I’m Reading: Gravity and Lies by C.G. Volars

I’m breaking my contemporary romance reading streak for a very good reason. Gravity and Lies, the first book in the Static Over Space series by C. G. Volars, is worth jumping genres. It’s quirky, queer sci-fi adventure with a tough, trash-talking, bisexual Latino MC and a big cast of lovable and hateable aliens.

Izo Lopez has not had an easy life, cycling through the foster system and surviving homeless. But he has a big goal and a bigger secret. He is scrambling to save enough money to save his best friend from the foster system and create a stable family life for them both.

Oh yeah, and he can fly.

But when he’s snatched up and transported across several galaxies by alien traffickers, he finds himself on a new world where his powers of flight make him a hot commodity, and his kidnappers are the only ones who know how to get him back to the obscure little uncharted planet he calls home.

Volars pulls the rug out from under the classic damsel in distress tropes of adventure novels with a delightful, gender-bending twist in the form of the tough, stubborn, sarcastic Izo. Then the author goes on to flip and twist every other stereotype, resulting in an aerial circus of sharply unexpected, delightfully wicked, and dynamically complex characters.

Above all, the story is fun! There are dark moments, and heartbreaking moments, and stand-up-and-cheer moments. But Izo’s indomitable spirit and sharp wit always lift us right back up again. We’re right there rooting for him as he fights a whole galaxy in a relatable search for home, family, and identity (and a sandwich!)

Visit the Static Over Space website at https://www.staticoverspace.com/ to get a copy, or request it at your local library.

I’m Reading: Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Finlay Donovan’s life is a complete mess. Her newly ex husband fired the nanny without telling her, she’s behind on the bills, the book she desperately needs to finish to cover the mortgage is past due (and barely started), and her kid chose this morning to cut her own hair before school, then insists on fixing it with duct tape.

But then a woman at Panera overhears Finlay and her agent discussing the overdue murder mystery, and mistakes the stressed-out single mom for a contract killer. Finlay finds a note in her purse with a name and an offer that would solve a large chunk of her problems: fifty thousand dollars.

What could go wrong?

Elle Cosimano brings us an unapologetically campy romp of a mystery novel. It’s real, refreshing, and hilarious, but with hidden sophisticated depths and empathy.

The writing craft is exceptional and the combination of feminist lens and sharp wit put this in an entirely different class of mystery. The hijinks and fast pacing give it a cinematic, summer blockbuster feel (and lets hope this catches Hollywood’s eye!)

I like that the platonic female friendships in the book overshadowed the romance threads. The latter were a little underdeveloped. Then again this is a woman who is working her butt off to figure out who she is and where she’s going professionally and personally, and the men just need to take a back seat until she figures it out. Character-wise, the women in this book really stand out as vivid, strong individuals with their own personalities, and their dialogue is particularly strong.

But I’m here for the weirdness of laugh-out-loud funny, surprise twists, and, of course, the murders. The sequel is already on my order list.

Check your local library, or find out more about the author’s work at https://www.ellecosimano.com/

Double-Duty Description

I struggle with description. I’m not a visual person. In fact, sometimes I have to pull up a bunch of images or videos online to serve as a guide when trying to really evoke a person or place. So when I encounter description in a book, the question of “how much” description to use is one that I’m invested in.

Unfortunately, the standard answer of “just enough and no more” is….less than helpful.

Let’s start with Chris.

He’s 32 years old, 6’1, about 140 pounds, red hair, hazel eyes, pale, freckled, and thin. He’s wearing a medium-blue button-down shirt and light gray cotton slacks that fit him well. He has brown loafers on with no socks, a brown men’s dress belt, and a Smartwatch. He’s wearing no other jewelry or accessories.

That’s what we call the “police sketch” description of the person. It has the kind of detail that would let the cops put out a BOLO on a suspect and identify them clearly. It probably gives someone with a visual imagination a great picture of Chris.

There’s two problems with it. First, it does NOTHING for those of us without a visual imagination. I have no idea what 140 pounds looks like on a man. By the time I reach the end of the description, the earlier details are already sliding out of my head. Despite the excruciating detail, Chris is vague to me. I’ve got nothing.

The other problem is that it’s boring.

So how much of that description is really necessary? We all know that human minds fill in blanks. One of my many past careers was a post-bac research position in a psychology lab studying biases in eyewitness testimony. Turns out, eyewitness testimony is super unreliable. It more often reflects the witness’s expectations of what happened than what actually happened. Much of the detail comes from our own imagination instead of our eyes.

So if we just say Chris is a tall, thin redhead, what’s the picture of him in your mind? You’ll probably still picture a person. But is it the person the author had in mind?

Let’s re-frame it.

What is your description trying to accomplish? If it’s just to paint a visual picture, it’s not doing enough work for the real-estate it takes up in your story. Instead, think about how much else you could do with the same words.

  1. Characterization of the person or place described
  2. Deep POV characterization of the observer
  3. Promises to the reader
  4. Atmosphere

None of these should take the place of creating an image of the person or place, but they could be served equally.

What if I described Chris like this:

He was a tall, leanly-muscled man with laughing green-brown eyes and a crisply tailored blue Oxford shirt. His hair shone the color of the sun and freckles were tossed across his creamy skin like constellations.

What does this description tell you that the police sketch version, in all its detail, does not?

  1. It tells us things about Chris, like he’s a happy, confident guy who takes pains with his appearance.
  2. It tells us things about the POV character, like they might be attracted to Chris.
  3. It promises the reader some kind of future romantic or platonic relationship arc between Chris and the POV character.
  4. It sets or adds to the tone of the book in the writing style and use of imagery.

I could pack the same amount of work into a negative portrayal:

He was a gaunt, gangly man. His pale, pinched face was mottled with freckles. Every strand of his wiry orange hair sat rigidly in place. His shirt collar stood at attention, as if the fabric didn’t dare show a wrinkle for fear of the man’s disapproval.

This also tells us things about Chris and how the POV character perceives him (controlling, austere, grim). It promises the reader some kind of enemy or antagonist relationship between the POV character and Chris. It sets or adds to the tone of the book with the writing style and use of imagery.

In both descriptions, we have a tall, thin, red-haired man who takes pains with his appearance. Choosing words with positive or negative emotional content to describe the same man makes for a very different description. If I don’t have a clear image of Chris, I at least have a very clear impression of him, from the POV character’s perspective.

When writing description of people or places, look for neutral description words. “Blue eyes” is neutral. It isn’t doing any additional work for you beyond telling us the color of someone’s eyes. Don’t go overboard with the thesaurus, but look for simple words that carry a little emotional weight to them.

“Icy” or “steel” blue implies a person is cold and heartless, intensely self-controlled, and determined.

“Watery” might give the impression of a person who is soft and emotional, uncertain, unconfident, or prone to tears.

“Ocean” may imply someone who is deep, philosophical, and meditative.

“Sky” could imply an open-hearted, confident dreamer.

Don’t waste flowery metaphors beyond a simple adjective, on secondary characters. You’re showing your POV character’s thoughts lingering on the person’s appearance, committing it to memory. That makes promises to the reader about that character’s significance in the POV character’s life.

What about all those other details, like his age, his shoes, his smartwatch? Once you’ve conveyed an impression of the character, only add details that are significant to the story. The sockless loafers and smartwatch could be part of the initial impression if the POV character thinks he’s a hipster and judges him for it. Is he wearing a wedding ring? That could be important for a romance, but doesn’t need to be part of the initial description. The POV character could do a subtle ring-check in their next action beat. The watch could be significant if it turns out he’s a time-traveler and it’s his communicator or device controller, so drop that gun on the mantel. First impressions don’t have to be a complete picture, though; they’re simply a sketch to be filled in as we go.

Writing Polish: Going Off Subject

I’m getting back into the grammar weeds today, based on common problems I’m seeing in beta manuscripts. In this case, I’m talking about the subject of a sentence, and making it clear to your readers which character is acting at any given time.

Sentence 1: Chris turned around.

We have a basic simple sentence here with subject (Chris), verb (turned), and adverb (around). It’s clear to us that Chris is the one doing the turning, because he’s the only person mentioned. But what if I complicated things?

Sentence 2: Chris turned around and waved at Jim.

We have two people in this sentence, but it’s clear that both verbs (turned and waved) apply to Chris. That’s because readers read words in order, and associate action with the last person mentioned. Even though “waved” is closer in the sentence to Jim than it is to Chris and they are both present in the scene, we associate all action with Chris until Jim is introduced.

Sentence 3: Chris turned around and waved at Jim, ducking a flying frisbee.

Now we’re having problems. Is Chris or Jim ducking the frisbee? Maybe it’s not important in the grander scheme of the story, but it means we don’t have a way to visualize the scene with any kind of clarity. Technically, Chris is the subject of the sentence and the verb “ducking” should be attached to him. But here’s the key takeaway:

In English, readers read words in the order they appear.

While our working memory allows us to hold on to information and re-arrange things in the correct order, that’s a process that happens after we finish the sentence. When it takes longer it takes for the brain to double-check meaning before letting us absorb the sentence, it breaks the reader’s flow. It reduces clarity. It dulls your prose.

So even if the sentence above is technically correct, at least some part of the reader’s mind tries to attach verbs to the most recent subject mentioned (Jim). Part of the confusion is the change of verb tense, which cues the reader that other changes, like subject, might have occurred as well. You reduce the confusion by keeping the verbs parallel and making it clear this is an ordered list of events:

Sentence 4: Chris turned around and waved at Jim, then ducked a flying frisbee.

The Takeaway

Of course, you can structure and edit your voice right out of your prose. Sometimes, though, confusion can clutter up and distract from your voice. The key takeaway here is that people read words in the order they appear. This is the part you can’t change. What you can do is use sentence structure to compensate, tricking our minds into holding crucial information with less effort. When writing is clear, we’re able to immerse ourselves in the story itself, without distraction. That’s in your power as a writer.

I’m Reading: Verity by Colleen Hoover

If you’re a fan of the classic gothic romance Rebecca, this modern Indie romantic suspense will give you all the steamy thrills and chills you’re looking for, with polished, sophisticated prose and sympathetically broken characters.

Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling author who travels upstate to the gloomy home of Verity Crawford, a famous author who is unable to finish her bestselling series after a tragic car accident. Tragedy has followed the Crawfords, who lost two children in the years before the accident. A sympathetic Lowen must fight her attraction to Verity’s husband, Jeremy and do the job she came for, but the discovery of a secret manuscript of Verity’s life revealed that tragedy may not be all that it seems.

Hoover plays beautifully with the gothic tropes, but in a way that will appeal to the sensibilities of modern readers. The melodrama is brought with a light touch. The twists and turns are deeply satisfying, deliciously dark, and dripping with atmosphere. I did think the ending could have used some tightening, but the effect was there and left us questioning everything we thought we knew.

I thought I’d struggle with the darker themes, with so much darkness in the world right now. Instead, I found myself tearing through the book, riveted. I finished it in a single sitting. None of the darkness felt gratuitous to me, and the pacing helped sell it as an organic part of the story development. The writing itself is excellent, with small touches of imagery and symbolism that thrill the senses of readers who enjoy the play of language. The deep POV flirts hard with elements of unreliable narrator and gaslighting essential to the gothic atmosphere.

There’s a reason why this Indie book rides so high in category rankings. It deserves its place!

Available through Kindle Unlimited. Check your local library, or visit the author online for purchasing options at https://www.colleenhoover.com/portfolio/verity/

Content notices for child abuse, trauma, neglect, death, murder, and ableism. This is a dark book with dark themes. If you have questions about any potential trauma triggers in the book, please reach out to me here or via Twitter DM @JoGeekly and I’d be happy to give you more info to make an informed consent decision on whether or not to read.

I’m Reading: The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne

Sally Thorne’s 2016 debut The Hating Game is still near the top of many romance agents’ lists as the enemies-to-lovers trope done right.

Lucy and Joshua are assistants to the two bitterly opposing heads of their publishing company, and the two clash at first sight. Working across from each other in the same office, they’ve developed a rivalry so fiery and a hatred so fierce, it can’t help but be love.

This book really is a study in the perfect pacing and tension-building of an enemies-to-lovers story, with the unreliable narration of Lucy’s hatred and the gradual reveal that Joshua’s stares and infuriating annoyances might not be hatred after all. The tension is delicious, and the gradual march towards the inevitable, steamy, rock-their-world conclusion is beautifully crafted.

My only real complaint is the completely unnecessary body shaming and fat stereotyping surrounding the “enemy” boss at the company. His weight is used as a dog-whistle stand-in for his lecherous, unsavory, stupid, and evil character, and that’s not okay. The author plays his body for laughs, with stereotypes of the donut-obsessed, personal hygeine-deficient fat person, and I’ve put books down unfinished for a lot less. In this book, the otherwise high quality of the writing just edged out my urge to put it down every time they made a stab at the boss’s weight. In a book where fat people are human, the two bosses could have worked out a beautifully symmetric enemies-to-lovers relationship of their own, but the author threw away that opportunity when she decided to create a stereotype instead of a person. I was really disappointed by that.

Authors writing enemies-to-lovers should still absolutely read this book to know how to do the romantic tension and pacing really well. The two main characters are well-developed and nuanced, and I greatly enjoyed their development. But those who have a history of experiencing body stigma should be forewarned, and decide for themselves if they need to give it a miss.

Visit Sally Thorne Online for more information and links to purchase.

Content Warning: Book references childhood emotional neglect and contains negative stereotyping of a character of size.

I’m Reading: Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn

Love Letter.jpgThis was one of those happy surprises. I picked up Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn from my library’s new purchases, which can be a bit hit-or-miss. I didn’t expect to fall in love and now I wonder why I’m not seeing this near the top of all the great contemporary romance lists.

Meg is a successful artist in New York, specializing in lettering and famous for custom, hand-made calendars and planners. When she unconsciously builds a secret message into a wedding announcement predicting the relationship’s failure, she didn’t think anyone would notice. But the groom, a mathematician and Wall-Street Quant, lives for patterns, and Meg might be the sign he’s been looking for.

The voice of this novel elevates it well above a summer read. We’re immersed in the mind of an artist who sees the world in colors and shapes, patterns and symbols, and describes them in rich, loving, immersive detail.  Another author might try to set up an oil-and-water pseudo-conflict between the artistic Meg and the mathematical Reid, but Clayborn must know a real mathematician. At the highest level, mathematical thinking isn’t all that different from artistry. It’s about seeing shapes and patterns in the world, and finding meaning in how they interact. It’s as creative as it is precise, and that makes these two perfectly complementary. I recognize a lot of my own mathematician partner in Reid, although he’s a little bit of Meg as well. That might be part of why I fell so in love with these characters.

I didn’t find a lot to not love about this book. The characters have depth and flaws, along with strong, independent goals and motives that weave their way through the central romance. They grow as people, tackling tough issues around communication and trust. The twist is well done, unique, and highly believable, balancing external and internal obstacles to the relationship. The prose is lyrical and artistic, the atmosphere is rich and nuanced, and the sex is amazing.

Not only am I buying a copy for myself for my go-to re-read pile, but I’ve added all of the author’s other work to my TBR.

Visit Kate Clayborn online for more information and purchase links.

I’m Reading: The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, by Brandy Colbert

I don’t usually read YA, but when I was browsing through the library’s new acquisitions in romance, this caught my eye. I might technically call The Revolution of Birdie Randolph romance, but its breadth and depth defy genre. It reminds me of the tarot card The Lovers. While the story is about relationships both physical and romantic, it’s ultimately about choices. It’s especially about whether you will stay true to yourself in making those choices.

Birdie (Dove) Randolph is a high-achieving teen in Chicago, with ambitious parents who dream big for her. But those dreams come with expectations, and those expectations don’t include a boy who’s spent time in juvie, no matter how happy he makes her. When her aunt Carlene moves in after another stretch in rehab, family secrets begin to float to the surface that threaten everything Birdie thought she knew. She must navigate the thin line between who she’s told she should be, and who she wants to be.

I love the queer rep in this book, which includes bisexual, gay, lesbian, and ace characters. It’s sex-positive and fiercely feminist. I also love how none of the characters are all-or-nothing. Each one has nuance and shades of gray. Each one has problems, goals, and growth that doesn’t center around the MC. They’re extremely well-crafted. The MC is richly nuanced as well–she doesn’t fully embrace or fully reject her path in life. She thinks critically, makes both missteps and smart decisions, and carves out her own way that is entirely her own, neither rebel nor saint.

I usually have big issues reading books in present tense, either first or third person. It’s a difficult tense to pull off, and many authors simply don’t. I’ve put down books in the middle because the present-tense execution was too jarring and awkward to carry the rest of the writing. This one jarred occasionally as well, but is overall well done, and it was easy to immerse myself in the story.

Visit Brandy Colbert online for more of her books and where to purchase. Ask your local library to stock it as well!

(Content warning: Book contains discussion of drug/alcohol addiction and recovery)

I’m Reading: Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

It’s on every shelf and every agent wishlist, and for good reason. Red, White & Royal Blue had me laughing out loud one minute and leaking happy-sappy tears the next. My partner kept giving me concerned looks from the corner of his eye. The last third of the book required chocolate with my tissues.

In a “good timeline” alternate history, the White House was taken by a smart, driven, progressive woman in 2016. The first son of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz, has it all figured out. He’s brilliant, charismatic, passionate, and poised to rocket into a political career of his own.

But a drunken fight with the young Prince of Wales, Henry, leaves both countries scrambling for a diplomatic solution. In the process of his forced photo-op tour, Alex finds out Prince Henry is not at all what Alex expected, and ready to turn his world upside down.

The sheer wholesome heartache in this book turned me upside down and inside out. The steam comes hot and emotional, the banter quick and witty, and the love both epic and deeply personal in scope. What really had me, though, was the romance. The outpouring of lyrical, poetic love rips their hearts out and lays it bare for us all to read. At times I almost felt guilty for eavesdropping on such a vulnerable conversation. What’s more, the author manages this epic romantic and sexual tension with characters separated by an ocean.

I’ve never been a fan of the epistolary style, and I’m enough of a gen-x old fart to have trouble getting into text exchanges in fiction. In this case, the author keeps the written exchanges lively and the voices strong and unique. She keeps the challenges between the lovers believable, and refuses to take the easy way out by resorting to pseudo-conflict. They have plenty of obstacles without it.

I’m generally not a fan of present-tense fiction, especially in romance. Most authors cannot pull it off and it becomes so awkward and jarring that I don’t finish the book. This is a rare exception, as I was halfway through the book before I even noticed the present tense. It flows naturally from a main character who, despite his knowledge of history, is dynamically and boldly living in the present, looking at the next moment instead of the last. It adds energy and tension to the story, and is brilliantly executed.

If you write romance, read romance, or just need to fall in love, you have to read this book. Ask your library to stock it, too.

Visit Casey McQuiston online for more information (and a very cute puppy!). The book is available from just about every store.

I’m Reading: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Whatever you do, do not start this book right before bed. Or do, if that’s as soon as you can get to it. Even though I finally put it down at 3am, blurry-eyed and probably good for absolutely nothing the next day,  I knew it was worth it.  There’s a reason why this debut rocked the bestseller lists and remains a book every commercial fiction agent has somewhere in their wishlist.

The main character, Stella Lane, is wealthy, successful, and brilliant. She’s also autistic. Being touched makes her skin crawl and kissing is even worse. But when her mother puts pressure on her to date, she realizes that sex might be like any other social skill; one that comes with practice. So she does the absolutely more logical thing and hires a male escort to teach her all the ways of sex. Neither of them expects it to grow into something much harder to walk away from.

This is a high-steam erotic romance with a sympathetic, brilliant, funny, awkward, powerfully independent, sweet main character and a love interest that puts hearts and stars in our eyes. The romantic tension and physical chemistry between them is off the charts. Few authors can put as much erotic tension into a kiss as Helen Hoang, and I’m ready to devour the rest of her catalog the way Michael devours Stella’s lips. The writing craft is phenomenal, and the book should appeal to readers far beyond the romance genre. Stella’s personal journey towards claiming her best self is one we all should see ourselves in. This delightful debut goes on my re-read stack.

Visit Helen Hoang online for more information and ordering links.

(Content warning for this book: Main character has a history of sexual assault and experiences non-consensual kissing in the book.)