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Books

Revisiting The Hobbit

It’s been an interesting few days, to say the least. It was definitely a good time to sink into The Hobbit, which really is a charming book and the perfect escape.

This book was one of my early exposures to fantasy, though when I first read it, nothing really clicked for me. It didn’t turn me into a fantasy fan (not that I was opposed to fantasy, I just didn’t think of it in terms of “I want more books like this”). I was in fourth grade, and my teacher would read a book out loud to us, a chapter a day, every day after recess, as a way of settling everyone down. I suspect she might have been something of a geek because most of what she read to us was fantasy or fantasy-adjacent. I remember a lot of Roald Dahl, and then there was The Hobbit. She read that to us around the time the animated movie version came on TV. I was never patient enough for the chapter a day pace, so I’d usually check the book out of the library the next time I went and read it straight through. I remember doing that with The Hobbit and watching the movie, and I’m pretty sure I liked it, but it wasn’t as though it grabbed me so intensely that I wanted to find more books like that. I’m not sure why. I was mostly obsessed with Star Wars at that time, so I think anything that wasn’t Star Wars couldn’t get a toehold on me. I was looking for more stuff like that and reading books with spaceships and robots.

Ironically, I’d have probably found more of the stuff I loved about Star Wars by reading fantasy, since Star Wars is essentially a fantasy in science fiction trappings, what with its mysterious wizard knights with their magical swords and cloaks, hidden “chosen one” farmboy and feisty princess. But I didn’t yet know enough about genre and story structure to realize that, so I was reading books with spaceships on the cover.

I didn’t get into fantasy until a couple of years later when I discovered the Narnia books and it really flipped a switch. I read The Silver Chair (yeah, a strange one to read first), then got into The Lord of the Rings. I’m pretty sure I reread The Hobbit around that time, too. I know I reread it a year later when I read it out loud to my little brother.

The last time I remember reading The Hobbit was about ten years ago. I’d written the fifth Enchanted, Inc. book for the Japanese publisher, which finished out my plans for the series, but then they asked if I’d consider writing a sixth book. My initial inclination was to say no because I didn’t have any ideas, but then an idea hit me. I thought it would be a lot of fun to set a traditional fantasy quest kind of story in modern Manhattan, and I’d have the whole thing take place in one day. Thus No Quest for the Wicked was born. To outline it and come up with ideas to spoof and play with, I rewatched the Lord of the Rings movies. I didn’t have time to read that series, but I found a copy of The Hobbit at my parents’ house and reread that (it must have been one my brother left there because I found a boarding pass with his name on it stuck in the book, so he seems to have reread it as an adult after I read it to him when he was a little kid).

I think I’m liking it a lot more this time around. I keep finding little things I love about it. I had to empathize with Bilbo when all those dwarves showed up at his place and he was overwhelmed, as well as when Gandalf was trying to get him to go on the quest. It seems that people are always trying to get introverts to get out more for their own good. I think when we can get back to socializing, at parties I’m going to shake my head sadly at extroverts and tell them they really should have stayed home and done something quiet, that they need to do more of that, for their own good.

The thing that’s struck me on this read is the fact that the stakes and motivation for Bilbo are almost entirely internal. There’s no threat to his home, his community, or his way of life if he doesn’t go on this quest or if the dwarves fail. If he doesn’t go, life will go on as it has. The book makes it clear early on that Bilbo is already reasonably wealthy. He doesn’t need the treasure. He only goes on the adventure because the way Gandalf described him to the dwarves made him see himself in a different way, and he wanted to be the person Gandalf saw him as. He’d never imagined these possibilities for himself before, but once he starts thinking that way, he’ll be dissatisfied if he doesn’t find that within himself.

That makes this an oddly intimate book. In the midst of this epic journey that has Bilbo and his companions battling trolls, goblins, wolves, giant spiders, elves, and a dragon, it’s really mostly about one small person’s inner journey to figure out what he can be. That’s why I think the movies based on this book missed the point entirely. They more or less ignored Bilbo and focused on the epic, turning even small incidents into huge deals. This book is so very filmable and would make a lovely film if they just stuck to the book instead of bloating it. Martin Freeman’s face is basically a special effect, so you know he could have conveyed the inner journey.

It’s so very encouraging to see Bilbo rise to the occasion, to go from being paralyzed with fear to coming up with a plan and coming to the rescue. I want to cheer for him and hug him. I’m just at the part where things get really tense, though. Then this may not be such relaxing reading. It’s still hopeful reading, though.

But if I need something to send me to sleep, I’ve got The Silmarillion, which is somewhat fascinating but not exactly leisure reading. I’m in awe that these are essentially Tolkien’s worldbuilding notes, written as though they’re scriptures in the poetic language of the King James Bible. Mine are more like cryptic scrawls. I don’t worry about wordsmithing when I’m coming up with the backstory for my world.

Books

Holiday Reads

I had a question after my last post about Christmas-related books I’d recommend. I go through these like candy, so I had to check my reading log, and it only goes back to 2009, so I had to try to remember the earlier ones. These aren’t all necessarily great books, but they have worked for giving me a bit of holiday spirit.

I’m dividing these into two categories: books with Christmas elements and Christmas books. The books with Christmas elements are books that happen to be set around Christmas, but the story isn’t necessarily about Christmas. The holidays may up the emotion, but you could have the plot take place at other times, and it wouldn’t feel weird to read these books at other times of the year. To compare to movies, I’d put Die Hard on this list (for those in the “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” debates). It’s set at Christmas, and that raises the emotions and stakes, but you could set the same story at another time and it would still work, and it was released in the summer. I’d also put The Holiday on this list — it’s set around Christmas (though Christmas itself is a minor blip), but you could switch out Christmas for another vacation and the story would still work. It just wouldn’t be as pretty.

So, books with Christmas elements:
A Promising Man by Elizabeth Young — a young woman meets the perfect man, but it seems he’s already dating her nemesis from school. How much loyalty does she owe to someone who tormented her? Set at Christmastime in London (with a visit to a village), and a subplot is about how the heroine was planning to celebrate the holidays with friends in the city and gets abandoned at the last minute. This was actually the book that got me started looking for Christmas reads. I’d just picked up a book to spend a day reading when I gave myself a day off during the holiday season and didn’t realize it was set at Christmas. There’s nothing on the description or packaging to suggest that this is a Christmas book, so it was a pleasant surprise and I started trying to replicate the experience.

The Rose Revived by Katie Fforde — a group of women who for various reasons are down on their luck room together in a canal boat. There’s a pivotal part of the book taking place at Christmas.

Life Skills by Katie Fforde — a woman takes a summer job cooking on a hotel boat, with unexpected consequences. The climax of the book takes place at Christmas.

Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos — a seemingly perfect man comes into the shop where a woman works, and then his young daughter shows up, looking for him there, which gets the heroine tangled up in all sorts of drama. Set at Christmastime. This one is a real tearjerker. Incidentally, it was edited by the same editor who first published the Enchanted, Inc. books.

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis — in case you want some science fiction Christmas. In the near future, an Oxford historian is sent back in time to study the medieval period. But soon after she leaves, a terrible flu epidemic sweeps through the city, and meanwhile, she learns she was sent to the wrong time, just in time for the Black Death to hit. Takes place at Christmas. I’m not sure how fun this would be to read this year. It ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to heartbreaking and is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s alarmingly prescient about life during an epidemic — there’s even a toilet paper shortage and the Americans resist all lockdown efforts. I may have to reread this one next year after we’ve (I hope!) made it through this pandemic and I’ll have a different perspective.

One Day in December by Josie Silver — this fits into that subgenre of British books about people who meet, then go through all kinds of things over the course of years before they finally get together. On a December day, a young woman sees a man through a bus window and just knows he’s the guy for her, then sets out to try to find him. Lots of key events happen around Christmases over the years.

I like rereading The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame at Christmas. There is a pivotal scene that takes place at Christmas, but the whole book makes me feel cozy. It’s a good read-aloud if you have kids.

We Met in December by Rosie Curtis — A young woman moves into a house share arrangement in a big London house and falls for one of the housemates, but there’s a strict policy about not hooking up with any of the other residents. Pivotal scenes at beginning and end take place around Christmas.

A Winter’s Tale by Tricia Ashley — a woman inherits a manor house from her estranged grandfather and sets out to make it a tourist attraction, over the wishes of the distant cousin who expected to inherit it. Set in the weeks leading up to Christmas, with a nice Christmas scene.

Christmas Books are those that are about Christmas. It would be hard to remove the Christmas element without changing the story, and they’re marketed as being about Christmas. For a movie comparison, these would be like the Hallmark Christmas movies. Remove Christmas, and there’s not much there, and it would be weird to read them when it’s not Christmas (unless you’re the sort of person who likes Christmas year-round).

Debbie Macomber has a bunch of Christmas books, many of which have been made into Hallmark movies. The ones I’ve read are mostly the Angel books, which is about a trio of somewhat inept angels trying to play matchmaker. I’ve also read Trading Christmas, which is a lot like The Holiday, only it’s a middle-aged mother who wants to get away from home for the first year her daughter won’t be spending Christmas with her and a man who wants to get away from Christmas entirely switching homes (what he doesn’t realize is that her home is in a town that’s basically Christmas USA). “Debbie Macomber Christmas Books” is actually a search term on Amazon.

I have one called Christmas at the Comfort Food Cafe by Debbie Johnston on my list, but I can’t remember anything about it.

Jenny Colgan has done Christmas books for most of her series. There’s Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe for her Cupcake Cafe books, Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweet Shop (I think this is also called A Christmas Surprise) for her Rosie Hopkins books, and An Island Christmas for her island books. You’d probably need to have read at least the first book in these series to follow the Christmas books, as these series are kind of like soap operas, with a cast of recurring characters that we catch up on in each book. And, fair warning, she’s prone to what I think of as “throw the kid under the bus” plotting in which the emotional breakthrough comes through something bad happening to a child. It all works out in the end, but if you’re emotionally raw and don’t want too much drama, these may not be ideal.

Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz — a sassy modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set at Christmas. They made a Hallmark movie based on this, but I would imagine it would have to have been changed significantly to fit their brand. It’s basically Jack and Karen from Will and Grace going through the holiday season in the heroine’s hometown.

If you’re not up to reading about plague but still want a science fiction Christmas, Connie Willis has two collections of Christmas-themed short stories, Miracle and A Lot Like Christmas. There’s a lot of overlap between the two books, but there are some stories that are unique to each.

You Make it Feel Like Christmas by Louise Marley — I just read this one. A woman who grew up in the family of a British Martha Stewart type who specializes in Christmas and who used her family as props wants to get away from the TV nightmare and have a “normal” Christmas that’s not on camera, so she heads to what she thinks is a hotel but is actually an old owned by her ex-boyfriend, but the whole family follows her with a reality show crew in tow as her mother desperately tries to save her TV career.

To be honest, I have a hard time finding just what I want in seasonal reads. I prefer the ones where Christmas is just the setting, but since those aren’t marketed as Christmas books, it’s hard to tell which ones might be what I’m looking for. There’s one on my to-be-read pile that I set aside earlier this year when it turned out to be set near Christmas. Now I have to remember which one it was and where I put it. Then there’s the disappointment when I think I’ve found one, since it’s set in December, but there’s almost no Christmas content. Some of the Christmas ones that are marketed as Christmas books go a little over the top and get a bit sappy. It’s really hard to strike a good balance. If you’ve got recommendations, please share!

Books, My Books, movies

Gray Days, Old Houses, and Christmas Reads

We’ve had actual winter-like weather lately, with cold, gray days, so I’ve followed my personal policy of declaring days like that to be reading days. I’ve spent time curled up under a blanket on the sofa, reading Christmassy books. I’m enjoying doing that more than I’ve enjoyed watching Christmas movies. I can lose myself in a book, but I get sidetracked when watching something.

I think it also helps that the books are a bit more to my taste. It seems that the Christmas romantic comedy book is a big thing in the UK. The “chick lit” trend never really died there the way it did in the US, so you can still get that kind of book that’s got a romance, but it’s more about the heroine’s life in general, dealing with work, family, friends, etc. And now there are a lot of those set during the Christmas season, not necessarily about Christmas, but against that backdrop and the way the holiday tends to amplify existing issues.

I wonder if the Brits have their own versions of the holiday movies, like the Lifetime and Hallmark movies in the US. Are there movies about the high-strung career woman from London having to spend the holiday in the quaint little village where she grew up so she can help save the family bakery? That might be a fun change of pace.

A lot of the books seem to be about saving the historic family home — the medieval or Tudor manor—which I guess is similar to the American version of saving the family farm. I don’t know why I’m such a sucker for the “saving the crumbling medieval manor” type plot, given that I find the maintenance on my 1984-built house overwhelming. It’s fun to read about, but I imagine wouldn’t be as much fun in real life.

I burned out on the movies I tried to watch because I just couldn’t take the “return to hometown and get together with guy from high school” story yet again. Having to move back to my small hometown is the sort of thing I have nightmares about, and I’ve seen the guys I graduated with. Nope. I was sad in school that no one wanted to date me, but I really dodged a bullet there. I have a couple of old favorites that I know don’t have that plot, so I may give those a shot. When I’m not reading and listening to Christmas music.

In book-related news, I’ve done a paperback version of Spindled, the book I serialized on the blog earlier this year. You might still be able to get delivery by Christmas if you’re a Prime member. It should eventually be available through places other than Amazon, but that will take time to get through the system. You can order it here.

Books

Epic Fantasy for My Readers

I haven’t done a book recommendation in a long time, but I just finished a series that would fall into the category of epic fantasy for people who like my books.

I fell in love with fantasy in part due to The Lord of the Rings, so I do love a good traditional epic fantasy. It’s been harder lately to find something I want to read, though, because of the “grimdark” trend. I want to read about worlds that are actually places I might want to go (though probably not during the events of the book because that’s when things are tense) and people I would want to know in real life. I don’t want to read about a place where everything’s always terrible and people are awful and life generally sucks, but there’s magic, so yay? Unfortunately, that’s the sort of thing that was getting the publishing world excited, especially after the success of the Game of Thrones TV series. Whether or not that holds true after 2020 remains to be seen, and it will be a couple of years before any new trends start hitting bookstores.

But I have found a series that’s more of an intimate epic fantasy, in that it focuses on the main characters instead of the massive, faceless armies. Bad things do happen to our main characters, but the books don’t dwell on the gory details. And it’s all ultimately about redemption and reconciliation, with an ending that left me sighing and wishing I could stay with those characters a little longer.

The series is the Riyria Revelations by Michael J. Sullivan, and the first book is Theft of Swords. The main characters are a pair of thieves, one a jaded (and somewhat damaged) former assassin and criminal gang member, the other an idealistic master swordsman. They specialize in doing jobs for aristocrats, usually stealing something from one noble for another noble. When they get hired to steal a sword from the king’s castle, they get framed for the murder of the king and end up kidnapping the new king to save him from the same people who killed his father. And that gets them involved in much bigger affairs that could alter the fate of their world.

I do have some caveats, though. This series was initially self-published, and in the early books it kind of shows. When the series was at the fifth book, it really took off, and a traditional publisher bought it, publishing two of the books per volume, with the sixth and final book being new in the final volume. It doesn’t look like they did any editing to release the big publisher version, which made me twitchy. The writing was at best pedestrian, and at worst really klunky, and I desperately wanted to edit it. But I really liked the characters and I was intrigued by the story, so I kept going and eventually got into it enough that I quit polishing the prose in my head (most of the time, unless something really hit me). There are lots of twists and turns, and I didn’t accurately predict all of them. The worldbuilding is also a bit sketchy. There’s an intricate enough history that apparently there are other series set in this world about this history, but the depiction of the society is all over the map, with bits that are medieval mixed with Victorian-era stuff and a bit of Regency-era stuff. It seems to be a world that’s an analogue to medieval Europe, but they’re eating potatoes and drinking coffee. That won’t bother a lot of readers, but there are some whose heads will be exploding.

But, as I said, I really liked the characters, and I cared what happened to them. There’s a lot of good character growth and development along the way. Characters you may initially dislike will end up redeeming themselves until they become favorites. The plotting is pretty intricate, with lots of twists and reversals, and definitely with an awareness of tropes so that you think you know where things are going because you’ve read fantasy before, and then there will be a twist on the trope. After spending the first quarter of the first book going “I can’t read this,” I ended up plowing through the whole series. The writing did get a lot better along the way, so I completely quit mentally editing. It has a lot of the usual epic fantasy ingredients, with magic, dwarfs, wizards, elves, and the battle over an empire, but it’s fun, has some humor, a subtle romance, good friendships, and a truly feel-good ending. While I’m not sure I’d call it “gentle,” it would fit into the “clean” category in that there’s no sex or bad language, and the violence isn’t really graphically described. I think that my fans who are interested in more traditional epic fantasy may enjoy it.

In other news, if you aren’t a Kindle reader and haven’t read my Christmas novella and want to, you’ll probably need to get it before early next week because I’m thinking of putting it in Kindle Unlimited for the rest of the year, and that will mean it isn’t available anywhere but Amazon. I prefer to distribute my books everywhere, but sales are down to nothing on that one, and I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if I can reach new readers that way. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you’ll want to wait a little while and get it then.

There’s also a little less than a week remaining to get the Clean Fantasy StoryBundle, which includes my book A Fairy Tale, along with many others. It’s a great way to find new authors and series to enjoy.

Books

Falling Into Mystery

One more day until the new book comes out! My original plan was to release it in March. It’s set in late February, so I thought that timing would fit well. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near ready at that time. But I think it’s appropriate to be unleashing mysteries upon the world in the fall because that’s when I usually think about reading mysteries. I’m a seasonal sort of reader. Although I will mix things up throughout the year, depending on what I’m interested in reading at the time, what books are coming out, and what series I’m into, generally I read romance and women’s fiction in the summer, mysteries in the fall, and epic fantasy in the winter. I don’t seem to have a book preference for spring.

I think maybe it’s that association with spookiness and death that makes me turn to mysteries in the fall. There’s a hint of darkness even to a light mystery because it’s about crime. That fits well with fall. A fall night is a good time to curl up with a cup of tea and a mystery novel. Even when the book takes place in other times of year, my brain tends to decorate the scene with autumn leaves.

It is possible that I’m especially prone to thinking of English cozy mysteries in the fall because both times I’ve been to England, it was in October. My mental image of English villages has autumn colors and a hint of wood smoke in the air.

Oddly enough, this is about the only series I’ve written that doesn’t start around the fall. I guess I think of that season as a time for new beginnings, going back to the start of a school year. I also tend to start writing new series in the fall. With this one, I did do that, even as I was writing about February.

I’m probably not going to be reading many mysteries this fall because I generally don’t read the genre I’m currently writing, and I started writing book 3 in this series yesterday. I’ll read that kind of book before I start writing or between books, but I don’t want to risk absorbing anyone else’s style while I’m writing. I did go on a mystery movie binge last weekend, though. I rewatched Knives Out (which has a lovely autumn setting), then watched One for the Money, which was based on the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I’m way behind on books in that series, but at one point I’d read enough to contribute an essay about them to a book. I’d heard bad things about the movie, but I thought it was a pretty faithful adaptation, and the casting worked well for me. It’s a pity they didn’t get to do more so that they could have highlighted all the fun supporting characters who were barely introduced in the first movie.

I’m hoping people discover my new series, though I’m a little worried because there haven’t been that many pre-orders. I’m playing the long game here, with the idea of building as I go and increase awareness, so I’ll try not to fret over it.

Books

Competence and Tension

One thing I did during my weekend vacation was reread a book I knew I’d enjoy that wouldn’t be too tense. I’ve been working my way back through the 500 Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey, and I got to my favorite in that series, The Sleeping Beauty. This series is about a world where fairy tales take place, and the magical system is based on the Tradition that tries to turn everything into a fairy tale. This particular book mashes up all the “sleeping princess” stories, with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and even some Norse mythology.

The thing I like about it is how clever and competent all the characters are. There’s the fairy godmother who figures out that when the queen dies, evil sorceresses are going to be driven to the kingdom by the Tradition, since the 16-year-old princess is going to have to have an evil stepmother, so she disguises herself as a dark sorceress and pretends to be married to the king to keep them all away. Then there’s the adventuring hero who’s figured all this stuff out and knows that he needs to be kind to animals and be very, very careful about which sleeping maiden he wakes with a kiss. There’s the princess who learns self-defense and magic so she can deal with all the stuff going on in her kingdom.

But it’s not a cakewalk for them, since the villain also knows all this stuff. Still, it’s a relatively low-stress read because nobody does anything truly stupid. I can deal with people being in difficult situations that they have to figure out how to resolve. I get really stressed out when people get into difficult situations because they make dumb decisions. Like in a book I just started reading, in which it looks like our heroes are going to get into the situation that sets off the plot because they make a really dumb decision. They’re described as being really clever and suspicious, but they fall into a rather obvious setup (though it may just be that it’s super obvious to me because I read the back cover). I’m going to have to power through this part to get into the meat of the story.

I don’t know if an unknown author would have been allowed to get away with the relatively low tension in The Sleeping Beauty. The stakes are quite high, but the outcome is never really in doubt. I don’t know if it’s because the book was published by the fantasy imprint of a romance house, so they’re going with the guaranteed happy ending of the romance genre, or if a bestselling author writing the flagship series for the imprint had a lot more leeway while someone like me would be rejected for there not being enough tension or conflict. I happen to love it, and it’s sad that the series was killed by a publishing merger that ended that imprint. I would have loved to have more books like it.

Incidentally, I was at the launch event for that imprint where they announced that the first book in this series would be their first book. It was at that event where I first spoke to an editor about my idea for the book that became Enchanted, Inc. She got very excited and handed me her card and told me to go write it. She ended up rejecting it, but by then I already had an agent and a lot of other publishers were looking at it.

Anyway, this gives me a model for how to deal with the kind of hyper-competent characters I like and how to still get them in enough trouble to make for a fun story.

Books

Reading Slump

I hit a bit of a reading slump this weekend. I’d finished reading a big epic fantasy series, so I wanted something completely different. I dug through my to-be-read stash, looking for something along the lines of a romantic comedy, and I ran into an annoying trend.

I picked up one book that seemed to be a nice women’s fiction kind of story with a heroine close to my age, but the beginning of the blurb was along the lines of “She thought she had the perfect life, but then her husband left her for another woman and her teenage daughter got in trouble …” I wasn’t in the mood for a recovering from divorce and dealing with a troubled teenager book, so I picked up something more chick-litty. That one was about a 30-year-old who thought her life was over when her long-term boyfriend broke off their engagement, and now she has to deal with her cousin who’s getting married, and she’s realized she has nothing else going on in her life because she’s let her career and other interests slide. My reaction was along the lines of, “Oh, honey, no. Get a life.” I think I could have handled the book if it really had been about her finding her own life, but it seemed to mostly be about her juggling men.

Why does it seem to be that most of the changes in a woman’s life in books seem to be driven by men? There’s the whole subgenre of “my husband dumped me for a younger woman and now I have to find myself” in women’s fiction. There’s the subgenre popular in British books of “my boyfriend dumped me, so I’ll move to a village and run a bookstore/bakery/cafe.”

Not to mention, it’s nearly impossible to find a contemporary-set book about a heroine over 40 without a blurb that starts along the lines of “after her husband left her/cheated, she and her teenage daughter …” And it usually seems to be a romantic relationship that “fixes” her problems.

During all this dissatisfying reading this weekend (I tossed a couple of books after chapter 3), I realized that I’m having two different reading cravings, and my attempts to search for this sort of thing came up empty, so if it’s out there, I’m looking in the wrong categories or using the wrong search terms.

One is a light romantic comedy with some slight paranormal element — something along the lines of my Christmas book, but right now I don’t want it to be about Christmas. So, no full-on magical world like in my Enchanted, Inc., stories. More like one mystical element, like maybe the heroine’s wishes start coming true, or she gets the ability to read men’s thoughts (a la What Men Want), or a Groundhog Day kind of scenario in which she lives the same day over until she gets it right, or she gets to go back in time to fix one thing, etc. “Paranormal romance” mostly seems to get you a lot of shifter/witch/vampire, etc., books. “Fantasy romance” seems to be more of the full-blown fantasy world sort of thing. “Magical realism” is more literary and more about theme.

And I want women’s fiction that doesn’t center on romance — a woman who moves to a new place to start over, but it isn’t about a divorce or breakup. She gets her life together maybe by developing friendships or figuring out what she wants. Maybe she does fall in love along the way, but that’s not what “fixes” her. It might be a byproduct of getting her life together. Or maybe she goes on a grand tour to find herself, but not because she got dumped or broke up, and she finds herself through some experience other than sleeping with a hot, young foreign stud. And because it’s me, I wouldn’t mind some magical or mystical element.

I have read a few books like that, so I looked up one on the library web site to see what their “readalike” recommendations were. None really fit what I wanted, but then I found the “story elements” function, where there were tiles showing some of the key elements in that book. You selected the elements that you were looking for, and it would give you recommendations. I had to keep removing things I wanted before I finally got a recommendation, but I don’t think it’s very comprehensive because my Enchanted, Inc. books would have fit every tile I had selected, and they didn’t come up. I looked at the one book that came up. How did the blurb start? Along the lines of “after learning that her husband was cheating on her, she loaded up her teenage daughters and took off …”

Books

Fantastic Journeys

While I’ve been reading some old-school fantasy, I’ve found myself thinking about what I liked about this genre in the first place. What made this the thing I wanted to read—and write?

The magic is a big part of it, and it was something I enjoyed in stories even before I was reading real fantasy. I liked fairy tales and any stories that had magic, even in a real-world setting, like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Bewitched on TV. I like that sense of possibility, that there may be more to the world than we realize. Whether it’s miracles or magic, I like imagining that not everything has to fit the laws of science or make sense. There’s room for the ineffable.

But I realized while thinking about this this week that I also enjoy the sense of the journey. Most of my favorite fantasy stories, whether books or movies, have some kind of travel. I’m sure a lot of this comes down to the Hero’s Journey format, which is a literal quest, but that’s universal for a reason. It speaks to us on some psychological level. A journey also provides a way to let us explore an imaginary world as we travel with the characters. I love a fantasy novel with maps that let me follow along with the characters.

Looking at some of my favorites and the books that got me into fantasy … The Hobbit is literally subtitled “There and Back Again.” The Lord of the Rings is one big, epic journey (and my favorite part is the first book, which is a more straightforward travelogue before things become more about battles). All the Narnia books are to some extent about travel, since they involve going to another world, but the one that got me hooked, The Silver Chair, is a quest involving a journey within that other world. My second favorite is Voyage of the Dawn Treader, another journey. Going to more recent books, Stardust is a quest/journey story, as our hero goes to another land and then has adventures as he travels throughout that land. You could even look at Star Wars as a journey story, since it’s about Luke leaving his home and traveling to other places (Star Wars has spaceships and robots, but it’s structurally a fantasy story).

There are some exceptions. I love Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, but that’s because of the characters. They’re not really quest/journey stories. The Discworld books are more about the world, though I suppose some of the individual books involve journeys that are about exploring that world.

Oddly enough, even though journeys are something I love in fiction, I haven’t used that element much in my own writing. Spindled is about the only book I’ve published that really fits that pattern. The Fairy Tale books have some element of that, but that wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote them. No Quest for the Wicked, book 6 in the Enchanted, Inc. series, was meant as a kind of spoof of the quest story (I actually re-read The Hobbit and watched The Lord of the Rings to prepare for writing it and outlined some of the tropes I wanted to play with), though it was all set within the same city. I have written one other journey book that’s a more traditional fantasy. It didn’t sell (though it did win a writing contest), and I have plans to rewrite the story since I don’t think my writing skills were up to the concept at the time I wrote it.

I guess that means I need to write a journey book. I’m developing a fantasy series now, and I think I need to make book one a quest or journey.

I think next week I’ll be posting Tuesday and Thursday because Monday is a holiday and I’ve got an online conference on Friday.

Books

Generic Fantasy Novel

I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of months. During the time when the library was closed, I took the opportunity to read some of those things I’ve had lying around. There was one Big Fat Fantasy Series (which shall remain nameless) taking up a lot of space on my bookcase, and it existed in the limbo between To Be Read and Read. I remembered plowing through the first book and rushing out to get the rest, but for some strange reason that I don’t recall, I stopped halfway through the third book. I don’t think I decided I didn’t like it. I believe there may have been life events getting in the way. That was around the time I sold a book and had to do revisions, so I suspect that was why I put the book aside, though it might also have something to do with my tendency to burn out on a series if I try to read it straight through. By the time I was ready to get back to it, I’d forgotten what was going on, so I’d have had to re-read the whole thing, and that meant it got put aside for more than 20 years.

I decided that now was as good a time as any to pull those books out and finally read the whole series. Then I could decide if they were Keeper Shelf material or if I could donate them when I was done and clear a significant amount of shelf space.

It’s interesting how much my reading tastes and expectations have changed since then because I don’t think I’d have bought the rest of the series if I were reading the first one for the first time now. I think a lot of it is my age. I have a lot less patience with the very young main character now than I did when I was in my 20s. Reading expectations have also changed a lot since then. The first book in this series was published in the 80s, and I don’t think you could get away with such a slow start now. It was about page 180 before the action really started. You’d have to get that event in by around chapter three now. But reading this made me realize that the fantasy of the 70s and 80s certainly had a template. I present to you the Generic 1970s-1980s Fantasy Novel:

Our hero is a teenage boy or very young man (early 20s at most). He has a menial job in a castle or palace, working in the kitchen or stables or as a servant, and he’s not very good at his job. He tends to get sidetracked easily so that his work goes unfinished or done badly — could it be that he’s meant for something more than this? If it’s a multi-viewpoint book, we may get a look at our hero from some other character, who despairs of his prospects if he doesn’t get his act together and may remember his mysterious origins or the night of his birth. We get a tour of the castle through his eyes as he goes exploring when he gets sidetracked from his work, and during this tour we “meet” the major players in our story, including the ruler, priests, nobles, etc. There’s some kind of plot brewing, which our hero overhears but doesn’t entirely understand. Our hero likes to hang out in the chambers of the wizard/scholar/wise man/sorcerer/alchemist because he’s intrigued by the cool stuff there. The wizard takes him under his wing and teaches him some things, like reading and writing, and may make him his apprentice (if he isn’t already his servant). During our hero’s wanderings, he either stumbles upon something or learns something that he reports to the wizard, who becomes alarmed, puts it together with some other info, and decides to take action. He takes the hero with him on some quest or sends the hero away on the quest.

That doesn’t apply to every fantasy novel published during that era, but I can think of at least four series off the top of my head that follow that pattern. They generally diverge after that point in the story, varying by what the hero has to do and where he goes. I think being more aware of this pattern affected my enjoyment on this read. I’m about 3/4 through book two, and I’m committed to seeing it to the end this time. I remember just enough for some elements to feel familiar, but not enough to have any idea what will happen next. I think after I’m done, these books will be donated to the library book sale because I can’t imagine wanting to re-read them again. That should clear up some space for books I really want to keep. I’m trying to space out this read so I don’t burn out, reading other things in between books.

I do think that part of my issue is that I have little patience for the teenage hero, who is acting like a teenager. My interest is more with one of the other characters, someone I recall thinking of as “old” on my first read. Now he’s younger than I am. Ouch!

Still, it’s fun diving into the kind of fantasy series that made me a fantasy fan back in the day, exploring another world that takes me away from the present.

Books

Finding London Below

According to Twitter, it’s World Book Day, a holiday I’m keen on celebrating. It looks like there are people who dress up as favorite characters, but instead, I will share the story about a book I lived — before I read it. This is a tale about the time I found myself in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, visiting London Below.

It was the fall of 2001 and my second trip to England. I was visiting a friend who was spending a year as a pastor there. A rather large house in a London suburb came with the job, so she invited friends to come stay with her. When I arrived at Gatwick early in the morning after an overnight flight, the people at the ground transportation desk gave me an itinerary for the trip from the airport to the train station closest to my friend’s house, with a listing of which trains to take and which stations to go to for changing trains. They sold me a ticket for this trip that would work within the travel zones on the itinerary. I set out, a bit jet-lagged, but with great confidence, as I’m good with public transportation and had been to London before.

Things hit a big snag midway through the trip when the subway train I was on stopped abruptly between stations. After a few minutes, they announced that this line was being closed. They backed the train up to the previous station and made everyone get off.

I wasn’t sure what to do because my itinerary didn’t give any indication of alternate routes, and the maps didn’t show where else the train to my friend’s town would stop. I had to get to the station they gave me for that, but with the line they’d told me to take closed, I had no idea what to do. I was studying the map outside the station, trying to figure out what other combination of trains would work, when a man approached me and asked if I needed help.

I hadn’t yet read Neverwhere, but he was basically the Marquis de Carabas in “civilian” clothes. His mannerisms were right out of that book, and he even looked a lot like the way he was portrayed in the BBC miniseries version, though perhaps a bit shorter. I explained my situation and showed him the train station I was trying to get to, and he gallantly offered to escort me there. I hesitated, because putting yourself in the hands of a stranger in a strange city in a foreign country isn’t always the best idea, but he turned to the other commuters around us and said, “They’ll vouch for me. You can trust me.”

The funny thing was, they did. Busy people in central London stopped and said I could trust this guy. So I did, though I insisted on carrying my own luggage because I’m trusting, not stupid. And thus began a journey across London that I haven’t been able to replicate on any map. I know there were a couple of different trains involved, one high above ground, one below ground, with walks through neighborhoods in between. It was a very different London than I’d experienced in my previous trip, almost like I’d gone back in time. At times, it was like being in the 1940s (but without any bombing), at times more Victorian.

And everywhere we went, people knew this guy. It was like being escorted by some kind of popular king who was out and about in his realm, greeting his people with noblesse oblige. He spoke to everyone he passed, and they responded. It wasn’t even just generic greetings. He knew details about their lives and asked them about their families, knowing that one woman’s daughter had been sick, another woman’s mother was doing better after an illness, etc. We were apparently outside the zone where my ticket worked, since it wouldn’t open the turnstile in one of the Tube stations. This guy waved at the guy in the booth, who came over and opened the employee gate to let us in.

He got me to the entrance to the station I needed, and I thanked him. Then he said, “I knew I needed to help you because I could tell you were a lady — your ears aren’t pierced.” While I was still puzzling over that, he disappeared into the crowd and I went into the station to wait for my train.

About a year later, my book club read Neverwhere, and I had an eerie sense of recognition. It may have been a fantasy novel, but I felt like I’d been to that place and among those people.

I ended up using that sense of being a tourist in a strange city and falling into another world after a chance encounter when I wrote Make Mine Magic, though I went in a different direction with what that tourist discovered and the world she fell into.