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This week I heard from a reader. I do not often hear directly from readers, but the ones who have written up until now have sent good news: they enjoyed Dance for A Dead Princess or Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks. Until this week, the ones who didn’t like my books, either left words to that effect in Amazon reviews, or remained silent. No one took me to task in a long, personal email.

But this week, a reader not only left a negative review on Amazon, she wrote me a long email outlining everything she thought was wrong with Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks. And I could immediately tell that she didn’t “get” the story. She had received a free copy as part of a Read and Review program, and I’m sure she was under the impression that Ride was a formula romance novel. And, reading between the lines, she was upset, outraged might be a better word, because there were no explicit sex scenes in Ride and because Ride is an honest look at how difficult love can be and how we sometimes find lost pieces of ourselves in the people we believe we love and hang on at all costs. Ride is a complex book. It does not say hot sex equals undying love. I know that is theme of formula romance. But I was not writing formula romance in Ride, to the chagrin of Unhappy Reader.

I have come to feel that, as a female writer, all of my work has to overcome the presumption that because a woman wrote it, it is formula romance. When I set up promotions on the various ebook promotions sites, I often have the Hobson’s choice between “Romance” and “Contemporary Fiction.” I consider both of my books to be “Women’s Fiction” although even that label does not immediately remove my novels from the formula romance presumption. While Dance for a Dead Princess does have some elements in common with formula romance, as Diane Donovan of the Midwest Review observed, it goes far beyond formula fiction.   In my day job, as an attorney, I deal with the presumption of innocence, which, frankly, is more akin to a presumption of guilt. And I have come to feel, in my night job, as a fiction writer, that any book for a female audience carries the formula romance presumption.  And when it doesn’t live up to that presumption, some readers, like Unhappy are, to put it frankly, outraged.  Hence her personal email critique.

What is formula romance, you are asking at this point. Good question. The roots of formula romance have impeccable literary credentials. The unforgettable Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and the equally charming Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin are the ancestors of the modern romance novel. In both books, a heroine of little fortune marries a man of means for love and not for pure social advantage.  In archetypal terms, the Cinderella trope.   The plots of both books center around the barriers between the hero and the heroine and how these are ultimately resolved. Jane Eyre attempts to resolve a moral issue, a married man in love with a young women of little means but great love and virtue. Pride and Prejudice is a comedy of manners, poking subtle fun at the mating conventions of the day. The hero overcomes his pride of position to marry the young woman of great love and virtue but little fortune. From these outstanding beginnings, modern-day formula romance has evolved (or devolved) into predictable plot lines, which are resolved in fifty-thousand words or less. (Unhappy complained that Ride, at 100,000 words was just too long, and she was sooooo bored. My advice: if a book bores you, stop reading it.  It’s like  hitting yourself in the head:  it feels so good when you stop.)

In the modern formula romance, Hero, with six-pack abs, which he miraculously unveils within five pages of the opening, (and which are always on the cover), has sex with Heroine in Chapter One. Notably, they are both strangers. By Chapter Two, the glow of orgasm has faded, and they realize they have made a huge mistake. Like two mature adults, they immediately fight and vow never to see each other again. Then, for twenty-something more chapters, the two vacillate between their determination not see each other and their determination to have more sex, which is described in excruciating detail in alternating chapters. Fight a chapter, F– a chapter. (You get what I mean.)

On this solid and mature foundation for a marriage, Heroine winds up with a very large diamond on her finger, since Hero not only has that six-pack, but he is also great hubby material because he is good in bed and, more importantly, he has revealed he is not a simple ranch hand but the owner of most of Texas (or is a prince of a European state determined to restore its monarchy). Formula romances  close with a wedding or an epilogue showing a happily pregnant Heroine.

These books sell well to readers like Unhappy, so Clever Author multiplies this storyline like rabbits, varying the setting and the characters’ names, but never the plot. And if Author is even More Clever (or Diabolical, you decide) the original book will have a Heroine or Hero with ten brothers and sisters, each of whom will star in a subsequent formula romance. These books are easy to spot on the ebook promo sites because, in addition to male six-packs on the cover, they all have titles that include the word “Series” or “Chronicles.” “Book One of The Thornton Family Chronicles” Or “Book Three of the McLaren Brothers’ Brides Trilogy.” Or “Book Twenty-five of the Sisters of Seven Corners Series.” You’ve seen them. You know what I mean.

Not to be rude, but I run from these cookie-cutter books like the plague. They remind me of those clear plastic sleeves of chocolates that you can buy at Costco at Christmas. Year after year, the blue ones are milk chocolate with Kahlua centers, the pink ones are dark chocolate with an unidentified green cream inside, and the gold ones contain an unknown liqueur that might be brandy. Might. Many of these literary formula offerings have no ending, so that if a reader wants to know what happened to Hero and Heroine (does tragedy strike? does he lose that six-pack and therefore the girl? does he become King Travis the 25th of MoldyDisheveia), she has to buy “Books Two through Thirty of the Hot Brothers of MoldyDishevia Series.” And Extremely Clever Author laughs all the way to the bank. And gets featured as an Amazon Bestselling Extremely Clever Author in the Amazon Newsletter. (Read their newsletter if you don’t believe me.) Oh, and the piece de resistance, Author gets a lifetime guarantee of ads on the obnoxious Book Bub, which mainly features trashy formula romance with those hot-sex covers. But that is another blog post.

At any rate, I have come across a beautiful video that explains visually what Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is all about. I will explain in my next post and show you the video to see what you think. Is there room in the world for a woman writer to write a book that is not formula romance?   In the meantime,  my deepest thanks to my readers who did “get” it, and my undying gratitude to those who left reviews explaining exactly what they “got.”  I am forever in your debt and humbled by being allowed to entertain you in 100,000, I promise, well-chosen words.

And now, one last word to Unhappy. Despite your email statement to me making light of the loss of a child, losing a child is one of the most tragic events of anyone’s life. It is a tragedy that no one completely recovers from. The only thing offensive about you email, was your statement that “losing a child is no big deal.” Wrong, Unhappy. Very, very wrong, on that one. Formula romance books are fungible. Children are not.

Ride Your Heart ‘Til It Breaks is not a book for every reader. It is a book for anyone who wants to laugh and cry,  for anyone who is willing to be frustrated by characters that life has broken and healed and broken again,  and for anyone who is willing to look inside and love your own, beautiful and utterly unique soul. Ride is a challenge that not everyone will want to meet. But that’s just fine by me.

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I went to an estate sale on Saturday and acquired some
items that mean the world to me. No one knows why. Here’s why.

A few years ago, the woman who gave birth to me had a stroke that
changed her personality so drastically that I found myself an
orphan in mid-life. She had always been a difficult person, and I
had labored for my whole life to have a place in hers. I had
acquired all the academic bells and whistles, had become a
respected professional, and had done a sometimes heroic job of
raising three children as a single mother. But nothing I ever did
impressed her or was enough for her; and in the end she showed me
the door because I was, in her terms, a poor specimen of a human
being.

She survived the stroke; but our relationship did not. And
that is enough said about that. I found great freedom in accepting
my situation and moving on with my life. She wanted me gone; I gave
her what she wanted. For the first time, there was no voice whining
in my ear that I wasn’t good enough.

A few months later, a story on Good Morning American snagged my attention.
A lovely young woman in her mid-thirties, also cast out by her birth family without
justification, had actually put herself up for adoption. And she
had found a lovely second family. I considered the ad I would have
written. “Lovely little family of four, all outstanding over
achievers, seeks parents and grandparents. Looking only for love
and companionship, holiday celebrations, loving phone calls.”

It was only a fantasy, of course. But fantasy has often gotten me
through some of the harder places in life.

Perhaps the central difference in my birth mother and myself is the ability
to nurture. I’m not quite sure how an Earth Mother like me sprang from an Ice
accept her as she is.

Queen, but I did. I don’t fault her for what she didn’t have. I
But as a born nurturer, I have to have someone or some thing to take care of.
Of course there were my children when they were little. And even now they
are adults, I can still give them some nurturing, although not as much.
But now they are on their own, my days are bracketed by the need
to care for my two Golden Retrievers, Melody and Rhythm. Every morning
and every afternoon, I feed them and walk them to the enchanting
little pond that some of the condos in our development back
up to. And this routine was especially comforting in the days
when I was still hurting from my mother’s ultimatum and
wishing I could advertise us for adoption.

The path to the pond winds through a grove of lacy
eucalyptus trees, past a condo in our development with a greenhouse
window facing the path. Now all these units are rather old. They
were built in 1978 when greenhouse windows were quite the “in”
thing. As Melody and Rhythm and I passed by day after day, month
after month, I noticed that this particular window’s display
changed with each month and often featured ducks, a tribute to the
mallards that inhabit the pond. At Christmas, the window had
caroling ducks in tiny Dickens outfits holding tiny song books. At
Easter, there were ducks and bunnies and pastel eggs. For July,
teddies dressed in red white and blue and lots of those .99 cent
flags. At Thanksgiving the window held a blend of pilgrims, ducks,
and autumn leaves. Then Christmas and the web-footed carolers would
come round again. In between, the window defaulted to a display of
tiny lighthouses, rustic bears, bald eagles with spread wings, and
a pair of tin lanterns. And now and than a new trinket appeared.

The person responsible for this fascinating whimsy was a tall,
thin, grey haired woman, well over eighty. Just about the age of my
former mother. She lived alone, dressed elegantly in expensive
subdued slacks and blouses, and always wore pearls. There were skis
in the garage and a set of golf clubs. In those days, she still
drove. Her regular routine was a trip to the grocery store around
four o’clock each day to decide what to cook herself for dinner.
She first noticed me because she loved my beautiful Goldens, and we
often passed by just as she was beginning or ending this daily food
shop. She’d wave when she saw us and would smile and say something
sweet to Melody and Rhythm.

I learned that her name was Lenore. I caught glimpses of her mahogany Windsor
chairs in her dining room as I passed each day. I saw the tiny beautiful
antique table in the perfect spot in the hall, the tiny spoon
rack above her miniature sideboard, and the glass-fronted
curio cabinets in the living room. I guessed she was a collector,
and that she was not from California. Her condo was an exquisite
blend of Williamsburg-style furniture that few people in
California are drawn to. But I, of course, loved it.
She was just the sort of mother I would have chosen.

Her monthly displays inspired me to decorate my own front
entrance each month. I didn’t have a greenhouse window, so I made a
front door wreath for each month and hung appropriate wooden signs
and ornaments on the tree by the door. Even the grumpy Homeowners
Association wrote me a letter complimenting my charming entrance.
Little did they know it was all because of Lenore and her
greenhouse window.

Lenore seemed to draw people to her. Most afternoons when the weather
was nice she would put off the store trip, and she would sit at the table
on her patio with several of the ladies who lived in the condos. They
would sip white wine from thin-stemmed crystal glasses and chat.
Their ritual included feeding the ducks who would come up to
her patio, flapping their wings if Lenore was late throwing
out their food. Often, Melody and Rhythm and I would be
walking by about this time, and Leonore and her friends
would wave as they threw food to the ducks.

Then, a couple of years ago, Lenore had a stroke. A widow from Connecticut,
she had moved to San Diego when her husband died to be close to her
children living here. So she had plenty of support from children
and grandchildren. She recovered enough to go on living in her
lovely condo with a live-in care giver; and even though she no
longer drove, she steadfastly maintained her old routine. Store in
the afternoon. Friends and duck feeding on the patio. Waving at me
and the retrievers. Church on Sunday. Always beautifully dressed
with pearls, but now she used her ski poles for support instead of
a cane. And the window changed each month just as before.

I came to count on that window. Her creative additions were mini surprises in
my day. Sometimes a new duck. Sometimes a single flower in a vase.
She was obviously a woman of great charm and creativity. Then, this
October, a month after she turned ninety, she died. I didn’t know
for a long time because nothing changed at the condo. There was
even a Christmas tree at Christmas. And the window displays went on
as before.But in early January, I began to see lots of picture
frames in the trash and a woman in the garage going through albums.
Eventually, I learned that these were her children deciding what to
keep and what to let go of.

I was profoundly sad, but her daughter staying at the condo kept
up the old ways. Window decorated. Afternoons with the ladies and
white wine on the patio. Ducks fed. I half hoped Leonore wasn’t really
gone but was on a long visit and coming back. Silly fantasy.
But the day I saw the blue glass vases were no longer in the window
in her bedroom, the truth became very real to me. She and I had loved blue glass vases.

This Saturday, I was one of the first to arrive at the estate sale. I knew exactly
what I wanted. And there they were, still in the greenhouse window,
with tiny price stickers on each one. I don’t know where the
caroling ducks went, or the bunnies or the patriotic teddies, but I
bought the default bears and lighthouses and lanterns. And a tiny
little Limoges heart box to remember her by.

Lenore didn’t really adopt me. But it was a fantasy that got me
through a sad time in my life. I don’t have a greenhouse window,
but I rushed happily home from the sale and arranged my treasures on
shelves in the guest room. And I go in often to stand
in front of them and smile. They mean the world to me.

And something else came from the estate sale, too.
I met Lenore’s son and his wife, and I got to tell them how
much Leonore inspired me. Yesterday I was out walking the
retrievers at the usual time, and they were leaving after closing
up her house for the last time. They made a point of waving to me
just as she would have done.

So prayers are answered. A part of my own family reconnected with me
after my wish went out to the Universe to belong. And now I will always
be able to look at Leonore’s little treasures and remember how
much she inspired and cheered me during a sad time in my life.
The ducks, too, are being looked after. One of her friends comes
by each afternoon about four to feed them as Melody and Rhythm and I go by on our walk.

Lenore's patio just as she left it

Lenore’s patio just as she left it

The ducks and the pond

The ducks and the
pond

The window empty for the first time.

The window empty for
the first time.

Lenore's eagles and lanterns


Lenore’s eagles and lanterns

The light houses

The light houses

Her bears

Her bears

Her January cardinals

Her January
cardinals

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I love Christmas decorations, and I collect them. I admit. Each year, I combine them in new ways. Here are some of my favorites this year.

Magic Dragons watching over our tree.

Magic Dragons watching over our tree.

Magic Dragons Watching Over Their Own Tree. .

Magic Dragons Watching Over Their Own Tree. .

Dragons at Home

Dragons at Home

The Cafe is Open.

The Cafe is Open.

Detail.

Detail.

Our Frosty.

Our Frosty.

Happy, Happy Holidays!

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