Thursday, March 1, 2018

What I Read in February

The family that reads together...
My reading slowed down a little in February, as I hit one of my regular reading slumps. Still, I got through another five titles, meaning I've read 18 books thus far in 2018. Only 34 to go to reach my annual goal.

I'm kind of psyched that all 18 of these titles have been authored by women. I've been wondering if I could keep the streak going and read only books by women in 2018. I'm already trying to increase the number of women of color I read, so this might end up being my sub-goal.

14. The Apothecary's Poison by C.J. Archer

This was the continuation of the steampunky, Victorian, slow-burn romance series that I started in January. To say I've thoroughly enjoyed these would be an understatement. I'm nearly to the point of wanting to get a pocket watch to carry to be like India Steele, but I think that would be carrying enthusiasm a little too far.

Started: February 1, 2018
Finished: February 2, 2018

15. The Magician's Diary by C.J. Archer

This is the fourth book in the five-book series, and I basically swallowed this one whole. (What's the reading equivalent of unhinging your jaw? Because that's what I did with this book.)

While the solution to the mystery presented in this book was perfectly clear to any reader who has even a smattering of experience in reading mysteries, it was still an incredibly fun ride and offered some much-needed catharsis regarding one of the series-long villains.

Imagine my distress when I went to download the final book in the series, only to discover that it will not be published until March 6. I may have stamped my foot and shouted NOOOOOOOOO!!! to the heavens. Yes, it's only a month I had to wait, but dammit, I was INVESTED! (Also--everyone should not expect to hear from me next Tuesday.)

Started: February 2, 2018
Finished: February 3, 2018

16. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

My friend Kellie from my book club mentioned that Maureen Johnson is one of her favorite authors, so I decided to check her out.

In this book, Rory, the main character, arrives in London just as someone starts recreating the Jack the Ripper murders--on the specific anniversaries, which means folks can figure out when to expect the next one.

I really enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but it was one of those books that didn't necessarily hold up once you'd put it down. For one thing, I cared not at all about the love interest. He was really uninteresting, particularly since there were actual ghost hunters in the city. Those ghost hunters were the most fascinating characters, and they weren't introduced until late in the story. I know that this was the first in a series (and I may keep reading), but I wasn't so sure about this one. (Also, the villain seemed to have no motive whatsoever. The one he gives in his "I'm the big, badass villain" speech made sense at the time, but fell apart as soon as I thought about it.)

Started: February 8, 2018
Finished: February 11, 2018

17. City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte*

This book was really, really, really, really weird.

Really weird.

Now, it was the kind of madcap quirky that I love. Sarah, the protagonist, is obsessed with Beethoven and a book about a house with more windows on the outside than on the inside. She goes to Prague for the summer and is employed by Prince Max (an actual prince) while at the same time an American senator is trying to cover up some baaaaad shit she did in Prague 30 years before when she was a CIA agent and a 400-year-old dwarf is trying to figure out how to die. There's also a drug (in the form of Beethoven's toenails, and that is NOT a euphemism) that causes you to basically travel in time, a blind musical prodigy, and a hell portal.

This kind of thing is all kind of my jam. But the sex in the book was weirdly off-putting (and I'm really not a prude about that kind of thing). Sarah jumps Prince Max in a dark room, thinking he's someone else, then has no idea who she just banged when she leaves the room and finds the guy she thought she was with--and that guy turns out to be a turd. Then she and Max have a love story, and it just felt weird.

Also, the 400-year-old dwarf was the best character and he was not in the book nearly enough. (Is it sizeist that I imagine him as Peter Dinklage?)

Weird, weird book. There's a follow-up that I think I'm going to read, just to get more of the 400-year-old dwarf.

*Magnus Flyte is the pen name of a collaborators Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch, so I have kept up the all-woman streak.

Started: February 12, 2018
Finished: February 15, 2018

18. Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

This book was a little gift to me from past me. I vaguely remember hearing or reading about this book several months ago, so I put a hold on it at the library, then promptly forgot about it. When it showed up, I was super surprised.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this book (since I didn't even remember putting a hold on it), but I was hoping for a little more "HUZZAH! Feminism!!" from it. Mary Beard is a Classics scholar who gave these essays as talks, and then adapted them into the (very slim) book. She gives historical and literary context to the ways in which women have always been punished for seeking or wielding power.

She also got me thinking deeply about the symbolism of Medusa. I have a poster up in my office featuring a snarling Medusa head, captioned with the phrase "Beauty must defined as what we are, or else the concept itself is our enemy." I love this poster, and I love the feminist interpretation of Medusa--unapologetically embracing the dick-shriveling power of our own ugliness. (And by ugliness, I mean everything from our physical appearance to the shrillness of our anger to our life-giving, unclean bodies to our refusal to submit).

But Beard made an important point about how Medusa is used to shame women and how problematic it can be as a symbol of female empowerment. (Apparently, there were posters during the 2016 election that imposed Lord Dampnut's face on the Perseus's head and Ms. Rodham Clinton's face on the dripping, severed head of Medusa).

This definitely has gotten me interested in reading more by Mary Beard, however.

Started: February 20, 2018
Finished: February 20, 2018

The Did-Not-Finish List

Part of the reason why I didn't have more books in February (and in general in my reading life) is that I'm a terrible book abandoner. I had one book in particular this month that I abandoned, that I intend to get back to when I can. 

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson was included in some list I found of great science fiction by women of color. I really loved the world Hopkinson built and was enjoying the book--but I made the mistake of reading a review somewhere that mentioned the main character (who is a child in the first part of the book) would experience incestuous rape. I have no doubt that Hopkinson handles it well--she's a phenomenal writer--but I just couldn't keep going.

LO keeps asking me if I'm reading this book, though, because he was with me when I picked it up from the library and he was really taken by the cover. He wanted to know all about the Robber Queen (the character above the child on the cover) and why Tan-Tan, the little girl, dresses up as her. 

I'm going to finish this book, so I can tell LO all about the Robber Queen.

What did you read in February?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What I Read in January

I have been a reading machine so far in 2018. While many who know me might claim I'm always a reading machine...
Exhibit A
In point of fact, I am an inveterate re-reader and much of my reading machinery is taken up with revisiting old friends who must get tired of me reading them.

2018, on the other hand, has been 4 1/2 weeks of reading new works non-stop. I have read, thus far in 2018, 13 books total. 

I can't tell if I've reached a new era of reading voracity, or if I'm just trying to escape the real world as often as I possibly can.

In either case, this does mean I'm very likely to actually meet my annual reading goal of 52 new books for the year. (I clocked in at 45 books in 2017, which was far closer to my goal than I thought I'd get.) So I figured I might as well do a monthly recap of my reading. I am pleased to say that all 13 of the books I've read so far have all been written by women authors. I am trying to increase my reading of both women writers and writers of color, and 8 of my January reads were by non-white authors (although 7 of the 8 were in the same series, so I'm not sure how much it counted).

On January 1st, I borrowed this book from Audible's Romance library. The first three minutes had me laughing so hard the kids told me to go in another room. Kyra Davis, like her character Sophie Katz, is both Jewish and African American, and she is quite funny in skewering some of the expectations our society has of her.

Also, this book made me feel a little old because it came out in 2005, but felt kind of dated. It took me a while to realize that a book written in 1985 would have felt dated by 1998, too, but I still felt sad to realize just how long ago 2005 was.

Started: January 1, 2018
Finished: January 3, 2018

While Sophie's mother is on the radio trying to tell the news anchor that her other daughter, Leah, is innocent of her husband's murder, she starts telling the greater San Francisco area what a looker her Leah is and how she just needs to meet a nice Jewish guy once the whole murder investigation thing dies down. I was howling with laughter.

Started: January 3, 2018
Finished: January 5, 2018

Started: January 5, 2018
Finished: January 7, 2018

This was my least favorite in the series, and part of it had to do with the treatment of a character who is revealed to be transgender. This book was published in 2009, and it's really clear that a lot has changed in 9 years. Sophie, the main character, refers to the transgendered character as a tranny, which in itself could be just a sign of the times. In fact, I believe the word transsexual is what's used, rather than transgender, because even our vocabulary has changed a great deal in less than a decade. But the fact of the character's gender identity is a little bit of a punch line (like when Ross mocked Chandler for kissing a guy in Friends in the 90s), even though one of my favorite characters of the series makes the point of saying that transgendered individuals are no different than anyone else.

Started: January 7, 2018
Finished: January 8, 2018

Started: January 8, 2018
Finished: January 9, 2018

I can't quite explain why, but I think this one was my favorite. Going to Vegas for a sex toy convention is always the best way to get over a breakup, don't you find?

Started: January 9, 2018
Finished: January 10, 2018

All I can say about this one is that the magical cupcake recipe--which seems to be able to calm anyone down--should have been included with this book.

Started: January 10, 2018
Finished: January 11, 2018

8. A Bachelor Establishment by Jodi Taylor, writing as Isabella Barclay

Apparently, Jodi Taylor is the author of a series of time travel novels, and Isabella Barclay is one of her characters within those novels. I went looking for a light palate cleanser after gorging myself on the Sophie Katz series, and came up with this. I love historical romances set in Victorian England, so this seemed like a perfect fit. It was just meh, however.

But--it did get me intrigued about Jodi Taylor's time travel books--enough that I requested and borrowed the first book, One Damned Thing After Another, from the library. Alas, I didn't finish it (or even start it, if I'm being honest) before the library fine enforcement squad sent a couple of goons to my email inbox. I'll get back to it eventually.

Started: January 11, 2018
Finished: January 13, 2018

9. Charming the Shrew by Laurin Wittig

(I'm a little embarrassed by this cover, but dammit, I'm going to do this right.) 
So this is the February selection for my Feminist Readers of Romance Fiction book club, and we all decided it was exactly the ridiculous story of Highland Scottish romance we needed. We giggled when we chose the book, and I have no doubt we'll giggle all through our meeting (at which I plan to serve shortbread, but not haggis, because there are limits).

I actually was a little annoyed by the fact that Catriona was constantly referred to as a shrew when she seemed perfectly gentle and ordinary to me. I'm guessing that this is proof that I'd be hanged as a witch in 15th century Scotland because nothing she did seem particularly shrewish, and I'm channeling my inner rage bitch 24/7 these days. See--even when I escape from 2018, I don't really escape.

Started: January 14, 2018
Finished: January 15, 2018

10. A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

I have been eagerly waiting for this book since May of last year, when I first discovered the Veronica Speedwell series, and swallowed the first two books whole. I have re-read and re-listened to the first two books multiple times, because it is just that delightful, and A Treacherous Curse did not disappoint. Veronica Speedwell is who I want to be when I grow up, and yes, I know she's (as of the time of her stories) younger than me and fictional and all of that. She gives absolutely zero fucks what anyone thinks of her, and she does it with style, humor, and butterflies.

I LOVE these books.

Why, yes, I did read it all on the day it came out, and yes, I did get a hardcover copy, a Kindle copy, *and* an Audible version. It's that good.

Started: January 16, 2018
Finished: January 16, 2018 (and now I have an interminable wait for book #4 to come out)

11. The Watchmaker's Daughter by C.J. Archer

This was recommended to me by Audible, which proves that I'm having some sort of emotional affair with an audiobook provider. An historical romance set in Victorian London with some steampunky magic type weirdness thrown in?  

Why you so good to me, Audible?

Started: January 17, 2018
Finished: January 20, 2018

12. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

I've never read A Handmaid's Tale, because I am pretty sure I can't handle it. Future Home is a similar dystopian future, wherein women's bodies become tools of the theocracy. Evolution has started reversing, and there's no sense of what kind of world is in store for the not-totally-human babies that women are birthing. Cedar, the main character, is already pregnant with a wanted and beloved child at the beginning of this novel, but those in power want to imprison her and take her baby, for the "good of humankind."

My friend Natalie asked me to read this book, and after I finished it, she described the feeling of reading it as being "hollowed out." She was right. I had such a book hangover, and I was left with these heartbreaking images from throughout the novel. It touched on my feeling lately that there really is no such thing as justice. The quote "the arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice" is just that--a quote. Something someone said once. We are swimming in chaos, and all we can do is be kind to one another and make the meaning we can.

This was not exactly an escape from 2018, considering how many of the concerns in Cedar's dystopia ring true in our world, but it was good to spend time here. It reminded me of the badassity of motherhood, the importance of kindness, and the randomness of it all, which is both blessing and curse. I'm sure I'll look back on this as one of the best books I read this year.

(Also: Louise Erdrich is Ojibwe, and reading this book helped me realize how little Native American literature I have read. I want to remedy that).

Started: January 21, 2018
Finished: January 25, 2018

13. The Mapmaker's Apprentice by C.J. Archer

This was the perfect end to the month. The second book in the series that begins with The Watchmaker's Daughter, this was another light and fun read that had me dreaming of gaslights and old-fashioned timepieces.

Started: January 26, 2018
Finished: January 28, 2018

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

13 Minutes to Midnight on September 13






Eventually, he'll be awake at 11:47 at night.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (When I) Bomb

A Treatise on Perfectionism

My dear friend Erika wrote on Independence Day that she would be declaring independence from a bad habit that was not serving her or her family well. She asked us what we would each declare independence from, and I responded that I was letting go of perfection this year because I was tired of being paralyzed by perfectionism.

Another friend asked me how I was able to let go of perfectionism--which I honestly haven't really been able to shed. It's a work in progress. But this is basically how I, at the ripe young age of 38, am able to make some headway on a lifelong habit of perfection paralysis:

I struggle with perfectionism in my fiction writing for a few reasons:

1. I don't think I deserve to have a voice. Who am I to think I can write fiction?

2. What's in my head never matches up with what comes out on the page.

3. I am an avid consumer of other people's writing, and I notice when it's not perfect--so I worry that other readers will notice when mine is not perfect.

4. Every story that has ever been told has already been told, so what's the point in me writing mine?

5. The eventual heat death of the universe makes all human endeavors ultimately pointless. (I'm only partially joking about this one).

Here's how I am getting over each of these contributors to my perfectionism:

1. I learned that telegraph operators in WWII could be distinguished from each other by their "fist," which is their transmission style when typing out dots and dashes. I learned this years ago, and I've been coming back to this factoid over and over again, because it tells me that we are all unique individuals with unique styles, no matter how mundane the activity is. The fact that an operator's fist could be distinguished from all other operators' fists made me realize that I have a voice that is unlike anyone else's who has ever come before or will ever come again. (And this, my friends, is one of the reasons why I LOVE trivia. You never know what piece of trivia will inspire you).

Each one of these men has a distinct fist, which is as distinct as their voices.
2. I started drawing recently. I draw for fun and relaxation and just because it makes me feel good, so I don't struggle with perfectionism there. And because of that, I've become very comfortable with the fact that my drawing may not look like the object or artwork I'm copying, and that's okay. My drawings just need to look like themselves, and there really are "happy little accidents" a la Bob Ross when it comes to drawing. This has helped me let go of my need to have my head-novel match my page-novel.

Uncle Sam's rocket is falling of the edge of the page, and IT DOES NOT MATTER

Lady Justice's scales are not symmetrical or balanced, and IT DOES NOT MATTER
I also learned from drawing just to skip the shit I don't want to do. I was drawing a building across the street from my art class, and there was a column part that was going to be hard to draw, so I just didn't do it and it didn't matter. With my novel, there was a scene that had kept me from moving forward for 3 or 4 years because it was going to be boring and I didn't wanna do it, so I just skipped that bad boy and did some "time passed" magic to get to the next scene, which I did want to write.

3. I realized that noticing imperfections does not keep me from enjoying stories and good writing. Imperfections are going to happen, because we're human, and I should embrace my imperfect writing, because even Harper EFFING Lee had extensive editing to help her create TKAM. Also, I remembered that picking at imperfections is either the joyful and playful work of fans or the bitter resentment of critics, and I can handle either of those responses.

4. Just because every iteration of the human condition has been told doesn't mean that my story has been told with my voice (and fist), and the only way to tell it is to tell it.

5. The universe is going to end eventually anyway, so why NOT write my shitty novel if it makes me happy? (Not that I think my novel is shitty, although it might be--it's just I have some perspective about how I want to spend my limited time on this rock).

Finally, I've realized that I want to write partially for my boys. I want them to be able to hold a little piece of my soul when I'm gone, and the best way to do that is to do the work that is meaningful to me, which is writing.

And drawing bug-eyed people with maniacal grins.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

So Effing What?

At about this time last year, I went through a marathon X-Files viewing, revisiting the greatest alien-themed love story ever told (and realizing that Fox Mulder is kind of a dick, sadly).

Though I'd never seen it during the original airing, I was delighted to be introduced to the mediocre-yet-hilarious (and very very 90s-rific) episode Syzygy. It's the story of two 17-year-old girls, who for some astrological reason that is never well explained, receive magical murder powers. Also, everyone is really crabby, which leads to one of the greatest moments of bickering between Scully and Mulder.

One of the subplots in that episode revolves around a local pediatrician who is a cross-dresser. The small town becomes convinced that he is behind the murders because he is clearly hiding something, and everyone comes bearing metaphorical pitchforks while he is dressed up.

Watching this episode in the modern era makes the doctor's dilemma seem sadly quaint. So the man enjoys a lovely frock and some lipstick. So what? So What? is a perfectly reasonable reaction in 2017, and even though I know it wasn't back in 1996, I'm still having trouble remembering why.

Had this poor pediatrician been able to So What? about his clothing preferences in the 1990s, no one would have ever suspected him of murder. He could have done rounds in dresses, and helped kids recognize that the pants-are-for-men rule is entirely arbitrary. Being able to say "Yeah, I like taffeta and tulle and sequins and eye shadow. So what?" would have released that poor man from a lifetime of shame and embarrassment. (And yes, I recognize that this pediatrician is entirely fictional and that his lifetime lasted approximately 7 minutes of a 45 minute episode of a show. Nevertheless.)

So, I am a big advocate of doing you, no matter who you are, when it comes to that kind of biggish stuff--and when it's about someone else. For me, getting to the So What? is a little tougher.

Idle Hands

For instance, I have a deep-seated fear that I am lazy. There is a part of me that knows I'd rather sit under a shady tree with a book and a tall glass of lemonade than do anything else, and I'm horrified by that part of me. There are things to do! Items to check off of lists! Productivity to accomplish! And if I'm not productive, then I am a lazy-ass bitch who has not earned her spot on this earth.

There is a big man named Spike on his way to roust me out of bed and force me to be productive. He'll be here any minute now.

Under the sane and relatively normal surface that I present to the world, there roils a belief that my only real worth is tied to my ability to get shit done.

Of course, I didn't invent this weird-ass belief. After all, how many times have we all uttered the phrase "productive member of society"? I just perfected the neurotic reaction that dictates no matter how much I manage to do each day, I go to bed at night fearing that the time I spent on Facebook or the nap that I took somehow subtracts from my overall worthiness as a human being. Because that's a rational response.

But here's the thing: being able to proudly admit that I'm a lazy-ass bitch who would rather sit under a shady tree than *do* shit helps negate that shame. It makes me realize I get one go around in this world, and if I want to spend my time snoozing on a blanket under fluffy white clouds or under a blanket while accompanied by a fluffy white-and-gray cat, that is my choice to make.

I've been working on proudly wearing my laziness on my sleeve. It's an uphill battle, but realizing that I can be who I am--even if who I am is a lazy bitch who really will do nothing today, thanks--is pretty awesome. It helps take the sting out of anyone who tries to call me lazy, even that bitch of a taskmaster who lives in my head.

I'm lazy. So What?

Book Shame, I Hardly Knew Ye!

Of course, rooting out any kind of shame is tough, especially when you don't even realize the sensation you are feeling is shame.

I have long lamented my reading tastes in my formative years. Why did I waste my time reading (and rereading and rerereading and rererereading) Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters and Susan Isaacs and Alisa Craig and Charlotte MacLeod and Mercedes Lackey and Minette Walters when I could have been filling my impressionable head with really good writers. If I'd been consuming "good' literature then, I'd be writing "good" literature now, instead of having stalled on a writing a romantic thriller for the past nine years that I can't seem to bring home, in part because I'm ashamed of it.

It suddenly hit me this week how very ashamed I am of my literary tastes. That bitch of a taskmaster in my head is apparently not just mistress of impossible to do lists--she is also arbiter of literary worth. She has me convinced that there was some sort of bright and immutable line separating "good" literature from "bad" literature and that I was doing nothing more than indulging my baser self by staying on the wrong side of the line.


No, seriously, WTF, taskmaster bitch? I can't like shit that I like?

The Divine Ms. Barbara Mertz

Image courtesy of NYT
My book shame realization came to a head this past week as I was considering the long career of Ms. Barbara Mertz, aka Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters. Between 1967 and 1987, Ms. Mertz wrote two books a year, a pace that only slowed down slightly through the 1990s and 2000s, until her death in 2013.

All told, she wrote nearly 80 books of romantic (and sometimes slightly paranormal) suspense, and I believe I have read every single one of them. After reading Crocodile on the Sandbank when I was about 13, I was hooked, and I would borrow one or two of her books from the library just about every weekend until I finished her oeuvre and started over again with the stuff I liked best.

Her heroines are funny and smart and really well educated and her heroes are funny and kind of arrogant and also remarkably well educated. Her books are painstakingly well researched, and I know what I know about subjects as varied as the gold of Troy to vintage rose gardening to designer jewelry to seances to Egyptology to pre-historic American history to Ozark magic to country music because of her. She loved animals and included cats or dogs in most of the books. Nearly every one of her novels ended with a young couple in love.

Ms. Mertz is probably my biggest literary influence.

(I actually had to take a deep breath before writing that.)

I love her books and they have shaped how I think about stories, and I've been pushing that away for a long time. The novel I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to write since 2009 is very much influenced by her books (Into the Darkness in particular)--which means I'm probably going to have a much easier time of things if I recognize and embrace my love for her books rather than run away from it.

So, here it is:

I like to read and write well-researched romantic suspense novels.

So. Effing. What?

Now, was that so hard?

If you'll excuse me, I need to go sit under a tree with a glass of lemonade and a Barbara Michaels novel.

(And taskmaster bitch, you'll kindly have a seat and keep your damn mouth shut.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

13 Minutes to Midnight on September 13

2016 (And no, I don't know why he is sleeping on the floor)