Category Archives: Books

The Insect Farm

image

It it won’t be long until I head out the the Fayette County Fair but, before then, I want to get caught up a bit on my reviewing…  This time it’s The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble.  This one looked sufficiently creepy and interesting enough that I requested a reviewer’s copy through Net Galley and they were kind enough to approve it in exchange for my review.

As usual, here is the quick synopsis of the book so that you know a little bit about it…
The Maguire brothers each have their own driving, single-minded obsession. For Jonathan, it is his magnificent, talented, and desirable wife, Harriet. For Roger, it is the elaborate universe he has constructed in a shed in their parents’ garden, populated by millions of tiny insects. While Jonathan’s pursuit of Harriet leads him to feelings of jealousy and anguish, Roger’s immersion in the world he has created reveals a capability and talent which are absent from his everyday life. Roger is known to all as a loving, protective, yet simple man, but the ever-growing complexity of the insect farm suggests that he is capable of far more than anyone believes. Following a series of strange and disturbing incidents, Jonathan begins to question every story he has ever been told about his brother–and if he has so completely misjudged Roger’s mind, what else might he have overlooked about his family, and himself?

The Insect Farm is a dramatic psychological thriller about the secrets we keep from those we love most, and the extent to which the people closest to us are also the most unknowable. 

Sounds a wee bit dark and creepy, doesn’t it?  Especially when you look at the cover as well.

Strangely enough, it really isn’t.  Or at least not as much as I had been expecting.  It’s a character driven novel that deals with what one character is thinking, and feeling, and is completely unsure about.  And, because this character is narrating the book and doesn’t know any more than he’s telling you – the reader – any revelations or surprises are shocking to him as well.

Okay, I’ll admit that I wasn’t actually surprised by any of the “shocks” or “twists” toward the end.  But that didn’t take away from the writing and the talent of the author.  Because the book takes place in the fairly recent past, there’s kind of an old-school feel to the story.  In fact, I couldn’t help but be reminded of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  Totally different story, some similar character elements as the narrator is growing up, and similar straightforwardness in the author’s writing skills…

Unfortunately, this novel probably won’t be one that I ever read again – I guess when you’ve completed a ‘thriller’ or something that leads you on with what you don’t know and need to find out, once you know the ending, you can’t go back and get the same satisfaction.

But, if you find yourself curious about this one, I’d highly recommend it.  I need to figure out my own unique rating system (stars and thumbs up being so yesterday), but in any rating system, this one does phenomenally well.  Now…what to read next?!?  After this one, I think a comedy is definitely in order…

 

How To Write A Novel

imageLately I’ve been reading so much, and spending so much time working on my own novel, that my mind is everywhere…  Reality has been pushed aside by the fictional world and my imagination has been running rampant.  Add that to my every night dream-fest, and I’m waking up each morning wondering where I am and am in a state of disbelief that I have to do such mundain things as pay bills, go to the grocery store and do laundry.  I’m not complaining a bit.  For a writer, it’s amazing to be able to be completely immersed in that world of imagination and creativity.

Reading is inspiring when you’re writing.  Some books are so bad that you can’t help but think “Mine is way better than that.  I’m definitely going to get published!”.  Others are so good that they push you to work harder and do better.  Then there’s How To Write A Novel by Melanie Sumner.  I received a copy for free through NetGalley in exchange for a review and am more than happy to do so…  First, the usual description so that you know what the novel is about:

Aristotle “Aris” Thibodeau is 12.5 years old and destined for greatness. Ever since her father’s death, however, she’s been stuck in the small town of Kanuga, Georgia, where she has to manage her mother Diane’s floundering love life and dubious commitment to her job as an English professor. Not to mention co-parenting a little brother who hogs all the therapy money.

Luckily, Aris has a plan. Following the advice laid out in Write a Novel in Thirty Days! she sets out to pen a bestseller using her charmingly dysfunctional family as material. If the Mom-character, Diane, would ditch online dating and accept that the perfect man is clearly the handyman/nanny-character, Penn MacGuffin, Aris would have the essential romance for her plot (and a father in her real life). But when a random accident uncovers a dark part of Thibodeau family history, Aris is forced to confront the fact that sometimes in life—as in great literature—things might not work out exactly as planned.

Written from the perspective of a girl who’s 12.5 years old, and who is continually keeping up with the plan of writing a novel in 30 days, it’s a kick in the tookis, motivating me to work harder, faster.

Okay, so I know that it wasn’t actually written by a kid.  And I’m sure it took much longer to finish than a month.  But it’s still motivating.

This novel is all about characters.  About the way they think and react to what life throws at them.  It’s grounded in reality, what’s normal, what’s possible and what we do in response to life’s setbacks and challenges.  And in that way, it’s universal.  And it’s extremely well written – enough so that I flew through it in just a few days, even with real life intruding.  It’s a fun read, but more than just mindless entertainment.  It makes you think, and makes you feel for the characters, especially the 12.5 year-old narrator.

Now that I’ve finished it, I need to look to see what else this author has written.  After all, we’ve got to support the talented writers out there!

But, first I think I’ll write a few hundred more words on my novel.  I can’t let myself fall too far behind a non-existent fictional kid, right?

So…back to work!

 

Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed

image

I’m a fan of dysfunction.  Dysfunctional relationships and dysfunctional families make for the best stories.  Or maybe just the ones that I relate to the best.

I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t have high expectations from this novel though.  I thought that I was probably getting a poor-man’s Jonathan Tropper at best, or a poor re-tread of other stories that have dealt with the same issues and family dynamics.  But, I’ll admit that I was wrong.  And I’m glad that I took the chance.

Here’s a short description of the novel by James Bailey – one that I received free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review –

Ten years ago, C.J. Neubauer fled his family, trading coasts to provide himself three time zones of buffer space. Random email and social media posts yield all the contact he needs. Until a late-night phone call from his wistful father. Unaccustomed to hearing his dad say “I love you,” C.J. freezes, vowing instead to reciprocate the next time they speak. But when the phone wakes him the following morning, it’s his older brother informing him their father has committed suicide.

Sporting a nagging conscience and a chip on his shoulder, C.J. books a flight home on his girlfriend’s credit card. All he wants is to bury his father and try to make sense of what led him to take his own life. All he has to go on is a note that reads, “Sorry I wasn’t what you needed.” Was it intended for C.J. and his siblings? The mother who walked out on them twenty-five years ago? Or someone else altogether?

Maybe I can relate well to a character who’s made sure to be so physically distant from his family.  The character who only finds dysfunction when finally being reunited with family after years apart.  But I like my dysfunctional characters/narrators to be a little less loser-ish, or at least to be a little more willing to accept his/her issues and want to improve on some level.  C.J. isn’t really like that, and yet I still found myself impressed by this novel.  The dysfunction made sense, the characters’ issues balanced each other out and went well to tell the story.  In fact, I was even thinking of giving the novel  5 out of 5 as a final rating.  But then…..

Some people can do endings.  Some can’t.  And this one was just far too frustrating for me.  The main character seems to become more of a loser the more you learn about him, and there doesn’t seem to be any real attempt at growth.  Then, the relationship between him and his girlfriend is never explained and, consequently, it never makes any sense.  And then, the word that comes to mind in wrapping up the final chapter?  Oedipal.  And that’s not good.

Something clicked with me on this novel, I’ll admit it.  I didn’t like the main character, but the story pulled me along and kept me reading.  It just feels so odd to like a book that much more while I was reading it than I did when I was finished.  And to know that I won’t have any desire to pick it up again in a few years and want to read it again.  So I feel torn.  I’d recommend it, but not enthusiastically.  I’d give it a 4 out of 5 but not consider it one of the better reads I’ve had.  So I walk away from it a little dizzy and confused.

But maybe that’s what dysfunction is supposed to do to you – leave you feeling a bit off.  I just don’t really care what would happen next to these characters.  Instead, it gets me thinking about my own writing.  I want to delve deeper into my own characters I’m writing about to ensure my future readers feel a deeper attachment to them, a sense of comradery with them, and an ability to laugh at them through their messed up attempts to better themselves.

So it’s time for me to move away from reading someone else’s creation and get back to work!

 

Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?

image

I read all kinds of novels.  And I’m always in search of new authors to check out, hoping to find the next writer that I just can’t stop reading.  So, when I received a free copy of the upcoming release Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? from NetGalley in exchange for a review, I couldn’t pass it up.  I was too curious.

After all, if the title doesn’t get your attention, the cover definitely does, right?

Here’s the quick blurb of a description so you know what it’s about…

In the seaport city of New London, Connecticut, newcomer Connor Raposo has just witnessed a gruesome motorcycle accident on Bank Street. At least he thinks it was an accident. But then he sees a familiar man–who else would wear an Elvis pompadour in this day and age?–lurking around the crime scene. Where does Connor know him from? And why does everyone he knows keep showing up dead?

It’s about murder and motorcycles, about exes and family and small town detectives that can’t stand working together, regardless of the case they’re trying to solve (after all, isn’t the debate over the value of karaoke more important than interviewing potential murder suspects?).  And it’s about the good hearted stupidity of the average person.  And…it’s pretty good.

Okay, so it wasn’t completely my kind of story, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but it’s good to be able to dive into a book by an author who knows just what he’s doing, and has a voice that’s strong and definitive.  Granted, he has a few odd ideas, and he does go off the rails a bit by chapter 19, reading like he’d kind of lost his point and was wandering around in circles trying to find his way back.  But he does manage to bring it back on point and pulls it together for an overall interesting read.

The characters are fully fleshed out and have their own motivations, quirks, weirdnesses (is that a word? If not, it should be) and insecurities.  They’re distinct and unique.  And that’s why I gave this novel a 4 out of 5 in my feedback to the publisher. It may not have been enough to convince me to grab another book by this author, but that’s simply a matter of taste rather than a comment on the writing talent.

If you’ve read any of Stephen Dobyns’ other books – and enjoyed them – then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one as well.  If you haven’t, I wouldn’t recommend running out to grab it when it comes out.  But if the description grabs your attention and you’re looking for something that’s a bit odd and is overall distracting, it could be worth your time.

And sometimes that’s just enough…

 

Somebody I Used To Know

 

image

 

I’m not trying to be mean or difficult.  I’m not trying to pick on the work of other writers.  So when I start another review for a book that I’m critical of, I want to make that clear from the beginning – that’s not my goal.  I love reading, and I love discovering authors I’ve never read before.  There’s a joy in that, something that other readers can attest to I’m sure.

But…there are going to be hits and misses.  And not all books resonate with everyone in the same way.  So here we go, discussing Somebody I Used To Know by David Bell…

First, let me share with you the description of the novel:

When Nick Hansen sees the young woman at the grocery store, his heart stops. She is the spitting image of his college girlfriend, Marissa Minor, who died in a campus house fire twenty years earlier. But when Nick tries to speak to her, she acts skittish and rushes off.

The next morning the police arrive at Nick’s house and show him a photo of the woman from the store. She’s been found dead, murdered in a local motel, with Nick’s name and address on a piece of paper in her pocket.

Convinced there’s a connection between the two women, Nick enlists the help of his college friend Laurel Davidson to investigate the events leading up to the night of Marissa’s death. But the young woman’s murder is only the beginning…and the truths Nick uncovers may make him wish he never doubted the lies.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?  That’s what I thought and why I was happy to receive a free on-line version of the novel from Penguin Group in exchange for an honest review.  I was looking forward to reading this new work from an accomplished and well-reviewed author I had never read before.  And…

Well, it’s not bad.  It was a good idea for a story and…the execution was simply flawed.  Maybe it’s because it was the non-final version and there are edits that were yet to be made to this version.  I hope that’s the case.  Because I was incredibly distracted by certain, fixable aspects of the book.

The beginning of the novel is filled with short, choppy sentences, leading the reader to feel like this was written for a younger audience.  I even wondered for a moment if this was a book for middle-grade children rather than adults.  Characters were described in overly simple physical descriptions, they all used far too many cliches when they spoke to each other, and everyone seemed to have to spell out everything to everyone like a group of formal little morons who couldn’t put two and two together without the large cross of an addition sign halfway between them.  “…oh I see.  You’re being sarcastic,” as one character tells another.

And, while I am usually led to reading (and writing) in 1st person, I think this author could possibly have been better served by writing in 3rd.  His main character tells us everything rather than letting us see anything that’s unfolding.  “Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest axioms in writing, and it was ignored completely in this novel.  And the main character seems like a weird little guy who knows some other weird people who all speak alike.  So no character stands out from another by anything other than their name.

The novel does get somewhat better as it goes, leading me to believe tha some serious work and editing could make this a strong novel in the end.  But, even while the tempo picks up, and more of the mystery is revealed (though I have to say there are no real surprises), everything is revealed by characters telling each other everything.  It makes for a less than enjoyable read, even while the overall concept is a good one.

We all live in the past to some extent.  We all have events from younger days that have impacted us and either led us to where we are, or perhaps stagnated our progress throughout life.  We can all relate to wondering “What if…?” and think about alternate versions of how things could have turned out if only…  And we’ve all made mistakes.  The premise of this novel isn’t crazy or extreme.  And you can put yourself into the situations that the characters have found themselves in.  That’s something important in writing a successful story.  And because that’s there in this one, I do feel like it’s redeemable.  It’s a good idea that just needs the author to spend some more quality time with it.  And characters who are okay with giving up some control over telling everyone everything that’s happened and is happening around them.  And I wish them luck.

But for now, I think I’ll hesitate Before picking up a new book to try and find something else to do to mentally split from the experience.  Hey, it’s rained every day for the past week and a half and the ground’s soggy out there.  Good day for finding Bigfoot tracks, right?

Finally a Review

image

Graham at play in the stacks

Have I told you that I like books?  Honest to goodness books that have pages and are cool enough to fill up bookshelves?  Those kinds of books?

I bring that up because I received a free copy of Manhattan Mayhem from Quirk Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I thought it looked like an interesting one, based on the cover they showed online and the general description.  The book is a selection of short stories – crime stories – all taking place within the different neighborhoods of New York City.  Best-selling novelist Mary Higgins Clark put together the anthology and even wrote the first story of the group.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a big fan of NYC (though I’ll promise to love it if someday I have an agent and/or publisher there and fly out every so often to meet with them and discuss my new releases).  Or maybe it’s because the copy I received was an on-line version and I’m not used to reading books on my iPad instead of on the page.  Or maybe it’s because I love a good novel and really need a short story to completely grab me and be unforgettable to make me feel that it was worth my time to read in place of a few chapters of a novel. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that this might not have been the book for me.

I’ve never read anything by Mary Higgins Clark before and I was definitely curious to read her story “The Five-Dollar Dress” that started the anthology.  But…I was completely underwhelmed.  It seemed like she put it together in a hurry and wasn’t completely invested in it herself.  It kind of seemed that way with a lot of the authors – like they thought this was a cool idea but that they could just throw something together and the idea, or the concept, would carry it home.

Margaret Maron’s “Red Headed Stepchild” red like a short children’s book.  Fine if that was the goal, but not what I was expecting, and probably not really the goal either.  The main character of Persia Walker’s “Dizzy and Gillespie” was a product of the inner city who showed a lack of education with her use of the English language, yet used five and six syllable words correctly at other times.  It was distracting and inconsistent.  And Angela Zeman’s “Wall Street Rodeo”, well…I’ll be nice and simply say “no” to that one…

There were some decent works – “Sutton Death Overtime” by Judith Kelman was definitely a strong work that was memorable after you put the book down.  And that’s what I’m going for in a short story.  Something that’s not instantly forgettable.  Something that packs a little punch.

I’ll admit that part of the issue is me.  I’m just not a fan of New York.  Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul and other cities just hold so much more charm for me.  But I think the concept of this book was interesting and I believe New Yorkers – those who live there and those who hold it as a special place in their hearts – will enjoy this book.   It does well at bringing out the ideas of the different neighborhoods of the city.  They’re just not my neighborhoods, so that wasn’t enough to get me past the average writing and stories.

I have to give this a 2 out of 5 stars – anything else would just be cruel…  Maybe someday I’ll go back and read it again with a little more appreciation for that city.  Someday when I have an agent out there who loves the place and is showing it off to a writer who’ has just signed a contract for a book deal and for whom everything – even New York – is beautiful.

 

The Hunger Games Strike Back

I don’t care what everybody else is reading.

Well…let me clarify that. It’s not that I don’t appreciate some good suggestions and I really am interested in hearing other people’s opinions about good books and authors. But if I’m not reading the newest releases that everyone is talking about, I’m okay with that. So I don’t care a bit if I’m a few years behind in picking up The Hunger Games trilogy.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book in the trilogy, is the latest Young Adult novel that I’ve chosen to pull out and give a try.  I don’t know if I’m really hooked on the genre yet, but I’m a reader and I can enjoy a good story.  And they don’t all have to take as long as War and Peace to be worth reading.

The second of three acts in anything is the ‘downer’ act.  It’s the confrontation following the setup of the first act and preceeds the resolution of the third.   Our brains seem hard wired for that format.  Heck, people even argue that Shakespeare’s five act plays actually match the three act format simply with a couple of extra breaks thrown in for wardrobe changes.   But let’s not get into that.  Instead, I think the perfect correlation here is to the Star Wars movies (only the original three – any with characters created only to entertain children and with alien races who speak in English but with goofy accents don’t count.  Sorry, but it’s true…).

I’ve only ever met one person who thought that The Empire Strikes Back was the best movie of the trilogy.  Sure, it gave us Boba Fett, and a tough old muppet telling us ‘there is no try, only do’, but it’s the one movie out of the three where everything is going wrong.  Whether it’s freezing in the middle of a white-out, getting body parts chopped off during an overdue family reunion, or being trapped in an awkward, uncomfortable position to be used as a wall decoration all the way until the next movie was released, it’s the stretch where everything is completely falling apart.  Of course it’s an integral part of the overall story, but it’s just the setup to the resolution that takes place in the final act.

Catching Fire fits this story arc perfectly.  Katniss is back in the hunger games arena, people want her even more dead than dying in the arena would provide, she’s seperated from Peeta, and she’s not sure if she wants to be with either guy who thinks he’s in love with her.  Sheesh, what have I been missing by not reading Young Adult all this time…?  Okay, so there are no cool bounty hunters as in Empire, but it’s the tear down before the hero (or heroine in this case) fights her way through it all to save the day/her family/her world/her universe. Granted, I haven’t read the third book yet but I assume I would have heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth from fans leaving the theatre after seeing the final installment if she didn’t accomplish all of that by the end.  So I think I can safely assume…

It’s an interesting story, something entertaining to read before bed, and a 7.75 out of 10 on my completely arbitrary scale.  And I’m not concerned about that influencing you to read it or not because I’m pretty sure that I’m the last person around to finally read it.

I guess I’ll have to make sure read a brand new release next.  That way I’m keeping up with the rest of the reading world.  Well…once I finish this trilogy anyway…

The Hunger Games – Eventually

As a voracious reader, I read all kinds of novels. Basically I look for anything with an intriguing premise written by an author who has a strong voice and the ability to tell a story that absolutely sucks you in. I’ll admit that many times I avoid the titles that are extremely popular, just because I’m stubborn enough that I want to make my own decision about what to read and not follow the herd – or the mob mentality.  I guess that’s one of the reasons that I really hadn’t read anything categorized as ‘Young Adult’.  Simply because it’s so darn popular.

But recently I’ve been told that I definitely need to expand my horizons and read through some of that Young Adult fiction.  Because it’s so popular, that also means that the market is booming.  Since that genre (though it’s really more than one genre put together under that same overall umbrella) is what everyone from grade schools through nursing homes are reading these days, it can only benefit me to dive in a bit and see what the hype is all about.

So that’s why I finally became the last person on Earth to check out The Hunger Games.

While feeling just a little guilty about diving in to Young Adult fiction, I know that the stories are not necessarily simply for teens.  While the sentences are usually short and punchy, and the stories are based primarily on action, an interesting story is an interesting story.  And, after a quick read through it, I have to admit that I liked it. Enough so that I’d give The Hunger Games an 8 out of 10, based on a story that grabbed my attention and continued to keep me interested in finding out what happens next.

What surprises me about Young Adult fiction is the level of violence that is a part of so many of the books – and obviously in this one where teenagers are killing each other to live.  I’m not saying that this might not be integral to the story idea, or that it’s not interesting based on the overall premise, just that if the main character was 32 rather than 16, it would be considered another category of novel all together.  And, it’s interesting how things change over the years.  For example, Stephen King (a.k.a. Richard Bachman’s) novel The Long Walk was an adult horror story.  But if it was written today, it would be categorized as Young Adult because  of the ages of the main characters involved in the challenge of survival at the expense of others.  And, if it had been written 30 years later,  it probably would have been turned into a blockbuster movie.  Timing is everything, right?

I don’t know what Young Adult story might be within me (waiting in line behind the numerous other stories that have yet to be finished) but it’s something to think about.  It won’t be published in time for Jennifer Lawrence or Shailene Woodley to be the teen lead, but I think I’ll be okay with whoever they pick for the multi-million dollar movie series they base off of it.  I’m not too picky…