Monthly Archives: March 2014

Book Review: The Moon Sisters, by Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, is a story about hopes and dreams, grief and loss. It is about the push and pull of family. It is ultimately about the contentious, but loving relationship between two sisters as they struggle to come to grips with their mother’s untimely death.

Jazz, the older sister, is in her early 20s. She is practical, focused on the future and sober-eyed. Olivia is four years younger. She is creative and high-spirited, a dreamer who suffers from synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to involuntary experiences in a second sense. Olivia can “smell sights (Papa was the fresh mown grass, the sun was Mama) or taste words…” The sisters’ fragile relationship is tested when Olivia embarks on a journey across their home state of West Virginia to fulfill her mother’s wish to see ghost lights at a cranberry bog, the key to writing a scene in her mother’s unfinished novel. Doubting Olivia can make the trip alone (she is legally blind from staring at the sun after her mother’s death) Jazz decides to drive them in her grandmother’s van. The van breaks down and ends up in a repair shop. Olivia decides impulsively to board a freight car with an odd assortment of train hoppers. Unknown to her, Jazz leaps aboard the train at the last second, clinging to a ladder for hours.

Fleeing the train at the next stop, the sisters are reunited. Jazz is furious with Olivia as her younger sister is determined to complete the long journey on foot. Jazz’s anger boils when she learns Olivia is in love with a mysterious, tattooed train hopper who calls himself Hobbs.

Walsh, co-founder of the popular writing blog, Writer Unboxed, writes each chapter in the voice of the two main characters, alternating between the distinct and different voices of Olivia and Jazz. The book is organized into five sections covering the five stages of grief.

Interspersed throughout the text are letters from their mother to her estranged father, who disowned her when she became pregnant with Jazz out of wedlock. The letters serve to give a sweet and spectral voice to Beth, the sisters’ mother.

Olivia’s quest is to find closure, but the long journey forces the sisters to confront their own hopes and dreams and in the process they learn about themselves and their relationship mends.

Walsh writes beautifully in vivid, lush prose. This long-awaited novel is a real treat.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Revisions: The First Read-Through

In a recent post, I wrote that the essential initial step to revise a first draft is to read through the entire manuscript with a hyper-critical eye. During this read-through, resist the urge to make changes on the fly. Look at the overall story. Take notes on individual scenes. Strive to take a global view. What you are looking at is the story as a whole and how it hangs together. Or not.

The first key question you want to ask yourself is: what is the essence of the story? What is the story really about? What is the (dare I say it?) theme of the story? We’re not talking plot here. We’re talking about the main character’s internal challenge. That’s what drives the story. Once you know what your story is about, the next key question is: does your first draft pay off the theme? Is it clear to the reader what the story is about? Does the main character’s internal struggle shine through to the reader?

Revisions are on my mind these days. I am going through the first draft of my work-in-progress, tentatively titled, A Prayer for Maura. This was a National Novel Writing Month project from 2012. I really liked this story when I wrote it. I believed then, and still do, that it is a story that plays to my strengths as a writer and has loads of potential. Re-reading it for the first time, though, I realize it needs a lot of work.

I won’t go chapter by chapter, but I am four chapters into it and some of the scenes are good, while others just don’t work. Some need more setting and details, while others just don’t sing. Some of the writing is decent and some of it is, well, let’s say it is in need of some sharpening.

So far, I have resisted the urge to go in and start re-writing. I want to evaluate the first draft as a reader, but with the advantage of knowing where the story is going to go and how it is going to end.

At this stage, it is crucial to resist the urge to write or even edit. This is the thinking stage. The rewriting will come later.

What about you? How do you go about editing your first draft?






Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt

Don’t be put off by the heft of this book. At 771 pages, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is not light reading on any level.

The Goldfinch starts off with Theo Decker, age 27, holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, deeply troubled, and then circles back to the shocking event that kicked off his extraordinary journey. Theo’s life changed forever when, as a 13-year-old boy, he and his mother, Audrey, are killing time before a dreaded appointment at his school for disciplinary reasons. Caught in a sudden thunderstorm, Audrey and Theo duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When his mother decides to go to the gift shop, Theo stays behind to look at a painting, while entranced by a young girl who is at the museum with an older man. That’s when a terrorist explosion rips through the museum. In the hazy aftermath, the old man gives Theo a ring and urges him to take a painting that had fallen to the floor, The Goldfinch, painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. A Dutch painter, who ironically died in a gunpowder explosion, Fabritius was Rembrandt’s pupil and Vermeer’s teacher.

With Theo’s dad, a failed actor, alcoholic and gambler, out of the picture, the 13-year-old boy ends up in the posh Park Avenue home of classmate, Andy Barbour. He traces the ring back to an antique shop in Greenwich Village called Hobart and Blackwell and eventually meets James “Hobie” Hobart, who explains that Weldon Blackwell was the old man who died in the terrorist bombing and the young girl was Pippa, his niece. Hobie, a gentle and thoughtful man, takes Theo under his wing and teaches him the furniture restoration trade. Pippa, injured in the bombing, comes to be viewed by Theo as his soul mate and the only person who can understand the ordeal they both endured.

As Theo struggles to adjust to life with the well-heeled Barbours, his AWOL father shows up with his pill-popping girlfriend, Xandra. They spirit poor Theo away to a never-finished housing development on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where he befriends a similarly motherless immigrant from the Ukraine, the irrepressible Boris Pavlikovsky, the most captivating character in the book. While his dad is gambling and Xandra is off working, Theo and Boris pass the time watching TV, drinking beer and getting high. They scavenge for food and shoplift to get whatever they need.

The painting is sealed in a pillowcase hidden under Theo’s bed. For years, Theo battles against the natural instinct to turn in the painting, but he hangs onto it. The painting is a connection to something beautiful and a reminder of his mother and it soothes his aching heart.

Theo eventually finds himself back in New York City and Hobie becomes his temporary guardian. His turbulent journey to adulthood includes heavy drug use and a harrowing experience with underworld associates of Boris.
This is as much a book about the intersection of art and life as it is about the journey of a flawed young man. The value of an artistic work, in this case the pilfered painting, lies in its simple beauty and what Theo sees as his connection to his mother.

Tartt is an accomplished writer whose vivid and incisive prose infuses every page with energy. Despite the book’s length, the story never drags. Theo’s final reflections provide a superb capstone to this powerful story. Theo speaks about a middle zone between reality and where the mind strikes reality, “a rainbow’s edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Theo continues the thought, “And—I would argue as well—all love…”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized