Archive for January, 2011

Somewhat by accident, I took 14-year-old Seconda to her first rock concert this past December.  It was one of those radio-station-sponsored affairs, with a lineup of ten bands and a running time of seven hours, and I bought the tickets assuming 17-year-old Prima, usually an exemplary sister, would be willing to go with her.

Bad assumption.  Prima had no interest in seeing any of the bands, no stomach for the seven-hour ordeal, and insufficient sisterly devotion to just grit her teeth and go anyway.  Reason didn’t sway her.  Strategically applied guilt had no effect.  She would not even consider a bribe.

Assuming (again with the assumptions!) a 14-year-old would rather wade a mile through leech-infested waters than go to a rock concert with her mom, I proposed other escorts.  Cool childless aunt?  Guitar-Hero-playing cousin?  Maybe… Dad?

No, no, and no.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, my daughter had made up her mind that, if her sister couldn’t be persuaded to go, I was the escort of choice.  And so it happened that I went to a seven-hour, ten-band rock concert.  Nine hours and ten minutes, actually, counting the time we spent standing in line and the twenty minutes the thing ran over (and believe you me, I was counting).


Picture of rock band

I saw these guys, but I have no idea who they are. In my day, the people onstage at a concert looked like Boy George, or maybe Prince. Nowadays they all look like this, and you can't tell one from another. (Edit 2/1/11: Alert reader Karen has plausibly ID'd these two as Martin Johnson and Paul DiGiovanni of the band Boys Like Girls. There was indeed a band called Boys Like Girls in the lineup, so I'm going with it. Thanks, Karen!)

The headline act, and really the whole reason for going, was Seconda’s favorite band, Paramore.  And towards the beginning of the show, in one of about a billion attempts to pump the audience into a frenzy, the concert overlords reminded us of the lineup, with pictures on the big video screens:  “Coming up:  Blah-de-blah, blah-de-blah, blah-de-blah… and Paramore.”

And when they said “Paramore,” my fourteen-year-old daughter squealed aloud, entirely without irony, like a kid half her age.  It was as though, until that moment, she hadn’t quite let herself believe that Paramore was truly going to be there.  Like it all might prove to be some elaborate bait-and-switch somehow.  Anyway it was ridiculously adorable, and it made me glad no other escort had panned out.

I’m also glad I went because partway through Paramore’s eventual set, there came a kind of goosebumpy moment.  They played this one number – a quieter love song that had been a radio hit – and the audience, most of whom seemed to be young women and all of whom seemed to know the words, sang along.  And when the chorus came around for the second time, the singer stepped back from the mike and the audience kept on singing by themselves.


Paramore! These guys I can recognize, because the singer was tiny, red-haired, and female.

I suppose this isn’t uncommon in rock concerts, but in that moment, it just seemed like such a clear and lovely illustration of the audience’s role in realizing – completing – a piece of popular art.  The artist writes the song, records it, sends it out into the world, and it’s not really complete until it’s received by someone to whom it means something.  The audience gives it that last little spark; makes it real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.

I don’t believe all art works this way, or all artists.  Some artists, I’m pretty sure, create what they feel compelled to create, and put it out there, and, while they certainly hope people will like it, that’s not really the point.  Maybe they’ll be appreciated in posterity; maybe not.  Doesn’t matter.  They’ve answered to their muse.

But in the romance genre, as in pop music – I guess I should speak for myself here but I’ll go out on a limb with the gross generalization anyway – it doesn’t work like that.  Posterity and the muse take a backseat, I think, to actual people alive on the planet right now.

Does that make the product more transitory?  More disposable?  Well, maybe.  Think of the Billboard Hot 100, or the romance shelves at Barnes & Noble.  There’s always something new coming along to push whatever’s there now out of the way.  Whereas nobody’s ever going to shoulder out Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or War and Peace.

Nevertheless there’s a value, I think, in that personal connection.  In that special, quasi-collaborative relationship between artist and audience.  And to see it so vividly enacted – to witness this crowd of young people laying claim to this song, with its resonant-to-them impression of love – gave me chills, and reminded me of what a privilege it really is to write the most popular of popular fiction, romance.

Am I off base?  Did I go too far out on the limb? Is a comparison between pop music and romance legitimate?  Or do you think the seven-hour concert might have impaired my critical faculties?

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Starting work on my third consecutive heroine with likability issues.  Because that seems to be the kind I write.

Having already churned out Humorless & Judgmental, and followed it up with Unscrupulous & Unkind, I will now try my hand at Snobbish & Impractical.  Simmering on the back burner are Vain & Mercenary, and… actually, my other pending heroine is pleasant and positive, and not to a degree that annoys everyone around her.  How did that happen?

Anyway this time I am determined to fill out a Goal, Conflict, & Motivation chart right at the beginning, and to identify my Fifteen Beats pretty early on.  I am a dreadful pantser, which is odd because I’m pretty left-brain about everything else in my life, and the pantsing is just not working for me.  I was horribly inefficient in writing the first two books (reams of stuff written, revised, and ultimately thrown out) and I need to get my act together.

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Today I wrap up my look back at 2010 romance-reading with half a dozen scenes that have lingered with me all the way into 2011.

In no particular order:

The epistolary prologue
Last Night’s Scandal, Loretta Chase
Ounce for ounce, nothing I read in 2010 gave me more pleasure than these few letters, sketching out in indelible detail the dynamic between outrageous, impossible Olivia and the one man – Peregrine – who knows her too well to be put off balance by her shenanigans (at least most of the time).  Halfway through the first letter my face already ached from smiling.

Max and Chloe get it done
Crazy for Love, Victoria Dahl
We learn certain rules about writing sex in romance.  There needs to be conflict.  The stakes need to be sky-high.  It needs to change things, irrevocably, between the two protagonists.  Dahl tossed those rules out the window and wrote my favorite love scene of the year:  a joyous romp between two people who like each other, are attracted to each other, have flirted up a storm and are completely on the same page about what needs to happen next, and what it will and won’t mean.  (Of course they’re wrong about that last bit, but it takes them awhile to figure that out.)

Kate faces down Lord Harcroft
Trial by Desire, Courtney Milan
A gutsy scene in one of the year’s gutsiest romances.  Milan lets her heroine waltz right up to the border of TSTL territory (For God’s sake, Kate, yell for help!  The house is full of servants and even your husband is probably within earshot!) and then brings her back by showing us, convincingly, how Kate’s whole sense of self depends on toughing this out on her own.  (Then when Ned does show up it transitions into a lovely example of one of my very favorite kinds of scene: Hero & Heroine Stand Shoulder-to-Shoulder Against the Enemy.)

The house-party guests play “Squeak Piggy Squeak”
His at Night, Sherry Thomas
The company plays a slightly risqué parlor game and the heroine spends a mortifying few minutes, blindfolded, on the hero’s lap.  It’s not huge in terms of plot advancement, but Thomas excels at taking a scene like this and digging down past the superficial to create something genuine.  So beyond Elissande’s embarrassment and disapproval, we get a sense of how sincerely frightening that moment would be to a sheltered girl who’s felt too powerless for too much of her life.  (At the same time there’s something kind of touching, and innocent, in the spectacle of these rabidly horny young Victorians and their mildly naughty game.  The scene works on lots of levels at once.)

Strolling the banks of the Seine at dawn
Wicked Becomes You, Meredith Duran
Still glowing from a night of glorious transgression – she’s visited the Moulin Rouge and sung onstage at Le Chat Noir – Gwen gets out of the carriage to walk the last few blocks home through the Paris sunrise.  Jaded chaperon/accomplice Alex, who’s been all over the world, watches her and realizes, with a pang, that Paris at dawn really is wonderful and that somewhere along the way he’s lost the ability to notice it.

Gavin gets to see his son’s angel wings
The Christmas Eve Promise, Molly O’Keefe
Teenage Luke, drafted to play the angel in the Christmas Eve extravaganza, has been working in his dad’s motorcycle shop on a pair of kickass chrome wings and is finally ready to show them.  All of Gavin’s love for his distant, secretive son, all his apprehension that his own lousy childhood has left him unequipped to be a good father, comes to a head as he waits to see what Luke has made and wracks his brain for a way to say “I’m so proud of you” that won’t make the kid roll his eyes. (Father-son stuff just gets me.  Can you tell?)

Those are my 2010 highlights.  What did I leave out?  What are some scenes that stuck with you and why?

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Romance, for me, ultimately sinks or swims on how much I care about the two people at the story’s center.  Everything else can be right – inspired premise, twisty plot, sparkling prose – but if I’m not deeply invested in seeing those crazy kids find their Happily Ever After, the book won’t make it to my keeper shelf.

Here are two heroes and two heroines who had me in their corner from start to finish this year:

In for a PennyLord Nevinstoke, later Lord Bedlow
In for a Penny, Rose Lerner

Nev is the kind of hero I love best and don’t see nearly often enough:  acutely aware of his shortcomings, frequently off balance or out of his depth, but trying hard to live up to his responsibilities even when he’d rather be living it up with friends (or curling up with the trashy novels that are his guilty pleasure).

Forced by money troubles to marry a brewer’s wealthy daughter, he’s determined to be a better husband and landowner than his late father was, but isn’t above the occasional wistful dwelling on the London life – and mistress – he left behind:

Nev missed the city.  It was dark now, and in London he would have been out with his friends or spending the evening with Amy.  The sounds of bustle and life and other people would have been outside the window.  If he’d liked, he could have gone to a concert.  He wanted music with a pain like homesickness.  Even the songs of the nightingales, which he had loved as a boy, did not comfort him.

The only sounds of real, human life were the rustlings from the next room.  Nev was ashamed to see Penelope; ashamed that he had brought her here to face a thousand impossible burdens he was totally unequipped to bear.  And he was tired of making polite conversation with a stranger who was somehow also his wife and who had already witnessed some of the least proud moments of his life.

But anything was better than standing alone in his father’s room, looking into his father’s mirror, and wishing there were some of his father’s brandy in the decanter.  He knocked at the connecting door, and at her soft invitation, he opened it.

As discouraged as he may get, he never gives up on Penny or on himself, and it’s impossible to not root for him.

Crazy for LoveMax Sullivan
Crazy for Love, Victoria Dahl

Ordinarily I don’t have much use for the hyper-competent hero, but Max, a deep-sea-diving treasure hunter, serves up his hyper-competence with an overactive sense of responsibility.  For everyone.  And everything.

He first meets the heroine, Chloe, when he takes it upon himself to rebuild the bonfire she and her BFF Jenn have got going, because they’re doing it all wrong and it could turn into an inferno and set the whole beach on fire if he doesn’t step in.

He first makes out with her, not so much because he’s attracted to her (though he is), but as a way to distract her from her intended moonlight swim.  Because for God’s sake people die that way.

Here he’s made the mistake of asking, innocently, what she and Jenn plan to do the next day:

“…the wind’s supposed to be calm tomorrow afternoon, so we’re going to try diving.”

Max’s heart lurched as if it had been hit with a stick.  “Diving?” he croaked.

“Yeah, I’m sure there’s nothing here that rivals what you see overseas, but we’ve never tried it before, so we’re going to do the pool certification before lunch.  What the heck?  The seas are supposed to be calm, and we’ll probably be the only ones on the boat.  It should be fun.”

Fun?  Good God, no one seemed to regard diving as what it really was:  a journey into an environment utterly hostile to human life.  “Who’s the dive instructor?”

She shrugged.  “We found a brochure at the grocery store.”

His heart lurched again, slamming into his chest wall as if it wanted him to do something about this ridiculousness.  A grocery store. Unbelievable.

Half the fun of reading these passages is knowing, even before you get to Max’s response, exactly how Chloe’s innocuous plan sounds to him and exactly which phrases are leaping out at him in all their red-flag vividness.  You’ve never tried it before?  You’re doing the certification the same day?  The seas are supposed to be calm?  You’ll be the only ones on the boat?

I love caretaking heroes in general, and a hero who feels compelled to take care of not just the heroine, not just his loved ones, not just the members of the dive team for whom he’s directly responsible, but every damn person he meets, proved totally irresistible to me.

The Night Before ChristmasMerrietta Monroe
The Christmas Eve Promise (novella in The Night Before Christmas anthology), Molly O’Keefe
*This is actually a 2009 book, but O’Keefe’s story won the Rita in 2010, so I read it this year and I’m counting it this year.

What I loved most about Merri, who’s returned in some disgrace to her parents’ family diner and is trying to work up the nerve to tell them she’s pregnant, was her straightforward, no-nonsense, no-glamour approach to life.  She works the grill in a sweaty baseball cap, welded the angel wings for the annual Christmas-Eve extravaganza in high-school shop class, and says things like “Holy cats.”

And no big deal is made of it.  She’s never referred to as a tomboy; she’s not at all awkward with men.  The hero thinks she’s sex on wheels, and the feeling is mutual:

Holy cats, the Jeep was so small.  The Jeep was actually, at this moment, filled with Gavin McDonnell’s slightly combustible scent, the smallest space in the world.  Minuscule.

Merri couldn’t breathe without tasting him on her tongue, in her throat.  She could feel him, like static electricity, all along her right side.

“So,” Gavin said, shifting slightly in his seat, his mahogany eyes on her in a way that made her skin feel like dancing.  “Luke tells me you’re wearing the Christmas Eve Santa suit.”

Her relationship with Luke, Gavin’s 14-year-old son who’s got a secret of his own, is heartwarming in a solid, down-to-earth, non-treacly way.  (The titular promise is a pact between the two of them to suck it up and spill their secrets by Christmas Eve.)  You can see why Luke picked her to confide in, and you can see what a great family the three of them (four, counting her baby) will be if she and Gavin can just get past their lingering issues and admit they belong together.

Wicked Becomes YouGwen Maudsley
Wicked Becomes You, Meredith Duran

Gwen’s journey from nice-girl pushover to assertive grown woman is sweetly exhilarating, perhaps never more so than when she first makes up her mind to be bad.  With infectious excitement she considers a number of shocking transgressions – she won’t knit those sweaters for the orphans!  She will throw that tract on womanly virtue out into the street! – and decides she’s relieved, after all, that her latest fiancé has left her at the altar…

Perhaps she should inform him of this.  Yes, what a brilliant idea!  She could write him this very instant, chronicling the many reasons she was so glad not to be wed to him.

She threw herself down at the writing table.

You fancied yourself a fine dancer, but you stepped on my feet at every turn.

The scratch of pen across the paper sounded pleasingly violent.

Your breath so often reeked of onions that I wondered if you ate aught else.

She did not think her handwriting had ever slanted so boldly!

I nearly gagged every time you kissed me.  In fact, I think you the worst kisser I have ever encountered.

She moves from tentative rebellion to recreational wickedness to finally being able to claim, honestly, the things she wants from life, and you pull for her every step of the way.

I limited myself to two heroes and two heroines, but there were lots of good ones this year.  Am I guilty of any glaring omissions?  Which heroes or heroines leapt off the pages for you in 2010?

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