Tag Archives: fiction

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven: Just what is the meaning of life?

When I first grabbed this book, I had no idea that I’d soon be living in Missouri, the same state it’s set in. Maybe I’m weird in this way, but I like reading books set in places where I live.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a lighthearted book by Fannie Flagg that focuses on Elner Shimfissle, an old woman living in Elm Springs, Missouri. When Elner goes out one morning to pick some figs and falls from the tree, the whole town gets caught up in the drama. Everyone is weeping and worrying, but Elner is having the time of her life–or death, as the case may be. Only Elner can answer the questions everyone seems to be asking: what’s the meaning of life and where do you go when you die?

This book was a quick read that looks at the affects one person can have on all the people around them, even when it doesn’t look impressive on the surface. Elner was a kind old woman, and when she was gone everyone started remembering her goodness. But Elner also believes everything happens for a reason, and her accident brings about a whole lot of good that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Though certainly not theologically sound from a Christian perspective, Flagg leads her characters and readers to the conclusion that life is what you make it. Do the things you enjoy, be kind to those around you, and it’ll all work out in the end. Her characters grow and mature throughout the story, realizing that a change in mindset can bring about a change in life.

All in all, it was a fun read that kept me engaged and entertained. As always, Fannie Flagg provides a slice-of-life kind of book that’s just enjoyable to read.

The Vanishing Half: A tale of one family split in two

Sometimes friends and book clubs lead you to books you’d never have picked up otherwise. I’m pretty sure Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is one of those books for me, not because it’s not my style or not what I enjoy, but simply because it wasn’t really on my radar before.

The Vanishing Half is the story of twin sisters and their daughters, spanning several decades as they build lives for themselves and wrestle with the consequences. Desiree and Stella come from a small town in Louisiana in the 1960s and even though everyone is black, the whole town is committed to being as light-skinned as possible. The twins run away to New Orleans when they are 16 and eventually are separated when Stella disappears.

Desiree returns to their small town when she takes her dark-skinned daughter and runs from her abusive husband. Throughout the years, she’s never forgotten Stella but all hope seems lost until Desiree’s daughter, Jude, moves to California to go to school. Jude is catering at a fancy white party when she catches a glimpse of a woman who looks exactly like her mother, only white. Knowing the mystery that has always been Stella, Jude can’t let it pass without uncovering the truth of who the woman is.

Bennett packs a lot into this book. Racial tension and violence, wrestling with self-image and the sacrifices made to build a life, the transgender experience of the late 1970s. And despite each character being put through the wringer, they are all confident and stand behind who they are and what they’ve chosen. Though victimized, they are not the victims of the story, which I really appreciated.

Bennett provides glimpses into the minds and experiences of people that I will never be, but she does so in a way that helps me start to understand what it could be like without judgment. Though Stella’s passing isn’t condoned, it’s also not thoroughly condemned by the author and characters, either. Stella remakes herself into someone completely different and the trouble arises primarily because of all the lies she’s told and maintained in an effort to erase her past completely. Desiree was always the adventurous twin, but she’s the one who ended up fleeing her husband and returning to the small town she always hated. But she’s not shamed for returning without conquering the world (though the darkness of her daughter’s skin is a completely different story with the townsfolk).

I liked how Bennett stretched the story across two generations, showing how the choices of one affects the lives of the next. While not always successful, I think they storytelling technique worked really well for this story and for Bennett’s characters. Each character had their own story and all the threads were woven together to show a picture of the family.

Be advised, though, this story isn’t a neat and tidy, happily-ever-after ending. I suspect that many readers would find the ending quite challenging, but I find the openness very realistic. Often when people have made so many choices, they aren’t going to give up the life to try to reclaim what they’ve already given up. It’s up to each person to choose to move forward with the life they’ve been given, regardless of how even family chooses to go.

Blood Sisters

I snagged an early copy of Jane Corry’s new book, Blood Sisters, and let me say, I was not disappointed. I read the whole book in one day.

Blood Sisters, obviously, focuses mostly on two sisters, dealing with the aftermath of an awful childhood accident that left younger sister Kitty unable to speak or remember, and elder sister Alison riddled with guilt and anxiety. Alison is trying to make a life for herself, and takes a job teaching art in a prison. But soon she starts receiving anonymous, and ominous, notes, and she starts to realize the past may be coming to get her.

Only three people know what happened that fateful morning. Two of them have slightly but significantly different versions of the events. The third can’t remember, even though the closure everyone needs depends on her.

Blood Sisters ends up having four points of narration: one from Alison’s point of view in first person, one from Kitty’s point of view in third person, some diary entries, and, later, flashbacks from Alison’s point of view. But the narration works for the story, and it’s easy to follow the threads as they weave their way into a final picture.

Corry’s book was easy to read. It gave enough so you have a general idea of what happened, but enough misleading hints to keep you guessing about all the fine but crucial details. And just when you think you’ve figured it out and uncovered the secret, Corry reveals that there’s still more. But she does it in a way that keeps you engaged, not tiring you out from gratuitous word padding or layers of “suspense.”

Corry’s book is my latest go-to recommendation and, of course, it means her first book will have to go on my never-ending list of books to read.

So if you’re looking for an easy suspense read, be sure to check her out.

The Third Twin

I’m familiar with Ken Follett as a historical fiction author, but The Third Twin was my first taste of him as a thriller author.

Jeanie Ferrami has been doing research into the nature versus nurture question in regards to crime by studying twins, specifically those who were raised separately. But when a normal day on the university campus turns into a nightmare, Jeanie finds herself knee deep in conspiracy and cover-ups– Jeanie has uncovered identical twins born to two separate mothers.

Refusing to give up on uncovering the truth, and finding it difficult to know who she can trust, Jeannie must bring the secrets to light quickly, before she becomes another fatality to maintain the secret.

In the whole, the premise was excellent, and the story was engaging. The story moved quickly and Follett dropped enough hints to lead you along while reserving some secrets for the ending.

However, I confess I’m getting a little tired of thrillers being chock full of romance, or of relying on sexual crimes as the catalyst for the storyline. I suppose it makes sense, for the romance, because intense situations tend to create a strong bond of intimacy, but, many stories lately seem to be romance stories tucked into intense situations.

All in all, Follett didn’t disappoint. And I certainly wouldn’t pass up any of his other works on just this premise. So when you need a good, fast-paced story with romance as the underlying theme, try out one of Follett’s thrillers. You won’t be sorry you did.

Keeping the momentum going

November this year feels like it falls weird, in terms of weeks. I’m not even sure if I’m in the third week of writing, or where I am. It’s throwing me off, mostly just for knowing what week to reference in these blogs.

Whatever week I’m wrapping up and starting, I’m still, surprisingly, on track. Last week was challenging, my schedule changed a little and I got really behind. I managed to still write each day, which is more than I’ve managed in years past. And over the weekend, I managed to write about 10,000 words, so, that bolstered my confidence.

I got some additional planning done too, mapped out a few extra chapters, though the end is still ambiguous.

This week will be possibly the hardest to keep on track. With Thanksgiving, and the kick off of the busy season at work, I know I’ll be tired and busy with family. But, if I use the time I have and I’m intentional about it, I know I can stay on track.

And at some point, I’ll have to cast my mind out and decide on the ending.

This story has already changed so much from what I first expected it would be, I’m excited to see where it ends. And then January will be time for editing and revising. But, we’re not there yet. It’s still November, and still time to write with abandon.

And the good thing about Thanksgiving being early this year is that, after the weekend, I’ve still got several days left for binge writing. I’m confident that not only will I hit the goal of 50,000, but I’ll be able to write the ending too.

So, here’s to soldiering on, even through food comas and all the rest.

The Woman in Cabin 10

Since Ruth Ware just had a new book out, I decided it was the perfect time to check out some of her other stuff, since I recommend it often even though I haven't read it. She writes thrillers along the lines of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn, so I knew it would probably be good.
Lo Blacklock is a British journalist who is invited to be on the maiden voyage of a new luxury cruise ship. Lo thinks it will be the perfect way to recover from a recent burglary incident in her flat, but instead she finds herself caught up in what she believes is a sinister plot against a woman no one but her has seen.
Her journalist instinct pushes her to keep digging, despite the danger and her fears and when she finally reaches the bottom, Lo isn't sure how things are going to end for her.
The Woman in Cabin 10 was every bit as exciting as I thought it was going to be. It was a fast, engaging read with lots of logical red herrings along the way. I found myself coming up with various elaborate theories for what was going on. Turned out to be much simpler than I had thought, which of course is the best way for these kinds of stories to work out. But the ending didn't come out of no where. Ruth Ware keeps you guessing, but when she finally reveals it all, it makes perfect sense.
If you're looking for your next exciting thriller, be sure to check Ruth Ware out, she won't disappoint.

The Girl on the Train

I finally got a chance to read The Girl in the Train, and Paula Hawkins did not disappoint.

The story follows the lives of three women: Rachel, Megan and Anna. We meet Rachel first, a divorced alcoholic who rides the train into London every day. Right off the bat, Rachel’s character is established as shaky, and we aren’t certain if she is struggling with mental health issues, or simply the affects of being an alcoholic– or both. But every day, Rachel observes the people in one certain house, imagining what their lives might be like. In her mind, they are perfectly happy and in love.

In reality, Megan, one half of Rachel’s couple, is struggling with her own mental health issues. Her husband is, in the least, borderline emotionally abusive, and Megan is haunted by her past. She is seeking help, trying to find what she needs to do to be whole, healed and happy.

Finally, Anna is the wife of Rachel’s ex husband, and lives just a few doors down from Megan. Paranoid about Rachel and protective of her family, Anna is on alert for any sign of Rachel in their neighborhood.

Their three stories cross when Megan goes missing and Rachel, convinced she can help but unsure of what she knows, tries any avenue that comes to mind.

Hawkins does an excellent job of showing how someone can have one part of the story, and make assumptions to fill in the blanks. The narratives are full of facts that manage to mislead you, leaving you guessing right up until the end. And yet everyone’a conclusions make sense as they’re reaching them, which makes it all that much more of an intriguing read.

The Girl on the Train keeps you on the edge of your seat, taking the pieces of narrative and trying to reconcile them to each other. And it’s not until you approach the end that you realize how many assumptions you’ve made yourself.

A new beginning (editing is going to take a while…)

The most important part of a story is the beginning. If the first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grad a reader’s attention, they will put it down and move on to the next book. For me, beginning is always one of the hardest parts. Whether it’s writing an essay, journalism article or a story, I can always feel the pressure to start well. Throughout college it served me pretty well to just write something and get the words flowing. If I wrote a good beginning, great. If not, usually by the time I finished whatever I was writing, the beginning was easier to write because I had the whole picture now.

With this story, it’s been more difficult. I’ve decided to work my way slowly through my story so that I can dedicate significant time an energy to problem areas. I probably should leave the beginning for the end, but I focused on it this week, and I feel like I’ve already made some improvements.

I’ve been challenging myself to think about the way other stories begin, both books I’m reading and even from my own writings. I’ve started a little journal, where I write how it begins, and then what kind of story that technique is good for. For example, some stories have one major event and the author weaves narrative strands around it, such as A Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Steadman. Though I’ve just started the book, I know how the writing is going to go. The story begins with the couple finding the baby (not a spoiler, you find out that much just from reading the back cover), and the rest of the book is telling the story. It’s jumped back in time and is telling the events leading up to finding the baby. And once we reach that point, it’ll shift gears and tell about life after the baby. Plenty of stories have this kind of plot set up, and the technique of giving the action scene, or a hint of it, then giving the background before dealing with the aftermath makes the story flow easily. But my book is not like that. Mason (I’ve finally named my character, hooray!) doesn’t encounter any one particularly pivotal moment that I can use as a teaser introduction.

Other beginning techniques include writing a prologue to set up a world or town, giving the history that explains what you need to know about where the character is. This, I think, is the one I use most often. I’m a fan of prologues. But, while I could do that for this story, the challenge with the prologue is that you need some kind of action to engage readers. You still need that pivotal event that sets the character up. And the history of my story is more broad than that. What I’ve decided to go with for the time being is a description of a scene that encompasses a major theme of the story; in this case, a description and encounter between Mason and his father that shows readers life in Vale is all about science, and a person’s value is inherently linked with how well they fit the expectations of society. As an example, I’ll show below the initial beginning I wrote for this story, and the new beginning I’ve been working on this week.

Dying didn’t seem nearly as dramatic as everyone made it out to be.

He had just turned 25, and the pressure he faced was unbelievable. He wasn’t just a late bloomer, his family had given up on him—no one believed he would prove to be an asset to society.

It was unbelievable either way—that other towns could exist, that Vale could be the only town. The town’s leaders were very strict, no one was allowed to explore beyond the town limits, curiosity and questions were no tolerated. Everyone clung to a religion of science. It was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. And science was his downfall.

Mason had never had an affinity for numbers, formulas, and the other complexities that went into the science, technology and engineering fields. He was much better at drawing—landscapes, people, animals, anything. But that wasn’t the kind of thing Vale valued. His drawings wouldn’t save or improve lives, they said, so by their very nature, they were worthless. Mason didn’t agree, but, dissent wasn’t valued either, so he did his best to swallow their context.

Life in Vale was all about society’s good…

Even I look at that and think I probably wouldn’t keep reading. The whole entire first chapter didn’t have any action or dialogue. Too much scene setting, explaining how the society functioned. It’s something I need to show, and maybe not all right off the bat. Here’s a bit of the new one in progress:

All his life, Mason knew science would be his downfall.

Every person in his hometown of Vale clung to a religion of science—it was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. Each child was raised from birth to believe scholastic achievement and worth were inherently connected.

But from a young age, Mason—and everyone else—knew he would never measure up to anything scientifically great. He was smart enough, but he couldn’t compete or compare with the waves of peers surrounding him that, in another place, would be hailed as geniuses and prodigies. Compared to them, Mason was worthless. And how he compared was all that mattered.

When he was about 13, he sketched his house and his sister Mel playing in the yard. He spent all day working on it, trying to get it just right.

“What have you been doing all day?” his father demanded when he returned from his day at work.

Mason proudly held up his drawing. “It’s our house, and Mel out front,” he said.

But instead of pride, excitement, or even interest, his father scoffed. “You’re well past the age of foolish past times, Mason. It’s time you put your mind to something worthwhile or you’ll never amount to anything.”

I’m not going to say it’s golden, but I think it’s far more likely to entice someone to commit to reading a few more chapters, so it’s a start. As always, the key to remember is show, not tell. After this bit that I’ve just shown, I fall back into the telling, telling how life in Vale works. I’ve still got a way to go on this, but, for the sake of anyone reading these blog posts, I’ll move on from the beginning this coming week so that you don’t have to read another post saying all this same stuff again.

Onward into the rest of the story!

Baby steps in editing

I have made good on my determination to begin editing.

Over the course of the last week, I read through my project from April (yes, the one that has no title, and wherein the main character still has no name…). I’ve made some notes of inconsistencies and some issues to address.

But the hardest part of editing, as I’ve come to experience, is that too often I can’t see the crappiness in my writing. As I read through it, noting stood out as bad. While I’m tempted to be excited by this, I know  it’s not quite true. Perhaps it has potential, but it’s not perfect, not yet.

So as I begin going through it again (good thing it’s short), the question I must keep in the forefront of my kind is, “is this engaging enough to read?” “Will this capture a reader’s attention and hold it?” And when I move in to allowing others to read and give feedback, I need to remember to be open to it. Sometimes, I tend to get protective. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into my work. But, my family and friends are going to care more about it than an editor who doesn’t even know my name, so the feedback I get before I even think about publishing is so incredibly valuable.

The other thing I need to be watchful for is logic. There are one or two spots already wheeler I wrote myself a little note, asking if the way I’ve set things up even makes sense. Why would a crucial character be in a crucial spot? If it’s just because I need him to be, that’s not good enough. And why would there be 100-year-old records for something that needs to be kept a secret? Does their existence make sense, or do I need to revisit that as well? This will be the place where my journalism schooling helps, looking critically to find if unanswered questions are hidden within my story.

So, I’ve done a preliminary reading–the first I’ve done in probably five years. My story isn’t awful, I don’t think. It needs work. It probably needs more to it. But I think it is something to be proud of, and I think it’s something that could go somewhere. And that hope is exactly the encouragement I need right now.

The final days

I’m less than 1,000 words away from winning NaNoWriMo this year (writing 50,000 words).

I have two days left, not counting today (and I don’t because I have to leave for work in an hour).

And I still have to wrap up this chapter and wrap up the whole story.

Where I am at almost feels like a climax of its own, but it’s actually the story winding down. Whether it will be a series or just one of the ambiguously cyclical stories that annoy some people and refresh others, I haven’t really decided. That will be something to consider later on, after I’ve finished the story and read through it again. At that point, I’ll be able to see if there is enough new ideas to pursue a series. Or, perhaps, I’ll be dissatisfied, and I’ll write another chapter or an epilogue or something. But all of that will be December’s problem. (Ok, probably a problem for some time later on in life, I never seem to get around to earnestly editing any of my projects.)

When I hit 40,000 words, I felt like I was running out of steam. As I looked at my outline for the last two chapters, I was wondering how on earth I was going to write them at 5,000 words each (even though just last week I was bragging about how they were such dense chapters). When it came down to it, I thought I was going to come up short.

But this gave me a great opportunity to add in some “extra” content that showed different strengths of different characters, and I think will really make the last chapter of the story make sense. I was able to add in a little bit of the snapshot of life kind of scenes that make the character real, show time passing, and give just a short break from the hustle and bustle of the main storyline.

So now here I am, just a little over 49,000 words, and I’ve still got the entire final chapter to write. If I’m honest, I’ll probably put that off until December (I’ve got a book calling my name, and I need to finish it so I can blog about it on Friday!).

But I’ve learned a lot about my writing process since I’ve tried out some new things this year, the biggest being that even if I plan and give myself structure, I still have creative license and freedom. While in general my story is the same as when I started out, several characters turned out to be very different than I had expected. And by letting myself plan as I go, I was able to adjust the key events in later chapters to reflect the new strengths and weaknesses that I discovered in my characters.

And finally, I was able to simply enjoy the writing instead of stressing over what is supposed to come next or how to pass time before moving on to the scene that is supposed to happen next month. So, I’ve committed myself now to being a semi-planner. I know where I’m going, but I can take side roads to get there.

Onward now to those final words.