April 6

Review – Accusing Mr. Darcy

So here’s a fun fact for you – I’ve never listened to an audiobook. Ever. Weird, right? But I can’t make that claim any longer, not after enjoying Kelly Miller’s Accusing Mr. Darcy.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.

I’ll also admit that I’m a fan of classic literature. I still have copies of the Norton Anthology of British Literature and Norton Anthology of American Literature from when I was in college. They are worn and tattered and littered with little slips of paper that act as bookmarks for some of my favorite pieces. Sure, some of it is incredibly dated, but the poetic, romantic language has always held an attraction for me.

And that’s one of the things I enjoyed about this novel. Ms. Miller does a wonderful job of capturing the rhythm and poetry of Jane Austen, while still retaining her own voice. In my opinion, that’s not easy to do. From a writer’s perspective, I think it would be difficult to walk that fine line, to continue in the vein of the original while still being unique. I’m curious as to how long it took Miller to write this, and how many rewrites were involved.

For those who aren’t familiar with Jane Austen, she was a romantic author who penned several classic novels. Arguably the most famous is Pride and Prejudice (1813), a comedy/drama of manners set in Great Britain. It’s one of the “Great Novels” I read many years ago.

Which brings me to the next thing I liked about Accusing Mr. Darcy. Instead of rehashing the themes of the original novel, Miller takes the story in a different direction and turns it into a murder mystery. It was fun to see familiar characters in a different situation, something more grave and compelling than just a story about romance. Higher stakes and a bit more tension.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t listen to the novel alone. I actually listened to it with my partner while we were laying in bed in the evenings. We usually read at night, she with her Kindle and me with a physical book (occasionally my Kindle, but I prefer paper). My partner has also had more experience with audiobooks. There have been many mornings where she had one playing while getting ready for work. Listening together was an interesting experience for both of us and it allowed us to discuss the story together. I highly recommend the experience

It also helped that the narrator for this story, Stevie Zimmerman, was a perfect choice. Not only was her accent a perfect accompaniment, but she also handled voicing the character in a respectful manner. What I mean is, she didn’t necessarily try to create voices and act the parts, she simply rose or lowered her voice. I feel that helped to keep me involved in the story and didn’t break my immersion.

Classic, romantic-era literature may not be your ideal genre of fiction, but I think you might find Accusing Mr. Darcy to be your exception. It’s well-written, well-plotted, and a fun excursion from modern fiction. Definitely one you’ll think about after the final page.

RB

April 1

Writing about Writing

There’s a lot to be said for instruction from professional artists. Their advice can help you to steer clear of issues they encountered on their journeys. They can offer support and encouragement, maybe a little insight and motivation.

Over the years I’ve read many books about writing that were written by writers. Many were insightful, giving me a glimpse into the author’s background, what inspires them, what their process is like, and I’ve often tried following their routines and advice to see what will work for me. Some things have worked, other things haven’t. The point, however, is to try.

Recently, as I was straightening up my book collection, I started thinking about all the advice I’ve read and how much of it has guided me on my writing journey. And with that in mind, I thought it might be useful to other writers to share some of this. So here are some of the books on writing that I’ve read and garnered some useful guidance (in no particular order). I hope you’ll find some insight in them, as well.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. This is my favorite book about the writing process by one of my favorite authors. Bradbury mixes bits of personal history with an overall view on the process of writing, even managing to throw in a few humble brags (like writing a story every week for most of his life). The man was a writing machine, passionate about the craft, and never at a loss for inspiration and ideas. If you only read one book about the writing process, please make it this one. Zen in the Art of Writing cover.

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Stern was a beloved creative writing instructor at Florida State University and was incredibly passionate about fiction. In addition to writing essays for National Public Radio and heading the Creative Writing program at FSU, he also founded the World’s Best Short Short Story Contest (250 word limit). He was a proponent of the spontaneity of the writing process, encouraging his students to “not overthink”, but instead let inspiration guide them. A great read for writers who want to break the rules.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. An excellent book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (which is one of the best short story collections ever written). Butler’s view is that fiction does not come from ideas, but from our dreams, or more precisely, from the same place where our dreams originate. It’s an interesting concept and one I appreciate. Imagination is the starting point, hidden in our unconscious minds. Reading this book got me thinking deeply about where my ideas come from, and it’s the reason I keep a pad and pen next to the bed so I can write down my nocturnal thoughts.

On Writing by Stephen King. I think it’s safe to say that most writers, especially younger ones, have read this book. But if you haven’t, it’s definitely worth your time. King writes about his story-telling journey, interspersed with his thoughts on the process, other writers, and the publishing industry. A must-read.

On Writing by Eudora Welty. Another Pulitzer Prize winner and an interesting, if slightly outdated, look at the writing process and what it takes to be a writer. On Writing is actually an excerpt from a longer work entitled, The Eye of the Story, but this slim volume focuses on the fundamentals of fiction. This is a book that discusses the rules in a concise fashion, and although originally written in 1942, much of the advice is still pertinent. And for what it’s worth, Welty’s book came before King’s.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. This is arguably the most technical book on the list. Gardner, a best-selling author and creative writing instructor, offers a clinical and straight-forward approach to writing fiction, even going so far as to use graphs, geometric charts, and sentence diagrams to illustrate the process of plotting, development, and rhythm. While not necessarily a fun read, The Art of Fiction provides a technical view of the process. I found it educational. The Art of Fiction cover.

I believe there’s a lot to learn from other writers. Everyone has their own personal take on the process, with a little overlap here and there. But still, in my opinion, it’s important to explore the craft, to see what other writers do, to learn new tricks and tips, and maybe even improve your own writing along the way.

Never pass up an opportunity to learn.

RB

 

March 24

Order from Chaos

I’ve finally organized my books. It only took a decade. Maybe two. When we first moved into our current house I had fewer books, bookcases in various rooms, and everything was fine. But you know how it is, there are more books being published, which means more books to read, which means I have to buy them. The way I explained it to my partner is that I’m doing my part to support the economy. So in a way, buying books is patriotic, right?

Story collections.

More to the point, I’ve bought a lot of books over the years and, as noted in a previous post, those babies were stacked two deep on the sagging shelves of some extremely old bookcases. Fun fact: The ones that sagged were ones we got either from stores or from places we worked (surplus office supplies). The one bookcase that didn’t sag was the one I built myself when I was sixteen years old. It’s been my bedside nightstand/bookshelf for, well, many years and it’s still holding up.

A lot of books.

What I needed was a big bookcase, something that would fill an entire wall in my home office. Something sturdy, with glass doors to cut down on the dust and dog hair. And something that would hold all my books.

I considered building it myself, but that would be a major undertaking. I don’t have a wood shop and I don’t have all the tools I would need for the project, like a table saw. And I don’t have a garage, either, so no place to store them. That left me with the option to find something I like online and hope for the best.

I did a lot of searching, comparing materials, prices, colors, designs, but I finally settled on the Billy Bookcase from IKEA (and no, not an endorsement; I paid for them myself) because I liked the design. Of course, these are mass-produced products, so it’s not particle board/pressed wood instead of solid wood, but I can work around that.

My main concern was sagging shelves. The bane of all book collectors. But I have a workaround. Shelf supports. Basically, I can cut some 1 inch x 2 inch pieces of wood, paint them to match the shelves, then basically stack them from bottom to top, adding support to the center of each shelf. And all I lose is one inch of space on each row. A small price to pay. I also need to tweak the way the doors hang. They’re all a little offset, but easy enough to correct.

A collection of poetry books.

Now, of course, comes the fun part: The organization. So far, I have all my books on the shelves, and roughly organized by fiction, poetry, humor, collections, religion/philosophy, and non-fiction. I’ll break those down into sub-genres, then by author. My partner, however, thinks I should organize my books by color. I tried to explain to her that would make it difficult to locate books, but she can be persistent. I’m hoping I can distract her by suggesting she organize her shoe collection by color. I think she has more shoes than I have books, so that should keep her occupied for a while.

My bookcase.

For what it’s worth, I feel a sense of relief now that all my books are in one place, somewhat organized, and will be easier to locate when needed.

Next on my to-do list? My vinyl albums. Wish me luck!

RB

 

February 25

My 2021 Reading List

I’m off to a late start on my 2021 reading due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m ready to crack some spines and enjoy being swept away into deep space, magical realms, and exposed to new ideas. After the last year or so, I’m in desperate need for a little escape from reality.

I actually have two “to-read” stacks. One is physical books. I keep a stack on the bookshelf next to my side of the bed, and the other exists on my Kindle. One of my simple joys is laying in bed at night and reading for an hour or so. I find it’s great fodder for my dreams, although I don’t necessarily dream about the stories I’m reading. I think that reading before falling asleep stimulates my imagination, stirs up the dust and cobwebs in my mental archives and allows me to have vivid, and occasionally crazy, dreams. My unconscious imagination wanders down all sorts of twisting and turning paths, and oftentimes I wake up with ideas for stories of my own.

And that’s what I need right now – inspiration. I’m a firm believer that creativity is like a muscle in that it needs exercise, to be worked regularly, pushed so that it grows stronger. I had to go for a good two months without working it, and now I’m feeling the pain as I try to get it back in shape. But I’m not giving up. Baby steps, right?

Here are the physical books I have lined up (so far) to read this year:

Stack of books.
Some of my 2021 reads.

The virtual stack on my Kindle includes A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity, The Garden of Stone Houses, and Accusing Mr. Darcy. These are books written by authors in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I have a fairly big mountain to conquer this year, especially when getting a late start, but I’m looking forward to the adventure. And I’ll be sure to review them all here on my blog and hopefully inspire you, dear reader, to pick up copies of these books, as well.

RB

January 21

Hoarding or Collecting?

Okay, so I have a problem. I love books. All books. But I have a special affinity for physical books, hardbound, paper, and ink books. I love to be surrounded by them, to hold them, feel the texture of the covers and the pages under my fingertips, smelling the unique scent of paper and ink in new books, and that particular smell of old volumes. I’ll admit it…I’m addicted.

A clutter of books
A so-called “cluttered” bookshelf.

I think my problem began when I was young. After school I would walk a few blocks to my grandparent’s house, and just around the corner from them was a small, public library nestled in the middle of a neighborhood. I would spend hours wandering those dimly-lit aisles, the only person in attendance (other than the ancient librarian). I still remember that smell, sort of mildewy, dusty, and strangely comforting.

Of course, my early addiction was fed by the annual Scholastic Book Fairs at my school. Most anyone who went to public schools in the US remembers those events. My dad would give me ten or fifteen dollars and I’d buy all the books I could. I ended up with armfuls of Hardy Boys mysteries, Encyclopedia Brown, Shel Silverstein, and whatever else I could get my hands on. It was the highlight of every year throughout elementary school.

The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s time to do something about my books. I have them stacked two rows deeps on a few shelves, and those shelves are beginning to sag from the weight. I did go on a purge a few years ago and got rid of most of my paperbacks, but I’m loathe to let go of any of my hardbound books. Having to choose which to keep and which to set free would be like Sophie’s Choice. Makes me shudder.

A bunch of books
One of my “cluttered” bookshelves.

The solution, I believe, is more bookcases. A simple and elegant answer to my problem. I’ve been eyeing some in the IKEA catalog. They’d fit quite nicely in my office, once I remove one of the old bookcases, and I could fit two of them side by side. More shelving, the books would be nicely displayed, and my partner would hopefully get off my back about my so-called “cluttered office”.

You know, I could say the same thing about her shoe collection. Although, her shoe collection doesn’t contain a few signed first-editions and my books have a longer shelf life. 

Pun intended.

RB

 

December 9

Review – The Name of the Rose

Back in the late 1980s, I saw a film titled, The Name of the Rose, and thought it was fantastic. It starred Sean Connery and Christian Slater, and told the story of murder, intrigue, and forbidden books in a medieval monastery. Connery’s character, William of Baskerville, was a sort of a Sherlock Holmes in that he paid attention to little details to discover clues. Slater played his apprentice, Adso, who also narrates the story as an old man looking back on an exciting part of his young life. Sadly, the film didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s always been one of my favorites. The movie, like so many, was based on a novel by the same name and written by first-time novelist Umberto Eco, an Italian medievalist and philosopher.

Now obviously, I was interested in reading the novel, but I hesitated. This was in part due to the fact that the book was daunting. Over five-hundred pages and filled with philosophy, theology, social and political commentary, and peppered with all sorts of references to other sources – books, art, historical events, biblical prophecy – and was apparently a difficult read. In fact, someone who had attempted to read it warned me that in order to truly understand the novel, a reader needed to be well-versed in medieval architecture, monastic life, philosophy, and fluent in Greek, Italian, and Latin. I decided to pass.

But earlier this year I finally found the courage to pick up a copy of the novel and read it. Of course, I had two choices – a physical copy or an e-book. I went with the physical copy, hardbound, because I knew that if I made it through this beast, I wanted to have a trophy for my bookcase. And yes, if I chose the e-version I would have all the translations at my fingertips. But I felt that was cheating. I wanted the full experience as Eco intended.

Was it a difficult read? Yes and no. The story itself is wonderful. William and Adso arrive at the monestary to prepare for an important theological debate between religious orders. But they arrive just as a murder is discovered, and from there the story turns into a murder mystery that rivals anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. William’s character is definitely inspired by Sherlock Holmes, seeing the minute details of different situations and amazing the other monks with his discoveries.

The mystery – and additional murders – all seem to center on the monastery library, a collection said to rival and possibly surpass the great Library of Alexandria. Books from all over the known world, in all known languages, and many of them forbidden and kept hidden from all but the Abbot and head librarian. William and Adso are told at the very beginning that they are not permitted to enter the library, but they both know that’s where they will find the answers they seek.

The narrative, however, can run into dry spots. Eco was an incredibly intelligent man and the writing shows this. There are pages and pages of theological discussions about the nature of Christ, his poverty, the place of the Church in a changing society. While interesting, it can be a bit of a slog to get through. And no, it’s not necessarily pertinent to the story itself, but it does help to give perspective and background to the many characters. Additionally, with careful reading you can find little clues as to their motivations and possibly the part they may – or may not have – played in the murders.

There is also quite a bit of untranslated Greek and Latin. I did okay with the Latin. Well, I was able to discern small bits. I grew up Catholic, attended mass on a regular basis, and my great-aunt was a nun, so when the Latin was religious text, I was able to make some sense out of it. The Greek was, well, Greek to me and I ended up going online to translate it. There are also a lot of references to ancient texts and religious dogma that I wasn’t familiar with, so I kept my pad nearby for a quick Google search every few pages. I’ll admit, it definitely slowed my reading speed to a crawl, but that was okay. The book – the story – was immersive and having to do this research made the experience interactive. It’s like I was participating in the story to some degree.

I’m glad I finally found the courage to read this novel, and now that I’ve finished it, I plan to re-read it in the near future. The next time, however, I plan to do some research ahead of time to find out what tidbits I missed on my first pass. As I mentioned above, Eco peppered the novel with all sorts of meta-references, so I want to make sure I catch them all. It’s sort of like watching a well-written movie. You watch it the first time for entertainment, but then you go back and rewatch it to catch all the little things you may have missed the first time. To me, that’s good art because it warrants additional viewing, or reading.

If you enjoy murder mysteries, medieval history, philosophy, theology, and a story that blends fact with fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy this novel. But be warned, it’s an undertaking and you may want to go with the e-version to make it easier on yourself. It might also help to watch the movie, first. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Plus, Sean Connery is perfect in the role.

RB

November 23

Banned Books in California

I’m a proponent of freedom of expression, that authors should be able to write about any topic they please. Partly because I believe in self-expression, but also because I feel that writing about all topics – especially sensitive ones – is a good way to explore them and see them from different angles. I’ll admit, not every controversial book is well-written and I can’t state that all authors have the best intentions. However, at the very least, the controversies spark conversations, and the conversations can lead to education and understanding.

So I was annoyed to see that schools in Burbank, California have decided to ban five books due to concerns over racism. The titles in question are:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Cay
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

The problem, from what I understand, stems from several white students making racists remarks to their black classmates, and when confronted about it claimed they said these things because they’d read them in these books. Understandably, the parents of the black children were upset about this and appealed to the school board to pull these titles from the required reading list.

Okay, I completely get where the parents are coming from on this. They want to protect their children. However, I feel that the problem here doesn’t lie with the content of the books, but in how the books are being taught.

To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is a story about how a town deals with racism. No, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it works as a teachable moment. Not all innocent men go free, and the guilty aren’t always punished. In this case, an innocent young black man is convicted of a horrible crime by an all-white jury in a small southern town. It’s not encouraging racism, it’s showing the terrible results of it. Huckleberry Finn is similar in that it shows a period of history where racism was normal and accepted, and how a young man experiences it while having adventures with his friend Jim, a slave. If nothing else, this story is a satire of the attitudes of the time period and a interesting piece of history.

With this situation in the Burbank school district, it appears these messages were lost on the students or possibly not conveyed in a meaningful way. This isn’t the fault of the stories. The anti-racism messages are there. I’ll admit, I’ve only read the first three books on the list, but I did look up the other two in order to have some perspective. To me, it seems like the schools need to reassess how these books are taught. It’s obvious that the students – or at least some of them – came away from these stories with the completely wrong idea.

But even so, instead of banning the books, the schools and parents need to use this as a tool to help their children understand racism, the root causes of it, the history of it, and how we can move beyond it. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I believe that racism stems from fear – fear of ‘the other’, fear of the unknown, fear of things that are different. Exposure to different ideas, different cultures, different ideas, and the ability to think critically, are some of the remedies. I know that there are other causes, but I feel these stories can be used as windows to the past, so show children how things used to be and how we can be better than we were.

I’m always anti-censorship, especially when it comes to fiction. I hope the schools in Burbank can reconsider their decision, reinstate these books, and teach them properly. Our future depends on it.

RB

 

 

 

October 28

Setting the Spooky Mood

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it’d be a good time to recommend a couple of things to get you in the mood.

First, you can grab a copy of my dark fiction collection, Dark Journeys. It’s a mix of horror, sci-fi, and speculative fiction. Perfect for reading alone in a darkened room (if you’re using an e-reader) or by candlelight (if you grab the paperback version). The stories include seductive demons, patchwork lovers, marooned astronauts, and an assortment of creepy things to haunt your dreams.

If you’re looking for something auditory, then you can listen to a couple of my podcast episodes. Last year I read one of my short stories, Consumed, for my Halloween episode. More recently, I recorded an episode about the Art of Fear. The first one will give you a few chills, while the second one will inspire.

There’s no shortage of horror-related stuff out there for the discriminating fear aficionado, and nowadays you don’t need books or movies, just read the news and you’ll be horrified.

Man reading burning newspaper
Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Stay safe, everyone!

RB

October 27

The Art of Fear

Why are horror and fear popular subjects in the art world? For centuries, we’ve continued to seek out ways to scare ourselves and we keep coming back for more. Join me as I explore the reasons behind our obsession with fear and how we explore it in our artistic output.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, Amazon, and PodBean. If you prefer, I also have a YouTube channel.

Or you can listen to it right here:

October 21

A Challenging Read

While I’m a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, I don’t limit my reading list to those specific genres. I feel that, as a writer, I need to expose myself to a wide variety of ideas and input. Plus, my interests are all over the place, so if you took a peek at the stack of books on my shelves you’d see everything from astronomy and biology to biographies and fiction from almost every genre.

Currently, I’m reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and it’s possibly the most challenging book of fiction I’ve read. And this is despite the fact I’ve watched the movie multiple times over the years. It’s one of my favorites.

I’ll post a full review once I’ve finished it. I’m currently a little over halfway through this beast and, while I’m loving the story, it’s so incredibly dense with details and obscurities that it’s taking me a long time to read. And don’t get me wrong – I’m loving the adventure.

Eco is an incredible storyteller, and this medieval monastery murder mystery (alliteration intended!) is well-plotted. But what’s getting me is the almost overwhelming amount of detail he’s incorporated into the story. I’m finding that I have to pause every few pages to look up architectural details he’s described, or to translate some obscure passage from an ancient book of African poetry, or simply to translate some bit of latin. All those years growing up Catholic, you’d think some of that Latin would have stuck in my head. There’s also a great deal of theology and philosophy, so a few passages require a re-read or two to make sure I’m understanding it all.

Of course, it would probably have been easier for me to read it on my Kindle so I could have the footnotes and translations readily available, but no, I bought this one in hardback. It’s a keeper and a fine additional to my unwieldily home library.

I feel like in reading this book, I’m not only being entertained, I’m being educated. My Catholic background helps a bit. I’m familiar with a lot of the ceremony, the prayers, the traditions, so I can easily relate to many aspects of the story. But Eco did so much research into obscure parts of the religion that I find myself both confounded and impressed.

I’m hoping to finish the book by the end of the month, but I don’t want to rush it. This is a book to savor, to enjoy, to relish.

Now, back to it!

RB