Summer is a Season for Open Doors.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Are One Star Reviews Fair?

We’ve all read them: novels so bad you want to heave them across the room, or you just can’t finish because the story becomes convoluted, repetitive, and or the genre changes halfway through. But is a one star rating fair? Mostly not.*

As a writer I cringe when I read one star reviews of author’s books because writing a novel is hard. Even a bad one. (I’ve written my share of terrible drafts, and am currently revising a horrible manuscript to elevate its status to merely awful.)  But reading a novel is also Herculean, especially one weighing in at 600 or more pages. It takes weeks, sometimes months of commitment. None of us has to read fiction, unless we are editors, high school or college students, in which case we are prisoners to the assigned tome. Students can pay erudite friends to read it, use Spark Notes, or buy literary analyses papers online. Because I love to read, I never cheated myself from the experience of finishing an assigned novel. But I was young then, and my future slow-walked toward infinity. Time is finite, so before I commit to a novel, I often read the customer reviews, and I begin with one star ratings.

Many one star reviews are crass, and often cryptic, and sometimes customers give one star because amazon sent the wrong book or the item was mangled in shipping. Is that the author’s fault? (Note, independent book stores pack and ship items carefully. You’ll pay more for shipping, but you will get what you ordered.) I ignore the idiots, and read ratings where someone has actually read the book. Reviews say as much about the reader as the work itself.

I was curious how Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, fared in the ratings. I loved it, and recently recommended it to a friend. I had not read any reviews before purchasing it. I was in the bookstore and the opening scene grabbed me.  The novel begins in Italy during filming of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and alternately shifts to present day Hollywood. I loved the fictional and real life characters, and like all good fiction, found the story believable. But that’s just my opinion, because J Lee has “been astonished at all the great reviews for this book” and found it “tedious, offensive and downright ugly.” Redgirl writes it was “torture to finish but did so as a model to my grandchildren that we MUST finish our homework” and Snickers88 is “angry at myself for wasting time with it.”

Another of my favorites, The Goldfinch, winner of the Pulitzer prize,  received mainly good reviews, but garnered a few one stars from many ‘anonymous’ people who found it boring. George H Hedges has “never wanted to burn a book… until now” and a reader called Californica, mentioning he/she loved The story of Edgar Sawtelle, (a book I found too boring to finish,) called The Goldfinch “incredibly depressing without any creativity and beauty,” and “a total waste of my precious reading time.”

Perhaps if I had consulted the one and two star reviews of Murakmai’s 1Q84 I may have saved myself a huge chunk of time. But I had loved Kafka on the Shore and The Wild Sheep Chase. Chris Fiorillo compares 1Q84 to ruining your favorite cocktail by mixing it with “clam juice, Tabasco sauce, maple syrup, nutmeg, and vanilla.” Emmett R. Furrow,  expresses how the novel “put me in a coma by the beginning of book 3 and I found myself talking back to the book as it progressed to its pointless end.” Yeah, I have to agree with these.

I’m on my third attempt at One Hundred Years of Solitude, largely because many of my favorite authors note that as the ultimate Latin American novel. I’ve made it further this time- about a hundred pages, but the reading is not effortless. Daniel claims the book as “almost incomprehensible. The only reason to buy it is you’re a poseur wanting to claim that it’s great literature.” I’m a little confused by the story, but I’m underlining passages, and I want to see what makes this a great novel.

Why do we read fiction?  It’s a pack of lies, yet stories reveal the ugly and beautiful truth of who we are. Whether that truth is revealed through zombie/vampire novels, dystopia, cozy mysteries, Shakespeare’s plays, or in tomes by Brian Jacques, we search for stories that speak our name.
Which novels have spoken to you, made you feel happy to be alive? Which ones have you hurled out the window from a speeding train?

*some sequels are best left unwritten. The Streets of Laredo, McMurtry’s bizarre anti- sequel to his masterpiece Lonesome Dove, is an example. McMurtry admittedly took liberties with his original characters to reframe them in this unpalatable book. Why didn't he just write a new book with new characters? I threw mine across the room by page 48. All of my friends who also loved Lonesome Dove said they couldn’t get past 60.

Upcoming reviews:
Who is Martha? By Marjana Gaponenko

Repo Man by Bruce Cameron

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Little Mercies

We hear news stories every day of people leaving pets, babies and toddlers in the back seats of cars, and we can’t imagine how someone can be so irresponsible. In the riveting new book Little Mercies, by Heather Gudenkauf, veteran social worker Ellen Moore, a woman who has dealt with countless incidences of child abuse and neglect, accidentally leaves her daughter in the back of her car on the hottest day of the summer in Cedar City, Iowa, while rushing to rescue two girls from domestic violence.  It can happen to any of us.

While the drama unfolds in the house where a man is holding a young mother and two girls hostage, Ellen is oblivious to the spectacle behind her until she hears the crash of breaking glass from her car.  When the limp body of her daughter Avery is pulled from the van, Ellen Moore’s life is shattered along with her the glass.

Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has come alone to Cedar City in search of a long lost grandmother. Jenny, a victim of child abuse herself at the hands of her stepfather, had been living with her hapless father, but after he is arrested, she has nowhere to go, and she bristles at going back to a foster home.

Ellen’s mother Maudene tries to help Jenny, but they are both inadvertently thrown into the turmoil surrounding Ellen’s mistake.  Told in alternating chapters between Ellen and Jenny’s stories, their lives converge in a surprising ways.

Gudenhauf’s novel is well paced, suspenseful and well written. Occasionally the narrative lags with a few typos and areas of repetition, but these may have been ironed out between the review copies and final print.  The believable characters and their conflicts will engage readers and lead to interesting discussions in a book club. Fans of Lisa Scottoline’s Look Again and Save Me or Paula Daly’s Just What Kind of Mother Are You? will enjoy Little Mercies.

Includes a Reader’s Guide and author interview.  (Available now $15.95, Harlequin MIRA)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich: a Review

One of the many challenges for upper elementary and middle school Language Arts teachers is finding timely books with age appropriate characters and thought provoking themes, yet won’t spur parents to demand the principal to pull it off the shelf because of graphic violence, profanity or sex. Nest, by Esther Ehrlich, is a book that adults will approve of and young readers will love.

Set in 1972, the story centers on Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein. She and her father, mother and sister Rachel are year-round residents of Cape Cod, and the novel starts at the end of summer. At the beginning of the tale the Orensteins are a happy family; Dr. Orenstein has a therapy practice on the Cape, the girls get along well, and Hannah, the mother, is a former dancer who stays active in local dance recitals. Chirp, who gets her nickname because of her penchant for birds and bird watching, becomes friends with new neighbor and 6th grade classmate Joey Morell, whose parents often lock him out of the house.

Chirp’s idyllic world is soon shattered when her mother
,diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, falls into deep depression, and the story delves into darker themes of betrayal and grief. Yet Ehrlich skillfully balances this novel with resilience and hope while dealing with issues such as bullying, disease, child abuse, and suicide. Levity is provided through Chirp’s authentic voice, her passion for birds and her interactions with others.

Because the story takes place during the Vietnam War era, a time before cell phones and cable TV, it may be classified as historical, yet its themes are timeless. (Random House provides links to teaching tools.) The book stays true to an eleven year-old point of view where life hovers between childhood and adulthood, yet within that child’s lens is Chirp’s growing awareness of the world’s truths.

It would not surprise me to see this debut novel shortlisted for a Newbery or ALA award. I hope Ms. Ehrlich is working on more books for young readers so I can recommend them to my teaching colleagues. Nest is available September 9, 2014, for grades 4-8.

I would like to Thank NetGalley for my advance copy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Painted Horses Book Review

Painted Horses,  a novel by Malcolm Brooks, takes one back to the mid twentieth century before the vista was littered with endless strip malls, where untamed horses and impetuous wranglers vied for the land.  The tale centers around twenty-three year old Catherine Lemay, a young archaeology student, and a mystifying cowboy named John H who paints his mark on horse’s flanks. The land itself is a character, both benevolent, offering glorious vistas and water, and malevolent, with “a line of severe hills like the teeth of a saw blade rises massively in the distance….the stripe of clouds above the hills gathers amber then purple then blue.”

Even though Catherine has spent time on projects in Europe, the world she enters in Montana is more foreign to her. She has been raised within a country club lifestyle back east, with expectations to become a concert pianist, not a woman who chooses to dig through the earth for ancient relics.  Catherine soon proves, in spite of privileged upbringing, she is tenacious and focused, and uses her instincts to compel her to accomplish her goal of finding historical artifacts to prevent building of a dam that will flood all that remains.

Catherine suspects she isn't supposed to find anything, that she was purposely hired by Harris Power and Light, the contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers to build the dam, because she is a woman and a novice. Harris and Jim Allen, the wrangler hired to help guide her in and out of the canyon, seem accommodating enough, but they underestimate Catherine’s tenacity and her growing suspicion that she is being duped.

John H, the mysterious horseman, inadvertently watches over her, and becomes her ally. Throughout the novel his back-story is gradually revealed. Interestingly, John H served in a cavalry unit during WWII because of his skill with horses. John H seems an unlikely friend to the young archaeologist, but  by the end of the tale the reader cares deeply about him and Catherine, separately and together.

If the novel has faults, they derive from my own impatience with several passages bearing long descriptions of horses. (I know, duh, it’s called Painted Horses.) I don't dislike horses, but I don't know enough about them to distinguish one from another, and for me the narrative dips during those moments, but the fault is mine as a reader.

Another issue was occasionally I was unsure if a chapter was a flashback or taking place in the present. Because I was reading an uncorrected proof, this may have been resolved by labeling each chapter with a date or location.

Like most literary novels, the book does not have the stereotypical happy ending where the characters ride off into the smiling sunset; the ending has a realistic resolution. Fans of Annie Proulx or Wallace Stegner will enjoy this book. Painted Horses is an ambitious debut, a ruminative, adventurous story that resonates, and these characters will stay with me for awhile.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Should I Be Insulted?

Recently I received a rejection from an agent thanking me for my query and wishing me luck.  She added links to three websites that might help me “learn about publishing.” Does this agent perceive me as a beginner? Should I be insulted?

I looked over the sites. One site, is group blog by industry insiders such as agents, editors, sales reps and writers. In spite of its push to market each contributor’s own books, this one looks useful. The other two links, however, looked like discussion boards for “newbie writers.”  Many of the questions posted are, in fact, by new writers, containing basic requests on formatting manuscripts and how to approach an agent or write a query.

The agent, I will call her Agent X, suggested one of the sites ‘as a place to post my query for critique.’ Should I be insulted this agent thinks my query stinks? That I know so little about writing I need to resort to an online discussion board comprised of random beginning writers?

Had I not already received glowing responses, albeit rejections, from several agents about the quality of my query and submission package, I might opt for seeking advice from one of these discussion boards. But should a writer, new or veteran, throw his or her work out there for perusal by strangers of dubious writing backgrounds?

I have heard of many friendships being formed by users of similar discussion sites. When I first started writing I welcomed input from anyone. I went through a series of workshops where participants shared their work with one another. Occasionally I was offered good advice, but for the most part it was the blind leading the blind down a steep rocky path.

Normally I’m not shy, but when it comes to my work I stick pretty close to my shell. I've been to enough writing circles where someone ends up in tears because others criticized her first draft of a story told through the viewpoint of a severed hand. Or when one of the participants prefaces each of his comments with “as someone who has had over thirty stories published in True Confessions,…".

Writers are solitary creatures, but there is value in attending writing conferences and workshops. Because I am in proximity of very few authors, I try to attend a conference once a year so I can discuss process and structure with like-minded people. Call me a writing snob, but I now only choose exclusive ones like Kenyon that require manuscript approval, where participants are (pardon the cliché and pun) “on the same page.”

I am reluctant to show drafts to anyone. Even Elizabeth, my number one person I select for seeking feedback, does not see first draft materials. My work has gone through the wringer at least twice before she lays her eagle eyes on it.

How does one know when his or her work is good enough?  Sometimes you don’t. It takes years of writing and reading to trust when your work is good enough. And there are days when I've had yet another rejection I start to question this writing gig is worth my time.

Perhaps Agent X suggests these sites to all her rejectees, and as usual, I am over thinking her intent, so I shouldn't take this as an insult. Just say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and submit to the next agent on my list.

Or as my fiend Myra just suggested to me, “write a trashy romance. That’s where the money is.”

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Am I Better Than My Work?

Often my writing sucks. Big time, and I remind myself often as I am drafting a manuscript with little side bars, for example, as I write this post, I may insert (THIS SENTENCE STINKS UP THE ROOM. ) but I am not criticizing myself, just the horrible combination of words that passes for a sentence.

Elizabeth recently posted a comment on Facebook criticizing a group of her poems, and several people remarked she should stop being so hard on herself.
“I was NOT insulting myself” she said, “I was critiquing the poems. I didn't say I'm a terrible poet, I meant, these poems poems need revision.”
“One must be hard on the work in order to improve,” I said.
“You’re a good enough poet to be cognizant of when your work is weak.”
“I’m not going to apologize for myself deprecating humor,” she said. “It’s who I am. I have an excellent self esteem.
Elizabeth needled me about a posting I had shared on ‘15 things you need to do to be happy.’ “I hate when people try to tell me how to improve myself,” she said. “I like my bad attitude and imperfect life.”
I laughed, and nodded. “Our writing comes from unhappiness and suffering. We kind of enjoy our pain. Pain is a catalyst for work.
She agreed. “Just because I criticize my own work does not make mean I’m unhappy. I can write really wonderful depressing poems when I am extremely happy. Being happy is overrated. I’d rather be fulfilled”
“I once had a drawing instructor tell me when you’re content with your work, you’re dead.”

Today I saw a badge on a FB writing site that said “Write What You Like”. Depending on the interpretation, writing ‘what I like’ in the context of being free to write anything, I agree. But writing only what I ‘like’ stunts me as a writer. Real writing comes from what bothers us, what we don't understand, and what scares the bejesus out of us. If we only write about what we like, we won’t grow as writers. We won’t explore the messy layers of the human experience and its gritty ugliness. We should not avert our eyes because something is unpleasant.

When I was in my MFA program, my first mentor asked me, what bugs you? I replied, “I didn't get the whole tattoo-piercing thing.” She said, “That’s what you need to write about.” All semester I entered the foreign country of tattoo parlors, marked bodies. I even attended a three day tattoo festival where I was the only unmarked person. I spent my time asking participants about what motivated their tattoos. One heavy young man said, “I don’t fit the standard of beauty, so I find beauty in my body by making it a canvas.”

Unlike journalist Dennis Covington, who chronicles his slow seduction into the snake handling culture in Salvation on Sand Mountain, I was not propelled to cover my skin with tattoos and piercings, but I gained insight into why others do it.

Good writing comes from what we feel passionately about, either positively or negatively. What bothers you? What scares you? You might not like it, and you may not like writing about it, but your writing will improve.

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

“Does it really have to be so be so difficult to kill yourself without being constantly disturbed?”

You know the type of book I’m talking about: one of those tales tempting you to call in sick so you can keep reading, but when you finish, you’re heartbroken because it’s over. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman is one of those books.

Ove, a 59 year-old recent widower forced into early retirement has decided to join his dead wife rather than spend his days missing her. What could have been a dark exploration of grief turns into a lively tale in A Man Called Ove. In this novel, curmudgeonly Ove, the kind of man who inspects the neighborhood each day and takes down license plates numbers of cars parked for more than the allotted twenty four hours, displays great disdain for the “idiots” who cannot seem to read signs, and for the cat who starts hanging around outside his home. On the surface, Ove appears to be a grouchy old man who people avoid, and he likes it that way. All Ove wants is to kill himself and be done with it all.

His plans are thwarted by the arrival of new neighbors: an Iranian family consisting of a pregnant Parvaneh, her hapless husband Patrick, and seven and three year old girls. They meet when Patrick crashes into Ove’s mailbox with his moving truck. It does not go well, but Parvaneh recognizes a dormant charm on Ove, and she infiltrates his lonely life and provides the catalyst to force Ove to interact with his long feuding neighbor Rune, an odd kid from next door named Jimmy, a suspected bicycle thief, and a stray cat.

Alternating chapters reveal Ove as a youth and a young married man. He was never boisterous, but when his wife was alive she tempered any latent bitterness. The reader is privy to Ove’s one time happiness, series of disappointments, and his loyalty to Saab cars. (The feud with Rune was over Rune trading his own loyalty to Volvos for a BMW.)

Told in third person, the reader is privy to Ove’s distinctive voice with its subtle humor. On one of the days when he (unsuccessfully) tries to kills himself, he still performs his daily morning inspection. “Just because he’s dying today doesn't mean the vandals should be given free rein.”

This tale serves to remind us that each of us has a unique story. One can imagine Parvaneh lives by the creed, “everyone you met is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind,” and she refuses to give up on mean old Ove.

I read an author profile by the Swedish author, Fredrick Backman, where he displays this same deadpan humor, claiming his motivation to write novels, other than “surely this must be better than working,”  is to feed his “major his interest in cheese-eating.” I wonder if Backman drives a Saab.

Recently I've been clearing out my bookshelves for my move to Seattle, paring them down to half. Most of my Advance Reader copies I've given away or donated to the Friends of the Library bookstore, but this one I’m keeping. It will be shelved with books I plan to reread.

Pick up a copy on  Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

Happy Reading.

Friday, July 4, 2014

What Shall I Name the Dog?

I’m trying to find a title for my latest novel and it’s like doing a word problem for Algebra. My initial title was Pagoda, a nickname one of the characters calls Michel, the protagonist. While it’s a catchy word, the underlying meaning and function of a Pagoda does not fit the book’s themes.

The novel takes place largely in summer, and Michael’s car is called the Blue Whale, but my current title, Summer of the Blue Whale sounds like a feel good beach book, which it’s not. I toyed with The Blue Whale of Summer as a nod to a line in a poem by Pablo Neruda about watermelons being “the green whale of summer,” but the reference is too obscure.

In one scene Michael gives his sister a copy of The Arabian Nights, a childhood favorite. Michael’s Tale? But the book is not just about Michael.

Kerouac already stile On the Road, so I can’t use that one. My novel isn't really a road story anyway, even though the car is a character, and one character takes a long journey.

I like From Here to Eternity. Not so much the book, but the title. The words roll off the tongue.
The Signature of All Things is another catchy title. It fits the book and has a pleasing cadence.

I like titles where you don't understand them until you have read far into the novel. The Catcher in the Rye is like that. The reader has to dig around and wait. Shadow of the Wind drives the tale on two levels: it centers around a book with the same title, and much of the tale takes place in shadows.

I don’t want my title to reveal too much, but it needs to be inseparable from with the story, almost like a tag line. Anyone who hears “yada yada yada” immediately conjures Seinfeld. When I hired Elizabeth to edit, she suggested A Whole Lot of Smirking Going On, since I had numerous incidents where Michael and Shelly smirk at one another. Another suggestion was Because Because Because as I had used the word because three times in one sentence.

Cindy S said she likes coming up with titles, such as, Tiger Lilies, Chicory and Queen Ann’s Lace. “I don’t know what it would be about, but I like the sequence of words.” I said it sounds like a good name for a cozy mystery about a gardener.

Cindy R is good at coming with titles, but she hasn't read my book, so she’s no help at all. (Note; it’s not that she refuses to read my book, she doesn't have time.)

Perhaps I will choose something simple. The Goldfinch ties this massive story together. It's a simple confluence of words, but once you read the book, no other title fits.

Friends have told me not to stress about the title because chances are it will get changed anyway, but I am trying to attract an agent, and a sucky title might put my query in the sucky query pile. It’s a Catch-22 (another rocking title.)

Happy writing and titling.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A First of the Month Post

Friends keep asking me how retirement feels. It’s summer, and as a teacher I didn't normally work the summer months, so I have noticed little difference. Until yesterday when I saw a Back-to-School display at Dollar General loaded with notebooks, pens and other student paraphernalia. The words “back to school sale” always filed me with a combination of dread and excitement. Now? It’s just another sale.

Carl the cleaner is in my home again today, this time scrubbing the basement and garage. The basement doesn't need much other than a dusting, and some bleaching on the floor where my kitchen drain leaked on Christmas Day. I spent the holiday shop-vaccing the water until I figured out where the water came from.

One of the reasons I bought this house was its dry basement, and after eight years never had a problem. On Christmas Eve I had gone down to do some laundry and noticed the unfinished half of the basement under water. Elizabeth came to my rescue with her shop vac.

Intermittently, small pools formed at random times. I thought perhaps the water came from the melting mountains of snow that series of Siberian blasts had dumped on my yard. So all day I went downstairs, vacuumed up water, and checked each hour. The last time I noticed a puddle it had suds in it. Wait a minute; I had just done dishes. I looked up and noticed the drain pipe had separated from the ring that holds it to the main drain. I was flooding my own basement every time I washed dishes or made coffee. It pays to look up.

The garage itself is dusty and messy, but the biggest issue is the dead mice smell. Until this year I had noticed a mouse problem, but maybe winter was so frigid the mice needed a respite, and they chose my garage. On sultry summer days the odor is really strong, so I have asked brave Carl to find the bodies and dispose of them. I wouldn't want to buy a house that reeked of dead animals.

So here I am deported to Starbucks for a few hours while Carl cleans. It’s the first of the month so I need to avoid, well, just about everywhere. Because this coffee shop resides next to a check cashing place parking will become a problem later. When my house is being shown this afternoon I may just take a drive, or perhaps go to Staples and gape at all the Back to School Sale items I don’t need to buy.

 Happy Writing.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Clean Living

A professional cleaner scrubbed my house yesterday. It’s so clean I want to freeze-dry it to prevent cat fur, dust, and me from messing it up. I’m tempted to check into a hotel until my house sells so it always looks “move-in ready.”

This morning, rather than fix myself eggs, toast and coffee, I ate breakfast out so the egg smell wouldn't linger for the 1 pm showing. My car is starting to look like a Hoarder’s episode because I am stowing stuff that usually gets shucked onto tables and counters.

Last night, after Carl the cleaner left, I was so inspired by the pristine condition of my house I straightened closets, thus nearly filling a trash bag with dried up hand lotion bottles and half empty shampoos I forgot I had.

Rather than fold the sheets that are in the dryer, thus filling up the now tidy hall closet, I left them in there, hence leaving wet towels in the washer until I come home later. Normally the clumps of grass my mower leaves doesn't bother me, but today I raked the yard to remove the clods of grass.

I’m even sleeping differently. Since I now make my bed every day, I tucked the top sheet into the bottom of the bed when I changed the sheets last night. I like my bedding loose because I roll around a lot at night, and I want my bed clothes to move with me. But it’s easier to stage a bed if all the blankets and sheets are secured. Now I sleep like a mummy, which could explain the weird dreams. Like the one I had right before I woke up this morning where I gave Hilary Clinton the finger. In the dream I meant it as a joke, but she was not amused. Obviously I haven't established enough of a personal bond with Mrs. Clinton to make inappropriate gestures, even in jest.

I hid my favorite pillow in the closet because it doesn’t lie flat enough on the bed. It’s one of those side sleeper pillows with a dip in the center. I placed a decoy under the one of the shams. After making the bed, I also hid the ocean.

I don’t know about you, but I need white noise in order to sleep, so I sleep next to the ocean every night, except this one is from the coast of Radio Shack.

Most of the crap cluttering my dresser (deodorant, jewelry trees, and hand lotion) is stashed inside the drawers, along with the stack of books that usually forms a precarious tower on my night stand.

I didn't spray my hair this morning since Carl successfully made my unfortunate choice of white grout on my bathroom tile sparkle like new. My hair never looks great anyway, so forgoing spray won’t make a difference. I scan the floors for stray cat fur clumps and place those in the trash. I empty all the small cans into kitchen trash can and change the bag. I’ve become my own hotel maid.

Now would be a good time to invite people over, but I don't anyone in my house to mess it up. Most of my friends are like me; people who put our feet up and relax in our homes.

So here I am, exiled to Starbucks until a t least 2 o’clock as strangers open cabinets and track footprints on my clean floors. Like Hyacinth Bucket on Keeping up Appearances, I hope they “don't brush against my walls!”Happy Writing.