Archive | March 2015

Book Review: The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

I decided to review all three of these books together, Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity because they are essentially one long story, and because I don’t have anything significantly different to say about the three of them. I found them very consistent in terms of both their pros and cons.

I read these books on my Kindle, but in paperback version they amount to 3,008 pages, so they represent a significant investment in time. They have been extremely successful and popular. They’ve been translated into numerous languages and sold millions of copies. I read all three, and it wasn’t a chore. There wasn’t any point where I was tempted to stop.

Having said that I can’t whole heartedly recommend them. I rate them a three out of five. That three though is the average of a five and a one. Five for the story. One for the execution.

What do I mean by that? These books are extremely ambitious. They follow the lives of four families, one each American, British, German, and Russian, (No French, which says something but I’m not sure what.) beginning before the first world war and continuing more or less to the present day. The research was extensive and the novels cover the major events of the twentieth century, the world wars, Russian revolution, iron curtain, and civil rights, among others. To the extent that Mr. Follett has an axe to grind it is on the side of normal people and against thugs, bureaucracy, etc. So in terms of story design I don’t think you could ask for much more.

So what is my problem with execution? I think I can boil it down to two things. The first is consistent with the experience I’ve had with Mr. Follett’s writing in the past. That is his prose. I can only describe the writing as wooden. There is a lot of exposition. I ended up feeling that people were being described to me rather than feeling that I was meeting them. The dialogue is also sometimes hard to take. People from all countries and walks of life would say things like, “you bet,” when asked a question. This may seem picky but I think it’s illustrative. At one point, a young African American lawyer who found himself standing near Bull Connor watching his police brutalize civil rights marchers tried to decide whether to “remonstrate” with him about his behavior. I don’t know anyone who actually uses remonstrate in his daily thoughts or conversation, even Harvard educated lawyers, and certainly not when he’s a witness to the kind of brutality described.

There’s a common piece of advice given to aspiring writers, which is to show, not tell. I’ve always thought that Mr. Follett is one of the most successful writers who primarily tell in their writing rather than showing. As I mentioned, there is a lot of exposition and explanation of what characters are thinking, rather than letting their words and actions speak for themselves.

My second problem may sound a little strange, but there is an incredible amount of sex in these novels. Admittedly most adult people have sex, but in my view a little goes a long way in most novels. I found most of it in these novels gratuitous. In most cases it didn’t really do anything to move the story along. Even worse, given my impression of the prose, most of it struck me as embarrassing rather than steamy. Kind of like an awkward guy at work started telling off-color jokes while everyone else edges away

So should you read them? I’m not sorry I did. I mostly read my Kindle while commuting on metro so I get a good 90 minutes or so to read every work day. If you have the time and find the twentieth century interesting, then sure. Why not? You can get them from the library so all it will cost you is your time.

On the other hand, I often found myself groaning or rolling my eyes relatively often while reading, which is not an endorsement. There are plenty of great novels set during the various periods of the twentieth century. If your time is constrained, you might want to concentrate on some of those and give these a miss.

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Free Kindle version of Now Boarding…

My novel, Now Boarding…, will be free on Kindle tomorrow and Sunday, March 28 and 29. It’s the story of Geoffrey, a newly former graduate student trying to get a foothold in the adult world with the complication of being framed for murder. Go to my Amazon site and give it a try.

https://amazon.com/author/charlesvella

Book Review: A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie

I’m not sure it’s worth reviewing anything by Agatha Christie at this point. She has sold an amazing number of novels with characters like Hercule Poirot. She probably doesn’t translate well into the world of today’s young people, but I never get tired of reading her.

A Caribbean Mystery features Miss Marple, Christie’s spinster sleuth who knits, rocks, and explains to the police what they’re missing. Miss Marple is one of those characters who live in a peaceful small town that must have a murder rate about ten times that of New York. Bodies tend to stack up in her little village of Saint Mary Meade and the police are generally completely at a loss until she straightens them out.

A Caribbean mystery takes place when Miss Marple’s nephew, a successful writer, sends her on a vacation to escape the English winter. I counted four bodies as Miss Marple grapples with a confusing set of facts to eventually save the day, or at least prevent the body count from going to five, but laying hands on the killer.

I won’t go into any detail about the story. The fact is they are all fairly similar. They are good whodunnits combined with good writing and a chance to spend a little time in a world that has long disappeared, but has a lot of things in it that make for an enjoyable visit. If you’ve got an afternoon to kill and want to escape the modern world for a few hours, you could do a lot worse than this, or any other Miss Marple novel.

Review: The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake

This is a fun book. I’ve never read anything by Donald Westlake before and tried this as part of a group read at Goodreads. Westlake has evidently written a lot of books under various names. There are about a dozen in this series alone, which means there are plenty to keep you busy.

This book, and evidently the series, is about Dortmunder. Dortmunder is released from jail and looking for honest work, which comes his way when his friend Kelp offers to let him in on a heist (honest being a relative term to these guys). Dortmunder and his friends aren’t hapless. In fact, they are relatively skilled thieves, although some of the things they do are more than a little far-fetched. Somehow though, events continually conspire against them until they all view the jewel they are hired to steal as cursed.

I won’t go into the details because I don’t want to spoil it if you decide to pick this book up. The characters are a little thin, but colorful. I do like that the bad guys are the only ones you really end up liking. They spend a fair amount of time talking past each other with some pretty good dialogue in a laconic sort of way.

“His word and a dime will get you a cup of coffee,” Kelp said, “but it tastes better with just the dime.”

I will definitely be looking for more Westlake books, and in particular, more Dortmunder books. They don’t make any pretensions to being great literature, but they’re well worth a few hours on a weekend.

The Hot Rock was also adapted as a movie starring Robert Redford and George Segal in the early seventies. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard it’s pretty good. I’ll be doing that soon. I’ll let you know what I think of that as well.

Free on Kindle

My novel, Poor Richard, will be free on Kindle tomorrow and Sunday, March 14 and 15. You can find it at my Amazon website, https://amazon.com/author/charlesvella. If you have a Kindle please give it a try.

Book Review: Damascus Gate by Robert Stone

I’m not sure how to rate this book. I ran into it by accident when I read that Robert Stone had died. I’d never heard of Mr. Stone, but the obituary talked about his work and made me very interested. In particular, it said he’d written a thriller set in the Middle East, Damascus Gate, which I was very anxious to read. According to the reviews, which were very good, the last hundred pages in particular were so gripping you couldn’t put it down. Robert Stone’s work had been nominated for a number of prestigious awards. I really looked forward to picking it up.

That was the only thing that kept me going through the first couple of hundred pages. I found it so boring that I skipped through pages, which was problematic because I ended up not knowing what was going on. I eventually had to find a plot summary on line so I could figure out what had happened while I wasn’t paying attention. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop, except that it’s always been hard for me to stop a novel once I’ve begun. The only two exceptions I can recall are Ulysses, which I got about a hundred pages into without figuring out what was going on, and Atlas Shrugged, which in my opinion may be the worse novel ever written.

But back to the work at hand. There were about sixty pages at the end and a few scattered around the second half of the novel that were fantastic. Very well written, a lot going on, kept you turning pages. The problem was the rest of the book. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind set-up and I’m not looking for a steady stream of car chases followed by sex scenes. While reading I found myself comparing Damascus Gate to one of my favorite novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That novel also starts out with a lot of character development and could be fairly described as not having anything happen in the first hundred pages, but somehow I find that one interesting enough to have read it a number of times.

The character and plot development in Damascus Gate didn’t do that for me. Unlike Jim Prideaux in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Christopher Lucas in Damascus Gate irritated me more than anything else. For some reason I didn’t find him, or any of the other characters, at all interesting. This is a little strange because they all have interesting resumes. Ex-Soviet spies, religious fanatics, nightclub singers, aid workers. If you read a list of the characters you’d think they’d be fun to read about. For some reason though, they bored me to tears.

Robert Stone’s most famous work is Dog Soldiers. I’m probably going to try that one at some point, but not soon. I can’t honestly recommend Damascus Gate. The parts that are good are great, but they are too few and far between.

A Tale of Two Writers: Changes in the Publishing Industry

I have been an aspiring novelist for a long time. I’ve now self-published four books, but I probably wrote an equal number before I began any of those. I don’t really sell any books, but I find that it is a much more satisfying hobby than it used to be.

I think many aspiring authors used to look at writing as something like hitting the lottery. The way the process worked, you wrote a novel, then began sending out letters to agents or publishers trying to get someone interested in your book. For me this meant a series of form rejections returned in the self-addressed, stamped envelope that I’d provided with the first three hard copy chapters of my manuscript or whatever that particular agent required. The hope was that you’d become the next Stephen King or John Grisham. Someone would pull your manuscript out of the file, see its genius, and you’d be raking in huge advances.

This system was, is, because it still exists, one that depends on a large number of middle-men. Whether you believe that their judgment is sound probably depends for the most part on whether one of them likes your novel and offers to help you get it published. I’ve recently run into a couple of interesting examples of this process. I’ll draw my conclusions, but give you the facts as I know them so that you can draw yours.

The first relates to an author that I discovered in the newspaper. There was a front page spread in the style section showing this author of his first novel leaning on his desk in a spacious office, arms crossed, the large window behind him. The picture you’d see if you looked success up in the dictionary. I read the article and found that this author was a relatively senior official in the State Department. He’d written a novel based in Africa (as have I). A high-powered agent grabbed his book because Africa is the big thing now, and he was launched.

I was interested in this not only because I’ve written a novel set in Africa as well, but also because it sounded like something I’d like to read. I found it on Amazon. It wasn’t available yet, but you could read an excerpt and it had some advanced reviews. I read the excerpt. I read like a memo with a few expletives thrown in to make it earthy. I could stand a couple of pages before I closed it and turned to the reviews.

The reviews by major newspapers were included as part of the book’s blurb, and uniformly agreed that it was the greatest novel since, well since whatever your favorite great novel is. The Amazon advanced reviewers were mixed. A few also loved it. Most had a similar opinion to mine. As I recall the author’s novel, both Kindle and hard copy, was priced in the $14 to $15 range. Well outside what someone would pay on a speculative bet on an unknown writer. Hence all the publicity. No doubt in addition a high-powered agent this writer has friends at the newspaper in question who got him the front page spread.

The second author is one I found on a group read at Goodreads. If you’re not familiar with Goodreads it is a web site for avid readers. Some of the people reading this author’s first novel gushed about it, others found it incomprehensible. I read through an excerpt and quickly joined the incomprehensible camp. In fact, the part I read could best be described as gibberish. I looked into the author a little more, and was shocked to find that he’d received a half million dollar advance for his effort. Finding an agent for a first novel is difficult. Being paid a half million dollars for something like that seemed impossible.

I dug a little more and finally found the missing piece of the puzzle. This particular first time has a father, with a different last name, who is an extremely successful author. No doubt this connection had something to do with his advance.

So what’s the moral here and what does it mean for someone who wants to write novels? Any system loaded with middle-men who spend their time going to lunch with each other and claim to be experts on the market is fraught with these kinds of decisions. In both cases the agents and publishers involved seem to have found an author, rather than a novel, they believed that they could sell. Also, both of these people no doubt have contacts in the press and elsewhere to help them get the word out on their new accomplishment.

If you are one of those people who like to write but don’t have contacts or a resume that will impress one of these folks, what should you take away from this? The main lesson for me is that self-publishing is fundamentally changing how the industry works. It hasn’t necessarily made finding success as a writer any easier, but has put a lot more of the responsibility of that success it into the hands of the author.

The lure behind the agent/publisher path is that it sells itself as the portal to success. The reality is somewhat different. Unlike the two writers described here, most authors who get publishing contracts have to do their own publicity. The publisher saves its money for established authors or those who it thinks it can sell, such as celebrities. Authors also lose control of their pricing in this world. If you are a new writer who wants to find readers, you can sell your self-published work for $0.99 or give it away. Established publishers price even the digital editions of new authors much higher.

For me, self-publishing has turned writing into a combination hobby and small business. I spend about half of my time on actual writing and editing, and the other half on trying to find readers for my work. With four completed novels, up to now I have put most of my energy into improving the product. I think that my books are getting better. As they get better I enjoy writing them more.

While the quest for readers can be frustrating, it is fundamentally different than in the traditional publishing industry. I spend my time trying to find and interact with readers, getting their feedback, and using it to make my writing better. This is much more positive than throwing manuscripts over the transoms of people who are possibly not even reading them.

There’s a lot of dross in the self-publishing world, but there’s a fair amount in the traditional publishing industry as well. Agents and publishers say that the move to self-publishing will kill the industry. I can’t say whether or not it will, but I do believe they have themselves at least partially to blame. In my opinion, by focusing on contacts and who you know at the expense of trying to evaluate and develop new writers, they are acting as a catalyst for people using technology to eliminate their roles in the market.

The punch line for me is that writing is a word of mouth business now. I’m trying to find people to interest in my work, and would love to hear from you.