Book Review: The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

(I must be back in London from Paris by now. We wanted to take the Chunnel Train for that experience. I hope the French people were okay with my woeful French!)

Initially, I was interested in The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry because it’s the success story of a self-published author making it into the big time, and a two million dollar contract. In doing my research for this post to get the particulars, I came upon an NPR story that aired back in 2008. According to that piece, Ms. Barry and her husband thought they could publish the book themselves, since they had a company which published games, but found that the game experience, while helpful, wasn’t exactly the same. The book is set in Salem so they started locally there, and gained support from local book stores, who recommended The Lace Reader to book clubs nearby. The first two clubs got printed pages of the book in boxes, as none had been printed yet, and the book clubs were encouraged to respond with feedback.

Eventually they printed 2000 copies, word of mouth spread to book clubs all over the country and the local bookstores talked the book up and helped them make important contacts in the publishing world. This led them to a publicist who got the book to the influential Publishers Weekly, and the book got a good review.

Once that happened, a Ms. Rebecca Oliver happened on the scene, a literary agent with a somewhat snarky manner and a disgusting Valley Girl accent. “When one thinks of self-published, there’s a sort of a whole, UHHM, idea of what self-published means and that’s that the author has probably tried to sell the book previously to New York publishers and they’re selling it out of the trunk of their car now. And you assume there is a certain quality to the work.” I wonder if Ms. Oliver has changed her mind, as a few years have gone by since she said this and, as we know, the self-publishing world has evolved just a bit since then, and many agents are looking for other ways to make a living.

I wish there were a way to get that VG accent onto paper. The growly, twanginess and that cute little uplift at the end of the sentence, which makes it, like, a question?

Supposedly, the book has “the kind of plot twists that readers like to dissect”. Yes. That the book has a “very compelling ending”. No.

I beg to disagree. The ending has been described by some to rival The Sixth Sense. Remember that one, where Bruce Willis finally realizes he is dead and neither he (nor the audience) had known that before? It worked, but it was a stretch. Well, this novel’s ending is a real stretch and it doesn’t work. I am frankly amazed that it can be described as “compelling”. To me, it was contrived and unbelievable. Yes, I know. It’s fiction. But still.

I liked the book mostly, the editing was perfect. It started on a somewhat funny note, a nice hook, which I always appreciate. The characters were not perfect people, which I also liked, but the mystery surrounding the drowning death of one woman, and the disappearance of another, while compelling, was resolved in a ho-hum sort of way. The real clincher came very near the end, and I nearly threw the book away at that point.

There were pretty, almost poetic lines at the beginning of each chapter, about the lace and how it could be read, which I liked. There were characters who didn’t need to be in the story at all, which I didn’t like.

I’ll do the Page 99 test on this book and find something I liked and something I didn’t. This page happens to be the first page of Chapter 11. I like the blurb at the beginning of the chapter, it is well-written. The half page of text contains short, choppy sentences. I lot of “I did this and then I did that” – Hemingwayesque, without the distinctive writing style.

The book is written in first person present tense, very difficult for an inexperienced author to do, but I thought this was done well.

I liked it well enough, I had started it once, got halfway through and shelved it before taking it up again and starting over. It was a compelling enough read for the most part, but the ending blew it for me.

Book Review: The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

By this time, I have spent one week in London. I hope it’s going well (these posts have been schedled in advance). Here’s a lovely Women’s Fiction Novel.

Elizabeth Berg writes women’s fiction, and she does it well. She was born around the time most of the people who read this blog were, and she mostly writes stories about that age group. Her books aren’t romance novels but are stories about friendship, families, divorce, even death. I really like Ms. Berg’s novels, I’ve read several of them and I will likely go on to read many more.

The Art of Mending is about a woman, Laura, who makes her living as a quilt artist, designing custom creations for clients. She was always the domestic type, hence the title and says the following about the art of mending:

You’ll always notice the fabric scar, of course, but there’s an art to mending: If you’re careful, the repair can actually add to the beauty of the thing, because it is testimony to its worth.

At a family reunion, her sister reveals some things, things that happened during their childhood, about their mother, things that Laura doesn’t believe, or maybe she half believes, or maybe she really knew all along, but didn’t want to believe. I was hooked, on the suspense of what it was Laura’s sister would tell her, and it kept me reading.

I liked this book, but it might not be my favorite. Some of the others were funnier. Ms. Berg has a distinctive voice, and some of her characters are unusual and quirky. She writes about everyday things, things that could happen to anyone, from breast cancer to broken marriages to high school reunions.

There were characters and revelations and situations and I wasn’t quite sure why they were in the story. An example: Laura decides to throw a small dinner party and the attendees promised to make an interesting mix and then it didn’t happen. Everyone cancelled and I wondered why it was brought up in the first place. I didn’t clearly understand the motivation behind a certain revelation from her husband, and occasionally I felt like some of the story was “filler”.

The author has a way of ending a chapter that is filled with meaning. There might be a name for it; Jodi Picoult does it to an even greater degree than Elizabeth Berg, a way of saying something and then twisting it around, so that it is more dramatic. Here’s an example:

My mother, smiling brightly, looking directly into your eyes before she embraced you tightly, would feel a million miles away. My father, averting his gaze before he took you into his arms, would be the one who felt close.

(If anyone knows the name for that particular technique, please comment!)

There is a section I particularly liked, as Laura described her life and the love she has for her husband. She married later in life, he had lost his first wife, and they are a genuinely happy couple. Laura talks about how nothing has changed for her, as far as her husband is concerned, that he still thrills her, and as a couple, they are as they always were. It was a very sweet internalization, and it made me think.

I would recommend this author to anyone who likes good women’s fiction.

Book Review: Man in the Woods by Scott Spencer

My first full day in London. Bet I’m still jet-lagged! Below is a review of a great novel. It could be called Women’s Fiction, but maybe General Fiction is a better category for it.

This is not the first book I have read by Scott Spencer, but I guess I’d have to say it’s the best I’ve read so far. But I might feel that way, because I’ve just read it. I probably felt the same way after all the others.

There’s just something about Mr. Spencer’s books, his judicious use of passive voice and present tense, that makes his writing lyrical and melancholy. That’s the feeling I got from this novel, an underlying sadness. Something happened, something that was never supposed to happen, that could have been avoided if only Paul, the main character, hadn’t been where he was at the time he was. And still the event could have been avoided even then, but it happened and it was just plain bad luck that it did. It was traumatic. Life changing.

Once the event has taken place, and everything has changed, Paul has to adjust to it. And not only does it change his life, but the life of Kate, the woman with whom he lives. Kate showed up earlier in A Ship Made of Paper and I liked her then too, but since that time, she’s become a recovering alcoholic and written a self-help book called Prays Well With Others. She feels she’s been helped by God, that she has seen the light, that her life is now guided and she shares it with her readers, and because she is a superb writer, she becomes very successful. She and Paul live with her daughter, Ruby, in a rural farmhouse in upstate New York.

The event involves a dog. The dog witnessed the event, and Paul takes the dog to live with him. And Mr. Spencer proves he can capture the essence of the dog, as well as he does his other characters. The dog has a personality, a quiet animal with good days and bad days. He’s predictably sweet and Paul, Kate and Ruby settle in with him, until they can’t remember when he wasn’t around.

Paul is the strong, handsome type, a carpenter, completely smitten with Kate, and Kate loves Paul with a love so all-encompassing, it matters little that there are differences and silences between them. It’s a beautiful love story, and Kate might be a little quicker-witted than Paul, and she makes the majority of the money that supports their household, but that doesn’t matter to her. To be trite, he “completes” her.

There are internalizations of Paul and Kate, which seem to be essays in themselves. No dialogue, just beautiful words, masterful sentences. One of my favorites was one of Kate’s. She is on a timetable, always plotting, planning time for she and Paul to be alone together. He’s a little more casual, he doesn’t seem to recognize that there might be a half hour here or there, when they could be “together” like Kate does. She hurries through life in order to get back to Paul while his path through life is less planned.

An example:

She doesn’t mind doing the work, because of the reward. The slow fill of him as he notches his hips inch by inch closer to her, she enjoys the anticipation of the bright delirium sex unleashes in her, an extremity of emotion and abandon that she has never before experienced and never actually believed other people experienced, either, and she enjoys moving things around in her schedule so there is more time for them to be together. It’s like clearing brush so the flowers can be seen. But there is no question in her mind that if Paul were in her position right now he would not be thinking of how to get out of the city in time to be home so that there was a chance to lie next to her.

Scott Spencer is one of those authors who says so much in a few words, it’s as if each word is carefully chosen. I like to think of his wonderful sentences rolling off the keyboard one after another, but they are so perfect, I doubt that’s how it happens.

He is also a master of adult love affairs, the positive and negative aspects and with obsessive love, evident in his earlier novel, Endless Love, which was made into a movie. I have yet to see it, and maybe I never will because I’ve heard it’s different from the book and a bit, well, cheesy.

Once in a while, a graphic detail might pop out at you, and it can be a little shocking. I saw it in a couple of his other books but not this one so much.

When I’m reading a Scott Spencer novel, I like to read a chapter and think about what I’ve read before starting another. I’m going to be very disappointed when there’s no Scott Spencer books I haven’t read. I like to wait a while between reading them, because I find myself thinking for weeks about what I’ve read.

I give this novel five stars. An enthusiastic five stars.

ABNA 2012 Young Adult Fiction Reviews

Below are my reviews of the three novels chosen in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – Young Adult Fiction. This category isn’t too easy for me to review, since many times the stories are quite far out of my realm of reason, as in, who does this appeal to anyway? The answer is clear. Young Adults, those who embraced the thousands of vampire, zombie, and werewolf books, not to mention fairies and angels for those young people who will mature into adults who read inspirational novels.

This year I rather liked two of the three. That would probably be for a couple of reasons including (but not limited to): there were no vampires, there were no zombies, and there were no werewolves. Are they going away finally?

I was majorly intrigued by one, less-majorly but still intrigued by another, and the third was not interesting to me at all, but that’s my genre bigrotry again, as I find it impossible not to be influenced by genre.

The judges have read the entire manuscripts and they usually post a review which tells what the book is about. Then they say what they believe is right or wrong with it, and then (and I wish they wouldn’t do this) they will say if it is their pick for the winner. The winners are chosen by the voters, but still, I wonder how much the votes will be influenced by what the reviewers have said.

Out of Nowhere by Rebecca Phillips. The first line:

I wasn’t sure what would kill me first—the nagging pain in my head or Dr. Kapur.

It’s a first line that is okay, but after further reading, it seems contrived. The narrator borders on hypochondria so in hindsight, the sentence is an exaggeration and is probably meant to be a good hook. I felt marginally cheated. Riley’s father died unexpectedly while microwaving a plate of lasagna a few years back, and she is not dealing with it well, and can’t walk on the spot in the  kitchen where he had fallen. It is also apparent that she is a loving sister to her seventeen-month old half-brother, by a man who is in and out, but mostly out, of her mother’s life. She disapproves of him thoroughly. It is well-written and I did like the author’s voice. But based on this excerpt, which is all I have, I would have to say it was only marginally interesting to me. It could get better but then the job of the author is to hook me immediately.

On Little Wings by Regina Sirois. The first line:

The DNA of mice and humans is 98% identical.

I like it. I liked the whole first paragraph. I found the first paragraph to be funny and witty, and even though it didn’t really tell me about the story to come, I was very much hooked and wanted to read on. 

Jennifer finds an old photo of a woman who looks uncannily like herself, tucked into the back of an old paperback from her mother’s bookshelf. She instinctively knows this woman is someone important to her, but her parents had said they were both only children. I would have liked it better if the revelation hadn’t been quite so dramatic, but turns out, this woman is her mother’s estranged sister, who her mother insists is a terrible person and who killed their mother. Jennifer then goes to see her best friend, to tell her about it. End of excerpt. The backstory of the best friend is well done, unique, an exaggerated ugly duckling scenario which was very entertaining. I liked this, loved the author’s voice. It promises to be a very satisfying story.

Dreamcatchers by Cassandra Griffin. The first line:

Two things occur to me at the same time.

As a first line, it is fine. This wouldn’t be a case of the standard first-sentence hooker because it doesn’t say too much but still, it’s fine. The first paragraph goes on to reveal the two things, an earthquake has happened, and our narrator appears to have amnesia. Uh oh. Not uh oh about these two things, but uh oh that amnesia is so lame. How many books have been written using that sorry clichéd storyline?

The earthquake unlocked the doors to some sort of hospital/mental institution (we aren’t quite sure) so the person with the amnesia was able to excape (though barely) into the night, clad in a hospital gown. She manages to score a blanket and escapes into a very bad neighborhood where she is threatened by a Very Nasty Person. She manages to get away from him by clocking him on the head. It is written in present tense, which I have come to like very much, and flows well. But it reads too much like a teen action flick for me to be able to connect with it too much. This is certainly my particular limitation, but then, I get to do that here.

My pick? Definitely On Little Wings. One out of three reviewers agreed with me. Not a good sign, but I’m sticking with my pick.

ABNA 2012 General Fiction Reviews

The six finalists for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award have been chosen. Interesting. There are only two categories, general fiction and young adult fiction. The general fiction finalists are all men, and the young adult fiction finalists are all women.

What does that say? Probably nothing.

I read the excerpts of the general fiction entries and they were all good, and all had a hook and all made me wonder what would happen next. But since I don’t have access to the entire manuscripts, I am basing my reviews on the first few chapters of each one.

Then I’m going to predict the winner, based on which I liked best, which is going to be difficult because I liked all three, but didn’t love any of them.

The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill. This starts out with a great first line hook.

Tak can’t answer the phone because the noose is too tight.

Great, I like that. The deal is, Tak has decided to do himself in and has set up this elaborate suicide event, but the ringing phone distracts him. It turns out to be a strange call, but so interesting that Tak decides to put his suicide plans on hold. Next chapter we meet, Samira who is suffering from PTSD and tells her therapist that Tak was her friend from high school, but that he killed himself four years earlier. But wait, he didn’t kill himself, so what’s going on? That’s another hook. That, of course, is the end of the excerpt. It’s interesting that many authors are using present tense, which never used to be done much. I like it. I believe this book is going to veer off into a nearly sci-fi genre, including time travel and alternate realities so I don’t think it will be something I would ultimately be too interested in. And I found a really bad metaphor.

A clock ticks softly from Carrington’s desk, muffled under a pile of paperwork like the beating heart of a boarder in a Poe story.

Do you hate that as much as I do? Classic case of TTH. (Trying Too Hard).

Grace Humiston and the Vanishing by Charles Kelly. This one is a historical mystery which takes place in 1917. It is fiction, but based on the true story of Mary Grace Winterton Humiston.

I like the voice of this author, told in the first person (but not present tense this time) by the sidekick of Grace, who idolizes her investigative methods (not to mention her physical attributes and accoutrements) from afar – he being a bit of an unseemly sort which he readily admits – and Grace being a very much the lady, well-educated, and married. It promises to be a good story, the case of a missing girl known as the White Slave Case. The excerpt ended with Grace being asked by the narrator if she will find the missing girl, to which she replies “Yes. But, I fear, not alive.”

I am curious to know why she felt that way. I believe I would enjoy this book, and I found no distasteful metaphors in the excerpt.

A Chant of Love and Lamentation by Brian Reeves. This had a good opening line too, similar to the first entry.

These are the last minutes of Charlie Kalenhano’s life.

Charlie is on some terrorist mission, perhaps suicide bomber in Hawaii, as part of a plot to regain Hawaiian independence. The excerpt doesn’t explain it. That must come later. It’s well written and I was mildly curious to know if the bomb went off or not, since Charlie had a few problems on his way to detonate the device, which is in the trunk of his cab. Bad weather, a fender bender accident, locking himself out of the car, late to arrive, etc. The excerpt, while good enough, didn’t grab me sufficiently to get me excited about reading the book when it is finally published.

Actually I liked the entries last year better than these, but my pick is Grace Humiston. We’ll see.

The Flu Yields a Good Book Review

Last week I hinted at the end of my post that I felt like I was getting the flu. Well bring it on! Let’s get this flu thing going and over with, shall we? Not so fast, the evil germ-vermin said. We think we’ll hang around for awhile. And they did, those little buggers, free-loaded for six days before giving up.

Rarely does this happen, that I get anything that lasts more than a day. And some may find the following unbelievable but before I retired, I used to hope for just a teeny spot of flu, maybe enough that I could spend two days groaning and collecting sympathy, without (and this is the caveat) feeling guilty for calling off sick at work. Just a couple of days to watch On Demand movies, or read, while drinking tea.

This time though was a little more than I would have wanted, ever. I was feverish for days, and I’d doze and think I’d slept for hours yet only a few minutes had passed. I hurt and remember thinking how I was going to have to explain to someone (and I had no explanation) how it felt and make them understand the connection between the pain and the fever, and if I couldn’t explain it, then I was never going to get better. Weird fever dreams when you tend to overanalyze everything and focus inwardly to such an extent that the illness becomes your existence, it’s what you are, at least for awhile.

The best I can describe it anyway.

I’d previously downloaded an ebook called January Moon, by Maureen Gill, onto my Kindle, because of the title and a good recommendation, so I read it. I had considered titling my new novel February Moon because I didn’t think anyone would know what Perigee Moon meant, then I decided to go with Perigee. The closeness of the titles was compelling.

Check the cover.  I think it is kick-ass. After I read it, I thought the cover couldn’t have been more perfect.

I thought what a good time to read it but started the book thinking, there are a lot of clichés in this book, which is something to which I have a particular aversion. Some of the characters are clichéd too, the crusty old four-decade police force Lieutenant, ex-marine, chain-smoking, irreverent. Then there’s the handsome thirty-something cop, not someone any bad guy would want to an up-close encounter with, yet oh so sensitive, who is engaged to the beautiful professor who never wanted a relationship with a cop because (of course) her father is an ex-cop and wheelchair-bound after taking a bullet in the spine during an altercation with someone desiring to evade the law. Stuff like that.

But the story kept me interested. It was a page-turner, and I was hooked enough to keep going until I was so committed I could not wait to get back to the book. I found editing errors, and still didn’t care. Nothing could dissuade me from reading it, because it was a damn good story. The author knows so much about the FBI and the Illinois State Police and the Chicago City Police and the Medical Examiner’s Office, that every line about these agencies is credible.

I found there were a plethora of characters and I had just the smallest trouble keeping them straight but not enough that I got horribly confused.

There was action, something happening on every page. Rich surprising characters who do things you would never expect them to, believable dialogue. And an interesting thing about the dialogue, Ms. Gill made use of almost no attributions (he said, she said), which I found interesting. Very well done for the number of characters involved.

And the dog. What a lovely story about him, and he deserves his place on the cover photo.

This is a good example of a plot-driven novel. If you’ve got a great story and characters to care about, you’ve got a winner and that’s what this novel is. I guess we of the character-driven novel have one strike against us, in that if our characters suck, our novel sucks too.

I would recommend this book to anyone. You can find it on Amazon or Smashwords. It is immensely entertaining. I can just see this as a movie, and wouldn’t be surprised to hear it’s been picked up for the Big Screen. Let’s see, Clint for the older cop and maybe Ryan Gosling as the younger?

Kudos to Ms. Gill and this is her debut novel! I am truly impressed and will forgive clichés. Without so many of them though, and the editing errors, I would give this novel 5*****.

In other news, another turn at editing The Infamous Flyer (Savon Spa opening Spring 2012 in Chicago). I hope everything is satisfactory now because my frustration level is way high. Not only do I struggle with software I don’t quite grasp, but my laptop has memory issues, I keep getting a popup – “WARNING!! You are running low on memory! Quick! Save your work to prevent data loss!” (Perhaps not the exact verbiage.) I calmly close the popup but it is annoying. Plus it still has other issues, in that sometimes it can’t “see” my Verizon Hotspot router which sits a mere 24 inches away, or it can’t “see” any networks at all, or it suddenly disconnects for no reason. And it still has the jumping cursor problem too. AND, it has a VISTA operating system which is utter junk.

A new PC is a big investment in time, what with getting everything off the old and onto the new, or re-downloading and re-registering and re-learning and re-configuring.

I’m going to do it – getting a new Samsung. It has an I7 processor (whatever that is only it must be better than the I5) and 8 GB of memory and I forget how much disk space, but it’s enough disk space to, if not “choke a horse” at least cause him to sputter a little.

My new Samsung shall become a beloved member of my electronics family, pampered and lightly touched with my cyber-affection.

5 Good Examples of Character-driven Novels

My third novel, Perigee Moon, is done! That is to say, it’s written and mostly edited. I find I edit and edit some more and edit a little more. Then I let it sit around for a while, reread it and edit it once again. I’m at the point where I’ll “edit a little more” then leave it alone. Put it on the backburner for a week or two.

I have the critique of my first reader, my very good friend, who pronounced it “a very good book”. My friend said “I think you’ve got something here.” My friend didn’t like Second Stories but did like Whatever Happened to Lily? and says this is my best work so far.

I like your writing, my friend said, it’s very polished and I like your style. But nothing happens in your books. I keep waiting for the payoff, and it doesn’t come, or if it does come, it comes much later than I would have hoped. And then my friend said that the humor works well and that parts of it are, in fact, pretty funny.

Happy though I was with the news, that the first person likes it enough to say this, I was disconcerted about the “nothing happens” part. My books are more about characters, developing them such that the reader comes to really understand them, which is “character-driven” as opposed to “plot-driven”. This might be the problem. My friend is more of a plot-driven aficionado, who wants action.

In thinking about some of the books I had read in the past and whether they are character-driven or plot-driven, to the last, they are all about the characters, how they evolve, how they think and make decisions and change as time goes on.

In novels that are plot-driven, action takes priority and the characters are there to have things happen to them in order to advance the plot. In a character-driven novel, it’s all about the people, and what they think and how they interact with each other, with the emphasis on emotion and reflection and what happens to them, the action, is there to advance the development of the character.

Occasionally, it’s both. A good plot-driven novel that has characters you care about is likely to be a winner.

Here are five excellent character-driven novels. There are many more but these are a sampling of what I consider to be some of the best:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – All of Ms. Tyler’s novels are character-driven. Stuff happens to them but sometimes not much, and the reader gets the impression that the stuff that happens only contributes to how the character will react to it. This is a bit darker than some of her novels, but I thought the characters were diverse and interesting and quirky. Some are not likable at all, in fact most of them have things about them not to like, except for one, a guy who is the solid steady one, who just wants a family and a normal life. He is lovable and kind and you find yourself rooting for him. Unforgettable book, but like I said, dark.

Say When by Elizabeth Berg – I was hooked from the first page. The story of a divorce, and in first person POV as the man, Griffin, who is such a wonderful character it doesn’t matter whether the plot is good or not. In fact, the plot wasn’t not too believable (at least in my opinion), but a great character study of a guy who wants a normal life, a family, and comes to wonder if he is a bit too boring. I like stories about regular people because what we find is that while each one of us might be “regular” we still are all different. Ms. Berg does a really good job of thinking like a guy. She is a consummate women’s fiction author. She doesn’t write romance, or include a lot of sex, but covers topics which are interesting to women, or anyone for that matter. Stories about families, and problems, and breast cancer, and friendship. And in Griffin’s case, how he comes to know himself better because someone he cares about no longer wants him in her life.

Endless Love by Scott Spencer – This dark love story leans towards obsession rather than love. It is deep, emotional and depressing at times. I guess an apt description would be that it is complex. The longest sex scene probably ever written is in this book and it is as explicit as erotica, so be warned about that. It seems a bit superfluous in its detail. The reader gets to feel David’s love and obsession, as well as his eventual loss and wants so much for it to end well. David simply can’t get over Jade. He can’t let go, it wouldn’t be possible and the reader feels his misery. The last lines of this novel are some of the best I’ve ever read. There was a movie made of this book. Don’t bother, it was cheesy. It’s not possible to capture the emotion in film that is in this story, in my opinion, because it is internal to David. It isn’t anything he talks about or can tell anyone, it just is.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – The consummate character-driven novel. It’s 400+ pages of pure joy of reading, about the funniest dysfunctional family on earth, yet they are all kind of believable somehow. Enid, the semi-crazy, ditzy housewife and Alfred, the stoic, male patriarch who is now in failing health, so the tables appear to be turning as to who is in charge, and neither Alfred nor Enid is completely comfortable with that. Their three grown children Gary, Chip and Denise are all delightfully screwed up in their own ways. My favorite was Gary, who’s wife was a control freak, and it was maybe the best example of “Show – Don’t Tell” I’ve ever read. There is a lot that can be learned by studying Gary and his familial situation. The underlying theme is Enid’s hope there can be one last Christmas in the old homestead with everyone in attendance, and a lot of the action is in the backstories of the characters. It was very funny to me, but a lot of people don’t seem to care for Franzen’s particular style of humor. Probably the best example of character-driven fiction in the www (Whole Wide World).

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – If you like stories about the Indian culture, this is for you. And if you don’t know whether you’d like stories about the Indian culture, try it. It’s a great character-driven novel and educational as to what life in India is (or was a few decades ago) really like. If you don’t know much about India, you will when you’ve finished this novel because there’s a bit of Indian culture on every page. Be forewarned that some of the back story of two of the characters is quite brutal. It’s the story of a woman, widowed unexpectedly, who strives to make it in a country where women are of little value, and three men whom she employs to work in her home-based dressmaking business. They come to really care about each other in the years they were together (not only did they work together but they lived together too), and develop a lifelong friendship. I guess it could be said that this is also a plot-driven book because there are plenty of things that happen, but the story of these four people and how they came to depend on each other was the main point of the novel.

The above five books have not been read by my friend who read Perigee Moon. My friend is a guy, who only reads non-fiction. So getting him to read this was a bit difficult, probably because he assumed he wouldn’t like it, and I assumed he wouldn’t either. But it seems he did.

10 Opening Lines From a Random Bookshelf

This blog has been active for one year!

A few posts about opening lines have been coming my way, that I happened on in Facebook from someone I don’t know personally but somehow ended up being a Facebook friend of mine. Can’t remember how that happened.

The best opening lines were determined, from all genres of books, the idea being that you should hook the reader on the first line, go on to further hook with the first paragraph, first page, first chapter. And no backstory until at least the second chapter, after you’ve sufficiently hooked the reader.

I thought I’d do the opposite and take ten books from my bookshelf, all of which I have read, and examine their first lines and dissect them, whether they are bad or good and issue them a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

 1.       Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

This is pretty good, I think. There is enough detail that I am intrigued. I know that Sauniere is a curator, and the fact that he is “renowned” probably puts him at middle age or beyond. The fact that he “staggered” is a curiosity, and it puts me in a museum, probably a section of which is devoted to fine arts, (the “Grand” Gallery). I am most interested in why he staggered. Something has happened to this old guy, let’s find out what. Thumbs up on this one, although I found the rest of the book tedious.

 2.      The day Shelley told me she was pregnant, I laughed.

Back to Me Again by Gretchen Hirsch

I think laughter as a response to someone announcing a pregnancy might not be appropriate, so I would like to know why that happened. But other than that, I’m not sure I liked the opening line. It sounded flippant. This book was self-published by a woman who gave an interesting time management talk to aspiring writers. As part of the deal, she wanted to read a portion of her manuscript to the audience and get their feedback. I liked what she wrote, so I bought her book. It was good, I’d say it was really good women’s fiction. The author is an accomplished writer of non-fiction and this was her first attempt at fiction. I thought she did a really good job of it, but her publisher wanted nothing to do with fiction, which is why she self-published. Liked the book, not the opening line. Thumbs down.

3.      The day was too beautiful to take a cab.

A Trip to the Inn by Dave Cunningham

This book was written by the son of a friend of mine. I believe it was his first, and there were parts of it that I liked a lot and found very thought provoking. Most of the characters were evil; there were almost no good characters in the story, they were all out to get each other. Which is fine, I don’t believe you have to identify with, or like, characters, but not everyone agrees with that by any means. The premise of the book was excellent, in the way of the movie, Fargo, where one bad event happens and it gets covered up, and more characters get involved, so the cover ups go on and escalate until it’s a real mess of a situation. But the opening line didn’t do it for me. Thumbs down.

4.      Reece Gilmore smoked through the tough knuckles of Angel’s Fist in an overheating Chevy Cavalier.

Angels Fall by Nora Roberts

This tome was left behind by someone, and wouldn’t have ended up on my bookshelf otherwise. But in the spirit of diverse genres, I read it. I wasn’t disappointed, in that, I got just what I expected. I did like part of it, but mostly it’s formulaic in content. The opening line tells me nothing much except she is probably in some sort of financial trouble, but by the sound of her name, I would guess it is a temporary situation. This author is a bazillionaire, has written hundreds of books and has fans that will probably do themselves in if anything ever happens to Ms. Roberts. I thought “smoked through” and “tough knuckles” were iffy in their credibility, but I guess this author can now say whatever she wants and no one will dare to suggest she do it otherwise. Luckily she won’t happen upon this post, so I can be safe in saying, thumbs down.

5.      I was six years old the first time I disappeared.

Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

Good. This is a great hook, at least for me. I have no idea what is going on here, but that line seems poetic to me. A lot of Ms. Picoult’s sentences are poetic, and I always start one of her novels so hooked I can’t put the thing down. Unfortunately it doesn’t carry me to the end. She does a great job of hooking, but not a great job of sustaining. By the end of the book, I didn’t really care much what happened to the characters and there were events included that I thought should be cut, that they did very little to add to the story, if anything. But the first sentence is definitely a thumbs up.

6.        For the weekly docket the court jester wore his standard garb of well-used and deeply faded maroon pajamas and lavender terry-cloth shower shoes with no socks.

 The Brethren by John Grisham

Ah, John Grisham. His books are well-written, exciting, entertaining. He is also a bazillionaire. And getting what you expected, in this case, is a good thing. Not literary by any means, kind of like going to a movie of this same genre, it’s fun while you’re there but you don’t take anything away from it other than the fact that you had two very pleasant hours watching it and the popcorn was delicious. I can’t say I know anything about what the book will be about with the first sentence but it seems like he spent a lot of time on it, and while it piques my curiosity, I can’t say it hooks me. Thumbs down.

7.       When I telephoned Thomassy that morning in March of 1974 and asked him to lunch, I counseled myself to muster a casual voice.

 Other People by Sol Stein

Mr. Stein writes fiction and also how-to-write books for amateur authors. In On Writing, he says that he wrote this novel using first person POV. That’s not unusual except that he skipped from person to person and there were several characters, each with a chapter headed with his or her name so you knew whose head you’d be inside at any particular time. He said this was hard to do, and wouldn’t recommend it to us newbies. I was curious and read it. I liked it, and I liked the first line, which tells me in what time frame the story takes place, and that the caller is very anxious, or nervous, or upset and wills himself to be calm when speaking to Thomassy. I liked it, thumbs up.

 8.       I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Apart from the punctuation, what’s not to like about this? It sets the time and place and the idea of being born twice – what’s that all about? I want to know, and maybe I have an inkling, but it sounds like it will be an interesting unraveling of the facts. And it was. This was an Oprah Pick, and I like this first line and give it the thumbs up but could do without the colons and semis.

 9.      All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This is on everyone’s list as one of the greatest first lines of all time. It is one of the best books ever written about nineteenth-century Russia, and social scandal. Men are allowed a certain freedom to dally, but not so with women. The men might have to deal with irate wives. The women throw themselves under trains. The beauty of this book is the translation. (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). I have seen other versions that do not compare to this one. It made me wonder, is it the writing that is wonderful, or the translation? Guess we won’t know for sure, but this first line is naturally a thumbs up.

 10.     After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wrobleski

I did like this first line but I’m not sure if I can explain why I do. It’s conversational, as if the author is about to tell me a story. And I do want to know where he is going. The style makes me think this book will be beautifully written in an understated way. Of course I don’t know that to be true after reading just this first line, but it did turn out to be true. Thumbs up.

Literary Crushes – Who is Yours?

Enough time has gone by, that I’m treating myself to another Scott Spencer novel, although this time I am not quite so enamored. The title is “Willing”, and it is about a man who goes on a sex tour to a few relatively obscure foreign countries, and is paid a rather handsome sum to write a book about it. I’m guessing that such an assignment might not be unappealing to a number of male writers.

I think, to read Mr. Spencer, one must not be sexually squeamish, as there is something in every one to send a few shock waves. But the way he talks about such things, so naturally, I can’t help but get a picture of the kind of person Mr. Spencer might be. I’m guessing, the quiet, introspective type, much like Jonathon Franzen, that the outward persona does not match the man inside.

My author friend Benison O’Reilly coined a term (at least I think she is responsible for it, so I am giving her due honors here), “literary crush” and mine is on Mr. Spencer. Hers is on Mr. Franzen. But that is not to say I haven’t had literary crushes on women too, and two of them are Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg, who write in a way in which I could only hope to come close.

I would have to use the term “envious” when it comes to these three authors. It’s what I would want for myself, to write in such a way. Recently, I read an interesting post which examined the difference between “jealousy” and “envy”. Jealousy is when you want what another person has and you attack it in a negative way, the I-am-just-as-good-as-that-writer so poor me, why am I consistently ignored and kicked around? Envy is when you see what good things others have done, and want the same for yourself, but in a positive way, it allows you to strive for more, for better writing, for lovelier sentences, for better hooks and dialogue and characters, by seeing the good in others.

Back to Willing, Mr. Spencer breaks a lot of rules with this one. There is not one quotation mark in the whole novel. The dialogue is intermixed with the narrative. We are told in the How To books to put each person’s dialogue in a separate paragraph. Nope, he doesn’t do that either. So we have dialogue, which we aren’t always sure really is dialogue, and two or more people speaking in the same paragraph, so we aren’t always sure who is doing the talking. But somehow it works. There are pages with hardly any whitespace, another faux pas. Lack of whitespace makes readers weary, shorter paragraphs and single lines mix it up visually and the reader is less intimidated by droning on and on, so they say.

I am only two thirds through the book, and I have only found a couple of sexual reference that might be construed as troubling, even though one would think there would be more, given the subject. But I have found (so far) six editing errors, five which were duplicate words or wrongly phrased such that I knew it was   unintentional, and one punctuation error. I always feel a little compensated when I find errors in the works of “real authors” (if I dare use that term), as if – see, we are all fallible!

So, even if this is not my favorite of his novels, the writing is still all there, superb, funny, gripping descriptions of characters (of which there are a great number). Take this description of himself, on the first page, written in first person POV:

Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.

Gives you a pretty good idea, right? I especially loved the reference to a lunch bag.

Or this description of someone encountered at one of the stops:

One was a heavyset guy with a shaved head who looked like the world’s most enormous baby, with a nose like a knuckle and dark little eyes the size of watermelon seeds.

The book is crammed with stuff like this. On every page, there are great thoughts and descriptions. This author understands people, he gets it so right. Humorous, witty, and insightful.

And yes, I am envious.

ABNA – Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (Young Adult Reviews)

Well. Things have changed since Anne of Green Gables. Remember that series? And the Cherry Ames, Nurse series? And Nancy Drew and The Bobsey Twins?

There are three finalists in the Young Adult Fiction category. I thought the first two had clichéd back stories. The third, I plain didn’t get.

The first, Spookygirl (by Jill Baguchinsky). Young girl’s Mom dies, father can’t take care of girl, girl goes to live with Bad Aunt, girl comes back to live with father. This has been done before, many times. The only difference is that this father runs a funeral home, and the girl helps the father with makeup on the faces of the corpses and also paints portraits of them when they are dead, but before the funerals. And oh yeah, there’s this ghost named Buster who lives with them and he has to be caged up sometimes, but if you leave him in the cage too long, he gets really pissed and makes a mess of things. Really? Is this what the younger set likes these days? Oh wait, yes it is. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and, I guess, ghosts. The writing seemed to be fine, and strives to be humorous but to me it sounded like an older person trying to appeal to a younger person. I could be wrong, I’m not sure of the age of this author. I was moderately hooked though, on one aspect of the story. Seems Mom died under suspicious circumstances, and it appears some believe it was Dad who did it. That’s interesting, and would be enough to keep me reading.

The second, Lost in Thought (by Cara Bertrand). Here BOTH of girl’s parents die in a car crash. Now I suppose this does, in fact, happen to a few people, but I have read a lot of books with this back story. I am not sure why an interesting book can’t be written where the heroine’s Mom and Dad remain intact, not dead, and not divorced either. Add to this, neither of our heroine’s parents had any family but, luckily, Dad was very successful in his short life (I put him in his twenties when he died) and made a lot of money, such that our heroine is endowed with trusts and millions of dollars. It is a little vague how he accumulated this vast amount of wealth, lucky stock buying maybe, which I guess if you are a teenager, isn’t really important, but to us older, cynical individuals, we want to know. So, how did that happen exactly that he made so much money at such an early age? Heroine lives with an “Aunt” (a Nice Aunt) who is really Mom’s college friend. Hmm. Okay, this could also happen. Oh, one more thing. Our heroine sees dead people. Remember the movie, Sixth Sense, “I see dead people”. Word for word. Good writing, and a pretty good hook though. Our heroine, who is subject to fainting spells and migraine headaches due to the fact that she sees dead people, sees the same car which was responsible for her parents going off the road into a roll, which ultimately killed them.

The third, Devolution (by Richard Larson). This one did not have a clichéd back story at all. But that’s because I couldn’t understand a word of it. I couldn’t figure out where we were, or why we were there, or what we were doing there. An example from the third paragraph:

Virus outbreaks were handled meticulously. The self-replicating programs never made it very far into the system before security software found them and walled them in: once that happened, a quarantine zone was established.

Are we inside a computer? Not sure. There are some references made to electronic nodes in the backs of skulls, so maybe not really. At any rate, I was clueless as to what was going on. This is really not my genre, maybe there are people out there who actually get this, but do not count me among them.

And one more thing. I was taught that dialog attributions should always be “said” or “says”. Don’t use cried, exclaimed, repeated, yelled, or whispered. Just “said”. He said, she said. It is only to let the reader know who is talking, it should never try to describe how the person is talking, that should be done through other means. This author violates those rules. “I was there before the sirens,” Dimas grinned. No. Dimas said those words, and may have been grinning while he said them, but nobody ever grinned a sentence, to my knowledge. Here’s another one. “… the shop-keeper lowed”. Lowed? Later his characters, continue, and point out, snort, rumble, demand, lie and protest. And there is a generous use of adverbs, which should be used, if not never, rarely. As in “Dimas said dryly”.

I’m trying hard to read other genres, but in the case of YA, it’s difficult. I’d have to give Lost in Thought my vote here. I like the title, and I was moderately hooked, and the writing is good.

The results will be in tomorrow, and I’m going to be logging on early to see how well I did with my reviews. Did I like what the general population liked? Or not?