Book Review: The Bookseller’s Tale

Personally, I would never consider moving to Oxford, England. Like Gotham City, it is home to way too many fictional murders. But I love reading about them. Which is why today I have a book review of The Bookseller’s Tale by Ann Swinfen.

The Bookseller’s tale is (spoiler alert) a tale of a Bookseller in medieval Oxford who finds himself sucked into a murder mystery. But the mystery itself is not the most interesting part of this book.

Many historical novels I read use the history as a colorful background, sometimes even as a way to move the plot along. One might, for instance, set a story in revolutionary France and move the plot along by having one’s heroine bear a remarkable and unfortunate resemblance to Marie Antoinette.

Sometimes the setting proscribes the plot so strictly, it can only move in certain directions if it is to maintain structural integrity. Regencies, for instance, focus heavily on the social protocols of a specific subset of British nobility. The rules and whether a hero obeys or flauts them are almost as significant as the actual physical setting.

So I do respect the significance of setting and time in a novel. It’s just that many historical novels can be a bit wearisome in their determination. It’s almost as though the author is trying to demonstrate the depths of her research by using absolutely every jot and tittle of it in the book, whether the information applies or not.

This is not the case with The Bookseller’s Tale which is why it won this week’s book review contest.

Ann Swinfen winds up her characters, places them in a medieval college town just after the plague has backed off, and lets them go the way they must. As a result, the historicity is organic.

Swinfen doesn’t lecture. She just lets the story unfold.

And in the process, the reader develops a fascinating picture of the challenges and also the good things about life during that period.

There are some things I wished for when I was reading. I’m not usually a fan of maps in books, but I would have liked one in this case.

I would also have loved a glossary of some of the terms. Swinfen is good at slipping unfamiliar words in contextually so you can guess what they mean. But that’s not the same as knowing.

I understood cotte was a garment but I had no clue what type. Similarly I was sure pease pudding was food. But I had to look it up to figure out how it might be a sliceable food.

Still, these are minor complaints. Because now I’ve read one, I want to read more. If I’m lucky the next in the series will be illuminated and I can settle down to read it while sipping a stoup of ale.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online. Waiting For You is coming soon.

book review

Book Review: Mistress of Mellyn

Sometimes when you pick a random book off a library shelf, you get lucky. Last week, I wandered toward the H’s. Which is why I’m writing a book review of Mistress of Mellyn.

Victoria Holt was Eleanor Hibbert’s pen name when she was writing gothic novels. But she was also Jean Plaidy (fictionalized historicals) and Phillipa Carr (family sagas). So lots of the romance books I read and loved as a teen and young adult were actually written by the same person.

Mistress of Mellyn was published in 1960 and I was curious to see if time and social changes had impacted on it. Well, yes. And no.

The main character Martha Leigh is an impoverished but intrepid gentlewoman who takes a position at an estate in Cornwall as governess for a troubled child. There is a very nice progression of growth as Martha transitions from embarrassment at and resentment of her low status to fascination with the challenges of working as a governess.

Necessarily (spoiler alert) she falls in love with her boss, the mysterious and crabby Connan TreMellyn, and they live happily ever after.

I know exactly how romantic I would have found Mistress of Mellyn as a teen. Very.

But.

As an adult reader in 2017, I have trouble figuring out just exactly what Martha sees in Connan. I know, I know – tall, dark, handsome, brooding, wealthy Alpha male.

Still, they spend very little time together. Their conversation is limited to arguments about the welfare of the child. He travels for business at the most inconvenient moments. Since they are in different social strata, Holt has to work hard to come up with reasons for them to interact at all.

Their relationship is so distant their first kiss is almost as surprising to the reader as it is to Martha.

Most important, Connan has a significant emotional issue he has to surmount in order to love again and because the story is from Martha’s viewpoint only, we don’t get to see much of his character development.

He’s probably a nice guy underneath it all – hey, Martha likes him. But he’s kind of a standee hero. Which is distressing, because I liked Connan too, in the abstract. I just wish I could have seen more of him.

I guess, from a reader, that’s the ultimate compliment.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online. Waiting For You is coming soon.

book review

Book Review: Heroes Are My Weakness

When I was thirteen, a friend gave me my very first gift certificate – a $10 ticket to happiness at a local bookstore. I bought Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. So last week, when I happened on Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ tribute to gothic romance, Heroes Are My Weakness, I was thrilled to write a book review of it.

Gothic romances are, by their nature, prone to clichés. It’s one of their charms. Also one of their dangers. It’s a short step from a broody, alpha male hero, to an insensitive jerk.

So I couldn’t wait to see what Phillips would do with her story. It was like anticipating a high wire act starring an elephant wearing high heels.

But Phillips takes what could have been a catastrophe and turns it into a triumph. She incorporates all the beloved motifs of gothic romances, the castle on the hill, the slightly off townsfolk, the mysterious man with dark and painful secrets, and gives them the respect they deserve. But she also tweaks them to work for contemporary sensibilities.

As a result, the reader doesn’t have to struggle through page after page of tortured Yorkshire dialect.

Yes, Wuthering Heights, I’m talking about you.

Nor does the obligatory child character make precious remarks in French a la Jane Eyre. Oui. I still remember penciling in the translations in that paperback. It was the first time I ever wrote in a book, a practice so unacceptable in my family as to be almost illegal.

The most fun character in Heroes Are My Weakness is the heroine. Annie is wounded, sure. She wouldn’t be a proper Gothic heroine if she wasn’t. But like Catherine in Wuthering Heights and the eponymous Jane Eyre, she has a sharp wit and a strong sense of self.

Romance plots require a certain enforced proximity. It’s the only way to ensure the two main characters are forced to deal with each other. But in old Gothic romances the heroine is more trapped, more beleaguered than we expect a contemporary heroine to be.

Authors of contemporary Gothics have to work around things like cell phones, fair labor laws and the lack of societal censure for an unmarried woman who hangs around with an unmarried man unchaperoned.

Phillips managed to pull off the best contemporary Gothic I have read. Her elephant not only stays on the tightrope, it never fumbles the chainsaws it is juggling.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

block

Writer’s Block and How Not to Conquer It

Writer’s block is a problem for almost everyone at one point or another. I, for instance, am suffering from it right now. At this very moment, I have no idea what I will write this blog entry about.

I considered current events and lost a half an hour combing through intriguing stories looking for a clue to solve my writer’s block. But the article comparing a newly found dinosaur carcass to the Mona Lisa didn’t do it for me. It would have if the dinosaur had resembled Lisa in any way, but aside from having two eyes and a nose, no.

Then there was an article announcing a new position at NASA for a Planetary Protection Officer. But that article proved less exciting than I had hoped.

Turns out the officer will be in charge of making sure no space microbes make their way to earth and no earth germs make their way to planets we visit.

I had been hoping for laser guns and fancy fighting moves. But it turns out some cleanser and a scrubby pad will do the job.

This has taught me that news articles these days tend to promise more than they deliver.

But I digress. From my writer’s block. No, I don’t have a writer who has a block. Although now I think about it, playing with blocks might not be a bad idea. Or sharpening my pencils. Even the automatic ones.

Because one of the features of writer’s block is a sort of lassitude when it comes to conquering it. I would think that out of sheer stubbornness I would force myself to write a blog entry even if I didn’t have anything of significance to say. But writer’s block is kissing cousins with procrastination.

Brainstorming ideas and writing prompts are tried and true ways to conquer “The Block”. So I sat in front of my keyboard eyeing the blinking curser sullenly. Nothing came.

No problem. There are lots of writing prompts online. I’ll check as soon as I upload this article and let you know if I find anything good.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

mermaids

Mermaids and Their Public Persona

Book Review Wednesday is back and better than ever. Except it happened on Monday which leaves me with nothing to write about today but mermaids.

I live in Rhode Island which seems to be the mermaid capital of the world. Not counting Copenhagen. So maybe it’s the mermaid capital of the United States. I say this because mermaid décor is a thing here.

Mail boxes and fences all over town are decorated with them.

A gas station not too far away has a Rube Goldberg type invention which features, among other moving metal parts a mermaid on a swing flicking her tail saucily in the wind.

Local shops lure tourists with mermaid figurines, mermaid ashtrays, mermaid statuettes in much the same way mermaids are fabled to lure sailors to a salty demise.

Actually, according to legend, the sailors are lured to their demises by mermaids’ singing.

Right.

A whaling ship has been becalmed for days. The sailors are losing their grip. The captain is at his wit’s end. The crew is muttering about a mutiny, until a pair of mermaids swim into view.

The mermaid on the starboard side is wearing an oversized bright yellow rain slicker and is singing with the sweet finesse of Kathleen Battle.

The one on the port side rides the waves silently combing her hair and beckoning coyly. She is dressed, well, like a mermaid.

Which side do you think the sailors will jump off? Me too.

Which raises a basic problem.

If the singing part of the story is an exaggeration, you have to wonder what else mermaid explicators have been lying to us about.

For instance, salt water makes long hair dull, sticky and painful to comb. Which means mermaids have to carry conditioner with them at all times to maintain that silky shine. That never seems to be in the pictures I’ve seen of mermaids.

Or how about what a mermaid eats. She lives in the ocean. At least one of her ancestors is a fish. I’m assuming mermaids aren’t cannibals since none of the pictures show razor sharp teeth, so that leaves seaweed and plankton. Nothing wrong with a sea vegan diet per se, except she wouldn’t have time or energy for lolling about singing and combing. She would be too busy eating.

The biggest issue is the question of what mermaids sing. It has to be mostly a capella although she could tap sea shells for rhythm and blow on a conch shell for emphasis. So that leaves out rock and roll and probably jazz. Brazilian music might work. What do you think?

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

words

Eat Your Words. But Spice Them Up First.

I don’t read cookbooks for pleasure. They are more like lawn mower repair manuals from my perspective – the words are necessary, but rarely inspiring. The exceptions to my disinterest in cookbooks are the ones about bread baking. I can imagine the texture and pull of the loaf when I read bread recipes.

Today, I was dipping into my latest library catch, The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, and found myself fascinated. She lists a dozen unfamiliar words all of which refer to different types of pre-ferments, mixtures of flour, water and yeast which precede the actual dough in some kinds of breads.

She says, “At first these terms put me off, and I was resolved to avoid them in this book, thinking that the all- encompassing term starter was all I really needed, but gradually these special words became familiar friends. This common language serves not only to distinguish the type of starter but also to connect us to a history and family of bread bakers around the world.”

I agree. Some words are exceptionally cool. Sort of like kids you knew in high school who were not only good at everything they applied themselves to but were also friendly, kind and likeable.

Your average hardworking words like Go, or Thing, or About are like this.  Useful, no doubt. In some cases, irreplaceable in their simplicity. They are the basic iceberg lettuce of our conversational salad — not particularly nutritious, infinitely forgettable.

But words like venary, or concentric, or antithesis are the kind of words which you can chew. Mustard green, sun-dried tomato, sourdough sort of words. They fill your mouth with exact flavors. They pull at your teeth, pepper your tongue and compel you to pay attention to their tang and texture.

We need both, of course. There is a place for vague in our speech. The world would be a poorer place without mashed potatoes. Or macaroni and cheese. Or the boring kind of grilled cheese.

But comfort food loses its charm if that’s all we ever eat.

So bring on the levain, the madre blanca, the sponge, the poolish, the altus brat. Because they give our bread and our writing a depth of flavor and make our words ring in the memory like the taste of sourdough on our tongue.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

ravens

Ravens. We’re not winning the brain race, folks.

Ravens and macaques are just the beginning.

I’ve always felt there was something a bit presumptuous in assuming we humans are smarter than animals. Not to mention, self serving. Turns out, according to a recent study, ravens are giving us significant competition.

In an article, Scientific American reports a raven’s ability to postpone gratification is at a four year old human’s level. Which is something we should all worry about. Because I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am personally acquainted with grown up humans who don’t have this capacity.

The implication of this finding is ravens can plan ahead further than we suspected. Ravens don’t have watches. Or calendars. Or multi-page tabbed planners with a zipper ring binder made out of leather. Reasonable, since those binders are pretty inconvenient to fly around with and take up way too much room in the nest.

But just think what they could do if they had those things.

Better yet, maybe instead of banding ravens for scientific study, we should be fitting them with little electronic planners. According to the article, a raven only expects to find a carcass occasionally, so there are a lot of empty hours a raven might choose to fill more productively.

Ravens aren’t the only animals who might benefit from electronic devices. As I write this entry, there is a lawsuit about who owns the rights to selfies taken by a female macaque in Indonesia. The photographer who set up his camera with a remote trigger, says he expected the macaques in the area to find it and play with it.

Personally, I think the question of rights over the selfies is missing the point. The real issue is, shouldn’t all animals have their own electronic devices? If E.T. arrived on earth now, surely he would carry his own cell phone along with him. And if aliens have cell phones, why should our animal citizens do without?

Charging devices in the wild might be a problem, but I hear fireflies and electric eels are considering a merger to create the first Animal Power Company. So maybe not.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

Book Review

Book Review: Meg Cabot’s The Boy Is Back

Book review Wednesday strikes on Thursday. Shaking it up, here.

I haven’t read a lot of graphic novels, but I like the freshness of them. The Boy is BackMeg Cabot’s latest foray into adult romance isn’t exactly a graphic novel, but the format is so much fun it made me laugh out loud.

One of the challenges of writing romances is finding the balance between the way people communicate in books and the way they communicate in real life.

Which is, of course, the point.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”

Fiction writers are encouraged to focus on the extraordinary moments of otherwise ordinary lives. But sometimes it’s a relief to read a book which describes the prosaic with the level of joy and appreciation which The Boy is Back exhibits. There is a pivotal love story but the ordinary life around the couple is almost a third character.

And a very special thank you to Cabot for the family tree at the very beginning of the book. There is a special place on the aggravating book shelf for the other kind.

You know.  The ones in which you struggle through three hundred plus pages trying to remember just how Henry is related to the main character. You only learn he is her long lost step uncle when you stumble on an appendix on page 327.

There must be some readers out there who leaf through a book ahead of time marking appendices and footnotes with unseemly relish. I’m not one of them.

Which makes me wonder about who those people are and what else they do with their time. Dust moldings daily? Fold their dirty laundry before heading to the Laundromat? Use partitioned plates for meals so the green beans don’t touch the mashed potatoes?

I like a sense of organization, but I am well aware it is a losing battle. And I like books which reflect that. Hence this book review.

Cabot cleverly mimics the pace of online communication. It’s not a gimmick – it’s a device. And it’s a believable device. Most of us do communicate this way now, although perhaps not all as intensely as the family in this story does.

And while what she describes in those communications is ordinary life, she does so with such vigor and particularity, it is anything but dull.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

Synopsis

Synopsis Writing: Hate it or Love it?

Why is writing a synopsis so hard? We all grew up doing book reports, summaries of coursework. We all had to study for exams by skimming our class notes. In sifting between the significant items we accumulated from our teachers, we identified the critical information.

So why should it be so difficult to do so with material we wrote ourselves?

I have friends who form their synopses early in the writing process. It’s a great idea. But I find as I write, the initial outline changes form. And soon the manuscript resembles something else entirely.

My initial synopsis always ends up being a terrific description of a romance novel I didn’t write.

But the process of condensing an intricate tale into one page after the manuscript is finished is hard too. Primarily, I think because it feels almost demeaning to the story. We writers work so hard to only use the right words, no more and no less than what the story requires. So reducing our manuscript to the bare bones feels counter intuitive.

But lovely well chosen words are not enough.

Jane Friedman, in her excellent blog article on the intricacies and pitfalls of synopsis writing, points out a synopsis is not intended to be simply a list of plot events. Instead, it should focus on the emotions of the characters as they react to the events and the decisions which grow out of those emotions.

I like this idea, because if I have written my manuscript properly, these things should be self evident to me. Or, to put it another way, maybe if I’m having this much difficulty defining the most important aspects of the manuscript, a reader will too.

Not good.

It’s a mistake to think of the synopsis as an irritating pointless tag on to our creative work.

Delicious use of language is only one part of a manuscript éclair, maybe the layered pastry shell. But character growth and conflict, are the custard filling and the chocolate glaze.

The process of writing a good synopsis allows the author a chance to check if all the ingredients are present. Which is important. Because no one wants an empty éclair.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.

Alterations

Alterations Men Women Children. Really?

It’s a Sign. Of something.

Every week on my way home from the supermarket I drive by an unpretentious dry cleaning establishment. It offers same day service. On the side of the building there is a startling banner which proclaims: Alterations Men Women Children.

It’s not so much the punctuation issue, although that probably is an issue. You know – the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”

It’s the idea one could alter oneself overnight which fascinates me. How convenient.

In one day you could have better eyesight and shinier teeth. You could be taller, shorter, wider, narrower. And the changes would be temporary too, since you could go back the next day and reverse them.

I would like to try out being tall, for instance, although I might like to return to my original height once I had bumped my head too many times.

It might be fun to have wings. Or to be able to jump like a kangaroo. Or to have a tail to hold that extra bag of groceries or to swing from one library stack to another. Clothes might be a problem but the dry cleaner probably offers alterations on clothing too.

But why stop at physical alterations?

I’d love to be better at accounting, for instance. I’m not good at drawing either, but the tailor could alter that. I’d love to speak the world’s languages fluently, to be able to dance like a professional, to throw a baseball one hundred miles an hour. Or to be able to swim like a seal and catch fish in my mouth. Well, maybe not the fish part.

And then there are less positive attributes, like laziness or unwarranted melancholy. I could use an alteration in my mood some days and in my self-discipline on others. Some days, both at once.

But truthfully, even if the drycleaner’s sign was accurate, I wouldn’t take advantage of it. It’s not that I don’t want to change and grow. I do.

But I want to be the agent of that change myself. Being the alterations mistress of me is a lot more fun than having someone else do it. Even if that means I can’t have wings or a tail.

Rose Grey has written three romance novels and is hard at work on a fourth. Wednesday is generally book review day. Unless it isn’t. If you liked this post, come visit the rest of the blog at www.rosegreybooks.com. Hot Pursuit and Not As Advertised are available as ebooks and as paperbacks online.