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Among Us Women, by Joan Lerner

February 23, 2012 29 comments

There’s no filter on Joan Lerner’s angry, grieving, hopeful heroine. Her emotions bubble just beneath the surface and regularly boil over. Among Us Woman is a sometimes wondrous, often painful labor of love.” – Steward O’Nan, author of the acclaimed novel, Songs for the Missing

“Plotting reminiscent of Susan Isaacs… with the extras of lush interiors, savvy design tips and elegant meal presentations. Lerner confronts controversial topics in her debut novel but she lightens the mood with eye candy.” – Linda Ellis, author of Death at a Dumpster

“Interior Designers will be especially taken with Joan Lerner’s novel, grounded as it is in her expertise. Joan, a past president of NJASID, who then served on the national board of directors, has written a gripping story of three women with differing design careers which provide important contexts for the fast moving plot. –Ria E. Gulian, ASID, CID, Past President NJASID

Joan Lerner tackles some tough women’s issues in her new novel Among Us Women. The three women who share the novel’s pages are very different but hold common ground with which most of us can identify and relate. The author’s insight is compelling and her conclusions thought-provoking. I liked it; you will too.” – Jean Kelchner, author of Backstage at the White House.

An exerpt from Among Us Women, was published in NEWN, New England Writers Network. “An excellent example of set piece scenes. There is plenty of conflict, emotion and motivation.” – Liz Aleshire, (1949-2008), author of 101 Ways You Can Help: How to Offer Comfort and Support to Those Who Are Grieving (Sourcebooks 2009)

This provocative novel is built on the overlapping stories of three women whose professional, marital, political, religious and sexual lives echo social controversies; feminism, abortion, AIDS, of the decade following the mid-eighties. One becomes pregnant through IVF and opts for single motherhood when her homosexual husband deserts her. Another is born again and believes her salvation lies in saving unborn babies intended for abortion. The third, a black feminist has an abortion when her white married lover tells her to “get rid of it.”

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I found punctuation errors throughout Among Us Women, and a marked inconsistency in Ms Lerner’s use of punctuation—check out the back cover copy which I’ve reproduced above to see some of the problems which are typical of this text. Ms Lerner could have avoided this particular problem by employing the services of a good copy-editor because punctuation problems can be corrected: but a lack of competence when it comes to writing can’t be dealt with so easily, and that’s where this book really failed.

While this book isn’t the worst I’ve read for this blog, it does need a lot of work. It’s set in the late 1980s, and the tone of the text reminds me of the slew of books which appeared after The Women’s Room became such a success. It’s dated, and badly, but that’s not the only problem: the dialogue is turgid and unbelievable and chock-full of exposition; there is no characterisation to speak of; and that lack of characterisation makes it very difficult for the reader to care for any of the characters, or to identify with the situations those characters find themselves in. And all this adds up to an unappealing heaviness of tone.

Ms Lerner has chosen a complicated point of view for this book: her three main characters speak in turn, telling their own sides of their overlapping stories. Establishing three distinct voices in one novel takes a skilled writer: Tess Stimpson does it beautifully in The Wife Who Ran Away, but Ms Lerner fails to make it work in this book. Often the only way I could work out which character was driving the narrative was to check with the chapter headings. It’s my view that novel-reading should be a pleasurable experience and not a confusing or difficult one, and this lack of clarity is a significant failure.

The author struggles with transitions, lurching from one event and location to another without pause or redirection; she often slides from one tense to another and back again, sometimes within a single paragraph; and the text is infused with a determination to somehow be worthy which, coupled with the issues that are discussed in this book leads to a slow, dull read.

I read fifteen of this book’s three hundred and fifty nine pages, and find nothing to recommend here.

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The Discovery of Socket Greeny: Tony Bertauski

October 5, 2011 3 comments

SOCKET ALWAYS FELT LIKE THE PEOPLE AROUND HIM WERE A BUNCH OF FAKES.

HE WAS RIGHT.

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The Discovery of Socket Greeny proved rather tricky for me to review. It’s confusing, inconsistent, the characters behave bizarrely for little apparent reason, and there are many instances of heavily overwritten text: but the writer’s voice is strong and compelling, and despite the book’s flaws I enjoyed this quirky read.

It does need work. While the text is clean enough some editing is still required: there are several places where the text could be significantly tightened, particularly in the many dream-like sequences (there’s a distinction between “atmospheric” and “poncey” which I suspect this writer is not yet fully aware of); the word “essence” is horribly overused; and the writer really needs to learn how to avoid constructions which make his sentences laugh-out-loud wrong. For example, on page twenty-eight we find this:

Mom waited at the office door. She pushed her hair behind her ear, it fell back, and took a deeper breath than usual.

I can tell what the author meant; but he’s written that Mom’s hair was breathing, which doesn’t work at all. If that were the only example of this particular grammatical stumble that I found in the book I would be more forgiving: but there were several, and each one made me wince. Mistakes like these add up quickly and have a very detrimental effect on the reader’s enjoyment of the book. It’s the sort of thing that a good editor would spot: and I can’t help thinking that if Mr. Bertauski had worked with a good editor, I would be recommending this book to you now. I read thirty-seven of two hundred and sixty-eight pages and am rather disappointed that this particular book couldn’t show itself off a little better.

Never Mind Yaar: K Mathur

September 28, 2011 6 comments

Never Mind Yaar

K. Mathur’s vivid descriptions bring the college and its students to life. Immensely pleasurable and thought provoking.

When longtime friends Binaifer and Louella meet Shalini Dyal at Gyan Shakti College, Gyan full knowledge and Shakti full strength, a true friendships that transcends cultural and religious backgrounds is born. Louella is a Christian, Binaifer, Parsi and Shalini, a Hindu.

“To me the book is a mixture of history, cultural information and a lovely story all rolled into one.”

– Sarah, UK

“I was in a style trick about my college days after reading about the three friends from different backgrounds.”

Snigdha, India

“Khoty has written a beautiful story… I dare anyone to read Never Mind Yaar and not come away with some insight.”

– Rita’s Book Reviews

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This writer has a lively and individual voice and handles her male characters quite well: they are all distinct and believable, and work well together. Her female characters aren’t so finely drawn, however, and the writer’s tendency to head-hop makes the scenes in which they appear jumbled and confusing. It’s a shame, as there’s something I like about this writer’s voice: but the writing wasn’t clear enough for me to be to recommend it.

There was a scattering of punctuation problems; and Never Mind Yaar would be much easier to read if the paragraphs were indented; but for me, the overwhelming problems with this book are the writer’s tendency to overwriting, and the lack of clarity in her prose. I’d like to see what Ms Mathur could achieve once she gains a better understanding of point of view; and once she learns how to edit more ruthlessly, with clarity and pace in mind.

I was also disappointed by the slowness with which the story developed. I read fifteen of this book’s two hundred and thirty-two pages and no real conflict had been established by then: all I knew about the story is that it takes place in a university with a grumpy administrator, and that the young women who have just arrived are pleased to be there.

A quicker start to this book would grasp the reader’s attention, and make them eager to read more. If this were combined with a crisper, cleaner prose style this book might well have great promise: as it is, it’s a slow, confusing read which gives just the smallest hints that with a little more guidance this writer might do right rather well.

Root Cause: James W Crissman

September 21, 2011 10 comments

When Bruce Dinkle takes up the cause of eating only local food, his zeal badly exceeds his judgement. After alienating his family by enforcing a strict locavore and urban agriculturist lifestyle, he abandons them by bicycle on a quixotic quest to learn where food comes from. He quickly becomes enmeshed in a small Michigan farming community where he goes to work for a large crop farmer, meets a sagacious veterinarian, and falls for a randy goat lady, all part of a sprawling cast of characters who enliven this often hilarious, mix of food, family, sex, and a little violence down on the farm. Think Michael Pollan meets James Herriot and Carl Hiaasen.

James W. Crissman is a veterinary pathologist and former large animal veterinarian. He is the author of a 1998 Pudding House Publications chapbook, Jailbait in Holy Water, and has won numerous prizes for his poetry. His short story, Wallhangers, won the 2007 Dirt Rag literature contest. Root Cause: the story of a food fight fugitive is his first novel. Jim and his veterinarian wife Jill live on a small farm in central Michigan where they’ve grown three children and much of their food for more than twenty years.

“We know there is tragedy and drama in obsession, but sometimes we forget that there can be something wonderfully comic in it, too. James Crissman reminds us of this with Bruce Dinkle, the richly weird protagonist of ROOT CAUSE, who sacrifices everything from family to dignity in his effort to find the right way to live. He is Don Quixote for our time — silly, misguided, and just maybe absolutely necessary.”

Keith Taylor, Creative Writing Coordinator, University of Michigan and author of If the World Becomes so Bright.

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There is much to like about Root Cause: its characters are reasonably well-drawn, the premise is interesting, and it’s full of black humour which is quite delicious at times. But all these things are overshadowed — not to a great degree, but enough to be significant — by problems which could easily have been fixed with a rigorous edit.

There were a few typos and punctuation errors: Mr. Crissman is over-fond of commas; and he is prone to overwriting and to writing complex sentences with long words when simpler and shorter would be better. Many of the pages that I read were given over entirely to exposition, and to telling the reader what was happening and how the characters felt, rather than showing us the nuances that makes reading so much more rewarding.

The story didn’t actually get going until page seventeen, which is far too late: and by that time I’d already been lectured at several times as Mr. Crissman banged his point home and then repeated himself, just to be sure we got it. Scenes which should have been sharp and pacey (for example, pages twenty six to twenty nine, if anyone’s counting) felt rushed and flat, and were unsatisfying as a result.

These points are not minor but they could be addressed by a ruthless rewrite. It would vastly improve this book which, despite all the flaws I’ve listed, has great potential. I came so close to recommending it but decided not to because there are so many issues with it: but I’m convinced that beneath all the clutter there’s a good novel here, from a clever writer who is bound to get better. I read thirty pages out of this book’s three hundred and eight. Mr. Crissman mighth like to read Alice Monroe and Carol Shields so that he can see what to aim for: and I look forward to watching his talent develop in the years to come.

I Serve: Roseanne E Lortz

September 14, 2011 7 comments

A tale of ARMS, of DEATH, of LOVE, and of HONOR

Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War, I SERVE chronicles the story of Sir John Potenhale. A young Englishman of lowly birth, Potenhale wins his way to knighthood on the fields of France. He enters the service of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, and immerses himself in a stormy world of war, politics, and romantic intrigue.

While campaigning in France, Potenhale developed an interest in Margery, a spirited lady-in-waiting with a close-kept secret. He soon learns that Sir Thomas Holland, a crass and calculating baron, holds the key to unlock Margery’s mystery and possesses the power to overturn all of his hopes.

When the Black Death strikes Europe, however, Potenhale realizes that the fiercest enemy does not always appear in human form. Seeing the pestilence as a punishment for the sins of his generation, he questions his calling as a knight and considers entering the cloister. Margery or the monastery? Torn between losing his soul and losing the love of his life, he finds friendship with a French knight who might-just possibly-help him save both.

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I read very little historical fiction: it’s a genre I’ve never really developed a liking for, with the exception of the wonderful books by Elizabeth Chadwick, whose novels I adore. I’m always very aware of my lack of appreciation of this genre, and so when I review historical fiction I always try to overcome my personal feelings and judge the text on its merits, and not my own biases. I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince only reinforced my lack of interest in the genre, I’m afraid. It had the usual sprinkling of errors in punctuation; but my overwhelming feeling with this book is that it lacks authenticity.

There were several reasons for this. The author has included a handful of details which don’t ring true: for example, an out-of-breath horse is described as having “heaving withers”: as withers are a horse’s shoulders that seems very unlikely to me; and a character snaps “a single blossom” from a broom plant: brooms have lots of tiny pea-like flowers on each branch and a single one wouldn’t take much snapping nor would it be at all impressive.

Then comes the dialogue. It’s stilted, overly formal, owes more to the movies of Errol Flynn than to history, and it really interferes with the authenticity of this text. Add to this frequent bouts of exposition, a tendency to over-write, some repetition, and a pace that at times feels draggingly slow and at other times hurried, and I’m surprised that I read as far as I did. I reached page forty four of this three hundred and sixty one page book, and wasn’t sorry to put it aside.

Flight To Paradise: Mike Coe

September 7, 2011 129 comments

Eighteen year old Keri Hart’s life was turned upside down when her Southern high society mother insisted, “Now Sugah, I think it would be best if you ended it with Ryan Mitchell…” only days before his leaving Atlanta to attend the United States Naval Academy.

Fast-forward nine years, Keri is a Miami-based flight attendant; Ryan is a Navy fighter pilot based near San Diego and soon to be an airline pilot. In hopes of reviving a love once lost, Ryan writes to Keri. Before the letter is posted, Rex Dean, Ryan’s laid-back, self-absorbed roommate, intercepts and alters the letter—the beginning of a deviously concocted plan that blindsides the hometown hopefuls, thrusting them into rebound relationships.

With Ryan’s marriage a train wreck and Keri engaged—her wedding only weeks away—fate arranges a coincidental New York layover. A morning stroll through Central Park awakens their undeniable love for each other, forcing them to question everything they thought they knew.

Masterfully balanced with suspense, humour, and emotional intensity, Flight To Paradise takes readers on a journey that concludes with the unexpected. With a multitude of twists and turns, the tale unfolds a story of hope, forgiveness, and the enduring message that “love given” is the key to unlocking the desires of the heart.

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Mike Coe landed in Southern California after traveling the world as an Air Force pilot and twenty-one year veteran commercial airline pilot. He has two grown children and is married to his high school sweetheart, best friend, and soul mate of thirty-three years. To learn more about the story behind the stories, please visit coebooks.com.

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There is a somewhat-Stepford quality to the two female characters which appear in the first few pages of Flight to Paradise: mother and daughter Barbara Ann and Keri are both flat as pancakes as far as personality and characterisation goes, and are described in terms which are at times reminiscent of the softer end of porn. The book opens with young Keri in the shower; later she happens to drop the towel she’s wearing just as she happens to stand in front of the mirror (I was at this point expecting a description of her appearance and while her face wasn’t mentioned, I wasn’t disappointed). Then there are the usual issues with punctuation and exposition; and our author’s odd fondness slapping “pre-” onto words which simply don’t need it. I found two instances of “pre-selected” within a page of one another, and a “pre-screened” popped up between them: not one “pre-” was required and the overall effect was jerky and peculiarly distracting.

On the plus side, however, the author has a reasonable sense of pace and unlike many of the other books I’ve reviewed here there is a hint of natural storytelling ability present in the text.

On the whole then, a disappointment. The hints that I saw of the writer’s talents were outweighed by his clumsy mistakes and his apparent discomfort within this genre, and I read just four pages out of three hundred and thirty five.

Much of this writer’s depiction of women was stereotypical and often verged on voyeuristic, and I wonder if he might be better off writing a different genre: I don’t think he has an aptitude for writing romance and it could be his lack of empathy with the driving force of this book which has deadened it. I wonder how he’d improve if he turned to genres which are more traditionally masculine, such as crime thriller; and I wish him luck in finding his niche.

Dreaming of Deliverance: R E Chambliss

August 17, 2011 7 comments

Five years ago when Lindsay Paulson, a naive college student and talented distance runner, was 18, she was convicted of drug smuggling. Now, halfway through a 10-year prison sentence, she begins having what seem to be dreams, in which she leaves her cell in the night and visits another reality called Trae. Dreaming of Deliverance tells of Lindsay’s experiences both in Trae, where she finds herself among people enslaved by terrifying creatures, and in prison where she tries to make sense of what’s happening in her sleep: Is she actually escaping from prison somehow or is she losing her mind?

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When I review books for this blog I don’t often set my notes aside and read the book purely for enjoyment: but that’s what I did with Dreaming of Deliverance, and I’m very pleased that I did.

Ms Chambliss has a very fluid, readable style; I read all five hundred and fifty-four pages of this book in one day, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The typos I found were so minor that they didn’t intrude upon my enjoyment of the story; and I was genuinely sad when I reached the end and had to say goodbye to all of the characters I had come to know.

However (you knew there’d be a “however”, right?), despite my general enthusiasm I do have criticisms: and they mostly focus on the book’s plot and structure.

First off, it’s much too long. It could easily be cut by 20 to 30% without losing any of the plot, and that would improve the already-good pace no end.

There are too many instances where an important issue is mentioned just before it becomes necessary to the plot: for example, the news that Parl had gold deposits, and that Joel could disable the Loche (the terrifying creatures mentioned in the book’s back cover copy above) if he needed to. These things (there were several others) should have been built more firmly into the plot so that the reader could better appreciate the costs involved when such skills had to be used. The reader wasn’t let into the world of the Loche enough, so it was difficult to empathise with them and so understand more fully why they did what they did; and no explanation was ever given for how Lindsay ended up in Trae in the first place, or why she returned to her own world each time she slept.

The storyline involving the prison was unsatisfying: the prison was little more than a box to keep Lindsay and when she wasn’t visiting Trae and a lot more could have been done with this part of the book: I wanted to see some real resolution here, some more tension; and for events on each side of the story to directly affect the other.

In all, then, the good, enjoyable read which could have been even better had the writer improved the plot, made full use of the situations she created, edited far more ruthlessly and thought more carefully about pace and tension. I believe this is a first novel (I might be wrong): if it is then Ms Chambliss has done remarkably well and I look forward to watching her work improve over the years.