Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

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A writer friend, after reading Neil Gaiman‘s excellent The Ocean at the End of the Lane, described herself as “still in a dream state,” days after finishing this slim but weighty novel.

It’s easy to see why.

Ocean is the tale of an adult who returns to his hometown for a funeral and after the ceremony returns to the site of his childhood home, and in the process recalls a series of mystical events that occurred nearby when he was 7 years old. Continue reading → Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

Entirely Biased and Totally Subjective Book Review: ‘Sacré Bleu’ by Christopher Moore

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You can dive into Sacré Bleu, the most recent non-spinoff work from comic/fantasy yarn spinner Christopher Moore, without an art history degree, but it might not be a bad idea to have a working knowledge of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters of Paris in the late 1800s before you start.

That’s because most of them (at least those Moore can place within temporal or physical proximity to the setting) make appearances in Sacré Bleu, a paranormal mystery that casts artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the unlikely role of investigator when his pal and fellow painter Vincent van Gogh suffers what appears to be  self-inflicted gunshot wound, but then proceeds to walk to find a doctor, dying not long after he arrives.

Toulouse-Lautrec has reason to believe that his friend’s death was instead a murder, and sets out to find out who might have been the killer. He enlists the help of a young baker, Lucien Lessard, whose father was both an aspiring artist himself and a patron of the Impressionist community. Lucien, it turns out, has some talent of his own, and as such is doted upon by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and his peers.

Central to the plot, as you might gather from the title, is the color blue, specifically the “sacred” blue reserved in European art for the shade of the Virgin Mary’s gown. Its origins and mysterious purveyors – and how they relate to the artists of late 19th century France – help Moore explore the primary themes of talent, inspiration and madness, and how the three can be inseparably intertwined.

Stylistically, Sacré Bleu hews mostly closely among Moore’s works to Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. In Lamb, Moore took the established canon of the New Testament and, through legitimate historical and theological research, filled in the blanks of the missing years of the life of Jesus with fictional suppositions about his travels and the earthly inspirations for his later, better documented ministries.

Of course, Moore being Moore, he did so with a heaping helping of satire, naughty wit and downright hilarity, and Sacré Bleu is no different, reflecting the same narrative base – actual people and history are folded into a completely fantastic storyline that somehow manages to incorporate real events and landmark art in a way that makes you pause and say, “Well, maybe it could have happened that way after all.”

As a character in a Moore novel goes, Toulouse-Lautrec is so perfect it’s like history planned for him to star in this book. Short in stature but overwhelming in his confidence in his own talent, the artist was well known as a libertine and based much of his oeuvre on the sensory experiences of spending lots of time in burlesque halls and brothels.

Complementing it all are the full-color (at least in the first edition hardback copies) illustrations of nearly every painting Moore references in the course of the narrative. They are used both as a (very subtle) art history lesson and to place into context the interactions between the artists and their mysterious muse. It’s a clever – and to my knowledge, unique – device that does nothing to interrupt the story and so very much to remind the reader that the characters placed in these fictional situations were indeed real people doing real and very relevant work.

I noted earlier that this is a “non-spinoff” work to distinguish it from the pseudo-sequels of two of Moore’s earlier novels, Bloodsucking Fiends and A Dirty Job – those being You Suck and Bite Me. While, as a Moore fan, I enjoyed the latter two, at times it felt as if the author was phoning it in to try and grab some of that tasty vampire mojo that keeps copies of the Twilight series flying off the shelf.

This novel doesn’t suffer from that feeling. Indeed, when Moore puts his mind (and research and shoe leather) to it, he can craft a detailed and stylistically pleasing novel that incorporates a detailed and well organized story, plenty of Tom Robbins-style wordplay and sexy-sexy plot points with the abundantly weird supernatural/science fictional elements that keep readers coming back.

The Critic

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Roger Ebert, the way most of us remember him. In recent years his face was disfigured by multiple surgeries for cancer, but he never lost his drive, his wit or his motivation to write about movies.

For many of us who grew up in the hinterlands, where we were lucky if the local newspaper carried movie advertising, Roger Ebert and his TV partner Gene Siskel were frequently the first exposure we had to film criticism.

Thanks to PBS and their show “Sneak Previews,” it was possible to get the opinions of two erudite, educated men whose joyful duty was to go to the movies, then come back and tell us whether those movies were any good.

As a result, this young fellow got to find out about many movies he wouldn’t see until much later, and also grasp the ins and outs of what “film critics” actually did. For these were real people, and they obviously had real (and legitimate) jobs at newspapers. How cool was that? The were the kindly uncles giving us all movie advice, rather than the harsh, cosmopolitans like Pauline Kael, who wrote from on high at the New Yorker (which was not well stocked at small-town Southern newsstands in the late 1970s, as you might imagine).

But even if I’d known to look for Kael’s work, I probably would have liked Roger Ebert’s better. He seemed like a kindred soul – the nerdy kid who loved the magic of the darkened theater.

Ebert died today at the at of 70, just a day after announcing that he would scale back on his still prodigious level of productivity. Even ailing, he wrote books, blogged regularly and still reviewed movies. He hand-picked the critic team put in to cover for him  at the Chicago Sun Times, his home newspaper. He was in the midst of preparing to host his own film festival. That is a hell of a way to go.

All of us who have ventured into film (or music or theater) criticism since watching “Sneak Previews” and its various later incarnations owe Mr. Ebert a great debt, as he influenced all of us in one way or another – sometimes just by proving that there were successful people who actually did it.

Black and White and Read All Over

Writers can come from any number of backgrounds – just go down the list of famous authors and you’ll see a broad spectrum of “first” careers.

But if you’re a teenager or young adult and you’re serious about wanting to get paid to write every single day, I have two suggestions for you.172146__his_girl_friday_l

The first is to write a brilliant bit of fiction or a staggeringly wonderful bit of non-fiction before you are 21, then get a multi-book deal with a big New York publisher and ride that gravy train for the rest of your life.

The second and more realistic suggestion is this: go into journalism.

Why? Well, first, the world needs more journalists. It needs people committed to rooting out truth and telling great stories and doing something other than gushing over celebrity gossip and ranting, twitchy-eyed, about their given partisan political perspective. It needs folks willing to toil in relative anonymity to hold the powerful accountable and tell the stories of the ignored and disaffected.

Second, you will gain the skills that every good writer of fiction or non-fiction books must develop, and you will acquire them early. You will learn to write with speed and clarity, get to the point quickly, interview strangers, go into uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations, observe the world around you and do sneaky things like read upside down and eavesdrop on the folks in the restaurant booth behind you while simultaneously holding a meaningful conversation with the person across from you.

You’ll also learn to take criticism without taking it personally. Of all the lessons you could learn early, this is probably the best, as it enables you to accept a comment like, “This need a lot of work,” without collapsing into a heap of self-doubt and whiny pleas about the writing coming from your soul.

Trust me. The value of each of these skills, for any writer, can not be overestimated.

220px-ErnestHemingwayThird, you will join a line of great writers who made the transition from journalism to writing fiction, depending on many of the skills they learned as reporters to make their writing special. Mark Twain started in newspapers and pulled the things he experienced and wrote about into his fiction. Ernest Hemingway started his working life at the Kansas City Star and used the lessons he learned there to inform his writing from then on.

J-school is the writerly equivalent of joining the U.S. Marines. You might arrive thinking you are one badass 1289926514-Mark Twainmofo of a writer. Your high school English teacher gushed over your work. Your parents fawned over your awards and teacher’s-pet status. In high school, you might have thought your writing was the absolute shit.

A good journalism school does exactly what Parris Island does for young recruits – it strips you down of all your self-delusions and preconceptions to the very kernel of what you know and who you are, then builds you back up the way you’re supposed to be to do the job at hand.

The Marines specialize in turning tuner-driving, subwoofer-blasting high school douchebags into honorable, unstoppable fighters by breaking them through mental, physical and moral trials, then putting them back together the way the Marines want them – fearless, razor sharp and hard as nails.

A great J-school takes your flowery and overwrought high school prose and says, “You might think you’re awesome. You are not, but we’ll make you that way.”  It will strip you so bare of your writing preconceptions that you’ll wonder if you could ever really write at all. Your professors will then start adding basic skills – simple interviewing, the inverted pyramid style, headline writing and copy editing. Only when you have mastered those skills will you be allowed to go down the flowery path again to become the writer that you were truly meant to be.

Sure, I’m biased. I graduated from the excellent journalism school at the University of South Carolina at a time when the faculty was populated with delightful, curmudgeonly newspaper veterans – people who remembered copy boys and typewriters and the clackity-clack of the Associated Press wire machine chugging out reams of stories from around the nation and world. They themselves make great stories.

But here’s the best part of going to a real J-school. Unlike your fellow aimless undergrads, with their relatively useless English and history degrees, you will not only get an excellent liberal arts education, but you will be actually learning a trade. Depending on the market, you can graduate and immediately get a job in your field. And what do you know – that field is writing.

Granted, that first job will likely be at a small newspaper in a backwater town. That sounds like a drag – wouldn’t it be much better to work at the New York Times or ABC News, after all? Sure it would, but unless your parents own a paper or sit on the board at Disney, neither is likely to be your first job.

But the benefits of parachuting into East Outer Nowhere are myriad. Depending on the size of the paper, you’ll get to do almost everything. At my second newspaper job, as city reporter at the Camden (S.C.) Chronicle-Independent, it was possible to cover everything from snooze-inducing city council meetings to violent crime, business ribbon cuttings to interviews with visiting celebrities and political bigwigs, .

I got invited to pilot a glider plane, fly with the Army Golden Knights skydiving team, rappel from a fire department bucket truck and qualify on .38, .45 and Glock 9mm handguns with the police department. On a weekly basis I hung out with cops without being a suspect, visited the jail without being a prisoner and got to see the inner workings of local and state politics without the mess of running for election.

Will you get rich? Unlikely. But you will learn to live within your meager means – a must for any writer, no matter how successful you might become. And until you write that breakout novel that’s bubbling up inside you, you’ll get the daily satisfaction of knowing that you are being paid every day to hone the craft you aspired to.

The Cranky Reader Redux

Back in October I wrote here about the Blessings of the Cranky Reader, in which I ruminated on the emotional and creative repercussions of receiving my first 1-star, boy-this-book-really-sucks review for my novel Immaculate Deception.

Strangely, in the last couple of days that review has disappeared from Amazon. I was aware that Amazon had started paring down the reviews of some authors’ works when they might have been written by those who could profit from the book doing well, but this certainly didn’t fall into that category. Amazon has also targeted “competing” authors who write poor reviews of their peers’ books, but this guy seemed more of a literary wannabe who took pleasure in eviscerating the work of others than someone who would be able to create on his own.

So now I’m trying to decide if the author of that review had a change of heart, or realized that because I had blogged about it his review might have gotten a lot more attention than he originally intended.

I’m not sure either way, but I’m going on record here to say that while I did direct people specifically to that review for purposes of illustrating the points in my earlier blog entry, at no point did I solicit any flaming, complaints or commentary from anyone who might have taken issue with what he review said. I don’t work that way, and was fully prepared to let that review stand as a testament to someone having read my book and just not liking it.

In fact (and this does sound a little weird), I kind of miss that brutal review. It was a nice little link to the real – a reminder that I should never start believing my own hype and that we’re never as good as we think we are, but we should still always strive to be better.

So adieu, Mr. Cranky Reader. I’m sure you’ll find other folks’ books to bash. But I just want you to know that I still appreciate you reading mine and taking the time out to bash it yourself.

The Blessing of the Cranky Reader

No matter how big or small your writing ambitions happen to be, there will come that point in your endeavors that someone will be happy to tell you that you suck.

I was fortunate in my career to work for newspapers for a good many years, and there’s nothing like a pack of newspaper subscribers to take it upon themselves to inform you of your many shortcomings with indiscretion and a hearty lack of tact.

Oh, and not to mention that they frequently do it via the letters to the editor, so those slings and arrows would almost always end up in print.

During the course of my stint as weekly columnist for my university paper and then my home-town newspaper, I was variously called a Marxist, Fascist, socialist, godless heathen, punk, whippersnapper and clueless kid. My skin was already thickened by my boot camp-like journalism instructors, and dealing with ornery readers put the last thick layers upon the callouses of my soul.

Since then, I’ve been happy to have my work critiqued by both friends and strangers and have been strong and open minded about accepting those negative comments that they had and using them to make my work better.

But when the novel you’ve worked on for 20 years finally ends up in print, you’re submitting your work for the approval/dismissal of an exponentially larger spectrum of folks. And the chances are pretty good that no matter how incredible you think you are, how great your friends and family say you are and what kinds of positive reviews you’ve received from readers, there will always be that person who’s ready to tell you how much you suck.

My worst reader review so far came in recently – a raging one-star review on the Amazon page for my novel Immaculate Deception, and I was immediately struck by a strange mix of emotions.

Much like the classic Five Stages of Grief, I was struck on a number of emotional levels. The first was the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach I used to get in school when I’d get a terrible grade back from a teacher. I had failed, and this person had called me on it.

The second was that punched-in-the-chest feeling I got whenever I would get the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech from a girlfriend. It was the “you’re just not good enough” feeling.

The third was boiling rage – how dare this guy have the nerve to say that about me?Had he been standing in front of me at the moment, I would have landed several powerful blocks on a couple of particularly soft and vulnerable points on his body.

The fourth feeling was one of inevitability. Not everyone likes everything, I said to myself, and it was almost guaranteed that someone out there would dislike my work enough to go on record about just how much they disliked it.

The fifth and final stage was dismissal. I looked again at the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’ve received across the board, then checked on other things the fellow had reviewed. He genuinely didn’t like anything he read, and my last thought was that perhaps he just needs to re-evaluate what he’s reading if nothing he picks ever makes him happy.

And in a way, a truly poor review is a form of validation. It demonstrates that your work is indeed being read by people who aren’t your friends, family and adoring fans. It shows that someone you don’t know and have never met was intrigued enough to pick it up, plow through it, turn their nose up and decide the entire thing was a waste of time and then take more of his valuable time to tell other people why.

This is perhaps the best compliment a writer could receive, because it means people are picking your book up or download on a whim – not because you begged them, not because they felt obligated, but because it sounded like something they might like.

Or, as my friend and colleague at Codorus Press, Tom Joyce, put it, “Scott’s really arrived, because he’s got his first troll.”