THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE by Erika Robuck

If Erika Robuck were an athlete she’d win MVP year after year for her willingness to push beyond expectations. This was evident in her novel Fallen Beauty. While she plumbed the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, she uncovered a different well of emotion; one that infused her prose with an urgency so powerful, the reader could easily forget he took the time to turn the page. Fallen Beauty illuminated one of Robuck’s finest skills; her ability to meld with her subject. In The House of Hawthorne the emotional essence of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne is so palpable, raw and fluid the reader dances through the pages.

…his face a tempest of confusion and despair, his heart divided between the great truth that is reinforced with each passing year of our lives: one hand is open, overflowing with an abundance of joy and vitality, the other is a fist, clutching a void so desperately that the nails dig holes in the skin. 

Sophia’s imagery is an integral part of who she is: an artist, a painter who can not create fast enough.

Something about the concentration of all that color and power on the point of a brush, instilling life on a canvas with each motion, brings me such ecstasy and torture. I am left breathless at the thought.

Her hunger to express herself creatively may seem trivial today, when so many people appear to be seeking their fifteen minutes of fame. This was not the case in the 1800’s, a time when women were expected to marry and roll immediately into motherhood. Sophia’s quest was a rebellion and a cross to carry when she fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thanks to Robuck’s expert storytelling, the reader comes to understand how every aspect of an artist’s life becomes a choice they may or may not have an easy time living with.

It pains me to acknowledge it, but I do sometimes imagine what my life would have been if I had never entered the parlor that day to meet Nathaniel. […] Would I be a world-famous painter by now if I had not chosen domesticity? Would I want such a thing, when the pressure and art of creation often brought me such physical misery?

Whether you are an artist or not, connecting with Sophia is as inevitable as breathing because we are never separated from her personal point of view. Everything we learn of her past through the present situations draws us deeper into her inner landscape, where the real story evolves.

I am entranced by her figure in a billowing crimson gown, framed by the rays of the sun slipping through flimsy curtains dancing in the breeze. The scent of jasmine has filled the room from where it climbs around the doorways of La Recompensa, and I might be walking the landscape of an opium haze, which I recall fondly from when I regularly took the drug while under a doctor’s care. 

Unlike Robuck’s previous novels about deceased writers, The House of Hawthorne explores the real-life relationship of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although their love for one another is not threatened per se, their artistic temperaments coupled with the societal restraints and obligations of the time complicate their destiny.

I crumple the letter and throw it across the room. He moves like one stuck in tar pits and I long to drag him out by the collar. I am nearly thirty years old! He is thirty-five! At this age, most women have died from having their fourth child, and most men are widowers, and yet we are virgins! 

Doing justice to these amazing artists is unfathomable to me, but Robuck is at home in the past, in the same way Sophia and Nathaniel are at home with each other. Her talent for lifting the truth from journals, letters and biographical accounts and weaving it into a tapestry of passion so personal it makes you want to fall in love all over again.

When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him. […] My sphere has never been so disturbed by another’s as it is now, and I know that Hawthorne must feel the same way. 

While The House of Hawthorne is driven by the love of Sophia and Nathaniel, it offers more. The Hawthorne’s circumstances give the reader a chance to examine the compromises and sacrifices needed to attain personal and professional success and to question the limitations and judgments we often thrust onto others without understanding their situation. Their story is also an inspirational wellspring.

“Please, Sophia. You have no idea how your journal has fueled a writing fire in me, one that was in desperate need of kindling. I am on the edge of something.” 

The House of Hawthorne is a history of two unique artists whose love is the Muse with which they create a life most people only dream about. Their commitment and support of each other, shown to us through the heartfelt prose of Erika Robuck, will encourage you to dream bigger and delve into your soul’s deepest secrets to create with the wild abandon you were meant to share.

THE FALLEN SNOW by John J. Kelley

I met John J. Kelley at the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, Massachusetts. When he spoke of his debut The Fallen Snow, he called it a quiet novel. Quiet is an accurate description of how the story unfolds, but the impact of Joshua Hunter’s journey is huge. He is a character you will carry in your heart for the rest of your life.

“Specifics beget Specifics,” said writing coach Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, at the WU Un-Conference. The clearer a writer is about the past, which shaped the hero’s life, the more precise the writer can be about the hero’s goal(s) and the obstacles that get in his way. The Fallen Snow is an excellent example of how specifics establish character, clarify relationships and provide the context for the world our hero must navigate.

The first steps were the hardest. The cold didn’t help, though it was more than stiffness. More like his leg muscles had to relearn the motion, as though they’d forgotten their purpose. Maybe that was why he’d felt the compulsion from the time he’d awoken at the field hospital. He had to keep pushing lest he find himself trapped, or paralyzed. Or left for dead. 

This passage is our introduction to Joshua Hunter, a WWI infantry sniper sent home after receiving an award for valor. These few lines tell us nothing of his past, but they clue us in on all we need to know about his character. Even in the face of great fear he is determined to move forward. We also sense Joshua’s fears run deeper than his physical injuries, and although the coming days will not be easy, he will not be beaten. He has something to live for, even if, like his legs, he is unable to articulate it at this time. We, the readers, haven’t even turned the first page, but we know we will because no one can step away from a character with such courage.

As Joshua reconnects with family and friends in his hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we become steeped in what it means to live in Appalachia in 1918. Kelley places us there without effort by allowing us to look through his characters finely focused lenses.

Some women took snuff in private or sipped from a flask hidden on the back step, like Mrs. McCullough across the way. Elisabeth Hunter dug at her worries while gazing down the ridge towards the town. 

The Fallen Snow is all about relationships during a very particular period of time in this country. Kelley depicts the expectations and parameters that exist between friends, spouses, siblings and lovers with great accuracy to reinforce the world we have come to know. But the resonance these relationships have for us lies in his ability to expose the inner conflict of each character with a light hand, like when Elisabeth Hunter ponders her sick husband.

He could scowl all he wanted. Her husband carried an angry boy inside, acting up whenever he was frustrated. She could handle it. She had for years. It was the silence he’d leave behind that scared her.

Silence is a strong silk thread that leads us from one inner conflict to another in this beautiful debut. Kelley’s respect for silence allows him to magnify the unrest and overwhelming fear that surrounds Joshua’s life as he struggles to come to terms with who he is, without beating us over the head with proprieties. 

Watching him was mesmerizing. Aiden was handsome…masculine.

Joshua tore his gaze away. He fidgeted, as if caught. No one was paying attention, the men nearby listless from the motion or busy in their conversations. Tommy remained fast asleep.

He turned his focus to the dirty floor, burying the feelings. It was a practice he’d perfected…automatic, instinctive. In a minute he’d convince himself it hadn’t happened, like always. 

These seeds of attraction slip delicately into the fabric of the novel and show us a very different world than the society of 1918 that Joshua returns to, and might have maneuvered The Fallen Snow into a novel about gay rights, if it weren’t for Kelley’s deft handling of the material. Kelley touches on the pain of rejection based on incomprehension and in so doing, slices our hearts to bits. In that moment we understand that although The Fallen Snow is a quiet novel, it is also big, for it shows us the agony of what it means to live against the truth within your soul.

Step into the powerful stillness of The Fallen Snow.

THE SNOW QUEEN by Michael Cunningham

Whenever my hands hold the newest book by Michael Cunningham, I’m hit with an adrenaline rush on par with all the firsts in my life: My imagination is primed and a crescendo of music holds me up until I turn to the first page and let myself couple with the opening sentence. Cunningham has his finger on the pulse of human emotion, and with the skill of an ace dissector he lays the depth of it before us with pathos and humor.

A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. 

Cunningham is as far from Harlan Coben as you can get. There are no big events, no cliff-hanging chapter endings. Instead, we are riveted because of our investment in the characters. Their inner journey is what propels and intrigues. The desire of intent, for all his characters, is as powerful as the events of a thriller.

He doesn’t need to be Mozart, or Jimi Hendrix. It’s not as if he’s trying to invent the flying buttress, or crack the time-space continuum.

It’s a song. All Tyler requires of it, really is that it be more than three and a half minutes worth of pleasantly occupied air.

Or. Well okay. All Tyler requires of it is that it be better—a little better, please, just a little—than what he’s technically capable of producing. 

The inner journey of his characters allows the reader to catch a glimpse of the understated simplicity of life that is often mistaken by the characters as something unlikeable. This unrest with the current circumstances drives the characters to reexamine what it is in life that they truly want. How they come to embrace their heart’s desire is a process and they are often led to uncover it only after they come into a state of heightened awareness.

The rim of the kitchen table, ridged aluminum, is nicked at the rear corner, a small vee, at the base of which a breadcrumb stolidly resides. 

Minute details, such as the above, also underscore the isolation and the off-kilter quality of the characters and the situation. Cunningham is all about selectivity and specifics, and he wins big in The Snow Queen. By choosing to set the events of the story during the 2004 term of George W. Bush’s presidency, the disastrous effects of his time in office smashes against the faith and hope these characters pray to survive on.

Here’s his shape, the vee of his torso, the compact, shaven helmet of his head, as if standing were part of a dance for which most of the population has somehow failed to learn the steps.

The brevity and depth of each thought he lays upon the page blows me away. How does he do it over and over again, select exactly the right words for placement, in just the right order so we, the readers, feel as if we are caught in an emotional snowball rolling down hill to the finish line?

People are more than you think they are. And they’re less, as well. The trick lies in negotiating your way between the two.

Loneliness pervades Cunningham’s work. His characters stir in a world where they feel lost and alone, and yet, somehow, rather than sadness, beauty is the essence. The tenderness of embracing all of who you are and finding the strength to own it is like sinking an anchor into the earth and announcing, “I’m here.”

Faith, Hope and Awe for Life: The Snow Queen.

TANTALUS by Jane Jazz

When my son suggested I share my reviews on Twitter I couldn’t comprehend how that would work. Two years later I’m still learning how to navigate this cyberworld (by the way, if anyone can explain what a #hashtag is and how to use it, in a way that doesn’t fry my nerve endings, I’ll be happy to name one of the characters in my next novel after you) and yet, I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Without Twitter I would never have learned about English author Jane Jazz and her debut novel, Tantalus.

The fascination with the unknown and the improbable that is embedded in the foundation of Tantalus reminded me of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story The Woman In Black.

The room was dimly lit by long fingers of cool moonlight, and there was something…intangible…in the air. 

I was immediately filled with the possibility of magic and charmed by how Jane Jazz formulated the kind of romance we only dream about. Through Tantalus she makes the impossible probable.

Like Pyramus and Thisbe, Thomas and Sylvia are separated by a physical barrier. Unlike those star-crossed lovers Thomas and Sylvia meet in different times, 1924 and 1975 respectfully. It is improbable, but not unbelievable, especially once they start exchanging letters.

I will happily retire to bed, for only in sleep can I step through your torn sky of time, and into a land where strawberries grow in snow and Sylvia can lie in my arms. 

Tantalus sweeps us away like all powerful love stories do. Does the honeymoon last? Of course not. Sylvia and Thomas battle the realities of their situation and the improbable re-enters the readers’ mind. Then Jane Jazz excavates the newest chink in the story and the reader is swept away all over again.

In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.

This quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald opens Chapter One. While it portends the event that will upend our heroine’s life, it also filters into the reader’s psyche, priming them to leap where they normally would hold back. Choosing to set the interactions between Thomas and Sylvia in the wee hours of the morning speaks to our secret desire to come face to face with whatever is ultimately holding us back. This is the real magic of Jazz’s debut; a story that shows us how the union of two souls transform these people into the artists they were destined to be. Who isn’t intrigued by that?

As engaged as I was there were times when I felt cheated as a reader, especially in the scenes between Sylvia and her best friend Clemmie. Because of the way these scenes unfold, it dampens the impact of the events that lead to a major upheaval in Sylvia’s life. Yet, in the end, none of those blips mattered, for the overriding premise of an artist foraging through the emotional minefield of life was a pay off I couldn’t live without.

Tantalus is a love story that spans time on par with Wuthering Heights, without the cruelty. A true romance for the artist’s soul.

WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED by Daniel Mark Epstein

Daniel Mark Epstein’s book on The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay zooms into her world so closely I felt like a stalker. Even though Millay’s personal life is documented through letters, journals and her poems, I can’t help wonder if we have a right to know all. Probably not, but I was too spellbound by Epstein’s work to turn away. His presentation of the material has a flow that aligns with Millay’s poetry and supports the ebb of emotion, the stillness of expectation and the delight of her exuberance for life.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed reveals Millay’s single-minded devotion to love and her obsessive need to share her experience through the written word. Reading about her life makes you want to be a poet the way Isadora Duncan makes you want to dance, and Erika Robuck makes you want to write historical fiction.

Millay was a woman devoted, and in some ways enslaved, to her mother and sisters. Still her commitment to love and her expression of it allowed her to swing blissfully into independence. The boldness in which she was able to express her emotions is enviable, inspirational and brave.

My love for you is something more than just thought, it is the love of Everywoman for Everyman. It is all primitive female life desiring its mate, it is all hunger crying for food, all weariness sighing for rest, it is the instinctive reaching out of the universal soul. 

She is a woman to be studied and admired. Anyone searching for who they are will be inspired by her strength to stand by her open relationships and her commitment to fulfilling her dreams.

We see from first to last of the poet’s oeuvre […] the cultivation of a multitude of rich voices from a profound and androgynous emotional center. If the male in her was not so firmly in touch with the female, she could never have written so insightfully of men and women in love. 

I don’t believe I’ve ever read of an artist so in tune with their passion that they actually become a living entity of it. Her life sparks imagination and fantasies so vivid, if you are any sort of artist you will be driven to dig deeper into the depths of your medium.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed may be nonfiction, but it feels like a novel in its suspense and inevitability of action thanks to Epstein’s prose.

She meant to drink deeply from the spring of Eros, as any man might, as men had been doing since the beginning of recorded time. It was a game that could not be played without someone getting hurt now and then, and the excitement did keep her pen moving. 

Epstein’s commitment to be true to Millay’s life and loves combined with the tender way he reveals all is enviable. He makes me wish I could be as devoted to one artist in history. Of course, coveting other writers’ work is part of what writers do, isn’t it? Through one writer’s insight, curiosity rises and new stories unfold. Erika Robuck said What Lips My Lips Have Kissed was one of her favorite books when researching Millay for her novel Fallen Beauty. If you’re like me and read both books you’ll see just how brilliantly Robuck captured Millay’s life.

Oh, how I love how one book leads to another. Snatch up What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay  and see what follows.

SYMPTOMS OF WITHDRAWAL by Christopher Kennedy Lawford

If you ever shied away from writing a memoir because you couldn’t summon the courage needed to tell the ugly truth, you need to read Christopher Kennedy Lawford’s Symptoms of Withdrawal.

Let go of the myth. It is a lie. 

With tons of humor and a tongue that cuts faster than you can blink, Lawford shares the drug-addicted journey he embraced to cope with the unrealistic expectations of growing up under the Kennedy legacy and his own self-hatred.

An addict continually makes choices and takes actions in his life to support his self-hatred. This is what allows him to keep using. 

Once you’ve navigated through the waves of his withdrawal you may find you still don’t have the guts to tell the truth in your memoir. Or, you may discover you have a greater need to stop pretending you’re writing the truth and just lay your embarrassing ass on the page because it’s the only way to move on from the past that haunts you.

Symptoms of Withdrawal

I picked up Lawford’s memoir as soon as it was published. When I saw the title I thought, “How catchy, a phrase that makes you want to peek inside.” While reading it aloud to my Aunt just recently, I truly saw how Symptoms of Withdrawal reflects every aspect of Christopher Lawford’s life apart from his addiction. Now that’s title perfection.

Many authors prime the reader with quotes from poets or literature. It’s a way for the reader to be on the appropriate wavelength when they dive into page one. My general response to opening quotes is, “Gosh, I wish I could find a quote for my manuscript.” Or, “Interesting.”  Then I return to the quote periodically as I read to see if I’m truly experiencing what the author desired. Sometimes I don’t get the connection, my fault, and that’s okay. I’ll probably figure it out later in my life. Lawford gave me an understanding of his life story, without wiggle room, from this quote by Proust.

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. 

Proust’s thoughts provide the perfect mindset for this memoir, and also sum up the reason I prefer memoirs to biographies. The author’s interpretation, the why’s and wherefores of how his life unfolded allows us to check out the fit of their shoes and come to a more accurate conclusion about how we feel about them. Of course, the big question is, “Can we trust that the author is telling the truth?” In this case, yes. You’ll be as certain as I am as soon as you read Lawford’s Preface.

I grew up with the Camelot Myth. Lawford takes off the blinders so we can see the Kansas without Oz of his life. Because of his journey, his perspective is very different than what we might have come across had the events been told by Maria Shriver, or one of his sisters. My guess is this memoir is more hard-edged. I say, good thing, for it’s the edge of the sword that allows us to see inside to the truth.

Discussing the tragedies within his extended family, which formed the springboard for his downward spiral, could easily have made the pages of Symptoms of Withdrawal hard to digest. Fortunately, Lawford’s recovery went beyond detox to pure clarity. Otherwise he’d never be able to recognize the bizarre juxtaposition of life within the Kennedy family and the world.

In the summer of 1969, a year after my uncle Bobby died, Neil Armstrong took a giant step for mankind and my uncle Teddy drove off a bridge at Chappaquiddick. 

This kind of moment springs up again and again, and sparks a nervous laughter that is much needed for the journey. Lawford is a writer with something to say and he says it with unique flare.

What I love most about memoir is you hear the error of the person’s ways, come to understand where they went astray, how they came into awareness and what they did to find balance. Absorbing this process is inspirational and a reminder that to err is human, and the strength and courage to correct bad behavior is an innate right we all have the capacity to do, as long as we’re willing to get out of our own way.

It became imperative for me that if I was ever going to find out who I was, all bets had to be off and everything had to be up for grabs. I would have to let go of the absolutes and the identifications I had clung to.

If ever I get around to writing a memoir, I will have Christopher Kennedy Lawford to thank. His raw honesty and ability to see the humor of his disastrous choices has shown me that balance is truly possible, as is change.

Symptoms of Withdrawal is one addictive read.

THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW by Matthew Quick

After I saw the film of The Silver Linings Playbook, I was sorry I hadn’t read the book first (now in my TBR pile thanks to Keith Cronin‘s post on WriterUnboxed). So, I purchased The Good Luck of Right Now because I didn’t want to miss out on a good read.

After the death of his mother, thirty-eight year old Bartholomew Neil sets out to find a life of his own with the help of a priest, a “Girlbrarian,” her feline-loving, foul-mouthed brother, and the spirit of Richard Gere. This premise was quirky enough to get me to reshuffle my TBR pile.

I was disheartened early on. I don’t like chapter titles. They chip away at suspense and feel like term paper topic sentences. I also had a hard time accepting Bartholomew Neil was thirty-eight years old. Even after I learned he was mentally challenged I had difficulty seeing him older than college age.

Then Matthew Quick shot an arrow that hit my curiosity bone. Questions pummeled my brain. Was Quick asking us to question our obsession with celebrities? Is it possible that we are all born to do great things, make a positive impact on the world and then sell out because it’s easier?  Here’s the kicker: Why is Bartholomew always nodding?

I nodded because it was the easiest thing to do. 

I nodded because what he was saying seemed logical. 

I nodded because I knew that’s what was required of me. 

There are more variations on that theme. But this specific character quirk was enough to keep me turning pages until the wonder of The Good Luck of Right Now took hold.

Writing is all about choices. Who is the main character? First or third person? How many points of view? Quick’s choice to let the story unfold through the letters Bartholomew writes to actor Richard Gere raised major question marks for me. Why? Why this choice? But all became clear as the situation developed. Letters were the perfect medium because they are intimate. We reveal things in letters we would never share face to face. And since Bartholomew has a hard time talking with people, letters were the best means for him to be open and honest.

It was like looking down and seeing a gaping hole where your stomach used to be and knowing your legs were gone—like Mom and I had somehow each swallowed a live grenade. 

Don’t let the imagery of this passage lead you astray about Quick’s novel. The story drives forward on optimism, not darkness. The hope that gathered within me as I turned page after page reminded me a lot of how I felt when I read Pay It Forward—a book I wish to revisit thanks to Matthew Quick.

I could provide more detailed insight, but some books are best experienced from a place of naiveté. My advice is to not read any more about The Good Luck of Right Now. Purchase the book, open the cover and ride the current. See where you end up. You may not end up in Oz, but the joy of Oz will be in your heart just the same.

‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

Six weeks back my book pal—who has only read one Stephen King novel—suggested we read ‘Salem’s Lot and discuss it for our literary edification. I was mildly enthusiastic, but not really. My response surprised me. I’m a fan. One of the four bookshelves in my office is devoted to the books of Stephen King. I have read The Stand three times and have no doubts about revisiting it and the Dark Tower Series at least once more before I passon. Nothing against ‘Salem’s Lot, I’ve read it twice, but I never intended to read it again. What more could those vampires have to say to me? More than I ever believed possible. And how soon did I change my mind about the impact of ‘Salem’s Lot? As soon as I turned to page one.

Almost everyone thought the man and boy were father and son. 

The line is anchored in truth and echoes with fear; a combination that permeates King’s work. Fear of the truth is an undercurrent in life that perpetuates white lies and keeps secrets. Fear is the foundation of drama and King owns the market.

I’ve come across a lot of people who refuse to read books written by Stephen King because the content is too scary. The scare factor is a given, but it’s not the only ingredient at work. Behind the evil things he unleashes when he opens the closet door or looks under the bed is a ton of humor.

That Weasel, he does love to talk. He’ll open his mouth too wide one day and fall right in. 

And no one twists a phrase into funny better.

But there was more than dullness in the confessional; it was not that by itself that had sickened him or propelled him toward that always widening club, Associated Catholic Priests of the Bottle and Knights of the Cutty Sark.

To handle location as if it were a character is part of good storytelling. To make location, in this case the town or The Lot, a principle point of view character ramps up the tension.

The town has a sense, not of history, but of time, and the telephone poles seem to know this. If you lay your hand against one, you can feel the vibration from the wires deep in the wood, as if the souls had been imprisoned in there and were struggling to get out. 

The Lot’s hold on every resident allows the reader to sneak peeks at peripheral characters that would otherwise not be given page time. Seeing who’s who and what’s happening around the edges of town is like spilling gasoline over the entire story. All the reader has to do is wait for the first match to spark.

The atmosphere of fear King stirs is glorious. But what I admire most is the way he handles character. Descriptions are never shopping lists of observations. Characters are introduced through an essence of mood.

His face looked sad and old, like the glasses of water they bring you in cheap diners.

He also trusts the moment to establish the dynamics of the relationship and provide a glimpse of the participants’ underbellies.

Eva Miller was in a white terrycloth robe, and her face full of the slow vulnerability of a person still two-fifths asleep. They looked at each other nakedly, and he was thinking: Who’s sick? Who died? 

This underbelly, which is woven with the character’s weaknesses and guilt—in the end—is only a mask. King’s characters are stronger than Superheroes because they do not possess the confidence or the skillset required to do battle. What they do possess is a belief in the goodness or light that coexists with the evil that has infiltrated their world. Not all of his characters survive, but they are willing to approach the inmost cave, as Christopher Vogler describes in The Writer’s Journey, and face the darkness there in.

The exultation had faded away like a bad echo of pride. Terror struck him around the heart like a blow. Not terror for his honor or that his housekeeper might find out about his drinking. It was a terror he had never dreamed of, not even in the tortured days of his adolescence. 

The terror he felt was for his immortal soul. 

When the reader comes upon these moments the tension spikes and they know there is no turning back. So they follow the characters forward knowing that death is as probable as victory.

Another fascinating standard in King’s stories is the simultaneous metamorphosis of children and adults in the same story. To see a child and an adult process the ascent of evil at the same time, but in different ways, helps the reader comprehend the situation on a much deeper level.

The joy of reading ‘Salem’s Lot—for the third time—returned, as I said, right at the beginning and the thrill of the ride never lessened. When I was a mere fifty pages into the story my husband walked into my office. I jumped, screamed and laughed to release the tension that had already taken hold of me. And the more I read, the more my adrenalin pumped like I was watching a thriller on the big screen that made me scramble to sit higher in my seat, while I held my breath and clenched my hands.

What deepened the thrill was my inability to remember the ending. Usually when I reread a book, the upcoming details flood back—not in a bad way—they flow in and upgrade the tension and anticipation. My inability to recall the ending of ‘Salem’s Lot—in fact, at one point I was certain of a different outcome—has increased my admiration for Stephen King’s storytelling. He wraps the reader up so tightly in the moment, our imagination becomes more powerful than memory.

What will the Vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot teach you?

THE BONE GARDEN by Tess Gerritsen

I plunged into Tess Gerritsen’s world with The Surgeon. I admired her skill and enjoyed the story, while feeling at arms distance from the characters. The Bone Garden pleased me in ways The Surgeon did not.

Within the first six pages Gerritsen uses her skill in harnessing words to deliver actions and images that raise questions, and suggest the layers of secrets to be revealed about the mystery behind the garden.

When she had first walked through the rooms […] and spied the bit of antique wallpaper peeking through a tear in the many layers that had since covered it, she’d known the house was special. 

Each chapter reveals something new about character or situation. The pace is a foot and ought to be studied by every writer. So is Gerritsen’s ability to deliver the 1830’s storyline into the reader’s lap through the viewpoint of character.

One of the female lodgers had lured a client upstairs. Rose understood the necessity of it, knew that a few minutes with your legs spread could mean the difference between supper and a growling belly. But the noises the couple made, on the other side of that thin curtain, brought a mortified flush to Rose’s cheeks. She could not bring herself to look at Norris […] Reluctantly, she looked at him and found his gaze unflinching, as though he was determined to ignore the rutting and dying that was happening only a few feet away. As if the filthy sheet had curtained them off into a separate world, where she was the sole focus of his attention. 

Each character is fully formed with goals and obstacles that naturally collide to increase the stakes. Add in the real life character of Oliver Wendell Holmes Senior and the reader is effectively transported to another time, where the West End Reaper makes Jack the Ripper’s modus operandi appear like child’s play.

I was so expertly misled in regard to the identity of the Reaper; if I were planning on writing a mystery I would dissect The Bone Garden. I would not say the same when it comes to writing novels with past and present storylines.

Writing a coherent, engaging novel is hard enough, in my experience, without complicating the execution by including a past and present storyline. The stakes need to be enormously high in the present to warrant delving into a past event that is better off forgotten—and I believe the protagonist needs to feel the past should be left alone, otherwise it lessens the conflict for him in the present. Without sufficient conflict there is no urgency, and urgency is what forces characters to act and readers to turn the page.

The author who shines in this area is Stephen King. Perhaps I haven’t read widely enough, but King is the only author I know who never disappoints when a story revolves around a protagonist in crisis who must resolve his past in order to achieve victory over the bad guys in the present. If you have doubts check out It and Dreamcatcher. The other novelist to impress me in this area is Anita Shreve. Her parallel stories in The Weight of Water were equally riveting. I didn’t want either of them to end. I can’t say the same for The Bone Garden.

The present story is told from the point of view of Julia Hamill—a newly single woman who discovers the remains of a murder victim that dates back to the 1830’s in her garden. Straight away, I have to say I like Julia. She is in a bad way after her divorce, but underneath the sadness rises a pluckiness that makes me rally behind her. Even though she is only battling a boulder in the opening pages, Gerritsen show us there is serious emotional damage to overcome.

All morning she had been digging like a woman possessed, and beneath her leather gloves blisters were peeled open. 

I’m in. I want to learn more about Julia, find out how she ended up in this emotional pickle and see her do battle against the demons that bar her from happiness. Julia’s ex-husband drops by in the fourth of nine present-day chapters. We are shown that he’s a jerk, but Julia deals with him without repercussions. Whatever happened in her marriage has no weight when it comes to this unsolved murder, so why does she care about the mystery of the skeleton? Her desire or curiosity into the history of her house isn’t strong enough to propel the story. Fortunately the Rose Connolly-Norris Marshall story had enough going for it that I was willing to give Julia more time to reveal her need to solve the murder mystery.

Eventually, like Julia, I learned that the letters she sorts through—with a descendant of the prior owner of her house—written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. are historical documents. Searching  for historical evidence has driven many stories like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Robert Harris’s Archangel. But the protagonists in these stories have careers that deal with history. Their passion to uncover the truth or validate information is need enough for their deeper and deeper involvement in the mystery, or thrill factor of the story that also puts the protagonists lives at risk. This is not the case in The Bone Garden. I found the emotional connection between Julia Hamill and Rose Connolly too thin to warrant the present-day storyline. Gerritsen’s justification pays off in the end, but I can’t help wondering why the Rose and Norris storyline wasn’t enough? If they can carry 75% of the novel why not 100%?

Perhaps I’m over critical because I’m searching for all the holes in my WIP at the moment. And I have to say, the thinness of Julia’s story did not prevent me from enjoying Gerritsen’s novel. My analysis is based on where I am as a writer and person. The more I read and the more I write, the more I understand this to be true. So I encourage every writer and booklover to draw your own conclusions and when and if our lives intersect we can enjoy a healthy discussion of The Bone Garden

WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s name fluttered into my world several winters back during a New Year’s Eve Party. The man singing his praises, Greg Pierce, was in the midst of writing the stage play for Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. What a title: it Ping-Pongs around the brain daring you to forget it. I bought the book the next day thanks to on-line shopping.

It was a love-hate relationship I was never able to work through. I appreciated Murakami’s attention to detail. His ability to make the preparation of a spaghetti dinner fascinating and even curious is an outstanding feat. He may be the master of arousing curiosity for the mundane elements of life. I couldn’t stop wondering, what does this mean? Where will this lead? Then he’d slam me with the historical point of view of the novel and lose me. Still, I trudged on, that’s how deeply his curiosity-hooks dig in. I had to learn the fate of all the characters. I was relieved to find out. I also understood a significant amount of time would need to pass before I revisited his writing.

Here’s my confession. I did not pick up Murakami’s memoir on my own. My son, a huge fan of Haruki-san, as his Japanese fans refer to him because he is such an accessible guy, nudged me.

After reading a biography about Murakami that explored the how and when his novels sprouted from his life, my son said, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was probably the worst place to start my relationship with this Japanese author.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was the starting place my son suggested and I’m glad I accepted his advice. Running is a straightforward examination into how Haruki Murakami started to run, why he keeps running, how he trains for his annual marathon and what it means for his work as a writer.

Although I never made time to train for a marathon, I too, was a long distance runner. So, much of what is talked about is something I’ve experienced. But you don’t have to be a runner to appreciate what he shares. He draws you in with keen observations and details that reach deep into your gut.

The trees are barren of leaves, and the thin branches scrape against each other in the wind, rattling like dried up bones. 

Then he hooks you with his dedication to perseverance.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. 

Now I understand how Murakami can take the mundane and turn it into something magical. He has no choice in the matter for he is 100% attentive to whatever he chooses to focus on in his life.

No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative art.

The mundane may be the way Murakami enters a story, but what he ultimately shares is the pain within the underbelly of life.

When we are writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place. 

This toxin of humanity is what I was unable to digest in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’m sorry I wasn’t ready to receive the lessons that were within the story. I could go back, but having absorbed What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I believe it’s more important to move on, ride the forward momentum of his work and grow as a reader and writer.

Haruki Murakami’s memoir on Running is an extraordinary example of how delving into a specific area of a person’s life can reveal so much about character. Maybe this is another reason his characters create such curiosity for the reader, because he’s able to pinpoint the jugular of obsession in each one. Now, I will have to read more Murakami. I hope you give him a whirl as well.

Discover how far you’ll run to follow your dreams. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

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