Friday, May 30, 2014

Tom and Sharon Curtis Are Writing Again!

If your dog is howling, it's probably because I am squee-ing at a frequency too high for human hearing.

I had a terrific time participating in the Sizzling Book Club Chat about The Windflower last night over at the marvelous Smart Bitches Trashy Books website. Dear Author also had a Book Club discussion about The Windflower this week, in honor of the novel's 30th anniversary re-release.

This is my all-time favorite romance novel, and although I haven't read it in at least 20 years, I remember it in more vivid detail than the books I read two weeks ago. 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).

In the Dear Author interview, author Sharon Curtis (one half of the married writing team who formerly wrote as Laura London) mentioned that she and husband Tom are currently working on an urban fantasy novel. During last night's SBTB chat, she said that Tom is retiring soon, which will give them more time to write. She hinted that they might consider writing sequel/spin-off stories about The Windflower's memorable secondary characters and revealed a few more details about that upcoming urban fantasy book. It will be set in Milwaukee (I can't wait to see if I recognize any of the settings). During the chat she also mentioned that the heroine will be Rand Morgan's previously unintroduced daughter. It is possible that she was referring to a hypothetical future Windflower sequel and not the currently-in-the-works urban fantasy, but how urban fantastic would that be? I am presuming there is a time-travel romance backstory somewhere.

I read every one of the Curtises' books that the Dane County Library System had back in the 80s and 90s and scoured used bookstores for any that I might have missed (this was before Amazon made it easy to find out-of-print titles). I remember being thrilled to learn that there were successful romance writers who lived in Wisconsin. It gave me hope that perhaps one day I could make a go of it. Although none of their other novels approached the awesomeness of The Windflower, I enjoyed the others and was so sad when I realized that there would not be any more.

Things are definitely looking up.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Praise of Connie Willis' Time-Travel Romantic Suspense Novels

Connie Willis is considered to be a writer of science fiction rather than romance. She has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her novels and short stories, all of which are classified as science fiction. Two of her Hugo-award-winning novels -- To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear (a single novel published in two volumes) should also be classified as romantic suspense novels, in my opinion.

Willis began writing at a time when there was a great deal of separation between the science fiction and romance genres. The recent growth of the paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres has really bridged that gap. Romantic suspense, both historical and contemporary, has also become a popular genre. Although I doubt that Connie Willis would wish to be classified as a romance author, she has often included romance subplots in her works, particularly the light, comic stories that are clearly inspired by the screwball comedies of Hollywood's golden age.

There were no romantic elements in her first two works about time-travelling Oxford historians from the late 21st century. The short story Fire Watch first used the premise to tell a story about the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people to save St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz. Willis developed her time travel universe more fully in the poignant novel Doomsday Book, about a grad student who observes the horrors of the Black Death in a much more up-close-and-personal way than she had anticipated. That book is beautifully written, and it always makes me cry.

As if to cheer up the unsuspecting fans who found Doomsday Book too emotionally wrenching, Willis followed it up with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a delightful romp through Victorian England (with side trips to the Middle Ages and World War II) following historians on a quest to locate a legendarily hideous piece of decorative art (which is superficially compared to the Albert Memorial in style). This book has a fully realized hero and heroine who fall in love during the course of the story and have a happily-ever-after at the end. The story includes many familiar romance novel elements, like instant attraction (attributed to the side effects of excessive time travel) and a Big Misunderstanding. There is also a secondary romance involving a naïve young woman who seems very much like the heroines of Old School romance novels, just waiting for the hero to mansplain the world to her so she can grow into a mature woman. The whole book is fun and tongue-in-cheek and very skillfully written. I must admit that I rather like the Albert Memorial myself; I have included photos so you can judge for yourself.

Willis' tour-de-force, in my opinion, is her most recent novel, Black Out/All Clear.  It was published in two separate volumes (released several months apart), but it is really a single novel. She returns to World War II with a new group of historians studying under the same Oxford professor. Willis is really in firm control of her universe and skillfully misdirects the reader with complex flashbacks (some of which take place at a future date but in one character's past) and multiple POVs. It does not seem like a romance at first. The suspense elements really take center stage. By the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that the romance really drove much of the plot and was the primary motivation for the eventual resolution. There is also a sweet secondary romance with its own HEA. Like Doomsday Book, there is some tragic loss, and you will need the Kleenex. There are also comic moments, and Willis takes another opportunity to dis the Albert Memorial ("Christ -- is that a buffalo?!")

I don't want to include any spoilers, because I want to recommend that everyone read these books.  I read Black Out/All Clear a second time while it was all still fresh in my memory, because I wanted to see if Willis had continuity errors with her complex chronology. I was impressed for different reasons on the second reading, knowing everything the characters knew at each point in the story. I also realized that the heroine was attracted to the hero much earlier than I first assumed, which put an entirely different spin on the primary romance.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thoughts on Heat Levels in Historical Romance, inspired by Caroline Linden

I just finished reading It Takes a Scandal by Caroline Linden. I found it very enjoyable, as I usually find her books. She doesn't usually trip up my suspension of disbelief, although I can't quite believe the trope about the serial erotic novel 50 Ways to Sin. Considering that Fanny Hill was banned shortly after its first publication and circulated afterward only in pirated copies sold illegally, it is highly unlikely that a series of erotic pamphlets would continue to be sold, even under the table, in reputable bookshops patronized by ladies of gentle birth.

Other than that, the story was engaging, the characters likeable, and no one was TSTL. The slightly villainous rival showed signs of redemption at the end, and he will obviously be the hero of a future novel. The resolution was a bit too neat and quick, and the hero must have rolled a +6 for healing, because about a day after he suffered a debilitating re-injury that left him barely able to walk, he managed to lift the heroine and carry her to his bed (at least he didn't carry her up the stairs; that would have strained belief way too much).

Although there was some heavy petting earlier in the story, the only full sex scene came near the end of the book.  That has been a trend with many of the mainstream historical romances I have read in the past few years, even by those authors who used to include multiple sex scenes in their books.

I found a link to this USA Today article on Linden's Facebook page. It claims that, with the rise in popularity of erotic romance novels, even historical romances are getting hotter.  Actually, I have found the reverse to be the case.  I believe that the growth and marketing of erotic romance as a separate genre has led historical romance authors to reduce the amount of sex in their books in order to appeal to a different group of readers (and avoid being misclassified as erotic romance, which could limit their book's distribution, in the same way that an "X" rating keeps a movie out of mainstream theaters).

Caroline Linden has found a way to reach both mainstream historical romance readers and those who enjoy erotic romance (which often include threesomes and BDSM). She alludes to 50 Ways to Sin without actually including its racy scenes in her book. However, Avon offered the first few "issues" of the serial to readers who pre-ordered It Takes a Scandal or bought it within a week of release and sent proof of purchase via a link on their website. Readers of the USA Today article can also click a link to access one episode of 50 Ways to Sin (which will only be up until May 28, so hurry if you are curious).

The pamphlet-within-a-novel is quite definitely erotic and is clearly inspired by Fanny Hill.  It also works as light parody of the erotic romance genre. Kudos to Caroline Linden for finding a way to spare the rod (or whip) and use it, too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Delightful Costume Drama with Plenty of Action (and Humour)

I love this short film for so many reasons, but primarily for its witty dialogue and beautiful costumes. I have a particular weakness for men in Regency-era military dress. Warning, the language is NSFW.

The Duel at Blood Creek - Short Film from Leo Burton- 3 Barrels Media on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Do Boots Belong in Regency Ballrooms?

As a history buff, I often have difficulty suspending my disbelief when I watch movies or read books with historical settings. I have noticed a recent trend in regency-era historical romances to describe the hero as wearing Hessian boots to a ball.  This did not seem right to me, as the paintings I have seen of 19th ballroom scenes show the men wearing evening shoes, not boots. I assume the modern authors (and their readers) find Hessian boots to be far sexier (or at least more masculine) than heeled pumps for men. I do not share that prejudice, as I came of age in the 1980s, when rock stars like Prince really rocked Georgian-style heeled pumps.

But I wondered if I was wrong in my assumption that boots were not worn in ballrooms of the regency era, so I did a little research. The Jane Austen Society of North America provided this very helpful article on The Rules of the Assembly, which mentions: "The Rules almost always proscribed certain articles of dress:  notably, no boots or half-boots in the ballroom (though after 1800 officers on duty seem to have been exempt from this ruling)..."

So, I was correct in my assumption that civilian men would not have worn boots to a ball. There is some leeway if the hero is an officer on duty.  Even military officers tended to wear dancing shoes rather than boots to a ball, however, as this painting of the Duchess of Richmond's famous ball in Belgium on the eve of Waterloo shows one officer (the man in the light blue coat) in boots and the rest wearing evening shoes with their uniforms. Boots were for riding, not dancing.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gift Ideas for that Jane Austen Enthusiast in Your Life

If you are reading this blog chances are that you, or someone close to you, is a fan of Jane Austen. I am such a fangirl that I dragged my ever-supportive husband to Winchester Cathedral to visit her tomb and to Bath, which is full of Austen-connected sites.

If you can't afford a trip to the UK, however, there are any number of books and videos that will be of interest to the Austen fan in your life, and some of them are obscure enough to make a delightful surprise gift.  Here are some of my favorites:

Books

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: from Fox Hunting to Whist - the Facts of Daily Life in the 19th Century by Daniel Pool.  This is a wonderful introductory reference for any author of historical novels set in the 19th century, or anyone who enjoys the literature of the period.

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray. Another delightful reference that will inform modern Americans about the ways of the upper ten thousand.

Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson and Tom Carpenter. A light coffee-table book that gives some background on the use of tea in Jane Austen's time.

Walks through Regency London by Louise Allen.  I wish I had known about this book before my last trip. Written by a writer of historical romance novels, it is a delightful read, full of quotes from Austen's letters describing places she visited, accompanied by maps of each walking tour, some history of the neighborhoods and pictures of the locations, then and now.

Videos

Austenland starring Keri Russell.  A light comedy about an Austen-obsessed young woman who splurges on an immersion weekend at an Austen-themed resort. It's fun to see Jane Seymour returning to costume drama, and true Austen fans will appreciate the stunt casting of J.J. Field as the Darcyesque hero.

Pride and Prejudice (Restored Edition) starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  Do not be fooled by the Keira Knightley version or the 2004 BBC miniseries.  The A&E miniseries with Colin Firth is the one true adaptation of P&P.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Career Advice, Courtesy of Elizabeth Peters

Back in the 1990s, I devoured every Elizabeth Peters mystery that my local library system owned. I greatly enjoyed the humorous Amelia Peabody mysteries (which combined my love of Victorian history and Egyptology) and loved the romance elements of the Vicky Bliss books. I also read a number of stand-alone mysteries, few of which left an impression. The Jacqueline Kirby mysteries were fewer in number and less well-written than Peters' other series. However, it was the third in that series, of all Peters' books, that had the strongest long-term influence on my life.

The relevant book is Die for Love, a murder mystery set at a romance writers' conference. I remembered it as a rather sharp and scathing satire of a subculture. I assumed that Peters had at least some knowledge of writers' conferences, even if she focused on a different genre. I was initially left with the impression that one could attend such a conference and make valuable contacts with agents and editors and practically stumble into a writing career (as -- spoiler alert -- Jacqueline Kirby does by the end of the book). I told myself that someday I would do that, when I could afford to take a risk on a new career, or when I had enough free time to write in addition to my day job.

For a variety of reasons, that time came this year. Being 20 years older and far less naïve about career-building in general, and having access to vast online resources to research the industry, I no longer expected to be signed by an agent that I just met at a conference. I still expected it to be a valuable learning experience, however, and it was.

I decided it would be fun to re-read Die for Love now and see how inaccurate it was, given my new first-hand knowledge. The Chicago Spring Fling conference was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Peters' fictional romance writers' conference.

I can't be sure how much of the conference in Die for Love was just fictional bullshit and how much was simply the way conferences were in the Old Skool days. There were some clear signs that the novel was written in 1984, besides the copyright date. For example, at the opening luncheon, a character asks if smoking is allowed. Some of the characters discuss the disturbing prevalence of rape scenes in romance novels of the day.

The characters are over-the-top parodies, and the satire is often mean-spirited.  However, it is also clear that Elizabeth Peters was very familiar with romance novels and with the publishing industry. Her characters are described with the same flowery language typically found in the genre she was lampooning. One of the "authors" is a hunky actor who dresses like a cover model and has his novels ghost written. This was rather prescient, since I think the novel predates Fabio's celebrity by at least a few years. A fake excerpt from one of the other characters' novels contains winking nods to at least two well-known romance novels of that era. Another character uses extensive passages from Victorian-era public domain porn classics like The Lustful Turk in her books. This is also somewhat prescient, given the plagiarism scandals that have hit some romance novelists in recent years (though they are eclipsed by the plagiarism and forgery scandals that have rocked other genres).

I am also unsure how many of the seemingly-scathing observations are meant to be taken seriously and how many are meant to be taken with a great deal of salt. The novel is told from the POV of Jacqueline Kirby (although she is not the narrator), and she is portrayed as a self-centered, impatient (somewhat misanthropic) intellectual snob.

In some ways, Die for Love reminds me of Sharyn McCrumb's mystery novel Bimbos of the Death Sun, which takes place at a science fiction convention and is also told from the POV of someone new to the subculture. However, I was already familiar with science fiction conventions when I read McCrumb's book, and although it contained biting satire and scathing observations about some of the people who typically attend cons, I found it to be reasonably accurate in its social observations. It was funny because it was true.

I expected to have the same reaction when re-reading Die for Love, but instead I am perplexed and disappointed by how inaccurately Peters portrayed the writers' conference. Her characters' interactions have more in common with an episode of Dynasty than with the conference I attended. Rather than backbiting schemers, I found myself surrounded by friendly and supportive strangers who included me in their conversations. Unlike Jacqueline Kirby, I was not once approached by an agent who handed me a business card, "just in case" I ever finished a manuscript. The authors at Chicago Spring Fling largely wore business casual attire and were not easily distinguished from the agents and editors.

I am only about halfway through my re-read of Die for Love.  I am hoping that Peters will show more respect for romance authors and readers as the story develops.  I will never regret reading it, however, since it helped focus my vague ideas about one day becoming a novelist myself.