Tag Archives: book review

Advance Book Review of a Must-read Thriller — The Pocket Wife

PocketWifeJacketCover
My first post-Thanksgiving read this year was debut author Susan Crawford’s new psychological thriller, The Pocket Wife.
As one of the first bloggers to receive an advance reader’s edition, I’m honored to share some impressions of this hard-to-put-down thriller. Susan, a fellow Atlanta Writers Club member who I interviewed on The Writing Well after news broke of her two-book deal contract with HarperCollins, has weaved a compelling tale that explores the darker side of marriage, fidelity, jealousy and mental illness.

The story opens with Dana Catrell, a wife and mother living in suburban New Jersey, who wakes up hung over with a fuzzy memory of the previous day’s events, only to learn that she was the last person to see her neighbor alive. Fending off medication for her bipolar condition to keep her mind sharp, Dana tries to piece together the events leading to her neighbor’s death, all the time wondering if there is a murderer lurking inside her.

Susan’s main point-of-view character is a woman who has been shaped by her own perceptions of herself and the world around her, tainted by a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Readers are immediately drawn into Dana’s complicated inner life, as someone with secrets and regrets — a wife who feels invisible next to her flamboyant lawyer husband, a lost mother who longs for the presence of their only child, now in college.

Readers begin to feel her hysteria…is she being stalked or is she crazy? Could she –in a drunken fit of rage – have clubbed her neighbor to death?

I followed the unfolding drama – and like any avid reader of a good book – had a hard time putting the story down the further into the book I went. The other point-of-view character is a veteran detective going through his own marital crisis as he tries to uncover the mystery. An ambitious up-and-coming assistant district attorney pressures him to close the case fast, as he fights his growing attraction for the crime’s prime suspect, whose bizarre behavior paints her as the likely culprit.

I recommend everyone pre-order this novel, which is a great who-done-it with an unorthodox lead character who is as flawed and as complicated as they come. The characters are vivid and raw; the writing and pacing strong. There is very little that I didn’t like about this debut novel, though I have to admit I figured out who did it before the climactic ending (an annoying tendency I have when watching movies, too).
The Pocket Wife will be generally released this March, and I believe it’s got a great shot at being optioned for the Big Screen. I can easily envision Julianne Moore in the lead.

Author Q&A

Author Susan Crawford

Author Susan Crawford

Before I conclude this post, I asked Susan to explain a little bit about her writing process and what surprised her most about her characters’ journey. I hope this additional commentary proves helpful to readers as they decide whether to make The Pocket Wife a must-read novel for 2015.

Q. How did you come up with the title?

Susan:  The way I came up with The Pocket Wife’s title is kind of funny. I called my workaholic husband, who was at work of course, about something fairly important. “I can’t talk right now,” he whispered in this annoying, urgent voice. “I’ll just – I’m gonna stick you in my pocket for a second,” and he did. All I could hear was the rustling sounds of his pocket insides so I hung up and tossed my cellphone back into my purse. “I’m nothing but a pocket wife,” I snarled, and then I thought. Hey. Wait. The Pocket Wife! And that became the title.


Q. How were you able to create such a believable main character struggling with bipolar disorder? Did you draw on your own life experience?


Susan:
To a large extent I did draw on my own life experiences when it came to understanding Dana and presenting her to readers. I think all of us have moments when we teeter, when we feel on the brink, when we feel hopeless. Dana just goes a little farther over the line. She becomes unable to function, which was, at least at one point, the definition of insanity. I have been close to people in my life that were bipolar, and that helped me to get inside Dana’s head to a degree. I have always found psychology fascinating – what makes people think and act as they do – that fine line between genius and insanity.


Q. Did the book’s characters – who seem so real – take on a life of their own in your imagination during the writing phase of this novel? What surprised you most about them?


Susan: 
Yes. The characters did take on a life of their own as I was writing the book. They always do. I could see them very clearly and see the world from their perspectives – what their living rooms looked like or their offices, what annoyed them or what made them tick. In fact, if I try to define my characters ahead of time it limits them in a way. It makes them stilted. It confines them to my idea of who they are or who they should be. What surprises me with characters is that they have a big part in how the story plays out, what direction it takes, because if they are real enough, they will do certain things and not others. They play off each other in particular unique ways because of their personalities or proclivities. When I was writing The Pocket Wife I was a little surprised to find that all the characters could justify their behavior. No matter how bizarre or wrong their actions appeared to be, they all had rational (or rationalized) reasons for doing what they did.


Q. What is your favorite excerpt or paragraph in this book? I found certain passages took my breath away in terms of their literary quality.


Susan:
Thank you for the wonderful compliment! I like this passage because I think it shows who Dana is, how she came to be where she is in a nightmare marriage, why she gave up on certain dreams. Also, this part happened in the past, so it doesn’t really give away any of the plot:


She didn’t marry the Poet because she couldn’t slow herself down. Lying beside him on the dingy mattress in that place with the broken wall, she couldn’t relax. Night after night, she lay awake, watching the rise and falling of his hairy chest, the shadows underneath his eyes, the neon light from a liquor store across the alley blinking at the sky. Like a signal, she’d told him, like a warning, and the Poet laughed. “Have a toke,” he said. “It’ll relax you. It will help you sleep,” and the poet stuffed his Chinese pipe with small soft lumps of hash. It didn’t make her sleep, though. Nothing did. Every week she slept less, walking through the downtown streets with the Poet, arm in arm, until late into the night, until his eyes were closing and he fell asleep exhausted on the mattress, leaving her to pace and write. Her classes flew by in a confusion of voices and raised hands – of papers written in the middle of the night, so brilliant, so esoteric. I think I’m channeling God, she told the Poet, her body nothing more than flesh on bones. He tells me what to say. But they didn’t understand – her professors, the other students. Only her dark poet understood, and finally not even he could catch the words that tumbled from her brain onto the page in tiny, oddly-slanted script that even she could barely read. The night he came home and found her on the roof, squatting at the edge in nothing but a slip – the night she said Jesus told her she could fly, the night she floated hundreds of hand-written pages into the winter sky over Avenue D, he’d driven her to Bellevue in a borrowed car.

________________________

To learn more about The Pocket Wife or Susan’s other writing projects, visit her author page at: http://www.susancrawfordnovelist.com/.

Relaxing Reads: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

The Writing Well is devoted to book reviews or recommendations every Sunday in May. Last year for Memorial Day I paid tribute to “Three Must Reads of the War-time Experience:”

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
War by Sebastian Junger

The post included book excerpts and author interview clips. With tomorrow being Memorial Day, I wanted to feature a work that memorably speaks to our national story.

One book emerged as an easy choice: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the exhaustively researched biography has been called “a brilliant portrayal of our best president” and “the bible of the Civil War era and of Abraham Lincoln.” I couldn’t agree more.

Kearns Goodwin spent 10 years researching and writing Team of Rivals. She does a masterful job retelling the story of Lincoln’s unlikely rise to president and his gutsy decision to surround himself with his former rivals — William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates after winning the 1860 Republican nomination. This excerpt, set on the morning of May 18, 1860, the day of the Republican nomination, perfectly captures the view of Lincoln as the undisputed underdog:

“There was little to lead one to suppose that Abraham Lincoln, nervously rambling the streets of Springfield that May morning, who scarcely had a national reputation, certainly nothing to equal any of the other three, who had served but a single term in Congress, twice lost bids for the Senate, and had no administrative experience whatsoever, would become the greatest historical figure of the nineteenth century.”

This work offers a rare glimpse into our 16th president, showing Lincoln’s ability to put himself in the place of other men, to experience what they were feeling, and to understand their motives and desires. The new president deliberately surrounded himself with individuals from differing political leanings and ideologies.  In the process, he earned the respect and devotion of his former foes.

A key player in the book is Edwin B. Stanton, who treated Lincoln with contempt  the first time the two crossed paths — during a celebrated law case in the summer of 1855. In spite of Stanton’s demeaning behavior, Lincoln offered him the most powerful civilian post –that of secretary of war– when they met again six years later. Stanton was Lincoln’s closest adviser during the Civil War and at Lincoln’s death, he uttered the famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages,” and lamented,”There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.”

 

The popular press took note of President Obama taking a cue from his presidential idol when he embraced former political foe Hillary Rodham Clinton as his Secretary of State. Business leaders are constantly speaking to the need for creativity and specifically, diverse ideas, to drive success. Clearly, Lincoln intuitively knew a leadership principle that offers lasting lessons to our often-polarized business and political world.

Watch Jim Heath’s interview with Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals.  During the interview, she talks about why Lincoln is her favorite president and her view of “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film adaptation of her book. Spielberg pledges that the film will be released after the 2012 presidential election. Daniel Day-Lewis will play the lead role. Other cast members include Sally Fields, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tommy Lee Jones.   

Kearns Goodwin has said, “Once a president gets to the White House, the only audience that is left that really matters is history.”

Thanks to her painstaking biography, the political life of our most remarkable president is clearly illumined. 



Relaxing Reads: The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

 
“At forty-two, I had never done anything that took my own breath away, and I suppose now that was part of the problem–my chronic inability to astonish myself. I promise you, no one judges me more harshly than I do myself; I caused a brilliant wreckage. Some say I fell from grace; they’re being kind. I didn’t fall. I dove.”
                                                ― Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair
 
 
There is much to enjoy about Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Mermaid Chair, which followed the author’s debut book, The Secret Life of Bees.
 
When I picked up the book while perusing titles in my favorite used bookstore, I was immediately intrigued by the premise: “A vividly imagined love story between a woman and a monk, a woman and a husband and ultimately a woman and her own soul…”
 
Who wouldn’t want to read more? I soon became immersed in the story of Jessie Sullivan, a conventional wife who feels stifled in her marriage of 20 years; an unconventional artist who has lost her desire to create; an empty nester mourning the loss of her daughter to college.
 
Into this listlessness, Jessie learns that her estranged mother had inexplicably harmed herself. She leaves Charleston for Egret Island, a tiny barrier island off the South Carolina coastline where she grew up.
It’s there that she confronts painful memories of losing her dad in a boating accident and the traumatic aftermath of no longer having a “present” mother. On the island stands an abbey of a Benedictine monastery, and it is there that Jessie finds herself drawn to Brother Thomas, a sexy, complex monk who is months from taking his final vows. The monk’s real name is Whit, a former attorney who joined the monastery after his expectant wife died in a car accident.  

I found it hard to put down the story at times as the heroine grappled with the tension of desire and the struggle to deny it, and her eventual surrender to it.  Kidd writes the story with beautiful imagery, weaving together unforgettable characters and a compelling plot that keeps you turning the page.

In the end, we learn about the hard path to finding one’s true self, of letting go and of forgiveness.

About the Author

Sue Monk Kidd is a writer, novelist and memoirist. She was born in Albany, Georgia, and raised in the tiny town of Sylvester, Georgia.When her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees was published by Viking in 2002, it became a genuine literary phenomenon. The novel tells the story of fourteen year old Lily, who runs away with her black housekeeper in 1964 in South Carolina, and of the sanctuary they find in the home of three beekeeping sisters. The Secret Life of Bees has sold more than 6 million copies, spent over 2 ½ years on the New York Times bestseller list and been published in 35 countries.

Sue’s second novel, The Mermaid Chair, has sold nearly 2 million copies since its publication by Viking in the Spring of 2005. 

Firstlight, a collection of the author’s early writings, was released by Guideposts Books in 2006 and Penguin in 2007. A compilation of inspirational stories, spiritual essays, and meditations, it has been translated into several languages and has over 200,000 copies in print.

Sue’s newest book, Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, co-authored with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor debuted September 8, 2009, appearing on numerous bestseller lists, including the New York Times Bestseller List

Sue’s website features some timeless insights on her writing.  Her pearls of wisdom include:

  • The quality of a writer’s work directly correlates to how much the writer pays attention.
  • The single most important question a novelist should ask is: “What does my character want?” That thing will then become the driving force of the book.
  • “The well springs of the creative life are deep inside each of us” — therefore, we must “tap” into that river.
  • “It’s not the first thing I think of that works magic, but the third.” — find the third thing.
  • Allow yourself to write badly – “Perfectionism kills the spirit of writing faster than anything I know of.”

Masterful Storytelling – Open by Andre Agassi

Good biographies chronicle a person’s life, serving as honest portraits that take you through the lows and the highs of a life well lived. 

Great biographies transport you there — moment by moment — making you laugh, smile and at times tear up as you experience the triumphs and tribulations of the person’s life.

In the case of Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi, you experience it all — from Andre’s early years under the tutelage of his tennis-obsessed father in Las Vegas, to his rebellious teen years spent at junior tournaments and doing time at The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, to his bumpy ride to tennis greatness, and finally, to his notable post-tennis career as a husband, father and education crusader.

You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate Andre’s struggles with the physical and mental demons that dogged him as an athlete (the opening of the book is him waking up, disoriented and in unspeakable back pain, in a New York City hotel bed the morning of his last U.S. Open match in 2006.)

J.R. and Andre. Photo by:
New York Times

The book is a compelling read — filled with emotion and honesty, vivid personalities, lessons of forgiveness and acceptance and finding yourself.  It also is incredibly well written — the narrative is at times inspired, a credit to Andre’s collaborator J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Andre discovered and courted Moehringer for his book project after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar, about growing up fatherless in Manhasset, New York.

Andre winning the 1999 French Open.

One of the more dramatic parts in Open was Andre’s nail-biting final against Andrei Medvedev to capture the 1999 French Open. Andre recalls his lackluster playing early in the match and Brad Gilbert’s meltdown in the locker room during a rain delay. The experience jars Andre to get his game back, enabling a come-from-behind victory.  I love the minute-by-minute recreation of the match, where the changing weather and Andre’s mood are masterfully interwoven.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts of Open. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

He steps up, well inside the baseline, sending me a message that he anticipates a softie, and when he gets hold of it he’s going to ram it down my throat. He wears a look on his face that unmistakeably says: Go ahead, bitch. Be aggressive. I dare you. 

This moment is the crucial test for both of us. This is the turning point in the match, perhaps in both of our lives. It’s a test of wills, of heart, of manhood.

the pivotal moment in the third set of the 1999 French Open final against Medvedev

She smiles. Off she goes. I go tearing after her. It feels as if I’ve been chasing her all my life, and now I’m literally chasing her. At first it’s all I can do to keep pace, but near the finish line I close the gap. She reaches the red balloon two lengths ahead of me. She turns, and peals of her laughter carry back to me like streamers on the wind.
I’ve never been so happy to lose.

— racing Stefi on a San Diego beach early in their courtship

It’s early evening. The sun is just disappearing behind the masts and sails of the boats at the dock. Perry and I are early, Brad is right on time. I’d forgotten how distinctive looking he is. Dark, rugged, he’s certainly handsome, but not classically so. His features aren’t chiseled; they look molded. I can’t shake the idea that Brad looks like Early Man, that he has just jumped from a time machine, slightly out of breath from discovering fire. Maybe it’s all his hair that makes me think this. His head, arms, biceps, shoulders, face are covered with black hair. Brad has so much hair, I’m both horrified and jealous. His eyebrows alone are fascinating. I think: I could make a beautiful toupee out of just that left eyebrow.

— the first time Andre and Brad Gilbert meet and begin working together