July 25, 2012 · 7:41 pm
Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.
1. Happy and Hungover
Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches. They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications. This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases. I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library… The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release. The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood. It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose. (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)
It can be like that for the book reviewer. At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent. Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by. It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear. This is but one of the issues that will arise.
Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book. I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake. I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison. Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling. I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings. I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return. Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other. In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.
After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact. But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened. For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment. But that’s the way life is. As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
2. Comparing A to B
Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same. It seems like a potentially risky business. If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry. I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.
A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author. I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find! Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance. That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way. Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.
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September 7, 2010 · 4:44 pm
I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)
There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed. In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun. I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.
Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot. There are two protagonists. There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution. Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls. Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone. Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop. The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.
Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller. It is interesting enough, but just enough.
Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman. When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort. Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life: “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory. It was like a story she knew about someone else.”
A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy. That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom. Something key is missing here as the author admits: “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”
Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution. The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her. Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.
A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete. The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.
In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success. However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.
This review was written by Joseph Arellano. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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Tagged as a novel, admiration, black cards, book review, books, Can't Buy a Thrill, capital punishment, crime drama, crimes, criminal justice, death penalty, Death Row, Donald Fagen, Eliza Benedict, enjoyment, executions, fiction, forgiveness, gambling, hardbound release, I'd Know You Anywhere, irony, Joseph Arellano, Joseph's Reviews, Kindle Edition, Laura Lippman, lawyers, low character development, lyrics, murders, popular fiction, psychological thriller, rape, Reeling in the Years, revenge, rock music, serial killers, songwriters, songwriting, spree killer, Steely Dan, Ted Bundy, true crime books, victim, Virginia, Walter Becker, What the Dead Know, William Morrow, writers