NVDT Book Review- Two I Wish I’d Written

Dear Mrs. Bird, A.J. Pearce – Briarpatch, Ross Thomas

Before I move on to a few books that will show up only because they present issues with writing, the publishing industry or perception and I get to a short story that’s talking to me, let’s do these two.

First, it’s rare, and wonderful, to read two books almost back-to-back where I learn things, have other things reinforced and am entertained all at once.

Dear Mrs. Bird – A.J. Pearce 

As you can see from the graphic, Dear Mrs. Bird made the rounds of an elderly ladies’ book club before it came to me. The ladies rated it a 7. If I were grading it solely on the “story” I would have gone 8 or 9. Not that it’s a story unlike any ever told, but it’s written so damn well it could be about changing various model year Volkswagen brake pads and I’d still go that high.

Why – The protagonist’s voice never falters, her presence never out of character, her emotions tangible, her situations believable. The writing is the same. No dips, no sidetracks, no distractions, no over writing, no author anywhere in sight. No slop. I mean no slop. Not that a Grammar Nazi or ProWritingAid couldn’t find fault, but on The Story Is The Most Important Thing level, it’s as good as it gets. I think I had to read one sentence twice, and that one was on me. Emmeline, the lead, reuses a few adjectives three or four times throughout the book, (I checked) but never to where you recall it from the previous page or chapter. They are always in keeping with Emmy’s voice and it’s to the author’s credit that she didn’t hit up the Thesaurus for something that would make her look erudite and her character out of character. What I need to say here is this is how stories should be told. Engaging and never about the author, even when using the most conversational tone. You read this book as a journey with the protagonist, Miss Emmeline Lake, right behind her eyes.

Major Observation Point – The author employs a stylistic nuance that I had to stop and figure out where I’d seen it and Why It Worked So Well. When any phrase or referenced dialogue hit cliché or sloganeering or spoke to a Broader Issue, it’s capitalized. Where, oh where oh where I asked – Aha! A. A. Milne’s The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As readers, we associate caps with proper nouns, but not in Pooh, and not here. Which made perfect small containers for Larger Concepts and eliminated the need for quotation marks or awkward reference or defining tags. Here’s an example of both, perfectly executed in quick succession —

Miss Knighton, a freckly girl of about my age with pretty green eyes and unfortunate hair, looked at me blankly.


“Yes, which floor is her office on, please?”

“Well”—she paused, as if it were a trick question—“this one.”

Miss Knighton struck me as quite young to be An Eccentric, but I said Righto as I was new and you don’t make friends if you’re standoffish.

– Dear Mrs. Bird

Lifting the quotation marks and the use of a strong verb to avoid the authorial injection of Emmy felt or thought keeps us right in the scene. I can’t think of a better example of This Is My Book, Thank You head time that doesn’t read like head time. Add this style feature to the little things like Dialogue First, Please and Straight-Line Story Telling with one-and-two-line backstory drops where appropriate and you get a book that’s fun, heartbreaking, courageous, and all the other adjectives best left to liner notes and press releases. It was all of that and more for me, and I found Being Emmeline for the journey was Never A Bad Thing.

The takeaway, besides no slop – Find out what you’re good at, Miss Lake, and then get even better. Mr. Collins to Emmeline. A true He Who Has Ears To Hear, Let Him Hear quote if ever there was one.

Briarpatch by Ross Thomas 

More About Me – I set parts 1 and 2 of a Grand Unfinished Project I wrote to relearn writing, for lack of anywhere else, in my old hometown. I named it but used (mostly) disguised or fictional locations. My first editor suggested I change it to a place like that town and not naming it outright. I listened, and in later episodes the protagonist and others refer to it euphemistically, with made up nicknames. I didn’t go back and fix it because I didn’t know how to artfully describe the general geography. Learning is part of why we read, right? Well, turns out Ross Thomas grew up where I did. And this book takes place there, just like early parts of mine, only he never calls it by name. Too bad proximity doesn’t make me Ross Thomas, but now that I’ve seen it done, I get it. It would be easier for me, as I spend much less time in specific, recognizable locations that would need renaming. Further, I knew exactly where this took place when early on Thomas’s character mentions the city as being home to Two Notorious Inventions – the parking meter and the shopping cart. Only natives would know that. Here’s a blurb from Amazon that got it all wrong.

“A long-distance call from his small Texas hometown on his birthday gives Benjamin Dill the news that his sister Felicity—born on the same day exactly ten years apart—has died in a car bomb explosion.”

To whomever—Not Texas, and the town’s not that small. But as my friend Jackson’s California Publicist says, “You can’t be an Okie, even if you are. You’ve got the accent, and Texas is so nouveau.” Need I mention “car bomb explosion” is redundant in the extreme? Enough of Me And What I Learned.

Briarpatch won an Edgar Allen Poe Award in 1984 for Best Novel. The author won The Edgar in 1967 for Best First Book. I know why. This thing screams Modern Noir. The pacing is a work of art. Fast, slow, nerve-wracking, witty, snide, observant, sensitive, deadly–all when called for. Dialogue tags? A page can go by without attribution. It’s not needed. We know who’s talking, and how they say what they say keeps us in it with tone. In fact, I read this as I was feeling guilty about scenes in My Last Work where I let the characters talk without me and decided if it’s good enough for my homey Ross, then it’s Good Enough For Me.

The story(ies) in Briarpatch are convoluted, full of enough Shadowy Red Herring Corners to keep the Spooks And Spies And Conspiracies crowd happy without beating it to death. As one review suggests, watching Thomas juggle and never drop two plot lines is almost as much fun as reading the book. Thomas’s first book weaves four different times and locations. In the interviews I’ve read, Thomas always states that he didn’t know how his books would turn out when he started them. Which explains why reading them you never know where it’s going or what’s going to happen. The other thing that happens, like any good book, is when you put down a Ross Thomas, you’re never where you were before you read it. When big time award winners call Ross Thomas the Elmore Leonard of politics, believe them.

Takeaway “… (A) whole shelf of books with his name on them, in none of which one will ever encounter an ill-chosen word, an infelicitous phrase or a clunky sentence.” From Lawrence Block’s foreword to a reprinting of Briarpatch.

When I say I wish I’d written these two books, it’s not because their subject matter represents the Greatest Stories Ever Told, although Briarpatch is right up my alley. To me, both books exhibit the difference between marginal to good, workmanlike Close Enough For Horseshoes And Hand Grenades writerly output and elite craftsmanship. It’s not simply down to an understanding of the little things, of skilled mechanics and the finesse that keeps you turning pages without getting kicked out of the story. It’s being a big enough storyteller to put your best into it and get the hell out of the way. These two books do that, in their own way, and both represent, to me, the highest form of craft. If it’s not story, it’s not there. The story lines and styles might not be for everyone, but whatever you write, these are Stories About People, and textbooks for How It’s Done.

NVDT Book Review

Just an Odd Job Girl – Sally Cronin

I mentioned I read waaaaay out of my usual Reading For Entertainment sphere beginning sometime last summerFor those reading this you know by now I don’t do book reports. For all the finer points of the story, the characters, the plot, summations and all of that you need to read the book for yourself. All the And Then Imogen Does This or That and Golly What a Laugh are for readers to discern. To me, reviews should be impressions of the Product, not a retelling.

4.5 Stars– Sally always turns out something good, and always has wonderful things to say about Indie books and authors where, for the life of me, the best I could do for some of them would be in the “Nice sweater. It really hides your double chin” vein. That is all to say Sally is a Saint in the world of Indie Authors, and yes, I know it’s difficult to knock on anything that reads like a memoir if it’s well done, and this one is.

So why 4.5 on an easy “Five for what it is” book? Because I take a multi-faceted look at books, and lately I have been leaning on What It Could Have Been barring certain mechanics. In this case a comparison might be made to a five-star restaurant using plastic utensils. We are served a wonderful dish on a paper plate vehicle.

My .02 – Enough mid-life women dumped for the sultry secretary by men too innately stupid to see past the end of their peckers. While late in the book the ex and his wife’s failure to adapt to a baby is humorous, it’s also, as is the alone in mid-life by aforementioned stupid men, beyond stale. This sort of fictional memoir, replete with all the peripheral Mr. Mom letting the “I” binge eat, lose self-esteem and identity and then recover, would be better off leaving all the cliché vehicles at the front gate and entering the missive without them. These well-written, colorful, conversational style scenes would shine much brighter without the cliché tarnish. All a reader needs to know is the woman is single, in mid-life, and has applied for a job. Thinking of all her past jobs before becoming the once Mrs. Haus Frau and preparing to pull herself up by the bootstraps is story enough. Even the blurb could do without the dumbass husband, who we see throughout the book in various positions as boyfriend, non-boyfriend, eventual husband and ex. All we need to learn on the front end is the chump is gone. We’re here, now, with this pleasant, humorous woman and her crazy quilt of experiences and for my money the story is its own backstory and requires no set-up mechanism of Why Or How I Came To Be Here. “I” am here, and here’s some stories.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe so, and maybe it’s a preference. However, anyone who disagrees that tired set-up is acceptable in the memoir format, particularly one that covers a lot of ground, I commend them to Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes in The House on Mango Street or Eudora Welty’s Thirteen Stories. Or even the refried trickster fables of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus. The narrator, the “I” is on a porch or in a park or kicking bricks in the Barrio and shares a story with us. I can see Sally Cronin’s narrative voice looking out her window, sitting in her garden, taking a walk, looking in the mirror, bustling about town feeling both determined and out-of-place, telling her stories as shorts, without the “I’m here because I married a dick head”. There are reviews out there who disagree and wholeheartedly embrace the Louse Of A Husband set up. Hear this -I am not suggesting jump in In Media Res, but The Odd Job Girl is why we’re here and her stories stand up by themselves. We should meet the “I” as she is and let her talk, sans distraction.

Also on display here is the author’s wonderful way of presenting characters with just enough description to make them our own. There are short gems in here every bit as good as MacDonald, Chandler, pick your author who only needs a line to put you in the characters’ space.

Last Call – If you want to read a Very Good Version of the discomfort and ultimate satisfaction of youthful to adult job hunting, job finding, job doing, re-careering and all the oddball characters and situations you’ll meet along the way, as well as some not overindulgent or overdone Discovering of Self, this is a Very Good Version, ex and all.

NVDT Book Review

Falling – Stevie Turner

Last summer I started reading waaaaay out of my usual Reading For Entertainment sphere. Falling was the jumping off point.

4.5 Stars Is it my kind of book? Not really. Is it ambitious and well executed? Yes.

First off, this is a long book. Back in the 80s it would have been in the Jackie Collins Sweeping Saga category. However, unlike Collins, this is an Epic Character Study, not an excuse for the what-a-web-we-weave with sexual indiscretions across multiple generations.

As an Epic Character Study, I stand in admiration of the author’s tenacity and ability to maintain continuity. Other than that, anything I say about this book would be a spoiler. Indeed, the last line of the blurb is tantamount to a spoiler. I quote—

James Hynde, fortified by several tots of whiskey, climbs up onto the roof of Parker Mews’ multi-storey car park and peers over the parapet. The game is up. The police will soon seize his millions, the Maserati, the London townhouse, and the Caribbean mansion on Windjammer Island.

Should he jump feet first or hold out his arms and topple over and over like a somersaulting gymnast? He closes his eyes, feels the breeze on his face, and pitches forward into the unknown.

Sixty feet below, Olivia Benet, a budding ballerina, rushes along Parker Mews towards the entrance to the multi-storey. Her interview for the Royal Ballet had taken much longer than expected, and she has but a few short minutes left before her parking ticket expires.

James has no idea of the consequences his action will have on his and Olivia’s lives.

See? I’d just as soon not know anything but a suicidal dude’s on the top of a car park and a ballerina is running for her car… I should have to open it to hear the thump.

When I read this book, after the initial BAM, I kept being reminded of a line from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

“What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity.”—Big Daddy.

I say that because every character in this book oozes mendacity. In fact, after a while when the two leads might appear to be honest, as a reader you are cautious to believe them. Which is a feather in the author’s cap. Telling you why the deuteragonists court each other, ultimately leading to marriage, divorce, a run-in with the London Deli Sandwich Mafia, ex-wife, more deli chicanery and misbehaviors In the country, which are only a few in a long string of broken and super-glued dreams, would spoil the book.

The character cast is deep, well drawn, and in keeping with the mendacity theme. Nobody shows up not wanting something and willing to tell a lie or three to get it. The ensuing Epic Character Study wrestling after each introduction is enough to keep you paying attention. And I don’t read this kind of thing.

The author does an excellent job hiding both the leads’ motivations for the first third of the book, so when the mendacity driven by avarice seeps out, it’s both startling and rewarding. In an Oh Dear, these people are kinds of fucked up way. After that, I felt like there was some occasional redundancy, as no one seems to learn anything from their misadventures and the same ol’ shit lands them in yet again another mess. Short version, male lead has a bad habit or two, and it fucks them up. Repeatedly. And often

I will confess to several trifles with Falling. Everyone takes way too many deep breaths, exhales, holds their breath, blows out a breath, sucks in a breath. I know everyone needs to breathe, but hardly a page goes by without someone breathing as a tag. Breath as a modified noun, breath as a verb. Rarely with an adverb, though. There are a few ‘whens’ and ‘thens’, nothing out of the ordinary. There are some chapter/scene endings that suffer from the same authorial leading as the last line of the blurb, but nothing major. What I call Very Acceptable Book Practices, personal preference aside.

My major trifle was with the male lead, whose addiction, though well written umpteen different ways in umpteen situations that drive the trials of this book, is a one-trick pony. Save for the female lead’s few encounters with shit heads who aren’t the lead. Yep, he’s pretty much bad news from page one and plays ‘the won’t do it again’ guilty puppy routine to the hilt, even from jail, but keeps doing it. Well enough for all but a few to keep buying it.

My favorite part of this book is toward the end when the deuteragonists discuss turning their diaries of life as a disappointing series of lies and cons and lost opportunities into a book, a work of Misery Lit that at once seems to explain this book and gives a post-modernist nod to breaking the fourth wall without coming right out and winking at us.

About Falling. These are some Contagiously Engaging Very Sick Puppies and if the human drama is your cup of tea, the author does a great job of portraying them. You’ll turn the pages just to see who will tell what lie or run their trip on whom next.

This is also, by far, including the few minor gripes, the most well written of Stevie Turner’s books. While I dislike most of her cover art and feel they do a disservice to her content by putting clip art people on the cover instead of leaving them to the reader, this one is so Escher-esque and outside that I can handle it. Take that comment with a grain of salt because Stevie’s books are about people. With at least one character who has a socially predatory psychology. And an author with a dry, dark sense of humor about some of the worst behaviors.

NVDT Book Review

Nocturnes – Kazuo Ishiguro

Two and a half stars. The author is a Nobel winner and these shorts are damn close to a waste of time. Like being on a cross-country flight stuck in the seat next to the mad dude reciting his boring, banal, nobody understands my life situation in a dull monotone.

I read Nocturnes because it was a gimme from the publisher’s rep that my wife left lying on end tables around the house. I picked it up when it stopped moving as it was a heavily promoted “must read.” I don’t know who decides those things, but by reading it, I felt I was doing my literary due diligence. My reaction to finishing it was a resounding “Huh?” I showed it to my wife whose best professorial assessment was “When I finished it, I didn’t feel like I’d read anything.”

I tried, in vain, to find some inner artistry, some deeper meanings, some exotic form of construct and couldn’t. There is nothing in Nocturnes resembling nightfall or music. Save for music serving as a vocational commonality between characters in most of the stories, never as a metaphor or form of construct. No deeper than it played, it could have been any vocation.

In my eyes, Nocturnes appeared flawlessly vapid. A Superficial work about Superficial People, deliberately drawn without a hint of narrative passion. However, in all the reviews and criticisms I read, not one mentioned the thematic thread that slapped me in the face. Selfishness. Every character has their own variation of being under-or-completely unappreciated and the center of their own universe. Marital partners, guitarists, a saxophonist, a cellist and old “friends” all perceive themselves as imposed on, internally or externally, with some mostly indirect discussion/perception of what-is-success.

The flat style made suspending disbelief during the few moments of slapstick difficult. In fact, one scene reminded me of the same sort of one minor thing leads to a real mess in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim but here the pages (seriously) of activity feel forced and the protagonist’s perceived dilemma ultimately leads to nothing. They’re both British, and the humor was on the order of Fawlty Towers, however Nocturnes’ timing was off. I am not one to flip through pages of humor, forced or otherwise, but here I fanned forward a few times just to see how much more I had to endure to get back to a story.

Dialogue and narrative never popped. The style of the book, which I’ll call flaccid, was understatement taken to an extreme. Uber flat, correct, almost clip art construction. The only way I can explain it, and I hope this isn’t too farfetched –

In music, every note played by a human is nuanced. Timing and dynamics. These two things can be captured by technology. Such a capture gives one the ability to adjust a performance to spreadsheet grid “perfection.” What happens when all the timing is corrected to the nearest perfect timing grid and all the dynamics flattened to the same velocity? The music, now perfect and sterile, is no longer musical. That’s this book. To me. And I’m not alone, although I feared at first I might be. That’s sad as the author has a musical background and a Nobel prize for literature. But this ain’t how he got it.

Many, and I mean a LOT of critics, basted this book with more venom than I could mount towards it. I suppose the author’s rep and pre-sales for a letdown performance were grist for the WTF mill. I went into it knowing the author was a Nobel winner and was sorely disappointed. But then they tagged Bob Dylan, so who’s next? Paul Simon? Bruce Springsteen? Ice-T? Before I quote from the New York Times, I should note that the dust jacket claims the book to be a NYT Bestseller.

Excerpts from Christopher Hitchens in his October 1, 2009 NYT Review  – “I became dispirited as I noticed that Ishiguro almost never chose a formulation or phrase that could be called his own when a stock expression would do… But these five too-easy pieces are neither absorbingly serious nor engagingly frivolous: a real problem with a musical set, and a disaster, if only in a minor key, when it’s a question of prose.” You can read the entire in-depth review here.

The washed-out nature of this book, while harping on selfishness and them-using-me-using-them themes and having nothing to do with a genuine sense of place or music, begs the question of expectations of authenticity. Do we read all of a Nobel winner’s work expecting to be bowled over? Do we expect the title to have something to do with the structure? In this book, the only Nocturnes, or that time of day when daylight is slipping away, and the moon is rising, are only evidenced in several stories where the relationships are waning from sunny days through that time when everything is gray and colorless. Now, if that’s what Ishiguro was looking to convey, he made it. He could even now be laughing his ass off that only a few got it. But it turned off even those who went that way. Hitchens again – “Understatement is one thing, but in aiming for it, Ishiguro generally achieves the merely ordinary.”

Worth a ‘note’ – Hitchens also commented on a dialogue habit in these stories and I am, as a student of dialogue, obligated to quote him. I’ll go first. I have discovered there has to be a conversational trigger to get back story in. Even my most verbose characters need a trigger, some give and take. And I have been shamed in the past for backstory dumps. In Nocturnes there is no such warmup. An old crooner pulls up a chair to chat with a roaming pickup band guitarist in Venice and dumps his guts. A guy who hasn’t seen his “friend” in years dumps his guts. This (non-musical) motif repeats so often Hitchens writes – “As if in recompense for this banality, Ishiguro does like to afflict his characters with something like Tourette’s syndrome. Whether it’s Venice or Malvern, it is perfect strangers who are told, without any appreciable loss of time, that the long-standing marriage of the person who is doing all the talking is coming to an end.”

The takeaways -Trickle that backstory. Write like you mean it. Modulate intensity. Look for the word, not the first or easiest, particularly when using an adverb. There are many instances in this plodding book that resemble the lazy Indie where everyone’s action tag is to take lots of deep breaths. What we can learn here is damn near perfect sentence and paragraph structure, in the most boring and technical sense. Almost like AI. That someone needed to inject some peaks and valleys and personality into. That discussion is coming.