Category Archives: Thoughts About Books

Bookweek 2019, Day 2: Finding Yourself in Books

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Back in 2014, I attempted to write a few paragraphs about every book I read that year. I found those notes recently, and re-reading my thoughts five years later was fascinating.

See, normally I write about books for my blog, or talk to friends about books. Rarely do I write about books just for myself. But seeing these private thoughts gave me such insight into what I thought and felt back then.

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (re-read)

I love this book so much. It is the culmination of all the beautiful things I like to fancy in my head before I fall asleep. Also, this time through, I noticed remarkable similarities between *Bill and Howl. Mysterious evocative names. Remarkable abilities done in a slap-dash manner. The talents to do great things, without the drive. Slithering out. Mythical creatures, in their own right. And somehow, just the right characteristics to make them attractive, despite, or maybe because of, their faults.

P.S. I think I have a remarkable belief in the tendency of books to parallel life, almost telling the future, in a way. Like the John Donne poem that already existed, but paralleled Howl’s life and was turned into a curse.

*obviously changed that name, LOL

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

I wasn’t entirely sold on Estella. Of course she was an absolute jerk, but she got her entire deserved punishment in the end, and was completely broken. I was okay with giving her a second chance.

However, it drove me absolutely nuts to see the way Pip loved her so unreasonably. He even admits it is unreasonable, which I find horrifying. Esp. in my Scientific Study of Romance days, the idea of just loving someone without control or reason…absolutely X3 detestable.

So in any case, I really liked this book. I didn’t love it, but I think that was just because it didn’t parallel my life in any way.

Emily’s Quest, by Lucy Maud Montgomery (re-read)

I thought it would be nice to read a story of a girl, in her 20s, contentedly living at home, single, writing, and having an interesting life. I thought I would “get” it better than I did when I was younger. I thought it was secretly about me.

However, the book was depressing. Except for the Dean year, the years flew by so quickly it seemed like she must have a super boring life, if that’s all there was to write about it. Way more years per page than the first two books.

And you know it was just a stupid misunderstanding keeping her from Teddy.

Worth a read, yes, but not worth a re-read.

Ever since I re-read these thoughts, I’ve been thinking about the way I use fiction to understand my life. About the way I read books to find myself and people I know, slapped between the pages.

Like Little Women. Every time I read it I feel not only like I personally am Jo March, but like my older sister Amy is Meg March, and my younger sister Jenny is Amy March. Seriously, I think Jo and Amy March’s relationship is the closest thing I’ve found in literature to Jenny and my relationship. Both characters are very ambitious, but Amy is always trying to get Jo to act in socially acceptable ways, LOL.

And then, of course, there’s Emily Byrd Starr from the Emily of New Moon series. The Emily books were written by L.M. Montgomery, who also wrote the Anne of Green Gables series. I liked the Anne books as a child, and always have. But I actually think Emily of New Moon might have been my first Montgomery.

In any case, I always felt like I was reading about myself when I read the Emily books. I mean first of all, obviously, we have the same first name. We both were writing obsessively from about age 12 onward. We both had dark hair and light eyes, and liked cats. And we both spent most of our time inside our own heads.

We basically were the same person.

I recently picked up Emily of New Moon again and, upon finishing it, started into the second book of the series, Emily Climbs. Now the question remains: Will I again crack open the terrible third book in the series, Emily’s Quest? The one where she spends her 20s living a boring life, separated from her true love because of some dumb misunderstanding, and almost marries terrible child-groomer Dean Priest?

Five years ago, I decided this book was not worth reading again, ever. But now, I’m itching to crack it open again. To find a new meaning in it. Maybe it’s not about true love, at least not right away. 28 is a reasonable time to finally find true love. But the book is actually about her writing career. It’s about, not just wanting to be a writer, but being a writer. And what that takes. I feel like I actually would get it, now that I’ve poured so much into making this my career.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I would still hate it. Maybe in the end it’s not actually about me.

I’m curious, do you find yourself, your acquaintances, and your relationships in books? Do you see them as a parallel to help you understand your own life? What book characters make you think, “this is me?”

Bookweek 2019, Day 1: All About My Book

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I’ve been wanting to do a bookweek since August, ya’ll. August. And it’s November.

What the bunnyslipper.

Well, here we go. I think I have time this week to spit out some blog posts. And if I don’t have time, I’ll create some time. Because seriously, soon it will be Christmas, and I want to do 12 Days of Blogmas from December 13-December 24. (Hopefully my computer cord won’t explode this time.) So if I want to do a 2019 Bookweek, I’ll have to do it soon.

Today’s topic?

My book.

Yes, that’s right. As I’ve alluded to several times on this blog, I am writing a book about my travels last year, where I lived in a different community every month. And sometimes people are like, “so, what’s up with this book? When will I be able to read it?”

Let’s talk about that.

I began writing this book in March. My plan was to just write this book in a relatively short amount of time, and self-publish it before Christmas. (Yes, this Christmas! LOL.) I hoped it would give me enough of a financial boost to become an official book writer instead of freelance article writer. And also to move out for good. Maybe go back to one of the places I’d visited on this trip, and stay a little longer.

At the time, I was recovering from a disastrous attempt to write a novel during the month of February, so I decided that slow-and-steady, coupled with nonfiction-instead-of-fiction, was the way to go for now. On and on I went, creating the first draft.

Around the end of July, I pretty much had a first draft in hand. I’d written about the long drive East, my stay in Tennessee, my time in Ohio, Thanksgiving in Lancaster PA, Delaware, Christmas in Washington DC, Florida, Myerstown PA, a week in Philadelphia, Lancaster City PA, and some parts of my month in Hutchinson Kansas. But I was tired of writing the first draft, and thought, “I’ll finish writing about Hutchinson later.” So I started on the second draft.

I revised my first chapter in early August and sent it to Janessa, my editor. And then the rest of August was gobbled up by my trip to Alaska, writing the five short connected plays on the history of the “To the Unknown God” altar in Athens for our vacation Bible school, and directing said plays. Janessa sent me some feedback but I didn’t really get into it because before long I was flying to Minnesota because my grandpa was dying.

Now, that two-and-a-half weeks in Minnesota was…something else. I had never in my life confronted death so closely before. I’d never seen someone hanging out between the two realms. I’d never touched a dead body while it was still warm.

Another strange thing was that I began to feel, not like I was visiting Minnesota, but like I lived here now. Like this was simply another place I went to live for a month.

Let me backtrack a bit. When I first planned this living-in-a-different-place-every-month adventure, I wanted to leave Oregon on September 15, 2018.

Well on September 11, 2018, my cousin Justin and his wife Kayla, dear friends of mine, lost their infant son in a tragic stillbirth only a few days before he was due. Asher Kai. His funeral was on September 15, so I didn’t leave until September 16.

My Grandpa, at 102 years old, passed away on September 11, 2019. His funeral was on September 15, and we flew back to Oregon on September 16.

Before this, when I said I was writing about my “year” of travel, I really meant school year, not 365-day year. I didn’t want to be in some rando place during the summer, because Oregon summers are dear to my soul. So “year” meant September-June.

But now I began to re-think this. If I wrote about a 365-day year instead, it would contain these oddly parallel losses. And I could write about that time in Minnesota, which felt so significant. My Oregon summer could be just another chapter.

Janessa, in her edits of my first chapter, told me that she wished I’d dive into my thoughts and feelings more, instead of just writing down what happened. And I realized that she was right. But I’d written the whole first draft that way. I’d skimmed over my feelings and expounded upon events.

Revising it–adding it in–that would take some work.

But I called her on the phone when I got back from Minnesota, and we discussed my book at length. I told her my idea of doing a 365-day year, and she really liked it.

So that’s when I decided: I’m going to make this a better book than I’d planned to make it. And I’m going to write about my feelings. And I’m going to make it a 365-day year.

And it will not be ready by Christmas.

“When will it be ready?” You ask.

Well…I don’t know! “Before Christmas” is the best time to publish books. But I don’t want to wait all the way until NEXT Christmas to publish. So…between this Christmas and next Christmas? Is that specific enough?

Meanwhile, I’ve been valiantly trying to cut writing and editing projects out of my life so that I can focus on book writing. With moderate success. But I can’t say “no” to writing a play for our local Church school’s Christmas program. And last year I agreed to a giant editing project that I’ve been focusing my energy on for the past month-ish. And then there’s another project that I believe in so deeply I couldn’t let the opportunity slip. Ah!

Although that last opportunity won’t be a thing for a while yet. So I have time to finish my book first.

I think.

So to sum it all up, yes, my book is a thing. A thing that’s coming. Eventually. (And if, as my Grandma likes to say, the Lord tarries.)

P.S.

Speaking of writing more about personal thoughts and feelings, I decided to make a small switch over on Patreon. So far, my posts have mostly been opinion pieces on semi-controversial topics. But I was digging through some creative nonfiction pieces I’ve written, and I found stuff that I liked, but it was too personal to just show everyone in a public blog. So I decided to start posting some of those pieces on Patreon. 

Last month, I posted an essay about a friend that cut me out of her life. Later this week or next week I’ll post more opinion content, this time about the comedian John Crist. But at the end of the month I plan to post something personal again. I’ll just play it by ear from there.

If you’re interested in reading these bonus blog posts, you can access them by going to my Patreon Page and clicking the red “select” button under the “$1 per month” option. If you’d like to offer extra financial support for my blog you’ll be able to give more than $1, but all it takes is $1 a month to access all my bonus content.

What I’ve Been Reading This Month

I’ve consumed heaps of books this last month. A lot of stuff that’s more “fun” than “thoughtful,” if I’m gonna be honest, but hey, better than scrolling through Instagram, right?

Here’s a blurry picture of all of them lined up on my vanity:

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1. Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

I thought I had read Sense and Sensibility, but in reality I’d just watched multiple movie versions. Haha. Time to read it for real.

Current Status: Halfway through

Verdict: Delightful. Not, however, one of Austen’s best. We don’t burrow as neatly into the character’s heads as we do in some of her other books. Elinor falls in love, but the audience is informed of this from the perspective of a watchful outsider, instead of from the perspective of the inside of her head. We don’t know how she’s feeling, really.

Because of this, Sense and Sensibility is, along with Mansfield Park, at the bottom of my list of favorite Austen novels. (Emma is at the top for me, with Pride and Prejudice a close second.) Which is interesting, as it’s the second-most-popular Austen book when it comes to movies and plays. I think that’s because it really is a good story. My issue, of not being able to see into the characters’ heads, really isn’t an issue in movies and plays where you never get to see into any character’s head.

2. Hopeless Savages, by Jen Van Meter

I picked this up at the library because I do enjoy a good graphic novel every now and then. A family of punk rock stars? That looked like a fun, interesting read.

Current Status: Read two chapters.

Verdict: Boring. Will not finish.

3. The Girl from Paris, by Joan Aiken

I did this fun thing where I went to the first shelf of the fiction section of the library and read every book title until I found something that looked interesting.

This one looked interesting.

Current Status: Read the whole thing.

Verdict: This was a story about a young woman who went to be a governess for a strange family in Paris, and then later went home to England to take care of her own younger half-sister.

I found it rather interesting, although there were some odd parts, like a really rushed romance, and the abrupt location change mid-book. About 2/3’ds of the way through I realized it must be the second or third book in a series.

I looked it up online later, and yes, it was third in a series. LOL. Reviewers on goodreads were very annoyed at it for not living up to the standard of the first two books. While I agreed with all their criticisms, the truth is I still found the book rather fun.

After all, it contained two random things that I happen to love in books.

  1. A sensible main character
  2. Close, and perhaps rather strange, male-female relationships that are not quite romance.

As far as #2 goes, I’m not sure why I enjoy this so much in fiction when it often turns out disastrous in real life, LOL.

4. Spoiled, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Way back in the day, the teen YouTubers were all reading this book. When I saw it on the library shelf, I flipped to the back cover and saw that it was about a girl who finds out that her dad is actually a famous movie star. Hee hee. Who could resist a plot like that?

Status: Finished

Verdict: If you’re into fluffy YA that’s pretty clean you’ll enjoy it, but probably will never re-read it, haha. It does have an interesting subtext about family relationships, both father-daughter and sister-sister.

But what’s really delightful, for me, are the masses of 2011 pop culture references. I was actually really into pop culture in 2011, so it feels nostalgic.

5. Drowned Ammet (not pictured) and The Spellcoats, by Diana Wynne Jones

These are books 2 and 3 in a series. I read the first book in Tennessee, and was delighted to see that the library here carried the rest of the series.

Current Status: Finished

Verdict: I love it, but then again, I love everything Diana Wynne Jones writes, so there’s that. It’s middle grade fantasy with a sense of humor, as all her books are. This particular series, The Dalemark Quartet, has the best world-building I’ve ever seen from her. It’s a bit darker than some, with war as a central theme.

I don’t know what else to say. I really feel like my readers probably won’t like this book, so there’s probably no sense in recommending it, haha.

Here’s what I’l say: If you’re thinking of getting into Diana Wynne Jones, start with Howl’s Moving Castle. If you happen to love it, then branch out into some of her other books. Maybe the Chrestomanci series. And if you love those too, maybe then give The Dalemark Quartet a try.

6. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Esta thought I would like this book, and then mailed it to me. Aww! #bestfriendoftheyearaward

Status: Finished

Verdict: Absolutely delightful. I’d say this is the most universally appealing book on this whole pile. Just a happy, satisfying book in the vein of The Blue Castle, or The Enchanted April.

However, I should note that it does have a few problematic moments. Particularly when the main character makes this derogatory, passing comment about how it’s best for an English person to marry someone who’s fully their own race, and that it might not be the best to marry someone with Jewish blood.

Also, the main character, in “living for a day,” rubs shoulders with people who have somewhat loose morals.

7. Elizabeth and her German Garden, by Elizabeth Von Arnum

This book also came from Esta. I wanted to read it because it’s by the same lady who wrote The Enchanted April. And while the charm did not live up to The Enchanted April, it was, in fact, quite charming.

It’s actually more of a memoir of Von Arnum herself, and her absolute delight in her garden. It’s just a happy little book about the joys of gardening, and about her three babies called “April Baby” and “June Baby” and “May Baby” according to the months in which they were born.

I liked that she had a sense of humor, but at times I thought she was a bit unfair in the way she made fun of her guests. And her husband went on the oddest rants about how women are inferior to men. I think he was meant to be laughed at by the reader, but I’m not quite sure.

But anyway. It was charming and delightful, nonetheless.

8. The Way of a Bride with her Groom, by Earnest Witmer

I picked this book up because I know/know of the author. I’d heard that it was the story of himself and his wife, Rachel, who was killed in a car crash six or seven years ago.

Status: Read the story parts, skimmed/skipped the marriage advice parts. (To be honest, I almost never read nonfiction books. I do enjoy a good memoir and the occasional writing advice book. Other than that, I’m a nonfiction article reader, but for books I stick to fiction.)

Verdict: I found the story parts very interesting, but I feel I’m somewhat biased because I know the author somewhat. And also biased because I take great delight in hearing people’s romantic stories, heehee.

I think my favorite scene was this one where Earnest asked Rachel out, and she turned him down, but he still felt honored, and like it wasn’t shameful or embarrassing that he’d asked. Personally, I wish I’d received more training on how to turn a guy down in an honoring way. I have this hypothesis that if girls were better at turning guys down, guys wouldn’t be so nervous to keep asking girls out even if they’d gotten a lot of rejections, and so everyone would have better odds at finding a life partner.

Of course, that hypothesis remains untested. Feel free to pull it apart as much as you desire.

9. Dear Ally, How Do You Write a Book? By Ally Carter

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This book was displayed in the teen section during the same library run in which I picked up Spoiled. I snatched it up because I often ask that very question. How do I write a book?

Status: 1/3 of the way through.

Verdict: Fantastic. I recommend it to anyone who wants to know how to write a novel. Here are the things I’ve loved so far about this particular book, as opposed to other books on writing I’ve read (or skimmed.)

  1. The book has a concise, narrow focus. It is about how to write a novel, and does not veer off into general musings on writing.
  2. The book is aimed at teens, but doesn’t talk down to teens, which I really appreciate as a former teenage writer of books.
  3. Also, maybe because of teenage focus, Carter writes in a very interesting, engaging, concise way.
  4. She also answers all the random questions I’ve always worried about, but never got good advice about. Like, “how many words should my novel be?”
  5. Also, she gives specific answers to even the most squishy questions. Most authors, when giving advice on something like word count, will say something like “that depends on the book.”
    Carter says, “that depends on the book,” but then she provides a full page spread of authors listing the word count of their shortest book, and the word count of their longest book.

10. Lady in Waiting, by Debby Jones and Jackie Kendall

I was writing a play on the book of Ruth, and was amused by the way that Ruth asked Boaz to marry her. This prompted me to write on Facebook, “Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a Christian dating advice book based on the story of Ruth? Ladies, find a rich guy, sneak up to him while he’s sleeping, and ask him to marry you.”

Well, I was quickly informed that there was a dating advice book called Lady in Waiting which was based on Ruth. Then my roommate told me she owned a copy.

Status: Skimmed.

Verdict: Um….let’s just say, Lady in Waiting draws some very strange conclusions from the book of Ruth. How do you get “Don’t chase boys! Wait for the right man to come along and sweep you off your feet!” from a Bible story in which the woman asks the man to marry her?

In fact, I was so irritated that I wrote a whole bonus blog post titled “Five Actual Romantic Lessons from the Life of Ruth.” It’s available now on my Patreon page, for those who subscribe for $1 or more per month.

So those are the books I’ve been into for the last month. What have you been reading lately?

Blogmas 2018: Cozy Books to Read During the Holidays

Nonfiction

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, by Meik Wiking

“Hygge” is a Danish word that doesn’t really have an English translation, though it could be described as “cozy togetherness.” Think of a group of friends sitting in front of a fire, sipping hot cider. The Danes carefully construct their lives so that they experience as much Hygge as possible. For instance, having candles burning at the office and in school classrooms.

Wiking decided that the rest of the world was missing out, so he wrote an entire little book on the subject. I don’t usually read much nonfiction, and I only picked it up because I was looking for cozy/winter-themed books for this blog post. But I thought it was irresistibly charming.

It has some etymology, some recipes, some exploration of culture, and various tips on how to incorporate Hygge into your life. After reading, I promptly went out and bought an oversized wool sweater from a thrift store.

Christmas Stories

P.S. These are all children’s books. I don’t know why there aren’t more good Christmas stories aimed at adults, but alas. I tried to find some and had little luck. If you know of any good ones, let me know!

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson

This is probably my favorite Christmas-themed story ever.

First, because Robinson has a John Crist-level grasp on the idiosyncrasies of American Christian culture. They’re a wee bit outdated, as this book was written in the early ’70s, but still hilarious.

And you know how I wrote, once, that you can tell when an author knows her/his subject because they know what goes wrong? Well let me tell you, Robinson certainly knows what goes wrong while directing a Christmas Pageant.

The Tailor of Gloucester, by Beatri

This little book is so charming and delightful. The Christmas theme isn’t super heavy-handed, but the book hinges on the fact that a wonderful coat needs to be finished for the mayor to wear on his wedding day, which is on Christmas morning.

Somehow this books makes getting married on Christmas morning seem like the most charming thing ever.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

This classic introduction to the Narnia series (and trust me, it’s a much better introduction than The Magician’s Nephew) is the perfect cozy book to read over the Christmas holidays. So wintry! So charming!

While it’s not a “Christmas story” per se, Christmas is an important part of the plot. I’m not quite sure how Christmas existed in Narnia at that point, as Christ had a different name there, and hadn’t even died yet. But it’s still a cool bit of symbolism to play with. You know, Christmas coinciding with the savior coming, the end of winter’s grip, etc.

Ramona and her Father, by Beverly Cleary

This book begins with the start of a new school year, and ends with a Christmas Pageant. It’s a very rainy Christmas, being set in Oregon, and that felt like a nice touch.

P.S. Did you know that Beverly Cleary is 102 years, 8 months, and 12 days old?

Lovely Classics that Feel Wintry

There’s something about a classic novel that feels cozy and wintry, like it should be read in front of a fireplace. Here are some that feel dramatic and wintry, but still feature a good cozy happy ending.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

I actually looked up a timeline of this book to see if it was set in winter. It takes place in all seasons. But I still feel like, between the orphanage and the giant mansion, Jane is cold a lot. So it feels like a winter book to me.

Persuasion, by Jane Austin

I read on a random blog that Persuasion is the most wintry of all Jane Austin’s books. I agree. I have no evidence to back this up. It just feels wintry for some reason, Haha.

True-ish Books Set in Harsh Climates

Mrs Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman

A young girl moves to Alberta for health reasons, and falls in love with a Mountie. What follows is a fascinating account of the harsh realities of life up north.

There are several scenes in this book which really fascinated me and stuck with me. But I’m afraid telling them would spoil key parts of the story.

Tisha, by Robert Specht

Tisha is similar to Mrs. Mike, only with more idealism and less tragedy. The book follows a girl named Anne who moves to Alaske to become a teacher, or “Tisha,” as her students call her.

I haven’t read this book in ages, but I recall it being lovely.

Kyra, by Kyra Petrovskaya

While all three of these books are based on true stories, Kyra is an actual memoir of a woman who lived in the Soviet Union during WWII.

Her story was enthralling. I could hardly believe so many things, and so many husbands, had happened to one person. Particularly fascinating was her account of living through the Siege of Leningrad.

It’s interesting to me that although we have countless books, movies, etc based on WWII, most of them are from an American, British, or German perspective. But the Soviet Union had far and away the most deaths. Kyra was the first WWII book I’d ever read from a Soviet Union perspective.

That’s all for now. I was going to add a section. I was going to add a section about cozy topic memoirs, like food memoirs and home renovation memoirs, but it’s Christmas eve y’all and I’m too tired.

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.

Bookweek 2018, Day 5: Middle Grade Books

woman wearing white dress reading book

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?