Book Reviews for Writers

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I have decided to review books not just as a reader, but as a writer. What does this writer do well, and how?  Where do they miss the mark, and why? Most books get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of reviews. My aim here is to provide book reviews specifically for writers, learning their craft and developing the tools to write great books themselves.
So often I read a book that leaves me unimpressed, unmoved by its characters, themes and story. Most often I would not review those books at all. The ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’ school of thought. But I realized there are lessons to learn from a book that doesn’t hit the mark. And when a book exceeds our expectations, what is it that makes it great? I will try to find those things and point a light on them, positive and negative.
My first attempt will be at Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’.

Review of Emily Gunnis’ ‘The Girl in the Letter’

Nope. I was reading Emily Gunnis’ ‘The Girl in the Letter’ and it just doesn’t work.
A good novel creates a world that the reader immerses into, like a warm bath. It becomes all encompassing, and even when the world is on a different planet or a foreign country, the reader suspends disbelief and allows the author to lead them on a fantastic journey, all the way to the gates of Mordor. But when that suspension of disbelief is pushed too far, when the writer tries to get away with too much, the balloon pops and all the faults begin to rain down on a reader. ‘The Girl in the Letter’ is such a book.
The evil characters, the doctors, the priest and the nuns, are cardboard caricatures of evil. I rolled my eyes and pushed on, but it was the beginning of the end. For writers, a good way to prevent yourself from creating such types is to write a chapter or two from the evil character’s point of view. I could not imagine Mother Carlin sitting down for a social cup of tea with another character. Gunnis should have written such a chapter, even if she tossed it, as an exercise in humanizing the evil. In truth, humanized evil is much more frightening. Remembering that everyone is the hero of their own story and understanding what drove the nuns. I half expected the nuns to take off their habits to reveal sexy lingerie with Nazi swastikas and have the novel go full camp.
There are so many coincidences that make the story work as to compound the unbelievability. An empty mansion for twenty years and Samantha and Kitty just happen to be there the same night? Okay. Two characters connected to the mansion that both had the same boyfriend, who happens to die? Okay. Samantha looking for files and just happens to find the incriminating one in less than five minutes? Okay. Elvira and Kitty happen to meet on the same night their father dies in a traffic accident? Okay. Two twins switched as ten year olds and nobody noticed? Okay. A series of letters that lead like breadcrumbs, until you realize Annabel Rose had the whole loaf of bread she is feeding to Sam. And how did she get all of these letters that were not addressed to her? Okay.
As the whole contraption staggers along other minor faults become irritations. Too many characters with too many jumps of point of view. Similar names to remember like Emma and Elivira, Cannon and Connor. Characters becoming tired and staggering. Lost, again and again. An asshole ex-husband and an asshole boss. Cliche bickering that was painful to read. We are told, ie telegraphed that certain characters die, and then we see the actual scene where they die. We know what is going to happen already. What was the point?
Then a story line grafted on that an evil pharmaceutical company was involved. No explanation of what drugs they might be testing on children and why. Adding a corporate interest to crucify beside the Catholic church. (Which the cynic in me wonders why not the Anglican church? This is in England.)
With fifty pages to go the author reaches for the low hanging fruit of putting the child of the main character at risk and we know the melodramatic ending is about to be tacked on to the already Kafkaesque story of the wrong sister being imprisoned. That that story line is not explored betrays that the author knew they had gone over the top.
Disappointing. The factual information this story is based on is important and deserves a good airing. But this is too much of a polemic preaching rather than good literature.

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ISBN 9781472255099

Review of D. H. Larence’s Selected Stories

I picked this Penguin Classics ‘D. H. Lawrence Selected Stories’ off my shelf looking for something lighter during this time of Covid-19. On reading it I realized this was a University text I had read parts of twenty years ago. ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’ I remember like yesterday. It is the closest I remember Lawrence coming to a supernatural subject.
I am working on my short story writing during this pandemic lock-down, so reading shorts is a marvelous way to learn from the masters. If Lawrence was not famous for his novels, his short stories alone would make him an important author.
I enjoyed these stories. Some are sad, like ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’. I have read quite a bit of Lawrence, but never had seen death of the miners addressed. It must have been too common.
The sudden falling in love of characters, as in ‘Love Among the Haystacks’, was troubling but I suppose common. I laughed at seeing multiple characters named ‘Lydia’, as in ‘The Rainbow’. Lawrence’s mother’s name was Lydia, and she had an enormous impact on him.
Lawrence has been in and out of fashion. I love the very close third person narrative. The thoughts and feelings of these characters are vivid and encompassing. The minds are not always perfectly reasonable, as none of our minds are. We can be petty or obstinate, romantic and ethereal, and sore between extremes. These characters intimately express these feelings in a way I find so incredible and strive to match in my writing. I am reminded of George Eliot, stripped of the decorum. It does not quite match the stream of consciousness from Virginia Woolf, but might be compared to Tolstoy if he didn’t have the Russian censor looking over his shoulder.
I betray myself. Lawrence is my favourite, and I am still thirty-some years after first reading his work, in awe of his talent. Highly recommended.
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ISBN 978-0-141-44165-8

Book Review of Miriam Toews’ ‘A Complicated Kindness’

I read Miram Toews’ ‘A Complicated Kindness’ after reading ‘Women Talking’. I was looking for something more accessible and frankly, something a little more fun to read. ‘A Complicated Kindness’ filled the bill well.
I see many comparisons of the principal character, Nomi Nickel, to Holden Caulfield in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, but I empathized more with Nomi. Same teenage angst, but a more caring protagonist.
The voice is smart-alecky, world-weary at times, a little too precociously cliche, but the honest fear and confusion of this young woman is compelling. I found myself almost immersed into her world, but bumped out by the weird behaviour of so many of the characters. It rattled my suspension of disbelief a few too many times. And the ending was a bit of a Cinderella story, saved by the prince. In this way, the ending echoed ‘All My Puny Sorrows’.
Spoiler: The last five or ten pages through a bit of a curve ball. I like surprises, but the reader should be able to think “Yes! That is what I should have seen coming.” I didn’t see any clues to the weird wrap with Trudie. And I would have liked to have seen a more active agency taken by Ms Nickel, but that is a minor quibble.
But it is really well written. Dense prose that covers a lot of ground, but feels light to read. There is a lot going on here and it is worthwhile for a reader to take some breaks and digest it all. A really good novel.

Review of Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style’

I saw this on a Social media post recently: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can give them is to present them with copies of ‘The Elements of Style’. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re still happy.” Dorothy Parker.
This provided the impetus to re-read this ‘little’ book. My copy of the 3rd edition is 88 pages, so we can read it in a couple of hours. It is time well spent for any writer.
Short prescriptive rules delivered by the grammar ‘Drill Sargent’ that is William Strunk Jr have passed the test of time. First published in 1918, the book still helps every student write clear, concise prose. Clear writing goes hand-in-glove with clear thinking and this book helps deliver both.
I had bookmarked favorite rules, like # 15, ‘Put statements in Positive Form’, or the rule on not using not. Rule # 14, ‘Use Active Voice’, a lesson every writer should learn. And my most quoted rule when critiquing work, #16, ‘Use definite, specific, concrete language’. ‘The surest way to arouse and hold attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete’. I have always believed the very best fiction is delivered by knowing what specific details to include.
Strunk shows he cares about the reader, how the message of prose is received and that a writer must always think of that reader when delivering a sentence, paragraph or longer work. I would take it further to say the writer must always empathize with a reader and understand how their prose is received and experienced.
This is a great little book that every writer should read. I am constantly amazed at how many budding writers share work full of spelling and grammatical errors. Reading is meant to be an immersing experience, where the reader lives the thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams of the fictional characters. In the words of John Gardner readers ‘Sink into the dream of the story’. But it jars them out of that dream by spelling and grammar errors. Done too often, they will put down the story and not return.
I highly recommend this book and that writers learn and follow these rules.

Review of Dallaire’s ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’

I tried to read Romeo Dallaire’s ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’ The overwhelming arrogance of the author left me so cold, I had to abandon it about a third of the way through.
Reading a book involves a contract between the buyer/reader and the author. I will give you twenty dollars or so, plus ten or twelve hours of my time, and you will entertain/inform/enlighten me in some fashion. I am agreeing to spend twelve hours listening to and considering their thoughts and opinion.
It is an intimate commitment, a close one-on-one between reader and writer. If it is not enjoyable then there must be some over-riding gain for me, the reader. When that gain is insignificant, I don’t feel compelled to spend that time with a weak mind, an arrogant blow hard, or a self-righteous preacher. The twenty dollars I wont get back, the twelve hours I can better spend.
I have a quote by Theodore Sturgeon saved. ‘It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.’ Dallaire believes he could solve all the world’s problems if people would just do what he says.
So many people rated the book great. I guess they don’t read many really great books by wonderful talented writers. This isn’t one.

Review of ‘You think it, I’ll say it.

I initially enjoyed this collection of short stories, but if it wasn’t a required reading for the North Shore public library book club, I wouldn’t have finished it.
I suppose this is modern literature, imbued with the right amount of Gender Studies, updated roles, Trump supporters, and a vapidness at the capitalist society. But I am reminded of painting a room once, being in a hurry, and putting the paint on too thick. I came back to find it had run, streaks of excess marring the new surface. So too Sittenfeld has put the political correctness on too thick.
In ‘The Prairie Wife’ the character Kirsten considers destroying the reputation and fortune of a former lover, Lucy. She knows a secret, and her self righteousness gives her the okay to tear down that hypocrite. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I would like to see Sittenfeld explore that holier-than-thou aspect, but I felt it was condoned.
There is a sameness to the characters and settings that becomes boring.
Smart characters that veer into cattiness. Such shallow people are everywhere, but I felt the author shared in the bitchiness. I was awed that these characters so easily thought about committing adultery without any thoughts on the pain and suffering it inflicts. That lack of empathy and introspection left me cold.
Sittenfeld has a character say “It’s not that you’re wrong. But when you say stuff like this, it makes life a lot less enjoyable.” She should listen to her better self.

Review of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’

Ah, the hubris to criticize a work like Leo Tolstoys’ ‘Anna Karenina’. Many people think ‘Anna’ is the greatest novel ever written. But these reviews for writers are meant to analyze writing techniques, with an eye to using similar approaches in your writing, and to avoid methods that might not be best today. Remember that Tolstoy published ‘Anna’ in 1878 and modern audiences might may balk at some passages such as the drawn out political or philosophical discussions. (The parts some readers skip!)
For example, there is a scene in ‘Anna’ where they are voting on something and Levin doesn’t understand what is going on. But in his case, he just doesn’t care that much. He thinks it is meaningless. And he might be right.
I suppose it shows well life in the 1800’s in Russia, but it has tempted me to skip them. I didn’t, and the final scene where Levin comes to appreciate living for goodness, or God, lines up well with my personal beliefs.
This is a great novel and Tolstoy uses the very close third-person point of view I think is almost always best. There are a few times when I wished he had written from a different characters POV. In the scene where Anna meets Vronsky everything is from the POV of poor Kitty, who has been jilted by Vronsky. She sees and understands the glow of a woman falling in love that Anna has. But I really wanted to understand Anna’s thoughts. That ‘meeting of minds’ that lovers experience is not explored by Tolstoy. I leaned towards being a fan of Kitty’s father Prince Schrebatski, and he saw Vronsky as the ‘un-serious’ suitor of Kitty he was. What did Kitty and Anna see in him?
And then as the relationship of Anna and Vronsky developed, I felt the lack of in-depth understanding of this great romance left me wanting more. That Anna was in a cold, loveless marriage was a tragedy, and I fully appreciated why she would want more. This initial phase reminded me of D.H.Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. But I expected more of the passion and sex that a Lawrence novel would have delivered. I recognize ‘Anna’ was written fifty years earlier and in an environment of strict Tzarist censorship. Today’s audience expects more.
Anna was published in Russia in 1878. Lady Chatterley was published in England in 1928. A weakness I feel in Anna is we do not experience the falling in love of Anna. (But we do see Levin falling, sort of.) And there is no sex in Anna. I wanted to better understand her. What drew her to Alexi Vronsky? Tall, dashing? We see their first meeting through the eyes of Kitty Shchrebatsky, I would like to better understand and experience what Anna experiences. Her husband, Alexei Karanin, is cold and does not love her. Both Anna and Stephan Oblonsky commit adultery. Stiva reconciles with his wife, Dolly, with Anna’s help. (Anna is Stiva’s sister.)
The gut wrenching pain, the electric pulse that rips at the guts, on learning one is being cheated on. That I would like to have seen explored.
In parallel to the collapse of Anna’s mind and relationship, we see the growth and coming together of Levin and Kitty. But again I was left wanting more of both.
And the double standard was infuriating. Anna was ostracized from society while Vronsky could still enjoy all the social interaction as did Oblonsky. Women really got the short end of the hypocrisy. It reminded me of how frustrated I was at the end of Hardy’s ‘Tess’. Same social orders we are better off leaving behind.

Lessons on Hate from James Baldwin’s ‘Going to see the Man’

I woke up in a very bad mood. Angry. I read a short short story by James Baldwin yesterday that upset me. ‘Going to See the Man’, a story of a lynching somewhere in the US south. Told from the Point of View of a cop who as a young boy, was taken to the lynching as if it was a Sunday picnic. The anger and hate carry with the boy into adulthood. Impotence leads to rage.
And I woke up angry this morning. My anger is directed at the people blocking roads and railroads in Canada in the name of First Nations people. Just as the cop in the Baldwin story wonders why they can’t learn, meaning the black people, I think someone should crack some heads on these climate change shits to teach them a lesson. Which I know is exactly the opposite lesson Baldwin would want. But he does see and show how hateful dehumanizing behavior can spread and infect people, over and over, like a virus.
We need to be on guard for it, aware that in weak moments, when tired or irritated, we can lose patience and revert to this thuggish behavior.
I am ashamed when part of myself leans to that course of action. They say good writing is honest, so I share my shameful thoughts in the hope of creating good writing, and becoming more aware of the thoughts and feelings that course through me and all other people. None of us are saints.

Writer’s Review of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree

I have decided to review books not just as a reader, but as a writer. What does this writer do well, and how? Where do they miss the mark, and why? Most books get dozens, hundreds or even thousands of reviews. My aim here is to provide book reviews specifically for writers, learning their craft and developing the tools to write great books themselves.
So often I read a book that leaves me unimpressed, unmoved by its characters, themes and story. Most often I would not review those books at all. The ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing’ school of thought. But I realized there are lessons to learn from a book that doesn’t hit the mark. And when a book exceeds our expectations, what is it that makes it great? I will try to find those things and point a light on them, positive and negative.
My first attempt here will be at Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’.
As a writer in training, I am learning the different ways to express character. Physical descriptions help the reader see the characters in their mind’s eye. The actions of a character show what is important to them. The speech and mannerisms develop character, and the thoughts, actions and words of other characters reflect on the main characters. And the strongest method in first or close third person is to give the reader access to the mind of the characters. In close third person a reader can become intimately involved in the main characters’ minds and emotions.
McCarthy provides superb descriptions of setting and often uses these descriptions to reflect on the mood of the characters. But the reader’s understanding is inferred and not confirmed. The physical character descriptions are rudimentary enough to differentiate characters, and the reader’s imagination can fill in the blanks. The language of speech is stilted and barren. ‘Hidy, says one. Hidy back, says another. Come back soon.’ This suffices for conversation. We fall back on the actions of the characters, and the actions of the main character Cornelius Suttree speak well of him. He checks on his friends, arranges food and shelter. He cares. We think. He didn’t care for his family or provide for them, so we don’t know what to think about his character beyond superficial friendship. He drinks, falls down, gets in fights, gets arrested and passes out. Near the end of the book he lives on the avails of prostitution, not quite a pimp. So much of McCarthy’s work is like turning over a rock and watching what levels of degeneracy man can fall to. I suppose it makes a statement about nihilism and shakes a fist at good society. But as incisive an eye as he has for scenery, he balks at exploring the inner mind and heart of men. I am left wanting more.
Writers are told to be brave. Here, I think McCarthy fails. He is afraid to look into that cold dark place, the actual heart and soul. He muddies the water with senseless violence, hoping to distract from the real issues. Questions remain about why and how. Questions literature is supposed to at least try to tackle.
I read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Suttree’ and I enjoyed it, but it was ultimately unsatisfying. I am learning to read as a writer and so I can better see why I am unsatisfied. McCarthy describes in great detail and with an amazing vocabulary the settings of the stories. The river in Suttree is a character we get to know through a full wave of sensory language. The impression verges on poetic as the flotsam and jetsam of society flow down in front of Suttree’s houseboat. The plants and birds and animals are all observed in excruciating detail. Sights, smells and sounds envelop the reader, almost to excess. Yet the people, the characters, are barely explored. Why Cornelious Suttree abandons his wife and children the reader is left guessing at.
I think ‘Suttree’ will be the last Cormac McCarthy book I read. I am disappointed. The story degenerated into debauchery. Maybe rich, cultured Texas folk can take pleasure in that, like a guided tour through Amsterdam’s Red Light district. But anyone who has seen this thing in real life knows there is no honour or grace in it. Drunks are all alike. And the pained existence of an intellectual outcast is too much of a cliche. You’re not twenty-one anymore, grow up Cornelius.
This is what passes for intellectual art, edgy storytelling. This idea that unless an artist has suffered outrageous misfortune their voice is not worth hearing. Bullshit.
So I was disappointed. While some of the writing is great, it borders on self indulgent. The descriptions go on too long. But I was most disappointed with the characters, the understanding of their thoughts and motivations, and the weak story.
The reader is left guessing at too many points. Why did Suttree abandon his family, what happened to his mother? (Was she mentally ill? It ran in the family. Is Suttree ill?) What did he study at University? Why is he a bum? Is it just the alcohol?
It is a long book, over 400 pages, but not much happens and we don’t know even if Suttree grows. Does he leave town for a better life or just to run from the law?
There is a term in literature, third person. Third person omniscient, third person single character, third person close. My writing and reading preference is close third person, where the reader experiences the action of the novel with a main character, and gets to know the thoughts and feelings of that main character. I think McCarthy’s writing can best be called distant or remote third person. We don’t get close to the main characters and so are held at a remove. We are observers of the action, watching a city from the safe confines of that hop-on-hop-off tour bus. Look at that, we think, but we are unmoved. It is a movie rather than an experience.
And that is the greatest flaw of ‘Suttree’. A reader reads to ‘Experience’ a different world. Good literature immerses the reader into the story and allows the reader to feel the thoughts, fears, hopes, needs and wants of the main point of view characters. We can engage in a bar fight without the fear of being killed. We can fall in love without risking a broken heart. We don’t have to take that real risk. But ‘Suttree’ keeps the reader at a distance and we never feel what they feel. We watch them, and can pity them. But we never connect with them.