Disintegration: A Review of In Leah’s Wake

Disintegration: A Review of In Leah’s Wake

Title: In Leah’s Wake

Author: Terri Giuliano Long

Where I Got It: free copy from the Blog Tour de Troops

Score: 4 out of 5*

To continue the Novel Publicity blog tour for In Leah’s Wake by Terri Giuliano Long, here is my review.  I’ve had this book on my To-Be-Read List for awhile now.  I actually received a free ebook copy back in May as part of the Blog Tour de Troops for Memorial Day.  I finally sat down to start reading it last Friday, literally minutes after turning in my final grades and finishing the semester.

In Leah’s Wake opens with a seemingly perfect family: Zoe and Will are happily married, with rewarding careers, and two wonderful daughters.  Leah – the sixteen-year-old soccer star, and Justine — the twelve-year-old budding scientist, who also happens to be devout Catholic.  But the old saying “too good to be true,” proves real as Leah quickly spins out of control.  Tired of her family’s constant push for perfection, and with a new older boyfriend introducing her to the world of drugs, alcohol, and partying, Leah decides that it is time to turn her entire life on its head.

Soon, her rebellion becomes disintegration.  And as her parents struggle to prevent their daughter from ruining her life, the situation shakes loose deep-seated regrets, anxieties, and dissatisfactions in Zoe and Will as well.  Everything around them seems to be falling apart.  And their younger daughter Justine gets caught in the cross-fire.  Fighting to keep her family together, fighting to keep the sister she loves and admires, and fighting to be seen in the midst of a situation that has rendered her invisible, Justine slowly starts to disintegrate as well.

Throughout the novel, questions fill the text: how can this family possibly survive?  What will become of Leah?  And, even more importantly (at least to me), what will happen to Justine?  As the tagline asks: What happens when love just isn’t enough?  And that is a very good question, because sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you love someone or how much you want to save them, if they don’t want to be saved.

What I Liked:

I really enjoyed this novel.  It is a powerful drama about a family in crisis.  The title character, Leah, is a very believable teenager.  Her choices, reactions, and thoughts are convincing, and show that Terri Long’s writing is clearly grounded in a real understanding of life as a teenager (so many adults seem to forget…).  I wouldn’t say she is sympathetic exactly… some of the things she says and does, though unsurprising coming from a teenager, are so stupid I want to smack her.  Of course, this is coming from one of those teenagers who never rebelled (I was that one who never drank, smoked, got into fights, went to bad parties, or got anything less than As and Bs).

I definitely identify more with Justine, the one who has always been good, who is tempted to follow her sister into rebellion on occasion, but who is, for the most part, too afraid to do so. (I suppose you could call this novel a lesson in why that’s the right choice.)  She is the truly sympathetic character, the one you care for and worry about the most.  While I was curious to see what happened with Leah, and with the parents, it’s Justine I’m hanging around for.  I spent most of the novel terrified that she was going to end up all screwed up like the rest of them, and I needed to get to the end to find out what happened to her.

That’s not to say the parents aren’t complex, well-written characters.  For the most part, they are.  Zoe, especially, is a fascinating character with a list of faults and virtues that made for intense reading.  But I spent a lot of the book annoyed with them, just as I was annoyed with Leah.

What I Didn’t Like:

(Be prepared for a slight rant)

I’ll be honest, one of the things that is still bothering me is the father, Will, at the beginning of the novel.  His initial reaction to Leah’s boyfriend is violent, excessive, and completely out of place.  It comes out of nowhere, with (at least in my opinion) no clear motivation.  It doesn’t help that it comes in Chapter 2, before the reader has had a chance to get to know Will at all, but even based on what you later learn about his temper, this initial explosion still seems unbelievably excessive.  If Will had already known about the boyfriend and warned Leah to get rid of him, it might have made sense.  If she had had a bad history of missing curfew, etc, it might have made sense. But at the beginning, Leah has only stayed out late a couple times, this is the first time Will has met the boyfriend, he knows nothing about him and has no idea about Leah’s drinking.  It would make sense for Will to be angry, it would make sense for Will to demand to know who the boyfriend is.  It does NOT make sense for him to explode and get physically violent.

Another thing that really bugged me — and I know this is small, but it really bugged me the whole novel — is the use of the words “kid” and “dude.”  Everyone single one of the characters thinks/calls every single teenager/young adult “kid.”  And almost all teenagers use the word “dude.”  Seriously.  Okay, let’s get one thing straight.  Yes, adults often call children and teenagers and even young adults “kids.”  And yes, some teenagers use the word “dude” a lot.  But not to the exclusion of everything else.  I know it’s hard to find other words to use, but when even the teenagers call other teenagers “kid” in the narration, there’s a problem.  Leah even calls her own boyfriend “kid.”  And he’s four years older than her!  Also, not every teenager uses the word “dude.”  In fact, while that was a very common word in the 90s, it has mostly fallen by the wayside in the current decade.  Just ask my 17- and 18-year old students when I accidentally say “dude” in class.

Finally, another thing that bothered me was the amount of detail.  Now, don’t get me wrong, obviously detail is important.  Detail helps us to understand the characters, to see the setting, to get a real sense of the world the characters inhabit.  However, here the detail was often excessive and unnecessary.  Detail is most important when the readers are unfamiliar with a setting and need to really see it.  But most of us have seen a bar.  A few details are enough to give us a good idea of the bar and the people in it, and our imaginations/memories do the rest.  Paragraphs of description are unnecessary.  I cannot tell you how many sections of detail I ended up skimming over in search of the point, the dialogue, the action. It’s wonderful that the author knew so much about her characters, and could see the settings so clearly, but much of it was stuff we the readers simply didn’t need to know.

Now let me reiterate (since after that bit of a rant you may have forgotten): I really enjoyed this novel.  Yes, there were some things about it that really bugged me.  But the characters are compelling and the story is intense.  You will care about the fate of this family.  You will get angry at the stupid things they do, and you will cross your fingers that they don’t screw up next time.  You will worry about the characters (if you’re like me, you’ll mainly worry about Justine).

Buy In Leah’s Wake.  Get it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.  Read it.  I promise, you’ll enjoy it.  …And you probably won’t be as neurotic as I am about the overuse of “kid.”

Also, remember:

  1. Fill-out the form on Novel Publicity to enter for the prizes
  2. Visit today’s featured event; you may win an autographed copy of the book or a $50 gift card!
  3. BONUS: If you leave a comment on this blog post, you have another chance at $100!
  4. And when you fill out your form, remember to vote for my blog to give me a chance to win $100 as well.

*Please note: I’m starting a new rating system.  Please see the new “About Book Reviews” page for an explanation.

I AM a “Real” Writer and They Just Don’t Get It

Free-For-All Friday:  I AM a “Real” Writer and They Just Don’t Get It

(CC) David Turnbull

There’s been some discussion on Twitter and various blogs (as there always is this time of year) about whether NaNoWriMo is really for “real” writers, or if it’s just for non-writers who want to FEEL like “real” writers for a month.  Now, I have NO DOUBT that many of the people who participate in NaNo never write a single word of fiction (except for that email to the boss about being sick) at any other time the whole rest of the year.  However, a) that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them wanting to try on the “writer” hat during a month when there is lots of enthusiasm and support for the endeavor; and b) plenty of “real” writers who write ALL THE BLOODY TIME also participate in NaNo.

Case in point, I consider myself a “real” writer (whatever the hell that actually means).  No, I’m not published.  No, I don’t have an agent.  And no, I don’t write all that often during the semester (I should say I don’t write FICTION often during the semester, but I’m writing non-fiction up the wazoo).  But I DO write at every given opportunity, I scrape out every spare moment I can, I write in the middle of class sometimes, and I forego sleep some nights because that’s the only time I can find.  And when I took the year off last year, I wrote pretty much NON-STOP.  And did FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY finish a whole first draft (and very long one at that) of a novel.  So, I consider myself a “real” writer, and I think I have right to.

And I LOVE NaNoWriMo.

I love it for a lot of reasons.  I love it because it is the sort of masochistic fun I tend to get myself into.  I love because of all the enthusiasm and support.  I love it because of all the crazy, eccentric, fun, would-be/hopeful writers who crawl out of the wood-work disguised as housewives and teachers and highschoolers and businessmen and firefighters, etc, etc, etc.

But here’s the one thing I think I love MOST about NaNoWriMo: For one month, I can tell my family I’m writing, and they back off.  For some reason, the tangible goal of writing 50,000 in one month is real enough and presumably daunting enough that they realize my time/energy/concentrate are precious, and they don’t bother me with incessant questions, or requests to “just spend some time with family,” or tirades about not doing the dishes in two days.  They leave me alone, and let me write.

Here’s the problem though: They just don’t get that this is how we writers think ALL THE TIME.  In November, when tell someone you’re writing, they don’t respond: “but you wrote YESTERDAY!”  They understand: “But I only have x days left to write x words!  I’m on a deadline and I just don’t have time for anything else right now!”  BUT, any other time of the year, if I say I’m writing, so I don’t have time right now, the retort is: “but you write everyday!” or “you were writing yesterday, can’t you take a couple days off?” or (my favorite) “some things [insert: spending time with family, doing housework, mowing the lawn, etc] are more important than your little hobby.”

They just don’t understand that we’re thinking: “But I only have the rest of my life to write every insane word crowded around and screaming in my brain! And that’s a whole helluva lot of words, dammit!  I’m on a deadline and I just don’t have time for anything else right now!”

Now, I’m not saying I do (or want to) ignore every other aspect of my life.  I still do housework, I still clean the dishes, and do laundry, and go grocery shopping, and do my homework, and watch a little tv, and go to family dinners, and all that other stuff.  But if the dishes wait a couple days while I get a huge chunk of inspired prose out of my screaming brain, then so be it.  And if some Sundays I’d rather sit in my office and write instead of sitting in my grandmother’s living room while all my uncles watch football and I try to look entertained, then so be it.  And my family just doesn’t get it.

As long as it’s November, and I have a clear start and end date, with clear guidelines and an attainable goal in mind, well then: that’s a pretty cool achievement.  But if I’m just writing, every day, any time I can find a few spare moments, when I should be doing homework, when I should be sleeping…  Well, then, it’s like my brother playing video games all the damn time: it’s a fine enough hobby in moderation, but it shouldn’t take over your life, and never supersedes your other duties, activities, etc.

Perhaps if/when I’ve published something, and can definitively say: look, this is a career choice, not just a hobby!  I AM A REAL WRITER.

Maybe then they’ll get it.

But then again, maybe not.

Angels, Love, and Old Men: A Quick Review of ‘Heavy Lead Birdsong’

In honor of National Poetry Month, I have tried to offer readers a few options for poetry that I believe is worth reading.  Obviously, this is a very subjective kind of thing, but I have tried to suggest poets who I admire, who are interesting and touching, and who may be somewhat accessible for the general reader who is perhaps not ready or not interested in more complex, dense poetry.

The poets I have mentioned so far (Stephen Vincent Benet, Adrienne Rich, and Hugo Williams, along with a couple others in passing) are all older, established, well-known, well-loved poets.  However, today I would like to suggest one of the U.S.’s new poets – a poet who will, I believe, one day be as well-known and well-loved as the others I’ve discussed.

His name is Ryler Dustin, and his book of poetry, published in 2008, is Heavy Lead Birdsong.

In favor of full disclosure, I should tell you that I know Ryler.  He is a student in the MFA Creative Writing program at University of Houston, where I was in the MA Literature program (and will soon be in the PhD program).  We have taken a few classes together, and know each other enough to say ‘hi’ in hallways and on facebook occasionally, but we are not, strictly speaking, “friends.”  Nor did Ryler ask me to promote his book in anyway (I don’t think I ever even told him I BOUGHT his book).  Therefore, this recommendation is based purely on my belief that Ryler Dustin is a fantastic poet who is worthy of your attention.

Heavy Lead Birdsong is about many things – love, family, religion, death, desperation, the things we leave behind and the things we hope to leave behind when we’re gone, art and beauty.  It is at its essence a song cycle to life – every part of it, the beautiful and the ugly.  Ryler moves effortlessly from the joyous, to the elegiac, to the whimsical, to the hilarious, and back again.  He manages to speak from his specific life experiences, while simultaneously speaking from a place that is recognizable (sometimes painfully so) to everyone.

The poems of this collection contain deep, often heavy, layered metaphors.  Yet the overall effect of these poems is one of openness, straight-forwardness, and clarity.  Ryler does not try to obfuscate or over-complicate.  He does not simplify what is rightly complex, but neither does he turn the simple things into a tangle of dense, cerebral language games.

I am not stating it too strongly to say that Ryler is one of those poets I wish to God I could be – he speaks of things that I feel, that I too have experienced, but he relates them in ways I could never hope to.

I think providing a few examples from the collection may be the best way to win you over, however.  So I’m going to hand the rest of this blog over to Ryler’s poetry.  Two of my favorite poems from this collection are too long to quote in full here, unfortunately.  “Blackbirds” is about angels; the narrator states:

“If I ever decided to believe in angels,

I’d believe in street wanderers

watching us from alleyways

and the sides of greasy dumpsters,

They’d communicate with each other

through the curling graffiti

that most of us assume is the work of some gang

They’d be fighting with shadows like schizophrenics.

They’d be sending us desperate blessings

from barrel-fire séances…”

And in “My Old Man,” the narrator tries to keep control of the old man ‘love’ that’s inside him:

“I took away his typewriter because the keys

     kept me up all night.

But now he scratches poems on the inside of my tongue.

     I don’t know how he gets up there.

He writes poems to strangers

     just to fuck with me.

He’s more like a leprechaun than a cupid.

     He falls in love with buildings.

     He falls in love with what people leave behind them:

         new hairpins and old architecture and apple cores.

     He hoards apples in my chest

         and now my chest is full of apples.

                My chest is growing into a tree…”

Finally, here is one whole poem for you.  The second-to-last poem in the collection, and one of several “birdsong” poems.

“Oak and Sunlight Birdsong”

When they cut me open,

they’ll find whole novels I swallowed too fast

so I could go back to playing video games.

They’ll find too many mirrors,

some filled with my face,

some with the reflections of strange birds,

most of them filled with the faces of girls

who have deep circles under their eyes.

/

Maybe because of my mother, overworked women

have always looked beautiful to me.

/

Inside the back bedroom of my spine,

they’ll find a lopsided movie projector

replaying a game of tag in a trailer park.

/

In my skull they’ll find a chair

by a sunlit window

and a bottle of spilt win

pooling like a black eye.

/

They’ll find a field beyond the window

and a book left fluttering on the sill.

/

They’ll never know if I left before finishing it,

or if I was just going back,

reading over all the parts in the story I loved.

It’s probably obvious by now that these are not the kinds of reviews you’d find in a literary journal, or even in a newspaper.  For one thing, in keeping with the brevity preferred in blogging, these “reviews” aren’t really long enough to do the books justice.  Second, I have tried to avoid all the usual sorts of philosophical and literary theory lingo one usually finds in a review, particularly because this blog is not really meant for an academic audience.  So, I worry that as “reviews” these posts have been somewhat useless.  However, I hope that my personal appreciation for these poets, and the inclusion of some of the poems from the collections, have done you some good.  In the end, I’m not trying to offer a critique, I am merely hoping more people will read the poets I love.

I hope this leads at least some of you to go and buy this book and support a young, new, hopeful, struggling poet who really deserves the chance.