Sunday, April 25, 2010


(And I don't mean of the Michael Jackson variety.)

I finished Eric Van Lustbader's 'Last Snow', a thriller.

EVL is known for his fantasy and thriller series, but also for reviving the Jason Bourne, (of the Bourne identity movies) series on contract from the estate of Ludlum, the creator.

An aside:
Generally literati talk about Plot driven novels, versus character-driven novels.
In the plot driven novel, what happens in the story is of primary importance. The characters seem to be pawns driven around through the novel like chess pieces on a board. In the character-driven novel on the other hand, it seems as if the characters are the masters of their own fate, and the story told unfolds because of the choices they make. I prefer novels that combine the two. The best examples of character driven stories are 'literary fiction'. I've been known to criticize this 'genre' as often the stories are so beautiful and they employ such incredibly powerful imagery, the prose is so lush, but I finish one and say.... so what was the point?

Plot driven stories are quite the opposite. There is a story. But sometimes the plot can be so contrived as to force me to the other side of the 'criterati' and scream at the pages; "That would never happen. Protagonist would never act that way!" (Most genre fiction has conventions. If a story didn't follow some of the conventions of the genre for instance, it wouldn't be labeled, right?) Of all the contemporary genre fiction, Thrillers are far and away the most plot-driven of them all. And this was very evident in Lustbader's novel.

Okay, back to my post.
In short it was a story of Jack McClure, ATF agent, hero, Presidents friend on special assignment where he breaks a 27 year marriage off with his wife, sleeps with an FSB (old soviet KGB) agent, foils high crimes, saves people, has shoot outs, survives arsenic poisoning...okay, get the picture? The political thriller is always an over the top plot-driven romp. It was well plotted, carried the story along and sold millions of copies. It will probably be a movie. But, I really didn't enjoy it and had to resist skimming to the finish. (I try never to do that. Elmore Leonard said his novels move along well because he never writes the parts people skip. So when I am tempted to skim, I ask myself why exactly I have that impulse.)

I think the biggest problem is that the author doesn't have a firm enough grasp of current Russian/Eurasian geopolitics and energy policy. News paper level, but there were too many instances where he tried to make the Russia of today be the Soviet Union of the 80's (the peak of coldwarspynovelthrillerdom). Then there were the instances where an event would happen but it wouldn't impact the rest of the flow of the novel. For instance, main character kills two assassins sitting in the car on the street below his apartment. Main character goes off to bordelo for top level meeting with bad guy. Main character returns to apartment and has dinner with hot widow next door. Okay. So why was the front of his apartment, where presumably there is a car full of dead guys, gone? No crime scene? I don't know, call me crazy, but I would expect such an event to have repercussions. And yes, I know it's a story. And it never really happened. And yes, I know that such a criticism from someone who writes stories about monsters seems a tad ironic. But still, help me suspend my disbelief a little bit longer.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Gone but not forgotten

It would appear that Atom Jack online magazine has closed up shop. It's been happening alot lately, small presses start with a burst of energy, flourish and then life catches up with the publishers and they fall by the wayside. Adicus Garton bought my first short story, "Outsourcing Blues", for the May 2007 issue (Issue Seven). It was nice little mag, with good taste...I mean he bought my first story, right?

It would appear that the publishers are trying their hand at spec fic anthologies, you can check them out here.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jaw Bones

I recently finished two books in rapid order, first 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs and second, Jaws by Peter Benchley. It was an osteologically-themed reading week.

Kathy Reichs holds a PhD in forensic anthropology and writes genre mystery fiction with a bit of a police procedural feel. Her character, Temperance Brennan, is the inspiration for the TV show 'Bones'. I picked this up thinking this was the book that the series was based upon, not realizing that it was in fact the twelfth book in the series...

It was pretty good. I'm a science geek, so the preachey asides which bordered on direct address of the reader, weren't so bad.
A common technique in old-fashioned literature, is referred to by contemporary literati as 'Breaking the fourth wall', but I assure you dear reader, this is much frowned upon in contemporary writing circles. Unless of course you are going for a pastiche of some sort, which Kathy Reichs was not doing. Anyway, her asides took time to explain very technical aspects of anthropology, forensics, etc and worked pretty well. The preachy references to the need for a 'board-certified-forensic-anthropologist' was a thinly disguised professional rant against the unprofessional use of 'mere pathologist who lack forensic anthropological training or board certification' at the end though.

Anyway, you can read the wikipedia review for the plot; different than the tv show, not bad on its own, better than some I've read, realistic, but not as terribly gritty as I expected from a crime novel about someone dealing with bodies.

The second book I devoured was Jaws. Ha!

Like most children of the 70's, my first summer blockbuster was the movie Jaws. I had the Jaws poster. I had Jaws T-shirts. I saw all of the sequels over the next 10 years. But I never read the book.

I picked it up from the library a few weeks ago....
... da-dum
With that same scantily clad swimmer..
... da-dum
With a torpedo-like shark with a grinning mouth-full of teeth beneath...
... da-dum

...And I was expecting pure camp.

(Don't get me wrong, I love camp. I love pulp. I like old Dr Who -The Tom Baker version, Dr #4, for max camp and minimum special effects budget.
Conan the Barbarian is one of my top ten favorite films of all time for crying out loud.)

But you know what? Jaws was actually a great read. I not only enjoyed it, I thought it was pretty good. The characters seemed extremely dated, but real. A little over the top with the frustrated housewife and the 'old mystery man of the sea' Quint. The children were props. But still I was pleasantly surprised. The tension held up well even though I knew what was going to happen, but I could see how the screen writers took scenes that were slower, more drawn-out but real and jazzed them up a bit to increase the tension and give the scenes more 'pop'.

It was a classic, but was much quicker at getting to the point than Ayn Rand...

Monday, April 5, 2010

Oh Lazarus

I recently finished,and enjoyed, the Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.

Friends know that my tastes are eclectic, reading is no different. Even though I am a wide-ranging reader, I don't think I would have picked up this book had it not been a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. I mentioned previously that the center of a writer's life is reading. So I read, a lot. I read pulp, I read Pulitzer winners, I read Newberry award winners, I read genre fiction by the box full(except romance- I tried...I just couldn't do it). I try to read things I enjoy, and things that will instruct (both in general terms and with regards to the craft of writing)and LP hit both marks.

The book is a story of a modern day Bosnian immigrant like the author who is conducting research for a book (about a Jewish immigrant killed in Chicago in 1908) and while tracing the path of the Jewish immigrant his companion (also a Bosnian, but one who had lived through the siege of Sarajevo) relays his story of the war. So really 3 stories in one.

Overall I thought it was well done and worth a read. But there were many instances where I experienced problems with the text that some of my critiquers have pointed out from time to time in my work.

First, the novice writer is told that the writer should be invisible to the reader. By that I mean that when you notice the writing you are knocked out of the story. Hemon's prose was overall very good, but he often used descriptive language (in particular adjectives) that seemed a bit incongruously and awkwardly wedged into the text. Maybe it's just me, but these instances brought me out of the story to wonder if these were really the right words to use.

Next problem for me was the reuse of vivid imagery. In particular 'vines of hair up the back of his neck'. First time you use it it's cool. Second time it is not only not cool it's awkward. Didn't happen often, but enough that I said to myself, 'Self, that's what that critter was talking about'.

Recycling is great, but not if it's really obvious in your story. The author recycled the same names, the same descriptions of people etc. I think the point was that there are echoes in history, but when it's really apparent that the author is doing it I think of it as 'cutesy' and I didn't really like it.

The last thing that tripped me up was not giving me enough information up front to have a clear image of the characters. If your character wears glasses and these will be important later then you need to tell me about them up front, otherwise I'll ask the blank pages 'where did those glasses come from?'.

It may sound as if I'm nitpicking, and I am. But I did enjoy the book, and would recommend it, even though it was a tad too literary (and postmodernist even) and just sort of...