Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Disney+ Project: Part 9: the 1980s

More Disney! (See our earlier thoughts hereherehereherehereherehere and here)

We've hit a few Disney movies I hadn't seen in this batch. While I remember The Fox and the Hound through a veil of tears, I had never seen The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, or Oliver and Company. I'm guessing it's because I was a young teenager right as they came out. I'm sure I thought I was "too old" for "kid cartoons." Luckily I grew out of that misconception not long after. I was looking forward to seeing Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid again. 

I still know *all* the songs in the Little Mermaid. For me, that's when Disney became a double threat hitting my musical nerd and fairy tale fan buttons all at the same time.

My daughter had seen NONE of these, though she's familiar with the music from The Little Mermaid since our middle school put it on as a musical a year or two ago.

So here's what we thought of 80s Disney:

Fox and the Hound: We knew we were set up for heartbreak from the outset. Heck, Todd's mother didn't last as long as Bambi's! We sat and talked about this one for a while when it was over because it was pretty morally complicated.

The hunter and his dogs weren't just simple villains (though the movie is pretty solidly anti-hunting), but what hope was there for the doomed friendship between natural enemies? And what a bittersweet ending. Way more adult and nuanced than we were expecting.

The Black Cauldron: So, is Gurgi actually Smeagol? The vocal resemblance was uncanny, even down to some of the lines (munchies and crunchies? talking about himself in the third person?) This Disney film had a very different feel than any of the previous ones. It wasn't a musical--no songs at
all, actually. It was darker and more directly scary than any of the others, too. We found it a little sloppy in building character arcs, so lacking in the emotional impact it might have had, but definitely worth seeing. While we enjoyed it, it didn't feel like a Disney movie to us.

The Great Mouse Detective was definitely more for me than for my twelve year old. She knows who Sherlock Holmes is only vaguely, and certainly didn't know about Basil Rathbone, so some of the Easter Eggs remained hidden for her, while I was cackling with inner glee. We both love Vincent Price, though, and he was magnificent as Ratigan. Still she found our Dr. Dawson charming in the same way as The Rescuers' Bernard. A very satisfying little gem we would watch again.

Roger Rabbit, too, was filled with references that went right over my girl's head. She's not steeped in noir like I am. 

On the other hand, she is a fan of old animation, so she had a blast identifying old characters as they wandered through and where they are from. We were both so pleased to see Betty Boop. 

When I watched this one for the first time (when it was new), I had not predicted the big bad guy reveal until just before it happened, and I was pleased that my daughter didn't guess ahead of time either. She's far too good at guessing where a story is going, so she's hard to surprise with a twist!

We were both lukewarm on Oliver and Company. We liked the relationship between Fagin and the dogs, and Sikes was a strong villain, but the whole thing just felt a little lackluster. Maybe too polished? It's the first time Disney used established singers like Billy Joel and Bette Midler as opposed to voice actors. It didn't feel like the characters were singing the songs, but like they were lip syncing, if that makes any sense. In fact, writing this now, a few days later, I can't remember a single song from the film. I guess music is a bigger part of what we love in Disney than I realized. 

That made The Little Mermaid truly welcome. It's the first of a new style of Disney princesses that dominated the 1990s and still continues today: spunky women with agency. 

It really feels like a stage musical, too, hitting all the expected notes: a yearning ballad for our heroine, a gloating moment for the villain, a comedy number (the cook), a setting piece (Under the Sea), etc. 

Instead of the musical numbers being a break from the action as they often were in older films, the songs are the major vehicle for the emotional highpoints. We're only missing the hero and heroine singing their love together, but in most of the screentime they share, her voice is stuck in a seashell, so there are some limits there. 

My daughter commented repeatedly on how strange Ariel looks--giant headed with shockingly skinny arms, ridiculously small waist, etc. I have to agree--even in a long field of unrealistic portrayals of female bodies, Ariel stands out (swims out?) as ridiculously proportioned. 

And, as a Greek mythology buff, my girl was confused by this version of Poseidon, who seems to be less of a god of the sea and more of just the king of the merpeople, but who has some of Poseidon's traditional attributes and powers. 

But we really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to enjoying 1990s Disney with her. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

What I Was Reading When the Pandemic Hit

Focusing on reading in March proved difficult for me. I started strong, with Margaret Atwood's The Testaments and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, books I had begun right as February became March. (click the links to see my full reviews on Goodreads).

I had just finished Silenced by Nicole Givens Kurtz when the Corona crisis hit. All three pleased me in different ways: The Testaments made me think. Wide Sargasso Sea washed over me with tragic poetry. Silenced fascinated me with its futuristic gritty noir world.

But, I couldn't seem to find the stillness for reading for a while once we went into lockdown. Too much uncertainty. Too much feeling like I should be *doing* something, something more obviously productive than reading. Something that made my family more comfortable or eased someone's suffering (someone else's suffering apparently: because reading really does make me feel better). That restless energy doesn't work for a reading life, at least not for me.

I was still able to write--I guess I see that as productive, since it does earn me some income and builds my second career. I returned edits on the next novella for The Menopausal Superhero series, promoted the release of the first one (Friend or Foe, book 1.5--came out just 2 days ago), promoted the 99¢ sale of book 1 in my series, and made some forward progress on my WIP, a gothic romance, The Architect and the Heir. Steady, if slow progress, my normal pace.

Reading-wise, though, I've slowed way down. I've been working my way through Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass for a book club selection, but it's not charming me like it should. I think I'm just in the wrong headspace for punny nonsense without a plot.

I've also been listening to Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, and quite liking it, but it's a 34 hour book, so I've still got some 20 hours to go. I'll probably finish it while it's still April.

I finally decided that what I needed was short, escapist work. That's working for now. Feathers by Jorge Corona and Captured by the Alien Vampire Highlander by Crymsyn Hart both distracted me by immersing me in fantasy worlds with unusual main characters. I think this is a trend I'll continue into April, looking for fun distractions and remembering that brevity can indeed be the soul of wit.

What are you reading? Does being at home have you reading more or less? Any suggestions for my immediate TBR? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

IWSG April: Pandemic Edition

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the March 4 posting of the IWSG are Diane Burton, JH Moncrieff, Anna @ Emaginette, Karen @ Reprobate Typewriter, Erika Beebe, and Lisa Buie-Collard! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say.


April 1 question - The IWSG’s focus is on our writers. Each month, from all over the globe, we are a united group sharing our insecurities, our troubles, and our pain. So, in this time when our world is in crisis with the covid-19 pandemic, our optional question this month is: how are things in your world?

In the larger scheme of things, we're fortunate here at la Casa Bryant. We're all in good health, the adults are able to work from home and be paid as usual, the larders were well stocked before the crisis hit. 

We're all introverts and have great technology access and plenty of distractions in stock. Our child still at home is twelve, which makes this way easier than it would have been if she were two. The hubby and I are solid in our relationship and united in this fight. 

Complaining, when I know how much harder this is hitting others in the world, feels ridiculous. 

My day job is teaching, so I see firsthand our families struggling to feed themselves and children struggling with isolation. Even if I try to stay away from news poisoning--limiting my news sources and time spent reviewing them--the wider problems poke sharp fingers into the corners of my awareness and I can't be blithe and ignorant, even if I'd like to be in some ways. 

I have a constant restless energy beneath my skin, fueled by anxiety and worry. Although finding time to write is easier than it usually is during the school year, finding focus and using that time well is harder. We're trying to balance preparing for the worst with generosity to others. 

I'm staying focused on the positives. My recent blog posts try to highlight the good: I have time to try new recipes and cook better meals. We're getting so much family time! My house is slowly coming into better order than it has been the entire time we've lived here. 

I'm taking nature walks every day, and the time among trees, flowers, and running water calms the wild panic to manageable levels, leaving me better equipped to care for my family. 

I hope all of you are safe and well, and able to find some cause for joy during our forced isolation. I pray that our nation and communities will learn lasting lessons that make us a better people--a people who value the work of our service industry and recognize that the pace we're trying to keep is killing us. When we get back to normal, may normal be better than it was in the past! 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

My Apocalypse Kitchen: Eating Well Helps

Food is one of my love languages, so here in our time of crisis, I've turned to my kitchen to prepare comforts for myself and my family. Even though I didn't learn to cook until I was in my thirties, I've become a pretty decent and adventurous home cook in the intervening years. I never would have expected to take so much pleasure in preparing food for my family, but I really really do.

I don't always get to cook the way I want to. We're busy people, and often have to plan a meal based more on speed of preparation and facility of reheating than on taste or nutritional value. Since I teach for a living, the amount of standing time is usually a factor, too--I can't handle something that requires too much on-my-feet-time when I've just been on my feet for eight hours already. I'm getting old, y'all. The feet can't take it!

But without commutes and evening commitments, we have more time. Teaching from home is *way* easier on my poor little feet, too.

I've collected a fair amount of ambitious kitchen equipment that doesn't usually sees much use in the hurly burly of my lightspeed life. Standing mixer, fancy blender, food processor, insta pot, etc. Now I finally have time to play with all my kitchen toys!

We also have a good collection of spices and herbs, bought a jar at a time over the past few years as we tried out culinary experiments. And we managed to get our deep freeze and pantry stocked with meats and other useful things before the crisis hit.

All this together means that we're eating well during the Corona Crisis!

Here's what we've been having:

Week One: The Dinner Plan: We comforted ourselves with current favorites, mostly from The Dinner Plan cookbook by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion. I've been a devotee of this cookbook for a year or so, ever since taking a class with one of the authors at A Southern Season (a fancy kitchen store near us that recently closed). 

It's a great recipe book for a busy household. Recipes are categorized and tagged with helpful headers like "staggered" (for meals that can be served in shifts without loss of taste), "make ahead" (for when you can't cook tomorrow, but you still want to eat), "one dish" (when mess matters as much as taste), and "extra fast" (when speed is your top priority).

We also love this one because the dishes are diverse and interesting enough to please my husband and me, but not so fancy or alien that the picky twelve-year-old won't eat them.

Sheet-Pan Fajitas, Japanese-Style Fried Chicken, Turkey Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce, Crunchy Pork Cutlets, and Beef Stew in a Hurry found their way to our dinner table in the first week of school from home and work from home.

Each can be prepared in a half hour or so (though it always takes me longer the first time I make a new recipe). Even after a year, there are still some wonderful sounding meals in these pages that I haven't yet tried making, and we've only had one or two that didn't have the family excited.

Week Two: Curry and Experiments:  When we moved into the second week, I pulled out 660 curries by Raghavan Iyer, a cookbook I bought shortly after I married my husband and found out that he loves Indian food. Even though that's "been a minute" now, I haven't made even a third of the recipes in this book yet. 

Our youngest, as mentioned, is picky. So, in the past, we've mostly made curries on "just us two"
nights--which didn't happen all that often. I made Yogurt-Almond Chicken, something I make a couple of times of year and never fails to please us. We were prepared to give the kiddo a frozen pizza or something if she didn't like it, but she surprised us by enjoying it, too.

A plus side of making curry is how wonderful it makes the whole house smell. It's high prep, requiring grinding of spices and blending of marinades, but well worth it!

I have come to enjoy making something more complicated. On top of pleasing our palates, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment and pride in my kitchen skills. Indian dishes often have me reaching for seldom used kitchen equipment as well, which is like getting to play with new toys.

Because trying new things is part of how I stay interested in cooking, I pulled out Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, the same authors who put together The Dinner Plan. I bought it at the same time, but hadn't yet used any of the recipes inside. They always looked just a little too fancy for the youngest Bryant, or too long in prep time for a week night.

But my parameters have changed! So, we've now tried the Chicken Pot Pie recipe (delish!), Miso-Lime Chicken Lettuce Wraps (tasty, if less wow-ing), Asian Pork Sliders with Magic Miso-Mayo (the kiddo LOVED these), and Sausage and White Bean Gratin (a new favorite for the adults).

We have plans to try Chicken and Rice with Ginger-Scallion Sauce and Japanese Style "Meat and Potatoes" in the next few days, assuming our next foraging trip to the grocery store can fill in a few ingredients.

A lot of things are hard about staying at home, even for a group of introverts like us.

I'm so grateful to have this way of taking care of myself and my family. When the house smells of cooking spices, we know that happiness follows.

What are you eating during this time at home? Were you already a cook? Are you learning? Do you lean toward easy comforts or daring experiments when you need comfort and distraction?

I'd love to hear about your apocalypse kitchen in the comments!

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Plus Sides to the Pandemic at la Casa Bryant

I lean towards optimism in most circumstances, trusting that time and energy spent can improve most situations. At least I believe that nothing gets any better if you don't try something.

Looking at our leadership in my country right now, holding onto that optimism has been harder. But at least I'm in this with an intelligent and thoughtful partner, who has a very useful skillset for managing an isolationist life for a while.

And we're lucky, truly, on a lot of fronts. We're all still healthy. Both adults are able to work from home and are still being paid. The kiddo at home is introverted and digitally connected to her friends, so is handling social distancing pretty well for someone her age. The dog is old enough to appreciate a slow life.

So, looking to the sunny side: here are some plus sides to the pandemic at our house.

1. We're playing with our toys. Over the years, we've collected a lot of them: video games, board games, legos, musical instruments, books, craft supplies, DIY project tools, recipe books, etc. An embarrassment of riches really: more than we can realistically use.

But with extra time at home, we're digging into all these wonderful things and enjoying them. Go past us! For buying things even though we didn't have time for them? At least we're occupied now, without having to shop while we're money worried.

2. We're getting out in nature more. I'm a walker. If you follow me on Instagram, you'll see that my feed is full of pictures of beauty I spot on my daily nature walks. It's my main stress relief.

Because I'm a teacher and my hours are early, even during the winter months, I can usually make it to a trail with a little daylight left to burn. But, my daughter is not so much a walker, and my husband isn't usually home in daylight, so it's usually just me and the pup.

But, without commutes to worry about and with the kiddo legit needing a stretch of the legs, we're able to get out into the woods together. It's a real joy to me to share this love with my people (and still the pupper).

3. Lots of family time. My husband and I have been feeling the rush of time whooshing past us in recent years, as our baby turns into a teenager and our older child becomes an adult.

We've struggled to arrange our days so that we get time together as a family, time for each of us with our daughters, time for just the two of us, etc. all while still holding down demanding day jobs and handling the business of the household.

It's been lovely to be right there for our daughter when she hits a bump in completing her school-from-home assignments, to help her problem solve or just be amazed by how well she does this on her own.

We're playing games and watching shows together. We're really in tune with how everyone is feeling and doing a good job balancing the needs of each of us.

I think we'll miss this part when the speed of life picks back up.

4. The house is getting cleaner and better organized. When it's time to "take a break" from our work from home situations, we're each handling household tasks: cleaning up messes that have been allowed to linger, changing out loads of laundry, running the dishwasher, re-organizing storage situations, sorting things, etc.  It gets us moving and clears mental space as well by making our surroundings more pleasant.

It's lovely to slip these tasks into down moments of the work day, instead of struggling to do them *after* work when we're exhausted and wanting some relaxation and more playful togetherness.

We're even making progress on our giant attic project (building an entire new room up there for game storage). The supplies were mostly already purchased, and now we can repurpose that commuting time for mudding, sanding, and (hopefully soon) painting!

5. We're eating better. We're planner-aheaders, the sort of people who usually have a deep freeze full of meats and boxes and cans lining the shelves waiting for use. So, without panic shopping or hoarding, we've stayed pretty well supplied.

Since I'm not coming home from school emotionally and physically exhausted from managing 160 children across the day, our dinners have become more luxuriant affairs, rather than the "what can I make in 30 minutes that is palatable?" trick we'd mastered so well.

So, new recipes, and old favorites that "take too long" for a school night. Cooking together because we're all there. Dancing to music while the potato pancakes fry. I'm enjoying the prep time as much as the eating.

What's a plus side to isolation time for you and yours? Anything you'd like to hold onto when life returns to something more like normal? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Disney+ Project, Part 8: the 1970s

More Disney! (See our earlier thoughts herehereherehereherehere, and here)

Welcome to the 1970s in Disney animation. We've finally reached films that were made during my lifetime. While Disney has often echoed its earlier work, using the same voice actors or animators or a similar style, that seemed especially obvious in these films, which is something my daughter and I both enjoyed. 

We delighted in hearing Phil Harris (Baloo of Jungle Book) as Thomas O'Malley and Little John; Eva Gabor as Duchess and Bianca; Pat Buttram as Napoleon, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Luke the Swamp Mouse; Sterling Holloway whom we'd already admired as Mr. Stork, Flower, The Cheshire Cat, and Kaa, returning in the 1970s as Roquefort and Winnie the Pooh. 

My daughter is interested in voice acting as a possible future career, so we make special note of those performances and these voice actors were so much a part of the soundtrack of my childhood that I feel that warm and gushy rush of nostalgia whenever and I hear them. 

We also saw a lot of visual echoes, with familiar animal shapes in chase scenes from Robin Hood and the Rescuers, and Cruella de Vil's seeming cousin Madame Medusa. 

Three of our four selections had couples that crossed "class" barriers: Duchess and Thomas, Robin and Maid Marian (in Disney's version, there's no mention of Robin being nobility--he's just some guy), and Bianca and Bernard. 

The music of the Aristocats is similar to the tunes from Jungle Book in the jazz influence, too. My daughter and I enjoyed that "Easter egg" feeling that spotting these connections and echoes gave us. 

In case, you haven't read the other posts, the basic project is that my 12 year old daughter and I are watching all the Disney animated features in chronological order since Dad got us Disney plus this winter. We're using the wikipedia list and so far there have been only a few that weren't available on Disney Plus: Academy Award Review of Walt Disney Cartoons, Victory Through Air Power, Make Mine Music, Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and The Sword and the Stone (which we found from another source and watched). So, we've watched 23 films so far.

So how do the 70s stack up?

Story-wise, we found these less problematic. While Duchess was a bit of a damsel in distress, Marian and Bianca have serious backbone and a sense of adventure.

The films were mostly free of "ick" moments of leering men and voluptuous women or racial stereotyping or outright offensive portrayals as we'd found in earlier films. They still play well to twenty-first century women like us. We weren't pulled out by outmoded references or outdated humor like we sometimes were with earlier flicks.

Animation-wise, production seemed a little less careful. Thomas O'Malley in the Aristocats looked like a completely different cat in some scenes, especially when he was supposed to be frightened. He changed shape and size throughout. We were pretty sure we spotted some repeated footage in Robin Hood and the Rescuers, like you might see in a Hanna Barbera production, a sign of cost-cutting.

In contrast Winnie the Pooh was highly creative with its use of the text of the books as part of the animation and breaking of the fourth wall as characters interacted directly with the narrator and seemed to know they were in a story.

So far as animation sequences, we loved Tigger sliding down the words on the page when the narrator shook him out of his tree and the opening sequence where a book is opened and all the drawings begin to move. Or when Pooh Bear bounced on lines of text. It was fun how this feature in particular kept reminding you that it was really a storybook.

Even though, she came in to this one expecting she might be "too old" for it, my daughter really enjoyed the sweet stories and fun characters. She thought a lot of the denizens of the Hundred Acre Woods reminded her of her own friends. It's a low stress cartoon that feels very soothing, in the same way that Totoro has been for her throughout her childhood: something you watch when you want something calm.

The 70s get a bad rap sometimes artistically as an era of tacky exploitation and low production values, but we felt these films are still well-worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Support Operation Underground Railroad by Reading!

Turning over my blog today to the lovely and talented Ayden K. Morgen. Read about her latest project below and consider getting a copy to support this great cause! -SB


20 to 40 million people currently live as slaves. Over 60% are women and children like Faith Donovan in Ayden K. Morgen's new release, Kill for You. To help end human trafficking and slavery, Ayden is donating 100% of release day (March 17th) proceeds from the book to Operation Underground Railroad (@OURRescue), a global nonprofit that rescues child victims of human trafficking and then works to prosecute and convict perpetrators.

Grab the book from your favorite retailer today (March 17th) to help support this incredible cause!

(10% of proceeds after release day will also go to Operation Underground Railroad).

You can also donate directly to Operation Underground Railroad at:

About Kill for You

The last thing Detective Octavio Hernandez expects to find at the scene of a mass gang-related shooting is a brown-eyed angel standing bravely in the midst of the chaos. One look at Faith Donovan and the homicide detective knows there's more to her than meets the eye. She's keeping secrets that just might help bring down Los Zetas, one of the biggest drug cartels in Los Angeles.

He just has to convince her that trusting him is worth the risk.

Forced upon a mother who didn't want her and enslaved by a gang that refuses to let her go without a fight, Faith's life has never been her own. She thought she'd made peace with her fate…until Octavio sweeps in and carries her out of her blood-soaked cage.

Faith trusts no one, but the hardened detective makes it difficult to remember why. The way he cares for her makes her ache for what she never thought she'd find: love and a family of her own. But trusting him when she knows he has an ulterior motive is one of the most difficult things she'll ever do.

He swore to give her the freedom she craves, but when the secrets she holds paint a target on her back, keeping that promise will prove no easy feat.

To secure her freedom and win her heart, this detective will move mountains. And take down anyone standing in his way.

Kill for You is the second book in a series of interconnected full-length novels featuring law enforcement officers willing to do whatever it takes to protect the women who need them most. Each book can be read as a standalone, has no cheating, and a guaranteed HEA.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What I read: February Round Up

February went by in a blink, even with that extra day. Whoosh! Some of that could be because I spent the first half slowly rebuilding strength from the flu that took me down at the end of January, but I also think that the older I get the faster time moves. See Exhibit A: the grown-up-ness of my eldest daughter!

I did still fit in a few books though:

First was Alone With the Stars by David R. Gillham. I picked this one for two reasons:

1. Audible has been giving me "audible originals" as part of my membership package for months and I keep adding them to my library, but haven't actually read any of them yet.

2. Amelia Earhart.

This book is "inspired by true events" an epitaph that always jangles me a bit because it leaves me wanting to know which bits were true and which were imagined. Since I am interested in Amelia Earhart without actually having read all that much about her directly, I don't know! So, reading this also added her autobiography and poetry to my TBR.

The premise is that a teenaged girl heard Amelia Earhart's last radio calls and tried to save her. I liked the story, and the way the girl and E's stories intertwined. I wasn't fully satisfied by the ending, but then again, I'm not sure a decisive and clear ending is appropriate in a book about a woman who is famous partly because we don't know what happened to her. 

All in all, quite good. Based on this experience, I'll probably try more of those audible originals I've downloaded.

Next was The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi is a writer I've heard a fair amount about--he's got some "buzz" as they say--but I hadn't read any of his work. This one is near-future environmental dystopian, focused on the fight for water rights in the American Southwest after severe droughts leave wide swaths of the country deprived.

We see the world through the eyes of three characters: the titular "water knife," a hired thug named Angel; a reporter named Lucy Monroe, and a street kid named Maria Villarosa. It's a good mix of perspectives and shows how motivations shift depending on where you're standing.

I found the story compelling, though it lingered a little too lovingly over some of the violence for my taste. I like a lighter hand and will still feel plenty horrified by atrocities that I'm not shown every detail of.

There was a minor character I *loved*--a photographer. In fact, as I read, I kept thinking that I knew this character already, that I'd read a shorter work that included him, but I can't figure out what that might have been. If any of my blog readers know what it was, please tell me!

The last book I finished in February was The Stone Sky by NK Jemisin. It's another science fiction book with environmental themes. I dunno, maybe I was feeling gloomy about earth's prospects?

I've read the other two books in this series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, and I recommend that you do the same if you're going to read these. It's a series that works best read in order as one cohesive narrative.

Jemisin was awarded The Hugo three times in a row for these three novels, and it's well deserved. The storytelling is innovative, the characters moving and fully realized, the worldbuilding amazing. All these pieces are fully integrated in a way that is rarely seen.

It was a great ending for the series, with the right notes of necessary sacrifice, hope for the future, and tying up of loose ends. Writing this a couple of weeks later, I still feel wowed.

I nearly finished two other books in February: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a re-read for me), and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. But I didn't finish them until March 1st, so I guess I'll save talking about them for my March roundup.

What did you read so far this year that wowed you? Did you read any of these? What did you think? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Scattered Focus: IWSG March 2020

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the March 4 posting of the IWSG are Jacqui Murray, Lisa Buie-Collard, Sarah Foster, Natalie Aguirre, and Shannon Lawrence! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say.

In some ways, I'm a very disciplined writer. I write every day and have for more than six years now. But as my career has progressed, I feel overwhelmed by commitments and by "shoulds" sometimes to the point that my energy feels completely scattered, so even when I am being very productive, I feel like I'm not, which makes it hard to keep heart.

Currently, I try to:
  • post on instagram daily
  • blog once a week
  • participate in some kind of promotional activity for my published work once a month
  • move forward in the WIP novel every week
  • take advantage of short story opportunities (invitations, interesting open calls) as they arise
  • keep my unpublished work on submission 
  • meet deadlines for work I've got in process (edits, proofreads, submission dates, etc.)
  • keep up with communications (emails, responses to social media)
  • send a newsletter once a month to my subscribers
  • journal or do day pages often enough to let new ideas develop on the back burner
  • track the business end of things to make sure my contracts are followed and royalties are paid
  • play (write things that I don't have solid goals for, but am writing because I want to and enjoy it)
That's a lot to balance. Especially when you consider that I do this alongside a day job (teaching middle school Spanish) and house and family responsibilities. I can generally get 1-2 hours for writing life on a school day and 4-5 on a school holiday. Though I think it would still be a lot to balance if I were a full time writer without other jobs. 

When I talk to other writers about this, I get a lot of sympathetic nods, but not many solutions offered. I know I'm not alone in the struggle to pursue my dreams while still keeping a roof over my head, a car to drive, groceries, and insurance for my family. 

Saying no is scary--refusing opportunities can mean that you don't get a repeat offer or that you miss out on something that might really have served you well. But all the same, I'm learning to use that word more often, to really analyze each blip across my radar and consider whether it's helping or just keeping me from focusing "where it matters." 

I guess that's the real rub: figuring out "where it matters." 

How about all you other creatives out there? How do you choose where to focus your energy? What balls are you juggling to keep your creative life moving in the direction you want? How do you keep heart when it gets overwhelming? Inquiring minds want to know! Tell me in the comments!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What I've Been Reading: January roundup

I love reading. When I was less employed I read two or three books a week, and I still try for one a week even with my day job, side hustle, and children to raise.

I think in narrative, which I guess makes sense for a writer, and if I'm not getting enough story in my life (both writing them and consuming them in books, movies, and programs) I'm a hot mess. I also LOVE talking with others about books, which is why I'm a bit of a book club junkie.  (The links in each will take you to my Goodreads reviews, something I reference, or to related blog posts on this blog).

So, here's what I read in January 2020. I'd love to hear from anyone else who read this books or wants to suggest other reads:

I started 2020 by finishing a book I started right as 2019 ended: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. It's a book I'd heard good things about from some friends whose opinions I respect, and that I'd also seen receive criticism because it's a book written by a white man about black people.

Working from the premise that the Lovecraftian mythos is real, Ruff wrote a book that is as much about the horrors humans inflict on one another as it is about the Old Ones and mysticism and madness.

The story centers around an African American man and his friends and family in the Jim Crow United States of the 1950s and does not shy away from presenting the subtle and overt hatreds flung at the Turners. Using Lovecraft, an infamously racist writer, as the plot in such a book struck me as rather brilliant and I thought it well executed, but I'd love to hear from others who've read it.

Next up was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. This was a neighborhood book club pick, and not one that I knew much about when I started reading. My friend Shannon Turlington suggested it. She's a very well read woman and has an eye for unusual and interesting stories, so I'm usually glad when I take her reading suggestions.

That was true this time, too. The story is set in the early 1800s in Iceland--talk about two things I know nothing about! The plot centers around Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed for a crime in Iceland. As her story unfolds and more details are revealed, the tension grows. Bleak and beautiful.

Well worth the read for the view into rural Icelandic life and the effects the landscape and rough conditions had on her people as well as for the fascinating imaginings of what the woman at the center of the case might have been like.

From there, I picked up The Turn of the Key, another book I'd heard quite a bit about. I'm a big fan of re-imaginings of beloved stories, the kinds of books I call "back door" or "side door" stories. The best of them do more than just change the setting--they affect how you view the original work.

This one is playing in Henry James's yard, bringing The Turn of the Screw into a more contemporary setting and bringing in some shades of Ray Bradbury with a smart house used to creepy effect.

I'm currently writing a gothic romance myself, so I'm steeping myself in works in the genre. This one does a great job utilizing the tension and possibly unreliable narrator I loved in James's book, while making it something new with the change of setting and new motivations for some characters. Quite good!

My next read was passed to me by my twelve-year-old daughter, a huge fan of graphic novels, especially those with LGBTTQQIAAP themes.

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag is set in a magical world that is highly gendered in societal roles--more so even than the world I actually live in, which still strikes me as heavily gendered in a lot of ways.

Aster is drawn to witchcraft, but males in his society are shifters and magic is for females only.

The story is very direct in its allegory, which made it feel a little preachy and lacking in subtlety to me, but my daughter, who is younger and less jaded, adored it. I wished the book had been longer, allowing the author space to stretch out some relationship building.

I met Daniel José Older at Illogicon in 2017. We were on a panel together recommending reading, and as you might expect from a panel featuring him (or me for that matter), we were looking for diverse reads. I added Older to my authors-to-check-out that day, and he finally made it to the top of my TBR.

I very much enjoyed the premise of Shadowshaper which involved a sort of magic that enabled an artist to imbue their work with spirit, quite literally. And for diversity points? Top marks.

Sierra Santiago is a great main character, realistically a teenager making some unwise decisions while she struggles to deal with the secrets and dangers that have newly come her way.

Sometimes the book felt a little on-the-nose to me, but it *is* a young adult novel, so too much subtlety may not be audience appropriate. The bad guy felt a little one-note and flat to me, but his minions were scary! I appreciated that Sierra still had her family around her, extended family even. I do get tired of the no-family trope in YA books, and this one had a message of reconnecting to your roots rather than escaping them that I could definitely read more of. 

So that was my January in books. What did you read? Have you read any of the books or authors I mentioned here? I'd love to hear you thoughts!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Disney+ Project: Part 7: later 1950s into 1960s

More Disney! (See our earlier thoughts hereherehereherehere, and here)

At last our Disney+ Project has come to the heart of the films that I remember and love best from my own childhood. All of these were still made before I was born, but there are also all films that I've seen repeatedly, on the big and small screens, on VHS, on DVD, as a child, an adult, and a mother. Lady and the Tramp is one of my earliest favorites, softie that I am for dogs, and Jungle Book was my oldest daughter's favorite--practically all she watched for nearly an entire year when she about two years old.

My youngest daughter had seen Sleeping Beauty, but none of the others.

In fact, until we started this project, she's always been kind of anti-Disney, at least the princesses. When we moved into this house, the room that was hers was lined with a Disney Princess border presumably chosen by another little girl who lived there before her. She was more of a Ninja Turtles girl at the time, and she always hated that border. Although she did have a dress up dress or two that came from the Disney collection, she just never got into the princess culture. She's a rebel that way--liking to find things to like that people are surprised by. (Does that mean she's a hipster?)

Makes her a fun viewing companion for sure.

So, our short-takes on these films:

Lady and the Tramp: Still charming! The spaghetti scene is totally adorable and you knew Tramp was a goner when he nosed that meatball over to Lady. I still cried when Trusty was seemingly dead--even though I knew he wasn't really.

My daughter overall liked it, too, enjoying the neighbor dogs and getting angry at the Auntie who muzzled and chained Lady because she was a cat person and didn't get it. She was also completely charmed by the spaghetti scene.

The Siamese cats are pretty horrifying in the same way the crows from Dumbo were--full of outmoded racial stereotypes. In a movie where all the other animals talk perfectly well, they speak a pigeon English, that coupled with the faux Asian music is truly cringe-worthy.

The 50s definitely left their stamp on the gender dynamics at play. The female is there to tame and civilize the male who will settle down now that he's had time to "sow his wild oats." (insert gagging sound). At least they both do seem genuinely happy at the end, leaving you with a feeling that theirs is a romance that will last. I wonder what Tramp's midlife crisis will look like?

Sleeping Beauty didn't hold up as well story-wise.

Animation-wise, it was really interesting--maybe the most interesting in that regard of this batch of movies. There's a scene where Aurora is laid out after touching the spindle where the blanket and draperies in the room look so real you can touch them, even though the characters themselves don't look any more realistic than past animated humans. "Illuminated manuscript" touches throughout make it a stunner visually (Aurora's hair in some scenes!), and Maleficent in dragon form is still scary!

But there's a lot of too-stupid-to-live going on. Neither my daughter nor I like stories where, in the name of protecting some young female character, we keep her ignorant and isolated. Well, duh! If you don't teach her anything about the dangers surrounding her, of course she's going to fall for it!

Rather than destroying all spinning wheels, how about we teach her about them and directly tell her that it's a bad idea for her to touch one?

Instead of sending her off into the woods to live with three sweet, but incompetent fairies, how about her parents get to raise the child they wanted so very badly? My daughter in particular found that ridiculous. They never actually get to be parents--their child is sent away as an infant and comes back a bride.

If we know her 16th birthday was the danger day, then why on earth was she alone for even a single second on that day? She's a princess, for goodness sake! There are any number of servants, guards, knights, and other kinds of workers that might have intervened.

On the other hand, it was nice that she and her prince met without knowing who each other was and fell in love. Very romantic in that "meant to be" kind of way so appealing in fairy tales.

The three fairies were cute as heck and sometimes very clever (when they weren't being too stupid to live--like going from no magic to spewing magic lights out the chimney while they argued about dress color).

Maleficent is magnificent. (I still haven't watched the live action movies, BTW, because I like Maleficent being evil without explanation; I don't have any desire to learn and empathize with causes or to see her redeemed--sometimes it's good to just have a straight-up, old-fashioned villainous villain!) Eleanor Audley's voicework was stunning--and the kiddo noticed it was the same actress who'd done Cinderella's stepmother. Good ear!

After Sleeping Beauty, it was back to the dogs with 101 Dalmatians.

This might be our favorite of the group, at least for story. From Pongo's match-making beginning to the cross country adventure to save the puppies pulling in an entire network of canines, we were absolutely charmed. How nice that the dogs helped Roger and Anita find one another. The wet handkerchief laughter is such a "meet cute" memory.

And Cruella de Vil? Only the best villain of all time. She totally deserved her song!

This was the first time the credits were interesting. That animated Dalmatian spot grooving to a hot jazz sound? And the best fiction in the whole thing? That after selling one hit song, Roger can afford a country house to keep 101 dogs in!

The Sword and the Stone was our least favorite of the set. My daughter rated it "B for boring." Wart's scratchy voice irritated her, too, and she thought Merlin was worse than useless--actively harmful to the boy he was supposedly teaching.

I liked it more than my daughter did, but I see her point about Merlin. Given that he's supposed to be mentoring the king who became the heart of England, the tutoring lessons seem to only play for comedy with no build-up of any kind of insight or new skill that might help a boy become a powerful leader. I guess he learned that owls are more reliable than old men if you get in a bind? I think he was supposed to learning to use his mind instead of fighting with brawn, but really he just got in trouble and was rescued.

Wart himself suffers from a very sanitized version of poverty and servitude, where despite being worked very hard and mistreated by his foster family, he still buys into their life completely and never becomes angry or resentful about his lot in life. A perfect "grateful orphan" I suppose--the kind one finds in fiction only, because in real life traumatic experiences affect us and a child faced with an entire room full of dishes to scrub doesn't greet them with peaceful acceptance.

There were lots of fun and funny moments, but in the end, it felt like a string of moments and not a cohesive story with character arcs.

It's hard for me to judge The Jungle Book with any kind of objectivity because it was a favorite of mine twice--once in my own childhood and again with my older daughter, who was absolutely obsessed with it as a toddler.

Sometimes, when I am walking around I catch myself humming the tune to the "fetching the water song" at the very end.

My daughter agrees that this was miles above any Disney film so far for the music. Long before we began this project, she was already in love with Louis Prima's "I Wanna Be Like You" which is right up her musical alley. "The Bare Necessities" is irresistible and Phil Harris is one of my favorite voice actors ever. So looking forward to getting to Thomas O'Malley and Little John in upcoming films!

"We're Your Friends" with the vultures is full of lines with double meaning and dark humor that are absolutely delightful.

The movie is a visual treat, too, combining realistic animal movement and gorgeous scenery with slapstick comedy and anthropomorphism at its comedic best.

I guess I still love it . . .though that little girl at the end is awfully grown up for age 9 or so, and enticing the boy back human village life with a pair of long eyelashes had the girl and I rolling our eyes. Hmmmm…looking forward to seeing what she think of Tarzan when we get there. Another man's world vs. animal world with a character who crosses between.

Revisiting all these old movies and experiencing them with my daughter--a total 21st century girl--is an education and a delight. Looking forward to the next one!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

IWSG: Writing From Art

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the February 5 posting of the IWSG are Lee Lowery, Ronel Janse van Vuuren, Jennifer Hawes, Cathrina Constantine, and Tyrean Martinson! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say.

February 5 question - Has a single photo or work of art ever inspired a story? What was it and did you finish it?

I write from photo/art prompts with some frequency. Each October, I play along with Bliss Morgan's Nightmare Fuel project, writing a daily piece of flash fiction based on a creepy art piece. I've also really enjoyed Andy Brokaw's Wording Wednesday, a challenge she holds every couple of months.

Mostly, I use prompt writing just to have fun. Since I changed my hobby of writing into a side-hustle, I've had to take it more seriously, so there's a balance to be struck between fun and productive work and I use prompt writing for fun.

That's not to say that I never go back and finish that work, honing those pieces into something more complete.

In fact, a piece of fiction that started as a picture prompt is about to be included in a horror anthology later this year ("The Cleaning Lady" in Stories We Tell After Midnight from Crone Girls Press).

I've had a couple of others grow into something that has or might yet be published.

But that's not the point for me--the point is reconnecting with the playfulness. Working from a prompt makes it feel like a game again, something I'm playing at because it's fun, and it's important to hold onto that joy.

Looking forward to hearing other stories from my #IWSG colleagues today. Thanks for coming by!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Disney+ Project: Part 6, the early 1950s

More Disney! (See our earlier thoughts here, here, here, here, and here)

To put these in perspective for my daughter, I told her that these films were new when Grandma and Grandpa were little. I'm glad we're finally back in feature length films. The shorter pieces collected in anthologies were not my jam in the same way. Most of this next slew of films I actually remember pretty well from childhood.

Even though I'm not as old as these films, they all had theatrical re-releases and at one point or another, I (or my parents) have owned them on VHS or DVD. So, since our last report, the littlest Bryant and I have watched: Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953).

My daughter thought she would like Alice, but was lukewarm on Cinderella and Peter going in. I remembered Cinderella the most fondly.

Surprisingly, Cinderella was the one we both liked best. The character gets a bad rap in some ways, being lumped in with other, more passive princesses waiting for their prince to come and rescue them.

But this version of Cinderella is a hard-working girl. In fact, you get the feeling that, even had her father lived and protected her from the harsh treatment of her stepmother, she would still have been an industrious young woman, using her positive energy to make a difference in the world.

She doesn't waste time bemoaning her lot. It's the mice who complain on her behalf (in song, of course).

Even when she expresses a wish to go to the ball, it's not about changing her lot in life permanently. As my daughter said, "She didn't ask for a prince. She just wanted to put on a pretty dress and go to a party."

The part of the story that's always been hard for me to believe is that a beloved little rich girl who is demoted to housemaid in her own home harbors no resentment or ill will towards those who abuse her. That impossibly kind "heart of gold" element was helped a little in this version.

After the stepsisters tear up the gown the mice made for our heroine, she weeps in the garden and you learn that her positive attitude has been a conscious choice, one that she's now having trouble maintaining in the face of another disappointment. That's a very real set of emotions and won the respect of two Bryant women watching. We hope the prince proves worthy of her.

Alice, on the other hand, was not very interesting at all. The cartoon still charms, with its presentation of a cast of madcap characters and crazy scenarios, but Alice herself?


She's petulant and mostly passive, just pushed along by the world she falls into. My daughter liked this one better than I did, but her focus was on the animation--things like the playing card soldiers, the disappearing cheshire cat, and the size changing experiments.

Honestly, Alice herself is rather incidental to the story.

Still Alice was a model of fortitude and feminism in comparison with all the characters in Peter Pan. Oh my! The racism and sexism was rampant.

The over-riding view of girls in the story is that they're here to serve boys. They are petty and jealous, squabbling with each other over the affections of boys because that's all that apparently matters--not what the girls themselves might want, but who can win the attention of the best boy.

Peter himself, well, he's a jerk.

I don't understand why anyone would want him, and my daughter felt the same way. He's a show-off, and only cares about garnering attention for himself. Even his Lost Boys only seem to hold value for him as an audience for his exploits. The kiddo does say that there are several boys with this kind of self-aggrandizing attitude in seventh grade, and she hopes that they grow out of it. I hope so too! She'll have to work with those people someday.

The element that had her gasping with dismay though was the part with Tiger Lily and the "Indians." From pigeon-English to stereotypes of dress, it was horrifyingly racist.

I guess I can be glad that these kinds of depictions are shocking to younger audiences.

That shows some progress.

When my parents were children, kids commonly played "Cowboys and Indians" using these types of characters thoughtlessly. 

Even when I was a kid, in the 1970s, we didn't think anything of calling someone an "Indian Giver" or by the use of actual contemporary people as mascots for athletic teams.

The lyrics to "What Makes the Red Man Red" combine racism and sexism into one ugly little tune. Yikes! I'm kind of surprised that Disney airs this one. I wonder why Peter Pan doesn't get the censure that Song of the South does?

About the only saving grace to the film was the Darling family. The children's affection for one another, the push and pull of the wife and husband, the dog who served as a nanny. All lovely and charming. We liked when dad decided that Wendy didn't have to grow up so fast after all. It was nice that he got to end the story remembering the fun and magic of his own childhood, something he had apparently not held onto as he grew up.

Lady and the Tramp is up next! Looking forward to that one. I hope it's still as charming and romantic as I remember it!