Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


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It’s Good Friday, Ya’ll!

James Garner and Audrey Hepburn are feeling springy!

 

Hey there, hi there, ho there everyone! Happy Good Friday! Here are a few links to things I hope you love:

Get thee over to Tumblr and check out Judging the Book.

For those who like to write fiction, do check out 10 Can’t Miss, Surefire Secrets Of Torturing Fictional People by Charlie Jane Anders over at io9.  The title’s a little misleading — it’s more about character development than torture, and it’s an excellent read with advice I wish more authors would take!

Speaking of writing advice, I also enjoy author Jennifer Cruise’s blog, Argh Ink. I just love to read writers talking about writing.

And to sum up today, here’s Leslie Jamison at the Virginia Quarterly Review talking about a unified theory of wounded women that will make you wonder if you’re reading VQR or Cosmo. That’s not an insult, really.

Have a wonderful wonderful weekend, and try not to eat too many Cadbury eggs (I will. Shamelessly).

 


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I’m In Love With: Richard Armitage as John Thornton in “North and South”

I watched the BBC production of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South the other day. John Thornton, or, rather, Richard Armitage as John Thornton, is my new favorite romantic hero. Look at him — just look at him!

To give my ravings some context, here’s the AllMovie.com entry for North and South:

A privileged middle-class girl raised in [Victorian] rural southern England gets a rude awakening to the world when a family move forces her to contend with the unseemly inhabitants of a northern mill town in director Brian Percival’s adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s timeless love story. Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) is the daughter of a middle-class parson and a girl accustomed to decidedly refined company. When her family is uprooted and forced to move to the northern mill town of Milton, the prim and proper country girl is notably contemptuous of her new working class neighbors – and especially of charismatic mill owner John Thornton (Richard Armitage).

This mini-series is also the very rare occasion when one can say that the movie is better than the book. Elizabeth Gaskell’s books are notoriously overwrought, and North and South is a good example of why Gaskell’s reputation has foundered while Charles Dickens’ has remained on solid ground — Gaskell  is much less readable.

Also, there’s no pictures of Richard Armitage in the book, nor is he speaking John Thornton’s lines, so there’s that to be overcome.


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Browse On By — What I’m Loving This Week

Source: today.msnbc.msn.com via Jeanna on Pinterest

Mostly I love Carla Kelly this week.

Also, I love my Royksopp, Air and Band of Bees stations on Pandora. Perfect background music for writing and reading by the way, interesting enough to keep you engaged, but unobtrusive. Go make your own now.

Someone at Yahoo had the brilliant idea of gathering a bunch of writings by classic rock journalists together in one place and calling it Rock’s Backpages. All the usual suspects are there, like Barney Hoskyns, Al Aronowitz and Chris Salewicz and here’s an awesome piece on George Clinton that will make you wants to get funked up.

I lurk around The Bookshelf Muse all the time. If you write for fun or profit, it’s well worth a few wasted minutes of time.  This particular post about how to write males expressing emotion versus females was fascinating for me.

The war between genre fiction and literary fiction continues to wage, but no one said it better than Daniel Abraham, who, in the guise of genre literature, wrote this lovely letter to mainstream. As in stream of Diet Dr. Pepper coming out your nose.

Sometimes, I just like to see cats in tiny hats. What — you don’t?

Now I’m going back to reading genre fiction while listening to Royksopp and stopping periodically to think about hats for cats.


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A Very Gothic Week: Dark Shadows and the Gothic Novel Genre

Not by design, but just in time, anyway, this has become A Very Gothic Week here at Sweet Rocket. Yesterday was a review of the fabulous new gothic novel Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees. Today is Dark Shadows day.

Unfortunately, today’s post is inspired by the passing of Dark Shadows legend Jonathan Frid, who portrayed Barnabas Collins, arguably the most revolutionary vampire of the 20th century, on the gothic soap during  Dark Shadows’ original late 1960s-early 1970s run. Dark Shadows, and Frid’s characterization of Barnabas Collins in particular, transformed the popular notion of the vampire, turning vampires into romantic, heroic characters rather than horror movie monsters along the lines of Frankenstein and Mr. Hyde.

Dark Shadows did more than just turn Frid’s vampire and co-star David Selby’s werewolf Quentin Collins into sexy romantic leads. Despite its inauspicious beginnings as a half-hour afternoon soap, Dark Shadows became a cultural force, inspiring movies, comic books, records, and an entire genre of books, the Gothic novel.

One of the most popular and enduring of the cottage industries that sprung up around Dark Shadows’ characters was a series of Gothic paperback novels. According to Paperback Library, 33 Dark Shadows books were published between 1966 and 1973. All were authored by Canadian Dan Ross, but published under the pen name Marilyn Ross. Aside from House of Dark Shadows, which was a novelization of the movie of the same name, the Dark Shadows books were a series which featured an alternate storyline/history to that portrayed on the television show.

Like the show, the Dark Shadows books were written in the Gothic vein, although they did not always hew to the conventions of the Gothic-style first person narration and tight focus on the main character/narrator. More Gothic mystery than Gothic romance, the books fell into two categories: the early books featuring a mystery centered on a different Dark Shadows character with each volume, and the later books, which focused on Barnabas Collins and Quentin Collins as a sort-of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, solving paranormal and/or evil villian mysteries.

It’s not pure conjecture to state that Dark Shadows helped fuel the Gothic novel vogue of the 1960s and 1970s. The Gothic genre, which had fallen in and out of fashion like hemlines since the late 1700s, became a big deal in the wake of Dark Shadows’ success. While authors such as Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart had found success with their Gothic romances, publishers began to buy up Gothic stories in droves during the height of Dark Shadows’ popularity.  Many paperback publishers created lines especially for Gothics (including Paperback Library, which published the Dark Shadows novels), and Gothics became so popular during this period that the genre actually featured sub-genres, including historical Gothics, contemporary Gothics, paranormal Gothics, romantic Gothics and Gothic mysteries.

Meanwhile, Dark Shadows covered much of the same territory as the Gothic books published during (and after) its run, featuring mystery storylines, historical storylines set in the Victorian and Colonial periods and romantic storylines in addition to the show’s contemporary paranormal storyline. How influenced authors of Gothics were by Dark Shadows’ storylines and vice-versa is anyone’s guess, but it’s interesting to note that  Dan Ross – writing as Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross and Ann Gilmer, amongst other pseudonyms – published over 300 books (including the Dark Shadows books), many of them Gothics, during the 1960s and 1970s.

But as Dark Shadows’ fortunes went, so did the popularity of Gothic romances. After the cancellation of Dark Shadows in 1971, Gothics managed to hang on to their foothold in the paperback market for several years, but by the end of the 1970s, publication of Gothics had dwindled dramatically, supplanted by the surge in popularity of historical romance, especially that unique 1970s-1980s sub-genre of historical romance, the bodice-ripper. Many authors who’d first found success writing Gothic novels, including Barbara Michaels and Anne Stuart, moved on to subvert Gothic themes into romantic suspense or standard mysteries, while others, such as Mary Kay Simmons, moved on to bodice-rippers or other romance genres. Others simply drifted away.

The current popularity of paranormal romance would seem to create the perfect atmosphere for another Gothic revival, but alas. The one publisher that consistently published Gothics through the 1990s-2000s, Dorchester (under the Love Spell and Candleglow imprints), closed its physical doors in March of this year, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive as an electronic publisher.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Amanda DeWees’ wonderful Sea of Secrets has proven. Enduring Gothic classics, such as those by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt, remain in print. E-books and self-publishing have revived many long-dead genres and writers who’d been unable to find a home with publishers.  There’s also hope that many of the 1960s-1970s Gothics may be republished as e-books; perhaps Gothics will experience the same e-book renaissance as older uber-traditional Regencies, which had slowly been phased out by publishers looking for books with more graphic sexuality and third-person narration, and are now re-emerging in e-book format. Belgrave House, which sprung up just to republish out-of-print books in e-book format, has done a wonderful job of bringing traditional Regencies back, and is beginning to add a few Gothics, as well.

If nothing else, maybe the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp Dark Shadows reboot due out later this year will give new life to this sadly neglected genre. Long live Gothics!


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Book Review: Sea of Secrets by Amanda DeWees

Every one in a great while, you read a book that, in the immortal words of Little Edie Beale, pulverizes you. That book, my friends, is Amanda DeWees’ Sea of Secrets.

I bought Sea of Secrets during one of Smashwords’ sales a few months back, shuttled it off to my Aluratek, and promptly forgot about it. Shame on me, for Sea of Secrets is just what I’ve been wishing for for years now — a return to the true Gothic romances I loved as a teenager.

Gothic romances on the same lines as Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and the Avon and Signets from the 1970s fall in and out of fashion like hemlines. Whereas the Regencies and historicals that I love so well are part of the popular fiction canon, coming out monthly as regular as clockwork, true Gothics  disappear from the landscape for years on end, leaving those of us who love these books scraping the bottom of the used bookstore barrel for a quality vintage Gothic we haven’t already read.

Sea of Secrets is the Gothic I’d been waiting for. Here’s the synopsis, courtesy of Smashwords:

After her brother is killed in the Crimean War, innocent young Oriel Pembroke finds herself alone in the world.

Disowned by the cruel father who has always despised her, she has nowhere to turn until she is taken under the wing of a glamorous relative she never knew: the former Duchess of Ellsworth, who has scandalized society by remarrying soon after her first husband’s death. At the opulent seaside estate of Ellsmere, Oriel thinks she has found a safe haven—but the darkly handsome young duke, Herron, believes otherwise. Haunted by the death of his father, he suspects that Ellsmere is sheltering a murderer.

Even as Oriel falls in love with the duke, she begins to fear that his grief and suspicion are turning to madness. When dangerous accidents start to befall both Herron and Oriel, however, she realizes that someone may be trying to stop them from discovering the truth about the past. And when her father comes back into her life, she learns that he may hold the answer to the most horrifying secret of all…

Now that’s the recipe for a classic Gothic — the only drawback? Sea of Secrets has set such an impossibly high bar, I’m afraid any other new Gothics I find will never be able to meet it!

DeWees employs all the traditional elements of the classic Gothic — first person narration, vast, almost forbidding estate, a dark mystery, a brooding hero, and a heroine in peril — but does so with a literary style that is as accomplished as that of her best-known antecedents: the Brontes and DuMaurier. Anyone who thinks that popular genre fiction (especially romance) is written by talentless hacks need only pick up Sea of Secrets to see how off base that idea is. DeWees has written a book that can proudly sit on a shelf beside the best literary historical fiction of any day.

But DeWees’ highly-literate, historically accurate writing is hardly the only thing to recommend Sea of Secrets. Like any truly successful Gothic, Sea of Secrets is expertly plotted, and DeWees sustains the mystery at the heart of the story throughout most of the book. It’s a testament to DeWees’ talent that she throws out hints to the mystery’s resolution throughout the book, but that most readers will only appreciate them when the mystery is solved.  In most Gothic romances, the romance is less important to the story than the mystery and the sense of danger that permeates the story, and Sea of Secrets acquits itself well in this aspect, too — the love story, such as it is (I don’t want to give too much away!), is incorporated into the book, rather than the focus of the book.

Not to belabor the point, but I cannot recommend Sea of Secrets highly enough. Amanda DeWees’ book has me excited for a genre that I had feared was dead, and I’ll be waiting impatiently for her next book.

Sea of Secrets is available as an e-book at Smashwords (obviously), Barnes and Noble and at Amazon. A print copy is also available at Amazon.

Did you like Sea of Secrets, honeybun? Here are a couple more books like Sea of Secrets:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Shadow of the Lynx by Victoria Holt


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Rediscovered: Theodora Keogh

The mid-century novelist Theodora Keogh’s disappearance  from the popular consciousness demonstrates the difference between books and literature, best-sellers and perennial favorites. Popular fiction – and nonfiction, for that matter – is rarely classic fiction. For every John Updike or Cormac McCarthy, there are dozens of Taylor Caldwells and Cynthia Freemans whose books, for better or for worse, sell well during their era, but are largely forgotten within just a few years. The fact that these books slowly fade from our literary memory is not necessarily an indictment of their quality (although in many cases, it is). Rather, it’s the confluence of several factors: a style that falls from popularity, an author whose momentum is lost, or a subject that seems dated within several years of publication.

Any combination of these factors have acted on Theodora Keogh’s books over the years. Her writing is elegant and modern, even if the pulpy subjects of her books — adolescent girl’s adventures on the mean streets of New York, bored housewife takes brutal lover…

Never mind — let’s read the publisher’s blurb on the back  of Keogh’s The Other Girl:

“She came to Hollywood looking for the answer to the strange hunger in her blood. But not until she met Betty, the tantalizing, voluptuous slut, could she put a name to the passion that was consuming her. The tragic drama of their encounter unwound against the sordid backdrop of Hollywood’s prostitutes and procurers, misfits and rejects–and then exploded in a shocking, and inevitable, climax. “

Contrast that breathless litany with an excerpt from the book:

Almost everyone wore pompadours that year, especially around Hollywood.  Even the men seemed to have a stiff upward swirl on their front locks in timid but stubborn imitation. It was 1946 and World War II was pronounced over.  The West Coast, the sprawl of suburbs around Los Angeles seemed especially suited to this uneasy peace. The crack of atomic doom was like a ringmaster’s whip, forcing to a prance both young and old alike. But Marge did not feel a part of these frantic posturings. No pompadour for her… looking down now on the scurrying women she felt a wave of contempt for those female bodies…

Ah, you know Marge’s contempt does not bode well. After all, you’ve read Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, so you know that a hard nut like Marge is never going to coming to any good.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lurid nature of many of Keogh’s books, the author is going through a renaissance of sorts right now. For some inexplicable reason, all of her books are available on Amazon in ebook format for $1.00 each.

There’s a schizophrenic quality to Keogh’s printed output that makes it easy to see why her best fiction was neglected, while the freak-show pulp books fell by the wayside. Keogh writes with a strange, sometimes uncomfortable intensity; an everyday exchange between two young girls in Meg takes on huge proportions, while in the excerpt above from The Other Girl, Marge establishes herself as a less-than sympathetic narrator within the first chapter through her contempt and coldness toward other women. In the best of Keogh’s books, such as Meg and Street Music, this quality in her writing makes for indelible portraits of ordinary people in bizarre circumstances. But this quality lends itself all too well to the type of pulpy sensationalism that Keogh often wrote, like The Other Girl, The Mistress and The Double Door. Because Keogh was an artist of her type, the line is sometimes so blurred, the veering between ugliness that’s real and ugliness for ugliness’ sake so whiplash-inducing, that she produced a couple books that are either genius or pure trash — The Fascinator is one of these.

Ostensibly the story of a rich New York housewife who falls in love with the Fascinator of the title, a famous sculptor (named Zanic, no less), The Fascinator could almost be a companion piece to The Feminine Mystique, so striking is the similarity between Ellen, the protagonist, and Betty Friedan’s middle class housewives consumed by their ennui. Yet it wouldn’t be a Keogh book if there weren’t disturbing, predatory elements to Zanic that sometimes push the book into pulp territory. In this way, it’s almost an inspiration to The Feminine Mystique, predating that book by ten years (The Fascinator was published in 1954), and unwittingly giving Friedan a cautionary tale for all the bored women whose good educations and bright imaginations have led them into adultery and dissolution rather than careers or creativity.

Keogh authored only a handful of books between the publication of Meg in 1950 and her final book, The Other Girl in 1962. While it’s doubtful that her rediscovery and republication in e-book format will vaunt her books into the American literary canon, Keogh is nonetheless worth reading.


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Book Review: If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley

 If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is the kind of book that’s perfect for reading during your lunch break or while waiting at the doctor’s office — light, engaging non-fiction full of obscure facts and entertaining history that’s great for passing the time without wasting it.

Author Lucy Worsley is a chief curator for Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity organization responsible for such British treasures as the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens.  In If Walls Could Talk, Worsley employs the trivia gleaned from her work to a history of each room of the home and the way these rooms have evolved in use and appearance throughout history.

An excellent example that encapsulates the scope of If Walls Could Talk is Worsley’s description of the humble bedroom closet over the course of several centuries. In ages past, when the bedroom served as a combination office, library, sitting room and sleeping area, the closet was a private area where one could pray, read or study, and store art, valuables or other items not intended for public viewing. Only as the bedroom evolved to a more private space did the closet in turn evolve into mere storage space, or, as Worsley points out, disappear altogether, as the closet did in many British homes from the 17th century to the late 20th century.

Worsley covers each room in the home in such a manner, exploding square footage into the larger historical and social context. A discussion of the bathroom includes the history of indoor plumbing in Britain, while the history of the bedroom includes everything that went on in the bedroom, from sex to childbirth to medical treatments.

If Walls Could Talk may not be un-put-downable, but trust me when I tell you that it will be ages before you look at your closet or flush your toilet without thinking of this book. A compliment of the highest order.

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

By: Lucy Worsley

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Walker & Company

U.S. Release Date: February 28, 2012


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What Are We Hiding on Our E-Readers?

One of many, many reasons why e-readers are so popular.

I read with great interest a blog post on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books earlier this week about a phenomenon I’ve experienced for years but had no name for: reader shaming.  Don’t know what that means? Your e-reader likely does.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, genre fiction — i.e. romance, fantasy, Westerns, vampire porn — accounts for the majority of e-book purchases.  Why? According to the author, Antonia Senior,

Bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that [e-reader’s] plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed…In digital, dross rises.

No wonder blogger SB Sarah at SBTB took umbrage enough at Senior’s article to respond with a blog post titled “Reader Shaming.” Attitudes like Senior’s drive the very trend she reports on — we’re “shamed” into going underground to read anything but best-sellers, award winners, or safely respectable books.

Reader shaming is territory I know well. It all began with a box of Silhoutte and Harlequin romances left behind in a house my family bought when I was a young teenager.

The only reason the box hadn’t been discarded completely was that it was too heavy for my mother to carry and my father kept forgetting to haul it away. My mother, who read Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins and Anne Rivers Siddons, never gave the books a second look; the awful late 1980s-early 1990s covers on the books were all she needed to see. Besides, my mother shunned category romances. One of her sisters, a prodigious reader of category romances, had shelves and shelves full of these books, and my mother would always roll her eyes and say, “I don’t know why she reads that trash, much less why she keeps them.”

One interminably boring weekend, having already read the books I’d brought with me, I started digging through this box of books. Of course I dug furtively; I would have been mortified, had my mother, my father, or worse yet, my brother, caught me even considering reading a Harlequin. I squirreled away about ten or fifteen books that seemed promising, and hid them in a duffel bag.  I read them only behind the locked door of my bedroom.

I stayed up all night that night reading Anne Stuart’s Break the Night. I found out later that Break the Night — and Anne Stuart — were anything but typical for category romances, but I was hooked nevertheless. Having read this book, I couldn’t understand what my mother, and so many others, held against romance novels. Even the less-entralling ones that I plucked out of the box were better written than any Danielle Steel novel, and the better ones, such as those by Anne Stuart, Judith Duncan and Ruth Wind, made much of the “women’s fiction” that my mother read seem amateurish.

Still yet, I hid my stash of romances away. Nor did I become bolder as I grew older; if anything, I was even more ashamed to admit that I liked romance novels as an adult. I found it impossible to reconcile my degree in English with my love of a genre that could produce something called The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable Girl (click the link if you don’t believe me) in earnest. And so began my ridiculous cycle of  hiding my romance novels under beds, dragging them out to read only when I was sure I was alone. I was allowing myself to be reader shamed.

If what Antonia Senior claims is true, that every e-reader in the world is hiding romance and other genre books, then why do I feel embarrassed about allowing myself to be reader shamed? Why, if everyone else is doing it, do I feel like I’m doing a disservice to the romance genre because I refuse to carry around a vintage Anne Stuart or Laura Kinsale paperback, but rarely leave home without my e-reader loaded with their books?

I put part of the blame on romance publishers. For years, romance publishers have marginalized their own product by publishing them with covers that most rational people would find hideous. Even if the covers do not feature scantily clad heroes or heroines, the flowery script and panting book descriptions are enough to make many of us embarrassed to be seen with them. Case in point, the first and a later printing of Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm:

No one would assume, from looking at either cover, that Kinsale’s writing is more accomplished than that of most mainstream novelists, or that the book addresses such themes as mental illness and religion. The Fabio-esque hero on the older cover leads you to expect purple prose; the newer one is just boring.

It’s also hard to negotiate respect for romance novels when publishers continue to publish umpteen Playboy/Sheikh/Cowboy/Virgin/Rake titles every month. It’s not the repetitive nature of the titles that’s the problem — it’s the fact that publishers evidently feel that we, as readers, will accept poor quality writing as long as it’s in a recognizable package. So they perpetuate the prejudices against their books by releasing as many cliched and rehashed titles as they do well-written books. The end result is, of course, that even if you’ve managed to find an awesome Playboy Sheikh novel, you don’t really want to read it in public, knowing that you will have to defend your choice of book.

But I place the majority of the blame for my reader shaming on myself. There’s still a part of me that feels guilty for enjoying romance novels, that feels as though I’m wasting my education by reading these books. This despite the fact that many of the romance novels that I read reference history, classical literature or mythology that requires education to appreciate!

Writers like Antonia Senior who refer to genre fiction as downmarket dross only exacerbate our own reader shaming behaviors by validating for us the prejudices we perceive against the books that we love. They force us farther into the underground territory of our e-book readers, and reinforce to publishers that genre fiction is not worth the type of care that goes into selecting covers and weeding out the foolishness that is standard for mainstream literature.

As for Senior, she, too, is a victim of her own prejudices — the only genre fiction she’ll admit to reading is “male-oriented historical fiction… Swords and sails stuff.” I’m not saying that Senior’s prevaricating, but I wonder if she’d have easily admitted a predilection for bodice-rippers or futuristic romance?

Senior may be snarky, but she’s far from brave. After all, she’s “keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.”  Brave is my aunt, who used the shallow shelves she built herself that lined the stairways in her home, to proudly display her mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s Harlequins, Silhouettes, Candlelights and Avons. While I wish I were that brave, I would like to add that the covers on my aunt’s collection of books were much less hideous.