June Reads – Hard Truth by Nevada Barr

I stayed up until 1 am reading and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized it helped fulfill my goal of reading more books with disabled characters.

Heath, a strong young woman, is confined to a wheel chair after injuring her spinal cord in an ice climbing accident. In the first pages of the novel she bitterly wheels her wheelchair through an accessible camping lot, only to fall out onto a pair of lost girls. The two girls, one twelve and one thirteen, have been lost in the wilderness for almost a month.  They’re nearly naked, horribly traumatized, and unwilling to be parted from Heath.

The book is part of the Anna Pigeon series, so Anna is the main character. Heath gets a lot of page time though, and is able to help the lost girls both because of, and in spite of, her status as a paraplegic. Her character moves from being angry and bitter almost all the time, drinking and smoking, to fighting for others, working hard, and accepting that her new status doesn’t change who she is. The book included a great passage about her wheelchair going from being “other” to being a part of her body.

There was also a very fine mystery going on. The girls turn out to be part of a religious cult/commune that practices polygamy and child marriage. Their parents are firmly against any psychological counseling. They don’t want the police or anyone else involved in their life. Questions arise about demons; did the girls see one? Is it responsible for the dead animals and strange attacks in the night?

Trigger warning: torture of animals and violence towards women (including rape). While the worst abuse takes place off stage, the story doesn’t shy away from portraying uncomfortable scenes. When I got to the end I was surprised by the depth of the villain’s depravity and unsure that all the characters would recover well. So while it kept me turning pages, this book might not be for everyone.

I was fairly sure I had the mystery figured out at least five times, only to change my mind twenty pages later. I stayed up late reading because I had to know how it all came together. I suspected all sorts of things for the characters, which include a handful of park rangers, a youth pastor, and the girls’ families. Most of what I guessed didn’t come to pass. It was nice to see a book that didn’t rely on the usual tropes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the Anna Pigeon stories, hopefully they’ll all have characters as good as Heath.

 

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Picking Sea Monsters Georgia Aquarium

I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.

I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.

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Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.

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Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.

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Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.

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This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:

When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar.  I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.

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Author’s Copies! The Mermaid & the Murders

The Author’s copies of The Mermaid and the Murders have arrived!

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

While the rest of the books won’t be shipping until June 10, I’m delighted to have these editions on my shelf. My mother claimed a copy, and some will be given away on Goodreads.  One will always be on my shelf though, a wonderful reminder of the challenge I set for myself one snowy February.  At the time, I wanted an excuse to daydream about my long-ago home of Key West. I wanted to walk the halls of the palatial home on Porpoise Point, where I’d watched dolphins from the private beach before going back to my job as a glorified baby sitter. I missed the heat, the smell of the ocean, and the strong Cuban coffee. I wanted to capture the fierceness of life on that island, the way women  were as strong and sexy as the men and no one felt the need to fit in.

The book that came out of that wintry month wasn’t the one I expected to write. But this scene, probably my favorite in the whole book, is exactly what I wanted. I hope you all enjoy it (and the rest of the book too).

Even as I thought about finding something meaner, I shadowed the six-foot shark. Stalking it felt natural to me. I stayed behind my prey, waiting for it to be distracted. The shark sensed my presence and took off, swimming fast to deeper water. I chased it, my tail going faster. Soon we were side-by-side, coal black eyes staring at me as the beast turned to bite. I threw my shoulders back and sent my tail forward, wrapping around it like a lover. I squeezed and my scales released blood into the water with a thousand small cuts. The shark thrashed, fighting against what it must’ve known was coming.

I felt my teeth grow in my mouth, sharp fangs coming forward. When the shark came forward to bite me, I moved quickly and bit it first. My teeth sank into gills, the flesh rough like sand, the slits in the skin moving between my teeth. I kept biting, my tail pushing the life out of the beast.

Around us, other sharks gathered, large and small, brought by the smell of blood. I ignored them; focusing on the death I intended to deliver. The creature in front of me had seconds left but I knew it could still hurt me. Fighting off my hunger, I drew back, ducking around the mouth. My arm moved too slowly and I felt the intense pressure of its bite. Pounds of pressure started to come down, enough to crack a lobster’s shell, enough to break my bones. The pain left my vision red and my tail moved in deadly instinct.

A tight squeeze with a sideways motion, one I’d never made before, and half the shark fell away. Even in death, it was reluctant to let go of my arm.

 

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May Reads – Midnight, Texas series

Charlaine Harris writes my kind of candy: small towns filled with weird, diverse characters who have depth and appeal, with an element of the supernatural to keep things interesting. I gobbled down the Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series on a gloriously hot Memorial day weekend. I was on vacation in St. Simon’s Island and ended up not seeing much of it.  The shorter Harper Connelly series went by in a flash. I can’t remember when I read it, only that I longed for more. Rumors still fly that it’ll be a series on HBO. I’ve got my finger crossed.

So it’s probably no surprise that her latest series is my May read. The third book came out at the beginning of the month and I’m already scouring the web hoping for rumors of the next one. The series feels like Harris is having fun, collecting left over characters from other books and plopping them down in the improbable small town of Midnight, Texas. Harper Connelly’s favorite psychic friend, Manfred lives on the corner. He’s two doors down from Sookie Stackhouse’s ex-boyfriend the weretiger, Quinn. Somehow a town of less than a dozen permanent residents contains vampires, assassins, witches, murders, angels, and few normal seeming folks who aren’t all that normal.

Each book brings the townspeople together to confront a ‘big bad’. The big bads range from the mundane to the almost unbelievable but the battles and confrontations always ring true. The very small town functions as a sort of extended family – a diverse family with people of various colors, sexualities, and ages who all want to keep to themselves. That never works, and each book shows us another towns-person having to reveal secrets or share parts of their past they hoped would never come to light.

One of the things I enjoy so much about this series is the very different ways everyone has of handling things. When a murderer is discovered in town responses range from ‘call the cops’ to ‘let me get my gun’. Each chapter is told from a different person’s point of view and I enjoy seeing each person thinking through the goings on. The only character who doesn’t enjoy a chapter of is own is the wonderfully grumpy talking house cat (who reminds me a lot of my rabbit editor).

When I ran into another Charlaine Harris fan at my local book store we enjoyed a good long talk about all the hidden references to other books. The stories do stand on their own though. I had no idea the pawnshop owner came from another book series – one Harris wrote that doesn’t have any supernatural aspects. I’d never read any of those books, but the character still felt fully developed.

The books won’t help meet my goal of reading more books about people who have disabilities as I talked about in a previous blog. Everyone is fully able bodied and even the character who endured serious abuse as a child seems completely free of mental issues. These books aren’t going to change the world, but they are fun. I hope I get to read more like them.

Renaissance Festival Fun

I use reenactments and historic society gathering as research.  When I’m writing about WWII era life or fourteenth century Germans I find reenactors give me a more real life perspective on the time. It’s the difference between knowing people wove cloth and seeing someone weave cloth on a reproduction loom. Reenactments are a great way to see a fairly close to realistic piece of history.

Renaissance festivals are the opposite. They’re not concerned with realism or even getting things pretty close to right. You’ll pass a tent set up as a Victorian tea shop on your way to one selling medieval garb made of rayon and nylon. Ren Fests, as they’re lovingly called, are all about having a good time. Most Fests pursue this with abandon, setting up multiple drinking areas, usually in the shade of a large tree. A band will play, and the songs may stray into bawdy drinking ballads. It’s probably the closest thing you’ll find to live Dungeons and Dragons game – assuming you’re not into LARP (Live Action Role Play). When the Georgia Renaissance Festival opened back in April I took advantage of the first cool sunny day to check it out.

I was stunned by how very anachronistic and clearly out-to-have-a-good-time the Georgia Renn Fest was. The Fest holds a series of themed weekends – pirate weekend, Celtic weekend and so on. My visit fell on pet weekend, which also happened to be time travelers’ weekend, which I’m sure explains (some how) the Batmobile parked out front:

It played a series of audio clips from the 1970s Adam West Batman tv show. For a small fee you could get your photo taken inside.

It played a series of audio clips from the 1970s Adam West Batman tv show. For a small fee you could get your photo taken inside.

Pets were on display, but not the type I expected. I imagined large dogs like dire wolves, parrots on pirates’ shoulders, and maybe a well placed iguana or two. Instead, I saw all sorts of fairy dogs wearing wings. There were scary fairy dogs with gargoyle-like wings and pretty princess pugs with light gossamer wings.

Bat Dog on the right, winged-something dog on the left.

Bat Dog on the right, winged-something dog on the left.

And then there were the Ghostbusters:

 They brought their dog too. He’s in a Ghostbusters uniform, but couldn’t sit still for the photo. I couldn’t blame him.


They brought their dog too. He’s in a Ghostbusters uniform, but couldn’t sit still for the photo. I couldn’t blame him.

The Fest offered an array of distractions, like any sort of food you could imagine served on a stick. My favorite was the macaroni and cheese on a stick. Deep fried cheesy nuggets of pasta skewed and served up hot is my new favorite once a year indulgence. On the other side of a grassy area a unicorn waited for someone to purchase hay for a dollar. Feeding the majestic white pony with a wooden horn attached to its head felt like an act of kindness. Not petting the bunnies next door in the petting zoo felt equally compassionate. A reptile group displayed a menagerie of rescued animals, including a tortoise who plodded about with a bucket on his back accepting tips.

Fire eaters, mud throwers, and a belly dancer who danced on a bed of nails rounded out the entertainment. I skipped the jousting match, but enjoyed the glass blower demonstration, as well as the women spinning wool. I almost came home with a wicked looking dagger, but the “Made in China” sticker stopped me at the last minute. If you’re in the area, or if you’re lucky enough to have a Ren Fest in your area, I heartily recommend spending an afternoon as part of the foolishness. It’s a good time, even if it isn’t realistic or really educational.

 

Is your hero a jerk?

I’ve found some of my favorite authors by judging a writing contest each year in the spring. I’ve been a judge for several years now, but I’ve never seen this many “jerk” entries. That’s my pet name for romances where the hero is, deep down, a jerk. Thus I give you, signs your hero might be a jerk:

Your hero doesn’t let his heroine make decisions.
It doesn’t matter how he does it, withholding information is just as bad as sharing but ignoring her opinion. In either case, or any other situation you can think of, not letting an adult decide what will happen with their life makes you a jerk. I recently threw a book across the room because the hero refused to share with the heroine what was happening to her. He’d turned her into a vampire, but he wouldn’t say what that meant or how it would happen. While she (literally) sat in the dark wondering, he set up a car accident to fake her death, bought new clothes for her, and generally decided how her life would go. Jerk.

Your hero decides what the couple will do. All. The. Time.
The heroine wants to talk through an issue; the hero wants to have sex. They end up having sex instead of talking. The heroine wants to run errands; the hero wants to go to the game. They go to the game. Partnerships require communication and compromise. The hero picking every activity, meal, and sometimes even the heroine’s clothes isn’t fair. I don’t mean the hero should always do what the heroine wants. In The Mermaid and the Murders, the hero turns down sex, twice. Both times Danika, the heroine, is ready, willing, and excited, but the hero, Sam, isn’t. Now if Danika was a jerk, she’d insist or belittle him. She doesn’t. She’s still frustrated but she talks to him about why he said no, eventually coming around to his point of view. A hero who turns aggressive or pouts when he doesn’t get his way? He’s a jerk.

Your hero plays tricks or tries to catch the heroine in a lie.
People make mistakes and tell white lies. Accepting that and forgiving your partner is part of being in a healthy relationship. Tailing them to confirm they’re going out with who they say they’re going out with, using the “find my phone” feature to track them, or insisting they call you when they reach their destination is a jerk move. This behavior pops up in historic mysteries too. One of the books I judged had a hero who waited in the alley outside the heroine’s, watching her. Another set up a dinner where the guests could test the heroine’s knowledge of India to ‘help her’ prove she had really been there. If you’re hero can’t trust the heroine at all, he might be a jerk.

Your hero shouldn’t rape. Ever.
I hate that this has to be said, but I saw in two books this year. Here’s the deal – rape is an unforgivable crime. I can’t move past it to care for the hero. There are no circumstances where rape is okay. Not if the victim is a prostitute and the hero gives her extra money after the assault. Not if the hero uses supernatural powers to make the victim forget. Not if the hero is part of culture where rape is okay. There are no heroes who rape.

I’m not saying every man in a romance novel must be perfect – flaws make characters real. There’s a big difference between a flawed character and a jerk. A flawed person apologizes when they screw up. They recognize what they did was wrong and try not to do it again. They might not always succeed but their apology is meaningful and sincere. You can see that they’re making an effort to be better. The jerk doesn’t think he’s screwed up. He might apologize but it’s an insincere effort to get something. Maybe he’ll do something the heroine wants, once or twice, but always with the idea of quid-pro-quoi in mind.

I read romance to see a healthy relationship develop over the course of the book. I expect to see the couple talking, considering each other’s feelings, making decisions together, and generally working through their troubles to have a healthy, happy relationship. I don’t need them to be perfect people but I require kindness and respect.

Because at this point in my life, real heroes aren’t the guys with abs or bags of money; they’re the guys who do the dishes, take care of the kids, and remember my favorite flavor of ice cream. I’m more impressed by people who show they genuinely care. Diamonds are lovely, but taking the day off work to sit with me in a doctor’s office when I’m scared is priceless.

Of course not every guy is going to do that. It’s asking for a lot, but at least the guys in romance novels shouldn’t be jerks.

April’s Read: The Haunted Mansion Comic book

Disney’s Haunted Mansion #1, grab it from your local comic book before it disappears forever.

A year ago I committed to sharing one book recommendation a month on the 20th. I tend to read at least a book a week, some weeks I read three. Picking a good book to share wasn’t hard until I discovered Amazon samples for my Kindle.  Samples have changed the way I read.  Each one is free three chapter preview.  I find myself reading more and more samples, but buying fewer books. That’s because good samples end on a hook, leaving me desperate to buy the book while bad samples leave me wondering why anyone would bother.

It’s easy to eat up two or three hours on a dozen samples and not find something to read. Sometimes I read a sample so bad I give up on reading for a couple of days, like the one that claimed to be a ghost story about a teenage heroine who struggled with her father’s alcoholism. The sample turned out to be a historic piece written in archaic language by a girl pregnant with a demonic baby. That one drove me out of the virtual book store.

Haunted Mansion #2, a better story than the last dozen novel samples I read.

Thankfully I found myself in a comic book shop, and thus discovered this month’s read: a comic book. Not a fancy graphic novel with deep meanings and hidden allegories to the current political climate, but an actual slick fronted paper comic book. Despite its penny dreadful trappings the story – a young boy learns to be brave after the death of his grandfather – has really grabbed me.

It’s the Haunted Mansion’s story, and I don’t think you have to be fan of the ride (like me) to enjoy it. The second issue came out on the 20th, but the first is still available in most comic book stores. While the boy and his grandfather don’t come from the ride at all, most of the other characters and a good bit of dialogue do. I can’t wait to see how the story turns out and if the young man can muster up the courage to save his Grandfather’s ghost from being trapped in the Mansion forever.

 

 

The Mermaid and the Murders Cover Art Reveal

Meet my new friend, Danika, the mermaid:

A mermaid rests on the bottom of the ocean, stretching her hand out toward a dead body floating on the waves.

Isn’t it perfect?

I started writing Danika’s story as a way to reconnect to my memories from Key West, FL. Danika lives in a house I stayed in one summer. I was there as the hired help, but still enjoyed the private beach, boat dock, and three levels of ocean front porches. You could see pods of dolphins from the kitchen’s deck, they found their way into the story too.

As did some of the less than postcard worthy moments of my life like the ugly fights I had with my mother. I’m sure those aren’t unique to my teenage years, just as Danika struggles with lust and desire but wanting to do right thing aren’t unique to mermaids. Danika’s mistakes when she takes her driver’s license exam are pretty unique – uniquely mine. My driver’s ed teacher was the perfect model for her mean, loud, and unwilling-to-bend-on-mistakes teacher.

Danika’s last name came from a very dear friend of mine, a real life pirate who lived on a sail boat. One of my first feminist friends, the two of us talked long into the night about how young women’s’ sexuality is muzzled by society. Danika grew out of the conversations, long before I ever started writing her. She’s not thinking of marriage or finding true love, but craving passion and physical release. It was a lot of fun creating a world where the woman, not the man, is the sexual aggressor.

While sex and boys are on her mind Danika also loves books and learning. As the novel opens, she’s gulping down every bit of information she can get before her time on land runs out. Fitting in and never letting anyone know she’s a mermaid helps that time last longer. That’s what matters to her until the moment you see captured on the cover. When Danika finds a dead body on her reef she realizes sometimes you have to risk what you want to do the right thing.

The Mermaid and the Murders, Danika’s story, will be available for pre-order soon, and released worldwide on June 10th. I hope you all have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

Editing myself out

Editing a novel involves a lot of back and forth with your editor. While you may burn the midnight oil to ensure that your email is waiting promptly when she gets into work it turns out that valiant lady of letters is working with other authors. Not only is she working with them, but sometimes she puts them before you.

Shocking.

Thankfully, a career as an author requires you to have multiple irons in the fire, or manuscripts on your desk as it might be. While I was waiting for the next round of edits for the Mermaid and the Murders, I was also editing Fire in Her Blood, the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. Flipping back and forth between the two books made me realize that editing is a bit like traveling back in time to talk to the person I used to be.

Manuscripts, like wine, must age before they can become books. Fire in Her Blood was drafted back in 2009. That was the year my beloved mother-in-law ended her twenty-eight year battle breast cancer. The manuscript was in its first revisions a year later when I buried my best girlfriend after a drunk driver took her life. It’s probably not surprising that the first draft was fairly obsessed with religion. Coming in at just over 160K words, in between tracking a serial arsonist my character visits a number of churches, arranges for her vampire boyfriend to attend a Catholic mass, argues with another cop about the difference between conservative and regular Southern Baptist congregations, and debates with her own partner about the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. She also ends up at a pair of pagan churches, one for the Fire Goddess, and one for the Air God.

None of the scenes were bad, but from a distance of seven years it’s clear that my own struggle with faith bleed out on to the page. I removed most of the religious overtones as I edited, taking the manuscript down to a much more reasonable 110K words. Then it went back to my editor, in hopes that she’ll like it enough to champion it for publication.

Meanwhile, she returned The Mermaid and the Murders back to me. Reading her notes I realized when I wrote it the balance of a personal desires over family needs was at the forefront of my mind. Danika, the mermaid of the title, wants to live her own life, away from her pod. It’s a choice her mother doesn’t agree with and they fight constantly. Through the course of the story Danika comes to realize that constantly having the same fight isn’t working. Instead she stands up for herself, weathers the consequences, and when the battle is over, finds peace with her choice. I’m not sure I’ve gotten to that part, but I know I sympathize with the way she feels pulled in both directions.

Early on in my career, I attended a great lecture at the RWA national conference. An award winning author told us all that putting your own emotions on the page gave the story depth and a realism that couldn’t be duplicated any other way. That’s a great idea, but I want to be sure I’m telling my characters’ story and not my own. I’m grateful to my editor for helping me pull back and lend my own experiences without over shadowing the story.

March Reads – Ellie Jordan Ghost Trapper

Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper cover

My search for books with disabled or minority characters wasn’t doing too well when I stumbled on to the Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper series by happy accident. One of the main characters, Calvin, is an ex-homicide cop who happens to use a wheelchair. Calvin is the brains behind the paranormal investigation firm. His wheelchair use is never the most important thing about him, and it never stops him from doing his job. When he drives too fast it’s because as an ex-cop he never worries about getting caught not because he isn’t using the regular gas pedal. Two things made his character great for me: first, how he came to be in a wheelchair isn’t even discussed in the first two books. We learn about him as a person, about his dog, the food he likes, and so on before we learn about his injury. Second, when we do learn about his injury the information is presented as fact, not a tear-jerking story or a reason to celebrate his accomplishments. Instead, the information comes out naturally, as part of the story.

A story I devoured like kettle corn. I’m three books into the series, and I’ve only known about it for a week. The books are filled with old-fashioned ghost stories. Bride ghosts who were wronged at the altar. Abandoned ghosts who have gone mad with loneliness. Addict ghosts who are still searching for a fix. And those none of those are the main ghost stories, they’re just fun side trips on the way to the really scary stuff.

The first novel, Ellie Jordan, Ghost Trapper, introduces Ellie, Calvin, and the newest recruit to their firm, a young  former beauty queen, Stacy. Stacy acts as a surrogate for the reader, asking all the questions we would want to ask. Ellie isn’t pleased with Stacy’s eager outlook but when what appears to be a simple haunting turns out to be multiple ghosts, including one with nasty ties to the occult, Stacy grows up and stands strong. In addition to the ghost story there’s some great interaction between Ellie and her client’s little girl who is terrorized by the haunting. The girl’s father is written as a jerk, a very believable misogynist sports-obsessed jerk. I give the author huge kudos for writing someone so unlikable and not torturing them. While I hoped the man who get his comeuppance, the more realistic ending was a better choice.

In the second novel, Cold Shadows, a family moves into a house where the toys play with themselves and water drips from dry ceilings.  This story repeated the best parts of the first one: Calvin giving advice, Ellie and Stacy relating to the clients with empathy, and the ghosts turning out to be bigger, darker, and scarier than they first let on. Trigger Warning/Mild Spoiler Alert – the ghosts in this story come with a history of spousal and child abuse. But this is handled well, without any apology or aggrandizing. The ghost family dynamic plays out while the ghost trappers struggle to free the live family from the haunting.

Cold Shadows over

In the third novel, The Crawling Darkness, we learn that Calvin was hurt on the job, shot by ghostly bullets that severed his spine. The ghost that created them is actually a Closet Monster, a literal boogeyman that feeds on fear. By this point in the series Ellie has opened up as a person, learning to trust her team members. She even takes Calvin’s advice to consider getting a personal life. Stacy shares more of her own background, revealing hidden strength and old scars. I was glad Calvin wasn’t magically healed through the battle with the entity. His disability didn’t get “fixed” in the end, just like Ellie didn’t get over her fear of fire.

I’m half-way through the series of six books, and I’m already sad there aren’t more. Set in historic Savannah with characters that feel like real people instead of cardboard cutouts and filled with scary ghosts, these are a fun read. They’re exactly my kind of candy.

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