Those of you who have heard me speak about writing and seen some of my posts on the discipline know that I have some rather strong views about what you should be doing to become a writer. One of the most important requisites is that you read books! I mean, who knew, right? But more to the point, if you are writing in one area – say fantasy – you need to be sure and read books outside that area, too. You will learn so much more about the craft and the possibilities of plot and character by doing so. You will be nudged in new ways and have your eyes opened to great new ideas for storylines that you can convert to your own area of interest and invest with fresh life.
With that said, I want to leave all that and talk about two books and two writers that I read just recently – both books new, both writers seasoned veterans, and both stories eerily connected. How are they connected? By the gist of the story, which in each case involves how loss can sometimes lead to self-discovery and reconciliation with one’s grief.
The two books, in the order in which I read them, are THE BOOK OF LOST SAINTS by Daniel Jose Older and NOTES FROM MY CAPTIVITY by Kathy Parks.
A little history on my relationship with both authors first.
I met Daniel at a Del Rey cocktail party in connection with some Con or Book Fest back around 2015. We talked, I got his first Bone Street Rumba book signed, and we parted. But I went on to read all of his Bone Street series, which I liked very much, and then stumbled on Book of Lost Saints.
I had Kathy Parks (then Hepinstall) as a student back in a writing class I was teaching at the Maui Writer’s Conference back in the 1990s. Each student was required to submit a sample of their writing before the class began so I could measure their current level of writing. What I remember to this day about Kathy was how very good she was even then. So good, in fact, that at one point during the week I took her aside and asked her why she was taking my class when she was already so proficient. And, it turned out, already published – wonderful book called The House of Gentle Men. She told me she wanted to get better. She wanted to find out how to improve and expand on her work. We stayed friends, crossed paths and I have read some of her books since.
So purely by chance I picked up first Daniel’s book and then Kathy’s, and both times I regretted after reading them I had not done so earlier. Both are astonishing works of fiction, both are exemplary works in demonstrating how to structure a story, and both left me sorry when I finished that there wasn’t more.
Book of Lost Saints is about families and friends involved in the Cuban Revolution and its consequences both in the past and present. Marisol is the principle character in Lost Saints is dead and a ghost when the story opens and afterwards through the entirety of the book as she tries to come to terms with finding out what happened to her by haunting her nephew, Ramon, and using him as a corporeal pawn to uncover hidden truths. It is told through the eyes of various characters, both in Cuba and in New Jersey, past and present.
Notes from My Captivity is about a young girl, Adrienne, who travels to Siberia with her stepfather Dan to see if his theory about the fate of the Osimov family, which has been discredited by a journalist, is real. The journey turns into a Deliverance sort of nightmare in a very inhospitable place, and forces Adrienne to come to terms with her dislike of her stepfather and the terrible loss she feels from the death of her father.
Really, I am only touching on what these books are about, but I don’t want to give anything away. Really, they are about so much more than what I am suggesting that in order to appreciate what these two talented writers have accomplished, you have to read their books front to back.
Oh, did I mention that in both books ghosts play a very important role? Well, they do. And this is what makes both books the sorts of fantasy reading that might slip right by many readers. I would argue that both books could easily be considered both fantasy and literary, adult and YA, because there are elements of all of these present. But labeling books as fish or fowl does them a disservice.
Because what sets them apart is superior storytelling, a compulsion to read on straight through, and a pair of heart-wrenching endings.
Give them a try. You won’t be wasting your time.
Sheltering in place,