Wednesday, April 11, 2018


A Piece of the World 
by Christina Baker Kline

Reviewed by Sue Ellis

For Readers:

Christina Baker Kline's latest novel, A Piece of the World, is a fictionalized account of the  life of Christina Olson, subject of the famous painting, Christina's World, by Andrew Wyeth.

Christina Olsen was crippled by a virus at age three. Local doctors had no idea what caused the progressive wasting of her limbs, but she eventually had to crawl to leave the house, refusing the use of a wheelchair. Late in life she met Andrew Wyeth when he became enthralled by the old farmhouse in Cushing, Maine, where she had always lived.

Wyeth's place in the story is as important as Christina's, his dogged determination to paint what he feels at the place that greatly moves him. At first it's the location that calls to him, the land and the buildings in their coastal setting, but his attention eventually falls upon the people he comes to know.

Her parents are a salt-of-the- earth couple who expect more of Christina than seems reasonable. They refuse to baby her, even when she is very young, but she rises to the occasion in one gripping chapter after another. While still in her twenties, a relationship springs to life when the crippled girl  meets a student who summers in Cushing.

Here's an excerpt where Christina overhears her parents discussing her and her boyfriend:

"She's no beauty, but she works hard. I think she'd make a fine companion," Papa is saying.
"She would," Mother says. "But I'm beginning to wonder if he's toying with her."
My face tingles as I realize they're talking about me. I lean against the wall, straining to hear.
"Who knows? Perhaps he wants to run the farm."
"Mother laughs, a dry bark. "That one? No."
"What does he want with her then?"
"Who knows? To fill his idle time, I suppose."
"Maybe he really does love her, Katy."
"I fear . . ." Mother's voice trails off. "That he will not marry her."
Papa says, "I fear it too."

By the time Wyeth appears and installs himself at the farmhouse, Christina's scars, both physical and mental, have honed her into a person who is both admirable and pitiable (and ultimately paintable).

William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
ISBN 978-0-06-2356277

For Writers:

Many of you will have read Orphan Train, a well loved work by this same author, so you know Christina Baker Kline is a writer of considerable talent.

Using Christina's relationships with her family and friends, she enables us to see into the soul of a woman gone bitter with her insistence that people ignore her physical plight and treat her like anyone else. The story is told by switching back and forth between Christina's early life and young adulthood to her meeting with Wyeth when she's an old woman. It's an effective way to focus on her relationship with Wyeth while gradually revealing her past and the forces that have shaped her into the person that piqued his artistic interest.

So much of the story is based on fact that it's easy to be fascinated by the history, but even more beguiling to let the author take us to that atmospheric plane between fact and what she imagines for us. This one's a winner.



Wednesday, March 28, 2018


The Ninth Hour
by Alice McDermott

 Reviewed by Sue Ellis

For Readers:
Alice McDermott's newest novel, The Ninth Hour, is an easy pick after reading the back jacket. Three of her previous novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

The Ninth Hour is set in Catholic Brooklyn in the early twentieth century. The story opens with the suicide of Jim, an Irish Immigrant fired from his job at the railroad. He urges his pregnant wife to do her shopping early, then turns on the gas in their apartment and blocks its escape by jamming a coat under the door.

Sister St, Savior, making her way home following a weary day of tending an alms basket, encounters the sad scene and takes charge of the grieving widow, Annie. She oversees a quick burial for Jim in the church cemetery before objections can be made, and arranges work for Annie in the laundry of the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor.

When Annie's baby girl, Sally, is born, she is cherished by her mother and the doting nuns, and grows up a carefree and obedient child. Here's an excerpt:

The days in the laundry grew longer for the two women when Sally started school, but when she returned, she brought her mother and the nun tales from what they called the wider world. She could capture her classmates' broken English, or their solid brooklynese, with perfection. She had the pastor's nasally Latin down to a T. She was a good and quiet child in the classroom, polite and shy on the street, but in the basement laundry of the convent, every impulse toward silliness, every outlandish pantomime or adolescent misfiring of elbows and feet, not to mention wickedness, was set free, and utterly indulged by her mother and the nun, provided--they were always reminding her, that she kept her voice low.

Sally decides she'd like to be a nun herself, having helped visit the sick and poor with the nuns on many occasions, but none of that prepares her for the people she meets on the train that carries her to her new assignment, their coarseness and greed. She returns home immediately only to find her mother at home with her lover, a man whose crippled wife Sally has helped care for.

Farrar, Strous and Giroux
ISBN 978-037-428014-7

For Writers:

The characters are fascinating, likeable mostly, admirable and real. The story is told in part from the persepctive of Annie's grandchildren, so we get a sense of the repercussive results of a family touched by both tragedy and compassion. This author can set a scene authentically and believably, a real bonus for everyone.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Picture Book for Easter--Simon of Cyrene and the Legend of the Easter Egg

Simon of Cyrene and the Legend of the Easter Egg, written by Terri DeGezelle and published by Pauline Books and Media, will make the perfect addition to any Easter basket. The book spreads 25 pages, including biographical information on Simon and a prayer for courage and compassion at the end.
The illustrations, by Gabhor Utomo, will speak to children and adults, giving a deep sense of  place and the times, as well as the grit and compassion circling the carrying of the cross. The story unfolds to tell the story of Simon helping Jesus, and it also hits children where they live. It explains the meaning of the different colors of eggs they see in their Easter baskets every year, the same colors Simon saw so many years ago. 
I was delighted to see this book come on the market. There are a lot of picture books that tell the story of Jesus and the manger to guide young children. From these stories, they recognize the little knickknacks of mangers with tiny animals, three kings, and the baby Jesus when they see them at holidays. Therefore, every time they see the little knickknacks, they think of the story of Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus. 
But you don't see as many books take the Easter holiday and not only tell of its history, but bring something that kids look forward to every year, colored eggs, into the history, so the children will have a new understanding every time they set out to dye eggs.
Generally, I give an analytical review of picture books, discussing the amount of text versus illustrations, symbolism, rhyme or rhythm, or whatever will aid new writers in writing picture books. But this book is special. It's going to bring new meaning to a common custom––dying eggs––to so many children. For that reason, I'm skipping the analytical review until a future date and just discussing the things readers will enjoy about the book. I wanted to be sure you all had time to get a copy or two.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018



by Paul Lynch

For Readers:

The setting for Irish author Paul Lynch's third novel, GRACE, is nineteenth century Ireland during The Great Famine, a story told through the eyes of a girl. On a pre-dawn morning, Grace is jerked out of bed by a mother gone mad and dragged outside to have her hair hacked off with a knife. This eldest child of Sarah Coyle is driven from the only home she has ever known.

 Sarah is seven months pregnant, her husband has died, and there are four children who need more food than she can provide. She is out of options. The rain has been unrelenting, the crops are ruined, and then her landlord shows up, a man who ogles Grace, obviously no longer enamored with her mother, who has borne two of his children. Sarah knows she has to act quickly to save her daughter.

 After the butchered haircut, Sarah forces Grace to dress in her father's clothes and instructs her to ask for help from a friend in the village on her way out of town. She tells her daughter to take the guise of her 12-year-old brother, Colly, and to find work.

 Grace is terrified and loiters out of sight until Colly can catch up and travel with her. Tragedy follows almost at once when Colly drowns as a riverbank gives way in the surge of a flood. What follows is a heart-stopping adventure told through the eyes of a girl on her own. She will grow to womanhood walking the rough back-roads of an Irish countryside sodden with rain and rotting crops. And she will witness the decline of a people desperate to survive a food shortage that will eventually kill a million of them, and lead another million to seek their fortunes in America.

 During that terrible time (from 1845 to 1849), many people, like Grace, took to the road in search of work. Grace is a resourceful and moral girl who strives to live honorably even as she resorts to stealing and looting. She is constantly coached by the voice of Colly in her head, the dirty mouthed, proudly independent and irreverently funny brother she mourns.

The book is hard to put down, and it will leave readers haunted with a story that is all the more heartbreaking after a quick Google search turns up the fact that the loss of life could have been prevented, spoiled potato crops or not.

Reviewed by Sue Ellis
Published by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 978-0-316-31630-9

For Writers:

The author's gift with language is undeniable. A noun can expertly morph into a verb, sentence diagramming left dangling by its participle. The characters from170-years-ago are authentically imagined and vividly wrought. Here's an excerpt as Grace runs from danger:

She is chased by men from the backyard of a farmhouse into a dark that knows no moon and falls away like a precipice. Shouts noose the air for her neck. Gunshot travels unseen and soundless but for the report behind her announcing what has already passed. Grunt noise and the thunder-plod of footfall and a flaming lamp like some demon eye fixed in the dark upon her breathless singularity, and the way she runs into the cavernous night with nothing but her blanket and bobbing satchel, the accompanying report of a second shot, and how as she runs she tells herself to stop. And she does. Feels herself overcome, realizes in this moment she doesn't care anymore, about any of this, whatever you would like to call it—life, it you will—and so she stops running, stands awaiting the first fist to strike her head or for the shot to strike the kill. She closes her eyes but what happens is this—the two men chasing her like dogs to the perfume of violence run past her sightless in the dark.

Monday, February 19, 2018

My BFF is cheating on me...

This is Teddy sleeping with his toy. Notice how his arm is around the furry little thing? He's very protective, but in this photo, it's not me he's protecting. Of course, I don't think his intent was to make me jealous. It surely had more to do with a certain little three-year-old who'd been running through the house the last couple of days, claiming any toy in sight, and all attention, as hers. :-)
I enjoy this picture and the video so much that they just might work their way into one of my stories someday. How about you? Do you have any certain photographs that spark inspiration?
Happy Monday, and get writing!

Monday, February 5, 2018

For the Writer Who Can't Outline, the Writer Who Can Only Outline, and the Writers Who Should Outline~from the heart of a pantster

I’m a pantster. Yep, I make up plots as I go (though I always start with a germ of an idea). I don’t worry about writer’s block, because I don’t believe in it. All writer’s block means is that you don’t have an idea you like, or one that inspires you; it doesn’t mean you’re out of ideas. Brains hold a lot. 

I didn’t become a pantster through any firm belief that outlining slows down the creative flow, nor did I come by it because I didn’t know any other way to go about writing. On the contrary, I’ve taken classes, read oodles of how-to books, and studied charts graphing character GMC’s (goals, motivations, and conflicts), high and low points, the climax, and character sketches. Oh yeah, and I read a lot of fiction.

Still, it seemed to me that the best way to start a story was simply to start, keeping GMC’s in mind along the way. Might have to do with laziness, considering that the time put into outlining could be time spent drafting actual chapters.

I’m sort of a detail-oriented person, so I don’t like skipping important steps. I just never thought outlining was one of them. I’m at the polishing stage of a novel, written pantster fashion. Yet I’m now giving outlining some thought. I confess, it’s mainly with the intent of helping a fellow writer who has an awesome idea for a story, but just can’t seem to get herself writing it. 

Here’s a little about her. When she packs her suitcase, she starts weeks in advance, and everything is organized and folded (and for all I know, labeled). I pack the night before, throwing in just what I think I’ll need. Also, her desk is organized enough to show it off. I close the door to my office when company comes to hide my piles and sticky notes. 

Because of these differences, I suspect that in starting a long project, she’d want organization. Organizing her thoughts in such a way that she knows what’s going to happen miles in advance, no surprises to slow her down. 

In my mission, I’m actually outlining a new novel, just to see what it’s like. How can I convince my friend this is the road for her, if I’ve never tried it?

I started last week. Before I wrote word one, fear snuck in. Is it true that writers lose their creativity if they’re not letting their brains run wild on the page? Yikes!

But I rolled up my sleeves. 

As soon as I jotted down notes for the first two chapters, ideas stockpiled into my head and I wanted to “just write.” Forget outlining, a waste of time when I can go full throttle at the novel. Luckily, I remembered the endless revising I’ve been slaving over on my pantster novel. 

Sure don’t want my friend to go through that––it might fracture her meticulously organized way of thinking and doing. Plus, I admit, I probably wouldn’t have had to make so many changes if I had known beforehand what was going to happen. I wouldn’t have wasted time on my third chapter, which I ended up trashing, and I might’ve suspected the kind of makeover chapter four would need in order to work as my new chapter three. And the number of times I changed the first chapter? I can’t count that high. 

Here’s a simple truth. I need to know how a book ends before I know how it should begin. So, for that pantster novel I wrote, once I laid eyes on the final chapter, I had some serious revisions to make in the early chapters.
Wanting to be the best BFF ever, I worked diligently, and what I’ve got going is a semi-outline. A nontraditional outline. An outline that doesn’t have Roman numeral I, II, III, and the A,B, and Cs below them. Instead, I’ve got little mini summaries for each chapter in a sentence or two, sometimes a paragraph or two, like a plot synopsis. (This should help me when it’s time to write the actual plot synopsis that editors often require.) My summaries describe what’s going to happen in each chapter, and to whom, so that I know where the novel will be going from one point to another. 

I’m giving myself the freedom to use abbreviations, fragments, or long windy purple prose. Sometimes I slap in a word to remind me later what it should smell like there, or maybe three odors so I don’t have to make the decision yet. Some chapter summaries have a snippet of dialogue, since the voice readily came to my brain. But that’s a choice. Something you can do at this stage if you want to, and you don’t have to do if you don’t want to. Just focus on the plot.

I’m loving this outlining!

With such short chapter summaries, I’ll be able to read through the entire thing within an hour. That said, I’ll be able to analyze the sequence of events quicker and spot plot holes or lapses in logic. I’ll be able to add or delete stuff right in my little summaries; problems will be solved before I ever get into writing the actual chapters. But once I do, the end result should need fewer revisions than my other novel did.

This sounds like a shortcut. I love shortcuts.

I just might change my pantster spots to the stripes of an outliner, at least a semi-outliner. More importantly, I think this free writing in outline fashion may work for my friend. She can pacify her meticulous brain and stick to the preplanning an outline offers, but also retain the right to add creative descriptions of the setting, clothing, or whatever she wants, so long as she focuses mainly on what happens in each chapter. 

Using such a nonthreatening start as this, how could she not begin? If she hates the finished outline, she’s not out near the time as she would be if she struggled through a novel only to find that it’s one better left in a drawer.

A word of caution:
My friend is no newbie at writing, but if you are, in addition to your semi-outline, you should also create character sketches and a chart of each character’s GMC’s. Your character sketches can be real sketchy at this stage and become more complete later on. Besides noting a character’s clothing style, favorite foods, worst fears, and maybe crushes, sketches should also include each character’s history, even though most of this will never land in the novel. Doesn’t matter. It’s still something you need to know before attempting to put “people on the page.” (More on this down the road.)

Do the same for the setting. Yes, you need a character sketch for the character of your setting. But again, this doesn’t have to be super detailed when you’re first drafting your semi-outline and character sketches. Just include a few words as reminders of setting details.

Armed with a semi-outline, an idea on GMC’s and the setting, and the history of the characters, putting a novel together won’t sound so exasperating.

My semi-outline now holds summaries of the first 22 chapters. I’ll keep you in the loop on my progress, and on how to proceed on the semi-outline you should be starting for your new novel right now. 

And to my writing friend,
Happy writing!