Category Archives: Books

The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska – Review

BurnedBridgesWardNE
(Click to buy on Amazon!)

The Burned Bridges of Ward, Nebraska –  Eileen Curtright

Rebecca Meer, single mom and fertility clinic microbiologist is torn between giving into her less than wholesome urges and maintaining appearances, which is hard to do when constantly running into her unwelcome ex. 

I give this one a 4/5 and thank whatever forces of nature made me change my mind as I nearly skipped this one.  As I read the official plot synopsis (…We see just how far a stressed-out single parent will go to be the “perfect” mother.), I feared this would be one of those books that makes you feel like you’re not a real woman if you’re not a mother, you know the ones. Anyway, this was anything but. To be honest, I don’t feel like the official synopsis does anything for the book. I was delighted to find that in addition to motherhood, the protagonist had a life somewhat all over the place, giving readers more to potentially relate to.

Rebecca (Becky) may not be the sort of woman everyone is dying to befriend. This wine-drinking scientist with a tendency to be rash often finds herself in stupid situations that will make you want to slap her and tell her to use her brain. (You would think a scientist would be smarter.) Regardless, you can’t help but root for her.

Whether she was taking on authority or trying to come up with the perfect story for a quick exit, I was quickly turning the page hoping  for her success. In the end, most of those annoying moments that make you full-on eyeroll and wonder what she could possibly be thinking are the very same things that make her human, the things that remind of that one girl friend, the one that worries you.

This was a breeze of a read. It was smart, witty, and a solid depiction of modern, small-town life.

Follow Eileen Curtright on Twitter.

Discovering the World of Non Fiction

I’ve never been one to browse the non fiction section at my local bookstore or library. I write fiction and therefore I read it. It is probable that my logic is very different from yours, but I’m young and I was naive. Even during my first non fiction writing course, I  steered clear of it outside of class. It wasn’t until three semesters later that I realized I really enjoyed non fic. Around that same time, I realized I liked writing  it, too. Coincidence?

Since I’ve avoided the genre for so long, I’m now trying to catch up. I’m currently reading Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman and Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream by Buzz (H.G.) Bissinger.

FRC FNL book covers

If you aren’t familiar with either, here’s a quick rundown.

Fargo Rock City is Klosterman’s memoir about growing up in a small North Dakota town, population 498, and loving the 80s rock and roll scene.

Friday Night Lights is something of an expose on Texas high school football. Bissinger follows a few players from a high school team and highlights the pressures they’re under as well as the celeb-like treatment they get for being starters and what kind of success these things set them up for. Hint, hint: it’s pretty much zero.
(I’ve always thought the rumors about the importance of Texas football were grosly embellished, but not according to this book. If the title sounds familiar, it a 2004 major motion picture of the same name, which then spawned an award-winning NBC series in 2006–you should check them both out.)

Both of these books are making me rethink some of my writing. I’ve felt a kinship with the creative elements of fiction, but the more nonfiction I read, the more I realize how much can be done. In my second nonfiction writing class, my professor wanted to expose us to the various formats writers are using in the genre. Two things that stood out were Nox by Anne Carson and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. Both are rather unconventional, but I would argue that Nox is most unusual. While Fun Home is so because it’s a comic, most people are generally familiar with comic strips so it’s not quite as striking as Nox, which is printed on paper that is folded accordion-style and presented in a box, loosely. There is very little writing in it; much of the text is on letters and pictures. It looks as if it’s the love child of a puzzle and a scrapbook. 

Nox fun home

Seeing these types of formats have opened my eyes to new creative elements. In addition to the writing, there is the presentation. I’m thinking that this could be quite useful in terms of tailoring your work for your intended audience.

Another thing that is striking a chord with me is the content that is covered in non fiction. Both of the books I’m reading now are relevant to my interests. I certainly never thought I would get a chance to read a book about growing up loving hairbands. (What d’ya know, I’m not the only one!) This revelation is making me wonder what other books I’ve missed, where do I find them, and do I have the “writing chops” to fill an entire book? or am I strictly essay?

I’d like to compile a list of non fiction books I need to read. I would appreciate your comments with suggestions! (and let me know if you know of anymore alternatively formatted works)

Pure by Julianna Baggott: Review

PureJulianna Baggot

“Evocative, Intense, & Well Written”

Pure cover

In a world where dystopian novels have become trendy, Pure is stands out as both trendy and smart. Julianna Baggott has published a multitude of works on the genre spectrum, children’s (The Anybodies, The Prince of Fenway Park as N.E. Bode), literary fiction (The Madam, The Miss America Family), and poetry (Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees, Lizzie Borden in Love: Poems in Women’s Voices), but it is her literary side that shines through in this fantasy, adult/YA crossover. Baggott highlights the difference between elegant subtlety and the common oversimplification that is popular among young adult novels and reminds us that literary fiction isn’t reserved for adults. Her voice and sentence quality are refreshing as she writes of Pressia, “She glances back before stepping into the alley, and she catches her grandfather looking at her the way he does sometimes–as if she’s already gone, as if he’s practicing sorrow.”

  *

Pure tells the story of teenage Pressia, a girl living in a post-apocalyptic world, knowingly separated from the “Pures,” those who were safe in the Dome at the time of the detonations, like Partridge. Pressia lives outside, where the survivors are fused to whatever materials were near them, making her doll-hand normal. Her sixteenth birthday is approaching, looming like a death sentence. She will be made a soldier or she will be killed, leaving her no choice. She runs and so begins our adventure.

 

Pressia teams up with a fellow survivor Bradwell, who says, “We each have a story. They did this to us. There was no outside aggressor. They wanted an Apocalypse. They wanted the end. And they made it happen.” As Bradwell becomes a stronger presence in the novel, there are hints of a love triangle between Pressia, Partridge, and Bradwell, currently all-the-rage among young adult best sellers. As the story progresses and secrets are revealed, these relationships leave YA behind and counter with all the complexities of more realistic, adult fiction relationships.

 

The book alternates between many points of view, contrasting the lives of the outsiders like Pressia, those like Partridge, safe in the safe in the Dome, and even a government officer in El Capitan. Their exploits lead us to new characters that slowly reveal the story’s political nature and liberal agenda. The references to the Before, the time before the detonations when the Scottish, Japanese, and Irish existed along with Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and airports, reflect a world that readers will be familiar with. The commentary on our real world society unfolds with the story of the Dome, the story of the rich and powerful versus the poor and the weak.  The author successfully weaves a relevant, literary tale in a commercial format.

 

The book’s tone is set in chapter one as Pressia listens to the far off grumblings of a Death Spree. “She knows that whispers can be useful. Sometimes they contain real information. But usually they’re fairy tales and lies. This is the worst kind of whisper, the kind that draws you in, gives you hope.”

For more on Baggott, follow her on Goodreads.

Multiple Character Arcs, are you frustrated?

Got a lot of characters? Need to weave them? Having trouble? I’ve struggled with this since, uhm, forever…

Do we write short stories for each character? Divide perspectives by chapters? Sections? Write only in third person??? I’ve been giving my fingers a workout trying to find some good blogs/chapters/articles on strategies for weaving multiple character arcs and I’m not coming up with much.

The only thing I can think to do is study the work of the authors who are already doing it so well, and they are out there.

Circus in Winter, Pure, The Sweethereafter

  1. Cathy Day’s Circus in Winter. This book is a “novel in stories.” It’s a format I was unfamiliar with before reading this book, but after a couple of stories, I started grasping what was happening structurally, and each story hooked me. In the end, the reader has enough information to build this world chronologically and connect the puzzle, if you want to. (Great read) 
  2. Julianna Baggott’s Pure. This is a young adult fiction novel that blends literary and commercial work. In it, each chapter is labeled with the perspective of the character it’s written from and they go back and forth. It really helps the reader see all sides of the coin. In terms of format, think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Also a great read.)
  3. Russell BanksThe Sweet Hereafter. This format is similar to Pure, in the way that each story is from a different character’s POV, but it focuses around one event. If you’re writing something more singular and trying to include so many thoughts, this could be a handy study guide.

Of course there are more, these are just a few more recent reads I wanted to mention. But lets say you’re in a hurry for some reason and you just don’t have time to sit down and not only read a bunch of character-rich books, but truly study their craftsmanship.

Alternative route? TV. Lots of shows get you invested in multiple characters. It’s become incredibly popular in recent years to have large ensemble casts and it’s a trend starting to show up in film more and more as well. (See Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve for example. –Not movies I recommend on merit, however.)

Which television shows are good for this?

Number 1, without a doubt, is Friday Night Lights.

Friday Night Lights cast

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, you should check it out. (All 5 seasons are on Netflix.) There is a never ending supply of simultaneous storylines in that show. Lets see how many major characters I can think of off the top of my head…

       Coach, Mrs. Taylor, Julie, Saracen, Riggins, Lila, Street, Tyra, Landry, Buddy, Billy, Mindy, “Grandma,” Smash, Vince, Jess, Luke, Becky, JD. (19!)

Alright, I’m just going to stop, but I could keep going.

It sounds hectic, but honestly, the writing and production are so good that you can follow it all and you can’t help but to be invested.

Other such shows are Nashville, Chicago Fire, Grey’s Anatomy (the early seasons), and Prison Break.

Nashville, Chicago Fire, Grey's Anatomy, Prison Break

With that in mind, I am not saying avoid the reading and watch TV. In fact, I’m not saying that at all, nor would I ever! Why should someone read your work someday if you’re not reading anyone’s? But if you find yourself needing to give your brain a bit of a rest or are unable to sit down with a book for a moment, I’d recommend a little not-so-mindless TV, but mostly Friday Night Lights. It’s a forever-favorite!

—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

UPDATE:

As it turns out, author Cathy Day has a blog post about this very issue. It offers strategy and other book recommendations. Click here to check it out!

Book Reviews: What, Why, How

book-reviewLargely due to social media, it seems like everyone has something to say about everything and, in their own minds, their thoughts are absolute. What does that say for book reviews? Should we take the word of the novice reader/reviewer who simply says, “It sucks.” Or, should we only trust the mind of the literary scholar and frequent reviewer? I’m starting to think they’re both useful, if you can get through the paid-for-by-author fluff–which I’d just like to say bothers me to no end. I know they can say what they want, but I’d suggest a little dignity in their work. I realize your work can be misunderstood, making you feel the need to speak out, but take to social media for that.

The way I understand them, book reviews are meant to debrief the potential audience and highlight the work’s ups, while giving constructive criticism when needed. If you go to Amazon and skim through the reviews of your favorite book/author, this is probably not the kind of review you will find without actively looking. If you search Twitter hashtags, I’m 98% sure you won’t find this, at all. On the other hand, if you are a pleasure/leisure reader, the standard It sucked or alternative I liked it might be just what you are looking for. Depending on my intentions for reading, I use both, but reviews have become so unreliable thanks to author’s anonymously hyping their own work that when I’m in a hurry, I’ll just check the star rating counts without reading a single word of a review.

People are basing their reviews on anything now: plot, integrity, literary comparison, like or didn’t like, reminded me of…, character highlight, genre only, “it’s great because someone paid me to say so.” One reviewer admitted to changing her initial rating due to disapproving of the author’s personal life. While I disagree with this practice as a whole, I can understand not wanting to monetarily support an author when you don’t support their values. With that said, I would suggest adding a statement to the end of the review along the lines of, “Regardless, I cannot support the book because I do not support the author.” If the person reading the review is also the type of reader who feels strongly about supporting the author, that should be enough incentive to get them to do the research themselves. This way, you’ve done your job properly and expressed your opinion. I do believe in freedom of speech, but I also agree with “everything in moderation.” Plus, we should really adhere to the following rule: If you won’t say it in person, don’t say it online.

With that in mind, do we review things we don’t like? Of course! It’s something to be smart about, sure, but at the same time, if we only review things we like, what is the point in reading them? No one would. We would all just check the number of “likes” and be done with it. However, it is also a waste of time to solely trash someone’s work. If you don’t like it, tell me why. You can be nice about this, I was looking for… or I didn’t see enough…. Offer constructive criticism and highlight what you do like. I can all but guarantee you that if you do this, the author will be more likely to take the review seriously and the reader will give your review merit and they would be able to tell if the reasons you didn’t like the book are things that matter to them.

Pie-Final-600x450

Things to keep in mind when writing a review