Monday, January 30, 2017

Book Review: The Secret Life of Bees - Highly Recommend

Although I've only ever attempted her fiction, I'm beginning to think that I would appreciate anything written by Sue Monk Kidd. Like with The Invention of Wings, a top read of 2016, I listened to The Secret Life of Bees in audio form. The beauty of her word choice is stunning. She is capable of crafting gorgeous, intensely emotional images. Thankfully, I own a copy of the book and did manage to select one passage that struck me as incredibly evocative. Here is an example of her word wizardry, as the main character first comes across a statue of the black Mary:

"She was a mix of mighty and humble all in one. I didn't know what to think, but what I felt was magnetic and so big it ached like the moon had entered my chest and filled it up. The only thing I could compare it to was the feeling I got one time when I walked back from the peach stand and saw the sun spreading across the late afternoon, setting the top of the orchard on fire while darkness collected underneath. Silence had hovered over my head, beauty multiplying in the air, the trees so transparent I felt I could see through to something pure inside them. My chest had ached then, too, this very same way.... Standing there, I loved myself and I hated myself. That's what the black Mary did to me, made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time."

The Secret Life of Bees spins a gorgeous tale of Lily, a young girl trapped in a cruel life with her fierce, unloving father and a strong, determined black nanny named Rosaleen. When Rosaleen hits a spot of trouble for defiance against three white racist men, she is arrested and beaten in jail. Lily visits her in the hospital and smuggles her out. The two run away to a small town in South Carolina where Lily believes her deceased mother once had connections. There they encounter three black bee-keeping sisters, each with a unique story to tell. As Lily and Rosaleen settle in, Lily must decide how much of the truth to share and how much of the truth to seek.

I loved learning about bees and their hives. I loved how bee-keeping paralleled so many of the themes the book explored. The image of the black Mary also stood for so much and, as relics will do, inspired noble feelings and introspection. I came to love the sisters, Lily, and her troubled mother. Their stories were touching and real and full of great meaning and purpose.

Once again, I was thrilled to find a section at the back of the book where the author answers questions about her writing process. She talks about inducing "madness" by sitting on the dock overlooking her creek and thinking about the novel. (This is exactly what my brain requires before I sit down to write. When I fail to walk and ruminate on a novel, the writing can be like pulling teeth. When I have the time and opportunity to absorb the world around me while moving and thinking, the writing tends to flow more easily.)

When asked if she knew the ending of her novel when she started, I was excited to learn that she had no idea about the ending or even the middle (take that all you writing instructors who claim you have to know the ending before you begin). The farthest her creative juices flowed was into the scene of the two fleeing their sorry, trapped lives. She also said that at one point she was stuck. She worried about the ending until a character from the story came to her in a dream and complained about her initial idea for the ending. This (along with a recent Facebook post from Kate DiCamillo saying "it's okay for the story to be a big mess. Maybe it is even necessary for it to be a big mess. Keep going. Don't give up. The story will find its way.") was very freeing to me in my current writing struggles. I'm so thankful for the really great writers (like Kidd and DiCamillo) who are willing to share about their process and encourage fledgling writers like myself.

If you are seeking a masterpiece to read this year, look no further than the novels of Sue Monk Kidd and definitely give this specific book a chance (even if you might be tired of books about racial tension in the South in the 60s). The words sparkle and shimmer. The images will stay with you for a long time and the characters will worm their way into your heart. You won't regret picking up this book.

I had to immediately seek out the movie starring Dakota Fanning (and my library even had it). It was marvelous. It carried forth the same intensity of emotion. I cried (thankfully, the boys were gone, so I could watch without interruption and without being laughed at for my tears). Do read the book first, however; as always, the book is better than the movie!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Review: Runaway

In doing research for my current novel, I wanted to find a book devoted to the story of a runaway. While I was a bit hesitant, because I don't want my character to come off sounding like someone else's character, I went ahead and dove into this book because I trust the author name - Wendelin Van Draanen. My fears were unfounded. My runaway teen is nothing like the main character in this book. Furthermore, my book is told from a grown woman's point-of-view, rather than the perspective of the runaway. Anyway, all that to say, this was a good solid read and a beneficial exposure to the life and challenges of a young runaway.

Runaway tells the story of twelve-year-old Holly, an orphan girl who is fed up with the abuse she suffers in her foster home. Determined to make a change, Holly makes a break for it one day and manages to get across the state line. With renewed confidence, she stows away in the cargo hold of a bus and manages to shake the dust of her old life from her feet. Unfortunately, life on her own is more challenging than she'd ever imagined and, with few she can trust, she drifts from place to place in search of a better life.

I think young readers will relate to Holly's struggles and her voice. While she initially scorns her English teacher's suggestion to write in order to process things, she inevitably finds comfort and solace in jotting down daily observations and scribbling poetry. This journal follows Holly's journey into her self, her story, and her salvation (a chance encounter with Sammy - the main character in many of Van Draanen's other works of fiction).

I relished the author's note at the end of the book. Van Draanen reveals the spark that brought this story to light and explains the depth of research that fleshed it out. I could relate to her difficulty with the sections of poetry because a teenager in one of my books writes some poetry and I recognize the desire to express the youthful angst, while maintaining a realistic adolescent voice. While it won't make my top reads of the year, like Van Draanen's The Running Dream did a few years back, I'm glad to have found this book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Book Review: While You Were Sleeping

The front of While You Were Sleeping bears this tag: "A gripping psychological thriller you just can't put down." So I wondered, as I prepared to write this blog, what makes a really great thriller stand above the rest? But when I googled "qualities of a good thriller," I discovered this Writer's Digest article that clarified the difference between a mystery and a thriller. It says that in a mystery, the protagonist follows clues to solve an already committed crime, while a thriller "details the prevention of a crime before it has been committed." Hmm. That's a distinction I never knew. Still, I think this IS a gripping psychological thriller, instead of merely a mystery. However, I don't know if it carried off all the characteristics of a "good" thriller or even if I agree with the WD list.

At, I found a more compelling list, along with examples of each essential quality. I would say that Kathryn Croft nailed some of these characteristics and failed in others. Her book was a page-turner, but not one that would belong on the Bookish list of quality mysteries and thrillers. While I didn't get a strong sense of place, the novel did have a gripping start (indeed, the premise is what hooked me).

Tara wakes one morning to find she is naked and in her neighbor’s bed. Not only that, her neighbor lies next to her stabbed to death. She has no memory of how she ended up there. The last thing she remembers is enjoying a glass of wine with the neighbor. Intrigued? I was. How's that for opening with an action scene?

The novel also managed a human/flawed hero. Tara attempts to cover up her presence in the neighbor's home and to ferret out the clues for herself. With a clear page-turning pace (another quality), lots of clues are discovered (essential quality) and twists abound. However, here is where I began to feel less-than-satisfied with the execution of this thriller.

Clue after clue mounted, casting suspicion on almost every other character in the book (her unhinged, obsessive daughter, her estranged husband, her husband’s lover, a stalking colleague, the neighbor’s wife, her sister, her sister’s boyfriend, etc., ad infinitum). Suspicions shifted left and right. Yet, I never felt drawn to a single one of the characters and the willful suspension of disbelief was stretched fairly thin. When Tara falls for the inspector, I wanted to throw the book across the room. Lie after lie after lie unraveled in the story, to the point where the reader couldn't rely on anything offered up.

In the end, this novel failed to produce the final quality mentioned in the Bookish article, the quality of making the reader want to read the story all over again. No thank you. Once was enough! It did teach something, however (a quality from the Writer's Digest list). It taught the age-old adages: "the truth shall set you free!" and "oh, the tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Book Review: Do the Work!

I should have really felt more energized by reading this book, Do the Work!, by Steven Pressfield. It is basically a manifesto to fight through resistance and get your dream goal completed (be that a novel, an opera, a new business, whatever). Certainly I could use a swift kick in the pants to get busy finishing the novel I started in November. But, it just felt like a pointless pep talk. Indeed, I have already heard all these sentiments before. If there's something good that you should be doing, know that the cosmos will conspire against you and try to hold you back. Press on! Never give up! Sit butt in chair and show up! Stop worrying about whether it is good and just begin to get it down. Some progress is better than no progress at all, what happens when you're too bent on planning the progress out in detail.

Don't get me wrong. These are all good messages. I myself needed the swift kick in the pants that came in the form of Nanowrimo many years back, when I finally began finishing novels. Perhaps that is where you are. Perhaps you need this message to just get off your duff and BEGIN. To do the work. If so, I can guarantee you'll get through it quickly (the book, that is - not necessarily your goal/dream). Just, for me, it was old news rehashed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Book Review: Leaving Lucy Pear

The premise of this story, along with the glowing endorsement by Sue Monk Kidd (author of my current audio book, The Secret Life of Bees), caused me to pick up Leaving Lucy Pear. A gifted young girl with her life ahead of her gets pregnant. Instead of sending the baby to an orphanage, she leaves the baby in a pear orchard, waiting for the pear thieves to come and hoping they'll steal away the baby along with the pears. After that, her carefully planned life falls apart and she finds herself back at her uncle's home (where she had gone to hide the pregnancy). Meanwhile, the mother who took on the abandoned baby takes a position in the uncle's home as a nursemaid. The now ten-year-old girl, named Lucy Pear (after the pear orchard she was found in), has secrets of her own.

I guess the idea of so many secrets swirling around was appealing. I didn't dislike the book, but it could have been so much better if it hadn't been so crass in parts. Of course, there's an adulterous relationship between the nursemaid and a man running for mayor (and wishing his wife would abandon her persistent pursuit of unsustainable pregnancy). Add in the supposed rape resulting in Lucy's conception, foiling the girl's desire to marry her cousin, and then a marriage of convenience to avoid any hint of further pregnancy (to a homosexual man, who - it is assumed - has no desires for children either) and you have a small picture of the depths the novel explores. Yet, I read on.

The writing was well done and the characters interesting enough. I wanted to know how and when the mother and child would be reunited and if the three women would be saved from their secrets. But, in the end, I think I wasn't fully satisfied with the story. It did take me to another world and skillfully presented historical evidence, but I just ended my reading with a wish that it had been a cleaner read with more redemption and a better ending. I don't regret reading it, but cannot say that I recommend it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Book Review: The Sixty-Eight Rooms

I'm always curious to know more about the authors I read. Thus, I was especially excited to learn that this author, Marianne Malone, is from Urbana, Illinois, my husband's hometown. I agree with The Chicago Tribune, as it declared, "Marianne Malone has tapped into a fantasy that is ... completely universal." I know I have dreamt of what it would be like to travel back to different times or to grow tiny enough to enter an elaborate doll house. I don't recall ever visiting the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago (for a vicarious view of the rooms, view this You Tube video), but it brought to mind Queen Mary's Dolls' House that I observed at Windsor Castle.

In The Sixty-Eight Rooms, Ruthie and her best friend, Jack, are sixth graders living in Chicago. When their class takes a field trip to the Art Institute, they stumble upon a key in a corridor behind the scenes of the elaborate miniature rooms of the Thorne Rooms. The key proves magical, shrinking them to size so that they can experience a fabulous adventure in the rooms and their environs. While there, they discover evidence of another visitor and happen upon something accidentally left behind.

Although I did tire of hearing (I listened in audio form) the details of their shrinking and enlarging and the logistics of maneuvering through the rooms, the adventure was, indeed, magical. Children will delight in a fantasy about exploring tiny worlds unknown to them. Adults will enjoy soaking in the history presented. This simple tale is sure to appeal to many diverse readers. It certainly left me with a desire to visit Chicago and experience the Thorne Rooms for myself. Moreover, I was thrilled to discover sequels are available: Stealing Magic, The Pirate's Coin, and The Secret of the Key.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book Review: Falling Free

I don't know Shannan Martin, but I'd like to. She doesn't live far; in my own state no less. I'd like to know her and I'd like to be more like her. Her message in her book, Falling Free, is a simple one: stop chasing the American Dream and allow God to use you wherever He calls you. This is her story, a story of leaving behind a comfy farmhouse and moving into an urban setting where she could be a neighbor to hurting people. While I'm not planning to pack up my farmhouse just yet, I did glean a host of helpful thoughts.

She argues against the truism - "Hurt people hurt people" - saying, "hurt people heal people." When we acknowledge that we are all in the same boat, no better or worse than the one standing next to us, we are able to lend support, and in lending support we might actually find some of it coming back around our way. As Luke 6:38 says, "your gift will return to you in full - pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back." Shannan's question is: Are we giving enough? Are we looking for new opportunities to give to others?

I guess what I really love about Shannan is that she admits her weaknesses and attempts to cast the light on the needs of her neighbors instead of intense self-focus. She writes, "Less me. And more Jesus. Here, in this abundance of less, where more of us is stripped away, we'll uncover the person we were made to be, the one created in the image of a God who sank holy feet into our human mess." That's what I want: less me, more Jesus.

No, she doesn't run from admission of weakness. She says, "God could use weakness to redeem failure.... To touch the expansiveness of God, we've got to befriend the ways we come up short.... The truth is weakness is a simple fact of life. It's what we all are, at our core. We are weak. We need God, and we need His people. We need hope.... What I'm beginning to see, though, is that God doesn't fix my weakness by making me strong. He becomes my strength in my perpetual weakness."

I was especially convicted by this quote from Dirty Faith by David Z. Nowell, "New Testament faith cannot be practiced in private. Either the faith will destroy the isolation, or the isolation will destroy the faith."

Going to the lost will not be painless. It demands sacrifice. We have to be willing to fall into His arms and cast aside the safety and self-provision we cling to (hence the title: Falling Free). She writes, "God calls us to an obedience that prizes his protection over our own. He promises us gifts that leave us clinging to his grace and incomparable goodness. Rather than settling for safety and status quo, he offers us faithfulness.... He's begging all of us not to detour around the pain."

As I said, I'd love to be more like Shannan Martin. I hope this book will stir within me the desire and the motivation to go where it feels uncomfortable, to seek spaces He can use me, and to be willing to let go of the things I believe I need in order to experience the blessing He holds for those who gladly give all to the one who made all.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: Good Advice on Writing

Good Advice on Writing: Great Quotations from Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well is a book that you can read in snippets here and there as the mood takes you. The quotations are arranged alphabetically according to topic. I expected to glean far more noteworthy quotes, but ended up with only a handful. Here were my favorite four, along with a recipe for establishing character:

"I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime." - Ray Bradbury

Doesn't that create a beautiful image for a writer?

When it comes to warming up and getting in rhythm, Leonard Bernstein writes - "It simply doesn't matter what you write; it only matters that you write."

Here again, don't worry about what comes out, just set about to the task at hand. Revision is always possible later on. And once words are revised, they should be so smooth that the reader is unaware the writing is using words at all:

"Words ... if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"If you can't bring yourself to put a finished manuscript away for a year to give yourself perspective when you look at it again, try six months. Four months. Three weeks. If you waste a day because you wrote nothing worth saying, don't worry about it. It comes with the territory. Don't hesitate to start a novel over, though you've been working on it for two years. Don't be afraid to change the protagonist or the ending, or to decide that you are not writing about the theme you originally had in mind. That's O.K." - Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

This is so freeing when one feels stuck in the midst of novel writing.

Character recipe: 1) What does this person want? 2) What prevents him from getting it? 3) What does he do about this obstacle? 4) What are the results of what he does? 5) What showdown does all this lead to? 6) Does he get what he wants, finally?

Great questions to ask yourself about characters you are creating.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Book Review: Paris for One

I've never read anything by JoJo Moyes. I picked up Me Before You at the library once because I thought it best to read the book before seeing the movie, but alas I never read the book or saw the movie. After reading Paris for One, I might be more inclined to do so.

Paris for One is a novella, packaged with a few other short stories. The back cover proclaims Kirkus Reviews as saying Moyes is a "Maeve Binchy for the twenty-first century." I can understand the comparison. Moyes presents characters and relationships in such a way that you feel as if you've known them for years or are simply eavesdropping on their lives. Indeed, just last month, I tossed aside a posthumously-published Binchy book of short stories, A Few of the Girls (they must assume that Binchy fans are so desperate for more that they will be satiated with hidden manuscripts found in her desk drawers. The stories were not the quality of her typical work and I wonder if she isn't turning over in her grave at their unpolished presentation to the world). After setting that book of short stories aside without finishing it, I was pleased to be fully engrossed in this author's fare.

I think my favorite stories were the final two, but all the stories were believable and entertaining. The author has managed to tap into the complexity of relationships and often, with a twist in the tale. Thus, I would bill her as a one-level removed Jeffrey Archer/Maeve Binchy blend (meaning she's not quite at their level, but not bad). Highly readable and satisfyingly entertaining.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review: The Tale of Three Kings

I don't often read e-books, but I started off the new year with a little one called The Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness, by Gene Edwards. It came to my attention because an old friend mentioned it on Facebook in a Facebook memory with the instruction to PLEASE read it! I immediately checked our library and they didn't have it, but a neighboring library had it available in e-book format. I had to join something called Hoopla, but it was a painless process and before I knew it I was reading and then done with the whole book (yes, when I said "little," I meant "little").

Gene Edwards presents the story of three kings: Saul, David, and Absalom. On the dedication page, the author prays, "May you be so utterly healed that you can still answer the call of him who asks for all because he is all." The book is directed at Christians who have been wounded by the actions and behavior of other Christians (often those in leadership positions). In dissecting the methods and manners of these three kings, Edwards points out the blessings that can come from such pains, sorrows, and crushings.

One of my favorite lines in the book described King David thus: "There in those caves, drowned in the sorrow of his song and in the song of his sorrow, David became the greatest hymn writer and the greatest comforter of broken hearts this world shall ever know." Despite our questions, God can use our pain and suffering to produce healing and comfort for others. He alone can make us strong to withstand the fiery spears that might be hurled in our direction. He chooses weak individuals to show forth His strength.