The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

I'm taking a break from books this week to participate in the Next Big Thing Blog Hop. It is a chance for authors to tell you what they’re working on. The author answers 10 questions about their next book, and tags the person who first tagged them, plus at least 5 other authors.
I was tagged by Christine Stewart whose novel, Rose and Jesse, is based on a true family story. Check it out:

Here are my answers to the questions:

What is the working title of your book?
Under a Pigeon's Wing. The epigraph is from Elizabeth Bishop: “Winter lives under a pigeon's wing.”

Where did the idea come from for the book?
A young friend of mine shared her plans to live simply—and I do mean simply—in order to have more funds to donate to worthy causes. While I admired her heart, I recognised that putting other people's needs/desires before our own is a common issue for women. Since my character is struggling to get out of poverty and has a child, her decisions have life-or-death consequences.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary Fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I never think about this! Hmm. Maybe Dakota Fanning, Sarah Shahi, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Harmon, Helen Mirren, Linda Hunt.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Cat Kelly, a young, single mother, longs to escape the dangers of a life of poverty in a dead-end mill town but can't resist sacrificing her dreams to help others.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Not sure yet.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Still working on it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Ladder of Years, by Ann Tyler; Abide with Me, by Elizabeth Strout; Affliction, by Russell Banks; Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
As a former welfare mother, as described in my memoir, Innocent, I continue to be drawn to stories that tell the truth about poverty, avoiding the saccharine Horatio Alger myths or the hurtful stereotypes. I want to celebrate the courage and persistence of the people I know who are just barely making it from check to check.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Humorous bits and eccentric characters lighten the drama as Cat tries to keep her new job, her tiny step forward, from being eliminated. When you're poor, even a small setback can be disastrous. Cat is lucky to be able to call on the help of her friends as she confronts one crisis after another. Then, unexpectedly, love comes knocking at her door.

More links to the next chain of bloggers/writers coming soon!

Kirra Antrobus's Thoughtful blog

There Are Reasons Noah Packed No Clothes, by Robert Jacoby

This novel begins with 19-year-old Richard Issych waking up from a suicide attempt, his brain still fogged from the pills he took. With powerful prose the author takes us directly into Richard's mind, awhirl with disconnected thoughts, memories and worries. Gradually the haze diminishes and he realises/remembers that he is in a psychiatric hospital, persuaded by his parents to sign himself in. Everything about the place drives him crazy: the absurd rules, the nurses who talk to him in condescending baby-talk, the scary patients like Eugene who hears the angels and Joey who constantly paces and moans.

Most of all Richard hates being imprisoned. At first he is not allowed to leave his room. Then when he can venture out, he must eat his meals in his room. The nuances of life in a psychiatric hospital come at us through Richard's eyes. Frantic to erase his existence, he is stymied by the stainless steel mirrors in the bathroom, the absence of belts, the locked doors and constant surveillance.

Eventually he begins to make a place for himself, helped by the friendship offered by his roommate and hindered—he believes—by the visits of his willfully blind mother. Like a meandering trail of acorns, we find pieces of the lonely and isolated life and the barriers between him and his parents. In the hospital, Richard cannot remain isolated. He must learn how to forge relationships, not only with the doctors and inmates, but also with his mother and father.

Teen angst is not something I would normally seek out, but the power of Jacoby's prose and the emotional truth of Richard's journey are irresistible. As a debut novel, there are some structural weaknesses. Also, the stream-of-consciousness prose, used primarily in the beginning and then tapering off as Richard moves forward, may not be for everyone, but I think it works given the boy's fractured consciousness and difficult emotions.

Full disclosure: I met the author at a writing workshop a few years ago and am reviewing the book at his request.

If you liked Girl, Interrupted and wondered how a boy would feel in that situation, this is the book for you. The emotional journey of this shy and sensitive young man is leavened with humor and beset by fear, but in the end holds a powerful truth.

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

I picked up this novel about the three Andreas sisters, daughters of a professor whose specialty is Shakespeare and has named them after heroines from the master's plays for three reasons. I myself am one of three sisters and am curious about the shifting alliances and effects of birth order on these relationships. Also, like the Andreas family, I believe that solutions to all problems may be found in books. Finally, least in importance but first in capturing my eye, the cover features an attractive graphic and clear text, though I was a little put off by the title.

Weird here carries its ancient meaning of fate, and underlying the rather frivolous story of romantic and familial relationships are questions of destiny and choice. The oldest sister, Rose (short for Rosalind), still lives in the rural college town of Barnwell, Ohio where her highest ambitions are to marry her sweet fiancé, teach math at the same college where her father holds forth, and help her absent-minded parents. Bean (short for Bianca) lives a fast life in New York City, having gotten as far away as possible from sleepy Barnwell. The youngest, Cordy (short for Cordelia), drifts around the country following bands or simply the wind, part of today's youthful tribe of travelers.

The sisters are brought home by their mother's illness and by their own sense of having failed in creating their own lives.

Weighing the things I liked about the book against those I didn't like, I conclude that it is a good light read, certainly appropriate for the insomniac wee hours I spent reading it. I enjoyed the family's literary wordplay and apt quotations from the bard, though some people may find them a bit much. I liked the prickly relationship between the sisters: much more like my experience than those saccharine sisters in some novels. On the other hand the characters are rather stereotypical and the plot a bit predictable. Humor and some interesting minor characters keep the story from bogging down.

Brown employs a peculiar point of view in this book: a collective voice for the sisters. Hence, a good part of the book is narrated in first person plural: “How can we explain what books and reading mean to our family, the gift of libraries, of pages?” Even when we go into a close third person to delve into one sister's story, the collective voice sometimes offers commentary. Like a chorus in a Greek play, the collective “we” interrupts the story, interpreting what's happening, providing background information. This unusual choice is intended, I assume, to remind us that even as the sisters seem to be shooting off in opposite directions, they remain tied together.

For me it had a distancing effect. Just as I would start to get involved in one of the sister's problems, the voice would pull me out, hauling me up to the clouds where I could observe like an Olympian but not actually care very much. Still, it is an interesting experiment, and as I say, I stayed with the book to the end. Have you ever read a book using this point of view? What did you think of it?

Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Memory certainly works in mysterious ways. I was reading Abide with Me, by Elizabeth Strout, author of one of my favorite books, Olive Kitteridge. Abide with Me follows Tyler Caskey, the minister of the small, New England town of West Arnett in the winter of 1959. Burdened with grief, he lives with his young daughter, Katherine, in a farmhouse a little ways outside of town while his younger daughter, Jeanne, lives with his mother in the nearby town of Shirley Falls. Katherine has barely spoken since her mother's death and is struggling with school.

With a deft touch Strout draws the complex and shifting relationships of small-town life, alliances made and abandoned, even as she makes the reader feel the isolation of a New England farmhouse. I love the quick details that paint a character—a red knit dress, pink walls like Bazooka gum—and her descriptions of winter:

It was still October when the first snow fell. It came in the afternoon, light as white dandelion thistles being dropped from high in the sky. They took their time reaching ground, so light and sparse they floated. But there was a quiet steadiness to the snow, and by late afternoon, a soft covering lay over places where the ground swelled.

I've known snows like that. Strout's perception of her characters and her grave and steady use of the scalpel to reveal them rivals Anne Tyler. One of the interesting touches is the voice that starts the book and returns occasionally. It is the voice of a storyteller, some unnamed local person, who is telling you, the reader, about what happened to Tyler that winter. It shouldn't work, but it does. This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

Reading it, I thought, as I mentioned, of Anne Tyler. Because it was about a minister, I thought about Marianne Robinson's Gilead and Home, although this book is less about religion and faith than those two books.

And I thought about Ethan Frome, a book I haven't read since middle school. I remembered being bored by it then and dismayed by the unrelenting New England winter so vividly portrayed, not that that stopped me from later falling in love with New England winters myself. But I remembered the book being about a grizzled and cantankerous old man holed up in an isolated farmhouse with his young daughter, a bit like Tyler and Katherine.

Imagine my surprise when I started rereading Ethan Frome to find out that it is not the book I remembered! Frome is indeed grizzled, though only 52, and he does live in an isolated, New England farmhouse. The story also shares Strout's voice of being recounted by someone years after the events of the story, though here the narrator is identified: a visitor to the town of Starkfield.

However, it is not the story of a man and his daughter, but rather of Ethan and his wife, Zenobia, called Zeena, and her young cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them almost as a servant after she is left penniless and alone. Young Ethan meant to leave Starkfield behind, taking a year-long course at a technical school in Worcester, MA, but his father's death brought him back to the hard-scrabble farm and mill. His mother gradually drifted into dementia and his cousin Zeena came to help him with her.

It's a story of wanting more than you have, seeing your dreams just out of reach but grasping for them anyway. Although I prefer Strout's cautious optimism to Wharton's inevitable tragedy, I am glad I reread this book.

Belshazzar’s Daughter, by Barbara Nadel

I recently started a novel with a lovely and intriguing cover, an interesting title, and glowing blurbs. Before I'd read even twenty pages, though, we were on our third time period and third set of characters. Maybe my attention span has gotten shorter, but that just required too much up-front work from me, and I discarded the book without going further.

I think this is one reason why I like mysteries: they stay closer to the classical unities than most novels. There is one main action: solving the murder. Mysteries usually are centered on a limited number of settings: a police station or detective's office, the scene of the crime, the den of the prime suspect. And they normally cover no more than a few days. Now, I'm not a stickler. I love P.D. James's books which sometimes don't get around to the murder till halfway through the book. I expect the detective to range far and wide during the investigation. I welcome flashbacks and the layering of past and present. But I want to invest myself in characters whom I'll be able to accompany for the whole journey. A series, like James's Dalgliesh series, offers an even wider scope for the journey and an immediate commitment to familiar characters.

This 1999 book is the first in Nadel's series set in Istanbul featuring Çetin Ikmen, a police inspector who smokes and drinks brandy steadily throughout the day leaving a trail of nasty overfull ashtrays and empty bottles littering his office. His sergeant Mehmet Süleyman, a pretty boy who is trying to resist the marriage arranged by his overbearing mother, tries to tidy up after his boss but only succeeds in making a bigger mess. They are called in to a particularly brutal murder in an impoverished section of town. The gruesome details of the murder of an elderly Jewish man have neo-Nazi overtones, a shocking development in Istanbul's relatively tolerant culture.

Much of the story follows Robert Cornelius, an Englishman teaching in a local school. Cornelius reminded me of the acronym from Old Filth: failed in London; try Hong Kong. The students in his Istanbul classroom may be bored and lazy, but at least they are not vicious like the British schoolboys who sent him packing. Cornelius is walking home from his classes when he spies his bafflingly remote girlfriend sneaking out of a building, the building which he later learns is the scene of the murder.

This is Nadel's first book, so some awkwardness in the writing and pacing may perhaps be forgiven. The Istanbul settings are vividly drawn, the author having spent much time in Turkey. There are plenty of plot twists, the last one being a bit too far-fetched for me, but not impossible. Nadel has gone on to write 14 more books in the Ikmen series, along with five other books in two more series, all of which seem to be quite popular, so clearly she has perfected her craft. And even with this first book, hey, I finished it!

Yes, I was sufficiently engaged to stay with it, although I did not find Ikmen appealing and was dismayed about halfway through the book to find him turning to mysticism for answers. What interested me about him were his family. His devotion to his wife, Fatma, pregnant with their ninth child, at first seems incomprehensible given her coldness and constant disapproval, but later scenes reveal a tenderness between them that touched me. Ikmen's father lives with them, angry and complaining most of the time, but helping with the children when asked and revealing a wealth of knowledge when consulted by his son. Their mutual respect amid the difficulties of old age and relative poverty is brought out with great subtlety.

Will I read more books in the series? Perhaps. I certainly enjoyed the settings, having gone through a little Istanbul phase a few years ago. The next time I discard a disappointing novel, I will be happy to turn to a book like this.