Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review: The King's Courtesan by Judith James

The latest release by Judith James continues to fulfill the promise hinted at by this talented author’s celebrated debut novel, “Broken Wing,” and further realized by her subsequent historical romance releases.

“The King’s Courtesan,” set in the Restoration era world of Charles II, is an entertaining companion novel to its predecessor, “Libertine’s Kiss.” Once again, Ms. James uses her uncanny insight into the human condition to populate her novels with living, breathing characters whose trials and triumphs make the reader feel emotionally invested in the outcome of the story from page one.

When we first meet Hope Mathews, she is a starry-eyed adolescent dreaming of rescue by a gallant knight, but when we next meet Hope as an adult, she has been the victim of betrayals by those closest to her; beginning with the mother who sold Hope’s innocence to the highest bidder when Hope was fourteen. Despite the circumstances of her life, Hope’s purity of spirit and her beauty attract the attention of Charles Stuart and Hope is elevated to the position of King’s mistress, making her vulnerable to yet another betrayal when Charles decides that it wouldn’t be appropriate to have his notorious mistress residing at court when his Portuguese bride arrives.

Charles conceives of a plan to lend his mistress respectability by marrying her off to a titled gentleman and allowing her to rusticate in the country for a few months, after which Charles intends to recall Hope and her new husband to court, where he will continue his relationship with Hope under the noses of his new queen and Hope’s new husband. The gentleman selected for the honor of providing respectability and a title for the King’s mistress is Captain Robert Nichols, whose private obsession with meting out vengeance upon those responsible for his younger sister Caroline’s death makes him a dangerous choice.

Robert is presented with an offer he literally cannot refuse: marry Hope or permanently forfeit Cressly Manor, his family estate, to his nemesis, the last man still awaiting justice by Robert’s hand for the death of Caroline. An unsuspecting Hope is wed to a reluctantly complicit Robert during a colorful May Day celebration Hope has arranged for Charles’s pleasure, and the marriage is off to a rocky start as the newly married couple undertake the long journey to Cressly Manor. What follows is a poignant story of slowly earned trust, the banishment of old demons, and the healing power of love.

Lisa Marie

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writerly Stuff: A Writers' List of Concerns

The writer awaiting his or her first sale fantasizes about what “the call” will be like. The writer who has made their first sale wonders if they will make a second or a third sale, and so on. There are many things we writers still have in common no matter what stage of the path we’re on.

Let me illustrate what I mean with what I refer to as “A Writer’s List of Concerns”:

Group One: Unpublished (As Yet) Author’s List of Concerns
1-Will I Sell My Novel/When Will I Sell My Novel?
2-Will the agent/contest judge/editor like my story?
3-Will I make any money as a writer?
4-What’s the best way to get my work out there (submit to agents? Enter contests? Ask my published writer friends to put in a good word for me with their publisher?)
5-How do I cope with the ever present voice of self-doubt that whispers, “Should I even be trying to do this? Am I a terrible writer?”

Group Two: Published Author’s List of Concerns
1-Will my next novel sell/When Will I Sell My Next Novel?
2-Will my agent/editor like this new story?
3-Will I ever be able to make a living as a writer?
4-What’s the best way to make readers aware I have a book out? (Visit bookstores? Advertise? Make a nuisance of myself on Yahoo groups, Message Boards, Blogs, and Forums?)
5-How do I cope with the ever present voice of self-doubt that whispers, “I’m sure that first/second sale was a fluke! I’m a terrible writer! Just look at some of the reviews!”

Group Three: Highly Successful, Award-Winning, Best Selling Author List of Concerns
1-How on earth am I going to meet these deadlines?
2-What will my reader base think of my new book(s)? Will I lose readers because my publisher has asked me to write for the current hot trend, and I’m just not feeling it, even though I have a deadline?
3-Help! I need a good accountant to assist with tax planning so I can keep some of the money I’m making!
4-How do I keep all my readers happy? I can’t write books fast enough!!
5-How do I cope with the ever present voice of self-doubt that whispers, “One of these days the world will figure out that I can’t do this. I’m a terrible writer!”

As an author, I am wedged in the precipice between the second and third groups, although I’m newly published enough to remember what was on my mind while waiting for that first sale, and I’ve realized that the concerns I have today echo some of the same concerns I had before my first sale, and that fact is probably not going to change.

My advice to all of us would be to savor the sweetness of the journey and take time to celebrate the milestones along the way. Don’t forget to celebrate when you get “The Call” because that moment in your journey will be hard to eclipse, no matter what career heights you might attain after that. And save those first fan e-mails or fan letters forwarded to you by your publisher. I’ve saved all of mine, and they really help when dealing with item #5 on the list of concerns.

Lisa Marie

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Writerly Stuff: Thoughts on Writing the "Outside the Box" Historical Romance

The following Q&A paraphrases questions and answers that often come up in discussion, whether during an interview, or in conversations with other authors.

Why write historical romances set in unusual times and places?

I am intrigued by stories written outside conventional settings because these novels can encompass more than just infrequently explored eras and out of the ordinary physical settings. They can also embrace different cultures and other elements that are not found in the majority of historical romance novels, allowing the writer more freedom and the reader more selection.

I didn’t consciously select the early 18th century as the setting of my debut novel, Fire at Midnight. The novel’s plot is tied to an historical event (the Great Storm) that took place in 1703, but once I became engaged in researching the famous Eddystone lighthouse that was swept away during the storm, it became apparent to me that less frequently portrayed times and places are a relatively untapped source for intriguing ideas.

As a reader, I love to learn about history and explore other cultures, so it was a natural progression for me to write novels that include times, places, and even cultures that have received less exposure than others.

What are some challenges in writing a historical romance?

One challenge is research. Some eras and settings are easy to research due to the vast amount of information available. For example, there are a number of authoritative experts and websites dedicated to the Regency era and the American Civil War and Restoration periods, but the more obscure the time and setting, the more difficult it can be to unearth useful information. While most writers will tell you that only a fraction of their research actually shows up in the pages of their novels; it’s easy enough for a reader to spot a novel with an historical setting that hasn’t been well-researched. It is very often the trivial details encountered during the author’s exploration of the era or setting that will lend realism to the completed novel.

My second novel, Stolen Promise, features Romany (Gypsy) characters. The challenge for me in writing a culture-based historical romance was to move away from stereotypes often presented with regard to the Romany people. The vast amount of research I conducted in order to present the Gypsy characters as faithfully as possible took more time and effort than I had initially anticipated, but several scenes in the book were enhanced by the knowledge I had acquired about the Romany culture and customs. Without doing the research necessary to present the characters honestly, I might have written an historical romance that simply continued to perpetuate cultural myths.

The ability to balance the amount of history woven into the story so that it does not overwhelm the romance element is another challenge. Some romance readers enjoy the flavor provided by the historical framework, but they don’t want a history lesson, while there is another faction of readers who are avid students of history who prefer that the romance element be a factor—but not the focal point—of the story. It’s not easy to appease both camps, and I’m in awe of the writer who can accomplish such a feat.

Another challenge is selling the romance. It’s a leap of faith to write any book with the hope of publication, but the author who chooses an era or setting that isn’t among those considered marketable by publishers is taking that leap off the deep end. There is still a strong conviction among publishers that readers prefer certain eras and settings to the exclusion of others.

While we do seem to go through cycles where publishers are more willing (and can afford) to take risks with unusual settings, it is still easier to obtain editor or agent interest in a book with (for example) a Regency setting than it is in a novel set during the Bronze Age. Still, even knowing that a sale might be made more difficult due to an unusual time period or setting, most historical romance authors won’t be deterred from pursuing an idea they find interesting, and this is as it should be. In the end, if the story holds the reader’s interest and features characters the reader cares about, the book will find a publisher.

The writer of an historical romance featuring an unusual setting faces the same challenges any writer faces: how to create a well-paced piece of fiction with believable characters that will keep a reader engrossed and turning the pages until they reach “The End.”

What strategies do you use to overcome these challenges?

I avoid investing time in developing ideas that don’t make me feel enthusiastic about the project because there is so much time and effort involved in researching and writing a novel that if I don’t love the idea going in, it will be very difficult to sustain interest for the length of time it takes to complete a 400 page manuscript, and I have even less hope of engaging a reader if I’m not excited about the story.

This is especially true in the research phase because if it feels like I’m preparing to write a paper for a college course, the end result is going to be about as fascinating to the reader. I look for something unique in terms of era, setting, or plot idea that stimulates my imagination and makes me want to do the research.
The ratio of history-to-romance really depends upon the setting of the story because some novels may require more narrative explaining the historical context than others, so that the reader can have better insight into character goals and motivations. For example, some background about the Civil War will be needed to set the stage for a novel featuring two brothers divided by war, one fighting for the North and the other for the South.

When it comes to pitching a novel to an agent or editor, I think the best strategy is to know the marketplace. There are smaller publishers who are risk-takers and there are editors and agents who will champion a story they believe in, even when they feel it might be difficult to market. It is important to keep abreast of changes, and to know the players because they change frequently.

When reading a historical romance, what annoys you as a reader?

I don’t enjoy reading what could just as easily be a contemporary plot that has been dressed in a corset and plunked down in the middle of Regency England. People in 1810 behaved very differently than they do in 2010, and if the novel doesn’t reflect the customs and mores of the time period in which it’s set, I think the author has short-changed his or her readers by not doing the amount of research required to lend authenticity to the novel.

My personal pet peeve is when I come across phrases in dialogue that are too modern to fit the historical setting. While I appreciate not being required to slog through Middle English just for the sake of realism, I’m easily thrown out of a story when I come across phrases that don’t feel natural or believable, or contain slang terms that weren’t in use at the time. I don’t want to read dialogue where an early nineteenth century character tells another character to “stop dissin’ me!”

Lisa Marie

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Annual Brenda Novak Online Auction for Diabetes Research

I have the opportunity again this year to provide auction items for the wonderful annual charity event organized by author Brenda Novak.

The auction is offering opportunities to bid on fabulous prizes this year, including:

• One Night Stay at NYTimes Bestselling Author Nora Roberts' Inn

• A Writer's Perfect Getaway (for up to 6) at NYTimes Bestselling Author Cherry Adair's Guest House

• 3 Night Stay in NYTimes Bestselling Author Susan Wiggs' Guest House

• Fabulous Stays in Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, and Mexico

• Lots of Electronics...Kindles, Nooks, and even an iPad

• Lunches with Bestselling Authors Suzanne Brockmann, Diana Gabaldon, Karen Rose, Carla Neggers, Steve Barry and more!

Many authors (like yours truly) are offering signed books and manuscript critiques. I hope you will check out my auction items in particular because I’d like to help raise money for this great cause, and the more I can help raise, the better I’ll feel.

Why? Because this year, diabetes has become horribly personal. As I compose this blog, my sister Christina lies in the Critical Care Unit of our local hospital with double pneumonia, her breathing assisted by a ventilator. The pneumonia is a complication that occurred two days after she was transferred to a physical rehabilitation center following the amputation of her left leg, which became necessary after an ulcer on her foot became infected and seeded infection into her bloodstream.

My sister Christina is a diabetic, and I have seen the ravages of this disease through her eyes and suffered the anguish of sitting by her bedside this last week, watching a machine breathe for her and searching for hope in the faces of a hospital staff who are understandably guarded concerning the prognosis of the critical patient in their care.

I want to put on my steel-toed shoes and kick this disease in the butt. I hope you will help me. Please visit the auction site, find something among the many offered items that interests you, and BID!

Lisa Marie

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: Precious and Fragile Things by Megan Hart

As a reader, the key to my being able to enjoy a story often hinges upon whether I can muster empathy for characters with whom I cannot identify through common experience or moral/ethical attitudes.

I found Gilly Solomon, the protagonist in Precious and Fragile Things, unlikeable at the onset of the book, and my opinion of her had not improved by the final page. Gilly is on her way home with her two small children during a snowstorm when she and her children are suddenly carjacked by a knife-yielding young man. Gilly’s reaction to the event is odd, to say the least. Prior to being faced with sudden peril, Gilly had been ruminating about motherhood and the dull, thankless routine her life had become.

Gilly manages to protect her children by engineering a crash and forcing her children out into the snow through an open car window, at which point her captor orders her to keep driving, which she does without hesitation.

When her captor forces her to stop at a gas station and deliberately provides her with an opportunity to escape, Gilly remains in the car, not because she’s paralyzed by fear, but because she’s so sick of the rigors of motherhood that the temptation to see how her current situation might play out is simply too strong to resist. I had a difficult time finding a kernel of credibility in Gilly’s reaction. Would even the most harried of caregivers risk her life in this manner? Would a mother court death and risk abandoning her children permanently just because she feels like an unappreciated floor-scrubbing, laundry-sorting automaton?

These basic questions formed a struggle within me as I continued to read, and for me, the book played out like a claustrophobic sleep-over that lasted several months as captor Todd and hostage Gilly were trapped in a remote mountainous cabin by a particularly harsh winter. Gilly comes across as extremely immature at times, complete with temper tantrums, making her captor seem less menacing by comparison than the author might have intended, although the real issue with the Todd character is that he remains two-dimensional throughout the book.

Gilly experiences some guilt pangs and renewed feelings of love for her children once it has been clearly established that there will be no hope of escaping Todd until the winter snows thaw with the arrival of spring. My problem as a reader was that I never fully believed Gilly’s reversal, and as the dark secrets held by her captor Todd were gradually revealed, the sympathy I wanted so much to reserve for Gilly’s predicament shifted to the chain-smoking, enigmatic young man who had caused her plight in the first place.

Todd Blauch is the tragic figure in Precious and Fragile Things, while Gilly comes across (at least to this reader) as a selfish, neurotic brat with a foul temper. Although the novel is a fair entry into the contemporary suspense category, readers who want a more engrossing read based upon the captor/captive theme should try The Collector by John Fowles or Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

Lisa Marie

Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: Unveiled by Courtney Milan

In 1837 England, battle lines are being drawn in a fight for a dukedom. Ash Turner, a distant cousin of the ailing Duke of Parford, has petitioned Parliament with proof that he is the legitimate heir, leaving the current Duke’s grown children, Lady Anna Margaret and her two brothers, to face the scorn of society and a bleak future as bastards.

While her brothers race to rally votes on their behalf in an upcoming Parliamentary session, Anna Margaret remains at Parford Manor and assumes the identity of nurse Margaret Lowell, with instructions to spy on the man attempting to steal their birthright.

Expecting a cold-hearted, ruthless opportunist, Anna Margaret is surprised to discover Ash Turner is a kind, intelligent man who harbors a grudge against her father. The more she learns about Ash and the injustices his family has suffered, the more difficult maintaining her familial loyalty to her brothers becomes, especially when Ash reveals a personal secret to Anna Margaret that could result in his own destruction.

Unveiled is one of those rare books where the human heart is revealed in all its complexity and the relationship between the hero and heroine develops in a believable, completely satisfying way. Major themes such as self-image, loyalty and trust are explored, and author Milan handles the intricacies of the English courts system of that period with a deft hand.

The only thing that keeps Unveiled from being a solid 5-star read is that it was difficult to believe Ash failed to guess nurse Margaret’s identity, despite the number of hints that were dropped and the fact that most of Ash’s business dealings were based upon his strong instincts and insight into people.

Lisa Marie

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