Dipping into the Gothic and Magical Waters

Here in the northern hemisphere, the autumn equinox fast approaches. Earlier this week, as my family was driving to my parents’ house to have dinner with them and my brother who was in town, we saw our first house of the season decorated for Hallowe’en. I saw two more this weekend, including one in our own neighborhood. We’re slated to get our first real cool front of the season in a few days. (I CANNOT WAIT. I’ve already got a sweater picked out to wear the minute one becomes even a little bit necessary, and I’m drinking pumpkin spice chai tea even now as I write this blog post.)

Partly in celebration of the season and partly because it’s going to be really fun, I’m teaching two new workshops at Writespace next month. The first is Gothic Story Elements, a three-hour generative writing class happening on Saturday, October 2nd. The second is a two-day workshop focused on Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, happening during the afternoons of two Sundays, October 3rd and 10th. You can click this link to learn more about and register for all the October and November workshops Writespace is putting on (including mine), but I’m also including the descriptions of both classes below.

I’d like to mention also a note about the formats of these classes, which are, as I said, generative. This means you will not be listening to me lecture for three hours. Far from it! I will teach you some interesting things, sure, but you will also be doing your own writing and idea work — generating, as it were. The Gothic Story Elements class will help you with writing stories in the Gothic genre, and the class about The Night Circus will include some focused literary analysis as a means to writing well. (And yes, you will be writing.) I’m SO excited about them both!

I sincerely hope you’ll join me for one or both classes. Since they’re being conducted on Zoom, there are no covid-related safety concerns, and you can join us from anywhere in the world where you have an internet connection. (My previous Writespace classes this year have included students from a variety of states in the US and even other countries. That has been awesome.) And while Writespace classes are typically an incredible bargain, the organization also offers scholarships with glee, so never feel embarrassed to ask for one.

Now without further ado, here are the course descriptions:

GOTHIC STORY ELEMENTS

photo by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash

What do a darkly beautiful aesthetic, #WitchyGirlAutumn, and a tantalizing sense of foreboding all have in common? They can be part of the rich pageant of Gothic story elements that make so many “classic” — or “forbidden” — literary pleasures so deep. In this three-hour generative workshop, we will dip our feet into the chilling waters of Gothic literature to find out what that genre entails. Expect a multi-faceted exploration as we discuss a range of examples in visual art, film, music, and mentor texts. Our writing time will include the opportunity to use these Gothic  elements to begin a story or enhance one you’ve already started. Students will have the option of sharing what they’ve written during the workshop. Come with your favorite writing utensils (a laptop, a legal pad and sharpened pencils, a leather-bound journal and a fancy feather quill—whatever works for you). Let’s kick off the Gothic season in writing style!

All levels of writing experience welcome.

READING YOUR WAY TO WRITING WELL: THE NIGHT CIRCUS BY ERIN MORGENSTERN

In this series of workshops, Writespace instructors select a work of literature and guide participants in a deep dive into craft, style, technique, and device. In these six-hour workshops, the instructor will lead an analysis of the work, and participants will practice using the techniques and devices discussed, leading to generating ideas and techniques for their own writing. Participants will need to read the selection in advance and come prepared to discuss it. 
 
Erin Morgenstern’s highly acclaimed debut The Night Circus rocked the literary world with its lush writing, clever structure, magnetic characters, and gripping story. In this two-day course, we will explore some of the reasons why Morgenstern’s novel is so well written and use it as a mentor text to generate some innovative writing of our own. Expect to discuss various elements of the text and to write original creative work, using Morgenstern’s techniques for inspiration. Attendees will have the opportunity to share their writing in class both days. Homework involves reading The Night Circus in its entirety before the first class begins and one or two writing exercises between class sessions.

This course is open to all levels of writing and literary analysis. Reading the text before the class begins is necessary.

***

If you’ve been wanting to take a workshop from me but haven’t found the time yet, please note that these might be the last classes I offer before the new year. Jump on this bandwagon — you won’t be disappointed! You can find these classes listed under Writespace Houston’s offerings at Eventbrite, or just click on this link to register. Thank you!

SONIC CHIHUAHUA Issue #2 Out This Week!

Hello, zine readers! The second issue of Sonic Chihuahua is out this week. So, subscribers and other fans: watch your mailboxes for it to arrive very soon, if you don’t actually already have it. This month’s cover is a hot-summery acid green, which makes Han very happy.

In other news, the clerk at the post office yesterday morning saw my stack of envelopes and said, “Looks like you and I are gonna get to know each other real well today.”

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can click here for more information about my zine and click here for a marvelous review of the first issue. And if you want to be included in this awesome endeavor, drop me a line in the comments and I’ll send you one. Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who has already expressed their support and admiration of this fun little project.  🙂  You warm the cockles of our hearts.

Happy reading!

My Little Free Library: A Note

Yesterday when I went out to put some more books into my Little Free Library I found this delightful thank-you note.

I love being the steward of a Little Free Library. Sometimes the people who use it will leave me thank-you notes or holiday cards telling me how much the LFL means to them, how much they love having one in our neighborhood. I cannot even tell you how much I love and appreciate that our LFL has been embraced by our community! Honestly, it sees a brisk business and has been largely self-sustaining since about two or three weeks after my husband built and installed it, several years ago. (He’s working on an extension for it now, a large shelf to attach to the bottom, for taller children’s books. I’ll be sure to post about it once it’s done.)

Every now and then, my stock runs a little low. I’ll start running out of certain genres of books from the substantial pile of them that runs along the wall of our dining room. In particular, new releases and more recent hardcovers, especially in the YA category, tend not to make their way back home to the LFL. But I don’t mind much, because as far as I’m concerned, if someone falls in love with one of our books and cannot part with it, okay. I’m happy to have helped make that bookish love connection! And usually people will leave something else in its place, so the stock is always rotating. Periodically, I’ll put out a call among my friends and colleagues to see if anyone has any books they want to donate, and folks always come through. So there will always be more books.

Here is what I would tell the thoughtful stranger who placed this note for me yesterday:

I’m so sorry you lost your books in your move. That happened to me once, when I was in college. My parents moved from the house I’d grown up in to a new place in the middle of the semester, so I wasn’t there to participate in a meaningful way. I lost a whole crate of paperbacks, some of which I’ve never been able to replace. It still makes me a little sad, because books are such a part of who I am and have always been. I’ll keep putting more books into this Little Free Library, and you’re welcome to keep taking them. Let me know what you like to read, and I’ll keep an eye out for that for you. Welcome to the neighborhood.  🙂

Happy reading, everyone!

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.

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.

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!