Gimme the strong voices

 I did a lot of re-reading last year, and one of my most re-read authors was Stephanie Laurens. I haven't read a lot of her newer, self published books, but the original Bar Cynster and the Bastion Club series? You betcha.  I have a fondness for those books, and a large part of it is because she has such an incredibly strong voice.

Voice is one of those things that's often really hard to describe to people who don't read a lot. How can words on a page have a voice? How do you define it? Because it's definitely one of those things that you know it when you see it. Which is why Laurens is such a good example of this. Because her voice is pretty easily deconstructed.

Voice is kind of like style. It's something that makes one author's book distinct from every other author. It's a unique combination of word choice, rhythm, sentence construction, even pacing. Something that will tell whoever is reading it that this book is a Stephanie Laurens book, even without a name on the cover.

With Laurens, there are a few things that I always notice. One is her fondness for descriptive phrases in sets of three.  This is from The Lady Chosen

 "...the taste of him—hard, male, dominant— sank into her. 

For long moments, they both simply took, gave, explored."

and later in the same book. 

"She'd snapped out his hold too easily that afternoon, evaded his snare, shaken free of any lingering fascination far too readily for his liking.

His nature had always been dictatorial. Tyrannical. Predatory."

It's a combination of both phrases in threes and words in threes. It's particularly noticeable when listening to these books in audio, but even in print, it's very distinctive.

A second is her fondness for certain phrases. The most infamous one is probably "her lungs seized." If you go into Google books and type that phrase in, you'll find all of the dozens of books she's written with that phrase. Often multiple times in the same book. I used to make a game out of finding the first mention of it in one of her books. It was her go-to phrase for intense attraction.

Then there's the horse metaphors. So many horse metaphors. Sometimes, but not always in one of the more intimate scenes. 

Are there any authors who you feel have a strong voice? Or do you have a different way to explain what it is?


The Mixed Up Feelings of a Former Bookseller: On Oprah

 It seems like everyone is rediscovering what a cultural giant Oprah Winfrey is as a result of the Harry and Meghan interview. Part of this is surely generational, but for those of us who were in the trenches of the book industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Oprah stirs up some complicated feelings. 

She's a wonderful interviewer. She's always been fabulous at that. She has the journalism creds. She's built a multi-billion dollar empire. You don't do that by accident. There's plenty to admire about her, but as a new college grad selling books at Barnes and Noble, I kinda hated her. 

The vast majority of people who gravitate to work at a place like Barnes and Noble are readers. It's been underpaid for decades. People make consistently more working at fast food chains. You go in with naive expectations of being surrounded by books, which you would think would be heaven. And it can be. But you also have things called customers, and THOSE can be the absolute worst. Entitled, snooty, rude, abusive... And some of the very worst, the Karens before we had Karens, were the women who came in looking for the newest book in the Oprah Book Club. 

I admire the hell out of how many books and careers Oprah helped launch. I do. She and JK Rowling (love them or hate them) dominated the book scene for decades. And they got people reading. And they sold so so so many books. But woe be unto you if your store happened to be out of the newest pick. Eventually, they started releasing print runs specifically for Oprah's announcements...and even still, there were times we couldn't get the book out of receiving and onto the floor fast enough. I cannot count the number of times I had to explain that we didn't have an Oprah section (until we did) and that explaining the plot when you didn't have a title didn't help us all that much since the plot lines of her books were so incredibly similar they all kind of ran together.

I also felt a little squicked out by how cult-like so many of those readers were. It wasn't that they were excited to read the books so much as that they were desperate to be part of the cultural conversation. It wasn't so much about exploring different stories as it was finding an excuse to drink wine. Which is fine, but as someone who genuinely loves books, I wish she had found a wider variety of stories to highlight. I wish we had seen some genuine depth in those clubs. And I wish the people who clamored for those books weren't so goddamn awful to the people who had to deal with them.


Pandemic Brain and the Comfort Read/Watch

This blog has been empty for months. No reviews. No commentary. No rants. I haven't had much to say that required a longer format than the short bursts of thoughts I post to Twitter. I have managed to keep reading throughout these long 11 months, but much of what I've read has been either rereads, short story or novella anthologies, or a few trusted authors. The few books I've tried from authors I don't normally read fit a very specific pattern: lighter, contemporary, and highly recommended by people on Twitter. But even those are maybe a handful. 

I've noticed the same inability to engage with new content in my viewing habits as well. Lots of people excited about new shows, and I just put on the same movie I've watched a hundred times. One I can fall asleep to and wake up knowing where I am in the plot. Or TV series I watch over and over. The only new show I've managed to stick with is Mandalorian, and that's mainly because of Hubs who loves all things Star Wars. And Baby Yoda.

Part of my pandemic brain is just the general malaise and depression and sense of stagnation many of us are feeling. That fog where time doesn't matter and moments just seem to blend into each other. Part of it is also that I haven't had a single day to myself in eleven months. Quite literally, I was typing the title to this post and my eldest teen son walked in to comment "Oh, you've got the blog going again?' Just...argh. I am an introvert, and the lack of space, the lack of being alone is probably the absolute worst part of this. I was used to those hours with the kids at school where I could turn on loud music and clean the house or settle in a chair and read for hours uninterrupted. Now, I have to tiptoe around every morning while the kids are on Zoom and despite that still feel like I'm constantly on the verge of being interrupted. And I am. Texts, emails, reminders going off all morning, every morning. There's a deluge of individual notifications for each assignment that's posted. There are the reminders for the kids. There's the questions from other parents who look to me for help. It's just endless interruptions.

In light of that, I'm going to try to ease back into putting stuff on the blog. It probably won't be formal reviews until I can get my groove back, but here's the list of new to me books I managed to read this last month or three:

Blue background with shamrocks TItle says Beginners Luck by Kate Clayborn

I read this one in December. It's the first Clayborn book that I've read (that I can remember) and I really enjoyed it. I bought the next two in the series as well, which are good, but not as a good as this one. This one was special. I suspect it was the nerdy science stuff I loved so much, but of the series, this was my favorite.

This was my first Olivia Dade book, too. And it was everywhere on Twitter when it was released., so naturally I stayed far, far away from it. Until it went on sale of course. There's quite a bit of stuff about fandom that went over my head, but it did buck the usual trend I have of buzzed books not working for me. I liked it. I didn't think it was as amazing as some people who adored it, but it kept me engaged.

Nothing about this book should have worked for me. I read the first in the series, The Hook Up, and thought it was ok. And the preview of this book was in it. It instantly sucked me in, and I went with it. This book is a NA-ish sports romance written in alternating first person PRESENT, which is pretty much every single thing I dislike. And yet. 

It starts as a modern day epistolary novel. Told through texts for a large chunk of the beginning. There's a playfulness to the conversations and honesty that I haven't seen in a long time, and I just loved everything about this book. Which is, again, WEIRD. Because I should absolutely hate it.

I've read Talia Hibbert before and liked her, but none of her books have ever really just made me laugh the way this one did. For a book with characters who have heavy backstories, I found myself laughing at some of the outrageousness here. It was just a wonderful book to sink into from the very first page.





As for my rereads, they are legion. There's the audiobook rereads (re-listens?) which are basically all five Lady Sherlock books and the Hidden Legacy series by Ilona Andrews on a constant loop. Then there's the books, which seems to be everything Lisa Kleypas, old school Nora Roberts (we're talking Stanislaski) and old Stephanie Laurens novellas I know I read when they came out, but decided to reread when I found the anthologies on sale in digital. I'm edging into new book territory by attempting to restart the Sebastian St. Cyr series by C.S. Harris. I've read the first few, but didn't remember them, so I started back at book one. I'm currently on book two. Fingers crossed.


Personal Reflections on COVID 19


I cleaned my car last week. I took it to the local carwash to rinse away the pine pollen that had turned my brown CRV bright yellow. This happens every year, but not normally to this extent, because my car has been mostly sitting for months. Months, because we've been sheltering at home due to the Novel Coronavirus, everything is closed, the kids have been home from school since March. There's nowhere to go, really. So the car has sat and collected pollen, turning from brown to yellow as we shelter in place here in the woods.

I cleaned the inside of the car, too. It's like a time capsule. Sitting on my dash is a packet of papers from the parent meeting about my high school junior's tennis season. Sports physical information, a team roster, dates for future matches, our athletics code of conduct. Two days after the meeting, our schools closed. First for snow, then for the rest of the year due to COVID19. We knew, sitting at that meeting, that not getting a season was a possibility. There was optimism about resuming travel and matches in April, but my gut told me that was unlikely. I was watching the numbers in New York, feeling my anxiety spike, and trying to come to terms with the fact that we weren't controlling the spread anywhere and quietly panicking about what to do if the schools here didn't close, because I had been sick for six weeks from a respiratory virus brought home from school. I didn't want to deal with COVID coming home, too.

The first few weeks of our lockdown were frustrating. It just kept snowing, which meant the kids were inside much of the time. We had no clear idea what to do about school. What the plan was. School officials were talking about equity and access issues. The kids in upper grades all had school laptops, but some of them had left them at school. How did we get them? Do we clean out our lockers? Do we need our textbooks? What the hell is Zoom, anyway?

Our school district decided to make the first month of "distance learning" optional, which was confusing for students and parents alike. Do I make my child do their work? Will it affect their grades? What do I tell my child who watches their peers blow off school and hang out with their friends? It created a lot of friction in my house and a lot of resentment. Not only could they not see their friends, but we had to isolate from their grandma, too, because she was especially at risk.

Google Classroom quickly became the most hated part of my day. Parents aren't really encouraged to use or understand exactly what's being assigned in classrooms, and I found that especially true for Google Classroom. For junior high and high school, there were seven classes with different teachers. Some teachers were organized. Some were not. Some posted on Mondays. Some posted at midnight on Sunday. Some posted assignments at random days and times, with alerts going off constantly as new assignments went up or new announcements were added. Finding all of the assignments and due dates was confusing, even for me, and I consider myself relatively tech savvy and competent. How many families weren't blowing off assignments, but were just missing them because of technology challenges?

March turned into April, and it finally stopped snowing. The enormity of what my kids had lost started to sink in. First it was tennis season. Then it became the rest of the school year. My eldest's birthday, without his friends or extended family. Easter. End of school traditions. A trip to Washington, DC my son had won. College visits. Band concerts. Taking the SAT. School field trips. Music lessons. All of it just cancelled with nothing to replace it. Just sitting at home, watching the car built up pollen.

As we switched to required learning at the end of April, there was a shift in the way the district communicated with parents, and it wasn't for the better. The rules for Zoom meetings were ridiculous: don't wear hoodies, don't wear blankets, don't take Zoom calls in bed. Not caring if kids didn't have anywhere else to take those calls. Not caring if families had ran out of firewood and it was cold. One teacher even sent out a letter telling us to keep younger siblings quiet during her class and demanding parents  get someone else to watch them if necessary. Homes became schools and suddenly our district felt like they could police those spaces as well. It made me incredibly angry, and I felt like schools had more important things to worry about than what students were wearing on Zoom calls. Like what was happening in those households where kids weren't able to Zoom at all?

The decision to just end school two weeks early at the end of May came quickly. We'd heard rumors of it, but it still caught us off guard. We were told it was for training of staff, but if I'm honest? I don't really understand closing early to train staff before summer break. I think it's because teachers, like the rest of us, were just so sick of this. Sick of watching only half of the class show up. Sick of pretending the kids were still being educated. Sick of acting like everything was fine. Everything isn't fine.

It felt appropriate to start "summer" by cleaning the car. Start a new season fresh. Get rid of the reminders of cancelled plans and try making new ones. There's a sign up list for fall sports at the high school, but I'm reluctant to sign my kid up. Do I set them up for disappointment when public health nixes our fall sports season, too? Do I sign them up, choosing optimism that we'll have kids on campus at all? I'd rather just *know* that we're not going back than to go through this constant cycle of optimism and disappointment. But that's the frustrating thing about this pandemic. You can either make plans and constantly cancel them or you can avoid plans, but feel stuck in a fog of waiting with no goals and nothing to really do. So I washed my car, even knowing that we're not going much of anywhere this summer and that the pine trees will continue dumping their yellow junk on it. Because we *could* go somewhere. We could need to drive to school again. I want to believe that's an option, eventually.


Review: Love Hard by Nalini Singh

Format: ebook
Publisher: Self published via TKA Distribution
Pub Date: March 9, 2020
Length: 320 pages
FTC: Purchased myself
CW: death of a partner (backstory), some violence

I'm not really impartial when it comes to Nalini Singh's writing. I'm predisposed to love it. That being said, this series is a bit different from her paranormal ones. Set in New Zealand and featuring lots of rugby.

Despite the grim backstory of this book, it's relatively low angst, which was just what I needed. I'm not normally a fan of children in romances, either, since 99% of the time they're either cardboard cutouts or way too old for their supposed ages. I think Nalini gets it right and limits the amount of page time Jacob's daughter gets. And what's there doesn't seem weird.

The only complaint I had was that callbacks to other books in this series sometimes took over the story. There's so many secondary characters who make an appearance from the other books that it feels crowded. And I think it makes this book a little less satisfying for people who haven't read the others in the series.

My Grade: B+

The Blurb:

Jacob Esera, star rugby player and young single father, has worked hard to create a joyous life for his six-year-old daughter. After the death of his childhood sweetheart soon after their daughter’s birth, all Jake wants is safety and stability. No risks. No wild chances. And especially no Juliet Nelisi, former classmate, scandal magnet, and a woman who is a thorn in his side.

As a lonely teenager, Juliet embraced her bad-girl reputation as a shield against loneliness and rejection. Years later, having kicked a cheating sports-star ex to the curb, she has a prestigious job and loyal friends—and wants nothing to do with sportsmen. The last thing she expects is the fire that ignites between her and the stuffed-shirt golden boy who once loved her best friend.

Straitlaced Jacob Esera versus wild-at-heart Juliet Nelisi? Place your bets.