Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader

The Inner Life – E.M. Forster

May 25th, 2016
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inner life

A man does not talk to himself quite truly — not even to himself: the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceeds from causes that he cannot quite explain, because as soon as he raises them to the level of the explicable they lose their native quality.

The novelist has a real pull here. He can show the subconscious short-circuiting straight into action (the dramatist can do this too); he can also show it in its relation to soliloquy. He commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. “How did the writer know that?” it is sometimes said. “What’s his standpoint? He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from the limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.” Questions like this have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them.

EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel

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Book Review: The Last Innocent Man by Phillip Margolin

May 18th, 2016
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last innocent man
Criminal defense attorney David Nash is brilliant at getting his clients off. As we join the story, he has managed to clear the name of an author who he suspects may be a sociopathic killer. As he begins some soul-searching about whether he wants to stay in this business, a case falls in his lap. A fellow attorney, Larry Stafford, has been accused of a brutal rape and murder. At last, David believes he may be defending an innocent man. After his client is found guilty, David spirals into an alcohol-driven pity party.

There is the requisite love triangle, heavy foreshadowing, and the inevitable stand-off in which our hero is almost killed. And this is the biggest problem with this book. It follows the formula that many thrillers, legal or otherwise, followed back in the 1980s.

Don’t read this book because you’re looking for great literature, but if you want a fast read by a competent writer,this will do. I found my copy at Goodwill. For a quarter, it didn’t lead me astray.

The book was made into a movie with Ed Harris as David Nash and David Suchet (of Poirot fame) as the villain, Jonathan Gault. I haven’t seen it, but the idea of Suchet as a villain is really appealing to me. Here’s what I found on YouTube about it.

This is lovely, too. Jean McRobbie (91 years), resident of Madison Care Centre, Coquitlam, BC, gives a book review of The Last Innocent Man by Phillip Margolin to Teresa Rehman, Community Services and Outreach Librarian, Coquitlam Public Library

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Building the Future

May 10th, 2016
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sci fi

People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it.

Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same.

To hell with more. I want better.
Ray Bradbury

Beyond 1984: The People Machines (1979)

Thanks to Tom Simpson on Flickr for the awesome picture.

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Book Review: The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao

May 3rd, 2016
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The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao is a book about a boy with the unfortunate name of  Murgatroyd Floyd.

Murgatroyd is a happy little chap, despite the fact that his parents are horrible people. He has no bed or hot water in his bedroom/bath because his parents have told him it would be too expensive.

They rarely pay any attention to him, unless it is to dress him in unusual garb or give him a hair cut that is even more unfortunate than his name.

Despite their cruelties, Murgatroyd loves his parents. He gets up early and fixes them breakfast every morning before he goes off to school. Of course, you would too if your mother cooked like Murgatroyd’s:

She was always making silly mistakes when it came to preparing her son’s food—mistakes that anybody could have made, really. Like sprinkling chilli powder instead of cinnamon into his birthday cake batter every year, or accidentally spreading crushed cockroaches instead of tuna onto his tuna sandwiches.

Poor Murgatroyd! He has a friend from school, one who is as self-absorbed as Murgatroyd’s parents, if not nearly as evil. And for a time, he has a friend at an ice cream shop who tells him that one day something wonderful is going to happen for him. It is unfortunate when this one true friend disappears one day without telling Murgatroyd any more about his promise.

Murgatroyd grows up, still inexplicably happy despite his parents and only friend. He has found a job and is actually starting to fit into his world when a strange woman appears. She tells Murgatroyd about something called the More Known World, dimensions of our world that normal people can’t see, but that people like him – OddFits – can travel through. He is invited to join the other OddFits on their adventure.

This is a delightfully odd book that is just the beginning of a great adventure. I am anxiously awaiting the sequel to The Oddfits by Tiffany Tsao.


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Competition Time, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toastmasters Contest

April 26th, 2016
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It’s that time in the Toastmasters year when an old woman’s thoughts turn to the International Speech Contest. I thought I would do a short retrospective on how competing has changed for me over time.

I started in Toastmasters in May of 2004. My first contest was a club evaluation contest that I was drafted into before I really understood how Toastmasters do evaluations – 85% encouragement / 15% gentle suggestions for improvement. I can’t even begin to tell you how embarrassed I am when I think back to that contest evaluation wherein I listed everything – yes, everything – the speaker had done wrong, included a detailed recitation on grammar, proper pronunciation, and my general disagreement with the topic of the speech. I can’t remember that I said anything positive.

The worst part is that I didn’t even know how awful that was for several years because my club never assigned me a mentor, and no club member took me aside to tell me. They made me figure it out by myself and then feel ashamed at how stupid I’d been.


Lesson 1: Don’t pick a club based on your emotional response to the nice people there. Don’t pick a club based on them being President’s Distinguished every year. Ask questions about the things that are really important to your growth and development, like do you have an active mentoring program? Who are the people who would be available to mentor me? Can I interview them before I join?

My second competition was in the International Speech Contest at that same club. Again, I was voluntold I was going to be competing, and quite honestly, I didn’t want to compete. No one at that club told me about the huge benefits I could reap from competing. I wrote a speech titled The Quantum Mechanics of Forgiveness that quite honestly would only appeal to fans of Star Trek and/or people who understand Quantum Mechanics. I confused over half the audience, lost the contest, and considered the outing a complete success.

Once again, no one at that club took me aside to tell me why I was a complete idiot to throw away a chance to become a much better speaker through the competition process.


Lesson 2: A good Toastmasters club is a fun way to spend a couple hours every week. A great Toastmasters club has members and officers that explain the benefits of the Toastmasters world outside the club and how you can participate to accelerate your personal growth.

At this point in my Toastmasters career, I became an Area Governor which put me on the other side of the contests. Instead of being in them, I was running them. Thanks to this experience, I had the AHA! moment when I finally figured out why contests are such an integral part of the Toastmasters experience if you are really dedicated to honing your skills as a speaker. I ran contests, judged contests, acted at a functionary at contests, and attended contests until I was so excited about contests that I absolutely could not wait for my year of service to be done so that I could compete in contests. I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy my year as Area Governor very much, but I credit it for most of the growth I’ve experienced and am continuing to experience in Toastmasters.


Lesson 3: When you step outside the club, you may not learn what you expected to learn, but you will most certainly learn many valuable things. Be open to it all.

My first competition after finishing up as AG was a humorous speech contest. I had started a new job and had what I thought was a great speech about mutinous telephone systems. My club thought I was the funniest speaker they’d ever heard. I went to the area contest believing that no one could beat me. Only 3 people from my club showed up. I couldn’t buy a laugh. At first I thought it was the audience, but they laughed like crazy for the next gal up. I took second, and felt like the world’s biggest loser. I went out of the contest telling myself that I was funny and no one ever wanted to hear anything I said.

Lesson 4: You aren’t going to win all the contests, and that’s OK. Stop overreacting, silly girl! You’ll learn a lot when you lose, especially if you’re paying attention to what the other people are doing.

The next couple of contests were International Speech Contests, and while I managed to win at area, I didn’t do well at division. Looking back, these were critical contests for me. I managed to avoid taking the losses personally and focused instead on learning how to write a speech and compete effectively. It was during this time that I joined a different club that places an emphasis on mentoring. The people there helped me overcome my fear of the humorous speech contest, so I took another shot at it. I got so many laughs at the area level that I DQ’d for time, which restored my believe in my Inner Funny Girl. The final thing that happened during this stage of my growth is that I made it to the district stage in the evaluation contest. There I had a microphone malfunction. Despite failing to place, I’d gotten a taste of the big stage, and I knew I had to keep working to get there again.


Lesson 5: Regardless of the outcome in any individual contest, keep going. People will share information and encouragement as they see that you are serious about bettering yourself as a speaker and competitor. If you’re not in it, you won’t ever have that available to you.

In 2012 I won the District 3 International Speech contest and went on to represent the District at the International Convention in Orlando. I had mentoring in how to dress and how to do make up. The experience in Orlando was fantastic, and I wanted to go again. One of the things that I learned is that District 3 is more competitive than many other districts, so I knew it would be a tough road. The following 2 years, I lost at Area and Division.  I fought the temptation to give up, even though I was challenged to go after the position of Chief Judge for the District. The stage is where I challenge myself to grow, so it’s to the stage I must return.

Lesson 6: Go where the learning is, even if that means disappointment after disappointment.

Last year I wrote what I believed was my best speech ever. I won my club contest, but just over a week before the area contest, I broke my shoulder. Here’s the crazy thing: I talked myself into believing that I could still compete. I could barely dress myself, but I thought I could win contests. Let’s just say I was on some pretty good pain pills. A couple days before the contest I came to my senses and bowed out.


Lesson 7: Health is more important than anything, including a Toastmasters contest. Don’t be crazy.

I’m in the midst of the competition for this year. I’ve got a speech that is so good that I don’t even remember why I was so excited about last year’s. I’ve won the club, the area, and the division. I’ll speak on the big stage again at District in May. I want to share with you what winning means to me.

First, I always set personal goals for the performance. I watch and listen to the recording of the previous performance of the speech, and set out to improve specific sections of it. If I walk off stage knowing that I have met my personal goals, I am a winner. This is the only criteria that is under my control. That’s why it is the first, and most important criteria I set for winning.

Second, one of my motivations for speaking in the International Speech Contest is that I like to serve my audience. If someone comes up to me after the contest to tell me that the speech touched them, made them think differently about their life, or inspired them to change, then I’m a winner.  While I can’t control this, if it doesn’t happen, it tells me that I have lost focus. That sends me back to do some rewriting.

Finally, I do like to win so that I have the opportunity to move on to the next level. This is the least important of the criteria, no matter how much I enjoy it. Judges are one of the great mysteries of the competition world. What one set of judges loves, another set hates. It’s impossible to predict what judges are going to do on any given day. Therefore, I don’t speak to impress the judges; I speak to serve the audience.

Are you competing for something? What are you learning from the experience?

Thanks to hobvias sudoneighm on Flickr for the DOH picture.
Thanks to Karol Franks on Flickr for the AHA picture.


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Why We Do Rituals

April 22nd, 2016
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This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down.

We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.

Elizabeth GilbertEat, Pray, Love

Photo Credit: Vincent F on Flickr
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Book Review: The Shell Collector by Hugh Howey

April 19th, 2016
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I haven’t made a big secret of my admiration for Hugh Howey’s writing. I was really excited about digging into the book, despite very mixed reviews on GoodReads and Amazon.

This story is set in a world where global warming has impacted the oceans enough that shells no longer wash up on beaches. Collectors go to extremes to find diving areas where they can harvest the treasured shells.

Journalist Maya Walsh has been writing about shells in the Times for years. A federal agency asks her to investigate oil magnate, Ness Wilde. Wilde’s family has been drilling in and polluting the oceans for generations, but Walsh hesitates until she is shown a perfect shell specimen obtained by someone who works for Wilde.

She goes to interview Wilde at his beachfront mansion and finds herself falling in love with him, all while becoming more and more suspicious about the source of the perfect shells.

“Shelling is like relationships,” Ness says. He turns away from me and scans the beach, makes an adjustment with the wheel. “I can see that.” He nods to himself. “Yeah, I can totally see that.”

This is more literature than the genre fiction that Howey’s fans have come to love. I think this is the source of the disappointment some reviewers express. But isn’t this what John Grisham did? He moved from writing awesome legal thrillers into writing literature. And isn’t this what a good writer should do? Stretch into new endeavors, build the creativity muscles.

But then I realize that no journey is ever truly the same the second time around. What felt interminable the first time now passes with a quickness borne of familiarity. It makes me wonder if life seems to accelerate as we get older simply because our days and our experiences become routine. The things we recognize flash right by, where once they held our attention. Only the new bears careful contemplation, and the new gets harder and harder to come by.

I would argue that Howey, however literature-y this may feel to some, is still writing science fiction. While the characters feel contemporary, the setting is definitely futuristic. Howey has given us a look at how he believes global warming is going to manifest in the not too distant future.

Life has a way of being both more surreal and more predictable than readers can tolerate.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not flashy, but it’s solid writing. Howey transported me to a believable future inhabited by two complex protagonists who took me on a fascinating trip into shell collecting. Recommended!

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April 16th, 2016
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The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way.

Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.

To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one. ~ John Ruskin

Photo Credit: Eddi van W. on Flickr
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Book Review: Half Way Home by Hugh Howey

April 11th, 2016
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Hugh Howey’s Silo Trilogy were my favorite books in 2015. I couldn’t resist another title by Howey.

Earth is sending out terraforming colony ships full of vats of test tube humans. Each is being taught to fill a critical function in the new colony. The colony ship is programmed to self-destruct, along with all the humans, if it detects conditions that will doom the colony.

What would happen if the colony ship began the self-destruct sequence, but then interrupted it before all the humans died? This is where Half Way Home begins.

The world that Howey envisions in this book reminded me of some pulp sci fi stories I read in the 60s and 70s. It’s no where near as intricately developed as the world of the silos, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I enjoyed the trees and fruit that Howey created for his world.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the humans who start out united in a drive to survive quickly devolve into a Lord of the Flies scenario, but you will be surprised as to why the colony ship aborted the self-destruct sequence.

Not the solid 5 star performance of the Silo series, but a solid 4 star readthat made me nostalgic for some old-fashioned pulp sci fi.


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Liz Andra Shaw

Journey into the Creative Mind of a Writing Reader