The Best Book I Read This Month: A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum

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The best book I read this month was so good that I was late to work one day so I could finish it. That book is A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum.

As you might guess from the title, the book is a mystery. It revolves around a disappearance in 1953 and an apparent suicide in 1971. The story—told by the best friend of the young man who apparently died in 1971—recounts the story of that friendship and the friends’ quest to find out what happened in 1953, when the mother of one of the boys disappeared. The big town rumor is that she died by misadventure, but a few folks in town suspect otherwise—either escape to a better life or murder.

The voice and sense of place in the book is exceptional. It’s set in the real-life small town of Brilliant, Ohio, located across the Ohio River from West Virginia and about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, PA, and it’s a town that Yocum clearly knows well. His characters are just as well-drawn, although the main villain does seem a bit over the top at times.

The one part of the book that didn’t work for me was the prologue. I think it was completely unnecessary and a distraction from what the book was really about. I found out later that A Brilliant Death is part of a trilogy—each book centering on one of three cousins. (One of the cousins narrates this book.) The prologue explains the cousins’ family history. If you’re planning to read the whole trilogy (I’m not), the prologue is useful. But if, like me, you’re only reading this one book—skip it.

A Week in Scotland

 North Bridge connects Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh. The train station runs under the bridge. The buildings in the picture are on the New Town side.

North Bridge connects Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh. The train station runs under the bridge. The buildings in the picture are on the New Town side.

Twenty seven years ago, I did my study abroad in Stirling, Scotland. I’ve been wanting to go back for more than a decade. This year, it finally happened—I just spent a week in Edinburgh, with side trips to Falkirk and, of course, Stirling.

A lot has changed in the last twenty-seven years, and I forgot a bunch more, too. Like the fact that Edinburgh is almost all hills. Stirling, too, is a giant hill. Falkirk wasn’t exactly flat, either. On one day in particular, I climbed the equivalent of 18 flights of stairs. No wonder everyone looked so good in tights back in the day!

I stayed in the Old Town section of Edinburgh, in a hotel just down the street from the train station. Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, the National Museum of Scotland—all were mere blocks away from my hotel. Across the bridge from my hotel was the New Town section of the city. But the name is really a misnomer—it’s not all that new. That part of the city dates back to the 1760s. I did some exploring there, too—especially Princes Street Gardens.

 The Kelpies

The Kelpies

I loved being surrounded by old buildings and old cobblestone streets, but my absolute favorite site that I saw was the Kelpies. The Kelpies are giant metallic horse-head statues. They’re in Falkirk, part of a giant park complex called The Helix. The statues honor the horses that used to pull boats through the Forth & Clyde Canal, which borders the park. They are amazing to see in photographs—and even more impressive in person. They’re the one thing I would love to go see again.

I’ve posted more pictures from my trip—castles, churches, and palaces—in the gallery here.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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The best book I read this month was another edition of “our Founding Fathers were jerks”—this time about George Washington. The book, Never Caught, tells the story of Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by the Washingtons who successfully escaped to freedom.

As history books go, this one was relatively short—about 200 pages, not counting the copious notes and acknowledgements at the end. It was an easy read, too, thanks to Dunbar’s plain-spoken style.

What is remarkable about Judge, beyond her escape from the home and control of the president of the United States, is the amount of information available about her—including her own words. We have very little record of any enslaved persons from that time period. But not only have George Washington’s records and letters referring to Judge, we also have two interviews that she gave later in her life. (If you get the paperback version of the book, it includes transcripts of those interviews. They are not included in the hardcover edition.) It was because of these sources that Dunbar was able to craft this narrative. And as many historians do, she filled in the gaps with conclusions and inferences based on available data.

Dunbar does not sugarcoat Judge’s experiences, either, whether those experiences were working for the Washingtons or trying to survive as a fugitive free woman. Sometimes, in an effort to emphasize the risks and dangers Judge faced, Dunbar gets repetitive. But that was a small price to pay for the story of such a strong, determined woman.

Goodbye, My Darling

There’s a fabled piece of writing advice attributed to William Faulkner: “Kill your darlings.” It means, “get rid of the parts of your story you love most if they aren’t serving the story.” Tonight, I killed a darling. In fact, I killed my favorite darling.

 Me, trying to hold onto my darling.  Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Me, trying to hold onto my darling.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Five years ago, the main character in my current WIP (work-in-progress) introduced himself to me. I could see him vividly. His voice was crystal clear. His surroundings, sharp.

I was working on another novel at that time, so I fought him off. Told him to wait his turn. But he’s an ornery one and kept yapping at me, kept insisting I tell his story. When I finally sat down to do just that, that introduction became the first scene in my novel.

As the WIP developed, that scene stayed, draft after draft. I tweaked it as the story changed. Trimmed this. Added that. Traded this word for that one. But essentially, the scene remained the same.

For the last month, I’ve been working on Draft 6 of my WIP, what I hope will be the last draft before I start querying literary agents. As I’ve worked on these revisions, I’ve realized that that darling, that scene, that whole first chapter, was slowing down my story. It had to go.

I love that scene and that chapter—they’re my darlings!—so I resisted. I tried to find ways to change them to make them work. I tried and tried and tried, as relentless as Wile E. Coyote hunting Roadrunner and with about the same success rate.

Tonight I realized there was just no way that chapter would work—except maybe as an extra here on this blog when I finally get the book published. So I took out my scissors and snipped off the whole thing. My darling, killed. The whole first chapter, GONE.

I’m a sad little murderer tonight, mourning my dead darling, but my story is feeling much better. And that’s what really matters.