Posts Tagged romance

Cordelia Rides Again in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR!

And as everyone here knows, that means it’s time for a romance. So what could be better than the latest novel by Lois McMaster Bujold, featuring one of my favorite heroines ever, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan? (For those new to her, Cordelia was featured in SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR — later collected as CORDELIA’S HONOR — and had much to say in several other novels in Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan series, including MIRROR DANCE, MEMORY, and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.)

Close this windowGENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN starts three years after Cordelia’s famous husband Aral Vorkosigan’s death. She is now the sole Vicereine of Sergyar, a colony planet of the Barrayaran Imperium, and while incredibly busy with a variety of issues — scientific, political, and economic, she finds herself at loose ends, romantically.

This was not a place she ever expected to be. She’s in her mid-to-late seventies, which for a Galactic is closer to mid-forties in health, so she has plenty of life left to her. Yet her husband, to whom she was devoted, has died…and there are additional complications for her in finding a romantic partner, as both she and her husband are/were powerful personalities with difficult and time-consuming jobs.

Fortunately, there is one man who understands that. His name is Oliver Jole. He’s an Admiral in the Barrayaran Naval Fleet stationed in Sergyar orbit, and he’s well acquainted with both Cordelia and her husband, Aral. (For long-term readers of the Vorkosigan Saga, Jole was a Lieutenant we barely saw in THE VOR GAME; Cordelia and Aral’s son, Miles, comments that Lieutenant Jole is blond and almost too good-looking to be borne — my best paraphrase, as I don’t have the book in front of me.) Oliver is nearly fifty, he has a similar background to both Cordelia and Cordelia’s late husband, is intelligent and funny, and hasn’t dated anyone in many years. And he’s fallen for Cordelia…but he doesn’t know how to get past her formidable reserve.

And on Cordelia’s part, she sees Oliver as attractive, but doesn’t realize he could be a possibility for her. They’ve been friends a long time, but Aral knew Oliver far better — and besides, Cordelia thinks Oliver is gay.

But Oliver isn’t. He’s bisexual.

This shouldn’t throw Cordelia half as much as it does, mind, as her husband was bisexual as well. But because she’s older than Oliver, and because of the history she has with Oliver, it takes her a considerable amount of time to realize that Oliver is indeed a match for her.

Complicating things markedly is the whole issue of biology. You see, Cordelia and Aral were only able to have one son, Miles, during Aral’s lifetime. (Their other son, Mark, was cloned from Miles illegally by an intergalactic criminal; once the family realized Mark was alive, they welcomed him with open arms, but Mark was not raised with Miles or by Cordelia.) However, Aral’s sperm and Cordelia’s eggs were frozen, and now Cordelia has to decide if she wants to bring more children — daughters, she’s decided — into this world.

(Minor spoilers ahead. You have been warned.)

How does Oliver come into this issue? Well, Oliver also had a close relationship with Aral, that Cordelia condoned. (You can see why Cordelia never expected to find something with Oliver now, yes?) This is why Cordelia offers Oliver some genetic material from both herself and Aral, so Oliver might be able to have children as well. (Sons, he thinks.)

Anyway, just as Oliver and Cordelia attempt to make a match of it, Cordelia’s son Miles shows up with his family. Along with all of the expected complications (it’s not that easy to explain to your fully grown son that you’ve taken up with a new, much younger man), Cordelia also has to explain her decision to have more children…and the material she’s donated to Oliver as well, so he, too, can have children of his own.

How will Miles take all this?

(Further reviewer sayeth not.)

This is a phenomenal novel that has it all. Growth. Loss. Grief. New love, all unlooked for. Romance — dear Gods, yes, romance.

I loved GENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN, and think it is one of Bujold’s best novels — right up there with BARRAYAR, MIRROR DANCE, and A CIVIL CAMPAIGN.

Bottom line: What are you waiting for? It’s Lois McMaster Bujold at top form, and it’s excellent.

Grade: A-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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E. Ayers’ “A Skeleton at her Door” — A Quick, Fun Halloween Read

Who’s up for a little Halloween-themed romance?

Tonight’s review is for E. Ayers‘ novella A Skeleton at her Door, an American contemporary romance featuring a winning heroine, Angie Robertson, and a likable hero, Tom Meyers. Both are divorced thirtysomethings, both are lonely, but because of some past relationship distress, they’ve become quite wary of romance.

A Skeleton at her Door opens with Angie literally opening the door to Tom in a skin-tight skeleton costume. Normally, Angie wouldn’t do this, but it’s Halloween, and she’s expecting her friend Matt, who lives two doors down, to come over in costume. So since the man’s build is close to Matt’s, and the height is close also — and because Angie cannot tell under the black and white makeup who is wearing that skin-tight costume — Angie mistakes Tom for Matt.

It takes Lissy, Angie’s young daughter, to point out that Matt has blue eyes, while the man in the skeleton costume at the door has brown ones. This causes Angie some embarrassment until she realizes that the man at the door (who she doesn’t yet know is Tom) is looking for Matt’s apartment, not hers.

So, of course, Angie sends the man on his way. And we’d not have a story, except that Tom sends Angie flowers the next day . . . plus Matt, of all people, vouches for Tom.

See, Tom is a good guy. He has two teenaged children, he works hard and has a nice house, and he normally doesn’t try this hard. But there’s something in Angie that calls to him, so he’s willing to perhaps make a fool out of himself to get to know her.

Also — and I’m not sure how he figured this out — he realizes very quickly indeed that Angie is gun-shy. Because of that, he’s careful in how he woos her, and makes sure to include her daughter at every turn.

All fine and dandy, yes?

But there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Angie, you see, is dealing with some serious relationship trauma — much more serious than we were initially led to believe — and has a hard time saying “no” to men. And Tom nearly oversteps his bounds four or five times, all to get Angie to react rather than simply withdraw into submission.

Note that the submission I’m discussing here has nothing to do with BDSM. (If it did, I’d not be reviewing it, methinks.) Instead, it’s all about this wounded woman, Angie, and how she has a hard time actually having conversations that include the words “no” or “not right now” with men. Even men she deeply cares about . . .

Perhaps especially the man she cares about most, Tom.

Of course, once she realizes she can trust Tom, how long do you think it’s going to take these two to make a commitment to one another? (Further reviewer sayeth not . . . at least, not about this.)

The biggest plus here is Ms. Ayers’ strong sense of craftsmanship. The set up of A Skeleton at her Door is masterful. We know right away there’s something lurking in Angie’s background that’s made her distrustful of men, but we also know that the skeleton (Tom) is going to be different…and not just because Angie cheerfully leered at him when she thought he was her neighbor, Matt (safely in a relationship with someone else).

However, the biggest minus is a lack of internal monologue, especially on the part of Angie. I would’ve liked a great deal more depth in two places in this novella, one right before Angie decides to sleep with Tom, and the other right before Angie decides to marry him. The second is a much bigger problem than the first, because I didn’t once get the sense that Angie had any trepidation about Tom at all once she’d slept with him (and confronted him, gently, over his four-five attempts at getting her to say “no” to him, sometimes about the most innocuous of things).

Mitigating this lack of internal monologue to a degree, though, was some very nice character development between Tom and Angie. Tom, you see, is into Angie in every way, even to the point where things she sees as flaws are seen as badges of honor by him. And because Tom sees Angie in this way, she can drop some of her body consciousness and just get down and dirty with him…especially as he’s made it clear that they will not have sex in front of any of their children before they are married. (Instead, they find somewhere else to have sex while making sure the kids are taken care of, a sensible and smart precaution.)

Bottom line: While I would’ve liked to see a bit less emphasis on the physical perfection of Tom (as that gets old, fast), I enjoyed A Skeleton at her Door quite a bit. It’s a quick, fun, Halloween-inspired read that any romantic will enjoy…and I look forward to reading more of Ms. Ayers’ work in the future.

Grade: B-plus.

Reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday Returns with Sherry Thomas’s “The Bride of Larkspear”

It’s Romance Saturday at Shiny Book Review, so you all know what that means…it’s time for a new review, this time of Sherry Thomas’s erotic novella The Bride of Larkspear. This is written for adult readers, and is a bit sexier than I usually read, but I was willing to take a chance due to liking all of Thomas’s other work. It’s also a companion piece to Thomas’s TEMPTING THE BRIDE (reviewed here), and as such, many of the same plot elements exist in both stories.

The Bride of LarkspearBecause it is a companion piece, The Bride of Larkspear has to be discussed in the context of TEMPTING THE BRIDE. The hero of TEMPTING, David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, has loved publisher Helena Fitzhugh for a long time. But it’s an unrequited love, mostly because David’s one of those guys who just doesn’t seem to know how to approach a woman, much less the woman he’s loved his entire life. So instead of being kind to her, asking about her interests, her inner feelings, or even trying to go out with her, he insults her. Repeatedly.

Mind, Helena is not a shrinking violet living a blameless life. Instead, she’s been seeing a married man and insists that no one else will do. Even if David were different and knew how to properly approach her, it’s likely he still wouldn’t be heard. That’s fueled his bitterness.

You have to know all that before the plot of The Bride of Larkspear makes any sense, as this is a book David wrote (sub rosa) to express his feelings for Helena on the night of their future wedding. Because of all his pent-up rage and frustration (in all senses), David’s titular hero Lord Larkspear starts the novella by tying up his new bride and insisting on her submission. He doesn’t say he loves her; he just says he desires her, and that he’ll make her submit…or else.

This was not an appealing beginning.

So why did I go on? Two reasons. One, I have liked everything Sherry Thomas has written. And two, I knew that David (AKA Lord Larkspear) truly loved Helena in this fantasy of his. Or I’d have stopped reading right away.

But I’m glad I didn’t.

Larkspear, you see, is a closet romantic. He’s a well-intentioned guy with a good heart, and he desperately desires a woman who has no interest in him. Yet if she could see him for who he was, he’s sure they could build a life together. (Of course, this being an erotic novella, he’s also sure that he can satisfy her like no one else. That’s part of the price of admission.)

He’s right that he’s a better fit for “Lady Larkspear” (AKA Helena) than anyone else. He’s also right that if she just got to know him without all the pre-conceived notions he’s set into motion (all those stupid things he said), she would like him.

In that context, the erotic content amounts to window dressing.

That said, this is written from a man’s perspective. He’s a generous lover, yes, and he wants to please his partner. But at the beginning, he’s talking about what he wants — not what he wants to do with or for her. And he’s doing that to provoke some sort of reaction from her, even if it’s just revulsion.**

This means the way he approaches sex is much more direct than you often see in romances — erotic or otherwise — that are written for the female audience. It also means that some of the sexual fantasies he’s having (as this is all one sexual fantasy, in essence) are not particularly realistic.

However, it does make sense in the context of “Larkspear’s” time that he’d have exactly these types of fantasies, plausible or no. (See FANNY HILL if you don’t believe me.)

If you’ll forgive one spoiler — one of the reasons I was able to appreciate The Bride of Larkspear is because Lady Larkspear ultimately says that Lord Larkspear also must submit to her. And within the context of a marriage, I have no issues with that, even if the way toward this mutual submission isn’t exactly to my taste.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the romance but I did not think some of the sexual situations were realistic. That said, it’s a nice companion piece to TEMPTING THE BRIDE, and I’m willing to recommend it to readers of adult/erotic e-books.

Grade: B-plus.

–reviewed by Barb

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Note: I’m dancing around exactly what he says and does mostly because I know we have pre-teen readers. I know when I was that age, I could handle the idea of sex, I understood there were many ways to please someone else (as I’d taken sex education), but it was ultimately embarrassing and somewhat distasteful to think about at the time. (Now, not so much.)

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Interview — Stephanie Osborn

One of the good things we at SBR are able to do from time to time is to interview writers, editors and/or publishers (well, so far we haven’t had one, but the year is young). Today’s chosen victim — er, writer and editor, is the acclaimed Stephanie Osborn, author and rocket scientist, who consented to doing one of the most wide-ranging interviews we’ve ever had. Three of her novels in her “Displaced Detectives” series have been reviewed at SBR (here and here), while her nonfiction work with scientist and author Travis S. Taylor, A New American Space Plan, is reviewed here.

SBR: Ms. Osborn, thanks for coming to visit with us today.

Stephanie Osborn: Thank you for asking me!

SBR: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Stephanie Osborn: You know, I didn’t want to be a writer in my youth; I wanted to be a scientist and work in the space program. I’m not sure when I first decided to become an author. I had some notions about a possible novel franchise after the very first Men In Black movie, which I adored, and my husband Darrell encouraged me to pursue it. That’s when I discovered there were many books in me. But of course, the rights were all tied up, and the only publisher with the rights didn’t take unagented submissions, and being yet-unpublished, I couldn’t get an agent at that point. However, somewhere in there is when I realized I could do this, and that I liked it and wanted to do it.

SBR: Your most popular solo series is possibly the Displaced Detective series, which brings Sherlock Holmes into the modern day, where he solves crimes with the able assistance of hyperspatial physicist Skye Chadwick. How did you come up with the idea to meld both mystery and science fiction in this way?

Stephanie Osborn: Wow. You know, I really don’t know. I had gotten back into a spate of reading everything Sherlock Holmes I could get my hands on ― I’ve done that periodically since childhood, when I discovered Holmes ― but there wasn’t a book out there that was quite what I was looking for. So I decided to write it. I deliberately set out to do something different, to expand the range of what the Great Detective could do, and I think I succeeded rather nicely.

SBR: What’s so attractive about Sherlock Holmes, and what’s the key to Arthur Conan Doyle’s enduring appeal?

Stephanie Osborn: I really don’t know about Sir Arthur. That might sound kind of snarky or arrogant and I don’t mean it like that at all: I just don’t like to analyze an author’s work to the level that it would take to answer that question, because literary analysis always took the magic out of the book, to me. For whatever it’s worth, I think it has to do with his ability to generate these fascinating and unusual characters.

But Holmes was the first in what became a long line of characters like him ― though there were mystery and detective stories before him, he started the detective genre as we know it, AND he has a certain cachet due to his intelligence. I like to say that he had Spock Syndrome before there was a Mr. Spock to name it after.

SBR: Skye Chadwick, the heroine in the DD series, is a hyperspatial physicist.  Explain how you came up with her character.

Stephanie Osborn: Well, that’s pretty simple. I wanted to give Holmes a female to interact with, someone to actually work cases with. After all, this is the 21st Century, and, well, equality, you know. But I recognized right off the bat that she would really have to BE his equal or he wouldn’t bother with her. Then I realized that if she was the scientist responsible for developing the project that brought him over from his home universe, she’d have to be bloody brilliant from the get-go, and he couldn’t possibly gainsay the fact. And the character formed from those beginnings.

SBR: What are books five and six in the Displaced Detective series going to be about?  And what’s their ETA?

Stephanie Osborn: Book five is titled, A Case of Spontaneous Combustion. It starts out with a tiny village in England being wiped out – every living thing in it killed – by a phenomenon that appears to be a case of mass spontaneous combustion, but turns out to be something very different. Holmes is called in to investigate – without Skye – and hijinks ensue. I got the contract for it a couple weeks back. It should come out sometime in the Spring of 2014.

Book six is something that has been banging around in my head for awhile now, and this past weekend it congealed. I wanted to do a supernatural-based Displaced Detective story, something about a haunted something-or-other that Skye and Sherlock end up investigating, but I’d been going to set it in a European castle, either in the UK or on the continent. Well, I’d just been to CONtraflow science fiction convention in New Orleans, Louisiana! Wonderful, young convention, growing fast, lots of fun. Just as much fun, though, was going to the French Quarter and exploring. NOLA has the reputation of being the most-haunted city in the world, and it turned out to be perfect for that book concept. Scenes started coming to me as soon as we started walking around! I started writing it the next day, during the convention! It wouldn’t wait! It’s going to be called Fear in the French Quarter.

What was to have been Book six, now Book seven, is in work also. I call it A Little Matter of Earthquakes. Suffice to say that seismic activity is heating up in the Pacific Northwest, in a fashion that is not normal. When one of Skye’s friends is killed in a phreatic eruption of a Cascade volcano, she and Holmes go to the funeral and discover the abnormality. Skye’s curiosity gets the better of her, and soon they find that there’s about to be a very VERY large, not so natural disaster unless they can stop what’s happening. I have to finish six & seven before I can get any idea of a time frame for when they might appear in print. But it shouldn’t be long for either, I don’t think.

Book eight is actually finished, but it requires five & seven (and maybe six) to help it make sense. (Yes, I wrote ‘em out of sequence.) It’s called The Adventure of Shining Mountain Lodge. Rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park find an illegal immigrant in the middle of nowhere, in January, and he’s dying…of radiation exposure. His clothing is filthy with radioactive dirt. The FBI and the CIA are contacted, and the CIA believes it may have to do with rumors of a possible dirty nuke. Sherlock and Skye are called into the investigation, and they have to find out what’s going on and stop it before the rumors become reality.

I’ve been accused of giving my books jawbreaker, long titles. But that’s only for the Displaced Detective series; there, I’m trying to evoke the names of the adventures that Sir Arthur recorded: The Sign of Four; The Valley of Fear; A Study in Scarlet; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Final Problem; The Adventure of the Empty House, etc. Other books, not so much. The Fetish, Burnout, The Y Factor, stuff like that. Granted, Burnout has a subtitle that renders it kind of lengthy, but the publisher felt it was needed.

SBR: Speaking of Burnout, what drove you to write that novel?

Stephanie Osborn: Burnout: The mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 was my first novel. It’s a science fiction mystery about a space shuttle disaster that turned out NOT to have been an accident, and the ensuing investigation and cover-up. Its tag line is, “How do you react when you discover that the next Shuttle disaster has happened…right on schedule?”

It started off years ago when I was a payload flight controller for Shuttle Spacelab missions. A bunch of us were discussing what to do in the event of a “catastrophic malfunction,” and how we might be able to get the bird and its crew down intact. I went off still thinking, and eventually realized that, if said “malfunction” was in fact no accident, it might make for a good book. It made Amazon’s Top 25 Overall list, and Fictionwise’s top 25 science fiction, when it was released, so I guess other people thought so too.

The scary, distressing part for me was that in the process of writing the novel, and doing all the research to get it right, I pretty much predicted what ended up happening to shuttle Columbia on her final flight ― and she had a friend of mine aboard. Oh, I’m not saying that Columbia was anything other than pure, awful luck of the draw. But the overall scenario of re-entry, loss of thermal integrity, loss of aerodynamic stability, breakup…I got the orbital inclination, incoming trajectory, even the overflown states and debris field, all correct according to what really happened to Columbia. I…was not best pleased. My writing mentor had to talk me out of trashing the manuscript. I ended up dedicating the book to the Columbia crew.

SBR: Did your scientific background help you with Burnout? (Sometimes, here at SBR, even we must state the obvious. Apologies in advance.)

Stephanie Osborn: Oh, I couldn’t have written it without my science background, AND my experience working Shuttle program. I had to lay out a scenario that made sense on several levels, and that proved very complicated.

SBR: You’ve said that Burnout is in some senses the most personal novel you’ve ever written.  Can you explain that?

Stephanie Osborn: Well, there was the Columbia connection, which was personal enough in that I lost a friend, Kalpana Chawla, and I lost the bird I worked with the most.

But the two main characters of that book are special to me. It’s kind of funny, really; I’ve been “accused” on numerous occasions of making Skye Chadwick, from the Displaced Detective series, my own personal “Mary Sue” ― meaning she’s supposedly a fictional version of me. Truthfully? She’s no more me than Holmes is; every character I write has some facet of me in it, or I couldn’t relate to the character well enough to write it. I’ve written a couple of books with strong female leads in them, and somebody always wants to make ‘em out to be my Mary Sue(s), especially if they have any sort of a science background. But Crash Murphy and Mike Anders, the protagonists in Burnout? Well, they’re different. If you combined them into one person and flipped the gender, it really WOULD be me. Astronomer and Shuttle flight controller, rolled into one. I’m fond of those characters. But nobody ever accuses me of making THEM Mary Sues. I guess it’s because they’re male.

SBR: Let’s talk about another series you’ve worked on where you’ve never once been accused of writing a “Mary Sue” character, the Cresperian Saga. What’s that about?

Stephanie Osborn: The Cresperian Saga is a series of books by several authors, about Earth’s first contact with extraterrestrials when their starship wrecks in our solar system. A few of the lifepods make it to Earth, but most of the crew (and it was a small city) dies in the disaster. Said alien lifepods land scattered around our planet, and the beings within use their shapeshifting abilities to try to blend into the general population.

The first book, Human By Choice, was co-authored by Travis S. Taylor (my writing mentor) and Darrell Bain. When it came time for book two, Travis and his wife were expecting their second child and he was snowed, so he bowed out. Lida Quillen, publisher of Twilight Times Books, tapped me to step in, so The Y Factor was written by Darrell Bain and myself, with Bain taking the lead. But Bain is up in years, and his memory isn’t what it once was; this series has a huge cast of characters over the entire story arc, and he didn’t like having to keep up with them all. I thought he was doing fine, but I suspect what it amounted to was that he just didn’t like keeping up with ‘em. I can understand that. So for book three, The Cresperian Alliance, I took the lead. I’m currently working on book four, Heritage. Hoping to get it out in the next six months or so. But it’s harder than my usual writing, because the concept wasn’t mine to begin with.

SBR: The Cresperian Saga sounds fun to read, but as you just said, it sounds extremely difficult to write as it wasn’t your original concept. What interests you so much about this series, and what makes it different from other “aliens versus humans” movies and books?

Stephanie Osborn: The concept of discovering an alien race when THEY crash into YOU, because they don’t know you’re there, is kind of different. And the problems that the aliens have with our form, our cultures, were to my knowledge unique.

SBR: How challenging was it to come into this series in Book Two, and how did that process work between you and Darrell Bain?

Stephanie Osborn: It was difficult at times, and fun at others. First and foremost was getting familiar with that world, that universe, and coming up to speed with the fictional tech. I respect Mr. Bain greatly; he’s a popular e-book writer, and I learned from him. But we have different philosophies, and sometimes we disagreed about what should be in the manuscript. Still and all, we’re both professionals, and we discussed and went back and forth, and what resulted was, if I do say so, a pretty darn good couple books.

SBR: You’ve also written some shorter works. One of them, Starsong, is meant for children. What sort of things did you do differently while writing this story, if anything?

Stephanie Osborn: My only change from the usual is in keeping in mind that it is a children’s book, and as such I have to be careful about: 1) the language used (both the basic,” not having characters cursing,” and vocabulary, choosing words that wouldn’t be over the heads of the readers) and 2) making the themes appropriate. I wrote it because my parents wanted me to write a book that my nephew (then in elementary school) could read. By the time it made it to print, he was in late junior high school and too old for it. Oh well.

SBR: How did you think up the mythos behind Starsong?

Stephanie Osborn: The same way I do all my stories…it just sort of comes to me. It’s a blend of Tolkienesque and Native American voices, when you get down to it.

SBR: Since Starsong is a bit of a departure for you, being fantasy and intended for children, how has it been received?

Stephanie Osborn: It’s been received very well, but has yet to find a large audience, unfortunately.

SBR: Another of your shorter works is The Fetish, a story from the Burnout universe. What brought that particular story to mind?

Stephanie Osborn: In Burnout, Dr. Mike Anders rather impulsively buys a lapis fetish necklace at a trading post on an Indian reservation during their efforts to get to Las Vegas undetected. The Fetish is the story of how that necklace came to be. It was an EPIC Award Finalist in the short category.

SBR: Tell me about your typical writing routine.  When you’re coming up with a plot, how do you get everything to all come together in your head so you can write about it?

Stephanie Osborn: I spend a lot of time staring into space and daydreaming. Seriously. People watching me would think I was goofing off. But there are certain things I have to have in hand before I can start writing, or anything I set down is rambling gibberish.

I have to know my protagonist(s) AND I have to have the antagonist(s). The antagonist does not have to be human, or even a sentient being. Sometimes a force of nature is the best bad guy around. But I have to know who or what it is. And I have to have the names of the principal characters.

I have to have an idea about what the general problem is ― that is to say, what is the source of the drama, the conflict? Is there more than one conflict?

Once I get these things, once they come to me, then I will daydream a scene, whatever grabs me most about the conflict. It’s almost always a climax of some sort, possibly even the main climax of the book. And once I have that, then I can start writing. And it takes however long it takes. I can push it to some extent but I have to have those things, or it’s pointless to write. Better to go off and work on something I’ve already started. John Ringo is a friend of mine, and he calls this process “ideating,” or, “to ideate,” pronounced, “eye-dee-ate.” Sometimes brainstorming, either with my husband or another writer, can help this process along, and John and I have ideated together once or twice.

Now, if I AM writing on an existing manuscript, I will start the day’s work by going back to where I started writing the day before, or maybe a bit earlier. I will read through it, making sure it flows with what came before, and editing it for clarity, continuity, smoothness of wording, grammar, and the like. When I’ve read all the way through what I wrote the day before, I’ve effectively gotten into the flow, and I start in with writing the new material.

SBR: As you’re also an editor, can you discuss some of the books you have edited, at least so far as the types of books you’ve edited?  What interests you about editing, and how is it different from writing?

Stephanie Osborn: Mostly science fiction of various types. Several were YA books. I’ve edited a number of books for my main publisher, Twilight Times Books, and a few more as a free-lance editor. I don’t think my publisher would want me to reveal which books I edited, but one of the free-lance jobs was just plain fun. Half the time I wasn’t sure if I was editing or just reading! The Flux Engine by Dan Willis is YA alt-history steampunk; it was a great book and I loved working on it. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

SBR: Let’s switch gears. You’re a well-known advocate for literacy.  Tell me why this is so important to you.

Stephanie Osborn: I have always been a voracious, omnivorous reader. I cannot imagine my life without it. Reading is, and will be for the future of our culture, the primary means of communication of ideas and concepts and data between people. Without the ability to read and write, our civilization as we know it would collapse.

Unfortunately not only is illiteracy on the rise in our country, disinterest in reading is rampant among our young people. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have seen teens and twenties at science fiction and fantasy conventions walk by book dealers with noses upturned. I have had teens walk up to my table, scan my books with utter indifference ― or even contempt ― then pick up a business card and ask me to autograph it. If it isn’t a film or a game, they’re just not interested. After I left the space program, I used to do some tutoring, to get me out of the house mostly, and was shocked at seeing the same attitude toward great literature. Unfortunately, it’s an attitude I have encountered again and again.

How are we to continue our society, our culture, if the next generation doesn’t READ?! How do we communicate the most important concepts of our world? How do we teach them what works and what doesn’t? It isn’t possible to cram it all into a movie, into a game. The concepts of freedom, the lessons of life, good versus evil…this is the stuff of drama, of the great and less great literature. But they won’t read it, and in some cases, can’t.

There’s an old saying: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Trite, but true nonetheless. And it applies here doubly ― historically, societies whose literacy broke down tended to collapse shortly thereafter; and how can the kids learn history if they can’t or won’t read about it?

If this trend continues, I shudder for our people.

SBR: You’re also a well-known advocate regarding treatment for panic attacks and/or anxiety disorder. This is a disease that’s become more prominent lately, partly due to the efforts of NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell. What is it, why is it important to you, and what do you think should be done about it?

Stephanie Osborn: Panic attacks are horrible. They can feel like you’re having a heart attack or like you’re going to faint, and sometimes you wish you would. Faint, that is. Because then you’d be unconscious and not suffering through it. You’re scared, your heart pounds, you can’t breathe fast enough, your whole body either flushes or the blood drains away into the vital organs and you get light-headed. It can be pure, abject terror. And it can happen for no reason that you can see.

The tendency to have these attacks on a regular or frequent basis is known as anxiety disorder. There are different categories, depending on severity, acuteness of attack, and to some extent, cause of the attack, because it can have many causes.

Causes can range from things like PTSD; to problems in the brain’s amygdalae, which processes fear; to problems in utilizing neurotransmitters, particularly GABA, but also including serotonin. It isn’t fun, and the sufferer isn’t always able to control it.

As it turns out, I have anxiety disorder. It trends in my family, and I have had it off and on since I was a child. It comes and goes, and I can go for long periods of time, even years, decades, with no problems. Then something may happen to stress me ― an event, or an illness, or the like ― and it will come back and hammer me. I’ve had counseling for it and have learned various relaxation techniques, which help. But if a full-on panic attack jumps me unexpectedly, those techniques don’t work too well because they require me to concentrate on the technique, and if you’re panicked, you aren’t going to think too well. So I try very hard to catch it on the upswing by recognizing the symptoms and working to relax. I also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), where the nerve network in the gut is exceptionally sensitive, and it’s tied into the anxiety disorder: an IBS attack can trigger an anxiety attack, and vice versa. In general, nobody but my family knows I have it, at least to see it happening. I don’t necessarily announce it to the world. But I don’t make a secret of it, either.

Interestingly, it is never DURING an acute, stressful situation that the panic or anxiety hits. If I’m in the middle of an emergency, I will work through the emergency and do whatever is required to get through the situation safely. After it’s over, I may go into a corner and hyperventilate for a few minutes! During that post-emergency time, I’m apt to shake like the proverbial aspen leaf, and all I want is to be quiet and try to relax. I may or may not have a full-blown panic attack. Having a trusted friend or family member nearby is usually soothing, if I do. And I may have recurrences of that, off and on for a few weeks, if something happens to remind me of the emergency.

I want to emphasize: it isn’t dangerous, for the person experiencing the panic or anyone around him. We won’t go ballistic or postal; we aren’t scary crazy people. In general we aren’t confrontational, because confrontation produces stress, and stress will bring on the anxiety. We’re far more apt to want to retreat to the bedroom and just be very quiet. And we aren’t having a heart attack or the like, though it can seem like it sometimes. In so far as I can tell, the very fact that you have anxiety attacks seems to be an indication of a strong circulatory system. I suppose it stands to reason. If it weren’t for the fear it creates, fear that can last for days, weeks, or even months, it probably wouldn’t even be worth a note in the medical books.

But if you know someone who has anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do, if you see him or her in a panic attack, is to take the person aside into a quiet, low-stimulus environment, and help ‘em settle down. Just a couple words to let ‘em know you’re there, you get what’s happening, and you’re there to help. Maybe holding a hand gently, or laying a hand on a shoulder. Don’t babble. In fact, other than the initial, “It’s OK. I’m here, and I get what’s going on,” you don’t really have to talk (unless the victim wants you to talk to help get his/her mind off the panic, in which case, keep the conversation light and away from the focus of the problem). The person experiencing the anxiety needs as little stimulus as possible, and needs to be able to focus on relaxation techniques. (Slow, steady breathing, in various cadences, is the best that I’ve found. If the person is having trouble, offer to count softly: “In… two… three… four… Out… two… three… four.”) When the patient begins to talk again, s/he is starting to relax. You can chat then, but keep your voice down and in a soothing pitch until the person is obviously relaxed again.

SBR: Getting back to your writing career, what sorts of awards have you been nominated for? (Not that this is the be-all and end-all, of course.)

Stephanie Osborn: I have been an EPIC Finalist twice, once for The Y Factor with Darrell Bain, and once for The Fetish. I have also been a finalist for a few other awards, not so prestigious. My experiences with awards have not been good in general — you generally have to pay a fee (the smallest I’ve encountered is $50) for every category you enter, and the final results tend, in my estimation, to be…unusual at best, questionable at worst. Like the time L. Ron Hubbard won a category for a book he wrote…over a decade after his demise. I’m proud of the EPIC finalists, and I consider that award an excellent one; I stay away from most others, these days.

SBR: Two interesting things have happened recently regarding your Displaced Detective series, as an omnibus edition has been released by your publisher, Twilight Times Books, and more interestingly yet, The Displaced Detective Suite, an album put together by composer Dan Hollifield, has also been released. How did these two things happen?

Stephanie Osborn: I couldn’t tell you how The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus came to be! That was a complete surprise from my publisher! I was on travel and when I got home she emailed me to surprise me with it. I’m very, VERY pleased, because this is the first omnibus that Twilight Times Books has ever produced, and I’m thrilled that it’s mine.

As for The Displaced Detective Suite**, it is a duly licensed “derivative” work, available in CD and mp3 download, from Amazon (CD), CreateSpace (CD), and Bandcamp (download). Bandcamp also has a lovely bonus track that comes with the album, but didn’t fit on the CD. The album itself is a blend of instrumental and electronica, and could readily be a film score. Each piece causes me to think of the scene(s) that inspired it, and they play out in my mind’s eye as the music plays.

How did it come to be? Well, I’ve known Dan Hollifield for some years; he’s a very talented man. He’s also a fan, particularly of my Displaced Detective series, and one day he presented a song to me on Facebook. It was a solo violin with background instrumentals, what later became the track called, “Meditations of a Displaced Detective,” and I immediately fell in love with it. It evoked a mental image for me of Holmes, yanked from his original life and plopped into the modern world, knowing no one, wondering how he was going to fit in, to make a life for himself. I could “hear” it as either what he would have played during that time if he’d had access to a violin, or what a movie director would use as the theme for that part of the story. I raved over it to Dan, and one thing led to another, and suddenly he was working on more music. Next thing I knew, we had a licensing agreement in place, and he was nearing completion on an album. I’m absolutely blown away by the music.

Since my husband is a graphics artist and does most of my cover art (as well as many other TTB books, and several other publishers too), Dan and I approached him for the album artwork. He agreed, and that was the last thing we needed. The day I got my own copy of the CD, I danced around the house before I even opened it!

SBR: (Not sure what to say to this, though admittedly we’d be tempted to do the same thing in your place.) Thanks again for this wide-ranging, comprehensive interview, Ms. Osborn.

Stephanie Osborn: Thank you most kindly for having me, and especially for allowing me to ramble!

SBR: Our pleasure.

——–

** Note: SBR will feature in coming weeks our first-ever music review, the subject of which being Dan Hollifield’s Displaced Detective Suite.  Stay tuned.

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William Hazelgrove’s “The Pitcher:” A Novel Worth Cheering About

William Hazelgrove’s THE PITCHER is the story of young Ricky Hernandez, whose main goal is to make his high school baseball team.  Ricky has an arm, you see, and a fastball that’s much better than his peers.  But as he’s extremely poor, Ricky probably already would’ve dropped out of baseball competition except for one thing: his mother, Maria.

You see, Maria is a force of nature.  She’s the mother we all wish we would’ve had, growing up.  She’s an assistant coach on Ricky’s summer baseball team, not because she cares about the game, but because it’s the only way she can assure that Ricky will get any playing time.   Maria’s main drawback as a person is that as she’s so focused on her son, she’s not very good at treating her own health (she has lupus).

When THE PITCHER opens, it’s about three months until high school baseball tryouts.  Ricky avidly wants to make the team.  He knows he has the talent.  But he hasn’t had the advantages of most of the other players (especially an obnoxious kid named Eric); his only real coach is his mother, who has learned all she knows about baseball from books.  She mostly tells Ricky things like “Take a deep breath” — a good, albeit generic, thing to say — which cannot get to the bottom of why Ricky’s aim is poor and his concentration isn’t where it should be, either.

Enter “the Pitcher:” His name is Jack Langford, he pitched in the majors for 25 years, and in Hazelgrove’s conception, was the hero of the 1978 World Series as a member of the victorious Detroit Tigers.  (As a baseball fan, I have to admit that I wish the Tigers would’ve won over the real 1978 American League and World Series champs, the New York Yankees.  They were fifth in the AL Eastern Division; my favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers, was third.  But I digress.)  Langford was a successful pitcher, but since he finished his career life has taken a major turn for the worse.  Langford’s wife died, and after that, Langford felt life wasn’t worth living and turned to drink to help himself cope.

At any rate, Maria wants Langford to help her son learn how to pitch (rather than merely throw with no control), so Langford starts helping Ricky out.  It goes in fits and starts, though, partly because of Langford’s alcoholism, partly because Ricky’s mother’s health, and partly because of Eric’s nasty mother, who will do anything she can — even calling Ricky an “illegal alien” — to keep Ricky away from the high school baseball team.

There’s a lot of plot here that I simply don’t have time to discuss — including a rather low-key romance between Maria and Langford — but suffice it to say that everything works well in this novel.  There are many, many plot elements, but the balance is right, the tone is right, and we can’t help but root for all of the major characters — Ricky, his pitching coach Langford, and his mother, Maria.

So, will Ricky make the team?  Will Maria’s health ever improve?  Will Langford stop drinking?  Or will Eric’s mother win the day despite the nastiness of her tactics?  All of these questions will be answered by the time you finish reading THE PITCHER.

Bottom line?  THE PITCHER is a book that’s more than the sum of its parts.  It’s an excellent baseball story that gets all the issues right, it’s fun to read, and it’s a book that all ages should enjoy.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Saturday Romance Special

As it’s nearly New Year — and as I have two romances I keep meaning to review here at Shiny Book Review — I decided to make a virtue out of necessity, which is why tonight’s 2-for-1 SBR special features the work of two highly distinct authors — Sherry Thomas and Marie Lu.  Both are romances in one way, shape or form, but are set in wildly disparate milieus.

The first romance to be reviewed tonight is Sherry Thomas’ TEMPTING THE BRIDE.  This is the third book in her Fitzhugh trilogy that’s set in England during the Victorian era; the previous books, BEGUILING THE BEAUTY and RAVISHING THE HEIRESS, were reviewed here.  (I also reviewed four previous Thomas romances here.)  BRIDE features Helena Fitzhugh, a London publisher in love with a married man, and David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, who’s loved Helena for a long time but hasn’t been able to show it appropriately (partly due to Helena’s love for the married guy).

The main reason David and Helena don’t have a romance at the start of this novel is because David, to be blunt, was a very bratty teenager when he first met Helena and said some really obnoxious things to her.  Over the years, that pattern of behavior has continued even though everyone else in Helena’s family (sister Venetia, featured in book 1, and brother Fitz the Earl, featured in book 2) has known for a long time just how deeply David’s feelings for Helena lie.

But, of course, Helena does not know this.  She just thinks David is an obnoxious ass.  (Which, of course, he is.  Among other things.)

And, as previously stated, Helena is in a doomed romance with the very married Andrew Martin, one of her writers at the publishing house.  Which means David can’t do much of anything other than snipe at her and wonder what could’ve been . . . until one day, when Helena is nearly discovered en flagrante delicto with Andrew.  Quickly, David steps in and hides Andrew, then says smoothly that he and Helena have eloped and she’s the new Lady Hastings.  (Helena, being no fool, doesn’t contradict him even though she has no idea why David would do such a thing.)

Then they have to go explain things to Helena’s brother and sister, which is awkward and upsets Helena.  She ends up running out into the middle of the street, takes a head injury, and gets amnesia.

(I can hear you all now.  “Oh, no!  The dreaded amnesia plot!”)

I’m sure, thus far, anyone who’s reading this review that doesn’t know about Ms. Thomas or her writing skill is wondering why I’d bother with this, considering the hackneyed plot device employed.  Yet TEMPTING THE BRIDE, far from being an irredeemable mess, is by far the best of the Fitzhugh trilogy because it focuses on David and his doomed love for Helena and shows just how good a man David really is when he’s not behaving like a jerk.

So the two get to know each other without any of Helena’s preconceived notions (as she’s lost all of her adult memories, plus most of them from her late teens), and they fall in love.

But what will happen when she regains her memory?

And what is she likely to do with that married man who’s kept her on the string all this time?

While I can’t go into any of that (or I’ll blow any of your potential reading pleasure out of the water), I can tell you that I found it to be not only plausible, but highly engaging.

Put simply, TEMPTING THE BRIDE is Ms. Thomas at the top of her game, which is a welcome thing to read indeed.  Which is why if you love romances and you haven’t read any of Sherry Thomas’s books yet, you’re really missing out.

Next up is Marie Lu’s LEGEND, a dystopian romance set in what could be the very near future.  The United States has broken up into disparate parts, one of them being the Republic of California (called simply “the Republic,” possibly to save steps).  The Republic is a cold, cruel place that’s based off one thing: military achievement.  Everyone takes a test at age ten to find out what he or she is going to be, and the top-rated thing you can possibly do is to go into the military or work in military research — nothing else need apply.

Our two characters here are June, born into an elite military family, and Day, who comes from the bottom end of the economic ladder.  Both are military prodigies, but only June has been encouraged — Day was basically left for dead by the cold, cruel, corrupt elders running the Republic.

Both are in their mid-teens.  Both are extremely bright.  And both have many military skills that manifested at a surprisingly early age — Day’s out of necessity, June’s because she’s been pushed to become the best.

Normally these two would never meet as Day’s a fugitive and June’s already in the Republic’s military (albeit as the equivalent of a cadet).  But then June’s brother Metias is murdered, and Day becomes the prime suspect.

But there are secrets within secrets, wheels within wheels.  Things are not as they seem, which is why Day and June must meet, take each other’s measure, and possibly form an alliance in order to succeed.  Yet everything June’s learned has told her that Day is automatically the enemy, while Day, in turn, has learned that no one from the Republic — not even someone as young as June  — can be trusted.

What will happen to these two distinct individuals, especially if June cannot shake off her early conditioning?

Overall, LEGEND is an enjoyable and quick read.  It has a surprising amount of emotional depth — rare for the dystopian teen romance genre — and makes some good points about romances overall in that the best and most realistic romances occur when both people can understand one another or have similar skills and gifts.  June likes how Day looks, sure, but unlike other teen dystopian romances such as Lauren Oliver’s DELIRIUM (reviewed here), June is far more concerned about what’s going on in Day’s mind than she is about his looks.

That’s not only refreshing for a teen romance, but it’s also extremely realistic.

Don’t get me wrong.  I felt LEGEND‘s plot, overall, was plausible.  The milieu was appropriately dystopian and Ms. Lu didn’t shy away from showing the worst aspects of this.

But Ms. Lu also showed that people can survive the worst things with their humanity intact — something that made Suzanne Collins’ original THE HUNGER GAMES (reviewed here by Jason) so good, but otherwise has been rarely imitated — and shows recognizable human emotions and drives throughout.  I appreciated this greatly and wish more writers would emulate her example.

Wrapping up tonight’s 2-for-1 Saturday romance special here at SBR, here are tonight’s grades:

TEMPTING THE BRIDE — A.

LEGEND — A.

— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Saturday Christmas Romance Special

As Shiny Book Review is well aware that we’re fast approaching the holidays, this seemed a logical time to review two Christmas-themed romances, one by Sabrina Jeffries and the other by Victoria Alexander.  Jeffries’ romance is ‘TWAS THE NIGHT AFTER CHRISTMAS, while Alexander’s is WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS.

First up is Jeffries’ effort, set during Regency England and featuring Pierce Waverly, the Earl of Devonmont, and Mrs. Camilla Stuart, a respectable widow with a young son.  Pierce has engaged Camilla to become a companion to Pierce’s own mother, whom he cares for but refuses to speak with for reasons that both he and his mother refuse to discuss.  However, Camilla is having none of that as it’s Christmas.  (She feels every mother deserves to have her son home for Christmas no matter how badly things have gone wrong in the past.)  Which is why she sends a brief note to Pierce saying that his mother is unwell and that if Pierce wishes to see her “before it’s too late,” he’d best come soon or not come at all.

Of course this is extremely upsetting to Pierce, who immediately goes to see his mother.  However, once he gets to his mother’s small house, Pierce gets extremely upset and feels both violated and manipulated.  But as he’s immediately attracted to Camilla despite what Camilla perceives as her lack of beauty, he decides to stick around for a few days to figure out what’s really going on with his mother.

And, of course, since Pierce wants things his own way, he also blackmails Camilla in the process.  Which means that he isn’t above a bit of manipulation of his own as he’s attracted to her, intends to get to the bottom of just why this is, and will figure out a way to make her his own if at all possible.

Over the course of this novel, many things are revealed, including why Pierce and his mother have been estranged, why Camilla’s so keen on keeping families together (hint, hint: it’s not just because she’s the widow of a vicar), and why these two are meant for one another.  Yet because Camilla is not a member of the nobility and Pierce obviously is, it seems for a time as if there’s no way these two can possibly marry and be together.

Of course, as this is a Christmas romance — and “happily ever afters” are a specialty of most romances the world over anyway — you can freely expect that there will be a way around this conundrum.  That way is well-written, involving, and interesting, yet felt a bit contrived beyond the normal levels expected of any given romance.

Still, it’s a nice read with two good main characters with many flaws (I do love flawed heroes and heroines), and I felt the romance between them was realistic and well done.

Moving on, Alexander’s farcical WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS is one of the more amusing Christmas-themed romances I’ve ever read.  This Victorian-era English romance stars Camille, Lady Lydingham, and Grayson Elliot, the man who got away years ago.  Camille was in love with Gray when she was eighteen and he was around the same age, but she was about to marry another.  Gray declared himself, Camille was flummoxed, and both declared themselves brokenhearted forever when their abortive romance did not end in a “happily ever after.”

Now a widow (as Camille did marry the man she’d been engaged to), Camille is about to marry Prince Nikolai of the Kingdom of Greater Avalonia.  Camille doesn’t know where Avalonia is, much less much about Prince Nikolai, but as she’s always wanted to be a princess — and as she hasn’t seen Gray in many years — she’s willing to do just about anything to make Prince Nikolai happy.  So when the Prince wants a “proper English Christmas,” Camille is bound and determined to do anything she can to bring it off even though her mother and one of her sisters are in France and her father is presumed dead.

So what does the intrepid Camille do?  Why, hire a whole troupe of actors, of course!  They’ll play the parts of her devoted family plus all of the servants (who’ve been given holiday time off prior to the start of the book), and that will give the Prince the “proper English Christmas” he’s always wanted.

Of course, things go wrong nearly immediately when Gray comes back into the picture.  Now an extremely wealthy man after making a great deal of money in India, Gray believes he has the panache to offer for Camille.  Thus he goes to Camille’s house at the behest of his brother, the country squire, to renew his acquaintance.

But of course Gray has no idea that Camille hired a whole troupe of actors until he gets to her house.  Then, seizing on the opportunity presented, he proclaims himself her “third cousin” and takes up residence in Camille’s home alongside the other actors.

And of course it’s Gray who realizes that Prince Nikolai is not who he seems to be, especially as the Principality of Greater Avalonia no longer exists, but the only person he can discuss this with is Camille’s identical twin sister Beryl.  (Gray has always been able to tell the two apart.  So can Beryl’s husband, which is just as well.)  Beryl is not wholly unsympathetic to Gray’s pursuit of Camille, but she believes that Gray should have to earn Camille’s trust (a quite sensible attitude).  This leads to much spirited and witty by-play and a great deal of comedic intrigue.

And then . . . as this is, after all, a farce . . . things get even more convoluted when Camille’s real mother and her other sister, Delilah, show up and start interacting with the actors.  Because they still don’t want anyone to know what’s happening with all of these actors as the truth would ruin Camille socially, they end up taking false names right alongside Gray.

And if that wasn’t enough, another of Camille’s relatives shows up — someone completely unexpected — and he, too, must be accounted for in the whole farcical floating narrative.

Because WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS is a flat-out farce, all of this plot description doesn’t begin to do it justice.  So let’s boil it down to brass tacks — Alexander’s book is extremely funny, and it’s well worth the read and the consequent re-reads because the humor is excellent, the characters make sense and the romance is incredibly realistic considering the farcical situations going on all around.

Bottom line: Both romances are better than average, but Alexander’s was funnier.  Still, both are well worth reading and will hold your interest.

Grades:

‘TWAS THE NIGHT AFTER CHRISTMAS — B-plus.

WHAT HAPPENS AT CHRISTMAS — A.

— reviewed by Barb

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