My books are worth their weight in silver

Like most homes, we have a small stash of 5 cent, 10 cent and 20 cent coins that pile up in a coin jar. This coin jar is used regularly so there is rarely any more money than five dollars in it. My youngest son can only take canteen money from that jar to pay for his garlic bread or frozen oranges  and I get to use my handful of silver when I head down to my local opshop/charity shop.

Books at my opshop cost anywhere from $1 to $5. I will often throw some coins in my bag and head down to buy myself a book. When I did this today, I was overjoyed to find some Charlotte Lamb, Carole Mortimer, Anne Mather and Penny Jordan reprints on sale. These were reprints from their later books but even these reprints are nearly 10 years old and out of print. I counted my silver and found I had enough money to buy 3 books, all with 2 novels in each binding. I chose the ones I would buy, went to the front of the shop and waited to be served. The woman ahead of me was buying some interior decorating magazines. These were being sold for $1, too. There was a woman hovering to my side and when it came to my turn to be served she said to the woman at the checkout “Give her the Mills & Boon 3 for a dollar. I just want to get rid of them”. It turns out hover woman was the manager.

Now her comment took me aback somewhat. This is an opshop. Is there a place for snobbery in an opshop? I expect a certain egalitarianism from my opshop. I have often seen Target shirts hanging beside Ben Sherman shirts here. I have seen Sportsgirl skirts next to Jigsaw skirts. Frankly, my Mills & Boons, clutched closely to my bosom, had, just moments ago, been sitting on a shelf alongside John Banville’s the Sea and V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life (ah! the sweet irony that they still sit on those shelves unpurchased). Isn’t shopping at an opshop an opportunity to give to a charity while benefitting from finding an item that is no longer easily purchased from mainstream retailers? For others it is a way to dress and clothe themselves while on a tight budget and for others it is a thumbing it to the big corporates in an attempt to be alternative.

Now this opshop only had 20 M&B titles which is quite a low amount in comparison with the opshop in the neighbouring suburb which has hundreds. And this was a good day! It often has none. Though on the one hand I was quite excited at the lower price so I hurried over to the shelves and chose another 6 books and bought 9 books for $3 (which being doubles means that I scored 18 new books today!) I was also angered. I wanted to shake my fist at the sky and shout “How could you denigrate these wonderfully written books. How could you value them less than a three year old tattered House and Garden”. But I didn’t. I did make a comment about literature snobs after I gave her my pennies.

I am offended on behalf of my reading love. My offense won’t last long as you develop a thick skin as an out-of-the-closet romance reader. But I choose to be affronted when my reading choices meet disdain, scorn and ridicule. I am going to love my books. And they are worth their weight in silver.

Postscript: Like most people, I buy my books from a broad range of places. Retailers, online, markets, opshops and second-hand bookshops. In anticipation of anyone reading this accusing me that if I felt that strongly about Mills & Boon why don’t I buy them new I would like to say that I only buy my in print Mills & Boon at full retail prices. And they are the books that are worth their weight in gold.

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Retro Romance Reading: Books 10, 11, 12 ,13

I became an obsessive fan of Mills and Boon and other category romance lines during the 1980’s when I was a young teen. So I decided to read some older titles. I also decided to combine this with the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge. So here I have 4 Mills and Boon written by Australian Women Authors.

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Of the four listed below, my only reread was Lynsey Stevens’ Ryan’s Return. I recall reading this as a teen and finding it – not romantic – but saddened by the actions of the adults around the two protagonists. Perhaps still a sign of the category fiction range at the time, but having a 23 year old sleep with a nearly 17 year old (both of whom were besotted with each other) feels very uncomfortable, though real, to me. For their parents then to insist on a shotgun wedding after which said 23 year old leaves without a word to anyone just worsens the feeling. To add to the mix our nearly 17 year old heroine falls pregnant and has twins. She is lucky enough to have the support of both her father and her in-laws. The main story takes place 8 years later when the hero finally returns to “claim” his wife and children. The strength of the story is that the author does not gloss over the long time the hero is gone. When it comes time to explain his absence to his children (and wife) he talks about how even adults can make mistakes, how having his hand forced made him lash out. How his behaviour during the first two years was abominable and though not excusing himself, it certainly explained some of his actions. As per most Mills and Boon, there is a redemptive Happily Ever After and one that, as a reader, I felt comfortable with. I also liked the sex scenes which, though they were signature torrid, they were not graphic nor did they use eyebrow raising allusions. For a category romance published over 30 years ago, I certainly felt it had aged well and was still readable and I can certainly understand why I have held onto my copy for all these years.

My other 3 choices I found in a second-hand bookshop. 2 titles were by Emma Darcy and one by Valerie Parv.

A Very Stylish Affair by Emma Darcy was perhaps my least favourite of the 4 books though readable enough that I finished it in a day. The out of the bottle red headed feisty heroine grated on my nerves as did the less than professional alpha lawyer hero. Of course, there was the stunning other woman also on the scene with the obligatory lack of communication and misunderstandings between the leading protagonists. I am still not sure why I read this book to completion…perhaps because I really liked the Lindfield/Sydney setting.

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On a completely different note, Emma Darcy’s The Shining of Love was compelling. Part of a series of books around a family of fostered siblings, this Mills and Boon has the out of the ordinary set up of the female protagonist being married (to a man she loved and respected) and turning down the male protagonist who fell in love with her at first sight and begs her to leave her husband (which she doesn’t). The book spans 18 months, there are parallel missing child storylines, the obligatory “other woman” and a series of coincidences that could have been trite but were handled very well by the author. Though I didn’t feel convinced by the protagonists as a couple, I did however, love the rest of the story.

Last of the pick was Valerie Parv’s Tasmanian Devil. Here is another book that I really enjoyed. A twist on the “alone on a desert island heiress learning to fend for herself” storyline, this is a classic Mills and Boon in that there was an alpha man saving his womAn, jealousies, misunderstandings and many other over the top, melodramatic scenes which make for a thoroughly enjoyable story. I particularly loved the sex scenes which were not at all graphic but filled with swoony allusions. My favourite line was:

Having read these four titles, I will continue on my journey for more Mills and Boon Australian publications throughout this year.

Eye candy, chest hair and the category romance cover

I love my category romance fiction books and, along with my love for the stories, I also love the schmaltzy cover art. For what can be more soothing at the end of a tiring day, than an easy-on-the-eyes image of a handsome man on the cover of your current read.

Mills and Boon Covers

Mills and Boon Covers

But for many years, I would get annoyed at the waxed, glistening pecs on a torso on so many covers.  Now, unless the book is about a male model/exotic dancer/personal trainer, I prefer the cover to reflect the character. You know, white coats for the medics, suits for the business man, kanduras for the sheiks, western shirts for the cowboys and a black T-shirt for the firies. And though I know that some readers like to see the muscle bound man on the cover, I find it very hard to reconcile myself to the hardened Montana cowboy or Australian outback station owner driving/flying to Helena or Barcaldine for their monthly manscaping appointment as it is contradictory to the character I am reading about. And the reality is, most men have chest hair. And it is lovely and it is normal.

I often wonder about historians in 3011. The apocalypse had been and gone with a second dark age where everything had been burnt and annihilated. However, there is a rare discovery of boxes of discarded category romances found during an archaeological dig. These boxes are the only insight into the early second millenium. After a long investigation, these learned historians come to the summation that thousands of years ago melodrama was the stance of the normal couple, women only wore flowing, backless dresses and men had no chest hair yet had really well-developed pecs and abs.

When I suggested on Twitter that cover artists were briefed to not make men hirsute, fellow romance reader and tweeter, McVane, reasoned:

@McVane: @VaVeros Instructed? I'm surprised. I had always assumed it was cos hairy chests are bloody too difficult to paint/illustrate.

This makes a lot of sense to me and I have to agree though, if you can be bothered searching, there are some fab cover illustrations from the 70s and 80s that are exceptions such as Anne Weale’s Passage to Paxos.

So, after a long hiatus from browsing the eharlequin website, I thought I’d have a quick look at the upcoming releases. And what a pleasant surprise it was to see a hairy chested man on the occasional cover. No longer did the men have prepubescent hairless physiques  but they represented a (kinda) norm. The buffed, oiled (squick me out) hero can still be seen in all his flexed (eww) glory over at the Blaze line. But the other lines are that tad bit more realistic (bwahahaha), and in my opinion, sexier. Though I wish HMB had used a  hot hot hot Westmoreland rather than a boring old stetson on a chair on this book. For the most part, cover heroes are all in suits (yum) and regular clothes (yay) with the occasional half-dressed-in-the-bedroom or sunset-on-the-beach-in-slightly-rolled-up-trousers scenes (hmmm).

I recall that sometime last year Harlequin/Mills and Boon ran a Twitter survey asking reader preferences for hair or no hair and I would like to think that the current changes are a reflection of the responses that they received.

And, for what it’s worth, I’d love to see more black haired, blue eyed heroes wearing a suit with their shirt opened only slightly at the neck.

Australian Romance Readers Convention 2011 – Part 2

In my day to day life, I have a few acquaintances who read and enjoy romance novels but it is a rare occasion to be surrounded by romance novel enthusiasts and authors and attending the Australian Romance Readers Convention gives you a chance to talk talk talk about romance novels without the fear that you are getting tiresome.

Here is the second part of my twitter influenced take (that is: 140 words or less per session)

Dinner – Bling and the 2010 Australian Romance Readers Awards – Winners

The ARRC2011 dinner was a dressed up, blinged up affair. An unofficial bling off had been issued and everyone came dressed to the nines. I felt that my tiara might give me the edge on others but unfortunately, Christine Darcas out-blinged everyone in her ballroom dancing, white sequin dress. It was bright & beautiful and her win was well deserved. For more pics there’s Bookthingo and ObsidianTears13 Flickr sets.

As for the favourite authors – there really was a strong Australian/New Zealand bias. Congratulations to Anna Campbell, Nalini Singh, Paula Roe, Jess Dee, Kandy Shepherd and Helene Young. For more details on the winners go to ARRA or Bookthingo.

The food was lovely and the company was splendid. There was much talking and cheer amongst all that attended.

DAY 2

Keynote: Cindy Gerard

Coming from Iowa, corn-fed Cindy Gerard had no idea that romance was the ugly step-sister of the publishing world. She (naively) sent her manuscript to LaVryle Spencer to critique who suggested CG send it to RWA .

Cindy addressed that she knew that she was talking to readers not writers so her talk was not going to be on her craft. She spoke about how, regardless of what you undertake in your life, it is the ability “to confine, control and dominate self-doubt” that will help you succeed. “Self doubt is a sneaky bitch” and can derail any career.

Cindy Gerard was funny, friendly and a lovely person throughout the convention. Stupidly, on each day I kept forgetting to bring my Marriage, Outlaw Style fave Cindy Gerard Silhouette for her to autograph but we did talk cowboy heroes!

Contemporary – The Resurrection of Contemporary Romances

Cathleen Ross, Amy Andrews, Lisa Heidke, Christine Darcas, Ros Baxter

Moderator: Kandy Shepherd

I was excited about this session as it’s my fave sub-genre. Unfortunately, the title was a misnomer as only 2 of the authors wrote contemporary romance. The rest were chick lit authors writing in the first person not the third. This difference was evident when asked for their fave authors. The contemporary authors listed SEP, Rachel Gibson, Crusie, Roberts whereas the chicklit authors listed Marion Keyes & Maggie Alderson.

That said, discussion was fun and lively. Authors articulated their craft, drawing on life experiences. Lisa Hiedke openly admitted to stealing from her own life, Amy Andrews & Ros Baxter on collaborative writing, the use/non-use of children, how much sexual description is enough (at which point Denise Rosetti’s books were described as 3 knicker reads) and the use/non-use of condoms in romance (do they get in the way or is it necessary).

Overall, a great session which would have set different expectations if it had been named Contemporary Romance vs Chicklit.

Category Series – 100 years and still going strong

Kelly Hunter, Melanie Milburne, Michelle Douglas, Paula Roe, Haylee Kerans (Harlequin staff)

Moderator: Annie West

I adore this sub-genres’s short, intense, contemporary stories so attending an intimate talk with these authors was a bonus. Annie West opened questions not only to the panel but to the audience too. Everyone discussed their first ever category read and why they chose to write in the genre.

The authors discussed how satisfying it is to read about alpha males who are at the mercy of the heroine. Kelly Hunter finds the power balance in relationships is important. Paula Roe is still mourning the cancellation of Harlequin Temptations.

Other topics were male virgins, the economy of words and tightly delivered emotions in the short story, tackling issues and the 40 year shift from low sensuality yet broader moral views to high sensuality with more conservative views.

The love promise has stayed core to the category series. The authors said criticism is fine – the reader always owns their response to the story.

By invitation – delegates panel

Cindy Gerard, Helene Young, Anna Campbell, Nalini Singh, Lexxie Couper, Keri Arthur

Moderator: Pamela Diaz (Convention Co-ordinator)

I chose to not take notes at this session. I enjoyed listening to the authors banter with each other about their writing experiences, their favoured genres, what they imagine they would be doi

ng if they weren’t authors. Bookthingo asked them whether they read the last page of a book (I won’t steal BookThingo’s thunder here but I will say that it was a fifty/fifty response). For more details please go to her website!

The convention was wrapped up at this point. It was another fantastic, intense weekend full of romance reading suggestions. My highlight of the convention has to be meeting all the wonderful Twitter folk I have been tweeting with over the last two years. Authors, bloggers, booksellers and readers….oh – and meeting Cindy Gerard, author of one of my favourite ever category romance rereads.

Sex, love and passion: the appeal of romance novels: the moderator responds

On Friday the 11th of February, I moderated a Romance Panel for the City of Sydney at Ultimo Library.

Kick off your Friday night talking about Sex, Passion and Love with our romance panel discussion. Join Mills and Boon author Annie West, romance scholar Sandra Barletta and book blogger, Kat Mayo along with Ultimo’s romance reading librarians in discussing romance fiction in the 21st century…

It was a fabulous night with an engaged audience, a wonderful panel and fantastic discussion that ensued. So fantastic that Ultimo Community Centre staff had to push us out of the building as we went beyond their closing time.

As the moderator for the panel I had my questions prepped and I knew that I wouldn’t have to prepare meaningful answers (ever the shallowreader).

From the left: Annie West, Sandra Barletta, Kat Mayo and Vassiliki Veros Photograph courtesy from BookThingo http://www.flickr.com/photos/bookthingo/

However, as the panel discussion progressed I found that I really wanted to give my point of view, too. I behaved and, with the exception of the last question and some library promotion, I left the answers to the panel. A transcript of the panel’s answers is available on BookThingo’s blog. I now would like to share my answers to the questions on the night:

Why do you do what you do in romance, of all genres (I’ll answer this in the vein of why do I promote romance reading as a librarian)

Public libraries are charged with providing equity and access of information to all.  My feeling had been that libraries and librarians were not treating genre fiction and it’s readers with equity. Throughout all my years as a librarian, romances not only were not purchased for library collections but there was also a certain attitude amongst staff and some borrowers that romance reading was secondary and that library budget money would not be devoted towards the genre. This annoyed me so I decided to support the underdog, climb onto my soap box and declare romance King until the shelves were populated and the staff accepting  of readers choices.

What have you observed as differences between romance in the past decade as opposed to romance in the 80s?

For me there are 2 standout differences:

1. Like Annie, the 80’s and prior were predominately written from the female point of view. During the 90’s and now in the 21st century there was a gradual shift to both the female and male point’s of view being written into a novel. In my opinion, this shift has been so strong that the way I personally categorise the books I read is that if it has both the protagonists’ points of view then it is a romance. If it is only a female or male point of view it is categorised as Chicklit or Ladlit.

2. The sex is much more explicit and, thankfully, turgid shafts and manhoods have made way for erections and dicks. A much more realistic reflection of contemporary language.

Some people think that reading the last page first is sacrilege. Do you?

I always read the last page. I  feel that “fairies must die” and have previously blogged about this.

Now about male leads. Why do we love rakes, rogues, cowboys, tycoons, sheikhs?

My favourite leads are Montana cowboys and the best friend/sibling’s best friend hook up. Journeys into someone else’s life, journey’s into a world quite foreign and the complete escape from the reality of our own lives. I tend to avoid romances set in Sydney and in Australia as I keep finding myself distracted by the setting of the book.

Kat, you said people get bored with just a kiss, but the obvious exception is Twilight. Can you discuss why it was successful?

As I haven’t read Twilight nor have I watched the movies I cannot answer this question. Though on a purely aesthetic basis – Team Edward.

Do you think romance has lost its stigma?

I think that some of the stigma associated with reading romance has dissipated for the following reasons.

1. Romance readers and romance publishers are leading the ebook revolution. This is acknowledged further by traditional book review magazines taking on romance reviewers.

2. The establishment of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and the Journal for Popular Romance have made inroads in bringing academic merit to the study of popular romance literature. Having been established for under 3 years it will be interesting the changes that will come forth over the next decade.

That said, there is still  a large amount of bias towards romance literature and a lot more work is needed from not only the reading and reviewing public but the publishers of romance, also.

What books would you suggest to a new romance reader?

My 1st question to the person venturing into reading romance would be: What do you normally enjoy and then I would select titles from there. I’m a strong believer in merging someone into a genre by using cross-over fiction titles though there are some definite titles that I never hesitate to recommend:

Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie

A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

How come book stores don’t have a romance section? Where can we buy romance?

Unfortunately, romance isn’t stocked in most bookstores because it relates back to the stigma question and bookstores don’t value their readers. I get my romance books from 2 sources Kmart/Target and from overseas. Either the Book depository or Amazon. I also get most of my books from the library but, it too, has it’s biases.

Fave authors? (the only one I answered on the night)

Vassiliki: Anne McAllisterJennifer CrusieVictoria DahlSusan Elizabeth PhillipsSuzanne BrockmannAnne Stuart, Rachel Gibson, Julie James and Melanie La’Brooy)

It was a very successful event and I feel it is apt that my moderator’s cherry was painlessly popped at a romance literature panel.

On why more fairies will die

It is a well known fact that every time someone reads the ending of a book before they start – a fairy dies.  I am not making this up. It is true. If you want to know more about the origins of fairies dying you must read BookThingo’s Spoiling a Happy Ending where the whole idea is explained, in depth.

Readers, in general, fall into two categories – those that can’t bear to know the ending of a book, who enjoy a story unravelling around them and read in anticipation of the final moments, and then there are readere who like knowing how a book ends so that they can enjoy the journey without the page turning anxiety of needing to know if the hero and heroine will make it in the end. I am of the latter proclivity. I will read the ending, assure myself that ends in a way that satisfies me and then I will start the journey. It is particularly good for me to read reviews with *spoilers* so I don’t have to read the endings.

In the case of spoilers, a fairy is only maimed. Perhaps a missing limb.

But let me tell you why I am this way:

I started reading the end of books at about 12 years of age. Up until then, for the most part, I had grown up reading children’s fiction which was funny, positively conclusive, life affirming and, in general, a happy read. Then I started entering the world of tear jerkers. Books where you are torn apart with grief.

I remember sitting in Marrickville Children’s Library reading Lois Lowry’s A Summer To Die horrified that Meg’s sister Molly dies. Horrified! Firstly, I was reading and sobbing in a public space that I was not comfortable in. (That may sound odd but, in actual fact, my local library branch The Warren Library in South Marrickville had been closed down a year earlier. I no longer visited the library daily but could go only once a fortnight)…..so anyway….I’m sitting in the corner sobbing with red blotchy eyes but yet unable to stop reading a compelling, touching story.

I learnt my lesson that day. I never again read a book in the library. All books were to be consumed at home. Reading was no longer public.

By the time I read Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved I became used to the idea that crying was just part of the story, as were dying people, manipulative relationships and finding your own way in life. To counter-balance these sadness filled novels I discovered the wonderful world of romance novels. And in particular, Mills and Boon.

Short and contemporary, they were easy to hide in your foolscap folder so that your father couldn’t see them when he was checking that you were doing your homework. And best of all they ended happily.

That is, until Anne Weale’s A Portrait for Bethany. In A Portrait for Bethany, Bethany ends up with the WRONG man. WRONG MAN! YES I AM SHOUTING! IT’S IS NEARLY 25 YEARS LATER AND I STILL HAVEN’T RECOVERED. After traumatic Bethany, I never trusted a book again.

So it would have been about…ummm…let say…..25 years ago that I started reading the back page of every novel I read. I read about 100 books a year so that comes to approximately 2500 dead fairies. Now, I did slip into complacency at one stage and stopped reading the last pages of any Harlequin Mills and Boon that I purchased. They were a given Happily Ever After. Guaranteed. The “formula” said so. I was safe! (let’s quickly re-calculate that number. Perhaps drop it to 1800 dead fairies).

Then disaster struck. Late last year, I purchased an auto-buy Harlequin Mills and Boon author, Lynne Graham. Now I adore Lynne Graham’s books. They have incredulous plots with engaging, emotional narratives leading the reader to be enthralled at how she manages to pull it all together. I was on the edge with The Pregnancy Shock but when it ended without closure I was horrified. I would have loved to have thrown the book at my wall but my wall has some lovely prints hanging off it so the floor had to do.

How could the author, editor, publisher, marketing group, janitor and building supervisor do this to Harlequin Mills and Boon readers. How could they do this to fairies? How could they misunderstand the reasons that any woman will tolerate those awful titles and mostly stupid covers is because the HEA is king. Forget Content is King. HEA is the absolute rule here. As romance readers, we will tolerate awful plots, shocking phrases (I’m looking at you Miss Paullina “she looked up at his face but it was as closed as a bank on a public holiday” Simons), ludicrous premises and sometimes Alpha-Brutes that you wouldn’t let approach you with a ten-foot barge pole. We readers will put up with all that for an HEA.

(Please Note: most romances are beautiful, brilliant, well constructed , wonderfully researched, emotionally charged and full of snappy dialogue that would make Al Jaffee proud).

The thing is that since The Pregnancy Shock I now distrust Harlequin Mills and Boon again. I now read their back pages just as I read the back pages of all novels. And sadly, I have come across several that end in an “…there’s more to come” way. And even more sadly, more fairies are dying than needs to be the case.

PS. Should you be a fairy killer and use twitter, remember to use #afairydies.