Book Review: “The Arsonist,” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller has a special ability to portray the psychological dimensions of domestic relationships, while maintaining an acute sensitivity to her characters’ inner cores. These qualities are on display in her latest novel, The Arsonist.

The Arsonist explores issues of class divide and resentment, personal identity, and the quest for fulfillment. Set in the late 1990s, the story centers on three point-of-view characters: Francesca “Frankie” Rowley, her mother, Sylvia, and Bud Jacobs, a former Wasington bureau reporter who leaves the big time to run a small community newspaper.

Burned out after 15 years of relief work in Africa, Frankie has returned to her parents’ summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, to relax and sort out her future. Fighting jet lag she takes a walk in the middle of the night and witnesses a car driving at a fast rate of speed and she smells smoke. An arsonist has burned down the home of one of the summer residents, the first of a dozen such fires that rip the small town apart.

All of the homes destroyed by the fires are owned by summer residents, fueling speculation the arsonist is a year-round resident. Miller effectively shows the deep divide between the working class residents, who are fully invested in the town, and the tony summer people who invade the community three months a year.

The fires are not the only problem on Sylvia’s mind. She and her husband, Alfie, have retired and moved from the Connecticut suburbs to her family summer home in Pomeroy, but she is far from content. Alfie, a retired college professor, has always been the apple of the children’s eyes, while Sylvia has done all the work of raising the family. Her resentment of him has simmered for years. Now, Alfie suffers from dementia and, as Sylvia struggles to help him, she faces the realization that she does not love him.

Frankie faces a different dilemma. She questions if the work she did in Africa has really made a difference. She also comes to grips with the realization that a series of affairs with aid workers (the most recent a married man) have left her feeling empty. Into her life comes Bud, the local newspaper publisher who yearns desperately for acceptance in this small town community. They meet at a Fourth of July tea and an affair slowly develops. Miller resists the trope of a quick, torrid affair and instead lets this relationship develop with the awkwardness and uncertainty that two middle-aged people would feel in such a situation.

The story threads come to a head as Sylvia is forced to deal with finding long-term care for Alfie, Frankie must make a decision about her future–and whether it will include Bud–and law enforcement has pinned the arson fires on a barely employed and uneducated handyman. Bud has serious doubts as to whether they have arrested the right man. Sylvia springs into action to help Alfie, with Frankie’s help, and Frankie must decide whether to pursue her career as she weighs what she has sacrificed by not allowing herself to commit to a long term relationship .

As always, Miller delivers the goods with a rich and satisfying story about class, community and identity.

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David Bowie: An Appreciation

I’ve struggled to write a New Year’s Resolution post for the past two weeks. I guess the resolution about not procrastinating in 2016 is not going to happen. Lately, my thoughts have turned to David Bowie after his passing on Jan. 10.

My introduction to Bowie’s music came as a result of one of those foolish teen-age arguments. In my suburban Connecticut neighborhood, the two main topics of conversation among my circle of friends were sports and music. We could argue for hours about which team was better–the Red Sox or the Yankees–or which player was a clutch hitter and which one was not. It was all pretty juvenile, but we enjoyed the give-and-take.

There were similar discussions regarding music. We didn’t argue much about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones as we liked both bands, though we were more of a Beatles neighborhood. But, in the early 70s, I engaged in a running battle with a friend of mine about two artists: Elton John and David Bowie. I took up the cause for Elton. As a frustrated piano player myself, I found Elton’s music resonated with me. My friend scoffed at me. “David Bowie is way better,” he would say. Tired of listening to him, I dared him to prove it. He let me borrow two Bowie albums: “The Rise and Fall of  Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and “Hunky Dory.”  I was blown away. I became a huge Bowie fan. I realized the argument about the relative merits of Elton John and David Bowie was pointless. Each artist was brilliant in his own way.

During his most prolific period from 1969 through 1985, Bowie recorded 14 albums, an output unheard of today. What was more fantastic than his productivity was his creative curiosity. He was one of the rare artists who moved seamlessly from genre to genre. He could do glam rock, blue-eyed soul, rock and roll, kraut werk, and even turn out a scintillating pop song like “Modern Love.”  His lyrics had an inscrutable, thought-provoking quality. I could cite many examples, but the one that always stuck with me was the line at the end of the song “Young Americans.” After listing  a cynical litany of complaints and questions, he wails his true desire: “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”

The great lesson of Bowie’s musical legacy for me as a writer is to push boundaries. Try new things. Test the limits of creativity. Be true to your art. Strive for greatness. Rest in peace, David Bowie. Thank you for the rich and diverse music you have left behind.

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Books Read in 2015

2015 wasn’t exactly a banner year for me in terms of book reading. Work-related issues and a health challenge reduced my reading productivity, but I still managed to read 19 books in 2015. This is shy of my usual goal of 25 books, but I enjoyed works by a broad cross section of authors in a variety of genres. Here are the books I read:

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green.

Becoming Josephine, by Heather Webb.

Rodin’s Lover, by Heather Webb.

Let Me Be Frank with You, by Richard Ford

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

The House of Hawthorne, by Erika Robuck

Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

Caught, by Harlan Coben

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (pen name for JK Rowling)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert

Mean Streak, by Sandra Brown

The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, by Bill Pennington

My favorite book of the year? All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This was a beautifully rendered tale of the struggles of a blind French girl and a sensitive young German solider during the last days of World War II. Doerr used all the elements of a great story: strong premise, satisfying story arc, detailed characterization, compelling narrative, rich and vivid description, high stakes, and an important theme. Happy reading in 2016.

What was the favorite book you read in 2015? 

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Book Review: “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” by David Lagercrantz

Swedish journalist David Lagercrantz’s authorized sequel to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series raises the age-old question of who owns an author’s characters and stories. Ian Fleming’s James Bond lives on after his creator’s death, as does Bourne and the Marvel comics characters, who are in vogue today.

Breathing new life into another writer’s creation requires great skill and an acute understanding of the characters’ habits, motivations, manner of speaking, and psyche. It’s not a job for amateurs. Larsson’s legal heirs authorized the sequel over the strong objections of Eva Gabrielsson, his long-time partner. While Lagercrantz makes an admirable attempt to recreate the Stieg Larsson legacy, this book, in my view, falls short.

Lagercrantz spins an overly complex plot that centers on cyber-theft on a grand scale. This complicated web involves the National Security Agency, high-tech companies, and Russian mobsters. On top of the tangled plot, Lagercrantz weighs down the pacing with lengthy character introductions and explanations of arcane technology.

The story doesn’t take off until Professor Franz Balder, a leading authority on Artificial Intelligence and a brilliant computer scientist, contacts journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Balder fears for his life as he suspects powerful forces are scheming to steal ground-breaking technology he is developing for a high-tech Silicon Valley company. Balder returns to Sweden to care for his severely autistic eight-year-old son, August, and he is convinced his life is in danger.

Meanwhile, Blomkvist fears he is washed up as a journalist. Millennium, the magazine where he made his mark as an investigative journalist, has been sold to a corporate giant bent on cutting costs. Blomkvist is desperate for a story to save his career when he meets with a young hacker who tells a tale about a cyber theft conspiracy. The story doesn’t interest Blomkvist until the young man mentions that Balder sought help from Lisbeth Salander, the vigilante hero of Larsson’s earlier work and Blomkvist’s sometimes accomplice. 

Concerned about his safety, Balder reaches out to Swedish law enforcement and also contacts Blomkvist. Summoned to the professor’s home, Blomkvist arrives on a cold November night when the murder of Balder is in progress. Balder’s autistic son witnesses the murder, but is unable to speak about it.

Blomkvist confirms  Balder had hired Salander to confirm and investigate the theft of Balder’s technological breakthrough. Salander was working at the time on a side project for a group called the Hacker Republic, which sought to gain access to the NSA’s top secret servers.

The key to unlocking the identity of the murderer, the child August is returned to the custody of her mother, Hanna, a down and out actress, and her abusive boyfriend. The child begins drawing pictures of the murder scene, but Hanna doesn’t realize what he is trying to communicate and she eventually commits him to a psychiatric facility.  The mobsters find out where the boy is staying at the same time as Salander, which provides one of the best dramatic scenes as Salander rushes frantically to rescue the boy before he is killed.

This is where the story gains steam and the pacing of the second half of the book is much better than that of the first half. The pacing improves because Lagercrantz actively involves Salander in the story.

While Salander is protecting the boy and coaxing him to solve his father’s murder, Blomkvist and Swedish law enforcement agencies are unraveling a series of corrupt activities that include corporate cyber theft, organized crime, and the U.S. government’s role in selling technology secrets.   

One of the flaws of this story is that Blomkvist and Salander barely appear together or speak to each other through large sections of the story. When a writer has powerful assets like Bloomkvist and Salander at his disposal, he must use them. 

At times, Lagercrantz was able to achieve the page-turning qualities of Larsson’s earlier work. The problem is that it didn’t happen often enough.

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How to Treat Your Book Editor

In my most recent post, I discussed how to find and hire a qualified book editor to edit a writer’s manuscript. Assuming a writer has hired a book editor and sent off her manuscript, what should she expect?

The writer should have worked out in advance with the editor when she should expect to receive the edited manuscript. Four weeks is a reasonable time, but the timing will depend on the editor’s workload. At any rate, the deadline should be agreed to in advance by both parties.

The focus of this post is how the writer should communicate with the editor once she has received the edited manuscript. First, the writer should send the editor a brief email to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript, thank the editor, and let the editor know she will get back to the editor with questions and other feedback. This is not the time for the writer to pepper the editor with questions, such as: “What did you think of the story?”, “Can I sell this to an agent?”, or, “Did the main character work for you?”

At this point the writer hasn’t even read the edited manuscript. Which brings me to my second point. The writer must read the entire manuscript before communicating with the editor. When the writer sees a comment she doesn’t understand or agree with, she may be tempted to fire off an email to the editor. The writer must resist this urge.

I made the mistake of sending my editor an email when I was about three-quarters of the way through my edited manuscript. It had become apparent to me that there were major elements of the plot that did not work. I had received similar feedback from my writer’s group colleagues. So I emailed my editor and told her I was considering a major plot reboot and I described my new idea for the plot. While her response was encouraging, she urged me to read through the entire manuscript before doing any rewriting. The reason was that there would be other comments and insights that might have an impact on the new direction of the story. And I needed to get her entire body of feedback before rushing to any decisions.

Based on my experiences, here is a list of “do’s” and “don’t’s” in post- manuscript communications between writer and editor:

DO

  • Acknowledge receipt of the manuscript and thank the editor. She has put a lot of time and effort into reviewing your work. Editing other writers’ work is not an easy task. It is an arduous challenge to read through and thoughtfully analyze a manuscript of 80,000 words.
  • Review the entire manuscript before communicating any further with the editor. Respect your editor’s time.
  • Make a note of “big picture” problems the editor has identified with the story and carefully assess how to deal with them. For example, the editor may advise that a secondary character who is key to the story doesn’t work. Don’t dismiss that out of hand because it will be too much work to change the story or the character.
  • Take the editor’s feedback seriously. Writers pay good money for a professional edit. The purpose is not to reaffirm how great the writer is and how perfect the manuscript is. The purpose is to improve the manuscript and make the story the best it can be.

DON’T

  • Email the editor every time the writer has a question about an edit or a comment. Again, respect the editor’s time. Like the writer, the editor has other projects and responsibilities.
  • Argue with the editor. This is a big one. If the writer has done her due diligence, she has hired a professional editor and she needs to respect that editor’s judgment and experience. Having said that, it doesn’t mean the writer should blindly accept every suggestion. If the writer truly disagrees with the editor, the writer should initiate an honest and open discussion.
  • Get angry over comments or criticism. My edited manuscript looked like the proverbial term paper laden with red ink from the professor. I could have been hurt, but the editor was doing her job and the “sea of red ink” meant she had done her job well. Better to have a lot of criticism than pristine white pages, which should make the writer wonder if the editor even read the manuscript.

I view the writer-editor relationship as a partnership. I am grateful to have found an editor who is talented, insightful, thorough, and committed to my success. The pointed criticism didn’t hurt. It meant she did her job.

Your turn. Share any “do’s” and “don’t’s” in your experiences with editors.

 

 

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Hiring a Qualified Book Editor

My manuscript is due back any day from my book editor. For authors who self-publish their work, I cannot stress enough the importance of investing in a book editor. Writers may view themselves as competent editors. I have more than 35 years of writing and editing experience and I would never edit my own work. Why? I’m too close to the novel to see its flaws. An outside review by an independent editor cannot help but improve a writer’s work. 

So how does one find a competent editor? There are abundant resources on the internet, but I recommend talking to other writers. It’s impossible to vet the thousands of people out there who offer editing services. In my case, I found my editor by attending a Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA) conference in Hartford. Here are some questions to ask a prospective editor:

  • What are the editor’s qualifications? Which authors has she edited? Ask for a resume or CV and a list of clients.  Check out the editor’s website.
  • What genres is the editor interested in? Is there a particular genre she specializes in? For example, I write family sagas. My stories are rooted in the real world. I’m not sure an editor who specializes in science fiction would be a good fit for me, though I could be wrong about that. For instance, my editor is a published poet (not my strong suit) and she has a wonderful feel for the rhythm and cadence of language.
  • What are the editor’s fees? Make sure to get in writing the editor’s fees and when the writer can expect to receive the manuscript back with the edits.
  • Would the editor be willing to edit a sample chapter for a mutually agreed upon fee? The sample will offer the writer some insight into the editor’s competence and thoroughness.

Once a writer selects an editor, it’s important to clarify and agree on the services the editor will provide to the writer. There are three levels of editing, which are discussed in this excellent post by renowned editor Victoria Mixon. A qualified editor should provide all three levels of edits:

  • Copy editing: this kind of editing focuses on grammar and punctuation.
  • Line editing: this type of editing focuses on the prose, which means paragraph structure, word choice, flow, and issues related to language. It also involves style, voice and readability.
  • Developmental editing: this is the’big picture’ edit, which centers on the story telling. This includes plot structure, character development and motivation, theme, premise, pacing and tension. 

An editor has an obligation to not only recommend edits, but to provide reasons for their suggestions. My editor will highlight a piece of text and leave copious comments in the margins, using the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word. 

What can an author expect to pay for competent editing services? Writers should shop around. Some editors charge by the word, while others charge by the hour. If an editor charges by the hour, ask for a firm estimate on time spent per page. At any rate, expect to pay between $1,200 and $2,000 or more, depending on the editor’s qulifications and experience, for editing services on a 75,000-word manuscript.

For more on editors, author and blogger Joanna Penn has created this terrific resource page.

How do you go about finding a qualified book editor?

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Sharing, Singing, Laughing, Writing

I returned from my first writer’s retreat filled with inspiration, motivation, a sense of accomplishment, and warm feelings. The retreat, which took place from Nov. 14-21, in historic Salem, MA, was intended as a reunion for those who attended the 2014 Writer Unboxed Un-Conference last November in Salem.

The John Edwards House, a rambling, three-story home built in 1846, was the site as 12 writers gathered for a week of writing, sharing, laughter, and cooking. My biggest takeaway was this: if you are going to attend a writer’s retreat, do it with people you already know. The comfort level  already established leads to deep conversations and uninhibited sharing.

Two common rooms became the headquarters for writing. Many of us arrived with specific goals, such as to write 10,000 words or to finish a work-in-progress. Most of us achieved our goals, but we got so much more out of this retreat.

The kitchen was the communal gathering place, where we shared our personal stories of life, love, loss, redemption, and pride in our achievements. There were heartwarming and heartwrenching moments. Fellow public policy junkie Gretchen Riddle and I even solved all the world’s problems over coffee each morning.

I had intended in this blog post to share with you some lessons and there were many. Among them were: set goals, take advantage of the opportunity to share with and learn from other writers, set aside specific times to check in with loved ones, and leave work behind. I didn’t do such a great job on the last one. 

More important than the lessons learned were the bonds of friendship, which were strengthened during the past seven days. We writers are a peculiar lot. Nobody really understands us except for other writers. The opportunity to engage in intense dialogue about our writer challenges with people who “get” us and to tap into deep emotions were the greatest benefits of the retreat.

One more lesson I learned, and it’s perhaps the greatest one, was not to miss the chance to have fun. We did readings one night, told stories, attended a reception at a colleague’s lovely home (thanks, Brunonia Barry), and even had a sing-along one evening capped by an epic renditon of Bohemian Rhapsody by Amy Rachiele and Theresa Guzman Stokes. Our voices may not have been ready for prime time, but the fine guitar work by Sean Walsh and Lancelot Schaubert made us sound passable.

 The point of a writer’s retreat is to get writing done, but you are missing out if you do not take full advantage of the opportunity to commune with other writers. 

I want to thank everyone who attended and especially Therese and Sean Walsh and Heather Webb for their organizational work. I can’t wait for the 2016 Writer Unboxed Un-Conference.

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