Books, fantasy, reading list

Self-Published Fantasy Month, Final Week

So, turns out the kids starting school for the first time means everyone, including Mom, has a lot of adjusting to do. Last week was a haze of trying to get everyone up on time, making sure everyone had all their assignments done in time, making sure the assignments were handed in, not just completed, and oh yes, let’s not even talk about lunches.

We had a wonderful weekend, spent hiking a mountain and tidying up around the house and getting some pumpkins and mums on our front walkway to welcome autumn, and it was the perfect reset button–this school morning went much more smoothly. We’ll see how managing assignments goes!

So, onto the final week for the Self-Published Fantasy month! We have five reviews today, instead of four, since I missed posting this last week and was therefore able to add one more book to my reading tally.

First up, Intisar Khanani and her Sunbolt Chronicles. Khanani is probably better known for Thorn, her Goose Girl retelling (which I also highly recommend), but as that is now published by a traditional press, it doesn’t quite fit the criteria for this review series (but seriously, you should still read it).

Her Sunbolt Chronicles, though, are equally brilliant. Although here I have to add a disclaimer–I have only read Sunbolt, the first book. The second, Memories of Ash, is another one I’m saving for a time when I really need a thoughtful, deep, hopeful book. Because that is what Khanani does with her books. They are not afraid to look into the darkness, but they unflinchingly declare that the light is better, and that in the end it will be triumphant.

Next we have Tara Grayce, whose Fierce Heart was sheer delight to read.

Fierce Heart gives us an extroverted princess who has no super-special abilities aside from the determination to look for the good in every situation and find a way to be happy in it. I didn’t know how much I needed a cheerful protagonist after so many Angry Girls in fantasy fiction until I started reading this–but Essie soothed my weary soul as much as she did the–well, I won’t spoil it for you. But if you’ve ever watched LOTR and wondered how the elves manage to keep their hair so perfect, Tara Grayce has the answer for you–and it might just stop an interspecies war. (Seriously, I love how she was able to take a common trope in fantasy, poke gentle fun at it, and then turn around and use it as a major plot point in the story. Brilliant!) I haven’t had a chance yet to read the rest of the series, but I’m looking forward to it.

Next is another middle grade author, Stephanie Ascough, and her debut novel Light and Shadow.

Ascough tackles a lot of challenging themes and topics in this novel, first in a planned series. She shines at world-building, creating a wonderful universe with unusual magic and a rich mythology. I love that, despite this have a very fairy-tale feel, both the protagonist’s parents are alive, and she in fact has a warm and loving, if challenging, relationship to them both. All the relationships are well drawn, in fact, from the friendship between the cousins (having grown up with wonderful cousins myself, I am always a suck for cousin friendships in stories) to the friendships that Ardin, the princess protagonist, develops throughout the course of the story. Oh, and did I mention that Ardin is visually impaired? And there’s no magical cure for it? Ascough handled that difficult topic so well, and all of these things combined mean I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series whenever it comes out!

Next is Rene Sears, author of the novella duology Crossroads of Worlds.

I love fantasy stories with a female protagonist in her thirties or older. Possibly this is a result of my own aging, but also, I don’t know, sometimes you just appreciate a slightly wearier, warier, more mature standpoint to view the world from, rather than the all-or-nothing, ride-or-die mentality of teens and twenty-somethings. A protagonist in her thirties has generally learned caution and understands responsibility, and while she might still feel passionately about individuals or causes, she’s not going to rush right into anything without taking stock of the sacrifices first, and not without first calling in sick so the people who are depending on her in ordinary life aren’t left high and dry. I like that. Strangehold definitely gives us that kind of protagonist, one with nieces who need her help and a sister who might be beyond her help, and two worlds that are threatening to collide and destroy what she loves. Sorrow’s Son, the sequel, continues the story, but I confess my heart really belongs with Morgan, the protagonist of the first story. Like I mentioned before, these books are novellas, so they are a nice short read for when you don’t have time to dive into an 800-page tome.

Finally, the author for whom I am bending the rules a little bit: Arielle M. Bailey, and The Icarus Aftermath. Bailey has written an unabashed tribute to Star Wars with The Icarus Aftermath, which might make some people want to classify it as sci-fi. But she has blended Star Wars with Greek myth, which combined with the fact that Star Wars itself is basically fantasy-in-space is enough for me to claim it as fantasy, and therefore include it in this post.

I loved this story. I adored the Greek myths when I was a kid, and I have loved Star Wars ever since my first exposure to it, so I’m pretty sure Bailey wrote this just for me, specifically. Plus it starts out, as the title says, in the aftermath of a tragic event, the death of one of the Rebellion’s brightest, most charismatic leaders, their hope for the future (this is not a spoiler–you can pretty much assume what is going to be the inciting event from the title if you know anything about the Icarus myth), and the rest of the story is as much about the people he left behind dealing with grief and trying to heal as it is about the Rebellion striking a blow against the Olympians. Although the latter part was great, too. Space fantasy, Greek myths, and a story more focused on interpersonal relationships than about flashy battles and ever-bigger galactic threats? Yeah, like I said: I’m pretty sure Bailey wrote this story for me. You know that story about Lewis and Tolkien deciding they had to write the stories they loved to read because no one else was? Well, this is a story I love that I didn’t have to write for myself, and that just makes it even better.

And that brings us to the (belated) end of this series! Thanks for sticking with me, guys, even after I missed last week. I hope this has provided you with lots of new reading material! These four blog posts are by no means an exhaustive list of the amazing self-published fantasy out there. I might do this again sometime even aside from the larger event hosted by the Self-Published Fantasy Month blog (loads of other authors mentioned there, by the way, most of whom I have not yet had a chance to read myself and so couldn’t include in this series), so feel free to let me know of your favorite author who got missed this month, and hopefully I’ll be able to include them at a later date.

Happy reading, friends!

1920s, Books, characters, fiction, influences, mystery, reading list, stories, writing

Happy (Belated) Birthday to the Queen of Crime

Yesterday was Agatha Christie’s 130th birthday. I wanted to write a tribute to her, but I was already late for the Self-Published Fantasy book recommendation post, and I didn’t want to push it back yet again. So I’m writing my tribute today!

When it comes to fiction authors, there are two who top my personal list for “writing stories that shaped me.” Not necessarily stories that I love the best, though these two are always on that list as well, but stories that have played the largest role in shaping who I am and how I view the world: Lloyd Alexander and Agatha Christie.

They might seem an odd combination, a writer of children’s fantasy stories and a writer of murder mysteries, yet their stories share certain important traits. A passion for truth. The constant struggle to find the appropriate balance between justice and mercy. The need for integrity in every aspect of one’s life. The importance of humility, and what happens when humans lose that.

As well, they share a warm, wry tone, a way of slicing through the deceptions we humans surround ourselves with, seeing the very heart of a person, and then displaying it with love. They both seem to say throughout all their works, “Look at how funny we humans are!”

It is one thing to be able to incisively see humanity without rose-colored glasses; it is one thing again to be able to warmly embrace and love our fellow humans. It is far rarer to be able to see humans as we are, and to recognize the same follies and flaws in one’s own self, to show it without falling into either satire on one side or gush on the other, and to include oneself in that portrayal. Mrs Oliver and Fflewddur Fflam alike are some of the only authorial inserts into a story that really work, and that’s because their creators are as unsparing of their own flaws as they are of others, and as warmly amused by them.

The first Christie book I ever read was The A.B.C. Murders, and it is still one of my all-time favorites. So much so that my husband bought me the gorgeous new hardcover edition for our last Christmas in England, and I adore it.

My mystery reading up to that point had been mostly Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown (I was twelve); I’d been wanting to try Christie for a while but my mom was concerned I might get nightmares. I don’t remember exactly why she decided I was ready, but I remember getting so drawn in, despite the creepiness of the cover (this one), that I couldn’t put it down, and promptly went on to read all the Christies Mom owned, and then pillaged the library for more. The only book I refused to read for years and years was Curtain, because I couldn’t bear to read Poirot’s last case (now I think it’s one of the most brilliant books she wrote).

At twelve, I loved Poirot the most, for his cleverness. In my late teens and early twenties, it was Tommy and Tuppence, for their zest for life and clever banter (more on that in a moment). At this point in my life, I adore Miss Marple, for her keen wits and gentle ruthlessness. I probably identify most with Mrs Oliver, though!

In my mid-twenties, I struggled with finding joy in my writing (that has happened more than once since then; this was the first time, however, such a thing had happened to me). I had written a bog-standard epic fantasy that was, in retrospect, dreadful; I had written a light romance that was also dreadful; I was having fun with LM Montgomery and CS Lewis fanfiction but really wanting to write something of my own, yet not having any sort of ideas or characters. I had one idea, of an eldest sister in a fantasy world turning out to be the one to save the day rather than the traditional fairy tale convention of the eldest sister being the bad one, but I couldn’t gain any traction on it, and then I read Howl’s Moving Castle, and clearly there was no point in me trying that story when Diana Wynne Jones had already perfected it.

Then I picked up a Tommy and Tuppence story to re-read for fun, and slowly, ever so slowly, a few glimmers of light came to me. What if Tommy and Tuppence were in a 1920s England … with magic? Solving magical crimes? Working for a magical intelligence agency? What if I swapped their personalities, so that the Tommy character was the one who worked off impulse and instinct, and the Tuppence character was calm, stolid, and practical?

The mostly-abandoned eldest sister project came back to me at that point and the story started to fill out. What if the practical Tuppence character had two younger sisters? What if her parents were fairly useless and her sisters given to drama and the entire family leaned on her to keep them going? What if she was bored, fed, up, frustrated with being the responsible one, and looking for adventure? What if she suddenly discovered she had the use of magic, and got thrown into this new magical world that existed underneath the real world, and had to partner with this exasperating magical intelligence agent to solve a crime and save the day? What if underneath his flippant exterior the exasperating intelligence agent was kind, thoughtful, and really tired of always having to put on a mask for everyone, and he delighted in the elder sister’s wits? What if they became friends and partners?

I started writing. There were a few false starts, and plenty of difficulties along the way, but eventually all those “what ifs” turned into Magic Most Deadly, a book I chose to self-publish because it was so different from anything else out there at the time I thought no publishing house would look at it. It was my debut novel, and while looking at it now I can see all its rough spots and places where I would now write it differently, I’m still proud and fond of it, as well as of Maia and Len, my two detectives.

I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve a Christie-like insight into human nature, or her ability to turn those insights into characters that live and breathe and sparkle through her stories, but she has given me something to strive for in my own writing, not to mention principles that have stayed with me through all the ups and downs of my own life: the importance and beauty of truth; the need for justice balanced with mercy; the value of humility; the necessity of a good sense of humor no matter what life throws at you.

Thank you, Dame Agatha. May your legacy continue for years and years to come.

Books, reading list

Self-Published Fantasy Month Week Three

Better late than never! I wasn’t sure I’d manage to get a post up this week at all, but thankfully, here we are. I hope you have all had a good start to your week–we spent the weekend enjoying some sunshine at the beach, and are now fully in school-and-work mode, happy to be moving forward into autumn properly. It is chilly enough this morning that I had to put on wool socks and my cozy Jesus College sweatshirt! Hard to believe I was strolling barefoot on the golden sand just a few days ago.

On to the post! I hope you’ve been able to find something to enjoy in my previous book recommendations. If nothing in those posts has caught your fancy, though, never fear: I have three more authors to throw at you today.

First up: M.L. Wang, author of The Sword of Kaigen.

This book is considerably darker than my usual reads, though it never falls into the category of grimdark, or darkness for the sake of darkness. You guys don’t have to worry about that on this blog–I will never, ever recommend a book that glorifies darkness. The Sword of Kaigen, though, definitely explores some heavy topics and depicts a lot of violence. There were a few times when I wondered if I was reading a tragedy (yes, I admit–I peeked at the back just to make sure I wasn’t). But it did end with hope, even if it was a hope tinged with sorrow and grief, and even if everything wasn’t beautifully rosy and happily-ever-after. The prose in this story is beautiful, and the characters are real and vivid. This book won the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (more usually known as SPFBO) in 2019, and reading it makes it easy to see why.

Next we have Sabrina Chase, who I discovered just now has written a substantial amount of books I was not aware of, but who I primarily know as the author of the Guardian’s Compact books.

Set in an alternate world very similar to ours in the Victorian era, save with magic and elements of steampunk included, these books follow the two main characters as they stumble into adventure and intrigue, building close bonds with each other and a few other good friends as they go about doing the right thing even when it seems fruitless or too hard. In other words, exactly up my alley!

Finally for this week, we have Francesca Forrest’s Pen Pal, one of the most memorable and hard-to-categorize books I’ve ever read.

The basic premise is: a young girl living in a floating community off the Gulf Coast in the US tosses a message in a bottle into the sea. It eventually ends up with a political prisoner in a fictional country on the other side of the world. As the two continue to communicate–well, that’s as far as I am going to describe it, because pretty much anything else is going to spoil the story–and this is one story where it absolutely pays to go into it unspoiled. Thoughtful, luminous, heart-breaking, hopeful … this is absolutely a story worth your time to read.

There you have it, three more authors for you to discover! Only one week left to go–have I missed your favorite self-published fantasy author? Drop me a line in the comments and maybe I’ll be able to add them to next week’s post! As it’s the final week I think I can allow myself to go with more than three should I need to.

Have a wonderful week, my friends!

Books, reading list

Self-Published Fantasy Month Week Two

I hope you all had a wonderful Labor Day weekend (for those of you in countries which celebrate, anyway). We certainly did, with family time, beach time, ice cream, sunshine, lighthouses, and lots and lots of laughter.

Now we are really feeling like summer is over: today is the first day of school for our two. Their first time in public school, no less! (I know, what a year to choose to switch from homeschooling to public school … as their advisors said, at least this year all of the other kids are going to be just as unsure and confused about what to do as our girls are, because everything is different and strange for everyone.)

I have three more self-published fantasy authors for you to check out this week, hurrah!

First up, Rachel Neumeier, author of the Black Dog series as well as the newly released Tuyo, among others. Neumeier is technically a hybrid author, as many of her books are published traditionally, but the above-mentioned books are self-published.

I am not generally a fan of urban fantasy, of werewolves and vampires and fae all living and operating in the real world. But somehow, despite all that, I really enjoy the Black Dog books. Neumeier is especially skilled at creating vivid, well-drawn characters, and if you know anything about me through this blog or my own writing, you know I’ll happily read almost anything if the characters are engaging enough–and if it is hope-filled rather than bleak. Things can get dark in Neumeier’s books, but the reader need never despair, because she never leaves things in that dark place. There is always hope in the darkness.

CJ Milbrandt has written the Galleries of Stone series, as well as a younger chapter book series I have not read.

Galleries of Stone is, I think, closer to middle grade than anything else, but it most certainly can be read and enjoyed by adults–in fact, I think in some ways adults might be even more likely to enjoy it, unless you have that rare kid who really loves quiet fantasy. They are meandering stories that simply follow the patterns and rhythm of life, rather than relying on plot. We see the slow blossoming of friendships over time, of gentle romances, of prejudices overcome and trust built. They are simply lovely, and I’m always hoping the author writes more.

Finally for this week is Steve Turnbull, author of the Dragons of Esternes series, among others.

The world-building is so intricate and detailed in this series, and Turnbull does an excellent job of examining real world issues of power and prejudice in a fantastic setting. His characters are relatable and engaging, and overall these are just fun stories to read.

And that’s this week’s recommendations! I hope something here catches your interest–let me know if it does!

Books, fiction, reading list, stories

Self-Published Fantasy Month Week One

Happy September, friends! We survived the summer, and now we get to enjoy cooler temps, harvest delights, cozy sweaters (that’s cosy jumpers for my friends across the pond), your hot beverage of choice … and self-published fantasy books galore!

I saw Self-Published Fantasy Month advertised yesterday and decided it was the perfect chance to highlight some of my favorite self-pubbed authors, as well as hopefully finding some new ones to appreciate as well. I’ll try to do one post every Monday morning after this week–but we’ll see how well I am able to keep up that schedule once school begins for the kids!

I am starting off with my three most favorite self-published authors, and the ones whose books I return to again and again.

First up is my good friend A.M. Offenwanger, who has written and published the Septimus series: Seventh Son (free across all platforms, so a perfect way to introduce yourself to the series!); Cat & Mouse; Checkmate; and Star Bright. There’s also a free short story available on her blog!

These books follow Cat, a woman whisked from our world to one where magic is subtle, domestic, and omnipresent, and where she has a particular gift of her own. The cast of characters expands as the books progress, as does the world, yet they never lose that quiet, close-knit feel.

Next is Stella Dorthwany, who has written Sand & Storm and Blood Traitors, as well as some short stories in the series, and has newly released a standalone book, Song & Flame (I have this on my Kindle but I haven’t read it yet–I’m saving it for a time when I really, really need a brand-new good read. I know it won’t disappoint).

Dorthwany’s books contain some of the most detailed and complex world-building I’ve come across, fascinating magical structures, and characters who are vivid and complicated. Warning: these are not stories that are easy to put down!

Finally, for this week anyway, is Laura Josephsen, whose Dust & Gold is one of my favorite comfort reads; I find myself picking it up along with Miss Read, Agatha Christie, and LM Montgomery on days when I feel particularly gray. She’s also published the Rising quadrology, which is heart-rending in places but ultimately hopeful.

If you’ve ever wondered how the characters in a fairy tale might really react to their situations, Josephsen is the writer for you. Dust & Gold, as well as the Rising books, looks at the personal consequences that would come out of kingdom conquests and other standards of fantastic fiction, and then manages to bring redemption, love, and even joy out of them. These stories never sugarcoat pain, nor is magic ever a, well, magic cure for anything, but the darkness is never allowed to triumph, either.

And there are our first three authors for this month! I hope at least one of those has whetted your appetite. Go, check them out, and then come back to let me know how much you loved them!

Books, characters, fiction, heroines, mystery, publishing, reading list, stories, writing

Diamonds to Dust Published

No time to waste on fancy intros–let’s get right to the heart of the matter.

What starts as an intriguing puzzle soon takes a more sinister turn when a dead body shows up. When all of the clues only make matters more murky, how can Pauline Gray make sense of it all? This case will take all her wits and investigative ability to solve … but the body count is growing …Horace Van Camp, of Clayton, NY, is dead, and his wealth has been divided among strangers. Arabella Warren cannot understand why she should have inherited a diamond necklace from a man she never met, and she asks Pauline Gray to look into the matter. Eager for a new challenge, Pauline takes the case. The deeper she explores, the more complicated matters become. Why was Van Camp’s great-nephew disinherited? Did the pompous lawyer have anything to do with it? How were the twelve beneficiaries chosen, and why? When a dead body turns up on the Van Camp estate, the puzzle takes on a more sinister aspect. With the police dismissing it all as a series of coincidences and accidents, it is up to Pauline to set things right in the face of the greed, deception, and fear that lie at the heart of this disquieting case. It will take all of Pauline’s ingenuity to solve this case, but she is once again determined to see justice done for those who cannot seek it for themselves.

Diamonds to Dust is out today! You can buy it at …

Amazon

iBooks

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

You can also purchase a paperback copy through Amazon

Wow, that’s great, Louise, you might be saying right now. But why should I buy this book? What’s it all about?

I’m so glad you asked!

Diamonds to Dust is the second book in the Pauline Gray mystery series, though it can be read and enjoyed on its own (if you do want to read the first book first, it’s on sale right now for $.99 at all the above retailers–links can be found at this page.)

Pauline Gray is a single woman in her mid-twenties, living in the small town of Canton, NY, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern NY state. The year is 1934; Prohibition has just been repealed, the country is in the thick of the Great Depression, and rural farming communities in the northeastern part of the US, though not suffering as badly as other parts of the country, have all had to pull together to try to get through this.

Pauline thinks of herself as a scholar, first and foremost. Yes, she writes a column for the local newspaper to pay the bills, and yes, she secretly writes cheap adventure novels on the side to supplement the newspaper income, but in her heart, she is still an academic, dreaming of the day she can return to the world of study and research she loved so well in college. In the meantime, those traits serve her well when unsolved mysteries trouble her neighbors and friends. Pauline’s compassion and drive for justice combine with her ability to sort facts and sift truth from falsehood to make her a formidable detective. Not that she ever seeks out trouble, mind you, but somehow it always seems to find her …

The Pauline Gray mysteries are for you if you like:

Mysteries with plots that keep you guessing all the way through

Stories set in and informed by the 1930s, or historical periods in general

Stories set in small towns with a tight-knit community

People doing the right thing even when it’s difficult or unpleasant

Women supporting other women

Justice served for those the world tends to overlook.

Sound like your cup of tea? Then pick up your copy of Diamonds to Dust today! What are you waiting for?

1920s, Books, fantasy, fiction, publishing, reading list, Sci-fi, stories, writing

Black Friday Sale

It’s sale time! From now until November 30, my first-in-series and stand-alone books are only $0.99.

Magic Most Deadly, my first published novel, the first in my Whitney & Davies series, combines murder, mystery, and magic in 1920s England. It’s Agatha Christie with magic!

From the Shadows, a sci-fi stand-alone (so far …). A journey through space and time that is really all about finding one’s place in the world. This story is especially dear to my heart!

Last but not least, Candles in the Dark, an historical mystery novella, set in the Adirondack region of NY State in the 1930s (aka my hometown). Written under the name Louise Bates to distinguish it from my fantastic writings, this is currently the only title in the series, but Book 2 is coming soon, and I hope will be followed by many more.

Happy reading, and Happy Thanksgiving, friends! I hope this week is filled with love and laughter–and good books–for all of you.