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2018 Books of the Year Megapost

I read a lot this year. A lot. In fact, according to my read shelf on Goodreads I have read 200 books this year as of 7th December, and that doesn’t include the DNFs that I didn’t bother to track. It is probably worth noting that I read when I feel stressed about current events.

Moreover, I read some damn good stuff. The following list is thirty books and could be significantly longer. I decided not to add more than one book per author as a matter of self control, but just for the record, I have read multiple books by Talia Hibbert, Mina V. Esguerra, T. Kingfisher, and Melissa Scott this year, and I heartily recommend glomming their complete backlists.

This list is romance, fantasy, general fiction and a couple of non-fic, and these are the books I read this year, not necessarily recent publications. I am also including the absolute goddamn worst thing I read this year just for the sake of venting.

Top Ten SF/Fantasy

The Apple-Tree Throne by Premee Mohamed

A weird and haunting novella set in an alt-Britain with an Edwardian feel. The narrator is one of the only survivors of his regiment after his commanding officer’s calamitous incompetence got the rest killed; he is now living with the disgraced man’s family and haunted by his ghost. A wonderful story about wounds, kindness, cruelty, and how to go on living.

In the Vanisher’s Palace by Aliette de Bodard

This novella will make a lot of lists. Set in a post-colonial fantasy alt-Viet world, where everything has been wrecked and twisted, with a slow burning romance between a young woman and the shapeshifting lady dragon who abducts her as a sacrifice. Packed with imagination and strangeness and thoughts about trying to live in an unhealthy world.

The Wounds of the Dead by Vikram Paralkar

This blew me away. A weird and ghastly fable about a disgraced doctor attempting to run a clinic in rural India when a dead family arrive one night. They’ve been promised they’ll live again at dawn—but they need their wounds repaired first. Subsequent events mix clinical ghastliness with the mundane horror of a deeply corrupt system, and just enough hope to make it unbearable. Thought-provoking topics along with a compelling plot and superb writing. This is the Indian title: it’s getting a UK release as Night Theatre presumably for the usual inexplicable publisher reasons.

Blackfish City by Sam Miller

An intensely plausible post-climate-change dystopia set on a floating city in the Arctic waters. Another SFF, magic/technology combo, with people bonded to animals via both shamanism and nanobots, and a sexually transmitted disease that leads to people sharing each others’ memories. Absorbing, thought-provoking, haunting, and a rattling adventure plot with lots of drama and violence and queer romance.

Temper by Nicky Drayden

Indescribable. Absolutely extraordinary set up of magic, tech, religion, and fable that plays with some really wild ideas in a totally committed way without ever losing sight of the people at the centre of the story. There is no weird-ass plot turn that this author will not take, which makes for a spectacular ride if you’re happy to hang on. I can see how it would not be to everyone’s taste because bananapants; I absolutely loved it.

Point of Sighs by Melissa Scott

I adore the Astreiant series–it’s stunningly immersive, so fully realised and well drawn that it’s actually disorienting when you stop reading. Nico and Philip are terrific leads with their low key romance, the mystery in this has some spectacularly creepy horror elements, and there’s a real sense of doom. Fabulous, beautifully written fantasy mystery romance. This is #5; start at book 1 and prepare to glom. (I also read Scott’s The Order of the Air series written with Jo Graham and loved those too.).

Not So Stories by Cassandra Khaw et al

A fantastic collection of stories riffing off Kipling. Some are new stories in the Just So style like the brilliant Cassandra Khaw opener, or retellings of actual Just Sos; others are more loosely related. Pretty much all of them are about power and its abuse–male power, white supremacy, colonialism, slavery. Thought-provoking in multiple directions, blood-boiling, often hilarious, great writing, diverse casts, and there’s not a dud in the collection. Highly recommended.

The Devil’s Standoff by VS McGrath

This series deserves far more attention than it seems to get. A tremendous read: a brutal fantasy Western with complex magic, twisty plotting, flawed characters, impossible problems, and some spectacularly nasty meanies. Also doesn’t shy away from really gritty unpleasantness in the racism and colonialism on display. Hettie is a wonderful character and I am dying for book 3 (out soon!). Read in order.

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

An enormously enjoyable urban fantasy heavily based in period pulp (any book where Varney the Vampyre is back and has anxiety is all right with me). Greta is a lovely moral heroine, her gang of vampires are great fun, there’s a delightful slow burn romance, pacey adventure, and a gleefully crap modern edgelord vampire villain in body glitter. Humour, adventure, kindness, and fierce morality. Can’t wait for the next. Book 1 wasn’t as good and I’d basically forgotten the plot but had no trouble picking the story up, so jump in here by all means.

Swordheart by T Kingfisher

This could have gone in romance, it’s so lovely. A warrior’s soul was magically bound to a sword; now he’s a living immortal weapon bound to obey his wielder. Unfortunately, she’s a put-upon widow in a provincial village who just wants to avoid being forced to marry a cousin. Their subsequent adventures and romance save her self-respect and his humanity. Curvy mid-30s heroine, important nonbinary character whose identity and pronouns are never an issue, queerness unquestionably accepted. Glorious funny dialogue, intense but clearsighted compassion and humanity, a fair bit of highly enjoyable murder, and lovely well-developed world-bulding brimming with ingenuity. An absolute joy. I also read and adored the two-part Clockwork Boys story, set in the same world.

Top Ten Romance

A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert

Honestly I could have filled my top ten with Talia. A hero who is kind, considerate, consensual, reasonable. A heroine who’s prickly and angry and allowed to be. A joyously life-enhancing plot, a bad guy who is bad without overshadowing the book, a love that heals people in the way happiness does. Written with exuberant confidence and humour so it whips along gorgeously. Might be my best of the year, although if you want a howl-with-laughter romance try her Mating the Huntress. Or anything else of hers, come to that.

Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder

An exuberant novella featuring a desi woman dragged back to her miserable US small town by family obligation, and the bad-boy-made-worse in a motorcycle gang (not actually a racist thug). This is breezily done, with the concentration very much on the thoroughly enjoyable romance which manages to be low angst despite the set up thanks to the hero’s cinnamon-rolldom and the heroine’s tremendous self-possession and common sense. Sex positive, full of funny lines, and with a gorgeously warm heart.

House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston

Regency. Marie-Anne is a marvellous heroine: French immigrant, super sex positive, loves her food. She lives fully and enthusiastically, and with her own personalised, clearsighted morality. Her romance with Mason, an eight-years-younger American con artist, is lovely, sexy, and very much led by her. Very funny and extremely lighthearted, with a strongly Heyeresque feel to the subplots–the heroine must sort out the inappropriate romances of three sisters–and despite the house party setting, has the sense of a diverse larger world so often lacking in Regencies. A gleefully feelgood read.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch

A terrific paranormal historical. The opening is terrifically creepy and compelling, the magic system is really unusual and intriguing–John’s magic is gloriously inventive in particular–the romance is emotional and hot, the setting is Gothically vivid, and the author manages, extraordinarily, to make me absolutely desperate for a sequel starring a character that we haven’t even seen on page. Highly recommended. (Disclaimer: I edited this just so you know.)

Something Human by AJ Demas

Set in an alt-Mediterranean sort of world, with a Germanicish tribe at war with Greekish colonisers. Two enemy soldiers save one another post battle then hole up in a temple to recuperate, falling in love on the way. Beautifully written, with fascinating worldbuilding that supports the characters, a lovely romance that manages to be both moving and unsentimental, and lots of chewy and intriguing thoughts. Plus, it pulls off the rare trick of making you feel better about people. I read it in a sitting and enjoyed every minute.

Snapdragon by Kilby Blades

An absolute stormer of a sexy romance. Doctor daughter of a Republican scumbag politician meets supersexy high flying architect and they agree on a no-strings no-stress sexual relationship. Yeah right. It’s well written, at points very funny, hot, lot of dark undercurrents without plunging into excessive angst. NB this is book 1 of a two-parter so you don’t get your HEA yet; Chrysalis, the second half, is also fab.

Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins

I read a lot of Ms Bev’s backlist this year but this was my favourite. Teresa July, outlaw bank robber, is fresh out of jail on parole, and forced to live with a do-gooder to reform. She must learn manners and ladylike ways to avoid going back to prison. Ahahaha no, she remains 100% hard-drinking leather-wearing and gun-toting, just acquires more wardrobe options and a hot city banker with a past. Bliss.

Fail Seven Times by Kris Ripper

Justin, a prickly, self-loathing jerk, is in love not just with his bi best friend Alex but with Alex’s girlfriend Jamie. He loves them; they love him and want him to join them in bedwith hope of a proper relationship. The entire conflict lies in Justin’s horrifically aggressive-defensive personality and terror of vulnerability, which causes him to deflect, push away, walk away, and screw up. It’s very hard to pull off a totally convincing romance where all the conflict is internal and based on such a frustrating person, but we see Justin starting to open his mind and heart in multiple directions to get the HEA and it works magnificently. A glorious, affirming book of happiness achieved in the teeth of a lot of stuff. I cried several times.

What Kind of Day by Mina V. Esguerra

I have glommed this author’s entire backlist. Esguerra’s writing is always terrific–vividly realised characters, well drawn settings–and this one works particularly well. Slightly older characters with very relatable career and family and life issues. More steam than usual for her. Mostly a really convincing romance because it shows marvellously how the right person can turn a bad day good, but never falls into the trap of suggesting that love can fix things. Ben and Naya can help one another, but they don’t turn their connection into a HEA till they’ve both got a grip on their own lives. A marvellous romance.

I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

Rich jetsetting Palestinian Tala, on her fourth engagement, meets middle class British Indian Leyla who works in her dad’s insurance company but wants to be a writer. They fall hard; now both have to come to terms with their sexuality and also with the different cultural pressures. It’s hugely readable, fantastic storytelling, with a lovely soap-opera compulsive-reading quality and a lovely glow of hope. Also absolutely hilarious at points, I laughed out loud. Shoddy editing but I enjoyed it too much not to rec.

Top Ten Other

Mystery

The Lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas

I’m cheating, sue me. But the three books are very tightly linked and I’m glad I read them back to back. A wonderful riff on Holmes, with sharp writing and plotting and enormously engaging characters. Also a real Victorian London feel. Glom them all.

Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

This mystery series gets better with every book. Brilliant at evoking the feel of the last years of the Raj and the 1920s Indian atmosphere;  mystery plots deeply rooted in the history, which makes them work terrifically. Sam Wyndham is a great character, a decent and progressive Englishman of his time, yet so much unconscious racism and assumed cultural superiority is revealed in his narrative. A really superior read.

General Fiction

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

 Yes I am late to this party. A gigantic epic sweep over India since Partition as told through a Hindu gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, and a Sikh policeman present at his suicide, Sartaj Singh, plus side stories of a huge cast of minor characters. It’s brutal, tender, funny, hopeful, despairing, filthy, religious, political, violent, divided, diverse and pretty much everything else you can get into 800 pages. Which is a lot. I am glad I read it on holiday so was able to glom it over three days, as the stories interweave over a very long stretch and it would be easy to get lost. A hell of a ride.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

A Japanese combini worker loves her job because the strict rules tell her exactly how to behave in a bewilderingly incomprehensible world. But the pressures of society force her to attempt a stab at being ‘normal’ by letting a dreadful misogynist parasite of a man into her life. This book is a paean to being yourself, whoever you are, and watching our heroine regain her balance and reclaim her niche in life is wonderful. Immensely enjoyable, funny, and surprisingly uplifting.

The Madonna of Bolton by Matt Cain

The story of a Bolton boy growing up gay in the 1980s, and his parallel journeys through uni and work; through internalised homophobia and self-destructive hedonism to self-acceptance; and through Madonna’s discography. It’s really lovely. Charlie’s main struggle is learning to accept and love himself, and the overall arc of the book is triumphantly upward, full of promise, hope, and joy. There’s plenty of snarky humour, mostly at his own expense, but also of his various milieus (Cambridge, crap TV, life in Bolton), and one of the joys is how the many minor characters move from entertaining stereotypes to rounded deeper personalities as Charlie’s own understanding and self-obsession change. I was happy-crying like a baby reading this, in public. A glorious, warm, funny, lovely read.

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Staggeringly good collection of short stories. Beautifully written, moving, thought provoking, every one with as much meaning and insight into human relations and thought and emotional heft as you might hope to find in a novel. I haven’t read anything this good in a while. Honestly exceptional, not surprised it won prizes, and even if you don’t like short stories or read literary fiction, you want to make an exception for this. Stunningly good.

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla

A really engrossing family saga. It’s split into four stories of a Kenyan Asian family come to the Midlands in the 80s and coping with hostility in the immigrant community as well as racism from outside. The synopsis sounds really depressing (racism, cancer, failure and death) but it isn’t depressing because it’s so real and human. The little connections, the moments of happiness, the real love among flawed people all come through strongly and make this a story of hope and endurance and survival, and making the most of the life you’ve got. A hugely engaging read and very well written.

Non fiction

The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife

A marvellous book about a bizarre job. Skaife is a Yeoman Warder and in charge of the Tower ravens because if they ever leave the Tower, the country will fall. (He actually shows that to be a relatively recent myth, but that doesn’t make it any less true IMO: every story has to start somewhere.) This is very much a book of stories, one of those reads that feels like you’re in the pub with a really interesting bloke. Chatty, discursive, a lot about the life that brought him to this point, and loads about the ravens he adores.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury

I did not expect a book about wildlife gardening to make me cry. This is extraordinary: the tale of a woman, a decked, concreted, crappy patch of worthless city garden, and her mission to bring it back to life by attracting bees, birds, insects and wild plants. It’s not the usual gardening writing when everyone plans stuff and has magic perfect soil and twenty acres and an unlimited budget. This is the kind of gardening you do when you’re drunk, or you decide to randomly scatter seed like a rebel and then have no idea what you grew, with plants that die and mistakes and looking like a scratty mess. No spoilers but when a particular kind of bee finally arrived I broke down into sobs. A polemic and a lament and a song of praise in one.

The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Absolutely astonishing history of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and the search for causes. It’s extremely well written and intensely, compellingly readable, with some pretty terrifying details, and completely clear even for this scientific illiterate. Mukherjee never loses sight of the humanity of researchers or patients, which helps us understand decisions, responses and deductions that look pretty shonky from the outside. Seriously informative; a real tour de force of popular science.

And One Bloody Awful Book

The Way of a Man with a Maid by Anonymous

I write sexy historical romance, which requires reading period erotica. The goddamn things I do for this job, because this Edwardian “erotic classic” (says the hell who?) is perhaps the single worst book ever perpetrated, combining a spectacularly gross rape/torture/humiliation/forcedincest/male gaze lesbian voyeur fantasy with a bizarre, cloying tweeness that makes you wonder if AA Milne had a weird secret life. I mean, the narrator calls his rape/torture chamber “the Snuggery” and I think we should all pretend this never happened.

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Feel free to follow me on Goodreads if you like a lot of recs. I got ‘em.

My own new books this year were:

The Henchmen of Zenda (swashbuckling pulp with swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder, skulduggery, and bonking in shiny boots)

Unfit to Print (upright lawyer and downright rascal rekindle a romance in the murk of the Victorian porn trade)

Band Sinister (Regency with a hellfire club, a bastard baronet, and an innocent country gentleman)

Do Not Mess with the Happy Ever After: defining the romance novel

There is a recurrent thing in discussions of romance novels which bubbles up every couple of months: Books That Aren’t Romance Being Listed As Romance.

Obviously this isn’t car manuals sneaking their way in. It’s books that are marketed as romance novels (or series) when one of the protagonists dies, or they part for good, or the romantic relationship in which we’re invested is otherwise ended or ruined. It’s lists of romance novels that include, say, Wuthering Heights, where they both die and about time too, or Me Before You, where the disabled hero serves the heroine’s emotional growth and then commits suicide (shall we not), or much of Nicholas Sparks’ oeuvre (death and tragedy represent) and so on and so forth. These are stories about romance and romantic relationships, yes, but they aren’t romance novels.

Let’s do a thing. Think of the one word that defines the romance genre. What is it you go to romance specifically for, what are you expecting and needing to find? I’ll give you a clue, it’s got four letters, ends with ‘e’.

If you said ‘love’ go to the back of the room. You get love in all kinds of books, including those mentioned above. The guy in Lolita is in love, in his way, and if you call that a romance we have a problem.

What romance novels specifically offer us is hope.  Hope that two people can come together and be better happier humans as a result. Hope that marginalised or disregarded or unhappy people can find love and joy in a hard world; hope that however flawed you are, however scared, however much you feel like a piece of the jigsaw that doesn’t fit, there is a place and a person for whom you are just right; hope for the future. That’s the HEA/HFN promise that the romance genre offers (Happy Ever After/Happy For Now) and the key word there is happy. If a book doesn’t fulfil that by leaving us with the protagonists happy and together (for whatever definition of happy and together works for them) and us hopeful for their future as individuals and as lovers, it is not a romance novel.

This isn’t a criticism of books without HEA/HFN. Wuthering Heights isn’t a bad book because Heathcliff and Cathy don’t live happily ever after; it would be a far worse book if they did. It’s absolutely fine not to have an HEA/HFN. It just isn’t a romance novel without one.

Nor is this, as many idiots think, an indictment of the romance genre. The HEA/HFN requirement is not a limitation, it’s a definition. The HEA/HFN is to a romance novel as being warm-blooded is to a mammal: you can have a lot of variety within that classification, but if you don’t have that specific characteristic, you’re not part of that kingdom.

The reason this taxonomical stuff matters is because when you market a book–when you give it a title of a certain sort, with carefully chosen typography and cover treatment and a well-crafted blurb–you are making readers a promise as to what they’ll get. Imagine a book called The Sallow Road. The blurb reads, “In a surreal land, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” The cover shows a shadowy road stretching through disturbingly unnatural scenery, and four odd-shaped silhouettes: three sinister humanoids, the fourth all too clearly a schoolgirl. All that adds up to some kind of warped dystopian fantasy horror, quite possibly by Clive Barker. And the reader will thus have every right to be annoyed when they open it to read, “Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.” (Credit to Rick Polito for this amazing blurb for The Wizard of Oz, tweaked for my purposes.)

Say I write a novel where we see a named person commit a murder in the first chapter, and the book is about the murderer living undetected, and the impact of the unexplained death, which is never suspected or investigated, on her and on the people around her. This sounds like a pretty good read in a dark Gothic psychodrama way, or even a savage social satire, but the one thing it isn’t is a detective novel. Detective novels need a crime to be solved and a solution, and if I market my no-puzzle no-solution book as a detective novel with a mystery-type title and cover and blurb, and my advertising is specifically directed at detective-novel readers, I will get a lot of angry one-stars on Goodreads. This doesn’t say anything meaningful about the merits of my book vs the detective-novel genre as a whole, or about reader expectations vs the right of authors to tell whatever story they like. It’s just the inevitable consequence of offering A for sale and then supplying the purchaser with B.

Let’s put this another way because I’m hungry: You order gazpacho for lunch. You sit there happily awaiting the cool joy of a cold, tangy, refreshing tomato-based soup with a garlicky kick. And what you get instead is a hot, steaming bowl of minestrone. “What?” says the waiter. “It’s a Mediterranean tomato-based soup with vegetables and garlic, isn’t it? Yes, fine, I told you I’d bring you gazpacho, but don’t you think it’s a bit childish and predictable to expect every bowl of gazpacho to be cold? This isn’t your mother’s gazpacho! We’re reinventing soup!”

Well, you might eat the minestrone; you might even love it. But I suspect you’d be far more likely to send it back and/or leave a one-star on TripAdvisor, because you ordered gazpacho, your tastebuds are lined up for gazpacho, your personal circumstances, sitting in a Spanish courtyard on a hot day, are calling for gazpacho, and in the end it doesn’t matter how good the minestrone might be because if you’d wanted goddamn minestrone, you would have ordered goddamn minestrone. And this goes for the people who are ‘reinventing romance novels’ by writing things that aren’t romance novels but marketing them as romance novels in the hope of getting a slice of the largest and most voracious reading demographic, and then claim to be doing something special instead of just misleading advertising.

Of course some people can play with genre and even change (some of) the rules. Agatha Christie turned detective novels on their head with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (I won’t spoiler: if you don’t know the twist do not Google, just read it.) There was a furious outcry and it remains a jaw-dropper even now. Sometimes you positively want to be played with: Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, is all about presenting you with a thing that your eyes/brain say will taste a certain way, but does not, and it is indeed amazing. That’s fine for Agatha Christie, and a selling point for Heston Blumenthal. But it isn’t a licence for every passing jerk to serve minestrone while selling it as gazpacho.

The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

–Carl Sagan

When I pick up a romance novel, I might get werewolves; I might get dukes. I might get people desperately carving out happiness in dark oppressive periods of history, or a demographically implausible special ops team, or a small town where every family has six hot brothers who get married in birth order, or pretty much anything else. But what I am sure I’ll get when I close the book (or finish the series) is a sense of hope. Of love that lifts up the people involved, of people caught in a golden moment, of joy and fulfilment and things just being right, for once. That’s why people read romance novels, that is what romance novels do, and if you promise us that catharsis and snatch it away, you’re letting readers down.

It’s as simple as that. Don’t make false promises and you won’t get angry readers. (Well, not about that particular subject at least.) And if your question is “But KJ, how do I get my hands on all that sweet romance cash if I don’t want to write yawnsome predictable happy endings that don’t satisfy my soul’s dark cravings/desire for higher literary status?”, my answer is: You don’t, so don’t call your stuff romance and we’ll all be fine.

*****

Relevant to the above: My new book The Henchmen of Zenda is a queered version of the classic pulp adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s packed with sex, swordfights, and skulduggery, and I had an enormous amount of fun with it. I would probably call it “pulp adventure with strong romantic elements”, and romance readers who need to know about endings first should check my GR review and click on the spoilers.

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Swordfights, lust, betrayal, murder: just another day for a henchman.

Jasper Detchard is a disgraced British officer, now selling his blade to the highest bidder. Currently that’s Michael Elphberg, half-brother to the King of Ruritania. Michael wants the throne for himself, and Jasper is one of the scoundrels he hires to help him take it. But when Michael makes his move, things don’t go entirely to plan—and the penalty for treason is death.

Rupert of Hentzau is Michael’s newest addition to his sinister band of henchmen. Charming, lethal, and intolerably handsome, Rupert is out for his own ends—which seem to include getting Jasper into bed. But Jasper needs to work out what Rupert’s really up to amid a maelstrom of plots, swordfights, scheming, impersonation, desire, betrayal, and murder.

Nobody can be trusted. Everyone has a secret. And love is the worst mistake you can make.

A retelling of the swashbuckling classic The Prisoner of Zenda from a very different point of view.

Readers say:

…a classic ripping yarn of swashbuckling Ruritanian highjinks, which is unabashedly gay AF.

… KJ Charles is always a delight and this book is no exception – her nuanced exploration of historical queer identities and her restoration of women into the narrative puts the complexity of history back on the page. Sarcasm, swordfights, and sex – what’s not to love?

… a story with murder, treason, double and triple crosses, where characters change allegiances every few chapters, where all the players have their own motives, and the reader is left breathless, wondering what in the hell could possibly happen next.

…an absolute delight.

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Spectred Isle: new series

I’m thrilled to share info about my new paranormal series, Green Men, which launches on 3rd August with Spectred Isle.

The Green Men series is set in England, 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring in, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

The occult battles fought in the War Beneath the War have torn the veil protecting our world from what lies outside. With most of the country’s arcanists dead, and the Government unwilling to face the truth of the damage done, a small group pledged to an ancient duty must protect England from supernatural threat.

The Green Men series covers a motley crew of occult experts, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military experiments as they fight supernatural and human threats, save the land, and fall in love.

The story starts with a m/m romance, Spectred Isle (yes I am quietly smug about that title, thanks for asking) in which a disgraced archaeologist finds himself unwillingly dragged into a series of bizarre supernatural events, and only an aristocratic and evasive arcanist can save him. It was a joy returning to paranormal, which I haven’t written in two years, and I had a glorious romp around in real British history as well as ancient and modern English and London myths.

Here’s the stunning cover by Lexiconic Design!

KJC_SpectredIsleFronti

And the blurb…

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

The Green Men series is set in the world of The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal a generation on. It’s not necessary to have read the Secret Casebook, but if you have you’ll recognise a few characters and references. If you haven’t but would like to, it’s in a super-bargain LGBT Fantasy Storybundle for just two more days at the time of writing (check it out, it’s an amazing value offer including some absolutely marvellous books). Otherwise the Secret Casebook is available here.

Spectred Isle publishes 3 August. It’s going up for preorder now (depending on how fast the stores get the links up), and print will be available via Createspace.

Amazon

Kobo

All preorder links will be here

Goodreads

Tears, Idle Tears

There is a thing romance authors sometimes do which is to post on social media about making themselves cry. “Writing my big love scene today with tears streaming down my cheeks!” sort of thing. I’ve long found this a bit uncomfortable, and I started thinking about why.

Evoking tears is pretty much a life goal for romance writers. (It’s pretty damn cool to have a job where “I made someone cry!” is a professional success, not an indication that you’ll be getting a warning from HR.) And that isn’t a casual thing. Weeping readers means you’ve created powerful characters and tapped into strong feelings. My three books that reliably cause tearful tweeting are in my personal top four of my books—the ones I consider my best work.

It’s therefore possible that I’m unsettled when I see “making myself cry!” type tweets because it seems akin to announcing “I just wrote a wonderful character you’ll fall in love with!” or “What a brilliantly written passage of prose I have produced!” This has everything to do with me being British: people from other cultures are apparently able to express pride in their achievements without curling up and dying inside, which must be nice. (Brits tend to prefer an anguished mumble of “not very good really, sorry.”) If you want to tell the world you’re proud of yourself, go for it and good for you.

But there is something more to my discomfort than my cultural emotional constipation, I think, to which we’ll come via a brief digression. Bear with me.

I’m writing a book in which one MC, Nathaniel, has been bereaved. He misses his lover desperately, and is currently having all those feelings brought back via the callous machinations of a nasty manipulative bastard (who will turn out to be the other MC because I’m an evil cow, ahaha). So I’ve been working into that for a couple of days. Timelining, blocking some quite complicated scenes, setting up a lot of stuff, dissecting Nathaniel’s renewed emotional distress.

Now, as it happens, I do singing lessons, and this week we started ‘On My Own’ from Les Miserables. I didn’t know the song, but it’s basically a woman painfully missing her absent lover and fantasising he’s with her. “On my own, I walk with him beside me. All alone, I walk with him till morning…”So I go to my lesson, we kick into On My Own, and Nathaniel—alone, walking through a London fog, desperate—comes into my head as the protagonist of the song. My throat closes up, my teacher asks where the hell my voice went, and the next thing I’m crying like a baby. I’m 42. This is quite embarrassing.

So I explained to my singing teacher that I’m writing this book and how the song hit me like a truck because of that connection. And we talked about it (my teacher is fantastic, let me say), and one of the things he said was about using emotion on stage. How a performer needs to be able to summon up intense feelings (his example was performing a part where a father has to bury his child), and sing with agony in his voice and real tears dripping down his cheeks…but still sing. Because you can’t sing properly if you’re actually choking up. The two are not compatible.

And that applies to writing too, I think. Digging deep into yourself, finding the point of emotional engagement, but keeping control. Because the writer splurging emotions onto  the page doesn’t make a great scene. That takes craft, building up to it, shaping the scene, tweaking the words, getting the ebb and flow right. Not getting carried away by the tide of emotion but riding it. Controlling it, because that’s the singer’s, and the author’s, job.

The reader or the watcher or the listener gets to be swept away in floods of tears; the author or singer or actor has to get on her surfboard and ride the choppy waters, right on top of it but never quite falling in. This is why Graham Greene famously said, “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” You need that little bit of detachment, that cool assessing eye, to make it work.

Or am I Britting out here, and many authors have produced their best work while crying so hard they can’t see the screen? Comments welcome: you tell me.

 

What’s Good For You: ‘detoxifying’ reading

I am annoyed, and I am disappointed.

Scholastic, the huge global children’s publisher who do, among other things, Harry Potter in the States, have a blog. And on their blog they had a post about doing a ‘literary cleanse’, which is what you’d call ‘throwing out books’ if you weren’t desperately hanging your monthly blog post on a New Year’s Resolution hook.

So this ‘literary cleanse’, in the way of overstretched metaphors, involves ‘detoxifying’ your life to make it ‘healthier’. And what genre of book do we find exemplified as the filthy junk poison that the author needs to eliminate? No, go on, you have one guess.

from this day forward I am officially strict in my literary screening process. I’ll think long and hard about what I want to read in the first place, and if it’s not good for me (ex: See’s Candy catalog, trashy romance novel), it’s out. (Source)

Now, you may argue that the author means only trashy romance novels and not the good ones, but let’s be honest: she doesn’t. Trashy is a word that gets attached to romance like brave to any celebrity who’s been slightly poorly, or renowned to curators being murdered in the Louvre. Romance novel=trashy romance novel. Anyone who cares about the genre wouldn’t have used this example because they’d be tired of being kicked in the teeth.

The author is of course entitled not to read romance, or to feel it’s bad for her, just as she is entitled to toss out casual dismissals of any genre she likes. I think it’s more meaningful to criticise a specific book than to dismiss a whole genre, but whatever, it’s a throwaway line in a throwaway post, who cares. That’s her point of view, fair enough. What bothers me is to find this kind of thing on a children’s publisher’s platform, and here’s why.

The thing about children’s publishing is, it cannot be worthy or didactic. We’ve been through that. Children need to read books that are the kind of thing they want to read, and that may not be what a well-meaning adult considers ‘good for you’. I hate Horrid Henry and the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson with every fibre of my being, but my kids go through them like maddened locusts, and every book improves their reading skills, vocabulary, reading fluency, joy in picking up a book.

Scholastic know this. You can tell they know this because they publish Rainbow Magic in the US. Brace for pink.

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Here is what Scholastic have to say about Rainbow Magic:

Rainbow Magic is a delightful way to boost literacy. The predictable series plotlines gently stretch reading skills, allowing children to develop their fluency and speed in a fun and familiar context.

Even the publisher says it’s predictable. Oh my God, is it predictable. We must have had fifty of these pass through our doors, and (aside from the first seven, which are actually good), every single one was identically plotted, repetitive to the point of brain death, and utterly unchallenging.

My daughter read and reread these things, her literary security blanket when she was coping with starting school. She  started to develop critical faculties off their pink-foiled backs (‘Why do the goblins always hide the stolen magical objects where Kirsty and Rachel live?’) and eventually got bored and moved on without regret. She is now seven with a reading age of 14, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t rot her brain. I never want to encounter Bertha the Barrel-Scraping Fairy again, but these books were worth every penny and every minute for her.

These books are fun and pleasurable for kids. Not for anyone else, sure, but that’s the point. Scholastic publish series after series of stuff that any tweedy literary critic would pick up using tongs because they know bloody well that there is a massive value in reading for pleasure. They know readers often need a sense of familiarity and security. They know that the book world is wider than the Times Literary Supplement would have you believe. They publish stuff that their readers want to read, not just to make money, but because the health of the entire book world depends on people learning to love stories and read voraciously.

So why the hell would a publisher that knows about the importance of fun, and familiarity, and story, and reading for pleasure, casually publish a swipe at an adult genre that offers the same thing?

Why can’t adults read for pleasure? What exactly makes romance (or fantasy, or YA, or implausible conspiracy thrillers) ‘trash’ as a genre? I’m not just defending the genre books that are brilliantly written and well executed here, legion though they are. Even the most routine, uninspired, ‘trashy’ series product can have value to readers who want that sort of book right then–just like Scholastic’s routine, uninspired Rainbow Magic series product does.

It’s book snobbery. It’s the didactic, dictatorial impulse that says ‘Take away Rainbow Magic and give that child The Water Babies!’ The urge to tell people what to read, the urge to dictate what’s ‘good for you’. The attitude that can’t simply say, ‘I will read something else,’ but has to frame it as ‘This stuff is junk and I look down on you for it.’ That isn’t how anyone who cares about reading should talk about other people’s books.

Let readers have the ‘joy of reading’, as the tagline on the Scholastic website has it, without sideswiping their tastes, whether they’re adults or children. Because if you ask me, a habit of patronising, belittling or casually sneering at other people’s pleasures is a lot more toxic than reading genre fiction can ever be, and probably more likely to turn people off reading at all. And I don’t want my book-gobbling children growing up with that.

_______________

KJ Charles used to edit children’s books and now writes award-winning romance. Jackdaw is coming in February.

Yes, I Write Romance.

One of the minor irritants of writing, editing or reading romance is that people who aren’t romance readers make jokes. Well, I say jokes. Usually jokes are defined as ‘things that are funny’, so we may need another word.

I can’t tell you the tedium of the unimaginative rote remark. I probably don’t have to. If you’re very tall, think of ‘How’s the weather up there?’ If you’re carrying a double bass on public transport, it’s doubtless ‘I bet you wish you played the flute!’ If you have a surname that lends itself to tiresome weak jokes and puns, you know the score all too well. (My real surname lends itself to puns and I write romance. This is why I need anger management classes.)

I edited for one of the most famous romance publishers in the world for five years. It got to the point where I refused to tell people my job at parties because the inevitable conversations were so deeply, profoundly, irritatingly, predictably dull.

Dull person: Romance novels?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: Like Mills & Boon?

Me: Yes, that’s right.

Dull person: [bodice-ripper; ‘don’t they just give authors a plot and tell them to write it?’; all the same; ‘my granny reads them!’; Barbara Cartland; ‘don’t you want to write real books?’; 50 Shades of Grey; hahaha sex!]

I mean, I get it. Really. Romance is this totally silly genre which is about love and sex, something that no normal person is interested in at all. It’s completely trivial too – why would anyone take a genre seriously when it only makes up 17% of the entire US publishing market? Obviously any genre dominated by women as readers and writers is inherently laughable, because women. And I for one have never understood why you should be expected to look at good examples of something before dismissing it with contempt. I think it’s much better to look at something terrible published in 1974 and base all your theories on that.

Me: You make films?

Film person: Yes…

Me: I saw The Swarm! It was awful! Hahaha, you make films! It’s all hallucinatory giant bee sequences, dreadful dialogue, and random jump-cut nuclear explosions caused by bees, right?!*

* If you haven’t seen The Swarm, take a long weekend and stockpile beer.

I’ve had a lot of these conversations and have every expectation of more, so let’s just get some of it out of the way, shall we?

— Yes, I write romance. In which genres are your books published?

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, it has sex. I’m sorry you find sex so painful and unpleasant to think about. I understand there are some very good creams these days.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, many romance books are crap. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap. I think Sturgeon was an optimist.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, they’re real books. You know what else is real? My royalty cheques.

— Yes, I write romance. Yes, I think I can do something creative that I love and am really pretty good at, and make a living from it. I’m sorry, were you expecting a punchline?

— Yes, I write romance. No, you don’t have to respect that or be courteous about it. Then again, I don’t have to be courteous to you either. Your call.

And no, you don’t have to read my books. But – new rule – if you want to make snide remarks about them with impunity, you have to buy them. Show me a receipt and you can go to town on the hilarious subject of romance novels. As long as you’re aware that you have to pay me to listen to it.

 

Fed up of it? Join me in the comments!

 

Think of England is out from Samhain right now. The Magpie Lord is a Romantic Times Top Pick for September! (“The dialogue between the heroes is fun and intense… The building steam combusts into heat that sizzles right off the pages.”) 

 

 

Sexism on the march: the latest blather on women in publishing

I read a Will Self article on the death of the literary novel today. I don’t usually read Self except to play the party game (‘Simulacrum’! ‘Hegemony’! ‘Polymorphic!’ BINGO!) and this was more of the usual. But I came across this passage:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. (Guardian)

Hmm. Self wants to sneer at non-literary fiction and he picks on Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. A children’s book and a romance. He could have mentioned The Da Vinci Code, a book as hugely popular, egregiously bad and knockoff-spawning as 50 Shades. Inferno was the second best-selling book of 2013 in the UK: renowned wordsmith Dan Brown has not yet shot his bolt. Or as an example of the doorstop megaseries, surely Game of Thrones is better than Harry Potter, of which the last book was published seven years ago? But Mr Self clearly feels there’s something Dan and George have that Joanne and Erika don’t.

If you want to set up a straw man in opposition to the dizzy heights of literary fiction, you pick on children’s and romance, every time. Two genres dominated by women, as writers and editors and buyers; two genres that are constantly getting it in the neck as objects of sneering.

Think I’m being oversensitive? Yesterday it was announced that HarperCollins were acquiring Harlequin from Canadian owners Torstar for half a billion dollars. Harlequin is a gigantic player in the romance market, which is estimated to be worth $1.4billion per annum. Here is how the (male) business news editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail responded to the news of a half-billion dollar acquisition of a Canadian company by an American publisher.

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Yes, the priority for the business news editor of the newspaper based in the same city as Harlequin HQ is definitely to find the joke. And he did, filing the following piece:

The tension in the room was palpable. The fan blades twirled to keep the sweat from trickling off their bodies. They’d done similar things with other people, of course, but it was never like this. This was scintillating, and they ached just from the anticipation.

Oh, yes, the bankers groaned, in their throaty way.

Yes, there, the lawyers moaned, passion mounting as they pointed to where to sign the deal.

Etc. Hilarious. And comparable to the way he presented acquisition of Pixar by Disney as a squeaky voiced Mickey Mouse parody oh no wait that didn’t happen. (Click here for an excellent summary of how bad the reporting of this huge publishing event has been.)

Recently author Jonathan Emmett got himself in The Times explaining how children’s publishing was failing boys because it was dominated by women. It’s paywalled but there’s a summary here.

he believes that “children’s books tended not to contain the elements many boys were attracted to, such as battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships,” adding that research shows that the majority of children’s books in newspapers, including The Times, were by women.

[…]

“… there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers.”

Ignore statistics about which parents tend to read to their kids, and the female-dominated children’s publishing industry’s efforts to get male reading role models and male reading champions. Ignore the way that the media and society still present reading as nerdy and unmanly. Ignore the fact that you can’t throw a sparkly pink kitten in the Usborne or DK sections without hitting a book about ‘battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships’. It’s bloody women doing it again, refusing to publish Alex Rider or Young James Bond or Darren Shan or Percy Jackson or Beast Quest or Captain Underpants or any of the other gigantically successful boys’ series that must be a figment of your imagination.

Certainly you should ignore the fact that, if children’s publishing is dominated by women, that may have something to do with men not applying to work in it. I’ve been in children’s publishing for eight years and seen one male CV. But no, it’s actually rampant sexism, according to this post (guess the author’s gender!) on The Bookseller website

Commercial fiction editorial departments in particular—the commercial heart of all trade publishers—are almost wholly staffed by women. …

If we have stopped being good at publishing for men, perhaps one of the reasons is that even in those companies that do have male commercial fiction editors, it isn’t easy—in these zealously group-think days—for them to get buy in for fiction that cannot fit the prevailing culture in the office. I have sat in publishing meetings where the room was happily discussing the latest sex and shopping novels before moving on to some male editor’s action thriller: the drop in temperature was perceptible.

Of course, a good professional is in theory capable of evaluating all sorts of fiction, but just how enthusiastic can female colleagues get about strongly masculine subjects?

That was posted on 2 May this year and not, as you may think, 1981. The author concludes that, “men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Just read that sentence again.

“men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Whatever.

In what feels increasingly like an atmosphere of seething contempt and resentment for women in publishing, for women’s genres, for women authors, it is really important not to develop a bunker mentality. I’m as guilty as anyone of ranting about what ‘men’ say in response to this sort of thing, and that is deeply stupid. My life as editor, writer and person is full of male colleagues, authors, librarians, teachers, friends and readers who have no time for the misogynists and inadequate ego-strokers, and are quite ready to smack them down.

We must not let the haters in any area set the tone of the debate, not let them overshadow the very many male authors and publishers and journos and buyers who don’t feel compelled to scapegoat women or mock women-dominated genres. And we must not lose sight of what the real problems are.

The problem of boys’ reading is a problem of children’s reading, and it is about library closures and economic conditions and austerity measures putting books out of more people’s reach; about school systems that don’t give time to reading whole books and suck the joy out of reading in favour of standardised testing; about insufficient staff to support reading. For boys in particular, it is about social attitudes (we need more male nursery staff and primary school teachers, and it’s not women’s fault they’re not there), and possibly developmental differences that need staff and time and money to support them, things the funding-strapped education system aren’t providing.

The real problem of representation in publishing is about class and race, as the derisory salaries at junior/middle levels, the reliance on unpaid internships and the concentration of work in incredibly expensive places exclude people who don’t have financial family support. Sexism both ways is a relatively small issue compared to the overwhelming upper/middle class whiteness, in UK publishing at least.

The problem of there just not being enough good publishing for men is…uh…

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Looks much like 50% to me, remind me what the problem was again?

So I’m mostly posting this to remind myself: Keep your eye on the ball. Defensive sexism isn’t the answer to aggressive sexism. Ignoring people who care and listen and think is always a mistake, and so is judging people by anything except their words and deeds. I really don’t want to be pushing away supportive, listening, non-stupid men at this time. We have enough problems with the other kind.

Book Shaming: ‘You Don’t Read *That*, Do You?’

A: Hey, what are you reading?

B:  It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?

A: It’s about two people who fall in love.

B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.

Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.

The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?

And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.)  When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?

The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.

I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.

I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.

Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.