Thursday, November 11, 2010

Publishers Weekly Top 100 Books of 2010

It's an annual event. Publishers Weekly announces what they consider to be the best 100 books of the year.

What was fun was to see that out of the 100 books of all kinds, romance got 5 slots. What was astonishing, at least to me, was that my first historical romance, BARELY A LADY, was named one of the top 5. I'm still trying to believe it. I'm so psyched to be in such amazing company. Two of the other books are already on my keeper shelf. To say I'm honored would be an example of how, even as rich as the English language is, it is limited. Wow. Just wow.

Here's the more fun part. Joanne Bourne, one of the other authors on the romance list(and an amazing author. I love her work) mentioned on her blog that Rose Fox, on her blog, Genreville, gives us an inside look into the process, including the top 5 romances and the 5 who came really close. It's great reading. I'm including just the list here. If you want an introduction into romance, I can't think of a better list. I know that I'll search out the ones I've missed.

Top Five:

The Forbidden Rose
Joanna Bourne (Berkley Sensation)
In mid-revolution France, a noblewoman and a spy are torn between wartime practicality and headstrong passion. The gripping espionage story and wry voiceovers from the heroine will win hearts.

The Iron Duke
Meljean Brook (Berkley)
Brook's fabulous steampunk tale has an iron-boned war hero and a half-Asian detective inspector matching wits and wills on airships and battleships and in smoke-choked London as England recovers from 200 years of Mongol rule.

The Heir
Grace Burrowes (Sourcebooks Casablanca)
Burrowes pulls off an improbable Regency affair between a spoiled ducal heir and a housekeeper with a secret.

Barely a Lady
Eileen Dreyer (Grand Central/Forever)
The wartime amnesia romance is as old as the hills, but RWA Hall of Famer Dreyer (aka Kathleen Korbel) makes this one work.

Trial by Desire
Courtney Milan (HQN)
Modern readers will be as intrigued by the Victorian-era political issues as they are by the central story of a man trying to reconnect with the wife he abandoned.

And the rest of the top 10:

Proof by Seduction,
Courtney Milan
A stunning debut Victorian that very nearly made the top list, outclassed only by its sequel.

(my note: how good do you have to be to rate 1 slots in the top 10? I agree, too. Love Courtney Milan)

Whisper of Scandal,
Nicola Cornick
An adventure story wrapped around a heartbreaking tale of a woman rendered barren by her husband’s beatings.

Last Night’s Scandal,
Loretta Chase:

The hilarious and adorable story of two rapscallions renovating a haunted Scottish castle.

Marry Me,
Jo Goodman:
A moving 19th century American romance with tons of interesting period medical detail.

ZoĆ« Archer’s
Cranks up the Indiana Jones–style adventure to 11 and then piles on the sexy heat.

Welcome to Harmony
Jodi Thomas
Contemporary Western, is a really lovely meditation on what it means to be family.

No Chance,
Christy Reece
series kickoff is an exemplary romantic suspense novel with a fabulous self-saving heroine.

So, my friends who've come over from suspenseland or the small town of mystery, even the universe of science fiction, here's a great way to dip your toes into romance, just to see what you think. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Now, back to the champagne and chocolates....

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Probably the most frequent question I'm asked. And wish I could give people a better answer than “everywhere.” But I'm afraid that's the truth. Maybe if I tell you about how my latest idea is forming, you might get a better idea.

I'm working on a series of historical romance set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In my series (because I love nothing more than a little suspense), there are nefarious spies, who, in the third book, commit my heroine Kate in an insane asylum. Not a good thing for her, certainly. But as I was writing the scene, I realized something important. This isn't a normal insane asylum. This asylum is controlled by the nefarious spies, who really think they are working for a good cause. If some people have to be kept constrained until the bad guys gain control, well, so it must be.

But, as often happens, once I have one new idea, several more follow. I realized that while Kate is in this asylum, Kate hears about another woman kept there; a woman who has been committed because she threatened to turn her husband over to the authorities for his part in an attempt to overthrow the government. And for a while, that was all I knew. Except I had the nagging suspicion that this mysterious woman would end up with a book of her own.

Cut to Venice. I'm sitting on the balcony of my B&B overlooking the Canereggio Canal, and suddenly a voice comes into my head. It's of a woman in exile from her homeland, smuggled away to Italy to recover from incarceration. Her health has been fragile, but the beauty of La Serenissima has begun to heal her.

Still, she is hundreds of miles from her children. She has a husband she may not have loved, but certainly respected. She knows that he believes he is acting for the best, that her commitment was, in his mind, to protect her, because if he hadn't been able to contain her she certainly would have been murdered. She simply knows too much.

She still knows too much. She is still a threat to the group her husband belongs to. She would do anything to protect him, even refuse to speak of his involvement. But she knows that she cannot remain this way. Besides, there is a man...

Well, there's always a man in romance. But that's not the point. The point is that it was the sight of that side canal in Venice that set her loose in my head. Until then she had only been a one line idea. A plot point. A possible complication. That canal began to give her color and shape. Conflict, purpose, goals. To her the pastels of those old, crumbling, palazzos are the colors of melancholy. She wants to go home and knows it to be impossible. She wants to return to her marriage and knows she can't. She has begun to fall in love with the man who brought her to Venice and should not. And she thinks all of this as she sits on a balcony in an old palazzo as the sun sets over the choppy water and the bells of St. Mark's toll out the hour. She is in one of the most beautiful spots on earth, and she can only wish she weren't.

And that is where I got at least one of my ideas.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I Get It Now

I have always wanted to travel to Italy, specifically Pompeii and Venice. I know. It makes no sense, but there you are. For different reasons, both places drew me. So when I agreed to plan the family trip to Italy, the stipulation was that we include Pompeii and Venice.

Pompeii was everything I thought it would be. Without getting all mystical, let me just say that I swore I could hear old whispers as we stepped back and down into time. Whether because of the renovation or because of the place and its terrible demise, I felt as if the spirit of it had been trapped within those ancient stone walls to leak out like a badly sealed container.

And then there is Venice. I'm sitting on a balcony over the Canneregio Canal listening to the neighborhood settle towards evening and watching the gold of the setting sun wash down the pinks and oranges and terracottas of the tattered and peeling buildings across the way. And all I can think is why didn't I come here before? Why do I have to leave?

I know. It's been written every way but haiku (and if given the chance, I'd do one) about the romance and timeless beauty of Venice. Painters have struggled for centuries to capture that warm light, that peculiarly intense blue of the water, the erotic lushness of flowers and people and architecture. There is no way I can do better.

But I can report that every one of them was right, and I didn't really appreciate it until I sat on this balcony. I'd hoped it was so. I'd hoped that I could have a special experience in a city I've always held in my heart. I didn't realize it would be in a tiny caffe called the Leon d'Oro, which was run by an elderly couple who cooked your food the way their families had for centuries, right in front of your eyes, and made friends without knowing a word of English. I didn't know that one boat ride up the Grand Canal would steal my heart so completely that I felt melancholy even taking pictures, because I knew I would leave.

I'd heard that Venice was an unapologetic, overpainted old courtesan who knew exactly what she was and was perfectly happy with it. But until you see her colors and are seduced by her whimsy, you just don't understand.

I do now. I get it completely. I just wish it hadn't happened as I'm about ready to leave....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Value of Serendipity

I love to plan trips. I love to research them, to find out the interesting places I want to see, the history I want to search out, the unique and the out of the way places that simply need to be visited. On the trip we're taking now, to Italy, I planned eight days worth of tours to learn about everything from volcanic eruptions (Pompeii) to the effects of music on grape vines (Tuscany) to the composition of tuffa stone (Rome) to how to blow glass (Venice). But even more importantly, I planned time for serendipity.

Serendipity in travel is what happens when you're surprised. Either you have to cancel something (we had to cancel a tour of the Amalfi Coast because of one of our members' unforseen carsickness), or you end up receiving unexpected gifts (my sister and I wandered off one day to explore Amalfi). And while I think tours are wonderful, especially the personal kind where you have a guide and all of his knowledge and enthusiasm to yourself, sometimes it's even better to wander off and get lost.

That is what is so wonderful about Venice. Venice is a city to walk. Actually, the only thing you can do—besides take a boat up the canals—is walk. There are no cars, no scooters, no motorized transportation of any kind. I found out why when we were walking down one of the main drags and we saw what looked like tables covered in sheets of heavy wood placed at regular intervals down the street. The strollers tended to sit on them, especially strollers waiting for shoppers(there is a LOT of shopping in Venice). It didn't occur to me that they had another purpose. Until I tried to get into St. Mark's Square.

I made the mistake of going about noon, which, it seems is high tide. As you can see by the picture, it is fairly perilous to try and maneuver St. Mark's during high tide. The city, wisely, has laid out walkways so the tourists can visit the important places: the Cathedral, Florians, and shops.

That was when it dawned on me what all the scaffolding was doing in the middle of the streets. It wasn't only St. Mark's Square that tended to flood.

Which brings me back to serendipity. Because Venice is an island, it is impossible to be lost for long. Although it is amazingly easy to get lost in the first place. The city is ancient, with city planners who obviously followed the seagulls to lay out the grid. There are big streets, little streets, tiny streets, cul-de-sacs, piazzas and a thousand or so churches (you will quickly realize this when it comes time for the Angelus bells to ring). The great thing, though, is that each of those streets is interesting, quaint, picturesque, charming, and full of cafes to rest weary feet in, if not shops.

Stop a while. Get your bearings. Ask for directions. Even if you don't understand them (and as one guide warned us, when asking for directions from an Italian, never listen to the words. Watch the hands. If they say, “A la sinistra”, or to the left, and wave with their right hand. Go right. Trust me), you'll end up having a great interaction. Hand gestures (non-offensive ones, anyway), do quite well to supplant tourist Italian. With hand gestures and my catch all of “Mi dispiace”, which means I'm sorry, and makes everyone feel better, I got a lovely shopkeeper to make me a custom-made necklace for my daughter. And by the end of it, both of us were laughing and happy.

Serendipity. Even if it isn't Venice, give yourself the chance. Schedule in a bit of extra time to get lost. Definitely stop by a little cafe where you only hear the local language and made yourself known. You'd be amazed at how much fun you have. Because as much as I love planned fun, I love the unplanned kind even better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

There's Old and Then There's Old

Everybody in America knows what old is. Old is before television. Old is before computers and microwaves. Really old involves either Pilgrims or Native Americans, who fought nature to tame a wild and often unforgiving land. That is old. We in America are infants.

I just spent three days in Rome. Yeah, I can see you now, shaking your head. Everybody knows about Rome. Crowded, noisy, filthy, rude, chock full of fanny-pinchers. Oh, there are some old buildings you can drive around in your car, but does it really matter? All I have to say is, Americans are infants.

It wasn't just the Coliseum, which after the Taj Mahal is probably the most recognizable historic site on earth. It's a bit moth-eaten, sure, but Russell Crowe fought gladiators there. But the Coliseum, although massive and amazing, isn't even the most amazing ancient architecture in Rome. I give that award to the Pantheon, a simple round building built as a temple to the gods and found itself taken over by people who believed in only one of them. It is perfectly proportioned, elegant, deceptively simple, and still standing in the same glory with which it was made...two thousand years ago.

Yes, that's what I said. The thing predates longbows, and still looks pristine. Absolutely amazing. Then there are the Roman fountains, which in and of themselves would be worth noting, especially the ones by Bernini, dancing explosions of marble that spout water from varied and amazing places to enchant, edify and nourish, since the water is perfect to drink. The water that is being forced through aqueducts the Romans constructed over...two thousand years ago. Nothing has changed. The wells the women got their water from have just developed fancy skins.

And then there are the catacombs. Now, for the purposes of fair reporting, the catacombs have been on my bucket list since I was a kid. You see, like any Catholic kid, I was raised on Lives of the Saints, which included every martyr known to the church, especially those who died particularly gruesome deaths. And many of those saints not only worshiped in the catacombs, they ended up there(not for eternity, though. When the market for relics got hot, the Church moved the saints to prevent further pilfering of fingerbones and skulls). The dark, close, musty subterranean vaults they used to inhabit, though, appealed to my dramatic little soul.

What I hadn't counted on was the fact that these things really were so old. Yep. We're talking two thousand year old range. The Romans mined the area for tuffa stone, leaving behind empty caverns, and the Christians (among others) used them for burial. I also hadn't counted on the fact that when we got to go down there, those narrow, dark, cool passages would affect me the way they did. I swear you can feel the pain and hope and devotion resonating from those carved cavern walls, where little beds were carved from hard stone to hold someone's wife or parent or child. I looked down the seven levels of tombs that had built up over the years (not many, though. They were finished in the late 500s. That's five hundred. A.D. And those who passed through still seem to have form and spirit and weight) and found myself overwhelmed by the half million people who had been buried there. Did I mention it was two thousand years ago?

Kind of makes our “George Washington Slept Here” signs silly in comparison.

Friday, October 08, 2010

In Praise of Staying Off the Beaten Track

When you travel to a new place, it's inevitable you're going to cross paths with every other tourist in the country, at least once or twice. We did it in the Vatican yesterday, and Amalfi two days before that. The cool places have already been found, and they've been found by the companies with the big buses. So when you enjoy the transcendent glory of the Sistine Chapel, you do it with 1500 of your closest friends.

The secret, though, is that you don't have to stay with them. What I've found before, and has really been brought home to me on this trip is that it's much more fun to stay where the busses don't stop. For instance, we began the trip in the little town of Matera in the south of Italy. Most Americans have not heard of it. Italians are just beginning to. There are tours there, now, as opposed to the first time I went, but it's still a meandering, contemplative kind of town where the big entertainment is dressing up in the evening and strolling the piazzas with your friends. A perfect introduction to Italy.

From there we headed for the Amalfi Coast. Now it shouldn't be surprising that there are crowds there. The Amalfi Coast is celebrated in movie and song for its legendary beauty. And I can't argue. There is nothing quite so romantic as sitting beneath the bougainvillea watching the sun set behind the isle of Capri. But here's the hint. Don't do it from a hotel in Amalfi itself. Or even Positano, lovely as it is. Both are overrun with every manner of tourist, which means that all the shops sell tourist kitsch, and all of the kitsch is expensive. Not only that, on the trip you took to learn about Italy, mostly you see Americans or Japanese. The streets are a nightmare, with locals trying to squeeze their cars past the hordes who descend on the town every day, and the restaurants are the most unpleasant I've ever been at. As for Positano, it's much lovelier. It's also MUCH more expensive.

Our compromise was Praiano, right between the two. Smaller, friendlier, more family-oriented, so that the people who own the restaurants serve you and visit out of interest rather than obligation. The rooms are WAY cheaper. The room we had at the small Hotel LeSirene, was large, airy, and came with a balcony overlooking the sea and Positano. For 90 euro a night. Come on. A Holidy Inn in Topeka is more expensive.

The best part is that there is a bus that runs about every 20 minutes that will take you anywhere you want to go on the coast, is painless (although often very crowded) and fool proof. So my sister and I hopped on the bus at 10AM, spent the afternoon in Amalfi, where the shops stayed open throughout lunch (one drawback to smaller places, if that bothers you. They do respect siesta, and close everything from 1:30-4:00.), had a drink, then climbed on the bus for home. We didn't have to try to drive that coast ourselves; we could get off and on where we wanted (like the big Ceramic Warehouse halfway home) and we could get a ticket at any cigarette shop (can't miss them. They all have a sign with a big red T on them)

We did the same in Rome, resting our heads in the Vatican Vista two blocks from the Pope, where we had a view, a bit more quiet (it's never really quiet in Rome, except Sunday morning) and a landlady who not only gave great directions, but better private tours. Much less expensive than the center of town, easier to navigate, and less stressful. And now, instead of fighting our way through every other tourist in Florence, we're taking a train to Siena, where we'll unpack our bags, pull out our wine and wander out onto the patio of the Albergo Bernini to enjoy one of the most spectacular views in Tuscany. After all, Florence is just down the road.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

We're Not At McDonald's Anymore

The first thing you need to know about Italian meals is that they are an event. Because I was speaking at the Women's Fiction Festival, I got vouchers for every meal at about a dozen of the restaurants in Matera. And they kept apologizing when I presented my voucher. Until I got a bit more comfortable with Italian, I thought they were refusing the voucher. But no, they were apologizing because on the voucher I could only have two courses, coffee and wine, instead of the usual four courses, wine, coffee, and desert like a regular meal.

Now, on a regular Italian menu, you start with the Antipasti, which is what we call Appetizers in the US. The first course, or Primi, involves your pasta and pizza, which come on plates larger than I could consume in an entire day.

But wait! There's more! Second course, or Segundi, includes either fish or meat course, which would be an entire entree in the US. Each region has their special fish, which is usually either baked packed in salt or 'crazy water'. Nobody so far has had the guts to find out exactly what crazy water is.

You can also get vegetables, of course, or, to my eternal surprise, the best french fries I've ever had.

After that is the salad course, which includes bruschetta (every time I'd see bruschetta I'd get excited all over again, until my family said, “Bruschetta in Italy? What?” A special note about salads in Italy. Fruit and vegetables are impossibly fresh and delicious here (and, for the hesitant among my friends, safe). But Italy, probably because the produce is so good, doesn't smother it in salad dressing. They rely on good old oil and balsamic vinegar. Now I'd heard that you really need to know your balsamic vinegar because there's a world of difference among them, but I'm telling you right now, I had no idea. Real Italian balsamic—not the stuff you get at Costco—is a gustatory revelation. I'm thinking of buying a case of it, like wine, to bring home.

AFTER the salad course, you can have Fromaggio, or Dolci. Cheese or desert (which often involves cannolis or tiramasu).And then, of course, your after dinner digestive and/or coffee.
Full yet? Trust me. I was full after the Primi. I have yet to quite make it to the Secondi, even splitting either salads or antipasti. I hate to waste food, especially good food, and it felt a sin to leave so much on my plate those first days when I didn't know better.

Once you have your seat in a restaurant, you're there for the evening, though. Nobody keeps the place at meat locker temperature or blasts cheesy music to make your dinner so uncomfortable you don't want to linger. They consider it an insult if you hurry away. Food is to be enjoyed, savored, shared. It isn't just a meal, it's a celebration, and they enjoy nothing more than sharing it with you. My kind of country.

And I haven't even begun to address how good the food is.