Book Review: “Heat and Light,” by Jennifer Haigh

Energy policy (including the practice of hydraulic fracturing  or “fracking”) is the subject of heated debate in the current political campaign. Proponents hail fracking as a new source of inexpensive domestic energy which has reduced reliance on foreign oil. Opponents point to harmful impacts on the environment and the possibility the underground drilling may have contributed to earthquakes in some regions.

The brilliance of Jennifer Haigh’s fifth novel, Heat and Light, is how she brings this controversial subject to a human level. The story is set in the fictional western Pennsylvania town of Bakerton, a crumbling community reeling from the collapse of its coal mining industry. A Texas energy company comes to town with the promise of hopes and dreams. A slick young salesman convinces land owners to sign leases to allow drilling under their land, holding out the lure of easy money. The struggling families are easy marks.

One of Haigh’s central themes is how desperate people chase false hopes and dreams. Rich Devlin leads a large and diverse ensemble cast. Rich works as a correctional officer while he dreams of raising the money to start a dairy farm on the land he inherited from his grandfather. He jumps at the chance to sign a lease. His fragile wife, Shelby, is prone to drama and is constantly taking her daughter, Olivia, to the emergency room with vague ailments. Later, Shelby will claim Olivia’s illness is related to pollution of their well water from a leak of chemicals used in the drilling process.

Rena Koval and Susan “Mack” Mackey, a lesbian couple who are neighbors of the Devlins, manage an organic farm. Concerned about environmental impacts, some of their largest customers cancel contracts when they get wind that drilling is going on in their area. This propels Rena to invite a geology professor to town to rally support against the fracking project, which complicates her life when she becomes smitten with the professor.

Shelby’s spiritual counselor, Pastor Jess Peacock, faces her own struggles. Lonely and adrift after the death of her husband, Pastor Wes Peacock, she finds solace in an affair with Herc, who is part of the drilling crew and fails to mention that he has a wife and family back in Texas. Wesley’s back story is the most powerful. Stricken with cancer in his mid-30s Wesley becomes convinced his illness can be traced to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979. As a child, his family lived near the damaged nuclear reactor.

Rich Devlin’s dream of a future as a dairy farmer turns into a nightmare when he learns his family’s well water is contaminated. A lawyer tells him that his land is most likely worthless. Meanwhile the Texas energy behemoth that is bankrolling the fracking venture is hemorrhaging money.

Haigh has conducted an impressive amount of research into the process of fracking and the equipment and processes required to drill underground. There is also a chilling chapter told from inside the Three Mile Island nuclear plant on the day of the disaster.

Her prose is clear and sobering, but never flowery. She writes of the region’s dependence on energy, “Rural Pennsylvania doesn’t fascinate the world, not generally. But, cyclically, periodically, its innards are of interest. Bore it, strip it, set it on fire, a burnt offering to the collective need.”

At another point, she writes, “More than most places, Pennsylvania is what lies beneath.”

Haigh skillfully weavers numerous subplots and supporting characters into the story. “Heat and Light” is the most ambitious and satisfying work yet from this talented writer.



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Every serious writer goes through periods when he is stuck. Or, better put, the story is stuck. The writer reaches an internal roadblock and can’t figure out how to advance the story.

I spent a lot of time last summer thinking about my story. I pondered possibilities. I thought through various scenarios. I obsessed over characters. And I didn’t put a single word down on paper. I spent a lot of time not writing, or, I should say, not writing my story. I wrote blog posts. I started a new fiction project. I wrote stuff not related to fiction. I just couldn’t write my story.

Then I had an epiphany, with a little help from Larry Brooks and Lisa Cron. More on that later. Last winter I had read Larry Brooks’ excellent craft of fiction book, Story Fix. At that time my story needed a lot of fixing. I received my edited manuscript from my book editor in the late fall of 2015. It needed a lot of work. After analyzing the edits and talking to some of my closest writer friends, I made the difficult decision to throw out the entire second half of my story. It didn’t work and it made the main character appear unsympathetic and cold. This was the opposite of how I wanted the reader to feel about my main character. Larry’s book helped me to recast and reorganize the latter half of the story, but the path was still hazy.

In her new book, Story Genius, How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron discusses how the secret sauce of a story is the main character’s internal struggle and how she resolves it. I will be blogging about this book in more depth in a future post. One of the things Lisa urges writers to do at the outset is to identify the main character’s misbelief. What does the character mistakenly believe and what obstacles must she face before she can overcome that misbelief? What is the character’s internal goal? What is her internal struggle? I wish I had done this work before I started my work-in-progress (WIP).

She writes, “…the protagonist’s internal struggle is the story’s third rail, the live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.” She writes that it is “emotion, rather than logic, that telegraphs meaning. This emotion is what your novel must be wired to transmit straight from the protagonist to us.”

This triggered my epiphany. That was what I was missing. What was my character’s misbelief? What did she do as a result? What specific events will cause her to confront her misbelief? I sat down and brainstormed until I had answered these questions. And suddenly the whole second half of the story, the new story I struggled to write, fell into place.

During the past week, I’ve written 7,000 words. I feel as though I am in full NaNoWriMo mode, only this time I am armed with a specific road map. It’s a great feeling.



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Danger: Reconstruction Under Way

Plotters warn writers the danger in taking a “pantser” (seat of the pants) approach to writing a novel is they will discover at the end of the first draft that their story didn’t work. Or, that they need to “reboot” by throwing away a major chunk of their original story to make the novel work. I learned that lesson the hard way. And I didn’t learn it after the first draft. I learned it after sending off my polished (or so I thought) manuscript to my editor.

Not that I didn’t harbor earlier doubts about that manuscript. Members of my writer’s group had told me the major decisions made by the main character in the original manuscript made her unsympathetic to the reader–the opposite of what I was trying to achieve. My critique partners told me the main character would never turn her back on her family the way she did. I brushed aside these criticisms because having the main character return to her family didn’t support the story events. Maybe I just didn’t want to do the hard work upfront of completely scrapping the second half of my story. Well, that’s what I ended up doing after I received my edits from my editor.

Many of the shortcomings my editor pointed out centered on the main character’s “unlikeability.” There was a fix to that; make her more likeable. To achieve that, I made the difficult decision to scrap the entire second half of the story–about 35,000 words in a 70,000 word manuscript.

Once I made that decision, I faced a daunting challenge: how to reconstruct a new story from the ash heap of the former story? To do that, I engaged in a series of “what if’s”.

What if Maura returned home and attempted to reconcile with her family? That would certainly make her more sympathetic. After all, family meant everything to her.

What if, when Maura returned home, she discovered that her mother was suffering from dementia? And her father had started drinking? And she had to be the caregiver for her mother, her father, and also her young baby. Sympathy in spades.

And, what if, Maura’s mom wandered off one day when Maura was supposed to be watching her, and got hit by a car?

One “what if” led to another and pretty soon I had a better story than the original. And the new story was more true to the traits I hoped to imbue in the main character?

My first challenge was to figure out what the story was. I am still adding “what if’s” to the list. My next challenge will be to add meat to the bones of the new structure. Then I need to put it all together.

There is a better way–becoming a plotter. I vow to become a plotter, starting with my next book.

What about you–are you a pantser or a plotter? What are the pitfalls of each approach?



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Book Review: “The Children Act,” by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s 13th novel explores weighty issues: the clash between religious beliefs and science, the promise of youth and the challenges of middle age, the corrosive effects of family conflict, and the power of the judicial system. At its core, though, The Children Act is less about societal issues and more about matters of the heart.

Like his masterful 2001 novel, Atonement, McEwan has crafted an intricate story that hinges on one moment of horrible misunderstanding. The main character, Fiona Maye, is extremely well drawn. Fiona, 59, is a British high court judge who presides over the family division. Fiona handles this difficult assignment with fairness and balance. McEwan takes the reader through the reasoning of her decisions on several thorny cases. She is clearly a judge who rules with sensitivity and wisdom, doing as little damage as possible to the fragile children whose fate rests in her hands.

It takes a special person to rule on family matters and Fiona is well aware of the human toll of these cases. She observes, “Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs.”  Fiona learns first-hand the pain of a union riven apart when Jack, her husband of 35 years announces one evening that he plans to have an affair. Fiona tells him that if he follows through their marriage is over. Hours later she receives a call about an urgent case to which she has been assigned. Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehova’s Witness stricken with leukemia, has refused a lifesaving blood transfusion on religious grounds.

After hearing both sides of the issue, the judge decides to meet young Adam in the hospital. The scene in the boy’s hosptial room is the most powerful in the novel. Though Adam is sickly and short of breath, Fiona is struck by his vitality and his passion  for life. He has taken to writing poetry and learning to play the violin. Adam, in turn, is touched by how much the judge cares about him. She ultimately rules in favor of the hospital and Adam receives the transfusion.

But that’s not the end of the story. The judge has a subsequent contact with Adam that goes terribly wrong, much like the famous scene in Atonement when Briony makes a false accusation against an innocent man after misinterpreting something she has seen. Though the scene in The Children Act felt stage-managed it did not detract from this eloquently written novel. McEwan’s prose is such a pleasure to read and I recommend this novel.

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Going Sideways in Denver

The 2004 movie, Sideways, is one of my favorites. Two former college roommates in their 40’s embark on a one-week road trip the week before one of the men is getting married. Miles Raymond (played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti) is a depressed teacher, aspiring screenwriter, and wine expert. Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) is an over-the-hill actor about to settle down, but who is restless and unsettled.

During the trip, Miles meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress and fellow wine lover, and Jack meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a local wine pourer. Smitten by Stephanie, Jack arranges a double date with Miles and Maya. Things start out promising and then, well, go sideways.

The lesson of that movie for me is that life doesn’t always happen as planned. I couldn’t help but think of the movie, Sideways, during a recent trip that turned into a travel adventure.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and I was flying home to Hartford after seven days in Phoenix, with a stop in Denver. We were in the air about three hours when things started to go sideways. First there was a medical emergency on the plane, which turned out to be minor. Then as we approached Denver, the pilot announced that the airport was closed due to storms and microbursts. We headed south for Amarillo, TX, to refuel. One hour later, we landed in Amarillo and sat on the plane for an hour while the plane got fuel. Then it was due north for Denver again. As we got close, the pilot announced that once again the airport was closed. We were diverted this time to Albuquerque, NM. The pilot let us off the plane and the great ground crew at Southwest Airlines bought pizza for us. We descended on the pizza like a swarm of bees. We hadn’t eaten in hours. Then we were herded back on the plane before I had time to explore the terminal in Albuquerque, so I didn’t find out whether it had a Walter White gift shop.

Headed to Denver for a third time, I checked my SWA app and found out my plane to Hartford had just departed. We finally arrived in Denver just before midnight. The crew instructed us to go to the ticket window to get re-booked as all of our departing flights had left. It took four and a half hours to reach the front of the line. It was 4:40 a.m. by the time I got rebooked. That axiom about people being at their best in a crisis rang true. I met some folks from Connecticut and California on the line and we became fast friends. People could have been grumpy, but everyone remained in good spirits.

Unfortunately, SWA couldn’t get me out of Denver until the following day. So I booked a room in a downtown Denver hotel and took the light rail into the city. Sitting on the train, exhaustion overtook me. I was loopy and could think of nothing but food and sleep.

Wondering what I would do all day (besides eat and sleep) I discovered that the Colorado Rockies were playing the Toronto Blue Jays that afternoon at Coors Field, near the hotel. One of my bucket list items is to visit every Major League Baseball stadium and I had a great time that afternoon at Coors Field. Then I treated myself to a nice dinner and went to bed, knowing I’d be up in a few hours to catch a predawn flight to Tampa, through Dallas, and then to Hartford.

I finally arrived home just before midnight on Thursday evening, exhausted but happy.

So what is the lesson here for writers? The lesson is that sometimes life goes sideways. Obstacles get thrown in your path. You have to make the best of it. I discovered that Denver isn’t a bad place to spend 30 hours. I walked around the 16th Street area (a pedestrian street teeming with people, restaurants and shopping), took in a ballgame, and had a good time.

Life goes sideways with no warning. It’s up to us to deal with it. And if you can get some writing done while you get back on track, all the better.



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Book Review: Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War (Nine Authors)

This rich collection of short stories by nine historical fiction authors delivers cogent lessons about the power of love and commitment to endure in the face of the destruction and devastation of “the war to end all wars.”

The centerpiece of each story is Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day, precisely the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when the worst war in the history of the world at that time came to an end. In the opening story, “The Daughter of Belgium,” Marci Jefferson describes the plight of Amelie, a single mother who is assigned to care for a shell-shocked German solider by the nuns who run a nearby hospital for wounded soldiers. Amelie risks everything to break into her family’s former home to reclaim a valuable painting that she can sell to ensure a secure financial future for her and daughter.

In Jennifer Robson’s “All for the Love of You,” Parisian Daisy Fields learns from her dying father that he had sabotaged her budding romance with an American captain during the war. This revelation propels her years later on a quixotic quest to New York City to find him. The ending is tender and satisfying.

Jessica Brockmole’s “Something Worth Landing For” illustrates how desperate, doomed people strike bargains they would never make in normal circumstances. In this case the American pilot who believes he will die in combat discovers he has entered a relationship worth living for.

In Heather Webb’s “Hour of the Bells” the stakes are complex. Beatrix, a German born widow living in France, has already lost one of her French sons and learns she has likely lost her remaining son in the waning days of the Great War. Her fury at her German countrymen burns to the point where she hatches a plan to avenge her losses.

Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph,” was one of my favorites of this collection. A Dublin woman in 2016 discovers one of her ancestors in her fiercely activist family kept a photograph of a British soldier she had met in the last days of World War I. We learn of the tender romance between Eileen O’Hara and Clive Postlethwaite, a British solider assigned to a post in Dublin during the late stages of World War I.

Organized and edited by Webb, a former teacher, this anthology was the result of a brainstorm about Armistice Day. According to a review on, Webb established as guidelines stories that center on any country touched by WWI in the time period either beginning on Armistice Day or ending on it. She contacted authors she knew who wrote about or had an interest in this era and the project took off.

This superb collection reminds us that amidst the ashes of war’s ruins, love can blossom. But the lessons go beyond that. These stories delve into the complexities of human relationships and what drives people together during desperate times. And that, ultimately, the will to live and love one another will prevail over evil. 

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Book Review: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, by John Vorhaus

This is not your father’s coming of age story, the kind where the wide-eyed protagonist experiences a series of firsts–first kiss, first time getting high, first time having sex. Sure, all of those things happen to young Gene Steen, but John Vorhaus aims to go deeper into the psyche of this 15-year-old boy.

Set in Milwaukee in the summer of  1969 (“at the corner of nowhere and nowhen”) the story takes off when Gene’s hot, hippy cousin Lucy shows up at his house one day in June. Lucy has a story. Her mom (Gene’s mother’s sister) has moved to France. Her father has died in Ohio and she needs a place to stay before going off to college in the fall. But, things are not as they seem on the surface and Gene and his two buddies discover her story is a sham. Her real name is Carmen and she is secretive about her backstory.

Gene could easily blow the whistle on Carmen, but he is in love. And Carmen is on the run. And she takes Gene on a wild, dangerous road trip. But I don’t want to reveal more details about the story, because this is really about a teen-ager’s quest for the truth, for the meaning of life.

Like any teen-ager, Gene has lots of questions–about religion, about the Vietnam war, about life. And he seeks the answers from Carmen. Early on he calls her a hippy, but she sets him straight. “I’m not a hippy, Gene. I’m a practical person. In this time and this place, it’s an easy motif for me, it works. But at the end of the day I’m not anything but me.”

Still Gene struggles. He cannot accept his parents’ boring middle class life, the war, organized religion. Lying in bed one night, he visualizes those Burma Shave billboards on the side of the road. 

“You Are Here and Not Here

In Your Little Car.

Wherever You Are 

Is Wherever You Are.”

He doesn’t know it at the time, but it is an epiphany of sorts. Later, on the run with Carmen, he witnesses a beautiful sunset and it all comes together for him. “The pieces of the puzzle of my life all filled me all at once. I overflowed. I had the purest moment of beauty and bliss that I’ve ever had in my life and, really, for the first time felt connected to the isness…”

Gene gave that felling a name, “the bottom ache, a thing you felt so deep you know that if you don’t express it you’ll just explode.” At that moment Gene took responsibility for his life. “I accept everything.”

Vorhaus has crafted two compelling characters in Gene and Carmen. The pacing is excellent, as the setup builds suspense and the story gallops along towards a chaotic and ultimately satisfying conclusion. Looking back as an older man, Gene reflects: “I got through what I got through by being present in the moment, by accepting the now, so that’s what I’ve got to do or get to do from now on.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and look forward to reading more of Vorhaus’s work.

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