Tin Man: A Book Review

What’s better as a ‘start of the summer book’ than one covered in glimmering sunflowers? I’m a big fan of Impressionist art and Van Gogh is definitely a favorite, so I must confess this may be my favorite book cover of the year, so far. I was fortunate to see some of his work a few years ago as a collection was on tour and it is even more mesmerizing in person. Long heralded for his use of color, you see it vividly come to life in bold brush strokes that shouldn’t mean anything, but together they mean everything.

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The brush strokes are layered, swoop after swoop of color. Sometimes colors you wouldn’t have chosen, but their existence on the canvas is what makes the portrait truly stunning. The novel Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, is “Sunflowers” come to life. This novel is so quietly stunning and perfectly petite, I will be rereading it for years. The humanity Winman was able to capture with such a surprising feeling of simplicity is marvelous.

Like the book jacket says, “This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.” This is a tale of two twelve-year-old boys who bond through life’s challenges and life’s beauties. Ellis and Michael are fast friends who run amok through Oxford, swimming, cycling, sharing a love of poetry until something shifts and they are more. Fast forward into adulthood and Ellis is married to Annie, a girl who became their third Musketeer, but Michael is gone. What has happened in the years between and after? The answer is where the painting analogy really gets cooking. Winman effortlessly weaves the lives of the boys together by telling their story in stunning vignettes and memories. And as it unfolds you find yourself heartbroken and tenderly hopeful all at once. Like a painting, it is beautiful at first glance, but you know each time you return for another look there will be a deeper richness waiting to be discovered.

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The complex relationships aren’t dramatic or overdrawn, they are so damn true and I have rarely met characters so realistically drawn. I want to hug them, all of them, and thank them for their lives lived within the walls of this beautiful little book, and for allowing me to read them.

If you want to know what it would feel like to read art, this is the book.

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Favorite Books: On Writing

If you know me, then, chances are, you’ve heard me make a Stephen King reference. I honestly love the man. While known for being horror royalty, there’s a depth and creativity in his writing that often gets overlooked. All of his stories have elements that are scary, but most of his work is not at all what I would classify as horror. Definitely weird, sometimes quite macabre, he’s the master of asking himself the question, “What if…?” and then taking his readers on the ride to find out.

Eight years ago, fresh off my first King novel, The Gunslinger, I found myself completely obsessed with finding out how in the world he came up with his ideas. Luckily, he wrote a book that answered my question and so many others I hadn’t yet realized I had about writing and the development of stories.

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This sounds dramatic, but reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was life-changing for me. This was before I had started writing again, before I took my first writing course, before I had written more than a few pages here and there of anything of substance at all. I was still firmly in a place where writing, though I loved it and ached for it, was so daunting that I didn’t even try. But every time I turned the page I felt a little more capable, the fire of passion burned a little brighter, the whole idea of writing for a living started to seem obtainable. It was exhilarating.

On Writing is the one and only book that I have ever read, and, upon completion, literally turned right back to the first page and started over immediately. It’s that good.

I’m sure some of you are like, “Really, Kelsey? A book about writing?”. YES! A book about writing. And let me tell you why. He tells his story from about three years old and onward and how life formed him into a writer. He explains how ideas and inspiration have happened for him, how two seemingly unrelated things can be pure story magic if you can see how they fit together. Only in the last third of the book does he cover any technical rules or tips for the mechanics of writing. The perfect amount to be helpful without feeling like reading a textbook. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves writing or appreciates the craft, anyone who loves reading, or anyone who is curious about the kooky guy who writes a shit ton of books that all seem to get made into movies.

Speaking of, if you’ve only ever seen the movie versions of his stuff, do yourself a favor and amend that. There couldn’t be a better example of books being better than the movies than almost the entire catalog of Stephen King films.

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I’m re-reading On Writing for the fifth time right now, and I’ve found that it’s become meaningful to me in a different way. When I first read it, my life was pretty chaotic. My marriage wasn’t doing very well, I was a new mom trying to figure out how that worked, I was preparing to move across the world from everyone I knew, and…, and…, and…etc. I was entirely overwhelmed by all of it. I felt like I was watching tiny, little bits of myself chip and fall off everywhere I went and the rest of me was starting to crack under the pressure. Something about reading this book when I did helped to ground me. Change was a hurricane, and I was still along for the ride, but rediscovering my love for writing kept me tethered to something real and something completely my own. When I was reminded that I had the capability to do something special with my talents, even if it seemed like a dream far off into the distance, I felt powerful again. Well, maybe not quite yet, but I remembered I could be powerful. And when you’re in the middle of an upheaval of that magnitude, just knowing something like strength exists within you is enough to get you through.

Because of this book, and the dozens of others I’ve read since, Stephen King will always be my writing spirit guide. When I find myself feeling wobbly or in serious doubt about my work, I look to him…and to the tattered pages of this book.