Archive for Books


Magical Regency

I have yet another recommended read. This one is for the Jane Austen (or Georgette Heyer, or Regency or Georgian romance in general) fans. If you love all those stories about the social season/marriage market and young women who desperately need to marry well in order to save their family fortunes, but you wish they had more magic in them, check out The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk.

In this world, once women are married, they’re stopped from being able to use magic. One young woman is determined not to have that happen to her. She wants to be a sorceress, but her family needs her to marry well. Things get complicated when she meets another young woman from a very wealthy family who also would rather pursue magic than marriage, but then there’s her handsome brother, who really likes our heroine. As handsome and kind as he is, is he worth losing magic for? Both young women are running out of time to make a decision and take action because their families are trying to arrange marriages for them.

I’m definitely in the “I love Jane Austen, but those books could use more magic” camp, so this book was right up my alley. It’s a secondary-world fantasy, so it’s an imaginary world, not Georgian England, but it still has all those things we like about stories set in that world, while also having a lot of other cultures, social rules, and magic. It’s a much richer world than in your typical Regency romance, and while some of the ways women are constrained seem harsh, they’re probably not any worse than the way women really were treated in our world. The characters are endearing and spirited, and speaking of spirits, there’s the luck spirit who gets summoned and enjoys the opportunity to live vicariously through her hostess. Seeing the spirit’s joy at so many simple pleasures made me think about taking opportunities to savor moments, to eat strawberries and run on the beach (or woods; I’m not really a beach person and there isn’t one handy).

While there’s a lot of romance in this book and the most obvious comparisons are to Regency romances, it’s not actually a romance. It’s mostly about the struggle to obtain all the magic they can get before they can be forced to marry and the way they’re trying to navigate in this challenging world that’s set up to go against them. Having everything they want will require them to change their world.


Creeping in to New York

I obviously like New York stories, given how many of my books take place there. I suppose in a way New York was my fantasy world when I was growing up. I knew that was the place where Broadway was, which was where I wanted to be. Later, I thought of it as where the news networks were headquartered and as the setting for most of the romantic comedies, so it was where my fantasy adult life took place. That shows in my books, I think, because I write New York as a fantasy world that’s accurate in some respects (you could probably map the city based on my descriptions, and it takes the right amount of time to walk places) but is probably wildly inaccurate for the actual experience of living in the city.

If you want a probably more truthful view of the city but still with fantasy elements, check out The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin. It’s kind of an updated Lovecraftian horror (without the racism) about the thing from the realm beyond that’s trying to make its way into our world, taking advantage of the moment when New York becomes a living city. Tapped to fight the battle for the city are people who become avatars of the boroughs, and they have to find the avatar of the city as a whole before the thing gets to him. Meanwhile, they have to find a way to deal with the inroads the thing is making, as it manifests in very real horrors, like alt.right trolls, gentrifying foundations that are backed by corporations, and “Karens” who call the police like they’re trying to speak to the manager.

This is a powerful, thought-provoking book that I could barely put down. It gave me a very different perspective on New York than my usual tourist point of view and made me think about the many different kinds of people who make up the city. The sense of place was so strong that it made me homesick for New York. It’s been far too long since my last visit. I was a little leery of the horror elements, but it’s not that scary. I think the more “realistic” horrors were more frightening. They may not be powered by eldritch horrors from another realm (or are they?) but “Karens” do exist. I’m less worried about giant tentacles from beyond. The characters really grew on me, getting under my skin so that I couldn’t help but emphasize with them, even though they were all very different from me.

I’d recommend this for those who like the Enchanted, Inc. books but are up for something grittier and scarier and who want to broaden their horizons about what New York is.


Recent Reading: Spooky Stuff

One more book in my recent reading was Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. If you were like me and devoured the Mary Stewart gothic/suspense novels as a teen, all those books about spunky young women visiting spooky houses and dealing with wealthy men who were potentially shady, but you wished there was something truly uncanny about them and not just atmosphere, this is the book for you.

A Mexico City debutante in 1950 gets an unsettling letter from her recently married cousin, and her father sends her to check on the cousin, who now lives with her husband’s family in the manor by their defunct silver mine in the mountains. Once she gets there, she finds that this family is deeply weird and something seems to be seriously wrong with her cousin, who tries to warn her of danger. The only person in the house who seems to be reasonably sane is one of the husband’s relatives, but she’s not sure she can trust him, either. She needs to figure out what’s really going on in order to save her cousin and get back to her life, but she’s not at all prepared for the truth of what this family’s secret really is.

I wouldn’t have thought this was my kind of book from the publisher description (they forgot to mention Mary Stewart) because I don’t like horror and scary things, but I ended up devouring it. It’s just so beautifully atmospheric. I could see the setting so vividly. One thing I absolutely loved was that the heroine was allowed to be smart. There was never a point when I found myself trying to give her advice or telling her not to go there or not to do that. She made all the right moves, based on the information she had available, but she was up against something bigger and weirder than she could have realized, so even while doing smart things she ended up having to struggle. I appreciate that so much because I get frustrated by plotting that relies on dumb characters who cause their own problems to create conflict. I also enjoyed the setting. I remember liking the globe trotting of those old Mary Stewart books that allowed me to visit interesting locations, and this one gives us a view of Mexico that’s very different from the usual American pop culture depictions (and my own experiences visiting border cities).

I don’t know if this book has been optioned for film, but it would make an amazing movie because it’s so visual. I’d love to see the heroine’s wardrobe on the screen, and then there’s that house that’s the sort of project production designers drool over.

I’m definitely looking up more of this author’s books. I think she just had a new one come out this week.


Epic Fantasy, But Different

Back to more book discussion …

I’ve been on a fantasy kick for at least the last six months, really diving in to epic fantasy, and as much as I love it, I’ve got to admit that it gets kind of monotonous after a while. Those quasi-medieval European fantasy worlds start to blur together. And yet I can’t get enough of that kind of story, the quests, missions, prophecies, courtly political intrigue, magic, monsters, multiple storylines on a collision course, etc. If you feel the same way, I’ve got just the book for you.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse is an epic fantasy that has all those things you love in epic fantasy, but instead of a setting based on quasi-medieval Europe, it’s a secondary world based on pre-Colombian America. That injects a shot of real originality into the story and makes those old fantasy tropes come to new life from a different perspective.

The complex story tracks a young man marked from childhood as a prophesied chosen one trained to carry out one life’s mission, the sea captain hired to get him where he needs to be faster than anyone has managed to make that voyage, the outsider priest trying against great opposition (and betrayal) to be more relevant to the people, and the warrior torn between what his clan expects and the underground movement he’s starting to believe in. They’re all coming together on the winter solstice, when an eclipse is happening.

I plowed through this book pretty quickly, even though it’s rather long, and I hope the sequel is coming soon because I immediately wanted more of the story (the ending does wrap up the main events but immediately sets up new ones). I found the setting and the cultures fascinating and really pulled for most of the main characters. It scratched that epic fantasy itch, but in a new and exciting way.

I’ve seen this book recommended for fans of Game of Thrones, and while I wouldn’t have thought to compare the two, I can see some similarities, and I do think that if you like that series you’ll like this. It has a few bloody moments, but I definitely wouldn’t call it “grimdark,” though. It’s less of a “people suck, life sucks, nothing is fair” world than Game of Thrones is.


Book Report: Defensive Baking

This may turn into a book blog for the next few weeks because I realized I haven’t talked about what I’m reading for a couple of months and I need to catch up. I had to keep kind of quiet about what I was reading for a little while because I’m the Assistant Nebula Awards Commissioner, and one of the perks of my position is that I could see which books were likely to end up being finalists so that I was able to get a jump on reading the probable finalists. Then I knew who the actual finalists were a couple of weeks before they were announced. And since I was reading the nominees before that was public knowledge, I figured it was probably best that I didn’t say anything about what I was reading, lest some clever person put two and two together and figure it out. But it’s all public now, and I can talk about what I’ve been reading. I’m getting to these books in no particular order, and this isn’t covering everything I read or even liked. These are just the books I think my readers are most likely to be interested in.

One book that I’d already bought before it started showing up with a lot of nominations was A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher. How could I resist a book with a title like that? Since I had the e-book on my tablet, this was what I read during the dark nights of the power outage. In some respects, it was the perfect book to read by candlelight while huddled under blankets in a dark, freezing house because it was fun and light and kind of cozy. In some respects, it was a bad idea because it made me desperately want to bake, and I couldn’t because I had no power. It also made me hungry for scones. The first morning I was sure my power would stay on, I baked scones.

This story is about a world in which wizards have one power, in a very specialized way, and our young heroine’s power is baking. She can make bread rise properly, make scones come out perfectly, and make rolls bake to just the right degree of doneness. She can also make gingerbread men walk, and then there was that incident with the sourdough starter, who now lives in the basement and manages pest control for the bakery. This doesn’t seem like the sort of talent that would get anyone in trouble or make someone seem like a threat, but she finds a dead body in the bakery one morning, and then she learns that wizards all over town are being killed. There seems to be a conspiracy to destabilize the city while the army is off fighting a battle and there’s an enemy army approaching. Our heroine may be the last wizard left in the city, but how can she defend the city by baking?

This book is so, so much fun. It’s sold as YA, but I think that also applies to the young at heart. It kind of reminds me of the Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett, only instead of a sentient, bad-tempered cheese, there’s a sentient, bad-tempered sourdough starter. We’ve got a smart, practical heroine putting her specialized knowledge to use in an unorthodox way, with a lot of whimsy, heart, and humor. This is the perfect book to read if you’re having a bad day (like your power being out when it’s 10 degrees outside), but it might be a good idea to bake some scones or cookies first because you will get hungry while reading. If you’re a baker, you’ll want to bake, but you’ll never look at gingerbread men the same way again.


Old Influences

I’ve been reading some of what I jokingly call Old School fantasy, the books published in the 80s (sometimes the 70s, but with sequels published in the 80s). In part, I wanted to get back to my own fantasy roots, the things I read after discovering Tolkien that ended up leading to me wanting to write fantasy. I’m not exactly following my reading trajectory, but I am picking up some of the books on that line that I haven’t revisited in a long time. One other reason I’m rereading these books is that I thought it would be a good idea to read the things I was reading when I first came up with the idea I’m working on to see what bits of influence might have crept in.

I have found that some things from books I remember reading around that time are in my story idea — not so much that it’s any kind of outright copying or plagiarism, just some tropes showing up. I think part of this is that a lot of my story ideas come from reading a book that’s almost, but not quite, exactly the book I want to read. There’s something in it that really appeals to me, but it focuses on something else or does it in a way I’m not crazy about. Then I think of how it could go the way I want it to go, and a story idea is born.

One thing that seemed to come up a lot in that era — and that’s in the book I came up with — is the evil wizard who’s controlling the weather and using it as a weapon. Except in most of the books I’ve read with that plot element, the wizard makes it winter. I’m doing one in which the wizard makes it hot and dry, creating a dust bowl. Being from Texas, I find that a lot more nightmarish. Well, I did until last week, when it was freezing and I didn’t have power. It did kind of feel like some evil wizard had suddenly zapped us. The good guys must have won, though, because it was about 80 degrees warmer yesterday afternoon than the low temperature was a week earlier. It’s bizarre to think that last week I was bundled up in blankets and freezing, with snow on the ground, and this week I’ve been sitting out on the patio to work.

Another trope I’m seeing a lot of — and that I’m not using in this book — is the inept apprentice wizard who’s actually some new kind of wizard who can do unusual things, but they don’t realize that at first because he does things in a different way, so trying to do magic conventionally doesn’t work for him. And this kind of wizard always seems to be a klutz. I do like the idea of the person who only seems incompetent because he’s in a league of his own and his teachers have been trying to force him into the standard mold, but I don’t see why this character always has to be tripping over his own feet and knocking things over.

Noticing the plot elements and character types that seem to have been top of mind when I came up with the idea allows me to be conscious of these influences so I can avoid duplicating earlier books without realizing it. As long as it’s been since I came up with this story idea, there’s a real danger that something might have seeped in without me being aware of it. I remember the strangest bits from these old books, and there’s a lot I didn’t recall as being specifically from these books but that’s still been churning around in my brain.

And I’m not going to tell what books these are because I don’t want anyone looking for influences. Maybe I’ll discuss them some other time in a different context.


More Lord of the Rings Thoughts

I’ve been talking about my recent reread of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read the book since seeing the movies, and I watched the movies about a year ago, so they’re reasonably fresh, and that meant I sometimes had a mental image clash between the movies and what’s actually in the book. One big difference is the pacing. I’d forgotten that there’s a big gap between Bilbo’s birthday, when the story begins, and Frodo actually leaving the Shire. It’s 17 years between the party and Gandalf coming back to warn Frodo about the ring, and then it’s months later before Frodo actually leaves. I can see why they’d want to tighten that up to give it more urgency. Then they spend a couple of months in Rivendell. Even after they get word that stuff is happening and time may be of the essence, they take a week or so to leave. It’s not as though we get details of what’s happening in the meantime. It skips straight to the next time something happens, so it’s generally only a paragraph or so later, but it still feels less urgent, and I can see why that had to change for the movies.

That time jump means that Frodo is older than I remembered. He’s 50, the same age Bilbo was in The Hobbit. Since Hobbits come of age at 33 and live longer than humans, I would guess that makes Frodo the equivalent of 30-something for a human, so an adult in his prime. On the other hand, Pippin is 29, so that makes him a teenager, the equivalent of 16 or 17 for a human.

I think one of the things I like best in the book is all the forests, and I suspect that was part of what made me fall into the story in the first place. The first time I read it, I was living in Germany, on the edge of the Odenwald, a major forest (and literally on the edge, as in on the other side of the fence from our yard) and we’d moved there from southwestern Oklahoma. Before that, we’d lived in West Texas. Neither of these places are known for their trees. Being in a real forest was absolutely magical to me, so all the forests in the book appealed to me. There was the forest in the Shire where Frodo and the gang ran into some elves and had a dinner party in a hall of trees. There was Tom Bombadil’s forest. There was Rivendell. And then Lothlorien. And Fangorn. I’ve decided I might be part Ent, one of the walking trees. I feel most alive in a forest. And yet somehow I ended up living in the plains …

Another interesting pacing thing is the way Tolkien handled multiple viewpoints with parallel storylines. Most books (and this was the way they handled it in the movies) use that to build suspense, ending on a cliffhanger from one storyline and moving to tell part of the story for another viewpoint, ending on a cliffhanger there and moving back, and so forth. But he tends to tell all of one story before going back to tell the other story, with time stamps to give a good idea of how the stories fit together. I wouldn’t recommend doing it this way in a current submission, but I think it works here, even though I entirely forgot where we left Frodo and Sam before we got the entire story of the battle and then returned to their storyline.

Apparently, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis disagreed about putting religion or religious allegory into fantasy fiction — though Lewis didn’t consider the Narnia books to be allegory. He considered Aslan to be the incarnation of Christ as it happened in that world, not a symbolic representation of Christ. But I found myself amused by how much Aragorn comes across as a Christ-type figure — he’s a prophesied king living a humble, nomadic life with his disciples (the Rangers). He has to walk the Path of the Dead where no man but he can go, and he brings out those who’ve already died, forgiving their sins and redeeming them for eternal rest. He won’t enter the city as king unless he’s invited. The people are looking for a great king, though there is a prophecy mentioning that he’ll have the hands of a healer, but he puts aside his kingly trappings after the battle to go about healing everyone and first enters the city as a healer rather than as a king. It may be that this isn’t meant as allegory but is more a case of Tolkien basing a character on someone he admired.

I can see why the movies skipped the Scouring of the Shire because it makes for weird pacing to have this big conflict after the climax. Including it would have made the end of The Return of the King drag on even more than it did. I suspect that bit is some historical allegory, the idea of returning from battle to find the world changed. Industrialization really ramped up during WWI, and Tolkien, who was rather anti-industrialization, must have been horrified to come back to England after the war and find the idyllic scenes of his youth corrupted with the smokestacks of factories. I saw a documentary on Amazon about the places that influenced Tolkien, and they mentioned some of the places he’d loved and the changed that had happened there.

Rereading this book has made me nostalgic for Old School fantasy, so I’ve found myself digging through my shelves and rereading books I read as a teen.



Back to Middle Earth

I finished re-reading The Lord of the Rings last weekend, and I was glad I read it again. I feel like I’ve reclaimed something I’d lost.

I first read this book (books? On this go, I had an e-book that had all three books in one volume, treated as one book, but the previous times I read three separate books. And I’m aware that there are actually two “books” in each volume) in the fall of my sixth-grade year. I discovered the Narnia books at around the same time, but I don’t recall which came first. I know I didn’t read the entire Narnia series during that fall because I was still reading those books early the next year, but I did read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy during that fall.

It was during this reading of both series that the switch that turned me into a fantasy fan was well and truly flipped. I’m still not sure why it hit then and not a couple of years earlier when I first read The Hobbit. The Star Wars obsession around the time of The Hobbit probably did have a lot to do with it because I wanted spaceships and robots instead of hobbits and wizards. I still liked science fiction in sixth grade, but the sharpest edges of the obsession might have been blunted. It might have been the setting, as we’d moved to Germany then, and we spent a lot of time walking through dense forests like those described in The Lord of the Rings, and we spent weekends visiting castles. That made fantasy worlds seem more real, less abstract. It was easy to visualize these kinds of places because I’d actually been there. I know I started reading the Narnia books because my mom gave me a copy of The Silver Chair to keep me occupied when I had to meet her at her office after school and wait until she got off work before we could go do something. I don’t remember why I picked up The Lord of the Rings, though I do have a vivid mental image of standing in front of that shelf in the school library and looking at those books. My school was a combination of upper elementary and junior high in the same building (grades 4-8), so the library skewed a bit older than the usual elementary library. I don’t remember if I picked them up because I wanted more fantasy after The Silver Chair or if I remembered reading The Hobbit and was curious about the other books (I recall there being some of that, but I don’t know if that was the main trigger).

At any rate, I fell madly in love with these books. I was totally sucked in and tore through them. I wanted to crawl into the books and live in that place — maybe not during most of the events of the story, as that would have been scary — but I wanted to be in the Shire, to hang out with the elves in Rivendell and Lorien, to meet the Ents in Fangorn. I tore through the books furiously, and I was so excited when the animated movie came to one of the base theaters not long after I finished reading the series — and then was horribly disappointed when it cut off midway through the story (I know there was another animated film that continued the story that came out later, but I’ve never seen that one). I think if I’d been in a place where there were other fantasy fans and related activities I could have participated in, I might have really gone big — stuff like conventions, role-playing games, costuming, etc. But we didn’t, so I had to do all that stuff in my head.

I’m surprised that I didn’t reread the books during my lonely teen years, though I was reading a lot of fantasy at that time. I didn’t pick them up again until I was in college, when they were discussed in a class I was taking on “parageography” (the geography of imaginary worlds — worldbuilding). They weren’t required reading, but the professor mentioned enough things that I didn’t recall that I decided to reread them. And it was a total slog. The magic was gone. I barely got through the whole thing. That memory held me back from doing another reread all this time, even when I was considering it soon after the movies came out.

But I was almost as delighted this time around as I was that first time. It perhaps wasn’t quite as fresh, since I’m not 11, I’ve read a lot of fantasy since then, and I’ve written a lot since then, but it was still magical. The language was easier than I remembered, especially earlier in the book. It does go into King James mode in parts later, but it still read quickly and easily. I wanted to crawl into the books and visit those places the way I did in that first read. I want to go to a woodland elf dinner party under the trees, with lanterns hanging in the branches or sit by the fire in a cozy hobbit hole. If I had the fabric handy, I’d probably be making an elf lady costume for myself (though, physically, I’d probably make a better hobbit, since I’m short and have curly brown hair, but I don’t like being barefoot). One nice thing about being an adult is that if you want to do crazy things because you love a book, you just can.

I’m so glad I reread the books because I feel like I got some of the magic back. It was fun to visit that world again, and finishing the read was like coming home from a vacation, where it’s good to be home (and to read something else after weeks), but it’s also sad to leave that other, more special place. I don’t know if I’ll do yet another reread, but I have the book on my tablet, so I can dip into the parts I particularly enjoy.

Since this is already epic, I’ll have to get into my more specific thoughts on the series later.


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.


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!