Tag Archives: sui generis works

Two Steps

The Singer’s Gun: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books; $14.95; 304 pages)

“Most things you have to do in life are at least a little bit questionable.”   Emily St. John Mandel

“To live outside the law you must be honest.”   Bob Dylan

The Singer’s Gun is a recklessly entertaining book from the unique novelist Emily St. John Mandel (Last Night in Montreal).   Mandel’s writing style is so unique that it’s sui generis – not classifiable.   If Mandel had been a musician, she might have been Harry Nilsson or, perhaps, Joni Mitchell.   Like those two, Mandel has the guts of a cat burglar; she’s unbridled, not hemmed in by other’s boundaries or rules.   Reading Mandel is quite a fun ride especially because, as one book store owner stated, “She doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of life.”

The Singer’s Gun is the story of Anton, a man born into a New York City-based family that lives in the grey and questionable areas of life.   Anton’s parents sell stolen architectural goods (Walker Architectural Salvage) and his female cousin Aria sells fake passports, green cards and other things of which Anton desires not to know the details.   Anton, of course, has a bit of the thief’s blood in him so he uses false pretenses to secure a copy of a diploma from his supposed alma mater, Harvard.   The only problem is that Anton graduated high school, not college.

After Anton’s long-term engagement to his fiancée results in a very, very short-term marriage (it’s shorter than the honeymoon trip), and he has trouble as work, he’s tempted to take a “last job” offer from Aria.   But then the plot, the story line, of The Singer’s Gun is not of great import – it’s a pretense to let Mandel perform her magic…  Here is an example, a paragraph, from this break through novel:

Anton met a cellist at a party that year, a spectacularly talented girl who didn’t know he’d never been to Harvard, and he proposed to her eight months later.   Sophie and the job together formed the foundation of  his new life; between the straight clean lines of a Manhattan tower he rose up through the ranks (and to the 11th floor), from junior researcher to VP of a research division.   His dedication to the company was mentioned in his performance reviews.   He directed his team and came home every night to a woman he loved in an apartment filled with music in his favorite neighborhood, until it all came apart at once and he found himself (on the 4th floor) lying naked next to his former secretary in the summer heat.

Yes, the whole book is like this which means you, the reader, won’t dare to presume what will happen next.   Let’s just say that in the end Anton is forced to make a decision between his old life and his old family, and a new life and a new family.   His choice will also involve a decision to either live outside of the law or within its confines.

At the conclusion of The Singer’s Gun, the reader finds that Anton has determined exactly who he is, and how he must live.   It’s, yes, a revelation at the conclusion of another modern morality tale.   Still, in Singer’s Gun the story isn’t half as important as the telling, and in the hands of Mandel the rocking and rolling never stops!   Whew!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Singer’s Gun will be released in trade paper form on April 19, 2011.


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Building a Mystery

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw (Anchor; $15.00; 320 pages)

“I will never get enough of you.   I will never have enough.   I will never have enough.”

Author Holly LeCraw has produced something quite distinctive in this, her debut, a male romance novel.   It’s a romance novel, told from a male’s perspective (and from the perspective of the woman he pursues), about a young man who wants something he cannot have – his late father’s mistress.

Jed McClatchy leaves his big city job to join his harried married sister Callie in Cape Cod.   There he happens to encounter one Marcella di Pavarese Atkinson, who seven years earlier had an affair with Jed’s dad.   As a teenager, Jed was attracted to Marcella from the moment he spotted her in a sexy swim suit at an adult pool party.   Now he finds the very same swim suit stored in the attic of his late parents’ home.

Jed is attracted to Marcella physically, while emotionally and psychologically he’s tied to her in a desperate search for answers…  It seems that after Jed’s father, Cecil, promised Marcella that he would leave his wife Betsy for her, Betsy was found brutally murdered.   And then soon after Cecil died under mysterious circumstances.   Was Marcella involved in these events?   If not, what exactly did she know about this cataclysmic time?

“He was furious, again, that he could not stop wanting her.”

Subconsciously, Jed must wonder (as does the reader) whether he wants Marcella because she’s the one thing his very important father was never allowed to possess; or perhaps it is because she was the dangerous woman who was involved in eliminating her only competition, Jed’s straight-laced mother.   At any rate, this is a very powerful story of obsession – a young man’s obsession with love, lust and the need to solve a family mystery.

“Marcella was trying hard not to tell him that she felt the cooling late-summer days ticking by like she was a condemned woman.   Every night she could physically feel that the sun was setting earlier, the world darkening in response to their looming separateness.   She was having trouble sleeping.   Her life was broken and she did not know how to fix it.”

LeCraw has a fine, calm and sophisticated style that becomes more engaging the farther one is into the telling.   If there’s a weakness here, it’s that making one’s way through the slow opening pages takes a bit of persistence.   (I put the book down after a few dozen pages, but I came to feel well-rewarded once I resumed the read.)   LeCraw’s strength is that the sexual scenes strike just the right balance – they do not simply drop down from the sky, nor are they included for mere titillation.

It’s a bit disorienting to find a debut novel that is truly one of a kind (sui generis) in tone and nature, but this is precisely what LeCraw has delivered here.   Let’s hope for more to come.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Swimming Pool will be released in a trade paperback version on April 19, 2011.   “A fearless novel full of fresh insights and casually elegant writing…”   Atlanta Magazine


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Gaining Traction

When I first thought about writing book reviews (decades removed from writing music reviews at the college newspaper level), I thought it would be easy to get new releases from publishers.   I had no idea how difficult it would be.   I discovered that publishers – being reasonable business people – want samples of your work before entrusting you with their product.   It was then that I contacted a female book reviewer, a pioneer in the field, and asked her for advice.   Being wise she offered no A-B-C- guidebook steps, no formula to follow, although at that point I would have willingly purchased a Book Reviewing for Idiots book.   Instead, she told me something that was far more valuable:“When you start out, it will feel like you’re trying to climb a very steep and difficult mountain.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to find the path upward.   But then one day you will suddenly realize that you’re making progress – you’re gaining traction – and from then on every step becomes easier than the one that preceded it.”

She was right and you might think this article is about how to gain such traction.   No, because that’s something that every novice reviewer is going to have to learn on their own.   So I thought about using this space to answer a question that someone recently asked me, “How do you choose (or select) the books that you review?”   My answer was a simple and truthful one, I don’t choose (or select) the books, they choose me.   It’s true, as I almost never request a book on a blind basis.   I have generally read or heard something about the book prior to its release and I rely on my instincts to tell me that this is going to be either a most excellent or truly awful read.   As I’ve mentioned before, very good books and very bad books make for easily written reviews.   If nothing else, they tend to be interesting.   Interesting is not that difficult to write about.

I think some people would be surprised to learn that I decide to refrain from writing reviews on about every fifth or sixth book I read.   Why?   The logical answer would be that it’s because they’re average, but that’s not really the case.   Instead the answer is that with certain books I just cannot find “the hook” to make them sound interesting.   Recently, for example, I read a unique novel that was satisfying in every respect except that, two days after finishing it, I couldn’t think of how I would begin a write-up.

With some very good stories the only way you can begin to describe how good they are is to give away too much.   You know those movie previews where they show you the entire film – beginning, middle and ending – in two or three minutes?   Yeah, it’s like that.

And I won’t discuss the novels that are not bad; it’s just that there’s nothing special there.   Or they tend to be repeats of stories written by others.   Retreads…  Covers.   (Sometimes, and this seems to be happening more and more often, multiple novels are released that are built around near-identical plots.)

Let’s draw on a possible parallel to music reviews…  Writing about the latest concert performance by U2?   That would be easy.   Writing about the latest gig by a U2 cover band?   Not so easy.

So, to come full circle, there are books out there, generally fictional, that are fine and maybe even very good.   But if they’re derivative (the writing equivalent of clothing or musical knock-offs) it’s hard to locate the center that makes them worth writing about.   And the ones that are 100% original can be very hard to write about – sui generis (literally one-of-a-kind) works are difficult to compare to anything else.   Just think about trying to write about something that no one has experienced before – be it a book, film or record – and it may give you the beginnings of a headache.

Traction, such a tricky thing; it’s either there or it’s not.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Pictured:  K2 – Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts (Broadway Books, August 2010, $14.99; also available as a Kindle Edition download).

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