Indies First + Our Book-Shopping Recommendations

As many of you may know, tomorrow – the Saturday after Thanksgiving – has been deemed Small Business Saturday, a day to patronize the local businesses that make our communities so special. While there are great reasons to support your local independent bookstore all year round, many authors (including me!) are volunteering as guest booksellers tomorrow to show our support for Indies First.  (You can find out whether there are any special programs in your area here.) All of the members of Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks agree that books make fabulous presents, so we want to recommend some of our favorite titles of 2014 to you — and give a shoutout to our favorite local indies!

I really loved COMPLICIT by Stephanie Kuehn. Jamie and his sister Cate were orphaned as children and adopted by the wealthy Henrys. When they’re teenagers, there’s a suspicious fire and Cate is sent to juvie for it. Jamie develops a weird paralysis in his hands, but it’s under control until Cate gets out of juvie and Jamie starts remembering more and more about the arson that put Cate there and what really happened to their mother. It’s absolutely page-turny and the end is pitch-perfect.

Also, GIRLS LIKE US by Gail Giles. Biddy and Quincy are “speddies” – special education students who’ve graduated from their program and have been assigned an apartment to share and jobs to do. Biddy cleans for Elizabeth, an elderly widow, and Quincy has a job at a grocery store – until a disgruntled co-worker decides to target her. They share the same concerns as all newly-independent young adults; how to get along with a roommate, how to navigate the world, how to build relationships. Biddy and Quincy were beautifully drawn and well-rounded, a perfect example of how to allow characters we don’t see often in fiction to be the stars of their own story.

I’d like to give a shoutout to my local indie bookstore, Third Place Books. It’s a beautiful, welcoming place with knowledgeable, friendly staff and ridiculously good customer service. Love it!

I very much enjoyed reading THE MAGICIAN’S BOOK: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller. ​Like me (and you?), Laura Miller read and reread the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA over and over again as a child, each time coming away with something new. As an adult, convinced that “the first book you fall in love with shapes us every bit as much as the first person we fall in love with,” she goes back into Narnia, and finds that her relationship with the books has yet again changed. I loved reading about C.S. Lewis and his robust walks in the countryside discussing books and religion with his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien. It was a pleasure and a challenge to revisit these most beloved books of my childhood.

And for middle grade readers, RAIN REIGN, by Ann M. Martin, was my favorite book (so far) of 2014. (But my TBR pile is still towering!) Narrator Rose is someone other people–her single father, her classmates, her teacher– find difficult to relate to, or even to like. She’s obsessed with homonyms and prime numbers and rules. When her dog goes missing in a terrible storm, she goes out into the world and leaves behind everything that makes her feel safe. The story is exciting and layered and true-feeling. I learned a lot about what it must feel like to be a child on the Autism Spectrum. I think this is a book that makes a difference for its being in the world.

My local bookstore, Powell’s, is so vast it’s hard to believe it’s an indie. It’s not called Powell’s City of Books for nothing. A landmark, and an experience no visitor to Portland should miss.

Hands down, the best book I’ve read this year is Jandy Nelson’s I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN.  Every once in a while, a book comes along that makes me want to say, “That’s it, I’m quitting now.”  And this is one of them.  Gorgeous writing, awesome imagery and breathtaking emotion, with characters who feel so real you can touch them.

I also loved Donna Cooner’s CAN’T LOOK AWAY, about a girl trying to survive the death of her sister while in the spotlight of Internet notoriety.  A beautiful book that makes you take a closer look at seeking those 15 minutes in the age of social media.

My wonderful local indie is the Avid Reader in Davis, California.  They’ve got an amazing variety of books for any number of interests in a small area, plus a loft for middle grade readers who just want to stick their noses in a book while parents browse.  They host author and book events every month, from picture books to political investigation.

JENNIFER MCGOWAN is on deadline — but isn’t too busy to celebrate her local bookstores!
There are three Indie bookstores in the Cincinnati area that I’d like to give thanks for: Joseph-Beth, in Cincinnati, Ohio is an amazing destination for booklovers, and they do a tremendous amount to give back to the community, including staging Books By The Banks, a literary festival that grows every year. A relative newcomer to Cincinnati is The Booksellers on Fountain Square, who are doing a fabulous job of bringing books back to the thriving downtown area (woot!). And finally, Blue Marble Books in Fort Thomas, KY has been a staunch and enthusiastic supporter of YA fiction locally–just absolutely wonderful people.


My favorite YA was POINTE by Brandy Colbert.  I’m a sucker for anything ballet, and this story does not disappoint.  The main character, Theo, wants to be among the few elite African-American ballet dancers but her past comes back to haunt her.  Her best friend, Donovan, was abducted years ago by a man she considered her boyfriend, and when he suddenly returns, Theo has to decide if she can testify against the kidnapper and maybe damage her budding career.

My hands down favorite was Diana Gabaldon’s long-awaited latest installment to her Outlander series, WRITTEN IN MY OWN HEART’S BLOOD. I got to help Diana a little bit with some chicken info in the story and she thanked me in the acknowledgements, which is basically a dream come true for me!

The last independent bookstore in my area closed earlier in the year, leaving only an assortment of used bookstores, an antiquarian bookstore, and a Barnes & Noble (which has been wonderful to me). There are two indies in Chicago that I love.  One is the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Illinois and the other is Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois.  Both are highly supportive of YA authors and work to bring authors, educators, librarians, and readers together.


I’m woefully behind on keeping up with 2014 releases, but my favorite of the ones I’ve had a chance to read is Heidi Schulz’s entertaining middle-grade adventure, HOOK’S REVENGE. Normally I’m not a huge fan of books written as sequels of sorts to long-gone classic authors’ works, but Schulz created such a delightful, hilarious, heartbreaking heroine in young Jocelyn Hook that I wholeheartedly went along for the adventure.
Thank you to two local indie bookstores who go all out in promoting my books: Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, and Jacobsen’s Books in Hillsboro, OR. Bonus points go to FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA, for hand selling an astounding number of my books, as if I’m a local, even though I haven’t yet gotten a chance to step inside their doors.

My favorite book of the year is Marie Rutkowski’s THE WINNER’S CURSE. I was blown away by this incredible fantasy. The world-building, reminiscent of ancient Rome, is utterly engrossing, but never slows down the pace.  The romance between Kestrel and Arin feels as heartbreakingly impossible as it is swoon-worthy. They are both ruthless when they need to be, and while I wouldn’t call either of them exactly “nice,” they’re fascinating. I can’t wait to read the sequel, THE WINNER’S CRIME!

As for my favorite indie, I can’t pick just one! I’ll be guest bookselling tomorrow at local giant Politics & Prose, which is a gorgeous store and a DC institution which hosts lots of fantastic author events. But I also love One More Page in Arlington, VA, where the booksellers are always ready with a personal recommendation and are incredibly supportive of local authors. They also sell wine and chocolates (and delicious gourmet s’mores)! In recent years, President Obama has visited both stores with his daughters Sasha and Malia!

What about you, dear readers? What’s your favorite bookstore? What books are you giving thanks for this year?


Guest Post: Damascus Swords & Goddess Temples

Note from Jess: Today we’re welcoming Kimberley Griffiths Little to the blog for a guest post about her debut, FORBIDDEN. 

My love of all things ancient and Middle Eastern began more than 15 years ago with a fascination of belly dance. The dance is intriguing, mesmerizing, and mystical – and when I took lessons I was hooked! I even performed – and, as a mother with three teenage sons, that was a little scary. Anciently, girls learned the dance at their mother’s knees, using it for childbirth (early Lamaze!), betrothals, weddings and death.


Reading the history of belly dance led me to the dance’s roots that go back to our Neolithic heritage and the Mother Goddess—sexual fertility rites—culminating in the Goddess temples of Ashtoreth in Mesopotamia.

I was also researching the history of the Arabian horse and published several stories with Cricket magazine—which led me to the Frankincense Trail, Petra (Edomite Lands before it was Nabatean during the Roman Era), Bedouins, camel caravans, and the Empty Quarter.

My imagination began to *stalk* a girl from 1759 BC**, and the story of Jayden began to form, the girl of a poor desert family pressured to marry the prince of her tribe in order to save her family from ruin.

Of course, I had to use a mysterious boy wounded in a caravan raid, who lives in the frankincense lands where people would kill to find the location—because frankincense was worth more than gold.

There’s murder, blackmail, loss, and love, but at its heart FORBIDDEN is the story of a girl trying to stay alive as her family is torn apart. A girl who is trying to keep the promises she made to her mother on her death bed.

**I chose the year 1759 BC because King Hammurabi, eager to expand his Kingdom of Babylon laid siege to the city of Mari that year—and Jayden finds herself in the midst of the city’s turmoil when she goes there to find her missing sister.

Check out FORBIDDEN’S book trailer, which was filmed on location!

A little over a year ago I was traveling down the King’s Highway—the infamous road that was barely a trail thousands of years ago as frankincense caravans followed the ancient water wells.


Jordan is the heart of the Middle East, and once the pearl of the Assyrian Kingdom. It is a land of vast desert sands, punctuated with towering, rugged mountains. The red rock canyons and high cliffs of Petra created an ideal natural fortress for a city on the exotic spice trade route.


The country of Jordan is a mystical, magical place. Truly there were moments when I thought I’d stepped back in time, glimpsing spirits from the past as we explored their ruins and tombs and found shards of pottery, and coins.

Me and my husband wearing the traditional Jordanian keffiyeh in front of The Monastery

Me and my husband wearing the traditional Jordanian keffiyeh in front of The Monastery

I'm sitting on top of this camel having a blast!

I’m sitting on top of this camel having a blast!

The Bedouin people are very friendly – and so are the camels who loved our hands-on attention.  They had a grand time – and  so did I.

The Bedouin people are very friendly – and so are the camels who loved our hands-on attention.
They had a grand time – and so did I.

This is called The Treasury.

This is called The Treasury.


I’d been working on the storyline of FORBIDDEN for nine years by that point, and Petra was a locale I used in a pivotal, very romantic scene.


An adorable Bedu girls who lives at Petra.

An adorable Bedu girls who lives at Petra.

The people of Petra still live in many of the 5,000 caves in the red rock valley. We got an invitation to return three months later for a wedding, invited by the young man who proudly showed us his cave that he’d decorated and prepared for his bride.

The exotic and beautiful women would stop me on the trails to trade their jewelry for whatever lipstick or makeup I had in my purse. One even went so far as to peer into my purse to see what I treasures I might have hidden in the pockets. I ran out of lipstick right away—too bad the rest was back in my hotel room. 🙂

Jewelry I purchased from the darling Bedouin women at Petra. The bottom two pieces are made from camel bone.

Jewelry I purchased from the darling Bedouin women at Petra. The bottom two pieces are made from camel bone.

Author: Kimberley Griffiths Little
Release Date: November 4, 2014 from Harpercollins

Kimberley12In the unforgiving Mesopotamian desert where Jayden’s tribe lives, betrothal celebrations abound, and tonight it is Jayden’s turn to be honored. But while this union with Horeb, the son of her tribe’s leader, will bring a life of riches and restore her family’s position within the tribe, it will come at the price of Jayden’s heart.

Then a shadowy boy from the Southern Lands appears. Handsome and mysterious, Kadesh fills Jayden’s heart with a passion she never knew possible. But with Horeb’s increasingly violent threats haunting Jayden’s every move, she knows she must find a way to escape—or die trying.

With a forbidden romance blossoming in her heart and her family’s survival on the line, Jayden must embark on a deadly journey to save the ones she loves—and find a true love for herself.

Set against the brilliant backdrop of the sprawling desert, the story of Jayden and Kadesh will leave readers absolutely breathless as they defy the odds and risk it all to be together.

About Kimberley Griffiths Little:

kimberley13I grew up in San Francisco, but now live in an adobe house on the banks of the Rio Grande with my chaotic, messy family. I think I’ve drunk so much Land of Enchantment water that some of that ancient magic got into my blood and now spurts out my pencil—I mean ergonomic keyboard. I also tend to make way too many chocolate chip cookies when I’m revising.

I’ve stayed in a haunted castle tower room at Borthwick Castle in Scotland, sailed on the Seine in Paris, walked the beaches of Normandy, ridden a camel in Petra, sunbathed on Waikiki, shopped the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, and spent the night in an old Communist hotel in Bulgaria.

Find Kimberley Online: Webpage / Twitter / Facebook / Pinterest / Tumblr / Youtube

A Week in the Life of Jess

One of our suggested blog prompts was Daily Life for a Writer, but one of the things I find most fascinating (and occasionally frustrating!) is that I don’t have much of a daily routine. I don’t have children yet, and my husband is a playwright and an adjunct theatre professor who mostly works from home, so our schedules are pretty much of our own making. Here’s a sample of how I spent my last week:

– sent a writing friend a present for her book birthday
– packed up swag packs for #YASH winners and other misc packages while listening to First Draft Podcast
– post office trip
– lunch outside at a cafe – veggie chili in the nice fall weather!
– coffee shop to work on reader emails and a blog interview
– pick up prescription at drug store
– metro to friend’s house, hang out with her & her baby for an hour
– go with friend to her mom’s neighborhood book club to discuss SISTERS’ FATE

– went to Chestertown (my undergrad college town, where my husband’s teaching a class this semester)
– had lunch with husband
– visited former college prof that husband is now co-teaching class with!
– walked downtown and strolled around shops
– sat by river & read book for an hour
(What did I do that evening? I forgot to write it down & totally can’t remember…)

– finished reading a book for blurb & sent author & editor the blurb
– caught up on reader email
– read short story revision for PETTICOATS & PISTOLS anthology
– watched a lot of TV (GOTHAM, THE FLASH, THE ORIGINALS)

– taught writing workshop for teens
– did a 10p crit for MCS client
– answered some questions via Goodreads’ Ask an Author function
– studied some author newsletters in prep for doing mine
– emailed about Shut Up & Write Nov event planning
– listened to 2 First Draft podcasts while walking/commuting to class
– read crit ms for an hour 

FRI (semi-sick day)
– read crit ms for 4 hours
– saw a play about Marie Antoinette with husband
(What else did I do?? I didn’t take very good notes…)

SAT  (semi-sick day, sinus cold)
– napped a lot
– created Facebook event for Gettysburg Library visit in Nov
– went to see Tiny House plays (very cool)
– dinner & drinks with friends afterwards
– read for an hour

– made roasted tomato soup
– made butternut squash soup
– cleaned house a bit
– hosted a backyard fall get-together with friends

As you can see, this week was heavy on socializing and writerly miscellaneous. I’d intended to get lots of editing and critiquing done on Fri & Sat but was felled by a pounding sinus headache. In the first half of October I’ve been focused entirely on finishing PETTICOATS & PISTOLS edits for my authors and MCS paid critiques, before I switch back to working on a proposal of my own. When I’m drafting, I aim for 1000-1500 words a day, 5 days a week – and I tend to write a lot in the evenings, so I don’t go out quite as much – so if I posted one of these in two weeks, it might well look ENTIRELY different!

What about you? What does your writing life look like? Does it vary a lot from week to week?

Guest Post: On Accidentally Writing Historical Fiction

Today we’re welcoming debut author Robin Talley to the blog for a guest post! Her powerful debut, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, just released yesterday. Congratulations, Robin!

robinI never set out to write historical fiction. Before LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, everything I’d written ― everything I’d even considered writing ― was set in the here and now. I’d never dreamed I’d write a story that didn’t feature high school hallways full of blue jeans, cell phones, and homework assignments cribbed from Wikipedia.

Then I had an idea I couldn’t shake ― a novel set during the school desegregation movement in Virginia, about a black girl and a white girl who fall in love ― and I realized I had no choice. I’d accidentally become a historical novelist.

In Virginia, my home state, the battle over school desegregation came to a head in early 1959. Up until then, courts had ruled that Virginia schools had to integrate, but the governor and other state officials had been fighting those rulings with everything they had, and schools had remained segregated. In January 1959, though, the courts passed their final ruling, declaring that the all-white Virginia schools that had been barred to black students would have to open their doors.

On February 2, 1959, seventeen black teenagers walked through the doors of six all-white schools in Norfolk, Virginia. The state’s problems with racial conflict and discrimination were by no means over, but it had turned a corner from which there was no going back.

liesMy book, LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, is set in a fictional Virginia town, but it’s drawn from the experiences of those first black students who integrated all-white schools in Virginia and other states across the southern U.S. So I decided my book would open on that same day ― February 2, 1959.

The problem was, I had no idea what it was like to actually be a teenager in that era. I only knew that I couldn’t rely on the nostalgic mythology of teen life in the 1950s ― innocent, wide-eyed kids listening to Buddy Holly and wearing poodle skirts dancing at sock hops during what was supposed to have been a “simpler time.”

The teenagers I was writing about were living on the front lines one of the greatest social upheavals in modern history. They were focused on trying to stay alive. There was nothing “simple” about what was happening to them.

I needed to know what it was like to live in 1959, a time when Jim Crow laws allowed stores and restaurants to ban gay customers, women weren’t allowed to open bank accounts without their husbands’ permission, and being gay was a crime in all 50 states.

So when I started doing research, I knew I needed to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the lawsuits that brought down school segregation. But for my story about the day-to-day lives of two teenage girls to feel authentic, I also needed to know where my characters would’ve hung out after school, who would’ve sat with whom in the school cafeteria, and how a high-school senior going on a first date would’ve styled her hair.

reachSo in addition to reading a lot of research books, memoirs, articles, and oral histories about the historical events of the time, I also watched educational videos from the 1950s about everything from how to handle nuclear war to the importance of good posture. I read teen novels from the era (my favorites included REACH FOR A STAR by Florence Crannell Means, chronicling a girl’s freshman year at Fisk University in Tennessee in 1957, and MR AND MRS BO JO JONES, about a teenage pregnancy in 1963) and teen etiquette guides like Elsie Archer’s LET’S FACE IT: THE GUIDE TO GOOD GROOMING (sample tip: “Acne bumps say you’re growing up”).

I watched some of the big movies from 1959, including Some Like It Hot (which features a fake lesbian kiss that probably shocked me even more than it did audiences at the time) and Imitation of Life (critically panned when it was released, and now considered a classic).

And I spent a lot of time at the library pouring over old yearbooks. Everyone had the exact same haircut, but you could see the skirts get shorter and the knee socks get higher from year to year.

With everything I read or watched, I took all of it with a grain of salt, conscious of the censorship and morality guidelines in that conservative, post-World War II era that restricted what could be shown, said, or even hinted at. And the more I came across the same old values ― girls should be meek and not speak up; it’s the duty of all Americans to fight against Communism; a nuclear family with a stay-at-home mom is the ideal to which we should all aspire ― the more I had to remind myself that not everyone at the time actually believed that. Each time and each culture creates its own persona, but that doesn’t make it real.

the UK edition

the UK edition

By the time I sat down to write LIES WE TELL OURSELVES, I had a lot of opinions, about both the school desegregation movement and American 1950s culture in general. Once I’d begun pouring myself into the story, though, I realized my opinions didn’t really matter. All that mattered was the story I was telling.

The research I’d done had informed every word I wrote, but I wasn’t writing a treatise. I was writing a story about a girl named Sarah and a girl named Linda and what they believed about the time they were living through.

The next book I’m working on is a contemporary, but I hope to write another historical novel someday. I recently wrote a short story set in the late 1960s for the upcoming PETTICOATS AND PISTOLS historical anthology, and it reminded me how much fun it is to learn everything I can about a time and place that’s a part of our collective past. It’s so easy to get sucked in, knowing that all of this stuff really did happen ― even if the characters I’m writing about are people who exist only in my head.

Because there’s a lot to be said for learning about something that shaped who we are today. Even if it starts out as an accident.

Robin Talley grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, writing terrible teen poetry and riding a desegregation bus to the school across town. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at or on Twitter at @robin_talley. And you can add LIES WE TELL OURSELVES on Goodreads here.

Anachronistic Girls (and How Not to Write Them)

Today our topic is historical cliches, and I thought I’d address one that I personally find tricky  – writing anachronistic girls.

Now, of course there have been women throughout history who have yearned for something more than their lots in life, who have wanted more for themselves than their families or societies expected. Of course there have been scientists, queens, athletes, inventors, writers, businesswomen, and artists of all kinds. But there have also been many, many women who were content to be wives and mothers (or perhaps they were not content, but went along with it anyway, because few other options were afforded them). Marriage, motherhood, and housekeeping are, after all, was much of what society has expected for women throughout the ages – and considering all that went (and still goes) into keeping a family fed and clothed and housed and healthy, it’s no small task.

We all want our main characters to stand out, to be special. They are the ones telling the story or at the center of it, driving the action. And there’s great conflict in a character who wants to buck the system – or, in YA lit, diverge from her parents’ comfortable lives. That’s part of growing up, right?

However, there’s a certain problematic shorthand to making a heroine “strong” that involves making her Not Like All the Other Girls. And one easy way to do that is to make her disdain things the other girls like or want – whether it’s an interest in fashion, sewing, watercolors, piano, or other ladylike pursuits of the era or the pursuit of marriage and family.

I have to admit, it’s a trap I fell into somewhat with my heroine in the Cahill Witch Chronicles. Cate Cahill grew up climbing trees with the boy next door and loves gardening. She disdains dresses and small talk and being indoors and judges the girls who care about fashion as empty-headed fools. But it was important to me that she learn they aren’t cabbageheads – that several of them are using these expectations to hide how powerful and clever they are in plain sight. They wind up becoming some of her best friends. It was also important to me that even as Cate discovers a vocation of sorts in her healing magic, what she wants more than anything is marriage and a family of her own with the man she loves. I think that’s true to the time and world she grew up in.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to figure this out when I’m building new characters (as I am now for a short story set in 1820s New Orleans):

  • How did my heroine’s society shape her?
  • What do her parents and peers expect from her?
  • How do these expectations fit (or not) with her personality, both her strengths and flaws?
  • If she’s bucking expectations in some way, is it realistic that she would cast them off without any qualms, or does it trouble her sometimes?
  • What are the consequences for wanting to follow her own path?
  • Are there other beliefs she still holds that are more traditional? Is there a tension there? How to do these beliefs come into conflict with each other?

I hope this helps!