Archive for March, 2020

Library Book Sale Finds: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a long time, squiders. It’s not my first Shirley Jackson book. I’ve previously read The Haunting of Hill House, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle is perhaps her most famous book. You can imagine my pleasure when I found a copy at a library book sale. Every October for the last few years I’ve said I’m going to read it, but I never quite make it around to it.

Except now I have! My copy is old, a paperback from 1963, which cost a whopping 60 cents at the time.

Title: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Author: Shirley Jackson
Genre: Gothic horror
Publication Year: 1962

Pros: Just…a carefully wound mess where you can see the disaster coming and can do nothing to stop it
Cons: See above

I had a hard time picking a genre for this. Wikipedia has it listed as a mystery, which…no. Just no. It’s not a mystery. It has elements of horror and elements of Gothic novels, but it’s not quite those either.

In the book, we follow Mary Katherine Blackwood (or Merricat for short). She lives in a big, old house separated from the rest of the village with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian, both of whom never leave the property.

It’s hard to talk about the plot without major spoilers, so, uh, stop here if you haven’t read it, but it’s been out for 58 years and so I think we are perhaps past that at this point.

Mary Katherine, Constance, and Julian are the only remaining members of their once large and respected family. As the story goes on, we learn that the other members all died on a single night, when the sugar at the dinner table was poisoned. Constance was tried for the murder but ultimately acquitted. Mary Katherine was not present for the meal, having been sent to bed without dinner, and Julian ingested some of the poison (arsenic) but ultimately survived, though the incident left him physically frail and obsessively focused on the “Last Day.”

Mary Katherine is an interesting narrator. She has put elaborate rituals in place to keep her remaining family safe, including burying things around the property and keeping certain things in certain ways. It’s not clear if this is how she’s always been, or if it’s a reaction to the death of her family and the relative isolation she’s lived in since then. She does occasionally leave the family land to get food and books from the library, but the townspeople are cruel to her and she prefers not to interact with them if she doesn’t have to. Despite her odd way of looking at the world, she does seem to be an excellent judge of character and what’s actually going on.

The book culminates in the partial burning of their house and the hate of the townspeople, where they come in and destroy everything they can. Assured of the evilness of the outside, Mary Katherine and Constance barricade themselves inside the remaining portions of the house, and it’s implied they never leave the property again. The end is how urban legends are formed, with people leaving them food to assuage their own guilt and telling stories about the ladies that live in the house, and what they will do to people who upset them.

I will say that the twist about the poison was pretty obvious, in the end. I’m not sure it was meant to be a twist at all, though everything I’ve read about the book seems to treat it as such.

All in all, a fascinating and disturbing read. I can see why it’s endured.

Read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, squiders? Thoughts? Thoughts about Shirley Jackson in general, or Gothic horror (or whatever one would call this particular type of book)?

Thoughts from Home

So, my blog posts from last week were scheduled a few weeks ahead of time (since we were supposed to be on a cruise last week), and while we did end up sneaking off to Moab before everything shut down, I still feel like, as time went on, they felt more and more disconnected.

Disconnected from reality, I mean.

A St. Patty’s post when St. Patty’s was all but cancelled. And then a post about editing and revision when everyone I know’s productivity has tanked.

Cuz, I mean, the whole thing’s inescapable, really. It’s everywhere you look. Schools closed, work changed or gone completely. Worries about paying bills or whether or not there will be enough food at the grocery store to feed your family. Fears about leaving the house, and nowhere really to go if you do leave.

(I did go out a little while ago. I ordered some toy dinosaurs from a local craft store for science experiment purposes to entertain the small, mobile ones and had received a notification that my order was ready, but by the time I got there they’d already closed for the day. And I went to my favorite coffee shop, because I want to make sure my favorite small businesses are doing okay, but it was empty and quiet and sad–they aren’t allowing more than five people in the store at one time–so now I am also sad.)

I’m sure you guys have run into this too. How…everything is different, and how routines you didn’t even know you had have been completely upended.

It’s really been hitting home the last few days. Especially now that I’ve got the small, mobile ones all the time, and I’ve somehow got to educate them enough that they’re prepared to move on to the next grade if school doesn’t actually happen again this semester.

(I mean, yes, I’m getting virtual lesson plans from their teachers, but it’s nowhere like what they’d be getting if they were actually at school. And that’s to say nothing of the missed socialization. I’m a super introvert, and even I am feeling the isolation.)

(I wrote physical letters yesterday.)

(I think the room I wrote my grandma might be a little punchy.)

I’m also not getting as much done as I would like, though I’ve quit checking the news a million times a day, at least. But it’s not all bad. I finished my drawing class for the month. The watercolors I’ve been doing in the trip journal are pretty dang good. And I finished the draft of my scifi horror novella.

Focus on the good, right?

I hope you all are doing okay, all things considered, squiders. Let’s keep our heads up as best we can.

See you on Thursday.

WriYe and Editing

Hey-ho, squiders. It’s that time of month again. March, in the spirit of NaNoEdMo (does that still exist? If not, it’s certainly left its mark), has an editing theme over at WriYe.

(NaNoEdMo still has a website, but it doesn’t look like it’s been updated for this year. That’s too bad. It’s been around forever, though I’ve never actually done it, because invariably I am not editing in March, or I’ve forgotten that NaNoEdMo is a thing.)

The idea is that by the time March rolls around, you’ve had time to complete your NaNoWriMo novel and give it a bit of a break, so you can approach everything with fresh eyes.

Right, on to the prompts.

What is your main struggle with editing?  Is it getting started? Rereading your own work?

Let me just say that for the most part I really enjoy editing/revision. I like to come up with fixes to problems, and I like to mold the story I ended up with into the story I wanted.

The biggest issue for me is that it’s a looooooong process. The way I do it, I do a lot of prep work first–looking at character/plot arcs, worldbuilding, conflict, story flow, etc.–and that tends to take me several months. Doing it that way makes the actual revision pretty easy, because I’ve got everything figured out beforehand, and makes it so I don’t have to do a million and a half drafts. But uuuuggghhh it takes forever. If I’m the depths of a major edit, that may be the only thing I get done in a year, aside from smaller projects.

How do you handle it?

Hm. Just deal with it, I guess? 😛 I mean, it is what it is. Perhaps over time the process will streamline itself and take less time. And, I mean, I can do it shorter. I only had, like, two months for the edit on City of Hope and Ruin and it got done. But there was more panic.

Bonus: Give your top five editing tips and/or tricks that you wish you learned earlier.

Hm. Okay!

  1. Don’t edit an unfinished manuscript. If you’re constantly going back and changing things, you’re never going to get done, and you’re going to end up with a bunch of things left over from previous versions that don’t make sense. Make note of things that need to change and move forward.
  2. Take a break between finishing the draft and starting your edit. This lets your brain reset and allows you to look at the story more emotionally removed.
  3. Do big picture things first! Fixing your sentence flow and dialogue is great, but if you spend a bunch of time doing that (because it’s easy) and then discover you’ve got to throw out that section of the story because of a plot problem, you’ve wasted time and energy. Whole story things first (plot arc, character arc) and move down from there. Line editing is last.
  4. Make sure each scene is advancing either the plot or the character arc. You can break each one down into a sentence, which also helps you check your flow overall.
  5. Edit on paper, and read your work out loud. You get used to your story, and you can skip the same typo fifty times because that’s just How It Is. Change how you’re looking at the story, and you’re more likely to catch things.

Thoughts on editing/revision, squiders? Should I write a book about editing? Hm. Things to ponder.

See you next week!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day (and a Landsquid)

This is such a weird holiday. What did it even start out being? A feast day to St. Patrick? Well, I mean, yes, but why do we celebrate it here in the States?

(Obviously it came over with Irish immigrants. I am aware I am doing a bad job of articulating what I mean.)

(The Internet tells me that it became a big deal in the mid-19th century after the influx of immigrants after the potato famine.)

(The Internet also tells me that the associated color with St. Patrick was blue until the Irish Rebellion, when the Irish soldiers wore green to offset the British red. And that the whole wearing green pop culture thing is because of Chicago in 1962.)

(And the drinking thing came from a marketing push by Budweiser in the ’80s. Man, that’s not that old at all.)

Well, thank you, stream of consciousness blog post, I’ve learned something here today.

Anyway, I drew you a thematically-appropriate Landsquid. His eyes are dead because he has, too, realized that the holiday we know is only about 40 years old.

Plans for the holiday? (I have rainbow knee-high socks with gold shamrocks.) Interesting holiday-related tidbits?

Library Book Sale Finds: Twelve Angry Librarians by Miranda James

Well, squiders. We were supposed to be on a cruise tomorrow. But, alas, that’s not happening, for obvious reasons.

Sad times.

So, a little over a month and a half ago, I went to another library book sale. Cuz I hadn’t in a while, and they were doing bags of books for $6, and I am weak.

(Actually, now that I think about it, I went to one in December too, though that wasn’t the best. The books were expensive. If I’m paying $6 per book, what’s the point? I should buy it new at that point so the author gets some of the money. I did get a ton of easy chapter books for the bigger, mobile one, though he has refused to read them.)

(He is mostly interested in books about Minecraft. Sigh. Though he doesn’t mind a story if someone else reads it to him. We just started The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler.)

ANYWAY, this sale wasn’t the best either–not a lot of material, just a few carts of books and old movies. I did manage to end up with six hardcovers, though.

And here we are. In a timely fashion, for once.

Title: Twelve Angry Librarians
Author: Miranda James
Genre: Mystery
Publication Year: 2017

Pros: Cat
Cons: Not enough kooky side characters

There is something to be said about a bag full of old paperbacks, where you’re getting a mixed bag of who knows what from who knows when. Modern books are less fun, in that regard.

Now, you guys know I love mysteries, and you know I love cozy mysteries. But that being said, I find that most cozy mystery series, especially modern ones, don’t really do it for me. I’m not a big historical fiction person, but I tend to like historical cozy mysteries. Gives them something, I guess. Contemporary-based cozies feel the need for some sort of something extra, which is really hit or miss as to whether or not it works.

I’m guessing we’re doing a two-for-one here, in that we have a helpful pet (ala The Cat Who series) plus it’s library-themed. (I am as bad as the next writer about being a sucker for stories about writers/librarians/etc. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that said stories are any good.)

This is a well-established series (this is the eighth book) with Charlie Harris, late middle-aged career librarian, as our protagonist. Charlie is likable enough, if a bit dull, but that’s fairly par for the course. His cat, Diesel, is properly charismatic.

And maybe the other books in the series are better at this, but I kind of feel like a cozy mystery series, if not carried by the protagonist, needs a cast of wacky side characters. And we should get them here–the book takes place at a librarian convention–but we don’t especially.

There’s nothing bad about the book. It’s perfectly serviceable. But it’s also forgettable.

Read other books in the Murder in the Stacks series, squiders? Thoughts about how essential the side characters are? Favorite cozy series in general?

How Goes the Education?

If you guys remember, my word for the year is education.

We’re three months in, now, so how’s it going?

Ha. Haha.

No, actually, it’s going decently. It may be the only thing making any real progress, thanks to the medical issues with my husband and other issues going on around these parts.

Except the programming. I have more or less given up on the programming. I don’t have time, it frustrates me, and the more I poke at it, the more I think that it’s not a good fit. (Which isn’t a huge surprise–it’s never really been my forte. In college, I’d write a program, it wouldn’t work, I’d borrow a classmate’s program, compare, and they would be identical, except theirs would work and mine wouldn’t.) I am good at adjusting programs–I can make changes in a test environment, or modify Fortran to do what’s necessary–but writing code from scratch sucks.

And to be honest, I don’t want to program so much as it feels like I should know how to program, if that makes sense. I need to take a closer look at the jobs I’m considering and see if that’s actually a necessary skill or not.

(Also, part of it is that programming classes are very open-ended. This skill here, this skill there, with no clear indication how some of it would be used in a practical manner. I’m quite good at picking up specifics for a particular task, but the open-endedness here is throwing me off.)

I may look more at other types of classes–software test, or UX/UI–later in the year, when/if things stabilize a bit.

The writing books…go. I was a little afraid this would happen when I set the goal of one of month. They’re hard to get through quickly, since I’m trying to focus and absorb. I’m still working on February’s. To off-set that, I’ve watched one of the tutorial videos I purchased from Writer’s Digest whenever they had that big sale. It was a good course, about the foundations of a good plot. It was short, so I’ve watched it twice to try and absorb the information as much as possible.

Not sure that worked, but eeeehhh.

The art classes are going great. I’ve really enjoyed the three classes I’ve done so far (art journaling, figure drawing, and I’m working on faces this month) though I don’t know if I’m actually getting any better. But practice makes perfect, right?

(I’m certainly accumulating art supplies, whoops.)

The prompts are going well too. It’s freeing, to write without trying to do anything with it (which is probably good, because I suspect none of them thus far are any good). I don’t think I actually explained the concept to you guys.

I’ve been accumulating pins on Pinterest for years: characters, scenery, prompts, etc. But I hardly ever do anything with them (especially these boards, since I tend to draw off my Inspiration board or my separate Writing Prompts board when looking for story ideas). So each month I’m taking the oldest pin from each board (character, scenery, prompt) and writing a short story on them. There have been some…odd combinations.

This month’s are:
Character: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/331718328795863331/
Setting: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/331718328796303296/
Prompt: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/331718328795821985/

The cozy mystery idea isn’t going anywhere, since I’d like to finish up some drafts before I start new ones.

Those were my main areas of focus, so yay, I guess? Things are going, I’m enjoying myself mostly (except for programming), and there’s still plenty of year to go.

How are you doing on your goals?

Used Book Store Finds: A Different Light by Elizabeth A. Lynn

Hey-o, squiders! I thought this was one of my library book sale books, but it had a bookmark in it, so it turns out that it was one of the books my spouse bought me on my birthday when he took me to a coffee house/used bookstore.

This book ends up being oddly topical for what we’re dealing with round these parts recently.

Title: A Different Light
Author: Elizabeth A. Lynn
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Year: 1978

Pros: Interesting take on what makes life worth living
Cons: Gets a bit weird at the end, like most ’70s era scifi I’ve read

Our main character here is Jimson Alleca (which, as an aside, is Jimson a real name? Google tells me it’s a type of weed, but all I can think of is that it reads really stereotypically hillybilly-ish.), famous artist, stuck on his home world because of a rare and incurable type of cancer.

(Nobody else has weird names. Also whoever drew the cover is generally quite talented but seems a little confused about human anatomy.)

If he goes into the Hype, which, as far as I can tell, is the medium space travel goes through to get places faster than they would otherwise, it’ll accelerate the rate of growth of the cancer, and he’ll die.

But he’s bored and he’s languishing, and he decides it’s worth it to go out there and see new things, even if it’ll kill him.

(This is, coincidentally, where the title comes from. Each planet has a different star, with different colors and brightness, so he wants to see things under “a different light.”)

So it’s interesting from the standpoint that you go into the adventure sequence of the book knowing he’s going to die from it. (I mean, assuming the adventure doesn’t get him first.) Jimson’s a little fatalistic as a main character, but not annoyingly so. He does occasionally bemoan his early fate but he’s mostly accepted it. And the parts where he’s drawing or otherwise doing artistic things or looking at things through the lens of an artist are quite good, especially in a genre where art is not always explored.

There are three main side characters: Leiko, Ysao, and Russell. I liked both Leiko and Ysao, but am less fond of Russell, whom I felt was overly violent (especially to poor Jim). And there’s a telepathic subplot that’s pretty cool too.

So, end thoughts. I enjoyed this book. I haven’t read a ton of ’70s scifi (since it tends to be after the “classics” and before the modern era, whenever that technically starts) but it feels very ’70s in places. Societally, I guess, if I had to try and explain it better. I don’t know. I wasn’t actually alive in the ’70s so I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’d say it’s worth taking a gander at for the different takes on art and telepathy. I’d read other things by Elizabeth A. Lynn.

What do you think, squiders? Read A Different Light? Other things by Elizabeth A. Lynn? Thoughts on ’70s scifi in general?

(I Googled Elizabeth A. Lynn after writing this up, and have discovered she was one of the first SFF authors to include gay/lesbian characters in a positive light, and also that there’s a LGBT bookstore chain called A Different Light after this book, so that’s pretty neat.)