Monday, January 31, 2022

January Reads: The 2022 challenge begins

 Each year, I set a Goodreads challenge for 52 books. That amounts to a book a week. Of course, it doesn't fall out that way. Some books take way longer than a week to read; some take less. 

So, right now, I'm "behind schedule." But I'll finish two more books in the next couple of days, and it'll even out again. 

So, here's my relatively short summary of what I read in January 2022. 

As we moved into the new year, I hadn't quite finished all the books I picked for my "Get Your Holly Jolly On" holiday reads project, so I began the year by finishing one more Christmas book: Carol by Darin Kennedy. 

Full disclosure: Darin is a friend and colleague (we share a publisher, and we used to share another publisher before we both escaped!), but that doesn't merit automatic praise from me. 

It just means that if I hated his book, I'd avoid talking about it at all. LOL. 

Luckily though, I didn't hate Carol. In fact, I quite liked it, um, her? (Carol is both the name of the book and of the main character). It was a fresh take on a familiar story, enlivened with younger characters and a contemporary setting.  A good holiday read. 

Maybe put it on your list for next winter if you enjoy Christmas stories. 

The only other book I finished in January was Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I'd picked this one up because it was one of the "buzz books" and I'd heard good things about it. 

In the end, I was "meh" on this one. Interesting concept, but meandering story telling and no explanation at all of the main magical sort of thing that happens. I've definitely read deeper, more innovative work exploring the ethics of AI (artificial intelligence). I wonder if this one attracted attention mostly because it was written by a big-name literary author and not someone who normally writes sci-fi/fantasy? 

So, if you're thinking about this one, I recommend Becky Chambers instead, in particular A Closed and Common Orbit, which is a very layered consideration of the ramifications of artificial intelligence and the difficulty of defining the line of sentience. 

Or for more of a horror take, Ungirls by Lauren Beukes. 

Or even The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, which is more about cloning, but still delves into the ethics aspect of artificial life interestingly. 

Here at month's end, I'm in the middle of two more books which I'll tell you about in February: Another Country by James Baldwin and The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig. 

How about you? How did your reading life go this month? Read anything fabulous? I'd love to hear about it in the comments! 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Five Favorite Fight Scenes in Film

I like violence…well, in my fiction. 

In real life, I like things nice and tame, non-life-threatening, and calm. But in books, media, and maybe especially movies, I love a good fight. 

Now, what makes a good fight? That can be hard to define, and is definitely all about one's personal tastes. 

Myself, I like what I term "creative" fights. By this I mean, fights that surprise and delight me by unusual moves, out-of-the-box choreography, and use of interesting props or settings. 

So here are five fairly recent favorites. I hope you enjoy. 

Bus fight in Shang-chi

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) had LOTS of fight scenes, as one would expect in a a Marvel superhero story about a young man with a mystical origin and epic fighting skills. For me, the big set-piece fight at the end with all the monsters was the least interesting fight in the film. I felt the stakes much more strongly in this moment, when Shang-Chi has to choose to reveal his single biggest secret to save his best friend (and all the other people on the bus). 

I love a good close-quarters fight, which the bus definitely delivered. I loved the nod to Jackie Chan with the "my own jacket is a weapon" move. Awkwafina's performance as Katy really gave the viewer an "in" to the moment as well: her shock, how impressed she became, and her willingness to jump into the fray herself and exhibit some really impressive driving skills. 

Speaking of Jackie Chan: Rumble in the Bronx (1995), punks' hideout fight

This was the first Jackie Chan movie I ever saw, so it has a special place in my heart. Of course, the most awesome thing about watching a Jackie Chan fight is knowing that the man is actually doing everything you see. In this scene, it's the way that everything became a part of the fight: pool table, chair, refrigerators, skis, televisions, even a grocery cart. If you watch the flick, make sure you check out the end blooper scenes. It's amazing to think he filmed parts of that film with a broken foot. 

Speaking of cool props, how about the umbrella fight in the pub in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)?

The charm of this scene is in the unexpectedness of it, that this very calm and collected, polished and posh British man would fight so capably. It certainly surprised everyone else in the room. The umbrella was cool even before it's extra elements (like built-in projectiles and bulletproof cloth) were revealed. I also appreciate that the one fighter versus several attackers trope came across more believably. The bad guys didn't just take turns for no reason--they were surprised, or temporarily decommissioned and jumped back into the fight the second they could. 

Speaking of one fighter against many, how about Black Widow's chair fight in The Avengers (2012)? 

Like the scene in Kingsman, reversal of expectations is everything in this scene. Natasha looks helpless, tied to a chair in her evening wear, but of course, she is anything but. A skilled fighter turn a seeming disadvantage into a weapon made for some fun choreography, and Natasha made short work of the group of men who thought they were winning that interrogation. 

I'll finish with the rollerskating chase/fight scene from Birds of Prey (2020): 

You'd think a woman on roller skates would be no match for a car, but when that woman is Harley Quinn? All bets are off. That basic premise allowed for such marvelous athleticism and unexpected movement. That same creativity came into play in the big group fight at the amusement park. 

I can only hope that if my Menopausal Superhero series ever makes it to the screen, the fight scene coordinators come up with something as visual striking and wow-inducing as these filmmakers did. 

How about you? Are you a fan of creative fight scenes? What are some of your favorites? I'd love to hear about them in the comments! 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

IWSG: Regrets, I've Had a Few

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.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

This month's optional question: What's the one thing about your writing career you regret the most? Were you able to overcome it?

The awesome co-hosts for the January 5 posting of the IWSG are Erika Beebe, Olga Godim, Sandra Cox, Sarah Foster, and Chemist Ken! Be sure to check out their posts as well as the rest of the blog hop after you're finished here. 

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Wasted time. At least that's what it sometimes feels like. 

I played at writing all my life, but didn't take it seriously until I was getting ready to turn 42 and had an age-panic (Thanks to Douglas Adams who taught me that 42 was the answer to life, the universe, and everything) that made me finally commit to to a daily writing practice and to finishing things and submitting them. 

So now that I'm fifty, eight years into treating my writing with some respect, and six years into a career as a published writer (my first novel: Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel was first published in 2015), I look back at all the years that I only played with words and wonder what I might have created, if only I'd put in the work a little sooner. 

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It can be easy to fall into darkness, wondering what you missed out on because of the choices you made. Regret is insidious that way. 

But I also know that timing is everything. After all I first met the man I share with life with when he was seventeen and I was twenty, but we weren't right for each other then. When we re-met in our thirties? That was the right time for magic. 

Whenever we play the what-if time travel game, I always say that I wouldn't change anything. And mostly, I mean that. There have been unhappy times in my life, but those experiences are why I am who I am and part of the journey that brought me here. And here is pretty darn good. 

So all those years that I daydreamed, and traveled, and read, and stayed up late talking and even the time I spent crying and feeling worthless or angry or any number of other negative things…all of that fed my soul and made me who I am, and that's the heart of the stories I write now. 

So, maybe that time wasn't wasted after all. 

Saturday, January 1, 2022

My Year in Books, 2021

Each year, I set a goal of 52 books a year, averaging out to one a week. I usually beat that, and I did it again this year, finishing book #85 right before midnight last night: 

I read a huge variety of books (scroll to the bottom to see the covers for the whole set): nonfiction, literary fiction, horror, romance, science fiction, fantasy, women's fiction, mystery, holiday themed work, classics, young adult, children's, poetry, graphic novels, commentary (you can click on the links on the book titles to see my review for each one). 

Some on paper (six, mostly graphic novels), some on Kindle (about thirty), some on audiobook (about forty-nine). Those last two intermix, as I often buy a kindle edition AND an audiobook edition of a book and go back and forth between the two. 

According to Goodreads, I read 16,048 pages, with the shortest work (The Best Girls by Min Jin Lee) coming in at 18 pages and the longest (The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas) coming in at 1,276 pages. 

Classics: One of the great pleasures of my reading life is my First Monday Classics Book Club, which meets once a month on the first Monday to discuss a work of classic fiction. 2021 was rough going for keeping the group together, since our library closed during the pandemic and still hasn't fully reopened, but we met via video and then later outdoors, and finally in a small business's sitting area.

This year's reading list included The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt, Kindred by Octavia Butler, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley,  and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. 

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is our January pick, and I finished it a few days ago. 

On my own, separate of the club readings, I also read a few other books that might be considered "classics":  The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, The Wharton Gothics by Edith Wharton, The Christmas Hirelings by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

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People often ask me about my classics reading habit. Older books are often dense, difficult, or suffer from antiquated attitudes that are cringe-inducing to read, which can make them problematic for some readers. 

For me, though, that's part of the appeal. Classic novels reveal as much about the eras they were written in and the authors who wrote them as they do about the stories and characters, giving me a wider historical understanding and a big-picture view of how attitudes on things like race, religion, and sexuality have changed over time. 

Plus, I just have this feeling that I "ought" to read these books. It makes me feel informed and like I understand the wider context of the literary world more fully. 

The very difficulty is part of the appeal, too. Completing some of these works feels like a trophy-worthy accomplishment. The Count of Monte Cristo was like that. 

Escapism: Like many readers, I was first drawn to books by the escapism. The chance to travel and explore without leaving my house, experience things I could never experience for real. That desire has never left me, and my reading list tends to lean heavily towards speculative fiction for that reason. I read some great ones this year (a few pictured below), including mystery, romance without speculative elements, ghostly romance, and 1980s nostalgia horror. 

Here lately, clever romances have gotten a larger amount of reading time. I have a need for happily ever afters, but also need the characters to be smart and good-hearted, so I can cheer them to get together and feel good when they do. My favorite find in this regard this year was Lucy Blue's Stella Hart Romantic Mystery series. Witty dialogue, a good balance of sexual heat and relationship building, a fun historical setting, and, oh yeah, some corpses. 

Thinkers: Some books give me a lot to think about. While it's good to just shut down my brain and go for a ride sometimes, I also enjoy a meatier book from time to time, one that tackles difficult themes and lingers in my consciousness long after I've finished it. I read a lot of great books of that sort this year. 

In my fact, my top three picks for best books I read this year fit this category. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, and Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell don't seem to have much in common on the surface, but they do all feature complicated, interesting heroines in difficult situations. All three also tackle BIG themes like racism, sexism, grief, and ethics. Which made all of them perfect books for me. Gorgeous prose and interesting settings didn't hurt a bit either :-)

I didn't even tell you about the great graphic novels and nonfiction that made my list this year, but if I go on much longer, this post will become a book of it's own, so I'll stop here, leaving you with the images of my reading list below. 

Did we share any reads this year? What makes your top few reads of the year? Did you read one of mine? I'd love to hear about your year in books in the comments.