments I find myself hoping she will grow into herself and find her own HEA.

Kate Moore wrote three wonderful traditional Regencies (two were Rita finalists), three terrific European historical (one an Affaire de Coeur winner and one an LJ Best Book), and one fun contemporary, Sexy Lexy (also an LJ Best Book). Now after five, too-long years, she has a book on shelves again. To Tempt a Saint, is the first of her Sons of Sin trilogy about three base-born brothers. If the others are just a fraction as appealing as Xander, a courtesan's bastard knighted for saving the regent's life, I'm on board for the duration of the series. TTAS offers a marriage of convenience, a mystery, a rare look at the dark (literally and metaphorically) parts of London, a strong and interesting heroine, and a hero who captures hearts. Don't just take my word for it. Romantic Times gave the book 4.5 stars and Xander a K. I. S. S. Award. This one is a keeper!

What recommendations do you have for me? What were your favorite January reads?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brain Food

Many thanks to Keira Soleore who graciously included Just Janga in her list of “Five Blogs that Make Me Think” (January 13, 2010). Nothing delights the teacher in me more than to be told I’ve made someone think, and to be included with the superior blogs on Keira’s list is a high compliment indeed.

The rules of the meme require that I

1. write a post with links to five blogs that make me think.
2. link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. proudly display the "Thinking Blogger Award" image on my blog with a link to the post that nominated me.

All the blogs I visit make me think, but since many of you visit the same blogs I do within the romance community, I thought you might find it more useful if I named five blogs that extend our online world. So here are my choices for "Five Blogs That Make Me Think":

1. OnFiction
The focus on this blog is the psychology of fiction. New posts are available twice weekly, and the archives are a treasure trove of fascinating information on how fiction is created and on those who write it and read it. To cite just one article that I’ve thought about a great deal, an August 2008 post reports on a study that found more than ninety percent of writers interviewed had experienced their characters behaving autonomously. The most experienced writers experienced the phenomenon more frequently. The study also suggested that writers were more likely than others to have had imaginary companions as children and to score higher on tests of empathy.

2. Writer Unboxed
This group blog features twelve writers working in various genres of popular fiction. I was directed to it through A Writer Afoot, one of my favorite writing/reading blogs by one of my favorite writers, Barbara Samuel/Barbara O’Neal (also Ruth Wind). Writer Unboxed defines its focus as “the craft and business of genre fiction.” These dozen writers, many of whom may be new to you, talk honestly and lucidly about crafty topics such as the recent posts on voice and point of view and business topics such as agents and promotions. They also have an incredible archive of interviews. Some of my favorites are interviews with Jo Beverley, Jasper Fforde, Sarah Addison Allen, and Marsha Moyer—all writers that turn me into a raving fangirl.

3. Two Nerdy History Girls
I’m a research nerd, so it should be no surprise that I find this blog addictive. Two extraordinary writers, Loretta Chase (author of the classic Lord of Scoundrels and fifteen other romance keepers) and Susan Holloway Scott (author of four compelling historical fiction novels about the women in the life of Charles II and nearly thirty romance novels as Miranda Jarrett) gossip about their research and writing. Corsets, clap, and badly behaved men—they talk about all these and much more with wit, intelligence, and the kind of humor you celebrate in your best friends.

4. Books Blog (The Guardian)
You won’t find more than an occasional mention of romance fiction on this blog, but you will find tons of information and opinions about books, literary awards and trends, and hundreds of other topics. Just this week I read about apocalypse literature, writers suffering from depression, and the just-announced Newberry Award winner.

5. Word Spy
I may be cheating here because this “Word Lover’s Guide to New Words” is not really a blog. Regardless, it’s one of my favorite places to visit. Run by Canadian Paul McFedries, author of dozens of technology books (including one I’m currently reading, Twitter Tips, Tricks, and Tweets), who defines words that are just entering the lexicon. This week he introduced me to “email apnea”: The unconscious and temporary suspension of regular breathing while checking and reading email. Who knew? Well, obviously Mr. McFedries knew.

What blogs feed your brain? Mine can always use more nourishment.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Romance Writers of the Decade

What do Johnny Depp, Beyoncé, and J. K. Rowling have in common? They, along with Tina Fey, Peter Jackson, the women of Sex and the City, and nine other “crazily talented people” were named by Entertainment Weekly as Entertainers of the Decade. If you’ve visited here or read my blogs at Romance Vagabonds, you know I love lists. I read every profile in the EW article (Dec. 11, 2009), commending or chastising EW as I read. Then, I started thinking about the romance genre and wondering which writers I’d include in a list of fifteen Romance Writers of the Decade. I wasn’t interested in naming my personal favorites or those with the highest internet buzz factor, although I knew there probably would be some overlapping with these groups. However, it seemed to me that a “Writer of the Decade” required that the author not only be “crazily talented” and have sold a lot of books over the past ten years but also have helped define the romance genre in some way, either by representing it within the larger area of popular culture, by changing and extending it in some way, or by serving as a model of how gifted writers use and sometimes defy conventions.

With these criteria in mind, I checked bestseller lists. The number of romance writers who can legitimately call themselves “bestselling authors” is impressive. RWA’s Honor Roll alone lists 140 active members whose novels (not including anthologies) have made one or more of the following best-seller lists: New York Times (top 20 as of 9/23/07), Publishers Weekly (top 15), USA Today (top 50). Many of them hit multiple lists multiple times in the first decade of the twenty-first century. But who among them also met the second criterion? That turned out to be a more difficult question to answer.

After lengthy consideration, here are my candidates (as usual in alphabetical order to save myself the agony of deciding upon rank):

1. Mary Balogh
By 2000, Mary Balogh was already the author of some of the classic stories in romance, including A Precious Jewel (1993), which predated the trend for the prostitute/courtesan heroine and several novels (Dancing with Clara, Lord Carew’s Bride, and Silent Melody) that featured protagonists with disabilities. In A Summer to Remember (2002), she created a family of arrogant, idiosyncratic aristocrats to give the heroine trouble, and the Bedwyns entered the annals of romance. Captivated by her own creations, Balogh proposed a six-book series for the Bedwyn siblings. Her editor agreed, and in April 2004, the first of the Bedwyn books, Slightly Married (Aidan’s story) was released; five more followed in record succession, culminating with Wulfric’s story, Slightly Dangerous, in June 2004, a hardcover release that fans complained about but nevertheless bought in sufficient numbers to put Balogh on the NYT bestseller list. After twenty years, more than sixty novels, and almost half that number of novellas, Balogh was anticipating semi-retirement, writing perhaps one book a year. But a quartet of lady teachers at Miss Martin's School for Girls caught her imagination, and the Simply books, loosely connected to the Bedwyn saga and other of Balogh’s stories, were published between 2005 and 2008. Then, a new family, the Huxtables, was clamoring for attention. Their books were released in 2009with Cousin Con’s book set for 2010. Balogh has at least seven more books planned. Should semiretirement beckon in the next decade, she also has a legion of admirers who would love for her to give lessons on sustaining creative energy and longevity.

2. Suzanne Brockmann
Brockmann is another writer whose connected books have earned her a large and loyal following. Both of her best known series feature alpha heroes who are Navy SEALS, “warriors who are mainly used to prevent war,” according to Brockmann. The Tall, Dark, and Dangerous series was introduced in the 1990s; only three of the eleven-book series were published after 1999. But fifteen Troubleshooter books were published between 2000 and 2009. The eighth book in the series Hot Target (2004) is a groundbreaking romance novel. The central relationship is between a filmmaker working on a WWII movie about two gay soldiers and her bodyguard, a SEAL with a cold façade, a hot bod, and a sensitive soul. This fairly conventional plot is overshadowed by the secondary plot, a love triangle involving Jules Cassidy, a gay FBI agent and already a popular character in Brockmann’s fictional world. Brockmann was both praised for her courage and derided for having a too obvious agenda. Love her or hate her, and there are readers in both camps, one cannot deny she changed the idea of what could be written about in mainstream romance fiction.

3. Loretta Chase
Chase wrote Lord of Scoundrels in 1995. It quickly became one of the most popular romances of all time, appearing on almost every list of favorite romances. But after the publication of the less successful The Last Hellion (1998), Chase took a hiatus from romance fiction. She returned in 2004 with Miss Wonderful, the first of the Carsington series. Miss Wonderful was greeted with elation by Chase fans, but in the eyes of most readers, it suffered in comparison to LOS. But the next two books Carsington books, Mr. Impossible (2005) and Lord Perfect (2006), had all the wit, charm, and sexiness readers desired. If Dain and Jessica in LOS gave readers a standard by which many would measure subsequent heroes and heroines, the Carsington books and the two books that followed them showed that Chase had lost none of her skill in creating unforgettable characters who engage in verbal battles that sparkle and delight and love scenes that remind the reader that what happens in the head and the heart is as important as what happens with the body.

4. Jennifer Crusie
If Crusie had written nothing between 2000 and 2009 but Bet Me, she would still be on my list. Bet Me, the first book Crusie wrote (it was rejected), became her thirteenth published novel and her first NYT bestseller. It won her the RITA Award for Best Contemporary Single Title, earned a spot on nearly every list of all-time favorite romances, and prompted Crusie to say she may never write another classic romance because Bet Me is her best. It’s my candidate for Romance of the Decade. But Crusie went on to make collaboration a bestselling gig as well. She wrote three books with adventure writer Bob Mayer (Don't Look Down, Agnes and the Hit Man, and Wild Ride), one humorous paranormal about three witchy sisters with Eileen Dryer and Anne Stuart (The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes), and one quirky tale of ancient goddesses in Southern Ohio (Dogs and Goddesses) with Lani Diane Rich, and Anne Stuart. All this and she still has one of the best author blogs in cyberspace, offers wise and intelligent essays about the genre on her website, and remains fearlessly and genuinely herself in the face of adulation and attacks.

5. Julie Garwood
Garwood is one of those writers responsible for untold numbers of readers falling in love with romance fiction. Perhaps best beloved for her historical novels, which include Medievals, Regencies, and American Westerns, Garwood switched to contemporary romantic suspense in 2000. Her gift for unforgettable characters and emotionally engaging stories translated effectively into her new subgenre. Over the next decade, she wrote eight novels in this new subgenre--from Heartbreaker (2000) to Sizzle (2009), and eager fans paid hardcover prices and put her on bestseller lists. Over thirty million Garwood books are in print.

6. Linda Howard
Howard entered the 21st century as the author of thirty five romances, the beloved Mackenzie quartet and the ever-popular Kell Sabin books among them. In the first decade of the century, she wrote another fifteen books, most of which appeared on the NTY hardcover bestseller list. While she writes light-hearted stories (the first half of Mr. Perfect has some laugh-out-loud exchanges), she has become best known for weaving darker suspense and equally dark humor with a sexy romance and an über-masculine hero, as she does in Dying to Please (2003). Most remarkable is that she enjoys this level of popularity happily ensconced in her native Alabama, writing and reading and ignoring all the conventional wisdom about the necessity of self-promotion.

7. Eloisa James
Another major development in romance from 2000-2009 was the increased attention academia devoted to the genre, beginning with the publication of Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel in 2003 and ending in 2009 with a romance conference that included academics, editors, and writers—held at Princeton University no less. No one represents this development better than Eloisa James, a Shakespeare scholar, university professor, and romance writer, who won the RWA’s Veritas Award (given for the article that appears in print or in another medium that best depicts the romance genre in a positive light) in 2006 for her article “A Fine Romance” (New York Times, February 12, 2005). James published her first book, Potent Pleasures, in 1999 and has spent the past decade growing her readership and appearing with increasing regularity on bestseller lists. Well known for her ensemble romances, James reached an admirable balance between recurring characters engaged in an overarching plot and a focus on the central love story in her six-book Desperate Duchesses series.She writes a monthly column on romance fiction for Barnes & Noble’s online site, a feat that has earned her the tag “the Lionel Trilling of romance critics.”

8. Lisa Kleypas
Kleypas became a bestselling author in the 1990s, but it was in the decade that has just ended that Kleypas, the creator par excellence of the sexy, self-made hero, showed that she is the same kind of achiever as the characters in her novels. She not only wrote further adventures of her popular Bow Street Runners, but she also produced two new historical series: a new, more light-hearted set about a group of wallflowers (one of which—Devil in Winter-- seduced readers with one of the best villain turned hero ever written), and a gypsy-themed series that left readers eager for more. And she proved her versatility by writing three connected contemporary romance/women’s fiction hybrid novels (Sugar Daddy, Blue-Eyed Devil, Smooth Talking Stranger) that earned her new fans, more bestsellers, and a Romance-Heroes-Hall-of-Fame candidate in Jack Travis who says to his heroine: “I respect you. . . . And your views. I think of you as an equal. I respect your brains, and all those big words you like to use. But I also want to rip your clothes off and have sex with you until you scream and cry and see God.”

9. Jayne Ann Krentz
Krentz is another prolific writer who spent many months of the past decade on bestseller lists. Among her bestsellers are her Arcane Society books that link her historicals written as Amanda Quick (Second Sight, The Third Circle, The Perfect Poison)with her contemporaries written as Jayne Ann Krentz (White Lies, Sizzle and Burn, Running Hot). Her Harmony-set futuristics written as Jayne Castle are also popular. How many romance writers move so successfully from past to present to future? Krentz, whose first novels were published more than thirty years ago, has remained consistent in the treatment of themes the author herself identifies as “the ancient virtues: honor, integrity and a belief in the healing power of love.” Consistent as well has been her defense of the value of romance fiction.

10. Stephanie Laurens
Australian author Laurens could serve as poster girl for the connected-book series that have only increased in popularity over the past decade. Her most famous series, the Cynster books totals sixteen, a dozen of them written since 2000. A Secret Love (2000)and On a Wild Night (2002) rival the earlier books in popularity. A second series, the Bastion Club, has a mere nine books, eight of them published in the past decade. Laurens is equally famous for the variety of settings and positions in which her H/H engage in steamy sex. Let’s see there’s the carriage, the back of a horse, a chair, a tub . . . I think a lot of writers are reading Laurens too.

11. Debbie Macomber
Macomber was already a prolific, popular writer of romance fiction with more than a hundred novels and numerous novellas to her credit when her career reached a new level in the first decade of the 21st century. She began writing the Cedar Cove series, community-based books set in the fictional coastal town of Cedar Cove, Washington, that were hybrids of romance and women’s fiction. The Cedar Cove series included ten novels and one novella by 2009. The fourth book in the series, 44 Cranberry Point, won Macomber the first Quill Award in the Romance category in 2005, and the seventh, 77 Seaside Avenue, earned her a career first when it hit the top of the NYT bestseller list. She also began a second series in 2004, the Blossom Street books, a women’s fiction series that focuses on friends brought together by a knitting class offered by a Seattle knitting store. By the end of the decade, Macomber had over one hundred million books in print worldwide in twenty-three languages, in December the premiere of the Hallmark Channel Original Movie Debbie Macomber's Mrs. Miracle ranked as the highest-rated movie of the week among all ad-supported cable networks, Macomber reached bestseller status on non-fiction lists with a cookbook, and demonstrated that community-based stories, even those that were sweet rather than sizzling were “in.”

12. Susan Elizabeth Phillips
She may be less prolific than most of her compeers, but SEP is definitely one of the genre’s superstars. And she’s a star whose luminosity increased early in the 21st century when she was inducted into the Romance Writers Hall of Fame, the only five-time winner of the Romance Writers of America Favorite Book of the Year Award. Book Page called her “the crown jewel of romantic comedy writers,” a designation affirmed by the hardcover bestselling status of seven titles, beginning with This Heart of Mine (2001), her first hardcover, and including Ain’t She Sweet (2004), with a heroine who merits study by every writer who wants lessons in how to break rules successfully, and Glitter Baby (2009), a “revised rewrite” of an early (1987) book.

13. Julia QuinnQuinn’s eight-book series (2000-2006) featuring the popular Bridgerton siblings made her the definitive author writing humorous historical romance. Not only were the Bridgerton books critically and commercially successful, they also gave readers scenes and characters that became part of the language of the romance community. One only has to say “Lady Whistledown” to see delight and understanding in the eyes of a fellow romance reader or to type “Pall Mall scene” to elicit “LOL” in response. Quinn also led the way in the use of technology with her popular website that offered fans soundtracks for her books and recommendations for other authors’ books. She had readers who had never read an ebook downloading the second epilogues to some of the Bridgerton books, available only in electronic format. Not content to coast on an established reputation, Quinn experimented in 2008 with a pair of books, The Lost Duke of Wyndham and Mr. Cavendish, I Presume, which view the same events but from a different perspective.

14. Nora Roberts
Roberts is practically a permanent fixture on best seller lists. Every book released under her name (as Nora Roberts or as J. D. Robb) during the decade appeared on the most prestigious NYT bestseller list. That’s 54 new releases—33 as Roberts, 20 as Robb, and one with a story written under each identity. And this number does not include all the reissues of earlier releases that made the bestseller lists. She added another five Ritas to an already impressive collection, and she won the Quill Award for Romance of the Year in 2006 and 2007. Angels Fall won as Book of the Year in 2007. But Ms. Roberts is more than bestsellers and awards. For many, within and without the romance community, Nora Roberts's name has become synonymous with romance fiction in American popular culture. Forbes lists her among such luminaries as J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown in the five writers they included in the magazine’s Top Ten Celebrities for 2005. Her opinions are solicited by the media, and she represents the genre with class and clout.

15. J. R. Ward
The paranormal bandwagon was large, colorful, and noisy during the past decade. Vampires ruled, and none created more buzz than Ward’s erotic series revolving around the Black Dagger Brotherhood. The books became extremely popular almost immediately upon publication, becoming among the most frequently discussed texts in online romance communities. Ward’s books departed from the conventional vampire tale by making the vampires the victims, and the slayers the unscrupulous hunters. Characters with names like Phury, Wrath, and Tohrment evoked a lot of jokes, but the series from Dark Lover (2005) to Lover Avenged (2009) also captured many readers and sent Ward, looking her coolest, to the bestseller lists and to the bank.

Did you commend or chastise me as you read my list? :) Who do you think are romance fiction’s Writers of the Decade?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Empty Well

I have three blogs partially written, one of which should have been finished and posted at least six hours ago. I have research that I must finish for articles that have to be completed by January 29. I have scraps of scenes that need to be pieced and fitted into the pattern of a mss that now has a hole in its center. I can’t seem to do any of these things today. All my efforts end up in the trash bin.

I could blame the cold that has me miserably stuffy and coughing. I could blame my concern about a friend in the hospital. I could blame the winter weather advisory that has Georgians worried about icy roads and power losses. But I know the truth is that the well is empty. And when there’s no water in the well, the bucket is always going to come up dry.

“Replenish” is one of my favorite words. Just the idea of emptiness being filled fully, abundantly is enough to lift my spirits. Acts of replenishment will lift them even higher. So please forgive the brevity of this blog. I promise to complete one of those three blogs and post it next week, but today I’m going to visit my friend who is ill, read a book or two from my towering TBR stack, spend some time just sitting and thinking long thoughts, and seeking restoration. When the well is full again, I’ll return to researching, scene-stitching, and blogging.

Have you ever suffered from the empty well syndrome? What do you do to replenish your creative energies?