Nila’s Babies

by Jac Simensen
Cosmic Egg Books

book review by Joe Kilgore

“Why, in the name of God, didn’t you get us away from your mother’s vile superstitions? How could you let her disfigure your child?”

Contemporary Florida is the setting for this novel that slyly morphs from a budding romance into a mysterious occult chronicle. Gordon is a widowed father of twins who becomes increasingly fascinated with Nila, the woman he’s hired to serve as his girls’ nanny. As the adults’ relationship grows, so too does a vile malignancy committed to claiming the very souls of the precious toddlers. While this is indeed a modern story of suspense, it is simultaneously a trek through an alternate theory of religion and creation that challenges more traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs with those of African Ashanti legend. As these dual storylines unwind, mere humans are forced to come face to face with immortals bent on shanghaiing innocents as vessels for their never-ending journey. Can love endure when surrounded by such malevolent sources? Can children maintain their innocence when set upon by such evil powers?

Author Simensen does an admirable job of layering his yarn with credibility even as he pushes beyond the bounds of reality. This is accomplished both with character development and plot interaction. One believes the actions, behavior, and motivations of his principal characters, be they bound by their shared humanity or, in the case of the supernatural entities, by their pre-imposed limitations. With this novel, Simensen brings a fresh and inventive approach to macabre storytelling. By mixing a relatively straightforward prose style and plausible plot with profoundly transmundane characters and events, he delivers a narrative that is both engaging and entertaining. Readers who agree will be pleased to learn that, apparently, this is only the first in a series of such tales to be dubbed The Book Of Lilith.

Doc’s Dog Days: A Hickory Doc’s Activity Book

by Linda Harkey

book review by Kate Robinson

“‘Doc, you can learn a lot about a book by eating its binding.'”

Linda Harkey, a former educator and museum docent as well as a hunting dog enthusiast, writes children’s books about the beloved and oft-visited topic of canine capers, making the old new again by featuring a specific breed close to her heart—German short-haired pointers. In this third book of her series, the adorable black-and-white illustrations by Mike Minick are begging to be colored and doodled upon with markers, pencils, or crayons, making this both an educational and a fun diversion likely to be appreciated by kids and their caregivers, parents, and teachers.

The activity book serves as a transition from picture book to chapter book, with a flash story and a full-page illustration in each spread. A single spread can be consumed as a separate lesson, story, or creative experience. The reading level and subject matter pertaining to the German shorthair breed and their tracking and hunting abilities is somewhat advanced in some stories in comparison to the coloring book illustrations, so younger children will need reading and information assistance as they enjoy their coloring. Some stories are simpler, less informative, tighter, and more playful than others, so this volume ultimately has broad appeal to a wide spectrum of kids: young non-readers, early readers, and more advanced readers who can tackle the more difficult text and the concepts themselves. Some stories are left purposely unfinished for development by students, with extra space on the page and prompted via a final question. There’s also space in the coloring book illustrations for kids to add their own creative flourishes.

The anthropomorphic, dog-centric stories are heartfelt, light, and humorous, though occasionally a bit self-conscious and over explanatory, in the sense that illustrations typically play a role in “showing” some plot point in children’s stories. Therefore, there are few visual surprises since the text tends to reiterate and upstage the pictorial action. The tales are set in specific locales, mostly Oklahoma and New Mexico. So, in addition to visiting the daily lives and adventures of hunting dogs, readers will also experience regional and environmental information, such as the wildlife they encounter and descriptions of landscapes.

The dogs’ viewpoints are unique as they refer to their human couple at the Lazy Dog Hacienda as “Great One” and “Food Giver.” Readers will also enjoy the various quirks of each character, such as Sadie’s mealtime behavior and insistence that her food be served in a sectional bowl, or Zeke’s desire to carry around a blanket during hunting season. The storybook dogs delight in their surroundings just as real dogs do, investigating anything attractive or new to them, such as Food Giver’s ice cream bar, the reason Porcupine Pete has quills, or why the Lazy Dog Hacienda’s owl is mysteriously hanging upside down one day. Readers are invited to explore these phenomena creatively, and no doubt they will also enjoy recounting their own dog stories in response to the book’s tales. The universal appeal of companionship with dogs and curiosity about wild animal encounters, plus the invitation to process these creatively, is a big plus for this book as well as the series.

A 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone: A Lawyer’s Case Stories of Love, Loneliness, and Litigation

by J. W. Freiberg
Philia Books

book review by Kat Kennedy

“Loneliness, I realized, is the sensation of inadequate connections to others, just as hunger is the sensation of inadequate nourishment and thirst is the sensation of inadequate hydration.”

Consisting of five stories taken from the author’s work as a lawyer, this book offers a study in the causes of subjective chronic loneliness in those whose connections with other people “fail to provide the security, nurturing, and soothing care that others enjoy from their healthy connective networks.” In looking over his many years of case studies, the author narrows down the types of misconnections experienced by the chronically lonely into five categories: “Tenuous Connections,” in which the connections between clients are uncertain or unreliable; “One-Way Connections”—for example, unrequited love; “Fraudulent Connections,” wherein one’s relationship is based on deception and manipulation; “Obstructed Connections,” where one is prevented from being emotionally available; and “Dangerous Connections,” in which the relationship can cause devastating emotional and physical harm. For each of these misconnections, Freiberg includes a case study from one of his past clients to illustrate how people who are in relationships with others may still suffer loneliness because of the failure of their relationships to offer healthy connections.

The five case studies presented in this work are exceptional tales of the human experience. Some are heart-wrenching as they deal with innocent children who find themselves at the mercy of the adults in their lives. Others deal with the bizarre turns that life can take and the human capacity to see what one wants to see even to the point of denying an unmistakable truth. Each fascinating story is told through the voice of a master storyteller, which renders the text fluid and engaging while instilling its subjects with a humanity which elevates them far beyond a case study in a folder. One feels for each of these people as they navigate the legal system, gaining respect for the author and his role in helping them. There is much to learn about humanity, as well as the nuances of loneliness in the author’s work.

Freiberg has a unique position from which to address the issue of loneliness through the lens of litigation. He began his career as a social psychologist after obtaining his PhD at UCLA and spending a decade as a professor at Boston University. After receiving his J.D. at Harvard, he embarked on his long career as a lawyer. Having experience in both fields gives him a unique perspective on the modern phenomenon of loneliness and how it contributed to particular law cases on which he worked. This is the third of Freiberg’s books on the subject. The award-winning first, Four Seasons of Loneliness (2016), deals with four case studies from his law practice, one from each season of life. The second, Growing Up Lonely (2018), is a collection of papers, for which he served as editor, from the 2018 Symposium on Childhood Loneliness held at the Kennedy Center in Boston, MA. Each has received accolades from professionals in child psychology, with Four Seasons of Loneliness garnering the 2017 Independent Publishers Book Awards Gold Prize.

It is impossible to read these case studies without being profoundly impacted by the people involved. What Freiberg has done is to take the legal notes on each case and put a very human face on each one, all the while revealing his own deeply felt concern for his clients and their circumstances. This is a riveting read that will forever change the way one looks at chronic loneliness and the connections between humans.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wooden Characters

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

My Iroquois grandmother once asked me who I was. She wasn’t losing her vision or slipping into dementia. She had a keen eye on the horizon, like her young grandson, and kept a small gun beneath her shawl in case that horizon offered unexpected trouble. Listening to her was like bird watching. Rewards came with a quiet, patient effort.

That day, her question was completely lost on me. I was ten years old—a recent refugee from the city and living in a small tract housing neighborhood at the end of the woods. It was a so-called better life, but I was frightened by my change in circumstance. The steel and concrete was gone—no city buzz or crime. This was not a better life. I’d been dropped into the country, and along with a small band of friends—one relocated from Brooklyn and another from Newark, NJ—we roamed the birch forests. My grandmother noticed that I lacked the simplest outdoor skills, and even more so that I had no sense of how I fit in the world. Her question had asked me to begin looking inward for answers.

Often, when reviewing books and manuscripts, I encounter characters who appear to be lost in a story. They’re being forced through plots lines by their authors. They speak and move unnaturally because the writer hasn’t asked two basic questions of their characters—questions they probably hadn’t asked themselves in full: Who am? Why am I here? These questions were a gift from my grandmother, and I employ them until this very day. For creators of stories, they are fundamental. Let’s break each of these down.

Who am I?

Writers are brave souls. We are downright precocious. We dissect the human condition and attempt to make sense of it. Genuine storytellers translate their findings about humanity into words. And it can only begin after we truly understand who these people are moving across the page. Sometimes we know because we’ve been thinking about them for years, but more often, we need to do the research. One surefire method is to perform a character sketch, an autopsy before they are dead and buried. Here are the absolute basics for each character:

Name – People have names, and so do your story characters. A name suggests ethnic background and even country of origin. It speaks of the character’s parents. All names mean something.

Body Specifics – Story characters possess genetic characteristics that follow them throughout life. These include their age, gender, height, weight, body dimensions, facial structure, hair, and voice. The list of physical details is endless. Memorable details stick in the reader’s mind better than a name.

Body Language – Psychology begins to enter when we discuss human body dynamics. How we position our bodies in space reveals our personalities and betrays our inner thoughts.

Presentation – Many of the aforementioned character details are a culmination of fate and circumstance, but the way a character presents himself to the world is a personal decision. Clothing, hairstyle, and speech pattern are cognitive decisions of character. They speak of social status, education, financial inclination, overall preference, and personality type.

Background – Characters don’t arrive in a story as fully formed people. They had prior lives. They grew up and experienced certain events. They acquired various skills. As in real life, a character is in large part a culmination of their abilities and experiences. You may not use any of this, but you’ll understand better what this person is capable of doing based on their history.

Psyche  – At this point, we have sketched a pretty good character from the outside, poking a finger or two into the interior. Let’s ponder two important questions. How does the character view the world, and how does the character place himself in it? Answering theses questions goes a long way to anticipating a character’s reaction to story situations.

Strengths & Weaknesses – Select strengths that will support the resolution of each character’s goals and desires, and select weakness that will sabotage their chances of success.  We all have positive and negative traits that govern our personalities. Major traits rule each character, for better or for worse.

Motivation – When sketching story characters, pass from the physical into the psychological and uncover their motivations. That is the most interesting detail of anyone you’ll meet. Why does an individual behave in a particular way?  By uncovering a character’s motivation, we not only understand them more fully, we predict their moves and plot an appropriate course for them in a story.

Why am I here?

A story journey begins when a character asks: what do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Good story people take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. Confusing, unpredictable people in life are individuals who don’t fully understand themselves. Wooden characters in stories are individuals who the writer doesn’t fully understand.

Not until decades after my grandmother’s death did I began the process of asking myself who I was and why I was here. I am a scribe, part of the ancient clan that reaches back as far as the Iroquois themselves. Scribes document history and try to make sense of the people and things that pass through time and emerge within it. While this isn’t my only avocation in life, it wasn’t long before I applied my grandmother’s two vital questions to my story characters. It was only then that I began to bring life to my characters and uncovered their stories in a worthwhile and authentic way.

 

Next in the The Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – The First Look

Previously in The Book Killers series: White Room

Shock Wave

by Florian Louisoder
Starry Night Publishing
book review by Kat Kennedy

“It wasn’t the future that took root in our present that day, it was the past…”

Forty-year-old deep-sea diver Scott DeSantis is en route to repair a problem with a wellhead deep in the Gulf of Mexico when he hears on the radio that Cuba is planning an underwater detonation of an atomic bomb. Scott’s ex-wife, Linda, a nuclear physicist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is taxed with accessing the fallout from the incident. Suddenly, Linda is thrown into an encounter with an old nemesis, and Scott discovers that the woman to whom he was once married, the mother of his two children, is not the person he thought her to be. Linda finds that the incident has opened a vortex which she thought had long been closed, and she and Scott must travel far into a past with which Linda is very familiar in order to save their children from being caught in a time warp from which they may never return. Their lives are now on a trajectory that will change the world forever.

Louisoder has written an intriguing piece of science fiction based on time travel. He incorporates the legend of Atlantis by having one of his main characters be an inhabitant of the city who must return to close the vortex opened by the novel’s antagonist. The descriptions of Atlantis are fascinating, as told through the character of Linda, and much of the book takes place in the fabled city. Along with the struggle between good and evil is the philosophical question of how one would change the past, if allowed, in order to produce a better future. This is a very entertaining read with some surprising elements woven into the narrative. It is a must for anyone interested in stories of time travel or the legend of Atlantis.

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: White Room

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

White room syndrome happens when a writer fails to give sufficient information about the setting. For the reader, this can be disorienting if not completely boring. Perhaps there are times when the writer desires this effect, but it isn’t the norm. Setting is the writer’s friend, and it should be exploited at every opportunity. A good writer employs the most interesting aspects of location to strengthen the drama. A great writer paints the entire landscape with a single sentence.

In theory, a story spans a particular time period. Booksellers like to classify stories as historical, contemporary, and futuristic. This is nothing more than past, present, and future respectively, and each changes the parameters of setting. Let’s take a closer look at each category.

The Past

The past is recorded in the annals of history. The writer connects with this information through personal experience, experts, and documentation. While expert sources are good, our own memory of the past is unreliable and must be verified. We often don’t remember things exactly as they were, even once familiar details. We also romanticize the past. Hanging clothes on the line, piece by piece, on a warm spring afternoon sounds sweet, but it was never as nice as shoving them in the dryer.

Another aspect of the past involves historical events. Consider history in two ways: as a backdrop or as an immediate surrounding. In the opening to The World According to Garp, World War II is a backdrop. It fills the air with tension, although the specifics of war never enter the picture. In the film, Pearl Harbor the surprise attack takes over the story and frankly crowds the personal stories. If a story gets close to a major historical event, it will dominate the narrative.

The Present

A story in current times includes the tangible past and future. The writer is not redesigning the world but employing it for dramatic effect. Regardless, intriguing locations exist in present times: a peek inside surgery, life on an oil drilling platform, or the machinations of a textile factory in China. Most people haven’t viewed these locations up close, but each writer has witnessed unique settings and might make use of them.

The Future

Fifty years ago, we were projected to be commuting to the space wheel in the sky, with a four-day workweek and loads of playtime for interesting new social games. It appears that the experts guessed wrong. By all accounts, the coming years will be dirtier, noisier, and more crowded, if not busier. This is what made the movie Blade Runner so special, besides the twisted ending. The future is open to interpretation, but whatever world is designed for a story, it must be a logical extension of its own history. In Dune, the author included a lexicon inn the back pages, and, to his many readers, it’s a road map for a real world.

Where is the story location?

Story scenes occur in one or more locations. These are physical locations on the planet or in the imaginary world of the writer, although placement is not the only consideration of setting location. A story focus varies from a wide to a tight view. One writer may traverse the global landscape in pursuit of a story, while another remains in the same room for the duration. In either case, writers seek the extraordinary details, and much like character details, even the most mundane parts can achieve intrigue and brilliance.

What is life like in the story?

This is a broad question, involving many aspects of life at a particular location and moment in time. A writer considers food, clothing, transportation, education, occupation, religion, and language, and the list of possibilities is much larger. Any social behavior or lifestyle element may be useful to the story. The Pennsylvania Amish live differently than people fifty miles away in downtown Philadelphia. While each is somewhat aware of the other, individuals remain bound to the customs and circumstances of geography and culture.

Tips for Applying Setting:

  • Using setting details is a lot like using character details. Apply them in proportion to their importance to and impact on the story. Every word that appears in the text garners attention. If the writer embellishes a particular aspect, the reader will assume it’s important.
  • Seek interesting details, over the common or mundane. In a present day setting, everyone has a good idea how a steaming coffee mug looks, smells, and feels. On the other hand, the same cup of coffee assumes a new dimension in another time period. In 1776, coffee might take thirty minutes to prepare, while in 2220, coffee might enter your hydration tube at the mere thought of it.
  • Employ characters to interpret the setting in their thoughts and words, rather than straightforward narrative passages. The story will perform double duty, fleshing out the characters and surroundings at the same time.
  • If the story must include pure descriptions in the narrative, try embedding inside passages of dialogue. The landscape will be built without the reader hearing your construction noises in the background.
  • When incorporating setting into a scene, try to include all of the senses. Most of us absorb life with our eyes, followed by our ears and nose, but remember to include touch and taste. These senses become more poignant in a well-crafted story.
  • Setting can facilitate entrances and exits to scenes. The natural machinations of a particular place can provide opportunities to nail down the point and exit the scene.
  • Certain settings can amplify the tension—a bad storm, a lousy neighborhood, a creaking floor.

The list of possible devices and uses is endless. Setting helps, but it’s not a cure-all. However, if the setting isn’t sufficient, the reader will be lost in white room syndrome without a sense of time and place.

Next in The Books Killers series: Wooden Characters

Previously in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Wandering Plots

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

Perhaps the worst killers of books, albeit fiction or nonfiction, are narratives that lead nowhere fast or, even, those that meander over long periods of time. It’s a primary violation of the contract with the reader: a book that says nothing or accomplishes little. For a period leading up to the 1990s, the bookstore shelves were brimming with beautiful prose seeming to serve either the author or a higher sense of literature. They gained prizes and put us to sleep faster than a late night PBS documentary. They helped to kick the industry in the gut and, in the end, to transform mainstream publishing into what it is today, for better or worse.

While beautiful prose can be stunning in tight space—for example that which is found in better poetry—a book requires readers to stay focused for the long haul in a world with an increasingly shorter attention span. Sooner or later, the much-maligned concept of plotting will enter the writer’s thoughts, and if every book is a journey, plotting is having clues about the trip.

A story journey begins when a character asks: What do I want? Born out of internal or external pressures, it is the genesis of hope and desire. It is the bridge from that first ancient question: Who am I? Crossing that bridge poses the second ancient question: Why am I here? Strong characters take a stab at these questions. There is beauty and drama in the success and failure of answering them. In a strong plot, the story questions are presented as early as possible. Readers align with the desire of the main character and prepare for the trials and tribulations of satisfying it. When it is obscured by fuzzy plot direction or too much background information, the story is regarded as going nowhere or wandering. Those are apt descriptions.

What is drama? To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, drama is life without the boring bits. He understood drama. Did you ever see a boring Hitchcock movie? He sketched storyboards—sequential depictions of characters in action. He left nothing to chance, maintaining an eye on the dramatic core of each scene. Some accuse Hitchcock of being calculating and manipulative. Yes indeed, and we thank him for it.

So in the spirit of Hitchcock, who by the way was a guidepost for a young Steven Spielberg, let’s employ the Scene and Sequel technique. It’s a method that can be applied to any book to make its plot stronger.

The Scene

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is one step in the journey. It can expand over multiple chapters, or more than one scene can exist within a chapter, but a scene is easily removed from the entire story line and analyzed for its merits. When analyzing a scene, look for its dramatic core.

What is the objective? The main character in the scene is trying to accomplish something. This is a sub-goal of the character’s greater story desire. Answering this question gives the scene focus, not to mention an agenda.

What is the problem? A known complication hinders the objective. This may be a personal flaw or problem developed in the story line, but the character cannot reach his objective, unless the character acts upon the problem.

Where is the conflict? A person or thing threatens resolution of the objective. While solving the problem, the character encounters dramatic opposition from another source, thereby threatening a positive outcome.

What is the outcome? At the climax of the scene, the character’s objective is answered in some fashion. The answer progresses the story line and changes the character’s mental, emotional, or physical state.

The Sequel

A sequel appears after a scene. It is an opportunity for the character to digest the previous action. There are three major aspects of a sequel.

Cognition: what does the character think about the previous scene? This is the character’s perception of the recent events.

Emotion: how does the character feel about the previous events? This is the emotional response.

Decision: what will the character do next? The character brings sense and reasoning together to make a decision.

The scene and sequel method is a tool. When a writer approaches a scene, he or she considers who is in the scene, what they are trying to accomplish, where the scene takes place, where it fits on the story line, where lies the dramatic core, and how everything will end up. The scene sketching method above assists the understanding process. Employ it when stuck in a scene that lacks drama. Its pointed questions will expose a scene’s particular weaknesses. Refocusing a scene/sequel or eliminating it entirely—don’t be afraid to cut when necessary—will strengthen the overall plot. It might just save a plot from dying.

Next in The Book Killers series: White Room

Previously in The Book Killers series: Dead Dialogue

Tokyo Traffic by Michael Pronko

Tokyo Traffic

by Michael Pronko
Raked Gravel Press

book review by Joel Samberg

“Hiroshi’s forensic accounting skill was helpful with most homicides, since money could be found at the root of most cases.”

This third volume in Pronko’s series about Detective Hiroshi is packed with all the atmosphere and disparate personalities readers have come to expect from his Tokyo-based stories. Pronko takes us through not just the Tokyo of movies and textbooks but one teeming with more underbellies and connections to global corruption than we might otherwise expect. This time our intrepid detective—an amiable accountant—is in pursuit of the criminals who may be responsible for a grisly murder at a porn studio. The key is likely held by a girl from Thailand who was working at the studio when the crime was committed. But now she’s missing, and Detective Hiroshi, who has a personal life as intriguing as his professional one, has his work cut out for him. Combining old-fashioned gumshoeing with modern-day social conventions, Pronko’s lengthy tale is as much a Tokyo detective’s diary as it is a gritty underworld whodunit.

Take a classic fictional detective out of a big American city in 1940—say a Philip Marlowe or a Dick Tracy—and transplant him to Tokyo in 2020 to solve a gruesome homicide. Therein lies the appeal of this crime thriller. Instead of taking us to a smoky Chicago nightclub to find a clue-laden cocktail napkin smeared with lipstick, the author might take us instead to a Tokyo internet cafe to read GPS coordinates left on a mobile device. The book, at a whopping 400 pages, requires patience and a good grasp at remembering names and places. However, it is intriguing for a host of reasons: one, the timeless, just-the-facts-ma’am crime-solving methodology of the detective; two, the appealing ways in which the author includes the daily minutiae of Hiroshi’s life; and three, the story’s revealing coverage of a true scourge of international crime—human trafficking.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Dead Dialogue

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

There are many ways to deliver dead dialogue upon arrival. Flabby, unfocused, and unnatural conversation between characters will kill a book in the best places. Certain readers gloss over narratives, but bear down on the stretches of dialogue. It’s like bugging a nearby conversation, hoping to hear special information uncovered, but poor dialogue disappoints every time, and shakes believability in the characters. Let’s take a look at ways to strengthen dialogue.

Let Them Speak for Themselves

Forced or unnatural conversations betray both the character and writer. When a writer stuffs words and information into the mouths of those in the scene, he creates a bad drama on stage for the purposes of transporting the story. Before the characters can even talk, the writer must understand who they are. When well-drawn characters enter a scene, they begin speaking for themselves. Their cadence and word choice will be a product of their histories and what they desire. They’ll reveal secrets in the subtext. As Robert Stone once said, “All dialogue is a conversation with the soul.”

Keep It Real, But…

While strong characters have a unique manner of speech, too much of it offers speed bumps in the exchange. It forces the reader to constantly interpret to discover the inner meaning of their words. Consider sprinkling dialect and inflection indicators throughout the conversation, instead of marking every instance. Readers will begin hearing the unique voice, without the authorial stage direction. The same goes for dialogue modifiers—those fantastic adverbs that describe their tone. Well-written dialogue wrought through great characters and circumstance will imply the tone without having to describe it.

Tighten Up

In real life, not all conversation has a purpose. We sit over drinks or on the phone and pass the time, revealing nuggets of life along the way. Perhaps, all we gather is a sense of how the other person is feeling at the moment. In a written work, idle conversation is death for the narrative flow, when it should form some of the most interesting stretches.  Great authors effectively enter conversation during its key moments and exit when nothing important is said or when the central message has been delivered. Even within those moments, they trim out the fat, employing color only for impact and to illuminate circumstance and character.

Hear the Voices

Now, we’re dropping back before the first bit of dialogue is written, before the first character exists. Prior to drawing great characters and letting them speak, writers must become a student of voice—both specifically and in general. Everyone speaks differently and at different moments. They reveal the truth on different levels. Eavesdrop on people talking. Be quiet and listen. Learn to hear not only how people speak, but the subtext that emerges within the conversation. For example, liars or those hiding information will say much in the unsaid. Fearful or grieving people will skirt that which affects them most.

To a skilled writer, dialogue arrives fluidly. She knows how and what the characters must say. Others have an inexplicable natural talent for delivering stunning conversation on the page. Many biographers select key moments to insert a phrase or passage that brings the figure to life. This occurs also in fiction, although generally on a wider palette where exact quotations are not required. In all narrative forms, dialogue is one of the writer’s greatest tools, which cannot be overexploited, but can be poorly employed.

Next in The Book Killers series: Wandering Plots

Previously in The Book Killers series: Weak Point of View

 

 

HomoAmerican – The Secret Society

by Michael Dane
Amazon.com Services

book review by Dylan Ward

“This Secret Society, of which I am a member, is no more visible to me than I am to them.”

With the rise of noteworthy novels and biographies from LGBTQ writers such as Paul Lisicky, Noelle Stevenson, Brandon Taylor, and Ocean Vuong, Dane joins the ranks with his hefty, detailed memoir. The reader is invited into Dane’s private, life-long search for identity. With intimate detail, the author reveals a well-traveled, storied life where somewhere along the way he “stopped being a real character,” only recognizing himself in reflections. He examines the painful moments of childhood and his chaotic passage into adulthood. We follow him as he roams among outcasts, immersing himself into an invisible society that is known only to a few. Dane probes the duplexity of visibility and invisibility, like a dancer on stage in front of audiences and an object of desire, yet continuously feeling lonely and invisible. For Dane, he moves through a world of night. He wanders in shadows and “darkness, of passion and pleasure.”

Reflecting upon his upbringing, Dane considers the complex relationships throughout his life, beginning with his parents. At just six years old, he begins to understand that he is different. Growing up in the “spare, gray, cold house” in San Francisco, he fears his father’s “simmering madness” and the unruly gangs that terrorize the streets and his school. His mother’s presence offers little comfort as she too is trapped, unable to fully protect Dane with five children and “a crazy husband.” From this, the author develops conceptions of being “invisible,” of which the only solution is “isolation or amputation of the soul.” His parents’ divorce fractures his family life. He barely escapes his father’s abuse before turning to rebellion and embracing a burgeoning sexuality in junior high. At sixteen in the 1970s, he and America are on the cusp of change. Dane begins to seek out that secret society, which becomes the overarching theme of his narrative. It is dance that opens doors for him, and ballet serves as an outlet, a protective “safe haven” that provides a “magical structure.”

This newfound passion eventually leads him to the ballet schools of New York City. He is twenty but pretends to be younger. He is also vulnerable and unsure of himself, alone in a city of glamour and cruelty. That vulnerability, coupled with physical beauty and innocence, attracts the attention of both men and women in ways good and bad. He meets the half Puerto Rican, half Italian Gerard whose “sense of magic about him” brings new clarity to Dane. Their relationship is complicated as Gerard gives Dane the comfort he seeks while also enticing him into a world of anonymous sex. As Dane explores his needs and wants, he eventually gives in to the “compulsion and desire” while “trapped between mirrors in this world.”

There is a raw, lyric power to Dane’s prose that is seductive and renders the reader unto a “language of the heart.” This is most evident at the start of his memoir, and it returns again with his time in Tehran, dancing for the Shah of Iran in a “mysterious and wild terrain” amid the “snowcapped mountains in the distance.” There, he learns carnal truths and acknowledges masculinity, femininity, and the blurred lines of identity in between.

Dane writes largely about identity while he explores other themes with these pages, too, such as discrimination, sexuality, and freedom. Through Dane, we are witness to significant historical events that shape our political and social landscape. He carefully braids these details into the narrative that forms his coming-of-age tale. There is much to appreciate in Dane’s book as he reflects upon a diverse life. Readers might even find themselves considering their own identities in the myriad ways the author tries to make sense of his. The author’s story is a mix of harrowing moments, happy moments, and sad moments. Dane comes to terms with all that happens to make him the person he is today. His memoir is an unforgettable, absorbing read.