The Stand, by Stephen King: A Review

The 2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge, prompt #17, bids me read a medical thriller. I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant. My first thought was of the Kay Scarpetta books by Patricia Cornwell. After perusing the suggestions by the Popsugar group on Goodreads, however, I ultimately settled on The Stand, by Stephen King. This was already on my want-to-read list after PBS put out their Great American Read list in 2018.

To be honest, I’ve avoided reading Stephen King’s books, never feeling that horror was a genre I could really enjoy. One of the purposes of this reading challenge is to expand my reading experiences, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m really glad that I did.

The Stand is the story of a man-made pandemic. A bio-engineered virus leaks out of containment and sweeps rapidly across the country. The first part of the book introduces a large number of characters, spending a bit of time on several. We meet Frannie Goldsmith from Ogunquit, Maine, a young college-age woman prone to the giggles who has just found out she’s pregnant. There is Nick Andros, a deaf-mute drifter who finds himself in the small Arkansas town of Shoyo when the epidemic hits. And Larry Underwood, a rather self-centered singer-songwriter caught up in the throes of sudden success who returns home to his mother in New York deeply in debt. These three, along with a handful of others, find themselves among the few survivors.

In the second part of the book, King makes what felt to me like a sudden shift. All those who survived the flu seem to have an unexpected psychic connection. They begin experiencing shared dreams, many of which are nightmares. The dreams direct them to one of two places where survivors are gathering, one in Boulder, Colorado and the other in Las Vegas, Nevada. The final section of the book brings the rising conflict between these two communities to its ultimate end.

Stephen King is a master of suspense. In this book he turns an innocent cough or sneeze into a terrifying threat. His characters are well-drawn and believable. My favorite is Tom Cullen, a man in his forties who is mentally challenged. Nick Andros encounters Tom as he is passing through Oklahoma on his way to Nebraska in response to a dream. Tom’s childlike innocence is funny and delightful in the midst of the truly horrible circumstances going on around him.

This story is brutal and gruesome. King doesn’t hold back on the horror. But there are also moments of humor and tenderness. The characters change and grow as a result of their circumstances. Some for the better, some not so much. The supernatural element of the story comes on very strong in the middle of the book, and with little preparation. Other than that, however, this is a great book. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Unlock the Muse – January 28, 2020

The final week of January is here, the fourth and final week of a month long journey in preparing to accomplish something amazing this year. We’ve reached the final stages of setting a major goal and making solid plans for achieving it.

Last week, the focus was on setting trackable milestones to mark your progress along the way. For myself, that meant writing down specific markers I intend to reach by the end of each quarter – specific word count goals and other clearly defined tasks.

This week, put your plan into motion. Let’s do this thing!

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Imagine it’s the year 1940, and you’re hiking through the Black Forest near Stuttgart, Germany. You hear a sound alerting you that you’re not alone. What’s the sound, and how do you react?

Pick another date and location if WWII Germany isn’t your thing. Focus on the sound and your reaction. This is a great exercise in suspense.

It’s play week! Here’s a roll of Rory’s Story Cubes for your happy writing inspiration. Have fun!


Happy writing!

Memory, Sorrow and Thorn Series, by Tad Williams: A Review

This series by Tad Williams is one of my all time favorite fantasy reads. It was among the first books that made me fall in love with the genre, and one of only a handful I’ve read more than once. I read this series again now for both the 2019 Popsugar and ATY Reading Challenges. I also wanted to reread this series to refresh myself on the world of Osten Ard so that I could dive into the new series by Tad Williams, also set in this same world.

This series opens with The Dragonbone Chair. The story begins as the High King, Prester John, is about to die. He has reached the end of a long life after establishing his rule over much of Osten Ard. John’s two sons, Elias and Josua, along with representatives of all the regions under his rule, have been called back to the Hayholt, the home of the High King. Elias is eldest and heir to their father’s throne. It becomes quickly apparent that there is some deep unpleasantness between the two brothers.

The main character of the story, however, is Simon, a scullion boy who is far happier climbing about on the rooftops and listening to old Doctor Morgenes stories than he is performing his assigned tasks. Simon goes from boyish dreams of knighthood and glory to the harsh realities of civil war. He ends up fleeing for his life from the only home he’s ever known to join Prince Josua, who, though he never wanted the throne, is compelled to stand against his brother when under the influence of a power-hungry magician, King Elias releases a long-dormant evil.

Stone of Farewell picks up where the first ends. Prince Josua has been dealt a cruel blow, and most of his allies are separated, scattered across the world of Osten Ard. They flee toward a place of safety, a rallying point from which Josua can renew his fight against the dark forces his brother has unleashed on the world.

The final volume in the series, To Green Angel Tower, eventually brings all the action back to where the story first began – the Hayholt castle in Erchester. Here, the final battle will be won or lost. The mystery of the three swords is revealed at last. And surprising revelations come to light.

Tad Williams writes huge novels. Some might consider them too big, too wordy. But I feel that he has an incredible gift for evocative imagery that brings his stories to life. Here is one moment that caught my attention as I was reading through book two. Simon has been caught up along with some of this friends in a fight for his life. This passage follows his being struck nearly senseless and cast to the ground:

[Simon] was staring at a round stone, just a hand’s breadth beyond his nose. He could not feel his extremities, his body limp as boned fish, nor could he hear any sounds but a faint roaring in his ears and thin squeals that might be voices. The stone lay before him, spherical and solid, unmoving. It was a chunk of gray granite, banded with white, which might have lain in this place since Time itself was young. There was nothing special about it. It was only a piece of the earth’s bones, rough corners smoothed by eons of wind and water.

Simon could not move, but he could see the immobile, magnificently unimportant stone. He lay staring at it for a long time, feeling nothing but emptiness where his body had been, until the stone itself began to gleam, throwing back the faintest pink sheen of sunset.
(Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams)

In this passage, Williams shows Simon’s impotence to help even himself, let alone his friends, and I think something of his frustration at that fact comes through as he stares at a simple, unimportant stone. His entire reality has been reduced to this pinpoint focus, and he is powerless to affect anything.

While it may not be to everyone’s taste, it is precisely this style of writing that appeals to me. It is elaborate and detailed, and yes, it piles up into some very large books. But it is also what will keep bringing me back to Tad Williams’s books again and again. If you enjoy epic fantasy set in a richly detailed world and you haven’t yet read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, I highly recommend it.

Unlock the Muse – January 21, 2020

It’s week three of our goal-setting month. I’ve made some progress, though it has been slow. Last week I challenged you to break your large goal into smaller, more manageable pieces. I did this by giving myself a task for each month of 2020 – smaller goals that will bring me closer to completing the larger one. I have an overall goal of 300,000 words which breaks down to 25,000 words per month. This is a much more manageable goal. I also assigned a specific task for each month such as character development, plot outlining and setting construction. I’ve even set aside a month for research.

Life will inevitably interfere with the best laid plans. Some things can be accounted for in advance such as family gatherings and seasonal sporting events. Other things are harder to plan for, things like illness, a broken washing machine, or even an unexpected job opportunity. My point is, make your goal plans flexible to work around life. Plan ahead where possible, but be prepared for the unexpected. And if the truly unexpected happens, it isn’t a failure to adjust your goal accordingly.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

If you were a college professor of “Life 101,” what would you teach your students?

This is your chance to instill in others the life skills you value most. Is it being prepared for the zombie apocalypse? How to achieve your 15 minutes of fame? Whatever it is, write up your syllabus and prepare your introductory lecture.

1. The object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

The word goal dates back to the 1530s, of uncertain origin, meaning the “end point of a race.” It appears once before this in a poem from early 14c, with the apparent meaning of “barrier or limit.” It is perhaps from the Old English *gal, meaning “obstacle.” The use of the word in the figurative sense of the “object of an effort,” dates back to the 1540s.

Setting a goal for an entire year is a marathon. It won’t be achieved quickly. But keeping the goal before you – the “end point of the race” – will help make it possible to achieve. Keep working at it, and you will reach the end! Your challenge for this week is to set up for yourself measurable milestones along the way. Don’t forget to plan a reward for yourself when you achieve each milestone!

Happy writing!

Unlock the Muse – January 14, 2020

Welcome back to Unlock the Muse for this, the second week of 2020. How is it that January is already half over?

Last week the focus was on choosing your goal for 2020 and writing it down. I did some serious soul-searching this past week trying to narrow down and define my goal. This process turned out to be more deeply personal than I anticipated.

But I did set my goal, and it’s a big one. I have been working on a sci-fi/fantasy novel that is shaping up to be a series. At one point, I thought it might be up to five books, though this is a constantly evolving project. My goal this year is to have a completed draft – very rough draft – of this “novel,” however long it turns out to be.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Create a story title that would grab the attention of a reader. Then, create an outline for that story.

This is a rather large prompt for what is supposed to be a simple weekly exercise. But sometimes it’s good to go big.


Goals quote

We’ve turned the dream into a goal. Now, let’s work on making it a reality! Your challenge this week is to take that large goal and break it down in to smaller goals. Don’t let the huge goal overwhelm you. Give yourself achievable steps that move you closer to your overall goal.

Happy writing!

Unlock the Muse – January 7, 2020

The beginning of a new year is a great time for setting new goals. And that is exactly what we’re going to talk about this month. Goals.

Why should we set goals? Well, goal setting allows you more control over the direction your life will go. This can be in any area of your life – parenting, business, writing. For the purposes of this blog, I will be focusing on writing goals.

Here’s your writing prompt for this week:

Time’s ticking. If you only had one more day to live, what would you do?

Make this exercise even more interesting and set a timer. Let time literally tick away as you frantically write down your end-of-life goals.

The first step in setting yourself a goal is to decide what exactly you want to accomplish. We have the whole year ahead of us. Don’t be afraid to go big. Just not too big. Your goal should be clearly defined, such as finishing a novel or obtaining an agent, instead of something like “writing more.” This last goal is simply too vague, and has no definable end point.

Your goal should also be realistic and achievable. Instead of “write every day,” perhaps try “write 1,000 words a week.” The first is almost certainly doomed to failure as life will inevitably interfere. The second is more flexible, and therefore more attainable.

Once you’ve decided what your goal will be for 2020, take time to consider why you hope to accomplish this. Determining why will help you narrow your focus and provide you with even greater motivation.

Your assignment this week is to decide what your goal will be. Challenge yourself, but keep it realistic. Write your goal down. You’re more likely to achieve your goal if you keep it in front you.

Happy writing!

2020 Popsugar Reading Challenge – Year of Clear Vision

In 2019 I took on two reading challenges, the Popsugar Reading Challenge and the Around the Year in 52 Books Reading Challenge. Both challenges consisted of 50+ reading prompts to complete which meant I had 105 books I was committed to reading during the year. This was an achievable goal in theory. In practice, however, things turned out differently. Towards the end of the year it became clear to me I would not be able to complete both challenges, so I set aside the ATY books in favor of the Popsugar books. Even this, however, was too little, too late, and I failed to complete either challenge before the end of the year.

Therefore, for 2020, I’ve decided to go back to only one challenge – the Popsugar Reading Challenge. I have expanded a couple of the categories, and there were a few I couldn’t decide which book I wanted to read, so the total books on my list, then, is 68 instead of the usual 50.

Here, then, is my list of books I intend to read in 2020:

A book that’s published in 2020 – Peace Talks, Jim Butcher
A book by a trans or nonbinary author – Dragon Pearl, Yoon Ha Lee
A book with a great first line – Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt
A book about a book club – Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
A book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics – Junk, Les Boehm
A bildungsroman – Go, Kazuki Kaneshiro; The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
The first book you touch on a shelf with your eyes closed – Wolf Hollow, Lauren Wolk; Inkheart, Cornelia Funke; Gone, Michael Grant
A book with an upside-down image on the cover – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Mark Haddon
A book with a map – Fool’s Errand, Robin Hobb; Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Kwame Mbalia
A book recommended by your favorite blog, vlog, podcast, or online book club – A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
An anthology – Sword and Sorceress XI, Marion Zimmer Bradley
A book that passes the Bechdel test – The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden
A book with the same title as a movie or TV show but is unrelated to it – Foundation, Isaac Asimov
A book by an author with flora or fauna in their name – Killer Dreams, Iris Johansen
A book about or involving social media – Lucky Suit, Lauren Blakely; Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
A book that has a book on the cover – Arcanum Unbounded, Brandon Sanderson; Anne of Windy Poplars, L. M. Montgomery
A medical thriller – The Stand, Stephen King
A book with a made-up language – Watership Down, Richard Adams
A book set in a country beginning with “C” – Anne’s House of Dreams. L. M. Montgomery
A book you picked because the title caught your attention – What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, Lesley Nneka Arimah; The Accidental Highwayman, Ben Tripp
A book published in the month of your birthday – Q is for Quarry, Sue Grafton; Gemina, Amie Kauffman
A book about or by a woman in STEM – The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal
A book that won an award in 2019 – Merci Suarez Changes Gears, Meg Medina
A book on a subject you know nothing about – The World Peace Diet, Will Tuttle
A book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics – U is for Undertow, Sue Grafton
A book with a pun in the title – White Night, Jim Butcher
A book featuring one of the seven deadly sins – Rage, Jonathan Kellerman
A book with a robot, cyborg, or AI character – All Systems Red, Martha Wells; Stars Above, Marissa Meyer; Neuromancer, William Gibson
A book with a bird on the cover – Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien
A fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader – Becoming, Michelle Obama
A book with “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” in the title – Golden Fool, Robin Hobb; Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik
A book by a WOC – Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon; Silver Phoenix, Cindy Pon
A book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads – On a Pale Horse, Piers Anthony
A book you meant to read in 2019 – Wonder Woman: Warbringer, Leigh Bardugo
A book with a three-word title – Bringing Up Boys, Dr. James Dobson
A book with a pink cover – Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan
A Western – Defiant, Bobbi Smith
A book by or about a journalist – Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill; The Wrong Enemy, Carlotta Gall
Read a banned book during Banned Books Week – The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
Your favorite prompt from a past POPSUGAR Reading Challenge:
2015 – A book with a number in the title – The Power of Six, Pittacus Lore
2016 – A book of poetry – The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson
2017 – The first book in a series – Falling Kingdoms, Morgan Rhodes
2018 – The next book in a series – Bearing an Hourglass, Piers Anthony
2019 – A book with an extinct or imaginary creature – Fool’s Fate, Robin Hobb; Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
A book written by an author in their 20s – I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai
A book with “20” or “twenty” in the title – Catch-22, Joseph Heller
A book with a character with a vision impairment or enhancement (a nod to 20/20 vision) – Superman: Dawnbreaker, Matt de la Pena
A book set in the 1920s – Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, Elizabeth Forman Lewis
A book set in Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics – Wildcard, Marie Lu
A book by an author who has written more than 20 books – L is for Lawless, Sue Grafton
A book with more than 20 letters in its title – The Best of Writers of the Future, L. Ron Hubbard
A book published in the 20th century – With a Tangled Skein, Piers Anthony
A book from a series with more than 20 books – O is for Outlaw, Sue Grafton
A book with a main character in their 20s – Anne of the Island, L. M. Montgomery