Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall by Jill Koenigsdorf

Divorced and having just turned forty, Phoebe has begun to feel jaded, wasting her artistic potential designing bottle labels for a winery in California, but when the ghost of twentieth-century artist Marc Chagall appears to her and influences her paintings, a fantastical new adventure begins. Chagall convinces Phoebe to take a vacation in Paris, where one of his long-lost paintings is being delivered to an art collector by a thief. There, Phoebe meets a handsome businessman named Ray, two playful sister witches, and the old woman who had stumbled upon the missing painting during World War II. At times Charlie Chaplain-esque in its humor and action and at other times melancholy in its portrayal of the loneliness and solitude of artists and their art, Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall is an intriguing and original, yet predictable read.

Multiple characters introduced quite early in the book may befuddle the reader, but the plot soon smooths out after a few chapters; however, though every characters’ motivation is apparent and personality consistent, there are far too many characters for the reader to grow fond of any one in particular. It may be easy to root for protagonist Phoebe to get the painting away from the art thief, to end up with Ray, and to return to her art career, but the roles of the sister witches and of the pivotal old woman, Bernadette, are not quite fully realized until close to the end of the novel. The purpose of the witches’ powers is not apparent and even Chagall himself, in ghost form, serves mostly as a deus ex machine for Phoebe; overall, the supernatural elements do not add much to the story.

The strength of this novel, though, is in Koenigsdorf’s writing style. She provides a rich atmosphere of Phoebe’s garden and summertime Paris, and the dialogue brings great personality to many of the characters. This is a fun read for fans of contemporary novels, especially those who enjoy subtle supernatural, mystery, and romantic elements. 

The Parallel Conspiracy by Richard Paul Lori

Feeling helpless in his marriage with a domineering, ungrateful wife and in his work where his incompetent boss takes all the credit, computer programmer John Fuller has transformed from a shy, nervous, nerdy kid into a passive, nearly-hopeless adult. But when one rainy night he crashes his car and is thrust into a parallel universe, he meets the sweetheart Sue, who is recovering from the mysterious death of her father, Manny—and looking into his top-secret work in electromagnetism. Fitting the pieces together, Sue and Fuller dodge government agents at the laboratory and discover that some of Manny’s coworkers are sending weapons into another universe with plans to destroy the parallel Earth and harness the energy it contains. Sue and Fuller shift into the parallel universe—one of many to which they will travel—and embark on a wild series of adventures. The technology is thoroughly explained and remarkably plausible, and the exploration of parallel universes is a thought-provoking concept uniquely rendered here.

Some of the phrasing is occasionally elementary—for example: "Gazing into her eyes for a long second, the compassion of their calming blue seemed to envelop him. A gentle smile came to her face and she turned, this time Fuller not stopping her."—but it does not detract from the story. Some clichés, particularly in scenes with interacts between Fuller and Sue, may cause an eye roll or two, but the development of the characterization of both these two provides a convincing foundation so they never fall into the trap of archetypes. While Sue and Fuller both possess some clichéd traits, both are strong, dynamic, and loveable; the narrative draws the reader directly into their thought-processes, shifting between characters smoothly and skillfully. 

The Parallel Conspiracy begins with the bewildering mystery of It's a Wonderful Life, swiftly transforming into an action-packed adventure, like Indiana Jones (featuring artificial intelligence, Greco-Roman societies, a bit of Tarzan and Jane, and gun-wielding CIA agents), but in the end, it is a unique, ever-shifting novel, with characters you can’t help but root for. Female lead Sue brings a fresh and loveable face to the sci-fi thriller, and the action will sweep you off your feet.

As It Is on Earth by Peter M. Wheelwright

After a divorce, young history professor Taylor Thatcher begins to take a deeper interest in his rich family history of Maine Puritans, arriving in New England on Mayflower and settling on farm land for generations. Traversing the landscape of his past, Taylor prepares for his birthday, which he shares with his younger half-brother, Bingham, and which happens to fall on Columbus Day of 1999. At this family reunion, he must confront both his past and those who covered up family secrets, while simultaneously dealing with the confusion of a growing attraction to a student, Miryam.

When conjuring up an image of a history professor, most people’s conceptions take the shape of a dusty old man dictating history dryly to his bored class, but Taylor Thatcher—and certainly the author as well—has an emotional tie to the past. Rather than simply finding the facts, dates, and stories fascinating, he has an introspective relationship with history, connecting with the people and the personal challenges they faced regarding family, science, and religion. Digging deep into the root of the human individuality in the context of culture by exploring Native American and ancient Mexican anthropology, as well as the pilgrims who settled on the East Coast, Wheelwright weaves a cultural tapestry of an individual’s relationship with nature. The family aspect—though Taylor’s family has an unusual genetic dynamic, his father marrying his late wife’s twin sister to conceive his younger brother—illuminates the human capacity for forgiveness and respect for one’s heritage.

With artistry, the language of As It Is on Earth is rich and intimate, though short, clipped sentences—which are meant to mirror Taylor’s introspective voice but occasionally border on pretentiousness—often slow the story down, the slowness allows the reader to savor the text rather than get bored of it. The characters are splendidly drawn, Taylor’s thoughtfulness and sensitivity deep; much of the story necessarily takes place in Taylor’s memory, leaving the reader wanting further nourishment concerning his relationships with his family in the “present day” of the narrative.

The natural setting and luxurious history are beautifully crafted, the territory of the novel arguably the strongest aspect. Atmospheres of an archaeological trip to the Yucatan, a childhood spent on a farm in New England, and even a professor’s office setting give this book a heart bent on rediscovery and not a simple knowledge of the past so much as an understanding of it and its effects on the present human condition.

Living Vicariously through Your Characters

In reference to my IWSG post earlier this month, I have officially asserted and claimed my passion and my future in the area of writing. Now—just like when you have to sit down and focus all your energy on that one homework assignment or that one tricky page of your novel—my mind has started to wander off and want to do everything that has nothing to do with writing. The writing, though, is, surprisingly, still going quite well despite this; but in my mind-wandering, I have come across something which I am shocked to realize I either failed to remember seeing (that’s doubtful) or simply haven’t seen before.

Because I was already missing my interest in physics while only three days into NaNoWriMo (though physics plays a significant part in the novel) at the beginning of which I had promised I would focus all my attention on the manuscript, I started watching The Big Bang Theory, which was already one of my favorite programs but of which I had not seen all the previous episodes. Upon watching this episode, this scene in particular, I got a bit giddy: the thing is, I live approximately 10 miles southeast of Traverse City, MI, and I have been inside said agricultural center. Obviously it is not a secret military supercollider (or is it?), but that is beside the point.

To portray my point effectively, I feel I must share with you the one (long) sentence summary of my novel:

The beliefs of a tight-knit community have been stretched to their limits, but even as a soldier returns home from Afghanistan to care for his young daughter after his wife’s sudden death, as an introverted boy on the brink of teenagedom plots revenge on school bullies and his obsessive-compulsive mother, and as a speculative college student wrapped up in her astronomy studies begins to lose herself in a relationship with her rekindled childhood flame, the residents of this small town on the shores of Lake Michigan must learn to stick to their convictions more than ever when eerie sightings in the night sky bring fear, defensiveness, and mistrust into the core of their decisions.  

If it is not apparent, this story takes place in an eerily Traverse-City-like town—and I am doing more than drawing from my environment to develop this story. In all of the characters I can sense some aspect of myself, and I have either accentuated or dialed down certain aspects to shape the characters in such a way that they are each unique but that I can still relate enough to them to be able to convey their emotions and experiences convincingly. I have mentioned the contents of this scene from The Big Bang Theory in the story, though not naming it directly, to disguise the reference and to create a sort of inside joke for myself and those who will see through the reference (most likely just my friends). But of course, there are hundreds of threads that transcend the story and resonate with me.

Aspects of a writer’s life often—as a matter of fact, almost always—seep into the writing. Writers can draw from their relationships, their emotional struggles, and their diverse medley of knowledge, bridging them together in the imaginary world of their story. The more they can relate to their characters, the more accurately they can portray them.

However thin the line between fiction and truth is, the characters in the story are always pivotal. The shape of a character in a writer’s mind is formed through the writer’s own experiences and his or her relationships with other people. A science-loving writer can develop a scientist character, focusing on the frustration of her life not going exactly as she planned. But some of the other characters that populate the world of the story may resonate with the writer even more so than the main protagonist. And not only the characters’ personalities but their emotions—even when their circumstances are altered—and their relationships, mirror those of the writer.

Writing can be cathartic, even fiction: an outward manifestation of the writer’s frustration. It’s not necessarily a way for a writer to live vicariously through his or her characters, per se, but it can be a way for the writer to utilize the knowledge and experience gathered throughout life in a positive way, rather than a destructive way, or simply rather than not using it at all.

How much of your life to you allow into the creation of your story’s world?

Peace, Aimee

IWSG: Only One Option

In case you haven't noticed (you probably haven't), I recently deleted my Twitter account. There was really only one reason that influenced my decision to do this, and that was that Twitter has been a major distraction for me. While I only followed a few dozen people, I found myself procrastinating concerning my writing, using "networking" as an excuse.

Yes, networking is an important part of a writer's career, but there is something more important than sharing your writing: the actual writing itself.

My procrastination had gone too far, and I was getting very little writing done, so I decided that a few things had to go (especially with NaNoWriMo going on this month!), Twitter being number one on the list. Not doing much writing was taking a toll on my self-confidence, even though I was doing well in other areas (work, school, exercise, etc.).

And then I read the book The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. I stumbled across the following quote, which opened my eyes to the artist's life choices:

"I wonder how many people get sidetracked from their true calling by the fact that they have talent to excel at more than one artistic medium. This is a curse rather than a blessing. If you have only one option, you can't make a wrong choice. If you have two options, you have a fifty percent chance of being wrong" (48).

Everywhere I look I see something new and exciting I want to do; I only have one life, so I want to fit in everything I can! However, upon reading this quote I realized something about myself: I am a writer.

Well, obviously I knew this already, but there's more to it than that: Being a writer is nonnegotiable. I have to do it. I didn't choose it; it was the only option presented to me—and so I grabbed it, because without it I'd have nothing.

So that's why I've been shying away from spending so much time on the internet, to carve out more time for my writing. I have enough distractions already!

Peace, Aimee

Here We Go A-NaNo-ing

Alright fellow writers—it's time for NaNoWriMo. I tried participating the past two years, failing miserably. But this year I am determined to finally hit the 50,000 word mark in a month. I have a safety net of the FaceBook Nerdfighters (because I have to admit I am quite the nerd), as well as the lovely folks over on the Bransforums, but I would love the support of my fellow bloggers to keep me accountable for my word counts! I've had trouble in the past meeting the daily goal, and all those unwritten words add up to the point of no return, where it is impossible to finish the 50K by the end of the month.

Who else is participating in NaNoWriMo this year? You can find my NaNo profile here if you'd like to add me. Thanks!

Peace, Aimee

Books Released This Month - November 2012

The Balloonist by MacDonald Harris
6 November 2012
In 1897, three adventurers take a hot air balloon ride on a voyage to be the first people to visit the North Pole.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
6 November 2012
A young farm wife in Appalachia stumbles across a climate-change-phenomenon in the forest that draws her into a battle between faith and reason.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
13 November 2012
A Cambridge student undercover for the military intelligence begins to fall in love with a promising young writer.

Lunch with Buddha by Roland Merullo
13 November 2012
Sequel to Breakfast with Buddha, a middle-aged, middle-class man takes a road trip across the US with his new brother-in-law, a Buddhist monk.