Sunday, August 12, 2012

Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah

I recently read Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden. Hannah's work frequently centers around women's lives and relationships. Her novel Firefly Lane focused on female friendships, and True Colors was about Sisterhood. In Winter Garden, Hannah turns her attention to the bond between mothers and daughters.

Winter Garden a novel by Kristin Hannah
Meredith and Nina have never been close with their mother, Anya, a cold and distant women who reserves most of her love and affection for her husband. The only way they could ever connect with their mother was through the fairy tales she told them as children. When their father passes, it is as though they have lost the thread that tied them together as a family.

On his deathbed, their father makes Anya promise to finally finish telling the fairy tale. Only when Anya finally opens up and Meredith and Nina finally start to listen do they realize the meaning behind the story their mother has spent her lifetime trying to tell them.

In this book, Hannah shifts from contemporary issues to take on the past, specifically, Leningrad during World War II. Hannah tells two parallel stories; the story of Meredith, Nina and Anya, and the story of Anya's past that her daughters knew nothing about.

Winter Garden gives a personalized, though fictional, account of a woman and her family's struggle to survive in Leningrad during the war - a tragic time about which not much is known. Readers may enjoy the historical side of this novel; Stalin's oppressive regime and the fear and silence that surrounded it, the women who were left behind while the men went off to fight and how the city of Leningrad fared.

Be patient, especially with the first half of this book as it is slow and repetitive at times. Hannah's story set in the present is not as strong as the story set in the past. Your patience will pay off when, deep into Anya's fairy tale, you will be captivated, as I was.

This is a story that haunt you. In an essay by Hannah which appears at the end of the Special Edition of Winter Garden, Hannah writes, "I wanted to give you all this story survival and loss, horror and heartache in a way that would allow you to experience it with some measure of emotion." And she does just that.

She writes, "The survivors' stories literally clawed their way into my heart and there they remain." Anya's story will claw it's way into your heart too.

This review is written based upon Winter Garden Special Edition, featuring a Conversation with Kristin Hannah, an Essay on Research by the Author, and Recipes featured in the book.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Second Glance - Jodi Picoult

After I finished reading The Hunger Games series and began searching for my next read, I knew I could count on Jodi Picoult. I've read several of Picoult's books, so she seemed like the natural choice for a summer read, like slipping into an old faded pair of jeans.

The book I chose, however, was a bit out of the ordinary - both for me the reader, and Picoult, the writer. Second Glance is a ghost-story, not my usual pick and not something Picoult is known for. But I was intrigued and decided to try something new.

Second Glance is a ghost-story in that the plot is based on mysterious happenings in a small Vermont town that begin when a developer is slated to build a strip mall on an ancient Abenaki Indian burial ground. But at its heart, Second Glance is ultimately a story of love and family.

If you pick up Second Glance, you will notice a lot of characters are introduced right away - don't let that deter you from reading on.   The number of characters in this novel can be overwhelming - I actually jotted down the names as they were introduced to help me keep them all straight in the beginning.

Picoult carefully crafts a complex story blending fact, fiction, past and present, as Ross Wakeman, a ghost-hunter who has never actually seen a ghost though he is haunted by the loss of his fiance, encounters Lia - a mysterious woman unlike any he's ever met.

Picoult pieces together a story of the paranormal, the Abekanki Indians and the real life eugenics project of the 1930s.

Though the paranormal subject matter strays from Picoult's typical topics. readers won't be disappointed. Her story is still compelling, her characters in-depth (despite the number of them) This book may require a bit more patience on the part of readers. It may take some focus to keep up with the characters, their genealogy and their connections to one another.

In the end everything ties together (almost a bit too neatly) I must give Picoult credit for her ability to put all the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. And, as always, Picoult has done her research.

Ultimately, Second Glance was a fun, interesting, read. Just don't bring it to the beach and expect to whip through it in a day or two.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Hunger Games Part 2

Catching Fire picks up right where The Hunger Games left off, with Katniss and fellow champion Peeta traveling on a Victory tour. Although the Hunger Games have ended, the games certainly aren't over. Katniss must convince the public and President Snow that she and Peeta truly are star-crossed lovers in order to settle the unrest that has risen over their defiance against the Capital in the arena. Catching Fire shows us life after the Hunger Games and the continued cruelty of the Capital as it fights to maintain control over the districts to prevent a rebellion from brewing.

Things really start to get interesting when President Snow announces that, as part of the "Quarter Quell", a special edition of the Games every quarter-century, tributes will be reaped from a pool of all living Victors of past Hunger Games. I'll admit, its a convenient way to increase the action, but it works. My heart went out to Katniss as she prepared to face the arena yet again.

I read Catching Fire with the same intense curiosity as I did The Hunger Games. I was unsure what to expect as I had heard mixed reviews about Catching Fire, I wondered whether Collins could keep the momentum going. While it is true that the second book is a bit less intense and not so action-packed from the beginning, it is just as engaging as the first. As a reader, I could feel the momentum building. I didn't devour this one in two days, and read at a much slower pace than the first.

When I reached the abrupt end I couldn't believe it was over. The ending was so surprising, I didn't want to stop reading.

So I didn't. I immediately picked up Mockingjay and continued reading.

A lot happens in Mockingjay. Katniss is selected as the reluctant leader of the rebels waging a war against the Capitol, the war to end all Games. In the end, the actions and intentions of those around her come into question and Katniss must decide whom to trust.

I did feel Mockingjay was a bit rushed as all the loose ends were being tied up. When I looked back at all that had transpired, I couldn't believe it had all happened in the pages one book - it almost could have been two books: the war, and the aftermath. Days after finishing the final book, I still found myself wondering about life after the Hunger Games and wishing I could have spent more time learning about Katniss' life there.

The Hunger Games is a trilogy that will stay with you. Even after I put the last book down, I thought of Katniss and all that she had been through and endured at such a young age, the many people she saw die and the weight their of those losses on her. In some way, those losses weighed on me too.

For those who may be skeptical as I was, or who may think it's no good because it's categorized as young-adult lit, I encourage you to give the books a try.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Hunger Games

When it comes to books and movies that are overly hyped and all-the-rage, I'm usually one of the last people to jump on the bandwagon. I get around to them eventually, sometimes I'm just five or ten years late to the party. I'm the one to whom people will say in disbelief, "You mean you've never seen/read insert really popular-movie or book here?!"

For instance, Star Wars. I've never watched any of the movies. I only picked up the Harry Potter books last year. Twlight - nope.

With that said, I apologize for my extremely belated recount of my experience in reading The Hunger Games - but I just (finally) read the series.

When I started hearing about The Hunger Games every where I went, I wasn't among those clamoring for a copy. I didn't know what the book was about exactly (I didn't even know at the time that it was a trilogy.) All I knew was that it involved a war and post-apocalyptic world. Without knowing much else, I decided The Hunger Games could wait.

It wasn't until I saw the movie trailer that I knew I had to read this book. And of course, I had to read it before I saw the movie which was being release within a matter of days. That turned out not to be a problem - I read it in two days and saw the movie in the same weekend. Both the book and the movie lived up to the hype.

Collins leads us inside the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, which rose from the ashes of North America. We meet sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen in District 12, a world of poverty and fear of the ruling Capitol - a Capitol so cruel it sacrifices its children an Annual Hunger Games - a fight to the death in which only one can survive. The Hunger Games serve as a reminder, and punishment, of a previous uprising against the Capitol.

I was drawn in the moment Katniss volunteers to take the place of her twelve year old sister Prim in the Hunger Games. I read on with horror at the concept of a game in which 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 must fight and kill each other in an arena controlled by the Capitol. I shook my head in disgust at the way the tributes must play along with these games, smiling for the cameras, giving interviews and waving to crowds of Capitol citizens in order to win gifts of food and medicine to help them survive in the arena. Perhaps the most disturbing part of all was the way the citizens of the Capitol who treat the games and the loss of innocent children's lives as a source of entertainment.

Because The Hunger Games was targeted for young adult readers, I was skeptical. I expected nothing more than a mildly entertaining read, however, the entire book is suspenseful and full of action. From start to finish The Hunger Games is engaging. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Collins doesn't soften the story for younger readers. Collins does not dilute the issues of poverty and oppression. Her writing is straightforward - easy to read without being overly simple.

I had heard the follow up to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, was not as good. I had to wonder myself if it would live up to The Hunger Games' intensity. More on that later!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Daily Writing - Pictures

In a poetry workshop I took in college, our professor put a painting at the front of the room. She told us to study it for a few moments, and then write about it. This isn't a new trick, but it's an effective one.

I often find the writing that comes from exercises like these surprises me. Ever look back at something you wrote and thought, "Wow, I wrote that?" It's a cool feeling. Random prompts like this allow me to write outside of my comfort zone.

I've always loved photography and wanted to try my hand at it, though I never have. I recently began subscribing to Flickr streams for a regular dose of photographic inspiration. When I'm stuck for an idea, I check my Google Reader and see if any interesting images come up.

Try this. Find an image - a painting in a museum, or a coffee shop, a photograph on a stranger's wall - what's happening in there? What does it look like from the inside, what does it feel like? If there are people in the photo/painting, how did they get there? Where are they going?

Looking for inspiration without leaving the house? Pull out an old photo album, find a photograph. Describe what's happening in the picture. What happened right before that shot was snapped? Right after?

Here is a painting used as a writing prompt in that same workshop:

The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer

Write. Surprise yourself.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"If you haven't got an idea, start a story anyway."

"If you haven't got an idea, start a story anyway. You can always throw it away, and maybe by the time you get to the fourth page you will have an idea, and you'll only have to throw away the first three pages."
William Campbell Gault

For writers, sometimes ideas come easy. Inspiration can come to us in the shower, on the drive home from work, while we're reading. Ideas can take form from something someone says in passing conversation, the lyrics in a song, the words printed on a sign. But sometimes, our creative outlets are tapped. When you're in a writing rut, nothing seems worth writing about.

It's times like those we must write anyway.Write just to see where it takes you - you may be surprised. Write outside your comfort zone, both literally and figuratively. Instead of writing at your desk or in your living room, move out to the back patio and take in the sights, sounds and smells. Take a notebook and write from a coffee shop or a park bench. Write about things you wouldn't normally write about. Eavesdrop on conversations and take notes. Changing your scenery and your writing routine can be a simple trick to inspire something new.

But what happens when you get to the fourth page, or the tenth, and you still don't have any ideas? We all have days when it seems no matter how much we write, or how hard we try, the writing just isn't there.

And that's okay. Not everything we write is publishable or close to perfect. Sometimes it's just practice.