Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tuesday Review: A Bride by Moonlight

A Bride by Moonlight
(Fraternitas Aureae Crucis, Book 4)
By Liz Carlyle
Publisher: Avon
Release Date: 
February 26, 2013

Royden Napier, assistant commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, is a man known for his commitment to justice and his ruthless pursuit of the guilty. He takes pride not only in his own reputation but also in the reputation his father established in the same position Napier now holds.

Called to the death scene of Sir Wilfred Leeton, he finds Rance Welham, the new Earl of Lazonby, and Elizabeth Ashton, a woman who looks strangely familiar. Napier is suspicious of the tale the two reveal of the circumstances surrounding Leeton’s death. He is persuaded Lazonby is as thoroughly villainous as a man can be, but he has little choice but to go along with their story. Most disturbing of all are their accusations that Napier’s father was a corrupt official not above taking bribes to see that an innocent man was imprisoned and within a breath of being hanged.

Elizabeth Ashton, aka Lisette Colburne, aka Jack Coldwater, is a woman who has lost all purpose. More than half her life has been devoted to a quest to avenge the deaths of her father and her sister. She has held Rance Welham (now Lazonby) responsible, and his escape from the hangman’s noose left her obsessed with seeing his destruction. Now she knows that Lazonby is innocent and Leeton, the real culprit, is dead at her hand, she is left with no sense of direction. She fears reprisals from Lazonby once he is certain that Lady Anisha Stafford is safe from scandal, and she knows that the suspicious Napier has the tenacity of a bulldog. The wilds of Scotland seem to offer her only refuge.

Napier is still reeling from the Leeton scandal when the home secretary pressures him to visit Henry Tarleton, Viscount of Duncaster, and the paternal grandfather from whom Napier, like his father before him, is estranged. Napier’s father, Nicholas Tarleton, responded to Duncaster’s casting him off upon because he disapproved of Nicholas’s marriage, by cutting ties completely, supporting his family through his own efforts and even adopting his wife’s surname rather than using the Tarleton name. Napier has no desire to be part of the Tarleton family, but the recent death of Duncaster’s only surviving son, who left only daughters, means that Napier has become Duncaster’s heir. Upon the old man’s death, Napier will become Duncaster, however little he wants the title and the responsibilities that go with it. He reluctantly yields to the home secretary’s pleading and agrees to visit Burlingame, the Duncaster estate, ostensibly to satisfy his grandfather’s wishes but actually to investigate his uncle’s death and the death of Duncaster’s closest friend.

Needing to distract his aunt from matchmaking, Napier decides that he should take his intended bride with him. He promises Elizabeth Ashton that he will protect her from Lazonby and from arrest if she agrees to go to Burlingame in the role of Napier’s intended wife. Elizabeth agrees, but the two decide she should be presented to the Tarleton family under her original name, Elizabeth Colburne, to avoid association with the Leeton scandal and to take advantage of her position as the granddaughter of Earl Rowend. As the two work together to investigate the suspicious deaths, the attraction between them grows stronger and more difficult to resist. But their distrust of one another is equally strong. They have to become willing to drop all disguises and learn openness and trust if they are to claim the future that promises the happiness their pasts have denied them.

Nobody is better than Liz Carlyle at layered, labyrinthine plotting. This book weaves together multiple story strands and a large cast of characters, most of them with their own secrets that complicate the story and intrigue the reader. A Bride by Moonlight picks up with one of the final scenes from The Bride Wore Pearls and offers a different perspective on the hero of that book as well as revealing the ripple effects of Leeton’s death.

Elizabeth’s role as false fiancée is only the most obvious of the screens thrown up by various characters to protect their secrets and advance their purposes.   Carlyle succeeds in achieving the right balance between romance and mystery. The result is a book that offers a sizzling romance between two complex, fascinating characters and a series of mysteries that keep the reader eagerly turning pages. For readers who know Carlyle’s work, it’s enough to say this is vintage Carlyle, definitely a book you don’t want to miss. If you haven’t read Carlyle, you can certainly begin with this one. Wherever you begin with her books, you are likely to find yourself following threads that lead you to other of her books. Such connections are among the joys of being a Carlyle reader.

If I were listing authors whose plotting captivates and awes me, Carlyle would be high on my list. What authors would you include on such a list?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Mother's Books, Part 3: Elizabeth Cadell

In considering words to describe the books of Elizabeth Cadell (1903-1989), I realized that those early Cadells were more influential than I realized. Cadell’s books are heartwarming tales involving a community of memorable relationships. The focus is on the relationships among the characters, relationships that generally include but that are not limited to a romance. Plots may involve a mystery, but they are not high action. Low key humor rooted in character is also a staple. In other words, the world I discovered in the books of Elizabeth Cadell has much in common with the worlds I find today in books by writers such as Debbie Macomber and Nancy Atherton. These are the books I reach for when I have those long-faced days when I am prone to quote Wordsworth (“The world is too much with us.”) and heave deep sighs.

Elizabeth Cadell was born in 1903 in Calcutta, India. Orphaned at a young age, she was educated in England but returned to India after her marriage. She didn’t begin writing until she returned to England after she was widowed when, like many women authors, she turned to writing as a means of supporting herself and her two children. My Dear Aunt Flora, one of the few Cadells I’ve never read, was published in 1946. Over the next forty-one years, Cadell published another fifty-one books, including two Harlequin romances: Bridal Array (#448) and Cuckoo in Spring (#473), both published as Harlequins in 1959.

Unlike others of my mother’s favorite authors, whose books were set only in England (Stevenson) or the United States (Baldwin, Hill, and Loring), Cadell quite often set her books wholly or partially in other places: Spain (Around the Rugged Rock, 1954), France (I Love a Lass, 1956—also published as Bridal Array, 1959), the Canary Islands (Canary Yellow, 1965), India (A Lion in the Way, 1982), and most frequently, Portugal, where Cadell moved in 1960 (Come Be My Guest, 1964; The Fox from His Lair, 1965; The Golden Collar, 1969, among others). But whatever the setting, her characters were always interesting, likeable, and individualistic.

Her heroines are usually intelligent, practical, and independent. Lucille Abbey, heroine of The Corner Shop (1966), is typical:

“She was aware that she was slim, blonde, and beautiful-but her looks, though they might be alluring, were also misleading and raised hopes which she was constantly constrained to crush. She had a clear brain, sound common sense and a capacity for hard work; why these sober attributes had been encased in so fancy a package she had never been able to understand; she knew only that she looked far warmer than she felt.”

Her heroes may be businessmen, naval officers, or realtors, but they are unprepared for love’s leveling blow. Henry Downing, descendant of the village founders in Any Two Can Play (1981), can serve as a representative of a group that would be labeled beta heroes by today’s readers:

“Silence fell--easy and companionable. He watched the soft light on her face, the gleam of her hair. Shadows enclosed them. . . . With feelings that were a mixture of surprise, apprehension, and exaltation, he acknowledged to himself that he was in love. Seated beside her in the glow of the candles, he ceased to question or resist. He loved her—deeply.”

Cadell also filled her books with old ladies and children. The old ladies, often aunts of the protagonists, may be fierce or retiring, and they are often eccentric. The children may be spoiled and obnoxious or mature and endearing. But regardless of disposition, they have a genuineness that renders them eminently believable. As Susan Branch noted in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers Cadell’s treatment of the old and the young was “sympathetic but not sentimental."

My favorite Cadell books are those in the Waynes of Wound Mount trilogy: The Lark Shall Sing (1955), The Blue Sky of Spring (1956), and Six Impossible Things (1961). The six orphaned Wayne siblings are introduced in the first book. Lucille, the oldest, thinks that her younger brothers and sisters are suitably settled, and since she is about to be married to a man who offers her security if little excitement, she makes the decision that the family home should be sold. The Waynes’ inheritance does not include the funds to maintain their old home, and Lucille, a sensible, take-charge sort, feels selling is their only option. Her siblings do not agree. 

The romance plot which has Lucille rejecting her stodgy suitor for one who increases her heart and respiration rates takes a back seat to the efforts of the younger siblings to preserve their home. Nicholas, newly returned to civilian life, buys a motorcycle to get him home, Roselle leaves her London job, Dominic and Simon run away from the aunt who has been caring for them, and Julia goes AWOL from her boarding school. Each one has his/her personal reasons for fighting to preserve their home, and with the help of a few fortuitous additions to their group, they are able to do so. The other books continue the adventures of the Waynes and other members of the Greenhurst community. I particularly love Six Impossible Things in which Julia grows up and gets her HEA.

Cadell’s popularity in England and the United States continued for decades. Mass market paperbacks were available, and libraries offered most of her titles. In the 21st century, her popularity has declined. Her books are out of print, and copies of hard-to-find titles are selling for more than $400, although bargains can be found. I added half a dozen titles to my keeper shelves recently when my local library placed them among the discards they sell for $1.00. Sadly, their placement there suggests that they were not being borrowed often.

I think someone is missing a great opportunity to market Cadell’s books as ebooks. Although she is not an inspirational writer, I think her books would have strong appeal for many of the romance readers who keep Inspys selling in substantial numbers and for other romance readers who prefer their romances kisses only. As for me, I will continue to find solace in the books of Elizabeth Cadell when I need to retreat to a kinder, gentler world where humor is barbless and romance is gentle.

Ebooks are making it possible for readers to find many titles that were hard to find and often quite expensive if one didn’t spend hours haunting used bookstores. What out of print books would you like to see digitalized?

 Look for Part 4 in My Mother’s Books series on March 9. The subject will be Grace Livingston Hill.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bonus Review: A Most Scandalous Proposal

 A Most Scandalous Proposal
By Ashlyn Macnamara
Publisher: Ballantine
Release Date: February 26, 2013

Summary from publisher:

After watching her beloved sister, Sophia, pine over the ton’s golden boy for years, Miss Julia St. Claire has foresworn love and put herself firmly on the shelf. Unfortunately, her social-climbing mother and debt-ridden father have other ideas, and jump at the chance to marry Julia off to the newly named Earl of Clivesden . . . the man of Sophia’s dreams.

Since resigning his cavalry commission, Benedict Revelstoke has spent his time in London avoiding the marriage mart. But when he discovers that the Earl of Clivesden has his sights set on Julia, Benedict tries to protect his childhood best friend from the man’s advances—only to discover that more than friendship is driving his desire to defend her. He surprises them both with the force of his feelings, but when Julia refuses him, and her father announces her betrothal, Benedict fears he’s lost her forever—until Julia approaches him with a shocking scheme that will ruin her for all respectable society and lead them into an exquisite world of forbidden pleasures.

My Response:

Ashlyn Macnamara has acknowledged the influence of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility on her debut novel. However, it is an overstatement to view A Most Scandalous Proposal as a more sensual adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. There are marked differences in characters and plots, but the parallels are strong enough for Austen’s influence to be discernible.

Two Sisters

Sense—Julia St. Claire

Like Austen’s Elinor Dashwood, Julia, the younger of the two St. Claire sisters, is the practical sister. Although she sometimes grows impatient with her sister’s excessively romantic reactions, she loves her sister and does all she can to aid her and to comfort her when things go awry. Julia’s own responses are more measured and restrained than her sister’s. Both young women have turned down several proposals, but their reasons for doing so are different. Julia wants a “civilized, sensible union” without the excesses of romantic love. But Julia also fears losing herself if she is overwhelmed by love. Another characteristic that Julia shares with Elinor is that she increases her suffering by keeping the things that trouble her to herself . She is also like Austen’s Elinor in that her feelings remain private with none of the emotional displays to which her sister is prone.

Sensibility—Sophia St. Claire

Sophia, like Austen’s Marianne Dashwood, moves from intense emotional highs to deep emotional lows. She has been in love with William Ludlowe, who becomes Earl of Clivesden, from the moment he “rescues” her during her first season (shades of Willoughby and Marianne). For five years, she has been elated when he noticed her and devastated when he ignored her. He is the reason she has turned down other eligible gentlemen. Austen has Elinor describe Marianne as moving from conjecture to belief, from wish to hope to expectation with no pause to consider the grounds for such movement. The same thing could be said of Sophia. So tender are Sophia’s sensibilities that she swoons when she’s confronted with a difficult moment—twice in one evening. She is incapable of hiding her feelings. Julia wonders how Ludlowe remains unaware of Sophia’s love for him:

How could he miss Sophia’s obvious affection for him? She took no pains to hide it. She might as well lay her beating heart in his lap. . . .

The Worthy Hero—Benedict Revelstoke

Benedict is a childhood friend of Julia’s and has long been in love with her. Their relationship owes nothing to that of Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. A hero who duplicated Edward too closely would likely have 21st-century romance readers agreeing with Marianne that the character lacked the proper “fire” to be a hero. Unlike Edward, Benedict is handsome, independent, and well-spoken, and he possesses more than sufficient fire to satisfy contemporary tastes. But he does share with Edward youth, gravitas, and “solid worth.” 

The Older Hero—Rufus Frederick Shelburne, Earl of Highgate

Highgate may be the character in A Most Scandalous Proposal who owes the most to Sense and Sensibility. Like Colonel Brandon, he is older. In fact, at forty, he’s a few years older than Colonel Brandon, who was thirty-five. Also, like Austen’s character, Highgate is a man of honor, substance, and decisiveness. He has a history with the villain involving a woman they both loved. Colonel Brandon shared Marianne’s passion for music, but Highgate and Sophia bond over books, Jane Austen’s books, to be precise. Highgate is fully cognizant of the flaws in Ludlowe’s character and reveals them at the right moment, another detail he shares with Colonel Brandon. He falls in love with Sophia, but is willing to stand aside if it is in her best interest. I rarely envision an actor as a character when I read, but I could see Alan Rickman as Highgate, Colonel Brandon with a PG rating.

The Villain of the Piece-- William Ludlowe, Earl of Clivesden

Like Austen’s Willoughby, Ludlowe/Clivesden is superficially a maiden’s perfect hero. He is handsome, charming, and titled. Few know that he is also a bully, a womanizer, and a card shark who is debauched at the core. Macnamara makes her villain a more deeply flawed character than Austen’s Willoughby. After all, Willoughby eventually acknowledges that he has true feelings for Marianne and he ends a better man for having loved her. Ludlowe/Clivesden willfully humiliates Sophia, and he courts her sister, refusing to accept Julia’s rejection and even using her father to force Julia into becoming betrothed to him. There is no redemption for him at story’s end.

To reiterate, A Most Scandalous Proposal is not truly a “retelling” of Sense and Sensibility, but it does owe a significant debt to Austen’s first novel. Macnamara’s characters may well evoke the shadows of Austen’s in the eyes of readers familiar with Sense and Sensibility.

I have reservations about some of the Austen-inspired work that has filled bookstores in recent years. This is my favorite kind of Austen derivative, a novel that borrows from Austen, without mutilation, to create a story that is clearly the author’s own. I enjoyed this book. Fans of Sense and Sensibility may find a particular pleasure in it, but I don’t think it’s necessary to know the Austen novel that inspired it to find this book a good read.

Are you a Jane Austen fan? If so, what’s your favorite Austen-inspired novel?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tuesday Review: The Best Man

The Best Man
By Kristan Higgins
Publisher: Harlequin
Release Date: 
February 26, 2013

Faith Holland is returning to her hometown of Manningsport, New York, after three and a half years in San Francisco. Except for seven brief visits for holidays with her family, Faith hasn’t been back since she left after being jilted literally at the altar when what was supposed to be the perfect wedding of the town’s golden couple turned into a stage for the groom’s coming out of the closet. But her social life in San Francisco has been a series of disasters, Faith’s siblings are convinced their widowed father is about to fall victim to a crass golddigger, and there’s an old stone barn on the family’s property that Faith is itching to turn into a site for weddings and other events. For all these reasons and because she has missed her family and the family vineyard, Faith has come home for a two-month stay, but she never expected Levi Cooper to be the first person she saw upon her return.

Levi has also returned to Manningsport. After a period of distinguished military service, he’s back, serving his hometown as chief of police. Levi and Faith have known each other since they were third graders, but Faith was Princess Super-Cute on the hill, a member of the Holland clan, one of the town's founding families, who had owned the land on which their vineyards stood for generations. Levi was trailer trash, the only son of a hardworking single mother. It was not until their senior year of high school that they were thrown into each other’s company by Jeremy Lyon, a transplanted Californian whose wealthy family owned the vineyards that bordered the Hollands’ land. Jeremy, a big-hearted Mr. Perfect, ignored the class divisions that separated the kids in the trailer park from the kids on the hill and claimed Levi as his best friend. Since Faith and Jeremy were an item almost from the moment he came to her aid during one of her epileptic seizures, Faith and Levi spent a great deal of time in one another’s company, never exactly friends but always uneasily aware of each other.

Eight years after high school graduation, Jeremy had completed medical school, Faith had finished her training as a landscape architect, and the two were about to be married in a wedding all of Manningsport had been anticipating for years. Levi, a decorated soldier on leave for the occasion, was Jeremy’s best man. He was also the one who stopped the wedding and ended Faith’s dreams of the perfect life she and Jeremy would build. Can Faith ever move past that moment? And if she can, can Levi trust her to be the one person he loves who doesn’t leave him?

In The Best Man, Kristan Higgins gives readers a story that combines scenes worth of a twenty-first-century Lucille Ball with scenes that will have readers reaching for a hanky to catch the tears. Faith is a wonderful heroine, funny and flawed and endearing. Levi is a total guy--uncomfortable with emotions (his own and those of others), deeply committed to taking care of problems, and a better man than he himself will ever recognize. These are characters who will engage readers' attention and capture their hearts.

But Higgins gives readers more that a great romance in this book; she gives them a complete world set in a place so real one can see the clouds over the lake and smell the grapes growing on land saturated in family history. Beyond Faith and Levi, Higgins includes a large cast of quirky characters, each of whom possesses a distinct, individual presence. Faith’s large family (three generations of them), Levi’s co-workers, the citizens of Manningsport, Jeremy Lyon, and Blue (There has to be a dog. This is a Kristan Higgins story.)—each adds something special to this book. I fell in love not just with Faith and Levi but also with the place and the people to which they belong. I hope The Best Man is the first in a series because I want to go back to Manningsport.

What’s the last book you read that led you to fall in love not just with the protagonist but with the fictional world he/she inhabits?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day!

This valentine is from the Academy of American Poets. Check out their other poetry valentines and add a poem or two to your celebration of love today. 

Whether you share today with a special valentine, share memories that warm your heart, or cherish dreams of yet-to-be, may you remember that love is larger than romance. May you love and be loved this day and every day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tuesday Review: Crystal Cove

Crystal Cove
By Lisa Kleypas
(Friday Harbor, Book 4)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: 
February 5, 2013

Justine Hoffman is a hereditary witch with untapped powers and a limited knowledge of witchcraft. After a nomadic upbringing, Justine has found contentment as the owner of Artist’s Point, a bed and breakfast on San Juan Island, but she longs to experience a deep romantic love. So intense is her longing that she tries to cast a love spell. When that doesn’t work, she turns to the ancient Triodecad, a particularly powerful grimoire, and it reveals that a geas, a lifetime enchantment, has been placed upon her that condemns her to living her life without the love for which she yearns. Consumed with anger over the injustice, she breaks the geas without understanding the repercussions such an act will have.

Jason Black, a reclusive billionaire who made his fortune in the video gaming industry, has rented Artist’s Point for five days for himself and a small group of people who work for his company, Inari Gaming Enterprises, who are on the island for a series of meetings. Only Jason and his executive assistant know that he has a secret reason for being at the bed and breakfast. Jason is a man without a soul, a circumstance that means not only that his lifespan is likely to be abbreviated but also that death means the end of his existence since there is no part of him beyond his physical existence. His only hope of changing his situation lies in the Triodecad, which he plans to steal. But when he meets Justine, their connection is so powerful that she immediately becomes far more than a means to an end.

Justine is horrified to learn that in breaking the geas she has placed Jason under a death sentence since because the man truly loved by a hereditary witch always dies young. Justine’s desperate attempt to find a way to save the man she loves results in a broadly comic scene and in a poignant one. But can even a love as powerful as the one Justine and Jason share prove stronger than the magical force that threatens their union?

This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever written. I’m a Lisa Kleypas fan; she has been an autobuy author for me for many years. And there is much in this book that I love. I love the friendship between Justine and Zoe. I love the passage Zoe read from Connie Brockway’s The Other Guy’s Bride. I love Justine and Jason, individually and together. Justine is immensely likeable—nurturing, quick-tempered, loyal, and vulnerable. Jason is a Kleypas alpha—confident, protective, commanding, but capable of great tenderness—with an Eastern touch that makes him a bit different. I prefer to see relationships that build, but I could accept the instant compelling attraction that exists between these two.  But the witchcraft element just distanced me from the story.

Kleypas has moved more deeply into paranormal territory with each of the Friday Harbor books, from none in Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor to the magical realism of Rainshadow Road to the ghosts of Dream Lake and now to witches in Crystal Cove. As a critic, I find the progression interesting, but as a romance reader, with this last book I’ve moved into a place that I don’t want to go. Also, and this reaction may be because the characters hit a sensitive spot with this particular reader, I was not amused by the redneck, backwards Arkansas witches with their Elvis altar cloth. Just sayin’. . .

This fourth book is also the most sensual of the Friday Harbor books. There is a light bondage scene that some readers will doubtless find hot. I confess my reaction was a big sigh accompanied by the exclamation “Not another one!” Bondage scenes appear to be becoming as ubiquitous as oral sex in romance fiction. But that’s a single scene and certainly not the only one that gives the book a high sizzle factor.

Kleypas’s prose is wonderful. She has been at her most lyrical throughout this series, and in Crystal Cove particularly she has her characters say some of the wisest and most moving words about love that I’ve encountered in romance fiction. After reading the passage from Brockway, Zoe says:

Sometimes real life is even better. Because love is there not just in the big romantic moments, but in all the little things. The way he touches your face, or covers you with a blanket when you’re taking a nap, or puts a Post-it note on the fridge to remind you about your dentist appointment. I think those things glue a relationship together even more than all the great sex.

And Jason’s thoughts as he and Justine part after what may be their last time together:

One of the more ignominious features of love was that you could only express it with clichés... it made you sound like a fraud at a time when you were blazing with sincerity But at the end of the conversation, he found himself saying, 'I love you,' and she said it back.

And it was enough. Those three well worn, everyday words got the job done."

So do I recommend this book? If your favorite Nora Roberts series is the Three Sisters Island trilogy, I highly recommend it. If you prefer your witches under eight and dressed for trick-or-treating on Halloween, you might want to approach this one more cautiously. I remain a devoted fan of the Friday Harbor books and of Lisa Kleypas generally. I’ll preorder Lightning Bay, which is set for release on September 13, 2013. But I do hope it won’t feature vampires or shape shifters.

Are you a fan of paranormal romances? What’s your favorite witchy romance?

I am one of Lisa’s Divas and received an ARC of Crystal Cove as a benefit of belonging to this group. (I hope I’m not drummed out of the group for posting this review.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

My Mother’s Books, Part 2--Faith Baldwin (1893-1978)

 Marriage-in-trouble, second chance at love, love triangles, big misunderstandings, and other tropes I regularly toss around in discussing romance novels today, I first learned about reading my mother’s books. I might have lacked the vocabulary to talk about these tropes then, but the stories that contained them were the topic of many conversations I had about books with my mother and my best friend. None of the writers we were reading handled these timeless themes better than Faith Baldwin.

Faith Baldwin was the Nora Roberts of her day. In 1936, at the height of her popularity, she had five novels serialized in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal, published three novels that were serialized the previous year, and saw four of her books adapted as films, including Wife vs. Secretary starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy and Love Before Breakfast starring Carole Lombard, Preston Foster, and Cesar Romero. Adjusting for inflation, Baldwin’s 1936 salary would be more than $5 million today.

Although Baldwin never approached the number of novels Roberts has written (200 plus), she was amazingly prolific, writing more than 85 novels in a career that spanned fifty years. A New York Times critic in 1939 wrote admiringly of her “turning them [novels] out a mile a minute, all readable” and called Baldwin “tops in her field.” Her first book was Mavis of the Green Hill (1921), but she made her reputation writing for the popular women’s magazines of the day that produced romances as six-part serials for their large audience. She sold her first serial to Good Housekeeping in 1927, and as her popularity increased, she earned as much as $55,000 for a serialized novel. That figure translates to $725,728 in 2013 currency.

Baldwin had a knack for knowing what her audience wanted and giving it to them. Her heroines were often young, successful women who were forced to deal with conflicts between a new role (career woman) and a traditional one (homemaker). Even a skim of her titles shows how frequent this theme appeared in novels such as The Office Wife (1930), White Collar Girl (1933), and He Married a Doctor (1944). Since Baldwin was writing romance, it is no surprise that marriage always won the battle, and the HEA was arrived at with women’s traditional role supreme.

Skyscraper, first published in 1931—the year the Empire State Building opened—earned praise for offering readers “a new kind of heroine,” a woman who loved her job in the city and, unlike her predecessors, was forced to choose not between two suitors but between financial independence and true love. The heroine’s choice is a real one since company she works for enforces a policy of not employing married women. Her choice is further complicated by the time, 1930, when jobs were scarce, and by her predatory but charismatic, married (although separated from his wife) boss. The novel became a 1932 movie, Skyscraper Souls starring Maureen O’Sullivan as the heroine. In 2003, Feminist Press reissued the novel as part of its Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series. Alicia Daly of Ms called Skyscraper "a captivating and quietly subversive novel, featuring a spunky young working woman struggling to make it on her own.” She added “Skyscraper declares that despite all challenges, women should insist on their right to have it all."

Working girl heroines or not, Baldwin’s fictional world was largely one of fashionable clothing, private railway cars, and more than merely comfortable incomes. Such a world evidently held great appeal for Depression-era readers who found in Baldwin’s stories escape from the burdens of their own lives. Baldwin’s success was due to her ability to provide the escape while at the same time assuring her readers that the relationship her protagonists built were based on love and honesty, qualities available even to those denied ermine-collared bed jackets. Baldwin was not bothered by those labeled her fiction escapist. In fact, she took pride in offering her readers “some way to get out of themselves” and ruefully acknowledged that the decline in her sales numbers after World War II began could be attributed to the real world offering more excitement than her fictional one.

Sales may have been fewer, but Baldwin still had many tears of success ahead of her. Her books were still being adapted for film: Apartment for Peggy, filmed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1948; Horsie, filmed by Robert Stillman Productions in 1951; and Queen for a Day, filmed by United Artists in 1951. In the earliest period of network television, she hosted a thirty-minute anthology for ABC, the Faith Baldwin Romance Theater. From 1958 to 1965, she wrote a monthly column for Woman’s Day called “The Open Door.” Even in its final years, the column drew 300 or more letters from readers each month and earned Baldwin as much as $850 per column (US$ 6,255 in 2013).

Baldwin continued writing well into her 80s. Hollywood no longer came calling, but a series Baldwin wrote in the 1970s found a readership. Building on one of her most popular books, Station Wagon Set (1939), Baldwin set another six books in Little Oxford: Any Village (1971), No Bed of Roses (1973), Time and the Hour (1974), New Girl in Town (1975), Thursday’s Child (1976), and Adam’s Eden (1977). By this time, a new generation of romance readers was immersed in Harlequin’s more sensual Harlequin Presents books in which Anne Mather shattered a taboo by including premarital sex and Kathleen Woodiwiss’s many imitators were producing historicals with an unprecedented sizzle factor. But other readers were still finding comfort in the final books of Faith Baldwin. I know because my mother was among those readers, and while I was reading Mather and Woodiwiss, I was also still reading my mother’s books.

Marriage-in-trouble books and second-chance-at-love stories are two of my favorite themes. When I look back, I can identify books from my mother’s bookshelves that introduced me to the tropes and fostered my love of them? What’s your favorite romance trope? Can you remember the first book that made you aware of how much you like the theme?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Reading My Mother's Books: An Introduction

Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini

You don’t hear much about them these days, but before the romance revolution that began with the publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972, women were reading romance fiction. The first romances I read were my mother’s books. One muggy Georgia summer weekday, a short time before I turned ten, I was complaining because I had nothing to read and my dad couldn’t take me to the library until Saturday. Tired of my whining, my mother pointed me toward her books and said “Read.” I did. 

By Saturday, my reading interest had changed because I had discovered romance. I had read Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and a half dozen romances by Emilie Loring and Grace Livingston Hill. I was an avid reader from the time I was five, but it was that summer that my appetite for more and more to read became voracious. I carried a book with me everywhere, snatching a few moments to read lying on a towel at the swimming pool, following my mother down the aisles of the grocery store, even a few times stealing minutes during a Sunday morning sermon. (The last reached a forcible conclusion when my mother found me out.) Over the next couple of years, I discovered other treasures on my mother’s bookshelves—books by Faith Baldwin, Elizabeth Cadell, and D. E. Stevenson.

These were the books that started my life-long love affair with romance. I still have a double handful of my mother’s romances on my keeper shelves. I have since discovered that my experience was not unusual. Some studies suggest that most women who think of themselves as heavy readers began reading for pleasure between the ages of five and nine (63%), and a significant number (44%) read books that were recommended by their mothers or another close relative. (Many of my earlier favorite books—the Anne of Green Gables books and Louisa May Alcott’s books, for example—were also books my mother had loved and wanted me and my sister to read.)

It was many years later when I was in graduate school that I discovered just how popular the romance writers whose books my mother loved and shared with me had been. When I left my romance-reading closet where I had lurked throughout most of my academic career and joined the online romance fiction community, I was bothered by the fact that Loring and the others seemed largely forgotten. I toyed with the idea of writing a book about these gentle romance authors whose books tens of thousands of women readers devoured in an age when the only steam in romance fiction was that rising from the heroine’s tea cup. I even did some research and filled notebooks with copious notes, but other writing for profit and for pleasure always seemed to take precedence.

This week I did some cleaning and decluttering, and one of the decisions I had to make was whether to trash my notes on gentle romance along with some of the books by these authors. Somehow it seemed a betrayal of my mother and the gift she gave me that long ago summer to do so. That’s when a new idea was born: to use this blog for a series of posts paying tribute to the five romance writers I discovered on Mother’s bookshelves. So, beginning tomorrow and continuing through March, appropriately Women’s History Month, every other Saturday, I’ll be posting a tribute post to one of these writers. I’ll still do my regular Tuesday reviews and irregular bonus reviews on Thursdays, but the Saturday posts for this period will be focused on my mother’s books. I hope you will enjoy them.

How old were you when you discovered reading for pleasure? Who introduced you to romance fiction?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tuesday Review: The Autumn Bride

The Autumn Bride
By Anne Gracie
Publisher: Berkley
Release Date: February 5, 2013

Max Davenham is still a schoolboy when his uncle is killed in a riding accident, leaving the eighteen-year-old Max the new baron. He has yet to adjust to becoming Lord Davenham when he learns that the uncle he thought was wealthy has not only gone through the family fortune, including his wife’s jointure and jewels, but has also left enormous debts. Despite his youth, Max accepts the responsibility that has been thrust upon him. He will do what he must to protect his aunt and save his ancestral home. Nine years later, a year earlier that the deal he struck with a wealthy merchant called for, Max has paid his original debt. The trading company in which he is a partner has bases all over East Asia, and Max, Lord Davenham, has succeeded beyond his expectations. When a letter from an old friend of his aunt’s awakens concern, he decides that it is time he returned to London.

Abigail Chantry, a governess who finds delight in her young charges and in reading used books in a London bookshop on her half-days off, thinks her younger sister Jane has just accepted a new position as companion to a vicar’s mother in Hereford. But when a battered maidservant brings the news that Jane, a beauty not yet eighteen, is in a “bad place,” Abby finds that Jane has escaped from a brothel. When Abby brings Jane, another young woman who also escaped the brothel, and the battered maid to her room, she loses her job. Abby’s slim savings are all that stand between the four women and life on the streets, but the four pledge to become a family and face their challenges together. When Jane falls ill and there’s not enough money to secure medical help, Abby turns thief.

She chooses a house she believes to be empty and climbs in through a window, hoping to find some small object that can be pawned for enough to buy medicine for Jane. Instead she finds Lady Beatrice Davenham, confined to her bed, left in filth and near starvation by servants who are robbing her and keeping her isolated from the friends who might help her. Abby not only leaves without stealing anything, she is so troubled by Lady Beatrice’s situation that she returns, bringing soup with her. When Lady Beatrice hears Abby’s story, she invites Abby and her “sisters” to live with her. Only when she is persuaded that she can indeed help Lady Beatrice does Abby agree. She takes over management of the household and dismisses the crooked servants. She and her sisters, who have assumed the surname Chance, work to see that Lady Beatrice’s physical and mental health improve. Life takes a decided turn for the better for all concerned, and a genuine affection develops between Lady Beatrice and the Chance sisters.

When Max hears from the man of affairs he’d left in charge of Lady Beatrice’s finances that a strange woman, claiming to be Lady Beatrice’s niece, has taken charge of the household and fired all the servants, he prepares to confront the imposter. Suspicious of her motives at first, Max soon learns that Abby Chance and her sisters have been his aunt’s saviors. Nevertheless, he’s displeased with his aunt’s plants to foist these strangers onto London society as her nieces, but he soon find himself thinking of Abby far too frequently than is good for a man of honor who  is betrothed to another woman. Abby finds Max’s lordly manner infuriating, but she soon discovers that there is much more to this “dark Viking” than his arrogant assumption that he knows best. And the more she learns about him, the greater the danger to her heart.

A blend of humor and poignancy marks The Autumn Bride as distinctly the work of Anne Gracie. In this first book in the Chance Sisters series, the author has woven another tale of complex family relationships, delightful secondary characters, and a love great enough to win over all the obstacles life throws in its way. I loved everything about this book—the “sisters” who create a family out of affection and need, the hero as disillusioned boy and as honorable man, and the gallant, all together wonderful Lady Beatrice, who almost steals the book from the lovers.

From page one, I was engaged with this story. When Abby assures the three younger girls that “It doesn’t hurt to dream,” and the four share their dreams of what they want from life, I was in up to my heart. By the time I reached Abby’s meeting with Lady Beatrice, I had fallen in love with all the main characters. I didn’t allow a small thing like the need to sleep keep me from the story. I finished it in the wee hours, knowing that Anne Gracie had created another world that I would want to visit again and again.

Gracie not only entertains with her trademark warmth and wit, she also leads the reader to consider the very definition of family and how the tangled bonds of this relationship enrich and complicate lives.  The novel is filled with different kinds of family groupings—the Chance sisters, of course, but also nephew and aunt/substitute mother, father and daughter, and friends as family. As the series continues, I expect this theme to yield new insights. I look forward to them. Gracie has said that the story of Damaris and Freddy is next. Damaris is a mystery I’m eager to learn more about, and Freddy—ah, Freddy! He reminds me a bit of the Honorable Frederick Standen (Cotillion by Georgette Heyer), one of my favorite heroes. I can’t wait for Book 2.

What books have you read that have made you consider the definition of "family"?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Series Addiction

From The Wandering Reader
Sometimes subjects just seem to be in season. Everywhere you turn, unrelated groups are talking about the same topic. Such was the case in January 2013 with the subject of related books. Counting online and real life conversations, I’ve been engaged in seven different discussions about books in series during the past thirty-one days. In most of these conversations I have labeled myself a “series addict,” thinking I was exaggerating for a touch of humor. But my most recent discussion with an old friend about the series we read as children made me realize that perhaps “addiction” is the most accurate word to describe our almost life-long love of series. The OED defines “addiction” as “The state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind.”  I think “devoted” is certainly describes annual readings of book over a period of many years, and I’m persuaded many people would see such activity as “immoderate.”

The books she and I read and reread and talked about endlessly as girls had been published years before we read them; three of the series our mothers had read as children. We loved the fact that the stories didn’t end after one book. We eagerly followed the adventures of Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters (three books, published 1868-1886), Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers (twelve books, published 1881-1916), Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley (eight books, published 1908-1939), Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Ingalls family (eight books, published 1932-1943), and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Ray, Tacy Kelly, and Tib Muller (ten books, published 1940-1955), sharing their lives from their childhoods to their adult lives when they married and had children of their own.

We both have copies of these series on our keeper shelves today and even some of them occasionally, and we both smile when we are reminded that at least with Alcott, Montgomery, Lovelace, and Ingalls, girls in the 21st century are still reading and loving their books. You can bet we took note last year when NPR published their audience-chosen list of the best YA books of all time, two of our favorite series were on the list: the Anne of Green Gables books at #14 and the Betsy-Tacy books at #100. The Sidney books, perhaps the most Victorian in tone, don’t seem to have survived as well as the others.

The pattern of addiction established when we first began to read has endured for more than half a century. We rarely read the same books these days. Her first choice for leisure reading is mysteries or thrillers with a few romantic suspense series thrown in, and mine is romance, heavy on the historical and contemporary. But our bookshelves are still filled with series, we still reread our favorites, and we still talk about what we are reading. We agreed to research our shelves to see how great a hold our addiction has on our time, our purses, and our space. She has just over a hundred series on her keeper shelves. I have 188 current romance series keepers, including digital and print books, but I did some major purging of books when I moved to a smaller house four years ago. According to my book catalog, at one time I had more than 400 series represented on my bookshelves. 

Grace Burrowes, whose Windham series is among my keepers, was a guest of the Romance Bandits earlier this week. She responded to a comment I made about my favorite series by saying she hoped my keeper shelves were insured since I had a history of historical romance on them. The comment sent me back to check my shelves, and it’s almost true. I have series that range from Georgette Heyer’s Duke of Avon’s family series (three books, 1921-1937) to Manda Collins Ugly Duckling trilogy (three books, 2012-2013). Mary Balogh is the series queen though. I have thirteen series by her. 

The most read series is Jo Beverley’s Company of Rogues (fourteen books and a novella, published 1991-2007). I read An Arranged Marriage (Book #1) when it was released, and as each book in the series was released, I reread all those that preceded it, and then in 2009, I reread the whole series. I’ve read Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels (seven books, published 1993-1997) and Loretta Chase’s Scoundrels (four books and a novella, published 1992-1998) almost as often. Other favorites for rereading include Balogh’s Dark angel sequence (seven books, 1994-1997), Jo Beverley’s Mallorens (twelve books,1993-2012—with #13 due this year), Loretta Chase’s Carsingtons (five books, 2004-2010), Anne Gracie’s Merridew Sisters (four books, 2005-2007), Eloisa James’s Essex Sisters (four books, 2005-2006), Carla Kelly’s Libby’s London Merchant (1991) and One Good Turn (2001), Lisa Kleypas’s Then Came You (1993) and Dreaming of You (1994), and Julia Quinn’s Bridgertons (eight books, 200-2006)—my current reread since reading the second epilogue collection, Happily Ever After (April 2, 2013).

My contemporary keeper collection may be historically less impressive, but it is no less cherished. Nora Roberts is the undisputed queen here. At one time, I had twenty-seven of her series. I now have only seventeen, but her MacGregors (ten books and a novella, 1985-1999), O’Hurleys (four books, 1998-1990), Stanislaskis (six books, 1990-2001), Concannons (three books, 1994-1995), MacKades (four books, 1995-1996), Quinns (four books 1997-2002), and Gallaghers (three books, 1999-2000) are comfort reads that I have read again and again and again and . . . 

Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series (eighteen books and three novellas, 2007-2012) may be the longest series in my collection, but I’ve read her Grace Valley books (three books, 2000-2003) more often. Other series that I often pull out for a reread are Jean Brashear’s Deep in the Heart (four books, 2003-2004), Kathleen Korbel’s (aka Eileen Dryer) Kendalls (five books, 1987-2006), Lisa Kleypas’s Travis family (three books, 2007-2009—and, oh, how I long for a fourth!), Curtiss Ann Matlock’s Valentine books (seven books, 1999-2009), Marilyn Pappano’s Bethlehem series (nine books, 1997-2003), and Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars (seven books, 1994-2007). Meg Benjamin’s Konigsberg books, Julie James’s FBI/US Attorney books, and Shannon Stacey’s Kowalskis are ongoing series that I love and expect to become favorite rereads.

And I haven’t even touched upon the mystery series—not to mention the Harry Potter books, which I’ve read in full three times, some books more often. Did I say my name is Janga and I’m a series addict?

Do you have a series addiction? Are you a rereader? If you could take only three series to a desert island with you, what would you take?