Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tea & Read: The Captain's Lady

Title: The Captain’s Lady
Author: Louise M. Gouge
Rating: Two Cups of Tea

A few years ago, I refused to read any historical fiction. For some reason, these types of books didn’t appeal to me. Then I read Pride and Prejudice and the tide turned. I can’t say I’m a complete historical fiction fan, but I appreciate when I come across a good one. And The Captain’s Lady is a good one.

It is the story of Captain Jamie Templeton, a Loyalist merchant sent spy on Lord Bennington, a member of George III Privy Council. The problem is that Jamie is in love with Bennington’s daughter, Lady Marianne Moberly. Not only must Jamie perform his duty to the rebellion, he must resist his feeling for Marianne.

There are several things I love about this book. The book features characters from Gouge’s first book, but it is not necessary to read the first book to follow the plot of the second one. I’ve seen very few authors who can pull off this feat and Gouge does it well.

Gouge has clearly done her historical research. She puts you into the setting and makes it another character in the book. She does a wonderful job of capturing the Victorian time period and setting it against the mood of the rebelling colonies. I also like the way she used the conflict between the colonies and England on a personal level between Jamie and Marianne.

I think that Jamie stole the show as far as characters in this book. I loved his moral dilemma between his faith and his duty. It was interesting to read because I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been alive during this time. I’m sure I would have fought against injustice, but I’m not sure I would have chosen to take the path Jamie did. I also enjoyed Jamie’s induction into proper upper class of society. Especially since he’s a sailor and sailors aren’t normally concerned with such things.

The conversion of Robert was one of the most authentic I’ve read in a long time. It wasn’t overdone or cliché. Meaning, if I was in Jamie’s position, I think I would have handled Robert’s conversion exactly the same way. Some many times salvations and conversions are so stifled and unrealistic in books that they become a turn off. Gouge handles this one beautifully.

The plot is solid and keeps you turning the pages. Gouge is a good solid writer and her books will find a place on my bookshelf.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Writing Tips and New Contest

I’m always on the prowl for tips on how to make my writing process easier. One of my favorite things to do is to read author interviews. It brings me comfort to hear about other's process, but occasionally it backfires on me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an interview in which an author shared a tip and I thoughts “I should try that.”

For instance, I picked up a copy of Writer’s Digest which featured an interview with Sue Grafton. She shared that she keeps a journal for each of her novels, which is sometimes longer than the book itself. And of course I thought, I should keep a journal, too.

I am the journal queen. I have an odd habit of having a journal for various areas of my life. I have a prayer journal, a personal journal, a sermon journal and a writing journal. I also have a drawer full of blank journals begging to be used. What’s another journal among friends?

As I considered starting a journal for my current WIP, a thought cross my mind. Did I want to start a journal because it would help my writing process? Or did I want to start one because Sue Grafton keeps a journal for her novels? Honestly, I wanted to start one because of Sue, not because of Terri.

This is a dark side of writing tips from other writers. It is tempting to do something because someone else (especially famous, multi-published authors) does, and not really because we believe it will help. There has to be a balance. Great care should be taken to own your own writing experience and not think of it as a formula. Just because something works for another author doesn’t mean it will work for you. Writing is not magic; it’s a process.

There is an easy way to determine which tips you should try and incorporate into your writing and which ones you shouldn’t. Tips should solve a problem, not create one. If the tip causes you more stress than you already have, it probably isn’t for you. I’ve read interviews about some very detailed writing rituals. Some authors rise at 4am and sit for hours before they write a single word. As a wife and mother of three (two are which are home schooled teenagers), there’s no way I can do that.

On the other hand, sometimes others tips are exactly what you need to hear. For instance, author Kaye Dacus ( selects pictures that she uses as a template for her characters. I found this tip to be very helpful because I’m a visual person. Having a mental picture of my character helped me imagine how other characters would react to her. It also helped me create mannerisms and habits based on their physical appearance to make them more life like.

Your writing process is your own. It is great to hear get tips from other writers when they solve a problem. But be careful. Understand that writing isn’t a formula and you have to discover what works for you. Don’t be afraid to try something new but before you do, make sure it’s actually going to help, not hurt, your writing process.

You do have your own unique writing process. I realized that I didn’t need to start a journal like Sue Grafton because I already do something similar. I keep a spiral bound notebook for all the novels I write. It is a basically my record of my processing of the story. My husband questioned me about it because it isn’t in any discernible order. When I think of something, I write the date on the page and record it in my thoughts. It also helps me keep track of important details or changes I make to the story.

What is your quirky habit? Share it in the comments below before February 28 and win a copy of Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tea & Read: The Raven Saint

Title: The Raven Saint
Author: M. L. Tyndall
Rating: Wall Target Practice (one star)

The Raven Saint is the story of Grace Westcott, an admiral’s daughter and the picture of virtue. She is kidnapped by Rafe Dubious, a French captain and mercenary. She struggles to discern God’s purpose in her kidnapping, especially since she has found herself among some of the worse heathens in the world. Captain Dubious believes that he is doing the right thing for kidnapping Grace, but as their voyage continues, he begins to doubt his motives.

This book has the potential to be good, but unfortunately disappoints on many different fronts. The first is the characters. Grace’s judgmental attitude actually becomes a turn-off by the fifth chapter. It was hard for me to care about her well-being. Captain Dubious is more likable, but his actions and motivations seem a little too unbelievable. His charity to people in need and his lust for revenge seem to conflict in the wrong way. I found myself more drawn to Madam Dubious’ servant, Annette, than the two main characters.

Second, the plot stalled in several places. There were portions where the plot didn’t move forward. The book also contained long sections of internal dialogue from one of the main characters. I found myself skimming often. Also, Grace seemed a bit too inactive. I understand she was a captive, but often it seemed like she was simply reacting to other’s actions. Another problem was a surprise plot twist at the end that didn’t resolve one of the subplots. It only left me with more questions.

Third, the actual writing left something to be desired. Some of the metaphors and similes sounded as if Tyndall was trying too hard. It was as if she tried to be unique but her attempts ended in some ridiculous sounding phrases. My personal favorite was “The liquor took a warm stroll down his throat...” I think simply saying the liquor warmed his throat would have been far more effective.

Also, there are complete sentences in French. It is not an uncommon occurrence to have foreign languages included to add to credibility, but it was excessive. In addition, there were several times were I couldn’t figure out what the sentence meant from context clues. I don’t speak French and I don’t think I should have to work to figure out what it means. Another issue I had with the writing is her overuse of words. I grew extremely weary of men “doffing” their hats and all the hat removing didn’t add anything to the story.

This book was an unfortunate disappointment, especially since it had potential to be a great story.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Basics of A Good Book Review

I started writing reviews in 2008 and I’ve noticed how much their popularity has grown. Sites like Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, CBD and Borders provide readers with opportunities to share their opinions of books. And people are definitely taking advantage of it. Some sites even offer special statuses for those who have reviewed often. Publishing houses are getting in on the act by starting book review programs (Thomas Nelson and Bethany House).

Reviews can be a powerful tool in promoting a book. They’re the equivalent of electronic word of the month (which still seems to be the most reliable way of creating a buzz for a book.) Many authors and publishing companies solicit reviews because positive ones can increase sales. The goal of a review is to give more information about a book so that others can decide whether to buy the book or not.

Writing book reviews can be a tricky undertaking. I have heard writers lament when they receive negative reviews but the problem is, not all reviewers are created equal. There are lots of people reviewing books, but unfortunately, some of these reviews are riddled with problems. Here are some of the problems I’ve found in some of the reviews I’ve read.

-No supporting evidence: These reviews simply state that the reviewer doesn’t like the book but doesn’t give any concrete reason why. Often reviewers say that the book was heartwarming but they don’t share what warmed their heart. I’ve read lots of reviews that deemed a book good, but that was all that was said.

Reviews have to provide supporting details (remember your English teacher stressing the importance of details?). Remember, giving details doesn’t mean spoiling the plot. If you are going to share an important detail in your review, be sure to include a “spoiler alert” warning before you do.

-Pigeon-hole observation: The reviewer gets so caught up on one aspect of the book and doesn’t consider the book as a whole. I once read a review for a book about child abuse. The review didn’t mention much about the book or the author’s technique on writing the book. Instead, it ranted on and on about the injustice of child abuse.

Good novels are made up of several parts: plot, characterization, setting, conflict, tension and writing techniques. Several of these things should be covered in your review. Writing a pigeon-holed perspective doesn’t help anyone reading it, unless he or she hates child abuse as much as you do.

-The book is not the problem: I’ve read review where reviewers have given bad ratings because the book covers a topic that they don’t like, which has nothing to do with the author. If you don’t have a problem with the topic, you wouldn’t know if the book was good or not.

A review is not a place to share your problems about the ills of society. It’s also not a place to bash the author for writing about a particular subject (I find this a lot in Christian fiction. Some reviewers have accused writers of not being Christian for the subject matter of their books). Remember, the focus of a book review is the book.

-If you don’t have anything good to say…: Yes, this saying has been drilled into our heads as children but it doesn’t work for reviews. Reviews have to share both the good and the bad. It maybe difficult to write a negative review, but it doesn’t mean it has to be mean-spirited. There is a way to be truthful in a bad review but doing it in loving way.

If you didn’t like something about a book, explain why. It’s okay. It’s understood that this is your opinion and your honest opinion is the best thing you can write. And remember, not everyone will like every book. What you dislike about a book may not be meaningful to someone else.

The point of writing a review is to help others decide if the book is a worthy purchase. Understanding what constitutes a good review is crucial to being a helpful reviewer. You are the most valuable part of your review. You are the expert on you. People who read reviews are looking to hear the opinions of others. They read to hear what you think.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

God Confirms His Word

It’s been two weeks since we’ve been to church because of snow. Since we planned out our day and created a schedule, I decided that we’d have a short service here in the house. I did praise and worship (and realized how out of practice). My husband gave us a short sermon about the importance of community.

He spoke from Acts 2, the beginning of the church. He explained how community is having things in common and how the snow storm had amplified the importance of working together. He said that when we work together, it makes being stuck in close quarters more bearable. During the message, we also talked about using our gifts to help others. My husband explained that when everybody works towards a common goal, the work moves more quickly.

After service and lunch, we headed out to finish shoveling the driveway. We had a daunting task ahead of us. Our driveway is about 50 feet and we only have one shovel. I used a hard plastic dustpan, which would have been murder on my back. We had not worked long before God perfectly illustrated the message my husband preached.

One of our neighbors brought his snow blower and cleared the majority of our driveway. After he was done, he cleared another one of our neighbor’s driveway. My youngest son, who had watched the whole scene, said in a quiet voice, “Now that’s community.” Amen.

Friday, February 5, 2010

One Little Prayer

People who know me well know that I'm a woman of extremes. One of my oddest extremes is my climate preferences. I love the beach but I love the snow. I love the serenity of the waves crashing on the shores. The sound of the waves are like a lullaby.

The snow makes me want to snuggle with my family and watch a good movie. I love being with my family and snow provides that opportunity for me. I also love the beauty of my lawn covered in white. Everything is made pretty with a coating of snow. Give me either of which, I'm a happy camper.

The only thing that can make snow better is a white Christmas. Christmas is another one of my loves. It's my favorite holiday. I even like it better than my birthday. So last year, I prayed and asked God for a white Christmas. My family was going through great transition and I asked for the snow as a sign. After I prayed, I felt the Lord saying that not only was I going to get a white Christmas, but it would snow before and after Christmas.

Trust me I was excited, especially when the first snow came and brought us 6 inches two weeks before Christmas. And of course, I was over the moon when we got a record 16 inches the week before Christmas. The snow stuck around for several days because of all the Arctic air (sadly, it rained on Christmas day and washed all the snow away).

Apparently, God is doing his exceedingly, abundantly, all you can ask or think thing with me because it has snowed two times in the past week, Friday, January 30 and Wednesday, February 3. And now as I write this blog, the DC metro area is under a blizzard warning with snow totals predicted to be 20-30 inches. And, snow is forcasted for next Tuesday and the following Saturday.

Amazing what one little prayer can do. Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tea & Read: The Sweet By and By

Title: The Sweet By and By
Authors: Sara Evans with Rachel Hauck
Rating: One cup of tea

The past is the past, right? If only it was that simple for Jade Fitzgerald. As she prepares to marry, she finds her skeletons won’t stay in their closet. Her mother returns to her life and brings a trail of painful memories with her. Jade finds herself struggling to keep her damaging history from ruining her future.

Jade, her fiancé Max, her mother Beryl and her sister Willow are all complex characters. Jade refuses to face the mistakes she’s made and focuses on her mother’s hippie lifestyle and her parent’s divorce. Max seemed dualistic, holding Jade to a higher standard that he was not willing to live by himself. Willow’s sassiness perfectly fits a young woman with her background. Unfortunately, none of the characters seem to flow together. Their stories are intertwined but they lack a level of cohesiveness that creates good tension.

The lack of tension continued with Jade’s parent’s divorce. I found myself wondering why their marriage actually ended. It didn’t seem realistic since their relationship seemed so idyllic. Along with that lack of tension, the novel read like a women’s ministry manual. Strained family relationships, abortion, illness and unforgiveness all find their way into the story in a very predictable way. At times, the story became very cliché along with a slow pace.

Also, the story’s climax and resolution left me wondering what the climax and resolution was. Jade has an ambiguous encounter with God, but it’s not clear what exactly happened. It was also hard to get into the moment of the encounter because it had supernatural overtones. The moment ended up being very “God in the Machine”, a tidy but annoying way to show character change.

Two things about this book left me confused. The first thing was the prologue. I’m not sure why it was included in the book. It does give some background setting, but very little. The second thing is the title. I’m not really sure what the title actually has to do with the book. I thought maybe it wasn’t that important since it’s in smaller print that Sara Evans name (if one wasn’t paying attention, she might think the book was called Sara Evans).

Having said all that, I will say that the writing was above average. Evans and Hauck add many stunning lines of imagery to the novel. The chapters were short, which helped the fact that the pacing was so slow at some points. Evans and Hauck also applied a normally annoying flashback technique, (one chapter present, next chapter past) in a good way. The flashbacks seem seamless, which it great because this technique is normally jarring.