Frog Music: Mini Book Review

This is a mini book review of Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue, because I never got past page 81. It felt like we were going round and round in circles and never getting anywhere. It was a murder mystery (of a true historical crime) that opens with the murder, and yet by page 81, we (the protagonist and by extension, the reader) still had no more thoughts or ideas than on page 2 or so. I couldn’t bear to keep reading — there were words on the page (on page after page after page) but nothing happened.

Blog Note: I know many readers are expecting another installment of Emily this afternoon, but I have run fresh out of ideas for that story. Hopefully next week, but not until further notice.

Book Review: The Third Hill North of Town

The Third Hill North of Town, by Noah Bly, sucks you in very quickly with its dark humor and laugh-out-loud moments, even in the midst of tragedy. Julianna Dapper is a middle-aged woman in Bangor, Maine, with a lovely home, a good job, and a good life. One day, her mind snaps, she thinks she is fifteen again, and she sets fire to her neighbor’s garage for no apparent reason. Placed in the state mental hospital, she palms her medication and feeds it to an African violet at the nurses’ station. Left unsupervised for a moment one Saturday morning in June, she waltzes right out of the hospital, into the director’s car (keys conveniently left in the ignition), and she’s off, heading home to Pawnee, Missouri.

She manages to kidnap (almost accidentally) an African-American teenager, Elijah, in the next town over, and picks up another, hitchhiking teenager a while after that. The boys quickly realize that all is not right with her, and tragedy piles upon tragedy as they careen their way across the country.

But these tragedies are minor compared to the huge tragedy that lies at the center of Julianna’s life, a night of blood and fire that has all the answers. And in a tense scene back at the scene of the tragedy that started it all in Pawnee, as all the people hunting these accidental fugitives converge on them (among them Elijah’s parents, the director of the Maine state mental hospital, Julianna’s son, and police from two states), we find out about the terrible night that began it all.

This is Noah Bly’s debut novel, and it is amazing. If this is how he writes a first novel, I can’t wait until he’s been writing for a few more years.

Five out of five stars. Intense.

Book Review: Cinnamon and Gunpowder

I recently finished Cinnamon and Gunpowder: A Novel by Eli Brown. I highly recommend it, although I doubt everyone would enjoy it.

Snatched at gunpoint from England by pirates (after they murder his employer), Owen Wedgwood is forced to cook every Sunday for the pirates’ swashbuckling female leader, or forfeit his life. Producing mouthwatering meals with very few supplies, Owen hates the pirates and their leader with a passion. But as time goes on, he learns that they are actually trying to break the slave trade and the opium trade with which Britain enchains China. The pirates gradually gain his sympathy, and Owen finds himself helping them rather than trying to escape. Eventually Owen learns that true heroes come in unexpected packages, and good does not follow money.

I really enjoyed this fast-paced book, but if you do not like suspending your disbelief about the way the world ought to be (in science, history, and perhaps philosophically) then this is not the book for you. There are fantastical scientific inventions, and impossible events wound throughout true events and historical happenings. A modern Jules Verne, Eli Brown is definitely an author to watch.

Five out of five stars.

Book Review: A Different Sun

A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr is about a young girl growing up in Georgia in the 1840s, Emma Davis, daughter of a plantation owner, who turns her distaste for the institution of slavery into a desire to be a missionary. She marries a former Texas calvaryman who runs a Christian mission in Africa, in what will later be called Nigeria, in the land of the Yoruba people. Both Emma and her husband, Rev. Henry Bowman, mistake zeal and desire for ability. Rev. Bowman is plagued by an unidentified malaise (probably malaria, but not necessarily) that affects his ability to be a good pastor and husband. Emma must cope with this in a land where she is an outsider.

I was puzzled several times by the realistic style of the book — more historical than fiction. At the end of the book, the historical note explained that the novel had been inspired by the journal of a real-life woman who married an African missionary in the mid-nineteenth century. I would have liked that note to be at the beginning — it would have explained why the book did not always seem like a work of fiction (it turns out that Ms. Orr quoted the actual journal several times throughout the book).

Overall, I liked the book very much. It was interesting and held my attention through several plot turns. I liked the occasional perspective changes so we can see the world through Rev. Bowman’s eyes and the eyes of Jacob, servant of Rev. Bowman.

Five out of five stars.

Update on This Week’s Reading (with mini book reviews)

..think the opposite

..think the opposite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out that two of the books I was planning to read this week are complete busts and I won’t be finishing them. They are:
A Royal Pain — Megan Mulry and
Foal Play — Kathryn O’Sullivan

Foal Play wasn’t too bad, but the writing was less than captivating, and I found the plot to be too complicated. Within the first thirty pages or so, we discover that the main character (the female town fire chief) is in a sort-of relationship with the (male) sheriff; a sleazy developer is deliberately lighting fires so he can make passes at her; her former schoolteacher is antagonizing everyone in town, to the point that someone blows up her (the teacher’s) home and she is presumed dead when the fire chief finds a woman’s body in the kitchen; and … I gave up there, it was all just too improbable.

A Royal Pain was pretty good (for a typical romantic pot-boiler), right up to the point that the author likened the female MC getting her hand patted by a man to a young horse filly being broken to the saddle. Um, yeah. That was the end of my reading that book.

Also this week, I read Keeping Watch by Laurie R. King (didn’t make it onto the reading list) which was fantastic although very intense, particularly the backstory set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. I’m trying to decide if I want to review it or not.

Mini Book Review: Instructions for a Heatwave & The Orchardist

I just finished two good books, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell and The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin. Oddly, however, they both had unsatisfying endings, leaving me wanting more.

Instructions for a Heatwave follows an Irish family living in England in 1973. It begins the morning the husband goes out for the morning newspaper and doesn’t return. His disappearance and its aftermath forces his grown children and their mother to confront the secrets they have been hiding for their entire lives. It was very, very good, but the ending comes abruptly, and left me wanting more — to find out what happened next.

The Orchardist is also excellent, although a very different book. Set in the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth in central Washington state, it is about a a man who lives alone in his apple and apricot orchard and what happens after he allows two runaway pregnant teenage girls to stay on his property. Hunted by a man who would take them back to his brothel, they are desperate not to return there. A powerful book, the ending was somehow unsatisfying and seemed a little hurried. I wish the author had expanded a little bit on what happened to the main characters after the main part of the story was over.

All in all, I enjoyed these two books very much. Four out of five stars for both of them.

Writing Poetry

Note: This is a talk I gave at a writing group in 2010 on my poetry writing process. I’ve made some minor changes for publishing here.

First Draft

Getting the Words Down

How I write poetry: I always start a poem with an image. Sometimes, I see something that strikes me. Sometimes an image just pops into my mind. Sometimes I use a prompt. I prefer picture prompts or short, two or three word prompts. Looking at the striking object or the prompt, a phrase and a general feeling will come to me. I usually use that first phrase as the first line of the poem. Then I build on that line with more lines, using the general feeling as a guide to them. Usually, for longer poems, I’m telling a story.

After a line or two, I have a sense of which form I want to use for the poem. I want to mention here a few things about forms. I have a set of forms I like to use. If I read a poem in a new form I like, or read about a new form, I usually try to write a poem of my own using the form to see if it fits my style. Using forms really improved my poetry, because a form is a pattern, and provides patterns that are pleasing to the reader. I’ll talk more about specific forms in a moment.

Occasionally, I won’t pick a form after the first couple lines. I’ll write the whole poem in free verse, then go back and fit it to a form. I usually do this when I’m not sure right away what I’m trying to do with the poem. I’ll discuss a little more about how I do this later.

I often go back as I write and change already written lines to fit the further lines, and how the poem is developing. This is a little tricky sometimes, because with or in addition to the form, I always try to have a syllable or meter pattern going on. Some forms are defined by these patterns, some are not, and if I’m using a form without a pattern, I try to make sure I create one of my own.

Once I have a poem, I read it again as an editor, making sure that it flows the way I want it to. Sometimes, especially if I’m just dashing something off for practice, I’ll leave it here. Otherwise I’ll keep working on it. If I’m not happy, I set it aside. I don’t always finish a poem in one sitting. I write notes to myself about where I see the poem going, and what I hear in it already, and then I set it aside. I’ll come back and work on it more later.

Punctuation in Poetry

Just like Prose

A period is a full stop, a comma is a pause before a new phrase or idea. A long dash is used as a pause, but not a full breath like a comma. Or think of it like this: A period is to start a new idea entirely, a comma is to insert a new idea without finishing the old one and a long dash is to add a comment to the idea. And just like prose, colons set off lists, and semi-colons separate the items of the list if commas are used within the items. These last two are used rarely. Also, avoid the temptation to punctuate the end of every line. The end of a line (and a stanza end, too) is a natural break, and a pause, so you don’t need to add anything unless it fits naturally.

Form and Meter


First, a little about meter. Mary Oliver explains it much better than I can,  so this is from page 36 and 37 of her book, A Poetry Handbook. Emphasis hers.

  1. In metrical verse, each line of the poem can be divided into feet, and each foot into stresses (syllable sounds), to reveal the overall rhythmic pattern.
  2. The process of dividing a line into its metrical feet and each foot into its individual parts is called scansion.
  3. An iamb, or an iambic foot, is one light stress followed by one heavy stress.
  4. Five iambic feet strung together create an iambic pentameter line.

Be sure and read the book for the wonderful examples — when I read them, the lightbulb just went off.

Poetic Forms

The forms I share here are just my favorite forms that work best with my writing style. There are lots of other forms out there, some of which I have tried. Each poet needs to work out for herself which forms work best for her. You can find forms by searching on the Internet, or in books. I particularly like Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms by Babette Deutsch and A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver. Both these books have lots more information on poetry than just the forms, and I highly recommend both of them.


Three lines, using syllable count. I like it for writing short descriptions of an object.





A repeating form. It’s a French adaptation of a Malaysian form. It’s good for telling stories, particularly ones with repeating themes. Each stanza is four lines. After the first stanza, each stanza’s 1st and 3rd lines repeat the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza. The final stanza uses the 2nd and 4th lines of the preceding stanza and the 1st and 3rd lines of the first stanza, as couplets, either the lines of the preceding stanza and then the lines of the first stanza, or vice versa. I letter the stanzas, and number the lines, so I can keep it all straight. There are usually 4 or 5 stanzas, but there can be as many as the author likes. No rhyme or meter is necessary, but I often try to use a meter (either the same one for all lines, or alternating. Using an alternating meter pattern means the pattern will reverse in each stanza, e.g. tetrameter/trimeter in the first stanza becomes trimeter/tetrameter in the second, and so on.) You will see variations on this form, particularly in the final stanza. When repeating lines, you can change a word or the tense, or change punctuation, but each repeated line needs to be essentially the same as the original.





B1 A2


B3 A4


C1 B2


C3 B4


D1 A3 or D1 C2

D2 A1 D2 C4

D3 C2 D3 A3

D4 C4 D4 A1


A nine line poem using syllable count in a pattern:










The first and last lines are identical. I like rictameters for describing a scene, or a brief story.

Syllabic Verse

From Mary Oliver: “The number of syllables in each of the lines in the first stanza is exactly repeated in the following stanzas. . . . Because of the strictness of syllable-count, and the inevitable variety of stress-pattern, syllabic verse creates a music that is highly regular and at the same time filled with engaging counterpoint.” I like syllabic verse for subjects that do not lend themselves to repetition and yet I want a regular pattern to fit the story to.

Writing a Poem

I want to walk you through my process of writing a poem with an actual example of a poem I wrote in response to a specific prompt: a photo of a blue lake among sand dunes and it was supposed to be a four line poem.

It started out:

Cool water, shaded

A blue gem hidden between sand dunes

What a precious treasure.

It was only three lines and a little dissonant and without pattern. I decided to use a meter. Changing the first line to

Cool water, shrub-shaded

was more descriptive and in iambic trimeter (three feet per line). The middle line was in iambic tetrameter (four feet per line) and I decided that would fit the rhythm I wanted better. So I rearranged the lines, looking for tetrameter, resulting in:

A blue gem among sandy dunes

Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,

Cool water for thirsty drinkers

What a precious desert treasure.

But ‘precious’ is too long, so I changed it to ‘lovely.’

A blue gem among sandy dunes

Sky reflecting, shrub shaded,

Cool water for thirsty drinkers

What a lovely desert treasure.

You’ll note that the poem goes straight from disorder to tetrameter. I couldn’t have done that a year or so ago, but when I started trying to use meter and syllable count in my writing, the easier it became. Now I just need to have a meter or syllable count in mind, and the lines will usually match what I want, or be very close.

Book Review: The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society

Darien Church Doors

Photo credit: Larry Myhre

I just finished this book, The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society, by Darien Gee. I really, really enjoyed it. It’s my new favorite book, at least until I read another good one. :)

I’m really bad at remembering where I read something, so you’ll just have to bear with me when I tell you I read something recently, but I can’t remember where. (If you know the source, leave it in the comments. Thanks.) It was all about how people should read quality books, books that make you think, and reading anything else was pure escapism, and therefore not to be read. I’ve been told that before, that I’m reading for escapism, and I really ought to be reading better books. Oddly, anyone who tells me that always has very precise ideas about what makes a good book, and what doesn’t. Really, I think the claim of escapism is just a way for people to say, “You ought to be reading the books I agree with and think are good, and no others.”

One of the most memorable people to tell me this was my 9th grade English teacher. Completely focused on the young adult fiction I was reading several of every day, and the science fiction books by Arthur C. Clarke I was reading a few every week or so, she told me I was reading purely for escapism and needed to read better books, real literature. The thing is, I was also reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a page or two at a time, it took me almost the whole school year to get through), and her (the teacher’s) idea of literature was Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know if you think Margaret Atwood writes literature or not, but Dostoyevsky is most definitely literature.

Anyway, this most recent thing I read about escapism made me think, because all the books the author cited as examples were written at least 100 years ago. And you know, some older books are literature, but just because it’s newer doesn’t mean it’s not literature. And this author was fixated on romance novels not being literature, and while that may be true for some romance novels, it isn’t true for all. And if romance makes it not literature, what are we doing teaching Shakespeare as literature? Half his oeuvre is romance.

The debate about literature versus non-literature is as old as writing fiction. Lately, though,  a lot of the things I have been reading about escapism and non-literature being read seem to be aimed at women and novels by, for, and about women. I’m coming to think that this is a subtle form of sexism — if it’s by and about women, it must not be a good book — it must not be worthy of someone’s time. I’ve written about this before, but it’s really starting to annoy me.

I never used to consider myself a feminist, for a lot of complicated reasons I’m not going to go into right now. But the older I get (I’m much too young to be using that phrase, but I can’t think of a better one) the more I think I probably am one. It seems to me that women are not treated the same as men in a lot of (at this time and in the US) really subtle ways that are really hard to put your finger on. And I have a hard time seeing how The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society, with its discussions of dementia, family and what makes a family, adoption, love, and more, is any less literature than an overwrought play about two teenagers who thought the world revolved around them.

You should read The Avalon Ladies Scrapbooking Society. It’s good. And I promise not to care if you read it just to read a good book, or if you analyze it deeply.

Five out of five stars.

Book Review: Readings from Readings 2

Readings from Readings 2: New Writing from Malaysia, Singapore and Beyond is a new collection of short stories from Asia, mostly Malaysia. Born from a live reading series in Malaysia, these stories and poems ring with life and wisdom. Every story was compelling. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, and for some of them, I am still wishing I knew what happened after the story was over.

Will Thangamma and Cik Rohayu prevail over the uncaring teachers in Lighting the Darkness? Will Rani succeed in carving a new life for herself, or will she be pushed down by Mrs. Kandiah in Rani Taxis Away? I will never know how they fare, nor will I know what happens next to Ah Chui or the old fishermen. A fate many readers can sympathize, but the characters in this book were especially compelling, unusually so for short story characters, which are often quickly and hastily drawn.

As someone who does not speak Malay, there were a few parts of the book I missed out on. I am sorry for it and wish there was a translation. But that is a small quibble, especially since this book was written for people in Malaysia.

Four out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book to review.

This Week’s Reading plus bonus Mini Book Review

The Tale of Hill Top Farm — Susan Wittig Albert
Where We Belong — Emily Giffin
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. — Nichole Berner
A Teeny Bit of Trouble — Michael West
The Tale of Cuckoo Brow Wood — Susan Wittig Albert

I do enjoy Susan Wittig Albert’s work very much. She always has so much more in her books than just the mystery — herbal knowledge & criminal law procedures (China Bayles books), attention to historical detail (Dahlia books, Beatrix Potter books), that it makes the books a joy to read.

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