Book Review: Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

“Bad Monkey” is Carl Hiaasen at his best, which is to say it induces side-splitting laughter on nearly every page.

A Florida native and Miami Herald columnist, Hiaasen plums the rich depths of the Sunshine state’s bizarre real-world events, from corrupt politicians to sleazy developers and environmental plunderers. This story features Andrew Yancy, a disgraced cop fired from the Miami Police Department for a botched whistle-blowing attempt and most recently suspended from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office for doing something unnatural with a vacuum cleaner attachment to his mistress’s husband. And Yancy is one of the good guys in this tale.

Young’s boss, Monroe County Sheriff Sonny Summers, is a compassionate man. The Sheriff manages to find Yancy a new position as a restaurant inspector. Yancy yearns to ditch the “roach patrol” and return to policing and he sees an opportunity when the Sheriff, looking to avoid bad publicity, asks him to take custody of a human arm reeled in by a tourist on a fishing charter.

Yancy decides to do some off-duty detective work and in the process he falls for a sexy Medical Examiner, Dr. Rosa Campesino. They trace the frozen limb to one Nick Stripling, a Medicare fraud artist who specializes in filing bogus claims for motorized wheelchairs. Only in south Florida could this scheme work. Yancy discovers the feds were on Nick’s tail when he disappeared and presumably drowned off the coast of Florida.

His detective work leads him to an island off the coast of the Bahamas, where the luckless native Neville Stafford, has been swindled out of his land by Nick’s widow, Eve,and her shadowy boyfriend. The land isn’t the only thing Neville has lost. His pet monkey, Driggs, who may or may not have had a bit part in The Pirates of the Caribbean, is taken by a voodoo lady called the Dragon Queen as payment for a curse she puts on Eve’s boyfriend.

And then there is Bonnie, his ex-girlfriend, a former school teacher who is on the run from Oklahoma, where she was arrested for having sex with one of her students. As if that’s not enough, Yancy’s neighbor is building a huge monstrosity of a house that will block his breathtaking view of the sunset over the water.

Hiaasen’s droll observations of south Florida are mordantly funny. At one point, he wrote that premeditated crimes on Key West were rare “because they require a level of planning and sober enterprise seldom encountered among the island’s indolent felons.” At another point he describes the newly elected Sheriff as “a local bubba named Sonny Summers who won office because he was the only candidate not in federal custody, the two-frontrunners having been locked up on unconnected racketeering charges eight days before the election.”

Laughs abound in this page-turning story. I was sad to see it come to an end.

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Book Review: The Vacationers, by Emma Straub

With its alluring title and aqua-hued cover, Emma Straub’s third novel, The Vacationers, screams out “beach read.” It is that and more. The story centers on a long-awaited family vacation for the Posts, a Manhattan family. Jim and his wife, Franny, and daughter Sylvia, and son, Bobby, embark for two weeks on the island of Mallorca to celebrate the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary.

But there is more than a little trouble in paradise. Jim has been dumped from his job at a men’s magazine for having an affair with an intern. Franny, a food and travel writer, “wants to plunge an ice pick in between his eyes.” Sylvia, about to go off to college at Brown, wants to lose her virginity and Straub conveniently gives her an Adonis of a Spanish tutor. Bobby, not yet 30, brings along his girlfriend, Carmen, a bodybuilder who is ten years his senior. And Franny has invited her best friend and confidant, Charles, and his much younger husband, Lawrence, who are awaiting word on their dream to adopt a baby.

Infidelity is the elephant in their vacation home. Each of these characters has cheated or has been the victim of cheating. While opportunities abound for tawdry liaisons among this crew, Straub wisely eschews the temptation to go for the cheap, salacious story line. Though the constant point-of-view shifts could giver a reader whiplash, Straub puts the reader in the heads of each character with great sensitivity and empathy. These are not bad people; they are imperfect human beings who hunger and hurt as we all do.

What I found endearing about this novel was the way Straub gently shifted the reader’s attitudes toward the characters. I found Jim and Franny at first completely unsympathetic. Franny was obsessed with food, meticulously shopping for just the right ingredients for her dishes. But preparing food is an expression of love and I came to see that in Franny. Jim, over the course of the book, comes to realize what he has done and what he has lost. Bobby and Sylvia have epiphanies of their own, as do Charles and Lawrence.

While I am not sure I’d want to spend two weeks with these characters in a house on Mallorca, I was happy to sit on a beach and savor Straub’s poignant story.

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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, drew mixed reviews upon its publication in 2012. I didn’t read this one right away. In fact, I read her outstanding Robert Galbraith mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, before reading The Casual Vacancy.

While I have the greatest admiration for Rowling and I found much to like in this book, I saw the same flaws other reviews have identified. First, let me share what I liked about this book. Set in the fictional UK west country village of Pagford, the story centers on a nasty battle for a council seat following the death of the popular Barry Fairbrother. Pagford’s neighboring city of Yarvil is beset by many of the same ills of any urban area: poverty, crime, drugs, and prostitution.

The class struggle between the smug elites of Pagford, personified by the rotund right-wing leader Howard Mollison, and the champions of the less privileged, a cause Fairbrother took up, provide a clever microcosm for the political battles fought daily in the U.S. and doubtless many other countries.

Rowling dishes up plenty of black humor throughout. The dinner scenes featuring Howard and Shirley Mollison and his son, Miles and his buxom wife, Samantha, who detests the Mollisons, are filled with hilarity. The leaders of Pagford are obsessed with petty gossip and go to great lengths to hide their dirty little secrets. Leave it to their children to pull back the curtain on their indiscretions, using their expertise with the internet and technology.

The central point of contention between the two forces is Howard Mollison’s plan to close a substance abuse clinic and to redraw the village boundaries to jettison a notorious public housing complex to the city of Yarvil. Fairbrother had understood better than anybody the obligation of society to help those who are less fortunate, but his supporters appear outmaneuvered.

Now let me share what I didn’t like. Most of the characters lack depth and, worse, are thoroughly unlikeable. I’m not asking for perfect characters, but these folks really turned me off. I also found the ending more than a bit contrived and it left me with an empty feeling.

That said, there are some terrific scenes and moments in this book. I just wish the ending paid off the premise.

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Please.Stop.Doing.This.

This post will likely offend many of my writing colleagues and friends who use this technique, but I cannot hold it in any longer. There is a stylistic technique in vogue these days that bothers me to no end. I see it in novels. I see it in articles. I see it in blog posts. I see it on Facebook. It is the breaking up of dramatic sentences into a series of one-word sentences. Consider this: I. Can’t.Take.It.Anymore. Does that sentence read as badly to you as it does to me?

Writers know they are not supposed to use incomplete sentences or sentence fragments, but they also realize that’s a rule they can break from time to time. “The one-word sentence, or more generally the incomplete sentence, is a tool you can use for emphasis,” author and blogger Christine Amsden writes. “Like this. It’s short, to the point, and easily digestible. It calls attention to itself and its brief content, making that content stand out. When done correctly, it is a way to shamelessly exploit a reader’s emotions. Bam! Right there.”

As Amsden points out there is a time and a place for incomplete or one-word sentences, but what I am seeing again and again is very different. It is taking a complete sentence and breaking it up into a series of one-word sentences.

I believe writers use this technique to ratchet up the drama by giving the reader a dramatic signal. Wait for it. Wait for it. Okay, here is comes. The sentence broken up into a series of one-word sentences. You might as well add the words, “This is really important, reader.” For me it has the opposite effect. It’s like the sort of faux drama you see on reality television.

It is akin to the overuse of exclamation points. The legendary Elmore Leonard wrote that a writer gets to use about three exclamation points for every 100,000 words. Why? The words themselves should convey the emotion intended by the writer. The.Same.Applies.To.One-word.Sentences.

If I were to write this post and put a period after every word, how annoying would you find that?

I’m truly sorry if I have insulted my writer friends. Many of you who do this are much better writers than I will ever be. And, having gotten this off my chest, I am willing to admit I could be completely wrong about this.

What about you? How do you feel about this technique? Am I completely wrong?

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Effective Beginnings: The Secret Ingredients

On the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey offers a recurring piece called Flog a Pro. Rhamey identifies six key ingredients that the opening page of a novel must feature: story questions, tension (in the reader, not the character), voice, clarity, scene-setting, and character.

Here he breaks down the opening page of the runaway best-seller Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

While it’s not a requirement to have all six ingredients, Rhamey writes, an author has a better chance of hooking a reader if many of these elements are present.

I am in the midst of refining the beginning pages of my work-in-progress and this effort got me thinking about effective beginnings. In researching this topic, I found a lot of advice from agents and editors about what not to do in the opening page of a novel:

–Start too slowly

–Dump a lot of backstory about the main character

–Include too much exposition

–Introduce the story with a dream sequence

–Begin with slam-bang action, mayhem, maybe even a few deaths. Action without context will only confuse the reader.

Here are more types of bad beginnings from agent Chuck Sambuchino:
Chuck Sambuchino

Rhamey’s list is a solid starting point, but it needs elaboration. There’s one more essential ingredient and it relates to one of his ingredients, character. One inviolate rule about effective opening scenes is the writer must make the reader care about the main character. What does that mean? To me, it means the writer must create an emotional connection between the reader and the character. This is by far the most challenging aspect of crafting an effective beginning.

I found a lot of great advice about opening scenes and I want to share it here:

This post is a fantastic mashup called the 21 best tips for writing your opening scene

Here are more tips from the Editor’s Blog. Here’s a post on how to hook your reader.

And some tips on opening sentences from the blog Fuel Your Writing.

Will Greenway offers eight rules.

Chuck Wendig, 25 things to know about an opening chapter is irreverent, funny and true.

To these many words of wisdom I add one more and this I cannot stress enough: spend whatever time is necessary to make the first scene sing. If you are not spending more time on the opening scene than on the rest of your manuscript, you’re not trying hard enough.

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Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

J.K. Rowling’s murder mystery novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, written under the name Robert Galbraith, caused a major stir when it was revealed that the Harry Potter series author penned this work. Stories followed about the difficulties of getting a publisher interested in the manuscript and the sluggish sales of the book until the identity of its celebrated author was made public.

All of this publicity obscured the fact that Rowling had written a first class mystery novel, featuring a larger than life protagonist in the form of down and out private investigator Cormoran Strike. While the Potter series is about good and evil, the cruelties of adolescence and the power of love to overcome bigotry and intolerance, The Cuckoo’s Calling can best be described as an indictment of the lifestyles of the rich and famous and the media culture that surrounds them.

This story has it all: celebrity models, a chic fashion designer, a rapper with a rap sheet, a troubled rock musician, an egocentric movie producer and various hangers on and paparazzi. Rowling brilliantly sprinkles red herrings throughout the narrative as each of these characters seems to have an angle and a scheme going. Amid the colorful cast of the glitterati, the most striking character is Strike.

A military veteran who lost part of his leg in Afghanistan, Strike is a bear of a man. How is this for a physical description: Strike has “the high bulging forehead, broad nose and thick brows of a young Beethoven who had just taken to boxing.” When we meet Strike, he has just dumped his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, he has no clients, he is near bankruptcy and he is forced to sleep in a camp bed in his dingy office. He is doomed, until two saviors show up in his office on the same morning. The first is Robin Ellacott, a young temp worker walking on a cloud since her boyfriend has just proposed to her. Robin is wise beyond her years and yearns for a meaningful job. The second is John Bristow, scion of a wealthy family who is convinced the death of his adopted sister, superstar model Lulu Landry, was a murder. The case was covered extensively by the media. Police believed Lulu jumped out of a window of her luxury condo to her death on a frigid London night. Bristow hires a reluctant Strike to investigate.

Strike methodically disassembles and reassembles the sequence of events, with each new revelation casting light on Lulu’s troubled life and the people in her circle of friends. It all leads to a shocking conclusion.

Rowling skewers many of the same targets she went after in the Potter series: the rich and powerful, gossip obsessed media, rigid bureaucrats, and self indulgent pop culture stars. In Strike and his young assistant, Ellacott, she has created an appealing chemistry, not sexual but based on mutual need and respect. I cannot wait to read the next installment.

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Book Review: We Are Water, By Wally Lamb

I’m big fan of Wally Lamb’s work, but “We Are Water” was a tough read for me. The subject matter was dark as it dealt with childhood sexual abuse, racial prejudice and violence, mental health issues, and the thin line between creativity and madness. The alternating point of view (POV) chapters and leaps across decades in the narrative were jarring. The cast of characters was large and somewhat unwieldy. POV characters included Annie and Orion Oh and their three children, Andrew and Ariane (twins) and Marissa, and a host of others whose lives intersected with the Ohs.

Annie Oh is an experimental artist whose violent and bizarre art provides an outlet for her seething rage. Her anger stems from a dark secret. She was the victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her cousin, Kent Kelley, who also saved her life during a devastating 1963 flood in Three Rivers, CT, based on Norwich, where Lamb grew up. The story begins after Annie divorces Orion, a psychologist and university mental health counselor, to marry her art dealer, Viveca. The gay marriage doesn’t sit well with Andrew, an Army nurse and born again Christian.

At a recent presentation I attended, Lamb said he writes about imperfect people seeking to improve their lives. The characters in “We Are Water” are certainly imperfect, but many of them almost feel like caricatures. Andrew is an angry young man. Ariane is the do-gooder who is self-conscious about her looks. Marissa is the struggling actress living in New York who drinks too much.

Other than the likeable Orion and the scary Kent, these characters didn’t seem real to me.

I admire Lamb for tackling the big subjects of the day, as he did in The Hour I First Believed, but this time it feels like he is over reaching. There is too much going on here and the story lacks focus and cohesion.

In spite of its flaws Lamb offers a redeeming message about the healing power of love. It is best expressed by Orion, who observes near the end of the book, “So maybe that’s what love means. Having the capacity to forgive the one who wronged you, no matter how deep the hurt was.”

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