Saturday, March 26, 2011

Good News Day!

I borrowed a happy sunshine sticker from the next-youngest grand to mark March 25 on my calendar. I squeeed and smiled all day at the good news that just kept coming.

First, I read an announcement from Candice Hern about the repackaging of her Regencies as ebooks. Candice wrote some of my favorite trad Regencies: Miss Lacey’s Last Fling, The Best Intentions, A Change of Heart. I’m delighted to know that I’ll soon be able to purchase these and other of her books as ebooks. In the meantime, the anthology It Happened One Season releases March 29, and will be available as a paperback and ebook. Candice’s contribution, “Fate Strikes a Bargain,” has already earned praise from an AAR reviewer who terms it “delightful” and calls Candice a “buried treasure.” (Mary Balogh, Jacquie D’Alessandro, and Stephanie Laurens also have novellas in IHOS.)

Then, as most of you probably know, Connie Brockway announced in an interview with AAR’s Sandy that she is “going rogue” and offering her next books only as ebooks. I’m sure I’m not the only Connie Brockway fan dancing with joy to know that we should have OOP and new Brockway books available by year’s end. Her plans include repackaging Promise Me Heaven (the book where Giles Strand makes his first appearance) and Anything for Love (a Western with a delicious beta hero) and offering them for download within the next month or so, followed by sequels to As You Desire—a short story and a full-length novel--by late December. The short story will be free to subscribers to Brockway’s newsletter, a great incentive to sign up soon. Sometime later, Take Me Through the Night (tentative title), the long-awaited Giles Strand story, will be available. Brockway describes it as “a whopper of a dark, sexy, grim gothicy tale.” Some of us have been waiting more than a decade for Giles’s story. I know there are cheers throughout the land at this news. Maybe now that CB is writing what she wants to write, she’ll also be tempted to write sequels to my favorite Brockway novel, My Dearest Enemy.
Finally, March 25 was THE DAY for writers who entered books in the Rita and Golden Heart Contests, so there were lots of cheers (and I’m sure lots of disappointed sighs) resounding in Romancelandia. I’m not going to list all the finalists here because there are nearly one hundred Rita finalists plus all those yet-to-be-published writers who got the GH nod. You can see all the titles and authors on the RWA site. My congratulations to all the finalists!

I am especially happy to see some of my favorite authors and books on the list. Pieces of Sky by Kaki Warner and When Harry Met Molly by Kieran Kramer are finalists for First Book. Karen Templeton (Welcome Home, Cowboy) and Helen Brenna (The Moon That Night) are nominated in different series romance categories. Nora Roberts, who holds the record for most Rita wins, received three more nominations, including one for Happily Ever After, the conclusion of her Bride Quartet, in the Contemporary Single Title category. Another favorite, Rachel Gibson (Nothing But Trouble) finaled in the same category.

It’s no surprise that the Historical category is strong. It’s also one of the categories in which I’ve read all the nominated books: The Forbidden Rose by Joanne Bourne; His at Night by Sherry Thomas; A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James; Last Night's Scandal by Loretta Chase; A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl; One Wicked Sin by Nicola Cornick; Open Country by Kaki Warner. So many of my favorite books of 2010 are on this list that it seems likely that whoever wins, I’ll be cheering.

I’ve read fewer books than usual in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category, only four. But I really liked The Dead Travel Fast by Deanna Raybourn, On Folly Beach by Karen White, and The Search by Nora Roberts. And I’m particularly pleased to see Welcome to Harmony by Jodi Thomas on the list. Regency Historical is another category in which I’ve read all the books: His Christmas Pleasure by Cathy Maxwell, The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean, Provocative in Pearls by Madeline Hunter, To Surrender to a Rogue by Cara Elliott, Twice Tempted by a Rogue by Tessa Dare, When Harry Met Molly by Kieran Kramer, and The Wicked Wyckerly by Patricia Rice. I’m happy for all these deserving authors, but I confess to a particular delight—and extra squees--for friend and fellow Vanette Tessa Dare.

I’m even excited about finalists in subgenres into which I rarely venture. I’m thrilled for double nominee Virginia Kantra—for Immortal Sea in Paranormal Romance and in novella for "Shifting Sea" in Burning Up—and for Roxanne St. Claire (Edge of Sight) and Cynthia Eden (Deadly Fear) in Romantic Suspense.

I don’t know many of the GH finalists this year, but I did cheer loudly for Banditas Anna Sugden, whose Legacy of Love is a finalist in Contemporary Single Title, and Nancy Northcott, whose Bound by Honor is a finalist in Historical. And, of course, lots of squees and crossed appendages for Leigh Lavelle, a finalist in Historical for The Runaway Countess.

Are you excited about the proliferation of ebooks and some of the revolutionary moves favorite authors are making? How many Rita-nominated books have you read? Who were you cheering for loudest when the calls went out for Rita and GH finalists? What omissions shocked you most?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On the Road Again

Road romances have been around as long as I’ve been reading romance--and that's a l-o-n-g time. AAR lists more than 180 in various subgenres. But I’ve never thought of road books as a particular favorite trope until recently when I realized that I had read and enjoyed three in the first quarter of 2011.

After thinking about the trope, I realized that the road book keeps the focus on relationships, and that’s a plus for me. In real life, I've found there’s just something about people alone in a vehicle that fosters a sense of intimacy. Some of the most honest conversations I’ve ever had have taken place on road trips, and I’ve heard many parents say that they have their most revealing exchanges with their kids, particularly teens, as they are driving with them. Even the silences can be meaningful. These real life qualities are part of road romances too.

My most recent road book read was Debbie Macomber’s A Turn in the Road (Mira, April 26), Book 8 in the Blossom Street series. Three women, each confronting a turn in her life’s road, drive across the country together. The occasion for the road trip is the 50th high-school reunion of Ruth Hamlin. Ruth, who has been widowed for many years, has never forgotten her first love, and the reunion offers the possibility of seeing him again.

When Ruth’s children express concern about her driving from Seattle to Florida alone, her former daughter-in-law, Bethanne, agrees to accompany Ruth. Bethanne was devastated six years earlier when her husband confessed to an affair and asked for a divorce, but in the six years since the divorce, she has rebuilt her life, enjoying great success in the party business she started and close, loving relationships with her son and daughter. Grant, her ex, has shed wife #2 and is trying to persuade Bethanne that he deserves a second chance. She’s not so sure their reunion is a good idea. Annie Hamlin, a young grad student who works in her mother’s Parties business, thinks her boyfriend is about to propose. Instead he informs her that he’s off for a year in Europe, and she’s not invited. Angry and hurt, Annie decides to join her mother and grandmother on their trip.

The trip that includes stops in Las Vegas, Branson, MO, and New Orleans, is filled with adventures, laughter, arguments, and changes for these three women. Car trouble brings another complication into Bethanne’s life—Max, a hero on a Harley who is more than he appears to be. The end of the journey offers Ruth more than she dared dream, and Annie discovers how much fun life can be when one is free to explore all the possibilities.

I liked the interweaving of the stories of women in three different stages of life, each of them vital and growing. I found Annie the least sympathetic character.  She sometimes seems immature and more than a little selfish, but ther times, she comes across as young and endearing. I loved Ruth story, especially the prom redo, and I delighted in the twist in Bethanne’s story. Debbie Macomber fans and readers who like their women's fiction served with a generous helping of romance are going to love this one.

Reading A Turn in the Road led me to consider other road books I’ve enjoyed. If you know me, you know I’m a compulsive list maker. So it should come as no surprise that thinking about road books led to a list of my top 20. Here they are in chronological order.

1. Sylvester: or The Wicked Uncle (1957) by Georgette Heyer

A Regency romp by the much imitated but rarely surpassed Heyer, this road book has Miss Phoebe Marlow fleeing and, of course, falling for the arrogant Sylvester, Duke of Salford amid scandal, kidnapping, and assorted revelations.

2. "Miracle on I-40" (Silhouette Christmas Stories, 1988) by Curtiss Ann Matlock

A Christmas story I reread every year, this road book features a bundle of Christmas clich├ęs—family reunion, adorable kids, cute animals, a visit from Santa himself—and it also offers an unusual heroine and hero (a waitress and a truck driver) who travel in a truck with lights on the grille spelling out “Bah! Humbug!” and the kind of transformation the spirit of Christmas should bring.

3. Silk and Secrets (1992) by Mary Jo Putney

This is a book that merits more attention. It’s not only a superlative road book but also one of the most memorable reunion romance I’ve ever read, with a flawed heroine, a hero who is the stuff of legends, an exotic setting (Middle East), and an emotional conclusion that packs a knockout punch.

4. My Lady Notorious (1993) by Jo Beverley

The first book in Beverley's beloved Malloren series, this Georgian romance boasts a cross-dressing heroine, a sexy food scene, true treachery and evil, and the introduction of a secondary character who stole the hearts of readers who spent years “waiting for Rothgar.”

5. Crooked Hearts (1994) by Patricia Gaffney

An American historical set in 1880s San Francisco, this tale of two con artists begins with the heroine as a Catholic nun and the hero as a blind Spanish aristocrat, and the trip from that point on is sexy and fun.

6. One Perfect Rose (1997) by Mary Jo Putney

Connected to MJP’s Fallen Angels series (The hero, Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, is the brother of Michael Kenyon), this book has a duke in disguise, a foundling brought up in a family of actors, and a journey that includes a visit to heaven.

7. I Do, I Do, I Do (2000) by Maggie Osborne

Three very different women join forces to hunt the man who married all three of them. A  trek that takes them to Alaska and Canada leads them to self-knowledge and, along the way, to their soul mates.

8. First Lady (2000) by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Take a widowed First Lady who has gone AWOL, a curmudgeonly journalist who is allergic to commitment, and two of the best kid characters in romance fiction; mix them up in a rattletrap motor home and end up with a terrific blend of SEP’s usual laughter, love, and irresistible story.

9. Tallie's Knight (2001) by Anne Gracie

The hero is an earl known as “the Icicle” whose cold heart is melted by a toddler who fires him with an ambition to be a father; the heroine is a poor relation whose innocence is equaled by her wise and loving heart; traveling from Dover to Paris to Italy gives them time find the proverbial journey’s end--true lovers’ meeting.

10. The Wedding Journey (2002) by Carla Kelly

Another of Carla Kelly’s stories of transcendent love amid the horrors of war, this novel gives readers a shy captain and surgeon in Wellington’s army who rescues his secret love from a sadistic bully and turns a military retreat into a honeymoon.

11. The Runaway Duke (2004) by Julie Anne Long

JAL’s first book features a head groom who turns out to be a duke, an almost bride who runs away from what she knows will be a loveless marriage, a pair of villains who are a mix of moral flaws and sympathy-evoking vulnerabilities, and a journey that offers humor and pathos. JAL was added to my autobuy list with this one.

12. Lord Perfect (2006) by Loretta Chase

The third book in Chase’s popular Carsington series, this is the story of the controlled and lordly Benedict Carsington, the Viscount Rathbourne, the scandalous Bathsheba Wingate, and their two spirited charges, her irrepressible daughter Olivia and his logical nephew Peregrine—one of those thisclose to perfect tales that seem to be a habit with Loretta Chase.

13. The Perfect Stranger (2006) by Anne Gracie

In the third book of Gracie’s Merridew Sisters quartet, Faith is on the run from her great love who turned out to be a bigamist, from a trio of would-be rapists; she runs into the arms of an ex-soldier who saves her, marries her, and falls in love with her—in that order.

14. A Rather Curious Engagement (2008) by C.A. Belmond

Another light-hearted romance that follows Penny Nichols and her not-really-a-cousin boyfriend Jeremy on a second adventure, ARCE takes the pair to the French Riviera, Lake Como, and Corsica, most of the journey in pursuit of Jeremy’s stolen vintage yacht. Sheer fun that feels like a 1940s romantic comedy even though it is contemporary!

15. The Spymaster's Lady (2008) by Joanna Bourne

This is the book that persuaded me I could love a book about spies, gave me a hero and heroine who are richly layered characters individually and even more intriguing together, held me breathless through their journeys—literal and metaphoric, and added a title to my all-time top romances.

16. The Perils of Pleasure (2008) by Julie Anne Long

JAL introduces the Everseas and the Redmonds, the two families who will supply the characters and conflicts for her Pennyroyal Green series. This first book begins with Colin Eversea’s rescue from the gallows by a woman hired for the task. Their journey to discover a common but unknown enemy becomes a journey toward trust and unexpected love. This was my favorite of the series until it was recently displaced by What I Did for a Duke.

17. Surrender of a Siren (2009) by Tessa Dare

Book 2 in Tessa Dare’s debut series pairs a runaway heiress with a rogue determined to reform, a goal made nearly impossible by the presence of said heiress on his ship. I loved this book—and Gray is a hero to be treasured through rereading after rereading.

18. Not Quite a Husband (2009) by Sherry Thomas

The heroine of this book is an overly serious doctor who practices medine in Germany and America before setting up practice in India; the hero is a mathematician and writer who charms everyone; the primary setting is late Victorian India. The only predictable things about this book are Thomas’s lyrical prose and richly developed characters.

19. Softly and Tenderly (2011) by Sara Evans and Rachel Hauck

An inspirational that proves readers who dismiss the subgenre merely as “preaching books” are selling the subgenre short, this novel is the tale of Jade Fitzgerald Benson, her mother Beryl, and her mother-in-law June, whose road trip in a 1966 Fleetwood Eldorado convertible (pale pink) is filled with tensions among the women and with bonding and humor as each woman must come to terms with the upheavals in her life.

20. My One and Only (2011) by Kristan Higgins

Another book that combines road trip and reunion motifs, this one gives readers a cynical divorce attorney and the husband she divorced twelve years ago on a cross-country trip following the wedding of her step-sister to his half-brother. That description is enough to know that the book is filled with Higgins’s trademark humor. There were many moments that made me laugh, a few that left me teary-eyed, and a dog that seemed so real I could almost pat her head (Coco, a Jack Russell-Chihuahua mix with a split personality).

How do you feel about road romances? How many of my favorites have you read? What would you add to the list?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Redeeming the Heroine: Vanessa Kelly's MY FAVORITE COUNTESS

Life has not been kind to Bathsheba Compton, the widowed Countess of Randolph since her plan to marry the wealthy Earl of Trask ended disastrously two years ago—for her, at least. Bad investments and poor harvests have left the family coffers empty and the debts ruinous. Only Bathsheba’s responsibilities have not diminished. Her best option appears to be bartering her beauty for marriage to a wealthy and generous gentleman.

But before Bathsheba can leave Yorkshire for her husband hunt in London, she meets Dr. John Blackmore. Her response to the handsome physician is instantaneous and visceral. She knows he’s all wrong for her, and she has sworn that never again will passion control her. But circumstances keep throwing them together, and her resolution proves futile when she realizes passion is just part of what she feels for John Blackmore.

John is fighting his own demons. Driven by an old guilt, he challenges established medical practices and ignores those who warn him against the house calls he makes to patients in London’s most dangerous slums. Even his love for Bathsheba is not enough to persuade him to surrender his obsession to save the lives of poor women and their babies.

The journey to an HEA is not an easy one for these two complicated characters, but it is one that will touch the reader’s heart and remain in her memory after the last page is turned.

Those of you familiar with Vanessa Kelly’s second book, Sex and the Single Earl, will recognize Bathsheba as the rejected mistress who plots to keep Simon and Sophie apart. The redemption theme is a popular one in romance fiction, as evidenced by the most recent AAR top 100 poll in which Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels and Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You claimed the top two spots, but most romance novels that feature the redemption theme, like these two classic romances, focus on the hero’s transformation from an incomplete, morally flawed character to one who is whole and healed. Redeemed heroines are uncommon except in inspirationals such as Francine Rivers’s Redeeming Love. I was privileged to read a draft of Sex and the Single Earl, and I commented to the author then that Bathsheba was an atypical villainess, one who clearly had an interesting story of her own. I was delighted when I learned that Bathsheba would be redeemed as the heroine of the third book in the series.

My Favorite Countess lived up to all my expectations. As a heroine-redeemed tale, I rank it with Edith Layton’s To Wed a Stranger and Mary Balogh’s The Christmas Bride. Kelly develops Bathsheba’s character arc skillfully and realistically. Early in the novel, the reader learns that there is more to Bathsheba than the arrogant, seductive beauty that her world sees. Yet even as the reader learns the countess’s secrets and develops sympathy for her, an awareness persists of her less than admirable values and the ease with which she employs her viper’s tongue on those who displease her. It’s not until near the end of the book when Bathsheba learns to place someone else’s needs before her own that her transformation is complete.

John Blackmore is as unusual a hero as Bathsheba is a heroine. As a physician, he would have been a rare hero; as an accoucheur, the 19th-century version of an obstetrician, he’s even rarer. He’s also great looking, intelligent, honorable, and passionate about his vocation and his woman. I fell for him in a big way. Once you learn that Kelly says her inspirations for John were Hugh Jackman and Patrick Dempsey, you’ll understand why I found him irresistible.

Another thing I loved about My Favorite Countess was the role played by the hero and heroine of Mastering the Marquess, Kelly’s first novel and a book that I raved about at various online sites. I’m a series addict who rejoices to see favorite characters reappear but prefers them to contribute to the story. Meredith and Silverton play significant roles in this story. In fact, the friendship that develops between Bathsheba and Meredith was another of my favorite parts of the novel.

Reading My Favorite Countess, a reader will understand why Booklist named Vanessa Kelly one of the new stars of historical romance. Richly complex characters, smoking hot love scenes, and elements that set the book apart from the usual romance—My Favorite Countess has all of these things and more. The book will officially be released on May 3. Mark that date on your calendar and look for My Favorite Countess, another Janga five-star recommendation, at your favorite bookstore, or go ahead and pre-order it online now.

What’s your favorite redemption-themed romance? What authors have joined your auto-buy list with their first novel?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Marvelous March!

March has arrived with glorious gifts. First, everywhere I look I see harbingers of spring—sunny daffodils on the lawn, wild plum trees in the woods, golden forsythia edging the road, purple carpets of thrift on a neighbor’s hill, and the lacey loveliness of Bradford pear trees in bloom all over town. These are the first notes in what will soon be a grand symphony of springtime. I already have spring fever, that giddy, dreamy feeling that fills me with hope and happiness. We’ve already had days of sunshine and 70s temps here, and I’ve been writing in a rocker on the porch, on a bench in the yard, and at a picnic table by the river.
This March has been generous in gifting reading treasures as well. Not only do I have new romance novels by favorites such as Jo Beverley (An Unlikely Countess), Julie James (A Lot Like Love), and Janice Kay Johnson (Bone Deep) on my TBR shelf, but I’m also looking forward to adding new novels by favorite authors in other genres: Dark Mirror by M. J. Putney (Mary Jo Putney's first YA novel), The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde, A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear, Summer of Love by Katie Fforde, Anthem for Doomed Youth by Carola Dunn, Friday’s Daughter by Patricia Sprinkle, and even a work of nonfiction, Royal Pains: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds by Leslie Carroll.

Then there are my first two March reads, both with true March connections.

The first, Bridge to Happiness, by Jill Barnett (Bell Bridge ebook, December 2010), features a protagonist named March. It’s women fiction rather than romance, but it has two love stories. March and Mike Cantrell marry young, build a successful business together, rear four children (the youngest on the cusp of adulthood as the story opens), and enjoy three decades of life together. But March’s near perfect life comes to an abrupt end one night when Mike is killed in an automobile accident. What follows is the story of March’s journey through grief and emotional pain back to life on the other side of devastation where another man teaches her heart to love again.

My second March read was authored by a March—Emily March, a new pseudonym for a long-time favorite writer, Geralyn Dawson. Angel’s Rest (Ballantine, February 2010) is the first book in March’s Eternity Springs series. As the first book in the series, Angel’s Rest introduces a fascinating cast of characters and the setting, a tiny town in the Colorado Rockies with a long history as a healing place. Gabriel Callahan needs healing more than most.  He has already lost two lives, one in a Sarajevo prison where he was declared dead and given a new identity and another when his wife and son were killed in an automobile accident. Gabe has reached the point where life no longer seems worth enduring when he rescues a dog he refuses to name and meets a woman, vet Nicole Sullivan, whose warmth and compassion Gabe fights hard to resist. Since this one is romance, we know that’s one fight he loses.

Reading these books seriously depleted my Kleenex supply, but they also evoked smiles and sighs of readerly satisfaction. Although both of these books are about losses that nearly destroy the characters, they are ultimately life affirming books. The thing I liked best about March’s and Gabe’s stories is that their journeys are from happiness through darkness to a new happiness that does not negate or minimize the joy they knew in their earlier lives. Moving on does not mean forgetting the experiences that have shaped these characters into the people they are.

March’s and Gabe’s pain may resonate deepest with those who have fought their own battles with soul-shattering grief, but any reader can empathize with these characters and rejoice with them as love in many guises helps them heal and build a bridge across the abyss of grief to a life renewed with happiness and love. I loved both books and found them particularly appropriate reading for a season of rebirth and renewal. I’m thrilled that both these authors are publishing new books. Jill Barnett has a Medieval trilogy coming soon, and Emily March has two more books in the Eternity Springs series being released this spring—Hummingbird Lake on March 22 and Heartache Falls on April 26. I’m saving space for them all on the TBR shelf.

Has spring tiptoed into your world yet? What are you reading this March?

Donna is the Randomizer's choice to receive the This Kiss giveaway. Donna, please email me your contact info, and I'll send your book to you ASAP.