The Prydain Project

Thirty years after first devouring Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, I'm rereading them to see if the magic is still there. If you've arrived at this blog because you loved Prydain as a kid, I hope you’ll enjoy the chance to revisit it along with me. To read the recaps in order, start here: "The Book of Three," Chapter 1

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Magician’s Land

The concluding volume in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, "The Magician’s Land" is best enjoyed after re-reading "The Magicians" and "The Magician King," since this third book jumps right into the action, expecting the reader to be familiar not only with its hero, Quentin Coldwater, but with its supporting cast of characters and where we left each of them (in various places across our world and several magical realms). I failed to brush up on my Magicians history before diving in, and as a result spent much of the book straining to remember who was who and what their relationships were to one another. (I would blame this on my advanced age, except that my 16-year-old brother confessed to having the same problem when reading the Harry Potter books too far apart.)

Once you know who’s who and what’s going on, The Magician’s Land is a satisfying tale with a quickly turning plot that balances sequences of action and introspection. My favorite parts were when Quentin becomes a blue whale – Grossman’s use of physical detail really makes the transformation feel believable – and the epistolary section of the novel told by Rupert Chatwin, one of the five children who appear in the Fillory novels Quentin loved as a boy. Fillory resembles Narnia in many ways but has several key differences, and I loved comparing the Chatwins’ adventures in Fillory to the Pevensies’ trips to Narnia and getting more background on their relationship with C.S. Lewis-like author Christopher Plover. The theme of authorship is very important in the world of the Magicians; there’s even a climactic scene set in a library, in which everyone’s life is represented as a book and, taken together, these books make up the universe.

I was fortunate enough to meet Lev Grossman earlier this year at Dragon Con, and when I told him about my novel and that I’m in the process of trying to find an agent, he said very seriously: “Never give up. You must not give up.” It was an exhilarating moment, and his words made a huge impression on me. Unfortunately, they lost some of their power over the last few months, and I came close to giving up anyway. Despite winning an award for my short story last month, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the publishing world and my lack of success at finding representation for my novel. I really need someone telling me “You must not give up” every day, and since I don’t have that, I’ll have to do it for myself. So, my New Year’s resolution for 2015 is not to give up: to write every day, even if it’s only a few words, and to stay focused on my goal of being a published author.

What resolutions are you making this year? Share them in the comments!

Monday, November 17, 2014

A year in the life (and then some…)

It’s been one year today since I started this blog, so I thought I’d share the story of how it came to be and my writing life up to this point. My rebirth as a writer really began three years ago, when my sister gave me a copy of “No Plot? No Problem!” and I participated in National Novel Writing Month. Before that, I’d put creative writing on the back burner for a good dozen years.

Although I’ve kept a journal for most of my life, my forays into fiction pretty much ceased after grad school, when my priorities became focusing on my professional career as an editor and – not insignificantly – finding the love of my life. People tend not to mention their personal lives when summarizing their careers, but dating is hard work! And while it can provide lots of great material for fiction, it also takes up a considerable amount of time and energy that might otherwise go toward creative pursuits. The same goes for new relationships. So it wasn’t until I settled into a stable cohabitation with the man who became my husband that I felt able to make time to channel my creative energy into writing again. And though my NaNoWriMo novel is currently in the proverbial drawer, I’d been bitten by the fiction bug and there was no turning back.

For my next project, I tackled revising a novel I’d first drafted way back in high school – “The Freedom Dreamers.” I joined the Atlanta Writers Club to help motivate myself to finish the rewrite, and when I learned that they have twice-yearly writing contests, I decided to try my hand at a short story. My first entry, “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (and Spiders),” placed third in the Fall 2013 Wild Card category. In the spring, my poem “Summer” placed second in Poetry. And I’m very pleased to announce that my most recent entry, “Sad Little Indie Film,” came in first in the Fall 2014 Short Story category. (Several people have asked me when and where it will be available to read – I’ll post details soon!)

This blog anniversary means a lot to me, since it really marks a year of committing to myself and my writing. In that time, I’ve posted twice a month on average, published “Nothing to Fear” on Amazon, started a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, and sent out dozens of query letters for “The Freedom Dreamers” while continuing to pursue professional success as an editor/content manager. It’s a lot of work, and sometimes I feel like I have a split personality. But ultimately it’s been a very exciting year, and I hope the best is yet to come!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween! What's for dinner?

If you’ve read my short story, “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (and Spiders),” you might be curious about the meal that Macy prepares for Stan: “carrot bisque with sour cream drizzled into a spider web pattern on the top – More spiders! Who wants to think about spiders when they’re eating?

It’s based on an actual recipe for Curried Carrot Soup from Rachael Ray that my husband first made for me two years ago, and it has since become a Halloween tradition in our home. (Unlike Macy, I don’t decorate the house with giant spiders, but I do like to celebrate the holiday with whimsical touches here and there!) It’s a delicious and surprisingly healthy soup – its creamy texture comes from the pureed carrots rather than actual cream – that would be great to serve kids before taking them out for a night of binging on free candy. Just watch out for how much spice you add – we like it hot, but that extra kick of cayenne might not be for everyone! And I do in fact serve it witha green salad, blessedly free of any cutesy Halloween touches,” but the homemade cookies, alas, are purely fictional, since I don’t bake.

If you’d like to give me a Halloween treat, please like my Facebook page, or if you’ve read “Nothing to Fear” and liked it, consider writing me a short review on Amazon! I hope you have a frightfully fun and deliciously decadent holiday!

Monday, October 13, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Middlesteins

More a collection of linked short stories than a novel, Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins” paints a family portrait from a number of different perspectives. Each chapter is told from the POV of a different character, among them matriarch Edie, a “queen among women” whose weight is out of control at more than 300 pounds, estranged husband Richard, angry daughter Robin, resigned son Benny, and controlling daughter-in-law Rachelle (pet peeve: when authors use non-traditional spellings of names, I wish they’d clarify how to pronounce them. I was never sure whether to hear “Rachel” or “Rush-elle”).

The patchwork approach means that we don’t get to spend any great length of time in any one character’s head, so ultimately I had the same issue with The Middlesteins as with “Love Walked In” and “Belong to Me”: I wanted to spend more time with the characters whose struggles I found most compelling (Robin and Edie) and less time with the characters I didn’t like as much (Richard and Rachelle). I would have liked more of an exploration of the reasons for Edie’s destructive behavior and/or more of an arc for Robin, who wrestles with her body image, her faith and her relationship with her boyfriend in the shadow of a tragic loss during her teen years. Either of those women’s stories would have been good enough to stand on their own.

Ultimately, my favorite part of the book was the portrayal of the tight-knit Jewish community in suburban Chicago that the Middlesteins belong to. In a chapter told in first-person plural narration (reminiscent of “The Virgin Suicides”), Attenberg does a wonderful job of sharing an insider’s view of their concerns and priorities. The bonds, both within the family and between the Middlesteins and their neighbors, and how those bonds are tested by the strife and drama of Edie’s failing health and the disintegration of the Middlesteins’ marriage, feel real and poignant. I’ve always been fascinated by communities close enough to self-identify as a “we” (my novel “The Freedom Dreamers” is largely about trying to forge an independent identity while living in close proximity to other people and break away from the emotional dependence inherent in those relationships) and so I loved this glimpse into one, brief though it was.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What I’m Reading: Artful

I’ve had a soft spot for "Oliver Twist" ever since I played a small role – that of Charlotte, the undertaker’s slatternly daughter – in my high school’s production of the musical “Oliver!” So when I saw “Artful: A Novel” being offered free as a Kindle First, I was intrigued to read a story told from the Artful Dodger’s point of view, then surprised and amused to see that said story involved vampires (or "vampyres," as it is spelled in the novel, for reasons not fully explained).

In a mashup similar to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” Peter David puts the Dickens characters into what reads like the novelization of a vampire action flick. It’s a fun, fast-paced tale that unfolds cinematically, despite its literary inspiration – even to the point of a scene in which a character does something dramatic in her mind that she doesn’t actually do (a TV/movie trope if ever there was one). I found the plot, involving characters taking various forms of transportation around London to hunt and fight vampires in different locations, a bit repetitive, and the climactic battle felt a little too easily resolved. But I enjoyed the dialogue and the humor, especially the narrator’s occasional Dickensian asides to the reader – wish there had been more of those. If you’re a fan of Christopher Moore’s books, especially "Bloodsucking Fiends", I recommend this one.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

10 books that had an impact on me

These are not necessarily my "favorite" books, but 10 that have a special place in my life for various reasons. Presented roughly in the order in which I encountered them:

The Outsiders. The book that made me believe I could write a novel, since S.E. Hinton was a teenager when she wrote it, and inspired me to write my first long-form fiction piece way back in middle school.

The Pigman. My paperback copy has an author’s note at the end in which Paul Zindel answers “frequently asked questions” from kids who have read the book. I fell in love with the idea of creating characters that other teens would relate to and possibly even write me appreciative letters about!

Westmark, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy is not nearly as well-known as his Prydain cycle, but for my money, it’s a much more original bit of world-building. Westmark feels like a real, historic place, even though it’s a (nonmagical) fantasy land. And the books are chock-full of strong, kick-ass female characters, while most of the books I was reading at that age were lucky to have even one.

I’m With the Band. Not only did the amazing Miss Pamela Des Barres let the 15-year-old me live vicariously through her rock-and-roll adventures, but she made it seem like a real possibility that I too could have a life glorious enough to write a book about it someday. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to participate in her life-changing writing workshops as well!

Love, Dad. Read as research when writing the first draft of my novel The Freedom Dreamers, back in high school. Evan Hunter writes about the generation gap of the late 1960s through the experiences of a father and his daughter. I laughed, cried and got super angry with his flawed characters, especially the indulgent dad who just could not seem to get the concept of setting limits with his spoiled, entitled hippie daughter.

The Fountainhead. Read my senior year of high school for a scholarship essay contest sponsored by the Ayn Rand Foundation, and became a die-hard Objectivist for a few years. Still think that it (and Atlas Shrugged) are great reads even if you don’t buy into the philosophy.

Tully. A novel by Paullina Simons I picked up for a quarter in the library’s used book section, and proceeded to read every few years for the next decade. Expected it to be a beach-read trashy romance novel, but was surprised when it turned out to be a realistic, nuanced coming-of-age story of a young woman who manages to carve out a meaningful life with friends, career and family – all in spite of being a total mess most of the time, due to both sad circumstances and her own stubborn character. Made me want to write books for and about young women in extraordinary circumstances.

Exorcising Your Ex. Beginning in my 20s, I started to find that the books that “changed my life” were less frequently fiction than self-help, preferably with a healthy dash of humor. Elizabeth Kuster’s book helped me laugh, cry and heal from the ridiculously hard breakup of the most serious relationship in my life to that point.

Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts. Regena Thomashauer’s audacious position that you should love and celebrate yourself – “enjoy your life and get everything you want” – blew my mind even at the supposedly evolved age of 30.

Finding Your Own North Star. Read it last year and continue to pick it up every so often. Martha Beck helped reconnect me to my long-shelved dream of becoming a writer, and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re struggling to identify your “north star,” the thing that will bring you joy and purpose. Let the Wildly Improbable Goal-setting begin!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Back-to-school resolutions

My niece and a lot of other kids are headed back to school this week, and while I don’t have children of my own, I still get caught up in the excitement of the season. Growing up, I always loved going shopping for school supplies, starting off the year with a lineup of pristine tools. I remember the smells of new pencils and erasable ballpoint pens… the stiff spine of a brand-new composition book, its glowing, blue-lined pages just waiting to be filled… the neat color-coded tabs of a three-ring binder, complete with folders for each subject, a tiny calendar, a (never-to-be-used) protractor and a stiff plastic pencil pouch not yet smudged with ink and graphite.

Those school supplies spoke to me. This year, they said, you’re going to be the perfect student: prepared, creative and organized. Even today, I get a rush when walking past school supplies on display in stores. The Trapper Keepers have TV characters I don’t recognize on them, but they smell the same, and they’re still packed with the promise of a fresh start.

Even if you’re not a student or parent, back-to-school is a good time to make resolutions, begin new projects and shed bad habits – possibly better than Jan. 1, since the days are still long and our bodies aren’t sluggish with cold. This year, my back-to-school resolution is to pick back up on my novel, which has been left hanging nearly all summer while I’ve visited with family and spent time with friends. In a twist, the novel takes place in summertime, so I guess I’ll be getting the best of both worlds – focusing fall energies on capturing the memories of those lazy, hazy summer days.

What would you like to accomplish this school year? Share your back-to-school resolutions in the comments!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Book Thief

I suffered a personal loss while reading Marcus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” – my husband and I buried our beloved dog, who passed away last month after a long illness – so I’m sadly familiar with how our minds struggle to find comfort and make sense out of tragedy. “The Book Thief” doesn’t help the devastating legacy of Nazi Germany make any more sense, but it does find poetry in the fragments. Zusak’s depiction of Death gathering up souls – gently, forlornly, even tenderly – is a lovely image to hold onto in times of grief.

Death is the immortal, omniscient narrator of the novel, but the story focuses mainly on a young girl, Liesel Meminger, who is sent to live with a foster family after her little brother dies. I’m guessing that the youth of the protagonist is the main reason the Library of Congress classifies “The Book Thief” as Juvenile Fiction, but overall, it’s hard for me to consider this a young-adult novel. Most YA novels stick with the same main character throughout, but “The Book Thief” periodically takes us away from Liesel to focus on other characters’ – including some adults’ – experiences. The violence is not terribly graphic, but definitely present – given the wartime setting, it would be strange if it weren’t – and at times very disturbing.

Still, I can see this book appealing to younger readers, especially with Death’s frequent asides – short snippets and facts set off from the main text in bold – that seem designed to hold the attention of a generation used to getting everything in bite-size texts and tweets. The asides didn’t bother me, but I didn’t think they added much either, other than as humorous tension-breakers when the plot gets extremely serious and sad.

To me, the real accomplishment of the novel, aside from its beautiful descriptions, is how Zusak illuminates the power of books to heal emotional wounds. This theme is beautifully represented in the relationships among Liesel, her foster father Hans, and Max, a Jewish refugee that the family hides. Their interactions are touching and profound without being overly sentimental. Liesel’s evolution, from an illiterate girl (who nonetheless feels compelled to steal books) into an accomplished reader and an author in her own right, illustrates how the love of reading leads to the urge to write one’s own story – and how the act of writing can be a life-saving palliative against misery and despair.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What to Read: The Yearling

Hubby and I were flipping through channels Sunday night, and we landed on “The Yearling,” the 1946 film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 1938 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I never had to read “The Yearling” for class, being the world’s worst-read English major. As I recall, I picked it up once or twice in the school library, but was put off by the long descriptions of nature, the dialect the characters speak, and the fact that I already had a pretty good idea of how it would end (spoiler alert: it’s kind of a downer!).

I was drawn into the film, though, thanks to a funny scene in which the matriarch (played by Jane Wyman) tells a rambling story about wanting to get a dog when she was a child, but deciding against it because “a hound’ll suck eggs.” In a surprisingly sarcastic response, her husband (played by Gregory Peck) snarks: “Well, now, that's a mighty exciting tale. You got any more like that one?” It was so unexpectedly irreverent, based on what I thought I knew about the story, that I thought perhaps I should read the book: maybe it too would surprise and delight, rather than just depressing the heck out of me. What do you think?

Have you read "The Yearling"?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What I’m Reading: Why We Broke Up

Daniel Handler’s “Why We Broke Up,” a birthday gift from my brother, took me two months to finish -- not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it’s so dense, with pages-long stream-of-consciousness passages consisting of carefully chosen phrases that would be a shame to rush through. So I read this book like I’d eat a cheesecake, in small bites, savoring each one.

The tale of a teen romance that’s run its course is told in the form of a letter written by Min Green to her ex-boyfriend Ed (addressed as “you” throughout, which takes a little getting used to; I occasionally had to remind myself, “Oh right, I’m Ed”). There’s plenty to relate to in the details of their courtship: if you are high-school age or older, you no doubt have kept a box of mementos, counted “anniversaries” after only days or weeks, struggled with jealousy over past relationships or worried about your friends’ opinions of your significant other. All of it feels perfectly natural here, and Handler treats it respectfully. “Why We Broke Up” seems aimed at adults as much as teens, but Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) also writes books for children, so he’s clearly tapped into the mindset of younger readers.

My one criticism of the book is that, while these seem like real teenagers, they seem to exist in no particular place or time. As a writer of historical YA fiction, I’m super-focused on the little details, such as such as references to technology and pop culture, that help make a setting feel tangible. The technology in this book doesn’t help pinpoint an era: the characters draw maps on paper napkins instead of pulling them up on their smartphones; Ed calls Min at home but the phone just rings so he hangs up (but later on it is revealed that she has a cell, so why didn’t he just call her on that? Do teenagers even call each other at home anymore?). And they have the Internet, at one point attempting to stream a movie on a laptop, yet there is a great deal of speculation over whether a former movie actress is living in their unnamed town, when a quick Google search could have revealed plot-spoiling details.

The pop-culture references peppered throughout the book don’t help give the reader a clue either, because they all come from Handler’s prodigious imagination. Like Cornelia in “Love Walked In,” Min is a huge fan of old movies, but the difference here is that the movies she references exist only in the world of the novel. It’s a testament to Handler’s talent that the fictitious references to music, movies and TV shows all seem perfectly plausible, but it was another aspect of the book that slowed down my reading, because nothing was familiar. (I learned it takes more brainpower to mentally compose a tune for the “Catty Cat” theme song than it would to simply hum along with a song I already knew!)

All in all, this was an enjoyable escape into a world that seems equal parts reality and fantasy: reality in the emotions of the characters, fantasy in all the surrounding details of their lives. If you’re thinking of reading this book, my advice is to try not to be distracted by the nebulous setting and just enjoy the arc of Min and Ed’s relationship. Love, after all, is timeless.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Summer

Do you want to know what it’s like out tonight?
I could tell you that the sun has just gone down,
That the sky is streaked with pink clouds,
That the air is warm and sweet with the smell of honeysuckle
And a cool, gentle breeze is stirring the trees.

I could tell you that.
But that’s not what it’s really like, I know.
It’s really like
Sitting on the grass atop a small carpet square
In an oversized camp T-shirt and my sister’s hand-me-down shorts
With long, tangled hair hanging down to the middle of my back
And mosquito bites all over
And dirt under the edges of my white crew socks,
Watching fireflies flicker in the dusk.
Along with fifty other Girl Scouts,
I’m waiting for the movie to start;
It will probably be “Mary Poppins” again
But that’s fine.

Tonight it’s like being nine again.

If I told you that,
Would you laugh and shake your head
And think that I’ve never really grown up?

Or would you maybe tell me about
Lying in a tent out under the stars,
Your head on a squeaky plastic camp pillow,
With skateboarding scabs on your skinny brown legs
And mosquito bites all over
Listening to the chirping tree frogs
And plotting how you might catch one?

(2nd Place, Poetry, Atlanta Writers Club Spring 2014 Contest)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Experiencing Pamela Des Barres' writing workshop

I’ve been a huge fan of Pamela Des Barres since high school, when I read her autobiography “I’m With the Band” and dreamed of living a life so interesting that one day I, too, could write a book about my adventures. For many years, I had to love her from afar, never dreaming of meeting her in the flesh, but in recent years, that dream started to seem more attainable, thanks in part to her great online presence. She maintains two regularly updated websites – one for her writing and appearances and one for her signature clothing line, Groupie Couture. She’s also active on Facebook, and has a blog feed on Goodreads. It was through her blog that I became aware of her recurring all-female writers workshops, two-night "writing parties" offered in cities such as New York and Chicago and Los Angeles. And last month, when I saw that she was coming to Nashville, it was too good (and too close) an opportunity to pass up. I registered and made travel plans, giddy with anticipation but still not knowing quite what to expect.

Modeling my "I'm With the Band" tee
from Groupie Couture

From the very moment I walked into the room on the first evening, I felt a sense of peace and welcoming camaraderie from the women who were already assembled. I was a bundle of nerves about meeting the famous Miss Pamela, but she hugged me like we were old friends who’d hung out many times before. After helping ourselves to refreshments (everyone contributes; I brought a bottle of wine and a couple bags of organic popcorn to share), the group gathered in a loose circle around the hostess’s spacious living room. Everyone introduced themselves, and Pamela explained the ground rules – no negativity, no self-editing, no qualifying what you’ve written when you share it with the group. She then gave us a prompt and we wrote for 10-15 minutes, then took turns reading what we’d written out loud (scary!).

After each reading, Pamela and sometimes the other participants would comment on some aspect of the text. The comments were all very positive, never critical, ensuring that the workshop felt like a warm, protected place where we could safely bare our souls. Sometimes Pamela would comment on a particular word choice or phrase that she liked, or sometimes she’d just share an overall feeling in response to the piece. Many of the readings stirred up deep emotions in the writer and/or the listeners, and it was lovely how the supportive environment made that completely OK.

We did three separate writing prompts and sharing sessions with a break in the middle. Some of what was shared was rough and guttural, some of it poetic and ethereal, and all of it authentic and heartfelt and thought-provoking. Then we had a homework assignment to do before the second class, which was held in the same format as the first, except that a different participant hosted and there were a couple of new “dolls” present that couldn’t attend the first class.

I came away from the workshop not only having fulfilled the dream of meeting one of my all-time idols, but also with a number of new Facebook friends – all inspiring women that I’m proud to know – and seven snippets of writing (three per evening, plus the homework) that have the potential to be expanded on or incorporated into longer pieces. I haven’t gotten around to doing so, but I hope my fellow attendees have, because I would absolutely love to read more of their work. And if you're considering signing up for one of the upcoming workshops, I hope I've convinced you to do it! Maybe I'll even see you there.

Me and the incomparable Miss P

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Augusten Burroughs on why to write every day

Had the privilege of hearing Augusten Burroughs speak at the Atlanta Writers Club Centennial Celebration on Saturday night. His keynote speech took the form of a Q&A session, which was a little disappointing to me: he’s such an excellent storyteller that I would have preferred more of a monologue… or even a reading from one of his books.

But it was still enjoyable to hear him give writerly advice, and some of his answers to the questions from the audience had a surprising twist. For instance, he recommends writing every day, but not just for the reasons that we’re usually given (like keeping your creative juices flowing and building your word count). Instead, he thinks daily writing is worthwhile if only to build your hand strength, so that your pen or computer keyboard can keep up with your thoughts. I loved this answer because it’s so simple and practical.

Today, I mark one year of free writing every day for 10 minutes (well, almost every day; I usually take weekends off). I’ve always kept a journal, but I used to write in it sporadically – once a month or so. Last year, at the suggestion of my career coach, I made a commitment to free-write for 10 minutes a day, and it has now become a ritual, just like brushing my teeth (but don’t worry, I don’t take weekends off from that)! I sit on my bed and write longhand, in a notebook, about whatever comes to mind. This morning, I wrote about what the front yard looked like when I let the dogs out to pee at 7 a.m. Knowing that no one’s going to read what I write is extremely liberating; when I mangle my sentence structure or choose phrases that don’t seem particularly literary, I don’t beat myself up about it. I just keep the pen moving, putting my inner critic on hold for 10 minutes.

Because I only write for 10 minutes at a time – typically filling about one page in my college-ruled notebook – I don’t have to shake my aching hand out at the end, like I do when I write longhand for longer periods. But I do find that my handwriting is steadier and my pen moves more easily across the page than it used to, so perhaps I have in fact built hand strength through this daily practice. Or maybe it has more to do with the mental strength that comes with keeping a commitment and permanently transforming one small aspect of my life. Whatever your reasons, I’d encourage a daily free-writing practice if you’re not doing it already. And if you have any suggestions for sticking with it (even on weekends), let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What I'm Reading: Belong to Me

Just finished Marisa de los Santos' "Belong to Me," the sequel to "Love Walked In," which I found difficult to enjoy because its dual POV distracted me from getting lost in the story. When I saw that "Belong to Me" is divided into chapters told from the POV of not just two, but three characters, I was worried that this conceit would compound the problems I had with its predecessor. To my pleasant surprise, it had the opposite effect. By telling two-thirds of the book in limited third person and reducing Cornelia’s first-person narrative to every third chapter, de los Santos somehow creates a balance, like putting the third leg on a stool. There’s still an excess of telling vs. showing, especially in Cornelia’s relationship with her husband, which I think protests a bit too much about how profound and amazing their love for one another is, while rarely backing up that assertion through the dialogue and actions of the characters. And Clare, who thankfully has a smaller role in this book, still seems unrealistically saintly and preternaturally mature (though I did find her more believable as a 14-year-old than an 11-year-old).

But the book’s strongest asset is the newly introduced character of Piper Truitt. The sorority-girl-turned-super-suburbanite wife and mother, she’s the one who has it all together, from her perfect hair to her perfectly portioned treats for the kids -- the one you love to hate but inside whose mind you’d give anything to peek. She's like a sympathetic version of Hilly from "The Help." Obsessed with maintaining appearances through rigorous regulation of both her inner and outer life, Piper sees her illusions of control come crashing down when she’s faced with the devastating illness of her best friend and rock, Elizabeth. Unfortunately, her storyline gets wrapped up a little too early to make way for some Cornelia-centered drama, but I’d like to read a whole book about Piper.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Better late than never: I'm on Goodreads!

I'm a little embarrassed that it took me so long to discover this wonderful resource for writers and authors. (What can I say... I've always been a bit of a late bloomer!) But I'm pleased to say that I now have an author profile on Goodreads! So far I've only spent a few hours (undoubtedly the first of many!) on the site, and I suspect I haven't even scratched the surface of what it has to offer. Very exciting!

If you've read "Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (and Spiders)," I'd love it if you'd stop by and leave me a rating and/or a review. And if you have any books to recommend, I'd love to hear about those too!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Body image isn't always about size

I've been reading some of the media coverage of "Lammily," the crowdfunded alternative to Barbie that has "average proportions." Despite her weird name (I think it sounds like mammary), a lot of people seem to like the idea of a doll that has a more realistic body type. But some critics think that Lammily still sets an unrealistic standard of beauty. I agree, because, after all, she's a doll. And, being a doll, she has smooth plastic skin that's all one color -- no blemishes or stretch marks in sight.

The heroine of the novel I'm currently writing struggles with body image issues. Like lots of teenage girls, she thinks she's too fat. She worries that her hair isn't blonde enough or big enough (the book is set in the '80s, when big hair was all the rage). But what bothers her the most about herself is what bothered me the most during my teenage years: not having perfect skin.

The people we see in magazines and on TV always have perfect complexions; or if they don't, then skillful makeup artists and/or Photoshop have helped them to look as if they do. Even now that TV is in high-definition, it's amazing how rarely you see pimples, dark spots, or blotches on anyone. Now, of course it would be unrealistic to suggest that the maker of Lammily should create a doll with a skin problem. But, in my opinion, even if we fix the problem with Barbie's proportions, we still have a problem of young people thinking they're not attractive enough, and comparing themselves to an external standard.

What do you think? As a teenager, do you (or did you ever) struggle with body image and unrealistic expectations of beauty? Do you think a doll like Lammily will help kids feel better about how they look?

Friday, February 28, 2014

How fast do you read?

I thought this reading speed test from Staples was fun and informative. It turns out I read 74 percent faster than the average American hooman, however I don't always retain what I read (only got 2 out of 3 comprehension questions right). To misquote Paul Simon: "Slow down, you move too fast, got to make the readin' last!"

See how fast you read:

ereader test
Source: Staples eReader Department

Sunday, February 16, 2014

What I'm Reading: Bigger than a Bread Box

Took a break from Marisa de los Santos to read a middle-grade book by a local author: Bigger than a Bread Box. I heard Laurel Snyder speak at the January Atlanta Writers Club meeting, and found her inspiring, especially when she shared that she sent out her first novel 49 times before finding success. I'm currently trying to find representation for my own novel, and "trying" aptly describes the process, in both the sense of an attempt and the sense of something excruciatingly irritating that you wish was over already. It always helps to hear reminders from successful authors that their success didn't happen overnight.

"Bigger than a Bread Box" is the story of Rebecca Shapiro, a 12-year-old girl who moves with her mother and her baby brother from Baltimore to Atlanta when her parents separate. Rebecca hates being away from her father and wishes her parents would resolve their issues so she can move back home. In the attic of her grandmother's home where the family is staying, she discovers a magical bread box that can grant any wish, as long as the wish can fit inside the bread box. In the most entertaining plot line of the book, she uses her new-found magic power to win over a contingent of "mean girls" at her new school. Unfortunately, like most realistic books with a magical element, the premise falls a little flat in the book's conclusion, and I was dissatisfied by the lack of an origin story -- even a sketched-in one -- for the bread box. Where did it come from? Who else in the world knows of its existence? About three-quarters of the way through the book, a new character is introduced that at first seems likely to lead to these answers, but never does. Still, it's an entertaining read, and Rebecca seemed like an authentic 12-year-old most of the time, unlike the preternaturally mature Clare Hobbes of de los Santos's "Love Walked In."

I checked this book out from my local library, and the children's librarian who helped me find it on the shelf was curious about it, so I explained to her that I had heard Snyder speak and that I am a YA writer myself. Then she told me this hilarious joke: "How is a YA writer like a broken park bench? Neither of them can support a family."

Now, I am old enough and just stubborn enough to keep pursuing my chosen career in spite of barbs like that. But I feel for the impressionable children that she must come into contact with every day. Let's hope she's a little more compassionate and encouraging when they share their precious career aspirations with her than she is with adults who do the same.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What to Read: Adam Bede

Spent last weekend in Tennessee celebrating the birthday of my father-in-law, who told me that his favorite book is "Adam Bede" by George Eliot. While I've had "Middlemarch" recommended to me several times over the years, I think this was the first time anyone has recommended an Eliot book to me that was not "Middlemarch." My father-in-law admitted he had a few false starts with this book, but he kept at it and found it to be one of the most rewarding reads of his lifetime. What do you think, readers - does this one go on the list? Or, if I only read one Eliot book, should it be her defining work rather than a deeper cut?

Should I read "Adam Bede"?

Monday, February 3, 2014

What I’m Reading: Love Walked In

I just finished “Love Walked In,” a novel recommended and Christmas-gifted by my sister, who’s a big fan of the author, Marisa de los Santos. It’s the story of Cornelia, a coffee shop manager who loves old movies and whose life changes in unexpected ways when she meets a man who seems to be “the one.” It’s also about Clare, an 11-year-old girl struggling to maintain a normal life when her mother stops being someone she can count on. In telling these two characters’ eventually intertwining stories, de los Santos uses a shifting narrative technique: Cornelia and Clare alternate chapters, except that Cornelia’s chapters are told in first person, while Clare’s are in limited third. It makes for interesting variety at first, but the chapters are pretty short, and I quickly became fatigued with the constant shifting back and forth.

It’s funny… when I was in elementary school and my favorite books were the Chronicles of Narnia and anything by Beverly Cleary, I disliked first-person narration – what I referred to as “I books” – so much that when browsing in the library for something new to read, I’d put a book back on the shelf immediately upon seeing the word “I” on the first page. That lasted until middle school, when I read “The Outsiders” and S.E. Hinton immediately became my favorite writer – a position she’d hold for years, while I eagerly sought out other “I books” by the likes of Paul Zindel and Judy Blume. When I wrote my first full-length work of fiction (not quite a novel, more like a long short story) at age 12, I borrowed characters from Hinton’s universe – today, it would be called fanfic, but I don’t know if the term existed back then, in the olden days before the Internet. But unlike Hinton, who always stuck to male protagonists, I made my main character/narrator female, because even back then I thought it was important to tell a coming-of-age story from a teen girl’s perspective. However, I digress. Suffice it to say that when I get into a book, whether it’s an “I book” or told in the third person, I like to stick with one POV throughout, and so the alternating pattern in “Love Walked In” didn’t work for me.

It’s a shame, because I enjoyed the characters and would have liked to have settled in longer with each of them. Cornelia’s voice is funny, self-deprecating and down-to-earth, even if she does tend to be a bit too conscious of her own act of storytelling, addressing the reader with defensive comments along the lines of “Am I rambling? Do you want me to get on with it? Well, I will, just bear with me,” too frequently for my taste. And Clare is a wonderful, compelling character, but it seems like her chapters belong in a different story altogether – a more serious, literary one, in which the reader doesn’t get to experience things through her immediate 11-year-old perspective but from a slightly removed third-person vantage point. I noticed a lot of telling-not-showing, with key conversations and events simply summarized instead of demonstrated to the reader through dialogue and action, and I thought de los Santos missed some opportunities to let me, as a reader, draw my own conclusions about the characters’ feelings and motivations. For instance, Cornelia tells us “I was in love,” and other characters observe “Cornelia was in love,” so there’s definitely no confusion, but instead of spelling things out so directly, how about showing how she feels through her words and actions and letting the astute reader recognize the symptoms for what they are?

I realize I’ve spent most of this post talking about the style and not the substance of the novel, but that’s only because the style was so distracting that it kept me from truly being immersed in the story. But I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, “Belong to Me,” which employs a similar technique, to see if I like it better. So don’t give up on me yet, sis!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I Think He Walked Out of a Carl Hiaasen Novel

Speaking of traveling with animals, saw this guy on the news this morning and couldn't believe it was an actual human being and not a character in a wacky Miami-spoofing novel by Carl Hiaasen or Dave Barry. I mean, seriously - his name is Hickory?


I'm a little worried about those pets on the scooter, but it sounds like they've been riding there for a while, so hopefully they're safe and not too stressed-out.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

What I'm Reading: Three Men in a Boat

I recently finished “Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog!)” by Jerome K. Jerome, a book I’d never heard of until my sister recommended it to me last fall. The story is a humorous account of three friends traveling up the Thames along with their fox terrier, Montmorency. Apparently, it was originally intended to be a serious travel guide, but the author’s bent for comedy just sort of took over. There are some serious, thoughtful passages – and it’s in these that Jerome’s talent for prose really shines – but on the whole the story is a lightly rollicking misadventure that will have you chuckling out loud on almost every page.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of dry, witty British humor. The voice of the narrator reminded me a lot of the hosts of the UK version of Top Gear. Though it was published in 1889, the humor is easily accessible to today’s reader; in fact, part of the fun of reading the novel is realizing just how little has changed when it comes to human nature. People were hypochondriacs long before the existence of WebMD, and they argued over directions just as we do today despite having GPS. And being myself the owner of a fox terrier mix, I also distinctly enjoyed the descriptions of Montmorency. If I had one complaint about the novel, it would be that the passages about him are too brief!

Wikipedia tells me that the pubs and inns named in the story are still open, and that fans of the book have been known to recreate the river itinerary. This sounds like tons of fun, so next time we’re boating up the Thames, I’ll see if I can convince my husband, who is a champion rower, to take the oars while I inspire him by reading “Three Men in a Boat” aloud. (Alternatively, there is an audio version, read by Hugh Laurie, that I bet is awesome.) Then, much like the protagonists of the novel, I’ll probably be ready to abandon the great outdoors in favor of some warm slippers and a cozy pint.

Happy New Year, everyone!