Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Party!

Parties! Parades! Festivals! It’s that time of year. The biggest parade is the one in Greenwich Village, New York City, where crowds reach two million. The “most adult” is the one in Las Vegas where erotic performances will be added to the music, dancing, and lurking monsters. Long Beach, California, boasts creepy walks and haunted halls on one of the most famous ocean liners in history, the Queen Mary. Louisville, Kentucky, turns the Louisville Zoo into a world of ghosts, superheroes, and talking pumpkins. Atlanta celebrated last Saturday from noon to midnight at the Little Five Points Halloween Festival & Parade, one of the top ten celebrations in the country, where the best costume wins the Witch’s Cup.

Locally, people seem uncertain whether the trick or treaters will make their rounds Saturday or Monday. I’m betting on Saturday when most of the festivals at schools and churches will be held. My celebration will be smaller and quieter. The highlight will be seeing the grands in all their costumed glory. At last report, this year we’ll have a gypsy, a rock star, a werewolf, a pirate, a ninja, an UGA, and a princess. We have a goodly supply of Hershey bars for the masses, and I’m baking cupcakes for the grands. No costume for me. No cupcakes or Hershey bars either, alas! But sticky kisses and grand giggles will keep me from feeling deprived. The six-year-old has already previewed his costume to great applause.

My treat for you is a list of links to help you celebrate whether you’re planning an evening at home or donning a costume to dance the night away.

So, what are you doing Halloween?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Happy Christmas Read 5: Marian's Christmas Wish

Marian's Christmas Wish

By Carla Kelly

Publisher: Cedar Fort

Release Date: September 8, 2011

(Reissue of 1989 Signet Regency Romance)

4.5 Stars

The Wynswich family’s official year of mourning for Sir Bertram is drawing to a close as Christmas approaches, and Marian Wynswich knows that it may be her family’s last Christmas at Covenden Hall. She’s determined to make it the most joyous Christmas possible. But her older brother Percy is filled with despair over the debts his father has left, her younger brother Alistair has been expelled from Eton, and Ariadne, her beautiful older sister, is about to be betrothed to the toad of a suitor Percy has brought home, breaking Ari’s heart and the heart of the young vicar with whom she is in love.

Percy has brought another guest as well, Gilbert Collinwood, Earl of Ingraham, a seasoned diplomat. Ingraham is charmed by the artless Marian who reads Greek, plays chess, and cares for injured animals with a salve she has made, the same salve she is soon applying to the vicious burn on his cheek. Gil finds himself involved in madcap schemes, singing Christmas carols with a tuneless choir, and resolving Wynswich problems to keep Marian happy. Christmas wishes come true in unexpected ways before Marian realizes that her happiness rests with a certain earl.

Like all of Carla Kelly’s romances, this one is filled with characters who come alive for the reader. Marian is young, not yet seventeen, with a candor that makes her seem even younger at times. But she has intelligence, a loving heart, and an irrepressible sense of humor. Gil is a wonderful hero—understanding, great-hearted, and surprisingly unlordly for so high ranking an aristocrat—and with all the appeal of a man who combines tenderness with an understated charm. Despite the differences in age and fortune, I can imagine these two growing old together, celebrating Christmas through the years.

The Wynswich family is a delight as well. Each member emerges as vividly distinct, and their love for one another burns as brightly as a Christmas star. Even minor characters such as the pompous suitor and the mail coachman who befriends Marian are memorable. Only the villains are one-dimensional, and their appearance in the closing chapters comes as something of a shock. It changes the tone of the book, and I found the change disconcerting. But that’s a single flaw in a book that made me laugh, warmed my heart, and left me humming Christmas carols.  

Marian’s Christmas Wish is not a new Christmas book strictly speaking. It was first published in 1989, but it has been reissued as both in print and as an ebook for the 2011 Christmas season. Some of Kelly’s Christmas stories are also available. When I recommend Christmas reads, Carla Kelly is always high on my list. If you’ve never read a Carla Kelly book, Christmas is a great time to give yourself the gift of some of the best Regency romance ever. As for me, I’m counting the days--19-- until her collection of new Christmas stories is released.

What is your favorite traditional Regency Christmas romance?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday Review: A Clockwork Christmas

A Clockwork Christmas
By Stacy Gail, PG Forte, Jenny Schwartz. JK Coi
Publisher: Carina Press
Release Date: December 5, 2011
Four Stars

A Clockwork Christmas is an anthology that includes four steampunk novellas with a Christmas setting.

Crime Wave in a Corset by Stacy Gail
Cornelia Peabody is an exceptional thief. She has risen from a horrifically abusive and poverty stricken childhood to a life of comfort and independence which she protects obsessively. She thinks she will never again find herself at someone’s mercy, forced to yield to their control. But Cornelia made a major error. The priceless FabergĂ© egg she stole thinking it was the property of Cambridge University belonged to the dying twin sister of Roderick Coddington, Professor of Engineering, Cambridge University, Massachusetts. Coddington is determined that Cordelia return the egg or pay for its theft with her life. He uses his engineering skills to fashion a timepiece that he fastens to her arm, a timepiece that does not give the time but rather counts down “the minutes and hours to midnight, Christmas morning,” the minute the timepiece will electrocute Cornelia should she fail to return the egg.
As they move through the week before Christmas, Cornelia and Roderick unwillingly come to know each other, and the chemistry between them is as explosive as the device attached to Cornelia’s wrist. Will seven days be long enough for them to let go of their distrust of one another and open their hearts to the possibilities of love?
This is the most Christmassy of the four stories, and I liked it on that ground alone. The attraction/repulsion dynamic between the heroine and hero heightened the emotional appeal of the story, and I found myself rooting for the thief and the professor to have their HEA. I also loved the details of the clothing and the inventions.
One cursory glance at the pristine mantle of snow on the back stoop had Cornelia heading for the kitchen’s dumbwaiter, making quick work of the buttons on her burgundy velvet dress as she went. With a whisper of fabric it billowed to the ground along with the bulky crinoline, leaving her in black silk stockings, garter with matching high-cut drawers and a black and burgundy whalebone hourglass corset. The chill brought out gooseflesh along her arms and the mess of scars across her back. She gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering, and she took just enough time to snatch up the dress’s shrug before climbing into the dumbwaiter’s small space that she could now easily fit. Jaw tight with aggravation as much as the cold, she shouldered into the shrug and hit the appropriate button. In an instant, the dumbwaiter door slid shut and the platform on which she crouched zoomed up as the steam-powered pistons hidden behind the walls hissed and wheezed.
This Winter Heart by PG Forte
Set in in alternate universe in which the South won the Civil War, this is a reunion story. Eight years ago, Dario Leonides, of a leading family in Santa Fe, The Republic of New Texacali, rejected his wife when he discovered her secret. Ophelia Leonides, left with no resources when her inventor father dies and his legitimate family refuses to honor his bequest to her, is forced to approach her estranged husband for help not only for herself but also for the son of whose birth he is ignorant.
Dario’s anger is unabated, and he is doubtful that he is the father of the boy Ophelia claims is his. Filled with self-hatred at his inability to remain indifferent to Ophelia, he is deliberately cruel to her, threatening to send her away again and to take her son from her. Only when he is within a breath of losing her forever does he opt for honesty with himself and with his wife.
I struggled to finish this one. It is well-written, and fans more devoted to the subgenre than I will doubtless be able to suspend disbelief more easily. I couldn’t get beyond the heroine being an automaton—even one with heart and soul. I didn’t like Dario and was bothered by the imbalance of power, but I could understand his conflict.

She was nothing more than a mechanical contrivance wrought by human hands, created for no other reason than to tempt him. He did not doubt it for a minute. Nor did he doubt his religion would deem her very existence a sin. What was she, after all, but a graven image, a blatant attempt to ape the Almighty?
Wanted: One Scoundrel by Jenny Schwartz
Wealthy suffragette Esme Smith of Swan River Colony, Australia needs a scoundrel who is willing to work for her and give voice to her political views in the men’s clubs where she is denied access. Her uncle believes American Jedediah Reeve with his fancy clothes and gambler’s skills may be the man she needs for the job.  Jed, an inventor and son of a successful politician, is amused by the misreading of his character, interested in the situation, and captured by Esme’s beauty, intelligence, and vivacity. But Esme and Jed must deal with a true scoundrel, one who is a blackmailer as well as a political enemy before they can achieve their HEA.
I liked this story a lot. The Australian setting is a bit different, Esme and Jed are endearing characters, and the political intrigue adds interest. But one snippet alone would have made the story a winner for me. I grew up listening to stories of my maternal grandmother, a beautiful woman who would have been not many years younger than Esme, keeping a hat pin handy to protect herself from unwanted attentions. So I loved this scene that made me smile as I remembered Mama.
Esme simply descended the stairs dressed in a walking suit of English tweed, her white frilled collar fixed with a gold pin in the form of a stylized lion, roaring. Her chestnut brown boots and leather gloves matched the narrow-brimmed hat she’d perched on her coiled hair. She was aloof, practical and distantly gracious.
“How sharp are your hat pins?” he asked, following his own line of thought about possible revenges.
She blinked, then smiled. “I would never be so unsubtle. Although…” She reached up and slid a pin from the pert hat. “I ordered these from an American suffragist catalogue called ‘Modern Tools for Modern Women.’ It’s rather like a Swiss Army knife.”
An array of clever gadgets unfolded from the unsharpened end, including tweezers, scalpel blade and a needle
Far From Broken by JK Coi
Colonel Jasper Carlisle is away from home on a secret assignment for the War Office when his wife, the beautiful prima ballerina Calliandra, is captured, tortured, and left for dead.  Ironically, it is Jasper’s work for the War Office that allows him to see that Callie is cared for by Dr. Helmholz, a miracle worker with prosthetics. Callie is not grateful. She rages against Jasper for not letting her die and feels only disgust for the changes in her body.
They were monstrous. She stretched out her arm, but then drew it back and dug her fist into her churning belly. She couldn’t imagine standing and moving on the unnatural combination of iron posts, balls, and gears they’d fitted her with. Oh God. She would never dance again.
Jasper must deal with soul-crushing guilt and accept that his wife has been permanently changed psychologically as well as physically by her experience, and Callie must let go of the rage that fills her before they can begin to rebuild their life together.
And while Jasper has destroyed Callie’s three of Callie’s torturers, the one who betrayed him is still out there, still determined to destroy Jasper and Callie. The War Office’s plans to use the extraordinary strength Callie’s bionic parts have given her to their advantage in the covert war Britain is engaged in with France. Jasper must accept Callie as a partner and equal rather than a weaker mate to be protected.
Coi’s contribution is the darkest in the anthology. Even the ending is shadowed by the plans the Machiavellian War Office has for the couple. They will be together at home or at war, but the reader is left with the feeling that any respite from danger will be brief.
I wasn’t a steampunk virgin before I read A Clockwork Christmas. In fact, I requested the anthology from the publisher via NetGalley after reading JK Coi’s Iron Seduction and finding it fascinating. But I am an inexperienced reader of steampunk, and the anthology made me aware of the variety that exists. All four novellas take place in the 19th century and have the gadgets, steam technology, eccentric inventors, and adventure that are characteristic of steampunk, but only Coi’s story is set in Victorian England. The tone and style of the four selections vary widely. This variety provides a good introduction since it allows the novice reader to sample a range. Steampunk will probably never replace European historicals and romance-women’s fiction hybrids as my favorite subgenres in romance fiction, but I will be checking out more steampunk romances. I recommend that others new to the subgenre give it a try. But don’t expect classic Christmas romances from this anthology. All references to Christmas could have been omitted without changing the stories significantly.
Have you tried steampunk romance? How adventurous are you in your reading?
 Note: I had every intention of posting this review Friday and following it with another review of a new Christmas read Saturday to complete Happy Christmas Reads Week, but problems with a disc in my neck made typing and posting painful. I have been online only briefly for the past several days. I am better and I plan to post the fifth review Thursday and return to regular Tuesday/Friday posts on Friday.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Happy Christmas Read 3: Season for Temptation

Season for Temptation
By Theresa Romain
Publisher: Zebra
Release Date: October 1, 2011
Four Stars

James, Viscount Matheson, arrives at Stonemeadows Hall in Kent to meet the family of his fiancée. He proposed to Louisa Oliver not because he was overcome by passion but because it is imperative that James marry quickly in order to counteract the scandal created by late brother-in-law. Louisa meets his criteria for a bride:

First, Louisa was intelligent and poised. Second, she came from an old and established family. Third, he liked and respected her. And fourth and perhaps most important of all, she’d agreed to marry him after a courtship that even he would have to describe as perfunctory.

The first family member James meets is Louisa’s step-sister Julia Herington. At first, he is charmed by her lack of reserve, but very soon, a disturbing awareness of her is added to his amusement at her chatter and her appetite for biscuits:

James was again transfixed by the play of her eager expression as she talked, the curve of her mouth, her animated hands. Her hands. As if time slowed to a crawl, James watched as one of her hands reached for his. He stared at her hand on his, feeling burned by her cool fingers. It was a whisper of a touch, but his skin prickled under it anyway.

The attraction is not one way. Julia’s feelings for James are decidedly warmer than appropriate for her sister’s betrothed:

From what Julia had seen of James so far, he was . . . well, wonderful. She couldn’t seem to stop thinking about him. His clever face, his warm smile, his low laugh, his long body. She only wished she’d been able to see more of it. Of him.

Both Julia and James are honorable people, however, and loyal to Louisa. Each determines to ignore her/his feelings. Julia and Louisa think of themselves as true sisters, and they are best friends as well. Julia hopes that in London she will find “one nice man to fall in love with her.” James hopes that Louisa will find him as interesting as she finds his library, and the two of them can share a life of contentment. But all their plans go agley. Despite scandal, heartbreak, and betrayal, an HEA is still within reach.
Much of the story plays out against the backdrop of Christmas, and nothing reveals the contrast between James’s family and Julia and Louisa’s more clearly than the difference in the way they celebrate the holiday. James thinks of Christmas gifts as strictly for children while Julia and Louisa miss their family and enjoy Aunt Estella’s generosity. Julia is conscious of the difference and pities James’s young nieces.
All the trappings of the holiday surrounded them, and for that, Julia was deeply grateful to her aunt. But she was divided all the same. Though her body stood in Grosvenor Square, her heart went out to the girls caught in the chill of Matheson House, and to the hopes and plans of their uncle.
I’m not usually a fan of triangles, especially those involving siblings, but this one is different. James, Julia, and Louisa are all good people deserving of happiness. All of them struggle to do the right thing, right not as defined by society’s rules but according to their personal codes. Julia is irresistible. The reader finds her as adorable as does James. (I must say how refreshing it was to read about a heroine who likes to eat.) Louisa and James lack Julia’s effervescence, but they too are engaging characters. And Julia and Louisa’s blended family add to the fun. Aunt Estella is delightful. Just typing her name makes me smile.
Season for Temptation is just the kind of Christmas romance I like best—one with family, laughter, love, and unqualified happy endings. This is Romain’s debut, and its warmth and wit make her a welcome addition to the ranks of historical romance. I’m hoping for Louisa’s story next. I’m sure there’s a perfect hero for her in this author’s fertile imagination.
What do you look for in a Christmas romance? What’s your favorite historical romance with a Christmas setting?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Happy Christmas Reads 2: Holiday Hideout

Holiday Hideout
By Vicki Lewis Thompson, Jill Shalvis, Julie Kenner
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: November 1, 2011
3.5 Stars

This holiday anthology from Harlequin centers on a cottage owned by two sociology professors, Ken and Jillian Vickers, who bought it after they fell in love again there. When they began renting it out over holiday weekends, their renters routinely told them that a weekend at the cottage had renewed an old love or introduced them to a new one. So the Vickers determined to collect data in order to discover the secret of the Lake Tahoe cottage.

The Thanksgiving Fix by Vicki Lewis Thompson

Beth Tierney usually spends Thanksgiving with her parents and her siblings, their spouses and children, but she’s spending this Thanksgiving alone because she’s weary of her family’s determination to find the right man for her. Beth is not opposed to marriage, but having reached thirty with only romantic failures behind her, she’s decided to “embrace her singleness.” She has a responsible job as manager of a Reno hotel, she’s proud of her competence, and she’s not sure she has the time or energy for a permanent relationship. Coinneach “Mac” McFarland is the handyman who takes care of the Vickers cabin. He’s planning on heading to his parents for the holiday where his mother has lined up another date for him, certain that this time she’s found one who will make her son the perfect wife and give her grandchildren. When a winter storm interferes and Mac can’t make it home, Beth invites him to share her Thanksgiving, and four days later, after board games and bed games, Beth and Mac are planning a lifetime together.

The Christmas Set-Up by Jill Shalvis

Jason Monroe and Zoe Anders are assistant architects in the same firm. Everyone in the office is aware of the sexual tension between them, but neither of them is willing to act on the attraction. Then Jason’s younger brother Mike, a draftsman in the same firm, sets them up, sending Jason off to spend Christmas in the Vickers’ cabin and stealing Zoe’s memory stick with the specs for the project she and Jason are competing for—with a promotion as the carrot. Zoe, furious at what she thinks is Jason’s cheap trick, heads for the cabin. Instead of a thief, she finds a naked, vulnerable man who touches her heart and raises her temperature. Soon Jason is unwrapping an unexpected Christmas gift, one that promises year-long, life-long happiness.

The New Year's Deal by Julie Kenner

Cleo Daire and Josh Goodson were college sweethearts with big dreams of grad school and beyond, but the death of Josh’s father meant Josh had to take over Goodson Mining, the largest privately held gold mine in Nevada. Cleo couldn’t give up her dream of Harvard law school, and so they broke up but agreed to meet on December 30 five years later. When that time arrives Cleo is on the fast track to success at a D.C. law firm and needs an expert witness for a big case. Josh is growing restless under his family’s determination to oppose his ideas for expanding the company. With a little help from their former undergrad professors, they find themselves spending New Year’s at the Vickers’ cottage where they discover old dreams have a new life, one that’s worth risking everything for.

Holiday Hideout is an entertaining read. None of these stories made me want to corner friends, demanding they had to read this book, but the anthology is a pleasurable way to spend an hour or two. The Thompson story had touches of the humor I appreciate in this author’s books, but I had trouble believing in first meeting to wedding plans in four days. Readers who believe in love at first sight may not be bothered by this. Shalvis’s story has the terrific dialogue and sizzling scenes I expect from her, and I liked the workplace romance. Surprisingly, my favorite was the story by Kenner, an author I had not read previously. I always fall for reunion stories, and I thought this story had great sentimental appeal. The magic cottage seemed contrived, and the characterization of the Vickers inconsistent. I couldn’t buy them as both warm-hearted professors interested in the lives of former students and academics using these people as guinea pigs.

What are your favorite tropes for contemporary love stories? Do you believe in love at first sight? Do you read Christmas anthologies?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday Review: 1225 Christmas Tree Lane

Happy Christmas Reads Week!

I know the calendar says Halloween is still two weeks away and Thanksgiving comes before Christmas. But my TBR shelf is nonetheless rapidly filling with Christmas books. I’ve already reviewed An O’Brien FamilyChristmas by Sherryl Woods and BringMe Home for Christmas by Robyn Carr. This week I’m going to review five other Christmas books I’ve read. If you love Christmas books as much as I do, check back each day for the rest of the week for a new Christmas book review. And don’t worry, there are still many left to share with you in December. Who better to begin this special week than Debbie Macomber who takes us home to Cedar Cove for Christmas.

1225 Christmas Tree Lane
By Debbie Macomber
Publisher: Mira
Release Date: September 27, 2011
4.5 Stars (from a sentimental series fans)
3 Stars (from an objective reviewer with an eye toward the new-to-series reader)

Debbie Macomber began her Cedar Cove series a decade ago with 16 Lighthouse Road in which readers met Judge Olivia Lockhart as the pivotal character, In that first book Judge Lockhart denied a divorce to Cecilia and Ian Randall, added  a love interest to her own life, and worried about her daughter Justine making a bad choice, the stubbornness of Charlotte, her aging mother, and her friend Grace’s desperation over a missing husband. Twelve books later (plus a novella and an “extra” Christmas novel) Macomber ends the series with 1225 Christmas Tree Lane. Olivia and company make appearances in the final book as do most of the other characters from the long-running series.

The focus of the twelfth book is Beth Morehouse for whom Christmas is unusually hectic given the success of her Christmas tree farm, the anticipated arrival of her two daughters, and the responsibility for ten lab mix puppies that need homes.  As if life were not chaotic enough, her college-aged daughters, scheming to reunite their divorced parents, have manipulated both parents into agreeing that dad will spend the holidays with the family. His arrival with a beautiful “very good friend” was not part of their plan. Neither was Beth’s warm friendship with the local vet.

It is fitting that a series which has devoted so much attention to marriage in all its stages should end with the focus on Beth and her ex Kent whose divorce was free of drama and recriminations. This marriage could be labeled “Canceled due to lack of interest.” Reading about how they lost one another and drifted apart reminded me of the closing lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “The Spring and the Fall”: “’Tis not love’s going hurts my days, / But that it went in little ways.” The question is whether two people who let love go can recapture the feelings they once shared.

While Beth and Kent’s story is central, finding homes for the puppies and the gatherings that are part of a Cedar Cove Christmas allow for the appearance of characters from earlier books. I didn’t check off names, but all of the characters I remembered show up in a credible fashion. Readers have an opportunity to be updated on the changes in the lives of their favorites, all of whom we feel certain will continue to live happily.

The novel closes with a one-sentence paragraph: “It was the kind of town anyone would love to call home.” That’s a fitting tribute for the town that brought Macomber’s career to a new level and gave her hometown a festival that attracted national and international visitors. It’s a town that readers have taken to their hearts, and surely there could be no better ending than Christmas when family and friends gather, happy to be home for the holiday.

You will note that I gave the book two grades. I loved the book. Even though some of the inclusions of earlier characters seemed contrived, I was so delighted to see the characters that I barely blinked as the numbers rolled on. I expect most fans of the series will react in a similar manner. But this is not a book for a reader new to the series. I can only imagine that such a reader would be confused and irritated by the more than sixty characters. New readers will do better to start with the first book and enjoy the full journey.   

How do you feel about Christmas books? Have you read any of the 2011 releases?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Person of Influence

Going through some old notes this week, I came across a statement that made me consider my role as a blogger and a member of various online communities: “Whether posting reviews on, participating in book groups, or developing a web page devoted to his or her own opinions, today’s reader of . . . fiction possesses an unparalleled opportunity to influence the tastes and buying habits of others” (Botshot and Goldsmith, Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s). That statement reminded me of an unrelated report that showed negative reviews have increased since Web reviewing began and that negative reviews are nearly twice as likely to influence reader purchases as are positive reviews.

Many readers of romance fiction are not part of online communities, but the number of such communities and the activity on these sites offer evidence that the web plays a big part in the reading lives of many romance fans. All About Romance boasts “millions of readers.” The Romance Reader has been reviewing romances online for more than a dozen years, and Smart Bitches and Dear Author seem to become more popular by the day. This month USA Today inaugurated Happy Ever After, a site hosted by romantic suspense author Joyce Lamb with the stated purpose “to celebrate romance novels, the readers who read them and the writers who write them.”  

When I google “romance novel blogs,” I get almost nine million hits; “romance novel message boards” adds another million plus.  In addition to reviews, the romance forum at Amazon has over a thousand threads, and B &N offers Heart to Heart (a romance blog), Romantic Reads (a message board),  and Reading Romance (a monthly column by Eloisa James). Then, there are publisher-sponsored sites such as Heroes and Heartbreakers (Macmillan), Pocket After Dark, Avon Romance, Romance at Random, and Harlequin Blog.  And in all these places--and more--readers and writers are talking good and bad about romance novels—and exerting influence.

I never intended Just Janga to be a review site. I wanted to share my ideas about what I was reading or rereading, my struggles as a yet-to-be-published writer of romance fiction, and topics related, sometimes loosely, to these activities. But I find myself doing more reviews, so many that several months ago I began posting twice a week with Tuesdays devoted to reviews. I also serve as a frequent guest reviewer at The Romance Dish, post reviews on GoodReads, and sometimes blog at Heroes and Heartbreakers. I find Facebook overwhelming, but I tweet almost every day.  I talk about books—a lot. I choose to talk only about books I like.

I respect bloggers who choose to review books that fail to meet their criteria for good books, but I prefer talking about books I’m glad I read. Not every book I review is a five star read, but those I review or include in lists on special topics are all books that I believe are worth the time and dollars I’ve invested in them. I may address disappointments or weaknesses that I see in a book, but my overall take will be positive. So call me a Pollyanna if you will. I have been called worse things. :) But if I talk about a book and give you the title and author, be prepared for me to recommend the book. I reserve my negative comments for private discussions. When someone comments here or elsewhere that he or she has read and enjoyed a book I recommended, I am delighted. I don't think I'd experience the same pleasure if someone said he or she had avoided a book to which I'd given one or two stars.

You are persons of influence too. Some of the books I have most enjoyed over recent years have been recommendations from some of you. Do you glow or glower when you talk about books on the web? Does snark make you grin or grimace? Are you influenced by reviews?


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday Review: Jane Austen Made Me Do It

Jane Austen Made Me Do It
By Various Authors
Publisher: Random House/Ballantine
Release Date: October 11, 2011
Four Stars

Jane Austen Made Me Do It, subtitled Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart,  is a collection of original short stories edited by Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose. Nattress asked the authors to “stay within the theme of exploring Austen’s philosophies of life and love by reacquainting readers with characters from her novels or introducing original stories inspired by her ideals.” Contributors include Pamela Aidan, Elizabeth Aston, Stephanie Barron, Carrie Bebris, Jo Beverley, Diana Birchall, Frank Delaney & Diane Meier, Monica Fairview, Amanda Grange, Syrie James, Janet Mullany, Jane Odiwe, Beth Pattillo, Alexandra Potter, Myretta Robens, Jane Rubino & Caitlen Rubino Bradway, Maya Slater, Margaret Sullivan, Adriana Trigiani, Laurie Viera Rigler, Lauren Willig, and debut author Brenna Aubrey, Grand Prize winner of a short story contest sponsored by Ballantine Books, Austenprose, and The Republic of Pemberley. The overall quality of the collection is high, and rare will be the reader who fails to find a few favorites to delight an Austen-loving heart.

I was excited to see that several of my favorite authors had stories in the collection. Jo Beverley’s “Jane and the Mistletoe Kiss” features Miss Austen as a character, a true romantic who encourages the widowed heroine to believe in another chance at love. “Love and Best Wishes, Aunt Jane” by Adriana Trigiani is an epistolary story with a contemporary “Aunt Jane” giving advice and expressing her hopes for a beloved niece. A ghostly Jane Austen surprises a young skeptic who is part of a ghosthunting TV crew in Lauren Willig’s “A Night at Northanger.” Syrie James has Austen finding inspiration for Persuasion after unhappy characters from her other novels invade her dreams with accusations and pleas in “Jane Austen’s Nightmare.” In Janet Mullany’s “Jane Austen, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” set in the 1960s, a teacher uses the Beatles to help her students connect to Sense and Sensibility and learns something about herself in the process.

Some of the stories I liked best were by authors new to me. “What Would Austen Do?” by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is the sweet and funny story of fifteen-year-old James Austen who enrolls in an English Country Dance course expecting to line dance and ends up having fun with Regency dances, reading Jane Austen, and  making friends with a pretty girl. In Elizabeth Ashton’s “The Ghostwriter,” Austen is an acerbic, mind-reading spirit of “ferocious intelligence” who tells a young writer whose boyfriend has left her because he can’t measure up to Darcy, “There’s nothing wrong with your mind, except sentimentality and stupidity.” Ghostly Jane also reveals that “reserved, proud, and clever” Darcy is her character most like Austen herself. “Intolerable Stupidity” by Laurie Viera Rigler has Lady Catherine de Bourgh as the presiding judge in Mr. Darcy’s case against authors of Pride and Prejudice spinoffs. Brenna Aubrey’s prize-winning story “The Love Letter” is a lovely account of how Wentworth’s written declaration of his love for Anne Elliot in Persuasion leads a young doctor back to the great love from his past.

The collection contains historicals and contemporaries, romances, gothic tales, mysteries, and fantasies, each one affirming Jane Austen as influence and inspiration. It’s no surprise that Pride and Prejudice is the most frequently used novel, but most of the others are represented. I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley, but I’ll be buying a print copy of this one so I can reread some of the stories. If you are a Jane Austen fan, I recommend Jane Austen Made Me Do It without reservation. If you’ve never read Austen, reading these stories may be just the push you need to direct you to the originals. You can check out excerpts here.

What's your favorite Jane Austen novel? How do you feel about Austen spinoffs?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jane and I: One Reader’s Journey with Jane Eyre

On October 6, 1847, Charlotte Bronte’s first novel was introduced under the name Currer Bell. It was an immediate success, although it was not without controversy. One early critic suggested Jane Eyre “violated every code human and divine.” But Jane survived such attacks. She turned 164 yesterday, and she looked great in this year’s Cary Fukunaga movie. We should all age so well. I met Jane the summer I turned ten, the same summer I first encountered the Bennett sisters and Emily Dickinson. All of them became lifelong companions. But as much as I loved Elizabeth Bennett, my connection with Jane and Emily was more visceral.

I was something of a misfit that summer. Although I am a woman of average height, at ten I was suddenly taller than most of my friends, awkward and uncomfortable with my new inches and with the new protuberances on my chest. Avoiding neighborhood gatherings at the swimming pool and on our makeshift softball field, I retreated into books where I gained the invisibility I longed for, even as I resented the easy charm that allowed my younger sister, still in the fairy princess stage, to bask in the approval of the extended family and neighbors. Emily’s Nobody poem became my mantra. I gloried in the kinship that existed between me and this poet who celebrated her own invisibility and pitied the noisy, froggish Somebodies. Jane understood that nobody conundrum too. She said, “I was a discord in Gateshead Hall; I was like nobody there; I had nothing in harmony with Mrs. Reed or her children.” My parents, a hardworking pair who loved me at my most impossible, bless them, were nothing like Mrs. Reed, but they did insist on my forsaking my books occasionally for a swim or a bike ride. Clearly I was misunderstood and out of harmony with my family.

In junior high (no middle schools then) and high school, Jane saved me more than once on book report day when teachers--as lacking in harmony as my parents—refused to let me write about Emilie Loring’s chaste couples or Mazo de la Roche’s Whiteoaks of Jalna. I lacked the vocabulary then to write about the conflict between reason and passion, Rochester as Byronic hero, or Jane as feminist heroine, but I certainly understood the appeal of Rochester’s dangerous love, the pull of the life of service and sacrifice offered by St. John Rivers, the strength of a heroine who remained true to her own code, and the sigh-worthy satisfaction of the sentence “Reader, I married him.”

Jane went with me through college where I performed close readings of favorite scenes from the book and engaged in heated discussions about whether the 1943 movie starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine (with a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Helen Burns) made the story too much Rochester’s. [I must note that the Welles-Fontaine film was decades old when I saw it. I’m not that old.] A few years later when I brought Jane into the classrooms where I taught, watching a handful of girls claim the character for their own was a particular delight. In grad school, seduced by literary theory, I argued passionately for Jane’s status as a feminist heroine who rescues both herself and the hero. Later Jane frequently found a spot on my syllabi for undergraduate survey courses. One of my fondest teaching memories remains teaching Jane’s story along with Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (the story of Bertha's early life in the West Indies and her life with her sexually repressed English husband) and The Eyre Affair by Japer Fforde.

I’ve enjoyed watching Jane on the big screen and the small one over the years. However, I know her well enough by now to be certain that the actresses who have portrayed her--Fontaine, Susannah York whose Rochester was George C. Scott in 1970, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Zeffirelli’s 1996 film, Ruth Wilson in the BBC’s 2006 version, and Mia Wasikowska in the 2011 movie—are all too pretty to really be Jane Eyre. The filmmakers like to forget she is plain Jane. But I can forgive them since some of the changes they make please me very well. I ‘m happy that Jane got more than smoldering looks from Rochester (Toby Stephens) in 2006, and I rejoice that her story is too compelling to be truly distorted by screen writers.

Alison Owen, producer of the 2011 Jane Eyre, said “The reason so many people love ‘Jane Eyre’ is that they can identify with her. She’s not beautiful. She’s small and plain, and yet she finds romantic happiness. It’s a fairy tale for the insecure and unconfident — the ordinary woman.” I’m confident that Jane will be around for another 164 years, still offering a fairy tale for ordinary and extraordinary women, still winning the affection of new generations of readers, still showcasing the journey of a female protagonist, and still proving that romance can be canonical.

Are you a Jane Eyre fan? What’s your favorite movie interpretation?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tuesday Review: More HEAs in Fool’s Gold

Susan Mallery calls her fictional world of Fool’s Gold, California, “The Land of Happy Endings.”  The growing cast of appealing, distinctive characters and the uniqueness of Fool’s Gold with its man shortage and the history behind that shortage make this series a standout among the ever-growing subgenre of small-town series. I’m a long-time Susan Mallery fan, but I knew she had hit upon something special with this HQN series when I read the first book, Chasing Perfect, in April 2010. I’m hooked for the duration.

Mallery recently added three more happy endings for citizens of the small town with three books about the Hendrix triplets, younger sisters of Ethan Hendrix, hero of Almost Perfect, (Fool’s Gold Book 2).

Only Mine (July 26, 2011) is the story of Dakota, a psychologist who joins the production staff of a reality show filming in Fool’s Gold to protect the interests and image of the town and Finn Andersson, a pilot from South Salmon, Alaska, who plans to be in Fool’s Gold only long enough to make sure that his twin brothers give up their absurd idea of being contestants on the show and return to complete their final semester of college. I gave Dakota’s story four stars in my review at The Romance Dish in early August. Books 5 and 6 arrived on bookshelves on the heels of Only Mine.

Only Yours
By Susan Mallery
Publisher: HQN
Release Date: August 30, 2011
4.5 Stars

Only Yours is Montana’s story. While her sisters found their vocations, Montana has wandered, but since she has begun working with therapy dogs, she has found the sense of purpose that’s been missing. A hospital visit with a rambunctious canine called Fluffy leads to a stormy confrontation with Dr. Simon Bradley.
Simon, a plastic surgeon temporarily on staff at the Fool’s Gold hospital, is fiercely devoted to his patients, so despite his contretemps with Montana and Fluffy, when a young burn patient begs to see the puppy, Simon requests a visit from Montana and a therapy dog smaller and less exuberant than Fluffy. Prepared for a professional relationship, Simon is blindsided by the powerful attraction he feels for the sunny-natured Montana.

Physically and emotionally scarred by an abusive childhood and an isolated adolescence, Simon is a loner who defines himself by his medical practice, flying all over the world to treat burn victims. He has no family, few friends, and no place he calls home. He is the opposite of Montana with her large, closely connected family, her circle of friends, and her roots in Fool’s Gold. Their differences add to the attraction, but they also magnify the obstacles that stand in the way of an HEA.

As much as I have enjoyed the Fool’s Gold books, I have been troubled more than once by what seemed to me the real jerkiness of several of the heroes. Unlike those heroes, Simon’s past is so horrific and his coping strategies so entrenched that his behavior is understandable and forgivable. Montana is a delight and her openness, compassion, and joy are exactly what Simon needs. I loved these two together, and the developing secondary romance between the triplets’ mother and Montana’s boss was a wonderful bonus.

Only His
By Susan Mallery
Publisher: HQN
Release Date: September 27, 2011
5 Stars

Only His is Nevada’s story. Eager to prove herself without the support of the family business, she applies for the job of construction manager with Janack Construction, the company that’s building a casino/resort complex on tribal land in Fool’s Gold. She’s caught by surprise when the man interviewing her is not the head of the company but his son Tucker—her one-time friend, the man who broke her heart, and the source of her greatest humiliation.

Tucker is one job away from taking over the company from his father. He plans to spend a year in Fool’s Gold seeing the project through the first stage of construction before resuming his nomadic lifestyle. He knows how important relationships with the locals can be to his project, and Nevada Hendrix’s expertise and connections make her the best person for the construction manager’s job—if only they can move beyond their past and he can ignore his attraction to her.

As if the situation weren’t complicated enough, Caterina Stoicasescu, the self-absorbed artist and former child prodigy with whom Tucker had been obsessed for years shows up as the guest artist for one of Fool’s Gold’s many festivals. Neither he nor Nevada is prepared for the drama that follows in Cat’s wake. Nevada is also struggling with the changes the double wedding of her sisters will bring to the triplets’ relationship and with the shock of walking in on her mother at a revealing moment.

Through all the complications, Nevada and Tucker grow closer, becoming friends and lovers as well as working together. But the road to a happy ending is filled with twists and potholes. Nevada wants permanence and Tucker still sees himself as a vagabond with no ties.

This is my favorite if the 2011 Fool’s Gold books. I fell hard for Tucker. He’s a charmer with a sense of humor and a low jerk quotient, and even when he runs from commitment, it doesn’t take him long to see his wrongheadedness.  Nevada is a strong heroine, a risk-taker who excels in a male-dominated profession and addresses her relationship with Tucker with a refreshing directness. Cat adds an unexpected element, and as usual with Mallery’s books, the secondary romances are terrific additions to the main story. I loved all the humor in this one too, and I was happy to see more of Pia and Raoul.  Now I’m wondering if Charlie the firefighter, Annabelle the new librarian, and Heidi the goat girl will be the heroines of future Fool’s Gold books.

Fool’s Gold has become one of my favorite fictional places, and I look forward to many more visits.

What are your favorite fictional towns? Have you visited Fool’s Gold yet?