There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. This gray area is a main reason I loved the story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and at times feels plain messy. Messy in a very tidy way. Just when I thought I was getting lost and confused, Egan would slip in a quick reference to time or character that would ground me again.
In a Nutshell
A Visit From the Goon Squad is not an easy plot to summarize. The main character changes from chapter to chapter. Often, a minor character in one story will become more prominent in the next. The settings range from New York City to Africa, from childhood homes to safari adventures.
Each chapter is a fresh start, a new story, but the thread that connects them makes them much more than if they were standing alone.
Music and Time
The array of characters are mostly related to the music industry in some way. We connect with musicians and agents; missed talent and forgotten stars. The variety provides different views of the world and each one draws interest in their own way.
Time kills. I think Egan would agree. Every character is defeated, or at least beaten down, by time. We see hopeful talent that falls flat, golden memories tarnished by reunions, and optimism sours into demise.
I read A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan several months ago and never posted a full book review until now. As it is an exceptional book that made my list of Favorite Books of 2015, I thought late was better than never.
I cannot pass by one without pausing to admire it. If it’s within reach, I cannot resist touching it. I trace the retro curves and mechanical angles before finally letting my fingers settle reverently on the keys. Glass and lacquer, enamel and chrome, Bakelite and celluloid – the keys are the most irresistible part of […]
Bird Box by Josh Malerman is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. The intense mystery is set in the very first chapter and does not cease until the very last page.
The only comparable suspense novel I can think of is The Shining, and that is high praise.
A Strange, Strange World
In the first chapter we meet Malorie and two four-year-old children who are trying to escape a life of terror to a place they can only get to by rowing blindfolded down a river for several miles. Why is her life filled with terror? Why does she have to be blindfolded? Why are all the windows on their house boarded up and covered? Why has Malorie not seen sunlight for over 5 years? Why does she never refer to the children by name? Where are all the people?
All these questions and more hook the readers’ curiosity and the intense danger Malorie feels is transferred to the reader. With every chapter, more answers are revealed but more questions also arise. Malerman reveals just enough to keep the reader understanding this strange world more all the time, but keeps the door closed on the biggest secrets until the very end.
Great Suspense Stems From Great Writing
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that the characters in this world refuse to open their eyes outside. This had two major effects on the writing: 1) sight was often lost, and the author deepened upon the other senses for description, 2) not knowing what could be right next to you, something dangerous, something deadly, adds a lot of suspense all by itself.
At one point, Malerman integrates counting into a suspenseful scene. Set outside in a world full of unseen dangers, the characters are putting themselves at risk every second they are outside. The counting draws attention to those danger-filled seconds ticking by.
Without a doubt, Bird Box is the best book I’ve read so far this year. If you love suspense, horror, apocalyptic stories, or simply good writing, you should read this book!
A random stroll through the library or bookstore can turn my whole day around. I love the randomness of the books that catch my eye, and trying to figure out why that title or that book cover drew me in.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing recently caught my eye at the library because 1) we’re a list-loving society and 2) I’m a writer always trying to improve my craft.
The book is small, filled with few words and many illustrations, and can be read completely in 10 minutes. The advice is solid and witty. You may want to take another 10 minutes to read it again.
#3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
#4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
These are ones I’ve heard many times but a reminder is always nice.
#9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things — I can’t agree more. There are certain authors I love but at the same time, I despise their lengthy paragraphs of description. Get to the point or I’m going to skip a few pages and then be frustrated when I realize later on that I missed an actual plot point!
Which leads us to the tenth rule of writing that can not be argued with…
#10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Obvious, right? But what are those parts and how do we, as writers, know when we’re boring our readers? Check out the book during your next local library stroll to get Leonard’s take on this.
Interesting Fact: This book was originally published in the New York Times in July 2001 as “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”.
I have not blogged in a long time. My main excuse? Work has been insanely busy. I’ve been working 50-75 hour weeks for the last few months and by the time I get home at night I want to do nothing but crash on the couch, and lazily watch TV until I fall asleep.
Here is a general glance at my post-work priorities:
- Family time
- Work outs
- Paying bills
- Friend time
- Walking my dog
- Enjoying spring weather
- a bunch of other stuff…
You see blogging is at the bottom of the list. I’m proud to say that I have a lot of hobbies in life and when life gets crazy, blogging will get pushed to the bottom.
Long story short, work is slightly less crazy now and I’m expecting a slow summer which means my regular blogging will resume shortly!🙂
After reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, I wanted my next read to be lighthearted and plot based. So, I picked up an old Dean Koontz novel, By the Light of the Moon. The two books could not be more different. Of course genre plays a big part, but the difference in writing styles is striking.
Koontz’s writing style is heavy in description and his plot moves forward minute by minute. Wolff puts the bare bones on paper, jumping right to the action and cutting all unnecessary description, plot, characterization, ect. I don’t think This Boy’s Life contains a single wordy sentence. Koontz, on the other hand, loves lengthy metaphors and diving deep into characters’ thoughts, even during heated action scenes.
Koontz and Wolff are two of my favorite writers but their styles could not be more different. Reading their books back-to-back really opened my eyes to those differences. Let me show you some specific examples.
Here are a few sentences that begin chapters in Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Koontz’s By the Light of the Moon.
- The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
- My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
- When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.
- Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never before imagined, Dylan O’Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
- These were extraordinary times, peopled by ranting maniacs in love with violence and with a violent god, infested with apologists for wickedness, who blamed victims for their suffering and excused murderers in the name of justice.
What difference do you notice? Length? Who is more action-oriented? Who is more introspective?
By the Light of the Moon: 140 pages into the novel less than three hours have passed in the plot with very little background/flashbacks. A high-speed car chase (not really a chase but a mission) that lasts approximately 10 minutes in real time, stretches 15 pages in the book. At times, I forget the chase was even happening because the side tangents and in-depth character thoughts were so dense.
This Boy’s Life: the plot skips large chunks of time, covering approximately eight years in total. In the following sentence Wolff captures the entire time frame of 7th grade (aka puberty): “I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.” Of course Wolff does go into normal-speed scenes in his memoir, but they are strongly action-based with little filler.
Which writing style do you enjoy more?
Does one style draw you in more than the other? Why do you think that is? I personally enjoy both. Certain months I relish the bare bones of Wolff, Carver, and the like. Other months I crave the second-by-second, in-the-mind-of-the-character stories of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others.
Comment with two writers who are very different, yet you love them both.
Harry Potter sets exceptionally high standards for all magician stories from here on out. It’s unfair to compare anything to Harry Potter but along with that, all the hype I’d been hearing about this novel set high expectations, and the novel sourly let me down.
The Magicians is about an 18-year-old boy from Brooklyn, Quentin Coldwater, who gets accepted into a secret, elite magic school called Brakebills. Quentin learns magic is very difficult and tedious. The learning process is intense and demanding.
**Slight Spoilers ahead** The novel spans Quentin’s entire 4 years at Brakebills as well as the year after. Large periods of time are summarized or skipped over.
Very little happened while Quentin was at school. He made friends, he learned magic (which was shockingly boring to hear about), and he lacked a plan for after graduation.
It wasn’t until Quentin and his friends graduated (3/4 of the way into the novel) that the plot takes an interesting twist. But by that time it was too late. I was already bored.
I certainly don’t need loads of action to enjoy a story but the main characters in The Magicians had no long-term goals or ambitions to keep me interested.
As a reader, this timeline made me feel very out of touch with the characters.
I didn’t connect with the characters. The plot was uneventful and I had no idea where the characters were headed or what they wanted.
Here is my favorite blog post of the year, a list of my favorite books read in 2015. Although the publishing dates range from 2001 to 2014, they all found their way to the top of my reading list last year and I’m very glad they did!
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This novel is inspiring, imaginative, unique, and fulfilling. It’s a story I want so badly to be true that sometimes I ignore the label of fiction it possesses.
Journey. Expedition. Adventure. None of these words quite capture the magic felt while cruising the Pacific’s current with Pi Patel, a zoo-keeper’s son who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean with a murderous bengal tiger.
Without cramming Life of Pi‘s theme into a single word or phrase, it is about… Humanity. Peace. Storytelling. Faith. And how we interprets these things. What we choose to believe and how we push away the improbable as impossible.
I recommend it to anyone who wants to be inspired by imagination.
Dry by Augusten Burroughs
One of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I have ever read. Burroughs’ brilliant storytelling mixes pure truth with dirty humor in this memoir about his struggle with alcoholism.
I recommend it to lovers of creative nonfiction, people who want to understand what creative nonfiction is all about; and anyone interested in getting a first-person perspective of an alcoholic.
A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan
There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. That gray area is a main reason I loved this story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and leaves you slightly dazed and confused.
I recommend it to readers and writers who want to think about time and those who enjoy blurred boundaries.
Redeployment by Phil Klay
This collection of short stories surrounding political, emotional, and humanity issues of the Iraq War is must-read! Klay’s writing is concise, dense, and relevant to our time. While some stories may draw you to tears, others may outrage you into action.
I recommend it to every American.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Kite Runner is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read. Like Redeployment it is a story of our times, portraying an insiders view of Iraq in the years before America declared war. But don’t mistake this novel for a war story, it is a story of human nature through and through. The story is one I will not easily forget.
I recommend it to thoughtful readers who are curious about human nature and why we do the things we do.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Set in the Minnesota summer of 1961, Ordinary Grace is an enriching story about real life and untimely death. It is filled with memorable, flawed characters; written in a clear, comforting voice; and set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart.
I recommend it to readers looking for an honest, realistic, heart-felt story. Also to anyone looking for an exceptional audio book!
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City is a story about the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and the notorious mass murderer, Dr. H. H. Holmes. While so many historical nonfiction authors are not, Erik Larson is a story teller, making the story very entertaining. The story drops teasers like a suspense novel, builds character like literary fiction, and weaves multiple story lines better than most novels in any genre.
I recommend it to fiction lovers who crave a little history.
Elegies of the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen
Through detailed looks at side characters, we get a gradual picture of the main character’s life. Elegies is a story of unique structure that will make you take a close look at the people in your life and the impact left lingering long after they disappear.
I recommend it to readers and writers who crave something other than the lovable main character in the typical obstacle-based plot.
Below are a few book-to-movie adaptations I’ve recently read and/or watched.
Into The Wild – I have not read the book but the movie blew me away. The main character chose a way of life that many of us only dream about.
Life of Pi – LOVED the book! Disappointed by the movie.
Hunger Games Trilogy – I love both the books and the movies. I think the film adaptions have done a great job at capturing the world of Panem and the cast is exceptional! I recently reread the Hunger Games series in preparation for the release of the final movie adaptation. **SPOILER** The only part I didn’t like about the movie adaptation was the prologue at the very end. The characters seemed much too happy. The ending of the book holds much more wonder and darkness.
The Kite Runner – I fell in love with The Kite Runner novel this year. The characters spoke to me; their actions infuriated and inspired me. Its a novel that will stay with me for a long time. I have been avoiding the movie adaptation because I hold the novel so high, there is no way the movie will meet my expectations. (Or am I being too pessimistic?) If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, please comment with what you thought.
The Great Gatsby – As one of My Favorite Books of All Time I made sure to see the 2013 movie adaptation in theaters. I thought it was a great adaptation with an excellent cast and superb staging/scenery.
Pines – I watched the ABC TV series, Wayward Pines, this summer and LOVED it! It was one of my favorite TV shows of the year and I’m glad to hear they are coming out with a second season, even though they created the first assuming it would be the one and only. After watching the show, I read the Blake Crouch novel it was based on and was sourly disappointed. The novel was poorly written and contained large sections that I found irrelevant to the story. See my full review here.
Writing Prompt based on The Bath, a short story by Raymond Carver
Write a short story about a very emotional scene without describing the emotions or thoughts of the characters.
Be a minimalist writer. What does that mean?
- Keep descriptions to a bare minimum.
- Think action over description.
- Keep time moving.
- Short, to-the-point dialogue.
- Use generic terms like “mom”, “dad”, “birthday boy”, and “baker”.
- Only include names if necessary.
- Cut all unnecessary characters, setting details, background info.
The most insight we get into the character in The Bath is this: “She saw a car stop and a woman in a long coat get into it. She made believe she was that woman. She made believe she was driving away from here to someplace else.” Even though this communicates her thoughts, it still is describing an action–make believing–not a thought.