who killed the blockbuster?

I wasn't going to blog about this, until I read the excellent post by Marc Nash about Terminator: Genisys, and the thoughtful critique by John Wiswell about the Jurassic franchise

First off: my favourite film critic of all time is Roger Ebert. I didn't always agree with his reviews, but I could usually tell from his assessment whether or not I was going to find the film worth watching. 

One thing that always perplexed me about Ebert's reviews is that he would sometimes say action sequences were "boring". If it's an action sequence, how could it be boring? I figured he had some well-deserved critic's fatigue, and wouldn't pay any notes about "boring action" much mind. 

But now I've seen Mad Max: Fury Road, and I know exactly what he meant. Practically the whole damn thing is a boring action sequence. 

No spoilers: the good guys are trying to escape from the bad guys. Okay. But there's no stakes, no suspense. Look at the characters. There's Max, who is the titular character, but not, one learns quickly, the hero. He's more like a Fifth Business, an enabler who throws in his lot with the hero because going her way is better than the alternatives. Still, he is  the titular character, so you know that, at worst, he'll die at the very end. That's if he dies at all. 

Then there's the hero, Imperator Furiosa. Even though she's nominally on the bad guy's side when she's introduced, we know she'll be a goodie once things get going. How do we know? Because her costume isn't nearly outlandish enough to be a baddie in this film, and because, unlike her War Boy colleagues/staff, she acts more or less according to current-day Western conventions. So she's not going to die until, maybe, the end as well.  

What about her goal of reaching The Green, the safe, unpolluted place she knows about? C'mon, it's a post-apocalyptic action film. Either The Green doesn't exist, or else despite all utopian appearances it's a horribly corrupt, oppressive place. So no stakes there either. 

The wives Furiosa is smuggling to The Green are virtually interchangeable. If they have names mentioned in the film, I didn't catch them. Mostly I kept them straight by hair colour, and correctly predicted (spoiler!) that one of the two blondes got killed off quickly. So she wouldn't get mixed up with the other one, you see. Meanwhile, the lone redhead was the only one with any real character arc, and stood out easily in compositions showing her with the other (identically dressed) wives on account of her hair colour.

The environmental stakes are devalued as well. Resources are supposed to be scarce, yet characters use up fuel and water like... like we are in the here and now and are supposed to be cutting down on.  A half-dozen characters give themselves a full-body shower, in the middle of the desert, after a giant sandstorm, using scarce, precious potable water for the job. Five minutes later they're worried they won't make it to The Green before the baddies catch up and re-capture them. Uh-huh.

Fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. A bored audience member will start noticing things like those showers, and then other things, and then still other things, until the weight of their boredom causes their disbelief to come crashing down to the ground. A story can be as fantastical and implausible as it likes, but it has to keep the audience interested. Otherwise, it's just a big long, boring, action sequence. 

Steven Spielberg warned in 2013 that just a few "tent pole" blockbusters failing in a single release season could cause a Hollywood "implosion". Marc, John, and I all went in to see our respective blockbusters expecting to be entertained at minimum, and came out with critiques and concerns. As I understand it, the three films we posted about were hardly failures at the box office, but I'm just not sensing the enthusiasm for them that past blockbusters have enjoyed.

The big Hollywood film that seems to be getting all the accolades this summer is Inside Out. I saw it the week before I saw Mad Max, and loved it, but now that I've seen both films, it's making me think. Inside Out has a lot of action for a film that literally takes place inside someone's brain, but somehow those homuncular cartoon characters had more at stake, and generated more suspense, than the live-action characters in Fury Road did. It feels like a shake-up is coming.

the monomyth of objectivity

D. Paul Angel and Sonia Lal invited me to read up on mythology theory with them, and although it's been a frustrating trip (reading the book, not reading it with them in particular), I'm glad I did.

It's not too often I consider abandoning a book after the first sentence, especially if it's a book on mythology and story theory, but I wasn't quite expecting this:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinae, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale; it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously[sic] constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

That's the start of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it was at that point that I had to remind myself it was written in 1949, although that only partially excuses it. Consider that the above quote appears under the main title of "The Monomyth." Isn't it a little weird to be actively othering people at the very moment you are stating a thesis that all of humanity's mythology boils down to a small set of super-stories?

I got the impression that this was an academic book written to be read by other academics, which in the America of 1949 would have meant white, Western, and male. It's easy to say that Campbell was simply writing for his intended audience, and for that audience, the notion that they could have anything in common with non-Westerners was radical. And yes, I concede the book was published only four years after the close of World War Two, when there was an immense amount of anti-Asian propaganda (and sanctions) to recover from.

But something nagged at me when I read the prologue, and continues to nag now that I've read Chapter One and am reading Chapter Two. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was also published in 1949. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was less than ten years away. Hitchcock's Rope, featuring a gay couple as the two main characters, was released in 1948. The idea that even Western culture was multi-faceted, albeit in a lopsided, one-aspect-dominating, sort of way was around. There's only so many times one can dismiss a different point of view as an aberration.

I've also found myself comparing The Hero with a Thousand Faces to CP Snow's The Two Cultures. Although Snow didn't publish his Two Cultures lecture in book form until 1959, he formulated the observations and ideas for it in the 1930s. Snow discusses the two cultures of science and the humanities as realms populated entirely by men, since that was (mostly) the reality of the university population at the time. The difference is that it doesn't matter. Snow's very thesis argues that the differences between the cultures of science and the humanities aren't bridgeable by more diverse demographics in either discipline, because they are endemic to the sub-cultures of the disciplines themselves. He argues scientists need to learn to respect the humanities, and the humanists better appreciate science. There may not be any non-white, non-male, non-Western people in the academic world Snow describes, but there is room for them.

I just don't see how there is room for other voices in the "monomyth" Campbell describes. Instead, it seems like he's appropriating from the other and claiming that really they're just like white, Western, male, (presumably straight) him. Abrahamic religions are accorded the distinction of being "higher mythologies" than pagan religions; Campbell even blithely announces that the goddess "is incarnate in every woman." The notion that the goddess may also be present in every man, or that the god may be present in every woman, is (as of halfway through Chapter 2) absent — curious when stories of gender-shifting entities appear in myths from all over the world, including the story of Tiresias from Greek mythology. Curiouser still given how many Greek myths Campbell has already used to illustrate his points even in these early parts of the book.

Instead, Campbell's monomyth theory is reminding me of two things. One is of nushu script from China, a form of writing only practised by women, from when women were barred from traditional education. How many stories were written down in nushu, or told between other peoples not allowed to express themselves through official channels, and which therefore never got considered by Western academics such as Campbell?

The other thing The Hero with a Thousand Faces reminds me of is a brilliant, and funny, essay written by Donna Haraway: "A Political Physiology of Dominance," which is included in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. In it, she traces the history of our understanding of primate social structures, showing that many aspects of the way apes organise themselves were not discovered until women like Jane Goodall became primatologists. Before then, researchers were overly focused on proving human patriarchal society was both natural and normal. They were literally blind to all but a fraction of the actual primate power structure, because the remainder didn't serve their ends. Note: It wasn't that they were wrong about the part they observed; it's just that they assumed it was the whole, instead of a portion of the whole.

And, finally, that's my thing about Campbell's book. It's brilliant as far as it goes, but it only goes as far as 1949 Western academia. de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is now read in the context of having been written by a Frenchwoman in the 1940s — it's understood that while a lot of it still holds true, and a lot of it is important for an historical perspective on feminism, there are portions which are out-of-date, or have simply been proven wrong since. Howl is still a well-regarded poem, but it's important now to know it was written in the 1950s. Snow's two cultures are still visible throughout academia, but when reading his book, it is necessary to bear in mind he developed his ideas in the 1930s and chose his language for an academic lecture audience in the 1950s.

But Campbell's work seems to live on context-free, as if it's absolute truth, as if the Freudian theories it depends upon so heavily haven't been debunked or updated in the decades since. On the copy I got from my community library (third edition, New World Library, published 2008), there's a quote from George Lucas of Star Wars fame:

In the three decades since I discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it has continued to fascinate and inspire me. Joseph Campbell peers through centuries and shows us that we are all connected by a basic need to hear stories and understand ourselves. As a book, it is wonderful to read; as illumination into the human condition, it is a revelation.

That may well shine some light on the ongoing diversity problems in Hollywood films, but it doesn't say much for our critical understanding of mythology. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying Campbell doesn't deserve his accolades. What I am saying is we need to acknowledge that even he was constrained by the mores of his times. Better to declare the direction and flavour of one's subjectivity than to lie and claim objectivity when one has none.

So: that's the context in which I'm reading the book. Next blog post (when I get a chapter or two along) will look at what aspects of the book can be of use to fiction writers.

review of The Intergalactic Matchmaking Service: Penny's Story

If anyone deserved to get fit-shaced, Penny Jones did. So what if the Marshals got pissed? As if making her lie to everyone in her life wasn’t bad enough, they also had to mandate no drunkenness. Who wouldn’t feel the need to get drunk after hearing about the big C?

And with that first, information-packed paragraph, we meet the main character of Intergalactic Matchmaking Service: Penny’s Story. Within a few chapters, we learn that she had a one-night stand, became pregnant, chose to delay cancer treatment in favour of having the baby, and then finds herself terminally ill with an infant she needs to ensure the future of. No spoilers: that’s what the back-of-book blurb tells the reader as well.

Since this is a science fiction romance novel and not a short story, there’s a twist: Penny’s estranged sister, Claire, just happens to be the American co-ordinator for the Intergalactic Matchmaking Service, and the alien species she liaises with, the Nordonians, just happen to be able to cure, or at least control, cancer in humans. However, this being a novel that stands firmly in the romance genre, there are complications.

Marko was excited to be a part of the “team” around the first Nordonian babies born in thirty years. It would also be nice to be able to help Claire’s sister with her disease, but he realized that would most likely never happen. The directives from the Council were clear . For Claire’s sister to receive Nordonian help, she’d need to have a Nordonian mate.

The blending of science fiction and romance (and xenophilia, for that matter)is an established literary tradition, dating at least to the John Carter of Mars stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Some stories are more strongly science fiction, others are more strongly romantic. Penny’s Story is more of a romance with science fiction elements than a science fiction story with a romantic plot. The reader learns why the Nordonians are so interested marrying Earth women, and a little bit about where they come from, but the real focus is on the specific characters in the story. The scope is of a cozy romance, not a sweeping epic.

Despite this, I found the most effective parts of the story were the action sequences. As one might guess knowing that Penny is in Witness Protection, she has criminals after her, and there are key scenes where one set of characters have to rescue others. The action worked well within the story, and was a good vehicle for character revelation, especially for how the Nordonians handled themselves. In fact, the Nordonians were perhaps the most well-rounded characters in the book. The reader has the opportunity to gain a lot of sympathy for their situation, and admiration for how they are handling it.

If you enjoy romance novels with some fantastical elements, I’d recommend Penny’s Story, with two major caveats. The first is while there is no explicit sex (just implied), some of the violence took me aback, more for its details than for its extent. In the country I live in, no-one brings a gun into their workplace unless they’re a police officer, a soldier, or a professional hunter. There are scenes in the book where an office worker brings a handgun to their place of work, just taking it in stride as a matter of necessity. It was important to the plot, so I can’t say it detracts from the story. I did find the various characters’ reaction to it disturbing and distracting, however. For that reason, I'd issue a caution to readers used to places with more gun control.

The second caveat is that since the Nordonians are exclusively male, and exclusively looking for fertile Earth women to have marriages and babies with, Earth men are entirely relegated to secondary characters. Virtually all of the women in the book (it's not just Penny) end in a relationship with a Nordonian. Again, no spoilers, since the relationships are established early in the book. I was comfortable with this as part of the story's focus, but men who read romantic fiction and others may feel excluded.

About the Book:

Penny’s Story” — Penny was supposed to be dead. At least that is what Claire has believed for ten years. Find out what happens when Claire's sister comes out of the Witness Protection Program. Penny is fighting a losing battle with cancer and needs Claire to raise Sunny, Penny's newborn daughter, once the cancer takes its final toll. Why is Penny's ex-boyfriend, Jason, telling his cronies that Penny has money and information about their illegal dealings? How does the cartel find out she has even left the Witness Protection Program? 

Will Marko have to watch as another woman he cares for dies a horrible death? Will he lose his job as Medical Officer on the starship for bending the rules? Can Pacer finally have the peaceful retirement he desires? How will Claire deal with her quiet life being turned upside down? Catch up with Maggie and Daxon, along with Shirley and Mathenzo.

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services (November 30, 2014)
ASIN: B00OV8QBXC
All of the Intergalactic Matchmaking Services books are available as an e-book on Amazon.

About the Author:

Ava Louise was born a U.S. Army brat overseas, in France. She is the proud mom of two wonderful young men. It's taken her a while to figure out what she wanted to be "when she grows up," but Ava has finally found her niche in the writing world. Since writing came to her later in life, she likes to think she is living proof that it's never too late to reach for a dream or to achieve it. Before writing her own stories, she usually reads from a wide array of genres. She loves Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Mysteries, Thrillers, and Young Adult.

Email: AvaLouise@avalouise.net
Website and blog: http://avalouise.net/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ava.louise.35 
Twitter: https://twitter.com/@avalouiseauthor

review: Write a Novel in 10 Minutes

Aspiring novelists today often don’t have time to sculpt great novels. We have busy lives. We have children to raise and jobs to attend to and household responsibilities. We have the nagging thoughts that tell us that our dreams and desires are not worth pursuing.
I would like to suggest that you can, without any guilt or shame, sculpt a novel in very small increments of time. You can make decisions bit by bit and then use your writing time effectively. You can take each one of the exercises in this book, work at them around your schedule, and slowly see your story come to life.

I remember the first book I read on being a writer. The author had excellent advice on everything except for time management. Instead, she expressed her gratitude to her husband, who worked full-time in some non-writing occupation, and whose salary paid for their three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. One of her challenges for carving out writing time was getting distracted by her child’s nanny.

Having neither husband, nor someone else financially supporting me, nor a view of the Hudson River from my living room, nor domestic help, nor even a child (although that is one distraction I would welcome), I had a hard time relating. I’m sure all of the challenges seemed real to her, but my take-away was without either finding a spouse who was willing to support me or winning the lottery, I was doomed to the ranks of “hobby” (ugh) scribblers. There were writers, and then there were the “rest of us”, with day jobs, households, and people (both relatives and non-relatives) picking away at our precious writing time, so by the time we were done "everything else" and could sit down and write, we were just as likely to fall asleep.

Write a Novel in 10 Minutes is the writing book for "the rest of us": the writers who are trying to juggle their writing dreams with life’s demands. Katharine Grubb has written a book full of down-to-earth, use-it-now advice, all broken down into sections which can be read and then acted upon in ten-minute chunks.

The first few sections of the book discuss how to work in ten-minute bursts so that each of the ten minutes is used well, and how to ensure that there are ten-minute bursts that you can write in. I liked Grubb’s task/reward approach: fold the laundry, write for ten minutes. Make the kids breakfast, write for ten minutes. I’m writing this portion of the review having just finished eating lunch at work, and now I’m... writing for ten minutes. The paragraphs before this one were completed on my phone, on the subway.

Every chapter ends with one or more exercises to help the reader take action and put into practice what the chapter discussed. The most interesting exercises, for me, were the ones to help someone assess what needed to be done in a household and who was going to do it. Never mind writers — anyone who has their own home should do these.

After the chapters on work rhythm and time management, Write a Novel in 10 Minutes discusses story-telling, and specifically novel-writing, in a structured way, with each chapter covering one aspect the writer needs to consider.

At first, these sections surprised me, because I couldn’t initially see what they had to do with the earlier chapters. Once I got into reading them, however, it made sense. If you’re writing in ten-minute chunks, you don’t have time to dither around. You need to know exactly what your next task will be.

Write a Novel in 10 Minutes is generously seasoned with examples and quoted passages from well-known works of literature, and written in clear, engaging prose. Even if you do have lots of free time and a view of the Hudson River, you may well find it useful for organising your writing life.

About the Author

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mom to five, blogger, indie novelist, writing coach, baker of bread, comedian wannabe and former running coward. Her novel, Falling For Your Madness, was featured in Catholic Digest and was a quarterfinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Her most recent book, Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day, was released by Hodder & Stoughton. She blogs at www.10minutenovelists.com and lives in Massachusetts.

Twitter: @10MinNovelists
Facebook Group: 10 Minute Novelists

book review: Afraid of Everything

"I’ll need an hour to get there, don’t you think? I know exactly where it is, over near the shopping center at Old Pasadena. A thirty-minute drive from our house, but you never know with delays. I’ll head west on the 210 and take the San Fernando exit, driving the rest of the way via surface streets. Or I could get on Colorado and take it straight there. No, on second thought, I don’t want to accidentally end up at the mall, so forget Colorado Boulevard."
I slipped the card into my wallet. “If there’s extra time, I might call this Gloria person. If I feel right about it. Meanwhile, I’ll tidy up. It’ll help to calm me down.”
Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything was an interesting book to read. I went in expecting, based on the back-of-book blurb, that this was going to be a Nora Roberts-type story of a woman overcoming emotional and psychological challenges. It is that, but the structure and plot are more in line with much older forms of literature than the novel. Large parts of it reminded me of the dialogues between Socrates and Plato; the entire middle section read like the allegorical journeys undertaken in proto-novels from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The main character, Helena Carr, is an unemployed nurse who suffers from general anxiety disorder. As the book title tells us, she is afraid of everything. The reader mostly knows this because Helena is constantly telling everyone she knows that she is afraid of everything: her therapist, naturally, but also acquaintances as slight as her next-door neighbour's nephew, whom she meets at a barbecue party.

The first half of the book lets the reader meet Helena, find out about her current situation, and discover her history of anxiety with some well-placed flashbacks. This exposition is completed with skill, and there are some acute observations about life in suburban America that many readers will find themselves nodding along with. I did wish that the reader could have learned what led Helena to quit her job through a more immediate narrative; instead, we read a version of what happened as she explains it to her therapist, which made the events less immediate, more difficult to empathise with the anxiety it caused Helena. Even so, given later events in the book (no spoilers!) this may have well been by design.

Helena has a serious car accident halfway through the book. Now, no spoilers again: it's mentioned in the About the Book blurb (see below). Helena is in a coma, but her consciousness is on a different plane of existence, with only a vague awareness of what is happening around her physical self.

“Of course you could have. I’ve been with you for a very long time, Helena, well before you chose to turn your back on that little girl. This was before I got promoted.”
“From being a Trusted Guide to something more?”
“The Trusted Guides stay on the Other Side, waiting. They aren’t allowed to visit here as I do with you,” she ended with a slight toss of her head.
“What are you?” Helena asked, hardly hoping for an answer. She expected any minute to see Coriander stand up, reach into Helena’s close quarters to pat her hand as she always did and disappear until next time. “An angel?”
“I am a Friend. A Third-Level Friend, I might add,” she stated.
“A . . . a Third-Level Friend?”
“My duties are to comfort and protect. To succor the weak, to lift up the hands that hang down. To minister. To counsel.” Coriander counted down the five points on the fingers of one hand as she spoke. “I don’t claim to be perfect, not yet anyway, but I think I’m fairly good at what I do.” She peered down at Helena and added demurely, “I hope you think so, too. I hope I have been a help to you during your time of need.”

It was the second half of the book which reminded me of allegorical narratives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries very much. The language is in the style of contemporary America, but most of the dialogue (and there is a lot of dialogue, here and throughout the book) is on this level of metaphysics and philosophical exposition.

I wasn't sure if the author was drawing from an established mythos or one she'd invented for the book. Christianity seems to be present in the concepts of heaven, angels, and a singular God, but there's also a lot about past ancestors watching over us, a version of reincarnation, and some other aspects which reminded me more of New Age/non-Abrahamic religions. Of course, since Helena is in a coma at this point, it could also be construed as different parts of her brain constructing a dream reality in which to consult, comfort, and heal each other. Parts of it, such as the excerpt I quoted above, reminded me of George talking to Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life.

Even in this altered state of consciousness, Helena is, as a medical professional, very aware and very concerned about her both her chances for survival and the hospital procedures which may influence that. I have to say, as someone who has lived all her life in a country with universal healthcare, the idea that a coma victim would spend time worrying her relatives might be forced to "pull the plug" when the insurance money ran out terrifying. To people who live in different circumstances I would guess it would come across as a serious but practical consideration.

I think if you're someone who can relate to the American suburban lifestyle but wants to experience a journey which mostly takes place in metaphor and metaphysical discussion, Afraid of Everything is a book you should check out. I recommend trying the excerpt on Amazon.

About the Book

Afraid of Everything by Karen Jones Gowen COVER.jpg

Afraid of Everything is a touching and expertly written book about the life and experiences of Helena Carr as she explores an intriguing new world.

Helena Carr is afraid of everything. After a crisis at work, she quits her job and feels lost. It’s time for a serious change, to beat the extreme anxiety that has plagued her since childhood. Something different, unplanned and radical. Sell her house, move to a foreign location, turn her life upside down in an effort to end the emotionally paralyzing fear. 

Before Helena can act on her options, however, she has a terrible accident on a Southern California freeway. Instead of going on an exotic vacation, she is in a hospital, in a coma, traveling to strange worlds in another dimension, meeting people who seem to know more about her than she knows about herself. 

As Helena explores this intriguing new world, she realizes the truth about her past and the purpose of her future. And she is no longer afraid. She is at last ready to live. But first, she must wake up from the coma.

Paperback: 285 Pages

Genre: Women’s Fiction
Publisher: WiDo Publishing (October 7, 2014)
ASIN: B00OAC0N6U

Twitter hashtag: #AfraidGowen

Afraid of Everything  is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon

About the Author:

Born and raised in central Illinois, Karen Jones Gowen now lives and writes in Panajachel, Guatemala. She and her husband Bruce are the parents of ten children. Not surprisingly, family relationships are a recurring theme in Gowen's writing. Her children’s stories have appeared in the Friend, and her essays in the Jacksonville Journal Courier. Gowen's published books are Farm Girl, Uncut Diamonds, House of Diamonds, Lighting Candles in the Snow, Farm Girl Country Cooking: Hearty Meals for Active Families and Afraid of Everything. She blogs at her website, karenjonesgowen.com and at Coming Down the Mountain.

Karen can be found online at:

Website: karenjonesgowen.com
Blog: karenjonesgowen.blogspot.com
Email:
karenjonesgowen@gmail.com
Twitter:  @KarenGowen
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/karen.gowen.1?fref=ts

book review: Memoir Revolution


In the twenty-first century, memoirs have exploded from a specialized niche into a central feature of our literary and popular culture. Aspiring memoir authors fill writing classes, and published authors appear on talk shows. We’re in the age of the memoir. This book reveals the roots and importance of the trend, and the value it can have in our individual and social lives.

Jerry Waxler's Memoir Revolution is notable, first and foremost, for its energy. The energy radiates out from the text and soaks into the reader like sunlight.

It's funny: if someone were to ask me if I ready memoirs regularly, I'd say "no". I've never much been one for any type of biography. And yet I've read many of the books which Waxler uses as examples (and there are many examples — the bibliography makes a great reading list). His thesis that memoirs are taking centre stage in culture is strong based on the sheer volume of bestsellers which are associated with the genre.

Memoir Revolution is a mix of Waxler's own memoirs, a survey of the form, and thematic groupings of many different example memoirs. One thing I really appreciated was the use of the same example memoirs for exploring different aspects of the genre in different chapters. Instead of the pigeonholing that's so common in surveys, the examples are held up as rich, multifaceted works. One finishes the book with better understanding of how diverse and well-rounded memoirs can be.

On our journey from infancy to adulthood, all of us must construct our stories. First we learn from our parents, community, and teachers. Then we try things. We play sports, explore sexuality and relationships, earn diplomas and degrees, get jobs. After each experiment, we decide if we want to continue along this line or try something different. From the very beginning, we gather this information into a story about who we are and how we fit into the world. That story continues to direct us for the rest of our lives.

In Memoir Revolution, memoirs aren't just memoirs: they're opportunities for all of us, writers and readers together, to connect, learn from each other, expand our understanding. It's heady, thought-provoking stuff, sourced directly from the 1960s American college scene Waxler experienced first-hand. That positivism, and the looking-inward-becomes-reaching-outward worldview that goes with it, has receded so much from the cultural discourse that when found in this book it felt fresh again.

Above all, this is a book which encourages one to think critically about story-telling. For those interested in writing a memoir, it is a wealth of advice and examples, and a great tool with which to start community-building. For those who enjoy reading memoirs, it's a way to read a memoir while learning to appreciate the genre even more.

About the Author

Jerry Waxler teaches memoir writing at Northampton Community College, Bethlehem, PA, online, and around the country. His Memory Writers Network blog offers hundreds of essays, reviews, and interviews about reading and writing memoirs. He is on the board of the Philadelphia Writer's Conference and National Association of Memoir Writers and holds a BA in Physics and an MS in Counseling Psychology.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/jerrywaxler

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jerrywaxler

Website: http://www.jerrywaxler.com/

Blog: http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog/

About the Book

Memoir Revolution is Jerry Waxler’s beautifully written story as he integrates it with his deep and abiding knowledge and passion for story. In the 1960s, Jerry Waxler, along with millions of his peers, attempted to find truth by rebelling against everything. After a lifetime of learning about himself and the world, he now finds himself in the middle of another social revolution. In the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of us are searching for truth by finding our stories. In Memoir Revolution, Waxler shows how memoirs link us to the ancient, pervasive system of thought called The Story. By translating our lives into this form, we reveal the meaning and purpose that eludes us when we view ourselves through the lens of memory. And when we share these stories, we create mutual understanding, as well. By exploring the cultural roots of this literary trend, based on an extensive list of memoirs and other book, Waxler makes the Memoir Revolution seem like an inevitable answer to questions about our psychological, social and spiritual well-being. 

 

 

 

book review: Thieving Forest

 

When Susanna looks down at the peapods again she sees the new black lace on her cuff. Her parents died almost two weeks ago and only one day apart, Ellen first and then Sirus, as unexpected as two suns setting in the same evening. Susanna, who is superstitious, has put a piece of rowan wood in the pocket of her black dress to guard against ghosts, although she misses her mother, and would almost chance the frightening encounter in order to see her again. She's lonely for her. She's lonely for both of them. Part of her feels gone as well, like there's a room in her home that she can't go to anymore, a locked door. She thinks of her mother's freckled hands cutting bread.

Thieving Forest is being marketed as a Young Adult book, which I think is very unfair. It is suitable for young adults, being focused on a sixteen-year-old girl and with suitable content, but it would appeal just as well to anyone who enjoys well-researched historical novels. The main character is Susanna Quiner, the second-youngest of six sisters, and of life in the swamps and forests of Ohio in 1806. The youngest sister, Lilith, still lives in Philadelphia, which makes Susanna effectively the youngest. Before their parents' deaths, and certainly afterwards, the older sisters tend to order Susanna around, which is precisely why she is out of the house doing chores when the rest of her sisters are kidnapped and taken into the nearby forest. The only one left free, Susanna decides the only right thing to do is lead a search party to rescue her sisters.

The first thing I noticed reading Thieving Forest was the use of the present tense. It was unsettling for the first five pages or so to read an historical novel using this, but after the brief adjustment period it becomes an excellent device for pulling the reader into the story. The choice of verb tense reflects well on the rest of the prose elements — the writing is vivid but not florid, in a style that reminded me of Hemingway, but without his intense brevity.

The next noticeable thing is the incredible care taken with historical accuracy. Certainly the details all tallied with what I remember from school about the same period in Canadian history. The characters embody what is beautiful, ugly, great, and awful about this part of America in the early nineteenth century. To accomplish this, of course, the characters need to be well-rounded, and it was a real pleasure to see all of the various character arcs weaving through the story. Characters it was easy to dismiss as minor grow in importance, while ones that were essential fade away. Susanna is the through line, the reader's window into this world. The author doesn't shy away from depicting common prejudices of the time — instead, they are included as important plot points, as much as they may make the contemporary reader wince. A major theme is that any community will include good people and bad, leaders and layabouts.

The men shake their heads. The woman who collected bird bones looks at Seth. "Your women lost?" she says in English. "No good."
He tells her in Potawatomi that the two women are heading north. They are going to the Maumee. One has red hair.
"Many streams here." She shakes her head. "You are the first chmokman I see."

One aspect of the historical accuracy that I particularly enjoyed was how all of the major characters were multilingual. The ones who speak English as a first language know a little French, and are near-fluent in at least one First Nations language. The First Nations characters may or may not know English, but the major characters have at least a little French, or know other native languages besides the one their own nation uses. The characters' language knowledge doesn't slow down the dialogue or the plot at all — on the contrary, it enhances both. It also points out that the story takes place before the famous American "melting pot" effect has had a chance to work. The Midwest as such simply doesn't exist yet.

I have to admit: I was nervous about reviewing this book. The promotional blurb is up-front about the detail that the sisters were kidnapped by Potawatomi Indians, and I worried that the story would divide a little too neatly along the traditional Western "Indians bad except for this one token character/whites good except for this one token character" lines. I was relieved and very pleased to discover that this is not the case at all — even the sisters' kidnapping is a far more complex affair than it appears at the beginning of the book. I would be very curious to read a critique of the book from a First Nations perspective, though.

The only note of caution is that the depiction of life in 1806 Ohio is not romanticised at all. Characters get realistic injuries, and have realistic, 19th-century style medical care for them. Some characters die from injuries or illnesses which wouldn't even warrant a hospital stay in a modern city. Having said that, the physical details are sometimes grim but never gratuitous. There is absolutely no lazy-writer hand-waving over details like how to find food in a swamp with minimal tools and skills. When, late in the book, a character catches a vole for dinner, as a reader you're far too busy being happy that they won't starve after all to feel repugnance. (All right, not much repugnance. The point stands.)

Thieving Forest is the first five-star rating I've given on Goodreads since I read Wool, over a year ago. The clear writing style, vivid characters, well-turned plot, beautifully illustrated themes, and thoroughly-researched historical setting make it a very rewarding read.

About the Author

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

review: Ever Faithful to His Lead

I hated the thought of another divorce, but my awakening sense of physical danger was the final straw. He was leaving me no choice. I couldn’t risk my kids being hurt.
I had to leave.
I called Denise before I went upstairs to let her know I had decided to follow through.
“I’m ready,” I said, filling her in on the details of my call with Dave. “It’s scary, but I finally see I have no choice.”
“Good,” she answered, “I was hoping I’d get this call. Call me as soon as Dan leaves for work in the morning and I’ll drive you to the sheriff’s office.”
I just had to make it through the night without incident, without letting on to Dan or the kids that we would be gone when he returned from work the next day. But how was I going to make it through the night calmly and safely?

Memoirs have a reputation for being rather sedate reading experiences. Sure, there's fun with gossip or tell-alls, but it's not the same as, say, reading a thriller or a mystery.

Kathleen Pooler does something very smart right at the beginning of Ever Faithful to His Lead: she turns it into a mystery. The story opens with her confirming the worst: that her second husband Dan was capable of inflicting serious, even life-threatening, injuries on his wife and immediate family when he was displeased with them. After a difficult conversation with her friends, she decides to leave Dan and take her children (his stepchildren) with her. Pooler very effectively conveys that just because she wasn't in the midst of a dramatic, Hollywood-style escape doesn't mean it wasn't terrifying. Even though the reader knows she must have survived and become free enough to write this book, there's a wonderful amount of suspense generated. As a reader, you want to know how this happened and what happened after the first night of leaving.

The rest of the story is told more chronologically, starting with Pooler's childhood, moving on to her education to become a nurse and her first marriage to another abusive man. Pooler's history makes her an interesting case study: she was raised in a large family by loving, mutually respectful parents. She has a strong work ethic, is well-educated, and worked as a hospital administrator. This memoir's existence explodes many myths about abused spouses: that they're ignorant, that they grew up with abuse and normalised it, that they don't have any income of their own. Pooler's career path meant that she was formally trained in how to recognise victims of abuse, yet it didn't seem to help her with her own abuse until she was extricated from the toxic relationships and had the space to reflect.

There was one story in the memoir especially that gave me pause, when Pooler's first husband comes home drunk and discovers a finished copy of a course paper she's written on domestic violence. Enraged, he crumples up all of the pages and strews them all over the floor. The next morning, he claims he has no idea why he did it.

I glanced at the books and papers scattered across the kitchen table; time to tackle that paper on domestic violence that was due in two weeks. We had discussed the cycle of abuse in class during the week, and it all had seemed eerily familiar. The abuser apologizes profusely for any wrongdoing, and the victim takes him back, always hopeful the abuse will stop.
Still, I told myself, Ed didn’t really physically abuse me. I didn’t have bruises all over. He never really apologized because he never remembered what he did. He just drank too much at times. And I knew he was stressed about working in the family business and not making as much money as Shawn. He needed my love, not my judgement.

Pooler recounts relatively little physical violence compared to other abuse cases, but her memoir makes it very clear that constantly walking on eggshells takes its own toll. The physical violence wasn't entirely absent, either: hair-pulling, threatening, insistence on beating her children as punishment they "deserved" all happened. Her second husband's habit of calling her "incompetent" if every little thing wasn't exactly as he imagined it should be done gave me a chill; I was called the same in a previous relationship.

The best part of this memoir, for me, is that it doesn't just stop when it circles back to the suspenseful escape described in the beginning. There's a thorough and fascinating analysis, and Pooler describes how she learned what to watch out for when dating someone, and points out the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. I appreciated that she did this all using common, everyday terms, rather than the more clinical ones she no doubt knows from her medical background. It's one thing to discuss these things in a classroom or professional setting, but something else again to spot them "in the wild."

Ever Faithful to His Lead is a thoroughly engaging, readable memoir. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in learning about healthy and unhealthy relationships from a first-person, grounded, and educated point of view.

About the Author

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, was published on July 28, 2014. Both it and her work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir, are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York.

About Ever Faithful to His Lead

Ever Faithful To His Lead : My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse is a memoir, a true life tears to triumph story of self-defeating detours and dreams lost and found.

A young woman who loses sight of the faith she has been brought up with attempts to find her way in the world, rejecting her stable roots in lieu of finding adventure and romance. Despite periods of spiritual renewal in which she receives a prophecy, she slides back, taking several self-defeating detours that take her through a series of heartbreaking events.

When Kathy's second husband, Dan's verbal abuse escalates, Kathy finally realizes she must move on before she and her children become a statistic.

How does a young woman who came from a stable, loving family make so many wise choices when it came to career, but so many wrong choices when it came to love, so that she ended up sacrificing career and having to flee in broad daylight with her children from an abusive marriage? What is getting in her way and why does she keep taking so many self-defeating detours?

The story opens up the day Kathy feels physically threatened for the first time in her three-year marriage to her second husband. This sends her on a journey to make sense of her life and discern what part she has played in the vulnerable circumstance she finds herself in.

She must make a decision — face her self-defeating patterns that have led to this situation and move on or repeat her mistakes. Her life and the lives of her two children are dependent upon the choices she makes and the chances she takes from this point forward.

Review: Twisted Reflections

Twisted Reflections is the second book in a trilogy about a time-travelling American girl named Alexis Davenport.

Normally when I do a book review, I place the story in a general context (if you like That Book, you'll like this book). I also think about who would be a good audience for the book, and then write the review to show how much said book would appeal to said audience. 

Usually by the time I'm a few chapters in, it's clear what sort of reader would be interested. With Twisted Reflections, that didn't happen. So instead, I'm going to walk through what I did find. 

Language

It was smaller than her aunt's home, but still enormous compared to their old house in Longmont, with a huge immaculately trimmed front yard bordered by beautiful trees and flowers. The house was adobe, like most of the other houses in the area, with a beautiful bay window.
Mrs. Forsythe opened the door as they walked up the driveway. "I'm so glad to meet you, Alex. I'm Vera. I've met your mom a few times at the store."
Alex mumbled, unable to peel her eyes from the gorgeous flowers and bushes. Mrs. Forsythe's roses put Karen's to shame.

This passage is a typical sample of the description in the book — the vocabulary seems to be deliberately trimmed down. Things (and people) are beautiful, perfect, large, small, evil, young, old. Things might get a colour adjective as well. The adjectives can be a bit opaque: what does "beautiful" look like, anyhow? And how huge is "huge"?

Early on in the book, I thought this might be because although the protagonist was a teenager, the books were written to be suitable to younger readers. Passages like the one quoted above made me think of the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books I read when I was between the ages of eight and twelve — the characters were a few years older than I was, but that was mostly to give them the independence necessary to go off on their adventures.

Then again, while there's never any explicit sex, there's a certain amount of talking about it, both in the eras Alex time travels to and in the timestream she lives in.

SF/F aspect

Alex travels through time by seeing the reflection of another person in a mirror or other reflective surface. If that happens (and although she has some control over it, she is compelled to time travel sooner or later), she reaches into the mirror and finds herself living inside of the body of the person she saw as a reflection. She stays in their era, living out their life, until she's completed whatever task has been set for her. Usually, of course, this involves defeating an opposing time traveller referred to in the text as Drifter, "the evil man", or Traveller.

I'm used to time travel stories only using the main character's present day and life as bookends to the heart of the story, with most of the plot happening in the era travelled to. This doesn't happen in Twisted Reflections. Alex spends a few days, maybe a few weeks, living in the borrowed body, leading the borrowed life, then returns back to her own here and now. When she returns, she's missed only moments. The action taking place in the past is told in a few chapters.

The structure made me think the Reflections series might work well as a video game: solve the larger puzzle by travelling to the past, each time with a specific challenge to overcome, and each time with a different set of skills and strategies to employ. Large portions of the story are dedicated to Alex learning how time travel works and to what purpose she should put her abilities — it did feel like rules of engagement were being set out. It would be interesting to see them applied to interactive media.

Historical

Before she could even finish the small bowl of soup, the servants were bringing out the second course, which appeared to be some sort of salad, with greens she didn't recognize, topped with nuts and goat cheese.
Just as she was about to take her first bite, she froze. Her skin prickled and her hair stood on end. Her mouth was open, the fork stuffed with salad bare centimetres from her open mouth.
Get a grip, Alex! She hurriedly stuff the fork into her mouth and chewed, attempting to swallow, even though her mouth was dry as the Sahara Desert. Don't give anything away! Alex managed to get the bite down without choking. She smiled and turned her attention to the newcomer who had just walked into the dining hall.

As established in this trilogy, one can only time travel to the past, not the future. Alex travels to ancient Egypt, Sparta, and Thatcher-era Britain. For the most part the eras are depicted well, but it seemed like every trip to the past had at least one anachronism or other error in it. Alex eats salad with a not-yet-invented table fork in ancient Egypt, where forks were only used for cooking food. The Spartan princess whose body she takes over gets referred to as Roman at least once. In 1980s Scotland, Alex wishes for an iPod so she can have music to help her think, and that detail made it seem strange that the girl whose body she was possessing didn't own a Walkman, or at least a clock radio with a headphone jack.

On the other hand, the details about dress, housing, transportation, and general technology seemed well-researched and provided verisimilitude.

Would a tween or teen spot these? It depends on how much they're into history, and how much they've learned about the recent past from family and teachers. Alex herself is depicted as a keen student of history, so it's not unreasonable to expect readers to be at her level of knowledge.

Story structure

Most of the story actually takes place in the here-and-now, and most of the suspense and conflict happens in Alex's own life, rather than the lives of the people she time travels to. That led me to think about the intended audience some more, because I'm not sure there's enough time travel here to please someone who regularly enjoys science fiction and fantasy. I'd be more inclined to recommend it to someone who prefers teen-focused fiction, but who doesn't mind some fantastical elements now and again (say, who enjoys when a mainstream soap opera has a space aliens subplot, but wouldn't necessarily watch Supernatural or The X-Files).

About the Author

Shay West Picture.jpg

Shay West was born in Longmont, CO and earned a doctorate degree in Human Medical Genetics from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical. Dr. West currently lives in Grand Junction, CO with her two cats. When not writing novels, she plays with plushie microbes and teaches biology classes at Colorado Mesa University. She is the author of the Portals of Destiny series and the Adventures of Alexis Davenport series. She has also been published in several anthologies: Battlespace (military scifi), Orange Karen: Tribute to a Warrior (fundraiser), and Ancient New (steampunk/fantasy).

You can find more info on the author, Dr. Shay West here:

http://Shay-West.com

https://www.facebook.com/shaywestauthor

https://twitter.com/DrShayWest

https://plus.google.com/+ShayWest/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4687346.Shay_West

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22694543-twisted-reflections?from_search=true

Purchase Links

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Twisted-Reflections-Adventures-Alexis-Davenport-ebook/dp/B00M3A1NA6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1406256881&sr=8-2&keywords=twisted+reflections+by+shay+west

Barnes & Noble:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/twisted-reflections-shay-west/1117447114?ean=2940149744596

iTunes:  https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/twisted-reflections/id903084556?mt=11

Voices of the Sea review

Her whole body shivered with delight as she embraced the sounds of the sea and the harmony of her own voice. Ancient magic swelled within her, the ocean blessed her song, and a strong wind tousled her dark brown hair until it flowed wild behind her.

Voices of the Sea achieves something extraordinary in a very confident, accomplished manner: it seamlessly blends the two YA sub-genres of fantasy and amateur detective into a very enjoyable, readable story. 

The action mostly follows Loralei Reines, nearly eighteen years old and a member of a clan of Sirens. The Sirens have learned to live incognito among humans, and moved from their traditional home in Greece to various seaside locations in America. 

The Sirens have good reason for wanting to blend in, because a non-Siren clan called the Sons of Orpheus has sworn to kill them all. 

Carefully, using his thick blade, Ortho carved a large, jagged "O" in the woman's chest — after he removed the vocal chords from her delicate neck.

The book begins with the murder of a Siren belonging to Loralei's clan. One of the most effective — and scary — narrative choices was to convey all of the chapters detailing killings from the murderer's point of view, while the main narrative is always told from Loralei's point of view. 

The Sirens feel — justifiably — that they can't tell the police how the murders are connected. Much of the story deals with the Sirens trying to protect themselves, while Loralei and her friends try to discover the killer.

The plot is fairly traditional in that sense, but a steadily rising body count and a number of surprise character revelations keep things fast-paced and suspenseful. It doesn't hurt that two major characters fall in love, in both the best and the worst possible way.

The only thing that really jarred for me was one character revelation, late in the story, which felt a bit deus ex machina. I did glance back, and I don't think I missed anything, but it would have been advantageous to at least have a hint that this character had supernatural powers. Still, his presence and his powers make sense, so it doesn't drop the reader out of the story.

Voices of the Sea is recommended to anyone interested in a blend of supernatural and thriller with a generous dash of romance.

Title: Voices of the Sea

Genre: YA Paranormal

Publisher: WiDo Publishing

Publication Date: July 22, 2014

Paperback: 285 pages

About the Author:

Bethany Masone Harar graduated with a Bachelor's degree in English from James Madison University and a Masters in Secondary English Education from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has enjoyed teaching high school English ever since. As a teacher, Bethany is able to connect with the very audience for whom she writes, and this connection gives her insight into their interests. As a writer, she wants to make her readers gasp out loud, sigh with longing and identify with her characters. Bethany also enjoys posting on her blog, bethsbemusings.blogspot.com, is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and is an avid follower of literary-driven social media. She resides in Northern Virginia with her husband, two beautiful children, and her miniature poodle, Annie.

Author's Links:
Website: www.bethanymasoneharar.com

Blog: bethsbemusings.blogspot.com

Twitter: @bethhararwrites