Monday, February 18, 2008

A review of My Name is Russell Fink

Recently I started doing reviews for The Christian Manifesto. Every review I write for them, I also post here. But there are two other fiction reviewers, plus reviews of non-fiction and film so you may want to check it out.

My Name is Russell Fink by Michael Snyder was like no book I’ve ever read and I recommend everyone go out and buy it to experience a unique story told in a fresh voice.

I first heard Michael Snyder’s name when Brandilyn Collins posted about her Mt. Hermon murder mystery in April 2006. I tucked the name away in my memory because it was linked with a clairvoyant dog. That kind of nuttiness I had to know more about.

Therefore, I was thrilled when this book came my way for review. Plus Mike and I have the same agent, which made me more eager to read his book.

I’ll admit that I had a little trouble getting into it at first. It doesn’t release until March, so I received an advance reader copy. This ARC didn’t have any back cover copy, so I had no idea what the story was supposed to be about.

I kept trying to identify the plot, and where it was headed. Yet it’s told in such an enjoyable style that after a short time I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. And trust me, all the seemingly random events in the beginning of the book do gel into a cohesive plot—a twisty, and unpredictable one.

Russell Fink is a bundle of neuroses. He blames himself for everything, including the death of his twin sister from cancer when she was nine years old. His phobias and guilt are probably the reasons he’s stuck with a job he hates and isn’t very good at. He’d quit, but he can’t. He’s saving up so he can move out of his parent’s house.

Russell Fink is also a character I couldn’t help rooting for—even when he was doing or saying something stupid. And much of the time he doesn’t seem to have control over what comes out of his mouth.

Quirky doesn’t begin to describe the people he interacts with every day. But instead of expanding on that, I’ll let you make the bizarre and delightful journey of discovery for yourself. Likable and unforgettable, these characters nevertheless make Russell look like the sane one. The great thing about Mike’s writing style is that he doesn’t shout, “Hey, look at this weird character!” Over time, he reveals new traits and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.

In this razor-witted comedy, I didn’t expect to find myself in the middle of a minor mystery. The murder victim, however, is Russell’s clairvoyant basset hound. A surprising number of people have motive to kill this sweet old dog.

The spiritual thread is sort of subtle, for lack of a better word. Through most of the book I wondered where Russell Fink’s faith lies. But it was very fitting for the story and for what the character has been through. The conclusion of the spiritual thread matches the tone of the rest of the story.

I admired the craftsmanship of this work. If you take my advice and buy it when it releases, your intellect and your funny bone will thank you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Burden of Proof

By Richard Mabry

[red = could be deleted; blue = my comments]

Chapter One

Dr. Matt Newman was running on fumes. His eyes burned. His shoulders ached. His mouth was foul with the acid taste of the coffee. Night call was for someone younger—much younger. But all that was about to change, and he could hardly wait.

As Matt moved from the brilliance of Methodist Hospital’s Emergency Room into the mottled semi-darkness of the path to the parking garage, he felt the weight of responsibility begin to slip from his shoulders. The hissing of the pneumatic doors closing behind him was like an auditory exclamation point. In another few hours, this night on call would end and so would his time in private practice. Then maybe Diane would stop carping at him for the missed dinners, the evenings when an emergency page interrupted a movie. Maybe this would make her happy. Maybe.

It wasn’t hard for Matt to spot his beige Toyota Corolla sitting in the darkest corner of the deserted garage. There weren’t many cars still there at two AM. And soon there would be one fewer [less—fewer sounds like it should refer to more than one]. He fished his keys from the pocket of his white lab coat and thumbed the remote. He was reaching for the door handle when something yanked him backward and cut off his air in mid-breath. He dropped the keys and reached up with both hands, his fingers prying without success at the arm he felt around his neck.

Before he could say a word [His air was cut off. We don’t expect him to be able to speak.], Matt was slammed to the garage floor. He was sure he felt a rib crack. His cheek burned as it scraped across the coarse concrete. The smell of rancid motor oil filled his nostrils. He winced as a knee pinned him to the ground like a butterfly on a specimen board. Fire shot through Matt’s shoulders as his arms were yanked together. He struggled, but the result was more force, more pain. He heard a quick rip of tape. Seconds later, his wrists were bound tightly behind his back. He tried to lift his head to look around, but stopped when something hard pressed against the back of his neck.

[The above paragraph is where everything starts happening. It’s crucial to the story—the inciting incident. But the action doesn’t flow. It feels jerky to me. There are a few problems that I see.

1. The action-reaction sequences are out of order. You have Matt’s reaction (a wince, pain) before we see the action that caused it. The action has to come first to play out logically. But when I rewrote that paragraph simply reversing the order where it was needed, I still didn’t like it. Why?

2. The second problem is sensory overload. For action this fast, Matt is experiencing too many sensory details. It seems logical that panic and adrenaline would numb him to some of the things happening. Plus, there’s a fine line between allowing the reader to get inside the character’s skin so the scene comes alive, and loading action with so many details that it sinks instead of flowing.

3. Phrases like, “He was sure he felt a rib crack” are too detached and analytical.

I haven’t had the time to come up with a version I really like. But this is a beginning to point you in the right direction:

The assailant slammed Matt to the garage floor. He tried to draw breath for a scream, but his lungs were immobilized by the pain exploding along his rib cage. A knee pinned him to the ground and his arms were yanked together. His struggles only tightened the grip and intensified his pain. He heard a quick rip of tape and his wrists were tightly bound. He tried to lift his head to look around, but stopped when cold metal pressed against the back of his neck.

Even if my version isn’t much better, the principals I laid out hold true. Use those as your guidelines to fix this action sequence.]

“Hold still.” The words came out as a low rumble, the menace behind them unmistakable.

Matt figured what he felt was a gun. Finding out for sure could be fatal. [Seems obvious already.] He lowered his face onto the cement and went limp, feeling his hope escape like air from a punctured tire. He lay, submissive, as his ankles were bound together.

There were murmurs above him, the words indistinguishable. [Try “The murmurs above him were indistinguishable,” to avoid starting a sentence with “there were”.] One voice a high-pitched singsong, the answer a harsh rasp.

“Why not here?” There was a faint Hispanic accent to the whining tenor.

[You say that the words were indistinguishable, then go on to tell us what they’re saying. One or the other should be cut.]

“Shut up and do it my way.” The growling bass spat out the words so forcefully that Matt felt spittle spray his neck. He had no idea what was going on, but it couldn’t be good.

Again the shrill whimper. “Okay. What now?”

“Let’s get him into the trunk of his car.”

Matt gave a shrill cry as uncaring hands lifted his head by the hair. [Again, fix the action-reaction.] Three quick turns of tape around his head muffled his voice and turned the world black.

Now Matt couldn’t move, couldn’t see, couldn’t speak. [I’d rather hear how this made him feel, instead of just the stark facts.] He strained to hear the murmurs above him. Only the last words came through clearly enough to understand, but they were enough to drive his heart into his shoes. “Get rid of him.”

Matt heard a jingle of keys [Sounds too passive. Instead of just “heard”, have him angle his head to catch the sounds—it’s the only sense he has left, he’s going to try to use it to the full.], two beeps from a security system, followed by a sharp click. Hinges squeaked. He had a momentary sensation of floating as he was lifted, carried, dropped. His head struck something hard. The world began to spin, [He felt as if he were spinning—the world spinning implies sight.] splashes of red flashed behind his closed eyelids, then vanished into nothingness.

Matt struggled back to consciousness like a swimmer emerging from the depths. How long had he been out? Hours? Minutes? A few seconds? At first he had no idea where he was or what was happening. He tried to open his eyes but there was no light. He tried to speak, but his lips were sealed; he cried out, but the result was only a strained grunt. Finally, he heard the faint sound of voices, a menacing rumble and a high-pitched whine. That was when he remembered.

He was on the way to his death. And the trunk of his car was the coffin.

* * *

"Let's get out of here."

Lou slammed the trunk closed, clambered behind the wheel, and started the engine. He had the car moving by the time his companion scrambled in. He reversed out of the parking slot, stopping with a screech of brakes. Then he slammed the gearshift into drive, stomped on the gas and sent the Toyota screaming down the ramp. His rear view mirror showed him a glimpse of parallel strips of black rubber, the only trace of what had just taken place.

Beads of sweat stung Lou’s eyes. He blinked them away and peered into the night. He slowed as he began to navigate the narrow streets behind the hospital, but his mind was working full-speed.

“So what now?” Edgar’s whining words interrupted Lou’s thoughts.

Lou shrugged. He steered the car through a stop sign with only the slightest tap on the brakes. “Next we find the other one.”

Beside him, Edgar fidgeted but, for once, kept silent. [Too many interruptions. It would flow better as, “Beside him, Edgar fidgeted but kept silent. For once.”]

Lou clutched the wheel and stared into the night, following the headlight beams through the warren of dark streets. The lights of downtown Dallas rose up ahead of them, bright in the inky sky. Lou took a sharp left, away from that glare.

The neighborhood’s few functioning streetlights only accentuated the gloom beyond their dim glow. He rolled by bars, strip clubs, hole-in-the-wall stores peddling XXX rated videos, all of them silent now, most secured by burglar bars or steel shutters. The streets were deserted, and rightly so. He figured that nobody in his right mind would be here at this hour of the morning—at least, not without a gun.

He saw the pothole too late to steer around it. The car bounced crazily before settling down on protesting springs.

“Hey, watch it.” He heard a click as Edgar fastened his seat belt.

“Shut up.” Lou slowed and scanned ahead for more holes in the pavement.

“Do you know where we’re going?”

“Yeah, but whoever laid out these streets must have been drunk. Let me concentrate.” Lou squinted to read the street signs in the faint light. Finally, he found the one he wanted and steered the car in a sharp turn. It lurched as one wheel bumped the curb.

“Did you hear something back there?” Edgar asked.

“Relax. He’s not going anywhere. This is his last ride.”

* * *

Monday, February 4, 2008

Interview: Maureen Lang

Today’s guest is Maureen Lang, whose book I recently reviewed. Her book sparked my imagination so much that I was full of questions when I was done reading. She was kind enough to answer them.

The two timelines mesh so well in this book. They're independent stories, and yet they reflect each other. I'm curious as to how you wrote it. Did you get one story done completely before you started on the next, or did you write back and forth between them?

I had an idea (a rather vague idea, actually!) of both stories before I even began. I’m the typical seat-of-the-pants writer, who has a sort of destination but the journey along the way is full of surprises. I wrote the book pretty much as it appears, alternating stories one chapter after another. I did have to go back and re-read the previous chapter with the same characters, just to make sure the flow was working. But I thoroughly enjoyed going back and forth — there’s no room for wandering attention, sagging middles, or unnecessary rabbit trails. My favorite kind of book to read, and the easiest to write!

I’ll also say that with this story, as with any story I write, there is a theme. Something the reader will (hopefully) remember and associate with that book. For The Oak Leaves it was unconditional love, for On Sparrow Hill it’s servanthood. For my previous books it was loyalty and patriotism, (Pieces of Silver and Remember Me) and for the book I’m working on right now it’s forgiveness (My Sister Dilly, due out later this year from Tyndale). If a book has two storylines, the theme is what holds it all together — it’s what makes it sensible to have two storylines instead of just one inside the same cover.

In the historical thread, Berrie teaches mentally handicapped children. You did an excellent job in describing conditions such as Down Syndrome and Autism that they wouldn't have had the names for back in 1852. Tell me a bit about your research. Were you able to look at hospital records?

First, some of my research comes with my own every day life, living with my son who is cognitively challenged. And, since I’m part of the disability community, I’ve met a larger number of people with disabilities than most people are privileged to meet. A lot of my descriptions of the students at Berrie’s school came from hanging around my son and the other kids he goes to school with. (Which can be a great joy, actually!)

And secondly, as far as the historical research, I read many books about institutions of that time. There was a great philanthropic movement during the Victorian age, and helping the handicapped was emerging as one of the new areas of attention. Up to that point such people were often shut away with criminals and paupers, wherever they could find room in prisons or workhouses. History holds so many sad facts, but this attention was a true step forward in dealing with the mentally infirm.

Some of the books I read did include student records, but they weren’t the actual hospital records. Such books talked about various patients, their treatments, challenges, legalities, and so forth. I found it all fascinating and tried to fit in as much as I could, but of course the story comes first so much of my research is still unused in my notebooks!

I love researching historicals. I can get lost in libraries and, thankfully, my local research librarians are extremely helpful! I normally prefer books to online research, since the books have been scrutinized for authenticity (more so than online sources). But I use the Internet for visuals. For example, the inspiration behind the historic Hamilton/Hollinworth Estate in On Sparrow Hill was taken from a picture of an existing estate in England that I first found in a travel book and then looked up online.

I was horrified to see that Berrie had to answer to something called the "Lunacy Committee". They probably didn't see much difference between being insane and having a disability. So were they able to distinguish between different types of mental disabilities, or did they lump them all together?

According to the research I did, persons with mental retardation were generally looked upon as a result of some sin or wrongdoing by one or both of the parents (but usually they blamed the mother!). Some of my notes indicate that for older people who developed problems (such as those who, as an older child or adult might develop a bi-polar condition) they sometimes blamed the person’s own sin or sometimes the environment (especially if it was considered a sinful environment!). In Victorian times, they were just beginning to understand the possibility of genetics.

One report I read tracked the legitimate versus illegitimate offspring of one highly respected and influential man, and his illegitimate offspring had a much higher percentage of producing children with some sort of deficiency. Sometimes this was due to lack of nutrition or to excessive drinking (what we understand today to be fetal alcohol syndrome), while the legitimate offspring had many more opportunities and were in general more healthy due to the environment.

Initially one of the differentiations made for persons with cognitive disabilities were by age at the onset of problems. They would consider whether or not a person was “sane” at one time and then became “insane”. This was the difference between the legal terms “lunatic” which stood for those who were once sane but “lost” their sanity, or an “imbecile,” someone who never had a mind to lose. Admittedly, when I first came across these terms I chafed. They have such a horrid connotation now. But it occurred to me that our language is always evolving, and one of the reasons is because of the negative uses that develop over the years. Calling otherwise healthy people an imbecile has made that term derogatory, the same way calling someone “retarded” who is otherwise healthy today carries the same insult. So we think of new ways to label the same old condition.

The only other differentiation made during the Victorian times, in general, was whether or not a person was dangerous, to himself or to others.

It was all fascinating to study, but as a parent of a child who is considered profoundly mentally handicapped, I was so grateful to be alive now rather than a hundred and fifty years ago!

You’ve mentioned your son a couple of times now. It wasn’t until reading the author’s note that I learned of your very special inspiration to write The Oak Leaves and On Sparrow Hill. Tell us a bit about how having a son with Fragile X syndrome changed your life.

Thank you for asking! Yes, my son is the inspiration behind both of these books. I had no idea I was a carrier for Fragile X Syndrome, the leading cause of inherited mental retardation. He was the first to exhibit any limitations in my family, even though I’m one of six kids and I had at least a dozen healthy nieces and nephews before he was born. When I spoke to a geneticist he told me the sad statistical truth was my son had only a 10% chance of being born as severely affected as he is. The message was very clear: God wanted my son to be born exactly as he is.

And let me tell you, there are some blessings. He’s very happy, he’s easy to please, and is generally a pleasure to be around if you don’t mind a bit of noise and the occasional diaper change!

But so few people have ever heard of Fragile X, I knew I would write a book about it. I thought it would be something I’d do when I was more comfortable about the whole thing, once I could say thank you to God for this and really mean it. But I felt nudged to write these books before I had it all “together.” And I can honestly say they’ve helped me to put things into perspective. I searched for — and found — many things to be grateful for, to appreciate about living with this challenge. I honestly cannot picture my son any other way than how he is, and with his near constant smile I’m just not sure how I’d react if he were any other way. Not that I wouldn’t accept a cure in an instant; he’s missing out on so much, and I ache for him because of that. But I know, in Heaven, we’ll sit down and talk (something he can’t do here) and we’ll have a great time finally communicating!

Any other thoughts you'd like to share about this book, or writing in general?

I consider myself first and foremost an avid reader. I just write whatever it is I feel like reading. With The Oak Leaves and On Sparrow Hill, (especially with The Oak Leaves) I used some of my own experiences to tell a story.

If you have an event or life experience you think just has to be told, I encourage you to put it in a book. My own choice would be to fictionalize it rather than a memoir, if only because fiction is so freeing. You’re free to imagine and heighten things that would enhance your story, to draw others in more easily and not be bound by what actually happened, but have the freedom to explore what realistically could have happened. Fiction based on fact can be very compelling, especially when we, as the author, are so passionate about the subject. I’ve learned one of the most important things about a successful book is the passion an author brings to the book. If s/he is passionate, it’s easier for others (like agents, editors, sales staff and finally other readers) to get excited about it, too!

In case anyone would like to see a book trailer for On Sparrow Hill, they can visit my website (, scroll down to the first book cover on the homepage, and click on that to play. It’s fun!

Thanks very much for having me, Tina!

And thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Tough times

I hope to find the time to make a couple of posts next week. I do have some content, but my head is swimming in the midst of a hard time in our family right now.

The first post will be an interview with Maureen Lang. I like this interview because it's the first one I've conducted myself. The others I've posted were pre-done for me out of necessity--I hadn't yet read the book.

But I enjoyed Maureen's book (On Sparrow Hill) so much that I contacted her for an interview, and she graciously answered my questions. I'll try to get that up Monday.

And I actually have a critique to post. I have some finishing touches to do to the critique, but I hope to have that ready this week as well.

In the meantime, if you think of it, say a prayer for the Helmuth family.