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 🙂 .

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

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?

Jilly: Plot Preferences

Almost all my favorite stories are character driven. What I want most from a book is a main character I can commit to. I love to dive deep into their head and stay there, living every word of their challenges, actions, setbacks, dark moment and ultimate triumph.

That means I prefer books written in first or close third person point of view with a powerful internal plot—a character who desperately wants something and will grow and change over the story as they battle to achieve it.

However. With the exception (maybe) of category romances, which focus intensely on the internal plot, a great character driven story needs a robust external plot to provide a framework for the hero or heroine’s adventure. And some external plots engage me more strongly than others.

I’ve been mulling this over for a week or two, ever since I finally read Martha Wells’ Murderbot books (four pricy novellas and a novel so far). The internal story is fascinating, because in this world the characters with biggest personalities and most powerful emotions are not humans but bots, especially Murderbot. The fact that I bought and read all five books is a tribute to the author’s skill in creating Murderbot’s voice, personality and emotional arc, because the external plot is computer-based space opera. Murderbot’s adventures turn on data, systems, drones, hacking, viruses and killware, with spacecraft, planets, wormholes and tractor beams. I know loads of people who enjoy those story elements. I’m so not one of them. I bought and read these books despite the external plot.

Which got me thinking about what I do enjoy in an external plot. I like main characters with career or life goals, because True Love alone is not enough—for a credible HEA the characters need something to do when they’re not kissing and cuddling. I like Jeanne’s heroine in The Demon Always Wins—a nurse who runs a free clinic on the Florida/Georgia border. I’m all in favor of the hero (retired quarterback, now CEO of a startup electronic car company) and heroine (language analyst for the CIA) in Kay’s upcoming trilogy. My heroine in The Seeds of Power is a princess who’s also an expert cultivator. The main character in my current WIP (The Seeds of Destiny) is a healer.

I love power politics. Like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, in which a forgotten half-goblin prince finds himself Emperor of the Elflands. Robert Graves’s I, Claudius: derided underdog brilliantly survives the murderous excesses of the Roman empire and reluctantly ends up on the throne. Werewolf and shifter stories, which are usually built on hierarchies. And the brilliant, hilarious warlike theocracy of space vampires in Ilona Andrews’ Sweep of the Blade.

I don’t enjoy plot moppets—so Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester (Jeanne, Justine and lots of other people I know like this) or SEP’s Dream a Little Dream (a favorite of Michille’s) are not for me. And I have zero interest in shoes, clothes, shopping and the trappings of extreme wealth.

There must be others, but those are the ones that spring immediately to mind.

How about you? What kind of external story do you like best?

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?

Jilly: Cast of Thousands

Do you read series? What do you expect from the final book?

This week I happened to read the last book in two different long-running bestselling series, one urban fantasy and one straight-up fantasy. In each case the series ran to ten or more books, plus novellas and other related stories in a complex world with a large cast of characters.

To my surprise both grand finales left me underwhelmed, for the same reason. About a third of each book was devoted to wrapping up the series story arc in a high-stakes, satisfying manner. The other two thirds made sure that every single significant character across the entire series (barring those who’d met an untimely end) reappeared and contributed to the story resolution in some way.

It reminded me of the final number in a musical, where the entire cast is on the stage together, giving it full beans. Big finish. Rapturous applause. Curtain. Followed by individual curtain calls for the principals.

I was quite pleased to see some of the characters again, but after a while the whole setup became predictable, even tiresome. It distracted me. I started placing bets with myself about which character would appear next and how they’d be shoe-horned into the final confrontation.

These aren’t books written by newbie writers. They’re traditionally published titles written by skilled authors with proven track records. This can’t be a mistake. It must be what readers (or most readers) expect and enjoy.

When I’ve finished my Elan Intrigues prequel books I’m planning to write a long-ish series with the same protagonist (Alexis). At the moment I think it will be six books, set in various locations and with a hefty cast of supporting characters. If best practice would be to make the final book a kind of ‘greatest hits’ experience for the reader as well as saving the world and giving the H&H a happy ever after, I should try to get my head around that now. It might make a difference to the way I write the earlier books.

What do you think? Do you like to see all your favorite characters lend a hand at the end of a series, or do you, like me, just want the author to draw the story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion?