Archive for Books



I’m a big re-reader. If there’s a book I love, I can read it over and over again. That’s one reason I have such a huge book collection. They’re all “keepers” that I plan to re-read someday. You can tell my favorite books because they’re the ones falling apart. I’ve tried to cut back on my book purchasing since I’ve run out of bookcase space. Instead, I get most of my books from the library. But if there’s something I love at the library and know I’ll want to read it again, I’ll get a keeper copy. I don’t want to risk not being able to get it from the library someday. I even get paper keeper copies of e-books I really love, since you never know when something might go wonky with electronic files or the e-book supplier might go out of business and you can’t access your library anymore, etc.

Most of the time, re-reading is about either re-experiencing the things I loved in the first read or discovering new things. Generally, my first read is purely for story, and if I’m really into it I may miss things as I eagerly plow through the story to find out what happens. It’s on subsequent reads that I pick up on details, since I’m reading more leisurely and don’t have to be so anxious about what’s going to happen. I’m savoring instead of frantically turning pages. Or, if I just enjoyed the book a lot, it’s fun to spend more time in that world and with those characters, and it’s about the experience rather than finding out what happens next, the way it is on the first read.

I’m currently re-reading a book I know I’ve read more than once, but it’s like reading it for the first time because very little about it is familiar. I read it in the early-mid 90s, but haven’t read it since then. There are little bits and pieces that ring a bell, and I think I know what the big twist at the end is going to be, but I’m not sure if that’s because I remember it or if it’s because the book is doing a lot of foreshadowing. Otherwise, it feels new. I remember the experience of reading this book. I know where I was and what I was doing when I read it, and I remember discussing it with someone. I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about it, so it didn’t stay fresh in my head. I think that big gap since the last time I read it means that my mental imagery from reading it has changed. I’m a different person now than I was in the early 90s, and I’ve had a lot of experiences since then that may have changed the images in my head that are conjured up by the words. It doesn’t “look” the same, and so it seems like a different book. It’s kind of nice because it’s like getting a brand-new book that I’m guaranteed to like, since I know I liked it when I first read it.

I’m the same way about movies. I have “comfort views,” the movies I’m guaranteed to like, and I enjoy experiencing them again. When I do movie nights, I tend to alternate between new-to-me movies and movies I’ve seen. I’ve been burned more than a few times by a new movie that sounds good and isn’t what I wanted it to be at all, so when I’m in a delicate mood, I go with something I’ve seen since I know how it will hit.

When I was discussing re-reading with some writer friends a while back, I had the theory that writers who like to re-read are more likely to be plotters, while those who don’t like to re-read are more likely to be “pantsers” who just write without outlining ahead of time. A lot of pantsers don’t like to plot because once they’ve done an outline and know how it ends, they’re done with the story and don’t want to write it anymore. It seemed likely that these same people wouldn’t want to read a book they’ve already read, either. In that particular group, the theory held out, but I don’t know if it holds true among a larger sample size.

Now I need to look at my bookcase and see what other books I could re-read without remembering them. Not that I don’t have a huge to-be-read stack of books I haven’t read, but sometimes you want something you know you like, even if you don’t remember it.


A Big, Fat Fantasy Series

I haven’t talked about what I’m reading in a while. I have several series I’m rotating among because I have this weird thing where I burn out on a series if I try to read it straight through. So I read a book from one series, read one from another, then read one from another before going back to the next book in series 1, and so forth, except the order I get to them varies depending on the mood I’m in.

I’ve just finished reading book 3 in one of the series, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to hold up and be something I can recommend. I’m not sure what the name of the series as a whole is (the library doesn’t have them categorized under a series name), but the first book is Inda by Sherwood Smith. I’d put it in the “if you liked A Game of Thrones” category because it’s largely about court intrigue and how people get into petty power plays while there’s an existential threat out there that they’re going to have to deal with, but it’s not as gory or disturbing. I’d also compare it to the Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, although this is fantasy rather than science fiction. There’s the warrior society, and there’s the main character who’s a charismatic natural leader and genius strategist who has a knack for pulling victories out of thin air and winning people over to his side.

The first book starts out looking like a “school” book. Our hero is a second son in a noble family, and traditionally the first sons are sent to the royal academy to train to be warriors who fight for the king, then they’re supposed to go home and train their younger brothers, who will defend their homes while the older brother is fighting for the king. But there’s a break in tradition in which the second sons are also called to the academy to train. What these boys don’t know is that this is all part of a scheme to undermine the king’s second son and change the kingdom’s power structure, and this sets in motion events that will totally change the kingdom. Young Inda is a natural leader, and when he befriends the shy, bookish prince and pulls together a group of boys who shine in the academy, it totally upsets all the schemes. That leads to Inda being exiled to a merchant ship, and his life goes in some strange directions from there.

It’s hard to describe much more of the plot without spoilers, but we get to see these boys grow up and go through all kinds of things. In the book I just finished, they’re adults and leaders in their own right, dealing with the fallout from the plots that started in the first book. All the plotting is very twisty, and it’s fun to see all the various plot threads converge, merge, and diverge. Like with the Song of Ice and Fire books, there are storylines taking place in a variety of locations, and characters from one storyline may end up meeting up with other characters. The worldbuilding is pretty detailed, with fully thought-out cultures. You get a sense for their social structure and priorities and how that has worked to shape their society.

The stories do get a bit intense. There’s violence, since we have war and pirates, and I have skimmed over a few parts or flipped ahead to see what will happen so I can brace myself through a difficult part, but I like these characters enough to want to know what will happen next for them. They’re also really, really fat books. It takes me weeks to read one, but that means I get to be immersed in that world for a long time. I’m taking a break to read something else before I dive into the next book, but I’m eager to do so, so I may not make it through my whole series rotation first.

writing, Books

Jane Austen’s Mary Sue?

I’ve been thinking about that “Mary Sue” concept some more, and to further explore it, I’m turning not to action/adventure, but to Jane Austen.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen identified pretty closely with most of her main characters. She had a lot in common with them and they were in similar circumstances to what she experienced, but with different outcomes (since they all got married and she never did). If you look at Austen’s letters and life story, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice was to a large extent Austen’s self-insert character.

Is Lizzie a Mary Sue, though? She’s sparkling and witty, and everyone loves her. Even Darcy, although he initially claims she’s not as attractive as everyone else seems to think, falls in love with her. She ends up marrying the extremely wealthy man, who goes to great lengths to help her and her family. She gets to give a stinging comeuppance to a snobby older woman. It kind of sounds like Austen was writing out her greatest fantasies.

But I don’t think she’s a Mary Sue. Austen gives Lizzie plenty of flaws. She’s a terrible judge of character, believing everything Wickham tells her and seeing him as trustworthy while she doesn’t see Darcy for what he really is, even after he starts softening somewhat. She’s part of both the “pride” and “prejudice” in the title. She goes through a major growth arc.

Cathy in Northanger Abbey is to some extent another self-insert — a clergyman’s daughter with an active imagination who’s obsessed with gothic novels — but the book is, to a large extent, poking fun at this character and the way her overly active imagination gets her in trouble. She may get the happy ending, but after she learns a lesson from making a huge mistake. (This one does have a Star Wars connection, in that Felicity Jones of Rogue One played Cathy in the most recent TV adaptation, which is now really fun to watch after seeing Rogue One if you imagine Jyn Erso showing up instead of Cathy.)

Anne in Persuasion may also have had some element of autobiography to her. Austen clearly relates to her. She’s practically a saint, the longsuffering only sensible person in her flighty family, tending to her sickly sister and her kids as essentially an unpaid servant and suffering in silence as she has to watch other women make a play for the man she loves. There’s a lot of “Victim Sue” going on here. But Austen is also very clear that Anne has screwed up seriously. She’s in the situation she’s in because she made a bad choice.

Austen may have written self-inserts who get to live out her fantasies, but she remains objective about these characters. She’s well aware of their flaws. She makes them learn and grow in ways that Mary Sues seldom do (if you start out perfect, you don’t have to grow or learn).

The reason I was thinking about Jane Austen in terms of Mary Sues was the recent finale of the series Sanditon, which was very loosely based on a fragment of an unfinished novel by Austen. Really, the only part Austen wrote was the setup, a genteel but naive young woman gets invited to stay in a beach resort town with some people her family recently helped. There’s a hint that there’s a dashing (and possibly scandalous) younger brother of the man she’s visiting, and there’s a wealthy lady in town with impoverished young relations hanging around her, hoping to get into her will, as well as a young heiress from the Indes. And there it leaves off.

But instead of the TV writers letting the Austen heroine be an Austen heroine, they created a Mary Sue. This heroine was practically perfect from the start and doesn’t really grow or change. She’s good at everything — she can set a broken bone, give advice about architecture, plan an event, win at cricket, and just decide to be a governess. She wins the heart of the scandalous brother and the bright young architect (only for both to vanish when the series got cancelled and then renewed and the actors were no longer available), then catches the attention of a military officer and a wealthy widower. Her main problem is resolved not by her growing or learning anything but by others intervening. There’s none of the realization of where she went wrong that we get from the real Austen works. An Austen heroine generally has to eat some crow and admit to her failures, and it’s because she’s able to do this that she gets her happy ending. This chick gets her happy ending without learning anything.

And that, I think, is the difference between putting a lot of yourself into your characters and writing a “Mary Sue.” Really, I think we need a better term for this because the whole point of the Mary Sue is that she’s an author’s self-insert, and many of the examples I can find in original fiction don’t seem to be the writers’ self-inserts. In some cases, it’s a character the writer is enamored with and therefore loses perspective. I think in the Sanditon case it’s just bad writing. This is perhaps the least interesting character in the whole series, so they didn’t bother developing her. They just stuck traits to her as though that would make viewers like her better, then gave her a last-second happy ending without her learning anything.

Books, fantasy

Another Fantasy Road Trip

I’ve been talking about that fantasy journey/road trip story with a bit of romance that I’m constantly looking for, and I’ve found a new one!

Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher is just the thing. It reads like a fairy tale retelling, but it’s an original story (at least, I don’t recognize any particular fairy tales). A princess realizes that her older sister who was married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom in order to create an alliance and prevent a war is being abused by her husband, and since his family is under magical protection, it will take magic to do anything about him. So, she sets out to save her sister, doing the usual impossible tasks to get supernatural help, and then she and an unlikely team, including a witch, a disgraced swordsman, a demon-possessed chicken, an enchanted dog made of bones, and a ditzy godmother, set out on a journey to the neighboring kingdom to see what they can do about that evil prince.

We have the journey, the personal growth of the main character, the subtly developing romance, magic, adventure, and lots of good snark and humor. It does get a little macabre and doesn’t shy away from the horror of what’s happening with the sister, but it’s ultimately an uplifting story. It’s also short. I read it in a couple of sittings and was sad when it was over.

For another book recommendation, I also recently read Babel by R.F. Kuang. I think fans of my Rebels series might like this because it’s along similar lines, an alternate history about the British Empire using magic to maintain power and about the student secret organization rebelling against the empire. The story is set early in the Victorian era in Oxford, where foreign-born students have been recruited to the program that uses translation and language for magic. Magic is done using words from different languages that have similar but not exactly the same meaning, which means they need people who have native fluency in both languages. At first, these students are thrilled to be a part of Oxford life, but then they start to realize what’s really going on and how this magic is being used and have to figure out what to do about it.

This is a book that creeps under your skin, where you start seeing the story as one way, and then have your perspective shifted. There’s the idyllic student life and then the growing awareness of the real situation. I found the book utterly engrossing and thought-provoking. It’s written a lot like a history book, complete with footnotes.

A lot of my reading recently has been later books in series I’ve already discussed or else books I don’t really care to discuss, and then I suddenly had two good ones back to back.


E-books and Book Blurbs

I have to confess that I’m not a big e-book person. I’d far prefer to read a print book. I do love e-books for travel, when I can bring a whole library with me in my tablet. Otherwise, I mostly read e-books when I can’t get that book in print. One weird reason I like print books is having easy access to the jacket blurb. It’s easier to choose which book out of my library I want to read if I can look at the back cover or inside jacket flap to see what the book is about. When I’m scrolling through my e-book library, all I have are the front covers.

Then while I’m reading, I have a habit of flipping a paperback over or flipping back to the inside cover flap to reread the blurb. I guess it’s a way of reassuring myself about what might happen—is this character I just met likely to be a romantic possibility or maybe a villain? If the character is going to do something else big in the book, as mentioned in the blurb, that means they’ll survive this encounter. Or maybe this scene is going to be what launches them into the stuff mentioned in the blurb. I’ve caught myself a few times flipping my tablet over to look at the back when I’m reading an e-book, like I’m expecting to find the cover blurb there.

And that has had me thinking that it would be nice if the cover blurb was somehow in an e-book, so I could open a book in my library and see what it’s about when I’m deciding what to read or so I could flip back to it easily while I’m reading.

Is that something other readers might like? Because I’m considering adding that to the e-books I publish. Most of the e-reading platforms automatically open the book to the start of chapter one, so you’d have to know to go back to it or look for it. If it’s near the front, though, it affects the sample you can read before deciding to buy. You can see the blurb on the sales page, so that’s one less page of sample readers might get. If the book is automatically going to open to chapter one so that you’d have to look for the blurb, then maybe I could put it at the end, like a back cover blurb, but that seems weird to have the blurb be at the end of the book.

What do you think? Would it be helpful to have the book description somewhere in the e-book? Where would it make sense to have it? Or is there a way of getting to that in your Kindle library that I’m not aware of?


Lost Places

After I identified that “history travel memoir” subgenre, I keep finding more books that fit in it somewhat, and I’m not even looking for them. I’ve been doing some book research that requires looking into some particular places, and that’s set me off onto some rabbit trails, where I read something in one book that intrigues me, so I look for books on that topic, and so forth. So these books here aren’t necessarily things I was reading for research. They may have been on topics I ran across while researching something else. But they’re all fascinating reading.

Shadowlands, by Matthew Green, is about lost British villages. The author travels to these locations and tries to learn about the villages and why they were lost/abandoned. There’s an Iron Age village that was uncovered, a few villages that fell into the sea or were swamped, and even some more modern losses, like areas taken over for military training during WWII or a Welsh village that was destroyed when a river was dammed for a reservoir. I found this to be fascinating reading, but it left me a bit melancholy.

On a similar note (I found it by looking for similar titles in the library’s online catalog) was Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz. This one looks at four major cities that were lost or abandoned along the way, for various reasons. It gets into why and how cities were built and why/how they get abandoned, whether it’s disaster (like Pompeii), social change, or something else. This book is a good resource for worldbuilding because it makes you think about what makes up a city and makes a city work — or not.

Born on a Mountaintop by Bob Thompson was an odd little digression for me. In something else I was reading there was some stuff on the Texas Revolution, which made me realize how little I knew about Texas history, since I was living overseas for the grade in which they teach Texas history in Texas schools. So I looked up other books on the topic and found this one, though it ended up being not quite what I was looking for. It was still fun reading. It’s a biography of Davy Crockett that gets into both the history and the myth. The author travels to locations that were pivotal in Crockett’s life, from his birth to the Alamo, trying to separate the truth from the legends. He also gets into the legends and how they were created and sustained, and then revived by the Disney TV series that created a phenomenon in the 50s. I didn’t know a lot of this information, and it will definitely give me a different perspective the next time I visit San Antonio and the Alamo.

I seem to have unintentionally followed a trend when I pulled Spying on the South by Tony Horwitz off a library shelf because this one also involves a trip to San Antonio. Before he was one of the designers of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted worked as a correspondent for the newspaper that became the New York Times. He was an abolitionist, but not really a radical one, and he had the idea to travel in the south in the years right before the Civil War and talk to people to get a sense of what southerners were really like so maybe they could find common ground and work out their differences (it seems the NYT has been doing the “let’s visit a diner in a red state and talk to voters” thing for more than a century). The author of this book retraced Olmsted’s steps in 2016, doing a similar experiment. The book covers what Olmsted saw and experienced in a place, and then what the author saw and did along the way. He tried to replicate travel the way Olmsted might have, though he drove a car instead of riding on horseback or taking a stagecoach. He started on a train, hitched a ride on a coal barge going down the Ohio River, managed to find a river cruise on the Mississippi that wasn’t too different from what Olmsted experienced, and even took a short excursion by mule in the Texas Hill Country. I found it fascinating reading, since so many of the places he traveled were familiar to me, but I was seeing them through different eyes. It was also kind of depressing because a lot of the attitudes he found weren’t that different from what Olmsted heard. The racism is still pretty virulent, and there’s the sadly familiar issue you find in the south of people who are kind and welcoming but who can also spew some awful hate and paranoia. Unfortunately, I know enough people like the ones he talks to that I know he’s not making it up or exaggerating, and that makes the book a bit depressing, since people haven’t changed that much. It turns out that Olmsted started as a moderate abolitionist, but after traveling in the south he ended up secretly helping support some radical anti-Confederates among the German settlers in the Texas Hill Country. He went from “maybe we can find common ground” to “burn it all down” after seeing slavery in person and meeting southerners.

I’ve turned to reading some fantasy novels after all that non-fiction. I think I had a bit too much of the real world.

Books, movies

New Perspectives on an Old Favorite

I recently revisited an old favorite book and finally saw the movie based on it, and it’s been an interesting experience that’s going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, so I’m going to do this post in layers.

The book The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird feels like it was written just for me because it parallels my life in a lot of ways (in fact, the inscription in the autographed copy I have mentions the parallel lives, since it turns out I have a lot in common with the author, including having the same editor for a while, which is how I got the autographed book and why she knew about the parallel lives). It takes place in Austin in the 80s, which is when I lived in Austin while I was in college. During one summer, I stayed in Austin to work at a small newspaper, and the heroine works for a small newspaper. She lives in the neighborhood I lived on the edge of for that summer, so I walked around a lot of the places mentioned in the book. When the heroine goes to the library or post office, it’s the library and post office I went to. And during the course of the book, the heroine goes to a romance writers’ conference and starts writing a category romance novel. It was after I lived in Austin, but I’ve been to a lot of romance writers’ conferences and used to write category romance novels.

I was thinking about this book recently because it takes place during a bad heat wave, and we’ve been having a bad heat wave this summer, so I was planning to reread it. And then I saw that the movie based on it was on Amazon Prime. I’d started to watch it when it was on TV years ago but noped out at the beginning when I saw that it was set in Charleston, S.C., not Austin. Since the Austin setting was a big reason I loved the book, that turned me off of the movie. But I thought I’d give it a try again. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it may have to win some kind of award for being the worst adaptation of a book in which the screenplay was written by the author of the original novel. I’m sure a lot of the changes were dictated by Hollywood—like they probably got some filming incentives to shoot where they did, which meant the location change. Other changes were required by the change in medium. You couldn’t film the book as it’s written because of the structure. While the movie is your basic false identity rom-com, the book is actually more about the contrast between real-life love and romantic fantasy.

But the changes mean that you can’t really talk about the movie without spoiling the book because the movie flips the perspective and centers on the book’s big twist.

So, first the book. I’ve referred to it as “proto chick-lit” because it was published in the late 80s, long before Bridget Jones came along, but it has a lot of the same elements — it’s got the first-person narrator heroine who’s a bit of a mess and trying to navigate her life, friendships, career, and relationships, and not necessarily doing a great job at any of them. There’s a romantic plot, but the focus is on her personal growth and figuring things out.

The story’s about a photographer for a small newspaper who gets assigned to cover a romance writers’ conference, where she goes in with some preconceived notions but gets taken under the wings of a couple of pro writers, who teach her a thing or two and encourage her to try writing her own book. She insists that real women wouldn’t actually be interested in romance heroes. Women don’t want dark, dangerous men. They want nice guys. But then she recoils at a setup with the nerdy brother of one of the writers, and just as she’s struggling to write the romantic parts of her romance novel, she meets a mysterious biker she can’t resist, so she may have to eat her words.

I don’t know how much my fondness for this book comes from the parallel lives thing, since I’ve never gone for the dangerous rogue type. Then again, I also would have rejected the nerdy guy (those scenes made me cringe because just about every guy I’ve been set up with has been a lot like that, personality-wise). What I’d prefer is somewhere in the middle. So, I don’t really relate to that part of the plot. I guess I just enjoy reliving the summer I spent in Austin and the time when I was first getting into serious writing and going to conferences.

The book is now available as a pretty inexpensive e-book and it’s on Kindle Unlimited, so if it sounds interesting, check it out. The rest of this post will address the movie, which means it will have spoilers for the book.

So, the movie …

They changed the setting and the heroine’s name. She’s a writer, not a photographer, and they skip the part where she’s trying to write a romance novel. She just interviews the writer. But the focus of the movie is more on the guy. Here’s where the book spoilers start.

The movie is about a guy who falls hard for the woman his romance writer sister sets him up with, but when she rejects him, his sister sets out to turn him into a romance hero the woman won’t be able to resist, in spite of her protestations about real women not being interested in men like the heroes in romance novels.

That’s the twist in the book, that the mysterious biker is the nerdy guy. The biker doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book, and we don’t find out who he is until near the end. It really does feel like a twist. I remember being surprised the first time I read it. I was pretty sure she was being set up, but I didn’t guess that it was the same guy rather than something like an actor hired to prove a point. But I can see how you couldn’t pull that off in a movie. In the book, it’s all from the heroine’s perspective, then she finds out who the guy is and he gives her his journals to explain himself, so then there’s a section where we see what’s been happening from his perspective. You couldn’t do that in a movie.

And I don’t think you’d be able to make his identity be a surprise in a movie. In the book, you can believe it because of how it’s set up. The guy has just finished cancer treatment, so his hair hasn’t come back yet, he’s been on steroids, so his face is still puffy, and his body is still skinny. There’s a three-month gap, during which time his hair grows back, his face goes back to normal, he starts exercising and builds muscles, and he gets colored contact lenses. But in the movie, as good of a makeup job as they do on him, he’s still recognizably Steve Guttenberg at the beginning, so you know who he is when he shows up as a stud. I think it might actually work in real life that you wouldn’t recognize someone you’d barely met if you ran into him again after he went through a lot of changes, but it won’t work with a known actor. Maybe with an unknown and no opening credits it might have worked, but trying to hide that twist would be hard in a movie. In real life, you encounter a lot of random people who aren’t necessarily connected, but when you’re watching a movie, you know that everyone you see is probably important, so you look at them differently.

Focusing on the guy’s story means the movie loses a lot of the things I love about the book, but I noticed in some of the Amazon reviews of the book that there are people who like the movie more because they like the straightforward rom-com. They don’t like that the heroine is such a mess or that the ending is a bit ambiguous. I still think the movie should have been better than it was, and there were things from the book that could still have made it to the screen. The casting, aside from the heroine (who’s too pretty for the way the book character was described), is pretty good. It’s on Amazon Prime, and it’s short, so if you want an 80s rom-com that’s a bit different, check it out.

And now I’m going to spoil the book even more.

There’s something that’s always bugged me about the book and the way it works out that I finally have the right vocabulary for: It basically reinforces the “nice guy” myth, the whole “women don’t really like nice guys, they just go for jerks who treat them badly” thing that you tend to hear from the incel crowd. That’s something guys who proclaim themselves as “nice” like to say, and I’ve found that the self-proclaimed “nice” guys are seldom as nice as they think they are. A lot of the time, they don’t actually make a move on the woman and then act like they’ve been rejected for being nice when she doesn’t go for them. Or the niceness is purely transactional, so he’s supposed to be rewarded for being nice and he pouts if he isn’t. Or he has his own definition of “nice” which is on his terms, not what she wants. Or he seems to think that just being “nice” should be enough, without him working on anything else.

For the most part, the guy in this book isn’t entirely like that — up until the end. She understandably feels betrayed by his deception, even after she reads his journal. She’s understanding about the cancer thing, and he doesn’t start out planning the deception. That was something his sister came up with, and he only panicked when this woman met him, so he went with it rather than admitting who he was. What she can’t get over is the fact that the role he was playing in the deception was created based on what she was writing in her book, which his sister was critiquing for her. It was designed purely to fulfill her fantasies. And yet he’s the one acting hurt because she fell for this character when she wouldn’t give him the time of day. I keep wanting the heroine to point out to him that he was just in love with an imaginary person. His journal talks about falling in love with her at first sight, but the person he thinks he’s in love with has nothing to do with who she really is. The real woman is basically an avatar for his fantasy woman. At least when she fell for a fictional guy, it was a deliberate deception designed to fool her. He made up a fantasy woman on his own, without her doing anything to encourage it. It seems pretty clear from the contrast between what we saw from her side of the story and the way he sees her in his journal, but no one in the book ever addresses it, and it’s not even mentioned in the reading group guide in the back of one of the copies I have, aside from a question about whether you believe in love at first sight the way he does.

Not to mention, the guy is stalking her the whole time. He follows her home from work and drives by her house all the time. He even looks in the windows sometimes. He’s supposed to be a nice guy who couldn’t get any attention until he changed, but he’s rather creepy. He claims to be following her because he’s worried about her coming home from work in a shady part of town late at night, but if she doesn’t know he’s there and never asked for this help, him following her like that isn’t cool.

I may be a bit overly sensitive about this because I’ve found that the “nice guys” tend to do that avatar thing, where they act like they’re really into me, but it becomes clear that the person they like has very little to do with me. I’m like the actress who plays the character they’re in love with. For me to buy the possibility of a happy ending, I’d need for this to be addressed. The ending of the book is ambiguous, so I guess in my head they’ll have this conversation before anything else happens. It’s always left me with an unsettled feeling, but in recent years the “nice guy” has been discussed a lot on the Internet, which has made me realize what unsettled me so much. I still like the book, but now I know why it bothers me. I don’t know if you could publish this book or make this movie today. Would we see it differently?

writing life, Books

Little Habits

For another entry in the “life hacks” and productivity category, I recently read a book that may prove to be life-changing, Small Move, Big Change, by Caroline L. Arnold. The premise of the book is that we generally fail at big goals like New Year’s resolutions because they’re too big and vague. You’ll have more success with what the author calls “microresolutions,” which are small but meaningful behavior changes. For instance, a broad resolution to get and keep the house tidy is bound to fail because there’s no sense of when or how to start, exactly what to do, or how to measure it. But you might succeed in resolving to make the bed every morning. That will make the bedroom automatically look a lot neater, and that might motivate you to do other things to tidy the bedroom. After a while, when it becomes a habit you don’t have to think about anymore, you could start a new microresolution, like putting away the laundry right after you do it instead of letting it pile up in a chair. Over time, all those new little habits will add up to accomplishing that big-picture goal.

It’s hardly earthshattering stuff. I wrote a radio feature years ago with a psychiatrist’s tips for sticking to resolutions that included making the goal small enough to achieve and measurable, but the way it’s phrased in this book clicked with me, and the author offers a lot of tips for making it work.

One suggestion she has is to create a mental message that goes with the habit, something you think to yourself to motivate you to do it. For the bed making resolution, you might remind yourself how much you’re going to like coming home to a neatly made bed or how nice it will be at bedtime. It also helps to have a cue to trigger the behavior you’d like to turn into a habit. Tying it to another habit you already have makes it easier to create a new habit. You might make the bed when you get dressed. You can remember “dress yourself, dress the bed.” The resolution may take some fine-tuning to figure out exactly the action to take, the cue, or the message you tell yourself, as well as spotting any obstacles that make the behavior harder. It may turn out that your reluctance to make the bed every day is because you’ve got an elaborate “bedscape” involving layers of coverlets and a complicated arrangement of throw pillows. Switching that out for a comforter and pillow shams so that making the bed is quicker and easier might make you more likely to make the bed.

She also gets into how to find the behavior that will have the most impact. The example she gave from her own life was her desire to get to work on time more consistently. She had to analyze her morning routine to figure out where the trouble spots were, and she figured out that one of her biggest problems was at the train station. She often had to dig in her bag for her fare card, then she didn’t know how much money was on it, so she’d have to check, and then she often had to add money to it for the morning ride, but the credit card readers on the ticket machines were generally not working, so she’d have to scrounge for cash to add just enough for one trip. Meanwhile, she’d miss a train and have to wait for the next one, which made her late. After some trial and error to figure out what would make this go better, she ended up keeping a separate fare card just for the morning commute, which she kept in a special coin purse so she could find it easily. Every Friday before she left the station on the way home, she’d add enough money to it to cover the next week’s morning rides, and she carried enough cash in the coin purse to pay for that. Once she started being able to go right to the turnstiles every morning, she stopped being late to work.

The second half of the book is a lot of specific examples covering some of the bigger resolution categories, like diet, exercise, communication, and organization.

By the time I’d finished reading the first few chapters, I’d enthusiastically made a long list of microresolutions, but then I got to the part where it says to do no more than two at a time because that’s all the willpower your brain really has. Focus on those two, and when they become habit, you can add two more. It takes three to eight (or more) weeks to really develop a habit, depending on how frequently you do a behavior and how big a change it is for you.

I narrowed my resolutions down to an easy one and an important one. The easy one involves the “nest” that tends to develop on my sofa. That’s where I sit to read the newspaper, work crossword puzzles, do knitting or embroidery, brainstorm or outline books, read, etc. I end up with piles of books, papers, notebooks, newspapers, and craft supplies on the sofa, which makes the whole living room look messy. I resolved to totally clear off and reset the sofa before I go to bed every night. There will be nothing left on the sofa — books on the coffee table or end table, newspapers in the recycling stack, craft projects put away — and I’ll straighten the pillows and the throw I keep on the sofa. To encourage myself to do it, I tell myself that it will be so nice to come into the living room in the morning and see it looking neat. The first day was the most difficult, when I had a lot more stuff to put away, but it’s been pretty easy since then, and after three weeks I think it’s become enough of a habit that I’ve taken on a new resolution, to clean up all the dishes from dinner right after dinner — load the dishwasher and wash anything from cooking that has to be hand-washed. I tend to let things pile up in the sink to the point that I can’t fit everything in the dishwasher once I finally get around to loading it. It’s only been a few days, but it’s going well so far. Again, day one was more difficult, but since then there’s less to do and I love coming into the kitchen in the morning and not seeing dirty dishes.

The important one involves work productivity and avoiding distractions, mostly social media and e-mail. I had a bad habit from back in my day job days of checking e-mail as soon as I got on the computer, since e-mail was a big part of my work, and I kept doing that once I started freelancing, then social media got attached to e-mail since that’s also communication related to my work. I might end up reading e-mail and social media and then realize it was lunchtime. A few years ago, I started writing before I go online, since e-mail first thing in the morning is less important to my work now. I formalized that as a resolution to not go online until 10:30. That’s worked pretty well, and I may need to add to that and not answer the phone during my peak working time because that also kills my productivity for the day. I’m still fine tuning what to do about the afternoon, trying to find the right schedule to follow or the right approach. A lot of it is a procrastination tactic, or else the way I take “breaks” when I get stuck, so I need to think of a way to deal with this. I do need to check e-mail after lunch, since that’s when the people I usually deal with for business tend to get back to me about things, so I need to find a way to do that without getting sucked into the rest of it. I think my next tactic will be a designated time for online stuff other than e-mail, and maybe a list of things that must be done before I check social media or any other online stuff that’s likely to eat up a lot of time.

Just a few weeks after I started reading this book I already have a visible difference in my house and a good boost in my writing productivity, so it seems to be working. The question will be whether or not it will stick once the initial enthusiasm wears off. The book is a quick and easy read and even pretty entertaining, so look for it at your library if you’re looking for ways to make changes that work.


More Cozy Fantasy

I don’t remember if I discussed The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison, when I read it the first time, but I just reread it, and it’s the perfect book for if you’re stressed or discouraged, so I’m going to talk about it again.

When the elven emperor and his older sons are killed in an airship crash, the youngest son, product of a hated political marriage with a goblin princess, becomes emperor. This young man has grown up in exile and was never expected to take the throne. He has no preparation, so all he can do is just do what he feels is right as he finds his way.

It’s such an encouraging book because it’s about someone who’s been abused and neglected but who tries to be a decent person, and he prevails through kindness and decency. He’s surrounded by enemies and intrigue, and he’s a complete outsider, but because he’s been kind and fair to people, he finds that he has allies at every turn, and he’s able to make a real difference now that he has power.

I’m still fuzzy on what, exactly, constitutes “cozy fantasy,” but this must be on the list. There is some tension and violence, but only in a few isolated incidents. Otherwise, it’s about forming alliances and friendships, trying to rebuild some family relationships, and generally trying to improve the situation for everyone. You come out of the book feeling good.

I just started reading the follow-up book, The Witness for the Dead. It’s not a direct sequel, but is another book set in this universe, about a secondary character from this book. It’s a bit different and seems to be basically a mystery novel set in a fantasy world, but we still have the situation of a decent person trying to do the right thing, which is exactly what I need right now.


History Travel Memoirs

I’ve found myself reading an odd little subgenre of nonfiction book lately. I guess you could call it the travel history memoir. These books are about someone traveling along a route or through a region, with some sort of theme to the trip, and mixed in with the travelogue is info on the history of the places the writer visits and the writer’s experiences and personal feelings about it all. It’s not enough of a travel book that you could use it as a guide (though you might get ideas for places to visit). There’s a lot of history, but there’s more of a personal spin on it than in most history books.

The most famous example that I’ve read lately was A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson, which is about the Appalachian Trail, with the story of the writer’s attempt to hike the entire trail mixed in with the history of the trail and various points along the way and the writer’s feelings and experiences.

I also recently read one called The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond, by Stephen O’Shea, in which the writer traveled through the Alps from France to Slovenia, hitting Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany along the way. He compared the cultures of various places in the Alps, visited some of the major scenic and tourist spots, discussed the people he met along the way, and shared the history of the places and routes.

A similar book was Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, by Simon Winder, which explored the Habsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire by visiting key locations in its history. This one had a bit less of the “memoir” angle, as I recall. It was more history/geography/travel, though with an annoying lack of photos. I kept having to Google places he mentioned so I could have a good mental image of what he was talking about.

I also read a book about Scandinavia called The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth. It was a history of modern Scandinavia, looking at how those countries tend to come out on top in happiness rankings and exploring what it’s really like there. The author lived in Denmark and visited Finland, Sweden, and Norway to explore the people, the culture, and how recent history (generally the 20th century) got them to where they are now.

I owned a copy of A Walk in the Woods, but I found the other ones in the history section of the library.

It seems there are lots of possibilities for books along these lines — travel the Oregon Trail, the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition or the Donner Party route. Re-create Marco Polo’s journeys. Or you could combine it with something that was popular a few years ago, the post-divorce memoir, and it could be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup by taking a bucket list trip with some kind of theme to it and then writing about not only your experiences, but the history of the places you’re visiting and how this trip helps you find yourself again. I’m not in a relationship, but now I almost want to get into one so I can end it and then react to it by landing at Normandy and following the route of the Allied forces across Europe in 1944-45, looking at sights the soldiers might have seen and how it’s changed since then while I use it all as a metaphor for dealing with my post-breakup anger.