Thursday, June 14, 2018

The 2018 Reader Survey

Discovering reader preferences, habits and attitudes — The 2018 Reader Survey is designed by authors M.K. Tod, Heather Burch, and Patricia Sands. This is fourth such reader survey organized by M.K. Tod.

Readers and writers is a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought to interpret those stories and deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both reader and writer.

What then do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? How do readers share their book experiences?

The 2018 READER SURVEY is designed to solicit input on all these topics.

After analyzing the survey data, M.K. Tod will email the results to you if you provide an email address in the survey.

Please TAKE THE SURVEY and share the link ( with other readers via blogs, email, and social media. Robust participation across age groups, genders, and countries will make the survey more significant.

Friday, June 1, 2018

My May Reading (and Music)

"Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing," says Lucille Clifton, poet and children's book author. The highlight of this month's reading was a children's picture book of poems. How wonderful is that? Inspiring children from a very young age to find beauty in words and the images they paint. The paucity of words and the unique styling of a poem is a language spoken directly to you, because it has the power to touch your emotions, your heart, and your mind and change you in ways that prose cannot. I wish more children experienced this:

Desk in tidy rows
Notebooks and texts neatly stacked
New year begins soon.
Pens scratching paper
Syllables counted with care
Poets blossoming.

—"Contemporary Haiku" from Out of Wonder

Making Up by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Parker's previous two books had been among the highlights of my previous reading years, so this was my most anticipated book of 2018 and it did not disappoint. Parker's style really appeals to me. It leaves me breathless with laughter at the quick, witty repartée, while enjoying the modern, mature vibe to her characters. It's a wonderful blend of lighthearted and serious. Most contemporary novels fail to achieve that balance; they tend to be, according to me, over-the-top silly or hyper.

In this story, Parker brings cosmopolitan London alive with a diverse set of characters. Beatrix “Trix” Lane, with her pink hair, is an aerial performer in London’s West End. One day, she finds out that her arch nemesis, Leo Magasiva has taken on the job of lead makeup and special effects artist for her show. Close proximity ignites fireworks, but both are convinced that they’re definitely not in a “we bicker because we want to have sex” situation. My review is here.

Rogue Hearts an anthology by Emma Barry, Suleikha Snyder, Tamsen Parker, Stacey Agdern, Kelly Maher, Amy Jo Cousins
Category: Contemporary Romances
Comments: Democracy survives in the crucible of citizens’ vigilance and energetic activism, and this anthology shares the stories of a few such individuals. This is resistance story-writing at its best. I found that Barry's, Snyder's, and Parker's stories appealed to me the best. My brief reviews are here.

Barry is such a fantastic writer. Maggie Clark is a very busy public defender living in the Montanan town she grew up in, surrounded by three generations of her family, working hard for the public good, and very content with life. And into this life walks her former debate opponent Adam Kadlick. Having abandoned corporate law and high living in Los Angeles, he has spent the past few months in his home state of Montana, trying to recruit the eight Democrat candidates whom he’s identified as the perfect fit to win their state Senate races and turn the Senate blue. He wants Maggie to run, and she doesn't want to.

Snyder's is a curious little tale. All in third-person present tense from both the protagonists’ points-of-view, it’s more a recounting of emotions and events than a showing of an unfolding story. Letitia Marie Hughes is the first African-American female vice president of the United States on the ticket with the first female president. They won the election in 2020. Keeping her protected, secure and loved is young Shahzad Ali Khan, the first Indian-American Secret Service agent. Against their parents’ instinctive cautions, Shahzad and Letty are determined to continue their loving relationship with discretion and care. Out of the blue, she proposes to him, and then comes the delicate negotiation of their dreams and hopes, their family's notions and conventions, and the country's priorities and dictates.

Parker's story is sweet, warm and engrossing. Recited in first-person present tense by Korean-American Benji Park, this inwardly insightful, but outwardly goofy, man shares his deepest thoughts and desires, fears and triumphs, hopes and dreams with readers with a frankness that is as disarming as it is charming. What I loved best about him is that he loved his mother unreservedly. Despite his rock star fame, he aspires to do something worthy of his mother’s regard. Immigration lawyer Jordan Kennedy (first-gen or second-gen immigrant citizen, I couldn't figure out which) wakes up Benji's latent desire to help undocumented immigrants. He is first seduced by her voice and most of their relationship is conducted by phone and text. Their HFN is barebones, i.e., they barely make it over the finish line. The author told me that she's thinking of fleshing this story out into a full novel. What a challenging task given that this story is out in the public sphere.

From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon
Category: Contemporary YA Romance
Comments: I really enjoyed Menon's début When Dimple Met Rishi, and I really enjoyed this story of a wallflower who comes to believe strongly in herself and claims the love of the boy who believes strongly in her. Right from the beginning, I was struck by the joy in the story. The overall impression of Twinkle is one of happiness. Twinkle is passionately in love with movies and with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, and this epistolary novel is written as a series of dated letters by Twinkle to various notable female film directors, such as Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Ava DuVernay and Jane Campion, among others. Her confiding honesty and emotional intensity in her diary let the reader really understand her, who she is and what drives her, her successes and her failures. My review is here.

Lady Elizabeth's Comet by Sheila Simonson
The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan
Category: Traditional Historical Romances
Comments: Simonson's story is written in first person, through the viewpoint of the heroine, Lady Elizabeth Conway, who is the daughter of the former Earl of Clanross. She now lives in the Dower House on the grounds of Brecon, the Clanross seat. She’s deeply dedicated to the study of astronomy and very serious in her quest to discover new celestial objects. She is aware that in marrying, she would most likely have to give up her scholarly pursuits, but loneliness drives her to accept just such a controlling man. But when the current Earl of Clanross comes to claim Brecon, she is torn between the two men. On one hand is a sure marriage; on the other, is a man who understands her passion and her personality and not only condones it, but actively supports it. Theirs is a gentle, slow romance.

This is an unusual Georgian story set in the mid-18thC. I've mostly read those set much later in the century. Rebecca Parrish is a young widowed mother living in London. She has just come out of mourning for her unlamented husband and is eager to rejoin society. This time, she wants to be sure that she chooses her own husband, but the debts left to her by her former husband means that her husband has to at least be wealthy. Torn between an extremely handsome and wealthy gentleman and a devilish rake known to be impoverished, she keeps seesawing between them. She needs to be practical even though the wealthy gentleman is unimaginative and weak, but she is of course drawn to the principled and understanding rake despite his shocking reputation. My reviews are here.

Secrets of a Wallflower by Amanda McCabe
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This is the first of the Debutantes in Paris series set in the late 1880s on the occasion of the Paris Exposition. At just 18, Diana dreams of being a magazine writer living on her own and covering Parisian fashion and the expo for a London ladies’ journal. She not only dreams it, but makes it happen. And on to Paris she goes. She is firmly convinced that once a lady is married, her own ideas about life are finished.

Sir William Blakely is a diplomat with the Foreign Office, whose work is shrouded in mystery. He has just returned from a stint in India, but Her Majesty's government sends him off to Paris to look into the security and diplomacy of the Prince of Wales's impromptu visit to Paris. As it so happens, William is Diana's best friend's cousin and they've met a time or two in the past. She's convinced he thinks her frivolous and he is convinced she finds him boring. They blush charmingly in each other's company. My review is here.

The Prince by Katharine Ashe
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Simply, wow! It is written with such delicacy and subtlety, that it makes the undercurrent of sexual tension thrumming throughout the story all the more powerful. Cohabiting for most of the book doesn't mean that they fall into bed within the first few days, which is how many books would set up their relationship. They fall in love well before they give in to their lust, and they do so only when it is integral to their story. This is a slow book that gradually speeds up. Their internal black moment when it comes is truly organic to the story and inevitable. I wrote on Twitter that at 93%, the two were on different continents and I had no idea how they were going to get together again. And Ashe wisely lets two years pass by while they work to resolve their life's circumstances that eventually allows them to be together as husband and wife permanently. I highly recommend this book.

The Sheikh's Destiny by Melissa James
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I was recommended this book when I mentioned on Twitter that I was looking for a sheikh romance where the sheikh was a real Arab and a Muslim. Both the protagonists in this are Arabic Muslims, and speak various dialects of the language and reflect on their complicated relationship with religion. There is some category sub-genre shorthands but that was to be expected and did not detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Alim El-Khanar is the sheikh of Abbas al-Din. He drives medical trucks for Doctors of Africa and delivers crucial medicines to remote villages under fire from various tribal warlords. He has specifically designed trucks that can withstand being driven over all terrain and under the stress of great speeds. In his former life, he was a race car driver and living the high life. He was also the second in line for the title Sheikh, when his older brother died. But instead of ascending to the seat of power, Alim abdicated to his young brother and gave up his racing career, because of his deep guilt over having been responsible for the death of his older brother. When the story opens, he has barely made it to the village of Shellah-Akbar in Northern Africa ahead of the men chasing him.

Quick thinking on the part of the medical professional, Hana al-Sud, saves his life thrice over: first by rescuing him from a runaway truck, then by taking care of his health, and finally by claiming him as her missing husband. She of course knows who he is; he doesn't. They're bound in this pretense of a relationship as they seek to escape the remote village to safety. They're forced to reveal closely-held secrets as their attraction deepens into love.

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley & Marjory Wentworth; illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Category: Poetry, Children's Picture Book
Comments: Three North American poets bring the poetry of Bashō, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Chief Dan George, Pablo Neruda, Okot p'Bitek, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and many others to children by paying lyrical homage to these great poets' works. This will be an ongoing entry in my reading log for the next couple of months. Here's a snippet of a poem:

Let us celebrate Africa.
Let us adorn her with a river of gold,
proudly carry her above our shoulders like water to drink.
Let us gallantly wrap our arms around her blackness,
hold her hands in ours,
lace each glistening finger
of freedom.

—"Song of Uhuru" celebrating Okot p'Bitek by Kwame Alexander

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I love Jewish American Edward Hirsch's poetry. Last month I said that I was done reading this book, but when it came time to return it to the library, I ended up renewing it instead and proceeding to read my favorite bits all over again.

Look Back! by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Caroline Binch
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I really enjoyed how the book's lines are redolent with the lyricism of the main character's Dominican Caribbean roots. I'm a huge fan of onomatopoeia, so when the mysterious Ti Bolom walks "pattaps pattaps" and the girl falls "bladdaps", I was instantly connected to the story. One day, Grannie tells Christopher the story of Ti Bolom and her experience with him when she was a child. Throughout the story is the refrain "Eh Kwik!" by Grannie, answered "Eh Kwak!" by Christopher. Ti Bolom is this short creature with a long, flat foot and a big head, and when you're walking alone at night, he walks behind you. But when you turn around, he's not there. As a child, Grannie tried hard to catch a glimpse of Ti Bolom, and Christopher is fascinated by the story and dreams of doing the same.

Next Stop — Zanzibar Road! by Niki Daly
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a delightful, rollicking chapter story of animals on a busy market day in an African village. Mama Jumbo lives at Number 7-Up Zanzibar Road, and this morning, she puts on her flippy-floppy, flappy-slippy, this-way-that-way pompom hat and takes off squashed in Mr. Motiki's rattletrap taxi along with other denizens of Zanzibar Road. The story follows her adventures at the loud, busy market. Mama Jumbo is in her element, because she loves a lively market. I had chuckles o'plenty as I read along. This is a rare chapter picture book.

Music I Listened To...

Every time I get asked the question: What type of music do you listen to? Er, eclectic is my reply. There's no other category, rhyme, or reason what appeals to me. Here's a sampling of what I listened to this month: Taraf de Haïdouks (Roma/Romany), Music of the Mountains (India), Best of Bhangara (India), Delhi 2 Dublin (bhangara from Canada), Cheb I Sabbah (Morocco), Mi Yeewnii by Baaba Maal (Senegal), Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg, Best of Pavarotti, and Spirituals by Kathleen Battle and Jesse Norman.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

My April Reading

These days, it's a toss-up which book I will find the most fascinating in my monthly reading: an adult fiction book, poetry, or a children's picture book. This month, a picture book won out. (See the last entry of this post.) It is written with a sensitivity and even-handedness that is especially pleasing, because it takes the author out of the picture and lets the young voices tell their stories.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmunska Orczy de Orci
Category: Literary Book and Movies
Comments: I'm continuing on with my experiment from March by commenting on the book, The Scarlet Pimpernel, set during the Rein of Terror of the French Revolution, and the 1934 and 1982 movies. In present day, this novel of great heroism, honor, theatricality, and tender passion would be called a romantic suspense, but given that it is a 1905 roman à clef, it is now labeled a classic.

Before I get into the story, let me just say that I now know where Georgette Heyer got her inspiration for her writing style, word choice, scene setting, character development, and plotting. All of Heyer's delightful writing is here in spades. Orczy's was the original spy nobleman, a fop cum cunning daredevil, and a master of disguises who leaves a calling card and who is capable of a passionate love. Orczy's was the original story moving at a spanking pace with glittering characters and sparkling dialogue.

A delicious tidbit: Author C.S. Harris got the name St. Cyr for the hero of her Regency mysteries from this novel. The St. Cyr family is the one Marguerite Blakeney, with republican sympathies, inadvertently sends to the guillotine, thus setting off the romantic turmoil in her marriage.

The book starts right off the bat in the first paragraph with an action scene, quite like modern novels, and the pace doesn't let up. Orczy has a brilliant way of painting her scenes so that you feel like you're observing a play in action. Given that, this must've made her and her husband's job as playwrights for the adaptation much easier. While Orczy wrote the book in 1901, it languished unpublished until 1905. In the meantime, the adapted play, written in 1903, made a big splash on the London stage, and the book, when it was released, continues to sell well even today.

While the 1934 movie is more faithful to the book as compared to the 1982 movie, I believe the former movie is quite likely faithful to the dramatized version rather than the book as such, because there are missing scenes, modifications, and additions, even though the book was written from the play. Even though I had very much liked Ian McKellen (1984) as Chauvelin, having now read the book, Raymond Massey (1934) portrayed Chauvelin more accurately. Chauvelin really is the oily, vindictive, malignant villain, and not the more debonair, subtle villain.

I loved the novel so much. So much. But I was dismayed by the rank anti-Semitism in it. Oh, you can couch it to say that in 1790s France, this was a common attitude and she's merely trying to accurately portray that, but the heavy-handed way it is written smacks of the baroness's attitude more than Chauvelin's. (In the comments to my March post, I was warned that it is there, but I had still not expected it to be this much.)

His Convenient Mistress by Elizabeth Rolls
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: He is fifty; she's thirty three; both are widowed. This is not merely a second-chance love for the hero and heroine, it's also of a story of building a family together with her two children, while being open to welcoming new additions to the family. His wife and children had died of smallpox and her husband had died of an inflammation of the lungs. He needs an heir for his marquessate, while she wants protection for her children to prevent them from being kidnapped by bitterly warring grandparents. So they decide to join forces in a marriage of convenience, but even as they assume that the other is not interested in love, they find themselves thinking of the other in affection even as they're attracted to the other right from the beginning. This is a story of passion, tenderness, and family, and altogether, lovely. "You have us and we have you."

House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Joyful, mirthful, and lively. And quiet and angsty. Two protagonists, who're misfits in society and enmeshed in lies, come together in fascination and delight. The conflict in this story is largely internal, and Kingston does an excellent job of showing how they resolve their differences in circumstance, opinion, and outlook to life. The heroine is a vivacious French émigrée to England, very well-liked by people and popular with men. She's in London to rehabilitate her reputation and help a friend out. She runs into the hero at a ton party. He is a pamphlet illustrator whose sole aim is to sell as many papers as he possibly can to amass a fortune. So he poses as a wealthy businessman involved in the timber trade to gain entrée into the highest circles of society. This was such a refreshing sex-positive change from the usual Regencies. I highly recommend it. My review is here.

Someone to Care by Mary Balogh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the fourth book in the Westcott series and tells the story of the former, now dispossessed, Countess of Rivendale, who goes by Viola Kingsley and Marcel Lamarr, the Marquess of Dorchester. They're both in their forties with adult children. She is ruled by duty, virtue, and reputation, while he is steeped in hedonism and pleasure. They had met ten years ago and both had been fascinated with each other. But she'd been married then and had asked him to go away. Stung, he had hied off. Forward ten years, they're both fancy-free, and he urges her into an affair with him. They're found out in their love nest by both their concerned families (because of course!) and are forced into a marriage neither desires. While the Westcott series has been uneven IMO, this is a wonderful book. Balogh has done a stellar job developing their relationship from a sex-only connection to an enduring love. My review is here.

The Plumed Bonnet by Mary Balogh
The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley
Duel of Hearts by Diane Farr
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I pulled these three stories in this piece together because I was struck by how much of an impact Georgette Heyer has had on them, whether it is in characterization or in story details or, merely, in turns of phrase and scene setting.

In Balogh's The Plumed Bonnet, we see glimpses of Sylvester from Heyer’s Sylvester in the Duke of Bridgewater. Balogh's story is a marriage of convenience resulting from a mistaken assumption. He assumes she's a lady of easy virtue based on her outfit, when, in fact, she's a virtuous governess and now a propertied lady of independent means. Only Balogh can navigate the MoC plot with such deftness and intricacy.

In Riley's Marquess of Amberley, we see shades of the Duke of Avon from These Old Shades. I loved this story. Loved. In Amberley, we see a hero of delicacy and nuance, who is capable of deep empathy and knows instinctively what is required of him in different situations. The heroine lives on an estate with only the servants for company. Due to her blindness, her loving relatives have constrained her to this gilded cage, little realizing that such a life is stifling for her. Amberley sets her free while challenging her to take risks. They're both wonderful in themselves and wonderful to each other.

And finally in Farr's story, we see Vidal from Devil's Cub in Lord Drakesley. Farr's writing shines in her book about two very similar, highly emotional characters, who argue at the drop of the hat but come from a place of deep understanding of the other and respect for the other's opinions, even when the other is driving them crazy. We usually see opposite attract stories, and this is the opposite that is convincingly executed. My brief reviews are here.

Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray by Janice Preston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I have liked Preston's books in the past, so I was looking forward to reading this. While the story on the surface is the usual noble spinster daughter falling in love with an inappropriate, but hot, man, I was taken aback by the stereotyping of the Romany people—the silent type with the all-knowing serene wisdom, who prefers to camp out in the woods on the ducal estate even though he's an invited guest. He is ultimately brought up into the society of his high-ranking father and saved by this delicate white flower. While Preston goes to some length, and has done her research, to establish Romany society and culture, the characterization of the two protagonists did not work for me. Not a book I can recommend.

The Love Coupon by Ainslie Paton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I know I am completely in the minority with a negative reaction to this book. Everywhere I have looked, people have had high praise for it, which I find inexplicable. The hyperbolic writing style with various metaphors jostling for attention made it difficult for me to get into the book. But after I'd gotten used to the writing, I was able to understand the characterization better and where Paton was going with the character arcs. However, I was horrified by how cavalierly the heroine treats the hero's views, desires, and limitations. I can understand that she wanted him to live a little and gift him with the freedom to experience living beyond the tight bounds of his worldview. But, oh, the way she goes about it. Consent is foreign to her. She pushes and pushes and pushes till she gets what she wants. When she doesn't get it, she castigates him and he is forever apologizing. When she gets what she wants, he is grateful. And there is rape by her. I could not get beyond that even after reading the whole book—despite the author's occasional sharp humor or the deft turns of phrase or the heroine's good intentions towards the hero—because this sort of behavior is a pattern for her. My review is here.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I finished reading this book that I talked about in February.

Nimoshom and his Bus by Penny Thomas, illustrated by Karen Hibbard
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Ekosi," says Nimoshom, okay, that's it, amen, says grandfather. I'm enjoying the Cree books I have been reading lately. I read Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence in January. This book is about a grandfather who drives the school bus for the little Cree children. He speaks in Cree to them as he twinkles at them, makes them laugh, and gently admonishes them. And the children, in turn, loved him, and he always said, "Ekosani," thank you, to them when they brought him gifts.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated Thi Bui
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a book that sets up a frog in your throat from the dedication onwards that doesn't dislodge even after you read the author and illustrator bios at the end. The book is dedicated to refugees everywhere. Both Bao Phi and Thi Bui came to the US from Vietman as refugees. People in their American neighborhoods "did not understand why we were there at best, and blamed us for the aftermath of the war at worst." Both Bao and Thi were very poor as children, and their parents worked multiple jobs just to survive. A Different Pond, the story and style of illustrations, is their way of honoring their roots and the dislocation of the immigrant experience through a fictionalized version of Bao's childhood. On the surface, it's a story of a predawn fishing trip that a father takes his young son on. They're trespassing on the lake to fish for their supper. They're sometimes joined by a Hmong man or an African man. The spare prose and illustrations brilliant show the poverty and hard choices of the father and the uncomplaining quietude of the boy, who doesn't know a life different from hardship, nor the life their family left behind in Vietnam.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author interviewed various kids from around the globe and then decided to choose these seven kids and their stories. His artwork and the depictions of the people are based on photographs sent in by the seven families. Lamothe's goal was to appreciate how different we all are, and yet, in so many ways how similar. Inspired by his own travels, Lamothe sought to show us how our common experiences unite us. It's a book that at once fascinates and educates. Children, especially the very young, are able to quickly discern the commonalities and the dissimilarities among the depicted kids and accept them all for who they are. This is a book to savor.

Eight-year-old Romeo "Meo" is from Condrignano, Italy with a vineyard in his backyard. Kei "Kei-chan" is nine and from Tokyo, Japan. Daphine "Abwooli" is seven and lives in a house of wood and mud in the village of Kanyaware, Uganda. Oleg "Olezhka" is an eight-year-old Russian from Uchaly, a mining town near the Ural mountains. Ananya "Anu" is from Haridwar, India along the Ganges River and is eight. Ribaldo "Pirineo" is an eleven-year-old from Los Naranjos, Peru in the Amazonian rainforest. Seven-year-old Kian is from the urban town of Gorgan, Iran near the Caspian sea.

Each of these kids describes where they live, who they live with, what they wear to school, what they eat for their three meals and who they eat with, how they get to school, their classroom experience, how they write their names, their physical extracurricular activities, how they help their families, what they do after dinner, and where they sleep all united under the night sky.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Royally Yours: A Fiction Serial Inspired by the Upcoming Royal Wedding

Inspired by the world’s most anticipated royal wedding and the movie Love, Actually, Serial Box and Rakuten Kobo will release Royally Yours, a six interconnecting episode fiction serial on May 2. Written together by the New York-based writing team comprised of Megan Frampton, K. M. Jackson, Liz Maverick, Kate McMurray, and Falguni Kothari, each of the fun and flirty episodes will be released in e-book and audio formats on Wednesdays and Fridays over three weeks (May 2–18). The first episode is free and each subsequent episode is $1.99, and the whole series is $8.99.

The Royally Yours romance stories are about the magic and joy of a royal wedding and feature a palace maid with a heart of gold, a milliner who dreams of seeing her designs adorn the pews, an American bodyguard who learns some British charm, a paparazzo after that one great shot, and an ordinary girl who dreams of being a princess.

Some Thoughts by the Authors on their Experience

Megan Frampton says...

"I have never written this way—in collaboration with four other others and according to a thoroughly-plotted story. It was a blast to just insert my words into the framework we'd created. I found my writing style changed a bit (also because I was writing contemporary, whereas I normally write historical), and I'm now thinking about trying it again at some point."

K.M.Jackson says...

"Writing this way was a new and exciting experience for me. Since what I normally do is so solitary, it was fun to collaborate with others. I imagine it gave a bit of a glimpse of what it must be like to be in a TV series writers' room, which is a secret dream of mine. Though it was a little bit of a challenge keeping the stories connected, it kept us all sharp. Keeping them short ensured that the pacing was fast."

Liz Maverick says...

"This was an amazing experience. Brainstorming with other writers is one of the pleasures of this career, but it often only comes when something has gone wrong with a story. In this case, the brainstorming was a central part of the job. I absolutely adored working in the writers' room hashing out the details of our connected story. To me, 'short' simply means that you've got to bring your best game to the collaboration. You've got to get the emotional connection, character development, plot, and connective threads to shine on the page in a nice, compact box. Since we try and do that with every book we write, it's just a matter of making every single sentence really, really count. No room for darlings, tangents, or subplots. The end result is a sparkling, fast-paced read."

Monday, April 9, 2018

Quotes from Anne Lamott's Talk With My Commentary

Last night, I attended a talk by the wonderful Anne Lamott. She's a spry sixty-four and continues to tour regularly to promote her books and to give invited talks. She tends to ramble a bit and gives some canned talking points, but she's funny, compassionate, and passionate. The talk was part therapy, part advice, humorous, and altogether, entertaining.

(I have organized my notes here to read in a coherent fashion, because, like I said before, she had a tendency to ramble. The quotes are her words and the commentary is mine based on her talk and my personal thoughts.)

The three topics Lamott covered were: Mercy, Grace, and Writing.

She started out her talk with references to how exhausted she and others she knows have been since the election, and she had high praise for the Parkland students. In fact, she came back again and again to how she, personally, feels invigorated by seeing these young voices actively doing the right thing, no matter the personal cost. Lamott is well known for her activism, and it was wonderful to see how forthright she was about it. She did not shy away from offending the conservative among the audience—at sixty-four, she felt she had to kowtow to no one.

Mercy is not help. "Help is the sunny side of control." Ah! And there you have it—to me, the most significant nugget of her talk.

Using soup kitchens and care packages for the homeless as talking points, she addressed how even those who want to help go about it in a wrongheaded fashion. The correct attitude is to consider that we are all damaged, and what we want is the well-being and happiness of everyone, including ourselves. We need to focus more on that than on being right.

In other words, "Mercy is consciousness and intentionality. It is a heart for others' troubles."

Then she moved on to grace.

"Grace is life's WD-40 with a long red straw"—whenever you are stuck, it will get you out. Grace helps you realize that you cannot serve justice. Stop pretending fakeness and giving lip service to doing right by saying you want to be fair to all. "Fair [a fare] is where the pony rides are."

On grace: "The world does not have your self-respect to offer you. That is an inside job."

"Eighty-five percent of cacao is inedible"—it can be used to support rickety tables—"this is life." But it is that fifteen percent that is of import. What you do with it is of import. Life and writing are like driving at night with headlights on. You see only a little bit at a time, but you can make a whole journey that way.

She then ties in mercy and grace with: "Mercy is grace in action."

"As soon as someone can tell their truth and secrets to you, you have broken through and reached their heart. This is their salvation. Their stories heal them. They are like medicine."

Every March, I visit our local South Asian show called Yoni Ki Baat (The Vagina Monologues), where a small group of South Asian women come together to narrate their stories of innermost anguish. Every year, I go to witness their stories, to allow them to be heard and understood and accepted.

A throwaway: "Laughter is carbonated holiness." This reminded me strongly about His Holiness the Dalai Lama's discourses on happiness and laughter.

While Lamott referred to her books as the references cropped up organically in the talk, she never made it a point to sell them, and I really appreciated that.

The writing portion of the talk was canned advice. If you've read her Bird by Bird, you've heard it all. I bet she constantly gets asked questions about writing and the book, and she decided to forestall a lengthy Q&A by addressing it head-on. However, it didn't jive with the rest of the talk and felt tacked on.

She's a fan of the Indian American philosopher, J. Krishnamurti (1895–1986). When he was asked about his serenity in the face of everything life threw at him, he was famous for saying, "I don't mind."

How freeing! Not having expectations, not getting offended, not minding allows you to observe life and participate on your own terms. However, not minding is not to be confused with not caring. It is, in fact, quite the reverse. Not minding allows you to remove yourself from the equation and focus entirely on the other person.

Lamott underscored our inherent selfishness with this: "When kids do well, parents feel good about themselves." Instead of focusing on the child's achievement, the parents are patting themselves on the back.

"Teaching children destroys their creativity. They are so vulnerable and so strong and so free. When you tell a child, 'that is a bird,' thenceforward, they will only see the word 'bird.'" They will no longer see the beauty, the clean lines, the colors, the determination to succeed, to float, to fly, to soar. I was reminded about Richard Bach's book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and how Jonathan was committed to seeing beauty and perfection and beauty in perfection.

Her final words: "Pay attention! Look up, take off, soar, and land. Don't stay buried in a holes."

A sour note in her otherwise interesting presentation was her Orientalism. She exotified Indians and Asians, pigeonholing them with stereotypes and outright weirdness gathered from who knows where. Sigh! Given how much she talked about being woke, specifically using that term, she needs to do more work within to dismantle her own racism.

Monday, April 2, 2018

My March Reading

I was in my early twenties when I first saw the Scarlet Pimpernel movie, and I was instantly hooked—an ultra-romantic tale of love, betrayal, great derring-do, and superb, superb acting all under the shadow of the French Revolution. In recent conversation about what would be a good family movie to watch, I was struck by the fact that no one else in the family had watched it. I needed no further excuse to acquire the movie post-haste from Netflix.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orci
Category: Literary Fiction, Movies
Comments: I conducted an experiment this month. I watched both the 1934 and 1982 movie adaptations to see what the differences were and what I liked and didn't like of the two. Next month, I will read the 2012 Dover Thrift edition, and then compare the movies and the book. In short, the story is about a daring young Englishman and his band of trusted Englishmen all of the nobility, sneaking into France under one pretext or the other, in one disguise or the other, and returning with a few French nobles saved from Madame La Guillotine. In society, these men go around behaving as fops and wastrels, more interested in the cut of their coats and the fall of a cravat, than in politics. In real life, they're a band of incredibly brave, compassionate patriots with a strong belief in right and wrong.

The 1982 film is longer and thus the story and characters are more developed. It is also the more romantic tale of the two. If I had not known the story, I wouldn't have understood the 1934 version as well as I did. It is choppy and the storyline isn't as logically developed. I loved both Leslie Howard (1934) and Anthony Andrews (1982) playing Sir Percy Blakeney AKA The Scarlet Pimpernel. While Andrews does the fop better, both do Percy equally well—Howard is sharper and Andrews more smoothly rounded, both transition from fop to mastermind really well. I believed both men were the courageous, intrepid leader, who put himself in just as much danger as his loyal fellowmen.

I prefer Jane Seymour's Marguerite, Lady Blakeney (1982) to Merle Oberon's Marguerite (1934). Seymour's character is more nuanced with some lightness and gravitas under the pampered and fêted society lady, whereas Oberon's is a one-note spoiled beauty. You really wonder how she's capable of the betrayals and her promises of the ultimate sacrifice, her life for Percy's. Seymour is far more convincing.

But the true difference in the movies is the villain, French ambassador to London, and Percy's sworn enemy: Chauvelin. Ian McKellen (1982) plays him to perfection. Raymond Massey (1934) is far too much of a caricature villain, smooth but oily, overtly threatening, and harsh and direct. His character lacks subtlety. McKellen is simply parfait with just the right urbaneness, steel underneath the surface charm, a keen sense of purpose with a hint of low self-esteem, and a picture of someone who can convincingly be gulled by revolutionary rhetoric and yet have the intelligence to discern clues and know how to react to them.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I continued reading this book that I talked about last month.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Category: General Fiction
Comments: I liked this book more upon re-reading it, so I re-wrote my review from December 2015. When I read that this book was set in a small village in England, and I didn’t read any further before getting the book. I’m a huge fan of the TV series Cranford and Grantchester and so many lovely small-village stories that the BBC is so good at producing. And Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand certainly does not disappoint. There is all the insularity and peculiarity of living in close quarters with a few families. Everyone is in everyone else’s business and gossips about whoever is not there. Bossy women run the social life of the village. Old spinsters run the gardening clubs and book clubs. Middle-aged men play golf.

But then, then comes this Pakistani-British family in the midst of all this country whiteness. They’re “othered” and treated as foreigners even though the couple were both born in England, and they forever disturb the homogeneous harmony of the village. Our story begins after a few years have passed since the death of Major Ernest Pettigrew’s wife and Mrs. Jasmina Ali’s husband, because our story is very much a story of a romance between completely, on the surface, different people. She’s Muslim, from the North of England, lower middle class, runs a shop. He’s the offspring of a British Empire officer, retired major of the army, comfortably middle class, occupying a genteel place in Edgecombe St. Mary society. And yet, they share a love of Kipling, poetry, long walks, have had spouses who’ve passed away, and speak English and Urdu. My revised review is here.

Navy SEAL Rescue by Susan Cliff
Category: Contemporary Romantic Suspense
Comments: An Assyrian doctor caught up in the war in Syria and Iraq manages to escape the Da'esh with a daring trek over the Zagros Mountains into Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and thence to safety in Armenia with the help of a Navy SEAL Caucasian American. I liked how each rescues the other over the course of the book, each leads different aspects of the story, and how, largely, comfortable both are with the other being in charge. The mountain climbing details, the war zone details, the travel map of the region, and the tribal rivalries and culture are all done very well IMO. Granted I am not overly familiar with all of this, but I'm reasonably up on the politics of the region and my husband vouched for the climbing stuff. A wonderful read! My review is here.

Counting on a Countess by Eva Leigh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: An upright former-soldier, now made earl, and a former baron's daughter, now smuggler, strike up a marriage of convenience; he, to secure a fortune bequeathed to him, to build a pleasure garden, and to gain an heir; she, to buy her childhood manor and home of her smuggling operation. Neither confides in the other of their dreams—his garden, her house and secretive operations—trusting in the indifference of the other to allow them to pursue what they seek. But, of course, they find out. And then all hell breaks loose. He's an upright law-abiding citizen, who fought for king and country and the country's laws. She's a thrifty spender hoarding her groats. How will they ever reconcile their differences to achieve a marriage of hearts, instead of mere inconvenience? I enjoyed reading how Leigh cleverly has them compromising their ideals for the other, while at the same time, getting what they want. My review is here.

The Secret of Flirting by Sabrina Jeffries
Category: Late Georgian Historical Romance
Comments: This book is set in the late Georgian era, between the Regency period and the Victorian era. It's a mystery and romance, intricately intertwined and done very well. I have read Jeffries on and off over the years, and this one is among the top few I have read.

Monique Servais is a struggling operatic actress in France, whose grand-maman is one of the princesses of Chanay, a principality in Belgium. One day, unexpectedly, her great-uncle pays her visit and asks her to impersonate Aurore, the ruling princess, Monique's second cousin and whose visual double she is, at the London Conference. In return, he will take care of her grand-maman, who is now afflicted with Alzheimer's. The conference is to determine who among the handful of candidates is suitable to rule Belgium, with the Princess of Chanay being the top contender.

At the first event, Aurore/Monique is introduced to the under-secretary of the foreign office, Geoffrey, Baron Fulkham, whom, it turns out, she had met, as Monique, three years prior in France. He recognizes her and wonders why she is masquerading as the princess and his decision to unmask her is fraught with his growing desire and affection for her. To complicate matters further, two attempts are made on Aurore/Monique's life, and he is frantic to protect her and solve the mystery, at the risk to his future career as a politician. My review is here.

The Lady’s Companion by Carla Kelly
Miss Westlake’s Windfall by Barbara Metzger
The Nobody by Diane Farr
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: In The Nobody, a portionless country girl is invited to London for a season by her aunt. At one of the ton events, she is dismayed to be labeled a tuft-hunter and her friend being urged to rid herself of her uncouth company. In anguish, she rushes off unwisely alone into the night. Trouble finds her in the guise of a stranger who’s running from attackers. He wards off his assailants, by hauling her into an unwanted kiss by pretending to be a swell bent only on amour. Despite this inauspicious beginning, as the two of them stand there in the darkness, their sparkling, respectful conversation leaves them both yearning for the impossible: a desire to know the other better.

What I liked best about The Lady's Companion is that tragedy does not fell this heroine’s sense of self or positive outlook to life. She has ample reason to be disheartened and feel ill-used, but instead of moaning on about her circumstances, she’s determined to look ahead into carving herself a better future. And she does, handsomely so, despite having to continually adapt her way of thinking to her new station in life. She is a gentleman's daughter, who's now been reduced to earning her living as a lady’s companion; he's a bailiff; and theirs is a mésalliance that they make work with great care and caring.

In Miss Westlake’s Windfall, she doesn’t consider herself a fool, though at her age to be whistling a handsome, titled, wealthy man down the wind is nothing short of foolishness. But she believes that she’s not the bride for him, and if she steadfastly continues refusing his proposals, he will continue to be her dear friend but look elsewhere for a more suitable bride. But he is convinced she is the bride for him, if only the bride would believe it. This book is a comedy of errors, missteps, and corrections, at once fun and engrossing. My brief reviews are here.

It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton, illustrated by Marla Frazee
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Let's build a village...worthy of all the children. Indeed! Indeed! That is our job as adults, to leave behind a city, a country, a planet that is better than what we had. This is a book about people helping each other, and how every person matters, even every child. Kindness and caring and sharing matter. We cannot go through life alone and without needing other people. Every child needs a champion. Or two. Or three. So we, in turn, need to help others less fortunate than us. Clinton reminds us of the old African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child," and that children only thrive if their families thrive. We are all in this together.

Brave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel by Lisa Pliscou, illustrated by Jen Corace
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: An excellent biography of Jane Austen from her early childhood years till her death. The artwork is beautiful—sharp, detailed, warm, and with a good period feel. However, it is a story meant for older children, not the usual audience for picture books.

The True Story of Balto: The Bravest Dog Ever by Natalie Standiford, illustrated by Donald Cook
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: We checked this book out from the library for six months straight and finally bought it. I love books that get me in the feels as well as the kids. There's nothing like rooting for a character, being awed by them, and then feeling a sense of pride in them when the story is over. Balto was one such dog. The story is set in a frontier town amidst the ice and snow of Alaska of 1925. In the winter, there was no way to travel in that region except by dog sled. Neither planes, nor trains, nor boats, nor cars could work in those snow drifts and iced over lakes.

Balto was a lead sled dog—where he led, the other dogs followed—and he was the smartest and strongest dog in the region. Once, an epidemic of diphtheria hit the small town of Nome, buried in the middle of nowhere. The only medicine available was in Anchorage 800 miles away. It speaks to the hardiness, generosity, and integrity of the folks in the small towns of Alaska that they organized a relay of dog sleds to carry the medicine to Nome. What was a journey scheduled to take fifteen days was accomplished in just five and a half days, thanks to the endurance and, well, doggedness of Balto and his owner, Gunnar. They drove for twenty hours straight to deliver the medicine. A year later, New York City erected a statue of Balto in Central Park, which stands to this day. This is a true story.