Jilly: Homes With Character

Would you read a book that had a house or piece of land as an important character?

Long ago, in class, we discussed the role of the antagonist, aka the Bad Guy or Girl. We learned that a strong, smart, all-powerful opponent makes for great genre fiction, because their actions will push the heroine to her limits, forcing her to make difficult choices and in the process to grow and change before she eventually triumphs.

We also learned that Nature (a desert, a mountain, a storm) does not make a good antagonist, because it isn’t sentient. Even if it tests and challenges the heroine, it doesn’t respond to her actions. It doesn’t push back, so the story lacks zing.

That made sense to me at the time, but lately not so much. Because in a fantasy world a piece of land, or a house, can be sentient. If it can react, it can be a character, and lately I’ve read a few interesting books and series that use this trope. It’s an idea that holds so much potential. Part of any story’s power is what the reader brings to it, and almost all of us have deep ties to and strong feelings about places we’ve lived. Imagine if that place also had strong feelings about us, and the power to express those feelings? It’s not that much of a stretch if you’ve ever visited somewhere and felt stifled and claustrophobic, or instantly at home.

Ilona Andrews’ self-published Innkeeper series is set in a magical B&B in Texas that provides accommodation to visitors from other planets. Inns are grown from seed, but only thrive and grow powerful under the care of an Innkeeper and with guests to care for. The relationship between the heroine, Dina, and her Inn, is symbiotic and deeply emotional. The Inn responds not just to Dina’s instructions but to her thoughts and wishes. If she’s hurt, it feels terrible pain. In this world Dina is the leader, the inn is her trusty and beloved sidekick, and they stand or fall together.

KF Breene’s Magical Mid-Life Madness has a forty-year-old, recently divorced heroine who’s trying to create a new normal for herself and takes a job as caretaker of a house belonging to a family friend. She visited the house as a child and felt a strong connection with it, and when she returns as an adult she discovers that the house is a magical mansion that chooses its owner. By accepting a bond with the house, Jacinta (Jessy) gains her own power, reinvigorates a hilarious ensemble cast of ageing magical types, strikes sparks off the over-protective alpha of the town, and draws the attention of covetous, powerful, dark forces. I’ve only read the first book in what seems to be a long-running series, but so far the house strikes me as a picturesque, desirable repository of power. It has agency in that it welcomes or repels visitors and changes its configuration depending on what it wants them to see, but so far it feels to me more like a McGuffin than a character. I’m curious to see if that changes in later books.

Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Ruses has a heroine whose family has spent generations maintaining the illusion of the Eternal Prince, a mysterious and powerful protector figure who watches over their small but magical kingdom. There are two special relationships in the book—one that develops between Viola and a mystery man who may or may not be the Eternal Prince, the other that has existed for generations between Viola, the Moreland family, and the kingdom of Lenore. I’d say Lenore as a character falls somewhere between the Innkeeper books and the KF Breene ones. The land is magical and that makes it desirable to outside forces. It responds only to special characters. The thing I like best is that it blooms as Viola learns that she can’t just draw on her relationship with it, she needs to tend it, too. I’m totally on board with that sentiment.

AJ Lancaster’s Stariel may be my favorite. The Lord of Stariel is about a magical estate that chooses its own ruler from among the land-sensitive Valstar family. The heroine, Hetta Valstar, doesn’t live on the estate anymore. When her father dies and she returns to Stariel to participate in the mystical Choosing ceremony, she expects either her prickly older brother or her land-hungry cousin to become the next lord. Obviously things don’t work out that way. All the Valstars feel a connection with Stariel, but the bond between the lord and the estate is off the charts. The lord can feel the estate—every person, animal, blade of grass—but what I love most of all is that Stariel is a quirky personality in its own right. It’s powerful and stubborn, and it knows what it wants. It can’t talk, but actions speak much louder than words, and Stariel can misbehave quite spectacularly if it doesn’t like the way things are going. Stariel’s not an antagonist, but it is a wild card. Its quirks and tantrums add an extra dimension to a very fun, feelgood read. I’ve read all three Stariel books (The Lord of Stariel, The Prince of Secrets, and The Court of Mortals) and I’m waiting impatiently for the final book (The King of Faerie), due in early August.

Have you read any good books that use this trope? What kind of character does the house or land play?

Do you like the idea, or does the thought of a sentient house knowing your every move and expressing an opinion on your behavior send you screaming?

Jilly: Searching For A Cozy Niche

How easily do you find the kind of books you like to read?

I love character driven stories—heroines and heroes with clear, strong goals. I like romantic elements but I want an engaging external plot as well as true love. I prefer historical, paranormal or fantastic settings. Adventures and quests are good. And there must be a happy ending.

Over the last year, though, more than anything I’ve wanted the cozy. Warm, feelgood stories with lightness, humor and no painful grimdark, written for adults.

I don’t think I’m the only one, because lately I’ve found a number of new-to-me fantasy authors who really hit the spot. I feel as though I’m on a great reading discovery streak and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. The only thing is—and I find this really weird—these stories have so much in common, but there seems to be no convenient category grouping for them. No accepted term. On Amazon—usually super-smart about these things—they’re mostly dotted around the sci-fi and fantasy sections.

If I search ‘low fantasy,’ I get mostly role-playing products. If I search “cozy fantasy” I get mysteries or magic series with smiley cartoon cats, witches, or haunted houses on the cover. They look fun, but they’re not what I’m after.

A few titles from my kindle that I’d say all share a niche are shelved on Amazon as follows:

T. Kingfisher, Paladin’s Grace: fantasy romance, romantic fantasy, fantasy & futuristic romance;

Gail Carriger, Soulless: steampunk fiction, steampunk science fiction, historical fantasy;

Olivia Atwater, Half a Soul: teen & young adult historical fantasy;

Charlotte E English, Wyrde and Wicked: Gaslamp fantasy;

Ilona Andrews, Innkeeper series: paranormal & urban fantasy;

AJ Lancaster, Stariel series: Gaslamp fantasy, fairy tales;

Kate Stradling, The Legendary Inge: Fairy Tale Fantasy, Mythology & folk tales;

I’m really happy to have so many fun reads to hand, but amazed that I have to scout around to find them. And no wonder I find it difficult to select a better description than “historical fantasy” for my own books.

How about you? Do you read in a specific niche or two? How easily can you track down the kind of book you prefer to read?

Jilly: Secret Declarations

Happy Valentine’s Day, if you celebrate the occasion! Chez Jilly, 14th February falls between our wedding anniversary (flowers, champagne) and Mr. W’s birthday (cake, treats) so we don’t make much of it.

I enjoy all the online hoopla, though. It takes me back to my teens, when receiving a valentine card brought major bragging rights at my girls-only high school. Extra kudos for multiple cards, and most of all for unknown senders. I wasn’t the prettiest or the most popular girl in my class, but one year I received three valentine cards and had no idea who’d sent any of them. Whoo!

I can still remember the giddy, fizzy excitement of it. And ever since those long-ago days, the secret/unilateral/unconditional love declaration has been one of my all-time favorite romance genre tropes. Of course, it’s especially delicious because the reader knows the secret will eventually be uncovered, even if she knows not when or how.

The greatest secret declaration story must be Pride and Prejudice. Reserved, uptight, principled Darcy uses his considerable power and influence to save Lizzy from social ruin by bribing a man he rightly despises to marry his beloved’s disgraced airhead of a younger sister. Darcy uses his personal capital to give credibility to the unlikely wedding, whilst doing his utmost to keep his involvement under the radar. He does it all for love, but he’s genuinely embarrassed when Lizzy finds out and confronts him. Swoon!

I think one of the most delightful examples is Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion. When country-mouse Kitty persuades rich, good-natured Freddy into a fake engagement so that Kitty can sample the delights of London society (and win the heart of handsome rake Jack), it gradually becomes apparent that Freddy has fallen head over heels in love with Kitty, with no expectation that his feelings will ever be returned. Kitty’s meager budget is wholly inadequate to meet the costs of living among the ton, so Freddy quietly finds ways to meet the shortfall, leaving Kitty in a Cinderella-like whirl of beautiful clothes and exciting new experiences. When his benevolent duplicity is finally revealed, he simply shrugs and says he wanted Kitty to have everything she ever wished for. Nothing more, nothing less. Sigh.

It works wonderfully in fantasy, too. Take The Talon of the Hawk, my favorite of Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series. The hero, Harlan, is the (smart, hot, principled) leader of a team of foreign mercenaries hired by a capricious High King who doubts the loyalty of Ursula, his dutiful daughter/heir. Ursula’s distrust of Harlan is deep and powerful, but that doesn’t deter him from making an irrevocable commitment of his own and signaling it in a deliciously oblique manner. A secret declaration combined with another of my most favorite tropes–a hero who’s all-in, long before the scales fall from the heroine’s eyes.

I could go on, but I feel the urge to break out the champagne truffles and go on a re-reading binge 😉

How about you? Are you a fan of the secret declaration trope? If not, which ones make your heart beat faster?

Jilly: Christmas in Caterwaul Creek

The holidays are almost upon us. Fancy a quick, cozy, upbeat but gloriously non-saccharine Christmas read?

And this year, when travel and convivial family gatherings are not an option for most people, fancy a story about a multi-day road trip shared by complete strangers, ending in a large, happy, informal celebration?

Why not try Eight Lady Kay’s novella Christmas in Caterwaul Creek?

In general I’m a grinch about the holidays. You couldn’t pay me to watch the Hallmark Channel, but I love Kay’s funny, clever, snowy road trip adventure. I bought it in 2017, but I re-read it this week and spent a happy couple of hours on the sofa with a mug of hot chocolate, chuckling to myself.

A mere five days before Christmas, Our Girl Sarah is dumped by her lying asshat of a fiancé, who also happens to be her boss. The man is a slippery slimeball and she’s clearly better off without him, but she’s devastated. So she quits her job and decides to spend Christmas with her sister. Taking an unscheduled trip from San Francisco to upstate New York on the cusp of Christmas is, of course, a logistical nightmare. For Sarah the challenge rapidly escalates from difficult to near-insurmountable courtesy of airline schedules, winter storms, and opportunistic thieves.

Sarah is having none of it. I’ll get there if I have to fly in a damn sleigh to do it. She’s my kind of can-do heroine.

The sleigh isn’t available, but she persuades a friendly Indian cabbie to drive her the three thousand miles across country. Then a grouchy pawnshop owner hitches a ride with them, and their journey becomes a wild adventure as they battle Mother Nature, try to evade gun-toting pursuers, and discover some of the more esoteric delights of the Midwest. Along the way strangers become friends, misunderstandings are aired and resolved, and by the time the taxi reaches snow-bound Caterwaul Creek the unlikely trio has snowballed into a rowdy gaggle.

The Caterwaul Creek Christmas celebrations are a delightfully mixed bag, much like the participants, but all’s well that ends well for everyone involved, and (it being Christmas and all), there’s even a new-born baby. I don’t do plot moppets, but even I have to admit you can’t have a Christmas story without a baby.

If you like the sound of Christmas in Caterwaul Creek, you can read a sample and maybe splurge a dollar and change here.

And if you like it, tell your friends. IMO this lovely little story deserves a wider audience 🙂 .

Elizabeth: Letting Go

It’s December here in the socially-distant writing castle, time both for boxes of Christmas decorations to go up and boxes of other stuff to go out.  That last part of the tradition started years ago when my son was little, when cleaning out the closet and toy box was a necessity if “Santa” was going to bring any new toys. Though the days of a big influx of toys at Christmastime have passed, my holiday traditions still include doing a bit of a clear-out as I do my holiday decorating.

Since my cupboards had already experienced covid-cleaning earlier this year, my holiday clear-out happened in the library–definitely not a normal action for me.  I still have books on my shelves that I read in high-school, and even some that I collected back in grade-school.  And I’m still annoyed about those boxes of books my dad “accidentally” took to the charity shop while I was off in college.  However, for whatever reason, I looked at my shelves full of books the other day (and the surrounding floor area too, for that matter) and thought, it’s time for some of you to go.

I’m pretty sure that’s one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

First into the charity box was a big stack of Phyllis Whitney books, some of the first books I acquired back when I joined the monthly Doubleday Book Club with some of my earliest earnings.  I remembered loving the stories back when I initially read them but that was . . . . many years ago.  I haven’t opened them since and, when I read the cover blurbs and plot synopses, I neither remembered the stories nor had any interest in reading them again.  Perfect candidates to be rehomed to someone else.  M. M. Kaye, on the other hand, retained her position on the shelves, even Death in Berlin (which still freaks me out a bit), because the stories have remained fresh in my mind.  Elizabeth Cadell retained her spot for the same reason. Continue reading

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?