Apr 11, 2014

From Cliche to Authentic

Not too long ago, I sat with my sister in law, letting her peruse through our family’s old photo albums, explaining to her who everyone was. We laughed at my larger than life forehead as a baby (seriously, add an arc to the Coneheads…you get the picture), at how some of my sisters look the same from 1-31, and she got some quality exposure to what 80’s and 90’s hair really looked like.

But then we turned to the page that held a photo of my grandparents on their 50th wedding anniversary. Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for over a decade, and had a longer than we would have liked decline before that. On that night, looking at the two of them when they were still healthy, Grandpa wearing his grey suit, Grandpa in her bright red lipstick, a knot started in my stomach, crept up through my throat and tried to emerge from my eyes.

Grandma and Grandpa, still side by side.
Grandma died first, and forever sealed in my memory is the image of Grandpa, being supported by his children as he leaned over to his wife, lips trembling, and gave her the last kiss. And then he sobbed.

For a long time I was in denial that I liked romantic stories. I get really tired of the formula – boy meets girl, they are attracted to each other, there’s some sheet time, real life makes them break up, they realize life was better with the other, reunite, confess love, marry. Usually within two weeks. Three if they were more mature.

But I love romance – the true soul penetrating, self-exploration that takes place when another life is added. I love seeing characters slowly lower their tough kick-A attitude and become a person again, susceptible to disappointment and questions and wondering.  I love that way that love – true love – can change people, help them refocus, make them long to be a better person. And I love when this is so deep that weight gain and balding and stressful days at work and recognizing there is no way possible for love to always come first continues to deepen the quality of the relationship.

For me, time is the difference between something that is romantic and something that has romance. Time is what makes someone long to be supported by his three grown sons so that he can give his newly departed wife one last kiss. Time is what makes the couple look beyond the wrinkles and grey hair and sagging middles, allowing them to only see the quality of person they are in love with, noting not the physical changes, but the sanctity of emotion. Times allows the love to move beyond the cliché and into the authentic.

Apr 9, 2014

Women's Fiction Wednesday - The Kitchen Daughter

This week's featured novel is The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry. 

I can't remember if I heard the premise of the book first or saw the cover, but I remember knowing I would do anything to get my hands on this book. And, in a moment of rarity in my life, the library had it. I dove in with some decent expectations and found, within just pages, they had been met and exceeded. 

Synopsis from Goodreads: After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. But the rich, peppery scent of her Nonna’s soup draws an unexpected visitor into the kitchen: the ghost of Nonna herself, dead for twenty years, who appears with a cryptic warning (“do no let her…”) before vanishing like steam from a cooling dish.

A haunted kitchen isn’t Ginny’s only challenge. Her domineering sister, Amanda, (aka “Demanda”) insists on selling their parents’ house, the only home Ginny has ever known. As she packs up her parents’ belongings, Ginny finds evidence of family secrets she isn’t sure how to unravel. She knows how to turn milk into cheese and cream into butter, but she doesn’t know why her mother hid a letter in the bedroom chimney, or the identity of the woman in her father’s photographs. The more she learns, the more she realizes the keys to these riddles lie with the dead, and there’s only one way to get answers: cook from dead people’s recipes, raise their ghosts, and ask them.

Ginny has Aspergers, something I didn't know going into the book, but I felt like it was shown in a way that is both cautious and honest. The situation with the home increases with tension knowing this fact, and then weaving in the ghosts that appear, the courage that Ginny manifests to call them, made her as a character even more endearing. The language is lush, descriptions of food left my mouth watering on more than one occasion, and the resolution brought me incredible satisfaction. It has been out for a few years, but if you haven't spent time with Ginny, I recommend you do so soon. 

Apr 7, 2014

Archetypal Awareness - Loyal Companions/Sidekick

Loyal companions or sidekicks tend to be many people's favorite characters. They often serve as a foil for the main character, depicting the good or bad qualities as they may exist. While there are varying degrees of sidekicks, the most loyal will protect the hero at all costs - even their lives if necessary. A companion is willing to do this because they believe in the cause, or the hero, or both, with such ferocity. 

The sidekick character has undergone many transformations. There was a stereotype for a while of sidekicks being shown as weak, simpletons even, as an effort to show how heroic the hero was. But many would argue that while the hero's heroics are noble, the attention really should be on the companion who got them there. 

There are many sidekicks who suggest an idea, have it dismissed by the hero as being ridiculous, only to have the hero seconds later make the same suggestions. We get a very keen awareness of that hero because of the sidekick. Watson keeps Sherlock grounded, Sam was clearly necessary for Frodo to have success, and without Hermione and Ron, one can assume Harry would have stumbled long before discovering the horcruxes. 

And yet...

There are many people, perhaps by nature of often feeling like less than heroes ourselves, who relate so well with the sidekicks that, when writing this kind of character, give all the personality and quirks and adoring qualities to the sidekick. In a recent Writing Excuses podcast, Brandon Sanderson pointed out how main characters have increasingly become flat. Sure, being around the sidekick can bring them out of their shell, help them develop, but if you have a side character in your story, take a step back from them and ask yourself if they are stealing the light from the hero. Our initial reaction is to say no, but perhaps a more in depth, honest examination will show a bit too much love being shared with a side character. 

Do you have a favorite side character? Can you think of a main character who would not have made it without the side characters? 

Apr 4, 2014

Precocious Pretentious Preconceptions

I just finished reading a book that struck me deeply - The Art of Falling. A better review will be coming up in a WFW post, but while it is fresh on my mind, I wanted to get my thoughts down.

One of the premises of the book is the idea of what we think our lives will be like, what we thing others' lives are like. And I'm so guilty of this! I have these ideas in my head that some of my favorite writers are always inspired, that beautiful, lyrical writing just flows from certain people, that everyone I see posting pictures of themselves likes the way they look, etc.

I have a friend who, upon overhearing the stress I was enduring with a smart but less than motivated teen-aged son, commented that it was so refreshing to hear that my children weren't perfect all the time. I almost choked on my cookie as, during the summer months, I live in fear that I will forget to close the necessary windows before "disciplining" my children and all the neighbors will wonder what witch needs to be cast out from within my house.

Perhaps it is the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter life where we feel the mental pull to post when things go well that makes us seem better than we are. And I know that many of us will post something on days that try our patience, but I wonder if the life we share is at all reflective of the lives we live. I wonder what we would think of each other if we knew the struggles, be they daily or weekly or even just "Why can't I think of something to make the cursor move"?

The funny thing is the closer our relationships become with others, even those who we elevate on a Mt. Olympus equivalent, struggle. That is the universal element of the human experience. I was gushing about a book on Twitter last week, and the author responded that this gorgeous book that I couldn't stop thinking about was the book that almost killed her. Others I have loved took years to write. Sometimes, in the midst of hearing about the speedy wordsmiths and their productivity, it's nice to remember the rest of us mere mortals have to cling to the only two hands success has ever had - grit and hope.

In the process of querying TRANSCEND, I have been told repeatedly that the writing is strong enough, but the premise of the story isn't. I shed tears writing that story, explored the intricacies of human emotion deeper than I had before, and yet, if I allow myself to be perfectly honest, I know the story as is probably wouldn't sell. I have some ideas for a rewrite but it needs to move to the back of the line for a while. There was probably some ice cream involved in making that decision.

The key, I think, to all of this is to remember the two hands of success. The agents who did respond as something other than form indicated the writing was strong. There's my hope. And I've written a book before, I know I can do it again.

Grit, with a large side of stubbornness.

Apr 2, 2014

The Witch of Little Italy

You know those authors who you see online and immediately you feel a connection with them, even before you read their books? Even if you haven't met them? 

That is how I feel about my most recent selection for Women's Fiction Wednesday, Suzanne Palmieri. I think it started when I saw the article of how she signed two two book deals within a week's time. She finalized both deals on the same day. 

That, and the fact I like stories with a bit of magic, especially when the magic is subtle and unassuming, and the cover and all of it, I knew I would be an early reader of The Witch of Little Italy.

Synopsis from Goodreads:  In Suzanne Palmieri’s charming debut, The Witch of Little Italy, you will be bewitched by the Amore women. When young Eleanor Amore finds herself pregnant, she returns home to her estranged family in the Bronx, called by “The Sight” they share now growing strong within her. She has only been back once before when she was ten years old during a wonder-filled summer of sun-drenched beaches, laughter and cartwheels. But everyone remembers that summer except her. Eleanor can’t remember anything from before she left the house on her last day there. With her past now coming back to her in flashes, she becomes obsessed with recapturing those memories. Aided by her childhood sweetheart, she learns the secrets still haunting her magical family, secrets buried so deep they no longer know how they began. And, in the process, unlocks a mystery over fifty years old—The Day the Amores Died—and reveals, once and for all, a truth that will either heal or shatter the Amore clan.

This is told from alternating points of view and Palmieri does such an amazing job capturing the voice of both characters. I felt the pain and sense of uncertainty Eleanor feels with her circumstances, loved the way we got flashbacks, and the lyrical language. It was unassuming, and both the characters' voices came through with such clarity that the name of who was speaking at chapter changes was no longer necessary. The magic is subtle until it can't be anymore. It felt like watching Practical Magic. I loved it. 

Have you enjoyed any books with subtle magic? Made a connection with a writer before you read their writing? Had a book you were pretty certain you would love before you even started?