Category Archives: Thoughts About Books

I Capture the Castle (Musings/Giveaway)

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The week before I left Oregon, I was at a thrift store in Roseburg when I found a first edition hardcover copy of I Capture the Castle. 

I Capture the Castle is one of those comforting books I feel I must always have with me. My softcover version was packed and ready to go, but I replaced it with the hardcover version, thinking vaguely that since I now had two copies, I should do a giveaway.

Then, I took to re-reading I Capture the Castle in-between returning my Paris library books and obtaining my Berlin/Millersburg library card. The more I read it, the more I find to love about it, and the more I want to talk about it on my blog. I find I’ve already mentioned the book four times since I first picked it up in 2012 (here, here, here, and here). But today I plan to dedicate an entire blog post to the subject.

The main reason this book appeals to me is because it is simultaneously larger-than-life and yet eerily real.

I Capture the Castle focuses on 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, who lives in an old house built onto the side of some castle ruins. So Cassandra can, for instance, lean out the drawing room window to feed the swans in the moat, or walk along the castle walls, descend the tower staircase, and end up in her bedroom.

Cassandra’s father is an eccentric writer who had one successful book and then quit writing. Her stepmother, Topaz, is an artist’s model who likes to do artsy things like play a lute and commune with nature, but also cooks and cleans and takes care of everyone. And her older sister Rose is at times very fun loving and playful, and at times quite melodramatic (Probably an ESFP, lol).

At the beginning of the book, the Mortmains are lamenting their boring, poverty-stricken lives. They live way out in the country and have few friends, and as Mr. Mortmain hasn’t actually published a book in ages, they have no money. It’s been years since they’ve even paid the rent on their castle home, but their landlord, who at the beginning of the novel had recently died, always just let it go.

Then one day, two handsome young men, Simon and Neil Cotton, show up at their door. It turns out that through a series of deaths in the family, Simon now owns their house.

That, I suppose, is what one would call the “inciting event” that sets the novel in motion.

But inside this fanciful, larger-than-life setup of setting and character, comes a book that feels so real mostly because of how it explores unrequited love.

I feel like the classic setup for a romantic book is to have the Mr. Darcy character in love with the Lizzie Bennett character for most of the book, so that when Lizzie finally comes to her senses and realizes that he’s the one for her, he’s just there for the taking. Meanwhile, other women who may have loved Mr. Darcy are either villainized so much we don’t care about their feelings (Miss Bingley), or so shadowy and under-developed that it doesn’t occur to us to wonder if they’re brokenhearted (Anne de Bourgh).

Maybe Cassandra Mortmain is more observant than a 17-year-old would realistically be, but I think she lived vicariously through other people’s romances. In any case, somehow I Capture the Castle captured romance and unrequited love from a variety of angles.

Here are a few more reasons why I love the book:

1. It’s funny and clever.

2. The characters are fascinating.
Especially with Rose and Topaz, Cassandra gets annoyed at their silliness and sees right through their airs, but also deeply appreciates and likes them. In this way they feel like real people.

3. I randomly love house books.
I adore any book that prominently features an interesting house. This book is especially delightful because there is just enough description, and a couple of illustrations, that make me able to visualize the entire house in my head. Every single room and tower.

4. I also randomly love books where people economize.

5. It is ultimately a happy, hopeful book, despite dealing with unrequited love.

I think I’ve rambled on about the book enough, but I’d love to have a hearty discussion with someone about the classism in it. Did any of you who’ve read the book notice how the Mortmains say they think of Stephen as a part of the family, but he didn’t get invited to the dinner party at Scoatney Hall? Or the way Cassandra is so bored, but it never occurs to her to be friends with Ivy Stebbins?

Anyway. I am giving away a paperback copy of I Capture the Castle. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post or on my Facebook post saying that you’d like to be entered.

Giveway will close at 11:59 pm EST on Thursday, November 15.

ETA: The giveaway is only open to USA addresses. I shipped to Canada once and the postage was more than the books would be new. Yikes! Sorry to international readers. Someday I’ll be a wealthy writer with $$$ for all the shipping, haha.

Another ETA: Do be aware, if you read this review and want to go watch the movie, that there is nudity in it. I don’t know what the producers were trying to prove, because it’s completely unnecessary to the plot, but whatever. That’s Hollywood for you, I guess.

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Bookweek 2018, Day 5: Middle Grade Books

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Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

For a long time, when people asked me what kinds of books I liked to read, I said “Children’s books.” That was confusing, because people thought I meant picture books. No, I meant real books, with chapters and plots, that were written for children.

I eventually learned that the technical term was “Middle Grade.”

Ah, middle grade books, where children never grow up and Cinderella only gives in to her step-family because she has an obedience curse. Where juvenile delinquents search for buried treasure, and there is a literal island called “conclusions” which people reach by jumping. When I grew up I looked for adult books with similar interesting plotlines, and couldn’t find them (with a few notable exceptions).

Of course the older I got, the more strange looks I received when I said that I liked reading middle grade, and that my favorite book was Peter Pan. So I began to clarify that statement by saying, “I like reading middle grade because that’s what I want to write.”

It’s true. Ever since I decided I wanted to write, my #1 goal has been to write middle grade books. Oh, I want to write other stuff too. Blog posts and plays and memoirs and picture books. But middle grade has always been the end goal.

But on the other hand, it’s not true. I don’t like reading middle grade because that’s what I want to write, I like writing middle grade because that’s what I want to read.

Oh, I still read plenty of books for adults. I enjoy complex characters and nuanced writing and carefully crafted sentences. But when it comes to the plot, I still think like a child. I would still prefer an absurd what-if story to one in which a woman in her 30s returns to her hometown and tries to repair her relationship with her estranged sister.

I’m often embarrassed by my childish taste. It reminds me, interestingly enough, of when I was a child, and how “immature” and younger than my years I always felt. I imagine people rolling their eyes in embarrassment and thinking, just grow up already.

But on the plus side, I appreciate being able to still see the world that way at age 28–always wondering, “what if this were different, or magical?” What if I opened this book I found in my grandmother’s attic, and it contained a recipe for a magical salve that could heal any wound, and I realized that the weeds that plagued their small farm weren’t weeds at all, but valuable heirloom herbs? Or what if our cat could talk–but she wasn’t a nice cat–she was whiny and annoying and we wished she’d just shut up? Or what if you had boots with pogo-stick-like springs in them so you could bounce instead of walking?

It makes the world more interesting. And it gives me, maybe, an advantage when I write for children.

Those are my final bookweek thoughts. I was thinking about doing a post about omniscient point of view, because I think it’s so much fun to read, but it’s completely fallen out of fashion and no one who’s anyone uses it anymore.

But I couldn’t think of much to say about it besides the point I just made. So that topic got shelved.

Until next year’s bookweek, happy reading and thinking about books!

Bookweek 2018 Day 4: Ahead of Their Time

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There are two phrases that modern commentators often use when describing old books.

The first is “a product of their era.”

The second is “ahead of their time.”

In fact, after a while it starts to feel like anything we agree with in an old book points to it being “ahead of its time,” and anything we disagree with is labeled “a product of their era.”

Oh, Emma Woodhouse has disturbing ideas about class distinction? Well, she was a product of her era.

Wait, Emma Woodhouse decided she wanted to be an independent woman instead of getting married? She was ahead of her time.

Seriously, nearly every famous heroine from old books gets labeled as “ahead of her time,” or “unusual for her era.” Anne of Green Gables. Jo March. Jane Eyre. Even Meg Murry, from A Wrinkle in Time, which came out in the ’60s. It was actually my mom who pointed out this phenomenon first, and then I started hearing it everywhere.

I mean, yes we’ve got our Elsie Dinsmores. But for the most part, old books have interesting female characters who are a little feisty and do interesting stuff. Logically, this should mean that in the past, women like this were relatively common, just as sprinklings of racism in books logically indicate that sprinklings of racism were relatively common in the past.

Although I used the first phrase “a product of their era” in my post about problematic old books, I think it’s only useful to see old books as a product of their era as long as we see the whole book as a product of its era, not just the parts that are problematic. And as long as we also see new books as a product of their era.

Books provide a fascinating window into the thinking of the time they were written.

Bookweek 2018 Day 3: Stuff I HATED as a Kid

When I was a kid, there were certain tropes that appeared over and over again in my literature. Here is a list of some of the ones I detested.

1. When the book made statements about the way that “grown-ups” are silly.

Example: “Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof.” (From Five Children and It by E. Nesbit)

I guess this is intended to make children feel like the author is on their side or something, but I found it terribly annoying and condescending. Like, duh. Obviously you, the writer, are a grown-up, so why are you putting grown-ups down?

2. When, in the midst of some particularly interesting happening or another, a character would blurt out, “this is just like a book!”

Again, duh. I always felt like the author was insulting my intelligence. Of course it’s just like a book, because it is a book.

Both of the two annoying phrases mentioned above appeared with astonishing frequency in older books, but I don’t see them much nowadays. Maybe it was just a weird fad for a while, and then all the kids who had to grow up reading those phrases became writers and editors and quickly abolished the practice?

3. When a character tried to give themselves a make-over, or change themselves in some way, but by the end of the book they decided to just “be themselves” and go back to being the way they were.

I found this SO frustrating. Why weren’t these characters ever allowed to become beautiful and interesting and cool at the end?

And not gonna lie, of all the messages that the media hammered into me, I found “be yourself” to be the stupidest one. It was everywhere, and it made no sense. Like, how could you NOT be yourself? And how on earth could getting a make-over and wearing cuter clothes mean you’re suddenly not yourself? And if you have a chance to change yourself to make yourself awesomer, how could that possibly be a bad thing?

I get the concept now, and I do think a lot of young people struggle with just being their authentic selves, even if I didn’t, but I still think the concept is WAY overdone.

(Wow, maybe I shouldn’t have put the “as a kid” qualifier in the title. Even now as I write this, I want to put every other word in ALL CAPS to EXPLAIN the INTENSITY of my emotion about it, haha.)

4. People getting a chance for a grand spectacular life change and then not taking it.

Maybe this only happened in Caddie Woodlawn. Caddie and her family got a chance to be like, fancy rich people in England or something, right at the end of the book. And they decided to keep on being pioneers instead.

WHAT?!?

As far as I know, I am the only one that was upset by that ending. I just really thought it would be cool to be a fancy person in England, I guess.

5. Wishes that go wrong

In most books that involve wishes, the wishes don’t turn out very well. Like King Midas, wishing for everything he touched to turn to gold, and then accidentally turning his daughter to gold.

A version of this shows up in most children’s books where wishes come true. It frustrated me to no end. Couldn’t the wish just be amazing and fun for once?

In fact, these last three things I’ve mentioned have had a similar theme. It was almost as if the books I read were telling me, “be content with the normal and ordinary. The spectacular isn’t that great.”

But if I wanted normal and ordinary, I wouldn’t be reading a book, now would I?

And, finally, I got super creeped out and annoyed every time I encountered…

6. Younger girls who marry way older guys

This is something that came up when I wrote about the shady stuff in old books. A few people mentioned the way that Dean Priest had pursued Emily in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series.

Oooooooh, suddenly I remembered how angry that pairing had made me, even though it all (thankfully) came to nothing, and Emily ended up where she belonged, with Teddy. I still remember being sick, on the couch, reading a paperback version of Emily’s Quest, and just, oh, the horrible misery of that book as it took her forever to get un-engaged to Dean, and even longer to finally, FINALLY end up with Teddy.

I hated the older-guy younger-girl thing every time I encountered it. Robin McKinley was particularly bad at this. And back to L.M. Montgomery, I remember starting to read A Tangled Web, because Mom loved it and really wanted me to read it, and starting to feel uneasy about Gay’s relationships.

“She’s not gonna end up with Roger, is she?” I asked Mom.

“Um, well, he’s really nice!” said Mom.

I hastily closed the book and refused to finish it.

I’m not exactly sure why this bothered me so badly. I think the older-guy younger-girl thing felt super manipulative to me. And also, I couldn’t imagine being attracted to someone who was that much older than me.

So, there’s my list. What did you hate reading about when you were a kid?

Bookweek 2018, Day 2: Men in Books

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Recently I heard someone say that men, in books that are written for women, are’t men. They’re women.

I don’t remember who said it, or where this idea came from. If this rings a bell please let me know. As far as I can recall, the reasoning behind this sentiment was that these fictional men sense a woman’s pain without out being told, and empathize in a way that’s actually much more like how a woman would respond than how a man would respond.

I found it an interesting concept. It did make me worry a bit about my own male characters, though. How can I write authentic male characters when I don’t understand how men think?

I began looking, in literature, for male characters that felt distinctly male. And then I started reading more P.G. Wodehouse, and found this this opening description of the main character in Uneasy Money.

He paid no attention to the stream of humanity that flowed past him. His mouth was set and his eyes wore a serious, almost a wistful expression. He was frowning slightly. One would have said that here was a man with a secret sorrow.

William FitzWilliam Delamere Chalmers, Lord Dawlish, had no secret sorrow. All that he was thinking of at that moment was the best method of laying a golf ball dead in front of the Palace Theatre.

It was his habit to pass the time in mental golf when Claire Fenwick was late in keeping her appointments with him. On one occasion she had kept him waiting so long that he had been able to do nine holes, starting at the Savoy Grill and finishing up near Hammersmith.

I laughed and laughed. This opening took the stereotypical male hero trope and turned it on its head, and suddenly the main character seemed like that guy you knew in high school.

Because he liked sports.

Most guys that I know love sports. Most male leads in books, particularly those written by women for women, don’t care two figs about sports.

As a writer, I love tips and tricks for how to make characters feel like real people. My writing teachers told us to make our characters want something. My friends told me to give my characters flaws. I’ve decided that from now on, my male characters are going to love sports.

What do you think of my theory?

Have you read any books by women for women in which the main male character loves sports? (Boxing and/or Bull riding as a way to release pent up anger stemming from his father’s abandonment don’t count.)

Do you have any other simple tricks for making male characters seem more male?

Bookweek 2018, Day 1: Shady Stuff in Old Books

Last year I did a casual series I called “bookweek,” where I spent a week posting my thoughts about books.

It was fun.

I decided to do it again.

Recently I read an old book I picked up at a garage sale, called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, by John Fox Jr. I’d never heard of it, but apparently it was a bestseller when it was published in 1908.

If I’m gonna be honest, the book had some weird stuff in it. Like…

A. The main characters in the book are a man who has graduated from college and is working as an engineer, and a child so young she still plays with dolls. They fall in love with each other. It’s a little cagey on how old they are. At the end of the book, when they get married, the girl is 18. But he first kisses her several years before this. And their bizarre “friendship” prior to this is full of him buying her presents, arranging for her to be educated, etc, so that she is enamored by him, “good enough” for him, and indebted to him.

Is that not about fifteen levels of creepy????

B. Every once in a while these odd, slightly racist and/or classist tidbits sneak in. Like when the characters are setting up a police force in their newly-established town, and this is just tossed in there:

There had been gentlemen-regulators a plenty, vigilance committees of gentlemen, and the Ku-Klux clan had been originally composed of gentlemen, as they all knew, but they meant to hew to the strict line of town-ordinance and common law and do the rough everyday work of the common policeman (Fox 95).

Um, okay? You’re just going to casually mention the KKK as being “gentlemen-regulators” and move on?

Then, a couple pages later, we have this gem. (The “she” referenced is June Tolliver, the child love interest).

She was so intelligent that he began to wonder if, in her case, at least, another of Hon. Sam’s theories might not be true—that the mountaineers were of the same class as the other westward-sweeping emigrants of more than a century before, that they had simply lain dormant in the hills and—a century counting for nothing in the matter of inheritance—that their possibilities were little changed, and that the children of that day would, if given the chance, wipe out the handicap of a century in one generation and take their place abreast with children of the outside world. The Tollivers were of good blood; they had come from Eastern Virginia, and the original Tolliver had been a slave-owner (Fox 100-101).

This got me thinking. I think there is a prevalent myth that books are getting more and more immoral as time goes by. If your kid is reading above their grade level, you hand them old books so they don’t have to read about sex.

But issues like racism and child grooming are actually pretty prevalent in old books. Often they’re not really THAT overt, just kind-of lurking, vaguely troubling. Like The Magic Garden by Gene Stratton-Porter has that creepy female-child-is-romantically-befriended-by-much-older-boy element. According to Mom, several of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories have this plotline as well.

And then there’s the racism/classism, which I’m lumping together because they both come from the root idea that some people are naturally better than other people. Classism especially seems to be everywhere in old British literature. Take Emma by Jane Austin, for instance. Emma decides that Harriet Smith is “too good” to marry a farmer. Knightly reprimands her for this, but it’s definitely not an “everyone is equal” speech. More like a “Harriet isn’t as high class as you think she is” speech.

But by far the most troubling thing to me is the racism that shows up in old books, particularly in children’s books that depict American Indians. The ones that immediately come to mind are Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, but I’m sure there are more.

These books present American Indians as silly caricatures, existing only to provide entertainment for the children in the story. Very much the way children’s books present pirates–as though American Indians were a profession of the past, not a vibrant culture of today. I think this one especially troubles me because I remember how these types of media shaped my friends’ and my view of American Indians. I remember, for instance, explaining to my friend that “did you know that Indians today live in houses, not teepees? My mom said!”

He didn’t believe me.

Now, Peter Pan is my favorite book, and I love Emma, and I obviously give writers from the past a lot of grace because they were a “product of their era.” And I try to give writers from today a lot of grace, as well, when they write things I view as problematic. Everyone is a product of their era, really.

However, I think we also need to accept the fact that we can’t just blindly hand children books from some other era and expect that they won’t find shady stuff in them.

Thoughts? What shady stuff have you noticed in old books?

April Giveaway Winner+8 Random Thoughts

The winner of my book giveaway is Celina Lynnette! Congrats, Celina!

Sorry, I am too tired to do the whole draw-a-name-out-of-a-hat-and-take-pictures-of-the-process thing.

That means that this post is super short and lame, and not really a proper April Blogging Challenge post. Maybe I’ll go all Emily-of-ten-years-ago and post some random thoughts.

8 Random Thoughts:

  1. Today I had a grand fight with the printer. The printer won. #secretarylife
  2. I’m reading “Franny and Zooey,” by J.D. Salinger. I wasn’t an enormous fan of “The Catcher in the Rye” (three stars), but am finding that I really enjoy his stories about the Glass family.
  3. Favorite line: “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”
  4. I used to be appalled when I saw people compare Obama to a monkey/ape. I thought it was extremely racist. But now I see people compare Trump to a pig, even photo-shopping a pig nose onto his face. Can we just not compare our leaders to animals? Thank you.
  5. How many seasons does Oregon have? I’m quite sure we don’t have four. I think we might just have two: Summer and Wet. Thoughts?
  6. I like to read magazine articles about really innovative artsy interior design ideas, but all I can think is, “how would you even dust that?”
  7. I actually wonder the same thing when people have stuffed animal heads hanging on their walls.
  8. There is nothing like the wonderful feeling of discovering another person that loves “The Blue Castle.”