Jilly: Community

How are things with you?

At least here we don’t have an election to stress about, but I spent a dismal hour yesterday watching our Prime Minister, flanked by his chief scientific and medical officers, presenting the powerpoint of covid doom 😦 . Later this week we’re heading back into a national lockdown that is scheduled to last for a month.

The government seems to be taking action now because that gives them the best chance of ensuring restrictions are lifted for the holiday season. I think that’s plain common sense, because even really cautious, rule-following friends of mine are planning family gatherings around Christmas and New Year, and to hell with the official regulations or the potential consequences.

I’m a grinch even in non-corona years, so being required to spend the holidays quietly at home with my husband, books, puzzles, music, wine, and long walks, is no hardship, but we are definitely feeling the lack of face to face interaction with our wider community. Not just our friends and family, but people we’ve known for years at our favorite restaurants, shops, hair salon, dentist, car service company, dry cleaners—all kinds of personal and professional contacts that may not be deep but are long-lasting and treasured relationships.

I was thinking about this recently as I re-read Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series (strongly recommended, especially the first three books). The author does a fabulous job of uniting the young rulers of three warring kingdoms. Over the course of the series they bond into one tightly-knit community strong enough to defeat the invasion of a powerful, predatory empire. It’s cleverly written and deeply enjoyable to read.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I think I read for community even more than I read for romance. Becoming part of a kind, strong, successful community, even a fictional one, gives me the warm and fuzzies. It’s not a complete substitute for real-life interactions, but spending mental time in that connected world leaves me feeling happy and empowered, and it lasts after I’ve put the book down. In our current situation that’s no small thing.

Most of my favorite authors are excellent at creating community. Ilona Andrews. Grace Draven. Loretta Chase. Jenny Crusie. Dorothy Dunnett. Georgette Heyer. Lois McMaster Bujold. Martha Wells’ Murderbot books. Our own Kay has a talent for writing community. Her heroines are people magnets and her stories are super-fun to read for the way all kinds of unexpected characters become part of a strong network of generosity and friendship. I hope I can do half as well with my elan stories.

What do you think? Is community an important element of your reading choices?

Do you think fictional communities can help people feel connected when we’re forced to narrow our real-world interactions? And do you have any favorite authors you think are especially stellar at creating that community buzz?

Jilly: How Big is Your TBR Pile?

Or if you mostly read e-books, how many still-to-be-read titles are sitting on your e-reader?

Elizabeth wrote earlier this week that she’s trying to make inroads into the pile of books (physical and electronic) waiting for her attention. It sounds as though she has her work cut out 🙂 .

Back in the day, when I had to buy my reading matter from bricks-and-mortar bookshops, I always had a huge TBR pile. London has fabulous bookshops, but in those days they didn’t carry many of the US romance authors I liked to read, so if I found a promising selection I just bought them all. We had a tiny one-bed apartment, with books everywhere. Kindle revolutionized my life, in a very good way.

Now I have a humungous e-bookstore at my fingertips, I don’t bother with a TBR pile any more. I pre-order titles from a few select auto-buy authors and almost always read them as soon as they’re delivered. The rest of the time I browse for whatever I’m in the mood to read, download it, and read it. Rinse and repeat.

I have friends who’ll download free books or offers that catch their interest, but then lose sight of them because their e-reader is chock full of other freebies, samples and novelties. I know people whose e-readers contain hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unread books.

I have two kindles. The current, easily searchable model has the library of every e-book I ever bought. The other, older device is like the e-reader version of a keeper shelf. It has a far smaller selection—books I love and re-read over and over again, plus whatever title I’m reading right now.

Today I’ll be curled up on the sofa with Skirting Danger, the first book in 8Lady Kay’s Chasing the CIA romantic caper trilogy. I’ve been waiting ages for the final, published version of the adventures of Phoebe (bicycle-rider, talented linguist, disaster magnet) and Chase (smart, practical, retired quarterback turned electric vehicle entrepreneur). Squee! And isn’t that a gorgeous cover?

How about you? Do you buy as you read, or do you have a monster TBR list? If so, how do you organize it? How do you decide what to read next? And what’s currently top of the pile?

Happy Sunday, one and all!

Jilly: English Garden Romance

How’s your weekend so far? Are you glued to the news or ready for a respite from reality? If you’re currently self-medicating with The Great British Bake-Off or English property renovation shows, you might consider checking out The Garden Plot, a thoroughly English contemporary romance by debut author Sara Sartagne.

Full disclosure. I’ve known Sara for a very long time. I won’t embarrass either of us by saying how long, but back in the day we attended the same Derbyshire school and shared English classes. I lost touch with her later and had no idea she was writing fiction until we met again online in Mark Dawson’s self-publishing community.

Regular readers of this site will know I’m more likely to read a swords-‘n-sorcery adventure than a charming small town contemporary romance. I read The Garden Plot because it’s Sara’s debut and it’s set in a picturesque Derbyshire village. I’m reviewing it because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Garden Plot is an engaging, low-stress, opposites attract romance between Sam, a left-leaning garden designer who’s struggling to keep her small business afloat, and widower Jonas, a wealthy, conservative, workaholic property developer who’s on forced sick leave as he recovers from a viral illness. Sam is commissioned by Magda, Jonas’s match-making teenage daughter, to revamp the garden of Jonas’s recently acquired country house and (with luck) revitalize Jonas too. High jinks ensue. Continue reading

Elizabeth: Alone Together

Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort During the Time of COVID-19 by [Jennifer Haupt, Faith Adiele, Kwame Alexander, Jenna Blum, Andre Dubus III, W. Ralph Eubanks, Jamie Ford, Nikki Giovanni, Pam Houston, Major Jackson, Jean Kwok, Devi S. Laskar, Caroline Leavitt, Ada Limón, Dani Shapiro, David Sheff, Luis Alberto Urrea, Steve Yarbrough, Lidia Yuknavitch]As “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day,” for months that the pandemic has made feel like years, it can be difficult to find bright spots, let alone the light at the end of the tunnel.  One such bright spot appeared yesterday as I was spending a few masked, socially distant moments at a local independent bookstore.

The joy!

There, among shelves filled with so many political tell-all books it seemed as if everyone in the world had written one, I found Alone Together, edited by Jennifer Hauput.  The book, subtitled Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of Covid-19, is a collection of essays, poems, and interviews that “serves as a lifeline for negotiating how to connect and thrive during a time of isolation.”

The cover and the concept caught my attention, but it was the fact that all proceeds from the book will be donated to the Book Industry Charitable Fund, a nonprofit organization that coordinates charitable programs to strengthen the bookselling community, that convinced me to make the purchase. Continue reading

Jilly: Multi-Generational Stories

An unexpected corona-bonus is that author book launches have gone digital. Which means fans who would never have the chance to attend a physical talk and book signing can join in the fun.

This week the Cary Memorial Library in Massachusetts hosted a conversation with fantasy romance authors Ilona Andrews (Ilona and Gordon, in Texas), Nalini Singh (in New Zealand), and Amanda Bouchet (in Paris). I watched from London, and now it’s on Youtube. How cool is that? Click here if you’d like to check it out.

There were lots of good questions about world building, what makes a strong character, what makes a great villain…but one that caught my attention was something like: do you have any plans to make your much-loved stories multi-generational? In other words, to give the kids of your bestselling characters their own story or series. Amanda Bouchet and Nalini Singh weren’t at that point, but Ilona Andrews are currently writing Blood Heir/Ryder, whose heroine is Julie, the adopted daughter of Kate and Curran from their bestselling Kate Daniels series. I’m super-excited about this book (click here for an early squee) and already have it on pre-order.

Ryder feels like a natural progression. After a ten-book series Kate and Curran are due a hard-earned Happy Ever After, but many fans aren’t ready to say goodbye to the world, and the series is rich in secondary characters. It’s made easier by the fact that Julie (alias Aurelia Ryder) was a street kid in her early teens when she first encountered Kate, so she’s only half a generation younger. That means the Ryder book can begin eight years after the conclusion of the Kate Daniels series—long enough for everything to be the same but different.

The question caught my attention because I’m currently writing a multi-generational epic fantasy series. Unlike the natural flow of the Ilona Andrews stories, mine crept up on me. After I finish with my Elan Intrigues books (one currently published, one book and two novellas in the works), I have a series in my head, set in the same world, starring the adult children of the main characters of the Elan Intrigues series. Alexis, the heroine, is twenty-five years old at the beginning of the main series. That’s a whole generation after the end of the Intrigues books. It didn’t occur to me to question it until now.

I started to think about how many other multi-generational stories I’ve read and enjoyed. I love Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, about Vidal, the son of the characters from These Old Shades. Loretta Chase has Last Night’s Scandal, starring characters we first met as children in Lord Perfect. That one didn’t quite work for me, though I’ve often wished she’d write a story for Dominick, Dain’s illegitimate son from Lord of Scoundrels. The most obvious example, which I haven’t read but I know Michaeline loves, is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Other than those, I’m coming up empty.

So I thought I’d turn the question over to you. Does the concept of a multi-generational series appeal to you? Have you read any good (or bad) ones?

Jeanne: Writing Wisdom from Lee Martin

9781496202024-Perfect.inddOne of my favorite teachers of the craft of writing is Lee Martin, Pulitzer finalist for The Bright Forever and author of a number of other novels and short story collections.

Lee teaches in the MFA program for creative writing at the Ohio State University. I’m not in that program, but he also occasionally teaches at regional workshops, and I’ve had the good fortune to see him at a couple. At one of them that I attended in the early 2000’s, he read a passage from “The Open Boat,” a short story by Stephen Crane. With his voice and Crane’s words, he recreated the rocking motion of that lifeboat so clearly I wound up feeling a little motion sick. That was an epiphany for me: that the cadence of words (not their meanings but just the sounds of them) can generate sensation.

I just discovered that Lee has a craft book out: Telling Stories, the Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life.  I’m just started working my way through it, but here’s a tiny example of the wonderful stuff you’ll find within its pages. These are the highlights of a deeper discussion on how to intensify the trouble your character encounters.

  1. Increase the pressure from a source outside the realm of the original trouble.
  2. Make the character’s choices lead her into deeper trouble.
  3. Make the character’s troubles worse by having her let people believe something is true when it isn’t.
  4. Have the character create trouble for herself by trying to run away from what she’s done, or us afraid she’ll do.

As I was reading through these suggestions, I realized I tend to rely very heavily on #2. Having the character’s choices lead her into deeper trouble creates a really strong cause-and-effect linkage.

I also use #1. Sources outside the trouble are great for throwing a wrench into the best laid plans, making your character scurry.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used (or even thought about using) #3 and #4.

Numbers 3 and 4 are less confrontational than the first two. Number 3 is less about action than inaction–failing to step in and set the record straight when the opportunity presents itself. And #4 is the opposite of confrontational. These seem like believable actions for a character with a gentle, non-confrontational personality.

Hmm. I’m starting planning work on a series about five siblings who inherit their parent’s tour company and I’ve been thinking about how to differentiate them. Their level of willingness to confront others is a definite category for exploration.

Which of these intensifiers do you use? Which do you enjoy reading?

 

Jilly: Behind the Scenes

I enjoyed Michaeline’s post yesterday, about her love of secret passages and rooms, trap doors, hidden compartments and all kinds of mystery architecture. She loves them as a reader, so she likes to incorporate them into her own stories.

She set me thinking.

Mystery architecture is a wonderful tool for storytellers. There are so many good examples, but below are a few of my favorites.

The hidden basement and secret shelter in Jenny Crusie’s Agnes and the Hitman.

The smugglers’ cellar and well-oiled trapdoor that Francis Crawford of Lymond uses to sneak into locked-down Edinburgh in Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.

Another smugglers’ construction— the concealed tunnel between Darracott Place and the haunted Dower House in Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax.

All kinds of hidden delights, from ancient temples to sneaky palace passageways, in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief and its four sequels.

I like all that undercover stuff, but what really thrills me is an insider story. When I see a swan gliding serenely along, I want to see the feet paddling like mad under the water. I love, love, love to watch characters working on their craft. I need to share their setbacks, mistakes, failures and ultimate triumph. I like to write those stories too.

In real life I love it when restaurants offer a chef’s table so diners can watch the kitchen in full flow. I really like that pro tennis has been experimenting with allowing players to talk to their coaches mid-match—and we all get to hear their discussion. And some of my best trips to the Royal Opera House have been to watch working rehearsals, or to see costumes being made, props being constructed, and choreography developed. To give you an idea of what I mean, click here for a ten-minute video of the Royal Ballet working flat out on the big sword fight between Tybalt and Romeo in Kenneth MacMillan’s version of Romeo & Juliet.

One of my favorite movies ever is Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom—double dealing, dirty tricks and the private language of competitive ballroom dancing. Christopher Guest hilariously gives dog shows the same treatment in his mockumentary Best in Show. And for books, what about:

Faro’s Daughter (Heyer again), where the heroine is a gambler’s daughter who runs a fashionable gaming house with her delightfully clueless aunt; or

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor—half-goblin Maia loses his entire family in an airship crash and unexpectedly becomes Emperor. He has no training, no allies, and seems an easy target for every ambitious, manipulative, scheming courtier in the palace. Maia outwits them all by learning the system from servants, soldiers, airship crews, and other ordinary people that make his world work.

A hairdresser friend of mine once told me he’d never book a chef’s table. He’s spent his entire working life behind the scenes and he knows exactly what happens. When he reads a novel, or goes to dinner, or to a movie, he wants a finished product, all glossy and shiny. He’ll take the fairy tale presentation every time.

Where do you stand on insider stories? Are you a fan, or would you rather sit the other side of the curtain, watching the action from the plush seats?

Jilly: Ryder

I’ve been reading a lot lately and I’ve never been so grateful for the ability to escape reality for a while in favor of a world where you know the toughest challenges will be overcome and the good guys will prevail.

I’ve read new releases by authors whose work I like a lot, well reviewed first-in-series by new-to-me authors, and genre classics of yesteryear, but the thing I’m most enjoying right now is a new urban fantasy serial from the husband-and-wife team who write as Ilona Andrews.

I posted here a couple of months ago about their Innkeeper Chronicles “plague sale” (99 cents for the first three books; all proceeds, net of their literary agency’s costs, to be donated to the CDP Covid-19 Response Fund). The new serial is even cheaper. It will eventually be edited and self-published, but for now it’s free to read on the authors’ blog.

The story has an official title, Blood Heir, but the working title is Ryder. It’s urban fantasy, in the Kate Daniels universe, and the story takes place eight years after the end of the bestselling KD series. The protagonist is Julie, Kate’s adopted daughter, who’s returning to Atlanta in secret with a new face, a new name (Aurelia Ryder), even a new scent. Her mission is to save Kate from a terrible, prophesied, but currently unrevealed, threat. When the first chapter was posted, the authors’ plan was to offer a snippet as a treat for KD fans. The response they received persuaded them to keep going, and now, twelve chapters later, they’ve confirmed that Blood Heir/Ryder will become a book, likely to be self-published in the first quarter of 2021. That news made me so happy!

They’re uploading each chapter as they write, more or less once a week. It’s classic Ilona Andrews—engaging characters, strong community, high stakes, fantastic worldbuilding, and snappy dialogue. I’m loving it so much. Every new chapter is a treat. If you like the sound of this, and you’re not already following along, check out the story so far here.

Have you read anything good lately? It’s a long time between Ryder installments. Any and all recommendations would be most gratefully received.

Michaeline: New Penric Novella by Lois McMaster Bujold

a plague doctor in a long beaked mask with a robe, gloves and hood

The doctor is in, and I think I’ve found the cure for my reading blahs! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

All right, book fans, I have been out of action for 42 days. No writing, and as for reading, I only did about four days of the 10-day-long Decameron. It’s been a rough quarantine for story for me — I haven’t even watched any TV stories or movies aside from a special Quarantine tribute to Lil Sebastian by the Parks & Recreation cast. (2:44)

And this week is not going to be any less busy. My father-in-law’s 49-day death anniversary is coming up this week, and the crops have to be in the fields, and my daughter is starting online Quarantine College classes . . . .

But it looks like I could bust right out of this horrible, boring rut I’m in. I write this on Friday evening my time; by the time it posts tomorrow at 5 a.m. GMT, there could be a new Penric novella by Lois McMaster Bujold out! Details about The Physicians of Vilnoc are in her Goodreads blog here. You can read the first section on Patreon here. (I’ve been seeing Tweets about The Decameron Project for days, and it sounds like a wonderful way to sample a lot of the people writing fantasy and science fiction today. 

I have, and the first 100 words had me squealing in delight. Oh, this is going to be a great book, and perfect for the times we live in. I’m hoping it’ll prove inspirational as well. I don’t know if I can write a physician in a time of plague, but I bet I could find a journalist character who reports on a plague during an era of magic and upheaval. Steampunk? Contemporary urban/rural fantasy? Or maybe something set on a space station?

At any rate, I’ll put The Decameron aside for a few more days, and dive into a wonderful read after I’ve done my duty and my chores on Saturday. Fingers crossed!

(I’ll update with Amazon info as soon as I have it!)

Jilly: Quarantine Bargain

Another week checked off the calendar. Another week closer to the end of this pandemic. Fingers crossed. I hope you and yours are safe and keeping as well as can be expected.

While we’re waiting this crisis out, would you be interested in a great read, at an incredible price, for a good cause?

Any regular reader of 8LW will know that I love, love, love anything written by the husband and wife team who write as Ilona Andrews. Their books are enjoyable, intelligent urban fantasy adventures packed with action, romance, mythology, humor, kindness and much more.

I especially love the Innkeeper Chronicles, a self-published series featuring Dina DeMille, the proprietor of a magical B&B in Texas that serves as a secret waystation between earth and the rest of the universe. There are heroic werewolves, chivalrous martial space vampires, fabulous creatures, smart magic, epic fights, great dialogue and lots of jokes.

I already own the books, but if you don’t, and you feel tempted to try them, you’ll never have a better opportunity. Right now the first three books of the Innkeeper series are on sale for a princely 99 cents. All proceeds, net of Ilona Andrews’ literary agency’s costs, will be donated to the CDP Covid-19 Response Fund.

Go on, try them. You know you want to. The Zon link is here.

I’m pretty sure there will never be a better time, a better price, or a better cause.

Take care, stay safe, and see you next week.