Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review, Vinegar Girl

Because Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I’m so glad I picked it up because the novel is a delightful literary romantic-comedy. It tells the story of Kate, a feisty young woman, who’s too comfortable in her stalled life. So Fate intervenes in the form of Pyotr, a handsome, brilliant Russian biologist, who desperately needs a green card. (I nearly rolled my eyes at this trope, but it works.) Thankfully, Tyler does not take the easy way out with insta-love or a laissez-faire sure-I’ll-marry-him-faux-compassion. Instead, the characters grow. Kate realizes that her life has frozen and she desperately needs to change. And Pyotr is not a two-dimensional, alpha male archetype. Instead, the reader discovers he is a lonely, vulnerable man—albeit one with a tongue and temper as sharp as Kate’s. But like all rom-coms, they fall in love and get married. Or rather, vice versa.

The story is well told, and the pacing is excellent. In fact, I read the book in two days because I couldn’t put it down. The writing itself is clean, and Tyler’s prose is very witty—I read sentences aloud to whomever happened to be around me at the time (even to my 21 year old son, who’s an electrical engineer and not the most sympathetic audience). Further, Tyler nails the Russian accent and immigrant mindset, making Pyotr even more endearing.

I do need to add that I can’t really discuss how faithfully or innovatively this novel retells Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew because I haven’t read that play. But I can say that you don’t need to be familiar with the play to enjoy this book.

I heartily recommended Vinegar Girl. It’s a perfect summer beach read!

I received this book for Blogging for Book in exchange for a review.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Guest Post by Laurel Garver, Building Story Tension

Displaying AlmostThere_cover_midsize.jpgDisplaying AlmostThere_cover_midsize.jpgToday I'd like to welcome author Laurel Garver to the blog. Laurel is the author of several books
I had the privilege of reading this novel
early. It was wonderful!
including: Never Gone, Almost There, Muddy-fingered Midnights, and Emotions in the Wild.

How Fragile We Are: Building Story Tension through Illness and Injury

By Laurel Garver

If you want tension in your fiction that’s truly organic, you can’t go wrong with a character experiencing bodily weakness, whether due to illness or injury. It’s something every reader can relate to, at least to some degree. We’ve all had a stubbed toe or minor cut or bruise, fallen ill with a head cold or stomach ache.

Suffering a more serious injury is something we all deeply fear. The mere implied threat of it will naturally cause a self-protective fight-or-flight response. Illnesses provoke a similar fear—and often disgust as well, sure to create tension in any relationship.

No matter the time or setting, human characters are vulnerable to forces that can steal their health. This applies to every character in your story. Illness or injury can incapacitate or simply hobble your protagonist, and it can also remove his or her usual sources of help. It can threaten the protagonist’s one true love, or family, or other favorite people. It can also knock your antagonist down a few notches when you need to buy your protagonist time.

The illness or injury might also become a rallying point for your heroes, such as cancer or a sudden loss of sight that requires a team to help the affected person.
In my novel Almost There, I explore the way illnesses and injury can become a family’s rallying point. Illness also directly challenges my protagonist Dani’s core flaw—wanting to be in control—by first removing a source of help and then hobbling her. The medical components of this story took the most significant research and planning. Here are some lessons I learned from that process.

Do your homework before selecting your means of bringing on a fictional illness or injury. Some injuries heal more quickly than others, some are more dangerous in certain environments, some gradually drain a person of strength, and some will lead quickly to more serious issues. Not all illnesses are created equal either. Many vary in how they spread, how quickly or slowly they incubate before causing symptoms, and how easily they can be treated.

Some key things you want to know before picking your “poison”

What commonly causes this?
What’s the typical range of severity?
How much and what kind of pain and discomfort accompany it?
What is the typical treatment for this injury?
How much professional care is usually called for?
What is the typical healing time?
What are the stages of healing?
What are common complications that prevent healing?
Under what circumstances might this injury prove permanently disabling or even fatal?
(For non-contemporary stories—how advanced is care for this kind of injury in my world?)

How is the illness contracted?
What is the incubation period?
Is there a vaccine? How effective is it?
What parts of the body does it effect and how?
How much and what kind of pain and discomfort accompany it?
What are early interventions? How effective are they?
What is the typical treatment?
How much professional care is typically called for?
How long is the typical recovery time?
What are the stages of recovery?
What complications can arise?
Under what circumstances could it cause permanent disability or prove fatal?
(For non-contemporary writers: how well is this disease understood in my world? How would it be treated? Could it be cured?)

Read as much as you can from established, evidence-based medical sites to begin with. The CDC and Medline Plus are government-run health agency sites; The Mayo Clinic and Web MD are two other comprehensive, well-regarded sites worth exploring.

You might discover that your cool medical plot twist requires some additional planning. I make use of a common contagious illness with a very long incubation period—10 to 14 days, most of which the person has no symptoms. I found I had to create a calendar in which I tracked not only the incubation but also the progression of symptoms and recovery for each affected person.

Once you’ve done some initial research, you absolutely must fact check it with a health professional. Chatting with several nurses and doctors in my life has helped me tremendously—not only in having the most accurate information, but also in getting real-life details about how real people experience the condition. Chances are you are no more than one degree of separation (friend of a friend) from a healthcare provider who’d be happy to answer your questions. (For additional advice on interviewing, see my posts “Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction” and “Channel Your Inner Reporter: Using Interviews to Strengthen Your Fiction.”)

Be sure to let them know this information is for a fiction project, not a real person who could hold them legally liable for health outcomes. For this reason, some folks will prefer to fact check something you’ve already written—so give that as an option. You might find that the healthcare pro will steer you toward even cooler ideas than you could have come up with on your own.

How might illness or injury add tension to one of your stories?

About the Author
Laurel Garver is a writer, editor, professor’s wife and mom to an arty teenager. An indie film enthusiast and incurable Anglophile, she enjoys geeking out about Harry Potter and Dr. Who, playing word games, singing in church choir, and taking long walks in Philly's Fairmount Park. You can follow her on her blog, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

About Almost There
Seventeen-year-old Dani Deane is certain a magical trip to Paris will cure her widowed mother's depression. But when Dani’s tyrannical grandfather falls ill, they must go to rural Pennsylvania to deal with his hoarder horror of a house. In the midst of crisis, can Dani trust God to bring hope and healing?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Book Review, Losing Gabriel

Set in the rolling hills of Tennessee, Losing Gabriel by Lurlene McDaniel tells the story of three young adults whose choices as teens force them to become adults before their time. Sloane, escaping her past through music, tries to find the love she’s never experienced with Dawson. In turn, Dawson hopes to salve the grief of his mother’s death through Sloane and her music. And, finally, Lani, a student studying nursing after the death of her cousin Arie (in The Year of Luminous Love), becomes intertwined with their lives as the three of them care for an ailing child.
After reading this book, I have to say there’s a reason Ms. McDaniel has been writing well-loved novels for so many years—she is an author who carries her readers into a story and wrings their emotions. Sloane is not what I expected. (McDaniel never takes the clich├ęd route with her characters or storylines.) And despite Sloane’s choices, I found myself rooting for her the entire novel. Even while I was rooting for Lani.

While this novel explores difficult life choices and their aftermath, it does it with grace and compassion.

As always, McDaniel’s writing is polished and clean. There’s never a moment where the text draws attention to itself and away from the story. The plot is well-paced and engrossing. When I began reading I thought, “Oh, I’ll just read the first few chapters.” I ended up finishing the novel in a couple of sittings because I couldn’t let go of the characters.

Five stars. Highly recommended.

I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Never-Open Desert Diner, Book Review

Often I approach a literary novel with a bit of trepidation because literary writers frequently intrude on their stories, using language as an end in itself instead of as a slave to the story. But as I read The Never-Open Desert Diner, I was pleased to discover that James Anderson wrote the novel always choosing the good of the story over showmanship.

Besides the restrained skill of the writing, I was impressed by Anderson’s setting. Choosing to place a novel in the desert was bold. Most readers view the desert as arid nothingness, populated by oddities both creaturely and human, and aren’t apt to pick up a novel set there. But any who read this book find that Anderson painted the truth of the desert’s quixotic beauty with its dazzling sunsets and dangerous storms. Furthermore, he imbued the characters with sensitive humanity, and, having lived in the high desert myself, I was delighted with the way he explored the fascinating people who live there.

Aside from the literary aspects of the novel, the story is an entertaining and engaging read. The pace of the story is consistent, and there are enough story questions to drive the narrative and the reader forward. Finally, the ending is excellent—a wistful, satisfying conclusion to a well-written novel book.

I can’t wait to read Mr. Anderson’s next novel.

I received this book for Blogging for Book in exchange for a review.