Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Better Sister

With a title like that, how can anyone not be intrigued?

I first heard of Alafair Burke when I saw she’d written a joint book with Mary Higgins Clark, before branching out into her own career. The Better Sister is her second novel.

Chloe Taylor has a successful, albeit strange, life. She runs a successful magazine, is well-known in her industry, and has a loving husband and son– her sister’s ex-husband and nephew.

But when her husband is murdered, everything starts to fall apart and Ethan, Chloe’s stepson and nephew, is charged with the murder. Chloe’s finds she must partner with Nicky, her estranged sister, to try to uncover the truth about Adam’s murder and prove Ethan’s innocent.

The Better Sister was a page turner, and a nice break from what has become the common theme of unreliable women and/or sexual violence as the basis of the plot.

My one quibble was that the twist in the end, while I made sense, didn’t have the lead up. Burke suggested various different, plausible possibilities, but didn’t really hint at the truth.

Otherwise, Burke wrote a clear, fast-paced thriller. I’m interested to go back and read some of her earlier work, because based on this book, she is capable of coming up with interesting, unique stories.

Bleak House

I’ve always enjoyed Charles Dickens’ writing, and ever since I watched the show Dickensian a few years ago, Bleak House has been on my list to read. It was one of the few character sets and plots in the show I didn’t recognize.

Bleak House follows the story of several young people, Esther, Ada, and Richard, wards of John Jarndyce. Ada and Richard, cousins, have a stake in the never-ending suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which quickly draws Richard in with its promise of fortune. Meanwhile, Esther discovers the truth about her past and the family she never knew. When a well-known solicitor is murdered, everything comes to light in the hunt for the murderer.

Filled with various subplots, colorful characters, love and mystery, Bleak House is a Dickens masterpiece, even if it can occasionally be tricky to follow along. It’s a mixture of love story and intrigue, with Ada and Richard quickly falling in love, and several of the lawyers/solicitors digging into the secrets of Lady Deadlock and Esther.

Bleak House has a lot going on, not surprising since it’s 800 pages long. But it’s worth the read, even if it takes a while to get through.

One down, two to go

I didn’t get quite as far as I intended this week in my new projects, but I definitely made a dent.

My first piece is done, just needs a read through before submission. And I’ve started the second piece, building up the story to get to where I’m going.

I’ve found that it’s been tricky with these first two ideas, because the main character is fairly isolated in the beginning. This leads to a lot of description, scene setting, and explanation, but little to no dialogue. Which makes me nervous that people will lose interest. But, this also pushes me to write through it and think about new ways to include dialogue, whether through memories, or uncovering new characters to interact with.

I’ve got until the middle of April to get all my submissions ready, so this next week is going to be about focusing on writing this second piece. Then I’ll work on fleshing out the idea for the third.

A Simple Favor

Once the movie was announced, per the usual, people flocked into the bookstore asking for Darcy Bell’s debut novel. I’d heard it was a suspenseful thriller, but hadn’t looked a lot into it.

When the opportunity to snag a copy came up, I figured, why not?

A Simple Favor opens with a blog post by Stephanie, a widowed, single mother, asking her followers for help. Her best friend, Emily, has gone missing. Emily, with her perfect life and her perfect son, isn’t the kind of person who would just ditch her life and start over somewhere else. Stephanie knows something is wrong.

When police find a body and confirm it’s Emily, Stephanie does everything she can to help Emily’s husband, Sean, and son, Nicky, cope and find a semblance of normal. She didn’t expect it would involve her moving in and falling for Sean.

But one afternoon, a few months later, Stephanie receives a phone call that turns her life upside down and sets her on the path of finding out what happened to her friend, and why Emily kept so many secrets. And soon she’s caught in the mystery and deceit, fully ignorant of how she’s being used by the people she trusts.

I have mixed feelings on this book, though I can definitely see why people are drawn to it. Stephanie is doing her best to be a perfect mother, but she’s got a few secrets of her own that, while bad enough, aren’t so bad as to make her the center of attention, like she craves. And it seems that she is so caught up in her own secrets that she can’t fathom other people having dark secrets or malicious motives. This sets her up to be used and manipulated by someone psychologically stronger than her.

As for the characters of Sean and Emily, they aren’t what they seem in the first few chapters (obviously). The more you read, the more you find (or I found, anyway) there isn’t anyone in the book you like.

Bell does a good job of throwing in twists to the story, but I easily anticipated all of them. I think that, in making sure the breadcrumb trail was there in foreshadowing, Bell dwelt too much on the breadcrumbs, and made it obvious where the story was going.

Overall, it was well written. And I appreciated the fact that it was a thriller written without it’s whole plot being based on violence/sexual violence toward women. And while Stephanie may not be a reliable character, it’s not because of vice or mental illness, but simply because of her naive and trusting nature.

Although it’s not necessarily a book I’d tell someone they have to read, I’d definitely read a second novel by Bell. I think she’s got the potential, just needs the practice.

Writing for a goal

I’ve long since recognized that I do better with some sort of deadline in place.

I can write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days doing NaNoWriMo, keeping a daily word count and racing to fill up that little bar to reach my goal, but set myself the same task nearly any other month out of the year, and I’ll flounder, unlikely to make it work, despite my intentions. It’s a mixture, I think, of the visual representation and the community that circles up around NaNo.

Another great way to get my butt in gear and get things done is when an opportunity comes up to submit work, and I’ve got nothing ready to go.

Last year I submitted work to and was published in the 2018 California’s Emerging Writers anthology. I whipped those two submissions up in like two weeks. I recently was invited to submit work for the 2019 edition, and I’m trying to give myself more than two weeks to work on some pieces.

What I like about this is that it’s a chance to write up some of the ideas I’ve got that don’t really feel full enough to be a novel. It’s a great way to just get writing, as well as a good way to see what potential an idea may have. I some feedback on the piece I had published last year, some people wanted more to the story. So I thought on it, and came up, loosely, with a way that I could turn that little piece into something fuller. I haven’t done it yet, but the idea is there.

I’ve got three ideas this year that I’m working on (slowly but surely).

  1. A girl is caught in a time loop, where she does the same things over and over again everyday, hoping to break the cycle. But it’s not until she tries something completely different and stops focusing on changing the unchangeable that she breaks out of the loop and discovers what else life has to offer.
  2. A woman took the position as keeper of a remote lighthouse to escape the chaos and stress of change. Over the years she’s developed as much reputation as the lighthouse, and people come from all over to see the beautiful scenery and to get her advice and wisdom. One day a young boy visiting with his parents poses a challenging question: she takes care of the lighthouse, but who takes care of her? The boy’s questions help her start to think about stability at the cost of community, and whether it’s worth it.

The third idea I’m not quite ready to share, having just come up with it over the weekend (OK, so it was really a dream I had, don’t laugh. I get good ideas from dreams, sometimes). But it fits right in with my recent theme of being overwhelmed and anxious about the future, trying to run away from everything in life, and realizing you have to eventually face life head-on and answer the questions and make the choices to get to where you want to be, wrestling with being active or passive in life.

I’ve made a good start on the first story, and I’ve got a pretty clear idea where I need to go to wrap it up. I expect in this next week to really set myself to the task of finishing that one and starting the second.

While I may not actually be dealing with any of the issues in my own life (writing is just another avenue of escape, at the moment, even though I’m using it to wrestle with those tough questions about dreams and hope and giving up), I think sometimes it can help uncover the true strength and courage that’s inside. Realizing that you know what you have to do, and if you can write compelling stories where little pieces of you triumph over the overwhelming odds, maybe you can triumph, too.

Surprised By Joy

Most known for the Chronicles of Narnia series, I knew C.S. Lewis had written many other books, but hadn’t read any of them. I decided recently that I’d remedy that, and it seemed to make sense to start at his beginning, with his autobiography.

Lewis takes readers through his early life, sharing how creating worlds was as natural as breathing. Though raised in a Christian home, somewhere along the way in his education Lewis found his way into atheism. It wasn’t until later on, when he made his way to Oxford, that conversations with his friends began to change his mind.

Throughout it all, Lewis had been searching for joy, not fully understanding what he was looking for. Thinking it had something to do with writing and creating fictional worlds, or something to do with the epic sagas he enjoyed reading, Lewis tried pursuing those things. It wasn’t until later that he realized the elusive joy he was seeking was not the actualization, but a “pointer to something other and outer.” Without it, he placed great value on it and sought it fervently. But, when he accepted Christianity and received the joy of a relationship with Christ, joy paled in comparison to what he now had.

This is a book that, for most of us, probably requires a couple reads to really grasp everything he shares in the last few chapters. And I’d be lying if I said it was an easy read. Despite being a short book, it took me longer to read than books of similar length, because it wasn’t chock full of action. Even in biographies and history books, I think we tend to read exciting stories. Lewis’ book is a methodical walk through his journey to develop his theology–a book that has a very specific audience, in terms of being really enjoyable. For the rest of us, it might just be an educational book we choose to read, but that we have to push ourselves to read.

All that to say, maybe Surprised By Joy wasn’t the right place to start off in diving into Lewis’ nonfiction work, it’s too late to go back and change it now. But I won’t let it keep me from trying some of his other works.

When you don’t have a map, write one

The further I try to go on in this project, the less I know where it’s going, it seems.

I’ve come to the realization that once I start writing, I don’t like to use “writing” time to think ahead, to plot out where my story is going. I feel like I ought to be writing, instead of just thinking about writing (it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since it’s still productive, but, I never said my mind worked clearly).

But this week, in what little time I’ve had, I’ve made myself do some thinking, planning out where my story is going. Because it’s hard to write otherwise, and I’m trying not to fall into the slump where it’s hard to write because I don’t know what to write, but I don’t want to take the time to figure out where I’m going.

The driving force behind this project, the last few weeks, has been my opportunity to wrestle with hopes and dreams and feeling like giving up. Sometimes writing things out, even things you know, helps them sink in in a new way. And sometimes, you have to allow yourself to sink a little bit into the darkness in order to better appreciate the light, to remind you there are things out there worth waiting for.

Everything else about this story has been up in the air. But I’ve got a little bit more clarity now, and I’ll continue to fine tune some of the details as I go along this week. But I think  I’ve ironed out (mostly, anyway) the biggest hitch, which was why there was so much animosity between the two halves of society, and what is the catalyst that prompts any sort of action within the story. I knew that the people who lived outside the cities didn’t like the people who lived wrapped up in technology and virtual reality. But, when the story hinged around these people planning something against their “enemies,” things started to make less sense. I realize that, within humanity, it’s really not so far fetched to hurt someone simply because you don’t like them. But I wanted something deeper, and I found it.

Instead of any one half of society attacking the other, these two girls who have learned the middle ground are interested in exposing the lies everyone has been believing and creating a new, unified society. It will mean breaking down barriers and dismantling stereotypes. It will mean people learning to embrace change and differences. It will mean agreeing to disagree, and not allowing that to be poisonous.

These kinds of big changes are scary, and can be seen as rebellion. So when Aliyah gets in trouble, she has to wrestle with whether it’s worth pursuing. Do you chase after your big dreams, even if the people who benefit don’t deserve it? Do you continue to reach for a better life, even if part of you believes you’ll never get there? When life kicks you down, is it even worth getting back up?

When I first started in on this project, I thought it was a story about a girl who sought refuge in books, who used them to hide from reality. Now, that’s not even worth mentioning, in the grand scheme of the story. Now, it’s largely become about discussing these big questions. If it ever gets finished and published, it’s possible some people might look at it as a critique on government, technology, even environmentalism (at least, that’s what people could think based on what it is now), and while those themes are things that I’m looking at, and may grow to be bigger topics as the story progresses, at it’s core, these big life questions have shown themselves essential. They are the story that’s begging to be told. And I hope the answer will be helpful to some, even if I don’t know what it is yet.

For all I know, they give up and nothing changes. I haven’t finished wrestling yet.

Crazy Love

Have you ever read a book that was both encouraging and disheartening at the same time? I’ve read Crazy Love by Francis Chan once before, in high school. But reading it again in my current life situation, it was inspirational while also dredging up some of those “what am I doing with my life?” questions that I’ve been wrestling a lot with. And that’s been hard.

Lots of people say they’re Christians but don’t act like it. Many people try to act like it, but fail to understand the grace and love it entails. And some of us understand that the actions should be motivated by faith and love, and yet, it can be so difficult to live in that. In America, especially, we want to hedge our bets. We don’t want to be too extreme, but we don’t want to be bad people. Chan spends the first few chapters showing readers how great our God is, how short our lives are, and how God’s love and our love go hand in hand.

The rest of the book is a look at the different ways that can manifest itself. Instead of giving God what’s left of time, money, energy, etc., Chan reminds his readers how, motivated by love and obedience, we’re to step out in faith and give everything we have. Give sacrificially to those in need (most of us have more than enough anyway, let’s really be honest); give of time and energy; love the people we don’t want to love the ones who have hurt us or the ones who make life hard; take steps of faith and obey even when it’s terrifying. In short, live the life, don’t just say you do. If we’re truly living for Christ, our focus will be on heaven and eternity and what we can do in preparation/anticipation for that, not the fading materialism of this life.

So many of Chan’s points are, honestly, nothing most of us haven’t heard before. But they are laid out in such an honest way, with his own experiences attached, that it’s compelling in a way others are not. It makes us step back and reconsider things. Questions like: does my life at this moment require faith? Are the things I’m doing today affecting eternity? Does my life as a whole reflect the faith and love I profess (each day makes up my life as a whole, if I’m not doing it daily, can I say I’m living it?)?

The last year or so has been a struggle to find purpose and meaning, a struggle to reclaim my daily life by walking in obedience and love (struggling and failing, it feels). This book drug a lot of those feelings back up, just when I thought I was moving past them. But while it’s difficult to wade through all that, it’s also encouraging to realize things like: instead of waiting for a calling, I can simply be in obedient motion and allow God to direct me from there; the more time I spend with God, the more my love will grow, and when I love God, serving and obeying aren’t a burden, they’re a joy. I may not have the freedom to go to some far off mission field; I may not be in a location where I can get a job that utilizes my skill set for kingdom work; but I can live my life for Jesus everyday, choosing to walk in grace and love (and showing it to myself when I fail, because I do, a lot).

Chan’s book is a must read for anyone who is looking for something different than our run-of-the-mill American Christianity. It’s a must read for anyone who is looking for inspiration to step out of their comfort zone and challenge their faith. It’s a must read for anyone who is trying to figure out how to intimately know God and love Him.

You can’t read Chan’s book without feeling like you want to do something a little crazy.