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This contest is now closed. Congratulations to Alexandra B, chosen by Random.org to win my favorite romance ebooks of 2014! Thank you to everyone who entered. I’ll have more things to give away soon :)


Well, back in January I had thoughts of doing a post on my favorite romance reads of the year. But, as you may have noticed, I’m kind of a lousy blogger and I’m particularly daunted by posts that include graphics (e.g., book covers), because I have to re-learn every time how to get the stupid automatic borders off and how to get the images the right size and properly placed so the text flows around them and all of that.

In addition, I was daunted by having to come up with something persuasive and special to say about each book, distilling for you the essence of why it appealed to me and why it ought to appeal to you. Long story short, the January post didn’t happen.

But today I ran across this giveaway post by author Laura K. Curtis (more…)

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Not one, not two, but three of my favorite historical-romance authors have books out this month! In case they’re not already on your radar, allow me to put them there.

The Jade Temptress book coverThe Jade Temptress by Jeannie Lin, released March 1.

Dramatic backstory: In December, Lin blogged candidly about some disappointing news: sales for The Lotus Palace, first book in her new series, had been so poor that Harlequin canceled the print release of the series follow-up, The Jade Temptress, opting to publish it in e-book form only.

This was a demoralizing development for those of us who love Lin’s writing, those who appreciate her candor and wish her well, and those who’d like to see more diversity in the settings and stories of historical romance. Pretty much everyone I know who’s tried one of Lin’s books has become a fan; it was frustrating that more people weren’t trying her.

Then, a plot twist: Harlequin put The Lotus Palace on sale for 99 cents – and it sold. It sold enough copies to land on the USA Today bestseller list. Lin blogs about that slightly surreal experience here.

So now The Jade Temptress is out, and not only am I looking forward to reading it, but I’m hoping hard that a good number of the e-book readers who snapped up The Lotus Palace will move on to the sequel.

And here comes my quick sales pitch: if you like historical romance, but worry that Tang Dynasty China is too far removed in time and courtship conventions to give you all the familiar pleasures you look for in romance, well, first of all I hear you because those are the same reasons I don’t read Medieval.

And second of all, I think you need to read Jeannie Lin. If you like formidable women and and upstanding men who have a weakness for formidable women; if you like pulse-pounding action scenes; if you like vivid world-building and plots that turn on questions of honor, then I think her books are for you.

(If you want to start by dipping your toes in, I recommend her novella Capturing the Silken Thief, which sets up the world of The Lotus Palace and The Jade Temptress.)


Sweet Disorder book coverSweet Disorder by Rose Lerner, out March 18

Dramatic backstory: Lerner debuted in 2010 with the utterly charming marriage-of-convenience Regency In for a Penny. It got superlative reviews and she was voted Best Debut Author in the year-end poll at All About Romance. Her career was off to an auspicious start.

Then her publisher, Dorchester, already in financial trouble, started crumbling in earnest. They pushed back publication of her follow-up book, and pushed it back again, and finally released it in trade paperback instead of romance-friendly mass-market, shortly before they went under completely. Lerner talks about the Dorchester experience, with its feelings of helplessness and irrational shame, toward the end of this interview.

So we’ve had a long wait for another Rose Lerner book, but it’s finally here, and I’m lucky enough to have read it already and I can tell you it’s a delight.

And now my sales pitch for Rose Lerner: her books are full of historical detail that gives them a sort of sensuous texture (does that make sense? I’m not sure how else to put it); and more than this, her writing is vibrant with authorial affection and enthusiasm, both for the little research oddities she’s managed to weave into her story (Sweet Disorder‘s plot turns on a bit of small-town electoral trivia: a widow’s prospective husband will get to vote in the upcoming election, so both Whigs and Tories are scrambling to matchmake her to a man of their choosing), and for the characters with whom she peoples that story, right down to the two Mr. Wrongs who inevitably have to get beaten out by our hero. (I really want that confectioner to meet a nice girl with a fearsome sweet tooth.)


Fool me Twice book coverFool me Twice by Meredith Duran, out March 25

Slightly-less-dramatic backstory: I’ve said before that if for some reason I had to give up reading every romance writer but one, Duran would be my keeper. It’s probably still true.

But I have to admit I’ve fallen two and a half books behind on her oeuvre. I think where I stumbled was when she released At Your Pleasure, which, departing from her usual Victorian setting, took place in early Georgian times. I don’t know a lot about early Georgian times, so, like someone who hesitates to pick up a book set in the Tang Dynasty, I kept finding something else to read.

(Also I didn’t like the cover – not only did the woman not look Georgian, but she looked rather vapid, and not like someone I wanted to read about. You’d think I’d know better than to judge a romance book by its cover, but I do think it may have been a factor.)

It’s not that I ever decided not to read the book; other things just kept leapfrogging it on the TBR pile. And before I knew it her next book was out – That Scandalous Summer, another Victorian – and I thought, “No, I still have to read At Your Pleasure before I read this one,” and again, I kept finding other things to read.

But Fool me Twice, sequel to That Scandalous Summer, is out this month and I’m hearing a lot of good buzz. And it was on sale for $1.99, and so was TSS, so I gave up (for now) on AYP and bought and started TSS.

And now I’m mystified as to why this book didn’t get the buzz that Fool me Twice is getting, because it has everything I love about Meredith Duran’s writing: thoughtful, intelligent characters I care immediately about; imaginative turns of phrase; substantial questions about how to live a meaningful life. Also great chemistry between a couple of incorrigible flirts :)

As of this writing both That Scandalous Summer and Fool me Twice are still $1.99 in ebook. If you haven’t read Duran, this is a great opportunity to see why she’s such a favorite of mine.


What books are coming out this spring that you’re excited about? And if you had to give up every romance author but one, who do you think would be your keeper?

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Okay, so I said I was going to go to two marathon Michael Hauge workshops on Friday. I wound up only going to one, but it was excellent. “Using Inner Conflict to Create Powerful Love Stories” was the title, but it was really, as I understood it, more about turning points, inner and outer conflict, and basically how to build and pace a story. Author Jami Gold did an excellent two-part writeup of it on her blog, here and here. Go check it out if you’re interested.

I was sitting next to Erin Satie, a twitter-friend (we’d bonded over our shared dislike of “the grovel” in romance) whom I finally got to meet at RWA, and we grumbled together a little about the presumption – common among non-romance storymeisters – that every story has “a protagonist” and “a love interest.” One of the defining characteristics of the romance genre, IMO, and one of the things that makes it a challenge to write, is that a good story has two protagonists, whose journeys are of equal weight. (Erin also did a good writeup of the workshop in her post here.)

I might have gone to the restroom after this workshop. Anyway at some point on this day I went into one of the commandeered men’s restrooms, which are a traditional feature of RWA conferences, and snapped this photo of the artfully screened urinals:

Picture of curtained-off urinals

Yeah, I’m terrible at taking photos, plus I got a new camera and it’s too high-tech for me. But if you look at the left end of the curtain, you can make out a ghostly urinal shape behind it.

Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books tells me previous conferences have gone all-out, decorating the urinals with fresh flowers and bunting, for example.

I went out to lunch with Alyson and Janine of Dear Author, and also the writer Bettie Sharpe. Alyson (she mostly does interviews for DA) has a double identity: she’s also soon-to-be debut novelist Alison Atlee, and since we share an agent we were already a little bit acquainted. I ran into her the day before and she invited me to lunch, so that’s how that happened.

I have a whole post’s worth of mixed feelings about fraternizing with reviewers (Janine in this case), but 1) it doesn’t seem like most romance writers try to avoid being friendly with the big blog reviewers, and 2) we (writers) really face that same issue with any casual social-media acquaintance now, in this age of Amazon and Goodreads. I’m still not 100% sure it’s a good thing, but I guess we’ll all figure it out as we go along. Anyway Janine is well read and full of interesting opinions, as you might gather from reading her stuff on DA, so it was good to meet her. Also I was grateful for the opportunity to meet Bettie Sharpe, since I loved her book Ember and I got to tell her why, in some detail. (This turns out to be one of my favorite things to do: meet an author who wrote something I loved, and tell them specifically what I loved about it.)

I got back a little late and so missed part of the second Michael Hauge workshop I’d planned on attending. This one was about story structure and was built around an analysis of the movie “Pretty Woman.” (I rented & watched PW for the first time, just for this workshop, and I have at least a post’s worth of thoughts about PW, too.) I snuck in late, listened for a few minutes, and decided it wasn’t going to cover enough different ground from the morning workshop to make it my best use of time. So instead I went to “Secrets of eBook Publishing Success,” led by Mark Coker of Smashwords.

Coker had a lot of interesting things to say. If I hadn’t already been convinced that I oughtn’t to worry about piracy, I think this workshop would have convinced me. (Also, like lots of speakers I heard and lots of people who’ve talked about this online, he was very big on the importance of backlist. Write a good book, write another good book, then another and another. Best advertising for your last book is your next book, and/or best advertising for your next book is your last book.) He has a free e-book with the same title as the workshop, so if you’re interested in his ideas, that’s probably worth a download.

After Coker’s workshop came the one I’d circled in biggest, boldest red on my schedule: “How to be Your Own Lead Title,” by Courtney Milan. Courtney Milan has done darn near everything right, as far as I can tell, when it comes to self-publishing, and she’s breathtakingly generous in sharing what she’s learned. She talked a lot about the importance of covers, the importance of the first page after the end of the story in your book (useful for things like “Here’s how you can find out when the next book is out. Here are some other books by this author,” etc.), the importance of honest reviews (lots of them), and the importance of backlist. (Seriously, one of the biggest takeaways from the conference as a whole was get more books written!) She said she believes the single best thing you can do with promo money is get your book into the hands of people who read and talk about books; as many such people as you can. Lots to mull over; luckily I took detailed notes.

That was it for Friday workshops. I had dinner with author Rose Lerner, with whom I’ve been friendly ever since I first read and fell for her debut, In for a Penny. Bear with me a minute while I gush about her.

Something I adore about Rose Lerner is her committed eclecticism. She’s quick and thoughtful both; knowledgeable about poetry, history, Russian novels, and arcane kinds of math… and she unironically enjoys TV shows like Teen Wolf, and can speak passionately about which contestant on America’s Next Top Model was sent home too early. I particularly admire her broad taste when it comes to romance. She’s one of the most committed researchers I know – one of those writers who works really hard to weave in historical details and get the basic social fabric and period mindsets right – but she doesn’t demand that same level of accuracy in all her reading. She’ll never dismiss something as “wallpaper.” Anyway whenever I spend time with her, I come away resolving to be more open-minded about the things I’m not so open-minded about now.

That was Friday. I went back to my hotel room and browsed some of the photo websites from which Courtney Milan gets her cover images (did you know she makes her own covers?), wondering whether making my own cover is beyond me.

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Update: Congratulations to commenter Lisa Wolff, winner of Rose’s giveaway! Hope you enjoy the book!


GUEST POST + GIVEAWAY!


Rose Lerner is my great author-stalking success story. After reading her debut, In for a Penny, I sent her a gushing fan email, to which she graciously replied. I left comments on her blog, she left comments on mine, we discovered other interests in common (Gossip Girl! Shakespeare’s sonnet #130!), and she magically transformed from Admired Author to Admired Author and Friend.

Rose’s new release, A Lily Among Thorns, is that rarity among Regency romances: a story in which the hero and heroine both work for a living. When dye-brewing chemist Solomon Hathaway and innkeeper-with-a-past Serena Ravenshaw team up in search of a missing pair of earrings – and discover a web of treason and espionage reaching into the highest levels of society – their budding relationship is not just a romance, but a delicate balancing act of personal sentiment and hard-won professional identity.

I asked Rose to talk a bit about this aspect of the book, and what working protagonists bring to the dynamic of a romance. Take it away, Rose!


Author Rose Lerner

First, I want to make a disclaimer upfront: I also love books with independently wealthy protagonists! Love reading them, love writing them. I also love books about stay-at-home moms! This is in NO WAY intended to reflect badly on protagonists who don’t work, or don’t work outside the home.

That said, here is a list of things I really enjoyed about writing a romance with two working protagonists:

1. It’s an immediate connection with a lot of readers. Here’s how another genre writer put it: in the back of his Elektra & Wolverine: the Redeemer, Greg Rucka says, “[Wolverine is] a short little guy who now is apparently over 100 years old, who has claws that pop out of his body, which he can control and retract, and he smokes cigars, and he may have been a Canadian secret agent, and he’s a samurai, and has a mutant healing factor…If you look at that from a realistic abstract sense, you go ‘Oh my god, what a load of garbage!’ but everybody believes that he’s been cold. Cold is something we’ve all felt. Everybody’s been cold. Everybody’s been lonely. Everybody’s been lost. Almost everybody has felt love[…]So you take a character like Wolverine and you give him that.”

None of my readers have lived in 1815 or fought spies (I’m assuming?). But I’m guessing most of them either have a job or have had one at some point. Almost everybody knows what it’s like to work for a living, and to have to support yourself financially.

Tiana from Princess and the Frog in her waitress outfitI know this works on me because I watched Disney’s The Princess and the Frog last week, and I have never identified with a Disney heroine the way I identified with Tiana. Why? Because she’s a food service worker, like me, and I really bought her as a character who had been shaped by the experience of working for a living and worrying about money. And I wanted her to get her restaurant really, really badly. Which leads me to:

2. It’s an immediate and concrete stake, both practical and emotional. My heroine, Serena, owns an inn. Making this inn successful and a safe place to work and a community for people who aren’t welcome elsewhere, has been the focus of her entire life for five years. And the antagonist wants to take it away.

Think about Lois Lane being blackballed from mainstream news outlets. It kind of hurts just to think about, doesn’t it? When a hero or heroine is set up with a job like that, and then stands to lose it, it immediately invests the reader in what’s going on. We all know what it’s like to work hard for something and lose it.

3. It’s a characterization in, something to help build the character around. Anything that you do regularly for a long period of time will start to shape the way you think, so a job is a real help in creating the illusion of a complete consciousness for your narrators. I recently read A Lot Like Love by Julie James. The heroine owns an upscale wineshop, and she loves wine. I mean, she’s so passionate about it that watching her drink wine is a sexual experience for the hero. I really bought her as both a wine nerd and a business owner and that made me buy her as a character.

My hero Solomon makes dyes for his uncle’s tailoring shop, so he’s very aware of colors. When he meets someone, he notices what they’re wearing first. And he divides the world into “people who are/might be customers” and “people who are not customers.” I knew that about him before I knew almost anything else, and it helped me construct his POV.

Parker from Leverage dressed as a cat burglar4. It makes the fantasy feel more possible. Indiana Jones isn’t just an action-archaeologist, he’s a professor. And the Doctor’s companions in Dr. Who are always ordinary humans. Right now they’re a nurse and a kiss-o-gram. It makes it easier for me to take that fantasy and make it not just awesome, but mine. It gives me an angle to insert myself into that world or imagine something similar happening to me. “What if I was in that guy’s class?” “What if the TARDIS showed up in my backyard?”

5. It gives the story balance. Do any of you watch Rizzoli & Isles? I haven’t been keeping up, but what I really liked about the early episodes was that it balanced the professional, cop stuff with personal stuff. We saw both of the protagonists outside work, saw them dealing with family, etc. It made them feel like complete people, not just problem-solving mechanisms.

In a romance, the whole story is about one relationship, plus maybe some family/friends stuff. So adding in work helps keeps the story from feeling claustrophobic.

6. It’s something for the relationship to be about other than attraction. I talked in my review of Captain America about how in TV and movies, often the most satisfying relationships are between friends (or enemies!), because there’s a lot going on in those relationships. They really mean something to the people in them, while the love interest is just about smoldering glances and sexual jealousy.

Romance gives me the whole package by bringing everything into the relationship. A romance isn’t just about “I met this guy, I liked him, now we’re dating.” It’s about a perfect connection. Love is an experience that completes and changes the h/h as people. If the hero really gets why the heroine cares about her work, or vice versa, that’s huge. I swooned in Loretta Chase’s Silk is for Scandal when the modiste heroine catches the hero reading fashion magazines…and taking notes. ♥

Mulder and Scully from the X-Files 7. If the hero and heroine work together, it’s a good way to show how great they could be together. I love a romance that teases, that ratchets up the tension, that makes me desperately want the hero and heroine to kiss long before they actually do.

The most extreme version of this using jobs, of course, is “partners,” usually cops/detectives/soldiers/superheroes/whatever. Think about Beckett and Castle or Kirk and Spock or Mulder and Scully. They can practically read each other’s thoughts; they rely on each other absolutely in life-and-death situations on a daily basis. They are in many ways the most important person in each other’s lives. And people are dying for them to hook up. I mean, you know instinctively that it would be good, right? If they work this well together fighting crime, just imagine what they’d be like in bed!

But it doesn’t have to be so life-or-death. I want all the people on Ace of Cakes to date each other too (especially Ben and Katherine! Sorry Ben and Katherine if you are just friends and/or seeing other people). Seeing people spend so much time together working on something they both care about…it’s sexy.

8. In every job, there are people who do the job, and people who are the audience or target market for the job. I remember at my first job, my boss told me, “You never really know a person until you’ve stood on the other side of the counter from them.” People get divided into two groups: those on this side of the counter (or desk, or phone line, or that little gate in the courtroom between the seats and the lawyers’ benches, or the trenches, or the tunnel to the Batcave, or whatever it is) and those on the other. And there’s a certain solidarity/camaraderie between the people behind the counter.

Christina and other Grey's Anatomy folks in their scrubs

People love behind-the-scenes stuff. I know I do. Backstage tours, gag reels, unpublished first drafts. It feels like being special, like being allowed to see something not everybody gets to, the way someone in their underwear is so sexy even though it’s no more skin than you’d see with a bathing suit.

I think that’s part of the appeal of all those profession-based reality shows like Ace of Cakes, Storage Wars, Deadliest Catch, etc. A bunch of contemporary romances are already taking advantage of that, but I’d love to see more historicals do it. There’s a real intimacy when the hero lifts up the panel in the counter and says to the heroine, “Come on, I’ll show you the back room.”

9. It gives the hero and heroine a place to get along that doesn’t compromise the inner conflict. In a romance, there’s always something keeping the hero and heroine apart through the book. But they can’t spend the whole book fighting and being sad, either! Or well, they can, but it will be frustrating for the audience. There has to be variation in the tone of your scenes, and even if you’re doing the antagonistic flirting thing, there has to be a level on which the hero and heroine do get along in order for it to work.

Anyone seen Hard Core Logo? It’s a movie about a punk band’s reunion tour. The band split due to irreconcilable differences between the singer and the lead guitarist. The two characters bicker endlessly, and the resentment between them is palpable despite their equally obvious affection. But when they get up on stage and make music together, all that melts away and they mesh perfectly. Suddenly you believe they could be beautiful together, if they could just get past all the crap.

Two of the Mad Men guys in their suits10. One last frivolous thing: uniforms! Obviously not every job has them, but many do–a suit counts! I took every possible opportunity, in Lily, to get Solomon into the Ravenshaw Arms livery.


Your turn, readers! How much of the working world do you like to see in your romance? And who are some of your favorite couples – romance, other books, movies, tv, real life? – for whom work adds an extra sizzle to the relationship? Rose will be giving away a copy of A Lily Among Thorns to one commenter!

A Lily Among Thorns, by Rose Lerner

HER SAVIOR

It was him. Serena couldn’t breathe. She’d been looking for him for years—the man who’d lifted her out of the dregs of London’s underworld. She remembered that he’d looked like an angel. But either she’d embellished or he’d grown up. Because he didn’t look like an angel now. He looked like a man, solid and broad, and taller than she’d thought. And now he needed her help.

HIS SIREN

Solomon recognized her as soon as they were alone in the dark. He’d not forgotten that night five years ago either. But Serena had changed. She was stronger, fiercely independent and, though it hardly seemed possible, even more beautiful. She was also neck-deep in trouble. Yet he’d help cook a feast for the Prince Regent, take on a ring of spies, love her well into the night—anything to convince her that this time he was here to stay.

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