Friday Open Thread

Time to discuss anything you want!

I’ll start off with this: I was at the library the other day, looking for Jennifer Weiner books (since she’s visiting Cedar Rapids in June), and I saw a copy of The Princess Bride in a featured display—so of course I grabbed it.

And of course I’ve read it before, but it was when I was, like, twelve. I remember it included the scariest scene in any book I’d ever read (it involves a spider, and it’s not in the movie) and I have this mental image of me sitting on my bed—which is how I know this took place when I was twelve and not fourteen, because my bed was still next to the window at the time—and literally tossing the school library copy away from me because I did not want to turn the page and keep reading.

And then of course I did.

(And then I was too keyed up to go to sleep, which is what I was supposed to be doing all along.)

Well. It turns out that the scene in question isn’t that scary anymore, at least not from my 37-year-old perspective, and it’s also a lot shorter than I remember it being.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve been scared by a book in a long time. That might be one of the privileges of youth (also, these days I tend to read fewer books that include full-page illustrations of young girls with spiders crawling out of their faces*).

But it was also kinda fun to throw the book away from me—like, on my bed, I knew it wasn’t going to get damaged or anything—and then decide to steel my nerves and pick it up again. ❤️

*If you don’t recognize what book I’m referencing by that description alone, it’s… not The Princess Bride. But it also includes some horrifying spiders.

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Book Review: Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame

Readers often comment that Seanan McGuire’s novels make them feel seen; that they don’t often get to read about protagonists who are asexual or autistic or trans, for example, unless that particular attribute is at the center of the story, i.e. A Book About How This Person Is Different.

But McGuire’s books are rarely about How People Are Different.

Instead, she tells stories about math and science and love and fairies and secret doorways and parallel universes, while subtly and empathetically reminding us that there are many different ways to be human.*

Interestingly—or ironically, if you don’t mind my using the colloquial definition—Middlegame is about a pair of twins, Roger and Dodger, who are not fully human. They don’t know that, of course; not at the beginning of the story, anyway. They definitely don’t know that if they were to meet in person, they could end up activating a force that would allow them to control the world.

The novel should appeal to fans of Good Omens, The Wizard of Oz, the TV series Leverage (which I first learned about through Seanan McGuire’s Twitter and have since watched in full three times), or anyone who likes a good time travel narrative.**

But the reason Middlegame became my very favorite Seanan McGuire book was because—as readers often do—I understood myself a little bit more after seeing the world from Roger and Dodger’s perspectives.

People who grew up as Gifted Children, regardless of whether they were also created by alchemists in order to embody the Doctrine of Ethos, will probably see bits of themselves in these characters as well.

Which isn’t what the book is about, of course. You’d never describe Middlegame as “a story about two former prodigies who have to figure out how to manage their interests, quirks, and obsessions as adults while learning how to form the authentic connections that are often difficult for people who grew up out of sync with their peers.”

I mean, it’s a book about time travel. And magic. And chase scenes.

On that note—the other thing I love love love about Seanan McGuire books is that the magic always makes sense. There are rules to these worlds, and because of that you never spend the story thinking “these showrunners did not stop and ask themselves how dragons create fire and whether they have a limited amount of dragon lighter fluid stored in their glands or whatever, they just decided that any one dragon could generate as much fire as was necessary to the plot, from any height, with perfect aim, without worrying about wind or anything like that.”***

So… go read Middlegame. I’m turning my copy back in to the library today, which means it’ll be available for the next person who wants to check it out. ❤️

*What I especially love about McGuire’s stories is that they rarely include one-dimensional villains. Her antagonists are people too, and readers can understand and sympathize with the choices they make.

**The last three novels I’ve read have all featured characters roughly my age who have to deal with the ethical consequences of time travel. I didn’t plan this. I wonder if it means something.

***Yes, my biggest nitpick about the most recent Game of Thrones episode was that the dragon didn’t have rules.

Book Review: Laura Vanderkam’s Juliet’s School of Possibilities

I really liked this book—but it took me a while to like the ending.

Here’s what you need to know: Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story about the Power of Priorities is by time management and productivity expert Laura Vanderkam (whose work I’ve referenced both on my blog and in my online classes).

The novella-length fable introduces us to Riley Jenkins, an overworked consultant who is doing her best to meet everyone’s expectations but keeps falling short—and the more she works, the worse her personal and professional relationships become.

After spending a weekend at Juliet’s School of Possibilities and learning how to prioritize both her workload and her personal values, Riley lands the big client, salvages a professional contact, makes up with a friend, and begins a new romance.

The lessons Riley learns are all really solid, and I am all about creating boundaries and setting priorities, but at first it felt like the end of the book didn’t match the beginning. Why? Because although Riley learned about the value of delegating tasks and ignoring email and not spending every hour of the day at work, when Riley used what she learned to land the client, etc., she drew on resources she had developed during her years of putting in long hours.

The old business plan she was able to quickly repurpose for her new client? She wouldn’t have been able to do that without having done the work of creating the original business plan (and the hours of work that went into learning how to create a business plan). The contacts in her virtual Rolodex? Those were hard-earned; they didn’t appear out of nowhere.

The reason Riley was able to work less now was in part because she had worked so hard before.

It made me think of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, which I reviewed on this blog earlier this year, and the way Newport explained that you have to build the skills and earn the career capital before you can navigate your way into a job where you can set your own hours and priorities.

In other words: this is another book that isn’t for everyone. A young person who hasn’t built up Riley’s contacts and expertise, for example, won’t be able to implement as many of the lessons from the book.

But then I saw that tweet about when to ease up on the hustle, and Riley’s ending suddenly made sense.

This is a story about a woman who is learning to delegate and prioritize and set boundaries, but it’s also about a woman who is moving out of the hustle stage of her life and into the harvest stage. The sustainability stage. The long-term vision stage.

Some people don’t ever get to reach that stage, unfortunately.

But if they do, and they’re having trouble navigating the transition, it’s worth spending a weekend at Juliet’s School of Possibilities. ❤️

Book Review: Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices

I have deliberately avoided reading Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust because I don’t want there to be any more stories about Lyra and her family and the world of His Dark Materials. The trilogy told all the story it needed to, with an ending I found both unbearable (it was one of the rare stories that made me cry, at the end) and satisfying.

It’s this idea of satisfaction—and its good friend, structure—that Pullman addresses in his non-fiction essay collection Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.

Stories, as Pullman reminds us, are rituals. They come with expectations, and part of your job as a teller of stories is to understand how to create, manage, and manipulate those expectations.

This means understanding story structure, and how we’ve been telling stories since the earliest oral narratives were transcribed into books.

It also means understanding theme and language and context, in the sense that some stories have certain aspects that naturally belong to them—that are already part of the story, before you begin to write it—and if you try to fit in too many pieces where they don’t belong, or leave other pieces out, your readers become unsatisfied.

Here’s how he compares two different types of fantasy narratives, for example:

“Jack and the Beanstalk” is a republican story because the magic grows out of the most common and everyday thing—a handful of beans—and the beanstalk grows right outside the kitchen window. The Lord of the Rings is not a republican story, because there is no point at which it connects with our life. Middle Earth is a place that never existed in a past that never was, and there’s no way we could ever get there.

In this case Pullman uses “republican” to mean “of the Republic of Heaven,” as in “No story in which there’s an absolute gulf between our world and the story-world can depict the Republic of Heaven, because the republic can be nowhere but here.” (I should note that, despite Pullman’s atheism, at least half of these essays tie back to religion and Christianity.)

There is a particularly interesting essay in which Pullman writes about his struggle over whether to make His Dark Materials what he calls “obvious”—to reveal that several of the main characters are actually related, for example, or to have a character behave heroically when needed. Would it not be “cleverer,” or more realistic, to have his main characters be strangers to each other? To have someone falter at the crucial moment?

But he decided to embrace the obvious. The told-before. The expected and eagerly anticipated.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the obvious, because stories are about life, and life is full of obvious things like food and sleep and love and courage which you don’t stop needing just because you’re a good reader.

That said, I’ll end this by telling you about two novels I read recently.

The first novel, which shall remain unnamed, played its hand too early. At a certain point it became obvious how the woman seeking revenge would get what she wanted, and that she wouldn’t have any change of heart or anything, and I flipped to the last chapter to confirm I was right and then decided I wasn’t interested in reading any more.

The second novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was similarly predictable, in the sense that you know many plot points in advance simply because the main character is a time traveler. But I found it absolutely riveting. I didn’t know how the characters would feel when these plot points happened, or what they would say to each other, or how an event glimpsed by a jump into the future would play out when the characters reached it in the present.

I wanted to know what happened next, even though I already knew it, because I was interested in how it would affect these unique and sympathetic people—and how their story would affect me.

That’s been a part of storytelling at least since Aristotle gave it a name, after all. ❤️

In Which I Reconfigure My Schedule YET AGAIN

Sooooo… remember how I used to tweet out the number of words I’d written on NEXT BOOK, and then I kind of stopped?

Remember how it coincided with my newest freelance gig, where I pitch/write/file stories in the morning instead of the afternoon?

Remember how I told myself that I could switch my schedule around and do creative writing later in the day, after I did all my freelancing and admin and the rest of it, and how it would totally work?

Turns out it totally didn’t.

I’d dutifully close out my email and all my tabs and fill my laptop screen with nothing but NEXT BOOK, and then I’d stare at it.

And re-read it.

And identify a problem with the story that was probably keeping me blocked.

And solve the problem.

And then stare at the draft again.

I was able to write both volumes of The Biographies of Ordinary People on evenings and weekends, but for whatever reason—maybe it’s because I’m getting older, maybe it’s because my freelance career has grown and I’m taking on more challenging work—I can’t do 3,000 words of freelance writing and then another 1,000 words of novel-writing.

So I switched it back, and I’ve been working on NEXT BOOK first thing every morning again.

I’m not giving NEXT BOOK quite as much time as I was able to give it prior to my new freelancing gig, because I also want to prioritize sleep—but I’m working on the draft for at least a half hour every day, and I’m waking up excited to spend time with the characters and see where we go next, and the words and the ideas and the creative energy are all flowing just like they used to.

As of this morning, the draft includes 25,853 words. ❤️

Book Review: How We Make Stuff Now by Jules Pieri

When I reviewed Jean Chatzky’s Women with Money: The Judgment-Free Guide to Creating the Joyful, Less Stressed, Purposeful (and, Yes, Rich) Life You Deserve, I noted that it was written for a very specific target audience: women who wanted to feel better about their finances.

Jules Pieri’s How We Make Stuff Now: Turn Ideas Into Products That Build Successful Businesses is written for an equally specific, though very different, audience—and I bet you can guess who she’s targeting, because it’s right there in the book’s subtitle.

People who want to turn ideas into products that build successful businesses.

This isn’t a book for the person who wants to live a more creative life. It isn’t even for the person who wants to learn how to make money from a creative project.

It’s a book for the person who wants to learn how to create a competitive, marketable, saleable product that can sustain a small business.

Think YoYo Mats, or the Squatty Potty, or Lovepop Pop-Up Greeting Cards.

If that’s your dream, How We Make Stuff Now provides an excellent step-by-step guide to help you get there. You’ll learn about how to do market research, find manufacturers and vendors, seek out investors, and more.

If your idea of making stuff is less about building a business empire around a stand-out product and more about developing a the type of creative business that can run on a bunch of freelancing and a new novel every year or two, this isn’t the right book for you.

If you’re not yet sure what kind of business you want to create, pick up a copy of How We Make Stuff Now and start flipping through it. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it describes the kind of entrepreneur life you’re looking for. ❤️

Book Review: Eloia Born by Britta Jensen

Here’s my newest Reedsy Discovery review, for Britta Jensen’s Eloia Born.

I gave the book four stars — ⭐⭐⭐⭐ — and summed it up as follows:

A well-written narrative of disability, dystopia, and exploration, featuring a main character with partial sight.

Full review below!

Leanora believes that everyone in her community was blinded by the Mists. She believes she is one of the few people to recover partial sight — a secret she is not allowed to share with anyone besides her father. She believes her mother is dead. She believes she is in love with Dex, the boy she’s known since childhood.

The journey Leanora takes in Eloia Born shatters all of these beliefs — and more.

Eloia Born is both a dystopian narrative and a quest story; consider it a spiritual successor to Lois Lowry’s The Giver and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. We learn quickly that the people in Leanora’s community are not blind by chance, but by design. We also learn — though the story does not state this outright — that the grand experiment of “a society without prejudice” has failed. Leanora and Dex are discouraged from pursuing a relationship due to their families’ disparate standing among the community, for example. Blindness may prevent people from judging others on the basis of skin color or physical appearance, but they still judge.

When Leanora and Dex leave their community — as of course they do — the story begins to depart from similar, more predictable narratives. These two teenagers quickly discover that there are other people in the world, and other possibilities for friendship and romance. They learn new skills and their paths begin to separate. I appreciated Jensen’s honest approach to the way people change in late adolescence, and the fact that “high school sweethearts” (for lack of a better term) do occasionally grow apart.

I am not blind, so I cannot speak to the authenticity of Jensen’s depictions of living with limited visual ability; however, she includes a section at the beginning of the book explaining the research she did prior to crafting her characters.

The one false note I found in the story — and it is a jarring one — is the late addition of a character who speaks in a racialized patois: “Dey want you bless dem and stay wit dem,” etc. This character has blue skin and is viewed as an “exotic beauty” by the white and brown-skinned characters, one of whom uses the phrase “like an animal.”

For a world in which racial prejudices have been theoretically eliminated, it looks like some stereotypes are still going strong.

Andrew Yang on Universal Basic Income and Creativity

Instead of sharing a handful of articles this weekend, I’m going to share an excerpt from Andrew Yang’s The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future.

I loved this book for so many reasons — none of which were its title, which is surprisingly aggressive for a book that presents a thoughtful vision of what America could become if we created a system that provided for everybody.

Since this is a creative practice blog, I’ll give you one relevant quote:

There will also be a dramatic expansion of painting, making music, shooting videos, playing sports, writing, and all of the creative pursuits many Americans would love to try, but can’t seem to find the time for today. Many people have some artistic passion that they would pursue if they didn’t need to worry about feeding themselves next month. A UBI would be perhaps the greatest catalyst to human creativity we have ever seen.

You can read a longer excerpt here.

(Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but Andrew Yang is running for president. On a platform of human-centered capitalism with universal basic income of $1,000/month for all American adults. In case I haven’t, like, mentioned it already.)

I had to wait about a month to get a library copy of The War on Normal People, but it’s just come out in paperback if you want to grab a copy of your own. ❤️

Book Review: Liars Called by Stephan Morse

Here’s my newest Reedsy Discovery review, for Stephan Morse’s Liars Called.

I gave the book three stars — ⭐⭐⭐ — and summed it up as follows:

Alternately brilliant and mind-boggling, Liars Called is a complex adventure story that never quite lives up to its opening chapters.

Full review below!

Liars Called is not an easy book to review — and it’s not an easy book to read.

Author Stephen Morse begins his story with one of the more compelling opening sequences I’ve read in a while: Lance Hawthorn Underwood, currently undergoing physical therapy after a near-debilitating car accident, is invited to board a mysterious bus. (We follow this story through Lance’s journals, which include additional notes and corrections — an excellent way to keep the reader hooked.)

Once on the bus, a creature with pointed teeth gives him some advice:

Heed the clues. The bold are quickest to die. The fearful die almost as fast. A clever man may be tempted to lie, and also die. But to survive, one must be a little of all three.

Each passenger is given a “debt card” and told that everything has a price, and for the first third of the novel we follow Lance as he learns how this new world works, how to use his debt card, and what “the bold are quickest to die” actually means.

However, the remaining two thirds of the novel never stand up to the brilliance of the opening. Once Lance understands the basic mechanics of the world, the story devolves into an extended Dungeons and Dragons session, in which characters who literally identify themselves as “the tank” and “the healer” (Lance is, of course, the rogue) slash at monsters for pages on end.

Lance repeatedly comments on the derivative nature of this world, wondering why his current situation so closely resembles D&D and video games. By the end of the book, we understand that Lance might get an answer to his question in the sequel — but many readers might not make it that far.

If I could review the opening six chapters on their own, Liars Called would get five stars.