Archive for Books


History Travel Memoirs

I’ve found myself reading an odd little subgenre of nonfiction book lately. I guess you could call it the travel history memoir. These books are about someone traveling along a route or through a region, with some sort of theme to the trip, and mixed in with the travelogue is info on the history of the places the writer visits and the writer’s experiences and personal feelings about it all. It’s not enough of a travel book that you could use it as a guide (though you might get ideas for places to visit). There’s a lot of history, but there’s more of a personal spin on it than in most history books.

The most famous example that I’ve read lately was A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, which is about the Appalachian Trail, with the story of the writer’s attempt to hike the entire trail mixed in with the history of the trail and various points along the way and the writer’s feelings and experiences.

I also recently read one called The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond, by Stephen O’Shea, in which the writer traveled through the Alps from France to Slovenia, hitting Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany along the way. He compared the cultures of various places in the Alps, visited some of the major scenic and tourist spots, discussed the people he met along the way, and shared the history of the places and routes.

A similar book was Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, by Simon Winder, which explored the Habsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire by visiting key locations in its history. This one had a bit less of the “memoir” angle, as I recall. It was more history/geography/travel, though with an annoying lack of photos. I kept having to Google places he mentioned so I could have a good mental image of what he was talking about.

I also read a book about Scandinavia called The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth. It was a history of modern Scandinavia, looking at how those countries tend to come out on top in happiness rankings and exploring what it’s really like there. The author lived in Denmark and visited Finland, Sweden, and Norway to explore the people, the culture, and how recent history (generally the 20th century) got them to where they are now.

I owned a copy of A Walk in the Woods, but I found the other ones in the history section of the library.

It seems there are lots of possibilities for books along these lines — travel the Oregon Trail, the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition or the Donner Party route. Re-create Marco Polo’s journeys. Or you could combine it with something that was popular a few years ago, the post-divorce memoir, and it could be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup by taking a bucket list trip with some kind of theme to it and then writing about not only your experiences, but the history of the places you’re visiting and how this trip helps you find yourself again. I’m not in a relationship, but now I almost want to get into one so I can end it and then react to it by landing at Normandy and following the route of the Allied forces across Europe in 1944-45, looking at sights the soldiers might have seen and how it’s changed since then while I use it all as a metaphor for dealing with my post-breakup anger.


Romantic vs. Romance

I mentioned in doing my overview of my writing career a couple of weeks ago that romance was the wrong path for me to go down as a writer because although I liked love stories, I didn’t actually like romance novels. I’ve mentioned this difference in the past, but it was long enough ago that I should probably address it again. I’m going to refer to the Romance genre using the capital R to distinguish it from the idea of romance/relationships/love stories.

Like most genres, there are certain expectations for Romance. For instance, in a mystery, the sleuth is expected to solve the case. There are two key elements that define a book as a Romance:

1) The love story is the main plot. Most of the conflict and character development comes through the relationship. One quick way to tell whether a book is some other genre with a romantic subplot or a Romance is to see what happens if you remove the romance/relationship/love story. Do you still have a story at all? For instance, there is a romantic relationship between Marian and Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they even end up together, but you could easily change their relationship from a romance to a friendship, reluctant partnership or family relationship without changing anything else about the story, so it’s not a Romance.

2) The romantic couple must end up together. This is key, and I think it’s very misunderstood by Romance detractors. A Romance is about an emotional journey. It’s not about the suspense of whether the couple will end up together. Having that assurance that they will both be alive at the end and happy together is what gives readers a safe space to drop their emotional guard and go on that journey. It’s basically the emotional literary version of a roller coaster. Most people wouldn’t enjoy a roller coaster that was actually dangerous, where there was a chance you really could plunge to your death. A roller coaster is fun (for those who are into that sort of thing) because it’s thrilling enough to allow you to feel like there’s a chance you’re taking a risk even though you know you’re perfectly safe. A Romance novel allows you to feel like your heart could be broken while being secure in the knowledge that it will all work out in the end and your heart won’t actually be broken. Without that assurance, your guard would be up and you might not let yourself feel all the feels. I think this is one reason I struggled so much with Romance and don’t enjoy it that much as a reader. I’m not in it for the feels. I tend to read for curiosity about what will happen, and I keep forgetting to write emotion into my stories, which means I don’t do well with plots that are about emotion. I’m also not a fan of roller coasters.

A lot of things that are commonly thought to be romantic are not Romance because they don’t meet this requirement — things like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Titanic, most of those “romance” books written by men that have sad or tragic endings, like The Bridges of Madison County.

Back when I first started attempting to write Romances, it was expected that the couple would be engaged at the end of the book. They had to make some kind of commitment for it to be considered a Happily Ever After (HEA). It’s a bit looser now, so the ending can be just that they’re together in a relationship — though often a book with that kind of ending where it’s way too early for an engagement will have an epilogue showing them in the future at their wedding or with their children, so you know they stuck it out. Or there are the series that follow a group of people, like a friend group, family, or small town, so that the couple from one book will be secondary characters in the next book and you’ll see them planning their wedding in the background while the main characters are having their own relationship.

Readers get very testy when this rule is broken, which is why authors of other kinds of books that get mislabeled as Romance get upset when their books are mislabeled. It’s not that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of Romance but that they don’t want to deal with angry readers who are expecting something they’re not going to get. My Enchanted, Inc. series kept getting labeled and promoted as Paranormal Romance, and it wasn’t ever meant to be. It was fantasy with a romantic thread. I would get angry e-mails about any book that didn’t specifically end with them making a full commitment, and that promise was never even implied by me.

Those two rules are pretty firm, but there are other expectations that come with Romance. A lot of them were actual guidelines for Harlequin category Romance that people tried to apply to other books, but some are unwritten rules/expectations that might get broken in rare circumstances, depending on the book but that are more likely going to be there. One is that the couple needs to meet fairly early in the story—otherwise it’s hard for the main story conflict to be about their relationship. I remember my romance writer friends getting outraged about the movie Sleepless in Seattle being called a Romance, since the couple doesn’t meet until the very end. Another thing editors look for is the couple having an instant, strong attraction that is contrasted with whatever conflict is keeping them apart. That was a note I frequently got from my editors. I tend to write the slow burn, where the attraction grows as they get to know each other, but my editors wanted the thunderbolt—they were in instant lust, but then they had something getting in the way that made it difficult for them to act on the lust. And they want a lot of conflict between the couple. I don’t know how many workshops I went to where someone said, “If he’s a firefighter, make her an arsonist,” to show just how opposed they should be. That never clicked for me. If I’m a firefighter, an arsonist is going to be a turnoff, no matter how hot (no pun intended) he is.

This was where I started to figure out that maybe Romance wasn’t where I belonged. I like the stories where the characters fall in love along the way while doing something else and am not interested in them being at odds with each other while still being attracted. If I’m at odds with someone or don’t like them, I’m not going to be attracted to them. I only start being attracted to someone once I start liking them, and I tend to write that way.

I think movies have a lot to do with the confusion among the general public about the difference between romantic and Romance. It’s not just that romantic dramas in which the couple doesn’t end up together get mislabeled as Romance, but most romantic comedies are iffy as to whether you could get them published as Romance novels. One of those unwritten expectations is that once the couple meets, there’s no one else. They don’t date other people. You don’t get real triangles in a Romance. But triangles are big in rom-coms. Romance writers often sniff in disdain about the rom-coms where the hero or heroine were actually involved with other people during the movie (another reason they insisted Sleepless in Seattle wasn’t a romance—the heroine was engaged to someone else during most of the movie).

When the “chick lit” genre came along, it was more like the romantic comedy films, though really, I think it was just the way the British write romance. That genre is generally considered dead now, but if you read British contemporary romances, they’re pretty much chick lit. In the US, we’d call these books “women’s fiction” because they’re more about the woman’s journey, with the love story as a subplot. They broke a lot of the Romance rules, especially that part about the heroine not being involved with anyone other than the hero. I remember the old-school Romance writers being rather outraged about chick lit for that reason.

I wrote an essay for a book about Pride and Prejudice about how P&P was more chick lit than romance. The romance is fairly central to the plot and the couple ends up together, but I think the main plot is more about Lizzie finding her place in the world and figuring things out. She’s presented with other potential options and rejects them. She spends more time dealing with her wacky family than she spends with Darcy. He does get his character growth from the relationship, which is a Romance thing, and I’m not sure you could remove the relationship without changing the story too much, so it’s a fine line and I think you could fall on either side of it. There have been retellings of this plot that were very much Romance, and there have been versions that weren’t, like Bridget Jones’s Diary.

So, this is why I don’t consider myself to write Romance, even though readers often see my work as very romantic, and why I prefer to get my romantic content outside the genre. There’s a difference between Romance and romantic, and my work is romantic without being Romance.


Cozy Fantasy

I’ve mentioned wishing for the fantasy equivalent of the cozy mystery, but I’m not sure exactly what that would look like. A “cozy mystery” is a defined subgenre with certain expectations. Usually, the gore and violence are offstage and not vividly described. Most often, it’s written in first-person and is entirely within the perspective of the (usually amateur) sleuth, so we don’t see the crime being committed and readers get to solve the case along with the sleuth. There’s some conflict and tension, since there has been a crime, usually a murder, and quite often there’s some jeopardy for the sleuth near the resolution, but the overall tone is light, not delving into the darker aspects of human nature. Even if the story doesn’t actually take place in a small town, it usually involves a somewhat closed community that functions like a small town, like a neighborhood in a big city, so that there are community members who serve as regular characters, and most of these characters are fairly likable. We might want to live in this community, in spite of the frequent murders. These are comforting, satisfying reads that leave you with the sense that justice has been done and all is right in the world.

So, what would the fantasy equivalent be? The short, quippy answer would be “the opposite of grimdark.” In other words, little violence, and whatever violence not vividly described. The subject matter wouldn’t be dark, so we aren’t worrying about the evil overlord raising a demon zombie army that will drag the world into the pits of hell. The main characters wouldn’t get tortured, either physically or psychologically. These aren’t “main character gets put through hell” stories. Probably likable characters, and it’s a magical world we’d want to visit. And, like the cozy mystery, it should leave you with a sense that all is well.

I’ve seen more discussion about the idea of cozy fantasy lately, and I recently read a book that’s coming up a lot in this discussion, Legends and Lattes, by Travis Baldree. The tag line for it is “a novel of high fantasy and low stakes.” It’s about an orc mercenary who’s retiring from being a sword for hire and using her savings to open a coffee shop. There is some conflict and danger from the local crime boss running a protection scheme and from a former colleague who’s sure she’s running some angle and wants whatever she’s got, but for the most part, the story’s about her gathering a team of people that become the community around the shop. I would call the stakes personal rather than low because to this character, making this coffee shop succeed is everything. If she fails or loses it, she loses everything. It’s just not a problem for the world as a whole. The people in her community would miss it if she lost it, though they might not actually be harmed.

It was definitely a read that gave me a “cozy” vibe. I don’t even like coffee and I found myself wanting to hang out in this shop. And now I want someone to open a fantasy-themed coffee/tea shop, something that feels like a tavern from a fantasy story, but with the focus on caffeine and baked goods instead of alcohol.

I’ve been trying to think of other examples that might fit. I’d probably put the Narnia books in this category. It’s a world I’d like to visit. There’s conflict, but I don’t think it’s overly dark or violent. You end up feeling like there’s been justice done and everything working out. Some of that comes from them being written for kids, but they still give me cozy vibes.

I think it might be difficult to sell a cozy fantasy to a major publisher these days. All the examples I can think of offhand were independently published or from a small press. The big publishers want lots of intensity and conflict. Think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and do it to them. The stakes must be high.

I don’t know if the book I’m working on now would count as cozy. There are cozy elements and I think a bit of a cozy vibe, but the stakes are more than personal. If things don’t work out, it could have worldwide implications. Not demons dragging the world into the pits of hell implications, but an evil power getting a bigger foothold. Still, it’s about needing to pull together and remember who we are so we can stand up against the evil power. And the evil is just greedy and power-hungry, not Ultimate Evil Sauron-type stuff. The earlier Enchanted, Inc. books are probably cozy fantasy, since I was unwittingly essentially writing cozy mysteries, but with magical skullduggery instead of murders. I think they got published because they were classified as chick lit at the time, which wasn’t focused on high-stakes conflict the way fantasy tends to be. I’m not sure a fantasy publisher would have been interested.

There’s a forum on Reddit about cozy fantasy that I’ll have to dig into and see what people are talking about. I can always use more book recommendations. Maybe I’ll even actually join Reddit and participate in the discussion.


Recent Reading: Intimate Fantasy

I recently read a series that really hit the sweet spot for intimate rather than epic fantasy, with a focus on the characters, and we really got to see the characters grow, even though there were only three books. It was the Blackthorn and Grim series by Juliet Marillier.

The series is set in Ireland soon after the coming of Christianity, but before it really takes over, though it’s a fictional version of Ireland where magic exists and the fey play a role. The setup for the series is that Blackthorn, a former village wise woman (a healer, mostly, but with a bit of magic) has been imprisoned by a corrupt lord. She’s looking forward to her day in court to be able to publicly accuse him of his wrongs, but on the eve of her hearing, she’s warned that the lord has no intention of letting her speak, so she’s going to suffer an “accident” on the way. A fey lord appears to her and makes her a bargain: he’ll get her free, but she has to agree to go to a different kingdom, take up residence in the cottage she finds in a certain place, and resume her duties as wise woman. For seven years, she can’t seek revenge against the lord, and she must help anyone who asks her for aid. She wrestles with the decision because she wants nothing more than to get revenge, but ultimately decides that she can’t get revenge if she’s dead, so she takes the deal. Another prisoner, Grim, escapes with her. They find the cottage, set up shop, and soon the local prince needs some help because there’s something very strange going on with his betrothed.

This series is structured a lot like a mystery series, with a “case” in each book of someone who needs help, but the characters and their relationships grow from book to book, with the threat of that evil lord always lurking in the background. There’s also a hint of romance, with some of the cases involving relationships. I would have thought this series could go on indefinitely, with seven years worth of having to help anyone who asks, but the whole thing is wrapped up in the third book, and quite satisfactorily. I like the way it’s resolved, but since I enjoyed these books, I wish there had been more of them before the ending.

One thing I enjoyed about this series is the way it was told. There are multiple viewpoints, with Blackthorn and Grim in first-person narration and most of the “guest” characters in third-person. Their voices are so distinct that you’d have known whose chapter it was without the headers. Blackthorn has an edge to her voice. She’s lost trust in people and starts out very bitter. She doesn’t really want to help people and would prefer just to be left alone. Grim is a gentle giant, a man of few words, and his narration reflects that, with short sentences and simple words.

I will caution that there’s mention of rape, especially in the first book. It takes place “offstage,” but it is referred to, and the effects are dealt with, with the focus on the victim. That might make this difficult to read for some. I’d tried to read another book by this author and had to stop reading midway through because it was too much — it was a retelling of the fairytale with the brothers turned to birds and the sister having to remain silent while she makes shirts of nettles, which has always bothered me, but dealing rather realistically with what happens to a girl who can’t speak, so it got really intense. These books aren’t nearly that bad, but she doesn’t shy away from painful subjects. I think it’s handled well in this case, but I’m not seeing it from the perspective of someone who’s dealt with it personally, so I don’t know how it might affect them, and thus the warning.

The first book is Dreamer’s Pool. I ended up devouring the whole series but might have paced myself better if I’d known there were only three books. They were good for reading on a rainy night with Celtic music playing. I’m going to try another of her series next.

Books, movies

As You Wish

The last time I went to the library, I brought with me the sheet from my memo cube on which I write down the books I want to get at the library. These are generally things I’ve seen mentioned online and looked up in the library’s catalog system. For fiction, I’ll write down the author’s name and title, but for nonfiction I’ll often just write down the call number. I had one of those on this trip and had forgotten what book I’d looked up. I assumed it was a book relating to that project I’ve been developing. Then I got to the library, found the book, and was surprised to see that it was As You Wish, the memoir about the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (who played Westley/The Man in Black/The Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie).

That’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I can just about quote the entire film, and yet I still enjoy it every time I see it. This book adds another layer of enjoyment to the movie with stories about how the project came about, how various cast members joined the project, and bits about things that happened during production, with some follow-up about what happened when the movie was released and times the cast members have reunited.

It’s a delight to learn that this really was a project of the heart. The story was something William Goldman came up with initially to amuse his daughters and that he wrote for love. Rob Reiner wanted to make the film because he loved the book so much and wanted to do it justice. Many of the cast members (including Elwes) were also fans of the book. Meanwhile, the cast and crew all came to love each other. The way Elwes talks about Andre the Giant makes me feel a real loss that I didn’t get to know him. Reiner was like the dad of the project, a genuinely caring boss who looked out for his people. “Westley” and “Buttercup” had crushes on each other in real life, which helped create their chemistry (it sounds like neither acted on it, or possibly even admitted it until later, and they just became really good friends).

It’s also interesting to learn how little movie trickery there was. That infamous sword fight was not done using stunt men. It was all the actors, who spent months training for it. Every bit of down time during the production was spent on training and practice. The only time a stunt man was involved was for the acrobatic flips. The rest was all them, and it really is good fencing, from the footwork to the way they use their blades.

I got weirdly emotional while reading this, to the point I actually cried when they came to the end of filming and people were saying their goodbyes, feeling a bit sad that this wonderful experience was ending. Then I laughed at myself, since this ending came more than 30 years ago, and if it hadn’t ended, I wouldn’t be reading this book because there would have been no movie.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the movie was initially considered a disappointment upon its release. It didn’t do very well at theaters and only took off later on home video. I’m one of the few who actually saw it in the theater in that initial release. I don’t remember having heard of it, but I went with friends (or, more accurately, I was included in a group of friends who went to see it because I was the one with a car) and the friends picked the movie. I loved it instantly. I remember describing it as a spoof that was also the gold standard of the kind of thing it was spoofing. Everyone I knew had seen it and incorporated lines into normal conversation. But I guess I was living in a bubble at that time rather than in the mainstream of popular culture, since I was in college and living on the honors floor (the nerd floor) of the dorm.

In a way, there are parallels to Enchanted, Inc., in that it was mis-categorized and barely promoted, but it’s endured and people are still discovering it. It hasn’t yet become a pop culture phenomenon that’s widely quoted, but maybe someday …

After reading this book, I had to watch the movie again, and I found that it made me love the movie even more. As familiar as it is, I noticed new things from watching it so intently to look for things mentioned in the book. Often, learning how things were done ruins the magic, but in this case, it seems to have enhanced the magic. I’ve never been all that affected by the relationship between Westley and Buttercup. This isn’t the movie I turn to when I’m in the mood for romance. But I got it this time, possibly from knowing the actors fancied each other. I could see how that colored their dynamic. It helps that the last time I’d seen this movie, it was at church when the pastor was doing a series of sermons tied to movies. We had a movie night at the church, then Sunday the sermon used that movie as an example. For this one, it was about steadfast love, that Westley was so devoted to Buttercup he even resisted letting death separate them, while she had absolute faith he would come for her. The romance genre is mostly about the couple overcoming their internal conflicts to develop a relationship, and since that part is glossed over in the opening here, I hadn’t thought of it as too romantic. But there is a different kind of romance involved with a couple that’s already together who manage to hold on to their love in spite of external conflicts. Their love is a quiet assurance. It’s the rock amid all the other drama.

If you love the movie, I recommend reading this book. And then you’ll want to watch the movie again.


Walking in the Woods

The book I read from my “to be read” shelf last week was A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. It has a clearance sticker from Half-Price Books on it, so I must have picked it up at a clearance sale at some point because the topic appealed to me, but then I never got around to reading it. This is a non-fiction book about an American writer who’d been living in England for a long time, then moved back to the US. While getting adjusted to being back in his home country, he became fascinated by the idea of the Appalachian Trail and decided he wanted to try hiking the whole thing. He invited a number of people to go with him, and the only person who responded was an old acquaintance he actually found kind of annoying.

Still, they got geared up, flew to Georgia, and began hiking at the beginning of the trail. The book follows their adventures as they spent their days hiking and camped along the trail, covering their hardships and some of the interesting people they met along the way. Interspersed with this story is information about the trail itself, how it came to be, its history, and how it’s maintained. The story parts of the book are often laugh-out-loud funny. These guys were in way over their heads and got into a few scrapes, and there was a lot of sometimes silly conflict between them.

The book appealed to me because I love hiking, and there’s a part of me that would like to do something like that, just set off across the country. However, I’m not sure I could deal with walking all day, then sleeping on the ground, and going days without any kind of shower or real bathroom. There were a few places along the trail where they were able to get to a motel or stay at a lodge, but otherwise it was primitive back country camping, and I’m too much of a delicate flower for that.

I know someone who tried through-hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago. She and her pre-teen sons and their dog hiked, and her husband followed along in an RV with their cat (he was able to work remotely). Most of the time, she and the kids would camp on the trail, but when the trail got close enough to meet up with a road, her husband would pick them up in the RV, so they could get a shower and sleep in a bed. When she was able to get a signal, she’d post an update. It was fascinating to read, but I’m not sure I could do it. I don’t remember how far they made it before they decided to stop and come back home, but it wasn’t the whole way even after months of hiking.

Still, reading this book made me really want to go hiking. I love walking and hiking — I’m not sure what the difference is, though I consider hiking to be off paved trails. One reason I live in my neighborhood is its network of walking trails. There’s also a park on the edge of the neighborhood where there are trails through the woods. My happy place is walking through a forest. I don’t do it nearly as much as I’d like to. I started last year with a First Day hike at a state park and had grand ambitions of finding a hiking group, but then the pandemic hit. My last few real vacations were to go hiking. We’re getting to the time of year when you can do long walks and hikes around here, and that’s a lot of what I have planned for my fall break. It was nice getting to do that vicariously while reading this book, and I will appreciate being able to walk for an hour or two, then come home and take a hot shower and sleep in my own bed.

There are some stretches of the Appalachian Trail that are more accessible for day hikes in Virginia, so maybe I’ll keep walking at least a little of the trail on my Bucket List, even if I have no desire to do the whole thing. That was the part in the book that sounded closest to what I think I could do.

Now I kind of want to see the movie based on this book. I can see how much of the story would make a good film, and I’m curious how they deal with the structure. They did a good chunk of the trail before stopping for a break. The author visited some other pieces of the trail on his own, then his friend joined him again to tackle the rest. I’m guessing they cut out the middle part and keep the two guys together. In the movie, the actors are in their 70s while the real people were in their 40s when they did this, so they seem to have turned it into an old guy Bucket List sort of thing. I may wait a little while before watching it because a movie is almost always disappointing soon after you’ve read the book.


Getting Hooked

Last week, I started reading a book I’d checked out of the library. I was in a bit of a reading slump, as I hadn’t really taken to the last couple of things I’d read, but then very early in this book I got that tingle of “ooh, I’m going to like this.” And that made me stop and think about why — what was it about this book that made me sure I’d like it, that drew me in? It wasn’t the plot, since it hadn’t even really started yet. One of the recent books that I didn’t take to had a plot that should have been catnip to me, but I never really got into it.

Thinking about it, I decided that the thing that makes a book grab me is a character I like who has potential for growth or change. I haven’t done a full analysis of all my favorites yet, but this seems to be a common thread.

For “character I like,” I have to confess that most often that seems to be a character I’m romantically attracted to, the “book boyfriend.” But it can also be a character I relate to. That doesn’t necessarily mean in any demographic sense, stuff like gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, station in life, etc. It’s more about that sense of “I get you.” For instance, I’m not a rogue security android, but the moment I started reading the Murderbot books, I had that “yes, this is a kindred spirit, I get you” sense about Murderbot. And sometimes it’s just a character I like, someone who’s interesting, funny, capable, kind or has some other quality that makes them appealing, even if I don’t relate to them at all and am not at all attracted to them.

This is where a lot of books that I don’t take to go wrong for me. I don’t like the main character. There’s nothing I’m attracted to or relate to, and the person is annoying.

The “potential for growth or change” part was a bit surprising to me because that’s something I struggle with in writing. I have a bad habit of starting out with a character who doesn’t need to learn anything, or I have trouble coming up with the flaw the character needs to overcome. But when I started looking at what hooks me, most often it’s the character who’s in way over their head in a situation they aren’t prepared to deal with. So there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the person. The problem is that they’re in the wrong situation for them, and they’re going to have to rise to the occasion or fail horribly. It’s the “unlikely hero” trope, the “you want me to do what?” story.

The next most common need for change that hooks me is the person with some kind of damage that skews their perspective, and the change you see coming is some kind of healing of that damage. That was the book that most recently hooked me (I’ll discuss it in another post after I’ve read the second book in the series and see how it goes). The main character was someone angry who’d been hurt, and the plot setup was something that I could see leading to some kind of healing. I wanted to see the character be healed, so I was eager to read on.

I’m a bit less interested in the “this is their fatal flaw in how they see the world, and they’re going to have to correct being wrong in order to prevail” story.

When I have a bit more free time, I want to do a good analysis of my bookcases and see how this theory holds up. It does give me a better idea of how I can write character growth — and the need for character growth — in a way that works for me and that I hope will work for readers.

What is it that is most likely to grab you in a book?


Tackling TBR Mountain

I’ve been trying to work my way through my to-be-read pile over the past few years. I did a big purge a few years ago, then reorganized the way I deal with unread books to make it more likely that I would read them. When I say “pile,” “mountain” is more accurate. I had a whole bookcase several rows deep full of unread books and also had unread books mixed in with the books on my regular bookcases. One of my friends referred to my to-be-read collection as “the strategic book reserve.”

I don’t have a bad book-buying habit, though. Most of these books were giveaways, so they’re not books I chose for myself, and that’s a large part of why they remained unread for so long. If I buy a book for myself, I usually read it right away. The exceptions are things like library book sales, where I just grab things that sound interesting. Even those tend to get read pretty quickly. But it’s the conference books that pile up. Publishers give books away at writing conferences, since writers talk about books a lot, and if you give a lot of writers a book, they can spread word of mouth about it well enough to make it a hit.

I used to be involved with the Romance Writers of America. When you checked in to the national conference, they’d give you a tote bag full of books, or else you’d get a ticket to a goodie room and get to go around picking books to put in your tote bag. Then the publishers would have booksignings during the conference where they just gave away the books. For books they really wanted to highlight, they’d put copies on each seat at luncheons. After a few years, I learned to be more selective and only pick up books I thought I might read instead of just going all grabby hands and “boooookkkss!” Still, after more than ten years of these conferences, that added up to a lot of books.

Then I started going to more science fiction events. There aren’t usually a lot of book giveaways at the more fan-oriented conventions, though sometimes there are books on the freebie tables. But you get the same kind of tote bag full of books at the Nebula Awards conference and at the World Fantasy Convention. I got a bunch of mysteries at a mystery convention I went to a couple of years ago.

There are also random things, like a bunch of gothics I got in a bag from my former boss’s wife when they were moving, books by people I know that I got when I went to their booksignings (I try to go to friends’ first booksignings, even if they aren’t something I normally read), books that were gifts, and those bargain books I bought on a whim.

The pile grew because I was afraid to get rid of anything, especially once when I’d attempted a purge but hadn’t gotten around to taking the ones selected for donation anywhere, then read something else by an author whose earlier book turned out to be in the donation bag. What if I gave away something I’d end up wanting?

But I was inspired by Marie Kondo to winnow down the collection to books I actually wanted. A lot of the romances got donated to the library book sale in the great purge when I admitted to myself that I don’t actually like most romances and was probably never going to read them. Getting rid of so many books made the stash less intimidating and made me more likely to read what I had left. I also took all the TBR books off that bookcase and put them in boxes so I could use that bookcase for books I want to keep. Then I filled the small bookcase in my bedroom from those boxes. Now those books are close to where I usually am when I need something to read, and that’s really helped me work through the stash. If I’m not enjoying a book, I let myself put it in the donation bag and move on to something else. When a slot is emptied after I read a book, I fill it with something from the boxes. I’ve emptied a whole box so far. This has allowed me to make more progress in reading through the stash than I’d made in the prior decades, but it does mean I’m getting around to reading a lot of those books that are first in a series that’s now hard to find, which is its own problem. I don’t know when I’ll manage to move out of this house, but I hope by then I’ll have considerably fewer books. A lot of these books aren’t something I’d want to pay to move.



I’ve run into a reading issue lately that’s beginning to bug me: the book I’m not really enjoying, but I want to know how it ends, so I keep reading, and then it ends on a cliffhanger, so to find out how it ends, I’d have to read the next book. But I was barely enjoying it enough to get to the end of one book and I’m not really up for reading another book.

This has made me realize that this makes a good rating system:

Wouldn’t read the next book if it was free

Might flip through the next one in the library or bookstore to find out what happens, but wouldn’t want to actually read it

Might get the next book from the library just to find out what happens but wouldn’t buy it

Might buy the next one at the used bookstore or library sale or get the e-book if it’s cheap enough, but wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Would pay full price for the next book

Where it gets frustrating is if the book is in the “might get the next book from the library” category but the library doesn’t have it. I’m curious enough to read it, but not enough to pay for the privilege, and I don’t know that I want to encourage the library to add it to their collection (I might suggest it if they have book 1 but not book 2, but not if I got book 1 some other way).

In my recent reading, I ran into a “wouldn’t read the next book if it was free.” It was one I checked out of the library because the description sounded similar to an idea I’ve been playing with and I wanted to see what the author did with it. It ended up being totally different from what I have in mind, and it was a frustrating book because it was supposedly an adult fantasy, but it read like all the clichés of YA fantasy. That’s probably actually a good strategy, since a lot of the YA fantasy readers are adults, and appealing to them is smart, but it isn’t to my taste. I was skimming through the book because I found the characters annoying, and fortunately I was also bored enough to flip ahead, so I found that the ending was a cliffhanger and there was a preview of book 2. I could see that it was going even further into something I wouldn’t like, so I stopped reading at a point where things were okay for the characters and didn’t get to the cliffhanger.

Then I pulled a book off my To-Be-Read shelf. I actually liked this one for most of the book. I liked the characters, and the worldbuilding was quite good. I was thinking about recommending it. Then it took a horrible turn near the end, going from fantasy to horror. It lost all the wit that had been in the first part of the book. Terrible things happened to the characters I liked, transforming them into something I didn’t like. And then it ended on a cliffhanger. The preview for book 2 suggested that it was going to continue like that. There’s a chance that in the rest of the series it might have ended up bringing the characters out of all that and re-transforming them into something better, but I’m not sure I want to go on that journey with them. I might have checked it out of the library and at least flipped through the book, but the library doesn’t have this series. I got the book at a conference more than ten years ago, so the print version is out of print (which means no requesting that the library add it to the collection). I’m not sure I’d even be able to get it at a used bookstore. And the e-books are ridiculously priced, as though they go with hardcovers instead of mass-market paperbacks (which this book was). That’ll teach me to let books sit on the TBR pile for too long. If I’d read it sooner, I might have been able to get the second book more easily. At least there was some resolution to the main plot before the cliffhanger that drives the story into the next book, unlike that other book, where the whole book was essentially setup for the cliffhanger.

Now that I think about it, earlier this year there was another one like this. It had been sitting on my TBR shelf for a decade or so. I kept slogging through it, only to find that the whole book was pretty much just setting up the sequel. The main plot didn’t even show up until near the end. I was curious enough that I might have read the next book if I’d found it in the library, but they didn’t have this series, the paperbacks seem to be out of print, the e-books are more than I want to pay just for curiosity, and the only book I’ve found used is the first in the series that I’ve already read. Fortunately, there’s a Wikipedia entry on this series that summarizes the plot, so I know what happened, and I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it much.

I don’t mind a cliffhanger, but I do like for each book in a series to have some kind of beginning, middle, and end, so that something is resolved even if something new comes up at the last minute to set up the sequel.


Escape to the Past

One of the things I did during my holiday was re-read one of my all-time favorite books, To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. This is a science fiction book about time travel and chaos theory, but in the form of a Victorian farce. It was the perfect escape, since the book is kind of about an escape.

In the not too distant future, time travel has been developed and is mostly used by historians to study the past. A wealthy woman is building a replica of the Coventry Cathedral destroyed during World War II, and since she’s funding the history program at Oxford, she’s using the historians to make sure every last detail is perfect. Her ancestor had a pivotal experience at that cathedral during the Victorian era, so this is personal. Our hero has been time traveling a lot back to the war to try to find one particular artifact that was part of the ancestor’s pivotal experience that should have been in the cathedral on the night of the air raid but that seems to have disappeared. He gets a bad case of time lag after making too many trips, and he can’t escape the wealthy donor, so they send him to the Victorian era to rest and recover. There’s just one task he needs to take care of. The problem is that he’s so time lagged that he never actually realizes what he’s supposed to be doing, and he lands in the wrong place, not near the other historian who’s there to try to learn about the ancestor.

What ensues is a sort of Victorian farce of mistaken identities and bad timing as all the efforts to correct one thing in the timeline end up causing more problems — or do they? There’s some mystery (finding out what happened with the ancestor, finding that missing artifact) and a dash of romance, with some bouncing around in time.

I love this book so much. I even took a trip to Oxford, where some of it is set, and found a lot of the locations mentioned in the book. Now I enjoy picturing those places as I read.

It dawned on me upon this read that the main character is Ned Henry, and the leading lady is Verity Kindle, but I honestly was not making a reference to this book when I named the characters in Rebel Mechanics. With Verity, I was using the meaning of her name, truth, and I figured that a professor would name his daughter something Latin. Lord Henry is actually named after my grandfather, whose middle name was Henry. It’s a name that can be upper-crust (all those English kings) and salt-of-the-earth. I’d forgotten the last name of the main character in this book, since it’s first-person narration and he’s usually called by his first name, so his last name doesn’t come up that often.

If you like A Room with a View but think it would have been better if time travelers from the future had shown up to make sure Lucy ended up with the right guy in order to prevent the Nazis from winning World War II and/or the collapse of the space-time continuum, this is the book for you.