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?

Kay: Read Any Banned Books Lately?

Well, I missed it: the week of Sept. 27–Oct. 3 is Banned Books Week. I guess I missed that headline because I was too busy reading.

Banned Books Week was the brainchild of the American Library Association and other organizations in 1982, when the Supreme Court ruled in Island Trees School District v. Pico that school officials can’t ban books in libraries simply because of their content. Now more than 14 organizations sponsor the week and reach an estimated 2.8 billion readers and 90,000 industry professionals.

The banned book lists are based on information gathered from media stories and voluntary reports sent to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom from communities across the United States. However, surveys indicate that 82–97 percent of book challenges—documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries—go unreported.

I read about the list back in the 1980s and was shocked to discover that Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a book that had profoundly moved me, was on it. It turns out that The Bluest Eye is one of the most frequently banned books of the last decade. Other classics that have hit the list in the last 10 years are Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee seems to have made the list every year since it was written. (For more frequently challenged books, go here.)

Continue reading

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!

Elizabeth: Odds ‘n’ Ends

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to make a dent in the pile of books I have–both physically and electronically–waiting for my attention (reading, that is, not writing, alas).  When the internet repairman was at the house last week, he asked if I was a teacher or maybe a librarian, which should give you some indication of how much reading still remains.

Still, I have made good progress though, sadly, I haven’t encountered many keepers.  I plowed through half-a-dozen Golden Age, Roaring Twenties, and pre/post WWII mysteries that had been residing on my Kindle since who knows when, and promptly deleted them.  I have, it seems, become a very picky reader over the years.   Or maybe I just know what I like.  That sounds more positive, doesn’t it?

The stories were all set in and around London, and one even used British spelling for an authentic feel (I love that), but there were inadvertent Americanisms scattered about, which was distracting.  One of the Goodreads reviews that I read was very put out about the inaccuracies and boldly exclaimed that Americans should stick to their own settings and stop trying to pretend to be British.  The comment was a bit harsh, but I sympathized. Continue reading

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

Jilly: Try Before You Buy

Do you sample a book before you buy it?

Not so much in-person bookshop browsing, because right now that’s off the menu for most of us. But reading an excerpt on an author’s website, or using the Look Inside feature on the world’s most powerful online bookstore.

How often do you think reading a sample persuades you to buy a book, or makes you decide to move on to something else? I never used to bother with it, but a few years ago, after a particularly long series of dud purchases, I gave it a go. Now I’d never buy without trying.

I was thinking about samples this morning, after I discovered a brand-new reason not to buy. I saw a strongly positive review of a new-to-me author on a site I follow. The cover was great, and I loved the premise. The story sounded smart, original, quirky, just what I was looking for. So I headed over to the Zon and checked out the sample.

Have you ever tried food or drink that was delicious on the first mouthful, tasty on the second, fairly nice on the third, but by the fourth or fifth you never wanted another bite and a sixth would have made you gag? It was like that.

The story was told in first person, through the eyes of a smart, potty-mouthed, strongly opinionated character. The inciting incident was impactful and well told. The writing was super-strong. It was just too voice-y for me. If they’d cut off the sample at the end of the first page, I probably would have bought the book. By the end of the third page, I was done. I didn’t even read to the end of the sample or check out the reviews.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided it was a great Look Inside, because I bet the right reader would have devoured that sample and probably gone on to love the book. And the story promise was strong and clear enough for me to discover that I wasn’t that reader.

Do you read samples?

Have you gone on to buy (or not buy) based on what you read? Can you remember why?

Kay: What Next?

The view from my living room window, 10am, Sept. 9, 2020.

A friend gave me a $50 gift card to Amazon for my birthday a few weeks ago, and today, while we in California’s Bay Area are living with skies that look like the apocalypse, I spent it on ebooks.

I was frightened when I woke up this morning to dark red skies—fires are all around us but haven’t been of immediate danger. However, when I first moved to California, a big fire erupted just a mile or two behind my house and burned through more than 3,000 homes and killed 27 people. Most of my street evacuated voluntarily at that time, but I had faith in the fire department and the hydrant at the end of my block. My faith was rewarded, too: the fire came no closer than about three-quarters of a mile. 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: Plot Peeves

In the rain.

On Sunday, Jilly talked about plot preferences.

Today, I thought I’d flip that and talk about plot peeves–the things that annoy and frustrate me in stories.

(Hold onto your umbrellas, kids, cause I’ve got a lot of them.

No. 1. Failure to show the climactic moment. No, I’m not talking about sex here. I’m talking about what Robert McKee, screenwriting guru, calls the “obligatory scene,” the scene the author has spent 300+ pages making you anticipate and is therefore obliged to show you.

It doesn’t happen often, thank goodness. The best example I can think of is an episode from the show Elementary (Season 6, Episode 12) called “Meet Your Maker” where Holmes and Watson are asked to locate a missing woman who was a financial dominatrix. (Hard to explain. If you want to know, you’ll have to watch it.) After 40-ish minutes of various plot twists and surprises, they locate the missing woman, who has been kidnapped and forced to craft untraceable guns (because of her sideline as a toymaker). Unfortunately, by the time the show reached this point, all those twists and turns had eaten up all the show’s runtime. The writers chose to skip the “freeing the captive toymaker from the bad guys” scene and jumped to the denouement where everyone was congratulating each other. What the hell? Continue reading

Jilly: Unputdownable or Re-readable?

If you had to choose, would you prefer a book that’s unputdownable or one that’s re-readable?

That’s what I was asking myself yesterday. I’ve been working through a TBR list of new-to-me authors who write in sub-genres similar to mine—historical fantasy, low fantasy, fairy tale re-tellings, what Michaeline memorably described as cozy high fantasy. They’ve all had something interesting to offer: an engaging premise, charismatic heroine, fascinating world, compelling conflict, lovely word-smithery—but none of them put the whole package together in a way that had me transported, desperate to read more and sold on the next in the series.

After a dozen damp squibs I started to wonder if the problem was me, so I took a break and paged through my Kindle to refresh my palate with a guaranteed good read or two. I have a new-ish Kindle with all my purchases on it, but I also have a really old device where most of my library is consigned to the archive. It’s my Keeper Kindle. The only live titles are books which have really grabbed me (unputdownable) and those which I re-read again and again (re-readable).

As I scanned my options, I realized I need to narrow the selection even further. There are some excellent, compelling, well-written stories that I return to again and again. Others that I was glued to first time around, but somehow when I’m looking for a special read I always choose something else.

Take historical romance author Loretta Chase. She’s an excellent writer and a brilliant storyteller. I love Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and her Carsington books. I particularly enjoy and often re-visit Miss Wonderful, thanks to its Derbyshire setting and Industrial Revolution-inspired plot. It’s clever, funny and energetically upbeat, so I root for the characters as they battle to overcome a seemingly insurmountable conflict. The book doesn’t just have a happy ending, it makes me feel happy as I read it. Contrast that with Silk is for Seduction, the first Dressmaker book. It’s powerful and emotional. It has a brilliant dark moment and one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read. The problem is that for most of the book it’s impossible to see how the characters can find a happy ending together, even though it’s equally apparent that they’ll never be happy with anyone else. Even though Love Conquers all in the end, reading the book is an emotionally stressful experience. I bet loads of readers love being put through the emotional wringer, knowing it will all be OK in the end. Not me. On first read I found the book utterly unputdownable. I don’t want to read it again.

In the end my choices were Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor followed by T Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Grace. I had a fabulous time. I’ve read both books multiple times but familiarity only enhanced my enjoyment—several hours of warm and uplifting feelgood, like catching up with old friends. I don’t think I’d describe either book as unputdownable, because even on first reading I took my time and savored every page.

The other question I asked myself was whether I’d like my own books to be unputdownable or re-readable. Obviously I’d love them to be both, but if I had to choose, I’d want to be re-readable. Unputdownable stories might bring bestseller status and greater financial rewards, but to stay with a reader over the years and bring them recurring pleasure would be my definition of success.

How about you? Do you have a preference, as a reader or a writer?