This Week, I Read… (2017 #3)

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#5 – The Darkest Road, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Maybe I’m not being critical enough because the raw emotional power of this trilogy swept me away. Maybe when I eventually go back and reread them, I’ll notice the flaws I couldn’t see the first time.

Maybe.

It’s been quite a while since I read anything this beautifully tragic. Personal loss and sacrifice continue to be the themes. Pairing these events with the path to heroism is absolutely nothing new, but here, contrasting the grand scale of the conflict with the incredibly tight focus on the individual brings both compelling drama and satisfying endings, whether they are happy/hopeful or sad/mournful. Because there’s some of each.

I cried several times throughout, and I was at serious risk of hitting a book hangover from reading this trilogy, so to solve that problem–

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#6 – Beyond Innocence, by Kit Rocha

–I dove straight back into the familiar, comforting waters of the Beyond series.

This, the sixth full-length novel, revisits the innocent girl/experienced guy scenario we started the series with in Beyond Shame. But there’s always another way to spin a trope, and here, we have a pampered-but-caged runaway wife matched against a world-weary professional escort. Jared is tired of acting as every woman’s ultimate fantasy without any emotional connection, and Lili has been so crushed by the narrowness of her life in Eden that she doesn’t even know how to make that connection at first.

But she charms him (unintentionally) with her artless ways, as she’d never dare treat him the way nearly every other woman in his life has: as a whore. And while the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold story has been done so many times, this manages to feel fresh to my eyes, primarily by making him male instead of female (no Pretty Woman knockoffs here) and by never shaming him for his profession. Lili doesn’t “rescue” him with her love–she allows him to finally leave his past behind and start a new phase of his life, something he’d been struggling to do already. She is the catalyst for this change, but not the sole reason for it, and that’s refreshing.

As I’ve read all these romances in the past few years, the personal growth of the female half of the relationship (in M/F romances, obviously) is generally the focus, and part of the yardstick I use to rate them is how well the male half is developed. Is he a mostly-static character who comes into the heroine’s life to upend it, or save it, or finally provide a Mr. Right to her searching soul–without doing much of anything himself? Or is his arc the more well-developed, where the focus of the story is all about how a mostly-static heroine comes into his life and makes him a better man somehow through the power of romance?

When taken to extremes, both of those situations leave a bad taste in my mouth, because ideally, both characters need to display growth throughout the romance. And here, Innocence does that beautifully.

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# 7 – Beyond Happily Ever After: Closed Doors and Beyond Happily Ever After: Blank Canvas, by Kit Rocha

Two vignettes that revisit lovers from previous books in the series, they’re short enough that I bundled them together for the purposes of counting reads for Mount TBR, and they’re easy to talk about together because they’re similarly structured.

Closed Doors focuses on Jasper/Nicole (from book 1) and Dallas/Lex (from book 2) who have regularly been getting together to play in scenes sprinkled throughout the series, and this is a private version of one of those, exploring the power dynamic (both sexual and worldly power) between these two couples. It’s a hot read, certainly, but I’ve always felt that stoic second-in-command Jasper is a bit of an emotional blank slate compared to most of the other top-tier characters in the series. It’s not that he has no personality, it’s just that it’s a pretty bland one–he’s either silent and dependable (outside the bedroom) or mostly-silent but commanding (inside.) He just doesn’t get much development beyond that, and it drags down the rest of the scene.

Whereas Blank Canvas is brilliant. Yes, it features my favorite book’s threesome (Beyond Jealousy‘s Ace, Cruz, and Rachel) so I knew I would like it, but I didn’t expect to love it the way I do, especially given my mixed reactions to the other short works in the series.

But BC not only moves forward the story of the threesome as a healthy, functioning relationship–which it does handily with a plot development I don’t want to spoil–it also takes a successful turn at further deepening the relationship between the two men, an aspect of MMF relationships that has been sorely neglected in the (few) other menage novels I’ve read. It’s sweet and loving and thoughtful, all high points in what I’m looking for in relationships, whether real or fictional. Honestly, this might be the high point in the whole series for me, so far!

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#8 – Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson, by Mitch Albom

An overly-sweet marvel of false profundity. Instead of delivering what was certainly a poignant, moving experience for the author with graceful prose and careful consideration, this is a ham-handed, simplistic and repetitive series of “epiphanies” where Albom realizes, listening to Morrie’s nuggets of wisdom, how horribly shallow his life has been.

It’s the same obvious tripe that I’ve heard a dozen times before from all sorts of gurus–don’t overwork yourself, enjoy your family time, stop and smell the roses–and while I don’t want to dismiss that as a life philosophy (self-care is important to me in all forms), Albom treats his revelations in the narrative as if he’s the first to have ever been given this advice. And the way he shames himself in order to make Morrie seem that much more beatific made me incredibly uncomfortable. I mean, yeah, life is a journey of discovery and all, but do you really have to spend so much time in self-flagellation about what you’ve done wrong so far?

The only reason I didn’t DNF this one is that it was so damn short already–192 pages, and the book itself is tiny, and half the page seems to be margin, anyway. I’m honestly curious about the total word count is on this, because it can’t be much.

Flash Fiction #6: The Worst Love Potion

“Love potions have no effect on people who are already in love.  When your friend hexes you with an everybody-loves-me potion, you brace yourself for an irritating day.  But one person doesn’t act any differently, and it’s not who you’d expect.” – the prompt from tumblr’s new #spontaneouswriteblr tag

(Of course I hopped right on that. Here goes.)

I should have realized that going home for the night wouldn’t actually give me any peace.

Sure, Tammy loved me, we’d been friends and roommates for half of forever, but she didn’t love me love me, so of course, the stupid hex on me snared her, too. As soon as I walked through the door and dropped my keys on the side table, she rushed out of the kitchen with a cupcake in her hands, holding it out to me. She must have started baking as soon as she’d gotten home from her morning shift at the diner, to have made something so beautifully fancy. Thick swirls of pale buttercream, candied violets on top and everything.

She still had a smudge of flour beside her nose besides the handprints of it on her apron. All day my coworkers had been stealing away to the bathroom to touch up their makeup or straighten their hair and their ties before wandering over to “chat” with me about one upcoming project or another. All day, virtual strangers had been doing their best to impress me with their looks or their signs of wealth or their flirting skills. That’s all they had, because they barely knew me. They could only “love” me in the most superficial ways.

Tammy wasn’t wearing a single speck of makeup under the dusting of flour. She was in her cutest heart-print pajamas under the apron, I’d give her that, but she was banking on my sweet tooth to win my affection. Because she did know me.

I took the cupcake and hugged her, hoping that would be enough to keep her from trying to kiss me. Satisfaction of the smaller urge. Tomorrow, this would be over–tomorrow, I’d head downtown first thing and bang on Saul’s door until he woke up and let me in. Saul had fixed Kaitlyn’s hexed car and Cameron’s cursed umbrella. He’d even found Oliver’s ring after that pompous, insufferable warlock had thrown it into the river after Oliver dumped him. If something was broken, off, temperamental, Saul could fix it.

Saul had to be able to fix me, too, and soon. Five marriage proposals in one day were easily four too many.

I suffered Tammy’s enthusiasm well enough to follow her into the kitchen as she raved about this movie she wanted to see that she thought I’d like too. The chatter didn’t quite drown out the sound of the faucet running.

Mike was standing at the sink, washing dishes. Oh, this was the worst. I’d been hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone else tonight, and Tammy’s younger brother? The last thing I needed was him getting caught up in this hex, too. I suppose the best I could hope was that when I got the hex broken, no one would remember anything they’d done or said to me. Magic worked that way, sometimes, when a spell made people act out of character. Their brains couldn’t cope with whatever they’d done that didn’t fit with how they thought of themselves.

“Here’s the rest of the cupcakes!” Tammy declared with a sweeping gesture at the loaded cooling racks lined up next to the stove. Two dozen. There went my New Year’s resolution to snack less.

“Thanks, Tammy.” I swallowed the protest that came to my lips, oh, no, you shouldn’t have. I’d tried that tactic already today and it hadn’t worked. If I just floated along with whatever behavior didn’t cross any lines, I’d make it until tomorrow in one piece.

Apparently satisfied, Tammy flounced out of the room, hopefully to clean herself up. If I could get myself some dinner from the fridge and extricate myself from the kitchen without any disaster with Mike occurring, I could hole up in my bedroom and lock Tammy out, if necessary.

“Hey, Nora,” Mike greeted me without looking up from the sink.

Okay, good start. Maybe he’d be one of the guys who just asked me for a date instead of proposing. I could handle that, even from him.

“Hey, Mike. Tammy roped you into baking with her again?” I took a bite of the cupcake in my hand, which, of course, was fantastic. Even if made under the influence of a mind-warping hex. Nothing could stop Tammy from being a wizard in the kitchen.

Now, that was a thought…had she been blessed as a kid with a spell for phenomenal food-preparation skills? That, I’d believe in a heartbeat.

While I leaned against the counter and savored my first bite of the cupcake, Mike set a dish on the rack and snorted. “We were supposed to go down to Reilly’s for quiz night, but she wouldn’t abandon the cupcakes until you got here. I suggested leaving a note with one on the table and she nearly took my head off.” He paused, staring at a plate crusted with spaghetti sauce, my dinner from the night before. “I didn’t forget your birthday, did I? I would swear it’s not until next month, but if I did–”

“No, you’re right,” I cut him off. “You didn’t miss it.”

He grinned and started washing the next plate. “Good. Are you celebrating something else, then? A promotion or something? Tammy didn’t say why you suddenly needed baked goods.”

No, of course she wouldn’t. The only person I know who kept their deep feelings better guarded than Tammy was Mike himself. On the surface, Tam was always sweetness and light and giving, but it had taken years for her to admit to me the reasons she didn’t get along with her mother or that she had always been frightened of any water deeper than her head.

I got along with Mike just fine when he hung around–he and Tammy had always been close, only being a year apart–but I didn’t know a single one of his secrets. Maybe he didn’t have any to know.

“No promotion,” I answered. “She gets it in her head sometimes that I need cheering up, so she bakes me things or takes me out for a girls’ night or something. I’m not sure what I do to bring it on, but maybe that’s it.” It was the truth, as far as I could tell it, because Tammy really did do that sort of thing. It was just this time, I knew why. The damned hex.

But Mike glanced over at me, his eyes narrowed in an expression that I’m sure he meant to look serious, but came off looking more suspicious. “And you don’t need cheering up? It looks like my plans with Tammy went out the window, which means I haven’t had dinner yet. We’re too late to make it to the quiz night, it started half an hour ago, but we could head somewhere else. That Thai place over on Brassard, maybe, I haven’t been for a while and they make the best panang.”

If that was the date he was asking me on, man, did I suddenly understand why Mike seemed perpetually single. He needed to up his game, no wonder he ended up with women for a date or two before moving on, he couldn’t land anyone with an invitation so casual it wasn’t even a date at all–

I blinked, breaking the staring contest I was having with the side of Mike’s head. He wasn’t asking me on a date. He wasn’t declaring undying love for me, or proposing marriage, or even baking me cupcakes.

He was washing my dirty dishes and making sure he hadn’t forgotten my birthday.

How long had he been in love with me and never said? I wanted to cry, because I shouldn’t have found out this way. I shouldn’t know, when he clearly didn’t mean to tell me. This damned hex!

“Can I take a rain check?” I asked him, my voice weak. “Work was hell today, I just want to stay in. Maybe start a new book and then fall asleep with my lamp still on. You know, stereotypical bookworm stuff.”

“Ah, should have offered to take you to the library instead, I see. You let me know when you’re up for spicy food, then, instead of spicy romance novels. No expiration date.”

I nodded, abandoning my plan to have a healthy dinner in favor of swiping a second cupcake, because that would let me leave the kitchen faster. I could hear Tammy running the shower, so if I hid in my room before she was out, maybe she wouldn’t bother me again. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Good night, Nora,” Mike said as I was leaving.

“Good night.” I couldn’t say his name or I might choke on it. I had to get this hex broken. I had to. How could I ever try dating Mike if everyone else who loved me would always be getting in the way?

This Week, I Read… (2017 #2)

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#3 – The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay

#4 – The Wandering Fire, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m doing something a little different this week, by reviewing these two books together, as they are the first two in a trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. Ideally, I would have finished the final book as well, but at the time of posting I am only half done–I’ve had a busy week.

As familiar as I am with Kay’s later work, it’s a treat to go back to the beginning. Even his high-fantasy epics have deeply historical roots, the same as the works I’m familiar with; and though the style of Fionavar leans heavily on the fantasy conventions embodied in and solidified by J.R.R. Tolkien, it has never felt, to me, obviously derivative.

Because every recommendation I have seen for the Fionavar books has been framed by its relationship to The Lord of the Rings, works I am intimately familiar with, I have found myself reading the books and examining them through that lens, which is both unfair–they can and should stand on their own merits–and deeply interesting, to see where a different author can take the familiar concepts of elves and dwarves and a massive, formidable force of pure unadulterated evil.

Thus, my discussion of the works will be framed the same way.

The major difference I see is in the way Kay presents his heroes, and what being a hero entails, which is closely bound up in sacrifice. Some characters sacrifice themselves, literally, unto death (with varying degrees of success, which is interesting) while others sacrifice other things, their hopes for a normal future or their sense of real-world identity outside of the struggles of the alternate world they’ve been drawn into.

While Frodo’s sacrifices in his role as the Ringbearer are indisputable–Sam is the one who survives the journey with his base personality and future largely intact, while Frodo eventually goes into the West because the Shire holds no peace for him–Frodo is still a hobbit, a nonhuman, fairy-tale creature that may well be intended to represent a more modern humanity than the actual Men in LotR, he is pointedly not a Man, and definitely not from our world.

Kay’s five transplanted heroes are university students from Toronto. I’m not Canadian, sure, and I wasn’t even born in the ’70s, but I can relate to their struggles on a much more personal level than I can the collective tribulations of the hobbits of Middle-Earth.

And that makes their intensely personal sacrifices all the more tragic and affecting. Yes, the story is wrapped in myth and legend–I was not expecting the Arthurian twist, but perhaps, given the strongly Celtic influences, I should have been–but Fionavar feels, for lack of a better encompassing word, plausible, whereas LotR feels distant, ancient, as dusty as the tomes in Minas Tirith that Gandalf searches for clues. If I were suddenly to find myself transported to an alternate world where a war against a prime Evil were about to be waged, I would be as stumbling and clueless as Kay’s heroes were at first, good-hearted and curious but also hopelessly out of my depth.

Which, again, makes their individual sacrifices all the more affecting, because we the reader come to see each hero absorbed into Fionavar, making themselves a niche or struggling with their lack of one, learning to care about the world and its people and making decisions about their own futures based on the relationships they forge there.

At this moment, I’m halfway through the final book, and I’m eager to know how it ends, what resolutions these characters have. I want to know if Jennifer is doomed to repeat the cycle of betrayal and tragedy she finds herself drawn into. I want to know if Paul ever manages to break free of his past and how he moves forward from the power Fionavar granted him for turning his grief into something meaningful for others. I want to know if Dave has found a home among the Dalrei, if Kim ever reconciles her gift of Sight with whatever future she wanted to have before her life took a sharp and dangerous turn.

I want to know if Darien ever finds peace, love, or even acceptance. That poor child…

I’ll be back next week with how this wraps up and how badly the feels have kicked me square in the ribs.

From My Art Journal, #7

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It started here, a week early–my New Year’s resolution to keep my journal more actively, by doing at least one page in one journal every day. I was headed away for a visit to family, so why not take my art journal and a few supplies with me? I sat down with some Zentangle instructions online, tried a few things out, and found serious inspiration that’s been carrying me through since. I have far too much to share in a single post, this time, so I’ll stick to my favorites I’ve made in the last few weeks.

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Eventually I found my old compass and protractor buried under some other art supplies, so I could try out mandalas as well. I see many of these in my future.

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So I think it’s fair to say, finally, that my art journal posts really will be once a month, as I always intended them to be. Some months, I just didn’t have enough material to make them worthwhile, because I let my journals languish. No more of that!

Write More 2017: The 365K/365 Day Challenge

Yes, that’s right, in 2017 my goal is to write at least one thousand words a day.

It can be on any project, it can be rewriting/editing–thank heavens, or I wouldn’t be able to participate–and according to the official rules, it can even be journaling or blog posts. It just has to be personal creative writing of some sort.

I’m not counting my blog posts as part of this, just my project writing, and so far, I haven’t missed a day. Yes, it’s early, but don’t you hate it when your New Year’s resolutions/goals get derailed right away?

I won’t be posting weekly about this as I did during NaNo–that was a month-long event, and this is the entire year. I’d get bored with weekly updates quickly, and I imagine you would to, my lovely readers!

So after this announcement and short status update, I’ll be rolling future updates into my End of the Month Wrap-Up posts, the logical spot for them because I was always (usually) reporting my word counts anyway.

As of yesterday (Day 8) my cumulative words written stood at 11,914, with a projected goal of 8K. So I’m doing great, with my minimum daily word count clocking in at 1,039 and my maximum at 2,655.

With NaNo behind me, I don’t imagine I’ll hit many 4K days like I did then, unless it’s a rewriting day sometime down the road. But it’s great to know I can still pound out the word count when I get going.

What writing goals do you have this year?

This Week, I Read… (2017 #1)

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#1 – Fantasy Lover, by Sherrilyn Kenyon

This book came recommended to me by Jenny Trout, one of my favorite erotic-romance authors. Whenever someone on social media asks her for recs, she tosses out Asking for It (which I read last year) and this book.

If the premise of an ancient Spartan demigod summoned from the pages of a magical book isn’t going to put you off, this was a charming, fluffy romantic read.

Since I’ve mostly been reading romances published in the last five years or so, this one (first published 2002) definitely shows its age in comparison. It’s not as tropey and problematic as the rape-mances that came before it, but Fantasy Lover still feels . . . a little unsophisticated. Mostly because of the constant, incessant head-hopping.

Modern romances tend to be written either in first person or third person limited, whether they’re single- or double-POV. This was in third person omniscient, jumping between the thoughts and feelings of our romantic pair, Grace and Julian, as well as Grace’s friend Selena on occasion. There were many times I got lost in the switch from paragraph to paragraph and had to reread a section to get up to speed, and that’s never pleasant. And sometimes it would happen several times on a single page, jumping from Julian to Grace and back again.

Frustrating, but overall I still enjoyed it, and I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series at some point in the future, post-reading challenges.

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#2 – Beyond Possession, by Kit Rocha

Yes, there’s only one name, but Kit Rocha is a pseudonym for a writing team of two women.

Something about Tatiana and Zan just didn’t click for me. Something about the novellas in general, I guess, doesn’t click for me as well as the novels in this series do–either they seem rushed because they’re trying to cram too much into a smaller space, or they seem thin and flat because there isn’t enough meat on the story’s bones to make it seem worth telling, and that’s what happened for me here.

A glimpse into the supply-side economics of Sector Four was welcome, seeing as how the O’Kane compound seems like a black hole of consumption where the only things they produce are liquor, sex, and violence, but it’s a small thing. And the love story definitely lacks depth, even compared to the other two novellas.

The steamy scenes were still plenty steamy, because this series never disappoints with that (or at least it certainly hasn’t so far) but that’s basically all the best parts, which is disappointing.

Writing Homework #8: Watch a Movie

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It sounds crazy, right? Watching movies isn’t homework unless you’re a film student.

But here’s my inspiration for this assignment.

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I saw Still Crazy while I was visiting my husband’s family over Christmas–it came from a British movie collection they had, and they’d singled it out as one of the surprise hits from the bunch. I mean, how can you not love Bill Nighy as an aging rock star trying to reclaim his former glory?

And it was quite a good movie, though it was a bit odd to see all these “old” rock stars looking so young–it was released in 1998, so I’m used to Billy Connolly with a lot more gray in his hair than he had here.

But as I was watching, well, serendipity smiled on me. I’m writing a novel about a rock band and my characters spend a lot of time on their tour bus. So do these fine chaps. I wasn’t taking notes, but that’s what I want you to do: find a movie that has a setting or situation in common with the story you’re writing, ideally something you’re having trouble visualizing yourself, like my struggle with the tour bus. Watch, observe, and yes, take notes.

The bus in my novel won’t be the Strange Fruits bus; my band is a modern rock band, not a ’70s band reuniting twenty years later. The space will be different, and the decorations, and the vibe. But seeing the space they had, seeing people actually in it, gave me a new appreciation for just how cramped it can be, and how everyone is living piled on top of each other. In a romance, well, privacy’s a bit of a concern, and my characters are not going to have much of it…


Need to get caught up on your assignments?