Book Review: The House of Seven Gables – Portrait of a Cursed Family

– From Archived Site – 
The House of Seven Gables – not to be confused with  Anne of Green Gables – is a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne that takes place in Salem, Massachusetts.  Given the setting it is probably not surprising that the alleged “curse” arises from a humble farmer named Matthew Maule who was executed for wizardry.  The basic story is this, a wealthy and prominent local man, Colonel Pyncheon, identifies the ideal spot to build his family mansion.  Unfortunately, the land is currently owned by Mr. Maule who refuses to sell his plot.  After much negotiation neither party is willing to budge and the result is the execution of Mr. Maule during the witch hysteria in Salem, subsequently freeing the land for purchase by none other than Colonel Pyncheon.  Here he builds his House of Seven Gables.
How was poor Mr. Maule cast as a wizard?  Well, the origin of that claim in the book is intentionally hazy, much like the actual accusations of witchcraft in Salem in historical record.  One could suppose that the whispers that strategically began in the village led to suspicions by the authorities.  Authorities would then interview prominent people in the community to collect “evidence” from which a judgement and sentence would be derived.  Not unlike the scant evidence and faulty judicial process that doomed twenty people to death in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693.
Was Mr. Maule a wizard?  No, of course he wasn’t.  He was simply a righteous and innocent, but sadly unfortunate, soul who defied the wrong person during a time when the locals were hunting witches.  His dying words to Colonel Pyncheon provide the context for the curse upon the House of Seven Gables.
“God will give him blood to drink!” 
All this context is set in the beginning pages of the book.  The story really centers on the dying embers of the Pyncheon family, long having fallen to destitution and despair.  The house itself is in a state of disrepair and only a handful of family members remain alive.  Throughout the book, I was reminded of the classic theme that the sins of the fathers will taint future generations.  Indeed, this idea is directly discussed in the context of the surviving Pyncheons.  They believe they are cursed, not necessarily by the questionable actions of their ancestor but by the dying words of a wrongly convicted man.
Can a family really be cursed? I found myself pondering this question as I read the book.  I believe they can, but not by some extraneous words flung by are disgruntled acquaintance.  No, a curse is only powerful if one allows themselves to believe it.  Which unfortunately the Pyncheons, with one notable exception, seem to readily – if resignedly – accept.  This acceptance brings their family to the brink of extinction.
Amid all this darkness and doom comes a ray of sunshine, however.  The youngest Pyncheon arrives on the scene early in the story.  She has been raised away from the House of Seven Gables and as such does not allow an ancient curse to color her expectations for the future.  The bulk of the story centers on how the remaining Pyncheons come to terms with their colored past and in doing so try to imagine a better future.  This is laborious process, however, and requires the Pyncheons to acknowledge truths about themselves, and their ancestor Colonel Pyncheon, that are disturbing and uncomfortable.  But only in facing the truth can this family finally be set free.
Published in 1851 The House of Seven Gables is not an easy or fast read.  Like the authors of the day, Hawthorne painstakingly describes settings, character motivations, and backstory over pages of long and complex paragraphs.  It takes some time to sink into the tempo of the novel.  So different from many books of today where action is packed into each page.  This is not a book for those with a short attention span.  At least not initially.  But if you can commit yourself to the story a rich portrait of a New England family emerges, and proceeds, albeit slowly, to a well-earned and satisfying resolution.

PS: I’ve never actually read Anne of Green Gables.  Maybe I’ll tackle that book at some point in the future.  Now, though, I need a break from all those gables.  Liane Moriarty is calling!

Off Topic: Musings on Rumors of a Big Little Lies Season 2 (Spoilers!)

– From Archived Site – 

First off, let me say that I loved the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies.  The characters (the acting!), the production values, the music, the story, the real estate porn – it all worked for me.  Any minor gripes I had with the show were minuscule in comparison with the multitude of positives.  No, no, this limited series was near perfection.  Which is probably what makes rumors of a Season 2 a little distressing. This story was driven by an exceptional circumstance.  A circumstance, or coincidence, that stretched the limits of credibility but made for very compelling television.  I fear the use of another exceptional circumstance to drive a Season 2 narrative would push this stellar miniseries squarely into the soap opera melodrama territory.

Some stories have a natural conclusion.  Is that really such a bad thing?

From what I understand rabid fan response is the driving force behind talks of a possible second season.  As one of those fans I can understand the impulse.  Part of me would like to see these women again, but where does the story go from here?  Therein lies the question.

Throughout the series there were a few hints that Ed might not be as nice as he outwardly appeared. Granted, that could have been a red herring tactic to keep Season 1 viewers on their toes but there was a moment in the finale that had me scratching me head.  Maybe I’m reading too much into small gestures but I really hope they do not pursue an “Ed is not all that he seems” type of story line. That would be unoriginal and likely awful.

If I were to continue the story I would focus on the bond between the five women.  Is this bond real or is it the result of self preservation?  Can it withstand the return to a new normal?  Celeste and Jane are now a family of sorts.  How do they manage through that dynamic, with themselves and their children?  Where does it leave Madeline?  I’m sure given Bonnie’s personality there will be some psychological ramifications to her actions.  She could withdraw, sink into depression.  Maybe Celeste begins to unconsciously resent her, revealing a fissure within the group.  Can Madeline and Renata put aside their differences for long or will their natural competitiveness again rear its head?  Speaking of Madeline, her marriage is in trouble.  How will a household in crisis impact her interaction with the other women?  Lots to explore there, and absolutely no need to introduce another far fetched melodramatic element (e.g. Ed is a serial killer).

I have no idea if there will be a Season 2 of Big Little Lies.  But if there is, regardless of what direction it takes, I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching.

PS: For those wondering, my minor gripe with the series has to do with the inciting incident.  I have a young child in elementary school and I find it hard to believe that a professional teacher  – especially one employed in such a affluent town –  would have addressed Amabella’s injury as depicted.  Last I checked public shaming went out with the Puritans, excluding the internet of course.  That kind of shaming is sadly thriving today.

A Tough Nut to Crack

– From Archived Site – 

“This is not going to go well.”

That was my first thought upon enrolling in a Writer’s Digest Boot Camp late last year.  The course was an online one-on-one with a literary agent who would critique the first ten pages of my novel.  Foolishly, I signed up for this course AFTER I sent out the first six queries but I learned of the course after the fact and was eager for some professional feedback.  Besides, six initial queries weren’t all that much.  There would be plenty of opportunity to revise for the next round should I need it (ha!).  Imaging the hubris of an unpublished, untrained author thinking she’d secure an agent in the first round of querying.  Honestly, I didn’t really think it would happen but the fact that it remained within the scope of possibility gives you a feel for how delusional I was at the time.

In terms of the boot camp, three well-established literary agents with experience across all genres were assigned to the workshop.  A specific agent could be requested if a participant had a strong preference for one person.  I looked over all of their profiles and none seemed to focus on young adult/fantasy so I figured any would do.  One of the agents gave a short primer on how to best submit your ten pages.  She noted that she loved thrillers and crime fiction, and provided examples from specific works that spoke to her.  While I recognized all the novels – each very successful in their own right – I didn’t particularly care for any of them.  None where the kind of novels that I typically read.

“God, I hope I’m not assigned to her.  She’ll hate my story.”

That was my second thought.  I’ll let you guess what happened.

Overall, I’m glad I took the course.  It was reasonably priced and though I suspect the agent in question did not care for my genre she gave some very useful constructive criticism.   Criticism that I took to heart and used to update my first ten pages for my next round of queries.  Notably, the agent was quite complimentary of my writing ability which I very much appreciated.

I think one of the most important pieces of feedback I received was that my chosen genre is a tough sell.  That, coupled with my omitting a market analysis in the initial queries likely led to the rejections (or no responses) that I’ve received to date.  So, what does one do?  The way I see it there are at least four possible paths forward:

  1. Stick with my story and identify a plausible market niche and entry strategy before any additional queries are sent
  2. Forget finding an agent and self-publish
  3. Abandon the genre and write another novel that is in an “easier to sell” category
  4. Abandon writing all together and find something else to do with my leisure time
I’ve completed a novel that I think it’s quite good so Option 4 doesn’t really appeal to me.  It’s just a little too soon to give up completely, no?  To date I’ve only gotten seven rejections.  Here’s a an interesting little nugget I’ve pulled from www.litrejections.com.
26 publishers reject A Wrinkle in Time. It wins the 1963 Newbery Medal and becomes an international best-seller. 8 million sales and counting.

Clearly, seven rejections do not equal quitting time.  Now if I get to seventy rejections, well that’s another issue all together.

Regarding Option 3, I read somewhere that Romance is the highest selling genre and filled to the brim with voracious readers.  I actually started toying with some ideas on how to write a story for this genre and here’s a pitch to consider:

A beautiful law student from working class Boston becomes involved with the reclusive son of a local sports hero and reality star.  It does not go well.
I could make this story interesting I suppose, filled with twists and turns and romantic angst.  It could be fun, developing the most ridiculous love story I could imagine.  I mean really, how much worse could it be than Fifty Shades of Grey?

Self-publishing (Option 2) remains a viable option though I’m not sure I’m ready to pull that trigger just yet.

For me the only Option that sparks even the slightest interest is Option 1.  It’s not going to be easy but cracking this nut does appeal to me.  I may not be a trainer writer but I am a trained marketer.  Why not take on the challenge?  I have nothing at this point so there is nothing to lose.

 
 

Lessons from Twitter

– From Archived Site – 
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I was a Twitter skeptic.  I admit it.  How could 140 characters possibly convey anything of meaning?  Surely it was all superficial sound bites, designed to entice or inflame, with no real substance to absorb.  How wrong I was.  To say I love Twitter is probably an overstatement, but over the past month or so I have developed a deep appreciation for this surprisingly powerful communication platform.  There is so much I’ve learned from Twitter since re-engaging in October 2016 I thought it might be useful to share some of my key insights to date.  I’m limiting this first post to just five Twitter lessons.  If this first month of engagement is any indication there will be many more “Twitter Lessons” to follow.
  1. Embrace the 140 character limit: Seriously.  Do not fear brevity.  Conquer it!  Having such a limited number of characters to make an impression forces one to seriously evaluate every word, letter, punctuation mark or emoji.  Cut out the extraneous and focus on the essentials, the impactful.  Words to live by, in so many ways.
  2. Have a clear strategy and help will find you in surprising ways: Before I joined I thought a lot about who I wanted to be on Twitter.  I am not using my account for sharing cute animal pics (though I do love those), to collect recipes, or comment on society/pop culture.  I also don’t use Twitter to keep up with my personal connections (Facebook is perfect for that).  I set up my Twitter account to help find support, information and advice from new writers.  All of which is abundant on Twitter, as long as like-minded individuals know how to find you.  Describe yourself in the correct manner, follow relevant people, and Tweet or Re-Tweet useful content.  Do these things carefully and consistently and your community will grow.
  3. Master the Twitter basics: It’s so easy to set up an account and start Tweeting away that it’s tempting to ignore the features of the application.  DO NOT DO THIS!  At a minimum learn how to mute followers.  Otherwise your Twitter feed will be clogged with information that may not be the most relevant or helpful to you at this point in time.  I don’t suggest muting anyone too soon.  Take some time and read Tweets from your followers.  You’ll quickly get a feel for who is posting information that you can use versus who is not.
  4. Learn more about your favorite Tweeters: If you find yourself drawn again and again to a particular Tweeter read their profile.  Find out more about them.  Often times these folks have websites that provide a lot more information beyond the 140 characters that initially captured your attention.  Go to their websites or blogs.  Dive into their content.  Chances are if you like their Tweets you find a lot more to like on their site.
  5. Stay on point for the most part:  If you follow me on Twitter you’ll note that most of my Tweets have to do with writing, editing, self-publishing or finding an agent.  This is simply a function of where I am today.  Every once in a while though I like to send a off topic Tweet.  It provides my followers with a little more color to my personality and hopefully makes me feel more real.  A side bonus is you may attract a slightly different set of followers, many of whom could provide support and inspiration beyond your intended community.
When all else fails insert a picture of a cute baby, a video of puppies playing, or a salacious celebrity headline 😉.

Book Review: Give Me Your Heart: Dark, Disturbed, Maddening

– From Archived Site –
I went on a Disney cruise to the Eastern Caribbean last week.  It was fun and jam-packed with magical activities and Disney characters.  My 7 year old had a blast.  But I’m not really interested in writing about that, this isn’t a travel blog after all.  Maybe it was because I found myself immersed in so much G-rated goodness that I suddenly had a craving for the dark and disturbed.  Luckily on my iPad I had a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates called Give me Your Heart.  I’ve had this collection on my iPad forever and I think I must have needed to embrace the macarbe to escape the constant spectacle of manufactured wonder and awe on board.

The tone of all the stories is bleak, unhappy, full of disturbed (albeit interesting) individuals.  Funny that I should have the urge to revisit this book while on a cruise with Mickey and the gang.  I probably could write an entire essay on what that means for my psychology.  But why probe to deep? Arguably, it could awaken some happily sleeping monsters.  Wow!  Who knew that Disney was capable of dredging up such horror?  I prefer to think of this surprising craving as something of a yin and yang.  I needed the darkness to bring into balance the overwhelming light of Disney and his multitude of “dreams upon a star”.  One can only take so much happiness, yes?

Back to the book review.  Let’s start with the good – Joyce Carol Oates is a very evocative writer who creates believable characters and situations.  I love how she really gets into the mindset of her protagonists, and how original they are both in tone and setting but sharing the common thread of underlying pathology.  The level and depth of the depravity differs in each character but it is a constant presence throughout.  There are no happy endings.  There may have been (some) happy beginnings but through the course of the narrative things unravel.  You can see this happening in the stories.  At times its subtle, Oates doesn’t beat  you over the head with going from Point A to Point B but the plot points are all there.  What I found perhaps the most maddening, however, is just as you’ve become fully engrossed in the tale it ends usually quite abruptly and often ambiguously.  I found myself having to go back and re-read most of the stories for clues as to what Oates intended.  For the most part, enough breadcrumbs were left behind to interpret the ending but it is by no means conclusive.  I suspect two people could walk away with very different views on what actually transpired.  Some of this is intentional.  At least two stories had unreliable narrators.  In others, however, Oates uses language that is intentionally misleading.  I’m all for subtly but to intentionally try and confuse your reader?  Maddening.  Maybe Oates simply wants her readers to work hard to understand her stories, she is not what I would call light reading.

I found myself reminded of one of her other (and perhaps most famous) short stories,
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.  I read this story years ago – in high school English class – and remember being similarly perplexed by the end.  I guess what I’m saying is while Oates convincingly draws you into another world, I pretty much hate how these stories end.  That could be just a quirk particular to me but I’d say proceed with caution – or read with a notebook at the ready – when diving into a Joyce Carol Oates short story.  They are not for the faint of heart, in more ways than one.

PS: I loved Joyce Carol Oates novels The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys so my hesitancy to recommend refers to her short stories.

PPS: I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been working on my book.  Only two chapters to go to the end!

What is a Story Anyway?

– From Archived Site – 

I’m slowly getting through a newly acquired book purchased in an effort to boost my creativity, Wonderbook.  Honestly, it’s a bit of a slog.  Not because the book is bad.  The book is actually quite good.  It is just very, very DENSE.  This is not content that one can breeze through lightly.  The illustrations alone are worth pouring over.  They are so rich and original they can spark any number of creative ideas.  Just take a peek at the cover shot I’ve provided to the right and you’ll get the general idea.

Wonderbook also contains writing challenges in each chapter.  Perhaps not so surprisingly,  given my fledgling and sporadic writing career (hobby, who are we kidding?), I had difficulty with the first exercise.  Wonderbook provided an unusual image and then challenged the reader to provide the story behind this image.  I found this instruction very vague.  What kind of story?  A short story?  What is a story anyway?  And here is where I became stuck.  You see, in all of the writing reference books I own – and there are an embarrassingly high number of them (most unread at this point) – none actually defined what a story was.  I always thought of a story as some type of narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  But is this even true?  How did I come up this definition?  Sadly none of my books provided any guidance so I turned to the internet.  Here’s what I found.

  • Merriam Webster – STORY: An account of incidents or events (not so helpful)
  • Dicitionary.com – STORY: a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale (a little better?)
  • Google – STORY: an account of past events in someone’s life or in the evolution of something (Why even put this out there?  It means absolutely nothing.  Gibberish!)
Nothing about a beginning, middle, or end in any of these definitions.  Basically, I could just say whatever I wanted.  So without further ado, here is the image and the associated story:


A cranky middle-aged man who spent far too much time with his ledgers dreamt of escaping to a tropical island paradise where his parrot companions would whisper scandalous, extortion worthy town gossip as giant fish serenaded him on a nightly basis.

Now clearly this “story” satisfies the criteria based on my highly rigorous, internet based definition(s) but it’s not particularly good.  I did actually write something that more resembles what I consider to be an actual story and I’ll post it for your reading pleasure as soon as it’s complete.  In the meantime, forward with the rest of the Wonderbook!

Book Review: The Girl on The Train is a Trainwreck

– From Archived Site – 
In the best possible way.  The book The Girl on The Train (Paula Hawkins) should come with a warning – do not begin this book unless you have 48 hours to devour cover-to-cover.  I know this book wasn’t on my March reading list but somewhere between procrastinating writing my own book and avoiding going to the gym I remembered that a friend recommended it to me recently.  I downloaded the book on Tuesday and finished it on Thursday.  Notably, I was almost late dropping off my seven year-old daughter to school, so determined was I to finish the book.  Can a review really get much better than that?

In terms of plot all you need to know is that a girl (woman really) with some personal troubles and an active imagination commutes to London via the train every day.  While on the train one day she notices something unusual.  That’s all I really feel comfortable revealing.  The less the reader knows about the plot the more addicting the read.  I will say this; the story grabs your interest from the beginning and doesn’t let go.  My only slight complaint is that I suspected where the story was going fairly early on.  I read these types of books just looking for the inevitable “twist”.  I was one of those people unsurprised by the big reveal in Gone Girl.  However, just because I also spotted (or at least suspected) this one in no way hampered my enjoyment of the book.

If you’re in the mood for a psychological thriller do yourself a favor and get this book.  You won’t be disappointed.  Best read on a stormy weekend with a drink by your side, for effect of course!

 

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

– From Archived Site – 

The Light Between Oceans: Sad, Beautiful, Lingering

I’ve knocked off one book from my March reading list and it was The Light Between Oceans.  Once I got into this book it basically consumed me until I finished it, emotionally shattered and awash in tears.  In a good way, kind of.

The story is about a childless couple living alone on a small island off the coast of Australia who finds a baby who has come ashore in a small boat along side a deceased man.  The couple decides to claim the baby as their own and the story unfolds from there.

I’ve read some reviews expressing incredulity at the act of keeping the infant rather than reporting the discovery to the authorities.  While this is not a course of action I would have taken, the book credibly establishes the history of the couple such that you can understand how such decision was made.  To me, it’s not about whether what they did was right or wrong; it’s more about can I understand and believe – given the characters background and motivations – how such a choice came about.  The book clearly establishes the path that led to this choice, not to mention the consequences that follow it.

Characterization in this book was top notch.  I really got a strong sense of who the main characters  were, why they were damaged in different ways, and understood their course of action.  I was very impressed how the author was able to generate sympathy for the couple, even though they committed an incredibly selfish act damaging not only themselves, but also a host of other characters in their wake.

Good people sometimes do very foolish things, but does this mean they are bad people?  I think at it’s most basic this is what the story asks you to consider.   The Light Between Oceans asks this question in an engaging, beautifully written, and very affecting manner.  I loved it.  Highly recommend but keep a box of tissues nearby, you’ll need it.