What I read at the cottage (plus extras)

October 23rd, 2023Posted by Nancy

I didn’t keep a close record of cottage reading, but did get through a few books between July and the end of the September. Here are some of my favourites.


The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, R.F. Kuang. I motored through the first two parts of this trilogy and finished the final book in October. Kuang has won a Nebula, has written several NY Times bestselling books, has several degrees, is currently studying at Yale, and is definitely an overachiever (meant in the best way, of course). Based on Chinese history, this series is dark, violent, and vividly written. I was occasionally annoyed at the willful obtuseness of the main character, but she was very young, after all. All three books are long but worth it, with an overall ending that is not happy but satisfying.

The Marigold, Andrew Sullivan. Debut horror novel set in a five-minutes from now Toronto. Anyone who lives here will not be surprised to discover that condo development is a dark art.

Castles in Their Bones, Laura Sebastian. I didn’t realize this was the start of a trilogy but I enjoyed this enough to read the next one. The three daughters of an ambitious queen are raised to marry into the surrounding countries and usurp their thrones – but nothing goes quite as planned.

The Winged Histories, Sofia Samatar. Absolutely bloody brilliant. I loved this book so much. Set in the world of A Stranger in Olondria, the narrative is divided between the voices of four different women – a soldier, a scholar, a poet, and a socialite – involved in a rebellion. Just staggeringly good. Read it.


Did I Ever Tell You This? Sam Neill Spurred by a cancer diagnosis, the NZ actor decided to finally write a memoir. My husband listened to the audio book and loved it. I read the book and managed to at least hear some echoes of his voice while reading. It’s funny and kind (mostly) and honest.

The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Donna Rifkind. A fascinating look at Viertel, a German actress and writer, who fled the rise of Nazism and settled in Hollywood with her director husband and her family. She worked with Garbo on several pictures but her true gift was as den mother, social butterfly, and advocate for the exiles who washed up in LA and made an unforgettable contribution to cinema. Made a good pairing with the Netflix series TransAtlantic, a fictionalized version of the Emergency Rescue Committee efforts to get artists and intellectuals safely out of France.

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer and The Success and Failure of Picasso, John Berger. More Glass World project research. The Dederer book on ‘art monsters’ led to the Berger book, which is decades old but still interesting. The first explores the question of whether you can love the art when the artist is a reprehensible human being.

The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, and the Debate over Race in America, Nicholas Buccola. I knew the basic outline of the debate and had seen some clips but this was a fascinating deep dive into the lives of both of the men and what led them to that moment. It also includes each speech in full at the end. Now I have to read some more James Baldwin….

Riverman: An American Odyssey, Ben McGrath. Writer McGrath meets Dick Conant, an eccentric canoeist paddling from New York to Florida. He writes an article about him and several months later, receives a call from police to say that Conant’s canoe has been found but there’s no sign of him. McGrath sets out to discover the man who lived on his own terms, made a lasting impression on everyone he met, but could never quite feel at home in the world.

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Too busy to work …

September 18th, 2023Posted by Nancy

As usual, I dove into the annual cottage getaway with plans for writing, editing, flamenco practice, etc. But the weather was fabulous, the mornings misty, the afternoons glorious, and so I mostly dove into the the lake (ok, I went down the later), went for walks, and read books. Je ne regrette rien.

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What I’ve Read, Q2*

July 12th, 2023Posted by Nancy

*once a business manager, always a business manager!

Another period heavy on the non-fiction, so we’ll start with that.

Fire Weather, John Vaillant. Valliant’s previous book, The Tiger, is one of my favorites so I jumped on this one. It’s a vivid and dramatic recounting of the Fort McMurray fire, a science lesson on the nature of forest fires, and a warning about how much worse they’ll be in the future. The summer of 2023 is so far bearing that out.

How to Be An Artist and Art is Life, Jerry Saltz. This is part of a book chain – I read a book recommended somewhere and the author of that book writes about another author, who writes about another author and on and on. Also part of my continuing reading about artists in an attempt to get some traction on my Glass World novel. Saltz is an artist, critic, and writer and his advice in How to can hold true for any creative endeavor.

Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell. Another book chain book – I think both this and the Saltz books originated in a book by Rebecca Solnit, but I’m not 100% sure. This is an older book about Custer and Little Bighorn so some of it sounds a bit … uncomfortable … to modern ears, but it was a fascinating about a battle I knew very little about.

I Used to Be Charming, Eve Babitz and Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., Lili Anolik. Babitz was an artist, a writer, hanger-on, muse, lover, and, above all, observer. When she suffered terrible burns in a cigarette incident, her Hollywood friends fundraise to cover her medical bills. Asked why people like Harrison Ford and Steve Martin would support her, she quipped “Blow jobs!” I love the wild world she depicted with a wry and witty style. The Babitz book is a collection of essays so the Anolik is a handy companion, providing more autobiographical details and, perhaps, a bit more honesty about said details. Both are highly recommended.

Nanaimo Girl, Prudence Emery. This made another great companion to the Babitz books. Emery was a Canadian who ended up managing PR for the Savoy Hotel in the 60s, for filmmakers like David Cronenberg, and for numerous bands. I think she and Eve might have enjoyed each other.


Middlegame, Seanan McGuire. A wonderful, twisty fantasy that’s quite funny despite the grim turns. The villains are suitably dark and twisted.

The Night Ship, Jess Kidd. A new book by Jess Kidd is always welcome in our house. This one is about a real shipwreck (the Batavia, a Dutch ship lost off the coast of Australia) and the hard life on the coastal islands that are its graveyard. Beautifully written, of course.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, Sangu Mandanna. A highly enjoyable romp: fun, cozy, and very satisfying.

Our Share of Night, Mariana Enriquez. A story of horrors – both supernatural and political – that haunt a father and son in Argentina in the 1960s and onward. It didn’t entirely work for me, but those parts that did were strange, beautiful, and gripping.

Unraveller, Frances Hardinge. I’m a huge fan of Hardinge’s fantasy and this doesn’t disappoint. Great worldbuilding that works so intuitively that everything just seems right, rich characters, and beautiful prose.

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Down East

June 24th, 2023Posted by Nancy

With the husband no longer required to spend most of his days face down in a special “retina recovery” chair (for which he was extremely grateful), I was cleared to go off to Nova Scotia with various family members to see the new great-grandson (again, not mine, I must point out).

We had a lovely visit in Kentville, stopped in Lunenburg and Peggy’s Cove, and stayed an extra day in Halifax. I found some beautiful places to walk and, of course, a cemetery or two.

Some shots from Miner’s Marsh, which was full of birdsong and beauty.

The cemeteries – one at a local church and one on a ridge beside the main road.

All images: Nancy Baker

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May is also pretty mean …

May 20th, 2023Posted by Nancy

Where we left our heroine, she was recovering from Covid and a bad fall. May was promising, with a visit from a sibling, a road trip, and a long-delayed trip to Nova Scotia coming up in June. Work on the witch novel was proceeding, flamenco class had been resumed, I’d had my first writing date since March, and the seeds that precipitated the fall had been planted.

Then my husband went for his every-two-year examination by the retinal specialists at Toronto Western Hospital. Concerned noises were made. Some lasering was done. Surgery would be required. No, it couldn’t wait until after visits and road trips and air travel was definitely not going to happen.

On the upside, his slowly detaching retina will be dealt with (as well the cataract in that eye, which I suppose is a bonus), our road trip travel arrangements can be cancelled with no penalty, and I’m going to make the Nova Scotia trip anyway, as additional company on the “meet the great-grandson” tour. Not MY great-grandson, I must point out. We’re hoping that his recovery requirements won’t be too onerous but we won’t find out the details until next week.

In the meantime, editing can be done, tomatoes can be planted, and there are lots of podcasts to listen to if he’s not allowed to read.

June, please don’t let me down.

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April is the Cruelest Month

April 29th, 2023Posted by Nancy

Yes, I know it’s overused, but April has not been kind to me.

First up, COVID. I paid the price for sitting in a coffee shop for two hours by testing positive at the end of March. Gestures were made towards isolating from my husband but he inevitably came down with it as well. His case was mild and over quickly. Mine was only slightly more annoying (equivalent to a bad cold or flu) but I’ve had lingering symptoms. Some days I can do a whole flamenco class with only one rest break (conveniently allowing me to pet the studio cat) and other days I break out into a cold sweat and feel nauseous after fifteen minutes of activity. Fortunately, I seem to be able to walk for an hour without noticeable problems (ok, I pick routes with benches so I can rest a bit, I admit it).

I tested negative in time to go to the touring production of HAMILTON in Toronto and see friends and was looking forward to having everything get back to normal then …

On Thursday, I prepared to plant some early seeds in my garden. I retrieved a rake from the garage, started across the patio, promptly tripped and down I went. At least I didn’t land ON the rake. I did break my computer glasses (thank goodness I’d forgotten to swap back to my usual ones) and bang up my knees quite badly. After several minutes of what must have looked like bad physical comedy, my husband and I managed to get me up onto my feet and inside to the couch. I can now make it around the house without holding onto walls but my flamenco practice is restricted to arm and hand movements.

On the upside, I finished inputting all my changes to the Witch Novel and assembling the very long list of things to be reviewed, finalized and revised.

And there’s only one more day in April.

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First Review Done

April 17th, 2023Posted by Nancy

Finished off the first review of the novel. Conclusions:

  • I definitely lost track of the timing in some places. The book takes place over 60 years and has three main characters, so there are lots of gaps to be bridged and simultaneous actions to be managed
  • Some of the prose is pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. It’s not ‘transparent’ but, as the man (Neil Young) says, ‘that’s my style’. There’s work to be done to eliminate a great number of commas and provide more variety in sentence structure but overall it doesn’t make me want to abandon all hope of writing and go live in a cave.
  • My preliminary assessment is that there’s a fairly even balance between scenes that need to be added and scenes that can come out, which I think is good.
  • There are some big decisions I’ve been avoiding and now is the time they’ll have to be made.
  • There are lots of little decisions I’ve also been avoiding (what is the name of that town? What titles do people use? What time of year is it?) that will also have to be made. At least I have to establish some consistency, if only to make it easier to use ‘search and replace’ later in the process.

Next steps:

  • make some easy text changes. This reread wasn’t for prose but there are some rough bits to be fixed.
  • Note all the bigger issues to be changed, checked, reviewed
  • Consider having a trusted reader go through it and give me some help in making the big decisions I’ve been dithering about.


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What I’ve read so far this year

March 31st, 2023Posted by Nancy

For whatever reason, the first 3 months of 2023 have been the months of reading non-fiction, though a couple of memorable novels did end up on my ereader.


Below the Edge of Darkness, Edith Widder. Another fascinating book about life in the ocean, this one focusing on creatures that inhabit the zone between light and dark.

1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed, Eric Cline. A great summary of the Bronze Age collapse.

Mastering the Process, From Idea to Novel, Elizabeth George. George breaks down the process of writing one of her mystery novels. I found some of the exercises very helpful and was also heartened by the fact that she doesn’t always know who the murderer is when she starts.

Kiki Man Ray: Art, Love, and Rivalry in 1920s Paris, Mark Braude. More grist for the Glass World mill.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger. Finally got around to reading this classic book about art and meanings.

Meander, Spiral, Explode, Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison. I’m definitely open to alternatives to the classic three-act story structure, because I suck at doing that whole “inciting incident, rising action, climax” stuff. I’m not sure I have the ability to carry off some of these alternatives, but it did make me feel better.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Sy Montgomery. Lovely mix of personal experience and science fact.

The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, Richard White. I’d heard the author interviewed on a couple of podcasts and was very happy to finally be able to get this one from the library. It’s quite good but somewhat depressing.


The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler. Excellent SF book about intelligent octopuses and much more. Highly recommended.

In the Distance, Hernan Diaz. I didn’t love this as much as his more recent Trust but this tale of a Swedish immigrant on a picaresque journey through the American West in the 1800s reminded me how much history can be just as strange as fantasy.

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Second Draft Ready to Go

March 21st, 2023Posted by Nancy

I’ve now ignored the shitty first draft for about 2 months so it’s time to start the less shitty (let’s hope) second draft. I’m starting with some suggestions from Matt Bell’s book REFUSE TO BE DONE for my revision process – but I’m quite sure I’m going to draw the line at writing the book AGAIN. Because life is definitely too short at this stage to do that.

299 pages, baby!

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It was February. I did some things.

March 3rd, 2023Posted by Nancy

While the Witch Novel is marinating (i.e. I printed off all 299 pages but have not looked at them AT ALL), I’ve turned my attention to my other project, The Glass World Thing. This is the project that started as a fluffy modern romance, switched gears to become a historical fiction supernatural thing (possibly not exactly set in this world), meandered along for 35,000 words or so of vamping, and then stalled when I really had to figure out the plot.

So this month’s assignment was to figure out a much stronger skeleton for the plot, which I mostly did. I’ve also been doing some character work based on advice I read in MASTERING THE PROCESS by mystery writer Elizabeth George. I’ve followed George every since her first novel A GREAT DELIVERANCE came out. I haven’t loved every book, but she’s consistently interesting and takes risks, so I was curious about what she had to say.

In the book, she takes one of her novels (CARELESS IN RED) and walks through all the steps of her process, which she has refined over the years. Not all of it is applicable to the kind of things I write, but I found her character analysis examples very interesting. She writes stream-of-consciousness, free form character profiles covering their history, appearance, likes and dislikes, with a special focus on their core need (the thing they need the most from the world and other people) and the pathological tactics they fall back on when they’re threatened or angry.

Somewhat to my own surprise, when I applied this technique to my two leads in the Glass World, I wrote pages of ideas before I even realized it. I’m feeling much more grounded in who these people are now. The challenge will be integrating this new knowledge into the process of actually rewriting parts of the novel over top of the work I’ve already done.

If you’re looking for a new book of writing advice (and let’s face it, what else do we do when we can’t actually write? Besides whine about it, of course), check out Elizabeth George’s book.

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