Subtle Blood is out!

After much agonising, indecision, rewriting, and, frankly, fannying around (see last post) I am pleased to report that Subtle Blood is out. At last.

This is the final part of the Will Darling Adventures trilogy, which really does need to be read in order as otherwise it won’t make nearly so much sense. (Words are often like that. 😛 ) It’s a historical romance/Golden Age pulp mashup, with cocktails, conspiracies, flappers, and fast cars, plus a pair of men trying to make head or tail of the plots, the world, and themselves.

The three Will Darling adventures covers
(Gorgeous covers by Tiferet Design)

Reading order:

#1 Slippery Creatures

Soldier/bookseller Will meets lowlife aristocrat Kim Secretan.

#2 The Sugared Game

You thought Kim was a disaster area in the last book? Oh boy.

#2.5 To Trust Man On His Oath

Short story showing a turning point, available through my newsletter.

#3) Subtle Blood

Crunch time for Will and Kim as a lot of chickens come home to roost, some of them homicidal.

The reviews are in…

Subtle Blood is one of the best books that KJ Charles has ever written. Every word, every twisting twist of the plot, every interaction between its characters, it has been magnificent. (Book Me Up!)

A sexy, elegant and romantic murder mystery. … The romance between the two men shows that there are always new layers of love and understanding to uncover in one’s partner — and that happy ever after can be a work in progress. (Maya Rodale, NPR)

This was the perfect way to end this series. Lots of lovely declarations, a wonderful mystery, Will reaching his bullshit limit and letting it be known HE HAS HAD ENOUGH, Kim interrogating people with intensity, MORE DECLARATIONS OF DEVOTION, the bad guys getting their comeuppance, and then a wonderful ending. Okay, okay, also some super hot, ‘I’ve got to have you right now’ sex scenes. (Smexy Books)

KJ’s storytelling is like if you took your favorite pulpy detective stuff and gave it much more class consciousness, hot sex scenes, and also made it about queers, so A+++. (May Peterson, author of The Sacred Dark trilogy)

Subtle Blood buy links

Gumroad (mobi/epub downloads)

Goodreads

How to Write A Book When You Can’t Write A Book

This one’s about getting very, very stuck on a book and how I got it written. I can’t promise it’ll help anyone else, but it’s what I did. Warning: epic length. If you don’t want to know how the sausage is made, look away now.

Cover of Slippery Creatures: Kim, dark man in evening dress, standing with book; Will, fair man in casual suit, holding a knife.

So. Back in the Before Times, I decided to write a trilogy: the Will Darling Adventures. 1920s pulp adventure romance, with a ‘difficult’ love interest who was in fact so difficult that the romance arc would take place over three books and there wouldn’t be a full Happy Ever After (HEA) till book 3. I wrote book 1, set the self publishing in motion, started work on book 2, and–oops! Covid!

I got book 1 out. I even managed to finish book 2, though I had to delay publication by two months. And then I went into book 3, Subtle Blood, like a LandRover driving into a tar pit, and like that LandRover, I stuck.

I wasn’t the only one. Twitter was full of writers screaming that their average writing speed had dropped to twelve words an hour, that their characters had become plastic mannequins, plots withered on the vine, inspiration turned to dust. The only creative boom was in people writing articles about how the pandemic was destroying creativity. Apparently when the world is going to shit and people are dying and you’re scared for yourself and your loved ones, your brain diverts resources away from inventing stories and towards survival.

Note to brain: That doesn’t help when you make your living inventing stories.

I created the Subtle Blood Scrivener folder in July 2020. By January 2021 I had four folders of false starts for the damn thing, none of which were going anywhere.

Image of four folders labelled: Subtle Blood, Subtle Blood v2, Subtle Blood 3 the Resubtlening, and Subtle Blood 4 JFC

I also had an entirely separate book that I’d written in the hope of loosening up my writing muscles. That book was a doddle. I still couldn’t write this one.

I’d plot it out, sit down, dig in, write a chapter, and feel myself thinking, No, wait, this isn’t it, start again. Over, and over, and over. None of my multiple versions got past chapter 7. Every word I wrote, every path I took, immediately seemed worse than all the other possible ones, like the supermarket trolley queue choice from hell. I wrote and rewrote and flailed.

Cover of The Sugared Game. Will and Kim toast each other against a 1920s pulp backdrop. Will has a knife. Maisie and Phoebe are silhouettes in the background.

I couldn’t write the book. I had to write the book. Readers had bought the first two of the series on the promise that Kim and Will would get their HEA in book 3, and in the romance world, that promise is the kind you sign in your own blood at a crossroads at midnight. I had to write the book. I couldn’t write the book.

OK, so on to the part you’ve been waiting for: What did I do about it?

Well, first I sat down and tried to work out what my problems actually were.

  • Global pandemic: pervasive terror, existential threat to way of life, homeschooling. Not much to be done about that.
  • Sequel panic: the incapacitating fear that if the third book isn’t good enough I’ll ruin everything and disappoint everyone like a terrible person. Solution: to have started therapy years ago. Also on the Not Much To Be Done About That pile.
  • Indecision.

That was the big one. I knew what the romance arc would be, that was easy. I had an inciting incident for the suspense plot: a murder in a gentleman’s club. But I could not work out how the suspense plot should develop. Every time I tried to write it, it fell apart in my hands like too-short pastry. To convey how bad this got: I wrote the first five chapters three times over with the same character as, respectively, the murderer, the victim, and the key witness. I’m only astonished he was never the detective. I tried, I really did. I just couldn’t make it work.

So how to tackle this?

Planning stage: Visual change

Clearly I needed to sit down and plan the bastard. I had tried to do this once or twice already (*Herbert Lom eye twitch*) but what I did now was to take a different visual approach.

You may be familiar with the advice to proofread your work in a different format–print out the text or proofread on your ereader, or even just change the font dramatically (people often say to Comic Sans, but let’s not go overboard). The idea is that the visual change makes your brain see the text as new and therefore pick up errors you previously skimmed over. This is why you get your finished print copy, open it at random, and instantly see a typo.

To achieve my different format, I bought a piece of mind mapping software called Scapple. This is in effect an infinitely scrolling piece of paper so you can keep on going as long as you like, in as much detail as you need, as well as off at tangents in all directions. (The lack of infinity, I now realise, is why mind mapping on paper has never worked for me.) It has bells and whistles I didn’t explore, but what it gave me was that open space, on–let me stress the importance of this–a different coloured background.

I feel quite embarrassed typing that. But the fact is, it looked proper different, and that helped.

Planning stage: Make decisions

I had to make a couple of big decisions even to start putting the mind map thing down. Part of this, not going to lie, was saying “Just pick one” to myself and sticking to it. This is because there is not one single Platonic ideal shape for a book to be. Every decision you make takes you off at a different tangent and makes the plot a different shape. Some of those decisions would be actually wrong (“Kim drinks an oddly coloured cocktail and turns into a velociraptor”) and others not great, but there will always be several paths that could lead to perfectly satisfactory outcomes.

Every novel you read is a Choose Your Own Adventure book that someone else has played. Every book is a series of authorial choices, and any of those choices could have been made differently and resulted in a different book. There’s no destiny; there’s just me, playing World’s Worst God.

So I opened Scapple. I picked the suspense plot path that I hoped would take me to the best place, and stuck to it, resisting every temptation (there were many) to jack it in and go back to the start with a different one. I bunged it down in note form, with all my questions and plot holes and options. I mucked about with that till I had a rough shape, adding and pruning as seemed good, exploring options if I felt compelled to, and dumping them if they didn’t work. If I didn’t have a specific event in mind, I put in what plot effects it needed to have (VILLAIN DISCOVERS PLAN SOMEHOW, BAD THING RESULTS) and came back later to work out how.

Once I had a rough outline most of the way (up to the climatic drama point of the third act, as I wasn’t sure how to play the ending), I put another set of notes above the main plot in red, giving the events from the villain’s perspective, i.e. what was happening behind the scenes at the same time. That let me make sure events made sense, and start to shape the ending. It meant going back to the main plot, answering questions, fiddling events to make them fit, getting things in logical order. By this point I was beginning to believe in the plot course I’d chosen. That helped a lot.

Next, I added in the romance arc as a set of notes below the suspense plot, this time in blue, again lined up with the timescheme.

Can you see the problem here?

This was the point I realised I’d been incredibly, catastrophically wrong about having the romance plot under control.

Laid out in this format, it was glaringly obvious that something huge was missing. There was not nearly enough blue because nothing was really changing or developing in my heroes’ relationship, and what the hell good is that in a romance? No wonder I hadn’t felt like my early efforts were working: they weren’t. I hadn’t dug into the romance at all because I’d got so obsessed with fixing the suspense plot. What a pillock. (It’s fine, this is only my literal job.)

Specifically, what was missing was the conflict I had been building up to in the first two books but had somehow not followed through here. And, in fact, this conflict was starting to emerge organically now I’d nailed the suspense plot, because the events of the one set off emotional bombs in the other. Which is pretty much exactly what you want to happen.

And–you will be way ahead of me–once I started digging into the issues and interweaving the romance and the suspense plots properly, the damn thing really began to come together.

Looking at a different picture on the screen, laying it out a different way, helped me identify problems and see the job anew, as well as letting me regain a sense that I controlled it.

Writing stage: Don’t go back

So I made my mind map thing, worked out my plot strands, made decisions as I went, and I ended up with an outline.

Unfortunately, I don’t work well with outlines. I have form for coming up with a detailed synopsis, selling it to a publisher, and then delivering something completely different. (For example: an enemies to lovers romance with a pornographer and a crusading lawyer became a fluff-fest with a taxidermist and a gentle lodging house keeper. Whoops.)

I knew I was going to change things as I went along. And here we were going to hit the rocks, because I’m a looper.

What’s that? Well, some authors are plotters (get it all planned first) and some are what people insist on calling pantsers (flying by the seat of your pants, i.e. deciding what happens next as you go). I define myself as a looper because my writing process basically goes:

  • Have a loose idea of the opening, the main plot, and the ending
  • Write the first two chapters. Realise the main plot isn’t quite what I thought. Loop back through the first two chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Write the next two chapters. Discover that actually the character needs to do X earlier for it to work. Loop back through the first four chapters tweaking them to fit.
  • Get to chapter six. Decide that a lot of what I’ve done is unnecessary scaffolding. Loop back to chapter one and start cutting…

And so on. What this usually means is I get to 70% pretty slowly, but with an MS in excellent shape and a clear path to the end, which I then write at white heat. It works for me.

Until it didn’t. Because the looping had broken with Subtle Blood. I’d got trapped: going over the same five chapters again and again and again, like someone in a bad time-travel movie. Possibly one called Looper.

I didn’t want to start that again. So I vowed: no fixing, no checking. If I tweaked the plot as I went along, I would write XX FIX THIS at the point it diverged from the previous text, and carry on in the new direction. I would not go back and change anything until I’d reached the end. I would fill the MS with XX CHECK and XX REPETITION?? and any amount of work for Future Me, but I would have a finished draft before I tried to tidy up anything in it.

(XX is simply an easy way to pick these things up in search. You need to make them searchable or you end up with SEX SCENE HERE going off to your editor and then you’ll feel stupid.)

I decided this, and I wrote. I wrote plot scaffolding, and left it there. I wrote scenes that were completely incompatible with earlier scenes. I wrote lines that required foreshadowing to be laid down, and left it undone. I wrote jarring transitions and clunky dialogue and lacklustre scenes and truncated bits to fill in later. It was a mess, and every word felt forced and dead and awful, but I wrote the forced, dead, awful bastards down.

We used to do a challenge at school where you had to eat a jam doughnut with sugar on the outside without licking your lips. This felt like that. It goes against everything that I stand for as an editor, writer, and human to knowingly ignore errors and plot holes and crap writing. But I had to get out of the loop, and that meant pointing my face to The End and not changing direction till I got there.

And, very slowly, I started to feel like the book was becoming mine. The plot clicked into place. There were ‘oh, of course it’s like this!’ moments. The characters stirred into life; the words started to flow; I woke up in the morning with new exciting ideas. I whipped through the last two chapters like…well, like a writer who was enjoying her book. And by the time I reached The End, I knew three things:

  1. I had a terrible book.
  2. I had a book.
  3. I can edit books.

Editing stage: Oh my God

Shall we just not talk about this, okay.

All right, fine. I went through it slooooowly and fixed all the dangling horrors and inconsistencies. That took, approximately, forever. I went through it again to pick up everything I’d missed the first time and build up the things I’d skimped and work the scene transitions and all that. Then again, taking thinning scissors to the parts where I was explaining the plot to myself, and again, and again, till it began to read like it was written by a competent professional, and not some illiterate Phantom of the Opera hammering at the keyboard.

Cover of Subtle Blood

Then I sent it to my first trusted reader. She promptly identified several gigantic structural flaws I had been hoping were my imagination. I hate that.

I did some large-scale rewriting. Then I sent it to my second trusted reader. She identified more flaws, but at a more zoomed-in level, which was promising. Same for the third. (I sent these in succession, fixing the identified problems before passing the Death Spot to the next person.)

I spent weeks of eight-hour days doing nothing but edit. I switched fonts twice to refresh my vision. (Courier to Times New Roman to Calibri, since you ask. I was never quite desperate enough for Comic Sans.)

Now, over-editing is a thing. It is entirely possible to go through a MS so much that you kill whatever zizz it had, and create something that’s well-formed but lifeless. I suspect that’s a thing that happens with MSS that start off with loads of vigour but lack polish–whereas what I had here was a MS with the bare bones in place but lacking the animating spark. (If you’re thinking about Frankenstein’s monster at this point, you aren’t the only one.)

Because as I went through and tidied up and pulled it together and rewrote, rewrote, rewrote…

…it came to life. I had dug deep enough into the characters and motivations and done enough of the scut work that I could actually get into the fun parts, and it finally goddamn well came to life under my hands. Kim and Will sparked in my imagination, ideas bubbled out to refine and improve it, the hidden motivations and links and feelings revealed themselves, and the whole thing began to sing. It was glorious. And when I sent it to the last trusted reader, she told me it worked, and I very nearly cried.

So after ten months, multiple false starts, and and maybe thirty editing passes, my trilogy is complete. Kim and Will get their stroll into the sunset together, and I haven’t torpedoed my romance reputation quite yet. Talk about a happy ending.

***

I realise that my answer to “How do I write the book?” boils down to, basically, “Write the book”. Unfortunately, I have so far not identified any way of achieving a finished book that doesn’t involve writing it. If you have one, let me know. But I hope this post might at least promise a glimmer of light in what can feel like an endless tunnel.

Because the first draft doesn’t have to be good, or even okay: it just has to exist. Once it exists you can make it better. Granted, writing like this isn’t fun, and editing it is chew-your-hand-off stuff, and you need good people who will tell you what’s wrong with it when you can’t see the wood for the trees.

But it’s still a lot easier than editing a blank page.


I didn’t spend ten months writing this bloody thing for people not to buy it, okay?

Slippery Creatures #1

The Sugared Game #2

Subtle Blood #3

Content warnings for the series

Goodreads reviews so you don’t have to take my word for it

Where Do you Get Your Ideas: a snapshot

This is almost certainly completely useless to aspiring writers and how-do-you-get-your-ideas questioners out there, but I find it fascinating how books emerge from seeds, so here you go.

For much of the last year I have been trying to write Subtle Blood (Will Darling 3). This has been gnarly because pandemic brain, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of displacement activity when I got stuck. For example, I wrote and published a completely different novel. That’s what I call Pro Crastination.

(Sorry.)

I have another idea that’s been bubbling away in a slow-cooker sort of way for a while (add ingredients, simmer for two years). In pursuance of this, among much else, I’ve been collecting good names when I come across them and adding them to my name file. I was planning in a vague sort of way to write this book next, but then it as happened, I found myself with an opportunity to pitch a two-book Regency romance project to a publisher. Which was great, except I didn’t have a two-book Regency romance project. Whoops.

I chewed a pencil, went for a walk, and stared into the middle distance a bit. Eventually a name popped into my head. Doomsday. (That’s not an epithet like ‘bingo!’ but gloomier. I mean that Doomsday was the name.)

My mental process then went approximately like this:

–That’s a stupid name.

–No it’s not. He could be John Doomsday. No, more biblical. Ezekiel Doomsday? No, too biblical. Ooh, I’ve got it: Josiah Doomsday, Joss for short.

–Joss Doomsday, right. Not posh, then. And who’s he?

–Well, I don’t know but he’s got to be Gothic, right? Or at least in a Gothicish setting. Something Poldarky. Highwayman. Pirate. Smuggler. Smuggler?

–Smuggler. ‘Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by’ and lurking in the dark. Okay, maybe, but Doomsday is still a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?

–If we’re going Gothic we’re doing it properly. Oooh, no, I know what it is! It’s a Tess of the d’Urbervilles thing!

–Toxic masculinity and everyone dies? Sounds really romantic. I’m sure the publisher will bite our hand off.

–No, you div. Remember the inciting event of Tess, when her common-as-muck father Mr. Durbeyfield learns that his name is a corruption of d’Urberville?

–Yes, because I am you and therefore also did that English degree.

–So Joss Doomsday is a distant cousin many times removed from the noble family d’Aumesty. Which sounds like Doomsday if you squint, see? That’s what links the books. Both set in smuggling country—Romney Marsh in Kent would do nicely, lots of Norman history down there—during the Napoleonic wars so there’s good smugglers and bad smugglers. One book about Someone d’Aumesty, the noble inheritor of a decaying house full of Gothic loons probably mixed up in bad things, and one about Joss Doomsday the Robin Hoody smuggler, with overlapping cast and setting. Hmm?

–Mmm. Okay. Fair enough. Yes, we can do something with this.

–Told you so.

–Don’t get cocky, sunshine.

So my agent pitched The Doomsday Books (two gay romances featuring aristocrats, smugglers, and spies on the Kent coast) and I’m delighted to say they’ll be coming from Sourcebooks starting 2022.

So far so good. With that done, I went off and wrestled Subtle Blood into a complete first draft, which took another two very long months. It’s settling in my head as I write, and I didn’t want to start The Doomsday Books till I’m finished with Will and Kim, so I thought while I was killing time (which brings us up to half an hour ago) I’d have a shufti at my back burner project.

And who did I see in my list of names but Sophia Doomsday.

What the heck.

I stared at it, then realised it rang a vague bell. I went and searched on Twitter, and realised that back in January I’d read Charles Dickens’ own list of good names—including Rosetta Dust, Miriam Denial, and Sophia Doomsday sitting together like the world’s greatest firm of solicitors. I’d read it, tweeted it, added a few to my name list, and promptly forgotten the whole thing. Until my subconscious kicked it back up, and a single surname became the kernel for a two-book deal.

So here’s the question: If the name that had popped into my head at that random moment was one of the others from that Dickens list—say, William Why or Walter Ashes or Ambrosina Events—would I have that book deal now? And what, I wonder, would the books be about?


The Doomsday Books will be coming next year from Sourcebooks.

Subtle Blood publishes 23rd June. Preorder links will be coming soon.

The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting (displacement book) is out now.

Reading Round-Up 2020

It’s been a twat of a year. How much of a twat I don’t need to tell you, but I have been through a dizzying switchback of reader’s block followed by compulsive reading, followed by total inability to read fiction followed by compulsive glomming of bizarrely specific subgenres. I have no mysteries to recommend because apparently literally all of the dozens I read were 1920s and 30s pulp. I need help.

Let’s have some book recs. I have limited myself to one book per author because we have to put a lid on this somehow.

Links go to my Goodreads reviews. Feel free to friend me or check out my entire list here, avoiding the vast swathes of terrible golden age pulp and frankly weird obsession with early 20th-century occultism. Just pretend you didn’t see that, it’s only going to get worse.

Blessings

The Blessings series by Beverly Jenkins

This literally gets its own category. There are ten novels in this contemporary series set in a tiny US town, and I read them pretty much consecutively to survive lockdown. I mean, ‘shoving them into my face like a baby with its first slice of birthday cake’ compulsively. A no-holds-barred soap opera which I am delighted to hear is being made into your actual TV show as it deserves. If you need comfort and escape and kindness and drama turned up to 11 and a gloriously absurd giant-hog plotline, here you go. Ten books’ worth!

Romance

So Forward by Mina V Esguerra

Very low angst romance with a high-flying no-mincing-of-words woman and a people-pleasing guy. No confected Bad Moment, thoroughly soothing to the soul.

Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

Absolutely glorious fake-dating/opposites-attract romcom. Very British, very romantic, very very funny indeed.  

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

Possibly Talia’s best book yet. Gruff cinnamon roll hero and stroppy workaholic heroine who loves romance novels, rolling around in tropes and having a huge amount of fun. Fabulous dialogue. An unalloyed joy.

The Hidden Moon by Jeannie Lin

I have wanted this forever and it lived up to my hopes. Wonderful romance of a posh family’s fiercely intelligent daughter and a street thug, set in the Tang dynasty. Exactly what historical romance should be.

The Immortal City by May Peterson

Proper fantasy romance on an epic scale, with a wonderfully drawn, extremely assured setting and a marvellous, involving mythology, plus a romance spiked with mystery.

Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma

A delightful minor-key political romance of a rather amateur spad and a policy wonk. Sweetly melancholy, lovely romance, utterly gorgeous writing.

The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows by Olivia Waite

A mega-slow burn romance with a printer and a beekeeper, set in the Regency—the actual one of terrifying repressive crackdowns on any form of radical thought, not the one with a thousand dukes. The historical grounding lifts the whole story wonderfully and the slow-burn makes the eventual HEA spectacular. Loved it.

SF

Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu

Near-future Delhi dystopia. Brilliantly written, structurally inventive, completely immersive and horrifically plausible.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Deserves all the plaudits. Wonderfully thought-provoking, conveyed via fabulous assured story-telling.

Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

A girl genius breaks reality; she and her completely ordinary best friend struggle to put it back together. Weird, fast-paced, deeply involving and very human.

The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull

This should have had far more noise made about it. Extraordinary allegory of colonialism played out when aliens land on one of the Virgin Islands. Really shitty aliens. Compulsive reading and a premise that lodges itself inextricably in your brain.

Network Effect by Martha Wells

Murderbot, enough said. I’ve read the whole series twice this year.

Fantasy

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho

What a treat. Found family, applied violence, gang of thieves, super queer, effortless worldbuilding, and all in gorgeous clear prose.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T Kingfisher

A young witch with a minor magical talent for baking finds herself obliged to defend a city. Absolutely fantastic. Reminded me of how magical it was to discover fantasy for the first time. I’m saving my reread for emergencies.  

Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Exceptionally good fantasy—fantastic adventure, great character piece, thought-provoking subjects, and lovely romance. Set in a Mughal Empire analogue and sent me down a Mughal rabbit hole. Cannot praise this highly enough.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Fabulous novella which has a lot to say about feminism and politics, hauntingly written. A beautiful example of what can be done with short form.

Horror

The Plague Stones by James Brogden

Ahaha I read a book about the plague just before…the plague. Idyllic English village with a dark secret dating back to the Black Death. Really very scary indeed, but with a lot of hope and humanity in it. Go on, lean in to your pandemic fears. Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree by the same author are also excellent.

The Hollow Places by T Kingfisher

Narrowly edging out her excellent The Twisted Ones. A genius premise: a weird museum in Nowhere, USA has a hole in the wall that leads to a kind of Wood Between the Worlds but from hell. Super creepy with a final sequence that had me on the edge of my seat.

(YES FINE I CHEATED SUE ME.)

Non fiction

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala

Compelling and enlightening examination of race, class and colonialism in Britain and in the countries afflicted by us over the reader. Really excellent, required reading.

Koh-i-Noor: the history of the world’s most infamous diamond, by Anita Anand and William Dalrymple

Hugely readable history of the diamond that does a terrific job of contextualising with Indian history, the British colonial (theft) operation, the story of Duleep Singh and much more. Excellent informative and well-written narrative non fiction.

The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk by Ghee Bowman

A tremendous feat of social history, tracing an Indian regiment who were brought over to fight in France in 1940. Fascinating stories, some of them deeply moving, others frankly hilarious. And a really important read in these times where British nationalists explicitly lie to whitewash the past. Read it.

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Brilliant. The utterly insane story of a tiny libertarian town in the US. I was cry-laughing. Very funny, but also very revealing about a lot of frankly weird depths of the US psyche.

Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley

A fascinating attempt to reconstruct the life of an ordinary Japanese woman living at the end of the shogunate. Brilliant history in which grand politics are shown, not as central to the story, but as unseen forces buffeting people trying to exist. A powerful feminist statement too: ordinary women matter.

Litfic

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik.

A very British Muslim living in a country village is told by his dying mother to build a mosque—which doesn’t go down so well with the oh-so-nice community he thought he was part of. Reads like a light comedy while tackling some heavy issues, but still focusing on humanity and hope.

Love in Colour: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold, by Bolu Babalola

TBH this could be in the romance section but I need to weight my numbers here. A lovely collection of retold myths, a good half of them African, all about love in its various forms (most m/f, one fantastic f/f). Almost all given happy endings, and really joyous, uplifting ones at that. Don’t miss.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

As good as everyone says. Tremendous novel about two Black sisters, one of whom decides to pass as white, and the way their lives unspool accordingly. Hugely readable and humane.

My Best Books of 2019

I have read a lot of books this year. In fact I have read 275 books that I reviewed on Goodreads, plus however many more that I DNFd without reviewing or which were second reads. That’s a lot of books.

You could just trawl through my reading (here and feel free to follow or friend), so I’m not going to list everything or this will be the world’s longest post. I’m going to do this by eccentric classifications of my own choosing, not just genre, because I can.  

Ready? Sharpen your credit card, here we go.

Most Read Authors

I read nine of Therese Beharrie’s romance novels this year. Nine. She does lovely South-Africa-set romances—low heat, some angst, but overall with a deeply comforting feel. Go on, get A Wedding One Christmas, you know you want to.

In second place, I read six by Jackie Lau—modern diverse Canada-set romcoms, mostly, with lots of family. Try Grumpy Fake Boyfriend, which is one of the great titles of our times.

And I read five of the magnificent Beverly Jenkins who needs no introduction from me. Rebel, the start of her new series, was a marvel.

I also glommed the first five of Mick Herron’s terrific Slough House series, with a group of failed spies doing boring admin led by the appalling evil-Falstaff Jackson Lamb. Not comfort reads *at all* and I’m still building up the moral fortitude to read the latest one, but terrific.

Feel-good

Talia Hibbert’s terrific Get a Life Chloe Brown has met with much-deserved praise for its diverse rep, feelgood plot, and blend of serious issues with a proper romcom. I can’t wait for the next book.

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin is a Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice, with a really lovely fundamentalist religious hero. That is not something you get a lot. Bright, breezy, immense fun.

AJ Demas is one of my favourite historical romancers for her delightful alt-ancient Mediterranean queer stories. Sword Dance has a house party, a sinister plot, a spy, a soldier, a lovely romance and a mickey-take of Greek philosophers. A pleasure.

For something completely different, Wilding by Isabella Tree is non-fiction (and you don’t get much of that under feelgood) about turning land back to the wild and seeing how nature recovers left to itself. It’s a fascinating, hopeful read.

Plaintive (Is that what I mean? Books with sadness as well as joy)

Not for Use in Navigation by Iona Datt Sharma is a really excellent SFFR collection of stories—haunting, beautifully written, deeply imagined. Don’t miss this one, it’s very, very much worth your time.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow is a triumphant historical fantasy using Mayan myth. Compelling story, fantastic characters. One of my favourite SFF of the year with a bittersweet, wonderful ending.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat by May Peterson is a spectacular debut with densely beautiful writing, a gnarly mystery in a fantasy world, and a wonderful m/nb romance. A sad feel, with the characters weighted by loss and pain, but the light shines through and takes us to a triumphant happy ending.

Another romance that gets us to the HEA via heavy lifting is You Me U.S. by Brigitte Bautista, a really excellent, realistic f/f set in seedy Manila. The heroines drink too much, have sex with other people, and one of them is trying to get a green card marriage. It’s brutally real, which makes the way they finally forge themselves an ending all the more joyous. I loved it.

Weird-ass

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill is…okay, it’s a set of lit-crit biographies of various famous Australian writers. Except they’re fictional ones, and actually this is a magnificent meta sarcastic takedown of literary twerpery, with some bonkers running jokes, lots of extremely clever interlacing, and a hidden plot which…all I can say is, don’t skip the index. Which is not a sentence I’d often write. Extremely clever and very very funny.

The Affair of the Mysterious Letter by Alexis Hall is an absolutely glorious Holmes/Watson riff where Holmes is a drug-addled pansexual sorceress in a Lovecraftian-fantasy world, Watson is a gay trans man refugee from a puritan nation, and the whole thing is just a mad, delightful romp. Intensely enjoyable.

Every book by Saad Hossain is a gem, if you like your gems violent, unpredictable, disturbing, and plotted by a maniac. The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday puts djinn, nanotech, and a detective story through a blender to tremendous effect.

And for a wild card, the forgotten classic Fowlers End by Gerald Kersch set in 1930s London. I described this as Dickens on meth in my review and I stick to that; I also highlighted so many hilarious bits that my ereader crashed. Absurd, scabrous, sweary, awful, laugh-out-loud.

Rereads

I reread the entire Johannes Cabal series by Jonathan L Howard for the nth time. This is a fabulous 5-book urban fantasy about a sarcastic necromancer with no social skills. It riffs gleefully off Lovecraft, is immensely readable, and has a surprising amount of heart under the violence. Deeply enjoyable.

I also reread the wonderful Astreiant books by Melissa Scott. A pure pleasure, tracing an m/m couple (policeman and blade for hire) in the matriarchal fantasy city of Astreiant. Understated romance, great mysteries.

And I glommed the entire oeuvre of T Kingfisher all over again, for the comfort of their marvellous imagination, kindness, sharp-edged morality and terrific wit.

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I currently have two books on sale. Get Band Sinister (feelgood Regency fluff) or The Henchmen of Zenda (swashbuckling pulp adventure) for 99c/p everywhere till 20 December!

Cover of Gilded Cage

Gilded Cage cover reveal

You want Victorian jewel thieves? I got Victorian jewel thieves!

I am extremely pleased to say I have two new books coming in the Lilywhite Boys series that started with Any Old Diamonds. This is late Victorian (1890s) and covers the romantic and criminal shenanigans of thieves Jerry Crozier and Templeton Lane, and their fence Stan Kamarzyn.

The first release is a novelette with Stan’s story. It’s set two years before Any Old Diamonds.

The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter

Music-hall singer Miss Christiana is in serious debt, and serious trouble. She owes more than she can pay to a notorious criminal, and now he plans to make an example of her. There’s no way out.

But Christiana has an admirer. Stan Kamarzyn has watched her sing for a year and he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. Stan’s nobody special–just a dodgy bloke from Bethnal Green–but he’s got useful friends. Friends who can get a girl out of trouble, for a price. Christiana’s not sure what it will cost her…

The two slowly reach an understanding. But Christiana is no criminal, and she can’t risk getting mixed up with the law. What will happen when Stan’s life as the fence for the notorious Lilywhite Boys brings trouble to his doorstep?

A trans f/m asexual romance novelette (17,000 words) publishing 25th September.

Goodreads
Buy links here


The second book is Gilded Cage, a full novel, and it’s the story of Templeton Lane and lady detective Susan Lazarus (who regular readers will recognise as Sukey, the snotty 12-year-old from An Unnatural Vice). And here is the absolutely glorious cover–art by Vic Grey, design by Lexiconic Design.

Gilded Cage

Once upon a time a boy from a noble family fell in love with a girl from the gutter. It went as badly as you’d expect.

Seventeen years later, Susan Lazarus is a renowned detective, and Templeton Lane is a jewel thief. She’s tried to arrest him, and she’s tried to shoot him. They’ve never tried to talk.

Then Templeton is accused of a vicious double murder. Now there’s a manhunt out for him, the ports are watched, and even his best friends have turned their backs. If he can’t clear his name, he’ll hang.

There’s only one person in England who might help Templeton now…assuming she doesn’t want to kill him herself.

Publishing 23rd October.

Goodreads
All buy links except, at the time of writing, Amazon. God give me strength.


I am very excited to actually get a series finished (I have been having issues with writing series for a couple of years, and I can assure you nobody finds that more exasperating than I do). I’m also excited about these stories. I haven’t written an asexual romance before, and Gilded Cage is my first m/f historical. Plus, I loved writing my shameless, violent, thieving, and unrepentant Lilywhite Boys and I hope you enjoy them too.

BTW Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys 1, m/m) is going on sale at 99c/99p later this month, so if you want to glom the whole lot, watch out to grab a bargain.

I’m going to finish with this tweet because it’s a pun so spectacularly bad the court should take it into consideration for sentencing. I thank you.

Tweet with the following text: 

Planning promo for my new Lilywhite Boys novel & novelette.

-Contains NO British politics!
- Not about Brexit at all!
-Features a gang of Victorian professional jewel thieves...or you might say, pro rogues...
- oh no

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)

The Reluctant Author: Telling the Wrong Story

I’m warning you now, this is going to be the most niche post ever on this blog. However, I need to get it off my chest, at least three people want to hear it, and I think it has some wider resonances for writing as well.

Today, my friends, I am discussing Georgette Heyer’s 1946 romance The Reluctant Widow. Bear with me. Extensive spoilers will follow; wider conclusions will be drawn at the end.

The Reluctant Secret Agent: or, why Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow is generally agreed to be one of Heyer’s less successful romances. It has a great premise—a woman married at midnight to a dying man she’s never met, a mouldering house, French spies—plus a great cast including the ingenuous teen Nicky, his comedy dog, and one of Heyer’s best effete-yet-deadly fops, the purring and catlike Francis Cheviot. Unfortunately, the hero and heroine don’t live up to their book. Eleanor, the heroine, is sadly disinclined to throw herself into the mystery—she is meant to be a sensible heroine like Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring but she lacks Sarah’s gumption and has no enjoyment at all ofher situation. Ned, the hero, mostly stands around giving orders, and telling people to keep calm. Basically, Ned and Eleanor are boring, sensible people plunged into a completely bananas situation to which they react in a boring, sensible manner.

However, I think we can see why the central romance is such a dud if we look at what the plot of the book actually is.

Synopsis follows. I am going to put Eleanor and Ned’s plotline in bold for easy identification.

Backstory: Eustace is a wastrel drinking himself to death. His sensible cousin Ned (Lord Carlyon) is his heir. Eustace and Ned’s uncle Lord Bedlington has always accused Ned of hating Eustace and wanting his mostly ruined estate, Highnoons, even though Ned is rich. Ned intends to pay a random woman to marry Eustace so she will inherit the estate instead, just so he doesn’t have to deal with spiteful rumours. Lord Bedlington is selling secrets to a French spy, Louis de Castres, using Eustace as go between. Bedlington’s son Francis suspects him. Bedlington gives Eustace a vital memorandum that could alter the course of the war. However, before Eustace can pass it on, he is mortally wounded in a fight. The book starts here.

Ned pressures Eleanor, a passing governess, into marrying Eustace on his deathbed in order to avoid the unwanted inheritance. Eleanor goes to live in Highnoons.

Louis de Castres tries twice to search Highnoons for the memorandum, once as a break-in.

Ned and Eleanor search unsuccessfully for the thing that the intruder was looking for.

Bedlington invites himself to stay with Ned, and insists he will stay the night at Highnoons after Eustace’s funeral, in order to search for the memo. Francis realises he has to put a stop to this. He kills Louis de Castres, then comes down to the house, ostensibly for the funeral. He ruthlessly threatens his father with exposure and forces him to retire from his position in the Prince Regent’s court, putting an end to his access to information. He guesses where Eustace hid the memo and does his best to retrieve it despite interference from Eleanor and Nicky.

Ned finds the memorandum in a clock (but only because Francis knocks Eleanor out to stop her finding it, which gives Ned the clue). He gives it to Francis to put back in the War Office and leaves him to deal with any remaining issues.

I think you can see the problem. Once the brilliant setup of “married by midnight—widowed by morning!” is established, Ned and Eleanor don’t do anything. No, worse: they get in the way. Eleanor prevents Louis from getting the memo once, and purely by accident, after which her every intervention is an active nuisance to Francis—who, let us recall, knows where the memo is, and just needs them to stop impeding him. She achieves absolutely nothing herself.

And Ned? Well, Ned eventually works out that Francis is the hero. That’s it. That is Ned’s big I Am The Man moment: he realises that Francis has single-handedly foiled a French plot that could have damaged Britain, and decides not to be unhelpful any more. Go Ned.

They don’t even solve their own romantic conflict. Heyer sets up the rather flimsy premise that Ned cannot inherit Eustace’s estate because malicious tongues will wag. But the second Eleanor says “I do” to Ned, he gets Eustace’s estate via marriage. What’s happened to the wagging tongues which Ned is now ready to dismiss so casually? Well, Heyer doesn’t spell it out at the end, but the rumours were all set on by Bedlington. And who has drawn Bedlington’s fangs for good? Francis.

Let me now tell you the actual plot of The Reluctant Widow. It’s a story about a man who comes to realise his father and cousin are traitors. Who befriends a French emigre who he knows to be a daring spy in order to gather evidence; who needs to save his country, but is trying to save his family too. A man who plays a Scarlet Pimpernel-like role, maintaining his public image as an effete dandy despite the sneers, killing an enemy agent without compunction, and ruthlessly eliminating his treacherous father as a danger. (“I was obliged to point out to him that the state of his health demands that he should retire from public life. I really could not answer for his life if he were to continue in office.”) He finally retrieves the memo despite endless interference; he will put it back, prevent catastrophe, and save the family honour. He even stops his father from impeding his cousin’s marriage. He receives no credit and no thanks and doesn’t ask for them: he simply saves the day, without so much as disarranging his cravat.

Francis Cheviot is the hero of The Reluctant Widow, and Heyer knows it. That’s why Ned’s big moment is when he acknowledges Francis is the hero. That’s why Ned and Eleanor are ciphers: they only exist in the plot to be obstacles to Francis. That’s why most of the crucial plot-resolving Chapter 19 is a barely-interrupted Francis monologue; that’s why the ending falls so flat, because Ned and Eleanor haven’t lifted a finger to solve their own external conflict. And that’s why, despite him first appearing in chapter 13 (of 20), Francis is far and away the most memorable character. Because he’s the hero, and the narrative eye of the book spends most of its time focused in entirely the wrong place.

***

This may sound pretty obvious as I’ve spelled it out. It isn’t obvious on the page because, as noted, we are two-thirds of the way through the book before Francis arrives to save us, and because his machinations only become clear in chapter 19. The main body of The Reluctant Widow is about Ned and Eleanor and their valiant supporting cast, including the wonderful dilapidated house which is conveyed with extraordinary vividness. Heyer wasn’t phoning this one in: she was throwing everything she could at the story to zizz it up. But she failed–because she was telling the wrong story.

And she knew it, I think. Francis lights the book up when he appears, and gets all the best dialogue and all the best description. Heyer plunges gleefully into portraying him as a villain with repeated scenes of Ned’s boring bumpkin brothers being appalled at Francis’s effeminacy, almost as if trying to show how stupid and judgemental they are. Francis is the point; Eleanor and Ned’s romance is merely the stage on which he performs.

Georgette Heyer knew how to structure a book. The plotting of Cotillion and the final scene of An Unknown Ajax are absolute masterpieces of craft, and I don’t say that lightly: Ajax leaves me slack-jawed every time. It’s staggering to see how well she can work a plot. But not this one: because she was trying to tell the wrong story, because she needed to write a Regency romance, and–possibly, maybe?–because there was no way in 1946 for Francis to have a mass market romance novel of his own.

So what can we learn? Well, for a start, if your characters are being pushed to the sides of the plot, notice and ask yourself why. Are they just reactive, like Ned and Eleanor, not taking a role in driving the plot? If you’re writing a romance with an important subplot, could the two story strands be taken apart without destroying either–and can you actually intertwine them? Are you more interested in writing a secondary character than your MCs? Any of that might indicate that your main characters, the ones taking up the page time, aren’t actually the centre of your story–and that is likely to be a serious problem.

Don’t feel bad, though. As Heyer shows, it happens to the best.

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Yes, I am a Heyer fiend. My new book Band Sinister has been described as “Heyer but gayer,” which is something I’ll happily have on my gravestone.

Cover of Band Sinister

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

 

“I have read some great romance books this year, but this rises to the top. Entertaining, intricately peopled, tightly plotted and simply … perfect.”–HEA USA Today

“I loved that this couple was completely honest with each other about their feelings for each other, and their feelings for other characters who held important places in their lives. It made their HEA all the more delightful and believable. … this book is really, really good. Go one-click, you won’t be disappointed.”–Smexy Books

“A wonderfully entertaining read that, for all its light-heartedness, nonetheless manages to convey a number of important ideas about love, friendship, social responsibility and the importance of living according to one’s lights. It’s a sexy, warm, witty trope-fest and works brilliantly as an homage to the traditional regency and a tribute to those who dared to think enlightened ideas in a time of entrenched views.”–Caz’s Reading Room

All buy links

You Will Take My Fluff From My Cold Dead Hands

In these times when UK/US politics are best represented by a gif of fifteen killer clowns in a burning wheelie bin plummeting off a cliff, we need to hang on to our small joys. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the news, the fire-hose of human awfulness, bigotry, hate, cruelty and callousness. And it’s also easy to feel like we’re somehow cheating by turning away or taking time to enjoy anything. Something terrible happens, and Twitter will not only inform us in horrifying detail but also bring a chorus of people shouting HOW DARE YOU TALK ABOUT A TV PROGRAMME NOW? HOW DARE YOU PROMOTE A BOOK WITH THIS GOING ON? WHY AREN’T YOU SCREAMING?

The thing is, asking people to feel nothing but rage and misery is counterproductive. Let’s face it, we’re all screaming, and some kind of appalling ‘this’ is always going on somewhere. I strongly believe in being aware, and in acting meaningfully on that awareness. (PROTEST. CALL YOUR REPS. REGISTER TO VOTE. ACTUALLY VOTE.) But I also believe that we don’t help anyone by staring at the news till we’re driven to despair. We’re only human; we are not emotionally or mentally built to carry the pain of the world. Everyone needs time out to recharge, to catch the small joys as they fly, to take a break and remember why people are worth fighting for. Time with loved ones, time outside in the fresh air, knitting, jigsaws, cooking, clubbing, making soap: anything that centres you is great. Personally, I read romance novels, and so do a hell of a lot of people for a lot of reasons.

I want happiness and joy. I want and need to read about a world where a woman can get emotional support from a man who respects her, or a queer couple can have a happy ever after, and I know everything will work out absolutely fine. More than that: Sometimes I want stories where those things go without saying. I want books where a woman’s problems in the workplace don’t include misogyny or sexual harassment. Where the big obstacle to the gay romance isn’t homophobic relatives but the need to find the stolen diamonds. Where the trans spaceship captain’s gender is an aspect of the character, not the plot. Where black women wear the best floofy dresses to Regency balls; where the bad guy’s aim is to steal the family estate rather than rape; where women and POC and LGBT+ people and all the intersections thereof can exist without being harassed, bullied or hurt for their identity just like white cishet male characters can all the goddamned time.

/deep breath, count to ten/

I am in no way against romances that confront hard issues. I adore stories that show triumph over adversity, and love winning in a hostile world, and I entirely understand the concerns about erasing marginalised people’s real suffering by writing historical fluff. (This is a huge, complex, and valid argument that I’m not getting into here but my own feeling is, if historical fluff exists for white cishets, it can exist for everyone else, and if it can’t exist for everyone else, we need to ban all dukes, syphilis-free rakes etc right now.)

I sometimes want a fictional world where misogyny, homophobia, and racism aren’t an ever-present poisonous cloud. I certainly want that to be an option on the shelves. And I don’t want these books dismissed as silly and trivial, when for many readers they are profoundly emotionally restorative.

It is a radical act of imagination to make stories as friendly to women and marginalised people as they are to white cishet men. It is re-envisioning the entire world. It is staking a claim for our equal humanity: our right to drink at parties, our right to walk at night or hold hands with a lover, our right to fly dragons or spaceships. Our right to be carelessly happy, or at least to have problems that aren’t grounded in our identity (have you found those missing diamonds yet?). Our right to be loved and respected as equals.

Fluff may seem as sweet and light and insubstantial as candyfloss, but it is also a weapon, because it shows us a world that’s worth fighting for. (Think of that as the sharp stick running through the candyfloss. Poke it into someone’s eye.) If you want to rest in a fluffy world while gathering your strength for the next round out there, go for it. Take care of yourself exactly as you need to, and don’t let anyone shame you for doing so.

And then make sure you vote.

***

Here is a Twitter thread I did to recommend comfort reading. I strongly recommend the #romanceclass books in particular as an antidote to toxic masculinity.

My new book, Band Sinister, is the fluffiest thing I have yet written. I hope it helps.

Cover of Band SinisterSir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister Amanda live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind—and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon the rural rumour mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet—but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Out 11 October, from the usual stores.

 

How Books Start: the intersection of research and inspiration in historical romance

Think of England coverI’m frequently asked how I come up with ideas for a book and it’s always virtually impossible to answer except ‘the weird bubbling of the subconscious’. But I’ve just had a lovely example of research leading to inspiration, which I shall share here for what it’s worth.

I decided it was time to write the prequel/origin story of two minor characters from a previous book—Patricia Merton and Fenella Carruth from my Edwardian pulp romance Think of England. Pat is established there as an excellent shot which suggested a country house shooting party would be a great setting. Also I love country house books, sue me. I took a vague glance at some Best Places To Kill Birds website and randomly plonked the country house in Shropshire, as a starting point.

At this point I had no idea of my plotline or conflict, but I had my characters (Pat, who is a shot; Fen, who is a flibbertigibbet) and an English country house. It’s a start.

So: shooting parties. I checked in with an etiquette/manners book. These are super useful, although obviously you have to remember they were guides to what people should do, which made it very likely they are lecturing against what people actually did. Loads of these are scanned online. I took a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1888). This informed me that

…although some few ladies possessing great strength of nerve have taken up shooting as an amusement and pastime and acquit themselves surprisingly well in this manly sport, yet ladies in general are not inclined for so dangerous a game, and find entertainment in strictly feminine pursuits, while even those intrepid ladies who have learnt how to use their little gun would never be permitted to make one or two of a big shooting party even were they so inclined.

Can someone go back through time and punch this guy in the face for me? Thank you. It does, however, emphasise some useful attitudes in what I already know will be an opposites-attract romance (on the surface at least).

This manual is set a decade before my book, so I checked in with the 1916 revised edition and the advice was the same, except that now ladies are apparently more likely to come and watch the men shoot things. That gives me some solid social shape around how people will react to Pat shooting, and how big the party will be (small, and clearly she’s a good friend of the host/ess).

Let’s find out more about shooting parties!

There are large shooting parties and small shooting parties, shooting parties to which royalty is invited and shooting parties restricted to intimate friends or relations, but in either case the period is the same, three days’ shooting.

These were called ‘Saturday-to-Monday parties’ because ‘weekend’ was a vulgarity. More importantly, they are no damn use for getting a couple together. Three lousy days! This was the case because it was people bolting up from London for a bit of bird-slaughter, which is fine if you’re in convenient railway/motorcar distance, but what about further afield? So I delved further and lo:

In Scotland, an invitation to shoot often means a visit of three weeks. … guests come and go without intermission; as one leaves another arrives. Certain houses or castles are much gayer than others; to some very few ladies are asked, the majority of the guests being gentlemen — probably the hostess and two ladies and eight men — in others, the numbers are more equal; in others, the party sometimes consists entirely of men with a host and no hostess. Ladies generally ask their most intimate friends to Scotland rather than acquaintances, as they are left to themselves the whole of the day, dinner being often postponed until nine o’clock, on account of the late return of the sportsmen.

WELL NOW. A three-week stay. Ladies left to themselves. Relaxed and intimate settings. Small groups, good for handling a cast. Plus a geographically different setting, also, which is likely to be much more isolated than a London-accessible weekend (sorry, I am vulgar) retreat. Somewhere so hard to get to that you need to stay for three weeks to be worth it. And what do we know about isolated country houses in Edwardian pulp?

You get bodies in the library, that’s what. Isolated Edwardian country houses have murderers like the rest of us have mice (as PG Wodehouse nearly said).

And now I have: A remote house where a murder is just bound to be committed. A practical countrywoman who breaks general convention by shooting. And a fashionable one who doesn’t. But why is frivolous Fenella attending a dedicated shooting party in remote parts? Whose intimate friend is she?

Well. One of the defining features of Edwardian high society was that agricultural revenues had plummeted for the big landowners. Which is why so many of them needed to marry American/industrialist money. So if this country house is owned by an aristo living the high life on dwindling revenues, and given Fen is established in Think of England as a wealthy daughter of industry…

Fen is engaged to the shooting party’s host. Who, as we have already established, is Pat’s good friend. Oops.

And there we are. A bit of reading around the subject pointed me to the right setting; the right setting then suggested both a chewy romantic conflict and the plotline against which it will be played out. I can’t guarantee how the book will turn out of course, so you can point and laugh at this blog post once I’ve written the thing and it turns out to be a secret baby story set on top of St Paul’s. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the source of book ideas, well, this is one. Good luck with yours.

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If you need an Edwardian country house romance right now, may I suggest Think of England. Pat and Fen’s book will be out when I’ve written it.