Lowcountry Bribe: A Book Review

Lowcountry BribeLowcountry Bribe by C. Hope Clark is the perfect fall read. It is the kind of book you curl up with for a weekend along with your coffee and a warm blanket. But be warned! It is hard to put down once you start reading. I finished it in two sittings. Lowcountry Bribe is a fast-paced mystery with an amazing protagonist, Carolina Slade. First, I love her name! Second, she is a great protagonist. She is not Ms. Perfect.  She is flawed in her own unique ways and that is refreshing. She makes mistakes and poor judgments (as we all do) and we get to witness the consequences for the choices that she makes.  Carolina Slade isn’t the only loveable character. There is also Wayne, the hunky but somewhat troubled investigator who often butts heads with Carolina Slade, and Carolina’s quirky and energetic best friend Savvy. In addition to these loveable characters, C. Hope Clark gives us plenty of unlikeable and suspicious characters, enough to make us wonder who the guilty party really is all the way until the end.

Besides the great cast of characters, I also loved the fast pace of Lowcountry Bribe and how C. Hope Clark ended each chapter in such a way that it was nearly impossible to put the book down without reading just…one…more…chapter. The development of the characters was done really well, too. Even though I feel like I was given a satisfactory ending to the book, I can’t wait to read the next two books in the Carolina Slade Mystery series (Tidewater Murder and  Palmetto Poison) and  to see where she takes the characters. And if that isn’t enough, C. Hope Clark has a new mystery series, The Edisto Island Mysteries, and has just released the first book, Murder on Edisto.

Book suggestion/review

Jackie After O: A Book Review

Every once in a while I come across a book that grabs my attention and doesn’t let go. Jackie After O is one of those books. Tina Cassidy does a fantastic job of presenting the facts about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ life in 1975 in an engaging way. She provides us with important background information that helps us better understand the scope of what Jackie endured and what she ultimately accomplished. Cassidy captures the era in which Jackie lived and the expectations of women at that time through Jackie’s experiences. Though Jackie was extremely intelligent, she hid that intelligence and instead portrayed the expectations set upon her by others – the quiet, demure, supportive wife who was only interested in homemaking and her husband. We learn about the true Jackie who was a great journalist, editor, and preservationist; a voracious reader of the classics; and a woman with a level of tenacity rarely seen. Jackie did the majority of her important work behind the scenes and always credited others for her accomplishments. Cassidy provides amazing contrast between the true Jackie and the superficial Jackie everyone believed her to be. She provides examples of the outside perceptions of Jackie through headlines and personal comments of others and then provides examples of what was actually going on in Jackie’s life at those moments. There are many examples of personal commentary by those who met Jackie that exemplify the stark contrast between how Jackie was perceived by outsiders and the media and the person she truly was behind the façade imposed upon her.

Jackie After O is so important in helping us understand that what we see in the headlines and how we perceive others to be is not always true. Those thrust into the spotlight often take on a public persona that shields their own vulnerabilities and perceived flaws. The most haunting example of this is the photos Cassidy provides us. In nearly every photo, Jackie has on her picture-perfect-plastic smile for the cameras even though many of them were taken when she was experiencing unimaginable devastation in her life. What Cassidy captures so well is the humanness behind the iconic figure that Jackie was. Jackie made mistakes, as well all do, but her mistakes were paraded in front of her and in front of the entire world. And yet, she continued to improve herself despite the ridicule she faced; she continued to evolve as a woman in an era when women were not supposed to aspire to anything beyond being good wives and mothers; and she continued to make the best of every situation in which she found herself. Jackie was a woman of action and we can all learn from her bravery and courage in the face of life experiences many of us will never endure.

Book suggestion/review

Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected – A Book Review

Bloom emerged from a blog author Kelle Hampton began shortly after her first daughter, Lainey’s, birth. Through her blog, Enjoying the Small Things, Hampton wanted to share with others the simple joys of motherhood she was experiencing.  She could not have foreseen how the birth of her second daughter, Nella, would challenge her so vigorously to continue to find a way to enjoy the small things. Bloom chronicles Hampton’s coming to terms with having a child with Down syndrome, her grieving process over her expectations of what could have been, and her resolve to take the situation that was handed to her and make the best of it. Bloom is by far the most visually beautiful memoir I have seen. The photographs included are stunning and bring Hampton’s experiences to life for the reader. One of the most wrenching photos is on page 7. Family and friends are toasting Nella’s birth and in the background, behind the half-full glasses of champagne, you can see Hampton’s face and it is clear from her expression that she already knows something is not right with her daughter.

Bloom is so much more than just Hampton’s experience learning that her daughter has Down syndrome. It is a testament to the miraculous healing power of family, friendships, women, and forgiveness – not just forgiving others, but forgiving ourselves as well. When I started reading, I thought this was another memoir that sugar-coated the process that a mother goes through when they find out their child has a special need. Being a mother with a child on the autism spectrum, I needed to see how someone else handled learning their child has special needs and how they came to terms with it. I needed the good, but I also needed the downright ugly. It was so refreshing to see that in Bloom. Oftentimes, when I read a memoir that only highlights the rainbows and butterflies and skips over the tornadoes and hurricanes, I feel like a horrible person, like somehow I should be able to make every day full of rainbows and butterflies. I needed to read something I could relate to, something that showed what it’s really like to find out your child is different from what you had expected and Bloom filled that need. I love the authenticity Kelle Hampton exemplifies; the courage she shows through her willingness to bring us fully into the ugly. It is ugly, this awakening. It is an awakening to our own selfishness in our expectations for others and our prejudices towards those we don’t perceive as perfect. It is an awakening to just how much we define ourselves by what other’s think of us and it brings us to a place where we question our beliefs about ourselves, our world, and God. As we see in Bloom, though, the beauty far outweighs the ugliness, and if we choose to let it, that beauty can transform the ugly from a raging wildfire into a tiny flicker.

Bloom spans the first year of Nella’s life and I love how Hampton shows that the fears, the questions, and the journey itself, does not stop just because we’ve learned to accept what we have been given. It continues and the ugliness can creep back in if we do not make a conscious choice each day to keep it at bay by focusing on the good that surrounds us no matter how small. Hampton’s journey to find the beauty in the unexpected and her truth on how she got to that point will help so many others start searching for and find the beauty hidden in the ugliness of their situations too.

Hampton addresses in Bloom how her positive outlook about Nella’s diagnosis caused uproar with some of her blog readers. She was told that she was in denial and to wait until Nella got older and her services ran out and she’d have to fight to get the care her daughter needs. Then she would fully understand the awfulness of her situation. I am there now, and yes, it is hell, but I don’t believe keeping a positive attitude about your situation is ever a bad thing. It is beneficial to warn others what might be up ahead, but not beneficial to scold them for enjoying the time they have right now. I think it is wonderful that Hampton has the blessed opportunity to enjoy her daughter at a time when every need she has is being met and that she has the mindset to enjoy it instead of focusing on what might happen years from now. It is one thing to be prepared for what might happen and quite another to be so worried about it that you don’t enjoy what is happening right now.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who is facing a crisis that has led them to question everything they thought they knew about themselves and about life. It is an uplifting, transformative memoir. We are witnesses to the shattering of Hampton’s tough outer shell in the midst of tremendous heartbreak and the emergence of her true, authentic, beautiful self that had been patiently waiting for the right moment to be revealed.

Book suggestion/review

The Moment: A Review

The Moment is a collection of short essays from 125 writers and artists that focuses on a particular moment in time that significantly changed each author’s life. The collection comes to us from the creators of the Six-Word Memoir series and Not Quite What I Was PlanningSmith Magazine. There is such a wide variety of essays in this collection that it will appeal to almost everyone. I actually brought the book to my writing residency and shared several of the essays I thought were relevant to some of my peers and their struggles with writing and life. It includes essays from Dave Eggers, Diane Ackerman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Bill Ayers, Jennifer Egan, A. J. Jacobs, Judy Collins and many more. This is a book you will want to come back to again and again especially when you need inspiration on those days when you believe everything is going wrong in your life. Below is a brief description of just a few of my favorites.

John B. Carnett, in his brief essay “Birth,” discusses the moment he realized he was using his camera as a buffer between himself and the life unfolding in front of him. It brings forth the question: What do we use as a buffer to distance ourselves from what is happening around us? This might seem odd, but sometimes I feel like my glasses provide a buffer between me and others.

Diane Ackerman has a beautiful essay entitled “Love in a Time of Illness” about her husband’s stroke and his slow recovery and the skills he developed to compensate for what he’d lost. It is heartbreaking and at the same time so hopeful and inspiring.

In “Momento Mori,” Adam Theron-Lee Rensch takes us on a haunting journey into how he believes he accidentally killed his father by rearranging the furniture in his father’s apartment in an attempt to keep his father from getting hurt should he wake up drunk and fall.

Another haunting essay is “Forgiven” by Jennifer Thompson. In the essay, Thompson takes us through her experience watching a man be convicted of her rape, finding out eleven years later that he is innocent, and the beautiful aftermath of what should have been an unthinkably horrific experience.

These are only a few brief descriptions of what you will encounter in The Moment. It is a book that will have you reflecting on your own life and the moments you’ve experienced that changed everything and will serve as a reminder that even the worst of experiences can turn out better than you ever expected.

Book suggestion/review

The Reconstructionist: A Review

The ReconstructionistThe Reconstructionist follows the main character, Ellis, who is a bit lost after graduating college as an engineer. His half-brother died when he was younger in a car accident close to their home and Ellis heard the accident. Hearing accidents was commonplace where they lived; however, when Ellis went to the accident scene, as he often did after hearing one, he realized it involved his brother and his brother’s girlfriend who he had a secret crush on. Many years later, Ellis runs into his brother’s girlfriend, Heather, and she gets him a job as an accident reconstructionist with her husband, Boggs. Boggs and Heather have a troubled relationship and Ellis and Heather, shortly after meeting, begin an affair. When Boggs learns of the affair, he disappears and, in response, Ellis begins a journey to find him leaving his job and Heather behind.

I like how Nick Arvin uses dialogue as a teaching tool for the reader on the difficult subject of accident reconstruction. Arvin is able to help the reader understand the intricacies that go along with trying to find out exactly what happened in an accident. For example, Ellis explains the process of crush energy to a lawyer he is working for on a particular accident. Through explaining to another character how the different processes work, the reader is better able to understand as well.

I also like how the character, Ellis, notices minute details everywhere he goes such as skid marks on the road even when it doesn’t pertain to his work. His work has become a part of him even in his off time. However, the novel overall has too many details. They are often list like, unnecessary to the story, and become a major distraction. The use of so much detail also slows the pace of the novel and takes away from the impact it could have on the reader. I found myself skipping over paragraphs that were laden with unnecessary details.

Something else that was problematic for me with the novel was the character development. None of the characters felt real to me. The dialogue seemed forced and unrealistic. The emotions seemed muted in places where emotions should be running high and running high in situations that would not call for an emotional response. Instead of feeling like I was part of the story as it unfolded, I felt like I was being told the story. I did not feel empathetic towards the characters and was not invested enough in them. I believe the overabundance of details contributed to this. Instead of getting pertinent details on the characters interiority, the reader is given details on what a town looks like, what stores are in the town, what a character bought at a store. For example, on page 187, Ellis walks into a hotel room and we get this description:

He stepped into the room and frigid air gripped him; mounted into the opposite wall was a roaring air-conditioner unit. Next to it stood a sliding glass door onto the balcony. A watery green-and-blue wallpaper flowed from the ceiling to a plum-colored carpet bearing a history of spills and heels. A bed covered by a polyester blanket, two wooden side tables, a dresser, a desk, and two hardback desk chairs crowded against one another. On the dresser stood a TV, and over the bed hung a little framed picture of a jumping swordfish – it looked as if it had been cut from a magazine.

This would be fine if it happened intermittently throughout the novel, but this kind of detail occurs again and again. It would be better if the details were given through some sort of character action rather than given in list-like fashion as above.

Another issue that contributed to the lack of connection with the characters was the behaviors of the characters that were not consistent with what we knew of them. For example, Ellis is involved in an accident that severely disables him emotionally and psychologically. He replays this accident when he drives and it causes a lot of anxiety for him. However, right after he starts driving again, he goes to a bar, drinks, even mentions the effect of the alcohol because he hasn’t eaten all day, and then proceeds to get into his van and drive! It seems unbelievable to me that someone as anxiety-ridden about accidents (including the one he was just in) as Ellis, who also works as an accident reconstructionist, would get drunk and drive. There are other inconsistencies with the characters that I don’t want to mention so I don’t give too much information about the content of the novel to those who have not read it yet, but they are problematic to the suspension of disbelief necessary in a novel.

I liked the subject matter of the novel. Accident reconstruction is a topic that is fascinating, but that little of us know about. There were great details given at different accident scenes and I would have liked to see more of those details included. I liked how the search for Boggs included Ellis revisiting different accidents scenes they had worked on together and how they tried to make logical sense out of something that seems so random. I think these scenes could have been developed even further and, as such, they would have had a bigger impact on the reader and brought forth the larger question of what accidents mean to us. Why do they occur? Are they just random occurrences or is someone always at fault? Are we truly just at the wrong place at the wrong time or is there a larger force at play in our lives? These are the questions that many of us struggle with, especially those of us who have had our lives completely transformed in an instant by an accident whether for the better or for the worse.

Book suggestion/review

A Review of The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1

Lately, I am gravitating towards brevity in my writing and in what I read. I heard about The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 compiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (RegularJOE) through HitRECord and thought it sounded perfect. It is! I loved the tiny stories, and they are tiny. Each story (sometimes only a few lines long) is accompanied by artwork that adds a special element to it. I am often amazed at how only a few words can say so much and have such a powerful impact to the reader. This is a collection of brilliant stories – some humorous and some heartbreaking. I have so many favorites that I keep going back to. As the book says: “The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of (tiny) stories,” – Muriel Rukeyser & Wirrow. I look forward to reading the next two volumes and am keeping this one close by as a reminder that something impactful can be written with just a few words and written well!

Book suggestion/review

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

I fell in love with Everything Beautiful Began After after having just read the Prologue and the rest of the book did not disappoint. Simon Van Booy’s beautiful poetic language is stunning and his descriptions require the reader to pause and take a deep breath to take them in. The characters are so well developed that one cannot help but love and care deeply for them. It is fascinating to watch as they argue over the existence of fate while we quietly witness fate take its toll on each of them. There is a sense of unpredictability, an unknowing that keeps the pages turning. Van Booy’s use of different points of view also adds depth to this novel. It was a genius way to create various space and distance between the reader and the characters. The cover and deckle-edged paper provides the perfect package for such a beautiful and tragic love story.

The ending felt a bit rushed to me and things seemed to be tied up a little too perfectly in the end. This may be that I just didn’t want the book to end. I was invested in these characters and wanted to spend more time with them. However, at over 400 pages, I understand Van Booy had to end the book at some point. Maybe he will write a sequel! If you want to be swept away into a beautiful love story with writing that literally takes you there as a silent witness to the unfolding lives of the characters, this book is definitely for you. I wanted to continue inside the world Van Booy created with this novel so much that I actually got up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and continued reading until it was finished.

Other posts on Simon Van Booy:

Simon Van Booy

Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter