Monday, September 10, 2018

North and South

A couple of months ago a friend loaned me her DVD box set of the BBC drama North and South. It's been more than two decades since I read the book in high school, and all I remember is that it was bleak and depressing, and that I had to write an exam on it. So I'll admit, I left the DVDs sitting for ages before I finally thought I should get it over with and watch them so I could give them back to their rightful owner. I am extremely grateful to that friend for making me watch North and South. (Thanks, Andrea!)

The advantage of two decades having passed is that I no longer felt like I needed to sit an exam at the end of it, and the story felt completely new. For the life of me, I couldn't remember how the story was going to end!

At seventeen I didn't appreciate Elizabeth Gaskell's artistry. Now, as an author and writing teacher, I finally understand the skill that went into creating this book (and yes, maybe the BBC, Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage had a lot to do with bringing it to life for me too).

When I teach writing, I teach that character growth and change are the core of every story; that the transformation of the characters is what hooks readers. The skill of this novel is that it isn't only the main character who experiences a transformation, but rather three central characters: Margaret Hale, John Thornton and Nicholas Higgins. These three characters are inter-twined, each affecting the other and bringing about change in one other.

When I read this book in high school, I was taught that it was a 'social novel', all about the industrial revolution, class, and a society in change. Even though I went to an all girls high school, no one thought to mention that it was, first and foremost, a Romance. And no one made a point of the fact that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her book about a strong female main character long before it was fashionable, or even acceptable. Maybe that was a good thing; maybe our teachers wanted us to think that it was quite usual for women to be the central characters in good literary fiction, that women had just as much right to respect in literary works as men.

I'm not so naive now. I know that even today, in the 21st century, books with female protagonists are dismissed as less important than those featuring men. And any book even remotely tainted with the label of Romance is seen as inferior and somehow unliterary and insignificant.

How anyone can believe this, when authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell have been creating books like this for more than a hundred years, is beyond me. North and South is primarily a love story. But it's also social and political commentary, with a hefty side dose of philosophy. It's deep and tragic and moving and thought-provoking. It is the proof that there is nothing inconsequential about Romance, and that women absolutely deserve their place on the literary stage.

Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and the ultimate brooding hero, John Thornton (Richard Armitage)

Friday, July 27, 2018

My impressions of the 2018 RWA Rita Awards' Ceremony

Disclaimer: There’s a lot of talk happening on Twitter and elsewhere about the Rita Awards’ ceremony and particularly about Suzanne Brockmann’s lifetime achievement award acceptance speech - most of it by authors way more qualified to give their opinions than I am. I didn’t attend the actual event and only watched it via live stream, and I live in South Africa rather than the US, so you might well wonder why you should read my opinions on the event. My answer is that I’m an RWA member and a romance writer, and that’s all the reason I need to add my voice to the din.

* * *

A week ago, at the RWA’s national conference in Denver, Colorado, the 2018 Rita Awards’ ceremony was held. I set an alarm for 3am local time to watch the event live on the RWA’s website in support of my friend Natasha Anders who was nominated for her contemporary romance The Wingman.

Natasha’s category was the second of the night, and I was sorely tempted to power down my laptop and go back to sleep after the winner of her category was announced (sadly, Natasha didn’t win, but I hope she knows just how awesome she is for having been nominated!). I’m glad I didn’t, though, because the rest of the show was well worth watching.

There were three things that stood out for me at this year’s awards ceremony:
  1. Acceptance Speeches: I called this ceremony a ‘show’ and since I was watching it at home on a screen, it felt very much a TV show. Like any awards ceremony, all those “I’d like to thank my editor, my agent, my parents, my kids and my fans” speeches can get a little dull, important as they are. Same for the little video inserts of writers talking about their writing friends, which all got a bit ‘samey’ after a while and didn’t really add value for me as a viewer. The moments that stood were those where the authors got personal: the winners who shared the trials and hardships of their journey, and who used their speeches to motivate other writers, like when Helen Kay Dimon said that “writing is a solitary business, but surviving it isn’t”. But I think my personal favorite was Stephanie Rowe’s speech, as read by Trish Millburn, about fighting through the tough times in our lives, which felt as if it was directed right at me!
  2. Suzanne Brockmann: So much has been said about Suzanne’s acceptance speech for the Nora Roberts’ Lifetime Achievement Award. I won’t re-hash it all here, except to say that she rocks. Her speech was passionate, honest, challenging and brave, and I admire her so much for standing up for what she believes in. She urged the audience to choose right over nice, to be brave. It inspired me, made me feel stronger, more determined and more courageous. You can watch it here - it's roughly at the middle of the video. 
  3. Kristan Higgins: Suzanne’s speech came in the middle of the ceremony, and afterwards the program returned to more awards being given out and more acceptance speeches. Watching from my bed in South Africa, unable to experience the mood of the room, it seemed as if everyone was vehemently trying to ‘carry on as normal’ and ignore the elephant that had been released into the room by her speech. I was disappointed. Was everyone going to ignore her stirring words and pretend it hadn’t happened? Did they not know what to say? Did they disagree? Were they too afraid to comment? Sure, some of the winners weren’t American and maybe felt that it was not their place to address the issue, but as members of the human race, and as members of RWA, I’d say this is an issue that affects us all. Then Kristan Higgins won the award for best mainstream novel with romantic elements. She was the only winner other than Suzanne Brockmann to use her platform to make a difference, and to speak out for marginalized authors. I was already a Kristan Higgins fan before her acceptance speech, but now I’m an even bigger fan.

Watching online it was impossible to tell how these speeches were received by the audience, but I gather from friends who were there that the response was mostly very supportive, though I gather there were some sour faces and a few walk outs. (Really - romance writers who took offense at the idea that everyone is worthy of love?!)

Suzanne Brockmann at the 2018 Rita Awards

Clearly, I only follow authors on Twitter who share my views, because I haven’t seen any negativity following the ceremony, but I gather that a great many RWA members have spoken out against Suzanne and Kristan getting ‘political’ at the awards ceremony. Should anyone be reading this post and agreeing that politics and romance should be kept separate, I’d like to say three things:
  • Romance novels are about relationships between people. That’s not political. That’s part of being human. So authors talking about the relationships between people, about the way that other authors are treated, about the way that our characters are treated, is not politics. It’s part of what we do and what we are. Our books do not exist in isolation. They are a reflection of the wider world, and we should be concerned with how we reflect the world in our books. Again, that’s not politics, that’s part of being a romance writer and a decent human being.
  • On the other hand, everything we do is political. The choice to people our books only with white, straight characters, or to include a diverse range of characters, is a political decision. The choice to frame people who are different from us as friends, allies and superiors, or as foreign, subservient or villainous, is a political decision. Even when we think we’re not being political, we are.
  • Neither Suzanne Brockmann nor Kristan Higgins advocated voting for a specific party or candidate. They therefore did not ‘get political’, in my opinion. They called on their audience to vote for what they believe in. That’s a call to action, and one I ferociously defend. I live in a country where people died for the right to vote, where people were exiled and imprisoned for fighting for the right to vote. It is a basic human right that is still denied in many parts of the world, and it saddens me that too many people in democratic countries take that right for granted and do not exercise it. I support every person, whether they’re a politician, an author, a school kid, or the person I pass by on the street, who promotes this call to action.

I whole-heartedly endorse the RWA’s push to be more inclusive and to repair the mistakes of the past. I encourage them to ignore the naysayers and to stand by their convictions, and I would further encourage them to re-affirm their support of outspoken members like Suzanne Brockmann by inviting her back to speak again at the RWA national conference in the near future.

The RWA (and other organizations like it) have so much more to gain by being inclusive, by standing up for the right of all its members to be treated with equal respect and fairness, and by embracing diversity, than by appeasing those who resist change.

Sure, they may lose members who find it offensive to give equal opportunities and respect to people of color or members of the LGBTQ community or other religions, but personally I don’t count that as a loss. Besides, that loss would be offset by the gain of large numbers of new members who previously felt marginalized and excluded.

If the RWA gives in to pressure from members who want to keep the organization white, straight and Christian, and returns to that ‘safer’ time when they avoided anything that might be divisive or cause offence, they have so much more to lose: loss of members who believe in basic human rights such as equality and dignity (me included), loss of their role as representatives of and advocates for the wider writing community, and loss of respect in the global writing community. They will lose their relevance as well as the majority of their financial support.

However, if they stand by authors like Suzanne Brockmann, Kristan Higgins, and all those many, many marginalized LGBTQ and non-white authors, the RWA has so much more to gain: international respect, the ability to claim that they represent the entire romance writing community, and a much wider financial base.

As an RWA member, and someone who has faith in what this organization stands for, and what it can achieve, I hope they choose the latter course.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Exclusive excerpt of Last of the Summer Vines

This excerpt, which I haven't yet shared anywhere else, is the moment when Sarah meets her new business partner and co-heir Tommaso di Biasi:

The kitchen hadn’t seemed so far away when I was a kid. I made my way down through the darkened house, not switching on any lights. Even if I could remember where the switches were, I didn’t want to turn myself into a target on the off-chance there was an intruder.
The vast kitchen with its high-beamed ceiling was eerily full of looming shadows, and the yellow lamplight spilling from the single overhead lamp did nothing to dispel the gloom. I filled the electric kettle, then rinsed out the teapot to brew a fresh pot. But tea wasn’t going to be enough to silence my grumbling stomach. Had the considerate person who’d left milk and made up my bed also left food? There was nothing in the kitchen itself, but John always loved biscuits with his tea. That would be better than nothing. So I headed into the pantry, and was still groping for the light switch when I heard a sound that turned my veins to ice. I froze. The outer kitchen door creaked open.
The wind blowing open an unlatched door? Ghosts?
But it was worse than ghosts. The high-pitched creak turned into an ominously final bang as the door shut again, and then there were heavy, booted footsteps across the kitchen floor.
My heart leapt into my throat. It was beating so hard, I was sure I was at serious risk of a coronary. Forget the stress of a corporate job. This was a million times worse.
With my heart thudding loudly enough against my ribs that the intruder could probably hear it on the other side of the pantry door, I clung to the door handle, steadying myself, relieved to be hidden here in the pitch dark. With my free hand, I groped behind me, and my fingers hit cold iron, rounding on a solid, heavy handle.
The door handle twisted unexpectedly beneath my fingers and I squealed, louder even than the handle had, giving myself away. The pantry door swung open, and all my blood drained to my toes.
‘Sarah?’ He was a big man, tall, broad-shouldered, and built like a bouncer.
He reached past me, and I flinched back, swinging with all my might just as the tiny pantry flooded with cold white light.
In the moment before my weapon connected with solid flesh, I glimpsed the intruder. He was dark-haired, bearded, and terrifying. He grunted and staggered back, clutching his head.
‘What the hell?!’ His accent was thick, not immediately traceable, but he spoke in English without even thinking, I noted, as I gripped the heavy metal object close to my chest.
And he knew my name. Oh heavens.
Probably not a burglar after all.

If you'd like to read more of Last of the Summer Vines, you can download it from Amazon, iBooks, Nook, Kobo and Google Play.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Book trailer for 'Last of the Summer Vines'

My new HarperImpulse book releases on 29th June. While we wait in breathless anticipation for its release, I've made a little book trailer as a teaser. Enjoy!

Last of the Summer Vines is currently available on pre-order on Amazon, iBooks, Nook, Kobo and Google Play.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Royal Wedding Fever!

I've been a royalist since I was a child. I grew up in South Africa, at that time the back end of the planet and hopelessly out of touch with the wider world. My German grandmother used to receive shipments of German magazines from abroad, and those magazines were like manna from heaven - a gateway to the larger world. Though the Germans ousted their own royals a century ago, they're passionate royalists, and their magazines are littered with stories of the European royals as well as the British. Poring over those magazines helped me bond with my grandmother, and left me with a life-long passion for royalty.

Yesterday's wedding was the fourth British royal wedding I've watched live. The first was the grand ceremony when the Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer. As it was a school day, my primary school arranged for each class to walk to a neighbouring house to watch the wedding live. I don't remember much of the wedding itself, but I remember being packed into some stranger's living room with all my classmates. Since that was still during the height of apartheid, and the British musicians union was boycotting South Africa, all the music sections of the service were blanked out. Boy am I glad those days are gone!

In a day filled with so many magic moments, it's hard to choose just one, but this one, of the  bride and groom gazing deep into one another's eyes, is what the day was all about for me: magic, romance, love, passion.

Of all the royal weddings I've watched since (which includes a few European ones) yesterday's was particularly special for me. I know a lot of people are saying that, because it was so different, because it felt so intimate and personal, because it felt modern and accessible, but for me it meant more because it's exactly the royal wedding I'd envisioned for the couple in my first contemporary romance novel.

In Waking up in Vegas, European vintner Max and American cocktail waitress Phoenix marry in Vegas, in a quickie wedding complete with Elvis and glitter guns. When she wakes the next day with amnesia, brought on by a mix of sleeping tablets and champagne, Max has a hard time convincing Phoenix to stay married to him. That task gets even more monumental when he unexpectedly inherits the title of Archduke of Westerwald. The last thing Phoenix wants is the responsibility and the attention of being a princess, so she does the one thing she does really well: she runs.

What would you do if you suddenly found yourself married to a prince, and in the centre of all that attention, your life no longer your own?

Since a secret Vegas wedding isn't an option for an Archduke, Max not only has to win back the love of his life, but he also needs to convince her to marry him again - this time in a big, public royal wedding. The wedding I'd choose for them is the one we saw yesterday - family, friends, flowers, a gospel choir singing Stand by Me, followed by a coach ride through quaint streets. Since Phoenix has no family, she too would walk down the aisle alone, holding a simple bouquet, and throughout the ceremony, the bride and groom would hold hands, barely able to take their eyes off each other.
The romance writer in me just couldn't get enough of it!

If you're anything like me, and yesterday's royal wedding just whet your appetite for more, why not give Waking up in Vegas a try - it's the perfect romantic royal read, even if it starts with a most unconventional royal wedding.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Trouble with Mistletoe

Hollywood might be a little slow in waking up to the buying power of women viewers, but a group of three women filmmakers certainly aren't. Their subscription movie service, Passionflix, is Netflix for women who love romance novels. In the US, the site offers a wide range of romantic movies, including many golden oldies, but for us here in South Africa, we only have access to their original content.

The best thing about Passionflix is that all their original movies are adaptations of successful romance novels. Wisely realising that romance readers are a built in audience, they're tapping into this pool of ready-made stories by turning some of the biggest selling novels of the genre into movies.

In last week's post I spoke about my love for Hallmark movies, especially all their feel-good Christmas movies, but they do have flaws: the plots are often thin, the conflicts weak, the characters' motivations inconsistent, the dialogue corny - and that's just the writing! This is where Passionflix has gotten it so right. By adapting books that already have great writing, strong conflicts and well-developed characters, they already guarantee a much higher quality movie experience.
And unlike Hallmark, Passionflix doesn't keep the content family friendly. These are movies made for adult women, and they don't close the bedroom door!

Of Passionflix's three full length movies (and one 'quickie'), my absolute favourite so far is (surprise, surprise!) a Christmas movie, The Trouble with Mistletoe. Based on the second book in Jill Shalvis' Heartbreaker Bay series, this movie features a steamy love story, some snappy dialogue, gorgeous lighting and settings, and, best of all, a gorgeous hero (none of those rather bland, square-jawed heroes Hallmark favours, but an honest-to-goodness swoon-worthy hero).

I've known of author Jill Shalvis for years (and heard her speak at the RWA conference in San Diego), and I've had a number of her books on my Kindle for ages, but it was only after watching this movie that I started to read her Heartbreaker Bay books. I'm loving the books, and now I can appreciate how closely the Passionflix writer(s) have kept to the original story, which is a rarity in movie adaptations.

Whether you choose to read the book or watch the movie, do yourself a favour and explore the world of Heartbreaker Bay. And if you're in South Africa, and not yet ready to commit to a subscription to Passionflix, The Trouble with Mistletoe is also available to watch through Amazon.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Now that's my kind of movie!

If you've been to a movie theatre in the last five years, and you're a woman, chances are you shook your head and asked "but what is there for me to watch?" Unless you're into paying an arm and a leg to watch Superhero Movie #183 or Fast & Furious #800, the answer is "nothing"! (Well, except Star Wars, but seriously, who doesn't want to watch Star Wars?) I remember a time when my local cineplex used to offer 'Girls Night Out' themed evenings. They haven't done that in ages.

Hollywood says they don't make movies for women because women don't go to the movies. I beg to differ. Women don't go to the movies because Hollywood doesn't make movies that women want to watch.

Instead, it's been left to TV networks to make the kind of movies women want to see, mostly the Hallmark and Lifetime channels. I'm not ashamed to say I love Hallmark movies. Yes, they're schmaltzy and low budget (after all, they are made for TV rather than big screens), and sometimes the scripts and acting are cringe-worthy, but they have all the feel good emotions of the romance novels I love.

Clearly I'm not alone in this. According to the Washington Post, more people watched Hallmark's The Christmas Train than went to the cinema to see the new big budget Murder on the Orient Express. Hallmark's holiday movies are so popular that last year the company made 33 of them!
(The freelance film crew member inside me rejoices, as that meant paying work for 33 film crews!)

This last Christmas, Netflix also joined the fray with their original movie A Christmas Prince. This movie is completely far-fetched, hugely derivative, and is a complete cheese fest. (And clearly Netflix couldn't afford researchers who could tell them that Europeans don't speak with English accents, or that the aristocratic titles they used for the fictional country Aldovia are real towns in England). But so what if it contains the corniest plot lines and dialogue of all time? Viewers are loving it!

Hollywood, take note: viewers are so starved for happy and romantic movies, they'll even binge watch an incredibly cheesy Christmas movie.

A Christmas Prince has all the feel good factor of a romance novel, and a guaranteed happy ending, and as the Washington Post article pointed out, the world is a dark enough place right now that we all crave something light and happy. Best of all, it's not only women who are watching!

If, like me, you're a dedicated romance reader and you'd love to see your favourite romance novels brought to the screen (but you'd prefer them without a side order of cheese) then I've got great news for you! But you'll need to check back here next week to find out what it is...