January Book Reviews

I read five books in January with mixed results. Here are my thoughts:

Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps
by Kelly Williams Brown

Lots of good advice here on everything from cleaning to careers to catastrophes. Worth a read or at least a skim for adults of any age. If you’ve ever looked for a single source that covered investment strategies, hookup etiquette and condolences letters, this is the book for you.

When the Music’s Over
(Inspector Banks #23)
by Peter Robinson

Can’t say that I loved this one. Love a good mystery, but this one dragged in places. Also, it just seemed there were no good guys. Pervasive racism from all corners. Multigenerational poverty with the implication that those afflicted simply couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

Year of Yes
by Shonda Rhimes

My first book of the year and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t expect to. I thought I needed to say no more, but can see upon reading that I was wrong. My advice to readers is to not get hung up on how different your life is from hers. She may be saying yes to speaking at an Ivy League commencement or appearing on Jimmy Kimmel. But at its core, saying yes to the meat raffle at the VFW or joining some coworkers for lunch might have the same effect.

Trust the Wolf
(Shift #1)
by Zoe Ashwood

Trust the Wolf is romance featuring shifters and a heroine capable of taking care of herself in some pretty challenging situations. As the title implies, she is called upon to trust a wolf shifter — Jason, but she’s not certain that she can or should.

The book is well-paced and the characters developed. I enjoyed the strong female role model and the struggle between two competing factions which extended from New York City to Montreal and beyond. The shifters took on the unique characteristics of the animals they shifted into, so it was interesting to watch that unfold. There was a lot of sex — handled in a non-corny or cringey manner. I was already hoping for a sequel halfway through the book because I wanted to see where the characters could go and I was pleasantly surprised to see a teaser for the next book included at the end.

Trust the Wolf was given to me as a advanced review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review this book.

In the Woods
(Dublin Murder Squad #1)
by Tana French

** spoiler alert ** Kind of up in the air on this one. Love the Dublin Murder Squad series but I’ve read them out of order and didn’t realize that this was the first. French has improved dramatically since.

1. When the author thinks she’s dropping breadcrumbs, she’s actually tossing chunks of baguette. Examples. *Of course* Rosalind was involved, that was clear from the beginning, and yes the Ryan/Cassie relationship was doomed.

2. So much unresolved — maybe it will be wrapped up in other books. Examples. They didn’t search the crime scene and thoroughly question the people there — particularly the one who found the body? And the 20 year old murder never resolved. Hints that it was a person, animal, something supernatural or Ryan himself. That should have been handled. Who dunnit? What was that noise in the woods? I really thought the road construction would dig up the bodies. And there were no journalists sniffing around to find out where Ryan/Adam was when the missing children came up again?

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Rainy Day Productivity Tips for Writers

I love rainy days…

but it can be tough to be productive, when you’d rather be curled up with a book and a cup of tea.

On a recent a rainy day, I felt sleepy and unmotivated. I was already drinking coffee which didn’t help.

Here’s what i did to stay productive:

  • Pulled my hair into a high pony — it tells your body and brain that it’s time to work
  • Did a few yoga stretches. Getting your head below your heart helps get the blood flowing to your brain.
  • Jumped up and down It’s surprisingly energizing. Running up and down the stairs or a few jumping jacks also works.
  • Drank some cold water. Even better if you can add a shot of lemon.
  • Sprayed my face with Mario Badescu Aloe, Chamomile and Lavender Facial Spray, but there are other scents.
  • Put on a high energy music, like this Transformers Playlist.

How do you stay energized and motivated on a sleepy day?

5 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

This title is a little misleading because I don’t actually believe in writer’s block. Oh, the words don’t always flow from my pen like the rush of the rapids or even the trickle of a mountain stream. I just object to the word “block” because it sounds too much like an outside force that’s acting upon the writer, rather than something we do to ourselves.

It’s not a block like an insurmountable brick wall, it’s more like “writers stuck,” to put it inelegantly. That may be a better way to approach the situation.

Ever get stuck in mud or snow? You didn’t just sit in your car and do nothing, did you? No. You tried a few different options — rocking back and forth, adding traction under the tires or asking a friend to push you out of trouble.

It’s the same with writing. You were sailing along and for whatever reason, it all comes to a screeching halt.

But what can you do about it?

Consider these 5 ideas to overcome writer’s block:

Write garbage. Stop overthinking and just write anything. One of two things will happen. You’ll get into your groove or you’ll get at least something on the page that you can edit into shape. If you’re really in rough shape, just free write your frustrations. Write about the corner you’ve written yourself into. Brainstorm solutions, no matter how crazy. Some of the best ideas come when you stop censoring yourself and give yourself permission to go way outside the box.

Retroactively outline. You’re stuck for some reason. Sometimes there’s a plot hole you can’t write your way out of. If you are a plotter by nature, reexamine your outline to see where you may have gone off the rails. If you are a panster, make a loose outline. It doesn’t have to be detailed or follow traditional outline form, just jot down what you’ve covered so far and what you still need to cover. Jot plot points down on index cards and shuffle them around to see if you can make the story flow better.

Draw a picture. Take a break from words and just draw to activate a different part of your creative mind. Make a roadmap that outlines your plot, or a mindmap to help you do some problem-solving. Sketch your main characters as you see them in your mind. Draw a floorplan of the buildings in your story or a map of the town. Craft a vision board or collage of your story. Each of these ideas will give you a break from the grind while still keeping you immersed in your book.

Jump around. There’s no law that says you have to write your book in order. Sure, following the narrative thread might keep things flowing naturally, but if you’ve already come to a screeching halt, why not write that fight scene in Chapter 7 that’s been simmering in the back of your mind now, even though you’re still hung up in Chapter 3. This is where plotters have the advantage. They know what chapters and scenes are still to be written. If you’re stuck and you haven’t outlined, at least make a list of scenes and write the ones that are the most appealing to you even if they are not in order. It just might clarify the route you need to take to get from here to there.

Cut the noise. You may have trouble finding your voice because you are too busy listening to others. If there is one thing there is no shortage of in today’s world, it’s input. Press pause on Netflix, ditch the podcasts, consider a social media sabbatical. Put yourself in a situation where you have time to listen to your muse, your inner storyteller, whatever you like to call the wellspring that your inspiration flows from. Be alone with your thoughts, don’t drown them out with the thoughts of others. Try meditation. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be interrupted. Close your eyes and breathe deeply while you think about your story.

Did any of these ideas help break through your block? Let me know. If you have other ideas, share those in the comments too!

For additional reading on getting unstuck, check out the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. He tackles the topic pretty thoroughly.

Book Review: Less

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is an interesting character, so accustomed to being a young man that he’s not sure quite what to make of turning 50.

There are worse ways to avoid an awkward situation than taking a world tour that is mostly paid for and offers the opportunity to get some writing done while taking in the sites.

As a writer, I’m always a sucker for books about writers. Not sure how someone supports themselves on a couple of mid-list novels, but that’s what makes it fiction, right?

I was confused by the narrator who seemed to make their presence known with no rhyme or reason. It reminded me of Peter Falk’s character in The Princess Bride. You’re merrily enmeshed in the story when someone decides its time to remind you that you’re reading a book.

All is soon revealed though. I do recommend this book for anyone interested in a quick read, relationships, world travel or the writing life.

Writers on Film

What’s your favorite movie about writers or writing?

I’m watching End of the Tour about David Foster Wallace. I’m going to have to finally read Infinite Jest aren’t I? I’m on pace to exceed my 52 books in 2018 reading goal, so this seems like as good a time as any to tackle it.

One of my all time favorites is Midnight in Paris. It’s visually beautiful. I’ve had a lifelong love of Woody Allen movies (although now I know him to be a monster). I’m also obsessed with 1920s American expatriates in Paris.

A sort of campy and fun favorite, which I feel like no one has seen is My Alibi. It’s about a mystery writer with an extraordinarily vivid imagination and the enigmatic woman he meets. It stars Tom Selleck and Paulina Porizkova. If you can find it, watch it.

Pensive Pelican Reads: July/August

My July and August reads included six non-fiction and six fiction books. Three of them were re-reads, ten were hard copies and two were Kindle versions.

If I had to choose just one to recommend, I would suggest Bad Blood. The topic was fascinating, it was well-researched and paced as well as fiction. It was of particular interest to me because I’m fascinated with white collar crime and this story had completely slipped beneath my radar.

Here are the books I read in July and August 2018, working backward from the most recently finished.:

The Perfect Day Formula: How to Own the Day and Control Your Life

Not a ton of new ground here, but I don’t mind that. Reminders never hurt. A couple of stand out ideas include making a set of rules for yourself (e.g. I never have more than two drinks, I write 500 words every day) and making a not-to-do list, which is an interesting concept. Very quick read. Worth picking up.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

What can I say? This is at least my third reading and I watched the movie this weekend is well. The world J.K. Rowling has created is amazing. The friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione continues to deepen. We learn more about Harry’s abilities and strengths. Ginny’s character begins to develop and as always the plot progresses at a breakneck speed.

Fitter Faster: The Smart Way to Get in Shape in Just Minutes a Day

Not really anything I hadn’t read before. Quick and easy read though and could be a good addition to the bookshelf of someone trying to ease into fitness.

Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House

Not particularly well written, organized or edited, but worth a look. A bit self-serving, confirms what most of us suspect, but it’s a quick read.

Full review here.

The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage

The 5 second rule offers practical advice for overcoming procrastination, anxiety and fear. Properly applied, it can give you a kick in the pants to be your authentic self or to prevent introverts from turning into hermits.

Full Review here.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

It’s kind of amazing that people at the level of Board members George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and James Mattis failed to perform the baseline level of due diligence the average person would when purchasing a used car.

The President Is Missing

It wasn’t bad. Lagged in a few places, a few loose ends weren’t wrapped up, but they were minor ones and I didn’t guess the ending, which is important to me in a thriller.

A is for Alibi

This is a re-read for me. I love the entire series, but this read was to examine plotting, exposition and character development for my own writing education. It really is a master class in series mystery writing.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

As always, Lewis is able to take complicated topics and make them understandable to lay people. This one is a bit of a slog, but worth working through, particularly for Americans who may believe that the 2008 American financial collapse, triggered by subprime mortgages, occurred in a vacuum.

Before The Fall

At its core, this is a story about entitlement. Entitlement based on gender, on social standing, on wealth and the consequences of standing between an individual and what they believe they are entitled to. Heartbreaking and frustrating in parts, the characters are well-developed for the most part and the plot is well-paced. It’s a real page-turner. I tore through this in no time.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

What better form of escapism than diving back into a series where good ultimately triumphs over evil despite seemingly unsurmountable obstacles.

In this, the first book of the series, we meet the orphaned Harry Potter and are by his side as his world is turned upside down.

This is one of my favorite’s in the series because we witness Harry being lifted from the misery than is his life with the Dursleys who treat him horridly despite his being their own flesh and blood.

There is also a degree of innocence to the book that launches a series that will grow increasingly darker and more complex.

The Button War

Interesting allegory of the futility of war. The story is told from the viewpoint of children, so their impressions are filtered by their youth and the trickle of information that their parents share.

If you’ve read any of these books or want to recommend a book, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. All the books are linked to Amazon.

My Top 12 Writing Resources

This is a picture of a fraction of my books on writing, but it really does represent a good cross-section of my collection. I think they’re a little something for everyone here. Some of them are older, but I linked them to the closest matches I could find.

In no particular order:

  1. Writers Digest Crime Reference
  2. Writing Down the Bones
  3. On Writing
  4. 10,000 Baby Names
  5. Walking on Alligators
  6. The Playwrights Handbook
  7. The Copywriter’s Handbook 
  8. Bird by Bird
  9. Starting from Scratch
  10. How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author
  11. Writing in an Age of Silence
  12. Save the Cat

Share your favorites in the comments if you like. I’d love to hear what other writers rely on.