Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Raving Reader

A few weeks ago, while searching for reviews of a particular book, I came across a blogger’s rant against readers who rave about the books they read. Nobody, the blogger insisted, could possibly read so many books that truly merited the level of praise that some readers were dishing out. Perhaps the blogger’s purpose was to provoke her reader. If so, she certainly succeeded with me.

Is there a rule that only so many good books can be written? If I’ve read one good book this month, have I reached my quota? Or am I allowed two? Or five? How do I know when I’ve read so many good books that everything else I read must fall short of my definition of “good book”?

And defining presents another problem? Perhaps the blogger’s definition of a good book and mine are quite different. Some reviewers seem to reserve their highest grade for books they see as flawless. I’m not one of those reviewers. If the perfect book exists, I’ve never read it. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “excellence” as “the possession chiefly of good qualities in an eminent or unusual degree.” I’m comfortable labeling books that possess interesting characters I grow to care about, involved in compelling situations and presented in lucid, graceful prose as “excellent,” even if I have a few quibbles about the book. I do grade the books I read. The grade is strictly subjective, and it is intended for my eyes only. Because I read selectively (around 85% from my auto-buy authors), I almost never give a grade below a C+. If the book is really bad, I don’t finish it. And I don’t grade DNFs.

During my decades in the classroom, I never understood colleagues who boasted that only 10% of their students merited an A. I never knew in advance what grades a particular group of students might earn. I taught an advanced composition class once of exceptionally bright, motivated students in which I gave over 50% of them an A and most of the rest a B. On the other hand, I taught classes in which I gave not a single A and a distressing number of Ds and Fs. The grades depended upon the quality of the work produced by the students in each, unique group. I feel this way about the books I read too. Some months I read a string of A books; some months I read none.

When I do finish a book and note it as an A read, I want to share my enthusiasm for what I’ve read. The OED tells me that one meaning of “rave,” one that’s been in use at least since Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, is “to speak or write about someone or something with great enthusiasm or admiration.” Given this definition, I confess: I am a raving reader. I rush here or to Goodreads or to the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board or to my trusted online group and allow myself to freely express my enthusiasm for the books I love. Sometimes I’m sure I sound like an infatuated adolescent. If I’m writing a full review, I strive for a more reasoned tone, but I’m sure even then my enthusiasm breaks through. I never thought about counting my book raves, but since I write in various venues, formally and informally, about books that I have found excellent over more than half a century of reading, I’m sure that the number I rave about would drive that complaining blogger to distraction.

I offer no apologies for being a raving reader. I do believe that if those of us who love romance fiction want to see it earn the respect awarded to other genres by the larger reading public, we have to be willing for the texts of romance to be subjected to stringent, fair criticism. I believe there is a place for objective evaluations that point out where a specific book falls short of a critic’s criteria for excellence. At the same time, I have no tolerance for mean-spirited reviews that attack an author or for smug snark that is more an opportunity for the critic to display his/her cleverness than to honestly evaluate a book. But, for the most part, when I’m writing about books, I’m sharing what I loved about characters, plot, or prose. It’s what I like to do. I started to read a book this week that I found clich├ęd, boring, and superficial. I’m sure someone will tell readers what she found lacking in this particular book. I won’t be that person. Instead I can’t wait to tell you about this ARC I read that has a hero and heroine who captured my attention and my heart, a story that made me laugh and cry, and language with phrases that continue to sing in my ears. Yep, I’m raving again.

Do you grade the books you read? Are you sometimes irritated by the enthusiasm of raving readers? Or are you a raving reader?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Summertime, and the Living Is . . .

I have Grand visitors this week.

And I’m spending lots of time in the sun . . .

on the water . . .

and in movie theaters.

The four-year-old said after a long, busy day, “My energy needs a rest.” So does mine. : ) My visitors say goodbye tomorrow. I plan a lazy, relaxing weekend during which I barely stir from the air-conditioned comfort of home, a stack of books, and lots of iced tea. I'll be back next week with a blog about raving readers.

I’m finding summer exhausting. How is your summer going?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Few Words from Jill Barnett--And A Few from Janga

Last September, not long before the Vagabonds broke up the caravan and headed in different directions, I blogged on my wish list of new books by authors whose names had disappeared from new releases lists. I didn’t include Jill Barnett in the list because I kept seeing references to new books by her, but Hellion, the Cap’n on the Romance Writer’s Revenge, mentioned in her comment how much she missed JB and suggested that her absence might be attributable to the untimely death of her husband.

I haven’t really thought about the wish list blog since the Vagabonds said our goodbyes, but our words—mine and those of all the commenters—caught the attention of Jill Barnett, who sent me the following message:

I scoured your website, Vagabonds, but could find nowhere to post. I just now discovered a conversation in 2009 about me, my books, or lack thereof, and the death of my husband.

I would love to post or have you post this info. I loved that you and Hellion missed my books. As for Chris' death affecting my output, not so much. His death has affected every moment and single grain of my life. I was so scared. Our daughter was only 11. I had to raise her alone. It was not easy. Then my father and my MIL died, two months apart and a year after Chris. Still I was writing.

I was in the middle of CARRIED AWAY when Chris died, and had stupidly patterned a character after him. Can you imagine? Finishing that book was so difficult, but I did. After that, I wrote WONDERFUL, WILD, WICKED, all historical romances, some of my bestsellers, then SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY, THE DAYS OF SUMMER, and another women's fiction book.

And I have three new historical romances coming out all together in 2011.

Here's a short version of what happened. I was urged by my publisher to go hardcover. They wanted to take WICKED hardcover. That bothered me. Romance readers read so much. They want paperback, so I agreed instead to do hardcover fiction and write something else after WICKED, which I asked them to keep as a mass market ppbk. Then during one year, everyone who supported me at the publisher left and my agent left my literary agency. I had been at my publisher since 1988, with my first book. This was what was difficult.

Eventually I slogged through and finished my contract; this was not easy, I admit, and took me forever. I left and have gone over to my old team who are now at Random House/Ballantine. We proposed three new historical romances, which they wanted to hold and publish all at once, and I still had to write the books, so I expect they will be out sometime in 2011.

There is a 4th book they don't know about yet which will probably follow those. Had I written these books faster, they would have been out this year. Blame me for that. I was never a speedy writer. It takes 2-3 months to physically write a book, but 6-9 for me to 'think a book.'

But I adore these books and hope readers will, too. Set in medieval Scotland, they are about three sisters who I believe readers will not forget, and the men who fall in love with them, though that is not an easy task for our heroes. I promise you these books are different, and that readers will read them and find many surprises. They are emotional, sometimes funny, and meant for readers to close the book happy. I want these women to be remembered, and think they will be, although I'm still writing number 3, so we'll see.

I have another idea for a trilogy, so I would like to write that, and further into the future, I swear I will write the two spin offs of BEWITCHING and DREAMING I am still getting mail about.

A revamped Jill Barnett website will up in the late summer. All of my older romances are being released in e-Book form and will be available in a couple of months, if not sooner at all the eBook stores.

I am sincerely flattered that readers miss my books. I will try to make certain they have Jill Barnett books every year in the future.

Yes, there are times and were times when writing a happy, joy-filled love story was difficult, especially in the early days of Chris' death, when I was floundering so, and terribly wounded. But my husband loved that I wrote these books. To stop writing would feel like a slap in his face. I was lucky to have had him for 27 years, and I would have loved to have had him for 27 more. He is missed greatly by my daughter, his brothers and sisters, his friends, his employees, and me.

I do post on a private (not fan site) on Facebook, talk about books and life, family and him, home and writing, and I have little Twitter acct, Jillbooks. I will eventually set up a FB fan page, but anyone is welcome to befriend me on the one that is there now.

So new books are coming, and I hope you will still want to read them, that readers will laugh and cry, and read the last line and close the book on a satisfied sigh.

My best,

Jill Barnett

If you’ve never read a Jill Barnett book, do yourself a favor and look for those ebooks right now. Bewitching and Dreaming are my favorites, and I was delighted to read that Ms. Barnett is planning spinoffs of these books. Anytime the subject of epilogues comes up, I cite Bewitching as having one of the best epilogues ever written. Just thinking about it makes me smile. I know some of you share my fondness for control-freak meets free spirit plots, and, trust me, this tale of the proper, rational Alec Castlemaine, 15th Duke of Belmore, who wants to control everything, and Joyous Fiona MacQuarrie, a one-quarter witch who can’t even control her own magic, will have you laughing, crying, and sighing at some great love scenes. I don’t know of another book where the H/H’s lovemaking is accompanied by a shower of pink rose petals. A cast of wonderful secondary characters, including Beezle, Joy’s familiar, an ermine weasel, add to the delight. Some of the secondary characters get their own HEAs in Dreaming, which Hellion actually likes even better than Bewitching.

I read very few Medieval romances, but I have read JB’s trilogy: Wonderful, Wild, and Wicked. The latter is one of only three Medievals on my all-time top 100 romances list. Even my bias against the period setting couldn’t hold out against the humor, the pathos, and the heart-capturing H/H of this book.

I also love Sentimental Journey. It is a World War II book that is a novel with strong romantic elements rather than a romance, but both the men and women are strong, active, and deeply human characters whose stories will engage your mind and your heart. I have to add a novella to my list of Jill Barnett favorites. “Boxing Day,” one of four stories in the Christmas anthology A Stockingful of Joy, is a one-of-a-kind tale featuring an older heroine and a professional boxer in Victorian New York. It’s been a part of my annual Christmas rereads since I first read it. (Mary Jo Putney’s underrated “The Best Husband Money Can Buy” is in the same anthology.)

Perhaps you are beginning to understand why Hellion and I missed Jill Barnett books and why I think the news that “new books are coming” is an announcement worth celebrating.

What’s your favorite Jill Barnett book? From what writers do you most long to hear a new-books-on-the-way announcement?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Love Romance Novels! Thank You, Robyn Carr!

Today I was reminded anew of a large reason why I have read romance fiction for most of my life. The realities of death and divorce in the lives of people I love cast a heavy pall over my day. I did what I could for those most affected, precious little though it was. Then, rather than sit and grow sadder with every moment of thought, I retreated to a book.

In this case, the book was an advance copy of Robyn Carr’s A Summer in Sonoma, which I read courtesy of her publisher, Mira/Harlequin, and NetGalley. I first read Carr when she was writing historicals back in the 80s, and she’s been on my auto-buy list since 1999 with The House on Olive Street (which has just been reissued and is in bookstores now, by the way). I bought Virgin River on its release day, well before it became a buzzed-about book. I include all these details because reading an auto-buy author is different from reading a new or new-to-me writer or a sometimes-read author, particularly when the reader has a long history with the writer.

I know when I pick up a book with Robyn Carr’s name on the cover that I’m going to get an emotionally intense story in which characters, who will be presented within the context of a community of family and friends, will experience problems that mirror real life problems. With the help of their community, the characters will overcome these problems in credible ways. The psychically and physically wounded will be healed, the lonely will find love, and the embattled lovers will reconcile.

I have a particular fondness for the kind of book Carr writes, books I call “hybrid romances” because they are a blend of women’s fiction and romance. I felt safe reading A Summer in Sonoma. I knew I was entering a world where characters would struggle with some of the same problems that had left me weighed down with sadness, but they would emerge triumphant. I wasn’t disappointed.

ASIS is the story of four women, friends since their school days, discovering that the lives they are leading as they head into their thirties are not the lives they expected.

Cassie, an ER nurse, is single. A series of bad relationships with jerks and losers have left her lonely and frightened. “There were times she thought life just wasn’t worth living without some kind of deep love and intimacy. The thought of growing into an old woman without ever having that kind of intimacy was unimaginable.” Then in the worst moment of her life, she meets a most unlikely knight.

Julie is married to her high school sweetheart Billy. The parents of three children, living on Billy’s salary as a paramedic for the fire department and his second job in construction, they have too many bills for their income and too little time together. “When she was crowned homecoming queen, this was not how she had envisioned her life. She’d had her fifteen minutes of fame when she was seventeen.”

Beth is a busy doctor, “a nerdy brain inside a model’s body.” Immersed in her new practice at a local women’s clinic, she insists she has no time for a man in her life. An only child of older parents, Beth is used to keeping things to herself: “She’s always been a private sort, not because she was secretive, but because she had a tendency to be intense, to think about things deeply for a long time before putting her emotions out there to be examined.” But the recurrence of a medical problem that had left her scarred in heart and body the first time teaches her how much she needs her old friends--and a new one.

Hairdresser Marty, married to Joe, a fireman, and the mother of one child, hates her life. Every day of dissatisfaction with her husband’s old world ideas about gender roles and his slobbish ways erodes her love for him more and sets her thinking of a life separate from his. “The sexy man she’d fallen in love with was gone, replaced by this Neanderthal who couldn’t care less about her feelings.”

The friendship that connects these four women is the center of this book. Their interactions felt real to me. The intimacy, the informality, the history they shared all rang true. More than once I was reminded of my own best friend, who has been a part of my life since we were four years old. I also liked the way the group extended to integrate the men in their lives. Cassie and Billy are friends too. He’s more than just her best friend’s husband. Billy introduces Joe and Marty. Cassie worries about what her friends will think of the new man in her life. All these things added to the credibility of the story. One of my favorite passages described a gathering of the tribe: “It worked. Four odd couples strung together by four women who’d been friends since they were girls, laughed and joked through lots of food and good wine, told tales about one another and seemed to connect on many levels.”

Fans of Carr’s Virgin River series know what great male characters this author creates. Walt knocked some of those VR heroes down a notch or two on my list of favorites. I adore the big, burly biker with his ponytail, naked woman tattoo, love of books, and tender ways with a woman’s body and heart. Billy who is still passionately in love with his wife after thirteen years of marriage, who thinks his three kids are miracles, won my heart too. Jerod, a nurturer who is not intimidated by Beth’s independence or forced dependence is a dream hero. Even stubborn Joe, who takes his marriage vows seriously and —once he knows the problem—knocks himself out showing his love for his wife, is a winner.

A Summer in Sonoma did exactly what I hoped it would. It allowed me to come back to the heartbreaks in my real world less weighed down by sadness, with a greater sense of optimism. Escapism? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as a reminder that human creatures can, to borrow terms from William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech, not merely endure but prevail.

I love romance novels! I owe a big thank you to Robyn Carr and to dozens of other romance writers who keep enriching my world and safeguarding my sanity with their tales of those who prevail.