Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ill Wind by Rachel Caine

Title: Ill Wind
Author: Rachel Caine
Publisher: Roc
Publication Date: December 2, 2003
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 352 pages
Age Group: Adult
Series: Weather Warden (Book 1)

Joanne is running for her life. She stands accused of using her powers as a Weather Warden to commit murder but no one knows the full story or how much trouble she is truly in. As she runs away from those who would judge her toward the one man she believes can save her, Joanne discovers that even she does not fully understand the powers that are currently in play.

Ill Wind is fast paced and chaotic. The story zooms from present to past and back again as Joanne attempts to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. The writing mirrors Joanne's frantic emotional state and I could strongly feel the sense of urgency that she was facing. At the same time, Joanne seems to take time out of her flight for survival to indulge her sexual nature by fantasizing about the man she picked up by the side of the road or remembering past encounters with various men. These fantasies seem trivial considering the gravity of her current situation.

Although Joanne has some control over the weather, she believes that a storm is following her with malicious intent. Until some very specific evens occur, she is unsure if this is a natural storm or one created by another Weather Warden to end her life. I think I was expecting Joanne to have much more control over the weather than she seemed to at times based on her title of Weather Warden.

Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending confused me a bit because I am unclear how it is going to lead the story into a series.

Overall, I found Ill Wind to be an enjoyable read, although not one of my favorites. I am interested in continuing the series to see where it is going.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

Title: Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret
Author: Steve Luxenberg
Publisher: Hyperion Books
Publication Date: May 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 416 pages
Age Group: Adult, non-fiction

Steve Luxenberg always knew his mother was an only child, just as he knew her name was Beth. He and his siblings are shocked when his mother mentions, during a routine medical history, a younger sister who was sent away. After his mother's death, Luxenberg begins to investigate the story of the sister and why his mother had kept Annie a secret all that time.

Annie's Ghosts is an absolutely fantastic book! I was so drawn into the story that I finished reading it in two days, picking it up every time my daughter took a nap. The story of the secret sister is compelling and Luxenberg is a wonderful story teller. His journalistic background is evident as he documented all his research and was clearly able to put people at ease and draw out their memories while influencing them as little as possible.

Luxenberg weaves his personal search for information about his aunt in with the history of mental health care in Michigan during the time when his mother and aunt were growing up. His research connects him to relatives that he didn't realize existed and reconnects him with some of his mother's childhood friends. In attempting to gain as much information as possible about his aunt's life in a large mental institution near Detroit, he faces many roadblocks including needing to gain legal authority to access the records and then finding out that many of those records had been destroyed.

Luxenberg often ponders his mother's motives for keeping her sister a secret and wonders how containing that secret for so long affected her. With most of the principal characters in the story already dead, it is likely that he will never find definitive answers to his many questions. However while this story certainly started out as a personal family quest, Luxenberg expands his scope to revealing the lives of so many like Annie who were sent away, lost and forgotten.

Thank you so much to Julie at FSB Associates for sending me such a wonderful book.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Article by author Steve Luxenberg

Although I have yet to begin reading Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg, I was hearing so many good things about it that I had to move it to the top of my list. I'm hoping to read it and get it reviewed in the next week or two. In the meantime, here is an article by the author pondering how memoirs and items based on true stories can be constructed to remain as close to the facts of the story as possible or stretched almost beyond recognition.

Memoirs, Movies and Those (Mostly) True Stories
A Writer's Take on Reality's Rough Edges
By Steve Luxenberg,
Author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Why do they do it?

Why do so many film makers put "based on a true story" or some variation as one of their opening frames, when they have freely altered the truth of the story?

Because it works. Because those words retain their mesmerizing power, even though they are misused or stretched at times to the point where there's little relationship between the story being told and the facts that gave rise to them. Truth-twisting in film has become so accepted that reviewers rarely comment on it or point out the discrepancies between fact and fiction, between information and invention.

As a long-time journalist and a first-time author, I'm probably more fascinated than most people at the transformation of a nonfiction work from book to screen. In researching and writing about a family secret that took me back to the beginning of the 20th century, I chased down many leads to ambiguous and not entirely satisfying conclusions. I joked with friends that I envied the novelist's license to invent what could not be learned or verified.

I'm not suggesting that there's a grand deception here. It's news to no one that movies change certain facts, sometimes for legal and privacy reasons. But film makers increasingly want to have it both ways. What began as a safeguard ("some facts have been changed to protect . . . ") has turned into a genre. Why not just come out and say it? "Some facts have been changed to protect the innocent, streamline the plot and increase dramatic tension. But the story is still (mostly) true."

Instead, the trend line is moving in the opposite direction. Recent case in point: The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie as the mother fighting a corrupt Los Angeles police department that had declared a stranger to be her abducted nine-year-old son, begins with the words "a true story" appearing on a black screen, holding for a few seconds, and then fade out.

Not "based on" or "inspired by." Just that flat, unambiguous statement: "a true story." Then, in the fine print at the end the closing credits, the film makers fess up. "While this picture is based upon a true story," we're told, "some of the characters have been composited or invented, and a number of incidents fictionalized." In other words, (which I liked and admired for its storytelling as well as its artful re-creation of the 1920s) improved on the remarkable tale of Christine Collins and her young son Walter. The true story wasn't quite good enough.

Moviegoers seem to accept this hybrid genre, and the industry celebrates it (Oscars, etc.). Is it any wonder that it has crept into the world of nonfiction books, where memoir writers have claimed a license to "fill in the gaps" (based on truth and memory, of course)? Or that universities now offer courses in "creative nonfiction"?

Truman Capote gave us the "nonfiction novel," stealing a page from the film world. Tom Wolfe chose to take his new journalism into novels, which solved that problem. James Frey obviously crossed the line, however, in embellishing and inventing some of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces about his drug use and brushes with law. A screenplay version of Frey's work could have said "a true story," and no one would have batted an eye.

Subsequent editions of Frey's memoir have carried an apology from the author that is a model of muddle. "I didn't initially think of what I was writing as nonfiction or fiction, memoir or autobiography," he wrote. "I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection. This memoir is a combination of facts about my life and certain embellishments. It is a subjective truth, altered by the mind of a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Ultimately, it's a story, and one that I could not have written without having lived the life I've lived."

Frey's right on one score: Others disagree, and there's a lively and continuing debate in the writing community about these issues. On a Facebook discussion the other day, for example, the question came up: How far should memoir writers go in reconstructing scenes and dialogue?

I draw a harder line than most. I favor the rough edges of memory over neat and pretty reconstructions. (More interesting, usually.) Invention? As I wrote in the Facebook discussion, that's why we have novels.

Readers, I think, are smart. They know that most writers don't have notes or documents to back up dialogue from long ago. So what's the problem? In a word: Credibility. As a writer, I want readers to grant me some license to tell my story. But if I present lengthy dialogue as fact, I risk losing their trust -- and their interest. Bad deal for me.

There's a scene in my new book, Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret, that illustrates the difficulty of reconstructing past events. I'm at a restaurant outside Detroit, interviewing a cousin about the secret that stands at the center of the book. The secret was my mother's. Throughout her life, my mom had hidden the existence of a disabled sister. I was trying to find out why. My search had led to my cousin, someone I had never known.

In the early 1950s, I learned, my cousin and my mother had argued about the secret, leading to a life-long rift between the two women. Just as my cousin is recounting a climatic moment in their dispute, we're interrupted by the waitress's offer of coffee. After the waitress leaves, my cousin resumes her account -- and offers a different (and more dramatic) version of the key moment she had described only seconds before.

I had no doubt about the crux of my cousin's story. My mother had, after all, kept the secret. But if I wanted an "accurate" version of their conversation, I was out of luck. My cousin was giving me the version that reflected years of thinking about that moment, that reflected her feelings as much as her memory.

"The nuances lie beyond my reach," I wrote in the book. "Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do."

I saw no reason to choose between the two versions. I would present both, and use the scene to point out the intricate patterns of trouble imposed by time and memory. That would be better than presenting a reconstruction of their argument.

That would be something closer to true.

©2009 Steve Luxenberg, author of Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret

Author Bio
Steve Luxenberg has been a senior editor with the Washington Post for twenty-two years, overseeing reporting that has won numerous awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory journalism. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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This article has been posted with permission from FSB Associates.