Blog

Chapter One

Stella tried to size up the tall, dark, beat-up guy standing in front of her, but half his face was in shadow.

Behind him, the faint musky smell of circus animals—elephants, lions, tigers, and horses—and stale popcorn wafted in the open door of her trailer, along with bright, late-morning sunlight.

Ruby, her boss, shut the door, cutting off the smells and the busy background noise of the crew and performers getting ready for the show later that day.

It took Stella’s eyes a second to adjust to the sudden absence of the sunlight and the dimmer interior. When they did, she could see Beat-up Guy better. Despite his damaged state, he wasn’t bad to look at. Well-defined chest and biceps muscles gave shape to a snug, long-sleeved, gray Henley, and he filled out his low-slung, worn jeans with long, sinewy legs that reminded her of a runner or a soccer player.

His hair, brown with definite auburn-red tinges, came to a slight widow’s peak. Cut short on the sides and tousled on top, it stuck up a little, giving him a carefree, playful vibe.

When she met his gaze, he flashed dimples in a greeting that put him firmly in the heartthrob category. The effect would cause the panties of even the most prudish of women to drop.

All except Stella’s. Good thing she’d changed her ways and was resistant to carnal temptations. Guys with devilish twinkles in their grayish-green eyes and trouble written all over them were off-limits. Besides, judging by the cut in his bottom lip, the bruise on his jaw visible through gingery brown stubble, and the way he was holding his ribs, he was just another loser who thought he would run away from his problems and join the circus.

Not that she was one to talk.

She made herself concentrate on Ruby, who stood to his right. Ruby was dwarfed by him, even in her four-inch red wedges. That didn’t mean much, though, since Ruby was only about five feet tall.

“Stella,” said Ruby, possessive hand resting on the small of Beat-up Guy’s back, “this is Ben Ware. I met him in Vegas last night.”

The circus was playing a small town two hours from Las Vegas, and Ruby and some of the others had gone into Sin City yesterday evening for a night out. Ben Ware was apparently the souvenir she’d brought home, even though she was in her forties and had to be at least twenty years older than he was. One thing about Ruby, though: with her long, wavy dark hair, plump boobs, and petite, curvy figure, she had a sex appeal that was timeless. She never went long without someone to warm her bed.

“Ben,” said Ruby, “this is Stella Burberry.” She drew out Stella’s last name the Oklahoma way (which was also how Stella and her family said it), with an emphasis on the “berry,” not the British way, which sounded like Bur-bry. “She’s our HR person,” Ruby continued. “She handles most of the new-employee paperwork and such.”

“Hi,” said Stella, offering her hand. “Nice to meet you.”

He reached out with the arm that wasn’t hugging his ribs. Although the handshake was brief, his hand was warm and strong. “Nice to meet you, too.” Unlike his rather rough appearance, his voice was polished and dark-chocolate smooth, and his bold, interested perusal of her established a direct connection to her insides, making them shift and realign.

Before she realized what she was doing, she was giving him a small, flirtatious smile in return.

But then the memory of paramedics working to save her fifteen-year-old brother beside the backyard pool on a cold December night caused guilt to slam into her. She wiped the smile from her face. Her days of partying with bad boys were over.

She was on the straight and narrow now and had a miracle to earn. Besides, this guy had clearly started something with Ruby. Stella had no business flirting with him, even for a second. And what kind of guy was he, looking at her that way when he’d just spent the night with the woman standing beside him?

Nodding at his split lip, Stella said, “Looks like you might have made some enemies.”

His mouth quirked, bringing out the dimples on each side. “Just a small misunderstanding.” His accent was swanky and polished, too, with well-formed words like a newscaster—much different from her country twang that slipped out every once in a while, despite two and a half years of college that had citified it.

Ruby patted his back, her long red fingernails gleaming in the artificial light of the trailer. “You weren’t really cheating in that poker game, were you, hon?”

“No. I don’t cheat.” He said it sincerely enough, but his injuries told a different story. He’d clearly ticked someone off.

Aiming a pensive frown at him, Ruby said, “You could use some pointers on defending yourself, though.”

“Maybe.” He didn’t sound too perturbed that his prowess was being questioned. Wincing a little, he said, “Mind if I sit down?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Stella waved her hand at one of the dinette chairs that went with her tiny, built-in dinette table, feeling guilty at her lapse in manners. She should have offered them both a seat long ago. “Be my guest.”

“Oh, of course!” Ruby pulled out a chair for him. “You poor thing. You look like you’re about to drop.”

That was an exaggeration, but his mouth was tight, and he did lower himself into the chair in a slow, gingerly way.

A pang of concern ribboned through Stella, despite her resolve not to fall prey to his charms. “Do you need to see a doctor?”

“No. Just some bruised ribs. No big deal.”

“I asked him that, too,” Ruby said as she sat down in the chair next to his. She rubbed his shoulder in a leisurely, sensual fashion with her fingertip.

Ben stiffened a bit at Ruby’s touch. If the evidence didn’t point in a different direction, Stella might think he wasn’t that into Ruby. But maybe it was just because he was hurt.

“Don’t worry,” Ruby said, her tone suggestive. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

I bet, thought Stella. An unpleasant feeling tried to burrow itself into her, something a lot like jealousy—which was ridiculous. She’d only known this guy for about two minutes and had no claim to him whatsoever. She pasted a bland smile on her face, determined not to show the unwanted emotion.

“Sweetie,” Ruby said to Stella, “can you get Ben the new-hire paperwork to fill out?”

“Sure.” Stella got the required forms, along with a pen, from the small media cabinet above her trailer’s built-in flatscreen TV. She, like a lot of the other circus employees, lived in a compact fifth-wheel RV, the kind that hooked onto the bed of a big dually pickup truck with a special hitch. The RV doubled as her office.

She set the requested papers in front of Ben on the table and sat across from him and Ruby. Ruby’s flowery perfume dominated the air, but there was the faintest scent of soap and clean man the perfume hadn’t been able to overpower.

Head bent over the paperwork, he scratched his pen across the pages with efficient, confident strokes. Even when he was doing something so mundane, he had the kind of effortless attractiveness that was noticeable—an innate charisma that would draw women to him like bees to a Coke can.

He had nice hands, strongly shaped, elegantly male. His knuckles weren’t scuffed like the rest of him, though, and she wondered why. She’d seen the aftermath of several fights because there wasn’t much entertainment in her hometown of Buck Rub, Oklahoma. High school kids, both males and females—and occasionally even adults—tended to get into scuffles out of boredom and imagined slights of honor. Bruised and skinned knuckles were the norm after one of these. Sometimes even broken hands. Had Ben not tried to defend himself in the fight? Or maybe someone had held him while someone else had punched him?

She found that possibility disturbing—and then reminded herself it was none of her business.

“I’m thinking he can take Pete’s place,” Ruby said.

That jolted Stella from her thoughts. “Why? What’s happened to Pete?”

“He quit last night. Some nightclub owner offered him a job doing light and sound there.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

Stella shook her head, still getting used to the transient nature of the employees she dealt with. They were here today, gone tomorrow. Or here yesterday afternoon, gone last night. “Do you know anything about stage lighting and sound?” she asked Ben.

“No. But I’m a quick learner.”

“It’s not that hard,” said Ruby. “Mark knows how to do it. He can teach him.”

Stella disagreed. “It’s harder than it looks. There’s all the cues you have to know, all the—”

“Don’t worry about it, hon. It’ll be fine.”

Stella was inclined to argue, but the finality in Ruby’s tone told her she’d better not.

While Ben was still filling out the paperwork, Ruby looked around and shook her head. “You live like a monk in here, Stella. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. You need some decorations to liven the place up. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s about the fanciest trailer I’ve ever seen, but you need to put your stamp on it, give it some personality.”

“I’ll do it one of these days,” Stella replied, even though she had no intention of decorating. She wanted to keep things simple and impersonal. She didn’t want anything ornate. Her little home wasn’t exactly a convent cell, but that wasn’t her fault: she’d borrowed it from her grandparents, and beggars can’t be choosers.

Ben paused from his paperwork, his gaze taking in the newness of the surroundings, the granite counters and plush leather furniture, and then came to a stop on her. She got the feeling he was making comparisons, wondering why her trailer shouted money and luxury while her appearance said, well, something else.

She wished she was wearing something other than the boxy, plain white T-shirt, baggy jeans, and black flip-flops she’d gotten from Walmart. Although why she was uncomfortable all of a sudden, she didn’t know. She shouldn’t care about impressing him.

He was making her antsy, though, like he knew about That Night—which was crazy. He couldn’t possibly know anything about her. She supposed Ruby could have told him, but Ruby had all but shouted from the rooftops that she and Ben had been doing other things last night besides talking.

Wanting to put a halt to his appraisal, Stella said, “I need to make a copy of your driver’s license.”

With a nod, he leaned to one side and retrieved a plain, stainless-steel money clip from his back jeans pocket. Inside it, a Nevada driver’s license was secured on top of several folded bills. He separated the license and handed it to her.

It took her a few minutes to make the copy, since she had to pull out the little copier/printer she kept in the storage compartment under her platform bed and get it going. By the time she was done, Ben’s completed forms were waiting for her on the table.

She gave him back his license, realizing after she’d handed it over that she’d hardly looked at it. She sat down and began to look over the top page of the paperwork, stopping at his full name: Benedict Ezechiel Ware. “Your name’s Benedict?”

“Yes.”

“Really? As in Arnold?”

“No. As in the eggs.”

She allowed the hint of a smile. “Heard those a few times?”

“A few.”

She scanned farther down the page and noticed he’d left the field for his Social Security number blank. “You didn’t fill in your Social Security number. We need it for tax purposes.” She offered him the form so he could write it in, but he didn’t take it.

He tapped his pen in a rapid rhythm on the tabletop. “That could be a problem. I don’t have it memorized, and I lost my card.”

“You’ll need to get it. We run things on the up and up. Contrary to what everyone believes, the circus doesn’t take in every miscreant who’s running away from something. At least, ours doesn’t.”

Okay. White lie. Ruby was such a softy that they occasionally took in downtrodden guys of questionable background, desperate for a job, who would work for the meager pay the circus could afford to pay its low-level crewmen and animal caregivers. And, yes, they paid them in cash under the table. But this Ben guy didn’t need to know that. Anyway, it was a practice Stella didn’t approve of and hoped to get Ruby to stop before the IRS came calling.

“I’m not running away from anything,” Ben said, looking her in the eye.

“Great. Then it shouldn’t be a problem for you to get proper documentation, right?”

Before he could reply, Ruby waved a hand in dismissal. “We’ll worry about all that Social Security stuff later.”

“But it’s kind of important,” said Stella, giving her boss a pointed stare.

Ruby returned the stare and spoke with just as much intensity. “Later. Honey.”

Stella sighed. “Fine.” Schooling her expression into a professional mask, she told Ben, “It appears you’re hired. Welcome to the Wiley Tucker Circus, Mr. Ware.”

“Just call me Ben.”

It was better if she didn’t. First names were more intimate, and she wanted to keep him at arm’s length—preferably several arms’ lengths.

Ruby stood, grabbed Ben’s hand, and tugged on it. “Come on, hon. I’ll show you around. You don’t have an RV sitting around somewhere by any chance, do you?”

“No.” He grimaced and moved like an old man as he rose from the chair.

Ruby, who was still tugging on him and seemed to have forgotten he was hurt, said, “I’ll get you set up in the sleeper trailer. You can stay with me if you want, of course, but you can at least store your gear there since space is tight in my place.” Ruby opened the door, dragging Ben with her, a combo of Ruby’s perfume and a spicier scent from Ben trailing after them.

Ah. So Ben was getting special treatment. It wouldn’t endear him to the guys he would have to work with, but he was lucky he wouldn’t have to stay in the bunkhouse. It was a large trailer with rows of bunk beds stacked three high, made especially for sleeping circus or carnival crews—although God help anyone who made the mistake of calling the circus a carnival. There was no greater insult to anyone who worked on a circus.

A lot of the circus crewmen who slept in the bunkhouse were animal caregivers. Some of them didn’t bother with showers too often, and stale elephant poop was not a particularly fragrant odor. There was also no privacy, only one itsy-bitsy bathroom, and the mattresses were not much thicker than the ones that came with fold-up cots.

Ruby stepped down onto the asphalt of the parking lot where the RVs were parked, but Ben turned toward Stella, stopping on the second metal step that led up to her door. “I’ll be sure to get that Social Security number as soon as I can.” His expression was earnest, a small crease appearing between his brows, but it was almost too hangdog. He was laying it on too thick, making her feel like he was humoring her.

For some reason, it didn’t make her dislike him. There was something about him that was hard not to like. But it didn’t make her trust him, either. “I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Ware.”

“You really should call me Ben.”

She gave him her bland smile again. “Have a nice day.”

His brows did a single lift at the same time his mouth curved—his dimples made the expression more jovial than he probably meant for it to be—and then he was yanked the rest of the way down by Ruby. His final wince before the door slammed shut made Stella feel a pang of sympathy for him. Ruby was a good person, and Stella owed her a lot, but sometimes she could be a little self-centered.

As Stella was reading through the rest of Ben’s paperwork, it occurred to her the initials of his first and middle names were “B. E.” Combined with his last name, they spelled “B. E. Ware.”

Weird. Seemed like his mother wouldn’t have wanted her kid’s initials to spell “beware.”

Then again, maybe it was a message from the cosmos Stella would do well to heed.

* * *

Ben’s ribs felt like they’d been hit by a Mack truck, which wasn’t far from the truth, since the guy who’d punched him in the gut last night had been a giant. It didn’t help that Ruby was dragging him away from Stella’s, stretching his arm out in front of him. It hurt his ribs to lift his arms. So he dug in his heels and said, “Hang on, sweetheart. You’re killing me.”

Ruby stopped and turned to him, a question in her expression.

“It’s the pulling on my arm. Hurts the ribs.”

“Oh, my God,” she said, immediately letting go. “I’m so sorry. I totally forgot.” She took a step toward him and put a light hand on his back instead. “Come on. Let’s get you to my bed.”

If she meant for more of what they’d done last night, he was game. But then he breathed. His ribs hadn’t hindered him too much last night, but he’d still been jacked up on adrenaline and anger from the fight. Ruby was a wild woman in the sack, though, and he didn’t think he could do the Fifty Shadesthing again today.

He could do rough and enjoy it if that’s what a lady wanted, but he preferred tenderness. Tenderness was safe, more controlled, and he was all about not losing control.

Oddly enough, thoughts of Stella invaded his head in that moment, and the initial attraction he’d felt when he’d first met her rocked him again. It hadn’t just been him. She had flirted with him, too. Although it had been fleeting, he would bet his left nut he hadn’t imagined it. It was also another reason he wasn’t that excited about being with Ruby again.

Stella was the opposite of most women he encountered. Instead of using clothing and makeup to improve her looks, he got the feeling she did everything she could to downplay them.

She didn’t quite succeed. Her smile, rare though it was, gave her away. And there was no hiding that glossy black hair, those big dark eyes, the plumpness of her pouty lips—lips that made him notwant to think about control. Which was why he should stay away from her.

She was probably too young for him anyway. On the way to meet her, Ruby had told him Stella was best friends with Ruby’s daughter Christine. Ruby didn’t seem that old herself, so he didn’t think she would have a daughter that could be too long out of high school. He had enough problems without getting involved with jailbait.

Besides, Ruby was more his speed, a more mature woman looking for a bit of fun with no strings attached. She also had a place for him to crash and had offered him a job, a chance to get away from Las Vegas and all its pitfalls.

It was pure luck she’d walked into the Flamingo just as the poker game he’d been in on had gone sour. That was the danger of playing with amateurs. They thought you cheated when you didn’t. Of course, some might argue someone with his expertise was hustling the amateurs, but hey. He was no saint—not even close—and a guy had to eat.

The giant and a couple of the other players had gotten in several good punches before security was able to stop the melee.

Ben had taken the punches and done nothing to fight back. He never did. Too dangerous, too much risk.

Having seen the whole thing, Ruby had offered to “nurse” his wounds, and he couldn’t see any reason to say no.

So now here he was, walking with her back to her trailer, hopefully for some R and R. Before they could get there, though, a stocky Latino-looking guy walked up to them, determination in his steps. “Miss Ruby,” he said in a strong, clipped accent, “I need you to talk to Christine.”

Ruby arched a dark brow at the guy’s commanding manner, and some of his bluster faded.

Por favor, señorita,” he added in Spanish, looking down at the pavement in contrition.

“Perch,” she said, a hint of exasperation in her tone, “whatever is going on with you and Christine, it’s none of my business.”

His gaze lifted to her face, imploring. “But you are her mother. She will listen to you.”

Ruby huffed. “First of all, that girl hasn’t listened to me since she was five. Second of all, you cheated on her. I’m not feeling very sympathetic to your plight right now.”

Whoever this Perch guy was, if he were in a competition for who could do the most pitiful, remorseful expression, he would win an Academy Award. The Oscar for Saddest Face.

“Please,” Perch said. “I made the biggest mistake of my life. I love her. I have to get her back.”

“I’m sorry, hon.” Ruby shook her head. “I can’t help you.”

“But—”

She held up a hand. “No buts. You’re on your own with this one. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we need to get to my trailer.”

For the first time, Perch’s attention went to Ben, and he didn’t look too impressed by what he saw.

Ben didn’t take it personally. He wasn’t too impressed by Perch, either.

“Perch,” said Ruby, “this is Ben Ware. He’s going to be the new light and sound guy. Then she gestured toward Perch. “Ben, this is Heriberto Perchez, but we all call him Perch. He and his brothers do a motorcycle act.”

“Nice to meet you.” Ben held out a hand.

Perch just stared at him a moment before going back to Ruby. “If you could just get her to talk to me—”

“Nope.” Again Ruby put up a hand. “Like I said, you’re on your own.” She jerked her chin toward her trailer and told Ben, “Let’s go,” then started walking before Perch could say anything else.

Not knowing what else to do, Ben gave Perch a commiserating lift of his brows and followed her.

By the time they got to her trailer, Ben was ready to crash. It wasn’t just the beating he’d taken. He hadn’t gotten a whole lot of sleep last night, either. Although he wanted to keep his jeans on, he let Ruby help him take off his shirt. She clucked over the developing bruises on his torso, then propped up some pillows behind him so he could watch TV in her bed.

“Those bruises look pretty nasty, honey,” she said. “You sure I can’t get you some Tylenol or Advil?”

That was the last thing he needed. He and painkillers didn’t mix, even over-the-counter ones—well, except for what he took for the headaches, and he only resorted to that when his head was about to split open. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

She looked like she wanted to argue.

“Really,” he said. “I’m fine.”

She patted his hand. “All right. I’ve got work I need to do, but I’ll come check on you later.”

“Okay. Don’t worry about me.”

She smiled and kissed him on the lips, and her voice went sultry. “Maybe I can kiss all your booboos when I get back.”

He forced a smile. “Sounds good.”

With that, she squeezed his hand and left. He let out a sore breath and relaxed into the pillows, then realized the remote was on a narrow shelf underneath the TV, which was mounted on the opposite wall. He would have to get up to retrieve it, and the thought made him wince. Moving again was beyond him right now.

He stared at the remote, knowing he shouldn’t do it. He was among strangers. He shouldn’t use his abilities ever, not even when no one was around. Someone might be watching he wasn’t aware of. Plus, it made him lax. He might slip up in public if he made a habit of using his abilities in private. How many times had that been drilled—sometimes beaten—into him by his fanatical mother and Professor Michael?

But no one was around now. He’d heard the door to the trailer shut. Ruby was definitely gone, and it was clear no one was looking in the windows.

Screw it. It wouldn’t hurt just this one time. Without further thought, he reached out, and the remote floated across the room to him and landed in his palm.

Book Review of First Time at Firelight Falls: A Hellcat Canyon Novel by Julie Anne Long

Well, here it is, 9:52 a.m., and I haven’t done a bit of work on the trilogy I’m STILL working on or anything else. Why? Because I couldn’t put down Julie Anne Long’s novel, First Time at Firelight Falls. It is the latest book in her Hellcat Canyon series. It’s also the latest romance I’ve read that has a great plot. (If you haven’t read my earlier posts, I have vowed to review romances I find with stellar plotlines).

I ended up loving this novel, despite it’s rather slow beginning. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate slow-burn romances, but the witty banner between the hero and heroine with nothing else really happening except a glimpse at how busy their schedules were got a bit old after a while. At 40% of the book, I was wishing for something more to happen. When it did, though, it was well worth the wait. I couldn’t put the last half of the book down.

My criticism above notwithstanding, let me just say that Julie Anne Long is a master at characterization. Her intelligent, humorous descriptions of emotions and body language were delightful. Her books are worth reading just for her prose alone, and it’s one of the things that has kept me coming back to her books again and again.

I know it’s an overused cliche, but her characters really do leap off the page. Gabe and Eden were so real that, after first finishing the book, I had that weird, rare, disorienting feeling that their world was the real one and mine the fiction. And Gabe was the PERFECT romance hero: sexy yet intelligent and sensitive without coming across as too girlie. In fact, there wasn’t a girlie bone in his body. He was all man with a capital M.

Ms. Long also has an innate coolness that I envy. She clearly was a rock star in another life. She has a keen knowledge of music and writes about it in a way that’s not cheesy or annoying. This is hard to do, and most writers can’t pull it off.

When she mentioned a song in the book, even if it wasn’t one I particularly cared for, I never had the urge to roll my eyes, not even once. I think that’s because she used the songs in a way that actually furthered the story and added insight into the characters instead of just trying to convey how deep and artsy she is. (And she is deep and artsy, and have I mentioned cool?) She also came up with some original lyrics of her own (sung through her characters) that were pretty great.

Long’s portrayal of the heroine’s daughter, Annelise, was well done, too. Annelise was a realistic ten-year-old, both mischievous and charming without being a caricature of a child. Both the hero’s and heroine’s interactions with Annelise spoke volumes about who they were and made them more lovable. Annelise’s presence in the story served a purpose and wasn’t just there for the cuteness factor.

I don’t want to give too much away about the ending, but suffice it to say, it hit all the marks with me. Rarely do I read books where I am so completely satisfied. Just brilliant plotting and execution.

I love the Hellcat Canyon series, and I hope another one is in the works. I have a hunch there will be. There are just too many rich characters in these books who still need their stories told. I look forward to how Ms. Long will tell them.

Until then, try some of her other books. You won’t be disappointed. She’s even written some historicals that are some of my favorites!

 

Book Review of Marriage of Inconvenience

I promised in my last blog post that I would review any future romances that had both great characterization and, more importantly, plot. Well, about two seconds ago, I finished one: Penny Reid’s Marriage of Inconvenience. 

Reid has long been one of my go-to authors, her Knitting in the City series one of my all-time favorites. As of right now, Marriage of Inconvenience is my favorite book of the series and one of the best romances I’ve ever read. That’s saying a lot, since I read a TON of romance. This latest book, the seventh of the series, is also the last. It is a fitting end and satisfying tie-up of the entire series. So long, Knitting. I’m sad to see you go.

Marriage of Inconvenience has everything: an engaging plot complete with a proper bastard for a villain; a romance between the heroine and hero that was sweet, hot, and sigh-inducing all at once; brilliant characterization that made the characters leap off the page; poignant moments that got me a little misty; and, last but not least, humor. And when I say “humor,” I mean that I laughed out loud many times while reading the book. Reid has always had a clever wit, but this is one of her funniest books to date.

And the hero Dan? *sigh* This guy is not the “chick with a dick” that some romances have. He’s one of the sexiest heroes I’ve ever read. Dan is a real man, a complete badass from the wrong side of the tracks who also has a sensitive side he doesn’t try to hide, a sexy blue-collar Boston accent, and a sense of humor. He also has a naughty mouth, but his profanity was such a part of his character that it was charming. Still, people turned off by profuse profanity might be critical of this. To me, it was just a part of who he was, and the way he used it was sometimes hilarious. Dan is definitely going down as one of my all-time favorite book boyfriends.

The heroine, Kat, was a more subtle character, sort of the straight man (er, woman) to Dan’s funnyman, but that didn’t make her less likable. She’s an heiress, but although she has plenty of angst in her past, including messed up parents, she was far from the poor-little-rich-girl cliche. She grows as a character throughout the novel, and her growth more than fulfilled my reader expectations.

My criticisms of this book are minor. I didn’t like the definitions of various legal terms, facts about mental health, and the pharmaceutical industry at the beginning of each chapter, but this is a pet peeve of mine and probably won’t bother the average person. In Reid’s defense, many authors do this. Elizabeth Hoyt has an ongoing fairytale at the beginning of each chapter of her Maiden Lane books. I don’t read those snippets, either.

While I appreciate Reid’s effort, the definitions took me out of the story, so I ended up skipping most of them. However, I did read one on the cost of bringing a drug to the market in the US that was eye-opening. But then I had to have a discussion about this fact with my husband, which turned into a twenty-minute bitch session on the high cost of healthcare in the US. Again, the definition was distracting and took me out of the story, which I think is the last thing most authors want happening with their readers

A couple of other minor criticisms: one, while the ending was satisfying, I would have liked to have seen more of a personal final showdown between the main villain and the heroine. Second, there were a few grammatical things that bugged me, like comma splices and wrong punctuation while using em dashes, but I can be annoyingly pedantic about that sort of thing. Again, most people won’t be bothered by it or even notice. For the most part, the editing was well done and clean.

Overall, I LOVED this book. There were times when I worried that Kat’s issue with sex would become hackneyed, but nope. It turned out to be a major source of conflict and the basis for a believable and charged fight between the hero and heroine. In fact, all the conflict was fresh and new and kept me turning the pages.

As I said, this is the last book in the Knitting in the City series. While I’m feeling bittersweet that the series is over, I’m also looking forward to seeing what new projects Reid has up her sleeve. One thing I’m sure of: she’s an extremely talented writer. Whatever she does, it will be great.

 

 

 

 

Plot, Please

I went to a workshop this weekend hosted by my local romance authors’ writing organization, and I heard something appalling. The speaker, an author with quite a lot of experience in the industry, said that agents and editors in the romance genre today are tending to buy manuscripts where the characterization takes precedence over plot. She said plot was sort of secondary.

What????????

Maybe I’m in the minority, but as much as I love the romance genre and being a romance writer, nothing irks me more than a book where I’m into the characters but nothing is happening. Or where the plot consists of the meet-cute, lots of sex scenes, the end. I want plot with my porn, people! I like a hot, steamy sex scene just as much as the next romance reader, but I don’t want gratuitous sex scenes that do nothing to further the story. If a book is full of that, I will either skip the sex scenes (which, in a lot of cases, makes for a very short read), or I will not finish the book at all.

Yes, great characterization is necessary, especially in a character-driven genre like romance, but if nothing ever really happens to these great characters, it makes for a boring book. I’ve read so many romances lately where the characters were so real and compelling, if the book had just had an actual story, it would have been a masterpiece. The authors were so close to perfection except…no plot, no real conflict to drive the story, no black moment, no satisfactory resolution.

I actually read in the acknowledgments of one of these books where the author thanked a colleague for telling her it was okay to write a book without heavy angst or tragedy. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but for goodness’ sake, there needs to be some sort of conflict.

I have to admit, though, the whole time I was reading the book, I kept thinking, “This author’s characterization is amazing. Surely it’s going to get better.”

So I read a bit more.

“Okay. Still loving these characters. Maybe something is going to happen in the next chapter.”

Nope. It never did. I read all the way to the end, but nothing ever really happened. And I felt like a chump for finishing it, like I’d wasted my time.

So maybe there’s something to that school of thought that characterization is more important than plot, because I did read the whole thing. And that author is selling books–there’s no doubt about it. However, I can’t remember the author’s name, and I will probably never read another one of her books.

So, that brings me to an idea I had this morning. From now on, when I find a romance with an exceptionally great plot line, I’m going to review it here on my blog. To get started, I’m going to list a few of my favorite romances of all time, all of which, though they might have some racy sex scenes, also have awesome plots that made the books nearly impossible to put down. They have resonated with me and were memorable long after the last page was read–and sometimes that last page was read many, many years ago. Fair warning: some of these are quite old, but their storytelling is timeless.

  1. The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale. This book about a washed-up highway man with vertigo and a bitchy, broken heroine is probably my all-time favorite romance. The witty banter between the heroine and hero is spectacular, and the sex scenes actually have something to do with the plot and furthering the character arcs, rather than just existing for porn purposes. In short, it’s a brilliant romance book.
  2. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Need I say more? It’s now a successful TV series on the STARZ network. This series was originally shelved in the romance department at book stores when it first came out, but I think, last time I happened to check, it is now in the general fiction section. It’s definitely gone in a different direction from how it started out, but the first three novels for sure are the epic love story of Jamie and Claire. Just about every scene ends in a cliffhanger, making the plot a page-turner, but for those who like sexy time, believe me, there’s plenty of that, too.
  3. Tangled by Emma Chase. Told from the hero’s first-person POV, this witty, hilarious novel made me an Emma Chase fan for life. It has quite a lot of profanity, but if that doesn’t bother you and you’re looking for a good taming-of-the-rogue story, this one hits all the marks.
  4. Never Deal with Dragons by Lorenda Christensen. This one is not your everyday romance, since dragons are in the mix. It was cute, though, and definitely held my attention. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but as I was going through my booklist on Kindle, it jumped out at me as one I remember really liking.
  5. Faking It by Jennifer Crusie. I LOVED this caper-style book. Its humor, great story, and romance have stuck with me through the years. In fact, after reading the blurb to refresh my memory for this post, I’m going to read the novel again–something I hardly ever do.
  6. The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird. The journalist/photographer heroine is snarky, and the hero is the perfect romance hero. Some might call this book more women’s fiction than romance (and Sarah Bird is not strictly a romance author), but for me it hit all the romance buttons. Bird has a quirky since of humor that I love, and her plots are engaging. And if you’re a romance writer, this is a must-read. Her portrayal of a romance writers’ convention and the authors she meets are alone worth the read.
  7. Neurotica by Eliza Gordon. Quirky, nerdy heroine and sweet, down-to-earth hero.
  8. November 9 by Colleen Hoover. Has a plot twist I totally didn’t see coming, and the the plot itself is unique and very well written.
  9. A Duke of Her Own by Eloisa James. This is the sixth book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series, but I read it without having read the others, and I loved it. Both the characters grow and evolve delightfully, and the hero does a proper amount of groveling in the end.

I know that, once I finish this post, I will think of a million other great, well-plotted romances I should have listed. Maybe I will have to do a “part two” and list those later, but for now, this list of all the romances that have stuck with me over time will have to do. In the future, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I will also be reviewing newer romances I read with stellar plot lines.

Until then, cheers!

Confessions of a Word Snob

I just finished Kory Stamper’s fabulous book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Stamper is a lexicographer, a person who writes new definitions or revises old ones for Merriam-Webster Dictionaires. I thoroughly enjoyed Stamper’s wit and logical explanations on how she and the other MW editors come up with definitions. It boggles my mind the agony they sometimes go through and all the research that goes into getting each nuance of a word’s definition exactly right.

Even more important, though, my opinions on certain words and whether they should be in the dictionary changed, too. I know I’m not alone in eschewing words like “irregardless,” “supposably,” and “disorientated,” to name a few, but now that I’ve read Stamper’s explanation for why they are in the dictionary, I realize I’ve been wrong. As Stamper points out, contrary to popular belief, it is not the dictionary’s (and therefore the lexicographer’s) job to police the English language and leave out words that aren’t considered educated or standard usage. Rather, it is the lexicographer’s job to observe the language and include words that are gaining widespread use, whether some people believe it’s correct or not. Lexicographers are essentially reporters of trends in our English language. It is not their job to determine if a word is right or wrong.

Stamper, of course, gives a lengthy explanation on this, and I, who used to consider myself a staunch purist (I even remember when “all right” was only supposed to be two words and scoffed every time I saw it as “alright”) have totally changed my tune. I even understand why many people say, and sometimes even spell, “nucular” instead of “nuclear” now, and it’s not an indication of lack of intelligence or a sign of being a country bumpkin or redneck. Read what she says. I swear you’ll change your tune, too.

I think the point Stamper is trying to make is that if millions of people are using the incorrect form of a word, and it is showing up in print and other media as well, is it really incorrect? If we look down on someone who says “nucular,” who is really the one in the dark? English is an ever-changing language, much to many purists’ chagrin. No matter how much we think “nuclear” is correct, “nucular” is an up-and-comer. In another hundred years, maybe it will be considered standard, and people who say “nuclear” will be considered dumb for saying it. As Stamper says, “Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.”

I’ve realized that my prejudice against “alright” is pretty ridiculous, even though the first time I saw it in my beloved Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, I wanted to scream. Granted, they do say it isn’t as common and is less formal in use, but they also point out it has been around as long as “all right.” And why wouldn’t we spell it as one word? We already have (as I just used) “already” and “altogether.” “Alright” actually makes perfect sense. I just hated seeing it because, to me, it was the mark of an amateur, someone who didn’t really know one of the essential tools of writing, proper grammar. But maybe I was the amateur. Or maybe I just wanted to show off my knowledge and lord it over those whom I deemed ignorant. Maybe I was a snob.

Stamper’s book also gives several histories of certain words that are fascinating, along with stories of answering correspondence (who knew you could write to the dictionary and get a reply?) and even controversies over certain words and definitions. Her book is also kind of a history of dictionaries that I found absorbing. She has managed to turn what most would consider a boring, dry subject into something delightful that, at times, had me laughing out loud.

Stamper has done what many an underappreciated employee has longed for: she’s shown us what unsung heroes lexicographers are and how hard they work (for a pretty meager salary), even though, to most people, they will forever be invisible. After reading her book and seeing how imperative an experienced lexicographer is to creating an invaluable tome such as the dictionary, I was horrified when, near the end, she said Merriam-Webster had to lay off many of their lexicographers with decades of experience because of the changing market and the transition from paper to digital.

I felt guilty for using MW’s free online dictionary and immediately bought the paid version of the app. I know my contribution will be a drop in the bucket, but now that I know the grueling and meticulous work that goes into producing a dictionary, I want to do everything I can to make sure the lexicographers are able to continue their essential work. Any lover of writing, grammar, and/or fellow word snob should want to, too.

Adrift

via Daily Prompt: Adrift

So, here I am, two years after publishing my first novel To Each Her Own, finally sitting down to write a blog post. I’m glad I saw this prompt, “Adrift,” from WordPress because that word sums up exactly the way I’ve been feeling lately as a writer.

This month, May, marks a year that I’ve written a minimum of 500 words every single day but, most days, a lot more. In the last year, I wrote a trilogy about a hero with telekinesis, and, once I entered the editing phase of that after finishing my first draft, I “pantsed” a book about a burnt-out piano player. “Pantsing” is writer jargon for just sitting down with a story idea and nothing more, no plot outlines. Just a vague idea of a storyline in your head and off you go.

Pantsing used to be my method. Every story I ever wrote up until I started my trilogy was done by pantsing. Yes, I would write a summary of my story idea, but I never stuck with it. My characters always had other ideas, and I just let them take me where they wanted to go.

With my trilogy, though, I wanted it to have a tight plot and good pacing. I didn’t want to ramble or repeat things, as I’ve been told I sometimes do by readers. So I took a week to sit down and really think about the plot and used methods I’d gleaned in my writers’ association to plot out every single scene for three books.

As a result, I wrote the trilogy in six months–three full books, around 240,000 words. Of course, that was the crappy first draft, but I was confident the editing process would go quickly, as I normally love to go back through, see what I’ve written, and tweak it.

Boy was I wrong. The editing process has been difficult, to say the least. Several weeks ago, around Easter, I got the analysis back from my editor on my first book, which I naively thought I was almost done with, and was told to cut two chapters, completely change a main point of my book that bleeds into the second book (and would require rewriting the second book), and that the end was abrupt and unclear.

My first instinct was not to listen to her and to question how closely she had read my manuscript. After stepping away and coming back to her critique, though, plus reading through the parts of my story she said were unclear or needed cutting, I realized she was absolutely right on every point, that she actually had read my manuscript closely after all.

About this same time, my awesome critique partner, whose judgment I have come to rely on as gospel because she has terrific common sense, is smart as a whip, and is a stellar plotter, told me that I had gone a direction toward the end of book two in my trilogy that didn’t make sense and seemed to have come out of nowhere. I knew she was right. I had felt it in my bones, but after writing for several years now, I also knew that sometimes, when I felt my writing was crap, other people actually liked it and thought it was good. I was hoping that was the case with this element of my story, but, alas, it wasn’t so. While the words were painful to hear, I am forever grateful to my critique partner for having the guts to be honest with me. My book will be better because of it.

During all of this, I also went to a writing seminar with some friends who are traditionally published, and they blew me away with their professionalism and their ability to brainstorm with each other and plot. While that trip was enlightening, it also made me feel as though I didn’t really know squat about writing.

All these things combined to make me feel adrift as a writer. Yes, I continued to write my words every day to stay in the habit, but I felt like everything coming out of my fingers onto the keyboard was banal, aimless dreck. It was as if my fingers were deciding what to write, and my fingers don’t have a brain.

It was a terrible feeling. I like everything I’m doing to move me toward my goals, but I felt I had lost my mojo. I had honestly never felt that way, ever–at least not about writing. All that time I took to plot my trilogy hadn’t done any good. I was still going to have to rewrite and revise a bunch of it.

Meanwhile, the novel I had written just for fun (80,000 words worth) about the piano player was a meandering mess, and I had done that by pantsing. I felt like it didn’t matter which route I took, pantsing or plotting, I couldn’t write a good story. It was a terrible feeling, and I felt like quitting. To stave this off, I tried to develop other ideas, but, although I had no problem coming up with four very good ones, I couldn’t come up with decent plotlines for them.

The good news is that recently I sat down and came up with an alternate ending for book two of my trilogy which will hopefully get things back on the right track. Also, I’ve put enough distance between myself and the realization that the first book needs a lot of revision that I’m ready to get back in the saddle and deal with that, too.

Most important of all, though, I never stopped writing. I got up and wrote my word minimum every single day. It wasn’t always a story. Sometimes I just brainstormed ideas or wrote the beginning of a short story I knew no one was ever gong to read. It was just for myself. Today it’s writing this long-overdue blog.

I realize now (wow, I’m using that word a lot) that I’m not as adrift as I thought. Writing is my anchor.  No matter what comes in the future, as long as I don’t stop, I’m not adrift. I’m always learning, always improving. I am soaring.