Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree, Jr: A Review

When I first went through the list of prompts for the 2018 Reading Challenge to see what, if anything, came to mind for each one, I was struck by #11, a book with a female author who uses a male pseudonym. I knew instantly I wanted to read something by James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree showed up on my list of must-read science fiction writers, so this was an easy choice.

In my search, I ultimately decided on Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, a short story anthology of some of Tiptree’s best work. Originally published between 1969 and 1981, the stories contained in this anthology encompass a range of ideas and themes. There are aliens on Earth and humans on alien planets, space travel, time travel and futuristic scenarios. Many of the stories contain feminist ideas. I noticed, too, that much of Tiptree’s writing has a rather pessimistic outlook on humanity.

My favorite story is probably “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” This story jumps back and forth a bit in time as it progresses, and this drives the tension up. Surprise follows surprise until the end of story. The writing is superb.

There is also “The Screwfly Solution” that kept me reading to the end in a sort of horrible fascination. And “The Man Who Walked Home” about an experiment that’s gone horribly wrong. These, and many of the stories will keep the reader guessing right up to the end.

All the stories are written with vivid imagery. They really come alive off the page. This book is amazing, and I loved every bit of it. I’m pretty sure I missed the deeper messages within some of the stories, but they still kept me completely spellbound, I needed to keep reading. I will read these stories again.

Unlock the Muse – March 28, 2018

As I write this, Spring Break week is half over and March 2018 is rapidly reaching its conclusion. I don’t know about you, but I feel unprepared for what comes next. For me, what comes next is Camp NaNo, where I’ve set a goal to write 25,000 words and complete at least one of my middle grade novels.

What are your spring writing goals?

Your writing exercise for this week is:

Brainstorm about different types of jobs, pick the most interesting one, and write a personal essay about what you think it would be like to hold that job day in and day out.

This makes me think about the Dirty Jobs television series, with host Mike Rowe. Some of the jobs he profiled on that show, I couldn’t imagine doing at all, let alone on a daily basis. Here’s your chance to put yourself into the dream job you’ve always wanted. When I was a kid, I wanted to live on a farm. Sometimes, I think I’d like to raise alpacas. Put your characters to work and see how they do. Are they on a career fast track? Or are they working for minimum wage to pay their way through college? Write a scene with them on the job.

There is so much to be mined from the book Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, I haven’t yet bothered to pick up a new book on writing craft. This week, I’ll examine her essay titled “Be Specific.” In this essay, Goldberg encourages the writer to use the names of objects. Instead of “flower,” use “daisy” or “geranium.” Each one brings to mind a specific image, and will evoke different sensations in the reader. She says:

When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind; it connects us to the earth.

Specificity will also help with the “show, don’t tell” issue. When we use the names of the objects around us, we create a much more vivid scene for our readers – something they can see and hear, even taste and smell.

Goldberg concludes this essay:

Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings. A writer is all at once everything—an architect, French cook, farmer—and at the same time, a writer is none of these things.

I have long wished I had in my library field guides identifying the various birds, trees, insects and so on that I see around me everyday. I have finally set about acquiring a few of these, and I hope to expand that to include the flora and fauna from around the world, not just my own corner of it.

There is great value in names. Learn the specific names of things. Use this specificity in this week’s exercise on jobs.

From an author most famous for the macabre and the mysterious, this week, I’ll leave you with this thought:


Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

Homework Time: On Dragons and Space Travel

I’ve been struggling to get back into a writing routine lately. Since November, really. For some reason, NaNoWriMo 2017 just about did me in. Now, we’re on the eve of Camp NaNo 2018, April edition, and I need to kick things into gear.

In an effort to do just that I went to the library this afternoon with my five year old son. I wanted to pick up some research materials for the book I’m trying to write. I very studiously avoided the teen section of the library where I knew I’d find a book (or several) that I’ve really been wanting to read. I don’t need another fiction book to distract me right now. I have enough of those already. (See my 2018 reading list!)

So my son and I went straight upstairs to the children’s section and went hunting for books. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to do my research in the children’s library. I find it’s the best place to start learning about complicated subjects like dinosaurs, sixteenth century sailing ships, and spacecraft.

First, I had to look for a book from the I Survived series for my eldest son. I picked out two of the five or six titles currently available on the shelf, and of course, came home to find he’s already read both of them.

Next, we had to find a book on dragons. My five year old is doing research on dragons. We found a handful of books on the mythical beasts to bring home with us. One is an amazing collection of dragon tales. Another is a deliciously beautiful book on Dragonology that we might just need to find a copy of for ourselves. It’s got information on Western dragons and Eastern dragons, dragon hordes, and dragon eggs. It even has samples of dragon scales to touch! It’s fantastic!

Oh wait, I was working on writing my own book, wasn’t I? Despite the distraction of wonderful dragon books, I did manage to find a few books for myself. Here’s the titles I came home with, in no particular order:

The History of Space Exploration: Space Shuttles, by Robin Kerrod
Life On a Space Station, by Andres Einspruch
Space Travel, by Ian Graham
Machines Close-up: Spacecraft, by Daniel Gilpin & Alex Pang
Home On the Moon: Living on a Space Frontier, by Marianne J. Dyson
Exploring Space Travel, by Laura Hamilton Waxman
Exploring Space, by Martin Jenkins
Building a Spacecraft, by Tyler Omoth
Robots and Artificial Intelligence, by Nicolas Brasch

I haven’t read any of them yet, so I have no idea how useful they’ll ultimately be. But I’d best get started. I’ve got homework to do.

Circle of Bones, by Christine Kling: A Review

I chose to read Circle of Bones, by Christine Kling for a book set at sea – #25 on the 2018 Reading Challenge – based on the recommendation of my sister. It’s a psychological thriller, which isn’t my usual read.

This book tells two stories simultaneously. One dates back to WWII and relates the tale of the French submarine Sarcouf that went missing under mysterious circumstances. Then in 2008, there is the story of former marine Maggie Riley and marine archeologist Cole Thatcher. These stories head for a collision course amid political conspiracies, thugs chasing treasure, and a psychotic killer.

To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about this book at first. I chose it for this prompt because I couldn’t find anything else I found interesting. But I do like a good suspense story, so I decided to take a chance with it. I’m glad I did. It’s very exciting and kept me turning pages right up to the end.

Circle of Bones is written well, if not perfectly. Some of the lesser characters, however, felt a bit stereotypical and convenient. For example the busty best friend with the uber-rich ex-boyfriend. But I absolutely love Riley, so I can overlook the flaws in some of the others.

Most of the story takes place in the Caribbean, on and around the islands of Guadelupe and Dominica. The setting is absolutely stunning. There are also a number of different boats featured in the book, and Kling does a great job of describing them without getting too pedantic.

I loved this book. I knew it was a series when I started reading it, but I still wasn’t prepared for the ending. I’ve added the rest of the trilogy to my to-read list. I definitely recommend this as a fun and exciting read!

Unlock the Muse – March 21, 2018

Spring has officially arrived according to the calendar. At least in the northern hemisphere. I’ve always wondered what it feels like to live upside-down and backwards. Any south of the equator friends care to weigh in on that? In some respects, I imagine it might be something akin to being a lefty in a right-handed world, though I can’t speak from experience on that either.

Your writing exercise for this week is:

Pick a word out of the dictionary, and try to use it in conversation today three times. Expanding your vocabulary will help you find the right word when you need it.

Maybe there’s a word you encountered recently in your reading that you found interesting or beautiful in some way. Use that as your word choice. Have you been thinking of subscribing to that word-of-the-day app? Now’s a good time. Learn a new word, but don’t just learn it theoretically. Put it into use!

I finished reading Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg this week. It’s a very short book. But it’s packed with writing wisdom. If you’re a writer, and you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to do so. At least once. If it’s not for you, fine. But I’d venture to say most any writer could find something valuable in this book.

For example, in Goldberg’s essay titled, “Listening,” she speaks on the importance of being mindful always of what’s going on around you. She says:

Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write.

I think this can be applied to all aspects of observation. A writer needs to be a watcher and a listener. Not just an observer of actions and words, but of feelings, intentions and the subtleties of human nature. Goldberg concludes the essay as follows:

Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. Just enter the heat of words and sounds and colored sensations and keep your pen moving across the page.

I encountered an interesting word this week, one I had to stop and look up: elegiacally.

They were good men,” Lorimer repeats elegiacally. He knows he is speaking for it all, for Dave’s Father, for Bud’s manhood, for himself, for Cro-Magnon, for the dinosaurs too, maybe.
– “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” by James Tiptree Jr.

This word is the adverb form of elegiac which means:




  1. relating to or characteristic of an elegy.


  1. verses in an elegiac meter.

In English literature, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. The Greek term elegeia originally referred to any verse written in elegiac couplets and covering a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war). The term also included epitaphs, sad and mournful songs, and commemorative verses. (from wikipedia)

Use of the word elegiac dates back to the 1580s where it comes from the Middle French, élégiaque, from the Latin, elegiacus, and from the Greek, elegeiakos. It refers to lines of verse of a particular construction. In ancient Greece, the verse form was used especially with mournful music. Later, c. 1800s, the meaning of the word loosened to mean “expressing sorrow, lamenting.” (from etymonline.com)

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg: A Review

#38 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list is a book with an ugly cover. This is a very subjective category as everyone interprets ugliness in their own way. I had already determined to read Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg this year, so it was really only a matter of finding a place for it on the list. It is my opinion, that the cover of this book is rather ugly, therefore, I plugged it into this slot.

I first read this book several years ago as required reading for a college writing course. I don’t remember being particularly impressed with the book at the time, maybe because it was required. Some of Goldberg’s advice must have stuck with me, however, as one thing she advises is to begin writing in notebooks. It was about that time that I started filling notebook after notebook with thoughts, random ideas and really bad poetry.

Writing Down the Bones is a collection of short to very short essays, each one a nugget of writing wisdom and inspiration. One such essay title “Blue Lipstick and a Cigarette Hanging Out Your Mouth” advises writers to step outside of themselves and do something they wouldn’t usually do, in order to shake up the humdrum daily routine of life. She says:

Sometimes there is just no way around it—we are boring and we are sick of ourselves, our voice and the usual material we write about. … Dye your hair green, paint your nails purple, get your nose pierced, dress as the opposite sex, perm your hair. Actually, one small prop can often tip your mind into another place. … Just sit down to write in a state you don’t ordinarily sit down to write in. … —whatever it takes to simply see the world from another angle.

This is a great book full of excellent advice on writing. Goldberg’s style is straightforward and down to earth, sometimes even irreverent. For anyone who writes, whether fiction, poetry, non-fiction or whatever, this is a great little book to not just read, but to keep on the reference shelf alongside the dictionary, thesaurus and style guide. It is a great resource that can be applied immediately and referred back to again and again.

Unlock the Muse – March 14, 2018

The second week of March, and spring is definitely making an appearance. The trees are blooming, the robins have reappeared and the time has changed. If you don’t participate in Daylight Savings Time, count your blessings. This one always seems particularly hard on the kiddos. Which means it’s tough on parents.

Your writing exercise for this week is:

Try writing a conversational piece mimicking the dialect of a given region.

Writing dialect can be tricky. But I challenge you to use the exercise to deepen your understanding of language and dialogue. Be excessive in adding southern twang to your fictional conversations. Pepper your dialogue with foreign phrases. Read your passages aloud and see what effect this has on your writing. Is it still readable? Most likely not. Now, dial it back a bit. Or a lot, if need be. Recognize the power of a simple suggestion in adding local flavor to your dialogue.

Need more of a challenge? Try mimicking the conversational style of your child’s favorite cartoon. Or your partner’s favorite sportscaster or news anchor. Eavesdrop on people talking in your local coffee shop and attempt to recreate the tiniest nuances of the conversation.

Keep in mind, this is an exercise, and not necessarily intended to be used in writing fiction. The Strunk & White, The Elements of Style guide has this to say on the subject of dialect:

Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce. If you use dialect, be consistent.

I have finally begun reading through Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. This is actually a re-read for me, as this book was required reading for one of my college writing courses. This book is a treasure trove of succinct bits of writing advice. I’m not entirely sure where to begin. Perhaps with this line from the essay titled “Tap the Water Table,”

We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it.

This is great advice. And so simple. The best way to improve your writing is to write more. As such, I’ve decided I need to take up another bit of Goldberg’s advice, and start writing in notebooks again. She has the personal goal of filling a notebook every month. This seems a reasonable goal, and quite doable. If you don’t already have a supply on hand, go out and get yourself a good pen and blank notebook. Let’s begin filling the pages with observations, inspirations and, when necessary, complete nonsense.

This week’s sticky grammar issue is the split infinitive. What exactly is a split infinitive? This is when an infinitive is separated from the “to” that goes with it, usually by an adverb. For example, to diligently inquire vs. to inquire diligently. According to William Strunk and E. B. White in The Elements of Style,

There is precedent from the fourteenth century down for interposing an adverb between to and the infinitive it governs, but the construction should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb.

Consider the phrase, to boldly go where no one has gone before. To turn that around would sound strange. Sometimes emphasizing the adverb is preferable. On the other hand, is the adverb really necessary at all? Is there a way to modify the action without using an adverb, a stronger, more precise verb perhaps?

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay: A Review

On the 2018 Reading Challenge list is a book about feminism. This isn’t a topic I have had much interest in pursuing, so I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go with it. However, the writing of Roxane Gay must have recently come to my attention because Bad Feminist was the first title to come to mind when I went looking for a book to fill this prompt.

I decided I would listen to this book on audio. I’m not convinced that was the best choice for me. The only time I have for listening to audio books is on my commute from work. Since this is a collection of essays, the timing of my commute didn’t work well with the natural breaks of the book. As a result, my experience sometimes felt a bit disjointed.

Still, it is a good book. Gay takes on a number of difficult subjects, not just feminism. She also writes about racism, rape and rape culture, abortion and other issues facing women. Several of the essays are basically a literary criticism of a variety of popular books, movies and television shows, most of which I’ve never read or viewed.

In the first essay, Gay describes herself as a “bad feminist.” She goes on to explain what she means by this. The essays that follow are well organized, and they flow pretty easily from one to the next. She concludes the book with a two part essay referring back to the original, “bad feminist” idea, defending her position as such.

I found myself agreeing with most of what she had to say in this book. I think I too might consider myself a “bad feminist,” if I can be considered any kind of feminist at all. I don’t agree with everything she said, but she gave me much to think about on a lot of different subjects. Occasionally, Gay uses strong language, and at times that felt forced and out of place. That may have been more about the narrator reading the book than the writer herself, however.

The essays in Bad Feminist are well written and thought provoking. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes, not so much. Gay speaks openly and honestly about tough and sometimes deeply personal subjects. I would like to read this book again, though I’d like to be able to focus on just one essay at a time.

Unlock the Muse – March 7, 2018

Happy March! Did it arrive as a lion or a lamb? So far, it’s been rather lamb-like where I live. The robins have arrived, daffodils are blooming and the trees are wreaking havoc on my allergies. But it has still been so cold.

A good time to warm up with some epic adventuring. I’ve dusted off my middle grade adventure manuscripts and I’m preparing to dive back into the imaginary realm of the Silver Compass Adventures. One of the boys in this series is a huge baseball fan. As Little League teams gear up all over, what better time than now to get back to work on these stories?

On that note, this week’s writing prompt seems oddly appropriate:

Go to a sporting event, and then picture yourself in the game. Write what it would have been like to be a participant.

Two of my sons have just finished playing basketball and are getting ready to start soccer. I’ve been to a lot of sporting events over the last couple of months, though I’m not sure that first/second grade boys’ basketball is what the prompt writer had in mind. Still, as someone trying to write stories for middle grade boys, it might be exactly the right sort of event to put myself into.

If you can’t get to a live sporting event, watch one on television. Watch the latest pay-per-view fight event. It’s March Madness time and college basketball is in full swing. Imagine yourself as one of the players. Alternatively, put one of your fictional characters out there on the court.

Writing Down the Bones remains on my bookshelf unopened. It hasn’t been a great week for starting new books. However, there’s another excellent essay in the Writers of the Future, volume 29 that I think offers good insight to writers, even if it is written to artists/illustrators.

In his essay, “Journey For a New Artist,” Larry Elmore says:

For many occupations there is a set course to follow: go to college, get a degree, make good grades, then apply to companies for jobs in your appropriate field. … There has never been a set path for creative people such as artists, musicians, writers, actors and all occupations that would include the Arts.

He then gives four tips from his own journey:

  • Educate yourself in your field – Though this is specifically the journey of an artist, I still think these principles can be applied to the writing. A writer’s education might not be formal college training in literature or creative writing. But every writer should be familiar with the workings of their chosen genre. Read, read, read!
  • Drawing is the foundation – The foundation for every writer should be the act of writing itself. That’s why I offer these writing exercises each week. Write, write, write!
  • Learn perspective – Learning perspective for the writer is about learning empathy. See the world through the eyes of another. Put yourself into the minds of others. Dare to imagine life from their point of view.
  • Learn to see – Finally, learn to see. Be observant. Pay attention to what is happening around you, and focus on the details.

March is Women’s History Month. In light of that, the question of the month is: how have women shaped your fiction – real life women as well as fictional?

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Put it in the comments below, or send your question by email here:

Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest: A Review

This book is #6 on my 2018 Reading Challenge list, a novel based on a real person. I found this book on a Goodreads list while searching for something to meet this prompt. I found the cover attractive and the premise interesting, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

The story is based on Lizzie Borden and the familiar double murder case that has entered the realm of near-myth. It is a horror story that – according to one description, at least – is written in the Lovecraftian style. I can’t confirm that as I’ve never read any Lovecraft. What I do know, is that it involves horrible creatures from some other realm. These creatures are invading the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie Borden is at the center of it.

Maplecroft takes place some time after Lizzie Borden stood trial and was exonerated for the murders of her father and stepmother. Over the course of the novel, through letters, journal entries and newspaper clippings, we learn the true horror of that double murder. 

This novel is written in the epistolary style, told through the various notes and journal entries of Lisbeth Borden, her sister, Emma and a local physician. These are supplemented with newspaper articles, correspondence between characters, and even a telegram. Personally, I found this style somewhat lacking in flow. It felt as though the narrative was constantly being interrupted by personal rants, complaints and various other tangents.

It is an interesting story, and well written if you like this style of novel. The scenes leading up to and including the final climactic moment are well done, and I did enjoy that part. I’m glad to have read it, but it doesn’t seem likely I’ll continue with the series.