writing


(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.

Advertisements

New entry over on my new site

I’ve updated over on my site about the signing… go here for photos. (I’ll be migrating the blog over there for the most part, but I’ll put up reminders here.)

I had to run to the bookstore tonight to drop off the invitations to next Sunday’s reading / signing at Barnes & Noble (on Citiplace, at 3:00)… and my book was in the window! With a poster telling about the reading.

And then it was on the New Paperback display table.

And then it was on another table with a big sign over it.

Of course, I took photos.

There may have been squeeing.

There was even, possibly, a little dancing in the store. (okay, a lot of dancing) In front of people. Who thought I was crazy. But you know what?

My book is in the stores.

My friends high-fived me, other friends have emailed me that they’ve either bought it or it’s being shipped to them (they got the notices) and you know what?

It’s just flat out amazing.

My book is in the stores now.

It’s real.

Dreams really do come true.

books-in-bookstores-007.jpg

books-in-bookstores-003.jpg

books-in-bookstores-002.jpg

Max gave me this:

celuloid_blonde_award_ii.png

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:

 bobbie_faye1.jpg

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.)

cover-all.jpg

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 finished and turned in book 2.

It was at one point short, then longer, then edited back down, then it disappeared completely when my computer ate it and was found in a back-up email (with some of the changes missing), then was edited some more, then was back to a really great length, then I had to write the finale and the damned thing grew and grew, and now it is edited some and turned in because if I keep it here one more week, my head will explode.

All the while writing it, I had a personal goal of doing something bigger, better — stretching my skills as a story-teller, finding more depth without losing the funny. I have no idea if I actually reached any of that goal yet; I’m tired of it and can’t focus on any part of it critically anymore. A month or so from now (or whenever I get my agent’s and editor’s notes back), I’ll have a better idea of what works and what didn’t. I’ve already thought of a dozen things I want to tweak (and I’ve made notes so I won’t forget again). But I do feel like the challenge I gave myself paid off–I think I vastly improved as a writer. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a metric buttload of stuff to do on it, but that will always be the case for me–I’m a much better re-writer than a writer.

Overall, I am just thrilled it’s not in my hands for a while. My brain is mush.

(Perversely, my brain also wants to continue the story with the characters and since there is going to be a book 3, and since I have a synopsis, my thoughts are already veering into the next story. Must. Stop. Now. I am just too tired.)

Also, apparently all of the writing I’ve been doing has atrophied some of my brain. I had to run a couple of errands today and my brain was still in foggy fiction-land, where I control the whole world, including the action scenes, and can blow something up and then go back and think, nah, let that one stay, and magically, it’s back together, and let me tell you, this does not work in the real world. Like when you’re driving and there are other cars on the road? Yeah, not a good time to forget that you’re not the omnipotent being who moves things around at will. Luckily for the general public, I realized my brain was too fried to continue my errands and I just went home and decided I’d try again after I’ve rested some. No accidents, but only because other people had a clue.

Saturday, Carl and I were rare visitors to a fourth-floor view of a castle turret (see below), and as Carl looked out the window from the office onto the roofline between us and the turret, he got fired up and said, “Hey, you see that [–]? Well [character] could shoot it and then he could…” he looked around the office, spied what he would need, “grab the [–] and slice it and then 

and kill off the [–],” and I was all, “Wow, yeah! Cool!” until we both realized that the very sweet lady who’d let us up there behind the scenes was starting to edge out of the room, looking at little nervous.

“We have to kill the bad guys,” I offered, trying to make things not so frightening.

“In her book,” Carl said, just so we didn’t have her running for security, regretting letting us up there.

I’m starting to suspect we are not normal people. 

One of the cool things about being a writer is that you can tell people you are researching something for your next book and they will suddenly give you access to the neatest things not generally available to the public. Last Saturday, we lucked up on the fact that the Old State Capitol, which is featured in a big action scene in book 2, was open for tours. Even better, when Carl told the woman in charge (Nancy C.) that I was working on book 2, she was very open to showing me areas of the building which are just awesome.

It’s so cool that I live just four miles from this gorgeous old castle (technically, they call it “Castlelated Gothic style construction):

front-view.jpg

 The first two floors are the only parts normally open to the public, but they are gorgeous for the rotunda:

rotunda.jpg

(and that photo just cannot do it justice)… to the stunning stained-glass dome:

stained-glass-dome.jpg

And as you look at that photo, realize that’s four stories up. What you can’t quite tell from this is that the dome is housed in a protective room — frosted white glass with a metal roof to protect it from debris or high winds, and what you also can’t see is that above it–inside that room–there is a catwalk around the perimeter of that stained-glass, (which they refer to as the ‘lantern’)… and I got to walk around that catwalk. Taking photos, which are still on my camera. And the entire time I was up there, I was thinking, “Please God, don’t let me do a Bobbie Faye and destroy 150 years of history. Please.”

We got to see a catwalk outside the building on the roof and other very neat things (which are going in the book).

And seriously, Nancy was the most wonderful, patient hostess. She made me feel like this building really did belong to us, the public, and was a very welcoming place. When we left, we noticed several families picnicing on the front slopes and off to the side, lots of kids were playing in the water fountain. I think the original builders would have been thrilled.

Next Page »