What’s your favorite Beach Read?

The other night I took part in an author panel for the ConTinual: the Con that Never Ends Facebook page and the topic was beach reads. Since it seems like we’ll actually be able to go to the beach this summer – even those who don’t live near one because travel is opening back up – I thought it would be fun to share ideas about what makes a good beach read and maybe suggest one or two.

When I say “beach read”, what kind of book do you think of?

Tbh, my own definition is fairly broad: books that have words strung together in sentences. (That’d be all books, lol.) Maybe it comes from having attended the University of Hawaii, where it’s possible I lugged nursing textbooks onto the sand to “study”, but I’ll read just about anything on the beach.

Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels? Yup. Read that one on the beach. I’m weird.

Having done this panel, though, I know some of you have higher standards. The general theme of our discussion was that beach reads should be both low angst and escapist. Fluffy, if you will. Or if not fluffy, at least not so demanding that you can’t put it aside when it’s time to take a dip or to order another one of those little umbrella drinks.

Based on the (highly unscientific) panel, I can confidently say that the best Beach Reads fall into a handful of categories. Ymmv, but here’s what I learned, along with a suggestion or two for each one…

Romance!

My first suggestion in the Romance category is Totally Folked by Penny Reid. She’s a fantastic writer and a very cool person, and while I haven’t read all of her books, this one looks like fun. I’m always here for intelligent characters acting naughty and falling in love. (lol!) Totally Forked doesn’t come out until July 20th, which’ll be great timing for a late summer getaway!

For those of you who like historical romances, I can absolutely recommend The Labours of Lord Perry Cavendish by Joanna Chambers. It’s actually the 4th book in her Winterbourne series, but it’s the first featuring a pair of side characters from the earlier books, so it reads like a stand-alone. If you’re intrigued by the idea of a Regency cinnamon roll hero falling for a fussy artist, this is your book!

Urban fantasy!

Urban fantasy series make good beach reads because they definitely take you to an altered version of reality and they’re spooky but not too scary. Tbh I haven’t stumbled on a new UF series in a while, so I’m going to recommend a classic of the genre. The Hollows series by Kim Harrison features the witch Rachel Morgan and a whole host of other paranormal creatures. The worldbuilding for the series is complex and interesting, and I’m still angry about a certain death which tells you how real these characters are to me. Highly recommend!

And while we’re at it, my fellow Scribe Shauna Granger writes urban fantasy-adjacent stories. Check out her Elemental books or her Matilda Kavanaugh series, because girlfriend knows her way around the paranormal and her books are a whole lot of fun!

Mystery!

Are you into podcasts? One of my favorites is Shedunnit, by Caroline Crampton. She’s a huge fan of Golden Age mysteries, books that were written between WW1 and WW2. (Think Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and other authors of their era, and you’ll be right on.) The podcast slices and dices all angles of those Golden Age books, and I generally end up hitting Amazon or Powells Books after each episode. (lol!)

Somehow I managed to get to a fairly advanced age before reading my first Lord Peter Wimsey book, and I regret not having started before now! Whose Body is thoroughly entertaining, and an excellent introduction to both the character and to the Golden Age sub-genre. I also really liked Patricia Wentworth’s The Black Cabinet, because her language is so good and the characters are so vibrant. Spend your vacation getting busy with the classics!!

Horror!

Okay, so, is there a better time to read a Stephen King novel about a beach then when you’re actually on a beach? I don’t think so. (lol!) I’m too much of a wimp to read Stephen King any time, anywhere, but for those of you who are braver, Duma Key is an excellent choice…especially if you happen to be on a beach in Florida.

(And fwiw, my fear of SKing stems from having read The Shining while living in a big old house with lots of shadows and creaking floors and whatnot, during November when the sun sets before 5pm. This was in 1980. I promised myself I’d never do that again, and I’ve kept that promise!)

So there you have it! Books I’ve read, books I’m going to read, and books I’m terrified of reading. (lol!) I hope you have plans for a vacation this summer, and even if it’s not on the beach, that you’ll have some time for a relaxing read!

Leave me a comment with your favorite beach read. I’m always up for suggestion!!

And fyi, click HERE to check out the ConTinual Facebook page. There are all kinds of panels and discussions about books & reading, and while our beach reads panel isn’t up yet, there are lots of others worth watching.

Seven Spooky Stories #Halloween #LuckyNumber

I am an enabler. That’s what my friends call me, anyway. An enabler. The one they turn to when they need a good book recommendation. Back in the day (before ebooks) I used to run an informal lending library, and if a book was really fantastic I’d buy multiple copies so I’d be sure to have one on hand if someone wanted to borrow it.

Enabler or addict? Not sure.

Though it’s possible to lend ebooks, it’s not as easy as throwing a paperback in your purse and passing it off to someone. But back in the day I didn’t have blogging opportunities, either, so I guess there are trade-offs. I can’t hand you a paperback, but I can still tell you about some really good books…

giphy ghosts

I’m not much for truly frightening stories – I’ve only read one Steven King novel, never read The Amityville Horror, couldn’t finish The Passage – but for this post I did want to keep things seasonal, you know? So I came up with a list of seven spooky, romantic stories that I would totally lend you if I could.

Hainted
Amazon

Hainted by Jordan L. Hawk

This book is amazing! I’ve reread it at least four times because it’s just that cool. Dan is a haint-worker, which means he has the skills to lay the dead to rest when they crawl up out of their graves. Leif shows up on Dan’s doorstep in the North Carolina hills, asking for help in fighting an evil necromancer. Leif’s got secrets, Dan’s got a few of his own, and the haints keep rising. I love the setting and the mythology and the intensity of the attraction between Leif & Dan. Good stuff.

Secret Casebook of Simon Fleximal
Amazon

The Secret Casebook of Simon Fleximal by KJ Charles

Simon Fleximal is a ghost hunter, and his novel is really a series of linked stories. A couple of the stories had been previously available as free downloads, and while they were good, reading them in the context of the larger work made them even better. Simon is grim and fairly frightening, and his stories are told by his lover Robert. The dark, Victorian atmosphere in this one is about as spooky as I like to get, but it makes a wonderful setting for Ms. Charles to explore human nature. 

The Haunting of Maddy Clare
Amazon

The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

Another ghost hunter story, but this time the ghost is really, really pissed off. I read this book in July, in my parent’s RV, near the shore of Lake Crescent, which is one of the loveliest spots on earth – but in my head I was off on a misty English countryside. Set right after WWI, there are some romance-y bits, some frightening moments, and a tight mystery plot. Overall, though, my memory of this story is of a lovely vacation from my vacation, and a thoroughly entertaining read.

Gravedigger's Brawl
Amazon

The Gravediggers Brawl by Abigail Roux

This is a contemporary story with a cool historic feel. Wyatt works at a museum, and Ash’s personal style has a heavy Gasslight vibe (which basically means he coordinates his tongue rings with his suspenders.) Somewhere I read that Gasslight is like Steampunk without the steam or the punk, but that angle – and the character of Ash – were pretty damned appealing. The mysterious haunting, the fun contemporary/historic vibe, and the nice little romance made for a fun read.

Restless Spirits
Amazon

Restless Spirits by Jordan L. Hawk

It’s Science vs Spiritualism in this fabulous we’re-trapped-in-a-creepy-old-house-with-a-ghost story. Henry’s an inventor who’s determined to prove his Electro-Séance machine can identify spirits faster than any old human, while Vincent is the real deal: a medium who can connect with spirits on the other side. No one is exactly what they seem, some of those spirits aren’t very friendly, and Henry and Vincent could lose more than their lives in this race. Restless Spirits recently gained a sequel, Dangerous Spirits, and though I haven’t read it, I have on good authority that it’s just as much fun – if not quite as spooky.  (And yes, this is the second book by Jordan K Hawk on my list. Whatever. She writes good fright.)

Fish and Ghosts
Amazon

Fish and Ghosts by Rhys Ford

Fish and Ghosts is another trapped-in-a-haunted-house story, but in this book one hero owns the place while the other is a professional skeptic. Tristan’s family hires Wolf Kinkaid to prove Tristan’s crazy so they can get their hands on his money, but the thing is, he’s as sane as they are. His house really is haunted – though he thinks the ghost hunter is hella sexy. This book is a happy combination of scary bits and naughty bits and a whole lot of fun.

Bitter Spirits
Amazon

Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett

In 1920’s San Francisco, Aida’s making her living as a medium at the Gris-Gris speakeasy. The thing is, she’s legitimately talented, and is really capable of summoning the dead. Winter’s a bootlegger with a curse problem, and it isn’t long before he has a thing for Aida too. Their chemistry is somewhere close to a 10 out of 10 (he has VERY big hands), the whodunit is fun to figure out, and I do love a good historical. Visiting the Roaring Twenties was a blast, making Bitter Spirits a terrific near-Halloween read.

There you have it. Seven Spooky Stories to keep you company while the little ones are fighting over Halloween candy. Hope you found at least a couple of them intriguing, and Happy Halloween!

Takedown Twenty, or, How Long Is Too Long?

This post is a combination love letter, book review, and meditation on writing books in series…

greetings-from-trenton-new-jersey

Picture this: About three and a half years ago I got off a red-eye from Australia to learn that my eight a.m. flight out of LAX didn’t leave until eight p.m., which gave me and my family twelve unanticipated hours of quality airport time, and oh-by-the-way the small bulge on the disk between my fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae was HERNIATING into a much bigger problem.

There’s not enough Vicodin in the world to deal with that kind of nonsense.

Some time that afternoon, I picked up a book by Janet Evanovich at the airport bookstore. Plum Spooky is one of the accessory novels in the Stephanie Plum series. My strongest memory after that was reading on the flight home, as stoned as you please, and LAUGHING so hard my husband worried the flight attendant would escort me from the plane.

Those monkeys in the foil hats still make me giggle.

Maybe you had to be there.

Or maybe you just have to be a Janet Evanovich fan, the kind of die-hard who’s read every one of the Stephanie Plum novels (but not necessarily seen the movie because the casting was all wrong). The kind who would pay full price for a hard cover copy in an airport bookstore. The kind who honest to God cares whether Stephanie ends up with Joe or Ranger.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, Stephanie’s a bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey. She works for her sleazy uncle, her sidekick is a former prostitute named Lula, and her grandmother is crazy, but not as crazy as Joe’s grandmother, who regularly zaps Stephanie with the evil eye. The author has a quick wit and a deft hand with the details; in Takedown Twenty, she describes a crowded room at a funeral home as “filled with the smell of carnations and failed deodorant.” Even without the Vicodin, there’s usually at least a half a dozen places in each of these books where I laugh out loud.

But here’s the rub. There are twenty books in this series (plus the four holiday Plum novels) and the essential conflicts haven’t changed. They are:

  • Is Stephanie going to catch the bad guy?
  • Is Stephanie going to be able to pay her rent?
  • Is Stephanie going to marry Joe or go off with Ranger and have bottle-rocket sex for the rest of her life?

I started Takedown Twenty knowing Stephanie would go up against someone big and mean. I knew she’d fumble around and get beat on a little (this time the mobsters hang Stephanie over a bridge and she gets dumped into the Delaware River). I knew she’d probably shoot something inappropriate (this time it was some bad guy’s ear). I knew she and Lula would eat donuts and fried chicken and her mother would get dinner on the table every night at six.

Pretty much I had the first two conflicts answered before I even opened the book. Somehow or other, Stephanie would catch the bad guy, and therefore earn enough money to make her rent. She did, although in all honesty the suspense wasn’t that suspenseful, and the wrap up was really kind of blah. It was almost like the author didn’t even care about those parts of the story, but knew they had to be there to make, you know, a plot.

Which means there’s only question either of us is still interested in: Joe or Ranger? The problem is, Stephanie’s spent so much time playing with the possibilities she may not be able to make a commitment. Readers expect the mystery, the humor, and the violence.

And they expect Stephanie to flirt with Ranger, then go home to Joe. But committing to one leaves the other one out, which is a problem.

One of the things that makes Takedown Twenty a little different than the other books in the series was that the Joe/Ranger conflict seemed to have a broader reach. Rather than just asking which guy she will choose, the author seems to be wondering if Stephanie’s ever going to move beyond a crappy little rental in Jersey and a dangerous, sometimes unpleasant job. While I welcome this hint of character development, it’s come at such a slow pace I was left with an overwhelming feeling of desperation.

And not the good kind.

I never once worried that Stephanie might not survive her dangerous escapades. I do worry whether Ms. Evanovich is going to be able to write herself out of this pickle. I don’t think her problem is her commitment to the character. Her problem is her reader’s expectations.

See, my mom reads these books, and she thought Takedown Twenty was JUST GREAT. It has everything she likes: humor, action and (very light) naughtiness. The book was released last November. Today, it has over three thousand reviews with an average of 4.1 stars (and almost 2000 5-star reviews), and a current Amazon sales ranking of 254. Those numbers come from a huge fan base, and I’d argue a solid percentage of those fans keep coming back because they know what they’re getting. If Mrs. Evanovich makes any substantive changes that would actually allow Stephanie to develop as a character (i.e. find another line of work, choose Joe, choose Ranger, do SOMETHING for pity’s sake) she’ll lose a chunk of her audience.

A couple weeks ago, my friend – and fabulous urban fantasy author – Jami Gray did a blog post about how long was too long for a series. She argues that six books is a good length, long enough to really develop the characters, but not so long that things get stale. I think her point is valid, and though I’m writing as someone who hasn’t done the series thing yet, the introduction of a major new conflict can keep things fresh. It may not be the safest choice – think of all the readers who STOPPED after Anita Blake caught the ardeur – but it can keep the story going.

But when you’re talking the kind of numbers Ms. Evanovich generates, do you really take that risk?

Pardon me while I go all fan-girl for a minute…Ms. Evanovich is fantastic writer. She’s my idol, I want to be her when I grow up, and her book How I Write is something every author should read and re-read. Her characters are lively, her language is fresh, and her voice never falters. That said, Takedown Twenty was mostly an exercise in frustration for me. I laughed some, I admired the author’s craft, I was entertained. More or less. And I’ll read (Fill In The Blank) Twenty-One because, you know….

Joe or Ranger?

I’d love to see your comments on whether character development is a necessary part of every series. Is putting out an entertaining product enough?

Peace,
Liv

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bon Voyage!

New Orleans
Is it possible to have a crush on a city?

By the time you read this, I’ll be in New Orleans. It’ll be my first visit, and one I’ve been looking forward to my whole life – or at least since I read The Vampire Lestat. While we’re there, I want to walk along Bourbon St and see Marie Laveau’s grave and eat bignet’s and drink chicory coffee.

Wow! Travel cliché much?

Seriously, though, I told my daughter yesterday to expect me to move slowly so I’d have a chance to absorb as many of the sights, sounds, and smells as I could. So I’d have time to talk to the person serving my coffee, to memorize their accent (unless of course they’re a college student from Brooklyn, which could also be cool, but in a different way). And so I’d have time to learn by heart the place I fall in love with a little harder every time I read about it.

I’m not 100% sure, but I think my first literary exposure to New Orleans did come from Ann Rice. (And yes, going past her house is definitely on the to-do list.) The city is almost another character in Lestat and in Interview With A Vampire, and it’s an even stronger presence Feast Of All Saints, her novel about the gens de couleur libre, or free people of color, a class of black and mixed race people who carved out their own cultural place between the white upperclass and slaves. The city in that story is gorgeous and mysterious and vicious, a perfect fantasy to fall in love with. (Apparently it was made into a movie in 2001…might have to check that out…)

Another of my favorite series set in a similar version of New Orleans are the Benjamin January books by Barbara Hambly. The first, A Free Man Of Color, tells the story of a physician and music teacher whose skin color makes him particularly vulnerable to a murder charge because the document declaring him a free man is as fragile as the paper it’s printed on. The mystery is well-constructed and the period details are amazing. I almost want to go back in time and live in that Creole world.

Almost.

A more recent – and tremendously fun – New Orleans appearance happens in Definitely Dead, book six (I think) in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire mysteries. Sookie’s cousin Hadley is killed (and that’s in the blurb so not a spoiler) and Sookie inherits her estate, which turns out to be more than she expects. New Orleans is hot and sexy and so is Quinn, the were-tiger who’s along for the ride. This is one of my favorite Sookie books. Hmm…might have to bring my copy along to read on the airplane.

And I can’t forget one of the best books of any type describing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson begins a couple days before Katrina hits, and gives you an insider’s view of the storm and the people who survived it. The paranormal elements are fun (especially the very crushable take on Jean Lafitte!) but the real story is the city and her resilience. Royal Street is the first in the Sentinels of New Orleans series, definitely in the auto-buy section of my bookshelf.

So even if you’re not lucky enough to have a midwinter trip to The Big Easy planned, put some Kermit Ruffins or Harry Connick, Jr on your stereo and crack open one of the books on my list and have your own little vacation. And if you have a favorite New Orleans book that I should take a look at, leave a recommendation in the comments. Or tell me about a city you’ve got a crush on…

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Liv