Musing on Music: Melissa Etheridge

I am a huge Melissa Etheridge fan. A friend loaned me her first album in 1988; I was a newly married grad student with a one-hour commute from where we lived (and my husband taught) and where I taught and went to school in Bloomington, Indiana.  I played it over and over as I drove; when her second album, Brave and Crazy, came out the next year, I must have listened to it ten times before alternating it with anything else in the tape player in my car (hey, late 80s).  My husband at the time also liked her music, enough that we went to see her in concert in three different venues in Indianapolis over a ten-year period, starting with the tour for her third album. As she got “bigger,” so did the venues where she played, but her concerts were always amazing — she’s just one of those performers who comes alive in a special way with a live audience.

Melissa and Bruce

Melissa Etheridge

My collection of Melissa’s CDs survived the divorce intact — I didn’t fight for much in that split other than custody of the kids, but I did say he could take any music he wanted if he left me Melissa and the Indigo Girls.  He did take about 3/4 of our album collection, but I didn’t care.  Between Melissa and the Girls I had music to fit every mood, get me past every new crisis, as I changed jobs, moved house, re-entered the world of single parenting with twice as many kids as when I left it, and eventually moved us all 2,000 miles to be back in California and to build a life with my old best friend and new partner.

When I got back here where I belong in 2002, one of our first local outings was a Melissa concert — my partner and I took my oldest daughter, also a fan. A local promoter offered to switch our balcony seats for front-row tickets, and we had a fabulous experience.  So fabulous that when she came through our area on her next tour, for the album Lucky, we decided to skip it; seeing her in a big venue couldn’t possibly compare to our memories of being up close and personal.  I found myself regretting that a few months later, when she canceled the rest of the tour because she was going into treatment for breast cancer.

But she beat the cancer, made (to date) another three new albums and a greatest hits album, and continues to tour regularly.

Singing Janis

Melissa & Joss Ware

She performed live on the Grammy awards completely bald from chemo, she wrote and recorded the single for Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and she regularly makes appearances in support of progressive causes. Her personal life is a mess, but her music continues to amaze and inspire me.

So on her current concert tour, she came to our little performing arts venue again. We thought about buying tickets, but when I looked into it, the only ones available were pretty far from the stage, so I passed.  Then my partner and I listened to her new album, and he commented that she was doing music he really liked on this one (he was less fond of her first two post-cancer albums than I was). So I checked Craigslist and found someone selling two really good tickets at face value; I bought them, and we went to the concert.

image courtesy of Andrew Olivo Parodi, via Wikidpedia

In the eight years since I last saw Melissa live, a lot has happened. She had breast cancer and beat it. My dad had prostate cancer and died. One good friend lost her husband to cancer; two had cancer that threatened their lives, and one had surgery that removed the cancer but cost her the ability to have any more children. Many other women I know or know of have faced cancer, particularly breast cancer — author Jennifer Haymore, whose books I love, is in radiation treatment right now.  Watching Melissa, so alive and full of energy, listening to her powerful voice and serious rock and roll guitar skills, was incredibly emotional for me. Sometimes the cancer doesn’t win; that’s encouraging, but it also makes it more sad that sometimes it does.

I meant for this to be a review of the Fearless Love concert, so let me sum that up: Melissa performed most of the songs from the new album and a generous number of songs from earlier albums, all the way back to her 1988 debut. Her new supporting musicians are amazing, and she generously showcased their talents at various points in the show, with special attention to her bass player whose mother was in the audience.  She interacted with the audience, she made us feel special, she took a stand for gay marriage (before playing her song “Miss California”) and she recognized cancer survivors in the audience before playing her song “I Run for Life” under a wash of bright pink lighting. As always, the crowd loved her, and she rocked hard for two and a half hours (no opening band).

I cried almost as much as I laughed that night; I danced, I cheered, I applauded. I missed my dad, I worried about Jennifer and others currently in cancer treatment, and I clung to my partner when she sang “our” song. It was cathartic and inspiring and wonderful.

Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness

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TBR Challenge Review. Kind of.

If I’m lucky, this review will be up in time for Keishon’s TBR Challenge. Pacific time, anyway.

This month’s challenge was to read something by an author I hadn’t read before; I do have a few of those in my TBR, but I didn’t get one out and read it in time. The truth is, I’ve been ignoring my older print TBR mountain recently, in favor of the digital library (playing with the new iPad) and the special new RomCon TBR pile.  So while I’ve been reading quite a few new-to-me authors lately, they aren’t really in spirit of the TBR Challenge.

Thus, a compromise. I read two books this month by an author I have been meaning to check out for some time, since other readers I trust really like her contemporary romances.  Kristan Higgins won the RITA for Best Contemporary Single Title for her 2009 release To Good to be True.  I didn’t read that one. Instead, I read her two books released this year, The Next Best Thing, from my RomCon swag, and All I Ever Wanted, which I got as an e-book for the Smart Bitches’ Sizzling Summer Book Club (it’s the book up for discussion on Friday).  That was extra cool because the book hit the NY Times best seller list — the e-book version! So I helped!!

Kristin Higgins writes wacky contemporary romance — she has a real talent for crazy characters and bizarre situations.  Her books remind me of TV sit-coms, like Friends or Frasier. Or, when they don’t work as well for me, like Everybody Loves Raymond.  I’m generalizing a little based on these two books, as well as from the reviews I read of her earlier work.

The Next Best Thing was good, but not great, for me.   I tried to describe the book to my partner, and it came out sounding like a hot mess. Which it wasn’t, but it caused me some real WTF? moments.   I thought Higgins made an interesting choice having the heroine be the one who couldn’t recognize or accept love; usually it’s heroes from historical romance and even Harlequin Presents who can’t see that the person they are having hot sex with is, in fact, the person they love and want to be with.  She even had to grovel and make a public declaration at the end!  But I thought she resisted the obvious too long, and then when she accepted her feelings, she still fought them.  “I love him, he loves me, but…” is often a tough sell for me, and here it just didn’t quite ring true. Yes, she was a widow who had really loved her husband, but it felt a little skeevy that she could have the sex but not risk the love.  And honestly (avoiding spoilers), I didn’t care for the way her realization and acceptance finally came about. So it was a pass.

All I Ever Wanted started off weak for me, because the heroine seemed a bit spineless. I wanted to buy her a brown fuzzy shirt that said “WELCOME” on the back. But the hero was great, and the complications were believable, so I thought the time it took them to acknowledge their feelings and work through their differences was about right.  I also really enjoyed the  multiple secondary romances in this book. It was a win.

In both books, Higgins has a terrific talent for comic scenes and timing. Both heroines try internet dating services, with hilarious (if extreme) results.  She also has an excellent sense of the complex and sometimes frightening ways that family relationships can work (or not), and I like how her happy resolutions include whole families, not just the central couple. She does nice twists with “evil ex” figures, too.

In short, I’m very glad I finally read something by Kristan Higgins. I definitely intend to read her RITA winner and her earlier books, too.

Some PNR and UF Reading Recs

First, let me just admit up front that I am a late-comer to paranormal romance and urban fantasy. While I’m at it, I will add that I am not easily pleased in either genre. I need strong, complex, consistent world building; I have spent many years reading and loving epic fantasy, so my standards in this are pretty high. I have a difficult time envisioning either were-creatures or the undead as suitable partners for humans in romance, although some authors have made one or the other work for me. Consequently, my early forays into reading paranormal romance were pretty disappointing, and the only urban fantasy books that I really enjoyed were those by Charles de Lint.

Fortunately for me, many romance readers are cross-genre readers, and I have gotten some recommendations from people who like the same historical and contemporary romances that I do, as well as from other readers of scfi-fi and fantasy. I still realize that I’m pickier than a lot of readers in these sub-genres, but I have found some authors whose books I love, and whose next work I long for.

The books that first cracked my shell in this area were the Touch Of books by Cathy Clamp and CT Adams. I recommend these quite highly for consistent world building and strong romance. (I attended a panel at RomCon that included Cathy Clamp. She is terrific.) Then came Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series; I enjoyed the first five or six of those before taking a break/coming up for air. Shana Abe was another early winner for me, but her books were easier because there were no animals or vampires in romances with humans; they were like some of my favorite fantasy writers’ books (Patricia McKillip comes to mind), just shelved in romance.

Ann Aguirre was another fairly easy cross-over for me. Her science fiction romances featuring Sarantha Jax are solid, and her urban fantasy books Blue Diablo and Hell Fire are superb. The humans pretty much hook up with each other, although many of them have paranormal abilities, so they weren’t at all difficult for me. They are amazing books, as are her Skin books, written as Ava Gray.

Then came Carolyn Jewel. Carolyn is the author of some very fine historical romance novels, including Scandal, her 2009 RITA-nominated Regency romance. She is also a personal friend, which came about because she caught me raving about Scandal in an online discussion and realized from my screen name that I lived nearby. When I learned that my new friend wrote paranormal romance, I figured that I should try reading it, and I got hooked. My Wicked Enemy is about a DEMON mating with a human, but I found that once again, strong writing and consistent interesting world building overcame my bias. (My Forbidden Desire was also nominated for a RITA, and My Immortal Assassin comes out in January 2011. Loved them both. /plug)

Other writers who have met my personal standard for a combination of good writing, strong world building and believable romance include Meljean Brook in her Guardian series, Nalini Singh in her Archangel and Psy-Changeling books, and Patricia Briggs’ novella “Alpha and Omega.” (Yes, I know I’m very late to the party on this one.) I also recently read Ilona Andrews for the first time, so I have some fine back list books to add to the TBR mountain.

So if, like me, you are primarily a reader of historical and contemporary romance OR primarily a reader of fantasy, these authors might work for you, too. Others, such as the amazing Carolyn Crane (Mind Games and soon Double Cross), Margaret Ronald (Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt so far) and Gail Carriger (Soulless, Changeless, and soon Blameless) are listed/shelved under fantasy, but they have strong appeal as romances.

I’m sure there are authors I’ve failed to recall, since I’ve gone back and edited this post several times already for that very reason, and there are probably others I should know about but don’t. That’s what comments on blogs are for, right?

What I Read In July

Continuing my lazy ways, I am posting reading summaries at the end of each month.  And yes, this one’s late.  I have been trying to keep track of my reading so that I have a list to use for updating Goodreads; I try to rate each new book I read over there, even if I don’t get around to writing an actual review.

Most of these books deserve longer consideration, and I fully intend to post some longer reviews. But even with the best intentions, I won’t review more than a handful of books each month, so a list of brief impressions seems like a good thing to continue.

My master list shows that I read 15 books and one novella in July.  It felt like more than that, but there are a few still in progress into August and maybe I forgot some. Or maybe it’s age….anyway, here they are, rated on the win/pass/fail system.

Historical Romance

As usual, this is the biggest category. No excuses offered.

Twice Tempted By a Rogue and Three Nights With a Scoundrel by Tessa Dare. The middle and final books of The Stud Club trilogy were both very good. Dare’s characters are always unique and believable; her heroines are among my favorites of authors writing today.  The murder mystery plot arc that tied the three books together worked out with a twist that I almost didn’t see coming and that I wasn’t sure about until it happened.  WIN

Jazz Baby by Lorelie Brown is set in the 1920s during Prohibition. I wrote about it on the old blog. WIN

Tempting the Marquess by Sara Lindsey. This book was a disappointment for me. I may give it another shot in the future, but this attempt to read it was unsuccessful.  I enjoyed Lindsey’s debut novel Promise Me Tonight, because the writing was good enough and the characters fun and interesting enough to get me past the plot points that hit some of my “oh no you didn’t” buttons. I was looking forward to Olivia’s story. But while the quality of the writing is still good, I couldn’t handle this one. Reading it gave me emotional whiplash; the reasons for the main characters’ sudden shifts in their feelings about each other felt contrived, and I didn’t really like them as a couple.  Maybe if I’d kept going I would have felt differently by then end, but this time the result was DNF.

My Lady Notorious by Jo Beverley. This was my first book by this author — I know, but hey, I missed the 90s, and I’m still catching up. I received this book at RomCon at the historical authors’ tea event, and I put it right at the top of my TBR pile. Partly because so many readers I know LOVE Beverley’s work, partly because she’s such a significant figure in the genre, and partly because I just fell in love with the woman at RomCon. She was warm, gracious, funny and inspiring. I loved reading this book, too — I’m a sucker for cross-dressing when it plays up issues of gender and identity, and in this book both the heroine and the hero spend time playing “other.” WIN

Untouched by Anna Campbell. This was another RomCon acquisition, both the book and the personal connection with the author. Anna is a bundle of energy and laughter in person; this was a real contrast with what I head heard about her books, which always seem to have the word “dark” in the description. This one reminded me of one I couldn’t finish last year, Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm, but I not only finished Untouched, I liked it. A lot. WIN

I Kissed an Earl by Julie Anne Long. This is the fourth book in the Pennyroyal Green series, and I have only read one of the others, but it was the one where this heroine features as a prominent secondary character.  I was really curious to see how Violet would develop once she found a man who was her match, and I wasn’t disappointed. I just love when strong characters fall in love without losing their strength.  Towards the end of this book I really began to fear either  an out-of-character concession or a lame deus ex machina ending, so I was pleased when Long pulled off a resolution that required neither.  I’m going to have to read books one and three now, because I think the overall story arc will conclude in book six (book five is scheduled for a February release, and it builds on the characters in the books I haven’t read). WIN

Contemporary Romance

Aftershock and Slow Heat by Jill Shalvis.  Here we have another author who I’ve heard raved about, and I can see why. Her books are funny and sexy, and she writes well.  I generally prefer longer, meatier books, but these were fun shorter reads with smart twists on some pretty standard romance devices. The two books are not connected, and in fact were first published quite a few years apart, but I read them almost back-to-back.  Aftershock pulled a twist on the sekrit baby that worked better for me than I expected it to. WIN Slow Heat wasn’t as easy for me to relax and enjoy —  there’s an “adorable troubled kid” plot that pushes all sorts of buttons for me, and there’s baseball. Which I love, but I had trouble with some aspects of how it was used here. PASS

Crazy For Love by Victoria Dahl. This book is all kinds of sexy, crazy fun, which is what I’ve come to expect from this author. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read; it’s funny, but also heart-warming. As in all of Dahl’s books, both hero and heroine have to grow and acknowledge some truths about themselves in order to be able to commit to each other. I wanted just a little more of the secondary romance (it was a little too easy), but I was glad that those characters got their happy ending in this book rather than serving a sequel bait. WIN

Paranormal Romance

Demon Night by Meljean Brook. Meljean is one of those authors whose books I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while. Lots of readers whose taste I share LOVE her books, plus she’s smart and funny online (and, as I found out in Denver, in person). I have issues with the idea of vampires as central characters in romance, but a good writer can make it work for me. This book was amazing, and I’m only torn trying to decide whether to read forward from this point or go back to the start of the series. WIN

A Love Neverending by Rowan Larke. This is a LooseId release, and it really is erotic PNR. It is a difficult book in some ways, since it is about death and redemption, but the emotions are powerful and the writing just sucked me in. I read it late at night and stayed up far too late finishing it, because I knew I wouldn’t sleep if I didn’t know how it ended. When a book does that? WIN

Warrior, Scoundrel and Rebel by Zoe Archer. These  are the first threebooks in a series that I have been looking forward to ever since I first heard about it, The Blades of the Rose books.  These books are a terrific combination of magic, steampunk science, adventure and romance. They are the books I desperately wanted when I was younger, when I had gotten too old for Nancy Drew but got frustrated by the gender stereotypes in most of the more complex adventure fiction available. Strong heroes and heroines working together, dealing with their feelings for each other while simultaneously defeating evil — those books were few and far between.  (Not that these are YA books; they are adult romance, although I think my teenage daughter is going to love them.) The books are fast-paced and full of action, the locations are exotic and well-researched, and the romance and adventure plots are beautifully balanced/intertwined.  Each of these will be showing up in an individual review closer to its release date, because they are full of WIN.

Burning Up, an anthology:

“Here There Be Monsters” by Meljean Brook. This novella introduces the world and characters of the upcoming Iron Seas books — steampunk, REAL steampunk.  I love paranormal steampunk, and books with a steampunk aesthetic, but this is hardcore alternate history/alternate technology, and it is fan-freaking-tastic. I cannot say enough good things about this novella, and I can’t wait for the first full-length book in a few months. WIN

(This was actually the only part of the anthology that I read in July. But I’m putting the rest here as well, so they won’t get forgotten.)

“Shifting Sea” by Virginia Kantra. This is well-written and involving, but I was left a bit dissatisfied at the end. It seemed too easy, with overtones of “The Little Mermaid” that I couldn’t dismiss (the Hans Christian Andersen version kept popping into my head, which really undercuts a happy ending). PASS

“Blood and Roses” by Angela Knight.  I couldn’t get through to the end of this story. The main characters were just too messed up, and what was happening between them didn’t work for me. DNF

“Whisper of Sin” by Nalini Singh. I met Nalini at RomCon, I know lots of readers who love her books, but I just hadn’t gotten to them in my limited reading of paranormal romance. (Sense a theme here? Me too.) This short story is set in her Psy-Changeling world, which intrigues me. I’m not sure this author is at her best in short form, but I am definitely going to read more of her books. WIN

In which I blame Jane and Sarah

As I was sitting in bed the other night, reading a terrific paranormal romance e-book, I had one of those WTF moments where I realized “this would not have been me a few years ago.” I don’t know why I felt the need to blog about it, but I did. So there — I mean, here. It is.

I always tell people that Smart Bitches, Trashy Books got me back into reading romance.  I was referred to the site during the early days of the Cassie Edwards plagiarism kerfuffle by someone who knew that I’m an  anti-plagiarism crusader, and I got hooked on the smart and funny conversations going on over there. Next thing I knew, I was haunting the Friends of the Library used book sale for Sarah and Candy’s favorites and shopping in a completely unfamiliar section of Borders.

Then I found Dear Author, where the contributions of multiple reviewers (some of whose taste really dovetails with mine) and Jane’s timely posts on industry issues, especially digital publishing, became another stop on my daily web tour. More reviews meant more books I wanted to read, and soon I had a list of certain authors I was stalking tracking for their back lists and new releases.  I sucked my oldest daughter in, too.  Along the way, I got to know certain other voices among readers, as well as a few authors.

I first met other DA and SBTB readers at a book signing for Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance. Several of us went out to eat after the event, and stayed in touch through Twitter, which I joined just for that purpose.  Slowly I started meeting other readers, and some authors, who lived or visited locally.  My TBR pile grew, and in addition to commenting on other people’s reviews, I started occasionally posting short reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and my own blog.

I’ve always been a big reader, but I really hadn’t read romance since my teen years. That changed, fast. At first it was just historical romance; then Jane and Sarah started their Save the Contemporary campaign, and I discovered that there were smart, funny romances set in our own time (who know?). I resisted paranormal romance for a long time, but with the guidance of other readers whose taste I knew and trusted, I discovered that there were books for me in that genre too.  Many of them.  I can remember a time when I could go to a bookstore or the library and find nothing to new to read. Now, I have a TBR mountain of books that I might never have tried.

2010, though? I went over the edge. I joined Keishon’s TBR Challenge, committing to a review a month (gasp!). I signed up for NetGalley, and I accepted a few paper ARCs from authors and publishers. I entered a contest from Borders for free registration at RomCon, and when I won, I spent hundreds of dollars on airfare and a hotel room so that I could attend.  And attend I did — I met dozens of other readers, bloggers (including Jane and Sarah) and writers, and had an absolutely marvelous time surrounded by people who share my interest in romance. I came home with a pile of books and a long list of recommended reading. (Here’s my post about that experience, on the old blog.)

I also succumbed to the allure of the e-book. My partner bought me an iPad, Jane steered me towards resources I needed to use it effectively as an e-reader (Stanza and Calibre FTW!), and the DA & SBTB app for iPhone, called TBR, introduced me to MORE authors by giving me tasty tidbits to read while sitting around the doctor’s office, jury duty, the airport, wherever.

And Twitter? Holy hell, it has become a huge source of amusement, information, and support, as well as reading recommendations.  When my father passed away earlier this year, the outpouring of condolence and genuine sympathy was a real comfort.

So here I am, reading genres I would never have considered, in formats I had never heard of, spending time talking with people I would never have met, and LOOKING FOR MORE.  I’m going to  the IASPR conference in 2011. I’ve already hit up my kid sister for a place to stay for that and RWA in NYC, and I’ve told the family to plan next summer around my being gone for that week. A year in advance!

In addition to romance, I still read fantasy and science fiction, historical fiction, and some mystery and detective fiction, and I’m still a regular at the local library.  But the shape of how my reading fits into the rest of my life has changed — for the better, of course.  I follow a lot of blogs now, some more regularly than others, but the first two every day are still DA and SBTB.  Because in a way, it’s all their fault.