Two interesting looking books popped up on my Kindle this week: Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn and The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins. Both sounded gritty and noir-ish for different reasons, so I was pleased to give them a go. After finishing, I had a strange feeling, kind of like waking up after being hit by a plank of wood to find a credit card receipt for 20 shots of premium tequila in my pocket.
I guess you could say that’s my masculine side coming out. I felt like a man – a manly man. Because, these books are just that – totally – manly.
The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
First up, this is a collection of short stories written by a current inmate serving life without parole for a murder during a ‘botched’ house robbery. The first thing you notice in this collection is how well it’s written. This isn’t a teenager writing fan fiction, this is someone who knows their craft, and I suppose he should as he has an MFA from Western Michigan University. This book isn’t actually out yet and the publishers have asked that no quotes be shared, but I’ll just say this, the authority of the stories just melts off the pages.
The setting is mostly Kalamazoo Prison, Michigan and the narrator seems to be often the same person interspersed with an Arthur or a George as he tells us their stories too. He takes us through a wide range of experiences from Processing to spending time in Quarantine before being sent to a prison, to the prison itself. It feels dramatically realistic, but there’s also a smattering of the supernatural too.
Where this book really shines is in the glimpses of insights into how an obviously intelligent and educated man mitigates the monotony of life in prison. Early on, ‘I’ tells us he isn’t normally a sociable person, talking for no reason, but in jail, you have to be, as there’s nothing else to do. And I think many of us could imagine this of ourselves (imagine it and shudder). So in order to reconnect with the outside world, he calls random numbers collect (he doesn’t have any personal contacts he can call) in the hope that someone on the other end will talk to him for 15 minutes, or at least let him listen to the traffic noise outside their house or the background TV and this as an idea is mesmerizing. In a nutshell, this book is mesmerizing, like been taken for an experience which I hope I’ll never encounter, but for which I’m grateful for the advice. It reads partly like a diary, partly like a philosophy.
However, a couple of factors got in the way of absolute pleasure. First off, there’s the issue of the author. If you want to learn more about him, check out Bullmenfiction.
The phrase, “I shot a man dead who had no business being shot” shows up here and this reeks of a lack of genuine remorse. If I went to someone’s house and shot them without any reason, I hope I could muster up a little more emotion than that, but hey. The other issue is the short story format. I wish to high heaven, this were a novel, but alas, I’m guessing Mr, Curtis doesn’t have his own personal MacBookPro in his cell with all his research and files neatly organized in coloured folders. And you know what they say, if you don’t want short stories, don’t read them. It’s a free world – for some of us.
Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn
Okay, hold on tight. NYC 2013. Man in a taxi thinking about money and sex. My first impression of Renny was that he was a fat, boring version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho travelling through an NYC that seemed recognizable to me. But wait, it’s meant to be a dystopian future version of NYC after some huge financial crash and an over running of drugs… It’s always tough when fiction falls short of reality.
Now there is a storyline and once you get into it, it is good but it’s hard to get past the layers of (to a woman) boring man-stuff. There’s a fashion in women-centric novels at the moment for including the recipes of the foods the characters eat, and in Rivers of Gold, there is so much talk of cocktails that I felt it was just the same need being fulfilled but differently. The sex talk is grim and sounds like it’s coming out of a middle aged, over fed man who is partial to botox, as in ‘no thanks, I’m late for a spin class’. But I can imagine plenty of guys really love those scene. Plus Renny gives girls head, so that make him a modern-thinking man, right?
But enough of the man bashing, because Rivers of Gold is a good book. Dunn has some great ideas and thoughts, which translate well on paper as the thoughts and ideas of his characters. He can also write well and in this age of self-publishing, that has to be recognized.
Naturally, this book, both these books, are populated with men and deal with how men think. The women are superficial, attractive or sexual characters or remarkable because they’re not attractive or sexual. I read and enjoyed both books on a surface level, but felt a little out of touch with the context and emotions.
Maybe this is just how guys feel if they read an Alice Walker/Munro collection. To each their own. Thank God we don’t all like the same stuff!
With ebooks picking up pace, many publishers are looking at their back catalogs to see what hidden gems they might have that would appeal to modern audiences. Some of these re-releases are genuinely in demand. When The Talented Mr. Ripley came out as a movie, Patricia Highsmith saw a resurgence in popularity and the various publishers experienced a windfall from the re-release of the Ripliad series and then The Cry of the Owl and Deep Water.
Agatha Christie also regularly sees a surge in sales, and whenever this happens, old releases in the same cozy crime and period genre often find their way onto the market. This month, I’ve been handed a bunch of these to review. And some of them are brilliant lost treasures.
Arthur J. Rees, The Hand in the Dark, The Moon Rock, and The Hampstead Mystery
Arthur John Rees was an Australian mystery writer. In his early twenties, he went to England and made this the location of many of his classics.
The Hand in the Dark is a ‘closed room mystery’. A woman is shot in a country home when everyone is at dinner downstairs and are therefore not implicated. However, a mysterious figure is seen in the bushes by the butler when he goes to fetch the police. Surely, it must be the killer! However, the gun and a bloody rag are soon discovered in the room of a maid and she is arrested. But in a further twist, once the nervous husband recovers his senses, he seeks out the services of a famous detective, as he is convinced she is innocent. This story is wonderful. Perhaps a little predictable (a golden rule in these types of stories is that it is never the staff), however, the story flows and uncovers various elements along the way that keeps the reader guessing.
The Moon Rock is of a similar feel. A rich man obsessed with having his title reinstated is found shot dead after he disinherits his newly discovered-as-illegitimate daughter. Did she do it, did her love interest do it or was it his faithful but overly familiar servant? And who is the ‘monster’ the dead man was running from? The Moon rock offers a story within a story and only once this story is played out, do we start to guess the truth.
However, I also received The Hampstead Mystery. This started off well, a rich man comes home early from a shooting party in secret and is shot at home. The police only discover it when they are sent an anonymous letter. The question being, who sent the letter and are they the murderer. Unfortunately, this story was a little convoluted compared to the other two and didn’t quite have the same charm. Just goes to show, not all books by the same author will go down well as re-releases.
Pearl S. Buck, Death in the Castle
The description goes, “An ancient castle, a cash-strapped and psychologically unstable aristocratic couple, and the rumor of ghosts weave together in this sparkling historical mystery.” Sound’s good doesn’t it? But it really isn’t for a number of reasons. In reality, the plot is about a castle about to be sold for transport to the US and the hope that some hidden treasure can be found to stave off the need for the sale.
I honestly thought – this must be written by an American teenager who knows nothing about British aristocrats. The behaviour of the family and the staff is like a Disney cartoon version of an upper-class household. There is also a scene where the Prime Minister repeatedly calls the King ‘Your Majesty’ in the same conversation. There’s a sub-plot about the butler’s orphaned granddaughter lording it around the house that was cringe worthy and bizarre. All in all, the writing was silly, with a Mills and Boon type feel.
I started reading this book unaware that the author was a Nobel prize winner, and that was probably for the best because I judged it on the writing alone. Buck was an American and wrote The Good Earth (1931) which was about her insights into the civil unrest in China. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. So, I guess it’s true what they say – write about what you know. And just because a book is a classic – doesn’t make it a good one…
Oh, well… on to the next book.
Eileen is the story of a 24-year-old woman in a small town in New England sometime in the early sixties. She lives with her emotionally cruelly but not physically abusive alcoholic father, where she has taken on a carer, co-dependent role since the death of her mother. Eileen works in a children’s prison and dreams of emptying her father’s bank account and going off to start a new life in New York. She doesn’t have any friends and seems to be suffering from body dysmorphia, telling us one minute that she is fat and the next that she weights 100lbs. The story is essentially about Eileen leaving X-ville.
This is a hard book to pigeonhole. On the one hand, it is wonderfully written, poetic, looping, well observed and fascinating and on the other seems full of mistakes, repetitive language and missed opportunities with a rather flat climax.
To start with the good bits – I was hooked from the very beginning. I was mesmerized by Moshfegh’s prose and I love an anti-hero. With set ups such as ‘this would be the last time I left the office,’ I was fully on board to hear about Eileen’s adventures. As the character study deepened, I had a feeling reminiscing of reading Dostoevsky. When the Rebecca character came along, I was excited too. She was drawn so well, I was convinced she might have been someone I knew. Their developing relationship sounded exactly like an experience I’d had with a beautiful, confident redhead at about that age. And Rebecca’s unhinged actions, which bring about the catalyst for Eileen’s change, were totally unpredictable from my POV. So if I could have just had these parts I would have been thrilled by Eileen.
However… there were too many issues for me in this book to make it enjoyable. The first 20 pages of exposition soon turned into 80 pages of the same information told from another experience. We learn early on that her father is a drunk, that she has body issues, that she steals, that she’s ambivalent about a range of elements in her life, but these get revisited time and time again with no further effect. The only outcome is that things we are told – that the author tells us are so for Eileen – get confused. Yes, Eileen is an unreliable character regarding her body and feelings about sex, but in one passage she tells us she has an idea of what a penis looks like from her father’s porno mags and 20 pages later she tells us as her father’s mags don’t include penises, she relies on a text book. There’s also some details about her mother which don’t seem to mesh. At the beginning, she bitterly complains that the house is dirty because her mother isn’t there to clean up anymore and later on gives us the impression that her mother was a poor housekeeper. This feels like the subject has been over written to the point where the author has lost hold of the threads. However, if it is meant to be further evidence of unreliability, it goes so far as to make anything she says dismissible.
I was really looking forward to reading Eileen, so much so that I didn’t even read all of the Guardian review before searching it out. If I had, I would have read that the book fails as a thriller. It was only after I finished Eileen that I went back to the review, curious what Sandra Newman had said of it and why. That’s when I read the last line ….
“Eileen is original, courageous and masterful…however, the plot machinery simply stands immobile until it’s cranked into life at the very end, whereupon it unceremoniously malfunctions and falls apart…”
I hate to end a review with a review, but that sums it up. Eileen is beautifully written prose, but the plot is not great thriller or suspense fiction material.
I’m writing this half way through my blog tour week for Dead Memories and honestly speaking, it’s hell! It’s not the fear of a bad review that makes it so terrible, even good reviews, really good ones, seem to rattle my cage. It’s kind of funny. We spend half our (non-writing) time thinking about getting more blog posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews and then when they drop in, it’s like going to the doctor for a shot. Arrgh! I can’t look. Owwaw! Just do it already.
This first time around with No More Birthdays, I noticed a trend with the reviews: About 40% of them where very positive, 40% so-so and 20% not loving it, if that’s a way to describe it. And I expected that kind of spread… As they say in the hair commercial, “Here comes the science part!”
Average star rating for a bestseller?
A typical bestseller on Amazon has a review average of 3.75 stars. This is because, we as the review leaver, tend to compensate for other people’s reviews. If we love a book and the review before ours is a 1 star, you better believe, we’re giving that book a 5 (even though we did consider it a 4/4.5 before that). And if other readers are raving about it and it was just not our thing, that 3 star book review suddenly becomes a disgruntled 2 star review. Also it’s easier to slam a book by an author who (possibly did, or you imagine) was paid a gazillion dollars!
Get reviews for a self-published book
However, a lot of independent books have much higher review averages, around 4.25 stars. Wow. Does that make any sense? Well, yes it does. The independent, self-publishing market is a strong, social and loyal friend (if you play it right) and seriously dissing an author you may be friends with online, is a little awkward (footnote, if you do write a scathing review and post it on a FB group page, you must tag the author if they are a member too. I once saw an amazing feud between a blogger and an author’s fans over this – popcorn please – all over a bad review and missing tag, and I haven’t seen that blogger since).
As it is a series, I put both books up on offer for review and got reviews back for No More Birthdays too. No More Birthdays if certainly darker than Dead Memories as it sets the scene for the series, but it’s pretty clear from the blurb (gritty crime noir) that there are going to be some unsavoury elements in the story. Still, if the wrong person picks up this book, they’re going to hate it. Even my sister hated this book but then she told me she was going to give it to her 13 year old daughter (I told her not to, absolutely not to, but she did). I can just imagine the conversations they had over dinner that evening. So I really expected a mixed bag for this blog week.
Anyway back to the half time scores
So I did get a couple of bad ones… a 1 star (she would have given me ZERO stars if this was possible), who obviously stumbled across this book on her way to the shelf marked ‘Fairies’ and ‘Dashing, London Vampire Detectives’ (Yeah, I looked at her other books). And her review was a good read (No pun intended). For me, words matter! I want to see why someone HATED my book (caps used intentionally – for some reason haters love caps!’) She hated it because the only crime in the book was murder (okay) and it was ‘smutty and pornographic’ (a teenager fights of a potential rapist). So that for me, it totally fine, just the wrong book in the wrong hands. If she had said it was boring, and if it was boring, I would be upset.
The other bad review was a bit of a mystery, 2 stars and the reviewer complained that there was no detective in the story… but I’m pretty sure there was… I distinctly remembe writing her in. Anyway, as said, bad reviews also rock! Those people read the book and hated or maybe mixed it up with another book but, it is still all-good. After my 1 star review, the very next one was a 5 star. I like to think she wasn’t over compensating for the 1 star, but hey – I’ll take it!
But I’d be lying if I said I liked bad reviews as much as good ones. I love good reviews. I especially love it when reviewers ‘get it’ and really get it. When I have the feeling that they read the book I thought I wrote, my skin tingles! I’m looking at you Avid Reader. And of course, the reviews from bloggers who read a lot and are prepared to think between the lines and recognise that the hero is an unreliable witness, like at shawnashauntia. I don’t write stories that spell it out because I don’t want readers who needed it spelled out to them.
So these lovely people also tend to put their reviews (good and bad) up on Amazon and Goodreads too, which is great (essential) for any book. And there is nothing I love more than seeing a good healthy spread of very positive, good, and very negative reviews. Why? Well, when was the last time you bought a book based on its 20 reviews which all gave it 5 stars or even worse, the first 20 are 5 star reviews and the last 3 are 1’s? Finding a good book online is hard work. A lot of writers and publishers are buying reviews and they only want 5 stars. When a real reader gets it, they are so disappointed they give it a 1. And we all, instinctively know this.
So bring on the 1, 2 and 3 star reviews. I can handle it! Scratch that – I want them!
This blog piece was written at 3am – any spelling a grammatical errors are probably just your eyes. Go get a coffee 😉
Came across this while researching the theme myself. Someone asked me, why Noir had to be so dark? I think this blog answers that.
Robert Mitchum and Jane Grier in Out of the Past
In the 1940s and 1950s, a new genre of film began to filter out of Hollywood. It was a hard-bitten, cynical genre, dealing with the kinds of themes that movies had not dealt with before. It’s often said that jazz is the only truly unique American art form. This is nonsense. Film noir is a genre that was created in America, and has been copied elsewhere around the world.
What is film noir? It’s difficult to define precisely. But when you see it, you recognize it for what it is. It can be a genre, a style, or a motif. What matters is the overall “spirit” of the film. What is its message? What impression lingers on the viewer’s brain? All noir films deal with at least a few of the following themes:
Existential crises affect the main character
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Time is finite, but sometimes, ideas seem to come from an inexhaustible source like a dam break somewhere high over your head. No matter how much you wish you could, you can’t write and finish every concept that ever comes to you. Some ideas are forgotten, some get shoved in the draw, some get started and some get rewritten and rewritten and rewritten, but are still never finished. Oh well.
But when you think of your favourite (dead) authors, don’t you wonder what brilliant ideas they had that were never finished?
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is probably the best example of a classic unfinished novel. Dickens had written 6 chapters and published 3 when he suffered a stroke and died. This left his reading public with the ultimate cliffhanger, no idea who killed the uncle and no chance of ever finding out.
Likewise, The Garden of Eden The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway was also left unfinished by the author’s death. However seeing as he had been working on this sexuality-bending honeymoon drama for 15 years already, who knows if the work was really on the top of his to-do list.
If you write every day, it seems inevitable that one story will die with you, but there are many more that will never make it.
Some authors obviously lose a lot of sleep over the idea that some stories are destined never to be. Patricia Highsmith went as far as to write a novel about an author who has hundreds of story ideas and never manages to complete a single one. The stories in this novel were her own unfinished ideas. Actually, that’s a lie. Funnily enough, Highsmith only ever outlined that story and never completed it. Cue Alanis Morrisette…. Or perhaps Highsmith was just making the ultimate meta-literary-statement.
But then she never had the internet. Oh, sweet blessing and curse. She didn’t have all these pages to distract herself with, but she didn’t have a platform to spew her unperfected ideas onto either.
But I do. Hurrah!!
So without further ado… Here are my top 5 unfinished (possibly amazing (if you use your imagination)) works of pure literature.
1. The Mouth and the Castle
Oh, my. In this, my first and only venture into fantasy territory, a primitive world exists on the surface of a planet with the accessible remains of a much more developed civilisation lying below. The people on the surface mine the treasures of the world beneath, getting richer and more developed with every generation, unaware that the mining is undermining the stability of their world and encouraging another eruption, the same one which wiped out their ancestors. The catch here is that this world was only reachable through a very narrow cave, which was impossible to widen. So generally only children could enter and occasionally, children went in and couldn’t come out again when their heads grew too big. A civilisation of ‘others’ lives on a mountain cliff high above them and the people think these unreachables are gods. But they’re not. They’re just a branch of the previous civilisations that survived. They want a second eruption to try to stabilise their sinking substructures and increase their lands.
The story is about a young girl who uncovers the truth, but it is a race against time to provide the evidence needed to convince the adults to stop making the kids mine. Will she be successful before she grows too large? Will she get stuck next time? Well, I never got past the first 40k words, so I guess we’ll never know.
2. The Monsoon Meal of a Roppongi Jungle Crow
In 2003, I spent a summer living and working (and occasionally learning Japanese) in Tokyo. They do things differently over there. In between witnessing kidnapped children being rescued by swat teams from the apartment across the road from mine, seeing Hollywood celebrities stopping traffic to pose on crossings and getting financial advice from the Hong Kong mafia, I partied – a lot… Almost every evening I would walk down to the entertainment district of Roppongi to cash in on the free drinks given out to white girls by many of the clubs. Days and nights and days and nights tended to merge together into single sticky messes. Then after I’d been there about a month, the rainy season started. For weeks on end, I walked everywhere under an umbrella hardly making daylight eye contact with another living soul. I developed 4 or 5 Tokyo-based short stories under that umbrella and one night, was wondering what to call the collection when a jungle crow screamed above my head. I looked up from under my streaming umbrella and saw him sitting on one of those illuminated billboards, his feather wet and sleek. he was very handsome…. I liked those crows, they were smart and weird and not afraid of anything. They were proper grifters. But now my stomach lurched. In his claw, hanging off the edge of the box, its head limp and wet, was a white and ginger cat. It was literally, one of those little waving kitties you see at every shop and restaurant. I saw it’s dead marble eyes, but I smelt its guts too. Right then, I knew I had a title, but it didn’t motivate me to finish the collection or write the title story.
3. We All Have That One Friend
“From the very moment he shook his hand, Simon knew that he was either going to kill Harry Wentworth, have sex with his girlfriend or steal his boat…” That was the opening line. The first chapter was a long one… too long some might say… but I liked the premise. This guy Simon was going to do 1 of 3 things to posh boy Harry. What would it be? Ha! You know, it’s going to be all 3… but the twist was, at the end of chapter 1 it was Harry who killed Simon. And then the real story was to begin.
The only problem was, I had another book on the go at the same time and just couldn’t settle on what Harry was up to in the bigger picture…I will, though … one day…
4. Peace on Earth
In a very near, post-Brexit Britain, a transgender man is convicted of a crime and must take a course of medicine designed to create empathy. The drug has never been used on someone a born woman before and the empathy becomes so powerful that he learns to read minds. He uses this super power to earn money, working for the richest people and eventually becomes the richest person in the world, but the mind reading empathy leaves him so traumatised by all the human and animal evil that he decides to invest his wealth in the destruction of the planet. ‘Peace on Earth’.
I thought of this after watching a programme about adult penguins sexually abusing baby penguins until they died. I had that thought… wtf Planet Earth? Seriously. WTF?
5. Man in the Loop
This was the first book I never finished. It gets pulled out every year around Nanowrimo time and revisited… honestly, I just can’t talk about it. It’s too painful.
Okay. That’s it.
On the road and on the run, Lilly Lessard has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. What’s she going to do? What she’s always done. Grab ahold of whatever comes her way and hope to hell it doesn’t bite – too hard.
She’s not the only one who’s been dealt a bum deal in life. Roger Brown is a small town boy with big town aspirations. Maybe Lilly is just the girl to help him out.
But nothing ever goes to plan. And sometimes, it’s hard to remember exactly what that plan was.
In this, the second installment in the Carol Ann Baker series, Carol Ann Baker a.k.a Lilly Lessard, is going to find out, she’s not the only one who can pull the wool over people’s eyes.
Who is friend, and who is foe? There’s only one way to find out!
Available on pre-release from September 15th 2016
Did you ever read a truly unreadable book and wonder why it was so unreadable?
Anyone who’s been to the most basic of community college writing classes has probably heard the classic mantras of:
Show Don’t Tell!
It was never ‘just a dream’
Don’t describe the curtains…
…and all their friends.
Writing stories seems to be full of rules and most writers really don’t like following rules. If they did, they wouldn’t be writing and creating their own worlds, they’d be happily living in the real one.
But you really can’t get away from the shining examples of rule-breaking which make for truly unreadable novels. I’m not going to give any examples. That would be just mean. Plus, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones…
However there is a brilliant book, How Not to Write a Novel, written by a couple of publishers which gives you some examples of the kind of unreadable corkers they have come across.
But you know what else there is? Amazing examples of stories and authors who consistently ‘Break All The Rules’.
Check out this Stephen King Video for his piss-take of some of the classic rules.
Unfortunately, this leads a lot of new authors into thinking that Stephen King is a Billion-book selling author because he ‘Breaks All The Rules’. That’s not it. He is a prolific writer with a very likable tone of voice and a lot of original ideas.
So when can you break the rules?
First, learn to write with the rules, learn why the rules exist and why they make stories readable and not the kind of books you want to throw out of the window of a moving train (I miss trains with windows). Then decide which ones make sense in your style and to your readers.
Once you’ve learned why rules matter and how to break them with style, then go ahead and break ’em. Then, maybe you too can pull off this totally ‘Break All The Rules’ pose like the King himself.