Eight months ago, I published my debut series, The Chronicles of Aden Weaver. Since then I’ve been lying low, recuperating, resting, relocating my will to live. Once restored to my former glory, I assured myself I would be free to start a new story. Fresh fields, new pastures, unexplored horizons beckoned. So exciting. The possibilities endless. Who knew what I would write next? Let’s go!

Writing Woes (for the “pantser”) #1: The Blank Page.

I recall vividly the first morning I sat at my desk, lifted the pen and stared at the blank page. It wasn’t thrilling; it was mortifying. I sweated bullets for a full ten minutes, staring at the page until the lines blurred. There were no words spilling out, no inspiration flowing forth like a fountain. It was sheer torture squeezing one or two words on the page.

I thought, you’re not a writer, you’re an imposter. Had I lost the ability to write? I have always believed myself a storyteller, a writer, ever since I was a little girl. Without my stories, who am I? Writer’s block sucks.

Writing Woes #2: The Free Fall.

Lucky for me I remembered the writing course I had taken with Tiffany Lawson, in 2012, “Method to Madness.”* Tiffany had taught us the benefit of starting each creative writing session with a deep relaxation technique, designed along similar lines as the ones used by method actors to get into character. From then on, I began every writing session with relaxation exercises. I eked out a few more words. What a relief to be writing again, but even that was scary.

Once I was underway, writing a few pages every day, I reached another treacherous stage of writing new copy—the sickening feeling of free-fall when you are literally writing into the void. Of this nerve-rattling process, the greats have said many astute things, including Ray Bradbury, who advised to writers to ‘jump,’ saying their wings would unfold as they fell. Gulp! Easier said than done.

Writing Woes #3: The Trust Game.

Marilynne Robinson is a pantser like I am (we write “by the seats of our pants”), and she once described her method as ‘sitting down with a blank page and a pen, discovering her way to that page’s end.’ In the same way, I try to figure out the characters as much as possible beforehand, then treat writing as an expedition to parts unknown. But just as with any exploration, the process requires extraordinary faith.

For this sort of writing, trust is paramount and courage required by the bucket load. A pantser can pour months even years into a story on the barest whiff of hope that in the end all the disparate parts of the story will come together and eventually make sense.

Writing Woes #4: The Restraint Game

When any author starts a new book, everyone wants to know more. Friends and family pester for the details. Everyone surrounding the author seeks reassurance the creative madcap in their midst is actually working on a story and not doing what Jack Nicholson’s character did in The Shining. I’m constantly prodded for details by well-meaning loved ones. But what the bystanders don’t realize is that it’s dangerous to talk about a new story in the fledgling stages.

I have learned it is unwise to broadcast material while it is still green. Questions get asked, things get said that can’t be unsaid. Gossip has a scattering effect, like picking apart the very fabric of the imagination. As an author who started out talking too much about her books, only to have the energy for them dissipate, I have learned the hard way that silence is golden. So far I have side-stepped and avoided hard-line questioning from everyone, including my best friends and publicist about the new story. I’ll reveal no details until the rough draft is in the bag.

If in doubt, just remember this one rule, never, never, never talk about your story before you’ve finished writing it. Loose lips sink ships!

Duly refreshed as to the terrors involved in writing fiction, I have had to remind myself again, why do I do this job? There are far easier ways of making a living… easy, cushy, boring ways of making a living.

Nah! Give me the terrifying roller coaster of the creative life any day.

Call me crazy, but I still love writing fiction.

How about you? Do you love what you do?

Keep Creating!

Yvette Carol

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“Nothing in the whole world felt as good as being able to make something from a sudden idea.”―Beverly Cleary.

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*This course is no longer available, but check out the other courses on offer at https://www.margielawson.com/lawson-writers-academy/

Subscribe to my newsletter by emailing me with “Newsletter Subscription” in the subject line to yvettecarol@hotmail.com 

It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organisers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

The May 5th question, if you’d like to answer it, is: Has any of your readers ever responded to your writing in a way that you didn’t expect? If so, did it surprise you?

They say you should be careful what you wish for. For the last thirty-five years of writing for children, I’ve longed to get a book into Magpies Magazine, the prestigious children’s literature magazine for New Zealand and Australia. To my surprise and delight, I finally got in this year. A well-known Kiwi writer had read and reviewed my first book, The Or’in of Tane. Woohoo. The only problem was he gave a critical review. Dagnabit. I read the skewering with a sinking heart. Then I did a bit of pacing the hallway, truth be told. I had to talk to someone and as I was on my own in the house; I talked to myself.

While it might be true I myself write negative book reviews sometimes, I try to only ever criticize the superstars who can take a pipsqueak like me, or those writers long gone.

I kept going over the different criticisms the reviewer had made and testing them to see if they were correct. Being the respected and amazing author he is, I had to assume he was being fair. For a moment I felt badly about the series I had poured heart and soul into for the last 15 years of my life.

Thankfully I recovered enough to realize the reviewer had been harsh. He focused a stone-cold sober eye on my fantasy world and picked out ‘problems with scale’ and such, questioning ‘how insects could fly a plane’ and so on. This high power magnifying glass sort of stuff doesn’t hold up too well when you point it at any epic fantasy, because fantasy will never stack up to reality. It’s like asking how did rat and mole from The Wind in the Willows light a fire and make food on stoves in their homes? That would have been impossible for a rat and a mole, and so on.

Feeling perturbed, I turned to my publicist, Karen, for advice, and her response was so wise and experienced I thought I should share it here for the benefit of everyone else.

Karen replied, ‘Unfortunately, this review thing is just part and parcel of being a writer. Of course, it is wonderful when you get a glowing review—which you have had! But it is always a kick in the guts when people say anything remotely negative. But let nothing derail from your vision and your voice! Just remind yourself that it’s all very subjective and if you get an adverse comment, it doesn’t mean it is actually true! Usually it means it just wasn’t their cup of tea, or you got a reviewer who was nitpicking and not reading in the book’s spirit.

You must move on!

Karen and I, seated at the far end of the table

And as an author myself, I know all about the emotional ups and downs. I think it’s about building some resilience so you can come to shrug off anything that might get you off track, but it takes a little time. As you write more books, sell more copies, get more great reviews, your confidence will grow. So hang in there—you are clearly a natural writer, this is something you should do, and I’m sure you will look back in years to come having had much success! It just takes time!’

I was so grateful for these sage words of advice. Thank you, Karen! Moving on.

Last year I took part in an Indie Book event with my Chronicles of Aden Weaver series and talked with other authors. I remember one lady saying, ‘even a critical review is a good review.’ I hope that’s true. All I know is I can’t go back. I’ve done the best I can to this point and shall continue to do so. Not everyone is going to love my books! Now it must be time to get on and write the next one.

Writing is the cure. Do you agree?

Keep Reading!

Yvette Carol

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Remember that moment in time when writing was a joy, and we were excited and ready to take on the world. ~  Alex J. Cavanaugh, IWSG Leader and Ninja

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I’ve finished reading my eighth novel for 2021, I Was a Rat! … or The Scarlet Slippers, by Philip Pullman. This book is one of the author’s shorter works for children which ‘for want of a better term’ he called fairy tales. Although Pullman found these shorter stories very enjoyable, he also admits to finding them ‘immensely difficult to write.’ I’m not surprised, as his books are typically dense with meaning. I was a Rat is multi dimensional with astute observation of people at its core. This small book is such a tidy mouthful I finished it in one sitting. Yet the ripples set in motion by the pebble in the pond continued long afterward. It’s one to get you thinking.

A young boy turns up one night on the doorstep of Bob the cobbler and his wife, Joan, a couple who had always longed for a child. The boy, whom they name Roger, insists he used to be a rat. The couple give him shelter and food. Roger is earnest and confused, unsure how to act like a boy, but every day the couple teach him patiently and Roger tries his best to learn. Bob and Joan go to the police, the hospital, and an orphanage, trying to find a place for Roger, but no one wants him. The old couple next try sending the boy to school, but Roger is not quite tame enough and runs afoul of the teacher. One mishap after another befall poor Roger, who by now is becoming infamous in the village and beyond, as a freak.

Along with the unfolding drama, we get regular updates on the front page of the local newspaper, The Daily Scourge, and the articles continue to pop up throughout the book. Though published in 1999, I Was a Rat is an unblinking meditation on the power of the press (social media) today.

As the innocent Roger becomes demonized by the newspapers, and the public opinion builds around the negative imagery provided, Roger becomes popularly regarded as a monster and they line him up for the death penalty. This reveals the ugly side of the press, bearing parallels with today’s social media trolls and the gang-banging that often happens around those poor souls who fall foul of popular opinion and have the misfortune to become blacklisted. Mob mentality is an almost too real a theme. Yet, the book never really gets bogged down in worthiness or making a point. I Was a Rat can still make us laugh and be funny.

As the story unfolds, we get the twist, the key to understanding our boy who says he was a rat. And we realize how imaginative this tale truly is, being in fact, the follow up to a world famous fairy tale, giving us an alternative view. The story premise is not only intelligent, it’s different. One feels as if the author took a leap out of the box and it paid off.

Philip Pullman was born in England in 1946. A teacher most of his life, he is also the author of twenty books for children. He is best known for the trilogy His Dark Materials, beginning with Northern Lights in 1995, continuing with The Subtle Knife in 1997, and concluding with The Amber Spyglass in 2000. His books have earned Pullman the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children’s Book Award, and they gave him the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (the first time in the prize’s history that they gave it to a children’s book). Pullman was the 2002 recipient of the Eleanor Farjeon Award for children’s literature. And in 2005 he won the Astrid Lindgren Award.

Reading I was a Rat was a curious experience for me. While I wasn’t sure what was happening, the quality of the writing sucked me in and kept me turning the pages, anyway. Packed into the light volume are many levels of meaning. It’s one of those books where it is possible to enjoy it at face value and also plumb the depths for more meaning. I loved the subtle morality. “See, I don’t think it’s what you ARE that matters. I think it’s what you DO.” We learn not to “… go by surface appearances. It was what lay underneath that mattered.” In I Was a Rat, Pullman reminds us that, just as with his wonderful stories, beauty is more than skin deep.

My rating: Three and a half stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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In the pleasures that literature affords us, we may see immediately that tomorrow does not have to be like today. Such immediacy makes free. ~ Charles Hallisey

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I’ve finished reading my seventh novel for 2021, Immortal Guardians by Eliot Schrefer. This is book one in the second series of the popular Spirit Animals books for middle-grade readers, Fall of the Beasts. A different author wrote each book in both series, although Schrefer is a repeat offender, having contributed to the first series also, with book six, Rise and Fall. This time round he gets to kick off the sequel series and as a New York Times bestselling author, he seems a good bet.

In Erdas, each child in the kingdom must find out for themselves whether they will summon a spirit animal. This rare gift can happen to some children. Our heroes from the first series, Conor, Abeke, Meilin, and Rollan were lucky enough to summon the four “Great Beasts” as their spirit animals. “Great beasts” are immortal guardians who sacrificed everything to end a brutal war. In a strange development, some children summon the other Great Beasts—but then they are stolen! An evil force has interfered with the spirit animal bonds, to steal the Great Beasts and make them his own.

Quite dark, with the hideous Wyrm causing the Great Beasts to turn evil, and the Evertree dying, there is a pervading sense of hopelessness in this book which can be heavy going. I assume this was intentional, and a way of setting out the serious obstacles facing our heroes if they are to succeed and win the day by the time the second series concludes.

Eliot Schrefer does a good job of filling in the blanks for readers who are new to this series. He adds to the characters we love a little and introduces new characters to the fold. Set about six months after the last novel, Against the Tide, the next title, Immortal Guardians carries on the story. Right from the opening chapters, Schrefer does a superb job of drawing us into being invested. One child’s city gets destroyed. One child’s tribe disowns him, and the other summons one of the most feared of the Great Beasts. Scary!

Eliot Schrefer is an American author of many kids’ books, living in New York, and he reviews books for USA Today. A bestselling author nominated for many awards, they have translated his works into different languages. Recently, Schrefer joined the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson’s low residency MFA program, as well as the MFA in writing for children at Hamline University. You can find him on Twitter @EliotSchrefer.

Schrefer is competent, that is not in doubt. However, it has to be said I found the relentlessly dark nature of this story a drag. The dour side renders Immortal Guardians somehow a less satisfying read than the books in the first series. Is it because, as some critics asserted, the sequel series feels “unnecessary,” and was a case of “publishers attempting to drag out a dead series for money?” I don’t know.

Oprah would say, “What do you know for sure?”

The one thing I know for sure about this book is I gave it a low rating for its miserable excuse for an ending. The content was serviceable but I’m tempted to hold a rally and stage a protest AGAINST CLIFFHANGERS. I was romping through the last chapters, thinking wow this ending is going to be a doozy, and then suddenly it was all over. No wrap-ups, no answers, no twists, no resolutions, no lovely satisfaction of understanding, no being let off the hook, nothing.

The story ended like two fingers in the face. You thought you would get resonance? Ha! You thought you’d have the lovely relief of knowing how things turn out? More fool you! Read the next book if you dare. I walked around the house, railing against the authors these days who think they can get away with unrepentant cliffhangers. Let me tell you something, they went out with the dark ages for a reason. No one wants to read that! I was so hacked off. I’m against being held hostage by my reading material. And quirky whatnot that I am, I felt resistance at the idea of being sucked into reading another entire book that might not end at THE ENDING either. I felt burned, Spirit Animals. Close, but no cigar!

My rating: Two stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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Gimme an honest frown over a false smile any day. ~ Gregory David Roberts

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The weekend before last, I hosted my girlfriends here for a garden tour and a picnic lunch. What I needed was a dessert that could do double duty as a delectable after lunch treat and a take home treat for my guests. Cookies, or “biscuits” as we call them down here in New Zealand, seemed the perfect answer.

Whenever the occasion calls for cookies, I always go to my favourite ever treat, my legendary chocolate walnut cookies. It’s a dreamy dessert I concocted years ago when I got sick of making plain vanilla biscuits. I’m a big fan of adding nuts to baking. When I first devised this recipe, which is basically a richer version of a chocolate chip, I used macadamia nuts to contrast with the brown of the chocolate. But in the interests of making them more affordable, I changed to walnuts with some pecans thrown in for a variety of taste and texture.

Ingredients List:

125 g butter

¾ cup Demerara sugar

1 tsp vanilla essence or extract

1 large egg

1 cup walnuts and pecans, roughly chopped

Kingsize block or 125 g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

2 cups organic white stone-ground unbleached flour

1 tsp baking powder (organic if you can get it)

Solid pinch of Himalayan salt

Here’s how to make your cookies:

Cream together butter and sugar until lighter and texture. Add egg beating well. Add a generous pinch of salt. Sift flour and baking together, mix into butter and sugar mixture. Add chocolate and nuts, mix to combine.

Form into small balls, setting them out on an oven tray. Flatten slightly with a fork.

Bake at 190 degrees Celsius for 12 minutes.

I made these cookies the day before the garden tour. Once they had cooled fully, I filled the cookie jar for our table at lunch. Then I packaged two to three cookies into each small cellophane bag. These I popped these into my plain brown paper bags.

I added a fresh sprig of bay leaves from our amazing bay leaf tree to each bag. And then I could send each guest home at the end of our lovely day together, with cookies and fresh bay leaves. Everybody loved it. People like a slight gesture and it makes them feel special. Mission accomplished.

Enjoy!

If you try them, let me know what you think…

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom. ~ Thomas Carlyle

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 Subscribe to my newsletter by emailing me with “Newsletter Subscription” in the subject line to yvettecarol@hotmail.com 

It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. Every month, the organisers announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG Day post. Remember, the question is optional!!! Let’s rock the neurotic writing world! Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

April 7th’s question, if you’d like to answer it, is: Are you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?

No, I’m averse to risk. Although I write middle grade fantasy, which is different and “other,” I still find it hard to stray outside of accepted styles. Maybe it’s because I still feel like a beginner, a novice at all this. Imposter Syndrome, anyone? Someone said once that the truly popular authors are the ones who have the most guts. I believe this to be true.

Take a great like Lemony Snicket, for instance. Snicket writes crazy books no sweaty beginner could ever hope to get away with, but he’s so bold and brassy, he gets away with it. Not only that, he’s a bestselling author getting sales other authors could only dream of. Balls of steel, that’s what an author needs to succeed in this business.

Look at David Walliams. I know, I know; he got a foot in the door of a publishing house because of his fame as a comedian, but his many books have gained him a whole new fan base following with good reason. My son and I just finished reading Walliams’ latest release, Codename Bananas, which my son received for Christmas. This guy’s fiction is so out there, it’s almost verging on mythology, but when the impossible things happen, it’s penned with such panache and aplomb you’re ready to forgive him anything, as long as he keeps telling the story. I’m reading a book by the fabled Carlos Fuentes at the moment (Constancia and other stories for Virgins), and this book is so off the wall, so bizarre, that it turns into art. That’s what these brave writers do by being innovators.

When I read books by authors such as these, I realize that an excellent storyteller will keep the audience coming back for more. The best storytellers don’t care about tradition, or the accepted mores, they kick sand in the face of the rules. They write stories from a more pure place, that of gut instinct. They write whatever they want to write. End of. That’s the sort of writing bravado I long for because I imagine that is the greatest freedom like being a kid again.

In October of last year I released a trilogy, The Chronicles of Aden Weaver, a set of books I’d been working on for fifteen years. Since I finished the series, I’ve struggled to relinquish the world I’d created and the characters I loved. It took a long time to let go. Then I tried to start a new book. I’ve been doing some free writing exercises each weekend, trying to loosen up the writing muscles, but I have felt stymied, stifled, stuck. The needle simply hasn’t moved.

It felt like a turning point when I came across a rather triumphant, sassy little blog post this week called Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney on First Drafts and Battling Writer’s Block. I really needed to hear her sage advice, “write the first draft for yourself.” Because I think that’s where I’ve been going wrong the last few months. When I wrote The Chronicles of Aden Weaver, I was an unpublished writer, I wrote fiction as an escape route for a harassed mother of two boys under the age of five. This time round I’m a published author and I’m thinking of genre, age group, who might read it and what they might be interested in reading–a total buzz killer. When I read “write the first draft for yourself” I thought that’s what I need to do! The goal is to write all the drafts for myself, to have the courage to totally and utterly back myself and my own creative choices, whether they fly in the face of the rules or not, just like the greats do. Yeeha!

Do you try new things?

Keep Creating!

Yvette Carol

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The process of writing—for me and for almost every writer I know—is some combination of fast, slow and excruciating. ~ Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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I’ve finished reading my sixth novel for 2021, Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. Sad news obviously prompted my choice: the exceptional children’s author, Beverly Cleary, died last week at 104. She still had the look of youth about her. Beverly famously said that whereas other children’s authors sometimes struggled to write from the child’s point of view, she somehow found it easy to recall exactly how it was to be a child. Of her style and genre, Beverly said that as a child growing up she’d wanted to read about other kids like her, ordinary kids and their everyday lives. And because she understood her audience so completely, her stories–about kids like you and me–were incredibly popular with children.

It was the Ramona Quimby books that were the most popular, however I didn’t read Beverly’s stories as a child. I discovered the author because my older sisters, whom I admired and adored, had a small book among the other bigger tomes in their bookcase called Fifteen, by Beverly Cleary. Even as a kid, I thought, how cool to read about a person your age when you are that exact age. So I decided I would save stealing it from the bookshelf until I turned fifteen. And that’s what I did. When I finally turned that magical lovely age, I snuck the slim volume from their shelf. I remember relishing every page. Beverly’s free ability to capture that youthful viewpoint was a gift. She gave me a sweet moment in my youth I’ll always remember.

The book itself especially to me now as an adult reader seems like fast food. You can swallow it in one bite, yet it is so wonderfully delicious. Fifteen is a peek-a-boo window into the 1950s. Published in 1958, it was the era when my parents were young, when girls wore dresses and full skirts to formals or dances, walked to school, and sat in malt shops to drink soda. It’s like entering a time machine to read it now, and something tells me this innocent tale of young love would be a total yawn fest to the modern fifteen-year-old, although possibly still easily consumed by the 9–10-year-old crowds.

The coming-of-age story is about fifteen-year-old Jane Purdy, an average girl with a babysitting job and how she meets the dreamy Stan Crandell, who has a tan, green eyes, brown hair with a dip in it, and a genuine smile. Stan might deliver horsemeat, but he rescues our damsel in distress at the outset and proves himself to be just as nice throughout the story. Jane has never had a boyfriend before. She is the picture of flustered youth. Her awkwardness reaches into the heart of any girl and Beverly renders the angst truthfully and winningly.

While some aspects of Fifteen seem dated now, the themes persist today, underlying this story of a crush, is the story of a young person trying to fit in. Jane looks up to the most popular girl in school and tells a few fibs as she tries to be like her before Jane figures out that Stan likes who she is and wants her to be herself. Aw!

I love that there is this wonderful sense of place in this story. I can clearly remember my fifteen-year-old self feeling as if I were in the Purdy’s comfortable family home or in the quiet house with Jane when she was babysitting and her charge was finally asleep.

An admirable talent, Beverly Cleary was born in McMinnville, Oregon. Her books have earned her many prestigious awards, including the 1984 John Newbery Medal for Dear Mr. Henshaw. They have published her books in twenty-nine languages and her characters, including Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse, Ribsy, Socks, as well as Beezus and Ramona Quimby, have delighted generations of children.

They celebrated Beverly Cleary’s one hundredth birthday in 2016, by reissuing three of her books with forewords by Judy Blume, Amy Poehler, and Kate DiCamillo. In 2017, they reissued the Henry Huggins books with forewords by Tony DiTerlizzi, Marla Frazee, Tom Angleberger, Jeff Kinney, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and Cece Bell.

I love Beverly Cleary’s writing. I think it is because she was a luminary in relating what my writing teacher would call ‘the minutiae’ of family life and social life. She was relatable, her stories truthful, pure. What a legacy she has left the world. Beverly Cleary, you will be missed.

My rating: Five stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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“I don’t think anything takes the place of reading.” ~ Beverly Cleary

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I’ve finished reading my fifth novel for 2021, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Though I’d heard of this classic tale over the years, I’d somehow avoided reading it until now. Juster’s first novel made its debut in 1961 to great acclaim, transforming his career overnight. The book became a bestseller, and they turned it into an opera, a theatre production and a movie.

Born in 1929, in New York to Jewish migrant parents, Norton Juster served in the navy and trained as an architect. In 1960, he began working on The Phantom Tollbooth with cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, drawing inspiration from a wide range of children’s classics including The Wind in the Willows and the comedy of the Marx brothers.

The book sold millions of copies around the world, but the humble Juster downplayed his success. The author of twelve books, he continued to work as an architect in the firm he co-founded, and he taught as a professor of architecture at Hampshire College until 1992. He retired from teaching, yet he never gave up writing children’s books. His book The Hello, Goodbye Window garnered the Caldecott Medal for the illustrator Chris Raschka in 2005.

Juster is best known for The Phantom Tollbooth. The book has an intriguing title. I have to say; I read with great curiosity. While at heart this is a simple story, the tale of a bored child who discovers the phantom tollbooth one day and drives his toy car through, finding himself magically transported to the Land Beyond. As the pell-mell sequence of adventures takes place, we realize that what was simple is actually multi-layered and complicated. This is a book about the power of words.

I wondered whether children were smarter in the 60s because today’s generation of kids might struggle to get the in-jokes and comprehend the word games. In fact, in a lot of ways, The Phantom Tollbooth didn’t seem like a children’s book at all. It was too full of paradoxes and the poetry of raw truth.… you can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and still come out completely dry. Most people do. Yet I guess that’s what is clever about The Phantom Tollbooth is that you could read it as a scholar mining layers of subtext or read it as an innocent child and see a tale of non-stop adventure, also known as a picaresque.

After Milo enters the Land Beyond, he quickly learns that the inhabitants have a pressing problem. The two main kingdoms, Dictionpolis and Digitopolis, are at odds with each other. In Dictionpolis, King Azaz believes words are most important. A Mathemagician who believes numbers are most important rules Digitopolis. The conflict between the kingdoms has worsened because of the disappearance of their princesses, Rhyme and Reason. Milo heads out on a quest with the watchdog and a bug, to rescue the princesses and restore harmony to the Land Beyond.

That’s the story, a paint-by-numbers set up, with picaresque content that focuses on extensive wordplay. I will admit reading this book sorely taxed my poor little brain, which needed to stop for a lie down repeatedly. All the cleverness played with my head, confusing me. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the experience.

“One of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are.”

Although several times the prose made me weep with admiration.

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Reading this classic tome was quite the ride. I found the reading a chore.

“You had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.”

The tricky mind work with the wordplay often became too much. When I’m reading, I don’t want to have to work that hard. I had to take frequent breaks to imbibe other lighter books in between. While The Phantom Tollbooth was an impressive story, I found the intellectual exercise exhausting and grew tired of trying to figure out what Norton Juster was saying next. My eldest sister would love it. She’s the brain of the family, always up for cerebral exercise. I think she’d get a kick out of the brain calisthenics and probably re-read this book. Being of small brain, I grew tired of the weight-lifting. Once was enough. If it were a food, people would say it’s a gained taste, like avocado.

My rating: Two and a half stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself. ~ Groucho Marx

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The America’s Cup has been a fiercely contested yachting race since the schooner ‘America’ won a race around the Isle of Wight against the British boats in 1851. Shortly afterwards, the New York Yacht Club Commodore John Cox Stevens donated the hundred guinea cup to the New York Yacht Club, stating it was to be “a perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between nations.” Friendly and not-so friendly competition has carried on ever since, with New Zealand winning the “oldest trophy in international sport” yesterday for the fourth time. No one has yet beaten America’s original record, however, of winning the trophy for 132 years straight, the longest winning streak in the history of sport.

When a friend invited us on their launch last weekend to join the flotilla watching a day of the America’s Cup racing, I jumped at the chance. What an unprecedented opportunity to get a front-row seat on Match Day 3. The challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (ITA) would race against the defender: Emirates Team New Zealand (NZL).

On Saturday, another mutual friend collected me and my son, Samuel, from our house. We travelled to the marina in the city where we met everyone on the pier at one thirty in the afternoon. It was a happy gang of people, loaded down with beers, wine, food and swim gear who boarded the motor launch.

“Hold on,” said our esteemed captain, “once we get going, the water is seriously choppy out there because of the number of boats.”

He was not wrong. It amazed us to see thousands of boats on the harbour. As a result, we pitched about wildly. There was no point at which our boat levelled out. I was worried about Sam–he had to hold on to solid surfaces with two hands just to walk from one spot to another. I shouldn’t have worried. Sam took it all in stride. He donned his headphones and listened to the radio. He did some colouring in at one stage at the tiny table, and mostly he ate his way through the afternoon. The amiable ladies on board with us had brought cheeseboards, sushi, chips & dip, quiche and a fruit platter. They set it out on the table and kept encouraging Sam to eat more. So he did! Still, it kept him occupied.

“Look, there goes the Luna Rossa!” someone said. We glanced to our left. They restricted harbour traffic to five knots. So the lead boat towing the Italian yacht and the two police boats seemed to fly past us at lightning speed. Much farther to our right, Emirates Team New Zealand, was similarly being towed to Course Area A.

Our esteemed captain had a tough job navigating the teeming waters. Hundreds of boats flanked us or followed in our wake, while ahead lay two thick walls of boats stretched either side of the racecourse. Once we reached the sideline of Course A, we downed anchor and marvelled to see every imaginable water vehicle, from the floating palace with an H on the side, to three people astride a jet ski, to Little Toot, the tiniest tugboat you ever saw.

The luxury launches dotted everywhere sported beautiful young women sunbathing in bikinis on deck between swims. Young men jumped off the top decks, showing off, and meanwhile, more boats arrived, every minute jostling for space.

Two enormous launches crammed full of people did an impressive job of threading their way through the already crowded flotilla to reach their privileged spot at the front.

There was a shout, and we raced out of the cabin in time to see the NZ Air force fly overhead in formation. It was exciting. At that stage, at the start of the day, the Match had tied 2-2. We were all eager to see what would happen next, knowing if the Italians won too many of the races it would make it harder for us to win the cup.

Race 5 began at 4:15pm. We stood on the seat to look from the open sunroof as Luna Rossa won the race. The flotilla was silent. Race 6 began with all of us hanging off the bows and sterns, delighted when Emirates Team New Zealand won Race 6! The crowds aboard the surrounding flotilla waved NZ flags above their heads, jumping up and down and whooping. The volley of boat horns was deafening. This left the Match tied at 3-3. A glorious end to a glorious day, as my dad used to say. How lucky were we!

To see Emirates Team New Zealand win the 36th America’s Cup yesterday was the icing on the cake. Wonderful! Well done to them, and to the Luna Rossa team, who were gracious in defeat. Did you watch the race?

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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Looking forward to what you desire is the key to renewed hope. ~Simone Butler

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When I moved back to “the old homestead,” the house my father built in 1962, I had grand designs for a large vegetable garden. The plot would cover the whole right corner of this quarter acre section. It still hasn’t happened. I pictured it in that spot because growing up, I remember my parents tending vegetables there. They had rows of raised beds with a path down the middle. If mum and dad were not at work, they were tending the garden and they produced a lot of fruit and vegetables from this small property. I aspired to do the same.

That was before I had my two youngest boys. A sunken trampoline took up residence in my designated vegetable plot. Life became crazy busy and somehow eighteen years went by. Our only vegetable patch has been a narrow strip of earth in the front yard. And we spend a small fortune at the greengrocers every week. My two teenage boys eat enough fruit and vegetables each day for a small rhinoceros. I thought, I have to find a way of creating a vegetable patch. After some research and conversations with knowledgeable types, (friends and family members), I came up with a plan. I built my own raised bed and you can do it too.

Here’s how:

Start by choosing where the plot is going to be, and how you want it to look. It seems obvious, but if you’re not clear, you will waste valuable time later when the builder arrives. It will cost more and make the process a lot less enjoyable.

I chose an area close to the kitchen.

Measure the area so you know how much wood you’ll need. Research your timber, as most woods will need painting to help them resist water and soil. Some people line raised beds with thin rubber sheeting as well. *Tip: I ordered macrocarpa sleepers. They are more expensive than other timbers, but the macrocarpa doesn’t require painting or lining. The high resin content makes it resistant to rot, and being untreated with chemicals, the wood is not harmful for the vegetables. Originally I’d wanted the raised bed to be the height of two sleepers, but because my chosen wood was so expensive I made it the height of one sleeper instead. *Look for the native resinous timbers that are available in your area.

Next, dig out your patch of ground. Why dig? There are greeblies (official term) that live in the grass and upper topsoil that are harmful to vegetables. If you try to put your soil directly on top of your lawn, the vegetables will not thrive. You’ll need to dig down at least 5 -7 cm and remove the turfs. *Tip: Water the area of ground to be dug beforehand. It softens the soil and makes it easier to dig.

Take a rake and level the exposed soil. My chosen area was on a slope, so I levelled as best I could. Then hire someone to do the building if you can’t do it yourself so the structure will come together properly and stay straight.

Figure out how much soil you will need. *Tip: ask the builder. That’s what I did. I ordered a cubic metre of soil from a landscaping company, half a cubic metre of topsoil to give the bed density, and half a cubic metre of the lighter “garden mix” of composted soil. *Tip: topsoil will still have weeds in it, so it’s worth buying the expensive composted material for the top layer.

Lay the topsoil in the bed first then fill with the garden mixture soil heaping it up into a generous mound. *Tip: it needs to be extra high as it will settle with time.

Sprinkle handfuls of fertilizer (I used blood & bone) into the top layer of soil, mix it in with a garden fork, and then rake the surface smooth. Mix with compost if you have it.

Water the soil and cover the mound with bark mulch. The mulch keeps in moisture, deters birds, and it also retards the weeds.

Now, it’s time to plant the vegetables.

Last, but not least, you need to construct a netting tent to prevent birds from pecking your new plants out of the ground. The netting will act as a light frost cloth, protecting your plants from frost in the mornings, and do triple-duty, acting as a shade cloth to keep out some of the harsh sun.

I used sturdy bamboo stakes, bird netting, and twisty ties. It was easy to wedge the bamboo stakes into place with bricks in the corners and sides of the raised bed. Then I affixed the bird netting to the stakes using twisty ties.

What do you think?

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow. ~Audrey Hepburn

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