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.

Don’t Be Too Careful What You Wish For

Remember the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” I’ve often used it as a guide, but am so glad I held to my wish in the instance I’m about to relate to you.

My husband and I love stories about art, whether visual or written. An art lecture we watched, introduced us to Gustav Courbet’s erotic masterpiece L’Origine du Monde, or Origin of the World. It is an explicit and unexpectedly beautiful painting of the model’s genetalia. She is lying on a bed and the depiction is of her torso only. I read Erin Davies’ review of the novel L’Origine: a Secret History of the World’s most Erotic Painting, by Liliane Milgrom. She is the first artist allowed by the Musee D’Orsay to make a copy of the original. No prude, I clicked on Want to Read, then didn’t think much more about it.

But Emma Cazzabone of French Book Tours emailed me with an offer of a free copy of the book for an honest review. Taken aback, but open to the challenge, I agreed. I agonized several times during the process, wanting to do right by Milgrom who had me in awe at her accomplishments. Here’s my review as it appeared in Goodreads.

L’Origine: a Novel by Liliane Milgrom is the tale of Gustav Courbet’s audacious and explicit painting of a nude model entitled L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World). Milgrom follows the painting from its inception in 1865 through the years it spent hidden from public view by a series of wealthy owner/collectors. They each loved it and tried to protect it through war and personal upheaval until the controversial masterpiece found a home at the Musee d’Orsay (Orsay Museum) in Paris. Milgrom’s book is also a love story that involves her fascination with Courbet’s masterpiece.

Milgrom opens with a prologue that puts her in the story as the first artist permitted by the Museum to be a copiste of L’Origine. She includes some of what I love to come across in fiction: insider information. I’d never known that, for example, the copy has to have a designated size difference from the original, and that the copier has only certain hours allotted to sit and work on the piece. And all this under public observation!

Paris of the mid1860s was light-hearted, open to new ideas, and sexually freewheeling, at least for the wealthy or creative. Milgrom adds enough detail to show the city as the perfect place to incubate a sense of wonder, playful approaches, and skill on the part of those drawn to seek fame and money through art. Courbet was a sensual nonconformist from the country and a firm proponent of artistic realism. Inspired by gazing on his lover’s genitalia, he decided to use it as the subject of a painting commissioned by a Turkish diplomat. The Turk’s mistress posed for the painting.

Courbet created something so masterfully portrayed, and titled it so thoughtfully, that it stopped all who saw it in their tracks. Some were shocked, but most also saw that Courbet had painted so well that what might have been dismissed as pornography was elevated by critiques and appreciators as great thought and emotion-provoking art. It reminds us of romantic love, awakens our desires, or makes men and women think of their mothers. For the vagina, we are reminded, is the place of the origin of life.

Courbet’s fortunes took a serious tumble from which he never recovered, and his art became long devalued. Following the days of the Commune, Paris became prim and proper. When L’Origine did trade hands it was because of appalled or jealous wives. The impressionists came into public favor as well and became the darlings of collectors. Nevertheless, there were always those who became intrigued, enthralled, or aroused by L’Origine. Courbet had forever created a painting that “captured the nebulous world between reality and fantasy.”

Through two world wars Jewish Baron Ferenc Hatvany, a Hungarian artist and collector, did his best to keep L’Origine safe and his. When he decided to let go of it at last in the 1950s, it sold to an artistic, intellectual couple. An example of the author including the zeitgeist of the times in which the painting’s owners lived and worked, Jacques Lacan, the male half of the couple, saw L’Origine as deeply connected to both penis envy and fear of castration. His wife, the former film star Sylvia Bataille believed the painting could be valued and shared by modern women as well as men.

In the end, L’Origine became available to the public via the prosaic demands of property

taxes. But the wider world is richer for it. Those who owned it were remarkable people, and belonged to their times. Milgrom does well at showing us those times: clothing, famous people spotted in café’s by the main characters of each chapter in the painting’s history. And she makes the owners real people with delights, fears, and often struggling to explain life’s mysteries. One of which involves origins.

I wish to thank France Book Tours for sending me a copy of the book for my honest review. To read more about the book and its author, and for a chance to win a copy, visit: https:francebooktours.com

It was a great experience, capped off by lovely notes of appreciation from both the author and Emma. Don’t be too careful about what you wish for. Besides, we all need good reviews.

By Karen Wills


A Work in Progress

Karen's author photo apr 2019

By Karen Wills

Accidents happened, varied in their seriousness. In midsummer 1925, Jim rode a seasoned bay leading a strung-out group of pack animals that included a favorite of Nora’s, the big white gelding named Cotton Two. The mild-mannered horse had been named after one of the draft animals that pulled his and Nora’s wagon when they made their long-ago journey to settle on the North Fork.

A young man from Coram sat his mount in the center of the string while a jocular boy from Martin City rode in last place. Jim didn’t dare pigtail the animals. On this steep, narrow trail heading to Camp 4, if one horse stumbled over the edge it would pull the whole line down to their doom.

Cotton Two carried four 50-pound boxes of dynamite. Jim heard the Coram boy’s shout of “Damnation and hell fire!” A horse’s scream drowned out the rest. Jim turned to see Nora’s favorite slip over the side and roll down and down, disappearing among the trees almost at once.

The boys calmed their mounts, then stopped and took off their hats. They waited for Jim to say something as they gazed woefully toward where Cotton Two must have landed. Jim’s one word, “Detachment,” seemed to puzzle them. They shrugged, replaced their battered hats, nodded with troubled expressions, and proceeded.

At Camp 4 Jim spoke briefly to Michael and helped unload supplies before he rode back to Camp 1, headquarters. He ate a thick ham sandwich for an early supper, then picked out the horse they’d named for the original Cotton’s teammate, Wink. As the sun slipped toward the western peaks, he rode Wink Two along a darkening trail.

Jim wanted to be able to tell Nora exactly how Cotton Two died. He wanted it to be true that the animal perished on impact with a broken neck. He dreaded finding it still suffering and in need of shooting.

Jim’s breath came hard. He gasped air that felt cold in the back of his throat as he approached where he calculated Cotton Two’s carcass should be. He planned to bring home the horse’s pack saddle and halter, and hoped he could handle the job alone in the dark. His heart sounded in his ears as ragged as his breath.

A familiar whinny broke the night stillness. Jim got down and tethered Wink Two to a branch. He walked toward the sound, not daring to imagine what he’d find. He stepped into a clearing full of high grass. Cotton Two stood before him in the last light of the day, the sky like a wall of ice lit from the other side. Cotton Two grazed with the solemn mien of a stoic accepting whatever fate intended for him. Except for a torn, bloody ear, and a few long scratches, the gelding appeared able to stand without pain. After running his hands over the horse, Jim felt sure it had sustained bruises, but no broken bones or life-threatening injuries.

“Cotton Two, Nora will be so pleased.” Jim, astonished, paraphrased a line from the poem, Invictus. “Your head is bloody, but unbowed.” Then he stroked the animal he’d given up for dead and rested his forehead against its white muzzle. For a long while neither of them moved.

Jim finally raised his head and breathed in the cold night air. Nora’s horse seemed a miracle that called for some act of gratitude, some bloodless sacrifice. “We want to go home, don’t we, white horse? We don’t do so well away from Nora and Evening Star. We should give these jobs of ours to ambitious youngsters. The two of us have earned our rest.”

Cotton Two nickered in full agreement.


Excerpt All Too Human

Karen's author photo apr 2019   By Karen Wills

Gentle readers,

Here’s an excerpt from my historical novel, All Too Human: A Saga of Deadly Deceptions and Dark Desires. Lucinda Cale is writing a post-Civil War diary of her journey from St. Louis to the wilds of Northwest Montana as a newlywed married to wealthy and difficult Garrett Cale. Her life will take unexpected turns as will that of Rebecca Bryan, the novice attorney who, in 1905, finds Lucinda’s diaries. Enjoy.

Garrett hired five men at Fort Benton to ride alongside us as armed protectors all the way to Eagle Mountain, along with Louis the cook and our young driver and packer. The protectors are hard men. I’ve never seen even one of them smile. None have spoken to me or Peggy. I’m accustomed to men flitting like moths to my flame so this indifferent behavior unsettles me.

I admit it. Male lack of interest is new, and it stings my vanity. Did the war burn away any ability they once had to appreciate womanly charms? Did it leave their emotions hard as metal? Cold as ashes? Peggy declares herself insulted by their unconcern for her flirtatious approaches. She protested today, “How can they protect me if they can’t see me?”

Garrett made sure when he hired them that all five fought for the Union. I’m wary of them even as they fascinate me. In the circles I frequented back home I seldom conversed with or met any lower-ranking enlisted men. Plain to see, these hard souls who ride with us withstood merciless use in horror-filled battles.

I study them when I suppose they aren’t looking, but suspect they note my artless spying. They’re ever alert. Their eyes must miss nothing.

When one of them does flick a rare glance at me, sadness rests in his blear eyes. Each carries a brace of revolvers and long knives in their boots as well as his own rifle. Although their clothes are shabby and often carry several days’ worth of dust, they keep their weapons spotless and shining from well-oiled care.

Thoughts of my brother’s death in the horrors of battle haunt me like Mr. Poe’s raven haunted him. I think my grief will never leave me. Nevermore. Was it possible that cheerful Peter would have returned volatile as Garrett, or dour as these bitter men, their faces lined before their time? Would my own brother have been a stranger to me after being seared in the heat of bloody conflicts? I pray not. I hope Peter is with God and at peace.

River with No Bridge Excerpt

Karen's author photo apr 2019

By Karen Wills

Gentle Readers,

In my novel River with No Bridge, Irish immigrant Nora Flanagan comes through joyful adventures as well as tragic misadventures from Boston to Montana. With nothing left to lose she makes a last brave journey into the wilderness of the North Fork of the Flathead River to homestead. Her inspiring companion in the venture is the Chinese man, Jim Li, whom she calls her “only friend.”  This excerpt shows their first view of Flathead Lake. Enjoy.

After four hard days of travel, Jim pulled Wink and Cotton to a stop as they topped a ridge overlooking an astonishing body of sunlit blue water strewn with a few pine-covered islands. White peaks of the graceful Mission Mountains rose to its east. 

“Flathead Lake,” Jim announced. “As big as a sea.”

“It shines as bright as one,” Nora said, standing to stretch and appreciate the glorious revelation. “Jim, you’ve guided us to a place stolen from paradise.”

We must take care,” Jim cautioned, “There may be spirits in such water.”

Nora laughed, then remembered his mother had drowned. Still, the land before them held such fruitful promise. In all America nothing could be more beautiful.

The horses descended to the lake and plodded past Lambert’s Landing where they would proceed by ferry the next day. Its few rough-hewn log buildings, a large one in the center, comprised the only settlement to be seen. They continued five more miles to the ranch where the man who played his fiddle at the Bond home lived with his Nez Perce wife and their daughter. He’d invited Jim and Nora to stay at his ranch when they came through,

“We’ll be comfortable here,” Jim said.

Wiry Dave Polson and his family welcomed them. Hosts and guests ate venison stew at a table outside as the mountaintops glowed pink with what Dave called alpenglow. They visited and watched the lake’s blue water tint to cherry, lavender, then indigo. Wrapped in her shawl, Nora sighed in surprising contentment. She helped with the dishes, then returned to stay outside with Jim for awhile after the Polsons excused themselves to tuck their shy daughter in. It felt comfortable for Nora and Jim to be alone now with no real need to sort out or analyze who and what they were, the pair of them.      RiverWithNoBridgeFront(2) 

Nora reminded herself there were worse traits than mystery.

Ebook now available Amazon.com