On every romance bestseller list in the UK right now (and, indeed, in plenty of countries worldwide) you find After You, Jojo Moyes’ sequel to her internationally bestselling Me Before You.
Although Me Before You has been out – and raved about – for some years now, I have only just read it. As readers we cannot chase every trend, but the popularity of the book, together with the publicity drive for an upcoming movie release, made me sufficiently curious to buy it and try it. Here is the trailer for what looks to be a warm, funny and moving film:
Now, I have a confession to make. I did not know a great deal about Me Before You before reading it, other than that it was a romance novel about a quadriplegic and the young lady hired to be his carer. Often, I prefer to read a book without examining too closely material such as reviews that may contain spoilers. I like to come to a book as a blank slate, ready to be pulled into an entirely new story that will captivate and surprise me.
I was captivated for so much of the book. Then, towards the end, came the surprise when the truth dawned on me: the ending of the book was not, as I had assumed, going to be happy. It was going to be terribly sad.
Was it naive of me to assume the ending would have been happier, a future for the main characters – love and togetherness? Perhaps. Or perhaps not, given that the book is marketing as romance. As Dr. Laura Vivanco, an independent scholar of popular romance fiction, told the Huffington Post: ‘as far as regular readers of novels which are marketed as “romance novels” are concerned, the definition of “a romance novel” does include a happy ending.’
In recent years there has been a move toward more transparency in the ever-growing romance genre in terms of content. Cover art for books with erotic content make clear that the story is sensual. Some imprints promise happy endings; some, like Clean Teen Publishing, promise stories with no bad language or sexual content.
I wonder: should there also be transparency concerning romances with unhappy endings? Here is why:
- Many readers view romance as intrinsically escapist and uplifting, and therefore expect a happy-ever-after of some sort in a book marketed as romance.
- Readers who expect a happy ending but encounter a sad one may be disappointed or, worse, upset.
Do you think it would be beneficial to readers to introduce a categorisation system, much like the film industry uses, to allow readers to know at a glance the basic content of a book? Or do you think readers must accept that unless they want to research a book before reading it (thereby knowing the ending before beginning to read), they will sometimes be left upset by an ending? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Siesta: as I write in my novel Indiscretion, it is ‘that sacred hour of the afternoon when Spaniards retire to the coolness of their rooms, blinds drawn, to escape the stifling heat’. In my Andalucian Nights series, the siesta is part of the culture of the Spain in which I situate my stories.
In Indiscretion, set in the 1950s, Alexandra is a newcomer to Spain, having grown up in England, and she is unaccustomed to the heat:
She was becoming hot and weary. Maybe leaving her hat behind was not such a good idea after all, she thought, as she crossed an unshaded path and walked down the side of one of the apple orchards. She paused just long enough to catch her breath. This was a place to laze and abandon all idea of exercise. The air itself was persuasive, and it took an immeasurable amount of effort not to surrender to its wiles; but the walk was doing her good, clearing her mind of the shadows that often accumulate in the silent darkness of night. Indulging in a short siesta this afternoon would be just the thing to recuperate.
Not only is Alexandra considering a siesta to recover her energy, however; she is endeavouring to assimilate herself with the culture in which she is living. For at this time of the day Andalucía falls quiet: streets are deserted, cafes closed. People recharge, so that they may stay up later: to come together, to drink sangria and wine, to dance the flamenco, perhaps.
Twenty years into the future, Alexandra’s daughter Luz is the heroine of Masquerade. She is well used to the schedule of Spanish days, and allows herself to drift off in the shade after lunch:
Luz sailed to her favourite beach early, long before most bathers were up. The little secret cove, with its fine sand strewn with a multitude of chromatic shells, lay dreaming under a clear and moist blue sky. It was a lovely, isolated spot. She peeled off her outer clothes, under which was her bikini. The sea temperature was fresh as she floated alongside the rocks and there was a certain purity and cleanliness in the air like balm to the spirit. She spent an easy morning turning burnished gold on the white sand, swimming, snorkelling and idly watching the boats as they came and went from Cádiz’s harbour. At midday she unrolled her towel next to a large rock and lunched on the melon and delicious jamónIbérico Carmela had provided. She fell asleep in the shade of the rock, her thoughts hazy and her senses suddenly dulled by tiredness, the ceaseless sound of the sea and the drowsy heat of the afternoon.
The arrangement of the Spanish day to include a siesta in the afternoon creates a rhythm that perfectly suited my stories in Masquerade and Indiscretion. There is a romantic, dreamy quality to the naptime; a chance to drift into fantasy and hidden desire. Then, come the evening, there is so much more fire in the veins for passionate encounters beneath skies blanketed with stars.
As the Roman poet Ovid wrote: ‘There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.’ Furthermore:
Sleep, rest of things, O pleasing Deity,
Peace of the soul, which cares dost crucify,
Weary bodies refresh and mollify.
But what of the modern-day Spain? The siesta is far less entrenched in the culture today.
The BBC recently reported on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s proposals to legislate that the working day end at 6pm, which would curtail the traditional two-hour lunch break from 2 until 4. The reasons are economical, to improve productivity and efficiency, and sociological, to improve family life by allowing parents to spend the evenings with their children.
There is a call in Spain to move away the so-called ‘late-hours culture’ (prime time television is currently between the hours of ten and midnight) and to adopt a rhythm of life more in keeping with European countries like the UK.
But others in the country are concerned about the effect of such changes on the culture of Spain. Will shifting away from the siesta change the mood in Spain? Will there be less opportunity to unwind, and therefore heightened stress levels as the time ticks by? Will there be less interest in socialising in the evening? Perhaps, even, less passion?
Certainly, my heroines Alexandra and Luz would have lived differently had there been no culture of siesta in their times.
What do you think of the end of the siesta? I would love to hear your thoughts.I will leave you with the wisdom of TheIdlereditor Tom Hodgkinson: ‘I count it as a certainty that in paradise, everyone naps.’
Recently, I’ve been following the blog of Terry Dresbach, the costume designer on the show Outlander. Her research into eighteenth-century fashion is fascinating, and like many others I adore the statements she makes with the outfits for the court of Louis XV, particularly for the heroine, Claire:
I’ve no doubt that the fabulous costume design for Outlander will please the many fans of the book series, and create even more – because, quite simply, women love to dress up!
Take Kiera Cass’s series The Selection, for example. It is clear to me that the stunning costume design in the cover art has played a big part in the success of the books:
‘Fairy tale’ springs to mind when I look at these covers, and I think that is the truth underlying women’s love for beautiful period dresses: they make us dream as we did when we were young; they are so quintessentially romantic.
In my own writing, I love to weave in an occasion for which the heroine can dress up. InIndiscretion and Masquerade, I devised an annual masked ball at the family’s estate, El Pavon, a fiesta to celebrate spring and the end of the late orange harvest. Here is the heroine of Indiscretion, Alexandra, dressing for the ball:
At last she was ready. It had taken a while to don her outfit: the magnificent sultana’s costume was made up of six distinct parts. First, there was a transparent jerkin that moulded to her body perfectly and was worn under a bodice with loose-fitting sleeves, in such fine ivory-coloured silk as to reveal the delicate curve of her small breasts. Over the bodice came a short bolero jacket, entirely embroidered with silver thread, seed pearls and precious stones. Loose-fitting trousers, also in ivory silk, clothed her legs in graceful folds; they were bound at the ankles with a bias band and held in at the waist by a wide belt, similarly embroidered with pearls and stones.
Agustina had skilfully plaited the lustrous hair on either side of Alexandra’s head and brought it up into a braided chignon. The veil resting on her crown was fastened in place by the tiara her grandmother had given her. Dangling at the centre, was a pear-shaped pearl, resting on her forehead like an iridescent tear, while the matching pair of drop earrings swung gently from her ears.
Alexandra studied the willowy image gazing back at her from the mirror, excitement lending her pearly complexion a glowing hue. Her large eyes, rimmed with thick brown lashes, seemed a deeper green now, seen through the narrow slits of the black velvet mask drawn across her face. She ran her fingers lovingly over the fabulous necklace encircling her swanlike neck and lifted her head proudly, smiling back at her reflection. Her image really did call to mind the mysterious characters from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed writing this aspect of the book. The image of Alexandra in all her finery so resonated with me that when I came to write the second book of the trilogy, Masquerade, I had Alexandra’s daughter Luz dress in her mother’s costume for the ball. The scene is then set for both women to encounter mystery and passion.
Do you think fashion plays a part in romance? Do you enjoy romance novels in which the heroine, and hero even, get to dress up? Does period costume stir different sentiment to modern-day attire? Do you feel a pull toward fairy-tale fashion? I would love to hear your thoughts.
My dream has always been to write romance novels, and I am very fortunate that I live that dream every day. But if, for some reason, I could not have written romance, what then would I have dreamt of doing? Something to do with reading then, naturally: I’d have dreamt of owning a bookstore. But not any old bookstore: one specialising in my favourite genre, romance.
Sisters Bea and Leah Koch have hit the headlines the world over recently for opening the very first such bookstore in America: The Ripped Bodice in LA (www.therippedbodicela.com). In doing so, I am sure they have realised the dream of not just myself, but so many romance readers worldwide.
Take romance author Elsa Winckler, for example. In her novel Love, In Writing the heroine runs a bookstore selling only books that have a happy ending. I reviewed that book some time ago (see http://hannahfielding.net/book-review-love-in-writing-by-elsa-winckler/) but the idea of the store has stuck with me; I just love it.
Clearly, many other people adore the notion of a romance-specific store, because The Ripped Bodice was part-funded by a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter that raised nearly $100,000.
I would love to hop on a plane today and visit The Ripped Bodice, for my own pleasure and to support the entrepreneurial and spirited women who have launched the venture. I love their motto for the shop, ‘smart girls read romance’, and their aim to create a space where women can come together and explore all sub-genres of romance.
Beyond the excitement generated by a romance bookstore, though, is an idea that has the potential to create positive change in publishing and bookselling. As Leah Koch reminded the BBC, comic book and science fiction stores have a long history; so why not romance, the best-selling genre of fiction?
‘We think niche book stores are the wave of the future, especially from a business perspective and for making enough money,’ says Leah. ‘To compete with Amazon you have to offer something unique.’
It’s an interesting idea, don’t you think? Could we see crime and thriller stores opening soon? Fantasy ones? How about shops dedicated to literary fiction? I love the idea of destinations tailored to the genre. These ‘book hubs’ could become important community spaces, where likeminded people can meet and share their passions.
What do you think of genre-specific bookstores? Would you shop in one? I would love to hear your thoughts.
When American writer James Patterson makes an announcement, it is usually big news; because he’s a bestselling author, of course, but also because he’s a game changer in publishing. Unafraid to be a maverick, Patterson has created a very successful author brand with acute business acumen:
- To date, he has published 147 novels, but he hasn’t written them all by any means: he has a team of ghostwriters that fuel his publishing machine.
- He has become a much-examined case study of an author who drives his own marketing in creative and rigorous ways.
- In 2013 he took made a statement through adverts in Publishers Weeklyand The New York Times Book Review that read: ‘If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature? Who will discover and mentor new writers? Who will publish our important books? What will happen if there are no more books like these?’
Last week, then, when James Patterson announced that he was pioneering a new kind of novel, the world’s media sat up and took note.
‘BookShots’, as they will be called, will be short, cheap books of fewer than 150 pages that are plot-driven. The aim, according to the New York Times, is that the reader can get through a BookShot in a single sitting. Patterson said: ‘You can race through these – they’re like reading movies.’
The target reader for these books is one who doesn’t engage well with the current offering of standard-length novels. Put simply, Patterson wants to get more people reading (his novels).
It’s an interesting idea, don’t you think, and certainly in keeping with the relentless pace of modern life. I can see that a quick, action-packed story works well for the thriller genre, and that a commuter, say, could really enjoy being able to complete a book on the way to work.
How may this move towards plot-driven novellas affect developments in publishing. Will we see a drive for simple, fast stories? For romance and young adult and science-fiction without complexity but readable in just an hour?
In reference to this news story, the Guardian notes that: ‘Many bestselling authors of the past 20 years have mostly written bulky books, usually in series – EL James, Stephen King, Stieg Larsson, Hilary Mantel, George RR Martin and JK Rowling.’ A ‘reign of obesity’ is the term applied, and apparently there are ‘significant numbers of weary, eye-strained, time-poor readers’.
I wonder, however, just how many readers do want to race through a book. I know that I do not: when I read, it is in order to unwind and to escape. I read to enjoy the journey, not merely to get to the destination.
What do you think? Are you a weary, eye-strained reader tired of the ‘reign of obesity’? Do you love to devour a book in a single sitting? Would you like to see ‘BookShots’ rolled out across the board? Or do you simply love big books? I would love to hear your thoughts.