writers


(Note: Hi, Toni’s readers!  *waves*  I’m borrowing her blog for the day because I’m currently, shall we say, between blogs.  (Why do I get a kick out of saying that?)  You see, I needed a public place to post this review, and Toni obligingly said I could use hers.  I promise to keep it lively and well-fed and return it in good shape when I’m done.

— Tamar) 

 

I had a good feeling about this book.  The author, Sherry Thomas, loves Judith Ivory and Laura Kinsale, my two favorite romance authors.   And the excerpt I read made me smile with quiet glee at the clear intelligence in her smooth authorial voice.   And so far it’s gotten nothing but glowing reviews from romance review sites. 

But I’ve been reading a lot of genre novels (and hell, non-genre novels) lately that have gotten great reviews here, there, even everywhere.  That start off strong but fizzle around the beginning of Act 2 because the author only had that first setting-things-up section in her.  Or he just didn’t think through the whole story.  Or she forgot her characters shouldn’t do random stupid things just because the outline said they should.  Or… well, you get the idea.

So I was eager but also nervous, especially since I won a copy of this book in a giveaway at Dear Author on condition that I write about it, and really, who wants to write a negative review of a book when you know the author (who you’ve never met) will likely read what you say?   

So with this long preamble out of the way, what did I think of Private Arrangements, the debut historical romance from Sherry Thomas? 

I loved it. 

Seriously.

The novel takes place in England in the late 1800’s.  It’s about a marriage that started out passionate and promising, but through a, shall we say, problematic choice on the woman’s part, fell apart quickly.  The story picks up ten years later, after Gigi has filed for divorce.  Camden has one request before he signs the legal documents.  Now they have to deal with each other. 

It’s an intriguing setup, though, granted, not an entirely original one.  But there’s no entirely original plot in existence;  the pleasure of a read is in how the author develops the flesh and muscle of story from those bare bones.  And Thomas does a wonderful job.  For the first half of the book, she alternates chapters between the current story and what happened ten years earlier.  It’s a smart way to show, in a visceral, intimate way, both how these two people belong together and how they broke apart so dramatically.   I was equally invested in the story in the present and the one in the past, which is no easy feat. 

I love Gigi’s character.  The very same traits that make her delightful to read also act as her Achilles heel.  She’s determined, ballsy, strong, and confident.   And it all makes sense, given her background and her mother’s strong (and oddly sympathetic) desire for her to marry well in order to ameliorate her father’s commoner heritage.  I fell in love with Gigi almost right away.  

Camden is somewhat more problematic for me. Oh, he’s appealing and interesting in his own right, don’t get me wrong.  But some of his actions… well, I’ll get back to that in a minute.  But overall, he does work for me.  What works most is that he <i>gets</i> Gigi, completely and immediately.  He sees how she operates and (mostly) admires her for it.  And he too has a great deal of strength and determination, as is natural, given his own difficult (but loving) upbringing.  These two feel like well-matched equals. 

These are not cardboard cutout characters.  They feel real.  Their actions largely make sense.  Neither fit entirely into the Haute Ton (did it still exist as such in late Victorian times?).  Interestingly, in them both I can see budding modern sensibilities emerging in a traditional environment. 

In far too many romance novels, a couple is estranged due to practically random misunderstandings and happenstance.  As a reader, I often feel like shouting at the characters, “JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER!”  or “IT WASN’T THAT BIG A DEAL, GET OVER YOURSELF!”  Not so here.  What Gigi did to cause the split ten years ago would absolutely be hard to forgive, hard to get past in a relationship.  It’s also entirely consistent with her character.  And yet it’s also entirely easy to empathize with her motivation in doing it. 

I did have trouble with Camden’s initial response, however.  Certain aspects of it felt forced, not emotionally true.  I think this could have been avoided with a judicious use of backstory to illuminate exactly why the news hit him the way it did.  I suspect Thomas struggled with this passage; the writing is not nearly as polished and acutely observed as it is in the rest of the book. 

I also had some trouble with his request in the present.  He wants an heir before they go their separate ways.  Which I’m not sure I buy.  He has siblings, and presumably can have an heir through their children.  Or he can remarry.  More importantly, he acts like he hates Gigi, even ten years later.  He talks and behaves like sex will be an abhorrent chore.  It’s clearly a lie, but I can’t tell if he’s lying to himself or just to her.  So all I have to go on is what he says and how he acts.  It’s too large a cognitive dissonance.   As a reader, I needed a slightly larger insight into his current perception of her and what it means to choose to have a sexual relationship after they’ve been estranged so long. 

The secondary romance added a much-needed effervescent fizz (especially one particular scene toward the beginning involving a kitten in a tree) – though it did take up a tad too much time in the telling, especially late in the story when I no longer needed as many bubbles to balance the main plot. 

(While I’m critiquing, I do have one teeny tiny itty bitty language nit:  eyes don’t meet, gazes do.  And I’m not sure gazes should ever intertwine.)

Again, these are all small, small problems. The story WORKS.  This novel is beautifully, masterfully written.  The situation in the present ends up circling back in a lovely way, with Gigi’s current dilemma echoing Camden’s past dilemma, while another choice she makes shows how much she’s grown in the interim.  All the characters are well observed, and the beats and scenes have a lot of emotional truth.  And Thomas’ voice throughout is just wonderful.  Witty, vivid, and altogether delightful to read.  I stayed up far too late the night I got the book in the mail, wanting to keep reading just a little more and then just a bit more after that. 

I think the theme of this novel is morality.  What will we do to get what we desperately want?  How far will we go?  What happens when it backfires?  And, conversely, how can we learn to forgive, to accept?  In the present, Gigi has a sweet, fairly platonic relationship with a younger man; he’s an amateur artist.  Part of what she loves in him is his open, uncomplicated, accepting warmth.  He has a woman friend, a potential partner, but she criticizes his art, pushes him to do more, be more, be other than who he is. 

In fact, maybe this is the true theme.  We get to see how their early crisis has altered both characters ten years down the road, making them stronger but also in a way making them more truly themselves.  In the end, this story is not only about the right, moral choice (and it is), but is also about perception and acceptance. 

I think it’s no accident that Sherry Thomas has created in Gigi a fascinating, hyper-alive woman, but also one who bucks convention and acts from a very strong sense of self.  In the secondary romance, Gigi’s mother explicitly sets out to act like her daughter, contriving a situation to make a duke fall into her lap (so to speak).  And yet Thomas does something wonderful:  the duke observes her without her knowledge.  So he walks into the supposed trap knowing exactly what she’s up to.  Which is a wonderful reversal, but it also works thematically:  he now knows who she is, knows what she’s up to, in a way he knows the worst of her.  And therefore when he thaws toward her, he’s thawing in truth, with full knowledge.  Exactly what Camden couldn’t do.  Camden knew Gigi, knew what she was capable of, but when she actually went there and did that, he couldn’t accept, couldn’t forgive.  In the present, as they become closer and more able to put aside their anger, part of the way the reader can tell is by how much they share of themselves.  Of their nonsexual selves. A lovely, understated emotional turning point involves a simple moment where Camden shows Gigi sketches of his work.  Sharing who he is with her.  And unlike Freddy’s lady friend, she responds by getting it.  Getting him. 

I want to reread this novel to analyze two things:  First:  how she made the sex scenes so damned sexy without resorting to the usual clichés.   The language is fresh and the characters’ actions are very specific to that moment in the story.

Second:  how she played the dark against the light.  In the first half of the novel, the present day storyline is tense and painful.  The characters show so much hardness on the surface, so much hurt underneath.   But the early chapters set in the past are lovely, light and warm.  And yet also increasingly painful, since you know what’s coming.   In the second half, the past drops away, its story told.  The interaction between the two in the present becomes more complicated:  dark intermingled with light, hard with soft, as they tear down the walls and rediscover each other.   Finally, the ending feels truly deserved.  These people belong together.  And Sherry Thomas belongs on my keeper shelf. 

After reading this, it’ll be hard now to pick up yet another frothy historical romance with paper-thin plotting and contrived characterizations.  I think I’ll switch gears for a while, read a few hard-boiled mysteries, maybe some lyrical, poignant fantasy.   Sherry Thomas has another book coming out this summer.  That’s not too long to wait, right? 

This one, though, comes out this Tuesday, March 25th.

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Max gave me this:

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for this entry.

Max is uber cool.  You should be reading Max regularly. I am trying to get her to convert one of her scripts to a novel because it is freaking brilliant and funny (it is the kind of brilliant and funny that makes me wish I had written it, it is that good). Y’all go tell her to snap to it. (I am evil, yes.)

On Friday, I got to hold the first copy of my book. The color is a lot greener in real life than the jpeg that the publisher had sent to me, and it’s really gorgeous. Seriously, I love it. I scanned it in, but it still doesn’t do it justice. They did a double pass on the red, which means it’s really rich, and I didn’t have a clue how that would make a difference until I saw it, but it does. And they’ve embossed everything on the front — even the danger sign and Harley’s quote inside that sign. It feels really nice. Tactile, and inviting. I have to say, I am really incredibly happy with it. I think it’ll pop out at people when they pass by. Here’s a scan of just the front page:

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And here’s the whole cover (front/back) — this is a “flat” that they sent me. (Why yes, I am going to frame it. I barely refrained from tattooing it on my forehead.)

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Then today, I found out that I had a starred review in Library Journal, which is just extremely cool. I’m really stunned at this, to be honest. Here’s the review, if you’re interested:

Causey, Toni McGee. Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day. Griffin: St. Martin’s. May 2007. c.320p. ISBN 978-0-312-35448-0. pap. $12.95. F

Cajun beauty queen Bobbie Faye Sumrall is having a bad day: after a burst water pipe breaks her sorry-excuse-for-a-trailer in half, she accidentally robs a bank, tries to free her good-for-nothing brother from kidnappers, takes a hostage (also accidentally), flees with him through the treacherous swamps of Louisiana, eludes an angry bear as well as her disgruntled cop ex-boyfriend, hotwires a speedboat, and kills a dangerous snake with her knife. And the day isn’t even over. This hyperpaced, screwball action/adventure with one unforgettable heroine and two sexy heroes is side-splittingly hilarious. Causey, a Cajun and a Louisiana native, reveals a flair for comedy in this uproarious debut novel, the first in a three-book series. Readers who like the humor of Harley Jane Kozak’s Dating Dead Men, Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files, and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series will be thrilled to meet Bobbie Faye. A most entertaining addition to any fiction collection. [Two trailers for the book are available at www.tonimcgeecausey.com.—Ed.]—Shelley Mosley, Glendale Community Coll. Lib. Media Ctr., AZ

Then I got to have a long late lunch / early dinner with my friend Emile Staat, whom I never get to see enough, and it was just a perfect day. I want to seal it and frame it and keep it, ya know? I hope you all are having wonderfully perfect days, too. 

I had the great fortune of reading Allison Brennan’s SEE NO EVIL as an advanced reading copy, and it was riveting. Seriously, I was so sleep deprived and on a flight and I thought, “I’ll just start this and read a chapter and then doze for a while,” but I could not stop reading. Today, the last of that trilogy is on deck–FEAR NO EVIL:

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In FEAR NO EVIL, Dillon Kincaid, a forensic psychiatrist, has 48 hours to find his sister, Lucy, before she’s killed on a live webcast. The only way to find her is to locate renegade FBI agent Kate Donovan who knows more about the killer than anyone. Problem: she’s wanted by her own government for murder.

Romantic Times gave FEAR NO EVIL a Top Pick as well. So if you want something scary (that promises a happy ending), GO GET ALLISON’S BOOK. You will thank me. 😉

[toni’s note: today I am letting Bobbie Faye Sumrall guest blog because frankly, she’s scary and she threatened me.]

Okay, look, people, you probably don’t know me. Unless you’ve read this crazy writer’s first book, and I am here to tell you, she’s seriously getting on my nerves. Like, bouncing up and down on the last one with a hacksaw in her hand. How in the hell her family puts up with her is a shear freaking miracle. You people need to do an intervention. Soon. Or I’m going to, and it won’t be pretty.

It’s not bad enough that she followed me around and then wrote a book about it. I’m kinda used to people following me around, and just because things happen to accidentally blow up whenever I sort of happen to be in the area does not mean that it was my fault, and really, I am tired of being on the five o’clock news. And could they follow me around when I’m dressed like a sane person? Nooooo, that would be too nice. They wait until all hell breaks loose and I have crap to wear and look like a reject from Ho’s R Us clothing line and of course, bad hair from hell, and that’s when they put my photo up on the TV. But this Toni? She’s worse than the rest of them combined, because she’s all in my freaking life every time I turn around and one of these days, I’m going to drop-kick her ass across the state, because I have about had enough.

I thought that after the first book, she’d get her fill. Sure, it was kinda crazy and lots of people chasing me and shooting and you know, unhappy with me in general (though I am hard-pressed at times to tell the difference) but I thought this was a one-time thing. She’d get her story, go write it and go away. Then she followed me around again and this one was even crazier; I was like the Pied Piper to the Psycho & Demented set, and did she have the common sense to leave me alone? What do you think? Do writers even have common sense? Apparently not, because there she was, squatting next to me, getting shot at, and I tried to tell her to go home, go do something useful, like paint her bedroom, but she just kept taking notes as the bullets whizzed by and it is not my fault that she got nicked a couple of times, damnit. I can only do so much.

So then I thought, fine… no one’s going to like the first book and she’ll get discouraged and go the fuck away. But did that happen? No. You freaking people are going to kill me. Some of you have actually reviewed the damned book! And you liked it! And you’re encouraging her! I mean, last week? Last week she was lying prone on her office floor, freaking out because she was certain no one on the planet was going to even read the damned thing, much less like it, and I have to say, as cruel as it sounds, that would have suited me just damned fine, because then she’d have been out of my hair. Permanently. Instead, this weekend, your Publisher’s Weekly goes and posts this fantastic review . And not just any old fantastic review, but a freaking starred review. And now? She will not shut up about the damned thing. I swear to God, I had to talk her out of tattooing it on her forehead. I mean, look at it:

*Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day*
Toni McGee Causey. St. Martin’s Griffin, $12.95 paper (320p) ISBN
978-0-312-35448-0

Set in Lake Charles, La., Causey’s hilarious, pitch-perfect debut
chronicles one day in the life of 28-year-old Bobbie Faye Sumrall, a
magnet for mayhem who feels “a day without disaster would be a day in
someone else’s life.” For starters, a faulty washing machine floods the
trailer home she shares with her five-year-old niece. Then she learns
that kidnappers are holding Roy, her rogue of a younger brother, for
ransom and want nothing less than the tiara inherited from her mother
that Bobbie Faye plans to wear as the queen of the upcoming
pirate-themed Contraband Days Festival. After a simple bank trip turns
into a nightmare and thieves get away with the tiara, Bobbie Faye
commandeers a truck and its hunky driver, Trevor, for a wild chase
through bayou country. Friends cheer her on, while others take bets on
her next calamity. Causey doesn’t miss a beat in this wonderful, wacky
celebration of Southern eccentricity. /(May)/
 

Now she’s already planning to follow me around for the rest of my frigging life. I am never going to be rid of her, am I?

I am serious. You people better do something about this. Quick. Because if she keeps this up, she’s going to get her ass shot and it won’t be my fault. I cannot help it if I am a magnet for disaster. I have a talent for “wrong place, wrong time” — if that were a category on the SAT exam? I’d make a fucking perfect score. So do something. Warn her. Kidnap her. Teach her how to knit. I don’t care, just get her the hell out of my life.

Thank you,

Bobbie Faye Sumrall

I meant to post this yesterday, but somehow, the day got away from me. But go here to see the two coolest kids on the block this month, Gregg Olsen and Phil Hawley — both their debut books are out and I have heard such fantastic things about each, I have to have them both. I mean, really fantastic, like, when writers are talking privately and they are in awe (and slightly envious of the talent of) someone else and they speak about something with a mixture of hushed reverence and envy when they think no one is really going to note the envy part? Yeah, like that. Awe. So put these on your wish lists, people, I really think you’ll be happy you did!

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Alex Sokoloff over on Murderati wrote the other day about feeling the love — how she feels about the writing experience, and she summed it up with “writing is agony, but not writing is so, so much worse.” I found her piece to profoundly describe so much of the experience of writing, it was as if she’d stepped inside my head and my heart and explained it. Which, when I started really thinking about it (and when you’re polishing up the second book and you have to turn it in pretty soon, your brain wants to think of anything but that deadline), I realized it’s that “stepping in” that makes it so magical for me, as a writer, and also as a reader. It’s not just briefly experiencing other worlds, other ways of being, other people’s point of view–and it is all of those things, true–but it is the moment the writer connects something for me that I hadn’t necessarily been able to articulate myself, or opens me up to a realization which had been simmering beneath the surface which I’d sensed but had not yet found a way to access. I’m not sure which pleases me more as a reader–to register the surprise of the profound thought, an aha! moment of recognition but still, surprise–or to be caught off guard and made to laugh, to find the absurd in the world, in the situation, and to be so fully in the character, in that world, that it cracks me up as if I’m there, experiencing the irony.

I guess it’s natural to think of these things as book 2 finally coalesces, where the bits and pieces it into place and the universe feels whole and organic. It’s amazing to have gone from an idea, from a blank page, to a finished world, because it’s more than just words typed on a page. The dictionary is words typed on a page. Finding the story, finding the heart, finding the laughter in the moment–these are the real gifts of writing. As I zoom rather frantically (and full of terror, I assure you) toward the publication date of book 1 (May 1st), I want to remember to hold onto this feeling. There are so many things that are now officially out of my control, and for a world-creator (which we writers are, which tends to make us a bit of a control freak), it’s destabilizing to realize there’s not a lot else I can do in this stage of the publication process. It may do well, it may not, who knows? It’s terrifying to even think about it, because I cannot sit next to every reviewer, every reader, and explain my intentions if they don’t like something. But this thing, this writing, this creating, has brought me satisfaction beyond joy. It’s what I always wanted to do, growing up: tell stories.  I am very lucky that I enjoy the actual process of the writing. Yes, writing is agony for me, but now that I examine it, not in quite the same way Alex was describing above. It’s agony because I want to do it so well, and I push myself and the bar ever higher, and I have no idea if I’m hitting the mark or not. It’s agony because I want to create, to have this finished world that people can dip into which will make them laugh and stay with them as a real place with real people long after they put the book down, and accomplishing that seamlessly is daunting and difficult. It’s agony because I want to dig as deep as I can while holding onto the goal (for it’s imperative a writer know what she’s writing–profound thoughts may accidentally work their way into a comedy / caper such as I writer, but to strive to be profound would be to distort the world). It’s agony because I think I have something important to say underneath the comedy, and I don’t know if I’ve yet said it well enough. It’s agony because I could stay in that creative process forever, neglecting too many people I love, if I’m not careful, and so I have to part with it at least some of the time in order to live in the world. It’s agony to let it go into the world on its own.

It would be far, far worse, though, to not have the writing process to comfort me while the first book is taking its baby steps into that world.

I wonder what brings satisfaction to the rest of the world that keeps them going?

Swamped. That is moi, trying (um, sort of frantically) to finish book 2 by deadline. Just got back from the Left Coast Crime convention this weekend… have a post in progress on that, will be up probably on Thursday.

But I realized just now that I am an idiot — I’ve been so focused on writing book 2 (which has, scarily, turned out to be really fun), that I forgot to post about friends’ books which are out now. I’m going to focus this post on the ones out this week:

Allison Brennan’s SPEAK NO EVIL is the first of a trilogy; I’ve been lucky enough to read the ARC of the second book and review it for Spinetingler, and this trilogy rocks. If you like romantic thrillers, you’re going to love this set.  Here’s the first:

SPEAK NO EVIL

I was also lucky enough to read Rob Gregory Browne’s book KISS HER GOODBYE long before the galley stage and it’s riveting. I promise you, you’ll enjoy this one:

KISS HER GOODBYE

Then there’s Patry Francis’ debut out right now, THE LIAR’S DIARY. I have heard raving positives about her book and have just ordered it, so I hope to have it soon!

THE LIAR’S DIARY

Last month saw the debut of three other Killer Year members. I’ve just gotten an autographed copy of Sean’s and Sandra’s and need to get Marcus’ asap.  

BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD

 BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD

THE BLADE ITSELF

THE BLADE ITSELF

SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES

SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES

I’ll be back this week with photos and stories from LCC (no, really, I will). Lots and lots of good book stuff going on, and I should have a final cover within a few days (yay!), so that’ll be very cool.

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