Friday, November 26, 2021

Top Reads of 2021 (Lizzie)

It’s the end of November 2021 and my last Weekend Reads post, so I wanted to make it a favorite reads of 2021. I’ve read so many great books this year! And I've read a few new authors I intend to keep following. Have you read any of these?

Here are my favorite reads of 2021 (more in order read than favorites among favorite). 

(These are all clean. Most are YA, fairytales, or fantasy romance.)

A Time to Rise by Nadine Brandes 
Lots of tears in this brilliant series but so worth it! The series starts with A Time to Die.

Dawnsong by Brynn Shutt

A delightful short story by new-to-me-author. I love the illustrated cover and look forward to more in this series.

The Reluctant Godfather by Allison Tebo

A surprising and adorable Cinderella retelling.

Secrets of the Mist by Morgan Busse

A great steampunk tale with a bit of a zombie twist. I am eagerly awaiting book 2.

Death of Mungo Blackwell by Lauren Brandenburg

A delightful, quirky contemporary story.

Firethorn Crown by Lea Doue: I finally finished this series! Delightful reads

Power On by H.L. Burke

I loved this YA superhero story. I am a sucker for a redemption story.

Healer's Rune and Guardian Prince by Lauricia Mutuska. I am very ready for more of this series! I really connected with the heroine in the second book and really liked the potential love interest.

Traitor by Laurie Lucking

A sweet story of a princess sent away from home for an arranged marriage. I'm always happy to have another book by our very own Laurie Lucking.

Princess of Shadows by A.G. Marshall

A great "Princess and the Pea" retelling with Sleeping Beauty thrown in. Humorous with a hint of danger and interesting magic and, of course, romance.

Here are some of the authors I read multiple books from. I have a link to the author page on amazon and one or two book covers.

Tara Grayce

I love all her books and read a bunch this year! I am looking forward to more Eleven Alliance books and more fae books. I liked the bits of Shakespeare and mythology in her fae books. Some I read include Lost in Averell; Eleven Alliance books; Sword Maiden, Stolen Midsummer Bride; Bluebeard and the Outlaw

Melanie Cellier 

I confess I have seen her books around for a while and have been curious around them. I am glad I finally got around to readying some! I enjoyed The Princess Search and Crown of Secrets and look forward to finishing the Hidden Mage series soon and reading more.

K.M. Shea

Another author whose books I have seen around and heard good things about. I devoured her urban fantasy series with Magic Forged, Magic Redeemed, and Magic Unleashed; plus the Snow White duology; and enjoyed her Beauty and the Beast retelling.

Kenley Davidson

I was drawn to her amazing Faceless Mage cover and was so happy to discover it was a clean fantasy book and was just as amazing as the cover promised. I love Kenley's writing style, the character depth, the storylines, and especially the noble heroes. She writes fairytale retellings and fantasy romance. I am looking forward to reading more of her books! So far I've read Faceless Mage, Unseen Heir, Stolen Thorn Bride, Traitor's Mask, Golden Heart, and Piroutte.

That's a long list, but hopefully it will give you some new reads or remind you of books you've enjoyed. Have you read any of these? What were you favorite reads this year?

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Story Snippets: Return to Callidora (Laurie)

Okay, I know it's a little early to start talking about Christmas with Thanksgiving still coming later this week, but please bear with me. Or come back and check out this post after you've turned your calendar to December :) 

Did you know I have a Christmas story published in an anthology called Christmas Fiction off the Beaten Path? My contribution, "Return to Callidora," was one of those story ideas that just wouldn't let me go. I kept picturing cute scenes between the main characters and brainstorming ways to make the plot work, and since the inspiration came after a dry spell it was so much fun to be writing again! It took me a while to find the right home for this fantasy-holiday-romance mashup of Shrek and The Pied Piper, but I'm so glad I did! (If you're curious about my thoughts on the other fantastic stories in Christmas Fiction off the Beaten Path, check out this post. And if you'd like to buy it, you can find it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble!)

Today I'm excited to share an excerpt from "Return to Callidora" - one of those moments between my main characters that just made my inner romantic grin from ear to ear :) As a quick recap, Princess Eveline has been locked in a dragon-guarded tower for years as protection from a vengeful sorceress, waiting for a worthy knight to rescue her. In the meantime, Ryker, a servant with an unusual ability to control animals (including dragons) with his music, brings her yearly supplies every Christmas. Ryker has just arrived at the tower after riding through a snowstorm on his valiant steed, Mushroom. Enjoy!


    Once we had Mushroom situated, Ryker and I each donned several saddlebags and headed for the kitchen. I lowered my bags to the floor and began rifling through.

    “Let’s get you something to eat. I have bread, and my strawberry preserves turned out well this year. Hopefully Cook sent the usual butter and cheese. Oh, and—”

    “Ev, slow down.” Ryker tugged at my arm. “I’ll last a few more minutes, I promise.”

    I straightened. “But your journey must’ve been miserable, in all that snow.”

    “I’m fine.” He stepped closer. “You’re the one I’m concerned about. How are you?”

    “Same as ever, as you can see.” I tried to keep my smile steady.

    He blew out a small chuckle. “Not quite the same. Your hair is longer. And your eyes...”

    I squirmed under his scrutiny.

    “A little wiser, perhaps.” His grin faded. “But you’ve been well? Plenty to eat and drink? No illnesses? No signs of Kirra?”

    “Yes. The well hasn’t run dry, my garden still grows, and illness is rare when one stays indoors at all times with no other human contact.”

    He winced and shifted his feet.

    “As for Kirra, to my knowledge she hasn’t come anywhere near. Though I’d hardly know what to look for if she had.”

    “Aodhan seems as sharp as ever, so you should be safe.”

    I nodded. “Now, about that meal. Do you like tomatoes? I can’t remember.”

    “Tomatoes sound wonderful.”

    Soon I had eggs and meat frying over a fire and a plate laden with vegetables, bread, and cheese set before Ryker.

    “There’s been quite a bit of talk about you lately, you know.” He swallowed, keeping his eyes fixed on his plate.

    “Me?” I prodded a sizzling egg. “I’m surprised anyone remembers I exist.”

    “No one’s forgotten about you—you’re practically legend in Callidora.” He cleared his throat. “It’s no secret you recently came of age.”

    “What does that matter? I could hardly host a ball to celebrate.” I transferred the cooked food onto another platter and approached the table.

    Ryker sighed. “Now that you’re eighteen, I think many would-be rescuers are just waiting until the snow clears.”

    “Really?” The plate clattered onto the table. “I don’t understand why anyone would bother. None of them have even met me.”

    “Your beauty is highly reputed throughout the kingdom.”

    “Is it?” My heart flailed, but the surge of vanity didn’t last. “But what if I don’t live up to my reputation? What if someone slays the dragon and then takes one look at me and heads back out the door?”

    He coughed, red tingeing his ears. “Not possible.”

    “I might be a disappointment.”

    “You won’t.”

    I lowered onto a chair and popped a cube of venison into my mouth. “My life will change so suddenly, all in one moment.”

    “A change for the better.” Ryker reached across the table for my hand. “You deserve to be surrounded by people who love you, wearing fancy gowns and attending banquets and dancing at balls.” He squeezed my fingers, then drew his arm back. “Not serving a meal to the poor musician you’re stuck with for company.”

    I threw a napkin at him. “You know I’m thrilled to have your company.”

    “Only because you have no other options.” He tossed the napkin back with a flourish.

    After he scraped the last bite from his plate, he rose and stretched. “I hope poor Mushroom’s warmed up a bit. We’d best be on our way.”

    “What?” I halted on my way to the wash basin. “You just got here.”

    His breath fluttered the hair on his forehead. “I know, but getting back won’t be any easier than the trip here. The daylight’s already gone.”

    “But you always stay for Christmas.”

    “That was when your tutor was still here.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Your parents wouldn’t like it.”

    “They never need to find out. I have your usual room prepared.” I grasped his arm. “Please? You can’t know what it’s like, being left alone for an entire year. When Frances went with you last time, I thought I was happy to see her go. Now I’d give anything for her lectures and scolding. To have someone to talk to.”

    “Oh, Eveline. I know it’s been hard.” He placed a warm hand on my back. “All right, I’ll stay. But just for one night.”

    I clapped. “Thank you! What fun we’ll have. With all the new supplies, I can cook something special.” My heart drooped. “Even that doesn’t seem like much, though. I wish you could stay longer.”

    “I definitely couldn’t agree to that.” He raised an eyebrow at my pout. “Just think how it would look to your rescuer to find a man already here.”

    “He wouldn’t have anything to worry about from you.”

    His jaw tightened. “Because I’m so very insignificant?”

    Ugh, men and their pride. “No, Ry, that’s not what I meant.” I stepped closer. “I just know you would never...take advantage of being alone with me.”

    “Of course I wouldn’t.” His cheeks turned pink. “But he wouldn’t know that.”

    “True. I can’t afford to send my knight into a jealous rage the moment he walks through the door.” I retreated to the wash basin. “But I still don’t see why my tutor had to be sent away.”

    “Apparently you were done with your studies.”

    I blew out a breath. “You know what I mean. Couldn’t I at least have a maid?”

    “And what would your brave knight do with the extra companion when he rescues you?” He smirked. “Leave her here? Heft her up onto his horse behind the two of you? Bring an extra mount?”

    “Oh, you’re impossible.” I flung a cascade of droplets toward him.

    He ducked. “Just thinking it through the way I’m sure your parents did. I doubt they would’ve forced you into solitude if they could’ve devised a good alternative.”

    “Maybe.” My sense of mischief faded. “I sometimes feel like they just took the easiest path. Locking me away until I can be someone else’s problem.”

    “Ev.” Ryker came to my side and squeezed my shoulder. “Your parents love you. It shows in their faces every year as they fret over whether they’ve packed enough supplies. I’m not sure they chose the best path when dealing with Kirra, but I believe they tried to do what they thought was right.”

    “Thanks. What would I do without you, Ry?”

    “Be a whole lot drier.” He splashed water into my face, and I shrieked.


Do you have any favorite Christmas-themed fantasy stories? What variations on the princess trapped in a tower trope have you read? I hope you have a very Happy Thanksgiving!! We're so very grateful for all of you!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 19, 2021

Weekend Reads: Lost and Found by Orson Scott Card (Rachel)

Ezekiel Blast (his choice for a last name) has a micropower. He can sense when things have been lost. While walking to school, he is acutely aware of every toy dropped by a toddler, scrunchie that has fallen from a girl’s hair, and bike stolen from its owner that he passes. Further, this skill extends to being able to return the item to the owner by instinctively knowing in what direction the owner is and even being able to identify them when he gets closer.

This skill has been a part of him since birth. Because of it, he has had multiple run-ins with authorities who didn’t believe his story of finding the items. After being accused repeatedly of stealing, Ezekiel has grown a thick skin and sometimes unhealthy aversion to authority figures. Well, all except his dad.

Labeled as a thief, Ezekiel (don’t call him Zeke) is a lonely kid until one day a girl purposefully starts walking to school with him. She doesn’t let him brush her off or drive her away. She gives him flack for his attitude. But despite her apparent interest in him, she remains a mystery.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Orson Scott Card has been a favorite author of mine for years, ever since I discovered his Ender’s Game series. His characters and storytelling skills impress me every time.

This book didn’t fail. Ezekiel is a sarcastic, witty, and amusing 14-year-old boy. As a mother of a snarky 14-year-old boy, I found myself constantly reminded in good ways about my son, his observations of the world and his unique view of life. Despite the complicated themes and complex emotions, the book is generally hopeful and optimistic with a generous smattering of humor. I laughed my way through most of it. The mixture resulted in an enjoyable coming-of-age fantasy about learning to accept yourself no matter how others view you and becoming the best you can be despite outside pressures.

I look forward to reading the next book in the micropower series.

Trigger warnings: the mystery part of the plot involves a nasty and violent pedophile porn ring that is handled tactfully by the author. It is far less descriptive than an episode of NCIS or Sherlock.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Writer's Life: Running Your Race (Sarah)

In writing circles, I witness frequent discussions on writing speed, daily word count, and the number of books written and released per year. In fact, a few days ago I heard someone who published four books a year call her pace slow…if she is slow, I suppose I’m glacial.

In actuality, I can draft at a decent rate, turning out 1500-2000 words an hour, but I have a relatively minimal amount of time to write, and I also tend to proceed slowly in the editing phase, wanting to layer in detail and nuance and polish words until they shine. Of course, it’s likely that my pace and process will continue to evolve through the years, and I generally find I get faster the more books I write, but that’s where I am now.

And I’ve had to continually remind myself not to compare to other writers. There’s no inherent virtue in cranking out a book a month (nor conversely, to taking a year or ten to write one novel). It’s about cultivating excellence in craft and creativity in your work and finding the pace and methods that fit you as a writer and your particular season of life.

No two people are alike. Our personalities and life circumstances are unique. We each have  responsibilities, values, and challenges that shape how we live our lives. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn, grow, and become more effective in how we carry out our responsibilities and pursue our dreams and desires, but we’re working from different starting points and even with different creative or career goals in mind. 

Right now, I’m in the season of young children (ranging from 20 months to 6 years). While sometimes stories press upon me, demanding release, and I dream of long blocks of focused time to birth them onto the page, in reality, I wouldn’t trade this season with my kids for anything. I’m thankful that I get to pour my time and energy into them by homeschooling and sharing everyday life with them. If I chose another path, such as sending them to school, I would have more time to write—but this is the choice that’s right for me and my family. That means I simply focus on carving out time to write as consistently as I can, working it into the fabric of our family's schedule—and not comparing my output to someone who writes for four, eight, or twelve hours a day.

I love the Scripture that says “and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” I’ve found when I do that, I’m not distracted by comparison and can be more joyful and productive. I can learn and glean from others, from their methods along with their successes and failures, but I keep my focus on running the race set before me—not someone else’s race.

What about you? Do you struggle with comparison? If you write, what is your natural writing pace? Has it changed with the changing seasons of life?

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Baiting the Hook: Rules to Capturing a Reader (Lydia)

So, you’re getting ready to pitch your book, whether to a publisher or to your potential readers, and now you’ve finally reached one of the most difficult parts:  writing your hook.  And, while writing a hook isn’t completely impossible, it can be daunting, especially facing the task of condensing a 70K+ novel down to a single sentence.

The key to a solid hook is to focus on the why.  Why should you read this novel?  Why is this novel interesting?  Why is the plot worth your time?  Here are a selection of “rules” to help you with boiling down your story to a single, solid, gripping hook.

The Rule of Cool:  The Rule of Cool is especially popular for crafting Middle Grade hooks.  Mainly because a Middle Grade novel tends to ride on wish-fulfillment and epic storytelling.  So, the question becomes: how epic are we talking here?  Are we talking time-traveling warriors battling with laser swords from the backs of dinosaurs?  Or a group of kids with superpowers who are forced to have a break-dance dance-off against a group of disco monkeys for the sake of the universe?  Find the most epic parts of your plot and jam them into an irresistible one-liner that will spark the curiosity of your readers.

The Rule of Tragedy:  If you’re pitching a tragedy, often times the readers are looking for a hook that will promise a ton of pain, but pain with purpose and meaning.  So, your question should be:  what will be taken away?  What will be lost?  Focus on the unstable elements within your story that will inevitably lead to tears, like a romance between a healthy individual and one with a terminal illness.  The reader knows how it will end, but they will read to discover the deeper purpose and underlying themes and struggles of the characters along the way.

The Rule of Comedy:  With comedy, especially a romantic comedy, your hook should be built on the principle of Murphy’s Law.  What can possibly go wrong?  What’s the big misunderstanding?  What is going to get in the way of the characters, and why do they need to fix it?  A comedic hook tends to be built more on irony, so the more ironic your hook, the more likely you are to pique a reader’s interests.

The Rule of Change: This is the rule for writing a hook for a hero’s journey.  With this hook, your goal is to set up the overarching themes and messages of your narrative as a whole.  What kind of journey lies ahead?  What’s at stake should the character fail or succeed?  And what antagonistic force is working against the protagonist along their journey?

The Rule of Mystery: A mystery hook is built on clues and the need for a solution.  So, when crafting a mystery hook, ask yourself:  what answers need to be found?  What clues will the reader and the protagonist have at the start of the story?  And what makes the mystery itself difficult or nearly impossible to solve?

The Rule of Thrill: For a thriller hook, your goal should simply be built on risk and stakes.  What’s at risk for the character, and what are the stakes should the character succeed or fail?  Keep it brief, intense, and tantalizing.  A thriller hook is built on brevity and intensity.

The Rule of Wholesomeness:  Wholesomeness is definitely a very popular style of writing, and one that can be especially difficult to write a gripping hook for.  But, with a wholesome and feel-good story, your goal should be to get to the core of your narrative and draw out the warmest, deepest parts.  What does your story offer to the reader?  Comfort, restored relationships, healing, romance?  If the reader knows the type of wholesome core your story holds, they’re much more likely to pick it up and enjoy.

These are just a few of the rules for crafting a solid hook.  What do you think?  What are some of your rules for writing a hook?


Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Story Snippets: Son of the Shield (Mary)

 I am neck-deep in getting ready to release my epic fantasy novel, Son of the Shield, Book 1 of the Ransom Trilogy, in February, so I thought it would be fun to use that as my story snippet this month! (I wish I could share the cover art with this sample, but it's still in production so for now you'll just have to take my word for it being awesome!)

Son of the Shield features a lot of really intense and heavy scenes, but I decided to feature a more fun, lighthearted one...though I'm sure we can all empathize to some degree with the awkwardness Orienne is feeling. ; )


The sun was sinking in a bath of winter-golden light, casting sharp, crazy shadows through the leafless trees, and a gentle but frigid wind had drawn a thin veil of lacy clouds over the pale sky when Orienne made the walk back up the hill from the village to the fort.

She was bone-weary, but couldn’t remember when she’d last had such a pleasant afternoon. She’d spent the last several hours helping the women of the village fill their wood boxes, feed their animals, clean their barns, and finish a variety of other chores. They’d all thanked her profusely as though she’d made some great sacrifice, but in truth she almost felt as though she’d taken advantage of them, using their moment of need as an opportunity to indulge her own desires.

Their lives were so simple, so enviably perfect—of course not really perfect, as the problem of the Moorden fire and subsequent absence of the village’s men attested—but wasn’t that just the point? The primary problems in these people’s lives were an accidental fire and being short handed for afternoon chores. Not war, not tense diplomatic meetings, not absurd offers of armistice, not assassination attempts.

Just the simple, mundane problems of a simple, mundane life.

By comparison, it was perfect.

Not for the first time, Orienne contemplated resigning from her diplomatic position and leaving the capital for someplace like Sutton Village—Farindel boasted scores of such tiny, remote villages—since waiting for the war to end was proving in vain. But doing so would take her away from Allegar—Allegar, who had first committed himself as a soldier, and now dedicated his entire life to Farindel’s service as one of the Ransom. He was all the family she had left and she was loath to leave him for that reason, but it also felt so unfair, so selfish, to yearn so strongly for a life the war didn’t dictate, when he had accepted that role freely.

And now she was back in the place she had reasoned herself into so many times: that her only chance at a life free from war was to pray and hope for the war to end.

“Orienne, there you are!”

She stopped and pushed back the hood of her cloak as Allegar strode toward her across the fort’s courtyard, grinning.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he said.

“Is anything wrong?”

“Hardly!” He put one arm around her shoulders and gestured with his other hand at a second man coming towards them. “Will you look at what the wind blew through the gates while you were out?”

The approaching man was about Allegar’s age, though not quite as tall, with blond hair, blue-gray eyes, and facial features that were vaguely familiar—more and more familiar, the longer she looked at him. He wore civilian clothes, but the sword and scabbard on his belt were marked with the shield-and-wyvern insignia of the military.

His eyes widened when he looked at her. “Allegar, this cannot be Orienne.”

He knew her—but from where? Orienne wanted to study his face more closely, hoping to locate a memory of him, but was afraid to risk making eye contact lest her eyes betray the awkwardness she felt.

Allegar laughed and squeezed Orienne’s shoulders. “A bit different than last time, eh?”

“A bit?” The man laughed, blinking in disbelief. “That’s putting it mildly.”

Orienne nudged Allegar’s ribcage with her elbow, trying to signal that she had no idea who this person was, but he said nothing, so she did her best to smile politely in spite of the blush she felt crawling up her neck. No doubt her eyes were as pink as her face.

“Please, forgive me for staring—I’m just so taken aback! It is so good to see you again, Orienne!” the stranger said, extending his hand, palm-down.

Orienne rested her hand on top of his a bit uneasily. “Hello,” she said, meeting his eyes only briefly. His smile stirred something in her, something she’d felt before. Why couldn’t she remember his name?

After a moment’s pause, he withdrew his hand and chuckled. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Orienne cringed and forced herself to meet his eyes. “I know your face, but—I am so sorry—I have no name to put with it.”

The stranger glanced at Allegar, one side of his mouth tipped up in a mischievous smile. “Can I tell her now?”

Allegar leaned closer to Orienne and whispered: “Think Harrowby.”

Orienne shuffled through memories of the village where she and Allegar had grown up. Neighbors, relatives, friends… She gasped as the stranger suddenly fell into place among them. “Sorek Ronarres?”

He threw his head back. “Ha! You do remember!”

Remember? Orienne was shocked it had taken her so long to place him. She forced an uncomfortable laugh, trying in vain not to blush even more now that she realized who he was. “I—I can’t believe it, it must be…how many years?”

“Eleven, we figure,” Allegar said.

Eleven years ago Orienne was only twelve. Sorek was a lanky, awkward eighteen-year-old, Allegar’s best friend…and the sole object of Orienne’s girlish infatuation. Now, time had replaced his coltish gangliness with a mature, rugged physique and features. A healthy, well-maintained beard grew where before only thin, straggly wisps had struggled for existence, and his unbridled energy had settled into warm cheerfulness.

“You’ve…changed,” Orienne managed.

I’ve changed?” Sorek laughed. “What about you? You were just a little girl when you two left Harrowby.”

Orienne groaned inwardly, remembering how she’d hung on everything Sorek said, the way her heart had fluttered every time he happened to glance her way…and the entire time she’d been nothing but “a little girl” in his eyes.