2019 So Far

Well, here we are at the midpoint of the year. How has it been for you so far? I have to say, a lot of my friends are struggling with a deluge of incidents and situations. When it rains, as they say…

As for me, this year so far:

  • Put our house on the market and sold it
  • Bought a new house
  • Started a new nutrition plan… then dumped it
  • Had surgery
  • Moved
  • Enrolled two of my kids in their new schools (one of them is staying at his current school)
  • Daughter graduated from elementary school
  • Oldest son celebrated his bar mitzvah
  • Was long listed for a RONE award but couldn’t garner the necessary support to make the short list, so I quit writing
  • Helping my son plan for his student ambassadorship to Japan in October
  • Planning my own trip to Japan for next year with my best friend

I know the RONE thing makes me sound petulant, but it was really just the straw that broke the camel. I’ve been trying for years to get friends, family, and readers to act on my behalf, even just to leave reviews or spread the word about my work. Because if an author can’t get even their closest loved ones to vote for them in something, how can they hope to make it? Over the years it’s become increasingly clear, however, that I can’t get anyone to support me. And since I can’t do it on my own, I’ve shut down that side of my life. Actually, I’m pretty sure my family is happier now that I’m more focused on them anyway.

So then what do I have to look forward to? Well, again, mostly family stuff:

  • Prepping my son for band camp
  • Family vacation
  • School starting
  • Pool renovations
  • Having the house painted
  • Finalizing my son’s plans for that Japan trip

That takes me through October, at least. We may or may not do anything fun for Thanksgiving or winter break. I guess I still have a birthday to look forward to? And some theatre tickets… Also another year of being on the PTA board.

I suppose my career crashing and burning still puts me better off than a lot of people. But I don’t have to be happy about it. And I know filling my time with house and family will only go so far. I mean, I don’t want to be one of those mothers who lose their identities in their kids and then fall apart when all those kids grow up and leave home. (Assuming they leave home, which I certainly hope they do.) But yeah. The year has definitely been one of big shifts, some in great directions, but some… not so much. Guess we’ll see what the back half brings.

Free Book

…in exchange for an honest review!

I’m looking for a few willing book lovers to read and review Faebourne. It’s a historical fantasy with a romantic subplot… But please note that one of the main romances is m/m and may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s clean and sweet—only kissing—but still. Keep it in mind.

I can supply a PDF, .mobi, or .epub file. In return, YOU promise to:

  • read and review the book
  • not share the file with pirating sites

Interested? Leave a comment or drop me an email!

Books: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I have so many feelings about this book stemming from a dozen different places so that it would take a machete to cut my way through them all. But I’m going to try.

First, the setup: Alex is the son of the first female president, who was elected in 2016 (so I guess this is an alternate universe kind of book). His archnemesis is Prince Henry of Wales. He’s taken a dislike to Henry because Henry brushed him off at the Olympics in Rio. But after a publicity disaster at Henry’s brother’s wedding, the two of them are forced to fake an international friendship. That becomes a romance.

Bromance turned romance. There it is.

Now most of you probably know I love a good gay love story. But this one didn’t entirely work for me. I liked the idea of it, just not the execution. I felt like the focus was in the wrong place. But that’s a personal preference. As all reviews must be, mine is subjective.

I enjoyed the start of the book—the sniping and banter. Once the romance became set, things began to drag. The middle of the book is a series of situational hook-ups disguised as Alex embracing his new sexual identity in increments, but at the end of the day, this just makes the book another coming-out story. Hardly anything new. And it seems like the author really just wants to revel in boy sex rather than further the plot at all.

The plot, such as it is, comes into play more than half the book later when—hey, I think I’ve heard this before—a private email server is hacked and Alex and Henry are outed. Political scandal ensues, even as Alex’s mom is campaigning for re-election. And of course Henry’s grandmother the Queen is unhappy as well.

There’s something a little fan-fictiony about it all?

Not that I don’t love fan fiction, but I also believe in calling something what it is rather than trying to pass it off as legitimate.

But again, I’m me. I grew up in Texas—in the very Austin McQuiston writes about, and then later outside Dallas, so I’ve seen both blue and red Texas up close. I went to UT in Austin and got the same mass comm degree Alex’s sister June has in this book. I used to hang out at a friend’s lake house every summer. So, you know, while I can appreciate the love letter to my home state and town, something about it didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the way the author forces all the representation down the reader’s throat: gay people, bisexual people, the blended Latino-American family, the trans secret service agent (male to female but still with a wife), the friend who is Indian… Instead of feeling seamless, it feels more like a giant neon arrow saying, “Look at me being inclusive!” And in the emails between Alex and Henry, the various historical extracts that also feel like a big neon arrow saying, “Look at how I did some research!”

Gah. All this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn’t. I just had some very specific, nitpicky issues with it. Like I said, I enjoyed the start. The middle sagged and the real plot kicked in a mite too late for my taste. I also didn’t love Alex, and since the book is told through his perspective, that wasn’t ideal for me. I mean, he was okay, but ::shrug::

If the focus had been more on Henry and Alex weathering public perception and private pressures, I would have enjoyed it more, I think. Instead, a lot of this book is the two of them having sex in various locations and trying to hide it. That gets dull pretty quickly. For me. Based on other reviews, plenty of people are happy with that kind of thing. But I want more story than sex, so this book counts as “just okay” in my estimation.

Movies: Always Be My Maybe

On the one hand, I have to give Netflix credit for reviving the romantic comedy. Studios don’t seem interested in them these days, and yes, I understand all the reasons why, but there are still people in the world who enjoy these kinds of movies. (I co-wrote one that was briefly optioned, and I wish Netflix would pick it up, too. But that’s beside the point.)

On the other hand, there are those reasons romantic comedies have withered. Namely that they are often rote and predictable. Which is more or less how I felt about this one.

The conceit: Sasha and Marcus have known each other since childhood. Sasha’s parents were never around, so she spent a lot of time at Marcus’s house, to the point that his mother Judy taught her to cook. But after an awkward night at age eighteen, in which Sasha and Marcus have clumsy sex in his car, they fight and go their separate ways. Sasha becomes a celebrity chef/restauranteur. Marcus works with his dad while harboring dreams of his band becoming more than local.

Then a bunch of pretty typical things happen. Some of it is cute, and some downright funny (like Sasha dating Keanu Reeves and… well, I won’t spoil it for you), but none of it really sparked me. I did tear up a tiny bit at the very end, but other than that…

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly nice little movie. I’m not damning with faint praise; I realize that not every movie is for every person, and this one isn’t 100% for me. I’d say it’s 70-80%. That’s still a passing grade, and I know plenty of people who like this movie more than I did. So if you like rom-coms, try it for yourself.

Books: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

I usually enjoy Weir’s books, fiction and non. (My favorites are Captive Queen and Innocent Traitor.) However, in this series I have so far struggled. I found the book about Katherine of Aragon to be repetitive and dull, maybe because Katherine echoes through the ages as having one refrain: “I am the rightful queen!” I didn’t even finish the Anne Boleyn book because (a) I’ve already read many books about Boleyn, so it didn’t feel original, and (b) I just wasn’t enjoying it. So I picked this one up with a lack of expectation… which may be why I did like it.

I’ll admit a certain curiosity about Jane Seymour, so it’s possible that my not already knowing a ton about the subject is part of what kept my interest. I appreciate that Weir makes a case for true love between Jane and Henry, and I like her take on Jane’s death (the author note at the end of the book is quite informative). There is an attempt to show how Jane might have felt in taking the place of the women she served, hence the “haunted” bit. At the same time, the book does uphold the image of Jane as saintly and seemingly lacking in any real flaws. Jane as devout, as manipulated by her family, etc…. That angle is well worn and can sometimes make Jane seem superhuman.

A number of reviews I read called this book slow and boring. I didn’t find that to be the case, but again, when one has few expectations for something, one is less likely to be disappointed. For me, this was the best of the series thus far.

Author Interview: Kimberly Emerson

PepperWords is pleased to feature the author of No Accounting for Destiny

PepperWords: Easy stuff first: Who are you and what should we know about you? Where are you from, etc.?

KE: I’m Kimberly Emerson, a lifelong writer and newly published author. I live in L.A. with my cat Zoe, who loves me but still needs her space.

PW: Tell us a bit about your writing history. Have you been doing it long? What inspired you to start writing?

KE: I’ve been writing for most of my life. I remember doing my creative writing assignments in fifth grade as a series, basing characters on myself and all my classmates. In sixth grade I started a new series, using the daughter of the character I created in fifth grade. I don’t think I was actually trying to be clever—I seem to remember it was a way to use the same characters over and over so I didn’t have to make up new ones.

PW: Ha! It was a generational saga!

What about this book? What sparked it? What genre is it, and what draws you to that particular genre?

KE: This book is based on a plot that’s been in my head for probably thirty years. I fell in love with London many years ago and was sure I was supposed to spend the rest of my life there, and of course that I would meet someone incredibly famous who would be so impressed by how unimpressed I was by his fame. I live in Los Angeles and I’ve never lived in London. Maybe I got the first letter right but got distracted during the rest of the prophecy? The book is a mystery because those are my favorite kind to read. I love puzzles and logic problems. Plus, it gives me an excuse for anything weird in my browser history.

PW: I’ve always wanted to live abroad, and London is one of my favorite cities. Alas, it’s never happened for me either. Maybe that’s one of the things I love about this book, that I identify with it.

Speaking of famous people and Los Angeles, in Hollywood we write log lines for scripts—one sentence that sums up the story, a bit like the write up in TV Guide. For example, the log line for Back to the Future might read: “A teenager gets sent back to 1955 where he must contrive to get his parents to fall in love else risk never being born.” What would the log line for your book be?

KE: Hmm… Maybe: “An accountant and an earl find out getting kidnapped isn’t as much fun as you think.” I’ll keep working on it.

PW: And if you were casting your book as a movie, are there any particular actors you’d envision as your main characters?

KE: If I had to cast this book as a movie, I’d put Reese Witherspoon as Emmy. The problem is I’d want to play Jane myself.

PW: What are some of your favorite books? Favorite authors?

KE: So many favorites. My favorite genre is mystery, but if I had to pick one book to read for the rest of forever it would probably be William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, so I guess my taste is a little eclectic. Well, Princess Bride or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I love Jane Austen, with the favorite being a toss-up between Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility. I also read just about every book Erma Bombeck ever wrote and I own about eight books of Fox Trot comic anthologies. (Bury My Heart at Fun-Fun Mountain is a pictorial account of my childhood.) J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are a nearly perfect series. Oh, and I will always have a special place in my heart for L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories. I could go on.

PW: I should know better than to ask authors to name favorite books. My oldest son is a huge Fox Trot fan, and I love me some Agatha Christie and L.M. Montgomery, so we have that much in common. What are you currently reading? What’s on your TBR list?

KE: Right now, I am re-reading David Casaret’s The Missing Guests at the Magic Grove Hotel. It makes me want to visit Chiang Mai in Thailand. I love novels that teach me about new places. The book also makes me wonder if I missed my calling as a medical ethicist. I can imagine myself spending my days scouring patient records to figure out whether the right ethical choices were made. After I finish that, I’d like to read Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. Her blend of spirituality and self-deprecating humor inspires me, and I think we all need more hope in our lives these days.

PW: Tell us about your writing process. Is it very structured? Do you have a favorite place to sit and write, or a favorite food or drink while writing?

KE: I wish my writing had something as sophisticated as a process. Usually, I start with a snippet of dialogue that pops into my head. I work outward from there. It’s kind of like I can hear the sound of a movie and gradually I can start to see the picture. Once I’ve started on a story, I try to carve out time every day to write something, even if it’s lousy. Sometime my discipline fails me, though. Writing is like trying to exercise and eat right. It’s a commitment you have to make over and over again. I just remind myself that any little step I take in the right direction is better than nothing.

PW: I think most writers would say discipline is the most important thing. Alas, we all need undisciplined days. Except maybe Stephen King. I hear he never takes a day off. Guess that’s why he’s so prolific.

How long does it take you to write a book? How do you know a manuscript is ready to send out to agents and publishers?

KE: The length of time to write a book depends on the book. With No Accounting for Destiny, I started and stopped a lot, so it took me a couple of years. With the book I wrote after that, I finished the first draft in four and a half months. It depends somewhat on the story and somewhat on what else happens in my life at the time. I try to make time whatever else is going on, but sometimes life gets in the way. The important thing is just to try to get back to it again once you get your head back above water. After I finish the first draft, it needs to go out to my critique partners and then the beta readers. Then once I feel content with it, it needs to go to the copy editor for spelling and grammar checks. If I didn’t work full-time, I think I could do a book a year. As it is, it takes at least two years. I try to start on the next one before the last one is completely done, in order to tighten things up.

PW: What are you working on now?

KE: I’ve started working on Fate & Other Terrorists, the sister novel to No Accounting for Destiny. I’m looking forward to calls from the FBI once the title makes the bestseller list. Together with my mystery writer’s browser history, I expect to spend a lot of time in conversation with government entities. Please start collecting bail money for me.

PW: We’ll start a crowdfunding campaign! Aside from not getting arrested, what advice would you give to young writers, or writers who are only just starting out?

KE: The only advice I can give to any writer, to any kind of creative person, really, is to know your own worth. Fame and fortune land where they choose to land, and if there’s any logic to their destinations, I haven’t found it. As one of my mentors at acting school used to say, “If you’re not enough without success, you’ll never be enough with it.” You have something to say. Say it, the best that you can. That’s all you can ever do.

PW: I really like that quote from your mentor; I’ll need to keep that written down somewhere… Where do you see yourself in five years?

KE: In five years, I see myself buying a lake house, ideally with proceeds from my books. I write better at the lake.

PW: I do love lakes and lake houses. My best friend’s grandparents had one and… Oh, but this isn’t about me! Now a little about you in general. Favorite quote or inspirational saying?

KE: My favorite quote is from theologian Frederich Buechner: “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” There’s more to the quote than that, but that’s the part that sticks with me. The idea that I in my insignificance bring something irreplaceable to the world has gotten me through some dark days.

PW: Favorite color?

KE: I love lavender. I also love sea green. My house has a lot of both. They make me feel creative and relaxed at the same time.

PW: Favorite TV show?

KE: My favorite show changes, depending on the day. All-time favorite is probably Murphy Brown. Current favorite is The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

PW: Okay, weird confession from me: I used to have a crush on Jim from Murphy Brown. That’s right, Jim. Maybe I have a thing for older guys? But I married someone younger so… ??? Oh, and I adore Kimmy Schmidt. What a great show.

Favorite movie?

KE: My favorite movie is The Princess Bride. I had to stop watching it because I could say virtually every line along with the actors. Second place is Clue. For things I’ve watched lately, Ali Wong & Randall Park’s Always Be My Maybe made me laugh so hard I almost broke a rib.

PW: Clue is so quotable, and a perfect stormy night movie.

Someone (living, dead, or fictional) you’d like to meet?

KE: Eleanor Roosevelt has always fascinated me. She came from privilege and spent her whole life working to use that privilege to make everyone’s lives better. She also dealt with a monumental amount of judgment from people who disagreed with her. I would love to have a cup of coffee with her.

PW: I always wondered how she felt about her husband’s infidelities. She certainly seemed to handle things with true grace.

Last but certainly not least, where can we find you and your book?

KE: Please find my book, No Accounting for Destiny, on Amazon! You can also find more of my thoughts on life at www.kimberlyemerson.com (where there is also a handy link to Amazon to buy my book).

Television: Good Omens

Good Omens is fairly high on my list of favorite books; my cat Crowley bears the name of one of the main characters. (Most people assume the name is from Supernatural, but I haven’t seen that show.) How delighted was I, then, when David Tennant was cast as Crowley? Off the charts, really, and he does a spectacular job opposite Michael Sheen as Aziraphale.

I’m not sure I can adequately encapsulate the story for those unfamiliar with it, but basically Crowley is a demon and Aziraphale is an angel, and yet they’re friends. So when the end of the world is on the horizon, the two of them team up to stop it because, honestly, they rather like the world. I suppose it’s just the right blend of bad and good to make them both comfortable without being bored.

There’s a lot more to it than that, such as witches and witchfinders and prophecies and the antichrist and his pet dog (and a character named Pepper!), but it’s all more complex than I can describe, and you might as well read or watch it anyway.

I usually hesitate over adaptations of my favorite books because (a) I worry it’ll ruin my mental picture by replacing my imagination with a “sanctioned” version, and (b) often they’re just terrible. But there’s no reason to be concerned in this case. Good Omens is a faithful adaptation, and in the places where it’s been changed, all the changes work. It’s well cast and just incredibly entertaining. And at six episodes, easy to binge.

I’d say I want more, and I do… except I don’t, if that makes any sense. By which I mean, it’s like a really good meal: so wonderful, you want to keep eating, yet you know that the food will only begin to lose its flavor eventually, and you’ll only end up uncomfortably stuffed, maybe even ill. Better to eat and walk away with the memory of a nice dinner than make yourself sick and come to feel averse to something you used to enjoy. Or, in short form: quit while you’re ahead. So many shows try to press their popularity by eking out season after season, all for the money, until they’re only remembered for not being as good as when they began. Better to tell your story well and end it (Babylon 5) than keep chasing the audience until they turn on you.

Long story short, the Good Omens miniseries is fantastic, assuming you like that sort of thing. I do highly recommend it.

Books: Game of Crowns by Christopher Andersen

I seem to be on a bit of a Royals kick these days. Well, nothing like summer for reading trash and gossip, I suppose. Which is mostly what this book is—a curated collection of tidbits culled from magazines, interviews, tabloids. At least, that’s my guess.

The book begins with a hypothetical overview of what is likely to happen when Elizabeth II passes. The phone calls, the conversations, etc. I understand this as a “hook,” but it honestly put me off a bit.

From then on we re-tread old ground of Charles & Camilla (and Diana), William & Kate. The thesis of the book is to examine the succession of the British monarchy, but it mostly just points out that, no matter what anyone wants, Camilla will be de facto queen, at least for a little while. And that most people would much rather have William and Kate and skip Charles and Camilla entirely. All true, of course, but we know Elizabeth will give Charles his crown. Whether the monarchy will last under him is another question this book raises, but with Wills and Kate on the horizon, one thinks the monarchy may cling on a bit longer if people are willing to wait Charles and Camilla out.

I didn’t like Camilla before, and I like her even less after reading this book. I had more sympathy for Charles before reading this book, too. In short, this book does little to nothing for their reputations. It repeatedly underscores how they are outshone by the following generation and maintains that a number of Commonwealth countries may decide to leave and become republics when the crown devolves upon Charles and his Rottweiler. These countries, per Andersen, may not want to wait out Charles’ reign.

Kate comes off a bit better, though, in Andersen’s writing, that seems to be in spite of a grasping mother that pushed Kate under William’s nose and worked to keep her there.

It boils down to a lot of ambition on the parts of the women depicted here. Something to be said for persistence, I suppose, but it really only illustrates that good people are often trampled by those willing to do anything to get what (or who) they want.

Books: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

You know where I must begin with this: my relationship to the material being discussed. I like history, though I only came to any real interest in Anne Boleyn after picking up The Other Boleyn Girl at an airport bookstore several years ago. Like many of the people from Bordo’s website and research, a tidbit of historical fiction sent me looking for the truth, though not in any deep way. I read the Wiki and a few websites to glean what about Gregory’s novel was accurate, what was speculation, and what was pure fabrication. It was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Last week I was wandering the library and came across Bordo’s book and picked it up as a potentially interesting read. Her ostensible goal with this work is to hold up what people think they know about Anne Boleyn and compare it to why they think or believe these things and where in the historical record these ideas may have come from. Considering there are precious few primary sources to mine, and that many of the sources we do have are biased (*cough* Chapuys *cough*), the exercise is not a bad one. But…

Unfortunately, at least in my eyes, the attempt is ruined by Bordo’s own clear biases. She disdains works by Alison Weir, rips apart Gregory’s fiction, snipes at Mantel’s version of Boleyn, and pretty much hates on anyone who ever said a bad word about Anne. Then gushes over Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer’s take on Boleyn in The Tudors. Yet seems unable to be clear on why creative license is okay for some but not others (unless it’s because she’s just not okay with Anne Boleyn being a villainess?).

Okay, so some historians make what seem to other history buffs to be wild claims. The real truth is, we don’t know. Bordo disagrees with, well, a lot. And that’s fine; she’s allowed to make her argument and present her data. But to take it that step further and really just attack all these other historian and writers? That’s a bit much.

And the underlying notion that historical fiction should be “more accurate” (or just nicer to Anne, I guess)… It’s f***ing fiction, for one thing. And Bordo doesn’t know for sure Anne wasn’t a total bitch, for another. She’d just rather not believe it. But what really gets me is the argument that, because people will take the historical fiction as true and accurate it should be as faithful to history as possible… That just boggles me. I like to think people know enough to know when they’re reading something that’s made up. I like to think that, just as I and many others Bordo spoke to did, people will go look up the truth if they really want to know. And I don’t think it’s novels’ or movies’ or television programs’ jobs to teach history. If (as The Other Boleyn Girl did for me) one of these media spark an interest in a historical subject, fantastic! If, on the other hand, someone walks away thinking Anne Boleyn was blonde, or had a sixth finger, or was evil incarnate… So? It’s not hurting her any. Pretty sure she doesn’t care, so why does Bordo?

It’s one thing to examine why people think the things they do. That’s an interesting psychological and sociological study—how information spreads in a society, where that information comes from, etc. Even in Boleyn’s time, Chapuys was intent on a smear campaign. But there’s no point in getting angry about it. If it were a fatal disease maybe, but what people think and believe about a long-dead queen? An academic exercise at best; not anything that will save lives or change the world.

In short, Bordo needs to ease up. If she’d come at it objectively, but she didn’t, at that tanked what otherwise was a decent read.

Books: The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor by Trevor Rees-Jones (with Moira Johnston)

I was working on a night shoot when the accident happened, and my whole life was about working both on a film set and my “regular” job, so I didn’t give the news much of my attention. Though I’d loved Princess Diana—or really, the thought of her—by the time the divorce happened and everything after, I wasn’t really following news about her. Maybe this is because I didn’t have regular Internet access, and I’ve never been one for tabloids. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe the fairy tale was over.

Anyway, all this is a long way of saying I don’t even think I knew someone had survived the crash that killed Diana and Dodi. And I only stumbled across this book at the library. Every now and then I get an itch to gorge on some nonfiction, usually history, biography, or psychology. This time I found myself in the world history/culture section and walked away with a small stack that included this one.

I don’t know the whole truth, and I don’t think anyone does, but I appreciate how forthright this book is in tone. I never read all the reports on the crash or more than the summarized versions of the outcomes of the investigations, so this book provided a bit more detail. However, anyone looking for the answer to what actually happened is likely to be disappointed. Though Rees-Jones (and Johnston) paint a thorough pre-crash picture, he doesn’t remember the crash at all, only getting into the Mercedes with Henri Paul at the wheel and Diana and Dodi in back. The back half of the book is about Rees-Jones’ recovery and his being hounded by Dodi’s father, plus various legal issues. Still, I found it interesting enough to push through it all. Those wanting more about Diana might not.

All in all a solid read, if dated, as the book was written and published before all the information was in. One would need to read something more recent for later details. But I think anyone curious about what happened would benefit from getting this side of the story.