Welcome to the third installment of Flash Reviews. If you still don’t know what I am doing, read about it here. If you would like to request a review of something you wrote, or something you think is really awesome, send me a message on twitter.
The Name of the World, Denis Johnson
“Since my early teens I’ve associated everything to do with college, the “academic life,” with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor.”
Wow. 71 words in that sentence, at least according to Word. I didn’t bother to count them. Some things I just believe. And I believe that Denis Johnson was an amazing writer that was taken from us far too soon. As much as I love his language and style, I truly hope that his estate doesn’t release some lost and forgotten and incomplete manuscript. Those are always lost and forgotten and incomplete for a reason. I have a few. May they never see the light of day.
Stillhouse Lake, Rachel Caine
“Gina never asked about the garage.”
Not very exciting, but intriguing enough for me to read the second and third lines. Somehow this garage destroyed Gina. Now that has my attention. I’ve never known garages to attack.
The Bull, Cycle 2 of the Blood Zodiac, Erica Crockett
“She can’t get the blood out of her blond wig.”
Now that’s a first line that gets attention. Yes, I kept reading, and yes, you should too. Check out Erica’s first novel, Chemicals, while you are at it. You won’t be disappointed. This girl can write.
If you are unsure about what the hell I am doing, check out the first installment.
The Witch’s Lair, Lincoln Farish
“By noon, there had been three attempts to murder me.”
How could you possibly stop reading after that intro? Talk about a bad day. That’s the kind of day that should make you just go hide somewhere and hope that tomorrow will be better. This dude is not an accountant or a mechanic. Unless of course he is very very bad at either. I also highly doubt he is going to take my advice and hide.
Alpha Beta Poetry, Nicole Pierman
“Admire adamant affections, amity among allegiance, admit an admirer against all actions, and amour always, absolve.”
That’s a lot of fucking a’s. I was tempted to write an alliterative review but I gave up after “Pondering poetry, potent, portend, properly pure.” I was exhausted. Hats off to Nicole for her vision and discipline.
Rule of the Bone, Russell Banks
“You’ll probably think I’m making a lot of this up just to make me sound better than I really am or smarter or even luckier but I’m not.”
I picked this up at Riverrun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire a few years ago. I immediately sensed a flavor of Catcher in the Rye, so I kept reading. I am usually wary of first-person child narratives written in dialect, but this one kept my attention. I spent the remainder of that afternoon reading beside the actual river.
I love novels. I love first lines of novels. I also love bookstores. My dream is to be locked in a bookstore overnight. If I were, I would read the first line of every single book in the fiction section. Since I can’t reason through a series of events that would find me incarcerated at Barnes & Noble, I decided to exercise the fantasy (over time) on Amazon.
The rules: I will occasionally choose a novel from the Kindle bestsellers page or a random Indie novel from my Twitter feed. For each one I will record the first line and then provide my first impressions. I reserve the right to choose the first line from either the prologue or the first chapter. I like a little chaos.
Here’s three to get me started:
Rejected Writers Take the Stage, Suzanne Kelman
“Karen, the Southlea Bay library manager, approached the door with her key and stopped short before announcing through a clenched smile, “Doris alert.”
I don’t know if Karen is just a bitch or if Doris is really irritating. I am curious though. I also can’t avoid staring at the chapter title with wild anticipation: “Frozen Yetis & Scotch Tape Shenanigans.” In the history of the written word, never before have those words appeared even roughly in that order. Well Played, Suzanne. Well played.
Unmasked, EM Kaplan
“The beast grabbed Mel with a gray-skinned hand and dragged her across the rutted dirt road.”
I just wish I had a better sense of the conflict here. Kidding. Seriously, there is a lot packed into these 16 words. I’m obviously worried about Mel. And I am equally intrigued by a world that has beasts with gray skin.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
“At dusk they pour from the sky.”
The chapter is titled ‘Leaflets,’ so really, the first sentence is a continuation. I don’t know if ‘pour’ is the best word to describe leaflets falling from the sky, but he won a fucking Pulitzer for this. Who am I to judge?
Spoils tells the story of Cassandra, a US soldier assigned as a gunner in Iraq. I was hooked from the opening line: “She is the most dangerous thing around.” Author Brian Van Reet tells Cassandra’s story through multiple perspectives that become gradually, and tragically intertwined. The details of war are vivid and brutal, though measured; Van Reet avoids falling into sheer melodrama, but doesn’t shy away from graphic realities. This is a psychological take on war, the action resides more in the minds of the characters than on the battlefield. The narrative is unconventional, mixing first and third person perspectives; it feels like a recorded testimony at times: part apology, part confession. Van Reet does a superb job of pulling these dissimilar threads together to create a balanced story. This was great read with many memorable lines and images; I certainly appreciated when Cassandra compared the interior of a Humvee to an unsound submarine.
Driven by unique characters and layered with irony, Spoils is a complex and philosophical treatise on war.
So, this happened. I stayed up to write for a while after my wife went to bed. A little after midnight I decided it was time for me to turn in as well. I shutdown the computer and turned off the hall lights. When I walked into the bedroom, I thought I saw something moving near the ceiling. I waited a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, and confirmed a distinct swooping motion. Then I heard the flap of wings. I thought the motion reminded me of a bat, so I immediately began hoping I was terribly wrong. My wife was sound asleep on the bed. I called out and alerted her of the possible presence of a flying animal. I told her to stay completely under the covers and I turned on the light.
A bat was indeed circling the room near the ceiling.
Now what? I ducked down to avoid the swoops and tried to hold off panic. I wasn’t dressed properly to defend against a bat intrusion. I also had no weapon or means to defend myself. For a period of time my only plan was to shout, “What are we going to do?” over and over. It was not a good plan.
Round 1 clearly went to the bat.
I backed out of the room and put on a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, tennis shoes for traction, a ball cap, a Harley Davidson bandit scarf, and a pair of ski gloves. I returned to the bedroom with a small trash can and a straw broom. I still didn’t have much of a plan. I pulled the bedroom door closed behind me and I closed the door to the bathroom. The initial intent was to contain the bat to just one part of the house. I watched the bat circle the room and fended it away from me with the broom. I realized the struggle was futile and I began to fear that the night would end with a trip to the emergency room for rabies shots.
While the bat circled, I discussed the viable options with my wife who was suffocating under the bed comforter. We decided we could open a window and run away hoping the bat would just leave on his own. The problem with that plan was two-fold. How do I get across the room to open a window? And how will we know if he ever left? During the deliberations of pros and cons, I decided to provide the bat an option for a change of scenery and I opened the bathroom door. After a few swoops, the bat took the bait and flew into the bathroom. I closed the door behind him and we had some time to regroup. My wife also had the opportunity to dress appropriately for bat warfare.
Round 2 went to the bat.
My wife donned a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a hat, a scarf, and gloves. We opened one of the windows. In the interim, I also investigated where the cat was and how in the world a bat might have found its way into the house. I found the cat hiding in the basement. Coward. She was the only animal in the house that had an active rabies vaccine. She could have helped. I was somewhat pleased to find the chimney flue open downstairs. At least we had a plausible entry point and would not have to stress about additional bats joining the fray.
After all preparations were complete, my wife took position by the window with the window screen in hand. The logic was that the screen would work both as a personal shield and as an implement to deflect the bat toward the window. I took position by the door. I pulled the bedroom door closed behind me and opened the bathroom door.
No bat appeared.
After a few intense moments of waiting, I rattled the broomstick inside the bathroom. Eventually the bat revealed itself. It circled in the bathroom a few times before joining us in the bedroom battlefield. I closed the bathroom door.
The bat swooped in circles once again. I swung the broom. My wife waved the screen. The bat came very close to the window on several occasions, but clearly had no intention of retreat. Every three or four passes, the bat diverted to a corner of the room near the ceiling and attempted to land. He slid downward each time and pushed away in erratic flight patterns. This became known as the crazy bat maneuver. At times, the bat swooped to floor level and arced and looped around us. This was a horrifying advancement in bat warfare. In defeat, I opened the bathroom door and allowed the bat to exit the battlefield.
Round 3 three was a decisive victory for the bat.
While the bat was locked in the bathroom again, we refortified and hydrated. We also opened the other two windows to give the bat more options. It was clear that the bat wasn’t happy in our house. We also thought it was clear that we didn’t want the bat in our house. It became obvious that logic and reason was not going to work with the bat.
Armed with our screens and trashcans and brooms, we opened the door to the bathroom and watched him circle the room again for nearly 20 minutes. It was exhausting. He pulled the crazy bat maneuver several times. I resorted to cursing at the bat and cursing our own bad luck. I opened the bathroom door again and the bat entered on queue. If I could train a bat to enter our bathroom, why couldn’t I train the damned thing to fly through an open window to freedom?
Round 4 went to the bat, and we were completely demoralized.
We were also exhausted. I had sweated through my shirt and my glasses were fogged from the heat venting out of the bandit scarf. We decided to push forward. Our spirits were low and we just wanted to be put out of our misery. I opened the door to the bathroom and nothing happened.
I rattled the broom in the bathroom and nothing happened. I shouted obscenities and nothing happened. I cautiously entered the bathroom and nothing happened. I scanned the walls and ceiling. My wife came over and looked as well. No bat. No movement whatsoever. I began to hope that the bat had conceded. After several minutes of deliberation with various gods, I entered the bathroom again and scanned every possible surface for signs of the wretched creature. My patience was gone. I considered closing the door and sealing off the bathroom indefinitely. The territory would be surrendered to the bat.
But then I spotted him. A small dollop of brown on the window frame above the bathtub. He was hanging the way you would expect a bat to hang. It was creepy to witness this in my bathroom. I decided this was the moment. The war would end here. Either we win or we lose. I told my wife to get back into position near the windows in the bedroom. I could reach the bat with the broom. I figured I could get one good whack. It was all or nothing.
I swung the broom downward toward the target and knocked him from the window. The bat disappeared for a split second into tub. I felt a pulse of elation seeing him drop, but it didn’t last long. The bat rebounded directly toward me. The crazy bat maneuver in the smaller room paralyzed me with fear. He darted and swooped and bounced and flittered. He was everywhere, all at once. I think I screamed.
The bat looped over my head and circled around me. And then he rebounded toward the door. I swung the broom on reflex, like a backhand shot with a hockey stick. I was suddenly in the zone. I felt resistance at the end of the broom as I followed through my swing. I saw the bat changed direction dramatically into a straight line out of the bathroom. Sidney Crosby would have been proud.
I heard my wife shout, “You got him!” And then he was gone. But where? Somewhere in the bedroom. The seconds passed like hours as we scanned the room for evidence of the fallen bat. And then my wife pointed to a plastic file box near the bed. The box was partially filled with manila folders, and at the very edge was a bat with its wings fully extended.
Was it dead? Was it paralyzed? Or was it just conserving energy to retaliate? Without hesitation, I grabbed the garbage can and pinned him down. We quickly decided a transport was feasible and warranted. I picked up the file box and fled down the stairs to the front door. I placed it several feet away from the house and pulled off the garbage can.
Nothing happened. The bat remained there, motionless. But just as we began to celebrate and mourn its demise, he moved. There was a moment of elation since we never intended to kill the poor creature, but still, we didn’t know what to do since he was still a threat. He was also holding my wife’s business files captive. We discussed going back inside and just leaving him there, but the night was damp and rain was in the forecast. The files would be destroyed. I remembered that we once had an extended reach tool, a two-foot pole with a claw on the end and trigger on the other end. My wife ran inside to retrieve it. The bat moved a little while she was gone, but didn’t appear ready to fly or fight.
I hoped my neighbors weren’t awake and watching. I was wearing a bandit scarf at 3 A.M. looking at a box in my front yard. They would surely think me a thief and call the police. My wife returned. With a rake. She explained the claw-tool was last seen in the shed. I will never understand why the plastic reach tool was in the shed and a rake was in the kitchen. It didn’t matter though, the rake failed. My wife went back inside and this time returned with a yard stick. I extended the stick and tried to slide it under the small brown mass. And then, he took to the air. He executed one last crazy bat maneuver and disappeared into the darkness.
To review, this is what we learned: Own a butterfly net. Keep the flue closed at all times. And never rely on a cat to help you out in a pinch.
As it turns out, that trip to emergency room was inevitable. The next morning my wife discovered that the CDC recommends rabies post-exposure prophylaxis for anyone sleeping in a room where a bat is discovered. You should assume you have been bitten because the bite would be painless and would leave no identifiable mark. At least they don’t give the shots in the stomach anymore.
I started reading On Writing a chapter or so at a time for the past couple weeks. I needed some inspiration. Perhaps some consolation. I intended to post a review. I enjoyed King’s insight, his early failures, his inspirations, his eventual success. I smiled when he equated writing to telepathy, the ability of writers to put thoughts in the heads of readers over a vast span of time and space. King described a rabbit with the number eight on its back; he wrote, “It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask… We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy.” The concept was fun to think about.
But then I reached the middle of the book where he began to speak about the craft of writing. What it means to be a writer, the investment it requires. King wrote, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Of course, I agreed with this. I even agreed with him when he wrote, “When you find something at which you are talented, you do (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed and your eyes are ready to fall out of your head.”
I almost tweeted, “Fuck you, Stephen King.”
Why was I so angry? I was angry because he expected me to read and write for four to six hours a day. Write 2000 words a day, read a novel each week. I was quite proud of my 55K words this year until he talked about the 180K he pumps out in just three months. The implication was that if I did anything less I was either not committed to the craft, or I lacked talent.
If only I scored an early success in the literary lottery, Mr. King. If only I had even a fraction of your bank account, Mr. King. If only I didn’t have to work 12 hours a day just to pay the bills.
I wanted to explain to Mr. King that I wrote most of my first novel while working as a security guard on the night shift. I drank coffee by the pot and I wrote; I acted out scenes in the parking lot with a dozen or so bats swooping over my head. I went straight from there to my job at the registrar’s office helping veterans submit GI Bill claims. Sometimes I went to class. I got home around five and puked out freelance ad copy; I wrote product reviews at $20 a blurb until I fell asleep at the computer. Sometimes I made it into bed before the alarm sounded and another night of guard duty began.
Years later, not much has really changed. Yes, I did add my very own novel to my bookshelf; a few people that aren’t family have even read it. But nowadays I work a day job with an hour-long commute. I eat dinner, catch up on email, and do my own book marketing. I struggle to get an hour at the computer to write; my goal is a measly 500 words a day. I fall asleep with my Kindle on my lap; my battery life is horrendous and the damn thing thinks it takes me four hours to read a single page.
I wanted to ask Mr. King that if all of that isn’t commitment, what is? I wanted to scream, “You suck, Stephen King!”
And then… Stephen King contacted me… Telepathically.
He said, “Toughen up, cupcake.”
The words vibrated through my skull. I looked around the room and no one was there but me. My phone and the computer were both off. I was reading a paper copy of his book since my Kindle was still charging.
I thought, “Why are you so mean and condescending, Mr. King? Why crush my dreams?”
He said, “I’m a bully. I like bullying writers.”
I thought, “You make me so angry. What do you do when you are not destroying inferior writers?”
“I kill kittens and harvest their blood for my fountain pen.”
“You are evil, Stephen King.”
“What did you expect? I’m Stephen-fucking-King. Are we done here?”
And that was all. The voice was gone. I sat in the dark of my office and wondered if I had imagined it all. It didn’t matter though. Mr. King had won. Those few chapters of his book angered me so much that I pounded out this blog out at 1:19 A.M. after I slogged through about 1500 words of my second novel. Yes, he inspired me to triple my productivity. I will probably have to give up sleep and jeopardize my job. But, I am a writer. Writer’s write. I’ll keep churning out words in hopes I finally arrange them in some divine order. Thank you, Mr. King. I guess.
“You’re welcome. Now stop whining and keep writing.”
Anyone who knows me, probably knows I’m a fan of anything Ms. Crockett pens. Her complex characters are a joy to follow and her apocalyptic sense of adventure is enthralling. Her third outing was equally satisfying.
Cycle 2 of The Blood Zodiac series begins with a chilling and intriguing line: “She can’t get the blood out of her blond wig.” If you want to know how the blood got there, you need to immediately start reading The Ram. If you know how the blood got there, you should be pleased to learn that The Bull begins where The Ram ended.
There is no rest for Peach. Her mission continues; she is driven even further (literally and figuratively) from her seemingly humble life. And there is perhaps too much rest for Riley; being idle seems to attract more problems for him. Gravity continues to pull the orbits of Peach and Riley closer together. Their lives must certainly intersect. But when? And, even better, why?
Some of my favorite lines:
Bottom line: If you like thrillers, or anti-heroes, or psychological suspense, you should be reading The Blood Zodiac. After just two books, the series is already an intricate web of characters and stories. It is hard to imagine that this adventure is just beginning. I hear from a good source that book three is on its way, so you better get started.