‘Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder’

“Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.” 
― Raymond Chandler

I just finished a novel (see picture) that was 99% technique and 1% nonsense. The author used a technique that’s so ubiquitous these days, it’s got to be more than a fad. It’s an epidemic.

It works like this. You’re reading a high-stakes chapter, probably a thriller, and at the end of the chapter something untoward happens such as, “Bob kicked open the door and noticed 25 men pointing their guns at him.”

You turn the page wondering, more than idly, how the hero’s going to get out of this mess. Do you find out? No. What you see is the beginning of a new section of the book called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and most of that section seems completely irrelevant or, in writer talk: a very intrusive backstory.

There’s no passion in this, and I’m not talking about the kind of passion Raymond Chandler was referring to when he wrote, “It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.” The story would have been more interesting if it had been a house of cards rather than a house of gimmicks.

The story lacked passion because when it came down to it the story and the characters didn’t really matter. Instead, they were cheap tricks strung together like the kind of necklace you can buy at a pawn shop for a couple of bucks. Unfortunately, the book cost more than that and didn’t have the gumption to acknowledge that, when compared to cheap hookers, it was more false.

The novel, written by an author whom the blurbs said was the next Stephen King or the next Michael Crichton, had an inventive beginning in which a passenger jet arrives at a small airport where the flight pilot and copilot discover that everyone on the ground is apparently dead. Unfortunately, the main characters immediately out themselves as dysfunctional. Suddenly, the novel reminds me of Chandler’s line, “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

At a distance, the story has possibilities worthy of King and Chrichton. Up close, it’s dysfunctional characters and a lot of technique. The author has chosen a distasteful stew of technique, characters who are too broken to even speak to each other, and techno-speak with which to engineer this costume jewelry of a story.

Here’s a spoiler: Google, we learn, might be developing products that aren’t good for us even though they have plenty of technique in them and look like they are good for us. Well, that’s hardly a new idea. Nonetheless, it’s the driving force behind why the ground crew at the airport seem to be dead.

In the final analysis, there’s nothing to see here or, as Chandler says, “The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”

It takes guts, I think, to tell a story straight rather than relying on stale smoke and cloudy mirrors. Dead on Arrival is dead on arrival.

Malcolm

 

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Review: ‘Border Pieces’ by Pam Robertson

Border Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld NovellaBorder Pieces: A Morgan Winfeld Novella by Pam Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This exceptionally well-written book is several books in one. It’s a covert ops book and it’s a heroine’s journey book. Some readers will be disappointed when the covert ops plot and page-turning action in the first section of the book don’t continue into the next section. However, readers who appreciate characters with depth and multiple dimensions will keep reading even though (initially) the sudden change of pace is somewhat disconcerting.

I won’t include spoilers here. Suffice it to say, being a spy exposes one to injuries and other losses. Morgan and her partner Jake need time to heal and find themselves. Morgan learns that it’s one thing to heal from physical injuries and a very different matter to get her mind right and connect to skills she does not, as yet, understand or fully use in support of the missions. Understanding this is her journey, a journey made more difficult by the loss of a colleague during an otherwise successful mission.

Here readers will see a very talented, almost natural covert operative who lives and breathes the work she does, yet considers leaving the service because tragedies and other losses cannot be undone. It would be easy for her to retire and write a book about her exploits. Morgan’s grappling with her underdeveloped intuition and how to apply it in a business that’s more and more technology-based is an important part of the book’s theme. If she can figure all that out, she’ll probably become even more successful as a covert operative.

If I were an editor, I would ask for somewhat smoother transitions between the sections, especially one that shifts from an in-progress, real-time operation to a time many months later then we learn how that mission ended. I think it would have been stronger if it had been shown in real-time. However, that is my somewhat subjective feeling.

I liked the major focus of the plot on Morgan Windfeld’s personal and professional development, including her doubts and fears. This is a strong novel that appears to be the first in a series we can all look forward to following.

–Malcolm

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Review: ‘Plain Truth’ by Jodi Picoult

Plain TruthPlain Truth by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I enjoyed the book’s themes, especially the placement of a big city lawyer into an Amish household to supervise the bail agreement of a teenage girl charged with murdering her own baby, the ending did not wash with me.

SPOILERS AHEAD

The book begins with Katie, who has hidden her pregnancy from her family and everyone else, giving birth in the middle of the night in the dairy barn on the farm where she lives. After giving birth, she falls asleep. When she wakes up, the baby is gone. She says “thank you,” as though God turned the events in the barn into a dream by whisking the baby away.

When the baby is found hidden beneath some hay, the paramedics are called, and soon after them the police. Katie denies that she was pregnant, but is tripped up by the fact that she is hemorrhaging badly and is rushed to the hospital where it’s discovered that her condition is one that can occur after giving birth.

She is a likely suspect because she hid the pregnancy, either because she never believed it to be real and/or because having a baby out of wedlock is a much more serious religious issue within the Amish community than elsewhere.

Ellie, the attorney manages to arrange bail, but the stipulation is that Katie must be supervised. So Ellie moves into the family farm where she learns what an Amish household is all about. The family is wary, of course, but friendships develop, especially when Ellie pitches in with cooking, cleaning, gardening, and other chores.

It was noted in the comments after the book’s conclusion that no Amish person is likely to read the book, much less use the Internet to post a review. However, the family’s farm life appears to be to have been realistically covered by the author. So, too, the conversations with Katie as both the lawyer and a psychiatrist talk to her in the weeks prior to the trial about the pregnancy and the fact that she has no memory of what happened in the barn.

As sketchy memories begin to appear, her attorney wants to use an insanity defense and argue that Katie was in a dissociative state, the supposition being that she had completely blocked out any memory of what happened after the baby was born. Katie refuses. Needless to say, this presents substantial problems for defending her at the trial.

The outcome of the trial seems a bit unrealistic but within the reality of the book, it’s believable enough to be satisfying to readers. What does not wash with me is that after the trial is over, in fact, while Ellie is packing her suitcase to leave Katie’s home, Katies’s mother comes into the room and shows Ellie the shears used to cut the baby’s cord. The ending is foreshadowed by the slick use of the word “she” at the beginning of the novel rather than a character’s name as the baby’s cord is cut and then tied off with twine in the barn. We learn that Katie’s mother Sarah cut the cord and hid the baby and the shears.

She has reasons for doing it, tied in part of undergoing miscarriages herself and losing another daughter in an ice skating accident. What seems out of character is that any mother, especially an Amish mother, would remain silent and allow her daughter to go through the stress and agony of a murder charge and the emotional trial. Of course, had Sarah confessed at the outset, we would either have no story to tell–or, perhaps a very different story with less drama to it.

I have given the book three stars even though I feel the ending is a disaster for the plot’s resolution and for readers because up until Sarah comes into the room and tells Ellie what happened, the story is compelling, the characters are well developed, and the writing is sound.

–Malcolm

The Kindle edition of my novel “Lena” is on sale on Amazon for 99 cents throughout the weekend.

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Review: ‘Hope in the Shadows of War’ by Thomas Paul Reilly

When injured Vietnam War veteran Timothy O’Rourke returns home in 1973, an open wound accompanies him. Today, we might call it PTSD or survivor’s guilt. When his helicopter was shot down and then attacked by the Viet Cong on the ground, he was able to save one of the men with him–but not both. The prospective roles of fate, destiny, fairness, and second-guessing oneself plague him as surely as a virus

Vietnam War veteran Thomas Paul Reilly saw the war for himself and subsequently applied that knowledge and his degrees in psychology as an author (Value-Added Selling) and public speaker focusing on the importance of hope, attitude, and value. He effectively uses this background to create a realistic, yet troubled protagonist in this novel which will be released on Veterans Day.

In the chronicles of war and returning veterans, Timothy’s issues aren’t unique, but in an era where veterans’ issues were not well understood, he believes he is alone in trying to heal his psychological wounds. He’s attending college, works multiple jobs, drives a falling-apart old car, has a steady girlfriend named Cheryl, and remains one step ahead of bankruptcy. Friends and family either can’t or won’t help him when he’s confronted with unexpected expenses such as replacing the ancient furnace in his mother’s house where he is staying. Cheryl has money to lend, but he refuses to accept it.

Co-workers at a Christmas tree lot where he’s working to earn extra money tell him that college and dreams aren’t for “guys like us” and that he needs to quit college and get a real job. In almost every area of his life, he is without hope. Among other things, he’s driving away Cheryl, who unconditionally loves him, by constantly telling her he’s not good enough for her.

Reilly has created a character who epitomizes veterans who have reason to believe fate and their country are conspiring against them. Broke and in ill health (emotional or physical), they end up living on the streets as one of society’s festering wounds that seems impossible to heal. A co-worker, Hoffen, at the Christmas tree lot casually talks to Tim about hope, perseverance, and attitude. The man speaks like a sage down from the mountaintop, but will his advice be enough to convince Tim that the open wound he brought home from Vietnam will never heal until he lets it heal?

If Tim were in therapy, his analyst might ask him if he wants the wound to heal. His memory of the helicopter crash–which is well written and rings true–replays over and over as though he either wanted to be rescued from the wounds it caused or return to the scene and die along with the buddy he couldn’t save. Tim is a character who is easy to admire for his dilligent attempt to save his dream against great odds. He is less easy to like because his overly hopeless attitude, as demonstrated in his thoughts and his conversations with Cheryl and others, comes close to whining, justified though it may be.

The book would be stronger if the plot focussed on the major highs and lows of the story and left out the step-by-step “transcripts” of minor–or recurring–thoughts and actions. The inspiring ending would be stronger if readers felt that, other than his stubbornness, Tim had played a more active role in making it happen.

Reading Hope in the Shadows of War should be a cathartic experience for struggling veterans and those who want to understand veterans’ issues and motivations. This is the story’s strength. So is the message of hope from Hoffen and others. Readers will probably take that message with them after they finish the novel.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Into the Water’ by Paula Hawkins

Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a deep place in the river that runs through Beckford where people swim, fish, dive from the high cliff, and lie on the beach and listen to the ubiquitous voice of the water. For many, this place is simply a good swimming hole. For others, especially the women, it’s the “Drowning Pool.” There should be a warning sign at the water’s edge: “Never send to know for whom the water calls; it calls for thee.”

Paula Hawkins’ words are like those massive spiderwebs we run into when we hurry out the front door or run between dead trees in a graveyard, on a foggy night. The spiderwebs startle us, but after looking around nervously, we pull them off our faces and out of our hair and move on.

When the first Beckford woman to drown in the river was found dead in the town’s swimming hole, the news was shocking. As always, when such things (suicides or possible murders) happen, people asked: “why?” The answers were never quite certain or satisfying, so people pulled the spiderweb of shock and sadness out of their hair and moved on.

Then there were more drownings, that place in the drive acquired a whispered name, and in time it became impossible to move on because the voice of the river became harder to ignore and even those who had reason to know “the why” of each death weren’t sure whether they really knew “the why” or were caught in a web of lies, nightmares, premonitions, or the cries of the women’s’ spirits. The strands of the web now had the strength of heavy ropes, perhaps chains, and nobody could move on.

The reader, like any other newcomer to Beckford, is thrown into this twisted dream, and nothing is quite clear because there are so many points of view (a superb idea on Hawkins’ part) and those points of view align with less clarity than the yarn about the blind men trying to describe an elephant based on their impressions of a single leg, tail, or tusk. It’s hard not to ask, “Is everyone in town guilty or are they all simply crazy?”

Hawkins is content to step back from, say, a Stephen King “in your face approach,” and allow the readers and the saner characters time to push through the web of stories that ties the townspeople together. The ending–which some reviewers think was pasted onto the story for want of anything better–was, in fact, pitch perfect. Given what we knew, or thought we knew, it was the only ending that made sense. In fact, it was an epiphany we should have seen coming–but didn’t.

This is a superb thriller, almost an immersion in a drowning pool of dark waters and hidden currents. When we finish the book, we’ll plan to get the story out of our hair in a few days and move on. That probably won’t happen.

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–Malcolm

Can an author quote from a review?

“I heard a rumor that some authors were wondering about the rules regarding quoting reviews of their books. Whether you’re doing this in a tweet, a post on Facebook or your blog, or using the quote as a blurb in an advertisement or on the back cover of a paper book, the same basic rules apply. The considerations fall into two groups: those that are legal issues and those that are more a matter of etiquette.”

Source: Book Reviews: Can You Quote Me on That? – Indies Unlimited

I liked seeing this article because it helps clarify points about quoting and copying that have gotten rather fuzzy with our online world. Most people, including authors, don’t seem to grasp the fact that there are rules and those rules really don’t allow somebody on Facebook (for example) to copy an entire article or poem and then say “infringement not intended.”

That makes about a much sense as busting into a store and claiming “breaking an entering not intended.”

A good review is a godsend, so as authors we really don’t need to step over the line when deciding how to use them or cite them. This article will help keep us out of trouble.

–Malcolm

Review: ‘Barracoon’ by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a shame that this book had to wait so many years to find a publisher. But we finally have Cudjo Lewis story. In her beautiful foreword, Alice Walker writes that “I’m not sure there was ever a harder story to read than this…” I agree. The story is unique in many ways: Cudjo, whose real name was Kossola, tells a story that includes his life in Africa and his life during the “Middle Passage” voyage to the United States after the slave trade was banned.  Most histories don’t include life in Africa or on the slave ship.

His story is dear because he wanted to tell it and because Hurston was a skilled anthropologist and knew how to collect stories. The story is dear because you can feel its truth in your bones; Hurston did not intrude herself or her perspectives into the narrative. And then, too, Curjo speaks in his own English dialect and that adds great depth and reality to the tale. We hear that Hurston couldn’t publish the book when she wrote it because the publishers wanted her to get rid of the dialect. I didn’t find it to be a problem even though a fair number of Amazon reader reviews say the dialect was hard to read. No, it wasn’t.

Cudjo has some traditional tales of his own to tell. These appear an appendix so that they won’t disrupt his story about being captured by blacks, placed in a barracoon (slave house), sold to whites, and then having to endure many days at sea before ending up at a plantation where he was expected to work. The experience seems incomprehensible to him. So, too, is the fact that once he’s set free, he has no money and no land, so where is he supposed to go?

Deborah G. Plant has done a fine job editing the material and writing an afterword and a glossary that place Cudjo’s story in perspective. Readers have a choice because the editor’s comments were placed in this separate section rather than being distributed throughout the narrative as lengthy and jarring footnotes. As such, you can read the story and then look at the added material–or simply read the story as a lover of Hurston’s works and/or oral history.

Cudjo’s story is filled with great loss, great wisdom, and–strange as it may seem–more humor than anger for a man torn away from the country of his birth and forced to live and work and endure a hard existence in a country where he was never whole again.

Malcolm

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Review: ‘Doña Barbara’ by Rómulo Gallegos

Doña BarbaraDoña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps the greatest testimony to Rómulo Gallegos is the very rich literary prize named after him in honor of his work and influence. The prize has been awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño and other masterful authors whose powerful books are said to be the cornerstones of magical realism and South American literature.

Sadly, we seldom hear Gallegos’ 1929 novel “Doña Barbara” mentioned in the same company as the well-known books that have received the Gallegos prize. In his forward to the 2012 edition, Larry McMurtry writes that the novel “is in its way a paean to the Venezuelan Llano” a vast grassy plain that, in the novel, “is steamy, tumescent, lust driven.”

In “Doña Barbara,” the characters often say that the land does not relent. In fact, its horrible and fated barbarism and its magical and conscious beauty are as intertwined as surely as the destinies of the powerful female rancher Doña Barbara and the college educated and idealistic protagonist Santos Luzardos. When Luzardos returns to the Llano ranch, Altamira, of his distant youth, he finds that it has been depleted and nearly forsaken by incompetent, greedy overseers who couldn’t resist their complicity in Doña’s schemes. Through magic, sex, paid-off judges, and raw power, she has enlarged–at her neighbors’ expense–her adjoining ranch El Miedo (fear) into a sprawling country unto itself that expands outward through manifest destiny.

Readers may well be reminded of Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” as they immerse their souls in “Doña Barbara,” because both novels view the land in epic proportions, beautifully described and inseparable from the lives of its people. The land is essentially the main character or, at the very least, an infinite circle of hell where the well-drawn, multi-dimensional characters are driven to kill or be killed as fate decrees.

Like two gladiators who have been chained together, Doña Barbara and Santos Luzardos cannot both survive in an enchanting, sadistic world where every action appears pre-ordained even when it isn’t. The novel ends the only way it can, but the story’s characters and readers won’t realize this until they reach the last chapter.

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Review: ‘European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman’ by Theodora Goss

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #2)European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” was my favorite novel of 2017. I don’t yet know what this year’s favorite book will be, but I’m happy to see that book two in the Athena Club series, “European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman” is a well-written and wondrous sequel. It does not disappoint.

Like book one, it is highly literate, carefully written, and intensely readable. As with the first book in the series, we find a smorgasbord of of myths and literary characters here, including Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Doctor Moreau.

I know from Goss’ Facebook page and blog that she Hungarian-born author knows her locations well, and enhances her knowledge of them through yearly travels. This adds a great amount of depth to her books and does the fact that she teaches and researches fairy tales at the college level.

The members of the Athena Club leave London in this story and travel far afield to uncover the nasty projects coming from the rogue members of the alchemist society. One might quibble here that alchemists don’t normally engage in the Frankenstein horrors portrayed in the books, but that’s a small matter. The prospective mix-ups and horrors of travel add to the fun.

Since the novel itself is being written by one of the members of the Athena Club, we see frequent conversations outside the narrative by members of the club as they more or less discuss how they are being portrayed. This is a clever device and provides interesting depth to the story. I do think that it’s used overly much and represents a distraction after a while.

Goss definitely knows what she’s doing here and, when all is said and done, that makes for an exciting story with a lot of overlap with other genres that many of her readers know well. Highly recommended!

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Malcolm

Review: ‘The Store’ by Patterson and DiLallo

The StoreThe Store by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story idea is compelling and, what with people talking about privacy issues in an Internet world these days, the plot is also timely. Others here have already said they didn’t care for the writing. Definitely, not anywhere near the best of James Patterson branded novels.

The glaring trouble with the book is the ending. It’s a trick. The ending is based on the fact that certain things earlier in the novel aren’t what they seemed to be. The trouble is, when the ending occurs, the main character turns out to have known the whole time that those things weren’t what they seemed to be. The flaw here is that we are inside the main character’s head throughout the book and know what he’s thinking. There is no way a real person wouldn’t have thought about the on-going trickery at some point. The ending is only a surprise because the authors don’t allow the main character to think about something that he couldn’t help but think about. This is a very large point-of-view error.

In the Amazon/GoodReads review above, I don’t include a spoiler about what happened. In fairness to those who might enjoy this novel in spite of the trick, I’ll leave out the spoilers here as well.

Most publishers’ editors would have told the authors to fix the ending. Maybe they can’t say that to Patterson. However, it’s very jarring and unfair to the reader to conceal the main character’s thoughts about important matters from the readers unless the character is established as unreliable, suffering from amnesia, or hypnotized. None of these options were present in The Store.

The main character Jacob Brandeis participates throughout the story in a planned subterfuge but never once thinks about the fact that he–and others–are role playing. No real person would be capable of doing this. Outside of experimental fiction, no fictional character could help but think about what he’s doing while he’s doing it. With proper finesse and foreshadowing, an author might get around the problem of concealing the third person point-of-view character’s thoughts from the readers.

That was not done here, so we ended up feeling cheated–because we were.

Malcolm

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