Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Sycamore Row: A Novel (Jake Brigance Book 2)Grisham is back! Really? That’s what I wanted to believe as well. At first, Sycamore Row is full of atmosphere: the southern little town, the colorful waitress, the flavorful dialogues. So I am happy to find Grisham again, and with a humor bonus on top of that, at least at first. Not that he is humorless in other works, but here the rural settings seem to stimulate his wit and sass, despite the morbid start of the novel and its important topic.

    We are in the 1980's, in a Mississippi little town where the sheriff and one of the judges tend to stretch the law one way or the other, and where racism has far from disappeared. Readers who know Grisham well have visited the place already, and met most characters in A Time to Kill, Grisham’s first novel. Here, a black woman is about to inherit millions from a white man at the expense of his family. Some issues arise from this. The duty to one’s family is one. A significant anti-racist statement is another. You could add this: the freedom to do what one wants with one’s own fortune. What is more important in life—the personal or the civic? What if the personal and the historic were one and the same?

    All these problems are posed, somewhat addressed, never really explored.

    Too bad. Sycamore Row could have been fascinating, the stuff of great literature, with such a title, too! But if it is gripping in the beginning and interesting in the end, what it is in the middle is too much like small towns and not enough like good writing: so dull and soporific that you want to get drunk with Lucien—the alcoholic and debarred lawyer of the novel.

    At the end of each one of his novels, Grisham usually addresses his readers, evoking the epopee of the writing of that particular book. Here, he tells us that his wife Renée, “was not too keen on a sequel” of A Time to Kill, which many readers consider his masterpiece.

    Renée, I believe you were right.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Product DetailsWere the members of the Pulitzer Board on acid when they decided that The Goldfinch would get the crown? And didn’t they notice its editor must have been on strike—or smoking weed while relaxing under a tree? Who knows, they all might have been inspired by Theo, the novel’s narrator, a poster boy for addiction who swallows pills like M&M’s.

And, actually, this novel is pretty much like a box of chocolates. You begin with the few good ones and then...

When I picked up the work and was informed that Donna Tartt spent ten years writing it, I imagined a Flaubertian author seeking “le mot juste.” And if there are moments when the work clicks, when psychological tension happens, when dream/nightmare and reality blend, there is also that moment when I wonder if the ten-year-writing story is not some publicity stunt. Some brainwashing, as some of the writing here is totally loose, adolescent and careless. My suspicions arise somewhat at the museum scene, when all collapses, including Tartt’s prose which drags on and on and on...And on...

But it begins so well! Is that howTartt got the Pulitzer—on the first 50 pages of reading? It is undeniable that she’s a capable writer. But at some point, something happened. She either went into some kind of depression or into some substance dependency. To the point where you stop caring for the narrator, for he ends up deconstructing himself, becoming (un-becoming) a character with no character.

As for the characters that truly deserve care and attention, Tartt turns her back to them. Say, Andy, Theo’s genius little friend who seems as emotionally estranged from his own family as he is from his own emotions; Andy is such an intriguing character. What does Tartt do? Without revealing the plot, I’ll just say that she does next to nothing with that. There are points of reference here and there, and now and then, but these are but tiny grains of sugar in very troubled water. And why does she insist on Boris, a horrible, incoherent character, more animal than human, more rat than dog in his invasiveness? I honestly detest this personage, who manages to be at once ugly, boring, confusing, and cliched. The only way I would like him is if he were sculpted by pastry chefs on the Halloween Wars show on the Cooking Channel.

Are there interesting characters? Mrs Barbour is one of the better ones. Mom could have been fabulous, but is not there long enough. Hobbie and Pippa are just fairy tale decorations. Had Tatt concentrated her efforts on Andy, Mom, Mrs Barbour and done something with Hobbie, she might have deserved that Pulitzer. Instead, she makes us spend time with the wrong people. Instead, she adds others—bim, bam, boom!— who pop out like mushrooms—fungus—after a two-week rain. Instead, she lets her verbal self indulgence get the better of herself. (Again, where was the editor? Snoring in a corner?) As for the flooding, pseudo-philosophical verbosity of the end, it is a total, total disaster.

In the end, The Goldfinch relentlessly kills what it could have been. It’s a novel that tries to keep going despite the fact that soon in the plot it slices its own veins.       


I thought the pissing would go away, but three days after finishing Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, the flow has actually increased. I am ready to pull out the pages of the book, one by one, and throw them in the Clarion River. A good thing I've got a kindle, so disaster can be avoided. But this---THIS got the Pulitzer??? This is literature?

What this does is reflect perfectly what has been happening in the world of publication in the past few years. Total chaos---the basic confirmation of what a literary agent once told me at a conference. Even at the literary end of large publishing companies, they are so eager to blend in sensationalism and commercialism they come up with a mix that is not only unsavory, but total garbage. And then, politics come in. The results: they give garbage the Pulitzer.

So my humble advise to writers out there. Keep writing only if you are convinced writing is part of your heartbeat, your oxygen.

When you do, kill self-indulgence (The Godfinch is full of it) and "revise, revise, revise! "

Friday, April 25, 2014


Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier --- my view

DaphneDuMaurier Rebecca first.jpgIf you’re afraid of going back to the classics because you like page turners, don’t be! At least not with Rebecca. I revisited the novel for pace reasons. Let me explain. I am working on a literary mystery and I was in need of some inspiration and sustenance not so much for plot as for rhythm and tension. Rebecca, the forerunner of the psychological thriller, happened to be the perfect choice. Of course, I mixed business with pleasure for the novel is, as mentioned before, vastly entertaining. Something Du Maurier wanted. With time, it acquired a lot more than commercial value and became quite an important literary work.
With its remarkable descriptions of nature—either friendly or threatening—or of Manderley, a mansion that our unnamed narrator never controls or owns, this work is, besides a damn good story, all allegory, all metaphor.
I found pleasure turning those pages, but it was a sad, depressed pleasure. Don’t be fooled by the entertaining qualities of the novel, for this is a profoundly dark work. Entering Manderley felt like entering a grave. Our unnamed narrator never quite existed. (Her descriptions relate to her absence rather than her presence.) She died before being born. She never asserted herself, letting fear and the glance of others control her. And dead Rebecca was always like the sea, renewing her ardor with each wave.
This is not an easy work. For no matter how pale or submissive the narrator seems to be, the reader roots for her. Who doesn’t have compassion for a victim? And she’s attacked on all fronts. On one side, she has to please her husband, be a dreamer, “Alice in Wonderland,” as he puts it. On the other, she is given the chance to shine, be another Rebecca. None of these choices will make her happy. Being a husband pleaser will kill her identity. Being a rebel will make her true to herself but unacceptable to society. Unless she becomes some sort of monster, like Rebecca, playing the societal game on one side and not caring about anyone on the other. In the end, we know what she chooses. We know the tragedy.
And we know why this complex work is indeed a classic.


L'Élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Babery ---my view

This a closed spaced —locked?— novel almost to the end, as everything happens indoors—physically and metaphorically speaking. When the door of the building is pushed at last and Paris shows its face, then it’s all over. Tragedy strikes. At least tragedy in its most manifest, albeit ordinary, form. For this is not a happy novel, although the possibility of redemption, or at least hope, appears. Destinies are retraced. What one pre-adolescent thought she understood and controlled ends up being not so controllable or understandable after all. Suicide might not be the solution. Life is not such a simple formula. What the intellect grasps, the emotions swallow and spurt out, but not very neatly. What ideas collect and put in place, art rearranges and deranges in the process.
Muriel Babery sets her philosophical novel in a Paris building for the rich and spoiled. Two rebels against the system are the voices of this novel—Renée, the concierge, and Paloma, a gifted twelve-year old who thinks life is not worth living. Their rebellion is an inner rebellion, and the building in which all this (non)action takes place can be seen not only as a metaphor for their inner life, but also for the suffocating society that surrounds them. Only books, only literature can open up such a space, reinvent such a space. Only minds like them can now enter this reinvented place. A cat will be allowed as well. And, later, a Japanese man with his new perspective on things.
  Babery, in this slow paced, intellectual and poetic work, depicts two refined souls in a brutal world, two strangers with a hermit crab attitude trying desperately to protect themselves from the adventure of life. Until one shell starts to open and the other, as a consequence, has to break, so life, because of death, must be lived. This sounds cryptic. But when you read this intriguing novel, you will understand.
It is not a perfect work; there are some dead moments, although rare. Some chapters could have been removed; others, developed. Some useless characters could have been killed. Some vigor in the thought process could have been added. But Barbery still achieved something quite remarkable with this novel: in an elegant, highly accessible prose, she did manage to intrigue and stimulate both sides of the brain. High marks for that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


So once upon a time (okay a couple of days ago) a person with a mild case of claustrophobia had to go through an MRI. Personnel at the hospital failed to reassure her. The MRI operator told her he couldn’t stand the thing himself without tranquilizers. So with the help of all this comforting and her own writer’s imagination, she swallowed a couple of pills before entering hell on earth, that dark, airless tunnel that would attack her from all sides. The day came, the moment. A half-spheric glass shape was placed above her head. Great. Now, she looked like a robot. A button was pushed and she glided into a tube, the tube. And then, what? It stopped and she could actually see the light at the end of the tunnel. Literally. And there was plenty of air circulating around her. She said: “That’s it? That’s what I am supposed to be afraid of? That’s why I got myself spaced out for?”

P..S. Okay, Mr MRI has some sort of temper and makes funny noises, some actually sounding like machine guns, so I would recommend MRI’s to crime fiction authors mostly, and only if they are not on vacation at the moment.

Friday, March 21, 2014


In this new age of publication, where indie authors are given more attention than ever, professional editors should not be neglected. Au contraire. My review of Origins by Eric Drouant illustrates this point. Indie authors, no matter how talented, should remember that even the most successful writers are edited by pros.

I bought this book because I was intrigued by the premise, that is how the US government, with a mad man in its midst, plans to use Cassie and Ronnie, two thirteen year olds gifted with psychic abilities. The occasional spelling and punctuation typos put aside, the structure of the novel could have gained power with additional revisions. Even if this is the first of a series where Drouant needs to introduce his characters, it takes a long time for the plot to really start. Had the novel begun with a slightly reworked Chapter 6, when the kids flee their respective home, the action would have picked up immediately, and all of what the reader needed to know about the gifted kids could have been given through informative flashbacks. Instead, a good part of the first half of Origins contains dead or repetitious moments. After that, and as soon as the police and the press enter the scene, the pace changes, even the style changes. Although following the same teenagers, it almost feels like a different novel. Frankly, that second half is where the thriller part happens. That’s where a professional editor could have helped and that’s why I can only give three stars to this novel, because only half of it is good.

Monday, March 10, 2014


SISSI (aka Simone): “What’s this? Some kind of barricade?”

MOM: “A border. You need to get a passport to cross it.”

SISSI: “Oh, yeah?”

MOM: “Some part of the population cannot go through, though.”

SISSI: “Such as?”

MOM: “Terrorists. And I mean a specific type of terrorists. The ones who enjoy terrorizing cats. Creature who like chocolate. And I mean a specific type of chocolate. Cat poop, for example.”

SISSI: “Oh, damn!”


SISSI: “There is another border on the other side.”

MOM: “Yeah.”

SISSI: “But that’s Coco’s (aka Colette) special bathroom over there!”

MOM: “You mean, what I and other people around here call the den.”


COCO: “Well, well, well. It seems my special bathroom is not accessible to me these days. Ha! See if I care! I’ve got my own special chair and my own special fire.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Writing Companion

I have a writing companion. He likes to travel on my lap when I write. At the moment, he’s perched on my arm and examining the laptop screen. His name is Beckett (yes, named after the great Sam). When he climbs on my shoulder, he likes to inspect my ears, or grab a piece of my hair and meticulously remove any sort of particle he may find there. Our internal dialogue goes approximately like this:

    “Hey,” I tell him, “it’s clean.”
    “Oh, yeah, how often do you wash your hair?”
    “Every other day.”
    “You dirtball! Do you see how often I wash mine? Like every hour or so?”
    “Those are feathers, you brat! You’re a damn parrot!”
    “I am cleaner than you are! I am cleaner than you are!”
    “Oh, yeah? Who just pooped on my pants!”
    “At least I didn’t poop in...”
    “Oh, shut up!”
    “Okay, I’ll just go back and clean your hair. When will you learn?”

Monday, February 24, 2014


The Big Sleep: A Novel (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)THE BIG SLEEP is Chandler’s first novel and this is my Chandler’s first read. So I’ll tell you what strikes first: it’s Chandler’s writing style, the ironic voice of private detective Philip Marlowe, a man who drinks too much, smokes too much and, we suspect, uses smoke and drink to hide personal wounds. The man is as much a mystery as the plot itself which, in places, gets messy and overcharged. What draws the reader to this novel, besides the style and voice, is the atmospheric charm of the descriptions. It’s hard to imagine so much rain in Los Angeles. But Chandler makes his suspension of disbelief effective. Besides, the rain may stand for something else. As does the wealthy family he works for, in ruins. There is a social commentary subtext here. Perhaps not so much of a subtext as a theme as Chandler associates decay with the City of Angels. At times, you feel as if you are entering the lonesomeness of a Hopper painting (think "Nighthawks"). And it may be why Chandler is part of literature.

Monday, January 20, 2014


No, I didn't misspell the title. It's "but" with one "t." He had written bestsellers that were at the same time political thrillers. So, why not, even if I don't always go for the obvious choice. But I do enjoy a good thriller and a good political conflict as well. Clancy was a conservative; I lean toward the left. And by that I don't mean I am a Democrat, which is just the left wing of a political system that has bent way, way to the right and keeps going further from the center. This said, when it comes to creative writing, I don't care what party an author belongs to as long as he or she produces at the very least good prose, identifiable characters and a solid plot. Without Remorse, the Clancy novel I had in my hands, began with a strong narrative, so I carried on...for a while. But then it began to become macho fiction or, as one amazon.com reviewer pointed out, writing for "dudes," with an orgy of details about boat mechanics, drone and missile operations, and a simplistic view of women. If you want to see a guy fall in love with a prostitute in a jiffy, just watch Pretty Woman; don't read this absurd subplot. And the cartoon doesn't stop here: the pretty woman is fragile; the one with a doctorate in pharmacy had absolutely no sex appeal. So losing my virginity to Clancy hurt somewhat, but at least I am now ready to fall in love with someone else.