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Seven Books I Love–Honorable Mentions

When I did my Seven Books I Love series, I talked about how hard it was to pick favorite books/series. So here are seven contenders that could have made the list depending on the day I made a decision. These are seven fast plugs

The Tortall books by Tamora Pierce were my entry point to fantasy with strong female protagonists. My fourth grade teacher had read The Hobbit to us, and I’d liked it, but had definitely noticed the lack of women. I might have moved onto The Lord of the Rings like some classmates who liked fantasy, but instead either I stumbled across The Lioness Quartet or, more likely, a teacher/librarian/bookstore employee introduced me to it. While these are YA books, I strongly encourage anyone who likes strong female representation in fantasy to read the series. Start with Alanna: The First Adventure, in which Alanna and her brother Thom switch places–he goes to the convent where as a boy he’ll learn magic and she pretends to be “Alan” and goes to court to learn to be a knight. There are roughly 15 books in the series, with more coming. As a side note, I read this with Athena (9) and she was able to get her copy signed when Tamora Pierce made an appearance at Borderlands Books (a great indie SF/F/Horror bookstore in San Francisco–they ship nationwide if you want to support them).

The Newsflesh series is set in the not too distant future of the US, where a cure for the common cold interacted with the cure for cancer, and while the upside is that no one gets colds or cancer anymore, the downside is that now we have zombies. Georgia (George) and her brother Shawn run a website of “Newsies” (those who report the news), “Irwins” (those who go out and get action videos of themselves fighting or taunting zombies), and “Fictionals” (people who write fiction, like epic love stories). At the start of Feed, the first book in the series, George and Shawn get the news that their website has been selected to cover the Republican nominee for President. Then, as the campaign progresses, it becomes clear that there are powerful people pulling the strings, and George is determined to get to the bottom of it. This is the first book in the original trilogy, which has spawned tons of novellas (The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell makes me full on sob), and a novel written from the pov of the team covering the Democrat in the race. Feed can also be ordered from Borderlands Books. Mira Grant is the YA pen name for Seanan McGuire, whose October Daye books made the Seven Books meme, and it was a toss up between Newsflesh and Toby, tbh.

The Hate U Give has been on the top of the Children’s/YA Bestseller’s list for a year and a half, and if you read it (and you should) you’ll understand why. Starr grapples with being torn between the world she lives in–a majority black urban neighborhood–and the world she goes to school in–a private, majority white school. When her childhood friend is shot by a police officer in front of her, she has to decide if she wants to be the anonymous witness, or to find her voice and tell the truth. The story is timely, grappling with systemic white privilege, and the strained/toxic relationship between the police and communities of color that spawned Black Lives Matter. I’m going to start reading it with Athena in anticipation of the movie this fall (see the excellent trailer here.) If you want to support an indie bookstore, I suggest Bookasaurus.

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I love Alisha Rai. Glutton for Pleasure is my favorite book by Alisha. Chef Devi Malik and not one, but two sexy twins in the hottest menage love story I’ve ever read. I’m shocked my kindle didn’t melt when I reached the sex scenes. The sex scenes are worth revisiting over and over. It’s not just sex, though–can Devi find more than just kinky sex with Jace and Marcus? (And what will her family think?) Even without the hot, kinky sex, the story has emotional pull, and kept my interest. You can buy it from The Ripped Bodice, the only all-romance bookstore.

The series that really turned me into a reader was The Baby-Sitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin. I even went by Kristy (a reasonable nickname to my IRL name) for a good eight years in school. These books sucked me into their world and I loved them. I snark them on my book review blog, Be Quiet Mommy’s Reading, along with other 80’s books I read in my series called Snarking Nostalgic. Yes, they are flawed, but they are awesome. There is an attempt to bring them back in graphic novel form, which Athena reads and I think suck. The original series is out of print for the most part, but you can find them at used bookstores and indies like Powell’s Books.

This was so close to making my list. I am a hardcore Phantom of the Opera fan. I used to work for a Broadway ticket concierge service and every time they did a $25 matinee, I’d go see it. I’ve seen it easily twenty times, and that’s before we get into things like the 25th anniversary live concert shot at the Royal Albert Hall. Yes, I will even defend Love Never Dies. But the perfect accompaniment to the musical is Phantom by Susan Kay. It tells the story of Erik (the canonical name for the Phantom) from birth to death from various points of view. It shows how he learned all those skills he employs in the show, and his love for Christine. I used to use part of this book as my audition piece when I did theater. If you like Phantom the musical you will love Phantom, the book. If you want to support an indie, why not Powell’s?

I’ve blogged before about how Forbidden was the first book I ever read by Beverly Jenkins. Romance Twitter kept talking about a drop everything and read Beverly Jenkins day, so I had to go see what they were talking about. Rhine is a black man passing as white in the post-Civil War west, and Eddy is the black woman he falls for. He has to decide if he’d risk losing everything he’d gained for the woman he falls for. It’s such a good book–I was actively upset that I had to stop reading to go get my children at school, for one. I ran out to read everything else of hers that I could get my hands on–and I’m still working my way through her backlist book by book. If you want to shop indie, order it from The Ripped Bodice.

Seven Books I Love, part five–The Blessings Series by Beverly Jenkins

There’s a Facebook meme going around where you list seven of your favorite books in seven days. I thought I’d do mine as a series of blog posts. I’m going to cheat and do a few series mixed in with single books. This is not an absolute list–this is my seven of many favorite books. I could do one of these for children’s books, YA, adult, romance, and I’d still never even approach naming all my favorite books.

That said, here is book (series) five…The Blessings Series by Beverly Jenkins

On Bernadine Brown’s fifty-second birthday she received an unexpected gift—she caught her husband, Leo, cheating with his secretary. She was hurt—angry, too—but she didn’t cry woe is me. Nope, she hired herself a top-notch lawyer and ended up with a cool $275 million. Having been raised in the church, she knew that when much is given much is expected, so she asked God to send her a purpose.

The purpose turned out to be a town: Henry Adams, Kansas, one of the last surviving townships founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The failing town had put itself up for sale on the Internet, so Bernadine bought it.

Trent July is the mayor, and watching the town of his birth slide into debt and foreclosure is about the hardest thing he’s ever done. When the buyer comes to town, he’s impressed by her vision, strength, and the hope she wants to offer not only to the town and its few remaining residents, but to a handful of kids in desperate need of a second chance.

Not everyone in town wants to get on board though; they don’t want change. But Bernadine and Trent, along with his first love, Lily Fontaine, are determined to preserve the town’s legacy while ushering in a new era with ties to its unique past and its promising future.

summary of Bring on the Blessings, Blessings #1

Readers of Beverly Jenkins’ historical romances will perk up at the name “Henry Adams” because it’s the setting for a number of historical books. This is indeed the same town, which has become a run down dying town that put itself up for sale.

Bernadine is a no nonsense woman who takes her divorce settlement and buys Henry Adams. She wants to revitalize the town, and one of her projects is to create homes for foster kids who need a home and love because she’s a former social worker. The first few books deal with each of the families with a foster child, and then it begins to widen out. Family is always at the center of the books, though, and they qualify as sweet rather than steamy romance (read her historicals for steamy).

On paper this is not something I should love–sweet romance isn’t usually my style, nor do I read a lot of mainstream fiction. But Jenkins’ writing along with her as always well populated cast of characters draws you in. I bought the first book to read on vacation last December, and in two weeks I’d read all of the books and the novellas.

What I love best about the book are the characters. Each of the children has the sort of history that makes them suspicious but hopeful when it comes to their new parents. The different ages of the children also affects the way they interact with their new parents and the community. Their past also marks each child differently. The parents are also very different and each book addresses the relationship of the parents–one has a couple that is struggling with how to deal with the distance that has grown between them.

Bernadine is fabulously wealthy, so she has the magical deep pockets that allow her to buy a town, build a school, etc. But unlike your typical billionaire, she’s not white and she’s not a man. She also has a collection of equally fabulously wealthy female friends who have each other’s backs, share a private plane, and more. It’s a cool take on the billionaire trope.

These books are the kind of balm your soul might need in these trying times. A community that actually comes together and embraces these children feels alien at this point in time, and is the kind of place I aspire to live in.

The ninth books in the series–Second Time Sweeter comes out Aug 28th, so you have time to read them and catch up. Book one, Bring on the Blessings is 3.49 on Kindle.

Worrying about wordcount

An editor friend once told me to let a story be as long as it needs to be. Which is good advice in theory, but not always realistic when worrying about submission guidelines.

Short story calls tend to be in the range of 2,500-5,000 words, with 7500 words as an upper limit. Totally Bound, which is the publisher behind Capturing the Moment says that novellas start at 25,000 words and novels at 50,000. Other publishers say a novel is 75,000 or 80,000 words. Other wisdom holds that a novel is around 100,000 words.

In general I find that it is easier to trim a story than to lengthen it. Taking a story and trimming off all the tangents, the many times I use “just” as a filler word, and other bits here and there streamline the story. If you look at a writer like Malin James, every single word serves a purpose–there isn’t so much as a spare syllable.

However, when I sat down to write Capturing the Moment, it was with the explicit goal of writing a novella. That felt like stretching my writing muscles, as the longest thing I’d had professionally published at that point was a 5,000 word story. Writing 25,000 words wasn’t easy, and I had to keep asking myself what I could have them do within the guidelines of a 24 hour story (at the time I was writing to a specific call, but ended up going with a different publisher for personal reasons).

It took me eight months (with a big health related break) to get from the first word to submitting to a publisher.

Plunder began life as a short story in October or November of 2015. The characters wouldn’t leave me alone, so I started a novel. Unlike when I wrote Capturing the Moment, I didn’t have a specific publisher or call I was responding to. There was no exterior framing device to use. This was all on me, with the goal of at least 50k words, even as I knew 50k is often considered a long novella or a super short novel, but that was still twice the length of Capturing the Moment.

In the roughly two and a half years since, I wrote a first draft that almost killed me to get to 50k words. I felt desperate by the end of it, watching my word count slowly trickle upwards to that goal. I had a beta read and respond to it, and I began to mess around with it again at the end of last year, taking it from 50-75k words because I was then responding to questions I hadn’t answered, making things more obvious, and stregthening the weak spots that had been called out to me. I then sent it to several more people and a good friend who is also a sometimes editor of mine (Jessica Augustsson, owner of Jayhenge Publishing).

Jess asked several key questions that, along with my conversation with Beverly Jenkins, made me realize I hadn’t done anywhere near as much research as I should have for a historical.

Now I am back at the drawing board, and my writing is both ticking upward as I fill in gaps, fix historical errors, and shifting down as I trim the fat. As you could see in the top picture, my word count as of this minute is 77,003. At the end of today it could be 78,000 or 76,000, although my final goal for the book is in the 80-85k range.

Then I’ll send it back to Jess (I asked her to let me go through and fix the historical issues to the best of my ability) and we’ll see what happens then. At that point, though, the focus won’t really be on wordcount.

So what advice do I have?

My solution was to keep messing with their happiness. I think that’s probably lame advice, but it’s one of the pieces of advice I’ve always gone back to when struggling with my work. Oh, are they happy? How can I create a situation–interior or exterior–that will fuck with that.

What do I mean?

So in Plunder, one of my two MC’s is Bree, who is a young woman who grew up on her father’s ship, but was sent away to what was in effect an early finishing school. She’s leaving school and thinks she’s going to return to living on a ship when she learns that her father has arranged a marriage for her. When her ship is attacked by pirates, she negotiates with the captain for the safety of her crew. A night turns into a week, and she falls for him. Everything seems to be going well, and that could have been the end of the story. But I have him send her back to her father’s ship–an act with repercussions for the rest of the book.

In Capturing the Moment, I kept bringing in Meg and RJ’s past, because the relationship they’d had in college and just after had repercussions on how they interacted six years after their broken engagement. Eventually, they also needed to have a massive fight to deal with their past. Each time the past came up, it affected the present. By figuring out their past, it not only helped me understand where the story had to go, it affected word count.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to deal with word count goals. If there was, I’d be producing stories at a much faster pace than I do. I think it’s a muscle that gets stronger as you practice your craft. I could write a novella because I’d grown strong muscles writing short stories. I can write a novel because I wrote a novella.

 

 

I got to talk to Beverly Jenkins!

About a month or so ago I saw on Twitter that The Pixel Project (an organization dedicated to stopping violence against women worldwide) was raising money and that a number of romance authors had donated things to help do so. Alisha Rai tweeted that one of the rewards was a half hour Skype session with Beverly Jenkins. I immediately donated.

On Friday I got to speak with Beverly and I’m still a bit in awe. We talked about process, agents, writing as the mom of two small children, and advice she wished white authors would heed when writing POC characters.

image from Beverly Jenkins’ website

I’m not going to rehash the whole conversation, but some of what we talked about that I think other writers would be interested in hearing include

Everyone has imposter syndrome. Everyone.

As someone who struggles with imposter syndrome all the time, it’s a relief to hear that even established writers feel it sometimes. You’re not alone. But you have to believe in yourself and your work.

Don’t compare yourself to other writers/do what works for you.

I probably spend too much time worrying about how fast I’m writing relative to how fast other writers produce work. Long time readers know that Plunder has been a project for almost two years. I sometimes freak out and wonder how authors like Seanan McGuire and Nora Roberts can put out five or six books a year and if I’ll ever be able to produce like that–and what it means about my commitment to my craft that I can’t work faster.

Beverly told me there was a point where she put out two novels and three novellas a year and that almost killed her, so she cut back to two novels a year. Hearing that someone whose work I admire as much as I do Beverly’s hit a point of “too much” and that she gave herself permission to cut back to what worked for her helped unknot that insecurity. (At least for today–I’ll need to come back and re-read this entry on days I get stressed).

We also talked about process. She’s a pantser, just like me! I feel like I read about “serious” authors who are plotters so often that I also have insecurity about being a pantser (that it somehow marks me as more of an amateur). She talked about how the first book in her Blessings series wrote itself (if you aren’t reading Blessings, you’re not living your best life, by the way), but that another book of hers just wasn’t ready to be written and had to go sit on her hard drive until the time was right. She gave me permission to go with my instinct and be a pantser and let the work flow.

She also told me about how one of her characters just decided to do something out of left field. That reminded me of an event late in Plunder, after which I metaphorically looked at Bree and William and was like “since when was that supposed to happen?”

Along with that, we talked about writing as the mom (or parent) of small children. Beverly talked about giving one of her children crayons and telling them to write their own story while she was writing hers, and editing in the five minutes before a band concert started. She also told them pretty much the same thing I’ve told my children–unless there’s blood or fire, let me work.

Being white and writing POC–write people, not stereotypes

While I have non-white friends, I never want to put someone in the position of speaking on behalf of their race. And while I’m lucky that some of these friends beta read for me, I should have done the work so that they don’t have to police me. I don’t want to be an author who writes all white books because our world isn’t all white. But I also don’t want to write a racially insensitive character or dodge a cultural issue. (And if I’m telling the truth I’m also a bit nervous about getting dragged on Twitter, and rightfully so, if I do fuck up.)

Her advice to me as a white author was to write people and not stereotypes. To remember that not all black people can dance, for an example. That some black people are shy, and that others are dermatologists.

While this may seem like straightforward advice, you’d be surprised how frequently people don’t take it.

What resources did she recommend to me

Beverly was kind and gracious, and I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.

2016–The Year in Review

2016
From the loss of Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, and Carrie Fisher (among so many others) to the political disasters of Brexit and Trump, I think we can all admit that 2016 kind of sucked on a macro level. I had two procedures (one major) on my spine and continue to have chronic pain, but at least I’m (mostly) out of a wheelchair now.

However, it’s wasn’t all bad.

Recommended Reads

I wanted to read more than I did in 2016, but I still have some year end recommended reads that I’ve reviewed this year. I’ve joined the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge. Follow my progress and add me as a friend here.

  • I loved Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction, edited by S. Andrea Allen and Lauren Cherelle. It includes two stories by one of my favorite authors, K.A. Smith. Read my rave review here.
  • Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins was so amazing, I ran out and read a ton more of her books. There aren’t a ton of authors of color in mainstream romance, and she’s possibly the best of the best. Not only are her stories well plotted, she does her homework on the history as well. My review here.
  • Basically anything by Kait Gamble (I reviewed five of her books here, but I read even more) but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Sins in the Sand. By the way, she just published a new book, Faking It, which I’ve bought and am looking forward to reading.
  • Basically anything by Alisha Rai (I three of reviewed of her books here, although I’ve read even more) but my favorite is Glutton for Pleasure.
  • Finally, one of my favorite reads of 2016 was Tamsin Flower’s serial novel, Alchemy XII. It opens on New Year’s Eve and continues month by month through December. (I was a beta reader for this series, and I loved every minute I spent with Harry and Olivia.)

Big Publication News

(Check out my Published Works page for a complete list of purchase links if Amazon Kindle isn’t available in your country)

 

Capturing the Moment

under-the-mistletoe

My first solo title, Capturing the Moment , and my first anthology, Coming Together: Under the Mistletoe were published and both have received great reviews!

 

Other Publication News

  • Intrepid Horizons, edited by Jessica Augustsson, included my story, Dumped. Blurb–A Unicorn’s (former) Virgin is left out as bait for a dragon, but things don’t go exactly as planned.
  • Rogues, edited by Delilah Devlin, included my story, Plunder.  Blurb–Sparks fly when the Caribbean’s most fearsome pirate falls under the spell of a sexy spitfire who’d rather send him to Davy Jones’s locker. I am working on a full-length novel version of this story, which will hopefully be published in 2018.
  • Coming Together Under the Mistletoe, edited by me, included two of my stories Kid Comet and an updated version of Baby it’s Hot Outside.
  • My essay An Expat Fourth of July was published by Long and Short Reviews.

 

Other Stuff I Wrote

  • Flash Fiction (for Wicked Wednesday) Dream or Nightmare
  • Flash Fiction (A Wicked Wednesday Top 3 story) Off Limits
  • Flash Fiction (for Wicked Wednesday) Keep the Shoes On
  • What I did for Lust, will be included in the upcoming anthology, Prompted.
  • Kid Comet, the third in my North Pole Chronicles series, was in Under the Mistletoe.
  • I further updated Baby it’s Hot Outside, was in Under the Mistletoe
  • For Love of Snow White was submitted
  • I expanded my first published story, Renewal, and submitted it
  • Lab Rats, was rejected (nbd, how publishing rolls)
  • Forbidden Territory was rejected (nbd, how publishing rolls)
  • I expanded Love is a Virus, and it was rejected (nbd, how publishing rolls)
  •  I wrote the first draft of the full length novel version of Plunder. (It sucks–all first drafts suck)

2017

My writing goals for 2017 are to finish Plunder and to write 5-10 short stories, including at least one more installment of the North Pole Chronicles.

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Recommended Read: Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins

Forbidden Beverly Jenkins

 

Like the past several recommended reads, I discovered today’s because of the people I follow on Twitter. When people start declaring a day National Drop Everything and Read Beverly Jenkins Day, you pay attention and check out the book they’re talking about. Or at least I do.

Beverly Jenkins writes mainstream historical romances, which means I wouldn’t have necessarily ever picked her books up. I would have been missing out.

My earliest exposure to romance novels were historicals I stole from my mom’s poorly hidden collection. When my mom signed off on my borrowing from the entire library, as opposed to the kid’s section, I moved onto contemporary romance authors like Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel, Olivia Goldsmith and Nora Roberts. I would’ve told you I had little interest in historical romances these day–and I would be wrong. I am now firmly #TeamJenkins

Forbidden was probably the perfect book to introduce me to Jenkins.

Rhine Fontaine is building the successful life he’s always dreamed of—one that depends upon him passing for White. But for the first time in years, he wishes he could step out from behind the façade. The reason: Eddy Carmichael, the young woman he rescued in the desert. Outspoken, defiant, and beautiful, Eddy tempts Rhine in ways that could cost him everything . . . and the price seems worth paying.

Eddy owes her life to Rhine, but she won’t risk her heart for him. As soon as she’s saved enough money from her cooking, she’ll leave this Nevada town and move to California. No matter how handsome he is, no matter how fiery the heat between them, Rhine will never be hers. Giving in for just one night might quench this longing. Or it might ignite an affair as reckless and irresistible as it is forbidden . . .

from the Amazon description

Her hero, Rhine, is a biracial man passing as white in reconstruction Era Nevada. My undergraduate degree is in history, and the dramatic tension of being a biracial black man struggling to decide if passing as white or pursuing a relationship with a black woman he’s falling for and revealing his true heritage appealed to me not only as a reader but as a historian. It added a deeper, more complex angle to a love story that was already interesting.

Eddy, for her part, is a three dimensional woman. She’s somewhat appalled by her reaction to Rhine, a white man who must only want her for his mistress. She’s clear that she wants no part of that sort of arrangement, and will be on her way as soon as she saves enough money to get to California. (other strong female characters from her books include train robbers, doctors, and bankers)

Jenkins populates her story with characters of all colors and doesn’t shy away from the complex politics of the day, while keeping the romantic tension of the couple in the foreground of the story. As a romance, it’s a forgone conclusion that the couple will get together, but I found myself holding my breath about whether they would and what the consequences would be.

I honestly can’t give a book a higher recommendation than to say that

  1. I resented my children for wanting things like getting picked up from school and meals because I was READING, damnit.
  2. I immediately ran out and devoured several more of her books, and after taking a break to read a few new releases I’ve been waiting for, am now currently reading my fifth Beverly Jenkins book in a month.
  3. I just bought another five books from her backlist on my kindle.

From reading more of her books I can say that her writing is consistently strong, and that she world-builds on a large scale.  Reading stories centered around characters of color means you don’t just get a fantastic love story, you get perspective on history that you don’t learn about in history class (even if you’re a history major–history is most often dominated by the lives of white men). Characters pop up in other books (Rhine first appeared in Through the Storm, published in 1998, which is about his sister Sable) and the worlds of her books connect, creating a rich tapestry.

Run, don’t walk, to go buy Beverly Jenkins’s books. All of them. Then tell you friends and family you’ll be unavailable until you’ve read everything she’s ever written. Even if you don’t like historical fiction, you will like her books. I promise.

Beverly Jenkins

Check out Beverly Jenkins website , follow her on twitter and like her on facebook.

Have a book recommendation? Leave it in the comments or email me.