Friday, April 18, 2014

What’s on Your To-Be-Read List?

By Kim

Every so often I make a vow not to buy any more books until I make a dent in my towering to-be-read pile. I may even keep it until I see a launch announcement from a favorite author, a recommendation from a friend who knows my taste, attend an author event, or give into the temptation to walk into a bookstore. One whiff of new book or, worse, OLD book smell and my credit card leaps from my wallet.

At this moment I have sixty-nine unread hard-copy books sitting on my bookshelf, not including a couple dozen or so more research books. There are twelve unread e-books on my Nook, and twenty-nine on my wish list, each one screaming “buy me.”

Photo by Deborah Downes
Hello, my name is Kim Bullock and I am a book hoarder. An addict. If this condition is left unchecked, someday my house is going to look like this. (No, the photo was not taken in a used book store. It is a friend’s apartment. The view is the same from any angle, in any room.)

Instead of checking myself into the nearest 12-step program, I’m going to give you a glimpse of my bookshelf, the one filled with stories yet to be devoured, and invite you to do the same.

The Ambassador’s Daughter by Pam Jenoff

Admittedly, the cover seduced me first. A woman wears an expression like her world is about to end while she embraces a soldier. The Eiffel Tower looms in the background. The colors are faded, like a hand tinted historical photo.  Paris. 1919. Secrets. Danger. Romance. My heart races just thinking about cracking open the cover to this one.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

A female British spy is trapped in WWII France and arrested by the Gestapo. Will she give up her mission or face a grisly execution? I don’t know about you, but I have to know!

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

No, it isn't related to THOSE shades of gray. This one is another WWII story, YA this time, and takes place in Siberia. Oddly enough it had been sitting on my shelf a month when my daughter brought home a second copy from her school book fair, shoved it into my hands, and said “read this!”

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

This is one of the few non-fiction selections on my shelf, but all of King’s art history books read like densely-rich novels and, well, exactly like he speaks in person. This is a good thing.  It’s impossible to read anything by him without feeling both smarter and entertained.

The Josephine B. series by Sanda Gulland (The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, and The Last Great Dance on Earth.) 

What can I say? I love Napoleon and Josephine enough to stick with them for 1000 pages. 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

I know little about this book other than it takes place in WWII from the point of view of a nine-year-old who encounters a fence and becomes friends with a boy in striped pajamas on the other side. In other words, it will tear my heart out by the roots.


This exercise has been enlightening. I never imagined that five of the eight books I chose from my stack would take place in France, and that all but one would involve war.  Hmmm…


So, what’s in your to-be-read stack?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

House Words

by Joan

The fantasy saga features many kingdoms, cities, rulers and lands. This series pits long-standing families against each other in a bid to put forth the one true King. The plot and characters are far too complicated to get into in just one post, but something that struck me is Martin’s use of House words, or mottoes.

A few examples:

House Stark: Winter is coming

House Baratheon: Ours is the Fury 

House Lannister: Hear me Roar (and, A Lannister always pays his debts)

House Targaryen: Fire and Blood

The family known as Stark are a cautious, practical bunch, wary of the pending dark times. Every move they make can be traced to their family words. The Lannisters are pompous, wealthy, conniving and manipulative. They lie, cheat and pay heaps of gold in exchange for power and safety. Children are schooled in these House words, so they grow up to know their enemies.

Just as a book has a theme, your character has a motto, whether you name it or not. If faced with an intruder, would your character draw a weapon, cower under the bed or offer all cash on hand in exchange for safety? If your character would fight a thief and an injustice, his motto might be that of House Martell: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.

Which motto guides your character’s every move, her every step toward the one thing she yearns for more than anything, or away from what she fears most. I’m midway through the first draft of my next book. It’s time I figure out my characters’ defining words.

Think of your favorite characters. What are their mottoes?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Doctor, Lawyer, Soldier, Chef

By Pamela

One of my favorite riddles goes like this:

A man and his son were in an automobile accident. The father was killed instantly, and the boy was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. After it was determined that the boy needed surgery, he was taken to the OR. The surgeon took one look at the patient and said, "I can't operate on him. He is my son."

How can this be?

Flickr image by Dr. Case
Before I reveal the answer, let's talk a bit about character. Often times we've heard characters referred to as cliched or stereotypical. The gay hairdresser/florist. The dumb jock. The blond cheerleader. The crooked politician. What's true about hobbies and professions can also apply to personalities. Not all mothers are loving. Not all old people are wise. Not all children are prodigies. Not all best friends are quirky. Be careful that you don't apply stock traits to your list of characters if you want them to be memorable.

I'm pretty sure my generation (and any before mine) tends to be quicker to put people into categories than our children are. Play a little game with me. As you read through the list of professions, assign a gender to it--the first that comes to mind.

  • Doctor
  • Nurse
  • Pilot
  • Flight Attendant
  • Teacher
  • Lawyer
  • Soldier
  • Dentist
  • CEO
  • Plumber
  • Electrician
  • Mechanic
  • Farmer
  • Jailer 
  • Landscaper
  • Maid
  • Jockey
  • Artist
  • Coach
  • Preacher
  • Programmer
  • Writer
  • Chef

(For fun, after you're finished, read the list to your child and see if he or she gets the same answers.) There's no crime in associating a certain gender with a particular profession. A lot of it likely has to do with your frame of reference. If every farmer you've ever met was male, then you'll naturally picture a man--probably wearing a pair of overalls and a John Deer cap--when someone says, "Hey, there's a farmer."

But consider taking a character in your story--particularly one who isn't coming alive on the page for you--and making that person the opposite gender. You might find his or her personality explodes once you've changed genders. Just be careful about going against type to the point of being obtrusive. If your main character is a female pilot who falls in love with a male flight attendant, only to find he's dying of cancer, and his oncologist is female, his nurse is male and they have to postpone building their dream home, so their female architect is put on notice ... it might work or it might be a little jarring.

As your reader gets younger, worrying about a character's gender should be less of an issue. For instance, my 10-year-old has a female dentist and a female pediatrician. Her dog's vet is female. Her fifth grade teacher is male (as was her fourth). Her principal is female. She doesn't assume gender like I do. My friend Maureen is a pilot and her son, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, said he really wanted to be a pilot but that was a girl's job. But if your reader is 30 or older, he or she likely has more preconceived notions about what to expect from characters. Take that into consideration and then decide how to make your characters come alive.

Back to the riddle at the beginning of this post ... in case you haven't figured it out: When asked to operate on the boy, the surgeon said, "I can't operate on him. He is my son."

The surgeon was his mother.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Avoiding the Words

By Susan

We all know that anyone who writes is a writer, yet we also know that there are many ways writers avoid sitting down and putting words on the page. Here's a quick list of my favorite distractions and some easy solutions on this lovely Friday morning:

1)   Work. "I need to work, so I can't focus on writing now." This is true—we do need to work. How about today when you take your lunch break you opt to eat outside? Bring a notebook with you and write for twenty minutes. If you can't muster up a few paragraphs, make some observations about your surroundings and write them down. They can be great prompts for later.
2)   Facebook. "I'm just going to see the new baby pictures for my next door neighbor's daughter's third grader teacher's new grandbaby that was born in Alaska that I will never meet in real life. It will only take one minute." We all know this is not true. You will spend two hours on Facebook engaging in arguments and clicking "like" and chatting with a long lost friend. Please. Log off. 
3)   Important Things. "I've got to go the post office and the grocery and drop the dog at the vet. Did you not see my to-do list?" Yes. We all have Important Things. They all get done. But that doesn't mean you can't bring your computer with you. I've been known to edit or revise while sitting in the school parking lot, waiting to pick up a daughter at the end of her school day. Make your writing one of the Important Things, and it will get done.
I drew a bird. 
4)   Draw. "Oh, look. I could draw that bird." Or maybe that's just me?
5)   Read. "I'll just finish this one chapter." That's a lie, but that's okay. I'll always say if I'm not writing, reading is the next best thing.
6)   Clean. "It's Friday/springtime/dusty in here. I can't just sit and write with all of this clutter!" Write one sentence before you pick up that mop. Maybe the sentence will turn into a paragraph, maybe not. But one good sentence is better than none. Make deals with yourself, and stick to them.
7)   Exercise. "But it's beautiful outside! I've been cooped up all winter! I need to run!" I can't fight you on that one…in fact, I'm a huge proponent of exercise as a great breeding ground for new ideas. Just make sure that you translate that thinking time to the page when you return. Focus your monkey mind and allow your creativity to flow while you sweat. Then write it all down.
8)   Tend to Everyone Else. "I simply can't take the time for myself right now. Everyone else needs me." Well. Yes. At times, this is true. But have you ever heard a male writer say this? Not often. We women tend to quickly put the needs of others—children, aging parents, neighbors, even people we don't like—ahead of our own needs. And this also applies to viewing our writing time as a bonus rather than as a necessity. Write as though you have to. After all, don't you?
9)   Wallow. "It's all crap anyway. There's no point." Oh wait, maybe this is just me. The only solution for wallowing is to write anyway. 
10) Research. "I can't write this scene until I understand how a Byzantine soldier would navigate the streets of Constantinople in the year 1242." No. Just no. Research is a fabulous tool, and a necessary one. But don't allow it to usurp your writing time. Set a timer. Research for thirty minutes. And then write.


The most important advice? Stick to it. Hold yourself accountable. And so for me, on this lovely warm spring day, I'm off to write on my patio, thankful for the words, opportunity, and time to do what I love. I suggest you do the same. Happy Friday!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

By Julie

Here's a repost from 2013 that's relevant again with a few tweaks and updates. Congratulations to Ann Weisgarber, a fellow Texas author whose second novel is out in the U.S. this month with a gorgeous new cover! (Skyhorse Publishing / April 2014) 

I wrote this review last year when The Promise published in the U.K. I've since met Ann in person. She is lovely, kind, and gracious -- and she can write up a storm. Literally, in this case.
 

If you're in the DFW area, join Ann at her talk and signing at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park, Dallas, April 17, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. Some of the What Women Write crew is sure to be in attendance!

I read Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel Dupree in 2012, and was blown away by this intense, moving story. It was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and long-listed for the Orange Prize in the U.K., and was chosen for the ABA's Indie Next List and Barnes & Noble's Discover program when it released here in the States. I devoured it and couldn't wait to read something new from her.

Well, one of the perks of having a second English language publisher for Calling Me Home (Pan Macmillan in the U.K.) is getting occasional advance review copies from the U.K. My editor, Sophie Orme, discovered I had an interest in novels by Weisgarber, one of her authors and a fellow Texas writer, and she put a proof copy of The Promise in the mail that winter. (It published in the U.K. in April 2013.)

I read it over the holidays in whatever moments I could steal away from all the hullaballoo, and once again was startled and drawn in completely by this novel—most especially by the voices, exactly as I was with Rachel Dupree, a young African-American pioneer, in the previous novel.

The Promise is the story of Catherine Wainwright, a pianist who flees her Ohio home in disgrace, impulsively accepting the proposal of the man who worshipped her from afar when they were young. Oscar Williams is still rough around the edges, but he's stronger and surer of what he wants than Catherine expected when she agreed to marry him. He lives far away in Galveston, Texas, where he has built a dairy farm on "the ridge" far "down the island."

The Promise is also—and maybe more importantly—the story of Nan Ogden. Nan has been Oscar's housekeeper since his first wife died tragically. Upon Bernadette's death, Nan promised to always watch out for Andre, Bernadette and Oscar's only child. But there's more to her story: Nan harbors secret feelings for Oscar.

The story alternates between the distinct voices of Catherine—refined and stunned by her new life—and Nan—practical, realistic, and completely unable to deny the pull of her promise and her feelings.

It feels like a quiet story at first (intentional, I believe!). With careful and deliberate language and plotting, Weisgarber develops her characters through loaded interactions between Catherine and Oscar, Catherine and Nan, and Nan and Oscar, as well as Catherine's tentative struggle to become a mother to Andre.

But then the story marches toward the historic 1900 Galveston storm, the worst natural disaster in twentieth century American history. By the time I arrived at the second half of the book, through the warning signs and eventual arrival of the hurricane, my heart literally pounded as I read of Oscar's attempts to secure his animals and home and the people for whom he feels responsible. I stopped stealing bits of time and had to demand the few hours I needed to finish reading The Promise and learn what its heart-wrenching conclusion would be.

It's not an easy story to read (again, like The Personal History of Rachel Dupree). If you are easily frightened or like stories that tie up things with a pretty bow, you might not like it. But if you're like me—a reader entranced by realism, even when packaged in tragedy—you'll likely find it nearly impossible to tear yourself away from this story until you've finished, and then it will haunt you for days.

I highly recommend The Promise.

You can find Weisgarber online at annweisgarber.com and on Twitter at @AnnWeisgarber

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advanced copy of the book mentioned above gratis. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. I am making this statement in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, April 7, 2014

Jennifer Pharr Davis

By Joan

Last week the Fort Worth Library’s main branch presented an evening with author and long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis.
Photo from the author's website

My husband and I arrived early and wandered around the grand building, admiring local artwork in the atrium and finding our way downstairs to the stacks. Upstairs we found Susan and said our hellos, noticing a little girl toddling across the floor as if on a mission. Then we headed to the auditorium to see her mother speak.

From Jennifer Pharr Davis’ website:

Jennifer is the owner and founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Her adventures have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She has appeared on national television shows such as CNN Headline News, Fox and Friends, the CBS Early Show and the 700 Club. Jennifer has been named Blue Ridge Outdoors Person of the Year and a National Geographic Adventurer of the year. Her Appalachian Trail record was voted Ultrarunning Magazine’s Female Performance of 2011.

In 2012, Jennifer was a National Geographic Adventurer of the year. She’s written two books about her journeys. Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph from her latest journey, and Becoming Odyssa, written after her first thru-hike. Her husband, Brew, wrote 46 Days: Keeping up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail, where he shares his account of the trials, successes, joys, and frustrations of his wife’s journey on the Appalachian Trail.

Jennifer thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail alone when she was just 21. She said she learned more on that trip than on any other, about herself and about her place in the world. She began to feel a part of nature. Despite being filthy and smelly, physically ravaged with cuts and scrapes and bruises, she learned to believe in her own beauty by seeing her reflection in others, rather than in a mirror. 

Hiking became more than a vacation agenda, it became her obsession. After ditching a desk job, she founded her own hiking company, BlueRidge Hiking. Since then she has logged over 12,000 miles on six different continents.  In 2011, she thru-hiked the Appalachian trail in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, reaching her goal to hike the entire 2,180-mile faster than the current overall speed record. The first woman to hold the overall title, she is now the overall record holder for both women and men.
 
She read brief passages from her books and enthralled us with stories of bear sightings, trail magic and rough terrain. Then she treated us to a photo journey of some of her favorite spots in the world.

Though the pictures were breathtaking, her journey was far from glamorous. On various trips she’s suffered frozen-shut eyes, dehydration and the beginnings of hypothermia. Once when asked by a fellow hiker if she was having fun, she said fun is easy. Fun can be had anytime. The satisfaction of pushing herself through unbelievable circumstances to attain a goal was far more rewarding than fun.

On her record-breaking hike, her husband Brew partnered with her for trail support (he drove as she walked and met her at various stop points with supplies, food and encouragement.) She credits him as the reason she was able to finish the journey. At one point, she was going to give up. She had shin splints and near-hypothermia, once having to walk backward down a mountain because the pain in her legs was so severe. When she finally met up with Brew, he got her warm and dry and told her to give it one more day. If she still wanted to quit after that, they’d drive home together. He knew she needed to get back on the trail to see that she wouldn’t give up. That she couldn’t give up.  

After the talk her husband and darling daughter joined her on stage. Coordinating Jennifer's book tour with travel, they are on a mission to hike as a family in all 50 states. Their daughter toddled across the stage, purposeful and confident. I wonder where she learned that from?

You can purchase her books directly from her website, Blue Ridge Hiking, or on Amazon, Barnes & NoblePowell's and other indies.




Friday, April 4, 2014

A Review of Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You

By Kim

About I Always Loved You (from the book jacket):

The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is imploring her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her live changes forever. Years later she will learn that he begged the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships.

In I Always Loved You, Robin Oliveira brilliantly re-creates the irresistible world of Belle Époque Paris, writing with grace and uncommon insight into the passion and foibles of the human heart.


Photo by Deborah Downes
About Robin Oliveira (from the book jacket):

Robin Oliveira is the New York Times bestselling author of My Name is Mary Sutter. She holds a BA in Russian and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow. She received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is also a registered nurse, specializing in critical care. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

My Review:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo says it all. That’s my copy of I Always Loved You. Each sticker represents a passage of extreme brilliance, one that I likely read over two or three times before marking the spot and continuing on. You can’t see all of them, by any means.

I knew from the first page that this was a novel that would stay with me well after I finished it. When I came to this passage on page 43, after swallowing a lump of writer’s envy, the book shot into my top ten books of all time:

“Mary thought he might as well have said he had seen her at her bath, had seen the imperfections of her figure, had spied the most personal things about her. Instead, he was undressing her mind and rummaging around in the pleats and folds of her brain, a voyeurism more intimately invasive than any physical violation would have been.”

This passage was taken from the scene where Mary Cassatt first meets Edgar Degas. That tired old cliché about being able to cut the sexual tension with a knife does no justice to Oliveira’s portrayal of their relationship. In this case, you can’t chop through the tension with an ax. Every glance, every touch, nearly every word exchanged between the two is charged. The scenes where one or the other creates art in presence of the other are especially sensual.

While it is not necessary to have knowledge of the Impressionists to enjoy I Always Loved You, it will add a further layer of tension if you do. Any love story involving Edgar Degas could not be conventional in scope and will not involve a happily ever after unless the author takes major liberties with history, which Oliveira does not. What she does do, brilliantly, is find the story hiding in a gap of known history. After Degas’ death, why did Mary Cassatt search his apartment for her letters to him? Why did she burn she burn both sides of the correspondence when she sensed her own end was near?

Interwoven into the novel is a second, yet equally doomed, love story between painters Édouard Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot. Some reviewers thought this story detracted from the first, but I disagree. I believe it enhanced readers’ understanding of the societal constraints of the time and served as an interesting foil to the Degas/Cassatt plot line.

I made the mistake of reading the ending of I Always Loved You at a local Starbucks, mentally cursing my eyes for clouding up (much like Degas’) and preventing me from reading easily. It wasn't until I closed the book that I fully realized the “cloud” was tears. On my way out, the barista asked what book I had been reading because she wanted a copy.

I Always Loved You is literary historical fiction at its best. Highly recommended.


Have you read this novel? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
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