Category Archives: Novel

A Medical-Nightmare Memoir, A Darkish Thriller with a Social Conscience, and A Brightly Lit Romance

I finished another memoir, this time one my mother recommended. Called Brain on Fire, it’s about a young journalist (Susannah Cahalan) who suddenly lost her mind. She suffered from symptoms which appeared to be mental illness, but were accompanied by seizures–her only actual provable “physical” symptom. After being wrongly treated by a neurologist who insisted she suffered from over-drinking (she was not a big drinker), she was admitted to the epilepsy ward at NYU.

Her first stay was a full month and during that time she lost her mental abilities and, although she slowly recovered after her rare condition was corrected diagnosed and treated, she lost her memories of that month.

Because of her job and her position at the New York Post, Cahalan was able to publish an article about her illness that spurred the medical world into diagnosing others with the conditions. She wondered how many people were locked away in psych wards when they, in fact, had anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis. How many people had unnecessarily died? In the few short years since her illness in 2009, the condition is diagnosed much more often–and lives have been saved because of her courage and her job and connections.

The book is important because of its spotlight on this particular rare illness, but also for how it shows that there is hope for other sufferers who have not received diagnoses or proper diagnoses. I went through a similar problem with original diagnosis for the tumor in my foot when the first specialist I went to, a “big name” doctor, ignored my concerns and misdiagnosed me in a way that could have led to me losing my ability to walk permanently. I suspect this happens more often than we know.

Another aspect of the book I found very intriguing was Susannah’s life stage. As a 24-year-old who had been living on her own, with an ambitious career job, she had just been moving into a “genuine” adulthood, but her illness made her dependent on her family and others. This is a difficult time of life to have this happen. Kid, adult, now kid again–or at least that was the way she felt.

Finally, she meditates on the loss of her memories at the end of the book, wondering if she will ever retrieve that lost month again. But she says about memory is true of anyone, and if she was a little older, she might realize that, too:

Maybe it’s [the memory of that month] not gone but is somewhere int he recesses of my mind, waiting for the proper cues to be called back up. So far that hasn’t happened, which just makes me wonder: What else have I lost along the way? And is it actually lost or just hidden?”

These are the questions of every memoirist.

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I finally wrote a review of Carrie Rubin’s unique novel Eating Bull. If I had written it soon after finishing the book, my review could have been longer and more detailed.

I devoured (sorry for the pun) Carrie Rubin’s Eating Bull very quickly, although I savored it as I read. Then I didn’t write this review for many months. Perhaps because this book took me by surprise and just a tiny bit out of my comfort zone, writing about this book proved to be daunting. Eating Bull is a suspenseful thriller which showcases the dark world of the fast food industry and of fat shaming and bullying. It has a cast of characters I found very realistic–which means annoying and endearing at once. The protagonist, Jeremy, is a boy who deserves the sympathetic eye of Rubin’s narrator on his life and dilemmas. His mother frustrated me. She clearly loves him very much, but I wanted to step in and advise her on ways she could help improve her son’s life, but of course, I could not. Perhaps the most vivid character is Sue, the public health nurse, who teams up with Jeremy to fight fast food. Eating Bull is a very important book in the way it shines a spotlight on topics allowed to fester in our culture all the while the reader is obsessed with following the compelling story to a satisfying resolution.

What I realized about this novel, which Carrie says is in the “deep genre” (a genre I am not familiar with), is that the contrast of the real-life everyday problems of unhealthy eating (and an industry devoted to pushing it), fat-shaming, body image issues, and bullying with the excitement of a suspenseful thriller had to be digested carefully. It’s an amazing novel and should be put at the top of your reading list.

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To offset the seriousness of those two books and to relax into your comfort zone of a romance in a delightful small town, remember to pick up Jill Weatherholt’s Second Chance Romance. This is the same review I linked to a week or two ago.

A charming story of love and light, Jill Weatherholt’s first novel Second Chance Romance is published by the Love Inspired imprint of Harlequin. According to the website:

“You believe hearts can heal. Love Inspired stories show that faith, forgiveness and hope have the power to lift spirits and change lives—always.”

I’m not used to reading in the genre of Christian fiction, and I was eager to try something new. If you think that everything is puppy dogs (there is a puppy, happily) and rainbows in Weatherholt’s book, you will be astonished. Melanie, a divorce lawyer from D.C., has lost her faith and hope in the face of horrific tragedy. A resident of Sweet Gum, handsome single dad Jackson has been touched by darkness in his life, too. But he’s been able to hold onto his faith.

Events transpire that first set Melanie and Jackson at odds and, later, try to prevent them from finding love together. The reader is left in suspense until the end as to how the problems will be resolved. And how faith and forgiveness and compassion can change their lives.

The characters are engaging, especially the characterization of Rebecca, Jackson’s little girl. Her personality rises right off the pages, and I feel as if she’s an actual child I know and can’t wait to see again. I’ll always remember her characteristic twirl.

Weatherholt’s book is one I want to pass on to several people because they will love moving to Sweet Gum, a town with a heart, for the duration.

Once you’re done reading Jill’s and Carrie’s books, please leave a review–even a couple of sentences will do–on Amazon (and Goodreads is you’re over there) for them! I know they will appreciate it. Don’t be like I was with Carrie’s review–waiting until I had just the right words to say. It’s more important to put up a review, even if it’s short, than to worry if you are writing it well enough. I wish I had realized that myself and not made Carrie wait all this time. :/

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Memoir, Novel, Reading, Writing

S.K. Nicholls’ New Mystery Series Off With a Bang

Have you seen promos for S.K. Nicholls’ new novel Naked Alliances? It’s billed as “Book One” of the Naked Eye Series. 

I’m hooked and will be bugging her waiting impatiently for Book Two. She’s got a great idea here for a mystery series–adventurous mysteries that feature the nudist resort Leisure Lagoon and diverse Orlando as backdrops. What an original concept. And one S.K. understands since her “family owns and operates one of the oldest and largest nudist resorts in the nation.”

The book is fast-paced and plausible. The mystery itself takes some twists and turns and always seems to have one more twist ahead (even at the end). Richard Noggin (yes, think about it) is a semi-stable, humane, and very human protagonist, and his at-first-unwilling helper Brandi has a colorful personal style. I hope we see more of the two of them teamed up solving crimes. Not sure Richard can do without Brandi’s assistance!

Maybe the most glowing praise I can pin on this book is that I kept envisioning everything as if it were a movie playing out before my eyes.

When is the next book in the series going to hit Amazon, S.K.?!

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I’ve just returned from travel and will catch up soon! In the meantime, enjoy Susan’s book! I wasn’t in Orlando, or any part of Florida, but there were gators . . . . Can you guess where I have been?

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Someone I Never Actually Met

When I heard that Muhammad Ali had died and I listened to his chronology, I realized that his Parkinson’s was diagnosed before my kids were even born. They don’t remember Ali as I do. When I was a little kid, there were two big celebrities whose names swirled around me on a weekly, if not daily, basis: Marilyn Monroe and Cassius Clay. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Beatles eclipsed these names. For me, the name Cassius Clay itself was memorable, as was his personality and his reputation. He was a bit of a P.T. Barnum, bellowing and insisting upon attention and admiration. He was talented, and he knew it. He was handsome, and he knew it. He had the “IT” factor, and he knew it. He was also willing to stand up for himself and didn’t hold himself back, furthering civil rights by engendering in my generation the notion that OF COURSE all people should be equal. He did that with his expectations.

Then he converted, changed his name, and avoided the draft–and stirred up even more attention for himself. At that point, he tested the sympathies of middle-aged middle America. But for my generation, he showed that you don’t have to accept things just because the government says it is so. You can fight against what you feel is wrong. He showed that some things are worth fighting for. Whether you agreed or not with his political stance, it was impossible not to recognize that he was a FORCE and a TEACHER. We were young. We were blank slates. We learned so much from him.

Until very recently, my kids didn’t know any of this. The only thing they knew was that Muhammad Ali was a big name, an ex-champion, and had a vague illness.

If we don’t teach the history, how will they know that Ali’s importance didn’t lie in his boxing skills? How will future generations understand that teachers can come in unusual packages?

As a student of history, I am sensitive to history as an entity–its identity, its reputation, and its existence. Think of history as a person that you care about. I worry about the welfare of history–maybe that’s what I am saying.

The most important role of history, of course, is to remind us  of the effects of our action and inaction–and to understand the process. As George Santayana so famously said: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Even through grad school (where I was working on a master’s in history before I switched to English and creative writing) and my teaching career, I saw that history was sometimes maligned or misunderstood, but had its place in the world.

I’m not so sure anymore.

I could look up a lot of statistics, but I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon and it’s inching up toward 115 degrees. It was 115 yesterday. My air conditioning can only cool my house just so much. I am fogged up with migraine aura from the heat and the thick particles of crud in the air. All I can say is I suspect that we are leaving history in the dust as we move on toward our brave new technologically driven world.

Tangent over. Back to Ali. When my kids were little, a baby in my family was born, and she was related to Ali. We were almost kin. This was exciting news. Just so you know, I am also almost kin to George Burns (“God” and Gracie’s husband) and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (microscope inventor). Anyway, Ali was gracious and generous to the new baby.

I never thought Ali would cross my path again, but I was wrong.

A couple of years ago, my son visited the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrows Neurological Institute here in Phoenix where he received a diagnosis that had eluded us for years. There he was diagnosed with a rare movement disorder called Myoclonus Dystonia. The gardener and I had been taking him to doctors since he was nine months old, trying to figure out the source of his tic. Thanks to Ali’s donations and guidance, the center at Barrows (St. Joseph’s) is world class. When my son and I walked the hall, looking at all the photos of Ali, he said, “That’s our relative!” Hah, yeah, sort of. Pretty cool.

RIP, Teacher.

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On a related note about the importance of making a place for history, did you watch the new Roots mini-series? Did you see the original version? If you were old enough when the first series aired and if you lived in the United States, I’m pretty sure you watched it. Although its story is fictional, it’s based on a historical novel by Alex Haley that is grounded in historical research and based on his own ancestor. So the TV series is a wonderful teaching tool.  But if you weren’t around for that show, have you done your reading or is the history of African Americans one that you watch only in current events on your computer screen?

Did you watch the new Roots? I still haven’t found anybody else who has watched the new one. I hope you did. Even if you saw the first one, the new one has some new perspectives. For instance, Kunta Kinte, the first main character of the story, is a Mandinka warrior, not a simple villager. I like this because it gives the story and its characters a powerful guiding force throughout, and instills a sense of pride, as well. There are events, though, where I wondered if they pushed too far. If you watched it, I’d love to know what you thought about that last gunshot near the end. If you respond, please write a warning about a plot reveal!

In other news, we have the first blossom of a new hibiscus bush!

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Filed under #AmWriting, Arizona, Books, Family history, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, History, Inspiration, Novel, Vintage American culture

Love in the Time of War Injuries and Apache Relations

The best history stories show us ourselves in a different setting. And so it is with Adrienne Morris’ ambitious novel The House on Tenafly Road. I had expected a nostalgic view of a New Jersey village almost 150 years ago. But what I discovered between the covers was the compelling story of a complicated man whose early circumstances as a mixed race (Delaware Indian and British) child of poverty and his Civil War battle wounds nearly destroy his life and family.

John Weldon is a brave and honorable man, but he knows himself so little. The reader can see that he has the potential to be a true hero, and the girl of his dreams, Katherine McCullough, certainly sees him this way. John comforts others with his impressive knowledge of scripture, but he has lost his own faith.

 

Believing himself to be undeserving–a weak man for having become addicted to the drug given him by the Army doctor–, he secretly feeds his addiction to morphine.  Perhaps John is a classic anti-hero because although the reader watches John’s world crumble around him because of his addiction, the reader desperately wants John to succeed. For the most part, John demonstrates loyalty, courage, and compassion for others, although he is not so generous with himself.

 

Rather than the main characters building a life in New Jersey, John’s army career soon leads the young family to the wilds of the Arizona Territory. Katherine can no longer be the suburban lady she was raised to be, but must toughen up as an officer’s wife in the most far-flung post she can imagine. John and Katherine raise their two children in a tiny, unadorned cabin. I live in present-day air-conditioned Arizona, and it was exciting to read of the relentless heat, the flora and fauna, and of course, the U.S. Army’s relationship with the native tribes of the region.

 

The novel is long (much longer than most books) but John’s path to redemption is plagued with very realistic setbacks and mistakes, and I hung on to every word, eager to get to the next plot development. In a book this rich and layered, various threads repeatedly surface. For example, as makes sense for a serious book of American history, Morris examines the issue of race—specifically Native American images through the eyes of well-read east coast citizens, through the military, and through John Weldon himself. She doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, such as Weldon’s Indian mother’s alcoholism. Her touch is so deft that while she made my heart break at seeing atrocities against the Apaches through the eyes of the appalled and far-removed Americans back in New Jersey, she also showed me the results of two cultures slamming into one another.

 

Underlying all lies John’s nasty little secret—the addiction he keeps from his wife. I hadn’t realized that morphine addiction among returning Civil War soldiers was a problem until I read this book and decided to Google it. It’s estimated that a half million men became morphine addicts thanks to their service to our divided country. There were no rehabs and no 12-step programs in those days. Perhaps the only hope that an addict could have would be his faith, and above all, The House on Tenafly Road is about faith. Morris so skillfully weaves questions of faith and love in this epic tale that it isn’t until the end of the book that all stills and clarity emerges.

One final note: the version I read still had some typos and mechanical errors, but a revision has cleaned up these problems, at least according to a spot check that I made.

Go, now, check out Adrienne’s blog, too. NOTHING GILDED, NOTHING GAINED: WHERE PAST MEETS PRESENT AT MIDDLEMAY FARM

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Filed under Arizona, Book Review, Fiction, History, Novel

Another Book Inhabited by Dolls

 

Marie of 1WriteWay introduced me to the writer of another book with the word DOLL in the title.

Dolls Behaving Badly

When I started reading Cinthia Ritchie’s novel Dolls Behaving Badly I immediately thought, “Oh, my son’s fiancée will love this book.” Then I thought, “Mom will want to read this book.”

 

It starts off like fun chick lit. A single mom of a genius 8-year-old son needs to figure out how to pay her bills on her waitress salary and find love and happiness from a trailer in Alaska.

 

Luckily for me, before I sent a link to them, the dolls entered the book. Just in time, I stayed my hand (I know the phrase doesn’t belong outside the Bible or historical romances, but this is where it gets a little “Biblical”).  The protagonist, Carla Richards, is not just a server, but also an artist, and retired Barbie and Ken dolls serve her art. She hacks and appends to them, all for a very “upscale” erotic website.

 

Although I didn’t send out the link, I kept reading because the last thing this book is is porn. It’s a well-crafted story of how Carla and the “family” she builds around her grow and change with dignity.

 

Ritchie know how to tell a story that is both accessible and thought-provoking.  Sometimes the book stuns me with a lyrical phrase or brilliant notion.  She uses some contemporary stylistic experiments quite well. For instance, Carla is writing her diary in tandem with reading the philosophies of an inspirational speaker known as The Oprah Giant. She’s haunted by the ghost of her dead Polish grandmother and is still friends with her ex, a chef. The recipes of both these characters are translated by Carla and the recipes supplied for the reader.

 

If it were a movie, the book would be called a comedy, maybe even a romantic comedy, but as written word it is much more than that. The book probes and examines our hopes and fears without letting us know that’s what it’s doing. Dolls Behaving Badly is not lightweight or superficial. It accesses the hidden areas of the mind and of the heart.

 

I still think my mother and future daughter-in-law would love this book, but I can hear the comments (“My mom gave you a book with WHAT kind of dolls?”). Maybe I could send it to them anonymously?

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Filed under Art and Music, Book Review, Books, Dolls, Fiction, Novel, Reading, Writing

A Poll for Writers that Anybody Can Take

Are you a writer? (Hint: if you’re a blogger, you’re a writer)

Do you write in more than one genre? Do you want to expand to another genre?

Hippocampus Magazine, one of my favorite creative nonfiction lit mags, is advertising their August “HippoCamp.” On the website for the conference, they say this about “genre-hopping.”

Writers often take up creative nonfiction only after having established themselves in prior genres, bringing with them unique strengths that inflect their work, whether in the process of writing it, in the finished product, or both. This presentation features three writers who discuss the close relationship between creative nonfiction, poetry and fiction, as they share observations made in the process of moving from one genre to another, and on what we can gain as nonfiction writers when we make forays into other forms.

It’s true for me that I began with poetry and even fiction before I moved to creative nonfiction. I’ve noticed a fair number of poets move to creative nonfiction–even Carolyn Forché. It definitely surprised me the first time I saw her name as an editor on a volume of CNF.

I’d like you to respond to this poll, if you’re up to it.

Thanks for participating. I’ll post the results in a few days!

Grandma’s buttons

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Filed under Blogging, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Fiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Novel, Poetry, Writing, Writing goals

My Fiction Reading During National Poetry Month

Although it’s poetry month, I’ve been reading fiction lately as a little break from poetry and memoir.

I chose well because I enjoyed all three books. These are the reviews I posted (pretty much word for word) at both Amazon and Goodreads.

My favorite of the three was It’s In His Kiss, written by Vickie Lester who blogs over at Beguiling Hollywood. This contemporary murder mystery is set in present-day Palm Springs and Los Angeles. I know the time period because the characters own cell phones, but the ambiance, shenanigans, and secrets come from a long-time Hollywood tradition that features real life mysteries such as the Black Dahlia murder, George Reeves (Superman), Bob Crane (Hogan’s Heroes), and maybe even Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe.

I was hooked very early on–in part because of the compelling story and in part because after a whirlwind romance (hook-up? you decide–I don’t want to give anything away) the reader is slammed with a shock. Lester keeps shaking the reader up as one Hollywood secret after another is divulged. She’s a master at creating believable southern California characters (main character Anne’s father Bob stepped off the page and into my kitchen), but even better at her precise and breathtaking descriptions of the city. She knows the roads, the landmarks, and how it all fits (and doesn’t fit) together better than anybody I’ve read in a long time.

Lester’s witty approach fits the subject and the culture well. I appreciated the occasional nod to pop culture. For instance, she calls a scary pseudo-religion “Clientology.” These touches give the book the feeling of a roman à clef which heightens the illusion of reality. And when it came time to reveal the mystery, I was shocked, but thrilled to discover a satisfying conclusion. If I were you, I would jump through the book image to Amazon to order It’s In His Kiss.

Next up is Ape House, written by Water for Elephants novelist Sara Gruen.  I have been captivated by nonfiction stories of animals learning to communicate on human terms since I was in high school. I used to teach Koko’s Kitten to future teachers because I hoped they would share the importance of interspecies communication with their own students one day.

This book takes the real story of Gruen’s experiences with bonobos who can sign and adds lots of excitement. It’s a fast-paced mystery, adventure, and love story. That’s a good thing because it ought to bring home to readers the story of primate communication with humans to readers who don’t know anything about it. It’s a quick read and even if your life is chaotic you can get “into” the book immediately. This was a 4 star book, although I can understand why some people would give it a 5. I think it tried to be a little more serious than it really was, which is why I give it a 4.

Finally, I wanted a light historical mystery, so I chose The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber. This book turned out to also be a romance, in a Gothic sense. I’m looking forward to the second book in the series. Lady Darby is an artist which makes her very appealing. A few times I felt annoyed at the contemporary perspective on women’s issues taking me out of the scene and setting. Lady Darby has enough clothing for a much wealthier woman, too, but the dress descriptions make for delicious reading. One gripe I had was that the frequent mention of the green cloak was belied by the red one on the woman on the cover of the book. Why can’t a cover truly represent what lies within? I gave the book a 4 star rating based on the quality for its genre. I don’t expect it to be something that it isn’t. But if you judge it against the two books above, it’s a 3 star.

I’ve ordered more books to add to my to-be-read stack, not because I have a lot of spare time ahead, but because it’s very comforting to have plenty of books to read.

How about you? Does a stack of unread books comfort you or stress you out?

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Fiction, Novel, Publishing

Here at Last: The Best Guide to Structuring Your Novel or Memoir

Last summer I explained that structure was a problem for me in writing a full-length book. I wrote a couple of posts here and here about a book I found very helpful: Stuart Horwitz’s Blueprint Your Bestseller.  By following Horwitz’ directions for isolating “series” and creating a bull’s-eye target, I was able to get past the biggest hurdle I’ve had in writing the book.  Horwitz’ method is known as the “Book Architecture” method. He critiques, edits, and coaches writers on their manuscripts and can be found here.

After Blueprint’s help with my book, I discovered a smaller and farther-down-the-road structural problem that Blueprint didn’t address. I contacted Horwitz and asked him about it. He said something like “funny thing you should mention that as it’s going to be in my next book.” That’s when he asked me to be a Beta Reader for his new book!!

And here is the masterpiece:

CLICK ON THE LINK TO PURCHASE FROM AMAZON

I almost feel like one of the midwives for this book. Gee, I wonder how Stuart Horwitz feels about me using the childbirth metaphor for Book Architecture!

If you’re writing a novel or a memoir or any full-length book–or planning to write one–you will want to click the link above and order the book.

You haven’t started your book yet? Unlike his previous book, you don’t have to have written any pages. Dig in and learn how it’s done. He doesn’t provide you with a formula, but a clearcut and easy-to-follow guideline to create the bones of your unique book.

He uses a handful of books and films–one per chapter–to show how others have done it–and you can, too. You don’t have to be familiar with the stories ahead of time. Horwitz tells you what you need to know. If you are familiar, it’s even more fun. I knew some and not others.

The first chapter begins simply, with a children’s book, Corduroy. 

The other chapters cover the book The Great Gatsby, the film Slumdog Millionaire (I saw the movie, but it wasn’t until I read this chapter that I understood what it was all about!), the film The Social Network, the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book Catch-22, and The Metamorphosis, a novella  by Kafka. The last is the most complex, but by the time you get to the last chapter of the book you will easily understand Horwitz’ points.

His first book explained the concept of series and how to use them as building blocks for a book very well. But in Book Architecture we learn how to use series arcs and series grids to pull together  a rich plot and subplots.

I have a different reason to love each chapter, but one of my favorites is the Joseph Heller/Catch-22 because Horwitz shares the series grid that Heller created for his novel. What a fascinating document–and so helpful to understand how it’s all done.  It’s as if Horwitz pulls aside the curtain and lets us see the wizard at work.

Best yet? After reading Book Architecture, I was able to solve the remaining little problems with structure. I am happy with my structure now, plus I understand how it works so if I decide I want to change things around it won’t be a big deal because I have knowledge of my building blocks and how they can work together via series, series arcs, and series grids.

Thanks so much, Stuart Horwitz! Your new book rocks!

 

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Fiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Novel, Writing, Writing Tips and Habits