Book Review for Writers of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A classic read that was chosen as a monthly book club read. If it had not been a book I am committed to being able to intelligently speak about I would not have finished it. It is very wordy. There are times it reminded me that Dickens published most work in monthly magazines and was probably paid by the word count. Not a nice thought and distracting. But by the end I was entertained but also reminded why Dickens is not one of my favourites.
My biggest knock is that I never immersed into the story and experience the action as one of the characters. I am not sure I even knew any of the characters that well. Darnay left me wondering what he really cared about, and why Lucie fell for him. Lucie was described as a pretty blonde, but we never know her mind or heart. The banker Lorry is a fit vehicle to move the story, and the lawyer Styvner certainly strives to advance himself. So the caricatures that Dickens often employs rear their heads. There are good people and bad, but little nuance. In this case there are good cities (London) and bad (Paris) and the reality of life for people in either city is never explored. Which is something I want from great literature.
I loved the dialog. When characters are speaking to each other, I had a sense of watching a battle of wits, and enjoyed the words, the cadence, and the push and pull, thrust and parry of the interactions. The language and the vocabulary are stellar, as are the often unstated motives.
There were a couple of coincidences used to make the story work, and some name changes to keep this reader guessing. When Sydney Carton, who so resembles Darnay to get him acquitted in the first trial appears, I knew that resemblance would be used later in the book.
My wish is that this book had been more real, the characters more human, the hopes and fears more felt and experienced by the reader. That would have made this a great novel. I think this is a good book, not a great one.

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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

ISBN 9781645171560

Review of Aislin Hunter’s ‘The Certainties’

‘The Certainties’ is a different read. There is a doomed, claustrophobic feel to the sections where the three travelers are stuck in Portbou Spain. The scene where they are interviewed in a restaurant reminded me of the kitchen scene early in ‘Inglorious Basterds’, where Christoph Waltz so well plays the terrifying SS officer Hans Landa. In ‘The Certainties’ the Spanish are not so cartoon character evil, but are just as smothering in their approach. They use food as a weapon to the starving travelers and have a sadistic enjoyment in the power they wield.
Hunter’s earlier book ‘The World Before Us’ is one of my favourites, so I came to this book with high hopes. As a reader, I expected to be challenged, but I did not expect to be left forlorn.
I believe one of the highest goals of a well-written novel is that a reader can experience the world of the characters without the downside risk. We will not be sent back to face the Nazis but we share the gut wrenching fear of that prospect with the three travelers. We don’t bear responsibility for leaving a girl to die in a field, but share the shame. Here Hunter is successful.
As a reader and a writer, I take an interest in themes. I love stories, and great characters, without them a novel cannot be great. But what the stories explore is my interest. Here we see that Hunter’s theme is to bear witness. To speak of the atrocities we have seen. But then? I was left feeling the need for something more. Not a happy ending, but a glimpse of some possibly better world. Here and now, as we teeter on the edge of a fascist state taking place in America, this book made me feel more bleak and resigned to that terrible possibility. The brutality. Are we resigned to it?
I enjoyed the short section exploring how a man like Herr Gabler might climb to a position of power in a fascist state, but found it a fiction as imagined by the narrator. What the true story is, we will never know. As we will never know whether Suzanne and Bernard go forward or back to France. I wanted to know. With Certainty.
Some times and places I had trouble with. Where exactly is this island Pia is on? And what was the narrators name?
But these are quibbles. I am going to rate this book 5 stars, but with a warning. It is not a light summer read.

February 21, 2021

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The Certainties by Aislin Hunter
ISBN 9780735276871

Book review of ‘On Becoming a Novelist’ by John Gardner

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
ISBN 0-06-014956-6

This book had me traveling a whole spectrum of feelings, from ecstatic recognition of a voice I had always wanted to hear to tedious boredom of the Publication and Faith chapters. There are four sections and the first two are great. I might come back to the second two if I ever suffer writer’s block, but I also might suggest just reading the first two.
If you want to be a novelist, read this book. Gardner talks about what a novelist must understand, and hearing him describe those attributes was an electrifying affirmation that I was on the right track. The positive message had me jumping out of the book constantly to actually write. That kind of motivation is hard to find and is to be celebrated.
Loving language, playing with words, and mental exercises of incorporating themes, metaphors and symbols are all important. But the brilliant language always serves character, setting and action.
Creating that ‘Vivid and continuous dream’ for the reader to immerse in must be the writer’s number one goal. And plot as defined by what the characters want and how they go about getting it must be forefront.
This is not a technical writing book but a more thoughtful discussion on what sort of temperament a writer must cultivate to be a good novelist. A splendid book to have beside you as you begin a re-write of that first draft.
Highly recommended.

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Review of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Reading Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for the first time, the Nonsense and Silliness struck me. The joy of word play, absurd dialog, impossible characters and fantastic scenes.
This is a strange book. There is not really a plot. It is very imaginative, both the characters and the dialog. Witty and funny. I wouldn’t call it a novel. There is no growth in the characters, almost no agency, they just bounce along. I am struggling to understand what it is about. Is there a point?
There is a world of cultural touch stones here. Down the rabbit hole following the white rabbit wearing a coat and kid gloves, checking his pocket watch and fretting about being late. Alice growing larger than smaller after eating cakes and mushrooms. The March Hare and the Mad Hatter having tea. The Queen of Hearts, ‘Off with their heads’ and the croquet game with hedge hogs for balls and flamingos for mallets.
All curiouser and curiouser.
I read the second half ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and tried to better understand what Lewis Carroll was getting at. Is it a bit of showing off with language? It has some linguistic arrogance by the author. And the notes from the illustrator, Sir John Tenniel complain about ‘That conceited old Don’, ie Dodgson.
It was also sort of mental Chinese food; I wished for something of more substance soon after. But it is a children’s book. I can see how it would entertain and keep youngsters interested. Who or what will they run into next? Fun.
To think it has survived and thrived for over 150 years is a testament to Carroll. We all hope our work can stand such a test of time.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll , Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, illustrated by Sir John Tenniel
ISBN13: 978-0-307-29087-8

Review of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I wanted to love this book. It came highly recommended by people I respect and was a number one New York Times bestseller. Alas, no.

The author uses omniscient narration which can devolve into head hopping, and there is some of that. Reading a scene with Kya and Tate, the reader is back and forth between what she is feeling and what he is thinking. It is jarring and pushed me out of the narrative. I read to experience what the characters experience, but that doesn’t work when the point of view changes constantly. Owens should have stuck to a POV for at least each chapter.
Using omni went too far when the reader learns what happened to Tate in a manner that Kya or nobody else could know. It also broke my suspension of disbelief in that I don’t think a man in love would think or act that way. It ruined that line for me and made me see the author plotting the book rather than characters living a story.
At that point I started looking for faults and found many. The dialog does not feel real; it has a stilted affectation. The sheriff and his deputy talking was to let the reader know about the gossip mill, not a conversation that felt real. How quickly Kya learned to read at age 14 or so didn’t feel true. Her knowledge gained without a library was unbelievable. And the final resolution took too much coincident luck to be credible.
But I spoke to other readers who said they had put aside these faults and had read the story as a fantasy. That might have worked. If the author had let me know not to take this story too literally, but to accept the stretches, I might have enjoyed it more. In magical realism, we accept these things and that might have worked here.
My final knock on the novel is the distance the reader feels to the characters in ‘Crawdads’. A novel is unique in the storytelling medium by being able to immerse the reader into the world, thoughts and feelings of the characters. Well done, the reader ‘experiences the story’ with the characters. We fall in love. We learn to read. We experience the abandonment. Feel the pain and the joys. But Owens doesn’t let us get that close to Kya or any characters. They are on a stage or a screen and we are watching. We can feel for them, but we can’t know them and we can’t feel with them. We empathize, but we don’t experience. And that is a sad miss.

January 22, 2021

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ISBN 9780735219090

Review of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

The vast sweep of this book is amazing. Thousands of years of evolution, culture and civilization. It is breathtaking in its scope. The authoritative voice of the author carried me through three quarters of the book until I started questioning what was included and what was left out. I would love the opportunity to sit with Yuval and debate some points over a beer. I know it would be a bracing, sparkling conversation, as this book required a stretch of the reader to take in such a huge expanse. Highly recommended.
I read this book in spurts and recommend that approach. Read and then pause to think on the material. The material covered could probably be rolled into an entire PHD Program. (Maybe it is.)
I enjoyed the big picture narrative. Like standing atop Rockefeller Center and surveying Manhattan this book dazzles.
My one knock on the book would be the short shrift Harari gives to Democracy and self-governance, and the backhanded compliments to Capitalism. Capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than at any time in human history. The author debates whether we are better off today than early humans scavenging for nuts and berries millenniums ago. I sighed and rolled my eyes. And having governments that represent the people, as we have today, is not really mentioned. Because it is only a few hundred years old? Rome and Athens were Republics, two thousand years ago. But this is a minor quibble on a brilliant book. Read it and decide for yourself.
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Sapiens A brief History of HumanKind by Yuval Noah Harari
ISBN 978-0-7710-3850-1

Book Review of Vision by Gordon D’Angelo

I first read ‘Vision , Your pathway to Victory’ by Gordon D’Angelo in 2013 soon after it was first published. I did the exercises, developed a plan with 12 goals, documented the plan with initiatives, definable measurable and tangible deliverables and dates. I spent days on it and it looked great on paper. Then I put it away and forgot about. I thought. Until I stumbled on it two years later, found that old plan, and I was astounded. Eight of my twelve goals I had fully realized, and I had made great progress on two others. Just the process of following the book and putting pen to paper had moved me forward in a surprising fashion. It had been a true success.
So over Christmas this year I decided to reread the book and again put the ideas into a plan. The book is just as fresh as it was eight years ago.
So many self-help books have nebulous ideas and great platitudes and nice intellectual exercises to move yourself forward. This book, ‘Vision’ by D’Angelo has concrete steps that will definitely move you forward to your goals. It is a short book, 140 pages, so you can read it in an afternoon. But read it and then do the work. Build your wish list, work out a template for the next three to five years. Find interim deliverables, Bridge numbers, and work the plan. Develop the initiatives, develop a support network, tell the world about your plans. Find the people you can help and the people who can help you.
I am sold on this book and its approach because it worked for me once before. I am confident it will work again, and that it will work for you!
Well recommended.

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ISBN 978-1-61448-150-8

Book review for Writers : The Water Dancer

Continuing in my series of book reviews for writers, I completed reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘The Water Dancer’.
The opening of the book immediately reminded me of the Elmore Leonard quote ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’ This flowery prose that calls attention to itself like a toddler, “Mummy, Mummy, look at me.” It doesn’t last but flares up again and again. Not an auspicious start.
I didn’t like the book and will include spoilers, so you are for-warned.
I had trouble engaging with this book. For good reason Writers are admonished to ‘Show, don’t tell’. This is a story told. It is so strange to have a book written in first person point of view, and to not connect with that principal character. We don’t learn his simplest thoughts and ideas, what are his lovable quirks. We don’t laugh with him, and we don’t love or fear with him. There is a point late in the novel where he again meets up with Sophia, who has a child. She tells him, ‘She’s not yours.’ Well of course I thought, Hiram and Sophia never had a romantic or sexual relationship. But I guess they did, and it was so unremarkable that this reader missed it. It was never described in any memorable way, which is the major flaw here. The emotional distance the reader feels. This author is so mistaken to neglect a scene of love. Sad. A huge missed opportunity.

I don’t feel an emotional connection, any connection, to Hiram, the principal character. He says he is in love with Sophia, but I don’t feel it. He is more defined by relationships he can’t remember with his mother. Weird.
It is an important subject, slavery, but this story feels disconnected. I am not clear when it is taking place. Before the civil war but I don’t know exactly when.
When people write books about a subject we all ‘should’ care about, it is harder to criticize the work. But the book is failing me as a good novel. I am disbelieving, and not just the magical realism, which I enjoy. This power of ‘Conduction’ almost makes the Underground railroad obsolete.
The great power of a well written novel is that a reader can experience the world of the characters without the downside risk such as being caught and returned to slavery. I heard Sophia moan ‘No, no, no’ when they were caught, and felt for her. Hiram, not so much. I don’t know if he is meant to be stoic or aloof, but the book doesn’t work because we don’t feel any of the horror he goes through. We watch it, like watching TV, with no emotional connection.
Again, we are not supposed to criticize the politically correct voices here. This is a novel that feels like an essay, too much head and not enough heart.
Then the lack of connection lead to the fatal flaw in any novel. I had to push myself to finish it. Reading, which should be a joy even when difficult, had become a chore.
Good writing is honest. But honesty should never be used to hide sadism. I want these ‘Reviews for Writers’ to look at writing honestly. We can learn how to be great writers by reading great fiction, but also by analyzing where attempts at great writing miss the mark. And here I think Coates misses the mark by not being emotionally honest. I think he is an intellectual of sorts and fears sharing that part of himself with the reader. He holds back and the result is a character, Hiram, who never connects. Good honest writing should go up to the point of almost embarrassing the writer. Coates gets nowhere near that line.
Why do we read great fiction? As compared to watching a movie. A good novel let’s the reader immerse into the author’s world, to feel and experience with the characters. Whether it is to feel the horror of slavery or the ecstasy of love, to endure the hardships of separation from family or share the joy of a common goal attained.
Reader want to experience everything without the real negative risks of beatings, torture or death.
A swing and a miss here.

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