Reading ABCs.

So I'm going to preface this post by saying that I've been reading books by friends and colleagues recently & will probably keep pulling them into rotation for a while. Partly, I admit, as a kind of gratitude. If an author has been kind to me, friendly or helpful, it's a way of saying: yes, I also think you're worth my time, yes, I also want to know you better. (Though the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, as they say.)

But as long as I'm on the subject, here's something else I'm grateful for: I belong to more than one RWA chapter, and I've belonged to some pretty big chapters (the Orange County chapter is gigantic). When I first joined, I was--like a lot of newbies--desperate to find people to READ MY WORK. I wanted feedback more than anything. I wanted to be better. I wanted to write good books and I knew I needed help. 

I did not have an easy time finding readers. But time has taught me (the hard way) that I showed up with the wrong attitude. Once you join a community of writers you're surrounded by people who...write books. If we all read one another's books, we'd never do anything else. It would be an endless time-suck & a terrible burden. 

Now, a few years down the line, one of the things I appreciate most is that I can show up at a monthly RWA meeting and nobody pressures me to do anything. I honestly don't feel like anyone expects me to read their work; we don't need to like one another's books to talk shop. 

So, here's the disclosure: Alison Atlee belongs to my local RWA chapter and she's been really welcoming and charming; Emma Barry is one of my favorite Twitter people, reliably thoughtful & smart; and I've hired KJ Charles as my developmental editor. 

& without further ado: books I've read recently!


Typewriter Girl -- Alison Atlee

Typewriter Girl features my very favorite type of heroine--scrappy, aggressive, competent, with a vicious tongue and a tender heart. Betsey is permanently at odds with the world, and you really get inside her skin and feel it--how she chafes & second-guesses herself, everything effortful because she can never quite step right. 

The hero--Mr. Iefan Jones--has a little bit of that, too. He's trying to move up in the world, and he doesn't want anyone to know where he started out. He downplays his Welsh heritage and childhood poverty; he goes by John most of the time. Especially when he's schmoozing. He's a contractor, and he needs to impress the sort of people people who have enough money to undertake big projects. Titans of industry, aristocrats...and if they don't have a job, they might have a marriageable daughter. He's a climber, and he wants a wife who will raise him up in the world. 

But Iefan also has heaps of natural charm. He's got easy manners, he inspires trust. He's the sort of guy who people look at & think: Oh, he's going places. 

Betsey, on the other hand, is the sort of girl people look at & think: I know where you're headed and I don't want you to drag me down with you.

Well. Most people think it. Some say it straight to her face. Iefan is the first exception she's encountered in a long while. He appreciates her fierceness, her determination, her competence. He first encounters her as a typewriter girl in an insurance company, and he straightaway offers her a job managing tourist excursions at a luxury hotel in Idensea. He has a good feeling about her.

The prose is beautiful, rich and wonderfully atmospheric. Betsey gets her HEA but it doesn't come easy. Many of the obstacles along her path aren't just painful, they're humiliating. Disaster with a side of insult and pettiness. I can find this hard to read, and I needed that promise of an HEA at the end, I needed the romance to pull me through. 

So. A romance about two strivers, striving to make their lives better. I don't think Betsey really has to change in order to achieve happiness--that's not her challenge, and I appreciated that: she's fine just as she is. Better than fine. But she's the sort of person who has to work hard to find her place in the world. 

Anyway. I really, really enjoyed this book. 

Burn For Me -- Ilona Andrews

I love Ilona Andrews. Everyone loves Ilona Andrews. She deserves the love. She writes great books.

I read Burn for Me in a single sitting. I sank into it, enjoyed every page, finished in one of those drugged-feeling dazes & wishing I could immediately open the second book and keep reading.

The worldbuilding is new an imaginative and a lot of fun. It reminds me a bit of Rachel Vincent's Unbound series, but not so bleak. The magic powers are fun, feel epic, lots of variety.

The relationship dynamic between Nevada and Rogan reminded me in some key ways of the Kate/Curran romance. Nevada has an extraordinary power she works hard to hide, trying to convince the world that she has no magic gifts at all. Unlike Kate, she hasn't been trained & early on, we get a hint that she's got a lot to learn. Rogan is immensely powerful, first among his kind in the same way Curran is to his pack, and he has an even stronger, more problematic version of Curran's fierce and feral morality (protecting the pack & leaving everyone else to shuffle along for themselves). Rogan doesn't have a pack; there's not much of a softer side in evidence.

Anyway. Some same, some different. I'm in. 

Special Interests -- Emma Barry

The romance starts out on a familiar foundation. Our heroine Millie is a bit of a wallflower, though she's been forced to come out of her shell by a traumatic event, and that's shaken her up in both good ways and bad--she's already thinking, changing, self-examining as the book opens. Parker, the hero, is hyper ambitious, and he's much too busy with work to fit women into his life as anything more than one night stands. He seems very content with his life, but Millie's stubborn idealism makes him reexamine his choices.

They meet cute not just once but twice: first when Parker tries to pick Millie up at a bar (or does she try to pick him up? It's a little bit of both), and then when they encounter one another on opposite sides of the table at a business meeting.

Parker and Millie belong to the same party--they're both Democrats--but they have different priorities. Which is to say: they choose separate compromises. (One thing that's clear here is that everyone makes compromises--Millie compromises her ambition in order to avoid selling her soul whereas Parker jettisons his beliefs in order to get things done; Millie would rather be principled than effective, Parker would rather be effective than principled.)

The coolest thing about this book to me was that conflict and how it played out. Parker and Millie are on the same side, right? So where's the conflict? But instead of starting Parker and Millie at opposite sides of a shallow canyon, she puts them at either end of a deep, deep crevasse. It's a narrow but profound divide and bridging it is harrowing for each of them. 

There's some great banter. Good chemistry. Smart observations about politics (they seemed smart to me, anyhow). I didn't buy the crisis at the end--but it didn't last long, so it's all good. 

Flight of Magpies -- KJ Charles

Third and final book in the Magpie trilogy. Start at the beginning! It's good. Regency, male/male romance with magic, picks up favorite tropes (like, say, my very very favorite: icy, sarcastic & devastatingly handsome aristocrat) but the settings & story are original & exciting. 

The plot here was too much for a novella, I think. Everything made sense, but a LOT happened, and it went by so quickly.

On the other hand, Crane & Stephen are absolutely fantastic. When they get along, they've got great banter. When they fight, the air crackles with electricity. When they make up, it's believably hot. 

They're an established couple, committed and in love, but there's still so much energy in their relationship. Sparks still fly. The honeymoon isn't over. And I'll miss the ensemble cast as much as the protagonists--Merrick and Saint and the Golds. 

Gate of Ivory -- Doris Egan

I read this post over at Something More and promptly bought a used copy of the Ivory omnibus. It was waiting for me when I arrived home a couple of days ago & feeling exhausted, after a full day of travel and a long drive, I cracked it open and I was in heaven. 

Gate of Ivory has sci-fi elements (space travel; a technologically advanced planet selling their inventions to neighbors at very premium prices; figuring out an alien culture as an outsider), fantasy elements (magic exists on Ivory, although it's rare and not everyone can do it; despite the foreign technology the culture remains feudal, in many ways), and romance elements (though this was not my favorite aspect of the book--I didn't hate it, it just didn't sparkle for me.)

So it's a genre mash up and it's clever and fun. The heroine is fantastic. When we meet her, she's been stranded on the planet of Ivory for two years and she has one goal: go home. But long spaceship flights are expensive and she's having a hard time saving up enough money. As the novel gets going & dramatic events start to pile up, she transforms: she becomes someone who rolls with the punches, who lives in the present, who remains separate--alien--while engaging fully with the people she meets. 

That transformation alone is such a triumph. She levels up, becomes a better & wiser person, right before your eyes. And you root for her! She's great. 

Anyway, the second I finished Gate of Ivory I immediately started the sequel and read until I couldn't keep my eyes open. I'm really enjoying it.

The Luckiest Lady in London -- Sherry Thomas

I came up with this on Twitter, but I'll repeat it on the blog, which is not so ephemeral: Sherry Thomas romances proceed much like those eagles who mate in midair and have to finish the deed before they go splat on the ground. Is that eagle story apocryphal? Even if so: that's the common thread in all her romances. Her characters endanger one another, and if they can't work things out--if the plot zigs when it should have zagged--they will maim or kill one another. 

Felix and Louisa might be my favorite Sherry Thomas couple, too. I'm not sure if this is my favorite of her books, but I loved their banter. When they're getting along, they sparkle--witty and sharp and exciting. 

Of course, those moments of getting along are rare, but they pulled me through--like a little trail of breadcrumbs to follow through the dark forest. I believed that they belonged together. I wanted to see them find their equilibrium.

Both Louisa and Felix are self-protective. Felix defends his vulnerabilities with aggression. When he feels exposed, he lashes out. And when she feels hurt, Louisa retreats to safety. You can see how this could loop, horribly and infinitely. 

Really, what I might love most about Sherry Thomas is how angry her characters get about feeling vulnerable or weak--how furious it makes them, and how hard they work to maneuver away from that feeling. I empathize. 

And the base recognition that love is vulnerability. It really is. 

The crisis at the end didn't work for me at all, but everything else did, so thumbs up.