Review: Heart Goes Last

4 Feb

The Heart Goes LastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Relativity is a tricky, unfair sort of thing. If this was a debut, by an author whose name I’d never heard, I would’ve probably given it five stars. Well, maybe—difficult to say because I can’t approach this book without the knowledge of The Handsmaid’s Tale or the MaddAddam trilogy. Alas, we arrive at four stars.
I liked it—it made me laugh out loud, surprised me multiple times over once I thought I’d figured it out, and made me question myself—all things a good speculative Atwood book is supposed to do. Parts of it I loved—the heroine’s thoughts during the “procedures” she performs. The characters mull over thinnest veils of rationalization which prove to be almost indestructible, even faced with absurd tests,
But there are parts of it that just don’t quite meld together, leaving some sharp edges. Transitions are jarring, the world seems inconsistent, losing in its interior logic. The broken future/devasted economy/science gone amok world just isn’t as convincing as MaddAddam trilogy’s world, and the sexual tensions , fetishes, and “spaghetti” (to use her own word) isn’t as emotionally subtle and mature as that in The Handmaid’s Tale. At times, the twin protagonists seem almost teen-ager-like in their jealousy, hormones, and naiveté.
About half way through, I got the feeling that this was a trunked novel. A trunked novel of course is one that a writer writes early in his/her career that can’t quite compete and ends up being put aside for a while to be pulled out, dusted off, and published during a dry time later on. Stephen King pulls out trunked novels so often, his haunted-male-writer characters have started to do it, too. (See: Bag of Bones. Meta-trunked.) Nothing wrong with a trunked novel, but it’s just not going to have the same magic as the best work.
Of course, I don’t know if Heart Goes Last was really a trunked novel, but it is missing some of that magic. Perhaps missing some of the emotional gravitas to balance out the dark humor.
Still—definitely worth a read.

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6 Jan

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am cheating a bit on my 2016 reading challenge this week, as two of these books were started and mostly finished in 2015 and then set aside for a little while. Oh well.

It’s impossible to give this book, with this writing, anything less than five stars. The first sentence is memorizing and diagramming worthy…
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we began to realize the gravity of our situation.”
The sentence falls, as if rolling down a steep hill.

The setting is haunting and dreamlike–like walking through a pretty town while drunk. Characters are sometimes chillingly alien, sometimes endearingly familiar. Another massive, gorgeous and enviable achievement on behalf of Donna Tartt.

However, I did set this book down for 5 months for a reason, the same reason it took me quite a while to finish The Goldfinch. Yes, it’s long–but that’s not exactly it. Every line is beautiful, but sometimes I felt that not every line was purposeful, not driving towards a unity. Some of these lines were logistical, some tangential. As a whole, it gave it the taste of the true memories of a very intelligent man–giving all remembered details for their own sake rather than to make a cohesive point. It gave me an intermittent feeling of impatience.

I’ve thought about the feeling, and if you’ll permit me a metaphor, reading (or really, in my case, listening) to Donna Tartt novels is like being listening to an engaging conversation with a talkative person whom you’re desperately attracted to. You wouldn’t dare interrupt–she’s too beautiful and clever–but as the story winds to and fro with added remembrances and asides, the question– Wait, what about…? comes to your mind to distract you, and you wish you could turn the story back to center, but this new part is so beautiful too…so you keep listening and hoping, trying not to be distracted by your own questions.

In the end though, every possible question is answered and all emotional come to a head and resolve. So in the end, I’m looking forward to The Little Friend, a little ways down my to read stack. And in ten years, I’ll read whatever she has for us next.

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4 Jan

Gathering Prey (Lucas Davenport, #25)Gathering Prey by John Sandford
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Listening to this while reading The Secret Place was…instructive.
I’m not at all sure why I downloaded this book–the 25th in a series. I think it landed on a list recommended to me as a strong example of a crime/thriller novel published fairly recently.

I had started out enjoying the book and paying particular attention to its cinematic set-up. The POV is distanced, giving the words and movements of various characters as needed to advance the story, like the role of the camera in a action movie. As a writer who struggles with the constrictions of close perspectives, this was refreshing at first, but it eventually left me missing some flavor.

The action was dry and methodical–good guy vs bad guy, making moves that, to do the book some justice, make perfect sense and feel logical and as true to life as you’d want in fiction. The motives behind the action, however, were one note. The emotional evolution of the characters–especially of the bad guys–almost completely absent. Compared to my most recent read (Secret Place), which could almost to be said to have too much interiority, Gathering Prey had almost none.

These books are of different sub-genres, to be sure, but it reaffirmed my love of the psychological and literary branch of mysteries and thrillers. It’s plot was real-feeling, but its characters flat.

If it’s ever made into a movie with a great cast that can give me some of that depth I missed in the text, I’d totally watch it, but I think that’s my last Sandford unless someone wants to recommend a different title.

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4 Jan

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It actually took me quite a while to finish the last 20% of this book. I started it, and ate the majority of it up in a flash, but had to put it down in order to finish a book club book. And I didn’t pick it back up for months. I think the reason I didn’t pick it back up was a feeling I’d started to get that the main thing at stake was a detective’s career–which is never enough for me personally to continue, but even less so when I’ve only had one book to become attached.

However, I rated this five stars because I finished it last night and was blown away once more by French’s gorgeous writing. It fulfilled everything I want in a elevated/psychological mystery and makes it official that I have loved everything she has written thus far. As soon as I see an unfamiliar title, I’ll be pre-ordering.

If you want big twists at the end, or shocking violence–there are others who do this well. Tana French lays the surprises at your feet on every page–not in 180 turns but in the familiar but extraordinary internal conflicts that push the book forward. The identity of the killer, however, not usually a surprise as much as the inevitable end of a brutal road.

Give us more!

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Form Rejection Bingo

30 Jul

“This wasn’t right for us”

“This didn’t speak to me.”

“Taking on a client is a personal decision.”

“I am not the right agent for your work.”

“This is a subjective business”

“I can only take on what really excites me.”

“This is to acknowledge receipt of your work.”

“Please do not despair.”‘

“On average, we receive over X queries every Y…”

“It only takes one ‘yes’ to find a match”

“I wish you luck”

“No, Thanks.”


(Free Space)

“We do not have room for this.”

“We would not be effective finding a market for this”

“At this time…”

“While I enjoyed reading it,…”

“While I read all submissions carefully,…”

“Don’t be discouraged.”

“Keep us in mind for future projects.”

“We often have to pass on worthy projects”

“Thank you for the opportunity to read your work.”


“…not a good fit…”

“We cannot respond in detail to all”






















For those entering query-land.

Review from the interloper: GLITCHMOB

24 Mar

Last Wednesday I was treated to a one part concert, two parts cultural revelation: my very first “EDM” show, featuring Glitchmob.

Photo by Clint Kobeska


For those as in the dark about how these shows work as I was a week ago, there were three panels with colored touch screens directed at the audience apparently unnumbered knobs and controls that only they could see and a number of over-sized lighted bass drums of different sizes. The music was consistently high octane with a heavy dance beat supplied alternately from live percussion on the bass drums and recorded loops. The music was interesting and fun to dance to, with an easy beat to follow with the body, with many sampled layers from women’s voices to unidentifiable rhythms that were tied together by melodies played on the lighted touch panels facing the audience.

It was clear, though, that this was not like any live performances I’d been to before. My first instinct was to be less than impressed. While the music was complicated, the complex parts were not what was being created live but mixed together on the panels. I don’t have the kind of ear to be able to tell how long the samples were and how much was automated, but I could see clearly which parts were actively performed, mainly the drums (though there were more drum tracks than what was being performed—not sure if that was looped during the performance or prerecorded) and the melodies played on the lighted touch pads. The melodies that were being performed worked as the top melody to all the mixed layers, but weren’t complicated. A talented middle-schooler with decent rhythm could learn the repetitive 10-20 note melodies and perform them with a few days practice. The drums were also fairly basic rhythms. That is not to say I thought it took no advanced talent to produce what I was hearing: the compositions, though made from prerecorded tracks and “samples” from musicians not in the band, were multilayered, well tied together, and fun. What I was hearing was complicated and dynamic enough to keep my interest and definitely catchy enough to make me want to move, but what I was seeing performed was repetitive and intermediate. I couldn’t help wonder, why perform live at all?

Part of live performance for me is the marvel. I love to marvel at what is being created for me and to listen both to each moving line of music and the ensemble as a whole, whether it be a 4-5 piece band or an orchestra. To think that that movement of arm, that strain of vocal chords, that deftness of finger create the mosaic that I can hear creates that feeling of the marvelous for me, and the fact that the most intricate part of the music Glitchmob was playing was hidden or from me nearly spoiled it for me.

That’s about when I stopped watching the band and started watching the crowd.

Photo by Clint Kobeska

The crowd was a fabulous mix for people watching, a rag tag group of hangovers from the sixties and nineties. The fashion was fascinating: furry raver boots, draped skirts with Asian inspired fabric, asymmetrical haircuts galore, and more than one LED lit piercing. Even the Capitol would have to break out all the stops to gather a more colorful crowd. It was also a very happy crowd, dancing and hula-hooping and responding enthusiastically to each increase in tempo, each swoop of volume, each fist thrusting move of the three musicians on stage. That’s when I understood the appeal. The musicians were as responsive to the crowd as the crowd was to them, almost making it a collaborative effort to sustain the energy and synchronicity of the whole experience.

There are few dance clubs that frequently feature live DJs and mix artists in Memphis, and even if there were more, it would probably still be an alien experience for me if for no other reason than I am remarkably out of touch when it comes to contemporary music trends and the “new” genres. But it can be a unique pleasure to an interloper and, with as an open mind as possible, examine the appeal of an art. And with this music, I only really got it when I took in the whole picture of the live show.

I think I still prefer the type of performance were all sounds are produced live with instruments, but I’m glad to have a better understanding of this culture now, far too prevalent to fairly be called a “subculture.”

I hope I get more chances to be the interloper.

The existential angst of rewriting something old and why I didn’t enter ABNA this year

5 Mar

I once again committed the cardinal sin of allowing this old thing to fall dormant for a few months. I would love to tell you that I was too busy working on some brand new, life-changing fiction. There has been some of that, I am happy to say, but it is probably not a coincidence that I met my lovely boyfriend a few days after my most recent post, and that has provided quite the distraction this year. However, no more excuses! Domestic happiness should not cause creative stagnation!

This year so far has been a difficult creative journey, one that feels a little like taking a spinning class. I know that progress is being made, but I would swear that the wheels are just spinning in place.

I am putting some serious rewriting into Morbid Curiosity. The fact that I thought this book was completely done, ready for representation, has made it difficult to tackle. I sent it out last summer to a dozen agents and received a few bites that became very thoughtful rejections. I sat on those rejections for months, working occasionally on other projects. When I came back to Morbid Curiosity, I had some ideas on how to improve the story. Just a few tweaks to the first third, spice up some of the dry sections with a heightened relationship.

The whole process has reminded me of a time I was making a meal and realized I had used the wrong kind of cheese in the sauce. It tasted okay, but was not the taste I had been looking forward to, so I went ahead and added the right cheese. It was way too cheesy. I added more cream. It was bland. I added more salt. The cooks in the room can see what’s coming.

So my revision became a rewrite.

I had intended to revise in time for Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, but as I began to see that what I thought I could do with some surgical changes would actually require whole rewrites of seventy percent of the book, I gave up on that notion. It feels strange to have no work out there being judged and read. For the first time in years, there’s no one anywhere right now appraising any part of my books or any other creative work. I’m retreating to the blackboard. I insist that I am not sulking back, cringing from rejection, but returning because my standards have risen.

In the meanwhile, while I hack away at a polished work in order to make it better, I will do my best to return here and work this writing muscle. Regular posts return next week.