Miranda’s Holiday Reading Guide

Well, according to our Corporate Overlords, now that Thanksgiving is over it’s time to begin the Annual Holiday Buying of Things We Can’t Afford.  Perhaps a better approach is to buy things we can afford – such as books!  In support of the myriad joys of the written word, I’ve put together my must-have, must-read list.  Whether given as a gift or devoured yourself during whatever leisure time your holidays provide, here are 9 fabulous books that will (hopefully) keep your holidays merry.

In no particular order, consider:

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel KayUnder Heaven is lyrical, epic fantasy at its best.  Though, really, Under Heaven is best described not as fantasy, but as historical fiction about a world that just happens to be invented.  Guy Gavriel Kay masterfully tells a sweeping, historical tale through the eyes of the individuals caught up in it’s unfolding.  There’s very little magic and no mythical creatures, just beautiful writing, an intricate plot, and fascinating characters that benefit greatly from the author’s detailed research on the Tang Dynasty.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare BlakeAnna Dressed in Blood is that most delightful of combinations:  a horror/love story.  By turns a thrilling, twisty page turner and a chilling Gothic consideration of what it is to become enamored with death, Anna Dressed in Blood pits Cas, a young man who hunts vengeful spirits, against Anna, a murdered girl turned murderous ghost.  But as the plot unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Anna isn’t the ghost Cas should really be afraid of.  Set against the backdrop of a Canadian winter, this story of love against all odds is both scary and endearing.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtryLonesome Dove is a classic tale of the American West and hands-down my favorite book of all time.  If you’ve read it, isn’t it time for a re-read?  And if you haven’t…well, do yourself a favor and rectify that.  Sad, beautiful, and funny, Lonesome Dove also boasts one of the best characters of all time:  the life-loving, philosophical cowboy, Augustus McCrae.

His Good Opinion by Nancy KelleyHis Good Opinion is definitely one for the Jane Austen fans out there.  It tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy’s point of view.  Kelley does a great job of staying true to the mood of the Recency period and hews close to the original story.  It’s quite fun to see the tale turned on its head and follow the many misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Darcy from the latter’s point of view.

The Downside Series by Stacia Kane.  Consisting of 3 books (with a 4th out in March 2012), Unholy Ghosts, Unholy Magic, and City of Ghosts, offer the reader a flawed but loyal heroine, Chess Putman.  An agent of the Church of Real Truth, Chess uses her skills as a ghost hunter to try and make the urban underbelly in which she lives a safer (or at least a less haunted) place.  Complications include her struggle with drug addiction, a love triangle with a gang leader and his rival’s enforcer (rather awesomely named Terrible), and Chess’s attempts to reconcile her calling in the Church of Real Truth with her seedy life in Downside.  This series is well-written and different from most Urban Fantasy fare.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom RiggsMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is probably the most inventive, compelling book I’ve read this year.  My only complaint would be the current lack of a published sequel.  Coming of age.  Monsters.  Heroism.  Difficult choices.  A moody setting.  Great writing – and all inspired by the creepiest, coolest set of old-fashioned photographs I’ve ever seen.

The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass.  Of all the “craft of writing” books I’ve read and used, The Breakout Novelist is my favorite.  Maass gives you both the big picture and the small, providing overarching commentary on what makes plot, structure, and characters work while also offering exercises you can apply to your own works in progress.  Practical and useful.

So, those are my suggestions…but what about you?  What books would you recommend for holiday readers and shoppers?  What are your favorites from 2011?  What are your favorites of all time?  Share the love, folks!

Giving thanks

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, and taking a cue from a meme going round on the blogs (I’m looking at you, John Scalzi), I thought I’d share a few things for which I am now, and will always be, grateful.

1. Feminism.  Without which I’d have a lot fewer choices.

2. Airbags.  Without which I would have died at the age of 21, on Father’s Day, on I-5, about 30 minutes outside of Seattle.

3. My spectacles.  Without which I would have lost the evolutionary struggle for survival.

4. My family.  Without whom I would be nothing and without which my life would be the poorer.  And a special shout-out to my husband, without whom I would be an unhappily unmarried handful rather than a happily married handful 🙂

That’s my list.

What are you thankful for?

Keep the pages turning

Chuck Wendig, author of the addictive, raunchy blog Terrible Minds wrote recently about story elements that keep the pages turning.  It got me thinking.  When I read, what is the #1 most important thing I look for in a book?  What will keep me engrossed way after it’s time to stop and cook dinner?  What will keep me up late at night, leaning close to the bedside lamp?

Well…there are a number of things that I value in a book.

Really beautiful writing, for instance.  Or maybe a fast, twisty-crazy plot.  Classic genre tropes given new life are a favorite, as are classic genre tropes done really, really well.  Darkness, danger, and protagonist imperilment can hook me, as can books that combine a romping story with a larger message.

But the one thing that will grab me, pull me in, and drag me along – no matter how many of those other elements are lacking – is a compelling character.  I’ll read just about anything that features a great character.  If I care about the protagonist (or the antagonist, or even a prominently featured secondary character), I’ll follow them through a sea of bad writing, cliched plotlines, dragging narration, or message-less brain candy — anywhere, just as long as I can get more of their thoughts, words, actions, and reactions.  Show me the world through the eyes of someone interesting.

Give me Anya Balanchine in all these things i’ve done, Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove, Tyrion Lannister in the Songs of Ice & Fire series, Samwise and Gandalf in LOTR, Jane Eyre, or Humbert Humbert from Lolita.  Give me Chess Putnam and Sookie Stackhouse.  Hell, they don’t even have to be human.  Give me Fiver and Hazel in Watership Down.  Give me good characters and I’ll read every last word you have to write about them.  That’s a promise.

So, that’s it for me.  Characters.

How about you?  What element do you find the most compelling when you read?  What do you look for in a good book?  Do tell.  Writers everywhere want to know 🙂

Food for Thought: French Onion Soup

Every labor requires proper sustenance and nourishment.  Writing is no exception.  Cooking and writing, in fact, share many qualities in common:  understanding and breaking rules, developing things (flavor, characters), creativity, inspiration, starting with good ingredients, and the need for practice and time to achieve a quality product.

Before I knew I loved to write, I knew I loved to cook.  The conjuration of something complex and soul-satisfying out of disparate ingredients, and the way food brings people together, nourishing so much more than just our bodies, has always given me a deep, abiding sense of pleasure.

When we write, fueling ourselves mentally and physically is important.  Many, though, are intimidated by the kitchen and it’s mysteries.  In an effort at demystification, I’ve decided to share the occasional recipe (with pictures and instructions) here on the blog.

To kick off my “food for thought” series, I thought I’d start with one of my favorites:  French Onion Soup.  This recipe takes a lot of time, but very little active involvement; the stove does most of the work for you.  As such, it’s a great dish to prepare while you’re attempting a writing marathon on a sleepy weekend afternoon.

FRENCH ONION SOUP (recipe adapted from Thomas Keller’s BOUCHON cookbook)

Serves 4.  Allow 4-6 hours for preparation.

Begin with a bunch of nice, juicy onions.  I usually use 3-4, depending on their size.  Some people swear by red onions, others white.  I like a mix.  Be sure to grab sweet ones if they’re available (Walla Wallas, for instance).  But, really, any nice looking onions will do.

Step 1: Slice your onions.  There are a couple of tricks to keep in mind here.  First, the sharper your knife, the less you’ll cry :).  Cut cleanly and quickly for minimum tears.  Still, this part requires a little fortitude, because if your onions are fresh, they are sure as hell going to make you cry.  I start by cutting off the ends and peeling the onions.  Then slice the onion in half and use the ribs as a cutting guide (cut down along the ribs for slices of even thickness).  This is important when browning (if the slices are all different thicknesses, the onions will brown unevenly).

Once your onions are ready to go, you’ll want to begin the long, slow task of reducing them to a caramely puddle of goodness.

Step 2: melt 4 TBS unsalted butter in a large, heavy skillet along with 1 TBS fresh thyme leaves.  Use medium-low heat.  Add the onions and about 2 TSP kosher salt.  I find tongs helpful for gently tossing the onions with the melted butter, thyme, and salt.  Let this cook uncovered for about 15 minutes.

Prepare a paper lid for the skillet using parchment paper.  Cut a piece of parchment large enough to cover the entire surface of the skillet.  Fold it in half, and then in half again, and snip off the corner.  When unfolded, this will create a small, centrally located hole from which steam can escape.  Place the parchment lid over the onions in the skillet and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting.

Cook the onions, covered, for 3-4 hours.  Every 20 minutes or so, remove the lid and gently stir the onions, making sure they don’t brown too quickly.  The idea here is make sure that the onions caramelize naturally, reducing down, giving up their liquids, and concentrating their sugars.  Meanwhile, go write.  Let the onions do their thing.

Eventually, they should begin to look something like this:

See, dark and gorgeous.

Be sure to keep cooking them down until they are nice and caramelized — if they reduce into a gooey puddle, so much the better!  The dark color is what’s going to give your soup all that lovely, umani flavor.

Okay, so, now you’ve gotten your onions browned and your house has started to attract the attention of hungry neighbors.  You’re almost there!

Step 3:  Increase the heat on your skillet to medium and sprinkle 1 TBS flour on the onions.  Using your tongs, or a spatula, saute the onions with the flour for about 3-5 minutes (to allow the flour to cook).  Then add 1 cup water to the skillet, scraping up the browned bits from the pan and creating a base broth.  Once you’ve captured all the flavorful morsels from the skillet bottom, begin adding water until your skillet is more or less full (you’ll want about 6-8 cups water total).  At this point you’ll also need to add 3-4 TBS demi glace.

You may notice I’m giving you lots of approximations.  Unless you’re baking, cooking is as much art as science.  Taste.  Look.  Smell.  Use your judgement.  I trust you.  Add as much demi glace as you think you need for a flavorful broth.

Demi glace can be purchased at most grocery stores and is, essentially, reduced stock.  You can use chicken, veal, or beef to equally delicious effect.  I like the “More than Gourmet” brand.

Let the demi glace melt into the liquid and stir gently to incorporate everything together.  Also add 2 TSP fresh thyme and 8 whole peppercorns.  Bring the whole mixture to a boil and then reduce to a gentle simmer.  Let the soup cook for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry together.  Season to taste with more salt.  You’ll probably need at least 2-3 TSP, if not more.  Don’t be shy.  Salt enhances the flavors of the other ingredients.  Sort of like magic.  A splash of balsamic vinegar can also be used to bring out a little more sweet, tart flavor in the broth.  Acids, like vinegar, are often an important addition near the end of cooking a savory dish.  Add at your discretion.

Remove the soup from the heat and let sit in the skillet until cool.  As awesome as this soup is when freshly made, it’s actually even better if you can wait a day.  If you have this sort of restraint, go ahead and put the soup in the fridge and chill it overnight.  If not, proceed immediately to Step 4…

Step 4:  Prepare croutons and slice your cheese.  For the croutons, start with a French baguette.  In this case, day old is better than fresh.  Slice it into 3/4 inch rounds and dip each round in olive oil (both sides).  Sprinkle the rounds with salt.  Put them on a cookie sheet and broil them until they are a light golden brown on both sides.  Watch these babies carefully, as it’s easy to forget about them and end up with charcoal and a screaming fire alarm 🙂

For the cheese, you can use the classic, Comte.  This is a lovely, mild, Swiss cheese.  You can also use Gruyere, a stronger flavored cheese that is otherwise quite similar to Comte.  You’ll want good, thick slices of cheese to cover the entire top of the bowl, so be sure to get sufficient cheese.

Slice your cheese about 1/4 inch thick, as seen here:

Step 5:  Gently reheat your onion broth.  When it is warm, but not boiling hot, pour about 1 1/2 – 2 cups into each bowl (you’ll want sturdy, ceramic, oven-safe bowls for this).  Get a 3:1 ratio of broth to onions in each bowl — there’s nothing worse than soup that has too many onions and not enough liquid.  Top each bowl with croutons (try to cover the top completely) and then layer cheese on top of the croutons.  Sprinkle with salt and a few leaves of fresh thyme.

Place your bowls under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown.  Again, you must watch carefully, as you don’t want to burn the cheese or any bits of crouton peeking through.

Remove from the oven (careful! this stuff is hot!) and serve with a nice salad (frisee or Boston bibb with bacon & croutons is a nice accompaniment).

Well, alrighty!  I sure hope you like the recipe  — and please be sure to let me know if you have any suggestions, or any favorite recipes of your own to share.

Bon Appetit!

ps. the last time I made this soup, I got 2,255 words written while the onions were browning.  Consider the gauntlet thrown!

Writer’s Workspace: 11/16

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on:  I haven’t had a lot of free time lately, so carving out moments to write has been painful, if necessary, work (mid-semester with a new course prep ain’t a pretty row to hoe).  I’m pleased with the results of my efforts, though.  I’ve managed a few hundred words most mornings, whether I’m headed off to campus or not, and some longer hauls on off days (like today).  Thus, the 2nd draft of ABSENT (my archaeological time-travel novel) is being excreted, word by word, paragraph by paragraph.

Snippet from the screen:

Nick listened in silence.  When Emily was done, he sat back in his chair.  “You can’t seriously expect me to believe this.”

Emily crossed thin arms over her chest and regarded him with a grim expression.  The cut on her cheek looked puckered and angry, and though she appeared small, almost lost, inside her baggy black sweater, she most certainly didn’t look like she was joking.

On the iTunes:  I’m not really in a musical mood today.  The world is too grey and hushed.  But the hubby is working from home this morning, so I’m listening to the tapity-tap of his keyboard coming from down the hall.  That’s music enough for me.

In my mug:  Well, regular readers hardly need me to fill this one out.  Nevertheless: Numi Chinese Breakfast.  Just the dregs left now.

Keeping me company:  Though I have a lovely, cozy office space, today I’m out in one of our equally comfy living room chairs, feet up on the coffee table.  Mr. Ramses is passed out on the couch.   It’s what he does.  Pretty cute, eh?

Out the window:  Fall’s grey cape, my friends.  Brooklyn will see rain before the day is out.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone:  Today I fear that if I go hunting for spicy links to share I may never return.  Writing calls.  And I bet it calls you too.  Get to work!

Saturday happiness, with writing and pastries

It’s bright but cold in Brooklyn this morning.  Outside my window denuded branches reach for the faded sky, a few shriveled leaves still clinging to the branches.  It’s a sight that should slip a chill under my skin, but I’m trundled up tight in a sweatshirt and cradling a hot mug of tea – impenetrable and warm.

It’s cozy inside the apartment, and for the first time in weeks I don’t feel an impending sense of doom about my class prep (we’ve got exams next week, so no new lectures to write!  Joy!).

I plan to put on another pot of water to boil, hunt and gather some ridiculously high calorie pastries from the bakery next door (oh, Ladybird Bakery, how I love/hate you!), and settle down to write.

Revisions on my novel ABSENT are lumbering along in fits and starts.  Though, for the last two weeks I have managed to squeeze in a couple hundred words each morning before departing for work.  So progress has been steadier than I imagined possible when the semester first started.  I’m happy, too, with how the changes are coming along.  The novel is getting both darker and (I hope) funnier.  The characters are starting to feel real, their reactions and responses authentic.  I’m happy with it.

So some writing time this morning.  Then, around noon, England faces Spain in a soccer friendly — a hard-to-turned-down opportunity to watch such different football styles clash.  Later I’ll make some French Onion Soup and fill the house with the irresistible aroma of butter and onions and thyme.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Saturday.

How is your day shaping up?

Book Review: The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Fantasy, 416 pages, 2009)

One could summarize The Magicians as follows: it is a coming of age novel in which a boy discovers the magical lands he read about and longed for as a child are real.  This assessment would certainly be true, but it would also do a grave injustice to this complex and compelling novel.

Grossman’s book is, indeed, a coming of age story.  It explores the delight, depravity, and despair of teens struggling to come to terms with the world and with themselves.  And I really do mean explores.  Grossman does not toss such themes in lightly, but delves deeply, weaving into the very bones of the plot alienation, dis-affectation, young love, sex, jealousy, and the contradiction of one’s hopes for the future with the often less-than-satisfying reality of that future.

The Magicians is also, indeed, about the protagonist’s discovery that a  seemingly fictional land called Fillory (clearly modeled on Narnia) is a real place.  Not just real, but Real.  As in filled with many dark and terrible things not spoken of in the dog-eared pages of the novels he loved as a child.  As in another parable for casting off the silly, golden-tinged dreams of youth and replacing them with the more nuanced and treacherous realities of adulthood.

The story follows Quentin Coldwater, a young man who, when preparing to depart Brooklyn for college, finds himself instead transported to a secret school for magic.  Always feeling that he was destined for a future less mundane than the Ivy League, Quentin quickly embraces his new situation, discovering his power, making clever new friends, and falling in love.  All in Quentin’s life, however, is not roses.  One thing The Magicians does extremely well is face head on the fact that new circumstances will not change who a person fundamentally is.  And Quentin is fundamentally unhappy, always feeling as if the now is not enough, as if something is missing.

The plot soon takes a darker turn, and I will not spoil it’s many twisting and satisfying turns by recounting them here.  Suffice it to say, the real magic of The Magicians is not it’s central conceit, nor its realistic characters, nor its clever upending of canonical fiction, such as the Chronicles of Naria or Harry Potter.  The magic of The Magicians is Grossman’s truly masterful plotting.  Every piece of the tale, no matter how trivial it may seem when first related, clicks into place by the end of the novel, creating (as if bewitched by a spell) a brilliant narrative structure.

Truly, what Grossman has created here is masterful.  Dark, sometimes ugly, and often uncomfortable.  But masterful nonetheless.

How do you make your garden grow?

I’ve been meaning to write this post for awhile now (since the summer, actually), but have been so busy and stressed that I haven’t found the time.  The last few months have been hard, both personally and creatively, and sometimes the motivation to keep at it seems as fleeting as smoke.  Appropriately, then, when I most needed some inspiration, I remembered what I had wanted to write about so many months ago–and why.

So, here goes.  Bear with me.

My mother is a gardener.  Not the kind of gardener you’re probably picturing (a retired lady with a sun hat and a bed of Dahlias), but a hard-core working machine who labors rain or rain (she lives near Seattle), year-round to coax beauty and wonder out of 16 rambly acres on a Pacific Northwest island.  For the last 15 years, she’s planned, experimented, planted, replanted, designed, redesigned, weeded, ripped out, and redone an ever-growing landscape of incredible beauty.

Her dividends have been satisfaction, joy, and recognition, both locally and in some of the country’s leading gardening mazagines (Country Living, Sunset, Seattle TimesFine Gardening).

When I last visited (in August), I remember watching her at work and realizing that what she had accomplished with her garden was not so different from what I was trying to do with my writing.

Her garden is not just a series of pretty arrangements of plants, trees, and bushes.  It has a story running through it, a logic and a rhythm.  English cottage plantings are woven into a woodland by a shushing stream.  Sinuous hedges of boxwood lure you towards a pond full of lily pads and the bridge across the water deposits you at the edge of a path. Follow it and you might find a secluded glade in yellows and blues or an arching pergola hung with roses.  Each “room” in the garden evokes a different mood, has different pacing, and features unique characters.

The garden is my mother’s great work in progress, constantly in a state of unfolding.  As she prunes, weeds, adds, and subtracts, the story evolves.  And just when you think you have it figured out, you arrive at the edge of an enigmatic, eathen maze, dotted with colorful wooden pillars and presided over by a looming cairn of stones.  Plot twist!

Just as my efforts to become a better writer and tell more interesting stories might begin with a wisp of an idea or a glimpse of a character, her garden began with an old hot tub she decided to covert into a bubbling pond.  It looked naked sitting there all by itself, surrounded by empty lawn, so she built a structured garden around around it, bit by bit, year by year.

She visited other gardens, read about gardening, learned what would grow in her zone and what would not.  There was trial and error, good years and bad, and lots and lots of hard, cold labor.  All those things have transformed that first kernel of an idea into a world class garden that gives my mother (and the many people who visit annually) incredible pleasure.

So, on days when I feel despair of ever improving, of ever finishing this chapter, or that story, or of ever selling my work, I think about my mom’s garden.

Work hard, love what you do, focus on the task in front of you and — one day — you just might find you’ve created a true work of art.

Thanks for the inspiration, mom.