Friday, June 21, 2019

The Artist's Way Program: Week 1


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 1, Recovering a Sense of Safety

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Each week has a particular theme (although I would argue the themes are mostly arbitrary; every week is about self-reflecting on your creativity). Our first week focuses on “recovering a sense of safety.” Cameron starts each week with a short chapter written around the week’s theme, followed up by some relevant assignments.

Week 1’s chapter talks a lot about common experiences that shut down creativity: early parental criticism or concern, negative feedback from others (friends, classmates, co-workers, strangers), our own self-doubt. Throughout this program, Cameron makes the convincing point that our society perpetrates a perception that people either are or are not artists. And if you want to be creative but have been told you are not an artist, that’s difficult to overcome.

Along these lines, Cameron discusses and lists some common “core negative beliefs” about what will happen if we indulge our creative selves. These include: “I will hurt my family and friends,” “I will do bad work and not know it and look like a fool,” and “It’s too late.” As a means of investigating our own core negative beliefs, Cameron asks that you pick an affirmation for yourself (such as “I am a talented painter”; whatever you want and don’t overthink it). Write down this affirmation ten times. Now for most people, myself included, writing an affirmation triggers your inner critic. Some part of your brain responds with, “No, you’re not. You don’t spend enough time at it. You never studied art in school. Your work is too derivative.” Cameron calls these negative responses to an affirmation “blurts.” Write down your blurts, too, and, as the final step, craft each of those blurts into a new affirmation. “I don’t paint enough” can become “I need only paint if and when I want to.” You will read these affirmations to yourself at the start of each day. If any additional “blurts” come up, write them down and add new affirmations to the list. As for my own experience, I have never worked with affirmations before. Truth be told, I considered them the kind of cheesy, over-indulgent positivity that clashes with my cynical, intellectual side. Having actually tried them now, I want to change my answer. The affirmations empowered me far more than I expected, and I also realized my own flawed logic in treating my creativity and intellect as warring opponents.

Week 1 also introduces two tasks that will be with us throughout the program and, Cameron bets you, even longer: morning pages and artist dates. For morning pages, you start every day by writing three handwritten pages of whatever: anything that’s on your mind from mundane errand lists to a bigger conflict to creative inspirations. Do not overthink nor judge your pages; do not reread them or share them with anyone else. For the artist date, once a week you set aside about two hours for “creative exploration.” The idea is to do something, alone (the date is between yourself and your own creativity), that intrigues you, ideally something you normally don’t make time for, perhaps even a “time waster.”

I didn’t find the morning pages that helpful. I’ve never been someone who journals. I’ve tried multiple times, mostly at the urging of other writers, but I always end up irritated at the pettiness of my own thoughts, resenting that they’re now preserved in paper and ink, and tossing the whole journal. Also I already wake at five am most days and promptly start writing. Morning pages only postpone my “actual” writing. However, I believe you can’t say something doesn’t work until you try it, so I will continue to do the pages throughout the program. But I don’t expect I’ll have any interest in continuing them afterwards, as Cameron claims most of her students do.

I did, however, immediately like the artist date idea. With one caveat. None of Cameron’s suggestions sounded that appealing to me. For starters, I am an introverted homebody and the majority of her ideas are all about going somewhere. I have plenty of creative things I never make time for, but they’re still mostly at-home projects. I believe a big part of getting the most from anything new is being flexible and adapting it to you. Once I accepted that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do artist dates, that the whole idea is to do what I want, I loved the concept. I made a looooong list of ideas that excite me. Then, for my first ever artist date, I did something I have literally been “meaning to do” for almost a decade: started my inspirational poster. An author’s journey is filled with rejection and requires exceptional grit. A long time back, I had the idea to collect quotes that inspire and motivate me, lay them out all aesthetically pretty and colorful like scrapbook pages, and cover the wall around my writing desk with them. Then I can look up anytime from my keyboard and be surrounded by the insights that drive me.

Some of the other exercises this week included: writing up a “contract” for yourself committing to this program, listing three creative enemies and three creative champions from your past, and quickly—without overthinking—listing five alternate lives for yourself. I found the contract a bit silly and unnecessary; however, I am appreciating how much more you get from handwriting rather than typing or just reading. There’s a noticeably different mind connection when your hand forms out these thoughts letter by letter.

As for the creative enemies, two didn’t surprise me in the least but the third came as a big surprise. I wrote down the name of a childhood friend. I’ll be vague for privacy, but we met in elementary school and only now can I see it was always a one-way friendship. I really liked her and wanted to be her friend. However, she treated friendship with me more as a power position for taking revenge. For what? Well, over the years, from elementary school to high school, she and I were often put up for the same accolades…and I always won. Every time she would tell me how unfair it was, that I didn’t deserve to win. She would belittle my accomplishments and claim I won for wrong reasons. I always assumed this was normal venting over her loss, so I nodded along and apologized for winning until we moved back towards the friendship dynamic I actually liked. This person’s name popping up on my creative enemy list also surprised me because the accolades in question had nothing to do with creativity. Most were academic. But I realized the emotions around having your accomplishments dismissed are transferable. This false friend had contributed to a broader imposter syndrome that even when I do receive recognition I don’t truly deserve it.

As for the creative champions, I warmed at the memory of my favorite author pulling me aside at my first ever writing conference and giving me advice. She gave me so much of her time and was patient with all my very beginner publishing questions, but more than the exact advice she shared her greatest gift was that she took me seriously. I said I wanted to be writer and she didn’t waste any time with doomsdayer discouragement or patronizing prove-yourself questions, but instead took me aside, professional to professional, and said, “Right, here’s what you do.”

The alternate lives task also turned out to be a big deal for me. Without giving myself time to second guess, I wrote down: dancer, teacher, dog trainer, actress, and therapist. Next Cameron asks you to pick one of those alternate lives and allow yourself to pursue it a little. I chose dancer. I injured my knees playing soccer in high school and dancing is likely too high impact for me. However, two years ago I had been getting into aerial silks. I stopped after a serious injury (tearing both my hamstrings), but it had been two years since my last class, long past when my physical therapist cleared me to return. I told myself it was too expensive, but in truth I felt ashamed for the injury (I had definitely caused it by pushing myself too hard) and fearful about reinjury. My partner remembers silks making me extremely happy and was incredibly supportive about me returning despite the extra expense. Then a quick email to the instructors reassured me that they will keep my injury in mind and respect if I take my sweet time learning new moves slowly and carefully. I also reframed this as an opportunity for personal growth. Scared about injuring myself again? Don’t push so hard this time! There’s really no reason to overwork myself doing something that’s intended to be fun. 

While I definitely gained some insights and pushed myself into new things this week, I’m still hesitant about the program. A lot of the exercises, morning pages especially, felt like stewing to me. I’m cultivating a more mindful approach to life and the morning pages sometimes felt counterproductive to that. Where mindfulness suggests letting go of toxic thoughts, this program has you write them down, think hard about them, and dig deeper. There’s definitely something a little cathartic about physically writing things down as well as taking some time for myself in the morning (I normally go straight to my keyboard at five am, bleary eyed and yawning). However, thinking far into the past about who hurt you and how strikes me more as dwelling. I definitely felt this week dredged up all my insecurities. While the theme is creating a safe space, I felt in less of a safe space by the end than where I had started.

That said, I want to insert a disclaimer. My doctor had put me on a new allergy medication this week that caused such extreme agitation (near paranoia and as jittery as if I’d tossed back several espresso shots) that we had to take me off it. My emotional state probably affected my perception of the program. (It certainly affected everything else in my life!)

So far I’m finding about what I expected: some insights and exercises I consider silly time wasters and others that surprise me with how much I enjoy or gain out of them. I look forward to seeing how my perception develops over eleven more weeks of this, especially off that allergy medication!
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Friday, June 14, 2019

ANIMAL!


Review of ANIMAL!: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE by JOHN WOODWARD
(a DK SMITHSONIAN KNOWLEDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA)

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. While I doubt any average reader will take on more than one, I’ve narrowed down the encyclopedias I read to a few worthy of reviews. Of those, I think ANIMAL! might be my number one favorite.

For starters, this encyclopedia is very generous with the photos. I especially appreciate that fact given the subject matter. I would much rather see a photo of an animal I’ve never heard of before than read a description about its physical attributes. (Yes, with some other encyclopedias I found myself very curious about a specific animal’s appearance based on text description—and often running a Google search to satisfy that curiosity—but frustrated about the lack of photos in the encyclopedia itself.) Not only does ANIMAL! provide at least a small photo for almost every creature mentioned, but every few pages display a much larger photo with an additional focus on that particular animal.  

I love how many animals are included in this encyclopedia. For some creatures, such as penguins and alligators, I was familiar with the most well-known sub-species but had no idea how many variations exist. The text blurb for each animal is short but sweet, providing the most important information along with a unique or interesting characteristic or two.

Packed with stunning photos and fascinating information, I would recommend ANIMAL! to anyone looking to know a little more about all the other living things sharing our planet. For that matter, the next time I want a broad knowledge of a complex subject, I’m looking for another DK encyclopedia first!

Friday, June 7, 2019

BELLADONNA


Review of BELLADONNA by ANNE BISHOP
(second in the EPHEMERA series)

I love Anne Bishop. One of my all-time favorite authors.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to add for my review of BELLADONNA that I didn’t already say with SEBASTIAN, the first book in this series. BELLADONNA reads like more of the same, in the best possible way.

But to make a little effort (and not set a record for shortest, least helpful review), BELLADONNA focuses on said title character’s preparations for the final showdown with the Eater of the World. The book also introduces a new character, Michael, whose admirable powers are feared rather than appreciated in his landscape. Fate brings him to Belladonna, but fate may also tear them back away from each other.

Aforementioned final showdown will likely feel familiar to readers of Bishop’s BLACK JEWELS series. As I’ve claimed before, Bishop follows a definite formula: one all her own, thoroughly satisfying, and always fleshed out with intriguing characters and magic system details. However, it’s easy to draw numerous parallels between the heroines, the villains, and the sacrifice said heroines make to defeat said villains. In BELLADONNA, I particularly liked the details about how this specific sacrifice affects the Eater of the World, more nuanced than simple destruction.

Everything I read by Anne Bishop, BELLADONNA included, ranks among my favorites. I would recommend her work to everyone, although more realistically to those whose tastes align with the following three descriptors: dark fantasy romance.
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Friday, May 31, 2019

THE ARTIST'S WAY


Review of THE ARTIST’S WAY by JULIA CAMERON

Lately, I’ve read several books about writing, including many classics such as this one. As soon as I began reading THE ARTIST’S WAY, it became apparent that it’s different than its peers. For anyone unware, THE ARTIST’S WAY is less a collection of advice and thoughts about writing as it is a more structured, reader-participation-required 12-week program. The idea behind the program is that many of us are “blocked” creatively. This doesn’t refer only to writers, or professional creatives. Cameron makes the very valid point that our society tends to project a message that one either is or isn’t a creative person. She argues that everyone is creative, but some have “blocked” this impulse, because of negative feedback. The idea behind this program is to explore those demons, work through our blocks, and release our natural creativity.

So as for my bias, I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I have lately been coming around to all the benefits spirituality, especially mindfulness, has to offer. On a superficial level, this book seems cheesy to me. There are a lot of invented terms to summarize complex ideas as well as corny statements that have me fighting an eye roll impulse. I’m very intrigued by psychology, but this reads like pseudo-psychology: insightful observations of the human condition delivered in layman, fanciful vocabulary rather than accurate psychological terms. While wise, some statements still irk me by neglecting relevant research and treating the human mind more like magic than science.

That said, I do find Cameron’s take on creativity very insightful. And, as my years of reviews demonstrate, I’m a big believer in being a critical thinker, a critical reader. Some people act like you either like a book or you don’t, but I prefer to break books down into their parts and discuss both what I loved and what didn’t work for me. Anyway, my longwinded point is that I suspected, if I could set aside my cynicism, I could gain something from doing this program.

It’s worth mentioning that I never considered myself blocked, which means I’m not exactly Cameron’s target audience. Nevertheless, I related to her introductory claim that we all have untapped creativity that we ignore for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to give her program a sincere effort, but I went into it skeptical that I would gain anything.

Boy, was I wrong. To boil the program down to an overly simplistic summary, at the core of all twelve weeks of reading and various exercises Cameron has you consider, again and again and from numerous different angles: what you wish you were doing, why you’re not doing it, and whether that why is truly valid. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I was blocked in ways I didn’t expect. I think of myself as a writer. I am comfortable claiming that identity and I write regularly without allowing any doubts or insecurities to slow me down. I didn’t expect this program to help much with my writing, and I was correct. (Okay, correct-ish.) What I didn’t realize is how many other creative pursuits I have given up, for all the wrong reasons. You know, the wrong reasons Cameron cites. For one example, I used to paint and sketch. Then pursuing writing professionally made me turn my critical, editorial eye to my artwork. My art is underwhelmingly decent in technical skill and pretty unremarkable in terms of innovation. While I think (and hope) my books might earn me money one day, I never expect my sketches or paintings to do so. Despite that, I still love painting and sketching. I find the process meditatively soothing and I experience a sense of pride for the end result regardless of how it might rank on some grander scale. I also love surrounding myself by my own artwork; instead of some stranger’s painting on my wall, I can look up and think, “I did that.” This program made me realize I stopped doing something that brings me happiness simply because I didn’t think I was good enough to justify the time commitment or expense of materials. Now I’m painting and sketching again, after almost a decade away from those activities, and thrilled to be reunited with those hobbies.

Aside from specific activities that I’m now doing but I wasn’t before I started the program (and I could list many more), THE ARTIST’S WAY has helped my developing interest in mindfulness and finding balance. We all know the world bombards us with cruel and inaccurate messages, but sorting them is easier said than done. This program teaches invaluable emotional tools for self-therapy, self-assessment, self-care, and self-compassion. I was writing plenty before this program, but I feel emotionally healthier about my writing (and everything else) now. Happier. More relaxed. Cameron definitely helped me root out some of my “negative core beliefs” and replace them with more positive affirmations.

I will also mention that when I was waffling on whether or not to try the program, a friend offered to do it with me. I would really encourage this to anyone already a little skeptical. My friend and I are both people who believe when you open yourself up to new experiences, you can gain something, even if not everything promised. While I would indeed rave about this book and program now, there are still plenty of small specifics that I found cheesy, trite, or pointless. I enjoyed having a friend with whom to compare reactions to said specifics. Especially because it demonstrated how much everyone brings their unique perspective to everything they do. Even though we both started the program hesitant about learning anything, we often differed on exactly what we found astute versus silly. It all had to do with what struck a chord with our own distinct experiences.

If you’re a scientific-minded person like myself, you’ll likely balk at some of the invented, sentimental lingo Cameron uses, but I would nevertheless urge anyone interested to give this program a sincere try. (Sometimes with syrupy words,) Cameron presents a genuinely helpful and insightful perspective on creativity and pursing what makes us happy.

As this book isn’t “like the others,” this review won’t be like my others. Since THE ARTIST’S WAY introduces a 12-week creativity program, I intend to follow this review with a post for each week of the program. (Note: I’ve already completed the program, and the posts will be staggered with my other reviews, not one every week, so this isn’t a “live” posting series.) In addition to a friend offering to join me, another thing that convinced me to try the program was reading other such blog posts. Cameron originally designed her program as a class, and when she realized how effective her students found it she published the program in book form to share with more people. However, I do see the benefit of going through the experience with others. If you don't have that option, blogs can help you feel more connected to different perspectives.

In summary, I would describe THE ARTIST’S WAY as guided self-therapy focused on creativity. Cameron provides the tools, but you do the work; you will get out of it what you put into it. Be prepared for plenty of self-reflection and surprising insights.
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Friday, May 24, 2019

THE SCARECROW QUEEN


Review of THE SCARECROW QUEEN by MELINDA SALISBURY
(third in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

My adoration of this series grew exponentially with each book. This concluding novel broke my heart, but also amazed me for it for its capacity to affect my emotions. I adored this series and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a YA fantasy trilogy that stands out in the crowd.

First, let me warn that this review contains some spoilers for the first two books.

THE SCARECROW QUEEN opens with all of our main characters in precarious positions and the author isn’t any kinder to them throughout the book. Errin is being held prisoner by Aurek, as Leif secured her safety (or rather her life more than her well-being) by promising her hand in marriage to the Sleeping Prince. However, Aurek is beyond understanding any kind of love or affection (total psychopath) and really sees Errin as little more than an interesting toy. Which means disposable if no longer pleasing. Meanwhile, Twylla flees for her life, well aware that she might be the best and only shot for destroying Aurek. With this in mind, she tries to launch a rebellion, a seemingly impossible undertaking.

I have entirely mixed feelings about Leif’s role in this story, but cannot deny that Salisbury made me FEEL and feel intensely. His character isn’t at all who I thought him to be, and at times I felt frustrated by that, but on the other hand he’s not at all who Twylla thought him to be and I related so strongly with how she must feel about that. Unfortunately, Leif’s complicated character overshadowed the rest of the story for me. I skimmed a lot, hoping for more satisfying explanations regarding his motivations.

The book didn’t provide nearly as much closure as I wanted, and I both love and hate it for that. The hate part is more obvious; I feel tortured by the unanswered questions the author has left me to brood over. As for the love part, I also feel the open-ended nature taps into a genuine aspect of real life; sometimes we don’t ever get to understand why that person did what they did. Also, regardless of any yearning for anything more, I am impressed at how strongly Salisbury made me feel. There are several standout, dramatic scenes in this novel that I not only pictured so clearly as I read them, but continue to play over in my mind.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SPINNING SILVER


Review of SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

Miryem is the daughter of the local moneyleader, but her sweet, compassionate father never follows through on actually collecting the debts owed him. As they slide into crippling poverty, Miryem takes over, earning herself a reputation as a hardhearted woman who practically turns silver into gold. Unfortunately, the fairy king hears these rumors and takes them literally. He comes to Miryem with high demands, which in turn carry high rewards for success…and high prices for failure.

Then there’s Wanda, who comes to help Miryem’s increasingly well-off household with chores and, in so doing, earns herself a little peace from her abusive father. Our last heroine is Irina, whose father intends to marry her to a cruel tsar. Only Irina knows that the tsar is possessed by some kind of demon, and that their marriage will mean her death. Each of these women work alone, and sometimes together, to craft their own destiny.

I love all three heroines. They’re all strong and smart, but in their own unique ways. However, the story switches between their perspectives…all in first person. It was definitely confusing and sometimes took me several sentences of a new chapter to piece together whose viewpoint we’re in now.

SPINNING SILVER finds that sweet spot between fairy tale retelling and original story. It has that wonderful combination of familiar and fresh, not to mention that beautiful haunting sense of mysterious old magic. Even Novik’s name for the fey—Staryk—sounds so recognizable that I thought it must be from something I read before. Well, if it is, I can’t track it down now. I think she just nailed the balance of innovative familiarity. I would recommend this book even to those who claim to have already met their fairy tale retelling limit. SPINNING SILVER doesn’t read like any story you’ve read before.

Friday, May 10, 2019

THE LAST ANNIVERSARY


Review of THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

First let me say that I liked this book. I like (often love, sometimes adore) all of Moriarty’s work. However, interestingly enough THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is both my least favorite so far as well as the one that best handled my pet peeve about her writing.

That pet peeve is that she always plants a piece of mystery bait early in the story to keep the reader hooked out of a desire for answers. I find this tension technique overdone and unnecessary, especially in Moriarty’s case since she writes such strong and intriguing characters. The withheld mystery in THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is regarding a local legend. A baby was discovered abandoned, the parents mysteriously gone with no explanation. However, it’s clear from an opening chapter that at least some people know the true story behind this mystery and, as is standard for a Moriarty novel, those secrets will not be revealed until the dramatic ending.

The withheld mystery didn’t bother me as much in this novel as it has in others, I suspect because Sophie doesn’t know either. While the book dips into other perspectives, I viewed Sophie as our protagonist and felt comfortable watching secrets unfold along with her. I think it frustrates me more when a character already knows something, but only ever thinks about it with vague, veiled wording meant to intrigue without explaining. Or even when someone else knows, but all it would take is simply asking them.

Moving away from my pet peeve point, though, what I adore about Moriarty’s writing is the nuanced characters and how all the relationships pop with believable chemistry. Yet I experienced that the least in this book so far. The characters felt a little flatter, less developed. I didn’t buy them as people I might meet, like I normally do with her characters. I struggled keeping track of everyone, as well as their relations to each other.

Having established that this one is opposite to my usual Mortiarty impressions, let me back up and explain the premise a bit more. Sophie is single when her one-that-got-away, and now married, ex approaches her with a bizarre situation. His aunt has passed away…and left her house to Sophie, much to the fury of other family members. Sophie loved that house, probably part of why the aunt left it to her. It’s on a small island infamous for the unsolved mystery. Generations back, the aunt’s family found that abandoned baby in a house they rented, with absolutely no sign of what happened to the parents.

Aside from the underdeveloped characters, I do have a few more criticisms with this one than I normally do with this author. I’m afraid I called almost every single twist in the entire book, including the main one about the original Munro Baby mystery. My frustration over this is lessened by the fact that there was one small twist near the end that I didn’t see coming and I was pleased to be taken by surprise by that one. 

Unfortunately, I will also say that the final explanation for the big Munro Baby mystery didn’t fully satisfy me. I have to suspend my disbelief far too much to be convinced, especially in proportion to how long that information is dramatically withheld. The explanation seems to rest entirely on the incompetency of others.

Honestly, I think this is fantastic book that fell a little short of the high bar I set for Moriarty’s work. The short chapters make it a fast read, and, as ever, Moriarty infuses everything with suspense and complicated relationships.

Friday, May 3, 2019

THE SLEEPING PRINCE


Review of THE SLEEPING PRINCE by MELINDA SALISBURY
(second in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

This trilogy started very well with THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER and I was excited to read the next book. Initially, I was disappointed that THE SLEEPING PRINCE opens in a new perspective, especially since the first novel ended on a slight cliffhanger. However, our new heroine Errin won me over as much as Twylla, arguably more so for being a little more relatable. (No poison skin or anything like that.)

Errin does connect to the first book. She is Leif’s sister. Leif left Errin and their mother for his job as a royal guard in a foreign country, supposedly to help his family financially, but Errin has not been feeling particularly helped. Whether his heart was in the right place or not, Errin’s brother abandoned her to handle both money issues and a mother with severe mental health problems. Now that The Sleeping Prince has awoken and is sweeping through every country, killing by the hundreds, Errin will need to figure out how to move her unpredictable mother away from their dangerous position on the border.

Errin is not entirely without help. She befriended a peculiar outlier named Silas. He wears a hood at all times and Errin has never seen his face. Their friendship is rocky; they clearly like each other, maybe more than like, but both have secrets from the other and a lot to lose if they misplace their trust. Despite all that, Silas is all Errin has right now.

I found Errin’s dream sequences odd and irrelevant, but—as with opening on a new character—trust the author. Salisbury knows what she’s doing, and by the end of the book any confusion or criticism I had smoothed out and made sense to me.

THE SLEEPING PRINCE builds to a powerful, unexpected, emotional (but, yes, cliffhanger) ending that left me desperate to start the next book immediately.
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Friday, April 26, 2019

REDEFINING REALNESS


Review of REDEFINING REALNESS: MY PATH TO WOMANHOOD, IDENTITY, LOVE & SO MUCH MORE by JANET MOCK

This memoir relays a trans woman’s journey from childhood into becoming the woman she is today. While I can imagine that a lifetime of being told who you are by others does indeed make one very thoughtful, the level of insightful self-reflection in this memoir truly amazed me. Mock distills complicated experiences, emotions, and preconceptions into powerful phrases. She’s incredibly articulate in analyzing not only herself but this complex, horrible, wonderful world.

Mock does share about some dark experiences in her life, so I would warn any sensitive readers about that, especially those who feel they can be easily triggered by others’ stories. I am wary about seeking too much darkness in the books I read as I find plenty in real life. However, I often say that it’s not a matter of avoiding darkness as there being a proportional, emotional payoff for exposing yourself to it. Watching or reading some terribly dark, gratuitous story does not appeal to me, unless there’s some deeper meaning woven into the darkness. Mock makes exploring her demons with her well worth it. She has clearly had an abundance of opportunity to think in depth about some of the worst moments and people in her life. As with many survivors, Mock comes to the conclusion (through an abundance of much more memorable quotes) that she wouldn’t be the woman she is today had she not gone through the experiences that she did.

I hesitate telling people this a memoir about a trans woman, because I think many consider that experience not relevant to their own. It would be far more accurate to say this a memoir about discovering and claiming your own identity even as others try to tell you that you’re mistaken. It’s not all about gender, not by a long shot. For starters there’s the whole victim versus survivor debate. An integral part of recovering from any tragedy is to shift from seeing oneself as a pitiable victim of misfortune into viewing oneself instead as a brave and resilient survivor. Mock is also multi-racial and grew up extremely poor, two other identities that the world thrust upon her to do with what she could and would.

Honestly, Mock is so impressively articulate about such complex topics that I find myself anxious I can’t possibly write a review that fully does her memoir justice. I would caution that some might opt to avoid books with darker, traumatic material, but aside from that I feel this is one of those books that everyone can benefit from reading. She filters her insight through the perspective of a trans woman, but most of her revelations are applicable to all humankind: about discovering and claiming your identity.

Friday, April 19, 2019

THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE


Review of THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE by PHILIPPA GREGORY

I adore Philippa Gregory. She’s my favorite historical fiction author and, as such, I use her as my measuring stick for other historical fiction, asking myself, “Did I like that as much as a Philippa Gregory novel?”

After THE CONSTANT PRINCESS, which focused on Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine of Aragon, and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, which focused on the infamous Anne Boleyn as well as her less well-known sister Mary, Gregory follows with THE BOLEYN INHERITANCE. This novel continues the saga of Henry VIII’s many unfortunate wives, as told through three perspectives: his fourth and fives wives, respectively, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, as well as Jane Rochford, widow of Anne Boleyn’s brother.

What makes Gregory’s novels exceptional are the characters. Each feels like a living, breathing human with complex emotions and understandable motivations. My issue with some historical fiction novels comes when a character follows history…but why? Their decision doesn’t make sense for the personality the author has created. Gregory sticks to the major historical facts, but crafts such compelling, convincing characters that, even knowing the ending and likely “twists,” I’m riveted to the page.

Gregory’s version of Anne of Cleaves is a timid young woman desperate for any opportunity that will free her from her brother’s tyrannical control. Like Katherine of Aragon, she’s easily underestimated, but proves herself worthy of admiration over time. Anne may be quiet and unassuming, but she’s smarter than she’s been given credit for and she learns to make the best of her circumstances.

Meanwhile, Katherine Howard, even younger, lives fast and wild. She’s a vain, selfish, thoughtless child of a young woman who snatches at forbidden fruit without thinking any further ahead to possible repercussions. She innocently believes life will work out in her favor, because…well, so far it always has.

Last, there’s Jane, reduced to an existence of memories, regret, and self-torture. Her testimony sent Anne Boleyn and her brother (Jane’s husband) to their deaths. Jane has always told herself whatever she most needs to believe is the truth and she’s reaching the point where she cannot remember what the real truth is.

Whether these woman are anywhere close to accurate depictions of the true historical figures, Gregory’s novels are so enjoyable precisely because she makes these character her own. Each one is captivatingly compelling and distinctive.

Friday, April 12, 2019

LEAGUE OF DRAGONS


Review of LEAGUE OF DRAGONS by NAOMI NOVIK
(ninth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I feel sad even writing this review. Why? Because it’s the last book in the Temeraire series, one of those series I wish could keep going forever. Laurence, Temeraire, and their many other comrades – human and dragon alike – have come to feel like familiar friends. I enjoy their casual banter almost as much, and in some cases even more, than their high stakes adventures.

This last installment sees a weakened Napoleon retreating. The opportunity to end his reign of terror is clear, but still threatened by debate about treatment of dragons. In a desperate ploy to maintain his control, Napoleon promises the sun and moon to dragons who join or defect to his cause.

These books have always been skilled at examining the complexities of war and politics. Laurence and Temeraire do not merely need to plan a strategic battle plan for approaching and fighting Napoleon’s troops. More importantly, they need to maintain the morale and support of their own ranks.

The ending of this final Temeraire story could only ever be bittersweet for me. Except for one amnesia twist miss, I enjoyed every book in this series immensely and would have happily continued reading as many as Novik wanted to write. Laurence, but Temeraire especially, carved out places for themselves as some of my top-memorable characters.

Friday, April 5, 2019

INKDEATH


Review of INKDEATH by CORNELIA FUNKE
(third in the INKHEART trilogy, translated by ANTHEA BELL)

This final installment in the captivating INKHEART trilogy finds our heroes trapped within the beautiful but dangerous (and fictional) world of Inkheart. The entire novel has a very somber tone, with clear “the grass is always greener” themes. Meggie, among others, yearned for this magical world and, now here, she yearns for home. Neither will ever fulfill her completely.

This series features a huge cast of interesting characters and unfolds through short chapters in alternating viewpoints. I will confess that multiple viewpoints is never my preference. Funke is a master with her material, but nevertheless I find that when the viewpoint splits so does my investment. Rarely do I invest as strongly in multiple viewpoint stories as I do with one perspective. It lends too much to the idea of each character as an almost insignificant piece in an overwhelmingly huge puzzle.

I would like to back up and describe the premise of this third installment, but with so many characters and plot lines it feels too complex to summarize. Of course, those who read the first two novels have an idea of where the story’s headed. To do my best, I’ll suggest that this entire third book is a long and dramatic showdown between Meggie’s family (among others) and the evil Adderhead.

As always I adore that books play an active role in both the story and the magic of this series. An exceptional book becomes the key for either success or failure in overcoming the Adderhead.

Despite my disinclination for series with so many viewpoint characters, the INKHEART trilogy will go down in my memory as a classic favorite. I, too, understand the perhaps misguided yearning for the magical world of Inkheart.

Friday, March 29, 2019

THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER


Review of THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER by MELINDA SALISBURY
(first in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

Twylla is her kingdom’s executioner as well as the future queen. Her bare skin has the power to kill anyone who touches her, with the exception of the royal family thanks to their superior blood. She she is betrothed to the crown prince and, in the meantime, utilized by a vicious queen for murdering traitors, not to mention scaring everyone else into submission. Then the queen assigns Twylla a new guard, a too friendly guard with a habit for asking questions he shouldn’t.

For me, this turned out to be a trust-the-author book. By that, I mean that all of my criticisms were eventually explained to my satisfaction. Everything fits together; everything has been considered. Even what doesn’t make sense now will fall into place at the right moment. I want to avoid spoilers, so I can’t be as specific as I want, but let me list some examples. The queen seemed at times over-the-top evil to me, but later her character made perfect sense to me. Also the magic system had weak points, but the questions I asked turned out to be extremely relevant to the plot.

I really connected with the characters emotionally and felt intensely affected by their excruciating circumstances and decisions. I’m a critical reader, but I can’t wait to rave about this book, primarily because it made me feel. When you read as much as I do (and write and study the craft of writing, including how to dissect a story into structural pieces) well, it becomes harder and harder to be surprised and, more importantly, to be moved. That’s all the more reason I’m impressed when a book really gets me.

THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER, first in a series, does end on a bit of a frustrating cliffhanger, but resolves the most important threads. I am thoroughly invested and can’t wait to see where this story takes us next.

Friday, March 22, 2019

DAVID AND GOLIATH


Review of DAVID AND GOLIATH: UNDERDOGS, MISFITS, AND THE ART OF BATTLING GIANTS by MALCOLM GLADWELL

This author has been recommended to me plenty of times over the years, but this is my first read by him. It definitely lived up to all the hype and made me eager to read the rest of his work. The premise of DAVID AND GOLIATH lies in the namesake story: how thinking outside the box can flip the game.

For his examples, Gladwell reaches far and wide, but in so doing emphasizes how applicable his theory is to all aspects of our society. Chapter 1 focuses on youth girls’ basketball. I do not know enough about basketball to be any kind of expert here and that will be clear in my paraphrasing. Gladwell follows a specific couch who volunteered to coach his daughter’s basketball team, but really didn’t know a thing about basketball himself. He realized that his team simply wasn’t good enough to win based on skill alone. However, in his research on the sport he also realized there are other ways to play the game that could give his girls an edge, such as focusing more on stamina than skill. Again, no basketball expert here, but my understanding is that this coach’s particular approach is completely legal by the rules of the game, but considered unsportsmanlike by some. Gladwell argues that it’s really a matter of opinion. As with David and Goliath where Goliath expected a hand to hand combat only to be taken out by a rock, the girls didn’t play the game like people expected. Subverting expectations gave them a much needed advantage, but those who feel tricked by flipped standards call out the strategy as cheating.

I especially loved Chapter 2, which discussed our misperception that many factors in life are a linear graph. Take money, for example. It’s a typical fallacy that the more money you have the happier you are. Realty (and logic, in my opinion) suggests that it’s actually a bell curve. Money increases happiness until a certain point at which more money only makes happiness decrease.

I strongly related to Chapter 3 and its analysis of organic chemistry, as I know several people who have struggled with that educational requirement. Gladwell posits that the emphasis of organic chemistry comes from a perhaps outdated mindset, and instead weeds out many students who would make spectacular doctors…who maybe aren’t brilliant at organic chemistry. This same chapter also brings up the old phrase big fish in a small pond and vice versa. In this case, Gladwell applies the adage to schools. Many students believe the obvious smart decision is to attend the most prestigious university into which they’re accepted. The truth is that this may have a little fish in a big pond effect and there are times when it’s wiser to choose the smaller pond, the place where you’ll thrive and stand out the most.

This book was written several years ago, but Chapter 6’s focus on racial tension will feel especially relevant today, in particular given Gladwell’s focus on media portrayal. Then Chapter 8 addresses our ever-confused perceptions of crime and how best to take preventative measures. He mentions common statistics and debunks possibly misguided interpretations of those numbers.  

I’m only scratching the surface here, but Gladwell offers many specific examples that successfully make his case for “thinking outside the box.”

Friday, March 15, 2019

NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD


Review of NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD: A WRITER ON WRITING by MARGARET ATWOOD

This book about writing by the famous Margaret Atwood is adapted from the series of six Empson Lectures that she gave at the University of Cambridge. I will admit that the book does read like a series of lectures, at times more long-winded than necessary as though to meet a certain time obligation rather than establish a point as concisely as possible.

I often argue that writing advice and discussions breaks down into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. This book is definitely about the philosophy of writing: what it means to be a writer, in a broad sense. Each chapter (lecture) is loosely thematically organized, but all tie together as a broad analysis of this societal role. In fact my favorite quote states, “Writing…is an ordinary enough activity…Being a writer, however, seems to be a socially acknowledged role.”

Writing can be a lonely profession, tucked off in a solitary room spending hours considering human nature. Writing books are invaluable reminders that we writers aren’t alone. Many say that we are telling the same stories over and over again, but it’s the specifics that make them unique. Well, each of us writers may have a unique, specific set of life experiences, but there’s plenty of familiar trends, too. You’re special, but you’re not alone.

Friday, March 8, 2019

WHAT ALICE FORGOT


Review of WHAT ALICE FORGOT by LIANE MORIARTY

Last that Alice remembers she was young and madly in love. Then she wakes in the hospital where they tell her she has amnesia. Oh, and she’s apparently ten years older, the mother of three children, and divorcing the love of her life.

First, my ranty disclaimer. I am not, broadly speaking, a fan of amnesia as a plot device. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading three books at once that all made use of amnesia as a twist. However, I will say that of those three I liked the amnesia element the most in WHAT ALICE FORGOT, and I can articulate why. Usually I find fictional amnesia very frustrating, because – when it’s introduced midway into a story – the reader has to wait for the character to catch back up with everything the reader already knows…and the character knew only a few pages previously. More often than not the amnesia element feels like a pause button; the story doesn’t resume with new developments until the characters remember what they should. WHAT ALICE FORGOT avoids that tired trope, because we catch up with Alice. She has amnesia from the very start of this novel and we know as much about her current life as she does.

My typical quibble with Moriarty’s novels is that she always utilizes a juicy piece of mystery bait for suspense. In this case, there’s a woman people keep mentioning to Alice and then clearly wishing they hadn’t mentioned. Alice has no idea who this woman is or why she’s so important, but comments make clear her name is associated with tragedy and drama. My issue with mystery bait is that it’s usually unnecessary. In this case, I saw no reason Alice couldn’t ask someone for more information about this woman and save us pages of wondering and speculating with her.

However, my nitpicky comments asides, I found this a heart-wrenching, powerfully affecting novel. Moriarty manages to step away from the cliché, dramatic nature of amnesia as a plot device and really made me imagine what it would feel like waking up one day only to be told I am ten years older, now married, and have kids I can’t remember. I highly empathized with Alice’s terror at suddenly being responsible for children she cannot even remember having, not to mention the agony of having her devoted partner switch from besotted to bitter overnight.

And, of course, this story features what I always adore about Moriarty’s work: great characters and interesting relationships with crackling dialogue. It’s her unique, dynamic characters that make all of her work so addictive.

Friday, March 1, 2019

THANKS, BUT THIS ISN'T FOR US


Review of THANKS, BUT THIS ISN’T FOR US by JESSICA PAGE MORRELL

Whenever I read a book, I stick tabs on the pages with quotes I especially like. Normally, this equals 0-5 tabs per book, leaning more often towards 0. However, this book had so many tabs by the time I finished reading it, I may as well have stuck one post it note on the front that said: “almost every page” and saved some paper. By the end, I filled five typed pages full of quotes. These are mostly writing advice, but such valuable, well-articulated writing advice that I want the reminders when I’m writing and re-writing my own stories.

Some of my favorites include “Don’t mistake drama for melodrama,” “Revision is the other half of writing,” “Fictional characters differ from us mere mortals,” and prepositions are the “carbohydrates of writing.” And those are simply quotes I selected for their brevity.

I believe all writing advice can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business explains the publishing industry. Craft focuses on the actual writing, the technical mechanics. And philosophy is closer to self-help or therapy for writers, dissecting the emotional turmoils and inner demons most every writer encounters. From my experience, most (well-known, popular) writing books focus on philosophy. This can be validating in a supportive way, but not necessarily helpful on the level of improving one’s writing. Morrell delivers one of the rarer specimens focused on craft. Then she further impresses with not a little but tons of actionable suggestions and insight. Much of what I read attempting to explain craft is too vague: write well. Morrell acknowledges that it is perhaps easier to pick apart what isn’t working than to provide a formula for what works, but I think she has that the right approach. By pinpointing and then addressing problems in a story, the writer can continue to improve its quality.

Morrell provides so much clear, actionable insight that I almost feel I owe her a consulting fee much greater than the cost of this one book. Every chapter ends with a section on what she calls “deal breakers.” In other words, the most common mistakes she sees in relation to whatever aspect of writing that chapter addressed. As if that weren’t enough, she also includes several immensely helpful lists of revision questions. By answering all these questions for your current story, it’s easy to narrow in on the weak points that could use more work. I also made note of her wimps versus heroes list for assessing your protagonist as well as her advice for book openings.

THANKS is easily the best book on the craft of writing that I have read. All of us readers are capable of discussing, in vague terms, what makes a good book, but Morrell actually breaks stories down into their specific components, shows how each works, and how they fit together. She not only provides invaluable advice for assessing your own work, but she’s not stingy with that advice either. A lot of craft writing books have mostly “filler” in my opinion and boiled down perhaps a page or two of actionable suggestions. Every page of THANKS is exceptionally helpful.

Friday, February 22, 2019

A DANCE WITH DRAGONS


Review of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS by GEORGE R. R. MARTIN
(fifth in the A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series)

While I loved this book, I’m afraid I may not have much to say about it, because it feels like more of the same (in a good way). This series skews a little from my usual taste, but I understand the appeal for hardcore fans and am filled with admiration myself for the scope of the work.

I waffle about my feelings on the extreme violence. I agree that it’s period accurate, but it nevertheless feels, for me, at times too gratuitous.

This series features a huge cast and, as a character-centric reader that sometimes frustrates me. I have difficulty remembering everyone or strongly investing in anyone. I tend to prefer a more focused storyline following on one or a few characters; in my opinion, the more character perspectives the less driven the story. More accurately, epic storytelling is a different type of story. By portraying a wide cast of varied people we get more of a sense of humankind overall. Whereas with my preference you form a stronger bond with one or a few fictional people and their individual struggles. That said, for all the names I forget, I’m impressed at how many Martin makes memorable. I know I'm not alone in listing Daenerys as an obvious favorite.

Friday, February 15, 2019

BECOMING A WRITER


Review of BECOMING A WRITER by DOROTHEA BRANDE

This book on writing was published in 1934, but is still remarkably relevant today. It’s slim, but packed with concise and valuable insight, which I find preferable to longer, rambling books.

Most books about writing either focus on: business, craft, or philosophy. BECOMING A WRITER does a little of both the latter two. It addresses the emotional difficulties of writing while also providing some specific exercises. I love when writing books include, well, homework. I find it much more helpful than vague musings on what makes a good book.

Some of my favorite actionable suggestions include walks, self-imposed time-outs, and scheduled writing times. Walks are hardly a new concept for creative professionals, but Brande encourages that while on this walk notice everything. I emphasize that, because it’s easy to read and dismiss without truly considering. Take in the colors. The subtle differences in shade. Assess any man-made structures. Do you know what every part of that structure accomplishes? What each piece is called? Are there people around you? Can you see anything especially interesting about their appearance or body language? As for the time-outs, that’s my word choice. Brande acknowledges that sometimes when we sit down to write, we don’t feel “ready” and it’s easy to procrastinate with others tasks. So instead of allowing oneself to be sidetracked, she suggests that if you aren’t going to write, then go and stand in the corner until you’re ready to write. Odds are it won’t be that long. She also encourages scheduled writing times as a way of training oneself to write on cue rather than becoming too persnickety about the ideal environment for some elusive muse. As she puts it, if you tell yourself you will write every day for ten minutes at 4pm and you find yourself in the middle of a social event at 4pm, promptly get up and leave mid-conversation and perhaps go scrawl for ten minutes on a napkin in the bathroom. While certainly not ideal, difficult experiences like this increase the likelihood that you will plan around your scheduled writing session next time. Treat it like a contract. You said you would write for ten minutes at 4pm. If this is your job, then that is a job expectation. Don’t be an unreliable employee to yourself.

As for the more writing philosophy side of things, I made note of several memorable quotes, not the least of which being: “There is no situation which is trite in itself; there are only dull, unimaginative, or uncommunicative authors.” I cannot agree more.

Don’t write this book off for being old. The content here is relevant for writers today as it was in 1934.  

Friday, February 1, 2019

ABHORSEN


Review of ABHORSEN by GARTH NIX
(third in the ABHORSEN series)

The last book in this series, LIRAEL, felt very much like it cut off in the middle, but that also means that this one, ABHORSEN, jumps right into the action. Whereas LIRAEL started slower, ABHORSEN doesn’t need to waste any time with new set-up and doesn’t relax the tension until we reach the inevitable dramatic conclusion.

Nix sticks out in my mind as an author with a knack for writing content I don’t typically like in a way that I enjoy. Specifically, I’m thinking about action scenes and undead themes. I care most about characters and sometimes find fast-paced novels sacrifice character development for chaotic action scenes. Uninterested in pages of fighting or evasion, I skim ahead for the result. However, when Nix writes an action scene I find myself hanging on every word, invested not only in the outcome but also how we get there. (I think the lesson here is it’s more about balance than sacrificing one for the other. Make me care about the characters first and then I’ll care about their every step.)

As for undead themes, I do not care for vampires, zombies, or ghosts, and find few books that I consider exceptions to that generalization. Perhaps part of why I love Nix’s undead creatures is that they’re not really any of those three things. While it’s fair to call them that (undead creatures), they feel unique, varied, and compelling.

I want to end with a quote from another author about this series, because I agree so heartily. As Philip Pullman put it, SABRIEL is “fantasy that reads like realism.” Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that our heroine in this installment is a librarian.