There are days when it’s hard to find the wonder in this life–even when we remember to try and look for it.
Stress is everywhere. From unrelenting internal battles to worries about work, family, COVID, wildfires, floods, the rising price of food, the economy, politics, the climate emergency, the horrors of war, the fear of nuclear disaster…
So we doom-scroll through our social media feeds, waiting for the next adrenaline-cranking alert in an endless series of impending apocalypses.
This week on #TheBookshelf, I’d like to introduce you to a small-but-mighty book that packs a great deal of wonder–and calm–between its covers. It is a balm for the frazzled soul, like dipping your feet in a quiet stream on a warm summer’s afternoon.
Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh is remarkable for its simplicity and its power. It has been described by the Dalai Lama as a book that can “…change individual lives and the life of our society.” That is not an understatement.
This collection of stories, thoughts, and meditations, each only about 1-2 pages in length, is set out in three sections. The first addresses issues of the self, the second looks at external challenges, and the third explores the impact that one person’s peace can have on the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh was born on October 11, 1926, in the ancient imperial capital of Huế in central Vietnam. From early childhood, he knew that he wanted to be a Zen Buddhist monk. When he was sixteen, he set off on this path in earnest. He would go on to become a monk, a poet, an artist, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee (nominated by his friend Martin Luther King Jr., who called him “An Apostle of peace and nonviolence”), and a global spiritual leader.
From the first steps along his journey, Thich Nhat Hanh knew that he wanted to change Zen Buddhism–to pioneer a new, more mindful practice, rooted in the idea that we can practice mindfulness at any point in our everyday lives, even in the smallest, simple actions, like washing the dishes or observing a flower. He coined the term engaged Buddhism, to represent this more practical form of Buddhism. He would go on to become known as the Father of Mindfulness.
In the 1960s, as conflict rumbled through his homeland, he travelled to the US and Europe to call for an end to the hostilities in Vietnam. His actions resulted in both North and South Vietnam exiling from his home. He would go on to say that being unable to go home left him “like a bee without a beehive.”
He would remain in exile for 39 years.
Thich Nhat Hanh had created many monastic retreats in Vietnam. Shortly after his exile, he created the Plum Village spiritual centre in the south of France. Today, Plum Village is the largest Buddhist monastery in Europe and a place where people can go to learn to live in harmony with each other and with the earth.
Our own life has to be our message
Thich Nhat Hanh
For an enlightening peek into life at Plum Village, I highly recommend the 2017 documentary Walk with Me, written and directed by Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh, and narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch.
In 2005, the Vietnamese government invited Thich Nhat Hanh to return home, finally ending his decades-long exile.
Thich Nhat Hanh passed away in January 2022, at the age of 95. He died peacefully at his “root temple,” Từ Hiếu Temple in Huế, Vietnam, where he had been ordained as a young man.
“Stressed” image credit: mohamed_Hassan on Pixabay.
“I’m afraid I don’t have magic.” “You do, Mr. Baker. Arthur told me that there can be magic in the ordinary.”
TJ Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea
Ordinary magic is everywhere.
And nowhere more so than in TJ Klune’s heart-squeezing novel, The House in the Cerulean Sea.
This book is about many things. It’s about the persecution of those who are deemed “different”; it’s about finding your line in the sand and having the courage to not cross it. It’s about righting wrongs, fighting for love, and choosing your family.
Most of all, it is about kindness.
But let’s back up for a second and get a few story details from the publisher’s blurb.
A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.
Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.
When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.
But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.
An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
Klune captures the indifferent horror of an Orwellian society with a weight that is as gloomy as the city’s perpetual rain–drops that you can almost feel, sliding down Linus’ collar. He shows us the grim impact of cruelty visited on children and families simply because they are different.
Remove the supernatural abilities and you have a world not that much different from our own, one where where families, societies, and entire cultures have been–and still are being–decimated by the fearful and ignorant.
But in The House in the Cerulean Sea, Klune also reminds us that there is a mighty hope in even the smallest acts of kindness–and that learning about each other and accepting each other for who we are is perhaps the greatest work we can do.
“We are better than what we currently seem to be. I know we are. And I don’t believe it’s too late for us to course correct. It’s going to take time, and a hell of a lot of hard work, but we’re capable of it. The House in the Cerulean Sea is my great wish into the universe, a fable about the goodness in us all, if only we can believe in it. Hope is a weapon, kindness our battle cry. As long as we stand together, I know we’ll shape this place we call home into something we can all be proud of.“*
Kindness. Hope. Love. These can free us all.
These are the gifts of The House in the Cerulean Sea.
Mystery novel writers have always struck me as being rather like sleight-of-hand magicians. They keep your attention, with atmospheric settings and not-what-they-seem characters in one hand, while pulling off the magic trick–a twist you never saw coming–with the other.
This is particularly true of Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, except–taking the analogy a little further–when this particular magician puts his top hat on the table, it’s not a rabbit that emerges, but a llama.
With a shout, a man finds himself standing in a forest, rain dripping down his face. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there. In fact, the only thing he remembers is the name still on his lips: Anna.
But who is Anna? And more to the point, who is he?
So begins our protagonist’s odyssey through Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
It soon becomes clear that the man is one of several guests at a weekend gathering hosted by the Hardcastle family at their isolated, and somewhat faded, country estate.
That night, Miss Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered.
What feels like an Agatha Christie-esque locked-room whodunnit, soon reveals itself to be something far more elaborate as readers are treated to a magic show of a mystery.
You see, the man is not actually a guest. His name is Aiden Bishop, and he is trapped in a Groundhog Day-esque loop, each new dawn bringing him back to relive the same day–in a different guest’s body.
To escape, he must solve Evelyn’s murder.
But the more he uncovers about his fellow guests and the murder itself, the more questions Bishop has. Who is Anna? Who is the mysterious figure lurking around the edges of the story? And ultimately, who is Aiden Bishop?
Who is it for? Described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day, this book and it’s brilliant twists and turns is for locked-room mystery lovers who enjoy genre-defying subplots.
As the reader becomes increasingly drawn into the mystery of who killed Evelyn Hardcastle, and why, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture: what is our protagonist’s connection to the events unfolding at the manor?
Herein lies the magic of Turton’s storytelling. You’re so busy looking at the mystery itself, that you don’t give much thought to the question that’s been niggling at the back of your mind as you’ve watched the story unfold.
Then, you reach the end, and–with a final flourish–all is revealed. The magician pulls the llama from the hat and you’re left marvelling at the trick.
Atmospheric, original, and masterfully plotted with a brilliant twisty ending, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a magician’s slight-of-hand dream of a book.
It’s not often that a plotline surprises me as much as this one did. The story moves fast but the details never feel rushed. There are clever reveals scattered throughout the main story and a gloriously sinister subplot.
For even more magic, try the audiobook–read with just the perfect amount of gravitas–by James Cameron Stewart.
To learn more about the cover design, click here to read an interview with Bloomsbury Publishing Art Director, David Mann.
Featured image photo credit: Charl Durand from Pexels
This week on #TheBookshelf, I *had* planned to share my review of Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.
This is not that review.
(Next week, I promise. In the meantime, maybe pick up a copy of the book–or the most excellent audiobook. They’re both awesome, you won’t regret it.)
Instead, I wanted to share something else with you.
It’s been a week, hasn’t it? [Said everyone, every week, since March, 2020–or possibly before.] There’s a lot of hardship out there in the world. From the climate emergency to social injustice to the struggle to make ends meet, it’s a lot.
A LOT lot.
And I’ve got to say, humans, I’ve seen some not-so-nice behaviour from some of you.
There is a quote, often attributed to Robin Williams, that goes something like this: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
And that includes being kinder to yourself, my friend.
Sometimes, when you’re struggling–with your job, your spouse, your kids, your dreams, your life…even your own reflection–the tiniest scrap of light can make a huge difference. Sometimes that beam of light turns out to be the lighthouse that keeps you off the rocks. And sometimes, it takes someone who can say “I’ve been there, I am there, I see you,” to be that light.
This week, I’ve got two books to share with you whose authors know what it’s like to be on those reefs, and in these two small-but-mighty-volumes they share their thoughts on hope, life, and holding on to grace, even when you don’t feel like you can.
First up is Matt Haig’s brand new release, The Comfort Book.
This book lives up to its name. It is written as a brilliant collection of thoughts, quotes, and lists. Rather like a scrapbook of hope.
Matt Haig is the author of numerous books for adults and children including his memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive; A Boy Called Christmas, which is about to be made into a movie; and his recent bestseller, The Midnight Library.
The Comfort Book is a bit different. It’s like a commonplace book–bursting with little bits of all sorts of marvelous things. You could read it from cover to cover or pick an entry at random and go from there.
No matter how you decide to go about reading this delightfully bright, tidy little book, the light pouring out of it is still just as brilliant. Basically, it’s a book full of hugs…book-shaped hugs!
Nothing is stronger than a small hope that doesn’t give up.
Matt Haig, The Comfort Book.
The second of our two books this week, is Keep Moving, Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by the poet Maggie Smith.
What began on social media as a collection of daily affirmations, encouragements, and self-directives–each one ending with the two words Keep moving–became this powerful story of overcoming struggle. Combining those social media posts with short segments of memoir, Maggie Smith has created a book that feels a bit like sitting down with a friend who has seriously seen some s&*t and having them say to you, “Look, whatever you’re dealing with, you can get through it and I’m going to be there to help you get through it.” And then they put the kettle on.
(Because isn’t that what we Brits do when s&*t gets real.)
Keep Moving is structured into three sections: “Revision”, “Resilience,” and “Transformation” and while you could dive in anywhere, it is a journey and best read from beginning to end. And it is a journey well worth taking.
Thank you for joining me on #TheBookshelf this week. Until next time, when I promise we’ll explore the deliciously written, mind-bending mysteries of Stuart Turton, I wish you book-shaped hugs and light when you need it most. Be kind.
This week on #TheBookshelf, I’ve got some great reads for you by Indigenous poets and authors from all over Turtle Island.
There’s a lot I could say about the responsibilities of being part of a settler society, but if you’re here and reading this, then I’m guessing you already know much of what I might say, and you’ve already embarked on a learning journey of your own.
And if you haven’t, then maybe you can start your journey here.
We are never closer as people than when we walk a mile in another’s shoes. Reading fiction and non-fiction from cultures and experiences that are not our own allows us to do just that.
Stories have infinite power to connect us as human beings. Amplifying Indigenous voices–and promoting diversity in the arts as a whole–is important and necessary to us all.
Here are a few of the writers whose work–whose heart-breaking, heart-healing, exciting, hilarious, suspenseful poems and stories–I’ve either already read (and loved) or look forward to reading this summer!
Marilyn Dumont is an award winning poet and educator of Cree/Métis descent. One of my all-time favourite poems is her piece, “The Dimness of Mothers and Daughters” from her collection, Green Girl Dreams Mountains.
There is powerful magic in poetry and it always seems to find me just when I need it the most. I came across this piece shortly after my mother died, when her story–and mine–were all I could think about. These words wrote themselves into my bones. Here’s an excerpt of the poem, displayed at the revitalized Marina complex in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
You can read more about Ms. Dumont and her poetry collections here.
Joy Harjo is a poet of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in the United States. She is currently serving her second term as the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate. I love her collection, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and in particular, her poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here.” For me and my family, the kitchen table has always been the most important place in our home, the place where we gather together at least once a day to share meals, to tackle homework, work on craft projects, to talk and share, to learn and celebrate and grieve. This poem captures the essence of family and of life itself–all in a single piece of furniture. Here’s an excerpt:
"The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it. It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women." -Excerpt from "Perhaps the World Ends Here" by Joy Harjo
Visit the Poetry Foundation here for the full poem.
David A. Robertson is a prolific writer of picture books, graphic novels, YA novels, memoir, and more. He is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg.
Strangers, released in 2017, and the first book in his Reckoners YA series, is near the top of my TBR list and based on the blurbs, is packed with intrigue, humour, and magic–I can’t wait to dive in!
His latest work (released in September 2020) is the graphic novel The Barren Grounds (The Misewa Saga, Book One) and has been called “Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations.”
Yes, that sound you hear is my TBR list growing again!
Learn more about Robertson, his writing and his other books in this excellent Quill & Quire interview–or at his website.
Drew Hayden Taylor, originally from Curve Lake First Nation, Ontario, is a jack-of-many creative trades–from playwright, to author of both fiction and non-fiction, to filmaker, and (not surprisingly) stand-up comedian. His book Motorcycles and Sweetgrass is one of my favourite reads, and is bursting with trickster magic, clever twists on Indigenous folklore, family drama, and loads of magic, charm, and love.
Come for the mystery, stay for the…raccoons. Yes, you heard me. As a Torontonian, I’ve long had my suspicions about those crafty critters…
Rebecca Roanhorse is a speculative fiction writer from the US, whose latest novel, Black Sun, has been nominated for the 2021 Hugo Award for best novel. (She has won the Hugo Award in the past, not to mention the Nebula, and the Locus, as well as the 2018 Astounding (Campbell) Award for Best New Writer.)
While Black Sun will be on my TBR list soon, it’s the author’s debut novel that I’m cueing up first.
Trail of Lightning came out in 2018. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
“While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters—and it is up to one young woman to unravel the mysteries of the past before they destroy the future.”
I mean, really. How have I not read this book already?! Oh, right. I’ve yet to find a job that pays me to read whatever I want all day. Ahhh…someday <cough> Tor.com <cough>. #dream #IDigress
Learn more about Ms. Roanhorse (she’s also written a middle grade novel for the Rick Riordan Presents series and a StarWars novel. I mean how freaking cool is that?!) at her website.
Last, but certainly not least, if you don’t live in Canada, you might not be aware of the national “Battle of the Books”–the literary Survivor–known as Canada Reads.
The 2021 Canada Reads winner was none other than Jonny Appleseed, a novel by the poet, Joshua Whitehead, a two-Spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1).
Jonny Appleseed has been nominated for–or won–numerous awards and is described as “A tour-de-force debut novel about a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man and proud NDN glitter princess who must reckon with his past when he returns home to his reserve.”
Then I read the publisher’s blurb and was immediately hooked:
“You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine” is a mantra that Jonny Appleseed, a young Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer, repeats to himself in this vivid and utterly compelling debut novel by poet Joshua Whitehead. Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. Self-ordained as an NDN glitter princess, Jonny has one week before he must return to the “rez”–and his former life–to attend the funeral of his stepfather. The seven days that follow are like a fevered dream: stories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition, and the heartbreaking recollection of his beloved kokum (grandmother). Jonny’s life is a series of breakages, appendages, and linkages–and as he goes through the motions of preparing to return home, he learns how to put together the pieces of his life.
Sounds amazing, right? Seriously, my TBR list rocks so hard.
Wait, what was that? You’re looking for more?
Awesomesauce! Check out this fantastic round-up from CBC Books: 35 books to read for National Indigenous History Month. Covering adult fiction, non-fiction, YA, graphic novels, and poetry, this article includes links to some great interviews and loads of resources for further reading.
(And if you lovely folks at Tor.com are looking for a nerdy reader/writer/editor/gamer/knitter/plant girl…well, you know where to find me.)
Sometimes it feels like we’re drowning in information.
And that information–every text, Tweet, meme, slogan, or headline–takes the form of short writing.
It would be easy to assume that short writing is a product of the digital age, but in actual fact it has been used–often with significant impact–for far longer. From the graffiti-inscribed walls of Pompeii, to the final desperate telegrams dispatched from the Titanic, short writing has always played a vital role in human communication.
Today, in a world built on speed and information, it is more important than ever to be able to write short and do it well.
This week on #TheBookshelf, we’re looking at How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark.
Clark is an author and editor who has taught writing at the prestigious Poynter Institute for Media Studies for more than 30 years. He has authored or edited nineteen books about writing, including his excellent craft book, Writing Tools.
Put it this way, what Roy Peter Clark doesn’t know about journalism and writing probably isn’t worth knowing.
As a freelance writer and editor, I do a lot of short writing–social media posts, book blurbs, titles, bios, etc.–both for clients and to promote WoodvineWrites–and I love to play with short writing, especially the challenge of a haiku or a 280 character Tweet, so I was eager to dive in and see what this book has to offer!
How to Write Short is, in itself, an homage to the art of writing short. Comprised of 35 bite-sized chapters, the book is divided into two sections: how to write short, and why we write short–including the practical uses of short writing.
The chapters are well laid out–with the student in mind. Each one begins with an anecdote that puts the chapter’s topic into context. Then comes the lesson. Here, Clark expands on the themes from the chapter intro with clever and accessible examples ranging from the Bible to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In between you’ll find well-chosen examples of short writing by Oscar Wilde, Tom Petty, Dorothy Parker, The Sopranos, Abe Lincoln…and many more. Each chapter wraps up with a section called “Grace Notes”–short exercises designed to reinforce the chapter’s lesson and ultimately build a better writer.
Clark covers a lot of ground, from the often hilarious worlds of texts and online dating apps, to tombstones, tattoos, idioms, sales pitches and just about every other kind of short writing you can think of. He gives practical guidance for trimming your writing, including the vital lesson that “brevity comes from selection and not compression.”
Brevity comes from selection and not compression.
Roy Peter Clark, How to Write Short
In much the same way that Clark encourages writers to find the rhythm–the music–in their work, many of the lessons in How to Write Short are summarized in rhythmic, easy-to-learn 3’s or 5’s, like “perfect, polish, revise”, “focus, wit, polish”, and Joseph M. Williams’ “Five Principles of Concision.”
Even the book’s typography and layout lend themselves to ease of learning through the judicious use of bullet points, bold type and/or italics for key ideas, words, or concepts.
We all write. We use words to sell, to converse, to amuse, to explain. With the lessons in How to Write Short, you can make every word count.
Join me next week on #TheBookshelf for some self care for editors, writers, and anyone else tethered to a desk!
Today on #TheBookshelf we take a look at Nathan Bransford’s How To Write a Novel: 49 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever.
Every writer I know has a collection of books about writing. Speaking for my own collection, think Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit and you’re not far off.
Some of these books are massive and cover the broader scope of story itself, like Alice LaPlante’s The Making of Story, while others are small enough to fit in your back pocket and distill their advice into it’s essentials, like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Some are semi-autobiographical, like Stephen King’s On Writing, and others contain workshop-style exercises, like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.
And while some have a serious, academic tone, others are more akin to having a conversation with a writer friend.
Nathan Bransford’s How To Write a Novel definitely feels like the latter.
This guide to novel writing is a series of 49 rules, grouped into four sections: First Things First, Pen to Paper, Troubleshooting and Staying Sane, and Revising.
Writing a novel is a massive undertaking with a lot of moving parts. This book takes you through the process from concept to revision, covering bigger picture issues like the writing life and chasing trends (don’t), and the nitty-gritty things like formatting and (for the love of all things holy) backing up your work. There are rules for style, genre, ideas, plot and theme, setting, chapter beginnings and endings, and my favourite: tentpoles–the events that prop up your story like a circus tent. There are rules for things you could do, rules for things you should do, and rules for things that you absolutely must not do.
But it’s important to stop yourself from chasing after an idea by shaking your biography like a piggy bank to see what shiny things fall out.
Nathan Bransford, “How To Write a Novel.”
I really enjoyed this book. I re-read it and refer to it often, and I recommend it to writers at any stage of their writing journey.
First, the rules are short. I’m a freelance writer and editor working from home with two teenagers in remote school, a husband who is also working from home…and a cat. I am interrupted so much it’s should be comical–except it’s really not. In How To Write a Novel, each rule is 4-7 pages long and gets to the point without messing around. Easy to read a rule between interruptions!
Second, the advice. Within its pages, you will find valuable tools, tips and tricks that you can immediately put to use, no matter where you are with your current WIP (work in progress). Nathan’s rules are clear, helpful, and he uses relatable and familiar examples taken from his own work, popular fiction, and the classics. (It’s worth noting that while the foundational terms and theories he mentions are briefly-but well-explained, if someone is putting pen to paper for the very first time, they may want to check out a more detailed guide to the mechanics of story and then come back to this book.)
Finally–and most of all–I loved this book for the heart within its style. Nathan doesn’t pull any punches–writing a novel is hard– but time after time, I found myself laughing out loud at his take on the process. For me, his wit and tongue-in-cheek style are what make the rules easier to follow and remember. For some readers this casual, off-the-cuff approach might be off-putting, but I found it made the book more accessible.
When it comes to books on the writer’s craft, there is no one size fits all. The trick is to read widely and collect the advice that works for you from wherever you can. If you’re looking for guidance that is staid and/or academic, this book is not for you. But if it’s real talk and solid writing tools that you need, How To Write a Novel might be exactly the right book to add to your hoard collection!
For more information: Nathan Bransford is an author and former literary agent whose website and newsletters are packed with helpful information for writers. Find him at https://nathanbransford.com/
Maybe, like me, you sometimes need an escape from all this <gestures vaguely>.
Okay, fine. Lately it’s been more often than sometimes.
When I need to be elsewhere, I look for a story to get lost in. Story is about as fundamental to human existence as breathing. I’d even go so far as to say that our need to tell and be told a story defines us as human beings. We humans share stories through oral traditions, visual art, music, dance, theatre, books, film, television…that IKEA commercial…the one with the little lamp…yes that one. And its sequel. <sniffle>
Writers are students of story. When we find a story (or when a story finds us), it isn’t long before we’re tinkering. We examine it, carefully take it apart, try to figure out what makes it tick. Why do some things work in certain places but not in others. What is it about a particular story that makes it resonate more than another? Makes us feel more? Is it the clever twist? Or does the story unfold in an unusual way like a puzzle box? Of course we must have compelling characters, too. Someone to root for, someone to jeer for…. But in the end, it all comes down to how all these elements work together. Like your favourite cake recipe: you can tweak the formula, but in the end, you’ve got to have the right combination of flavours and binders—the right chemistry—for the story to work.
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
This week on #TheBookshelf we explore three TV shows whose creators have done fascinating and unusual things with story, from reinventing and combining classic monster storylines, to playing with timelines in epic fantasy, and—in a science fiction story for the ages—exploring the vagaries of time itself.
Join me for a little escape…
First up is the delightfully gory, and very explicit, Victorian Gothic horror series Penny Dreadful (27 episodes, originally aired between 2014-2016 on Showtime). I’ve been a fan of horror for a long time, and I’ve read and seen a lot of great stuff, and a lot of shall we say “interesting” stuff (looking at you Afflicted). The creators of Penny Dreadful do what some of the monster movies from the 1940s used to do–toss iconic Victorian Gothic monsters and adventure novel characters together into the same storyline–and they do it exceptionally well. The show takes its name from the sensational Victorian novels containing stories of adventure and the supernatural and which cost…you guessed it…one penny (learn more about penny dreadfuls here!)
I’m tempted here to go into glorious detail about the show, but I know that in doing so I’d be dropping spoilery goodies all over the place, and I’m not about to ruin it for you. So let’s go with the IMDb description of the show: “Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, scientist Victor Frankenstein and medium Vanessa Ives unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London.”
Oh my. Do they ever.
Expect all your favourite monsters and monster hunters–and enough brilliant twists to keep the occasional whiff of campiness at bay. This show was at turns heart-stopping and heart-breaking. The main story follows Sir Malcolm (reportedly inspired by Allan Quartermain, the main character in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines) and Miss Ives as they try to discover the whereabouts of the missing Mina Murray, daughter and best friend, respectively. But woven into this main story are several other excellent storylines involving Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, several Egyptian gods, some witches, and–I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything, because you’re sure to have guessed it–Dracula himself (with an interesting twist on his backstory and some clever fiddling with the mythology, no less).
The series unfolds over three seasons with strong writing, good pacing, and lots of surprises. The cast is stellar–Eva Green does a lot–and I mean a LOT–of heavy lifting in the acting department. Her character is occasionally stiff, like she’s desperately trying not to move too much in case everything she’s holding in spills out. It would be easy to see it as a flaw in the acting, but I suspect it was a deliberate move on the part of the director and actor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Billie Piper and Rory Kinnear for their exceptional performances as wonderfully human characters (no spoilers, Sweetie). (Also, watch for the fabulous Patti LuPone in not one, but two roles!)
I was emotionally wrung out by the end of most episodes–and if that’s not a sign of a good story, I don’t know what is.
As for the finale? Oof. So good.
Why I liked it: Penny Dreadful takes familiar literary monsters and puts them into new situations, with new or expanded lore, giving us broader insights into who they are and why they do what they do. It makes us question what makes a monster and puts new twists on several classic stories with depth, humanity, and ultimately, love.
When it comes to stories of fantasy and the supernatural–while I enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–I tend to lean more toward urban fantasy and sci-fi. But I’m also a bit of a gamer, so when Netflix announced that they were making a series based on The Witcher character, I was curious. The Witcher was created by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski’s Witcher novels and short stories are incredibly popular in Poland, and the eponymous video games catapulted the series into the international spotlight. In the run-up to this Netflix version, I was particularly intrigued by Henry Cavill’s passion and preparation for the role. So I gave it a try. (The first season of The Witcher consists of eight episodes and first aired on Netflix in 2019. Season 2 is on its way.)
Set against a backdrop of elves, mages, and political intrigue, this is a story about destiny and monsters and how neither are ever what they seem. Geralt is a mutant who hunts monsters for money, all the while being labelled a monster himself. More human than the humans who shun him, he really just wants to be left alone. But destiny has other plans…
The show is epic in every sense of the word. The story itself, the strong writing and dedication to the source material, the costumes (I could write an entire blog about the costumes alone), the effects, the incredible cast of strong female characters who fight their way through this world, Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Geralt of Rivia, Jaskier’s cheeky marketing ballad that I cannot get out of my head…I could go on.
But what really sold me was how the Witcher writers handled the timelines. There’s a lot of backstory and worldbuilding that needs to happen here to get a new audience up to speed. Instead of using flashbacks or taking a linear route through hundreds of years of story, three key storylines from three different timelines are cleverly braided together in a way I’ve never seen before. The action moves back and forth through time to develop character and plot, building tension not only in the story itself, but also in the anticipation of the eventual merging of the timelines. One of the ways that they make it work is by showing a scene from one character’s point of view, and then, in a later episode, going back and showing the same scene from a different character’s point of view. You have to just go with it for the first couple of episodes, but eventually, it all makes sense.
Geralt is a man of few words, instead conveying much with his facial expressions, actions, and an oft-used sardonic “hmm…” Shout-out to Henry Cavill, who plays Geralt to perfection, deftly conveying all the tightly-wound pain and the fatalistic humour you’d expect from this character. And while Geralt’s story is the main focus of the show, it is Anya Chalotra’s Yennifer of Vengerberg who just blew me away. Yennifer’s story arc is harrowing, beautiful, and sometimes achingly sad, and Anya’s masterful portrayal of the character is jaw-dropping.
Bonus: If you get chance and can find the accompanying “making of” documentary, it is totally worth it. Go behind the scenes to learn about the mythology, the inspiration, the incredible wardrobe department for the production…and more.
Why I liked it: Clever use of timelines to tell a long and complicated backstory, strong writing and acting, gorgeous to watch.
Where to begin. Or should I say when to begin.
Eldest Son bugged me for months to watch Dark.
(Note to self: when ES recommends that you watch something, do it, but don’t expect him to help you out with any spoilers…#LawfulGood)
What starts out as a crime drama set in the fictional German town of Winden, very quickly reveals itself to be something else entirely. There’s something wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey about Winden. Especially in that cave.
Stay away from the cave, kids!
(Dark originally aired on Netflix from 2017-2020, there are 27 episodes over 3 seasons and it is in German with English subtitles.)
Where The Witcher braids together three timelines in a fairly linear fashion, Dark bounces through time with gleeful abandon, introducing us to characters at various points in their lives, spanning multiple time periods, and then following them as they move back and forth through time. Shout-out to the casting team who did an incredible job of finding actors to play the same character at multiple points in their lives in such a way that the viewer could recognize the character in every iteration.
According to ES, the creators of Dark, Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, originally had two series in mind: one, a crime/mystery/thriller, and the other, a time-travel story. They decided to combine the two and the result was, IMHO, one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve ever experienced. Here, we have a story that includes family drama, crime thriller, and sci-fi. It immerses you in questions about the nature of time, and what you would (or wouldn’t) do for the people you love.
What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.
Dark is clever. Sometimes, just when it seemed to be getting too clever for its own good and my brain was starting to hurt, something would happen to make me go “Ohhhh, I see what you did there…” At one point in season three, I turned to ES and said “I’d pay money to see how the writers plotted this.” Writing time travel is never not tricky, but in this case? To keep the interconnecting storylines straight, and to do so without a single plot hole? Remarkable. Utterly.
ES and I have found ourselves in so many fascinating conversations about time, nuclear and quantum physics, philosophy, and storytelling, all thanks to Dark. And I promise you, as ES promised me, when you reach the 27th episode, you will look at the Winden family tree that you drew around episode 2, and once again, you’ll go “Ohhhh…I see what you did there” and trust me, it will be glorious.
I cannot wait for Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar’s next outing for Netflix, the multi-lingual period drama/thriller 1899.
Why I liked it: You know how at the beginning of this blog I mentioned that writers like to take stories apart and study them? Dark is a masterclass in storytelling. The story reveals only what the viewer needs to move forward. It never insults your intelligence. In fact, it trusts that you will keep up–and in the end, it rewards your effort.
Have you watched any of the shows in this week’s post? What did you think of them? Did the stories resonate with you or did they leave you lost in time? Let me know in the comments!
Coming up next week: Join me as I take a leap into the non-fiction end of the pool with a review of Nathan Bransford’s How to Write a Novel.
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!