The Alchemy of a Story

What makes a good book a great book?  

A question that has been debated by far more brilliant minds than mine.  But what the heck!  Let’s pour out some more tea, pull up a chair and see what we come up with.

I just finished reading two books –

“Murder Most Austen” by Tracy Kiely and “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham.

They were both good books, but only Maugham’s was a great book.  But before you go all I-knew-you-were-going-to-say-that, let me just take a moment to say why.

The Kiely book was everything it said it was going to be.  It was fun and charming and it took me away to The Jane Austen Festival in Bath, where I have always wanted to go.  The author kept me interested in the story and her descriptions were well written enough to where I felt the experience of the festival, as much as the heroine.  This book helped me accomplish a goal.  It had aided in my escape from the realities of an almost fifty-year old working mother.

But it didn’t make me….feel. 

Maugham did that.  In his meandering, lengthy character study, with no great plot twists, he somehow poked a hole in me and I felt.  When I closed the book last night, I lay in my bed with the melancholy of a trip ended, a passage closed.  Larry, Isabel, Sophie, Eliot, they were truly gone and I felt such an emptiness.  But they were never real people.  They were only words on a page…letters strung together.

Words and letters only….words and letters that made me feel.

How is that possible?

I can’t even being to contemplate.

But isn’t it amazing.

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Monday Morning Book Reviews

Good Morning!

I have two book reviews today- one good and one bad!  Both are non-fiction, which is something I have been getting into lately, and that’s a whole other discussion.  Stay tuned!

Book 1Tales of Remarkable Birds, Dominic Couzens

I picked up this book because of the images and I stayed because of the writing.  To be honest, birds kinda scare me.  They are all fluffy and colorful, but then they have those weird talon feet and sometimes they have the crazy eye and…ugh!!!  But this book not only had amazing photography, but the writing was some of the best non-fiction writing I have read in a while.  Each bird has it’s own little chapter and the facts about them are, yes, REMARKABLE, yet the writing is so entertaining I could not put it down. Every night I would look forward to my time reading this book and every morning I would beg my husband, “Please, let me share my bird facts, please!”

Book 2The Gratitude Diaries, Janice Kaplan

I’m sorry, but the whole idea of this book turned my stomach.  This premise of this exercise in torture is a rich, white woman decides to be grateful for her doctor husband, handsome, successful kids, privileged lifestyle and she meets up with movie stars such as Matt Damon and Daniel Craig, who are also grateful.  Wow.  And she writes a bit like a teenage girl also.  I picked up the book because I have been working on being more grateful myself and I wanted to read the experience of someone who focused solely on the subject for a year.   But what I got was a sticky-sweet companion who I was ready to smack by chapter three.  It didn’t bother me that she has a wonderful lifestyle, but nothing she did seemed difficult.  I wanted to hear from the mom whose child has been diagnosed with cancer or the homeless person or the teenager in a foster home.  This woman didn’t even really have a house or car repair!  And how does she still have friends?  She kept meeting her friends who actually had some difficulties in their lives and she advises them to be grateful instead of getting upset(Just ignore the fact that your marriage is in the toilet!) and getting a pretty new journal and write down how grateful you are you can eat lunch with her!

“Janice, honey, I’m happy for you, but could you just once drive your cheerful

attitude to an intensive care unit and find out how hard gratitude can really be?  Sure, you can finish your cappuccino with Matt Damon first.” 

 

Remember the Ladies – review, part 1

“… Gina Mulligan weaves a tale as captivating and unpredictable as the back-room political deals forged by her colorful cast of characters.” — Kristina McMorris, New York Times bestselling author of The Pieces We Keep

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So reads one of the endorsements for Gina L. Mulligan’s new book, Remember the Ladies, a book about fighting for women’s right to vote at the turn of the century. It’s an appealing story idea, particularly in a time when in many ways women are still not considered equals, and it sometimes feels like women’s rights are actually going backwards.

(For a link to the NPR story about young women’s lack of empowerment over their own bodies and sexual decisions, or a link to Oklahoma’s ridiculous loophole to the rape law, or a link to how condoms are covered by health insurance reimbursements while maxi pads and tampons or not, see the bottom of this post. Ugh, America. Seriously.)

It’s situations like this, though, that make a book like Remember the Ladies important. Every woman should be fully aware of the continuing need to fight for our rights and to be seen as the equals to men that we are – to be seen as full humans, really.

Mulligan reminds us of what it takes to be a fighter by giving us a strong female protagonist who is lively and engaging without being in a superhero suit. Amelia Cooke, the story’s heroine, is the kind of person who simply likes to use the brain God gave her. I mean, she’s smart. She’s observant. And she wants to help people.

She’s also an orphan, and she goes through a system in the late 1800s that basically trains her to be a housewife, even though she clearly shows plenty of talent for being a leader in intellectual pursuits, business or politics. She’s a Type A in a world that doesn’t even acknowledge women can be anything but Type Bs. But Amelia is tough and determined, and she makes it to Washington, D.C. and becomes a lobbyist against all odds.

Full disclosure here… I’m only halfway through the book right now, but I wanted to post today because I received an ARC of the book and was asked to review it upon its release, which is this week. I’ll review it again after I finish reading it, because to me, a full book review has to address whether the author nailed the ending or not.

But in the meantime, I can tell you why I’d recommend reading this book…and also what I feel Mulligan might want to work on for her next novel.

First, what I like: Amelia, Amelia, Amelia. I love her inventiveness, her backbone, her occasional moments of “feminine weakness” as people in her day might have called it (in other words, she is attracted to a certain man, and that’s nice to see). She’s also someone I can relate to, because it’s not easy to be smart in a world that doesn’t always welcome smart people who point out problems that no one wants pointed out. I’m just glad I live now instead of in 1887.

I also love the setting, which is well drawn and easy to imagine. The story starts off with a bang – a really strong first chapter, actually, with great hooks that I suspect will grab most readers and keep them reading. That’s no easy task for a writer, and I admire that Mulligan has pulled that off. And I like most of the secondary characters too – they feel real and have their distinctive tics that make them stand out.

What I’m not loving, and what I hope either gets better by the end of this book or better in Mulligan’s next book, is her development of the story’s antagonist. In Remember the Ladies, the bad guy is Edward Stillman. Naturally, this is the guy Amelia is attracted to, before they have a falling out that pits them at odds with one another. It’s not the end of the world to use what is essentially a trope, but I like authors to do it a bit more deftly. Something about Stillman feels forced, as if he has to be the bad guy because of (A) a father who’s essentially an abusive lowlife, and (B) a misunderstanding that could easily have been cleared up if both Stillman and Amelia actually talked to each other.

I have a friend – actually, it’s Purple Inker Donna Leahey who posts here too – and she doesn’t like it when plot advances solely because two characters don’t talk to each other about something that seems obvious to talk about. I have to agree with her on this, at least as far as Remember the Ladies is concerned. I can see why Amelia doesn’t bring the issue out into the open – she’s been orphaned, she’s been judged, and she’s afraid to open herself up and get hurt.

But what’s Stillman’s excuse? There are not enough details given to make his reasoning sympathetic, and as a result, he comes across as a big baby. I think this ultimately boils down to Mulligan’s portrayal of Stillman in a rather one-note way. The character lacks the dimensions, contradictions, and depths that could give his actions and political positions more justification.

Bottom line, though, I like the story, I like the history, I like the characters, especially Amelia… So I’ll keep reading. And I’ll post part 2 of the review next week.

Now… For those links on egregious treatment of women in 2016 America…

NPR’s ‘Girls & Sex’ and the Importance of Talking to Young Women About Pleasure

The Tampon Tax

Oklahoma’s dumbass exception to rape, which is thankfully being fixed

Also, here’s more on Remember the Ladies and author Gina L. Mulligan if you’re interested…

In an election year, debut novelist Gina L. Mulligan brings us a book that serves as necessary reminder of the all-consuming passion of a group of dedicated women who fought for the right to vote. Set in the extravagant Gilded Age, Remember the Ladies (May 18, 2016; Five Star Publishing; Hardcover; $25.95) explores the conflict between the sexes with delightful writing and elegant descriptions, which brings the reader back to a time when the struggle for women’s equality had just begun.
 
Growing up in an orphanage prepared Amelia Cooke for the high-stakes role of a female lobbyist surrounded by the egos of the 1887 Congress, a time before women had the right to vote. Her success in the isolating male arena comes from using the tactics she’s learned from those who oppressed her. So when she’s hired by the National Women’s Suffrage Association to help pass a proposed constitutional amendment granting women’s voting rights, Amelia feels empowered to at last win a place for herself and give all women a voice in the world. What she doesn’t foresee is the charismatic and calculating Senator Edward Stillman who threatens to ruin her hard-earned reputation and end her career.
 
Edward Stillman is desperate for status and power among Washington’s Old Guard. To gain control of the most dominant committee in the Senate, Stillman must crush the women’s amendment and anyone else in his way, including Amelia. He’s driven, clever, and willing to exploit any advantage. But in a political game where bribery, threats, extortion, and seduction prevail, each player must decide just how low they are willing to let the fight go. Who will win? And at what cost?
 
Mulligan is the founder of Girls Love Mail, a Northern California based national nonprofit that collects hand-written letters of encouragement and gets them to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. To date, the organization has delivered more than 60,000 letters to women across the U.S., and has been featured on The Steve Harvey Show and in Women’s Day, Babble, BUST, and Woman’s World.

Taking advice from Walter – Book Review

8276784._UY200_.jpg This book caught my eye at the library the other day.

It was facing out, so instead of a book’s usual standoffish, spine only stance, this one stared me right in the face.

“So it’s my year?” I said to the book, mockingly.   I picked it up, added it to my growing stack and read it in an hour that same night.  Before you get all impressed with that let me point out, it’s only 103 pages long.

I found it a strange little book.  It’s not a time management plan nor is it very inspirational.  It’s kind of a how to, but more of a “how I would do it,” “I” being Walter Mosley.

One of the oddest parts for me was when he gave examples of a possible plots…

Say you want to write a story about a young family being raped, tortured and blinded.  Several members are killed and the two that escape then live absolutely horrible lives constantly haunted by the trauma they endured. 

or

For example, let’s say you have a plot about a stupid, young woman who is attempting to empty out her college fund to give to her worthless boyfriend, who has recently been jailed in an underage prostitution sting. 

I’m sorry….what?  I read these sections through twice just to make sure I hadn’t fallen asleep and was having a nightmare.

Wow!  Those are  pretty extreme examples of  plot lines, aren’t they,  Walter? 

I almost put the book down at this point, but it was only 103 pages long and I would think myself a bit cowardly if I didn’t finish 103 pages….so I read on.

Mosely goes on to show how you(he) could takes such horrific images and craft them into redeeming fiction.  So, good for you, Walter.  

And I never really got how any of the book related to me.

A struggler, an attempter, a person who would love to get published, but faces insecurity and doubt.  In other words, a fellow artist who looks towards the Walter Mosely’s of the world for guidance and inspiration, not examples of how good they already are.

For me, the book felt just like that project from elementary school you were all excited about, but when you asked your mom for help, she took it over and didn’t listen to any of your suggestion because she was “helping you make it better, honey.”

So you ended up with a poster board about Egypt that didn’t look anything like what you had planned, but somehow it had your name on it.

 

 

Book Review – The Cavendon Women-It’s Utterly Amazing- But not in a good way.

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Oh, my!  Oh, my!

This was a very strange book.  I actually thought it was so silly, I found myself laughing out loud and then repeating the dialogue out loud just to make sure I read it accurately.

Some of my personal favs…

“Can I be a bridesmaid?” asked Dulcie.

“Yes, you can, Dulcie.  And you too, Deirdre and you too, DeLacy, and I shall be Matron of Honor, because I am married.” 

“But we don’t have any bridesmaids dresses,” said Dulcie, making a moue(this is an overly pretentious word for pouty face.)

Strange, but these women are all adults. I thought I was reading the script from one of those Barbie movies.

Get ready for spoilers!

All the women in the Ingham family are the same woman.  Blonde, lovely, kind and generous beyond measure with the most amazing colored eyes. The only way I could tell them apart was the subtle hints dropped in dialogue.

Example, and I’m paraphrasing…

“It’s quite difficult opening an art gallery.  One has to find the art and all..” (Aha, that’s Dulcie- the youngest of the insipid blondes!)

The men of the Ingham family hardly inspire any confidence.  At the opening of the book Miles, really- his name is Miles, is musing about how after he threw Cecily over years ago to marry for money. He is now prepared to ask her again because the first marriage didn’t work out. He just brings it up as they discuss seating arrangements and appetizers for the family weekend he is planning.  What to do first?  The proposal or pick the colors of the napkins, eh Miles?

The Earl spent some time checking the vaults making sure the family investment jewels are all there.  Whoops!  Something is missing!  The clan comes to the conclusion the Earl’s ex wife must have taken some and they all spend about a page wondering what to do with this crisis.  Finally someone comes up with the idea of asking for it back and all is well again!

The Ingham’s skip around the Hall with no real thoughts or feelings.  Even when a character ends up with a dead man in her bed(yet, another Downton Abby steal!) she get’s over it pretty quickly and is off skipping again in no time.

Let’s take a moment to discuss the Swann’s.  Who are these people?

The idea behind this family is they have been sworn to protect the Ingham family because the Ingham stupidity goes way back. And so they do.  Every single time!!!  In fact it is good old Cecily who ends up saving the day, aka Cavendon Hall.  I assume because Miles was too busy comparing color swatches at the time.

Why was this book written?

A) To show us that you really don’t have to have good dialogue or employ the “show don’t tell” rule at all to have a bestseller?

B) Because we want to believe that rich people are wonderful kind and dumb as rocks at the same time?

C) Good will alway conquer mild annoyances? There is no real evil in the book, unless you count endless descriptions of dinner parties, which in this case I did!

D) Because the word “shan’t” has been neglected.  “Oh, I shan’t wear the the pink gown!  I shan’t, I tell you!”

My overall recommendation is read this book when you are feeling down.

It brought a smile to my face with every page.

Pg. 177-

Daphne to her husband Hugo, who is sitting in the library. 

“Can I come in, darling or am I intruding?” 

Hugo jumps up, takes her by the hand and pulls her into the room. 

“You never intrude on my life, Daphne.  I am filled with joy every time I see you.  If I could I would even take you to the office with me, so we would never be apart ever!” 

Daphne threw her head back and laughed at his impetuous declaration. 

I loved it!  Not only the knee slapper about taking her to the office, but the implication that he is filled with joy even when she walks in when he is perhaps using the facilities!

 

 

 

Book Review – Cavendon Hall – Edwardian England at it’s most mundane

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This Christmas my Mother gave me a copy of Cavendon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford. When she gave it to me she exclaimed, “I got one too! We can read it together! We will both just love it!”

“That’s odd,” I thought as I unwrapped the book, “Since when have our tastes ever matched?” I love Star Trek, she hates it. She loves Clint Eastwood movies, I can’t sit through them. We don’t agree on food, clothes, art, politics, religion or child raising. But she had high hopes for this book and I tried…I really tried!

Spoiler Alerts!!! Turn back now!!! It’s not going to be pretty!!! You have been warned!!!!

Cavendon Hall is the story of a Downton Abbey wanna be big house complete with wealthy family and devoted servants, the Ingrams(wealthy family) and the Swanns(devoted servants.) The Swanns have served the Ingram family like blind sheep for hundreds of years with no thought of ever leaving.
“Loyalty binds us.”
It’s the motto of the Swann family and boy, get more then two of then together and they start spouting off “Loyalty binds us,” every third sentence. The job of the devoted servant family is to solve all the problems of the Ingram family and keep the beds made and the chamberpots clean. And that’s just fine with them! Yep! It’s all good!
Just keep those problems coming Ingram family because the Swanns, who are clearly 10 times smarter than the Ingram family will just solve them left and right with no intention of every saying, “Maybe I could have a life of my own away from you morons!” No way! Instead the Swanns will gather around holding hands and drinking a bit of Scotch-(the Swanns often have a snort when they meet to discuss the moronic Ingrams) and repeat our sacred oath, “Loyalty binds us!” over and over and over again!

Now to the Ingrams–God give me strength!

So the Ingrams have this beautiful daughter Daphne, who is brutally attacked in an early chapter, but she keeps it to herself because she doesn’t want anyone to be ashamed of her -the girl who was brutally attacked, which of course makes perfect sense, right? She becomes pregnant from the attack, protects the identity of her attacker and basically puts up a stiff upper lip because she is a true Ingram! (They are pretty moronic!)
Daphne marries Hugo, the most perfect man in the whole world. He’s handsome, rich, kind, considerate, understanding, forgiving, brave, and wonderful in the “marriage bed.”

Sidebar- “the marriage bed?” This along with several other terms really dates Barbara T Bradford. I googled her and she is 81 years old. This is actually a wonderful thing, to be in your eighties and still churning out bestsellers, but I think she has lost a bit of her edge. We’ll get back to this…

Hugo and Daphne go on to the most boring couple I can imagine. They are happy, happy, happy, every day, they look wonderful every day and they give the child Daphne conceived during the rape four names to honor four women they are so grateful to, two of them are Swanns by the way, but they continue to call the baby, Baby. Probably because remembering all those names is just too difficult for them. Snooze! Wake me when Hugo has an affair with a maid or Daphne gets menopausal.

Charles Ingram, Daphne’s father and the current Earl, is just laughable. “Good morning, Daphne! By the way your look wonderful today! Charlotte! You look lovely today. Alice! My goodness, you look quite striking today!” Shut up!!!!! Every time he shows up he has to comment on how someone looks! It’s maddening! Trust me, every time there is a Charles scene you will chuckle out loud.

Here are a few of my personal favorites-

Adam- “We’ll be in a war before you can blink!”
Charles -“You’re referring to the assignation by the Serbian nationalist of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife, aren’t you Adam?”
What!! He can’t just say, “The assignation or the recent assignation? Who talks like this!

Charles musing on his wife’s reluctant to flop around in the marriage bed.
“He had no idea why he couldn’t achieve an erection. He was impotent now. Felicity had ruined him.”
Oh my goodness! Charles has no idea? The man has six children and he can’t figure out what’s going on? Charles must have always had exceptional luck with his equipment because I guess it has never failed him before. And what about being ruined? I have never been impotent, but does it really work that way…one failed erection and that’s it, benched for life? Oh, and I love how it’s Felicity’s fault. BTB keeps implying that she’s gone insane because she can’t stand him anymore and wants a divorce. Makes perfect sense to me!

There are countless other Charles moments which have left me giggling with delight, but I must share two of my favorites!
1) He finally gets it on with Charlotte Swann – solving a lot of problems aren’t we, Charlotte, dear!
“Might we go find a bed, Charlotte?” She had to take him by the hand and lead him to the bedrooms because I guess he’d end up wandering around for several hours knocking over vases if he turned too quickly.
2) After they join together “like a velvet vise,” (EWWWWW!) good old Charlotte reveals what we have long suspected. “Charles, I did your father too.” Charles, “Cool!!!”

But where is our villain? Surely Cavendon Hall has to have a villain?
There he is–hiding out in the Bluebell Woods, the older brother of the decease fop who Daphne inadvertently pinned the rape on, his name–RICHARD TORBERT!

Richard spends most of his time creeping around outside Cavendon Hall, peeping at servants making out, trying to abduct maids, firing off shots at random causing horses to bolt and break the necks of their riders and stalking children and raping and threatening young women. You know, the usual EVIL hobbies of really EVIL people. Lucky for him, Cavendon Hall has never heard of the police! Right after the little five year old was almost abducted they discuss having more of the help wander the grounds. Call the police!!! You have a phone! You used in Chapter 5! Call the police!

But don’t worry gentle reader, Richard gets it in the end. He shows up under the command of Hugo during the war. Hugo suddenly either figures out it has been Richard all along or had known it for years but I guess was too lazy to do anything and he threatens to shoot Richard. However, Hugo’s notorious good sense prevails and Richard gets killed in the war by the Germans. Perfect! That story line is tied up with a bow!

Most everyone comes back from the war with no scars. One of the Ingram son’s does get killed and Charles is bummed out for like a page, but then he remembers he had two sons, so he’s fine again. The book ends with the only two halfway interesting characters, Miles and Cecily in a bad predicament. They love each other, but are being kept apart. Yes, finally faced with a problem that is halfway interesting, BTB ends the book!

Cavendon Hall reads like a thirteen year old girl wrote it. The characters are flat, stupid and predictable. Even the villain is lame. Story lines make no sense and just because you come up with a motto- it doesn’t explain asinine behavior.

However, my mother didn’t like it either – so I guess that’s something!

Four out of Five Stars!

four stars

A writer colleague, Adrean Messmer,  reviews books at the website Play with Death – an online horror entertainment site, need I say that?

But anyway, the cool news is that Adrean decided to review Dark and Dangerous Things 2 on the website, and she liked it well enough to give it four out of five stars. I’m pretty proud of that.

Here’s the full review for you to read and share with your friends who like SFF/horror.