What Makes a Book Good — Or Not?

Karen Wills

Janice McCaffrey

By Janice McCaffrey and Karen Wills

Montana Women Writers March meeting had an open discussion in an attempt to answer the question, what makes a book good . . . or not? Karen Wills started us off with her thoughts on components of a good story. She believes mystery, suspense, love & sex, doubt, and resolution should be included. Participants explained why they either liked or didn’t like certain books, both fiction and non-fiction. Following is the list of books and authors mentioned, with member comments: The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Stand, by Stephen King were favored for those who relish the dark side of mystery and murder. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller appealed to romantics because the reader could feel like she was there, and it had love and sex. Patti Smith’s The M Train caught the reader’s imagination with the explanation, “the mind train goes to any station it wants.” Bob Newhart’s I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! represented humor. As far as sci fi, Mirabile a collection of short stories by Janet Kagan has a connection among characters with clear voices, even when written in third person.

Refuge by Dot Jackson was a favorite because the author wrote human characters with flaws, poetic well-chosen detailed observations of nature, and the events and characters rang true. It also has all five of Karen’s good story components. Shadows of Home by Deborah Epperson and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing gained praise because they demonstrate excellent descriptions of location and characters’ dialects.

For readers who like stories with motivations and causes happening below the surface, The Dinner by Herman Koch would meet their criteria. It also has simple language, development and depth of characters, and backstories that explain why characters act as they do. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk has characters with dimension that made the reader curious about them and we liked that it had “weird” story and/or character arcs.

One participant said that the first time she read The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, she couldn’t visualize the story, as it was written in epistolary form. But after seeing the movie and rereading the letters, she understood and appreciated the story.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is especially loved by several readers. Favorable comments included the author’s choice of poetic language, and readers were impressed with the main character’s reaction to his circumstances, especially the way he handled his constricted situation. The Count’s life motto “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.” was meaningful to readers. Everyone who had read the book agreed that it incorporated all five of Karen’s good story components and that the imagery used by the author was excellent. The best comment sums it up, “Amor Towles writing of A Gentleman in Moscow was literary deliciousness.”

Participants also spoke of authors who they think write particularly well. These include Ursula K. Le Guin in the Sci fi genre; in non-fiction, John McFee because he explains nature in beautiful language and Robert Caro for well-told facts; Wally Lamb received kudos for getting a woman’s perspective correct; and Pat Conroy for flowery prose that makes the readers feel they’re in the space he creates.

On the Not-so-good side, The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah was said to be well-written but has too much depressing hard times. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham was not engaging even though it’s written in first person, and Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley was found to be too extreme and dreary. And one unanimous thought was that Larry M. McMurtry has not written a satisfying sex scene from a woman’s perspective.

Plans Interrupted Excerpt

my kingdom

By Janice McCaffrey

Meet Madge Wood, a sixty-something widow having her plans interrupted throughout her life has stolen the self-confidence she’d once known. But feeling unusually brave she sets out to experience her last plan. A trip to Monaco, a ride up the “To Catch a Thief” cliffside road, wearing a long, pink, Grace Kelly-like scarf that catches the sunlight as it flies in the wind, and a visit to Princess Grace’s Palace. What could possibly interrupt that?

An antique ring, thugs accosting her, enigmatic men offering assistance, and an opportunity to change ancient history. As Madge says, “You’re not going to believe it. I wouldn’t either—except I lived it.”

May 11, 2016
Monte Carlo, Monaco

I sat at a vintage mahogany vanity in awe of my reflection in its oval mirror. The deep, midnight-blue dress I wore had illusion-lace long-sleeves and jewel neckline. No need for a necklace. Blue-on-blue embroidered designs of vines and flowers adorned the sleeves and fitted bodice giving it a strapless look.

The full A-line taffeta skirt’s hem brushed the top of my ankles. The dress fit well and hid sagging skin. The reflection of a beautiful woman, with too-short, red-violet-copper-hair, smiled back at me. A head-squeezing band of pearls gave my new do a subtle elegance.

Jason obeyed my “Come in” command and sat on the end of the bed behind me.

I concentrated on the finishing touches to my toilette: makeup, hair, perfume. Oh, the perfume. My Sin. I closed my eyes as I inhaled its rich aroma. “This takes me way back.” Sigh. “A sailor once gave me My Sin that he brought from one of his Mediterranean tours.” Sigh. “I wonder where he is today.”

“Don’t let nostalgia cloud your thinking. Here’s the plan.” All business-like Jason jumped to his feet and paced the short path around the hotel room. “We’ll enter the casino at eleven p.m. and walk to the service counter. From there you’re on your own. Purchase one-thousand euros worth of chips. Once in the gaming room proceed to a roulette table. Make modest bets. Those chips need to last till midnight.”

I nodded to Jason’s reflection in the mirror to signify my understanding.

“At the strike of twelve a stranger will approach you and ask, ‘Do you come to Monte Carlo often?’ You’ll answer, ‘No, this is my first time.’ He’ll comment, ‘I’m surprised, you look quite at home.’ Then he’ll say ‘The rain in Spain . . .’ And you’ll say—”

“Don’t tell me, ‘falls mainly on the plain.’” I stood and faced him. “Are you kidding?”

After a giant sigh Jason answered, “No, I’m not kidding. I didn’t make it up. I’m telling you what I was told.”

“Who told you this dumb stuff?” I asked a little too indignantly.

“Madge, take a breath.” The warm pressure of his hands relaxed my shoulders. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? Let’s just go along with it, OK?”

Releasing air from my lungs I conceded, “I guess not. OK what’s next?”

Jason straightened his back and sounded all official again. “Then he’ll ask if he can buy you a drink and you should accept. He’ll escort you to a table and order. When he invites you to leave with him accept that too. He’s ready to locate the portal you need to continue your journey.”

My brow furrowed. “I leave with him? How do I know I can trust him?”

“Well, Madge, do you trust me?”

“Yes, but what does that have to do with trusting some stranger?”

Jason held my face in his hands and looked deep into my eyes. “You trust me, and I trust him, isn’t that enough?”

I put my hands on his. “I guess. OK. What’s this guy look like? How will I know him?”

His shoulders sagged. “Madge, you’ll know him from the code phrases. Haven’t you ever seen a spy movie?”                                                                                    plans book cover 2

I clinched my jaw and shook my head. What nonsense.

Amazon Kindle ebook       .99    July 16th thru 22nd


A Life Well Grieved

my kingdom  By JaniceMcCaffrey

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross established the five steps of grieving while working with hospitalized terminally ill patients. She studied the patients’ emotions as they faced their deaths. But through the years her steps have been used for loved ones left behind and every loss we face.

In this time of shelter-in-place we each have many losses to grieve. Interpersonal interaction, income, relationships, trust in our leaders, maybe even doubts about our higher powers. 

Dr. Ross had much to grieve throughout her lifetime. She was born as the runt of identical triplets beginning her life weaker and sicker than her siblings and peers. Elizabeth’s greatest desire was to be a scientist, but her strict father did not believe in education for girls and women. After leaving home she worked her way through higher education to become a medical doctor. She married Dr. Emanuel Ross who happily accepted her ambitions. Just when Elizabeth was accepted into a pediatric residency, she realized she was pregnant and thus was denied the position. She miscarried, her first of two. She was left with neither child nor career.

Eventually she was accepted into a psychiatry residency. She and Ross had two    children but divorced after twenty-one-years of marriage. She suffered a series of strokes and spent the last seven years of her life bedridden. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had an incredible career and helped millions of people during her lifetime and beyond, especially through her internationally best-selling bookOn Death and Dying (1969). She is quoted as saying “A life well grieved, is a life well lived.” Eilzabeth Kubler Ross

From my life-experiences I have come to believe and embrace her words. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker treating women in substance abuse recovery, I used Dr. Ross’ five steps of grieving to help my clients let go of their pasts and move forward. I’ve taught the grieving process to my family, my friends, and anyone who will listen because I know its worth. Usually we experience grief every day, but our psyche goes through the process within seconds, so we don’t notice. What’s important is that when we’re facing loss, we recognize grief, work through it, and come out on the other side with a healthy emotional outlook.

Here’s how it works: Remember when you were able to leave home to keep an important appointment and you couldn’t find your car keys?

  1. Denial – fuzzy thinking “I can’t believe I can’t find my keys.”
  2. Anger – body muscles tight “Darn it, where are they? Did someone move them?”
  3. Depression – sagging shoulders “What am I going to do now? I need to go.”
  4. Bargaining – dithering “If I had put the keys in their usual spot, I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
  5. Acceptance – deep breathe, ready to move “Oh, well, it is what it is. I’ll call a friend, Uber, cab, for a ride.”

Everyone grieves differently, there is no specific timing for each step, and we can bounce back and forth through the steps. Remember these points:

  • Intensity of emotions can vary 
  • Anger can be directed at ourselves, others, animals, things, even God
  • However you grieve, its normal
  • You are not crazy

Your psyche will grieve whether you want it to or not, crying can be spontaneous no matter where you are or what you’re doing. But there is a way to help the process along. Be aware of your feelings. Release your feelings by accepting them and letting them pass through your body. It will only take seconds and the more you release them the faster you’ll heal. If you suppress your emotions, they’ll eventually burst out when you’re not expecting them.

The gift of the final acceptance is that you will be able to move on with your life. You’ll be able to set goals from the perspective of your new circumstances.

We’re all anxious and grieving our current situation. We’ll all go through the grieving process as we wait this out. Everyone of every age. Be patient with yourself and others, especially children.

Please take time each day to be aware of your losses (write them down, journal about them, talk with a trusted confidant). Determine which step(s) you’re in for each, then let those emotions move through your body. End with deep relaxing breaths and thoughts of gratitude for what you have.

We’ll get through this together and we’ll all know that a life well grieved, is a life well lived.

Montana Women Write Blogs

my kingdom


By Janice McCaffrey

Authors of the Flathead will host their 30th annual Writers Conference September 2020. This group was established by local authors to support and encourage one another and anyone interested in writing. In 2013 a few women in the group wanted to learn more about self-publishing and promoting their work. Thus began Montana Women Writers.

The founders set up a website: www.montanawomenwriters.com with four pages. Home explaining the groups’ mission, The Women with member’s pictures and bios, The Words which highlights the author’s books with links to purchase them, and The View, a blog which promotes members’ work the first of every month through Book News and mww bloggers 4features individual members’ posts the other weeks of each month.mww bloggers 6

According to an online dictionary the word ‘blog’ can be a noun: a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, which is written in an informal or conversational style. Or a verb: to add new material to or regularly update a blog.

mww bloggersA description of blogs I discovered online says that some blogs are categorized by genres that focus on a particular subject—writing. It also says that collaborative or group blogs are written by more than one author and are usually based around a single uniting theme–Montana women who write.

I’ve looked over The View’s archives and see that originally each month had a theme. May was mothers, June, weddings, and each of the four seasons had a month to themselves. mww bloggers 5Also published were excerpts from member’s published books or works in progress, thoughts members had from their personal reading like a characters’ specific strengths and weaknesses, their circumstances, actions, emotions, or motivations and how each may have influenced readers. mww bloggers 7Other topics have included personal and/or writing goals or resolutions, life in Montana, lessons learned from the writing and promoting experience, inspiration, creativity, memories associated with holidays, seasons, family, and friendship.

With you I look forward to the original blogs that will be published in 2020. And I’ll watch for some flash backs that were posted over the years. And like you I’ll contemplate, learn from, and enjoy the thoughts my fellow Montana Women Writers share.

Let’s enjoy the adventure together.

Barbara Tuchman

my kingdom

By Janice McCaffrey

A book mark has been sitting on my desk for over two years now because I like the poem printed on it. Recently I looked up the poet and found that Barbara Tuchman (1903-1984) was not a poet, but a journalist and historian. Wikipedia says that she was criticized because she didn’t have a university degree and wrote history in a way that ordinary people could understand it. Seems she was ahead of her time. Nowadays easy-to-understand histories make the New York Times bestseller list (e.g. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown or The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter.)

Surfing the web I found a site with Barbara Tuchman quotes (quotetab.com). Here’s my favorites:      Human behavior is timeless.—Above all, discard the irrelevant.—One must stop conducting research before one has finished. Otherwise, one will never- stop and never finish.—Words are seductive and dangerous material, to be used with caution.                  An essential element for good writing is a good ear. One must listen to the sound of one’s own prose.           I have always been in a condition in which I cannot not write.          No writing comes alive unless the writer sees across his desk a reader, and searches constantly for the word or phrase which will carry the image he wants the reader to see, and arouse the emotion he wants him to feel. Without conscientiousness of a live reader, what a man writes will die on the page.               To be a bestseller is not necessarily a measure of quality, but it is a measure of communication.         Nothing is more satisfying then to write a good sentence. It is no fun to write lumpishly, dully, in prose the reader must plod through like wet sand. But it is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose that is simple yet full of surprises. This does not just happen. It requires skill, hard work, a good ear, and continual practice.             Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library.                   My bookmark says:  Without books, history is silent, literature dumb,science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.       Without books,  the development of civilization would have been impossible.      Books are engines of change, windows on the world, “lighthouses” (as a poet said” “erected in the sea of time.”     Books are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. They are humanity in print.