Monthly Archives: January 2015

How to Beat the Winter Blues

Post-holiday blues, amirite? Vacation is over, spring is months away, and it’s far enough into the new year to realize that maybe you’re not going to nail all your resolutions. A popular myth holds that a Monday in January (no consensus as to which one) is the most depressing day of the year. So…what to do about it?

Actually, for me the worst time is late February or early March — still very much winter here in Toronto. I usually write a post on the late-winter blues. This year I’m writing early, in the hopes that by listing some of the strategies that are working now, I — and you — will be better armed to face the rest of the winter.

(If you’re looking for an update on the writing situation, it’s at the bottom of the post.)

Park in winter

The Obvious

Just to get the obvious tips out of the way, here are the 3 most common recommendations for fighting SAD:

  • take vitamin D
  • use full-spectrum lighting
  • stay active doing something you love

The Key

Here’s what I’m focusing on this year: embrace winter. Sounds simple, but for a solar-powered, cold-blooded heat-seeker like me, it takes practice. And it’s applicable to all sorts of areas…

Hibernation

Instead of hunkering down in your home and cursing the cold, what about focusing on the enjoyable parts of staying indoors? There’s no garden calling your name, no patio, no summer festivals, no rambling through farmers’ markets or down streets of little shops. You’re free to make the most of indoor activities, whether at home or otherwise. So why not let yourself enjoy TV binges, cooking or baking, reading, crafting, drinking copious amounts of hot liquids, and so on? (Or, if you’re ambitious, go to the movies, an art gallery, the library…) Soon enough you’ll be busy outside again.

Nesting

If you’re going to hibernate, though, you need a good place to do it. Now is the time to make your living room, bedroom, or home office a truly cozy place to hang out. For example, maybe you have a disaster area organizing project to tackle (um, that would be me!), to reclaim a space that hasn’t been serving a good purpose.

Or maybe you could let your inner decorator out to play. This winter, my partner and I had a lot of fun decorating the house for Christmas. It was our third Christmas since becoming homeowners, but last year we were away, and the year before we were still recovering from having gotten married! So this was the first year we had the time and energy to devote to dressing up the place.

Our efforts made the living room in particular feel SO cozy and welcoming, we just wanted to hang out there all the time. (New problem: now we don’t want to take down the Christmas decor! Sadly, most of it can’t pass for “winter seasonal”…though we will leave the bowl of pine cones, the pillar candles, and maybe the fake garland on the mantelpiece.)

Outdoor fun

“Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” (“My country is not a country, it is winter”) — Gilles Vigneault, Québécois poet and singer-songwriter

Of course, you can’t stay indoors all the time. That’s where winter sports come in. I won’t linger on this one because you get the idea. Personally, I don’t downhill ski, snowboard, or skate, but I do love cross-country skiing and snowshoeing when I can. When that fails, there’s always going for a walk. As long as the weather is not truly crappy, it still feels good.

On that note, I’m practising gratitude. Sure, it’s winter, but the weather isn’t always terrible. When it snows, or when it’s cold but sunny, I try and take a moment to stop and enjoy it. If I have to shovel or spread salt, I make a point of being thankful that I’m taking care of (a) my house, and (b) the neighbourhood. Yes, it does take practice, but it really does help.

Winter fashion

Quick preamble: In the last few years, I’ve developed an interest in clothes that I never really had before. I was (and am) a geek who lives very much in my head. But I never knew how to dress in a way that would make me happy. Now I’m finally figuring it out (with fits and starts, of course), and, surprise, it’s actually fun! (Quick plug for Missus Smarty Pants here. And no, I’m not an affiliate or anything, just a happy customer.)

Anyway…I’m enjoying wearing things that only work in cold/cooler weather. Right now that includes the prettiest sweaters I can find, plus fleece-lined footless tights (best thing ever, I swear). When it’s a bit warmer I wear opaque nylons and riding boots. I’ve got skirts and dresses in heavier, winter fabrics and colours, and (mostly costume) jewellery to go with them. I can’t wear this stuff in summer, so I’m trying to remember to enjoy it now…and mix it up so I don’t get bored.

Caveat: I do not sacrifice warmth for style. If it’s more than a little below freezing, I’m ditching my cute pea jacket for my parka, my cute wool hat and gloves for a toque and puffy mittens, my riding boots for lined and grippy winter boots. I’ll be stylish when I get to my destination and shed layers, but until then, I’ll be snug and not miserably cold.

Anticipation

If all of the above fails, look ahead. Don’t think too hard about spring yet, that’s too far away. A better idea is to plan something special to look forward to — mid-February is a good time. No, I’m not talking about V-Day necessarily. Throw a party. Plan a girls’ night out, or a weekend away if you can swing it. Think up a special, out-of-the-ordinary outing, with someone else or on your own. It doesn’t have to be fancy or cost much (or anything at all, if you’re resourceful) — it just has to be something to draw you onward, through the cold and the dark towards the promise of spring.

Writing

As promised, here’s what’s going on with writing: nothing. Well, nothing on the surface, anyway. I’m reading more than usual, taking in “story” through movies and TV, tentatively poking through some books on writing. Went on a couple of Pinterest sprees, some of which were writing-related.

I still have no urge to actually write fiction…but then, it is winter. Gardens need time to rest; animals hibernate; trees look like they’re dead, until suddenly they’re not.

I’m trying to remember these things, and hope.

Your turn! What do you do to get through winter?

Advertisements

Reading Recap 2014

Starfish by Peter WattsIt’s that time again…the best-of roundup posts! I’m a little late to the party, but who cares? Here — in no particular order — are the best 5 books I read in 2014, plus some reading statistics just because…

Disclaimer: I’m always playing catch-up in my reading, so these aren’t the best books published in 2014, but the best I read. For links to some lists of the former, see the bottom of the post.

The Books

1. Starfish by Peter Watts.

Peter Watts is a Canadian SF author who writes very dark, very hard SF centered around biology. His novel Blindsight was shortlisted for the Hugo a few years ago, and the sequel, Echopraxia,  came out last summer (I bought it promptly but haven’t read it yet).

Starfish was his first novel, but you couldn’t tell from the quality. It’s about a deep-sea station manned by people who’ve been modified with built-in wetsuits and breathing apparatus, which raises a couple of questions. First, what kind of people are willing to have that done to them (and live at the bottom of the ocean, next to an oceanic rift, for months)? Second, when your body is altered to live under these conditions, what does that do to your psyche? And that’s just for starters….

The Passage by Justin Cronin cover2. The Passage by Justin Cronin.

This book was big when it came out in 2010 (remember what I said about playing catch-up with my reading?). Cronin had previously published some family drama novels, and it shows…so this is a vampire apocalypse novel with family/small-town drama at the core and also a quest structure. Sounds like a strange mash-up, but for the most part, it really works. Cronin’s cross-genre roots serve him well — there’s a lot of hard-hitting emotional stuff intertwined with the end-of-the-world action.

My only quibble is the length. Despite the epic scope of the story, it didn’t need to be 900 pages long — 700 would have done just fine. Having said that, I devoured it at twice my usual reading speed, so make of that what you will.

Room by Emma Donoghue cover3. Room by Emma Donoghue.

This is the only non-genre book on the list (another high-profile 2010 novel), but I loved it in part for genre reasons, and I’ll tell you why. The concept is tough to read: it’s the story of a woman kidnapped and kept in captivity in a soundproofed garden shed, told from the perspective of her young son. Jack has been sheltered from the truth of their existence. To him, Room is the entire world; everything and everyone he sees on TV is pretend.

Watching him slowly learn otherwise is painful at times, but it also hits at the heart of what I love about genre: that sense of discovery, of learning about a world and how it works. As a bonus, the POV and narrative voice are extremely strong: we’re in five-year-old Jack’s head the whole way, even when we understand things he does not, and that’s both heartbreaking and amazingly effective.

Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley cover4. The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.

You’ve probably all read this already, so I won’t say too much about it. It’s an ’80s novel, which made me all nostalgic — in part because I’ve read (and loved) other McKinley novels before, in part for the writing conventions of a time before YA was a “‘thing” and fantasy was just fantasy.

I found the pacing and conflict a bit uneven by today’s exacting standards, but the protagonist’s journey felt larger-than-life as she *ahem* gets dragged through the fire and has to rebuild herself stronger than ever. Plus, there’s a horse who really feels like a horse, with a complete personality. And I’m not the only one who loved it — this is a Newbery Medal winner.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor cover5. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

By contrast, this is a contemporary YA fantasy (from 2011), so it’s full of familiar tropes. BUT I think this is what literary agents mean when they say they want writing that feels “fresh”. Despite the tropes, the characters ring true and bring depth to the story, and the sentence-level writing reaches for poetry without being overdone. I particularly enjoyed the fact that although the protagonist, Karou, is “special”, she’s also lonely and deeply insecure; and also the relationship with her best friend, full of in-jokes and teasing.

Fair warning: this is book 1 in a trilogy, and it shows.

Summary

What I loved about these:

  • hard-hitting emotion and psychological depth
  • huge character arcs
  • SFF stories in which the whole world is affected/changed
  • sentence-level writing that rises above the ordinary, whether it’s poetic (Laini Taylor) or a strong narrative voice (Emma Donoghue)
  • strong sense of the world/place

That summary is especially timely for me right now, as I seek to regain my writing mojo. Note to self: read (and maybe, eventually, write) more of that!

Reading Habits

On to the statistics…here’s hoping I’m not the only one interested in them. 😉

 Genres

I read 24 books in 2014, 7 fewer than in the previous year, but that’s not surprising because I was on a six-month sabbatical that year!

  • 6 were adult fantasy (9 last year) and 6 were adult SF (5 last year).
  • 2 were non-genre adult fiction (1 last year)
  • 5 were YA fantasy (2 last year) and 2 were YA SF (2 last year)
  • 3 were non-fiction (5 last year)
  • I read no anthologies, poetry, YA non-genre (1 of each last year), or graphic novels / webcomics (3 last year)

The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia cover17 of the books were from my to-read list (14 last year).

17 of the books were part of series – almost all of my genre reading. (The exceptions were The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia.)

Authors

I read books by 22 different authors (not counting collaborations), of whom 9 were new to me this year (12 last year) and 13 were new-to-me books by previously read authors (11 last year).

6 of the authors were male, 15 female, and 1 presented as non-gendered (Mazarkis Williams, although hir novel, The Emperor’s Knife, was solidly hetero). Last year was 9 male and 14 female.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin coverTo my knowledge, I read only one book by a person of colour. (That would be The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.) I keep resolving to do better in this regard and falling short.

Publishing and Buying

Of all 24 books I read, 10 were published in the last five years – a ratio consistent with years past.

2 books were acquired for free from an SFF convention, 1 was a library book, 1 I read as an e-ARC (Advance Reader Copy), and 1 was free from Project Gutenberg. The rest I bought.

10/24 were ebooks – about 40%. (Last year was 33% and the year before was 25%, so it’s gradually creeping up! At the end of 2013 I finally got a smartphone, but it hasn’t changed my ereading habits much – I still read mostly on my Kobo B&W e-ink reader.) What I buy in ebook form:

  • big fat fantasy novels or trade paperbacks that are too heavy to comfortably hold or lug around (2)
  • older books that I can’t get in print from my local bookstore (3)
  • out-of-copyright books (1)
  • books from my to-read list that go on sale (2)
  • books that I bought as ebooks for no particular reason (2)

I buy from my local indie SF&F bookstore whenever I can, otherwise that number would likely be higher!

Other Reading Recaps

Last year’s recap is here.

And here are some reading recaps/ “best-of” lists that actually cover SF&F books published in 2014…

Your turn! What were the best books you read in 2014 (any genre)?

 

Looking Back on 2014

Hi, guys, did you miss me? I’m resurrecting the blog because I can never resist a yearly recap!

It’s that time of year again…time to reflect, regroup, and ponder.

Last year, I declared my intention to make more space for my writing (after a very busy 2012 and 2013, where lots of good things happened but writing fell by the wayside). 2014 was going to be the Year of Priorities, AKA Project: Making Space.

What I learned: Be careful how you word your resolutions!

What happened: “Making Space” came to pass in a much more literal way than I had intended. My partner and I started renovating our house (to be clear, we weren’t doing the work ourselves, but it did take up a LOT of brain cycles). We ended up with:

Refinished attic

  • a newly finished room (and revamped hallway and staircase) in the attic, which became an exercise room that’s getting used at least once a week, and also converts to a guest room
  • a functional second-floor kitchen (my partner’s parents live with us and do most of the cooking, but we wanted our own space for weekend food prep…there was already a second kitchen when we bought the house, but it needed appliances and more storage)
  • a landscaped backyard (to replace the former field of weeds), meaning we could enjoy our vegetable garden, add a couple of flower/shrub gardens, and spend time on our new back deck
  • a central air-conditioning system (which, among many other benefits, made the attic usable in summer!)
Deck, shed, Japanese maple to the left...all new! (Lilac to the right is not new.)

Deck, shed, Japanese maple to the left…all new. (Lilac to the right is not new.)

See? Making Space! 😛

This turned out to be good for the soul. We bought a nice set of patio furniture and it’s been wonderful to sit out on the deck — it needs some decor and privacy touches, but already it makes me feel a bit like I’ve got a country cottage in the city. Since I crave nature, the wilder the better, this is an excellent start.

Patio retreat in the making...

Patio retreat in the making…

I’ve also had fun adding flowers and shrubs to my repertoire after three years of vegetable gardening (details here and here). And between the deck and the second kitchen, we’ve been able to throw a couple of house parties — new territory for us, and an area we’re not very comfortable in yet, but hey, growth requires stretching, right?

Old-fashioned hydrangea, in memory of my grandmother.

Old-fashioned hydrangea, in memory of my grandmother.

What did not happen: Writing.

Okay, some writing did happen, but nowhere near as much as I’d hoped.

  • Wrote somewhere around 35K words, and almost all of it got edited and/or either published with Turtleduck Press or submitted elsewhere (with no results…yet)
  • Wrote and published the last two installments of Still Waters Run Deep (a fantasy serial) as TDP freebies, and started tweaking the serial to turn it into a coherent 10K story but did not finish
  • Wrote and published “The Raja and the Madman” (a longish fantasy short story) in the Under Her Protection anthology from TDP
  • Wrote 15K on draft 2 of a YA SF novel for NaNoWriMo (but had to quit because of wrist problems — see below) and tried to continue draft 2 of a YA fantasy novel but didn’t get very far
  • Wrote 2 more short stories (one historical fantasy, one Gothic) that haven’t appeared anywhere…yet…and 3 flash fiction pieces — the third of which is now up at TDP
  • Edited two TDP releases, Under Her Protection and Even the Score by KD Sarge

Under Her Protection edited by Siri Paulson

In part, the lack of writing was due to a health scare, with tendonitis in both wrists in September and cropping up again in November. I’ve been doing some preventative stuff, but I have a feeling that’s going to need more focus in January.

In travel/vacation news, I had:

  • a trip to India (again — but just for two weeks this time)
  • a trip to the Canadian Rockies (to go hiking with my siblings, which was fabulous)
  • a couple of lovely staycations
  • some weekends out of town to go contra dancing (as dancing expanded to take on a bigger role in my life…we’ll see where it goes from here!)

Looking ahead…

I’m wondering if the wrist issues are trying to tell me something about writing. More about that in a future post. More about that here (tl;dr I’m thinking very hard about what I want out of writing, because it’s been a struggle for a while). I’m not one for hard deadlines, so I’m still mulling over my intentions for 2015.

Also coming up on the blog: reading roundup for 2014…and maybe an SF&F movie recap, if there’s interest.

Your turn! How did your 2014 go? What’s ahead for you in 2015?