****The Last Meridian

Los Angeles, palm trees, night

photo: Alissa Walker, creative commons license

By Joe Hefferon – The author spent a quarter-century “in law enforcement” in gritty Newark, New Jersey. In this, his first full-length novel, he’s created an engaging female protagonist in a jam who turns to a private detective for help, and he set the story in and around Los Angeles. On the surface, his characters are savvy and confident—on top of the world—but underneath, well, it’s more complicated. The book’s brief prologue has a particularly engaging first line: “The coroner’s wagon had a flat tire.” Nothing good can follow.

Sixteen years before the novel begins, now-successful Hollywood interior designer Nina Ferrer lived in Chicago and gave up an illegitimate son because she was too young, too unready, and too unwilling to raise a child alone. She abandoned her child and the Midwest for a better, more glamorous life. It turned out she has a talent for perfectly divining the aspirations of her well-paying clients, making their homes an expression of their best selves. Her own home, however, is empty of love, as she and her wealthy businessman (and Cuban cigar-smuggling) husband have long since lost interest in each other.

Still, her life is reasonably well-ordered until she receives a telegram saying that her son back in Illinois has been accused of murder. His adoptive mother swears he is innocent, but she can’t afford a proper defense, and unless some kind of deus ex machina appears—most likely in the form of Nina herself—the boy is doomed to a lengthy prison term.

Nina’s husband is unaware of the boy and at this late date, she doesn’t want to tell him. So she travels all the way to dismal Bakersfield to find a private investigator and gets much more than she bargained for.

The short chapters toggle back and forth mostly between events early in 1965 and toward the end of that year. The later scenes are a series of journalist interviews with Nina that take place after she’s been incarcerated. You don’t know why she’s in custody or what is likely to happen to her until near the end of the story. Although Hefferon precedes each scene with the appropriate time stamp, this switching back and forth became a bit dizzying as the plot gains in complexity and the crimes that led to the boy’s arrest are investigated.

Hefferon’s engaging presentation of Los Angeles and its denizens, its petty criminals, and the detective Nina hires all seem plausible. Yet the novel has an occasional unevenness of tone that is jarring and which Hefferon will probably overcome with more writing experience. At times it seems he’s trying too hard to achieve a literary effect. Nevertheless, Hefferon is capable of pleasing on-point description. For example, “Whether it was (the reporter’s) inability to ask questions rapidly, or a natural gift for shutting up, he listened better than he talked, offering Nina a wide runway on which to land her story.”

You’ll enjoy spending time with these characters and may conclude this is an author who, when his literary skills catch up to his gifts of characterization and plot development, may become highly regarded in the crime fiction field. It’s gritty noir tinged with tinseltown glamour. And you may find these characters, especially the wise-cracking detective (whose wit is easily matched by that of Nina herself), modern incarnations of the types so well portrayed by Los Angeles literary icon Raymond Chandler and his progeny.

****The Lowland

India

photo: Rajarshi Chowdhury, creative commons license

Perilously stretched, but yet unbreakable ties of blood, obligation, and love link three generations of a Calcutta family in Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. It’s a pleasure to read a book so well put together, in which Lahiri saves something of a surprise for the end.

The story centers on two brothers in a family living alongside the lowland, a marshy area of ponds and fields, “thick with water hyacinth” next to their home in the city’s outlying area of Tollygunge. In the monsoon season, the water rises and floods the lowland and the two ponds merge. Not until the next summer does the water completely evaporate.

Subhash is the older and from childhood the more responsible brother, and Udayan the risk-taker. They are as inseparable as the nearby ponds throughout their school years. It’s the 1960s, and they still are living at home until after graduate school, when Subhash takes the dramatic step of immigrating to the United States for postgraduate study.

At first, Udayan pleads with him not to go. He’d gone to the countryside to do some work and returned very ill. When he recovers, “some part of Udayan was elsewhere. Whatever he had learned or seen outside the city, whatever he’d done, he kept to himself.” What he’s done is become involved in the Naxalite movement—the Maoist Communist party of India. It inspires him. It also is deadly dangerous. Subhash is not interested in this new passion of Udayan’s and resettles in Rhode Island.

Through his political work, Udayan meets and marries Gauri. They live with his parents, who expect her to be a traditional Indian wife, but she is university-educated and the situation is uncomfortable. Then the police come. Udayan tries to hide under the water in the lowland, but in front of his parents and wife, they murder him.

When Subhash returns to the aftermath, he sees Gauri’s position in the family is untenable, marries her, and takes her back to the States. The rest of the book is about his and Gauri’s relationship and how each of them relates so very differently to their daughter Bela, formed her from presence and absence alike, including the absence of Udayan.

A novel covering such a long swath of time necessarily skims a great deal, but in a sense, time has not moved on at all, and both Gauri and Subhash (who wasn’t even there) are stuck in the moment of Udayan’s death. It’s only by breaking free that their world will open up again. Hoping that they can keeps you reading.

Change and Emotion Spark Your Novel, and Voice Carries It

Greg Beaubien

Guest poster Greg Beaubien; photo, courtesy of the author

Story and voice are essential in novels. Start by thinking of the most compelling story you know or can imagine, and then tell it in your own voice, as if you don’t expect anyone else to ever read it. A common mistake beginning writers make is trying to impose style on their work. Attempting to impress readers has the opposite effect; they can smell a contrived or self-admiring tone.

To win readers over and give your novel that all-important element of voice, tell your story in a simple, straightforward way, with your own personality or attitude. Your voice becomes your style. Most professional writers do their share of hackwork to pay the bills, but when you write a novel, never censor your fiction or try to please others.

What makes a good story? Something changes in the lives of the characters, setting the narrative in motion. In The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the sudden, ominous appearance of a heroin dealer who wants financial backing and political protection from the Corleone family—and then tries to assassinate its patriarch when that support is denied—is the story’s catalyst. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy begins with the funeral of the protagonist’s grandfather, an event that leads to the impending sale of the family ranch in Texas and the young man’s decision to embark on an adventure to Mexico with his best friend. Early in my novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities, an American tourist kills a drug dealer in Morocco—an action that may or may not have been taken in self-defense, and from which the rest of the story flows into the past, present and future.

The change that sparks a story might be as big and dramatic as the outbreak of war or a natural disaster, or just someone new who enters the main character’s life. Stories that capture our attention involve a problem or barrier that the protagonist must face, a dilemma or an elusive goal. Something is at stake. In one way or another, there should be constant conflict—whether it’s a physical fight, an argument, or just a haunting memory. That pressure keeps the story moving and holds the reader’s interest.

Important as the story catalyst is, equally significant is how the characters react to the situations they’re in, according to their own personalities, desires, and fears. Tell your story, but show your characters. Always have empathy for them, even the villains. As the author, you should be able to sum up your novel’s story—how drug trafficking changed the Mafia in the 1940s, for example—but you also need to know what it’s about emotionally. In the case of The Godfather, the answer might be, “In taking over his father’s organized-crime empire, a son betrays his family and himself.”

Using the raw materials of your story, characters, emotional theme and naturally occurring authorial voice, write scenes in your novel similar to those in a movie. And just as filmmakers do, propel the narrative and hold the audience’s attention by getting into your scenes late and leaving them early.

A finished novel should be about 70,000–90,000 words long (established authors sometimes write them twice that length). But once you reach the end, plan on revising at least five or six drafts—and maybe many more. Much of the beauty in well-written novels occurs through the author’s self-editing. When you eliminate extra words, slow or dull passages, repetitions, clichés and errors, your story and voice are honed and the real book starts to emerge.

Guest poster Gregory W. Beaubien is a longtime journalist and feature writer, who published his debut novel Shadows the Sizes of Cities in 2014 (Moresby Press). He is revising a new novel called Air Rights, about struggling fathers who try to blackmail a real estate tycoon, not realizing that the businessman also has a family and is facing serious legal and financial problems of his own.

More about target word length?

These helpful articles from Writer’s Digest and the Manuscript Appraisal Agency delve into great detail about length targets for different book genres.

***Selection Day

Mumbai, cricket

photo: David Brossard, creative commons license

By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?

To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.

There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.

One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”

The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.

*****Blue Light Yokohama

Tokyo - Rainbow Bridge

photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission

By Nicolás Obregón – What an entertaining debut! Told almost exclusively from the perspective of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Kosuke Iwata, it’s a multilayered police procedural involving murder, official corruption, and dangerous secrets.

A brief prologue set in 1996 describes the death of a woman who jumped from a dangling cable car into the sea, despite the efforts of police detective Hideo Akashi to save her. Fifteen years later, Akashi is investigating the quadruple murder of a Korean family. In the midst of his investigation, he commits suicide by jumping off Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge (pictured above). No one knows why. This theme of falling pervades the novel and ties together many of its strands, past and present.

The brass at the police department asks their newest detective, U.S.-trained (and therefore highly suspect) Iwata to pick up Akashi’s investigation of the family’s murder. Iwata is aided by Assistant Inspector Sakai, transferred from the Missing Persons department to work with him. These two inexperienced homicide detectives are assigned such a complex investigation because the department is short-handed, having lost Akashi, and is focused instead on another of his cases, the mysterious death of high-profile actress. A little racism creeps in, as well; as Iwata’s supervisor explains, “The family were Korean, so not exactly front-page news.”

Iwata and Sakai manage to get along rather well, considering. He is haunted by memories of his childhood in an orphanage, and she is a feisty young woman whose reflexive prickliness provides a lively counterpoint of humor. (I loved her!)

Iwata and Sakai haven’t made much progress in their investigation when the lonely widow of a judge is murdered. Striking details at the crime scene are similar to the Korean family’s case. Though Iwata and Sakai energetically pursue multiple lines of inquiry, they cannot begin to figure out what links these deaths until he starts breaking rules.

The author, who has lived in Japan, not only evocatively describes the physical and social settings of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong, he also carefully explores Iwata’s complex interior life and motivations. The atmosphere he creates is dense with possibilities and a bit dreamlike.  This is in part because a dozen or so mysteriously poetic lines repeatedly float through the detective’s mind: “The lights of the city are so pretty”; “I walk and walk, swaying, like a small boat in your arms.” You don’t learn the origin of these lines until well along—a song that is the source of the book’s title (hear it here).

But Obregón is a more subtle writer than that, and the title also echoes other blue lights. A local suicide prevention program uses them, based on the supposition that the color blue is calming. The flashing blue lights of police cars, another recurrent Obregón image, would belie that assumption. Blue Light Yokohama is an immersive police procedural that uses its exotic setting and distinctive characters to great effect.

****The Expatriates

Hong Kong - aotaro

photo: aotaro, creative commons license

By Janice Y.K. Lee – In December I read Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, only to realize her second book was the January selection of my book club. I now feel quite immersed in the fascinating multicultural community of Hong Kong. This book, which takes place in the current era, is told from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong for indefinite periods.

Mercy is a young, single Korean-American graduate of Columbia University who can’t seem to get started in a career or a relationship. This would be no surprise to the Korean fortune-tellers back in Flushing who threw a pall over her future when they said her life would be muddled and full of bad luck. Margaret is a happily married mother of three on whom terrible tragedy falls. And Hilary, who has a husband and gobs of family money but lacks the one thing she thinks would make her happiest—a child of her own. In the hothouse, insulated community of Hong Kong that Lee describes, the three women’s stories inevitably intertwine.

“The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration. . . . They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American—a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.”

For the women, Hong Kong is a revelation. Everyone has help—the near-invisible Chinese maids and cooks and nannies and drivers. The married ones have come for their husband’s job and left their own careers, if they had them, mostly behind. Freedom from whole categories of daily routine enables a different, more demanding social life. Luncheons, the club. And a fixation on motherhood. Lee is a beautiful writer and an expert observer of people, creating many moments that are funny as well as painful.

Each of the women finds herself in key situations that probably never would have existed stateside. And how that will eventually play out is in her own hands. While I never did understand Mercy’s inability or unwillingness to get hold of her future—she’s like the smooth side of velcro—and while New York Times reviewer Maggie Pouncey complains that too much of Margaret’s suffering occurs off-stage, the book was nevertheless an absorbing read. Perhaps we’re observing the characters more with a weak pair of binoculars than a magnifying glass, but we see a lot of the landscape that shapes their actions.

****Love & Treasure

peacock

photo: kansaikate, creative commons license

By Ayelet Waldman – This lovely novel opens with a prologue set in 2013, involving elderly Jack Wiseman and his granddaughter Natalie. Her new husband has abandoned her, and she’s just quit her Manhattan attorney’s job to come stay with Jack in Red Hook, Maine, and her beloved grandfather is dying. It’s questionable which of them needs more tender care.

Searching a drawer, Jack runs across a worn black pouch containing a jeweled peacock dangling on a chain. “Whose was it?” Natalie asks, her curiosity aroused. “Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know.” He charges her with the near-impossible task of returning it to its rightful owner, which will require unraveling its history.

The book then reveals how the pendant came into Jack’s hands at the close of World War II. It had been one item among thousands and thousands on the Hungarian Gold Train, a 42-car freight train the Germans were using to remove valuables—most of them looted from Hungarian Jews—to Berlin. The train was seized by French troops and finally came under U.S. military control and the contents warehoused in Salzburg, Austria. (The U.S. government kept most details about the Hungarian Gold Train secret for 50 years.)

Items were pilfered from the horde by thieves and the soldiers guarding it; U.S. military commanders used the warehouse as a department store for outfitting their quarters with fine china, silverware, crystal, furniture, and oriental rugs. Jack, in charge of the loot, had to comply with his superiors’ orders and was constantly frustrated at his inability to protect and preserve these treasures, much less return them to their rightful owners. His responsibilities as a soldier and as a Jew are at war within him.

Waldman writes compellingly about Jack’s situation and the treatment of the Displaced Persons flooding Salzburg, many of whom were concentration camp survivors. He meets one, a Hungarian with flame-red hair, Ilona Jakab, and falls in love. Jack keeps the peacock pendant in her memory, but never loses the feeling that taking it was dishonorable.

In her quest to fulfill her grandfather’s charge to find the pendant’s rightful present-day owner, Natalie travels to Budapest and finds much more than she expects. That section of the book is a treasure hunt, a mystery story, and a romance.

The last major section of the book dips back in time to 1913. It’s narrated by a libidinous psychiatrist charged with “treating” Nina S., an early suffragist who wears the pendant, and whom he rapidly concludes is quite sane, just at odds with her repressive father.

Natalie, Ilona, and Nina are interesting, compelling characters in challenging situations. Waldman doesn’t tell a good story once, but three times. Descriptions are vivid, characters’ motivations heartfelt, and conversations witty and spirited. Occasionally, she may be a little heavy-handed, and occasionally a verbal anachronism or clunky love scene sneaks in, but overall, the stories have strong narrative power. I don’t quite understand all the carping about this book in the mainstream media—each reviewer seeming to fixate on some different issue. I found it not only an exploration of conflicting loyalties, identity, and the struggle to be honorable, but also a fascinating historical mystery.

Love & Treasure is certainly timely, given recent renewed attention to the issue of Nazi plunder. The peacock pendant, silent witness to the pain and abuse of history, is the treasure in Waldman’s story, but love is the constant.

*****Black Wings Has My Angel

cigarette

(photo: pixelblume, creative commons license)

By Elliott Chaze – A 2016 reissue, this noir crime novel by a Mississippi newspaperman, originally published in 1954, is a roller-coaster of a read—lightning fast and a lot of fun. At the outset, an escaped prisoner using the name Tim Sunblade has just finished a stint working on an oil drilling rig.

To rid himself of four months of grime, he takes a nice long bath at a cheap hotel. The comforts of the bath put him in mind of having a little female companionship, and with the bellman’s aid he meets Virginia. They turn out to be quite a team. His plan is to head west (isn’t that the classic American criminal’s destination—the wide open spaces?). Virginia’s look and demeanor suggest she’s not just a hotel tramp, and eventually he learns she’s on the lam herself, fleeing the New York City cops.

The book is full of sly dialog. When Tim discovers her call-girl past, Virginia tells him she used to “go with” various Army officers, who were always talking about “the big picture.” “Do I make it clear, Tim? About what is the big picture?” she asks. “You make it clear that your wartime activities were not on the enlisted level.”

Virginia is accustomed to rolling in dough, literally, and more than a bit money-mad, so she encourages Tim’s plan to rob an armored car in Denver and dispose of it in an abandoned mine shaft they’ve found in the Rockies. Flush with their cash, they hit the road again until a drive through a small town turns out to be a big mistake.

It’s a first-person narrative, and Chaze has captured the voice of Sunblade terrifically well. A bit bemused by life’s twists and turns, but resigned to them. Loving and hating Virginia in fairly equal amounts and never quite trusting her. Too much whiskey and too many cigarettes.

In the introduction to this reissue. Barry Gifford calls Black Wings a gem that still sparkles, and though author Chaze wrote several other novels, none of them stack up to it. A New Orleans native, Chaze worked for the Associated Press, served in the Second World War, then settled in Mississippi. He lived a time in Denver as well, which is perhaps why the book’s locations are so well drawn.

He working in various capacities for The Hattiesburg American, for a decade as its city editor. His newspaper training shows in the economy and precision of his prose, and even when events are dire, the narrator’s detached view allows his wry humor to surface. Though Sunblade doesn’t often dwell on Life’s Larger Questions, I was struck by this observation: “Life is a rental proposition with no lease.” That’s exactly the kind of thing Tim Sunblade would say.

I don’t give very many books five stars, but in this one, every word is perfect. A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

***Naked Shall I Return

Cliff House fire, San Francisco

(photo: Ed Blerman, creative commons license)

By Christopher Bartley – Noir mysteries set in the 1930s are delicious. Noir mysteries set in the 1930s in San Francisco’s Chinatown are as tasty as a platter of Peking duck. In this complex novel, protagonist and career criminal Ross Duncan is launched on a mysterious quest. An an elusive couple wants him to locate a thing—they’ve never seen it and can’t really describe it—called the Blue Orb, which legend says holds the key to immortality.

Whether Duncan believes this or not is immaterial. The couple also agrees to help him fence a load of stolen jewels that will bankroll him for a good long while and for that reason alone, he’s game. He encounters a succession of interesting characters—opium den impresarios, antiques experts, people whose legends precede them—whose help he might be able to use in locating the Blue Orb. Too bad they keep being murdered before they can provide much assistance.

This book has shady characters galore, a beautiful dame out to bed Duncan, and a plot with more twists and turns than a Chinese Dragon. As it happens, he keeps meeting people connected to Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House who were present when it was destroyed in the famous 1907 fire. That the Blue Orb was smuggled out of tunnels under Cliff House on that fateful day is just one theory about its fate that Duncan must run to ground.

I wouldn’t have heard about this entertaining book if it weren’t for a review on the Crime Fiction Lover website—a great source for tips about the latest thriller, mystery, and crime novels, author interviews, and the like. Some of my reviews appear there too.

***Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways

Madame Bovary

(graphic: wikimedia)

I’m envious of the women in my book group who are native French speakers and able to read Gustave Flaubert’s classic in its original language. I read the 2010 English translation by noted American short story writer and essayist Lydia Davis, one of the 19 produced since the book’s 1856 publication. Her intent, she has said, was “to do what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.” Here is a Julian Barnes essay comparing notable translations, including Davis’s, across the generations. If you want to read Madame Bovary, I suggest at least skimming Barnes’s essay to  find a translation suited to your reading preferences.

The novel is a period piece, set in a particular, rather dreary locale, and not all periods and settings wear as well in terms of interest over 160 years. When Madame Bovary was published, the government said the novel was a danger to morality and religion and put Flaubert and his publisher on trial, though they were acquitted. However, in general, “provincial French woman has affairs with doltish men” is no longer a riveting or scandalous storyline, and “spends more than she should” is the modern way of life. Likewise, the beliefs and foibles Flaubert pokes fun at (conventional and bourgeois views, including religion, chief among them) are of varying relevance today. In an Introduction Davis quotes Nabokov’s view that, in Madame Bovary, “the ironic and the pathetic are beautifully intertwined,” and it is those sly revelations about society and how people move in it, rather than plot, that give the modern reader the greatest satisfaction.

Reader tastes have changed not just with regard to content, but regarding style, too, and a book about that same period written today would be very different from Flaubert’s approach. One consequence of what now seems a rather disordered style is that Madame’s character never quite came into focus for me. She is motivated by the ill-considered whims of a moment, a pliant object for the men around her, and rarely self-actuated until of course the end. It turns out, as Barnes notes in his essay, that translator Davis doesn’t actually much like her, or the book. Interesting.

As an exemplar of realist fiction, Madame Bovary was a path breaking book. Unlike most novels that came before, it didn’t romanticize (in the literary sense) or try to draw moral lessons—the lessons were clear from the book’s events and their consequences. Flaubert’s intention was to make the novel not just not “romantic,” but anti-romantic, in that Madame’s susceptibility to and pursuit of romanticism and shallow gratification are what cause her downfall. Occasionally, thought, the authorial voice does make a judgment in the nature of a delicious truism, for example: (about the lovers) “She was as weary of him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”

Translator Davis in an introduction says this novel’s “radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see: its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.”