When I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, I was blown away by the subtlety of the characterization and the quiet but steady pace of the plot. It’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read, and it’s hard not to compare The Paying Guests to the things I loved about it.
The Paying Guests falls little short of that bar. It starts strong in the same way--the subtle way the reader gets to know Frances through the omniscient narration, especially--but by the second act, it falls into something more straightforward that relies just on the tension of the plot and the stated actions of the characters.
Similarly to The Little Stranger, The Paying Guests begins by revolving around the collapse of a grand house after the family has lost its money. In the former work, the slow collapse of the house cleanly reflected the collapse of the family and possibly their sanity. In the latter, it’s more of a plot point, something to keep Frances constantly busy and to bring Mr. and Mrs. Barber into the lives of Frances and her mother.
When the novel opens, it seems like Frances doesn’t do much other than repair and maintain the house, cook meals, tend fires, and sit in the sitting room with her mother. She occasionally accompanies her mother to bridge or church or a movie. Then she takes a wistful walk through London, and we see her try to shake off the spinster persona. As we start to learn more about her, we see how wrong this persona is, and it immediately becomes irrelevant. Whereas the narrator’s voice in the first act seemed to encourage it somewhat, it's dropped so entirely and so soon that it seems odd that it was ever an issue.
This is certainly not the only change in tone between the first act the rest of the novel, but it’s one I can mention because it doesn’t reveal any major plot points. Later, there are some sex scenes that make it hard to believe the word “subtle” could ever be applied to anything in the book. They’re not gratuitous, but Sarah Waters so excels at that quiet cloaking tone that the scenes feel like someone has flicked on the light just after your eyes have adjusted to the dark.
All this said, The Paying Guests is still a good book that I would recommend. The plot is engaging, and the characters are worth getting to know. But it didn’t meet my expectations.
There is so much to say about not only Part 2 but also about the entire story of Don Quixote, that I'll never fit it into one blog post. I'll try to limit this one to my thoughts on Part 2--the way Cervantes tried to limit himself from digressing into entire other novels after the first book--and instead include other thoughts in later posts.
The short version is: Part 2 is a significantly better read than Part 1, but you really have to read Part 1 to understand Part 2.
Part 2 starts with all those formalities that Part 1 lacked. The dedications in particular. And here Cervantes introduces us to an incident that evolves into a bit of an obsession throughout the work. After Part 1 became a success, someone else wrote a sequel without Cervantes's permission. He deemed it quite inferior, obviously, both in writing style and character development. The irony, of course, is that we're still reading Cervantes's Don Quixote 400 years later, and we would never even remember this counterfeit if he didn't harp on it so much.
In this world of Part 2, we encounter our Knight of the Rueful Countenance (later to be known as the Knight of the Lions) still in bed recovering from his second sally, just a month or so before. And somehow in this time, half of Europe has read the true history of Don Quixote (the one by Cide Hamete Benegeli, of course, the historian Cervantes claims to be translating through both parts) and is completely enamored with the protagonist and his squire. They discuss the short-comings of the book--specifically the crazy novel-within-a-novel part I complained about earlier and a plotting mistake--and it's funny to hear that the complaints of readers 400 years ago are so similar to today's.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza decide to proceed on a third sally, and they sneak out of the house in order to do so. Since I promised to keep this brief, I won't recount their adventures here. The important difference between this and the first and second sallies is that they actually win sometimes. The reader cheers for them because not every adventure ends in a spectacular beating or a sheep slaughter. Not all (most) of their wins are objectively fair successes, but they think they're winning, and you can't help but want it for them. A lot of people play a lot of tricks on them throughout, but many of the tricks are harmless except that they increase the delusion of Don Quixote and Sancho.
We love them for their delusions. When Sancho occasionally contemplates walking away, the reader wishes him to stay. As mean as some of the tricks are, we are the trick-players. We want them to believe, maybe because we want to live in a world where their beliefs are relevant.
And that's the magic of Part 2. Despite all the cultural differences between early 17th century Spain and 21st century America, we can still relate to the emotions behind the characters and their stories. Maybe this is what earns Don Quixote the title of "the first modern novel," I'm not sure. But it feels modern.
Let me start by saying that I hate the I’ve-been-neglectful,-but-it’s-all-going-to-be-better-now blog post. It almost never is. But I also think, even though my readers aren’t exactly chomping at the bit for more posts, I owe you an explanation for my absence.
In addition to that, I’ve been reading some really boring books lately. Since most of this blog is book reviews, that really cuts into my pool of resources. I’ll review some of them eventually, but ones I don’t intend to review include one on the natural history of Ohio that read like a text book. By the time I wrapped up the ice ages and progressed to weather patterns, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for more than a sentence.
My own novel continues, slowly but surely. Certainly, the travel interrupted things, but I’ve been trying to take myself out for lunch once a week to just work on the novel. When I actually stay in town for most of a week, this works nicely.
The next series of The Outbreak is more imminent than the novel. Michael Neno is finishing up the last few panels of “The Hunter” now. Then, I just have to prepare them for the website and launch the pages. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m hoping to have it ready for you by the end of December. Also, my laptop recently died, and I replaced it with an Android tablet. I only bring that up because I just discovered that I can’t actually view Prezis on my computer now, which means I can’t see my own comic! (Prezi, if you’re reading this, get on that Android app. I’m your biggest fan, and this is not cool.) Now that I know about this restriction, I’ll be releasing a PDF version of both “Monster at the Institute” and “The Hunter.”
And now for the obligatory I’m-going-to-be-better assertion. But really, I am. I have a couple other posts nearly drafted, and I’ve been reading much more interesting books lately. I have two personal trips to Florida planned for December, but that’s all the travel on the horizon at the moment. I’ll be doling out posts over the next few weeks, and I hope you enjoy them. But really, isn’t this a time to be thankful for RSS feeds? I know I am.
The incredible Amanda Page tagged me in the TURN DOWN FOR WHAT blog tour, started by Emma Bolden and Chantel Acevedo. They provide a great list of questions and I’m supposed to limit myself to only two (!) to share with you. So, as Jim from my (unfinished) novel would say, balloon goes up!
Agatha Christie, as the story goes, created many of her stories while eating apples in the bathtub. How do you spark the story-or-poem-making part of your brain?
While that bathtub thing sounds good, I haven’t figured out how to keep my laptop dry yet. When I really got going on my novel, I bought myself a cork bulletin board and started pinning things to it. I have photos of the houses where my characters live and objects that they own. I have hand-drawn floor plans of important buildings, which keeps these clumsy characters from walking through doors that don’t exist. I have a map of Atlanta folded back to the neighborhoods where the action happens. For a while, I had strings attaching from points on the map to related photos and business cards--Beautiful Mind-style—but I got lazy about putting all the strings back after taking everything to a writing retreat. And above the bulletin board, I have a neat woodcut by a local artist that nudges me about where my attention should be.
When I see those images from my desk, it reminds me who the characters are. Thinking about them makes me excited to write about them again. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately. So I try to keep them in sight.
We know getting your work out is all about hard work, perseverance, & talent, but there’s always a dash of luck involved. So, name the luckiest publishing-related thing that has ever happened to you.
After college in Florida--where I was a writing major surrounded by writer friends--and before moving to Ohio, I lived in DC for about 3 years. I love so much about DC, but most everyone I knew was very profession-oriented. By that, I mean that your day job defined you more than your hobbies, where you lived, your background, or anything else you were into. I didn’t know any writers, and I had a really hard time 1) getting any writing done and 2) getting help/mentorship/support/advice for the small amount I did get done.
My eventual-husband-to-be moved to Ohio a few months before I followed him. As he got to know his new colleagues, he mentioned to some that I was a “writer” (a term I was shy to use about myself at the time). Another said his wife was also a writer and belonged to a local writing group. Soon after I moved in, we went to our first work party, and I had him point out the colleague who had said this. I hung around that guy until I found out who his wife was, and then I basically glommed on to her until she causally mentioned writing and her writing group. ZAM!! I pounced. I got an invitation to the Naked Wordshop, and they’ve been an endless source of the advice and inspiration and support that I had been missing before. I feel very lucky to have found them so soon after moving to town.
To keep this party going, I’m going to tag Matt Betts, author of Odd Men Out (Raw Dog Screaming Press). Can’t wait to see your responses, Matt!
A few years ago, I watched the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey from the comfort of my living room. And I’ll admit that I did not understand much of it. Frustratingly little. And then I didn’t think about it much more. When I heard that a local art museum would be showing it in the original 70mm film, I realized that the only bits I remembered were the guy jogging around the space ship, the red eye of Hal, and something about a space baby. So I committed to reading the novel version before I re-watched the movie, hoping that would give me some better background.
And it did! As Arthur C. Clarke explains in the 1999 Introduction, he wrote this novel based on one or two short stories that Kubrick liked, and he gave the manuscript in sections to Kubrick for notes. Even though each piece can stand alone, in a unique relationship like this, I think each is stronger when paired with the other. Kubrick’s film provides some incredible visuals that are more breathtaking than the words in Clarke’s novel; Clarke’s novel provides essential narration and internal monologue that is necessary to understand Kubrick’s movie.
I’m no great student of film, but I know how foolish it would be to critique Kubrick’s choices of what to include in this movie. The things I would have done differently probably would have hurt the movie in other ways. But I did miss the hypnotic visuals that the monolith displays to distract its experimental subjects while probing their minds. With those, I think, I would have understood a little better that the monolith was interacting with its environment and influencing the creatures around it. I also loved Clarke’s description of traveling through the Star Gate; Kubrick made different choices that probably helped that scene feel more terrifyingly oppressive. Clarke was able to get that impression across with words, but Kubrick had to rely on the visuals alone (also, how did he even create those effects in 1968?). And I would have loved to see Saturn’s rings the way Clarke describes them.
The novel itself is a good read. The bite-sized chapters help it feel like a short book even though some chapters don’t contain any dialogue at all. The tension builds gradually throughout, and the plot ticks along. Like all sci fi, it’s fascinating to see how close the author got to some technological innovations and how far off on others (I liked the tablet computer that plugs into the commuter spaceship and downloads every newspaper in the world once an hour--and nothing else).
The characters are a little two-dimensional, but that actually didn’t bother me as much in this story as it has in others. At least here, the reader gets their motivations explained, even if they don’t emerge much beyond their functions. And Clarke includes enough small, humanizing details for the reader to remember that they are more than their positions--Dr. Floyd hoping that his face can be seen in the photograph in front of the monolith, and Bowman feeling dread when he sees the hotel room and determines that he must be mad, for example.
The novel is not a masterpiece of its medium the way the film is (at least visually). But it has an important role to play. The film is simply not able to provide us with all the information necessary to understand and appreciate everything that’s happening in the story. The novel fills in those gaps and then some. The film leaves us with something to puzzle out, but the novel leaves us with something to contemplate.
In this delightful young adult novel, a 14-year-old girl who has just moved to Martha’s Vineyard gets involved in the environmental movement of the 1970s. Although Clem is already reading Silent Spring on her father’s suggestion, her immediate motivation is her interest in a shy boy who’s involved in restoring the osprey population of Martha’s Vineyard after they’ve been nearly wiped out from pesticide use.
I really loved how Washashore weaves in a real-life environmental message with realistic teenage problems—fitting in, feeling isolated, being bullied, watching her parents’ marriage dissolve, growing up before she’s quite ready, feeling like she needs to save the world, dealing with her first romantic relationship… whew! Really, there’s a lot packed into here.
Washashore’s characters feel very real. They all have their own lives and concerns happening outside of Clem’s point of view, and that influences how they act toward one another. The pacing is steady throughout, building up to tension in several key scenes. And I especially liked that not everything works out perfectly for Clem. She’s at an age where she has to deal with adult issues without really having the experience and skills she needs to handle them. She does her very best at everything she tries, and still there are wins and losses. So she has to learn how to move on from those.
The author has pulled together a story that incorporates so many important themes in such a subtle way that it’s easy just to follow the characters along without noticing it. Instead, you grow along with them as they battle forces in their own lives. I would definitely recommend this both for young teenagers looking for a reflection of themselves and for their parents.
This book provides a first-hand account of living in a house haunted by the spirits of three children. After reading the whole thing, I still don’t have an opinion about whether Don’t Call Them Ghosts should be considered fiction or non-fiction, and it probably shouldn’t matter. The author/narrator seems convinced, and presents her story the way she remembers it.
The author has a very different lifestyle than I do--she was raised in a different time, in a different part of the country, with very different values. I found myself rolling my eyes when the narrative paused so she could gush about how perfect her husband is or how beautiful her baby is, but maybe that says more about me than her.
However, the narrator does take some actions that I didn’t think were explained very well and that hurt the story. For example, it takes her weeks to come up with the idea to go to the library, which is directly next door, to figure out who the spirit children in her house are. Once she finally does–and the narrative goes into great detail about the trip–she spends her time reading about an old amusement park instead of the family that built her house. She never mentions going back to that library again, but she does go to the main branch to get some more information several months later. What she finds isn’t really satisfactory–nothing about children dying or even anything from the era the children would have lived–but she doesn’t make any other effort to find out who they are, despite telling them that she will. She doesn’t call the previous owners to ask about the box of stuff she found in the attic. And in the epilogue, she mentions that she made another half-hearted research attempt at her publisher’s urging, but didn’t come up with anything.
This comes across as a lack of curiosity at best and willful ignorance at worst. When she decides after only 5 years to sell “the house of her dreams,” the reader really starts to wonder. And since she is able to help the spirits move on, no one who lives in the house after her will have an opportunity to confirm or deny the story.
But really, this is all probably beside the point. If you can take the author at her word, you’ll enjoy a touching story about family life in a house where living people care for their spirit housemates and vice versa. They protect each other, tease each other, argue sometimes, pout, and generally live together the way a family does. They accept each other as they are, and what more can you ask family to do?
Don’t Call Them Ghosts isn’t going to convince a skeptic that ghosts really exist. But if you’re not looking to be convinced--if you’re looking for a story about what it’s like to live and interact with friendly spirits in your house–then you’ll likely enjoy this family story.
Friend and writer Lia Eastep sent me these questions for sort-of a blog self-interview. You should check out her site to see her responses, but here are mine.
1) What am I working on?
Predominately, I’m working on a novel, my first. The story involves some characters who are ghosts, others who can freely interact with the ghosts, and others who don’t believe in ghosts at all but who think they’ve stumbled on a way to produce truly clean energy. I’m about 2/3 through the first draft, although I’ve already rewritten most of the middle part, so maybe it’s more like draft 1.5?
In addition to the novel, I’m working on the next series of my online comic, The Outbreak. One series, “Monster at the Institute,” is already online and freely available, and the next one, “The Hunter,” is being drawn by Michael Neno now. Hopefully, I’ll have that one ready to go by the end of August. I’m working on additional stories and scripts for The Outbreak as well.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The Outbreak uses a unique presentation platform, Prezi. As far as I know, mine is the first comic to use Prezi in this way. When I started this project, I knew wanted to have an online comic (for ease of production and cost reasons), and I didn’t understand why so many online comics look like they’re intended to be print comics that are then scanned and slapped up on a website. At best, this requires reader software that allows you to zoom in on the panels in order, like the Comixology and Dark Horse apps allow. But often, you’re basically just looking at a portrait-oriented PDF on your landscape-oriented monitor, zooming in to see the art and text better. I’d used Prezi at work before, and I really liked the way it directs viewers through a large canvas, pointing you to exactly what you need to see at the zoom level you need to see it. This seemed like a good way to push viewers through my born-digital comic without requiring too much re-learning from readers or custom programming from me. And I really like the way it has turned out. (BTW, all “Monster at the Institute” issues are now available on the public Prezi site, in addition to my website, for free!)
As for the novel, I’ve tried really hard to balance character development, plot, and larger themes. So many books I read rely on one of those three significantly more than others, and the work as a whole suffers for it. Hopefully, it works!
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write things I’d want to read. I know that sounds obvious, but I spent a long time trying to write things that I thought other people would want to read. That’s actually very difficult and involves a lot of self-doubt. Eventually, it dawned on me that I’m a reader (and I certainly read more of my own words than anyone else does), so it only made sense to write the kind of stuff I’d actually enjoy. Even though I’m not as far along in the novel as I’d like to be, I would never have made it this far—or produced The Outbreak—without learning to trust my own judgment on what makes an entertaining and compelling story. And if that makes me my own biggest fan, well, so be it. That’s better than disliking what takes so much time and effort to do!
4) How does my writing process work?
I have to treat writing like a job, otherwise it’s too easy for me to push it off for “easier” work with a more immediate payoff. I have to set aside some time—like right now!—and have some kind of goal. Occasionally, my goals are product focused, like finishing a blog post or a comic script. I actually keep a to-do list of these smaller projects so I know exactly where to dive in. But more often, and especially when working on my novel, my goals are time focused. For example, I’ll decided to write until 4pm; when my lazy, instant-gratification-monkey brain wants to knock off by 3, I have to make myself keep going until quittin’ time, even if I don’t think the writing is as good. Half of the battle is just getting the first draft down on paper—I can always go back and edit later (and, oh trust me, I will)!
I recently switched day jobs, and I managed to snag a week off in between them. So I took a personal writing retreat, spending 3 nights in Hocking Hills state park.
This was my first trip to Hocking Hills, but I’ve heard nothing but people gushing about how wonderful it is since I moved to Ohio about 6 ½ years ago. One thing my comic friends like to mention is that Jeff Smith set most of Bone in Hocking Hills, and the iconic cover image is inspired by Old Man’s Cave.
I stayed in the cottages run by the state park, which were clean and mostly bug-free, but without WiFi or even cell service. I checked in all directions, and it was a 30-minute drive to find cell coverage. Since I was alone, that was a little alarming at first, but it of course turned out to be a blessing. I was forced to live within my own head without constantly checking in to see what everyone else was up to. When was the last time I focused inwardly for that long?
The first thing I really noticed was all the sounds. Although I live in the city, I’ve never considered it particularly noisy. But out there in the woods, the nature sounds were amplified. I decided not to listen to music/podcasts/anything electronic the whole time I was there.
And I heard the trees. Sometimes, they sounded like old creaky doors groaning on their hinges. Other times like chickens clucking.
The birds were active too, singing, chirping, tweeting, cawing, screeching, all different noises by different birds at different times, but all much more when it was sunny.
I saw some deer one evening—one adult and two young ones. I stood and watched them crash through the underbrush. Then a hawk screeched, repeatedly, and they sprinted off. The next evening, I saw deer in the same place (probably the same ones). The adult stood and stared at me, and I stared back at her. I waved. She opened her mouth, stretched her neck and her tail out, and SCREECHED! It was the same noise I’d heard the night before and attributed to a hawk. But it was a deer screeching! And as soon as she did, her and her babies scampered off into the woods again.
And the clouds too. When was the last time I slowed down enough to watch the clouds pass overhead and to pick out shapes?
I visited several sites around Hocking Hills, including Old Man’s Cave. I was struck by how the attractions themselves were less impressive than I expected, but everything around them was much more amazing. Part of this was a language barrier. I grew up in the south, and I remember visiting caves in Georgia that were the underground kind that are pitch black and have stalactites and stalagmites (I’ve been told since that these are “caverns”). In Ohio, a cave is more of an overhang or open shelter made into a rock formation. I walked straight through Old Man’s Cave without realizing until I noticed the sign posts started pointing back the way I came.
I got lost on one of the trails around Old Man’s Cave too. I had the map upside down. Or really, I switched trails without realizing it at some point and ended up on the wrong side of the map. I wandered without seeing anyone through the woods on what seemed like an established trail, but I wasn’t sure. It had been rainy all week, and when the wind blew, the raindrops pattered down from the leaves onto the forest floor. At least, that’s what I thought. When one landed on my map, I realized that it was the pattering of gypsy moth caterpillars falling from the trees that I was enjoying. Another moment I was glad to have short hair.
I didn’t talk to too many people during my stay in the woods. There was a family in the cabin next door, but they weren’t the Southern Mama and Southern Daddy I’m used to. They’d just as soon leave me alone. Some younger kids stayed for one night at a nearby cabin. Why do kids feel it necessary to communicate entirely by yelling? The cottages had TVs, but I didn’t plug mine in. I was amazed at how many glowing screens I could see when walking down the cottage street in the evening. Why would you come all the way out here just to watch network television? There are books to read! Games to play! Thoughts to think!
I did quite a bit of work on my novel while on this retreat, which was the point after all. I was able to connect much more strongly with one of my characters who I’d been a bit out of touch with lately, and rewrote several of her scenes (I’m in the repair stage now). Probably because of the isolation and internal focus, and also because of what I was reading while there. I feel pretty good about what I was able to get done, and it certainly felt great to do it.
And now I have a new day job. It’s going well, but it’s a long commute and I’m there 5 days a week, so I have a lot less free time than I used to. That is, I have a lot less writing time. I’ll have to review my previous posts on finding time to write, I suppose!
But I’m very glad I took that quiet time in the woods to listen and watch what was around me.
On March 6, I read a three short chapters from my in-process novel, The Rescue, at Paging Columbus. Hannah Stephenson was kind enough to provide video snippet (and to invite me in the first place), so if you didn’t make the reading, here’s your chance to catch up!
In the story, Leonora, who can hear and communicate with ghosts, runs an antique store where she builds her family from the haunted items she collects. The 7-minute video below includes two of chapters I read at Paging Columbus, each describing how one of the main ghosts died (the third chapter had a little too much background noise to hear clearly on the video). Enjoy!
Thanks again to Hannah and to the wonderful Paging Columbus audience!
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