THE EXECUTION OF NOA P. SINGLETON by Elizabeth L. Silver

When I picked up The Execution of Noa P. Singleton I was certain it wasn’t a comedy and the chance for an uplifting ending was slim. What I didn’t expect was how deep my level of engagement would be. Elizabeth L. Silver has crafted a novel so unpredictable, my own response to the ending still amazes me.

The novel opens Six Months Before X-Day—the story delivered to us in countdown format. This ominous structure lies in the back of our minds and adds to the turmoil we feel as the events of Noa’s life unfold. She is a most curious narrator. On the second page she sets herself up as unreliable.

Sadly though, my memories are starting to fade in here. Events slip off their shelves into the wrong year, and I’m not always sure that I’m putting them back into their proper home.

A page later she confesses.

I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger.

On the surface the juxtaposition of these statements seem to confirm her unreliability, but as Noa shares the events of her case with the lawyer, who has been hired by her victim’s mother for the sole purpose of securing clemency, I found it impossible not to believe her account. She is a character who refuses to soft soap anything.

I’m in prison, for Christ’s sake. It’s literally a vacuum into which people are sucked to clean up the outside.

Yet, over and over she insists her memory is faulty. Her persistence led me to wonder whether or not it was only a tactic to somehow win me over. That’s when I recognized how powerful a first person narrative is because these narrators are totally in control to manipulate and redirect the reader anyway they choose. Noa gets her hooks into us first through her honest communication about her situation.

I lie down so much that my body can’t always handle the mere act of standing upright. Sometimes, when a guard comes to my door and lets me know I have a visitor like Oliver or Marlene, I stand from my bed, and instead of walking toward the bars, I fall to the floor instantly, my muscles atrophied, my limbs bereft from activity, my bones hollow and echoed.

She massages our empathy by insisting her memories are as weak as her body and we begin to wonder if, perhaps, she is confused about her own guilt. Once Noa and the readers are on equally wobbly ground, Elizabeth L. Silver makes an extraordinary choice as a writer to avoid the Why of her protagonist’s story.

Everyone is so fascinated with the accursed “why” of my crime. They are obsessed with the organic origin of my hate as if it were born in some petri dish, fused together by the toxic roots of my genetic tree.

This choice deepens our investment because without Noa’s why it is up to us to figure out the truth behind her crime. We are able to do so in the same way a juror would by listening to the facts as they trickle in over the six months period the lawyer has to prepare the petition for clemency. The slowness with which the facts are revealed is another way Silver keeps us hooked. Each time a previous fact is clarified or something new is revealed about Noa, or any of the other characters connected to the crime, the information is so significant or surprising we second-guess our last decision about Noa’s guilt, keeping us uncertain and putting us on shaky ground as we progress through the novel.

Here is what amazed me most about Silver’s novel. Once the truth was finally laid bare about Noa’s crime and punishment, I was overwhelmed with anger about our criminal justice system. And at the same time, I recognized the more aware we are of injustice, the stronger we become to do battle for positive change. So, although The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a dark tale it holds the potential to uplift us.


BINDS THAT TIE by Kate Moretti

Avenue of Mysteries was all set to accompany me to the hair salon—a woman needs a good book for a hair salon. John Irving’s new novel is intriguing but the hardback is large and the story is dense, not exactly the best combination for a reader who is going to be continually interrupted. So, I grabbed Kate Moretti’s Binds That Tie with the idea of simply starting it at the salon and finishing it up after I’d reached the end of Irving’s book. The most interesting thing about intentions is that sometimes they get overruled by more pressing matters. In this case, I couldn’t sever myself from Binds That Tie. How’s that for a powerful title?

Moretti’s novel unfolds through two points of view. Maggie and Chris Stevens have been married for ten years—their blissful romance scarred by miscarriages and infidelities. When Maggie engages in, what she believes is a harmless flirtation, a deadly split-second decision forces Maggie and Chris onto a dangerous path fraught with secrets, lies, and guilt. This back cover capsulation led me to purchase the book, but the foundation for why I couldn’t turn away came from the opening lines from each POV character.

She hadn’t meant to kill him.

Not a day went by that Chris didn’t think about how he’d paralyzed a man.

These lines alone foreshadow a tale fraught with conflict and internal complexities, and Kate Moretti delivers. Binds That Tie covers a lot of unpleasant territory for readers: infidelities, murder, lies, revenge. Yet, no matter what indiscretions Maggie and Chris partake in, it’s impossible to condemn them because we empathize with the circumstances that have driven them to do what they do.

Not a Mom. Her belly was flat from not bearing children. Her skin, never stretched, was a smooth expanse of peach. Painted toenails, impeccable manicures, bikini waxes, and expensive haircuts were the things that had replaced child-rearing.

We are never out of touch with Maggie or Chris’s inner turmoil—this is where Kate Moretti shines—so by the time we get to this passage…

…Chris climbed into his truck and headed home under the same grayish pink sky he’d seen when he drove in. Is it dawn or dusk? And then he realized that the answer didn’t really matter either way.

We are intimately in tune with the desperation point they are functioning from. This base level of tension mounts as a tiny pool of characters are introduced—in particular, Chris’s best friend and lawyer Jake, who is Maggie’s ex-boyfriend and her sister Miranda’s husband. Crossover relationships are risky because they can feel forced or too convenient, but not here. Moretti’s complex intermingling of her characters works because the way in which these four people became intertwined is rooted in a natural flow of life events. The result is an emotional layer of suspense capable of competing with any thriller.

Her life had been invaded the way a gust of snowy air blew into a fire-warmed house.

This passage encapsulates the energy and chaos of this riveting novel. Binds That Tie is an examination into relationships people trust and the secret truths that destroy them. A fascinating read with an ending that shimmers and teeters on a landslide.


THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

Why or how Jennifer Egan landed in my TBR pile is as mysterious as her novel. The Keep was an unexpected delight and is one of the books I’ve read in 2015 that is poking at my writing life.

Like most people, I read for entertainment: to experience the thrill of a life greater than mine, but the further I’ve progressed on my journey as a writer the more what I read informs the writer in me. This year in particular has taught me an enormous amount about character intentions, voice, brevity and the emotional well, but The Keep has nudged me to consideration another dimension in storytelling. Jennifer Egan’s story sweetly coaxed me onto the tightrope where I suspended my disbelief then cut the rope and allowed me to fall further into another realm of possibility.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation. (Back Cover)

When the novel opens we are in the presence of the castle and rooted in Danny’s point of view. Danny is a character of high sensitivity and awareness.

Danny always paid attention to smells because they told the truth even when people were lying.

Danny’s life is a mess, which is why he’s accepted his cousin Howard’s invitation. We don’t necessarily approve of Danny but we empathize with his desire for change based on the memories he shares with us. Then wham we’re introduced to a new narrator:

But that wasn’t Danny’s line, that was Howie’s. He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how I’m supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.

And bam, we’re back into Danny’s POV. I thought perhaps I missed something and went back to the beginning, reading extra slowly to see if I had been careless in my comprehension. Nope. A second or two of dismay enveloped me then delight carried me forward. Egan was asking me to read outside the box and I could find no reason not to oblige. In fact, I was hooked, and my intrigue increased when Howard was officially introduced and he informs us of his vision for the castle he plans to renovate—a hotel where people will be able to reconnect with themselves.

What’s missing? What do they need? What’s the next step? And then I got it: imagination. We lost the ability to make things up. We’ve farmed out the job to the entertainment industry, and we sit around and drool on ourselves while they do it for us.

Like Danny I’m skeptical of his cousin’s idea and fearful of where this is all going to lead. Is Howard setting him up, is this an elaborate plan for payback? The reader in me is thrilled by how my level of investment is growing. What excites me more is the sense that I’m being challenged as a writer. I don’t believe Egan ever intended this to happen, but from this moment on my writer-self was as much invested in her storytelling as my reader-self—watching in awe as her characters crashed through boundaries.

The second POV character, the prisoner in the tale, is firmly in place and I am as fascinated by his story as Danny’s. He’s writing Danny’s story, and on the surface there is nothing out of the ordinary about this. The surprise for me is how real Danny is to me at this point. I have the keen sense the stories are happening simultaneously, in parallel worlds and the prisoner is not so much making his story up as reporting what he sees.

Parallel storylines are nothing new in literature, but what sets Egan’s structure apart from other novels is the way in which The Keep’s storylines are bound together. A Twilight Zone atmosphere permeates the descriptions and makes the reader wonder if what the characters are experiencing is reality or a figment of their imagination.

The feel of her hand made him shudder: twigs and wire floating around in the softest pouch of skin he’d ever touched—like a rabbit’s ear or a rabbit’s belly or some even softer rabbit place […] Her way of moving was jerky, impatient like she was shaking off a person she was sick of.

The Keep is an extraordinary tale, which challenges the reader to expand their sense of believability, a mystery unfolding with layers of questions that hold the reader’s attention until the final twist, where a third narrator surfaces to bring this spellbinding story to a close.


EVEN THE DEAD by Benjamin Black

During my month long Artist Date in Ireland this summer I became curious about their bestseller’s list, so I sauntered into Dubray Books on Grafton Street in Dublin and discovered one of my favorite authors, John Banville, has an alias. His Quirke Mystery Series, written under Benjamin Black, is seven novels strong and an interesting departure for him. I was so excited the fact that Even the Dead is the seventh novel in the series escaped me until I returned to my flat.

If any other writer had written Even the Dead I would’ve set it aside until I had read at least the first book in the series, but I knew I could trust Banville, aka Benjamin Black, to calm my anxiety and engage me. In addition to fulfilling my expectations, this prize winning author showed me the important power of brevity.

Let’s begin with the establishment of setting. The Quirke Mysteries are set in Dublin during the 1950s. I wasn’t aware of this until fifty pages in. This revelation could’ve been jarring, but in fact, I was delighted by the way my discovery came about. The era clarified itself through the accumulation of period details woven into passages like this:

…there would be the rich brown smell of roasting coffee beans from the open doorway of Bewley’s Oriental Café, and paper boys would be calling out the latest headlines, and there would be the sound of horse’s hoofs on cobblestones, and cries of the flower-sellers at their stalls. Summer. Crowds. Life.

The 1950s was never “formally” introduced but by the time my brain gathered enough of those little details, i.e. paper boys, to register the era in my mind I was already entrenched in the appropriate decade. This is a writer who truly trusts and believes in the intelligence of his readers. This was most evident in the passages when Black/Banville was writing about character relationships. When the novel opens our protagonist Quirke is residing on his brother’s estate, still convalescing after a severe beating he took several years back. He is looking out the window and is soon joined by his brother’s wife.

Old things that had once been between them stirred and flashed, like fish in a deep, shadowed pool.

We receive no details about their affair, but this one line in conjunction with all the things, which go unsaid within the scene, show us they were involved and it wasn’t a one-night stand. The tension that oozes from these characters in subsequent scenes is also a symptom of Quirke’s other interactions. Every single relationship in his life is awkward on some level.

Quirke had again that sense of pervasive, mild melancholy. He wanted to touch his daughter, to make some gesture that would communicate all that he felt for her, whatever that was. But of course he couldn’t do that.

This passage says an enormous amount about Quirke without the benefit of his backstory, although as an orphan Quirke doesn’t have much of one.

What drove him, he believed, was the absence of a past. When he tried to look back, to his earliest days, there was only a blank space. He didn’t know who he was, where he came from, who had fathered him, who his mother had been. He could almost see himself, a child standing alone in the midst of a vast, bare plain, with nothing behind him but darkness and storm. And so he was here, on the trail of another lost creature.

The mystery of Quirke is a wonderful example of how little backstory is needed to create intrigue. In fact, it is the lack of backstory that drives Even the Dead. The missing pieces provide a layer of vulnerability and desperation for the protagonist, which enhance his observations in the moment. Quirke’s alertness keeps the readers riveted.

I tend to avoid series because, other than Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series, I’ve never come across a protagonist whose mere presence intrigues and compels, until I met Quirke. Even the Dead is a mystery unlike any other I have ever read, and its power stems from brevity of what is said in conjunction with what goes unsaid.


THE GREEN ROAD by Anne Enright

Tension leads to suspense. But suspense doesn’t ensure the reader will remember what the book is about a year, or even six months later. Curiosity—however—that desperate need to know how the heck all the pieces of the story will fuse together, will keep a reader locked-in and nudge him to ponder the essence of the story long after he reaches the end. Anne Enright’s The Green Road is for readers who love the state of heightened curiosity.

I bought Enright’s novel from Dubray Books in Dublin, Ireland after reading the back cover.

The children of Rosaleen Madigan leave the west of Ireland for lives they never could have imagined, in Dublin, New York and various third-world towns. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.

I envisioned tongue-lashing dialogue in between food fights, and siblings manipulating each other for a bigger piece of the homestead. What I found was more fascinating. The invitations for Christmas, which include the announcement for the sale of the house, aren’t officially sent until the halfway point. And another sixty pages are used to assemble the family.

While organizing my notes I contemplated Enright’s pacing and asked, Would The Green Road fall in the category of a quiet novel?

In quiet novels, the hero’s journey is usually an interior one, and the character is changed by the world, rather than going out and changing the world.—Forest Avenue Press

 Others may disagree but I say, No. What this 2007 Man Booker Prize Winner has done is compose a compelling and disturbing tale about a dysfunctional family through a meticulous focus on Character.

The dysfunction of the family stems first from the uniqueness of each of the members, and Enright wastes not time in establishing who is who. Each Madigan possesses a distinct voice, rhythm and POV impossible to interchange.

“Yeah,” said Hanna. Who was fed up of people talking about some tiny flower like it was amazing. And fed up of people talking about the view of the Aran Islands and the Flagging fucking shore.

Distinct voices and point of view are essential for igniting conflict, but what prevents the Madigans from bonding is their keen awareness of each other’s differences.

…the last time they met—it must have been 2000—a year when Constance no longer recognized her own reflection coming at her from the shop window and Dan was looking better than ever. She did not know how he managed it. Constance actually thought there might be make-up involved; or Botox perhaps. It was as though the light had a choice, and it still chose him.

The siblings’ differences set them adrift to pursue what they hope will be fulfilling lives, but their unrealistic intentions and expectations end up perpetuating an epidemic of disappointment that adds to their disconnect.

Emmet fell in love with a child in Cambodia, his first year out. He spent long nights planning her future, because the feel of her little hand in his drove him pure mad: he thought if he could save this one child, then Cambodia would make sense.

Their dissatisfactions morph into a relentless restlessness until even the simplest task is impossible to accomplish.

And it was true that Dan stalled in the shop if he was ever obliged to buy a gift. Stalled, refused, could not calculate, drew a blank, was a blank. Walked away, as though from something terrible and, by the skin of his teeth, survived. 

The care with which Enright bares the unspeakable flaws of Hanna, Constance, Emmet and Dan allows us to see how fragile they are. So we, in turn, take care and offer our patience as their story unfolds. Then on Christmas Day all the pieces fuse, because as fragmented as these siblings are they are bound forever by the ineffectiveness of their mother.

This maddening woman, she spent her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people, she lived in a state of hope or regret and she would not, could not, deal with the thing that was in front of her, whatever it was. Oh, I forgot to go to the bank, Constance, I forgot to go to the post office. She could not deal with stuff. Money. Details. Here. Now.

On the surface The Green Road appears to be much ado about nothing, but thanks to the conscientious attention to Character the lives of the Madigans end up touching on the everything of life. And the curiosity, which fuels the readers journey, lingers on.


OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff

The voice of the Narrator ranks as the writing element most likely to hook me as a reader. When voice works, the energy of the words resonate in my body, not because they feel like mine, but because I wish they were mine. That connection creates the necessary empathy for me to be swept into the story. This connection has nothing to do with actions done by the narrator, or the events that happened to him. My empathy for the narrator is rooted in how well the character is reaching me through their Point of View. Tobias Wolff‘s Narrator in Old School yanked me out of my world and into his.

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election. It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy, which for most of us was no contest at all. Nixon was a straight arrow and a scold. If he’d been one of us we would have glued his shoes to the floor. Kennedy though—here was a warrior, on ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control. His wife was fox. And he read and wrote books, one of which, Why England Slept, was required reading in my honors history seminar. We recognized Kennedy; we could still see in him the boy who would’ve been a favorite here, roguish and literate, with that almost formal insouciance that both enacted and discounted the fact of his class.

We begin the paragraph with Robert Frost and end with a note on class. It makes perfect sense and all we want is more. We’re riveted by every detail of the Narrator’s final year of prep school and we don’t even know his name. His anonymity allowed me to slip deep into his psyche. The result: I was more in sync with Wolff’s Narrator than I ever was with myself at his age. The strength of this empathetic bond led me to come of age all over again.

What sets Old School apart from coming of age novels such as Catcher in the Rye is the way Wolff offers up his Narrator’s point of view. When Holden Caulfield speaks I’m laughing because he’s so adamant about what he believes. I also agree with him because he voices what I was never able to say. However, when the unnamed Narrator in Old School  expresses his POV, he’s equally adamant about how he feels, yet he gives you room to examine the idea for yourself.

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see rhyme in a poem, I know I’m getting lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true—rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wistful thinking. Nostalgia. 

The beauty of this wiggle room also provides space enough for the Narrator’s own transformation. We meet him at the beginning of a series of writing competitions. The winner of each contest will be awarded an interview with the famous writer judging each round: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway. He wants to win; his goal is to become a writer. The problem: he doesn’t see this opportunity as a means to improve his craft, he only sees it as an end in itself.

My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be annointed.

Eventually the magnitude of the situation sinks in.

Only one of us could be chosen, we all understood that, yet you couldn’t help feeling that not to be chosen was to be rejected. And to be rejected by Ernest Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway tossing your story aside, No, not him, not a prayer.  What a terrible thought.

Unfortunately, when motivation kicks in so does the pressure of competition and all the evils that accompany it: denial, fear, procrastination.

So far I’d been unable to complete even a paragraph […] All I needed was a good beginning, something to get me started in the morning […] When Bill White came back from the library at midnight I still hadn’t written a word.

Whether you’re an artist or not, the agony of getting in your own way when you want nothing more than to excel, hits home; and our unnamed Narrator becomes Everyman.

It’s the specifics of the Narrator’s journey through denial, fear and procrastination that Wolff ratchets up the stakes. This was a lightbulb writing moment for me. Old School contains no action sequences, no diabolical antagonist, no surprising plot twists, and yet, the suspense is uncanny. And the increase in tension is achieved through the inaction of the Narrator. This works because the smaller intentions and motivations are clear, as in this passage where the Narrator is reading Rand’s The Fountainhead for the fourth time.

I wasn’t writing, but that didn’t trouble me—I knew I could deliver my story when the time came. What I was doing was tanking up on self-certainty, transfusing Roark’s arrogant, steely spirit into my own.

The Narrator’s need to psyche himself up to battle his fear of failure is understandable, but what he’s doing isn’t going to help. He’s avoiding the bigger issue.

My stories are designed to make me appear as I was not. They were props in an act.

He doesn’t know who he is. This fact is Hemingway simple and drives the entire novel from the Narrator’s subconscious. No bells or whistles necessary because the situation Wolff plops the Narrator into is all the fuel needed to set fire to this character’s inner turmoil and sends him on the road of self-sabotage.

Old School possesses the simplicity of Hemingway, the suspense of Robert Ludlum and a Narrator you’ll want to introduce to everyone you know.


SECRET OF A THOUSAND BEAUTIES by Mingmei Yip

I was drawn to Secret of a Thousand Beauties after reading an interview with Mingmei Yip on Women’s Fiction Writers. Her fascination with the Chinese tradition of female oppression aroused my curiosity. Set in China during the 1930’s, Secret of a Thousand Beauties explores one woman’s journey to escape the horrible fate of a Ghost Marriage.

Couples were often betrothed in childhood, or even before birth. Since only half of children survived to adulthood, many lost their fiancés. Because they had already pledged marriage, the cruel custom was to marry the woman to the dead man. As a practical matter, this meant she was a slave to her supposed in-laws.—Mingmei Yip

Finding the right starting place for a story is essential, yet often difficult. I don’t know if Yip struggled with the opening of Secrets of a Thousand Beauties, but her choice to have Spring Swallow run away after the marriage ceremony to her dead fiancé is brilliant. The immediate peril for our heroine makes us fear for her safety, wonder how she will survive and worry about the consequences if the in-laws find her. As the story progresses we come to understand Spring Swallow’s rebellion is only the first of many. She is forced to take risks because Yip refuses to allow our heroine to get comfortable.

In my experience, death like a cunning fox, is always lurking around the corner ready to catch you off guard.

Spring Swallow learns to stay one step ahead of the fox when she joins a community of embroiderers. The lessons given by Aunty Peony—a former imperial embroiderer—provide a solid foundation from which her inner strength blossoms. These secret techniques of this ancient art form are life lessons Spring Swallow continues to draw upon. They are also invaluable guideposts for writers.

Pause and think for a moment before you sew your first stitch—since the next thousand stitches all derive from this first one. Placing the first stitch is like laying the first brick of a house. If it is done wrong, the structure will be slanted and collapse.

Although rebellion on Spring Swallow’s part persists throughout the story, once she receives this lesson we never see her do anything quite as impulsive as running away after her ghost marriage. She weighs options and chooses sensibly not only for herself, but for the other women she has grown to care about.

Yip seems to have followed this advice as well. By starting the story in the midst of upheaval she set her heroine on a trajectory of action. Starting earlier would have created a sense of lethargy for the protagonist and the reader; later, and our heroine’s inner turmoil and motivation would’ve been less clear.

Even if a mountain collapses outside your window, you shouldn’t look, but continue to work.

Even though Aunty Peony has taken on a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete Spring Swallow is not allowed to help. Five months pass before she is given the opportunity to embroider simple items like hats and slippers. Yet, she works daily for such long periods her fingers swell and become calloused. Eventually Aunty recognizes her skill and promotes her to lead embroider.

There is controversy over Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,ooo Hour Rule. Although I agree with this Huffington Post article that other factors are also important to master a skill, I believe as Spring Swallow and Aunty Peony that the most important ingredient is showing up to do the work.

These are not art, only craft. […] They try too much to please. […] when work is slick, the connoisseur will reject it.

Mingmei Yip’s novel is the antithesis of this statement by Aunty Peony because as Amy Sue Nathan mentions in her interview with Yip, Secret of a Thousand Beauties resonates with “the passion the author has for her subject and for storytelling.”

The soul Aunty Peony hopes her apprentices will bring to their own work is one of the hardest lessons for Spring Swallow to learn. But her devotion to perfect the ancient art of embroidery allows her to develop into the strong woman she was meant to be, and in turn, helps her secure a family that she never expected to be in her future.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is a tender and compelling tale that shines a spotlight on Chinese culture, life and art.


IN THE WOODS by Tana French

In The Woods was published in 2007. I bought my copy in 2009 because agents and editors continued to rave about Tana French’s storytelling. But curiosity didn’t get the better of me until this past spring while I was in the midst of wrestling with another draft for my WIP. The timing was perfect. Nothing spotlights your faults as a writer better than reading a book by an author who excels where you flounder. This is what Tana French taught me about first person narratives.

1-Tension in first person narratives stems from the narrator’s personal unrest.

French’s narrator, Detective Robert Ryan, was abducted with two friends at the age of twelve. He was the only one found. He has no memory of the incident. He knows the facts of the case only because he read the police file after he made detective. But while investigating the murder of a 12-year old girl found in the same woods where he was abducted, Ryan’s desire to recall what happened to him surfaces.

I had started trying—for the first time, really—to remember what had happened in that wood. I prodded tentatively around the edges of it, barely acknowledging even to myself what I was doing, like a kid picking at a scab but afraid to look. 

Ryan doesn’t admit to this quest until almost halfway through the book, but his vulnerability and the fear of discovering the truth is integral for many of his observations from the beginning.

Men like him—men who are obviously interested purely in what they think of other people, not in what other people think of them have always made me violently insecure. They have a gyroscopic certainty that makes me feel bumbling, affected, spineless, in the wrong place in the wrong clothes.

Although first person tension may stem from the narrator’s personal unrest, readers don’t want to get sucked into a victim’s POV. Whining is no way to acquire friends. I empathized with Detective Robert Ryan because he refused to let past events influence his present. His ability to bounce back, his inner strength, made me want to stand by him for the long haul.

I suppose the whole thing must have had its effects on me, but it would be impossible […] to figure out exactly what they were. I was twelve, after all, an age at which kids are bewildered and amorphous, transforming over-night, no matter how stable their lives are; and a few weeks later I went to boarding school, which shaped and scarred me in far more dramatic, obvious ways. It would feel naive and basically cheesy to unweave my personality, hold up a strand and squeal: Golly, look, this one’s from Knockernaree!

2-The best way to avoid backstory is to step away from the facts.

By illuminating only the essence of the situation, French allows the reader to snuggle up faster with the conflict and relationships the protagonist is dealing with.

That weekend I went over to my parents house for Sunday dinner. I do this every few weeks, although I’m not really sure why. We’re not close; the best we can do is a mutual state of amicable and faintly puzzled politeness, like people who met on a package tour and can’t figure out how to end the connection.

3-The most intoxicating chemistry happens outside of the bedroom.

Because sex is such an integral part of television and film these days, I think its easy to forget the real chemistry that leads to the bedroom begins in tiny observations.

The oversized raincoat made her look about eight, as though she should have had matching Wellies with ladybugs on them, and inside the red hood were huge brown eyes and rain-spiked lashes and a face like kittens. I wanted to dry her gently with a big fluffy towel, in front of a roaring fire.

This moment between Ryan and his new partner Cassie Maddox spurs the imagination and establishes their friendship. There is a misstep down the line, but the momentum of the story is driven by the magnetic bond between them, sparked solely through simple observation.

4-The protagonist’s inner journey is the secret to engagement.

In the Woods is a police procedural. The chapters are atmosphere rich with in-depth conversations, all related to the murder. The information Detectives Ryan and Maddox uncover is wound so tight there is no telling how it will unravel. Then the case dries up.

This case was like an endless, infuriating street corner shell game: I knew the prize was in there somewhere, right under my eye, but the game was rigged and the dealer much too fast for me, and every sure thing I turned over came up empty.

French shows us the tedium of detective work by keeping us abreast of all the factors the police need to eliminate in order to get a clear glimpse of the killer. As a result the readers feel as exhausted and frustrated as Ryan and Maddox. But the reason I kept turning the pages during the stagnation was Detective Ryan’s inner journey. As his past becomes more present he begins to fall apart and make mistakes on the job. I questioned whether I could trust him. The time bomb nature of his emotional state was the thread that carried me through to the didn’t see it coming end.

In The Woods is a mystery, police-procedural, psychological thriller and an exemplary study guide for writers who wish to learn more about first person narratives.


BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

On ne naît pas femm: on le deviant.

One is not born woman; one becomes woman.

—Simone de Beauvoir

The above may be one of the best preface quotes ever. Not only does it prime us for the journey it feels as if the sentiment was the springboard for Becoming Josephine. For me it was a relief because the novel’s cover, though lovely, led me to believe the emphasis of the story would revolve around the romance between Rose Tascher (eventually Joséphine de Beauharnais) and Napoleon Bonaparte. Simone de Beauvoir’s quote lifted this assumption from my mind and allowed me to be transported back to libertine France under Heather Webb’s deft prose.

The sheer number of people rendered me speechless. Hordes shuffled along the roadside carrying packages, toting their children, or walking arm in arm with friends. Odors assailed my senses; rich coffee wafted from cafes, sweaty horses and fetid piles of animal waste assaulted, flowery perfumes and warm bread tempted. Street vendors, juggling performers, and the incessant clopping of hooves whirled together in an orchestra of sounds.

The establishment of setting and atmosphere is one of Webb’s strengths. Her attention to detail deepens the reader’s understanding of her characters’ point of view, conflicts and dreams. And when the moment calls she uses this painter-like style to ramp up the suspense.

I sucked in the steamy air, heart thundering in my ears. A screech sounded from the shadows. The familiar shapes of the wood grew grotesque in the fading light. I ran faster. Serpents slid from their holes when the heat of the day faded, seeking victims for their poison. I had witnessed bitten men convulse with frothing lips and blue-black swelling beneath their skin. I shook my head to dispel the images. I couldn’t think of that now.

I recently read Webb’s second novel, Rodin’s Lover, and was captivated by the way she used the passionate intent of her characters to drive the story forward. Her dexterity with Intent also shines here.

I studied the silk rug. I would go to court, I vowed. I would mingle with nobility, with or without Alexandre. But first I must make friends. I would begin tonight.

By zeroing in on Rose’s desires we’re able to tap into her strength and heart and observe how they grow throughout her life.

Rose’s transformation to Josephine astonishes and inspires. On the surface Rose Tascher’s life is Pygmalion-esque. When she arrives in Paris for her arranged marriage, her fiancé Alexandre is put off by her attire and the frankness with which she speaks, yet by the time she meets Napoleon she has learned that every part of her manner is a…

…tool to secure one’s station, like the ruse of love.

But unlike Eliza Doolittle, who grows into a higher station in life and ends up finding love, Rose’s integration into high society enlarges her view of the world.

What a grandiose idea. I had never given a slave’s freedom any thought, let alone the “rights” of women, I accepted our roles—those of the slaves in their fields and the Grands Blancs running their plantations. Our sugarcane would rot, our plantations crumble without the Africans. Where would we be then? Yet Fanny had given me much to ponder.

As the revolution in France intensifies many of Rose’s family and friends are arrested and eventually she joins them in the cells of Les Carmes prison. The filth and squalor of such confinement, particularly in this period of time, can lead to individuals becoming angry, callous or withdrawn. Not so for Rose. Although she physically wastes away to almost no one at all her empathy for others expands. She continues to use whatever connections she has to petition for the release of everyone she knows, no matter what the odds. Her open heart will eventually bond her to the people of France. Still, Rose is not a soft touch.

I cough deeply, uncontrollably, as if I might vomit my organs. I sucked in a ragged breath and leaned against the wall. I ran my hand over the naked skin on my neck. A few days before, Delphine had chopped my locks into jagged disarray with a knife, borrowed from a jailer. My enemies would not shave my head in front of a mocking crowd.

In this moment, Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie de Beauhanais—who has yet to meet Napoleon—though frail is triumphant. Her determination never to be a victim is an inspiration and a testament to the strength of all women.

Becoming Josephine exemplifies Simone de Beauvoir’s quote: One is not born woman; one becomes woman. Rose Tascher’s story was meant to be told and Heather Webb delivers it brilliantly.


ANCIENT LIGHT by John Banville

I recently attended the revival of David Hare’s Skylight on Broadway. During the First Act one of the characters made spaghetti. By intermission I was starving. My hunger could’ve become a distraction. Instead it made me more alert. My imagination pulsed eagerly while the sauce simmered. Ancient Light has nothing to do with spaghetti sauce but John Banville’s opening made me salivate: my mind begging for the story to move faster while I prayed for it to move as slow as possible so I could savor each image fully.

Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother. Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs. Gray was thirty-five.

Our narrator, Alexander Cleave is in his sixties. His acting career has faded like the romance in his marriage. His view of the world is bleak ever since his daughter took her own life. But under this veil of darkness he sees the past through the power of some ancient light, and there he is able to relive a transformative time of his life, and with detailed accuracy captures the dizzy joy and selfishness of adolescence.

I watched her with a mounting sense of alarm, no longer fearful of discovery but of something much worse, namely, that the shock she had got would cause her to take fright and flee […] If I were to lose her, how would I bear it? I should leap up now, I knew, and put my arms around her, not to reassure her—what did I care for her fear?—but to prevent her by main force from leaving.

I’ve been writing in one form or another since the age of eight and started telling lies earlier than that. But it wasn’t until Banville’s protagonist began to recall his childhood affair while attempting to sort through the current turmoil of his personal and professional life that I realized our memoires are nothing more than stories we tell ourselves. How we choose to remember the events in our lives shapes our success, productivity and our present happiness. As a result I was enthralled with Alexander’s ability to pull back from the moment in order to telescope in for deeper insight.

What an ill-assorted pair we must have looked, the obscurely, afflicted, stark-faced girl with her scarf and dark glasses, and the grizzled, ageing man sunk in glum unease, sitting there silent in that ill-lit place above a winter sea, our suitcases leaning against each other in the glass vestibule, waiting for us like a trio of large, obedient and patiently uncomprehending hounds. 

Banville paints such a complete picture moment by moment the book feels like an enormous landscape even though we are peering through a tiny lens of the protagonist’s life.

It makes no sense, I know, but if on a crowded beach on a summer day the swimsuits of the female bathers were to be by some dark sorcery transformed into underwear, all the males present, the naked little boys with their pot bellies, and pizzles on show, the lolling, muscle-bound lifeguards, even the hen-pecked husbands with trouser-cuffs rolled and knotted hankies on their heads, all, I say, would be on the instant transformed and joined into a herd of bloodshot, baying satyrs bent on rapine.

Alexander Cleave’s experiences, past and present, appear complex as he sorts through the whys and hows that brought these events about, and yet, time and again, he zeroes in on the truth with such simplicity we are tickled by his succinctness.

…a bond of sorts had begun to forge itself between us, and we found ourselves quite easy together there, or as easy as two actors standing in each others light could hope to be.

The above is also a lovely example of a peacefulness that resides in Banville’s protagonist even though he speaks most often of his tormented soul. Ancient Light is a beautiful, poetic examination of memory, loss and hope from the point of view of an actor, who has spent his life pretending to be someone else. His honest revelations and humor give us pause and challenge us to lift the curtain on our own past and see what we might discover.


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