Silent Sunday: Goodbye, Summer

Sunflower, 2019
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Launch day for Eternity Began Tomorrow!

Here’s Kevin Brennan’s latest book — topical and timely!

WHAT THE HELL

Eternity Began Tomorrow is now live on Amazon.com and available as a Kindle book for $2.99.

I’ve already told you that this book is quite a departure for me. It’s a political thriller. Or at least that’s the closest category I could find for it, considering that it touches on all kinds of themes and has the sniff of literary fiction about it too.

Once again, I try my hand here at a first-person female protagonist, the indefatigable Mollie “Blazes” Bolan. Usually when I use a female pov, whether first person or third person, it’s because the character really speaks to me somehow, in a voice that can’t be mistaken for a man’s. Almost always they’re idiosyncratic or sui generis enough that people can’t say “he can’t write female characters worth poo!” I write individual characters, so my Blazes Bolan, my Sally Pavlou (Fascination), and my Sarah Phelan…

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Rocks: pink striped, two-tone, multicoloured, green, black with white specks

September 16th is Collect Rocks Day!

Collect Rocks Day is a day to enjoy and add to your rock collection “

I can relate to this pseudo-holiday, because I’ve been collecting rocks all my life. My house is full of them. I’m the only person I know with an actual pile of rocks on the dresser in their bedroom. There are rocks on my kitchen windowsills and rocks in special spots in the living room. There are even “book rocks” on the table where we eat our meals.

I suspect the point of this day is to encourage kids to start proper rock collections of identified specimens. I tried that when I was a kid. I put my rocks into chocolate boxes, which were neatly divided into squares just right for labelled specimens.

Cover of Rocks and Minerals guide (H.S. Zim, c1957)
I pored over this little book a lot while trying to identify my rocks.
Page from Rocks and Minerals guide on hardness testing
A page from the Rocks and Minerals guide. Note the cute mnemonic; maybe girls didn’t collect rocks. Too busy flirting and doing queer things, no doubt. (I can’t remember what I thought of this notion as a kid.)

The trouble was, the rocks I picked up were really hard to identify. They didn’t look like any of the pictures in Herbert S. Zim’s guide to rocks and minerals. Despite my efforts at determining hardness, doing tests with vinegar, and peering at my specimens with a magnifying glass, most of them remained unidentified. The closest I got was declaring them to be sedimentary, igneous, or metamorphic. I had a feeling many of my rocks were metamorphic. Their constituent minerals had been tortured into unidentifiable (at least by me) substances by heat and pressure. But they were pretty.

I gave up on scientific rock collecting, but I never gave up picking up rocks. Almost every visit to a beach or creek resulted in a pocket full of pebbles and sometimes a cobble or two carried in my hands. Nowadays I do a rock review before leaving the site and discard all but the best specimens, usually keeping only one or two.

So what makes a rock keep-worthy? For me, it comes down to colour, contrasts, smoothness, and peculiarities of shape. Or general weirdness. The eight rocks in the featured image at the top of the post display all of them to some extent. There’s a smooth, uniformly green rock and a smaller one that’s light green with dark green stripes. There are a couple that feature different rock types welded together. One is composed of thin layers of light and dark pinkish material. The little white one is a piece of what looks like marble, polished to exquisite smoothness by who knows how many years of wave action.

One piece of advice: rocks always look great wet. Beach pebbles are often wet when picked up. Let them dry before you decide if they’re worth keeping.

Colour and smoothness

White quartz, bright red rock (jasper?) and bright green rock (nephrite?) with darker green stripe
A pure white rock (quartz, I’m pretty sure), a dark red rock (maybe jasper?) and a bright green rock with darker green stripe (maybe nephrite?)

Contrast and weirdness

Black rock with white inclusions
Black rock with white inclusions that look like alien hieroglyphs.

Many colours

Multicoloured metamorphic rock
Multicoloured rock that looks like the map of an unknown world.

More weirdness

Weird sedimentary rocks, two with possible concretions
Sedimentary rocks. The bigger one (from north central BC) looks like a tiny hoodoo. The eyeball-like features in the smaller ones (from Saskatchewan) may be concretions.

Sheer beauty

Pebbles from Ballenas Island, BC
A handful of pebbles from Ballenas Island, BC. The biggest one is about an inch (2.5 cm) long, the smallest less than 1/4 inch (1 cm)

These Ballenas pebbles found their way into one of my novels. In Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey, Francis Dexter collects a few pebbles from a place rather like Ballenas Island. Later, he looks at them while brooding about how his life has turned out.

I have before me a handful of pebbles under the light as I write this. Some are the colour of bruised flesh, others dark green or black, or mixtures of colours impossible to describe, veined like the finest capillaries. Each was torn from its matrix, millennia ago, and polished to a degree I find astonishing. When I first studied them, here in the lamplight, I thought: here is perfection without design, proof that the world works upon things and incidentally brings them to goodness without an artificer’s hand. … The black pebbles with the white stars are the most beautiful. They are made of the hardest substance and are the brightest, but must be subjected to the longest ordeal to achieve their perfection. How much of themselves must they lose to the lathe of the world?

House with foundation planting of shrubs

Foundation Plantings: Big Mistake?

Foundation plantings are groups of shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous plants intended to hide a house’s concrete foundation, which is thought to be an eyesore, or somehow indecent, like a foundation garment. I remember reading instructions for these plantings in “how to garden” books from the 1950s and ’60s. Somehow, I thought both foundation plantings and foundation garments* had become passé, but no. The internet is full of advice on design and plant selection for foundation plantings.

My advice? Don’t do it. You know why? Because those shrubs and perennials will be forever in the way of anyone doing any kind of maintenance to the house. Moreover, they will likely sustain damage in the process. One article I read actually recommended a variety of holly for a foundation planting. Can you imagine squeezing between house and holly bush with paintbrush in hand?

On three sides of our house (whose foundation isn’t visible because the stucco ends a couple of inches above ground level), there’s pavement close to the walls, except for 18 inch wide beds between the concrete walks at the back and one side. There are a few plants in those narrow spaces, but they’re short and manageable. These areas present few access problems.

Not so at the front. Soon after we moved in, I planted an artistically curved mixed bed there, 8 feet wide at each end and 4 feet in the middle. It’s occupied at one end by a couple of shrub roses and a large cotoneaster with a clematis growing through it. At the other end are a spirea and a flowering currant. Between and in front of these shrubs are perennials, mostly asters and irises, along with an acanthus, several peonies, and some self-seeded fillers.

In 2017, we had the roof reshingled. This summer, we had the house painted, including the wooden window frames and ornamental strips. Some stucco repair was also needed.

I suppose it’s not realistic to expect roofers, stucco dudes, painters and other tradespeople (tradesmen, in my experience) to be careful around plants. They’re being paid to apply shingles, stucco, or paint, and that’s what they do. Despite my efforts to tie plants back and indicate paths to the spots needing to be worked on, plants sustained some degree of damage.

The irises below two of the windows whose trim was painted bore the brunt — stomped on, broken, mashed and trampled. Okay, they were in late summer decline and didn’t look great, but still… Luckily, this is the right time of year to divide irises and move peonies, so I’m telling myself this disaster is an opportunity in disguise. When I replant, I’ll build in a buffer zone.

Pale yellow irises with dark red purple bearded irises
What’s left of these irises are now refugees awaiting repatriation.

My advice for anyone designing new plantings would be to leave a generous buffer zone between the house and any substantial plantings. It should be at least 3 feet/1 metre wide and either paved or planted with lawn, tough groundcover, or expendable annuals. Keep larger shrubs (anything taller than 3 feet/1 metre) even farther away from the house, at least 8 feet. (And that means the farthest outward growth of the shrub or tree, not the main stem or trunk.) Whoever has to wash, repair, patch, or paint will be grateful. So will the plants.


*It seems foundation garments are now called “shapewear.” That’s quite a different thing from the power girdles and conical bras of past decades. (I’ll bet they’re still uncomfortable.)

Featured image from Pixabay

Book Review: The Selected Poems of K. Morris

As the author’s preface states, the poems in this substantial collection are drawn from six books published between 2013 and 2019. They are grouped into four sections: Time and Mortality, Nature, Love and Sensuality, Progress and Human Nature.

The Time and Mortality section occupies half the book. Clearly, this subject preoccupies the poet as he moves through his days. Images of clocks abound, along with churchyards, repetitive sounds, and episodes of light and shadow. Many of these poems are quite similar to one another, differing only in details, as though their author is carefully examining the theme’s every facet. The tone is one of quiet acceptance that has moved beyond despair. “Death Is Dead” presents an oblique view, suggesting that if we lived forever, we would bore each other to… Oh, I get it! Writers especially may relate to several poems, for example, “Why Do I Write?” and its resolve to make “A light that glimmers / In the dark / Illumining the human heart.”

In Section 2, Nature, an awareness of mortality is also present, but the focus here is a sense of nature’s benign indifference, which is somehow comforting. “Standing Under this Rain Drenched Tree” begins with the poet listening to whispering leaves but ends humorously with a sneeze.

Section 3, Love and Sensuality, moves from fleeting glimpses of beauty in “Ethereal” and “Chiffon,” to the wry humour of “Unrequited” and “Girls In Unsuitable Shoes.” “Birds That Fly” is especially fine, subtle and poignant. Even with these differences in tone, the themes of passing time and the insignificance of individual lives are present. Love and lust, while crucial to individual humans, do not greatly affect the turning of the world.

The poems of Section 4, Progress and Human Nature, display a mixture of cynicism, acceptance, and even appreciation of humanity despite its faults. The final line of “Dark and Light” is interesting. “Mourn not, for there can be no dark without the light.” Some might expect these opposites to be reversed.

The poems are short, rarely more than a page and often only a handful of lines. Rhyme is present in all, deliberately structured and crafted. The rhythms are often choppy, perhaps echoing those ticking clocks.

In his preface, the author says he believes the poems in this collection are his best works. They show how a poet may abstract himself from the whirl of life and view it from a philosophical perspective, and then embody his observations in brief and eloquent verse to share with readers. The book is perfect for the reader who wants to dip in for a few pithy observations on life and death, or simply to admire the poet’s dexterity with words.

This review is based on a copy of the book provided by the author.

Book Reviewing: a Murky Business

Continuing the theme of reading I started a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit the topic of book reviews. They are so important to writers, both for book sales and validation. These thoughts were prompted by other bloggers’ opinions about and experiences with reviewing books. While readers’ comments on books may seem essentially genteel and harmless, book reviews can stir up some visceral emotions. For a couple of examples, just Google “the greek seaman” or “author stalks reviewer.”

Hoping that “if you give, you get” applies to book reviews, I resolved some time ago to write a sincere, thoughtful review of every indie book I read. I would post the reviews on Goodreads, and also on Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I acquired the book.

I’ve found it’s easier to make this resolution than keep it. Reviews are best written right after finishing a book, but if I’m tired or distracted I don’t do it. Then I start reading something else; days go by, weeks go by and the review is unwritten. Even for books I really liked, that deserve a favourable review. Sometimes those reviews are never written.

Then there’s the DNF book, the one I give up on because it’s poorly written or just doesn’t interest me. My policy is not to review books I haven’t read from start to finish. It’s not always the book’s fault.

That brings us to the star ratings that accompany reviews. So far, I’ve written no one- or two-star reviews. Many think they are unnecessarily harsh and punitive and should be avoided. That leaves only 3, 4, or 5 stars, otherwise known as OK, Good, or Excellent. That’s a pretty narrow range.

I reserve five stars for books I love so much I think it’s likely I’ll read them again. If I want to buy myself a copy, especially a print one, after reading a book from the library or an ebook, that’s definitely a 5-star.

I give 4 stars to books that are reasonably well-written and interesting but fall just short of great because of what I call lumpy writing — awkward sentences and scene transitions or too many typos. Or, for some intangible reason, I just don’t think it’s a great book (subjectivity strikes again).

Three stars are for books I make myself finish only because I’ve committed myself to reading them, constantly checking the number of pages remaining. (Thinking back to comments on a recent post about reading, I might call these “life is too short” books and give up on them. Which means no review.) Three stars also go to books that aren’t bad but pretty much disappear from my conscious mind right after I read the last word. In other words, “Meh.”

And then there’s the question of whether it’s even possible to boil our thoughts about books down to a number. That’s why an actual review is helpful; it’s a place to explain the rating.

Something else that bothers me is too many of the “reviews” I write are just off-the-cuff remarks with little or no structure or planning. I think that’s how most readers write their reviews, although I sometimes see long, detailed, and serious reviews that make me think I ought to do a better job with mine. Which reminds me — a plot summary is not a review. The “blurb” or book description already provides as much of that as the reader needs and you want to avoid spoilers. So just say what you like or dislike about the book.

The hardest review to write is the less-than-enthusiastic one for a book whose author I’m acquainted with, if only through blogging. It’s like telling a friend their book is less than great. I consider some of those bloggers to be friends; the only difference is I don’t have to look them in the eye while delivering the bad news. Depending on the personalities and relationships involved, the best approach might be to send a private email rather than post a public review/rating.

What might happen if no one wrote negative reviews or never tagged books with one or two stars? Three stars might become the default “bad” rating. Come to think of it, some authors get upset at those already. And if the only reviews were positive ones, what would that say about books with no reviews? Some potential readers might dismiss them as no good, while the truth may be that those books were never read by anyone, or their readers were too lazy or preoccupied to bother posting reviews. Innocent books condemned without due process!

Maybe the “positive reviews only” practice is just a cop-out. It’s much easier to say nice things than critical ones. While it is possible to write a thoughtful, helpful, critical review, it does take more work than a positive one. If a reader is too busy/tired/distracted to write a even a positive review, they certainly aren’t going to attempt a negative but helpful one.

The best reviews, in my opinion, are nuanced. Positive but not wildly enthusiastic. Critical but not unqualified condemnations. I’ve actually been motivated to seek out and read certain books because critical reviews of them intrigued me.

Like so many other aspects of writing, book reviewing is complicated and there’s no easy formula. Nevertheless, knowing how important reviews are to authors, I will continue to write and post them.

Your turn, bloggers — what are your thoughts on reviews and ratings?

Image by olekowy from Pixabay

Thank You Mr. Shakespeare

Writers, here are some rousing words from RJ Llewellyn, channeling Shakespeare.

Writing Despite Computers and Programmes

In my previous blog (Declared a danger to public health & well being by High Priests of Akismet….sometimes you gotta love a cheap-shot). I put this out along the themes of encouraging Writers when the going gets not so much tough, but as Arid. I thought it might be worth putting out again…..

Annnd Take 2!

Sometimes I indulge in a Shakespeare play session in my DVD collection, and there are effects on my writing which insist on being displayed….

Stage directions:

A group of folk are sitting.

Enter:

The Commentator:

They Speak:  

Good-day to you my fellow Wordsmiths

Why these sombre faces?

What halts or confounds your pens?

Have you fallen out to dispute of

Those five particular sisters

Calliope of the wondrous images

Euterpe entrancing with the lyrical dance

Thalia ever humorous and irreverent

Erato sweet purveyor of heart’s feelings

Polyhymnia, solemn in her honouring of…

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Cat eyes in the dark

Seeing in the Dark

The characters in my novels and stories frequently roam around in the dark, often on some sort of nefarious business. Writing those scenes can be tough. If I want a character to see something important, I have to furnish a plausible light source. In fiction set in the present day, there are reliable flashlights and the mobile phone’s flashlight feature. Imminent battery death can supply a bit of tension to the scene.

But what about earlier eras? Much of my writing is set in the past, specifically the early to mid 20th century. I’ve spent a good deal of time checking whether a specific light source existed at a particular time. When did electric torches (otherwise known as flashlights) come into common use? Eighteen ninety-six. What about car headlights? The earliest ones were carbide lamps. Integrated all-electric lights weren’t common until the 1920s.

Sources of Light

Other light sources include torches (the kind with actual flames), camp fires, glowing lava, candles, oil lamps, gaslights, street lights, moonlight, starlight, lightning flashes, and the ability to see in the dark. (The last is not to be bestowed on a character unless they’re really special, because for humans, it’s a superpower.) Whichever mode of illumination I select, it has to fit the situation. No flashlights (or electric torches) before the late 19th century. Lightning bolts aren’t predictable and usually involve other phenomena as well. If someone is close enough to molten lava for it to show details, they may be dead. Moonlight doesn’t show colours or details all that well, so forget about characters seeing eye colours or reading maps by moonlight. Starlight sounds magical, but is even dimmer.

Matches as we know them didn’t exist until the 19th century and personal cigarette lighters until the 1930s. (The match has an exceedingly interesting history, complete with bad smells, explosions, and phosphorus poisoning, both accidental and intentional.) For even earlier settings, it would be advisable to learn about fire starting methods such as flint and steel, and containers such as fire pots for maintaining and transporting the precious results.

Other Considerations and the “Ambient Glow”

Candles and torches (the flaming kind) are fire hazards, a fact that can be useful or annoying, depending on your plot. Light can reveal one’s presence as well as help one see. It can conceal as well as reveal if it’s bright enough to blind. The writer must exercise as much caution with light in the darkness as his or her characters. Unless, of course, the action involves the supernatural. In paranormal situations, the ever-popular ambient glow (sourceless, magical light) may be invoked judiciously, as I did in key scenes of my novel She Who Comes Forth.

Utter Darkness

In other scenes, the main character of that novel must endure absolute darkness — the kind where you can’t see anything, even your own hand in front of your face. That degree of darkness is hard to come by, but it’s worth experiencing if you’re planning to write about it. In fact, before writing a scene that takes place in any kind of darkness, the best research might be to replicate the conditions and literally see what you can see (or not).

Image by Михаил Прокопенко from Pixabay

Reading Like a Reader Is More Fun Than Reading Like a Writer

Last week I posted about too many books and too little time. Today’s topic is the reading process itself.

Years ago, when I was young, there were two kinds of reading. The first one was obligatory reading, usually for school, later for college courses. It was done at a table or desk, with notebook and pen nearby. The second was reading for pleasure. Whether I read classics, trashy paperbacks, serious novels, children’s books, or nonfiction, I didn’t need to take notes or write book reports. This kind of reading was an escape from real life.

Now that I’m a writer, reading is complicated. Thanks to all the “how to write right” blog posts I’ve read, my brain is full of rules and admonishments, things writers should do and many they must never do. For example, overuse of dialogue tags other than “said.” I just read a book whose characters murmured, muttered, and growled way too much. Another had way too many backstory info-dumps. It’s hard to enjoy reading a book if I find myself editing it.

Writers notice things like typos and punctuation issues because they’re always fretting about them in their own writings. Casual readers looking for a diversion may ignore minor issues as long as the story (plot, characters, voice) is sufficiently compelling. That could be why some poorly written books get five star ratings and rave reviews. But readers who also write and publish have trained themselves to find misspelled words and awkwardly constructed sentences. Writers notice even minor problems, and not with delight.

So what does this tell writers? The story is more important than its vehicle, but a vehicle that sputters and stops will drive discerning readers away from the story. They are more likely to abandon it rather than get out and push.

Then there’s the matter of reviews. I know how hard it is for self-published authors to accumulate reviews. I read a lot of indie authors, so therefore feel obliged to post reviews of their books, especially the ones I enjoy. But that means I can’t just let the narrative wash over me while I’m reading. If I intend to write a decent review, I have to remember details. Sometimes I even make a few notes. This reading experience looks more like work than escape.

Reviewing like a writer — is that good or bad? Maybe the person that wrote the book would appreciate reviews containing the kind of feedback they get from a critique group or editor. But then again, maybe not. The book has been written and published, after all. At that stage, all its author wants to know is whether readers like it or not. They may not appreciate another writer telling them what characters should have been removed or which darlings needed killing.

Sometimes I wish I could switch off “writer mode” when I’m reading for pleasure. On the other hand, that’s why it’s so important for published writing to be error-free. Writers, let’s give one another a frictionless, snag-free reading experience!

So, fellow bloggers (and writers): do you notice things like typos and other violations of writing rules when you’re reading for fun? Do you take the time to review the books you read? Do you see your TBR list as a source of delight or another job?

Why I’ll Never Be Well-Read

Because there are too many books. Not only the deluge of new books pouring forth from the Big 5 publishers, small presses, and millions of indies, but all the worthwhile books produced since humans began writing. If I take the time to read a really old book (like Homer’s Iliad, for example) I feel like I’m going to miss a lot of new books. Book FOMO — how silly! Actually, I doubt that anyone can keep up with even a fraction of all the new books, or predict which ones will become classics. So I’m resigned to being spottily well-read. Half-decently read, maybe.

Categories of Books

  • Old, even ancient classics, called by some the “literary canon”
  • Current literary award winners: Booker, Giller, Pulitzer, etc.
  • Books “everyone’s talking about,” many of which have been made into movies
  • Obscure trad-pubbed books
  • Indie books (many of which are obscure)
  • Books that simply must be re-read

At present, I read mainly indie authors, some of whom I’ve met through blogging. I’ve discovered some wonderful authors whose books I will likely re-read. (There’s another dilemma — read old favourites again or abandon them in favour of the new and untried?) But quality does vary; despite reader reviews, there’s no guarantee that every book I pick up will be compelling and memorable. Ebooks are cheap and even free; their true cost is the time needed to read them.

There’s no hope I’ll ever be able to get through any literary canon. My plan for however many years I have left with a functioning brain is to stop worrying about being well-read and just read as many good books as I can. The trick is not to waste time on duds* of any sort, including “duty reads.” “It’s an award winner!” “It has a zillion 5-star reviews!” “The movie won an Oscar!” and “The author is a real sweetie,” aren’t reasons enough to keep reading if the first chapter or two (plus flipping ahead) don’t grab my attention or otherwise fail to entice me.

What about you, fellow bloggers? Do you make yourself read to the last page of a book even when your reading self tells you it’s a dud? And how do you pick books to read — anonymous reviews, book bloggers, word-of-mouth recommendations, or serendipity?

*Dud = any book you find repellent, boring, irrelevant, or otherwise not worth your time. A highly subjective assessment.