Tag Archives: character development

Burning Down the House

Eyes of the Innocent: A Mystery by Brad Parks (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 294 pages)

“I’m not saying it’s simple to find and tell the truth.   It takes a great deal of hard work, intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and a willingness to keep listening to people even when your gut is telling you they’re full of it.”

This second appearance of Carter Ross, an investigative journalist in Newark, New Jersey, is a morality tale with a mystery added for good measure.   The worst case fallout from the great housing debacle of the recent past is the theme of this book.   Carter and his protegé, a blonde intern nick-named “Sweet Thang,” set out to fulfill the big boss’s demand for a space heater story to be run in the Newark Eagle-Examiner.   As the reader can easily imagine, this assignment becomes a much greater story filled with heinous crimes and enough anxiety to satisfy the most demanding mystery/thriller reader.

“Editors are 98% full of stupid ideas.”

Author Park’s news background is put to good use as he sets out a primer on choosing  journalism as a career.   He employs Carter’s first-person narrative to poke fun at the others and produce some excellent character development.   There’s also a third-person narrative set off by the use of italics that weaves in the most sinister element of the story.   This other thread serves to highlight Carter’s honesty and commitment to his profession via a stark contrast.

Although the tale is told from a male’s perspective, it is surprising how chatty Carter can be when he considers his feelings, likes and dislikes.   There is a bit of smugness on his part but given the golden professional reputation Park ascribes to Carter, it appears to be well-earned.

There is a strong similarity to the mysteries, Dog Tags and Flipping Out by the writing team of Lomax and Biggs.   Indeed, these books and Eyes of the Innocent are very much like going on a police ride-along.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “This book held me hostage until the last page.”   Michael Connelly

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Second Hand News

On Book Reviewing – Plausibility is the Thing

One of the key items that a book reviewer of a novel needs to consider is plausibility.   Does the basis of the tale told in the book ring true?   Are the characters like people one would encounter in real life, or are they either too perfect, too flawed or strange?   Sad to say but if the story’s premise and/or its characters are not plausible then reading the novel becomes an exercise in futility.   Oh, the story may have some positive features but lacking plausibility, it’s like saying that someone’s done a good job of putting lipstick on a pig.   Great makeup job but it’s still a pig.

What does the reviewer do when in this situation?   Focus on the writing itself while reminding the potential reader that this may be a talented writer but he/she has not met his/her potential this time around.   In other words, offer hope for the future.

Now here’s the funny thing…   If a reviewer questions the plausibility of a novel the author is never going to concur with this finding.   Never, ever, ever.   His or her response will be something like, “I based this on something that actually happened and I know (or knew) people like the characters in this book!”   Fine but that’s the author’s perspective not the reviewer’s view.   What it translates into is a case where a plausible story – supposedly based on real-life – was botched in the writing.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice once said about pornography, “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.”   The same is and should be true for a reviewer – either he or she “sees” the plausibility in a fictional setting or he/she doesn’t.   Either way, it is critical for the reviewer’s credibility to call it as he sees it.   Play it as it lays.

There’s another famous quote, one attributed to an actor, “Once you’ve learned to fake sincerity, you can fake anything.”   But a writer of a fictional work can’t fake plausibility – its either on the written page (“on all fours,” as law professors say) or it’s absent.   And if a reviewer makes the call that it’s absent the writer should remember that it’s nothing personal – your next book may become one of the reviewer’s favorites.

Joseph Arellano

This article is one in a continuing series.   Pictured: The False Friend: A Novel by Mya Goldberg (author of Bee Season) which will be released by Doubleday on October 5, 2010.   This is one of those books that we look forward to reading and reviewing.

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A bird in hand…

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow)

Full and proper character development appears to be becoming a lost art in fiction, but author Christina Baker Kline does her bit to revive the art in the intriguing novel Bird in Hand.   This is a fine story, extremely well told, of four people, partners in two marriages and very good friends.   We get to know all four characters and hear their stories – from their own perspectives – in this well-constructed tale.

The narrative begins with Alison whose life seems to be virtually perfect until two things happen.   First, she becomes involved in a deadly accident while driving under the influence and the ramifications of this threaten to tear her world apart.   Second is something that she’s completely unaware of, which is that her husband is having an affair with someone she considered a friend.   Thus, her world changes overnight:   “For Alison, now, the world was a different place, and yet it was strangely the same.   She was present and not present in her own life.”

Kline writes with the same cool, suburban angst filled tone as Richard Ford (Independence Day, The Sportswriter).   There’s a question that is asked in Ford’s writing and in a Talking Heads song:  How did I get here?   “She walked around the silent house and looked at the framed photographs that lined the mantelpiece and cluttered the bookshelves, wondering, Is this really my life?   This collage of frozen moments, frozen in time.”bird in hand 5

In Bird in Hand, we also meet Charlie, Alison’s steady if unfaithful husband; Claire, the newly published author and friend of Alison’s; and Ben, Claire’s successful if somewhat dull and introverted husband.   It’s rare to find a work in which all four characters are so well fleshed out and, yes, real.   Here’s an example, in how Alison describes Charlie:   “…as they started talking she realized that there was…  something in his character that she couldn’t pin down.   He wasn’t cocky, and his humor was gentle.   He had a mild confidence, a lack of self-consciousness, an ironic take on the world that wasn’t caustic or bitter.   Despite his social ease, he had a solitary air.”

At one point, Charlie describes Claire in words that could apply to the author’s style in writing this novel.   “She could be formal one moment and irreverent, even crude, the next.”

To be continued… (the first of two parts)

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Border Song

Border Songs 2Author Jim Lynch is a master at character development and scene setting.   This highly engaging story takes place on the west coast edge of the USA-Canada border.   The plot is filled with the sights and sounds of the inhabitants of the region – avian, bovine and human.   Their collective activities take place within the radius of several small towns that cluster against the ditch and roads that form the physical elements of the international border.

The humans include dairy farmers, a masseuse with a veiled past, politicians, U.S. Border Patrol officers, marijuana growers, drug smugglers, and illegal aliens.   Our hero, Brandon Vanderkool, is a remarkable fellow who possesses the best of human qualities – love of nature, respect for others, gentleness, loving kindness, and strong loyalty.   He also has some very amazing powers of observation that tie together the threads of the story line.

Jim Lynch evokes the tone and reverence for nature found in the works of authors Michael Pollan and John McPhee.   This reader was fully engaged throughout the book and reluctant to bid adieu to Brandon, his feathered friends, and the rascals that populate the border.

Knopf, $25.95, 291 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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