Monday, April 28, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Stressing Out So We Can Relax

Writings of the Muse
Busy, busy, busy. Run, run, run. Sorry, can't talk right now. Too much to do!

Oh, wait. Actually, I don't have anything to do. Sorry, that hasn't really sunk in yet. Sometimes when you sprint so hard, you sort of still feel like you're going even after you've stopped.

Renee is one of those people who can't relax on vacation if she's left a bunch of stuff undone at home. Some people like that might see a vacation coming up at the end of the month and take a few weeks to get ahead. You know, gradually work things up so that by the time the last day before vacation rolls around, they're all caught up and ready for some relaxation.

Renee is not one of those people.

No, no, Renee sees a vacation coming up at the end of the month and chooses to procrastinate by spending most of her free time one week marathoning some show about vampires.

(Okay, I admit, I didn't mind that part. Ian Somerhalder isn't exactly tough to watch.)

And then the next week, when she realizes how much she has to do and how now she has even less time to do it, she treats herself to a complete crisis of confidence and ends up one step shy of total mental collapse. So instead of spending her dwindling pre-vacation weeks getting ahead, she winds up doing all she can just to stay afloat.

That way the last week before vacation can be panic-filled, stress-overloaded chaos as she makes one last ditch effort to catch up and work ahead and get anything and everything she can possibly think of wrapped up.

I think she keeps to this pattern because she somehow manages to pull off the miracle every time. The word count got caught up. The blog posts were scheduled. Heck, Renee even did all the laundry and cleaned the house before she left.

Not that anyone here really cares about that. But it got done, darn it, so I'm counting it.

Which is all good but sort of annoying. Part of me sort of wishes she's fail miserably at the whole procrastinate-and-then-rush approach, so she could learn her lesson and take the easier road next time. At the same time, it's not like I really want us to be behind of word count, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much about how we got through it.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Flash Fiction: Not Nothing

PROMPT/CHALLENGE SUMMARY: To the random prompt generator! I just love that thing. This week it gave me "15 minutes/male character - under 18/from a fortune cookie". I ignored the time limit, because I don't like time limits, and went with 500 words instead. And then the stock image I found got my brain off and running. I'm sure it's meant to be the kind of thing you can fill in on your own, but where's the fun in that? YA's not usually my thing, but, as I've said before, I like to stretch myself with these, so I went with it. Here's what I ended up with. Enjoy!
(Source: The Almost Totally Random Writing Exercise Generator)

"You have inexhaustible power and wisdom. . .  in bed!" Kevin leaned back in our booth. "Damn straight, baby!"

"Power to snore, maybe," Trevor added.

"That's not what your mom said last night."

Everyone cracked up--you just sort of have to at that point--and turned to the next fortune cookie. Meg snapped it up. "A billionaire's joke is always funny in bed. Yeah, I'd agree with that," she said with a smirk.

"So that's what it takes, huh?" Kevin asked. "A billion dollars?"

"Babe, for a billion dollars I'll laugh at anything you want," she purred.

"You know, laughing's not really a thing during sex," Trevor commented.

Meg rolled her eyes. "Then you're doing it wrong."

"He's not doing it at all," Kevin tossed in.

"That's not what your mom said last night," Trevor shot back. They say the trick to good comedy is circling back to the earlier joke.

That's not what they mean.

Stephanie picked up the next cookie before Trevor noticed no one was laughing. "In dreams and in life, anything is possible in bed."

"Oooh, someone's kinky. I guess you're up for anything, right Steph?" Meg was Stephanie's best friend, so that meant she spent most of her time swiping at her like a bitchy cat. Because girls are effed up.

"Anything, huh?" Kevin asked, trying--and failing--to waggle his eyebrows at her.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said, her cheeks pink and her shoulders tight. "Your turn," she said, shoving a cookie at me.

I cracked it open, hoping my "fortune" was just a basic dirty joke and nothing too weird. I unfolded the little scrap of paper and. . .

Well, that's weird.

The table went quiet as they waited for me to read it. When I didn't say anything, Kevin banged out a little drumroll. "Well, what's it say, dude?"

"Nothing," I said, flipping the paper over just to make sure I wasn't looking at the back.

He rolled his eyes and made a grab for the paper. I stretched my arm out, holding it out of his reach. "Come on, man, it can't be that lame. Just read it."

"No, he's right," Stephanie said. She leaned over and grabbed my hand, and I let her twist is so she could see both sides of the paper. "It's blank. There's no fortune. No lucky numbers or anything. It's just. . . nothing." She straightened in her seat and nudged her glasses back up on her nose.

"How can it be blank?" Meg asked, her forehead creasing. "What does that even that mean? Mark's got no future?"

"Oh, Mark's got no future in bed." Kevin snickered. "Dying a virgin, huh? That sucks, buddy."

"Well, not exactly a virgin," I mumbled. I couldn't stop my eyes from darting to Stephanie as the words fell out of my mouth. She stared a determined hole in the table and her whole face burned bright red.

And, of course, everyone saw.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-04-12 through 2014-04-18

Wow. Um. . .  I didn't read anything last week. I guess I was too busy getting ready to go on vacation or something. And I've been working my way through some nonfiction. Those always take me a lot longer to finish. I have to devote more brainpower to concentrating on learning new things and I don't have a lot of that to spare most days.

Anyway, since I have no book reviews for you this week, please enjoy this stock photo of a cat reading a book instead.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's Not a Guilty Pleasure. It's Educational.

Most writers will tell you that your novel needs to have at least two major conflicts: an internal conflict and an external conflict. Main characters have to overcome both in order to win the day. Conflict drives the story and multiple levels of conflict make the story that much richer.

From what I've seen, in most genres people tend to focus on the external conflict. If you ask someone what the mystery they're reading is about, they'll likely respond by detailing how the detective has to find a killer before he takes another victim. On the back cover copy of an urban fantasy novel, you might read about the witch trying to stop a horde of demons from opening a portal to hell and destroying the world.

Those are external conflicts. Character A must battle Character B to save the day. And with all the witty dialogue and thrilling action scenes, what's not to love?

The internal conflicts, on the other hand, are frequently treated like subplots. The main character has to deal with those issues, sure, but more as an aside, or maybe as a step toward dealing with the external threat. The internal conflict usually isn't seen as a threat in and of itself. After all, saving the world is way more important that whether or not some guy ever gets over his fear of abandonment, right?

Wrong.

Internal conflict is hugely important. It's what the reader really connects with when a good story draws them in. It's what humanizes the characters and makes the readers care about what happens to them. Without a strong internal conflict, the story is just so many words strung together on a page, the writer yammering on about things that didn't really happen to people who don't really exist.

And internal conflict is also one of my. . .  opportunities for improvement as a writer. One of the interesting things about plotting my current novel instead of pantsing like usual is that I've found a number of holes in my process. One such hole is that when I was asking myself "what happens next?" I was only focusing on the physical challenges, where the characters go and who they fight and such. I'd never considered that what happened next might be happening on the inside.

In other words, I was only focusing on the external conflict and treating the internal conflict like a subplot. So I've been studying internal conflicts a lot recently. And I've been studying them in a place you might not expect: romance novels.

Don't make that face. Romance novels have gotten a bad reputation. "They're formulaic." "They're silly." "They're just mommy-porn." (That last one pisses me off for a whole bunch of reasons I'm not going to get into here.) What complete and utter crap. I know because I used to say those same things, and I was wrong.

There are plenty of formulaic and silly romance novels out there, but there are also plenty of science fiction novels that fit that bill too. And mysteries and thrillers and fantasy and even literary fiction. Formulaic and silly are not attributes exclusive to the romance genre by any stretch of the imagination.

But just like all those other genres, there are a lot of great romance novels too. And in addition to being very entertaining reads, the great romance novels can teach you a whole lot about internal conflicts.

Romance novels run the opposite way from other genres in terms of conflict. The internal conflict is what drives the story. The main characters might be trying to open a restaurant together or trapped by a snow storm or involved in a legal battle over a priceless work of art, but at the end of the day the story is about them getting over whatever is wrong inside their own heads and getting together.

With the focus reversed, the dynamics of writing a good internal conflict become easier to spot. I've learned a ton about how to write changing emotions. How to show a character lying to themselves. How to create a character who might just rationalize their whole life away if they're not careful. All from reading those silly, formulaic novels that are really just mommy-porn anyway. ;-)

If you want to learn how to write a big bloody battle scene from the perspective of a soldier on the front line, you're probably not going to find that in your average romance novel. But if you want to see how to make a character realize he doesn't trust anyone, least of all himself, a good romance novel may just be your best bet.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: May I See Your Blog Pass Please?

Brilliance from the Idea Salesman
I swear, sometimes I feel like I've become nothing more than a glorified hall monitor around here.

Renee, stay in your seat and keep your hands on the keyboard.

Muse, quit daydreaming and focus. Also, stop writing new opening scenes on the bathroom walls.

No, Renee, you cannot be excused; stay in your seat.

IE, I appreciate your love of all things spreadsheety--and I certainly don't want to discourage a female student's interest in any mathematics and technology oriented fields--but please do your homework for Timelines and Story Structure 101 during someone else's class.

Renee, no, you cannot run away screaming and flailing. There's no running in the halls.

Seriously, it's crazy time up here in Renee's head. And somehow I'm the guy who is supposed to be holding the whole thing together.

This isn't really my job. I'm supposed to be managing the business. You know, writing queries, networking at conferences, managing the social media platform. That kind of thing. But then someone went and pointed out that we didn't have a project manager and if I ever wanted to get my hot little abstract hands on a completed anything to sell, I'd better find someone to keep track of the to-do lists.

Unfortunately, no one wanted the job. And I very stupidly assumed I could handle it myself anyway.

At first is wasn't so bad. Set up a few deadlines here and there, prod everyone into punching the time clock at the appropriate times, keeping the workspace clean and organized. No big deal. When things are going well, it's easy to keep everyone on track.

Turns out people are a lot less cooperative when things aren't going so well.

The Muse, despite multiple conversations about why it would be a VERY BAD IDEA, wants to go back and rewrite the beginning of the story to reflect the new change in structure. She just has so many "wonderful ideas".

The Inner Editor, being very focused on outlines and planning, has been spending a lot of time distracting Renee with spreadsheets that shuffle the remaining scenes around to accommodate the potential changes the Muse wants to make.

Renee is convinced we're never going to finish the book now. It's just going to keep getting bigger and bigger, growing and expanding as it consumes everything in its path like some kind of literary version of the Blob, and no matter how many times we stab it, it's never going to die.

And all the while the Critic just sits in her cage and laughs and laughs and laughs.

By last Friday I was ready to explode. We were all running around flailing our arms and screaming and in the meantime, you know how much writing we were doing? None. Nothing was getting done. It's the classic trap, isn't it? Spending so much time worrying about the writing that you don't actually get to the writing.

So we all agreed to shut up and sit down for a little family meeting. I gave the Muse 20 minutes to write down all her ideas about the new beginning she's got in mind and we saved that stuff so it's ready come revisions time. I gave the Inner Editor another 20 minutes to tweak the outline for going forward. And I let Renee have 20 minutes to play with her calendar so she could see that even with the extra work, this novel is not going to go on forever.

Maybe it wasn't the most productive hour we've ever spent at the keyboard, but I'm hoping it pays off going forward. Maybe now that we've gotten all our worries and ideas and plans down on the page, we can just move the fleurk on with writerly life.

Just as soon as we get back from vacation, that is. Did I mention Renee's got some travel plans coming up? Because we totally have time for Spring Break right now.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-03-29 through 2014-04-11

I haven't been doing a whole lot of reading lately, so I put two weeks together for this post. Even then, there isn't much. Books I don't enjoy very much take me longer to read, which just makes them seem that much worse. :-(

Sycamore Row, by John Grisham
John Grisham's A Time to Kill is one of the most popular novels of our time. Now we return to that famous courthouse in Clanton as Jake Brigance once again finds himself embroiled in a fiercely controversial trial--a trial that will expose old racial tensions and force Ford County to confront its tortured history.

Seth Hubbard is a wealthy man dying of lung cancer. He trusts no one. Before he hangs himself from a sycamore tree, Hubbard leaves a new, handwritten, will. It is an act that drags his adult children, his black maid, and Jake into a conflict as riveting and dramatic as the murder trial that made Brigance one of Ford County's most notorious citizens, just three years earlier.

The second will raises far more questions than it answers. Why would Hubbard leave nearly all of his fortune to his maid? Had chemotherapy and painkillers affected his ability to think clearly? And what does it all have to do with a piece of land once known as Sycamore Row?

If you saw my status update on Goodreads on this one a few weeks ago, you'll know that it took me forever to get into this book. I'd pick it up and read a few pages and very quickly grow interested in the television or checking my Twitter or washing the dishes. I think I probably had it checked out from the library for almost four weeks before I got myself to chapter four. Considering that I usually take down books in a day, maybe two if I'm really busy or they're especially dense, that's a ridiculously long time for me.

It's not that the book was bad. I would feel extremely stupid sitting here trying to tell you that a #1 New York Times bestseller by an insanely popular author was bad. If a book manages to draw in and entertain that many people, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it's definitely got something going for it.

But it turns out that I don't like John Grisham's writing style. I read a few of his books years ago, and I remember enjoying them, but apparently my tastes have changed quite a bit since then. Long-Suffering Husband reads a ton of Grisham and he assures me this book wasn't some kind of weird anomaly. So it's definitely just my tastes holding me back here.

It was just so slooooooooooooow. "Show, don't tell" is not a piece of writing advice John Grisham embraces.

The narrative was drowning in description. There's a dead body right there at the beginning, but all I was being treated to was pages and pages of exposition about routines and settings and who this person is and what business is in that building there and on and on and on. I get that it's a sequel to a book Grisham wrote a long time ago, so there's some need to explain a bit of backstory for the folks who haven't read A Time to Kill (I'm among those folks, so I really can appreciate that) or who haven't read it in a while, but there was just too much.

For Pete's sake, there's even an aside that starts with something like "if there was time, he'd tell this story. . . " and then Grisham tells us the story, before coming back to making the point that there isn't time to tell the story. A story which, by the way, has nothing to do with the novel at all.

GRRRRAAAAHHHH!

Don't mind me; I'll just be over here hitting my head on the wall.

So, yeah, I didn't like this book. If you're a Grisham fan, and/or you can get past the floods of exposition that jerk the plot to halt over and over again, I'm sure there was a decent story in there somewhere. But for me, I couldn't enjoy it and the only reason I managed to finish it as "quickly" as I did (in a mind-boggling two and a half weeks that felt like a year) is that the library loan was about to expire and I think Long-Suffering Husband, who does enjoy Grisham's writing, was kind of sad that it was bothering me so much, so I sat down one weekend and forced my way through it.


The Gift, by Tiffany Reisz
A trained submissive, Eleanor will do whatever her master commands. . . even spend a week with a stranger. Daniel has been a recluse since his wife's death, and Eleanor's lover thinks spending time with her will be therapeutic--especially since Daniel is also a Dom.

Despite her defiant streak, Eleanor can't resist giving in to Daniel's erotic demands. But while she'll let him have her body, she's determined to keep a guard around her heart. Even if Daniel wants to make Eleanor his permanently. . . 

I was trolling through my recommendations for a pick-me-up and found this little novella, which turned out to be perfect. I read the four novels in the Original Sinners series several months ago and enjoyed them, but I somehow hadn't gotten around to this yet.

Overall, I liked it. The story was good and Reisz, as always, wrote some very beautiful and sexy kink here. It was interesting, seeing Nora as Eleanor, knowing where she ends up and getting a glimpse of what came before. I had already planned on reading the prequel novels, but this made me that much more interested in them. And Daniel is a great character. I loved him so much that I went to Reisz's website right away and read both the sequels to this story just so I could get more of him.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I actually liked Daniel Part Two better than this story, so if you read The Gift and like Daniel as much as I did, definitely go check that one out.)


Insurgent, by Veronica Roth
One choice can transform you--or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves--and herself--while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris's initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable--and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

I felt the character of Tris was really strong in this novel. Roth did a wonderful job of showing her finding her way through stages of grief and survivor guilt. I liked that even though the pacing of the story was relatively quick, Roth still took the time to let Tris react to and process the events of the previous novel. And at times fail to process them, which people often do. It can be difficult to portray a character who thinks they are being rational behaving in a completely irrational way, but I think Roth pulled that off here.

And the series of captivity scenes were, in my opinion, very well done.

All that said, I really didn't enjoy this books as much as I did Divergent. Even though there was a great deal happening, it felt like a lot of filler to me. The stakes are supposedly higher, but as a reader I didn't care as much.

I think the worldbuilding started to fall apart on me a bit in this installment. As I said in my review of Divergent, I was left with some questions about the world Roth has created here, but I understood that there was no good way for the narrative to answer those questions for me, at least not with Tris as the POV character. As I had hoped, Insurgent made some headway at answering those questions for me. Unfortunately, the more answers I got, the less believable the world became.

I could maybe buy into the faction dynamic and conflict as it's presented if the society was completely populated by teenagers. Teenagers are crazy hot messes of hormones and emotions and such and social dynamics are what they are within something like the microcosm of a high school. I can buy into them giving over en masse to melodrama and megalomania. And some adults never really grow out of that.

Some adults. Not all. I have a hard time buying into a world where everyone acts like a drunken teenager and the whole of society functions like a high school cafeteria on crack. Even if you could convince me that we could evolve in that direction, I don't believe it would be sustainable over generations. Heck, forget generationally. I don't buy that a society could function like that for more than a few years at best.

Once I stopped buying into the world, I lost a lot of interest in the story. Plus, my genre awareness started to hurt me here. I'm an experienced reader. In my opinion, you can't build all your narrative tension around "will the secret information be revealed?" in a story like this. If there is secret information, of course it will be revealed. As a reader, I know that, because a decent writer doesn't even bring up secret information unless it's going to be revealed.

In this book, I felt the whole handling of the big secret was botched.


Overall, the characters remained decently strong in this novel, but, in my opinion, the worldbuilding fell apart around them. I went ahead and put a hold on book 3, because I figure I might as well read it, but I'm not exactly fussed that I'm 108th on the waiting list.


Generally speaking, this has not been a very satisfying couple of reading weeks. Which is a bummer, but you can't win them all, I guess. Also, holy genre jumping, Batman! I guess I can't say I was stuck in a rut here, can I?

What about you? Have you read any of these? What did you think? Read anything else lately that you feel like sharing with the class?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

No, There Is Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.

I'm going to a writing conference next week, my first in a very long time. (Yay!) I don't have a manuscript ready yet, so I won't be formally pitching any agents and editors while I'm there. Still, I know from past experience that I'm going to be asked what I'm working on several times over the course of the weekend.

Because writers are naturally inclined to be antisocial and when you jam a whole bunch of us together in a room and make us talk to each other, all we can think to do is ask one another about our books. "What are you working on?" is a very dangerous question to ask a writer, likely to trigger an avalanche of unwanted information.

(But for some reason we keep asking each other anyway. Did I mention that our social skills are known to be somewhat lacking?)

This is probably why we're so heavily encouraged to develop elevator pitches. They tell you it's for professional development--if you're stuck in an elevator with your dream agent and they happen to ask you what your book is about, you want to be able to hook them before they reach their floor!--but it's probably more to keep the small talk down to manageable levels.

So even though I don't technically need an elevator pitch, I still need an elevator pitch. I don't necessarily like working from a script when I'm talking to people, but I've found that if I have a base to work from, the conversation goes a little smoother. So rather than write out an actual elevator pitch, trying to turn my speech patterns into dialogue or something, I started with a query-style blurb.

I put it up a few weeks ago as a flash fiction post here, by the way, so if you want to know what Guardian is about, that's it.

I'll keep that in my head and try to work from it when I'm talking to people so I don't get bogged down in subplots or the magic system or whatever. The 50-word limit I put on the blurb really helped me cut a lot of those less-than-essential details out.

Speaking of the 50-word limit, a few people asked me how I came up with that number. You probably won't find it in any general advice about writing blurbs, but I found my way to it by studying queries.

There's a lot of advice about querying out there. (Janet Reid's Query Shark blog is my personal favorite.) You should have an introductory paragraph. You should skip straight to the story. You should blurb your book in two paragraphs. One paragraph. Three sentences. Five sentences. Focus on action. On character. Voice is more important than anything else. Be clever. But not too clever.

The most common rule of thumb I see is that you get one paragraph of approximately three sentences to talk about your story. One sentence for the character/set up, one for the problem, and one for the stakes. That's it. Short, sweet, and to the point.

The problem with telling most writers that they have to distill their novel down to three sentences is that you might end up with three sentences, sure, but they're great big galloping sentences that go on and on and on forever. Though they may not technically be run ons, of course. We're very good at using and abusing punctuation when we need to be.

I never see conjunctions, parenthetical references, em-dashes, and semicolons all in the same sentence except when looking at query examples.

And I hate big long galloping sentences when I'm reading. I love them when I'm writing, of course. Why use 3 words when 10 will do? But I hate them when I'm reading. I suspect most people do, particularly agent and editor people who have to wade through hundreds of these things every week.

So I started looking at word count instead. In general, an average sentence in fiction is somewhere between 14-22 words. I can't remember where I got that number, but it's stuck in my brain for some reason. I looked at my own writing and found that average holds true for me, so I'm keeping it. And three sentences at this average is approximately 50 words.

So that's how I came up with my limit. When I kept my target at 50 words instead of 3 sentences, I found the whole thing was both harder and easier. Harder because I wanted so badly to cram a whole bunch of extra information into those three sentences and I couldn't. And easier because once I did figure out what the absolute most important things about the story were, I was able to ignore the rest of it.

So how do you answer the "what are you working on?" question? Do you have a blurb you work from or do you just wing it? Do you think the 3-sentence/50-word limit works for blurbs?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: We've Got This Map Labeled All Wrong

Wisdom of an Inner Editor
I'm very glad Renee has chosen to follow a more structured writing path with our current project. It's working reasonably well and it gives me something to do during the writing stage, which has always been something of a slow period for me. Plus, plotting out the story in advance has allowed us, I think, to nail down why the middle of Renee's novel is taking so long.

As of the end of last week, we're right around the 50% mark in the story, at least in terms of word count. In theory, that should also mean we were smack in the middle of, or at least getting close to, the climax of the plot as well.

Alas, we were not.

Now there can be some argument made for an asymmetrical plot arc, for pushing the climax of the story a bit, say to the 2/3 mark, to tighten up the ending and give the tension some extra time to build. Plus, the five-part story arc isn't some sort of writerly law. It's a suggestion based on stories that have gone before, right along with the three-act structure and the hero's journey and such. To steal a line from Captain Barbosa, these things are more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

But that's not what's happening here. The problem is actually that we started the story in the wrong place. We began a bit too early, and now we're stuck with more opening than we're going to need.

As we've been slogging up our rising action hill, Renee came to the sudden realization that the reason she's having so much trouble moving everything along is that there's more going on than the outline has allowed space for. What we had down as the end of the first act is actually the inciting incident, and so we're only just now getting to the end of the first act.

Which means there's far too much set up in what's already been written. Of the ~45k words we've got down, quite a lot is going to need to be condensed down or outright cut. At least a third of it going to have to go. Not just for length either. In realizing what the actual turning points of the story are, Renee also realized that the focus of the beginning needs to be a bit different.

(Now, before anyone becomes concerned, we're not going to go back and rewrite the beginning of the novel right now. The draft will probably come in around 100k-110k, instead of the originally intended 90k, giving us room to cut without coming in too short. We're making notes for later, but we all know better than to revise during the zero draft. That's a rabbit hole none of us is interested in falling down.)

Of course, it also means all this climbing we've been doing lately is just foothills and we still have the whole rising action mountain to climb.

Oh dear. I'll just be over there in the corner, drowning my migraine with a shot or twenty.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-03-22 through 2014-03-28

Another week of binge reading and love stories, this time because I was sick. I didn't have time to be sick, but here I am, sick. It always happens that way. I get too much on my plate, I push too hard, I stress out huge, and then a germ of some kind gets within 50 miles of me and I contract the plague.

Gosh, you'd think stress and fatigue have an adverse effect on the immune system or something. . .

Lord of Darkness, by Elizabeth Hoyt
WHEN STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT

He lives in the shadows. The mysterious masked avenger known as the Ghost of St. Giles, his only goal is to protect the innocent of London. Until the night he confronts a fearless lady pointing a pistol at his head--and realizes she is his wife. . .

BECOME LOVERS. . .

Lady Margaret Reading has vowed to kill the Ghost of St. Giles--the man who murdered her one true love. Returning to London, and the man she hasn't seen since their wedding day, Margaret does not recognize the man behind the mask. Fierce, commanding, and dangerous, the notorious Ghost of St. Giles is everything she feared he would be--and so much more. . .

DESIRE IS THE ULTIMATE DANGER

When passion flares these two intimate strangers can't keep from revealing more of themselves than they had ever planned. But when Margaret learns the truth--that the Ghost is her husband, Godric St. John--the game is up and the players must surrender. . . to the temptation that could destroy them both.

Continuing on in the binge reading of Elizabeth Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, I really enjoyed this fifth installment as well. It wasn't exactly what I was expecting, since I'd thought from the description that Megs had turned into some kind of badass vigilante hunter and the story was going to be all about them sparring and trying to outwit each other.

Instead I got a book about a marriage of convenience that gets inconvenient when the woman decides it's time to make babies, with the whole masked man angle just sort of piled on top. Seemed like a little bit of bait and switch advertising to me, so be warned if you haven't read the book yet and you're looking for a masks-for-everyone, vengeance-all-around type of story.

That said, I did still find this story very enjoyable. Megs and Godric have some really great moments together. There was a lot of emotion built into this pair, as they're both still mourning dead lovers, and I liked seeing them let go of their grief and fall for each other.

I'd also like to point out that I'm really loving how Hoyt isn't spending most of the novel with the men lying and the women feeling like they're cheating with these Ghost of St. Giles stories. That's usually how it goes with secret identity stories and I'm glad to not have to deal with the extra baggage a contrived complication like that creates. In both this story and Thief of Shadows before it, the women figure out who their men are very quickly and the tension then comes not from a pack of (ultimately) unnecessary lies, but from the two figuring out how to keep the secret together.


Duke of Midnight, by Elizabeth Hoyt
WHEN A MASKED MAN. . .

Twenty years ago Maximus Batten witnessed the brutal murders of his parents. Now the autocratic Duke of Wakefield, he spends his days ruling Parliament. But by night, disguised as the Ghost of St. Giles, he prowls the grim alleys of St. Giles, ever on the hunt for the murderer. One night he finds a fiery woman who meets him toe-to-toe--and won't back down. . .

MEETS HIS MATCH. . .

Artemis Greaves toils as a lady's companion, but hiding beneath the plain brown serge of her dress is the heart of a huntress. When the Ghost of St. Giles rescues her from footpads she recognizes a kindred spirit--and is intrigued. She's even more intrigued when she realizes who exactly the notorious Ghost is by day. . .

DESIRE IGNITES A DANGEROUS PASSION

Artemis makes a bold move: she demands that Maximus use his influence to free her imprisoned brother--or she will expose him as the Ghost. But blackmailing a powerful duke isn't without risks. Now that she has the tiger by the tail, can she withstand his ire--or the temptation of his embrace?


So, yeah, this is a book about Batman. So much Batman. You've got the masked vigilante angle built in, sure, but we've had that for the last two books in this series and neither of those were Batman stories. (Okay, fine, one was a Zorro story. . . )

But here our hero is a rich high society noble by day and a masked vigilante by night. Who witnessed his parents being killed when he was young. By a thief in an alley after a night at the theater, for Pete's sake. And the only one who knows his secret is a very stoic older manservant. (Sadly named Craven and not Alfred.) And he's got a freaking Batcave. An actual cave, right there under his mansion, where he trains and changes clothes and such, complete with a tunnel he uses to get in and out of his house unseen.

So, yeah, the Duke of Wakefield is Batman.

But that's okay, because I like Batman. Especially a nice cynical brooding one. Yum!

That said, he's pretty much also an asshole. Which isn't bad, necessarily, because he's been in the series for a while now and he's been an asshole the whole time. So I'm actually glad Hoyt stuck with that, instead of making him go all gummy at the first sight of our heroine. Remember a few weeks ago when I was complaining about a heroine who got "blanded by sex"? I don't like it anymore when it happens to heroes, so I'm glad Hoyt didn't go there with Maximus. And I'm cool with him being an asshole because assholes are people too and sometimes other people love them. Besides, he's got his reasons and he's pretty convinced they're good ones. I can respect that.

Artemis doesn't waste time trying to tame him or reform him, by the way. She just handles him. I love her. She doesn't try to seduce him or trap him or any of the usual machinations for the time period. Nope, she just flat out blackmails him. In fact, every time he tries to make her do things his way, or lays down some dictate based on society and/or expectations that she doesn't agree with, she just does her own thing anyway. It's not that she doesn't respect him. She does. She just respects herself too.

I also really love how she responds to her lot in life. This era is pretty much defined by stations and classes and she's at the very bottom of hers. She could be meek and depressed, but she's actually downright defiant about it. Her cousin might be using her as a servant, but she's found ways to adapt to her new life and use it to her advantage. She takes pride in how well she disappears and she never gets passive about her situation. Every glimpse we've gotten of Artemis in the previous books has shown sparks of her strength being used in quiet ways, most clearly in her well-times note intervening on Winter Makepeace's behalf in Thief of Shadows. She's not cowed; she's been biding her time.

Also, can I just say that the scene at the end on the boat was so freaking great? Because it was totally great. I'm not going to be to spoilery here, but the dialogue between Winter and Godric was priceless. So completely priceless. :-)


After the Scandal, by Elizabeth Essex
CAN AN INDECENT PROPOSAL

When Lady Claire Jellicoe agreed to a walk in the moonlight, she never imagined her titled companion might have brutal motives. Nor could she have dreamed up such a brave rescue by the most unexpected savior of all: an inscrutable nobleman with a daring plan of escape--and a deliciously tempting embrace. . .

LEAD TO EVERLASTING LOVE?

Timothy Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has palmed more treasures than he can count. Even for a man who grew up thieving in London's stews, a stolen bride should be beyond the pale. But Fenmore won't let scandal ruin the spirited beauty's reputation. And now that she's stolen his heart, how can he ever let her go. . . ?

I hate writing bad reviews. I'm trying to be a brave little toaster here and make these posts more than just gushy fangirling. I want the people who come here (assuming people come here) to know that they're going to get my real opinions, which are hard to express if I try to claim I absolutely adored everything I ever read. I read a lot of books and of course I'm not going to like all of them or even like everything about the ones I do enjoy. At the same time, I feel like writing a negative review is going to come back and bite me someday. Every time I write one of these, it scares me to death.

*deep breath* Here goes.

I had very high hopes for this book. I read and enjoyed the previous six books in these series and I enjoyed both Tanner and Claire in the stories where they made appearances. I was intrigued by the idea of putting them together, and I was just generally interested in how Tanner turned out, since we hadn't seen him in a while.

Alas, I was pretty bored here. The murder mystery was okay, and it kept moving right along, but there was enough foreshadowing in the beginning that I figured it out well before the characters. I'm really good at figuring mysteries out though (just ask Long-Suffering Husband how hard it is to surprise me) so I wouldn't hold that against an author. Besides, this is a romance novel; the mystery isn't what brought me in the door.

Perhaps, though, the characters would have figured out what was going on sooner if they hadn't been so busy having the same series of thoughts over and over and over again. It always comes back to the character for me and I am sad to report that I was really disappointed in the characters in this book.

I can sort of excuse the repetition for Claire. She might think she's mischievous and adventurous, but the fact of the matter is she's been rich and very sheltered her whole life. So I can accept her being struck by the poverty and crime and violence repeatedly because she's just flat out not used to it and one day isn't going to make her used to it. The other side of Tanner's life should constantly surprise her. I don't think it was portrayed as well as it could have been, but I could go with it.

But the book drove me absolutely nuts every time the POV switched to Tanner. Every time we were in his head, it was all, "wow, I've always loved her so much and it's great--and such a shocker--that it turns out she's smart and funny in addition to being beautiful!" For pages and pages and pages. Which was doubly annoying because he's solving a mystery here and his "great leaps of logic" just get dumped into the dialogue without us seeing any of that thinking.

Never mind that this sentiment is shallow and incredibly insulting, it's also completely unbelievable for this character. The point is made repeatedly that he's a very observant guy, that he had to learn how to size people up and keep track of everything about them at a very early age in order to survive and he's very, very good at it. Even now that he's all grown up and a duke, he still keeps his hand in. And he's apparently been obsessed with Claire for years. So shouldn't he have noticed before that she's clever? The scenes with Claire in the previous books certainly don't make a secret of her sense of humor or intelligence, so how in the world, if he was focusing all of his supposed shrewd intelligence and limitless attention to detail on her for all this time, did it escape his notice?

And related note, I don't think I've ever before thought a love scene was too long. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if it had been more active, but mostly it seemed like they were just kissing and thinking. Endlessly thinking the same thoughts over and over and over again.

All in all, I feel like there was potential for a good story here but that it was stretched too far. In my opinion, most of the internal monologueing could have been cut out and this would have made a very good novella.


Suddenly Royal, by Nichole Chase
Samantha Rousseau is used to getting her hands dirty. Working toward a master's degree in wildlife biology while helping take care of her sick father, she has no time for celebrity gossip, designer clothes, or lazy vacations. So when a duchess from the small country of Lilaria invites her to dinner, Samantha assumes it's to discuss a donation for the program. The truth will change the course of her life in ways she never dreamed.

Alex D'Lynsal is trying to keep his name clean. As crown prince of Lilaria, he's had his share of scandalous headlines, but the latest pictures have sent him packing to America and forced him to swear off women--especially women in the public eye. That is, until he meets Samantha Rousseau. She's stubborn, feisty, and incredibly sexy. Not to mention heiress to an estate in his country, which makes her everyone's front-page news.

While Sam tries to navigate the new world of politics and wealth, she will also have to dodge her growing feelings for Alex. Giving in to them means more than just falling in love; it would mean accepting the weight of an entire country on her shoulders.

I was looking for something light and fun to read as a pick me up and I'm glad I went with this. I enjoyed watching Sam's transition from "normal" life to royalty. I think Chase did an excellent job of showing the challenges and the perks.

And I am completely in love with Alex. He's smart and funny. He knows he attractive and he makes no secret of the fact that he's attracted to Sam. He's assertive without being aggressive. He understands that his life is hugely different from hers and he's more than willing to do whatever he can to help her through the transition. He's just an incredible man and he takes Prince Charming to a whole new level.

I did feel the timeline at the beginning was a little rushed. I didn't really understand why she needed to pack up and move within a couple of days and I felt like, given how serious a character she is, she wouldn't have gone with that. I understand that the story doesn't really start until she decides to accept her title and that dragging out the decision would have been boring, but it still felt very abrupt to me and I couldn't quite believe it.

Aside from that minor detail though, I loved this book. Lots of great humor and strong characters, plus a really well-written romance.


Recklessly Royal, by Nichole Chase
Catherine has spent her life being the perfect princess. She's kept her hands clean, her head down, and most importantly--men at arm's length. After all, most men are after only one thing, and for Cathy there's a lot more at stake than her bed; she has to worry about the fate of an entire nation. But at the rate she's going, Cathy is afraid she'll give the Virgin Queen a run for her money. She is tired of waiting for someone good enough to come along. She has a plan, and it all hinges on seducing the one man who seems utterly unimpressed by all things royal. The one man she is tempted by more than any other. . .

When David arrives at the royal wedding of his friend, the newly ordained Duchess Samantha Rousseau, he expected to feel uncomfortable and out of his element, but he wasn't prepared to be targeted by Prince Alex's gorgeous younger sister. With Cathy's giant blue eyes, killer figure, and sense of humor, it won't take long before he gives in. But when he finds out just how innocent the crown princess really is, will he play the part of knight in shining armor or the dashing rogue?

I enjoyed the first book in this series so much, I went ahead and downloaded the second book right away and stayed up most of the night reading them. One of my kids was sick and this was a nice distraction in between trips down the hall to her room. This series is just. . .  fun. Light and funny and sexy and altogether enjoyable reading.

That said, I didn't like this book quite as much as I did Suddenly Royal. The whole I've-been-careful-and-discerning-my-whole-life-and-now-I've-just-gotta-get-laid-hey-that-guy-is-hawt-I-gonna-go-screw-his-brains-out idea just doesn't do much for me. It never seems to ring true.

It's like the internal character monologue is running something like this: This is so important to me and I've been careful for so long and I'm frustrated but I don't want to make a mista--SQUIRREL!

(Except maybe substitute in another word there, one related to the male anatomy, for squirrel.)

But, as I said at the beginning of this review, I did enjoy this book. It was fun and light and David was an awesome character. He was charming and careful and supportive, and I felt like he was exactly what Cathy needed. He certainly handled the transition into close-to-royalty life with a bit more grace than Sam did in Suddenly Royal. Or course, being Sam's best friend, he did have her experience to prepare him there.

Overall it was a great little romance to let me escape from my mundane stresses for a little while.


Night Broken, by Patricia Briggs
An unexpected phone call heralds a new challenge for Mercy. Her mate Adam's ex-wife is in trouble, on the run from a stalker. Adam isn't the kind of man to turn away a person in need--and Mercy knows it. But with Christy holed up in Adam's house, Mercy can't shake the feeling that something about the situation isn't right.

Soon, her suspicions are confirmed when she learns that Christy has the farthest thing from good intentions. She wants Adam back and she's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen, including turning Adam's pack against Mercy.

Mercy isn't about to step down without a fight, but there's a more dangerous threat circling. Christy's stalker is more than a bad man--in fact, he may not be human at all. As the bodies start piling up, Mercy must put her personal troubles aside to face a creature with the power to tear her whole world apart.

I really loved the first few books in this series and I had been less than impressed by the more recent entries. This book is a step back up for me. I didn't love it as much as some of the earlier Mercy books, but it was certainly better than its immediate predecessors. Good action, great snark, and I really enjoy the relationship between Adam and Mercy.

I've read a lot of reviews that have complained about Adam's behavior in this book. I didn't have any problem with him here. I wrote a big spoilery bit about why, but then I deleted it. Because it was really long and got rambly. Bottom line: I'm fine with Adam and Mercy. I like the fact that he's a slightly atypical Alpha in that he's not all "Rawr, this my woman. I demand you obey and love her unconditionally." He loves Mercy and respects her and if Christy wants to tangle with her, he's confident enough in her to let her handle it her way.

And I really loved that we got more of Coyote in this book. I'm enjoying the way the mythology is building there and I'm very interested in seeing what happens with Gary Laughingdog in the future.

I was surprised to see so little of the fae and the vampires in this installment though. They've been such a fixture in this series and while they were there, sort of, they seemed more like cameo appearances. There are so many different types of magic running around the Mercy Thompson series, though, so I can't really fault Briggs for playing up one and letting the others slip to side for a moment. Even if I do miss Stefan.


Have you read any of these? What did you think? Read anything else lately that you feel like sharing with the class?