Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review: “On the Wild Coast,” by Patrick J. Lee

Like the country where she grew up, Alice Burley, the main character in Patrick J. Lee’s brilliant novel, “On the Wild Coast,” is caught between two lives. Alice struggles mightily  to come to grips with her past, find her identity and gain inner peace. Alice returns from the comfort of middle-class London to the remote outpost on the eastern coast of South Africa after learning she has inherited her childhood home in the shabby coastal town of Port Victoria.

The flashpoint for this story is the mysterious death of Martin deVilliers, a celebrity journalist whose body has washed up on the shores of Port Victoria. On her way to the region, Alice offers a ride to Mendi Mkhize, the chief magistrate, whose car has broken down. Mendi has been dispatched to Port Victoria to investigate the presumed murder, which in reality means he must determine whether it was a crime against a tourist.

Alice must decide whether to evict two elderly aunts, Alicia and Phyllis, from the family home and they are not exactly thrilled to see her. Alice must also decide what to do about her own life. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Alice has become unmoored as she deliberately eschews her medication in favor of an elite surfer she meets on the beach. Simon Scully could have been a champion, except that he tanked in every big competition. Alice is attracted to him because he lives in the moment and he becomes her lover.

While she enjoys her days with Simon, Alice learns that Menzi has arrested Breakdown for the murder and is holding him in a locked room adjacent to the general store. Alice tricks the store owner, Sammy, into releasing Breakdown, whose only crime was stealing and wearing the dead man’s clothes.

Alice’s internal struggles mirror the messy adjustment that the African National Congress has made in its ascension to power in South Africa. At one point Alice recalls watching her nation’s first democratic elections from London. “The country seemed full of the jumbled traffic of those going upwards to power and wealth bumping into those tumbling down…Yet, in Port Victoria, behind the barrier of the hills, the change was different. It was as though the present had arrived without completely displacing the past, and the two were wandering around in a blend.”

Lee has created a rich and colorful collection of local residents, and the supporting cast lends depth and humor to the story. Johnny Fourie is a fisherman so tough that he survived 15 hours in the choppy waters and sauntered ashore to attend his own wake. Clive Gilman is the owner of the shabby post colonial Cape Hamilton Hotel. Bob Peace is a burned out DJ who gets stoned and plays rock and roll records at an independent station called Radio Freedom. Woodstock is an outcast who makes a meager living doing odd jobs for Johnny. And then there is Breakdown, a larger than life homeless man who “scourged himself a habitat in the tidal zone between the ocean and the town, between civilized and wild.” That succinct and vivid passage describes everyone in Port Victoria. All of the characters are from somewhere else and find themselves in this region between the civilized and the wild.

And then there is Dom Marias, whose presence is almost spectral. Marias, who ran a community health clinic treating rebels during the war for freedom, has turned to growing marijuana, but he is fiercely protective of the town and its people.

In the end, Alice must confront painful things about her past and it is in resolving these long ago hurts that she is finally able to move on. It has been said that effective endings must be both surprising and inevitable. Lee has managed to craft a thoroughly satisfying ending that does both.

 

 

 

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2014 New Year’s Resolutions

I look at New Year’s resolutions the way I view goals. The fewer in number and more realistic in nature, the better are the odds that I will fulfill my resolutions. Last year’s list of resolutions was long: publish a novel, blog at least weekly, read 25 books, attend a writer’s conference, and read three craft of fiction books. I achieved all but the biggest one: I did not publish a novel in 2013.

I had good reasons for not meeting this resolution. I went through a divorce in 2013, we sold our house and I had to move. Some people can write through such adversity; I found it difficult. Another factor was a promotion at work, which increased my responsibilities. All of this took time from my writing.

I should resolve in 2014 to master time management. Instead I set forth the following goals:

• Revise one of my works-in-progress so it is publication-ready.
• Blog at least weekly.
• Read 25 books.
• Attend a writer’s conference.

There, that wasn’t so bad. Now comes the hard part. It’s easy to make resolutions. Keeping them involves hard work and the “c” word: commitment. Stephen Pressfield makes this point in his classic, The War of Art, when he addresses Resistance (capital R to emphasize its importance). “Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable,” he writes. “Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”

In both The War of Art and his later book, Turning Pro, Pressfield outlines the attributes of a professional. What stuck with me from both books was Pressfield’s defining quality in a professional—his habits. A professional shows up for work every day. A professional is prepared. A professional masters the job. A professional makes a commitment—not just for the first month of the year—but to work for success over the long haul.

As I pondered my New Year’s resolutions, I thought about Pressfield. It’s not the resolution, but the habit, which turns into commitment, which is essential for success. All the best to my fellow writers for a successful 2014.

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Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.

Fiction

The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Non-fiction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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Is Blogging a Waste of Time?

A recent post by L.L. Barkat published on Jane Friedman’s blog has generated a lot of discussion in the blogosphere. Entitled, “It’s Time for (Many) Experienced Writers to Stop Blogging,” the post described the 180-degree shift in Barkat’s view on blogging.

An inveterate blogger, Barkat wrote 1,300 posts in six years, generating 250,000 page views. Barkat’s blogging helped start a large blogging network for which she later became managing editor, test-marketed five books she wrote and sold, and assisted other blogging contacts in securing book contracts. “I was a true believer in the blog world,” she wrote. On Saturday, November 10, 2012, she stopped blogging.

In the post, Barkat argued both sides of the question. She didn’t recommend everyone stop blogging. “It’s an excellent way to find expression, discipline, and experience. But if writers already have experience, and they are authors trying to promote themselves and their work, I tell them to steer clear,” she wrote. “If they’ve already found themselves sucked into the blogging vortex, I suggest they might want to give it up and begin writing for larger platforms that don’t require reciprocity (an exhausting aspect to blogging and a big drain on a writer’s energy and time).”

In the Comments suggestion, Friedman offered a thoughtful response to Barkat’s post. She said, in part, “Blogging can help both new and experienced writers with discipline, focus, and voice development. But it is indeed a waste of time if you’re doing it because someone admonished you to (e.g., to build your platform), and it’s a forced chore. If you’re not enjoying it, neither are your readers.

“Established authors likely have more reason to blog than beginners for the simple reason that they have an existing audience who seek engagement and interaction in between ‘formal’ book releases (or other writings). It may take less effort to interest and gather readers if you’re known, and it’s valuable to attract readers to your website (via a blog) rather than a social media outlet since you don’t really own your social media profiles, nor do you control the changing tides that surround them. You DO, however, own your website and blog (or should),” Friedman said.

Here are my thoughts on whether to blog:

Have a purpose. As Barkat and Friedman suggest, if you are blogging for the sake of building an audience and have nothing to say or because somebody told you to blog, it’s going to show in the quality of your posts. The initial focus of my blog was to share with novice fiction writers the lessons I had learned over the course of many years as a self-taught fiction writer. My blog has morphed into something much more—featuring book reviews, author profiles, and my reflections on the writer’s journey.

Set limits. Decide how much time to devote each week to blogging versus writing and stick to it. Don’t let your blog infringe upon your writing time. If the blog becomes too time-consuming cut back.

Use it strategically. I don’t write sci-fi so readers are not going to see a lot of reviews or advice on science fiction. I write family sagas so I tend to read and write about that genre more than others. I also follow a number of excellent fiction writing blogs and I leave comments on posts, which has attracted like-minded writers to my blog, which brings me to my next thought.

Share, share, share. Blogging is a great outlet to share your knowledge and insights. In that regard, Twitter is a great vehicle for sharing. I always send out a link to my blog posts on Twitter and I have found followers who do the same and I follow those people as well.

Don’t let blogging take over your life. It’s tempting to blog at the expense of writing. I find it easier to bang out a 500-word blog essay than to write 500 words of quality fiction. Don’t fall into the trap of blogging instead of writing. Carve out appropriate amounts of time for both on a regular basis.

What are your thoughts on blogging?

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Favorite Book of 2012: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I read a number of outstanding books in 2012. Among these were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers, Defending Jacob by William Landay, and Canada by Richard Ford. However, my favorite book of 2012 was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

This is a highly subjective judgment, but, for me, a great book not only must have great characters and tell a compelling story, but it must say something important about the human condition. Chabon’s book does all of these things and more. It holds a mirror up to the times in which we live. The 2012 national election was proof yet again that we live in a divided nation, with 51 percent of voters supporting President Obama and 49 percent voting for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, political analysts noted a subtle, but permanent change in the electorate in 2012. No longer will elections be decided by older white males. The demographics of the country are changing. As I write this, Congressional leaders are deadlocked over a fix to the fiscal cliff, further evidence of what divides us.

Chabon acknowledges this diversity in Telegraph Avenue, but his message is one of hope. Telegraph Avenue is the fault line between a hardscrabble neighborhood of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley campus. Chabon mines the rich diversity of this area as the setting serves to underscore the themes of racial, gender and political divisions, but he is not just interested in what divides us, but what brings us together.

The story centers on business partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a barely surviving used record store called Brokeland Records. The store is threatened when superstar athlete-turned-business-tycoon Gibson Goode,  proposes a mega entertainment complex for the neighborhood, including a used record store that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

One of the major aspects of this novel is music, specifically the soul music of the 1970s. At one point, Goode laments the changes he has witnessed in music. “The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me,” says Goode. “You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms I love it…But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music nowadays. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying.”

Goode is talking about soul music, but he could just as easily be discussing politics, civility, or the state of our nation as a whole.

Later in the story, Nat Jaffe reflects on the unlikely business partnerships that he and his white wife, Aviva, have struck with Archy Stallings and his wife, Gwen Shanks. The breakup of their partnerships, he concluded, had more to do with class than race. “The differences in class and education among the four of them canceled out without regard for stereotype or cultural expectation: Aviva and Archy both had been raised by blue-collar aunts who worked hard to send them to lower-tier colleges. The white guy was the high school dropout , the black woman upper middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up the world.”

In the end Stallings has an epiphany of sorts and the reader is left with a feeling that things will be okay, that this volatile cast of characters will figure out a way to get along.

What was your favorite book of 2012?

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Book Review: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain’s debut novel centers on the Iraq War and the cultural and social values for which our soldiers put their lives on the line. The year is 2004 or 2005 and the Bush Administration trots out “Bravo Company,” an Army unit, for a two-week PR tour. Bravo Company has achieved viral celebrity status when a Fox News embedded crew filmed their heroic efforts to quell an ambush. Fountain’s setting, though, is not the battlefield, but a football field. The story begins as the war heroes wrap up their two-week tour with an incongruous appearance at halftime with Destiny’s Child during the Dallas Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium.

The main character is Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Texan who joined the Army rather than face jail time after trashing his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s Mercedes. Bravo Company is accompanied by Hollywood producer Albert, who owns the movie rights to their story. In a nod to Joseph Heller’s classic war novel, Albert faces a Catch 22: the film based on Bravo Company’s heroic actions cannot draw financial backers until a marquee star is signed up, but no star will commit until the movie has financial support.

Fountain contrasts the abundance enjoyed by the well-heeled crowd in their luxury boxes, pumping hands with the Army heroes, with the gritty existence the soldiers experience in Iraq.

The author’s prose is both penetrating and eloquent, as he writes about the disconnect between the patriotic fervor at home and the soldier’s perspective. At one point, Billy reflects: “To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets. He wonders if there’s a saturation point, a body count that will finally blow the homeland dream to smithereens.”

The suspense that drives the plot is three-fold: the movie deal Albert may or may not be able to negotiate (promising each member of Bravo Company $100,000 from the film), Billy’s sister’s attempts to convince him to desert the Army and leave the stadium with an anti-war group, and the intense feelings Billy develops for a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, Faison. Fountain ratchets up the tension as the football game progresses. Will Albert get the soldiers a big payday and will it matter, since they are hours from being shipped back to Iraq to complete their tours of duty? Will Billy desert the Army and hide away with Faison?

Fountain’s highly detailed description of the excesses of football—the beef-fed gargantuan athletes, the gladiator equipment, the marketing machine hawking Cowboys apparel, the pompous pageantry of the halftime show—are in sharp relief to what Billy is feeling inside. Is this what we’re fighting for in Iraq? Billy at one point wonders when “America became a giant mall with a country attached.”

At times, Fountain lays it on too thick, portraying one patriotic fat cat after another, gushing over the war heroes. But this serves to drive home his point: war is not a game like football, where we cheer for our soldiers and root for quick, decisive victories. War is messy and it is hell for those young men and women who, in the case of Bravo Company after its two-week tour, wonder what values they are fighting to uphold.

In the end, Billy is true to his values and the reader is left to ponder the state of America’s values.

 

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Avoiding the Social Media Time Suck

Writers blog about it–the amount of time they spend on social media: monitoring blogs, writing blog posts, tweeting, facebooking, leaving comments on other blogs. It’s a huge time suck, and yet writers still do it. Guilty on all counts.

I’m still trying to figure out how to spend less time on social media time and more time on my passion–fiction writing. I don’t have the answer yet, but let me share what I’ve learned:

Be selective about the blogs you follow regularly. At first, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Every week I would discover a new writer’s blog and add it to my favorites. I spent hours on social media and my writing output suffered. Now, I follow a few blogs religiously: Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Kathryn Magendie, K.M. Weiland, Jody Hedlund, Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman. Well, I guess that’s more than a few, but you get the point.

Set aside time for social media and time for fiction writing. That’s an easy rule to set down and a much tougher one to obey. How many times have you said, “I’m just going to check my stats, respond to a few comments and check a couple of blogs and then I’ll start working on my work-in-progress?” Three hours later, you haven’t put a word on the page. It takes great discipline to treat these as separate activities, but the writer must.

Use technology to manage your blog feeds. There are a number of tools available. Subscribing to your favorite blogs through email is one that I find helpful. Getting your favorite blogs on Twitter is another useful way to keep up, while not impacting your writing time.

Devote large blocks of time to writing and use social media as a reward. I’m a binge writer. If I’m not feeling it, I will produce drivel, but when I’m on fire creatively, I can crank out 3,000 words in one sitting. OK, it might not be riveting prose, but in some cases I’ve done my best work while on such creative rolls. The trick is to tell yourself you are going to write for three hours, four hours, whatever, and stick to it. Then treat yourself to a couple of hours on social media.

Go someplace else to write. This is a sound strategy. Pick a place–your local coffee shop or the library. Find a quiet table. Sit down with your laptop, find some music that inspires you and plug in your ear buds, and write for two or three hours. Try it sometime. Do your social media at home or on a mobile device, but not at your writing place.

Is social media a time suck for you? How do you find the time to write?

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