Category Archives: Book Reviews

Creative Juice #124

Creative Juice #124

Great ideas to get your creative mojo going this weekend.

  1. Two quilt shows.
  2. Cuba in photographs.
  3. Beautiful paintings and drawings by David Harrison.
  4. Lovely tangles.
  5. Paper creatures.
  6. I don’t understand all these artsy apps, but they’re cool.
  7. Reading aloud to older children is beneficial, too.
  8. The stuff at thrift stores just keeps getting better.
  9. Stephen King takes a stand in favor of book reviews in the local newspaper, and his fans support him—and subscribe to the newspaper.
  10. Design trends for 2019.
  11. Photos of forest fauna in Finland.
  12. When life gives you snow, make a snow sculpture.

Review of Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

Review of Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham

I actually read this book twenty years ago—and remembered nothing from it. But it was full of my underlining and border notes in my handwriting, so I definitely read it.

The late Jack Bickham wrote 75 novels (two of which were made into films) and six books on the craft of fiction. He understands how to write a story.

Yet, as I was rereading this book over the course of more than a year, I found myself resisting much of what Bickham expounds. For example, Bickham says every scene must end with a disaster. I rejected that idea, because many of my scenes don’t and I couldn’t picture what would have to happen to follow that convention.


Then I read Children of Blood and Bone. Every scene in Children of Blood and Bone ends with a crisis. (Except maybe one.) And I couldn’t put CoB&B down. The pacing was so fast. The problems were so compelling.

So I began to take Scene and Structure more seriously.

Some of the terms in S&S I’d seen before, but I thought they meant something different. For example, I thought a scene goal was the author’s goal for the scene. It’s actually the viewpoint character’s goal for the scene. I suppose I would have known that if I’d majored in creative writing in college instead of music education.

Here are some points I learned from Scene and Structure:

  • Moment by moment, transactions occur in your scene that involve this progression: stimulus, internalization, response. A cause and effect relationship exists between the stimulus and the response. The response should make sense as a reaction to the stimulus. If the response would confuse the reader, an explanation is necessary; this occurs while the character processes the stimulus during the internalization phase.
  • At the beginning of the story, the main character must state a goal. The reader unconsciously forms a story question: i.e. will the character achieve his goal?
  • At the beginning of each scene, the viewpoint character states a short-term goal related to the story goal, and the reader again formulates a scene question about its attainment. The next element of the scene is conflict. In order to keep the reader engaged, the scene must end with a disaster.
  • Each scene disaster is followed by sequel (sometimes with a connecting transition) in which the character processes what’s just happened. Sequel consists of emotion, thought, decision (creation of the next scene’s goal), and action, which launches the next scene.

Scene and Structure covers much more related to writing the novel, including suggestions on how to create a master plot for your book, and an appendix of excerpts of published novels illustrating some of the concepts introduced in S&S.

scene and structure

This was not an easy book to read. I often had to read sections over and over to understand them. I don’t know if my confusion was the fault of the author or of my own limited intelligence. However, I will be reading this book again, and filtering my manuscript-in-progress through all the bullet points listed. I would recommend Scene and Structure for authors who are not satisfied with their own work but don’t know what’s wrong with it: you may have structural deficiencies.

Guest Post and Book Giveaway: A Tuba Christmas by Helen Wilbur – Illustrated by Mary Uhles


A wonderful gift idea for your musically-inclined youngster! And a glimpse into the illustrator’s process.

This article by Kathy Temean previously appeared on Writing and Illustrating.

Writing and Illustrating

Author Helen Wilbur has new picture book titled, A TUBA CHRISTMAS, illustrated by Mary Uhles. It’s now available in bookstores. Raakhee has agreed to share a book with one lucky winner. All you have to do to get in the running is to leave a comment. Reblog, tweet, or talk about it on Facebook with a link and you will get additional chances to win. Just let me know the other things you do to share the good news, so I can put in the right amount of tickets in my basket for you.

Sharing on Facebook, Twitter, reblogging really helps spread the word for a new book. Thanks for helping Helen and Mary!


With a family that loves music as much as hers does, it was only a matter of time before it was Ava’s turn to pick out an instrument. Her mother plays the piano, her…

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Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

I’ve often heard people mention Mary Oliver as one of their favorite poets. I’ve always felt I had a distant connection to her since she was on staff at Bennington College when my oldest daughter was a student there.

I’ve occasionally read some of her poems, and I decided I needed one of her books. I chose Devotions because it is a collection that spans her lifetime, with selections from her first book (published in 1963 when she was 28 years old) through her most recent (2015).

The book is arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with the newer poems and ending with the oldest. The more recent work is polished and smooth, a delight to read out loud or silently. As I made my way toward the end, the poems seemed rawer, though no less delightful or skillful. Many poems made me stop to savor the images and emotions; some of the older poems required a second or third reading for me to understand.


Oliver was born on September 10, 1935. She grew up in Ohio and started writing poetry when she was 14 years old. Her collection American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. Her New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. She and her partner of more than 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, lived much of their life together (before Cook’s passing) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oliver now lives in Florida.

A daily walker, Oliver most frequently writes about nature, but also about God and about the human experience.


Five poems in this book especially spoke to me.

“Six Recognitions of the Lord” describes six diverse times of meditation. Nature appears repeatedly, as God’s creation is an avenue that draws Oliver’s heart to God. But she also acknowledges the Spirit of God within her, and the darkness of distance from God.

Six Recognitions of the Lord (excerpt)
by Mary Oliver

Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour
me a little. And tenderness too. My
need is great. Beauty walks so freely
and with such gentleness. Impatience puts
a halter on my face and I run away over
the green fields wanting your voice, your
tenderness, but having to do with only
the sweet grasses of the fields against
my body. When I first found you I was
filled with light, now the darkness grows
and it is filled with crooked things, bitter
and weak, each one bearing my name.

Oliver is a master of word choice. In the poem “Some Herons,” she uses the characterizations of preacher and poet to differentiate between two birds when she could have used simply blue and white. Hunched in the white gown of his wings so accurately paints the heron’s position. The description of the water as if it were fabric makes me nod with recognition. Splashed upward, in a small, quick flower, by the life beneath it is so much more vivid than, say, “the surface was disturbed by the fish below.” His skirts up around his knees makes me smile as I picture the blue heron’s awkward landing. And I can see the white heron’s annoyed expression.

In her poem “A Meeting,” she never uses the words deer, doe, or fawn, yet, from the description of the vigorous licking the mother gives her offspring, the reader knows what species just gave birth in the forest swamp, though Oliver calls the creatures woman and child.

In “Music Lessons,” Oliver describes a time that the teacher took the piano bench and played while the student listened; how the teacher became the music and how the student became aware of music’s transformative power.

I love this rejection of the bustle of twenty-first-century existence:


The Old Poets of China
by Mary Oliver

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

Hmm. This reminds me of the bird in “Some Herons” which was referred to as an old Chinese poet.

Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver is filled with beauty, with fresh air, with lyrical appreciation, with uplifting meditations, and also with pain, doubt, and questions. Oliver is one of the greatest American poets, and I am happy to have this volume in my collection.

Review of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Review of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

I love books about ballerinas, and I love books with art tie-ins, so this was a perfect novel for me. Set in Paris from 1878-1895, The Painted Girls follows three sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte, whose father has passed away and whose mother is habitually drunk. All three girls must help support the family, or they’ll be evicted from their apartment. Antoinette, who was a ballet student, flunked out but managed to land a walk-on acting job at the Opéra. Marie and Charlotte enter the ballet school at the Opéra, which will earn them a small stipend. Together with what their mother makes doing laundry, they barely squeak by.


387px-Edgar_Germain_Hilaire_Degas_069Classes at the ballet school are often observed by mothers and by abonnés (the French word for season-ticket holders, but seems also to mean patrons or protectors, men who give the students gifts and money, often with expectations attached). Another observer is Monsieur Degas, who sketches the students in class. Degas asks Marie to pose for him in his studio, to which she happily agrees because it means extra money.

Meanwhile, Antoinette entangles herself with  Émile, a boy who seduces her. Even though she occasionally experiences his violence, she doesn’t believe he is capable of murder, which he is eventually accused of. But Marie hates him on first sight, which Antoinette attributes to jealousy of the time she spends with him instead of with her sisters.

Meanwhile, Marie dreams of passing the exam to be part of the ballet troupe. Dancing fills her with joy. Here Buchanan’s words satisfy my longing to enter the world of the dancer: “I ache to hear the step, the piano cleaving the air and coaxing the place behind my heart, filling me from inside out. I want to dance again, to feel the music lifting my limbs, arching my back, streaming from my fingertips, my toes. Grace is with me today, also steadiness and lightness and speed.”

As Marie progresses in her dancing, she realizes she needs extra help to catch up with the other dancers her age who have more experience. She gets a job kneading bread early every morning in a bakery so she can pay for additional lessons, which makes her days so long she can’t get sufficient sleep. An abonné comments on the dark circles under her eyes, and when he finds out they’re there because she’s working so hard, he tells her to quit the bakery job and model for him once a week, and he’ll pay her more than she’s making at the bakery. It doesn’t take long for Marie to realize Monsieur Lefebvre is not a real artist.

Degas, however, has made a wax sculpture of Marie, which is to be part of an exhibition. When Marie goes to see it, it’s not on display.



When Émile is convicted of murder, he writes a letter to the editor of Le Figaro, the newspaper, explaining what a deprived childhood he had, forcing himself into a life of crime. The letter aroused such sympathy that his sentence was reduced from the guillotine to a life of forced hard labor in New Caledonia. Émile pleads with Antoinette to follow him there, but that will cost her way more than what she could put aside from her wages at the laundry where she now works. She signs on at the brothel where a friend works, and stockpiles all her earnings until her regular client tells her he’s getting married and will be on his honeymoon for the next six months. Distressed with losing her main source of income, she picks his pocket as he sleeps, netting 700 francs.

Why did she think she wouldn’t be caught?

In the meantime, a man by the name of Cesare Lombroso says that the criminal element shares certain facial features; if you study a person’s physiognomy, you can tell if he or she is genetically predisposed to commit violent crimes. His views take France by storm.


The next year, Degas’ sculpture of Marie, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, is again scheduled to be exhibited. (Degas had pulled it the previous year because he wasn’t satisfied with it.) This time Marie finds it near a pastel sketch made at the trial of Émile and his accomplice, called Criminal Physiognomies. Critics connected her sculpture with the boys’ sketch, commenting on how ballet girls were among the lowest level of society, guilty of every vice.

Émile is accused of a second murder, on the word of his accomplice. Antoinette, who is being held in a convent, urges Marie to give her calendar to Émile’s lawyer, one that will prove he couldn’t have been the killer, and also providing an alibi for the accomplice. Marie, instead, burns the calendar, damning the accomplice (who may have been innocent, but bragging of the crime) to the guillotine.

Eventually, kind-hearted Marie is filled with remorse at the thought of condemning an innocent boy and loses her love for dancing.

By this time, I was a pretty depressed reader. Was Paris in the late 1880s really a place where poor young girls were victimized? Where people were assumed guilty on the basis of appearance? Boy, things never change, do they? I don’t want it to be true.



I first saw a picture of a bronze of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen when I was a freshman in high school in 1966, in a teen girls’ magazine called Ingenue of which I devoured every issue. It has been one of my favorite pieces of art forever. To have the girl’s appearance described as “apish” broke my heart. To me, she was always beautiful.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie BuchananBuchanan conducted extensive historical research for the book. Antoinette, Marie, Charlotte, and Émile were real people, as was Edgar Degas. Many events in the book are documented, and some are partially based on fact.

The end of the book reveals the much more satisfactory true subsequent events in the lives of the sisters. Charlotte ended up being a dancer of note and a teacher of dance at the Opéra, a career that spanned 53 years.

Even though parts of the book are incredibly sad, The Painted Girls is a compelling story.

Creative Juice #104

Creative Juice #104

Inspiring works of art:


Review of Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies by Julia Adair King and Robert Correll

Review of Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies by Julia Adair King and Robert Correll

It has taken me more than two-and-a-half years to finish this book.

When I bought my camera, I felt I needed a guide that would be easier to understand than the manual that came with it, which seemed to assume I knew all about cameras. But I’ve always had a point-and-shoot camera, even back in the days of film. Even my 35 mm camera had only a built-in lens. My first two digital cameras were simple automatics. I don’t understand apertures and shutter speeds.

I should have gotten the book for idiots since I apparently don’t have enough intelligence to qualify to be a dummy.


The first few months I labored through the pages, I constantly referred back to what I’d previously read, or consulted the index to see if I could find a clearer explanation further on in the book. The first chapters often introduced a feature and then said, “…but more about this in Chapter 7.” I reread pages over and over again, trying to figure out what the significance of one setting over another was.

Canon Eos

When I bought my camera, I chose the Rebel T5 over the just-released T6, because the newer model had wi-fi capability, and I couldn’t conceive why I’d ever need it. (I didn’t even have an Instagram account back then.) I wanted as few bells and whistles as possible, and the T5 was touted as a “beginner” dSLR camera.

I learned early on to turn down the corners of certain pages so I could find them quickly for reference. Pages 11, 12, 27, and 37 have photographs of the camera from different angles with all the buttons and doohickeys labeled. Page 37 explains the “creative zone” modes.

It took me from beginning to end to approach being comfortable with some of the terms that I looked up dozens of times. In photography, some terms have such cryptic names that you have to wonder if manufacturers even want people to be successful with their products. (For example, why is shutter-priority autoexposure abbreviated Tv? Who could remember that?)

The good news is, the default settings on the Canon EOS Rebel T5 are sufficient to take reasonably good pictures under most situations. I used my old point-and-shoot procedure until I learned better. I’m pleased with my camera, and I’m glad that I am learning how to use more of the options. The book, though frustrating for a long time, is getting easier for me to decipher.

camera-lensI still have much to learn. I’d say I understand about a third of the book at this point. But at least I have a general idea where to look to find out more. I have a feeling I’ll be rereading Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies for years to come.