Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review Tuesday: The Dark Enquiry

The Dark Enquiry
By Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: Mira
Release Date: June 21, 2011
4.5 Stars

I read Silent in the Grave shortly after its release in 2007 and have eagerly followed Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series since. The mysteries are effectively plotted and set in the Victorian period, a time I find fascinating, and I find the development of the protagonists, individually and as a couple, riveting. I was thrilled when Mira gave me the opportunity via NetGalley to read the latest in the series early.

In this fifth book in the series, Lady Julia and her husband, Nicholas Brisbane, have recently returned from their honeymoon and are adjusting to their life in London as a married couple. Julia continues her experiments with gunpowder with predictably explosive results, and Brisbane, with the noble aim of protecting his wife, continues his attempts to limit Julia’s involvement in his work. His efforts are futile, of course, especially when Julia learns that her eldest brother, Lord Bellmont, has consulted Brisbane about an indiscretion that has led to blackmail. Scandal, murder, and espionage all become part of the tangled mystery that ends with a deeper understanding and a more fierce commitment between the Brisbanes, but not without exacting a heavy price.
Raybourn has described her books as historical fiction with enough mystery and romance for fans of those genres to read them happily. Whatever her recipe for blending history, romance, and mystery, it’s one with which this reader remains pleased. One of the delights of this series is the way the author weaves period history into the story. This time spiritualism, the fragile state of political power, and growing concerns about Germany are integral parts of the mystery. I pride myself on solving the mystery before the reveal, but the villain’s identity caught me by surprise. I took a couple of steps in the right direction, but then I wandered far afield. I had a completely different villain with a different motive in mind.

As always, for me, the characters are the magnets that pull me back to a series. I always look forward to encountering members of Julia’s eccentric family. I loved seeing Portia with baby Jane again. Brother Plum plays a role in book 5 too, and I have hopes he’ll be featured more prominently later. A new and intriguing member of Julia’s family is introduced, and I anticipate seeing more of him as well. Raybourn also continues to unveil bits of Brisbane’s past. The scenes in the gypsy camp were some of the most vivid in the book, showing new pieces of Nicholas to add to the puzzle that is Brisbane. The relationship between Julia and Brisbane is again the center of the book, and Raybourn proves that what follows the traditional HEA can be as compelling as what leads to it.

The Dark Enquiry includes wit and humor along with rawer emotions and the suspense that one expects in a mystery. I found myself chuckling at many of Julia and Brisbane’s exchanges and teary-eyed at others. And the first cemetery scene offered an edge-of-the-seat reading that reminded me of the horror movies I watched as a child.

The 4.5 star rating is attributable to my concern with the ending. Despite its emotional punch, I found myself thinking that it would prove a convenient way to keep Julia an active member of the detecting team. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers and because it may be that my cynicism is coloring those final scenes. At any rate, it looks as if Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane are next bound for Italy, and I plan to join them when the next book is published.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Reviews, Fans, Friends, and Other Matters

This is an edited, updated repost of one of my Romance Vagabond blogs from March 2009. Since I have begun reviewing one a week on this site, it seems a timely repost.
Over my long years of teaching I spent untold hours thinking and talking about grades. Many of those hours involved attempts to make a student understand why she/he had received a particular grade. Funny thing, no one ever said “I think you should reconsider this A. My essay didn’t deserve it.” But every other grade I assigned, I was at some time called upon to defend. Fortunately, I had clearly defined criteria that I could use in the conferences. Most of the time I was able to persuade the student to see my reasoning. There were a few who left my office convinced I just had it in for athletes, blondes, Tekes, music majors, or some other group. I remember vividly the young man who shook his essay in my face as he proclaimed loudly, “You can’t give fail me; I’m pre-med.”

But some of the most difficult discussions I had about grading involved not students but colleagues.  The general practice in grading workshops was that if the grades two teachers assigned the same paper were more than a letter grade apart, they has to reconcile the grade or call in a mediator to make a decision. These sessions involved professionals, generally experienced in evaluating student writing, who had agreed in advance about the general characteristics of an A paper, a B paper, a C paper, etc. And still we disagreed not infrequently and sometimes with considerable passion, but resolution was possible because we always went back to the pre-determined criteria.
About now you are probably asking yourself what this blog has to do with romance readers and writers. Stay with me. I promise I’ll make the connection.


 Most sites that review romance novels assign grades. If they don’t use A-F grades, they give a number of stars or hearts or some such symbol that corresponds to A-F. Many readers also assign grades to the books they read. I confess that I am among them.  I record the title, author, genre/subgenre, date, one-paragraph summary, and a grade for the books I read.  The grade is helpful for me because I know exactly what it means.
A means that I loved the book and expect to read it again. I fell in love with the characters, willingly suspended disbelief, and overall found the book so compelling, inspiring, or entertaining that I am even willing to forgive a few niggles. The book is headed for the keeper shelf.
B means that I enjoyed the book and will read the author again, but unless the book is part of a series with A books in it, I am unlikely to reread it. The book is headed for a friend who might like it, the UBS or Friends of the Library collection bin.
C means it was an OK book that had some flaws but was not a bad way to spend an hour or so. This book is also headed for a friend who might like it, the UBS or Friends of the Library collection bin.
D means that I failed to connect with the book. It disappointed me in some fundamental way--weak or unbelievable characters, plot that failed to capture my interest, some writing tic that pulled me out of the story.  Since someone might like it, this book ends up at the UBS or the FOL book sale.
F means I found the book poorly conceived, poorly written, and a waste of my time and money.   Sometimes this book goes to the UBS; sometimes it goes in the trash.
Sometimes I give a book a DNF (Did Not Finish). Often the latter book is not a bad book, just a book that was not to my taste.  Since many of my DNFs are romantic suspense or paranormal, subgenres I read very selectively, they often go to family members who like these subgenres.
If you had access only to the grade I gave a particular book without my explanation of what the grade means, your interpretation of the grade might be quite different. Perhaps you don’t even have keepers, and your A means something different from mine. That’s the problem I’m having with some review sites. I can’t figure out what their grades mean. I read one review recently in which the writer praised every element in a book--raved about the complex characters, lauded the historical background, wrote paeans to the author’s prose, and then gave the book a B. I was left wondering if the reviewer were saving her A for some mythical perfect book. I’ve read other reviews that assigned a D to a book because the author didn’t write the book the reviewer wanted to read.  On the other hand, I have also read reviews that focused on all that was wrong with a book, but the book was considered a B book.  Color me confused.
Please understand that it’s not all reviews I have problems with. Many of the reviews I read are intelligent, lucid evaluations that explain one reader’s take on the book.  When the reviewer’s opinion mirrors mine, I am impressed with her astute judgment. When it contradicts mine, I regret her limitations but recognize her right to an opinion. (big grin) But the grades that baffle me seem to be more prevalent these days.

In the two years since I first addressed this issue, my status as a reviewer has changed. In 2009, the only public reviews I wrote were rare ones for the Romance Vagabonds. Now I review frequently here at Just Janga; I am a guest reviewer with The Romance Dish, generally a couple of times each month; and I post reviews on GoodReads regularly. My policy at Just Janga is to post reviews only on books I like. Does the fact that you read only positive reviews here mean that I never read books that I don’t like or that I believe are flawed in major ways? No, indeed, it only means that I choose not to review those books here. I sometimes post reviews elsewhere that explain why I found a book less than satisfactory; more often I save my rants for private conversations. I believe wholeheartedly that fair and honest reviews are in the best interest of the romance genre. We are being less than honest if we pretend that every romance novel published is excellent. Mediocre and substandard books are published in all kinds of fiction, and romance has its share.
Someone once used tastes in ice cream to talk about reader response to reviews. The argument went something like this: If I hate mint chocolate chip, it doesn’t matter that the maker of mint chocolate chip uses the very best ingredients; I’m still not going to rave about her ice cream. On the other hand, if I love pecan praline ice cream, I may wax enthusiastically about a brand that uses somewhat inferior ingredients. If your tastes in ice cream differ from mine, nothing I say about either flavor is likely to change your mind.
I think the analogy has some merit, but extending it, I argue that some ice cream uses such inferior ingredients that any reasonable person will agree that it is not good ice cream, regardless of the individual preferences in flavor. And some ice cream uses such superior ingredients that reasonable people will agree that it’s good ice cream, even if they would never eat a bite of a particular flavor. We may have different tastes in ice cream, but we share some standards against which we measure what is good and what is not. I think the same principles hold when we evaluate books.
Another question that I have pondered is whether it is ethical for me to review books by authors that I’m a fan of or authors who are friends. First, I don’t think “fan” is a dirty word. According to the OED, the word means “A fanatic; in modern English (orig. U.S.): a keen and regular spectator of a (professional) sport, orig. of baseball; a regular supporter of a (professional) sports team; hence, a keen follower of a specified hobby or amusement, and gen. an enthusiast for a particular person or thing.”  The books that I am most eager to talk about with others are often by writers whose work I do intensely believe has worthiness. I indicate in my review if the author is one I follow enthusiastically. I may choose not to review a book by a favorite author if I find it uncharacteristically weak, but I don’t offer praise I feel undeserved. I may be a fan, but I don’t think being one makes an A review for an admired author dishonest or unethical.
Reviewing books written by friends is a stickier problem. I always exempt books by friends from my annual best of list and often from other lists as well. But I will not pledge never to review a book by a friend. If I love a book, I want to be able to rave about it, whoever the author may be. I will be direct about the friendship when I review books written by friends, and I will speak truly when I offer my opinion. Once I’ve done these things, I believe I have satisfied ethical demands.
Do you read reviews? Are you ever confused about why the reviewer awarded a particular grade? Do you grade the books you read? What’s an A book for you?  Is a C book a bad book? What do you think constitutes ethical reviewing?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Julia Spencer-Fleming: The Romance Reader’s Mystery Writer

In October 2006, when the hens at Squawk Radio were still busily squawking, Eloisa James reviewed All Mortal Flesh, the fifth book in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming. EJ’s recommendation, plus Spencer-Fleming’s self-identification as a romance fan, sent me looking for the books. I picked up the first book to check it out and was hooked by the title, In the Bleak Midwinter (It alluded to a poem by Christina Rossetti, one of my favorite poets) and a first line that has to be among the best ever: “It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby.” Within a matter of weeks, I had read all five books. I found in these books the same carefully plotted mysteries, rich details of place, integration of social issues, and focus on a developing relationship that had made Margaret Maron my favorite mystery writer.

I’ve been reading mysteries almost as long as I’ve been reading romance, perhaps longer if I include Nancy Drew in my history with the genre, and I still read a fair number of mysteries, mostly cozies, every year. Most of them offer a few hours of entertainment and then end up in a bag of books to pass on to a friend or to donate to the local library or hospice. Only those that I know I will read again find a home on my keeper shelves. And I don’t reread these books for the mystery plot. I reread them because the protagonists intrigue me, because who they are and the hows and whys of their lives are more compelling than the murder that is solved by book’s end.

In guest post with the Romance Vagabonds in 2008, around the time I Shall Not Want was released, Spencer-Fleming, said that when she began the series she knew certain things, and didn’t know others:

I knew I wanted to tell a love story about a brand-new female Episcopal priest and a married small-town chief of police. I knew I wanted it to be smart, and grown-up, and to ask questions like, “What do we sacrifice to honor our commitments?” and “What if finding your soul mate only leads to heartache?” I didn’t know if the ending would be happy or tragic. I didn’t know if I could balance the story of Russ and Clare, and the people of Millers Kill whose lives intersect with theirs, and the demands of a tightly-plotted mystery. I really didn’t know the central question over five--soon to be six--books was going to be: Will they or won’t they?
Her agent, she said, jokingly described book six as “mystery-women’s fiction-romance.” But it turns out, that description is not a jest but rather an accurate label not for a single book but for this genre-blending series that has become a favorite of many readers within the romance community. These books include a mystery, usually one that is tied to a timely and significant social issue; they also include stages in the journey of the protagonist who struggle with difficult questions and a love story with complications and sexual tension sufficient to please most romance readers.

In the Bleak Midwinter (2002)

Clare Fergusson, a former Army helicopter pilot, has recently arrived in Miller’s Kill, New York, as the new priest of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. She’s finding becoming the ideal priest far more difficult than she expected. Then, a newborn baby is left literally at the church door, and searching for the baby’s mother leads Clare into close contact with Russ Van Alstyne, the seasoned, attractive, married police chief of Miller’s Kill.

A Fountain Filled With Blood (2003)

Hate crimes and environmental concerns show that even small towns are not exempt from the problems that plague American life in the 21st century. Events make it impossible for Clare and Russ to avoid a growing emotional intimacy even as they determine to fight their growing attraction.

Out of the Deep I Cry (2004)

In an intricately woven plot that encompasses nine decades and everything from a leaky church roof to disappearing men, a free clinic, and the debate over whether vaccinations cause autism in children, this book shows Clare and Russ limiting themselves to public meetings in a fruitless effort to subvert the relationship that threatens their professional reputations and their self-identification as responsible, moral individuals.

To Darkness and to Death (2005)

In marked contrast to the sprawling plot of book, book 4 takes place in twenty-four hours. As Clare and Russ join the search for a missing young woman, they uncover a ruthlessness that involves blackmail and murder and touches local politics and environmental issues similar to those Spencer-Fleming has written about earlier. As the tension surrounding the mystery ratchets up, so does the tension between Clare and Russ.

All Mortal Flesh (2006)

This time murder strikes home. Russ’s wife, from whom he has been separated for a short time, is found dead in the family home—and not of natural causes. The whispers about the relationship between the police chief and the Episcopal priest become clear cries of accusation. Russ, tormented by grief and guilt, finds his investigation into the murder impeded by the state police who have been informed that the local police are involved in a cover up. Clare too falls under suspicion, and the church hierarchy further complicate the situation. There are twists aplenty in the story, but the focus in this book is clearly on Clare and Russ and the complexity of their relationship.

I Shall Not Want (2008)

The sixth installment, which covers the year following the death of Russ’s wife, finds him still consumed with guilt and regret. Clare, who is still dealing with conflicts with church leaders, has her own guilt to deal with, along with her fear that Russ can never fully return her feelings. A new character, Hadley Knox, who becomes a police officer in Miller’s Kill because it is the most lucrative job available to her. She brings a secondary romance into the story, and the deaths of Hispanic workers, illegal immigrants, and $10 million worth of marijuana add the social issues. The ending answers one important question and raises an equally important one.

After I Shall Not Want, readers were left--wondering, worried, and hungry for the next book—for nearly three years, from June 2008 to April 2011. To say fans were eager to learn what was going on with Clare and Russ is an understatement.

One Was a Soldier (2011)

The seventh book opens eighteen months after the close of I Shall Not Want with Clare back in Miller’s Kill after a tour of duty in Iraq, not as a chaplain but in her former role as a helicopter pilot.

Clare tried to speak with as many people as she could, even if it was as brief as a greeting and a “Lord, it sure is hot today, isn’t it?” Pouring drinks, swiping spills off the tables, bringing diners seconds she could feel her vocation reassembling around her, feel herself changing from a single recipient of God’s grace into a conduit, from someone clutching with tight fingers to someone giving away with both hands.

Clare is only one combat veteran in Miller’s Kill who is struggling with reentry into their former lives. She joins a therapy group that includes a former athlete who is now a double amputee, a member of Russ’s force whose uncontrollable anger is threatening his job, a doctor suffering memory loss, and a bookkeeper with marriage problems, but even within this group Clare is unable to admit that she has grown dependent on prescription drugs. When the bookkeeper is found shot to death and Russ writes it off as a suicide, Clare finds herself at odds with him. She and the other members of the support group launch a high-risk investigation into what they are convinced was murder. The investigation leads them far beyond Miller’s Kill.

One Was a Soldier is still a mystery, but the center of this novel is neither the mystery nor the continuing relationship of Clare and Russ, which is surprisingly more trouble free than I expected, but rather the psychology of combat veterans as they attempt to reintegrate with the family and community they left. The book ends with an announcement guaranteed to throw the lives of Clare and Russ into chaos and to leave readers panting for the next installment in the love story of these two characters.

Spencer-Fleming has said that the next book, Seven Whole Days, will definitely be in readers’ hands before the end of 2012. She’s also indicated that book 8 will feature more about the secondary relationship of Hadley Knox and Kevin Flynn. I’m hoping to see the next book return to a greater focus on Clare and Russ. I will certainly be among those reading the book on release day, a pattern I expect to repeat for the additional three Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne books for which the author has contracted. But it’s not the mysteries that keep me a faithful reader; it’s my affection for and engagement with Clare, Russ, and Miller’s Kill that keep me reading the work of this romance readers’ mystery writer.

What genres other than romance do you read? How do you feel about blended genres? Have you read Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Summer Cinema

Summer and movies go together in my mind. The combo is probably a result of my distant but vividly remembered childhood when, in an era before the proliferation of air conditioning, matinees ran a close second to the swimming pool as an escape from sultry, Southern days. Summer also meant Friday nights when my parents, whose entertainment budget was infinitesimal, put their three, pajama-clad kids in the backseat of the old Chevy and headed to the local drive-in theater where popcorn, Cokes, and a double feature were all cheap.

Evidently many people share my habit of connecting summer and cinema. Summer 2011 will see 45 new releases between May 5 and Labor Day. I don’t expect to see many of these. Superhero films and raunchy comedies will not persuade me to spend $8 for a ticket.. Most of the summer 2011 movies I will see, I’ll view later on the small screen. I’ve heard good things about Bridesmaids (playing now), and Beginners, a June 3 release starring Ewan McGregor as a man newly in love and Christopher Plummer as his dead father who emerged from the closet at the age of 75, sounds promising. But I will wait for the DVDs.

Looking over the summer schedule, I decided that I’d probably make it to the theater five times this summer, twice for me, twice ostensibly for the grands, and once as a three-generation tradition. Larry Crowne (July 1 release), a dramatic comedy, written and directed by Tom Hanks and starring Hanks and Julia Roberts, sounds like the kind of movie I really like. The recession/reinvention storyline has a strong appeal, and I’m a big Tom Hanks fan. I almost never like movies based on books that I’ve enjoyed, but that history never stops me from seeing the movies and hoping for an exception. I expect to be in a theater on August 12 or soon thereafter to watch The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s somewhat controversial 2009 novel by the same title. The novel spent 100 weeks, in three formats, on the New York Times bestseller lists. I wonder of the movie will be that successful.

In late July or early August, I’ll accompany the two youngest grands and maybe the oldest to see The Smurfs. The middle grands (all male) turn up their noses when this movie is mentioned and find belly-laugh funny the fact that their fathers once faithfully watched these blue creatures on TV. But I confess I look forward to hearing Jonathan Winters as Papa Smurf and Katy Perry as Smurfette, and I’m interested in how the live action/animation blend will play. But before we see The Smurfs, the next-to-youngest grand and I will see the new Winnie the Pooh. He loves Pooh and his friends almost as much as I do, and we’re looking forward to sharing the movie.

Still, we won’t see Winnie the Pooh the day it opens. July 15 is reserved for THE summer movie event for this family, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. We’ll buy our tickets for the first day showing as soon as they are available on Fandango, and we will fill a row in a local theater, three generations of HP fanatics. Then we will spend the next week critiquing the movie and, no matter how much we loved the movie, agreeing that the books are better. "Way better," the ten-year-old will say. When the DVD is released, my family will buy at least half a dozen copies, which we will watch again and again. I may even indulge in a marathon viewing of the first seven movies in the series, a feat that will take 17 hours and 28 minutes, or so I’m told. Let’s see, if I start at 10:00 a. m., I should be able to finish by . . .

Do you go to the movies more often in summer? What summer releases are you most looking forward to? 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review Tuesday: A Summer Reunion

A Summer Reunion
By: Kasey Michaels, Sarah Mayberry, and Teresa Southwick
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: July 5, 2011

A Summer Reunion is a trio of connected novellas featuring the same characters but with a changing focus.  From the cover copy:


Now that she's reunited with her sister, Tori Fuller doesn't regret a moment of her life. But she's never forgotten the guy who got away. Heart surgeon Sam McCormack is as sexy and irresistible as he was back in college…and ready to prove to the woman he's always loved that it's never too late to start over.…


Lauren Sutcliffe never expected her mother's sixtieth birthday bash to lead to romance. But gorgeous Aussie builder Adam Hunter wants to stake his claim on the bossy, burned-by-love caterer. He wants to share all her tomorrows,
if Lauren will just say yes!


David Longwood isn't looking for love…until a family reunion throws him in the path of free spirit Kinsey McKeever. Suddenly the buttoned-down lawyer is rediscovering his passionate inner self 
and dreaming about forever after…with Kinsey.

The first story, “All Our Yesterdays” by Kasey Michaels, is a double reunion story. It begins with the reunion of two sisters, Tori Fuller and Peggy Longwood, who were separated from one another and from their younger brother when Peggy, the oldest, was only eight. Peggy was adopted by parents who loved her, but Tory was less fortunate. Her troubled childhood helped to determine her decision to run away when she, as a college student, discovered she was pregnant. Yes, this is a secret baby story—with a difference. The “baby” is thirty-two, a wife, and the mother of three. It is she who finds her father, Sam McCormack, a heart surgeon and a George Clooney lookalike. Tori and Sam have some obstacles to overcome, but eventually they achieve their HEA.  I loved everything about this story: the relationship between the sisters, the fact that they are both writers (Peggy, a children’s author and Tory, a cartoonist), the ages of the lovers (Tory and Sam are in their mid-fifties, and Peggy, who also has a love  interest, is a widow approaching her sixtieth birthday), and all the family threads that are woven into the story.

The middle story, “All Our Todays” by Sarah Mayberry, is the story of Laurie Sutcliffe, the daughter of Peggy Longwood, and Adam Hunter, the Aussie partner of Peggy and Tory’s deceased brother, Stephen. Laurie, the mother of two teenagers, is still struggling to redefine herself as newly single after seventeen years of marriage ended in divorce and as a successful business owner rather than the failure her faithless husband made her feel. Adam makes her aware of herself as a woman for the first time in well over a year, and she’s not sure she’s ready for the feelings he stirs in her. Adam falls hard for Laurie from his first look at her, but he has his own reservations. He’s well aware of all the potential complications, not the least of which is that he and Laurie are from different countries. This is a more conventional romance than the first story, and Sarah Mayberry does her usual great job of creating sexual tension and building a relationship. Laurie is a sympathetic character, and it is rewarding to see her surprise and appreciation as she learns what it is to be involved with a man who values her achievements and supports her dreams. Adam is a delight, one of my favorite kinds of hero. He’s in over his head from the beginning, but he’s not sure whether to paddle like crazy to keep afloat or to give up and drown in the sea of unfamiliar emotions. I'm a Mayberry fan, and while I prefer her novels, I liked Laurie and Adam's story a lot. 

The final story, “All Our Tomorrows” by Teresa Southwick, focuses on Peggy’s son, David Longwood, and her protégé and physical therapist, Kinsey McKeever.  The young David, an intrepid youngster, was the model for Davy Daring, the hero of his mother’s books; the adult David, scarred by a friend’s accident for which he feels responsible and by a bad breakup. Kinsey, a conditioned people-pleaser, has major trust issues as a result of growing up in a foster care system and never feeling part of a family. There are some great scenes in this story, including a sweet and sexy storm scene and a funny scene where David is surrounded by his mother, his aunt, and his sister—each in turn demanding that David share his feelings. But I had some problems with it too. David’s guilt and supposed heartbreak are both cured in an instant, making simplistic what should be complex. Even more troubling was that I never really understood why these two people fell in love. I just felt as if pieces of the story were missing.

There is an epilogue. If you are a sentimental reader, you’ll love it. All the happy endings are brought together and tied in a beautiful bow with a smile decorating one trailing ribbon and a teardrop decorating the other. If you’re a cynical reader, you may become mildly nauseous at this point. Me? I lean toward the sentimental.

Overall, I’m giving A Summer Reunion four stars, the average of five stars for Kasey Michaels’s story, four and a half stars for Sarah Mayberry’s story, and three stars for Teresa Southwick’s story.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Changes are coming to Just Janga.

Beginning tomorrow, Tuesdays will become review day. Each Tuesday I’ll post a review of a new release, a new-to-me book, or an old favorite. Then, I’ll post again on Fridays, talking about writing, rants, and ruminations.

I hope you'll drop by and tell me what you think.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

According to Hallmark, Mother’s Day is the third-largest card-sending holiday in the United States and the second most popular day for gift-giving. If my hometown is typical, it’s the most popular day for eating out. Every restaurant in town will be packed tomorrow.

I searched for some appropriate quotations to include in this Mother’s Day post, but frankly most of those I found just sounded as if I’d lifted then from a Hallmark card. Since this blog is devoted to romance writing and reading, it seemed fitting to turn to romance novels. I did, and I found some gems that speak to the truths about mothers, the good ones at least.

Mothers are willing to go to almost any lengths for their children.

In Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas, the Duke of Perrin says to the heroine of her imperfect but loving mother: “‘Young lady, he addressed Gigi, ‘I hope you realize how fortunate you are, at your age, to still have a mother who would dance with the devil for you.’”

Mothers long for their children to find their HEAs.

In Finding the Dream by Nora Roberts, the conclusion to her Dream trilogy, Susan Templeton, a mother concerned about her daughter’s choices, says to her husband, “I want her to have her dream. I want her to have what we have. I want to believe that she’ll stand at the window, look toward the sea, with a man’s arms around her. A man who will love her and stand by her. A man who can make her feel the way you make me feel.”

Mothers don’t keep a tab of all they give their children.

In One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney, Rosalind, the heroine, says to the mother who adopted her, who has made her feel “warm and soft and safe”: “You have given and given and given. I owe you more than I can ever repay.”

Hallmark also assures us that Mother’s Day celebrates not only mothers and grandmothers but also daughters, sisters, aunts, mothers of loved ones, friends, and any others who have played a mother-like role.  I think that list covers just about every woman—and probably a few men. So whoever you are celebrating tomorrow and whoever is celebrating you, have a happy day.

I expect to enjoy my lunch out after church, delight in my flowers, and reread The Lark Shall Sing, a gentle romance by Elizabeth Cadell that my mother loved.

How are you celebrating Mother’s Day? Are you among the 169,000,000 sending cards?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Opening Scenes and Making Choices

My writing process places me somewhere between a panster and a plotter. While I don’t actually plot, I do spend many hours writing character biographies that inevitably contain bits of what will happen to the characters during the course of the story. Then I start writing scenes, out of order and as they appear in my head. At some point I have a collection of scenes and a vague idea of how they fit together. It is then that the hardest part of creating a complete story begins for me. I have to put the scenes I have written in order and write the scenes that will stitch the bits and pieces together.
I am currently in this difficult stage with my second manuscript, “Who Says You Can’t go Home?” My immediate problem is deciding how to open the book. I have one scene that must come near the beginning that shows Saja Hamilton, the heroine, during and after a plane crash.

“We’re going down.”

Tula Shield’s shrill cry startled Saja Hamilton from the replay of yesterday’s conversation with Doug Hammersmith, director of the African division of Doctors on Mission. “You’re burned out,” he had said.

His words may have been prophetic. Saja saw the mountain out the window, and then the shadows of trees seemed to move toward her. She heard Abby sobbing.

“Merciful Jesus,” the pilot cried.

Ben, Saja thought . . . Brody. Then blackness enveloped her.

She moved cautiously. Everything seemed to be working, but she knew the stickiness on her face was blood. The silence was eerie. “Ben,” she paused. “Tula . . . Abby . . .” Nothing.

She had no idea where she was or how long it would be before someone realized the plane was missing. “I could die here.” Somehow saying those words aloud gave her the impetus to move. Where were the others? She feared what she would find, but not knowing was worse.

She heard a groan and looked around. Abby was lying on the ground a dozen feet to the left, huddled over her arm. “Abby, Can you hear me?” Saja knelt beside the tiny nurse.

“My arm—it’s broken—ribs too, I think.”

Compound fracture. Pale but no serious blood loss. Thank God it was the dry season, and the sun was still high in the sky. No need to worry about mosquitoes and other enemies darkness might bring. She could only pray help would arrive before night fell. “I’m going to look for the others. I won’t go far. “You’re OK, Abby. Help will be here soon.

Abby nodded, tears bright in her dark eyes, but she didn’t speak. They both knew the horrors Saja might find.

She considered the terrain, hilly but not mountainous. The plane might have been seen by a worker in a nearby banana grove. Or one of Luc Fardeau’s nurses on motorcycle might be in the area visiting a mobile hospital. Abby shouldn’t be moved until her arm could be splinted.

As thoughts collided in her head, Saja moved to the right, planning to circle the area. What was that spot of blue down the incline. Rushing forward, pushing her way through dense plants, she searched for the color that had caught her eye. Her foot twisted. Grabbing a tree trunk to keep from falling, she heard the sound of a waterfall. Then she saw him further down the hill.

“Ben, Ben, Ben!” Each cry was louder than the one before, but Ben didn’t stir. Oh, God, don’t let him be dead. Please. Saja felt for a pulse and breathed a prayer of gratitude when she found one. He wasn’t dead. His respiration rate was low, however. That and his unconsciousness were major concerns. He needed help, and she dared not move him. At the very least he had severe concussion. Maybe spinal injury.

“Lady, you need help?”

Thank God. An angel clothed in light could have been no more welcome than the Tanzanian farmer calling to her from the hill above.

The drama and action in this scene may catch a reader’s attention, but I worry that it may also give a false impression. I write quiet books with internal conflicts more complicated and central than external conflicts. I have another scene that I’m considering for my opening.

“Saja’s plane is missing.”

The voice cracked on the last word, paused a few seconds and continued. “This is Billy Joe Hamilton. I got a call a couple of hours ago. I guess I was listed as next of kin. I waited to call you and Zan, hoping . . .

Dori Marshall felt her world tilt. How could this be happening? Just at the moment when life seemed perfect.

“Dori, are you there?”

“Yes, yes, I’m here.” She felt Max at her back, his arms around her, and she let herself sink into his strength.

“What happened?”

“She and Ben and two others were flying in for a week’s vacation in Moshi. Contact was lost with the plane not long after takeoff. A possible crash site has been identified from the air. That’s all we know now.”

“So they could be wrong? Or they could have survived. People do.”

“I pray they have.” Billy Joe’s tone said he feared the worst.

“I’m going to believe she’s OK.” Dori shut out all the doubts that were trying to creep in. “You’ll let me know when you hear anything?”

“I will. I need to call Zan—“

“She’s here. I’ll see that she knows.”

“Good. Good,” Billy Joe repeated himself more forcefully. “I’ll—I’ll keep in touch.” He hung up without waiting for Dori to reply.

Dori turned in Max’s arms to rest her head against his heart, reassured by the steady beat. She refused to believe that Saja was dead. Saja was a born survivor. She had come through earthquakes, floods, and revolutions. She’d come through this plane crash too.


Dori stuggled to push the words past the tightness in her throat. “They’ve lost contact with her plane. That was Billy Joe, her cousin, the one she’s closest to. I have to tell the others—Zan, Brody . . .”

Brody rarely asked about Saja, but Dori knew her brother well enough to know his indifference was a pose. She paused in the doorway of the dining room, grateful for Max’s hand in hers.

Everything looked so normal. Zan was threatening Brody with her fork as he stole a bite of chess pie. Lauren was laughing at them. Ali was offering her grandfather a piece of her cookie, and Emily was listening to Matthew’s description of his soccer game. Saja should be here too. Home. Safe. With those who loved her.

“Lauren," Max said,  "why don’t you and I take Matt and Ali to see the new addition to the family?”

Lauren looked at her father in surprise, but she reached for Ali obediently. “Let’s go see the kitten, Ali.”

Ali clapped and Matt abandoned his grandmother in mid-sentence. Dori waited, watching Max and Lauren lead the children from the room, conscious of the four pairs of eyes that watched her, dreading what she might say.

“That was Billy Joe Hamilton on the phone. Saja’s plane is missing.”

“Dear God!”

Dori knew Zan’s’s words were prayer, not expletive. She watched her mother reach for her father’s hand.

“It had to happen sometimes,” Brody said savagely. They all jumped as his chair crashed to the floor.

“Brody,” Emily called after her son’s retreating back.

“Not now, Mom,” he said and kept going.

The second scene is more typical of my writing with its extended cast of characters and the focus on relationships. But I worry that it’s too quiet. Is there anything in this scene that will make a reader, especially one who hasn’t read the first book, care about these characters?

Maybe neither of these works as an opening scene, and I need to come up with something different from either.

What do you think? What do you look for in an opening scene? And, if you’re a writer, when do you write your opening scene?