Review: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Save the Cat series of books is aimed primarily at screenwriters, but in this case Jessica Brody has reworked the formula for novel writing.

The book, as befits one concerned about plot, is well-structured, with sections designed for easy reference after the initial read-through. At its core, Brody puts forward that there are 10 core plots that are used in pretty much all successful stories (note that this success is oriented toward readers more than critics, hence the inclusion of novels that have received what some might call unkind reviews, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In the first chapter Brody describes how we are wired to respond to certain types of stories and covers the usual concerns over “How can I be daring and original if I’m following a strict plot outline?” by saying nothing is really original, but all authors have their own voices and style that separate them from other writers.

The next ten chapters are devoted to an explanation of the specific plot type, covering three essential requirements for each, followed by a “beat sheet” (beats are a big thing in the Save the Cat world) for a specific novel, explaining how it conforms to the particular plot type in question. This is followed by an even more precise summary of the beat sheet, handy for quick reference.

The final chapter is a general set of common questions Brody has addressed in related workshops, along with answers, ranging from the basics of “Where do I start?” to handling multiple narratives. Brody also provides templates on a website that serve as virtual corkboards for plotting (for those who don’t want to use actual corkboards). In all, the information is detailed, but presented in a light, informal style that will be easily accessible to young or new writers, as well as those who have yet to plot their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag.

You can get an idea of the tone of the book by observing some of the plot types discussed:

  • Whydunnit
  • Dude with a Problem
  • Buddy Love
  • Monster in the House

All of this may sound very rigid–and it is. Brody does allow that some bending of the rules may be allowed, but that overall these plots, their associated acts, scenes, and overall beats, must be followed to achieve the effect they are meant to have on that primitive part of our brain that responds so well to structured tales.

If you believe in the power of plotting, this is an excellent primer on how to write a novel using any of the ten specific plots discussed. As Brody mentions, it also works well for those trying to fix a work in progress.

For new writers or those who have a tendency to send their initially sound novels upon the rocky shoals of “I don’t know what happens next”, this is recommended.

P.S. “Save the cat” is a reference to how an unlikable main character should do something to show they have a good side or some merit, such as…saving a cat.

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Book review: The Happiness Equation

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything by Neil Pasricha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw Neil Pasricha at The Art of Leadership in Vancouver in December 2019, and he is a passionate, funny speaker, one of those compelling personalities that will compel you to buy-in what they’re saying just through their sheer enthusiasm and exuberant delivery.

In book form the effect is muted, so it’s easier to sit back and ask yourself, “Is this really god advice?”
Of course, one of the things Pasricha writes about in the quest for happiness is to ignore advice. Except sometimes you can listen to it.

A lot of the book trades on this line of thinking—take what you need for you, discard the rest. Be true to yourself, above everything else, and a lot of the happiness that eludes you will fall into place on its own, or at least more readily than it would otherwise.

One of the things Paricha mentioned in his talk that he doesn’t really address in The Happiness Equation, is his view of smartphones. He describes them as “poison”, strongly urging everyone to drastically scale back how much—and for what reasons—they use them. This does tie in with one of the broad philosophies of the book—to be authentic, to not do things to curry favor or approval of others (“This post is sure to get lots of likes!”) but to just be yourself, flaws and all, because this is the foundation of being happy.

It makes sense, really. If you can’t accept who you are, how likely are you to be happy? Pasricha’s advice (which you can accept or reject as appropriate, of course) ranges from the simple (put your gym clothes within easy reach to make it more likely you’ll actually change and go to the gym) to things people would want to consider very carefully—like, how happy is your significant other? Are they dragging you down? Are you better off leaving them?

A lot of the rest of the tips are basically about shutting off access and focusing. He rightly points out that people are easily distracted and tend to multitask poorly. He encourages people to apportion the time to check things like email to a minimum, to “unplug” as much as possible, what some might see as a kind of digital detox. It’s actually pretty appealing, but I say this as someone who works in IT and has started to have had my fill of the same.

At times funny and sometimes a little awkward, there’s a lot to recommend in Pasricha’s approach to achieving happiness, even if some of his declarations are bound to surprise or even shock. He believes retirement is a bad thing and points out that it’s mostly a modern invention, and the argument is compelling. He isn’t suggesting 85 year olds should be working 40 hour weeks, but more that to stay happy, people need to keep doing things and feeling productive, no matter what this things may be.
I’ll revisit this book over time to see how some of its advice plays out. It’s not perfect and Pasricha openly encourages the reader to discard the things that won’t work for them, but there is enough here to at least shake things up a bit and see what happens.

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Book review: Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit by Becca Syme

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read so many books on writing without writing that I feel it’s become my official career to write about books about writing.

Dear Writer, You Need to Quit is a good book about writing and manages to put a bit of a unique spin on the usual advice. Instead of addressing story structure, plot, characters and other mechanics, or providing the nitty gritty about finding a good agent or other specifics of the business of writing, Becca Syme instead tackles the things a new or indie writer needs to quit doing–including up to the possibility of not writing anymore.

It’s a light read and the tone is conversational–perhaps a bit too much at times–and the way Syme repeats key phrases, like “QTP” (Question The Premise) makes sections of the book feel more like a transcription of a class or talk (which it is, more or less, based on material she uses in coaching sessions and classes). On the plus side, this lends a kind of authenticity to the topics, as Syme isn’t just writing what sounds good, she’s providing advice based on her own experiences with authors. As a bonus, she is not afraid to point out where she has plainly blown it herself.

A lot of the book is built around tempering expectations and looking after yourself while pursuing the dream of making a living as a writer. Syme flatly states that for most people that this will not happen. Don’t quit your job is not a cliché here, it is a repeated mantra. Chapters are spent framing writing as a hobby you might make a little money from, but that’s all. Do it because you love it, but work it into your existing routines, don’t forfeit your job, time and money pursuing a dream that is unlikely to come true.

That sounds like a downer, and Syme admits as much–that if you don’t have the drive, it’s perfectly fine to just quit writing altogether.

She does address more specific topics, too, taking on the idea that you must plot out your story first (or just improvise and never plot), pulling back to essentially say what works for one writer may not work for you. Do what works for you.

In all, this is a breezy and eminently sensible set of tips on how to tackle the writing life. While it seems aimed at indie writers who have a few published novels already, new writers will benefit from at least considering the advice on offer.

Recommended.

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Book review: A New World

A New World

A New World by Whitley Strieber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much like The Afterlife Revolution, this book is pretty bonkers when viewed through the lens of the world most of us see and know. There is always the chance that Strieber, for reasons unknown, is pulling a very long con (dating back to Communion, published in 1986) or is merely delusional. But while it might make one feel smug to dismiss this as nothing more than crackpot theorizing, there is enough evidence to suggest something is going on.

I’ve long felt that there is a lot in the world and the universe that we don’t understand, that for all our advances and (alleged) intelligence, humans are still pretty primitive. As explorers, we don’t know what is in most of our own oceans. We have only seen our solar system on a limited scale (albeit with some fantastic results) and have ventured no further than the moon when travelling off the planet. We have exploited said planet to the point where we may be accelerating drastic climate change–global warming–and when we need them most, it seems more of us are turning away from science, rational thought and logic, especially those in positions of power, both in business and government.

It’s kind of depressing.

Against this backdrop, A New World is both a summary of Strieber’s previous books recounting his experiences with what he calls the visitors, and a call to action for the visitors–and the reader. For the first time Strieber puts emphasis on having as many people as possible seek out the visitor experience, believing that open communication between us and them may be the only thing that will prevent humanity from being all but wiped out as climate change accelerates (because the visitors will share knowledge that can help us, but won’t do so until we are “ready.”)

In presenting his case, Strieber recalls past experiences, putting them into new perspective, then builds on them by detailing a new chapter with the visitors that began in 2015 and continues now (the most recent events are from a scant month ago as I write this, in November 2019). What it basically comes down to is time is running out and Strieber believes that the more people that join in the communion (sharing) with the Visitors, the better our odds of achieving a communication breakthrough and getting help in literally saving the world.

Again, this sounds bonkers, but Strieber builds his case piece by piece, drawing from experiences he had that feature credible witnesses, to citing other incidents and examples–such as the recent admission from the U.S. Navy that objects captured on video by Navy fighters are actual unknowns. He makes connections that may surprise those who are only familiar with movie aliens. While never stating firmly–as he claims he doesn’t truly know–Strieber posits that the visitors may actually be some form of human from a parallel or mirror universe that is overlapping ours, that they experience time differently, able to see the past and the future, and are attracted to us because we get to experience things in the moment, with a spontaneity they lack.

Also, the dead may also be in this mirror universe as energy beings, and are only able to manifest in the physical realm in very limited ways. While noting that some of the visitors may have ill intent, Strieber says it is only in the same way that some humans are criminals or otherwise operate outside of society’s norms.

As for why they have been so reticent to present themselves openly to us (by landing on, say, the lawn of the White House–and hoo boy, would that be interesting right now), despite possibly having been around for thousands of years (picture Georgio Soukalos leaning forward and saying, “Aliens!”), it’s that they experience reality so differently than we do that just trying to wrap our minds around it can overwhelm us. The visitors can’t chat casually with us because they are fundamentally non-physical beings, so they use imagery and symbols and it all comes out cryptic and weird. We just want to sit down at a table with them, have some tea and get to know each other. They can control things–including themselves, perhaps, at a sub-atomic level. Idle conversation isn’t really possible.

There is a chapter that actually goes into the possible science behind this, referencing everything from Schrodinger’s cat to decoherence and the fine-structure constant. The very nature of reality is brought into question, that the information our senses provide may not be exactly reflective of what reality really is. Strangely, the tone in this chapter is a lot less serious than the others, possibly because the entire thing is framed as trying to prove how something so bizarre can be real.

The book ends on an urgent note, calling on the visitors to more openly present themselves, to “open the doors of their school wide, to us all. We have a planet to lose and our lives along with it, or we have a journey to take.”

As always, Strieber writes clearly and with a sober tone. More than usual he confesses to how strange everything sounds, imploring the reader to make a leap of faith (not necessarily a religious one, but with a spiritual component). He also provides good news to lazy, but generally decent people–you don’t need to believe the visitors are real or that the soul is a thing to contribute positively to the communion process, you just need to be a fundamentally good person.

Any book that ends with that kind of promise can’t be so bad.

As I’ve said, it is difficult to buy into what Strieber talks about, especially if you’ve never experienced anything even tangential to what he talks about, unless you have a very open mind and are willing to think way outside the proverbial box. I keep an open mind (some might say downright vacant) and I find the theories and ideas presented in A New World to be interesting and intriguing. This is in a way a hopeful book, and in these dark times, that goes a long way.

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Book review: The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar's Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

The Liar’s Bible: A Handbook for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone looking for nuts and bolts advice on writing should be warned that this is a collection of some of Block’s fiction columns from Writer’s Digest, and as such they sometimes provide instruction or advice, but sometimes Block just takes you along on his musings about the writing life.

It’s probably also relevant to add that the columns in question date from 1981 to 1987. He mentions typewriters a lot.

And that is probably what I enjoyed most about the book. Some of the writing advice is obviously dated–he has a wonderfully detailed column about self-publishing his own book that isn’t particularly relevant to how self-publishing works in the 2010s, but Block has such an affable style that the column still entertains.

The columns also serve to paint a portrait of the author as he draws extensively on his own experience writing and publishing–he had been in the business about 25 years at the time these columns were new–and in a way, this makes the pieces serve as a kind of memoir. Block recounts his early days writing soft porn novels, confesses to questionable behavior in his youth, details his fights with editors, agents and others, and regularly reminds the reader that what works for him may not work for them and to adjust as needed.

If you want a no-nonsense book about writing full of advice on plot, pacing, story structure, characters–you will find that here, to a degree. But more than that, you will get a good glimpse into the life and habits of a particular writer, and a snapshot look back at what the writing life was like in the 1980s.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first book on writing advice, but I would recommend it as one of the books to check out.

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Book review: Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect

Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect by Mick West

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mick West was a video game programmer in the 90s who cashed out, retired early and became fascinated with conspiracy theories–and then more specifically in debunking them. With plenty of time to support his hobby of debunking, West went on to create multiple sites on the subject, with https://www.metabunk.org being perhaps the best known. This is his first book on the subject.

Escaping the Rabbit Hole delivers exactly what the sub-title promises. West devotes space to general techniques and methods on debunking conspiracies, with the aim of helping you (the reader) to help someone else (referred throughout in the book as “your friend”) break free from believing whatever conspiracy or set of conspiracies they are holding to. He also offers more specific information on some of the more popular–and in one case, more fringe–conspiracy theories, including the claim that a controlled demolition brought down the World Trade Center towers, that the Sandy Hook shootings never happened, the theory that contrails from planes are actually chemtrails either changing the weather or poisoning us (or both), and, of course, the flat earth theory. The latter may boggle any sensible person, because it is by far the most extreme and easily disproved conspiracy theory, yet West provides an example of someone who genuinely believed the earth was flat.

West accompanies each specific conspiracy theory with a shorter chapter chronicling how a particular individual escaped the rabbit hole (such as the aforementioned flat earther), showing how for some it can happen swiftly–in a matter of a week–and how for others it may take years. Often it is the patient work of a friend that pulls them out, but sometimes it is seeing a specific video or getting a critical piece of information at the right time that gives the conspiracist just enough pause to start questioning what they believe. West also shows how it can also be a matter of adherents to a particular theory crossing a line that the believer isn’t prepared to step over.

Throughout the book, West keeps repeating his mantra of being respectful and patient, urging the reader to avoid arguing and mocking the conspiracist’s beliefs, rightly stating that this puts them on the defensive and makes them less receptive to hearing other points of view. He emphasizes the use of examples and evidence, or actual demonstrations where possible that show how the conspiracy theory doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Anticipating one of the claims conspiracists will throw at him–that he is a simply a paid shill–West spends a chapter providing background on himself and how he came to be a debunker. Reading where he came from and how he ended up running metabunk as a hobby, I both envy and admire him for having the freedom and funds to not just pursue a hobby, but one that will genuinely help to make the world a better place.

He perhaps puts too much faith in the efforts of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to combat bots, disinformation and conspiracy stories/videos. He is heartened by the work they have done (I am more skeptical), but still warns it is likely to get better before it gets worse, with AI growing ever-more sophisticated in its ability to present itself as credible-sounding “people,” not to mention the work being done in the area of deep fakes where pulling apart what is real and what is a fabrication will get increasingly difficult.

Escaping the Rabbit hole is a thorough, sensible and compassionate toolkit for getting someone you know out of the world of conspiracy theories. Even if you don’t know anyone personally who has gone down the rabbit hole, the book’s techniques and background are an interesting examination of modern conspiracy theories and the damage they can do.

Recommended.

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Book review: The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy

The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy by Brian Klaas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oof.

For historical reference, this review was posted in August 2019. The book in question came out in late 2017, a little less than a year into Trump’s term as president of the United States. That means there’s been more than a year and a half of further events and actions to either bolster the case Klaas makes on how Trump is undermining democracy in America, or to provide evidence that Trump has “become” presidential and changed course.

Anyone who knows anything about Trump will know, of course, that the latter was never and is not a realistic scenario. Trump has no experience in government and in the time he has been president has shown little inclination to learn or improve, unless you count improvements on being a terrible person and a terrible leader.

This book is exhausting. Reading it is like getting punched lightly but continuously. It hurts but you go on, because the punching is bound to stop. But it never does.

In the short time span covered, Klaas documents all the horrible things Trump has said and done, underlining how just a few things have essentially kept America’s democracy intact for now–mainly by the grace of Trump’s incompetence and inexperience, and the still relatively strong (but weakening) bedrock that forms the democratic government the U.S. has had since 1776.

The problem, as Klaas points out, is that much of what holds U.S. democracy together, takes the form of political norms and traditions. Presidential candidates always release their tax returns. Presidents don’t profit from their presidency. Presidents don’t mollify dictators while attacking allies. But Trump doesn’t care about norms–he bulldozes through them, showing how fragile democracy is when it relies on people being innately good, or at least respectful of what government should be.

Klaas makes it clear that Trump is not the first president to engage in lies and work at tearing down important government structures, citing Nixon as the obvious modern go-to equivalent, but in comprehensive detail, he lays out how Trump is so much worse–and therefore, more dangerous.

All of this is compounded by America’s troubled history, something Trump has taken advantage of, choosing to divide and turn Americans against each other and the rest of the world. Klaas repeatedly shows how Trump is emulating despots both old and current, by assaulting the free press, by perpetuating damaging lies, by undermining trust in government institutions. The list–and examples–go on and on. As I said, it’s an exhausting read.

The book ends with four possible scenarios (remembering that this came out before the 2018 midterms in which a glimmer of hope was raised when the Democrats won back the House of Representatives), three of which result in things getting worse. The first suggests a slow decay of democracy, as people grow numb and then indifferent to Trump’s actions. The second offers the chilling scenario of a Trump 2.0 coming along and picking up from where Trump left off–but imagines the successor being much more intelligent, savvy, and able to appeal to a broad audience in a way Trump simply can’t, making this person far more dangerous. The third scenario offers Trump the opportunity to use some kind of large scale disaster or terrorist attack to provide cover for further draconian actions under the pretext of national security. George W. Bush’s popularity soared into the 90s following the 9/11 attacks. Trump’s popularity could hit the lofty heights of fifty percent! More seriously, a country under attack or ailing is more vulnerable, and a person like Trump could easily take advantage of that to peel away rights and freedoms.

The fourth scenario offers Trump as a virus, with people banding together to make a vaccine to fight back. This did come to pass in the 2018 midterms, and there is some evidence that it is still a process that is advancing and not retreating. Trump, through it all, has not changed.

In the end this book didn’t really offer me any new insights, but it did lay bare and in explicit detail just how thoroughly, through malice and incompetence, Donald Trump has carried on the work of chipping away democracy in America. Even if he does not get re-elected in 2020, the U.S. is looking at years or even decades to undo the damage already done.

It’s hard to recommend a book like this, but Klaas makes his points clearly. The only fault I can offer is the idea he has of working alongside your political adversaries to keep government functioning and healthy. Klaas states what seems obvious–the Democrats and Republicans can disagree on specific policies, but must work together to keep the institutions of government strong and healthy. In an ideal world this could happen, but the current incarnation of the Republican party has been taken over by extremists who are of much the same mind as Trump. Those who oppose Trump’s actions ineffectively offer criticism from the sidelines or say (and do) nothing at all, making them complicit and helping to enable Trump’s behavior.

If you still hanker for a primer on how Trump’s first year in power emulates the worst sort of authoritarian leader, The Despot’s Apprentice will provide everything you might need. You might want to start by choosing a palette cleanser to read after, though.

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On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer (Million Dollar Writing Series)

On Being a Dictator: Using Dictation to Be a Better Writer by Kevin J. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This slim volume is basically Kevin J. Anderson and Martin L. Shoemaker telling you why they use voice dictation for their writing, and the specifics of how they do it. Their techniques differ–Shoemaker dictates while driving a one hour commute to and from work (and emphasizes the safe way to do so), while Anderson usually takes a digital voice recorder with him when he is out on hikes, keeping fit while staying productive. They sometimes overlap methods and Anderson in particular makes use of typing services, which can transcribe at a typical cost of one cent per word or thereabouts. He admits this is not suitable for all writers. A 100,000 word novel would cost $1,000 to transcribe, a hefty sum for a lot of people, especially those new to writing.

Each author also uses dictation for brainstorming, tossing out ideas, character background and more into their recordings. Shoemaker uses Dragon Professional 15.0 to transcribe his recordings and is satisfied with its accuracy, noting that cleanup is always part of the editing process, regardless of writing method.

They cover all the basics–when and where to dictate, overcoming the embarrassment of talking to yourself in public, getting comfortable with the sound of your own voice, and more.

All of this is good stuff, and both writers present their use cases in convincing fashion. The book does lack a certain amount of depth–this is Anderson and Shoemaker relating their experiences, with a minimum of advice, technical or otherwise. Those looking for more specifics on using voice dictation for writing may be better served by checking out The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon by Scott Baker (which still covers the latest version of Dragon as of this writing, August 2019) or Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per hour.

Still, this is very much a worthy read, if for no other reason than to provide a little more incentive to making the jump to using voice dictation.

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Book review: 5,000 Writing Prompts

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More

5,000 WRITING PROMPTS: A Master List of Plot Ideas, Creative Exercises, and More by Bryn Donovan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I did not read all 5,000 prompts.

But I did read most of them, actually, not just to get the inspiration, but to get an overall feel for how Donovan puts together her lists. Quite often you can see her riffing on a theme or flipping a prompt to generate another (“Write why you like scrambled eggs. Or why you hate scrambled eggs with the fire of a thousand suns.”)

There are a few things Donovan does that elevates this above so many other writing prompt books or websites:

  • Quantity. Yes, sometimes size does matter! The sheer volume of prompts means you’re bound to find some that appeal to you, even if you use her method of randomly picking one.
  • Speaking of randomly picking one, Donovan directly tackles the purpose of the prompts and suggest picking one to write every day for two weeks, to rekindle your interest in writing if it’s faded. This is an entirely sensible plan, but a lot of prompt books don’t address this at all, they just pile on the lists.
  • Speaking of lists, Donovan provides a great deal of variety and even the groupings that might seem marginal to you (for me it would be the poetry prompts) actually offer a lot of good ideas that can be applied to other types of writing.

Donovan offers commentary and background on some of her ideas, especially those that have cultural or historical significance.

Really, this is just a solid all-around collection. I expect to use a bunch of these prompts as I seek to re-ignite my own fiction writing (and if you don’t write fiction, there’s lots of material here for blogs and other forms of non-fiction writing). Recommended.

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Book review: Keep Going

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad

Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a delight. Austin Kleon not only has an awesome name, his art is a fun and quirky mix of collage, cartoons and wordplay. This is someone who sees art all around him, then dives in to make even more.

The focus on the book is primarily aimed at creative types, specifically writers and visual artists, but most people can glean useful stuff from the sensible, thoughtful ideas he shares. Many may seem common sense, like finding a “bliss station”–a space where you can focus on your creativity, whether it’s a physical spot or just time you carve out of the day–but Kleon presents them as a piece with his own thoughts, creating a unified, accessible whole.

Kleon emphasizes experimentation, not getting hung up on the pursuit of perfection, and focusing on making art that makes others–and yourself–happy. He is big on gifts, less so on selling your stuff on Etsy, or somehow trying to make money from your creativity (he is not opposed, as he does it himself, obviously, but warns of the danger in trying to commercialize something you love and are passionate about).

He urges the reader to take social media in small doses, to turn your day to day life over to a virtual “airplane mode” from time to time, to not focus on doing things just to generate likes or clicks.

Keep Going is a short book, all the better to get through it and start applying what Kleon advocates. I read this on an iPad Pro and definitely advocate reading it in a format large enough to appreciate the numerous sketches, cartoons and notes, whether it be through tablet or even quaint old paper. The illustrations are all black and white, so a larger e-reader should work, too.

A solid thumbs up for creative types seeking easily-acted on inspiration and tips, and still recommended to others for the positive approach to life.

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Book review: The Frighteners

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore

The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore by Peter Laws

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was better than expected. Going in, I was unfamiliar with Peter Laws, apart from the blurb for the book mentioning that he is a reverend and perhaps a seemingly unlikely choice to author a book about why we are delighted by things that scare us (he devotes an entire chapter on this near the end, and also addresses it at the beginning). A writer when not conducting church services, Laws has authored novels about a professor aiding in the solving of religious crimes, and also reviews horror and similarly themed movies for The Fortean Times, the delightfully wacky magazine devoted to the weird and out there. This is relevant, because Laws demonstrates wit and verve throughout The Frighteners.

Laws has done his research on why we seek out to be frightened by various things, but this is not a carefully considered study and analysis, it is very much Laws providing expert testimony and studies, while adding in a lot of his own personal take on the various spooky subjects, neatly divided into their own chapters. There are fictional frights—scary movies and TV shows, but also could-be-real frights like ghosts, werewolves, cryptids and more. Then there are the sadly real, like serial killers, their “murderabilia” and crush videos (don’t look up the latter if you are at work or anywhere else on the planet. Trust me on this.)

Laws doesn’t defend the more dubious aspects that some people seem to crave, but he does attempt to understand motivations. And he highlights that most of us—even people into murderabilia (mementos from famous crimes or killers) have our limits. For example, a couple that run a curio shop in York sells things like strands of Charles Manson’s hair, among other ghoulish “delights”, but the American half of the couple admits she turned down the chance to sell bricks from Sandy Hook, because she lived nearby and had no emotional distance from the killings.

A lot of the fare Laws covers is lighter, and even silly. Zombie-themed escape rooms are a big thing now, and Laws partakes not as research for the book, but because he just loves them so much (he went to Transylvania for his 40th birthday), going out of his way to squeeze every last bit of drama from them, like the hero of a horror film.

In the end I was carried along by Laws’ enthusiasm for the macabre and frightening, and his gleeful delight in the same. He provides enough research, expert interviews and other material to elevate the book well above “I like scary stuff, let me talk about it”, so if you find the subject matter interesting, this is an easy recommendation.

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Book Review: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point I was ready to give this a three-star rating, but in the end the sheer enthusiasm of Neil Patrick Harris over the things he loves won me over…to three-and-a-half stars, which I can’t actually assign on Goodreads. But pretend I can.

The section that nearly lost me was one of the fictionalized segments where Harris assumes a super-macho sex stud persona and involves Harold and Kumar. It was kind of gross and while I ain’t no prude, I didn’t find it at all funny, just…gross.

And that’s the worst thing about this autobiography. It deliberately subverts the entire genre by presenting it as a “choose your own adventure,” so the whole book, save for specific sections, is written in the second person, with each chapter giving you options on how to proceed. It took a bit to get used to, but I didn’t really mind it in the end. And if you ignore the choices and just flip the page, you can read the whole book (or at least it didn’t feel like I missed anything).

There are also recipes, magic tricks and testimonials of sorts from others, ranging from Penn Jilette to Sarah Silverman. Some of these are obviously done for comedic effect, others are more sincere. Illustrations and script fragments, self-interviews and more complete the package and while I can’t say it all holds together as well as it should, Harris’s fondness for performing and the adulation he has for those he admires and loves shines through brilliantly. It’s this core, along with witty observations of show business that really make the book worth reading.

And yes, there is a little dirt along the way, as Harris is not shy about pointing out other actors who may not be…quite up to standard. Or drunk. Or both.

The photos at the end, especially from when he was trying to be a super cool “straight” twenty-something, are hilarious and well worth checking out on a tablet or computer where you can see them in glorious full color. Conversely, the photos of him with his husband and kids are cute enough to be used as stock photos of wholesome gay parents.

If you’re looking for an eclectic, sarcastic biography of someone who loves show tunes, this will fill your very specific needs. If you’re hankering for a more conventional biography, you may find this particular take a bit lacking.

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