February Reads – Timothy Wilde Mysteries

I adore the Timothy Wilde series by Lyndsay Faye. It’s a great set of mysteries that teaches you more than a little about the history of the New York police department. It’s also a wonderful showcase for minorities including a main character with mental health issues. (warning this blog post has all sorts of spoilers for the series)

The first book, The Gods of Gotham, introduces Timothy Wilde, barely survives a great tenement fire and finds himself destitute and without a job. It seems no one wants to buy beers from a bartender so badly scarred they can’t stand to look at him. Without other prospects he joins the Copper Stars, the first New York City Policeman. Timothy is free of prejudice, having listened to the tales of drunks of all kinds, his best friend is black, his brother, Valentine, is bisexual, and there’s Mercy, the girl he loves.

Mercy Underhill is prone to flights of wild fantasy. Most of these can be contained in her writing, a secret career we don’t learn about until the end of the first book but the rest plague her. Her father has similar delusions that he relates to his own career as minister. Before the end of the series Timothy (and the reader) realizes that both of them suffer from mental illness – likely a dissociative disorder or schizophrenia (a breakdown in the logical thought process). But the book surprises by not treating that as the single thing that defines either character. Mercy has plans for her future, makes difficult decisions, and loves Timothy. Her illness is neither the sole focus of her being nor trotted out once and then completely forgotten.

The first mystery, The Gods of Gotham, centers on a series of kidnappings where the victims are Catholic children forced to work as prostitutes. One of the children, Birdie, survives to become a part of Timothy’s life and her past is handled beautifully. In the third book as she starts dating, Timothy acts as an ersatz-father. He behaves exactly as any father would, without ever blaming or shaming her for her past.

The second story, Seven for a Secret, focuses on the horrible acts of slave-catchers who prowl New York looking for escaped blacks and unwary freedmen, who they sell back into slavery. The novel avoids the concept of the great white savior, instead showing a community not interested in outside interference. While the mystery of a stolen black family unfolds Faye explores the idea of justice at a time when the legal thing to do is the most immoral.

The final novel, The Fatal Flame, brings Mercy’s mental illness to center as she and Timothy work together to solve a series of arsons. Mercy has taken in an orphan who is also mentally disabled; despite this the girl might be the key to solving the mystery. More importantly she’s a wonderfully developed character. The book is stuffed with them actually: sex workers who aren’t vilified or defined by their profession, recent immigrants who aren’t stupid despite not being assimilated yet, and as many different ethnicities and religions as there were in New York in the 1840s.

My first read of the series was a protracted thing, a year between novels is a bit long for the dense, rich, historic details. I’m looking forward to reading them again, in rapid succession. Some desserts are best gulped down.

What I read in 2015

In 2014 I challenged myself to take photos of every book I read. Most of them included the rabbit editor looking slightly grumpy, which is adorable but not useful for analysis. Last year, I started a Goodreads account. It made tracking my 2015 reading much easier.

I started but didn’t finish 19 novels.
Most of those DNFs (did not finish) stories included a plot development I couldn’t read past. For one romance novel set in the 1960s it was a hero who shamed the heroine for being alone a room with a man she didn’t know. There was a chance the man raped her, and as far as the hero was concerned that would be her fault. While the story spoke to me, I couldn’t forgive him being such a jerk. (I’m pretty sure the heroine did.) The big surprise among the DNFs was A Clash of Kings (the second novel in the Game of Thrones series). I love dragons, fantasy, and epic stories, but I don’t enjoy reading violence against women. I wish someone would write a more woman-friendly version.

I read 78 novels, with a total of 23,316 pages.
The bulk of those (39 of 78) were historic mysteries thanks to the 19 Phryne Fisher novels I devoured last winter.  I promised myself I’d seek out more weird west novels but only managed to find two: The Six-Gun Tarot and The Shotgun Arcana both by R.S. Belcher. I can’t wait to read the third novel in this series set in a cursed desert town. The stunning cast includes a Chinese demi-god, Christian angels, a Native American shape shifter, an assassin/witch trained by the pirate-queen, and a gay man wielding a sword from Mormon legend. It sounds crazy, but it really works. I wanted to know more about each and every character.

I’m mildly embarrassed about the amount of YA books I read – one a month this year. I already gushed about my two favorites – Scarlett Undercover and Serafina and the Black Cloak. Both are great, but it’s Scarlett,  the teenage Muslim detective, I’m most looking forward to following. I loved learning about Scarlett’s culture and enjoyed a fresh take on the noir genre.


Looking forward
Last year I read roughly one and a half books a week. In 2016, I’d like to push that to 2 books per week. That’s a challenging goal considering I’m writing and editing books of my own, but reading is a fundamental part of the writing process. When I don’t read I get repetitive, using the same concepts (or even the same words) over and over again. Reading stops me from getting stale.

With that in mind I want to try some new genres this year.  Some of my favorite books from the last few years have been set in another culture or place.  In 2016 I’m making a point of adding diversity to my reading list – at least one book each month by a minority author or with a minority main character. I have some great lesbian fiction in mind but I’m still on the hunt for books where the main character has a disability. About 20% of the population has a disability of some sort but I don’t see them on my bookshelf. I want to.

When I find them, or any gem of a book, I promise to come back here and blog about it. One of the best parts of reading is talking about your latest favorite. If you’ve got one I should check out let me know, I’m always happy to hear about a good book.

November Reads – Dragon books!

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire, Book 1) by Naomi Novik (Author)

Some people bird-watch, others collect stuffed penguins, or love cats beyond all reason. I adore dragons. While I’m picky about it – I need four limbs and wings – my obsession is fairly boundless. When I renovated my bathroom, I commissioned an artist to etch a dragon on the shower door.  I regularly get myself hennaed with different dragon images, because I can’t choose a single dragon for a tattoo. So this month’s reads are… dragon books!

Naomi Novak’s Temeraire series
Alt-history or maybe just really good fantasy, these stories focus on Temeraire, a dragon in the service of the British Empire during the Napoleonic wars. Taken as a spoil of war, Temeraire is paired with British naval commander, Will Laurence,  instead of the usual dragonrider. Thanks to Will’s influence the books feel like Patrick O’Brian’s “Jack Aubrey novels or maybe the Sharpe books. With a fun dragon twist, of course. Temeraire is wonderfully innocent. He doesn’t understand how slavery works and won’t accept the way dragons are treated. I admit that I skimmed the battle scenes, there’s only so much ship-vs-ship and dragon-vs-dragon action I can take, but Temeraire skewing social mores never got old.

The series continues for eight books. I’ve read the first three and haven’t had a complaint yet. Thankfully only the first one made me cry (Levitas’ story is heartbreaking).

Wildfire: A Paranormal Mystery with Cowboys & Dragons by Mina Khan

I’ve talked about Mina Khan’s Wildfire before and I’m likely to talk about it again. Not only is the dragon a girl, Lynn is also mixed race and a cool ‘real’ person. Her relationships with her hero, her best friend, and her family are all complicated and messy. She’s battling depression, and Khan’s writing shows the ups and downs of that disease in wonderfully non-clinical, non-stereotypical way. Also there are cowboys. Cowboys and dragons. It’s like sea salt and chocolate – I never knew they were meant to be together, but now I can’t imagine them apart.

Lynn rushes to the aid her best friend after Jen’s home is almost lost in a fire. Soon she finds herself embroiled in a mystery. A cute cowboy (Jack) and more worldly real estate developer (Henry) compete for her affections. One of them is more than he seems, and either of them could be behind the increasingly dangerous fires. Lynn struggles to control her emotions, not to mention her dragon hormones, while trying to stop the crimes. The pacing, plot, and small town setting make this book a can’t-put-it-down dragon-shifter story. I’m still waiting hopefully for the next story about these characters.

Treasured Claim: A Mythos Legacy Novel by Jami Gold

Another great dragon-shifter is Elaina Drake, the heroine from Jami Gold’s Treasured Claim. I was lucky enough to read this story back when it was in beta form years ago. It was great fun then, and has only gotten better. Elaina’s story is a romance and her hero, Alex, turns the billionaire playboy stereotype on its head. Alex insists on doing the right thing. He defines himself as the opposite of his amoral, mostly horrible father. Elaina also has daddy issues, except in her case her father might actually kill her.

Gold does a lot of fun non-traditional dragon things. For example, Elaina doesn’t just like treasure, she needs it to survive. Elaina is the physically stronger partner in the relationship, but (this novel gets pretty close to erotica) is sexually submissive. The combination of unexpected twists and multi-faceted characters makes this one of my favorite paranormal romance dragon-shifter stories.


October Reads

October brings ghost stories to book store shelves in the same heaping drifts as the leaves on the ground. I indulged in a few this month that are worth sharing. Continuing September’s more-romance-than-horror kick, I start with Gull Harbor by Kathryn Knight. The heroine, Claire, is a psychic who can commune with ghosts. After giving up on law school, her father’s chosen path for her life, Claire desperately needs a job. When she takes on clearing a house of a dangerous poltergeist, she doesn’t expect to run into her college boyfriend, Max. Max was the one that convinced her to embrace her gift, and his father’s ghost was the first one she communicated with. Their relationship ended terribly, leaving Claire completely unwilling to take Max’s help or heed his good advice to leave the haunted house alone. The love story took the expected turns while the ghost story stayed fresh and different. Small spoiler – the ghost doesn’t speak English, so Claire’s well-meaning attempts to offer it help are useless. House fires, small injuries, the problems keep mounting until Claire catches the clue. It was refreshing to see a ghost story where the ghost wasn’t the same nationality, ethnicity, and general ‘type’ as the other characters. Because if there are ghosts, why would they all be white, English speakers? I enjoyed this story so much I immediately picked up Silver Lake another ghost story by Kathryn Knight.

In Silver Lake a group of high school friends come together to make one last effort to investigate the disappearance of Brittany, the party girl of the group. Ghostly experiences start almost at once: puddles of lake water appear inside house, doors open and close on their own, and cabinets open themselves without a sound. The four friends made for believable, fun characters, although I admit to some trouble with their timelines. Somehow they all achieved their dreams by age 25. While it’s certainly possible to be a successful teacher, a mother of twins, the owner of a well-established business, or an indispensable corporate manager in 3 years after college the story ‘clicked’ better for me when I thought of them as being 28 or 30 instead. With that adjustment I was able to lose myself in the many twists and turns of the ghost story. I guessed right only half the time, and there were definitely things that blind-sided me completely. The ending impressed me for being unique and realistic.

The last ghost story on my Kindle was The Quilter’s Ghost: An Elm Creek Quilts Story by Jennifer Chiaverini.  I’ve read all of the Elm Creek Quilt books and even made some quilts from the patterns Chiaverini supplies in each book. Most ghost stories follow a formula, introduce the ghostly happenings, find out a little about the ghost, put the hero/heroine in danger, and then end things when they discover the ghost’s origins. This short story covers only the usual two acts, neglecting most of the danger and all of the back story. I wish there had been more. It’s my own fault for not noticing before I bought that the story was only 35 (Kindle) pages.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Crimson Peak, a new movie by director Guillermo del Toro that’s being billed as a horrorifying ghost story.  In the first few minutes of the film a character says “It isn’t a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it”. That’s how I would describe Crimson Peak – a Gothic romance with all of the usual trappings – big, decrepit house, lavish costumes, innocent, plucky heroine, brooding hero – and it also happens to have a ghost or two in it. If you like historic or Gothic romances don’t be scared off by the director or the spooky reviews.


September Reads

At the beginning of the year I fell in love with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and found myself reading three books a week. Like most torrid affairs it came to an end, leaving my to-be-read list nearly empty. While there’s always a stack of book I ought to read I drifted looking for something that kept me up at night, wrapped in the story. I haven’t found another series to devour, but by branching out into genres I don’t usually read landed a few gems.

crazy about youCrazy About You by Katie O’Sullivan
This story is eighty percent romance and twenty percent thriller. Two people who seemingly don’t have much in common fall in love, and the seemingly unrelated problems they’re dealing with (infectious ocean waste and a not-boyfriend who might be in the mob) come together in the end. The dead body doesn’t appear until around page 120 but once it does things escalate quickly. The small tourist town setting was fun even as threats to the heroine keep adding up. I made the mistake of picking up this book on my lunch hour, and couldn’t concentrate for the rest of the afternoon.

Whiskey Beach By Nora Roberts
I got this book because a review promised ghosts. SPOILER – there are no ghosts. Oddly I felt compelled to keep reading despite that horrible omission. The story is a little on the long side, winding its way through 496 pages with smugglers, buried treasure, a murder, a stalker, yoga, and lots of massages. Still the mystery drew me in, easing me over long passages of character development and romance. I was impressed to see character back stories that had some depth and darkness to them. So while it didn’t have any ghosts, it made for a great way to spend an afternoon.

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty
I’m not usually a fan of Middle Grade fiction. The threats feel watered down or made up. One book flew across the room after it revealed the titular vampire wasn’t a vampire at all and the whole thing was a great big misunderstanding! I hate the idea that kids are too stupid to see what’s real or when they do see the truth no one believes them. Thankfully Serafina only endures that hardship for a few pages. When people don’t believe her she takes on the supernatural terror herself. This book is genuinely scary and unique. The monster wasn’t something I’ve read about a hundred times. The story even avoided my second most-hated YA trope where all adults/parents are ignorant or absent. The way the ending came together felt fresh and entirely satisfying. I know Serafina’s story ends here but I wish I could read more about what happens to her and her life.

What I’m reading… June 2015

Moments after turning in the final galley edits for Under a Blood Moon, I binged. I devoured not one or two, but thirteen books. I thought I could hold myself to ten. I even left the store with ten. Then I found myself at the library the next day – getting another few, just in case. When I’m writing or editing, I dangle books as reward, finish fifty pages of edits and you earn an hour of reading time. With no edits, I’m like a kid in a candy store, greedy and glad all at once.

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett thinks like an old gumshoe from a Noir novel. She talks tough, in the kind of metaphors you don’t see in modern novels. She just happens to be a Muslim-American teenager. Her story weaves Muslim faith and folklore together, exploring mythology and asking questions about who Scarlett is and who she wants to be. It’s a young adult novel, that I’m sure was aimed at kids in the 9th grade. I’m nearly forty and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The mystery involves djinns (both good and bad), cultists, and kidnapped kids. I’d consider this a good ‘beach read’, engrossing and fun.

Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye

On the other side of the spectrum is Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye. Here the mystery was tense and gritty. In the first pages of the story a man captures a group of women, intending to rape them until they agree to become prostitutes. He’s not the bad guy. That crime isn’t even the worst one in the book. New York in the 1840s was a rough place, and Faye is willing to show you all of that. She also shows off the daily life of her character, a man in love with a rich and diverse group of friends and found family. Most of them speak Flash, a language of street slang so complex that most English speakers can’t follow it. The language, setting, and the characters in this novel made it impossible to put down. I know the author says this is the last Timothy Wilde mystery, but I’m hoping she’s lying.

Phryne Fisher Mysteries By Kerry Greenwood

Since reading a review of the first Phryne Fisher novel over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I have consumed fourteen books and watched 26 hours of her tv series. The early stories (start with Cocaine Blues) are short, under 200 pages, and can be read in about two hours. That’s my excuse for reading three in a weekend. Phryne is a wonderful character – a woman with no shame about her sexual appetites and no desire to play by the rules. Phryne grew up in starvation-level poverty and is now quite rich. She spends her time being a detective, more because it suits her than because she has to be. The books are set in 1920s Australia, which I knew nothing about and now want to visit. All of the mysteries are clever and filled with complex, real people.

To sum up I’m reading mysteries, lots of them and really enjoying historic settings and different cultures. While I love Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, it’s a pleasure to be able to read more diverse stories. I’m sure I’ll be back to the writing and editing grindstone soon, but for now I’m delighted to indulge myself in good books.

What I Read in 2014

Ghost brideLast January I challenged myself to keep a list of all the books I read in 2014. I knew the ‘empty bookshelf’ approach, emptying a shelf and filling it with each book you finish, but suspected I wouldn’t have a shelf big enough. I was right:

65 total books read
16 books that I Did Not Finish (DNF)
33 library books
9 digital books

The best books were:

Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga by Michael McDowell
Horror. Subtle with a complex cast of well developed ‘real’ characters. Set in the south with a creative monster (human crocodile hybrid? Creature from the black lagoon? I was never sure) I didn’t want this story to end, even after six full length books.

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler
YA fantasy. A diverse (most of the characters are Cherokees), well written ghost story with a smart and resourceful heroine who steals the things she needs and refuses to let a ghost stand in the way of her plans.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
YA Fantasy. This adventure takes place in the afterlife as depicted in Eastern/Chinese culture. The plot hinges on a girl being courted by a ghost. She doesn’t love him, and fights to break free of him.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Historic YA fantasy. This is a book about surviving horrors, but it’s also a ghost story. The heroine suffers through the flu pandemic, WWII paranoia, her father being jail, and the love of her life haunting her. Everything felt amazingly real and vivid, the smells, the sounds, the pressures she was under.

WildfireWildfire by Mina Khan
Paranormal Romance/Western. This one blew me away. The heroine is a dragon shifter, she’s also half-Japanese and struggling with depression. I check often in the hopes of another book with these characters.

My best list makes it seem like I read a lot of YA, but they added up to only about 31% of my list. The rest is mystery or historic fiction. I rarely read romances (seven) and am far too picky about my Westerns (five).

I’m not going to mention the worst books by name, but oddly most were highly recommended. It seems I don’t have a lot of tolerance for confusion. Several of the DNF books involved world building that left me completely lost. In one example characters went by different names and switched genders depending on who was narrating.

While I have plenty of editing, running, and quilting on the schedule for the next few weeks I’ll probably add another three or four books to my total. While my tracking project was fun for a year, I’m not sure I’ll keep it up in 2015. I feel slightly guilty admitting I read more than a book a week, but didn’t write any new manuscripts. Saying I spent the year editing is a poor excuse. The best stories are always the ones that haven’t been written yet.

Best of 2013

In an effort to bring something good out of my father’s death (he was hospitalized on Thanksgiving and died just before Christmas) I’ve written a blog post for Off Beat Home about hospice care and the logistics of death in our modern era. Offbeat Beat Home is a great place for people who dance to a different drum. I’m on their site just about every day. It’s an honor to be able to contribute.

So, in case anyone wanders over to my blog I thought I’d recap my favorite posts of 2013:

*A girl’s best friends 10/13
A short story about a bullied little girl and the haunted dolls who defend her.

Chocolate – A Love Story 6/25
A monster who can’t eat chocolate and a girl who can’t afford it share an indulgence.

*Night Train 4/27
He didn’t take a ride as a little boy, but the Night Train has found him again.

*Possession 1/6
Do you have to exorcise your mother’s demon?

Bonus favorites from years past:

2012: The Creek People They did what they had to do, and now they’ll never escape.

2011: Want a Taste? Spousal abuse and poison, every way out has consequences

Posts marked with an asterisk (*) are my nightmares. Thanks to a small bit of brain damage (more details) I dream more often than most people. At least this way, all those dreams go to good use.

My goal for the blog for 2014 is bi-monthly updates, around the 15th and the 1st with at least one short story each month. I have three spooky photographic safaris planned so there will be at least that many posts filled with urban decay and atmospheric shots. Hope you can all come along for the ride!

Books you need to read: Monster Hunter International

I know blogs are meant to be about an author’s ‘brand’,  marketing platform, and blah, blah, blah… But today I want to gush about a great book I finished reading, Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia. Thanks for humoring me.

A little background: every March I judge the Daphne du Maurier writing contest. Thus I get to/am obligated to read several romance-mystery novels in a limited time.  When my judging deadline rolls around I’m usually sick of romance novels and bored with happily ever afters.

It was so refreshing to read a book when I didn’t know how it would end. The delicious tension as I gulped down the story one hundred pages at a time can’t be explained. Would the hero live? What about the girl he loved? At any point any of the characters I’d come to care about could’ve been killed. Several of them were, some more than once. The story went fast, made sense, and avoided every cliché I could think of. The love triangle at the end of the book I was dreading never materialized. The bittersweet self sacrifice? Totally avoided. This was a fresh story, with a lot of fun elements for someone like me who loves monsters, myths, and legends.

And guns. Lots of them. Big guns. Small guns. Artillery. Nukes. Oh my, Correia knows his weapons and he uses them just so. Gun nuts will find lots to love here. There’s no ever refilling magazines here or shooting for hours with no one bleeding. People run out of ammo, guns jam, knives slip out of bloody hands in the middle of a fight. Realism and technical details go together to make great fight scenes.

But I’m a demanding reader. Great scenes and a great story aren’t enough for me. I want writing skill, I want finesse with words. I want someone who commands a symphony of nouns and verbs, who builds a story like a tapestry, weaving threads in a way that surprises me when I step back and see the whole image.

On this aspect alone Correia deserves an award.

The crowning achievement is Holly. Holly is not a main character. I’d put her at tertiary – the character who makes funny quips to break the tension.  She’s a throw away character introduced as an ex-stripper from Vegas. Not much there, right? Wrong. Correia shines with Holly. When the other characters share their back story Holly abstains. It’s not until 50 pages later that a nothing line gives you any indication of what happened to her. It takes another hundred pages before a completely unrelated character in a totally different setting reveals enough for the reader to piece together Holly’s experience. Even then, Holly herself doesn’t discuss it for two hundred pages.

Completely woven into the story, never forced, with just enough information to tease the reader into wanting more. A brilliant piece of character development and it isn’t even his hero.

I’ve read 15 or 20 romance novels this year, along with a dozen mysteries I can remember and a few books that were in between like the latest Charlene Harris. The stories were interesting at the time but nothing special.  They didn’t stick with me. Monster Hunter International is in a whole other class, rivaling the very impressive The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bedsole to be the best book I’ve read this year.  Go read it.

Struggling with my eReader

Every good gardener knows the work you do in February pays off in May. But while I fondly remember wrapping up a manuscript last February, right now I’m fiddling with an electronic device instead of writing. I’m fluent in a slew of programming languages, I’m never intimidated by a new piece of software, and there are more computers than people in my house every day of the week, but my new eReader has me ready to chuck it all and declare myself a Luddite.

It arrived wrapped in shiny silver holographic paper, a thin electronic rectangle, light enough to hold with one hand. Except that two weeks later I would find it wasn’t really that light. In fact, after about twenty minutes of reading my hand fatigued. If I shifted to rest the device’s weight the orientation of the screen shifted from portrait to landscape. I lied to myself that I’d get used to that.

Reading the same novel I discovered something else, the clue to the mystery, the part Aunt Matilda’s eye color was it blue or brown? I didn’t have a good way to go back and check. My usual method of folding down the corner of the page didn’t translate at all the to electric screen. I could turn the electronic pages backwards, but without page numbers there was no way to find the clue.

And the worst part, without paper pages I had no way of knowing how far I’d read and how much I had left to go. I downloaded a trilogy, packaged as one book. When I checked how far in I was the screen told me I’d read 23% of the content. So if each book would be roughly 33%, I was somewhere around a little bit more than half of the first book, right? Call it two-thirds of the way through, did that mean I should stay up and finish or there was no way I would get to the end before I fell asleep?

I pushed my way through 4 novels, telling myself I was sure to learn to love the eReader eventually. I didn’t. The device sat idle, unloved, for a good two months. But then I stumbled on to a short story, sold only as an e-book, so I’m back at it. I look at my prized books, the hardback Dracula with gorgeous illustrations I unwrapped on my 13th birthday, the Yale Shakespeare I received at my college graduation, even the lowly pulp fiction noir novels from the 40s,  and I know there’s no combination of settings that will ever replace them.