Archive for Books


Another Trope I Can’t Resist

I’ve been thinking more about tropes that call to me, and after my discussion of recent reading from earlier this week, I’ve got one to add: framing stories. That’s when the bulk of the novel is framed as a story being told or discovered in a separate story at the beginning and end (with maybe some in-between stuff) of the book.

I think I first developed a fondness for this with all the Jack Higgins WWII thrillers I read in my teens. His usual pattern was that a nameless first-person narrator (implied to be the author) was in some place researching some element of history for a book he was working on, and then a mysterious stranger would approach him and offer to tell the real story that no one has heard. The novel would then be that story (told in standard narrative format). At the end, the mysterious stranger would finish his story, the author would be left pondering whether it could possibly be true, and then he’d find some piece of evidence that supported the story, and his mind would be blown. I think I liked this structure because it gave the illusion that the story might possibly be true, that it was secret history rather than just a novel.

I like it even better when there’s an actual plot in the “present” part of the story, so that it’s parallel stories rather than just a frame. There’s something going on in the present as someone researches the past, and meanwhile we get the story of what happened in the past. One good example of this is Possession, by A.S. Byatt. Or there are things like The Thirteenth Tale or The Historian.

One other thing that I like about this structure is that it’s a way to let readers know the long-term outcome of the characters after the end of the action — not just did they survive those events, but how did the rest of their lives go? The person in the present usually learns some of this information. You wouldn’t really be able to put that in a normal novel structure, but you can if part of the story is the person in the present researching it. It then becomes part of the resolution for the present-day character to learn that the characters in the past got married, had three children, started a successful business, and died peacefully in their sleep of old age.

And, yes, something like this is on my literary bucket list. I have a plot idea that’s perfect for it, but it’s going to take a lot of research and some travel before I can write it.


Introvert Love Stories

I read an article recently on why writers of all genres could benefit from reading romance novels, mostly because romance writers are experts at conveying emotion. Conveying emotion is something I struggle with (and possibly a reason why my romance writing career sputtered), and it’s been a long time since I read a genre romance novel (as opposed to a romantic novel or novel with romantic elements published in another genre), so I picked one up at the library.

I seem to have found the book aimed directly at me. After a long day at work, the heroine doesn’t want to hang out with her friends. She just wants to go to the sanctuary of her home and read a book. She comes in the door, takes her glasses off, changes into comfortable clothes, and curls up with a book. I felt so represented.

Alas, this is a romance novel, so the whole point of it is to get her together with someone, so by the end of the book she’ll have realized she was wrong and it’s better to come home to someone. And it looks like she’s not treating her home as a sanctuary because she’s truly an introvert and is happy that way but rather because she’s been hurt before and is afraid of intimacy. It would be nice if someone ever wrote a true introvert love story, where the heroine finds the person who fits into her solitude without being an energy drain and who enhances a life that was already good rather than her learning that her life is wrong and empty. But then there wouldn’t be any emotional conflict and drama, so you wouldn’t have much of a romance novel, and that may be why I drifted away from the genre. You can depict that kind of relationship if there’s some other kind of conflict going on, like a mystery or a battle against dark magical forces, but it makes for a pretty lame romance novel.

Anyway, one of the signs early in the book that she’s damaged and wrong rather than just an introvert who’s figured out what works for her is that the guy comes to her place while she’s at home reading and figures out that she doesn’t actually need her glasses because she’s not wearing them at home. They aren’t near her book, so she doesn’t need them to read, but he asks her about a book on her shelf, and she can tell him the title from across the room. Aha! She’s using the glasses to make herself less attractive and to hide from the world.

That was when I felt like I ought to speak up on the heroine’s behalf (except the book said he was right). I need glasses. I even have the corrective lenses restriction on my driver’s license to prove it. But I don’t wear glasses at home. I do just like the heroine in the book does. I come home, put down my keys, and take my glasses off. They live next to my keys. I have an older pair of glasses that lives on the coffee table for when I’m watching something on TV that has a lot of letters or numbers (like the weather report) or that I really want to focus on. I could probably tell you the titles of most of the books on my shelves from across the room because they’re my books and I know what I have, even if I can’t read the words on the spine from a distance. So that whole thing was bogus.

I’m not far enough into the book to really have all the emotional stuff I’m reading it for, other than the heroine’s intense embarrassment when the guy pointed out his realization about her glasses. I’m afraid, though, that I’m not in his corner. That’s another one of the reasons I stopped reading genre romance. I seldom wanted the guy to get together with the girl because I usually didn’t like at least one of them and I thought the other one could probably find a healthier relationship somewhere else. I guess the whole point of this exercise, though, is that I need to turn off the analytical part of my brain and just surrender to the emotions, then figure out how the author does it.


Holiday (and not) Reading

I did a lot of reading over the holidays, not all of which I’d necessarily recommend, but I did find some good books to share.

If you’re looking for a good Christmas season read that isn’t necessarily a “Christmas” book, take note for next year to look for One Day in December, by Josie Silver. It’s a chick-litty romance that’s kind of like a British When Harry Met Sally in book form. On a December day, a young woman looks out a bus window and makes eye contact with a young man waiting at a bus stop, and there seems to be a moment of instant connection. She has an impulse to get off the bus and go meet him, but the bus moves on before she can act on it. He becomes something of a figure of fantasy for her, but she doesn’t see him again — until the next December when her roommate introduces her new boyfriend to her, and it’s the guy from the bus stop. The story follows this group of friends over the next decade. I’ll admit, I did want to throttle some of the characters some of the time, but they’re probably acting as you’d expect for that age and I’m just being old. On the whole, though, it was the kind of book you end up reading in one or two sittings because you want to know how things will work out and you need to get these characters out of the painful situations they find themselves in, like the dilemma of whether she should tell her roommate that her new boyfriend is the fantasy man they’ve been talking about for a year. Does it count that they’ve never actually spoken and she’s not even sure he remembers or recognizes her? Although the book is quite romantic, I think it’s really more about friendship. The holiday season plays a big role, and most of the major events happen during the holidays, so there’s some nice atmosphere, but it’s not really a “Christmas” book, so it’s good if you want something to kind of fit the mood but Hallmark movies are overkill for you.

After Christmas, I guess I went the exact opposite direction because my next read was an urban fantasy called The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky. I’m not even entirely sure how I came to pick this up. I think the title of the sequel (which I now don’t recall) caught my eye in the library, then I saw that it was a sequel and looked for the first one. In this series, the Greek gods are still around and have taken roles in the modern day. They’re also gradually losing their powers and immortality as belief in them has faded. Artemis is our main character, and she’s now a private investigator in New York, specializing in protecting women from abusive men. She comes across a grisly murder that looks to her like a sacrifice from an ancient Greek ritual, and since it was a woman who was murdered, she considers it her jurisdiction. Meanwhile, a classics professor who knew the murdered woman has also recognized that it’s not just an ordinary killing, but he can’t convince the police of his theory. The two of them team up to solve the case. I’m not ordinarily fond of “the gods walk among us” stories, but this one worked for me because it was fun seeing how the Greek gods fit into the modern world (Apollo is an indie rock star, because of course) and how they’re coping with their relative weakness and looming mortality. I also like the professor. He’s pretty much my type of character (in the Owen and Lord Henry vein). If you like American Gods and that sort of thing, or if you like paranormal mysteries, this is something to look for. I’ll definitely be picking up more books in the series.

Then I went to something completely different, a book I guess you could look at as the British version of Southern Gothic — the disintegrating family full of secrets. It was The House at Riverton by Kate Morton. It has a lot of parallels with Downton Abbey — same time period, similar look at what’s going on upstairs vs. downstairs. In a framing story, an elderly woman in the 1990s is approached by a filmmaker making a movie about an event that happened in the 20s at the grand manor house nearby. The woman is the only living person who was there for the event and the filmmaker wants to consult her. That sends her down memory lane, recalling how she went to work there as a housemaid as a teenager, just before WWI started, and how she became fascinated with the lord’s grandchildren, who visited often. The story follows them into the 1920s, when the narrator has become lady’s maid to one of the granddaughters. There are layers and layers to the secrets surrounding this family — secret loves, secret ambitions, secret motives — and they all build toward tragedy. It’s not exactly a light, fun read, but it is really juicy and probably something that fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy, with even more drama and scandal than in that show.

It kind of makes me want to write something like that, but with magic involved somehow. I also like the idea of the framing story, of the person in the present tracking down what happened in the past.


Tropes I Can’t Resist

During the holidays, I saw a thing going around Twitter of people talking about what tropes make for an automatic “yes” on a book — if you see that thing mentioned on the back cover/cover flap, you’ll buy the book. Thinking about this, I don’t believe I have any because other things can balance it out or overwhelm the one thing I do like, but there are certainly things that get my attention, and when I think about those, they’re not quite what I’d have expected.

One of the tropes I can’t seem to resist is magical memory loss. I pretty much hate anything to do with amnesia in romances, but put it in a magical (or possibly science fiction) setting, and I’m all over it. I love exploring the idea of what would you be if you didn’t know who you were — get rid of all the baggage and expectations, and what kind of person are you? I also like the related trope of magical false identity — due to magic, you’re given a fake identity and the memories that go with it. Can you tell that something’s wrong? Does your real self try to break free? I had some fun with this in book 7 of my Enchanted, Inc. series.

I know that the secret/hidden royalty trope is considered a cliche in fantasy, but I love it so much. I suspect I was heavily influenced by Briar Rose in Sleeping Beauty, who lived in a hut in the woods but learned she was really a princess. I think that escapist thing is a big part of the appeal of fantasy. You can imagine that you may seem ordinary, but could you possibly be someone important, hidden away? Give me an apprentice underwater basketweaver who turns out to be the long-lost heir (or possibly the child of the great wizard), and I’m there. I’m not quite as keen on the related Chosen One trope when it involves prophecy, but do love when the unexpected person turns out to be exactly what was needed or has abilities that no one would have thought to look for in someone like that.

Portals! I love a portal fantasy. I think that’s because it makes it possible to imagine that I could have that kind of adventure. I don’t live in a fantasy land, but I love the idea that I could visit there (and if I turn out to be the long-lost princess, that’s even better).

Colleagues into lovers — you have to work together to solve a problem/go on a quest together, and as you go through difficulties, you develop feelings? Yes, please. But only if you keep your priorities straight and focus on your goal. No pausing for a romantic interlude when you’ve got a deadline and the bad guys are right behind you.

I seem to have a thing for charming thieves, which is odd because I can’t really stand the “bad boy” type, but when I see a Robin Hood kind of character — a thief for a good cause in a society where the usual rules aren’t working — I want to read it. No ordinary criminals, though. On the other hand, I also can’t seem to resist nerdy wizards, especially the guy who seems utterly inept, but that’s because his talents are so unusual that the typical training doesn’t work on him. He may not be able to do the most rudimentary spells that even young children learn, but he can do things that even the most advanced wizards can’t even imagine. There’s a lot of bumbling and angst before they figure out that he’s not utterly incompetent or clumsy, after all.

I’m sure I have a few more book triggers, but I’d have to go through my shelves to figure out what they are because I’m generally not conscious of what it is that makes me want a particular book. And if I start going through my shelves, I won’t get anything else done all day. Eight hours later, I’ll be sitting on the floor in front of the bookcases, re-reading a book I hadn’t thought about in ages.


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.