Up From The Blue by Susan Henderson – review

(try two – my original of this vanished – thank goodness for amazon)

Up From The Blue begins in the hazy summer heat of 1975 (the year I was born, so
a lot of this world will be pretty familiar to people my age). Tillie, our main
character, is at that age caught between infancy and teenage-dom. Adults don’t
ever believe children that age can do anything alone or competently, yet expect
them to behave like mini adults. It’s a pressure cooker of expectation and chaos
for an eight year-old like Tillie.

Tillie has an older brother, who is
trying to force himself into the model son role; at the outset, the reason for
this isn’t quite clear. Once we are introduced to their parents, we find that
his behavior, as well as Tillie’s, is shaped by the dynamic at home. Her father
is a strictly upright Air Force colonel. Her mother is any stay-at-home mother,
searching for herself, trying to fit in, wanting the best for her children.
She’s intelligent, artistic, and loving. But she’s not successful at any of it;
she’s losing herself. Like an oil painting that had turpentine spilled on it,
Tillie’s mother is losing cohesion, and nobody knows how to repair
her.

The story is easy to slip into; Susan Henderson has a way of writing
her reader into something of a trance. It’s a feeling as though you’ve stepped
into the house that had been your grandparents’ during your childhood –
everything is familiar, but changed. You might catch a scent, or see the old
wallpaper, and a million memories flood through.

It was hard at some
moments to look back and see the parallels, especially the one that was law in
our own house: “We don’t talk about things with anyone outside the family.” For
Tillie, this means that she eventually designs her own rules. She will keep her
own secrets. This is the true danger in the dichotomy of childhood – if we give
children too many burdens, complexities, or paradoxes, ultimately, they shape
their world to protect themselves and the ones they love.

Tillie’s mother
is the one she loves enough to protect, to reshape her life around, to break
every rule that might or might not exist…at some point, Tillie doesn’t care to
look back and check anymore. Everything is right if it’s done out of
love.

Adults realize that love often isn’t quite enough to get by
on.

Children don’t have all those bumps and bruises yet.

There’s a
wonderful languid awareness in the storytelling here – small particulars that
seem so familiar – you may find yourself saying, “I remember that!” several
dozen times – and the family dysfunction will certainly seem like something we
can all recognize. As with many books, I did long for just a *little* bit more,
just another few pages at the end, but in all, a satisfying book to read and
think on. If this book is seemingly a little too uncomfortably familiar, for
instance, you definitely must finish it, as I did. Because, in a way, I think
Tillie is waiting for people like us to forgive or be forgiven…only then can
she do the same.

Get it here – and trust me.

******************

A confession background:

I mentioned earlier in another post that I’ve gotten to know Susan through several years of social media and playing at her litpark.com forum. She’s extremely generous with her time and encouragement, but that’s not why I’m giving this a review, much less a good one. It’s because I actually did like it.

I’d intended to read this book in October of 2011, as a “recovery” from a marathon I ran – it was all planned out, everything was set – and then the marathon took a bigger toll on me than expected, followed closely by an early snowstorm that knocked out power for a week. It’s funny how little things can knock you off-course…in a way, I think that’s what this book ultimately is. Life is little things, all bunched up or stretched out, but those are the things that will build you into the person you are for the rest of your life.

My grandmother, for instance, was raised by extended family – and it only took one unkind statement from an adult aunt to convince her for the rest of her life that she was “homely”. As in, “It’s a shame Helen, that you’re so homely.” Small things are the mortar – or the hammer.

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year of the dragon

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And here we are, nearly at the end. Some people think the world will end soon, too. I hope not, because I don’t feel like spending the rest of eternity as a free-floating mass whose only thought is, “Why didn’t I finish my last book this way instead of that?” Or something like that. Actually, I’m sure I’d have bigger regrets to dwell on while my molecules slowly de-coalesce. What would your regrets be? Or, better question, what would the end of the world look like, in your opinion? 2012 (the movie), or just a sudden flash of light and fizzing like opening a champagne bottle with a sword…it could come in any form (if I believed in such things).

As of right now…I have written one book pretty much completely from the beginning (I had about 30 pages just sitting around in a word file for a couple years), edited it, allowed my close friends to read it and give me feedback…which wasn’t so much feedback as admiration. I’m reasonably certain that it was all sincere – okay, I know it was – but I’m still waiting for the boom to come falling off the mast of this otherwise seaworthy vessel. I have three “Loved It!” reviews sitting on amazon. So yes, like I said, I’m waiting for the “Meh,” reviews, or even the, “I find this book pedantic,” or “What the hell was she thinking?” or even, “I’m astonished by your crap,” reviews…yes, that’s me. I’m an expert at expecting to be disappointed.

From this comfortable bubble, I have plowed on, however. I got absolutely nothing done during summer break. Those are the days when my husband leaves for work saying, “Go with god.” As our boys are wide awake at 6am every day, and typically are full of far too much energy and mischief…I’m sure their father is laughing his way to work every day. Ok, he doesn’t do that, but maybe he does once in a while. Just as he imagines I sit around eating bonbons and doing things that he’d like to, ahem, see me doing.

As many of us who are willing to be honest will tell you, Mother’s Day is not in May, it’s whatever the first day of school is. That’s when I get back my workout schedule, and the ability to write. I’ll also be perfectly honest here – I don’t labor intensively to keep my kids healthy because I’m such a good mom, it’s because I don’t want them home more than necessary! Knock wood, we do manage to stay pretty healthy around here…. And because of all that hard work, I am in the home stretch of a massive rewrite.

This was a book that I literally dreamt up back in, oh, 1996. It took me until 2002 to finish writing something resembling a first draft (in reality, more like an 18th iteration…I kept going back before I was even done, to add and dither, and generally create more work for myself). Then, I entered it into this “contest”, it won the popular vote, and the real judges told me that it needed a “lot of work”. Well, no shit. As an amateur, I had no notion of how to fix the stupid thing, or so I thought. Instead, I tossed it aside and didn’t look at it for the next 5 years. Maybe more, I forget. In the meantime, I read, and read, and began to really pay attention to how other writers write. Just as you can watch a movie and see why it was: a blockbuster, a flop, a critical success, or a cult-fave in the making…you can easily detect these things in a book. Except for the whole 50 Shades thing…that defies logic.

I read good stuff, and I read some yawn stuff, and I thought back to stuff I’ve read before. For instance (my apologies to my younger son and to Mr. Lucas), if you want to have a lesson in how NOT to write dialogue, one need look no further than both the Star Wars screenplays and in Lucas’ collaborative series that was a sequel to Willow. I’ll apologize to the talented Chris Claremont as well, because I suspect he could do little to tell his co-writer that what they were writing was practically impossible to read. I mean, we *know* he can write….

Even the best writers stumble, obviously, and it can be pretty instructive to read those instances as well. I will admit that I prefer (as any sane person would) to read the really good stuff. I read the Hunger Games trilogy, Oscar Wilde, PG Wodehouse, all of Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, Anansi Boys, Good Omens, Kate Atkinson…and many others, but that list covers the summer, if I remember correctly. Once I start writing again, I don’t tend to read.

So, when I started in on editing, I think I had a pretty good idea of what Really Good could look like. I’m not saying that I will come up with it on my own, but I can try. I am hoping to have Sleep up and live on amazon no later than year’s end. My friend, and all-around awesome lady Gail is designing the cover, as she did for my previous book. All I have to do is think of a good ending for the beginning of a series (which this is, just as the other book is – but that’s a separate series, just so you know!).

My goal for the blog right now is to post bi-monthly. We’re mid-month December. The next one will be right when I’m aiming to publish. I’ll work on the format for the blog at that time, but I welcome all….

And if you’re looking for a really great book for the winter break, I recommend Susan Henderson’s Up From The Blue. It’s her debut novel, and I do “know” her from interacting in her writing community over at LitPark for quite a few years now, but the book took me on an unexpected journey. I don’t always like contemporary lit, but this was like stepping through a time machine into my own past. It’s straightforward, elegant, unpretentious, and really a work that I can only aspire to. Her ability to evoke memory through small detail is…I can only compare it to Ellis Peters or

Tolkien (but a lot easier to read!). I hope you’ll take a moment and find a copy at your local store, or at the library!