Tag Archives: novel

Time Flies

I know it’s a cliche, but the truth of the saying ‘time flies’ seems never more evident than right now.

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m trying to impose some order in preparation for the fall semester, which starts tomorrow. I only turned in my grades for summer school last Tuesday! I spent every spare moment this week rebuilding my classes, because the beginning of school completely caught me by surprise. No, seriously. I thought it started Wednesday after Labor Day. Imagine my astonishment. But both versions of the online classes are updated and in place for a new semester.

In the past, I’ve spent the week before school organizing paperwork and closets so I could feel we were starting with a clean slate. I’m doing my best, but the boxes from the farmhouse, small pieces of furniture from various rooms, and the paperwork from my 2016 taxes are still cluttering the living room. I will just have to continue cleaning around them until some things get back to normal.

Why 2016 taxes, you ask? I always seem to be busy in April and file an extension. Then I do my tax worksheets in the heated torpor of August-September and get them to my accountant in October.

The left-over paperwork from last year is still spread out on my dining table because I haven’t been able to get to the table over the furniture and boxes from two ongoing remediation projects in my life.

Today is almost exactly the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc and mayhem in all our lives. It doesn’t seem possible that it was a year ago. But there it is. And while the damage to my house was relatively minor, my adventures with contractors were hugely intimidating. The furniture is finally back in my master bedroom and the guest room, and my bathroom is completely overhauled. But the confusion and disorganization wrought by the storm lingers in the corners of most every room of the house, and the chaos imposed on my psyche sometimes resembles PTSD.

Complicating matters, Harvey hit just as I had begun tearing down part of the Lexington farmhouse where I grew up, in order to save the rest of it. That was interrupted by my Houston repairs. The farmhouse still has a huge gaping wound plugged with plywood on one side of the structure, tarps on the roof, and piles of rubble all around. I’ve made some headway in cleaning and stacking the antique brick from the chimney. The house has been leveled, and repairs made to the damaged wood on the west side of the house, where a new set of French doors are now covered with weather sheeting until I can address new siding. Boxes of my parents accumulated treasures are part of the ongoing clutter in my living room. The house and its contents haunt my dreams and drain my bank account and still there seems to be little progress.

Time seems to trickle away in every direction. While I stayed busy with school and theatre projects this year, my two cats have increasingly begun to show their age. They sleep a great deal, but I’ve noticed that it is harder for them to jump onto the furniture recently. When Christabel started throwing up and peeing everywhere, I took her in for tests. Hundreds of dollars later, she is being treated for a urinary tract infection and I have medication to sooth her stomach. But the evidence is overwhelming that her kidneys are progressively failing and sometime soon, I will have to face the fact that the quality of her life is slipping away as well. My vet has chosen this time to retire, but assures me that when the time comes, he will come into the office to be with me and Christabel.

And through all this whirlwind, I’ve found blessed little time to write anything new. I cranked out a number of short stories the beginning of this year, and I’ve reworked two on my novels yet again, but I have yet to finish the third novel which I started for NaNoWriMo in 2016.

Increasingly, I want the freedom of retirement. But I don’t see how I can afford to quit my full-time job, even though I could work from anywhere. I have directing assignments coming up, and the short film I did in January is premiering in Austin in September. But it’s been four years since I’ve been onstage as an actor.

Moving back to Lexington to be close to my sister and brother and their families sounds increasingly more appealing. But updating the farmhouse is going to require me to sell my Houston house and put the proceeds into renovations. Where will I live and how can I continue to work remotely in the interim? These are all questions I know I must face soon. And maybe it is for the best that Christabel will not be subjected to that upheaval.

Meanwhile, I drift from project to project, semester to semester, production to production, and time disappears without my noticing or adequately preparing for it. When will moving and rebuilding become too much for me to physically face? Will I wait too long? While I hesitate, time continues to evaporate. I’m reminded of John Lennon’s lyric, “Life is what happens while we’re making other plans.”


Gooney Bird and All Her Charms, by Lois Lowry

Gooney Bird and All Her Charms by Lois Lowry (illustrated by Middy Thomas) – This chapter book is part of an award-winning series. Gooney Bird is an eccentrically dressed second-grader with a Type A personality . She is surrounded by a number of outspoken prankster classmates and an infinitely patient teacher. Think Pippi Longstocking in Kindergarten Cop.

In this book, Gooney Bird’s great-uncle, Dr. Oglethorpe, happens to be a prominent professor of anatomy. He visits when her class is studying the human body, surprising everyone by bringing a ‘gift’. He loans the class the human skeleton from his own classroom for a month, to be used in their studies. The kids name it Napoleon. It causes quite a stir among the student body and some of the parents.

The class sets out to involve everyone by setting it up in different locales with different accessories to emphasize the part of the body being studied. All goes well until someone makes off with Napoleon.

Maybe it was because chapter books are not my genre, but this book seemed contrived and self-consciously cute. There was educational value in the content, but it was disguised in outrageous behavior and coincidence. Even Gooney Bird’s charm bracelet of the title, bought at a garage sale, seems pasted on to tie everything together. But the illustrations are highly imaginative and entertaining.

YA Reads for January

This month for the SCBWI meeting, I’m reviewing three really engaging and well-written Young Adult books. They have a number of things in common besides their reading group.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart – This National Book Award Finalist (nominated the same year as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath) is a YA novel set in an upscale boarding school. Frankie is a legacy. She is privileged, smart, and ambitious. Previously a bit of a geek, she blossomed over the summer and comes to the attention of the charming, handsome, and somewhat self-effacing leader of the inner circle at school. As Matthew’s girlfriend she gains entre to the seniors’ table. Matthew is leader by default of wealth and position, and because the more exotic Alpha was expelled the previous year. Frankie recognizes Alpha from an encounter at the beach. But perhaps because she is with Matthew, he pretends not to know her. Nevertheless, the two have more in common than she has with Matthew. He is born to privilege, whereas she and Alpha are outsiders.

Frankie quickly discovers the guys are co-leaders of the secret society known as the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, ‘known mostly for silly pranks and a history of male-only membership’. Frankie is aware of the Bassets because her father and his friends were members, teasingly referring to it but never revealing its secrets. Frankie, intellectually their equal if not their superior, becomes fixated on the fact that she can never be included. While Alpha is away, she creates an email address. Posing as him, she sends out detailed instructions for a Basset Hound prank. It is so successful that upon his return, Alpha takes the credit.

Matthew fails to confide in her. This only pushes her to bigger and riskier pranks, manipulating the boys of the group until she almost gets Alpha expelled. When she steps forward and takes responsibility to save him, Matthew drops her and freezes her out of the inner circle. She pays the price, but is triumphant rather than apologetic. She will never settle for being the leader’s girlfriend.

This book is well-written with multi-layered characters and relationships. It uses stereotypical personas at times to challenge the status quo. The threat of her own disgrace and expulsion is introduced at the beginning and the rest of the book is a flashback, with that danger ever present.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher—This 2007 international bestselling YA novel is an emotional rollercoaster. The two main POV characters of this book, Hannah Baker and Clay Jensen are teenagers in the same high school. Hannah, the victim of a series of seemingly unrelated slights, snubs, cruel lies, vicious gossip, bullying and rape has committed suicide. But she has left a series of audio tapes that accuse her tormenters and explain the events that drove her to take her own life. Thirteen people will receive the tapes and spend a tortured evening listening to the criminal behavior and thoughtless cruelty perpetrated on their classmate—and recognize their part in it. As each finishes, he/she must forward the tapes to the next person on the list or risk another set of tapes being sent to the newspaper.

Popular Clay Jensen liked Hannah very much, but allowed rumors of promiscuity to prevent him from acknowledging his feelings until a fateful party shortly before her death. Quietly mourning her, he is uncertain why he’s received the tapes or how he fits into the story, but he follows the map and listens to the painful details of Hannah’s account only to discover the girl he fantasized about was half in love with him. At the end of the night, Hannah is still dead and Clay will never be the same. He must forward the tapes and go back to school, seeing some of his classmates in a whole new light.

Masterfully written and gut-wrenching, this book will keep you up all night, just as the tapes keep Clay wandering the streets of his town into the pre-dawn hours.

Getting Over Garrett Delaney, by Abby McDonald—Published 2012, this novel follows young Sadie through a love crisis. At fifteen she met Garret Delaney, a new kid in town, and she was mesmerized by his good looks, easy charm and intellectual take on all things artistic and literary. Over the last two years she has lost contact with her previous BFF and become a permanent appendage to the dazzling young man she considers her soul mate and best friend. Supporting him in all things and propping him up every time he thinks he’s fallen in and out of love—she keeps hoping against all odds that he will wake up and fall in love with her. Think Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts in the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful.

Scheduled to go to writer’s summer camp together, Sadie hopes a summer in the country, living the literary life will seal their fate as lovers. But her mother started her in school a year late and although seventeen, as a sophomore going into her junior year she is rejected at the last minute. Garrett blithely goes off to camp and leaves Abby to pine.

Forced to look for a summer job by her life counselor mother, Abby falls into a job at her favorite coffee house. There she meets new friends who are older and more experienced, if not necessarily wiser. She very nearly loses the job she loves after a public melt-down precipitated by a call from the blissfully ignorant Garrett. Her humiliation was witnessed not only by her co-workers but by her former friend, Kayla. Instead of abandoning her to her misery, they help her take a leaf from her mother’s playbook and devise a project plan to ‘get over’ her obsession for Garrett Delaney and discover who she is without him over the summer. It’s cold-turkey withdrawal of all things Garrett, but it forces her to try new experiences, haircuts, and clothes. She explores other options in an effort to find out what she thinks, feels and likes, uncolored by Garrett’s rather snobbish viewpoint.

It’s a struggle but she succeeds admirably in discovering herself, until Garrett returns early. He seems ready to fall for her now that she no longer needs him. She is sorely tested and momentarily weakens. But from her new perspective, Sadie becomes painfully aware of Garrett’s self-absorption, condescension, and arrogance. Not only does she manage to save herself from more years of abject servitude to a mythical Garrett, but her journey helps her friends to recognize their own weaknesses and pursue their dreams as well.

All three of these novels are engaging, well-written and have characters of a similar age, social group, who need to be loved or admired for themselves. Each deals with peer pressure to some extent and the unspoken social structure in high schools, whether public or private. They are all about self-realization, the perception of others, and how our relationships define us. I would recommend each of them.


News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I came back from two conferences with bags full of books, but this novel was a gift from a friend, and so I moved it to the top of the pile. I’m glad I did. In a year of historic political division and growing national misogyny, on November 16th the National Book Award failed to honor a single nominated woman, but instead focused on divisions along racial lines. So, let me talk about this beguiling and poetic novel written by a woman that deals with race and the position of women in a historical moment defined by rampant violence, tyranny, martial law, huge political and economic differences, government corruption, and the vulnerability of the disenfranchised.

Paulette Jiles lives in Austin, Texas. She is an author who writes lyrically of real events and people fictionalized in a vivid and epic narrative that never loses its sense of the personal and the mundane events of this journey story. The book was one of the worthy nominees for the National Book Award for best novel.

The tale begins in the winter of 1870 in north Texas. The state is still under martial law, the US troops of occupation guard public meetings of any kind. Despite raids from the Indian Territories across the Red River, roving bandits, and sex traffickers, private citizens are prohibited from carrying handguns. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 71 year-old veteran of two wars and a survivor of a third, the Civil War, is a former printer plying his trade as a itinerant purveyor of news. He travels from town to town through Reconstruction Texas setting up public events where he reads from Eastern and international newspapers of exotic and romantic places and events, he hopes to broaden his audience’s understanding of the world. He carefully avoids articles about the corrupt and warring political factions in power in Texas.

Into his precarious vagabond life comes a 10-year old girl recently recovered from the Kiowa. Taken when she was six during a raid that killed the rest of her family, her aunt and uncle have offered a $50 gold piece for her return. The negro teamsters transporting her know and trust Kidd and see him as a reliable escort, whereas their conveying a young white girl offers all kinds of complications. Kidd’s sense of honor and the vulnerability of this young wild child persuade him more than the money. From the beginning, the trip is a struggle, fraught with peril and unsavory characters. But the old man’s kindness, the girl’s courage, their shared danger, and their growing interdependency forge a bond between the two.

When at last Kidd delivers her to her remaining family, she has begun to relearn her original language, accepted the necessity of wearing the constrictive white clothing, and begun to feel safe in his company. But the dour German couple he meets are looking for someone to share the labor of their farm, without any consideration for the kindness required to fully reclaim a young girl who will forever consider herself a Kiowa, ripped from her family not once but twice. The ultimate choice of what is right and wrong and what constitutes honor, responsibility, and family is at the heart of this story, brilliantly and mesmerizingly told through the day to day decisions of life and death.

A recurrent theme of the book is evident in the title, News of the World. Kidd began adulthood as a 16-year old courier in the War of 1812. He has continued to bring messages and news of things beyond and outside as a printer and reader. In the epilogue of the story we learn “the Captain asked to be buried with his runner’s badge. He kept it since 1814. He said he had a message to deliver, contents unknown.” How nice it would be to have a Captain Kidd to see us through this current moment in history.

Lou Berney’s Award-Winning Novel

I had already purchased and begun reading Lou Berney’s The Long And Faraway Gone when I left for Bouchercon: Death on the Bayou in New Orleans. So I was not surprised when it won the Anthony Award for Best Original Paperback mystery novel for 2016.

Berney has a hauntingly human and almost casual style, centered around a premise that hooks you from the beginning.  What happens to the teenage survivor of a tragedy?  The book intertwines two barely related tragedies from the 1980s in the characters of the lone survivor of a robbery turned massacre and the younger sister of a missing teen who vanished.

Wyatt wonders why the robbers killed all his co-workers at the movie theater, but left him alive?  Julianna is left forever waiting ‘at the fair’ for her sister Genevieve to come back from an errand that was supposed to take ten minutes.  In both cases, there have been no answers for over twenty-five years.

How do you move forward?  How do you build a life?  Can you ever be close to anyone again, when your closest friends were brutally murdered?  How do you stop putting your own life on hold while you pursue every whisper of a lead that will bring you answers?  What happens when there will never be any closure?

Berney is equally adept at interweaving the past and the present and multiple viewpoints that leave you aching over the near-miss, the misunderstood, the unknowable. All these characters are damaged, a few are despicable, but all are engrossing.  I was haunted by this book for the last several weeks, because like the characters we are left with no neat answers.

For me the message was not in the huge violent tragedy, but the everyday tragedies of people left behind, who can never quite get it together or accept that they can never find the real truth. Because we can never really know what is in someone else’s heart. The miracle is finding the courage to choose love and a purposeful life in spite of that.

The Long and Faraway Gone is published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins.