Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Break-up

Break-ups. They happen to everyone. We all handle them differently. They come in all sizes and shapes. You’ve got the discreet break-up. Reese, you showed amazing grace, and I really hope the second one works out. The out-of-left-field break-up. Will we ever know what happened between Tim and Susan? The serial break up—J Lo and husband No. 1 (the chef), husband No. 2 (the dancer), the almost-husband (the actor), and husband No. 3 (the singer). The break-ups that don’t stick the first few times. A classic example is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For a more contemporary one, look no further than Sean Penn and Robin Wright. Then there are the train wreck break-ups: the ones we want to look away from, but just can’t. Sandra, no one deserves that kind of break-up, least of all America’s sweetheart. 

There are the break-ups that break our hearts. Yeah, I’m talking about you, Jen Aniston. Five years later, and I still haven’t forgiven Brangelina. There's the break-ups that defy description. I could write a story about a female protagonist, let’s make her an astronaut, who puts on a pair of diapers and drives 18 hours to kill her boyfriend. No one would believe it. And yet, that story is true. It has even been immortalized in song by Ben Folds. But today I'm blogging on a different kind of break-up. It’s the one you experience when your favorite series of books come to an end. It’s painful. It’s depressing. And, for me, there’s usually some anger involved.

The year was 2002. It was coming up on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. I was looking for a light-hearted story to escape into. And I found Maggie Needs an Alibi by Kasey Michaels. I’d read Michaels’ historical romances, but this book was her first foray into a new genre—the comedic mystery. It was just what the doctor ordered. The premise was intriguing. The heroine, Maggie Kelly, finds herself accused of murdering her publisher. (How many authors dream of doing that?) Maggie’s allies in proving her innocence—the two main characters in her best-selling mystery series: the mouth-watering Alexandre Blake, Viscount St. Just, and his naïve, slightly overweight sidekick, Sterling Balder.

What? How? Easy. The two characters simply show up in Maggie’s New York apartment one day—alive, thankful to Maggie for creating them, and, in the case of St. Just, a Regency-era James Bond, looking to solve a crime and get his flirt on. Of course, Maggie thinks she’s either lost her mind or fallen victim to an elaborate hoax. In fact, Maggie is a bit of a neurotic mess. Her main sources of entertainment are lounging around in her pajamas, playing “Lemmings” on her computer, and smoking. She doesn’t get out much, avoids her family at all costs, and her love life can best be described as non-existent. All of which beg the question: how did Maggie create such a fascinating character as the delectable St. Just? Debonair, clever, and charmingly sardonic, St. Just is the epitome of the romantic regency hero. And his looks are nothing to sneeze at either. Maggie has given St. Just Paul Newman’s blue eyes, Val Kilmer’s sensuous pout, Peter O’Toole’s aristocratic nose, Sean Connery’s “slightly more British, bedroom voice” and “hair as black as midnight, casually rumpled in its windswept style, à la Beau Brummell.”

We’ve covered the mystery and the (potential for) romance. So what about the comedy I promised? Well, just try and imagine the high jinks that might ensue if an 18th century aristocrat was somehow transported to modern day New York City. Reading how St. Just and Sterling acclimate is totally hysterical. How does Maggie tell Sterling, who’s crushing on the housekeeper in The Brady Bunch, that Alice is merely a character in a TV show? How does St. Just adapt to modern day menswear? Hint: he doesn’t give up his cravat without a fight? How does Maggie explain St. Just to her cynical, often inebriated agent? After all, St. Just is the spitting image of the main character in Maggie’s books. How do St. Just and Sterling survive with no money, no social security numbers, and no place to lay their top hats? Not all these questions are answered in the first book. Instead, you'll have to follow Maggie, St. Just, and Sterling, through the other five books in the series: Maggie by the Book, Maggie Without a Clue, High Heels and Homicide, High Heels and Holidays, and Bowled Over. And hopefully you’ll fall in love with the characters as I did.

Unfortunately, falling in love makes breaking up even harder to do. And that is where I stand today with my beloved series. In the last book, published in 2007, the commitment-phobic Maggie and the reformed-rake St. Just had finally succumbed to what I knew all along was “True Love.” After solving yet another mystery, a bowling-related murder involving Maggie’s father, Maggie and St. Just were engaged and moving into their dream home. And then…nothing! After waiting anxiously for the next book in the series, I logged onto Kasey Michael’s website and found this curt (and heart-breaking) message:

Don’t want the Maggie Kelly series to end? Proclaim your love for Maggie by writing to: Ms. Laurie Parkin, VP and Publisher, Kensington Publishing Corp., 850 Third Ave., New York, New York 10022.

So don’t get too attached to your favorite characters, cause you never know when you’re going to be dumped cold—stone cold.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Judging a Book by Its Cover

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of judging a book by its cover. But over the last 18 months or so, something strange has happened to me. I found myself falling in thrall with a cover model. And before you start wondering about Sapphic tendencies, let me explain. This blog is about my love of books, but I also love watching stories acted out on the large and small screen. I particularly enjoy serialized programming, including the grandmother of serialized drama—the daytime soap opera. If any fellow soap fans are reading this blog, you’ll know that the last few years have not been kind to the soaps. It’s been one casualty—I mean, cancellation—after another. Today marks the last episode of Erica Kane and All My Children. One of the other soaps cancelled was the venerable 54-year-old As the World Turns. So what do soaps have to do with my blog topic? Let me connect the dots.

I used to watch As the World Turns. My two favorite characters were Katie Perretti, played by the engaging Terri Conn, and her ditzy best friend Vienna Hyatt, played by the luminous Ewa Da Cruz. And then one rainy Saturday afternoon I was browsing in Barnes and Noble when I saw Ewa Da Cruz staring coquettishly back at me from the cover of The Lost Duke of Wyndham. How cool was that? Now I’d never read a single book by the author, Julia Quinn, but I bought the book anyway because I couldn’t resist Ewa’s gamine smile. And I’m glad I did. The book and its sequel (Mr. Cavendish, I Presume) were excellent. So good, in fact, that I’m going to take a paragraph and plug Julia Quinn, who may be, as author Jill Barnett writes, “Our contemporary Jane Austen.”

The Lost Duke of Wyndham is exactly what it purports to be: the story of highwayman Jack Audley who—in a strange twist of fate—turns out to be a Duke. Jack is a charming rouge who falls head over heels for ladies’ companion Grace Eversleigh. Then problems abound. First, there is already a current Duke—the stiff and pompous Thomas Cavendish. And then there’s the Duke of Wyndham’s fiancée. As the presumed heir, Thomas has been engaged to Amelia Willoughby since infancy. Now Amelia’s parents want her to marry the real Duke. Finally, there’s Jack’s irascible and domineering Grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Wyndham, who refuses to accept that Jack would stoop so low as to marry her paid companion. Of course, Jack and Grace get their happy-ever-after, but it’s the second book in the series that wraps everything up in a perfect bow. In Mr. Cavendish, I Presume, the exact same story is played out—this time through the eyes of the newly-deposed Duke and his on-off-on again fiancée. I enjoyed how Quinn cleverly interweaves and unfolds two distinct stories. In book one, Jack comes to terms with his ducal responsibilities and, with Grace’s loving support, rises to the expectation of his new position. In book two, Thomas is freed of the ducal burden and able to loosen up enough to truly fall in love with Amelia. Of the two, I liked the second book better. It was good fun to watch the clueless Thomas flounder after Amelia, the fiancée he ignored all of his life until he realized he might actually lose her—typical male! And if you like these two books, let me know, I have Quinn’s Bridgerton Series to sell you.

Now back to my original topic. Not too long after I bought a book simply for the pleasure of seeing a familiar face, I ran into Ewa again. This time it was on the cover of Royal Blood by Rhona Sharon. If you’ve read my first blog, “You Staked Me at Hello” (Sept. 2, 2011), you’ll understand that Ewa plus vampires was impossible for me to resist, and the book quickly found a place on my shelf. Over the next year or so, Ewa and I continued to “meet cute,” starting with Kiss of the Rose, the first book in Kate Pearce’s Tudor Vampire Chronicles, and then again with The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne. And still my library continued to expand, making room for other Ewa covers, including In Bed with a Highlander (Maya Banks), How to Seduce a Scoundrel (Vicky Dreiling), and The Bride Wore Scarlet (Liz Carlyle).

But it wasn’t until Ewa graced the reissue of Laurie McBain’s classic Devil’s Desire, that I realized I had a problem. You see, I own the original Devil’s Desire (circa 1975), and yet I found myself poised to do the unthinkable—buy another copy simply because of the new cover. For the sake of my overflowing bookshelves and my empty wallet, the madness had to cease! Just not until after I buy Mark of the Rose, the third book in the Tudor Vampire Chronicles; Seduction of a Highland Lass, the second book in the Maya Banks trilogy; and Lord and Lady Spy by Shana Galen. Featuring the exquisite Ewa on their covers, all three books came out this month.

And now for best part of my story: Julia Quinn was not the only author that Ewa introduced me to. Unbelievably, I hadn’t read a single book from any of these authors. Bottom line: Ewa Da Cruz inspired me to try eight new authors! The cost of my first Ewa Da Cruz cover—$7.99 (plus tax). Total cost of all my Ewa Da Cruz covers to date—$69.95 (plus tax). The cost of the Julia Quinn books I have since purchased—$119.85 (plus tax and shipping). The cost of a good cover model—priceless!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

More than 10 years ago, my mom called me up at work one day to ask a book-related question. She wanted to know when Sophie Dunbar’s next mystery was coming out. Dunbar is the author of one of our favorite series—The Eclaire Mysteries. There are four books in this series about Claire Claiborne and her high-society New Orleans beauty salon: Behind Eclaire’s Doors, A Bad Hair Day, Redneck Riviera, and Shiveree. As I thought about my Mom’s words, I realized that it had been a while since we’d read Dunbar’s last book—Fashion Victims, the first book in a new series.

So, while eating lunch at my desk, I browsed all of the usual websites and was surprised at what I found. Or rather what I didn’t find. There were no new books that I’d somehow missed. (Okay, I’m good about staying on top of my favorite authors, but when you have hundreds of “favorite” authors, it can be tricky.) I googled Sophie Dunbar’s name, looking for her website. Nothing. Now I was intrigued. Unfortunately, I was also finished my lunch.

That night I returned to my keyboard to solve the mystery of Sophie Dunbar’s apparent disappearance. I consider myself the Queen of the Internet search, and I was not about to relinquish my crown. (Humble much?) Plus, it would be fun to solve a little “mystery” related to one of my favorite mystery writers. A few minutes later—mystery solved, but with mixed results. I retained my Queen of the Internet crown, but lost a “friend.” And yes, although I’d never met Sophie Dunbar, when I read that the 54-year-old author had died on May 11, 2001, from breast cancer, I truly felt like I’d lost a friend. When I called my Mom to tell her the news, she felt the same.

Sophie Dunbar came back into my life this past summer when my Mom brought the Eclaire Mysteries on vacation with us. She’d lent them to my sister-in-law to read. While that might not seem like such a big deal, I should probably share a few facts about my sister-in-law, and hope she doesn’t disown me when she reads this blog. First, she considers flipping through gossip mags reading. Second, outside of coursework (she’s back in college getting her teaching degree), she probably reads about three books a year—two of those when she’s on vacation with my family. Finally, she once uttered the words: “Why read the book when you can wait a few months and see the movie?” Her words left me speechless. And if you know me, you’d know what a feat that was. My sister-in-law read Behind Eclaire’s Doors in record time, and she loved it. She was still reading the second book when our vacation ended.

When I sat down to write this blog, something made me google Sophie Dunbar again. It was a little depressing at first. Her five books are out of print and only available through Amazon’s Seller Program. Other mentions of her are few and far between. Three lines in an online article by Terry Weingart entitled “In Memory 2001: Mystery Writers Gone but Not Forgotten.” About 10 lines on her author page on But then I read them, and what a 10 lines they are!

I now know my “friend” Sophie Dunbar a little better. For example, her favorite book in the Eclaire Mystery Series was Redneck Riviera. It is the third book published in the series, but it was actually the second book Dunbar wrote. Not happy that she’d changed the setting from the Big Easy to Mississippi, her publisher chose to release A Bad Hair Day instead. In fact, Dunbar had to switch publishing houses before her favorite story would make it into print. (If you read the series in the order the books were published, as my Mom and I originally did, you will note that the timing is a little off.)

The other thing I learned about Sophie Dunbar was more intriguing. As a pregnant, unwed teenager, Sophie Dunbar had given a son up for adoption. Thirty years later, after intensive research and with the help of a female detective who specialized in adoptions, Sophie Dunbar’s son made contact with his birth mother. Mother and son shared their first face-to-face meeting at the 1998 Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Washington, D.C. When I read these words, a chill went down my spine. How strangely appropriate to unravel such a great mystery at a conference for mystery writers. Immediately, my overactive imagination went into hyper-drive.

What had been going though Sophie Dunbar’s mind when she first laid eyes on her son? Had she been scared? Nervous? Uncertain? Excited? Regretful? Overjoyed? Had Sophie Dunbar known about her breast cancer diagnosis? After all, she would die a mere three years later. Perhaps she’d already been in the fight for her life even while she agreed to meet the baby she’d given away. Of course I will never know the answers to these questions. They will remain a mystery.

What I do know is that I will not forget Sophie Dunbar. Her books will always have room on my bookshelf. Her characters will always have a special place in my heart. If you have not read her Eclaire Mystery series, I urge you to do so. From the pleasure of true love to the pain of infidelity to the power of forgiveness, the connection between Claire and Dan Claiborne is powerful and oh-so-steamy. Their adventures are good for a chuckle and always served with a heaping helping of Southern Charm and a dash of murder. Even better, I can visit Sophie Dunbar’s engaging stories whenever I want, and—as my Mom did this summer and I’m doing today—I can share her work with others who may have missed them the first time around.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I Was Born on the Wrong Side of the Pond

It’s hard to say for certain when my addiction to all things English began. Perhaps with my first Barbara Cartland novel, The Husband Hunters. Published in 1976, the story revolved around a plain, yet virtuous, older sister, two beautiful, yet vapid, younger sisters—diamonds of the first water, no less—and an arrogantly indifferent Duke. Andrina’s audacious plan: to launch her sisters into Regency Society in the hopes of landing a Duke, an Earl, or, at the very least, a Viscount. From taffeta and silk ball gowns worn by waifish heroines with heart-shaped faces. To intricately-folded cravats that framed men with high foreheads and thin, seemingly cruel lips. To the pomposity and scandalous affairs of Prinny (aka Prince Regent and, finally, King George IV). Fascinating—and somewhat confusing—stuff to a tweenage Pennsylvania tomboy with an overactive imagination.

In addition to being a highly prolific author, Cartland was a character in real life. One interesting tidbit: she was Step-Grandmother to Lady Diana Spencer, who we all know grew up to become Diana, Princess of Wales. Alas, the two were not close. In Tina Brown’s book, The Diana Chronicles, Barbara Cartland is quoted as saying, “The only books Diana ever read were mine, and they weren’t awfully good for her.” Hmmmm? One might argue that Prince Charles has a high forehead and thin, seemingly cruel lips, just like Barbara Cartland’s high-in-the-instep heroes. That could explain a lot.

My love for Barbara Cartland soon led me to Georgette Heyer. In fact, Heyer is often credited with starting the Regency Romance genre that I still enjoy today. Reading Heyer’s Arabella, I fell in girl-love with the saucy and headstrong Arabella Tallent who spun outrageous claims of fortune and nobility as comeuppance to the haughty Robert Beamaris. Haven’t read Heyer? I urge you to give her a try. In fact, during a recent visit to Barnes and Noble, I happened to notice that her books have been reissued with lovely vintage-looking covers.

At school I was introduced to Jane Austen. But what can I say about Austen that hasn’t already been said—ad infinitum. Moving on.

Other romantic classics set in England soon followed. Heathcliff and Catherine. Jane Eyre and Rochester. Buttercup and Westley. Okay, I’m not entirely sure Princess Bride took place in England, but if it didn’t, it should have. And, of course, Romeo and Juliet. If I’m honest, however, the last two annoyed me from the get-go. A poignant tale of star-crossed lovers? Hardly! More a primer for what not to do if you’re ever lucky enough to be embroiled in an epic love story involving feuding families.

For years I was content to lose myself in my books, day-dreaming about what it would have been like to live in England during the Regency or even Victorian Period. But overall I was okay with it because, hey, that was the past, and I was a Modern Girl. And then the inexplicable happened. While browsing in Borders (R.I.P), I picked up a trade paperback called, Bridget Jones’s Diary.

And here I must share an aside. A few days ago, someone asked me if I’d ever seen a movie that was better than the book. “Never!” I scoffed. But you know what they say about using definitives—writer (or in my case, speaker) beware. Helen Fielding’s book was mildly amusing. Seeing her story come to life in all of Renee Zellwegger’s full-figured glory, Colin Firth’s deprecating charm, and Hugh Grant’s insouciant callousness was nothing short of magnificent. And going by Zellwegger’s Academy Award nomination, I wasn’t the only one captivated by her performance.

After seeing Bridget Jones on the big screen, it hit me—I want to be a Modern English Girl! I want to smoke a fag! Well, not really. I’m a staunch anti-smoker. So I want to turn my nose up at the offer to smoke a fag. I want to go shopping in quaint English thrift shops and toss my vintage finds into the boot of my car. I want a cute lorry driver with a Cockney accent to wink at me and call me “luv.” (I already have someone who loves me, and I plan on taking him to England with me someday.) I want to live in a shabby chic cottage—as long as it comes with central air and is in equal walking distance to a drafty castle, a stately manor home, and a charming pub where everyone knows my name.

That’s a tall order to fill—and probably not very realistic. Or so I thought. And then I found Katie Fforde. And she gave me everything I asked for in 500 pages or less.

My first Kate Fforde book was Life Skills. I found it in the bargain bin at Books-a-Million (my least favorite bookstore). The author name caught my eye because I am a big fan of Jasper Fforde's Tuesday Next mystery series. And yes, they are indeed related—she is married to his cousin. (FYI: their books could not be any more different. In fact, the only thing they have in common is location. They all take place in their home country of England.) But back to Life Skills. I quite liked the cover—cute blonde in a jaunty sailor cap throwing a heart-shaped life preserver. (Probably this has something to do with my husband, who is the son of a son of a sailor.) I so enjoyed this story about a canal boat ride from London to Birmingham that I immediately scrambled to get my hands on more of her work. It wasn't easy. Katie Fforde hadn't quite caught on here "across the pond," and I had to order through international book distributors or Amazon UK. I’m happy to say that today it is much easier to get her books.

So why read should you Katie Fforde? Well, if you are someone like me—a complete Anglophile who is convinced she was born on the wrong side of the pond—you will relish her books like a box of your favorite chocolates. Fforde's character's are engaging, likeable, and offer a realistic portrayal of today's women. In other words, her heroines are no size-two Carrie Bradshaw. Fforde's words paint a virtual landscape of cozy cottages, charming villages, and the omnipresent friendly pub. She’s big on family and friends, and her books make me smile. Fforde develops quirky secondary characters that you care about. Even better, Fforde ensures that everyone gets their happy ending.

Friday, September 2, 2011

You Staked Me at Hello

I was into vampires way before True Blood. Before Twilight. Before Buffy the Vampire Slayer—both the excellent TV series and the not-so-excellent, yet still a hell of a lot of fun, movie. Before Francis Ford Coppola tried to win an Academy Award for Vlad the Impaler. (He wasn’t successful. Gary Oldman as Dracula—riveting, even with the creepy bouffant wig. Keanu Reeves as Mina’s vampire slayer husband—not so much.)

My vampire fetish began much earlier. I was 11 years old. It was 1979, and I was hit with a vampiric double whammy—Love at First Bite and Salem’s Lot. The first taught me that an average girl could find happily ever after with a blood-sucking fiend. (Interesting aside: before there was the “sparkly” vampire, there was the tanned vampire. All the white face paint in the world couldn’t hide the amazing orange of George Hamilton’s skin.) The latter taught me that vampires could be pretty freaking scary. (To see Salem’s Lot, I had to wait until my parents were asleep, sneak downstairs, and watch it at 2 am. By myself. In the pitch black. Was I brave or what?)

So why am I rambling on about vampires again? Oh yeah, as a convoluted introduction to one of my favorite vampire series. But first let me set the stage. The year was 2008. Twilight Fever had raged out of control. And I found myself feeling something unexpected—vampire ennui. I’d had it up to my fang marks with the vampire books, movies, and TV shows.

I was in the library with my son when I caught a glimpse of an attractive redhead lounging on a gravestone. I always judge a book by its cover, and it was a pretty sexy cover. So I picked it up. Sigh. Another freaking vampire book. I went to put it back on the shelf, and then hesitated. I wasn’t at a bookstore (R.I.P. Borders). I could walk out with this book for free! Bonus: I wouldn't get the long-suffering look from my oh-so-tolerant husband who no longer bothers to remind me that I have an entire room full of books waiting to be read and reread. So I tossed the paperback in with my son’s manga selections.

The book sat on my dresser until I got the email that it was due back. I looked again at the cover. (Like I said, it was a pretty sexy cover.) In the end, I couldn’t resist. In fact, I’ve never found a book I was able to resist. Plus, this one was right there for the taking.  And I am so glad I did. Jeaniene Frost's Halfway to the Grave was amazing. Cat was a flawed, kick-ass heroine. And Bones?

Bones…Bones…How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Bones was Mr. Darcy with a bite. He came across as cold and unfeeling, but melted fast for the feisty half-vampire Cat. And I melted fast for Bones. Really fast. Like, couldn’t put the book down fast. I read it in 2 days. (Don’t you hate when work gets in the way of your reading?) His back story was intriguing—a former prostitute in 18th century London who was turned against his will by his best friend. Today, Bones works as a kind-of vampire bounty hunter, tracking down and taking out all the big baddies and leaving the sexy walking dead in peace(s).

Bones' vocation puts him on a collision course with Cat, who is out to stake all the vampires she can. Cat’s mom was raped by a newly-turned vampire—hence the birth of our heroine, a half human, half vampire hybrid. But this blog is getting long in the tooth—pun intended—so let me put a stake in it. (I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself). Bones and Cat join forces. Have crazy hot vampire sex. Kick some serious vampire ass. And are wrenched apart by a shocking ending that left me running for Amazon and praying the second book in the series had already been published. It had been. So I ordered both books and anxiously waited for them to arrive. (As much as I despise e-readers, the immediacy is tempting.) The second book in the series, One Foot in the Grave, was even better. But perhaps I’ll save that for another blog…