Underrated Books

I saw this theme floating around today, and I was intrigued. The stated limit is “books with under 2,000 ratings on Goodreads,” and I cheated a little by including one with 2,039 ratings. I was pleased to see how many of my favorite books were not as underrated as I always suspected–Emily of Deep Valley, for example, had too many ratings to make it onto the list, as did several of Lloyd Alexander’s books. I still managed to find ten, though, and probably could have kept going did not supper interrupt!

Seaward, Susan Cooper. I love The Dark is Rising series, but this book of hers is little known, and deserves better. It is haunting and mysterious, hope-filled with a hint of terror behind it, and it’s the sort of book that stays with you for days afterward. Lovely, lovely writing. More people should read it.

The Rope Trick, Lloyd Alexander. Much as I love Lloyd, I did not love this book the first time I read it. The second (because even an unloved Lloyd warrants at least a second read), I realized it was one of the more powerful books he’d written, and that the very aspects that turned me off at first were its strengths. By the third time I read it, it had become one of my favorites. Again, it’s the sort of book that seeps into your soul and stays with you for a long time after you’ve closed it.

Clover, Susan Coolidge. More confessions: I don’t really like What Katy Did. The next two books in the Carr family series are better (What Katy Did At School will always be cherished by me if for no other reason than it introduces the always-delightful Rose Red), and this one’s my favorite. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people give up before they get to this point. Don’t. As with Louisa May Alcott and LM Montgomery, and Maud Hart Lovelace, these books are more revolutionary and progressive for their era than they appear at first. Plus, this one has some of the most gorgeous descriptions of Colorado I’ve read anywhere in it. I’ve never been further west than Minneapolis, but boy does this book make me want to.

The Keeper of the Mist, Rachel Neumeier. I haven’t come across a Neumeier book I dislike yet, but this one is my favorite of them all. Dreamy, fairy-tale-ish, with a strong edge of practicality, with fabulous characters and beautiful prose. My review on Goodreads itself says it all!

The Gate of Ivory, Doris Egan. Sci-fi that is sheer fun, with some more serious matters snuck in around the edges. Can you say tailor-made for me? It’s delightful.

The Runaway Princess, Kate Coombs. This is the book that goes 39 ratings above the limit, but I don’t care. It’s so much fun, and it’s shamefully under-read. Plus it’s the book that introduced me to one of my best internet friends (hi, Amy!)–after reading it, I looked up the author online, discovered her blog, started commenting on her blog, discovered another blogger who shared my love for Henry Tilney also commenting on her blog, and the rest was history.

Resistance, Laura Josephsen. Laura is one of the first indie authors I ever discovered, and the one who proved to me that independently-published fiction could in fact be brilliant, gripping, and well-written/edited. Sadly, this book and its sequel are now out of print, but I believe you can read them, broken into four parts instead of two, on Wattpad.

The Grass Widow’s Tale, Ellis Peters. I love Peters’ Brother Cadfael books, but I also thoroughly enjoy her lesser-known Inspector Felse books. The Grass-Widow’s Tale focuses on Bunty, Inspector Felse’s wife, and it is another one of those books that makes me want to shout with joyous strength by the time I finish.

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie Haskell. A Sleeping Beauty retelling that is really well done, something hard to find for that particular fairy tale. Cinderella, Snow White, even Rapunzel … those all seem easy enough to put a spin on that remains true to the original intent while still making it engaging for readers. Sleeping Beauty, not so much. Which is understandable, given that the heroine of it has pretty much zero agency throughout her entire story, and in order to give her agency one has to twist said story into something else entirely. Haskell manages to avoid both pitfalls, and create an engaging story to boot. It’s lovely.

Seventh Son, A.M. Offenwanger. I am the lucky beta reader who gets to see each tale in this series before publication, and have watched this world and these characters grow from the first. Offenwanger is another of my dear internet friends, and her books are always a joy to read. Seventh Son is especially fun, combining fairy tale elements with everyday life, and introducing some truly lovely characters. I would love to see these books get more appreciation!

As an author who has yet to break double digits for Goodreads reviews myself, I know how hard it is when your books continually fly under the radar–especially when self promotion is so hard to do without being tacky*. So, give some of them a chance and try one or two from my list, and see what you think!

*granted, for the dead authors on my list self promotion is well nigh impossible, and they aren’t exactly weeping into their morning coffee over lack of reviews, but I’m sure their heirs would appreciate the attention.

Dreams and Schemes and Wisdom

The older I get, the harder it is to keep dreaming.

Not daydreaming, that I’m sure I’ll be doing when I’m ninety … still fondly imagining myself soaring across the ice each night before going to sleep, still beguiling boring tasks by picturing myself off on a grand adventure through space and time, still wondering “what if” and sparking new stories each time.

But the, if I may call them this, practical dreams. The dreams that turn to schemes, dreams threaded through with the hope they may one day become reality. Those are getting harder.

When I was a teenager, it was easy to believe the world was laid at my feet and all I had to do was pick a dream and follow it for it to come true. These days … I’ve experienced enough to know that’s not always the case. In fact, it rarely is.

So when I came up with a new scheme for my writing career the other day, it was immediately tempered. I enjoyed it without letting myself think too deeply about it for only a few hours, not even a full day, because in the back of my mind I knew it would lose its shiny excitement and appeal as soon as I examined it more closely. And sure enough, it did. It turned from a dream into the reality that this new potential plan involves just as much work – as much slogging, as much sweat, as much time, and as much frustration – as anything.

That doesn’t mean I discarded it. I’m still mulling it over. I might even give it a go. I might not – there have been other career plans that I have concocted and discarded without even attempting in the past. This might join their ranks. Or it might end up in the pile of “things I tried that didn’t work.” Or maybe this one will fulfill its initial promise. At this point, there’s no way of knowing.

Because that’s the other thing about experience. Even though it’s harder work to dream these days, I know that the dreams that I do fight for, that I do pursue, that maybe don’t come true with glitter and pomp, but quietly, as the result of hard work and effort, are more worth the holding (publishing Magic Most Deadly, for example … there was no fantastic offer from a big publishing house, no six-figure deal, no huge sales skyrocketing me to fame and fortune … just a lot of hard work resulting in my longest-held dream coming quietly true and bringing me great joy in so doing).

So maybe I don’t grab recklessly at dreams anymore, but I do keep dreaming – and scheming, only with a tad more wisdom applied to the process. No matter how hard it gets, no matter how much cynicism tries to tell me to quit dreaming because it’ll never happen, no matter how discouragement tries to creep in when dream after dream fades to nothing, I won’t quit. I won’t settle. Maybe I’m not shooting for the stars at this point in my life … but I see no reason to stay in the valley when I can be climbing mountains.

Light and Love

Even if it does take more work to get there.

On Not Writing

I’m in a peculiar place right now, and I honestly can’t think of the last time I was here.

I have nothing to write.

Both Magic in Disguise and Rivers Wide are at their respective beta readers, waiting to be polished. I have no other projects on hand right now. For the first time in years, I am at a loss.

Oh, there are plenty of ideas. My lovely sci-fi story that’s been simmering in the back of my mind for several months now—except I’m not sure but that it needs more simmering before I start actually writing it. The next Whitney & Davies story—except I don’t have a plot for that yet. The sequel to Rivers Wide—except that is going to require a lot of research before I can actually write it. A possible sequel to From the Shadows—except I don’t know if I’m ready to return to that universe at this time. Something entirely new and different? Am I ready for that kind of commitment? Maybe some short stories? Except I’m kind of terrible at short stories?

I haven’t minded having a nice break, but my fingers are starting to itch. I’ve signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo in July in hopes that having those requirements will force me to get started. (Also because July is pretty much the only Camp NaNo month that works with my schedule) In the meantime I’ll keep resting my sprained ankle (which had been healing nicely, thank you, even ahead of schedule, until I did a two-mile beach walk and got a truly dreadful sunburn all in one day this past weekend, leading it to swell up like a balloon on me again. Sigh), slathering aloe on my sunburn, enjoying time with my visiting family, getting ready for Joy’s ballet recital, and going to Maine for a few days, as well as finishing up the year’s schoolwork with the kids so we can start fresh in September.

It’s not like I don’t have plenty to do … but none of it is writing and boy do I get antsy when I go too long without that!

No, You Move

By now, everyone has heard about the mess Marvel is trying to make of Captain America, right? They’re not exactly being secretive about it. A cynical person might even suspect this is a move driven not by artistic standards but by an attempt to whip up interest and sell more comics.

I haven’t read the comic in question, but in case you haven’t seen the reports all over the internet, [SPOILERS], they have written it as canon that Cap is and has been secretly working for Hydra all along.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: This is not true.

Oh, it may be real. They may be really turning Steve Rogers, Captain America, Cap, into a despicable, worthless excuse for a human being, undoing all the good he’s ever done and ever stood for.

But it’s not true.

You can make up all the lies you want about Steve Rogers and call them canon and sell them and make millions of dollars off of them and even make it so nobody else can legally tell any other story about him—but you can’t make it true.

I don’t care if Steve Rogers is a fictional character. He’s true. Madeleine L’Engle said in her book Walking on Water: “Hamlet is. When the play has been read, when the curtain goes down on the performance, Hamlet still is. He is, in all his ambivalence, as real as Byron; or as the man who cried out, Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief! or as Ivan Karamazov.” There are certain characters, certain stories, that transcend their creator and become true by the virtue of the truth they represent. Steve Rogers is one of them.

I have long held that superheroes are America’s mythology. Great Britain has King Arthur, Robin Hood, St George—we have Captain America, Ironman, Wonder Woman, Superman. They are part of our mythos, they are the stories we tell as we try to shape and make sense of our culture. They both represent who we are and give us something greater to hold on to. Nobody embodies this more than Captain America. Heck, it’s even in his name. (Subtlety: not exactly our strong point, as a culture.)

The difference is, of course, that no matter how many different versions of the King Arthur story people tell, no matter how they change it, no matter how many people portray Arthur as a bad guy, the heart of the legend remains the same. It belongs to the culture, free to be interpreted however people need to interpret it at any given time. King Arthur, whether he was a historical character or not, is true. The idea of a post-Roman, Celtic Arthur fighting for the light in a time of widespread darkness is one that has resonated with me ever since reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. Don’t ever try to tell me he isn’t true. Was he real? Irrelevant.

The difference, of course, is that King Arthur belongs to all of us. Mostly to the Brits, of course, but they are gracious enough to share him with the world. Steve Rogers technically belongs to Marvel. Which means they are free to interpret his character however they want, and even destroy him, and the rest of us are helpless.

Oh, but we aren’t. Because I don’t care who owns the copyright on Steve Rogers, he belongs to us all just as much as Arthur does. Captain America—who can own someone like that? Who can own an ideal? Who can own a myth? Legally, sure. But Cap’s got nothing to do with copyrights and legalities. He transcends that.

So go ahead, Marvel, and say what you want to about Captain America. But you’re wrong, and the story you are telling is wrong, no matter how you may try to spin it later. HydraCap? Never. That’s a cheap move for shock value, and it’s a vile lie. Steve Rogers stands outside your grubby little hands, and is above whatever canon you create for him. Cap belongs to us, to all of us, and we aren’t going to let you try to tear him down. He’ll still be representing the ideals we hold so dear long after you are gone and forgotten. Because he’s true.

Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world—No, you move. (Steve Rogers, Amazing Spider-Man #537)

Spring Sprain

Thursday was a lovely spring day here (at last!) I got in my walk up the hill with Carl, part of my new exercise regimen as I try to take back my energy and overall health. On the way back down we stopped at the small playground for campus kids and hung out for a bit with our neighbor and her too-cute-for-words baby boy. Eventually Carl went back inside to get some work done, neighbor took the baby in for his nap, and the girls and I decided to go across the field to see the leaves on their favorite climbing tree.

When we got there, all the branches were too high for the kids to see well, so first I tried taking photos, and then when that proved ineffective, jumped up to snag a branch to tug down for the kids to see.

The first branch I couldn’t quite reach, even when jumping up. The second one I grabbed, but when I came down I must have landed on an uneven patch. My ankle rolled, I heard an ominous “crack,” and I rolled my body with my ankle in an instinctive attempt to protect it (former figure skater: we learn very early on how to fall).

The ankle immediately swelled up to twice its size, and the pain was indescribable. With the kids there (and the campus preschoolers blithely playing behind us) I had to keep calm so I didn’t scare them. Luckily my phone was near at hand, I grabbed it and tried to call Carl.

He didn’t answer. Three times. (We found out afterward that his phone didn’t even ring. Technology, you suck.) So I gave my keys to Joy and told her to run across the field, carefully cross the parking lot, and tell Daddy that Mom had fallen and her ankle might be broken. She took off, and I collapsed on the grass and focused on not passing out or throwing up from the pain, hoping that it looked to the preschoolers like I was merely resting on the grass. Gracie kept me company and blessedly didn’t ask any questions.

Carl and Joy finally made it back, we dropped the kids off with a neighbor who said she’d keep them as long as necessary and not to worry, and then we took off for the emergency room.

Once there, I got an X-Ray and the doctors determined it was a severe sprain, not a break, and I nearly cried from relief. An hour after we arrived, we were leaving the hospital, me with an Ace bandage and air cast and crutches and strict instructions to stay off my foot completely for one week and then to ease back into using it over the next 5-7 weeks after that. We went and got pizza for lunch, since we were both starving by then, got back home and maneuvered my crutches and me up to our second-story apartment and onto the couch, and Carl went and fetched the kids, who were vastly relieved to see me with my foot still attached.

And so here I am on Day 3 of my Week of Rest, as I’m hashtagging it on Instagram (elouise_bates). I have finished Chapter 10 of Magic in Disguise (only six chapters left), read three library books, watched a number of episodes of Death in Paradise whilst knitting a sweater for Joy, and directed kitchen operations from the easy chair. I’m so thankful I only have a week of this.

Thankful for a lot of things, really. Neighbors who looked out for our kids so I didn’t have to worry about them as well as my ankle, as well as offering to take them this week for an hour or so at a time, since I can’t. Thankful that Carl is done with classes so he can do the meals and run the kids to their various activities (did I mention it’s my right ankle? No driving for me for a bit) as well as get to the library to keep replenishing my supply of books. Thankful for a cheerful and efficient hospital staff: this was my first hospital visit since Joy’s birth, and despite the agony in my ankle, this time around was much, much more pleasant. Thankful for kids who, despite their own fear, kept calm and did what I asked without arguing or panicking (two years ago they would both have been wailing and flailing through it all). And deeply, deeply thankful that I am not going to have to miss out on a summer’s worth of activities–our last full summer here on the North Shore–because of a broken ankle. One week of inactivity is so much more endurable than twelve!

So that’s the news from Casa E.L. Bates.

Magic in Disguise: Progress

I have passed the halfway point on Magic in Disguise!

This book has been more exhausting than any I’ve ever worked on, published or unpublished. I started it immediately after publishing Magic Most Deadly, which was released September 2013. Since then, the plot has changed about five times, and I took a long break to work on From the Shadows instead, as well as starting Rivers Wide (which is currently in the beta-reading stage), and have discarded many, many drafts.

This one, though … this is the one that’s going to stick. The last draft was close, gave the skeleton of the story, and this one is making sense of it and filling it in. I think I had a couple femurs in place of humeri before and was missing a patella or two, but I’m getting them all sorted now.

How’s THAT for a metaphor of story-writing?

This book takes place in London 1925, when Maia has been apprenticed to Aunt Amelia for a little over three years. The London setting means we won’t see the return of certain characters such as Merry and Ellie or Julia and Dan (though we might get a cameo for one of them …), but never fear, Maia and Len and Becket are all present, as is the indomitable Aunt Amelia (for at least part of it). There will also be some new characters introduced, such as Helen Radcliffe, a young lady magician who has become good friends with Maia and gets caught up with great enthusiasm in their current investigation. The threat this time is more personal, with danger entering Aunt Amelia’s house and attacking Len, but the stakes are no less high for that. This book also delves a little bit deeper into the magic system itself, giving more spells, potions, and other ways of practicing magic while Maia learns how to control her ability and attempts to not blow too many things up in the process. And, of course, we get to see the relationship between Len and Maia grow and develop, but whether or not that includes romance I’m not telling!

It’s fun to write, even while it is exhausting, and I am getting to that point where I am eager to finish it so as to find if others will find it as enjoyable to read as it has been to create. We’ve got a long way to go still, but little by little, slowly but surely, it is coming.

The Best-Laid Plans …

The kids are on spring break this week. I was going to let them play outside every day while I wrote, and wrote, and WROTE, and finally made more than crawling progress on Magic in Disguise. I was going to serve the easiest possible meals, and forget about housework, and be antisocial. Carl is working on his final papers for the semester, so we could have been hermit writers together.

It’s Thursday. I have not written ONE WORD in the MS all week.

Sigh. And Alas.

But on Monday we did get to do this, so it’s not all bad.

DSC_0053 DSC_0054 DSC_0102 DSC_0067DSC_0060

Just, you know, not productive.

And now I’d better get back to all the chores that are calling my name and, inexplicably, must be taken care of instead of writing. Why DO dishes need to get washed and laundry done so frequently, anyway?

(Carl, needless to say, is almost finished with HIS paper.)