Rod Raglin is a Canadian journalist, community newspaper publisher, photographer and a keen environmentalist. He has self-published ten novels, two plays and a collection of short stories. His writing deals with contemporary and environmental issues (eco-fiction) and how they impact the human condition.
by Rod Raglin
Romance, action, mystery, magic and murder - four stand-alone contemporary novels that encompass multiple genres, each with a subplot that addresses important environmental issues.
on March 08, 2015
Memoir lacks basics of good story telling.
Lorraine Ray’s Phantom Strays, is a memoir, but really the events remembered are so insignificant as to be of interest only to the writer.
The first such event is about the narrator retrieving her sister from the line up of The Beatles movie A Hard Days Night and experiencing beatlemania Tuscon style.
The second is her experience as a child at an asthma clinic.
I stopped after that.
The parts of Phantom Strays I read were mostly told by the narrator’s mother who talks incessantly in a nonsensical flow of consciousness. This is cleverly written and would be interesting if there were just a few examples of it, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Very soon this reader began skipping vast chunks of the mother’s monologue looking for something of interest in the story.
Good memoirs don’t have to have exotic settings or detail significant events, but something dramatic has to happen to the character, and by dramatic it should be life changing if not life threatening.
Sometimes life events don’t quite unfold in such a way to make an interesting story. It is then up to the writer to chop, change and rearrange to make it so, because a good memoir should contain the basics of good story telling: goal, motivation, and conflict. It should begin with an initiating incident and the plot should move forward with rising tension that culminates in a crisis and then a resolution.
Phantom Strays displays none of this craft, but rather appears to be random reminiscences of a specific time in the author’s life presented chronologically and only connected by common family members. If it became more interesting further in than perhaps the earlier stories should have been omitted. Good stories can be overshadowed by poor craft.
I downloaded this book free from Smashwords
The Anatomy of Journey
on March 21, 2015
The Anatomy of Journey by Rohit Karthik Nalluri might be considered a spiritual travel memoir in that there is an actual journey, but also a spiritual journey takes place as the author moves to a place of greater awareness.
However, where it has potential as a travel memoir this reader found the metaphysical part of the story self-indulgent and unenlightening. Most of the author’s inner journey had little or nothing to with the actual journey – he didn’t grow spiritually as a result of events that took place on the motorcycle trip, and so there was a disconnect.
The story is about four young Indian men that undertake an eleven hundred kilometers journey on motorcycles from Delhi to Leh in the district of Ladakh in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Here’s how the author describes it:
“For the intrepid biker, the ride … is a litmus test, a test of strength, skill and stamina” that encounters twisting and unforgiving mountain roads that cross many bridges over mighty rivers… This arduous journey is compounded by the altitude itself, as the increased height decreases the oxygen content in the atmosphere, making it difficult to breathe and to think. That there is no electricity, no cellular network, no place to stay overnight except in thread-bare tents and no gas stations for a distance of 365 kilometers. The very word 'ladakh' translates to 'land of the mountain passes', and to reach Leh one must cross five of them, some over seventeen thousand feet above sea level.”
There is some beautifully written descriptive passages and some remarkable insights into the nature of traveling - how the journey becomes a thing onto itself and how it effects the traveler.
However, much of the experiences seemed repetitious and many of the insights became self-indulgent ramblings, particularly near the end when the author attempts to convey an experience of spiritual enlightenment.
Though there is some inspired writing the overall memoir could have used more craft. If the author had structured it with a sense of rising tension leading to a climax the story would have had more appeal. As it was I got the sense it followed chronologically – an exciting event followed by two boring ones rather than one exciting event building on another.
What I found fascinating were the glimpses of modern Indian and how ancient customs and traditions lived side by side, if not hand in hand, with modern society.
Perhaps if the author would have reflected more on this and less on his spiritual quest the story would have had more appeal.
I received this book free from Smashwords as part of my commitment to review the works of new, self-published authors.
War in a Beautiful Country
on April 18, 2015
From concept, to presentation, to writing – original and compelling
As I write this review I’m quite pleased this novel has had little no recognition. I don’t say this out of spite. I say this because if something as good as War in a Beautiful Country (WBC) by Patricia Ryan can stay undiscovered than I don’t feel so bad about my books.
WBC is the work of genius – from concept, to presentation, to writing. My books in comparison are, well, let’s say I have something to aspire to.
It’s quirky, perceptive and funny. It’s poignant as well as enlightening, entertaining and original. It ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous and covers a lot of the stuff in between.
The protagonist is Regina, a middle aged woman living in New York City. Regina begins getting surface mail from an anonymous person threatening to blow her up. The idea her life might end violently and without warning makes her examine her existence; her art, her relationships, her activities, her purpose.
WCB is wickedly funny and at the same time wise and worldly with fascinating insights on art and relationships. The prose is crisp and edgy, characters well developed and memorable. There’s powerful imagery and “shock and awe” metaphors.
Perfect? Not quite.
Ryan ignores quite a few writing conventions. It’s not uncommon to have three POV’s in one paragraph – two character’s and the narrator – it gets crowded and confusing.
She has some inventive ways of using punctuation including colons and combinations of question marks and exclamations marks!?!
Not infrequently, the rants by characters smack of author intrusion since they’re not consistent with the character’s personality and don’t advance the narrative. I forgave this because they are often so entertaining I didn’t really care.
Some might also consider the novel too introspective and lacking in action.
To best describe my reaction to this novel is to use the character, Regina’s own words on how she feels when she comes upon “the real thing in others.” Several times while reading this work I had “oh, my god!” moments. I am “staggered under the weight of Patricia Ryan’s talent”.
When God dispensed the Talent Dust, Ryan obviously got equal amounts of magenta (desire) and teal (ability). I was one of the many who got only magenta. Drat.
I downloaded this novel free from Smashwords as part of my commitment to review the work of independently published authors
The Clay Head Benediction
on April 25, 2015
Flashes of brilliance overshadowed by lack of craft
“Thank you for writing this book, Marty. I appreciate your commitment and the time you put into this worthy endeavor.
Luke Kolbe is loner, a misfit, a person that makes miniature clay heads in the oven of his kitchen stove. He leaves these sculptures for people to find or gives them away, which is his way “of bringing a sense of wonder into the world.”
As the story progresses we meet some of the people Luke interacts with. None could be called friends. Some are just too weird to have a normal relationship with even for Luke, others are too normal. Though non-threatening Luke’s strange behavior and attitude make people wary and suspicious of him.
As the story progresses the reader begins to realize Luke has some real issues of his own, but despite his “idiosyncrasies” I found him sympathetic, though too eccentric to be likeable.
To be able to write convincingly from the perspective of a person who is mentally unstable is not unique, but certainly a challenge and one that Marty Rafter is up to.
The Clay Head Benediction offers good writing and a plot, when it finally becomes apparent, that is intriguing, but as sometimes is the case they are overshadowed by the lack of craft.
The beginning is so disconnected to the rest of the narrative I almost abandoned it after the first couple of pages.
I came to verge time and time again when confronted by numerous dream scenes presented in large blocks of intimidating solid type that did nothing to advance the plot or develop the character, at least that I could see. If they were metaphors I missed them.
Despite no real goal, motivation or conflict being evident until about two thirds of the way through, something kept me hanging in there. Perhaps it was the flashes of brilliant dialogue that left me as a writer envious, and as a reader wanting more.
They were, unfortunately, too few of them and too much of Luke’s everyday activities described in tedious detail.
Self indulgence with our work is a flaw of all writers. This can be addressed by engaging the services of a professional, dispassionate editor, but who can afford one of them. The next best thing is to recruit a stable of arm’s length beta readers or even an objective critique group to help us “kill our darlings”.
I downloaded this book free from Smashwords as part of an ongoing commitment to read and review the work of self-published authors.
on April 27, 2015
Finding November lost in lack of plot focus, amateurish writing
“Thank you, Joshua Dyer, for writing this book. I appreciate your commitment and the time you put into this worthy endeavor.
Sarah Daniels is a teenage girl living on the edge of poverty with her single-parent mother. The story begins with a regular day at high school until Sarah and her friends witness a husky senior jock type harassing a frail black girl on her way to class.
Okay, the story’s about bullying and racial prejudice.
Suddenly, Sarah collapses in the lunchroom and is taken to the hospital. After some tests the doctors say she’s had a seizure, but they don’t know the cause and she’s released.
Is the story now about Sarah’s medical challenges?
Back at home Sarah’s mother flies into a rage, throws a plate at her and a chip cuts her face.
Maybe the story’s about child abuse?
The reader discovers Sarah is a talented baker and is making money selling her cookies at the local restaurant.
It’s a rags to riches tale, right?
Then, when Sarah’s great aunt dies she inherits a journal written by her great uncle November who disappeared years ago.
Is the story about finding Uncle November? Ah hah!
For three chapters and fourteen pages the reader doesn’t know what the story is about? Usually within the first few pages, or at least the first chapter, there is an inciting incident that starts the story and establishes the goal, motivation and conflict of the protagonist.
Chapter 4 is the great aunt’s funeral and introduces a whole bunch of new characters who will likely not be heard of again. It is also weighted down with family history, which, more or less, is repeated in the next chapter when November, called Noah, describes the family splitting up in his journal Sarah now has in her possession.
Now the story switches back and forth between the past as told from Noah’s point of view, and Sarah’s present.
But Dyer has chosen not to have Sarah comment on the journal and the relevance to her life as she reads it but instead switch to the first person and the reader experiences Noah’s life as it is happening.
I had to now consider if this story was about Sarah or Noah?
I imagine at some point Sarah and Noah’s stories will converge but I couldn’t wait for that to happen.
The lack of plot focus and the inexperienced writing made it a chore to continue and I abandoned it at Chapter 8.
Don’t rush to publish. As authors we love our stories but believe me they are never as good as you think they are or as they can be.
If you can’t afford to engage the services of a professional, dispassionate editor, and who can, do the next best thing, recruit a stable of arm’s length beta readers or even an objective critique group. By objective I mean strangers – nobody who is in a position of conflict of interest and that would include your family and friends.
I’m sure Finding November is a good story but inspiration is only a very small part of being a novelist. The rest is craft, which can be learned, but like anything else to get good at it you have to practice, and practice, and practice…
I downloaded this book free from Smashwords as part of an ongoing commitment to review new, self-published authors.
Not Lost for Lookin'
on May 10, 2015
Not Lost For Lookin’s brilliance almost lost to poor presentation
“Thank you for writing this book, Lexi Boeger. I appreciate your commitment and the time you put into this worthy endeavor.
The first thing I noticed about Lexi Boeger’s e-book, Not Lost For Lookin’ was it was poorly formatted. This despite the fact that amongst the front matter of the book she credits a website for formatting it for her as well as someone who served as an editor for the manuscript.
Boeger doesn’t use quotation marks to indicate dialogue. Her dialogue is not connected to speaker attributions – there’s dialogue and then full stop; then the next sentence might begin with “Says”.
The more characters that are introduce as the story unfolds the more difficult it is to understand whose saying what. It takes the reader out of the reading experience and that’s a bad thing.
I was further confused by Boeger’s style of not indenting at the beginning of a paragraph but then indenting for dialogue.
Boeger is also fond of long paragraphs when now days most authors adhere to the unwritten rule to paragraph every three sentences. With today’s reader being use to abbreviations and sentence fragments in emails and on social media most authors avoid presenting the reader with blocks of solid type that can be intimidating.
Quotation marks, other punctuation and indentation are used to help the reader understand the text. It’s not something invented to frustrate the author, inhibit their creativity, or stifle their voice.
When these conventions are abandoned it becomes difficult, at least for this reader, to understand and enjoy their story.
Sometimes formatting can be skewed by the publisher. Sites like Smashwords and Amazon give specific instructions on how to format your manuscript before uploading. I know this can be challenging, but authors owe it to themselves, their work and their readers to take the time and patience to get it right.
Despite these annoying distractions I persevered and was glad of it. Not Lost for Lookin’ is an astounding novel.
It’s a story is about a woman, Rose, who’s marriage and life are “breaking down and unraveling and upturning”. Fly fishing for her and her family is about traditions, about “routines, habits,” it’s their “Modus Operandi. Unchanging and unfailing. Predictable.” Rose goes fly fishing to escape the turmoil in her life.
One day she is driving to a remote fishing spot and comes upon Glory, an enigmatic young woman in the middle of nowhere. We soon discover that Glory’s situation is similar to Rose’s.
The two of them become friends and eventually hook up with two disreputable but likeable fellows for hard drinking and reflective fly-fishing. As Rose’s marriage implodes she draws closer to Glory and their new male cohorts. When Glory’s mysterious past is revealed it defies love and logic.
Boeger writes about magic and her writing in some places is magical. Her imagery of the creeks and canyons she’s fished is like an impressionistic painting, vivid yet indistinct, coalescing in your imagination. Her descriptive passages go beyond what can be seen and include the mood of a place, it’s personality, it’s desires, it’s demons. To her landscape is a character, an important one that you get to know intimately.
Some of the fly fishing narrative morphs into kind of a flow of consciousness. There’s a fine line between a meaningful creative flow and a rambling bunch of nonsense. Occasionally, Boeger crosses the line, but most often I was swept away.
Boeger’s characterization is through action which is good since at the same time the plot is advancing. There’s a lot of tough talk and a great deal of profanity. Most times Boeger’s diction is astoundingly perfect, but there were instances I thought she used the f-word because she was too lazy to think of more appropriate adjective. Believe me, it’s not that she can’t.
Endings to literary novels don’t have to bring resolution, but with so many options open to the author I was disappointed and unsatisfied with the bizarre ending she chose.
I downloaded this book free from Smashwords as part of an ongoing commitment to review new, self-published authors.
Imagine There's No Heaven
on July 02, 2015
Lack of craft is more than imagined in Imagine There’s No Heaven.
I want to thank P.M. Harrison for his hard work and commitment to this worthwhile endeavor.
Guy is a disturbed young man in his late teens. When he was three years old his mother, Imogen, a medic in the armed forces, went on a special rescue mission and never returned. She was listed as missing in action.
For some reason, Guy blames his father, Jerry, for his mother’s death. How Jerry could have prevented Imogen from obeying a direct order, or why she would consider disobeying one since she evidently was an enlisted officer, is not explained.
Guy has anger issues and is in a special ed. class in high school. Why is a kid with anger issues in a special education class for students with learning disabilities? Just another of a growing list of inconsistencies that plague author P.M. Harrison’s novel Imagine There’s No Heaven.
Gina is the instructor in this class and has a special relationship with Guy. It seems she has issues over the death of her young brother and feels if she can help Guy it might assuage some of the guilt she still carries.
As the story develops it becomes apparent that to resolve his issues Guy has to find out exactly what happened to his mother.
This would appear to be a viable plot though not a very original one, but when it comes to delivering the story – the writing part - Harrison is in over his head.
His inexperience as a writer is heralded by his use of far too many adverbs. If you constantly need adverbs to explain how your dialogue is delivered than it’s weak and should be rewritten. Neither is dialogue enhanced by meaningless actions being attached to it.
Explaining is another demonstration of Harrison’s lack of craft. He does too much of it and it slows the plot. Many of the details he includes aren’t necessary or would be better left to the reader’s imagination. Long explanations delivered by his characters sound unnatural and didactic.
Because of this lack of sophistication the writing lacks verve, and edge.
The author also stumbles with the plot.
Guy’s anger isn’t realistic. At three years old he would have no idea about the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. Why would he grow up blaming his father?
Gina’s relationship with Guy crosses professional lines and the motivation is weak for her to take such risks.
Guy’s visions of his dead mother and her messages to him from beyond the grave stretch the suspension of disbelieve unless he’s having psychotic episodes. Is Guy psychotic? Evidently not.
Harrison does show promise in the way he’s structured the novel. He begins with the incident that is the catalyst and sets the story in motion fifteen years previously. He then jumps to the present. This works well as do the flashbacks of Guy’s mother’s experience in combat, while her son is searching for details of what actually happened to her.
But again this to seems a bit beyond Harrison’s ability as a writer with his portrayal of clichéd, one-dimensional bad guys and the inexplicable rescue of Imogen by the person she was sent to save.
It’s not surprising that the resolution of the story’s external journey is predictable, and Guy’s internal journey is trite and uninspired.
All of these weaknesses can be, and hopefully will be, overcome in time by practice.
Writing is a craft and the more you write the better you get.
I received this novel free from SMASHWORDS as part of my commitment to review the work of independently published authors.
This review will eventually be posted as a video on NOT YOUR FAMILY, NOT YOUR FRIEND BOOK REVIEWS at
The Spy I Loved
on Aug. 03, 2015
The Spy I Loved is good – for a first draft
Lindsey is a nineteen-year-old who works for her Uncle Dale at The Pines fishing Lodge in cottage country in southern Ontario. Liam Kimball is a British agent searching for satellite debris in the area who books into the Lodge.
It’s not clear (at least to me) if the fallen satellite he’s looking for belongs to the Brits or the Canadians. It’s not clear why there’s a need for all cloak and dagger stuff considering the two countries are allies even if there are other more sinister parties that would like to find it.
This is considered a low-level assignment for Liam, a little work a lot of rest and recuperation. Seems Liam’s had a particularly hard time of it lately – torture, solitary confinement, murder, mayhem – you name it, Liam’s been in the middle of it, or more specifically on the losing end of it especially lately. There’s some consideration of retiring him.
Lindsey’s depressed with her dead end life and limited prospects for the future. She knows nothing about Liam’s clandestine career but finds him attractive.
As a reader I’m wondering how old Liam is if a nineteen year-old is attracted to him? Here again author Dusty Miller is vague about an important aspect, the age of her main character, though there’s some indication he’s twenty-seven. If that’s the case, our spy has done a lot of living in the few years since graduating from university and it would appear the career of a intelligence officer in the field is shorter than that of a professional hockey player.
Miller writes well but she’s sloppy. She’s got an interesting voice, but frequently I didn’t know who that voice was referring to. She’s good on details and the plot has a real sense of authenticity, but frequently she lets the details bog down the narrative. It’s like the author is saying, “see how much I know”.
Her characterization is good, especially of Lindsey, the female protagonist, but she spends too much time on minor characters at the expense of major ones.
Transitions between scenes are poor and often it takes many paragraphs to get up to speed.
There are too many scenes where Liam and his colleagues are reading dossiers. A better skilled author would have been able to convey this information through some sort of exciting action.
I get the feeling Miller may have rushed this into publication since it reads like a first draft. If she had beta readers or critique partners they fell down on the job, perhaps they had a conflict of interest – to close to the author. For sure, she didn’t have an editor.
During the course of writing a novel, author’s can’t help getting too close to their work. You can’t see for looking. You go right past the errors, the dropped words, the typos, you don’t realize the story’s ambiguous in some places, misleading in others, or just plain confusing.
Despite it’s flaws, The Spy I Loved, is still appealing. A little more craft, perhaps a bit more patience to seek out the opinion of others before publishing, and this book could have been good, instead of average.
The Crater Mountain Sasquatch Legend
on Aug. 06, 2015
The Crater Mountain Sasquatch typifies the problem with free and easy self-publishing - anyone can publish anything
I want to thank Robert A. Hunt for her commitment and hard work in this worthwhile endeavor.
This story begins with a Sasquatch named Gurchukk doing to battle with a grizzly bear named Skurtchotte to see who will be king of the mountain.
The bear and sasquatch begin to fight on the edge of and Indian village. The Indians begin shooting arrows and rifles at them. Skurtchotte is losing and runs into the Indian camp and while the “little people” are killing the bear the Sasquatch in “a moment of spontaneity” before he “could process another thought, or make his next decision,” kidnaps a four year old girl.
Is this a YA novel? Evidently not. Is the writer a YA? Nope, Robert A. Hunt doesn’t look like a young adult to me though his writing is certainly juvenile.
The girl is adopted by the Sasquatch who find “at the very least, she would make a very nice pet.”
Chapter two skips ahead fourteen years and introduces a veteran, Trevor McKinnon. He’s read an article in an 1865 newspaper saying where he has arrived at is a good spot “to start a prosperous life” He purchases a homestead, goes hunting and stumbles upon Gurchukk his wife, baby and “pet” Indian girl in a cave.
Gurchukk keeps as a prisoner. Gradually, Trevor becomes friends with the family.
Then the aliens arrive.
I got to chapter five before I quit. I kept reading because I couldn’t believe this book could continue to get worse. It did.
The Crater Mountain Sasquatch is hardly worthy of a review. As far as suggestions for improvement it would be difficult to know where to start. Author Robert Hunt needs to greatly develop his skills as writer and a storyteller.
This is the problem with free and easy self-publishing – anyone can publish anything.
What makes this travesty a tragedy is it’s next to impossible to differentiate works like The Crater Mountain Sasquatch from excellent novels like Not Lost for Lookin’ by Lexi Boeger , War in a Beautiful Country by Patricia Ryan and The Last Bad Job by Colin Dodds.
Hopefully, my review will help in this regard.
If you think this review is harsh consider it a reality check for the author. Like anyone else, Hunt could still learn to write better. Writing’s a craft and like any craft it takes lots of practice to get good at it.
Prior to publishing his next work though, I would strongly suggest he take some courses and join an objective critique group.
on Aug. 28, 2015
Mouse by Brian Reynolds
When the decision is to be indecisive.
I want to than Brian Reynolds for his hard work and commitment to this worthwhile endeavor.
Mouse starts with the narrator talking to his young daughter, nick-named Mouse. He is going to write about a past episode in her mother and father’s relationship. He will attempt to be truthful so when she is old enough she can read it and draw her own conclusions.
The story begins in 1977 in a classroom in the remote northern Ontario outpost of Orkney Post. David Taylor, the narrator, is a substitute teacher. The subsequent chapters jump back and forth in time to when he first met his wife, Suzanne, in Toronto and dramatic events unfolding in Orkney Post. The two time periods begin to merge as Suzanne takes a teaching job in Orkney Post to “make a difference” and David, now her husband, dutifully follows.
Suzanne can’t connect with the Native kids or their parents. She hates teaching them, hates the isolation and then gets pregnant. She wants to escape back to civilization for the sake of her sanity and the health of the baby. The nuns who run the school ask David if he’ll fill in to finish out her contract. David accepts since the couple has no money and no place to live down south except with his in-laws.
But David has an ulterior motive. He’s ambivalent about becoming a father. In fact, he suffers from chronic indecisiveness. The only reason he dodged the draft in the United States and came to Toronto was the insistence and assistance of a friend. An unsuccessful artist, his only real job since he arrived in Canada has been is a part-time position at Tim Horton’s.
David doesn’t know how to be a teacher and that helps him, since the Native children don’t know how to be students. He connects with them through art projects. Doors begin to open.
There’s a two week “hunting break” in the spring when the school is closed and all the teachers fly south for some R&R. David decides not to get on the plane, not to visit his pregnant wife. Instead he stays alone in Orkney Post. His wife can’t figure out why. Neither can David.
But he has no time to ponder or to paint. The ice on the river his breaking up, there’s a huge ice jam and Native village, located on an island is flooded. David is pressed into action, nothing really heroic but all the same he’s making a contribution, doing something worthwhile – finally.
It’s a frenetic two weeks. David becomes close to Rosemary, a nurse and a local band member. Too close. The affair is doomed but being indecisive also means you can’t say no.
The school year is ending and with it the teaching position. The baby is getting closer. The pressure mounts as David has to decide between Rosemary or Suzanne, between two very different ways of life, between two divergent futures.
Brian Reynolds has crafted a very human story filled with courage and weakness. The book is worth reading if only for its insights into the character of aboriginal Canadians and their plight shown through different characters and circumstances and the varied responses.
Reynolds plot is seamless and authentic. The use of flashbacks and narrator insights actually works. His characterization is remarkable in its subtlety as is the main character’s journey, both internal and external.
In a way the character of the protagonist, David, is symbolic of most Canadians when it comes to the issues surrounding our First Nations people – we mean well, but our efforts are weak and ineffectual and often do more harm than good. Thirty-four years later and not a lot has changed.
Mouse is a small story – unremarkable people living pretty regular lives, dealing with mostly everyday situations – no international locales, no larger than life heroes or villains, the world is never at risk. All the same it was a page-turner for me.
I received this book free from Smashwords as part of my commitment to review the work of new, self-published authors.
Video book reviews of self-published authors now at
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The Law Of Diminishing Returns
on Sep. 12, 2015
The Law of Diminishing Returns offers readers diminishing returns
I want to thank Violet Augusta for her hard work and commitment to this worthy endeavor.
Meg lives an idyllic life in North Carolina. I mean it’s cliché idyllic – a devoted, successful husband, three perfect children, even a nanny.
The first chapter of The Law of Diminishing Returns chronicles an average afternoon in Meg’s life picking up the kids from school and taking them to their extra curricular activities. If author Violet Augusta wanted to show just how dull Meg’s life is she succeeded, but it doesn’t make for a very good opening hook.
The following chapter contrasts Meg’s life with the life of Vatusia, a single mother living in the Ivory Coast. Vatusia’s son Anjani has schizophrenia and is being treated by missionaries Ernest and Jeannie, who are Meg’s uncle and aunt. The missionaries have arranged for Anjani to go to America for treatment and schooling
Back in America a group of wives are going on vacation to Vegas where Meg’s friend Kat decides to experiment having gay sex with a stranger.
Chapter four is Meg reading emails from her uncle and aunt about the civil war in the Ivory Coast and the deteriorating conditions.
Chapter five is Kat telling Meg her marriage to Tom is at risk because she told him about having sex with a woman in Vegas. This sends Meg into deep introspection about her life – several pages of backstory that read like a year-book morphing into a job resume.
This is contrasted by the following chapter chronicling the life history of Vatusia.
And so it goes with a great deal of the story being told through emails.
Violet Augusta’s story is not very original, but really when was the last time you read an original story? It contrasts the idyllic life of Meg in America with the hardship faced by Vatusia in Africa and the gradual merging of their lives for the mutual benefit of both. Even though predictable The Law of Diminishing Returns still has a lot of potential.
The problem is not so much in the story, but in the telling of it.
Augusta’s writing is passive, the characters are one dimensional, and the narrative is bogged down in many places with huge chunks, indeed, entire chapters of backstory.
So first, let’s talk about passive writing or telling instead of showing.
If you want to engage the reader's heart, mind, and imagination, you must learn to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your stories. You must devise incidents complete with specific details that show the characters’ traits in action.
Character traits are abstract and general. Behavior (action) is concrete and specific. Don t tell the reader your character is brave, show your character in a situation where he displays bravery.
There should also be a sense of immediacy in your writing with the reader feeling they’re in the middle of the action, actually witnessing or participating in the events.
Here’s and example of how the author has her main character, Meg, describe the relationship with her husband Jeff:
Their love was both comfortable and passionate, a rare combination based on what Meg knew of her friends’ marital arrangements. Jeff was a handsome, stable man who let Meg be whoever she chose to be, no matter how many times she shifted course. He had opinions, but usually expressed them without patronizing Meg.
This is classic ‘telling’ using generalization instead of specifics. The reader would have been better informed and entertained if Augusta, through action and dialogue, would have describe the passion, and even the comfort, had given examples of her friend’s dysfunctional marriages, described the features of her handsome husband, defined stable, gave of examples of who and what Meg has wanted to be in the past, and let us in on opinions her husband holds, non-patronizing or otherwise.
Other blatant forms of ‘telling’ are the author’s extensive use of emails from one character to another to advance the plot. These could be developed into scenes with action and dialogue and would have been far more entertaining than presented in this sterile manner.
Augusta’s characters are not believable. Meg’s only flaw is she smokes the occasional cigarette in the privacy of her car. Jeff is a cliché of an upper middle-class husband and father. Ernest and Jeannie, Meg’s missionary uncle and aunt are pure and good. Vatusia is the typical third world victim using her skill in traditional crafts to eke out a living and support her ever-grateful-for-the-opportunity son studying in America. The only real person is Kat, the friend of Meg’s who decides to experiment with gay sex.
When Kat confides in Meg that she told her husband and he’s upset about her infidelity, Meg asks, “Why did you tell him?” To which Kat answers, “I wanted to provoke a reaction from him.” Why did she decide to have gay sex with a stranger in the first place? “I thought I was entitled to feel good,” Kat says.
Now this is getting interesting. Why did Kat have sex with a woman and not a man, or is she unable to “feel good” having straight sex and is there maybe something Kat wants to confess to her very best friend Meg?
We never find out because Augusta kills this story line almost immediately with Meg’s advice that Kat go back to her husband and beg forgiveness, “to grovel if she has to.”
If the author is afraid to go there then why was this brief episode even introduced?
Another flaw is the author’s use of backstory, information the reader may need to know to better understand the characters and their situation.
The Law of Diminishing Returns devotes entire chapters to backstory which, besides being boring, interrupt the narrative and pull the reader out of the reading experience.
Ideally this type of information is invisible – readers learn needed facts and information without knowing those facts were forced upon them. For this to happen backstory must be timely, relevant, motivated and above all minimal.
You want to keep the story momentum going and building and avoid anything that distracts from this experience even momentarily.
These are three major writing flaws that would have been pointed out by any writing instructor, critique group, maybe even impartial beta readers had the author taken the time to seek them out and not rushed to publish.
Before publishing you must have at least a few people who know something about writing, and who are not your family and not your friend, give your work conflict-of-interest-free assessments to point out things like backstory dumps, weak characterization and passive writing.
The Last Cup: Hockey, Life, Lord Stanley and the Toronto Maple Leafs
on Oct. 14, 2015
The Last Cup - hockey as a metaphor for life
The Last Cup: Hockey, Life, Lord Stanley and The Toronto Maple Leafs opens with Jack laying of the ice being resuscitated after having a heart attack while playing hockey. Jack’s eighty years old and has played, lived and loved the game his entire life.
The year is 2037, and finally The Toronto Maple Leafs are contenders, are actually in the Stanley Cup finals, the first time in seventy years, and their opponent’s none other than their arch rivals The Montreal Canadians. Two of Jack’s nephews, Andrew and Logan are members of the Leafs and the story is told through these three points of view – Jack’s, Logan’s and Andrew’s.
As Jack recovers he’s joined bedside by his old friends and line-mates to watch the games. The reader gets the play-by-play coverage from the perspective of a fan and a player; hockey history and legend from Jack and his cronies; and contemporary insights about the game from the nephews.
This is a story about hockey primarily, but also about family and aging. It uses hockey as a metaphor for family (the team), loyalty (the team), altruism (the team) and the meaning of life (being part of a team). Hockey has given our protagonist everything good in his life – friends, a sense of belonging, recreation and purpose.
Jack also uses hockey as a benchmark for how well he’s aging as in what players and stats he remembers and how his game has diminished over the years. For Jack, a man’s character is also defined by his style of play – either you’re a team player or in it for yourself - playing for personal glory, a dick.
If Jack had another life of any significance off ice author Larry Swatuk is saving it for another book.
Did I like this book. Yes, but primarily because it resonated with me. I’m a Canadian, eh, and was a fan of the original six teams – Chicago was my favorite with Stan Mikita, Moose Vasco and goalie Glenn Hall. I remember the first time a goalie, Jacque Plante of the Montreal Canadians, donned a mask. I played shinny in back alleys and roller hockey on metal skates in tennis courts.
Being from Vancouver the ponds never froze so I never learned to skate. Being poor meant my family couldn’t afford the equipment, the insurance, or the time to take me to rinks for practice at six in the morning. Wouldn’t have mattered, I’m small and was never very good.
Hockey tends to be a bit of an elitist sport (take a look at the ticket prices) and it’s indicative in this novel as well as by who actually plays the game for recreation as an adult – lots of professionals and academics.
Swatuk writes about hockey with authenticity, like an insider, and even though his love of the game may have blunted his objectivity if you’re a hockey fan you’ll enjoy the better part of this book.
His protagonist, Jack, is a well-developed character and there are some interesting passages on aging. But the further you get away from the central theme the more the characters become clichéd and the chauvinism begins to rankle.
Swatuk has a good voice and his narrative is natural, however, he has chose to offset dialogue with dashes instead of traditional quotation marks, which this reader at times found confusing.
I suppose I should get use to it since similar styles are now being used by many acclaimed authors.
This novel is set in the future and the author has some interesting insights as to how the game will develop. Whereas the roster of the original six teams was almost entirely Canadian even though only two of the teams were from that country, no longer is the True North the cradle of the sport. Players hail from Scandinavia and Russia, and the American professionals who make up their Olympic team are our equals.
One thing he didn’t address is the changing face of Canada. Today forty-two percent of Canadian kids aged five to fourteen play soccer while only twenty-two percent play hockey and the gap is getting greater each year.
By 2036 there’ll likely be more Canadians watching the World Cup than the Stanley Cup.
on Oct. 05, 2018
Glen and Rachel Voight, a married couple in their fifties, are on a brief vacation to New York City. After a day of sightseeing, Rachel has returned to the hotel to gather her energy while her husband continues to sightsee.
She’s waiting for him to return when she learns of a terrorist attack at a nearby nightclub. A man entered the club, sprayed the room with bullets, doused it with gasoline and then ignited it by blowing himself up.
When Glen doesn’t return to the hotel, Rachel’s anxiety mounts. When survivors identify her husband as being present at the time of the attack, and a surveillance camera backs it up, Rachel fears her worst nightmare is a reality. His jacket, found at the scene, confirms it. Because many of the bodies are burned beyond recognition her husband’s death is assumed, though never actually confirmed*.
Weeks after the attack, Nick, Glen’s brother, finds evidence Glen’s laptop has been used after it was assumed destroyed along with Glen in the fire. Was it stolen from the crime scene before the attack? When further anomalies are discovered including links to secret accounts, Rachel is left to wonder if Glen is dead or has just used the opportunity to disappear?
In Already Gone, author Myanne Shelley realistically portrays the emotions of someone thrust into these tragic circumstances while at the same time gradually sowing seeds of suspicion. But her unfolding of the plot takes too long, and in the end, nothing is resolved.
As in one of her previous novels I reviewed, Set It Off, Shelley does not include any dramatic action scenes; she seems to avoid them, preferring to spend the majority of time in her protagonist’s head replaying the events. Though this may be what traumatized individuals actually do, it doesn’t make for exciting reading.
Shelley writes well with good dialogue, characterization and realistic relationships between her characters, but her story lacks intensity. The other problem that becomes more glaring as the narrative unfolds with the absence of any startling revelations is the lack of motivation.
Why would Glen choose to disappear in such a dramatic way? Why would he inflict such pain on his family and sever ties forever with those he loved? There is no crushing debt, no illegal manipulations of client accounts; no harridan of a wife, nothing that is inescapable.
Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier in every way just to walk away from the relationship? People do it all the time.
After reading two of her novels written five years apart, Shelley’s writing has not improved over that period of time.
Not too long ago I read and reviewed Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maas.
Maas had a few good ideas, but the basic premise was “go big or go home.” Write big stories about larger than life characters in life-altering situations.
Face it, most of us lead mundane lives, at least I do, and when we read a book we want to escape from it and be entertained by charismatic heroes challenged by and intriguing plots. As an author, if you’re not prepared to offer that you’ll have no commercial success, likely no success whatsoever. I’d recommend Shelley read Maas’s book.
But even if she isn't motivated by sales, she should endeavour to learn the fundamentals of storytelling.
Whether she writes to validate her interpretation of the world, seeks the fulfillment of connecting with readers, or simply to appreciate the satisfaction of producing a well-written story, she needs to hone her craft to achieve these goals.
Myanne Shelley has the potential to be a better author and writer; it would be a shame to see it squandered by lack of commitment. Remember what Nietzsche said, “Art is the proper task of life.”
Shelley’s books get credit for their evocative covers as well as being professionally produced and edited - error-free.
* Evidently, charred bodies can be confirmed through DNA if there is some idea of who the victim might be so a comparison can be made.
Set It Off
on Oct. 05, 2018
JJ Carlisle is the worst kind of spoiled; a grown adult with a sense of entitlement and a family that indulges it. Surprisingly, he’s done well or did well. Computer savvy, he hooked up with a tech startup and scored big only to lose it all in the economic crash.
Of course, the downturn in the economy is not his fault; neither is the fact that he never saved a penny of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he made. Now he’s broke, angry and looking for someone to blame.
Participation in Occupy Oakland is the perfect outlet, and during a demonstration, he’s arrested for assault.
Set it Off sounds like it could be an interesting story with contemporary issues, action and politics. It isn’t and here’s why.
Rather than start the story with an action-filled inciting incident - the demonstration and the arrest, Shelley chooses to begin with JJ being bailed out by his sister, Jackie, and step-sister, Karen.
The next few chapters flash back to the three character’s childhoods. It’s backstory and not very interesting at that, though there’s a bit of character development and the reader gets a sense of the relationship between the three.
Then we’re back to the present, and everyone is gathering for their father’s eightieth birthday. There’s lots of reflection but no drama; not even a family feud.
Occasionally, JJ meets up with his pals from the Occupy Oakland movement, but they’re hardly radical and more philosophical than violent.
I kept anticipating something would happen, but nothing does. The story just peters out.
Shelley writes well. Her dialogue is authentic, and her characters are well-drawn, the problem is they’re unsympathetic. Besides being boringly normal, they’re timid and whiney.
But what makes Set if Off so lacklustre a read is the fundamentals of storytelling are missing: Goal, Motivation and Conflict.
The goals of the three main characters are so vague as to be non-existent. Without goals, there’s no conflict. How can there be conflict when everyone is more or less satisfied with their situation, or at least too unmotivated to do anything about it?
Add to that Shelley’s passive writing style - the author prefers to have the characters explain what happens than have them actively engage in the events.
These deficiencies represent lack of craft - beginner’s mistakes. They would have been easily identified by peer writing groups or instructors in writing courses. Reading books on how to write fiction can also be helpful though nothing takes the place of an honest, constructive critique by a writing professional.
Shelley’s books get credit for their evocative covers as well as being professionally produced and edited - error-free.