Book Review: Far from the Tree

I’m a sucker for stories that feature adoption, so Far from the Tree had been on my wish list for a while.

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

“Let’s go to Barnes & Noble and get you a book,” my grandmother said after visiting her and her sister. In my head I think I’m way too old for that, but FREE BOOKS so YES PLEASE.

I’m a sucker for stories that feature adoption, so Far from the Tree had been on my wish list for a while. My relatives, being who they are, responded to my choice with, “That’s a paperback; go grab some more.” Thus, I will review the five books they bought me that day as soon as I can get through them all.

I love my family.

Back Cover Description

“Grace, Maya, & Joaquin are siblings who are unaware of one another’s existence, until Grace gives up her own child for adoption—and feels compelled to seek out her biological family.

Maya, Grace’s loudmouthed younger sister, is quick to search for traces of herself among her bio siblings. But she’s not quite sure where it is that she belongs. And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, never found a family. In Joaquin’s life, there are no heroes, and secrets are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him. Can these strangers conquer their fears, share their hearts, and trust in each other enough to become a family?”

Characters

Each of the siblings has their own well-developed personality—the goodie-two-shoes, the loudmouth, the stoic protector. Despite these differences, they discover random ways they are similar to each other. For example, they all like mayo on their French fries. I liked that the author included a lesbian character whose plotline did not focus on her identity or on people’s acceptance of her identity. It is a part of her character, woven naturally in, but Maya has her own story.

Plot

The cover’s description doesn’t do this story justice. The plot is far more complex and beautiful than it implies. I particularly liked Grace’s story. Grace is a pregnant teen, but the story didn’t revolve around her discovering her pregnancy, panicking, and deciding what to do about it. Instead, the story begins with her reminiscing about the decision she already took and explores how it affects her afterward.

Even while “Peach” is in her womb, Grace’s love for her is clear. She eats healthful foods and hunts for the perfect adoptive parents. After she gives her child up for adoption, she misses her in a physical way that her own parents can’t understand. This prompts her to search for her own biological mother. She wants to know she isn’t alone in feeling this way. She wants to know she made the right choice.

Benway treats each of the sibling’s plotlines with the same respect for the complexity and beauty of the messy thing we call family. The story is one of hope, healing, and love, and I enjoyed every word.

Writing Style

Benway writes a lot of reflective thinking into her prose, which usually annoys me, but she gets away with it because that panicked overthinking fit well with her teenage protagonists. I like that she sometimes describes feelings with colors.

Other

I love the title of this book, and, though hard to look at, I like the cover too.

Conclusion

Book I cannot praise this book enough for its portrayal of what it means to be a family—unconditional support, forgiveness, and love. It takes an unflinching look into life’s greatest complexities, and instead of trying to simplifying them with platitudes and easy answers, appreciates the beauty of a mess.


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Shadows in the Water

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—no matter who gets hurt.

Shadows in the Water by Jo-Anne Tomlinson

I don’t normally read a ton of suspense, but after beta reading more of it recently, I’m developing a taste for it. This is my favorite of the ones I’ve read.

Description

Someone tried to murder India Peters, but that’s not even the biggest news in the beachside community of Army Bay. Brandy Hamilton, desired and despised queen bee, disappeared the same night.


When India wakes up, her memories are missing along with her childhood-friend-turned-hated-nemesis. Somewhere in her foggy brain lies the answer to how India went from social pariah to member of Brandy’s elite circle: Brandy’s sister Sadie, the good twin. Rory, the track star. Ben, the hot boyfriend. Avery, the rich douche. Elton, the cocky loner.


But things in Army Bay are only getting stranger. Her parents, her frenemies, the girl she likes, even the police—they all know more than they’re willing to share. To uncover the truth, India will have to expose the town’s dark secrets no matter who gets hurt.

Characters

Biracial and bisexual India Peters is a cynical teen who learned the hard way that high school can be hell, but she wakes up to discover she’d become someone else. A popular someone who cares about things like free-range chickens. India’s investigation into the past helps her define her present—which India is she? The pariah and stoner or the popular progressive?

Her quest for the truth leads her to interact with the town’s characters. Each person has plenty of motive to harm Brandy, but not everyone is what India expected. The large cast kept me guessing throughout the story, but each character is so unique and well-rounded that I didn’t struggle to keep them straight as I have in similar books.

Plot

With every clue India uncovers come at least a dozen more questions. The more she uncovers about the towns people and their competing motives, the more dangerous her investigation becomes. Even the police are suspect. The plot twists and turns as it careens toward the finish at a pace fast enough to give the reader whiplash, but not so fast as to neglect character development and tension building.

Writing Style

With sharp wit, sarcasm, and an unapologetic use of the f-word, Tomlinson captures an edgy teen voice that fits perfectly with the tension in the story. The prose is clear with creative descriptions that set the tone, a pleasure to read.

Conclusion

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—even when her investigation leads her way too close to home. With a large cast of shady characters and enough twists to keep the reader guessing, Shadows in the Water is an excellent addition to teen suspense. I couldn’t put it down.


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Anxious People

The last page arrives far too soon. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Honestly, you should skip this review and buy the book, but in case you need a little encouragement first, read on.

Cover Description

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-read-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

“Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue.”

Characters

As usual, Bachman’s characters are the perfect blend of quirky and deep. With wry humor, he captures humanity in all its messiness. I love that he doesn’t write about single characters, but entire communities. Each person has their own odd behaviors that are only understood when they reveal who they truly are. Each person impacts the person next to them. These characters don’t jump off the page, they tear the pages right from the binding. Peculiar as they are, everyone can say they know someone like them.

Plot

The plot alternates timelines and perspectives to reveal both the police investigation and the hostage’s situation. He weaves various small threads into a complete narrative, with every minor detail having a significant impact and no loose threads left at the end. The mystery of what happened to the bank robber is compelling, but the characters themselves are so entertaining, I would have finished this book even if the plot were a bunch of strangers watching paint dry.

Writing Style

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite authors. Clichés flee the room when he enters it. His descriptions are unique and on-point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I paused my reading several times just to admire a sentence or phrase. He effortlessly captures the deep hurts people carry, the small ways they show their feelings even when they can’t say, “I love you” out loud. Every quirk has a reason, and even the vainest of characters is more than superficial.

Conclusion

I rarely review Fredrik Backman’s books because he is one of those authors whose books I will read without even scanning the description first. The last page arrives far too soon. His work has an addictive quality that leaves a lasting emotional impression. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

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No review needed. A Man Called Ove is one of my all-time favorite books.

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Again, just TRUST ME.


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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

This one has languished on my to-read list for too long, so I was thrilled when the library had a copy available. I can see why this debut novel received so much attention, and why it is soon to be a motion picture.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This one languished on my to-read list for too long, so I was thrilled when the library had a copy available.

Cover Description

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.


“Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.


“But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.”

Character

Eleanor Oliphant is a social sore thumb reminiscent of Ove in one of my favorite novels, A Man Called Ove. Honeyman brings her protagonist’s voice to life vividly, and she doesn’t shy away from poking fun at the conventions we consider “normal.” Spending time with Eleanor and her new misfit friends is delightful, a refreshing look at friendship.

Eleanor’s backstory is much darker than the description implies, but it adds to Eleanor’s humanity and leaves her with plenty of room to grow.

Plot

The plot follows Eleanor as she becomes infatuated with a musician she’s never met and tries to change herself so he will fall in love with her. Along the way, she and Raymond save an elderly man’s life, and Eleanor finds herself straddling two new worlds: the musician’s—which she longs to enter—and Raymond’s, into which she is thrust unawares. Having spent most of her life lonely, the choice is overwhelming. Along the way, she learns about herself, her past, and her capacity for friendship.

Overall, the plot moves at a glacial pace with the author sprinkling tidbits of Eleanor’s backstory throughout mundane scenes—most often, a lunch date. If you are the type of reader who needs quick-paced action sequences, this book is not for you, but I enjoyed Eleanor’s lengthy descriptions of her surroundings and circumstances. The joy of reading this story is being immersed in Eleanor’s unique perspective.

Writing Style

Honeyman’s great strength is capturing Eleanor’s quirks on the page and immersing the reader in her perspective. The prose overflowed with details and sophisticated vocabulary, and was a little superior in tone, just like Eleanor. The description is so thorough that I didn’t care about the plot. I just enjoyed experiencing the world through Eleanor’s eyes.

Theme

In contemporary fiction, I enjoy books with strong themes, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine did not disappoint. Themes of loneliness, friendship, and healing from past trauma permeated the prose. I like that the author thought to include these struggles in a relatively young protagonist—Eleanor is only thirty—and that none of her coworkers suspected. We often think of the elderly when we discuss loneliness, but even in the age of social media—and sometimes because of it—young people also experience a dearth of human contact and affection. Eleanor’s story shines a non-judgmental light on mental illness and provides a hopeful portrayal of treatment.

Conclusion

I can see why this debut novel received so much attention, and why it is soon to be a motion picture. Eleanor’s quirky personality colliding with Raymond’s gentle nature provides everything necessary for an entertaining story. Their unconventional friendship demonstrates the power of simple kindness and gives hope for a world in which loneliness is a bigger problem than ever.

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Book Review: The Alice Network

Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

At my last visit to the library of Grandma, I mentioned I never tire of WWII books. She came over the next day and handed me a stack of them, including this one.

Back Cover Description

“1947. In the chaotic aftermath of WWII, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and head to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth… no matter where it leads.”

Characters

I loved both the main characters. As an unwed, pregnant woman in 40s, Charlie faces significant challenges. She has a head for numbers, not the surrounding men believe her. She approaches life like a math problem, always trying to solve for x, but she soon discovers that life is not so straightforward. Through the course of the story, she grows from an uncertain disappointment to her parents into a confident young woman with plans of her own.

Eve also breaks many stereotypes. As a speech therapist, I appreciate the author’s accurate representation of stuttering. I love how Eve turns her stammer into an asset and takes advantage of people’s assumption that she is simple. Eve reminds us all that behind every cranky old neighbor lady is a story we could never imagine. In a culture where we often dismiss our elders in favor of youth-worship, Eve’s determination and courage are an inspiration.

Plot

Her entire family assumes Rose is another war tragedy, but Charlie recruits Eve to continue the search. In an alternate timeline, Eve works as a spy during WWI. As they continue searching for Charlie’s lost cousin, their stories intertwine.

Upon reading the supplemental information in the back, I was surprised to learn just how much of the story was factual. Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

Writing Style

The story alternates between Charlie and Eve’s perspectives and timelines. Charlie tells her tale in the first person, while Eve’s narrative is third-person. An odd difference, but not inhibitive. The suspense left between shifting perspectives could have been more intense; it took a while for the story to hook me.

Miscellaneous

I love the cover, especially since the car plays such a huge role in the plot. My grandmother’s paper has pages that alternate in width, giving it an old-school touch. At first, I enjoyed the novelty, but I soon came to hate it. The inconsistent page size makes it impossible to page through to see how many pages remain in a chapter.

Conclusion

This book smashes stereotypes and highlights the oft-ignored role of women during the two world wars. The protagonists are loveable yet flawed. While the story took some time to build suspense, it left me wanting to learn more. I recommend this book to fans of WWII fiction and to anyone wanting an engaging way to learn more about women’s role in the wars.  


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Author Q & A: B.A. Bellec

I had the privilege of connecting with author B.A. Bellec last month after reading his book Someone’s Story. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions for my readers.

What motivated you to write Someone’s Story? What made you decide to take a deeper dive into an often misunderstood mental health condition, especially with regard to the twist at the end (no spoilers please)?

Someone’s Story started as a journal for personal therapy. I was frustrated with a few things in my life and career. Writing was a way for me to process that better. The twist you are referring to was inspired by two people. My friend had an incident that resulted in him spending some time in care. I also had an aunt diagnosed with the condition from my book.

What prompted the decision to leave the protagonist named Someone?

The backstory behind this is that it started as a journal. After a few months, I started to make it fiction. I didn’t bother to name the character. In my head, it was always me. I just started referring to the character as Someone and kept writing. It stuck, and when I shared it with early readers I was considering changing it at that time. Most of my early feedback was that the story was unique in the way I don’t describe the main character or even name him. It makes it feel like you are in the story more. As I closed in on submitting my final copy I thought about changing it again, but so glad I trusted in those early readers and kept it. Proud of this unique feature to my little piece of art.

I am fascinated by the dual personalities of Erica-the shaman and the student. Can you talk a little bit about developing her character, as well as your decision to include psychedelics in the story?

Duality is something I saw lots of in the business world. People would come into the office and be all buttoned up and reserved. Then you get them outside the regular 4 walls and this wild animal would come out. The other way I saw it come out was when a person would say something in private and then in the meeting, they act differently and dance around the issue. People are afraid. Afraid to be themselves. They put on this mask every single day to get through because that is what they were trained to do coming up in school.

Erica was a later addition. I actually had Ashley as The Shaman in my first draft but decided there was enough material to break this part out of the Ashley character and create an entirely new person around the concept of duality and psychedelics. In the original version, these parts were muted. Once I broke the character out, I turned the dial up to 11 and wrote the tree chapter that ended up inspiring the cover, which I made with my girlfriend! https://babellec.com/2020/08/21/bonus-blog-5-the-story-behind-the-someones-story-cover-2/

The main reason I included drug use was that psychedelic drugs are known to often have negative impacts on certain issues around mental health. I also am curious about the ritualistic side of the usage. I think the problem we as a society face today is that we have lost that connection. I think back thousands of years where these drugs were used in ceremonies and you had to earn the right. There was often a physical, emotional, and spiritual journey you had to take before you could participate. Now just about anyone can get access and because of this, we have lost a bit of that connection. Anyone curious about the roots of drug use in modern culture, pick up this book: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B0818QJHKF

What would you say is the theme of the book? What are you hoping readers take away from it?

Overcoming obstacles. In fact, I would argue we have some common ground here. Having finished your book, Out of Ashes, I believe we both are fighting with this theme in the back of our minds as we write!

Anything can be an obstacle. A mental health diagnosis. A learning disorder. Poor family life. A breakup. A job. Picking up a new skill. My book is about trying to break through the walls and limits you put on yourself.

The main obstacle for me as a writer was to get over my fear that my spelling and grammar were not good enough. I feel like I am a storyteller, but I don’t write in perfect English. For the longest time that held me back. I was afraid to share this because I thought there would be too many errors. Eventually, I found Grammarly, and that improved my work lots. Then I brought on a pair of editors to help clean up my work more. I also make unique style choices because I didn’t learn writing in a system that told me how I had to do certain things. The other thing I am still struggling with, even on my second book, is past vs present tense. I frequently accidentally shift my tone. This is because I haven’t found my full potential yet. I hope that as I write more this will happen less and less. This is also where I lean on my editors lots.

I heard your next book will be more sci-fi. Why the change in genres?

I never set out to write Someone’s Story. It just popped out. I think Pulse was the story I always wanted to tell. I started thinking about it back when I was in film school years ago. Pulse is big though and Someone’s Story was me learning how to do this on a small scale. Now I have way more tools in my toolkit and I am attacking that film school idea with everything I got.

A few people have asked if I am worried about losing fans from my first book.  Yes, of course, I am. My writing style is still geared towards a young adult audience. I am trying to keep a few younger characters in my writing to keep those fans engaged. I think my prose is easy to read, my formatting is unique, and I like to think I am a genre-bender. Pulse is coming together extremely well, and I can’t wait to put the finishing touches on it over the next few months. There won’t ever be a sequel or prequel to Someone’s Story. It’s a one and done. My next book though, it’s a world builder, and I hope to write a few books in that universe I have crafted. Just check out this creature and song for a tease:

https://babellec.com/2020/07/26/someones-story-book-tour-day-7-new-music-and-pulse-book-tease/

Thanks for taking the time to feature me and if anyone is interested in any of my work, come follow me on your favourite platform from the links below!

https://babellec.com/links/


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Book Review: Someone’s Story

This thought provoking young adult novel is a poignant portrayal of mental health and the power of friendship.

Someone’s Story by B.A. Bellec

I encountered this book through an author networking site and decided to give it a read.

Description

Someone’s Story is the tale of a teenager who refers to himself as Someone. A new school gives him a clean slate, but also triggers his anxiety. The story follows him as he makes friends, makes mistakes, and makes peace with his own troubled mind.

Character

Someone is a well-rounded character, flawed but growing. His struggles are personal, yet universal, and his journey of perseverance and acceptance is deeply moving. His group of “weirdos” are a fantastic representation of the power of friendship to overcome adversity.

I have mixed feelings about the protagonist referring to himself as Someone, implying that this could happen to anyone. I can see this approach being successful in two different ways. In one sense, the protagonist’s anxiety causes him to avoid attention. His previous struggles with social skills cause him to fear being “that guy.” He wants to be “normal,” but his weirdo friends teach him that nobody is normal.

In an opposite sense, the self-designation of Someone alludes to his goal to “be somebody.” He doesn’t want to disappoint his father, doesn’t want to waste his life. To that end, he pursues challenging goals, starting with running.

Unfortunately, I feel like the author was reaching for both these concepts and caught neither. Neither is sufficiently emphasized to stand out as a central message. Furthermore, the character isn’t generic enough to be just “someone.” For one, he is male. To make it truly generic, the author could have edited out the mild romantic parts. As another point, it isn’t just anybody who becomes a passionate advocate for blonde roast coffee and 90s movies. Lastly, I don’t buy that the friends who got close enough to him to share their deep dark secrets wouldn’t have learned his name. At the very least, a teacher calling attendance would have revealed it. The author could have kept the name a secret from the reader, but implied the other characters knew it. Instead, the protagonist introduces himself to his new friends as Someone, and no one probes the reasoning behind that choice even after getting to know him.

I’m glad the character wasn’t a generic someone. I found my eyes skipping over the dialogue tags to spare my mind from thinking of him that way. I cannot relate to an abstract, generic homo sapien, but I can relate to the narrator’s crusade against the dark roast, even though I myself do not drink caffeine. These details make him human, which makes him relatable. A real name would have helped.

That said, the choice of Someone made me think enough to write five paragraphs. Perhaps that’s the point. This book is nothing if not thought provoking. My head was spinning for hours after finishing it.

Plot

I made the mistake of reading reviews before picking up this book. A few of them mentioned the book started off slow. I’m not sure whether I would have come to that conclusion without the priming, but I will say the first third of the story is fairly low drama. Having been raised reading The Lord of the Rings, I don’t mind a slow read, so this wasn’t an issue for me.

The plot follows Someone as he makes the most of his fresh start at a new school. His mental health challenges him, but as he gets closer to his friends, he realizes he isn’t the only “weirdo.” He gets into trouble, makes mistakes, and learns from them like any teenager, though the challenges he faces at the end are well “above the call of duty.” There are some odd scenes involving drugs, but they fit with the overall tone.

Writing Style

I typically abhor the stream-of-consciousness style of narration, but Bellec uses it to spectacular effect. Rather than spewing whatever random observations come to mind, the protagonist’s thoughts are sharp and relevant, just enough to really get into his perspective. The tone in the beginning of the novel is engaging, almost haunting. I quickly found myself tuned to the rhythm of the words.

Books like this are often written from the author’s own experience, which can lead to a lack of continuity as the author fixates on “how it really happened” and lectures the reader on the lessons learned. Not so with Someone’s Story. The story has a compelling structure, and Bellec does a wonderful job weaving the life lessons into the narrative such that the reader learns them alongside the protagonist. Someone makes many profound observations about life, but at no point does the prose read like a self-help book.

Theme

For me, the big winner of this novel is its theme. In a world where everyone has 800 Facebook friends but no one to pick them up at the airport, the value of genuine friendship can never be overstated. The protagonist’s goal is to make friends, but he takes it a step further than he ever has by getting to know them beyond a surface level. This enormous risk causes both him and his friends a great deal of pain, but it also teaches him about acceptance, forgiveness, perseverance, and perspective. In the end, these friendships help him overcome his mental health challenges.

Conclusion

This artfully written novel tears down our social media-dominated definition of friendship in favor of a deeper connection by which “weirdos” can band together to overcome adversity. A flawed group of teens, struggling to play with the cards the world dealt them, learn to accept themselves and to support each other as they journey through life’s most awkward phase. The plot progresses slowly through the first third of the book, but the writing style and tone are engaging from page one. While I would have preferred a named character, the protagonist’s self-designation as “Someone” is thought provoking. His struggles with mental health serve as a poignant demonstration of strength growing from vulnerability. Overall, this insightful story is a shining example of perseverance and the power of friendship.


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Character Profile: Tony

Here is the last character profile from my upcoming book Out of Ashes.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

If Gus is a long-simmering volcano, and Minh a crack of a whip, Tony Giovanni is a fireworks finale. When angered, his jaw clenches, his round head reddens like a ripe tomato, and his bulging muscles threaten to tear through the T-shirt stretched over his stocky frame. Just as a firework explodes with fury and dissipates in an instant, Tony is as quick to forgive and forget as he is to get angry.

A third-generation Italian who lives amidst a swarm of siblings and cousins, Tony fixes anything with moving parts using nothing but a “good old-fashioned Leatherman.” When he’s not threatening to punch Gus’s face in, “Love Doctor Tony” pounds him with his patented dating rules. Some may call him simple, but Tony couldn’t care less what other people think. He moseys through life with a tender heart, a crooked smile, and a clenched fist.

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Character Profile: Gus

My novel, Out of Ashes, comes out August 4th 2020. Here is a look at Gus, the disgruntled genius.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

The son of parents with multiple doctorates each, Gustaf “Gus” Hein was top of his class at an exclusive boarding school until his parents’ scandal sent them fleeing to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Accustomed to debating the finer points of astrophysics with his peers, Gus now walks the halls with guys who say “dude” and make fart jokes.

Girls may swoon at the sight of tall-blonde-and-handsome’s deep blue eyes, but as soon as he opens his mouth, they scatter like a flock of birds after a gunshot. His tone spews exasperation, and no one understands a word of his prodigious vocabulary. No one except Cathryn. Despite her quirks, Cathryn translates what he says with the naturalness of a bilingual.

To a guy whose expression alternates between a derisive sneer and a disgruntled scowl, Cathryn’s kindness is a foreign language. His stoicism masks a simmering temper, but he doesn’t waste time believing in love.

Then again, Cathryn’s smile is evidence for a lot of things he doesn’t believe.

Click here to learn more about my book The Lies She Wore

Book Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory

For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

Cover Description

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over?” — Amazon Description *

Characters and Plot

As a Minnesota-nice, passive-aggressive people pleaser, I find it difficult to empathize with rebel protagonists. The love story subplot—bitter girl surrounds her heart with walls as thick as they are high; persistent nice guy breaks through them—is one I’ve seen before, most recently in A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi**.

However, Laurie Halse Anderson (LHA) creates empathy for Hayley more effectively than Mafi does for Shirin. While I initially found Hayley’s attitude off-putting, she and Finn were so “adorkable” I couldn’t help rooting for them.

As part of my graduate schooling, I had the privilege to train in the Minneapolis VA Hospital. The VA provided counseling for PTSD along with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. The experience gave me a profound respect for the men and women who serve our country, and a deeper understanding of the effects of that service on the body and the mind. If you would like to learn more, I recommend reading Once a Warrior—Always a Warrior by Charles Hoge.

LHA depicts PTSD with heart-wrenching realism. Hayley constantly evaluates her dad for signs of flashbacks. The story line dives into dark moments of violence, but pops up for a breath of hope often enough to make the reader cry out when it doesn’t last. Between the “adorkable” love story and the progressive intensity of the PTSD, the story is more than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded.

More than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course at Warp 9, where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded. #TheImpossibleKnifeofMemory

My only critique is that the author explains Hayley’s fear of water, but doesn’t divulge the history behind her hatred of the mall. One scene suggests she’s claustrophobic, but I would like to know more.

Writing Style

LHA’s writing style is the opposite of my own. I gravitate towards long sentences that flow across the page. Her prose is punchy and precise. No word joins the others without first proving its worth.

Her unique descriptions characterize her protagonist well. For example, she describes one of Hayley’s classmates as “the same size and shape as a porta potty.” The witty repartee between Hayley in Finn is what won me to Hayley’s side. It was as though they belonged to a linguistic genre all their own.

In short, LHA’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages. @halseanderson

Conclusion

Given the subject, this book is not for readers who want to curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and eat Christmas cookies. For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

Click below to purchase from Amazon.

The Impossible Knife of Memory


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**A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a good depiction of the fickleness of high school and the arbitrariness of popularity.