This week on #TheBookshelf we delve into the deliciously creepy Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
I loved everything about this book. From the exceptional cover design by Faceout Studio and Tim Green, to the wonderful sense of dread that grows with every moment spent within its pages.
Warning: this book is un-putdownable.
At first glance, you might mistake 22-year-old Noemí Taboada as nothing more than a party-going socialite. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to Noemí than meets the eye. Fiercely intelligent, she is determined find a way to further her education, despite her family’s reluctance.
Fate steps in when Noemí’s father, a wealthy industrialist, makes her an offer: he will allow her to attend the master’s program she has her sights set on, if she is willing to first travel to the remote mining town of El Triunfo and check on the well-being of her cousin, Catalina. It seems that Catalina, recently married to Virgil Doyle, in a match that doesn’t quite sit right with the family, has sent Noemí’s father a desperate and somewhat garbled letter that makes it pretty clear that all is not well with her. Out of concern, and (perhaps more so) in the hopes of avoiding any family scandal, Noemí’s father dispatches her to High Place, the ancestral home of the Doyle family.
The plot is insidiously clever, drawing you in even as a claustrophobic sense of dread blooms–only to then sink under your skin, spreading deeper and deeper until you grasp the true horror of High Place.
Noemí shines as a brilliant hero: smart, open-minded, brave, and with a big heart. Almost from the outset, you feel the impact of her victories and her setbacks as if they were your own.
As for the setting, it’s almost a character unto itself. High Place, damp and neglected, perched on its lonely mountain, is overflowing with horrors inside and out–from the devastating history of English mining operations in the area, to the deadly cliffs and deep crevasses hiding in the mist. As truly isolating as any desolate moor.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing is wonderful, putting you into each scene without getting in its own way. If you’re a fan of gothic horror and/or fiercely intelligent, beautifully human heroes, don’t miss this brilliant book!
Spoiler alert! (select the rest of this line to view): you will never look at mushrooms the same again.
When you’ve read the book, check out this great interview with the author.
Maybe it’s because I was trained as a scientist. Maybe it’s why I became a scientist in the first place. Either way, I love to measure stuff. I love to make plans, set goals (both short- and long-term) and then use planners and schedules and habit trackers to see how I do.
Do I hit every target or meet every goal? Nope. Do I stick to my schedule every day? Absolutely not. But I keep coming back to it because there’s something comforting about planning–being mindful about how you want to live your life or nurture your business–and then creating a framework to guide you.
And to be perfectly honest here, I’m a busy freelancer and mum, with probably far too many creative outlets, so making time for the people, work, and activities that I love, requires some organization!
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
This week on #TheBookshelf, I’m sharing some of my favourite books, apps, tools, and websites to help you set goals (or not), improve your productivity, build better habits, and stay motivated.
1. Setting goals…or not!
I like to set goals. But my goals are a very fluid thing. I reevaluate often. Some people like to set their goals in January for the new year, but I look at my goals every three months or so (January, March, June, and September are the general time frames for me), and check in on how things are going and where things need tweaking. I mean, stuff happens, right? We learn as we go and sometimes plans change and we have to adjust accordingly.
Nathan Bransford is a writer, book editor, and former literary agent. His book How To Write A Novel is brilliant (I’ll be giving it an in-depth review in a future post) and his newsletter never fails to be interesting and helpful. Back in January he posted his thoughts on goals and a handy-dandy spreadsheet that you can use for your own goal-setting. It’s good stuff, so if goals are how you roll, I highly recommend that you check out his blog post here.
If, on the other hand, goal setting is just not your thing, then my favourite productivity guru Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus, agrees with you! Chris doesn’t set goals for himself, but rather focuses on building habits. He rationalizes that it is the process that matters; as he explains over on his great website A Life of Productivity:
“Instead of aiming for a metric, focus on what will get you to the metric. Usually this means completing projects and developing habits that serve you.”
To read more of what Chris has to say about goal setting, check out these two blog posts: (and, of course, his books!)
This brings us to habits. I’ve been following James Clear’s website for years, and I snapped up his book Atomic Habits as soon as it came out. James also has a great weekly newsletter that you can sign up for here: https://jamesclear.com/3-2-1
Habits are a tricky thing for me. I love a routine, but with a busy family and a freelance business, my days are often unpredictable, and I am so frequently interrupted that it’s frankly maddening. This makes building new habits a challenge for me. Committing to sitting down at a certain hour for a set amount of time is difficult bordering on impossible. So I’ve had to learn to be flexible. James’ book has really helped with that.
When you’re building a new habit, James advocates shifting your mindset–making changes at the identity level and shifting how you see yourself–then tying the new habit to something that you already routinely do and building up in small steps. Read more about the compounding power of small here.
“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument; the goal is to become a musician. This year, focus on the identity you want to build.”
The best way to both cheer yourself on and figure out what’s working and what isn’t, is to measure your progress (like all good scientists). I recommend the Loop habit tracker app https://loophabits.org/ It’s a simple, intuitive interface that allows you to track more than a dozen different habits. It displays data in a few different formats, and allows you to export your stats.
(I found it in the Google Play store, I’ll post an update if I find something similar for Apple devices.)
3. Tick, tock!
Whether you’re working towards a goal or building a habit, the key thing for me is finding the time. And this is the beauty of Chris Bailey’s philosophy; the more productive you are with your time, the more time you have to do the things you want to do! So the first thing you need to do is to account for your time.
In my freelancing business, I use Toggl track https://toggl.com/track/ to keep track of billable hours. So when it came to accounting for all my time, I put this clever app to use, tracking everything I did–for an entire week! It was an eye-opener to see the kinds of things I spent time on and how much time was spent on each. Self-care, work, sleep, household activities like preparing meals, cleaning, shopping, family time…seeing a pie chart of all the things you spend your time on can help you spot areas where you’d like to focus more or less of your time.
TIP: From a freelancer’s standpoint, Toggl Track is a powerful business tool, allowing users to generate project-specific reports on a weekly or monthly basis. When it’s in use, it will even prompt you if you’ve been idle (not typing or clicking) for more than a specified amount of time.
When I’m working on personal writing projects, I like to work in sprints or Pomodoros (periods of focused work separated by a series of short and long breaks). To keep track, I could use a kitchen timer, or the clock function on my phone, or even Toggl Track, but who among us couldn’t use a bit more cuteness in their lives? I love the Mouse Timer app from LITALICO (linked here to the Google Play store for Android devices). I love listening to the wee mouse nom-nomming through apples as I rattle away on my keyboard. The ticking (munching) sound is pleasant and not at all obtrusive, and the bell at the end of the set time is not jarring. This timer is also great for setting focus times for my middle-schooler to do some homework!
4. Motivation and burnout
Building habits and creating routines are important from more than just a productivity standpoint. They’re also good for both your physical and mental health–especially during the pandemic.
Over the past year, many of us have found ourselves feeling tired, unmotivated, and burnt out. In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, Dr. Roger McIntyre (Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto and Head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network) talks about chronic, unpredictable stress; brain chemistry; and the importance of a routine to combat burnout. Have a listen here: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-63-the-current/clip/15836533-understanding-pandemic-burnout
Do you have any tips, tricks, or tools that you use to help stay productive, motivated, or build habits? Do you have advice for burnout self-care? I’d love to hear from you! Share your strategies in the comments below!
On #thebookshelf this week is the wonderfully weird and slyly compelling Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson.
Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian is stuck—and seems destined to stay that way. Resigned to her fate, she lacks the energy to fight her way out of the hand she’s been dealt, comprising two dead-end jobs and her sweltering attic room in the house she shares with her coldly indifferent mother. A letter from her high school best friend, containing a job offer and money for a bus ticket to Tennessee, might be just the jolt she needs to change her life. And for once, Lillian decides to jump.
The job? Governess to her friend Madison’s stepchildren. The catch? The ten-year-old twins spontaneously combust when they are agitated. Madison and her husband need to keep the kids out of the limelight, so their “condition” doesn’t disrupt the carefully crafted trajectory of his political career.
What follows is a laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming story about finding your weirdos and making them your family…about discovering what matters most and deciding to fight for it—glorious flaws and all.
Looking for a short read that packs a wallop? From a pair of paranormal mysteries in an unforgettably steampunk vision of Cairo, to a wild and hilarious mingling of revenge, old magic and nano-tech in post-apocalypse Kathmandu, and finally, to a quietly powerful, heart-filling love story among the the ancient trees and still older gods of England’s forests–here are this month’s #thebookshelf recommendations for a round-the-world journey through some short but unforgettable reads.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark
I stumbled across this first recommendation quite by accident, as a free story on the Tor.com website. P. Djèlí Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo gives us a world that is so realistically rendered that you can hear the crackle of electricity from the tram car lines and taste the sugary sweetness of the baqlawa. I’ve been a fan of stories about the magic of the djinn since I discovered the Bartimaeus sequence by Jonathan Stroud many years ago and I’ve read many takes on the lore. Here in Clark’s Cairo, we have a whole new spin on the mythology, in a world that effortlessly blends steampunk technology, alternate dimensions, magic, and murder mystery together with life in a vibrant, post-colonial city. The story follows Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi–the unforgettably dapper special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities–as an unusual murder case turns out to be a much bigger problem than she could have imagined.
Set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 introduces us to Agent Hamed Nasr, who–like Fatma–is an investigator with the Ministry. Here, the apparently simple task of handling a possessed tram car soon becomes far more complicated. Clark creates the most wonderfully real characters, full of quirks that make them step off the page (not literally…yet, anyway) and puts them in challenging situations with wildly entertaining results.
Initially, I was rooting for the delightfully unflappable Fatma to appear in this story, but it wasn’t long before I’d settled in and was content to let Nasr’s story unfold. Mind you (and in the interest of no spoilers) I will just say that I do love it when I get my way! I look forward to reading more adventures from this universe. And when you’ve finished these two, check out P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums.
The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain
Next up, the djinn takes the reins. And not just any djinn…
King Melek Ahmar, Lord of Mars, the Red King, Lord of of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn has awoken from 4,000 years of slumber trapped inside a Himalayan mountain, and all he wants is to go back to what he does best: having a good time. But his plan for a little light conquering is derailed when he discovers that the world is very much not as he left it. When he encounters the crafty, pista-eating, knife-wielding Gurkha Bhan Gurung on the road to Kathmandu (which is now a government-controlled utopia presided over by the all-seeing AI Karma), it isn’t long before the Lord of Tuesday finds himself the bemused accomplice in a plot for revenge, 40 years in the making. With loads of wit and a clever plot, this is a great read!
Silver in the Wood (Book One of the Greenhollow Duology) by Emily Tesh
Finally, from the murder and mayhem of djinn and AI, to the seemingly quiet, but no less powerful forests of England, we have Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood. Tobias, the Wild Man of Greenhollow lives a quiet life and he’s just fine with that, thank you very much. With his cat and the forest’s dryads for company, he listens to the trees and tries not to think about his past. But when the handsome and intensely curious new owner of Greenhollow Hall pushes his way into Tobias’s cottage–and life–in a very Jane Austen-approved manner, the Wild Man of Greenhollow soon finds his quiet life turned upside down by new love, old magic and the darkness of the past. Take a walk among the trees of Greenhollow for a sweet love story, full of mythology, hilarious family drama, and a lush setting that might just be the perfect break on a hot summer afternoon. I can’t wait for book two, Drowned Country, coming out in August, 2020.
Join me here on #thebookshelf every Thursday for book reviews, resources for writers and editors, thoughts on creativity, and tips for the care and feeding of the writers in your life…especially if that writer is you!
And if you’re a #WordNerd like me, check out these two fascinating TED talks about our ever-changing language!