Jilly: Books That Put The World To Rights

When you’re feeling down, do you use fiction to restore your emotional equilibrium? I know I do.

Many of my friends, on both sides of the pond and on differing sides of the political divide, are feeling angry and/or depressed at the state of our world right now. They’re responding in a variety of ways, but the one thing they have in common is that almost all of them are finding their balance by losing themselves for an hour or two in a well-chosen and usually much-loved book.

Some people find catharsis in a story where the good guys smite the baddies and justice prevails. Sometimes I want smiting. Usually I prefer something gentler, upbeat, a fun story in a world where smarts, humor, kindness and generosity triumph.

Austen, Heyer, Pratchett and Crusie are bankers for me, but we’ve talked about them at length here, so chances are you already know whether they do it for you.

With that in mind, I’d like to share three recently-discovered favorites, in the hope that you might find them as restorative as I do.

The Kingpin of Camelot—Cassandra Gannon
A light, twisted and entertaining mash-up of well-known fairytale characters in an alternative Camelot where people are born Good or Bad. Good Folk (who are not all good) are privileged, while Bad Folk (who are not all bad) form the underclass. Following the untimely death of King Arthur, his evil regent The Scarecrow seeks to marry Queen Guinevere and claim the throne for himself. Gwen, who is Good, needs to protect her daughter, which she does by marrying Midas, the biggest, smartest, Baddest gangster in Camelot. This story has contracts, magic, humor, snark, battles, a child who is the antithesis of a plot moppet, a heroine with sweaty stable boy fantasies, a world put to rights and a fabulous Happy Ever After.

Tsumiko and the Enslaved Fox—Forthright
Tsumiko, a teacher at St Midori’s School of the Heavenly Lights, unexpectedly inherits a fabulous estate, a huge fortune, and a butler. Argent is a fox in human form, a powerful trickster who is magically bound to obey Tsumiko. Argent needs Tsumiko for his own survival, but he resents and possibly hates her for it (he’s tricky, so you can’t be sure exactly what he hates). Tsumiko is the first of Argent’s owners to reject the idea that one person should be able to own another. With implacable determination she sets out to free him, uses her new-found wealth and power to build a caring and diverse community, finds a purpose in life and earns lasting love. This book is as delicious as a cup of top notch hot chocolate on a cold day. It hits all my pleasure buttons and I’m eagerly anticipating the second book in the Amaranthine Saga, Kimiko and the Accidental Proposal, which goes on sale in a week or so. Continue reading

Jilly: The Appeal of Foreign Stories

Do you read contemporary stories set in countries other than the USA? What kind of stories are they? What do you especially like about them?

I have a reason for asking.

I’m just back from a most excellent vacation in the States, including an action-packed weekend at the Writers’ Police Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin with fellow 8 Lady Kay, followed by a few days in picturesque Door County (click here to read Kay’s description of our excursions to the Northern Sky Theater Company).

Before I met up with Kay, I spent an afternoon in Chicago talking all things writing with a developmental editor. Mostly we focused on Alexis, but we also talked about my English/Scottish contemporary romance, which I decided to dust off in time for the next (and final) RWA Golden Heart contest.

The editor gave me the same feedback I heard from a very respected agent a couple of years ago when I tried to shop this book: the writing is strong, but a contemporary British setting, with all British characters, is hard to sell outside the UK. She said that the story offered a kind of insider perspective on life in London and Scotland, which is not what the mainstream American romance reader is conditioned to expect.

In her view, when US readers pick up a foreign-set story, they expect the setting to be either

  1. exotic;
  2. glamorously urban; or
  3. small, close-knit communities where the culture is a large part of the appeal.

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Jilly: Evaluating Also-Boughts

What’s your most tried-and-tested method of finding new authors to read? Do you ever use Amazon’s also-boughts?

I’m always checking out new search methods and new-to-me authors, but lately my selections have been especially hit-and-miss. The problem is that “I’ll know it when I read it” is not really searchable. I’m looking for a combination of qualities rather than neat pigeonholes like settings or subgenres.

I like upbeat stories with happy endings, romances or books with a strong romantic subplot. After that it gets tricky. I want heroes and heroines with intelligence, agency, and emotional depth. I love stories where strong characters deal honestly with one another, especially when that’s difficult. I prefer confrontation to secrets or lies or withholding information. My fave authors write series with strong communities. I actively seek out humor and kindness. I enjoy voice, but not when it tips over into look-at-me writing. I love a good sex scene, but only if it moves the story. I’ll try most subgenres.

I believe the Zon is one of the most powerful search engines in existence, but while it’s awesome at identifying reverse harem cowboy stories (not kidding), the search box is not my friend.

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Jilly: Villainous Heroes

Have you ever waited impatiently for a book or series starring a character that you’d previously loathed?

I’ve read a couple of villain-turned hero stories and even blogged about one of them here a few years ago (Grace Burrowes’ 2014 historical The Traitor, starring the baddie from her previous book, The Captive), but I’ve never done the foot-tapping, finger-drumming, calendar-watching book launch thing for a very bad guy before.

It’s Ilona Andrews’ fault. I’ve squeed about their writing here before, once or twice 😉 , but their newest trick leaves me open-mouthed and thinking hard.

According to their blog (link here), the project started in 2015 as an April Fool. They put up a spoof cover and tongue-firmly-in-cheek blurb for a romance starring Hugh d’Ambray, the hard-as-nails enforcer for Roland, the grand antagonist of the bestselling Kate Daniels urban fantasy series. It began as a joke that prompted a deluge of requests that spawned an idea that became a book, and what looks like a whole new series, Iron and Magic.

I’d think it was another April Fool, except they’ve posted footage from the cover shoot, run a title contest, and best of all the blog post I linked to above contains a further link to a long excerpt. It’s really, really good and I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. Judging by the comments (more than 1,400 at the time of writing), I’m not alone.

I’ve read the excerpt a few times now, because I’m fascinated to understand how the authors have managed to establish empathy for such a dark character. It would be easier to understand if the character’s bad deeds were in the past, or somewhat diluted as backstory, or happened to a character we don’t care deeply about, but in Hugh’s case his murdering, torturing and various atrocities have been committed across multiple books, right in front of our eyes, against our heroine Kate Daniels and her community. He should be unforgiveable.

So how have they done it?

Spoilers below, so read the excerpt first if that’s your thing.

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Jilly: Resisting Holiday Romances

Are you a Happy Holidayer? I suspect I’m the token Grinch among the Ladies. While my fellow bloggesses are decorating their homes with emotionally significant ornaments, baking seasonal treats, and recommending feelgood stories, I’m counting the days till it’s all over.

This week we’ve been chatting among ourselves about the Hallmark Channel’s holiday programming, aided and abetted by this article from slate.com, and this review of A Princess for Christmas (Sam Heughan!) on smartbitchestrashybooks.com. I have to confess that even reading these intelligent and amusing pieces sent me screaming in search of Dorothy Parker, or Saki, or EF Benson.

Our discussion did, however, make me examine why Christmas stories make me froth at the mouth. It’s not intellectual snobbery or political correctness. I love genre romance. I adore fantasy and fairy tales. I seek out happy endings, and I’m a sucker for community. I prefer tales told with intelligence and wit, but while that might rule out some of the more saccharine offerings, it should still leave me open to classics like Michaeline’s suggestion, Christmas in Conneticut. Nope, not even that.

I always thought I read romance for the kindness, the community and the hit of happy. This week I realized there’s another huge reason: many romances (and all the ones I love best) involve defying expectations and resisting peer pressure. Continue reading

Jilly: Good Ghost Story–The Girl in a Swing

Do you enjoy a good ghost story? They’re not usually my thing, but around this time of year they creep up on me whether I will or no. Like yesterday, when I found myself drawn into Michaeline’s excellent and satisfying re-telling of the story of Old Betty and Raw Head the razorback hog.

That set me to wondering what’s the best ghost story I ever read. Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing won by a mile. In case you’re wondering, yes, it is by the author of Watership Down. He wrote a number of other novels in various genres, but as far as I’m aware this is his only scary story. It may not be the most famous ghost story I’ve ever read, but it’s the one that had the most profound and lasting effect on me.

The Girl in a Swing was published in 1980 so it must be more than thirty years since I first read it, and I can still remember how it made me feel. It’s not a slam-bam horror story. There are no chainsaws or buckets of blood. It’s a story of ordinary people living normal lives in a present-day world. It’s very low-key and the pace is deliberately slow. The writing is quality, as you’d expect, and little by little, it drew me in until I was completely hooked. Richard Adams did a brilliant job of making me care about the characters, and at the end I was horrified, scared, shocked, moved and very sad.

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Jilly: The Big Finish

Do any of your favorite books get wrapped up in a high-risk, high-stakes final standoff?

Michaeline and Elizabeth had opening scenes on their minds this week. I’m at the other end of my WIP. I’m deep in my writer’s cave, trying desperately to polish up the grand finale of Alexis Book 1.

There’s a dramatic setting, mortal jeopardy, the stakes are nosebleed high and there’s no obvious way out. All the major players are present—heroine; hero; scary otherworldly nemesis; powerful scheming old crone and her grandson, the heroine’s jealous, spoiled half-brother.

I’m trying to do the scenes justice, but I’m feeling a little out of my depth. I know what happens, and why. Stuff happens. Tension escalates. Somebody gets hurt. Somebody dies. The death is right for the story and I’m sure I want to make that choice, but I’ve never killed off a character before. This is a new challenge for me and I want to master it.

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