Many writing teachers tell their students to “write what you know.” And what do writers know better than… writers? I love a good story about a writer, and so jumped at the chance to read ARCs of Joani Elliott’s The Audacity of Sara Grayson and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot.
The Audacity of Sara Grayson
What happens when your mother’s dying wish becomes your worst nightmare?
What happens when the world’s greatest literary icon dies before she finishes the final book in her best-selling series?
And what happens when she leaves that book in the hands of her unstable, neurotic daughter, who swears she’s not a real writer?
Sara Grayson is a thirty-two-year-old greeting card writer about to land the toughest assignment of her life. Three weeks after the death of her mother—a world-famous suspense novelist—Sara learns that her mother’s dying wish is for her to write the final book in her bestselling series.
Sara has lived alone with her dog, Gatsby, ever since her husband walked out with their Pro Double Waffle Maker and her last shred of confidence. She can’t fathom writing a book for thirty million fans—not when last week’s big win was resetting the microwave clock.
But in a bold move that surprises even herself, Sara takes it on. Against an impossible deadline and a publisher intent on sabotaging her every move, Sara discovers that stepping into her mother’s shoes means stumbling on family secrets she was never meant to find—secrets that threaten her mother’s legacy and the very book she’s trying to create.
Joani Elliott knows how to write! Well crafted novel with a realistic depiction of the art of writing — the insecurity and hopelessness and futility and accomplishment, cycling in an endless, introspective loop. If you think the story synopsis above sounds interesting, the book storyline should be right up your alley. Elliott’s writing is empathetic, and feels uplifting, in a real, truthful way. As someone who dabbles in writing, I found much of this book inspiring. I definitely recommend if you are a writer. You will love Phil, because he’s the best.
The book also has a couple of adorable and believable romances.
My only issue with this book (which, unfortunately, is a big one), is that we spend the majority of our time with Sara Grayson, and Sara Grayson is… kind of awful. Whiny, full of excuses. Literally everyone she knows is like, “Your writing is so good! You need to do this! Also, you’ve been unhappy. Trying this new thing may help you realize what you want and feel fulfilled.” And she doesn’t trust herself, she doesn’t trust those she loves, and she’s fucking annoying about it. It’s probably realistic, but it’s very difficult to spend so much time with her when she’s insufferable, and, like, not in a fun way.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 typewriters
Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written–let alone published–anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.
Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that–a story that absolutely needs to be told.
In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.
As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?
Thriller novels are difficult, in that they rely on either:
creating tension/suspense that causes the readers to avidly keep reading out of desperate need to find out what happens/get resolution;
have a twist that changes the lens by which the story has been viewed;
have writing so amazing, that even if the twist is predictable, the reader doesn’t care, because it’s so fun getting there.
I applaud Jean for the work that she put into this book. The concept is interesting, and writing a book is a lot of work.
However, I was able to see the “surprise twist” about 20% of the way through the book, the writing was fine, but nothing that particularly filled me with wonder, and given that I knew where everything was likely headed (and I was correct), lacked the tension/suspense I would generally want from a thriller.
Wednesday Books was kind enough to send me a very nice package for the Cast authors (P.C. & Kristin) debut novel in the new “Sisters of Salem” series. This package was so pretty, and I know they say not to judge a book by its’ cover, but I mean, look at that book cover:
To say I was excited may be a slight understatement. This book has a big marketing push, is written by established authors, and it involves magic and twins, the former of which is intriguing and can be done very well in literature, the latter of which are interesting to me, particularly in terms of magic.
I really wanted to like this book — but for various reasons, I did not. However, I think that I come from a very specific viewpoint that I can see is biased in certain ways, so if the idea of twin sisters who come from a line of witches dating back to Salem sounds interesting and you are okay with a few spoilers, please read on to see if it could be a fit for you, as I will try to explain what I didn’t like and why I didn’t like it, the latter of which may very well not be applicable to you.
Let me start by telling you about myself in high school. In tenth grade, I kind of began to have a thing for witches – fictional and historical. The idea of magic is captivating; even if you don’t think it’s real, it is fun to pretend. And the ways that people get out of control and start blaming people for using magic to cause all of their problems, even if it’s just a wet dream, is fascinating (and frightening, once you start seeing parallels occurring in the current world, and have to wonder how civilized we all actually are…). So I read numerous books on the Salem Witch Trials, including one that claimed maybe the first girls to exhibit symptoms in Salem actually had a very rare illness that was not known about at the time.
In addition, I am a person who believes that it is okay to write historical fiction, but important to remain true to the historical facts that are known or make it very clear that the author(s) has(ve) chosen to explore a hypothetical or changed things in order to make a certain point in his/her/their story, etc.
The Casts are inarguably exploring a hypothetical – what if there was a real witch charged in the Salem Witch Trials who escaped, and her magic continued to present-day generations? My issue is that this hypothetical specifically says – what if Sarah Good, one of the first women accused of being a witch, was actually a witch, and escaped with her daughter Dorcas, who was 4 at the time and also accused of being a witch, and fled to Illinois and started a town where their line continued to present-day.
But Sarah Good was one of the 19 people hanged for the crime of being a witch.
If this work is a sweeping historical re-write, I would like her actual tragic death acknowledged somewhere, so that impressionable youngsters with poor research skills or lack of curiosity don’t somehow get the idea that this woman managed to escape. (In a similar vein, I think Disney was recklessly irresponsible in making Pocahontas, a movie designed for impressionable youngsters who may not have ever attended a history class the impression that an actual 12-year-old girl who bravely stood up for a stranger who her father wanted to kill (and who can blame him – I mean, look at what white people did to America and the people who were already living there when they discovered it…) was a 17-year-old head-over-heels in love.)
Sarah Good was a woman who grew up in an affluent family and fell into desperate poverty throughout her life. Forced to live off of other people’s charity, she was bitter and unsociable, which made her an easy target when the town began looking for scapegoats to help explain why their lives sucked. She had to sit in a courtroom and hear numerous people, including her then 4-year-old daughter, spin lies about her before being thrown into prison, where she accrued debt to be treated terribly for a crime of which she wasn’t guilty. She had to witness her own young daughter condemned of the same crime and thrown into prison. She gave birth and witnessed her baby die, likely due to malnutrition and poor conditions in the prison. She was then hauled off in a cart like a piece of livestock, hauled up a ladder, and pushed off. Sarah suffered, and she may have bravely called out the people who were killing her on their bullshit before she was pushed. Her last selfish thoughts probably consisted of hoping that her neck broke, which would make her death quick, since if it didn’t, the people gathered to watch the crime would gleefully watch her slowly strangle. She didn’t live to see the end of the trials, including her daughter’s release from prison (after 8.5 months), nor to witness her daughter’s severe psychological damage from the entire experience.
I can see the temptation to write a better ending for Sarah and Dorothy. But I take issue with the fact that it is never stated, that I can identify, that this fictional novel is based on re-writing the ending of the Salem experience for Sarah and Dorothy (also called “Dorcas” because the jackass who wrote her name on the arrest warrant was bad at spelling), who actually had a much different experience.
On a related and very specific note, the book opens with Sarah listening to the sounds of her shitty male neighbors building a gallows and desperately doing what she can to try to get her daughter and herself the hell out of town. Yet, as I previously stated, Salem didn’t use a gallows. They put a ladder up against a very tall tree, forced the “witch” up the ladder, put the noose around their neck, and pushed them off. I guess the sounds of a dude putting a tall ladder together or rummaging through his storage shed to find it aren’t quite as tension-building, but again, I’m a stickler, so I read “gallows” and was immediately annoyed.
I didn’t like the way the characters were written. The twins on whom the series currently seems set to focus feel hollow, possibly due to the fact that this novel is the first in a series (I’ll get to this potential in a minute), possibly because the authors really wanted to quickly establish the characters so they could get to the plot. The problem is, for a book/series that feels like it should be pretty plot-heavy, we spend a lot of time with these characters and the internal thoughts of these characters, rather than the focus being on the things that happen to the characters. And Hunter and Mercy are fucking annoying. To be fair, not a deal-breaker for a teenage girl character. Some teenage girls are annoying (I was one of them). But the girls in this book are annoying, while at the same time not feeling real. The twins can pretty much be summed up in one phrase each:
Mercy = the shallow, popular one
Hunter = the moody, ambitious one
We are introduced to Hunter first. Hunter is the “ugly” twin, because, you know, she wears her hair in a ponytail. She is also pretentious as fuck. She desperately wants to be a writer, but doesn’t, you know, actually want to write (which I actually somewhat empathize with, because my own aspiring novel is currently languishing on the alphasmart with an abysmal word count… #notimportant). She needs you to know that she’s not like other girls/teenagers, even in her own thoughts. The fact that being a witch is inherent to her is brought across in such a confusing sentence, I underlined it (I’ll abstain from publishing herein, since my copy is not final, and the words may change). And she’s super judgy of the way her twin dances, which she compares to “a stripper.” (It’s ok, though, guys, because the third person narration agrees with Hunter’s assessment, as does Hunter’s best friend Jax, who is presumably in love with her twin since Hunter’s a lesbian. Slut-shaming is supes fun – let’s all do it!)
Mercy we sort of get to know later, but basically, she’s beautiful and she knows it. She’s dating a hot football player, she likes attention, she can’t handle… anything. Basically, anything goes wrong, and Mercy goes catatonic. She also has a pathological need to be correct (as evidenced by this super weird scene where she uses magic to basically project what her boyfriend thinks is a private conversation to everyone else in their high school so she can show her sister that she’s totally wrong, but, of course, it blows up in her face), and whenever possible, likes to blame her problems on her sister (it was so, so obvious her interpretation of an olde passage was likely incorrect).
So neither of these characters is likable. And they’re presumably going to change and grow throughout the series and blah, blah, blah, but at least for this book, I was kind of just like, I don’t really care about you…? They didn’t feel like real teenagers, and they were awful, so I personally felt no reason to root for them or care about their wellbeing.
And before y’all respond, “That was totally me in high school!” or “what the fuck, IG, have you even met a teenager before?” let me give an example of why they don’t feel like real characters. For teenagers with problems and potential narcissism complexes, these chicks responses to the idea of drugs and sex and, you know, fun stuff that teenagers with problems (aka, all teenagers) often get themselves into more problems with until they develop other interests, is like an after-school special. This interpretation could be me as an adult looking at teenage characters, but personally, I don’t see any reason why kids need to feel like they are a bad person if they are curious about what recreational drugs are like, and also no kid needs to feel guilty about liking the little death. Although I was traumatized as a 10-year-old reading SVH, where Regina dies because she does a bump of cocaine, smoking a joint really isn’t the end of the world (or doing a bump of cocaine). Just, like anything, don’t overdo it, or you can, like, ruin your nose and have trouble finding a job and shit. In a similar way, sexual activity in and of itself isn’t bad. Consent in all activity is very, very important. As long as both parties were consenting, there isn’t an illegal age difference, and both parties are being smart (condoms, guys, keeps you covered in more way than one), you have no reason to feel ashamed of anything you have done. And I guess after-school special teens aren’t necessarily non-existent, but it would have been nice to see some open-minded teen protagonists who aren’t jerks about anything non-traditional that they themselves aren’t personally experiencing (i.e., they’re witches, and one is a lesbian in a small town, and as such, it would be cool if they showed empathy towards other people who don’t fit into the mythical small-town box).
Then, there’s the weird description of their mother. The twins literally hold hands and stare at their mother and think about how hot she is, in one scene. I found myself thinking about the fact that this book was written by a mother/daughter duo as I read the scene, and finding the whole thing very unrelatable. Even if your mother is good-looking, I just find it weird that as a teenager, you think about how beautiful her ample, unrestrained bosom is, and the staring twin thing doesn’t translate to “Aw…” in my mind. More “Ah!!!” horror-feels.
To me, I think the ideas and characters in this series would maybe have worked better as a single, epic book. This book kind of felt like a Halloween-sized piece of Laffy Taffy that was being stretched and forced into an unnaturally larger size and then proffered as an alternative for dinner. The idea behind the debut novel in a series is to leave you hungry for more, but in this case, the candy had been stretched too thin, so that it was wasn’t tasty enough to leave me craving more Sisters of Salem, but instead, a meatier book with more substance. The plot itself was kind of interesting – alluding to five distinct sets of mythology – but also didn’t exactly make sense. Why did a monster only escape from one of the five gates, when all of them were losing strength? Presumably, we will encounter a different monster/mythology with each book in the series. But this book would have been stronger, and there would have been a greater sense of urgency, if there had been more enemy for the girls to conquer in this debut. I would have much rather had a larger book, jam-packed with plot, than the book we have, which is trying to hook the reader but didn’t quite work for me.
In summation: does this novel cast a spell on all who read it? I mean, obviously, it didn’t on me. But if you are a series reader, if you don’t need to like the characters, and if you’re cool with historical inaccuracy and/or lack of transparency, it may cast one on you.