Reviews

Scott Whitaker Reviews
Shannon Connor Winward’s
Undoing Winter

(From VOLUME 9, ISSUE 6 // THE BROADKILL REVIEW – November 2015)

COVER FROM WEBSITE

Shannon Connor Winward’s Undoing Winter, from Finishing Line Press, explores the relationship between self, myth and history. And for Winward, the past and the self are the wet earth, and the dead. Winward identifies the chthonic impulses that pull on our psyche. Family, the unexpected pain of loving children, these are but some of the themes lying in the winter setting of Winward’s chapbook. And it’s frightening. Thrilling, even.

Perhaps it’s the October chill in the air, and the pull of my imagination towards dark places, but Undoing Winter begins wielding dense and eloquent Dionysian tropes, the kind of musical mythic notes one hears in Plath, Sexton, and Bishop–on occasion, and in more contemporary artists such as Sharon Olds, Jean Feraca, and Beth Bachman. The iconic image of wet rich earth, so tied up with death and sex, is a primal murmur through Winter. And Winward becomes the throat for oracle, wearing a mask, and invoking poetic theatre.

The title poem “Undoing Winter” opens “I went into ground for you. I faced the guardians/of the gates of hell./I gave away my jeweled bracelets/ and marched naked to the cat-calls of the dead/ all to rescue your sorry ass/ and here you are,/ huddled on your mildewed throne/ speechless as a shrug.” The high and low registers of her voice contrast, a kind of static. The music of the “huddled…” and “speechless…” characterize the musical cadence of the poem.

Sonically, most of the chapbook echoes the title poem, they are poems of incantation, for lack of a better word. A catharsis, yes, but also transformative. The latter more important than the former. There is love and solace in her work, and levity, but for the most part Winter is an incantation, a purring engine of anger, desire, and loss.

“I Visit Your Heart” a speculative gem, hums with the kind of glamor a beautiful predator purrs from a long graceful throat. “Your heart on ice is useless to you,/ so while you were sleeping/I had them cut it out, encase it in plastic/ and set it on a platform/ with a plaque that reads: choices.” The heart later becomes a “trophy valentine”, the physical remains of what had been a relationship, a “paperweight.”

What makes Undoing Winter dazzle is the sensuousness of its language. Poetry is, on some level, supposed to be sexy, dark, and dangerous. There are few character hooks in the book, and Winward plays her cards close to her chest, so we don’t have any idea if she is writing about real or imagined events or people. The emotional landscapes of the poems could as easily be from memory or from imagination. Winward does a poet’s’ job and makes the unpoetic dangers of life poetic and mystic, joining in the broad and great opus that is American letters.

Last year (according to Goodreads) I read a whopping THREE books of fiction.

There was a time (in another life, in a galaxy far, far away) when I never went anywhere without a novel at hand. I’d pull that baby out at stoplights, read over meals, in the bathroom, standing over the printer at work—you know how it is.

Their absence now is an icky symptom of an over-extended life; what time I have for reading—in between parenting, writing, and other madness—is pretty minimal. I DO read for pleasure, but it’s mostly of the online, ephemeral variety, lately. A poem here. A story there. Nothing I can write home to Goodreads about.

While I’m telling you this partly because I have a free writing day for once so OF COURSE I want to spend it lamenting about my lack of time, I also want to make the following point:

My Dear, Darling Authors: when I go to my stack of TO READS and, out all the books I could possibly pick, I choose YOURS to bring with me to a four-hour-long appointment at the salon, it is a complement. Nay, it’s an HONOR. (Diana Gabaldon, YOU’RE WELCOME.)

I feel compelled to make this point because (1) it’s been an embarrassingly long time since I wrote a blog post, and though I have good excuses as to why, I still feel pretty lousy about it, so deflecting the issue by shedding light on the responsibility that authors have to their readers (i.e. me) to NOT SUCK seemed like a good strategy… but MORE IMPORTANTLY (b) I did actually, recently, so honor an author (no, not DG, she’s amazing) who so thoroughly DID SUCK that I feel personally insulted.

Prenovljeni_frizerski_salon_v_Gosposki_ulici_v_Mariboru_1960

Now I have nothing to do but sit here, grumbling, getting high on hair dye fumes. THANKS A LOT, Mr. Terrible Authorpants.

I mean, really. I invested time in this book (not much, it was really bad, so bad that after a dozen pages I almost threw it across the salon. But I didn’t bring another book to read instead, so there’s four hours I COULD have spent reading someone else.) Also, I invested money. Or, rather, my in-laws did—the book was an Xmas present off my Amazon wishlist)—which is kind of even worse.

Anyway. I will not tell you which book sucked so very much. I will not gift this “author” with any attention, even bad attention. But let me tell you this:

There is a reason independent authors and publishers get a bad rap. Yes, yes, yes, there are excellent self-published and small press books out there (I’ve been in some of the latter, and I’m about to wax poetic about the former, so please bear with me). BUT, so very many of them are badly edited, self-indulgent space wasters. There’s no accountability. There’s no gate-keeping editorial staff, no publishing house with an established reputation and at least some marketing dollars and savvy to back an indie author up. Some self-published and garage-published books at least have the decency of using fifth-graders as cover artists to clue you in to how much they suck, but often there’s no way for a potential reader to know if the random indie book they’re about to pay money for/invest time in (or select above all others to lug to their hair appointment) is going to be worth it.

Which is why I don’t buy a lot of indie books. (Could ya tell?) When I do buy one (or download one, let’s be honest, Indies give their books away in promotions all the time) it’s because I know the author, or else the book comes with the recommendation of someone whose judgment I trust.

THIS book, though. What upsets me most about how much THIS BOOK sucked was that it tricked me. I didn’t know it was indie-published. I came across it by expressing interest in similar books on Amazon or Goodreads or some such. It looked good. It sounded good. It was published by a “Society” that sounded Literary and Important and Knowledgeable In Such Things, and had garnered good reviews with words like Intelligent and Challenging and that referenced other Authors I Like.

But, no, this book was overwritten, self-indulgent, purple prosy, dense, badly edited crap which, upon closer inspection, was published by a “Society” of which the author is the “President” and which exists to bring literature to the masses by, like, hosting open mics at a venue the author owns. And stuff.

Oh, and those reviews? The author personally responds to each and every one. Especially the bad ones. At length. (I really wish I’d noticed that before I clicked “Want to Read.”)

So let that be a lesson to you, Good Readers. Or let it be a lesson to me, I guess. Someone should learn something from this experience.

But although I am still feeling ill from the bad taste this BOOK I SHALL NOT DIGNIFY BY IDENTIFYING left in my reading mouth (yes, that’s a thing), I’d like to use the remainder of this space to raise a metaphorical toast to a book far more worthy of your attention.

love in the time
For our recent family weekend camping excursion, I selected the next book in my READ ME queue: LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELLING, by Franetta McMillian, a Delaware author and acquaintances whose work I discovered at a local literary venue. Ms. McMillian has a captivating voice and a quietly stunning performance presence. As many open mic enthusiasts can tell you, lots of people can read fiction to a room full of people, but very few can tell a story. Not to mention, the story she read—THE FALL OF ROME (Gargoyle Magazine, Fall 2014)—was freakin’ awesome. So guess what? I bought her book… and then kept it in my SOME DAY pile for a year and a half before finally breaking the seal and exploring those words. And after my recent experience, I admit, I was wary.

Let me assure, you. Franetta’s got this.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF UNRAVELLING (2013), represents everything good that an independent book can be. Set in the “shattered States” of the mid-to-late twenty-first century, this collection of interwoven stories explores the tenacity of love, spirit and human goodness within one of the ugliest possible imagined futures. Mired in catastrophic global pollution and entrenched economic corruption, McMillian’s eclectic cast of survivors, visionaries, and misfits are surprising and compelling. Her writing is clear, evocative, and—lo! —clearly well-edited. Her storytelling is creatively non-linear, transporting the reader across time and geography in what seems at first a random set of “Quantum Leaps” but eventually reveals itself to be a clever pattern within the novel’s haunting and beautiful mosaic.

My only (only!) issue with LOVE was a bit of chronological confusion which may or may not be iron-out-able but, in the end, doesn’t really matter. (And I can’t remember the last time a book made me go back, take notes, and do the math, so there’s that.) With elements of science fiction, fantasy, and slipstream, McMillian’s stories hold appeal for lovers of genre fiction, yet they also maintain a consistent, resonating literary tenor that, in my opinion, has the strength to cross boundaries and affect a much larger audience. I can see her work fitting in the highest tier magazines or, with luck, backed by Big Name Brick and Mortar Inc. Yet Ms. McMillian embraced the Independent Publishing model, and more power to her. You can see her creative vision in every aspect of the book, from the cover art (her own) to the composition and scope (there’s a sequel, she informs me, so watch for that!) Which, I suspect, was entirely her point.

While I abhor a badly executed self-published book (particularly one masquerading as something else), I acknowledge that there is, absolutely, well-written, entertaining, and important works out there to be discovered. I bemoan the lack of filtering in the modern book market that subjects sensitive souls like me to total, time-wasting dren, but let it be said that there ARE ways to sniff out the good stuff beyond just random point and click. Getting to know the local talent is a big one (and supporting your local artists can’t hurt). Also important? Recommendations by people you love and trust—like, say, me!
So trust me on this one. LOVE is worth it.

TheBookTourBanner

 

 

 

Book & Author details:

The Book by Jessica Bell
Publication date: January 18th 2013
Genre: Adult Contemporary (Novella)

 

REVIEW:

I knew nothing at all about The Book going in – hadn’t even read the synopsis.  So imagine my eyebrows arching when I opened it to find it begins with the syrupy –sweet, tired awe of new parents writing to their infant daughter in a diary.  It is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me—to see you being born…” the father rhapsodizes in the first entry.  Later, Mummy confides, Being your mother is the most rewarding occupation. When I feel those tears coming on, I just look at your face, and it helps me keep them hidden until I go to bed at night…”

I remember those feelings.  I remember wanting to chronicle every little spectacular and mundane detail of my child’s existence – and my utter failure to keep up once the reality of parenting kicked in.  I smiled at the time gaps between the entries, how Bonnie leaps from newborn to her first Christmas to toddlerhood in just a few pages.  We have the best of intentions when we start out as parents, don’t we?

So I could relate,  but I was skeptical about what I was reading, and why. Epistolary fiction – a story in letters – is a challenge.  A little risky, not easy to do well.  Where was the author going with this? More importantly, would it work?  

I’m happy to say that, yes, The Book worked for me.  I found the structure interesting: I like how we gain insight into the characters through a variety of narrative techniques and points-of-view.  Bonnie’s parents use The Book – a shared diary – not just as a record of Bonnie’s early life, but as a means to communicate with their future daughter (and, sometimes, with each other). Later, five-year-old Bonnie speaks for herself in first-person narrative, with a strong, precocious voice.  Aware of The Book but not its purpose, Bonnie wonders why it seems to make her mother cry or her stepfather angry, and develops some surprising ideas – a neat twist.  And through transcripts of Bonnie’s taped sessions with a therapist, we see her from an outside, more clinical perspective.  The Book is complex, intelligently crafted and, so far as I know, quite unique.

Because it is heavy on narration and dialog, the actual story within The Book isn’t made explicit.  We aren’t given a blow by blow of how Bonnie’s parent’s marriage dissolves, for example, or the circumstances and relationships that arise between the characters afterwards, since the characters are writing to each other or narrating to themselves.  They have little need to spell things out in exposition.  Thus the story sneaks up on you bit by bit; as often you figure out what’s happened through what isn’t said, or what’s between the lines. 

I like that.  I’m a fan of subtle.  I’m a fan of stories that get under your skin without you realizing it until you’re hooked.  I read The Book in bits in pieces, usually over coffee while my son was eating breakfast.  I remember one scene in particular took me by surprise, and I had to keep reading in that peeking-through-your-fingers kind of way to find out what would happen. We ended up late to school that day.  I guess that’s when I figured out for sure that, yup, The Book is good.

There were a couple of things that I didn’t love.  Bonnie’s mother was weak in character in a way that chafed my feminine sensibilities.  I kept wanting her to get a backbone and stop being so dependent on men.  It is what it is and didn’t hurt the story, per se, but I don’t know how central it was either. I would have liked to have at least seen her weakness rooted in something, explained or justified, resolved and maybe overcome in the end.  I’m not sure that it was.

And though I admire the way the character of Bonnie just explodes off the page (somewhere I saw the author mention it was more like channeling than writing, and that definitely shows), there were times that I couldn’t quite get comfortable with Bonnie.  She is uncannily precocious for her age (it is eventually stated that she’s something of a prodigy).  Yet, at the same time, her narrative is riddled with a typical five-year-old’s corrupted spelling/pronunciation and contextual misunderstanding, to the point of redundancy.  Plus Bonnie is also an Australian five-year-old, and I’m NOT, so I think some things were lost in translation. (What, exactly, is “making doll’s eyes”? An unblinking stare? Batting your lashes??” I googled it, but I still can’t tell.)

As a result, Bonnie’s narrative often called attention to itself, which kept me from being as immersed in the story as I might have been.  But I can’t deny that Bonnie is a stand-out character.  I loved her forthrightness, her insights.  I loved her questions about human nature, and I was moved by her father’s attempts to answer them at the end of the book.  This is definitely a kid who sticks with you even after The Book is done.

I’m not going to go into too much more detail, because I think a little bit of mystery makes this an enjoyable read.  I’ll just say, overall, I was pleasantly surprised, and look forward to more from Jessica Bell in the future.

I would definitely recommend The Book to anyone who relishes smart and innovative literary fiction.

Cover
Synopsis:

This book is not The Book. The Book is in this book. And The Book in this book is both the goodie and the baddie.

Bonnie is five. She wants to bury The Book because it is a demon that should go to hell. Penny, Bonnie’s mother, does bury The Book, but every day she digs it up and writes in it. John, Bonnie’s father, doesn’t live with them anymore. But he still likes to write in it from time to time. Ted, Bonnie’s stepfather, would like to write in The Book, but Penny won’t allow it.

To Bonnie, The Book is sadness.
To Penny, The Book is liberation.
To John, The Book is forgiveness.
To Ted, The Book is envy.
But The Book in this book isn’t what it seems at all.

If there was one thing in this world you wished you could hold in your hand, what would it be? The world bets it would be The Book.

—-
 
AUTHOR BIO
If Jessica Bell could choose only one creative mentor, she’d give the role to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music and lyrics. This is not only because she currently resides in Athens, Greece, but because of her life as a thirty-something Australian-native contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist, whose literary inspiration often stems from songs she’s written. Jessica is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and annually runs the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. For more information, please visit her website: www.jessicabellauthor.com
Links:

Writerly friends: if you don’t already follow Jessica Bell, you should.

jessica headshot - Copy

An Australian-native fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Her poetry collection, FABRIC, was a semi-finalist in the GOODREADS CHOICE AWARDS 2012 for BEST POETRY. Sellers like Amazon.com offer a selection of her fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including her pocket guide WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series, which offers user-friendly “how to” demonstrations to help writers hone their craft.

Jessica has a warm and witty online presence on social media sites like Facebook and Goodreads. She’s also part of the team that brings us Vine Leaves Literary Journal – a high-quality (and visually stunning – seriously, have a gander) online journal. Taken from the original meaning of the word, “vignette” (“something that may be written on a vine leaf”), Vine Leaves celebrates the kind of short, emotive writing that is too often overlooked in a literary culture fixated on the plot, the plot, the plot. By recognizing that there is also artistry to be found in a moment, a feeling, an array of words – and creating a venue for it – Jessica Bell became a hero of mine. So when she announced that she was launching a virtual tour for her upcoming projects, I happily volunteered.

Adverbs-&-cliches_cover_for Internet

Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Subversions of Adverbs & Clichés into Gourmet Imagery is the second installment in Bell’s WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series. In this NUTSHELL, Bell tackles those insidious, tricky little linguistic buggers that tend to slip into our writing because they’re familiar, easy, and ready-at-hand. We all do it: unconsciously, habitually, we rely on adverbs to tell (not show!) how something is done. Like a rat on a wheel, we use clichés to get our point across – and thus we keep our writing mediocre, rather than great.

But how, HOW, do we avoid the pitfalls of adverbs and clichés? By subverting them, Jessica says. Identify them, drop them from your repertoire, and replace them with something original. Give details in your prose to show that your character is mad, rather than having her say it angrily. Plumb the treasure trove of your imagination for metaphors to convey his love – don’t rely on his racing heartbeat or the truth welling up from the windows of his soul.

With Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell, Bell gives us thirty-four specific examples how to turn adverbs and clichés into vivid and unique imagery. This in itself is unique, so far as I’m aware – tons of writing books and blogs tell you what not to do, but with this guide you can actually see how it can be done – over and over again. Plus, it comes with prompts to practice writing subversions of your own.

Now, I don’t believe adverbs and clichés are always, universally evil. I raise a literary eyebrow when the media buzz tells us what is in, what is out, what defines good writing, and (even more fun) what makes writing bad. (Ten things you should NEVER do! Twelve things every agent HATES! Eleven ways to ensure you’ll never see your work in print EVER!) The pundits say it, it gets circulated and internalized and taken for gospel when, really, what’s good has a lot to do with context. SOMETIMES, clichés work. (They are clichés for a reason, after all). SOMETIMES, adverbs work (saying it quickly can be better than taking up a paragraph with original purple prose to demonstrate how it’s said).

AND, I shall be quick to point out, Jessica Bell says this too, right up front. She gives a very good argument for the whys and why nots of adverb and cliché use in the introduction – the best argument I’ve seen. The danger in my mind is that writers, especially new writers, may accept that these writing rules are (cliché alert) written in stone, and may learn not trust their own instincts, their own voice. But I use the word “danger” loosely – it’s not like writers are going to be blowing things up with adverbs. And there’s nothing wrong with learning the rules well – if nothing else, it may teach you how and when to break them.

The biggest critique I have of Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is that I wish the sample adverbs and clichés (of which there are over a hundred, I believe) were treated individually, rather than clumped together in thirty-four sample passages. Some of the passages are short, but many are quite dense, encompassing twenty or more “problem phrases” in one scenario. This clumping can make it hard to remember which phrases we’re subverting – I had to keep scrolling back and forth to figure out what Bell had changed from the “adverb” and “cliché” examples to the new, original writing. I even thought, in a (very) few cases, that the original “bad” writing was better, if only because the “better” samples tried to encompass so much.

For my purposes, I would have preferred one, maybe two adverbs and/or clichés per example. It would have been cleaner, focusing the reader’s attention on each problem phrase and an example of how to rewrite it, rather than making a dozen or more phrases depend on one another within a scene. It would have made the book longer (hence not a “pocket guide”) but way easier to use.

Still, Bell suggests that the book is meant to be read and then reread, several times over, and I can see how that would help the reader begin to pick out the nuances. And, indeed, that is how a writing book is meant to be used – often, and repeatedly. It is a reference, after all.

And for that, Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is a great resource, and a great buy. At a mere $1.99, I don’t see why any writer wouldn’t want to snatch it up. So go do that.

Here’s how:

Click one of the following links to purchase:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Ca | Kobo

For more information about Jessica please visit:
Website| Blog| Twitter | Facebook