pearl and angela bookPearl and Angela by Bernadette Y. Connor
Bee-Con Books at Smashwords
Publication date: July 1, 2006
404 pages
ISBN: 978-0971583856

The story in a nutshell: It’s the late 1940s in an unnamed hamlet somewhere in the American Midwest. In her early 40s, husband long gone, Pearl Little has taken in young Angela Bowman, a girl whose abused life could have been conceived in a Dickens’ novel. Now fast friends, Pearl and Angela battle old demons, new challenges, and Angela’s scheming attempts to take advantage of those around her to gain wealth: the key, she believes, to her freedom.

Pearl and Angela are “colored” – as the black people who make up this novel refer to themselves. Theirs is the simple life – they grow their own food; walk everywhere; spend their lives just living, keeping up the house and garden and doing chores.

They don’t have closets full of fine clothes or fancy things, but they’re not dirt poor either. They’re comfortable. They entertain themselves with long chats on the porch or in the sitting room. (Their hamlet is too small to have a movie house.)

They aren’t oppressed by white employers, hassled by white racists, and don’t come in contact with whites, either in person or by reference. Whites are irrelevant to their lives; Pearl and Angela is a world apart from The Help.

I read this book as a judge for the Global Ebook Awards contest. At first, I was put off. It’s wordy, at times repetitive. The language structure is archaic, the dialog stilted – everyone addresses everyone else by name in every exchange. An example:

Global EBook Awards Honorable Mention “There was no smile from Pearl when she said, ‘Good morning, Angela.’
“’Good morning, Pearl. Thanks for breakfast and packing me something to eat later on.’
“’No trouble for me, Angela.’”

The novel tells Pearl’s story, and how Angela and others affect her life. But the point of view changes on a dime – often, mid-paragraph. We have no idea whose head we’re in . . . no, that’s incorrect: we’re in everyone’s head; we’re just not clear who the narrator is.

Plus, the Smashwords version I read has scores of the author’s edits clearly visible; it reads like a work in progress, not a completed book.

Then there’s the story itself. It’s melodrama, chock full of one crisis after another, replete with tales of woe and strange characters that seriously could have come from Dickens. The evil-as-Satan father, long dead, who haunts Pearl and controls her life. The condemned-to-life-in-bed teen boyfriend. The stand-in husband who mysteriously disappeared. The snake-in-the-grass mortician. The beautiful Angela, sold to a House of Prostitution at age 6. The gossipy Baptist church women with tongues like lances. The scorned lover. The folks who die before their times. The well with the missing bodies. The buried jars of squirreled-away riches.

But guess what? All that and I still enjoyed Pearl and Angela. Here’s why:

  • It’s a novel to be chewed slowly, not gulped down.
    You have to sit back and relax to read this novel – on the porch, in a lounge chair, by the fireplace. No speed reading here. I imagined the narrator to be an old woman of character – a Solomon Islander from Choisel, black as obsidian, mother of the village chief, in a village without electricity — sitting on the porch, nightly spinning out her story of the Littles and Miss Bowman and the colored folks of this unnamed town.The narrator repeats herself, and introduces everyone by name in every exchange . . . but in voices unique to each character. Of course, when she finally catches a husband, Angela would always address him as “Mr. Shockley” – never, for heaven’s sakes, as “Reynard.”
  • The book is peppered with little nuggets and pearls of wisdom, insight, and cleverness, for instance:
    • “Old habits die hard, Angela, and when fear is planted deep enough no amount of digging and dying kills it.”
    • According to Charlie, the Townsends had more than their fair share of mental illness in their family. No one was hidden in the storm cellar but a few needed to be.
    • The bedroom was sparsely furnished, like the soul of its occupant.
    • Angela’s feathers where brushed in the wrong direction with that comment. She was now determined to visit the Stratton house and find out what everyone knew except her.
  • And It’s full of:
    • Plot twists and turns enough to keep you on your toes.
    • Some laugh-out-loud scenes you won’t forget—Pearl may be a kind, gentle, passionate, self-sufficient soul, but man, can she be wickedly vicious. (By the way, that slime-ball mortician deserved every bit of his painful comeuppance. So much for family jewels!)
    • Old slights that never die . . . and return with a vengeance.
    • A passel of sharp-tongued, witty, tough, lusty women – you can’t help but cheer them on.
    • And some lovely love-making – graphic enough to see; thoughtful enough to appreciate.

    But most important, Pearl and Angela works because its style – as much as content, characters, and description– conveys the time and place, and a group of people you’ll remember. It’s a good read.

Autumn Shadows BookAutumn Shadows in August by Robert W. Norris
Lulu Press
Ebook version: Smashwords.com
Publication date: February 2006
108 pages
ISBN: 1-4116-7297-6

The story in a nutshell: American expatriate and English teacher David Thompson, now in mid-life, and his Japanese wife, Kaori, fly in to Amsterdam, then travel to Switzerland and on to Florence and Rome in David’s quest to relive his earlier odyssey as a single man in his 20s. Along the way he reflects on his own life and that of Malcolm Lowry, his literary hero, particularly Lowry’s posthumously published book, Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend Is Laid. Twice on this journey, David meets and chats with Lowry’s living ghost.Global Ebook Awards Finalist

The author touts his book as “. . . modeled roughly on (Dark as the Grave) . . . and part homage to Lowry and Hermann Hess, part mushroom retrospective, and part middle-aged love story.”

Lowry’s Dark as the Grave is a tough choice as a model: that book is more personal travel journal than novel. For most writers, that genre doesn’t make for an engaging novel – not enough character development, little plot, and in this case, too much ponderous dialogue.

Autumn Shadows does follow Lowry’s model: it reads like a personal travel journal, the kind of record you’d scribble down each night to keep track of your wanderings — “I did this. I did that. We went here. We went there. Then we went to . . .“ – each with a few lines of description. But that’s not enough for a book: these days, too many skilled journalists and travel writers have brought to life even the out-of-the way places Norris has taken notes on, let alone the tourist meccas of Amsterdam, Florence, and Rome.

In effect, the Amsterdam-Rome trip framework is merely a loose thread running through the book. The hotels, restaurants, coffee houses, museums, and famous sites all spark Thompson’s memories of his youthful journeys. The book is a stream of flashbacks through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal; his growing up near San Francisco; his days as a CO in a military prison; his teaching in Japan.

Norris gives us plenty of material with potential in the book – a wild drive through the mountains of Turkey en route to Iran, for instance, his revulsion at the poverty in India, a mushroom-induced mind trip. Still, these vignettes are grist for a novel — not a novel in themselves. Autumn Shadows needs to be shaped, edited, focused into story; its characters rounded out and brought together in realistic dialogue, rather than ponderous exchanges.

I read Autumn Shadows as a judge for the Global Ebook Awards contest. It’s short – 63,000 words – but it’s slow reading. It’s replete with long-winded descriptions of places and thoughts, too many of which read as if constructed to say something meaningful. The dialog reads as written language, not spoken.

Here, for example, is a snippet from a long conversation between husband and wife:

    • “ . . . You know, I actually cried when looking at the paintings from his Arles period. I’ve never cried from just looking at a painting before. It was a new and beautiful experience.”

Kaori stopped massaging my foot, flashed me a smile, and started again. “I know what you mean. I remember a lot of the feelings I had back in 1973 on my first journey to Europe and the profound influence the art and history had on me. Everything was so new and powerful and passionate, and it gave me the impetus to want to create something myself.”

“That’s not exactly the feeling I meant about me. It was more a private feeling. I could feel the same sadness. I felt the same sadness. And I understand how depressed and low a human being can be. You remember how I was after my operation.” Kaori stopped again for a moment and looked at me with sad eyes. “Yes, I do. That was very low.”

A final note: Autumn Shadows was entered in the “multicultural literature” category of the Global Ebook Awards contest. Given the protagonist’s travels and his interracial marriage, it has much potential to be a multicultural story.

But alas, the travel gives us little insight into cultural differences or interaction. Even though the wife of protagonist Thompson (who is a white American) is Japanese, their relationship is never really explored, either in interracial terms or even as a love story.

In short, there’s plenty of material for a good novel in Autumn Shadows. Let’s hope the author develops it in a future effort.

Reviewed by Terry Marshall
For the 2012 Global Ebook Awards

Hystera BookHystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith
Fiction Studio Books
Published November 16, 2011
194 pages
ISBN: 978-1936558186

he story in a nutshell – April, 1974: Lilly, a bright college girl (Sara Lawrence) attempts suicide and commits herself to a mental hospital in New York City. She’s driven, we gather, by guilt over her father’s incapacitation, a smothering Jewish mother (actually, Israeli), and a boyfriend who left her because she withdrew sexually from him. Any kind of intimacy terrifies her – not only sexual, but close friendship with other human beings.

Here, for instance, we get a glimpse of her pain:

“She had a love disease of flammability; love was dangerous. Intimacy made her feel as though her bowels were crying out. Everything inside her was as fragile as the web a spider spins on a tree branch in the midst of a forest fire.”

Global Ebook AwardThree months and 193 pages later, Lilly is about to be released. She’s “no longer a threat to herself,” her discharge form reads. Is she “well” now? We don’t know. Neither does she.

Hystera jumps into Lilly’s life with a bang. On page one, we’re in her head, on a steel table, looking up at Beverly, a huge nurse readying Lilly for a medical exam. Lilly’s thoughts whiplash from image to image. Snippets from her past fly by: the mysterious “bulb” between her legs; mother; father; boyfriend; roommate; the day’s freezing weather.

We learn that her stomach has been pumped, the suicide unsuccessful; some hours have gone by. Details of the exam, the exam room, the nurse’s actions pile onto details. The nurse hones in: it’s a pelvic exam. Lilly is locked into the stirrups, she can’t get away. She’s petrified, but she both orgasms and goes berserk. She comes to, hours later, drugged, in the hospital “quiet room,” with its padded walls and locked door.

Lilly’s orgasms come fast and furiously; they’re a predominant metaphor in the novel. The book’s title, Hystera, comes from hysteria, the author tells us – not the shrieking emotional outbursts that word means today, but from the Greek Hysteria, “the wandering uterus” (when folks thought the uterus was a separate being, sort of “an animal within an animal,” that could wander about a woman’s body and cause bodily paroxysms).

Lilly has discovered a “bulb” between her legs that seems the cause of frequent, wild orgasms. They come, not in a lover’s embrace, or even her own devices, but in her nightmares, from random thoughts, in being alone. They’re fiery and frightening. But is the “bulb” real? Is it her labia “swelling into the shape of a large teardrop,” as she first imagines. Or is it a cyst, a tumor, a pregnancy . . . or a delusion, something conjured up in her tortured mind? She doesn’t know. Neither do we.

At times, Hystera, is tough going. We stay in Lilly’s mind. The scene shifts abruptly from place to place, and always in her mind – from hospital, to childhood home, to student apartment in Little Italy, to the Sara Lawrence library, to long, wandering discussions with hospital patients, and interactions with staff and sessions with Lilly’s staff psychiatrist. It shifts without warning. I had to stop, think, figure out where we were, then push on, try to figure out where we were going.

And the language: it’s learnéd, plenty of multi-syllabic words, and long, complicated sentences studded with imaginative metaphors. It’s replete with vivid descriptions – I could smell and taste Little Italy – and insightful comments. I copied down a dozen passages — too many to delight you with here – like this one that conveys so much, so simply: “You think too much, Lilly,” Louise went on. “You’d be a lot better if you didn’t talk like a book.”

But the language also can get carried away with itself, rolling in on itself like a stormy tide. Several times I had to stop, ask myself, what? What are we talking about here? Here Lilly is, for instance, in that opening medical exam:

“Her physical body was hurling torn shreds and pieces of the examination table paper in a tantrum, and she was screaming. But then — she was past her body, as if a space had blown out, taking everything with it into a great expansive nothing, an in-rushing of gas and matter and darkness.”

Language and scene both jump and twist and scoot off in unexpected directions. At times, it’s hard to follow.

But all the confusion is one of the beauties of this novel: that’s Lilly’s mind, trying to sort out reality from illusion, trying to cope with a world she’s not comfortable in. Skolkin-Smith takes us on a vivid, compelling journey into the delusional reality of a young woman’s mind.

Hystera plunges me into Lilly’s world, lets me see it through her eyes, let’s me become Lilly and look at a world I’m not familiar with. It left me thinking of Lilly. Days later, I can’t get her out of my head.

That’s enough, I know. I should end my review here. You should read the book yourself. But I can’t leave off without mentioning two other reasons for reading Hystera:

First, the novel is set in 1974, April through July 20. During these months, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army dominated our nation’s news. Skolkin-Smith expertly weaves Patty’s story into the very texture of Lilly’s life – from the 10th line of the first page: “You’re a dark girl,” the nurse said. “You look a little like Patty Hearst” — to Lilly and other inmates reading the headlines, speculating whether her SLA abductors had raped Patty, and Lilly thinking of herself as Patty:

“She imagined the mesmerizing hands of Patty Hearst’s abductor, his criminal cock stealing into her sex with the force of a beating hand. He was fierce and seductive in the pictures, like the cobra on his leather belt.”

That’s how Patty Hearst and the SLA hit us in 1974. They became part of our own lives. We worried about her, ached for her. Those memories came rushing back in vivid color as I read Hystera.

Second, Skolkin-Smith integrates her theme of Greek Hysteria throughout the novel, but most notably in a wonderfully evocative scene of Lilly recounting her trip back to the Sara Lawrence library. She hides out, then spends the night alone in the locked library devouring ancient texts on alchemy. We get a fascinating glimpse into those old texts, then we get this:

“Lilly searched and found the bulb in different alchemy books. The bulb between a naked woman’s legs was in one of the illustrations made by Maria the Jewess from Babylon in the second century. Finding it, Lilly felt her body lighten as if she had crossed through the barrier of her shame. There were other women like this, she thought. Like her.

How relieved Lilly must have been; she wasn’t alone after all . . . or delusional. Here was proof.

Well done Ms. Skolkin-Smith.

Reviewed by Terry Marshall
Multicultural literature judge,
2012 Global Ebook Awards

Plant Teacher BookPlant Teacher by Caroline Alethia
Publication date: 7 January 2012
Published by: CreateSpace
298 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-9814942-9-6

The story in a nutshell: Three Americans search for their own destinies in La Paz as political clouds gather over Bolivia in late 2007 and early 2008.

Martin Banzer, fresh from college, hopes to create literature as he wrestles drug-induced hallucinations, his extended (and meddling) family, and the revelations being unveiled as he reads the diary of his recently deceased father who, in his own youth, migrated from Bolivia to the U.S.

Cheryl Lewis, also a recent grad, has signed on with a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with street kids in La Paz. Gus Adams is a late-30s lay missionary working on development projects in the Bolivian countryside.

Plant Teacher follows their lives as they become entangled with each other. And it also weaves in a score of other characters, including a host of Bolivianos — from street urchins and vendors, a waitress and a cleaning lady, to professionals and retirees and miscellaneous folk who crop up, then disappear into a rich tapestry of Bolivian life. Bolivia is both a backdrop to and yet another character in the story.

Global Ebook Awards FinalistI read Plant Teacher as a judge for the 2012 Global Ebook Awards, multicultural literature; I was looking for writing as well as story. Both are equally rewarding.

Mainly, it’s third person, an omniscient narrator who takes us into the mind of numerous characters. But it’s studded with other writing that gives it breadth and variation: e-mails between Martin and his older sister in the U.S.; letters from Martin’s mother, Carmen; snippets from Martin’s deceased father’s diary; Skype conversations between Cheryl and her U.S. boyfriend; poetry written by Martin and by Cheryl.

Each short chapter introduces a different character, a new point of view. The story becomes a puzzle as we soon have to hold a dozen different storylines in our heads. But the writing is crisp. The sentences flow. The story moves – I couldn’t stop reading, read it in a day. And it all comes together.

Plant Teacher truly is multicultural. Though primarily a tale of Americans in Bolivia – as distinct from Americans interacting with Bolivianos — we get snippets of Bolivianos’ thoughts, and a welter of multicultural insight from the American characters themselves: Martin as the son of a Bolivian cum-American father; Martin’s mother, a Puerto Rican; Cheryl’s mother, an Austrian from Vienna; and Merci, Cheryl’s boss in La Paz, whose mother was Argentinian and father, Canadian.

The dialog is sharp, to the point, and laden with insight into each speaker’s thoughts. All the main characters are searching for something, but none pontificate on their thoughts. They convey just enough to move the story forward and keep it interesting. Best of all, the dialog sounds real.

The author conveys vivid images in a few words. No pages-long descriptions of the Bolivian setting here – only precise, vivid, provocative splashes of well-chosen words that make the society and the setting come alive. No long physical descriptions of each character as we meet them – just a few sharp details that give us an image. And wonderful flights of imagination – Martin’s hallucinations, Bolivia as character, a mystic syringe that works its way from LA in the opening chapter to Bolivia 35 years later.

Here, for example, we meet Cheryl on the plane as she’s flying to La Paz. She’s thinking about her boyfriend. This is the first thing we learn about Cheryl:

Their goodbye two days ago had been emotional, but not in the way she had hoped. She had expected something grand and heart-wrenching, punctuated with tender dabs of affection. Instead, it had been awkward, scrambling, deeply adolescent. Four years together and she’d never slept with him, and now the main feeling she carried with her was acute dread. The condom had broken. She’d picked up three home pregnancy tests at the drug store this morning. She’d have to wait until tomorrow morning in La Paz to use one.

After those seven sentences, how could you not care about this young woman?

Then, 15 pages later, Cheryl is talking with the boyfriend via Skype:

“So what do you think, Babe?”
“What?” She hadn’t been listening. She was still thinking… As much his carelessness as hers. And for what? An evening of the sheer embarrassment of being naked, of not knowing what to do with her legs, the sharp pain at the time and the deep throbbing the next day. After four years together, couldn’t they have managed something better?

Here is Martin sipping coffee with Cheryl at Mr. Café. He’s suffering from hallucinations in which faces take on bizarre shapes, animals speak to him from marble columns and ceiling fans. As they talk:

Cheryl’s nose was becoming huge, cavernous, terribly upturned. It was like he could see up those giant nostrils all the way to her brain. It was like looking into a shotgun.

And here is Cheryl with Gus some months later:

    He hauled her suitcase out of the back seat and gave her a deep kiss. His tongue was like liverwurst to her.

In sum, Plant Teacher is a delight. Read for story and place, but take time to savor the language, to reread a sentence or paragraph or poem, to fully experience a fascinating tale well told.

Reviewed by Terry Marshall
Multicultural literature judge
2012 Global Ebook Awards

The Help BookLet’s toast The Help and author Kathryn Stockett’s success. OK . . . now let’s drink to Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, Celia and the whole cast of the movie for bringing Kathryn’s creations visually to life. As a chaser, let’s down a grand old sherry for all these winners, both on the bookshelves and the big screen. Here’s why:

  • As a movie, The Help pulled in a boatload of trophies from film festivals and critics associations, including Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild, and four Oscar nominations.
  • The movie earned $205 million (as of February 5) on an investment of $25 million. Not a bad return; we’d take those winnings here in Las Vegas.
  • The book has sold more than 5 million copies. It spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller’s list. This was Kathryn Stockett’s first novel! What a phenom, the kind of success most of us writers only dream about.

We should all celebrate The Help. Here’s why:

  • It plunges us into a slice of Black life in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962 to early ’64. Those were ugly times for Black Americans . . . especially in the segregated South.
  • It reminds us why we needed the Civil Rights Movement: segregation, exploitation, the daily struggle of Blacks eking out a living in the face of daily denigration and racism.
  • It focuses on women long ignored: maids trying to do their jobs –- not Civil Rights leaders or movement gurus . . . simply decent women trying to survive.
  • It takes an implausible protagonist –- a young white woman, a local, who risks her standing to tell the story of maids in Jackson –- and tells their stories both through her eyes and theirs.
  • By only hinting at the Civil Rights Movement swirling around them, the story focuses the reader (and viewer) on the daily lives of its characters . . . and forces us to draw on –- or develop — our own Civil Rights context for their individual struggles.

Key Civil Rights events took place in the years covered in The Help. They pass by fleetingly in both the book and the movie: the Freedom Riders in 1961; and a host of events in 1963 — the spring Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Medgar Evers’ murder on June 11, MLK and the March on Washington on Aug. 28, the murder of the four girls at 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham on Sept. 15, JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22.

Kathryn Stockett easily could have wandered down any of those paths. By choosing not to, she has honed a story of people we care about . . . and we get a Civil Rights story previously untold, but cast in a larger context that readers themselves must bring to the story.

Those are some of the reasons I like The Help. But I also have a dark little secret: I’m in love with Kathryn Stockett. We’re kindred souls. She’s white, and she dares not only to write about Blacks, but to write a number of chapters from the viewpoints of Black maids. Whew, how some critics have howled about that!

In my novel, Soda Springs: Love, Sex, and Civil Rights, I write about an even lesser known Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties –- the beginnings of a Mexican-American struggle for justice in Soda Springs, Colorado. I’m white, too, (or Anglo, as we say in Colorado) not Mexican-American. I, too, have chapters written from the viewpoint of Mexican-American characters.

We had no other choice; we tell more rounded stories that way.

Good for you, Kathryn: let the narrow-minded critics rave on.

blogpost by Ann Marshall

If you are feeling sad, which of the following is most likely to cheer you up:

  • Watching reruns of your favorite sitcom
  • Reading a novel
  • Tuning into the news.

Answer: reading a novel, according to researchers at the University of Maryland, as reported in Parade Magazine (7-31-11). “People who read are often happier than those who watch more TV — even if the plot of their paperback is depressing.” Read a novel. Be happy.

More good news for fiction readers: the more you read, the more empathy you tend to have, according to Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist (formerly at the University of Toronto) and a fiction writer.

He and his research team found reading fiction, in most cases, opens you out to the world. When reading a novel, you’re living with other people — often inside their heads.

Rx for the mugwumps: read Soda Springs: Love, Sex, and Civil Rights. You won’t be able to put it down. (And don’t worry: it’s anything but depressing.)


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