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Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

How many times have you finished a book, and it was so good that you wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again? I’ve felt that way; I think we all have. But how many times have you actually done it? I’m guessing you haven’t, and until now, neither have I. Until I read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee.

This is an amazing historical novel, written in first person by a young woman, who, at the opening of the book, is making her entrance at the Sénat Bal in Paris, autumn of 1882. She is “La Genérale”,  Lilliet Berne, famed opera singer and a falcon soprano. She is approached by a novelist who dares to get her attention, and asks her to listen to his proposition – a story he has in his possession, to which a score will be written by a promising composer, an original role created just for her. Such a thing is the apex of an opera’s singer career. And then Lilliet hears how much of the story is her own past life, which, if it came to light, would destroy her career. So few know her past; who would want to see her fall? And so begins our story.

We return to Lilliet’s beginnings in the then free-state of Minnesota in 1866, sixteen years old, when she loses her entire family to scarlet fever. Alone and practically penniless, she decides to cross the country, and then the ocean, to find her mother’s only sister in Switzerland. The ensuing story unfolds in endless twists and turns of Lilliet’s trying to survive, becoming a circus equestrienne, a courtesan, later purchased by the tenor, the keeper of the empresses’s furs, and an opera singer. This all takes place largely in Paris during and after the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

The Queen of the Night is a very complex novel. There is subterfuge, characters using each other and being used, and many unexpected betrayals. Set against the backdrop of an opulent Paris as well as the utter desolation after the Prussian attack, there is also opera, loyalty, friendship, devotion, and most importantly, love. One might say that this is a love story, but truly, it is so much more. When I decided to reread this book, I was initially aware it was because there was so much going on, that I knew I had missed certain things, and I needed to feel that I really understood everything.

But as I approach the final chapters this second time, I know that a major attraction for me is Lilliet Berne herself. I found Lilliet to be an amazing heroine, who fights to stay alive, to try to be whatever it is she is born to be, despite not knowing at all what that might be for so long. She starts our story as an orphaned girl of sixteen, and ends … well, I can’t really tell you that. I can say that this is a demanding book, not one to be read when you’re tired or distracted, because I guarantee, you will miss something critical. But it is also one you cannot put down. Alexander Chee is highly successful in writing a story with fine attention to rich historical detail, and also for creating characters who will live in your imagination between each reading and after.

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That’s not what we usually see, is it? More often we find articles about engendering the love of reading in kids.

So I was pretty impressed to find in the September 2017 issue of Family Circle an article about the importance of reading for pleasure. I assume that many of you reading this blog, as writers, are already immersed in a regular reading habit, but this short article with “how-to” tips addresses how we, as women, are pulled in so many directions that we often let reading slide. And it’s true; an inordinate involvement with our phones, TV, internet – not to mention the real-life issues of our families and work – can leave us feeling we have no time to read.

But a Yale linguistics professor, Kenneth Pugh, mentions the importance of reading for pleasure as highly important for our emotional health as well as strengthening our creativity. Tips on how to get back into reading include never leaving home without a book; literally penciling in time in our daily schedule for reading; swapping a chunk of our TV addiction for reading time; keeping a book on our nightstand, etc.

For anyone not sure of how to get back into reading, the article suggested as number one – your local librarian. Librarians are a fantastic source of knowledge of the books on their shelves and with a few questions, can have you in a book you love in no time. A good local bookseller can do the same. In addition, they recommended the New York Times Best Seller list, Goodreads.com, or 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge. What I loved most about seeing this article is that Family Circle is a magazine with a huge circulation of about 17, 560 readers that reaches a very mainstream audience.

Reading – and reading for pleasure – is important. I find myself concerned about all these moms glued to their phones. What kind of inspiration is that for their children? I’m hoping that a family-oriented magazine like this one will inspire more than a few women to reconsider their habits and pick up a book – for themselves, and also to read to their kids.

 

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One of the very compelling features in a good novel can be place, where an author writes with such depth and attention to the environment inhabited by his characters that the location becomes a character all its own. I just finished The Ice Bridge by D.R.Macdonald, and was amazed at how quickly he had me immersed in the landscape of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. This is an outstanding book in so many ways, not least of which was my having moved to the harsh, wintry landscape of Cape Seal Road right along with one of the main characters, Anna.

The intensely rich descriptions of the land and the nearby sea in every mood and facet imaginable captured my imagination. Anna is an artist, moved here from California, leaving her soon-to-be ex to rediscover her artistic self. Her drawings of the landscape, animals, and the many found objects she retrieves from both water and shore, further expand the reader’s feel for Cape Breton.

The story of her settling into the “weather-wracked” house once belonging to next door neighbor Red Murdock’s grandmother is a story in and of itself. While the jacket flap is right in saying it’s a story about love after love, it is also a story about a fading Scottish culture which once thrived in the area, and the changes that modern life has exacted on its residents. Each character in this small, somewhat forgotten community adds to the sense of place in Macdonald’s novel. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer who has seemingly effortlessly made me care about his characters in this slowly unfolding tale.

When Anna does something extremely foolish, it is hard to criticize her because the author has already portrayed her so completely and compassionately that we can only wonder what would make her do such a thing. The characters are real, and the conflict builds slowly through the friendships, past loves, danger, pain, and wonder of them all. And always the sea and sky, forest and field, so beautifully, beautifully rendered, from the challenges of winter through the final warming of spring in July.

What a masterful writer! What I also loved about this novel was Macdonald builds the suspense to the very end, and even with the ending given us, one can still wonder what might happen next. This is one where I was sorry to close the book and leave what I’d come to love in Cape Breton.

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One of the joys of reading a good book or watching a good movie is that of surrender. When I open to the page where I last left off or the theater lights go dim, I breathe to myself (hopefully not out loud), “take me.”

Take me into some neighborhood I’ve only passed by; let me smell their food, hear their music and experience the love, joy and anger that is so essentially human, but through the heart of another culture. Or take me to another land so I may breathe their icy cold into my lungs or feel the heat upon me that breeds crimes of passion. Take me to the stark loneliness of outer space to be in awe of galaxies; to live inside the utter loyalty and devotion of a scout dog in the Vietnam War and see through her eyes.

Take me where creatures walk among us who look like you and me but harbor lives beyond our imaginings. Tease me with unexpected twists and discovery of villainy or delusion. Speak to me in ways that make me work a little to understand the subtleties of another tongue, or variations of my own from another place and time.

Take me where I may know the deepest and most heartbreaking love, be outraged and demand justice, or laugh because sometimes life is just funny.

But whatever you do, be well-written with characters that ring true to the very end (but can still surprise me) and where I can get lost in your world without hesitation. I am ready to surrender.

Take me.

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Serene is sure a feeling that can escape us when we’ve got a lot on our plate. And lately, this photo is what’s been bringing me back to some semblance of serene.

Beautiful orcas in a sea of calm. I feel like perhaps they are dreaming. Diving, resting and just breathing in the night air. The last few weeks have been far too busy with one thing or another and although I know – we all do – that from time to time, it’s just how life is, I found myself longing for a touch of the serenity I see in this photo. I found myself wishing I could weave among them as kin where they would welcome me, not be afraid, and just share with me whatever they know and feel in the moment captured above.

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
~ Cormac McCarthy

But this period of so much going on has had its up-side, too.  I have been on a real reading tear, loving diving into one book after another, middle grade, adult, picture books, no matter. Perhaps these books have all given me the respite I needed, new places to go, people to know, situations that grabbed my attention and heightened sensation. What a rich world books bring us.

OK, change of plans. I’ll sit on an outcropping of rocks next to the orcas, they with their dreams, me with my book, one in spirit under a full moon. Join me?

 

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While I have been rather remiss in blogging, at least I have been reading. Life can pull us in many directions, and some take our blogging time. So be it.

ByTheLight-FathersSmile-AWalker2As I am beginning a new book – chosen from among the many that sit on my shelves waiting to be read – I remember exactly why I picked it up at the big book sale awhile back. I’d read a short story titled am i blue? by Alice Walker over 20 years ago in a magazine. It was about a horse in a meadow alone, bored, betrayed. The meadow was outside a home where Walker was living, and her experience of Blue told me volumes about her appreciation of the hearts and souls of animals. This story was later banned, I found, by the California School Board in 1994, as was, of course, The Color Purple, by all those who feel they know best what you and I should read and think. (You can read am i blue? and some commentary on the The Westcoast Post blog.)

At some point later in time, I came across this (now very famous) quote by Alice Walker, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” And though it was not a period in my life when I had the time to read novels, I simply liked her even more.

Fast forward to a few years ago, and I came upon her novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that?  Knowing that, if nothing else, she and I shared something so important in common – a respect for, and appreciation of, animals.

LayItOnMyHeart-APneuman2I’m looking forward to starting this novel by Alice Walker, but admittedly, my heart is still half living with Charmaine Peake in Kentucky. I just finished Lay it on my Heart by Angela Pneuman, a novel about a 13 year-old girl whose father is, or believes himself to be, a prophet. Living in a small town crammed with churches of every faith possible, where one third of all the men are preachers or studying to be one, Charmaine and her mother Phoebe have been barely getting by in the year while her father has gone to the Holy Land, instructing them to live by their faith alone. This is a coming of age story where Charmaine must come to grips with all that is implied in having the father described, a mother who has felt compelled to honor his wishes, and a growing awareness that perhaps she isn’t and cannot be the holy and God-fearing person that has always been expected of her.

Charmaine’s relationship with her mother is best-described as that beginning struggle for independence, yet she feels constrained by her father’s beliefs of how she should behave as defined by the Old Testament and her desire to please him. Charmaine makes her own way in this story slowly, finding hypocrisies and truths all along the way. She grows to find friendship where she would have least expected it and a willingness to look at life in a way she would have never thought possible. The characters and relationships in this novel are very well-defined, so much so, that you are almost unaware at times of the truly impoverished state she and her mother are forced to live in because of her father’s choices. My one criticism of this book, even though I understand why they’re there, is the seemingly never-ending quotations from the Bible in the first third to half. I have no doubt that this is indeed the reality for the population written about (especially since the author is from Kentucky), but it often felt excessive, and made me wonder should I continue on. I’m glad I did, and I’m still digesting it all. Alice may have to wait just a wee bit.

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Well, we see how much time has passed since that last post … so this will be a bit brief, as time, even to blog, is sometimes hard to find. Among the things I particularly enjoyed about this June Conference were several workshops which enriched my life as a children’s book writer and illustrator and added to my knowledge of craft, inspiration and TUESDAY-DWeisner2curiosity.

A workshop with the children’s book illustrator and author David Wiesner was terrific. He gave the opening keynote, but I also took a workshop with him titled “Reference Is Your Friend.” He’s a brilliant, phenomenally talented and very humble person, and listening to his process as he designs and works out his world-renowned books was fascinating. His recommendation for all the attendees if we would take away one thing? Draw from life.

A workshop by Donna Galanti on world-building was another favorite because  no matter what type of novel we write, whether fantasy or one taking place in our town, we need to create a world for readers. Donna really broke it down, and also provided the rare handout so we could be listening to her presentation without our heads down scribbling notes frantically. She came up with so many useful points that I will refer to as I’m delving into my own novel.

There were more excellent ones, and one or two that were not so fabulous, but we only know by opening ourselves to the presentations and finding out what there is for us to learn. I’d also signed up for two one-on-one critiques for my WIP novel and another for a WIP picture book. One of these was outstanding and gave me some very good direction.

By the end of the first day of the conference, I didn’t see a soul who wasn’t looking a little wiped out, just from running from class to class and then to individual critiques and roundtables. Of course, I could go on. And on. But I’m going to stop here, with a suggestion for all of you who might be reading this and who are interested in writing and/or illustrating children’s books and not already a member of SCBWI.

Join. Join a whole bunch of other talented, dedicated people who want to reach out to children with amazing ideas and stories and visions. Join an organization whose sole existence is to provide everything you’d want to know and more about how to become a writer or illustrator for children. Become familiar with your local branch of SCBWI and see what they have to offer. In New Jersey, we have the annual June Conference, but also some smaller events during the year. You can learn more here on the SCBWI site and check out the chapter nearest you while you’re there.

Maybe I’ll see you at the conference!

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I can hardly believe t’s been a week already since I’ve returned from the 2-day children’s book conference in Princeton. I know I’m not alone when I say I come home exhausted, exhilarated, optimistic, grateful, exhausted, happy, enriched, hopeful, challenged, and oh .. did I mention exhausted?

ExhaustedWoman-AntonioGuillem2

Jumping into my standard 40+ hour work week the very next day does not leave a lot of time for reflecting on all that transpired, reviewing materials, notes from critiques, etc. But numerous thoughts and conclusions were ribboning through my mind on and off all week long, even while I looked forward to this weekend to catch up on some rest and start seriously considering where I was going with children’s books.

And a direction became clear. One of the big attractions of the New Jersey SCBWI Conference is that we offer “one-on-ones” to both writers and illustrators. This is often the focal point of the weekend for those writers who wish a detailed critique from agents and/or editors on their children’s books and illustrators who can have art directors review their portfolios. This year, I went full steam ahead and booked two agent critiques for my middle grade novel and one editor critique for a picture book I’m working on. Of the three critiques, one was so incredibly helpful, I was just thrilled.

In the past I have submitted manuscripts that were as finished and polished as I could get them. They’d been looked at by my critique partners, gone through numerous revisions, and perhaps even been seen at previous conferences. This year was different. The picture book is in the very early stages of development and I sought some insight  and direction. The novel had once been a picture book, and through a number of professional critiques had moved through the chapter book phase to its true calling, middle grade. But I had questions, and I wanted to hear an agent’s opinion.

ADogsPurpose-WBruceCameron2The good news is that one agent confirmed my story is unique and not on the market, and she really liked the concept. The not-surprising news is I have a lot of work ahead of me, as in, now I have to write the rest of the book! This agent really paid attention when looking at my synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript, and offered solid advice. I also came armed with lots of questions, and the ensuing discussion helped to highlight areas I need to focus on, existing concepts I might change to improve it, etc. So for that critique alone, the conference was worth it.

Am I writing today? Not yet. But I am making a plan on how I’m going to get this book written. One aspect of the plan is what I read. You know how you sometimes buy a book but when you get it, you know it’s not the time to read it and temporarily shelve it? The book I need to read right now is pictured here, A Dog’s Purpose.  It was recommended to me at least 4 years ago by the CSR of one of the major printers I work with in my capacity as a graphic designer. As little time as she and I had to chat beyond the work-related, she highly recommended this book for me, and said she knew I’d love it on every level. I know the timing is now perfect and reading it will also enrich the story I’m writing.

More on the conference here …

 

 

 

 

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“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Statue-ChildReading

With the annual New Jersey Society of Children’s Books Writers and illustrators (NJ SCBWI) June Conference on the horizon one has to think – there is something so amazing about so many individuals all streaming into one location from all over the country for a single purpose – to share, to learn and to grow in the one thing that unites us all – children’s books. We meet old friends and make some new, share and see amazing illustration, and have the opportunity to sit in workshops and at lunch tables, not just with our peers, but with editors and agents from some of the finest publishing companies and agencies in the U.S. Cheers to us all!

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There are so many ways one can get lost on the web, between websites, social media, blogs, etc., but then there are places where you simply feel found. One of those places is on the ANHonestHouse-CReyes-Cover2lovely blog of Cynthia Reyes, where I find myself on a regular basis. Not only is Cynthia a wonderful writer with something to say, but she is also a published author whose second book, An Honest House, has just been released.

An Honest House is a memoir, designed to be read as a standalone or as the sequel of the memoir she started in 2013 with her first book, A Good Home.

Perhaps a step back is in order as a backdrop to Cynthia’s latest accomplishment – A Good Home is described as a “profoundly emotional book about the author’s early life in rural Jamaica, her move to urban North America, and her trips back home, all told through vivid descriptions of the unique homes she has lived in — from a tiny pink house in Jamaica and a mountainside cabin near Vancouver to the historic Victorian farmhouse AGoodHome-CReyes-Cover2she lives in today … Full of lovingly drawn characters and vividly described places, A Good Home takes the reader through deeply moving stories of marriage, children, the death of parents, and an accident that takes its high-flying author down a humbling notch.”

Fast forward to the release of An Honest House three years later which picks up “from the early days of her recovery from a car accident, as told in her first book, A Good Home, she shares in this new book intensely lyrical stories of life with her husband Hamlin in their historic farmhouse north of Toronto …You will be challenged as the author immerses you in the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and the courage it takes to live with chronic pain. And you will say a wrenching farewell to the farmhouse as she opens a new chapter in a life still devoted to creating beauty out of the materials life serves up to her, be they dark and haunting or light and joyful.”

From everything I have read about An Honest House, and from what I’ve learned over the past few years of Cynthia through her blog, the journey with her through her challenges and successes, her fears and her triumphs, will be one well worth taking.

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This past weekend was the wonderful, huge, annual library sale that I go to every year, and below you see my haul.

EmptyShelves-Bowl-KayPat2

What? You don’t see any books? That’s because I never got there. Being under the weather for a few days, plus it was raining non-stop, I knew my best bet was to stay home and feel better. I missed the excitement of just being around the thousands of books, and certainly the traditional follow-up lunch with my friend in which we go over our multitude of finds, but in the end, I am hardly bookless.

I still have books from last year’s venture; friends share books all the time; I have bookshelves stuffed with selections I’ve yet to read or would happily read again; and … the local library is in a decent walking distance from my home. I am living in a very book-rich world.

AllTheLight-ADoerr2Not to mention, I am still living in the world of Anthony Doerr, Pulitzer Prize winning author of  All the Light We Cannot See. Yesterday, before I closed-up shop for the day on my work, I read a bit online about him and his other books, and watched a video of how he came to write this phenomenal book. I also looked at photographs of Saint Malo, the walled city on the coast of Brittany, bombed practically beyond recognition at the end of World War II, and an important location for much of the story. Doerr wanted to write a different tale about the war, and much like the outstanding author of The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, he certainly has done that. I am at times brought to tears at the beauty of Doerr’s use of words, and am moved by the story he tells.

As I approach the end of the book, I am deeply saddened by what has happened to one of the characters, but am holding out hope for the others. Soon I will be returning this novel to my local library, never knowing if my next book will be in the stacks, sitting in the $1.00 shelves at the front desk, or waiting for me here at home. I don’t own a kindle, and don’t read online. I thoroughly enjoy the weight of a book in my hands, the smell of paper and ink, the turning of the pages, and the placing of a bookmark where I’ll begin again as soon as I’m able.

We who love to read are a lucky lot, are we not?

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If you had asked me 5 or 6 years ago if I liked historical fiction, my answer would have been “Meh.”

Sadly, I was effectively turned off to all things history as a child, when my first learning experiences labeled “History” were nothing more than an endless dry and boring series of names, dates, places and events to be absorbed and later regurgitated on tests. In retrospect, our teachers had to cover 7 or 8 different subjects daily, so what were chances that any of them would be a real history buff and would teach us history with great enthusiasm and insight? Apparently, pretty slim.

KiteRunner-KHosseiniIt wasn’t until college when I had an exceptional professor who taught Contemporary Civilization in the context of art, (I was at an art school), and for the first time someone teaching history had neurons in my brain firing rapidly. History suddenly came alive! Unfortunately, at that point, I had very little mental framework in my brain to hang it on. But I started to take an interest in the subject.

What really kicked my interest into high gear has happened in more recent years when I would come across a novel set in a particular place and time period, so rich and textured, that I wanted to learn more. One of those books was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it sent me flying to the internet to learn about the Afghani people and what was transpiring in Afghanistan during the time this novel took place. I cannot recall the country of Afghanistan mentioned once in history or geography in my childhood education, but now, here was a piece of fascinating history.

ShanghaiGirle-LSee2The two novels that recently afforded me that desire to delve into history were those by author Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.The first novel begins when Shanghai was known as the Paris of Asia, and sisters May and Pearl were  “beautiful girls”, models. With their father having lost all their money, the sisters, with their mother, must flee Shanghai as the Japanese invade China. The sisters were forced to emigrate to the United States in arranged marriages. From their interment on Angel’s Island to creating lives for themselves and their families in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we follow the complex relationship of Pearl and May and Pearl’s daughter, Joy.

In Dreams of Joy, Joy, now in college and angry at her family’s deception and distraught over one family member’s suicide, secretly runs away to China to find her true father. Her studies have convinced her that Communism is the best of all systems, and she is determined to start her own life, although  DreamsOfJoy-LSee2she is soon to be profoundly discouraged and isolated. Pearl leaves the states to search for her daughter, encountering endless roadblocks along the way. The backdrop of much of the novel is the time under Chairman Mao and The Great Leap Forward, a time of alleged progress in which a famine took the lives of millions of Chinese people. (From Wikipedia – “The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of deaths, estimated from 18 million to 32.5 or 45 million. Historian Frank Dikotter asserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history”.)

Lisa See writes about family and relationships and this alone would have held my attention, but told against the backdrop of both China and the United States in times of political change and turmoil of every kind, I searched to know more. My knowledge of history is still spotty, but through the pages of beautifully written historical novels, I continue to learn. It seems history stands at my back door, always with a hand raised, always ready to knock.

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