Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thursday Three: Why YA?

When I first started writing, I thought about writing mysteries, since they comprise the bulk of my reading material. But I soon realised that I didn't have the skills in plotting to pull of a mystery. I still have a few good ideas in my head, but they're going to have to wait until my writing skills catch up with them.

I fell into Young Adult (YA) pretty easily, the way you fall into a comfortably baggy sweatshirt on a cool autumn day. I practically lived at the library for most of my young life, so YA is comfortable and familiar to me.

But it's more than that. YA books, by necessity, are about teenagers and that period of life appeals to me. Not that I would ever want to go back. No way, no how, not even knowing what I know now, would I ever want to go back to high school. But I can still appreciate the unique facets of that time and exploit the story-telling potential.

I've been thinking a lot recently about why the teen years appeal to me and I've come up with three key reasons, perfect for a Thursday Three.

#1. The Emotions. You never feel anything with the strength and purity you did when you were 15 or 16. Every emotion you have is the super-charged, super-enhanced technicolour variety. There are no little joys or small disappointments. Every feeling is a tidal wave. You grow out of it, of course, because it's impossible to feel with that intensity for the rest of your life without going insane. Maybe it's the masochist in me, but I like remembering and visiting the Planet of Intensified Emotions.

#2. The Invinvibility Conundrum. The teen years are marked with the most bizarre confluence of awkward low-self esteem and the perception of omniscent invincibility. You're uncomfortable in your own skin, but you somehow know everything and are unstoppable. A friend once confided in me that the most crushing discovery of adulthood, for her, was the uncertainty. Where once she sailed through life with an adolescent's self-assurance, she now plodded through second-guessing herself. This dichotomy provides a rich vein to mine in story telling.

#3. The World of Endless Possibilities. When you're a teenager, every life decision is still waiting for you to make it. Each time you make a decision, you narrow down the choices available to you. It's inevitable - the turns you take on the map of life lead you closer to some places and further way from other places. It's not always impossible to change, but after you get far enough along a path, it becomes exceedingly difficult. I love the blank page and the idea that all the options are open.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pavement Surfing

Lately, I've been absorbed in reading about the struggles Laurie's been having with Riley and his propensity for barking and lunging at random passersby. I especially found it amusing to think of how many arms are required to perfect the Victoria Stillwell method of dog training.

Our dogs are fairly well-trained, but it's nothing to do with me. If they've any manners at all, they've gotten them from Peter, our in-house dog disciplinarian. As a result of Peter being the Enforcer and Big Boss, I do sometimes run into trouble when I'm walking the dogs alone.

Mild-mannered Toby can turn into a slavering, barking menace of a horror film dog if he is confronted with a dog he does not like. He seems not to like unleashed, unneutered dogs, of which there are many in the Middle of Nowhere. He also takes offense to random small, fluffy dogs, which is always embarrassing, especially when said throw pillows are attached to little old ladies.

Callie loves people and dogs. She just wants to meet and befriend anyone, to the point of whining incessantly if she's not allowed to make go make nice.

I try my best to control the dogs when we're out in public. But I discovered a few weeks ago that if we were approached by a loose dog that Toby wanted to kill and Callie wanted to love, the best course of action was to drop Callie's leash. She would then run off as our emmisary in the doggy world, bearing good wishes. In actuality, I think she scared the collars off a lot of these macho country dogs, just through her sheer size and exuberance.

We commonly had problems with the landlord's sister's dog, a squat black lab called Harry. But when Callie met Harry, he decided that perhaps he didn't really want anything to do with us, ever. When we pass now, he skulks behind farm equipment or stays on his perch at the top of the hill, gazing at us with trepidation.

Allowing Callie to be our bouncer has worked out so well, I probably grew a little bit complacent. As long as we weren't on a main road, I thought I'd always have the drop-her-leash option available to me. I was wrong.

Yesterday afternoon, I took the dogs for a walk as the sun was setting. It was the first day we've had that made you believe that spring could be just around the corner, that our seasons really are going to change out of the dark, dismal, rainy winter. (We've had about 10 inches this month alone.) So there we were, out on a quiet country road enjoying the weather.

We'd just approached the postmaster's daughter's house. I know they've two dogs: a pedigreed hunting dog who lives in a kennel and a black lab who prowls the yard loose. The lab, whose name is Spree (or, this being the Gaeltacht, it could be Spraoi), is a cheerful dog who is exceedingly good about staying within the bounds of his property.

I spotted Spree hanging out on the front step of his house. Then I spotted an older lady walking a grey-muzzled black lab on the road. The woman waved me off, as if to say that her dog was not friendly. I had an inkling who this was and that the dog really hates all other dogs. I could see the dog straining and fighting at the end of the leash, pulling the woman along.

I gathered up my leashes and dragged Toby and Callie as far up the driveway as I could, but I didn't want to go too far because I didn't want to add Spree into this mix. The woman called out and asked me to push in further. I took my dogs right up to the last fence post of the outer yard, parked Toby's face in the corner, and hoped for the best. It was clear to me that there was no way I could drop Callie's leash in this situation as she'd probably scare the pants off the woman, if not end up in a fight with the leashed dog, who was giving Toby a run for his money in the horror movie dog competition.

As the woman approached, my dogs started to react to her riled up dog. Callie and Toby both turned and started lunging toward to woman's dog. I did the best I could to control them, but before I knew it, they were dragging me. I dug in my heels and dropped my body as low as possible. I was pavement surfing behind the dogs, suddenly and painfully aware that I was not only outnumbered, I was also outweighed.

They dragged me at least 30 feet before I was able to stop them. If we'd been in a cartoon, I'd have had piles of ripped up asphalt under my feet, so fiercely did I dig in my heels during my struggle. It ended alright, with no contact between the warring factions, although I was well and truly mortified.


Friday, January 23, 2009

An Evil Genius Helps Me Write

Recently, I received a precious gift - two extra days off each week. Yes, this gift came with a price, but it's one I'll gladly pay since it gives me time to write. I've got no excuses now - it's time to apply the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair and get the damn thing done.

Of course, I had to do a few things first. Like tidy up the house. And tire out the dogs. And assemble my writing music. For a long time, the only thing I could listen to when writing was classical music. It was like the rhythym and flow of the music pulled the writing out of me without my mind getting distracted by lyrics. But something changed for me, maybe around the time I started running. I found that music with words could put me in a certain frame of mind, could give me different memories, could help create the world inside my head that I wanted to write about.

My parents gave me a very generous I-Tunes gift certificate for Christmas, which has kept me entertained on these long nights by allowing me to purchase trashy television. (I love 'Friday Night Lights'!) But this morning, I decided to invest in my music library.

I used Peter's Mac to download the music and he has I-Tune's Genius feature turned on. Really, it should be called Evil Genius. It is so much more addicting and beguiling than Amazon's 'customers who bought x also bought y and z'. I don't exactly know how it happened, but somehow, it suckered me into spending $40 on the most random collection of music that I didn't even realize I'd been wanting: Mazzy Star, Jesus & Mary chain, Kanye West, Kenny Rogers, Pure Prairie League.

I loaded up my Shuffle and took the dogs for a walk to get myself in the writing mood. The music unleashed this torrent of memories. Although these memories are not exactly what I want to write about, they do provide overlap and inspiration and ideas that I want to use. I write Young Adult fiction (for reasons that I'll get into sometime) so these memories were from high scool and college.

  • Jesus & Mary chain - The rain-soaked Lollapolooza 1992 where I spent part of my time enjoying the music, part monitoring then 14-year old Youngest Brother to make sure he didn't eat any of our neighbour's vodka-soaked fruit salad, and part of the time wondering if flirting with a guy with a cold sore was really worth it. (No, probably not is the answer to that one.)

  • Toad the Wet sprocket - Ohio University, Athens, Ohio - Going with Alex P. to see them in a packed basement bar, which was inexplicably full of frat boys who seemed to think 'Hold Her Down' was more of a how-to manual than a protest song. Alex P. was tall and lanky with an easy crooked smile and a head of uncontrollably curly black hair. He introduced me to first-person shooters (Wolfenstein), made me laugh, and eventually broke my heart.

  • Depeche Mode - Driving my two best friends home from school in the Loumobile, a shit-brown Ford LTD that I think even had wood panels. I got the privilege of driving it to school exactly once - my last day of senior year. The song was 'Just Can't Get Enough' and I had great fun encouraging M. (the sweetest and most innocent person I've ever known) to sing the words as 'I just can't get it up', which caused her to collapse in a red-faced fit of giggles.

  • Dead Kennedys - The two skater boys from my German class, who used to make me mixed tapes that included Bad Religion and the Dead Kennedys. I can't even remember their names now, but I liked the dark-haired one, which meant, of course, that I spent more time talking to the blonde one. They were fun guys and I can't tell you why nothing ever happened with either of them, except maybe that I was terrified they were too cool for me.

  • When I got home from the walk, I sat down and started writing, letting the memories ease me into my book's world. It worked and I wrote five pages, which is pretty good for me. Now, I think I've earned a 'Friday Night Lights' break.

    Monday, January 19, 2009

    Comedy of Errors

    My basic philosophy when it comes to life in Ireland is to always go out, no matter the weather. If you let a little rain stop you, you'd never do anything here. I've played football in a sleety downpour and camogie in several inches of mud and water. We seldom get thunderstorms, so it's almost guaranteed that while you might be uncomfortable, you are going to be safe. I wouldn't go hill walking on a showery day of low visibility, but I wouldn't let that stop me from taking the dogs for a walk.

    I've recently grown bored of our regular 2-mile walk up along the ridge near our house. We have to run the gauntlet of a few dogs that don't get along with Toby and it's both physically and mentally exhausting to handle two large dogs under these circumstances.

    I've taken to loading the dogs up in the car and driving either to work or to a pull-in along the South Lake Road to have an amble around. Gougane is also an option, although with all the loose sheep, I find that I prefer walking on our picturesque and nearly always sheep-free country roads.

    And so it was this Saturday. The weather was grey, but I thought we'd be able to have our walk and be back before it got too bad. It wasn't so much that I was concerned about getting wet, it was more that I was concerned about my car. On Friday, the windshield wipers pretty much stopped working. If I was lucky, they would drag themselves across with just enough velocity to barely wipe the glass clear. It was a calculated risk and I knew if it was too rainy, I could just leave the car in the village and get it when the weather cleared up.

    I decided to park at work so we could explore a new road. Well, it was new to us, at least. We set off at a good clip and enjoyed our walk. In fact, we enjoyed it so much that instead of turning around after 30 minutes, we kept walking. And when it started to rain a little, we still kept walking. The dogs didn't mind the rain since they were absorbed in new sights and smells. I was enjoying the exercise. When the rain died down, the wind kicked up, but we still kept walking.

    But when the rain came back and it was a piercing sleety sort of rain, like tiny icy daggers all over my face, I realised that perhaps I'd been foolishly ambitious with my plan. So we turned around and started the long walk back to the car. We were at least two and half miles from the car and the wind had turned bitter. The dogs had stopped having fun, both of them hanging their heads in an attempt to keep the sleep out of their eyes. My runners were soaked through as were my sweatpants. My jacket held off the rain a bit longer, but by the time we finally made it to the car I was thoroughly soaked to the bone.

    At least, at that point, the rain had stopped. I piled the dogs into the car, wiped off the windshield and pulled out of the driveway. I wasn't even all the way through the village when the heavens opened up. Great big drops of rain slapped the windshield. The car limped through the village and I parked at the school. Decision time. I could leave the car and walk the mile home, which would be uncomfortable but at least we'd be moving. Or we could wait out the weather and then drive home.

    The wind at this point was howling, a steady strong stream with periodic gusts that had to be at least 70 mph. The weather did not look like it was going to improve anytime soon and sitting in cold, wet clothes was not looking like a great option. If I'm going to be miserable, I at least want to be moving.

    The mile back to my house was easily the most miserable mile I've ever walked and I grew up in a place that had blizzards and bitter cold. The wind was my enemy and I had to walk head-into it for most of the journey. All I could think about was the cup of tea and hot bath that would be my reward when we finally got home.

    We ran the last quarter-mile and I think we were all happy to finally get inside out of the rain and wind. I went into the bedroom to change and flipped the light switch on since the storm had made mid-day as dark as dusk. Only nothing happened when I flipped the switch. Or when I flipped the fan switch for our bathroom. I went into the kitchen and sure enough, the Jesus light was off. We'd lost electricity.

    Not only did this mean no tea, it also meant no bath, since the pump that moves the water out of the hot water heater (or maybe it's out of the boiler- I don't really know for certain) runs on electricty. And no hot water, of course, means no heat.

    With my warm-up plans thwarted, I did the next best thing and had a nap under two thick duvets. It was something of a disappointment, but that'll teach me to check the weather radar before I go tromping out on an extra-long adventurous walk!

    Friday, January 16, 2009

    Can We Hurry Up and Leave Already?

    Tuesday, January 13, 2009

    Remembering the Good, Old Poorhouse Days

    As I sit in our five-bedroom, three-bathroom, centrally-heated rental house, it feels like a lifetime ago that Peter and I were getting started on our life together in Dublin. Not our 2005 life, where we lived with his parents, but our 1995 life.

    In March of 1995, I dropped out of law school and moved to Dublin to live with Peter, even though technically, we hadn't even had a first date yet. My parents, in a mind-boggling act of parental faith and love, gave me their tax refund check to pay for my ticket and living expenses until I found a job.

    The first order of business was to find a place to live. We spent two nights in a lovely B&B, which I appreciated but I thought Peter was crazy for picking a place that cost 50 pounds a night when we could have gotten a double-room at a hostel for half that price. Then we spent several nights with a friend who was house-sitting.

    The place we finally found was a ground-floor bedsit in a old house where Donnybrook meets Ranelagh. The bedsit was one big room that had the entrance in one corner, a double-bed with a saggy mattress in the next corner, a TV in the third corner, and a kitchen with a tiny fridge, small, sink and 2-burner electric stove/oven in the fourth corner. The other furniture consisted of two semi-comfortable relaxing chairs, which were in front of the TV, and a kitchen table with a couple chairs, which were in front of the drafty picture window. We also had a faux fireplace with an electric space heater.

    What's missing in this description? Yep - a bathroom. The entire building (which had to have at least 10 bedsits) shared two bathrooms. The one on the ground floor had a toilet, sink, and giant tub that often harboured small creatures I called UCCs - Unidentified Creepy Crawlys. On the top floor was a toilet and sink in its own room and a shower in a separate room. To get hot water in the shower, you had to insert a twenty-pence coin into a box mounted on the hallway wall.

    We were thrilled just to have found a place, especially since it only cost 55 pounds a week. Peter worked two days a week at a computer store and made 30 pounds a week. I soon found a job as a weekend nanny for 50 pounds a week. To say that we were poor would be a massive understatement. A big reason we were able to make ends meet is that Peter's parents did not cut off his allowance, which worked out to about 65 pounds a week.

    The other reason we were able to make ends meet was that we became incredibly careful and draconian in our spending habits. I bought our groceries at the cheapest store I could find, even though it meant either a long walk or a bus ride. I used a list and a calculator to make sure I didn't go over our budget. We ate a lot of spaghetti and homemade garlic bread. We counted all of our pence carefully and often had to make decisions like walking instead of taking the bus so that we'd have change to take showers the next day.

    It was a simple but happy life and I look back on those days with fondness. In the years since, we've gotten better jobs, earned more money, and been able to afford nice things and have adventurous outings. I still shopped with a list, but not the calculator. And I've never, ever had to use coins to pay for a shower. Our spending habits have relaxed although part of me will probably always be cheap and careful, even if I won the lottery tomorrow.

    With all the economic doom and gloom, it's impossible not to feel pressure to rein in the spending, sock away savings, and hope that we have a cushion if things go truly pear-shaped. With that in mind, I've decided to undertake a new endeavour. My new blog Where Does It Go? is a spending diary. It's also becoming my economic conscience, as knowing that I'll have to account for my purchases makes me think twice about what I really need. I probably saved about 30 euro this weekend, just because I made myself think twice about every purchase.

    Wednesday, January 07, 2009


    Before Callie, all of our dogs were sniffers. While none of them were hounds, they were all primarily scent-focused. Walking with Kodiak could take ages because he had to thoroughly investigate every smell (and sometimes take immediate action).

    Toby's eyes are not great. He can startle easily if he doesn't see you coming. He once ran full-tilt into the garbage can.

    Having a sighthound is a completely different experience to having a scent-motivated dog. The downside of having a sighthound is that you can never really let them off the leash, unless you're sure they are in a secure area. A sighthound can take off after a rabbit or bird and can end up miles away, running the risk of going missing or getting hit by a car.

    In the woods near Gougane, we cannot let Callie off the leash because there are sheep in the area. There's also the occasional rabbit, so we wouldn't want her getting lost in hot pursuit of a bunny. But the main concern are sheep, since sheep hunting can be a capital offense. (Plus, I so do not want to be the blow-in who has to knock on a farmhouse door and 'fess up that my hound is a bloodthirsty sheep-maimer.)

    I took the dogs for a walk last week in Gougane. Toby has off-leash privileges, although I will leash him when I see sheep, just because I'm so paranoid. Toby would rarely ignore Peter's calls, but he just might ignore me if it involved sheep. I realised that Callie serves as a great early-warning detection system for sheep. We were deep along a forest trail, on the upslope of a hill.

    Callie suddenly perked up and got interested in the distance, so I kept Toby close. Further into the forest, near the top of the hill, I spotted a single sheep keeping lookout on the rocky outcrop of an adjacent hill. I don't know how Callie managed to spot the sheep, although I reckon it had something to do with the combination of sight - maybe the movement of fluffy white fur - and the scent in the air. Toby never even saw the sheep. He had no idea it was so close (yet so far). It saddens me that Callie can't chase after Toby in the forest, but the safety of both dog and sheep must prevail.

    Happily, our landlord has many acres of fenced-in pasture land, which he allows us to access. I doubt I'll go into the fields so cavalierly when there are cattle on them thar hills. But for now, the cattle are safely in the barn and I'm free to take the dogs on wonderful walks over rolling hills, up to the marshy edge of Loch Allua.

    It's so much fun to watch them romp and race. I've mentioned before how much fun it is to watch Callie run. It's also great fun to watch her explore. She's the only dog I've ever had who will actually look up into the sky and lock onto birds. She seems to have a fair judgment of distances too.

    Yesterday, she spotted a heron out far over the lake, and she tracked its progress with interest, but made no effort to chase. This morning, she watched a graceful V of swans swoop in over her head, gliding towards a near point on the lake. And she was off after them. She's not a water dog though, so the lake's edge caused her to pull up short. But she still watched those swans intently, as though they might change their minds. She even found a lookout point to spy on their every languid movement on the lake's surface.

    Watching Callie reminds me that it's important to look up at the sky, to take in the whole of my little world. So I joined her on the lookout point and was rewarded with another heron sighting.


    Sunday, January 04, 2009

    Best Reads of 2008

    I had such grand plans for 2008 - it was going to be the year I read quality books. I was going to delve into the classics and emerge a better, smarter reader. I didn't quite manage to stick to my plan at all really. A disappointment and I still plan to read the nine remaining books on my dangerous list.

    Disappointing is a good way to describe my year in reading. I aimed to read good books, but then stumbled and ended up reading even more trash than usual, a bizarre unintended consequence. I'm also disappointed in my numbers - I only read 48 books in 2008, which is probably half of what I read in 2007. Sure, I had a lot going on this year, but still, 48 seems awfully low for me.

    The good news is that when I trawled through my reading reports for 2008, I didn't find any books worthy of a Worst Reads list. Patricia Cornwell returned with Scarpetta and the first 50 pages made me fear the book was destined for a worst list, but the book improved enough to squeak by.

    The bad news is that I don't really think I have enough books for a Top 10 list. I have 7 solid choices, but then I feel like I would just be padding the rest with Laura Lippman books, just because she's one of my favourite authors.

    7. Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer - I debated with myself for ages before adding this book to the list. Meyer's teenage vampire romance novels are both beloved and reviled and I found myself developing a love-hate relationship with them. The dynamic between Bella and her vampire love Edward is undeniably creepy, not because of the whole vampire thing but more because it has shades of a potentially abusive relationship and the sexual politics of the books are both confused and confusing.

    But despite all of this (and the sometimes overwrought writing), I could not put these books down. They were compelling page-turners and I absolutely fell in love with some of the characters. Eclipse, for my money, was the best of the lot and was one of the most entertaining books I read all year.

    6. By a Spider's Thread by Laura Lippman - Tess Monaghan's client, an Orthodox Jew, hires her to search for his missing wife and children. The story is subtle and layered as the agnostic Tess tries to understand her client, his relationship with his wife, and their religion.

    5. The Ghost by Robert Harris - After British Prime Minister Adam Lang is unseated, he retreats to Martha's Vineyard with his former press secretary Mike McAra to write his memoirs. After McAra drowns in an apparent accident, an unnamed freelance writer (the narrator of the novel) is brought in to finish the job. In attempting to assist Lang, the writer discovers all sorts of unsavoury and frightening secrets about the Prime Minister and his wife. The book is a cracking political thriller, well-written and worth reading.

    4. Year of the Fog by Michelle Richmond - After six-year old Emma disappears off a foggy beach in San Francisco, Abby struggles to remember what happened, recreate her memories, and unravel the mystery of Emma's disappearance. An atmospheric book about memory and loss that stayed with me long after I read it.

    3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville - I read this as part of Reading Dangerously, and it was definitely my biggest success, even though it took me 3 months and I skipped the labourious whaling sections. I'm not going to say a lot here, since I posted a review back in March.

    2. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - This is definitely the book I wish I'd written - an insightful, hilarious look at corporate America in the wake of the dot-com bubble. I also loved that it was written in first-person plural, which seemed a bizarre choice, but served the story well. (Back in June, I posted about the effect this book had on me.)

    1. Lush Life by Richard Price - My number 1 book last year, Ian McEwen's On Chesil Beach claimed the mantle because of its perfectly boiled down, precise use of language. Lush Life is also number 1 because of its language, but it's a different use of language than McEwen's. Where the language in On Chesil Beach is spare and stark, the language in Lush Life is poetic and rhythmic. It nearly provides a pulse for the book, a propelling heartbeat that carries you through the dark alleys and sweaty interview rooms as the cops investigate a mugging gone wrong. What both books have in common is how the language is a perfect representation of the place and time: the stark, crisp button-downed pre-Sexual Revolution England of On Chesil Beach versus the pulsing vibe of New York City. I can't say enough good things about Price and am looking forward to reading some of his other books.

    My goal for 2009 is to get through my towering To Be Read piles, including as many of those 'dangerous' books as I can stomach. I'm going to make a huge effort not to add to my piles until I clear some of the back log. If I were looking for advice on what to read, I'd check out my friend Amy's Top 10 Book List for 2008. Amy is a much better reader than I am in the quality department (so I'm thrilled that two of my best books are also on her list). Happy New Year and Happy Reading in 2009!


    Saturday, January 03, 2009

    August-December Reads

    It was only when I went to compile my best books list for 2008 that I realised I hadn't even managed to post the books that I read after July. So here are August through December reads, with a one-word description:

    13. New Moon - Stephanie Meyer - Awful
    12. Run - Jeff Abbott - Confusing
    11. I See You - Gregg Hurwitz - Creepy
    10. Scarpetta - Patricia Cornwell - Passable
    9. Bones - Jonathan Kellerman - Okay
    8. Breaking Dawn - Stephanie Meyer - Entertaining
    7. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner - Heart-breaking
    6. Twilight - Stephanie Meyer - Intersting
    5. Keeping the Dead - Tess Gerritsen - Thrilling
    4. Cue the Easter Bunny - Liz Evans - Amusing
    3. Eclipse - Stephanie Meyer - Compelling
    2. The Broken Window - Jeffrey Deaver - Chilling
    1. Lush Life - Richard Price - Well-written