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.

Advertisements

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. ❤️

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.

Book Review: Women With Money by Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor of NBC’s Today Show and hosts the podcast Her Money — but you might also remember her from an unexpectedly viral November 2017 tweet in which she stated that 30-year-olds should have 1x their income saved for retirement.

When we discussed that tweet on The Billfold, I noted that, at age 35, I had managed to save up one year of post-tax income, or roughly $40K. A little less than two years later, my net worth has grown to $103,608.10, which I achieved through the magic of increasing my income, reducing my expenses (primarily by moving from Seattle to Cedar Rapids and cutting my monthly rent by half), and increasing my savings. Will I hit 3x post-tax income by age 40? We’ll see.

But the tweet sparked ire because, for many people, those kind of financial benchmarks are more laughable than relevant. College debt, credit card debt, healthcare debt, low salaries, stagnant salaries, high housing costs, etc. etc. etc. make it very difficult for people to save.

I even did the math, on The Billfold, to prove just how hard it was to set aside a year’s worth of salary in savings by the time you turned 30.

Everyone shared Chatzky’s tweet specifically because it wasn’t applicable to everyone. Her new book, Women with Money: The Judgment-Free Guide to Creating the Joyful, Less Stressed, Purposeful (and, Yes, Rich) Life You Deserve, is also not for everyone — but if it’s the type of financial advice you need right now, it is well worth reading.

Who’s the target audience for Women With Money? Remember my post on what book covers communicate to their readers. This book (which I received for free as an advance reader copy) doesn’t communicate much with its imagery. Instead, it packs it all into the subtitle:

  • Judgment-Free
  • Joyful
  • Less Stressed
  • Purposeful
  • Rich
  • Life You Deserve

Notice how these words are nearly all subjective (my definition of joyful might be different from yours) and emotion-based. This book is not a guide to increasing your net worth or getting out of debt or asking for a raise, even though all that information is present in the text. Instead, this book is about how to feel better about your money.

If that’s the book you need right now, go get yourself a copy. Chatzky liberally peppers the text with case studies and conversations with real women, so you’ll get to learn how other people feel about their money — and what they did when they realized they weren’t happy with where their money was going. You’ll also read about plenty of journeys towards joyful, less-stressed, purposeful (and yes, rich — or at least richer) lives.

And if that’s not the book you need right now, remember that the personal finance section should take up at least three shelves in your average public library or bookstore, so you’ll have plenty of other options. ❤️

Book Review: Freak, Geek, Goddess by Jessica Lincoln

I recently started reviewing books for Reedsy Discovery, and here’s my first review, for Jessica Lincoln’s Freak, Geek, Goddess; Tales of Survival From Trust Fund High.

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

Jessica Lincoln brings a unique voice to the often-told tale of learning to be true to yourself.

Full review below!

“What if being me makes me Freak Girl?”

Riley is worried about high school. Nobody likes her new haircut, she doesn’t know how to get to class, and her best friend Kaitlyn is obsessed with the Dukes and Duchesses — high school royalty. Kaitlyn wants Riley to skip fifth period and drive around with a couple of Dukes who tell sexist jokes and keep lumps of chewing tobacco in their mouths. Riley wants… well, she wants to be herself, but she’s afraid that it’ll make her look like a freak.

While Freak Geek Goddess could be the type of coming-of-age story appropriate for fans of Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF, be aware that Lincoln’s novel goes a little darker than comparable titles. Early chapters find Riley getting pressured into a navel piercing that promptly becomes infected, and earning a poor grade on a project after skipping class. By the end of the book Riley has experienced alcohol poisoning and sexual assault.

The story, told through Riley’s voice, is engaging; a reader may correctly predict that Riley will overcome her insecurities and triumph, but the path Lincoln takes to get there is not so predictable — and, in some ways, more realistic than similar high school narratives.

The book’s biggest flaw? Riley is just as judgmental as the Dukes and Duchesses. Readers who prefer their protagonists not crack jokes about “over-eager anorexics,” “popularity whores,” or “gender confusion issues” may want to look elsewhere; readers who want their heroines to show as much compassion to others as they wish they had been shown will be disappointed by Riley’s lack of character growth. Being true to yourself doesn’t always mean being a good person.

Indie Author Advice From Seth Godin’s ‘This Is Marketing’

If you’re already familiar with Seth Godin’s blog, or have already read any of his bestselling books — Linchpin, Purple Cow, etc. — you already know a lot of what he’s going to tell you in his newest book, This Is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See.

  • Make a product that solves a real person’s problem.
  • Get really specific about what kind of person you’re targeting and what problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Don’t be a brown cow (boring, typical), be a purple cow (unique, remarkable, phenomenal).

So I wanted to focus on just one section of this book that happens to be particularly relevant to creative career types (aka “the kind of person this blog is targeting”).

In Chapter Nineteen: The Funnel, Seth writes about “life on the long tail:”

On the left are the hits. There aren’t as many of them, but they each sell a lot. In fact, number one sells ten times as many copies as number ten, and a hundred times as many as number one hundred. A hit is magical.

On the right are the rest. The long tail: good products of specialized interest. Each, by itself, doesn’t sell many copies, but taken together, the long tail sells as much as the short head.

Half of Amazon’s sales are books that are not in the top five thousand. Half!

Half of the music consumed on streaming sites isn’t available in stores. Not half the titles, half the volume.

Amazon can do great with this strategy since they sell all the available books. Each author, though, is in pain: selling one to two books a day is no way to make a living.

Seth’s advice is to become the “short head” of a specialized market, e.g. the best person selling “video courses on using a GH5 camera to make movies.”

Or, in the self-publishing world, the best person writing “steamy older woman younger man romance.”

If you’ve spent any time on Amazon recently, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of indie genre fiction authors have started using specific genre keywords in their titles. We’ve got Gloria King’s Love Thy Neighbor: Steamy Older Woman Younger Man Romance, for example, or A.R. Winters’ Cooks, Crooks and Cruises: A Humorous Cruise Ship Cozy Mystery (Cruise Ship Cozy Mysteries Book 2). They want readers to know exactly what they’re getting, so the readers who want exactly what they’re offering will be incentivized to purchase.

This is one way to get around the “can’t make a living selling two books a day” effect. (At roughly $2.50 in royalties per book, that’d be $1,825 a year before taxes.)

The other way to get around the “can’t make a living selling two books a day” thing is to find ways of earning money besides selling books.

Like keeping your day job. (As many authors do.)

Or freelancing. (Ditto.)

Or freelancing and teaching and editing and speaking and a bunch of other gigs that all support and sustain each other. (Tritto.)

If you do that, and if you are ready to build a career that, as Seth notes, is about solving someone else’s problems*, then you can do the creative work you want to do without having to try to be the best person at “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog.”

Because you’ll be making the art that only you can make, telling the stories that only you can tell, etc.

And, in a world where other people are competing to be the best at a certain set of keywords, this kind of unique creative work can really stand out.

Of course, you still have to figure out how to market it.

Which means you’ll probably still want to read Seth’s book. ❤️

*One of my most popular freelance articles, which still gets retweeted and shared at least once a month even though it was published in 2015, is Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself With A/B Testing at Unbounce. This is a perfect example of using a freelance career to solve someone else’s problems (both Unbounce’s problem of needing a guide to A/B testing, and the readers’ problem of… also needing a guide to A/B testing). When I teach my “how to freelance” classes — and I’ll be teaching another one this summer, so check back later for dates — I get a lot of students who want to build careers as travel writers or celebrity profile writers or writers of stuff that sounds interesting to them. You can absolutely get paid to write about travel (I’ve done it) but you’ll get paid a lot more money if you’re also able to write about A/B testing.

Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s ‘A Woman of Independent Means’ Offers Both Financial and Life Lessons

When I read Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need three times in a row and decided to go after the financial independence thing, I pulled up this memory of watching this television miniseries, with my family, about a woman who had all the money she would ever need.

I know that particular detail because I had to ask my parents what the title of the movie meant. Of course, I couldn’t remember the title (was it A Financially Independent Woman?); only the moment where my parents explained that the woman in the movie would never need to earn money from a job.

So I looked it up. The 1995 six-hour (with commercials) miniseries A Woman of Independent Means, starring Sally Ford as the titular Woman, was based on the 1978 Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey novel A Woman of Independent Means, which was in turn inspired by Hailey’s grandmother’s life.

The novel is epistolary and written entirely from the perspective of Bess Steed Garner, who learns at a young age that an inheritance has made her financially independent. The book begins as a deceptively quick read — the first few pages take Bess from age 9 to age 20 — but becomes more detailed and immersive as Bess grows in both experience and writing talent.

It also packs in a wealth of advice about both investing and living — but since Bess is constantly maturing and changing, there’s a question of whether the reader should take her insights at face value.

Here’s a letter that the 29-year-old Bess writes her best friend, for example:

Dearest Totsie,

Your letter brought me the first bright day I have known since Rob died. The thought of joining you in Vermont for the summer fills me with delight! What a reprieve from the terrible reality of my life just now!

Once we decided to close the St. Louis office of the company, I knew I had no choice but to sell my house here and move back to Dallas — but to return without a husband and with less money than when we left is an unbearable admission of defeat. And I will postpone it as long as possible.

Your invitation for the summer is such a tangible offer of comfort at a time when words of sympathy ring hollow in my ears. I am so weary of people asking if there is anything they can do for me. Of course I always answer with a polite no, and they go away satisfied at having done their duty. If only one dared answer in the affirmative. But nothing frightens people more than undisguised need. I have kept all my old friends through this difficult time by never demanding the dues of friendship. Not that I doubt they would be paid — but only once. Friendship to me is like a capital reserve. It pays dividends only so long as the principal remains intact. Whatever personal sacrifice is required, I am determined to come through this experience without spending my principal — on any level.

The children are very excited at the thought of a trip east. We are all eager for the sight of a landscape without memories. How I look forward to holding the baby — and you, Please thank Dwight for his share in your kind invitation.

I love you dearly,

Bess

Is Bess “right” about the nature of friendship? Is she “wrong?” I’m not sure that’s the question we should be asking. A Woman of Independent Means invites readers to observe Bess as she observes the world, and take from it whatever lessons are most relevant to our own lives.

In my case, the biggest lesson I took from this book is that whenever Bess works to meet her own needs, her life — and her family’s life — improves. Whenever she does something that she believes is in the best interest of someone else’s needs without asking them first, especially when her actions go against her own needs and desires, her life and her family’s life and the life of the person on whom she’s acting get worse.

I suspect that if I read this book again in a few years, I might take a different lesson from it — because, like Bess, I would have the advantage of a few more years of life experience.

If you’ve read A Woman of Independent Means — or have some vague recollection of the miniseries, like I did — I’m curious which aspects of the story stood out to you. Despite the strong financial component of this book, for example, I don’t think it prompts most of its readers to get into investing.

But it might prompt us to view the world a little bit differently, after seeing it through Bess’s eyes. ❤️

Reedsy Discovery Wants to Match Indie Authors to Readers

You already know that I am a huge Reedsy fan; they’ve got a wealth of tools to help writers draft, edit, and market their books, including the plot structure infographics I wrote about earlier this month.

Reedsy also featured this very blog as one of their 12 Author Websites That Get It Right, putting Nicole Dieker Dot Com on par with David Sedaris and J.K. Rowling.

Plus, in 2017, they invited me to judge a short-story contest.

So yeah, I’m all in for Reedsy, and as soon as my NEXT BOOK draft is at the ARC stage — which, since the draft is currently at 6,908 words, probably won’t happen until next year — I’m going to submit it to Reedsy’s new indie author service, Reedsy Discovery.

Reedsy Discovery lets reviewers share their favorite new indie books with an audience of eager readers

Here’s how Reedsy Discovery works (I’m going to go ahead and quote Reedsy here):

When you sign up to Discovery, your book will be presented to a pool of experienced and relevant reviewers that have been hand-selected by the team at Reedsy. For maximum suitability, they get to choose what they review — so make sure that your title, synopsis, and cover catches their eye!

Then, on the launch date of your choice (which, we’re imagining might coincide with your publishing date) your book will be promoted to thousands of registered readers who can then:

Browse your sample chapter 👀

Comment on it 💬

Lovingly admire your cover design 😍

Read your review (if you have one) 🤓

Upvote the book 👍

And purchase it through your chosen online retailers 💸

The Reedsy Discovery service costs $50, and I’m betting that being an early adopter might get your book a little more visibility, so if you’ve got fifty bucks and a book that’s in the ARC-and-marketing stage, why not give it a try? Use the Reedsy Discovery Launch Prep Checklist to make sure your book is Discovery-ready, and then send it out and see what happens!

Reedsy Discovery is also looking for talented book reviewers

You can also apply to be a Reedsy Discovery reviewer and get paid to read and review books — which is something I’m considering doing, but I don’t know if I can both be a reviewer and an author. (THIS IS A GOOD QUESTION FOR REEDSY, IF YOU’RE READING THIS BLOG POST. OR I COULD JUST EMAIL YOU.)

The reviewer payout doesn’t come directly from Reedsy; it comes from readers who can give you tips in exchange for your reviews:

When readers enjoy your work, they can send $1, $3 or $5 your way. These small thankyou’s can help you earn money from your reading addiction / passion.

I’m not sure how many people will tip Reedsy Reviewers — that’s still to be seen — so for me the draw isn’t the money. It’s the ability to grow my blog readership by getting Nicole Dieker Dot Com in front of a larger audience. (Remember that series of posts I wrote about audience-building?)

After all, every author whose book I review will share my review with their audience, and every author looking for a book review blog that’s still actively posting* will give Nicole Dieker Dot Com a visit, and so on.

But enough about me. This post is supposed to be about Reedsy Discovery, after all.

So go check it out — and then leave a comment if you’re interested in submitting your book and/or becoming a reviewer! ❤️📚💸

*If you’ve ever clicked through one of those “lists of book review blogs” — and Reedsy has such a list — you’ll learn just how many of those blogs are no longer actively posting reviews or no longer accepting submissions. But I love doing book reviews, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to do a weekly book review on this blog, so… let’s see if Reedsy Discovery wants me on their team.