Tag Archives: book review

Review: A Life Transparent, by Todd Keisling

First, go visit the site and read the synopsis for A Life Transparent.

Second, keep in mind that I suck at writing book reviews. But here goes.

Creepy, bizarre, dark, and yet uncannily familiar, A Life Transparent indelibly links the reader with an experience we have all felt at one time or another: that our lives are stuck in mediocrity, we are ignored, and no one is listening. Author Todd Keisling lays out a story about a man who feels he is disappearing, quite literally. Packed with a sicko twist and wonderful double-ententre character names, the writing is detailed and deliberate and easy to read. After Donovan Candle, our main character, begins to slip into an alternate universe run by a powerful, Kafka-esque manipulator, his wife is kidnapped and he snaps out of his grindingly dull routine.

Running through the streets at night escaping terrifying goblins that he isn’t sure are figments of his imagination, Donovan encounters aspects of his own personality that he didn’t even know existed.  Keisling uses wonderful descriptors (grey sludge, flickering, monochrome) and fabulous character names (Yawnings, Dullington, Guffin, Candle) to create what we don’t even know is a dream or science fiction in a story whose tone is both terrifying and compelling.

Rarely do I find myself re-living parts, scenes, or senses from a book as often as I did in the days I was reading ALT. It stuck with me. Somehow the language bullied its way through my skin, so that I was uncomfortably living with the characters–good and bad and ambiguous. Speaking of ambiguity, we as readers may find that we are not quite trusting the characters that we are led to believe we should be trusting. This is a theme that undergirds the novel.

It’s hard to not crack up at some of the funky scifi stuff out there today, as a non-scifi loyalist. Hey, I like my superheros and Avatar-like stuff just as much as the next guy. But sometimes it takes itself too seriously. I did not expect ALT to creep up on me like it did with its dark creativity, solid writing, compelling characters, and salient themes carried throughout the story.

Rocking.

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Commodity or Magnum Opus?

Some people blow through a book in a day or two, while others take a couple of weeks or more. Many people just inhale them like a sweet breeze, one after the other, without stopping in between. I’m worse than that — I just forget the endings of books I enjoy. (Truth is, I don’t even finish books I don’t love.) To most avid readers, books are not only an unquestionable right, but they are taken for granted as a vital component of life.

It’s like when the tourists cruise through the Sistine Chapel, look up and say, “Look honey, Michelangelo’s painting, now let’s go get some spaghetti.”

But to a writer who may spend a year or more writing the damned thing, think about how we feel when we see a pile of books stacked up 5 feet high against the wall of a summer cabin and the proud readers saying, “We read all of these books this summer!” It’s an intractable dilemma. It’s not easy to write a book, and for some it’s extraordinarily difficult and a compelling feat. So when a reader zooms through it and moves on casually to the next one, how are we to reconcile this disparity?

Think of the planning, outlining, and writing. And writing. And writing. Then the editing, proofing, and rewriting. And rewriting. And editing some more. And then the synopsis. And for some who choose to submit their work for mainstream publishing, the sterilizing and demoralizing query process. Then the rejections. More queries. More rejections. Finally the agent, then the selling to the publisher. The reworking of some parts. The publisher meetings. The marketing meetings. The marketing. For the DIY writers, the layout–the horrible horrible layout process, then the pre-marketing, the blogging, the begging for interviews and reviews, the vetting of e-book/free-book websites, the setting up your website and trying to figure out the e-commerce plugins and CSS and HTML, the tweeting and more tweeting, the artwork, the printer or POD joint, the price gouging, the amazon threads that will make you gouge your eyes out, the paltry and late checks from your method of distribution.

And some asshole reads the thing in a weekend?

There it is, that’s the truth. We are at odds with the very mode of entertainment we choose to pursue. We can’t possibly ask or expect the reader to study and appreciate every word and page as we did; we don’t want them to know how we made the sausages, after all.

This supports my argument that short fiction, novellas, and experimental-length and format fiction should not only have more of a platform, especially with e-books, but that more authors ought to put out more of this type of work. ESPECIALLY with more e-books, because readers will devour even more of our work with this enhanced format, right? RIGHT? So all the better to fill up our tanks not with the predictably dull 80,000 word novels, but with interesting work that we can package with other media to deliver in the increasingly sophisticated (but still clunky) devices for reading.

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Attention

What kind of attention do you want, as a writer?

Your first instinct, if you’re someone I hang around with, is to say you’d like any and all attention, just to get your writing some visibility. You are so confident in your work (hopefully) that you are anxious, eager, and bursting at the seams to get more eyeballs on your work.

You are willing to throw it all in for that attention. You’ve blogged exhaustively. You’ve been nice to people you don’t know and don’t so much care about all over the internet. Your Twitter life is overtaking your own, all for the sake of gaining fans, followers, readers.

You are reading every piece of shit and every mark of brilliance you can get your hands on so that you can raise your own bar for your work product. The book review process is painful for you, with little feedback or responses. You feel like you’ve built the only platform you can, but…

You admittedly whore yourself all over the blogosphere, commenting everywhere and trying tactfully to get your plug in wherever you can.

You hang on opportunities to get a  reading, or a mention on some notorious blog.

You study those stats, analyze the analytics, and query to death your traffic. You’re doing everything you can, in between your day  job, your kids, your mortgage, your in-laws, and the goddamned lawn that needs to be mowed. Fuck.

So here comes an opportunity, you think, to really blow yourself out of the water. To really shine. You need something because everyone around you is raising that bar, doing video book trailers and podcasts, and selling just a few more through the Amazon threads (or so they say), than you are.

And you are better. You know what will bring attention to you. You didn’t want to talk about politics, or religion, or baby-killers, whatever the hell it will take to bring attention to yourself, just to get more eyes on your work. But then all of a sudden, you think, maybe being shameless isn’t as shameless as it may seem. Everyone else is doing their thing, why are you keeping to the book and maintaining all of the integrity that you feel may be the one thing holding you back?

So you go ahead and make that post or you label yourself in such a way that, well, labels you. You lay it all out.

Have you LOST YOUR FUCKING MIND?

Not necessarily, but you’ve lost yourself. You lost your objective. What is your objective? You are an independent writer. You need to be proud of your work and the few readers who do appreciate your writing and art. Not that you shouldn’t aim higher because you always should. But just leave it at that, will you?

Indie writers are surrounded by exponentially-expanding ranks of competition for a diminishing group of readers. There are enormous opportunities, but you have to love what you’re doing because you love writing and talking about writing and reading about writing and arguing about writing to feel any glory. Or else you really have lost your integrity.

And so then what the fuck are you doing if you have no integrity?

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This Is Not About Sports. Ok, It Kind Of Is.

I was listening to Boomer & Carton on WFAN (New York area sports talk radio for those outside my universe) yesterday morning on my horrendous drive to work and they were discussing the sorry state of the Mets. (Always glad I’m a Yankee fan.) On just about every show, there is just one itty-bitty item that sets off Boomer Esiason that you would never expect, and he gets all heated and passionate, and then they move onto the next thing. Yesterday, at about 6:15am, Boomer went on a tirade against the Mets pitcher Oliver Perez accusing him of not having the mental gumption to get through a competitive game. He said that Perez just didn’t have the competitive spirit–the backbone of sports–that major league baseball requires to be successful.

While I was zoning out and waiting for the talking heads to get to a real baseball team with prospects for a successful future (e.g., the Yankees), I perked up when I heard Boomer articulate his thoughts on this pitcher.  I couldn’t help but get drawn in to what was not only a message from one very successful former professional athlete to a struggling pro, but the debate about Perez’s fundamental talent versus his competitive spirit, and psychological make-up of someone facing enormous public pressure.

And so there it is, my proposed baseball analogy that you all know and love about me. Some will have stopped reading already, but I do contend that perhaps we should be having a parallel debate about how come some writers just don’t succeed despite their talent. It’s been very easy lately to paint those writers as fundamentally flawed if they can’t market themselves and leverage technology–independent or not. While that is true to a certain extent, the notion of competitive spirit is something we don’t hear much about in the independent writing community. Many of us are indeed talented, many are not, and yet the success rate doesn’t necessarily reflect those proportions respectively.

So what does having the gumption to bear enormous pain (rejections), adversity (bad reviews), dealing with a weak link in the team (lack of publishing support), and come out of it a better athlete (writer) mean? It means coming out fighting and focused on prevailing. Setting your objective to W-I-N and never faltering is how professional athletes continue on despite injuries, losing streaks, and media-bashing. So then we writers have a few lessons to learn about channeling our mental energy when preparing to launch our work into the world. When I used to train as a boxer, my trainer would keep telling me, “Don’t be afraid of failure, you have to go all the way.” I didn’t understand what he was saying. I only learned what it meant when I met people who indeed never took a step ahead because they were petrified of failing, so they stayed still. Static.

As Lefsetz says (geez, I never quote that guy…thanks, Mike Cane), half-assing it will never get you anywhere.

Well, fuck, man, I have a day job, car payments, debt, school loans, and most importantly, two amazing beautiful little kids to support. I am implicitly half-assing my writing “career”, and so what do I expect–a 5-picture deal from MGM to adapt my stories to the screen? Hell no. Ain’t going to happen. Writing is not the lottery.

It’s not that I don’t have the competitive gumption. I’m not even giving myself the opportunity to effectively compete because of the obstacles I’ve set up for myself. If I really, REALLY wanted to be a widely-read author, I’d quit my dayjob, sell the house, learn to love eating cat food, take my kids out of their school and put them in the public system along with the meth addicts here in my town, and write 10 hours a day. For 10 years. And eat cat food. And go out every weekend to force myself into readings EVERYFUCKINGWHERE. I’d be writing up and down everywhere for every magazine, journal, and internetz blog I could get access to.

I’m not doing that. Are you?

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On Amateur Book Reviews

This isn’t a case of an author getting even with a shitty book review[er]. True, I got a shitty book review recently, but I really have no comments about that. It was a little weird, a misguided, but if that’s what the particular reader took away from it, then I can’t criticize.

Oh, wait, aren’t we all critics?

We keep hearing about “quality control” issues with independently published works. The shitty writing, the inconsistent editing, the flat-out embarrassing typos, the clumsiness of writers going it alone.

What about quality control issues with the flurry of book reviewers? Hey, it’s a democratic platforms we’re promulgating here, so even the best book with the tightest editing and production quality–published independently or not–is up for review by any of the thousands of amateur book reviewers. I’ve seen some of the most appallingly half-assed book reviews recently. Comments like, “Why can’t this author make characters that are believable. Real vampires would never say things like that…” and “I didn’t even bother finishing it since I figured out the ending in the first chapter.” Really? REALLY? Why the fuck are you writing a review, then, asshole? Read the fucking book, that’s what a book reviewer does.

Listen, we asked for democracy and we got it. But are there no guidelines? Apparently not, because amateur book reviewers are in it for pure glory–there are no incentives for them to be responsible, other than, well, um, ETHICS, but let’s leave that alone for now.

We want as many people reading books as possible. The only solid, consistent way for new and independently produced books to gain visibility is by word-of-mouth, which is effectively amateur book reviewers on their forums and blogs: we don’t want to shut any of that out. But just like with marketing our independent books (on those ferkakte author-review websites), we have to manage to weed out the noisy barkers and find the quality feedback.

My solution is to call amateur book reviews Feedback. Or something to that effect. If we’re getting people who admittedly haven’t even completed the book calling it a book review, something is very wrong with the semantics. As much as I would like to criticize those types of “reviews,” we can discredit the legitimacy of stupid reviews by taking them out of the review category and calling it feedback, which is what it is.

If someone reads a book that is way over their head; or they just didn’t take the time to contemplate the experimental value of a work, and they call it stupid or bad or ugly or meaningless, it’s not really a review, is it? How can we put that person in the same category as some of the world’s brilliant minds of literary criticism? Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye, Jacques Lacan, Levi-Strauss, de Saussure…and the rest of the gang of structuralists would be incensed to be put in the same category as “CheekyMama” on all those threads who just loves vampire romances but who refuses to read a book without a photo of the author on the flap.

Go ahead, call me an elitist hypocrite. I dare you.

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