In Wilderness – a review

In WildernessI’m always hungering for a book that will make me forget I am reading. A book that will make me take a pass on doing the shopping, forget the milk out on the counter, and burn dinner. In Wilderness, by Diane Thomas is that kind of book.

It begins quietly: an expectant mother feels her baby flutter for the first time. But this is not some saccharine, worn out by overuse Women’s fiction trope; it couldn’t be anything further. For in the next chapter that same baby is dead, killed possibly by the anonymous spray of pesticide on the ginkgoes outside their home. And now the mother is dying as well.

The story is set in the mid-1960s, that time of pesticide innocence, when boys on bikes followed those small tanker trucks spraying for mosquitos, and everyone marveled at how much more comfortable chemicals could make life seem, never suspecting that with the turn of the millennium would come the mass death of bees, swaths of unexplained brain tumors and auto-immune diseases. Katherine Reid does not know why she is dying, nor do her doctors, she only knows she doesn’t wish to do it in the home she bought with the husband whose love didn’t survive the death of their baby. She sells her share of her advertising agency and her home, and buys a cabin in the back country of Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains. There she will settle with only the sparest rudiments of living, to await death.

But the woods around her cabin hold several life-altering surprises in store for Katherine.

Part of what makes In Wilderness so remarkable is that the main character is alone for much of the novel, and yet the story is never dull; we watch Katherine learn to survive, and away from all the chemicals, we watch her begin to recover. There’s little dialogue. Deeply interior, the novel is told in third person present tense. Thomas sweeps us into Katherine’s head and heart, and there, in language and style uniquely her own, she spins her spell, as increment by painful increment Katherine moves from hopelessness, toward revival—and into the arms of new terrors, because she is not alone in her woods.

I greatly enjoyed this novel, and highly recommend it to readers who enjoy sentences that make you want to read them again – they’re so pretty; but also to those who expect an engaging plot. This one has all that, and more.

Guest Post by Kathryn Craft

Every writer is first a reader. We have shelves of books we really liked. And then we have our talisman books, that ‘special’ shelf that houses the books that made us feel differently than all the others; the books that made us want to be writers. These we may read, and reread time and again.

It’s with great pleasure that I welcome the lovely and talented Kathyrn Craft here today, author of The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy, to tell us, not only which books these are for her, but what it is about her favorites that has caused her to read them each more than once.

My Three Most Re-Read Books

by Kathryn Craft

 

Unlike many writers, I am not a re-reader of books. There are too many to get through in my lifetime! On my shelves, however, among hundreds of others I can’t part with, sit three well-thumbed and Post-It ridden novels:

  • The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

A gothic story-within-a-story, a coming-of-middle-age tale, and a domestic drama narrated by a dog. With covers in completely different styles. There is no reason at all to compare these titles, besides the fact that I have re-read each of them three times. What compelled me to lavish so much time and attention on them?

Turns out they do have some important things in common.

A strong perspective. Watching a biographer write is not riveting story material. Unless her subject is an eccentric bestselling novelist who has reinvented her personal story time and again, and the biographer writing The Thirteenth Tale is a woman so quiet she considers receiving a letter “somewhat of an event.” Added to the 43-year-old drunk who needs redemption in The Memory of Running and the aged dog lying in a puddle of his own urine in The Art of Racing in the Rain, all three promise an interesting lens through which to view story events—and the voice to deliver it.

A clear yet deeply conflicted goal. Stein’s dog believes he will reincarnate as a human and is ready to sacrifice his earthly life to do so—but he can’t leave just yet because his human, Denny, needs him more than ever. In hopping on his childhood bike to ride from Boston to California to identify his beloved sister’s body, Smithy of The Memory of Running must butt up against all the ways he’s let his life slide, even while navigating uphill; he’s “a porker pushing a bike.” Margaret’s biography will unlock emotional territory that her stack of perfectly sharpened pencils suggests she might not be eager to handle. I love a disadvantaged protagonist who will grow into him/herself.

Concise language. I am a fan of understatement. The spaces hiding within spare prose invite the reader to co-create story. When Smithy stands beside his dying mother and rearranges her thin hair on the pillow, he says, “There.” That’s it. McLarty doesn’t make the mistake of telling the reader his character feels helpless. He doesn’t have to—that one generic word oozes with helplessness that the reader can’t help but feel. After Margaret and friends suffer a deeply felt loss they speak briefly about the weather and then start peeling potatoes for dinner. We get it: life goes on. The dog can’t help but embrace understatement: the design of his tongue does not make it an effective tool “for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences.”

Meaningful metaphor. Stein sets up his book-length metaphor from the start—the best racecar driver is the one who can handle his car in the rain—and my mind flew on creative overdrive for the rest of the book. In her diary, Margaret Lea speaks of a “ghost reader who leans over my shoulder watching my pen, who twists my words and perverts my meaning, and makes me uncomfortable in the privacy of my own thoughts.” And the turning points in Smithy’s understated emotional journey mimic the literal as he confronts both hardship and generosity on his cross-country ride. Such layers make reading a delight.

An ending that begs continued engagement. I am not one who likes her songs to end. The questions that hover around a story’s conclusion keep it reverberating in my soul like an unresolved chord. All three of these protagonists stuck with me long beyond the end of their stories. So much so that, in time, I took the record of their adventures back off my shelf for the pleasure and honor of spending time with them all over again.

Photo - Kathryn Craft - The Far End of Happy

Kathryn Craft is the author of The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania literary scene, she loves any event that brings together readers, books, food and drink, and mentors other writers through workshops and writing retreats. A former dance critic, she has a bachelor’s in biology education and a master’s in health and physical education from Miami University in Ohio. She lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and spends her summers lakeside in northern New York State.

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Website:      http://www.kathryncraft.com
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Cover - The Far End of HappyThe Far End of Happy
Kathryn Craft

Ronnie’s husband, Jeff, is supposed to move out today. But when he pulls into the driveway drunk, with a shotgun in the front seat, she realizes nothing about the day will go as planned. The next few hours spiral down in a flash, unlike the slow disintegration of their marriage—and whatever part of that painful unraveling is Ronnie’s fault, not much else matters now but these moments. Her family’s lives depend on the choices she will make—but is what’s best for her best for everyone?

Based on a real event from the author’s life, The Far End of Happy is a chilling story of one troubled man, the family that loves him, and the suicide standoff that will change all of them forever.

 

Check out these other stops on the tour for reviews of The Far End of Happy, and a chance to win a copy:

http://booksintheburbs.com/2015/05/22/guest-post-giveaway-from-author-kathryn-craft/

https://travelingwitht.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/spotlight-excerpt-giveaway-the-far-end-of-happy-by-kathyrn-craft/

http://karenskornerblog.com/author-qa-with-kathryn-craft-plus-a-giveaway/

http://thestephanieloves.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-far-end-of-happy-by-kathryn-craft.html

The Precious One – a review, and giveaway

 

The Precious OneIn this latest novel from New York Times bestselling author (Belong to Me, Love Walked In, and Falling Together) Marisa de los Santos, The Precious One takes readers into the heart of an estranged family: Three siblings, two older: Eustasia ‘Taisy’ and Marcus Cleary, abandoned by their father Wilson when he decides to create a new family with a woman other than their mother; and Willow, the much younger sister they have been kept from knowing.

Wilson has not seen his two eldest children since the terrible Thanksgiving-gone-wrong after he married his new wife Caroline ‘Caro’, and Marcus got roaring drunk and said exactly what he thought of the situation. In all that time Wilson has never extended an olive branch and tried to heal the rift, but a heart attack prompts him to call Eustasia who has since become a successful ghost writer, and he asks her to come home. When Taisy arrives she discovers he is the same difficult man whose love and approval she has spent a lifetime pinning for, that his relationship with his other daughter, Willow, is completely different—and that he wishes Taisy to write his biography.

She also discovers her high school love, Ben Ransom, still lives in the town she grew up in, and that he hasn’t married.

Hopefully that is enough about the plot to tempt fans of women’s fiction to read the book, but if it’s not, here’s this: If you like women’s fiction, but find yourself sometimes (or even often) disappointed in the quality of the writing itself, de los Santos’ writing will be an eye opener. Here is a writer adept at writing witty, fun dialogue, and those pulse points of action in-between—who knows both how to write with some literary flare, and how to write engaging commercial fiction.

Sixteen year old Willow’s voice is so different from the other characters the heading of Willow is hardly needed above those sections that introduce her. She speaks like a precocious teenager who has had her intellect coddled and groomed since birth – which is exactly who she is.

And Taisy is unrelentingly pragmatic and self-possessed (until she’s not, and then even that is believable).

“I remembered the girl who had walked home down these sidewalks countless summer evenings, the world, the whole of the world, effervescent with fireflies, raucous with cicada song, threaded through with the clean scent of honeysuckle; porch lights and kitchen lights and streetlights blooming on around her; every house familiar and strange in the deepening blue-gray dark; and I knew that I was still that girl. Nothing here needed reclaiming because it had never stopped being mine.”

There were only two things I didn’t like about this book: One was that it was a bit too YA for my tastes, though that isn’t likely to put off most readers in this YA hungry book culture. And the YAness is somewhat mitigated by Willow’s voice; her level of self-awareness and her diction are not common among people of her age, so that made reading her parts of the book more interesting than it would have been.

“Luka regarded me with the oddest expression on his face, an expression I couldn’t name but that I recognized because it was so much like the one Eustasia had given me in my father’s room the day before, a mix of pity and concern, and it was as though he and I were caught, like two burrs, in the fabric of something, although I couldn’t say what, and if none of this makes sense to you, well, it made even less to me.”

The other thing is that Wilson’s ‘problem’, when it’s finally revealed, seemed almost trivial. Horrible, yes; funny in a perverse way, definitely yes, but not a good enough excuse for all the damage he does. But read the book, and see what you think. You won’t be bored. 359 pages.

Read and reviewed for She Reads.

HarperCollins has agreed to give away a copy of The Precious One to one lucky reader!

To be entered to win, simply *leave a comment here, and tweet this post with hashtag  #ThePreciousOne  by Sunday May 24th*, when a winner will be chosen. Open to the US only.

Flame Tree Road – a review

Flame Tree Road

Click to preorder

In her debut, Tea Time for the Firefly, Shona Patel touched on the plight of widows in India of the last century. In the second, Flame Tree Road, she takes that topic a step further and makes their welfare the spur that motivates her protagonist, Biren Roy, to get a top-notch British education, and become a lawyer. Early on, Biren sees first-hand what befalls those unfortunate women who become widowed and are cast aside, particularly in the character of Charulata, widowed at just thirteen: how she loses her place and voice and is shunted to the outskirts of Indian society, becoming almost a ghost. His own mother, when widowed, can no longer visit her best friend, can no longer eat with the family, no longer cook for her sons, or enjoy the same foods, and is forced to live in a shed, with little contact with her small sons.

The initial setting for Flame Tree Road is rural; villages, teashops and waterways make up the locale where the first part of the story unfolds. The flavor and pace are an immersion in 19th century rural India’s color and atmosphere. We meet the men who ply the rivers and streams, making their scant livings moving supplies and people—earthy locals, Dadu, Chickpea and Kanai, who gather at teashops to smoke bidis and bemoan their lack of sons, and the burden and expense of useless daughters.

“I have three daughters!” grumbled Dadu. “I had to sell my cow to get the last one married off. Marrying off daughters will pick you clean, like a crow to a fishbone.”

Patel lulls the reader with charming scenery and characters who are filled with good intent toward each other, and which belie the violence and betrayals of the story’s end.

Educated first, at Saint John’s Mission, a Catholic school for boys, Biren receives the broad education that separates him from the superstitions, outdated beliefs, and narrow expectations of his childhood country environment.

“There were twelve new students in Biren’s class, aged eight to ten. None of them had ever lived away from home and they all had the same look of terrified kittens abandoned under a bridge.”

“Back in the village, he would never have had the opportunity to learn leatherwork, carpentry, or metallurgy, as they were the occupations of the lower castes.”

“Performing simple physical tasks gave him a powerful sense of joy that was no different, really, from singing a powerful hymn in church. It would only be many years later, after studying the Bhagawad Gita, that Biren would learn that he had accidentally stumbled upon the spiritual principal of Karma yoga.”

Biren travels next to England, to attend Cambridge, where he hopes to “study law, and effect change from the inside”. There he meets Estelle, a young woman pressing the barriers of female equality by wearing pants, riding a bicycle, and secretly attending lectures dressed as a man. One of several great love stories embedded in the novel, the depiction of the relationship that develops between these two characters is subtle and skillfully written on an emotionally honest level.

Back in India, Biren searches for and finds a job with the British government, where he quickly learns he will be expected to be the middle-man between the British, and those he grew up knowing. All this puts him at odds with the locals, and leads to considerable stress and disillusionment. The British are depicted as both benefactors, and at times, totally clueless (as no doubt they often were, in this ancient society, with its invisible (to them) layers and incomprehensible customs). This is done well, with an even-handed, God’s eye view, enabling the reader to see and sympathize with all sides.

Patel administers an eye-watering and subversive poke-in-the-eye at blind adherence to religious form and traditional observance in the somewhat rushed ending. It would have been interesting to see this developed further. I suspect the publisher (Mira, a division of Harlequin) of maybe being not much interested in seeing its authors take the time (or word count) to write about such issues, a result of this current environment, no doubt, where commerce drives art. Patel’s work displays both the insight, and the skill, to handle deep topics. It’s a pity that authors of novels which are to be read by women are perhaps not encouraged to delve too deeply into important subjects, and ironic, as well, given that the main theme of this one is women’s suffrage. One has to ask: why is an author like Khaled Hosseini, who writes about his native Afghanistan and whose themes center on family, given reviews by the likes of the Washington Post, and The Guardian, and granted years (five, to be specific) to write his novels? His work is no more (or less) important than Patel’s. Could it be because he is a man? Do we take the writing of men more seriously?

The end of Flame Tree Road, though rushed feeling, was nevertheless interesting – there is some ambiguity about an important character’s demise, one that left me wondering if a murder hadn’t been committed. I would have liked to know more about all these characters. The end left me with questions.

But, that kind of echoes real life, where tragedy and loss so often occur unexpectedly, and like Biren Roy, we are left with few explanations, and nothing but the determination to pick ourselves up and continue on.

Steeped in history, and told in a mix of narrative, diary entries, and correspondence, Flame Tree Road covers the decades between 1871 and 1950, though most of the action takes place in the 19th century. 393 pages.

I highly recommend it to lovers of history, India, and good yarns.

 

The Tattooed Angel – a review

The Tattooed AngelLeaving her boyfriend on his own for a few days while she takes a tour of Cornwall was Angela’s first mistake. The second was driving on the wrong side of the road in foggy England. Angela awakes in 17th century Cornwall, in the home of Nicholas Warren, where her purple-tipped hair and tattooed hip create a stir of controversy among the residents of Haverscroft Manor.

Nicholas had his pewter plate full before finding the unconscious woman on his property: his son Christopher is in Newgate Prison – where he’d like him to stay – and Oliver Cromwell is plotting to get his hands on Nicholas’ shipping empire. Now he has this young woman to contend with. One who is foul-mouthed, hot-headed, and carries on her person documents for which he can find no logical explanation. On top of all this, the woman he has loved for decades is now so aged she won’t live much longer.

For lovers of historical time-travel, and fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Diana Douglas’ The Tattooed Angel is the first in a series to span several centuries. In smooth, stripped-down prose less wordy than Gabaldon, Douglas creates vivid, believable characters and historical settings, and has written a love story that combines old-school romance elements with modern sensibilities. “History, intrigue, romance, and a little bit of fantasy” – with the promise of more to follow.

The copy I received and reviewed was an uncorrected proof. 338 pages.

DIANA_reasonably_smallDiana Douglas currently lives in sunny Arizona with her husband, Dan, a miniature-Schnauzer named Cookie and two cats, Cocoa and Skittles, who like to tiptoe across her keyboard. Formerly a graphic designer, she now puts all her efforts into writing. Her first two novels, The Bewitching Hour and The Devil’s Own Luck, are Regency Romances, and her current work-in-progress is the yet to be named sequel to The Tattooed Angel. She’s a founding member and assistant organizer for the Arizona Novel Writer’s Workshop, and a member of the Arizona branch of the Historical Novel Society. An avid reader—she rarely goes anywhere without her Kindle or Smartphone—her favorite genres are historical fiction, historical romance, legal dramas, thrillers and mysteries. Diana spends most of her days writing, usually with Cookie curled in her lap and cup of coffee at her side. She’d love to hear from you. You can find her at:

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The Emerging Shaming Culture

On Secrecy, Shaming, and the Bravery It Takes to be Genuine

A few weeks ago I was dithering around on FB, a place I mostly haunt without posting, as I am curious (nosy) about people’s lives, but a somewhat private (secretive) person. One of my friends posted this by a former MFA program instructor. I read it and thought, yeah, that’s probably pretty much what it’s like; I bet one must read a ton of poorly written stuff: how awful must that be?

As the ‘gateway’ person for my writers’ workshop, I am the first person anyone applying for entry must impress. Many apply; few enter. We’re not a group for beginners, or dabblers. Having gotten worn out critiquing poorly written space operas, fan fic zombie blood-fests, vampire sex/horror, and therapy-memoir in the local writers’ groups, as well as having to endure a handful of bullies and boors, two friends and I decided to start a group that vetted for experience and genre (and um…personality: There, I’ve said it). The resultant group of writers has taught me more than I learned in twenty college and university writing classes.

But, that is not what this post is about. I only bring it up to get to this: as the gatekeep, I read a lot of poorly written stuff. Even though our website states we are not a group for beginning writers, many still apply who are ignorant of the basics of writing. (Yes, I said ignorant – it’s not a bad word. Look it up. I am ignorant of many things. I can’t even say what I’m ignorant of, because I’m ignorant of that, too!)

But again, that is not what this post is about.

This post is about something I see in our society that disturbs me. It bothers me enough to write this post about it.

What bothers me is a tendency to shame people for expressing their truth. The truth of their experience as they experienced it.

Now, if you don’t know me very well, if you don’t read my blog, or don’t know me via Twitter, or in person, then you don’t know that, like Kerouac (and a lot of other folks), I happen to believe we live in heaven, right now—and simply don’t know it. This might even surprise some of my closest acquaintances. Like I said, I’m secretive. (I’ll say more about THAT in a bit.)

I believe we are all manifestations of the One. We are the One, in human form, having human lives. (Or cat lives, trees lives, dolphin lives – the One loves wondrous variety, as Morgan Freeman tells that little girl in that old Robin Hood movie, when she asks him why he is ‘painted’.) As human beings, we have human thoughts and emotions. It comes with the territory. One of the things I value most in individuals of my acquaintance, when I find it, is an ability to be honest and genuine. It’s a rare and precious quality: one I equate with bravery, and one I am consciously at work cultivating in myself.

If we are honest with ourselves we must admit we all have a dark side; a side that is not always so nice. We might never go so far as to share our unkind thoughts with the recipient or object. But it’s important to at least acknowledge to ourselves that we have them. Otherwise we are in for a big dollop of neurosis and self hate, which may manifest in some future unpleasantness for ourselves and others.

The unfortunate result of not recognizing and owning our own humanness is—we become tyrants about others’ behavior. We start to police their speech and thoughts. And it leads to shaming.

Shaming is one of the most insidious and toxic forms of bullying. In our current society it often manifests as holding ourselves up as superior in thought and deed. I saw this in action a few weeks back when the above mentioned post about the truth of what an instructor experienced while teaching an MFA program elicited a virtual tsunami of shaming directed at him (even Chuck Wendig jumped in to flog the guy’s back)—because he was honest about his experience. He quipped about how bad reading people’s memoirs of childhood abuse could be. Here is the offending paragraph in its entirety:

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

This is something any comedian could say, and the audience would throw their heads back and chortle with squirmy empathy, recognizing their own inner darkness. Yet because it came from a former instructor, it garnered a lot of negative flack. But, here’s the thing; he was sharing a feeling he had, an exasperated feeling that came from reading so much bad writing along the same lines. I could go into how writing instructors should not have to be therapists, and shouldn’t be expected to enjoy reading the poorly written memoirs of so many abused ex-children, but I’m not going to do that here.

I will simply make note that if I am ever called upon to teach a writing course, stories of personal abuse are off the table. Go get the therapy somewhere else, and come back when you are healed and ready to write fiction.—See, that’s kind of snarky, isn’t it? I would never say such a thing to a classroom full of hopeful writers, and I bet he didn’t either. But, I thought it. And I shared it with you because I am human, and, unless you are some hamster that can read, you are human too. And THAT is what we have in common. That is what connects us: This human experience, where we have human thoughts, not always charitable, sometimes crazy or scary, if we can be honest – at least with ourselves.

We don’t act on them. If we are healthy we recognize them as frustration, or whatever, and let them go. We ALL have these thoughts, and perhaps we should stop shaming those who are brave enough to bare their souls and share them. Virginia Woolf said:

“you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities”.

Words are powerful.

But humor is too. Maintaining a capacity to laugh at ourselves rather than beating ourselves (and others) up for every knee-jerk uncharitable thought is essential to staying mentally healthy, and fit as a nation of forward thinkers.

We need to stop shaming people who show us their humanness. If those who shame them direct their gaze inward what they may recognize is that what they are really feeling when they want to shut someone else up is fear. Fear of their own dark side. Anyone who claims to never have a dark thought is not being honest. The vehemence with which one defends against having a dark side is in direct proportion to our lack of self awareness, and neurosis. Neurosis is the result of a lie existing between who we really are, and who we feel we should be. Shaming leads to a neurotic populace—and guys with high-powered weapons shooting people from clock towers.

So, the next time you have an urge to shut someone up who isn’t directly hurting someone or urging someone to hurt themselves or someone else, ask yourself: what about this scares me?

And then deal with that.

Oh, and about my secretiveness? I was shamed a lot as a child. But I won’t ever make anyone read about it in a memoir.

XO