The Reading Writer

Writer of the steamy romance series, Stockholm Diaries. 

I'm also a former English teacher, so when I read, I look for what makes books work.

New Cover, Giveaway

On my Facebook page, I asked viewers to compare covers for Stockholm Diaries, Melanie and give feedback and... almost everyone preferred the new one!


So the new cover is up and running, and to get the word out, I'm running an Amazon Giveaway for it.


May the odds be in your favor!


Romancing the Jock - Today!

Today I'm on the sports romance blog, Romancing the Jock, talking about team loyalties. Check it out and discover lots of other great sports romance writers there, too!

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey (and a little about Outlander #2)

Kushiel's Dart - Jacqueline Carey Dragonfly in Amber - Diana Gabaldon

About a half of a year ago or so, my neighbor and I bonded over books. She is a fantasy reader who has been exploring romance, and I am a romance reader dabbling in fantasy, so both of us have broadened our reading horizons in this budding friendship.


Our discussions have also gotten me to think more about genre and genre expectations, both as a reader and a writer.


In the thick of one book discussion around the Outlander series, in which I was debating about reading Book #2, she loaned me both Dragonfly in Amber and Kushiel’s Dart, the latter with the caveat, “I wouldn’t give this to everyone. There’s a lot about sex that’s… well, you’ll see.”


Of course, I was intrigued.


What surprised me was how much these two books are alike in their pacing, tone and plot approach, especially considering the fact that the Outlander series is often categorized as romance, while Kushiel’s Dart is (high) fantasy. Both books defy their genre expectations, and neither fit neatly anywhere. The best way to categorize the main plot of both these books is “adventure,” though relationships and romance are essential to both of these. However, neither book puts romance at the center of the story.


Most people are familiar with the premise of Outlander by now due to the TV series: A young married nurse from the 1940s is unexpectedly transported back to the 1700s and sucked into the world of Scottish clans. By the time she has the possibility to leave, she is married (again) and in love. I think Kushiel’s Dart is less well-known… though this may depend on the book circles you run in.


Jacqueline Carey’s debut book became a long series about a fantasy world loosely built in Europe. Our heroine Phédre’s home, Terre d’Ange, is ruled by this premise: Love as thou wilt. Phédre is a courtesan with a rare twist: she experience pain and pleasure as one. But she is also trained as a private spy. As the object of desire of some of the most dangerous members of the aristocracy, she uncovers a plot that may destroy her home, and she is in the unique position to stop it.


Here are the basic similarities I see between Dragonfly in Amber and Kushiel’s Dart: Both these stories feature women who hold subtle power over large-scale events, and both women fall in love with men who are devoted to protecting them, wherever the adventure takes them.


As a writer, what I learned from reading these two books, back to back,was this: regardless of genre placement, I am attracted to certain elements in a story. Specifically, I like romance, especially the ups and downs of growing closer to someone both physically and emotionally. I thought both these books were fun, engaging stories, but I wish the romance featured a little more prominently. This is true of Dragonfly in Amber, often classified as romance, but it was also true of Kushiel’s Dart, despite the fact that its genre (high fantasy) only implies romance of the very… shall we say male-oriented kind.


On the other hand, what I liked about both these books is what I think is missing from too many romance books: Compelling plots. Plots strong enough to stand on their own but, at the same time, woven into the relationship. I loved that both couples were on adventures together, and their relationships grew as they overcame hurdles together.


That’s what I want as a reader, and that’s what I’d like to do as a writer! I want stories that weave compelling external events and relationship growth together. I’m looking for more books that have this balance. Any suggestions?

Amazon Giveaway: Stockholm Diaries, Melanie

Stockholm Diaries, Melanie (Stockholm Diaries, #3) - Rebecca  Hunter

Click on this link to enter my first Amazon giveaway! The prize: One of four paperback copies of Stockholm Diaries, Melanie.


I'm at the beginning of my writing career, so mostly I'm just focusing on writing good books and getting some solid reviews. But I've also started testing some promotional tools for writers, mostly to see what they do. After hearing from other authors about their experiences with Amazon giveaways, I decided to try out my own.


The offer is similar to that of a Goodreads giveaway, where an entrant can win a paper copy of a book (no ebooks, the way Booklikes and LibraryThing allow), but I have a feeling that the audience is different. First, Amazon limits giveaways to US residents, and second, I'm not sure if typical entrants are actual readers or simply collectors of free things (I'm assuming Goodreads, Booklikes and LibraryThing are populated predominately by readers:).


I'm pretty sure Amazon publicizes their giveaways, but I'm unclear how. Any insight is welcome:) 

Looking Back: 2015 in Reading

— feeling happy

Some highlights from my 2015 reading (not necessarily published in 2015):


  • Best contemporary romance: Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas

  • Best paranormal romance (a category I didn’t even know I liked!): Slave to Sensation by Nalini Singh

  • Best erotic romance: Willing Victim by Cara McKenna

  • Best historical fiction: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

  • Best angsty, dark, don’t-want-to-even-admit-I’m-reading-this-stuff romance: Ruin and Rule by Pepper Winters

  • Best literary fiction: Euphoria by Lily King

  • Biggest disappointment: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  • Biggest surprise (a.k.a. Harlequin romance I actually liked... though I admit I haven’t read many):Texas Fire by Kimberly Raye

  • Book that’s still sitting on my shelf that I can’t get myself to pick up: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

In 2015, I think I read a record number of books. Definitely over 100, maybe even close to 200.

How did I manage that? It was certainly not because I had a lot of leisure time on my hands. In addition to three book/story releases, I works as a editor and translator, and I also have a family that likes my attention. It’s true that many domestic tasks could have used more attention, but that’s never been my strong suit.


Here are a few guesses as to why I read more this year than in other year in memory:

  1. 1. I worked on cutting out aimless Internet time. It’s still a work in progress—sometime I still find myself in the middle of some article about getting your kids to be more grateful thinking ‘why am I reading this?’—but each time I find myself there, I tried to ask myself this question: Would I rather read this article, or would I rather read a novel? Usually, the novel wins.

  2. 2. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about spending my time "pleasure" reading. As a former English teacher, I can’t help but read with a critical eye, so every book is a mixture of pleasure reading and learning. If Stephan King says it’s what writers should be doing every day, who am I to argue?

  3. 3. I’m reading what I’m in the mood for, not what I think I should be reading. My editing jobs tend to be dense academic books, the kind offered in graduate courses. After working on one of these, for a few hours, I find myself craving genre fiction—where the author take more responsibility for entertaining the reader (as opposed to literary fiction, where the reader is expected to work harder to meet the book).

  4. 4. I’m (mostly) TV-free. Not entirely. I watch things with my husband or family to be with them, but my first choice of entertainment is reading.


2016 had begun. What should I read this year? What do you recommend, romance or otherwise?

Grey by EL James

Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian - E.L. James

Yep, I’m writing about it. Why? I decided that I—a student of what makes romance stories work—couldn't ignore a book that so clearly works for so many readers.


But I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to put my money behind the book, so I check it out from the library. Note: I waited on long ebook hold list in my intellectually minded little Northern California library system, again attesting to the popularity of Ana and Christian’s story.


I’ll stay away from whether or not I liked the book and instead focus on the appeal of this book as I look at how the book works.


The general topic of the whole Fifty Shades series stirs up plenty of strong feelings among readers and even non-readers(!). It’s a book many writers love to hate, even romance writers, and in part I think this comes from the fact that there are books that do a much better job of what I’ll call dark romance.


Why did this book make such a stir? The writing isn’t stellar, the main character’s attraction to a sadist isn’t so believable… the list goes on. But aren’t these the kind of complaints that people use to dismiss the entire romance genre? Its popularity speaks for its merits. The fact that people like this book despite its glaring problems makes it all the more worthy of attention and study.


Still, with the newest installment in the saga, Grey, one could argue that Fifty Shades fans will buy this next book simply out of curiosity. It’s the popularity of next book in the series that we should watch—once readers get a sense of Christian’s perspective, do they want more? I think they might. Let’s look at why.


I’ll make a quick list of three things that I think make the Fifty Shades trilogy work:

1.)    If the last Twilight book tested out the New Adult voice in romance, Fifty Shades marked the true beginning of New Adult romance as a genre. At the time, Ana’s voice was unique.

2.)    Ana reacts with as much distaste to Christians sadistic tendencies as readers might (though she likes his dominant tendencies a lot). But she moves forward in the relationship anyway. We foresee each step/problem coming but can’t trust either Ana or Christian to make a “sensible” choice. James creates a lot of plot tension this way.

3.)    Christian is a rigid man who gradually lets down his guard and changes what Ana sees as his untenable parts, all for love. It is Ana who “saves” him from his darkest parts. James creates a lot of intrigue around Christian’s psychology and background.


Of these factors, only the third remains for Grey. Ana doesn’t narrate the book, and Christian’s voice isn’t unique in the 2015 romance scene. The plot tension is gone, too—we know exactly what will happen, what will cause friction in the relationship, what Ana will leave him for… everything.


So the book Grey rides solely on our interest in Christian’s psychology and the pieces of his background that haven’t been filled in yet. This is an interesting challenge for James. Putting aside my feelings about James’s line-by-line writing, it takes some skill to keep story tension/reader interest when we already know exactly what will happen, blow by blow.


The romance genre is for women, by women, and about women getting what they want, so this book’s popularity suggests Ana—and readers—are getting something they want. No, I’m pretty sure most women do NOT want a sadistic relationship with a man. The appeals of this book are other, and I’ll distill one: A man is forced to choose between a woman he loves and his “negative” parts he feels are fundamental to him. He keeps choosing the woman, even while he doesn’t know if he’s capable of taking the next step in this step.


Just like Ana in Fifty Shades, Christian discovers himself as he goes through the relationship. Being with Ana forces him to confront his past and his present way of handling it, and the process is difficult and—yes—intriguing for those who were intrigued enough to read through the other three books. The book Grey is essentially Christian’s struggle to come to terms with himself, all for a relationship with Ana, and I think it works. It adds another layer of understanding for Christian—nothing revolutionary but enough to keep fans reading.


The appeal of this book—a man deciding to change himself for love—got me thinking: How many romances are based on this premise? Is this one of the fundamental appeals of the genre? Hmm…

Booklikes experimentation!

Stockholm Diaries, Melanie (Stockholm Diaries, #3) - Rebecca  Hunter

I'm a new bookliker, and I've been playing around with its features... including giveaways. My first Giveaway is complete, and I'm really excited to hear what the readers think!


It's been fun poking around on this site, especially since it seems relatively new and unexplored. While Goodreads is more book-centered, this site focuses on the individual readers/reviewers. Since each reader/reviewer gets his or her own blog for reviewing books, I can see how many books I have in common with different reader/bloggers... and find people who share a taste in books with me?


In other words, it seems like a good place for readers to interact with each other.





Willing Victim

Willing Victim - Cara McKenna Right now MMA/underground fighter heroes are trending in New Adult and steamy contemporary romance, but McKenna’s book was (traditionally) published in 2010, which means it was written in 2008/9… a while ago, long before the trend. It’s gritty with lots of sex, and it is so much better that anything else I’ve seen in this sub-genre. It works in a way that romance—and especially steamy romance—often doesn’t.

First, the characters are interesting and complex. The plot is a woman’s erotic exploration of sexual interest she doesn’t fully understand. Both characters come to the budding relationship with their own reasons for this interest, and they are both wary of the exploration for good reason. Our hero Flynn has already come to terms with his connection of masochism and sex, but he moves beyond this connection and into more vulnerable territory as the story goes on. Laurel also finds it easier to explore her sexual interests, but the emotional side is much more rocky.

Second, the book steers clear of so many clichés of the ups and downs of romance. This isn’t a roller coaster of drama. The characters have no major fall-outs, and almost the entire plot revolves around two settings: Flynn’s fight club locale and his apartment. What keeps us reading (aside from steamy sex) is the emotional progression. The overall dark tone doesn’t drag the book down because the characters are funny and insightful, and each conversation reveals new information about their past and their vulnerabilities. Their humor is dry and witty all the way through. What Laurel flops back on Flynn’s bed and says, “You’re still by far the best lay of my life,” Flynn thrust a victory fist in the air.

If you’ve been reading any of the trending New Adult titles, I’d take a break from the Amazon top list and explore this book instead.

Stockholm Diaries, Melanie (Stockholm Diaries, #3)

Stockholm Diaries, Melanie (Stockholm Diaries, #3) - Rebecca  Hunter This is book #3 in the Stockholm Diaries series (#2 will be Caroline's second book, coming out in 2016), and it takes place on a small, rather isolated island out in the Stockholm archipelago. Sweden has a strong summer cabin culture, and the archipelagos are filled with tiny, rustic retreats where residents spend their July vacations.

Melanie's stuggles with island life are real - getting food or anything else out to the islands is a project that takes some planning, and her lack of a motor boat makes independent living much more complicated.

But Melanie's story is also about looking into the past. Long ago, I read A.S. Byatt's Possession and loved it, and this book was partly inspired by the same exploration of private documents, though Stockholm Diaries, Melanie is certainly a much steamier and less literary version of this plot!

I hope you enjoy this new twist on Stockholm romance.


Spin - C.D. Reiss Gritty, dark, sexy and a little disturbing - all of these could be said about CD Reiss's Corruption Series. Rich society girl Therese, just on the heels of the scandal of her fiance's very pubic infidelity, meets the very guy she shouldn't pursue: Antonio, mafia capo and all-around dangerous guy... dangerous, as in people from all angles are trying to get rid of him in one way or another. But of course, he's hot and much better in bed than her previous boyfriend, but it's not just that. Stepping into Antonio's life, where death is a real possibility, is exhilarating.

But you're in no danger of spoilers in this post; I actually don't know how Therese and Antonio's story ends.

I read two of three of the books and then quit, but this was mostly out of personal preference: the stakes of the drama had spiraled a little too high for my taste. I've written about this problem in serials before: to keep the momentum, the plots often take wilder and wilder twists that push my own limits for the suspension of disbelief. But that's just me - serials are wildly popular right now, suggesting that I'm in the minority.

Spin is genre fiction, but Reiss uses some of the sparsity and aversion to cliche of literary fiction to make the reader meet the characters half way, much like good mysteries do. As someone who had spent most of her life reading literary fiction, I love to see this in romance. Especially when the book is making it to the top of Amazon lists.

The Spymaster's Lady

The Spymaster's Lady - Joanna Bourne Good historical romances always feel like guilty pleasures for me - overindulgent but ultimately satisfying. The Spymaster's Lady is no exception, and you don't have to look any further than the cover for a hint at what I mean:) But in a refreshing twist, though the plot is filled with melodrama, the characters themselves are rather understated for romance.

The book places the classic spy vs. spy love trope in the time of Napoleonic France. Annique and Grey find each other in a French prison and form a fragile bond just long enough to escape together. But the bond doesn't last long: Grey lures this famous French spy into English hands, and he plans to take her back with him. But, of course, a relationship ensues, testing the loyalties of both Annique and Grey. Can a spy truly trust the motivations of another spy, no matter how close the relationship feels? Bourne explores this question well. The narrative drags as we follow the intricacies of both the English and French Secret Services, but (plug your ears, Ms. Bourne) I think the story still works if you skim some of these parts:)

Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures - Margaret Stohl, Kami Garcia I'm surprised to see all the negative reviews - I thought this was a fun read, though my experience with YA paranormal romance is limited to Twilight and this. If much better books in the genre exist, please let me know!

The book has a lot going for it, most notably Ethan, a fun narrator with great commentary on small-town Southern life. I found the magical world and the mystery surrounding the history that ties the two characters together engaging.

But the critics of this book are right, too - the book drags in places, which is interesting, considering the fact that this book is rumored to have been in edits for years.

Also, it broke an implicit rule in magical plots: an author can't solve the story's climax by simply throwing in new, previously unmentioned aspects of the magical world. I don't want to feel the author's hand, steering the plot. Toward the end, I felt a little cheated, like I didn't know the rules of the magical game, so I started caring less... and then the resolution was a disappointment.

Still, overall, I found the book an entertaining read!

The Name of This Book Is Secret

The Name of This Book Is Secret - Pseudonymous Bosch, Gilbert Ford The name of this book is well-crafted fun. I finished reading it aloud to my two, elementary-aged kids, and I think I enjoyed the ride just as much as they did. If you're a parent, I'd highly recommend this approach.

The mystery was just dark enough to create intrigue but light enough to remain firmly in kid territory. There was humor for all ages, along with a very intrusive narrator that pulled us out of the story to give us reading instructions and dissect the mystery genre.

We stopped reading along the way to discuss vocabulary ("dour is like sour, but sour is a taste, and dour is how someone looks"), explain adult jokes, discuss what usually happens in mysteries and make predictions. And as Harry Potter superfans, the kids were thrilled when the Philosopher's Stone was thrown into the mix, too.

All together, this was a perfect family read.

Stockholm Diaries, Melanie

Stockholm Diaries, Melanie - Rebecca Hunter This is book #3 in the Stockholm Diaries series (#2 will be Caroline's second book, coming out in 2016), and it takes place on a small, rather isolated island out in the Stockholm archipelago. Sweden has a strong summer cabin culture, and the archipelagos are filled with tiny, rustic retreats where residents spend their July vacations.

Melanie's stuggles with island life are real - getting food or anything else out to the islands is a project that takes some planning, and her lack of a motor boat makes independent living much more complicated.

But Melanie's story is also about looking into the past. Long ago, I read A.S. Byatt's Possession and loved it, and this book was partly inspired by the same exploration of private documents, though Stockholm Diaries, Melanie is certainly a much steamier and less literary version of this plot!

I hope you enjoy this new twist on Stockholm romance.


Depravity - M.J. Haag I’ll skip the summary, assuming you know the basics as well as I do. This particular retelling takes place sometime long in the past, probably in England. Benella lives in a rather poor house with her father and two, self-involved sisters. Life is tough, and both starvation and abuse (particularly rape). Benella witnesses enough to know she’s better off avoiding men all together. But they don’t avoid her, and she is thrust at the beast’s mercy. He seeks her out for reasons of his own, and she keep coming back, first out of obligation, and later, because she wants to.

Though Benella remains a fairly innocent character, the world she lives in is hardly innocent. It’s rough and gritty, and women are at the mercy of men. For those with a low tolerance for this kind of scenario, skip this book. But I think the author uses the grittiness of this world well in Benella’s own internal conflict between what she has witnessed and her growing feelings toward the beast.

Fairytale retellings hold a special challenge as well as an advantage. First, the challenge: We all know what’s going to happen, not just in the end but along the way as well. This ups the stakes for the writer: she (in this case) needs to keep us engaged while staying within strict character and plot parameters. Plot tension without using large-scale surprises. If we’re bored, we can easily put the book down, with full knowledge of what will happen.

But if a writer can master the challenge, there’s a built-in advantage to the fairy tale-turned-serial. Each book doesn’t have to leave off at high-stakes cliffhangers, since we already know what to anticipate in the next installment. In other words, a fairytale retelling, when done well, is the perfect material for a serial. The author didn’t have to work to keep my attention; I was invested enough at the start to read the series through.

Led Astray

Led Astray - Sandra Brown I've been known in recent writing to defend the romance genre against its label as anti-feminist. But this book gave me pause.

The plot progression is of average creativity and entertainment value except for in a few, extremely jarring and disturbing spots, which I'm guessing would ruin the story for today's reader. It certainly did for me.

The first is more minor, though it's still a non-starter for me: The hero jokingly calls the heroine a bitch. Specifically, he's offering to hire her to work in his office, and the conversation goes like this:
"'How much would you pay me?'"
"His face broke into a strong grin. 'Mercenary little bitch, aren't you?'"
Because, you know, it's really romantic to hear a guy call you bitch if you ask about work salary, isn't it?

But this is very minor compared to the second non-starter: He begins to rape Jenny. Twice. Then he stops himself. Here's their conversation after the second attempt, starting with Cage:
"'I'm sorry.'"
"'I know.' She touched his hair, smoothing it back from his forehead, but the wind immediately whisked it from her fingers."
"'How could I have--'"
"'It doesn't matter, Cage.'"
The conversation continues, with Jenny comforting him about his parents' earlier slight of him and a discussion of his problems and her previous relationship. The scene ends with a chaste kiss.


Actually, I'm surprised Harlequin re-released this book. This book is one of many from the 80s that turned a generation of readers away from romance. So why re-release it? Yes, Sandra Brown is a big name these days, and I can understand the temptation to cash in on name recognition and sell books. But I think glossed-over rape attempts in a cozy, small-town romance cross one of the very few lines for today's romance sensibilities: consent. Even the few romances that tackle dubious consent treat the topic with a degree of gravity that this book misses, and we readers are often warned about the content before we open the first page with words like "taboo" in the sub-title and dark covers.

But this book's cover gives no hint at its "romantic" treatment of rape attempts.

Contemporary, by definition, reflects the sensibilities of romance at the time the book is written, unlike other romance genres, which either use the sensibilities of the time (historical) or create another set of rules for the world of the book (paranormal, for example). This book clearly illustrates that sensibilities change dramatically, making it difficult to write a contemporary romance that holds up over time.

In this case, it's a good thing sensibilities have changed. And this book should have been allowed to fade into the past, along with the other relics from the 80s.

At least you've been warned now.