Monthly Archives: September 2019

The House with a Clock in its Walls

Sometimes you’ve just gotta sit down and read a kids book to remember the joy of simple magic.

When the film came out, of course a bunch of people came in looking for John Bellairs’ The House with a Clock in its Walls. I’d never heard of the book, but apparently it was quite popular.

When Lewis Barnavelt is suddenly orphaned, he moves in with his strange uncle, Jonathan. But Lewis is in for a surprise when he discovers that his uncle is a magician, as is his crotchety next-door neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann. Lewis loves seeing the magic, and in an effort to save his only friendship, Lewis dabbles in magic himself, resurrecting an evil magician who is bent on completing her malevolent spell. Only Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmermann, and Lewis can stop her, but without magical experience, how much help can Lewis really be?

This book was a quick read, full of snarky banter between the adult characters and realistic emotion displayed by Lewis, despite the magical story. I wanted it to be longer and more fleshed out, though (but of course, it’s a kids book, not a series designed for adults). It’s a story that focuses just on what’s immediately happening, not bogged down in backstory and too much world building. But it’s simplicity makes it easy to look past that and enjoy its quick, impulsive story.

Sometimes it’s fun to go back and read kids books that I missed as a child. While I love books that keep me thinking, trying to figure out where it’s going, there’s something about kids books that puts all that on hold, and I just enjoy the story as it unfolds, without trying too hard to guess where the story is going. And sometimes that’s a kind of refreshing pallet cleanser.

The World That We Knew

I was a little hesitant about reading more World War II Fiction, since so much of it lately seems trite and shallow. While Alice Hoffman’s upcoming book left me with a lot of mixed emotions, the one thing I can say is that it wasn’t trite or shallow.

A Jewish mother is looking for a way to get her daughter out of Berlin in the midst of World War II. Motivated by both love and fear, she seeks out a renown rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who ultimately gives her her wish.

Together, they create a golem, w humanoid creature made of clay who will be loyal to Lea and protect her while they make a run for safety. Before they leave, Lea is given one final charge from her mother: once she’s safe, she must destroy the golem, before it becomes too strong.

It escaping Germany and occupied France isn’t as easy as it seems, and as the years pass the golem, Ava, becomes more to Lea than just a bodyguard. When faced with the choice, Lea must decide what it means to be human, and what kind of life has the prerogative to live.

I expected this book to be a little darker, honestly, and a little more mystical. I’ll be honest and say I was a little disappointed that Ava, the golem, was central to the story, but what she /was/ got a little bit lost in the story.

It had, of course, the requisite romances and rebellious characters. And Hoffman handled the various storylines well. Her writing style, a very plain, almost a child-like description (think, an introverted pre-teen telling a story, not a lot of extra detailed, just pretty straight forward, no superfluity), moves the story along, and fits with the story she’s telling.

I had a lot of mixed feelings about the end. It wasn’t what I expected, which on the one hand was good, because I expected the worst. But somehow, the way it ended almost seemed worse. I wasn’t prepared for how heavy the book was going to be, since I was expecting something akin to the recent historical fiction I’ve read.

Overall, it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be, but it was a good story. But be warned, it’s not going to be a feel-good war story (you know what I mean).

Keep an eye out for The World That We Knew, available today.

Northanger Abbey and other stories

It’s been a while (a long while) since I’ve read any Jane Austen, but it’s one of the things on my list of classics/required reading to catch up on. I grabbed Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon on one of my book binges and moved it closer to the top of the stack.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen starts with a scathing description of Catherine Morland, a young woman from a small town who doesn’t have quite the same accomplishments as her richer counterparts. But when she’s invited to go to Bath with a neighbor, she’s catapulted into a whole new world. Catherine makes friends quickly and is invited to visit Northanger Abbey with her friends, the Tilneys, where Catherine gets the chance to impress Henry Tilney.

Lady Susan is a short story in letter format, outlining the exploits of Lady Susan Vernon, a reckless flirt who is concerned only with enjoying herself, regardless of who might be hurt.

The Watsons and Sanditon are short, unfinished pieces. The Watsons is a story about young Emma Watson, who is chosen among her sisters to join the Edwards’ in attending the society season after being away for many years. Sanditon follows the the story of the Parkers, a family living in a more reclusive coastal town, always on the lookout for new, wealthy families to visit and improve their society.

If I’d known when I started the book that the last two stories were unfinished, I might have just let it sit. While not as bad as some unfinished works, in terms of building the story and leaving you hanging, it’s always a bummer to not have the ending.

Full of wit and sometimes snide commentary, Austen’s writing is a fun, if laborious, break from contemporary stories. And even if they are a bit repetitive in storyline, Austen’s writing makes it fun to read, and you can’t help getting attached to the characters.

I do love reading the classics (as much as I love reading pretty much everything else). Pretty soon, I’ll have finished up my book buying binge haul, and I’ll start in on the library list I’ve got.

Pantser or planner: Outlines

Ever have those weeks where you just don’t know where all your time goes? I’ve had two in a row. I’ve probably only written 10 pages between the two weeks. It’s a little discouraging, being tired and fatigued and feeling like I have no time. But I’m choosing to be glad about what I did get to write, and let go of the rest.

For this project, I’ve gone back to my former habit of just flying by the seat of my pants. I have synopsis of the book, a general idea of what happens, and I just go.

I’ve completed a couple drafts this way, but only ever while participating in NaNoWriMo. Though, let the record reflect that I don’t think I’ve ever finished a draft when it wasn’t in some way related to NaNo, so…

I go back and forth between planning  and pantsing, as it’s called in the NaNo world. While it’s fun to blaze uncharted creative territory, I think the more I get into it, the more I realize I like to have the outline. I like to know I’ve thought it through. I can still explore the story as I write, but an outline forces me to sit down and really think about the story.

When I fly by the seat of my pants, I think I use it as an excuse to be a little lazy with my thinking. I have an idea, and I just flounder along with it until I run out of motivation, inspiration, and creativity.

I hosted an event at work earlier this month, and during a panel on creative process (the little snippet I got to hear) one of the panelists said if you’re feeding your artistic side, the muse will visit you. I found it very encouraging. As long as I’m investing in my creativity, it’s progress. Sometimes I think I just need to accept that thinking about my work is equally as important as actually writing it.

So, I’m curious about your writing habits. Do you plan a lot? Make it up as you go? Somewhere in between?

The Fragile World

Paula Treick DeBoard weaves another compelling story in The Fragile World.

The Kaufman’s were an ordinary family until tragedy strikes. When Daniel Kaufman is killed in a chance accident, his family is left to try to pick up the pieces of their lives. His parents split up, losing themselves in their work, and his sister Olivia becomes terrified of everything.

Olivia lives with her dad Curtis in California, but things start to change years later when Curtis starts them off on a journey to see Kathleen, Olivia’s mother living in Nebraska. But Nebraska may not be the ultimate destination, and in his course to right a wrong, Curtis may destroy what’s left of his family.

Written in first person, alternating from Curtis and Olivia’s points of view, the story gets deep into the minds of the two characters most motivated and affected by Daniel’s death. The chapters are short, moving the story along quickly without sacrificing depth and quality.

DeBoard’s characters get quickly into your heart. Each character is uniquely relatable in how they deal with the trauma and stress life throws their way. And the story, while heart-wrenching, celebrates family. Family is worth fighting for, and the Kaufman’s, in their own way, each fight for their family as best as they can.

With each book I read, I’m more and more convinced of DeBoard’s mastery of writing gripping, real-life stories that weave drama, suspense, and a dash of mystery together in the best ways possible.

Everything is Figureoutable

When you’re stuck in a slump and don’t really know how to move forward, the phrase “everything is figureoutable” seems to be exactly what you need.

When I saw an advanced copy of Marie Forleo’s new book, I was immediately drawn to it, because I definitely have some things to figure out. But I haven’t really known how and where to start. What do you do when you aren’t sure what you want to do? When you’ve buried dreams and goals so deep you don’t really remember them? Well, lucky for me, Marie has some tips for that.

Marie starts with her own history of hearing the phrase “everything is figureoutable” from her mother, and how it helped her when she reached her own breaking point in wondering what to do and who to be. Marie then breaks down her experiences, and those of others, into easy advice and steps, including eliminating excuses, defining dreams, and starting before you’re ready.

Most chapters also include exercises at the end for you to start implementing and evaluating the topics discussed. These include tracking your time; imagining worse-case scenarios and coming up with a plan for dealing with it, if it happens; taking seven days to write out things you want and seeing what pops up the most; acknowledging what you’d try if you didn’t have to worry about perfection; and so many more. Marie encourages her readers to do each activity, writing answers down on paper, in order to get the best results.

The book is written in such a down-to-earth, chatty format, it goes by so fast. Marie includes gems of encouragement, and kicks in the butt when needed. Having read the book, I can just imagine what her conferences, podcasts, and tv episodes must be like. The book also just feels genuine. With the stories of others who have used her philosophy, as well as her own experiences, the book doesn’t feel like “do this for success,” but more the kind of advice your close friend might give you. It’s real, and told in a real way.

More than anything, Marie voices throughout her belief that the world needs you, an individual. It doesn’t matter if someone else has done a thing, if you haven’t done it your way, the world needs it. In an age where social media makes it so easy to compare yourself and give up when you see someone successfully living your dream, this message is so important. You can do it, if you want it bad enough.

This book was exactly what I needed at this time. After doing the exercises I have a clearer idea of where to begin in finding what I want to do. I have a list of goals I know I want to accomplish. I have a bucket list, if you will, and one that I truly want to accomplish.

So if you’re feeling stuck, feeling lost, need some motivation, or just want to grow a little more, check out Everything is Figureoutable, in bookstores today.

The Scottish Prisoner

I loved the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It’s so well done with such relatable, real characters, I find it’s impossible not to get sucked into the story and feel like you’re living it right there with them. So I was a little nervous to branch out and try any of Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey series, a parallel series to Outlander with some of the same characters,  covering events in the same time frame as the original series. But, like pretty much all my reads lately, it was a dollar at a used book sale. (Hey, at least I’m actually reading all the books I bought, instead of adding them to the bookshelf full of to-be-read books.)

If you haven’t read Voyager, book three in the Outlander series and season three of the show, be aware that this blog post will contain spoilers.

The Scottish Prisoner, while a Lord John Grey story in name, is also prominently (I’d almost even say mostly) a story about Jamie Fraser. It opens at Helwater in 1760, where Jamie is a paroled prisoner working in the stables as a groom. He is visited by an old friend from the uprising who wants Jamie to get involved with another uprising– but because of Claire’s knowledge of the future, Jamie knows any such venture can only end is more death and heartache.

Soon after, Jamie is spirited away to London, where he finds himself in the presence of Lord John Grey and his brother, Harold Duke of Pardloe. The unwilling participant in a mission to bring a corrupt and treasonous British officer to justice puts Jamie right in the middle of the very rebellious company he was so desperate to avoid. Jamie finds himself with an impossible choice– betray his friends and countrymen to the British in order to protect them, or leave them to their doomed cause.

I was pleased to find that, at least in this book, Gabaldon proves herself capable of creating equally compelling stories outside the scope of her original series. While missing some of the wit and humor that Claire’s character brings to the series, The Scottish Prisoner was still and enjoyable, quick read that definitely made me anxious for the next season of the show (and for the next book, but that might be a little longer in coming). If I didn’t have all these other books physically on hand to read, and another list of books to get from the library, I’d definitely be tempted to reread the Outlander series again.

Instead, I’ll content myself with this little snippet, and maybe pursue some of the other Lord John books when my reading list shortens a little bit.

Cold Storage

When I read the synopsis of this book, I was hopeful that it would be something akin to Stranger Things. Something weird, a little fantasy, a little sci-fi. While it wasn’t quite what I wanted, I wasn’t disappointed, either.

Roberto Diaz is a government operative and one of a very few number of people who know how deadly this fungus is–he’s seen it in action and he’s responsible for keeping it locked away. He’s also responsible for the contingency plan if it’s ever unleashed, but that call is the last thing he ever expected.

But he’s woken in the middle of the night by that very call. And the information and knowledge he has is all that might keep the two security guards alive. Because things are getting really weird in their government-bunker-turned-storage-facility. Though not sentient, the fungus knows what it wants and what it needs for survival. And humanity is the perfect host.

Cold Storage by David Koepp is a weird and fast-paced read. It’s full of “eww” and “what the heck” moments. It’s fast-paced and well written, keeping you engaged, amused, and waiting to see if the fungus will somehow, secretly, win the day.

As the screenwriter for Jurassic Park, Koepp’s writing style in Cold Storage is stylistically similar, in terms of pace and outline. And whether Koepp knows all the science he references or was completely making it up (I don’t know and I don’t really care to research), he nails the expert narrative voice.

My one complaint is that the small time ex-con security guard sounds exactly how he probably would in reality–cussing for lack of better vocabulary, and a little ignorant. But, that’s who the character is supposed to be. Nothing says we’ve gotta like them all.

So if you enjoy Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, books with weird things going on, and just good, quick stories, Cold Storage hits shelves today.

Goals (again)

In the last week or two, I’ve really been thinking about how I set writing goals for myself.

In the past, I’ve focused more on time. “I want to write for X minutes, x times a week.” But this last week, I set myself page counts instead. Three to five pages, depending on what my day looks like. And for the most part, I found that I could easily accomplish it, and I got more done than when I’d been setting myself timed goals (timed goals are really great if you want to do a lot of dramatic staring and/or thinking. Page goals, you’re stuck there til you’re done, so I find I buckle down to business better).

Page goals have also helped me move my story along. Instead of getting bogged down researching something that’s going on in my story, I just write around it and plan to return when the time comes for editing. Without Google at my fingertips, it’s easier for me to fudge and move on, instead of cheating and calling research time writing time.

The other bonus is that instead of paying attention to the time, I’m just writing. Tracking pages is easier (I suppose I could use a timer, but I’d still just be checking it for my progress), and I find that I usually write a little more, trying to wrap up an idea, lest I forget all about it before I come back to the story (happens every time).

So this last week I feel like I’ve made more progress. Not as much as if I’d outlined the story, but, I’ll take the win I have. I’m enjoying letting the story unfold on its own, showing me the pieces I’m really more interested in sharing.

This project started out as the story of a girl leading a double life–pretending to be extroverted when she’s really more introverted. And while that’s still a big piece, it’s definitely focusing less on the double life bit, and more on self-acceptance. She’s got a lot of people telling her she isn’t OK being who she is. And she believes it. But by the end of this story, she’s going to be confident in herself, and she’ll tell those people to stuff it. She won’t be afraid to walk away from the toxicity. And that’s the part I’m excited to get to.

What kinds of goals do you set for yourself? Word counts, page counts, timed? No goals at all? What habit it your benchmark for a successful day of writing?