Monday, May 07, 2007

If You Can't Say Something Nice

Finally got around to cracking open this month's book club selection. There's a little sticky note attached, calling for comments. I'm not the first club member to have the book. There's not one comment on the comment sheet.

First stop is the acknowledgement page, to find a mention of an agent's name. Some agents like to be told that you've discovered them through one of their client's books. It means you've read something, done some research, made an effort. Should you be able to stretch the truth enough and make your query sound like your novel is a good fit for the agent, you've got a personalized query letter for yourself. So who is the agent here? Oh, the horror. The author published the book herself, set up her very own publishing company to put this book out.

Amazon ranking? Somewhere on the far side of 1.7 million, clearly not a best seller by any means. Who is the author? Same last name as another book clubber....what if it's R---'s sister-in-law? And I can't ask, because if the answer is yes, the next question will be 'How did you like it?'

The book's bad. Really, really bad. Nothing happens until page 14, when the narrator is given a key to open a mysterious case, with the implication that Grandmother's hidden past will be revealed. That's the stuff of page turning, the stuff that goes at the beginning. Page 14 is too far beyond that. Fourteen pages of backstory, including a sizable info dump that does nothing to advance the story, is enough to dissuade the most intrepid reader. The start of the story is buried in extraneous material, and that's not a good sign.

But this is for book group, and I carry on bravely. What's this on page 18? Does it really say, in black and white, "As you know"? As you know, the narrator's parents were married fifteen years before she was born and she's an only child and what does that have to do with anything? It's drivel. It wastes space and my time. A good editor would have pointed this out, but the author printed up these things on her own and a good editor never had a chance to slice and prune.

By page twenty, it's obvious that this is an epistolary novel. One letter after another, all very chatty. The day was warm; the day was cool. I went for a walk up Road A and crossed at the intersection with Road B (as the author demonstrates her knowledge of the town in which the novel is set. I'm handy with Mapquest, and I don't need such extravagant directions even if I didn't live in the town. It's excess verbiage.)

On to page 26, where the author displays more historical research. We went to the theatre, saw a talking picture named this which starred them. It was a good movie. Did it move the narrator, make her think about her own situation? The next paragraph is just as boring, a litany of activities performed by the narrator that serve no purpose other than to show that the author did her research and she's going to share it with the reader. Does it matter that the women got together to talk about books and had chicken salad for lunch? What does that have to do with conflict, character, and all the rest.

And where is the conflict, anyway? After page 41, we can presume that the conflict is between the narrator and financial pressures that forced her to give up the man she loved to marry a man with money. Rather late in the day to set up that premise, as most readers have long since fled. The relative lack of conflict is not the worst part of the book. The major drawback is that it is a story that is told, and never once shown. The result? A shopping list of events that fall flat.

The author states in her acknowledgements that she wanted to do the book her way, so she went the vanity route. That's fine, but don't expect readers to follow along behind. Sometimes there's reasons for the rules, and reasons for editorial suggestions. It's shocking to discover that the author has taught writing classes at a local community center. She's had essays published in the town's weekly newspaper, but that's not at all the same as penning an engaging work of fiction and creating dynamic characters. The grammar in the novel is impecable, proper syntax, no head-hopping, but there's no life on the pages.

The comments sheet is blank, and it will remain unmarked. Everyone is too courteous to say something because there's really nothing particularly positive to say. Except for the front cover, of course. The photo of a bench and the lake at dawn is spectacular.

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