Elizabeth: What Did You Read Wednesday?

Additions to my TBR pile, courtesy of the RWA Conference

Additions to my TBR pile, courtesy of the RWA Conference

Although I spent many years as a book-a-day reader, I haven’t done much pleasure reading in recent months. My typical daily schedule is (1) day job, (2) work-in-progress, (3) pleasure reading and, since I am a regrettably slow writer, I rarely get past item (2) before it’s time to call it a night.

I was schooled on the error of my ways by none other than Eloisa James at the recent conference when I mentioned that I was rather behind in reading her new books as writing was taking all my time. She said “let me give you some unsolicited advice” and then (paraphrasing) said as a writer, you need to make time to read.   It is advice we’ve all heard before, in posts on this very blog even.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ~ Stephen King

So, in an effort to turn over a new leaf (and because my WIP was conveniently off sitting in a drawer ‘resting’) I made some modifications to my schedule so that reading is no longer a “when there is spare time left” activity.

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.” ~ Ray Bradbury

Luckily for me, the recent conference provided me with a tremendous infusion of things to read in my newly scheduled free-time. I picked up a number of books by new-to-me historical fiction authors to get a feel for what is currently being written/published in that space, as well as a variety of contemporary stories, chosen because a title caught my eye, the back-blurb sounded interesting, or in a few cases, because the author was delightful.

“We write by the light of every story we have ever read.” ~ Richard Peck

So, here’s what I’ve read recently:

A New Book by a Favourite Author

First up was the historical The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy by Julia Quinn. The book, which was told from the hero’s point of view, featured one of the Smythe-Smith girls, a family readers of Quinn’s Bridgerton series are quite familiar with. Like her previous books, this one was light and entertaining, with lots of witty banter. Iris Smythe-Smith was charming and well drawn and there was a familiar feel to the story. The weakness for me though was the hero. He had a secret that he needed to tell Iris and he kept putting it off and putting it off because he didn’t want her to hate him. Each time he thought “I should tell her” and then didn’t, I liked him a little less. It wasn’t until more than 250 pages into the story that we found out what the secret was and that didn’t improve things at all. While happily-ever-after triumphed at the end, it was only because Iris saved the day and let the hero off the hook far more easily than it felt like he deserved. All in all, it was a diverting read, but not a candidate for the keeper shelf.

A New Author

This month’s “new to me” author was Kristan Higgins.   I’d had one of her books in my TBR pile since the RWA conference in Dallas, but somehow it never made it to the top. In New York she did a reading in the Bryant Park with several other authors before the conference and she was so charming and funny (plus the snippet of story she read was so engaging and entertaining) that not only did I move her to the top of the reading list but I picked up another of her books as well at the Harlequin signing.

I started with In Your Dreams, a contemporary story that is the fourth book in her Blue Heron series. I (obviously) had not read the first three books in the series, but the book stood on its own quite well. It was entertaining and funny and kept me engaged all the way through. It also kept me up far into the night reading, as I just kept reading “a little bit more.” One of the things I liked was that the heroine wasn’t perfect. She was believably flawed with her hair that took industrial strength products to subdue, a body that she felt the need to squeeze into Spanx, and her very real desire to avoid attending her ex-fiancé’s wedding alone. I was empathizing with her and cheering her on throughout the story. The hero, who apparently couldn’t resist a damsel in distress if he tried, was endearing as well, despite being tall, blond, and gorgeous. The book also featured an ensemble cast of secondary characters that provided a nice community feel – something I’m a sucker for. This one goes on the keeper shelf and the other books in the series have been added to the TBR pile.

Next was Too Good To Be True, Higgin’s Rita award winner from 2010. Like the previous story, there was an ex-fiancé (dating her sister this time), unruly hair, a good looking hero, and an interesting cast of secondary characters. It featured Grace Emerson, a heroine with a tendency to make up imaginary boyfriends and a disinclination to attend a wedding without a date. I sympathized with Grace through her dating woes, enjoyed the touches of humour, and found the story entertaining. This one is not going on the keeper shelf though. The story is told in first-person, which means there is a strong connection with the heroine, but not with the hero. It didn’t give me a strong sense of who he was and the fact that he was a felon (no matter how well intentioned) bothered me a little bit. Your mileage may vary, of course.

An Old Favourite

I rounded out this month’s reading with Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me. It recently topped the contemporary list on NPRs “Happily Ever After: 100 Swoon-Worthy Romances” and is a well-read favourite of mine from the keeper shelf. Snarky dialogue, engaging characters, good food and great shoes – what’s not to like?

Once upon a time, Minerva Dobbs thought as she stood in the middle of a loud yuppie bar, the world was full of good men. She looked into the handsome face of the man she’d planned on taking to her sister’s wedding and thought, Those days are gone.

While the other books I read this month were fun and entertaining, this one was different. Richer. The first chapter did all the things we were taught at McDaniel and in countless other workshops. It got the hero and heroine on the page quickly, set up the conflict, established time and place, and did so in a way that seemed effortless. It delivered an invitation that promised a great time and then the rest of the book delivered completely. Plus, there were donuts.

So, what have you read (or started reading) recently? Anything you’d recommend?

24 thoughts on “Elizabeth: What Did You Read Wednesday?

  1. Like you, I picked up an oldie but a goody – Lord of Scoundrels. I like Loretta Chase’s characterizations. I pulled Bet Me out of my keeper pile to read for all the reasons you gave. I also pulled Black Rose (Nora Roberts) out of my keeper pile because there is an older heroine in it and NR does a great job with her. I found Sherry Thomas and Jeannie Lin very charming and funny in their sessions. Unfortunately, they are both historical writers, although Sherry has a contemporary out. Jeannie Lin’s historicals are set in Tang Dynasty China, so they are a little different (and on NPR list). Have any of you read either of those authors?

    On a separate note, one of the contemporary authors nominated for a Rita was a shocker. I read one of her books and it was so ridiculously, appallingly bad, I wondered how it ever made it to an editor, much less a printing press. The hero had sex with two women back-to-back (lovely) then leaves town. Both women got pregnant. Both women had the babies at about the same time. One woman “bought” the baby from the other woman and raised both of them. The brother of the hero comes back to town after law school (yes, he’s a lawyer) and despite helping the mother of his brother’s children in a lot of ways, he never helps her get custody of the baby she bought, No one tells the hero he’s got two kids. When he comes back to town, he and the heroine argue repeatedly, about the same exact thing (I think the author lifted dialogue and slapped it down in several scenes), in front of the kids (who are like 7, 8, 9, something like that). Of course, the other mother tries to take her kid back for money, blah. blah, blah. I could go on about how incredibly bad this was, but I’ll stop now.

    • Michille – I haven’t read either of the historical writers that you mentioned; I will have to check them out. As for your Rita shocker, hard to see how that story could wind up with a satisfying HEA. Another one of the Rita finalists has been getting a lot of discussion time recently because of its subject matter. I guess it is just proof that there are all kinds of readers out there and not everything is going to appeal to everyone.

  2. I have been meaning to find one of my copies of Bet Me and read it again — the NPR list helped bring it back to the forefront of my mind, and I also reread Faking It last month, and it was so wonderful . . . .

    Right now I’m reading about cocaine addiction (Freud and Halsted’s addictions, to be precise). My era, basically, and it might be useful.

    Ever since class, though, it feels like I’ve been such a bad reader. It’s like the story in my head has taken all the passion that I had for reading. (I still love a good book; it’s just harder to start them now.)

    • Michaeline – our classes definitely impacted my reading ability. I find it a real challenge to just read a story without having my mind simultaneously analyzing and editing as I go along.

      • I can put my mind away and still read a very good book, but I am much less likely to put up with mediocre writing these days — I think class just cemented a trend that was starting to happen in my reading. After all, there’s so much good stuff out there, and now I’m on the downhill side of the median lifespan, I should make the most of reading.

        I read a lot slower, though, even when I’m not analyzing. If I have to edit, I’m pretty much done with the book. Unless it’s for a contest, or unless it’s part of a cornball style. I notice that when I read on my Kindle, about half of my notes are about style — praise or criticism, or guessing what will happen next.

    • Micki, I read that last year! I thought it was fascinating. And it was crazy to think about how ubiquitous cocaine use was, back in the days when it was the ‘coca’ in Coca-Cola.

      • They had no idea, did they? I think with the internet, things that are addictive get noticed a little more easily — or maybe the fact that we test on animals and not on doctors makes it more obvious when something is going to be a problem. IDK. But it looks like a fun read. I got sidetracked by Howl’s Moving Castle, though . . . .

  3. A new book by a favorite author — “Penric’s Demon”, by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is supposed to be a novella, but what it reads like is the first several chapters out of a novel. The conflict set up and resolved is appropriate for an internal arc, but not for an entire novella.

    A new author — “Paper Towns”, by John Green. Not only a new (to me) author, a reach because I don’t read a lot of general, non-genre fiction. Green’s writing is excellent, and he masterfully captures the glory and horror of been a person on the cusp of adulthood. I think I liked the novel far more for having heard Green’s comments about the novel’s theme, which he said was “the problem of imagining others to be less complex than ourselves”.

    An old favorite — “Anansi Boys”, by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s writing is always poetic, and this book is no exception. A beautiful love story; a look at how we all have varying, even conflicting, aspects; an examination of how the stories we tell ourselves quite literally change the world around us. (Don’t let Tiger take the stories back from Spider.)

    An attempt to be like the cool kids — “Seveneves”, by Neal Stephenson. Fully half this book was great. A quarter of the book was allegedly-smart people acting in stupid ways, to further the weak points in the plot. Most damning of all, fully 25% of the book could simply have been cut. Tip to you novelists: That you did a lot of research and discovered a wealth of facts does not mean all of those facts should be dumped into your novel in a series of 30-page, dialogue-free blasts.

    • So true! Jenny Crusie told a story at the conference about how in her first draft of Fast Women, she had 32 pages of description of some kind of china, because she’d done the research. In the final draft, there was 1 page.

      • I finished Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert not long ago. It had massive sections of description/detail. It was great that she had done such in-depth research, but I wound up skimming more and more as I read because those details just slowed down the story.

    • Paper Towns and Anasi Boys both sound like good additions to the TBR pile. Thanks for the warning about Seveneves though. I’m happy to skip anything that includes “allegedly-smart people acting in stupid ways, to further the weak points in the plot.” (Note to self: make sure my characters don’t act in stupid ways to further weak points in the plot :-).)

      • Jerry Pournelle, when writing about writing, called that an “idiot block” — having your character not see the obvious, so that you can move the plot in the desired direction. He said that a great book would have no such moments, and that a good book could get away with one. “Seveneves” had scene after scene where the idiot block threw me out of the story, because the actions were so unreasonable.

    • Penric’s Demon left me craving more, more, more! But, I think officially, it was a good short story. Beginning, middle, end.

      Were you one of the lucky ones who read Bujold’s The Weatherman before it was turned into a book (I think it was The Vor Game)? I wonder how that felt. She was relatively new at the time, so maybe shorts were just fine and people didn’t necessarily expect a series from her. I did like the book, too, but I could see where the first story stopped, and the other story began.

      For me, Shards of Honor and Barrayar are also One Book because I bought the omnibus. They are two stories, but I can’t just read one. Komarr/A Civil Campaign also are hard to read alone.

      I would like more Penric and Desdemona, but only if it’s up to Bujold standards. I’d hate for her to crank out stuff that her heart isn’t into. I’ve seen some writers do that, and it’s not good for the reader at all.

      • With most other authors, I wouldn’t have any criticism at all, but from Bujold I expected more. That said, I still loved it and will (obviously) re-read it every time I go through the Five Gods ‘verse. I’m not sure Bujold knows how to write anything worse than “really, really good”, so I’m not terribly worried about her cranking out dreck.

        I’ve never seen the original version of The Vor Game. I may try to dig that up, now that you’ve roused my curiosity.

        Shards/Barrayar are one book for me, as well. I’d like to think that that’s not simply because I read them as Cordelia’s Honor; I think they really do need each other to be complete. (And “I paid too much for it.” “That, too, is traditional.” still gives me goosebumps.)

        Funny, but A Civil Campaign is one of the few in the whole of the Vorkosigan saga that I think stands alone for re-reading; it’s so perfectly a British comedy of errors that you don’t need to know how things go after the novel is finished.

        Man, now I want to crawl into bed with the whole saga and not come out for a week.

        • LOL, a common side effect of discussing Bujold: one wants to “burrow in for the winter” even if it’s mid-August.

          I think as fans, we may have to accept a different sort of Bujold. She’s in semi-retirement, and while we would all like six more novels in a series, I think it might be counter-productive to push for it. Penric’s Demon was so delightful in so many ways. That woman really knows how to turn a trope upside down and shake the lint out of its pockets. Penric’s Demon was a gem. It might lead to a whole necklace, but I don’t mind if we get more little gems along the way. If nothing else, it’ll be a huge boon to her fanfic community (which I am afraid I don’t really follow).

          (-: Next up, Gentleman Jole! One of the very nice things about Lois’ experiment is that we get TWO stories in one twelve-month period. I’m so glad she’s being flexible and willing to open herself up to criticism by doing these things. She’s a real role model for writers, too. I think her most important standards are the ones she sets for herself. And since she’s got great taste, those standards are good enough for me. (I was going to modify that good enough with “generally” but I can’t think of any Bujolds since Dreamweaver Dilemma that I haven’t loved to one extent or another. The very first stories were interesting in their own right, but I barely remember them.)

  4. There must be a term (there’s *always* a term) for the variant of OCD that causes me to develop an eye twitch upon reading “I started with In Your Dreams, a contemporary story that is the fourth book in her Blue Heron series. I (obviously) had not read the first three books in the series…”

    • I know what you mean. I prefer not to jump into the middle of a series, but in this case it worked out okay.

      P.S. Let me know if you find that term 🙂

  5. I read the new Ilona Andrews and didn’t enjoy it half as much as I had expected (though to be fair, I was over-excited and did have incredibly high expectations). I’m letting it sit for a little while, and then I’m going to read it again to see if I feel the same way second time around and if I do, why.

    I’ve also read the Grace Burrowes in your photo above (The Duke’s Disaster) and the first two Mary Balogh Survivors’ Club books. I’ve enjoyed all of them – beautifully written, great dialogue and intelligent and well-matched heroes and heroines behaving like adults. A pleasure to read.

    • Jilly – it can be hard when you start a book with high expectations. Even if the author does a great job, there is still an awfully high bar to clear. The “well-matched heroes and heroines behaving like adults” sounds promising. I’ll make sure to move Duke’s Disaster up to the top of the TBR pile and dig out the Mary Balogh books that I know are in there somewhere as well.

    • I found three Ilona Andrews books while I was cleaning! They have the kind of covers that go on pretty dire books, but a quick read through Magic Bites first pages were fun; definitely something to go on my to-read pile. (I get a lot of books from friends who are moving or downsizing, and a lot of them are just . . . dire. Terrible, horrible books that should be purged. But not by me, because they might be someone’s cup of tea . . . . Then I can see they go to a good home.)

  6. I just finished Grace Burrowes’s “Douglas,” which we got at the conference. I really enjoyed it, and she’s a new author for me, so that’s always excellent news. Now I’m in jury duty, and nothing is appealing to me for what to read on our breaks. The case is really depressing. What should one read in this situation? Maybe Bet Me…

    • Bummer about the jury duty and the depressing case Kay. Maybe you can look at it as research, in case you ever need to include a case/trial in a story. Glad you enjoyed the Grace Burrowes book. I know I have a few of hers in my TBR pile too. Good thing I’ve started to schedule reading time – sounds like I have a lot to read through.

  7. I’ve read lots of Mary Balogh this month, because they have lots in the local library down here in Cornwall. I love them. My favourite, so far, is Slightly Dangerous – brilliant. I’ve also just read the fairly new Nora Roberts (also from library) The Liar and really enjoyed that. I’m also still on an NA kick and have read lots of that – the best of the bunch was Him by Elle Kennedy & Kirsten Callihan – it’s a m/m hockey romance – teenage friends meet again when they’re on the same college hockey team.

    Jilly – I’m sad about your Ilona Andrews experience, though I always cool on a series once the couple are together. Michille/Elizabeth – I’ve ready lots of Sherry Thomas. I love her historicals, though the plots are often bonkers, but I hated her contemporary and stopped reading after the first couple of chapters because I was so cross!

    • Rachel – good feedback about Sherry Thomas. I’ll have to see if any of her historicals are in my local library. Might consider the Kennedy/Callihan book too – I have a real weakness for hockey romances.

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