Sunday, November 27, 2011

Brick and Mortar and Random Musing

Black Friday at Barnes and Noble
Sigh.  I miss my local Borders. I will try to transfer my affection to the B&N, but... I just don't like it as much.  I don't actually know what Borders did wrong; what buying or inventory or pricing practices drove them out of business, or if it was as simple as being too late to the e-selling game.  I hope that doesn't happen to Barnes and Noble.

But still... it's not the same. At Borders, you could find a terminal and look up a book yourself to see if it was in the store, or which section you could find it in, or search on a title to find the author, or search on the author to find the latest title.  At B&N, you have to ask a store worker to do that.  If you can find one (I grudgingly give them a pass for being busy on Black Friday).

At Borders, my pal Andrea made sure that my favorite authors' new releases were available on release day.  She called me to tell me when they arrived.  I realize that this isn't a Borders standard, and other Borders stores were not as good at the release day thing.  But B&N didn't have the new Ilona Andrews, or if they did, I couldn't find it, and I couldn't find someone to help me find it.  Boo.

On the Bright Side
I'm That Auntie, the one that gets you classics instead of the next Disney Fairy throw-away book.  I really love the B&N classics lines, for kids and adults (although I sort of wish the kids' ones were more standardized).  B&N kids' classics are nicely bound and illustrated and priced less than a mass market paperback-- I bought A Little Princess & The Time Machine for the independent younger readers, and Alice in Wonderland and Frankenstein from the adult series for the older readers.  (But I have a curmudgeonly wish that B&N would standardize their bindings and expand the line.)

In any event, I really want that brick and mortar buying experience.  I like browsing.  I like walking around in stacks of books, picking them up, flipping pages.  I actually want the excuse of leaving my house and going someplace else (preferably some place with coffee and chocolate).  I know I could solve the release-day thing by pre-ordering at Amazon, but sometimes my decisions change on the day-of. If it's a big release day, I might put off one author in favor of another.  I have to be a little budget-conscious, so I can't pre-order every release from every author I like. I waffle, and I kind of enjoy the waffling process-- I don't want it to be too automated.

I will probably get an e-reader sometime in the next year or so.  Maybe this year at Christmas.  There are enough of my favorite authors with early e-pub dates, and some intriguing titles that are e-pub only, that I guess it's unavoidable.  But I think I will have to keep making pilgrimages to whatever brick and mortar stores I can find, for the occasional tactile fix.  Whatever happens in the publishing and e-publishing industries in the next ten or twenty years, I expect I'll swing both ways.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Secrets of a Proper Countess, by Lecia Cornwall - Review

So right off, the opening of this book reminded me of this:
The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

"Call me whatever you wish, my lady-- Lancelot, or Tristan, or Romeo. anything will do." His eyes burned into hers from behind his mask. "I am at your service, and I will be whatever and whomever you wish me to be tonight."

Isobel stared at him, spellbound. The room wavered and spun, and all she could see was him, all she could feel was the heat from his eyes, his body. She was melting with desire. Surely she was dreaming. She would wake up in her widow's weeds at Maitland House and realize she'd imagined the whole encounter.

(I'm also tempted to run a quote from a Billy Joel lyric here -- you know the one-- but I decided that would be over the top).

One of the recurring threads in the romance genre is the anonymous encounter, and in historicals, the masquerade is quite popular.  I think I have at least three books within reach right now that employ it.  The adrenaline, the headlong topple into hormonal bliss without all the messy emotional and pragmatic entanglements that inevitably surround an affair--very tempting indeed. The stuff of fantasies, and in some ways, it's a metaphor for why we read romance at all:

The feeling of falling in love is something we want to experience again, and I think readers can do that safely in a book... without giving up the love we have.  -- Julia London, as interviewed by Sarah Wendell
However, messy entanglements make for interesting reading, and like Erica Jong's character, Isobel Maitland doesn't get her zipless fuck either.  She knows that rake under the mask, and her infatuation turns into full-on passion; and while "Lancelot" doesn't know her name, he can't forget her.

Plot and Context
The suspense/mystery plot that draws them together in an ancillary way is deftly woven into each encounter.  I can't say it's the most original mystery ever to bring a widowed countess and a playboy marquess together, and when I first read the blurb and some of the introductory background I was a bit skeptical:
Lady Isobel Maitland cannot afford to be caught doing anything even remotely scandalous, or she risks losing everything she holds dear...

There were strict rules governing her behavior, carefully noted in her husband's will, and enforced by her mother-in-law.

But as I read on, Cornwall constructed a believable and slightly horrifying context. I think it's easy to forget, as a modern reader, how restrictive life could be for women in those times. There are plenty of stories that play fast and loose with these strictures, that set up their protagonists as triumphing over a value set that is not the same as the readers'. This is a story that doesn't let you forget how simple a matter it was in those days to place a woman completely at the mercy of others, who control her financially and through the fate of her son. In her mother-in-law's household, Isobel is surrounded by enemies and spies, and the least wrong step will see her married undesireably or exiled to a remote estate without her son, or possibly worse yet. She is not even permitted to manage her son's education or free time-- this all falls under the jurisdiction of her brother-in-law.

Chemistry and Characters
Isobel is no Mary Sue though, and I loved the way she went after what she wanted. The heat between the protagonists is very hot:
Yasmina. That's all he had, a made-up name. He shook his head, still dumbfounded and searched the dark pavilion for his coat and his cloak. He wasn't usually so easily distracted when he had work to do, but she had been exceptionally diverting.

He found his garments easily, but the telltale buttons took longer. A gardener or guest who found one button would hardly remark upon it.  A scattering of six buttons in such a secluded place screamed scandal.  Phineas Archer was an expert at avoiding scandal.

Unless, of course, he wished to be caught.

He found the buttons and pushed them into his pocket. He pulled his cloak over his gaping breeches and turned to go, and almost tripped over something. It skittered away to hit the wall with a soft chime. He picked it up and carried it into the light. It was the lady's shoe, delicate and encrusted with pearls and embroidery, with a curled-up toe that was hung with a little bell.

Now, see, that's not even the love scene, that's the aftermath. Isn't it wonderful? Some might find the Cinderella touch a little bit of an eyeroll, but I have to say that I loved it.

So the villains in Secrets are a bit over the top, the usual corpulent, scruple-less, crass, grasping, opposite-of-hero types, but overall Cornwall puts together a nice fabric of secondary characters with just the right amount of complexity to keep the plot interesting on a number of levels.

Bottom Line
I really enjoyed this debut; it has all the right ingredients for a satisfying regency: likeable, lively characters with emotional chemistry, heat, and just the right touch of humor; adept ebb and flow of plot and sexual tension; and an effortless command of voice and language and period that's easy to overlook when it's done right. If you've missed this title, I recommend you check it out, and I'm looking forward to The Price of Pleasure, due out in January.

Around the Blogosphere
At Dear Author - not actually a review, but a nice behind-the-scenes tidbit.
The Romance Dish Also not a review, but an entertaining day-in-the-life essay
Romance Addict
Kay's Blog
Love Romances and More
Tracy at Book Binge
Romance Reviews by Alice

(I must say, either Ms. Cornwall's publicist is exceptional or the word of mouth on this title is really a snowball -- there are pages of reviews for this on Google! so here are just a handful)


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