Michaeline: Making the Reader Do the Heavy Lifting

This post has only a nugget of truth in it, and I will be asking you, the reader, to do the heavy lifting of separating fact from fiction from pure flights of fancy.

The truth is this: Grey @RayPilley hired one of those write-my-essay groups to write a 1500-word romantic encounter. Grey provided art of two male characters, names of the two men and the basic scenario: “two characters confessing their feelings of love for each other at a fancy dinner party”.

Dinner Party by Jules-Alexander Grun showing hundreds of people in a grand hall with a mezzanine also full of tables and people.
“Love was seated several kilometers away from Hero, much to their mutual chagrin. How could professions of love take place over the distance of the Grand Hall?” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll provide a link at the end that should get you through THAT wonderful story of connection between two strangers on the internet – one trying to make a buck, the other looking for easy entertainment and a few laughs.

But let’s call the ghostwriter Hub (they/them). Hub provided a story full of stilted sentences, bad spelling and no stakes. Oh, and some pronoun confusion; Hub seems to have lifted half the essay from a hetero scenario and forgot they were writing about anime boys. Dear Reader, if you are feeling bad about your writing these days, I encourage you to follow that Twitter trail Grey laid out. The first two-thirds are so bad in so many areas that

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Jilly: Easter Eggs!

Happy Easter, if you’re celebrating today!

Do you enjoy Easter eggs? Story ones, not the chocolate sort 😉 .

In this context, an Easter egg is a bonus nugget—an object, action, character, or phrase—that isn’t critical to the story and may be overlooked by many readers or viewers but which is somehow significant and provides an extra hit of geeky pleasure to those who notice it.

Easter eggs may offer a wink and a nod to a sub-genre. Here’s an easy one: I have lost count of the number of romance heroes who say “As you wish,” when being ordered around by the heroine. No explanation is ever asked or offered, but most romance readers would immediately recognize the homage to William Goldman’s 1973 fantasy romance The Princess Bride, or more likely Rob Reiner’s wonderful 1987 movie adaptation. It’s what farm boy Westley says frequently to Princess Buttercup, and it means, of course, “I love you.”

Or they could be a tiny detail within a book or series that adds a little extra zing. In the final book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, when the eponymous hero has finally found his HEA, there’s a quick exchange where his beloved says “You can give me a brooch. A sapphire one.” He answers, “But will you take care of it?” Which harks back to their very first encounter, in the very first book, when she’s a ten-year-old child. Lymond questions her to verify her father’s honesty. It’s frightening and dangerous, and when it’s over he pins a beautiful sapphire brooch to her nightshirt by way of apology. She rips it off, hurls it to the ground and grinds it under her shoe. Yay Philippa! Yay, Dorothy Dunnett!

An Easter egg could also be a reference to pop culture. The heroine of Ilona Andrews’ most recent book, Blood Heir, was an important secondary character in their bestselling Kate Daniels series. In the Kate Daniels books she’s Julie Olsen, but in Blood Heir she returns to Atlanta with a new face, a new name—Aurelia Ryder—and a whole raft of new superpowers. She becomes a temporary member of the chivalric Order of Merciful Aid, which makes her Knight Ryder. I laughed out loud the first time I read this. Because if you’re as old as I am, you might remember Knight Rider as a 1982 TV series starring David Hasselhof, a police detective who’s rescued after a near-fatal shot to the face and returns to town with a new face (thanks to plastic surgery) and a new name to become a hi-tech, modern crimefighter. I guess it was most likely a joke that became a book.

Easter eggs are everywhere. Peter Grant’s car (a Ford Asbo) in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Google it if you don’t know what an ASBO is. Ford Prefect’s name in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Quentin Tarantino’s sneaky cameos in many of his movies. A quick glimpse of John Thaw in a mirror in the Inspector Morse prequel TV series Endeavour.

I think they’re a nice bit of added fun. I enjoy them when I spot them. I don’t mind too much if they sail over my head.

How about you? Are you an Easter Egg fan? Do you have any favorite examples?

Jilly: Does Age Matter?

Would you choose a book because the main character is a certain age?

I’ve mentioned before that I read and enjoyed KF Breene’s Magical Midlife Madness, the first book in her Leveling Up series. I’ve since learned that the series is part of a new and fast-growing subgenre—paranormal fiction for women of 40 and over, or paranormal women’s fiction.

Apparently a group of savvy, successful romance and women’s fiction authors thought that there would be an eager readership for stories with female protagonists kicking ass and finding empowerment in their 40s, so they got together to make it happen. Their initiative has been a raging success. Good for them!

I have to confess, though, I’ve been trying to get my head around it. I think perhaps part of the appeal is the idea that it’s never too late. That a woman’s best years are not behind her at 30, or 40, or whatever.

I’m a woman of 40 and over. Ahem. I’m actually a woman of 60 and over. But when I look back over my life, I’m satisfied with how it’s gone so far. I’ve been married to the same man for more than 35 years and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. I had a rewarding professional career, and when I turned 50 I exchanged it for writing fiction, a vocation that I love.

So I already know that middle age can mark the beginning of a fulfilling second life.

I love reading, and while I’m lost in a fictional world I definitely put myself in the protagonist’s shoes. I like my heroines smart and scrappy. Interesting rather than beautiful. I want them to face and overcome a near-impossible challenge and to gain a happy, rewarding new life. But as long as they are old enough to know their own mind, confident enough to trust their instincts, and they never give up on their goal, I don’t think I want their challenges to be defined by their age.

In short. As long as I find the heroine and her challenge fascinating, I don’t much care who or what or how old she is. I’ll even identify with Murderbot, and it’s an artificial construct with an attitude problem 🙂

How about you?

Kay: What’s Up, Doc?

2004 postage stamp featuring Dr. Seuss and some of his iconic characters

Tuesday, March 2, was Read Across America Day, a promotional gambit dreamed up by the National Education Association to promote literacy. March 2 is also the birthday of Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, the children’s book author. In past years, these two events were conflated in a partnership agreement between the NEA and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, publisher of the late author’s estate. 

No more. This year on March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises said it would stop printing six of Dr. Seuss’s books because of racist and insensitive imagery, and in celebrations for Read Across America Day, the NEA has left out Dr. Seuss’s name to promote books of diversity.

This analysis of Dr. Seuss’s work was first articulated that I know of a few years ago, and at the time, it floored me. As a kid, I loved Dr. Seuss’s work. I reread my favorites many, many times, and I can probably recite a lot of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat by heart. I had no memory of any racist language or images.

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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?

Elizabeth: Is it over yet?

No, this post isn’t about the pandemic.

I recently read The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves.  For those not familiar with the title, it is the first book in the “critically-acclaimed series of crime novels set in Northumberland” featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope and the basis for the British crime drama series Vera.  I watched a few episodes of Vera not that long ago when they popped up on my local public television station and enjoyed them, so when The Crow Trap showed up as an e-book daily deal the other day, I thought I’d give it a try.

According to UKs Dead Good Books,

“Vera Stanhope, an overweight, middle-aged woman who looks more like a bag lady than a detective, was born out of Ann Cleeves’ frustration with central female characters who were young, fit and beautiful. At times bad-tempered and shambolic, Vera is also witty and authoritative – a truly three-dimensional character who is believable and relatable.”

I’m not sure about the believable and relatable part, but I’ll leave that for another time.

My main thought as I progressed partway through the story was, “how long is this book?” 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?

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.)

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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