Thursday, September 13, 2012

Once more, with feeling

By Gayle Carline

My plan for today was to review a book I just read (once again invading Marlyn's space), but in reviewing it, I found myself thinking about the difference between a good read and a great read, for me. So I'm going to start with a short review, then talk about the kind of material that gets to me as a reader.

The book I wanted to review is "Black and White" by Wes Albers. It's a mystery and a procedural and a fine cop story that rings with truth. I'll go ahead and disclose that, although I did purchase this book, I've known Wes for quite a few years. In addition to being in law enforcement for eons, he is one of the directors of the Southern California Writers Conference, which I attend. He's also a damned good writer.

The story revolves around John Hatch, a patrol cop in the San Diego area and a veteran on the force. There is a murder to be solved, but the real story is about a man who has been at his job for such a long time, it has grown into his skin and penetrated his heart. He is saddled with a young partner and even younger sergeant. Each one pulls at him to leave his years of experience and instincts behind to join a world of computers, procedures and statistical studies that run counter to his street smarts.

There's plenty of action, and even a little romance. I loved the way Wes weaves information about police procedures in with each scene. Not only was I entertained, I felt like I was more knowledgeable about the how and why of chasing, capturing, and questioning suspects.

But more importantly, I liked the way this book left a feeling with me. By the last page, I was weary of the way some things never change, resigned to the fact I could not change them, and resolved to try to change them anyway. In other words, I had become the main character, to the extent that I will always remember and connect with that book on a visceral level.

I've read a lot of good books by a lot of wonderful authors. The stories are rich and well-told, the writing is perfect for the piece. But the books I remember are the ones that leave me with a feeling. I can always single out two books that had that effect.

One is "The Good Shepherd" by C.S. Forester. The story follows the captain of a battleship during WWII who is part of a convoy, escorting supply ships through U-boat infested waters, from the U.S. to England. It takes place over a three-day period where they know there is at least one U-boat in the vicinity and they are trying to keep their supply ships safe. Everyone is on high alert. The captain must keep his ship ready, but not trigger happy. For three days, he does not sleep, barely eats, and has to plan his visits to the head. The reader is there for all of it.

By the end of that book, I was exhausted. It's been years since I read it, and I still recall the scene where he downs a pot of cold coffee, grounds and all, because it is there and he needs fuel.

The other is "Wanderer of the Wasteland" by Zane Grey. Too many drinks lead to a gunfight over a pretty girl, forcing a young man to run for his life, straight into the Mojave Desert, where he has a bigger fight on his hands – how to stay alive where there is no food, no water, nothing but unrelenting sun during the day and shivering cold at night. It's a tale of self-discovery as much as survival.

The book has a funny, O. Henry-esque ending, but what sticks with me is the desert. I was parched by this story. Reading it made my skin feel as warm as if I were in that unbearable sun.

"Like breath of a furnace the heat rose from the rocky, sandy soil; and from above there seemed to bear down the weight of the leaden fire."

It's not just, when I think of these books, I feel these feelings. It's also, when I have these feelings, I think of these books. On days when I'm running from one task to the other and wolfing down a McD-burger in my car on my way to the next emergency, I think of that captain trying to figure out if he's got enough time to pee before the next U-boat sighting. Lately, it's been unbearably hot in southern California, and our air conditioning is on the fritz. I sit in the kitchen, under the fan, all the windows open, with a wet towel around my neck, and picture that young cowboy, throwing himself on the rocks in his despair and exhaustion, only to scramble back to his feet because the ground burns his skin.

And in these election days, I think of John Hatch's wealth of knowledge and know what a millstone it is, to have seen it all, know it's not going away, and yet be unable to keep from trying to stop the crazy.

Are you drawn to books that punch you in the gut until they're in your muscle memory? Or are you in love with finesse? Forget good books. What are some of the books you live with?


  1. What a great post! You inspired me to beef up an element of the story I'm working on. For me, though, the books I remember most are a couple of futuristic thrillers from long ago—The Tomorrow File and The Handmaids Tale—because they took me into a world that was completely different from my own. Which is what I tried to do (on a less grandiose scale) with the Gauntlet Assassin.

  2. For me, it's all about good strong characters with layers and layers of depth. These are the ones that resonate and stay with me long after I've turned the last page--they're also the ones I strive so hard to create in my own novels. It's not easy to do but will make the difference between an amazing journey and a rather forgettable one.

  3. I've often found it strange that the books I put at the top of my all-time favorites list are not crime fiction. But they resonate with me. Whether it's a punch in the gut kind of resonance that came along with A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, or the utter delicate and fierce finesse of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden…these books transported me before I even knew I was moving. They're part character, part place, part story.

  4. Awesome post, Gayle! You've got me thinking. For me, it's characters. If I can latch onto a protagonist I really like and sink into their head and heart and body, and feel what they're hoping and fearing and thinking and see / hear / smell / taste / touch / experience what they're experiencing, it's a memorable story for me.

  5. Peg, I'm also amazed that, for all the mysteries I read, it's a Western and a WWII drama that got under my skin. I admit, I read a lot of Westerns in my youth, being a horse-crazy girl, but I only read the Good Shepherd because I had read other C.S. Forester (The African Queen, Horatio Hornblower, etc). I'm not usually drawn to books about war.

  6. Fantastic post, Gayle! The books that stick with me tend to be the ones that I read when I was younger, like ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (yes, I do identify with Anne) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (I was Scout when I was a kid!).

    PS, I love it when you review books!


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