Posts Tagged Novel

Book Review: In The Time of Butterflies

This novel by Julia Alvarez was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection. From the book blurb:

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their death as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

This novel is based upon a real incident which happened four months after Alvarez’s family escaped to New York. The Mirabel sisters, known as Las Mariposas, were members of the underground resistance, along with Alvarez’s father. In her notes at the back of the novel, Alvarez says: “When as a young girl I heard about the “accident, I could not get the Mirabels out of my mind. On my frequent trips back to the Dominican Republic, I sought out whatever information I could about these brave sisters who had done what few men and only a handful of women—had been Julia-Alvarezwilling to do.” She took what she found and began to invent the characters which fill these pages.

Alvarez tells the story from the point of view of each of the four sisters, devoting alternating chapters to each. We start in 1994, with the surviving sister, Dedé, meeting a journalist who wishes to interview her about her sisters. Then we drop into the past. Dedé is a little girl living on a farm with her family. We meet the fierce middle sister, Minerva, who wants to be a lawyer, the religious oldest sister, Patria, and the shy youngest, María Teresa. Their lives seem peaceful, their father becoming prosperous. Like many girls, Minerva and Patria are sent to Catholic boarding school, where Minerva pushes the boundaries along with her girlfriends and Patria becomes ever more religious. Dedé stays home to help her papa with his store.

However, the brutal Trujillo’s dictatorship soon changes everything. Minerva and her friends, chosen to perform a skit for Trujillo, change it to make a political statement in front of him. Trujillo, known for taking pretty teenagers as mistresses, sets his sights on the beautiful Minerva. Inviting her family to a ball, he tries to claim her, but she manages to escape. From then on, the intrigue builds, yet in between the political, the sisters grow up, falling in love, having their children, and interacting with their aging parents. Their marriages have their very real ups and down.

I loved this novel. The language is rich, the descriptions beautiful, and the four sisters’ voices come across clear and distinct. I felt as if I was right there. I loved the way Alvarez combined the intimate with the political, reminding us that all warriors have parents, many have spouses and children, and every choice they make has to be weighed against the risk to those they love. I give it five stars out of five.

Note: A Wikipedia page about the Mirabel sisters states that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is November 25 in honor of the three brave sisters who were assassinated Nov 25, 1960.

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Rain and cold

The past couple of weeks we’ve had snow, rain, fog, freezing fog, and sun. High temperatures have ranged from 30°F to nearly 60°F. This is Central Oregon, after all. It’s high desert, where the weather seems to vary with the direction of the wind, especially this time of year.  Still, I’m not used to this damp cold, with the high and low temps almost identical at 28-32 °F for days on end. It’s almost worse than the cold spell we had in November that froze a lot of people’s pipes, the way it eats into my blood and leaves me shivering.rainy day window

Golden Threads is set in North Yorkshire. I have never been there, but I’ve been to England several times and Scotland once, and it’s usually been damp and rainy (Edinburgh wasn’t, but it sure rained on the tour bus up to Loch Lomand).

I spent a month in London many years ago and felt chilled and slightly damp almost the entire time. The skies only cleared two or three days (I remember that well, because I managed to sunburn badly). Otherwise, the weather varied between overcast with drizzle, overcast with hard rain, and overcast without rain, all hovering around 50°F. I huddled in my rented cottage with the heat on, drinking tea when I wasn’t out exploring (I was on a business trip, but my ‘host’ hardly made time to meet with me the entire month).

So I imagine England this way: damp and chilly but extremely green.

The next chapter of Golden Threads awaits your reading pleasure. It’s called Rainy Days. Earlier chapters are linked on the Golden Threads page. I love comments.

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When I was a kid, I read a fair amount of fantasy, including every book from the original Oz series that I could get at our library, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But then I stopped, and switched over to more serious stuff, partly because I’m such a book worm that I can’t put down anything that’s full of adventure, with plot twists and turns. I have to know what’s happening next. I would never have graduated from college or gotten any work done if I’d continued reading fantasy. bookwormEvery once in a while, when I know I have a clear schedule the next day, I indulge. Take Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld series. I remember almost peeing my pants I laughed so hard when I read the first four or five of those. I loved their creativity. How about a suitcase which takes your dirty clothes and delivers clean ones, unless you’re in trouble, in which case it helps defeat your enemy (perhaps by eating him or her), or a world which rides on the back of a giant turtle?

Lately I’ve indulged in fantasy more than normal. First there was Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches and its sequel, Shadow of Night. Then I was hooked on historical time travel and read the Outlander series. These novels piqued my interest in time travel and witches. I started writing Golden Threads. In the interest of doing some research on this sort of writing, I had to read the Harry Potter series and, most recently, the Wicked series (more Oz, yeah! although I remember the originals as being more fun, maybe because I was in elementary school?). And, once again, I have to make sure that I don’t have anything on my schedule until noon or so the next day. I simply can’t put these books down until they’re finished. Which means that I have to turn to more serious novels for a while…. 😦  (no, I’m not sad. I love those as much or more).

This is all the prelude to telling you that I finally wrote another chapter of Golden Threads. It’s called Asking for Advice. Let me know what you think. If you want to read the whole novel, which I’m writing as I go, click the Golden Threads link.

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Book review: Life After Life

life after lifeKate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life has received much praise. It sits near the top of several lists of the best books of the year (#6 in Goodreads). The basic idea is this:

Ursula Todd is born over and over again, in England, on a snowy night in 1910. She then dies over and over again, each time in a different manner. She gradually grows more and more aware of her previous lifetimes. In her first few repetitions, she merely feels fear when the event which caused her death is imminent and manages to avoid it, but eventually she begins to have actual memories of her lifetimes and learn more consciously from them. This causes her life to take a different path, and a different death to overtake her. With each life, Atkinson fills in some of the details of Ursula’s family and the world she inhabits. Thus Ursula gets the ultimate do-over, until she creates an opportunity to kill Hitler, which is actually where the novel opens.

This novel reminded me a lot of the movie Groundhog Day. Like that movie, it attempts to satisfy the ultimate fantasy, the idea that we could have an opportunity to go back and redo our lives, armed with what we now know. If only, we think to ourselves, I hadn’t said that, hurt that person’s feelings, or taken that walk, then my life would be wonderful. If only I’d never met so and so. If only I’d finished that college degree. Well, you get the picture.

Since this novel takes place in England and, in at least some of her lives, Ursula moves to London, where she spends World War II, we are treated to a slowly filled-in portrait of both the English countryside and then London itself as the Germans bomb it to pieces. We learn about the awful older brother, the wonderful sister and younger brother, and the eccentric Aunt. At the same time, we explore philosophical questions, such as: are we all repeating our lives over and over (apparently yes, since it isn’t only Ursula who does things differently each time around, although the others seem unaware that they are repeating). It also looks a little at women’s role in the workplace and home in upper class England at the time.

Each life begins with Ursula’s birth on a snowy day, and each time something a little different either occurs or gets explored, to keep the event interesting and provide the perspectives of the mother, doctor, housekeeper, etc. Luckily for the reader, that’s about the only thing which repeats (unlike in Groundhog Day), because Atkinson assumes we can recall the events she leaves out. It would be tedious otherwise. The fun comes in reading about the device which allows Ursula to avoid the death event of her previous life.

This is a wonderful concept. It’s clever, and the number of different ways Ursula dies is great (none of the deaths are made to seem particularly gruesome or painful). I found myself reading onward just to find out how she would die next. I liked it enough to give it three and a half stars, but I really wondered why it’s gotten as much praise as it has. It often drags. Ursula is not a particularly interesting person, nor does she come across as very engaged in her life. Atkinson’s prose floats about the drama, reading like a ledger of actions, dispassionate for the most part. Turning to a random page, I read:

The office was a tedious, rather irritable place these days – fatigue, probably, due to the cold and the lack of good, nourishing food. And the work was tedious, an endless compilation and permutation of statistics to file away in the archives somewhere—or to be pored over by the historians of the future, she supposed. They were still “clearing up and putting their house in order,” as Maurice would have it, as if the casualties of war were clutter to be put away and forgotten.

There’s more, but I got bored just typing this. It isn’t all this dull, of course. My real problem with the novel is the way the very first scene with Hitler comes about. In most of the novel, Ursula goes through similar lives each time, tweaking events to arrive at different ends. However, she has only three lives in which she goes to Europe, and only one in which meeting Hitler is described (a life in which she doesn’t kill him). Since she recalls each of her lives only a little, how did she recall enough of that one to know how to get close enough to kill him? Why doesn’t she live that life over and over again, not quite succeeding until the final one? That would seem more consistent with the whole re-lived life concept as carried out in the rest of the book. Of course, Hitler gets do-overs too, so she would have to kill him over and over again, in life after life, I suppose, though we are spared this detail.

Someone should do a sequel, portraying what happened in Europe after Hitler’s murder. With no Hitler, would there be no World War II, no concentration camps, and no nuclear weapons? Or would it all have occurred anyway? Anyone up to the task?

related posts:

NYTimes: Subject to Revision

Goodreads reviews

Not the Booker prize 2013: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (oh, and read the comments, which pretty well agree with me)

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bungee jump

It sure looks scary, doesn’t it! Just throw yourself off something high, with only a stretchy cord to save you.
Thanks to dukesin at stock.xchng for the photo.

Book I of my serialized fantasy novel, Golden Threads, is coming to a close, with only a couple of chapters left. It’s been an interesting journey, writing a chapter or two at a time and posting them without doing a major edit. At times, I’ve really wondered if it was a worthwhile endeavor. I have to ask myself why I persevered. Was it to prove to myself that I could do it? Maybe, because I know that I have a stubborn streak, and I could feel it come out at times, insisting that I had to POST SOMETHING. IT IS WEDNESDAY, FOR GOD’S SAKE! That need of mine to reach a goal competes with the other side of me that says: but it’s lousy. No one wants to read it. Forget it. You’ve had a busy day, this story is going nowhere. I don’t know why you bother, really.

Well, I’m sure that you get the picture. You probably have those voices in your own head. Probably even Einstein had them, even the second one, with its whiny tone saying: no one will understand your general theory. It’s too weird. It’s gotta be all wrong, anyway. You’ll be a laughing stock. Luckily for the world, he didn’t listen to that voice all of the time. Instead, he listened to the first one, at least long enough to submit his papers.

Not that I’m Einstein. Far from it.

However, I have a different reason for publishing this novel, one chapter at a time: for me to grow. To grow past my fear. To extend myself just a little. Every time I put my mouse cursor over the blue button that says, rather ominously “Publish”, here on, my heart threatens to stop. I move my cursor away, lift my hand, and think no. I have to edit this. It’s pure drivel. Forget it. I’ll leave it in unpublished drafts and slink away. Maybe I’ll come up with something better tomorrow.

You know something? I read recently that one of the best ways to keep our brains healthy is to do something scary every day (I apologize, but I can’t find the link, so, instead, I give you this one: It can be physical or mental, just do it. Eventually, that thing will stop being scary (and you have to up the ante). I’ve always known this truth. So I figure that putting my stories here on this blog, where all the world can see them, is a great way to prepare for the truly frightening event of publishing a book. Right?

Here goes: the next chapter in Golden Threads is called Becoming Serious. It’s up now, and ready for you to read and comment. Or go to Golden Threads to read previous chapters.

As always, I welcome your comments. Do you push yourself into the scary zone, or ride along in comfort? Is it worth it, whatever your choice? What about those competing voices?

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Laura meets a fairy

magic wandIt’s been over two months since I posted a new chapter to Golden Threads. When we last left Laura, she was at a meeting of teenage witches, waiting for the speaker to appear, and hoping the bullies in the group would not do anything bad to her boyfriend, Matthew. The next chapter, Appeasing, has been available on the Golden Threads page since October, but I got so involved in NaNoWriMo that I forgot to write a post linking to it. So today, I’m giving you that link and adding the next chapter: Fairy Life.

She’s in the hallway, alone, when this new chapter begins. To see what happens, click Fairy Life. To catch up on past chapters, click Golden Threads, the working title of the novel.

I’ve introduced fairies in this novel earlier, but never described them. How does one come up with the powers and behavior, the look, even, of  creatures, who have been described and written about for hundreds of years? I could have copied what others say about them. There are plenty of WEB sites about fairies. But that’s no fun. I wanted to make up my own version.

I decided to tap into my subconscious memories, melding and blending things read and things imagined to serve my purpose. I made them tall and thin, with elongated limbs, much like the elves from The Lord of the Rings, but with the ability to shrink and grow in an instant. They can disappear and reappear, and transform into insects and birds. They live a long time: hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The hard thing for me as a writer is that, once those abilities are described, they are pinned down. Any time a fairy appears later on, it must behave as laid out in Fairy Life, although I left myself a backdoor: our fairy lies (for very good reasons), thus omitting a few important fairy facts. Now why would she do that? Maybe we’ll find out as the novel progresses.

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Book Review: As the Heart Bones Break, by Audrey Chin

Heart BonesAudrey Chin rocks in her newest novel, As The Heart Bones Break.*     She beautifully spins the drama of one man’s life, from his childhood in Vietnam during the war to late middle-age as a world-traveled business and family man, into a fascinating tale of personal growth, intrigue, love, and loss, while at the same time weaving bits of history, the conflict between those who supported the Communists and those who supported the Americans, the difference between traditional Vietnamese beliefs and those of children born in the United States, karma, love, what it means to be part of a family, and many other themes effortlessly into the tale.

With sentences like this:

Turning away from her friends, she flipped her long pony tail of ebony black hair over her shoulder and looked straight past Binh and at you, the large double-lidded eyes in her oval porcelain-pale face flashing with scorn.

she brings you into the scenes, breathing life into them, until you know Thong Tran’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences almost as well as he himself knows them.

Except for a chapter about his childhood, Chin begins the thread of Thong’s life when he’s already a young married man living in California, working as an engineer. But he is not finished with Vietnam or the past. His family and his career conspire to make him remember. Through his memories, we see how his youth in Vietnam shaped him, and how, only by sharing his secrets and exploring those of his family, can he grow into a person who can be loved and love in return even as tragedy envelopes him.

I adored this lovely, graceful novel about a man who survived an awful war that tore families and friendships asunder. If you enjoy learning about the human heart, and about other lands and cultures, you will love As the Heart Bones Break. Honestly, it’s so good that I’m expecting her to win awards for this work. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It gets five out of five stars, without any doubt.

*If you live in the United States, you can still order the book or read it on Kindle, even though she’s still looking for a US publisher. See Audrey’s comment for the links.

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