MYSTERIES TO ENJOY

I made the comment last week that I read more mystery than romance. Someone suggested that I write about some of my favorite mystery authors. I will gladly do so and look forward to your comments and perhaps your own recommendations. I don’t think I could run out of reading material if I had five lifetimes, but I am always willing to try new books and authors if I like the sound of them. Sometimes I wish I didn’t like the sound of quite as many as I do! 

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I like a lot of British mystery authors, including many of the older ones. It is fun watching detectives and amateur sleuths solving puzzles without any of our modern resources. I am gradually (re)reading through Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books and will get to the Hercule Poirot ones again after those. Someone mentioned Patricia Wentworth on Facebook a while ago, and I am reading my way through her books and thoroughly enjoying them. They are not unlike the Agatha Christies. The Ngaio Marsh books are waiting in the wings to be read again. And I love the Georgette Heyer mysteries almost as much as I love her Regency and Georgian romances. Lord Peter Wimsey of the Dorothy Sayers mysteries is one of my favorite characters in all literature. I love the P. D. James Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, largely because they are beautifully written, and I like what I have read of Ruth Rendell–I have much to catch up on there. The M. C. Beaton Hamish Macbeth books are lightweight but fun. Often when I am between books and don’t quite know what I want to read, I’ll search out the next of those on my list and load it into my KIndle.

I have some American favorite mystery writers though I tend to shy away from many of the grittier, more brutally violent books. I love the Lee Child books despite the question of hygiene (those of you who know them will also know what I mean). And I try to close my mind to the knowledge that–bizarrely–Tom Cruise was chosen to play Jack Reacher in the first movie. I enjoy Richard Stevenson’s Donald Strachey books and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series. Michael Connelly has been a long-time favorite, particularly because I like his characterization of Harry Bosch and, to a slightly lesser degree, of Mickey Haller. I like the Robert Parker books, and I love Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, mainly because of the snappy style in which they were written.

Goodness, this is getting to be a lengthy list. My most recent favorites are similar to each other in many ways. I have recently discovered Donna Leon’s Brunetti mysteries, set in Venice. I love it when I come late to a series and know that I have many hours of wonderful reading ahead of me. And I adore Louise Penny’s Gamache series, set in Quebec. The mysteries are great, but it is the characterization that makes the series outstanding. There are many recurring characters, all of them total individuals who grow and change with each book.

A few people last week suggested that I might enjoy Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries. I had read and enjoyed another of her books, but not this series. I am currently reading the first, Silent in the Grave, and enjoying it immensely. I love the wit with which it is written and the character of Lady Jane herself. I am delighted that there is a whole series awaiting me.

I could probably go on and on, but it is your turn. Do you have any comments on any of the writers or series I have mentioned? Do you have any favorites of your own? Or are there other genres you prefer to mystery or romance? I do not, by the way, like the genre known as romantic suspense. I like a romance or a mystery. With a few exceptions, I get irritated when the two are mixed together. The romance tends to slow down the mystery, and the mystery takes the focus off the growing love story.

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Since we are headed into December, I’ll give away Christmas books this week. To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of next Friday, December 6, I’ll send signed copies of the two-in-one CHRISTMAS BEAU/CHRISTMAS BRIDE and of A CHRISTMAS PROMISE. Last week’s winner was Jadi (last name not known yet). Congratulations to her and thank you all for the really interesting comments.

WHAT’S WITH ROMANCE THESE DAYS?

My blog may be a bit controversial this week, but I will be interested to hear what you have to say.

I don’t read much romance. Yes, I know! There are two main reasons: (a) Reading romance is too much like what I do for a living each day. I prefer to relax with a mystery or mainstream read. (b) I don’t want to be influenced by what I read into following any trends or–worse–unconsciously plagiarizing. I prefer to follow my own vision. I have nothing against romance as a genre (obviously!) and I do actually read some. If an author is tried and true, I will read her books. If I read a review that catches my attention, I may try the book. And if I am asked to read a book with a view to recommending it, I will do it. And let me stress that I am more often than not happy with what I read and eager to come back for more from that particular author. BUT…

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Oh, there is a but, and it has little to do with the picture above, which I actually love and find very romantic. All too often these days I am finding that romances are filled cover-to-cover with sexual tension and sexual innuendo and sex, sex, sex. It is as if too many writers have been to too many workshops where they have heard how important these elements are to a romance and how to achieve the desired effect. I am finding characters who are literally panting for each other every time they set eyes upon each other–and even sometimes when they don’t. I find heroes getting erections all over the place and heroines  having the feminine equivalent. I find authors who use every excuse they can think of to get their characters in bed with each other, and even when this can’t be done, then said characters are imagining having sex–in excruciating, graphic detail. And this applies even to historicals, even to Regency heroes and heroines. These characters are totally sex-mad. They are addicted to sex. They need to be in rehabilitation! And I am not even exaggerating too, too much. Is it just me? Have I just happened to hit upon the few books like this that are out there? Or is this the trend now in romance? And I won’t even get into cover art, for which the authors are not always or even often responsible.

Is this what readers want? Is this what authors are being urged to write? What is it with authors of romance these days? (Not all, I repeat!). Romance novels, very generally speaking, should have the three components of sex, romance, and love. Sex is very much a part of a romantic relationship and certainly has its place in a love story. But what about the sheer romance that can make a novel utterly magical? And incidentally it is the romance of a relationship that has given its name to the whole genre. What is romantic about two characters who have the unrelenting hots for each other, even when they scarcely know each other or are caught in a dangerous, potentially life-threatening situation? And what about love? Is the assumption being made that when two characters have had a certain amount of sex with each other and perfected the art of giving and receiving orgasms ad infinitum they therefore love each other and will live happily ever after? What about the gradual building of a real love relationship, moving through romance and sex to something steady and wonderful and likely to last for an eternity?

Give me a wondrously romantic love story any day of the week, even if the most daring foray it makes into sex is a kiss the hero feathers over the heroine’s fingertips (Georgette Heyer’s Frederika) rather than the endless sex romps that sometimes (or maybe often?) intrude into the genre. Right, your turn. What do you have to say? And do feel free to really disagree with me!

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THE ARRANGEMENT (yes, with one of those covers) was chosen this week by Library Journal as one of the best romances of 2013. To celebrate, I will send signed copies of both THE PROPOSAL and THE ARRANGEMENT to two people who leave a comment below before the end of next Friday, November 29. Last week’s winner was LuAnn Wherry. Congratulations to her.

THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE?

Marshall McLuhan once famously wrote that the medium is the message. I must confess that I have not read his work so can’t speak with any authority on what exactly he meant. But I take his words to mean that the medium (book, film, marble, canvas, etc.) and the message (written story, visual story, sculpture, painting, etc) are one and the same thing. Perhaps he had a point!

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I used this poster on my Facebook page a few days ago, expecting a discussion on how central a hobby reading is to various people. I got that, but I also got a discussion of whether books are better than e-books. I get this a lot on my Facebook page. Many readers make a distinction between the two–and if there is one, well, it goes without saying that books are better. What are we actually saying, though, when we reason this way? That e-books are not books? But the paper book and the electronic book are just two different media to convey the same experience, aren’t they–the reading of a story? Aren’t the medium and the message different things after all?

We can certainly have our preference between the two. Some of us prefer paper books to the exclusion of all else. Some of us far prefer the electronic book. And some like the audio book best of all. I am not fond of audio books, mainly because I can’t concentrate on the sound of someone else’s voice in my head. It has to be my own voice. But I love both paper books and electronic ones. I love the look and feel of paper books as well as the smell and the ease of flicking from page to page to check names or details. I love the look of books on tables and in bookcases. I love bookstores and cover art. On the other hand, I love the convenience of my Kindle–its light weight, the facts that I can carry a whole library around with me anywhere in the world and that I can read it one-handed. I like to be able to vary the size of the print and not to have to worry about overflowing bookcases. I love being able to select a new book right on the device and being able to start reading it within minutes.

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What really surprises me is the passion with which some people conduct the debate as if there is a right or wrong answer to the question of which medium is better and as if everyone who reads via the other medium is just simply wrong. Yet each medium presents the same story for the enjoyment of the reader. Several months ago I even had a scolding on my Facebook page from someone who called me a hypocrite for doing my reading on Kindle when I expected other readers to buy my paper books. Huh? As the poster above says, does it really matter how we read, only that we do read? I am very thankful that I am still surrounded by many of my books in physical form, including those in the two large bookcases in my bedroom. I am equally thankful that my book purchases no longer have to depend upon rare trips to the city and the nearest bookstore 100 miles away. I had to ration my reading in those days.

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I will be interested to read your comments on this topic. And I must say a special thank you for all the thoughtful and fascinating comments you made on last week’s blog. The three winners of my Christmas book are Katherine Martell, Stacey Altavilla, and Anita H . Since that book, A CHRISTMAS PROMISE, is still not out in this new edition, I’ll offer it again this week to one person who leaves a comment below.

THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?

Which did come first? Does anyone know for certain? Or is it just a matter of opinion? Hmm. I can’t say I lose much sleep pondering the answer to this particular question. But here’s another. Do people become readers partly because they feel a deep empathy for all people, regardless of gender, race, religion, or condition in life? Or do they develop empathy because they are readers? Or am I simply begging the questions here? Are readers perhaps no more willing to sympathize with or at least understand characters who do not fit the moral or societal norm than non-readers?

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For as far back as I can remember I have had the ability to put myself into the body and mind and soul of almost anyone (yes, there are a few exceptions, which I won’t go into here). I can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. I can make the imaginative leap into the plight of someone who is blind or deaf or traumatized by war or destitute or abused or exceptionally beautiful or gifted or wealthy or powerful or popular. At least, I think I can, and usually if I have taken a particular risk in a certain book someone who knows will let me know that I got it right. I remember the first time a man asked to read one of my books. I was horribly dismayed–he was a very well-educated man–but I could hardly say no. I was enormously relieved when he commented afterward that I had got the hero’s point of view right. I say all this not to boast, and some may disagree anyway, but to make the point that I think it is essential for a writer to be able to identify with all types, to show them as they are without judgment, not all white or  all black but of varying shades (not necessarily 50) of gray.  I think writers almost have a duty to show who their characters are, where they come from, why they think and speak and behave as they do–and to make it seem real. You won’t find many unredeemable villains in my books or many (if any) faultless heroes and heroines. Often the villain in one of my books will be the hero or heroine of another.

Any writer ought to present life as it is, even if it is couched in fantasy or science fiction or–gasp!–romance. We should be able to feel after we have read a book that we have looked a little more deeply into life than we had before we read it. Which is not to say that we cannot read for pure pleasure too. Who decided that there was a difference between serious literature and literature for pleasure?

And what about the reader? Is it possible to be an avid reader and yet be rigidly judgmental about people? I am really not quite sure of the answer–maybe some of you will have something to say in your comments. I can remember as a teacher coming across set attitudes that could not be shifted. Macbeth leaps to mind as an example. Some students could simply not accept Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as tragic figures who had done a terrible evil but were not inherently evil in themselves. I had to accept their right to their opinions, of course, and I could always understand their point of view. But it amazed me too that they could not climb inside the minds of the Macbeths to feel the agony there. (I am not saying that agony was not deserved–and that is really the whole point!) I wish I could know how many of those students became lifelong readers. Perhaps they all did and there goes my theory! Or perhaps, if they did continue to read, they came to see that good and evil are not such simple concepts as they may seem.

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I have finally had my copies of A CHRISTMAS PROMISE with the new cover. Apparently the publication date was put back to November 26 but no one thought to let me know! So these are still advance copies though the book itself is not new. Let me celebrate by sending a copy each to three of you who make a comment below before the end of next Friday, November 15. Last week’s winner was Cindy O’Hearn. Congratulations to her, and thanks to all of you who left comments.

THE POWER OF THE SPOKEN WORD

I showed the picture below on my Facebook page a few days ago. I suppose that, unlike the witch on her broomstick, most of us think before we speak ninety-nine times out of a hundred. But I’m sure all of us have experienced that one hundredth time. It can cause embarrassment, pain, and guilt, not to mention the fervent wish that we could bite out our tongue. But the trouble with the spoken word is that it cannot be recalled once it is out there, not when there is someone to hear it anyway.

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The written word can be just as fraught with danger and just as unforgiving in an age of constant texting, twittering, and firing off emails and comments on social media sites. In many case, though, we are far more likely when writing to think and ponder and choose our words with care and revise things before we send off the result for someone else’s eyes. This is especially true of the writer of stories and books. We can change our characters’ words and actions, even their thoughts, as often as we choose. If we don’t like something they say, we can simply erase it and get them to say what we want them to say. After all, we are their creator. They have no existence without us. We are in control. Right?

Well, yes–but also no! I know I am not unique in this–I talk to other writers and we often experience the same things. We may create our characters from nothing, but pretty soon they are separate beings with a will of their own, and they decide what they are going to say and do in the course of their story. This is why I find it impossible to plan a book ahead of time. And writing a synopsis? Forget it! I never know what is going to come out of my characters’ mouths when they begin to talk. I can set a conversation in motion and often do so as I love writing dialogue, but then I just sort of sit back and let them have at it. Often the conversation goes off in a direction I had not anticipated. And often what is said changes the course of the book and establishes a theme and a message I did not see coming.

In a book I recently finished writing, for example (it is not published yet), I had vaguely planned a relationship in which seduction and a brief affair and its consequences would lead to a deeper relationship and ultimate marriage. However, when I got my hero and heroine into conversation several times early in the book, each time obligingly putting them into invitingly private settings, would they cooperate? Not a bit of it! Before I knew it, my hero was blurting out an asinine marriage proposal and I had to decide whether to erase his words and order him back to a more serious seduction or let him have his way. But letting him have his way totally negated everything I had half planned for the remaining two-thirds of the book. I let him have his way! Sometimes when words have been spoken aloud, even within the pages of a book, they just have to be allowed to stand. The story must be changed instead.

A long time ago, when I was writing The Notorious Rake, a totally unimportant minor character, friend of Mary Gregg, the heroine, was warning her against the hero, Lord Edmond Waite, and asked her if she realized he had killed his mother and brother. I swear those words just appeared on the screen before my eyes. I had no idea she was about to say that. The words horrified me and terrified me. I think I felt as Pandora felt when she opened that forbidden box. Of course, I was more fortunate than Pandora–all I had to do to put matters right was delete the words and carry on with my story of a perfectly stereotypical rake who needed to be redeemed by the power of love. But I had the feeling that the friend must know something I didn’t, so I kept her words. And they turned out to be the key to the hero’s character and the whole story. Lord Edmond Waite is still one of my favorite, most complex heroes. Did he kill his mother and brother? Well, yes–and no…

notoriousrake4counterfeit-notorious4The spoken word, it seems, has a power of its own whether the speaker is a real person or a fictional character. Who will ever forget the words Mr, Darcy spoke in his first marriage proposal to Elizabeth Bennet? Ouch!

To one person who leaves a comment below before the end of next Friday, November 8, I will send a copy of the two-in-one republication of A COUNTERFEIT BETROTHAL and THE NOTORIOUS RAKE. Last week’s winner of two Christmas books was Rhiannon Copper. She was unable to leave a comment on my web site and let me know on my Facebook page. I entered her name in the draw anyway, and by pure chance hers was the name that got drawn!