by Ruby Lang, author of Playing House
My brain isn’t at its best in summertime. I don’t think well in the humid heat of New York City, where I live in a small apartment with my husband and child. As a result, I have stupid, repetitive conversations with friends, I don’t do a lot of higher math (okay, I never do higher math, but if someone were asking, I’d definitely tell them to come around again in fall), I guzzle too much seltzer (Polar Ruby Red Grapefruit is my preferred poison, thank you very much), and I don’t get a lot of writing done.
The one pursuit that I can embrace with enthusiasm during the hottest months in the Northern Hemisphere is reading. I don’t break a sweat while turning a page or swiping my Kindle. And while a lot of people talk about books they’d lug to the beach to study under a scorching sun, I personally prefer the pleasures of parking myself under the shade of a tree or, on very sultry days, hiding in a dim, air-conditioned room and reading intently until it’s time to summon the family to a light supper of ice cream (with berries for roughage).
In anticipation of my summer stupidity, I stockpile recommendations and greedily set up library holds. So, in anticipation of the season, here are 5 (actually 6. See math comment above) of the books I’ve decided to hotly (lol) peruse over June, July and August:
School’s almost out, which means it will soon be the perfect time to dive into this tale of rival history teachers who learn to love over the course of a year. Newcomer Martin is a single father and a gentle, damaged soul who snags the world history classes that are close to veteran educator Rose’s heart. Rose masks her compassion and love of her subject under a flinty exterior, but faced with Martin’s unending kindness she begins to let down her guard. This is my favorite type of pairing. I adore a prickly heroine and a tender hero, and Dade’s trademark humor and her compassionate eye make her a must-read.
This YA K-drama twist on Roman Holiday takes retiring K-pop star Lucky and wannabe tabloid reporter Jack on a whirlwind romantic (and culinary) romp through Hong Kong. Goo’s The Way You Make Me Feel was one of my favorite books from last year. (And it’s about a summer spent working in a food truck!) She captures the voices of her teen protagonists so well, and I can’t wait to read more of her funny, worldly, tough-yet-vulnerable young characters.
Nothing says summer to me like part-time jobs, ice cream, and a certain aimlessness of spirit. Sarah Van Name’s debut YA novel promises all of this in her story of a teen girl, Caroline, whose half-formed plan of running away with her boyfriend is derailed when she meets Georgia, a young camp counselor who shows her the world can be so much more.
A billionaire story with heart as well as heat? With her debut, American Dreamer, Herrera explored beautifully the ambitions of a food-truck owner trying to get his business off the ground and a relationship-shy librarian. Now, Herrera is back with a Cinderella story about social worker Milo whose chance encounter with magnate Tom at a black-tie gala results in a powerful connection. What I especially love about Herrera’s writing is her gift for exploring her characters in a way that is emotionally insightful and satisfying.
The three de la Rosa sisters take over their parents’ wedding-planning business only to discover that those picture-perfect moments are tough to achieve. I really enjoy stories that look at the sometimes complicated and comic relationships between siblings, and I adored Marcelo’s previous romance novels about family, food and love. Marcelo’s first Women’s Fiction title promises more of that winning combination.
Agatha Christie but queer. That is all we need to know.
What are your favorite kinds of books to read during summer, and where do you like to read them?
About Playing House:
The last thing Oliver Huang expects to see on the historic Mount Morris home tour is longtime acquaintance Fay Liu bustling up and kissing him hello. He’s happy to playact being a couple to save her from a pushy admirer. Fay’s beautiful, successful and smart, and if he’s being honest, Oliver has always had a bit of a thing for her.
Maybe more than a bit.
Geeking out over architectural details is Oliver and Fay’s shared love language, and soon they’re touring pricey real estate across Upper Manhattan as the terribly faux but terribly charming couple Darling and Olly.
For the first time since being laid off from the job he loved, Oliver has something to look forward to. And for the first time since her divorce, Fay’s having fun.
Somewhere between the light-filled living rooms and spacious closets they’ve explored, this faux relationship just may have sparked some very real feelings. For Oliver and Fay, home truly is where their hearts are.
With these critiques, we’re aiming to give you a quick insight into how we might look at a manuscript as it comes across our desks on submission. We’ll strive to be critical but not mean. Because it’s only about 600 words, two pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited–we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!
It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically for the purpose of critique on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions so no worries we’re going to pull your piece out of our submissions inbox and critique it.
This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press Freelance Editor Carrie Lofty.
This was submitted by the author as the opening scene. The author provided no information as to subgenre, length or set-up for the scene.
“No great mind has existed without a touch of madness.” – Aristotle
Walker opened his apartment door, watching as the acned pizza delivery girl gave him the once over. Her expression revealed she looked troubled by what she saw. She handed him the pizza. “Double pepperoni, double cheese,” she said, seemingly trying to sound cheerful. But he knew she could see inside his apartment. He knew she was disquieted. Disquiet. His favorite word. The Latin prefix “dis” had a reversing force on the word it came before.
“Why do you live like a monk if you have this kind of credit card?” She held up his exclusive black credit card before swiping it.
His silence was punctuated by an ambulance wailing in the distance. And then a short splatter of taxi cabs honking vengefully. He might as well chit-chat. He needed to blend in.
“Because I’m a holy man.” This was a lie. The only thing he worshipped was how to bend things to your will. How to control the uncontrollable. Even after he’d been forced to leave his alternate persona, White Cube, behind ten months ago, he still held on to these beliefs.
“You know you can pay for this online, right?” she babbled nervously. “No one really pays this way anymore.”
He didn’t bother responding. He knew. But he had to refrain from using the internet. Otherwise he got lost in its possibility. And it violated his agreement with the FBI.
She handed him his credit card, which he grabbed too eagerly. She took a step back in surprise. He inhaled the smell of pepperoni and promptly shut the door without any further useless conversation.
He took a bite of pizza. The heat seared the roof of his mouth. He’d be tasting the blistering singe for days. He dropped the slice back into the box and walked into his palatial, although shabbily decorated, living room. He didn’t believe in decorating anymore, but it wasn’t as if he couldn’t afford it.
Once he put the box on top of the other old boxes, he plopped down on the tattered brown couch and clicked on the TV. It was a rerun of a morning show. A group of four women with their vapid morning cheerfulness and vacant questions and perky coffee mugs sat around a table. The audience howled for the next guest.
And there he was. Osric. Fucking. Blackwood.
After the repugnant applause died down, the ladies “got to business.”
“Now we have to ask,” said the one in the pink turtleneck and the statement hair, “why did you turn down the offer from Chicago’s Finest Firefighter film?”
The audience groaned like a bunch of children, indicating their disappointment, he supposed.
“To be honest, I’m afraid of fire,” Osric said, relaxed, sitting back.
Rage swarmed through Walker in a big white burst. His hands shook. His body shook. Knees trembling, he collapsed back on the couch. At first, he resisted. He’d tried these ten months and didn’t want the effort to go to waste, especially because the FBI had told him the first months of restraint were the hardest. His hands no longer itched for the dark net like they had. And then he remembered how powerful he’d felt at his white desk, typing on his white computer, slipping through the dark digital terrainof the dark net, a playground and lucrative marketplace for all wicked deeds. It felt like a balloon popped in his stomach, a strong wet snapping sensation.
And then he resigned; he disintegrated into the fury. There could be peace in rage. It gave him order and discipline. It was uncomplicated. Pure. The spasms subsided, and he rested his head against a torn brown cushion, his hair matted with perspiration.
Osric must die. But, first, Osric must suffer.
The voices had returned. Just as Walker would return to the dark net. He would embody his online persona White Cube. He would make Osric Blackwood weep and bleed and sweat and cry out for his dead mother, cry out for her, cry out for her, cry out for her, cry out for her, cry out for her. He would watch as the life evaporated from Osric’s useless body, his putrid blue eyes fading into oblivion, two lifeless petri dishes, just waiting for the bugs to swim in them with no lids to blink the flies away. White Cube’s hot ionic anger engulfed him completely. But it didn’t feel like anger at all. It felt like power.
Madness was like a child standing frightened and frozen on the high dive at a pool. Sometimes all you needed was a little nudge. And once you were falling, you knew you were home.
Because the author didn’t provide information about their manuscript, I’ve read this in the true spirit of an opening scene critique: does this work without any context?
Unfortunately, I’ll have to make some guesses to proceed, some of which may likely be incorrect, but I hope that my reasoning will be beneficial even so.
First up, I like the idea of a dark web addict—someone who was powerful and excited by his role within an exclusive, dangerous environment. The loss of that power and excitement mean that Walker’s new role as a “regular” or retired FBI guy is deeply unsatisfactory. He has stacks of pizza boxes and watches daytime TV. This is clearly a man adrift. Be careful that, if he is the hero, Walker comes across as more interesting that the average unemployed guy alone in his apartment. Is he wronged and tortured or is this sloth or petulance? It’s hard to tell.
The moment of change happens when Walker sees a person named Osric on TV. Here’s where I have to make a few logic leaps: Osric is popular, seems to be in entertainment, and his “I’m afraid of fire” line must be so deceptive that it sets off Walker and threatens to ruin whatever self-control he has managed these ten months.
I appreciate a paranormal or suspense that starts off quickly. However, without much context, I can’t tell if this is too quick. As it stands, we see brief glimpse of the person who sets off Walker’s rage. The reader needs to be grounded regarding the relationship between Walker, Osric, the voices, and the dark web. Some of it can be delayed—especially because readers who enjoy PNR and suspense are pretty willing to give a world some time to build—but at the moment, Walker’s reaction seems over-the-top in relation to what’s happened. Grounding the reader in these moments can be as basic as Inago Montoya: “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Walker is ready to do some serious damage, but why? Make that known very soon and we can get on board for whatever’s next.
The voice here is hard to pin down. Details about Walker’s home are sparse, perhaps because we’re being asked by the author to give it some time. Maybe the existing details are placeholders that will make more sense when we know more about Walker’s circumstances. For the moment, we know he’s wealthy enough to decorate but chooses not to, which again goes back to his current state of mind. Is he tortured or petulant?
Then the language changes considerably. Some imagery is really evocative: “…like a balloon popped in his stomach, a strong wet snapping sensation.” Comparing Osric’s eyes to petri dishes is a bold metaphor. The sentence structure here (multiple contractions instead of commas) and the repetitions are also bold: “He would make Osric Blackwood weep and bleed and sweat and cry out for his dead mother, cry out for her, cry out for her, cry out for her, cry out for her, cry out for her.”
I can only assume that the language changes because Walker has snapped. I like it. It woke me up from the more humdrum pizza dialogue. But how does the change in language dovetail with the events at hand? Does this become the new narrative style or does it remain limited to Walker’s new, unleashed POV? I would need to see more, I think, to decide whether the language—like Walker’s reaction to Osric—is over-the-top too.
“But it didn’t feel like anger at all. It felt like power.” I responded to this. It’s blunt and tense. And, as with the shift into much more descriptive language, it provides us a look into a fractured mind. There’s good material here to work with, giving us a first taste of his true personality. However, the paragraph that ends this submission loses POV:
Madness was like a child standing frightened and frozen on the high dive at a pool. Sometimes all you needed was a little nudge. And once you were falling, you knew you were home.
The simile about madness is distancing because it sounds like an authorial voice, not Walker’s voice. The use of second person is also distancing. In pretty much all situations, I suggest paring back on broad, up-on-high omniscient descriptions. Deep point-of-view from a main character gives us a window into both personality and worldbuilding.
With the sample as it stands, we can’t begin to know what the romance will be. It could very well be m/m, with Osric is an enemy-to-lover. However, knowing the details of its potential romantic arc isn’t as essential as getting us on firm ground with Walker. Then the story can take us wherever his very, very angry self feels compelled to go.
Would I keep reading? Yes, if only to give it time to see what happens next. But some of my concerns about worldbuilding and language would need to be addressed fairly quickly.
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It’s a joy to crawl out of my writing cave to visit this blog after working on the last book of The Darkest Court series. Since the publication of Prince of Air and Darkness, I’ve been fortunate to talk to readers who have added scads of new fantasy books to my TBR pile. I’ve included the five currently at the top of my list. As I work through them in the near future, I’d love to talk with you—from those new to these books, all the way to diehard fans—and get even more suggestions for other necessary reads.
A reader on Tumblr suggested this book and, after reading the blurb, I’m not sure why I hadn’t heard of this one yet. It has all the things I like: magic, swords, aristocratic intrigue and what sounds like a band of very questionable brothers-in-arms. Even better, the sequel is supposedly even faster-paced, which offers the perfect opportunity for a weekend’s reading marathon.
Once again, Tumblr to the rescue! A series of jaw-dropping art pieces by Feli, who’s the author and a talented artist, led me to The Icefjord Saga, which features elements of Norse mythology, plus ravens, rune magic and the promise of complicated relationships. The twisting political intrigue mentioned in the blurb only adds to this book’s appeal. Oh, and did I mention that the cover art makes my heart sing?
When a book shows up over and over again my writer friends’ feeds, I know it’s time to add it to the stack. This one hooked me for two reasons: awesome cover art and a compelling blurb. The whole rebuilt Atlantis setting hits all the good fantasy buttons, and the additional influence of tarot symbolism is a lovely cherry atop this fantastical sundae. Since so much of my interest in these books ties directly to recommendations, I’m thrilled that once I’m done reading it, I can finally fangirl with a ton of other people.
I’m a sucker for graphic novels and the current era of webcomics means there are plenty of outrageously original, beautiful works to read over. Novae is definitely on that list. This story of a necromancer and an astronomer’s apprentice set in 17th century France is already cool enough by concept alone. Add in the stunning artwork, with its attention to backgrounds and its delicately wrought detail work, and I’m champing at the bit to finally read all the issues. Fortunately the author keeps their webpage updated regularly, so I’ve no fear of running out of new pages once I catch up on those currently released.
Give me any book by TJ Klune and I’ll be happy. Wolfsong, the first book in the Green Creek series, is one of my top fantasy/paranormal books of all time, and I’m eager to see where this newest installment leaves our pack. Klune has a knack for ripping the heart from your chest, only to have you laughing through the tears a few minutes later. Considering everything that’s been happening in the series—werewolf packs at war, long-lost mates finding and losing and finding each other again—and Klune’s active teasers on Twitter, there’s no doubt this book is going to be one of the big hits of the year after its September release. My only warning to anyone who wants to start this series for the first time is that you will have the world’s biggest book hangover after, so plan your tissue consumption accordingly!
I hope you’ve discovered a new story to explore, and welcome your comments about others I should add to my TBR list!
About The Marked Prince:
The Summer Court is nothing like Sebastian remembers. The oppressed lower classes are drained of their magick, and around every corner political intrigues threaten an already unstable regime. Sebastian’s only hope of surviving the Court and bringing home Prince Lyne’s traitorous brother lies with Duine, a magickless Unseelie servant desperate to win his freedom. A servant for whom Sebastian, an estranged Seelie royal himself, is developing a dangerous and deepening affection.
But behind the mask Duine wears are secrets as dangerous as what’s smoldering between them. And the more Duine helps Sebastian navigate Court life, the more it becomes clear the servant is not who he appears to be. How he came to be the whipping boy of one of the most powerful and corrupt faeries in the Summer Court is a truth Sebastian is determined to uncover, even if it puts him at odds with the very people who can lead him to the missing Unseelie prince.
When a powerful enemy steps from the shadows, it could spell the end not just for the Unseelie, but for both faerie Courts. Sebastian must choose: complete the mission and earn his place among the Unseelie who took him in, or risk his very life to ensure freedom for the man he loves.
I’ve written many holiday novellas over the course of my career. I absolutely love Christmas romances and I’ll continue that tradition with ONE CHRISTMAS EVE in November of this year. But it’s the second of two connected novellas and the first Cedar Street book, ONE SUMMER WEEKEND, releases August 5th. Noah Stafford and Carly Randall have been best friends for as long as they can remember, but everything changes when she agrees to pose as his fake girlfriend and be his plus-one at his boss’s wedding on Cape Cod.
I grew up spending my summers running amok on the Cape. My mom remarried an Air Force man, so I spent my childhood moving around, but I always spent summers and vacations with my dad and various other family members on Cape Cod. (For those in the know: Falmouth and the Hyannis area.) It’s always been my true north and even though I’ve lived in central New Hampshire for almost three decades, I still feel a deep sense of coming home when I cross the bridge over the canal.
And that’s probably why there’s always a yearning for the ocean in my soul. Sometimes it’s quiet, but sometimes I miss it so much it’s almost a physical ache. I rarely swim, but I’m rarely more at peace than when I’m standing at the edge of the water with the waves crashing over my feet. My son told me once that, because my family has been on the Cape since the 1630s (my sons are the first in my direct patrilineal line not born in that area), it’s actually possible that a bond to the ocean is hardwired into my emotional DNA. And that’s why, when I wrote this fun and sexy beach romance, I never considered setting it anywhere else.
This night was more than okay. They’d walked to a quiet spot on the shore away from the other guests for a few minutes. With cool, tangy night air washing over her skin, the ocean lapping at her bare feet, a drink in her hand and her best friend at her side, the night was damn near perfect.
Sitting on her grandfather’s dock, watching the sun set over the lake, was her favorite happy place, but there was something about the ocean she loved. The gentle slapping of the waves. The endless expanse of dark water. It had a restorative power she could feel in her soul. But at the same time, there was a restlessness inside her that was growing, and she couldn’t tell if it was the ocean or Noah.
There’s probably a lot of me in Carly when it comes to how she feels about the ocean. (Though I’ve never been there pretending to be my best friend’s girlfriend, only to find out there’s only one bed!) And maybe that’s why it’s one of my favorite novellas I’ve written, and I hope readers love it as much as I do!
About One Summer Weekend:
New York Times bestselling author Shannon Stacey delivers the feel-good beach read you’ve been waiting for.
Noah Stafford loves his life—his happy, single life. So what if he made up a fake girlfriend to stop his boss’s matchmaking? He kept things close to the truth—Carly really does have long, sexy legs and a killer sense of humor. She just happens to be his best friend. His wicked awesome and completely platonic best friend.
But now his boss is having a destination wedding, and Noah is expected to attend…with Carly, his girlfriend.
Carly Randall has no interest in living out a rom-com plot. But Noah is her best friend, so she agrees to help. Still, once they arrive on Cape Cod, she can’t explain the sudden butterflies she feels when he looks at her that way. Or why she doesn’t mind when Noah’s hands stray a little south of her back.
What happens on the Cape stays on the Cape.
Except not really, not at all, and once their sexy faux-cation is over, Noah and Carly return to a reality where everything’s changed. Going for it would mean risking their friendship…but forgetting how good they were together just isn’t an option.
If you’d asked me two years ago if I’d ever write a historical novel, I probably would have laughed. “Oh gosh, not me,” I’d have said. “I’m terrible at history!”
Fast forward six months and you’d find me combining a partially drafted romantic suspense novel with an urban fantasy idea about magical bonds and hunting supernatural relics—only to have my traitorous brain whisper, “But what if we made it feel like a pulp magazine and set it in the 1920s?”
And, of course, now here I am. The Roaring Twenties fit the old-fashioned relic hunting and magic I’d created and brought a new dimension to Rory and Arthur’s cross-class, against-the-odds love story. It unfortunately also meant my characters would have to deal with the racist, xenophobic and homophobic laws of the time, and that was almost enough to make me scrap the idea. But marginalized groups and allies were pushing back against the terrible oppression, and Spellbound became a way for me to reclaim and share a small part of that often-buried American history, to write a fantasy heist that stars these heroes as they save New York and find happy endings to their LGBTQ+ and interracial romance.
Although Spellbound takes place in a fictional world where magic exists, for the most part it’s set in a realistic 1925 New York City. The 1920s were something of a crossroads—a time when people still traveled by ship, but things we think of as modern, like cars and telephones, were spreading rapidly. With such a mix of old and new, I tried not to take details for granted as I did my research. Here’s an example from chapter 18:
“Nah, I don’t need anything.” Rory dug in his messenger bag, then held up a thermos. “I made coffee. And I got you pastrami on rye. Jade said it’s your favorite.”
I wrote those lines and then immediately had to hit the internet. Did thermoses exist in the ’20s? How about messenger bags? Were they called messenger bags? Could Rory have made coffee without access to a real kitchen? Did hot plates and instant coffee exist? Were people eating pastrami on rye?
I also searched for real settings and buildings to add to Spellbound’s world. The lines above were said on top of an under-construction skyscraper, and it took me forever to find a real skyscraper in the right stage of development in January of 1925. I almost gave up and changed to a different year! Eventually, though, I was able to set the scene at the top of the Standard Oil Building.
Some of the historical details aren’t explicitly stated but might still be recognizable to New Yorkers: for example, Arthur’s apartment is in the Dakota and his favorite pastrami on rye sandwich is from Katz’s deli. Much of the cast was inspired by 1920s Manhattan’s biggest immigrant groups, including the Italian, Irish, Russian, Jewish and Chinese diasporas.
Many purely fictional details still drew inspiration from real history:
A big thanks to the New York Public Library’s incredible digital archives, which preserve so much of the city’s history and make it available online.
Spellbound’s historical setting also owes a huge thanks to my amazing editor at Carina, Mackenzie Walton, whose sharp eyes caught all sorts of out-of-place details and dialogue, including words like pantsuit, radar and 26 anachronistic instances of the word goon.