Books Read & Analyzed in September 2021

I dedicated the month of September to read books about the art and craft of writing. It’s slower than reading novels – that’s for sure!

At least, that was my plan. I had it all mapped out, down to how many pages I’d read each day. Then, that online writing course I’m taking began on September 6, and my plans went out the window.

Studying historical novels and historical mystery novels dominated my reading time in September. Weekly online course assignments included analyzing various elements of novels in our chosen genre. My genre is historical fiction, with an element of mystery in my first novel – the manuscript I’m currently working on. At least, I hope this turns out to be my first novel.

Today’s blog post might appeal more to writers than readers but, since it’s definitely part of my journey as a writer, I feel compelled to share it with you.

I evaluated one book I’ve read and five books I haven’t read. I was looking for such things as scene length, chapter length, sensory detail, point-of-view, tense, noun and verb strength, microtension, high moment, amount of narrative, amount of dialogue, and the action-reaction-processing cycle.

Until taking this “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful” online course by C.S. Lakin, I’d never tried to analyze the elements of a novel. I just read for enjoyment. I look forward to reading for enjoyment again someday, for I find analyzing novels a bit of a drag.

Even though today’s blog post takes a much different approach than my usual first blog of a month about the books I read the previous month, I hope you’ll bear with me a few minutes. My remarks about each of the following books might pique your interest, even if you’re not interested in the elements considered in the writing of a novel.

The War Nurse, by Tracey Enerson Wood

The War Nurse, by Tracey Enerson Wood

Published this year, I found The War Nurse to be an excellent example of historical fiction for me to evaluate. I’d read Tracey Enerson Wood’s first novel, The Engineer’s Wife, and liked it. The War Nurse is full of rich prose. She uses strong verbs and vivid adjectives. Writing like that has to be learned. It is hard work. I want to write like that. I wish I’d had time to read the entire book instead of skimming through it to look for specific writing techniques and elements.

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

This book was published in 2010. I read it in 2017. (See what I said about it and other books in my February 3, 2017 blog post, What I read in January 2017.) It was a novel that stayed with me for a long time and it’s one that still clearly comes to mind when I think back on historical novels I’ve especially enjoyed. I checked it out of the library last month just so I could analyze it in relation to my class assignments.

Like in The War Nurse, I found an Author’s Note, Acknowledgments, Book Club Questions, and “A Conversation with Kathleen Grissom” at the end of The Kitchen House. I think these are items that fans of historical fiction like to see – and expect to see.

Historical fiction readers like for Author’s Notes to tell them which characters and events in a novel are real and which ones are a creation of the author’s skill. I find myself reading the Author’s Note at the back of novels before I read the actual novel.

The Historians, by Cecilia Ekbäck

The Historians, by Cecilia Ekback

This is a 2021-published historical mystery. I didn’t get to read much of the book. I made note of how the book was organized and some of the features it included, such as a map of the setting, a preface, and “Cast of Characters.” All these were in the front of the book before the story itself began.

I found the list of 44 characters intimidating. I would never be able to keep up with so many people. The 19 or so introductory pages included sections like “Lapland, January 1943,” “Stockholm, February 1, 1943,” and “Blackäsen Mountain, March 31, 1943.”

The book is 431 pages plus a four-page “Author’s Note and Historical Background,” and a list of nine “Sources” in the back of the book.

Scenes varied from two to eight-and-a-half pages. Some paragraphs were half a page long. The story is told in an unbroken pattern of “Laura” chapters, “Jens” chapters, and “Blackäsen Mountain” chapters and ends with “Lapland, June 1943.”

The settings in this book are a refreshing change from all the World War II novels of recent years that have almost exclusively been set in France, Poland, or Germany.

I regret I didn’t have time to actually read this book; however, I was overwhelmed by the pages and pages of introductory material. One would have to be keenly interested in the settings and time period in order to read those 19 pages before getting to the story.

It was an eye-opening exercise related to the writing course I’m taking to analyze the elements of this historical mystery. This was the first recently-published historical mystery I analyzed.

An Irish Hostage, by Charles Todd

An Irish Hostage, by Charles Todd

Charles Todd is the pen name for a mother-son writing duo. An Irish Hostage is the 12th novel in their Bess Crawford Mysteries. I haven’t read any of them. This is their 2021 novel, so I chose it to analyze.

Like The Historians, this is an historical mystery. Although I didn’t have time to read much of it, this novel appealed to me more than the other book. That’s just personal preference, and not a criticism of Cecilia Ekbäck’s book.

It’s written in first-person past tense and is set in Somerset, June 1919.

The opening narrative paragraphs set a pleasant tone with such phrases as, “the long windows open to a surprisingly mild spring evening, and a bit of a breeze pleasantly lifting the lilac curtains just a little.” But then the mood suddenly turns with, “The only thing that spoiled this charming scene were the expressions on our faces.”

Of course, the novel being categorized as “historical mystery,” the reader should already know the tide is going to turn.

I found the style of writing to be more to my liking than the “heavier” Ekbäck book. Chapters ranged in length from around four or five pages to about 20 pages.

There is a page of acknowledgments and a two-sentence “About the Author” page at the end of the book.

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell

The House on Vesper Sands, by Paraic O’Donnell

This is another 2021 historical mystery. It’s set in February through June of 1893. It begins with “I. Requiem Æternam” and the five succeeding sections also have Latin names. That technique in itself gives the reader a hint about the mood of the book.

The opening paragraph introduces Esther Tull feeling “the first gentleness of the snow.” In the second paragraph, Esther extends “a gloved hand to the railing…. The pain was returning, but it was not yet more than she could bear….”

Interesting wording there. The inclusion of the word “yet,” adds a level of intrigue for the reader. Every word matters in a novel – or should.

This novel is mostly narrative, with scenes averaging six or seven pages. There’s an Afterword and Acknowledgments on page 401.

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

When I searched for best-selling historical mysteries, I noticed Andrea Penrose’s name coming up repeatedly in the top 50 or top 100. I borrowed her 2017 novel, Murder on Black Swan Lane from the library. It’s set in Regency London, which appears to be Ms. Penrose’s favorite era and location.

I’m not a fan of prologues, but hers was just four pages and I wanted to get a feel for her writing style. Her rich language using strong verbs and spot-on adjectives drew me in. For example, the prologue opened with, “A flicker of weak light skittered over the stone floor, followed by the soft scrapes of steps and the whispered whoosh, whoosh of mist-dampened wool.”

The book’s 27 chapters range from nine to 16 pages in length, based on the seven I counted. They’re followed by a two-page “Author’s Note” and then the prologue and first chapter of her book, Murder at Half Moon Gate.

The biography on the inside of the back cover reveals that “Andrea Penrose is a pseudonym for an author who has also written as Cara Elliott for Grand Central and Andrea Pickens for NAL.” Perhaps you’ve read one of her books under those other names. I haven’t.

I look forward to reading or at least perusing more of Andrea Penrose’s books. The rich language skills she has are something I’d like to emulate.

Since my last blog post

I completed the fourth week of my eight-week writing course, and have been busy editing my novel manuscript. Trying to work in all I’ve learned in the last month isn’t easy. I’m into the third chapter now. There will be many more revisions in my future. I enjoy the process of fiddling with words.

I’ve also worked on the notes from my local history research. I still hope to get those notes in book form eventually.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I just finished reading Making Good Habits, Breaking Bad Habits, by Joyce Meyer. It was a nice diversion from all the books and scenes I analyzed for my class.

Making Good Habits, Breaking Bad Habits, by Joyce Meyer

Now that the deer have devoured the leaves on the hydrangeas and other plants and shrubs in our yard, this week they started eating the azaleas. Now they’ve gone too far!

It’s officially autumn in North Carolina. There are spots of leaf color here and there here in the southern piedmont. Many leaves seem to just be dying and falling off. Of course, it won’t be peak fall leaf season here for several weeks. There’s a hint of fall in the air at night and in the mornings, but our daytime temperatures are still mainly in the low- to mid-80s.

It’s warmer than it was last week when I mentioned being cold. None of my southern hemisphere readers took the bait last week when I volunteered to go down under and visit for a few months. I guess they’re enjoying spring now. I will be, too, in six months!

Janet

Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors

The 2017 Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on September 9, 2017 was fantastic! This free event included more than 45 authors. It was well-organized and supported by a large number of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers.

As is stated on the http://www.bookmarksnc.org website,

“Bookmarks is a literary arts organization that fosters a love of reading and writing in the community. Our programming connects readers and authors and includes:  an annual Festival of Books, an Authors in Schools program, and year-round events in our community gathering space and nonprofit independent bookstore.”

My sister and I have wanted to go to Bookmarks Festival of Books for years, but this was the first year it worked out for us to get there. The festival is held annually, usually on the second weekend in September. Make plans to attend Bookmarks next year!

We got to hear seven authors speak at Bookmarks! Seven authors in one day! Each one of them took questions from the audience after making their remarks.

Author events were going on throughout the day in six different venues within walking distance, so you could pick and choose which ones you wanted to attend.

Jamie Ford, author

Jamie Ford was the author we got to hear first. He was a very entertaining speaker. He regaled us with some of the comments teens have made on social media as they are required to read his novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in the state of Washington.

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Author Jamie Ford @BookmarksNC. (Photo by Janet Morrison.)

Mr. Ford also talked about his new novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, and the true story that inspired it. He had arranged to autograph and have for sale copies of this new book even though the official release date wasn’t until September 12.

The book sales tent

After Jamie Ford’s presentation, we had time to visit the Bookmarks large book sales tent to purchase books by the authors participating in the festival.

Authors Kathleen Grissom, Lisa Wingate, & Patti Callahan Henry

I was especially excited about the opportunity to hear Kathleen Grissom speak. I wrote about her novels, The Kitchen House and Glory Over Everything in earlier blog posts –  What I read in October and What I read in January 2017.

Ms. Grissom, Lisa Wingate, and Patti Callahan Henry had a panel discussion about Southern Fiction. Although none of them were born in The South, that’s the genre they have written. When we arrived at their venue, it was almost standing room only.

We strained to hear the authors’ remarks and their answers to questions from the audience, but we enjoyed the bits and pieces of the panel discussion that we could hear. They each talked about some of their books and their works in progress. Be on the lookout for future novels by each of them!

Kathleen Grissom, Lisa Wingate, & Patti Callahan Henry – book signing

We split up to take advantage of the book signing by these three writers of Southern Fiction. Patti Callahan Henry was signing copies of her latest novel, The Bookshop at Water’s End. Marie was excited to meet Lisa Wingate and get her to autograph a copy of her new novel, Before We Were Yours, and I was thrilled to meet Kathleen Grissom and get her to autograph a copy of The Kitchen House.

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Janet getting Kathleen Grissom’s autograph @BookmarksNC. Author Patti Callahan Henry is seated to Ms. Grissom’s right, and author Lisa Wingate is seated to Ms. Henry’s right. (Photo by Marie Morrison.)

Lunch

A variety of food trucks were on hand to offer several options for lunch or snacks. My burger was delicious, but holding onto the Styrofoam tray it was served in was more than a challenge in the beautiful but blustery day.

Margaret Maron’s book signing

After lunch, we went to the Forsyth County Public Library booth for Margaret Maron’s book signing. She was very gracious. When she saw me taking a picture of Marie at her table, she asked if we were sisters and insisted that I come get in the picture, too. Marie is a big fan of Ms. Maron’s Deborah Knott series of mystery novels, so it was a thrill for her to get to meet the author.

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Author Margaret Maron @BookmarksNC. (Photo by Janet Morrison.)

It was a thrill for me, too! I’ve read Bootlegger’s Daughter, the first book in the Deborah Knott series, which means I have 19 more in the series to read.

Bookmarks – an independent bookstore

After getting Margaret Maron’s autograph, we visited the literary arts nonprofit and independent Bookmarks bookstore. It is located at 634 West Fourth Street #110 in Winston-Salem, so please make an effort to support it the next time you’re in that city.

Beverly Tatum and Marc Lamont Hill

Beverly Tatum and Marc Lamont Hill spoke about “The Race Divide: Then and Now” for an hour in the afternoon. This event was very well attended and enlightening. Those of us who are white have much to learn about “white privilege” and all it entails. The more I learn, the more I realize I have not really appreciated or understood in the past. I strive to be more cognizant of it and to do better.

Dr. Tatum and Dr. Hill’s remarks and discussion centered around race relations in the United States in the 1990s as compared to race relations in 2017. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Tatum’s nonfiction book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race.

A new edition of this book has been published this year to include some updates and to cast more light on the fact that although Brown v Board of Education was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, little real racial integration takes place today in the lives of most Americans. Schools are racially-integrated, but churches, neighborhoods, and friendships are still very much one race or the other.

Margaret Maron, author

Hearing Margaret Maron speak late in the afternoon was a highlight among many highlights of the day, especially after meeting her and seeing how gracious and friendly she was when Marie got her to autograph Long Upon the Land: A Deborah Knott Mystery. Those of you who are Margaret Maron fans will be sad to learn that she does not plan to write any more novels. She said she might write some short stories. Her new novel, Take Out, marks the end of her nine-book Sigrid series.

Ms. Maron was an entertaining speaker. She talked about living in Johnston County, North Carolina and enjoying how her Deborah Knott series allowed her to travel around the state as Judge Knott was assigned to court cases in various locations.

Diana Gabaldon, ending keynote speaker

Unfortunately, I was unable to return to Winston-Salem on September 10 for Diana Gabaldon’s keynote address. I’m a big fan of her Outlander book series, so it would have been a wonderful to have heard her speak. Perhaps she’ll participate in the Bookmarks Festival of Books again in the future.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Published in 2012, this was Ms. Stedman’s first novel. I’m also enjoying getting back into some quilting.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

What I read in October

As is my custom, my first blog post of a new month is about what I read in the previous month.

The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

The first book I read in October was The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom. It was the most absorbing story I’ve read in quite a while. Set in Virginia in the 1790s, it opens with Lavinia, an 11-year-old orphan girl from Ireland who is relegated to the kitchen house on a plantation. The house slaves soon become the only family Lavinia knows.

Ms. Grissom did an excellent job developing all the characters in this her first novel. From the ship’s captain who owns the plantation, his drug-addicted wife, their son, the house slaves, some of the field slaves, the overseer, and a white neighbor, each of these main characters were carefully fleshed out by the author. There are many tangled relationships among this cast of characters. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that some relationships are not as they seem. As an adult plantation mistress, Lavinia learns that she is no more free than the slaves.

I highly recommend The Kitchen House. It’s a real page turner! It was the October selection by the Rocky River Readers Book Club. I’m so glad one of the club members recommended this work of historical fiction.

It is my understanding that Kathleen Grissom had not intended to write a sequel to The Kitchen House until her readers demanded to know what happened to the characters after that first book ended. What a great compliment for a first-time author! I look forward to reading the sequel, Glory Over Everything:  Beyond the Kitchen House.

Redemption Road, by John Hart

I also read Redemption Road, by North Carolina author John Hart. A much different read than The Kitchen House, reading this literary thriller took me a little out of my comfort zone. It took me a few pages to get into the book, but then I was hooked and I became intrigued to find out how each of the main characters found redemption. It was darker and contained more graphic violence than most books I read, but I’m trying to stretch myself this year and read books from some genres to which I don’t normally gravitate.

Redemption Road reminded me that every person has baggage. It forced me to think about the fact that we encounter individuals every day who are suffering in silence due to physical abuse or other secrets they harbor. We all seek acceptance and the approval of others on some level. If we’re lucky, we find redemption — which should not be confused with revenge. We need to be patient with one another and not so quick to judge, since we don’t know what emotional, physical, or mental burden another human being is living with.

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict

Reminiscent of Clara in the novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany, this historical novel is based on the lives of Albert Einstein and his first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Maric. She was a brilliant physicist and mathematician in her own right, but as the years went by she lived more and more in Albert’s shadow. In fact, she was more gifted in math than her famous husband, whom she met at university in Zurich, Switzerland. Since at least the 1990s, there has been speculation that Mitza Einstein had a bigger hand — perhaps even the major hand — in much of the work for which her husband was credited. Perhaps it was Mitza who formulated the Theory of Relativity, but in the early 1900s it was nearly impossible for a woman to be recognized for intellectual accomplishments.

Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray, by Dorothy Love

I read the first 11 chapters of Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray, by Dorothy Love before it had to be returned to the public library. I hope to get back to it soon. It is based on the relationship between Mrs. Robert E. Lee and a slave named Selina Norris Gray.

There are too many good books out there calling my name and too little time for this slow reader to get to them all.

Until my next blog post in a few days, I hope you have a good book to read and, if you’re a writer, quality writing time.

Janet