Doc’s Dog Days: A Hickory Doc’s Activity Book

by Linda Harkey

book review by Kate Robinson

“‘Doc, you can learn a lot about a book by eating its binding.'”

Linda Harkey, a former educator and museum docent as well as a hunting dog enthusiast, writes children’s books about the beloved and oft-visited topic of canine capers, making the old new again by featuring a specific breed close to her heart—German short-haired pointers. In this third book of her series, the adorable black-and-white illustrations by Mike Minick are begging to be colored and doodled upon with markers, pencils, or crayons, making this both an educational and a fun diversion likely to be appreciated by kids and their caregivers, parents, and teachers.

The activity book serves as a transition from picture book to chapter book, with a flash story and a full-page illustration in each spread. A single spread can be consumed as a separate lesson, story, or creative experience. The reading level and subject matter pertaining to the German shorthair breed and their tracking and hunting abilities is somewhat advanced in some stories in comparison to the coloring book illustrations, so younger children will need reading and information assistance as they enjoy their coloring. Some stories are simpler, less informative, tighter, and more playful than others, so this volume ultimately has broad appeal to a wide spectrum of kids: young non-readers, early readers, and more advanced readers who can tackle the more difficult text and the concepts themselves. Some stories are left purposely unfinished for development by students, with extra space on the page and prompted via a final question. There’s also space in the coloring book illustrations for kids to add their own creative flourishes.

The anthropomorphic, dog-centric stories are heartfelt, light, and humorous, though occasionally a bit self-conscious and over explanatory, in the sense that illustrations typically play a role in “showing” some plot point in children’s stories. Therefore, there are few visual surprises since the text tends to reiterate and upstage the pictorial action. The tales are set in specific locales, mostly Oklahoma and New Mexico. So, in addition to visiting the daily lives and adventures of hunting dogs, readers will also experience regional and environmental information, such as the wildlife they encounter and descriptions of landscapes.

The dogs’ viewpoints are unique as they refer to their human couple at the Lazy Dog Hacienda as “Great One” and “Food Giver.” Readers will also enjoy the various quirks of each character, such as Sadie’s mealtime behavior and insistence that her food be served in a sectional bowl, or Zeke’s desire to carry around a blanket during hunting season. The storybook dogs delight in their surroundings just as real dogs do, investigating anything attractive or new to them, such as Food Giver’s ice cream bar, the reason Porcupine Pete has quills, or why the Lazy Dog Hacienda’s owl is mysteriously hanging upside down one day. Readers are invited to explore these phenomena creatively, and no doubt they will also enjoy recounting their own dog stories in response to the book’s tales. The universal appeal of companionship with dogs and curiosity about wild animal encounters, plus the invitation to process these creatively, is a big plus for this book as well as the series.

A 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation

by J. W. Freiberg
Philia Books

book review by Kat Kennedy

“Loneliness, I realized, is the sensation of inadequate connections to others, just as hunger is the sensation of inadequate nourishment and thirst is the sensation of inadequate hydration.”

Consisting of five stories taken from the author’s work as a lawyer, this book offers a study in the causes of subjective chronic loneliness in those whose connections with other people “fail to provide the security, nurturing, and soothing care that others enjoy from their healthy connective networks.” In looking over his many years of case studies, the author narrows down the types of misconnections experienced by the chronically lonely into five categories: “Tenuous Connections,” in which the connections between clients are uncertain or unreliable; “One-Way Connections”—for example, unrequited love; “Fraudulent Connections,” wherein one’s relationship is based on deception and manipulation; “Obstructed Connections,” where one is prevented from being emotionally available; and “Dangerous Connections,” in which the relationship can cause devastating emotional and physical harm. For each of these misconnections, Freiberg includes a case study from one of his past clients to illustrate how people who are in relationships with others may still suffer loneliness because of the failure of their relationships to offer healthy connections.

The five case studies presented in this work are exceptional tales of the human experience. Some are heart-wrenching as they deal with innocent children who find themselves at the mercy of the adults in their lives. Others deal with the bizarre turns that life can take and the human capacity to see what one wants to see even to the point of denying an unmistakable truth. Each fascinating story is told through the voice of a master storyteller, which renders the text fluid and engaging while instilling its subjects with a humanity which elevates them far beyond a case study in a folder. One feels for each of these people as they navigate the legal system, gaining respect for the author and his role in helping them. There is much to learn about humanity, as well as the nuances of loneliness in the author’s work.

Freiberg has a unique position from which to address the issue of loneliness through the lens of litigation. He began his career as a social psychologist after obtaining his PhD at UCLA and spending a decade as a professor at Boston University. After receiving his J.D. at Harvard, he embarked on his long career as a lawyer. Having experience in both fields gives him a unique perspective on the modern phenomenon of loneliness and how it contributed to particular law cases on which he worked. This is the third of Freiberg’s books on the subject. The award-winning first, Four Seasons of Loneliness (2016), deals with four case studies from his law practice, one from each season of life. The second, Growing Up Lonely (2018), is a collection of papers, for which he served as editor, from the 2018 Symposium on Childhood Loneliness held at the Kennedy Center in Boston, MA. Each has received accolades from professionals in child psychology, with Four Seasons of Loneliness garnering the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards Gold Prize.

It is impossible to read these case studies without being profoundly impacted by the people involved. What Freiberg has done is to take the legal notes on each case and put a very human face on each one, all the while revealing his own deeply felt concern for his clients and their circumstances. This is a riveting read that will forever change the way one looks at chronic loneliness and the connections between humans.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wooden Characters

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

My Iroquois grandmother once asked me who I was. She wasn’t losing her vision or slipping into dementia. She had a keen eye on the horizon, like her young grandson, and kept a small gun beneath her shawl in case that horizon offered unexpected trouble. Listening to her was like bird watching. Rewards came with a quiet, patient effort.

That day, her question was completely lost on me. I was ten years old—a recent refugee from the city and living in a small tract housing neighborhood at the end of the woods. It was a so-called better life, but I was frightened by my change in circumstance. The steel and concrete was gone—no city buzz or crime. This was not a better life. I’d been dropped into the country, and along with a small band of friends—one relocated from Brooklyn and another from Newark, NJ—we roamed the birch forests. My grandmother noticed that I lacked the simplest outdoor skills, and even more so that I had no sense of how I fit in the world. Her question had asked me to begin looking inward for answers.

Often, when reviewing books and manuscripts, I encounter characters who appear to be lost in a story. They’re being forced through plots lines by their authors. They speak and move unnaturally because the writer hasn’t asked two basic questions of their characters—questions they probably hadn’t asked themselves in full: Who am? Why am I here? These questions were a gift from my grandmother, and I employ them until this very day. For creators of stories, they are fundamental. Let’s break each of these down.

Who am I?

Writers are brave souls. We are downright precocious. We dissect the human condition and attempt to make sense of it. Genuine storytellers translate their findings about humanity into words. And it can only begin after we truly understand who these people are moving across the page. Sometimes we know because we’ve been thinking about them for years, but more often, we need to do the research. One surefire method is to perform a character sketch, an autopsy before they are dead and buried. Here are the absolute basics for each character:

Name – People have names, and so do your story characters. A name suggests ethnic background and even country of origin. It speaks of the character’s parents. All names mean something.

Body Specifics – Story characters possess genetic characteristics that follow them throughout life. These include their age, gender, height, weight, body dimensions, facial structure, hair, and voice. The list of physical details is endless. Memorable details stick in the reader’s mind better than a name.

Body Language – Psychology begins to enter when we discuss human body dynamics. How we position our bodies in space reveals our personalities and betrays our inner thoughts.

Presentation – Many of the aforementioned character details are a culmination of fate and circumstance, but the way a character presents himself to the world is a personal decision. Clothing, hairstyle, and speech pattern are cognitive decisions of character. They speak of social status, education, financial inclination, overall preference, and personality type.

Background – Characters don’t arrive in a story as fully formed people. They had prior lives. They grew up and experienced certain events. They acquired various skills. As in real life, a character is in large part a culmination of their abilities and experiences. You may not use any of this, but you’ll understand better what this person is capable of doing based on their history.

Psyche  – At this point, we have sketched a pretty good character from the outside, poking a finger or two into the interior. Let’s ponder two important questions. How does the character view the world, and how does the character place himself in it? Answering theses questions goes a long way to anticipating a character’s reaction to story situations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – Select strengths that will support the resolution of each character’s goals and desires, and select weakness that will sabotage their chances of success.  We all have positive and negative traits that govern our personalities. Major traits rule each character, for better or for worse.

Motivation – When sketching story characters, pass from the physical into the psychological and uncover their motivations. That is the most interesting detail of anyone you’ll meet. Why does an individual behave in a particular way?  By uncovering a character’s motivation, we not only understand them more fully, we predict their moves and plot an appropriate course for them in a story.

Why am I here?

A story journey begins when a character asks: what do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Good story people take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. Confusing, unpredictable people in life are individuals who don’t fully understand themselves. Wooden characters in stories are individuals who the writer doesn’t fully understand.

Not until decades after my grandmother’s death did I began the process of asking myself who I was and why I was here. I am a scribe, part of the ancient clan that reaches back as far as the Iroquois themselves. Scribes document history and try to make sense of the people and things that pass through time and emerge within it. While this isn’t my only avocation in life, it wasn’t long before I applied my grandmother’s two vital questions to my story characters. It was only then that I began to bring life to my characters and uncovered their stories in a worthwhile and authentic way.

 

Next in the The Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – The First Look

Previously in The Book Killers series: White Room

Shock Wave

by Florian Louisoder
Starry Night Publishing
book review by Kat Kennedy

“It wasn’t the future that took root in our present that day, it was the past…”

Forty-year-old deep-sea diver Scott DeSantis is en route to repair a problem with a wellhead deep in the Gulf of Mexico when he hears on the radio that Cuba is planning an underwater detonation of an atomic bomb. Scott’s ex-wife, Linda, a nuclear physicist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is taxed with accessing the fallout from the incident. Suddenly, Linda is thrown into an encounter with an old nemesis, and Scott discovers that the woman to whom he was once married, the mother of his two children, is not the person he thought her to be. Linda finds that the incident has opened a vortex which she thought had long been closed, and she and Scott must travel far into a past with which Linda is very familiar in order to save their children from being caught in a time warp from which they may never return. Their lives are now on a trajectory that will change the world forever.

Louisoder has written an intriguing piece of science fiction based on time travel. He incorporates the legend of Atlantis by having one of his main characters be an inhabitant of the city who must return to close the vortex opened by the novel’s antagonist. The descriptions of Atlantis are fascinating, as told through the character of Linda, and much of the book takes place in the fabled city. Along with the struggle between good and evil is the philosophical question of how one would change the past, if allowed, in order to produce a better future. This is a very entertaining read with some surprising elements woven into the narrative. It is a must for anyone interested in stories of time travel or the legend of Atlantis.

The Intrigues of Jennie Lee: A Novel

by Alex Rosenberg
Top Hat Books
book review by Joe Kilgore

“She needed to lament, to weep, to howl. It felt to her that, somehow, she had killed her lover, her partner, the person she cared for most in the world.”

Exceptional storytelling is ever-present in this continuously involving tale of historical fiction. Filled with famous characters such as Lady Astor, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Walter Reuther, and more, the novel sweeps readers into a world of hidden agendas, secret betrayals, public posturing, and private assignations that made up British politics in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

This is first and foremost the story of Jennie Lee, a young woman in Parliament dedicated to helping poverty-stricken and long-suffering constituents. To do so, she has to match wits with powerful politicians and master manipulators more concerned with staying in charge than changing things for the better. Lee is a heroine who feels like today’s woman in yesterday’s times. She defies convention in both her public and private life, refusing to let society or suitors dictate how she conducts herself. When revelations and loyalties challenge her strength and resolve, she repudiates the idea of doing what’s convenient for doing what’s right. But she is mightily tested when she’s pulled into schemes that threaten to overwhelm her.

Rosenberg is an excellent writer who captures the tenor of the times. He fills his tale with particularly interesting political duels that equal the internal battles going on within his protagonist. His prose is potent, and his dialogue never feels too contemporary for the period. Some may take exception to the actual changing of certain events. But just as film director Quentin Tarantino sometimes sacrifices historical accuracy for dramatic impact, Rosenberg employs vividly exciting action when opting for fiction over fact. That’s one of the things that makes novels such as this one a treat to read.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

White Seed: The Untold Story of The Lost Colony of Roanoke

by Paul Clayton
Amazon.com Services
book review by Gabriella Tutino

“He was playing his part in all of this, pretending that they could make a go of it in this God-forsaken place.”

Maggie Hagger is just one of many passengers leaving England and making her way to Chesapeake, Virginia, in 1587 as one of the future citizens of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonies. Raleigh’s Virginia promises the start of a new life to Maggie and others—like the newly appointed Governor John White, as well as Captain Stafford and his soldiers—but first, they must survive the journey to the Americas. Yet Maggie and the other colonists soon learn that settling down in Chesapeake will be much harder, as tensions between the Native American tribes there and prior English settlers still exist. Labeled as one of America’s oldest mysteries, the failed colony of Roanoke is at the heart of this novel, which explores the possibilities of what went wrong and what happened to the inhabitants.

Readers do not need to be history buffs to enjoy Clayton’s tale; it is well-researched and presents many of the political and economic issues at hand without being overbearing on context. On a surface level, the journey to the Americas is a chance for colonists to establish a new life overseas. Beyond that, a successful establishment of the colonies would grant more power to Sir Walter Raleigh and England, who were in direct competition with Spanish explorers, as well. The Spanish believed that gold from the New World would be the key to riches and success, while England’s goal was to establish outposts for trading goods. The author emphasizes this point, particularly when Fernandes—the sailor and navigator hired to help bring the English to Chesapeake—dumps the colonists in Roanoke to continue his search for “prizes.”

Clayton captures early colonial and early Native American life well. The novel is full of rich detail about many of the tasks of building or maintaining a society, and there is a sense of excitement as the colonists get settled and get their bearings, even though the future is uncertain. The author sets up the novel in a clever way that has the reader rooting for both the members of the Roanoke colony as well as the Croatoans. The relationships between the colonists and the Native American tribes on the land is a delicate one, and the author does a great job at showcasing the many different attitudes that exist between the three groups of inhabitants there: the Croatoans, the Secotan, and the colonists. Tension exists between all three due to acts of violence, fear, and power. But there is also love, as well as alliances, as exhibited by the blossoming relationship between Maggie and Manteo, the Croatoan interpreter.

This is a story about ambition, power, and survival, and the slow and steady decline of morale and trust in each other is fascinating and horrifying as it plays out page by page. Hope and survival are at odds with each other as the colonists make attempts to carry on civilly, but many of their efforts are futile once the soldiers’ mutiny is complete. The end of the novel is especially haunting, as the author hints at what may have transpired to cause Roanoke to disappear.

Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done

by Charlie Gilkey
Sounds True
book review by Yousra Medhkour

“You have to lose yourself in the project only to find you’re a different person on the other side, for as we create, we’re creating ourselves.”

When striving toward achievement with any sort of project or goal, most are all too familiar with getting sidetracked or lost along the way. Whether it be dwindling motivation, a lack of time to focus on the things that matter to you because of family and work obligations, or procrastination, Gilkey provides a detailed plan of getting the gears into motion and finishing the projects you’ve started—more specifically what he calls your “best work.” This concept of best work is a powerful one because it highlights that the projects you want to do are the ones that will fill you with meaning and purpose in life. Your best work isn’t just a task to check off on a list once complete, but a means for you to thrive.

To explain what best work is and the habits you need to break or make for it, Gilkey divides his book into three parts that include a total of ten chapters. The importance of the book’s structure is that it allows the reader to dive into any section of their choosing, depending on what they want to learn. In other words, if a person skips a few chapters or starts in the second or third part, one is still bound to gain knowledge that will help a person better strive towards finishing their best work.

One of the aspects of this book that makes it engaging and helpful is that it’s not just a list of steps to follow. Rather than providing lists to follow robotically, Gilkey shares practical advice that takes into account that the reader is human. He says, “Doing your best work will thus require you to constantly be on the verge of failing,” because if it wasn’t your best work, you wouldn’t be putting your capabilities to the test. It wouldn’t be easy. There will be downfalls, and you will—more often than not—be your worst enemy or obstacle that gets in the way of accomplishing your best work.

In fact, Part One of this book is not just a guide to getting around external barriers but also a motivational discussion that focuses on the internal—how to convince yourself that you are capable of more than you often give yourself credit for. Following the whys of our woes and how to get past the obstacle of ourselves, Part Two is where Gilkey begins to layout methods to getting your best work out into the world. Though he provides an influx of advice, what strings it all together is his detailed look at both goal-making and organization. Without these two factors, reaching the finish line is extremely difficult. He describes how simple things such as adding verbs to your to-do list, splitting a task into smaller chunks to make it less daunting, and more can make an incredible difference. Gilkey even explains how environment, sound, and smell can have an astonishing impact on getting work done. All of these factors sizzle down to organization, whether through schedules (as discussed in Part Three), your surroundings, the people you choose to be your supporters, etc. Essentially, Gilkey accomplishes showing rather than telling as he uses his experience, both as a leader in the Army and through his research and interaction with clients.

Moreover, even the aesthetic of the book’s layout portrays more than its face value. Every page is crisp and neatly designed, largely thanks to the plethora of white space both around and between pages. It makes the book look inviting rather than intimidating, emphasizes the sense of organization that Gilkey says is key to success in any project, and makes it easier to read because of the lack of visual distractions that some other books might have. Gilkey’s conversational writing style also makes it easy to read as it carries his points across without a stutter.

The 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Winner

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: White Room

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

White room syndrome happens when a writer fails to give sufficient information about the setting. For the reader, this can be disorienting if not completely boring. Perhaps there are times when the writer desires this effect, but it isn’t the norm. Setting is the writer’s friend, and it should be exploited at every opportunity. A good writer employs the most interesting aspects of location to strengthen the drama. A great writer paints the entire landscape with a single sentence.

In theory, a story spans a particular time period. Booksellers like to classify stories as historical, contemporary, and futuristic. This is nothing more than past, present, and future respectively, and each changes the parameters of setting. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

The Past

The past is recorded in the annals of history. The writer connects with this information through personal experience, experts, and documentation. While expert sources are good, our own memory of the past is unreliable and must be verified. We often don’t remember things exactly as they were, even once familiar details. We also romanticize the past. Hanging clothes on the line, piece by piece, on a warm spring afternoon sounds sweet, but it was never as nice as shoving them in the dryer.

Another aspect of the past involves historical events. Consider history in two ways: as a backdrop or as an immediate surrounding. In the opening to The World According to Garp, World War II is a backdrop. It fills the air with tension, although the specifics of war never enter the picture. In the film, Pearl Harbor the surprise attack takes over the story and frankly crowds the personal stories. If a story gets close to a major historical event, it will dominate the narrative.

The Present

A story in current times includes the tangible past and future. The writer is not redesigning the world but employing it for dramatic effect. Regardless, intriguing locations exist in present times: a peek inside surgery, life on an oil drilling platform, or the machinations of a textile factory in China. Most people haven’t viewed these locations up close, but each writer has witnessed unique settings and might make use of them.

The Future

Fifty years ago, we were projected to be commuting to the space wheel in the sky, with a four-day workweek and loads of playtime for interesting new social games. It appears that the experts guessed wrong. By all accounts, the coming years will be dirtier, noisier, and more crowded, if not busier. This is what made the movie Blade Runner so special, besides the twisted ending. The future is open to interpretation, but whatever world is designed for a story, it must be a logical extension of its own history. In Dune, the author included a lexicon inn the back pages, and, to his many readers, it’s a road map for a real world.

Where is the story location?

Story scenes occur in one or more locations. These are physical locations on the planet or in the imaginary world of the writer, although placement is not the only consideration of setting location. A story focus varies from a wide to a tight view. One writer may traverse the global landscape in pursuit of a story, while another remains in the same room for the duration. In either case, writers seek the extraordinary details, and much like character details, even the most mundane parts can achieve intrigue and brilliance.

What is life like in the story?

This is a broad question, involving many aspects of life at a particular location and moment in time. A writer considers food, clothing, transportation, education, occupation, religion, and language, and the list of possibilities is much larger. Any social behavior or lifestyle element may be useful to the story. The Pennsylvania Amish live differently than people fifty miles away in downtown Philadelphia. While each is somewhat aware of the other, individuals remain bound to the customs and circumstances of geography and culture.

Tips for Applying Setting:

  • Using setting details is a lot like using character details. Apply them in proportion to their importance to and impact on the story. Every word that appears in the text garners attention. If the writer embellishes a particular aspect, the reader will assume it’s important.
  • Seek interesting details, over the common or mundane. In a present day setting, everyone has a good idea how a steaming coffee mug looks, smells, and feels. On the other hand, the same cup of coffee assumes a new dimension in another time period. In 1776, coffee might take thirty minutes to prepare, while in 2220, coffee might enter your hydration tube at the mere thought of it.
  • Employ characters to interpret the setting in their thoughts and words, rather than straightforward narrative passages. The story will perform double duty, fleshing out the characters and surroundings at the same time.
  • If the story must include pure descriptions in the narrative, try embedding inside passages of dialogue. The landscape will be built without the reader hearing your construction noises in the background.
  • When incorporating setting into a scene, try to include all of the senses. Most of us absorb life with our eyes, followed by our ears and nose, but remember to include touch and taste. These senses become more poignant in a well-crafted story.
  • Setting can facilitate entrances and exits to scenes. The natural machinations of a particular place can provide opportunities to nail down the point and exit the scene.
  • Certain settings can amplify the tension—a bad storm, a lousy neighborhood, a creaking floor.

The list of possible devices and uses is endless. Setting helps, but it’s not a cure-all. However, if the setting isn’t sufficient, the reader will be lost in white room syndrome without a sense of time and place.

Next in The Books Killers series: Wooden Characters

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Born Crazy

by Bonnie Sanford Collins Bostrom
The Canelo Project
book review by Kate Robinson

“The journey requires of us the ability to leap into darkness, play tag with time and break our own hearts.”

Bostrom’s childhood in the 1940s on a remote ranch in northeastern New Mexico gives her a unique grasp of the rhythms of the natural world, and the simple life oriented toward family and community that shaped her requires a great deal of stamina, resolve, and patience. Bostrom reveals much about the matriarchs of both sides of her family as well as paying homage to the patriarchs, offering a window into the ongoing manifestation of the divine feminine that arises in all cultures. The title seems to nod not only to the oddities and imperfections of Bostrom’s life but to the crazy wisdom that is inherent in the very act of living. She humorously points out in one essay that sperm are both male and female, a simple but revelatory fact not acknowledged in what many see as the patriarchal slant of American culture.

The down-to-earth prose keeps the settings and relationships of the author’s life real and accessible, and the tightly woven entries are just the right length, imbued with the right level of artful thoughtfulness to keep readers interested in turning pages. The essays alone would not be enough to convey the messages that Bostrom sought to share, and these are greatly enhanced and even eclipsed by her finely-tuned, evocative poems and her colorful, cosmically influenced artwork. Bostrom is a poet, philosopher, and visionary artist at heart. It is the verse and visuals of this book that illumine the universal quest for enlightenment. The sublime truth of her mind’s true nature arose through the mundane but fascinating discipline of ranch life and the many hills and valleys of adulthood.

Bostrom recognizes the historical relevance of her childhood, coming of age, and journeys through stages of her adult life commencing in the colorful beatnik era of the late fifties and the psychedelic and conflicted sixties. She allows us to examine her relationships and welcomes our companionship on her spiritual journey. She invites us to freely explore the spiritual path that we all create in one form or another because we are consciousness embedded in material, finite bodies. Bostrom reminds us with nature-based imagery in word and pigment that the spiritual element of life inspires artistic and creative inquiry, even in the simplest or most tormented of lives. This creativity is like a lotus rising from the mud of impermanent physicality to the beauty of the infinite:

How down to the bone our fantasies lie
Like ancient lichen on rotting wood
The green dreams grow.

When we rode our rockets to the moon
Were we actually looking for heaven?
That place, myth tells us,
Where we reunite with family, friends
And winged beings that need no rockets to fly.

This could be just another creatively crafted but ordinary memoir, except that the volume reads like the intimate journal of a true artisan drinking deeply from the well of universal human desire for spiritual equanimity and transformation: “We write for others so they can share what is really a very personal missive to ourselves . . . hunger, pain, grief and suffering bind us. Beauty, joy, compassion and love are even stronger bonds.” Bostrom’s exquisite sharing of her life and thoughts is a gift to be savored.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue