Category Archives: From the Bookshelf

From the Bookshelf: Habits of the Creative Mind

Habits of the Creative MindHabits of the Creative Mind (HCM) is written to be used as a college textbook, however it is not a typical college-level writing textbook by any stretch of the imagination and can (and should) be used by a wider audience.

This new book (published in 2016) is based on five core principles: (1) writing is a technology for thinking thoughts that are new to the writer; (2) the habits of mind that support good writing are teachable and learnable; (3) creativity takes practice, lots and lots of practice; (4) the essay is the ideal form for practicing the habits of the creative mind; and (5) writing is a way of paying attention. It is organized by essays/short readings and writing activities under specific themes relevant to the writing life. More specifically, each essay or short reading is followed by several “practice sessions” with exercises and recommendations for further exploration. Instead of focusing on rhetorical or mechanical principles, the text focuses on building the types of thinking skills that characterize writers which the authors perceive as including, but not limited to, observation, curiosity, openness, creativity, flexibility, responsibility, persistence, composition (in the sense of how things appear together), metacognition, and engagement.

This book made its way onto my bookshelf earlier this year when the publisher (Bedford/St. Martin’s) sent a box of evaluation copies of various English books to my department. The title caught my eye, and I snagged it from the stack along with a few other books and promptly forgot about it entirely until about two weeks ago. As I looked over and reviewed titles to shift a few books around on my bookcase to make room for new arrivals, this book again caught my eye.

I started reading it as I stood and didn’t stop until I was about a quarter of the way in.

The materials and exercises presented in HCM break from convention and encourage creative thinking brain public domain photohighly-divergent thinking. The text encourages readers to be curious about both the materials they read as well as the world around them. The assignments include non-writing tasks like picture drawing, listening to music, podcasts, visual mapping, photography, as well as writing assignments such as keeping a writer’s notebook with observations on your surroundings, overheard conversations, and so on; conducting an interview for a biography profile; and tracking/recording questions you encounter when reading. The text also emphasizes synthesis: seeking and finding connections between the real world, your thoughts and reflections, and the essays/books/articles you read.

Pro Contra Public Domain PhotoAt the same time, the book’s strength in being nonconformist is also its weakness as there is a lack of explanation and examples in the text. For more advanced readers and writers this will not present an issue, but for readers and writers new to the craft, it may be challenging. While the authors’ aim is to encourage readers to break away from formulaic, recipe-like writing, many readers and writers can benefit from some of the more traditional (and possibly formulaic) techniques to help them master the basics. As such, I think for those readers this book is best used in conjunction with another text or websites that will help readers see how to go about implementing the excellent good exercises offered by the authors.

Overall, I think this book is simply awesome. I am excited to try the activities and “practice sessions” as I restart my own Awesomewriting practice. Moreover, the essays and readings are manageable and engaging, and I find myself going back to the book as I contemplate the different topics and styles of writing. I recommend this book for writers, writing students, and writing teachers looking to build their abilities and writing repertoire.

Want to visit Heaven (with a quick side trip to Hell)?

Fiction Review: Fall from Grace

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. My review is very detailed, so if you want the bottom line scroll to the end of the post! 


Whether or not you are of the religious variety, the word “Heaven” is synonymous with a place or state of peace, perfection, and harmony.

That is, until you visit author J. Edward Ritchie’s Heaven in his debut novel, Fall from Grace.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

In the beginning, Ritchie’s version of Heaven is depicted in the way we would all expect – love, community, brotherhood, faith, trust, beauty, devotion…. the list is endless. But the story also begins with competition. Michael, the first angel and Logos, or Word, of God, and Satanail, the Archon, or Hand, of God (and Michael’s closest and dearest brother), engage in a battle of speed and wits to the finish of an epic flying race. From this seemingly good-natured rivalry, we get an inkling of what is to come. (You can read a basic summary of the novel here.)

Even if you aren’t a Biblical scholar, most of us are familiar with the bare bones of the story of how Satan fell from Heaven (or grace) and became the Devil. Ritchie takes the lore that surrounds this story and brings it to life in a way that teaches us about the nature of humans through the carefully constructed personalities of his angels.

I agreed to read and review this book because the topic intrigues me.
I’ve long been fascinated with the stories of angels,angelsversusdemons the war in Heaven, the uprising of  Satan and his eventually descent to Hell. I was raised Catholic (I even wore the plaid skirt and attended an all-girls school) so the names and general personalities of at least the most famous of the angels have been familiar to me for as long as I can remember. But in high school, I started getting into the deeper myths of the Catholic Church. I began reading fiction that depicted demons and angels in a way that I’m sure would get my religious education teachers shaking their heads. And I became of a fan of movies that took an aspect of the Catholic faith and twisted it into breathtaking, action-packed thrillers. In my opinion, what makes the best books and movies in the genre so great is a careful balance between religious myth and fantasy.

Ritchie’s Fall from Grace falls right in that sweet spot.

Ritchie uses existing lore in a way that keep the story credible and familiar on many levels. For those into mythology, there are the angels one would expect (and hope) to see. But he takes their stories and creates an incredibly imaginative world replete with a cast of characters that comes to life through his deft manipulation. Through the world he creates, Ritchie freely explores the mythical without the constraints of specific religious boundaries. Thank goodness! Because with that freedom, we get to enjoy a whole new world.

And by far, the strongest aspect of the book is the world-building the author accomplishes. It is here that Ritchie’s experience as a screenwriter becomes apparent. Holy moly (pardon the pun). The storyline is familiar and the cast characters are (in name) angels most of us have heard of before. But the world of Heaven? Truly singular. It is clear that Ritchie was focused on making the place of the story as important as the characters of the story. Through Ritchie’s vivid descriptions, one is able to visualize the different regions of Heaven, the geography, the animals, the sheer size, the beauty of the buildings and cities, and the inhabitants as clearly as if they were on screen.

choirofangelspublicdomainIn addition to the setting, the multitude of angels inhabiting Heaven are neatly ordered and creatively described. Ritchie explains how the beatific society works, from governance to mundane work, from travel to nourishment, he anticipates almost every facet of what life must be like for the angels in pre-Fall Heaven. For example, he explains that the personal strength each angel chooses to harness (e.g., healing, tending animals, forging metalwork, etc.) changes his morphology and appearance. We also learn of the Seraphims, Archangels, Cherubims, and even The Forgotten – creatures scorned by the angels and doomed to the nearly uninhabitable region of Mathey with their caretaker, the Seraph, Sammael.

As I read the story, it was fun to see the dips and turns the author took with the familiar tale, and I was kept on my toes as I worked out what “fall from grace” meant for each of the main characters. The subplots, too, were interesting and full of surprises. For me, the least expected twist in Fall from Grace was Satanail’s (Satan) time in Mathey with The Forgotten, Sammael, and his three wives (one of whom is Lillith). Another fascinating aspect was reading about Earth, mankind, our impact in Heaven, and the arrival of evil. It both was and wasn’t what one might expect. I would love to sit down, pen and paper in hand, and talk shop with the author.

Ritchie’s writing style is clear and intelligent. The prose is enjoyable and vivid, and it was easy to become wrapped up in the story of these heavenly creatures. There were little things here and there that took me out of the story. For example, I’m not a fan of the use of italics for emphasis in novels – I want the author to trust me to get when something is important or different. And at times I wondered if the drama was overdone. (I’m still on the fence on that one because the drama did sync with the grandeur of the imagined Heaven and the importance of the events to its future.) But overall Ritchie’s style was smooth and these small notes did not detract from the story.

One thing I appreciate is how Ritchie deftly characterizes through dialogue. For example, when Michael and Raphael talk, the dialogue is a bit stiff and formal. Their stilted, heavy, and reserved words serve to move the story along, yes, but also help fill in the details of their characters as the more formal, “stiff” Seraphs. By contrast, when Gabriel, the young, charismatic Seraph who enjoys a pint (or twenty) with the farm workers in his region speaks, we hear an entirely different voice – casual, humorous, witty, and calm.devilpublicdomain

Speaking of characters – my favorite love-to-hate character is Satanail. Of all the characters in the book, we travel deepest into the mind of Satanail. He is cunning, he is bitter, he is jealous, he is greedy, he is deceptive, he is proud. He is everything most of us try not to be. And he is in pain, unable to admit defeat and fault, unable to repent though a part of him longs to do so. Michael may be the hero of the story, but Satanail often steals the show with his quick wit and terrible ways.

angelmichaelpublicdomainMichael’s character development is slower and he struggles in ways that, at times, are less easy to relate to because he is “the Chosen One” (my words, not the author’s). But as the story unfolds, we witness his internal battle, how carrying the weight of the future of the Cosmos on his shoulder affects him and we begin to see a very human side of Michael. He becomes more likeable, more relatable, and less perfect. In other words, he becomes a hero we can get behind.

The secondary characters are developed to differing degrees, and there were only a few instances where I felt that a dramatic change happened too fast. My biggest wish with all of the characters is that I would have loved to dive deeper, see more of their angelic lives outside of the main conflict, and been able to really get to know them on a more intimate level. I relished the parts of the book that revealed the human connection between angels and humans and for me that happened most often in places where I felt a deep connection with a character.

Because, of course, the human side is what the story is ultimately about. There are fascinating themes and lessons within this work of fiction that raise important questions about human nature and society. How do we reconcile our imperfect natures? How do we reconcile faith and reason? What are the greater implications of war? Does life require that we set aside personal freedoms for the greater good? Are violence and evil inherent in us all and if so, how do we tame them? I could go on and on because this book truly makes one think. It is a book where days after finishing the story, you’ll find yourself thinking about something or some theme that germinated from the pages of the novel.

If you’re into heavy action and violence, this book delivers. I’m less into long battle scenes than character development, but I was still fascinated by the creativity and thoughtfulness of the war scenes and did not find myself wanting to skip ahead as much as I’ve wanted to do in similar war sequences (even when reading Tolkien – come on, some of those battle scenes got long!). And call me twisted, but I was fascinated by the less lengthy but more sneaky and creepy violence that permeated the pages because those acts truly demonstrated evil at work, a type of evil and violence that terrorizes us when it happens through serial killers, torture, etc., but is cool to read about in fiction.

Bottom line:
I was pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed Fall from Grace as much as I did. The subject matter was intriguing and the writing very good. And most importantly, I found myself thinking about the book and themes long after the final chapter. I look forward to more from this first-time novelist!

Recommended for:

  • Fantasy fanatics
  • Book discussion groups
  • Adult readers
  • Mature YA readers (age 16+)
  • Folks who enjoy religious myth
  • Action/violence/war-story fans

About the Author (taken from Amazon):

J. Edward Ritchie is a novelist and screenwriter specializing in world creation and action epics. A fan of all things genre from films to comics to video games, his work explores the intricate, primal balance between good and evil. He is dedicated to writing stories that embody the fantastical and uncompromising entertainment that has inspired his career.

He currently resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife and golden retriever.

From the Bookshelf: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

**Don’t forget to enter my Giveaway for your chance to win a copy of What If? Writing Exercises. Ends 11/24!**

curious incident haddonI would love to give you a hot-off-the-presses book review, but instead I can only write about books I read in my actual life (I’m saving the made-up version for my next book).  And in my life, I’m often always behind.  This book review is no exception.  But stick with me. Pretty please with sugar and cherry on top!  This weekend, I re-read a book I’ve read three times before.  A book that has been out for years.  My daughter was assigned the book in her English class and asked me a question as she was preparing to write a response so to refresh my memory, I glanced at the first page … and didn’t look up again until I reached the end.

And here’s why: It’s amazing.

The book? The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Which I guess is timely in some ways because Haddon has a short story this week (miracle that I’m not behind on something) in The New Yorker (check it out here). The short version is that Curious tells the tale of fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, who discovers the slain body of his neighbor’s poodle and sets out to uncover the murderer.  But it is so much more.  Through this book, we are called to question our perceptions about love, growing up, and the human mind.

It’s November.  I’m just starting Week Two of NaNoWriMo and NovPAD.  So this time when I read the book, I kept my writer’s hat firmly in place and paid special attention to Haddon’s writing tools and techniques.

One of the best features of Curious is, in my humble opinion, the voice.  In fact, it is so good let’s write that again but this time with capitals and a fancy font – The Voice.  Christopher is highly logical, excessively literal, and extremely detached, which can be at times hilarious and at times devastating. His voice is so real, so genuine that I felt like I was there in the book with him as the story unfolded. Part of this success comes from Haddon’s use of first-person POV, which allows us to see the events of the novel through the eyes of the narrator and places us deep inside Christopher’s mind, forcing us to see the world in his very limited way.  Haddon helps us understand Christopher by having him give us his opinions on the status quo.  Looking at things I take for granted through Christopher’s eyes caused me to question some of my assumptions about the world and the so-called “normal” way of thinking.

Amazingly, Christopher is a phenomenal narrator despite is inability to relate emotionally to others.  We still get our emotional fix, however, because Christopher is such a stickler for description (the book is full of vivid sensory imagery) and the facts.  We are called to read between the lines, and it is easy to fill in the emotional void based on how others react to Christopher and his actions.  Reading the book, I felt both wildly frustrated with and crazy mama-bear protective of Christopher as he tried to make his way in the world.

Haddon also manages to add depth and personality to secondary characters in creative ways.  For example, readers learn about Christopher’s mother from her letters.  Through the explanations she gives, the spelling errors she makes, even the way she recounts her job, we learn what makes her unique, some of her background, and how she will likely react to events in the story before she ever steps into a scene.

Lastly, the book is chock full of literary themes.  One major theme in the book – and one that is not unexpected with a teenager as the central character – is the struggle for independence.  Yawn. I know, it sounds trite. But in Curious, Haddon takes this common theme and gives it to us with a twist. Instead of the usual teen bucking the rules of mom & dad or society, Christopher is struggling to gain independence from his mental constraints.  He is a character who, because of a mental health disorder, can never be fully independent. On some level, he recognizes this. And yet he struggles against his destiny. Throughout the book, he takes step after step in a direction of his own choosing.  Starting with the search for dog murderer (against his father’s command to the contrary), through a solitary trip to London (challenging for a kid who can’t talk to strangers even to ask directions), and culminating in taking exams to move on to college (when he realizes he can now “do anything”), we bear witness to Christopher’s growing independence. At the same time, there is a nagging sense that the gap between Christopher and everyone else still exists – he hasn’t achieved independence.  And he won’t.  But he does change, and he manages to change the minds of some around him.  Personally, I like this variation on a (very) common topic.  There are only so many themes in the human story, and this book has inspired me to look for ways to twist them as I write my own stories.

What books have you read that inspire your writing? Have you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? I’d love to know what you think! 

From the Bookshelf: We the Animals

We_The_Animals_TorresI read a lot of books, and sometimes the details of the different stories get a little blurry over time.  I cannot imagine this ever happening with We the Animals by Justin Torres. This memorable book is beautifully crafted and the story is impossible to forget.  We the Animals is a book worth reading both for the story it tells and for the different writing techniques employed.

A short, autobiographical novel written in memoir style, We the Animals explores one family, the bond of brotherhood, and what happens when it all falls apart. The author uses vivid imagery and detail to draw the reader into the narrator’s place and time. Each chapter is almost a short story by itself, but the characters are so compelling you want to keep turning the pages to see how it will all unfold. Moreover, the book is not crafted along a traditional plotline nor with traditional techniques, which makes for an interesting read from a writer’s perspective.

To me, the most interesting technical aspects of the novel are the shifts in time and narration. The bulk of We the Animals takes place when the boys are young – the narrator turns seven in one of the first chapters, and the events seem to take place in close chronological proximity.  But toward the end of the novel, there is a dramatic shift in time. As readers, we are used to certain types of shifts in time, such as compression. For example, in one of the early chapters of the book the narrator reports, “Paps disappeared for a while, and Ma stopped showing up for work …” (30). The compression occurs smoothly within the narrative, and readers maintain a sense of watching the story unfold. As we approach the end of the novel, however, Torres shifts time abruptly forward, without warning.  Suddenly, the boys are no longer young children but drunk, arguing teenagers separated by many years from the young boys of the previous chapter.

This shift in time mirrors the shift in narration from the collective to individual first person point of view. For most of the story, the events are told from the perspective of the brothers as a unit, the untamed animals. Yet as we (abruptly) enter the teen years, the brothers stop being “we.” The narrator stands alone in the first person and his brothers become “they.” This shift in narration creates emotional distance and places readers more neatly in the shoes of the narrator.  We experience the distance he experiences, we experience his sense of isolation as he feels more and more cut off from his “pack,” and thus the narrative shift highlights the break in the family dynamic.

I have read mixed reviews concerning these sudden shifts, but I believe they are successfully wrought.  The point in time at which the shifts occur is an integral moment in the formation of the narrator’s identity and relationships with his brothers and family.  Just before the shift, the narrator directs the reader: “Look at us, our last night together, when we were brothers still”(105).  After that night, everything changes and the narrator is undone.  He is separated from his pack. He becomes the animal, alone, trapped, and caged.

Have you read We the Animals?  What did you think about the shifts? In general? And if you pick it up in the future, let me know your opinion!

Creative Nonfiction Review: The Boys in the Boat

indexEvery September, the Maryland Humanities Council hosts One Maryland One Book.  The idea is that all over the state, people read and talk about the same book, which fits into the year’s chosen theme.  This year, the theme was “Sports: the human drama of athletic competition” and the book was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown.  The Humanities Council provides free, online resources such as discussion guides and lesson plans.  While the Council doesn’t have the funds to give every citizen a free copy of the One Book, many Maryland Library systems buy copies and distribute them to readers who participate in library-run book clubs.  I’m lucky enough to have received a copy of the book from my local library for many years running, and this year was no exception.

But … when I first saw this year’s One Book, I cringed and dreaded opening the cover.

Rowing.  The Depression.  Hitler. Strife.  Eh.

I wasn’t really in the mood for the book.  My life is stressful and hard enough right now, and the last thing I wanted was to read a book about some college boys rowing in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Or so I thought.

Daniel James Brown got my attention right from the start through his first-person introduction to the book.  I felt like a friend or neighbor was taking me into his confidence and relating a story that only he really knew and was going to share with me, personally.  And it worked – I was hooked.

The book details the story of eight oarsmen and the coxswain from The University of Washington as they battle their way to Olympic victory in the 1936 games.  But the story is about more than their gold-medal triumph.  Through Brown’s excellent storytelling, readers get a sense of the atmosphere outside the boat, 1930s America, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and the world around them.  Brown also connects readers further by delving deeper into one story in particular: the story of Joe Rantz, who begins as an outsider from the Dust Bowl with a complicated background.  And as Joe struggles to find his way, the team struggles to find its rhythm.  This crafty technique humanizes the story, makes it real and personal, and one cannot help but feel vested in the outcome.  We know going in that the boys take home gold, but we don’t know the personal details that got them there.  Brown delivers these details in a way that makes you want to turn the pages faster and faster.

The Boys in the Boat is a story about crew, yes.  But it is also a story about life and overcoming our personal hangups to find a way to row smoothly to the finish.  The team and Joe ultimately find their rhythm but only by overcoming the past and opening themselves up to each other.  Any writer interested in creative nonfiction should read this book and take technical notes, and anyone just interested in a good read should pick up a copy and get ready to be drawn into a truly great book.

Have you read it?  What did you think?  I’d love to hear more opinions!