Are you a good Beast? Or a bad one?

So someone who read Bed of Flowers might wonder how I can claim it's inspired by Beauty and the Beast when there's nothing 'beastly' about my hero, Baron Orson Loel. 

I started writing Bed of Flowers last year, while the new Disney live-action Beauty and the Beast was in theaters, the one with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens. I didn't see the movie until much later but I did catch a tweet--it's been so long I'd never be able to find the original, so I don't remember who wrote it or the exact words--but it said something like, "I'm not seeing this movie, I'm done with stories about privileged white guys getting second chances." 

It was still in the early stages of plotting out my book and this comment really stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more central it became to the way I imagined my Beast. Most modernizations I know focus on finding a real-world parallel for Beast's physical transformation. They generally link his isolation to his appearance. This can be done thoughtfully--I loved both Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast and Tessa Dare's The Duchess Deal, two romances where Beast's challenge is to deal with trauma that's left psychological as well as physical scars. These Beasts do battle with their own demons and the victory they need, the key to the happily ever after, is the resolution of an invisible, internal battle. 

But I was still thinking to myself: what if all the people who hate Beast have a point? What if they don't want to forgive him? Maybe they shouldn't have to.

And that's why I didn't write about a Beast unfairly rejected by the world--I wrote about the arrogant prince who failed a test of character. A man who's life has been blighted as a consequence of his own actions, and who accepts those consequences without resentment or complaint. 

I won't spoil the details of how it all came to be, but Bed of Flowers is set in the small seaside town of New Quay and every single person who lives there loathes Loel. The heroine's family most of all; like in the original tales, Bonny Reed--my Beauty--is the daughter of a once-wealthy merchant who's fallen on hard times.

The townsfolk of New Quay are not the problem here. Loel has no right to their forgiveness. He is not owed any second chances by anyone. The fact that he gets one from Bonny is a miracle, and he knows it.

Bonny's goodness, her ability to see the wonderful man that Loel has become, drives the novel's conflict. Bonny is a good girl, through and through. She lives to make other people happy. She's not naturally inclined to rebellion or defiance. In the first chapter of Bed of Flowers, she happily accepts a proposal of marriage from a local bachelor. He's young, handsome, wealthy, from a prominent family; he's exactly the sort of person she's supposed to marry. Her parents support the match. It doesn't even occur to her to say no.

Not until it's too late, anyhow. 

We now interrupt this program...

Hey everyone. Normally I write about my books, what I'm reading, what I'm researching. I'm going to pause briefly and do something different. For the past year or so I've been a 'digital nomad'--traveling around the world, staying in a city or a country for a couple of months before moving on to the next. It's an increasingly popular lifestyle and part of what makes it work is word of mouth. Nomads meet, tell each other where the good spots are, and then travel on to a place that someone probably recommended to them a few months earlier. 

So I'm going to keep a running tally of the co-living and co-working spaces that I've tried, with a brief description of my thoughts.

Roam. Ubud, Bali.

Roam offers co-living and co-working. It's probably my favorite of all the places I've tried, but it's also the most expensive. The rooms aren't just comfortable, they're luxurious. The working space was convenient, I could take a break during the middle of the day to do yoga at a studio a short walk away, and the shared spaces really facilitated social interaction. At the time I was there, the internet was on the slow side.

KoHub, Ko Lanta, Thailand

I really disliked this place. The bundles sounded good but weren't--I tired of the limited options from the kitchen really fast & generally wished I hadn't pre-paid for meals because I would rather have eaten anywhere else. No one liked the KoHub housing--I ended up in a cute cabana a 10 minute walk from the co-working space which was lovely & there are plenty of alternative options. Mostly, the bathroom at the coworking space was perpetually disgusting; clogged and puddled and repulsive. 

Ko Lanta is a beautiful island and relatively peaceful, but I wouldn't return here until I was confident they'd made some major changes. I heard some were in the works & I was there in spring of 2017, so who knows what lies in the future. 

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I usually worked from CAMP, the work/study space in the mall. I liked it a lot but getting a desk could be a challenge. Still, if I timed my day right, I could spend the day working and then hop across the hall to the movie theater, which got a lot of new releases and often played the original English. Punspace is the more established co-working space but I almost never went there; it was a lot more expensive, I didn't like the vibe as much, and I didn't need the faster internet. 

I found an apartment just by walking from one complex to another in the Niemman area, asking about apartments and comparing prices. It took a whole day and I was exhausted by the end, but I found a nice one bedroom for myself in a perfect location and ended up staying for four months.

Hub Hoi An, Hoi An, Vietnam

A really excellent co-working space. I found a room within walking distance on AirBnB and biked to the co-working space every morning. Hoi An is a really charming city with great atmosphere, great restaurants, nice souvenir shops, and a beautiful beach. It's spread out enough that ideally, you'd rent a scooter to get around. I am not comfortable on a scooter, which really limited my activities. And yet I'd happily return to Hoi An, partly because the co-working space was so welcoming and friendly. The daily communal lunches were a highlight. 

Wifi Tribe

I spent a month with the Wifi Tribe in Changgu and I was not a fan. This is doubtless a matter of personal taste but I'm nearing forty and I'm really focused on work. The tribe, during my month in Bali, was mostly in their 20s and spent a lot of time drinking/partying. The organizer told me that the dynamics change with every new group so YMMV. I won't be back.

Plus, they rented a beautiful villa for everyone to live in... but it was really far away from all the amenities. Far from the coworking, from the restaurants, from the beach, etc. Because I didn't drive a scooter, getting around was really hard. The end result was that I felt really managed, with less personal freedom than I'd like, and was generally unhappy.

Dojo, Changgu, Bali

A really lovely co-working space in Changgu. I loved it here. It was quiet and peaceful and close to great restaurants, with an attached cafe that brought food and drinks right to your desk while you worked. Very chill place to spend time. They organize a lot of social events and workshops but I didn't participate.

Sundesk, Taghazout, Morocco

Marvelous beachside co-working and co-living in Morocco. Taghazout is a tiny town and there's not much to it--which is perfect if you want to keep your nose to the grindstone. The communal breakfast included in the price of the stay is always a highlight of the day and while I was here I really enjoyed floating between the indoor and outdoor office spaces. Well organized, nicely run, friendly. Taghazout is a hotspot for surfing, which I do not do, but there are some yoga studios around and I made full use of them.

That's it... so far. 

 

Best of 2017 + update

I've been slow with updates, so first off, how about some news? I'm working on edits for the first book in my new Sweetness and Light series. Here's a bit of a teaser--the title is BED OF FLOWERS. I got the first round of edits back just before Thanksgiving and, well, haven't gotten much work done since. The world's smallest violin is doubtless playing in the background as I inform you that I spent most of December on a family vacation in Peru, and did not have much time to work. But now the holidays are over and my nose is pressed firmly to the grindstone.

I'll have more to say about BED OF FLOWERS once I've finished the first round edits. At that point, I'll be able to set a release date and do some fun things, like show you all the beautiful cover I've got in the bank and write up a blurb. 

I wish I were a faster writer. I'm on the slower side and, on top of it, I really like BED OF FLOWERS. I conceived it as a Beauty and the Beast story where Beauty has agency--you know, in the fairy tales it's her father who steals a rose and then Beast who's trying to break his curse. I wanted a Beauty who makes her own messes and then gets herself out of them. And it's evolved into a neat book--instead of the classic rose, I'm delving into the mid-nineteenth century mania for orchids. It's worth the time it will take to make it as good as it can be. 

In the meanwhile, I read a fair bit this year and that means it's time for a top ten list. Links are affiliate links. So, without further ado, the best books I read in 2017: 

THE BLACK COUNT by Tom Reiss--This is one of those books that tells a specific, unique story in such a way that it changes the way you understand a much broader swath of history. In this case, the subject is Alexandre Dumas--father of the novelist and inspiration for some of his son's most popular stories. Born a slave in St. Domingue (modern day Haiti), Dumas followed his father--a Marquis--to France and joined the French Revolution. He rose through the ranks, became a General, commanded the Army of the Alps, and so he had a long way to fall when Napoleon, who hated him, seized the reins of power. 

This book has changed the way I think of Napoleon, just as a start. It breathed enough life into the comic caricature of Napoleon as a petty, selfish tyrant that I can't quite find it funny anymore. It's a worthwhile take on the French Revolution and, most damningly, demonstrates exactly how the achievements of people of color are erased from history. 

Really, really worth the read. 

A CONSPIRACY IN BELGRAVIA by Sherry Thomas--This book sent me on a mystery kick that I'm still working through. It was so good that I wanted more, and more, and more... but there are only two books in the Lady Sherlock series, so I've had to look for substitutes. 

I love this take on Sherlock, where the great detective's genius holds center stage but the rest of the cast has the opportunity to shine, each one with talents and insights that are necessary to the successful resolution of the mystery. It captures the essence of Sherlock but adds a generosity of spirit that is quintessentially feminine. 

Truly a pleasure to read and I'll be devouring the third in the series on release day, no doubt. 

ACT LIKE IT by Lucy Parker--The most delightful contemporary romance I've read in ages. Dialogue as crisp and fizzy as a glass of champagne. Swoony Saturnine hero, whose personality is just sour enough that his sweet moments send you into a swoon. The setting, high-end London theater, is aspirational and fascinating and feels real. I've already done a re-read, and I don't do re-reads. 

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Leovy--If you've been trying to self-educate about criminal justice and mass incarceration in the US, you've probably asked yourself, "But what's the answer? How do we do this right?" 

GHETTOSIDE is about a murder investigation in Los Angeles. But it's also a pretty good attempt to answer that question. It follows a superb detective who doggedly pursues his case until he finds the killer. He puts in the work, pounds the pavement, persists without encouragement. If murders go unsolved but broken brake lights are routinely ticketed, something is badly wrong--and in some communities, it's routine for 60% of all murders to go unsolved. That's unacceptable & GHETTOSIDE insists, eloquently, that there's no excuse for such systematic failure.

The Penric and Desdemona novellas by Lois McMaster Bujold--I read a fair bit of epic fantasy this year. Some of it was really, really great and yet it's this series of novellas by Lois McMaster Bujold that rises to the top of my list. I did a lot of traveling this year and when I was really dreading a long flight, I'd load up one or two of these Penric & Desdemona novellas. When I got on the plane, these were always the books I opened first and most eagerly.

They're set in the world of the Five Gods, which I really enjoy. The hero, Penric, starts out as a young man of a scholarly bent who, not entirely by accident, finds himself possessed by a demon. The demon is Desdemona. She lives inside of him, incorporeal but very powerful. They forge an increasingly harmonious working relationship as Penric makes his way in the world, first struggling to find his own path and eventually, when he's ready, using his abilities to help others. 

Bujold is a master whose particular talent is creating memorable, larger-than-life characters. Case in point: I hope there are more of these novellas forthcoming because I just enjoy spending time with Penric and Desdemona.

SARAH J MAAS, THE COMPLETE WORKS--2017 was the year I read every single book by Sarah J Maas. As I wrote in this post, I'd actually tried one of her books before and decided we weren't a match. But I was wrong. The neatest thing that Maas does is write tropes completely straight... so that there's a real impact when she turns around and throws a grenade at them. Her books are brilliant and epic and I loved them all. 

THRONE OF GLASS would be a good place to start. 

TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin--I am realizing that even though I spent most of this year abroad, a lot of my reading was pretty specifically American in context--TEAM OF RIVALS is another case in point. This is not a new book & it's won more awards than I could count. It's a book about Abraham Lincoln the politician, about his peculiar ability to be strategic, insightful and clear-eyed without ever tipping into cynicism. And it describes a time when the country was divided in ways that feel frighteningly familiar.

If you, like me, have been looking to history for insight about the present, this is an excellent choice. 

THE DEAL by Elle Kennedy--I read this book around the beginning of last year and it feels like aeons ago, another lifetime. I was still living in Kentucky, getting ready to move. It really has been quite a year, hasn't it?

Anyway, I read the whole Off-Campus series back to back, hardly coming up for air between books. Like CONSPIRACY IN BELGRAVIA, THE DEAL had me searching for more books featuring athlete heroes. I glommed Susan Elizabeth Philips and Sarina Bowen because of THE DEAL. 

So it's THE DEAL that makes the list. College-set romance between a hockey player headed for the pros and a girl who, quite sensibly, assumes that the smoking hot star athlete is a player who wouldn't take relationships too seriously. He proves her wrong. Great chemistry between the leads, great dialogue, good romance.

TH WITCHER NOVELS novels by Andrzej Sapkowski--I admit, I read these books because I enjoyed the video game. I wanted more, the game is complete, so... I went back to the source. And boy am I glad I did. 

If you aren't familiar with the games, the Witcher novels have been compared to George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books. This is accurate, insofar as both authors must have ambivalent feelings about the TV show/games that popularized their books. And Sapkowski's fantasy world is grim, like Martin's, explicitly preoccupied with the nature of power. But Sapkowski is a little bit more focused--his world is full of magic and technology is roughly medieval but his take on imperialism is depressingly, bitingly current. 

There are more differences between the two authors than similarities, I'd say. Martin is verbose--he gives you so much detail you can smell the air and taste the food as his characters eat. He gives you a sprawling cast, dozens of POVs so that you really understand every side of every conflict. Sapkowski tells the story of one small family; all five books follow Geralt of Rivia's quest to spare his daughter from the schemes and machinations of powerful people who want to use her for their own gain. 

I found the whole cycle riveting but the ending (fair warning to romance readers) is bittersweet at best. The series starts with BLOOD OF ELVES.

DUKE OF SIN by Elizabeth Hoyt--A historical romance that could have been written just for me. The hero is an unapologetic villain who's bewildered by his own feelings; he's not used to having them. The heroine, Bridget, sees him clearly.

Val has a fantastic voice, unique and fully realized, and he never really changes. There's one instance, early in the book, where Bridget successfully curbs Val's violent impulses. But there's another, toward the end, where she fails. The order of those two events is important: love doesn't make him a good person. A better one, sure. But there's no magic wand. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Round Up

It's been too long since I posted a review round-up. I've been reading a lot, so I'll post the highlights. I've been reading a bit of everything (fantasy, contemporary romance, nonfiction, fairy tale retellings, sci-fi...)

For fantasy: Thick as Thieves by Megan Whelan Turner, Champion of the Rose & Bones of the Fair by Andrea Host, Sarah J Maas's entire backlist. And, sidestepping into urban fantasy, Ilona Andrews' Hidden Legacy trilogy.

Megan Whelan Turner writes books where you can really linger over ever sentence, where re-reading and close reading are richly rewarded. Which is why it pays to start with the first book in the series, The Thief. The two Host books are stand-alones but set in the same world--beautifully written fantasy romances with excellent worldbuilding and good LGBT representation (homosexual marriages are the norm in this world). 

The Sarah J Maas books are interesting. I read both of her series, the Court of Thorns and Roses books and then the Throne of Glass books. They both play a similar trick, which I now intensely admire but served as a barrier to entry for me as a reader: the first book in each series more or less plays a trope completely straight. So with the Court of Thorns and Roses books, a human girl is kidnapped by a handsome fae prince who falls madly in love with her and lavishes her with wealth and adoration. In the Throne of Glass books, a young assassin is released from prison to serve an Evil King, but she finds herself drawn to his charming and good-hearted heir. 

But then subsequent books in the series turn the initial set-up upside down. Every critique I might have made (for instance: the fae prince of the Court of Thorns and Roses books is possessive and overprotective; he cages the heroine as much as he cares for her) ends up being part of the story, which turns and advances in new and surprising directions.   

It's a very epic series, everything turned up to eleven, full of high drama and intensity and big emotions and hard choices. It's also smart and engaging, never resting on its laurels, with heroines who earn their swagger and heroes who admire them for it. 

A little bit of contemporary romance--The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, two books that showed up on a lot of 'best of the year' lists when they were published, for good reason.

Going Nowhere Fast by Kati Wilde had some great banter and good chemistry, even if the plot doesn't stand up to intense scrutiny. I've also indulged in some sports romance--the Brooklyn Bruisers books by Sarina Bowen are really satisfying because the characters are legitimately wrapped up in their work, the minutae of training and conditioning, and the characters behave like mature adults. Ditto Hard Knocks by Ruby Lang, about a doctor and a pro hockey player at the end of his career--a funny sexy romance between two people whose 'meet cute' is complicated by the fact that the heroine has a problem with the sports whose players stand a strong risk of getting concussed and developing lasting brain damage. 

I re-read Robin McKinley's Beauty and the Beast retellings, Rose Daughter & Beauty, because the book I'm working on has shades of Beauty and the Beast.

I enjoyed a bit of historical goodness--The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian is male/male historical romance with great chemistry and humor, a little like Tessa Dare, and A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas--I absolutely adore her Lady Sherlock books. 

Some nonfiction: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is gripping as a historical account of Lincoln's presidency, with some frightening similarities to the present political situation, and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the book that gave rise to the movie. The book isn't structured as a gripping narrative and doesn't feel like a story, with a plot that twists and turns. But as a piece of American history, it's riveting and important. 

And a bit of sci-fi, too: All Systems Red by Martha Wells is a novella about a murderbot that would rather watch TV than do its job. I can't wait for the sequel. The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin is probably the definition of 'hard sci-fi'--it's an alternate history, set in China and rooted in the cultural revolution, about physicists in a country hostile to science and a peculiar video game called The Three Body Problem. It's hard to explain much more without spoilers and it had more math & physics than I, personally, could ever find enjoyable... but it was also incredibly memorable and I've found myself recommending it to others fairly often.