The Witch Elm: Review

I have a few favorite mystery writers, and Tana French is one of them. Her first book, Into the Woods, is the beginning of a series with different Dublin Murder Squad homicide detectives as the main characters. The series allows for repeat appearances of detectives as minor characters in subsequent books—a clever device for fleshing out backstories and building strong characters. After five novels in the series, French has written two stand-alone mysteries that still take place in the Dublin area, still involve homicide investigations, but don’t have the Dublin Murder Squad members as characters.

I just finished the first of these stand-alone novels, The Witch Elm, and it’s still haunting my thoughts. Recently, on a walk with my husband around a nearby lake, I recounted the whole plot so that I could “think out loud” about my reaction to the novel. I hadn’t decided whether I like the main character and narrator, Toby, which is unusual in my reading experience.    

My ambiguous reception of Toby fits well with the plan of the novel, however. Early in the book, Toby is violently attacked at home by burglars and left for dead. When he awakens in the hospital, he realizes that he’s got large gaps in his memory. He recognizes all the people in his life, but he can’t remember chunks of events. He knows his best buddies, but he can’t remember the details of his recent evening at the pub with them. He knows his parents and cousins, and he can remember many details about his relationships with them, but he can’t remember some details about past times he spent with them. These memory gaps lead him to wonder what he did and how he felt during key events in their shared past, specifically when he and his cousins were teenagers together and spent summers with their bachelor uncle Hugo at the family home.

In the same way that Toby isn’t sure whether he was supportive and kind when his cousins were facing bullying and intimidation, or whether he was a jerk and joined in on the bad behavior of some of his friends, the reader is left to wonder whether Toby is truly a good guy or only wishing that he were. His memories of their teen years, or the lack thereof, become crucial when a body is found in an ancient witch elm tree located in the family home’s large back garden.

Throughout the novel, I found myself wondering if a character was a victim or a perpetrator, whether I was considering Toby’s friends, his uncle Hugo, or his cousins, Susanna and Leon. I realized I cared about the characters but was concerned about their culpability. French weaves a story that never delivers a definitive answer about the people who populate the story, although the murder mystery itself is clearly revealed. I’m still not sure whether I like Toby’s character, but then, by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure Toby liked himself. One reason I enjoy French’s mysteries so much is the author’s ability to deal with the truth and logic of a murder investigation, following the evidence to its inevitable end, while also unpacking the complexity of Truth about human nature and the ways we see ourselves and others. These enduring questions that linger long after I’ve read the last page are what keep me eager to read any book written by Tana French.

The Vanishing Half: Book Review

The Vanishing Half, by  Brit Bennett, deserves the attention it’s received as a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award. The novel begins by introducing Desiree Vignes a girl who had left home with her twin sister fourteen years ago in 1954. She is now back, with her daughter in tow. They arrive in Mallard, a town where “Alphonse Decuir in 1848 . . . stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negros. A third place.”

The story itself becomes “a third place” where characters who are outsiders to the white, straight, attractive majority around them look for acceptance. Some characters like Jude, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, find that acceptance, even if temporarily, through connections with others who willingly embrace them for who they are. However, other characters, such as Stella, Desiree’s twin who passes as White, are accepted only if they maintain the façade of what they want others to perceive them to be. Bennett accomplishes a difficult task by fleshing out other options about her characters’ identities and whether they will be accepted in the community.  What begins as an exploration of race,  finishes as a larger consideration of identity and what role personal choice has in the creation of who we are.

Through the narrative voices of Desiree and other characters connected to her, the novel explores the complexities of identity—How does a person “become”? Is it through our genetics that race and gender arise? If “nature” is overpowered by “nurture,” are we largely products of our environment? What role does an individual play in deciding their own identity, one that may be contrary to their upbringing? These are heady questions, yet the author controls the narrative so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the existential questions that arise.

Possession Is Nine Tenths of the Grammar Rule

correcting-1870721_1920 (1)When I proofread material, I notice a common problem among writers–using an apostrophe incorrectly to show possession, or not using it at all. I can figure out what’s going on in their heads by what I see on the page. “Hmm, here’s a word that ends in ‘s.’ I remember something about using an apostrophe with an ‘s,’ so I’ll put an apostrophe here.” And so another writer is satisfied with “kinda-sorta” punctuation.

But not YOU! You want to “own” your own writing, including all the little things like apostrophes. You can “possess” all the skills you need to be considered good at your craft without memorizing a slew of grammar rules to reach that goal. I have a shortcut that can help you use apostrophes correctly, and it consists of only two items.

  • Apostrophes are used with nouns to show possession, not to indicate plurals, so never use an apostrophe to indicate multiple items.
  • Possessive pronouns can only show possession, so no apostrophe is ever used with possessive pronouns.

Let me take some time to unpack each of these items.

Knowing where to place an apostrophe gives some people trouble—is it before the “s” or after the “s”? As long as you correctly spell the noun you want to make possessive, all you have to check for is whether that noun ends in “s.” If it ends in “s,” add an apostrophe at the end. If it doesn’t end in “s,” add the apostrophe and then add an “s.”

Here are some examples:

Dog becomes dog’s (the writer is talking about one dog, and the word doesn’t end in “s,” so add the apostrophe and an “s”).


Dogs becomes dogs’ (the writer is talking about more than one dog, and the word ends in “s,” so add only the apostrophe).

Children becomes children’s (the writer is talking about more than one child, and the word doesn’t end in “s,” so add the apostrophe and an “s”).

When we want to use a possessive pronoun, the only “rule” we need to know is that possessive pronouns can only indicate possession, so an apostrophe would be redundant. Of course, the writer needs to know which words are possessive pronouns. Here are the most common possessive pronouns: My, mine, your, yours, our, ours, his, hers, its, their, theirs.

Now you possess another sure-fire way to produce clean, clear writing, without peppering your material with superfluous apostrophes. I can’t guarantee that proper punctuation will eliminate all your problems, but possession is nine-tenths of the law when it comes to apostrophes.

If you’d like to discuss this topic, contact me at


Connecting the Dots

woman-1594711_1920 (2)I’ve noticed that women and men often have different ways of thinking and communicating. Sometimes my husband, who has years of practice listening to me and exploring how I think, doesn’t understand how I got from Point A to Point B in what I’m saying, whereas a female friend who has known me for only a fraction of that time sees the connections between my ideas immediately without my explaining them. By the way, my husband says he doesn’t have any problem understanding other men!

woman-1594711_1920 (4)Those shared connections between ideas may be hardwired in female and male brains or they may be learned through cultural interactions, but they definitely make communication easier.

When we write, we should assume that our readers don’t automatically understand how we think. Therefore, we must “translate” our thoughts and ideas into words they will understand, so they can conceptualize what it is we’re thinking.  We usually are clear in our own minds about how and why our ideas move from one thought to another, and that movement from point to point is logical to us, at least on a subconscious level. However, we can help our readers when we connect our ideas purposefully through transitions. These transitions often appear between paragraphs, but they can also be placed between sentences. In the previous sentence I used a simple connector by repeating a key word from the sentence before it: “these transitions.” The repeated key word keeps the readers on track and gives them a clue about the emphasis of the current sentence.

Besides repeating a key word or phrase, there are a slew of other transition options. You can choose words that communicate addition, comparison, contrast, time, purpose, place, result, summary, example, emphasis, etc. The idea behind transitions is to provide links between your ideas for the readers who can’t automatically know what you’re thinking.

Here’s a sampling of transitional words and phrases you could use to clarify the connections in your writing.

Transition Words

When I’m working with writers as their editor, I’ll often ask them, “Why does a particular idea/paragraph follow the one before it?” Once they’ve explained their thinking, I can help them find the transitional word, phrase, or sentence to make that movement from one idea to the next apparent to the reader. If an author’s reasons for ordering ideas are spelled out in the piece of writing, the reader can concentrate on the content of those ideas without having to play “translator” as well.


People Who Live in Glass Houses

glass-house-76934_1920Welcome back for the last of four sessions about the importance of commas in “Punctuation Saves Lives: Part 4”—this time we’re looking at using commas around extra information in a sentence. Here’s the conundrum I presented at the end of my last blog:

Which sentence is correct: the one without commas or the one with commas?

People who live in glass houses should get dressed in the basement.

People, who live in glass houses, should get dressed in the basement.

If you chose the first one, you’re right. If commas are placed around the information “who live in glass houses,” the sentence would be making a sweeping generality that seems ridiculous. The whole sense of the sentence changes based on whether it contains the commas. In our examples, if we include the commas, we’re saying that all people should get dressed in the basement, a statement that clearly doesn’t seem logical. That isn’t the same message that we get if we remove the commas. The information is essential to the meaning of the sentence because it limits or narrows the noun it’s talking about. Without the commas, the phrase “who live in glass houses” narrows the group of people who should get dressed in the basement: only those who live in glass houses.

When trying to determine if the information is extra or essential, it’s necessary to ask yourself, “Do I want to limit or narrow the person, place, or thing being described?” If you are, then DO NOT use commas. Commas in this setting indicate an extra or non-essential description.

Not every case of whether to use commas is as obvious as the previous one. Here’s a set of examples where the information may or may not need to be set off by commas, depending on what a writer is trying to communicate:

My brother who lives in California has never been to New York.

My brother, who lives in California, has never been to New York.

The first version communicates that the speaker/writer has more than one brother, and that a specific one (the one who lives in California) has never been to New York. The second version of the sentence implies that either the writer/speaker has only one brother, so there is no need to narrow the options or that the writer isn’t concerned about differentiating that brother from his or her other brothers. The information within the commas acts as extra material that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. The difference is subtle in this set of examples, and the reader wouldn’t be able to judge one version as being more correct than the other without knowing the writer’s intent. So even when the commas are neither obviously correct nor incorrect, there is a subtle shift in what’s being communicated.

The more often you know why you’re using a comma or any other punctuation mark, the more often you’re in control of your writing and your message. My hope is that you’ll be able to keep these reminders about comma usage in mind when you’re revising your own work, building your confidence as you continue to grow as a writer and communicator!


Hesitating in Front of the Door

Welcome back for the third installment of “Punctuation Saves Lives”! Last time, I introduced the use of a comma and a “FANBOY” between two complete sentences. This time, I’ll be discussing the use of a comma after an introductory phrase or dependent clause. Dependent clauses look very much like a complete sentence, but they have a signal word or words in front of them that change their function.

Example of a stand-alone complete sentence: The young man hesitated in front of the door.


Example of a dependent clause that cannot work as a complete sentence: Although the young man hesitated in front of the door, . . . .

In the second example, we’re left waiting for the rest of the sentence. The only difference is the “although” in front of the complete sentence. Suddenly, that sentence can no longer stand alone; it becomes a dependent clause. A dependent clause needs to be hooked up with a complete sentence to function properly. However, it doesn’t have to come at the front of a sentence—it can also be placed at the end of a sentence. When a dependent clause precedes a complete sentence, a comma is used to separate the two. Let me rearrange that sentence. A comma is used to separate the two clauses when a dependent clause precedes an independent clause. Did you catch what I did there? I used a dependent clause followed by a comma and a complete sentence. Then I started with the complete sentence and added the dependent clause at the end, without a comma separating them.

Let’s look at the two examples above about the young man at the door. When you read the first example (the stand-alone sentence) the pitch of your voice should go down. Dropping our pitch at the end of a sentence is one way we indicate to our listener that the sentence is finished. If you read the second example (the dependent clause) out loud, the pitch of your voice should stay even at the end of the clause. So, if you’re having problems identifying whether a clause is dependent or not, try reading it aloud and listen for the pitch of your voice at the end of the clause. If it stays even throughout, it’s probably a dependent clause and needs to be followed by a comma and a complete sentence. If your pitch goes down, it’s probably already a complete sentence and can stand alone.

An introductory phrase works the same way as an introductory dependent clause. They both precede the main part of the sentence, and they both enhance the meaning of the complete sentence that follows, so the introductory phrase should be followed by a comma before adding the rest of the sentence. The difference between the two is that an introductory phrase doesn’t have a subject and a verb that can be seen in a dependent clause.

Examples of introductory phrases:

Entering the turn lane, I waited for the light to turn green before I proceeded.

In the early morning, the dew sits lightly on the grass.

We’ve got just one more installment of “Punctuation Save Lives,” about using commas around extra/nonrestrictive material. Here are two sentences we’ll be discussing next time. Which of these sentences is correct?

People who live in glass houses should get dressed in the basement.


People, who live in glass houses, should get dressed in the basement.

Join me next time to find out if you chose the correct answer!


Here we go with Part 2 of the series “Punctuation Saves Lives.” In this article, we’re exploring the second of four common uses of the comma–between two complete sentences (independent clauses) with a coordinating conjunction. I know, you understand what a complete sentence is, but you may not be so sure of how to explain an independent clause, and you’re definitely fuzzy about what a coordinating conjunction is.

A coordinating conjunction joins (the “conjunction” part of the term) two independent clauses that are of equal value in importance (the “coordinating” part of the term) into one sentence. The list of coordinating conjunctions is relatively short—there are only seven (7)—, and this simple acronym will help you remember them:

FANBOYS—[F]or, [A]nd, [N]or,[B]ut, [O]r, [Y]et, [S]o.

Picture a young teenage male who is obsessed with the latest pop singer!


Keep in mind, when we combine two independent clauses into one sentence with a coordinating conjunction, the coordinating conjunction MUST be preceded by a comma.

Example: I like to eat at a restaurant whenever possible, but I can’t afford it very often.

Example: The life of a teacher is full of satisfaction, yet it can be an exhausting life.

Notice that the two previous examples use coordinating conjunctions that express contrast between the two parts of the new sentence. Other coordinating conjunctions indicate addition (and), limitation (or), negation (nor), and consequence (for/so).

Example: I always use a bookmark to find my place in a book, and I never turn down the corner of the page.

Example: Pick up your toys immediately, or you won’t be going outside to play.

Example: Gerald usually doesn’t eat garden peas with his fish, nor does he eat mushy peas.

Example: I’m going to march with the protesters, for I believe in their cause.

Example: The trip to the lake is a 12-hour drive, so we’ll need to allow two days for the trip.

What’s important is that you recognize how words are working in a sentence, even when you can’t identify their jobs with appropriate labels. And it’s just as important to recognize the way punctuation helps your writing sparkle with clarity.

I hope you’ll join me next time for another common use of a comma—after an introductory phrase or dependent clause. Punctuation might not seem very important to you right now, but getting it right can make a powerful difference in your writing.

Punctuation Saves Lives!

Most of us have seen it on a bumper sticker, meme, or tee shirt:

“Let’s eat Grandma.”

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”

“Punctuation saves lives.”

We may need a moment to figure out the humor in the last line, but it usually gets a chuckle. There’s a huge difference in what’s being communicated (family cannibalism versus a polite invitation to share a meal) all because of a simple comma. According to a 2019 study in the journal English Today, the comma is the most often used punctuation mark in nonfiction, and comes in a close second to the period in fiction writing, so understanding how to use it meaningfully is a worthwhile goal for any writer.

Although there are many guidelines about how to use a comma, the most common reasons fall into four categories. I’ll cover one of those reasons below, explain it, and give some examples. You’ll need to come back later to read about the other three reasons to use commas. In no time, you’ll be more confident about when to use commas to strengthen your own writing.

In a List—this is the easiest guideline, and it’s one most of us understand, at least in a basic way. When you have more than two items in a series, you need to separate them with commas, adding an “and” before the last item. The problem comes when we try to figure out whether to use a comma before the “and.” This last comma is the crux of the whole “Oxford comma” debacle. Many decades ago, Oxford University Press insisted that the comma before the last “and” was the only proper way to write. However, as in all aspects of the English language, usage changes over time. More recently many writers feel that the last comma is unnecessary and a waste of their time.

Example of an Oxford comma: “Every morning for breakfast I eat scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon.”

Example without the Oxford comma”: “Every morning for breakfast I eat scrambled eggs, toast and bacon.”

Both examples are easy to understand, and they communicate the same information. However, there are times that the Oxford comma is needed to clarify the writer’s meaning.

Example without the Oxford comma causes confusion: “I would like to thank my parents, Margo and Tristan.”

Example with the Oxford comma: “I would like to thank my parents, Margo, and Tristan.”

In the first of these last two examples, the writer may be telling us that the parents’ names are Margo and Tristan, or the writer may be thanking at least four separate people—parents (which could be two or more people), someone named Margo, and someone named Tristan. In the second example we can be assured that the writer is thanking more people than just his or her parents. You may be thinking that such a small difference in meaning is really just splitting hairs, but perhaps a more humorous example can reinforce my message.

Example without the Oxford comma: The guest speaker addressed the gang members, the mayor and the police chief. Without the second comma before the “and,” we may think that the mayor and police chief have a criminal record!

I admit I’m an Oxfordian, preferring to use the comma before the “and” to avoid any possible confusion, but I’m magnanimous in conceding that a writer may decide to withhold that final comma before the “and” and still be a competent, accomplished communicator. The best advice is to follow what your publisher’s style guide dictates. If a specific style guide is to be applied, you don’t have to even consider which you prefer. If you’re self-publishing, the choice is yours, but apply your choice consistently! No sloppy punctuation, please!keyboard-311803_1280