2013 Blog Year In Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for my blog. Don’t we all just love stats? Check out what readers were reading on Kecia’s Blog in 2013.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,800 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 30 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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So Many Books…My Review of The Lucky One

Nicholas Sparks, The Lucky One (Grand Central, reprint, 1 Mar 2012)

I have taken a while to post my review of The Lucky One because I wanted to think about my reaction to the book. And when I got ready to write about it I thought, “Jeez, who am I to criticize Nicholas Sparks, an author who single-handedly boosted the opening of the movie based on his book with a social media campaign, and who has legions of fans who buy everything he writes.” Then I remembered that books are like wine and art: it’s all about what you like, not what’s popular, necessarily. So here goes…

Full disclosure right off the bat: I was NOT previously a fan of Nicholas Sparks. An author who writes love stories but eschews happily ever after endings will not generally get my vote. And that, I acknowledge, is entirely a personal preference. I offer full disclosure because although I watched the movie (first) and then read the book (because I did like the movie), I admit I was looking for flaws the whole time I was reading. And I think when you are looking for flaws in a book you generally find them. In the end, I found much to like about this book and almost an equal amount to dislike, overall leaving me slightly dissatisfied. Below I attempt to lay out what it was about the book that left me with that feeling.

THE THINGS I LIKED:

Good use of literary device to tell backstory.

Yummy hero—maybe too yummy (and also maybe colored by my mental image of Zac Ephron with his shirt off).

Finely drawn setting in North Carolina (a true strength of Mr. Sparks).

The dog.

THINGS I DIDN’T LIKE:

The heroine in the book (but not in the movie) was weak, wishy-washy, and downright high-schoolish at times.

Stilted dialog between hero and heroine.

Unsatisfying love scenes.

I will explain all, but must warn of SPOILERS. If you want to read the book or see the movie without my humble opinions coloring your experience, or knowing the ending, or if racy scenes bother you, DO NOT READ ON.

The Lucky One is about Logan Thibault, a Marine who finds a photograph of a young woman while out on a run during a deployment to Iraq. When no one claims the picture after a several days, he ends up keeping it. In the course of his duties over three combat tours, he survives attacks and explosions where others die, and he starts to get a reputation for lucky escapes—all tied to when he started carrying the picture around. He doesn’t really believe the hype about the picture, though, until he is out on a fishing trip after he has left the Marine Corps and his best friend ends up dying in a freak boating accident that Logan, once again, survives. This last straw pushes him to find the woman in the picture.

Logan walks from Colorado to North Carolina with his dog, Zeus, in search of the woman in the photo. Sparks uses that device of to deliver the bulk of the backstory on his main character, which works well because the reader can “remember” along with Logan while he’s doing all that walking. The story before the story, in this case, is crucial to the reader’s understanding of Logan’s motivation for just showing up on the heroine’s doorstep one day, and why he doesn’t tell her about the picture. Logan himself is an appealing hero: cool under fire, thoughtful, good-looking, strong, good with dogs and children, plays piano well, and is worthy of love according to Beth Green, the heroine. His only flaw, really—and it’s a big one—is that he fails to tell Beth right away why he came looking for her.

Sparks is at his best when describing setting and background. His explanation of the duties and thought processes of an active duty Marine, and his description of the small North Carolina town where Logan finds Beth are both real and immediate. He puts you there, in that place, and takes his time setting the scene so the events can play out on that stage.

Zeus, the dog. Great name for a German shepherd. Logan obtains the dog before his trip to North Carolina precisely because there is a German shepherd standing with Beth in the “lucky” picture. Ben, Beth’s son, falls in love with Zeus, and it is Zeus who saves Ben from the river in the final crisis, thus tying the photograph—and Logan’s presence in Beth’s life—directly to the life of her son Ben. I found that connection very cool; the movie was not able to do that aspect justice.

Beth has almost as much of the story as Logan, but I found Beth’s character harder to relate to. Her backstory: after getting pregnant in high school, she marries Keith Clayton, the baby’s father, but quickly calls it quits on the marriage after Ben arrives. Since her parents died in a car accident when she was a child, she now lives with her grandmother, who owns a kennel. Beth also teaches second grade at the elementary school. Beth’s ex, Keith, is the villain in the story and the scion of the most influential family in the area. He is slightly creepy, more than a little sociopathic, and very used to getting what he wants. Beth regularly has qualms about Keith concerning their custody arrangement and his treatment of their son and herself, but does nothing about the situation except worry and complain to her grandmother. The most unforgivable action for me as a reader on Beth’s part was, during the final crisis, when she stands on the river bank and more or less wrings her hands while her ex-husband (Keith) and her lover (Logan) and her lover’s dog (Zeus) all try to save Ben who is in imminent danger of drowning.

WORST scene/line (IMO):

Unfortunately for the love story in this book, the dialog between Logan and Beth is often wooden and juvenile—unconnected to the essence of these characters as we have come to know them—as in this sample from their first real date:

“I might have asked you out, but I’m going to make you drive.”

“And here I thought I was going out with a liberated woman,” he protested.

“I am a liberated woman. But you’ll drive. And pick up the check.”

He laughed…

Zeus seemed confused about what was happening and [Beth] heard him whining again.

“He sounds sad.”

“He probably is. We’re seldom apart.”

“Mean man,” she scolded him.

He smiled at her playful tone as he slipped the car into reverse.

BEST scene/line (IMO):

As I state above, Sparks is at his best in his description of the setting, rolling it in with action and Logan’s internal thoughts:

…he headed east on Route 54, walking on the grassy shoulder, staying well off the road. He’d learned in his travels never to trust drivers. Zeus trailed behind, panting heavily. He stopped and gave Zeus some water, the last in the bottle.

Businesses lined either side of the highway. A mattress shop, a place that did auto body repairs, a nursery, a Quick-N-Go that sold gas and stale food in plastic wrappers, and two ramshackle farmhouses that seemed out of place, as if the modern world had sprouted up around them.

Writing tip #5 (see previous posts here and here for tips 1-4): Do not distance the reader when writing about SEX AND INTIMACY. This was the deal breaker for me in this book. Since Sparks doesn’t go with the closed door entirely, why not play out the sex in scene instead of summary? After offering up personal details about themselves at the end of a magical date, Logan and Beth make love but the action is confined to this paragraph:

They took their time making love. Thibault moved above her, wanting it to last forever, while whispering his love for her. He felt her body quiver with pleasure again and again. Afterward, she remained curled beneath his arm, her body coiled in contentment. They talked and laughed and nuzzled, and after making love a second time, he lay beside her, staring into her eyes before running a gentle finger along her cheek. He felt the words rise up inside him, words he had never imagined himself saying to anyone.

“I love you, Elizabeth,” he whispered, knowing they were true in every way.

Maybe this is, again, personal preference on my part, but why not SHOW how much Logan loves Beth with his ACTIONS as they make love? TELLING us this way for me makes the scene conclude with sentimentality instead of deep emotion. Compare the above scene with a comparable paragraph from Lisa Kleypas’s Dream Lake (The lovemaking SCENE lasts for nine pages BTW; these paragraphs are toward the end.):

He settled deeper, every movement careful and easy. She moaned as she felt her body yielding to the steady pressure.

“Am I hurting you?” she heard him whisper.

She shook her head blindly. The sensation was overpowering, but he was so gentle, filling her slowly, letting her take him by degrees. And all the while he brushed kisses against her mouth and throat, whispering that she was sweet, soft, beautiful, that nothing had ever felt this good, nothing ever would again…

He began to rock against her, a lascivious friction that prodded and rubbed and caressed. The pleasure was shattering. She stiffened, her legs spreading as she was thrown into a blinding climax. His thrusts lengthened, centering straight and deep, and then Alex shuddered, and held her as if the world were about to end.

Whew! Blush worthy, I know, but Kleypas SHOWS the reader how much Alex cares for Zoe through his every action from his gentleness to his patience to his climax. And he never says the words, “I love you.” But we know. Which one is more powerful? Which one does the main job of the novelist—to elicit emotion in the reader—better?

What do you think? Is Nicholas Sparks one of your favorite authors? Do you like sex in books to be off the page or on?

www.marines.mil photo credits to Lance Corporal Ali Azimi and Corporal Marco Mancha

What I Did On My Summer Vacation…From Writing

I am back on the blog after an unintentional hiatus this summer. I didn’t actually intend to take a writing vacation (either here or on various works-in-progress) from June until after Labor Day. It just sort of happened. The lack of a set schedule, the demands of children out of school, and the call of the beach all conspired so that I wrote not one word of useful prose for weeks (okay, months). This caused me some discomfort, for what writer is truly content when not writing? But I assuaged my guilt and grumpiness with an orgy of reading, which I will share with you below.

What follows is a bibliographic representation of my reading summer, both from the perspective of a writer and the perspective of a reader. I chose books somewhat at random, but all were well within the parameter of “entertaining” versus “scholarly.” These were the chocolate ice cream cones of the summer’s literary possibilities instead of the broccoli and kale (not that I don’t like broccoli and kale…but you get the drift).
So, in no particular order…

Jill Shalvis, Lucky in Love (Grand Central, 22 May 2012), At Last (Grand Central, 26 June 2012), and Forever and a Day (Grand Central, 31 July 2012)

Shalvis is one of my favorite romance writers. She cleverly released three books this summer, setting up a trio of women to each find love with a hunky man in their fictional Lucky Harbor, a quirky small town in Washington state. I found all three books to be a fun, sexy, and heartwarming combination of worthy characters and intriguing situations, but my favorite was At Last. The middle book in the trio features laid back forest ranger Matt Bower and snarky tough girl Amy Michaels. I do have a soft spot for forest rangers.

Favorite scene/line: Matt has to administer first aid after Amy gets a nasty scratch on her behind after falling down a ravine in the middle of the night. Matt gets a reluctant Amy to drop trou so he can clean the wound but his subsequent reaction to her lovely form is priceless. An excerpt:

“I thought you said you did this a lot.”

“Yeah. I do. But apparently not with anyone I’m wildly attracted to.”

This caused certain reactions in her body that were best not experienced in mixed company. “It’s just panties,” she finally whispered.

“And they’re really great panties,” Matt agreed. “But it’s not the panties, Amy. It’s you.”

Writing tip #1—What do your characters DO? Don’t be afraid to let men be men and women be women. In a romance, a yummy hero who thinks like a guy makes the journey worthwhile. Shalvis’s male characters are MEN. They have manly jobs and do manly things, to include failing to communicate with the heroine at critical moments and occasionally acting all over-protective and alpha, which only makes them more appealing and real. We women are hard-wired to like this. Trust me.

Susan Wiggs, Fireside (Mira, reprint, 26 June 2012), Marrying Daisy Bellamy (Mira, 25 January 2011), The You I Never Knew (Grand Central, reissue, 1 March 2011)

I picked up Fireside at the drugstore when waiting for my daughter’s antibiotic, prescribed for a bad case of swimmer’s ear. I had never read a Susan Wiggs book before, despite her regular appearance on the best-seller and romance favorites lists. It made me wonder if that’s a typical way for a reader to be introduced to a new (to her) writer—in a drugstore/airport/Wal-mart/grocery checkout? In any case, with her larger cast of characters, Wiggs’s books venture away from a classic romance set-up and more into women’s fiction, but the line is very subtle indeed. In Fireside and The You I Never Knew, Wiggs pulled me in with a finely wrought setting (again a small town) and background (baseball and ranching, respectively); and wonderful secondary characters, particularly teen-aged Cody in The You I Never Knew and Daisy Bellamy in Fireside. And apparently I am not the only reader who clamored for Daisy to have a book of her own, according to Wiggs’s website. Marrying Daisy Bellamy was the breakout of the three for me because it was about what happens when you achieve your heart’s desire, and it is suddenly and tragically taken away. In other words, a test of character.

Favorite scene/line: Daisy is a wedding photographer, and the weddings she takes pictures of bring out little nuggets of wisdom throughout the book. This woven theme gives the book continuity, even through flashbacks, and setting and POV changes. These nuggets are really the author’s worldview, but the reader sees them (lyrical and heartfelt) from the eyes of the point of view characters. A sample:

The flaws were what made a wedding special and memorable…Every event, no matter how carefully planned, had its imperfections…

These were the things that made life interesting. As a single mother, Daisy had learned to appreciate the unplanned. Some of her life’s sweetest moments came when she least expected them—the clutch of her son’s tiny hands, anchoring her to earth with a power greater than gravity. Some of the most awful moments too—a train pulling out of the station, leaving her behind, along with her dreams—but she tried not to dwell on that.

Writing tip #2—What is your character’s HEART’S DESIRE? Show us and then don’t let her have it right away, or let her have it but take it away later. Wiggs introduced Daisy and the two men who love her, Julian and Logan, in earlier books, but in Marrying Daisy Bellamy, she presents Daisy with the one thing she wants most in the world. Will she get it? We are rooting for her because we know the stakes for Daisy, but we don’t want it to be too easy either.

To be continued…

Yeah, I really did do a lot of reading. Stay tuned for my thoughts on books I read this summer by Lisa Kleypas, Jo Beverley, Pamela Morsi, and Nicholas Sparks.

What about you? Did you read anything good this summer? Maybe something involving 50 shades…? Did any of your goals get sidetracked by the summer routine? What did YOU do this summer?