There is a point, when you have been in quarantine for 6 months with no end in sight, when the death toll of the plague you’ve been living through has reached 200,000 deaths in America alone, and when rampant wildfires in your state has clouded the sky with ash and turned the sun blood red, you just want to say, “Screw it,” and not do a damn thing. For the first time, it was starting to feel like the apocalypse, from the eerie "yellow wallpaper" sunlight to the constant bites of mosquitos that the signs outside warned might carry West Nile Virus. If September had a theme song, it would be Kelly Clarkson's "Born to Die," from the Trolls: World Tour soundtrack. It says something when a song from a kid's movie can plunge me into existential despair.
I can’t believe the violence of the emotions I went through this month, how they spewed out of me like a volcano, covering me with ash. Suffering through them felt like more than enough to deal with, and yet, I pressed on with publication. Surprisingly, I got a lot done. I published Company, I worked on Hazel and Saul, I completed the “Bonus Materials” section of my website, I updated my website, I wrote blogs, I created pins for Pinterest, and I formatted my novel for a paperback. I did this while dealing with a nippy dog, a million mosquitos, and all the drama September unloaded upon my head.
Interestingly enough, the first day of September I came to a conclusion about the feelings of vulnerability. As I wrote in my journal: “I am feeling vulnerable, and yet, I am not allowed to be this way. I need to be strong. I’m putting out a piece of my heart and soul, and I desperately want a reaction, a genuine positive reaction, yet I am bracing myself for judgement and indifference. I want to hide and weep and curl up and tell people how utterly miserable I am, but instead I must market and sell and edit and be gracious and positive and produce more, and I am tired, exhausted, and sad. But I can’t just throw those things out, in hopes of being affirmed or getting a reaction. No. I have to deal with them privately.”
This plunged me into what would be the theme for September, which was my relationship with the world at large. And yeah, it’s not really the easiest thing to contemplate, when the world is still only half-open. But contemplate I did, and as I did, my feelings swung everywhere, from desperately wanting to change the world to desperately wanting to change myself, from wanting to use art as a means of protest to wanting to find a way to make money already. Mostly, I felt disconnected from society and sort of crazy. It’s amazing the feelings that get bottled up when you’re feeling stuck and isolated from the community at large.
There were a few bright spots, however. Although Company didn’t make much of a splash, the feedback I got was good. I found pockets of support from friends and family, which I appreciated, even if my overall mood was glum. That’s unavoidable, though. Exhaustion makes me pessimistic. However, there is some bright news. My dad has a time share in Lake Tahoe, so as I finish up my publication journey with Company, I’m high-tailing it to Northern California. No matter the smoke in the air or the plague in the land, I am going on vacation. I hope that when I get back, I’ll be rested, relaxed, and ready to take on the future.
My roommate, Rita, decided to punish me for not being lazy enough by making me watch Cats with her. I think she was looking for an excuse to rope me into it. Anyway, I knew I wasn’t going to like the movie, because I read the reviews and I saw parts of the Broadway play on YouTube. I actually went through a phase where I watched/ read bad reviews of this poor movie for fun. (What that says about me, I don’t know.) But, at any rate, I finally saw Cats, so I can have an opinion.
Let’s just say, I’m not a fan.
Cats is the 2019 movie adaptation of the Broadway play of the same name, popular in the 1980s. A recently abandoned cat named Victoria (Francesca Hayward) finds herself in the midst of a tribe of Jellicle cats who are having their Jellicle ball. One cat will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, where they will be reborn into a new life. While cats sing and dance and make their case, an evil cat named Macavity (Idris Elba) kidnaps the participants for his own nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Victoria befriends Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), an old glamour cat who has been ostracized by the Jellicles and wishes for acceptance and a better life.
If my summary makes it sound like Cats has a plot, I apologize, because it really does not. Cats is an excuse for song and dance--dance, mostly. Aside from “Memory,” the one song everyone knows, and “Beautiful Ghosts,” the new Taylor Swift song embedded in the movie, most of the songs are adapted from T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” These poem-songs are whimsical, but don’t really have the emotional highs and lows. For most of the movie, the cats introduce themselves. The dancing is good, but, honestly, I don’t like dancing much, and I get bored of straight singing. I watch movies for stories. I like plot and character. This was why I was against watching the movie. I already knew there was not going to be a plot, and without a plot, why even bother?
It turned out I wasn’t as bored as I thought I’d be, but not for the right reasons. There were so many story errors and questionable artistic choices, that my writer’s brain went into overdrive analyzing the mistakes and trying hard to fix them. By the end I was alternating between screaming into my pillow and bursting into uncontrollable laughter. At least Cats made me feel something. I can’t fault the movie for that.
Title: Half a Soul (Regency Faerie Tales Book 1)
Author: Olivia Atwater
Genre: Regency Romance, Fairy Tale Fantasy
Dora Ettings knows she will never be married. As a child, a faerie lord tried to steal her soul; he only got away with half of it. Since that day, Dora has never been able to act normally. She says the wrong things and feels very slightly, if at all. But her beautiful cousin Vanessa has a plan to cure her. Elias Wilder, the young Lord Sorcier, is the best magician in England; surely, he can find a way to make her whole.
Vanessa arranges for a trip to London, where Dora crosses paths with the cantankerous Lord Sorcier and his friend Albert. Although Elias has a great contempt for polite society, he is interested in what ails Dora. In the midst of society balls, marriage plots, and a mysterious plague, Dora and Elias grow closer. To the outside world it almost seems like the Lord Sorcier is courting the strange Miss Ettings. But Dora knows the truth: his attentions to her have only to do with case. For how could the most powerful magician in England fall in love with a woman with only half a soul?
I happened across Half a Soul randomly on Amazon, but I like regency romance (in the vein of Jane Austen) and I like fantasy, so it seemed like a good fit. I sampled the first chapter, and I was engaged with Dora’s plight from the beginning. I was curious to see how a character with half a soul would act and how her romance might unfold. The day I began reading in earnest, I was feeling drained and overwhelmed. I read the entire book without stop and finished it in a few hours. The next morning, I re-read my all favorite bits, which turned out to be most of the book. I found Half a Soul to be, not just entertaining, but also healing and restorative. It made me feel good.
One of the reasons why it was so easy for me to read was because I connected to Dora early on. After the faerie drains her passion, Dora becomes dreamy and erratic and can’t quite function in normal society. (I feel you, girl. Same here.) She is often insulted and treated poorly by those closest to her, and her response is subdued. Yet even though she doesn’t feel strongly, she does feel. In fact, she has a great capacity for caring, which comes out more and more during the course of the story.
Dora’s strangeness actually helps her during her first encounter with Elias, the Lord Sorcier. Elias has a reputation for impropriety, and boy, does he earn it, acting downright rude to Dora the first time he sees her. Dora is barely bothered by his insults and holds her own with witty comebacks. The relationship between Dora and Elias, which begins with verbal sparring, gradually becomes sweet and warm, as Dora learns more about Elias and comes to understand the depth of his character. The Lord Sorcier is a man of passion and ideals, unhappy with the ways of the world.
August was a roller coaster. In the outside world, both the Democratic and Republican conventions happened, as well as more protests, more COVID deaths, and an explosion in Beirut. But, to be honest, I could barely pay attention to such world-shaking events, as my own little apartment suffered its own little shake ups. Muggy heat caused swarms of mosquitos to nip at my skin, coyotes roamed near my apartment, power outages threatened our air conditioning, my roommate’s dog died, my roommate’s mom hit her head, my emotions swung from depressed to vulnerable to inspired, and through it all, I had to get my third novel, Company, ready for publication.
I have published 3 times before, but I’ve never done it as fast as this. Since the beginning of the year, I had the date September 5, 2020 (my sister’s birthday) in mind for when I wanted to publish Company. By July, I had just finished smoothing my writing into one readable manuscript. I had one month to edit Company, both for clarity and flow and for mechanics (spelling and grammar). I also had to format the novel, get it onto Amazon, make announcements, and run a marketing campaign. I had a lot to do, so, naturally, I spent the first week of August feeling depressed.
It did not help that, almost as soon as August began, my roommate Rita’s old dog, a German shepherd named Stitch, had to be put down. He’d been diagnosed with bone cancer a few weeks earlier, and it had escalated quickly. As Rita mourned her dog, I mourned my story. I wrote in my diary:
“When a story is done, it feels, to me, less like giving birth, and more like grieving something that is dead. It’s like casting off a piece of my soul, a snippet of my life, into the heartless world. Editing it is basically window dressing, putting the story in funeral clothes. It is leaving me, and I need to put on a song and dance for the world, but that is hard to do.”
Trying to edit in this state seemed like too much, so instead I spent that first week re-reading my entire manuscript, both to let it go and to get an idea of what needed to be fixed. Normally, I get critical when I re-read my work, but I tried to look at Company without judgement, and I ended up feeling good. I came up with a plan to read out loud and edit three chapters a day.
I was surprised to find that I had a free Sunday afternoon in August. But I did, so I went to Netflix and browsed my considerable “To Watch” list. The King caught my eye. The trailer evoked a sense of epic-ness, with politics and war and a character undergoing a personal transformation. The King came out in 2019, but I put off watching it, because it was the kind of movie I needed to be in the right mood to see. I was in the mood. I gave it a shot.
Prince Henry (Timothee Chalamet), known to his friends as Hal, does not want to be king. He despises war and despises his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelson), a man who sees enemies everywhere and has plunged England into civil unrest. Once his father dies, Hal takes up the crown, vowing to be a different sort of king than his father. However, his reign is quickly tested by a series of provocative gestures from France. With his loyal friend and military advisor Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) and with the taunts of the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) in his ears, the young King Henry V advances to war, where his rule and his character will be put on display on the fateful field of Agincourt.
I have seen historical epics screwed up so many times. But this movie got it right. I loved The King. It was the kind of movie that seemed tailor-made for me. One of the things I most appreciated was that it didn’t attempt to women by throwing in a tedious romantic subplot. I like romance, don’t get me wrong, but Hollywood screws up it up so often that I’d rather they didn’t attempt it at all. The few women characters who did show up in The King were insightful and unique and treated with respect. Most of the movie dealt with a very masculine and male-orientated culture--and I was perfectly fine with that.
Prince Hal is initially portrayed as a drunken, debaucherous prince, the insinuation being that he is unfit to rule. The trailer asks how this foolish, immature prince can be transformed into a respectable king. However, once I started to watch the movie, I quickly understood that it was not Hal's character that was in question. Prince Hal’s revelries are portrayed as a reaction to the violence that permeates Medieval Society. In these times, lords and princes did not stay cloistered in their castles; they fought and killed, in the battlefield, in the most intimate sort of way--Hal, included. Hal’s drinking is a kind of protest against his father’s rule, against the pointless death and killing, and against society itself. The old king calls Hal sickly and weak, and yet he turns out to be a damn good fighter. The nobles think he is shirking his responsibilities, and yet Hal will intervene when he deems it important. The problem is not Hal’s character; the problem is society. Society not only perceives Hal wrongly, it is, in fact, sick. Pointless feuds and violence are destroying the souls of its men, Hal’s included.
As much as I was enjoyed Hal and his journey, my favorite character was, hands down, his loyal friend, Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff, more so than Hal, plays the role of a drunken fool, but he has an inner strength and wisdom born of hard-won experience. Falstaff has shades of Uncle Iroh, from Avatar: the Last Airbender, which I say with the highest respect, because Iroh is one of the few characters I not only love, but aspire to be. The beating heart of The King is the relationship between Hal and Falstaff, and I would absolutely take their friendship over any contrived and shallow romance.
The first half hour of The King is a lead-up to Hal becoming king, and it serves to inoculate the audience into Medieval society. Some people may find this slow, but I was fascinated by this glimpse into a very different culture; it reminded me of why I loved history. I did have a bit of trouble understanding dialogue, which could be due to the sound quality on my TV. I remedied this by turning on the subtitles. The dialogue, by the way, is peppered with modern curse words, but on the whole, I think it did a good job of giving us the flavor of the era while still being relatable. The King felt Shakespearean but translated for a modern audience.
Once Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, the plot builds to the Battle of Agincourt. Now, I don’t consider this a spoiler, because The King is historical fiction, and so it seems fairly obvious that the event that made a famous person famous is going to be addressed. But if you are sensitive to spoilers, I will make it now known that I will be discussing an event that takes place toward the end of the movie.
Note: This review was previously published on my previous blog on September 15, 2013.
Title: The Skinjacker Trilogy: Everlost, Everwild, Everfound
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genre: Supernatural, Urban Fantasy, YA
A white Toyota slams into a black Mercedes, and just like that, Nick and Allie are dead. But something happens on their way to the light. Their souls collide, and they spin into Everlost, a parallel dimension hovering on the border between life and death. Here, child ghosts wander through deadspots--destroyed places that have "crossed over" into Everlost--and Skinjackers possess humans to remember what it felt like to be alive.
To Mary Hightower, Everlost is the only eternal place, more real than the living world. It is her duty to gather and nurture new souls like Allie and Nick. But Allie doesn't trust Mary. Plunging headfirst into a world of monsters and secrets, Allie and Nick soon learn that all is not what it seems and sometimes those souls with the best intentions may be the ones to destroy the world.
Although Everlost exists parallel to the living world, it might as well be its own realm. Like any well-built fantasy, the protagonists must learn the rules of their new world, develop their powers, and confront villains who wish to dominate and destroy. Since I write epic fantasy, this is all in my wheelhouse and I have to say I found it greatly amusing. Though the point of view was third person omniscient, the author mostly kept inside the character's head, drifting away only to offer key bits of explanation to the audience. This allowed the book to run at a fast pace.
I, personally, judge an author by the quality of their villains, and Mr. Shusterman writes them just the way I like: full of empathy. The antagonists may do horrible things, but they never lose their humanity. In the end, they're tragic figures, presented with the choice of changing or clinging to what they think they desire. Some crossover to become heroes, while others lose themselves forever.
Allie and Nick both find love--but surprisingly not with each other. Their separate romantic arcs illustrate the power and limitations of love and its ability to change people. I'm picky with my love stories, but these two hit all my favorite buttons. The romance strengthened the characters rather than weakened them and did not take away from the plot. The emphasis was on emotional (and dare I say spiritual) connection rather than physical. A bittersweet edge ran through the romance, for as pure as the love might be, when your characters are ghosts, you know happily ever after is out.
The Skinjacker Trilogy hits all my preferences right on the nose, so how can I help but to recommend it? It's a weird, fun, and solid adventure series from Neal Shusterman, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I’m so pleased and proud to announce that my third novel, Company, will be published on September 5, 2020, available as an e-book on Amazon. Priced at $4.99, it’s less than a specialty coffee at Starbucks and will stay with you longer. A physical print version of the book will be coming out in October this year. If you don't mind, I’d like to tell you a little about what Company is and why I’m so proud of it.
Company tells the tale of an unlikely friendship between an amnesiac ghost and an abandoned imaginary friend. As a ghost, Curtis is trapped in Thornfield Manor, a beautiful, but isolated house in the California mountains. Bored and alone, his memories are slowly falling away, including the memory of his death. One day, a stranger arrives at Thornfield Manor. After her parents died, Charlotte created an imaginary friend and “sister” named Jenny to deal with her depression. But after Jenny develops a mind of her own, Charlotte is desperate to get rid of her. Charlotte dumps Jenny at Thornfield Manor. As the only two beings who can see and interact with each other, Curtis and Jenny strike up a quick friendship. Jenny is determined to solve the mystery of Curtis’s death and help him cross over. But Curtis worries: if he does cross over, what will become of Jenny?
I’m proud of Company, because I put my heart and soul into writing this beautiful and thought-provoking story. It has a little bit of mystery, a little bit of romance, and a little bit of philosophy. It’s an emotional book, and some scenes will leave you feeling choked up, but it has a sweet ending that I hope will make you smile. Company is the kind of book I’d imagine someone reading on a vacation in the mountains, sitting outside a log cabin in the cool of the morning, with a hot mug of coffee or tea or hot cocoa.
Believe it or not, I came up with the idea for a ghost and an imaginary friend back in 2012. At that time, I wasn’t sure if the idea was strong enough to be sustained for a whole novel. So, in 2013, I decided to write it for National Novel Writing Month, an event that challenges you to write 200 pages in 30 days. To my surprise, I completed an entire rough draft of Company in a month. But I got stalled on revision for many years. Then in 2018, a tumultuous and uncertain year for me, I looked at Company again and found new inspiration. For the next two years, I began revising it whole-heartedly, using all my skill as a writer to hone and polish my vision. I hope that when you read it, you’ll get swept up in the characters, the friendship they form, and the journey they make together.
Unlike most novels I’ve written in, Company takes place in the real world (California) and in modern times (2019), so it is more accessible to people who are less inclined toward traditional fantasy. It is best for teens and adults; younger children probably won’t be interested in it. Company has a few curse words and deals with death, and for those reasons, I’d put it at a PG-13 rating.
If you decide that you want to buy Company, it is available for pre-order right now--just click on the button below to reserve your copy. If you need more information, I have the first chapter available on my blog. Over the next few weeks, I hope to add a more sample chapters and bonus features that share my experience writing this novel. If, however, you decide this is not the book for you, that’s okay, too. I appreciate you listening to me with an open mind.
I know from experience that certain books can hit you in a way that stays with you for the way of your life. It’s my hope that, for some readers out there, Company may be that book. However, finding those readers is still a struggle for me. As an independent author, I don’t have a big marketing team, so I need all the help I can get in order to spread the word. If you think of anyone who might like this story, please send them this link. Or, if you have a social media account (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), please post there. Thank you again. I appreciate your love and support.
Sincerely, Rebecca Lang
Traditionally, July is a braindead sort of month for me, but the world has turned upside down, and this July, I was filled with passion, creativity, and productivity. Part of that was out of necessity. As Company, my novel of a ghost and an imaginary friend, nears its publication date, and I knew I needed to buckle down and get it done. But part of my creativity may have been an odd reaction to the anxiety engulfing the outside world.
By the time June ended, the world outside my door was essentially back in shut-down mode, with cases of the Coronavirus rising in California and other parts of the country. The optimism that swept through May of America re-opening for business had given way to uncertainty and pessimism. We were back to square one, and in some ways worse. This caused a lot of anger. Everyone, it seemed, was either angry about having to wear face masks or angry at the people who refused to wear them. I started the month feeling paralyzed. Small tasks, like returning a library book, felt overwhelming.
Fortunately, I had poetry to help me through it. Toward the end of June, I had the sudden urge to read poetry, which I attributed to needing to edit Company. When I know I need to pay close attention to the prose (the ebb and flow of sentences; the choice of words; the way language affects the reader), I can use poetry to jump start my creativity. Poems are, after all, a showcase for language. So I “bought” a free book of poems on Amazon called “Growth” by Karin Cox, and signed up for the “Poem of the Day” for both Poets.org and The Poetry Foundation. As I read my daily poems, I was hit by the sudden urge to write poetry.
This did not come at an opportune time. I had about two months to piece together Company, and what I had was a beautiful mess. I had worked hard in May and June to re-write all the major scenes and emotions, and I had a vision in my head.
A vision which was not comprehensible to the reader. For example, sometimes I wrote a scene from multiple point of views, with contradictory information. Other times, I wrote pages of emotional expression and philosophical thought un-anchored by plot or setting. A few things I left blanks, with parentheses of (Note: Add setting) or (Note: Add reaction), letting me know to fill it in later. Other times, I just had too much material--20 page chapters that needed to be cut in half. Basically, it was the writing equivalent of having a messy desk; I knew where everything was, but no one else would be able to find a thing.
I really hadn’t intended to watch this movie. Honestly, I’ve hardly been able to watch any movie without the dog interrupting and whining for attention. But I do still watch movie review shows on YouTube, and as I was watching the John Campea show, he raved about “Husavik,” the final song from Eurovision. I decided to check it out. The song was pretty. I started watching other YouTube videos of Eurovision songs. Then I got curious. Eurovision was out on Netflix, it was free, and it was not a movie that required my undivided attention. At last, I decided to check it out.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a light comedy about Lars and Sigrit, a singing duo that go by the name Fire Saga who hail from a small town in Iceland. Lars (Will Ferrell) dreams of winning the Eurovision song contest in Europe and proving himself to his father. Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) supports his ambitions but would prefer to marry Lars and live a simple life in their hometown. When they find themselves unexpectedly representing Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest, Sigrit meet a flirtatious Russian singer named Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) who encourages her to find her voice. But Lars’ jealousy and ambition cause cracks to form in the group and may just cost Fire Saga their chance at winning.
As I said, I watched the movie mostly because of the songs, which are really catchy and surprisingly good. I ended up grooving to “Double Trouble,” Fire Saga’s official entry into the Eurovision Contest. I wanted a full version of “Volcano Man.” And even though Alexander Lemtov’s “Lion of Love” has some of the cheesiest, cringiest lyrics, I can’t stop listening to it, because let me tell you, the man can sing. Sprinkled in are glimpses of other country’s entries, and they sound like real songs you’d hear on the radio. I know it’s a comedy, but the only reflection of that genre are a couple of silly lyrics and a vague 80s or 90s over-the-top vibe. I’m no music critic, but I fell in love with the songs and binged on them hard.
But what was the movie like?
I found Eurovision amusing and pleasant. It was set in a world where you knew that nothing too horrible could ever happen, and that was nice. I enjoyed the fluffy escapism. I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny, but I grinned at a few gags involving a gaggle of American tourists, a bit of dark humor with a ghost, and some elves who may or may not have been extreme in their measures to ensure the couple got to Eurovision. There were some crude instances of sexual humor that I didn’t find funny, but these were few and far between.
For me, Eurovision was at its most sweet and heart-warming when it told the tale of a small town girl who finds her voice on the big stage. I connected to Rachel McAdam’s Sigrit early on, in a scene where she brings biscuits and alcohol to cute little houses in the green hills, where the elves live. Sigrit asks the elves to help them get into the Eurovision song contest, so that Lars can fulfill his ambition and they can hopefully have a life together. She is so earnest and adorable… and who doesn’t love elves? She won me over, and I was rooting for her.
Title: Her Last Mission (A Better Late Romance)
Author: Michelle Knowlden
Genre: Romance, Mystery/ Thriller
Sandra Baak (Sandy) has spent her life periodically impersonating her twin brother Sanford (Ford) in order to make sure he got ahead. When she was seventeen, Sandy spent a year playing Ford while attending a prestigious private school, where she met Mark Orlando. Sandy fell for Mark early on but never had the courage to tell him her true identity.
In the intervening years, Sandra has led a full life as a single woman. In addition to her work as an engineer, she uses her skills in technology to conduct counter-espionage missions--again, in the guise of Ford. When her handler suspects that Mark Orlando, the CEO of Orlando Tech, is involved in peddling government secrets, Sandy finds herself once again in the presence of her old flame. Can she continue to keep her identity under wraps while she conducts her last mission? Or is it time to let her disguise go and tell Mark how she feels?
I know Michelle Knowlden, and I like her stories, the Abishag Mysteries being my favorite. Her latest book came out early this July, for only 99 cents. I was excited, since this is the first full novel of hers I’ve read in a long time. Being a friend may create a bias; however, I will try to be as honest in my review as I can.
Her Last Mission is a light and wholesome riff on Twelfth Night with an industrial espionage mystery thrown in. It has its romantic moments, but I would not exactly call it a romance. The love story comes across less like a journey or an experience, and more like a problem that needs to be solved. Between romance, family drama, and mystery, there were a lot of plot threads flying around. The set-up slowed down the first half of the story, but it picked up in the second half.
What grounded the story and tied the plot threads together was the character of Sandy, a single older woman who has spent her life fulfilling family and career obligations and now finds herself considering a very different future. She tries to reconcile these different aspects of her life and understand what brought her to this point. I found Sandy’s journey very relatable. For me, it made the book a worthwhile read.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.