Author Archives: CG Blake

About CG Blake

I am a fiction writer and blogger. My interests include writing, music, sports, and politics.

Book Review: “The Leftovers,” by Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, is widely seen as a commentary on religious fanaticism. Perrotta conjures up a Rapture-like event, which results in the simultaneous disappearance of millions of people. Its randomness leaves religious fanatics flummoxed. This rapture doesn’t just take the righteous; it takes all sorts of people, from sinners to saints.

The story picks up three years later as the after shocks continue to reverberate. The people left behind are shell shocked. Perrotta’s cast of characters reflect the different reactions to the event. Wealthy businessman Kevin Garvey, who decides to run for Mayor of the small northeastern town where the novel is set, represents the optimistic spirit of human nature. Garvey simply wants to move on, even as his own life unravels. As Mayor, he plans community events that celebrate the survivors and the normal life for which they yearn. Others aren’t so willing to return to normal, including his wife, Laurie, bereft by survivor’s guilt. The Garveys were spared, but their daughter’s best friend was taken, causing her mother to join a cult called the Guilty Remnants. They see this event as a sign and they refuse to return to a normal state. The Guilty Remnants wear white clothes, stalk residents of the town, and smoke cigarettes as a reminder that the end is coming, so why worry about lung cancer. Their son, Tom, drops out of college and joins a different cult led by a charismatic charlatan called Holy Wayne. His special talent is to take away people’s pain, but it turns out he also has a fondness for under-aged girls.

Meanwhile, Nora, who lost her whole family, struggles just to make it through the day. When she finally gets her footing, she finds herself in a budding romance with Kevin, but she still can’t find happiness and closure.

While The Leftovers is about religious fanaticism, the story had a different impact on me. I saw it as a commentary on how we deal with loss and disruption, whether it’s 9-11, the financial meltdown, or a death in the family. Do we simply move on, as Kevin does? Do we let it destroy our life as we know it, as Laurie does? Do we deal with it honestly, acknowledging the pain and loss, as Nora does? I suspect the message is that loss changes our lives forever, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

Perrotta doesn’t offer any easy answers to the profound questions about religion, mortality, and loss. The Leftovers is a powerful reminder that there are no easy answers to these age-old questions.

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Book Review: “Testimony,” by Scott Turow

The gruesome brutality of the Bosnian war of the 1990s is the backdrop for Scott Turow’s legal thriller, Testimony. The question of accountability and justice for the atrocities of the war is central to the story.

The Bosnian war took place between 1992 and 1995. More than 100,000 were killed during ethnic cleansing campaigns waged among the forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The plot centers on allegations of a horrible crime years later in 2004 in which 400 Roma (gypsies) were allegedly rounded up from a village and buried alive in an abandoned mine. Investigating this crime is Bill ten Boom, a former U.S. Attorney from Turow’s fictional Kindle County. Boom is in the throes of a midlife crisis. After his marriage falls apart, he decides to leave a lucrative law practice, but he has no idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life. At the urging of an old friend who is a CIA operative, Boom take a job as a prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands.

His task is to investigate the disappearance of the Roma. Suspects abound, but the lone eyewitness fingers a fugitive Serbian leader, Laza Kajevic, modeled after Radovan Karadzic. There is also speculation that U.S. forces acting as peacekeepers for NATO, may have orchestrated the crime as revenge for a failed raid on Kajevic’s hideout in which the Roma may have tipped off the fugitive leader.

Aiding Boom in his investigation is the seductive and mysterious Esma Czarni, an advocate for the Roma, who has unearthed the single witness to the crime. Moral ambiguities dominate this story, from a disgraced US General’s evasiveness under questioning by Boom, to Boom’s own lurid affair with Czarni.

Turow captures the complexities behind the multiple conflicts in the war, which triggered centuries old hatreds among ethnic and religious factions. The various layers and motivations of the players in this carnage defy easy answers. To Turow’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to foist high minded moral judgments on the reader. There are no heroes in this story, as even the American peacekeepers come under scrutiny for diverting confiscated weapons to Iraq. The whereabouts of those weapons and how they were used remains a mystery.

What is clear is that Turow values the spirit behind the ICC and the ideal that the rule of law must apply, even in times of war, which force decent people to commit unspeakable crimes.

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Book Review: Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser

Did you ever wonder about the one who got away? Maybe it was a chance meeting and an instant attraction occurred. Something happened and you didn’t get her name. Then, years later, you got a second chance. It was fate, right? It was meant to be. Or, perhaps not.

Jessica Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You, poses these questions. Violet, the protagonist, meets Finn by chance on a beach on Sunny Isle, Florida. They learn they’re both from Cincinnati and both attended the same summer camp. Before she gets his name a medical emergency intervenes. That’s it. No name. No phone number.

Through the magic of the internet, they do eventually reunite, fall in love, and have a baby, but Finn is not the person he appears to be on the surface. When they return to Sunny Isle with their toddler son, Bear, Violet is enjoying the beach while Finn is putting down Bear for a nap. When Violet gets back to their hotel room, she discovers to her horror that Finn has left with their son. Finn has kidnapped their son and the FBI launches an investigation.

Strawser, who is the editorial director of Writer’s Digest, skillfully portrays the desperation Violet feels as she lives a parent’s worst nightmare. Moving back and forth in time, Strawser peels off the layers of the mystery to reveal a tragedy in Finn’s past. Caught in the middle is their close friend, Caitlin Bryce-Daniels. It turns out Finn’s secrets could ruin the political ambitions of Caitlin’s husband, who hails from a powerful family. The biggest secret is the one Finn is hiding from Violet. I won’t reveal it, but it’s a whopper.

The story raises questions about how much people really know about their spouse and whether there is such a thing as fate. And, it leaves the reader wondering about how the idea of love can cloud a person’s judgment and cause her to miss warning signs.

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Word Counts in Fiction: How Much is Too Much?

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Book Review: “Commonwealth,” By Ann Patchett

In an age when the term ‘helicopter parent’ has made its way into the popular lexicon, the two sets of parents in Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, are the direct opposites. Their benign neglect of their children and step-children lead to many consequence, and one fatality. The parents’ lack of supervision and care forces the children and step-children to organize their own hierarchy, which results in the formation of bonds that last for decades.

This is just one of the contradictions of this powerful story. Patchett had me with the opening line of the novel: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” This line raises so many interesting questions. What kind of a turn did the party take? Who is Albert Cousins? Who was christened? Why does it matter? The baby as it turned out, was Franny Keating, the closest thing to a protagonist in this family saga.

Patchett expertly balances the many point-of-view characters in this blended family, recounting major events from a variety of viewpoints. She also seamlessly moves back and forward in time without harming the narrative flow.

The story begins when Albert “Bert” Cousins, a Los Angeles Deputy DA crashes the christening party after his co-worker, Dick Spencer, mentioned it at work. Cousins decided to attend so he could get away for a few hours from his pregnant wife and three young children. He didn’t have a gift so he showed up with a bottle of gin. Francis X. “Fix” Keating, Franny’s dad, is an LA cop. He lets Cousins into the house. Cousins spots Beverly, Keating’s attractive wife, and is immediately smitten. A brief kiss at the party sets into motion the destruction of both marriages.

The Keatings’ two children and the Cousins’ four children spend each summer together in Virginia, where Cousins and Beverly move. The two sets of children don’t like each other or the situation they are thrust into, but they are forced to deal with it.

During one summer the parents sleep in at a vacation in a motel. The kids, left on their own, break into the parents’ car and steal a gun and a bottle of gin from the glove compartment. Then they walk two miles to a nearby lake. When they return after having finished off the gin, their parents are none the wiser. The fragile camaraderie in this blended family will grow stronger over the years.

One of the strengths of the story is the multiple points of view. Each character possesses his or her own version of the past and the tragic death of Calvin Cousins as a teen-ager is told through the eyes of several of the characters, each with a unique recollection as to how it happened.

The event that unites the siblings is a novel called, Commonwealth, written by author Leon Posen, who has an affair with Franny. During their affair, Franny confides her family history to the author, who is struggling to come up with a new novel. Posen uses the story of the Keating-Cousins as the plot of a bestselling novel. The siblings bristle at the author’s version of their story, an insight which suggests the view that a family’s history belongs to the family alone.

This is a satisfying story from one of today’s leading authors.

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Everybody Hates My Main Character

I am a member of a small writer’s group (three to five people), which I consider my safe harbor. We meet twice a month. We welcome submissions that are not ready for prime time. We are candid in our critiques. We don’t hold back criticism.

Recently, I brought in to the group the latest chapter from my work-in-progress. One of the group members whose opinion I value was highly critical of the main character. This member thought the main character came off as dour, unemotional, and joyless. That was not what I had hoped to hear. I promised to renew my efforts to soften the character’s hard edges.

The well-intended criticism got me thinking about an age-old debate in fiction writing. Does the main character have to be likable? Author and blogger K.M. Weiland believes likability is overrated. In this blog post, she wrote, “Forget niceness. Niceness doesn’t enchant readers and doesn’t sell books. This doesn’t mean, of course, that characters can’t be good or moral. It doesn’t mean the only hero worth reading about is the anti-hero. But nobody wants to read about perfection. What readers want is reality. And the reality is that imperfection is by far the more appealing option. A character’s charisma is what draws readers back, not his ‘likability.'”

Angela Ackerman, co-author of The Emotional Thesaurus, an excellent resource for writers, emphasized the importance of creating main characters with flaws in this guest post for Writer’s Digest. But she added a caveat. “To be credible, characters must have flaws as well as strengths, just like real people. There is a tipping point for flaws, however. A bit too much snark or insensitive internal narrative and the character slips into unlikeable territory. Too much surliness, negativity, secretiveness or an overblown reaction and the reader will disconnect, frustrated by character’s narrow range,” Ackerman wrote.

Some of the most memorable characters in fiction were hardly angels. Scarlett O’Hara comes to mind. For the most part, I found Scarlett a petulant, conniving, and manipulative person. Then, why did I stay with Gone With the Wind for more than 1,000 pages? Because Margaret Mitchell made me care about Scarlett. And I discovered her redeeming qualities in the narrative–the way she fought to keep her extended family together during the bleak years of the Civil War, how she protected even her adversary from danger, and how she showed compassion to her family. She made me care.

Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, featured in several novels, is one of my favorite characters in fiction. Yet, even I have to admit, he’s not very likable. He comes across at times as cynical, self-absorbed and emotionally remote. Despite these flaws, Frank resonated with me in a way that few characters have in fiction because he voiced all of the fears and insecurities that many middle aged men feel. Other readers who don’t share my demographic may not have the same opinion of Frank.

So what’s my take on the question of likability? Here are a few ideas:

Make the reader care about your main character. Your main character will go through a struggle and face mounting challenges that will force her to make a transformative change. She may show a range of emotions: joy, hatred, rage, contentment. Make the struggle meaningful, something to which the reader can relate.

Establish early on in the story something about your main character that the reader admires. For example, the main character is incapable of being in a relationship, but it is because she was emotionally abused by her parents.

Show examples of the character’s kindness and humanity, especially at the beginning of the story,

Strive for complexity in your characters (and that includes the antagonist). Real people are complex with multiple aspects to their personalities. The most memorable characters, like Scarlett, are complicated people.

What about you? Do you struggle with the issue of character likability?

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Book Review: “Saints for All Occasions,” By J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan’s fourth novel, Saints for All Occasions, is a familiar story. Two Irish sisters emigrate to America. Friends of the family take them in until they get jobs. The older sister eventually agrees to an arranged marriage; the younger sister goes astray. They drink too much. They hold secrets and grudges close to the vest. In the end, they gain strength and purpose from their frayed family bonds.

While this is an old story, Sullivan handles it with grace, insight, and an understated wisdom. In the tradition of writers like Alice McDermott, Sullivan writes about the Irish-Catholic experience with authenticity and uncanny perception. As someone who shares this heritage, I feel as though I know the characters in this novel.

The sweeping plot of this family saga centers on two sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn, who were sent from Ireland to America in the late 1950s. Even though Nora didn’t love Charlie Rafferty, it was understood that she would marry him. Charlie had arrived there earlier while his older brother remained in the old country to run the family farm.

Living with a large Irish clan in Boston, Nora, 21, was serious and steadfast, while Theresa, 17, was gregarious and curious about this new world. When Theresa became pregnant, Nora stepped in and built a plan. Her intention was to protect her sister and preserve the family’s reputation. It was all a lie that took root, grew, and festered over the course of 50 years.

After an intense internal struggle, Theresa left her son behind and became a cloistered nun at a Vermont abbey. Nora and Charlie raised Patrick as their own. They had three children of their own: the over-achiever John, eager to please his parents; the tomboy Bridget, confused about her sexuality; and the youngest, Brian, isolated from his two older siblings, but close to Patrick, who took him under his wing.

The story moved back and forth in time between the late 1950s, the mid 1970s, and 2009. That’s when Patrick died after drinking and driving his car into a concrete wall beneath an overpass on Morrissey Boulevard.

Sullivan hints at what is to come in the first chapter. Driving home from the hospital after hearing the terrible news, Nora recalled a story her husband told about a man in Ireland called the bone setter. The man would come to a home and snap a child’s broken bone into place. “As usual when he spoke of home, Charlie left out the worst bits. The man had set his ankle slightly off. It led the rest of his body to be out of balance so that eventually, his knees bothered him and later, his back.”

The very next paragraph holds the key to this story: “The lies they had told were like this. The original, her sister’s doing. All those that followed, an attempt on Nora’s part to try to preserve what the first one had done, each one putting Patrick even more out of joint. She had accepted this as the price of keeping him safe.”

Patrick’s death brings together a family riven by secrets and unexpressed anger. John is a successful political consultant whose niche is to elect Republican candidates in heavily Democratic Massachusetts. Bridget runs an animal shelter in New York City. She and her partner, Natalie, have decided to have a baby, but Bridget can’t even bring herself to tell her mother she is gay, let alone about the decision to have a baby. Brian, a star athlete, has seen his baseball career stall after spending eight years in the Cleveland Indians minor league system. He lives in his old bedroom at his mom’s house and works in Patrick’s bar in Dorchester.

And then there is Theresa, who is now Mother Cecilia. Nora reluctantly invited her sister to the wake and the funeral, but she refused to put her up at her house. Before the wake and her reunion with Nora, Theresa reflected on her life. “Nothing had just happened to her. She made a choice and then she made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” Yet, she knew the most important choice was not made by her, but by her sister. “Nora never asked her if she could have Patrick, she just took him. But when this made her angry, she reminded herself that Nora had only done what she thought was best.”

While Theresa had long ago forgiven Nora, her older sister still harbored anger and resentment. When they met at the wake in front of Patrick’s body, Nora turned away from Theresa.

Later the family gathered at Nora’s house without Theresa, to consume trays of food and an abundance of alcohol. “There was something appealing about the perfect order of it all, the abundance. They would eat their grief before it swallowed them,” Sullivan wrote.

During this gathering it was Brian, the youngest, who grasped the dynamics of this dysfunctional family. “It didn’t bother him that his mother hadn’t told them about her sister. The family was built on things that went unsaid. There might be hints, whispers from another room that fell to silence when he entered. There were stories he simply accepted that he didn’t know the whole of, and others he didn’t even know he didn’t know the whole of.

“Who wanted to know everything about his own mother?”

Early the next morning, Bridget had a similar moment of truth. “Bridget thought of her family in terms of what they didn’t know about her. She had rarely wondered about the mysteries they harbored. How could you be this close, be a family, and yet be so unknown to one another?”

And, finally, in the early morning hours before Patrick’s funeral, Nora experienced her own epiphany. Wondering why she had bothered to call Theresa to tell her about Patrick’s death, Nora reflected, “…perhaps her better angels had somehow known she needed Theresa here. She had never believed that Theresa loved Patrick. Not the way she did. But standing over his body with Theresa, Nora felt it. Her sister’s grief, as palpable as her own.

And her thoughts eventually go to her own parents, long dead. “It wasn’t right that you could only understand your parents’ pain once you’d experienced the things they had, and by then, in her case anyway, they were gone.”

The ending was abrupt, but deeply satisfying. Sullivan has written a touching family saga that is sad, tragic, and ultimately a story of healing and forgiveness.

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