Friday, October 31, 2014

Viewpoint: Good Points Don't Make Up for Irredeemable Themes

If you've read some of my other posts, you already know approximately how I feel about E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

(Read: Not enthralled. Period.)




I'd prefer not to have a single thing to do with the books, and I don't see any redeemable content, qualities, or points in them.

Then I picked up an article that thinks otherwise.

Fifty Shades for Men

No, the header doesn't mean what you think it means.

Author Jordan Gray (no relation to the character Christian Grey from the trilogy, whose last name is a crucial letter different) wrote an article for The Good Men Project, called "7 Things Men Can Learn from Fifty Shades of Grey."

I had my doubts.

However, Gray (Jordan, not Christian) had other things in mind than what I suspected. His article suggests seven qualities men can work to develop in themselves to be more effective in their personal relationships, and his thesis is that Christian Grey, in between being a ruthless businessman and an unpredictable sadist, embodies all seven qualities.

The qualities are actually positive, ranging from focus and being intentional to vulnerability.

Nevertheless, I'm still objecting.

Fifty Shades of Awful

You don't have to be opposed to the BDSM lifestyle to object to the Fifty Shades trilogy.

Many people agree that the writing is horrendous (see "Fifty Shades of Bad Writing" by Allan Massie in The Telegraph; "The Alleged Sexiness of '50 Shades of Grey'" by Jen Doll in The Wire; "English Major Problems: Fifty Shades of Grey" on Read, Write and Live; and even "Why 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is Exposure Therapy for Writers" by Robert Smedley in Fuel Your Writing).

It's poorly written, filled with cliches, nauseatingly repetitive, and predictable, with flat characters whose entire relationship appears to revolve around sexual tension and alleviating said tension on every available surface, flat or otherwise, within a thousand-mile radius.

In other words, there's plenty to object to.

It's called "mommy porn" for a reason. What's literary about pornography? And why is it so important to some people that we try to find a way to redeem what's clearly a terrible and hopeless book?

What Makes a Book Redeemable

I'll be fair. Some books have terrible content, but their overall message or intent is about more than just the terrible content.

Consider Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.




On the exterior, it's a seedy, gritty, graphic book: prisons, the slums of Paris, starving homeless people, prostitutes, child labor, thieves and swindlers getting ahead while everyone else suffers, disease, abuse, legalism, war, rebellion, slaughter, bloodshed, death.

Kind of hard to redeem that, right?

Incorrect.

Les Miserables is not about any of those, and it's not written to glorify or endorse any of those things. It's primary theme is about the changing power of God's grace.

The pivotal, defining scene comes early in the novel: when the wronged bishop shows grace (unearned favor) to the convict Jean Valjean after Valjean is caught trying to steal some of the priest's semi-valuable belongings. The bishop assures the officers who brought Valjean back that what Valjean took were gifts, and he seals the contention by reminding Valjean that he "forgot" to take the silver candlesticks, as well.

Valjean carries those candlesticks through hundreds of pages and many decades to the conclusion of the novel, where they sit on a little table in front of him when he finally dies of old age, having become an honest man of character and integrity.

The moment of change came from the bishop's gift: grace when Valjean deserved condemnation.

That's a powerful message, and a redeemable book, despite its harsh content.

Fifty Shades of Awful: Take Two

I'm sure, off the top of your head, you can name more than a dozen books that contain graphic, frightening, horrific content but have solidly redemptive themes. (Think To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Great Expectations, or Jane Eyre.)

The Fifty Shades trilogy has no such hope going for it.

James's books are graphically rendered depictions of sadistic sex scenes, one after another after another like beads on a string, physical and psychological abuse inflicted on a naive, trusting, foolish young girl who had no idea what she was getting into when she first walked into Christian Grey's office. Grey himself is a ruthless, cunning, emotionally manipulative, passive-aggressive person who gains pleasure from torturing others.

That the books conclude with Anastasia Steele reconciled to Grey's lifestyle, enough to agree to marry him and make it part of her everyday reality for the rest of her natural life, is that much worse: what's redemptive, uplifting, positive, or commendable about endorsing abusive, manipulative, controlling relationships?

The writing style is equally terrible, as discussed previously, and leaves much to be desired in the way of tolerable reading, let alone great literature up to the standards of many works previously published.

I simply object to (Jordan) Gray's attempt, in his article recommending what men can learn from James's trilogy, to personalize the books and even find praiseworthy points in it. When the overall message is so powerfully, ethically, immorally wrong, reading between the lines to glean a handful of halfhearted positive points for reader consumption is unnecessary and pointless.


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What do you think? Is there an overarching positive theme I'm missing in James's trilogy that might lend credence to its having positive content from which to learn?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Review: "Speak" (Laurie Halse Anderson)

High school is a three- or four-year stint most of us would pay NOT to have to repeat, for one reason or another: ostracism, teasing, manipulation, drama, and more roam the halls in every shape, form, and degree.




Melinda Sordino knows about ostracism, teasing, and drama. From her first day at high school, she's an outcast, practically a pariah, because she made a fateful phone call that broke up an end-of-summer party and resulted in the arrival of the police.

Now, no one will speak to her, and even the new girl, from out of state, who is at first friendly, eventually dumps her for more popular company. There isn't room in a single clique --- or clan, to use Melinda's term --- for her to belong. No space on the social hierarchy, determined by popularity, appearance, and whether or not you were loyal enough to your friends not to blow the whistle on them at a party.

The thing is, Melinda didn't call the police because of the party. She called for another reason, and it's a secret that haunts her, but she can't bring herself to talk about it in the face of so much hatred and anger. The only place she feels safe is in art class, where she struggles with a year-long project that turns out to be the key to unlocking her silence.

Author Laurie Halse Anderson writes an evocative, compelling, character-driven novel with Speak. Protagonist Melinda narrates the novel in bitterly ironical vignettes, uncovering one hypocrisy after another about high school in as sarcastic, cynical, and cutting a voice as only a teenager can produce.

From the very first paragraph --- "It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache" --- the immediacy of the first-person, present-tense point of view yanked me into the story and into Melinda's personal space, where, after just that first page, I was eager and more than willing to remain until the very last page.

Melinda is an eminently sympathetic character, three-dimensional, a fascinating mass of juxtapositions --- attitudinal teenager plus vulnerable artist --- that make her a pleasure to cheer for and side with throughout her story.

Awarded the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature by the American Library Association, Laurie Halse Anderson's YA novel Speak is one every teenager will empathize with, and one that every adult will appreciate.


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Title: Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
ISBN: 978-0-374-37152-4
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/1nOvkkd


Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Book Review: "The Hero of Blind Pig Island ..." (Jimmy Olsen)

Short story collections rarely seem to receive attention, let alone accolades, in the literary community these days. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many readers remember being force-fed short stories (Hawthorne, Poe, Chandler, all of whom wrote or write brilliantly) during grade school English classes and just can't bring themselves to pick up another now, as adults.

That's a tremendous shame, because such readers will assuredly miss excellent contemporary works by talented authors.

A fantastic story collection by an equally gifted author is The Hero of Blind Pig Island and Other Island Stories by Jimmy Olsen.




Olsen offers twelve short stories, including the award-winning "Wormwood," each with some connection to water or ocean or the Caribbean islands threading them together in a well-planned compilation. Genres represented range from romance to suspense, many with well-researched cultural contexts, such as "Sea Salt," about a young boy whose elderly mentor works to prize salt crystals from evaporated ocean water.

The stories also represent a wide continuum of tones and voices, some more serious and weighty than others, but most with either outright humor or an undercurrent of wry wit. "Party Girl," for instance, the first short in the collection, takes a tone of dry wit toward its contents but ends more poignantly than might be expected, according to Olsen's masterful writing style.

On the other hand, "Wet Passage," one of the weightier stories, has glances of humor, but its tone is decidedly opposite that of "Party Girl" --- far more focused, serious, and even darkly ironic.

Olsen's style vacillates from simple and straightforward, as in the short story "Denise," about a young woman told from the perspective of her first dive master, to almost literary, especially in its descriptions of the island settings, described with such detailed care that it's obvious Olsen has experienced each setting personally.

One sample of the evocative descriptions comes from "The Hero of Blind Pig Island," the short story that gives the collection its name: "Dark heavy mountains f cloud rose from the far end of the lake, towering into the summer sky, white tops swelling against the blue. Below, in their dark bellies, flashes of lightening [sic] brought them to life, storybook dragons born in a treacherous sky" (117).

Olsen writes with such straightforward honesty and precision that it's no surprise he's had a long career in the writing industry. I turned pages with delighted expectation, eager to see what new twist or unexpected characters would come next. 

It takes a great deal to write a masterful short story, to fit all the traditional standards of long fiction (plot, tone, diction, voice, character development, setting, theme) into a few thousand words. Jimmy Olsen's collection is a gem among its peers, published in the last ten years, and I am both gratified and honored to have been able to read and review the compilation.

I cannot recommend The Hero of Blind Pig Island and Other Island Stories highly enough, for its unique premises, lush and exotic (in every sense of the word) cast of characters, and compelling style. Olsen offers a truly worthwhile escape into an island-themed other world peopled with missionaries, party-goers, children, lovers, teachers, dive masters, and more.


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Title: The Hero of Blind Pig Island and Other Island Stories
Author: Jimmy Olsen
ISBN: 978-0-9801835-6-6
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/134EO1C


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this collection free from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinion I have expressed are my own.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Top Five: Best Writing-Related Articles from October 20-24

5. "The Absurd History of English Slang" on Salon.com (Jonathon Green)

Link: http://bit.ly/1rp3Lch

For those of you who can't get enough trivia, or those who love linguistics, or those who simply do everything they can to immerse themselves in all things related to writing, this essay is a gem. Green details the chronological development of slang in the English language in a lengthy but not at all dry article that is absolutely worth your time.

What slang words do you find yourself using? Which ones drive you crazy? Which ones, for writers, would your characters use?

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4. "A Major Triumph: Author Shari Arnold's Debut Young Adult Novel Is a Winner" on Huffington Post (Emily Liebert)

Link: http://huff.to/1tskiTE

One of the easiest ways to learn about the craft of writing and the life of a writer is to read author interviews. This post reveals an author passionate about writing, reader expectations, and creativity.

What author do you wish you could interview (living or deceased)? What would you ask?

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3. "Authors Share Their Best Writing Tips with NYPL" on New York Public Library (Tracy O'Neill)

Link: http://on.nypl.org/1yCk0c8

Never underestimate the power of a reminder about some aspect of writing, even if you've already heard everything before. In this article, with its eight short video clips, well-known authors from Toni Morrison to Zadie Smith summarize the best writing advice they can give.

What's the best writing-related tip you've ever heard? When and from whom did you hear it?

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2. "Inspired: Why All Writers Need to Try Scrivener Software" on Christa Rose Avampato

Link: http://bit.ly/ZQWoUG

Looking for the best (most user-friendly, most helpful, most organized ...) writing software to help with your latest manuscript? Everyone's talking about Scrivener, and after you read this post --- written by a writing software skeptic turned believer --- you might be, as well.

Do you use Scrivener? Do you know anyone who does? What would the best writing software program offer you in your writing routine and tendencies?

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1. "Steven Pinker Identifies 10 Breakable Grammatical Rules" on Open Culture

Link: http://bit.ly/ZLQhBq

Ever felt like an idiot trying to remember whether to use "who" or "whom" in a sentence? Steven Pinker, Harvard cognitive scientist, seems to understand the hangups. He's compiled a list of ten different grammatical rules that he says can actually be broken without anyone being harmed in the process. Check the post to find out what you can stop worrying about!

Do you think you'll adopt Pinker's stance? Which grammar rules make you stumble? Or are you a stickler for grammar and think that breaking rules will degrade the English language?

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Let me know what I missed from the week, and which post or article was most helpful to you in your current project.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Conference Insights: "What If?" Ideas

New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben gave the central keynote presentation during the August 2014 Writer's Digest Conference East in New York City.

Anyone who reads or writes thrillers and suspense will probably know him, given how well he writes and how tremendously well-known he is.

With more than twenty-five novels to his credit, Coben's creativity and imagination seem limitless. Inevitably, he told the audience of writers during his keynote, readers ask him where he gets his ideas.

His reply: "I'm from the 'What if ...?' school of thought."

Basic Story Idea Generation

If you hail from the "What if ...?" school of thought, you probably start your stories and novels with a question or two. You might read something, overhear something, meet someone, or try something that gets you thinking, What if ...?

It's one of the quickest (though not necessarily easiest) ways to summarize your plot structure in just a few words.

The "What If ...?" Premise

Another well-known author is from the same school. Stephen King, with dozens of novels published, discusses what he calls premise in his memoir-slash-craft book, On Writing. In essence, he, too, starts his novels and stories with a premise.

For example, read the following premise, or "What if ...?" question, for one of King's popular horror novels:

> What if a mother and her young son are trapped in a car by a rabid dog in the wilderness?

You've just summarized his book, Cujo, with that very supposition.

And it is a supposition. It's what happens when you look around you and begin to put components or variables together in your mind and turn them every direction to see how they might fit together. If I take that snippet of conversation I heard at the airport ... and combine it with the front-page news story about Ebola from yesterday's paper ... and add a treasure hunter, and his beloved goat ... where does that lead me?

It's amazing how those kinds of ideas will generate enough material for a compelling novel.

Practice

Take possibilities out of the newspaper, conversations, random happenings, or by joining several ideas together:

> What if a girl born conjoined to her twin brother survived the surgery to separate them but refused subsequent surgeries, preferring to make the best of what fate dealt her?

> What if a businessman went to a bar for a quick drink after work on his way home to his wife and a gang member mistook him for a hired killer?

> What if a woman scientist moved to Mongolia to work with the locals to combat a rare form of influenza and became the first human to contract the disease?

Your turn.

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Think about books you've read or movies you've seen, and try to summarize their content with a single "What if ...?" question.

What would the premise read if you summarized Jaws?

Disney's Frozen?

The Fugitive with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones?

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn?

Carolina Moon by Nora Roberts?

Caught by Harlan Coben?

Now you try. Work to summarize the plot of your current work-in-progress with a single "What if ...?" question (premise).

If you're not writing anything at the moment, or if you'd rather not use your work-in-progress, brainstorm five or ten different "What if ...?" questions that could become stories or novels. Pick the most evocative one, the one that really makes your imagination pulse, and write two hundred words. Where can you go with it now?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: "Teaching the Cat to Sit" (Michelle Theall)

Leo Tolstoy knew what he was talking about when he wrote, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (from his novel, Anna Karenina).

Memoirs are one of the most intimate ways readers can identify with the challenges, joys, and heartaches in others' lives, and perhaps feel that they have been understood, or empathized with, or that they are not alone in their own personal struggles.




Michelle Theall's memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, about "growing up gay and Catholic in the Texas Bible belt," according to Theall herself, is no exception.

Theall narrates the story of her fight to gain acceptance from her exacting, traditionalist mother for being who she really is, couched under the guise of gaining permission for her son Connor to be baptized and accepted at the Catholic preschool where he was enrolled before the preschool decided that the presence of students of gay parents sent a message that the Church was sanctioning such relationships.

The story of Theall's childhood --- her struggle to define herself and fit in, an act of betrayal by a trusted adult figure, and her inability to do enough to gain her mother's support and love --- is juxtaposed against the story of her struggle on behalf of the son she and her partner Jill adopted, that he be accepted into the Church that meant so much to Theall growing up, and not penalized for who his mothers are.

Theall, an accomplished writer and experienced author, imbues her story with wry humor and a natural, conversational tone that makes for easy, pleasurable reading, despite the often devastating subject matter. Who hasn't felt unwanted and under-appreciated by someone important? Who hasn't done everything possible, for a while, to try to redefine oneself in view of what others seem to expect? Theall can relate, in many more ways than one.

Here is a memoir both poignant and funny, tender and heartbreaking, in which Theall realizes her own gifts and comes to accept herself and the life with which she's been blessed (underscoring a timeless lesson), regardless of what others think of her.

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Title: Teaching the Cat to Sit
Author: Michelle Theall
ISBN: 978-1-4516-9729-2
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/1BvMAxB


Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: "Maggie Elizabeth Harrington" (DJ Swykert)

It takes a talented author to hook a reader from the very first line of a new novel.

DJ Swykert is one such author. His book, Maggie Elizabeth Harrington, the first in a series, begins with the following gem: "My father drowns my kittens."

Who couldn't keep reading after that?



Maggie Elizabeth is a thirteen-year-old girl, growing up in an historic time period (it's difficult to tell which decade or year, given that some of the dialogue, especially, is really too modern for a fully historical novel) with her father and grandmother. Her mother is dead, and she's convinced her father hates her.

Their life in a coal-mining town in Michigan is simple, even minimalist. Maggie Elizabeth has few friends, except a girl named Annie and Annie's older brother Tommie, on whom Maggie Elizabeth has a teenage crush. She recounts the typical life she lives, mundane and predictable, until the day she rescues a litter of wolf pups from a bounty hunter. Then everything changes.

I'd categorize the book's genre as a coming-of-age historical novel, but some of its contents is fairly graphic, psychologically, making this book a better choice for older teenagers (young adult, perhaps) than children or even preteens.

Maggie Elizabeth tells the story in the first-person point of view, in a unique kind of teenage-angst, stream-of-consciousness style. The repetitive commentary --- her father doesn't like her because her mother died; she doesn't think her father likes her; she doesn't know why her father doesn't talk to her; he talks to God but not to her; he never talks to her --- is perhaps accurately teenage to some extent, but after several chapters driving home the same few points, it becomes genuinely repetitive and less endearing.

The other challenge to the stream-of-consciousness style is that it makes for some long, wordy paragraphs. Long paragraphs tend to diminish my interest in the story because I feel like I'm slogging through a lot of information; I just personally prefer a faster-paced story, which lends itself to shorter paragraphs. I think that if this novel is ever reworked for another edition, most of the paragraphs could be broken up to maintain reader interest.

The point of view for the majority of the novel is present tense, which adds to the eager, girlish voice of the protagonist, except in a few places when it switches unexpectedly into past tense for no technical reason; that issue could be resolved, in future editions, with a thorough proofread, which would also catch the periodic errors in punctuation, capitalization, and cliches.

As a means with which to convey the historical setting, the dialogue between characters is sometimes evocative and genuine. Occasionally, though, it comes across as stilted and unrealistic ("... I would like to know one way or the other, that's all") and with an odd combination of historic and modern diction.

As far as a coming-of-age novel, the story "problem" (six months in the life of a teenage girl) is more psychological than actual. The actual, physical story problem --- to protect and care for the wolf pups as they grow, and keep them hidden from hunters --- arrives in chapter 3, which may be too late for some readers who are more used to that problem arriving earlier in the novel.

By the end of the novel, Maggie Elizabeth has grown stronger and more comfortable in her own identity. I had some questions about how that transformation happened, given that the climax of the novel (just prior to her moment of self-realization) is neither positive nor especially redeemable, and, indeed, one of the most difficult parts of the novel to read and understand.

Then again, perhaps I'm accustomed to happy endings.

Nonetheless, for older teens, young adults, or adults, Swykert's novel is an intriguing, engaging insight into the wishes and dreams of a teenage girl at a period in history when girls were ordinarily meant to be seen and not heard. Maggie Elizabeth is largely a likable character, and her voice is earnest and different than one might expect, making the book a pleasure to read, despite the often sad and difficult content.

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Title: Maggie Elizabeth Harrington
Author: DJ Swykert
ISBN: 978-1490515670
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/1ylSEXE


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Top Five: Best Writing-Related Articles from October 13-17

5. "Ten Lessons from Plot & Structure" on The Kill Zone (James Scott Bell)

Link: http://bit.ly/1nwWTP2

When in doubt, reach for an expert to tell you how to muddle through that middle, or what kind of structure your novel needs. James Scott Bell is one of the very best. Check out this brief post celebrating the tenth anniversary of his invaluable writing craft book, Plot & Structure (Writer's Digest Books).

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4. "Creativity on the Run: 18 Apps that Support the Creative Process" on Edutopia (Diane Darrow)

Link: http://bit.ly/ZLzHBw

Technology isn't always the easiest thing to use, especially when it decides not to work for you, but when you can make it work for you, some aspects of life (and writing) get infinitely easier. Here's a survey of eighteen different apps that really help creative minds. It's even conveniently divided according to what part of the writing process you're facing.

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3. "Um or Er: Which Do You, Um, Use More in, Er, Conversation?" on The Guardian (Stuart Jeffries)

Link: http://bit.ly/1rdvMDB

Few people, writers or not, will argue that the English language seems to be declining, sometimes from one moment (or article) to the next. On the other hand, even the best public speakers, when caught off-guard, might drop a monosyllabic placeholder into conversation. Which one is your downfall?

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2. "The Complete A to Z Guide to Personal Branding [Infographic]" on Lifehack (presented by Feldman Creative and Placester)

Link: http://bit.ly/1v2Zi57

Even authors are building a personal brand, whether you think about it or not. The way you present yourself to the public ... the social media you choose to use to reach your intended audience and build your platform ... the persona you consistently portray online ... all if it together is your personal brand. This infographic is one to save and revisit!

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1. "Creative Writing Courses Are Killing Western Literature, Claims Nobel Judge" on The Guardian (Alison Flood)

Link: http://bit.ly/ZQ3NEH

Nothing like a controversial piece to get conversation going. Horace Engdahl, Swedish Academy member and a judge for the Nobel prize for literature, is of the stated opinion that United States writers, with their creative writing programs, MFA degrees, grants, and residencies, are too beholden to institutions to be truly creative. His thesis seems to be that the odds of an American writer winning a Nobel prize for literature decrease with each passing generation. What are your thoughts?

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There's the lineup for the week. What did I miss? Which did you find most applicable?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: Picking Uncommon Apples

I suspect the reason I enjoy Chuck Wendig's weekly writing prompts so much is that I never know what to expect when I open the email for the new week.

This week, we're writing about apples. (Or, at least, names of apples.)

Go figure.

At any rate, thanks to Chuck, as always, for a thought-provoking prompt, and thoughts and prayers for him and his family right now as they work to handle a devastating situation with their beautiful dog, Tai.


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Holiday

Jarret got home, went to the kitchen without taking off his shoes, and found Lacy sitting at the table in the dark. She had a cup of coffee in front of her.

"Where were you?" she said.

"Out." Jarret poured himself a cup and didn't sit down across from her.

"I waited."

"Okay."

"Is that it?"

"I'm not going to apologize." The coffee was lukewarm, had been sitting around a while. Jarret drained the cup and set it in the sink.

Lacy exhaled behind him. "You know about Matt Oliver?"

He closed his eyes. "What about Matt?"

"He enlisted, last night." The tremor in her voice says that her throat is working, forcing down a lump. "He'll be gone Monday."

"Likewise." Too late to back out now. Jarret turned around.

Lacy stared at him with dry blue eyes. "What did you say?"

He cleared his throat. "Matt and I enlisted together."

Her eyes hardened. "You weren't going to tell me."

"I didn't say that."

"Were you?"

"Christ, Lacy, it doesn't mean anything." He swung around to leave, fighting a headache, fighting exhaustion. Fighting guilt.

Her chair scraped across the tile floor. "What do you think you're going to find?" she said, her voice sharp.

Jarret didn't turn around. "A holiday. What else?"


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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: "Into the Darkest Corner" (Elizabeth Haynes)

Never underestimate the potential of someone to stay with you, psychologically terrifying, long past the end of your acquaintance.



Psychological thriller Into the Darkest Corner, by then-debut author Elizabeth Haynes, catapults the reader immediately into the world of protagonist Cathy Bailey. Cathy is plagued by PTSD, nightmares, insomnia, and out-of-control obsessive-compulsive disorder because of a horrifically abusive and controlling past relationship.

Her abuser, Lee, is soon to be released from his tenure in prison, and Cathy suddenly and reluctantly becomes the object of interest (professionally, at first) to her neighbor, Stuart, who turns out to be a clinical psychologist much like those from her past who never believed that she was the victim. When Lee is finally released, Cathy's new life and fledgling healing from her past starts to shatter all over again as he goes right back to stalking her, intent on either possessing her wholly, body and soul, or killing her so no one else can ever have her.

Suspenseful is too tame a word for a work like this one. Author Haynes elected to splice Cathy Bailey's two stories --- her present with the significant part of her recent past --- and telling the two tales alongside one another serve to heighten the tension even further, as the reader learns something about the way Lee worked in the past and then realizes that he's trying to do the same thing in the present day.

Readers also can't help but sympathize with Cathy, whose coping mechanisms with her past trauma leave much to be desired from a medical and psychological standpoint, but which make her a genuine, believable human figure, three-dimensional and likable from the start. Her foil, Stuart, as stable, rational, and consistent as she is not, balances her compulsive emotional tendencies, and their dialogue exchanges are especially realistic.

It's also likely that I identified so closely with this book because I was once in a situation similar to Cathy's. If not for the miraculous and unearned support of friends, family, mentors, and counselors, I might have ended the same way after a frightening, controlling relationship in my own past.

Prepare for long and sleepless nights as you race through this brilliantly crafted novel to its heartbreaking conclusion.


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Title: Into the Darkest Corner
Author: Elizabeth Haynes
ISBN: 978-0-06-219725-2
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/1q8LchL


Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Silent Wife" (A. S. A. Harrison)

Author A. S. A. Harrison completed her debut novel, The Silent Wife, and was at work on a second novel when she unexpectedly died in 2013. The work is a testament to a style of writing nearly outdated in many literary circles today, and well worth the time it takes to read (not long, given the suspense factor at work).




Jodi is a classy, eminently patient wife who busies herself keeping house and maintaining an orderly social schedule. Her husband, Todd, is a hopeless philanderer, addicted to the rush he gets from each new woman he conquers and takes to bed. They have functioned in this dysfunctional way --- both in denial, both looking the other direction, both determined to keep up appearances --- for years, and might have continued in the same way.

Then Todd's latest conquest, his best friend's college-aged daughter Natasha, gets pregnant and demands that he leave Jodi to marry her and give their baby legitimacy. Caught between two worlds --- the familiar, predictable comfort of the one he's always known with Jodi and the simultaneously fascinating and cloying one he feels obligated to build with Natasha --- Todd makes a series of decisions that tear his life apart.

Meanwhile, Jodi remains a pillar, the rejected wife, long-suffering, who had never wronged her beloved husband, but her resentment toward him grows with each new betrayal and revelation his actions cause. Finally, presented with an opportunity to rid herself of him indefinitely and rebuild her orderly life the way she has always liked it, she goes the distance to keep Todd from continuing to hurt her.

The Silent Wife is a psychological thriller, granted, but the style in which it is written is a flowing, lilting one that makes me want to categorize the work as literary fiction. Consider gems like this evocative sentence that serve to ground the reader into the immediacy of the story:

"Clear pale daylight pours through the window, heightening every detail of the small room: the laundry mark a black smudge on her turned-back sheet, the soft weave of her blue blanket, the mint-colored walls showing patches of discoloration, on her bedside locker the spreading poinsettia, on the window ledge the speckled lilies whose sweet, rotting smell has been invading her dreams" (p. 316).

Each chapter is written in third-person present tense from either "his" or "her" perspective, and the tension mounts until the momentum of the story tumbles inevitably toward its shocking conclusion.

Jodi is a sympathetic protagonist, unjustifiably wronged by the man to whom she's committed her life. Todd excels unbelievably at justifying his increasingly poor choices. The fireworks torched by their combined presences and interactions in the novel may be only psychological and emotional in nature (rather than outright physical) but nevertheless leave the reader with no doubt as to which side is in the right.

A fantastic work, unexpected and frightening in its intensity, I feel privileged to have come across it myself.


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Title: The Silent Wife
Author: A. S. A. Harrison
ISBN: 978-0-14-312323-1
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/1ADkbmM


Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Top Five: Best Writing-Related Articles from October 6-10

5. "Word Fact: What's the Difference Between a Homograph, Homonym, and Homophone?" on Dictionary.com

Link: http://bit.ly/11an6sJ

If you're the kind of person who is fascinated by diction and wordplay (read: poets, authors, bloggers ...) and who loves to be "in the know" about obscure figures of speech, you'll be entertained by this post. It's just a brief overview of three words that everybody confuses. How do you remember the difference?


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4. "7 Journal Writing Prompts for Beginners" on Huffington Post (Naomi Arnold)

Link: http://huff.to/1tS5nNA

A lot of research has been conducted to track the use of journaling in mental and emotional health and stability. If you've never kept a journal before, it's worth a chance. This post gives you a week's worth (if you journal every day) of prompts to get you started. Which one inspires you most?


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3. "5 Tips for Plotting a Mystery" on Fiction University (Pamela Fagan Hutchins)

Link: http://bit.ly/1qOzB1R

My favorite part of this post is the author's assertion that even if you're not writing a mystery novel --- if you're writing, say, science fiction or romance or adventure instead --- you can learn and benefit from studying how a mystery writer sets up his or her novel. After all, every work of fiction has questions that keep the reader guessing, wondering, and turning pages. Don't let the title of this post stop you from checking it out --- if you write fiction at all, it applies to you! Which tip do you find most enlightening?


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2. "Top 10 Tips for Being a Best-Selling Author" on BBC News (Alison Feeney-Hart)

Link: http://bbc.in/1vENCp9

Bestselling author Sophie Kinsella lists her best pieces of advice for authors to be successful, and then explains her reasoning behind each one. From carrying a notebook everywhere to planning your project before you start, each tip is like a quick look inside Kinsella's own writing process, and it's a fascinating view! Which piece of advice haven't you heard before?


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1. "6 Things We Need to Stop Doing as Writers" on Thought Catalog (Rubee Dano)

Link: http://tcat.tc/1nigxy0

The debate about whether to call yourself a writer or an author rages on. Meanwhile, no matter what you call yourself, are you inhibiting your creativity or productivity in other ways? Glance over the list in this post. Which trap have you fallen into? Do you have advice for how to get out of that mindset?


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There's the top five for the week --- if I missed anything important, let me know. Which article was most helpful for you?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Flash Fiction Challenge: From Sentence to Story

Thanks as always to Chuck Wendig at terribleminds for his weekly writing prompt. This week, I'd like to credit Justin, who (last week) wrote the perfect sentence I chose to begin my flash fiction piece (maximum 1,000 words) this week.

Enjoy!

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Hunted


I open my eyes and the sky explodes.

Isn't that supposed to come before I open my eyes? Before I had to close my eyes in the first place?

"Damn you, Reese, move!"

Hard hands haul me off the ground and shove me forward. The skyline is bisected by a column of fire, flanked with billowing black smoke going miles in each direction.

Mick darts into my peripheral vision, running hard beside me. Sweat streams down his face. "He who hesitates ---"

"--- stays lost, yeah, I know!" I swipe my arm over my eyes and keep running. My lungs burn. "The hell was that?"

"The transport."

"Christ." Heat sears my nostrils. "Now what?"

"Pick up what's left."

I stumble and splash through swampy reeds. Warm water oozes like slime into my pants and shoes. "Where's Cora?"

He jerks his chin back over his shoulder. "I came to find you."

"She's on her way?"

"She'll be fine." He draws a sidearm from a holster on his thigh and passes it to me. "Here."

"Where's mine?" This weapon sits oddly in my hand.

Mick cut his eyes back to the cloud of flames ahead of us, wordless.

I have to work to swallow a groan. "Great."

The miles of boggy, humid terrain fall away under our feet as we tear toward the wreckage. Who the hell thought it was a good idea to eliminate our sole means of escape?

What if Cora ... ?

"Wait!" Mick drags me to a stop behind an outcropping. "See anything?"

"There's not going to be anything left, damn it." I bend over, hands on my thighs, heaving smoky air in and out of my lungs. "We're not going to find a thing."

"Not with that kind of attitude." Mick palms his sidearm. "C'mon."

He's not even breathing hard. I flip him off and draw my sidearm.

He gives me half a crooked smile --- "Show time" --- and presses close to the outcropping, ready to duck around it.

"Wait!"

We turn as one, weapons aimed. Another millisecond, and Mick and I really would have been the only ones left. I lower my weapon.

Cora stands behind us, a few yards back. Her clothes are shredded, her face and arms smeared with soot. Her eyes burn dark. "There's nobody left."

Mick puts up his sidearm. "Sure?"

"I checked."

"Everything?"

She doesn't move. "The shell's missing, too."

"Damn." Mick sags back against the rock. "Probably the same person that killed Derek."

I straighten to work a cramp out of my calf. "You think?"

But Cora's shaking her head. "I don't think Derek's dead."

"Bull" is all I can think to say. Derek is --- was --- my best friend. I'd know if he was still alive.

"He was down." Mick tips his head back. "I saw him go down."

"I don't think he's dead." Her lips firm into a thin line. "I think he's the one that destroyed the transport."

"You're on something." My voice comes out a snarl, and blood pounds in my temples. "He wouldn't ---"

She holds out her hand and opens it, stopping me. Mick steps closer to see, too.

Derek's handwriting, harsh, across a scrap of paper. Look behind you.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: "Goals!" (Brian Tracy)

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that you've never felt like you manage to finish a task.

Or you have a lot of dreams and hopes, but they never seem to come to fruition.

Or you spend a lot of time working, and you have no idea what you're getting out of working so much because you don't really know what you're working toward.

Or you look around at where other people are and think that maybe you just lack the education, or the potential, or the drive, or the passion, or the work ethic to make it like they did.

But what if you could tackle life in such a way that you knew you couldn't fail? You'd succeed at whatever you put your hand to? You knew exactly why you show up at work every morning, precisely what you're working toward, and definitively how soon you're going to achieve success?



Brian Tracy, entrepreneur, businessman, and author of Goals!: How to Get Everything You Want --- Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible, may be the answer to the problem. Tracy recounts his own experience working a number of different jobs but never really getting anywhere, until he started to conduct research into the lives of top-performing business types in the field. Patterns began to emerge.

From those patterns, Tracy gleaned seven key elements of setting goals and twelve steps anyone can take to establish goals and achieve them. This book is his recounting of all of that information, which he frequently presents in person to huge audiences.

The book certainly provides a number of useful reminders about how to set goals based on your own personal value system and priorities. Tracy recommends things like "becoming an expert in your field" (Chapter 11) and talks about time management skills and persistence. For someone looking for a guide to take his or her life in a different direction, Tracy's book is as good as any.

The message may or may not jive with some readers, who will have been schooled that the definition of "greatness" is not necessarily monetary and professional success.

It may also not align with those who don't necessarily believe that you make your own luck, and you define your own greatness by how hard you're willing to work. Sometimes, hard work and dedication don't necessarily provide you with precisely the goals you had in mind. Sometimes, you find out that the goals you had in mind all along weren't really good for you.

Nevertheless, Tracy is a charismatic presenter of information, and the book is worth a read if you're looking to glean some ideas on how to set and take action on your goals.

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Title: Goals!: How to Get Everything You Want --- Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible
Author: Brian Tracy
ISBN: 978-1605094113
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/Z5OmaT


Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: "Cordell's Poems of Spiritual Inspiration" (Mack "Cordell" Moore)

Poetry chapbooks don't get much attention these days simply because much poetry doesn't get a lot of attention anymore, unless you're in a literature class or an MFA program.

Nonetheless, chapbooks continue to be published, and poetry is as valid and legitimate a means of communication as are fiction, creative nonfiction, and screenwriting.

Author Mack "Cordell" Moore wrote and compiled his recent chapbook, Cordell's Poems of Spiritual Inspiration, published just this year in its second edition. Its heartfelt dedication indicates the intended audience and purpose for the work: to reach believers in Christ and to touch those who do not believe.



Twenty-four pieces --- all free-form, some with rhymes --- come together to send a Biblically sound, if pedantic, message about the love of God for His people, the fallen nature of humankind, the attributes of God, temptation, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, life in a fallen world, peace, stress, salvation, heaven, and much more.

I will say with absolute assurance that I believe Moore writes from his heart and from his Scriptural understanding of the Bible and the God magnified in its pages. His pieces are consistent and sound, and even include Scripture verses and references.

If I had one wish to improve the impact and outreach of this chapbook, it would be for the pieces to be more poem-like and less sermon-like.

My issue is not with the content of the chapbook; it's with the readability of what's marketed as poetry when it doesn't read like poetry. Rhymes at the ends of lines don't equal poetry. The message is clear, but I think a different genre --- perhaps creative nonfiction, or essays --- might have made the impact even more direct.

Some of the pieces feel repetitive and dry, without a lot of approachable content for readers. Some of the pieces seem to wander without clear direction. A close editorial read prior to publication would likely have cleared up errors in consistency, focus, form, diction, and style.

I would also add a caution to those who don't believe in Christ, who don't identify as Christians, that the chapbook owes its entire perspective to someone who is familiar with God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and all the related ins and outs of the faith. The tones of some of the pieces come across as condescending, or even lecturing, which may be offensive to some people.

The message is present. The means of delivery would have benefited from extra work.


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Title: Cordell's Poems of Spiritual Inspiration
Author: Mack "Cordell" Moore
Edition: 2nd
ASIN: B00IK7EJ48
Purchase here: http://amzn.to/1vRYnVh


Disclaimer: I received a copy of this chapbook free from the author in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.