I’m writing a middle-grade historical western thus I’m reading them. What a lovely example of the genre we have in Prairie Lotus.
I found it very interesting to read how Linda Sue Park came to write this book. We have in common a love of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books, the Little House series. She had long imagined what it would be like if she could have known Laura Ingalls as a child, and what it would be like to be Asian in the historical west. This book is the fruition of that imagining.
Overall well written and researched, the only bump-out I experienced was the very 21st-century concerns that passed through the main character’s thoughts at points. Park had wanted to in some way show awareness in the book about social injustice and prejudice. While I admire the goal the result was that at times the character’s thoughts were not in keeping with her time and place. I found this very acceptable though and appreciated what Park was trying to accomplish.
Some books I feature on this blog are enjoyable, some interesting, some at least cause thinking. I would say this book has all those features going for it.
Writing and photography are two of my biggest passions in life – along with animal rehab and adoption.
But let’s not go down too many rabbit holes at once.
Recently I was discussing photography with a young person and they said, while they enjoyed taking pictures, they didn’t do so often because they weren’t good at it. This is the same bind that many writers get into – I don’t write more because I’m not as good at it as I want to be.
People! None of us are born great, we achieve [largely moderate] success by doing, learning, and doing more. Trust me – I researched and wrote a whole dissertation on this topic!
Recently I treated myself to a new camera. I hadn’t been doing much photography lately because of frustrations with my old camera; we’ve been together decades and though we’re not divorcing, we did agree it was time to bring someone new into the relationship.
This new camera is mirrorless [internal element that reduces weight] and I’m in love again. But there’s a steep learning curve for new equipment with vastly different functions. In order to learn, I have to go out and take a lot of very average or trashy photos. Each picture teaches me something and rather than frustration, I feel happiness that there are so many things I’m still capable of learning. Or at least experiencing.
Embrace new opportunities! Admittedly, I’m the last person to suggest we should always be embracing the new. I need routine. I’m clinically OCD, and even with medication, my need for order is at best managed. I get my brain to accept challenges by considering them educational opportunities. Undoubtedly you’ll need to find your own way to embrace the new, the less than perfect, the practice sessions that are necessary to get better at any endeavor.
None of us, however, can get really good at anything – writing, photography, teaching, dog training etc., without first being really average, maybe even mediocre. It isn’t where you start out that’s going to decide things, it is how much time and practice you’re willing to put in. Stick-to-it-ness accomplishes as much or more than raw talent and I’ve been around long enough to see that play out from the art community to academics and industry.
When a friend brings a book to you and says, “I think this may be weird, read it and tell me what you think,” it goes without saying that curiosity is aroused. Particularly when the friend has read the book and is seeking a second opinion.
The cover didn’t help my initial impression of the book. I love book covers and judge a lot by them and this one did not speak to me or appeal to me. Still, I was now curious if I would find Vladimir a ‘weird’ book or not.
First, props to Julia May Jonas for what in my opinion she did well. She has written an engaging story, that reads quickly, and despite my moments of frustration with her main character, kept me reading. Do you know how some books are an effort to finish? This one was not. Some of her characters were very realistic, ironically, she seemed to do best with the aging professor-husband of the main character.
Perhaps equally ironic the one I took most issue with was the point of view character- a woman. My issues with this character remind me of the ongoing debate in the writing community about writing from one’s own point of view/experience.
The point of view character in Vladimir is an aging, female, university professor.
Jonas is several decades younger than her protagonist, works on a university campus but in the theater, and her field of expertise has no overlap with her main characters. In other words, she’s watched aging, women, university professors and on that basis felt ready to write from the point of view of one.
As someone who in real life is much closer to the main character than Jonas is, I was at times rolling my eyes at the inaccuracies and internal conflicts that Jonas gave this character. They were often the concerns of a younger, non-academic person. Fortunately, most readers of this book won’t be aging, female academics, so they won’t be bothered by these details.
Now for the weird part. The book starts out with all the trappings of literary fiction: life-crisis, questioning of values and meaning, potential turning points, and affairs. Fairly standard stuff told with an engaging voice.
About 2/3 of the way in, however, the novel appears to be veering sharply into the Shades of Grey territory. So sharply that I felt like I’d been dropped into a different story. This was followed by an equally sharp correction (by now I felt like I was in a car with a drunk driver) and we were once again back into Lit Novel territory and then the final sharp lunge of direction happened, with no foreshadowing at all. Which as a writer and reader I dramatically dislike. You can throw in all the surprises you wish, but give me a heads up with a hint of foreshadowing, or I’m likely to accuse you of lazy writing.
My response to my friend then became, “Yes, this is a weird book. I felt like I got in a car with a drunk driver – by choice – and spent the trip wondering about my own life choices.”
This is some solid escapism reading for those who aren’t aging, female university professors, or for those who are and still have the anxiety and lesson planning skills of a 20 something.
Let me begin with a disclaimer of sorts: I believe Antoine Wilson is a strong writer, who is capable of producing a story that keeps a reader engaged. I am basing this in part on the other reviews I glanced at after reading this book. Lots of them said they felt engaged, couldn’t put it down, found it to be a page-turner.
As someone who spent many formative years in Canada, I also have a soft spot for Canadian writers, such as Mr. Wilson. I was rooting for this to be an engaging book.
The challenge I ran into with this novel is that when you have an unreliable narrator telling you therefore, unreliable things (which are clearly self-serving,) am I really supposed to be surprised that the natural outcome of his obsession and self-serving narrative is the destruction of another person?
While many of those who are leaving reviews talk about the “surprise twist-ending” I’m with the reviewer who asked, “What did you think was going to happen?”
For me, it was thus an interesting if unsurprising narrative.
This book combined with a few others I’ve read lately have left me wondering if sometimes neurodiverse readers just have a very different experience with a story compared to neurotypical readers. I have suspected sometimes that I’m missing nuances at play between characters. In this book, for example, there’s a scene near the end where it is revealed that one character has actually known a big secret that the point of view character (POV) has kept hidden the whole time. The POV character acts like this is a big deal. I couldn’t help but immediately think of a straightforward logical way of dealing with this complication and was mystified by why our scheming character was so dumbfounded and overwhelmed. I feel like I’m missing something here in the expectations around relationships between neurotypical people.
At the same time, it is pretty hard to surprise me. A twist isn’t much of a twist when you can see it coming from early in the story. I’ve heard/read other neurodiverse readers say something similar, “How did everyone not see that coming?”
Antoine Wilson, Canadian writer. If you’re neurodiverse, read and let me know if you perceived the ending ahead of time. If you’re neurotypical, you’ll love the surprise ending! 😉
First book in the Magic Treehouse – Merlin Missions Series
Mary Pope Osborne wasn’t writing when I was a kid, more is the pity. I would have collected and been devoted to these books. When I was young, I read about Merlin and King Arthur, in a far less youth-reader friendly version of the story.
Of course, the Magic Treehouse books aren’t telling the King Arthur tales; they are telling stories of a brother and sister, Jack and Annie, who are sent on adventures through time by Merlin.
In the first book, however Annie and Jack do travel back to Camelot to aid King Arthur and his citizens, who have lost all joy and hope. Who better than children to set out on the quest to recover them?
This excellent adventure with just the right amount of not-too-dangerous danger made for a compelling read. How much I wish this book had been available when I was a young, dyslexic reader looking for something that would draw me in but not be too frustrating.
This week’s book is Lauren Groff’s Matrix, her sixth novel. Groff is a gifted writer, so I feel bad saying I never really warmed up to this book, even though unlike some readers I loved the premise: historical, strong women, nunnery etc.
Strengths include tackling subject matter that most writers avoid, including imagining a [probably not very accurate] life for a historical person, in a way that it has not been previously imagined. Strong women who create a cloistered world that largely keeps problems, aside from hunger, at the edge of their domain.
Admittedly, the narrative style kept me at arm’s length. I also wasn’t sure about hanging this imagining of the main character’s life on the name of a historical woman; it could have been, in my opinion, just as powerful to use a created name alongside a statement that the story was inspired by the historical poetess and nun. My own limitation: I don’t like creating so many fictional events and sticking them under a real person’s name, even when that person is long dead and particularly when the events don’t always jibe with what is known about the historical person.
Despite not appreciating all of Groff’s choices in this particular work, I think she is a gifted writer who will continue to produce noteworthy work. I look forward to seeing what is next from her pen.
My Best Read in a month. (Attempt to avoid spoilers but be forewarned, discussion will include information from book.)
I’m not going to lie. I enjoy Mitch Albom’s fiction.
Albom’s work that I’m most familiar with includes considerations of faith: what is belief and what do we really believe in – people, an idea, a standard of behavior/ethical framework that guides us, a specific being, a relationship with that being… What forms faith, what challenges it, what destroys it?
In both this book and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Albom explores what happens to someone when they lose a close loved one, and this seems to be what he considers the breaking point where most people are likely to ‘lose’ faith.
What then would be necessary for them to reclaim that faith?
In Stranger there were some depictions of God that had me question my own assumptions about faith. It was a strong reminder that my beliefs are personal, individualized by my own experience. It was very interesting also, to see how Albom brought the different threads of his story together by the end. And just like The Five People you Meet in Heaven, I’ll be thinking about The Stranger in the Lifeboat for some time, recommending it to people who want a fairly quick but thoughtful read.
neigh·bor·hood/ˈnābərˌho͝od/ the area surrounding a particular place, person, or object.
Today I am thinking of neighborhood more like community; we tend to think of neighborhood as a physical place, and community as a group. With more of us spending so much time online while also being isolated from many of our physical neighbors, I think neighborhood has to become closer to community – possibly found online – just for the sake of our mental health.
At least I’m going to imagine it as such for the time being.
My writing neighborhood began when I was working on my MFA in writing.
The head of my writing program was John Smolens. When I was studying with John he had started a multi-book deal with Pegasus.
John of course had writing friends, and he brought some of them to visit us, so that this small, somewhat isolated Michigan university became a literary hotbed for a while.
There was the son of his dear friend, Andre Dubus, who John affectionately called Little Andre. At that time, Andre had been featured on the Oprah show for his novel The House of Sand and Fog.
There was fellow Michigan writer Mitch Albom, who had recently released The Five People You Meet in Heaven.
Then there were the distinguished women.
Joyce Sutphen, poet laureate of Minnesota. She had recently released Coming Back to the Body, a deceptive book – thin and unimposing, but sweet, powerful, and aching moments all crowded the pages.
Joy Harjo, who I was so in awe of. At the time AMap to the Next World had recently been released and I felt like a little kid asking her to sign my copy.
Jim Harrison stopped in and told us about his experience filming Legends of the Fall. He said Hollywood would pay well to screw you over. He recommended taking the money.
Neighbors, or just Community?
I follow several women writers who I feel are either neighbors or are neighbor adjacent. We belong to shared book clubs and I’ve chosen to support their independent bookstores. Okay, not really neighbors but potential writing acquaintances.
Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess. I started following Jenny’s blog way back. Her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened made me laugh-pee and almost cry. Her current book, Broken in the Best Possible Way; read near a restroom because you will laugh that hard, but have tissue because you’ll also cry.
Jenny’s Nowhere Bookshop is home to the Fantastic Strangling Book of The Month Club, with an array of books picked by Jenny, and discussed online through writing. Because this is a book club for people who may not be comfortable speaking to strangers.
My other virtual book club is Ann Patchett’s, headquartered in her independent Parnassus Books. In January 2022 we’re reading Ann’s book, These Precious Days. This book club has signed first editions, interviews with writers, and virtual discussion groups.
Neighbors from the old Neighborhood
I have other writers in my neighborhood. Some are better known than others. My friend Marty Achatz was in the same writing program I was in with John Smolens. Marty has been Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, twice, has a book of poems, and has been blogging for about 12 years. Marty is a gifted writer and performer and he deserves a bigger stage.
Then there’s my friend from grad school (PhD) who has worked her a** off to get the success she has. So much talent, so much pain survived. Roxane Gay is an amazing human and I feel blessed to have spent time with her before the world discovered how incredible she is. I imagine it might have felt similar to have been one of the early listeners to the Beatles, before they’d left the neighborhood, but you just knew they were going to change the scene. Roxane is changing the scene. (And she has a book club!)
Finally, I am developing entirely new writing neighborhoods through a craft writing group I belong to P2P (Pitch to Published), and a genre writing association, Sisters in Crime.
We are all surrounded by writing neighborhoods and can choose to join communities of folx who share our interests. If you are a writer, you should be a reader, a supporter of your fellow writers. I challenge you to pause for a few minutes and think, who are some of the great writers you already know? Who can you tune into (writers are enjoying podcasting), who can you welcome to your neighborhood?
I was thus reminded of this incident with my own friend, Vinnie.
Vinnie is my adopted, senior Chihuahua, who can be cold on the sunniest day. I wanted to help him be more comfortable.
My attempts to help him – and in no way put off the work of writing – started something like this.
But he doesn’t have much hair on his head, and snoods are pretty adorable.
Of course they beg to be put together!
Full ensemble @zoosnoods, #zoosnoods
And lest people worry that he is confined to just one, white sweater . . .
Is this an attempt to put off writing?
Is this another form of creativity?
Do animals look so cute dressed in clothes that it is inevitable that someone, somewhere, is this very moment putting pants on a chicken, or a sweater on a turtle? I just think we all need more cheer, more smiles, and looking at pictures of animals helps some of us get there.
If you’re a writer, feeling a little stuck, ask yourself when was the last time you took a break and looked at something that made you smile?
Such dashing fashion sense. Yet, time to step away from the little dog for a while with our sweater collection, and return to our writing.
As a dyslexic, autistic etc. who wasn’t diagnosed until after graduate school, I’m owning that doctorate; it took a wicked large amount of work, pain, and perseverance. It is possible to overcome tremendous odds to reach a goal, something I like the young people I mentor and teach to remember. Some things are impossible – others are just really, really difficult.
I began writing as a child first and foremost to communicate. Language was often difficult and seldom captured what I was trying to say. I started by writing notes for my mother and leaving them on her bed, trying to explain things that had happened during the day. Then I wrote some stories, to imagine a world where things that I wanted to happen, did happen, even if they only happened for other people. Finally, I began to write books.
My non-fiction was the first that was published and was directly related to what I live and breathe for my livelihood: disability support, services, and studies.
While I continued to write fiction off and on for family and friends, three strokes in a year put a damper on my writing for a while. After a couple of years of recovery, I went back to writing, gradually increasing the length of my projects. Then covid hit.
That’s when I decided to start killing people.
Houghton, Michigan. Remote. Isolated. Home to a fantastic STEM research university. A good place to off-victims, while continuing to work my day job.
And so I began writing what I am tentatively calling my Copper Country Mystery Series. Eventually, my investigators will have to branch out and investigate crime in other areas of Michigan and probably the northern-midwest. But we’re always going to come back to solve crime in the area we love.
I have a growing list of ways to do people in but if you have a location that you think is perfect for a crime, or a way of doing someone in that you’ve always wanted to see explored, or a thinly disguised person you’d like to see at least fictionally get theirs, please pass it on!