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#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Time to discuss the next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, from a writer’s perspective.

This post contains spoilers.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  Niamh/Vivian moved with her parents from Ireland to New York City right before the Great Depression. When she loses her parents, she is put on an orphan train to the Midwest with the hope she will be taken in by a family along the way. A couple does take her in, but her journey is a rocky one. Much later in life she meets foster kid Molly Ayer. Although they are different in age, the two might have some common ground.

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Characters

There are two main characters in this novel.

Niamh/Vivian is primary main character and she narrates the historical timeline. Over the course of the novel she has different names, which reflect changes in her circumstances. As a child in Ireland, she is named Niamh Power. When she first arrives in Minnesota and she’s taken in by a couple, the woman of the house decides to call her Dorothy Nielsen. Later when another couple adopts her, she takes the name of the couple’s deceased child, Vivian Daly. Each time her name changes, it reveals how the process strips away her identity. When she gets on the train, she leaves behind not only a place, but also who she was.

Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer narrates the modern day timeline (2011). This works well because if Vivian narrated, the reader would learn about things that happened in the past out of order. By having Molly narrate, we discover events as Molly hears about them.

Molly’s father died and her mother spends most of her time in jail or prison, so Molly has been in a series of foster homes. She acts out at times. In fact, she meets Vivian because she needs to do community service for stealing a library book. Her teen character adds just the right touch of modern to the 2011 timeline.

 

Christina Baker Kline orphan Train

Public domain train image from Wikimedia

Setting

The novel begins in Spruce Harbor, Maine in 2011. It then travels back to New York City in 1929, where Niamh/Vivian’s family has arrived from Ireland. Before too long, tragedy strikes, and she finds herself on an orphan train headed to the Midwest.

The rest of the story alternates between Maine in 2011 and several locations in Minnesota.

Symbolism

Niamh’s grandmother gave her a claddagh cross necklace before she left Ireland. What happens to the necklace provides important symbolism in the story. Intertwined with the necklace is Niamh’s perception of her Irish grandmother, which changes as Niamh matures and understands adult relationships in a clearer way. I liked how that growing maturity reflected Niamh’s character arc.

Discussion

Christina Baker Kline has taken on a number of challenges with Orphan Train. She has two main characters, two distinct timelines, and multiple settings to integrate into a single story. It’s a difficult juggling act, but the good news is that she has done an excellent job.

I’m not the biggest fan of historical fiction, but this one was engaging. The piece of history Christina Baker Kline chose to reveal was a heartrending one. I admire the author’s ability to immerse the reader in another time, without unintentionally allowing things from the present day to crop in. The contrast between the two timelines was further enhanced by Molly’s narration.

Orphan Train moves forward in a smooth, consistent way, rather like a real train. It knows it’s destination and moves towards it without wandering off the track, taking the reader on an enjoyable and enlightening ride along the way.

 

Join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker(2012) – Discussion begins March 19, 2018

Genre:  Historical romance

#BestsellerCode100: Number 65. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 list, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary: When she was a young orphan in New York City, Niamh/Vivian was put on an orphan train to the Midwest with the idea she would be adopted by a farm family. Much later in life she meets Molly Ayer, who has struggles with the foster system. Although they are different in age, the two might find some common ground.

 

 

Have you read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve this reading challenge? We’d love to hear them.

Have you written about Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline? Feel free to add a link to your review in the comments.
__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 64. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walker(2012) – Discussion begins March 19, 2018
Genre:  Historical romance

#amwriting 5 Reasons to Write Short Stories

I have been churning out short stories lately and my favorite editor asked me why I was doing short stories rather than working on a novel. I told her that sometimes it pays to focus on short stories.

 

 

5 Reasons to Write Short Stories

1. They are short and not as much of an investment.

I read an article the other day that said writing a novel is like lifting a 500-pound barbell. Novels require a lot of work, both in preparation and writing time.  Authors rarely finish more than one novel a year and some, like Donna Tartt, need a decade per novel.

The best thing about short stories is they don’t take long to write. They are more like lifting a five-pound barbell.  Most people can write 500 -2500 words in a day, which is the average length of a short story. I have been writing for contests where the limits are 3500 -5000 words. If your muse is cooperating, you can finish a first draft in two to four days. Even if a short story pushes the absolute maximum word limit of 25,000 – 30,000 words, it can be completed in a couple of weeks. It feels great to finish a writing project in a compact period of time.

Because a short story isn’t much of an investment, it is also relatively painless to discard it if it doesn’t go as planned. If it doesn’t gel, simply move on to the next project.

In addition, if you’re stuck in a dry spell, one good idea is to do some reading, but another is to work on a short story. Sometimes the small success of finishing a short story can help jump start a larger project.

2. Short stories give you the freedom to stretch your writing muscles.

Writing short stories allows you to try out different styles and genres. I’ve recently written humorous essays, a science fiction/police procedural, and dabbled with metafiction. The latest short story I’m working on is xenofiction, which is told from a non-human point of view.

Back to my editor’s questions. She also asked if practicing the short story techniques and formatting — which are not the same as novel techniques — might interfere with my ability/desire to write a novel. I said no. In fact, writing short stories allows you to play with voice, plot, characters, etc. in ways you wouldn’t want to do with a novel. If your short story not working from a limited third person point of view, it is easy to switch it to first person and compare the results. When the protagonist narrating the story makes the pace drag, try having the antagonist narrate.  If the past tense sounds clunky, try present tense. Mix it up with a perky voice or a snarky one. In a short story you can be brave and have fun being creative.

If you have an idea for a novel, you might want to go ahead and try it out as a short story. Think of it as an extended synopsis. You may be able to detect problems and fix them early on, or even decide it isn’t worth developing.

A writing mentor recently suggested the reverse, to turn a short story into a novel because “novels make more money.” I’m not sure that was good advice, because some ideas are not big enough to carry a full novel. A story line that works for a thirty-second ad is probably not enough for a 10-episode television series.

3. Once finished, short stories don’t require as much attention.

One big advantage of short stories is that you don’t have to promote them (unless you publish a collection). You don’t need an agent and you don’t have to do a book tour. You submit to a magazine or a contest, and it’s thumbs up or nothing. If you lose or are rejected, you can polish some more and submit the same piece elsewhere (as long as the contest didn’t take your rights — read the fine print!)  No need to devote months of your life to marketing.

That said, you also might not get as big of a reward. Some contests are costly, and more and more magazines require a reading fee just to submit an article. It is possible with a little research, however, to find reputable contests and magazines that don’t charge fees. An added benefit of writing for contests is that there’s a fixed deadline for submission. Deadlines are great for motivation.

Some authors have had success publishing their short stories directly to eReaders like Kindle, too.

4. Short stories can help build an author’s platform.

You can attract fans to your website, plus build up an email list by offering short stories. It works best if you stick to topics/genres related to your novel(s). Many savvy authors use short research and backstory pieces to entice fans.  Include a few personal essays, which would also appeal to fans who want to find out more about you as an author.

5. Publishing short stories can give you recognition and credentials.

If you do finish your novel, it might be easier to get an agent if you have some published work and particularly, if you’ve won awards. Short stories might give you some much-needed credentials.

Conclusions

Not every writer enjoys writing short stories. For example, some of the famous authors in the short story compilation MatchUp said they were “short story challenged.”   Given all the reasons above, however, the ability to write short stories can be a handy skill to have.

Thanks to Karen for the idea for this blog post.

#BookBeginnings Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Just in time for World Book Day we’re starting the next novel in The Bestseller Code 100 challengeOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  When she was a young orphan in New York City, Vivian was put on an orphan train to the Midwest with the idea she would be adopted by a farm family. Much later in life she meets Molly Ayer, who is struggling with being in the foster system. Although they are different in age, the two might find some common ground.

Side note:  The copy I found is a paperback with a fancy deckle edge and a “P.S. section with many extras about the author and about the book. It has a very lush feel.

First Sentence of the Prologue:

I believe in ghosts. They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. Many times in my life  I have felt them around me, observing, witnessing, when no one in the living world knew or cared what happened.

Discussion:

The narrator sounds lonely to me. The idea that only ghosts care for her is so sad.

This novel has gotten a lot of good reviews. I’m looking forward to reading it.

What do you think? Have you read Orphan Train or any other for Christina Baker Kline’s books?

#amwriting Much Needed Motivation

Need motivation to keep going? This is it:

#BestsellerCode100: Writer’s Review of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Let’s take a look at the next book on The Bestseller Code 100 listThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, from a writer’s perspective. Be sure to visit Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective as well.

This post contains spoilers.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

 

Lovely Bones is a perfect novel for a writer to study because Alice Sebold has taken some of the more common writing techniques and conventions, and tipped them on their heads. The good news is that the results work beautifully.

Characters

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is the main character of the book, but she dies at the beginning. How can someone who has died be the main character? How can she have a character arc?

The answer is that for the rest of the story Susie narrates from her own personal heaven. She can observe what happens to those left behind, but no longer participate in the events. Over time, her interpretations of what she sees begins to mature, even though her physical body can no longer do so. This maturing creates the character arc. Plus, although her actions can not drive the story as a main character should, her narration makes it a compelling one.

Beginning novelists are often told to pare down the number of characters in their books. They are advised to combine characters or cut some out. As a result debut novels often have a more limited cast of characters than novels by experienced writers, but again Sebold defies convention. She fills the story with a full complement of characters, from Susie’s family, classmates and friends, teachers, neighbors, to all the people she meets in heaven.  The number of the characters works because it makes it seem like we’re reading about a real community, not a made up one.

Plot

The plot doesn’t follow the standard formula of rising action to climax, either. Instead, the biggest climax/conflict is right up front when Susie is raped and killed. For the most part, this works. The only weakness in the novel — and it is a minor one — is that the author didn’t have a clean climax in the last part to set up a discrete ending, and therefore the story dragged on a bit longer than necessary. If it was my novel, I would have wrapped up when Susie’s father had a heart attack and her mother came back from California. That seemed to be a natural end point. The scene with Ruth and Ray making love, in particular, seemed tacked on and a bit unnecessary.

 

Susie’s favorite flowers are daffodils.

Setting

The setting is fairly ambiguous.  Susie is in “her personal heaven,” which she describes, but which transforms over time. Her family lives in an unnamed suburb somewhere in Pennsylvania.

Whether or not to name real places when writing in the mystery/thriller/suspense area is something authors have to consider. Placing a fictional serial killer in a real town may have an adverse impact on the town. To prevent that, many authors create fictional place names. Instead, Alice Sebold chose to leave the name up to the reader’s imagination. Her choice works because all the incredible physical details she includes make the nameless setting seem real and concrete.

Discussion

The Lovely Bones stands apart because many aspects of the story are surreal and stretch the reader’s imagination, and yet the underlying emotions are true to life. They are raw, real, and gritty. The combination allows the reader to suspend disbelief over some of the more fantastic elements of the story and makes it enjoyable to read.

As novels go, it is completely unique.

Have you read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 65.  Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) – Discussion begins March 5, 2018
Historical fiction

#BookBeginnings The Dry by Jane Harper

I’m supposed to be reading our next challenge book, but instead I’m reading The Dry by Jane Harper for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-button-hurwitz


The Dry
by Jane Harper

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   Aaron Falk returns to his former home town for the funeral of his best friend from childhood. He intends to drive back to Melbourne and his job as a Federal Agent immediately afterwards, largely because the bad feelings that caused his family to leave are still lurking under the surface.  His plans change, however, as he learns more about his friend’s death and discovers it may have been murder. What really happened and is it all linked to the secrets of the past?

This is Jane Harper’s debut novel. The paperback just came out last month.

First Sentence of the Prologue:

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

Discussion:

I’ve never seen a prologue written from the point of view of blowflies before.

What I’ve read so far is well written and quite gripping. Although the main character is on leave and is a federal agent who investigates financial crimes rather than murder, the novel still falls in the police procedural category, which I enjoy.

It is set in Australia in an area that is experiencing a severe drought. The drought itself adds another layer of tension to the story.

Have you read The Dry? Do you think you’d like to read it?

#BestsellerCode100: A Reader’s Review of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge.  Sebold’s novel was published in 2002 and received several literary awards, including the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel.  I first read this book in 2004 and enjoyed it then.  When I saw it on our reading list I wondered whether it would stand the test of time.

This post contains spoilers.

 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Unique Voice

Alice Sebold has written a unique character in Susie Salmon, a fourteen-year-old girl who is murdered in the very first chapter and then relates what happens to herself in heaven and her family and friends on earth over the next decade.  Sebold’s take on high school, the way in which Susie’s friends react and cope with her murder, brought back to me much of the angst and joys I experienced in high school.

For a first-time novelist, Sebold has a powerful mastery of descriptive language.  Susie’s version of heaven has an interesting smell…

The air in my heaven often smelled like skunk—just a hint of it. It was a smell that I had always loved on Earth. When I breathed it in, I could feel the scent as well as smell it. It was the animal’s fear and power mixed together to form a pungent, lingering musk.

… and feel.

I turned around and went back to the gazebo. I felt the moist air lace its way up along my legs and arms, lifting, ever so slightly, the ends of my hair. I thought of spider webs in the morning, how they held small jewels of dew, how, with a light movement of the wrist, I used to destroy them without thinking.

It made me wonder what my individual slice of heaven would be like.

The Eyes Have It

They say that eyes are the windows to one’s soul and in The Lovely Bones this is certainly true.  Before her death, Susie dreamed of being a wildlife photographer and her most prized possession was her camera.  Referring to one of the early pictures that Susie took of her mother, Sebold writes:

My mother’s eyes were oceans, and inside them there was loss.

Susie used so many rolls of film that her father made her choose only a few to get developed due to the expense.  Several years after Susie’s murder, and after his wife had abandoned their marriage, her father developed the rest of the rolls.  On the very last roll he discovered a series of photos that Susie took of her mother one day just before her father arrived home from work.  This series of photos is a window to the diminished dreams Abigail experienced as she left behind the world of literature she studied in college and became first a wife, then a mother.  Susie’s father had not been aware of this change in his wife, not until he saw these photos.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw my father walk through the side door into the yard.  He carried his slim briefcase, which, years before, Lindsey and I had heatedly investigated only to find very little of interest to use. As he set it down I snapped the last solitary photo of my mother. Already her eyes had begun to seem distracted and anxious, diving under and up into a mask somehow. In the next photo, the mask was almost, but not quite, in place and the final photo, where my father was leaning slightly down to give her a kiss on the cheek—there it was.

“Did I do that to you?” he asked her image as he stared at the pictures of my mother, lined up in a row. “How did that happen?”

He finally comes to understand why his marriage disintegrated after Susie’s death and also, interestingly enough, from those pictures he remembers the woman he first fell in love with and falls in love with her all over again, even though she is totally absent from his life at that point.

Possession, Again?

The only bit of this book that I did not really like was where Susie and her friend Ruth essentially trade places – Susie inhabits Ruth’s body for a short while and Ruth is transported to Susie’s version of heaven.  I didn’t like the whole “inhabited body” thing in The Cross Roads and I didn’t like it here either.  I didn’t understand what Ruth was doing in heaven (Ruth was the most unusual and difficult to comprehend character in the novel), and I felt that the whole scene with Susie in Ruth’s body having a relationship with her old school sweetheart was rather gratuitous on Sebold’s part.

Lovely Bones

Upon reading the book description, you expect that the  title The Lovely Bones refers in some way to Susie’s dismemberment, although how that could be considered lovely baffles the mind.  In the very last chapter, though, we learn that Sebold uses bones as a metaphor for the bonds that hold Susie’s family together.

These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence: the connections—sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent—that happened after I was gone. And I began to see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it.

I’m glad this book was on our list and provided me with the opportunity to read it again.  I appreciated Sebold’s writing much more the second time around.

 

Have you read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 65.  Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) – Discussion begins March 5, 2018
Historical fiction

#BestsellerCode100: Number 66. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Time to start the discussion of our next novel from The Bestseller Code 100 listThe Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

This post does not contain spoilers.

 

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary: Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon watches from heaven as events unfold after her rape and murder.

Published in 2002, this is one of the older books on our challenge list. It is Alice Sebolt’s debut novel, although she had already published a memoir, Lucky. It won a Bram Stoker award and was made into a movie.

 

 

Have you read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related posts:

  1. Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
  2. Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
  3. Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective

You can also join us on social media:

__________________

What are we reading next?

If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time.

The next book is number 65.  Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (2013) – Discussion begins March 5, 2018
Historical fiction

The Magic of Abracadabra by David Kranes

Time to take a look at a new mystery, Abracadabra by David Kranes, published by University of Nevada Press (November 1, 2017).

Elko Wells can find things that no one else can. His amazing ability surfaced after he received a severe head injury as a professional football player.

When apparently normal, decent guy Mark Goodson fails to reappear on stage while serving as a volunteer during a magic act, Goodson’s wife hires Wells to track him down. Wading through the chaos that is Las Vegas at its liveliest, with the help of celebrity look-alikes and cocktail waitress sleuths, Wells follows the missing man’s trail.

Described as written in the noir tradition, this novel blasts along at a frenetic pace. David Kranes’s dialogue is whip fast and authentic. For example, you can sense the sparks in this exchange between Mark Goodson and his wife Lena (who wants to go to the Rhino):

“Can we still go to Picasso?”

“I thought we could go to…what was it called? The Rhino.”

“I want to go to Picasso.”

“Even though he cuts people up?”

“That makes one of us an accomplice.”

In case you didn’t know, the Rhino refers to an actual strip club or “gentlemen’s club.” Picasso is a Las Vegas restaurant.

 

Public domain photograph by Jean Beaufort

Setting

I love a book with a strong setting and Abracadabra has setting in spades (sorry, I couldn’t resist). David Kranes lives in Salt Lake City, Utah where he is a professor emeritus at the University of Utah. It would appear, however, that he has spent a great deal of time in Las Vegas. He knows the different casinos, the games, the restaurants, and the people with the precision of an insider who has spent hours observing in real life.

For example, when protagonist Elko Wells isn’t finding people, he runs a celebrity look-alike service. When he spots someone who resembles Martin Sheen,  Elko follows him to see if the man has potential as an employee. Kranes’s description of the scene could only come from someone who knows his way around Las Vegas casinos:

Martin Sheen sits down and Elko does the same thing, a stool away. The possible Sheen orders a Dewar’s and water, slips in his club card, glides a hundred into a multigame validator and starts playing Double Double Bonus.

Apparently he is talking about some kind of slot machines.

The Bottom Line

Abracadabra would be a good choice for readers who love Las Vegas. It is also for those who want a fast-paced mystery with a noir spin.

See (and listen to) a review of Abracadabra by Mary Sojourner at KNAU

Disclosure: This book was provided for review purposes by the publisher. I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. If you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a small commission at not extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

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