Artistic Theft (More or Less)

One of the books I read in 2020, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, is on the list of books some of my blog readers have requested a review of, so here goes!

This little coffee table book — or perhaps “end table book” is a better term, because it is short enough to read and digest in one sitting — makes a lovely gift for someone who is beginning on their creative life journey, or for someone who has been trending on the artistic side for some time but maybe has fallen into a slump, or otherwise just needs a little push to take things to their next level. In fact, this is how Kleon’s book came to me: as a gift from a very thoughtful friend.

One of the things I enjoyed about Steal Like An Artist was its unintimidating format. Rather than being a textbook or even a workbook with exercises, it presents its simple but effective wisdom in a highly digestible and visually stimulating list of truths to consider.

Here is part of the book’s description:

“Nothing is original, so embrace influence, school yourself through the work of others, remix and reimagine to discover your own path. Follow interests wherever they take you—what feels like a hobby may turn into your life’s work. Forget the old cliché about writing what you know: Instead, write the book you want to read, make the movie you want to watch.
 
And finally, stay smart, stay out of debt, and risk being boring in the everyday world so that you have the space to be wild and daring in your imagination and your work.”

This blurb captures some of the essence of the book fairly well. For me, even though I can’t say I was particularly surprised by any of Kleon’s advice, there were definitely some things in there that I needed reminding of. One thing that I particularly have trouble with sometimes is preventing the world from being too much with me, to the point that it stifles my ability to do mentally challenging creative work — such as, for example, writing a novel — no matter how much I enjoy doing that artistic activity. This book reminded me that sometimes the world being too much with me can be turned to my artistic advantage.

Would I recommend this book? Sure, I would. Not perhaps for the successful working artist on a productive streak, but most definitely for the person who is thinking about jumping into the bracing waters of making art, or for the artist who needs to get their mojo back and could use a little reminder that yes, they really can do this thing.

February Book Chat with Kara

January was a wee bit hectic, so Kara and I pushed off our book chat until this week, and since it’s valentines season, we’re tackling books with romantic plotlines (category romance or no).

You’ll hear in this video that I make reference to my Reading Year in Review lists. (If you want to see those, here they are for 2019 and 2020.) I always invite my readers to request reviews of any titles on those lists — it’s never to late to ask, if you want to know about them — and this year a few people wanted to know more about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, so I’ve done that review in this month’s book chat video. (More reviews are coming, so if you requested one, please don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, even if it’s been a minute.)

This picture doesn’t include Kara’s chosen titles, because it’s a pandemic and we can’t actually get together. You’ll just have to watch the video to see what books she talks about!

 

Enjoy!

2020 Romance Titles Ranked By Heat Level

Last year after I posted my 2019 Reading Year in Review, I got requests to rank the romances I’d read over that year by heat level, which I happily did, and that request has been made again this year regarding my 2020 Reading Year in Review by a few people. I’m very pleased to oblige. (And if this becomes another annual tradition, I’m good with that.)

Here is a quick guide to what heat levels are in category romance: it essentially refers to the sensuality level or raciness of the story. While there are several different explanations for how to rate such things, I’m going to use this one here, which is really interesting and worth reading. (It will also explain with further context the rankings which follow.)

Here are the five levels of heat, in order, with very brief descriptions:

*  MILD — Sweet like a Hallmark Christmas movie, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to my adolescent children or even mature middle schoolers who were genuinely interested in the genre. In many examples of this heat level, the most titillating thing that happens might be kissing and the occasional cute innuendo.

*  MEDIUM — Generally equivalent to a PG-13 movie in that intimate situations or scenes are there, but they aren’t graphically described and won’t likely make people (who like the concept of kissing books) uncomfortable; I wouldn’t feel awkward recommending books like these to high school students who liked YA romance.

*  HOT — Sometimes called steamy, sexy, or spicy, this level includes most category romance books and offers a wide range of description of intimate activity and the language used to describe it; the titles I’ve included here also represent a wide range within this heat level.

*  NUCLEAR — Expect graphic descriptions and possible forays beyond vanilla.

*  EROTIC (ROMANCE) — This heat level pushes boundaries, most definitely; the characters’ emotional journeys are lived through explicit sexual activity, but (unlike in erotica) the emotional journey and the external story still retain primacy — as does the all-important happy story ending.

My reading diet is fairly inclusive, and I’m trying to make it broader every year. Representation matters, and so does buying and reading books which have it. Really diving into my lists over the years will net you quite a range.

I’m going to rank titles I read over the last year which are category romance, meaning they are in the romance genre and would not likely be shelved in a bookstore as something else (such as fantasy or science fiction or realistic fiction), even though some of the books I read in those other genres do have strong romantic subplots. (As always, if you want a review of any of the titles I’ve read over the last year, just leave me a note in the comments.)

And so here are the category romance titles I read last year, ranked by me:

MILD:
Charles Bewitched (Doyle)

MEDIUM:
Courtship and Curses (Doyle)
Sweetest in the Gale (Dade)* — This title goes into two sections because it is a short story collection, and different stories within it have different heat levels.

HOT:
Slippery Creatures (Charles)
Teach Me (Dade)
Office Hours (Jackson)
40-Love (Dade)
Salt Magic, Skin Magic (Welch)
Royally Bad (Flite)
Red, White & Royal Blue (McQuiston)
The Rogue King (Owens)
On the Edge (Sahin)
The Duke and I (Quinn)
Sweetest in the Gale (Dade)* — This title goes into two sections because it is a short story collection, and different stories have different heat levels.
The Blood King (Owens)* — This novel almost qualified for the medium level because it contains actually very few scenes of intimacy, but at least one of them is fully written, and not particularly euphemistic, right there on the page.

NUCLEAR:
Blaze (Tomlinson)

EROTIC:
All Together (Harper)

I’ve begun a list of titles people have requested reviews for, which I’ll be posting here on the blog in the weeks to come. Pile on in the comments if you want to know more about any of these books or any of the others from my general 2020 list. Happy reading!

2020 Reading Year in Review

A few years ago I began keeping a list of all the books I read in a given year. My hope was that I would do more reading for pleasure.

Reading. You know, that thing I’ve been doing since I was four, that activity which makes me happier than most other things, that reason (probably) I became a writer in the first place? Good grief, I love books so much.

But I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing a lot of reading for pleasure. I was reading a lot of students’ papers to grade them. (Spoiler alert: that is often not the same thing, even when I do enjoy reading some of those papers.) I was reading a lot of emails. (There was little to no pleasure in that.) I was reading for utility and purpose and requirement and work, but I was not taking time to read for fun. That had a very adverse effect on my entire life.

Being a list maker by nature, I thought if I kept a list of books I read, at the end of the year I would see that I’d done more reading than I thought I had, and it would boost my mood. Deciding to do this is one of the better choices I’ve made.

That first year I logged probably a dozen books, and my reading diet was very focused on fantasy, which is one of the main genres I write in. In the years since, as I continue keeping my list, the number of books I read in a year has steadily increased, and so has my reading diet. I try to read much more widely now, which has been very good for me, too.

2020 was, as you know, a challenging year. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, we opened the door to let the old year out and the new year in. (This is an old tradition.) We actually opened multiple doors. We thought about opening the windows and taking off the roof too, but it was pretty freaking cold outside. Still, I commanded the old year to “get the hell out,” and Fabulous Offspring #1 actually grabbed a broom and swept our entry hall onto the front porch to really make sure 2020 took a hike. (We are nothing if not committed to our metaphors.)

During the pandemic, particularly in the spring and early summer, I saw a lot of people online lamenting about not being able to sustain enough focus even to read. I felt that. It hit me, too. But then — even though doing actual creative work, such as writing, and actual teaching work, such as grading papers, felt nigh impossible for a while — I did manage to get back into reading. For fun. For stress relief. For calming my mind before bed. This even helped me start writing again.

And wow, did I read a lot.

This is not nearly all the books I read this year. Some were on my Kindle. Some are up in Fabulous Offspring #1’s room, and I don’t have time to find them. Some are at school in my classroom, some went through my Little Free Library, and some have been lent out to other friends.

This year I enjoyed my way through a whopping 41 books, possibly the most I’ve ever accomplished in my adult life, and definitely the most in a single year since I began teaching. So without further ado, here is my list — with some caveats:
* This year, I am including titles that I re-read. I didn’t use to but think it has value now. However, if I read a book on here more than once this year (and that did happen in at least a couple of cases), I am listing it just the once.
* I am not listing any books I began but did not finish.
* This list also does not include manuscripts I’ve read but which are not yet published. There were several of those (because critique groups, yo).

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Circe by Madeline Miller
Limit Theory by Ronald E. Holtman
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Courtship and Curses by Marissa Doyle
Slippery Creatures by KJ Charles
Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Anderson
Teach Me by Olivia Dade
Charles Bewitched by Marissa Doyle
Office Hours by Katrina Jackson
Blaze by Christa Tomlinson
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
40-Love by Olivia Dade
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch
Royally Bad by Nora Flite
Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
F in Exams: Pop Quiz by Richard Benson
The Kontrabida by Mia Alvar
Catacombs by Jason Zencka
The Rogue King by Abigail Owen
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Blood King by Abigail Owen
Once Two Sisters by Sarah Warburton
Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer
On the Edge by Brittney Sahin
Your Book, Your Brand by Dana Kaye
Story Genius by Lisa Cron
White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
Sweetest in the Gale: A Marysburg Story Collection by Olivia Dade
Feng Shaun (Wallace and Grommet)
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
Wow, No Thank You. by Samantha Irby
All Together by Brill Harper
World’s End by Clare Beams
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
The Evil Garden by Edward Gorey
The Duke and I by Julia Quinn

If you would like a review of any of these books, please tell me in the comments, and I’ll do my best for you! Similarly, last year it was requested that I rank the romance titles I’d read by heat level, so if you want those for this year as well, I’m happy to do it. Just drop me a note in the comments.

2020 Blog Year in Review

Happy New Year! (May it not suck!)

As I generally do annually around this time, I’d like to present a few factoids about how things went on Sappho’s Torque this past year. I wrote 111 new posts on the blog in 2020. Many of those posts were part of ongoing series, which are always both fun for me and hugely popular among my readers.

Almost 5,000 people visited the blog this past year, and while the vast majority are in North America, we had a very strong showing from UK, too, as well as India, Germany, and Australia.

I had hoped to boost my blog subscriber count up over 1,000 this year, though I didn’t quite make that. But all the writing goals I made for 2020 were well before we knew a pandemic was going to to interrupt our lives, so I’m not going to beat myself up about all the posts I meant to write but didn’t quite get around to yet. (They’re still on the docket for the future, though, so my guess is you’ll see some of them in 2021.)

There was also the matter of my releasing a new book this fall, and that took up quite a bit more time than expected, especially what with myriad covid-related delays of one sort or another. I did, however, write about a dozen flash fiction pieces this year, which is a new form for me, and which did not appear on the blog because they are on submission elsewhere first. (Writers have to make a living, too, and this blog doesn’t pay very well at all.  😉  So those pieces are hopefully destined for paying markets. Don’t worry, when they get published, you’ll hear about it!)

I like to look over my stats to see which posts are popular among the readers here. Many of the most popular ones are series-based pieces, such as during April’s Poem-a-Day series or the various earworms I like to share. But aside from those, here is a list of popular posts I wrote that saw a fair bit of traffic. Not surprisingly, many of them are related to our current zeitgeist or other current events we experienced throughout the year. And then a few of my older essays, which are perennial favorites, made the list again. (And as always, you can see a full list of popular posts here on the blog over all its years by clicking on this page.)

A Few Thoughts on This Whole Pandemic Thing and Why I’m Actually Not, Surprisingly, Freaking Out Right Now

Relief Efforts for Beirut

2019 Romance Titles Ranked By Heat Level

Kissing Barbie

Thoughts and Slayers: The Grendel Essay

Achievement Unlocked: Camp NaNoWriMo

Action Dispels Anxiety

Apokalyptein

Later this weekend I will post my 2020 Reading Year in Review as well; I’m pleased to report that I read way more books over the past twelve months than I have before during my professional life! I look forward to telling you about them very soon.

Thank you, always, for reading Sappho’s Torque. It’s a fond little project, and it means a lot to me that people continue to read and enjoy it. I hope to bring you more literary and auditory delight here on the blog in the coming year!

November Book Chat With Kara

Last month my friend Kara and I got together virtually to discuss some witchy books we liked, in honor of Hallowe’en, and it was so much fun we’ve decided to keep doing it!

Today we had another one, this time about books we loved and are excited to recommend in three different categories: books with non-human creatures who are very human, books outside our comfort zones, and books with strong female protagonists.

We hope you have had a wonderful holiday, if you’re celebrating Thanksgiving (which is quite a big deal here in the US), and that you’re otherwise having a splendid November, regardless of whatever celebrations may or may not be going on where you are.

Ways to Support Authors (and Other Artists and Makers)

I’m often asked what ways we can support the authors whose work we admire. Such a good question! Buying their books is the obvious answer, but there are actually a lot of ways to do it other than that. I think some of the items on the list below also work for other creators and artists, too. Remember, the more we support the makers of things we like, the more of those things those people can make!

Which of the following fun actions have you taken lately? Which could you reasonably undertake now? Drop us a line in the comments and tell us about it, and if you have other ideas, pile on! We’d love to know about them.

***

Request their book at your local library.

Review their book on any and all bookselling and book review sites.

Follow the author on social media and share their posts.

Take a selfie with their book and share it on social media.

Attend the author’s events.

Suggest their book for your book club.

Recommend the author as a speaker or workshop leader.

Tell your friends about the book.

Include the book in a blog post or list of your favorites.

Nominate their book for an award.

Ask your local bookstore and library to stock the book.

Support the author’s other projects, including pre-ordering their next book.

Add a copy of their book to your local Little Free Library.

Buy their book as a gift for someone.

Authors everywhere thank you!

Monday Earworm: Etta James

Happy Monday. Enjoy this lovely song by a groundbreaking woman.

Also, if you’d like to help support the libraries at the preK-12 school where I teach, this week we’re having our annual Book Fair, and this year it’s all online. Three of my titles are available there, too! Look in the “Special Guest and Community Authors” section, and you’ll find Finis., Homecoming, and The Sharp Edges of Water there for sale. You can buy my books and support both our libraries and me as an author, plus pick up some books that make excellent holiday gifts or treats for yourself. Win-win-win! I hope you’ll consider it. The Book Fair is up only for this week, a limited engagement. And in case you click through for a look and some shopping, thank you so much!

Witchy Weekends: Something Different

First, Happy Hallowe’en! Today’s will be the last installment in this year’s Witchy Weekends series. I hope you’ve been enjoying it this year (and every year, for those of you who have been here for a while).

Today I’m posting something very different, because, honestly, I just wasn’t able to produce another scene in “The Frog Wish” this week that I felt satisfied with. I’m not one of those authors who feels The Muse must descend in order for me to write anything. I’m realistic enough to understand that stuff has to get done regardless of whether I feel “inspired” in some grand or mythical sense.

However, part of that realism is recognizing that I have multiple projects happening at the same time, and sometimes those projects have deadlines, and some of those deadlines are more pressing than others. So while I’m loving “The Frog Wish” and having a lot of fun with it, it is definitely a side lark, and the more pressing business of the new novel I’m currently writing had to take precedence this week.

However, I do have something else to offer you. The video I’ve posted below is a book chat between my friend Kara and me, about witchy books for the season and some movie adaptations we’ve been enjoying. I hope you’ll find it interesting. We certainly had fun chatting with each other, enough that we might do it again in the future. So stay tuned.

Have a very nice and safe Hallowe’en, if you’re celebrating it, and otherwise, see you in November!