Reading Recommendations, Giveaways, and…Sssshhhh, It’s a Secret!

With the coming New Year, as we say in Russian! I hope 2019 brings whatever it needs to bring for all of us.

I’ve been doing a reasonable amount of reading over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d share some recommendations of books and authors that are not super well-known, and therefore may not be on your radar.

But first, speaking of finding new books, a reminder that this is the last week to check out the Historical Fantasy and Fiction Giveaway and the It’s EPIC (Fantasy) Giveaway. If you haven’t browsed their selection of dozens of free fantasy books yet, now is the time!

Going through these giveaways is a bit like digging through the bargain pile at a used book store, or the free books on the tables outside of libraries. It can take some hunting to find what it is you personally want, but chances are good you’ll come up with something good if you look long enough. So here are some books I’ve found in the past couple of years of sifting through free giveaways.

The Midnight Sea

Kat Ross’s The Fourth Element trilogy, and its continuation The Fourth Talisman series, is an exciting and vividly drawn epic fantasy series set in a magical version of ancient Persia and Greece. And it features some dangerously ass-kicking heroines, which is always a plus. The first book in the entire series, The Midnight Sea, is perma-free.

Tardy Bells

Sarina Dorie’s Tardy Bells and Witches’ Spells is the first book in a series that combines cozy mystery, a hidden Harry Potter-ish magical school world, romance, and goofy humor. It’s free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

The Redemption of Erath

The Redemption of Erath: Consolation starts a series of dark, atmospheric fantasy that is strongly reminiscent of aspects of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. It’s currently $0.99 on Kindle.

The Valkyrie

Deborah L. Davitt’s The Valkyrie begins The Saga of Edda-Earth, a riveting and extremely epic fantasy trilogy set in an alternate world in which magic is real and Rome never fell. It follows a Valkyrie who serves in the Praetorium Guard and may have to save the world. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited.

And…now for the secret! In my copious spare time I have started a mystery/suspense series under another pen name. I’m keeping it semi-secret because, well, some aspects of it are awfully true to life (others are not). There’s no element of fantasy in it, but it is full of Russian! I’m including an excerpt below, and if you want to sign up for my mystery mailing list, you can do so here. I should have ARCs ready of the first book within the next few days, and, if all goes according to plan, the next book will be ready sometime in the spring. In related news, I’ll probably start posting about fantasy on a biweekly rather than weekly schedule soon, so that I can alternate between my fantasy and my suspense posting.


They say knowledge is power. Those people must never have gotten a Ph.D.

Case in point: the way I sidled into the room my first day at my first job. If my power corresponded to my knowledge, I would have stridden in like a conquering hero. But my knowledge of the sigmatic aorist or the Onegin stanza only seemed to weigh me down as I slithered into the faculty meeting room, smiling like a meek little idiot and wishing everyone would stop staring at me.

“You must be our new Russianist. Rowena Halley, right?” The speaker was a big bear-like man, a rarity in a foreign language department, where the faculty tended to be mainly female and inclined to the childish or the wizened. His joviality, though, had the manic edge common in academics, honed through decades of politically correct bullying into a weapon capable of inducing suicidal depression in everyone who encountered it.


“They say you’re from Georgia.”

Now everyone was staring at me, like they’d never seen anyone from Georgia before. Which was all too possibly true.

“Originally,” I said.

The all-white group did a collective grimace as they bit down on their reflexive desire to berate me about racism and segregation. No doubt it was coming.

“But I did my Ph.D. in Indiana,” I continued, triggering another collective grimace at the mere thought of the Midwest.

“Indiana…” said the bear-like man. “That must have been…different. Was it the first time you saw snow?”

“I lived for several years in Moscow. So no.”

“Moscow! I bet you have lots of opinions about Putin!”

There was a chorus of titters.

“Is what they’re saying about police harassment true?” continued the bear-like man, his eyes avid. “It must not be safe to be an American there these days, is it?”

“It’s at least as safe as it is here in New Jersey,” I said, and sat down on the one remaining empty chair, between a woman who was vaguely familiar to me from my Skype interview for the position, and the only man in the room other than John Greene. The woman was wearing chunky gold earrings and a thick necklace that hinted enough at Central America to leave her open to accusations of cultural appropriation, so even though I couldn’t remember her name, I was guessing she was from the Spanish program. The man was slender and had bristly dark-blond hair and dark-blond stubble covering his face and looked like he hadn’t yet turned thirty.

“Good to see you again, Rowena,” whispered the woman, but didn’t remind me of her name. The man gave me a sideways flicker from his eyes, and then went back to looking straight ahead, stony-faced. His left leg, though, was quivering slightly under the table, hidden from everyone except me, as if he could barely contain his pent-up energy and desire to be out of this room.

There was an awkward silence, and then printed agendas were handed around and the meeting broke out, starting with pointed introductions to the one newcomer—me.

The bear-like man was John Greene, Associate Professor of Spanish and chair of the Department of Modern Languages. Of the other fifteen faculty members there, eight also taught Spanish, and three taught French. The Spanish instructors kept inserting bits of Spanish into their speech, some with better accents than others—John Greene’s was particularly shaky—causing the French instructors to laugh sycophantically and nod to show that they, too, spoke a Romance language.

Aside from the Romance contingent, there was one German instructor, one Chinese instructor, one Arabic instructor (the man sitting next to me), and me. We all sat in nervous silence as the Spanish contingent discussed business that had nothing to do with us and swapped in-jokes, with John Greene occasionally making little digs at Georgia until he got caught up in an argument over something that everyone kept referring to as “C. Diff.”

“Why is everyone talking about c. diff?” I whispered to the woman sitting next to me. “Was there an outbreak of diarrhea here last semester?”

She gave me a weird look, but got distracted by the argument over whether or not the Department of Modern Languages was adequately supporting C. Diff’s mission.

“It’s the Committee for Diversity, Inclusiveness, and Fairness,” the man to my right whispered, bending close enough that I could feel his stubble brush my ear. “C-D-I-F. It’s a student-faculty collaborative, interdisciplinary initiative to increase the presence of under-represented minorities and engage in town-and-gown outreach in order to encourage local members of the community, especially potential first-generation college students, to apply to TLASC.” He delivered the words in an inflectionless whisper, but when he broke away, his whole body was now quivering, I assumed with suppressed laughter.

Meanwhile, an argument had broken out between a Spanish and a French instructor over item three on the agenda, the cross-listing of survey literature courses with tempting titles such as “French Neoclassicism: An Introduction” as comparative literature, or CLIT (pronounced See-Lit), classes.

I looked down at the agenda to confirm my suspicions of the spelling of the course identifier, and then sideways at the woman sitting to my left, but she sat there impassively. If she had ever found it amusing to teach classes labeled CLIT 101, those days had long since passed. The man to my right was running his hand over his face, maybe from tiredness, maybe because his stubble itched, or maybe from the desperate need to keep from exploding with mirth. I fought the urge to ask if Introduction to Differential Equations was labeled DICQ 101 on the course bulletin, and narrowly won.

The argument was settled in favor of foreign language instructors teaching courses cross-listed as CLIT 101 as they apparently always had in the past, but with a motion to request that the courses be listed as FORL first and CLIT second, instead of the other way around, as they currently were.

“After the latest curriculum survey they’re obviously planning to reduce the foreign language courses as much as possible, maybe phase out the requirement altogether!” said the French instructor who had been arguing in favor of getting the courses listed as FORL first and CLIT second. “We need to remind them that we’re still here!”

“Which is why we want to get in on the CLIT listings!” cried the Spanish instructor who had been arguing against her. “Raise our visibility!”

“I’ve heard they’re thinking of cutting the CLIT program entirely,” put in a third person, a bird-like woman whose tiny stature was balanced out by a large mane of wispy, hay-like hair that appeared to have last been brushed sometime back in the Bush administration. The first Bush administration. I couldn’t remember her name or what she taught, but odds were it was Spanish.

There was a vociferous outcry against the perfidy of budget cuts aimed at foreign language programs, which united the room long enough for us to move on to the next item on the agenda: the promotion of our LCTL (pronounced “Lictle”) program.

“Now, I know you haven’t been here long, Rowena, if I may—you don’t mind if I call you Rowena, do you? I know how touchy some new PhDs can be, especially young women, about being called by their first names—of course you have to stand up for yourselves, I understand that, and in the classroom you should, but here we’re all not just colleagues, but friends—but you must have talked about growing our LCTL program during your interview? In fact, that’s part of why we hired you, isn’t it?—because you had some really good ideas for outreach and development for our LCTLs, which is something we really want to do; the Provost has named it a priority, and anything the Provost wants that might raise the profile of foreign languages on campus, well, we want to get behind that, and it’s always so exciting to bring in promising young scholars, even from places like Indiana; I mean, maybe you have some great ideas you’ve gotten there that you can share with us”—there was a reflexive giggle from a number of my new colleagues at the thought of great ideas coming from Indiana—“and so, why don’t you and I, Rowena, meet after this to talk about some of those ideas, just the two of us, to really hammer out some plans?”

John Greene fixed me with a bright stare at the end of his speech. I smiled weakly back. Before I could say anything, we had moved on to item five, the cut in the office supplies budget and how this would force us to act in a more environmentally responsible manner by not printing out so many handouts (the man to my right looked down at the printed-out meeting agenda, caught my eye, and then looked swiftly away, rubbing his hand over his face once again) and then briskly to item six, student mental health reporting.

“After what happened last semester”—there was a pregnant pause, during which everyone, even John Greene, appeared to shrink a little in their seats—“the Office of Student Wellness has instituted a new protocol for notifying them and the authorities of students who appear to be a danger to themselves or others. There was some question over whether the new mandatory reporting rules violated FERPA, but it was decided last week that they are in fact FERPA-compliant, so everyone will need to do the online training seminar prior to the start of classes, which I don’t need to remind you is in two days’ time. Rowena, you’ll have to do your regular FERPA, Title IX, and Health and Safety training at the same time. It’s all online; shouldn’t take more than an hour or two, but it has to be done before classes start or we could be facing a potential lawsuit.”

Now John Greene did wait for me to promise that yes, I would complete the FERPA, Title IX, Health and Safety, and Student Wellbeing training within the next 48 hours.

There was some grousing about more mandatory online training, and a little tiff between two Spanish instructors, but no further explanation of what had happened last semester, and with that, my first faculty meeting as a real professor was over.



My super-secret suspense mailing list!

It’s EPIC (Fantasy) Giveaway

Historical Fantasy and Fiction Giveaway

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