What Lies in the Dark: CM Thompson

What Lies in the Dark

Publication Date: February 10, 2015

Source: I received a paperback copy from the author, in exchange for a fair review. You can find a copy in paperback or Kindle on the Amazon Page. I received no money, chocolate, booze, kittens or sexual favours for this review.

Format: Paperback

Length: 206 pages

Summary: One murder can make a town nervous. Two brings fear.
Add three, four and even more, and watch neighbours turn on suspicious neighbours.
Victoria Bullrush – or Bullface, as she is called by fellow police officers – is a stickler for rules. As she tries to maintain a faultless investigation, she can’t ignore the public’s growing anger.
But what lies in the dark is palpable, waiting.
Can anyone stay calm enough to catch the killer? (Source – Amazon Product review.)

Short Version: Thompson writes with an engaging and fresh voice, but issues with the mechanics of writing sank this one for me.

Long Version: I can’t help but like any book that features characters known as “Bullface” and “The Krill.”

Atmosphere and character are easily two of debut novelist CM Thompson’s strengths. She specialises in the little details of everyday life to make her characters seem real – the contents of a victim’s DVD collection, or the tedious realities of investigating the apparent murder of an unidentified corpse. She also has a distinct, dark sense of humour that brings the right amount of levity to some pretty grim scenes:

“Take a deep breath,” Fletcher advises as compassionately as he can. They have been trying for ten minutes now to find out where Fran Lizzie had gone last night and his patience is wearing a little thin.

“She… waaas going to … mughgo hgggr bddoosfid.” The flatmate tries again, choking the folds of her nineteenth fresh tissue.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Meeet … hsffji frhg.”

“She was going to meet who?” Fletcher is met with a fresh wail of tears. This is going to take a while, a long while.

There are two reasons I can’t recommend this one as highly as I wanted to. The first is the punctuation. I know that seems a small thing to sink a book, but there you are. I decided not to ask the author if the non-standard punctuation was a deliberate stylistic choice or not, simply because the majority of readers won’t have that option, either.

There are dozens of run-on sentences in this book, perhaps more than dozens. They’re run-on largely because Thompson uses commas instead of semi-colons and full-stops. Again, this could be a deliberate stylistic choice, but if so, it didn’t work for me – it made the entire book seem breathless, and very difficult to follow. Looking at the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I’m actually surprised that nobody else has mentioned it yet. I don’t particularly lay this entirely at Thompson’s feet, either. It was well after I graduated – in English Literature, of all things – before I knew how to punctuate my own work. Writing and editing are two separate-but-sorta-related skillsets.

I do, however, wonder that Hookline Books would take this all the way to the paperback publishing stage without having an editor take a peep and make suggestions that would make it flow so much better.

The other issue is the sheer number of characters. This is a slender little paperback of barely 200 pages, with dozens of named characters. Some are named but not shown, and many more are shown for one or two pages before they are killed off, or never mentioned again. I can see what Thompson was trying to do, especially in making the victims into characters and not just random bodies. In the space of such a short book, though, the adage applies: a book about everybody seems to be a book about nobody, especially as the point of view so frequently refocuses from character to character.

In “Bullface”, real name Victoria Bullrush, Thompson has created a truly engaging character. I absolutely love female detectives, and I super-love a female detective who does her job properly without either falling headfirst in lust with every good-looking colleague, victim, suspect or random male (they’re always male) who walks past her, or being an irredeemably aggressive, mean-spirited bitch to everyone because she has a chip on her shoulder.

Bullface is a gem. But so little time is devoted to her that by the end of the book, I was left feeling a little teased, wishing that Thompson had dedicated a lot more time to her character and experiences. “The Krill”, too, is inspired work – the reader isn’t sure whether to regard him as an underestimated psychopath or a misunderstood Boo Radley-type, and the reveal was a genuine surprise and clever, empathetic writing. I could definitely have spent more time with this part of the story, too.

The “whodunit”, if you will, is satisfying and makes narrative sense, even if the climax seemed a little rushed. Thompson’s naturally exuberant style bubbles over in the last two chapters, a real one-on-one dialogue between writer and reader, as though she can’t wait a second longer to reveal her hand.

These drawbacks are issues easily ironed out in the editing process, and with more writing experience. Thompson is, I think, a writer to watch out for. Other reviews at Goodreads and on Amazon are almost entirely positive; if the plot and premise appeals, you may enjoy this one a lot.

Twitter: A Public Statement

I’ve decided to leave Twitter for the time being, and the leave may be permanent.

I’ve long been upset with the culture of Twitter – the cliques, the pile-ons, the sheer number of unbelievable egos running rampant over there (my ‘favourite’ is a DM screaming BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK NOW! when they can’t even do me the courtesy of following back!)

However, when I ask a simple yes/no question (that I can’t research on Google) or, God forbid, ask if someone could please glance over 1300 words of my own writing and tell me generally what they think… crickets and tumbleweed.

I have run afoul of “Mens Rights Activists” who have insulted, abused and harassed me.

I’ve had people demand I read and review their books on my own time, and haven’t even bothered to thank me.

I’ve had complete strangers DM me to demand I retweet their stuff.

I’ve had people DM me to ask for money, who’ve then guilt-tripped me when I’ve honestly replied that I have none.

I’ve run into the Hashtag Gestapo, who’ve become belligerent when I’ve “misused” a hashtag that I think they actually believe they own.

I suspect that most of my “followers” actually have me on Mute. And there’s a very telling problem with Twitter and its culture: it allows you to “follow” people and then provides a button for you to, essentially, unfollow them immediately without their knowing.

Yes, I’m a bit angry over it, but more than anything, I’m just so tired. I’m tired of people taking from me and offering absolutely nothing back. (And just so we’re clear – I don’t ask for much back. Just a short answer when I ask something. Just someone to offer to help me in exactly the same way I try to help others with their writing.)

Are there some great people on Twitter? Absolutely. An incomplete, off-the-top-of-the-head list of examples include: Keira Drake, Ben Willoughby (and his wife, who posts under Willoughby Editing), SA Hunt, Kat Kennedy, CM Thompson, Kris Holt, Paul David Chambers and Alex Bledsoe. These are some of the few people who treat others like they’re humans.

Never say never again, but I’ve deleted the app and have no immediate plans to come back.

As for the books I’ve already accepted and said I’ll review – of course I will. I’m a woman of my word (however long it takes to fulfil that word!). But I’m afraid I won’t be accepting new books from complete strangers anymore, either.

Zer0es – Chuck Wendig

Zer0es

Publication Date: September 1, 2015

Source: I received an ARC from Harper Voyage Australia. You may find a copy in lots of places, including Amazon. I received no money, chocolate, booze, kittens or sexual favours for this review.

Format: Hardback

Length: 432 pages

Summary:

An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.

But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.

Can the hackers escape their federal watchers and confront Typhon and its mysterious creator? And what does the government really want them to do? If they decide to turn the tables, will their own secrets be exposed—and their lives erased like lines of bad code? (Source: Amazon Product Description)

Short Version: It’s a good sign when you enjoy a book so much when it’s completely “against your type”.

Long Version: I have a computer. I’m using it right now, in fact. I can do some pretty professional editing of photos, use several word-processing programs, surf the net, install mods and change code in my Sims 3 game… but that’s about it. I’m not interested in tech, as such.

So it was a genuine surprise to me that I enjoyed this book as much as I did.

The plot is nicely summed up by the summary, and I can’t elaborate much on it. Simply put, it’s the old they’ll kill you because you know too much scenario. People use computers like magic wands are used  in Harry Potter. There’s a sequence in the middle where it feels like characters are being shot every couple of lines, popped off like target cut-out turkeys on a shooting range. There are car chases and stand-offs and bombings and peril, galore.

This is not a kissing book, is what I’m saying.

If that sounds hellishly complicated for a pleasure read, take it from me: you’ll find yourself trusting Wendig. I have no idea if he researched for ten years for this thing, or if he was just making up what hackers can and can’t do, and how. It doesn’t matter. Right or wrong, I believed him. You will, too.

The main drawcard, I felt, was Wendig’s short, snappy prose, and how expertly he uses it to move his story along. If you’re baffled and sometimes bored with long descriptive paragraphs or pages of explanatory backstory, never fear. Wendig is the writer for you. You’ll find yourself whipped along by the pace of his writing, without feeling like he’s skipping anything important:

Ray’s ears ring. He can smell the eggy stink of expended powder. The door pops open. The top of it clips Ray across the forehead. He staggers. Two hard fists piston into his side. A leg hooks around the back of his knee, pulls like a hook – the world flips around, and his tailbone hits asphalt.

As someone who struggles with pacing in action sequences, I am deeply and profoundly jealous.

This book clocks in at over 400 real, dead-tree pages, but it’s a speedy read without being a flimsy one. You’re not tempted to skim.

Another interesting – and admirable – thing about Wendig’s writing is that on the one hand, it deals with what could fairly be called a number of stereotypes: Evil Government Conspiracy (with people occasionally being heinous for the sake of it). Joe Whiteboy America: Nice Guy Edition. The ‘old-school cipherpunk’ mentioned in the book’s summary is your typical old hippy whose few topics of conversation keep returning us to reminding us that he’s old, and a Vietnam vet (referred to as ‘Nam, of course) who doesn’t trust teh evol gubbermint. He’s likened to the Unabomber at least once.

Then there’s the use of the old Internet Trolls Are Fat, Lonely Shut-Ins Who Secretly Crave Love stereotype.

I’ll admit it made for some nerve-racking reading for a bit there. What are we to do with, say, one DeAndre Deleon Mitchell, who thinks he’s a “little Tupac in the making”, lives in a ghetto, says “yo” and “homies” a lot, is terrified of the wrath of his “moms”, and addresses his neighbour as “Miss Livinia”?

Wendig forges past the barriers to good storytelling/characterisation that he sets up for himself, but it’s a close call in places. Hollis Copper, Special Agent, is another African-American character; when DeAndre tries to call him a “traitor to the skin”, he informs him his father was a dentist and he went to Princeton, and to not try that “solidarity shit”.

So there’s that.

Wendig isn’t afraid to make his “heroes” completely unlikable, either, and it’s a refreshing change from books filled with angelic heroes and demonic villains. His best example here is the character of Reagan Stolper.

Reagan is a spectacular, 24/7 bitch. And I don’t mean in a “you go, girl!” kind of way where you giggle when she fires off witty remarks to people, either. I mean, you will want to reach through the pages and slap her. If she was a real person, you probably would. But Reagan is a triumph because she comes across as a real person – some people just ARE jerks. We may hate her, but hate is a strong emotion and Wendig has made us feel it for someone who doesn’t exist.

I wasn’t particularly wild about was Regan’s backstory. I get it – there are reasons she’s an asshole and she has a tragic past, blah blah. I’m probably in the minority of this, but I’m tired of the insistence that bullies are just fragile little souls who want to be accepted and act out when they aren’t.

But overall she’s the shining beacon of characterisation in Zer0es. Much better, I thought, than the burgeoning relationship between two incredibly bland characters, Chance and Aleena.

I try not to post spoilers, and won’t here – suffice it to say that the ending is satisfying, with everything wrapped up neatly. I felt as the story rushed toward its climax that my suspension of disbelief was wobbling a little, but I’m almost certain that’s my being a little shaky with my understanding of the genre.

Give this one a go.

The Horseman – Adam Llewellyn

The Horseman

Publication Date: July 24, 2015

Source: Available from Amazon

Format: E-book

Length: 253 pages

Summary: A lone horseman, his face hidden behind a mask, approaches the town of Steckland, trailing death in his wake. For two years he has searched, hunting down the man who took everything from him and left him for dead, but now the hunt is coming to an end. Somewhere in this God forsaken town he is hiding, but he will be found and he will be made to pay. But little does the horseman know that not only is he not alone in coming to Steckland to see Crait die, but Crait’s being here is no accident. He has a plan of his own and all three will collide, with a price that even the horseman may not be able to pay.  (Source: Amazon product description).

Short Version: This classic Western tale of a vigilante after justice has some colourful writing, but its grim and graphic depiction of violence, particularly sexual violence, was too strong for my tastes.

Longer Version: As I remarked a couple of hours ago on Twitter, this is the first review I’ve written that comes with a genuine, not-being-a-smartarse-here warning. I will be discussing the book’s heavy content in some detail.

I’m completely ambivalent toward Westerns as a genre, and on a plot level I really liked how cleanly written this was – the horseman’s obsession with the villainous Crait is strong enough to hold the story, and the writing itself is colourful and vivid (though Llewellyn seems too fond of similes. All of his similes are nicely observed, original, and at first made me smile, but there’s a veritable avalanche of them. When it comes to colourful figures of speech, less is always more.)

The story arc showed few surprises (though there’s a mild sting in the tail of this tale), but that’s part of its appeal – we watch Westerns primarily to see our heroes ride into Dodge and shoot a bunch of guys who’ve wronged them. In this basic sense, the story is completely satisfying.

But it’s almost impossible to like anyone in this book. I was confused as to who, exactly, I was meant to be rooting for. While I’m sure Llewellyn didn’t mean him as a cleaner-than-clean hero, the horseman quickly becomes, in my view, possibly just as evil as Crait.


SPOILERS:

He asks Isabella, a girl who is fifteen and maintains she’s only a “dancer”, to entice a drunk man upstairs as if she is going to sleep with him. She begs him, and he promises more than once, to get her out of this situation before it turns to actual sex. He is hiding in the wardrobe when this drunk man brings her into the room. Then, for reasons not fully explained, the horseman stays in the wardrobe and watches the screaming girl being violently raped. He rationalises that she’s a “whore”, and “whores deserve it.”

“Whore” and “bitch” are constantly and viciously flung at this girl, even after the horseman is apparently sorry for setting her up to be raped. (He tries to apologise by giving her a bracelet. She’s moved to tears. I was nearly moved to puke.) He also regularly hits her, or threatens to hit her.

And then we are supposed to buy that he’s had an epiphany and really valued her after all? No, no, no. I’m all for morally grey characters, but this one was a step too far. Isabella is subjected to the most violent, terrifying, degrading treatement by just about every single man in this book, and I just don’t buy that the horseman was any better than any of the others in how he treated her.

The violence depicted in this book doesn’t offend me, as such – I have a fairly high tolerance for gore – but the sheer repetitive nature of it quickly became a drag. Crait murders pretty much every single character he has a simple conversation with – some for absolutely no reason except “he’s evil”. It became, well… boring. There was no tension in any of his later interactions with people. I knew from previous chapters that it was a matter of not if, but when, he was going to slit a child’s throat or shoot a baby dead in his cradle.

END OF SPOILERS


If that’s not your kind of party, you might prefer to give this one a miss.

What Turns Me On and Off Your Book, Part 1: The Title

In looking around for a new book to sink my teeth into (in a manner of speaking), I started to ponder the many free new novels on Amazon and what made me choose one and reject the next. So I thought I’d write up a few blog posts explaining (for myself as much as anyone else) my thought processes when I’m trawling Amazon. This is the first of what will probably be four or five blog posts over the next two weeks.

There are three things about a book’s title that will give me serious reservations as to whether I even begin to read it:

    1. Generic, means-nothing titles that are usually clichés, like (and I’m just making these up now): “Blind Justice”, “Presumed Guilty” or “First Love” (the last is a book by Turgenev. He did it over a hundred years ago, and in his native Russian, so he got away with it.) Famous writers do sometimes phone-in titles – John Grisham, I’m thinking of you, mate. In general, I will overlook a pretty vague-and-ordinary title from a writer I trust, but won’t from a writer I have never heard of.
    2. TITLES IN ALL CAPS. STOP SHOUTING AT ME, PLEASE.
    3. Titles that include a postscript explaining how great the book apparently is. I see this quite often and really, it comes across as “telling, not showing” at best, and authorial arrogance at worst.

In short, I will probably not want to pick up your book if the title looks like this: “THE WRONG KIND OF GUY – a sexy and intriguing new novel by Naomi Barton.”

I love naming my own works, but it’s a niche talent and I know it’s a major pain for a lot of writers. If you’re one of those people who don’t spend hours making up names for things you haven’t even written yet, it’s perfectly OK to ask around for inspiration. Ask your editor or beta. Ask Twitter. Ask a random person at the bus stop. Ask your mother. (No, really. You don’t necessarily need to be a writer to have a gift for coming up a compelling title.)

Two of the best books I’ve read this year have unusual titles. The first won a Pulitzer: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The other is underrated and little known: Colin Mulhern’s The Boy Who Buried Dead Things. That last one is one I picked up almost entirely because of the title. I’m so glad I did.

Am I way off here? Too harsh and picky? Let me know what you think. I won’t bite 🙂

The Review You Do When You’re Not Reviewing…

Yes, I know, I haven’t given a proper review in ages.

Yesterday, I read something between a short story and a novella that annoyed me so much I gave it one whole star on Goodreads. It was a sort of fluffy-romance thing, which isn’t my usual genre, but I thought I’d give it a go.

To spoil things, the whole story was “Is this new lover of Hard-Working Single Mum a psycho or not? No? Great, they’re getting married.”

She had known him for less than a week.

A. WEEK.

I was looking for the hidden catch at the end, mentally screaming “BUT YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW HIM! Why am I the only person who thinks marrying him is a horrible idea?!”

There was clearly something – a big something – I was missing. Not sure if it’s exemplary of the genre and I just don’t get that kind of romance (which is entirely my own issue) or whether it was truly a WTF ending. All I could think was that the so-called heroine was hopelessly naïve and unflatteringly desperate.

For Such a Time – Kate Breslin, Holocaust romances, and what we do with books that offend

So. Goodreads, Twitter, Amazon and just about everywhere else in that part of the internet that deals with fiction is in an uproar about Kate Breslin’s romance novel, For Such a Time.

Long, horrifying story short: it’s a retelling of the Book of Esther, an important book in both the Jewish and Christian faiths. It’s set during the Holocaust. Breslin has, apparently, decided that Esther’s story is a love story (no such thing happens in the original text). She has reimagined it as a “romance” between a Nazi SS-Kommandant of a Concentration Camp and Hadassah Benjamin, a Jewish girl who, due to her blonde hair and blue eyes, is saved from Dachau and instated as his personal secretary at Theresienstadt. (This was not strictly-speaking a death camp; but since so many were shipped TO death camps from Theresienstadt, that’s really arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.)

I can’t really discuss further plot details because I’ve not read this novel, and don’t intend to.

I’m not here to debate whether Kate Breslin’s novel contains elements that are deeply offensive, not just to Jewish people, but to anyone aware of what happened during the Holocaust (and frankly, that should be everyone above the age of about four. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.)

Undoubtedly, Breslin’s novel contains material that most people, Jewish or not, would find offensive. From a lack of real consent between Aric and Hadassah (which in itself should disqualify it from Romance Fiction awards, so far as I’m concerned) to Hadassah’s character arc including the implication that she has converted to Christianity, this book sounds like a big old train wreck.

What concerns me today is this: what is an appropriate reaction when someone writes a piece of fiction that offends you?

Do you show your disapproval by not buying the book, and spreading the word about it so that others can avoid it, too? (This is the route I’ve taken.) Or, as others have done, do you lobby to have the book disqualified from awards? Do you send letters and petitions to the publisher to have it taken off the shelves altogether? Do you send death threats to the author? Or what?

Throughout the drama on Goodreads and on Twitter, a quote from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray came to mind:

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

It’s human nature – and I do it too – to completely agree with that quote, until we are presented with a concrete example of a book that causes us offence; one we do see as immoral.

The goal posts are at a different place for everyone. For example, I’m firmly on the bandwagon of 50 Shades of Grey detractors, but I know plenty of people who aren’t.

Today, Wilde’s quote is usually brought up in reference to books that once caused moral offence, but are now seen through the filter of post-Sexual Revolution attitudes and half a dozen decades. DH Lawrence’s controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes to mind. In 2015, it’s difficult for us to see how this book caused so much public offence that it underwent a trial for obscenity, but it did, and the feelings that brought it to trial were real.

There are many other books which are often banned and/or restricted, because they offend people – anything from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to American Psycho. (I haven’t read the latter.) National Censorship is a different ballgame to taking Titus Andronicus off the school reading list for 13-year-olds, but it all comes back to a similar argument: This book offended me. Other people should not read it.

I’m certainly not arguing that detractors of Breslin haven’t the right to be offended, even horrified. They absolutely do, and I applaud them taking to Twitter and Tumblr and voicing their protests in an intelligent, passionate way. But I keep coming back to a question I can’t answer:

Once we are offended, what do we do with that? Do we push to prevent others reading a book because it offended us?

Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley

Heh!!

Writing Slices

Henley

PRACTICAL EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE promises a “plain English guide to the transformational character arc and emotional theory.” But there are two things wrong with this. First, Henley doesn’t seem to understand what transformational character arc means. Second, she really doesn’t understand what plain English means.

Henley starts with a chapter on targeting the audience. Of course consideration for the readership is important, but to put that before the concerns of story feels backward. Henley approaches market research in a very shallow way. She suggests you figure out the main emotional concerns of your target audience and then contrive a story around those triggers. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense for the story or not. As long as you can put a child in danger, make a family relationship break down, or put a heroine together with her one true love, all story considerations are secondary.

Henley’s big idea is that…

View original post 189 more words

5 Real Reasons Agents Are So Darn Picky

Interesting and informative!

Carly Watters, Literary Agent Blog

I think some of you swear when you say that line to yourself, but I’m keeping it PG on the blog. Really, why are we so #&$%(&-ing picky?

It’s not only the volume, but that has something to do with it.

We’re picky because we have to be. We wouldn’t be able to stay in business unless we were choosy about everything we signed up. So here’s the truth if you’re still wondering what happens at agents’ desks…

5 Reasons Agents Are Picky

1. Because editors are.

All we hear from editors is how much they have to read, how passionate they have to be in their editorial and acquisitions meetings, how much marketing and sales has a say in the books, and how they have to have a clear vision for projects they take on. So guess what, agents have adopted all those criteria too. It’s true, in this internet…

View original post 489 more words

5 Accomplished Authors Who Turned Out To Be Hoaxers

I present for your perusal this article from Cracked yesterday.

I have to admit, I’m a little conflicted.

On the one hand, ideally, writers should be honest about who they are. On the other, a good book is a good book, whether it’s a true story or not – and the reverse is also true.

Stories (especially ones purported as fiction in the first place) that suddenly go from best book this decade to most horrible trash ever written reveal more about readers’ bias than about their fraudulent authors. The identity of the author shouldn’t change what you think of their actual prose.

I’m reminded of the tragically short life of Thomas Chatterton. It was only after his suicide that those who had shamed him for being a hoaxer recognised that he was an immensely talented writer, who probably shouldn’t have told all those fibs about exactly where his manuscripts were coming from. (Spoiler: himself.)

640px-Henry_Wallis_-_Chatterton_-_Google_Art_Project

The Death of Chatterton, 1856. Oil Painting by Henry Wallis.

Am I even close, here?