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More Holiday Reading

My favorite bit of holiday reading so far this year has been a new/old book. Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers. I love her novels, and her short stories make me feel inadequate as a writer. A number of years ago, she put out a collection of Christmas-related short stories, called Miracle. I have a copy in hardcover and pull it out to re-read favorites every so often. In addition to the stories, there’s an essay about Christmas and why Miracle on 34th Street is a better Christmas movie than It’s a Wonderful Life, as well as some lists of good holiday movies, TV shows, and books/stories.

Not too long ago (maybe last year’s Christmas season?), they issued an updated version of this collection, called A Lot Like Christmas. It has the things that were in Miracle, but there are a number of new stories and the lists of recommended viewing and reading have been updated.

The new stories are just as fun as those in the original collection. There’s one about androids who dream of Broadway stardom, one about futuristic holiday decorating run amok, and one about what might happen if “White Christmas” is played so often that it does something to alter reality. That’s in addition to the original stories about the Spirit of Christmas Presents (as in gifts) showing up, aliens arriving just in time for Christmas, and Dickens’ Christmas ghosts showing up in a bookstore, among others.

The nice thing about reading a short story collection is that I can fit in a story or two when I don’t have an extended block of reading time, and I can still turn my light out and go to sleep at the appropriate time. I can reach a satisfying conclusion without being tempted to read one more chapter (though there is the temptation to read one more story).

What Connie does so well is convey chaos. A lot of these stories might be considered screwball comedies, like the great old movies. That’s so appropriate for this time of year, when we’re pulled in so many directions. And then in the middle of the chaos, there’s a moment of peace and truth.

I guess what I’m looking for in a holiday read is something that’s like some of these stories — with humor, a touch of magic, and a dash of romance — but maybe longer. Christmas has played a big role in some of her novels, but the Black Death and a flu epidemic may not necessarily be everyone’s idea of festive (though I happen to love The Doomsday Book as a Christmas read).

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered that the hoopla service I get through my library has some of the Hallmark Christmas books, so I shall have to investigate that.


Christmas Reading

I finally get a bit of a break today from holiday craziness. Last night, the women’s group at church had our party, a spa night at a nail salon. I’m not a big manicure/nail polish person, but getting the hand and arm massage was nice. We’ll see how long the polish lasts. It feels weird and that might drive me crazy, unless I get used to it. I think some of the problems I’ve had putting on polish were because I was doing it wrong, based on what I watched from the professional doing it.

And now I get to actually be at home this evening. I don’t have to deal with people today, so maybe I’ll get more work done.

I’ve been reading some Christmassy books, with mixed results. I read one that was the designated Christmas entry in a series I’ve been reading, and it was okay, though the author really should have done more research. The book’s set in England, and there’s a character who’s an American estranged from his family. In this book, his brother shows up, and he’s the stereotypical racist, sexist, homophobic redneck. He’s from a hick town, and you can see why the regular character fled this town that was so isolated from anything resembling culture. The brother has his horizons expanded because for the first time in his life, he’s met people from another culture, and when he meets the town’s Muslim doctor, it’s the first time he’s met someone from a different religion.

And then there’s an offhand reference to the name of the town these characters are from, and I had to laugh out loud (and then pretty much disregard the book). The author must have just picked a town name without doing any research about the actual town (or making up a fake town) because it’s the town adjacent to me (I live in a little bubble of one city that’s isolated from that city but practically a part of this other town, and I live in that town’s school district in spite of having a mailing address from the city). We’re talking about a town of about 40,000 population, with a per capita income of about $200,000. It’s the place a lot of executives live. It has one of the top school districts in the nation, is home to some major corporations, and is adjacent to a major international airport. It’s less than a half-hour drive to downtown Dallas. The population is about 30 percent Indian, and it’s one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in the nation. In fact, the world religions other than Christianity are more represented in this town than just about anywhere else in the United States.

So, the guy coming from there would have had to work really hard to have not met someone from another religion (living in the adjacent town, my neighbors are Hindu and Jewish). This town is pretty much the exact opposite of what’s portrayed in the book. I’d love to know how she picked this town. Even if she just looked on a map, she had to have seen that it’s part of a major metropolitan area and next to the international airport. Did she look on a list of towns and like this name? I follow the author on Twitter, but it would probably be tacky to ask, “Umm, where did that come from, and did you know …?”

Now I’m reading a book that’s a gender-switched telling of Pride and Prejudice. I remember around this time last year I wondered if anyone had done that. This one is so very different from what I had in mind that I think I could still do mine without anyone thinking I’d copied it. I might even get wacky and not make any obvious references (like names), and see if anyone notices what I’m doing.


Seasonal Reading

My spooky classic read for this year was The House of the Seven Gables by Nathanial Hawthorne, and it was kind of a bust for “spooky” purposes. It was more atmospheric gothic than truly spooky, possibly because I’ve been to the house it was supposedly based on, and I found it to be a rather pleasant place. I wouldn’t mind at all living there, so it was hard for me to get in the mindset of it being a place where these characters felt trapped.

So I’ll need to find something else for next October, but now I can get back to my normal reading. And, yikes, it’s almost time for holiday-themed reading. I’m a “not until after Thanksgiving” kind of person for Christmas stories, but I need to go searching for some good ones. Or maybe I should write one to release next year.

If you are looking for holiday reads, I do have a Christmas novella, Twice Upon a Christmas. There’s also Christmas-related content in Once Upon Stilettos and Damsel Under Stress. The holiday season is just starting in the third book of the Fairy Tale series, A Kind of Magic. And Rebels Rising takes place during the holiday season.

Hmmm, maybe I should write my own spooky October read. Fall is my favorite season, and I do seem to set books in the fall, but I haven’t gone all out with a book that’s specifically about the season.

Really, when you think about it, Cinderella should be set in the fall because that’s when the pumpkins are ripe. I noticed that they were growing in a greenhouse in the recent Disney live-action version, so it could have been any season, I suppose, but I remember taking the train cross-country in mid-October and seeing the fields of pumpkins in Iowa, so it seems reasonable that Cinderella is set in October. I may make watching that movie one of my fall traditions (hey, any excuse).



I have some big news that I’ve been waiting to share: I’ve sold a new book!

This one is going to be kind of different because it’s an Audible Original. That means I’m writing it specifically to be an audiobook. After the exclusivity period runs out, it may get published as a print/e-book, but for about a year it will only be an audiobook.

It’s an entirely new story not related to any of my existing series, but it is a light contemporary fantasy, so I suspect Enchanted, Inc. fans will like it. It’s the story of a tourist who gets way more than she bargained for, including a rather magical adventure, when she stops to help a little old lady.

When I’ve mentioned having something I need to finish this year before I can work on anything else, this is what I’ve been referring to. The deal’s been in the works for most of the year, but it’s taken a while to finalize. I’m wrapping up editing on the ninth Enchanted, Inc. book today and getting that off to the copyeditor, and then I’ll be drafting this new one.

I’ve only written a proposal so far, and I’m excited to finally really delve into this story.

I don’t know exactly when it will come out, probably sometime next year. Don’t worry, I’ll keep everyone posted.

And now, I have three more chapters to edit.


Spooky Fall Reads

We got our first real cold front of the season, and it feels like fall. Hooray! It will be a good day for snuggling up with a good book. Okay, it’s a book I’ve written, but I think it’s pretty good.

Since it’s nearly October, I need to pick my Classic Horror read for the year. Or, more accurately, Classic Spooky, since I’m a real wimp and probably couldn’t deal with real horror. A couple of years ago, I read Frankenstein. Last year it was Dracula. Now what? I guess I could do Fall of the House of Usher. Or House of the Seven Gables (since I’ve actually visited and toured the house that inspired it). Any other suggestions of the sort of classic book that everyone should have read that’s spooky and atmospheric?

Though, I must say that reading these kinds of books on a tablet loses some of the atmosphere. They seem to belong in a slightly musty old book that you read by lamplight on a cool, windy evening while bundled under a blanket. Tapping to turn the page seems all wrong. Maybe I should check the library to get a real book instead of just going to Project Gutenberg to get the books for this project.

And then I need weather cool enough for that kind of reading experience before Halloween.


Weird Meta-Fiction

I’m still not back to 100 percent, but I have reached the point of illness at which I’m annoyed about not feeling up to doing things and the state of the house is bothering me (when I’m really sick, I’m too sick to care). Thinking is also kind of a challenge. I’m okay at absorbing information, but creating things takes more energy than I really have. Which means research reading!

I realized yesterday that I was reading an entire book to research a part of a character’s backstory that happens when he’s too young to remember it. So that means it’s probably going to be entirely offstage, unless he runs into someone who was there who can tell him about it. But I feel like having credible details might help at some point.

And I just thought of how it might apply to the present in the story, so maybe I’m not just over-researching minor details.

Anyway, I’ve also done some fiction reading, including an odd little book called The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet. It’s basically an author’s wildest dream and biggest nightmare.

An award-winning young adult novelist is facing a career crisis when his latest book flops and his agent informs him that she can’t sell another one of his books about troubled teenage boys. But she could sell an epic fantasy. That what editors are demanding, and she might have hinted to one that he’s working on that sort of book. The problem is, he’s never even read that sort of thing. He checks a bunch of books out of the library, and he hates them. He’s sure he could do better, but he can’t think of any ideas. After an afternoon of drowning his woes in the pub, he pauses in his stagger home by the local standing stones, where he falls asleep and dreams a fantasy novel, complete with narrative. When he still remembers it upon waking, he hurries to write it down. It’s like transcribing rather than writing, it’s so easy. But then he reaches the end of the part he dreamed and has no idea what happens next. That’s when he’s approached by a strange little man — the narrator of the story — who offers to give him the rest of the story if he’ll help in a quest to retrieve an amulet of great power that’s been lost in this world. It seems easy enough, but then he needs a sequel …

As an author, I feel somewhat judged/targeted by this book, though I have the reverse situation, where what I want to write is fantasy and I’ve had editors ask if I can do a non-fantasy contemporary YA, but I don’t really like reading that and I have zero ideas. No mysterious teens have appeared in my life to dictate their stories to me, though.

I would say that this is an interesting read, but it’s not necessarily fun. The main character is a real jerk, so I have mixed feelings about what’s happening to him. It goes to some pretty dark places. I’m not sure what the author is trying to say about fantasy. I got this one in the goody bag at either the Nebula weekend or the World Fantasy convention, so I suppose it’s classified as fantasy, but it also gets in a lot of snark about fantasy. I can spot some of the things he’s mocking, and I don’t entirely disagree, but at the same time, I feel a bit judged about my reading taste.

The thing that I find interesting is the concept that a fantasy novel might be the real history of events in some other place — and you may or may not be able to trust the person telling the story. We’re used to thinking of the primary viewpoint characters as the protagonists, the good guys, but is that just because we’re seeing things from their perspective? As a writer, I’ve had a few books that felt like I was transcribing dictation. I didn’t feel like I had to make many decisions or figure out what to do next. I just typed the words that were flowing. Were those being fed to me by some other dimension?

I suppose you could say I recommend this if you’re intrigued by meta fiction and have read enough fantasy to get the satire. I’m not sure how this would play to anyone else. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll be keeping my copy.


Fixing a Classic

I’m still on a reading roll, and I found a book that I think those who love — or hate — Jane Eyre are sure to love, My Plain Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows (the authors of My Lady Jane). This is an alternate history/alternate universe take on Jane Eyre that’s part spoof, part “fix,” and I had so much fun with it.

In this universe, the Duke of Wellington runs a “ghostbuster” type organization that captures troublesome ghosts. Jane Eyre can see and talk to ghosts, so she’s an attractive recruit for this organization. Unfortunately, she claims to have her heart set on being a governess and isn’t interested. This stance baffles her friend, Charlotte Bronte, who thinks this sounds far more exciting than being a governess. Charlotte would really like a job with the ghostbusters, and she thinks maybe she can prove her value if she can recruit Jane to their cause. She and a handsome young ghostbuster team up to infiltrate a house party at Thornfield Hall, where they soon learn that not all is as it seems.

This is theoretically a YA book, but I think adults who are familiar with (and have an adult perspective on) Jane Eyre will like it even more than teens do. In spite of being a sendup of the original novel that makes the author a character in it and adds ghosts, it’s surprisingly true to the original book. After reading this, I was inspired to rewatch the 2006 British miniseries version (to me, the definitive version), and I kept giggling when we got to scenes I remembered from this book. In a lot of respects, all the wacky stuff could be seen to be what’s going on behind the scenes of the original story, not necessarily changing most of the actual events (well, until later in the story). It may now be hard for me to read/watch Jane Eyre without imagining the ghost of Helen there to make remarks that only Jane can hear.

As in My Lady Jane, there are loads of pop culture references (including a whole scene that’s a fun take on The Princess Bride) and commentary on social mores of that era. These books are just the thing if you want to laugh and you want to fix literature or history to make it come out better. I don’t know if there are any other Janes whose lives they’re planning to improve, but I sure hope so.


Still More Reading

I’ve got another book to talk about that I forgot about because I read it just before I got sidetracked by vacation: How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig.

I’d classify this one as mainstream literary fiction with speculative fiction elements. The plot is very sf/f, but I think it’s executed in more of a mainstream way, though I can’t quite put my finger on why I say that. I just think a fantasy author would have given us a very different book based on this premise and with this plot. When I describe it, you’ll think science fiction (or maybe fantasy), but the book itself isn’t quite what you might expect from that description if you’re a science fiction/fantasy reader. If that makes sense.

The main character has a condition that means he ages very slowly. It’s sort of the opposite of the disease that makes children age so rapidly that they die of old age in childhood. I think maybe one of the things that makes this more mainstream than sf is that it never really gets into what causes this — is it something scientific like a mutation or something magical? The main character is more than 400 years old, but he only looks about 40. He works for an organization designed to keep this condition a secret and protect the people who have it from being turned into scientific experiments or from any kind of persecution. In exchange for going on the occasional mission to determine if a person has the condition and to bring that person into the fold to keep it secret — or possibly deal with threats to exposure, if necessary — he gets the funding and documentation he needs to live a reasonably normal life somewhere for about eight years, which is the length of time someone can generally go before the lack of aging becomes obvious.

The story flashes back to various points in his history, including his youth, before he realized what was happening to him and he made the mistake of getting married — they were two young people getting married, but after years went by, it looked like a middle-aged woman married to a teenager. Worse, that was a period of witchcraft scares, and not aging looked awfully suspicious. In the present, he’d really just like to have a normal life. It gets lonely not being able to maintain a relationship with someone who isn’t like him for more than eight years. He thinks he has a daughter somewhere out there who’s like him (he had to separate from his family because of that witchcraft thing), and he’d like to find her.

This was a fairly quick read, and it was quite engrossing and fascinating. I love history, so I enjoyed visiting the various time periods. I did have a bit of cognitive dissonance as a Doctor Who fan, since old person who looks young and doesn’t seem to age, bouncing around in time, reads to me as Time Lord, and so I kept expecting him to recognize major events that were about to happen. Then I remembered that it was only the story that was bouncing around in time. He’d actually experienced these events the slow way, in the proper order (as the Doctor would say).

There were jacket blurbs swooning about how romantic the book was, but as a former romance author who tends to write things with romance in them, I didn’t find it that romantic. It’s Guy Literary Romance, which is basically a young woman being fascinated with a middle-aged (looking) man. So, if you’re looking for something deeply romantic, this won’t scratch that itch.

I’d say this is a great choice if you want to sneak something science fiction or fantasy into your book group that isn’t normally into that sort of thing. It’s also a fun read for Doctor Who fans, if you want to imagine the main character as a Time Lord. It sounds like I’m not really praising it, but I did like it. I just don’t want anyone to be disappointed from expecting it to be something that it really isn’t. And now I’d kind of like to try writing the book that I expected this to be. Because I need more story ideas to add to the list.


Sailing with the Liveship Traders

I have more books to discuss! Earlier this year, I read the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. After a little break (now that I’m aware of the dangers of binge reading and know it’s wise to put some space between books if I don’t want to burn out on a series), I dove into the Liveship Traders trilogy (starting with Ship of Magic), and I loved it even more. Part of that may be that I’m fascinated with sailing ships and love reading about seaside cultures, but I also loved the scope of the series and the varying viewpoints.

This series is about a community built around a group of seagoing traders who sail on magical ships. The ships are built from enchanted wood that’s particularly sturdy. It also absorbs memories from the people on board, and after a few generations of a family working on the ship, with family members dying on board and having their blood absorbed, the ship “quickens” and becomes sentient. The figurehead becomes a living being who can talk and move, and the ship can just about sail itself. But there are costs, as a family goes into deep debt to get such a ship, and it can take generations to pay off that debt. A bad year can get a family in trouble so that they risk losing everything.

At the beginning of the series, things start to go horribly wrong. There are newcomers granted land by a distant ruler who come in and want to make changes. A young woman who believed she would inherit her family’s ship when her father died is shocked to learn that her parents decided to give it to her sister, to be captained by her outsider husband, with his young son (who’d rather be a priest) as the family member who needs to be on board to interact with the ship. The new captain, worried about the family’s debts, thinks that transporting slaves is the only way to make money quickly enough. Meanwhile, there’s a pirate captain who hates slavery and believes that if he could just capture himself a liveship, he could take out the slavers and make himself king of a pirate kingdom. And there’s a group of sea serpents with a vague sense that there’s something they need to find that would explain who they are and what they’re supposed to be. All of these story threads, and a few more, gradually weave together.

I would say that this isn’t the best series to read when you’re stressed because it’s very intense. Bad things happen to characters you like. People make bad decisions, and there are terrible consequences. But it’s incredibly satisfying seeing how it all plays out, so it rewards patience. The characters are really complex. There are few who are totally good or purely evil. The good people make mistakes and the bad people do some good things. There’s a character I hated in the first book who goes through some difficult things that result in a remarkable amount of growth, so by the end I’m cheering for her. There’s a character I go back and forth on — he seems terrible at first and is an antagonist, but then in the middle of doing some awful things he ends up making things much better for a lot of people, including a character who really needs to be helped. He does a lot of good while also being vain and a bit of a megalomaniac, but then he does something I can’t forgive (and I’m not asked to), even as I learn some of what made him the way he is and why he’s been doing these things. Depending on whose viewpoint I’m in and where we are in the story, I sometimes want him to be defeated, sometimes want him to prevail.

The multiple plot threads that seem disconnected that all come together is one of my bits of reading catnip, and what I loved here is that the way things fit together is set up well enough that I had the satisfaction of figuring out what was going on just before it was spelled out in the text — not so far ahead that it felt predictable, but giving me just enough time to get excited about what I’d figured out for myself before it was confirmed. There were a lot of “Oh!” moments in the last half of the last book.

Recommended for those who like a deep dive into a fantasy world and enjoy complex characterization and storytelling, but probably not the best thing to read if you’re under a lot of pressure and have a lot going on in your life (unless reading about people who have worse problems than you do relaxes you or is cathartic). This isn’t a cozy read by any means, but it’s definitely worth the torment.


Jealousy Isn’t Romantic

I don’t normally veer into controversial or political territory, but I have something I need to get off my chest.

I think maybe authors, particularly those writing for young people, should call a moratorium on the “jealousy is romantic because it means he cares” trope. Most of the school shooting incidents have been triggered in some way by romantic jealousy — the guy gets so outraged that he comes to school with a gun because either the girl doesn’t want to date him and is with someone else or the girl broke up with him and is with someone else. And yet, this attitude, short of the actual shooting, is shown to be the sign of great passion and romance in way too many books. It’s especially twisted when the jealous, possessive guy is triangled with the supportive friend, whose relationship with the heroine is seen as safe but passionless.

It really struck me in a book I was reading just before vacation. The heroine was already in a relationship with Guy 1, and he was irking me because his point of view chapters came across as very controlling and possessive to me. He thought of the heroine less by name and more by “my girl.” They worked in the same field and had equivalent skill and training, and she had abilities beyond his, but he still tried to keep her out of action and hated when she was doing her job because he wanted to “protect” her. Guy 1 even got the heroine pulled off a mission, in spite of the fact that she was most qualified for it, and lied to her about it because he wanted to keep her out of danger. I was very much in “oh, honey, you do not want to tie yourself to this one” mode.

Then the heroine has to work with Guy 2, going through all kinds of adventures and dangers with him. He respects her abilities and trusts her to be able to handle the situations they’re in. They put themselves on the line to help and protect each other, but in a way that’s more about being comrades and not about “you’re my girl, so I must protect your delicate, fragile self.” I was thinking that the author was going to pull a bait and switch on us, setting up Guy 1, then introducing Guy 2 as a contrast.

What really made me think we were meant to switch loyalties to Guy 2 was when Heroine and Guy 2 had been in terrible danger and were hiding out, then Guy 1 found them, and his first instinct was to reach for his weapon in a jealous rage because “his” girl was with this other guy. Never mind that he knew they’d been on the run together and he’d been looking for them to get them to safety. He doesn’t actually act on the rage, but he does go into a massive snit until the heroine has a chance to explain the situation to him. Guy 1 was dead to me at this point and I was sure that she’d end up with Guy 2.

Nope. Guy 2 was just a good friend and Guy 1, the one with all the jealous rages, possessiveness, lies, and control, was her true love. And I nearly threw the book across the room.

This pattern shows up time and time again in young adult fiction, and it’s a terrible model to present for romance. It’s not even about the “bad boy” vs. the “nice guy.” In this case, both of the guys would have probably been considered on the “nice” side. Neither was dark and dangerous. Both were sort of boy-next-door types. But the relationship that struck me as reasonably healthy was rejected in favor of the relationship that was a gun away from a school shooting.

Of course, fans are going to fan, and no matter what the author does there will be a big Team Jerk faction, but the author doesn’t have to stack the deck. Why can’t heroines swoon over guys who trust and respect them and be turned off by jealousy and control? Why show a relationship based on mutual respect and trust as being only worthy of friendship, not romance? If you can’t make a healthy relationship romantic and exciting, you need to work on your writing skills. The jealousy is just a crutch for a way to convey passion and deep feeling. It’s a shortcut, an easy out.

If you moved your romantic hero into a present-day high school and the counselors would red-flag his behavior as a potential shooter, the guy who’d snap if the girl he liked dated someone else, you’ve got a problem, and maybe you shouldn’t be presenting this to impressionable young people as something positive.