What I’ve Been Reading

The shiny New Year has been sullied by grimy piles of snow and hair-clogged filters as the heating in my home struggles to keep up with the cold. I’m tired of being tired and I miss the sun. The real sun—not that cheating bastard that tricks me into going out for a walk on really cold days. I’d make plans to move to Arizona, but they have snow too. Why, oh why, is winter a thing?

Thankfully, I’ve had some really good books to read.

 

33759717Adrift (Staying Afloat #1) by Isabelle Adler

I don’t read a lot of queer science fiction romance. That might strike you as odd, seeing as I write it. I love writing it. That’s probably what makes me an indecently harsh judge when it comes to reading the contributions of others. Science fiction is my first love and that part of the story has to be done right. I’m very discouraged when it isn’t. I have been heard to rant,  “But the setting has to be integral, otherwise they might as well be in Kansas.” Or something like that.

I also require a satisfying love story. Not at all hard to please, am I?

Isabelle Adler’s Adrift has been tucked away on my Kindle for quite a while now. I loved the cover and the premise, but… would it measure up? Well, it’s on my list of favourites, so, yes. Yes, it did. Adrift really is a neat little science fiction adventure with lots of potential for more in the same setting. Basically, it has everything I look for in a novel of this type: a small, close-knit crew, a mystery wrapped in an adventure (or vice-versa), and lots of romantic tension.

I liked all the characters (especially Val) and look forward to traveling with them on further adventures.

 

29467232The Blood Mirror (Lightbringer #4) by Brent Weeks

My review on Goodreads for this one:

That last line…

The agony of waiting until September…

*dies*

This series really took me by surprise. I loved the first book, but didn’t immediately jump on the second because so many books, so little time. I always have other reading obligations. Also, I tend to skip around a bit, from genre to genre, often not returning to the next book in a series for several months. I think it was over a year before I got back to this one and it was a bit too long because I really only remembered pivotal events from the first book. I was quickly swept back into the story, though, and moved on to book three almost immediately. Then book four, even though I knew it was going to be nine months before I could read book five.

Forget twists and turns—the Lightbringer series is constantly doubling back on itself. Whatever you think you know, you don’t. Weeks has been teasing a cataclysmic shift for a while now and I’m expecting the final book in this series to challenge not only the established cast and storyline, but the very nature of fantasy fiction as he turns this world upside down in order to remake it.

I kept reading for Gavin & Dazen and the revelations to that particular storyline in this volume are stunning. But Kip is a hero I can get behind and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him—even if I’m not quite sure the author can be trusted to, um, well, be nice. Either way, I’m expecting a wrenching yet satisfying conclusion in September. Yes, those two directions can go together. In this series especially.

 

28763240At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson

Is there a category like magical realism that uses science fiction instead? Either way, one of the aspects of At the Edge of the Universe that I really enjoy is the way Hutchinson uses the idea of the universe shrinking as a metaphor for depression. But when I’m reading, the science fiction elements feel real, as if the aliens are up there with a big button that can destroy the world (We Are the Ants) or as if the universe is actually shrinking and only Ozzie is aware of it.

I also really like that despite the dark themes, these books have a hopeful feel. The endings are totally worth the journey.

Final bonus: interesting and diverse characters!

Hutchinson just released a new novel called The Past and Other Things That Should Stay Buried which feels exactly like the book I’d want to read next. A slightly different direction and apparently not as dark—but still weird. Look for it in my next post.

 

1850579610% Happier: by Dan Harris

Yes, this is a self-help book and I can honestly say I never thought I’d read a self-help book, but can I make a confession? This isn’t the first. It is the first to make it onto one of my recommend to everyone lists, though.

10% Happier is one of the most entertaining audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. I can’t quite remember why I added it to my TBR list, but I imagine it had to do with my ongoing interest in meditation and striving for happiness. I guess I figured adding ten percent seemed like a pretty simple prospect.

10% Happier is part memoir, part self-help guide, and I found the reflections on Dan Harris’ career just as interesting as his exploration of spirituality, meditation, and enlightenment. This book is extremely funny in sections and rivetingly real in others. It’s also helpful in that Harris has distilled the ideology of a lot of well-known ‘self-help’ gurus – drawing his own conclusions, yes, but in a way that felt clear and relatable.

I’m more interested in meditating than I was before I picked up this book, and even intrigued by the idea of a retreat. Even if I never get to either, though, the story of Harris’ journey was completely worthwhile.

 

24819813Star Wars: Darth Vader, Vol. 1: Vader by Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca

This one is going to be short and sweet: Triple Zero is my new favourite character in the Star Wars universe. A protocol droid equipped with a torture package? I loved the absurdity of it and laughed every time Triple Zero expressed delight in its work.

I’m a terrible, terrible person. But, hey, I didn’t write it.

Outside of murderous protocol droids, I’m enjoying this series. Darth Vader is a character with tons of unexploited story potential.

 

37570595Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I don’t know how this book ended up in my queue, but I’m really glad it did. This is an amazing collection of short stories, each ringing with voice, conviction, and a call to sit up and take notice. My favourites were the titular “Friday Black” and “In Retail” which left me with a tear in my eye. I also loved the last story, which needs to be expanded into something longer. Like, yesterday.

I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more from Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

 

40378934The Accidentals by Sarina Bowen

Sarina Bowen is one of my auto-buy authors. I feel I can always rely on her books to deliver two things: a touching romance that combines happy and sweet with just enough angst to make her characters memorable and relatable, and a story. There’s always a good story and that’s what I look for first and foremost when I’m choosing something to read.

The Accidentals isn’t like Bowen’s other books—even though it is? The author’s voice shines true here, with echoes of her beloved Ivy Years series, but the story is structured differently. This novel is more a journey of discovery and about the ever-evolving relationship between a young woman and the father she never really knew. It’s about loss and discovering gold, and about growing up—even when you’re already considered an adult.

It’s one of those books you’ll think about after you’ve finished and give a satisfied nod to when you pass it on the bookshelf.

 

25499718Children of Time (Children of Time #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Absolutely stunning. One of the best books I’ve ever read. So good, I want to go back to the beginning and start all over again. The concepts! The science! And yet, the essence of the story is as old as time.

I’ll be ordering a paper copy of this for the keeper shelf and I’ve already preordered the sequel, Children of Ruin, which I believe is scheduled to release in May.

Update: Keeper copy delivered and wow, this is a really thick book. I really didn’t notice the length when I was listening to it, which is one of the best parts of listening on audio. I have a feeling I’d have been just as engrossed had I had to read this one to myself, though.

 

36630924Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

When you read the synopsis for a book, you generally get an idea of where a story is going to go. Same with the first chapter. Well written copy and a good hook pull you in fast, and the reason you keep reading is that you’re eager to get to the other side – to the conclusion you’re already anticipating. It’s for this reason that I’m not particularly put off by spoilers. (This review contains none. Not for this book.) Yeah, okay, I might have preferred to know that Glenn doesn’t die in The Walking Dead (sorry, not sorry, you didn’t already know?) but the anticipation of that moment definitely formed a part of my watching experience, and in some respects, enhanced it. But that’s another story. What I’m really trying to say is that any good book is a journey and like all good journeys, you have a hope for the end but don’t mind a few surprises along the way.

What I loved about Here and Now and Then, first and foremost, were the surprises along the way. I had a good idea of where this story was going and I had hopes for the ending, but getting there was some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve undertaken this year. There are no great twists and turns; it’s the way author Mike Chen handled difficult situations that sets this book apart from every other story about a parent who will do anything for their child. It’s Kin, himself, who is wonderfully fallible and also complex. But simple, too, in that his motives are easy to understand and identify with. He’s extremely likable. The secondary characters were full of surprises too. I particularly loved the arc of Penny. Nope, not going to tell you who she is. All I will say is that she’s a phenomenal character and if I had any complaints about this book, it would have been that I’d have liked her point of view on a few things.

(Read my full review at Goodreads)

 

35611965The Bad Behavior series by L.A. Witt and Cari Z.

I spent altogether too much time trying to figure out who wrote who in this series, but that didn’t distract one whit (see what I did there) from my enjoyment of the story.

What I loved:

That the series ended, and on a high note. There was enough dark and brooding angst in the backstory and front story to add chew. I was glad to walk away at the end (after the final novella, Romantic Behavior) feeling good about the characters and their future. No question.

A story arc that worked across three books. Well planned.

The romance—I loved these guys together. I believed in them together. At no point did the romance feel convenient to the plot or vice versa. And I really liked that although the attraction was definitely physical, we didn’t go there a lot. People were being kidnapped and killed and the focus always remained on bringing the bad guys to justice and the good guys home.

What I didn’t like:

Um, nothing? That’s why I’m recommending this entire series. A great story and fun to read.

 

Quick Bites:

I read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin again and enjoyed it even more third time around. It’s a freaking timeless book and one everyone should read. So get on that.

Jenn Burke’s new paranormal series starts off with a hilarious kick in Not Dead Yet. I’m so looking forward to book two.

Rough Terrain was the perfect end to a perfect series from Annabeth Albert. But, wait, there’s more. The Frozen Hearts series is coming up fast!

Phew, this has been a long one. I really should post more often! What have you been reading?

 

Thinking About Nothing

Sometimes there is so much stuff in my head—the two TV shows I keep up with, the three books I’m usually reading, the plots of my own books, marketing strategies, ideas for new stories, the classes I teach, when we’re going to move all the boxes of books I’ve packed for the library—and I really just want to think about nothing for a while.

I have tried meditation. The nearest success I had was about twenty-five years ago, during a yoga class. After leading us through a series of postures designed to constrict and then release the blood flow through vital glands, our instructor would wait for us to settle into shavasana—our gently exercised bodies covered with a light blanket—and lead us through a ten to fifteen-minute meditation.

Usually, we would start by tensing various muscles and letting them go, moving from the feet all the way up to our heads. Then our instructor might talk us through a visual landscape or encourage us to build one ourselves. Then we’d do some finger wriggling and blinking, roll over, and sit up, apparently refreshed.

Shavasana (otherwise known as “corpse pose”) can be very refreshing. I’m a huge fan of lying down and being covered by a blanket. But I always had a lot of trouble following the meditation part. My mind tended to wander. The one time I did manage to stay with the instructor’s voice was actually kind of frightening. I “woke up” up suddenly with a memory of a black and yellow place and with the feeling of having been suspended between the known and unknown.

I’ve always thought of the incident as a pretty good illustration of my struggle to let go. I’m not very good at letting go. At the beginning of a yoga class, when we’re encouraged to empty our minds, I’m usually going over my to-do list. When we’re lying down, letting the thoughts that snag pull free, I’m usually plotting the next chapter I want to write. Or the next book. Or thinking about my characters. Or wondering what’s for lunch.

Often, at night, I’ll wake up sometime after midnight and lie there for two to four hours, thinking. I try to think about nothing or to tell myself some sort of bedtime story. To let my mind wander, snagging sometimes, but pulling free, and it’s so danged hard. I’ll think about the movie I just saw, a character type I’d like to explore, about the fact my daughter plans to go away to college next year. I’ll wonder if I remembered to close the oven at the bagel shop (where I work afternoons) and if the cats have food and water. Did I forget to put a muffin in that last customer’s bag? Do I have everything I need for the Teen Writers’ group I’m teaching tomorrow night? Oh, and you know what would work for that scene I was struggling with this morning…?

Sometimes I just get up and read for a while. Filling my head with someone else’s words is usually a good way to quiet my own thoughts for long enough for me to fall asleep. But all these thoughts are still there in the morning.

I’ve tried morning pages and I’ve had some success with them—in that they do serve as a good way to get all this stuff out of my head and onto paper at least. I often find solutions to problems that nag at me by writing them down, including my feelings about an issue and questions to myself about what I can do about it. I also do a lot of plotting and planning in my morning pages.

I try to go for a walk every day and usually listen to an audiobook as I circle the neighborhood. It’s about the closest I get to thinking about nothing on a day-to-day basis, but not always successful. Sometimes my mind will wander and I’ll have to restart a chapter and listen to it again. It’s amazing how much I can miss, too. It will be as though I’ve never heard the words before.

Interestingly enough, however, I cannot sit and listen to an audiobook. I have to be doing something or in motion. I can be driving, traveling as a passenger, walking, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the house. I cannot do a jigsaw puzzle and listen. I can color and listen.

But, back to my quest for nothingness—when I sat down to write this, I planned to share the one thing that worked, but when I got to this part of the ramble, I realized there are two things, but only one I can do year round. The first is for summer only: lying on the beach. I usually take a book to the beach with me, but my favorite thing to do (aside from riding the waves) is to lie in the sun and listen to the sounds of people playing in the water. The vague crunch of bare feet against the sand. The sigh of the wind over the sea, and the roll and hiss of the waves. People talking. All the different music. I find all that listening extremely restful.

The thing that works year-round is going hiking. While I often listen to audio books on my daily walks, I leave my headphones behind when I’m on the trail. Instead, I do the same thing I do on the beach: I listen. To the leaves crunching under my feet and the wind through the trees. The skitter and chitter of forest animals. The rush and trickle of water. Other hikers talking to each other, or their dogs. The sound of the world taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I look at the color of the bark on the trees and the different shapes of the leaves. I make note of the mushrooms growing alongside the trail. I look for flowers, especially in the spring, and interesting patterns in the fallen leaves during the fall. I’ve hiked through snow, counting the different sets of tracks crossing my path. I’ve hiked in the summer when it’s ninety degrees and all I want to do is take off my shoes so I can stick my toes in the creek.

But I especially love hiking when the air is cold and the sun is warm. Just last week I hiked to the top of Mount Tammany in New Jersey. It was thirty-seven degrees when I started out and pretty chilly. But when I got to the top of the mountain, the sun broke properly through the clouds and bathed my face in this incredible warmth. It felt almost unreal. It also felt joyous. The only way I can think to describe it is… okay, you know that scene in The Sound of Music where Maria is up in the hills spinning around and swinging her arms out? Of course you do. There are a million gifs of it on Twitter. I felt like that. I’d climbed a mountain, the sun was shining on my face, and I felt amazing! Happy, light, purposeful, refreshed. And guess what was going through my mind?

Absolutely nothing.

So you can see why the idea of meditation fascinates me. I’ve heard that successfully meditating for ten minutes can be like an hour of sleep. That being able to empty your mind and relax like that will add years to your life. It seems like the perfect way to combat stress. But all that sitting … I just can’t.

Maybe not all meditation is about sitting still or necessarily traveling somewhere in your mind. Maybe for some of us, thinking about nothing requires a little more something. For me, it seems either my body or someone else’s has to be in motion. For me to clear my mind, I have to listen to something—either the sound of someone else’s story, the world moving on without me, or that not-quiet quiet of the forest.

I don’t have to climb a mountain every time, but the view is so often worth it. And then, on the way back down the other side, when I’m drawing close to the parking lot and thoughts of what I need to do for the rest of the day start to filter through, I can think about posts like this where I can at least talk about thinking about nothing for a little while.

45654211291_3c026e7a49_h
The view from the top of Mount Tammany.

To view more of my hiking photos, visit my Flickr gallery.

Following Your Heart

following-your-heartIf I had to pick the underlying theme of my many blog posts about writing, it would be me asking: what am I doing this for? The question isn’t unique to my profession, or even to creatives. From time to time, we all take a look at what we’re doing and ask why. Or we should. And it’s not something you can ask once and be done. The answer changes with time.

I set goals at the beginning of this year and felt pretty good about not only the direction I wanted to take my career, but in the number of books I wanted to write. It was a good number. Very doable. Then I got to work and started writing the wrong book. Henry and Marc’s HEA was number three on my list of projects. I went with it, though, and by the time I hit the 6k mark, I’d entered that wonderful phase where the story started to tell itself. I was golden; writing 1500-2000 words every morning, revising a two or three chapters of Irresistible, the novel I drafted last year, every afternoon.

Then I finished drafting this second book and suddenly had two books to revise. Revisions on Irresistible had ground to a halt as Counting on You hit the phase where all I wanted to do was write another chapter so I could see what happened next. This is a good thing, usually. It’s one of my favourite parts of drafting. I rushed past the finish line, took a few days to recharge, and started revising Counting on You.

So I was attacking my To Do list out of order. What did it matter, so long as I got all the books written by the end of the year? Continue reading “Following Your Heart”

If You Plant Your Heart, What Will Grow?

My Thursday yoga class always begins with guided meditation. I find it difficult to let my thoughts roam. They tend to buzz around me like flies. Whatever I wrote that morning is usually dead centre in my brain. A character might be bouncing around in there, too, leaving an echo of unfulfilled emotion as they wait for me to write that scene. Crossing my legs hurts, and I am aware of it. My back is usually sore—which is why I’m sitting cross-legged on a Thursday morning.

More often than not, I am unable to shoo away these flies, these surface thoughts, and focus on the meditation. Though, the very act of trying might count. That’s an awareness of a sort, isn’t it?

Last week, we were asked:

If you plant your heart, what will grow?

Despite the fact my legs felt like hard, brittle pretzels, my thoughts immediately latched onto this suggestion. My heart went into an imaginary hole and was buried. Out of that little mound of dirt grew a tree. The tree was large and bore fruit of a very particular shape: red, rounded hearts resembling apples.

"Shaki Khan Palace Interier" by Urek Meniashvili
“Shaki Khan Palace Interier” by Urek Meniashvili

I thought to myself, gee, Kel, this is super original. You planted your heart and grew an apple tree. That has got to be the most simplistic and naïve answer to the question. Here you are, sitting with your hamstrings stretched to breaking point, twitching as your back spasms, and all you can imagine is an apple tree. And you call yourself a writer.

Disappointed, I examined my metaphor a little more closely—with the intent of making it deeper and more creative—and something interesting happened. I got it. The meaning of my tree became clear. Yes, it was a simple idea, but it was so very me. The apples on my tree were hearts, and I expected them to be picked. Taken away and used to nourish someone. I wanted to share my heart. Give it away. Distribute my care in the hope it would fill a need in someone else, make them feel nurtured.

I liked this idea. I still do. I don’t always feel like a good person, but I like to think I am there for my friends and family, for people I barely know, even if it is only to listen. To simply be there. That I imagined myself as this tree full of hearts I wanted to give away affirmed that for me.

When asked to expand our vision, imagine it encompassing the space outside ourselves, I pictured an orchard. With the first hazy stand of trees came another wisp of self-mockery. My orchard was very regular. The trees were in precise rows, each trunk equidistant from the others. The canopies intersected in a repeating pattern and each tree probably bore an equal number of fruit. I had produced a forest of manufactured trees.

Or had I?

No, I’d simply done what came naturally. I had organised my forest. I thrive on regularity and uninterrupted lines. To me, angles are restful. I cannot relax in a room where the curtains are half pulled, or a blind rests askew. If the remotes are not lined up on the coffee table, I will fidget until they’re in a neat row. I sit straight and I form a precise envelope with the bed covers every night. My pillow must be perpendicular to the angle of my neck.

Obviously I am insane, but besides that, I know that order pleases me and so I strive for it. As I get older, I cope better with disorder. Writing full time helps with that. I can’t keep a perfect house and meet an editorial deadline both.

Nature is chaotic, but there is a pleasing symmetry and order to the chaos. If you study an orchard, the trees might not be exactly six feet apart, but from a distance, their trunks form a regular line. Their branches intersect in a tangled canopy that appears to follow a pattern. Fruit has a near symmetry and so do leaves. Nature tries.

"YGGDRASIL World Tree" by Jen Delyth, Celtic Art Studio
“YGGDRASIL World Tree” by
Jen Delyth, Celtic Art Studio

So, with a small mental shove, I let go of my forest and let it grow. It didn’t become completely chaotic, but the trunks thinned and fattened, stepped just out of line with their fellows. Intersecting limbs shifted a little so that some dipped lower and some wove higher. I managed to almost randomise the distribution of fruit.

My forest had never been fenced, so I didn’t have to open it. And I had never placed a limitation on size, so it extended for as far as those who needed my care—shelter and shade, the nurturing fruit—could have it.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I connected my meditation with a concept, a motif, that I have always liked: the tree of life. Rather than decide that my tree had been an entirely unoriginal construction, I embraced the meaning of what I had imagined, that connection with my fellow human beings, with my world, and the feeling that I wanted to share myself with both.

Next week I will probably fail to meditate properly, as is the norm for me. Or maybe I will simply revisit my tree, my forest. I have finally found a mental landscape that works for me, one I can return to when I need to quiet the noise inside. Who could blame me for wanting to return?

Featured image: The Tree of Life, 1905 by Gustav Klimt