Tag Archives: What I read on my summer vacation

What I learned from my #BeachRead #amwriting

My summer vacation is over; I’m back once again in my little house, sans grandchildren. The rewrite will soon be underway on Julian Lackland, thanks to my intrepid beta readers. This manuscript evolved over ten years, and several old writing habits still embedded in the earlier sections have come to light, little writing crutches long gone unnoticed. They will be dealt with by using a global search, and examining each instance, then either changing it or leaving it.

I also have a wonderful novel on deck for beta reading, written by a fellow Myrddin author, Marilyn Rucker. When I’ve finished with this amazing book, I have one more beta read for a member of my writing group lined up before the end of summer. After that—it’s NaNoWriMo Prep Season!

The novel I took to the beach with me was Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author, Liane Moriarty. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa, and three members of the staff.

Moriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. I was sucked into their world in the opening pages. In fact, I hated setting the book down, wanting to know everyone’s dark secrets, curious as to what led each one to book themselves into that very unusual health spa. Structurally, it’s a bit jerky, and the ending is a series of short infodumps, but it works. By the time I reached the startling conclusion, I looked forward to the informational epilogues just because I didn’t want to let them go.

Moriarty introduces us to The Cast of Characters by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

The story picks up ten years later when nine people meet at an exceedingly remote health spa that promises to change their lives and completely transform them in ten days. The recommendations by their friends and the reviews they have read are glowing, but none explain how the transformation will be accomplished.

Each guest arrives with secrets and personal reasons for wanting to be remade into something better that what they believe they are. Masha is later revealed as the benevolent antagonist, and Yao has become her disciple.

Liane Moriarty’s characters are so compelling because, at the outset, she establishes each as an individual and endows them with a mystery. Immediately the reader is hooked.

  1. Each character is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
  2. Each character projects an obvious surface persona, but early on, cracks reveal glimpses of weaknesses and fears; the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas.
  3. As the unusual rules become clear, each is angry and afraid, yet willing to continue because of what they hope to gain on a personal level.
  4. Each of the characters’ stories combines and connects to make a larger, powerful story of transformation.

So, what did I learn from reading that novel? I had a reaffirmation of sorts—the reassurance that no writer is able to follow every writing group rule and no book that does would be worth reading.

Moriarty’s novels often end with info-epilogues, showing me that every writer has habits that are technical no-noes, but which are part of their creative process. It reinforces my belief that good writing and great characterization engages the reader and overcomes a few minor defects.

This is not permission to use lazy writing habits. Slapdash writing is jarring and interferes with a reader’s ability to sink into the book.

In the first draft, we spend a lot of time trying to convey our story and characters to a potential reader. Sometimes a shorthand of sorts is necessary for the first draft to help me get the right pacing or the note an insight into a character. But that can backfire if I’m not vigilant in weeding these crutches out in later drafts.

One of my personal habits is the tendency to rely on certain words when a good description eludes my creative mind. Good beta readers help us by spotting when the words and tricks we use consistently become jarring.

Melding character arcs with the action…reaction…action flow of the story is crucial. Moriarty’s narrative was smooth and easily readable. Only an experienced writer or another editor would notice what I did. And, as this little bunny-trail habit is a trait I’ve noticed in all her books, it can be assumed it is part of her style of storytelling.

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My #beachreads: Tenth of December & The Husband’s Secret

For my vacation reading this year I had a bit of a split personality book-wise. I had packed George Saunders’ book of short-stories, Tenth of December, and while we were in Cannon Beach, my oldest daughter, Leah, and I went to the local book stores. She found a book by an Australian writer, Liane Moriarty, called The Husband’s Secret.

She liked it so much I had to make a Kindle purchase.

The two books are radically different. Tenth of December is literary science fiction. The Husband’s Secret is contemporary fiction. Both books are about the human condition, and both books are character driven.

Although they are widely different, they are windows into the human soul, and both authors had me thinking about their work long after I finished them. These reviews are now up on Goodreads ,  so my work there is done.

the husbands secretFirst up is The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. Released in 2013 by Berkley, and Penguin in the US, this book is currently a #1 bestseller at Amazon, and Moriarty is listed in the top 100 authors there.

First the Blurb:

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read

My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died. . .

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My review: This book is about loss and grief in Sydney, Australia–but it could easily have been set in Seattle or London and it would still feel true. These women are people you feel you know, and while they are not always likable, they are always true to who they are.

Several characters in the book have secrets they hold on to that they eventually reveal. The concepts of guilt and betrayal loom large in this tale, driving it to the shocking conclusion. Ethics and morality shift and bend under the stress, and three good women do things they consider heinous, and each finds herself justifying her actions.

The Berlin Wall is referred to throughout the novel as Cecelia’s daughter, Esther, works on her school project. And in fact, we learn that Cecilia met John-Paul on the day the Wall finally came down. The Wall is symbolic of many things in this tale, as Tess also has a connection to it.

Rachel is pinched and afraid to love anyone but her grandson. Her son is devastated by the loss of his sister and hurt by his mother’s distance. No matter how he tries, he can’t get close to her.

These are complicated women, faced with an unbearable situation. Their actions and the final resolution is completely true to their characters. This is a slow-moving tale action-wise, but it literally tears through the emotional gamut. I give The Husband’s Secret four and half stars.

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Tenth_of_DecemberNow we come to Tenth of December, by George Saunders, a book of short-stories, also first published as a book in 2013. I reviewed this book as an Audible book before, so you may have a feeling of déjà vu here!

First, the blurb:

In the taut opener, “Victory Lap,” a boy witnesses the attempted abduction of the girl next door and is faced with a harrowing choice: Does he ignore what he sees, or override years of smothering advice from his parents and act? In “Home,” a combat-damaged soldier moves back in with his mother and struggles to reconcile the world he left with the one to which he has returned. And in the title story, a stunning meditation on imagination, memory, and loss, a middle-aged cancer patient walks into the woods to commit suicide, only to encounter a troubled young boy who, over the course of a fateful morning, gives the dying man a final chance to recall who he really is. A hapless, deluded owner of an antiques store; two mothers struggling to do the right thing; a teenage girl whose idealism is challenged by a brutal brush with reality; a man tormented by a series of pharmaceutical experiments that force him to lust, to love, to kill—the unforgettable characters that populate the pages of Tenth of December are vividly and lovingly infused with Saunders’s signature blend of exuberant prose, deep humanity, and stylistic innovation.

Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human.

Unsettling, insightful, and hilarious, the stories in Tenth of December—through their manic energy, their focus on what is redeemable in human beings, and their generosity of spirit—not only entertain and delight; they fulfill Chekhov’s dictum that art should “prepare us for tenderness.”

My Review:

Wow! For once, a book that has a blurb that really tells the truth. Saunders has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful tale in this collection of stunning tales was “Escape from Spiderhead.” This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has in regard to criminals and what punishment they might deserve.

This was not my first trip through this book–the first time was as an Audible book, narrated by Saunders himself. He reads his work with passion and life–I loved hearing him read these tales. But reading them for myself was also a treat–I savored the written word the way he laid it down. I love authors who bend and twist words and phrases into works of art and that is what Saunders does.

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While I was on vacation, I enjoyed two wonderful books written by authors who couldn’t be more different in their approaches to writing. They both write in ways far different from my own approach. Both authors have given me ideas for my own work, in the way they approached certain technical aspects of the craft.

Yes, I was on vacation, but I can’t just leave writing behind–you know me better than that. In between grandkids and the family, I managed short bursts of work on two short-stories and continued revisions on the third book in the Tower of Bones series. Bless my hubby–he tolerates and encourages my obsession with this writing life.

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