Quickie Reviews: Nightmares, Anyone?

You know what I, as someone living with generalized anxiety disorder, just love? Books that scare me so bad I can’t sleep.

Ha! But seriously, I’m glad I’m done with these because I literally cannot sleep.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven, Emily St. John MandelThis is the first book I read for my first book club meetup (squee!). It was really good, but post-apocalyptic settings have never been my jam. I keep thinking about a few specific moments in the novel and it’s freaking me the hell out. We’re discussing the book this Saturday; I’m excited to learn about what other people thought.

A Window Opens

A Window Opens, Elisabeth EganAlice lands her dream job at Scroll, a hip startup that’s going to “revolutionize reading.” But between trying to please a demanding boss, keeping her family afloat while her husband starts his own business, and squeezing in doctor’s appointments for her father, Alice is beginning to wonder if she really can have it all. This is a case of reading a well-written book at the wrong time. Not only did this book give me cold sweat-inducing flashbacks to working in the startup world, the main characters deals with some personal things that hit just a little too close to home right now. A month ago I probably would have raved about this book; but now it just makes me feel annoyed and guilty and upset.

The Curse of the Pharaohs

The Curse of the Pharaohs, Elizabeth PetersThis one didn’t scare me, but it did keep me up late reading. It’s the sequel to Crocodile on the Sandbank, and it’s just as marvelous. Lots of great characters — especially Amelia and Emerson — and a wonderful mystery.

What book is keeping you up at night?

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Review: The Martian

The Martian, Andy WeirWhen the Ares 3 crew makes an emergency departure from Mars during a windstorm, they do so without their botanist. Mark Watney is killed on the way to the extraction point.

But after the dust settles on the red planet, Mark is still alive. For now. He has no way to contact his crew or NASA, and it will be over a year before the next manned mission sets down on Mars.

He’s not giving up. In fact, he’s going to do something amazing: survive alone on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

Holy mackerel

I’m several years late to the worldwide obsession with The Martian, but I’m officially hooked.

This book was fantastic! Mostly because of the main character. Author Andy Weir makes Mark relatable and human from the word go — which is nice, because if he’d started us off with all the science that the book eventually gets into, I wouldn’t have felt so connected.

According to Neil Degrasse Tyson and a bunch of people way smarter than me, the science is pretty damn accurate (except for that one teeny, tiny, no-one-will-ever-notice-it thing). The plausibility of the entire situation makes it that much more exciting and scary.

Ignoring the fact that I’d never be chosen for a mission like this, I definitely wouldn’t survive being stranded alone on a planet. I love that one of Mark’s main weapons is his humor. At several moments it’s the only thing that keeps him from giving up.

The TL;DR is that I loved The Martian. It’s so well-written that even though I’d seen the movie, I was still on pins and needles wondering if the Hermes was going to rescue Mark.

And speaking of that inevitable comparison…

Book vs. movie

I’m usually not happy with book-to-movie adaptations; they have to cut so much that it’s just not a fair comparison.

I watched the movie The Martian sometime last year. I’d heard good things about the book, of course, but I thought it would be a bit of a “talking head” piece — and if I had to muscle through something like that, I’d rather be watching Matt Damon on a screen than picturing him in my head.

It didn’t end up being a talking head piece, and it had far more humor than I was expecting. And it even did some things better than the book. For example, even though Weir’s book had more room to flesh out other characters, the film versions felt more three-dimensional. I could see the physical differences between each of them, whereas in the book there’s not much description of what people look like.

That said, there’s a chilling moment in the book that I really wish had been included in the movie. I won’t spoil it — because it’s just that awesome — but I will say that it prompted an hour-long conversation with some friends about how one would go about field dressing human remains in space.

No matter how you choose to take in the story of The Martian, I encourage you to do so. The science gets a little heavy for laypeople, but not overwhelmingly so. Check it out!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book set in a different dimension, a book in which time travel is involved, or a dystopian or science fiction book where reality looks very different than what we’re used to.)

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The Write Stuff: Stalled, but Learning

Writing Challenge: The Write StuffHoly crap, it’s March! I’m three months into The Write Stuff. Life’s gotten crazy (doesn’t it always?), so it’s a mixed bag this month. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

Goal 1: Finish four short stories in 2017

Breaking out the old spreadsheet, things are looking pretty good.

The Write Stuff

I’ve made progress, but it hasn’t been consistent. I’ll work on a story like a madwoman for a few days, then get distracted by a new cross-stitch pattern or a book…or two seasons of The Great British Baking Show.

Frustratingly, I’ve also had to add another round of edits, mostly for “Beginnings.” I got a ton of fantastic feedback on the second draft, and re-worked big sections of it so much I feel like it needs another round of critiques.

Still no idea for a fourth story. Coming up with ideas is the hardest part. Or maybe it’s coming up with a first line. Or a last line. Damn it.

Goal 2: Do as many of the 642 Tiny Things to Write About as I can

I’ve done several of these, but I’m not sure how I feel about them. I did some very quickly, and others I agonized over for so long that I just gave up.

642 Tiny Things to Write About

I don’t know how seriously I’m supposed to take these exercises. Should I look at the page and just vomit something onto it in five minutes, so should I take more time thinking about it?

Either choice is challenging for me. I’m a perfectionist, so I hardly do anything quickly. I second-guess my writing choices, which slows me down even further.

I wonder if making a smaller goal of doing at least one little exercise every day would help me get into the swing of things?

Goal 3: Join a writing community (and actually share stuff for feedback)

I still think joining Scribophile is one of my best decisions of the year. Members seem genuinely interested in helping each other improve their writing, and I’ve learned so much already (more info under Goal 4 below).

I’ve got a third draft of “Beginnings” ready to go, but word count limits on Scribophile mean that I need to post it in two parts. I have to critique a lot of other people’s writing to save up the “karma” to post it again.

Goal 4: Document it all on this blog

Get ready for total nerdery.

Some of the lessons I’ve learned from posting to Scribophile are the basics. For example, the Motivation-Reaction Unit. First describe what the character feels, then what they do, then what they say. I might have learned about this concept in high school, but in college I wrote mostly stage or screenplays — and those don’t use MRUs in the traditional sense.

My mind was truly blown when a commenter talked about a newer trend in writing: Deep Point of View (Deep POV). I’m still wrapping my head around it, so I’ll quote from the article to explain:

Deep POV is third-person subjective taken a step farther than the normal. The third-person subjective shows story through the eyes of one or more characters…Deep POV goes beyond that to take readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.

Instead of using phrases like “She felt” or “He worried” or even “She saw,” you simply describe how the character is feeling, or show how that worry manifests itself.

This probably isn’t earth-shattering stuff to people who have been writing for many years, but for me it’s all a revelation. And it’s incredibly rewarding to see my writing improve.

Onward!

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Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!

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Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth PetersMiss Amelia Peabody, bluestocking and self-proclaimed “spinster,” has left England to pursue her passion for Egyptology. It’s 1884 — on the cusp of the 20th century — and she’s determined to spend her inheritance doing what she enjoys.

En route to Cairo, Amelia meets Miss Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young woman with a shameful secret. Amelia takes the girl under her wing, and together they embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

This adventure takes them to Amarna, the ancient city established by Akhenaten more than 500 years previously. They meet up with two gentlemen they met in Cairo: Radcliffe Emerson, a prickly excavator, and his brother Walter, a master of hieroglyphics.

Something strange is happening on the outskirts of the destroyed city. The locals are nervous, especially after a mummy goes missing. Amelia, Evelyn, Radcliffe, and Walter are under siege, and their enemy may be supernatural.

Cheeky and wonderful

Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first in author Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, and it is fantastic. Set in 1884 but published in 1975, it’s a marvelous mixture of Victorian language and modern thinking.

Amelia is my new favorite character. She’s smart, practical, and outspoken, with a soft sentimental underbelly she tries to hide. If you enjoy Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll love Peters’ book.

Evelyn and Walter are younger and stupider (in Amelia’s opinion as well as mine), and it’s fun seeing Amelia boss them around and mow down their ridiculous notions like so much grass.

Although I caught onto the mystery’s final solution before it was revealed, the journey to that solution was surprising and exciting. The story and characters are fun, funny, and charming.

I loved Crocodile on the Sandbank. And the best part? There’s 19 more books in the series!

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. February’s challenge was to read a book involving spies, detectives, private investigators, or a character in disguise.)

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