The Reading Writer's Quandary

YA Highway's report of a recent discussion in the blogosphere left me, another lowly aspiring writer who blogs and gets into Goodreads, with a lot to think about. Their link aggregate is excellent, but for those of you who don't want to put in the half hour to read every one of the articles, I'll summarize:

Aspiring writers who read and review books can find themselves in trouble with potential agents and editors by posting negative statements about books. Further, should the aspiring writer find some success, especially NYT bestseller-list success, their words about books liked and disliked suddenly carry much more weight and can actually affect other authors' careers. Some bloggers have chosen to go on hiatus because of this conversation; others are moving forward cautiously; still others intend to keep their straightforward modes of expression.

For me, the discussion only exacerbates the concern I already feel at making negative statements online, even without reference to my desire to get published. The internet is public and permanent. My policy has already been that I don't review a book unless I found it enjoyable and valuable in some ways, even if something about it didn't quite work for me.

But writing real thoughts on books, anything beyond a list of the five best books to take to a desert island, requires sometimes saying something negative. I've said negative things about books by authors whose success is spectacular and deserved, authors whom I greatly respect. I've fussed about the overwhelming horror in Mockingjay—but Suzanne Collins created Peeta Mellark, one of my favorite characters in fiction (and one of the most redemptive). I've said that Coraline left me with a strange cold feeling—but Neil Gaiman rarely writes a sentence that I don't sit back and admire. Heck, I think J.K. Rowling overused the word 'screamed' in Deathly Hallows, and you know how I feel about Harry Potter.

There's not one of these writers that I wouldn't meet with trembling hands and a sudden tendency to stammer. Not even if my writing got successful.

I'm not sure what all this means for me. I like talking about books. Having had my nose in one almost constantly since age four, there aren't many subjects I like better. If I'm going to blog at all, books will get mentioned, and honestly. I will continue to concern myself with keeping opinions respectful, but as I've learned in many an area of life, the desire to be perfect doesn't always win against the human capacity for failure. So I guess this is a risk.

Would you take it?


Turning Thirty-Three and other stories

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart turned 255 years old yesterday. I've always liked and appreciated Mozart's work, but perhaps never loved it with the fervor I give Beethoven's. That is, until Lou and I, Andy and Lindsey, and Lou's parents went on a triple-date to the Seattle Symphony last week to see the Requiem, complete with Ave Verum Corpus.

I fell in love with his music that night. Splendid, splendid pieces.

* * *

Shannon Hale turned... well, I don't know what she turned on January 26, but Happy Birthday to one of my favorite writers! Many happy returns of the day. I can't wait to read The Goose Girl, which is sitting beside the couch as I type.

* * *

I turned thirty-three yesterday... yes, I get to share a birthday with Mozart and be only one day off from Shannon Hale. Awesome, no?

As birthdays go, thirty-three feels oddly significant for two reasons. First, Jesus was thirty-three when he went through his Passion—something to think about. Second, I once heard someone say that when you turn thirty-three, your character is fixed in the direction it will go for the rest of your life. That it won't significantly change. For some reason, for all these years, that has stuck in the back of my head with the confidence of observable scientific fact.

And I can't help but wonder what that means. Will I always expect to get anything done in half the time it actually takes me? Or never cease taking myself too seriously? Will my hands forever shake every time I speak or sing in public? Will I never understand why anyone thinks it's fun to get up by the stage and jump around during a rock concert?

Possibly. Hah.

When I think about it, I don't take that idea seriously. At best, it just means that short of a bad knock on the head, I'll always prefer a quiet life. But it's hard to help wondering.

* * *

The evening of my birthday was busy, so Lou and I celebrated the night before. Neither of us felt like going out, so I made spaghetti and brownies. He told me we could watch a chick flick if I wanted, so we saw Ever After... and I'd forgotten how much I wholeheartedly adore that movie. Beautiful filming, beautiful scoring, beautiful story. One of my top five favorite movies ever.

Besides watching a lovely fairy tale with me, he gave me a card with awesome geek glasses on the front and the words "Talk nerdy to me" on the inside. Also, he got me a locking diary with a unicorn on it. Did I not get the best husband ever? I ask you.

Ever After made me glad for hair long enough to wrap a braided strand all the way around my head.
After we got through being busy last night, we came home, had some of my friend's homemade Transylvanian wine and read Dante aloud. Then we ate leftover brownies and read books (he read Stephen Hawking, I read Stephenie Meyer.) It felt wonderful.

* * *

YA Highway, one of my new favorite reading-and-writing sites, is hosting a giveaway! Want a chance at winning some ARCs? Go check it out. I'm entering—me and a couple hundred other people—but it's worth a try. And even if you don't, I recommend the site for anyone who loves young adult fiction. Especially if you also like travel.

* * *

Music of the week: I haven't watched American Idol in years, thanks to not having television. But this video is going around, and heavens, it made me want to cry and smile and sing all at once. Here's to Chris Medina and Julie.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: George forwarded this to me awhile back, and I rediscovered it this week. Writing advice from C.S. Lewis? Yes, please. Thanks, George.

* * *

Funny of the week: I love this T-shirt. And this one. And a lot of the rest of them are funny, too. Advisory: Some of them are funny and dirty, and a few of them are just dirty.

* * *

All right. It's after four o'clock, I still have to sweep and vacuum, and I have the book club for which I have not read the book tonight... then, afterwards, the girls thought it would be fun to do karaoke. I do not do karaoke, especially not when my voice hasn't recovered from a cold. But I don't think I can get out of this one—the birthday girl (a good friend of mine, not me) wants me to get up. So think of me tonight. I'll be off singing The Dixie Chicks' Cowboy Take Me Away, or The Eagles' Hotel California, or something by ABBA... or something else not vocally taxing... and I'm already nervous.

At one point in my life, I wanted to be a country music star. I think I was crazy.

Happy weekend, everybody.



Re-reading: Twilight. Because I can.

Reading: The Narnia Code, still. It has too many amazing ideas to easily absorb in one sitting.

Failing to read: Finding Happiness by Abbot Jamison. Which I'm supposed to have read for my book club tomorrow night. But I procrastinated too long on getting it, thinking I could just get it for Kindle for PC, and as it turns out, it's not available that way. I am clearly growing overly dependent on the digital age.

Out from the library:

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
The Book of Three (Book One of The Chronicles of Prydain) by Lloyd Alexander

Listening to: the furnace roaring and chirping in the kitchen, and Wreckless Eric's I'd Go The Whole Wide World running around in my head.

Writing: making final pre-submission revisions on my first novel, re-plotting the sequel, prepping for Silhouette (which I'm editing for the February-April season), and trying to figure out what to do with Thursdays on my blog. (Suggestions welcome.)

Here's some Chesterton for you.
[T]o a Christian existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't.
—Orthodoxy, chapter eight
I'd paste in the whole chapter, if it wouldn't make for such a massive blog-post. Oh, I love that book. It takes a great writer to encourage my faith and justify my love of thrilling stories all in one paragraph.


Currently Reading: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

"The Gray-Eyed One did this to me, Percy," Medusa said, and she didn't sound anything like a monster. Her voice invited me to look up, to sympathize with a poor old grandmother. "Annabeth's mother, the cursed Athena, turned me from a beautiful woman into this."

"Don't listen to her!" Annabeth's voice shouted, somewhere in the statuary. "Run, Percy!"

"Silence!" Medusa snarled. Then her voice modulated back to a comforting purr.

"You see why I must destroy the girl, Percy. She is my enemy's daughter. I shall crush her statue to dust. But you, dear Percy, you need not suffer."

Author: Rick Riordan

Synopsis: Percy Jackson's favorite teacher makes a point of emphasizing the importance of the Greek myths. But when another teacher turns into a monster and has to be fought with a pen-turned-sword, Percy's already unstable life goes wild. He and his mother run for their lives, his mother vanishes in a shower of gold, he fights a Minotaur—and winds up at Camp Half-Blood, learning that he's half-Greek god himself, and that Zeus wants his rear for stealing a very important lightning bolt. Can a fifth-grade halfblood save his mother, survive a trip to the Underworld, battle Ares, find and return Zeus' lightning, and figure out who the real thief is?

Notes: I can see why these books are so popular. First off, if this first installment is anything to go by, they make great reads. Percy's middle-grade voice is hilarious, clean, simple, and fun.

Second, if you think Greek mythology is confusing and unmemorable, you'll find it easier after this to remember things like the difference between Chiron and Charon. I like my Bulfinch, but Riordan does a cleaner job of making the names and stories stick in my head.

Third, the tale plays with some of the same themes and concepts as Harry Potter without looking copycattish. Grover, the bumbling satyr, and Annabeth, daughter of Athena, have a heck of a lot in common with Ron and Hermione (except bickering over everything and falling in love with each other.) But they don't scream Ron and Hermione to me. Like Rowling, Lucas, Tolkien, and numerous others, Riordan simply makes use of the symbolic body-mind-spirit trio.

As for the question of whether there's much real depth to the tales of Percy Jackson: it will take me more study to find out. I'll definitely go back for the sequels, anyway. I liked the book despite having had the weird experience of growing a little bit attached to someone who turned out to be the bad guy, and the requisite disappointment when my suspicions proved accurate. That doesn't often happen to me in a tale with archetypes.

A couple of little advisories: There's a bit more ambiguity as to right and wrong than I'm normally comfortable with, which would unfortunately involve spoilers to describe. Also, part of the mythology is a sort of "when people die, they see what they believed in life" kind of idea, which I just blow off as fiction, but which I suspect some people actually believe. Parent, know thy fifth-grader.

Recommendation: Do you enjoy middle grade fantasy? Have you procrastinated for years on really getting to know those strange and grotesque Greek myths? This is the book for you! At least, it was for me.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books We Wish We'd Read as Kids

Welcome to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish!

Don't worry: if you loved the Tuesday recipes, you may still get some on occasion. I'll either post them as an extra Tuesday post or just go late and do Thursdays... but I was really starting to reach for ideas. And if you want recipes, for heaven's sake, go over to City Wife, Country Life and follow the blog. Because it's superb, and the excellent Farmer's City Wife actually puts up pictures with her recipes.

So: first week of a new meme, and I'm already breaking the rules. This week's theme is The Top Ten Books You Wish You'd Read as a Kid. But I read a lot of great books as a kid, and of the ones I haven't, I'm a lot more curious which ones you think I should have read.

After all, I plan on keeping the childlike spirit around for life. I also plan on reading more.

My questions for you: Which books do you think I should read? And which books do you wish you had read, or still plan to?

To help with recommendations, I've picked an old School Library Journal list of 100 Best Children's Books and bolded the ones I've already read. The original link seems to be defunct, but luckily I was able to get this from Janet Batchler's blog, Quoth the Maven. Starting from the top:

#1 Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
#2 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
#3 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
#4 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
#5 From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
#6 Holes by Louis Sachar
#7 The Giver by Lois Lowry
#8 The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
#9 Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
#10 The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster [sounds familiar, but I'm not sure]
#11 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
#12 The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
#13 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
#14 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
#15 Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
#16 Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
#17 Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
#18 Matilda by Roald Dahl
#19 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
#20 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
#21 Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
#22 The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo
#23 Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
#24 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
#25 Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
#26 Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
#27 A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett
#28 Winnie-the Pooh by A.A. Milne
#29 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland /Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
#30 The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
#31 Half Magic by Edward Eager
#32 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
#33 James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
#34 Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
#35 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire JK Rowling
#36 Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
#37 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
#38 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
#39 When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
#40 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
#41 The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
#42 Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
#43 Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
#44 Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
#45 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
#46 Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
#47 Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
#48 The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
#49 Frindle by Andrew Clements
#50 Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
#51 The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright
#52 The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
#53 Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
#54 The BFG by Roald Dahl
#55 The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
#56 Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
#57 Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
#58 The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
#59 Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
#60 The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
#61 Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
#62 The Secret of the Old Clock (The Nancy Drew mysteries) by Caroline Keene
#63 Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
#64 A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck
#65 Ballet Shoes by Noah Streatfeild
#66 Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary
#67 Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville
#68 Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
#69 The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
#70 Betsy Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
#71 A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
#72 My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
#73 My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
#74 The Borrowers by Mary Norton
#75 Love That Dog by Sharon Creech
#76 Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
#77 City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
#78 Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
#79 All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
#80 The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
#81 Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
#82 The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
#83 The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
#84 Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge
#85 On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
#86 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
#87 The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg
#88 The High King by Lloyd Alexander
#89 Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary
#90 Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
#91 Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
#92 Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
#93 Caddie Woodlawn by C. R. Brink [another one that I think I may have read, but don't know for sure]
#94 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
#95 Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren [I would have ranked this higher. Just sayin'. :)]
#96 The Witches by Roald Dahl
#97: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
#98 Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
#99 The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
#100 The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder


Twitter Totter

This post also applies to Facebook, by the way. At least in some regards.

After several months of having an active Twitter account, in which I've mostly fluctuated between posting a couple of times a day to several days of silence, I have come to the same state of suspended decision I've struggled with all along: Twitter seems like a great idea, but I have no idea how to really take part in it.

Or, in other words:

As far as reading other people's tweets, well—that's my television. It takes me less than one sitcom of time per day, and it's pretty nearly as entertaining; people can be creative and funny and interesting, and I enjoy following.

But I never quite know how to jump in there myself. Oh, I've read article after article on How to Use Twitter—after all, it's considered a good skill to have in the publishing industry—but in some ways, those just freeze me up. Every time I pull up Tweetdeck and start to type, I hear all the warnings about not being overly self-markety (so I rarely tweet a blog-post), not tweeting a constant self-broadcast (so if I haven't retweeted someone else's post in the last day or two, I don't dare tweet at all), and making sure you're contributing to the conversation (what conversation? Everybody's talking at once! This is so not polite English talk over tea....)

All I know is: I'm not quite ready to give it up yet.

Do you have the secret to updating your Facebook status or managing Twitter? What do you like best about the people you follow?

Best non-paralyzing Twitter links I've found: Nathan Bransford's How to Use Twitter
Rachelle Gardner's A Few Hints on Twitter


Sword-Wielding for Girls and other stories

Our cat and I went through the following conversation more times than I can count this week:
Maia: Play with me!
Me: Bring me your toy, and I'll throw it for you.
Maia: I brought you my toy.
Me: You didn't bring it to me. You left it all the way over behind the coffee table.
Maia: You're supposed to get up and get it. That's part of the fun.
Me: I'm sick. I don't feel like moving. Bring it to me.
Maia: I'll get into your box of telescope accessories.
Me: I'll squirt you with the squirt bottle.
Needless to say, she usually won. At least, until I moved the said box of telescope accessories out of her reach. But I think she's grateful that now I'm back to playing like cats' people are supposed to.

* * *

Did I mention that Lou got me a little telescope for Christmas? We've had rain for a couple of weeks solid, but before that we braved the cold long enough to see Jupiter's moons, resolve the star Albireo into its double form, and look at craters on our moon. I'm loving it.

* * *

The blog posting schedule may switch up a bit next week. I'm running out of recipe ideas, and I've found a couple of book memes that I think have better questions than Booking through Thursday, so probably Tuesday and Thursday will change up. Hopefully the shift isn't too annoying. :)

* * *

Okay, open-heart moment.

If you were ever taught that it's wrong to fall in love with someone you're not already engaged to—or that boys and girls should be "shamefaced" around each other—or that kissing and holding hands and saying 'I love you' are best saved for marriage—or that it's a sin to marry without your parents' approval, no matter why they're withholding it—or anything similar... Darcy's post on emotional purity is for you. Please read it.

My parents did not subscribe to all of these ideas, and they understood grace too well to stay under such teachings for long. I've had friends who were less fortunate. But the concept of emotional purity appealed straight to my natural legalism, and it took me years to get free. I still struggle with some of the effects.

Also from Darcy: this one's for the girls. We get to wield swords and slay dragons, too. YESSSS.

* * *

Writer's link of the week: With brilliance and brevity, here's Alan Lastufka on trust and the creative life.

* * *

Music of the week: According to my sources, Meghan Tonjes sang on the Ellen show this week. But she started on YouTube.

* * *

Funny of the week: The Onion on building excitement in the NFL.

* * *

I'm off to clean house. Happy weekend, everybody!


Booking Through Thursday... sort of

Last week was a little quiet on Booking Through Thursday, although Masha told a hilarious story about her resentment for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and George put up a request for a book he loved but can't remember the title of:
"If anyone knows of a book with anthropomorphized animals in a town with a river going through it out to the sea & a mean, grumpy old fox, who all the children are scared of, let me know."
I'm curious, now. Anybody heard of this?

This week's Booking Through Thursday question was about what magazines we read, which I couldn't summon up enough interest in to make a real blog post out of it. I steal Lou's First Things every month, long enough to read the 'While We're At It' section (never quite so much fun since the original editor, Father Neuhaus, died) and sometimes some of the essays. That's just about it. I'm not a magazine or catalog kind of a person—unless you count blogs, which I read by the dozens.

In lieu of that, here's a list of what I've been reading—some Wednesday posts to look forward to.

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. I figured it was high time to read The Other Cool Middle-Grade Fantasy (besides Harry Potter, that is.)

The Narnia Code by Michael Ward. A Christmas gift from my in-laws, this book explains the influences of the seven planets (as recognized in medieval times) upon the seven Chronicles of Narnia.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. My best friend read this and asked me if I would. Oh, I can't wait for this conversation, MissPhotographerB.

That SummerThat Summer by Sarah Dessen. Because I've thought for a long time that I'd enjoy Dessen's books.

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. Because everybody said so.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. Thanks to our friend Lazarus, I've finally read this important fantasy work.

Are you the magazine type? Which ones do you read? Have you read any good books lately?


Currently Reading: Coraline

CoralineA woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline's mother. Only...

 Only her skin was white as paper.

Only she was taller and thinner.

Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp.

"Coraline?" the woman said. "Is that you?"

And then she turned around. Her eyes were big black buttons.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Synopsis: Ignored by the adults in her life, Coraline goes exploring a lot—till one forbidden journey through a small locked door leads her into a monster's trap. Coraline's only hope to free herself and her parents is to challenge her enemy to an all-or-nothing game of chance, and then do whatever it takes to win.

Notes: First things first: Neil Gaiman writes some of the best contemporary prose in all of children's and young adult fiction. His writing is flawless, imaginative, and unique. With solid visual descriptions, the phrasing of a classic, and an intricate, well-rounded plot, Coraline is proof that children's books can be great.

Second things second: I don't particularly enjoy horror, not even in its relatively safe kid lit incarnations. I've read Dracula and a couple of Lovecraft pieces, and Coraline works on a similar level. It's a level I respect, but don't often take much of a liking to unless the darkness is strongly balanced by humor, warmth and light. For instance, Harry Potter and Meggie Folchart face monsters, but they do so with the support of laughing, loving people like the Weasleys and Elinor and Mo. Coraline fights almost entirely alone, and her loneliness troubled me. That was part of the point, of course, but it is not a pleasant point.

But I have to approve the epigraph, from Chesterton: "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Colder, darker fairy tales may never be the ones I care most to learn or teach by, but I couldn't agree more.

Being the sort of person who greatly prefers warm, character-driven fiction, I struggled to relate to any of the characters. At various times I wanted to smack both of Coraline's parents and once or twice even Coraline herself, not to mention everyone else in the book. But again, that's a very personal response.

For the parents who read it, of course, certain aspects of the story may be a gentle and eloquent exhortation to attend more to their own children. I don't have children, but if I did, I'd be tempted to copy a passage or two from the book and paste it along my laptop keyboard. And for modern children, who seem to be often alone, perhaps the tale of Coraline and the cat and the beldam is applicable in very real ways.

Coraline is a quality work, beyond any doubt. For those who take pleasure in a ghostly story, it may be a true delight.

Recommendation: For heaven's sake, don't read it before bed. Pick it up on a nice warm sunny day.


Tasty Tuesday; Pistachio-Coriander Stuffed Chicken

Tasty TuesdayA member of my writers' group posted this the other day, and it looked so fantastic that I thought I'd share it with you, too. I haven't tried it yet, mainly because I don't have pistachios or coriander or feta cheese in stock, but I think that might have to change.

We'll see if Haggen (the big local grocery) has coriander in its awesome new bulk spice rack, where if you only need a few teaspoons of something, you can buy a few teaspoons instead of a whole jar. I'm loving that spice rack—it means I can try out things that before were $9.99 or nothing.

Here's the link: Pistachio-Coriander Stuffed Chicken



A Moose and Mental Failure

The thing I miss most about being a child—other than the senses of perfect security and endless time—is that when you're sick, you're allowed to lay down with a blanket tucked around you, drink soda from a special cup, and feel totally free from all obligation to make any mental or physical effort.

But hey, I have it pretty good. I did actually spend almost all of today laying down with a blanket tucked around me.

As for mental effort, I've got nothing. So I give you YA Highway on the moose in the living room and other novel-writing difficulties. Enjoy.


Overdose of Profanity and other stories

Highlight of this week: A double-date to see The King's Speech, with my parents. All four of us thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Things I loved about it:
  • Exquisite performances from both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush
  • Bellatrix Lestrange Lucy Honeychurch Helena Bonham Carter. Is there a role that girl can't play?
  • Well-told story
  • Quiet, beautiful cinematography
  • Cleanliness, other than about fifteen seconds packed with as many curse words as possible
  • The presence of Mom and Dad and Lou, three of my favorite people in the world, in the theater with me

I recommend it. Just be aware of the F-bombs.

* * *

Other highlight from this week: at my request, Mom took a few inches off my hair. The tips are above my waist instead of below, now, and they don't get involved in everything I'm doing anymore. It's incredibly freeing. The day I buckled a few strands into a seat belt was the day I knew it was time.

My best friend wanted a picture. Here it is, MissPhotographerB!

* * *

Music of the week: A new (old?) piece I've loved learning.

* * *

This is how I felt about Catcher in the Rye too. Minus the use of the F-word again (seriously, I can go a whole week or better without even thinking about that particular curse, and here I have occasion to reference it twice in my blog?) After all, Holden's continual swearing was another reason I couldn't bear the book. I read Catcher in my early twenties, and had never in my life seen so many swear words per sentence. It was like being screamed at for two hundred pages.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Storyfix on the eight moments you need to deliver to your reader. It makes me want to look at not just my own manuscript, but my favorite books, and see how they compare.

* * *

Funny of the week: Dave Barry's Tips for Writers. Favorite line:

"The apostrophe is used mainly in hand-lettered small-business signs to alert the reader that an "S" is coming up at the end of a word, as in: WE DO NOT EXCEPT PERSONAL CHECK'S..."

* * *

I have a cold. I'm going to go read the last half of The Eye of the World and drink tea.

Happy weekend, everybody!


Booking Through Thursday: First Books

Previously, on Booking Through Thursday:

George has quite a stack of books he's resolving to read in 2011, ranging from Jane Austen to Arthur Conan Doyle to Luther and the Church Fathers. Rachelynn has set the goal of reading 50-100 books.  Masha plans to re-read less (to make room for first-time reads) and complete a poetics exercise (which all of you authors and artists of any other medium should really check out—it looks fantastic.) And it turns out that even I have reading goals for the year, which I hadn't realized.

Today's Booking Through Thursday questions:
Do you remember the first book you bought for yourself? Or the first book you checked out of the library? What was it and why did you choose it?
The first book ever? I have no idea.

The first books I remember checking out from the library were either Curious George or the Billy and Blaze books. "Billy was a little boy who loved horses very much..." And Jenna was a little girl of the same sort. By my early teen years I'd read nearly all of the horse-related nonfiction and children's fiction books that the Bozeman Public Library contained.

As for the first book I bought for myself, with my own money (i.e., not my parents or grandparents saying "You can pick out one book"): It's possible that a couple of the Lexi Leighton books I owned were bought with babysitting wages. It didn't take long for me to blast through a Lexi book, but out of everything the Christian bookstore contained for girls my age, those were the most appealing at the time. And I liked Lexi, though I found her friends Jennifer and Binky and Egg a bit more relatable. I was never short and cute like Binky McNaughton, but somehow I generally found myself sympathizing with her.

What about you?


Currently Reading: The Dark Lord of Derkholm

The Dark Lord of Derkholm (Derkholm, #1)They watched until the dragon was a seagull-shaped speck in the distance. "You know," Shona said, suddenly and unexpectedly, "I didn't like her very much. She was so artificial."

"That's rich, coming from you!" Kit said.

"But she was," Callette agreed, equally unexpectedly. "I didn't like her either."

Everyone except Blade turned to disagree loudly with Shona and Callette. "Please!" Derk shouted. "No arguments! Next one to argue gets made into a statue and I grow vines up them."

Author:  Diana Wynne Jones

Synopsis: Tour entrepreneur Mr. Chesney takes pilgrims on a full magical experience in which they believe themselves to be on a quest to free a world from an evil Dark Lord. In that magical realm, Wizard Derk enjoys his chaotic but relatively peaceful life with his wife, Mara, their two human children—Blade and Shona—and their five griffin children: Kit, Callette, Don, Lydda, and Elda. Unfortunately for Derk, he is chosen to pose as the Dark Lord for the tour season. Derk's whole family gets involved in dealing with tours. What begins as a big hassle grows into serious frustration, pain, and finally nightmare as the world gets its one opportunity to rid itself of Mr. Chesney for good.

Notes: I chose to read a book by Diana Wynne Jones thanks to a positive mention of her on Shannon Hale's blog. This book was sheer amusement, start to finish; it made hash out of every possible form of symbolism, it was complicated and hardly streamlined plot-wise, but it was hilarious.

A male dwarf named Galadriel? Classic large-family dynamics (bickering, teaming up, noise, intense loyalty, etc.) where five of the seven siblings are an experimental hatched blend of bird, lion and human? A harassed Dark Lord who has to fake his own death several times a day for weeks on end? This book is an outright spoof on the entire fantasy novel genre, catching science fiction on the backhand stroke. It made me think of my favorite of all spoofs, the movie Surf Ninjas, except that nobody in this novel broke out in a rousing chorus of Barbara Ann.

Perhaps some people may be disturbed to find things that are traditionally considered good and evil working together to rid the world of an ordinary unmagical greedy businessman. And on a serious level, I couldn't really get behind the idea that the greatest evil could be merely human. But I just couldn't take the novel that seriously. It was too busy spoofing everything it could find to poke fun at.

Recommendation: This would be my idea of a summer beach read: pure fun, not too suspenseful to keep you from enjoying the beach, but funny and potent enough to hold attention.


Tasty Tuesday: Lamb Korma

Tasty Tuesday"Well..." A whole evening in Granville's hands--it was a daunting prospect.

"Now don't mess about, Jim. You know, there's a wonderful Indian restaurant in Newcastle. Zoe and I would love to take you both out there. It's about time we met your wife, isn't it?"

"Yes... of course it is... Indian restaurant, eh?"

"Yes, laddie. Superb curries--mild, medium or blast your bloody head off."

--Jim Herriot, All Things Wise and Wonderful

I thought of that quote over Christmas, when Lou's family went out to an Indian restaurant in celebration of Lindsey's birthday. The available degrees were mild, medium, hot, and Indian hot. Not being overly brave in the hot pepper department, I ordered mild lamb korma. And I don't know what they call mild in India, but in all my life I can only remember one dish that might have been more impossibly cayenned.

A couple of days later, I heated up the leftovers with a lot of Greek yogurt and honey. Underneath all that fire was a fantastic flavor. I resolved then to try making it at home, where the flames shouldn't get out of hand.

Here's the link to the most appealing and do-able version I came across: Lamb korma

It looks excellent. I'm not a very passionately authentic chef, and I'll probably substitute butter for the ghee, black pepper for the peppercorns, and ground cinnamon for the cinnamon stick. Perhaps even beef for the lamb, as the latter runs expensive around here. But it should taste good all the same.

Maybe I'll look for cardamom and saffron next time I'm at the grocery, and give it a go.


How Not to End a Book

The importance of crafting a good opening hook gets a lot of attention in the writers' blogosphere. Likewise, character arcs and plot structure. After all, for the ending to be of any purpose, the reader has to get that far.

But I hear less about what makes a good ending, and if I'm going to love a book enough to re-read it—and I've always wanted to write the kind of books that get read again and again—the ending had better be lovable. Here are a few ways to kill an ending.

The Info Dump
All right, I can permit a short epilogue in which a handful of minor concerns get wrapped up, if—and only if—it follows at least one solid, fully-developed scene in which the tale has its resolution and the characters achieve their peace. But info dumps can make for trouble: sometimes they say too much. As a reader, I prefer to be left with a little scope for imagination.

The Wannabe Happy Ending
It irks me when an ending is wrapped up so quickly that either we don't get to experience the protagonist's happiness, or the joy doesn't come in proportion to the suffering. Bittersweet and tragic endings have their own rules, but a happy ending should be good and glorious and long enough to enjoy.

The Half-Resolution
Writers: Please don't start a plot thread you can't finish.

The Message
I might never forgive Thomas Hardy for putting the word justice in scare-quotes at the end of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The ending was cruel enough—I think the reader gets the point without it having to be said. Obvious agendas are annoying anywhere they occur, but they evoke sure disdain when they pop up out of nowhere on the last page.

The Cliffhanger
Even if the book has a sequel, this is just not kind.

Good endings come in happy, bittersweet, tragic, and many gradations of each. But one final note, for the edification of writers: If the book is going to end tragically, and the point is that life is chaotic and miserable and meaningless, I don't care how you write the final pages. I am still going to hate your sorry guts.

Have I missed anything? Do you have favorite endings, or endings you love to hate? Let me know. I'd love to learn from your thoughts.


A Variety of Neuroses and other stories

Lou and I sang at a funeral today. I didn't know our departed family friend, John Byrnes, very well, but I do remember his joyful spirit and his determined, powerful faith.

Rest in peace, John. Your faith leading up to death has been a great witness to me.

* * *

I've had a scratchy throat and episodes of hoarseness throughout the Christmas season, and more public singing in the last three weeks than I've had in the past two or three years together. Not a great combination.

Many thanks to those of you who prayed for me today. I was awfully hoarse last night, and for the funeral I had to sing Andrew Lloyd Webber's Pie Jesu and the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. Both of those songs require immense amounts of control, and rasping is hardly preferable. My voice cracked a bit at the beginning of the Dies irae, which Lou and I sang as a prelude, but it held up through the rest of the service. I am grateful.

* * *

Lou and I came home this afternoon and took down the Christmas tree. The holidays have reached their close, and already my mind has set itself into spring season. Time for the leaves to start coming out! Before long I'll be able to wear sandals again! Oh, wait... it's January.

Truth be told, I'd rather have a miserably cold and rainy winter and a nice spring and summer than have the cherry trees start blooming in January, like last year, followed by chilly rain through mid-July. Ack. Another year like that, and I'll threaten to move to Phoenix again. (I never really mean it—we have too much family here to gallivant off to the desert—but I do threaten.)

* * *

New author Veronica Roth is giving away ARCs on her blog, and anyone who enters gets double credit for getting her a picture of indecision. Fortunately for me, I've spent all week trying to make a decision.

I made use of a not-overly-common structure in my novel, and it has evoked strong and opposing opinions among my Greek-letter readers. It means a lot to me that people care that much about the story, but that hasn't made the decision—of whether to keep or lose that structure—easier. My instincts are on one side, but most of the detailed reasoning is on the other. This, therefore has been me this week:

and this probably won't get me extra credit, but I had to do the pulling-my-hair-out shot:

Here's to you, Veronica Roth. I hope I win!

* * *

Writer's link of the week: In honor of helpless indecision and other writing neuroses, here's Sarah Dessen on... well, writing neuroses. I can sympathize. Oh, can I ever sympathize.

* * *

Music of the week: Last week I posted a video from composer Eric Pazdziora. It's long past time I featured a song by Eric's wife, Carrie, who has one of the more lovely voices I've ever heard. A crackly YouTube video can't fully do it justice; you just might want to hop over to her site and listen to songs off her album.

* * *

And... that's all I've got. If you want something funny, here's a link Mr. Pond posted in the comments recently. It's got a swear word or two in it, but it sure made me laugh.

Happy weekend, everybody!


Booking Through Thursday: Resolutions (and other questions)

In the last episode of Thursday questioning, we discussed what our bookshelves say about us. It made for some fun answers:
  • Favorite expression of personal taste, from MissPhotographerB: "people would think I am probably a teenage girl who is a bit of a Sci-Fi nerd that is HEAVILY into photography and loves Mountain Gorillas."
  • Favorite personal philosophy, from Masha: "that I appreciate books for the entirety of the book - it's beauty, content, presentation."
  • Favorite general point, from Sarah: "My books are also very "loved" but I think a bookshelf full of perfect, unread books is just wrong."
Thanks, all of you, for participating!

After some consideration, I've decided to try participating in Booking Through Thursday, a weekly meme devoted to the asking and answering of book-related questions. Good news for all of you: You can either join Booking Through Thursday with your own blog, or answer the questions in the comments. I hope you do one or the other! Answering the questions myself is only half the fun.

This week's question was simply: Any New Year’s reading resolutions? Which, as it turns out, I do have a couple—sort of. But I have two other questions for you as well, posted by my friend Scott Fleischman on Twitter:

What is it that makes something worth reading multiple times? How would one go about writing such a work?

My resolutions:
  • Read enough books to keep Currently Reading going every week.
  • Finish Bulfinch and get hold of a Burckhardt text or two.
  • Keep re-reading—don't lose that joy entirely to reading new works or the internet.
As for Scott's questions, I'll join you in the comments. Those deserve some discussion, if we can get it.

So: Do you have any resolutions regarding reading this year? What makes a book re-readable to you? What do you think it takes to write something like that?


Currently Reading: A Tale of Despereaux

Despereaux sat and stared at him in dismay. What should he do now? He put a nervous paw up to his neck and pulled at the red thread, and suddenly his dream came flooding back to him... the dark and the light and the knight swinging his sword and the terrible moment when he had realized the suit of armor was empty.

And then, reader, as he stood before the king, a wonderful, amazing thought occurred ot the mouse. What if the suit of armor had been empty for a reason? What if it had been empty because it was waiting?

For him.

Author: Kate DiCamillo

Synopsis: As per the spine: "The story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread." That's as good a summing-up as any.

Notes: This book is relatively recent (2003); I'd otherwise be shocked that I'd never read it. It's an early chapter book, sweet and well-written and lovely.

My favorite thing about the tale: The range of passions and virtues covered, and the surprising depths to which they reach. Empathy, bravery, impossible hope, heartbreak, poor heart-repair jobs, forgiveness, and love are explored amid settings of tangible light and darkness. It's a lot to pack into a short little book like that. DiCamillo manages, proving, as many great writers do, that verbosity does not epitomize quality.

Memorable characters take the key roles. Despereaux, Roscuro, Pea, and Miggery Sow have really stuck with me; two weeks after reading the book, I still find myself sympathizing with their various troubles at random moments.

This book has already achieved some status as a children's classic, so all I can really do is say that I think it deserves it. I've never seen the movie that was made from it (being far less prone to watch kids' movies than I am to frequent the children's section of libraries and bookstores); if you have, what did you think?

Recommendation: Read it slowly enough to enjoy every line.


Tasty Tuesday [Rerun]: Shepherd's Pie

Tasty Tuesday
The hostess of Tasty Tuesdays is off enjoying her Christmas vacation, so today you get a re-run. But the re-run comes with a couple of improvements, as marked below. Thanks to my sister Beth for recommending the corn.

If you need a good, hearty, quick dinner in this first week of catching up after vacation, this ought to satisfy.

Easy Shepherd's Pie

1 lb ground beef or lamb
1 can green beans
1 can corn [improvement!]
5-6 medium mushrooms, diced [improvement!]
2 cans mushroom soup
1/2 small/medium onion, chopped
Garlic powder
Mashed potatoes, prepared however you like them
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Season the ground beef with thyme and garlic powder and brown over medium heat on stove. Add onions and mushrooms and continue cooking till the onions begin to turn clear.

Remove from heat and stir in mushroom soup (do not add water.) Drain the green beans and corn and stir those into the beef and soup mixture.

Top with dollops of mashed potatoes and sprinkle cheese over everything. Bake about 15 minutes or until cheese and soup bubble.


Routines and Resolutions

First things first: Happy Birthday to John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Thanks for giving us Frodo, sir.

* * *

Much as I love holidays and the idea of days off, the return to routine is always something of a relief. I've enjoyed every one of our numerous holiday parties and events, but the combination of sugar overload, coffee and alcohol more frequently than I'm used to, late nights, and lack of introvert catch-up time has me a bit frazzled. I slept till eleven this morning, and noon last Wednesday. That's something I simply don't do, not even on weekends.

Routine means keeping up with housework and writers' group and book club, daily work on any or all of the three novels I have in progress, and a focus on that query packet I've wrestled over for months. It also means a return to standard posting schedule on the blog.

Regarding that last, I have a couple of questions for any and all of you reading this: What would you like to read about on this blog in the coming year? More or less of anything I already write about? Something new? Shorter posts? Business as usual? Let me know if you have opinions, and I'll do my best to oblige.

As far as writing goes, I've not made New Year's resolutions. I already have resolutions, some of which come with deadlines:
  • Get a solid query packet together by [personal deadline]
  • Finish gamma reader-suggested revisions to my novel, finalize manuscript format, and read the whole thing out loud to myself to prepare for submission
  • Begin querying by [personal deadline] and continue as necessary
  • Write for the next season of Silhouette
  • Finish the first draft of the sequel to my novel
  • Finish the first draft of L.E.'s story
  • Continue to maintain and develop A Light Inside
  • Stay active at The Hog's Head
That list represents so many hours that perhaps I ought to make a resolution to get off the couch and move around every once in awhile.

Best wishes for pleasant returns to routine for all of you, and for the success of any resolutions you've made!