Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesDark Places by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I do the majority of my reading through audio books and Dark Places was no exception. Usually I simply listen while I drive to and from work (45 minute commute). But from the very first line of this book, I was hooked. I listened at the gym, I listened at home instead of watching TV (my DVR is now overflowing), and I even listened while I was preparing meals. Gillian Flynn is a master at creating characters, and though Gone Girl has received the majority of publicity, I find Dark Places to be a superior work. Her construction of Libby, her mother Patty, and most disturbingly Deandra allowed for a very dark, but all too real story of damaged people—people who just never caught a break—gritting their teeth and bearing it the best they can. Ben was also a masterfully drawn character, and despite the revelations at the end *MINOR SPOILER* I think he should have stayed in jail. He deserved to be there. I was intensely emotionally invested in Libby's investigation and I liked the minor character of Lyle and how he slowly helped to draw out her humanity. Even the small characters get their due in this book and I loved every word of it.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of Chanel Bonfire

Chanel BonfireChanel Bonfire by Wendy Lawless
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Memoirs, when done correctly, are always a joy to read. Wendy Lawless, at a distance, could be described as just another privileged girl of the 1970s who got to do some really cool stuff. But Lawless, narrating this audio version of the book herself, shows us differently. It's almost impossible to believe the outright insanity this poor girl was subjected to at the hands of her emotionally unstable mother. Hearing so many of her tales, my blood would just boil. The writing itself is well done, but not fantastic. It was Lawless's calm narration that actually brought it so vividly to life. She sounds ever bit like the duck-and-cover enabling daughter she describes herself to be. Listening to a story like hers reinforces that it is love, not money, that brings us happiness. And though our childhoods may bring us misery, we can still build a life, with or without finishing college. I imagine that I would have been more like Wendy's sister than Wendy herself, if placed in that situation, but we never really know, do we? It's a quick read and I found myself sitting in the car for longer than I had to just to finish out a chapter.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Review of The Husband's Secret

The Husband's SecretThe Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's always a crap shoot when you step outside your normal reading genres and so often it only serves as a reminder of why you always stick to the same types of books. But every once in a while, something like this comes along and inspires you to take a few more chances in your literary life. The blurb for the Husband's Secret only mentions one of the four interwoven tales in this book. Cecilia finds a letter addressed "To my Darling wife, to be read only in the event of my death." One could be forgiven for thinking that the letter contains the eponymous secret. But there are many secrets in this books, spread over nearly every character in the book, and they all unfold with an easy grace that masks the skill of Liane Moriarty. Her omniscient narrator is so superbly done as to be seamless and she is one of the few adult authors who has bothered to give the children in the book individual personalities. So often children just serve as props who ejaculate pithy quips every now and again. But here, they all seem real, with all the cuteness and irritation that implies. The women in the book also seem real and every one of them (though quite different from me in most ways) spoke to me and my life experiences. Each of them invites the reader to examine herself and what she would do if, say, she found the letter addressed to Cecilia, or if she were confronted with her husband and cousin's affair, as Tess was. What would the reader do if her teenage daughter was murdered and the only suspect grew up to work in the same office, as happened to Rachel? Though the title inspired me to roll my eyes and mutter something derisive about "chick lit" under my breath, I genuinely enjoyed this and plan to seek out other work by this author.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Write from Reality, Not From the Script

"For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining, restless child's boredom (although I was not above that) but a dense blanketing malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing new to be discovered ever again. Our society was utterly, ruinously derivative (although the word derivative as a criticism is itself derivative). We were the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time. We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed, underwhelmed. Mona Lisa, the Pyramids, the Empire State Building. Jungle animals on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing, volcanoes erupting. I can't recall a single amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I didn't immediately reference to a movie or TV show. A commercial. You know the awful singsong of blase: Seeeen it. I've literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing that makes me want to blow my brains out, is: The secondhand experience is always better. The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera angle and soundtrack manipulate my emotions in a way reality really can't anymore. I don't know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say; when a loved one dies, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script."
-Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

Performing good research is the backbone of any writing project, no matter the genre. But for those of us who write fiction, particularly those of us in the Spec Fic realm, our research is usually indirect. We read articles, we watch documentaries or other works of fiction about our chosen subject. We do our legwork, we write our scene, then we present our draft to our writing group, hoping to be lauded not only for our prose, but also for how real it seems. But what exactly is real?
I remember two different times I received very strong (almost aggressive) pushback on the realness of my writing. The first involved Isabella, the protagonist of my current writing project. In one of her early scenes, she is punched in the face—the eye specifically—by a man.

After reading the scene, one of my reviewers asked, “Why do you say she has blood coming out of her nose? He didn’t hit her in the nose.”

“Oh, that happens sometimes,” I assured her. “If you’re hit in the face, sometimes the fragile blood vessels in your nose can burst, even if you weren’t hit in the nose.” She looked at me with an expression between disdain and disbelief, so I proceeded with what I thought would be the deal-closer. “I know because it happened to me. The EMT who treated me called it sympathy bleeding.”

Despite my assurance of the medical reality of a bloodied yet unstruck nose, she was unpersuaded.“Yeah, but it still seems like bullshit. I recommend changing it.”

The other incident got far uglier. In a piece of flash fiction, my first-person narrator mechanically recounts the activities of her day. Reading between the lines, we understand that the previous night she had been raped by her coworker. To be honest, it wasn’t my best work. As loquacious as I am, Flash fiction isn’t my strong suit. But the way my narrator behaved was lifted straight from a friend of mine from my military days. She was attacked on a Sunday evening. And Monday morning she was at work, her uniform starched and pressed, quietly and casually ignoring the coworker who had raped her. It was real. I just wrote it down.

But a classmate in my fiction class bristled at my piece. “This isn’t real. Victims don’t act like this. I know what PTSD looks like, and this isn’t it.”

I explained that this girl doesn’t see herself as a victim. I even pointed out the parts of the text that signal her state of mind to the reader. My instructor seemed to agree that my intent was clear. But the classmate persisted.

“Women do not just get over it when they are violated. I think that’s just something rape apologists like to tell themselves.”

It’s possible that her conviction and vitriol came from her own personal experience, but more likely it came from the commonly accepted tropes of what a victim is and how a victim behaves. Deviations from those tropes tend to invite suspicion. We know how innocent people behave and how guilty people behave. Not because we’re cops or lawyers or even keen observers of the human condition. We know because we’ve seen it on Law and Order… over and over and over again. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn used this predilection perfectly with her character Nick. To avoid giving spoilers, I’ll just say that one of the reasons he had such a hard time with the cops was that he just didn’t “act innocent.” He acted the way the television audience associates with guilt. As he stated above, we’re all working from the same dog-eared script.

So the question becomes: do you write what is "real?" Or do you write what is real? And how do you do that kind of research without sinking into the aforementioned depression that so plagues the writer population? How do you tell the truth in your writing? And whose truth are you telling?