Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak

I cannot remember how I heard about Serafina and the Black Cloak, but it is billed as a New York Times Best Seller. I absolutely loved it. The author, Robert Beatty, does a remarkable job of sucking the reader in right from the beginning and filling his/her head with all sorts of questions to drive the reading. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough and I fully enjoyed the tale.

Serafina has been secretly living in the basement of the Biltmore Estate with her father, the Biltmore's maintenance man, for all twelve years of her life. Her father has instructed her to never be seen by the owners or guests and to never disclose her name. This is the first mystery I couldn't wait to unravel. Why must she hide from the light? Why can't she get to know other kids? Is he only fearful of losing his job, or is there more to her story?

When Serafina observes a man in a black cloak stealing away to the basement with a young girl, who later is declared missing, she knows that she must come out of hiding in order to help find the girl and identify and defeat the individual in the black cloak. Longing for a friend, and for someone who will believe what she saw, Serafina joins forces with Braeden Vanderbilt (nephew to the owners, whose own family was lost to him in a fire) to solve the mystery before more children are taken.

The pacing was perfect. It kept me reading and hoping for further answers. The revelation of the mystery behind Serafina was satisfying and entertaining. There was just enough historical information about the Biltmore Estate to be informative and interesting. I loved the characters of Serafina and Braeden. This would make a fun read-aloud for an upper elementary classroom in October because it has a shade of spooky and a mite of magic. If you are enticed by book trailers, this is an excellent trailer for the book:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: Wish I Could Be There

Another book I picked up off the free table for research for my novel, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, is a memoir/study on social phobias. The main character in my novel suffers from acute social phobia and extreme test anxiety. Her personality is the crux of the novel because she is called upon to take a test she feels she cannot possibly pass and the consequences of failure are no simple matter.

This book was an interesting look into the life of someone who struggles with agoraphobia. While my character doesn't necessarily have trouble with wide open spaces, I found many passages well worth my time as I attempt to flesh out this character in my novel. Allen Shawn clearly articulates how the body responds to the fear messages phobias send to the rest of the body and he provides plenty of rumination on what makes a person develop such phobias and how they can fight them. It was quite interesting to learn that Shawn is a twin, whose twin sister was sent away to an institution when Allen was eight, an event which no doubt led to many difficulties.

I found it rather intriguing that many of the things I had already written fell in line completely with his assessment of the situation. I have only had one major panic attack in my life (it happened at camp and I truly thought I was having a heart attack and that my two small children would awaken the next morning to find their mother dead on the floor ... then it passed and I survived and I realized the terror was fully physical and yet it came from somewhere in my dormant mind, since I was asleep at the time it struck). Yet, even without a thorough understanding of what it must be like to be a social phobic, I find it is not terribly difficult to step into this character's shoes.

If someone you love struggles with extreme anxiety issues, this might be a helpful book to read in order to more fully understand their perspective. Regardless of whether you know someone who has social phobias, this book allows you to step into someone else's life and live a day with the irrational terror such difficulties bring. It's not a book I would have gone out to purchase, but I'm just as glad that I stumbled upon it for free.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Wonderful Writer's Retreat

My husband scheduled workmen to come into the house to repaint our dining room and kitchen and replace some doors and trim in that area. This is right where I normally sit to write (although I have recently taken to working in Bryce's room because it is more isolated and I think better). Thankfully, my husband encouraged me to find a retreat center where I could go for a writing retreat. I thought about going to the place I visited several years ago, but remembered that they have no wifi or phone service in that remote location (and I often feel a need to look something up to support something I'm writing at the moment, like I found a wonderful list of names meaning wolf to use for the counselor and test administrator in my novel). Thus, I sought out a different place and happened upon this wonderful retreat center on Lake Bruce in upper Indiana.

Run by a family of wonderful Christians, the center is used for prayer retreats, marriage retreats, group retreats, and individual retreats. You have to place a request and be approved and I was thrilled to learn that my request was granted. There was another group of nine college students there (for less than twenty four hours of my stay) when I arrived, but they were quiet and remained in their side of the house. I was placed in the Francis Schaeffer suite, complete with two bedrooms with queen beds, a sitting room, and a kitchenette.

(these first three photos were taken from the retreat center website at Mahseh Ministries, where there are loads of photos that fully reflect the beauty of the house and grounds - I'm not capable of providing such quality photography, nor did I have access to a boat to take the lovely shot from the water - ha)

I had a lovely view from my balcony:

Once I had the house to myself, I tended to work at a desk in the hallway with four windows overlooking the lake (again, the photo is mine, so the quality is meager):
There was a tremendous library in the basement (along with access to a DVD player and television equipment, but I left those alone, choosing to focus entirely on my writing and on some supportive reading - these are again photos from the website):

There was a beautiful view of the water from the basement (my photos):

I brought simple foods to prepare so that I wouldn't need to leave the retreat center at all and could focus entirely on my writing. Alas, upon arrival, I realized that I had forgotten the cord to my laptop at home. Thus, I had to take a trip over to Rochester, Indiana, to visit a Walmart and pick up a universal laptop cord (not cheap - expensive mistake).

But, I was indeed able to focus on my writing for the most part and managed to spit out another 21,769 words during the time I was there from Monday afternoon through Thursday morning. This brought me up and over the Nanowrimo goal of 50 thousand words, but much of the novel still needs to be completed. I was feeling stuck when I left, because the main character needs to do something bold and sacrificial and I had no vision for what that was, but a walk at the track this morning has given me a bit of an idea (although I don't know that it is sufficient or what I'm really looking for).

All in all, it was a very productive yet relaxing time. The owners were very gracious and even invited me for dinner one night (I declined, preferring to hole up in my suite writing away). I'm so grateful this opportunity came together for me. It was a God thing, to be sure!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: The Human Blueprint

There are libraries in two separate nearby communities, thus even though I cannot borrow a book from a library in my own town, I have access to two different libraries within a twenty minute drive from my house. Usually I only go to the farther one when I am travelling there to do some shopping. The past two times I have stopped in they have had books for free - yes FREE - in the front lobby of the library. It just so happened that several of those books looked like they would be great for research for the novel I am writing, this being one of them.

Robert Shapiro, a chemistry professor at New York University, has written this book, The Human Blueprint: The Race to Unlock the Secrets of Our Genetic Script, to familiarize the common man with the Human Genome Project. You might remember from a recent book review I wrote, that I was studying up on the topic of eugenics. After Hitler's disturbing application of eugenics ideas, the scientists and financial backers of the eugenics movement shifted gears and renamed their efforts "genetics" instead of "eugenics." Most of Shapiro's comments and background information about the eugenics movement reveal that he wants to clearly distance himself from those ideas as well. Yet, he is fascinated by the study of human genes.

Shapiro wrote this book back in 1991. I believe he felt we would be further along in our understanding of human genes and how they influence what we look like, eat, feel, and fall prey to (illnesses). He provides numerous hypothetical scenarios to underscore his beliefs about what we will learn through this study. I found these scenarios a bit tiresome after a time (probably since I'm in the period he was speculating about). While I did enjoy reading up on the background of the project (starting with Gregor Mendel's observations about the hereditary makeup of peas, following Thomas Hunt Morgan's genetic maps, and Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA strands revealing genetic coding in four-letter scripts), after the history lesson left the 1950's, the narrative began to slog for me. I skimmed through much of the middle of the book, only pausing to read thoroughly on passages I thought might support the fictional world of my novel.

It was primarily Shapiro's predictions for our future that I was interested in gleaning. Here are the two paragraphs from the inside cover that sucked me in:

"Shapiro takes us inside the laboratories of the geneticists involved in the project, pioneers whose discoveries could give us the cures to hundreds of ancient diseases, catalog exactly the genetic makeup of each individual, identify risk of disease, identify a criminal from a single fragment of skin, and a thousand other wonders no one could have dreamed of a few years ago.

"Yet when this mammoth scientific undertaking reaches the point where the information it reveals becomes applicable, society will be faced with a variety of deeply troubling ethical dilemmas. Should corporations be allowed to screen potential employees for disease risk in order to keep down health care costs? Should children be directed along a specific educational path based on their genetic abilities? Will the choice of a marriage partner be based on hereditary compatibility? Will some genetic propensities be declared "good" and others "undesirable"?"

These were the questions and ethical issues I was most eager to explore because they play a significant role in the book I am writing. However, I did not glean as much useful information as I had hoped from the book. There were a few quotes I felt summed up the theme of my work. For example, sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman wrote: "In gaining the choice to control the quality of our children, we may rapidly lose the choice not to control the quality, the choice of simply accepting them for who they are." Another helpful quote came from geneticist Albert Jacquard who wrote: "Genetic richness comes from diversity ... we need to understand that others are precious to us insofar as they are different from us."

All in all, it was a semi-interesting exploration into the topic of genetics. While I am not opposed to the interventions of scientists to eradicate horrible diseases like cystic fibrosis, I am concerned that we play God too often. We wish to produce a certain outcome and mold things in our favor, when often the things that don't go in our favor are the very challenges that stretch us to grow and make our stories both interesting and meaningful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: We Never Asked for Wings

This book took longer for me to get through than it normally would have, simply because I acquired it in audio form and then promptly stopped walking on the treadmill (choosing instead to walk on the track where I can think about the novel I'm writing). I did bring it into the kitchen when washing the dishes, but tried not to have it on when the boys were around (not that there was a lot of bad content, but it occasionally veered into territory I didn't want their young ears to pick up). After reading Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers, I eagerly scooped up her second book, We Never Asked for Wings, when I saw it in audio form on the recent acquisitions shelf at our library.

While the story was a good one (struggling mother wanting what is best for her children and wanting to give them far more than she is capable of providing), I found it difficult to like the main character. In the beginning she is portrayed as a drunk who leaves her children home alone while she drives (drunk, remember) to find her mother who has left to follow her father back to Mexico. Although her character grows and changes, and I liked her better by the end of the tale, I still never warmed to her completely.

Letty Espinosa has been perfectly content to allow her capable mother to raise her children, Alex (age 15) and Luna (age 6). Unfortunately, when her father returns to Mexico because of a death in the family, Letty's world begins to spin out of control. Her father fails to return and her mother feels she must go to him. Letty drives her down into Mexico, but is involved in a car crash before she can return to the children she left alone. Now, back in the States, Letty must assume the position of mother when she feels most vulnerable and incapable.

With the help of a friend from work (a man she is reluctantly developing an affection for), she attempts to move the family from the poverty of "The Landing" to a more affluent neighborhood so that her brilliant son can attend a good high school with a sound science program. She is doing her best, trying to juggle the demands of work, the challenges of motherhood, and the financial needs of her parents in Mexico, when the father of her son reappears in her life, stung because he was never informed of the birth of his child.

There were a few things I felt uncomfortable with. The characters in this novel repeatedly break the law (entering illegally, lying to secure a better education for the boy, bringing a small child along to a bartending job, looting from boxes behind stores, breaking into the high school and altering computer records in an attempt to secure a better location for the boy's girlfriend, etc.) and yet all of these incidents are presented in such a way as to win the reader's affection for the characters and overlook the fact that the actions are inherently wrong. Apparently, the wrong is on the side of the demons who wish to enforce rules and standards. I don't want to say my heart strings weren't thoroughly tugged by the novel. Indeed, I found myself wanting the characters to prevail, even when they went about it in the wrong way. So, the author was certainly capable of sucking me in and making me feel horrible for the situations the characters found themselves in. I can handle characters making mistakes; I just want those characters to recognize them as mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.

Moreover, there were many unbelievable aspects to the novel. She totals her car and yet manages to get home and secure enough money to build a good life for her family. In the beginning she is an alcoholic working three jobs (how can an alcoholic even hold down one job, really?), yet suddenly she is sober, working only in the daytime while her children are in school, and making enough money to rent a place in a school district with a stellar science program. The parents in Mexico no longer need her financial assistance because they have struck it rich with the father's art, enough to finance a plane trip for Letty and the kids to come visit them in Mexico. I guess it just seemed unrealistic that money always showed up whenever there was a new need of it.

This makes it sound like I didn't like the book, but that's not true. I did enjoy the story. It was very well written. I was able to remain engrossed even though I only managed to consume the book in snippets here and there. Diffenbaugh presents lively characters with real-life problems. She paints her scenes well and infuses the writing with beautiful passages of prose. Once again, she takes an interesting topic (the migratory habits of birds and the use of their feathers for art) and fleshes it out as a support to her characters and plot. The information was fascinating and the story was full of hope and redemption. If only the book hadn't presented right as wrong and wrong as right quite so much, it would have been a thoroughly enjoyable tale.

I still think it was a very worthwhile read. Diffenbaugh is an excellent writer. She weaves her stories well and they stay with you for quite a while after you put the book down. I will keep my eye out for more from this fine author.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: The Lake House

I think when a person is writing a novel, they become highly attuned to the craft side of a novel. Kate Morton is an outstanding writer. In her novel, The Lake House, she draws the reader into the story, people's the landscape with interesting, flawed characters, and paces the plot development perfectly.

I have been thinking about these details for my own novel. I have one character who seems too perfect. She needs a character flaw to round her out and to provide some inner conflict. I have also been thinking about what it takes to reveal just enough information a bit at a time to compel the reader to stick with the story and allow the plot to develop at just the right pace. How do you blend background information effortlessly into the story without bogging it down or slowing down the story progression? How can you continue to present new evidence making the reader second guess what they had assumed about the story up to that point? These are all things a writer has to contemplate and complete.

Kate Morton has clearly contemplated these issues and completed them quite successfully. Once again, as in her only other novel I have read (The Secret Keeper - a novel I didn't like quite as much as this one), Morton skillfully weaves a tale that bounces back and forth between two time periods. Modern characters set out to understand the actions of others in the past and secrets, long buried, are slowly revealed.

Alice Edevane is a precocious, sixteen year old girl deeply in love with the gardener on her family's beautiful country house, Loeanneth. The family is preparing to celebrate a Midsummer party and Alice is preparing to present her very first manuscript to the gardener, with a dedication to him for his assistance in its creation. But by the time the evening is over, her dreams are dashed and the party comes to a tragic end, when Alice's infant brother, Theo, goes missing.

Seventy years later, Detective Sadie Sparrow has been forced to take a leave of absence and is visiting her kindly, old grandfather when she discovers the cold case of the missing baby. She has a weakness for missing babies. She longs for justice both in the case that led to her enforced leave and in the case of the missing baby from long ago. As Sadie digs deeper and deeper, she finds secrets long hidden and even a missing piece in herself.

This was a fantastic read. Although it was a sizable investment of time, given its 492 pages, the story held my interest throughout. I marveled at the writing skills revealed in the telling of this tragic tale. I've decided you can always count on a great yarn when you pick up a Kate Morton book.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: War Against the Weak

I have been knee-deep in research for the novel I am working on. One of the subjects of interest happens to be eugenics, a word meaning "well-born." Most people think of Nazi Germany, when the topic of eugenics comes up, but Edwin Black's book, War Against the Weak, clearly illustrates the origins of the scientific campaign for better breeding of people. Had America had a charismatic leader like Hitler, we could have easily gone down the same path.

The word eugenics was coined by a man named Francis T. Galton. A cousin to Charles Darwin, Galton was obsessed with counting and quantification. He is linked with the early development of meteorology with his 1863 book, Meteorigraphica: or Methods of Mapping the Weather. He then became interested in the idea of identity identified through the unique patterns of fingerprints. Following the rise of family lines full of geniuses, he wrote a book called Hereditary Genius.

In America, the study of heredity and development of various species began with a concentration on plants and animals. As the book proclaims, "This radical human engineering program would spring not from the medical schools and health clinics of America, but from the pastures, barns and chicken coops - because the advocates of eugenics were primarily plant and animal breeders. Essentially, they believed humans could be spawned and spayed like trout and horses." Thus, the start of the eugenics movement in America was fed along by a zoologist named Charles Benedict Davenport, working with the American Breeder's Association. Breeders were focused on creating the very best cattle and horses. Why shouldn't the same principals be applied to humanity? Thus, one breeder declared, "Every race-horse, every straight-backed bull, every premium pig tells us what we can do and what we must do for man .... The results of suppressing the poorest and breeding from the best would be the same for them as for cattle and sheep."

Pair this ideology with the financial backing of big names like Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller and you have the beginnings of the eugenics movement in early twentieth century America. These early scientists and proponents of eugenics sought to document incidents of human defects by establishing the Eugenics Record Office. Next, came things like Stanford-Binet testing to identify intelligence levels and attempts to sterilize the weak or inferior. I was surprised to learn that Indiana was "the first jurisdiction to legislate forced sterilization of mentally impaired, poorhouse residents, and prisoners."

The book also explores the Malthusian notion (taken from Thomas Robert Malthus, who studied political economics and demography) that "A world running out of food supplies should halt charitable works and allow the weak to die off." Another influential individual tied to the eugenics movement was Margaret Sanger (the woman who campaigned for birth control for women). Although she was not a proponent of sterilization or elimination of defectives, she played a significant role in the eugenics movement.

Of course, once Hitler rose to power and used these principals to justify his desire to eliminate an entire race of people and more firmly establish a Nordic nation, American scientists and eugenicists wanted to distance themselves from the whole fiasco. Thus, eugenics quietly turned into human genetics and genetic counseling. The American Breeder's Association became the American Genetics Association. Frederick Osborne, known for switching the name of the movement to genetics, stated "The purpose of eugenics is not to breed some ... superior being, but to provide conditions ... for each succeeding generation to be genetically better qualified to deal with its environment."

Edwin Black goes on to predict how this movement will possibly play out in our own future. He states, "In the twenty-first century it will not be race, religion, or nationality, but economics that determines which among us will dominate and thrive." He goes on, "Newgenics may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of eugenics." There is already talk and advancement of things like DNA databases and digital fingerprints. Black's predictions are scary, his final conclusion worthy of repeat:

"Only one precept can prevent the dream of twentieth century eugenics from finding fulfillment in the twenty-first century genetic engineering: no matter how far or how fast the science develops, nothing should be done anywhere by anyone to exclude, infringe, repress or harm an individual based on his or her genetic makeup. Only then can humankind be assured that there will be no new war against the weak."