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Books: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Here’s another one that I didn’t realize was part of a series until I read some of the other reviews after the fact. It seems like, though, that the main female character in this book was a minor character in a previous book, so maybe I didn’t miss anything too important.

First, the pros of the prose, so to speak: I like stories where a middle-age woman gets to have a romance. And I’m a sucker for a whirlwind foreign romance, too.

That’s about all I can say that I enjoyed about this book.

The tale in a nutshell (no spoilers): 54-year-old Vivian goes to England over the Christmas holiday with her daughter who has been tapped to help dress an unnamed Duchess. This means they’re staying on the Sandringham estate, in the Duke and Duchess’ “cottage,” no less. Well, okay, I guess I can relax my sense of reality in the name of wish fulfillment. But I won’t say it was easy.

Anyway, Vivian meets Malcolm, the Queen’s private secretary. And they hit it off. And… that’s really the whole story, more or less. There are contrived conflicts, but they never last more than a couple pages because both Vivian and Malcolm are incredibly reasonable people. So there’s no real tension, just a sense of meandering as Malcolm introduces Vivian to first Sandringham and then London. And then they must negotiate their long-distance relationship, and that’s pretty much it.

What I saw in many reviews was that this book was boring, and I’d mostly agree. It’s cute, but it’s far from compelling. Neither Vivian nor Malcolm are a commanding presence on the page. The reader alternates between their POVs, but most of what we’re privy to is repetitive and fairly uninteresting. In fact, the big drawback here is that there is so much telling in this story and so very little showing. We’re told over and over again how attracted each of these characters is to the other, but I never really felt that at all. I was just supposed to believe it because they said so.

Also, a lot of these characters sounded alike. You would think a woman from Oakland, California would sound pretty distinctly different from a man serving in the Queen’s household, but… apparently not! Everyone in this book says or thinks “wow” constantly. And on one page I read “Thank God” no fewer than three times in as many paragraphs. Enough to draw my attention, anyway. Was this book rushed to print? Did it get an edit at all? Did they talk to anyone from England? “Wow” is not something I’ve heard a lot while there (and I’ve spent a fair amount of time in London).

Pffftt. I dunno. This one just didn’t work for me. I so wanted to like it, and from what I’ve heard maybe her other books are better? Or maybe her writing style just isn’t something I can jive with. ::shrug::

Books: Death Brings a Shadow by Rosemary Simpson

I picked this one up because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know it was the fourth in a series. So some of the faults I have with this book may be in part because I’m less familiar with the characters than I should be. At the same time, some of the issues wouldn’t be eradicated by that one difference.

Set in, IIRC, 1889, Death Brings a Shadow is a historical mystery/romance featuring Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter, who are apparently established characters in what’s called “The Gilded Age” series. She is the daughter of a New York lawyer, and he is the estranged son of a Southern… plantation owner? This is what I gathered, anyway; Geoffrey is now an ex-Pinkerton detective who solves mysteries with Prudence. Ostensibly there is some kind of burgeoning relationship developing there, but I didn’t really feel any chemistry in this particular book.

The story is of Prudence and Geoffrey accompanying the Dickson family to their winter home on Bradford Island off the coast of Georgia. It isn’t winter, mind; Eleanor Dickson, the daughter of the house and also Prudence’s best friend, is slated to marry a Southerner named Teddy Bennett. Eleanor’s father bought the island from Teddy’s family, but the Bennetts still have a home there (Wildacre) while Dickson also built a massive mansion (Seapoint). Anyway, when Eleanor is found dead a couple days before the wedding, at first glance it seems like a terrible accident. But then we get some juju priestesses involved, and the usual Southern resentment toward “Yankees,” and… Well, everything goes in a fairly typical fashion from there.

The plot is interesting, but the characters made it less so, unfortunately. As a child of the South myself, I’m heartily sick of the caricatures drawn of us. The heroes are always some son of a planter who saw the error of the ways of slavery well before anyone in their families. (Enter Geoffrey Hunter.) The villains are always resentful slave owners or sore losers of the Civil War. There never seems to be any gray area, or at least not any that’s well shaded. That is to say, I can see Simpson tried to make characters with some depth and dimension, but it’s a prickly area to be sure. Teddy is the closest to straddling the two extremes, but he’s fairly colorless and boring. The murderer is plain from pretty much the moment they’re introduced (leaving it gender neutral for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled). Most of the characters have one chief trait and are otherwise cardboard. And I found Prudence obnoxious. She’s supposed to be “strong,” I guess, but you can be strong without being dislikable—yes, even if you disagree with the people around you. Simpson works so hard to give Prudence the moral high ground, when I’m sure almost anyone would concede she has it without all the high dudgeon. So Prudence mostly comes off as condescending, which makes her supremely annoying.

The use of conjure women in this book, too… Again, coming from some of that background, it just really bothered me. Simpson was careful not to be disrespectful (though killing a cat? no thanks), but I guess I always feel a bit wary when seeing these things depicted because there are so many clichés and solidified falsehoods in pop culture.

Some of Simpson’s writing style just wasn’t for me, either, and that’s a largely personal thing. For example, she head hops. One paragraph will be one person’s thoughts and/or from their perspective, the next will be someone else’s. This is a dated way of writing that used to be common some 30+ years ago. Like, it happens in Dune, which is considered a classic, and which I love. It’s basically third-person, omniscient point of view in that the “narrator” seems to know what everyone thinks and feels. But authors today are told to avoid that. And since I see it so much less now, it’s very obvious when it does happen, and very distracting. Also, Simpson seems to be one of those authors who likes to show how much she’s learned in her research. Details are one thing, but the need to explain stuff just to show you know it is another, and that’s what a lot of the “details” in this book (embalming!) felt like.

Anyway, mixed feelings overall. I don’t know if maybe I’d like one of the others of this series more? Since so many of my issues with this one stems from the setting… But if Prudence is as shrill in the other books as in this one, then maybe she’s just not a character I can enjoy.

20 Years?!

I was looking over my writing résumé (because I wanted to add the re-release of Peter) and I was astounded to realize I’ve been writing and publishing for 20 years now. And that doesn’t even include the times my fan fiction was published in zines, which happened well before my original work saw the light of day.

You can find a comprehensive list of my work on this site, if in parts, by clicking on “Extended Bibliography” in the menu. But for more immediate purposes, I’ll also post it here as shown on my résumé:

  • The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller (re-release, January 2020)
  • “Origami of the Heart” (East of the Web, December 2019)
  • “The Zodiac Clock” (December 2018)
  • Faebourne (October 2018)
  • Brynnde (audiobook, June 2018)
  • “A Good Washing and One Nice Dress” in Fairy Tales and Folktales Re-imagined (Between the Lines Publishing, November 2017)
  • “Professor Moriarty and the Demented Detective” (November 2017)
  • The New Sherlock Holmes Adventures (audiobook, May 2017)
  • Brynnde (February 2017)
  • Changers: Manifesting Destiny (Evernight Teen, August 2016)
  • “Aptera” in Aurora Wolf (June 2016)
  • The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller (Tirgearr Publishing, January 2016)
  • “Sherlock Holmes and the Monumental Horror” (July 2015)
  • The K-Pro (March 2013)
  • The World Ends at Five and Other Stories, 2nd Edition (November 2012)
  • “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Ichabod Reed” (September 2012)
  • “Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Last Line” (July 2012)
  • St. Peter in Chains (June 2012)
  • The World Ends at Five and Other Stories (2008)
  • “A.B.C.” in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine (Fall 2004)
  • “There Was an Old Woman…” in Rosebud Magazine (April 2004)
  • “Haiku 101” in The Aurorean (March 2004)
  • “A Day in the Life of a Moderately Successful Writer” and “The Snake” in Dingbat #4 (Emerson College, 2000)

Of course, not all these can be found or are still available. But it’s 20 solid years of work nonetheless, though there are gaps. I often think of 2012 as the true start of my “writing career” (such as it is), but I had several things before then. Including poetry! Yeesh.

20 years in 2020. Wow. Thanks to all of you who have bought, read, reviewed, and overall supported me and my work all these years. It’s been a blessing to have the opportunity to write and publish.

IWSG: January 2020

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I’m excited for a new, hopefully more productive year. Last year I wrote and published one story (“Origami of the Heart,” available to read for free on the sidebar). Yesterday I re-launched my novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller. So I guess I’m already ahead of what I accomplished last year, but here’s hoping my current WIP goes somewhere.

Question of the Month: What started you on your writing journey?

You know, I really wanted to write for television and/or film. Those were the stories that captured me. I loved (alert: about to show my age) Moonlighting and MacGyver and pretty much anything Stephen Spielberg did. So that was my ultimate goal and the reason I went to film school. It’s the reason (I believe) my dialogue writing is some of my best. And, like many writers, I started out writing fan fiction because of my love for these shows and characters, but also out of a desire to be part of that industry. Alas, despite much great feedback and many strong results in various screenwriting competitions, I’ve never managed to break in. (I did work in the industry for a while, though.) I ended up getting my Master’s in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and I pivoted to focus there. I’ve always loved to read and write anyway, and the lovely thing about writing a book or story is that there are far fewer hoops to jump through to get to a finished product. Now, with self-publishing, the only one who needs to say “yes” is me!

Ebook is Here!

In 1960’s London, British Intelligence agent Peter Stoller is next in line to run the Agency—until he falls in love with cab driver, Charles, and his life goes off the road. When Charles is accused of treason, Peter is guilty by association. Peter manages to extract them both, but the seeds of doubt have been planted, putting Peter’s mind and heart at war. Is ignorance truly bliss or merely deadly?

Paperback also available for pre-order, out January 28.

Movies: Knives Out

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 2019
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

This being movie #1 of 2020. (I’m hoping to keep count.)

I have long been a fan of cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein. So of course when I saw the trailers for this one, I had to see it. No one makes movies like this anymore; more often this kind of content goes to the stage, if it gets produced at all. (Certainly, there are still many mystery books published.) Anyway, after being disappointed by J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars, it seemed fitting in a way to go enjoy something by Rian Johnson. (Yes, I did like Last Jedi.)

Knives Out is a fun take on the genre. The viewers are fed the building blocks of the crime early on, and a fair part of the film is about watching the murderer attempt to elude Daniel Craig’s Southern-gentleman detective. But of course there is the standard twist. I saw it coming—I would guess many mystery readers will put it all together fairly swiftly—but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film for me. There is a lot of humor and a lot of charm on show here.

Being from the South myself, I had many friends warn me that Craig’s Southern accent was terrible. Maybe they oversold it because it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Overwrought, sure, but I suspect some of that is on purpose as much of the film is somewhat exaggerated, as is common in the genre. Can I also just mention how glad I am to see Don Johnson getting work these days? Between this and Watchmen, he’s suddenly everywhere, and in great form. My guess is that casting agents are capitalizing on us 80s’ kids’ nostalgia by bringing back actors from our childhoods. Well, huzzah! Makes me plenty happy. (I was actually a bit too young for Miami Vice, but my parents were weirdly permissive in letting me watch it with them. I probably didn’t understand half of what I saw and heard.)

Anyway, without giving too much away, Knives Out is about the abrupt death of a famous mystery novelist, and the swarm of his greedy family. The death is at first ruled a suicide, but then a detective (Craig) is anonymously hired to look into it. Things are complicated by the fact that the writer left all his money to his personal nurse (de Armas, managing incredibly well considering she’s on screen for almost the entire movie). Suspense tempered by humor ensues.

In all, I do recommend this one for fans of a fun murder mystery. It’s a bit too easy to figure out (which is why I shaved a wee bit off the rating), but it’s a good time anyway.

Goodbye, 2019. Hello, 2020.

This year was one of major changes for me, but I’m grateful for that. Because I believe all the changes were for the better. We moved house, for one thing. And I didn’t write as much. How is that for the better? Well, I spent a lot of time this year focused on home and family, and those bonds are stronger than ever now. So I think that’s a good thing.

I did at least write one short story that got published! (If you haven’t read “Origami of the Heart” yet, click on the cover in the sidebar. It’s free to read!)

There were a lot of shifts in my writing relationships as well. A group I’d once left began to meet again, if spottily, and I hope I can spend more time with them because I do love all the members. Another group I’ve been with for a few years began to disintegrate a bit, so I’m stepping away from them for the time being. Because I didn’t do much writing this year, I haven’t had as much need for critique groups or writing meetups. I still want to be there for others, but with all the demands of home and family this year, it was more difficult to make the time. Still, I did enjoy the times I got to socialize with all my writing buds.

I don’t make resolutions, but I do try to set goals. Not just at New Year’s but all year long, and with the understanding that goals can change and I need to remain flexible. For 2020, I’d like to finish my current WIP. That’s my only writing goal for the moment. Given that I only managed one short story in 2019, I think it’s a fair target to want to finish one… novel? Novella? I’m not sure yet what this one will be.

I’ll start 2020 ahead of 2019 already because I’ll be re-releasing The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller in January, as both an ebook and paperback. There’s that at least. I might also be re-releasing The K-Pro later in the year.

2019 wasn’t big for travel in that I (we) only took one major trip to Disney World (plus a Disney cruise). I know that sounds like a lot, but usually I go to a conference or something, too. I’ve got some travel to look forward to in the coming year: Disneyland and Japan. No plans for any writing conferences though, since I really have scaled back the writing overall.

Anyway, here’s wishing you a happy new year and new decade. Though a new year is not required for setting a goal or making a change—you can do that any day, week, month, hour or minute—I hope that your 2020 gets off to a good start. And that you make progress in the direction of your dreams, whatever they may be.

Tarot: The Weaver Tarot (Journeyer Edition)

I saw this deck being used by an online tarot reader and I simply had to have it. I just felt so drawn to it. It is not an inexpensive deck, and I seldom treat myself to ones this costly, but every now and then I feel it’s worth the splurge.

The cards in this deck use holographic ink for the backgrounds and gold foil stamping for the images. That means, depending on the light, they’re not always easy to read. Still, I find them very worthwhile to own. They are of high quality card stock, with glittery gold edges. They are a somewhat large size, but I can shuffle them without problem.

This tarot has a direct, no-nonsense feel in responding to questions. In fact, when I did the deck interview, it told me that it would remain detached and give me a higher perspective on things. It’s not a touchy feely deck, despite its beauty. But sometimes that’s what you need: clear, impersonal answers.

The Weaver Tarot

For those who rely on imagery when reading cards, the symbols used here are a bit different and may take time to learn. There are seeds, roots, bones, teeth, among others. What’s particularly lovely is that the deck comes with a card that gives you keywords and shorthand for reading those symbols. And the booklet is also nicely done.

Also, the creators have worked to remove gendered language from these cards. Instead of the Empress and Emperor, we have the Pillar and Anchor. Instead of Queens and Kings, we have Sovereigns and Rulers.

This deck is from Threads of Fate, which also has some lovely oracle cards and other items. I promise they haven’t sponsored this in any way; I’m just always glad to find interesting new outlets.

Author M Pepper Langlinais