Thursday, 10 August 2017

Charcoal Joe by Walter Mosley

On Robertson Boulevard a block and a half north of Pico, just south of Whitworth Drive, on the eastern side of the street, there once stood a three-story turquoise building that had been a posh home in the thirties.

This sentence hooks how only a GPS device can, so nothing special to see here; blink and you'll miss most of it if you're lucky. Actually, this opening is what I like to call a twofer, a one-two punch. The first line sets up the hook, which comes in the second line:

But the owner died, leaving his real-estate-rich, cash-poor relatives to turn the domicile into a commercial property.

Actually, there's no hook there either, just the remnants of conflict from some other story that might very well get packaged and sold as a prequel. Page 1 goes on about the history of the building. I would have said droned on, but the building has some engaging history, so it's okay to read. But I didn't open this book to read about a building, no matter how charismatic it is. I came for characters I can care about and the stories that put them through the wringer. I didn't open this for a list of names on page 1.

It's openings like this that make me wonder: Why don't writers (like the rest of us who daily tell our friends the stories of what just shockingly happened to us or how cruel the world has been to us) start at the beginning, that is, with a character confronted with or confronting a problem? It's so simple, yet writer's insist on screwing around with the very concept of: In the beginning; they forget or ignore that the traits of starting are universal: it always begins with a bang, an act, an emotion or all of the above. The moment a biological conception becomes inevitable would be a great analogy.

Maybe writers think readers want to inch into a story like into cold water? Maybe writers think readers will short circuit if the story's too intense too soon? And by intense I, by no means, mean with violence. Or maybe writers think there's more than one way to hook a brain and compel them to buy it and into it?

Well, there isn't. Character+conflict=hook. The weirder, and further from the opiatic mundane reality that's slowly choking us readers to death, the better.

First thing said:

"Good Morning, Mr. Rawlins."

I was considering to give this a pass (but as close to a fail as the plaque is to your teeth) since some conflict is introduced. But after much thought, I can't because I've not been given a reason to care, which is essential in hooking my brain. However, it might not be that way for others; you know the type, the ones who'll eat rancid, stale food rather than 'let it go to waste.' But for my twitter-damaged brain, this one failed to get off at the starting line, and because so many books are tempting me to pick them up, that's all the time a writer gets to waste my time, before I move on to the next story.

It's a desolate, unsatisfying journey, jumping from book to flirting book like some lonely tease afraid of being taken advantage of. I slog on anyway in tentative hopefulness, trusting this quest will happily end eventually once I stumble upon a story that will hook me and compel me to read to the end.

Is it worth it? Sometimes I wonder. With so many books to choose from, it feels overwhelming at times, but eventually, I'll find it--I always do. I have lots of time to browse.

Verdict:  Fail

Rudy Globird

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Slaughtermatic by Steve Aylett

Beerlight was a blown circuit, where to kill a man was less a murder than a mannerism.

This is a prologue of sorts. I say of sorts because there isn't really a plot to this page of two paragraphs. It's more reminiscent of the intro to Star Wars with backstory rolling off into the cosmos. In this case, this bit of text introduces the story's setting.

It's pretty cool with lots of ideas: bulletproof babies, bomb zombies, pincushions of snipers, and crime as the new art form. It sounds like a warning of what's to come, preparing the reader for a gluttony of violence. So if you read on and are disturbed by what you're reading and wish you never picked this book up, you have only yourself to blame.

Chapter 1

Dante Cubit pushed into the bank, thinking about A.A. Milne.

I like the name of the character. It's cool when characters are given names that probably no one in the world has. This opening line needs the next to be effective, or perhaps the second needs the first to be effective or perhaps they're just well woven like good writing is supposed to be.

The next line:

Why didn't he ever write Now We Are Dead?

So this character goes into a bank armed to the nips with a view of robbing it. So even though there's the gun cliche, it isn't what you think: there are no Glocks or chicks.

First thing said:

"Hands up, granddad, and no sudden moves--it's a money or your life paradigm."

Dialogue that moves plot forward and reveals something of character. The implication being that because Dante doesn't necessarily want to kill the old guy, he's a good guy doing bad things (bad things in our world, but not necessarily in his). Plus, let's face it, the guy sounds smarter than your average Walmart shopper. Even with the great strides TV shows like The Big Bang Theory has made to increase the average shopper's vocabulary, most people, I suspect, do not comfortably know what paradigm means or how to pronounce it. Here's an idea: pa-ra-dig-em may or may not be right. And certainly the average shopper wouldn't use the word in their day-to-day affairs, like when they go into a bank with nefarious intent. If I were ever held at gunpoint, it would set my mind at ease if the gunman used the word paradigm.

Overall, this opening pulls readers in even if this is not a favorite genre.

That's no small feat.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars (Definite Pass)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht

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:

Swearing. 

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

Sincerely,
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.

Sincerely,
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:

"Hey."

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

Sincerely,
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:

"Help."

Verdict: Pass 

Sincerely,
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)

Sincerely,
Theodore Moracht