Book Review: How To Write Books in a Series–Finally: How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword

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Spoilers.

Bek has proved right, and I owe her a public profession of her correctness. We got together in April, and started somehow or another, in talking about everything and nothing, talking about Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon series. I told her I’d sort of fallen out of love and why, and she demanded to know where in the series I’d left off, then proceeded to tell me that the next book—the ninth book, How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword—is where Cowell finally brings it all together, mollifying my complaint that the books that have trying to become book in a series have remained a book series instead.

The witch Excellinor returns in How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword with another prophecy about the next king of the Wilderwest. In book 8, the next king was concluded to be either Hiccup or his nemesis, Alvin the Treacherous, Excellinor’s son. Now Excellinor reveals that the king is going to be known by ten objects, eight of which Hiccup already carries with him or has back home on Berk. These objects Hiccup has been collecting since the first book, one of them being a toothless dragon.

I am reminded again of the parallels that could be drawn between this series and J. K. Rowling’s series for a slightly older audience, Harry Potter. Harry late in the series is told that his quest involves collecting six items—Horcruxes—the first of which he encounters by chance in the second book. Hiccup’s books being so much smaller than Harry’s and Hiccup having more objects besides to collect, it is unsurprisingly really that it has taken Hiccup as long as it has to find the objects—though one could yet question why he needs all of these things—or really any of them (other than to appease a prophecy). Moreover J. K. Rowling gives us a whole 750-page book devoted to the organized and intentional search for Horcruxes. Harry searches for Horcruxes in order to be able to destroy a great Evil and the search can be seen only as fairly selfless. A search conducted by Hiccup for ten objects that would cinch him a powerful title and earthly authority could be misconstrued as selfish—even as the stated goals of his kingship (free the dragons, free the slaves) are fairly selfless—making an intentional and willful search for the King’s Lost Things potentially harmful to Hiccup’s image as selfless hero. So while I did get a bit tired of the episodic quests of earlier books, I see now why it was important for the journey to this ninth book to be so drawn out, why Hiccup’s retrieval of the eight objects had to seem so unconnected to a larger goal.

The Slavemark too that Hiccup has kept hidden since book 7 returns to plague our hero and cause the trouble that we were promised that it would, but being revealed when it is, it is even more troublesome for Hiccup, who seemed prior to its revelation to have finally risen above all the tribes’ prejudice and ridicule and seemed to have won out over his nemesis and the over his enemy, the dragon Furious, who has vowed to destroy all humankind.

So here we have, I think, the beginning of the series reading like books in a series instead of a book series—finally. I hope for good things henceforth.

I tore through How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword in just a few days. By the 75th page if not before I was hooked and deeply entrenched in the suspense of the plot.

Cowell continues to experiment with illustration in this book, using a number of styles. Primarily she uses the 19th and early 20th century captioned illustration, which either captures a singular moment with a repeated line of the text or which is a portrait of a particular character or place. A few of the captions of the illustrations enhance rather than repeat the text, adding lines that could be taken as optional, but I chose to believe were instead text themselves, meant to be read in conjunction with the normally formatted text. She again uses just a touch of mixed media, using a photograph of fire in several instances as dragonfire. I actually feel as if this mixed media was less successful than the mixed media she experimented with in book 8, partially because the photograph was more integrated here with the drawing and partially because the infernos that the photograph was meant to represent I think could have been given more oomph with an illustration instead of a photograph of a narrow tongue of flame. That being said, I see what Cowell was trying to do with the photograph. The photograph looks to be more concentrated fire drawn by Cowell because her drawing style is sketchish and her lines loose, where the photograph is layered as reality.

****

Cowell, Cressida. How to Train Your Dragon, Book 9: How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2013.  First published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Mystic and Rider: Internal and External Journeys as Foreground

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I hadn’t read Sharon Shinn’s Mystic and Rider for four years. I’d reread all the other books in the Twelve Houses series at least once before returning to this first book. There’s much to draw me to the Twelve Houses books as I’ve discussed before, but there is something especially compelling to me about the deep friendships between the six primary protagonists. In this first book, those friendships remain unformed for the majority of the book, the six are instead plagued by prejudiced distrust and several brief fights that must be broken up by more level-headed and duty-driven members of the group. It was interesting to revisit this time before their friendship because I had foreknowledge; I know how inseparable this unlikely group becomes. More than that, I know the trials that they will face in the future, and I can see the foreshadowing in their dialogues. I enjoyed laughing and mumbling, “Oh honey, you don’t even know.” I can also enjoy a writer who foreshadows because it shows a plan and it shows forethought (usually).

The exterior action of the plot is concerned with assessing the attitudes of various regions and ranks of a kingdom. The worldviews of a society are the sort of detail that is usually relegated to an emblematic scene or a throwaway line of dialogue or exposition. It’s impressive to see Shinn maintain the readers’ interest in what is so often so condensed and shoved to the background by other writers.

Granted, Shinn supports this plot with a romantic co-plot and the drama of six diverse personalities in prolonged, close quarters.

I think Shinn does a good job of integrating these the internal and external plots so that neither seems to take precedence over the other. It could be read with either or neither as the primary focus.

Shinn also adds a bit of mystery by concealing one character’s background in particular and having another spend the book not trusting her because of that concealment. I never read the story without knowing Senneth’s story, having read the third book in the series first. I suspect though that that mystery helps too to drive the reader through the story.

Shinn writes fantastic characters, all invoking a great deal of empathy. She writes a fantastic, vast, and vivid world. If you haven’t yet been intrigued by my earlier reviews of these books, I advertise them one last time. Beyond this, there are no more books in the series for me to review, so this will be the last you’ll hear of them from me for a while. If you like high fantasy; poetic, solid prose; empathetic characters and stories of close friendships; if you like fantastical romance; if you enjoy a little politics and intrigue and fantastical religion, give these a try.

I’ve grown a bit with these books, and as I’ve grown, I see them differently, but they are only a bit tarnished for being away from a circle of friend and fellow fans. My rankings of them fluctuate a bit with my circumstances. What once I liked least, I think I now like almost best. And these books set the bar for fictional boyfriends very high. I’m glad that I have these books as warm friends’ smiles in my bookcases, and I considering purchasing the series a solid investment for all the times I will pick them up to smile over a scene or ask Shinn’s advice on worldbuilding.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 1: Mystic and Rider. New York: Ace-Berkley-Penguin, 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, Ace Books, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: A Box of Chocolates Book Tag

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This book tag, another challenge from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, (mostly) avoids all forms of superlative, and for that I thank it most unabashedly. I may be able to do another of these at any time without feeling the need to repeat any answers. I’m not saying that I will, just that I appreciate the option. So somehow sans superlatives, I’m much more relaxed about this book tag than I was about the royal court.

The royal court was about characters. This book tag is about books. The pile of books that I’ve encountered is a lot smaller than the community of characters, making this tag a lot easier to complete too.

Chocolate Book Tag

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The cover is deceivingly bright and peaceful.

Dark Chocolatea book that covers dark things

One of the darkest books I’ve read in a long while is J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a modern, realistic social drama that deals with the consequences of poverty, drugs, prostitution, marital discord, family discord, family pressure, social pressure, self-harm, suicide, death of a family and community member, the death of a child, preventable death, guilt, hypocrisy… and that’s just what I remembered off the top of my head since I read it in April of 2014. A quick look at my review reveals that too there’s domestic violence, mental illness, workaholism, and rape.

42717White Chocolatea favorite light-hearted read

There are a few books I keep around just for light reading. One of those is Roddy Doyle’s The Giggler Treatment, which is crams clever, absurdist humor into a brief 111 pages with illustrations and chapter divisions.

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What will it look like, Tara?

Milk Chocolatea book with a lot of hype right that you’re dying to read

A lot of hype may be a stretch, but there is certainly some hype, especially among the online book review community—or a portion of them. There is not, though, a mainstream book with a lot of hype that I am dying to read right now. Often once a book has garnered a great deal of hype, reading it, as a bookseller, feels more like an obligation that a personal desire. It’s a tricky tightrope. That being said, I am dying to read Tara Sim’s upcoming book, Timekeeper, and not just because she’s a friend and classmate of mine. No cover reveal yet. Certainly no review from me yet. But it is on Goodreads, and it is garnering some notice, as I said, from the bloggers and Tweeters. Timekeeper is expected in Fall 2016. It’s going to be a long wait.

9780312549664Chocolate with a Caramel Centera book that made you feel all warm and gooey on the inside

It really seems as if this question should not be as hard as I’m finding it, but I have been running to my roommate more often than not for “fluff” and not finding much that grabs me among her suggestions. Moreover, because I do have a book review blog, I am often reading books more critically, not giving them the chance sometimes to melt me as effectively. Lastly, I just don’t think I read a lot of fluffy novels, most of them being more the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t adventures. Some of those novels have ooey, gooey scenes or lines, but I would never say that the whole book is mushy. Perhaps the ooiest and gooiest that I can think of it Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You.

0763666483A Wafer-free Kit-Kat a book that surprised you recently

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of rereading, and it’s sort of difficult to be surprised by a reread—not impossible, mind, just difficult. Most of my surprises lately have been unpleasant—as in “I expected so much more from you!” I don’t really want to promote those. Most of the novels that I’ve read this year have been rereads, continuations on a series, or novels that I expected to like and did like. The picture books that I’ve read I either expected to like and didn’t, or I didn’t anticipate reading (most of my picture books are chosen by Barnes & Noble corporate or are read as I walk them home from wherever a customer has left them). Maybe my best surprise has been Steve Light’s Have You Seen My Dragon? which I sort of expected to like because dragon, but I didn’t anticipate having any educational elements. That it doubled as a primer was a pleasant surprise. Even so, that surprise was in March of this year….

Just a few titles are missing from this picture including I Am a Frog!, Waiting Is Not Easy!, and I Will Take a Nap!

Just a few titles are missing from this picture including I Am a Frog!, Waiting Is Not Easy!, and I Will Take a Nap!

Snickers – a book you’re going NUTS about currently

Or a series? I am always recommending to parents and we are always reading at story hour a book from Mo Willem’s (currently) 23-book Elephant and Piggie series. The kids love them. The booksellers love them. The parents love them. They cover a wealth of kids’ struggles and questions with humorous dialogue and illustrations. They are a lot of fun to read aloud.

percyHot chocolate with cream and marshmallowsa favorite comfort read

Can I have a favorite comfort series too? It used to be Harry Potter, hands down. And I’m still often in the middle of one, but now it takes me a year or more now it seems to read through one Harry Potter book. Things have to be pretty bad indeed before I run to Harry and co. Lately I’ve been running more frequently to one of the five books of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Percy and co. are more likely than Harry and co. to make me laugh. The swift pace tumbles me more quickly and more deeply into Percy’s world than I am tumbled into Harry’s (though whether I ever truly leave Harry’s is a potential debate topic), and when I need a comfort read, I likely want to be transported and quickly from my own world and trouble. Some of Harry’s book are furthermore just long, and if I do get sucked into one of those, I am in for a longer commitment, where I can be fairly confident in easily finishing a Percy Jackson book in a few weeks even if I’m reading slowly.

the-kingkiller-chroniclesA box of chocolatea series that has a bit of everything and a lot of people would really really like it
There is a quiet effort at joint conquest between a co-worker and myself. We find one another whenever we manage to get someone to purchase Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind, first in The Kingkiller Chronicles (a book I honestly am NUTS about as well). It takes very little for me to suggest The Name of the Wind. Primarily, I need to be confronted with a reader of a certain age and a certain openness to fantasy. Usually I am not given enough time argue the literary quality of these books to an anti-fantastist and potentially win a convert (a feat I would consider a great victory), but I think I could make that argument convincingly. The first book in the series I consider more of a bildungsroman than not, making it a great stepping stone into adult fantasy for younger readers (teens, new adults, people who prefer children’s literature for whatever reason but are mature enough to handle the darkness allowed by marketing to an older audience—but no one below age 13 certainly, and probably no one below age 16 or so). There is a clever orphan boy who goes to school and succeeds with his cheek and cleverness, makes friends, upsets teachers, learns magic…. You might find that sort of summary (comfortingly) familiar. Rothfuss’ poetic command and convolution of the English language is stunning—just stunning, musical as his protagonist claims to be. The world-building is top notch, especially as the series goes on and we travel the world and encounter different cultures and races, but I was caught by the detail of his magic system far before we ever left the Commonwealth. There are strong female characters who defy patriarchy (though maybe not with as much success as I could hope, at least in the second book). There is political intrigue, and I’m starting to believe there will be even more of that when we eventually get book 3, The Doors of Stone. There’re romances for those who enjoy that. There are periods of darkness to satisfy those craving dark fantasy. I could go on….

Challenge: Royal Court Book Tag

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I wholeheartedly accept this challenge from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, as I said I would do when she first told me about it. I’ve decided that this must exclude picture books and any media besides books—because it is a book tag. I am also assuming this is already an unspoken rule in this game, but I cannot use the same character twice, even as I look over this list and think of how many titles one particular character is owed. (Watch as I destroy the rules!)

These sorts of games are always tricky—not only because they ask me to choose one out of millions of characters that I’ve encountered in more than a quarter of a century, but also because the number of characters that I’ve encountered is so huge, and I have a difficult time combing through all of the possibilities, likely to get waylaid by whomever I’ve encountered most recently.

King and Queen: Your Favorite male and female leads.

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This is my favorite illustration of Cimorene, still toting the symbols of femininity while flaunting the strictures of society. And she’s clearly clever.

Let’s talk about how few books there are in my possession with strong, memorable female leads. Really, let’s. (Some of the onus is on me, of course. There are some books here with female leads whom I like but I just don’t love, whom I don’t feel all that close to, or whom for whatever reason were overshadowed by male co-leads.) But it made the answer to this question pretty simple. Queen Cimorene from Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles keeps her title.

Now let’s talk about the plethora of beloved male leads I have to choose from…. But the more I think about it, the more I think my favorite—and by that I mean most beloved—character is Cammon from Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series! He’s a lead from the fourth book, Reader and Raelynx, surely.

Queen Cimorene and King Cammon will do well together and rule most wisely and justly. He may even be a better match for her than her canon husband—Mendenbar.

Royal First Born: the most loyal character

I'm pretty sure Tolkien never did a character sketch, so we'll let New Line decide what Sam looks like.

I’m pretty sure Tolkien never did a character sketch, so we’ll let New Line decide what Sam looks like.

It takes a special kind of loyalty to follow another character and a cause (by one estimate) 2000 miles, straight to the enemy stronghold, all the while being assailed by outside forces, while that character is slowly going mad, growing weak, and being overcome by an Evil Force. So welcome to the royal family, Samwise Gamgee the Brave from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

I would not mind having Sam as heir apparent.

Second Born: the most laid-back character

That's him there in the pointy, starred hat. That drawing's done by his authoress, so I'd reckon it's the nearest to canon we'll get.

That’s him there in the pointy, starred hat. That drawing’s done by his authoress, so I’d reckon it’s the nearest to canon we’ll get.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has a name worthy of royalty. The man has seen a lot, and maybe that’s partially why he seems so laid back when we meet him around the sprightly age of 150. He has his fingers in everything, pulling strings like a puppet master, but he greets every new situation with a great deal of composure—maybe because he’s seen so much that he’s already foreseen this very situation arising. Mid-battle scene the words used to describe him are still “calmly,” “as though he had not a fear in the world, as though nothing had happened to interrupt his stroll up the hall,” and “speaking as lightly as though they were discussing the matter over drinks,” (OotP, 813-814). How a 150-year-old man is the second born son of younger parents is a math problem I will not be answering.

Bonus: If I include TV characters and those TV characters do not need to be recurring, it comes down to a battle between Lily and Moku both from the same episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender: “The Cave of Two Lovers.” I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of mind-altering drugs. But they aren’t fazed by giant skybison, ancient curses, Fire Nation soldiers, or traveling with the Avatar.

Third Born: the most headstrong character

This seems to be the original cover art for Dragonflight, the book in which Lessa is introduced.

This was the original cover art for Dragonflight, the book in which Lessa is introduced.

Headstrong still has a positive or at least loving vibe to it. I can think of a few characters of George R. R. Martin’s who have graduated beyond “headstrong” to maybe “incorrigible.” Ramsay Snow/Bolton, for example, is not sane enough to merit headstrong. But Lessa from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series? She’s maybe headstrong, [SPOILER] undermining and disregarding others’ authority first to engineer the downfall of her family’s usurper, then endangering herself and her dragon and by extension the continuation of the dragon species for the survival of dragonriding culture. [END SPOILER] I’d much rather saddle the royal family and the kingdom and the planet with Lessa than Ramsey.

Royal Adviser: most trustworthy character

Ironically enough, Jaron, called for many years Sage, of Jennifer A. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy comes to mind here. He won’t tell me what he’s up to and what he’s doing will seem beyond foolish, but I trust that he has the kingdom’s best interests at heart, and what’s more I trust that his ideas will have the outcome that he wants and that the kingdom wants. He’s one who could fall under several tags. That third born is calling his name too…. *Note: I’ve not finished the Ascendance Trilogy yet. Jaron could yet let me down.

Duke and Duchess: your favorite couple.

This is perhaps the only tag of which I’m immediately certain. It’s Cammon and Amalie from Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series! And I’m only certain because I’ve been asked before whom I would consider my OTP. And now the court gossip really has some juicy tidbits. The king has a consort! (It’s potentially possible that a great deal of their merit as my OTP depends on keeping Cammon happy….)

Lady-in-Waiting and Gentleman of the Bedchamber: two characters that take care of those around them.

“Gentleman of the Bedchamber” is an actual, historical title, as it turns out, and yes, the position was roughly equivalent to a lady-in-waiting at least during certain points in history.

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I actually like this cover, and my one quibble is that her hair could be lighter, but I can also pretend her white blond hair is reflecting the flames.

Senneth Brassenthwaite from The Twelve Houses series by Sharon Shinn is remarkably good at being drawn off-mission by the plight of others, and she will literally burn down the town, make herself an object of suspicion and scorn, inconvenience her friends, and cause herself pain to protect another.

Kit Rodriguez from Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series also a few times gets all twisted around, nearly destroyed, nearly driven insane trying to help others: his interventions with Darryl and the Martians Aurilelde and Khretef particularly stand out in my mind….

Secret traitor: least trustworthy character

I’m having a difficult time with this one because a lot of the untrustworthy characters that come to mind, I can figure out, and once I’ve figured out their driving motivations, they become predictable, and then I can at least foresee their betrayal, maybe avoid it. In the wise words of a savvy pirate: “a dishonest man you can always trust to be dishonest. Honestly.” Caudicus from Patrick Rothfusssecond book in The Kingkiller Chronicles is dishonest, but I don’t know why. [SPOILER] I still can’t see what he has to gain from killing the Maer. Keeping him weak, sure. That increases Alveron’s reliance on Caudicus and keeps Caudicus paid, but if Caudicus loses his benefactor, and his benefactor dies heirless, what does Caudicus gain? Unless he was in the employ of someone who does stand to gain from the Maer’s death! But I’ll never know. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the last of the Maer. Unless the king that Kvothe kills is the King of Vint, who would gain by having the Maer dead. [END SPOILER] Nope. Too much supposition there. A possibility to file away for later.

Court Wizard: a whimsical or fun or magical character

I think I’m going to call in the big names here and invite Tom Bombadil from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to court to sing nonsensical songs and work amazing magics with seemingly little effort. He is certainly capricious enough to be whimsical, and I get the feeling that he is more playful than loose-screwed. Of course he is welcome to bring Goldberry.

Royal Fool: the funniest character.

This seems to be the cover from the first printing in 1927.

This seems to be the cover from the first printing in 1927.

At first I could think of almost no character to give this title too, but then I realized there are books that I own that I would qualify as straight humor, and it must be such a book’s hero that claims this title. In those books, it’s mostly the narration that makes the stories funny, really, and of those stories that sprang first to mind only Mr Mulliner narrates his own stories. So Mr Mulliner from P. G. Wodehouse’s books will be my royal fool—bless him. He won’t realize that he’s the fool and perhaps to his face I will call him my storyteller—but the court will know.

Court Gossip: the character most likely to have and spread secrets

I had some fun looking through the foreign covers for one that better showed Kvothe. This is a Finnish cover for The Wise Man's Fear.

I had some fun looking through the foreign covers for one that better showed Kvothe. This is a Finnish cover for Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear.

There was that time that Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles was gifted with all of the courts’ dirty secrets… and then sold them to an unscrupulous publisher…. He’s an excellent secret-keeper when he wants to be, but he’s also an excellent storyteller and equally excellent at bending those stories to favor whom he wishes.

Attractive Servant: just because every kingdom needs one

Seems only fair to have one of each gender.

There are several female characters who are the embodiment of attractive, who are defined primarily as attractive. Why is the only male embodiment of beauty that I can remember a cupbearer to Zeus, not given more than a line of recorded dialogue telling characters in a taxicab to buckle up? Other male characters are described as attractive, sure, but it’s not their defining characteristic.

I mean, really! This is the first cover printed for Book 1: City of Bones.

But Aphrodite from Rick Riordan’s books (and elsewhere besides) and Felurian from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles are both beauty and sex itself. I suppose they would have to be on the list of most physically attractive characters, but both are really a bit vapid. Kirra Danalustrous from The Twelve Houses series by Sharon Shinn and Denna of Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles also are both described as having similar effects on the men around them as do Aphrodite and Felurian—but neither is vapid.  I wouldn’t mind having either at court.  Neither would be likely to stay very long in my employ, both being wanderers, but they both might wander back to the castle every so often.

I’d also like to invite Jace from Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series to be in attendance. He won’t like being a servant either, but I would like looking at him, and I’d let him snark the royal court since that is a great deal of his charm.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Unasked (861 words)

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From a distance, no one would be able to tell that the towel tied over her skirt was not part of the dress. That was easy enough to smuggle to the creek. The soap cake she dropped in her pocket. It was too easy. The trickiest part would be getting down the ladder without loosing the towel from around her waist.

She was halfway down, one hand holding steady the knot that had indeed started to slip from the cotton, when Darryn announced himself with soft footfalls on the hard earthen floor. He spared no time on a greeting, but asked, “Is now a bad time?”

Internally, she cursed him using several of the colorful phrases she’d learnt in the fishing town of her childhood. She could tell him that it was a bad time, tell him to leave. He would do it. But if he ran into Mr. Crowe and Mr. Crowe asked after Talya, Darryn would tell him exactly where to find her—or where he thought Mr. Crowe would find her—in a bathtub that Mr. Crowe would quickly find empty. Darryn was a terrible liar, and Mr. Crowe was like a bloodhound. Asking Darryn to lie might be worse. She could tell him the truth, but he might worry that her actions were just illicit enough to get them both in trouble.

Any way she likely got in trouble.

She got down off the last rung and turned to face him. Truthfully, she said, “It is a bad time.”

The deities hadn’t been good to her, but she would have to hope that someone would watch out for her—just this once.

“I’m sneaking off,” she continued, “and I need you to as well before Mr. Crowe finds you. Before anyone finds you.  Don’t tell Priscilla where I’ve gone either. Don’t tell anyone.”

“You’re sneaking off,” he repeated, “with a towel?”

“Yes.” Her voice snapped more sharply than she’d have liked.

She liked Darryn. He found the good in people and in situations where Talya saw only bad, and he was unwaveringly loyal to those he liked best—Talya among them. He couldn’t lie, so he was honest even if he didn’t want to be, sometimes betraying secrets he hadn’t meant to betray, but always apologizing profusely if he did, so Talya always knew it was not willfully done. Usually he was easygoing, he was always eager to please, and he was not wont to complain—or if he did complain, it was because he sought to protect, because he saw dangers.

To soften the harshness of her bark, she explained, “I want a bath. But I don’t want to haul water, and Mr. Crowe’s forbidden me to use the raincatch water for anything other than drinking water for the animals till after the next rain.”

Darryn frowned. “So you’re going to creek.”

“And I’ll be careful. I’ll go to the forest’s edge.” In fact she planned to venture just beyond the first trees to keep from being spotted, but Darryn feared the woods and wouldn’t want to know that. “Any soap will be washed downstream and away from Evanston. No one needs to know.”

Talya waited while Darryn thought this over. She knew he wouldn’t like it. Technically it was a violation. No one was supposed to use soap in the creek. It had to be clean to drink—but she’d thought of that, found a way to keep her actions from hurting anyone else. Still Darryn wouldn’t want her in trouble—and she could still get in trouble. He would want to stop her, talk her out of it, but he would know that he couldn’t.

“I could come as your lookout. I’d keep my back turned.”

She would trust him to mean to do it too. Watching her, glimpsing her would be another form of violation. He wouldn’t mean to look, but something would startle him, and he’d turn, and somehow she didn’t want him to see.

To soften the refusal she smiled. “No.”

“Then,” he was clearly faltering, coming to the same conclusion she had done: that the best thing that he could do for her was keep out of sight himself until she was safely back.  “Then I’ll get the water for you.”

“What?”

“You don’t want to haul water, but,” he smiled, “I think the day’s been kinder to me.”  He pointed at her. Dirt, hay, and hair all clung to her sweaty skin and tangled in her mussed braid.

“I can’t ask you to—”

“You’re not asking.” He walked past her and into the storage area at the end of the barn aisle. He emerged with two buckets. Of course he knew where they were. “Find the tub,” he said coming back up the aisle. “Set it up wherever you like. I’ll fill the tub for you and be gone. Leave you to become a girl again or whatever’s hiding under that dirt.”

“Darryn Tvorec, you—” But though she knew many colorful phrases, she couldn’t bring herself to shatter him with the acerbity of any of them.

“You’re welcome,” he called as he headed out the barn doors.

This week, the line stolen was mine.

With it, Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “No Happy Hour Tonight.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Sunrise Kiss” (545 words).

And welcome to the thieves’ ring C.C., who used the line to write “Not on My Watch,” which you can find on her blog, Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers.

Check back for more posts later.

Sitting Room Chat: With Author Karoline Barrett

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Karoline Barrett and I talk genre, being published, and getting published.

I am super excited to bring you the first of hopefully many sitting room chats!

I have been blessed with some talented friends, and it’s one of my dreams to have a bookshop where I can invite them to show off their wonderful works to the public. I haven’t got a bookshop yet, but it occurs to me that I have a blog that can stand for now as the sitting room for my salon, inviting in a larger audience than any sitting room that I could ever want to have to tidy or clean.

I know a lot of my readers are aspiring writers. Today, these questions are for you as much as they are for me and for my first guest, who I hope will be kind and patient with us as we hope to learn from her experience.

Today, I’m introducing Karoline Barrett. With a book out already, her second book—the first in her Bread and Batter series—is due in November.

Let’s start with the question that I know I most hate being asked. Pitch me your books. What are you writing? What are they about?

Thank you so much for inviting me to be on your blog, Kathryn! Right now, I’m writing book three (as of now unnamed) of my Bread and Batter cozy mystery series.

I came to write cozy mysteries at the suggestion of my agent. I was floundering around, trying to figure out what to write next, when she asked me what I like to read. I replied, “Mysteries!”  She suggested I write a cozy mystery.  I immediately began what is now named Bun For Your Life. I have to say it’s been a lot of fun, from getting to know my characters, to deciding where to place my series, to all the research.

Maybe I should explain a few things about a cozy mystery.  I’ve come across a lot of people who have no idea what that term even means.  Think Murder She Wrote. Cozies usually feature a female amateur sleuth who lives in a small town. Most of the plot takes place after the murder.  There is no profanity, bloody gore, or explicit sex.  There often is, however, a lot of humor, of which I am a big fan. And lots of interesting plot twists and turns!

My series centers around Molly Tyler, who along with one of her best friends, Olivia Williams, owns Bread and Batter Bakery in the small fictional upstate New York town of Destiny. Bun For Your Life centers on the death of local orchard owner, Calista Danforth. Strangled to death with a Bread and Batter t-shirt, Molly is named a prime suspect. Now Molly and Olivia must whip some answers quickly before the future of their bakery crumbles.  It’s due out November 2015 by Berkley.

Wow. You foresaw a lot of the questions that I’d had for you. I’ve heard the term “cozy mystery” thrown around, but I’ve never known what characterized the genre, so thank you for your description. You say that you weren’t sure what to write next. Was your first book a cozy mystery as well or were you working in another genre? Did your first book help you find your agent? Or did you have an agent before getting your first book published?

18515738My first book was The Art of Being Rebekkah and is women’s fiction. Yes, it did get me my agent; however, when she was unable to sell it, she formed her own publishing company (E-Lit Books) and published my book as well as others!

That’s fabulous. It must be fantastic to have an agent willing to go to such lengths to get you published. Does the “E-“ in E-Lit mean that her books are (and by extension your book, The Art of Being Rebekkah, is) currently available only in e-format?

I know a bunch of us are dying to know, how did you find such a dedicated agent? Did she also help you get your contract with Berkley for the Bread and Batter series or did you query Berkley on your own?

And too…“women’s fiction” is another of those genre titles that I’ve heard bandied about but for which I’ve never had a definition. What would you as a writer in the genre say characterizes women’s fiction?

My questions are coming hard and fast now, and I apologize for that, but you have answers to a lot of questions that I’ve wanted to ask. I hope you don’t mind terribly.

The Art of Being Rebekkah is available both in e-book and “regular” book form from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and you can also order it through Indie bookstores.

Finding an agent was a long process!  I had already queried 120 agents when I found her. “Her” being Frances (Fran) Black of the Literary Counsel. And yes, she is very dedicated to her authors. She is always very encouraging and inspirational!

Yes, Fran did get me my two-book cozy mystery book deal with Berkley. I’m working on book three of the series, so I hope everyone loves the first two, and Berkley asks for more!

Women’s fiction to me means books that focus on a woman’s life journey. The books are primarily written for women, although I’ve had two or three men read The Art of Being Rebekkah.

120 queries shows a lot of dedication on your part. What advice do you have for writers beginning the quest for publication? How did you keep from becoming discouraged? Are there any resources that you found particularly helpful as you were starting out and looking to get published—or do you have favorite resources that you use now as you’re writing?

My advice to writers beginning the quest for publication is polish your work and don’t give up. Rejections are a part of being a writer, but don’t give up after one or two rejections. I started out writing short stories. I kept submitting them until they all found a home. Make sure you submit to the right publisher, or agent, for your work. If you have a young adult novel, don’t submit it to an agent who is looking for historical romance. Make sure you follow the submission instructions perfectly—it could mean the difference between “Hey, we love your work and we want to publish it” and “Wow, this person can’t follow directions.”

Feeling discouraged is also part of being a writer. The trick is not to stay discouraged! Sometimes, that means working on another writing project, or taking a day for yourself to unwind. Study other writers and their voice. What do you like about their writing? What makes it shine? Write something that is totally out of your comfort zone. I tried poetry for a while. It wasn’t bad, actually.

My biggest resource when I was starting out were the two courses I took from Long Ridge Writers Group. It’s a school in Connecticut, but you take the courses from home. I did their Breaking Into Print Course and their Novel Writing Course. They were both awesome and I learned so much. There are also tons of agent and writing websites out there that are immensely helpful. Right now, I keep it simple. I write in Word. Sometimes I outline, sometimes not.   

I didn’t realize that you’d published short stories before your first novel. Where can we find those? How long have you been writing? How did you find the writing and publication process for short stories and novels similar or dissimilar?

I started writing around 2001 (I think!!). I started with short stories then went on to novel writing. Here are a couple of my short stories if you’d like to share:

“Aunt Felicity and James Dean”

“Life Running By”

I find novel writing completely different than short story writing. I much prefer the novel writing experience. It gives you a bigger canvass to paint on. There is much more character development, more sense of time and place, and the reader is more invested in your characters.

How did you come to writing? What were you doing before? What was the worst job you had to do prior to finding your writing career? (This last question I’m borrowing from Writer’s Digest’s interview with Patrick Rothfuss because I found it really reassuring to hear that even a really successful writer had first to work an uncomfortable job.)

I’ve always been an avid reader and writing comes naturally to me. One day, I got a card in the mail for a class at Long Ridge Writing Group and the rest is history!

I actually don’t have a “before” my writing career. I am not making (yet!) enough money to stop working full-time yet, so I sadly cannot call writing my career. Someday, hopefully! My day job is being a pension administrator. I’ve been doing that for thirteen years now. Math is not my favorite thing, so don’t ask me how I fell into that! I don’t really have a “worse” job. My working history goes back to 1978, so I won’t bore your readers with all of that…

I think that’s one of the myths that get perpetuated among aspiring writers: “If only I can get this novel published then everything will be okay. I can quit that job I don’t like, and I won’t have to worry again about paying rent.” I’m hopeful—I think many of us are hopeful—that that’s how writing a book ends. Were you expecting that to be the case?

Now, you have an agent, do you also have an editor or do you handle all the edits yourself? How do you personally know when a piece is ready for publication?

When my first book was published – The Art of Being Rebekkah – I wasn’t sure what to expect. I did a lot of book signings and blog tours, but the sales haven’t been enough to let me quit my day job, unfortunately.  I hope my Bread and Batter series will do much better. For that series, I do have an editor at Berkley. I should be getting edits back for Bun For Your Life from her soon. I can’t exactly explain how I know when a piece is ready for publication.  For me, it’s instinct. Often, I write the ending while the story is still in the middle stages!

And I think I have just one more question for you: You’re on several social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, besides having your own website and blog. Several agents I’ve found want to know upfront what promotion you can do on your own for a potential book. Which sites have you found most helpful in promoting your books and why?

My favorite social media is Twitter because it’s short and concise. For my first book, I used Facebook and Twitter for promotion and did a few guest blogs and virtual book tours. Hoping to do the same for my mystery series.

Karoline, thank you so much for joining me! Thank you for answering so many questions for me.  And thank you especially for agreeing to be the first of my interviewees.

Readers, I hope this has been helpful for you all too. Support Karoline by following her on one or more of her many social media sites and hear more about her writer’s journey. Buy a book. Tell your friends.

We’ll do this again. I hope.

Recipe: Spaghetti Squash Casserole–Made Easier

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I have tried this recipe several times, and it’s been cheered by a number of people. This is a great vegetarian recipe. It’s not a recipe I found online, but a recipe provided to me by my mother, who got the original recipe from her old Moosewood Cookbook (her exact version of the cookbook seems now to be out-of-print), then modified by me to better suit my laziness and my preference for nonperishable ingredients, so let’s put an ingredients list up front, shall we, especially as it’s a long one? Get ready to raid your spice cabinet and messy the kitchen.

  • 1 whole spaghetti squash
  • 1 cup of chopped onion
  • ½ lb (8 oz) of sliced mushrooms
  • 2 medium cloves of crushed garlic (or garlic powder)
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 tsp basil
  • thyme
  • ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley (or 2 tsp of parsley flakes)
  • 2 fresh tomatoes (or a small can of diced tomatoes to save time)
  • 1 cup of breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup of cottage or ricotta cheese (I’ve always used ricotta)
  • 1 cup of grated mozzarella cheese
  • Parmesan cheese to taste
  • butter or cooking spray (I usually use cooking spray, and anywhere that I say to “butter” in these instructions, you can substitute “lather with cooking spray.”)

*If you’re missing some of these spices, don’t fret overly much. I would try it anyway. I’m not sure I’ve once made this recipe with parsley because for whatever reason it’s not in the house.

Sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to find spaghetti squash on a deep discount at your local grocery store—and when you do, this becomes a fairly inexpensive but impressive crowd-pleaser.

I learned by sheer accident that in a dry cabinet, a spaghetti squash will keep for several months. These pictures are from this past June. That squash had been in our cabinet since probably February at the latest.

I was particularly fortunate in this hardy squash. It was more squash than I could fit in just one of my baking dishes, and I had to scrounge in the cabinets to find a second—meaning I got lots of meals out of this one night of baking.

First, a good, long knife is needed to cut the squash in half, lengthwise. Perhaps some of you will be strong enough to manage this Herculean feat without a hack, but I am not, though I keep trying. I liberally poke holes in the squash skin with a fork, the way you do when baking a potato. Then I microwave the whole squash for about two minutes. This softens the squash enough to make it easier to coax a knife through—even if it still requires some wiggling and leveraging to crack the squash.

Scoop out the seeds (so it looks like the squash half on the left).

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Butter a cookie sheet (usually just one suffices—unless like I did, you find yourself with a rather enormous squash) and bake the squash, hollowed inside down, at 375 F for about 30 minutes.

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It will come out super hot, and you will need to be able to handle the squash before you can finish the process. Like too many of my recipes, this one always takes longer to prepare than I expect it to—waiting for the squash to cool especially takes longer—and I am slow to learn. I think ideally, these first steps ought to be done the night before and the squash set aside to cool. The process could probably be sped by putting the squash into the refrigerator. I am impatient and frequently end up handling my squash gingerly through oven mitts—which keep me from being burnt, but the squash is still uncomfortably hot.

Now you’ve got your squash baked. How about some fixings to make this a proper casserole?

Sauté 1 cup of chopped onion (which is about ½ of a small onion) with two medium cloves of crushed garlic (or a liberal dusting of garlic powder), salt and pepper to taste, ½ pound of sliced mushrooms (this is one of those 8 oz packages—I use fresh mushrooms, not canned), ½ tsp of oregano, 1 tsp of basil, a dash of thyme, and if you have it, my mother’s recipe calls too for a ¼ cup of freshly chopped parsley or 2 tsp of parsley flakes.

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When the onions are soft and beginning to become more translucent, add the freshly chopped tomatoes—or I usually use a can of mostly drained diced tomatoes. Continue to cook the lot in the pan until most of liquid evaporates. I’m pretty sure it’s almost impossible to overcook this, but if it starts to blacken, you’ve probably left it on too long. Still, I left mine on the stove a good long while this past time after not draining my canned tomatoes enough.

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Good? Got all that cooked up?

Scoop out the insides of the squash into a big old bowl (you can toss the skins) and combine everything: the squash, the sauté, the breadcrumbs, and the cheeses (except the Parmesan—that’s for later). Stir it all up.

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Pour all that into a buttered casserole dish (or two if you need to do). Top the lot with Parmesan because more cheese is never a bad thing and because it’ll give the casserole a nice, crispy, golden brown crust.

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Bake all that at 375 F, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, and your vegetarian casserole should be ready to wow. It’ll look a little soupy in places. It’ll be a little soupy in places. But it’ll be delicious—or I hope you’ll find it so.

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All photos are mine and can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Foretelling the Reception of Lee’s Second: Go Set a Watchman and The Casual Vacancy

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As you may or may not know, today marks the release of Harper Lee’s second published book, Go Set a Watchman, a companion to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird. Barnes & Noble prior to its release treated the book with a secrecy and suspense to equal their response to a new Harry Potter book. While the American company, Barnes & Noble, has been treating Go Set a Watchman with the utmost secrecy, The Guardian, a British-born newspaper (they’ve had an online American edition since 2007), released online Friday the first chapter of the book, a thing they wouldn’t have dared to do for any of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. As I woke up to open the story three hours early for the throng of people that Barnes & Noble expected to rush to buy the book, I started thinking of J. K. Rowling.

Following the runaway success of her Harry Potter series, Rowling, a British author, released The Casual Vacancy, a book condemned as “too British” by too many Americans and by many worldwide as not enough like Harry Potter. Her reviews were tainted by fans expecting another Harry Potter, never minding that the two books were written for different aged audiences.

I can’t claim any knowledge of how The Casual Vacancy was handled by bookstores in the U.K. or frankly of how it was handled in the U.S., but I wonder if the very American nature of Lee’s prior novel meant that the British newspaper felt Go Set a Watchman deserving of less sanctity than did the American company, Harper Lee being something of an American heroine.

I don’t think I would be alone in citing To Kill a Mockingbird as one of “the great American novels.” The novel deals with America’s historic and present problems of racism and classism and lauds the purported American ideal of individual worth. The more innocent parts of young Scout’s childhood are nostalgically read by many Americans. It is one of the bestselling novels of all-time by an American author. (It is soundly surpassed by only seven other novels by American authors.*)

I think Go Set a Watchman is Lee’s Casual Vacancy, certainly in the way it will be received. Already I had one customer tell me that she had heard that reviews complained about Lee “ruining” her characters (an impossibility, really, since Lee as the author is the only authority on her characters), comparing the novel to To Kill a Mockingbird without consideration not only to the history of the manuscript (which is an interesting one to say the least) or the intended audiences of each novel, which I believe differ, though I wouldn’t swear to it.

To escape such colored reviews of her next book following Casual Vacancy, Rowling published under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Since outed as Galbraith, Rowling has done a decent job of slipping beneath the radar. Her latest publication, a hardbound copy of her 2008 commencement speech for Harvard University, I discovered only after it had been put on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, the publication having been subjected to no hype whatsoever.

As Go Set a Watchman uses the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird, it would be impossible for Lee to have chosen a pseudonym, but I wonder if she might wish that she had been able to do so. Were she to publish a third book with a different set of characters and a different setting (unlikely sadly), I would be unsurprised to see her try to distance from the Finches and from Maycomb by choosing a pseudonym as Rowling did to distance herself from Harry and Hogwarts. I fear, as it did for Rowling with The Casual Vacancy, the hype and love for her first book will ultimately hurt the reception of Lee’s second.

*Yeah, so Wikipedia’s not the best source, but according to Wikipedia, those novels are Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, and Johnston McCulley’s The Mark of Zorro. This list excludes non-fiction books, of which there were three by American authors that sold better than To Kill a Mockingbird according to this same source.

Full disclosure: I’ve not read even the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, but I have been following the drama surrounding its publication.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Accommodation (288 words)

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PG-13!  Potential TRIGGER WARNING for survivors of sexual assault.

They gave her a suite of rooms, all her own, large, elegantly furnished, and with a guard stationed outside the door. The guard was a woman, and she never came in. Justus only came in after knocking and asking for her permission. Most of the time she was alone.

She spent most of the time in just a corner of the suite. The bed alone was nearly as large as the whole of the van. Walking to the room where she was expected to tend to necessities seemed a formidable trek. She tried to remember the layout of her home and couldn’t. She suspected that these rooms were at least as large—and she knew that they were nicer, richer, stronger.

They were safe rooms.

But she still didn’t feel safe.

Justus came, and he tried to wheedle her into conversation. He brought her books. She had learnt to read before she had left home. Or learnt to read a little. The books he brought were full of strange words that she didn’t understand, and she read more slowly than he seemed to expect. He’d ask her opinion about the ending when she was hardly a quarter of the way through the story.

He never touched her. He had promised that he would not. He had promised that no one would. But she kept waiting for him to. She waited for him to force his lips to hers and suck her dry. She waited for him to force himself between her legs and leave her wet. He never did. After days of this, she wondered if he even wanted to. Was it possible she had been found by someone who did not? Did he like her so little?

I’m teetering on the edge of apologizing for exposing this character’s pain and subsequent confusion.  She hurts.  She’s hurt for a long time.  I do not find her to be emotionally healthy, but I love her to her core.

I stole this line from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Black Sun” (1697 words).  It’s late, but she knows why.  I wrote this section of the story in time for at least Sunday.  I had every intention of returning to it to make it into more of a story, but I seem to have misplaced this thread and my motivation, and I promised to update by midnight tonight.  Perhaps later there will be a Part 2.

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad stole this line to write “The Right Fit.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Protection.”