Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

51-tF08D1ULPat Prescott is a long-time reader, commenter, and great friend of the blog. (My very first follower, actually—dating back to my pre-Wordpress days.) So, I feel a little sheepish that it took me this long to read his novel, Human Sacrifices.

It’s an extremely ambitious book—a blend of various genres, with elements of horror, of romance and of satire. The story follows Jan, a young schoolteacher who suffers through a brief marriage to an abusive husband, and tries to find peace in helping her students escape the perils of local gangs. She ultimately remarries to a thoughtful preacher, Paul, who has a tragic history of his own.

The horror parts of the story come from the allegorical demonic face that Jan sees in the trees outside her room early in the book—a face she refers to as “Mal”, a God of Death, and which comes to symbolize the evil in the world—whether it be the gangs, or Brother Bobby (a flamboyant fundamentalist preacher who holds considerable influence over Jan’s first husband), or the tedious nature of school bureaucracy that prevents Jan from teaching her students.

As you might imagine, the horror writer in me loved this idea, and thought the scenes where Jan addresses Mal were among the most effective in the story. These are deemed “hallucinations” by the other characters in the story, but for Jan, it ultimately signifies all the adversity she has to overcome.

Paul and Jan face plenty of adversity over the course of the book, whether from school administrators or religious fanatics, but also have plenty of good times and interesting discussions about relationships, sex, and religion.

Through it all, Prescott skewers many targets, from the everyday annoyances of the educational system to deeply sensitive religious topics. Jan’s second husband Paul holds forth at length on some of the most controversial issues—abortion, religious monuments on government property, gay rights, etc.—and on each of them delivers well-reasoned arguments against the worldview of the zealous Fundamentalists, all based on evidence found in the Bible itself.

Being not terribly well-read on the topic of religion, I found much of the terminology initially unfamiliar, but ultimately very interesting. For example, I learned about “millennialism”--a belief held by some Christians regarding Christ returning and ruling for a thousand years before the Final Judgment.

I admire Prescott’s courage for taking on these topics, and the viewpoint of a liberal protestant which he portrays was quite an interesting one to read.

Now, putting on my critic hat, I did have a few problems with the story, particularly in the middle section, where I felt things dragged a bit as the day-to-day facts of Jan’s relationship with Paul were explored. That could just be my tastes, though; as I’m not generally one for romance in novels. And while Paul quotes from plenty of male experts on sex and gender relations, I think it would have been good to include a bit more of women’s views on it. The female characters, in my opinion, all seemed a little too sex-crazed. There’s nothing wrong with sex-crazed characters mind, but I prefer to have some who are not very interested in sex at all, just to balance things out.

Also, I felt the book wasn’t divided into enough chapters. Cutting into smaller chunks might make things more manageable, and might even suggest a way to address the “flow” issue I mentioned above. As it was, they seemed a little too packed, and also a bit too sequential—plot twists and minor dramas arise, play out, and are resolved in a fairly linear fashion. It might work better if these plot threads were mixed up a little, so that different ones came to the forefront at different parts of the book. For example, the last chapter is largely Jan interviewing another character and learning her life story. I would have broken this interview up over the course of several chapters, so that we have more time to mull parts of it over, and to put the final part toward the end, but also coincide with other dramatic developments. (Of course, this is something that is very hard to do, and something I doubt if I myself could do—again, I respect the level of daring it takes to even attempt this.)

Finally—and this is an issue I can relate to, having struggled with it myself—there were some typos, missing commas, and run-on sentences, particularly in the first part of the book. These are just editing glitches, and probably inevitable. I heard about similar issues from readers of my most recent book. It seems like no matter how many times you reread something, errors still get through. The great thing about eBooks is that you can correct them.

Human Sacrifices is a promising effort which, with some revision, I think could become a very good novel indeed. I hope none of my criticisms seem too harsh, because I really think there is a lot of good material to work with here. Patrick has done me a great favor by critiquing my stories honestly, and his comments made me a better writer, so I think the least I can do is try my best to return the favor. I know firsthand that it’s tough to work on something for a long time and then hear people asking for changes and modifications—but I also know I was very grateful for it afterward.

Because in spite of the flaws I mention above, I give the author a lot of credit for trying to pull off something so ambitious. It’s not easy to address all of these different facets of life in a book, and probably doing so is bound to occasionally be messy—rather like life itself.

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Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.

Footnote

1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.

swbg
Published by Simon & Schuster

I won’t even attempt to give a summary of this book’s plot. It’s too madcap to describe. I’ll simply say that the protagonist is Ray Parisi, a former sports analyst with a serious gambling addiction, and the book chronicles his increasingly outlandish attempts to win back his ex-wife.

This is the plot in brief, and to realize that it can be laid out so simply is stunning to me, because that doesn’t even begin to do the book justice.  Parisi’s mis-adventures lead him to encounter all sorts of memorable characters and surreal situations.

At times, the book reminded me of John Kennedy Toole’s classic Confederacy of Dunces. The plot is not as intricate, and its final act is not as satisfying, but it has that same tragicomic charm.

For all the strange (and sometimes awkwardly contrived) scenarios, the book never loses touch with reality in terms of how its characters behave.  The plot may be implausible, but the human interactions are as true-to-life as can be.

And make no mistake; the plot really strains credulity. Parisi is on the run from the law throughout the book, and it seems hard to imagine he could evade capture as long as he does; especially given his downright reckless behavior.

Credulity is imposed upon further by the segment in which Parisi inherits some $600,000, increases it to over $1 million by playing Blackjack in Vegas, loses it all in a fit of despair, then somehow gets all the way back to $2 million through yet more gambling. (His comeback requires, among other things, successful bets on 11 and then 23 in roulette, followed by more uncanny wins in Blackjack.)

Plots that hinge on things like specific cards being drawn at a given time are always in danger of seeming ridiculously contrived. (See Gayden Wren’s criticism of the opera The Grand Duke, for example.) But Tambakis manages to keep us invested enough in Parisi’s epic, ill-advised quest that we forgive the byzantine coincidences it takes to sustain it.

I suspect that most readers care more about characters than they do about plot. They will forgive an unlikely coincidence, or two, or even more, if at the end of it they have a compelling situation in which they can fully engage with a character. Implausibility is the cornerstone of all fiction–if it were plausible, it would cease to be fiction.

And it is because of its engaging characters that Swimming with Bridgeport Girls truly shines. Parisi is, by any objective measure, a bad man, and yet we cannot help liking him all the same.  In the Las Vegas section of the book, there are several memorable passages in which he clearly explains the logic of an addict.  It’s so well-written that you can almost see his point of view, even as you wish he would stop destroying his life.

Each chapter is written from Parisi’s perspective, but prefaced with a quote from his ex-wife’s journal.  These quotes offer a different perspective on events in the novel, and help remind us that as likeable as he is, Parisi is also terribly selfish.

The ending–which I won’t spoil too much here–is not a happy one, though not completely tragic either.  In fact, it feels like more of a tragic ending than it truly is, if you know what I mean.  I just can’t help thinking that it should have ended on a more hopeful note. Parisi hardly deserves a fairy-tale ending, but he also doesn’t deserve the really gloomy note on which his story ends, either.

The book is both extremely funny and intensely sad; hopeful and despairing–sometimes in the same chapter. I think it’s best if you can read it in a short period of time, and allow yourself to get caught up in it, just as Parisi himself is, and rejoice at all his triumphs, short-lived and short-sighted though they are. It makes the pathos of the ending that much more powerful.

Surreality is a “hardboiled” murder mystery with a modern twist: much of the mystery takes place in the eponymous virtual online world.

Suspended Columbus Police Detective Keenan is tasked with investigating the virtual murder of Franklin Haines, one of the creators of the online game “Surreality” at the opening of his new virtual casino. You might think virtual murder isn’t such a big deal, except it also entails the loss of millions of real dollars.

Keenan, suspended for shooting and killing a murderer in an alley months before, is assigned to create an avatar in the world of “Surreality” and investigate the case. As he does so, he meets a variety of strange characters, including one expert hacker whose avatar in the virtual world is a penguin. He also encounters virtual thieves, thugs, prostitutes and other staples of noir detective fiction; all of whom practice their unsavory professions freely in the “pretend” online world.

But soon, the effects of the game world begin to spill over into reality; occasionally in lethal fashion. As Keenan moves back and forth between investigating virtual crimes and real ones that are bound up with it, he also begins to deal with his own demons.

I won’t spoil the whole mystery by summarizing the plot. It is complex and twisting, but not confusingly so. It is very much in the hardboiled detective story tradition, and competently done. I was able to figure out who the perpetrator was going to be a little before it was revealed, but it was an effective story even so.

While the dialogue is very snappy and never boring, even when explaining highly technical matters, the characters (especially Keenan’s friend and fellow officer Caliente) do tend to engage in snarky banter even in the most intense situations. I did not like that. In my opinion, professional police tend to be very terse and clipped when speaking while in action-they want to waste as little time as possible.

A related issue is that at times the mood of the story shifts too abruptly. It goes from witty wisecracks to investigating a homicide scene back to wisecracks again. The “serious” moments sometimes did not last long enough to work. My recommendation would be to have the story begin with the light mood, and steadily grow darker. The characters can start off bantering, and then become more intense to show that things are getting serious. (The neo-noir mystery film Chinatown follows this model.)

In spite of these issues, Surreality is a very strong, well-paced book. By mixing 1930s mystery tropes with a high-tech cyber setting, it creates a delightful atmosphere that reminded me of the “familiar-yet-alien” vibe of books like The King in Yellow or the game Deus Ex, which I love. There were many times when I would read something and think “I wish I’d written that!”

It also did not hurt that the book is set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and much of the “real world” action takes place in areas I have often been to myself. Author Ben Trube is a graduate of the Ohio State University, as am I, and some of the scenes are set on OSU’s sprawling campus. Having seen much of it firsthand, I can say that Mr. Trube has a knack for describing buildings and scenery that I wish I possessed.

But even if you have never been to Ohio, you will enjoy this book if you like crime thrillers, or cleverly constructed plots in general.  I highly recommend it.