Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Stores I Have Known, Loved and Mourned

A post today on the Word Wenches blog got me thinking about the various bricks-and-mortar bookstores I have patronized over the years.

Living in a book-loving university town, I was spoiled for choice back in the day. Before the big-box bookstores moved in, though, the only places I could buy romance novels seemed to be the grocery store and the chain stores at the mall (Waldenbooks or B. Dalton Bookseller). Madison's wonderful independent bookstores tended to snub romance, although they were filled with many other wonderful things.

Avol's was the largest of the used book stores near the UW campus. During my college days, it was located in a beautiful old mansion that was built in 1907 to house the Women's Club of Madison. When they lost their lease in 2003, Avol's eventually moved into the Canterbury space (see below). The Women's Club building now houses one of my favorite restaurants.

Booked for Murder specialized in mystery and suspense novels, as one might guess from the name. It was a wonderful place to browse -- they had a wonderful curated collection of new and classic mystery/suspense novels. They regularly hosted author book-signing events. I remember meeting Sharan Newman there more than 18 years ago (I would not have believed it was that long, but the inscription in my copy of Strong As Death is dated October 15, 1996). A few years ago, the store was sold, moved and renamed. Its successor, Mystery to Me, is still going strong, happily.

Borders was the first big-box bookstore in town. I loved it. In the days before author websites and Amazon algorithms, I used to browse their "new releases" shelves for favorite authors' names. They had terrific genre fiction sections, and their membership card was free. RIP, Borders.

Canterbury Booksellers also hosted a small café in a corner of the store and a themed B&B above the shop, the rooms decorated with murals illustrating Chaucer's tales. The store sold new titles, both nonfiction and literary fiction (but not much genre fiction). It also hosted regular author readings. When it first opened, you could save your bookstore receipts and eventually cash them in for an overnight stay in the B&B. Sadly, I did not accumulate enough receipts before the original business failed. Avol's moved their used bookstore into the downstairs space, and the charming B&B rooms were converted to apartments. In 2012, Avol's merged with feminist bookstore A Room of One's Own (which could no longer afford its own storefront), bringing new books back under the Canterbury roof.

Frugal Muse used books once had multiple locations. One of them was about a half mile from my house, which made for some delightful (and expensive) walks. Unlike the used bookstores near campus, Frugal Muse carried a lot of genre fiction, nicely organized into sections and alphabetical by author. I was able to find some out-of-print books by favorite authors and try some new-to-me authors. It's also a great place for cookbooks. My local location closed. There is still one way across town, but I usually settle for Half Price Books (which is much closer).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Top Five Reasons I'm Glad Spring Is Finally Here

Although tomorrow is officially the first day of Spring, for all practical purposes (weather, basketball, television programming), it is already here. In no particular order, here are some of the reasons why this makes me very happy:

1. Warmer weather (duh). Here in the Upper Midwest, we've endured another year of polar vortex temperatures. On Monday, the outside temperature actually made it above 70 degrees F. I found a deserted corner of a nearby conservation park, sat down on a wooden deck and took off my shoes and socks. I happily read a book on my smartphone while letting my bare feet soak up some sunlight for the first time since October. For fifteen minutes, anyway (didn't want to risk sunburned toes).

2. Writing contests. For the second year in a row, I am entering some RWA chapters' writing contests. They are an excellent source of feedback for newer writers. I'll find out around Memorial Day weekend if I've made the finals rounds.

3. The Write Touch Conference. This year, the Wisconsin RWA chapter's conference is in late April, co-locating with Barbara Vey's Reader Appreciation Luncheon. I'm glad I purchased my luncheon ticket right away -- it sold out fast. Conference registration (without the luncheon) is still available.

4. New releases. Some of my auto-buy authors (Suzanne Enoch, Caroline Linden and Julie Anne Long) have new books coming out in March or May.

5. Outlander returns. I've been waiting for months to see more of Jamie in his kilt (or, better yet, out of his kilt).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Afternoon Tea Around the World

As an anglophile and a history nerd, I love a traditional afternoon tea. Cream teas (which include scones and/or sweet pastries) are all well and good, but I will go out of my way for a proper afternoon tea, with savory sandwiches as well as the scones and sweet pastries and a pot of tea (not just a cup of hot water with a teabag in it). I have had some delightful and decadent DIY tea parties with friends, but my husband and I also enjoy splurging on a special afternoon tea when we travel. These are my Top 5 Afternoon Tea Experiences from the past decade:

5. The Mandarin Oriental, City Center, Las Vegas - We did not have a European trip on the horizon, so we decided to satisfy our afternoon tea cravings by seeking out one of the two fancy hotels on the Strip (the other one is the Four Seasons at Mandalay Bay) that offer afternoon tea. This was a modern foodie take on the ritual. The sandwiches were spicier than usual, but delicious. The food was served on a floor-standing slanted chrome three-tiered rack. The teapots were glass, allowing us to watch the color change as it steeped. If you have ever used the term molecular gastronomy, this is the afternoon tea for you.

4. The Orangery, Kensington Palace - On our first trip to London, we chose this venue out of several afternoon tea suggestions in our guide book. It was one of the less expensive options, and one that did not require a reservation (at the time, they did not accept reservations, although I believe they do nowadays). I am so glad we did, even if the food and service were not as fancy as the other venues on my list. We each had a choice of several varieties of tea and a choice of dessert pastry. Rather than bringing out a three-tiered server, they served the refreshments in three courses. The tasty sandwiches were followed by fresh scones, still hot from the oven, served with pots of jam and clotted cream. They may still be the best scones I have ever had.

3. Mr. Fogg's, Mayfair - This London nightclub is themed as Phileas Fogg's Mayfair residence. About a year ago, they began offering "tipsy tea" on Saturday afternoons. Tea-infused cocktails are served in teapots. There is a choice of several varieties. Some of them are meant to be mixed with champagne, which is served in the milk pitcher. The three-tiered rack contains savory sandwiches and a great many macarons and other sweet pastries, but no scones (the small nightclub tables do not have sufficient space for pots of jam and clotted cream). The tipsy tea has proven so popular that there are now two Saturday afternoon seatings and one on Friday afternoon as well. It is rather expensive, but the ambience cannot be beat -- you are surrounded by Mr. Fogg's collection of exotic souvenirs and gadgets.

2. Caffe Florian, Venice - This was a spontaneous discovery. After touring St. Mark's Basilica and the Correr Museum, we were starving by mid-afternoon. We saw a sign outside this fancy café advertising afternoon tea (there are many British tourists in Venice) and decided to treat ourselves. There are sidewalk tables, next to a musical ensemble playing 1920s-style jazz, but we opted to sit inside. The place is decorated with paintings and lots of red velvet upholstery. It looks rather like a rococo brothel, but I love that sort of kitschy decadence. This is the oldest coffee shop in Venice (dating to 1720), and its patrons over the years include Casanova and Lord Byron. The refreshments were served on a three-tiered rack, and the food was excellent. I still remember the tea sandwiches with prosciutto ham.

1. The Wolseley, London - This beautiful art deco venue is crowded and noisy, but there is something magical about the sound of crowd noise echoing off marble floors and high ceilings. The tea is served in lovely silver pots, and the three-tiered server has a silver lid on the top (to keep the scones warm). Overall, this was the best food I have ever enjoyed with my afternoon tea. We skipped lunch so that we were able to eat every bite.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Are You Kidding, Moviefone?

So, yesterday I saw this Moviefone slideshow of the James Bond films rated, from worst to best. I found myself talking back to my computer screen with nearly every click.

First of all, the 1967 Casino Royale farce should not even be counted as a James Bond movie. It has no business being included in the list.

How in the world can they rank License to Kill higher than The Living Daylights?  I know that Timothy Dalton gets no love from a lot of critics and fans, but of his two movies, the first is clearly superior, unless you also like Roger Moore's campy movies more than Sean Connery's serious ones.

There are several more Bond films that are worse than Quantum of Solace. Granted, it was a weak outing for Daniel Craig, but it's not nearly as bad as several others that Moviefone ranks higher.

Octopussy is a terrible movie. There are no metrics by which it is better than For Your Eyes Only. Live and Let Die is also a terrible movie. I loved it as a child, but as an adult, I find it cringeworthy. The only good thing about it is Paul McCartney's title track.

OK, so how would I rank the James Bond movies?  Here is my list, from best to worst.

1. Casino Royale (the real one, with Daniel Craig)
2. From Russia with Love (exotic locales and Rosa Klebb)
3. Skyfall (a beautiful homage to 50 years of Bond films)
4. Goldfinger ("No, Mr. Bond; I expect you to die.")
5. Dr. No (the movie that started it all)
6. The Living Daylights (Bond helps the Mujahedeen - what could possibly go wrong?)
7. GoldenEye (Pierce Brosnan always seemed too delicate to be Bond, but this is his best)
8. You Only Live Twice (two words: volcano lair)
9. The Spy Who Loved Me (a Bond girl with agency, and Jaws)
10. The World Is Not Enough (Sophie Marceau is terrific as the femme fatale)
11. Thunderball (two words: jet pack)
12. Quantum of Solace (not terribly memorable, but relatively inoffensive)
13. For Your Eyes Only (Roger Moore is looking old, but this one is less campy than others)
14. The Man with the Golden Gun (campy but fun)
15. Tomorrow Never Dies (a tame outing with a dull villain)
16. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (terribly silly in so many ways)
17. Never Say Never Again (I think Connery did this as an apology for Diamonds Are Forever)
18. License to Kill (Wayne Newton is over the top as a secondary villain)
19. Die Another Day (tries to be an homage to 40 years of Bond films; comes off as a satire)
20. Diamonds Are Forever (Bond helps South Africa's apartheid regime and the De Beers monopoly)
21. Octopussy (props to Maud Adams for playing a second Bond girl later in her career)
22. Live and Let Die (white Brits should not try to make Blaxploitation films)
23. Moonraker (so ridiculous, not even Jaws could save it)
24. A View to a Kill (I prefer the Duran Duran video to the movie -- "Bon. Simon Le Bon.")

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I'm Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. Trebek

Several months ago, I joked on this blog: "If only Jeopardy! had a Classic Romance Novels category (I'm still waiting for my opportunity to tell Alex Trebek about the time I crashed an actual debutante ball)."

Monday's game this week included a new category, "Harlequin Romance Novel Titles 2014". Last week, there was a clue about Nora Roberts in the "Female Authors" category.

In the past year, there have been at least a few contestants who admitted to writing romance novels. One of them won $37,400 during his three-day run.

Now I regret not mentioning being an aspiring romance author when I auditioned for Jeopardy! last year, because there seems to be some pent-up demand. Oh well, I can always try again next year. After all, Arthur Chu didn't get a call after his first audition.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Progress Sometimes Isn't

This unlandscaped bit of green space is what now sits on the site of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Who would ever guess that this under-resourced park in a nondescript South London neighborhood (near the Vauxhall train station) once attracted the highest in the land and was painted by great artists like Canaletto? Two hundred  years ago, it looked very different. The Gardens were at their best between 1785 (when admission was first charged) and 1840 (when its owners went bankrupt). New owners reopened the Gardens until 1859.

A musical pageant at Vauxhall Gardens;
c.1840 Watercolour, the British Museum
There were once structures for music, dancing and dining. Trees were hung with Japanese lanterns that were lit at night by means of fuses connecting them, making the lighting an amusing spectacle in its own right. Fireworks provided an exciting finale to the evening's entertainments. Many a historical romance heroine was ruined or nearly ruined along its darkened walks (Katherine Huxtable in Mary Balogh's Then Comes Seduction comes immediately to mind).
You can see some wonderful historical images of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens on this Two Nerdy History Girls' Pinterest board and this terrific blog devoted to Early British & American Public Gardens & Grounds.
Now, no trace remains of its former glory. Perhaps someday the London Borough of Lambeth will at least plant some trees and put up a modest gazebo. I hope the construction activity currently going on has something to do with improvements to the park.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Love and Grief

The Octagon Room, where Augusta and
Joss first have a private conversation.
Last week, I read Theresa Romain's Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress. The author has become an auto-buy for me. She has a very clever way of inverting the usual gender roles in historical romance. This was most obvious in To Charm a Naughty Countess, which featured a rakish heroine and a virgin hero. To a lesser extent, she did something similar in her latest book. I am accustomed to reading about a heroine who lacks confidence in herself and a hero who is emotionally unavailable and hostile to the idea of falling in love. In this book, it is Joss Everett who lacks confidence in both his personal appeal and his career prospects, and Augusta Meredith who wants a temporary, no-strings-attached affair.

I was attracted to the book largely for its Bath location. I am a Jane Austen fan, so I have long been fascinated by the city that she enjoyed as a visitor but came to dislike as a resident. I was lucky enough to visit a couple years ago, so I loved reading scenes that were set in locations that I knew personally.

The canal as seen from Sydney Gardens, where Joss and
Augusta watched a punt passing beneath a footbridge.
What really grabbed me on a visceral level, however, was Augusta's state of mind when she came to Bath. In the recent past, she lost both of her parents. With her inheritance strictly controlled by trustees, the man who had been courting her in secret (who had already seduced her) abandoned her for an heiress with a more accessible fortune. She was struggling to regain the person she used to be while trying to protect her heart from new pain. She decided to find a temporary lover in a city full of transients, hoping that by dictating the terms of the affair, she could regain her sense of control and self-worth while exorcising the memory of her faithless suitor. What she really craves, of course, is human connection and true love, but she is afraid to admit her need, even to herself.

This strongly resonated with me, because I experienced a similar emotional state some decades ago, during my first year after college. I was struggling to find a job so I could afford to move out of my parents' house. The grandmother who helped raise me succumbed to cancer, and a younger cousin who was also a close friend committed suicide. I was rather numb with grief, and I worried that leaning on my parents for emotional support would undermine my quest for independence.

My craving for human contact and distraction led me to a casual association that I would not have accepted otherwise. We didn't use the term friends-with-benefits in those days, but that is essentially how it began. Like Augusta, I fooled myself into believing that was all I needed, and I resisted admitting, even to myself, that I had become emotionally attached.

Although my story arc diverged quite a bit from Augusta's, and I rode an emotional roller coaster for about a year and a half, the ending was not dissimilar. I am still married to my former friend-with-benefits (and he is still my best friend).