Bad Blood by Wall Street Journal reporter, John Carreyrou, kept me awake in the middle of the night because I simply couldn’t stop reading about Elizabeth Holmes, the ambitious young woman trying to build a biomedical firm in Silicon Valley. Though it’s non-fiction, this book reads like a page-turning novel. Holmes, the founder and creator of Theranos, a company that claimed novel blood-testing capabilities (with just a prick of the finger), also proved to be one of the country’s most charismatic liars. Carreyrou, scene by scene, builds the story of this determined young woman (a Stanford engineering department dropout after her freshman year), and illustrates how little she cared that the results of her blood tests were often radically unreliable and equally often wrong, which meant that misdiagnoses were occurring and could tragically affect people’s lives. Based on interviews with dozens of Theranos employees and many others who surrounded and knew Holmes, this book is a true work of investigative reporting. Highly recommend it.
This year, books in the memoir genre were perhaps the most memorable reads for me. I’ve always enjoyed memoir and non-fiction adventure, but a few really stood out, and these books I believe I’ll be recommending for a long time to come. In the order that I read them (beginning with the most recent):
As I write this, I’m wondering what made these books tower above others and what, if anything, they have in common. Well, in looking at the list, all but one of the books were written by women. Each book tells a very personal story, and all were page turners, beautifully written with inspiration threaded through each one. Two of them were about marriages gone wrong (the last two), one written by a woman in the throes of dying (she was in her early 60s), another in which the reader gains a rare peek behind the very closed curtain of North Korea, another about a traumatic childhood and its aftermath (Ariel Leve’s), and, finally, a story about what, in a world so filled with injustice and insanity, can still inspire awe in this life (Scott Sanders’).
All but the last were traditionally published; Not Exactly Love used a hybrid press and has sold well.
Rather than go into detail about what the stories were about, I urge you to look up any that draw your attention. The style of writing varies, as does the structure. Ariel Leve’s book and Cory Taylor’s jumps around in time, while three are quite linear. Jen Waite’s story begins with the discovery of her husband’s betrayal, and successive chapters alternate between the time before the discovery and the time after, creating an interesting interplay between memory and experience.
Show versus Tell
An interesting aspect of memoir has to do with narrative and dramatic scenes, that is, how much “telling versus showing” should one do? And how much reflective writing ought to be included—by that I mean how often should the author reflect on an experience with the benefit of hindsight? As in most writing, there are no hard and fast rules, but for dramatic effect I believe action scenes help to bring the story to life, so that the reader can experience and empathize with what the writer witnessed and experienced.
There are memoir writers, like Jeannette Walls, who use nothing but dramatic scenes and offer very little reflection or emotional response. She has a reporter’s instincts, and maybe for some stories that’s best. Personally, I like some reflection on a situation, but admit that Walls’ memoir was stunning.
In a future blog post, I’ll delve into how you might approach the balance between action scenes (showing) and narrative (telling), and how much is right for your story. But for now, two ideas spring to mind. Both involve writing exercises. One, try imitating your favorite memoir writer by using a chapter, or even just a scene of his or hers, as a blueprint for your own story. The other writing exercise involves thinking about a few of the most compelling moments you plan to write about and just begin writing. Perhaps try writing it first as a scene, using dramatic action, and then do a version in which you use narrative to “tell” the incident. Try reflecting on the experience from the present-day perspective. See which you think is most effective.
Bare Your Soul: honesty/truthfulness
The six memoirs in my list were emotionally moving because the writers were willing to bare their souls about the challenging situations in their lives, and yet they never expressed their ordeals as victims, even when they were. They provided such situations either through scenes or factually, as Jeannette Walls did in The Glass Castle. This approach allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, especially effective when a situation is so awful that a writer’s response to it might seem too maudlin or sentimental.
For example, Ariel Leve speaks of the trauma that was wreaked on her by her mother’s haphazard parenting, but it is done in an almost clinical way and/or she uses scenes. Her mother’s abdication of responsibility for her daughter’s well-being (while claiming otherwise) was mind boggling. This also touches on writing honestly and truthfully, which all six authors on my list did. The reader can tell when a writer isn’t being truthful. At least I think they can. Perhaps a notable exception was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which contained quite a few exaggerations and outright lies. (And yet it was the second biggest selling book in 2005, right after Harry Potter! Thanks, in large part, to having been an “Oprah book.”)
If you’ve read any of the six memoirs I mentioned, please let me know your thoughts.
Ones on my list for next year: Becoming by Michelle Obama, andEducated by Tara Westover.
This series of marketing tips will conclude with the “guest blog.” Bloggers often want and need content so they turn to others to provide it for them. Some ask you to pay for this, but often it’s free. They see the advantage of having fresh and interesting content without taking the time and effort of writing it themselves, and you as the guest blogger can draw attention to yourself or something you’re trying to promote.
Because October is National Bullying Prevention Month in the US, and my novel, Saving Phoebe Murrow, (released last fall in the US and UK), revolves around a cyberbullying incident, it was a natural for me to reach out to parent or “mommy” bloggers. I sent out an email to numerous such bloggers and sparked the interest of a couple, including Bekah, of Motherhood Moment.
I wrote a guest blog about cyberbullying and made some suggestions for parents about steps to take to protect their children relative to cyberbullying and social media. The guest blog is reprinted in full here. It was published on Motherhood Moment on September 25, 2017.
Parenting Pointers: Cyberbullying Prevention
Cyber-bullying is no joke. Join the author of Saving Phoebe Murrow during National Bullying Prevention Month to protect your children from online/social media (cyber-)bullying:
Let’s say this at the outset: I would suggest that with the advent of the Internet and social media, the job of parenting has grown exponentially more difficult, and you are not alone. It was hard enough navigating children through those tricky teen years, dealing with teens’ raging hormones, peer pressure, and shaky self-image, but adding the Internet and social media to the mix has compounded teen problems and therefore your job as a parent. With the Internet, access to every form of information has expanded (in ways good and bad), and with social media the potential dangers and risks to teens have grown as well.
When tackling the issue of children and social media, we’re really dealing with a nine-tentacled octopus, so to speak. By that I mean there are so many forms of social media these days, and different ones target children of various ages. For example, teens are using everything from SnapChat and Kik Messenger to Instagram and Tinder (a dating site). Younger kids might use Facebook, SnapChat and video game sites. So is it actually possible to protect them?
A few tips:
Current statistics suggest that a large percentage of teens have suffered one or more cyber-bullying incidents. Two excellent sources of information on cyber-bullying and prevention: www.cyberbullying.organd www.meganmeierfoundation.organd online safety: Family Online Safety Institute: www.fosi.org
My novel, Saving Phoebe Murrow, was inspired by a cyber-bullying event in Missouri which sent a teen to suicide. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in learning more or having me appear at your book group. www.hertafeely.com
To see the blog post on Motherhood Moment:
Advertising can be expensive, but at times it can also be an effective way to promote your book, especially if it reaches your target audience, and what is better than either a magazine (online or print) that reviews and focuses on new books. Advertising can be especially effective if your novel or book has just won an award or there’s something new to announce. So it’s definitely something to consider.
Shelf Unbound is such an online magazine, which caters primarily to independent and hybrid presses, and also to self-published authors. Shelf Awareness for Readersis another such “magazine” you might want to explore. Publishers Weeklyand Poets & Writersare another two. If you search online you’ll find lots of online magazines that promote books. Check out this post on www.bustle.com. But you’ll find ad pricing varies tremendously. Ideally, some of these magazines will review your book (at no cost), and your publisher will advertise it, but if not, you ought to consider investing some of your own money in advertising.
In my case, after I placed an ad in two issues of Shelf Unboundat relatively low cost, the publisher invited me to answer 7 questions, which constitutes the author interview they published in their Aug-Sept 2017 issue (page 28). They also included a small ad in the magazine, both at no cost to me.
Excerpt from Shelf UnboundAug-Sept 2017 Issue, p. 28:
On January 10, 2008, I read a feature article in the Washington Postabout a 13-year-old girl who was cyberbullied (on MySpace) and then committed suicide. Her name was Megan Meier. The boy who appeared to be leading the cyberbullying was 16-year-old Josh Evans, who Megan had a crush on but had never met. It turned out, though, that Josh Evans was actually a 47-year-old woman, named Lori Drew, who also was Megan’s neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends, though they’d had a falling out. I simply couldn’t believe a woman – a mother at that – could be so cruel to a young, vulnerable girl. I was also intrigued by social media as the forum for such bullying, and decided I wanted to write a story exploring this new Internet era and how a woman, a mother no less, could do such a thing. I should add here that my novel bears little resemblance to the Megan Meier story, though it was inspired by that event.
Perhaps what surprised me most in the writing of Saving Phoebe Murrowwas how easily her character came to me. Having had sons, I was afraid it would be difficult, but Phoebe’s character just flowed. In every scene it seemed as if someone else was writing her character. I am grateful to the Muse! One more thing though. It wasn’t until after I’d written and revised the novel several times that one of my readers asked me if I’d ever been bullied. Only then did I recall how I had been teased and ostracized in grade school. I believe I drew on this experience, and also on the difficulty I had with my own mother growing up. In many ways, she was like Isabel Winthrop. Just as with the bullying, it was only in hindsight that I realized this, not during the course of writing the novel. Perhaps it was because from the outside there were so few similarities between Isabel and my mother, who was a homemaker, not an accomplished, powerful attorney.
Read the complete interview here.
Also see: www.hertafeely.com. The novel is available at bookstores throughout the US and UK, on Amazon and other online booksellers.
Book reviews are critical to your book’s success! I’m sure you’ve heard that, but it’s true for a number of reasons. Not only does your publisher want them to use as blurbs on the cover or for inside, but also for book promotion purposes.
You’ll want to get traditional book reviews (in magazines and newspapers), but also online book reviews, which then translate into promoting the book through social media. Essentially, it’s “free” advertising. And with good reviews, your book is being promoted by a neutral party. Much more powerful than if you were to say: “My book is fabulous; it’s awesome. Just read it!”
Often, a couple of months before your book is released, your publisher will attempt to get book reviews for your novel or memoir or work of non-fiction. But sometimes, especially if your publisher is a small independent press or you’ve used a hybrid publisher or you’ve self-published, you’ll need to assist your publisher in getting book reviews. (It’s never too late to get a book review, by the way.) My UK publisher approached numerous reviewers last year, including Sophie Hedley, a prolific UK book blogger, and she agreed to do a review of my novel, Saving Phoebe Murrow,which you can find on her book review blog, called Book Drunk.
Over the next several months, Sophie and I got to know one another and she approached me in August 2017 for another project she was undertaking: to interview a series of authors about their novels, which she’d reviewed previously. I readily agreed, recognizing that the interview would be another opportunity to promote my novel nearly a year after it had been released. Once she published the interview on her blog (link at end of this post), we both used social media to promote her blog and my novel.
An excerpt from my interview on her blog “Social Media Stories”:
Sophie Hedley: Are there any particular authors that inspired you to write?
Herta Feely: “I wish I could tell you that, absolutely, it was Margaret Atwood or Ernest Hemingway or Isaac Asimov that inspired me because of their fine writing and prolific output, but honestly, if anything, reading Nancy Drew stories by Carolyn Keene growing up were as inspirational as the many literary and thriller novelists that I read later.”
SH:Saving Phoebe Murrowis Herta Feely’s debut novel. I asked Herta if she had always dreamed of being an author.
HF: “Not always. I did write stories and plays, even as a child, but I didn’t think in terms of wanting to be an author, not until my late twenties. Then writing became a way of life, and I worked in jobs that required writing of some sort or another.
“I studied journalism, which didn’t quite suit me. I was too prone to wanting to make up information, and that doesn’t do in that line of work. Eventually, in my 40s I left my job as executive director of Safe Kids Worldwide to stay at home with my two young sons, Max and Jack. It was then that I began pecking away at a novel and the fever to become an author struck me. So here we are!”
Read more of the interview...
Molasses-slow backstories trip up an otherwise entertaining tale of love, ambition, and millennials in modern-day London.
I love Kate Tempest’s name. I love her look, too, for its Joplin-esque qualities. And I especially love some of Tempest’s craftsmanship in her debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses. Tempest’s work is worth reading if only for the poetry of her writing and its so-called urban edginess. It’s also worth experiencing for a peek into the lives of England’s twenty-somethings, many of them as misguided and uncertain as America’s millennials.
In the first seven pages, we meet Harry (female), Leon, and Becky, who are leaving town — perhaps running away? “They’re driving past the streets, the shops, the corners where they made themselves. Every ghost is out there, staring. Bad skin and sunken eyes, grinning madly at them from the past. It’s in their bones. Bread and booze and concrete. The beauty of it.
All the tiny moments blazing. Preachers, parents, workers. Empty-eyed romantics going nowhere. Street lights and traffic and bodies to bury and babies to make. A job. Just a job…People are killing for gods again. Money is killing us all. They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things. They exist in the mass and feel part of the picture. They trust nothing but trends.”
This dark, unflinching look at life — presented from an omniscient point-of-view — here and elsewhere often feels as if the reader is encountering the author’s perspective.
The next chapter takes readers back one year. We discover how Becky and Harry, the two characters who captivate the reader most, were drawn to each other at a party. This chapter is also filled with Tempest’s keen observations of characters, who, judging from Tempest’s age, might be considered her peers. They appear to be filled with an overly self-confident swagger one minute, and defeatist, confused self-loathing the next. Nor does she hesitate to poke fun at them.
Main character Becky, an aspiring dancer, finds herself in a “part of town full of professional creatives with dreams of simpler living — radical, secret aspirations for cottages and nuclear families.” On entering a party in a “fashionable bar,” she describes it this way: “Everybody’s talking about themselves. I’m doing this…It’s going great. And have you heard about this that I do, and this other thing as well…Questioning postures and emphatic responses. The air is heavy with cocaine sweat, hidden fragility and the prospect of good PR.”
Meanwhile, Harry, a local drug dealer, is making her way to the same party, but encounters a friend from the past, Reggie, a somewhat pitiful petty criminal (dealer of various popular drugs). The two are contrasted this way: “[Harry] moves in confident strides…She is all London: cocksure, alert to danger, charming, and it flows through her. Reggie’s face repeats on all the strangers she passes and her eyes prickle and she blinks hard. She sees a homeless woman sat with her head on her knees.” Harry has a heart, but she’s also tough.
And then there’s Harry’s partner in crime, Leon: “The agreement is that Harry handles (drug) sales, Leon handles everything else. Both partners know their roles and respect each other’s talents. For the most part, they love their jobs.”
And so, after the initial encounter between Becky and Harry, we are drawn into Becky’s love affair with Pete, who, in this novel’s maze of relationships, turns out to be Harry’s brother. The story moves from Pete’s aimless, unhappy life (and difficulties with Becky) to Harry and Leon’s drug deals.
Here, the author skillfully delves into the underbelly of drug dealing and criminals in London. Eventually, over a dinner where the central characters come together both accidentally and explosively, Becky and Harry meet again. And fall in love. Love and loyalty of various sorts abounds in this novel. Betrayal and disappointment are also around every corner.
Unfortunately, the book is divided between the present-day story of the main characters (in their 20s) and the backstories of their parents and grandparents. This is where I had trouble. I loved the present-day story but felt ambivalent at best about the lengthy, lecture-like backstories of the main characters’ families, most of whom seemed doomed to an impoverished, down-trodden existence. The “system” was to blame in each case, and while often I felt sympathetic to what appears to be Tempest’s perspective, at times it seemed a little too predictable and too pessimistic.
This reader had to re-read these pages in an attempt to remember who was who, who was connected to whom, and how they figured into the story. These grinding, packed-with-fact mini-biographies are in such contrast to the magnificent prose littering the rest of Tempest’s dramatic pages that I kept wondering: Where’s the editor in all this? Why didn’t he or she advise Tempest to cut these, or properly weave them in, or use dramatic storytelling for these boring backstories if, in fact, their entirety is so important?
If you can skim these lengthy passages and get to the more compelling pages of The Bricks That Built the Houses, I think you’ll be glad you read this debut novel from a woman who is described as having “gained acclaim as a poet, playwright, rapper, and recording artist.” I hope we haven’t read the last from Kate Tempest. I’m sure we haven’t.
A complicated tale of sibling rivalry set against the backdrop of a once-grand English manor.
This novel is the perfect mid-winter read, especially if you’re a “Downton Abbey” fan. Curled up in front of a fire, you won’t want to stop turning the pages once you begin, so time your read carefully.
Bestselling author Natasha Solomons has delivered yet another enthralling tale that takes place in the English countryside, this time in and around Hartgrove Hall, a manor once beautiful and stately. After World War II, however, when the family reconvenes, the place is falling apart. The three brothers — the eldest being the presumed heir — vow to save and restore it while their rather cantankerous father, the General, is adamantly opposed to the idea but gives them a limited period of time to prove him wrong.
However, even among the brothers all does not proceed without conflict, internal and external. The Song of Hartgrove Hallis a complicated story of sibling rivalry, not the least of which is a triangular romance that’s anything but predictable. Solomons seems to have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to music, because this story is also about the art in a variety of forms, including a man in search of unrecorded English folk songs, a child piano prodigy and a woman who was England’s musical muse during the war.
Read Herta's full review on the Washington Independent Review of Books.
This winter has taught us Easterners, especially New Englanders, a lot about snow and about the very pleasurable peaceful feeling one gets as we watch the “snow falling on cedars,” barren trees and the landscape in general. For me, at least, it replaces the drab and dreary with a kind of heavenly beauty. And then when the blue sky and sun emerge, it’s like being kissed by your favorite grandparent and told to go play outside – sledding, skating, etc.
But describing those feelings, which is at the heart of settings, can be a more complicated thing. How do you translate the peacefulness of snowfall into the scene of a novel or memoir? You want to avoid being overly sentimental, and yet true to the emotion and beauty of it.
This brings to mind two novels in which snow played a significant role and from which we can learn a lot about setting: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I highly recommend reading them, not just for setting but other reasons too. These two authors, one in the state of Washington and the other in Turkey, use snow to great effect. Pamuk’s character contemplates the snowfall and gets the same sense of peacefulness that I do when watching it. And in Guterson’s novel snow casts a veil of mystery around events. Of course! Snow is a veil, isn’t it? In reality, but also metaphorically.
Obviously, not everyone greets snow with the same enthusiasm (as me!), for some it’s a curse. I imagine that many people in large cities see it in exactly the opposite way. For them, snow signifies hardship: everything from the difficulty of finding parking, to having to shovel or plow the snow from sidewalks and streets, to the layers of clothing required to stay warm. (Have you ever tried to push a baby buggy down an icy, snow-covered sidewalk or street?)
In any case, experiencing what you want to describe can assist you in your writing of settings. Sitting quietly and letting the experience wash over you might help when you face the computer and begin composing the scene in which your character exists. Close your eyes and remember. Better yet, as the snow falls write down your impressions. Don’t worry about making your prose perfect or beautiful or flowing. Just write down the visuals, the feelings, a few metaphors, and then when it’s time to write that scene turn back to your journal and crib a few lines.
And if you’ve recorded the event with some photos, pull them up on your computer or smart phone or out of your drawer and experience that moment again by closing your eyes and remembering...
THE BELL JAR BY SYLVIA PLATH
Favorite Line: "I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night...and I knew in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat"(85).
The Bell Jar is something everyone, and especially every woman, needs to read. While Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel touches upon mental illness, it is truly the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in 1950’s America. Esther Greenwood is disenchanted with the confining expectations for women, yet simultaneously, she’s dangerously unsure of what path she wants her life to take. Women from any generation can empathize with Esther’s uncertainty, as well as the pressure she feels to succumb to the cult of domesticity. --Rachel Ehrenberg
THE HANDMAID'S TALE BY MARGARET ATWOOD
Favorite Line: "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
While dystopian fiction is very much "in vogue" at the moment, Atwood pushes the genre past the more-recent post-apocalyptic plot lines, drawing on extreme religious beliefs to create a strange, misogynistic environment. In the world of Atwood's dystopia, written in 19XX, women cannot read, write, or do much else aside from bearing children. Their value comes from the quality of their ovaries. Births are experienced by all and insubordination is combatted with public hangings. It's horrifying in a way that The Hunger Games could never be because it doesn't seem that far-fetched. --Emily Holland
THE WOMAN DESTROYED BY SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
Favorite Line: "...me so vital alive a burning flame and him stuffy middle-class cold hearted prick like limp macaroni."
Simone’s narrative draws upon the feminist theories in her famous philosophical text, The Second Sex. The Woman Destroyed is divided into three parts, each from the perspective of a woman experiencing troubles relating to age, her husband's mistress, the loss of passion, and other intertwined mostly female issues. The book not only depicts the lives of the three women, but also reveals their deepest thoughts with an honesty that, at times, is brutal to read. --Morgan Day
WASHINGTON SQUARE BY HENRY JAMES
Favorite Line:“Poor Catherine's dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.”
While Washington Squareis certainly not a feel-good, warm fuzzy read, it does leave the reader incredibly satisfied and vindicated. Catherine Sloper, initially the epitome of a Plain-Jane, is viewed as undesirable for marriage with the exception of her sizable trust fund. Morris Townsend, a slimy, opportunistic man views Catherine as a vulnerable target and begins to court her, much to the chagrin of her equally repugnant father. Both men attempt to use Catherine for their own ends, however they vastly underestimate her. Catherine is the most unlikely heroine, yet her small victories over the manipulative men in her life make her one of the most endearing protagonists. --Cherylann Pasha
Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter
Review by Herta Feely
Much of what kept me turning the pages of Losing Touch was Sandra Hunter’s clever prose and deft touch in describing her various characters’ vulnerabilities, foibles, desires, and often awkward behaviors. Here is one such passage from character Sunila’s point-of-view (of her husband and daughter): “They are so alike…They even use their hands the same way when they speak. When they argue it’s like watching two mad, rival conductors swiping and slashing the air between them.”
The story focused mostly on Arjun, father and husband, who I found by turns frustrating because of his selfish behavior, and then touching because of his unfulfilled desires and growing illness. Sandra’s keen insight into the life of immigrant families, in this case Indian, recently settled in a foreign country, England, leaves one pondering their plight, and how it affects each generation so differently.
As an immigrant myself, I can relate to the complex emotions one experiences on being an outsider in a country that questions whether it wants you at all. I can hardly wait for Sandra Hunter’s next book.