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!

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, favorites, fiction, influences, philosophy, quotes

DE Stevenson

“I am grateful for all my blessings; amongst them the Gift of Storytelling, which seems to please and amuse so many people all over the world.”

“It seems to me that this job of interpreting my own people to other people is the most important contribution I can make to the world and to peace.”

-D.E. Stevenson.

I discovered D.E. Stevenson thanks to Goodreads recommending her “Miss Buncle’s Book” to me based on my fondness for Miss Read. Curiously enough, the Miss Buncle series are among my least favorites of her work; I prefer her stand-alones, or the ones with two or three loosely-connected books. However, they were enough to get me intrigued, and now I’ve read everything of hers our library has, and am starting to expand through ILL to others in our network.

Like Miss Read, Stevenson writes stories about ordinary people, stories in which (generally) not a lot happens. Nice, friendly, meandering stories, that give you a glimpse into somebody else’s life and fit into their shoes for at least a few brief moments. Stories which, as a kid, bored me to tears, and now I love.

And along with enjoying her books, I appreciate her philosophy as well. Aren’t those quotes up above lovely? Sums up a lot of my feeling toward writing and storytelling.

So, if you enjoy “quiet” stories, give D.E. Stevenson a try! She wrote dozens of books; if you enjoy them, you won’t run out of reading material for a long, long time. Also? She was the cousin of the great Robert Louis Stevenson!

Books, reading list

Book Recommendations: Cozy Mysteries

I asked for some book recs on Twitter the other day, as I’ve gotten burnt out on too much YA (when all the protagonists start sounding alike and you want to shake them all for normal, teenage behavior, I think it’s a clue that it’s time for a break). I got some good suggestions, but it occurred to me how difficult it is to give recommendations when you’ve only got 140 characters to understand what sort of books the other person likes and dislikes. So I thought it was time for a new series on the blog – Book Recommendations!

This will be where I list off various books I love, like, etc. in a genre, and you can feel free to offer up suggestions for others based on what I already like. I’ll throw in some specifics of things I dislike as well, to provide balance.

This isn’t purely selfish, either: I’ll update the post with suggestions from the comments, and then whenever someone is looking for a good book in a particular genre, they can just click on the post and have a handy list right at their fingertips.

So, to start off: Cozy Mysteries!

Cozies I Love:

Agatha Christie, of course. Still, and always, the Queen of Crime! (But I’ve no intention of reading the new Poirot novel, because that to me seems like even greater sacrilege than Jill Paton Walsh’s attempts at Lord Peter.

And speaking of Lord Peter … Dorothy L Sayers. I love Peter, and I love Harriet, and I love Bunter, and I most especially love the way she writes.

Ellis Peters. I have almost all the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and I just started collecting the Inspector Felse series. At this point in my life I almost even prefer Felse to Cadfael. Shocking, yes?

Mrs. Pollifax. Dorothy Gilman’s other books are a little weird for my taste, but I adore Mrs. Pollifax. More adventures than mysteries, they’re still pure entertainment, and pure delight for me to read.

Josephine Tey. The woman was brilliant. That’s all.

Cozies I Like:

Ngaio Marsh. Sometimes she can be a little too dry for my taste (it seems half the mysteries are less “mystery” and more “Alleyn and Fox collect evidence and by the end of it know who did the crime, and sit around and snigger at Nigel’s ignorance until they Reveal All), but she’s still brilliant.

Carola Dunn. I have read all the Daisy Dalrymple books, and the Cornish mysteries, and while they aren’t necessarily the best things ever, they are delightful period pieces. And since they are set in the ’20s in England, I can justify buying them as “research” for my own stories. Score!

Margery Allingham. Sad to say I recently gave away all my Campion books. I like them, but not enough to let them continue taking up space on my shelves.

Laurie R King. I only like the Mary Russell stories (I read Touchstone and hated it so much I couldn’t read anything by King for months afterward), and even those have started appealing to me less with the most recent books. Not exactly cozy, but also not really hard-boiled or noir either.

Charles Todd. These can get a little grim for me (and I can never, ever read them late at night), but they are brilliantly crafted. Like the Mary Russell series, these are a little darker than typical cozies, but they also don’t fit into any of the other mystery categories.

Anna Dean. The Dido Kent books are imperfect, but they stay true enough to the time period (Regency) while still managing to feature an intelligent and independent heroine, that I thoroughly enjoy reading them.

Anthony Berkeley. Technically I’ve only read one Roger Sheringham book (they are even harder to find than Campion books), but it cracked me up, and I’ve been on the lookout for more ever since.

Cozies I Sorta Like:

Elizabeth Peters. These hover between farce and genuine mysteries, and I wish they’d make up their mind which they are, because the in-between makes it hard to like them, but there’s a lot of brilliance in them all the same.

The Cat Who books. I pick them up every once in a while, enjoy them for a bit, and then promptly forget about them afterward.

P.D. James. Are these even cozies? I really don’t know. I like them all right, but I can only read so many in a row before I have to turn to something else.

Georgette Heyer. They’re OK, but I always expect the detective to be much more clever than he/she ends up being, and I inevitably guess the culprit long before anyone else. Which is lovely for my ego, but does get boring to read after a while.

Cozies I dislike:

Anything that takes a real person and turns her (it’s usually a her) into a detective. I’ve tried a few of these, and I end up hating them with a passion every time. (Tell the truth, I’m not really a fan of any book that fictionalizes real people, unless said book is by said person him- or herself, i.e. the Little House books.)

ANY mystery featuring Jane Austen characters. Please, no.

Cozies that insist on featuring the exact same characters and developments and “quirks” in every single story, that go through a dozen books and never let the main character grow in any way, that feature protagonists being Too Stupid to Live or doing idiotic things like hiding evidence from the police for no other reason but that they want to prove something, that rely on people being idiots in order to keep things a mystery. Whew.

Anything too “cutesy.” Most themed mystery series get on my nerves after the first book or two. I realize that themes are an essential part of many cozies, but they tend to get repetitive quickly.

~

I’m sure I’m missing some, but that sums it up as best I can. Make your suggestions in the comments, and I’ll update the post with them as they come in!

Update:

If you don’t mind real people fictionalized, Stephanie Barron has written a Jane Austen mystery series which is rather well done.

Over on FB, someone mentioned the Flavia de Luce series by Allan Bradley, which are written for adults despite featuring an eleven-year-old protagonist.

The Phryne Fisher series is delightful fun for the most part, even though I had to quit them after a few books due to my own personal inability to read casually about child abuse.

The Nero Wolfe series is not quite cozy, but reportedly not too hard-boiled, either.

The Mrs Bradley series is quite extensive and shooting to the top of my list of books to find!