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.


THE MAGICIAN’S LIE by Greer Macallister

The Magician’s Lie, the title alone portends an unreliable protagonist and arouses intrigue before we open the cover. Then debut novelist Greer Macallister drives our curiosity into full bloom with an opening that is its own magic show.

Tonight, I will do the impossible. The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true […] I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world. 

We see no smoke or mirrors. Instead, we experience a magical pulse through the words Macallister selects. She is a temptress of words. At times she understands that which grows simplest grows best.

They sit together in silence, two figures in two chairs on the fringe of the circle of lamplight.

Simple, yet provocative. Other times she indulges our senses.

Here every smell was on top of every other, good or otherwise. Garlic and perfume and manure. Silk and smoke and mud. Voices come to you the same way: a trilling woman’s soprano shouting out the price of oysters, overlapping with a Sicilian shopkeeper’s dusky accent and two German teenagers arguing at full volume, blotting out a whispering grasp of Irish girls on their way to work.

But she never goes too far because, like her protagonist (the Amazing Arden) the smoke, the mirrors and the slight of hand is rooted in her character and drawn on only when the need arises. Macallister offers an invitation we can’t resist and we follow her without hesitation or doubt.

Arden is one of the strongest female characters around. She defies the odds at the turn of the century and rises to the top of the masculine world of magic. The obstacles she needs to surmount to reach such success are delivered to us in her own words after she is arrested for killing her husband. The murder allegedly carried out on stage during her incredible trick of sawing a man in half. Whether she is lying about the events that led her to this moment, or telling the truth doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to this reader because Arden’s determination to stand against all opposition, without hesitation, is an inspiration. My empathy for Arden was so complete, I never believed I could turn away from her, even if she ended up being despicable.

Another reason we latch on to Arden’s strength has to do with how powerfully Macallister delivers vulnerability.

Pouring cheap gin on top of today’s news and tonight’s gore has hollowed him out like a rotten stump.

This passage is from Virgil Holt, the officer who arrests and interrogates the Amazing Arden, and the other Point of View character, in The Magician’s Lie. Arden’s and Virgil’s point of views are designed to secure our objectivity as the facts of the case unfold. But the beauty of these opposing forces lie in how they keep us on a tightrope of tension, wondering what is true and what is false. This two-person point of view is also where the real magic of the novel happens.

I only blinked on occasion, because when a powerful woman who smells of rosewater instead of dung tells you to stay still, you know everything depends on how still you can stay, and for how long. 

One person’s control over another is at the core of every riveting piece of fiction, and Greer Macallister delivers by adhering to her protagonist’s advice.

The novelty of being a woman would get audiences in the theaters once, but I needed to handle them just right once they were there. 

Macallister keeps us hooked by showing us how Arden gains and loses control of her life through the unexpected twists that occur, again and again. Each shift of power expertly interwoven with the inner turmoil of the characters.

He stands up and turns his back so she can’t see his face. It isn’t fair. He has all the power and none of it. The ceiling seems lower than it did an hour before, the room, smaller, though he knows that’s not possible. So much is riding on this night. He can’t afford to lose control. 

The Magician’s Lie may be Greer Macallister’s debut novel, but she is no novice. Like the Amazing Arden she spins a story that challenges your powers of observation.


THE ART OF FALLING by Kathryn Craft

On December sixth I posted the following on Twitter:

Revisiting the agony and the ecstasy of my modern dance training with THE ART OF FALLING by @kcraftwriter Spot On! #Fridayreads 

Craft, a former dancer, has opened a drawer most dancers keep shut: the one designated to body image. The contents spill out without apology and with an accuracy that makes the reader pause. For readers with dance history, the daily struggle between honoring and abusing the body that Craft focuses on may be too close to home. It was for me. I needed a few weeks distance before I could compose a review.

Before you start thinking The Art of Falling is a literary equivalent of the film Black Swan let me clarify: Kathryn Craft’s debut novel is a story about physical and emotional heartache, delivered with a sensitive hand, from a woman who repeatedly shows us she knows what it means to sail feather-like through space.

My body: a still life, with blankets. 

Is there any more frightening statement than the above for a dancer? This is our introduction to Penny Sparrow, a dancer who is lucky to be alive after a traumatic fall. A great opening and not just for the reader, for our heroine as well. Unable to move, she must decide, right from the first page, how willing she is to face the truth about her past, in order to navigate the present. Her choice to tackle this exploratory journey is not what brings out our empathy for Penny. Craft maneuvers Penny into our hearts by the way she allows Penny to experience the full blown anger and frustration that corresponds with the type of injury she sustains. In this way, Craft makes the most of the advice to writers that says, “Chase your protagonist up a tree and throw stones at them.” The Art of Falling shines as a result.

Novels don’t make it onto the shelves without strong protagonists. But a protagonist’s strength is not always evident to the character, which is why truly skilled writers select their secondary characters carefully. Kathryn Craft soars with her secondary choices. Penny’s best friend Angela has Cystic Fibrosis. A woman frustrated because she may never dance again befriends a woman who struggles daily to live. Now that’s character dynamics.

“So how old are you?”

“Five months past the expiration date stamped on my butt.” She looked at me with a mischievous smile. “I’m twenty-eight.”

Her punch line sobered me: we were the same age. […] With what I knew of CF, Angela could be near the end of her life.

The counterpoint of this duo’s struggle for their individual ideas of life, is at the center of this novel’s composition and one reason The Art of Falling keeps the reader hooked.

Angela isn’t alone in nudging Penny into awakening. All the secondary characters take a shot. They push into and crack the walls she puts up until she has no other choice than to let the festering emotions out, as she does with her mother.

“Because YOU-ARE-FAT!” I want to smack her with this proclamation and all of its implications: that I no longer could witness this long slow death. That she should care more about herself. That she’d been a crappy role model and an embarrassment. That I hated my body because I feared its similarities to hers.

There are many interactions like this where Penny is maneuvered into self-realization. Each one of these moments is crucial to her evolution, and the order in which they unfold has an inevitable flow. However, sometimes her self-awareness was so insightful it prevented me from worrying about her. I don’t believe I ever considered she might fail.

Perhaps it appeared to the others that riding up front by Dimitri’s side gave me an unfair advantage. An added layer of job security. And it was a more comfortable ride, while it lasted. But didn’t they know the survivors in a plane wreck are usually found near the tail? 

On the other hand, to be a dancer demands a level of awareness that escapes the average person. Every second a dancer is in motion, they must simultaneously know exactly what their body is doing, and be capable of escaping the technical aspects so they can embrace the complexity of emotion the dance was designed to illuminate.

This ability to express the inexpressible through the slightest movement of the body is why we are drawn to Dance. It is also another reason The Art of Falling is a compelling read. Kathryn Craft has found a way to transfer her talent as a dancer to the page. Doing so, she is able to communicate the essence of what would normally be unexplainable with a powerful beauty.

A wisp of memory, a trace of the movement I had loved, that imagined kiss: something hibernating in the darkness within me awoke and reached tentatively for the sun. The fierce beauty of it stilled my step. 

The Art of Falling, a story of the dance we know as life.


FALLEN BEAUTY by Erika Robuck

Each time I open a book, my wish is for the author’s words to spin my imagination into a kaleidoscope of color so my heart will dance. When I find an author who is capable of such magic early in their careers each novel deepens my admiration, and my desire to hear from them again is wrapped in the hope and promise of greater stories to come. Stephen King may have been the first author to have such an impact on me. My reaction to his hiatus and subsequent return to writing The Dark Tower Series was akin to agony and ecstasy. Have I moved into melodrama? Oh, well, there it is. For the hope, promise and joy I feel for Erika Robuck’s novels is nothing less than a romantic attachment.

The writing in Fallen Beauty is an undertow of words that reel you in, while emotions rise with such force it’s impossible to put down. And yet I had to in order to take notes on character and story, and capture quotes for future reference—even though I know this is a book I will read again and again like The Hours, A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Old Man and the Sea.

I came down a hill, back from raping the earth of her treasures, to see a nymph waiting for me, breathless, angry, uncertain, and I felt the sorrow of seeing the wounded pierce my heart more than she could know. 

These words belong to Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of two point-of-view characters in Fallen Beauty. The second is Laura Kelley, a seamstress whose choice to follow her heart in 1928 leads her to a life of limitations and hardship as she tries to provide for her child who was born out-of-wedlock. The voices of these women and the way they behave place them at opposite ends of a spectrum. The brilliance of Robuck lies in her understanding that for Vincent and Laura to be at opposite ends of a spectrum they must share a through-line, and they do. Both possess a passion and a desperate need to express the beauty they see in the world.

Vincent, the artist in full-peacock bloom, knows her ability to weave beauty and love into words for everyone to experience is a gift—a gift that must be used and fueled or it will be lost.

If I don’t use my words for truth, I will never get new words. I will not be able to write. 

She often nurtures her poetic gift with behavior not accepted by society. But she doesn’t care about their judgment. Her purpose is not to please the masses, but to live as fully as she can in order to enlighten those who will listen to the power and glory of love and beauty. She wishes to open people’s hearts to a range of emotions so they too may bring themselves fully into the world.

Laura covets Vincent’s free spirit and her gift. She longs to spin fabric into costumes that bring the essence of the characters, or the person wearing them to life. But to do so is a betrayal to her sister and the way she was raised. She doesn’t realize that to stifle her spirit only brings more pain into her life.

I know she turns the pain of the town’s judgment on me, because we all need something lower than ourselves to hate. Otherwise we would be left to absorb all the bad energy and it would destroy us. 

This too is Vincent. Her compassion for Laura is why we are so willing to forgive and look past her actions that we would not ordinarily tolerate. This is another of Robuck’s strengths: her deftness in maneuvering characters into situations where they have no choice other than to see themselves in another character. These moments of realization often ricochet the character forward to do things they never believed possible; other times the character steps back. Here’s Laura.

I shoved my hands deep in my pockets, and tried to concentrate on the shafts of moonlight slipping through the trees. I hated that I couldn’t find a single word to say to him. I was sabotaging something real, and possibly good […] I hated that I was a prisoner of my past. 

The way Robuck’s characters pierce and paw at each other keep the conflicts high, and the passion running deep. Fallen Beauty has given Robuck a chance to take off her writing gloves. She allows her characters to street fight with words, pushing each other in and out of corners, round after round until the final bell rings. She may never have trained as a boxer, but she’s one of the champion writers on my shelves.

Ignite your passion with Fallen Beauty.


CALL ME ZELDA by Erika Robuck

Look at Scott and Zelda, slowly killing each other by stray bullets meant for themselves. That’s what happens with love. It ends by death or separation. 

We are a third of our way into Call Me Zelda before we breathe in this line of sorrow and yet, the essence of this line is with us from the opening of the novel. This is one of Erika Robuck’s strengths; her ability to establish the mood and let it roll and gather momentum much like the fog rolls over the moors of Scotland.

Another strength, or gift is her ability to weave historical facts into fiction so that the material reads like a memoir. From page one I felt caught up in a gaper’s block on the highway; horrified by what I saw and unable to turn away, and too engrossed to be embarrassed by my rudeness. Robuck’s words cast a spell over her readers, keeping them transfixed until journey’s end.

Current events and history have always put me to sleep—a knee-jerk reaction left over from childhood; a story for another time—unless the material relates to the character I am developing for the stage or page, and then I can’t get enough. Erika Robuck was born to get people excited about history. When she wrote Hemingway’s Girl, she hoped to stimulate an interest in Hemingway’s life and writing. Her success prompted me to read A Farewell to Arms. And now she’s worked her magic with the Fitzgeralds. I’ve placed their novels and many biographies onto my wish list. I hope I have time to read them all. Whether she knows it or not, Robuck is one history geek who can’t be ignored. She dangles the facts in front of us just long enough to stir our appetites and we grow hungry because of her storytelling.

But maybe it was my selfish desire to be needed. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of something beautiful and tragic and even historic—like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape.

Anna, Zelda’s nurse, is not the only one who longs to be part of something greater than herself. Scott and Zelda are also driven to rise above the dust that is now their life. These three make up a triangle of enablers—a stellar choice for Robuck. She exposes and underscores the dangerous quality of love that bound and tore the Fitzgeralds apart, not by showing us their evolution, but by allowing Anna to experience it first hand. Anna is dropped into the middle of a tsunami and all we can do is pray for someone to float to the surface.

One of the saddest and most sensitively written parts of the novel was a wonderful surprise for me. When we see Scott and Zelda depicted on screen as the wildly, carefree couple who symbolizes the Roaring Twenties, one element of their lives is overlooked—their daughter, Scottie. Robuck does not forget. Scottie’s presence is a touchstone for each of the characters. This little girl, who is treated like a second-class citizen because she was born into a chaotic world of savage artistic temperaments, forces the other characters to break free from their self-centered battles long enough to remember the goodness and love that resides (though often hidden) in their hearts.

Sadness and turmoil propel much of Call Me Zelda, but I wouldn’t label it a dark tale. The friendship that grows between Anna and Zelda begins with shared fear and loss, and is transformed through love and offers hope—a Fitzgerald essential. Hope…

…the light at the end of the dock [that leads us] to safety.

Call Me Zelda, a delicate and beautiful story of the destructive and healing power of love.


THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath

About a year ago I told my son I wanted to reread The Bell Jar. “You and every high school girl,” he said.  I laughed because my first experience with Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel was as a high school freshman. At the time I knew nothing about the author or the book’s content. I bought the book because the title beckoned.

THE BELL JAR…

What was it? I needed to find out. Yet, before I opened the cover my nerve endings tingled as if they were already in tune with the isolated emotional excess contained within. I never spoke to anyone about my encounter with Plath’s heroine Esther Greenwood. You don’t talk about what you write in your diary. Each sentence of The Bell Jar pulsed as if they were written in my own hand. I don’t recall how many times I perused those pages as a teen, but I remember dog-earring so many of them the novel fanned open like an accordion. Sometime after college the book fell out of my possession, but never out of mind.

By the time I picked up a used copy—don’t you love used books? They remind me of how closely mankind is woven together—a week ago, none of the details of Esther’s breakdown remained with me. I was thrilled to approach Plath’s work fresh, even if I hadn’t forgotten the vulnerability and fear that had drawn me in and spoken to me as a teen.

I’m happy to say my expectations were shattered. The vulnerability and fear that I expected to greet me in those opening pages was replaced by decisive, independent strength. The shift I encountered proved that I have changed over time, that the load I carried as a teen has lightened and I see myself, and the world, from a healthier perspective. As I viewed Esther Greenwood from my new perch I also gained a better appreciation of the timelessness of Sylvia Plath’s writing.

I didn’t want my picture taken because I was going to cry. I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full. 

Haven’t we all been there? Hiding behind a mask, posing for the world that expects one thing out of us while we have something else to give, even though we haven’t a clue what it is. From where I stand in life, I often wonder if this unsteady “mask holding” that Plath exposed in the sixties hasn’t grown into a bigger menace for today’s youth.

In my teens, The Bell Jar hit me on a visceral level. Reading it as an adult I see how Plath is able to continue to touch the souls of so many adolescent girls. She zeroes in on the situations that separate us and feed our inadequacies.

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more crazy about each other, especially when you’re the only extra person in the room. 

At fourteen I was so thrilled that someone else shared my angst, I missed out on the naked bravery of Plath’s novel. (Remember I didn’t have the slightest idea the author killed herself not long after the book was published.) Reading The Bell Jar with the facts of Sylvia Plath’s repeated suicide attempts and death at age thirty at my fingertips, I can’t help but marvel at how brave she was to expose her darkest hour to the world.

But I don’t think the autobiographical nature of the novel is what makes this work a must read. It’s much more than a potboiler—the label Plath is rumored to have used—or a sensational tell-all often seen on-line today. The heart of the story lies in Plath’s ability to show the fragile state of Esther Greenwood. Esther’s frustration in not being understood by the people around her is born out of not yet, “getting” herself. This is a fault-line we all straddle throughout our lives though we are often oblivious to it. And what Plath does with such simple execution is reveal how easy our point of pain can be exposed. All it takes is one targeted interaction or event to trigger our descent.

While Esther Greenwood is each of us at our most vulnerable she also embodies strength and determination. Even in the last days of Sylvia Plath’s life she churned out her Ariel poems at a feverish pace. Esther doesn’t fully return to her writing by the end of the novel, but her persistence and faith in finding a way to free herself from the bell jar helps keep our own hope alive.

I’ve read countless books about young women with greater drive and more inner turmoil and conflict than The Bell Jar. But like The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and The Sea, it’s a novel that needs to be read and reread by writers. Plath wrote her novel just as her chops as a poet were starting to root and blossom. The Bell Jar is an extraordinary example of writer getting out of her own way and trusting her instincts. Within these pages we experience snippets of exquisite imagery interwoven with stark simplicity. But what fascinates me most are Plath’s choices. Whether we are examining the sequence of chapters, the shifts within chapters or opening and closing lines, what we find is the result of a deliberate choice. I don’t think any other book has ever been so clear on this point for me. Maybe this gift was born out of her poetry, or maybe Sylvia became a poet because she inherently experienced the world through palpable moments. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful she was brave enough to share her corner of life with us.

The Bell Jar.


THE MOON SISTERS by Therese Walsh

Authors, publishers and agents often say the bottom line for book sales is word of mouth. I won’t argue. But I believe in something stronger—book karma. Books have energy, a life force that wraps around our hearts, tugs on our minds and makes our fingers itch until the bound pages are in our hands. Books arrive when we need them. I reread books because I have no choice. Certain characters haunt me and I must return to their lives as many times as it takes to learn from the wisdom they offer. The Moon Sisters is such a novel.

I wasn’t surprised. Therese Walsh, the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, mesmerized me so much with her debut The Last Will of Moira Leahy, I wrote my first fan letter. This is my second.

GROUND ZERO

The End of the Beginning

* Olivia * 

The night before the worst day of my life, I dreamed the sun went dark and ice cracked every mirror in the house, but I didn’t take it for a warning.  

A moment of awe followed. I don’t know how long I waited, or how many times I reread this opening, but before moving on I knew I would not turn back, or set the book down until I was done. Walsh is a writer on par with the finest archeological excavator. Every word is selected, polished and mounted against the next with intent. An intent formulated from deep within legally blind Olivia (who can taste words, see sounds and smell sights), older sister Jazz (a bit overlooked and bruised from being delegated as her sister’s keeper), and their mother, Beth (recently deceased whose voice is heard through the letters she left behind).

Through the alternating chapters of the sisters and Beth’s periodic letters we are able to piece together a family dynamic, which is best defined as a unit of hair-line fractures that crack open after Beth’s sudden death. Her husband embraces the bottle. Jazz finds a job in a funeral home. Olivia hits the road. Olivia’s mission is to travel to the setting of her mother’s unfinished novel in the hope of seeing a will-o’-the-wisp in order to lay her mother’s spirit to rest. Reluctantly, Jazz follows to keep her sister safe and put an end to this dreaming nonsense.

The sister’s cross-purposes intersect with two train-hoppers with missions of their own. The foursome’s entanglement leads to unexpected twists, emotional complications and forces Olivia and Jazz to face their personal grief and secrets together and separately. This is where Walsh shines as she sculpts the sentences that build an unforgettable story.

A breeze cut through, slapped leaves on trees, rattled branches in a quick swirl of cinnamon heat, then was gone. Left was the scent of my own desperation.

—Olivia 

A breeze blew up when she dropped my hand, and my panic spiked. This was a change. Not a jabberfest. There was something different about my sister.

—Jazz 

Walsh leaves nothing untouched. Her ability to bring a heightened awareness of the environment to the moment to enhance each character’s personal crisis is a skill to be admired and studied. The above examples are not rare. This kind of seamless craftsmanship permeates the novel, and sutures our hearts to those of the Moon sisters.

This skill, to use the environment as a character, or a means to express character needs to be part of every writer’s Toolbox. Walsh is way beyond basics. Her word choices magnify how Olivia and Jazz struggle with the first four stages of the grief cycle. The first time through The Moon Sisters my curiosity was stimulated by the recurrence of the word rain.

The rain sputtered on. Wind thrashed against the wood. Hobbs came up beside me, seemed to close up and around me like a house. 

The repetition and placement of the word rain was so specific in usage, I knew I had to read the book again. I needed to discover why the word had such a hold on me. Or was I reading too much into the writing? To my delight I uncovered that Therese Walsh’s strength of intention as a writer is coupled with a playful purpose to manipulate the reader’s understanding of character.

Between Jazz and Olivia there are at least forty references to the words, rain, storm, drown and thunder. The majority of these references have nothing to do with actual weather. They are used to amplify the inner turmoil within Jazz and Olivia brought on by their mother’s unexpected death. Beth, however, never uses any of these words. The word she chooses to repeat in her letters is tsunami. Tsunami—a tidal wave of overwhelming proportion, brought about by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. It is the perfect word for Beth, whose first words to us are…

If you live your whole life hoping and dreaming the wrong things…what does that mean about your whole life?

And she is dead by Chapter Two. Walsh’s specificity with words is one of the ways she inspires me as a writer.

While some books only entertain, others offer wisdom and guidance for the questions we might not even have known we possessed, until the appropriate situation was illuminated for us. Jazz and Olivia’s journey is riddled with moments of revelation they had no idea they were searching for.

People give a lot of fancy reasons for what they do, but it usually comes down to one of two things, Hobbs had said. They’re getting something or they’re avoiding something.

I had gotten something…but I was avoiding something too.

—Olivia 

What makes The Moon Sisters special is the way Olivia and Jazz’s realizations entwine with each other. When their interdependence of growth combines the impact for the reader is like an arrow to the center of a target. We can’t help but experience an awakening of our own.

My light bulb moment came through my connection with Beth Moon and her inability to finish her story. Unlike Beth I’ve finished my WIP eight times and am working on the ninth draft. Will I ever be able to move on to the next step, or is there some truth underneath my task I’m avoiding that keeps me locked into the revision process? In the midst of Jazz and Olivia’s journey the idea of reaching the end of my life with an unfulfilled dream still dangling out of reach was so strong, I mourned. But as the Moon sisters grew stronger, broadened their outlooks and faced the truth about their mother’s death, I too understood all was not lost. For like Olivia, I believe hope is an eternal flame that allows us to stay the course and reach our destiny.

The Moon sisters’ journey is born out of love, fraught with fury and fear, and takes us to a place where miracles reveal sides of ourselves and others, we never imagined was possible. Jazz and Olivia learn happiness is determined by how they choose to see and live their lives. Thanks to Therese Walsh’s finely crafted tale, maybe we will do the same

Gather the karma of The Moon Sisters.


HEMINGWAY’S GIRL by Erika Robuck

My introduction to Erika Robuck came through Amy Sue Nathan’s blog Women’s Fiction Writers in 2012, when Robuck shared her journey to publication. It’s an inspiring interview, which I saved and reference from time to time.

For the booklovers who frequent my Bookshelf, you know that I like to zero in on what works and what doesn’t work for me—an ingrained curse of a writer struggling with a debut novel. I’m delighted and surprised to say Erika Robuck nudged me out of habit. When I finished the novel my son asked how I liked it.

“It was good,” I said. 

“So, you didn’t really like it?”

Pause. 

“No,” I said. “You’ve completely misunderstood. I loved it. I was swept away, hardly took any notes. In fact, Erika Robuck made me forget I was a writer.”

A theory exists to help readers choose books. I came across it on The Kill Zone with a blog post titled The Page 69-Bomb. Select a book and turn to page 69. If you like that page you’ll probably like the book. If you’re unable to get a sense of the book’s heart by then, best to leave the book on the shelf. How did Hemingway’s Girl stand up? I didn’t test the book ahead of time, but I can say, without hesitation, my allegiance and investment in heroine Mariella Bennet was complete after the first four pages. By page 43 I had to force myself to stop reading in order to get anything else done during the day. Now that’s happiness.

Before the novel begins Robuck writes to the reader:

After reading all [of Hemingway’s] novels and eventually ending up in his home in Key West, I had a strong desire to tell a piece of his story and inspire others to read his work. 

I’m thrilled to say Robuck’s wish came true for me. Although I’ve read The Old Man and The Sea four times, A Moveable Feast and a few short stories, Hemingway’s other novels have remained a mystery—until now. I’m currently in the midst of A Farewell to Arms thanks to Hemingway’s Girl. And I have a growing interest in reading about the women in Hemingway’s life.

I can’t imagine writing a historical novel. The research alone would intimidate me. Luckily for us, Erika Robuck did not let fear get the best of her. What she learned about Key West, the Veterans of WWI, Hemingway and the Depression enriches, but never overpowers the page. The truth of 1935 and the characters she writes about seep under our skins until we feel like active participants in the action.

Another strength is Robuck’s understanding of the mind/body connection that is essential to creating fully formed characters.

Pauline regarded Mariella for a moment. Mariella could feel the woman testing her, wondering whether she could fight, cry and live in front of Mariella without actually having to think about her. Mariella relaxed her posture so she wouldn’t appear aggressive and folded her hands in her lap. 

These kinds of nuances are woven into each character and illuminate their humanity and inner turmoil, which keeps us glued to the page.

In the Reader’s Guide Robuck admits to being intimidated about putting words into Hemingway’s mouth, which was one of the reasons she left him out as a point-of-view character. Be that as it may, her portrayal of this legendary writer rings true—as Hemingway would say—and shows a total empathy for the character that may have been lost in the hands of another writer. Papa’s gusto, from his need to party into the night to his passion for hunting and fishing at the expense of his family is drawn beautifully from the moment we meet him on the page. But what Robuck does with greater delicacy and balance is show Hemingway’s vulnerability, which shines in an early fishing scene between Papa and Mariella, where they discuss Hemingway’s father’s suicide. The tenderness of this moment allows readers to tolerate the character’s future brutishness, while hoping to see more of his underbelly.

But my favorite part of Hemingway’s Girl is the love story. The triangle of tension between WWI Veteran Gavin, Mariella and Hemingway was a fantasy come true for me. What I found unique about this particular love story was Robuck’s ability to keep me guessing. I was never 100% sure who Mariella was going to end up with. And the twists and turns in the story, especially near the end are so surprising I was disappointed and pleased by how everything resolved. My desire to root so passionately for a particular ending is a testament to Erika Robuck’s talent for whipping a reader up into the undertow of the story and carrying them effortlessly through to the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to A Farewell to Arms, while dreaming of Erika Robuck’s next adventure with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.

Turn back to 1935 and meet Hemingway’s Girl.


TIME FLIES by Claire Cook

Dark and introspective tales that claw through my intestines and torque my heart tend to shuffle to the top of my TBR pile. But I get as excited about Stephen King as Virginia Woolf. I quiver over a tight mystery—thank you, Sara J. Henry—and Nora Roberts and Sandra Brown have satisfied my romance cravings on more than one occasion. Mixing it up is part of the fun. I had just finished Doctor Sleep and 1 Dead in Attic and needed a story with humor, so I reached for Claire Cook’s Time Flies.

Since I have never had the slightest desire to attend any of my high school reunions, the premise intrigued me. Melanie, also a woman of a certain age, is nudged into attending her HS reunion by her best friend BJ and an old flame, Finn, she doesn’t quite remember. My friends have coaxed me to do some zany things, and there are plenty of people I don’t remember from high school who have remembered me over the years. Melanie also has a driving phobia that may keep her from following through on what could be not only an adventure, but also a turning point in her life. I experienced a short-lived driving phobia when I was pregnant with my third son. So I was all in when I cracked the spine of Time Flies.

Cook presents her heroine as a woman of a certain age with the worries and energy of a twenty or thirty-something. Thank you. Thank you. I’m far closer to AARP than twenty-one, but inside I don’t feel any different than I did in my late twenties. Women are girlish and womanly all at once, all through their lives. Cook gets that. I saw Melanie as the silly me I often wished I was in high school. That said, I found it difficult to believe the sexual overtones Melanie encouraged accidentally, on-purpose with Finn. And I can’t remember the last time I flirted. But I often imagine how much fun it would be to fall in love all over again.

Perhaps there was even an air of mystery about me. I liked that.

I liked Melanie, and related to her desire for change. She’s independent and confident in her career, while behaving as a social misfit in her personal life. She is real. A woman we can recognize. And if writers ever question what it means for a character to see the world through their specific point of view, Claire Cook can show you the way. Melanie sees everything in the world through her eyes as a metal sculptor. Here’s a moment after she cuts up her marriage mattress with a chain saw.

Even before I worked the first steel spring free from the mattress foundation, I knew it would be a skirt. A great big Southern hoop skirt that twirled around and around and around. Next would come a parasol with a handle made of steel rebar, or even a splurge of copper pipe. 

I enjoyed all the above, but my women’s fiction craving wasn’t satisfied. Halfway through the novel I was still waiting for the action. As quirky as some of Melanie and BJ’s antics were, the chapters on the road came across as an extended set up rather than advancing the plot.

As much as I liked Melanie, I disliked BJ. Her self-centered, desperate-to-be-the-life-of-the-party attitude combined with her denial about how important she was in high school, and how important high school is in the grand scheme of life annoyed me. The way BJ and Melanie treated their friends Jan and Veronica irked me. The interactions with Jan and Veronica turn out to be key moments for Melanie’s transformation in the end. And BJ also has a bit of an awakening. However, even though the pay off came, I wondered about the delivery. Could there have been a stronger way to tighten the action and enhance the conflict within the scenes that eventually bring about change? There are plenty of external complications, but I wanted more inner turmoil or conscious struggle in those moments.

I think part of me was disappointed with Time Flies because I so enjoyed Must Love Dogs. I was also disappointed in my disappointment. Than a couple days after I finished Cook’s novel I understood why. Throughout Melanie and BJ’s journey they often refer to either Thelma and Louisea screenplay I enjoyed with characters I could connect with completely—and Romy and Michele, characters I knew nothing about until I caught Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion on cable. As I watched the film I realized why I didn’t fully connect with Cook’s characters: I’m not her target audience. I wasn’t even slightly amused by Romy and Michele, and I like both Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino. A lot of the humor in Time Flies is in the same vein and that funny flow is not what floats my particular canoe. So it’s not so much Cook’s novel as me.

In the end, I have to say Time Flies is the sherbet of Women’s Fiction. It’s not for everyone, but it’s as important as an actual dish of sherbet served to cleanse the palette between the meat and fish courses, and provides much needed variety.

Time Flies is a trip down memory lane for many woman of a certain age or younger. It will lighten your mood while dishing up lessons of storytelling every writer needs to know.


THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud

Get ready to expand your horizons. Claire Messud has exposed the underbelly of her female protagonist, and the complexity of Nora Eldridge is going to launch a new standard of truth for women in literature.

…every one of us is capable of rage

So says Nora Eldridge in the opening pages. And we get her because she embodies what we, the readers, hide from the world.

It doesn’t even occur to you, as you fashion your mask so carefully, that it will grow into your skin and graft itself, come to seem irremovable. 

Messud is a kind of clairvoyant—one with a knife— who exposes what remains of the character’s grit after the bowels have been scraped. Is that horrifying? So was adolescence and yet, we survived, or did we?

The Woman Upstairs seems to say, no. Nora’s battle with loneliness, rejection, feelings of inadequacy as a woman and an artist, her longing to attain a dream she is uncertain how to fulfill—given her present circumstances—are no different than the struggles of every teen. Yet, society pushes us forward and we pretend to move beyond the angst because we want so desperately for it to go away. But the truth is those unresolved issues don’t always disappear. They often linger, ferment, and continue to hold us back from achieving what, deep in our gut, we know is possible and probable, provided we get out of our own way.

…a lifetime ago in my artist phase, when I’d thought I might yet turn out to be the person that I wanted to be—whoever that person might have been… 

Our dreams are bold and hungry. If we feed them with faith and kindness and give them room to breathe, when we arrive at the critical moment we soar like Nora’s studio partner Sirena. But sometimes at the precipice, a claw of fear gnarls our back and we choke, and like Nora, our dreams shrink. We watch the world thrive while our wings beat against the walls of the cubicle we exist in.

Isn’t that always the way, that at the heart of the fire is a frozen kernel of sorrow that the fire is trying—valiantly, fruitlessly—to eradicate. 

A less seasoned author might’ve run with the sorrow until every character and the reader were buried by it. Messud, a literary artist, understands life is never a dead end. Stories that awaken our senses, like true stories that inspire, spin forward from an opportunity for change. Reza, Sirena and Skandar Shahid are Nora’s gateway. Her willingness to embrace their presence and surrender to the unknown and the possible unravels her fear and unleashes a stream of personal discoveries that change her life.

The Woman Upstairs is drenched in anger and sorrow and driven by passion and hope. No female protagonist has been so blatantly wounded, or so determined to uncover the means to heal without a man in sight. Claire Messud pricks up our consciousness. Our view of women, artists and what it means to be whole and alive will never be the same.

Meet The Woman Upstairs.


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