Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Trouble with Books

I was an early reader. From my standardized test results in 2nd grade, I was already reading at a 12th grade level. How do I know? Scarily enough, my Dad saved every report card from K through college graduation in a manila folder, including standardized tests. Many years later, he gave me this folder. I’ve yet to throw it away. Perhaps you’ll see me on A&E’s Hoarders one day?

My tale takes place in 6th grade. (I’ll leave it to you to guess the year.) A Judy Blume book was circulating around the school. I’d read the classics, including Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, but the buzz on this book was different. The rumor: this book was banned from our school library! When I finally got my sweaty hands on Wifey, I removed the cover so I could leave the book in my desk and read it at school. When you read quietly, the teachers pretty much left you alone. They had 30 kids to track. My eagle-eyed mother had only two chicks in her nest. And she didn’t miss much.

Soon parent-teacher conferences rolled around. Happy to not have school, I lolled around in bed trying to figure out just what the heck was going on with the “wifey.” It was about sex. I knew that much—but not a great deal more. What can I say? I’m Catholic, and my parents were pretty strict. And then…holy hell in a handbag! I’d left the book in my desk, and my mom had her conference today. Mom never missed the opportunity to go through my things. And there was no way she’d overlook a book with the cover torn off. That was blasphemy in my home! Luckily, I lived right across the street from my school, and I was able to sneak in and retrieve the book between conferences. My teacher suspected nothing—sometimes being a straight-A bookworm helps.

And then sometimes being a straight-A bookworm doesn’t help at all. At least that was the case when Mom caught me reading Johanna Lindsey’s Captive Bride. For those of you unfamiliar with this classic Lindsey, I quote verbatim from Amazon: "Once Christina had rejected Philip's fervent offer of marriage. But now she is to be his slave—desperate for the freedoms denied her...yet weakened by her heart's blazing desire to willingly explore her virile captor's most sensuous cravings." Apparently, Mom didn’t find it suitable reading material for her 11-year daughter.

Captive Bride is not my favorite Lindsey. After all, I was raised by a card-carrying member of the women’s rights movement. Mom’s motto: Anything a man can do, a woman can do better. She’s since relaxed this sentiment, but it’s too late for me. I continue to espouse it with great “fervor.” Even at 11, I wanted the heroine, Christina Wakefield, to engineer her own escape from the Sheik—not fall in love with the reprobate. And yet, Captive Bride gave birth to my love of romance novels. I continue to read them (and Johanna Lindsey) today. Her entire collection resides on my sagging bookshelves. Some I’ve read so many times, I’ve had to replace them. Despite the corny titles and the fact that Fabio appears on nearly every original cover, here are three Lindsey’s that are definitely worth a read.

Got Viking? Set in 873 Wessex, Hearts Aflame is the love story of feisty Viking heroine Kristen Haardrad and the powerful Saxon Lord Royce of Wyndhurst, who attempts—with varying degrees of success—to tame her. Kristen is not your traditional heroine. Not only is she 6 feet tall, she has zero interest in the muscle-bound Vikings of her village. Kristen longs for freedom and adventure, which is why she stows away on her brother’s longboat. Unfortunately the Viking raid goes awry. Kristen’s brother Selig is killed. (Or maybe not, as Selig gets his own book in Lindsey’s Surrender My Love.) When the Vikings are captured and enslaved by the Saxons, crafty Kristen disguises herself as a boy to escape the inevitable raping and pillaging. But Royce is no fool. He’s also not attracted to flaxen-haired males, so he quickly figures out Kristen’s secret. Let the games begin. Kristen and Royce are an equal match—stubborn, headstrong, and passionate. And while Royce thinks he has the upper hand when he beds Kristen, it’s actually Kristen who’s driving this story. The chemistry between Kristen and Royce is off the chart. So, if you like sweaty Viking sex in frigid Nordic temperatures, this is the book for you.

Defy Not the Heart features my favorite Lindsey hero—the gruff yet noble Ranulf Fitzhugh. Set in medieval England (circa 1192), the castle of Lady Reina de Champeney is under seige. In the hopes of forcing Lady Reina to wed, the dastardly Lord Rothwell has hired the brave and oh-so-buff Ranulf to kidnap the noblewoman. But Reina is no shrinking violet. She quickly comes up with a proposition for Ranulf—he should marry her himself. And from the way Lindsey describes the golden-haired knight, I’d have made the same offer. Reina is a little unusual for a Lindsey heroine in that she is not “breathtakingly beautiful.” Instead, Reina is a diminutive but resolute heroine who quickly wins over the hearts of Ranulf and readers. In one scene, the ubiquitous “other woman” tries to seduce the luscious Ranulf. She is summarily rebuffed when Ranulf makes it clear that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that he remains true to Reina. Now that’s romance.

Lindsey’s Once a Princess is yet another take on Beauty and the Beast. Set in 1835, Stefan Barany is scarred—physically and emotionally. In an act of bravery, a young Stefan was disfigured when he stepped in front of an assassin’s rapier. Today most women are repulsed by his ruined face. So when Stefan’s told he must travel to America, retrieve a long-lost Princess, and then marry her in order to receive the kingdom, Stefan is not a happy puppy—I mean, Prince. Then things get complicated. Stefan convinces his handsome cousin, Vasili, to pose as the Prince. The royal party finds that instead of living a life of exiled luxury, Princess Tatiana Janacek has lived a life of hardship and degradation. Even worse she’s clueless about her royal roots. Princess Tatiana, or Tanya as she is now known, believes herself the daughter of an abusive tavern-owner who has literally forced her to dance for her keep. Stefan is initially revolted by the slovenly Tanya. But it turns out that clever Tanya has hidden her breathtaking beauty to escape the attentions of drunken bar patrons. Beauty is unmasked first. Tanya further confounds her Beast by spurning the delectable Vasili and falling in lust with the scarred and surly Stefan. So what’s a Beast to do? My suggestion: just give in to his happy-ever-after. But this is a Lindsey—not a Disney. So Stefan must first get Tanya to forgive his deception, save her from assassins who’ve wiped out the entire Janacek family, and then finally accept that Beauty can love the Beast. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Comeback Kid

Breaking up with a series is traumatic. Sometimes you have no choice because the publisher pulled the plug. Sometimes your heart is broken by an author who decides to end a series. Sometimes you end the affair. After long-term relationships, I dumped two popular series—Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta mysteries and John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport mysteries. What can I say? We were in a rut. And then there’s the break-ups where your heart is ripped out and then stomped on by Louboutin stilettos. So what happens you’re asked to reconcile?

I found Deadly Love in the mystery section at Border’s. It didn’t take long to figure out that the author, B.D. Joyce, was Brenda Joyce. I’d enjoyed her romance novels featuring the Bragg family. In fact, they’re buried two-rows deep in my bookshelves. The introduction to her new series read: “Welcome to the world of Francesca Cahill, crime solver extraordinaire. Francesca is no ordinary heroine. She refuses to bow to convention, wears her heart on her sleeve, and is determined to right the ills and injustices of the world.”
Color me intrigued.

Set in turn-of-the-century New York City (1902 to be exact), the mystery centers around a little boy who is spirited away from his bed during a high-society ball. Two people race to save him: bluestocking reformer Francesca Cahill and NYC Police Commissioner Rick Bragg. The characters engaged my interest right from the start. Francesca’s father, Andrew, is a millionaire who made his fortune in meat-packing after a humble beginning as a farmer. He adores Francesca and often turns a paternal blind-eye to her adventures. So it is her mother, Julia, an American blue-blood, who rules the family with an iron fist. To Julia’s despair, Francesca has little interest in obtaining a husband. Instead, our intrepid heroine would rather follow local politics and effect positive change for the less fortunate. Luckily Julia has another daughter: the beautiful Connie who is (seemingly?) perfect and (happily?) married to the dashing Neil. The youngest child, Evan, a charming ne’er do-well with a gambling problem, is the apple of his mother’s eye and an irritant to his hard-working father. At the end of Deadly Love, Francesca and Bragg solve the crime and become very “special friends.”  

In the second book in the series, Deadly Pleasures, Joyce introduces her most intriguing character yet—Calder Hart. Half-brother to Bragg, Hart is a bad boy in the best sense of the word—disturbingly sensual, sardonically witty, and uncaring about what society thinks of him. He is also Bragg’s arch-rival, so it’s no surprise when Hart turns his attention to Francesca to get a rise out of his do-good brother.

I tore through Deadly Affairs and Deadly Desire in 2002. By Deadly Caress and Deadly Promise, both published in 2003, I was firmly in Hart’s corner. Bragg was blonde and noble, but Hart was dark and hot. (I do love me some bad boy.) And then came the moment that arrogant womanizer Calder Hart could no longer deny his infatuation with the beautiful and brave Francesca, and he made her an offer of marriage. I’m not ashamed to admit that I squealed audibly when she said “Yes!”

I waited impatiently for Deadly Illusions, which didn’t come out until 2005. And I was chomping at the bit by the time Deadly Kisses dropped in 2006. It was the biggest nail-biter yet! Hart, who is suspected of killing his devious ex-mistress Daisy, ends his engagement to Francesca to protect her from scandal—breaking her heart and my heart in the process. Only Francesca believes in his innocence, and it is a frantic race to capture the murderer and Hart’s heart. (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.) The series was on fire. Then these devastating words posted to Brenda Joyce’s website in 2009.

I would like to thank all of you who have emailed me inquiring about The Deadly Series. My publisher is simply not interested in publishing the final book at this time. I realize that a majority of my readers do not know that I don’t get to write whatever I choose, but what they [the publisher] request I write. When I announced after Deadly Kisses that I was taking a break from the series, I had every intention of finishing this series. I’m saddened that the characters have been left in limbo. If you wish to voice your concerns, I’m including the [publisher’s] email address.

Limbo? This was more like being left in an upper level of hell. When I said the series was on fire, I didn’t mean it literally! I had questions that demanded answers—Would Francesca and Hart ever marry? If so, would the sensuous Hart, who sometimes enjoyed intimacies with multiple women at the same time, remain true to the virginal Francesca? Would Bragg get over losing Francesca to Hart? Could Hart and Bragg rebuild their fractured relationship? And what would happen to Evan (Francesa’s scamp of a brother), Sarah (a bohemian artist and Evan’s ex-fiancĂ©e), Maggie (a working-mother of common birth who is crushing on Evan), Roarke (Bragg’s half-brother, a medical student who shows an uncommon interest in free-spirit Sarah), and the other secondary characters I’d grown to love?

Deep breath. And now for the comeback.

Last year, I received an email from Brenda Joyce. The subject line: "A very important message about The Deadly Series." Her publisher had had a change of heart. It planned to re-release the last two books in the series in December 2010 and January 2011 and—wait for it—the 9th book in the series, Deadly Vows in February 2011.

I’m happy to say that Joyce delivered. For the first time in years, I had to turn to the back page to see how Deadly Vows ended. And now it’s your turn. Treat yourself to a great series and be sure to read them in order, you won’t want to miss one second of the adventure, mystery, and romance. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Last week I blogged on what happens when an author stops writing a series that you love. Today I’m writing about what happens when an author stops writing a series that you love and then disappears. Yes, disappears! I’m not exaggerating. It’s a true story, and it happened to me.

Unlike most of my “keepers,” I’m a little fuzzy on how I first came across Dating Can be Murder by Jennifer Apodaca. If I’d hazard a guess, my Mom probably passed it on to me. I’m a voracious reader of romance—Regency, contemporary, urban fantasy, dystopian, young adult. Throw in a 7-foot flaxen-haired Viking and it’s the cherry on top of my sundae. My mother, on the other hand, is a voracious reader of mysteries—from Miss Marple to Miss Plum. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name a cozy mystery series she hasn’t read. But we do share books across our genres—at least the good ones.

Looking down at the really bad cover of Dating Can be Murder—limp dead guy in a suit, splayed across a giant heart floating in midair with what looks to be a bullet hole through it—I’m pretty sure it came from my Mom. Call me superficial, but it’s just not the kind of cover that would’ve caught my interest. But I’m being lazy. Let me just pick up the phone and ask. Be right back.

Did you miss me? And yes, after much prompting, Mom recalled giving the book to me. “I thought you would like that one.” Interesting. It appears that Mom is not as enamored of the series as I am. Is that going to stop me from extolling the undeniable charms of the Samantha Shaw mysteries? Nope.

The book starts out in grand fashion. I call it breaking up with style. Our spunky heroine, Samantha Shaw, is in a pickle. Her husband Trent has been killed in an unfortunate peanut-related incident. After finding a stash of women’s underwear in his vintage Mustang, her mourning period is brief. So what’s a scorned woman to do? How about taking the life insurance money to buy breast implants and a dating service? Sounds like a plan. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

Pause. Actually I don’t know, so I’m going to Google it.

I’m back. Again. According to Wikipedia, the quote is “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley [go oft awry].” It’s from a Robert Burns’ poem entitled “To a Mouse.” Who knew?

Anyway, Samantha’s plans gang aft agley. In addition to being a serial cheater, her dead husband was also a liar, a thief, and a drug dealer. And now Samantha and her two young sons are being threatened by some really scary bad guys. Sam’s life is made even more complicated by two new men in her life—Gabe Pulizzi, an ex-cop who now runs his own security firm and Detective Morgan Rossi, who is looking into all the strange happenings that surround our heroine.

So why should you be interested in the trials and tribulations of Samantha Shaw? Here are three good reasons. First, while the story is fast-paced, the mystery is enjoyably on the light side—no coked-up drug dealers, decapitated bodies, or sexual deviants. Wait! There may be a mention of a vibrator. Or maybe that’s in the fourth book in the series: Batteries Required. Second, the book is damn funny. For example, Sam’s cheating-ex was a record-setting condom salesman. Another example, Sam reviews romances and erotica, awarding stars for extra “sizzle.” You get the picture. Third, Apodaca’s characters are likeable and well-rounded. You feel for Sam—literally. The sexual tension between Sam and Gabe actually elicited a physical reaction from me. I’m not ashamed to say I got a tad bit warm during their first sex scene. Bottom line: Apodaca and Sam (and, let’s be honest, Gabe) had me hooked. I eagerly consumed the next four books in the series—Dying to Meet You, Ninja Soccer Mom, Batteries Required, and Thrilled to Death—and looked forward to future stories and many more hours of entertainment.

Or maybe not.

When my internal alarm clock told me to start looking for a new Samantha Shaw mystery, I was in for a shock. I googled Jennifer Apodaca and someone named Jennifer Lyon popped up. In fact, Jennifer Apodaca had virtually disappeared. All that remained of my beloved author was a small tab on Jennifer Lyon’s website. Like Samantha Shaw, I had a mystery to solve. Unlike Samantha Shaw, it didn’t take me 300 pages do so.

So what exactly happened? Jennifer Apodaca had pulled a Phoenix—a mystery writer “died” and an urban fantasy author rose from the ashes. In the author’s own words:  “She [Jennifer Lyons aka Jennifer Apodaca] unleashed her inner witch and created the Wing Slayer Hunter series about tortured alpha males and the very special witches who loved them.” Wow. I didn’t see that one coming.

So where does that leave me today? Jealously guarding my dog-eared copies of the five Samantha Shaw mysteries. They are not on loan—to anyone. And making room on my shelf for a new author. But I’ll be honest here. Jennifer Lyon is not Jennifer Apodaca. The oven still “sizzles,” but one important ingredient is missing from the recipe—humor. My advice: savor your books, because you never know when the menu is going to change.