Debunking the romantic genre: A talk with Harlequin’s Susan Swinwood

Image of a man and woman about to kiss, a poster for a Harlequin event

First of all, let me just say that there is always something happening in Toronto, and such was the case last night, March 19, 2014. My plan was to have a relaxing evening at home, watching episodes and baking cookies for my coworkers at UTP Journals, however, this was not to be.

Twitter, the social media king, alerted me to an event being put on by the Book and Media Studies Student Association at the University of Toronto. The event was about exploring the publishing industry from the perspective of romantic fiction, and the lecture was given by the lovely and extremely patient (she had quite the line up of admirers afterward during the reception), Susan Swinwood, who is the executive editor at HQN Harlequin, the giant of romance publishing.

Susan Swinwood, Executive Editor at HarlequinSusan’s detailed lecture really opened up the idea of what can be considered romantic fiction, and she made a great point: we all read it (and yes, even the guys). The theme of romance runs across a variety of genres, and we see it in almost every book we read, such as erotica (obviously), romance (obviously, again), historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, and so on. The only thing Harlequin does differently than other publishers is that it OWNS it. In all honesty, no other publishing house can claim the same prestige in one given genre the way Harlequin can with romance.

But Harlequin is not just those steamy monthly copies you see in variety stores and gas stations. Harlequin has grown and expanded with the times. Its series now include books that have a longer shelf life and stay in bookstores just like any other trade fiction title. These books are published by specific Harlequin imprints, such as HQN and MIRA, and they target not only their current readers, but also new readers who are looking for that popular romance author that isn’t going to disappear after a month’s time.

Significantly, Harlequin was also one of the first publishers to start developing digital copies of its books and backlist, taking advantage of what was new technology then even before it started to dominate publishing as a whole. And during the recession, Harlequin saw an increase in sales rather than the decrease that most publishers experienced. Romance has a dedicated readership and Harlequin is well aware of this and takes full advantage. The team effort that is put into producing and marketing all of Harlequin’s titles is just inspiring, to say the least.

I was also amazed by how well Harlequin has catered to its audience, publishing books in a wide variety of categories: historical, thriller, teen, paranormal, classic romance, African-American, and many more. Harlequin even has a line of books targeted at male readers! Branching out in this way ensures that Harlequin stays on top and stable despite publishing’s rocky foundation these days. It is something other publishers have been following suit with, becoming more digital and more innovative to keep readers reading.

Alas, like all publishing professionals, Susan was realistic and honest about the future of publishing. It has changed A LOT and continues to as technology keeps being developed and as I mentioned above, publishers have to keep abreast of it all in order to remain relevant. Despite this slightly depressing turn in the conversation, Susan finished by casting a ray of sunshine into the apparent abyss of publishing’s lifeline: as long as there are dedicated readers and authors who want the prestige of a physical book in their hands, there will be publishers and the printed word.

To conclude, I love romance, but I have never been an avid reader of Harlequin, and Image of two Harlequin books, the best man and the Returnedmaybe it was a bit because of the stigma attached to the brand from “bad writing” to “romantic fluff.” Those romantic series that are recycled every month and that I see my boyfriend’s grandma reading are probably still not my cup of tea, but I did pick up two of Harlequin’s imprint titles from HQN and MIRA that Susan brought along to give out (free books are always welcome!). The Returned is actually the inspiration behind the hit television series Resurrection, so fans of the show will definitely want to get their hands on this book, as I have heard great things about both the show and now (thanks to Susan), the book.

Now, I’m not saying Harlequin is for everyone, and I’m not sure if it is for me yet either, but Harlequin’s new brands certainly stand a good fighting chance for those of us who can’t stomach buying the ones with a half dressed man and a woman clinging to his bare chest on the cover (as you can see from above, the two books I chose do not feature this signature cover choice).

Either way, Susan Swinwood certainly cleared away the common misconceptions surrounding the romantic genre and gave it a whole new coat of paint. I will now be cringing a lot less when I say that one of my favourite genres is romance. It’s not sappy or nonsense, but what I and many women want to read (and want in their life. Ahem! Hint, hint, gentlemen). I mean, if you are willingly going to read Fifty Shades of Grey out in the open, Harlequin is a step up, at least in my opinion.

So pick up a Harlequin…I dare you :p

You can check out Harlequin’s titles on their website and on Twitter @HarlequinBooks

If you’re interested in other events the Books and Media Studies Student Association may have or the association itself, they are also on Twitter @BMSSA_UofT 

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The inauguration day of Toronto’s new lit fest: Pages Festival + Conference

logo for pages festivalThere are a lot of people who will claim that festivals celebrating books and publishing are fading out of existence. However, with the rise of a new festival on the literary scene, the written word seems just as popular as it was the day Gutenberg invented the printing press!

The evening of March 13, 2014, I attended the official launch day of the inaugural Pages Festival + Conference: Unbound, hosted at the Randolph Theatre in Toronto.

Because it was the first festival event, there were various speeches, introductions, and expressions of gratitude that had to be given at the beginning. The main spokesman on behalf of the festival committee was the artistic director of This is Not a Reading Series, Marc Glassman, who was also the proprietor of the bookstore Pages Books & Magazines on Queen Street West in Toronto for 30 years. Glassman was the one who founded the festival with the objective to explore the “evolving word” in the digital age.

It was during this interlude that I took the time to look around, and I noticed that besides myself and maybe ten to fifteen other audience members, the majority of the night’s spectators was made up mostly of an elderly crowd. I quickly found out why with Glassman’s introduction of Bob Bossin: folksinger, activist, writer.

banner of Bob Bossin

My attendance of the festival having been a last minute decision after a long day at work, I was unaware of the musical and historical delights the night had in store for me. It seemed that everyone in the audience knew who Bob Bossin was but me. However, it didn’t take long to realize that he was a man with a few interesting stories to tell and some catchy tunes to sing.

Davy the Punk book by Bob BossinThe book he has written is called Davy the Punk and is a narrative about the life of his father, Davy, who turned out to be a lot more than just a father figure. Referred to as “Davy the Punk” by those he worked with, Davy, unbeknownst to his son at the time, was an intimate part of Toronto’s gambling underworld in the 1930s and 40s, and one of Toronto police’s most elusive quarry.

While I haven’t read the book myself, I was fascinated by the small excerpts Bob gave us, from free baseball tickets magically being given to his uncle and new bride to unsuccessful police raids on his father’s place of business. Bob’s renditions truly brought the era to life through his manner of expression and his Godfather-like “gangster” impressions. His personal investment in his father’s story was evident throughout the night and during the conversational interview held between him and former Premier, classmate, and old friend, Bob Rae.

But perhaps the most memorable part of the evening was when Bob Bossin reunited with his 1970s Stringband and played old favourites that had the audience singing along.The folksongs were simple enough to pick up, and I found myself easily joining inBob Bossin and the Stringband with the rest of the crowd. I think my favourite song of the evening had to be “Show Us the Length” — crude and catchy, I was chuckling to myself and humming the song long after the performance was over. I now wish I had thought to record it, but if you’re interested in hearing clips of the Stringband’s music you can check it out in the Jukebox section of Bob Bossin’s personal website <http://www.bossin.com/>, and it thankfully includes my favourite (which you will have to listen to yourself to discover why I find it so  utterly amusing).

Although I wasn’t able to get a book that evening (I wasn’t exactly relishing the idea of battling the older crowd intent on reminiscing and getting their books signed), I definitely recommend checking this title out, especially for its rich take on local history where “Toronto the Good” shows its darker side.

While I wasn’t able to attend any other festival days, there is no doubt in my mind that each was as delightfully entertaining in its own way with more author events alongside panel discussions during the day-long conference.

If you are interested in learning more about the Pages Festival + Conference, you can learn more about it on their website, Facebook page, or Twitter.

Also, if you are as intrigued by Bob Bossin’s book as much as I am, you can get a copy at The Porcupine’s Quill, Indigo, Amazon, or independent bookstores.

Honeyed русский whispers: A book review of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

book cover of the winter palace by eva stachniak. image of a woman's golden dress

“Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal…”

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

There are so many myths and misguided perceptions of what the large land mass of eastern Europe consists of. From rumours of a single surviving Romanov to whispers of a Soviet resurgence, Russia is full of mystery…and deception—or at least that is how Eva Stachniak portrays the Russian imperial era in her book The Winter Palace.

With a love for anything and everything to do with Russia ever since my first Russian history course in university, I was naturally very excited to read this book. While it has taken me at least a year to do so since its original release date, I have finally had a chance to read Stachniak’s proclaimed masterpiece.

The book is narrated by Barbara—or Varvara, in Russian—, who is a the daughter of a Polish bookbinder working for the royal Russian family. It is after the death of both her parents that Varvara also comes into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth. Initially, Varvara is simply one of the many seamstresses set to work on Elizabeth’s extensive closet; however, one night, she is discovered by Elizabeth’s chancellor, Count Bestuzhev and under his tutelage, Varvara learns how to become the “eyes and ears” of the Winter Palace, for him and for the empress. Assigned to assist and spy on the Crown Prince Peter, Varvara is introduced to the art of deception and thrust into a world of luxury and debauchery, which is consistently masked by gold, glitter, and fine foods. The Winter Palace is also where Varvara meets the newly arrived Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, the Crown Prince’s betrothed. Varvara ends up befriending this German princess, now named Catherine, while Peter ignores his wife-to-be, more interested in playing at war.

Most readers, such as I, would already be aware of the outcome, knowing that Peter is an incompetent ruler and no match for Catherine’s intelligence and diplomatic skill. Therefore, no foreshadowing is necessary to know that Catherine the Great triumphs and takes the Russian throne for herself—a German immigrant now Empress of All the Russias. But while this is the result Stachniak’s novel leads up to, it is not the tale she has decided to tell. Instead, The Winter Palace is an exposé of the palace’s more sinister side, where there are always concealed intruders and easily bribed servants.

Stachniak outdoes herself in setting the scene with layers upon layers of marble, gold, and amber, building the Winter Palace up before the reader’s eyes with remarkable glittery detail. She also brings to life the wide array of foods consumed at the court, which inspired odd cravings, as I found myself lusting for honey-covered cucumbers, Catherine’s favourite snack.

However, while Varvara may be telling the story and Catherine may be strategically planning for ascension to the throne, Stachniak is unable to bring the same intensity she easily provides Empress Elizabeth with. No other character speaks and acts with the same spirit and vitality. Simultaneously, she inspires awe and repulsion, keeping the reader in suspense as Elizabeth moves between kindness and cruelty as easily as time passes from day to night.

Unfortunately, the more I became fascinated with Elizabeth, the less I was convinced by Varvara’s and Catherine’s characters. While Vavara narrates all that is happening, she is also hiding behind this detailing of acts of conspiracy and spying. There is little else to identify her with. Vavara’s secret alliance with Catherine as her confidante also falls short, as the same level of intimacy achieved in the conversations between Varvara and Elizabeth is not translated when she is in closeted conversations with Catherine.

Catherine is aloof and often, disappointingly so, fades into the background. I really would have liked to see more personality from both Varvara and Catherine, rather than having both of them so easily subsumed by Elizabeth’s more eccentric and compelling characterization. It was almost a pity to see her go.

Slow to begin and slow to end, The Winter Palace is a commitment the reader must want to make, as it is only in its middle that the story truly has the potential to grab you, as Varvara navigates her way through the dusty passages of the Winter Palace, listening, learning, and spinning stories to help or to hinder those she’s required to confide in.

Stachniak’s ends the first book of her Catherine the Great trilogy anti-climatically with few reassurances. As time progresses after Catherine’s coup, Varvara becomes disillusioned and unsure of her “friendship” with the new ruler; Catherine’s character remains just as impenetrable as before and this time, the reader is not alone in this deduction.

The Winter Palace, while not being what I had expected, was a delightful read that returned me to Russia in all her imperial glory. However, Stachniak didn’t just allow me to walk the grand halls of the Winter Palace for a second time, she married time and place together in perfect unity, making my memories a living portrait of eighteenth-century Россия, and with her sequel just a little over a week away from its official release date, I am intrigued to see where she will take Catherine’s story and her infamous reign next.

Russia 524

3 out of 5 book thumb’s up

Image of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs up

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, published in Canada by Doubleday, © 2012

Available at Random House of CanadaAmazonIndigo, and independent bookstores.

Stealing Hitler’s words: A review of The Book Thief

Cover image of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and it will become busier still.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

It is simple enough for me to say that I love most books, but there are few books that have also had the ability to dominate my emotions in such a way that they are torn from my inner core and put on full display, smeared across the pages. The Book Thief is one of those books. It is also one that I have been wishing to read for awhile now and now that I have, I am very glad that I did. While I’m late to the bandwagon, I think it is appropriate that I read it now; not only has a movie adaptation been released, but Markus Zusak, an already bestselling and well-known author, also won the annual Margaret Edwards Award this year for his contribution to young-adult literature in the US.

On that rewarding note, in The Book Thief, Markus Zusak tells his story in a fascinating combination of first- and third-person narration. The first-person narrator is Death personified, but not in the stereotypical fashion you would automatically imagine. No, Zusak’s perception of death is like that of meeting an old friend, which is very humanizing, almost comfortingly so. There is no figure cloaked in dark robes carrying a scythe, but rather he arrives as a source of solace for the numerous dead and dying during the war.

For a quick summary, although I’m sure everyone knows this by now, The Book Thief follows the life of a young German girl, Liesel Memminger, who is given into foster care by her mother for her own protection. It is on this journey to her new home that Liesel commits her first act of book thievery, on her way to becoming the infamous book thief. Death comes into contact with her for the first time here when her brother passes away in his sleep, and it is during her brother’s brief funeral that Liesel finds and takes The Grave Digger’s Handbook, accidentally left in the snow presumably by a young grave digger apprentice. It is upon this discovery that Liesel’s obsession with books and words is born, and under the guidance of her accordion-playing foster father, Hans Hubermann, she learns to read.

The narrative shifts between Liesel’s experiences occasionally interjected with Death’s own narration as he watches Liesel and collects the dead across Europe, revealing the turmoil occurring beyond Liesel’s everyday activities on Himmel Street. These activities range from stealing books from the mayor’s wife’s library to refusing requests for kisses from her best friend and partner in crime, Rudy Steiner. However, dangerous times come to Himmel Street when Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man in hiding, knocks on the Hubermann door, the result of a promise to the wife of a dead comrade after the First World War. As the war comes closer and bombs are fly overhead, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed, as she realizes the sheer force encapsulated in the words she has learned to read — words that can be used for good as well as for evil.

While the book starts out somewhat slowly, there is a lot to love about the craftsmanship behind Zusak’s writing, which is both elegant and moving. His decision to tell his story through Death’s eyes is ingenious. Immediately, the reader is forced to bear witness to Death’s sharp matter-of-fact statements on the rising number of dead and the Jewish “showers” while at the same time being lulled by the innocent play between Liesel and Rudy, as they exchange humorous endearments from “saukerl” to “saumensch.” Zusak also reveals the uncanny understanding and insight of a child that adults often overlook, such as the simple comment made by Rudy’s brother Kurt in regards to the fallen dominoes looking like dead bodies. Zusak captures this in each of his young characters, creating children with indomitable spirits that observe and fight back in their own way with the rest of the adult world.

The book is one of those tools Liesel uses to fight back with, and it is used as a motif throughout the novel, highlighting the power of words. In addition to using words for defiance, Liesel also uses them as a shelter for herself and others, especially when she reads to Max during his sickness or to the rest of Himmel Street while in the basement during the bomb raids. Significantly, Max also revitalizes the power of words for good, inscribing his story onto the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is just one example of the remarkable use of symbolism employed within The Book Thief.

While I wish to find fault with Death’s early spoiler in the novel, which forecasts Himmel Street’s heart-wrenching destruction, I cannot manage it. Death was made even more relateable with this addition of a human fallacy and I was no less enthralled by what I read despite knowing how it would end. I still followed each character’s timeline, almost desperately so, mentally exhausted by the emotional attachment I had developed for them. So true-to-life, these characters literally breath on the pages — Death’s preparation was not enough.

A poignant read that is devastatingly brilliant and absorbing from start to finish, Zusak reveals a World War II Germany that is rarely touched upon. And, just like Death, we, the readers, are haunted by these humans Zusak has introduced us to. Liesel, Rudy, Hans … they are the types of characters that resonate and are well worth carrying around long after the last page is turned.

I am haunted by humans quote from The Book Thief with Death and Liesel holding hands

5 out 5 book thumbs up

Image of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs up

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, published in Canada by Knopf, © 2005

Available at Random House of Canada, Amazon, Indigo, and independent bookstores.