Tag Archives: novella

I Am A Child

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, $25.99, 181 pages)

Ocean at the End of the Lane (nook book)

At first glance, the lovely cream colored deckle edge pages and the crisply printed type face are a stark contrast to the cover artwork of this rather slim novel. The story that unfolds is a bit arresting, setting up a moody dark and deep tale. As a first-time reader of Neil Gaiman (Gaiman’s horror/fantasy book Coraline was made into a stop-motion film) this reviewer was a bit hesitant to begin what appeared to be a memoir by the narrator, a man who has gone back to his hometown for a funeral.

Gaiman plays on the magic thinking that some kids explore, or rather allow to bubble to the surface in idle moments or during spells of anger at being denied their desires. The narrator, clearly an introvert, lays out his painful childhood for the reader. A murdered man found in his father’s stolen car is traumatic for him. He visits a house at the end of the road where his childhood home used to be. The occupants are women, well, just one woman whose age and identity are a bit confusing. Is she the mother of his playmate, Lettie Hempstock, or her grandmother? What happened to Lettie?

As did other reviewers, I read the book in one sitting. Once a reader suspends his or her hold on adult reality and dives back into the spacey and somewhat murky thoughts of childhood, it’s easy to fall under Gaiman’s spell. He convincingly captures the ethereal and floating insights that we know as children and then lose to the world as we become grown-ups.

Well recommended for readers who enjoy being on edge.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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The Chain

The Perfect Ghost: A Novel by Linda Barnes (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 310 pages)

I know it’s not art… but it’s writing. It’s work, a bold answer to the inevitable question What do you do? It’s a way to support myself beyond mere and meager subsistence. It’s a life. It’s my life.

The Perfect Ghost (nook book)

This is a story that devolves before the reader’s eyes. The Perfect Ghost begins as a novel filled with beautiful language that brings to mind Maggie Pouncey’s novel, Perfect Reader. Ghost is about a ghost-writer, Em Moore, who works with a partner — the public face of the team — to write a highly successful non-fiction book about Hollywood celebs. When the partner suddenly dies, Em must fight tooth and nail to convince the publishing company to let her finish a follow-up book about a famous film director for which she and her deceased partner had a contract.

Unfortunately, author Barnes — who in the past wrote numerous mysteries — is not content to stick with this intriguing story line. Instead, the book veers off the main road (that of a novel) and turns into a diversionary journey (a mystery) about multiple crimes. As in most mysteries, all is resolved in the final pages. But by then the thrill is gone.

At just 300 pages this story is almost a novella, which means that not too many hours of reading will have been wasted. That’s small comfort, very small. You know an author is in trouble when she begins larding the story with lines from Shakespeare’s plays.

“All’s well that ends well.” Such is not the case here.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on April 9, 2013.

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8-Track Flashbacks

8-Track Flashbacks by Tom Alt (Mag Mile Books, $11.99, 128 pages)

Tom Alt’s memoir, 8-Track Flashbacks, is the equivalent of a new band on the scene, which produces an album that has one or two decent songs, but as a whole does not stand on its own.   At 113 pages, it is sized more like a novella than a novel.   It is a story of growing up in the 60s (and early 70s).   Ironically, most of the story takes place before 8-tracks were popular.

Alt grows up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, a few miles west of Milwaukee.   His father leaves, and his early childhood involves sports, girls, drinking, and more girls – not all that dissimilar for boys of almost any era.

A key events almanac for each year of the decade introduces the chapters, though the events listed and the songs referred to are largely isolated from the stories contained in the chapters.

There are some very well-written passages, some vignettes that might cause the reader to recall that time of their life or that era in general.   Perhaps some from the Midwest will relate to the sports teams, towns, or liberalism of the University of Wisconsin.   However, there is a depth to the account that is missing.   The characters exist but the reader does not really get to know them sufficiently to bond with them.

Because of the vagueness, it is difficult to get to the main point of why this memoir might stand out as one to read.   It is hard to distinguish if this is supposed to be about the era, growing up, heartache or survival – too many important issues are introduced and then left dangling.   More time is spent on Alt’s high school years, which basically comes across as a boy clowning around and skating by.   His relationship with his mother and siblings probably should have been more prominent in the story; his college relationships; draft status and subsequent failed physical; and other portions of the story are glanced over a bit too hastily.

The book can be read in one sitting or as time permits.   It’s not a bad book.   It’s just not a great book.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   8-Track Flashbacks is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.  

Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.   He has recently completed a second novel.

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Take the Long Way Home

Long Drive Home: A Novel by Will Allison (Free Press, $22.00, 215 pages)

To be honest, each of us has read stories that we just don’t “get,” and this was the case for me with this short novel.   Long Drive Home is actually a novella, literally a small book that just exceeds 200 pages.   Even then it felt long, as there was never any tension surrounding the unusual plot.

Here’s a brief synopsis:  Glen is an accountant who lives in New Jersey with his wife and six-year-old daughter, Sara.   The fact that he’s an accountant is supposed to bring home the point that he’s a staid, conservative introvert.   One day, he’s driving Sara home when he almost becomes involved in an accident – it creates some surprising road rage in our otherwise calm protagonist.   So he drives a few blocks more until he’s on the street where he lives…   Guess what happens?   A young driver is speeding down his street and Glen – whose adrenaline is still flowing – decides to pretend to make a left turn in front of this teenage driver…   Guess what happens?   Even though it’s a feint (Glen doesn’t actually block the street), the young man flies off of the road, and crashes into an ancient tree – he’s dead before Glen can park his own car.

This incident, around which the entire tale revolves, never felt real.   We’re told that Glen made the left turn feint, then after the young man’s auto passed by, he turned into his driveway but overshot it due to his excitement.   Now, really, who would turn into his driveway after a car has just sped past and crashed?   If anything, the driver would stop in the street and then run towards the crashed vehicle.   But then several things didn’t add up here…

One troubling fact is that Glen is white and the reader comes to learn that the young man who’s killed is African-American.   Why throw in this racial aspect, when there’s nothing else in the telling that’s pertinent to race?   Supposedly, we’re informed that the dead young man is black because it means that the local police are less likely to investigate the case as a crime.   The cops will presume that the young man had alcohol or drugs in his system (and, luckily for Glen, he did) and caused his own demise through his recklessness.

“I was the only obvious defendant…”

According to another source “…wondering whether Glen will be arrested is what keeps you turning the pages.”   And we’re thrown a curve because in the village where Glen lives, it will take 4 to 6 months to get the autopsy results back on the dead youth.   OK, but, in fact, there’s never any tension in the story.   Why?   Because as far as the reader knows, there were no witnesses to the accident – no neighbors who happened to look out of the front window at the sound of a speeding car in a very quiet neighborhood.   If there are no witnesses, it will only be Glen’s word against that of…   Well, no one.

For a responsible citizen, Glen begins to act out in strange ways.   He lies to the investigative detective (who is naturally suspicious of the implausible events), keeps the detective from talking to Sara (see, she’s the only eyewitness), and goes on to find, stalk and fight with the driver who first got him upset on that fateful day.   Although that man is much bigger and tougher than Glen, our now strangely-acting accountant elects to  take him on.

It’s all quite bizarre, including the fact that with no crime and no eyewitnesses – and no intent on Glen’s part to commit a felony – it’s supposed to take not just several months but years before the police close the investigation and let our formerly staid protagonist off the hook.   If only author Allison had written in an eyewitness – say, a retired neighbor woman who observed exactly what Glen did or didn’t do prior to the strange accident – then turning the pages might have been justified.   Sadly, it was not to be and this novella winds up being a wreck in itself.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Take away:   It’s odd to have an investigative mystery in which there’s no crime and no witnesses to the incident in question.   Perhaps if protagonist Glen had been involved in a front-end collision with the young man who died, and then fled the scene and hid his vehicle from the authorities (actions of a guilty man), there would have been some actual tension in the telling.   There’s no such tension in this story of an innocent man.

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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Fragile Contents

Fragile by Chris Katsaropoulos

This is, quite simply, a very odd book.   Author Chris Katsaropoulos has drafted a novella (212 pages) about the tragic lives of three people – two female, one male – and interwoven them.   Unfortunately, the interweaving is literal in terms of the structure of this work.   The reader is going along reading about one character’s life when suddenly – without a page break, new sentence or paragraph beginning but with a bit of illogically placed blank space – you are reading about the second character, and then the third.   I initially presumed that this was an unedited galley (preview copy) until it became clear that this is the structure deliberately selected by the writer.

I am not sure what the attraction is of this unconventional style, unless it is to gain attention for what is labeled an “attention-grabbing” tale.   This story structure asks for too much work on the part of the reader, and the supposed calling of its unique literary device becomes all too distracting, all too tiring, all too soon.   Is there someone for whom I would recommend

This piece?   (And you see how distracting the unconventional structure is?   This is an example of the type of segues used in Fragile.)  

Well, I think it might be a work that appeals to an actor – male or female – used to performing in ultra avant-garde works.   Or for an art lover who adores Picasso above all others.   Or someone who has not outgrown Vonnegut, as in Kurt.

Fragile is like a version, in words, of Paul McCartney’s “Picasso’s Last Words,” in which the former Beatle used an unconventional interweaving song structure to pay aural tribute to an unconventional gifted artist.   In that song it was interesting.   Fragile, however, proves that unconventionality can be too cute for its own words.   Literally.

A review copy was provided by Smith Publicity, Inc.

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Homer and Langely

Home & Langely: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

“I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.”

I believe it was John Updike who said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, has a great reputation as a writer and it is well deserved.   In Homer & Langely, he writes beautifully – in a style that often calls to mind Audrey Niffenegger – but there’s simply so little story to be told that the words are wasted.   It’s as if a musician were given a score to play that hid all of his strengths and talents.

This is a 208-page novella that runs on too long; the basic tale could well have been told as a 30- to 40-page short story.   Two brothers, wealthy by birth, become hermits while they’re living in a mansion across the street from New York City’s Central Park.   One brother is blind and the other is either bizarre or mentally ill.   This is not only a summary of the plot, but of almost everything that happens in H&L.   The most interesting scenes come when the brothers are visited by a tribe of hippies.

Doctorow’s latest was, for this reader, a novella that was far too easy to put down.

Random House, $26.00, 208 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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A Not So Fine Labor Day

Raise the name Joyce Maynard in a crowd of readers and you’ll likely hear both strongly positive and strongly negative feedback.   The novella Labor Day appears to be Maynard’s shot at redemption as she produces a Joan Didion-like tale told in slow motion and factual tones.   Because there’s not a lot to the basic story, the slow storytelling lacks the grace of Audrey Niffenegger and the “just the facts” style lacks the icy precision we generally get from Didion.

The story is told from the perspective of Henry, a 13-year-old male who lives with his post-divorce loner mother Adele.   One day they make a trip to the local shopping mall together to buy clothes for the new school year.   In the hardware department of Priceline, Henry is approached by a tall man who says he needs help.   He’s an escaped state prison inmate named Frank, and he’s picked out Henry and Adele as the perfect people to hide him.   We follow the three characters for the next six days and nights, and there’s not much more to the story.

Because Maynard writes in Henry’s voice, Labor Day often sounds either juvenile or like a young adult (YA) story, depending on your tastes.   I would not be surprised to hear that some young people pick up this novella and enjoy it, but many adult readers may find it tiring as the telling never leaves first gear.   And, of course, not much happens.   It would be logical to think – and the typical reader will – that Frank will try to persuade Adele and Henry to leave the state or country with him; not a difficult prediction.   Is such an escape likely to be successful?   I’ll leave it to you to figure out the odds.

Maynard ends the story then provides an addendum wherein we move forward 18 years to see what happened to Henry, Adele and Frank.   It’s a touch that would work well in a film, but seems a bit forced and pointless here.   Most readers would prefer to use their imagination.

In the end, there are simply not a lot of life’s lessons to be learned in the tale of a mother and son who hide an escaped fugitive for less than a week.   This reader hopes that Maynard’s next novel is bigger and bolder, and more universal in appeal.

Note:   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To…

The Divorce Party by Laura Dave is a perfect book to buy in an airport for a 3-day business trip.   Read it on the plane, in your hotel room or in the lobby, and on the return flight and you should be able to finish it.   It’s a 272-page novella – a smaller than usual trade paperback – that feels much shorter than that.

This story does not need a lot of space as it all takes place in 24 hours or so.   Gwyn Huntington is planning on publicly celebrating her divorce from her husband Thomas with 200 friends and family members.   She does not actually want the divorce but Thomas – not Tom – is having an affair with the woman Gwyn has hired to cater the event.   Strange.   Strange also is the fact that Gwyn knows about her husband’s infidelity, but acts like she doesn’t.   Further, she plans to end the “divorce party” by serving Thomas his favorite type of cake – an ironic variation on what would occur in a traditional wedding celebration.

And the strangeness doesn’t end here.   The co-plot involves their son Champ Nathaniel (Nate) Huntington who is engaged to Maggie McKenzie.   Nate and Maggie plan to marry and run a restaurant together with Nate serving as chef.   On the day of the divorce party, Maggie learns from Nate’s sister that her new life and business partner is worth $500 million (he’s a half-billionaire).   This is supposed to make Maggie upset, but really now…   In this economy, how many people would want to call off a marriage because their soon-to-be spouse has too much money?

This was just one of the aspects of the plot that did not make sense to me.   Maggie learns something else that’s meant to be shocking about Nate, but we’ll leave that up to the reader to discover.   Let’s just say that to this reader the characters were more irritating and odd – and non-communicative – than charming.        

Does this sound a bit like a plot for an afternoon TV movie?   It did to me.   Not quite believable and at its conclusion not much has really happened or been resolved (“Nothing was revealed…” in Dylan’s words).   It’s more than a shame…Divorce Party 2I had read so many positive comments about author Laura Dave that I expected something weighty, dramatic, moving…  life-affirming.   To the contrary, this short work seemed light, slight and mostly forgettable.   Like some of those family movies made for TV, it’s not that bad – yet something not to regret if you’ve missed it.

Disappointing.   As one of Dave’s characters states in this story, “We don’t know anything about what is coming up next.”   True and sometimes we expect more than is delivered.

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