Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Fade to Black by Tim McBain and L.T. Vargus

Any minute now a hooded man will come barreling out of nowhere and kill me.

There is a hook here, at least on the surface. People sometimes think that a person being killed hooks readers. I don't think it does in itself. In real life, we stop and watch and in movies it can be hypnotizing, but it's still fiction we've become desensitized to, but in a book and at the very first line it rarely works for a couple reasons. One: we have no idea who the victim is and have no reason to care. And two: reading about death is not the same thing as seeing it, hearing it and smelling it. However, what sets this opening line of death apart from others is the fact that the narrator is saying it, so this does make it more interesting. Then tone in the next sentence:

So that sucks.

But the third line is where the death of this unknown character takes an interesting turn. 

I know this because it has happened six times before.

Then this loop of a situation is explained. The narrator awakes to find himself in an ally hanging upside down. A guy in a black-hooded robe comes along and kills him and then he wakes up in the ally hanging upside down again. Only this time, the narrator, with some experience, hopes to break the cycle. It is a fast paced narrative guaranteed to keep you turning the pages.

First thing said:


This does not impress me. Imagine meeting a person for the first time and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is cursing. Not a great first impression. In this case, as this is a first-person narrative, swearing isn't really the first impression we get of the character, plus the situation probably warrants some expletives, but so soon betrays a lack of creativity and it is rarely (if ever) paramount to a narrative despite the legion of writers who insist it is. First thing said could be so much more, like moving the plot forward. Of course, dialogue can also be used to reveal character, and some will argue that swearing reveals character, but everyone swears in their lives at some point, so it's hardly something that reveals a uniqueness of character; it rarely establishes identity. Here all it does is reinforce the narrative voice.

Anyway, I have to write something like what's above or this review could have fit into a tweet.

Nevertheless, the reader is thrown into a scene that is bizarre, surreal, and filled with suspense and conflict. It would be impossible to put this down after reading only a couple of pages.

Verdict: Cool

Theodore Moracht

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.

This is the translation that I have by Willa and Edwin Muir, but I prefer this one translated by David Wyllie:

Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested.

Breon Mitchell's translation:

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.

The reason for the preference of the last two is that there is no mention of the "fine" weather, just that he is arrested in the morning. In any case, all three translations are excellent.

The opening line from The Trial is what a first sentence should be. No wonder it's so famous. It raises questions, introduces a character and a situation pregnant with conflict. It also foreshadows what K. can expect throughout the rest of the novel, indicating a futile and hopeless mood. From this line, conflict and character unravel in what is known as The Trial.

First thing said:

"Who are you?"

Verdict: Pure Genius (Can't get this out of my head; MUST read on - I've been manipulated!)

This from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his is as good as any. The Trial is number 51.

Theodore Moracht

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai

Chapter 1
Perfectly Awful

Ariana haphazardly shoveled pistachios into a bin and tried not to glare at her cousin, Laila, who knelt near the cash register, carefully stacking jars of cherry jam.

This is another book was nominated for an Edgar in the junevile catogory.

This opening line does not reveal a mystery or even hint that there ever will be one. The rest of the first paragraph is lyrical, and clearly the writer is getting off on it, but nothing is happening, nothing important that is - meaning there is no story conflict. Paragraph 2 has back story and what makes that worse is unfortunately that the paragraphs are long.

First thing said:


This book is shortlisted for the Edgar award for juvenile novel. Fortunately, the judges are forced to read past chapter 1 so this would have a chance, even though in the end it did not win. If the opening is any indication, I understand why.

Verdict: Fail

Theodore Moracht

Monday, 27 April 2015

Space Case by Stuart Gibbs

Let's get something straight, right off the bat: Everything the movies have ever taught you about space travel is garbage.

So begins an Edgar nomination for best book this year in the juvenile category. This line establishes setting and tone. However, since this is a mystery novel, we mystery fans need a taste of the mystery, sooner rather than later.

What we get instead for several pages is back story and character development. Important stuff, but please provide a hint of the mystery first, the puzzle etc. That is what hooks mystery fans. At least that is the easiest way to hook. Only after three pages do we get some hint of story plot conflict in the form of some preamble: the 12-year-old narrator says that it's because of the toilets that got him into more trouble than he could ever imagine. No clue though as to what that is. With all preamble, we basically learn that this novel will have a problem, a mystery, but intelligent readers can assume that anyway without being told, since that is kind of what novels are about: problems.

Then three more pages of back story before there is mention of a murder. No details though. The narrator eases in by going through the whole process of him going to the toilet on the moon. Normally this would be ultra boring and unnecessary, but as this is in space it is interesting to learn about how that is done in a low gravity environment. It's through details like this that the author manages to hook, because of the setting and the character rather than the mystery itself. This can only tell you that this is a talented writer. Lesser writers fail every day trying to hook in such a manner.

Anyway, I kept reading all the way to the end. I'm glad I did.

First thing said:


Verdict: Pass 

Theodore Moracht

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

Raymond Drew wanted to die on the towpath.

Thus begins a scene with a character wanting to die because if he is taken to a hospital his secrets of who he really is will be revealed when relatives go to his house, and it is insinuated that he is not a good guy.

Apparently, the guy is having a heart attack or something of the sort. It was expected; doctors told him so. Nevertheless, he decides to go for a drink on the way to his dream place to die, amusingly enough. With the drink detour the author buys some time and space in the narrative to stick in a little back story and human interaction in the hopes that we will care that this character is dying. To ensure sympathy, there is a dose of sentimentality, hoping to tug at the reader's heart strings.

It doesn't. I don't care. The detached sentimental and melodramatic tone of this opening bugs me. It's as if the author is relaying more on the reader's humanity to get hooked emotionally by the mere fact some random person is dying than on the writing. That's not how it works, because this is not a real person yet - figuratively or literally. It is just a fictional character in a book - words. Nobody really cares when complete strangers halfway across the world die, so why should they care when a fictional character dies in chapter 1? But it's clear the writer wants us to feel something. I won't though.

Other than this kitsch tone, the story manages to unfold with some questions, as it is clear there is a problem. Who is this guy? What is his horrible past? And most importantly, why should we care? Admittedly, that last question is not one a writer wants his readers to ask.

First thing said:

"What can I get for you?"

This is in the bar where the guy has his last drink before going to the river to drop dead of a heart attack.

Verdict: Pass (barely)

Theodore Moracht

Monday, 2 February 2015

Must They Die? A Look at Titles by Theodore Moracht

While reviewing Peter Pan Must Die I thought the title was cool. Little did I know that it was not very original after stumbling across another novel called Snow White Must Die. At first I assumed it was by the same author and part of a series so I googled it and was bombarded by a plethora of "Must Die..." titles. I've included some of the more interesting below, but make no mistake, there are plenty more, so many that I'd say we could state that this has become a rather cliched way for an author to title an impending masterpiece - not that this is the only cliched titling mishap. There are other cliched ways of titling a story that perhaps I will look at in the future.

In general,  I find that titling is an often overlooked art form that needs to be practiced and taught for the simple reason that titles participate in the hook of a story. If an author uses a title that is similar to other books there is the risk of people assuming that this book is like the others. If the others were not very good, readers can start associating based solely on the title. However, whether similar or not the key is that a title must stand out to be good. Choice of words and phrasing play a vital role in attracting a reader's attention to the the book, which is usually stuffed into a bookshelf in a bookstore, spin facing outward or a link on a web page. In either case, the cover is useless.

Having a title with "Must Die..." in it has an obvious advantage, and I think that when a fictional character is added, it raises even more questions, curiosity and interest. Personally, I think that Peter Pan Must Die is more effective than Snow White Must Die for the simple fact that Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up and one presumes will never die. It's safe to assume that Snow White will die someday, despite the "happily ever after" platitude, probably clinging to the arms of her prince in a needy condensed panic.

Using a fictional fairy tale character also welcomes a  certain mood attached by the history of the tale and character. The myth and legend that's been built up in every brain from a childhood of reading these fairy tale classics, makes the titling all the more ominous in a magical and fantastical way. Yet, there is every reason to believe (without needing to read the blurb), simply by realizing where in the bookstore this is shelved that these titles have nothing to do with Peter Pan and Snow White, at least not those traditional characters we all grew up with and loved. Instead, one can assume that these titles are referring to codenames, drugs or (gasp) perhaps a metaphor?

Less effective is using a fictional character that one sort of logically expects to die some day, due to the risks and dangers that they are always facing. The next book I came across, Spock Must Die! was used as a title to shock Trekkies and move them to emote, freak out and rush to the stores to grab this to alleviate their fears of the senseless death of an iconic character. And just to be on the safe side, the exclamation mark puts an exclamation point on death in this book. But before hyperventilating, stop and think about it for a second. When would there ever be a situation in which Spock must die, despite the constant attacks from Klingons and Romulans and other time-space anomalies? Spock will never die; there is no market in it, so right away before reading anything, the reader knows that Spock will not die, so no, he mustn't. Yet the hook is tantalizing even though the cover, unfortunately, gives something of the "Must die..." premise away.

A Jew Must Die is a slight variation on the "Must Die..." title. The title indicates no specific person who must die, real or imagined, just a Jew, and one assumes from the grammatical article 'a' it really isn't important which one. I think a title like this has one purpose in mind: to titillate. That is to say: It is doing its job. The words Jew and Die in the same title will evoke emotions in most people and get them associating with well-dressed, blond-haired, blue-eyed evil guys. This title would have no trouble standing out, be it on a crowded bookshelf, a slew of links or even in an editors slushpile and a person would have to be in a trance not to notice this book in a bookstore. Title, earns its pay in this one.

The next title has the same intention as A Jew Must Die, but with an obviously lesser effect. The king? It does give something of the premise or plot away, or it could be a red herring. With a title like The King Must Die, it would be a big disappointment if this was not about assassinating an important character, and preferably one that the reader can sympathize with.

I don't know which came first but The Queen Must Die beside The King Must Die makes me think this is a mystical series linked by nothing but the magic of names.

The next title I found, The Face that Must Die, is an interesting take on this style of titling. In this title it is not essential that a character dies, just the face. How does that happen? Is this about the joys of plastic surgery? This is the kind of title that I like, one that seemingly doesn't make much sense at first glance, thereby forcing the reader to wonder, which is what the reader needs to do to get hooked and start reaching for the money. The byline hook doesn't hurt either.

Hello Kitty Must Die falls into a similar category. Is this a phrase, as in Hello, Kitty Must Die or is Hello Kitty a name? I personally don't care so much and won't be rushing out to the bookstore to find out any time soon. If the character's name is Kitty this title takes "Must Die..." title formula and tries to make it a little more interesting than the others by giving the person who must die an unusual name. Gidget Must Die does the same thing. But other than the name Gidget, the title offers little else except death. Oh wait, that's a good thing, sorry forgot.

So, I think we get the point. In all of these stories, we are made to think that someone must/will die. This is supposed to raise a question. Why must this person die? What did they do? Who will kill them and how? Is it a promise of violence in the novel or is it merely the inference of suspense and action, as the whoever must die disagrees with the title and does everything possible to make it: No, I must Not Die!

With some many titles like this, it starts to look like authors aren't being very creative when it comes to titling. For myself, I suppose what I learned from all this is that I am not as well read as I'd once thought.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

I wake up… 

On a metaphysical level this might be some powerful writing. I can imagine all the stressed-out philosophers, after taking a break from all the hard thinking they do from 9 to 5 and kicking back with a beer to relax and be entertained, being stimulated by this line: I wake up…

Others will simply be mystified by its profoundness. The next line kind of ruins the endless loftiness of the opening line.

The touch of that cold object against my penis wakes me up.

This raises a question or two. Where is this guy? I thought he was in bed. Maybe he is, which would make that cold object all the more troubling. I read on.

I  didn't know I could urinate without being aware of it.

So this guy is in some weird situation in bed. We assume he has suffered some catastrophe but need to read on to find out. The writing is terse, blunt and full of tension. I like it. Read some random lines I've brought together:

I can’'t even make out the nearest voices. If I opened my eyes, would I be able to hear them?… But my eyelids are so heavy: two pieces of lead, coins on my tongue, hammers in my ears, a… a something like tarnished silver in my breath. It all tastes metallic. Or mineral...Then I just lay there, face down on the bed, with my arms hanging, the veins in my wrist tingling...I tighten my face muscles, I open my right eye, and I see it reflected in the squares of glass sewn onto a woman'’s handbag. That’'s what I am. 

First thing said:

"Look, Doctor, he'’s just faking..."

"Mr. Cruz…"

"Even now in the hour of his death he has to trick us!"

So it seems this person is dying or perhaps is just faking it. In any case, there is an uncontrollable desire to read on.

Verdict: Pass

This is part of the series: the top 100 novels from Daniel S. Burt's book called Novel 100, the top 100 novels of all time. There is debate of course as to what should be on that list, but his opinions are as good as any. The Death of Artemio Cruz comes in as the 72nd best novel of all time.

Theodore Moracht