Year of Mysteries, Part 8: The Last Place

Woops. I just realized the title of this series changed from “Year of Mystery Novels” to “Year of Mysteries” at Part 5. Sorry. I try to keep this consistent for searching purposes.

The main point of this series was to examine the mystery novel genre. There are people that read a few a week. There’s something about the genre that keeps people coming back.

I feel like my book choices to this point have basically avoided the “typical mystery.” Pretty much every book in this series is considered a “classic” or has been award winning. In other words, there’s nothing typical about them. Hundreds of new mystery novels come out every month, satisfying readers of the genre without the fancy prose of award-winners.

I went to my local used book store and went to the mystery section. I wanted to pick something at random to get a better feel for what a generic, contemporary mystery novel felt like.

This was a bit hard. The first few I picked up were classified as “suspense thrillers.” I wasn’t opposed to this, but I also couldn’t tell if there was an actual mystery from the back cover. I finally grabbed The Last Place by Laura Lippman.

It was by a bestselling and award-winning author, but this particular novel hadn’t won awards. This made it the perfect candidate.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the seventh book in the Tess Monaghan series, even though nowhere on or in the book told me this.

I read it anyway.

The novel definitely references some stuff from previous books, but it is perfectly readable as a standalone. I assume this is one of those slow character growth things that happens over multiple books.

Tess is the main character, and she is a private investigator. She has anger management issues and basically messes up a child molester. So she gets assigned a community service project by the courts and has to investigate a police department. She checks up on five unrelated murders to make sure they followed procedure, etc.

As it goes on, she finds out that all five have major issues and are unresolved and are possibly related.

The first thing I noticed was the solid prose style. I often read literary stuff, which tends to be fancy. I also read fantasy, which tends to be wordy. This book had that pristine, clean style that I tend to call “bestseller” style.

I can’t go into all the details here, but it just means few adverbs, active voice, just enough description, pared down sentences, etc. It really makes the book come alive fast in your mind without any excess thinking or confusing sentences.

This brings up the next point. This was a page-turner through and through. I also can’t remember the last time I read something like that. I’d say it’s almost too polished. If you’ve studied plotting and structure, you can see how each scene is crafted to raise the stakes and complicate the plot just enough to push you along.

One thing I think this book did better than any of the other mysteries was to provide a lot of red herrings. At one point, the investigators discuss the possibility that the male killer could actually be a female. They go into depth on how this could be pulled off, despite being married, by referencing Boys Don’t Cry.

I found myself thinking: what? No way! Wait, but maybe. 

It was never meant to be taken all that seriously, but little things like this added up to keeping me unsettled. Whenever I thought maybe I was getting a handle on things, something would come up to remind me that I just didn’t have enough information yet.

I was thinking about characterization, since I recently wrote a post on it. One character has a quirky “thing” they do. This is often one of those cheap techniques that give readers a false sense of depth.

He’s really into movie quotes and says them all the time. Each time it happens, you think, oh yeah, that’s the guy that does the quote thing. This made the character more into a caricature than a fully fleshed out character.

Overall, this was a fast and enjoyable read. I definitely understand why people tear through these at the rate of a couple a week.

If you’re following along, I really only have one book left on my list: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I’ve been avoiding it, because I’ve heard it has a beastly beginning that’s almost impossible to suffer through. We’ll see…

 

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Less is Awesome

I’m abandoning the embarrassment of having a “…is awesome” set of posts. If I find awesome stuff, I want to share it.

Less is a novel by Andrew Sean Greer, and it won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I’ve been steering clear of prizewinners over the past few years, because the politics of who wins what prize is a bit nauseating.

Eventually, I saw enough good comments by enough people I trust to give it a try. Wow, I’m glad I did. It’s funny, has a unique and strong voice, clever and insightful descriptions, and somehow manages to be tragic and heartwarming at the same time.

It’s awesome!

I want to address the elephant in the room first. Most of the negative reviews (and they have a lot of upvotes) demonstrate a clear failing of the modern education system. Here are some actual verbatim quotes:

I also found Less such a privileged, oblivious character. He is tall, attractive, white, able-bodied, and can afford to travel. His privilege is not examined in any interesting or meaningful way.

It’s heavy and dull with this self absorbed white man mourning his youth…There’s nothing wrong with his life at all except for the fact that he’s way too self-absorbed and does next to nothing for anyone besides himself.

He is literally mid-life, 30 years down and roughly 30 to go. Somehow this is a burden to him, living his privileged, tall, handsome white guy life surrounded by men who really like kissing him. Oh, poor thing.

There seems to be a modern trend to think that one cannot have sympathy or empathy for a main character that is white, male, and “able-bodied.” I feel sorry for these readers, because this lack of empathy on their part shows way more about them than the novel itself.

The whole point of a novel is to learn to see through the main character’s eyes, and understand why they think their problems are real. Someone that has actually read the book should understand that Less has struggles and problems.

Why is Less so preoccupied with being fifty? This seems to be a mystery to a large number of reviewers. It seems trivial to them (I mean, he still has 30 great years left, don’t you know!). Let’s see if the text of the novel gives us a clue:

Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old…He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’ generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.

So, dear reader of this blog: can you come up with any reason, any reason at all, why Less might see turning fifty as a monumental point of his life? Take some time. It’s hard to understand why any privileged white man would see any aspect of his life as difficult or challenging.

I think Millennials and iGen have no conception of history. They think that whatever is happening right now is exactly how it’s always been.

As a gay man, I’ll admit that right now is pretty great. But to think Less has had no struggle in his life is to forget a tragic part of history. Less spent most of his youth thinking he’d never grow old, losing all his friends to a horrific epidemic, and then feeling guilty for surviving it.

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

(Note how different this is than “can afford to travel.” He’s not taking a leisure trip. These are work trips paid for by the events, not the main character).

If you read this book and think: why’s he even upset? At least he’s not being shot by cops. At least his boss didn’t sexually harass him. He’s a white man with no problems. 

Well, then you’re pretty hopeless, and maybe reading books isn’t the best idea until you work some of that out with a therapist. No one is saying his problems are worse than someone else’s. Just because it’s not a talking point of the day, doesn’t mean it’s not important to the character.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history. Hopefully we don’t lose these themes merely because a generation of critics view the only worthwhile topics to be what they saw on Vox that day.

Sorry to spend so long on this, but as someone who writes books, I find this growing movement very concerning.

So, what’s so awesome about Less?

A lot came up in that rant already, but one of the greatest parts is how brilliant the descriptions are.

His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees.

If such a sentence occurred in a vacuum of otherwise banal prose, I’d say cut it; it would be too much.

But this voice and style abound throughout the novel and stays quite consistent. The result is a flurry of original images and similes and metaphors that always bring the right emotional resonance to the scene.

Greer has a talent for “breaking the rules” in impeccable ways for a powerful reading experience. I think all writers should read this for examples on how to do description and prose style well.

The Character/Caricature Balance

Image result for caricature

One of the most important things we can do as writers is to acknowledge our weaknesses and then work on them. I think too often we get comfortable with “our thing” and then try to hide our weaknesses by going all in on our strength.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the past five years or so really studying and working on prose style and story structure. I write a book according to something like the Story Grid method. Then I see what works and what doesn’t for me, and then move on to another technique like John Truby‘s method. Iterating this process a dozen times has brought me a rich understanding of structure.

I think there’s no doubt that characterization is my weakest point. I’ve had a philosophy for a long time that characters should be “real.” This means my characters often act in contradictory or paradoxical ways. They have subtle and complicated reasons for doing things that only come out in subtext.

You might be thinking: wow, that sounds great! But then you actually read it and every character sounds the same and has no interesting characteristics. I tend to write an “everyman,” and they all sound boring and similar.

This is especially problematic in fantasy writing. There is a general trend in fantasy to create caricatures instead of characters. This means one feature is exaggerated to the point of becoming a one-dimensional defining feature. These flat characters can be boring and predictable.

For example, a book might have one character’s defining trait as loyalty, the bad guy as greed, the sidekick as humor, etc. I don’t have to tell you why this is a bad thing, but I will make an argument for how it can be good if done properly.

When writing caricatures, it is very clear how the character changes over the course of a novel. The one subplot has the cowardly character, and they have to learn to be braver. Their arc will culminate in a test of bravery, and yay, they succeed! It’s exhilarating and emotional to read these things.

Another reason caricatures can be good is that they create very clear differences in stories with many characters. It’s easy to keep track: that one’s the trickster, that one’s the nerdy one, etc.

Unfortunately, I see a bunch of positive reviews of books that take this too far with claims like “I loved the variety of characters.” Or worse, that the characterization is great. Caricatures can create an illusion of depth by keeping the motivations clear and consistent.

As I’ve started exaggerating certain traits of my characters toward the caricature breaking point, I’ve seen reviews get more and more positive. So people obviously like this.

I’m still struggling with this balance. It’s bad to have no defining traits, because then the character will be boring and spastic. It’s bad to be all caricature, even if you trick some of your audience. So it’s a balance, and one that’s far trickier than I initially thought.

So far, the best method I’ve come across is to have a fleshed out backstory that is the cause of a character flaw. The flaw gives the character a clear sense of growth as they learn to overcome the flaw.

Then, if you use the backstory to inform character actions, the character will have a consistent demeanor without being focused on a single trait. This will allow the character to still have some unpredictable behavior, and since the backstory isn’t explicitly spelled out, it allows you to keep some of the motivation as subtext.

This balance brings out some of the positives of the caricature while maintaining the depth and richness of a true character.

Of course, the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that everyone seems to have a different method for everything. What one person thinks is the only method could not work at all for another person. That’s why I’ll keep reading and exploring to find my own way.

 

Year of Mysteries, Part 7: The Intuitionist

This was a somewhat enjoyable, quick read, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The Intuitionist takes place in a strange alternate world. It’s presumably alternate history, because much of the politics has to do with integration and Lila being the first female, black elevator inspector.

But it’s not quite our world, because there’s a huge bureaucracy of elevator inspectors, including a training institute (Institute for Vertical Transport), professional society, and even textbooks on philosophical schools of thought on proper inspection techniques.

The setup of the novel is that Lila Mae Watson is an “Intuitionist” inspector with an impeccable record. She inspects elevators by riding them and “intuiting” any problems. This is opposed to the school called the “Empiricists,” which inspect the old fashioned way: getting into the innards with their hands and eyes.

One of Watson’s elevators goes down, and she suspects it was sabotaged to make it look like the Intuitionists are untrustworthy. There’s also other political motivation going on with it being an election year.

So far, so good. This is quite a great premise setting up a way to discuss serious issues surrounding theory of mind, epistemology, etc.

What were my problems with it?

Well, there’s this idea in art that if you treat something as serious, no matter how unbelievable and silly it is, you can get it to come across as believable. But this takes really committing to the idea.

Whitehead commits.

This world is full of tons of details from what such a society would look like, yet I just never really bought the concept. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much, especially with the race aspect, which I haven’t even brought up yet.

I think the book would work better if she was set up because she was black or if she was set up because she was an Intuitionist. Trying to have it both ways created a lot of unnecessary awkwardness, and it softened the force of truly committing to one theme. By splitting the difference, neither came across as particularly compelling.

I’ll try to explain this a bit more.

The novel works on a speculative fiction level without bringing race into it at all. The Empiricists want to get rid of the Intuitionists. They are looked down upon both within the world of inspectors and in the world at large.

It makes sense that someone would set up the main character to have one of her elevators fall. Then the world can blame her for not “properly” examining the elevator, and the whole Intuitionist school of thought takes a hit for more “reliable” methods (though, statistically intuitionists do better, a clever twist Whitehead put into the world).

It would work brilliantly as both a mystery plot and as a work of speculative fiction in which Intuitionists play the role of a scapegoated, marginalized population.

In fact, when race gets brought up, it’s almost like an afterthought and thrown in because that’s Whitehead’s “thing” rather than working naturally in the novel. The book will be in the middle of something else, and then it kind of pops up randomly: oh, yeah, and you’re black! So it’s probably that, too!

So, as astute readers, we’ve noticed this is what Whitehead wants to do, and we’re a little annoyed that characters keep implying this conflation of race and Intuitionists. But then Whitehead commits the ultimate writing sin, and he decides he doesn’t trust readers to figure this out (though it’s sooo obvious).

A character says:

“So I don’t know what the official story is, but you get the gist from his speech. He’s making it into a political thing because you’re an Intuitionist. And colored, but he’s being clever about it.”

No. Just no.

I mean, is it still an allegory if the writer flat out tells us what the pieces mean?

If, as a writer, you’re ever tempted to talk directly to a reader like this through a character because you’re afraid they haven’t caught on, then you’ve done something wrong. If you’re that worried, make it clearer through subtext some other way. Or, as I’ve proposed, maybe just clarify what the themes and metaphors are instead of trying to conflate a bunch of stuff.

After such on-the-nose dialogue, I kept expecting our main character to blurt out at some point: I chose the elevator profession because it raises and lowers people to different social strata with the rich bankers having parties on the roof and the lowly doorman at the bottom. The elevator is the great equalizer. Anyone can move to any position in an instant as long as good inspectors keep them working.

Yikes. I wish I could say such a moment never came, but it did. It was a much pithier and eloquent formulation:

…horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.

As I said, it definitely kept my attention with a unique premise and fully fleshed out speculative world, but it could have used a lot more focus and subtlety. Not to be mean, but it reads like a first novel, and that’s what it is. The flashes of the more confident Whitehead we see in his later The Underground Railroad are in here, and they are brilliant when they happen.

I’ve seen this book compared to The Crying of Lot 49 and Invisible Man. Both are apt comparisons, but I’d rather read the former for political conspiracy theory paranoia and the latter for its excellent racial commentary than something that tries to do both at the same time, just worse.

The Three-Body Problem is Awesome

If you’ve been around this blog this year, then you know I fell into a bit of a slump. I was reading things, but nothing seemed to connect. In fact, it all seemed derivative, flat, and downright bad.

I’ve gotten out of that somehow, and I seem to have hit a period where most things I read (or movies I see) draw me in immediately and seem imaginative and fresh. I’m not planning on making a bunch of “…is Awesome” posts, but that’s where I’m at right now.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

The books are also filled with lots of neat ideas (even if not scientific). I can describe one that happens in the first book that won’t ruin any plot points.

The first idea is to notice what happens if you “unfold” a two-dimensional object into one dimension. Here’s an example of a solid square being pulled into a string:


Now, convince yourself this is the case whenever you take a higher dimensional object and “unfold” it into lower dimensions. You’ll always get an arbitrarily large new thing.

Next, he takes the concept of string theory seriously and says: what if a proton is actually a six-dimensional string curled up into compactified dimensions? Well, with super good technology and a full understanding of the physics, maybe the proton could be unfolded into an arbitrarily large three dimensional object.

In that case, we could store infinite amounts of information in it. We could even make it the best supercomputer AI ever made. Then we could fold it back up, and it would be roughly the size of a proton again. Just imagine what that could do!

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

To me, this book was essentially the opposite of Seveneves. Seveneves was a bunch of cool ideas that got tedious to read, because none of them served the plot. They were just Neal Stephenson spewing every idea he ever had into a plotless mess.

In contrast, every single cool idea in The Three-Body Problem series advances the plot in a meaningful way, and wow, there’s a ton of them.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi (and my warning about character/dragging plot doesn’t turn completely alienate you).

New Site and Future Plans

We’re closing in on September, and since my brain still thinks of Sept-Sept as “the proper year” from all that time in academia, I got to thinking about my plans for this upcoming year.

I decided it no longer made sense to have my internet presence so spread out. I originally created “matthewwardbooks.com” as the professional site containing the information about my writing and career. That way I could spew an unprofessional mess of random thoughts at this blog without worrying about how that would look.

I’ve now migrated that site over to this blog (it redirects). I’ll probably keep experimenting with the look, themes, sidebar, menus, and those things for a few weeks. I’ve gone to a cleaner theme and removed the header image, since that seemed to do nothing but clutter things.

Nothing should change for regular blog readers, but I’m considering changing the name of the site in general. It’s a bit hard to do this without it changing the name of the blog in RSS aggregates and social media, etc, which could be confusing to longtime readers, but I’ll keep thinking about it.

So, why did I do this?

The main reason is that I’m basically killing off my name as a writer. I currently write under three names: my real name, a romance genre pseudonym, and a LitRPG/GameLit pseudonym.

The two pseudonyms were chosen to keep genres separate for advertising and “clean also boughts” (if you don’t know that phrase, don’t worry about it; it would take too long to explain here).

But they were also carefully chosen to be searchable and identifiable. One thing people don’t really think about when they start writing is if their name is “usable.” Well, it turns out my name is not usable at all. It’s about as bad as possible.

Matthew Ward writes the Fantastic Family Whipple series. Another Matthew Ward is a translator of French literature. Another is a dead child whose mother channels him and writes his stories from beyond the grave in his name. Another is a self-published fantasy writer (who isn’t me!!). Another writes cookbooks and diet books. And so on.

Yeah. Not good from a branding standpoint or Google or even just trying to figure out which other books are mine if you like them. Using my real name was an epic mistake.

My real name books are somewhat “arty” and not all that marketable. The books under my pseudonyms are in line with genre conventions and are doing reasonably well. So, it only makes sense from a professional standpoint to stop writing books under this name. Hence, paying for a separate professional webpage for a writer who is going to cease to exist doesn’t make sense, either.

I’ll bring up one more point as a word of caution for people considering self-publishing under their real name.

People know me from this blog, and this has led to some pretty questionable behavior from someone who wants to sabotage me for some reason. I assume they asked for help with something in the comments section, and I didn’t do their homework for them. So they retaliated out of anger by leaving me 1 star reviews.

If that was you, I would greatly appreciate it if you would delete that now that you’ve had time to cool down. It’s easy to forget that this is my livelihood now. I’m a real person. You think that leaving a fake 1 star review is just going to “troll” or “anger” me, but it actually hurts my business. It’s a very serious thing to do.

Anyway, because I have ten years of content on this blog plus people who know me in real life with various opinions on my life choices, things like this are bound to happen again in the future.

So I have to take that into account from a business standpoint. It’s just not worth the risk of spending 1.5 years working on a single work of art to have it get trashed by someone who hasn’t even read it merely because they don’t like that I left math (or whatever their reason was).

Undoubtedly, I’m going to have the itch to produce something strange and important that defies genre conventions within the next year or two. So I’ll have to figure out what to do about that, because I’ll definitely write it. That might mean using a new name that I advertise here, or I might keep it secret. Or maybe after a few years, I decide it’s not that bad to use my real name again.

I’m going to keep blogging here as usual. Nothing about that will change.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on the new setup. Likes? Dislikes?

Year of Mysteries, Part 6: A Crime in the Neighborhood

This month I read A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne for the Year of Mysteries. I’m not going to wait to the end for spoilers, so be warned!

This book reminded me a lot of Mystic River, the second book we did for the series, in that it presented a crime and then immediately shifted away to how that crime affected a neighborhood, relationships, and characters.

I’d even hesitate to call this a true mystery, because almost none of the plot involves solving the crime. The crime ends up not being solved at all!

Overall, I liked this book but didn’t love it like Mystic River. I think this came from how unsatisfying it was. We have literally only one suspect. The main character gives us tons and tons of evidence to show that he did it. All I kept thinking through the whole book is how obvious a red herring this was.

I felt like Berne wrote herself into a corner. If it turned out to be the only suspect, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious it was. If it turned out not to be him, it would be unsatisfying because of how obvious of a red herring it all was.

And I get it: the book is not about the murder! So let’s get to what it’s really about.

The novel does a great job in showing how one moment that doesn’t even fully involve someone can permanently shape the rest of their life. The narrator is an adult retelling these events from her ten-year-old self, and we get a believable set of emotionally complex reactions from her surrounding the events of that summer.

One particularly good aspect of the book was the prose, considering the voice was a ten-year-old. Many writers use children as an excuse to be lazy, but Berne nails the naivete and immaturity of tone while still having clear and sophisticated prose style. This is no easy feat, and really added to the atmosphere of the novel.

The book did suffer from a “soggy middle.” I’d say this is a quintessential example of why people use a “Mid-Act 2 twist” to keep the forward momentum. Nothing of the sort happened here. I couldn’t tell you anything that happened in the middle of this book even though I just read it. The main character goes about her days with pretty much no progression or complication.

I also think the book suffered from trying to be about too much. It had a tight focus on the main character’s family, a looser focus on the neighborhood, but then it tried to throw in a bunch of stuff from the 70’s, like Watergate, as a backdrop.

I get that there’s a parallel of themes she’s trying to draw on: the country lost its naive innocence about government in the same way Marsha lost her naive innocence from the crime. But it’s too loose and not exactly parallel (or contrary) to succeed. For example, Marsha had a bunch of evidence and turned out to be wrong, whereas the Watergate evidence was correct.

So I’m just not sure on this one. I flew through it in a few days once I got started, but it felt unfocused and unsatisfying in the end. Since I liked Berne’s writing so much, I’m interested in checking out her later works to see if it evolves into something I like as a whole more.

As usual, I give the next book in the series in case you want to follow along. It will be: The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. I’m pretty excited to get some speculative fiction aspects into one of these.