Tides by Sara Freeman

We don’t know her name right away. She’s just “she,” and she is on a bus bound for somewhere else. She doesn’t really care where she’s going as long as it’s away from where she was. She comes to a small resort town on a lake somewhere in the upper Midwest with a few dollars in her pocket, the clothes on her back, and no real plan for what comes next.

We get clues right away that something is very wrong, that a trauma has been suffered. But the clues about the baby and the husband and the brother and sister-in-law left behind are not carefully delineated. “She” checks into the cheapest lodgings, a hostel where a lot of the summer help lives, and begins work at disappearing.

But she can’t completely. She needs money so she finds odd jobs. But she keeps all others at arm’s length and when the summer winds down she is faced with a closing hostel and no place to stay anymore. So her present self goes forth finding a job at the wine shop in town and secretly bunking in the storage room above, and all the while her interior landscape is pulled, like the tides, back to the past where we gradually learn her name (Mara), and her sad story.

Told in micro-fiction chapters that create a mosaic of a whole, Sara Freeman draws a portrait of a woman who is troubled by more than just losing her baby and husband. Little by little the picture forms of Mara, and her life before her arrival in the resort town. As she subsumes her past she plunges ahead into her present where she continues on a path of self-destruction.

This book was so beautiful to read. The tiny portions give us tesserae of the story so when you finish you’re surprised to be holding a fully-realized narrative in your hands. It’s a remarkable feat, and a lyrical story, well crafted.

Tides will be released in bookstores on January 16, 2022.

The Bright Blue Sea

It is June in Greece. The sun is a white ball of heat, the sea so bright blue I ache to look at it. I sit in the cool shade of a plane tree and wait. My hair is tied with the first gift he gave me: a scarf of blues and greens, the hues of his home, his pride. At my throat is a charm, a blue eye specked with an ink-black dot, to ward off harm. My eyes slide to the sea, where small waves lap the shore. I wait, but not for long. Soon, I see him in the road.

His brown hair is shot with gold, his skin tanned from the sun. He laughs when he sees me. I stand and give him my cheek; his firm kiss finds my lips. He sits, arm slung on his chair, his smile drinks me in. I stare up at the wall near his back, which has been there since the god’s days, no doubt. It was white once, now caked with age, a frieze of blue squares at the top.

His hand tips my chin so I look down at him. I smile back. A man comes and we ask for cold beers, a Greek brand called Fix. When they come, we sip but my smile does not meet my eyes.

He frowns. “Kat, What’s wrong?”

I look him dead on when I tell him. His eyes, green like moss on a tree, grow wide when he hears what I have to say. I tell him of just last month when I saw him with her back home. How she was tall with gold hair and bright blue eyes, just the shade of this sea. I tell him how I saw him brush her cheek with his hand, how he kissed her soft mouth, how she laughed and hugged him.

His face is pale, the tan smudged with ash. He sits, mute; his eyes do not meet mine. When he does speak, his voice is low.

“Why wait? Why tell me now? Why not say it when you first saw us?”

 “You need to ask?”

 He stares at me, blank. Then, a nod.

“Look!” I cry and raise my hands to the sea, the wall, the street, the beer. “For all this! Now you can’t have this and not think of me.” I stand up and pull the scarf from my hair and drop it at his feet where it pools on his toes. “Now you can’t bring her here and not know what you did to me. To us.” I grab my purse. “I hope you drown in it.”

His hands curl on his beer glass as a snarl curls his lip. I know he gets it as he looks past me to the waves, just the shade of her eyes. I turn and walk. But as I go, I look out at the sea and smile.

Author’s note: This was an exercise proposed from my MFA program that I am enrolled in at Lindenwood University. They asked us to write a story of five hundred words or less and each word can only be one syllable. It was an interesting exercise that tested me. It’s not easy to do this and I had to consider each word. Hope you like it.

Q is for…

QQuinto Books

In London there is an area around Charing Cross Road that is loaded with used bookstores. It’s not as packed as it was when I first visited in 1995, but there are still a fair amount still around. Quinto Books is one of them.

Quinto Books

Quinto Books

I don’t mind mentioning that we came home from this vacation barely making our luggage weight because of all the books we bought. Not only did we spend a serious amount of hours in Blackwell in Oxford, we also spent the better part of a day knocking around Quinto’s and others like it on Charing Cross. Kosta was looking for history (Ancient Greek or WWII) and music books, while I was intent upon handsome old volumes of fiction and life in Tudor England. We each came away happy, as you can see.

Heaven!

Heaven!

Heaven part 2!

Heaven part 2!

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Longbourn by Jo Baker

We’ve been binge-watching the final season of Downton Abbey at home this past weekend. I truly adore that show not just for its historical accuracy and its depiction of the lives of both servant and master, but also because of the amazing costumes and the delicious wit. I will be sad to see the farewell, but I like how they have been setting up things for the finale thus far.

Downton Abbey draws a lot of parallels to the book Longbourn by Jo Baker. It would be easy to say it is the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen told from the point of view of the servants of the Bennet household. But it is so much more than that. Because the lives of the Bennet sisters hardly signify at all in this narrative, and that is a rather poignant remark on class society.

I read several interviews with Jo Baker on her writing of Longbourn. In one with Hazel Gaynor she says, “But it was on one re-reading of P&P that I just got stuck on a phrase, and couldn’t get past it. It’s the week before the Netherfield ball, it’s been raining for days, the footpaths are awash, the roads are deep in mud, there’s no way the Bennet girls are going to venture forth, and so, ‘The very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy.’ I just thought, ‘who’s proxy?’ and everything else followed on from that.”

Indeed! We know the housekeeper’s name is Mrs. Hill, but none of the other servants are named, even though they did a great deal of work behind the scenes. Jo Baker did a marvelous job creating lives and characters out of the unnamed housemaids and footman. In fact, she did an ingenious job of incorporating the two novels so they flow together, with the servants’ stories on top, with a little-noticed undercurrent of the perils and trials of Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters.

I also loved that Baker gives us different perspectives of the characters created fully by Austen. Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins are, in Baker’s eyes, more than just the comic relief. There are reasons their personalities developed they way they did. I found I had new-found sympathy for some characters and less for others I originally liked.

But beyond that is the story itself. Mostly it is told from the point of view of Sarah, the teenage housemaid. An orphan, she has a very comfortable situation for someone who might otherwise have grown up in the poor house. True, her work is exhausting and grueling, but she has food in her belly and a warm bed in which to sleep. For her station in life, she isn’t doing too badly.

What her employers don’t understand, however, is that she has a brain and a heart and desires and wishes for herself. So when a footman from the Bingley household starts paying her attentions, her world is rocked. Not just because she finds him attractive as well, but who on earth has ever paid her a speck of attention before? And just what are the intentions of Ptolemy Bingley, the footman? Is he a Wickham or a Darcy?

I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and I sucked this one right up. I also learned that the best way to clean hardwood floors is to drop damp tea leaves around and sweep them up. They catch all the dust and hair that are shed without blowing them around. I may have to drink more tea and give that a whirl someday.

 

Music and Writing

Music and writing copy

Last week I wrote about my writing process but  I neglected to mention the type of environment in which I like to write best. In our library at home (yes, we have a library) we have a blue Queen Anne chair that is also a recliner. I like to sit in that with my feet up with my laptop and and tap tap tap away.

I also require total silence. An sculptor friend of mine and I were talking about this the other day and he says he needs silence too. He pointed to his head and said, “This is all the noise you need right here.” I totally agree.

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there is an intersection of inspiration between music and words as both are different mediums in storytelling. I can’t tell you how many short stories or vignettes I’ve written based on songs. I don’t know the way your brain works, but I think for a lot of people listening to music conjures pictures in their heads.  And words can do the same thing.

And it can work in the opposite direction too. Lots of songwriters have based songs on stories they’ve read. On The Sounds of Silence album by Simon and Garfunkel Paul Simon wrote the song “Richard Cory” based on the poem by E.A. Robinson of the same name. There are countless examples of artists taking inspiration from each other to create something new and that’s an amazing thing to witness. It’s even more amazing when it happens to you.

The current novel on which I am working has a soundtrack, for sure. I just can’t listen to it while I’m pounding out the words on the computer. But I did put a playlist together and I listen to it whenever I can. It’s amazing how listening to a particular song and thinking about a particular character can give me an idea on how to fix a problem with a plot point, or how to add a new facet to their personality.

When I was constructing this playlist I first started out with my characters and tried to find a song that best fit their personality. Some are bang on, some I am still searching for the perfect anthem. But then after the “character sketch” songs, I put in songs that represent scenes or events I know are going to be in the story. And it isn’t a rigid playlist at all. As I’m listening and something doesn’t feel right, I’ll take it out and put something new in to try it out.  It’s always evolving and growing along with the story in my head.

Here is the current playlist with which I am working:

  1. “Lightning Crashes” by Live (Throwing Copper)
  2. “Homesick” by Soul Asylum (Grave Dancer’s Union)
  3. “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne (The Best Damn Thing)
  4. “The World I Know” by Collective Soul (Collective Soul)
  5. “Easy Target” by Blink-182 (Blink-182)
  6. “Creep” by Radiohead (Pablo Honey)
  7. “Rock n’ Roll Lifestyle” by Cake (Motorcade of Generosity)
  8. “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry (One of the Boys)
  9. “What is Love” by Haddaway (What is Love)
  10. “Enter Sandman” by Metallica (Metallica)
  11. “The Sound of Silence” by Disturbed (Immortalized)
  12. “My Immortal” by Evanescence (Fallen)
  13. “Song 2” by Blur (Blur)
  14. “Pain” by Jimmy Eat World (Futures)
  15. “Starlight” by Muse (Black Holes & Revelations)
  16. “She Loves You” by the Beatles (1)
  17. “Invincible” by Muse (Black Holes & Revelations)
  18. “Run to the Water” by Live (The Distance to Here)
  19. “Song for the Asking” by Simon & Garfunkel (Bridge over Troubled Water)
  20. “Whispers in the Dark” by Mumford & Sons (Babel)

Tracks 1-6 are character sketches. Everything else is situational. While I know you can’t deduce my story from these songs, you can’t deny there is a story in each one of them. There is a little movie in your head when you listen. When I put it all together that little movie becomes the novel I am writing.

Blood and Salt by Kim Liggett

Blood and SaltI adore a dark and twisted story. I suppose it started in 6th grade when someone gave me a dog-eared paperback of Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Today, her name conjures up a very different type of novel, but back then (when they were still  actually written by her) they were perfect for me: narrated by a girl my age, a world that was at once fantastic and realistic, and black as an angsty teenager’s heart.

My parents (and specifically my Mom) never forbade me to read anything. But she was aware of what I was reading and would often read it too and then talk about it with me. Because of this I have always been of the opinion that it doesn’t matter what you read, it is what you take away from it. Yeah, I read a lot of stuff that was adult but I will tell you it never led me to bad behavior because it gave me ideas. I think a lot of it went right over my head anyway.

Kim Liggett came on my radar through Twitter. A few weeks ago Blood and Salt was released and there was a launch party in New York. Jodi Kendall, another author who is represented by my agent (Alex Slater @ Trident Media Group) tweeted pictures from the party, which looked amazing. So the title was in my head and when I was at the bookstore last weekend, I saw it on a table of spooky reads in the YA section, so I bought a copy.

(Can I just make a small digression here? I am so thrilled with the way YA literature has exploded over the past decade. When I was of the age there was very little in that area, hence, me reading V.C. Andrews. But now there is an ENTIRE TABLE of YA books that are just of the creepyspookyscary nature and I think that is outstanding. It appeals directly to the dark side of being a teenager. And let’s be honest, that’s a significant chunk of a teen’s personality, no matter what it’s dressed in.)

But to the book at hand: I loved it. Kim’s writing is lovely, and she doesn’t dance around the edges of darkness–she plunges right in. Ash Larkin and her fraternal twin Rhys live in New York City with their mother. Right from the beginning we realize there is something strange about Ash: she has been seeing the vision of the same dead girl, hanging from her feet and dripping blood, since she was very small. She connects it to the cult her mother escaped as a young woman and she isn’t wrong. When her mother disappears she and her brother head straight for Quivira, hidden on the cornfields of Kansas. From the moment the twins step foot inside the isolated community mystical occurences, unexplained deaths, and deadly whispers from the corn itself surround them. Ash, who has always been the alpha twin, realizes she needs to find out what’s happening fast or risk both of their lives.

But let’s throw some romance into the plot, shall we? Ash has never met a guy who made her feel anything but nausea. But when she clamps eyes on one tall, dark and handsome named Dane, everything changes in a bolt of proverbial lightning. Everyone in the small community is connected by blood, and the connection Ash has to him is a very interesting one indeed.

Kim’s writing is funny and snarky with a uniquely original voice. To give you a taste, here is one of my favorite lines: “I had no idea what my face was doing, but inside it was complete hormonal anarchy.”

See? It’s lines like that which make books worth reading. I hate it when I hear people scoff that YA books aren’t real literature. It’s not just teens who are reading them these days. My reading diet has a steady supply of them and I can say unequivocally that there are some amazing, deep, thought-provoking, adventerous, scary, real books being written for this age group by some very talented writers.

Teens, like any human being, don’t like to be talked down to. They don’t need you to shield them from all the scary things out there in the big bad world. Most likely they have already been acquainted with some of them. Kim Ligget doesn’t hold back when she tells her story, and I am glad for it. Ash’s story is thrilling, scary, and heartbreaking and you really need to read it.

 

Dietland: A Novel by Sarai Walker

dietlandI don’t even really know where to begin with this book review. I have so many emotions upon finishing this novel, and most of them are complex and not easy to articulate.

Good grief, am I writer or not? Like any good book review (or book report, because let’s face it, Mrs. Dietrich, my second grade teacher got me started down this road), I’ll tell you a little about the plot.

Plum Kettle is awkward, shy, and really just wants to be invisible. This is especially hard since she weighs over 300 pounds. She works for a glossy teen magazine, answering the Dear Kitty advice letters sent to the editor-in-chief. Plum works from her laptop at her neighborhood cafe and barely socializes with anyone. She has scheduled a gastric bypass operation and is living a half-life waiting for the thin woman inside to emerge.

A few months before the surgery takes place she notices she’s being followed. An odd girl with bright colored tights and black boots begins to turn up everywhere Plum goes. It’s unnerving for Plum, who only understands that attention=ridicule. The mysterious girl leads her down the proverbial rabbit hole and everything Plum assumes about herself and the world is challenged. At the same time a shadowy force named Jennifer begins a worldwide assault on men who objectify and degrade women.

This last bit had me feeling more than a little euphoric (and a bit guilty about it). I see every day the way the world still belongs to men and how women still fight for equality. I hate that feminist is seen as a dirty word. In my opinion it feminist means that I want to be seen as a human being and not a pair of tits. Obviously the author was not suggesting we wage a guerrilla war on men–she is making a point.

Sarai Walker really puts the inequalities in your face, from fashion magazines to pornography. She is unflinching and unapologetic of her descriptions of their graphic, brutal nature. But in being so blunt, she offers this about sexual objectification of women: “You need to face it… too many women look away… they close their eyes.”

This is a valid point. While women have made tremendous strides towards equality we still aren’t truly free. Sure we can vote, join the military, and pretty much work in any field we choose. (At least in this country.) But there is a billion dollar beauty industry that has women sold on what we need to wear, how we should look, and what is appropriate behavior. Men and women hold women to a higher standard–it is much less acceptable for a woman to be fat, hairy, or god forbid, bald. And if she expresses an opinion that isn’t popular? Good heavens, we need to crucify the bitch. True, these standards have been ubiquitous since the dawn of patriarchal society, but it’s the pink, bedazzled elephant in the corner wearing the stilettos and g-string that no one mentions.

And yet I am conflicted because humans also gravitate towards beauty. Is it wrong to take delight in something that pleases the eye? Am I a bad feminist because I love my Kate Spade sunglasses and getting pedicures? I think the point here is that we put too much value on the beautiful and the current ideal and not enough on people as human beings. According to the nearest fashion magazine I am not nearly thin enough, I don’t wear enough makeup or heels, and I am not hairless as a Barbie doll.

But how do we separate the two? Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living, but focusing on one specific kind of beauty sets us up to fail. It’s easy to end with platitudes like “be kind to others,” and “look beyond the surface.” I certainly don’t follow those every day. I make unfair judgments all too often. Perhaps being mindful as we move forward is the key.

I know I don’t address all the points Sarai Walker articulates so beautifully in her book. I apologize if my thoughts are scattered or disjointed. It’s too complex an issue and wrapped in so many conflicting thoughts and feelings.

But that is exactly what a good book is supposed to do–make you think.

You should read it.