Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Can't Read 'Em All

I can't read 'em all.
I can't read'em all.
Books may be wonderful, but the chances are small
I can read each one from stacks so high,
But I did try.
I did try.
I did try.
(with apologies to Sammy Cahn)

I have been reading. A banquet featuring the releases of the most recent Super Tuesday has left me pleasantly full, sighing with satisfaction, but eyeing the books remaining on the table and wondering if I can at least sample a few more before moving on to other, high priority activities.

I bought twelve April 27 releases and received one free in exchange for a review. Nine of the thirteen are still unread, joining the couple of dozen still unread from January through March. And that’s just the 2010 publications. I’m not even going to count those still on the TBR shelves from previous years or those by authors I was late discovering who have backlists I felt compelled to explore.

Common sense tells me it’s time to do some culling and gather books to send to friends or give to my local library. I read fast. If I didn’t, I’d never have finished three books yesterday. But even so, I’ll never have time to finish all those grouped as TBRs. The problem with culling is that it forces me to make choices. Which books do I give way? How do I know that I’m not giving away a book that might be a best-of-the-year read for me? After all, The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, my #1 book of 2009, was not written by one of my autobuy authors, and I didn't read it immediately after its release. Just think what I would have missed had I given it away before I read it. Then there’s the opposite question: how do I know I’m not keeping a book that will end up as a DNF? Can you tell I hate making these decisions?

I considered using a date as the cut-off point—just deciding that all the books published before January 2009 must go. But that would include some backlist titles I’ve gone to some trouble to acquire. I’m not about to discard those. Someone online suggested assigning each book a priority number and keeping only the top 50 or top 100 or . . . I tried this once, but it didn’t work well for me. I read bits to help me make wise choices, and at the end of four hours, I had added two books to the discard box and put fifty-eight back on TBR shelves.

I haven’t always had this problem. BI (Before the Internet), I had a modest TBR stack at the beginning of the month, usually 6-12 books. I read them all, shelved the keepers, and bagged the rest to go to my local UBS or the Friends of the Library. If I gave out of something to read before my monthly bookstore run, I reread keepers or checked out books from the library. AI (After the Internet), I start the year with nearly 200 must-read titles on my book calendar, and throughout the year, I add books that are recommended by friends, buzzed about on boards and blogs, or persuasively presented in a newsletter. I also have wonderfully generous friends who send me books, and I sometimes win books or receive them to review. Some are not on my original list. Now I’m adding books to the TBR shelves each week rather than once a month. I do read a lot. In the first three months of 2010, I read 91 books, but I had at least that many still on my TBR shelves before I added this week’s books to the collection. I should discard some, but I’m still pondering which ones.

I can’t read ‘em all.
Oh, I can’t read them all.
The ones who have tried have found
Their whole lives held in thrall.

Some will say I’ll never do it, nope!
But, I can hope,
I can hope,
I can hope.

Do you have a TBR collection? How do you keep it under control? Do you have any advice for me?

My favorite of the April 27 releases was Mistress by Mistake by my friend Maggie Robinson. It’s an unforgettable, sizzling hot story featuring Charlie and Bay, an H/H pairing that I hated to leave when I turned the last page. Fortunately, Maggie is returning to Courtesan’s Court and Jane Street for two more books. Maybe we'll catch a glimpse of her first pair of lovers again. If not, this is one book that went straight to a keeper shelf, no chance I'll be giving it away. I know I'll be rereading it. However, I will add to the TBR stack of one randomly selected poster this week by sending you a copy of Mistress by Mistake for your own keeper shelf.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Celebrating RT Winners!

The Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award winners generated much buzz yesterday on social networking sites as congratulations were extended and repeated. I suppose these annual awards are second only to the Ritas, and there are a lot more of them—66, including 17 for categories. According to the RT web site, both nominees and winners are chosen by “over 50 reviewers” for RT Book Reviews.

I’m an awards junkie. I always want to know who won the Golden Globes, Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, etc. I haven’t watched the Grammys in years, but I make sure to check the list of winners the following day. In the book world, I eagerly check for winners of the Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Awards, Newberrys, PEN/Faulkner prizes. A friend and I always guess the Agatha, Edgar, and the Macavity Awards and compare percentages of right guesses. I’m interested in all of these, but I am emotionally invested only in the nominees and winners of the awards in romance fiction. Many of these are writers I’ve been reading since the beginning of their careers, for whom I feel an intense loyalty. Some are writers with whom I’ve exchanged comments on boards and blogs. With a few I’ve enjoyed email conversations, and a growing number are writers I count as friends. So while I congratulate all the RT Reviewers Choice winners, I hope you understand that I’m sending up fireworks, filling my glass for a toast, and generally celebrating in honor of the following select group.

Best First Historical Novel: Goddess of the Hunt, Tessa Dare (Ballantine)
Tessa Dare is one of the best writers to be added to the list of historical romance novelists in recent years. She’s also an intelligent, compassionate human being and a good friend. Goddess has already earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal and 4.5 stars from RT. It also won Best Debut Novel in AAR’s annual reader-voted awards. How great that Lucy and Jeremy have added a new accolade to their collection! It’s great for the author too. :) Yay, Tessa!

Contemporary: Temptation Ridge, Robyn Carr (Mira)
I haven’t read Freudian Slip by Erica Orloff, but True Love and Other Disasters by Rachel Gibson, Smooth Talking Stranger (a top ten read for me)by Lisa Kleypas, and What I Did for Love by Susan Elizabeth Phillips were all great books. I would have been happy to see any of them recognized. However, I am especially delighted that Robyn Carr won. I’ve been reading her books for ages, she was one of our most gracious Visiting Vagabonds, and the Virgin River series is one of my favorite series ever. For all these reasons, I’m cheering loudly for Robyn.

British Isle-Set Historical Romance: Some Like It Wild, Teresa Medeiros (Avon)
This was another category in which I would never have been able to pick a winner. I’ve been reading and adding Jo Beverley books to my keeper shelves for two decades now, and The Secret Wedding is a terrific book. If I were in charge, Eloisa James would top the bestseller lists and win a Rita every year. She is an extraordinary writer and a charming, caring person, and in Jemma and Elijah, the H/H of This Duchess of Mine, she created richly developed characters and one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever read. But Teresa Medeiros has written some of the classics in romance fiction, including some of my all-time favorite romances such as Charming the Prince and The Bride and the Beast, and she is such a warm and witty person that only a churlish dunce would not be pleased to see her win. Some Like It Wild was an RT top pick and put TM on the NYT bestseller list again, and Connor Kincaid melted a lot of hearts. Brava, Teresa Medeiros!

Historical K.I.S.S. (Knight in Shining Silver) Hero Award: Loving a Lost Lord, Mary Jo Putney (Zebra)
I began reading MJP books with her second offering, back in the day when she was writing traditional Regencies. Most of her books are on my keeper shelves, books like One Perfect Rose that I reread every few years. My personal Romance Heroes Hall of Fame is filled with heroes she created—Reggie Davenport, Peregrine, Nicholas Davies, Michael Kenyon, Kenzie Scott . . . Adam Lawford, Duke of Ashton, her latest hero and one of the most interesting dukes I've encountered in all my years of meeting dukes in the pages of romance fiction, is most deserving of the K.I.S.S. award IMO. Hurray for Ashton and MJP!

Historical Love & Laughter: Don’t Tempt Me, Loretta Chase (Avon)
What can I say about the author of the novel that more often than any other heads the best all-time romance novel list? “Inimitable” is an overused word, but it truly applies to Loretta Chase, who has a special gift for combining the poignant and the humorous as she does in Don’t Tempt Me. I smile when Lucien de Grey, Duke of Marchmont, greets the return of Zoe Lexham with the words, “Ye gods, it’s true. That dreadful girl is back.” That's just the beginning of the smiles and the sighs, some of the latter are teary-eyed. Here’s to Lucien, Zoe, and Loretta Chase (with a word of thanks to other nominees Meg Cabot, Claudia Dain, Karen Hawkins, and Barbara Metzger for the many hours of reading pleasure their books have given me)!

Historical Paranormal: So Enchanting, Connie Brockway (Onyx)
I’ve read So Enchanting twice. Neither time did I think that I was reading a paranormal, a sub-genre I rarely read. But I’ve read Connie Brockway’s midnight dark books, her leavened-with-light books, and her women’s fiction books. She has long been one of my never-miss authors, and I found So Enchanting totally enchanting. I have a big smile on my face as I lift a second glass to Connie Brockway and her take on witches. Salud!

Historical Romantic Gothic: Tempted All Night, Liz Carlyle (Pocket)
Sizzle and mystery and complex characters—Liz Carlyle gives readers all these and more in Tempted All Night, and she does it all so well. I started reading her books with A Woman Scorned in 2000, and I’ve found those qualities consistently in Carlyle’s books. She’s long been a winner in my estimation. À votre santé, Liz!

Innovative Historical Romance: The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie, Jennifer Ashley (Leisure)
Here’s another category where some of the finalists not in the RT winner’s circle are always in my winners’ circle. Sherry Thomas is a genius with prose, and I’ve loved all her books. Not Quite a Husband was in my top ten last year. The late Edith Layton, whose To Love a Wicked Lord was also nominated in this category, belongs in a Hall of Fame reserved for the best and most significant contributors to the genre. With that said, The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie was my #1 read of 2009, so clearly I’m elated to see it recognized. I’m still dazed that it’s not up for a Rita. Jennifer Ashley is a talented and generous writer. (She offers great advice to YTBs on her web site.) Sláinte, Jennifer!

Contemporary Mystery: Kill for Me, Karen Rose (Grand Central)
I’ll be honest here. Margaret Maron, author of the nominated Sand Sharks, is my favorite mystery writer. I run over people to get to her latest Deborah Knott book, but she has won every award a mystery writer can win. I think Karen Rose is a fantastic writer, although her books are too dark and too real for me with my susceptibility to nightmares. But I’ve bought her books for my brother and sister, and my friends Manda and Kim C are big Karen Rose fans. Seeing my friends happy makes me happy, and besides Karen Rose is a lovely person, who deserves awards that make her smile. Cheers, Karen!

Historical Mystery: What Remains of Heaven, C. S. Harris (NAL)
Like many of you, I’m a huge fan of C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries. This award will spread the word to far more readers than we’ve been able to reach that for mystery lovers and historical romance lovers alike, these books are marvelous and memorable. I hope the bookstores have a run on these books. Congratulations, Ms. Harris (a. k. a. Candice Proctor)!

After all these toasts, I’m feeling a little dizzy but still quite happy to see awards going to authors who have given me countless hours of delighting in the worlds and characters they created. I’m sending up celebratory fireworks for all of them.

What RT wins delighted you most? Who would the winners have been had you been a judge? (You can see the full list of winners here.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ink Runs

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
From “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

April is National Poetry Month. Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets has designated the fourth month of the year as a time for the nation to celebrate poetry. Schools, libraries, and communities schedule special activities in April celebrating the role of poetry in American life. When I was teaching, I usually read at my university’s celebration where faculty, staff, and students read favorite poems—sometimes their own, sometimes one by another poet. Our celebration was low-key, but there are some glittering gatherings going on this month.

I’d love to attend the one Tuesday at Lincoln Center and hear stars such as Meryl Streep, Matt Dillon, Roseanne Cash, and Gabriel Byrne reading their favorite poems. I’m always interested in learning people’s favorite poems. There’s a wonderful site called “The Favorite Poem Project” which offers videos of Americans in all their wondrous variety reading their favorite poem and sharing their reasons for connecting with the poem. Robert Pinsky founded the project during his tenure as 39th Poet Laureate of the United States. I find it heartening to visit the site and watch a few videos and remember that the fifty on the site are just a sampling of the thousands in the project. Americans from 5 to 97, from every state, from various backgrounds were eager to share the poems they love.

Another great site to pay a celebratory visit to this month is Robert Lee Brewer’s 3rd Annual Poem a Day Challenge at his Poetic Asides Blog. He provides a prompt each day, shares his own response to the prompt, and challenges his readers to write and share theirs. Today (April 18) , the prompt is to “take the phrase ‘To (blank),’ replace the blank with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of your poem, and then, write the poem.” Brewer’s own poem for today is entitled “To write a poem in a crowded bookstore.”

Yet another site I visit is the American Academy of Poets Life Lines. The Academy invites readers to share a few lines of poetry that have remained with them, along with a paragraph explaining what the lines have given.

By now, you’ve probably realized that I’m a lover of poetry. It was really my first love—the first lines I learned by heart were from poems (nursery rhymes, psalms, Robert Louis Stevenson). I’ve been blessed to have a few poems published. I even won an Academy of American Poets award when I was in graduate school. These days I write only occasional poetry, although I like to think I bring a poet’s sensibilities to the prose writing I do. And Max’s songs may count as poems. But I am still a reader of poetry. I would find a day without reading a poem bleak indeed. I thought about posting my favorite poem, but how can I choose from such bounty? Instead, I’ll share with you some of my poetic “life lines.”

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!
--from #288 by Emily Dickinson

I was 10 the year I first read this poem. It was my first experience with feeling that a poem was a conversation between the poet’s mind and mine. I was entering puberty at a bewildering speed, feeling as if eyes were everywhere. I was hungry for solitude and safety. Ah, I thought, she understands! That’s an experience that has been repeated countless times since, many times with other Dickinson poems, but perhaps it’s never been quite so powerful as the first time. These lines have become part of me.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
—from “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden

Some of you may recognize these lines from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, but my love for them goes back further to a time when I was hit with a loss so great that it was nearly unendurable. I clung to these words. I whispered them to myself in the darkness, finding solace in the evidence that someone else had known such loss and had survived to write of it.

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
--from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

These lines belong to a more recent period in my life, a time when I was old enough to question some of my choices, to mourn for dreams that were dead, to wonder what was left. They offer consolation and challenge when I need both.

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in a college classroom. Back in February, the Academy of American Poets offered several downloadable, printable poetic valentines. This is one of them. I printed it and I keep it on my desk. Every rereading brings a new sense of epiphany.

What are your “life lines”? Don’t tell me you don’t like poetry. My response to that claim is a bit from my introduction to poetry lecture for my students: You don’t like poetry? Tell me truly, are there no lines from childhood readings, from the lyrics of a song, from the words you read that no one made you read that sing in your head and echo in your heart? Think hard. Remember. Then tell me that you don’t like poetry.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I'm Late!!!!

I'm on deadline! I have to complete three more articles by midnight tomorrow. Please forgive my tardiness, but I just couldn't find time to write a blog. I'll be back Saturday with a post on one of my favorite subjects. I hope you'll be back too.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Goddess of Fried Okra: A Review

The Goddess of Fried Okra
Jean Brashear
Belle Bridge Books
Release Date: April 1, 2010

Eudora O’Brien is on a mission to find her sister. Her sister is dead, but a little thing like death doesn’t stop this six-foot redhead from her quest to find the one person who gave her life stability. With $607.83, a single photograph of Sister, and a tarnished bracelet that belonged to Mama, Pea (an abbreviated form of Sweetpea, Sister’s name for Eudora) sets out on her journey through central Texas in the July heat, determined to find Sister’s spirit whatever that reincarnated spirit’s current home may be.

The seeker always finds guides on the journey, and Pea is no exception. But her guides appear in unexpected guises—an abandoned kitten, a pregnant runaway, a curmudgeonly gun dealer, and a motherly café owner. Each has something to teach Pea and something to learn from her. The kitten appears in chapter two, and from the moment Pea names her “Isis” after the goddess of rebirth, the most powerful of Egyptian divinities, the theme of female empowerment begins to build. By the story’s end, Pea, and the reader, have discovered the power among this unlikely assortment of women, which grows to include the women in the past, not only Sister and Mama but also Madame Eva the psychic, Big Lil (the mother bear of Pea’s cheating ex-boyfriend), and especially Dark Agnes, the fictional, sword-wielding, Medieval heroine from the imagination of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian.

At the end of the heroic journey of myth, the protagonist integrates within the self opposing forces, masters the fear of death, and embraces the freedom to live. At the end of the journey in TGOFO, Pea has integrated the nurturer and the warrior within herself and has become Eudora, who accepts her past and celebrates her possibilities.

The Goddess of Fried Okra is not a romance, although it has a sexy con man in the process of reform (and a great love scene); it’s women’s fiction with the requisite journey of self-discovery. But this is not your conventional WF story of the divorced wife, the patient facing death, or the rebel coming home. I’m not much for high concept descriptions, but I’d say TGOFO is Eudora Welty meets Sue Monk Kidd and they lunch with Fannie Flagg.

When I first heard the title The Goddess of Fried Okra, I was intrigued. When I realized Jean Brashear, whose emotionally rich, character-driven books I have loved for years, was the author, I added it to my 2010 must-read list. Reading it was even better than my expectations. When I learned a few pages into the story that A Wrinkle in Time and the poetry of Mary Oliver were among the books Pea carried in the trunk of her car, I knew I had encountered a kindred spirit. I loved this book with its endearing eccentrics, its poignancy, its humor, and is distinctly Southern accent. I even loved the chapter titles and signpost epigrams. It’s redundant at this point to say The Goddess of Fried Okra got an A from me (but I said it anyway). It’s on bookshelves now. Rush out today and buy a copy, and reserve a goodly block of time for reading. This is one you’ll want to savor.

In the meantime, here’s a lovely video that will further whet your appetite for the book.

Notice: To appease the FTC, I will state that I received at no cost an ARC of The Goddess of Fried Okra, but I would have bought it anyway and indeed plan to buy several copies, one to fit on a keeper shelf and others to give to friends who think romance novelists can’t write.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mixed Blessings

I’m gearing up for a week of mixed blessings. Sunday is Easter, of course, and it’s the most important holy day in my faith. I love Easter services—the lilies, the music, the meaning. I especially love the Easter Sunrise service. My rural church has its own service, overlooking the church’s century-old cemetery. After the service, the men cook breakfast--great food and fellowship. But I have to get up at 5:30, and I am a morning grump who wakes up one eyelash at a time. That’s the mix in the blessings of the day.

Next week is spring break for all the grands’ schools. They are overjoyed! Since the various mommies and daddies involved don’t have breaks from their jobs, the grands will be spending part of their break with us. The invas—uh—the visits begin Friday when the two out-of-towners, ages 9 and 18 months, arrive for a four-day stay. This will be the longest visit the little one has paid without the parents, and we’ve been baby-proofing the house. I’m sure we’ll forget something. Monday through Friday, we will have the terrific twosome (brothers 6 and 8) from 7:30 to 5:30. Three more will join them Friday, and next Saturday the whole family will be here. I adore them all: our princess bookends—the oldest, who is 10 going on 19, and the youngest, our 18-month-old who seems to learn something new every minute—and the five mostly rough-and-tumble, video-game-obsessed boys who fall between them. I marvel at their beauty, wisdom, and energy. I delight in their laughter and their hugs. I am thrilled by their stories of awkward princesses who can’t dance, taller-than-trees dinosaurs who befriend robins and mocking birds, and the invisible bear who inhabits the woods behind our house. Walking with one of them along a familiar path always allows me to see some part of my world in a new way. But there must be some law that the volume of noise multiplies by ten for each child added. The quiet moments I cherish to create and contemplate will be nonexistent for a while. Their loss will be the mix in the blessings of the week.

I’m currently on deadline, writing 25 essays on women of the 21st century, individually or in groups. I made the mistake of writing the easy ones first, the ones I know something about, the ones who have names I can pronounce. The articles I still have to write are about women politicians in small countries, aboriginal artists, and female clergy. I love the research--the mining of sources, the unexpected discoveries, the startling facts. I really would have been happy to have remained a student throughout my life (so long as I was excused from math). But the writing itself will be hard. I will struggle to find words to do justice to achievements in fields where my knowledge is shallow and contexts mere shadows. I will feel inept and inadequate. These feelings are the mix in the blessings of my work.

But on balance, I count myself fortunate indeed. Perhaps the blessings would seem less wondrous and dear if I lacked the contrast of the small losses and sacrifices and concerns. I’m grateful to be gearing up for my week of blessings, mixes and all.

What are you looking forward to—or dreading a bit—this first week in April. Are your blessings mixed?