Book Club Night

Last evening, I met with my book club to discuss Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s debut novel.

Kavita and Jasu Merchant are a poverty-stricken Indian couple living in a society that favors boys and considers girls a burden. Having lost one daughter to infanticide, Kavita decides to take Asha,  her second daughter,  to an orphanage in Shanti. She leaves her daughter with a thin silver bracelet and the hope that she will live and experience a better quality of life.

In San Francisco, Somer and Krishnan Thakkar–she’s a pediatrician and he’s a neurosurgeon–have been unable to have a child. Krishnan asks his mother in Mumbai to arrange for the adoption of an Indian child.

The story is told from the viewpoints of the three female protagonists–Asha, Kavita and Somer–moving forward in time from 1984 to 2009. Each woman has strong feelings about motherhood and India.  As they evolve on their respective journeys, they come to appreciate that country in different ways, realizing that “Mother India does not love all her children equally.”

Gowda has effectively captured the sights, sounds and smells of India. I could easily visualize the slums of Mumbai and taste the spicy food that Krishnan and Asha craved.

An excellent read!


Dealing with Dialogue Tags

Looking back at some of my earlier work, I cannot help but cringe at my use of “said bookisms” such as roared, admonished, exclaimed, queried, and hissed. I was trying to avoid overusing the word “said” and looked for suitable alternatives. I realize now that using all those words only made it sound like I enjoyed using my thesaurus. I was annoying the reader and drawing attention away from the dialogue.

It is not necessary to help the reader interpret the dialogue, or worse, tell the reader how the words are said instead of showing him. If the dialogue is strong enough, “he said” and “she said” will do. Like other parts of speech—the, is, and, but—that are used several times on each page, “said” is invisible to the reader and allows him to concentrate on the action and dialogue.

To add variety, I have been working on using action to vary the tags. I am also trying to simplify the narrative and use taut dialogue to build up tension.

The following excerpt from Kaleidoscope,  Gail Bowen’s latest in the Joanne Kilbourn Mystery series,  illustrates the effective use of dialogue:

The news I was about to deliver was harsh, and Taylor and Zack both knew it. Zack reached across the table and took our daughter’s hand.

“So how bad is it?” he asked.

“It’s bad,” I said. “Everything in the east half of the house is pretty well gone. The bedrooms are all right. The police wouldn’t let us look at the basement, but I think it’s safe to assume there’ll be structural damage there.”

“So, what’s left?” Taylor asked, her voice small.

“Your mother’s paintings are still on loan to that retrospective, so they’re safe. And the Scott Plear and your abstract were in our bedroom, so they’re fine. Nothing in your bedroom was touched.”

“But the room where the pool was is gone?” she asked.

I nodded.

“So the fresco I painted on the wall is gone?”


“And the self-portrait I gave Dad for Christmas?”

“It was in the family room.”

“And the family room is gone?” Taylor’s eyes brimmed with tears, but she set her mouth in a determined line and turned to Zack. “I’ll paint another one.”


Albert Nobbs

In the past, whenever I saw Glenn Close, I would recall her unforgettable performance as Alex Forrest, the wild and beautiful stalker of Dan Gallagher, played by Michael Douglas, in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. In one terrifying scene, she informs Gallagher that she intends to be part of his life and will not be ignored.

Fast forward twenty five years to Albert Nobbs, Close’s latest film where she co-writes the screenplay, co-produces and portrays the title character. Masquerading as a male waiter in a Dublin Hotel circa 1900, Close succeeds in suppressing every female instinct and creating a character that fades in the background.

Her life starts to unravel when she encounters Hubert Page (played by Janet McTeer), the freewheeling house painter who is also a woman masquerading as a man. Unlike Nobbs, Page has married a woman and settled down to a happy domestic life. Realizing that she could have companionship, Nobbs pursues a pretty maid (Mia Wasikowska) who has fallen for the repairman Joe Macken (Aaron Johnson).

Close and McTeer effortlessly portray the two men and when they don female clothes for a beach outing, they look like men in drag. It is not surprising that both women were nominated for Academy Awards this year.

The overall tone of the film is sad and focuses on a trapped and wounded soul who is unable to escape her self-constructed prison. The ending is unexpected and left me pondering on one of Tony Robbins favorite expressions: You are either an example or a warning.

Albert Nobbs is a warning to anyone—male or female—who is not living authentically.

More Blessed by Ian Paul Marshall

There is so much we fight.

The fight against cancer, heart disease, diabetes…

If we look closely we can see that all of our attention is upon the disease and not upon the cure.

All of our energy is spent in aggression and not in love.

For there is a softness to healing.

A sacredness to our pain.

A sweetness to our sorrow.

And it is in these moments that we dive low into the depths of our spirits,

And when we emerge from our journey to the scared centers of our source

We are grounded, stronger, and full of hope.

There is no fight there for, in truth, we would be fighting against ourselves.

There is acceptance.

An embrace of love.

And in that moment, we shall find healing.

Colliding Worlds

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is back in Three Pines, the idyllic village set in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In this seventh entry of Louise Penny’s crime-fiction series, Gamache deals with the intricacies of the art world and, of course, murder.

When A Trick of the Light opens, 50-year old Clara Morrow is standing behind the frosted glass doors of the prestigious Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal. Before entering the “vernissage” (preview) of her one-woman show, she envisions every possible dream and nightmare about her future in the highly competitive art world. Her friends whisper reassurances and help her get through the event. Afterward, she returns to Three Pines for a party with her friends from the village and prominent members of the art world. The celebratory mood comes to an abrupt end with the discovery of a murdered corpse in Clara’s garden.

Murder has returned to the village that “produces bodies and gourmet meals in equal proportions.”

The dead woman is identified as Lillian Dyson, a childhood friend who cruelly betrayed Clara and destroyed many careers with her stinging art reviews. Faced with a wide field of suspects, Gamache and his deputy, Jean-Guy Beavoir, start their investigation. Gamache listens carefully to the artists, the people who support them, and the people who feed off them. Envy is a persistent theme, and we watch as the ravages of this strong emotion eat away at the characters, threatening their friendships, marriages, partnerships, and even lives.

In A Trick of the Light, Penny uses the worlds of art and Alcoholics Anonymous to explain fear and pain, hope and change. As these colliding worlds intersect, the characters stumble and search for reasons to live, love and forgive. Both worlds offer many surprises and people are not always what they appear to be. Throughout the novel, Penny poses the question: What is truth and what is a trick of the light?

The characters wrestle with the concept of forgiveness. Is it possible for a woman to forgive a spouse who  undermines her talent? Can a man forgive the chief inspector who arrested him for a murder he did not commit? What happens when a recovering alcoholic jumps to Step Nine of her handbook and asks for forgiveness?

The pacing is superb and the narration is simple and direct. The intricate plot follows all the rules of mystery writing complete with red herrings, false denouements, and a few gourmet touches. While reading Penny’s previous novels would provide context, the book is strong enough to stand on its own. Fans of the series will enjoy seeing their old friends from the village and watching their lives develop and change during the course of this investigation. At the end of the book, some of the characters’ lives are in shambles as they make tentative efforts to pick up the pieces. No doubt, Louise Penny will continue their stories in her eighth novel to be released in August 2012.

The Amateur Sleuth

sleuthWhen I decided to write a murder mystery, I gravitated toward the cozies. A longtime fan of Miss Marple, Nancy Drew and Jessica Fletcher, I felt comfortable with introducing an amateur sleuth instead of a private detective or other law enforcement officer.

My protagonist, Gilda Greco, is a career development practitioner. After winning a nineteen million dollar lottery, Gilda leaves her longtime teaching career and opens a career counselling office aimed primarily at helping boomers launch their second acts. While I haven’t won a lottery (yet), I am a retired high school teacher with a post-graduate diploma in career counselling. It made sense to create a sleuth who has my  background and skill set. Whenever Gilda discovers a body or encounters an obstacle, I  ask myself what I would in that situation. Writing in the first person also helps me get into Gilda’s head.

While researching my book, I discovered the need for getting the facts straight, especially with regard to official law enforcement.  Detectives and private investigators do not readily share information, so it is necessary for the sleuth to use her intelligence and curiosity  to uncover clues and motives. Traditionally, the amateur sleuth does save the day, but I was careful not to portray the local police force as too misguided or incompetent.