Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meditation on 2010 Romance Novel Titles

In late 2009, I reviewed the Romantic Times list of award nominees for that year and came up with some conclusions about their titles, particularly about historical romances. This past year, I was late on the RT nominees, but that's fine, because I am just in time to evaluate their 2010 list and the
Romance Writers of America 2011 RITA and Golden Heart finalists (for books published in 2010; some titles appear on both lists). Last time, my approach was haphazard, to say the least, but this year I have a larger pool--let me pause to emphasize that these are all award-nominated books, and therefore I am being magnanimous by only evaluating the "best" titles out there--to work from, and I am prepared once again to come to Startling Conclusions about romance novel titles. My approach is still haphazard, but I've expanded the artificially-created categories that I'm arbitrarily using, so it's totally more scientific, right?

Notable Players:

Nobility: As usual, having a title is a big deal in romance-land (particularly for historicals), and the clear winner was Duke, with 8 titles. Er, should that be title-titles? [Followed by Lord: 4, Lady: 3, King, Prince, Earl, and Countess: 2, Queen, Duchess, Baron, Royal, and "Gentleman": 1] I'm going to go ahead and put the two "Heiress" titles here as well. Total: 30 titles. My favorite: I Kissed an Earl.

Punctuation: This is my favorite trend. There were, naturally, a ton of series romance books using colons in ill-advised ways (eight titles), but the question mark made a strong showing as well this year, appearing in five titles. There was also one title that sported an exclamation point! My favorites (I can't choose just one): Hired: Sassy Assistant and, doubling up on punctuation, Marriage: For Business or Pleasure? Total: 14 titles.

Rogues: There was some speculation on Twitter that Rogan (he prefers to be known as "Rogue") was "in" as a hero name after I posted my review of The Master's Mistress. Not only is Rogue popular as a name, "rogue" was big in titles as well, carrying five novels alone, and there were an additional four with the synonyms "rebel" or "renegade" to recommend them. My favorite: Red-Hot Renegade. [Related: There were also five book titles that referenced rakes, scoundrels, or libertines. Those words have a somewhat more unsavory flavor, however, so I didn't include them in "Rogue" proper. Feel free to disagree violently in the comments.]

Death: A surprising number of titles were "deadly," "fatal," "lethal," or had something else to do with killing. I am going to chalk this up to genrefusion and move on. This category is so boring that I don't have a favorite title.

Christmas: As I noted in an earlier post on Christmas titles, they're the gift that keeps on giving. From the gag-worthy Christmas with Her Boss (... award-nominated, remember?) to my personal favorite, A Cop in Her Stocking, these books are apparently year-round favorites. Total: 10 + 2 novellas.

Notably Absent or Diminished:
  • Only 3.5 (one was a novella) mentions of millionaires or billionaires or tycoons or magnates. This has to be an ALL-TIME LOW. And as much as I hate the boss-employee trend that is so hot right now, there were only six titles that overtly referenced it.
  • Corollary: Only THREE Sheikh titles! What is this world coming to?
  • Only seven Scots titles. I feel like I personally have ordered at least 10 "Highlander" books this past year, so it surprised me that there were so few, especially considering there is a whole category for "Scotland-Set Historical Romance" in the RT awards. There was one, ahem, rogue title that went Irish instead.
  • Four "angel" titles. I don't think this is as much of a thing as we were led to believe it might be, and here is the evidence. Speaking of "evidence," that word was featured in two titles. 
  • The four "devil" titles pretty much cancel out the angel titles, right?
  • Marriage or weddings were mentioned in eleven titles. Brides or wives were mentioned in an additional eight. 
  • A solid 15 titles contained the words "night" or "midnight," with an additional seven calling on "dark" or "darkness." I'll also throw the four "moon" or "moonlight" titles on top of that heap.
  • Eleven titles referenced temptation or seduction in some way. Not surprising, as these are romance novels we're discussing. Another eight talked about kissing. 
  • Emphasizing the moral element, nine titles were "wicked" while four talked about sin. 
  • There were a few surrenders (4), some "forbidden" romances (3), and, interestingly (possibly only to me?), four "stranger" titles.
  • There must be something in it, because several titles referenced the sea, or sailing, or islands, or water. 
For those of you who are visual learners, I have made graphs to chart the most frequent themes and the most frequent "atmospheric" choices:
    These are the themes or words that came up most often in the pool of 100+ nominees. Someone interested in publishing the next big romance novel would be wise to include ALL of them, or at least as many as possible. For example:

    The Roguish Duke's Midnight Seduction: Island of the Deadly Christmas Moon?

    I think it has a nice ring to it. Feel free to submit your own Ideal Title in the comments.

    ETA other favorite titles:  Dad's E-mail Order Bride; Knight of Passion; They Almost Always Come Home; and Zoe and the Tormented Tycoon.

    Meditation Index

    Tuesday, March 22, 2011

    Sports I Love: Badminton

    I had a dream last night about playing badminton. Badminton is a racquet sport, like tennis, but without many of the tedious trappings, such as a fixed court or well-known celebrities. And unlike tennis, given a brief introduction, most people could probably play badminton, although there will be those moments where the bird gets hilariously stuck in a racquet or the server misses hitting it altogether. The main appeal of badminton for non-sporty people like me is its portability; my family had a compact badminton set that we could haul with us and play at picnics or on vacation (not that we ever did, but we could have). For me, the idyllic nature of badminton goes hand in hand with soft grass and sunny days.

    My childhood badminton set was a little worse for wear; the racquets were a mixture of electrical-taped wood and lightweight metal, and we had one "bird" that was made with actual feathers. It was just a conversation piece most of the time, until we lost track of the plastic ones or got them treed. The net had the holes it was supposed to have, and a few extra-large holes that were probably made by an over-enthusiastic participant. Along with croquet, badminton is a game that I remember playing semi-regularly during portions of my childhood, particularly with my mother. She wasn't particularly sporty, but we would set up the net in the front yard and stage epic badminton battles. I also seem to recall trying to teach the neighborhood children to play, but I'm sure that was about as successful as my attempt to play Dungeons & Dragons with them.

    When I was in high school, one of our gym units was on badminton, and I had the advantage of already knowing how to play due to my rigorous mother-daughter sessions. At the end of the unit, we played a doubles tournament, and my partner and I (we were both named Anna) made it to the semifinals. Why is that tournament one of my favorite memories from high school? Because it's a great feeling to excel at a sport, and to work so smoothly with someone else in a way that made high school gym not only tolerable, but enjoyable. As opposed my time on the basketball team, I was actually able to play the game, and I was good at it.

    The last time I played badminton, as far as I remember, was a picnic with co-workers from my tennis and literacy non-profit. Although I wouldn't ever give any of them a decent game on the tennis court (the racquets are too damn heavy . . . backhand, you say?), I am pleased to say that I managed to hold my own against the others on my boss's lawn. So yes, a large part of the reason I like badminton is because I'm good at it. Unlike many of the sports I've discussed here (see: figure skating), I can actually perform reasonably well. Of course, I'm not anything like those Olympic players who are so fascinating to watch, but I'm looking forward to the chance to play again. My family's badminton set--hole-y net, feathered bird, and all--is somewhere in my garage, and spring is finally here. Anyone want to play?

    Meditation Index

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    Book Review: The Red Wolf Conspiracy [2009]

    Local (Western Mass) author Robert V. S. Redick's debut novel, The Red Wolf Conspiracy, is a book that my David Eddings-loving teenage self would have thoroughly enjoyed. It has a big cast of characters, an expansive setting, and features sixteen-year old protagonists. One of my colleagues gave me an ARC of the book an eon ago, but as usual I didn't get around to reading it until I realized that there was an audio version (read by Michael Page). The benefit of this procrastinatory approach to reading things is that the sequel has come out in the meantime, and the third book's publication is imminent.

    There are two great powers in the world of Alifros, the kingdoms of Arqual and the Mzithrin. Tensions between the two have been simmering since the end of official hostilities several decades ago, but all that will theoretically end with an upcoming treaty sealed by a marriage between an Arquali girl and a Mzithrin prince. The great ship Chathrand, a 600 year old sailing vessel of immense size, has been commissioned to take the unwilling treaty bride, Thasha Isiq, to neutral territory for the ceremony. Pazel Pathkendle is a tarboy from a conquered Arquali territory with a magical gift for languages who becomes her ally as they gradually discover that the ship's mission is a cover for a much more sinister plot centered around the mysterious Red Wolf artifact. The novel's vast cast of characters includes several "woken" animals, a race of Lilliputian beings, the tyrannical captain and his ship's crone, a sinister spymaster, Thasha's aging war hero father and duplicitous stepmother, etc., etc. There are almost too many characters, but the action is fast-paced and the world that Redick has created is fully realized.

    Redick definitely violates the law of Do Not Create Complicated Fantasy Names That Will Make People Roll Their Eyes, and there are a few too many viewpoints and characters for an entirely smooth read, but I still ended up liking the book and will probably give the sequel a shot. 

    Grade: B

    Random Thoughts:

    I like supporting local authors, so it's nice to find one that writes in a genre that I love. I do think it would work for that young adult reader who is looking for a fantasy epic (or a parent who is looking for fantasy that isn't also sexy for their budding enthusiast), so I am tagging this post as YA. I also think it might appeal to that group of fantasy readers (like me) that enjoys shipboard narratives like the Temeraire series. The concept of a gigantic, ancient ship is just pretty awesome.

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes

    Tuesday, March 15, 2011

    Food Post! Masala Potatoes with Peas and Cilantro

    This recipe is from the Vegetarian Times Fast and Easy cookbook, and it is indeed both fast and easy. It includes ingredients that I usually have on hand (other than fresh cilantro), and I've made it several times. The peas add a nice, moist pop to the potato base, and the mustard seeds add a tiny crunch. Most recently, I made it with a 17-month-old assistant who has a limited vocabulary, but really enjoys cooking.


    2 large russet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
    2 T canola oil
    1 1/2 t black mustard seeds
    1/2 t cumin seeds
    1 medium onion, diced (1 1/2 cups)
    1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    1/2 t grated fresh ginger
    1/2 t ground turmeric
    1/2 t curry powder
    1 cup frozen peas, thawed
    1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
    1/2 cup water
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

    1. Put potatoes in large pot with enough salted water to cover by one inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 7-9 minutes (until tender). Drain and set aside. I didn't have large potatoes so I went with four smaller ones. My young assistant watched avidly as I chopped them into rounds and stuck them in the water, which I was told was "hot."

    My 1/4 inch is highly variable

    2. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat; add mustard and cumin seeds. Stir until mustard seeds start to pop (2 to 3 minutes). Add onion and pepper, stir til onion is translucent (5-7 min). Add garlic, turmeric, curry, and ginger, and cook a few more minutes, stirring occasionally.

    My assistant held the measuring spoons for the cumin and mustard seeds, as well as the curry powder. He helped me sauté the onions, from a safe distance (they were also "hot").

    Are they translucent yet? How about now?

    3. Reduce heat to low, and add potatoes and water. Stir to combine. Add peas and cilantro, stir gently, and season with salt and pepper.

    The Final Product
    My assistant was not a fan, but he's young, so maybe he'll learn to like it. In the meantime, more for me! I'm sure that this would be a good side dish for something (and indeed it is in the "side dishes" section of the cookbook), but I've been eating it as a main dish . . . because I can. The recipe also invites you to serve with flour tortillas, but obviously naan would be a better choice. Serves four.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Book Review: Wildthorn [2009]

    On the surface, Jane Eagland's Wildthorn was tailor-made for me. After all, during my brief career as an academic (ask me nicely and I will show you the vestigial master's degree in English Literature, assuming I can locate it) I used to have aspirations of a Victorian nature. The cover features a corset close-up, and the book's tagline promises that while "Treachery locks her away. Love is the key." Wildthorn made it to the top of my list as soon as I discovered through a review that this redemptive love was of the girl-girl variety. I can't help my biases!

    Although she believes that she's on her way to a new life as a companion after the untimely death of her physician father, Louisa Cosgrove instead finds herself locked away in a Victorian mental institution, Wildthorn Hall. She assumes that the reason is her "unnatural" attraction to her cousin Grace, although at first she presumes that her imprisonment is simply a mistake. After an abortive escape attempt leads to her transfer to one of the more unpleasant wards, Louisa finds love and salvation in the form of one of the prison guards, Eliza.

    Grade: B-

    As I said, this should have been the perfect book for me, but somehow it wasn't. I didn't love the mix of present tense for the current scenes and the length and volume of the flashbacks. Although Eagland explores some great issues--women's rights, love between women, sexual abuse, the experience of those condemned to live their lives in frighteningly mismanaged institutional settings--it sometimes felt more like an academic discussion than a novel. I desperately wanted to buy in to the romance between Louisa and Eliza, but I was lukewarm at best after it seemed to develop almost overnight.

    One thing I did enjoy was Eagland's characterization of Louisa's drive to become a doctor, which was the motivation both for her "acting-out" behaviors and for her family's nervousness about her suitability for society. It was somehow not surprising that she was institutionalized not for the more obvious "sin" of being attracted to women, but for daring to dream of helping people in a way that was inappropriate both for her sex and her station.

    ETA: I'm probably being hard on Wildthorn because I had such high expectations--because it does hit several areas that I dearly love. It was a good book! I enjoyed it. I just wanted it to be MORE, I guess. I look forward to reading the next lesbian Victorian YA novel, which hopefully will be written soon.

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: No

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Book Review: The Master's Mistress [2010]

    I first became aware of The Master's Mistress by Carole Mortimer while I was reviewing (and tweeting) series romance titles, as I do every month when I work on my paperback order. What caught my eye was the description:
    Hired to catalog the Sullivan House library, Elizabeth Brown is in her element. Books she can handle. Men—well, she's a little less experienced in that department. She's certainly not at all prepared for the unexpected arrival of the master of the house, Rogan Sullivan!Rogan is dark, dangerous and wickedly sexy—exactly the kind of man Elizabeth has read she should stay away from. But it's not long before Rogan is showing his virgin librarian reasons she should let herself be seduced by a masterful rogue….[emphasis mine]
    There's nothing that amuses me more than a good "sexy librarian" stereotype, and I went into this expecting the book to be bad. It's a series romance, after all, and I've read some truly terrible books in that genre. I was prepared to forgive a certain amount of awful dialogue, inept description, one-dimensional characterization, transparent plot "twists," and a sudden final lurch toward marital bliss. I was even prepared to deal with the painful "virgin heroine" trope. I wasn't hoping for any creative subversion of the stereotype (such as my own alternate version, where she runs off with the hero's sister, who appreciates her love of rare books), but the flaws would have been bearable if the character had actually been a librarian!
    This spiky woman--a lecturer in History who catalogued libraries in her spare time, for heaven's sake!--simply wasn't his type. Absolutely not. [66]
    That's right, the largest crime that The Master's Mistress is guilty of committing (and there are many, not least of which is its inane title) is that its heroine is not, in fact, a librarian, but a college professor who catalogs books in order to escape from the trauma of her parents' relationship. FALSE ADVERTISING, I SAY! Needless to say, this revelation did not make me more disposed to overlook the book's other flaws.

    Given my understandable outrage upon my discovery of the horrendous and traumatizing fraud perpetrated by the book's description, I will try to summarize the plot as best I can:

    FakeLibrarian: I love sexy vampire novels! OMG the son of my dead employer looks just like the hero in my book.
    Rogan "Rogue" Sullivan: I am mysterious and hate my dead father and I used to be in the military and am an American, even though this book is set in England. I like instability. I will never be tied down.
    FakeLibrarian: I like stability and routine. And everything about your hot body, even though I am a virgin and also hate you, for some reason.
    [sexytimes on the beach]
    Rogue: My mother died and it was my father's fault.
    FakeLibrarian: My mother died and it was my father's fault.
    [sex in the kitchen]
    Rogue: Holy shit, you're a virgin!
    FakeLibrarian: Don't stop! It will never work out between us, but you're right, I should mend fences with my father before he dies, too.
    Rogue: I want to go with you! And you're right, we are too different.
    Both: Let's get married! And have multiple kids!

    Grade: D

    Random Quotes, or Rogan's Amazing Throbbing Thighs:

    "Rogan gave a low groan in his throat as he felt his body respond to her, his thighs stirring, hardening, pulsing. Aching!" [61]

    "As the hard throb of his thighs now testified!" [122]

    "...he rasped stupidly, his thighs throbbing anew just at the thought of having Elizabeth offering herself to him like that." [129]

    Seriously, he should get that thigh condition looked at; it sounds painful. And, the lines of the book I most related to . . . books don't kill people, bad romance novel-inspired rage kills people!

    "'Books don't harm people. They're here to provide knowledge. Entertainment. They're my life.' Her voice wobbled emotionally. 'My friends,' she added shakily as the tears once again fell softly down her cheeks." [107]

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes (x2)