“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”
- Dr. Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”
Each month, I scrutinize the list of new releases, searching for something novel and innovative. We romance readers can be a difficult group to please—we want more of the same, but with variation. If you are fan of shape-shifters, then you want more shape-shifters books. If you love Regency historicals, then you are looking for more books in that time period. If you are a fan of erotica—ditto, you want more of the same. Of course each author has her own voice, so even if she was writing the same plot and characterization as another author there would be differences, but most of us don’t want to settle for just that.
So what is a poor author to do? One way to make a book distinctive is the setting—to leave behind the tried and true. Another is the ethnicity or culture of the hero and heroine.
I first started reading romance in my tweens and early teens. One author who quickly became a favorite was Mary Stewart. Each and every book had a new locale, such as the South of France, or Scottish Isle of Sky, or Greece, and even Lebanon and Vienna. Opening up a book by Mary Stewart was like traveling across the world. In her books, romance and exotic locales just seemed to go together like Godiva and chocolate.
I have a friend who travels twice a year to Europe. And I have to admit that I am a little envious. I would love to travel—to see the Great Wall of China, or the underwater reefs in Australia, the Castles in Spain and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. However, unless I win the lottery, traveling for me is not going to happen soon.
And I am okay with my staycation for now. Because if I am honest with myself, more than seeing the sights I would just love to be immersed into their culture—to just sit in a coffee shop or internet café and listen to the talk around me. Not that I expect the talk to be different from what I would hear here in the States. Oh, it would be filled with different words for objects, like petrol instead of gasoline, or Ute, instead of Jeep, but I know the talk would be of family, friends, love affairs, and children. No matter where you travel, these are universal topics. Still even with the commonalities, there are fascinating dissimilarities in every culture.
And the wonderful thing is that I can experience this through books. Except sometimes a book only gives you a bird’s eye view of what you already know, especially if you are a romance reader.
Readers, especially historical readers have long bemoaned the lack of books with settings other than Britain. With contemporary books, small town USA seems to be the setting of choice now. Not that there haven’t been books set in unique places; some I found intriguing and others not so much. It takes more than just plopping the hero and heroine down in a unique setting or giving them a Scottish burr or an Irish lilt to give a book an authentic feel. I want to feel like I am sitting in that coffee shop, or pub listening to a different world swirl around me. So what is a want-a-be world traveler to do?
One solution is to seek out books with characters from different countries. One of my favorite is the Happiness Key series by Emilie Richards, featuring Janya Kapur.
Janya dreamed of childhood breakfast of steaming masala milk and poha made with flattened rice served with a sprinkling of grated coconut. She craved idli, the comforting rice dumpling dipped in fiery entil sambar and their cook’s richly spiced omelets, served with an array of breads from the grill or oven. Sometimes she imagined waking to a morning array of fruits. Mangoes, and papayas, pomegranates and particularly chikku, with its sweet caramel flesh, something she had not seen in stores here in Florida.
While it has been years since Cheryl Reavis’ Navajo Family Blessings series was published, these books have a permanent place on my keeper shelf. I loved the insight into the Navajo culture.
Another solution is to read books published by non-American authors. Not because they have some new way of writing romance, but because they are able to write what they know.
When I first started reading romance, I was introduced to authors from other countries in two ways. The first way was via Harlequin books. Up until 1975 , all the books published by Harlequin were by authors from Australia, Canada, or the U.K. These books influenced my initial impression of these countries. I got my first taste of the outback from reading Margaret Way’s books. I formed my opinion of United Kingdom’s health care systems from reading Betty Neels’s books, and I got a sense of the wide open spaces in Canada from Judith Duncan’s books. In 1975, Harlequin signed their first American author, Janet Dailey, and the rest is history. While it seems that most of the books published in the U.S. today have American settings, I still have been able to get glimpses of different locales with books written by Sarah Mayberry featuring Australian settings and Karina Bliss with her New Zealand ones.
For our visitors from overseas, did you get your first impression of life in America from a book?
You all know the second way. It is when a U.S. publisher decides that there is a market here for previously published works from another country and they purchase the publishing rights. In the early days of romance, it seemed that most books were reprints of books first published in the U.K. Most of you have heard of Georgette Heyer and a few of you remember Barbara Cartland.
In today’s environment the world is getting smaller and smaller. Books and movies are introduce world-wide, sometimes simultaneously. In perusing the best seller list on Amazon from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and United Kingdom I noticed numerous books that were on multiple lists . Many times you can uncover new to you authors because of their popularity. That is how I discovered Jojo Moyes.
Other ways, is through friends who have a love of books with different type settings or characters. I have a wonderful internet friend, Maggie Boyd that blogs for another site. It is through reading her Melting Pot Challenge: India and Indian Characters that I discovered Anjali Banerjee and her Indian heroines.
So what authors have I been reading lately to appease my travel bug? I mentioned Jojo Moyes. I just finished One Plus One which was just released here. Here is a sample that illustrates what you can learn:
“I’m really good at maths. We’re going to an Olympiad so I can win money to go to a school where I can do A-level maths. Do you know what my name is, converted to binary code?”
He looked at her. “Is Tanzie your full name?”
“No. But it’s the one I use.”
He blew out his cheeks. “Um. Okay. 01010100 01100001 01101110 01111010 01101001 01100101 00001101 00001010 00001101 00001010."
“Did you say 1010 at the end? Or 0101?”
“1010. Duh.” He used to play this game with Ronan.
“Wow. You actually spelled it right.” She walked past him and pushed the door. “I’ve never been to Scotland. Nicky keeps trying to tell me there are herds of wild haggis. But that’s a lie, right?”
Now, the conversation is not all significant in the overall scheme of things but math Olympiad was new to me, and also I had never heard of wild haggis—which is a hairy nocturnal creature native to the Highlands of Scotland, no bigger than a grouse that scuttles around on legs of different lengths. There are two varieties, one with a longer set of right legs that can only run counter-clockwise, and one with a longer set of left legs that can only run clockwise.
You can’t ask more from a book, then to entertain and educate you.
Along with reading books by Moyes, I have discovered Australian author Liane Moriarty, whose book Big Little Lies will be released here the end of the month. I also track several other authors’ books releases, such as British author Lucy Dillon whose book A Hundred Pieces of Me will be released here in September, British author, Jill Mansell, whose book The Unexpected Consequences of Love was released in the U.K. the end of January, and will be published here February 2015. Roisin Meaney, a favorite Irish author, has e-books available. I quickly snatched up After the Wedding, released this past April. And Canadian author Susanna Kearsley will have a new book out in 2015 called Desperate Fortune.
I am always on the look-out for new to me authors that excel in bring different parts of the world alive via romance books. Who do you read that does this for you?
Leigh Davis, blogger