Tag Archives: Kathryn Magendie

Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.


The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell


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Book Review: The Lightning Charmer, By Kathryn Magendie

The mysterious power of love is a major theme of Kathryn Magendie’s latest novel, The Lightning Charmer. Disappointed in love and disenchanted with her career, Laura leaves her job with an ad agency in Manhattan and returns to her childhood home in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Laura is not your normal 30-something single woman. She suffers from synesthesia, a neurological condition in which she sees colors and hears voices and, like Harry Potter, she has a scar on her lower back that flares up when a crisis is impending. Filled with self-doubt, she struggles to find herself. She is pursued by Matthew, a plastic surgeon from Atlanta, whose interest in Laura almost borders on stalking. Laura could take the safe route with Matthew, but she is drawn to Ayron, a mysterious man of the woods she meets while hiking in the mountains. It turns out they have a history, though Laura doesn’t realize it.

The mystery deepens when Flem, a mangy drifter who lives in a shack in the woods, kidnaps Laura. She escapes just as Ayron shows up at the scene, but the threat of Flem looms over the story. The pace quickens in the latter part of the story and gallops along toward the climax.

This story has a lot to say about the power of love and the choices people make in relationships. Laura eschews the safe choice of Matthew, who would have given her a comfortable, if passionless, life. Instead, she is drawn to the mystical Ayron, a man who refuses to be a part of her world.

The author has populated the story with a cast of quirky characters, none better than Laura’s neighbor, Betty. A feisty, middle-aged woman with an affinity for growing a variety of herbs and plants that she claims can cure whatever ails Laura, Betty takes Laura under her wing. Bryan, Laura’s brother, has a typical sibling relationship, chiding his sister but showing his love and support throughout.

Betty summed up this book best for me when she advised Laura, “My girl, sometimes life chooses for us and other times we got to make hard choices. You got to figure out all the in betweens. Turn your life inside out, shake out the pockets, see what falls out. Find out the answers even if it hurts.”




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Plumbing the Clutter to Unearth Our Memories

Anyone who has gone on a cleaning binge knows there are stories in our debris. It’s amazing what one comes across when cleaning out the garage: roller skates, baseball bats, children’s art work, report cards. It may just be “stuff,” as George Carlin used to say, but it can trigger a host of memories.

Last weekend, while cleaning my garage, I came across one small item in particular that brought back a tender memory. It was a green plastic water bottle with my son’s name written in black magic marker. I remembered it well. My son was eight or nine years old. It was his first summer at day camp. He had his water bottle and lunch sack. On the first day I drove him to the bus. He was quiet—a little too quiet. As he stepped on the bus, he looked back quickly. This might have been an agonizing moment, but I was comforted with the knowledge his older sister happened to be a counselor at his camp and would keep an eye on him. He was fine and he returned to that camp year after year.

I couldn’t bear to throw away that water bottle. I put it in the dishwasher. It may eventually get thrown out, but not by me.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? One of the best techniques for “showing” back story through narrative is to place the main character in a setting where she is going through items from her past. In his well-crafted 2002 novel, Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan used this technique. The book follows three generations of a family as they vacation for the last time at their summer lake resort. There is a scene in which Ken, the matriarch’s son, is going through all of the stuff in the garage and comes across a pair of work gloves, still shaped to his father’s hands. It triggers all sorts of thoughts. It was one of those small details that really worked.

Kathryn Magendie used this technique to great effect in her Graces trilogy. Virginia Kate Carey, the main character, returned to her childhood home in West Virginia following the death of her mother. As she is going through her mother’s things, every object summons up events from her past, some happy, but many sad.

Here are some tips for getting at the heart of your story by making your character root through her stuff:

  • Be specific. Don’t just describe a pair of old work gloves. Do as O’Nan did; paint a picture of the stiff gloves in the shape of the father’s hands. This is vivid and powerful stuff.
  • Avoid a “list” narrative. Pause to let the main character reflect on the meaning of these objects.
  • Be selective in using this technique. A scene sprinkled here and there is effective, but a whole novel devoted to a character sifting through his stuff would quickly bore the reader.
  • Choose objects with meaning: clothes, a children’s drawing, an ornate mirror, for instance.

Writing about cleaning up the clutter is not sexy but there is gold in that garbage.

Have you ever written a scene where the character looks through old stuff and finds meaning or a revelation?



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Book Review: “Family Graces,” By Kathryn Magendie

The final book in Kathryn Magendie’s Graces trilogy begins with a quote from Shakespeare: “The wheel comes full circle, I am here.” Family Graces spins forward on the strength of the main character, Virginia Kate Carey. She brings the story full circle by demonstrating through her actions and her choices that love can overcome the hurts inflicted by dysfunctional families.

At the outset the ghost of her grandmother, Grandma Faith, asks Virginia Kate to tell the family’s stories. These stories, though heartbreaking, must be told to set free Grandma Faith and Katie Ivene, Virginia Kate’s troubled mother.

Family Graces delves into the unsettling stories of three characters featured in Tender Graces and Secret Graces. The reader learns the ugly details about Grandma Faith’s nightmarish life with her husband, Luke, an abusive drink who beats her. Her daughter, Katie Ivene, dreams of becoming famous in Hollywood, a form of escape from her bleak family life. She marries Frederick Carey and she eventually realizes she will never escape her home in the West Virginia mountains. She finds escape by turning to alcohol.

In sharp contrast to Katie Ivene is Rebekha, the woman who raises Virginia Kate. Though Katie Ivene will not allow her to adopt Virginia Kate and her brothers, Micah and Andy, Rebekha provides the one thing their biological mother cannot: unconditional love. We learn about Rebekha’s childhood in a wealthy household and about her distant and emotionally detached parents. Rebekha finds escape through her love of science, the microscope being her lens of choice. Her first love ends in tragedy and she is working in Texas when she meets Frederick Carey.

We also learn the story of Adin, Virginia Kate’s adopted daughter, who is left at her doorstep because her mother believes Virginia Kate’s ex-husband Dylan is the girl’s father. Virginia Kate finds a kindred spirit in Adin, who is visited by Grandma Faith. Like her adoptive mother, Adin overcomes a childhood of neglect to become a well-balanced adult.

Virginia Kate’s healthy relationships with Rebekha and Adin illustrate the redemptive power of love to break the cycle of abuse. The bond formed in those relationships is stronger than that found in some nuclear families.

Magendie elegantly weaves these dark stories, with breaks of levity, into a beautiful quilt, held together by the unique voice of Virginia Kate. I was sad to see this series end, but satisfied with the way the story came full circle.


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Book Review: “Secret Graces,” by Kathryn Magendie

Secret Graces is the second book in a trilogy by Kathryn Magendie that features the unforgettable voice of Virginia Kate Carey. As in the first book, Tender Graces, the story alternates between the present, when Virginia Kate returns to the West Virginia mountains upon the death of her mother, and her turbulent journey from adolescence to womanhood in her current home in Louisiana.

When Tender Graces ended, Virginia Kate was an adolescent struggling with the need to bond with her biological mother, who sent her away, and the warmth of her second family, anchored by saintly step-mother, Rebekha. As Secret Graces begins, Virginia Kate is a university student pursued by Dylan, who is smitten and courts her with dogged determination. Virginia Kate is hopelessly conflicted about Dylan and Magendie deftly describes her state of mind, drawing on setting and other elements to underscore her emotions.

She stood under an oak tree when Dylan spotted her for the first time. As she looked back from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, she reflects, “I remember that girl. That girl had been afraid all her life. That girl had tried to pretend she wasn’t afraid. And she gained and she lost and she knew she never had what she thought was hers, because she never fully gave of herself.”

Later, young Virginia Kate senses her step-mother wants to know about Dylan. “I knew Rebekha wanted me to talk to her about Dylan, but those feelings were easier to keep stuffed down where they were safe. If I talked about him, words would be released into the air, faster and faster until I’d be sucked asunder by a tornado, mad-whirled, scattering feelings and actions willy nilly.” And so Virginia Kate remained ambivalent, frustrating Dylan as his longing for her becomes more intense.

Despite serious misgivings, Virginia Kate convinced herself she and Dylan could have a happy life together. “He would make me love him back and I would be a part of someone, a half to a whole. I would make my own home with my own children…I’d never again be see-through or worry about lonely again.” But her fears proved well-founded.

The story ends on a hopeful note, setting the stage for the final act of this trilogy.

As with the first book, Virginia Kate’s authentic voice engages the reader right away. She is at times funny, vulnerable, perceptive, and unsure of her instincts. In other words, she embodies the imperfections and hope in each of us.




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Doctor Print vs. Mister Kindle

When it comes to print books versus e-books, the reader in me is in a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde tussle. As Billy Martin said in the “taste great/less filling” beer commercial, I feel very strongly both ways. The true test is when you’re traveling. What do you take with you: a book or your e-reader? On a recent business trip to Kansas City, I couldn’t decide so I took my Kindle–and two paperback books.

I was tempted to go solo with the Kindle, but there are those few minutes when the plane is taking off and the captain tells the passengers to power off all electronic devices. Besides, it’s nice to have a good paperback (or two) in the unlikely event that my Kindle dies or the battery runs low. And since I happened to be reading three books at the same time (my wife thinks I’m crazy for doing that) I brought them all.

In the terminal, I was enjoying the second novel in Kathryn Magendie’s trilogy, Secret Graces. I had my music in my ear buds. I was a happy camper. When I powered off on the plane, I switched to Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird. Since I was almost done, I also brought Bernard Malamud’s The Natural. I was just getting into one of Anne’s excellent craft essays when we hit 10,000 feet and it was back to the story of Virginia Kate Carey. Landing on the first leg of the flight in Baltimore, I had to abandon Virginia Kate in the middle of a dramatic scene and I nearly finished off Bird by Bird.

The longer leg of the flight to Kansas City took me back to Secret Graces and I made great progress, aided by Wilco in my ear buds. I completed Bird by Bird on the descent to Kansas City.

The next afternoon I returned home and cracked open The Natural, continuing to enjoy the exploits of Roy Hobbs as he smote the ball to lead the New York Knights out of the doldrums. At 10,000 feet it was back to Secret Graces for a long stretch. By the time I returned to The Natural, the Knights had risen to third place in the league.

The short flight from Baltimore to Hartford-Springfield had me juggling the two books. I was again forced to leave Virginia Kate during one of the most dramatic scenes in the book. Meanwhile, in The Natural, fans were celebrating Roy Hobbs Day at Knights Field. And then the plot took a sharp turn and that’s where I left off.

The fact is I still love the feel and the experience of e-books, but it’s nice to read about that hot New York Times bestseller and have it on your Kindle within seconds.

Do you prefer print books or e-books? Are you like me and enjoy both?


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Book Review: “Tender Graces,” by Kathryn Magendie

Kathryn Magendie’s novel, Tender Graces, reminds me of that famous line from the Sting song, “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Tender Graces is more than a story of the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. It is the story of a young girl named Virginia Kate, who overcomes great obstacles to discover who she is. Above all it is a story that teaches valuable lessons about what constitutes a family.

The presence of ghosts is a recurring theme as almost all of the characters are haunted by the past. In some cases, the ghosts represent the pain of a wrenching decision. In other cases, the ghosts are actions the characters cannot take back.

Spanning an entire generation, Tender Graces is set in the mountains of West Virginia and the muggy and wet terrain of Louisiana. The story begins with the courtship and quick marriage of Virginia Kate’s mother, Katie Ivene Holm, to Frederick Carey, a Shakespeare-quoting traveling salesman. Katie’s mom, Grandma Faith, sees Frederick as the best hope for her daughter to escape a future of poverty and abuse, so she sets her free. Life with Frederick isn’t much better, though. His drinking and womanizing cause Katie to hit the bottle herself. Three children come in rapid succession: Micha, Virginia Kate, and Andy.

Magendie skillfully uses images such as the ice hitting the glass, shouting behind closed doors, and Virginia Kate taking refuge in the closet to dramatize the pain the children endure. The couple divorces and Frederick moves to Texas and then to Louisiana, where he marries Rebekha. When Virginia Kate first meets Rebekha, she wants nothing to do with her. Eventually, Frederick takes all three children, one by one, from his ex-wife, whose life continues on a downward spiral.

Rebekha’s relationship with Virginia Kate provides some of the more heartwarming moments in the novel. Virginia Kate comes to see Rebekha as a mother figure and Rebekha gives her love unconditionally to all three children. When Virginia Kate returns to West Virginia to nurse her mother back to health after a serious car accident, her mother sends her away again. It is not an act of rejection, but an act of love. Like her mother before her, Katie Ivene knows she must set her daughter free.

Magendie’s prose has a simple elegance. She uses imagery and setting to underscore the themes of the story. This is a touching family saga that I highly recommend.

Kathryn Magendie is based in Western North Carolina. She is the publishing editor of The Rose & Thorn.  Her published novels are: The Graces Sagas (Tender Graces – April 2009 & Secret Graces – April 2010), and Sweetie – November 2010. A novella-length work “Petey” in the anthology “The Firefly Dance” was released Summer 2011. The final in the Graces Saga Trilogy, “Family Graces” will be released spring 2012.



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