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        What I’ve been reading

        July 16th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        It’s been an eventful few months. Some parts have been good (family visit, getting stuff done) and some parts have been bad (husband’s injury, death in the family). I’ve been getting a bit of writing done and, as always, a fair bit of reading. Here’s what stands out from the last few months.

        FICTION

        Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson. A bit baggy and front-end loaded with exposition, but it’s good exposition and once it revs up, it boots along nicely. Bonus value for me is the Houston-area setting, which I’m somewhat familiar with, having visited once or twice.

        Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. I thought I should read this one in advance of possibly watching the series on Apple TV. Turns out we haven’t watched it yet but I can highly recommend the novel, which chronicles the fortunes of a Korean family in Japan over the last 70 years or so.

        Sorrow & Bliss, by Meg Mason. I read this because I heard the author interviewed on Elizabeth Day’s HOW TO FAIL podcast. It’s not the sort of thing I usually pick but it was funny and sad and definitely worth reading.

        Popisho, by Leone Ross. Highly recommended. Go read this book. Magic realism set in an imaginary Caribbean. The language is rich and evocative, the characters are immediately compelling, and the story takes a path you can’t predict. I loved it.

        The Bone Ships, by RJ Barker. I finally started this after bailing on another popular fantasy novel that I bounced off and it was definitely much more my thing. Fascinating and satisfying world-building and strong prose – though perhaps I could have done with a bit less detail on how a particular cool weapon worked. But given that it’s set at sea, I treat it the same way I do the Patrick O’Brian paragraphs about the workings of the sailing ships, i.e. the characters do a number of things with the sails, and then the ship goes faster. Or it doesn’t.

        The Men, by Sandra Newman. I quite liked her previous novel (The Heavens) but felt this one wasn’t as strong. Despite the SF premise (all bearers of Y chromosomes disappear at the same time), it’s not about what happens in world after that. It’s really about two women, their relationships, and the choices they’re forced to make. Much of that was interesting and thought-provoking, and perhaps enhanced by the fantastical elements, but I was ultimately dissatisfied. The book provoked accusations of transphobia before it was even published (which I think is unfair. Make those accusations AFTER you know the actual details and context). I’m not attuned to all the nuances in this debate but will just say that, while she likely could have made a different choice in this regard without it having any impact on the real themes of the book, I’m not persuaded that the book should be judged entirely on that authorial choice.

        NON-FICTION

        Always Crashing the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, by Matthew Spektor. A combination of memoir and essays about Los Angeles, Hollywood, and various characters, famous and not, who inhabit it.

        In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado. The author recounts an abusive relationship in a series of vignettes and flashbacks. Very intense and with a quite brilliant story and chapter structure. I’m a writer, I like that stuff.

        Go Back Where You Came From (and other helpful recommendations on how to become American), by Wajahat Ali. I admit it. I find a lot of books to read via Twitter. This is a funny and thoughtful book about growing up brown in America – and about just growing up as a person.

        Lost & Found, by Kathryn Schulz. The first of a series of memoirs I ended up reading (quite unintentionally) about death, grief, and finding love. This was beautifully written and moving.

        Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. Part memoir, part history, part science. The author reckons with the sorrow in her own life by exploring the life of David Starr Jordan, an early scientist studying fish.

        Being Wrong, Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. Though not as personal and profound as her other book, this is still a fascinating read on why we’re so often wrong, why we refuse to admit it, and why being wrong is a valuable part of the human condition.

        The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism reclaimed Russia, by Masha Green. Not nearly so upbeat about the human condition, but very compelling and timely. Green follows a number of subjects who grew up under perestroika and responded in different ways as the walls started to close in again under Putin.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Uncategorized

        Me. Dancing. In a Video.

        July 2nd, 2022Posted by Nancy

        After several months of twice-a-month rehearsals, there is finally a flamenco video featuring yours truly and two other (much more talented) dancers from the school. My husband kindly added the text but the video captures one entire performance – no edits. At least my hat didn’t fall off in this one. Check it out in Episode Four of our Flamenco Fragments series.

        https://www.arteflamenco.com/flamenco-fragments

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Flamenco · Uncategorized

        Good news, bad news

        June 11th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        Bad news: husband went to get out of bed one morning and couldn’t stand up. He’s now three weeks into serious pain in his back and leg, lousy sleep, multiple ineffective prescriptions, and physiotherapy, Things are slowly getting better.

        Good news: I’ve had to take over the grocery shopping and basic food prep and we haven’t killed each other yet. I’ve also discovered that my husband is considered “the nicest customer” in numerous stores in our area. I’ve got some big shoes to fill…

        Bad news: We were supposed to go to Nova Scotia to visit family, leaving this upcoming Thursday. That’s not happening – but at least we could cancel without penalty or get our money back for almost everything.

        Good news: We had a great visit from some other far-flung family. Turns out my husband cannot be deterred from making latkes, even if he has to do it sitting down, so they were well fed, even if they had to entertain themselves more than we would have liked. But they’re quite good at that and we managed to have a lot of fun, despite it all.

        Other news: We were finally able to film a flamenco video, featuring me and two other dancers. I’d say it’s good news but I’m reserving judgement until I see it. But the lighting was fabulous, so we all took selfies. And yes, of course I knocked that jaunty hat off at least once while dancing.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Flamenco · Travel · Uncategorized

        100,000 words

        May 27th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        Somewhat to my own surprise, I’ve now passed 100,000 words on The Witch Novel. Some of them are even good words, I think.

        This project had its beginnings in 2015, the year after COLD HILLSIDE was published. I’d gone back to some old, unfinished projects to see if anything might spark some inspiration. I made a few half-hearted attempts to begin something and then, in May, the British fantasy writer Tanith Lee died. I wrote an early blog post about how influential her work was on me, though that may not be entirely obvious in my published work. I can honestly say that reading THE BIRTHGRAVE changed my life.

        One of the ideas I’d resurrected seemed particularly suited to Lee’s gorgeous, baroque prose, cool sensibility, and damaged characters. With the vague idea that perhaps I could submit to it any tribute collections that might be in the works, I wrote a short story and ran it past my writing group. They all assumed it was the beginning of a novel.

        To my surprise, I didn’t hate the idea. I had originally thought it might be a novel so the short story version did feel a little … short.

        So here I am, almost seven years later, 101,267 words into it. I’ve added POV characters and several tense changes. Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to write one of the characters in second person? Turns out, yes, indeed it is. Depending on what decisions I make about the plot (plot? what’s that?), I could – in theory – finish the first draft in the next year.

        And then? Well, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll decide the damn thing is a novella after all.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Influences · Uncategorized · Writing

        Camp Nanowrimo

        May 3rd, 2022Posted by Nancy

        Photo by Nancy Baker

        I spent April in the woods and the weeds of both WIPs. I wish I could say that I had a clear plan for what I was doing, but it was more a case of “write the next thing you think might happen here” and hope for the best. I’m not sure any of it will end up in the final versions, but I feel as if I learned some things I didn’t know about the characters. And, of course, any words are better than no words.

        I met my target of 10,000 words so gold star for me, I guess.

        Now to figure out my project for May …

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Writing

        What I’ve been reading

        April 18th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        As a break from the WORDS & MUSIC series (because, quite frankly, we haven’t started working on the next video yet!), here are the best things I’ve read since the beginning of 2022.

        FICTION

        Matrix, by Lauren Groff. A beautifully written book about the life of a young woman who sent to be the prioress of an impoverished abbey in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s England. A nice supplement to my earlier reading of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner that Held Them.

        Sudden Traveller, by Sarah Hall. I was so in awe of the stories in this book that I read some of them twice. Just bloody brilliant writing.

        Burntcoat, by Sarah Hall. A short novel that came out this year, encompassing both the timely (pandemics) and some of my own personal obsessions (artists and their work). The sex scenes in this one are very different than those in romance novels but I admit I still skipped over them. The rest I devoured and then reread key passages. More bloody brilliant writing.

        A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers. Charming and very human (even if some of the characters are robots) science fiction.

        Bewilderment, by Richard Powers. Not quite as successful as The Overstory, but a compelling and sad look at loss, both personal and planetary.

        The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. I put off reading this book about escaping slavery but was glad I finally bit the bullet and plunged in. The magical realist conceit (the railroad is a real railroad, the places it goes are not quite real places) doesn’t take anything away from the brutal truth of oppression and the persistence of hope.

        Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel. I might quibble a bit of the SF elements but this is Emily St. John Mandel, so the prose is wonderful, the story booms along at an incredible pace, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

        The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey. A scientist specializing in cloning discovers that her ex-husband has made a clone of her. Gailey isn’t afraid to take this scenario to it’s darkest conclusions and provides a masterclass writing lesson in the art of revealing that your first-person narrator is not at all a nice person.

        Non-Fiction

        The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. Subtitled “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”. I was never convinced by the central premise but it was an interesting read with some thought-provoking ideas. I admit to being put off by the contention that modern and contemporary art is a symptom of the left brain (which is bad) because it’s not beautiful and uplifting.

        Being You, by Anil Seth. A look at the science of consciousness and being human. It takes a bit of concentration to really grasp the science but Seth does a great job explaining and it was an interesting combination with the book mentioned above.

        Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend. I was fascinated by the South and Central American cultures when I was younger but this book was a revelation.

        Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, by Jennifer Ruff. Ruff explores the latest archeological and genetic evidence that support the various theories and proposed timelines for the settlement of the Americas. Includes a great chapter on the process of working with DNA, explores the history of European attitudes to the indigenous inhabitants (past and present), and outlines ways scientists are now trying to build respectful partnerships with the descendants of the first peoples to arrive on the continent.

        Second-Hand Time, by Svetlana Alexsievich. A few years old but very timely. Alexsievich interviews a wide range of Russians about the changes to their world in the early 1990s.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Books

        Words and Music: Blood & Chrysanthemums

        April 2nd, 2022Posted by Nancy

        This was the book for which I had the most difficulty choosing a passage to read.? I had sections that I’d performed successfully before, but they tended to be long, require explanations, and lack any shorter sections that had internal arcs.? This latter is very important in readings, at least for me, because I want there to be a sense of story, even in a short excerpt.? It needs, at the least, a movement towards something, even if the climax of the scene isn’t included.? Ending on a cliff-hanger works, too, but there needs to be enough before that point to make the tension meaningful.

        In the end, I went for the opening of the Hiroshima entry from Fujiwara’s diary.? I used to read the entire chapter at events and inevitably would choke up on the last paragraph.? Which made me very happy, even when I had to go off-stage wiping away my tears.

        It was a challenge to find appropriate images but the illustrations for the Night Parade of 100 Demons proved a good starting place and set the style for the highly processed images that Richard assembled to match the mood of the words and music.

        Don’t forget to check Richard’s Youtube channel for his other compositions and videos.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Books · Music · Uncategorized

        What should I read next?

        March 7th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        That’s the perennial question for an avid reader. My “to read” list is always much too long but now I’ve got a new way to make it longer. I was contacted by Shepherd, a new site for connecting readers, authors, and books. Authors are invited to provide a list of five recommended books on a particular topic, with information about the books and what makes them special. They asked me if I would be interested in providing some suggestions related to vampires or witches or ghosts or werewolves or just about anything. The author also has the opportunity to showcase one of their own titles that relates to the topic at hand.

        I decided to go back to my roots and suggest some of my favourite novels featuring female vampire protagonists. This turned into a way to revisit and reread a number of the books that influenced my writing and my thoughts about vampires. My selections ranged back into the 1980s for SABELLA by Tanith Lee and up to 2015 for CERTAIN DARK THINGS by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

        I’ve also been poking around on the site myself – because I clearly need more books to read – and have added books on Spain (because someday I will actually get there), Venice (because someday I will go back there), fairy tale retellings (because I love them), and apocalypses (because of course).

        The site is still growing, with more lists being added all the time, so if you want to add some more books to your list, check it out.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Uncategorized

        Words and Music: The Fair

        February 13th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        Here’s the second installment in my collaboration with my husband on “words and music”.

        This passage for COLD HILLSIDE is the most description-heavy of the excerpts I chose for this project.? It’s the first introduction to the fey and I wanted to try to capture their elusive, unreal qualities before the later part of the book introduces their more “human” characteristics (such as cruelty, corruption, boredom, and politics).

        I’m very fond of writing description, no matter what the writing advice books say on the matter.? Sometimes I end up cutting it, but in this case I felt that, with the fey, “more is more”.??

        I hadn’t been able to find any good images to accompany this reading until I remembered I’d done a mosaic based on some of my mental imagery for Lushan. I took a photo and sent it to Richard, who found a way to make it visually interesting and evocative of both the colours of Lushan and the mutability of the fey.

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Books · Music · Uncategorized

        Words and Music: The Project

        January 24th, 2022Posted by Nancy

        During the pandemic, an opportunity arose to get a grant to do some digital creative work.?That never happened, but it seemed like a great project to work on anyway, especially in the middle of ongoing COVID restrictions.?I’ve had some experience recording myself reading but now I had the opportunity to add music, as my husband’s post-retirement project is learning to compose on his computer.? A creative challenge was just what he needed (at least, in my opinion!).

        I set to work picking sections roughly 3:00 minutes long from my four published novels and from The Witch Novel (my WIP).? I reviewed the selections I’d done at public readings to try to find excerpts that would make sense with minimal explanation, would give a feel for the book, and would be different from each other in tone and content.

        Richard would then record me and compose a background score that complemented the theme and tone of the selection. We both have had moments of “wait, should I go back and change that?” but sometimes it’s best just push the little creative craft off from the shore and let it go.

        To see more of what Richard has been up to in our basement, you can check out his Youtube channel.

        PROJECT #1 Leontine and the Bees

        This is the introduction to one of the three main characters in my Work-in-Progress, unimaginatively titled The Witch Book.

        The readings for this project were all done in May and June, which was the perfect time to read this excerpt, which is set in a hot summer garden amidst lavender and poppies, buzzing with bees. For the video accompaniment, all I had to do was sit outside in our garden with my iPhone. We have no shortage of bees and they are particularly fond of the lavender, salvia, and Russian sage in our yard.  When I’m pruning or weeding in those areas, I move carefully, tell them I’m coming, and we seem to get along just fine.   

        When I started working on this book, I decided that, just for fun (???), I’d experiment with different voices and tenses for each of the main characters. I don’t know if that will survive into the final version but I’ve enjoyed the process (well, as much as I ever enjoy the process these days).

        No Comments | Add a CommentPosted in Uncategorized