David Shields, “Other People: Takes & Mistakes”

David Shields makes it look easy—turning thoughts, experiences, attitudes, insights, personal history, wounds, slings, arrows, literary criticism, film criticism, and random reminiscences into compelling prose. Open the dictionary to a random page, throw a dart and give David Shields a prompt—you get the feeling he could riff off any random noun, verb or preposition. In “Other People: Takes & Mistakes,” which gathers a variety of previously published pieces and some fresh stuff too, Shields seems ravenous for topics. He’s a Pac Man Writer gobbling ghosts and monsters with an unwavering smile of his face.

Shields, the author of several novels and a host of non-fiction books, including the coauthoring of a biography of J.D. Salinger, is glib. And smart. And witty. And self-effacing. And insightful. And interesting. Other People is a keeper, a juicy mix tape. It’s funky and frank and, at times, tender and humane. Shields has the entries organized (okay, fine whatever) but you can dip in here, take a sample there. Some of the pieces are so rich (like the essay on Bill Murray) that you wonder how one person can find so much to write about another. Other offerings are mere morsels, poetic palate cleansers.

Like I said, there are sections. Men. Women. Athletes. Performers. Alter Egos. But David Shields is, naturally, omnipresent in all 70-plus of these wide-ranging entries. Shields will make you feel like you haven’t studied your heroes or really read that book, but his interests are unpretentious—sports, acting, sex, fiction, big ideas, little moments from childhood, personal humiliations.

He’s frequently funny. “Love Is Illusion” is a brisk three paragraphs that begins, “The most dramatic sexual experience of my life was a yearlong relationship with a woman whose entire philosophy, or at least bedroom behavior, was derived from the sex advice columns of racier women’s magazines … she applied lipstick and eye shadow in such a way to create the effect that she was in a perpetual state of arousal.”

Shields is not afraid to share his darkest thoughts, recount embarrassing moments, or (here and there) expose himself. From his brief essay about Tiger Wood: “My initial reaction when I saw on the web the report that Tiger Woods was seriously injured was What’s the matter with me that I hope he’s been paralyzed or killed? Jealousy. The much vaunted Schadenfreude. The green-eyed fairway. Tiger is extremely rich, famous (now infamous), semi-handsome (losing his hair), semi-black, the best golfer ever (was going to be), married to a supermodel (no longer, of course). I wanted him to taste life’s darkness. . . . I was disappointed that Tiger was O.K. (for the nonce). But, really, I think we all were.”

In “Information Sickness,” Shields documents his quirks and odd habits and yearnings and how his mind works. “My nightmares—and endless network of honeycombs, a thousand cracks in a desiccated lake—are always about the multiplying of chaos. Two questions constantly occur to me: What would this look like filmed? What would the sound track be? I grew up at a very busy intersection, and to me aesthetic bliss was hearing the sound of brakes screeching, then waiting for the sound of the crash.”

There are essays you can sink your teeth into (one about Charles Barkley) and others that seem like excuses to show his unpretentious touch with language. You know Shields cares about the flows and rhythms of the language as much as the content within.

“The sixties—which, as everybody knows, began in 1963 and ended in 1974—happened, like a sitcom, in the middle of my living room.

“I was president of the sixth grade of one of the most desegregated elementary schools in California, and when the BBC came to interview me, I spoke so passionately that they had to stop the film because the cameraman was crying.

“By the end of eighth grade it was a profound social embarrassment if you hadn’t ‘gotten married,’ which meant lost your virginity.”

This list of seemingly unrelated observations goes along. You think you’re missing something and then realize that Shields has pulled out his kaleidoscope, given it a shake. It’s an effective technique.

You get the feeling that if a thought crosses Shields’ brain, he’s going to spill it.

Shields’ blunt assessment of Charles Barkley is full of zingers. “He’s both truth-teller and scam artist, purveyor of old-school values with new-school style, a social conservative who throughout his playing career was a devotee of strip clubs, an antiauthority authoritarian, a rebel reactionary. After a difficult loss, he once said he felt like going home and beating his wife—the same woman he said made him cry every time they made love.”

In the end, Shields makes us understand why we all like Charles Barkley.  “He’s alive, here, on this planet, right now. He’s a brilliant extemporizer, inside the moment, satyr-like, actively searching for the jugular of truth and—this is key to presenting moderation in an immoderate appetite—nearly always finding it in humor.”

Shields’ breakdown of Bill Murray’s essence is long. And detailed. And I couldn’t argue with one word but I had never stopped to think anything along these lines, either, trying to understand the layers of Murray’s charm. Shields notes that Murray “offers ways out, solutions of sorts, all of which amount to a delicate embrace of the real, a fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”

Between the essays of Barkley and Murray (can you imagine those two together?) that’s the essence of Shields, too. The “jugular of truth” mixed with “fragile lyricism of the unfolding moment.”

When he came through Denver recently for a book tour stop at The Tattered Cover, only a handful of people showed up. (What a crime!) Shields skipped any formal remarks and pulled the chairs around in a small circle, reading a few bits from Other People. He shot the breeze like he is one of us.

David Shields at The Tattered Cover – March, 2017









Previously reviewed: How Literature Saved My Life




Ian McEwan, “Nutshell”

Yes, he pulls it off—an occasionally raunchy murder mystery and contemplation of existence told from the point of view of an unborn child.

Nutshell is at once hilarious, witty, smart, and unbelievable.

You don’t want to go with it. There’s the little issue of logic and the unborn child’s well-developed sentence structure, vocabulary, insights about the nature of humanity, near-omniscience, well-developed palette and keen self-awareness.

But with McEwan’s silky prose? It. Just. Doesn’t. Matter.

Resistance is futile.

Our narrator is “witness” to the sad de-coupling of his mother and father. Trudy, with child, is in the middle of an active and ongoing extended fling with the vapid Claude, who happens to be the brother of Trudy’s husband John. Trudy and Claude have a plan to accelerate their relationship and it involves ending John’s life and, well, our narrator has opinions and preferences. He’s taken sides.

“Who is this Claude, this fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes? I heard it once and took note: the dull-brained yokel. My full prospects are dimmed. His existence denies my rightful claims to a happy life in the care of both parents. Unless I devise a plan. He has entranced my mother and banished my father. His interests can’t be mind. He’ll crush me. Unless, unless, unless—a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.”

(Bleating little iamb, yes. Iamb. Just when your eye and cliché radar expect a bleating little lamb. Poetry plays a big role in the tapestry of Nutshell. John is a publisher and a poet and he has moved away from the dilapidated townhouse where Trudy remains to take up with a woman named Elodie who writes poems about owls.)

Our neonatal narrator (stole those two words from The Guardian) prefers to “remarry” mother and father “to unite my circumstances to my genome.”  He thinks: “It’s in me alone that my parents forever mingle, sweetly, sourly, along separate sugar-phosphate backbones, the recipe for my essential self.”

So we have a narrator and a point of view but how will someone so perfectly unable to change the outcomes of the world out there be able to have an impact on fulfilling his needs? Hard to believe, but the ending is a thriller-tight and our pre-born narrator continues with his witty asides and daydreaming about all matter of human behavior even as he fights his way to, yes, freedom. Of sorts.

There are layers and layers to Nutshell, including ample references to Hamlet (Claude, Claudius; Trudy, Gertrude) and many other images that went straight over my head until pondering a few reviews.

I know, I know – it’s not supposed to work. I headed in (so to speak) with a great deal of cynicism. Oh sure, McEwan, what now?

Yeah, well, Nutshell is brilliant and brilliantly told.  By the way, I listened to the audio version by Rory Kinnear and the performance is outstanding. I’d listen to it again just to listen to Kinnear utter the name Claude over and over. Clod but drawn-out and nasally and with that terribly British snark.


Previous review of McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.




Previous review of McEwan’s Solar.





Washing Off The Dust

“Gary Reilly knew what to do with all his experiences, heavy-duty ones or every-day working week. Turn them into art.”

A few thoughts on the launch of the third book in the Private Palmer series by the late Gary Reilly.




Lessons Learned

A few things I’ve learned along the way, written for the Amy Rivers website:


David Carnoy, “The Big Exit”

A twist is only a killer twist when you don’t see it coming.

When you’re so seduced and comfortable and intrigued by the existing fictional landscape that you are plenty satisfied with the questions and the momentum of the story.

When you’re into the story but completely settled with all the existing parameters.


You’re so comfortable, in fact, that you aren’t thinking twist.

And, then, wham—gotcha.

By even starting out talking about the twist, I fear I’ll ruin the fun for others. It’s even difficult to review The Big Exit (such a doubly delicious title) without wanting to splatter all over the review space about what David Carnoy manages to pull off.  But I’ll restrain myself.

The Big Exit is fun for lots of reasons long before, you know, that moment. Carnoy’s got an old-school Raymond Chandler vibe going with a story set in the dot-com world and Silicon Valley start-ups. At least, the set-up is old-school triangles and cover-ups. Love, greed, etcetera.

Richie Forman is our guy. He was big in dot-com marketing before the night of his own bachelor party, when he was arrested at the scene of a car crash that killed a young woman. With a high blood alcohol level, Richie gets arrested but he is pretty sure he wasn’t the one driving. He spends years in prison and while he’s behind bars his ex-fiancé takes up with the other guy who was in the car, his former best friend Mark McGregor. In fact, Beth Hill and Mark McGregor are married.

As The Big Exit starts Richie is looking to fill a job opening at The Exoneration Foundation, a firm dedicated to freeing innocent men from prison. He’s also making a living as a Frank Sinatra impersonator (a very colorful undercurrent throughout the book). But then McGregor turns up dead, with the word HACK scrawled in blood on the garage floor near his body. The cops quickly circle around both Richie and Beth as suspects and Carnoy gives good screen time to a full cast of interesting characters. There’s the prosecutor who put Richie away, the accident investigator, and a muckraking journalist who covers Silicon Valley, among others. Carnoy, who is executive editor of CNET, a website that reviews technology products, knows this turf well.

Carnoy shifts points of view, circles around, shows us different angles. The plot is one part legal caper, one part police procedural, and one part James M. Cain-ish darkness. Carnoy gives us plenty of Richie but the detectives and lawyers play a big role, too, and all the shifting keeps us nicely off balance. Detective Sergeant Hank Madden almost takes over the story. “In law-enforcement years, he’s ancient, a relic at sixty-two. After his promotion to detective sergeant last year, he retired the gold wire-framed, oversized glasses that his colleagues liked to suggest could be carbon-dated back to somewhere between the Disco and New Wave eras.”  Madden has a drop foot from childhood polio but has a “minor act of heroism” that has come to define is career and he’s staying on at work beyond the point at which it makes financial sense, given potential retiree pay. It was Madden who was at the scene of the “Bachelor Disaster,” the case that would go to trial and end with a jury siding with McGregor, pinning the blame on Forman.

As the end comes down, Richie Forman with a splitting headache and his hands cuffed together around the legs of a sink in a laundry room, all hope is certainly lost and then, well, there are only a few pages left and you’re not going to stop before finishing this one.

The Big Exit is complex, memorable and fun. And forget I said anything about a twist.

The Greatest Writer I Ever Knew

A blog post for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers about the late, great Gary Reilly.


Reed Farrel Coleman, “Where It Hurts”

where-it-hurtsThe character names alone set the gritty landscape—Gus Murphy (our hero), Tommy Delcamino, Kareem Shivers and Frankie Tacos. Those are character names worthy of Chandler or Leonard or Block.

We’re on Long Island, the overlooked sections with dive bars like Harrigan’s. “It was a classic loser’s bar. The kind of place where even the young men were old. Where the Daily Racing Form passed for the news of the world and where the light of day was the common enemy.” The entire novel unfolds against a gritty backdrop and Coleman takes every opportunity to name overlooked towns and unremarkable roads.

Gus Murphy is a retired Suffolk County cop with a weight on his shoulders, the sudden death of his son two years earlier. It happened one day on the basketball court, when the boy was felled by an undiagnosed heart defect. The death has wrecked his family and now Gus works as a courtesy van driver for a nowhere hotel. Gus is just hoping to put one foot in front of the other and find a way to get by.

Where It Hurts (such a great title) is part mystery novels and part literary study in grief. “Even a spare minute was a chance to relieve the last two years,” thinks Gus. “Took forever to live it. Takes only seconds to live it again. I had tried filling in the fissures, cracks, and cavities with wondering, wondering about the trick of time. That got me about as far as wishing. Nowhere.”

The last thing Gus wants is to get pulled in on a case involving an ex-con, the aforementioned Tommy Delcamino. Tommy’s son TJ was found dead four months earlier and the Suffolk County PD doesn’t seem, well, motivated to figure out what happened. Gus is reluctant, for many reasons, and then he starts running into people who spend a great deal of time and effort trying to discourage him from getting involved.  When he encounters real trouble, and more, Gus feels suddenly revived, “alive again in the midst of spilled blood.”

Needless to say, Gus Murphy finds the motivation to poke around and soon he’s plenty entangled. His slow-motion descent into the fray, coupled with the relentless gravity of the feelings of loss about his dead son, anchor the story in a feeling of genuine pain. At times dialogue-rich like George V. Higgins and other times neatly procedural like Michael Connelly, Where It Hurts presents a solid character with troubled shoulders leaning into very real problems, both internal and external.

Those problems show Gus a possible path to healing, but will he take it? Or does he want his pain to rule over everything else? Gus knows where it hurts, it’s up to him whether he wants to the pain to linger forever or make a change. Where It Hurts isn’t all action. There’s a fair amount of talk over beverages. But when the action comes, it’s real and it’s carrying a certain weight.

John Galligan, “Red Sky, Red Dragonfly”

red-skyI think one of the best things you can say about any book is that you can’t think of another one like it.

That’s the case with John Galligan’s Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. The cool but colorful writing style, the intercontinental story, the unsentimental portraits of a wide variety of characters, and the ever-growing realization of how well Galligan has layered the work, flailing hockey sticks in one country echoing the flying kendo sticks in another.

I was already a fan of Galligan’s work, having enjoyed three mysteries in his fly fishing series featuring trout bum Ned “The Dog” Oglivie.

The Wind Knot, The Clinch Knot and The Blood Knot are all peculiar, quirky, and lots of fun. Galligan’s got the same dry-eyed writing style in Red Sky, a sprawling story that doesn’t lend itself to easy synopsis. In his “mysteries,” a novel is prone to pop out. In Red Sky (“a novel by…”) a mystery (no surprise) lies at the core. Red Sky came out in 2001; the “Knot” novels later.

From the back cover: “When a young American teacher disappears in small-town Japan, the next teacher, an older man on the run from his troubled life, must find out the truth. Told from multiple viewpoints, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly explores the perilous attraction between men and women of different cultures, and the position of the white man in the new century.”

I couldn’t do much better than that, except urge readers to stick with Galligan as he moves back and forth from Japan to the United States and also back and forward in time. As with the “Knot” series, Galligan is not a big believer in holding the reader’s hand. He’s fine to let his main character chill for a bit while he works on another corner of the canvas. The pieces appear disconnected at first and then the bigger picture comes slowly into focus as each character comes around and their role in the tale becomes apparent.

We first meet Tommy Morrison coming into Japan. He’s got hockey in his background, a troubled marriage at home in the United States. At the airport, he encounters a few layers of extreme vetting, especially after his bag splits when on the conveyor. It’s not the last time he will be questioned about his intentions. Then we meet high school student Miwa Sato after calculus class in the town of Kitayama. She’s getting ready to somehow say good-bye to teacher number one. That’s Stuart Norton. It’s a “difficult leaving” for reasons that will become clear. There are other points of view from a variety of other Japanese characters, too, including an ex sumo wrestler.

(Readers, just go with the flow. Okay?)

The Galligan’s stylistic DNA is easy to spot. Galligan isn’t afraid of making a leap between moments. The style can feel a bit elliptical, but I urge readers to relax into it and let the scenes speak for themselves. The caulking becomes clear as the story proceeds—and that’s part of the pleasure of letting Red Sky come into sharper and sharper relief. (You’ll feel so smart, without even trying!)

I fully concede I’m easily drawn into a story when the writing is powerful and a few tasty paragraphs are enough for me.  Galligan likes to warm up a paragraph with a few rapid-fire declarations of sights and smells, then deliver a long snaking sentence that takes you for a ride.

“By lunchtime, as Father decreed, the rain had stopped. The sun burned hot over the southern mountains. Starlings strutted on steaming roads. Dragonflies lifted on glittering wings from the flooded rice fields. The mountain breeze smelled of mud and worms and cucumber leaves, but as Noriko drove down toward Kitayama the air was gradually claimed by the gassy diesel trucks hauling in tents and platforms, by the burnt-miso aromas of cakes and cotton candy.”


Tommy “felt the sudden intensity of the forest around them. Leaves baked in the sun. Cicadas buzzed. Flies swarmed. Unfamiliar bird calls sawed and screeched and moaned through the heavy brush. When Tommy stood for relief he could see, framed in fans of rust-red sumac, the Kitayama valley far below deep and hot, a thousand dragonfly specks dotting the rice paddies; and then, against the opposite mountain, he found Kitayama town, blue and red rooftops packed in the curve of a wide and shallow river.”

It’s a coincidence that both those passages reference dragonflies—and also not. Lots of things buzz in Red Sky, Red Dragonfly. There are unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells throughout. After all, this is a story about a stranger in a strange land trying to understand the stranger who came before him and the new strangers he’s left at home.

Red Sky is about how an individual finds footing in a foreign culture and how individuals in that community use the visitor for their many-faceted needs.  Red Sky, Red Dragonfly doesn’t assign blame or point fingers. This is just what happened to Tommy. This is what happened to Stuart. And this is what happened to the Japanese residents of Kitayama who knew them both.


From 2012, a Q & A with John Galligan about The Blood Knot and fly fishing and more, here.


Christopher Bartley, “Unto the Daughters of Men”

unto-the-daughters-of-men“Mr. Duncan, you seem to have an educated man’s grasp on the social intricacies and tragedies that complicate people’s lives. Where does your learning come from?”

That question is posed to Ross Duncan by Obadiah, a central figure in Christopher Bartley’s Unto the Daughters of Men.

Duncan, responding, shrugs and says: “I had a lot of time to read in prison and I used it.”

Yes, Ross Duncan. Gangster, tough guy, philosopher, observer of human nature. He reads the Bible for comfort or clues. He shoots when it’s necessary, throws a hard punch to make a point, talks up the dames at the bar. More than anything, he thinks about how people are put together.

It’s 1934. We’re in New York. It’s the fifth year of the Great Depression. Organized crime is discovering a new foundation for its thriving illegal empires. J. Edgar Hoover is after bank robbers—bank robbers like Ross Duncan. But Duncan also gets called on to handle specific jobs and the one in Unto the Daughters of Men is a beauty.

The aforementioned Obadiah, grandson of a runaway slave, is the doorman and all-around helper guy for “the Colonel,” a former soldier and senator. People tend to ask Duncan probing questions about his character and the Colonel wastes no time.  He asks Duncan if he believes in the Devil.

“Wouldn’t I be a fool not to?”

“That’s a casual answer,” replies Colonel Bennett. “I am not asking you about a symbolic figure who represents all that’s bad in the world. I am asking about a literal Devil: Satan, Lucifer – God’s adversary, the fallen angel. Most men have an abstract notion of good and evil, but few anymore actually seem to believe that there is literally a Devil set on tempting them to spend an eternity in hell, a literal Hell. He opposes God’s plan. Do you believe he exists?”

I’m not giving away Duncan’s answer here. Suffice it to say that these are the issues that gnaw at Duncan on a daily basis. He struggles with right and wrong and, of course, does lots of right and plenty of wrong.

The Colonel has a proposal. He needs a man like Duncan, one with a “definite code.” Dorothy, one of the Colonel’s granddaughters, the one blessed with “God’s light and grace,” is died of a heart condition. The other granddaughter, Veronica, was last seen with a gangster, Remo Marsden, whose business is gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Since the Colonel is frail and knows his days are numbered, he needs Duncan to find Veronica and “bring her home, anchor her here where she is supposed to be, help bring her to a point of common sense.”

There’s been blackmail and rumors of a “blue photograph.” The Colonel wants bad-boy Remo out of the picture and Veronica back home and out of trouble.

This is a nifty, enticing, and delicious set-up, especially after what happens just a few moments after the Colonel extends his request for help.

Duncan finds trouble. In fact, he wastes little time entering the bad guy’s lair. Duncan cuts to the case. There is drinking, smoking, guns, cars, chases, a dame named Delilah and a thug named Beef Parker. There is also one of the most remarkable, near-poetic slow-motion car crash scenes you might ever read.

Bartley is in total control, start to finish. The Duncan novels are classic gangster stuff. The beginning, middle and end of this plot all carry the same steady, relentless tug of dark noir and all its smoky-boozy flourishes. (Getting Duncan to quit tobacco? Might be the battle of the century.)  Duncan gets nicked and bruised and beaten and bloodied. He unravels stories, cuts through lies, shrugs off the pressure to keep his nose out of other people’s business.

But Ross Duncan keeps on ticking, fighting, and asking questions of others and questions of himself. He’s always working on the puzzles that get handed to him and he’s always working on the puzzles about the human condition, about good and evil, about God and The Devil, about right and wrong. (Good thing, there’s no easy answer in sight.)

The Ross Duncan novels (okay, I’ve only read three) offer a killer combination of a compelling character and cool, memorable stories.


Previous Q & A with Christopher Bartley and review: Naked Shall I Return

Previous review: They Die Alone









Trevor Noah, “Born A Crime”

trevor-noah-born-a-crimeCan you imagine taking over Jon Stewart’s seat on “The Daily Show?”

Who would want that particular challenge?

If you watched Trevor Noah early on and found yourself heading elsewhere for your political skewers and laughs, it may be time to check back. Trevor Noah has hit a groove. His humor is sharp. His sidekicks (Michelle Wolf, Roy Wood Jr., Lewis Black) are terrific. Plus, his interviews are smart. His passions and brainpower come through with his interviews. He is not afraid of a tough question.

Reading Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood will make you wonder: how in the world did a guy with that upbringing end up in that chair every night on Comedy Central? Born A Crime doesn’t cover that particular transition. The narrative only hints at Trevor Noah’s leap to a national television stage. Most of this memoir is focused on his early days in South Africa, particularly the utter poverty in Soweto. Born A Crime is deeply personal. In turns, it is harrowing, funny, and wild.

The best stories involve Noah’s status as half-black, half-white. Actually, all the stories seem to all revolve around his status (or apparent non-status). Noah is the son a Xhosa mother and a Swiss-German father. Black. And white. Not white, not black, not from the complicated heritage known as coloured. Born A Crime is a story of survival—among authorities, on the streets, in church, among scrappy teenagers, in the dance clubs, and among the opposite sex. Noah’s strong mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, dominates Trevor’s world. She’s the woman with a three-church Sunday routine. She’s fearless, exacting, and determined.

Frequently, Noah leans on his multilingual skills to overcome tight social and personal situations, particularly one harrowing moment in prison. Noah knows Zulu, Tswana, Tsonga, English (and more) and shows the power of language and its ability to soften potentially tricky situations.  Noah grew up as an eternal outsider with his light skin in a sprawling black township of Soweto. That outsider status forced him to make tough social and personal decisions over and over again.

As a teenager, Noah built a business copying and selling pirated CD’s and then transitioned into a wildly popular D.J., throwing massive dance parties in a nearby shantytown called Alexandria.  (The “Go Hitler” chapter offers a compelling reminder that the title of World Despot Ever goes to different people depending on where you live.)

Noah lived with death all around and, ultimately, violence comes home in the final gripping scenes as Noah’s drunken stepfather turns on Noah’s beloved mother with a gun. Riveting.

The book is as much about Noah’s mother as it is about Trevor. It’s clear that his mother wanted Trevor to set his sights on a distant horizon—and also wanted him to make good choices (even as he spent his formative years making poor ones, stealing candy or learning how to hustle stolen goods).

I listened to Trevor’s narration on Audible. He is a very good storyteller. He knows how to set the scene and build dramatic tension over and over again. He’s also a sharp observer. Of people, class, race, authority, religion.

And himself. He’s also, it seems, fearless. No wonder he felt like he could step into Jon Stewart’s shoes.

Ian McGuire, “The North Water”

the-north-waterColm Toibin put it perfectly in The New York Times:

The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”

It’s a brutal book. It’s violent, gritty and harsh. And it’s a big old chunk of pure storytelling.

Set in the late 1850’s, much of it on a whaling boat called the Volunteer, The North Water is one part adventure, one part crime story and all parts tale of brutality, survival and the limits of human endurance. McGuire writes with a present tense style that has the sensibility of a documentary.

This happened and that happened and so on. Now and now and now. Cinematic? Uh, yes.

At the core of the story are the ship’s surgeon, the drug-addicted Patrick Sumner, and the wickedly vile Henry Drax. The North Water starts in Hull and as the ship is preparing to venture off north toward the Arctic and from there it’s all downhill as the numbers of shipmates dwindle, as the ship busts apart (that cover illustration tells you all you need to know), as the survival begins, as the sense of bleakness and dread leaves a few tiny little human figures struggling against the vast white (where there isn’t blood) emptiness. If there’s a human bodily fluid or key internal organ that goes unmentioned, I’d like to know. It’s literally as if the inhabitants of this novel are turned inside-out.

Of course we have a hunch that not all will perish and McGuire adds a final coda back on dry land that deals with the moral fallout from a bigger crime that’s been underway all along, and partially forgotten as we have shivered and flinched and worried.

It’s a brilliant piece of writing. McGuire’s got a great eye for detail. The story flies. We don’t stop to learn about anything. McGuire leaves out all the parts that would Tom Clancy would not. We are simply immersed in a world that exists and asked to hang onto the gunwales, our knuckles whitening with each toss of the cold sea.

Finally, I have to point out that I listened to this on audio, narrated by John Keating. I firmly believe his reading enhanced the whole experience.

Keating has a bright, clean style. You can almost hear the smile in his voice, which contrasts so starkly with all the abject misery that voice is required to relay.


Q & A #53 – Susan Mackay Smith, “Conan the Grammarian”

cover-conan“Clarity is what matters to readers.”

That’s the clarion call of one Conan The Grammarian, a.k.a. Susan Mackay Smith, who has been writing columns in the monthly newsletter from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers for about ten years.

Now, Conan is out with a handy reference guide that distills those columns into an inspiring volume titled, handily enough, Conan the Grammarian, Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers.

Remember Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? This book would sit handsomely on your shelf alongside it and all your other writing resources.

Conan sets a high bar for writing. And writers.  Cool plots, Conan argues, can be enhanced by the nuances of language.

But, fear not. This is a light (near breezy) read that will leave you feeling encouraged and emboldened, not depressed or over-anxious. In fact, Conan talks a good game but, in the end, has “his” forgiving side, too.

Lawyers and journalists may get use out of the book, says Conan, “but this book is meant for novelists, who have their own requirements and, yes, rules. Which, like Jack Sparrow’s rules of piracy, are more like guidelines.”

Susan Mackay Smith is the past president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and a frequent judge of the Colorado Book Awards, has been writing a monthly Conan the Grammarian column for over ten years. Traditionally published in fantasy under the nom de plume, Mackay Wood, she is a second-generation Colorado native with a degree in history and (more important to her) a BHSAI from the Porlock Vale Riding School in Somerset, England.  She lives in Boulder with the most wonderful man in the world.

A full review follows.

First, a Q & A with Conan / Susan:


Question:  Okay, we’ll start you out with a softball. Do you ever have to look anything up related to the rules of grammar or usage?

Susan Mackay Smith: Certainly – everyone does. For the column in particular, I often double-check that my instincts are correct. I also check terminology, because my brain is full, and I no longer remember the terms for every little nuance of the so-called rules.

Question:  Your book makes learning and understanding grammar look easy. Why do the rules of grammar have to be so hard?

Susan Mackay Smith: They aren’t hard. The terminology is arcane, but English grammar is so stripped down, compared with other languages, that to call English grammar “hard” throws up a barrier to learning. English spelling is hard, but English grammar is simple. Learn a few basics (first person personal pronouns, verb tenses, subject-verb agreements, how modifiers dangle) and the rest is easy.

Question:  Do you have a grammar pet peeve? If you were benevolent dictator over all of the grammar universe, would you wave your magic wand over one specific issue and make it go away?

Susan Mackay Smith: A hard choice! Instead, let’s ask what I would make universal, and the answer becomes easier. Proper punctuation, and the aforementioned correct uses of first person personal pronouns (I, me, myself). Maybe this boils down to teaching the mechanics from an early age again … then no one would have to worry.

But two peevish misuses set my teeth on edge: it’s used for a possessive, and I’s, used at all.

Question:  What is the number one biggest, most frequent grammar issue that you find that writers stumble over and/or wrestle with and/or seem to ignore the most?

Susan Mackay Smith: In the narrow realm of grammar, writers these days seem oblivious to what modifies what, how, and why. Dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers abound, leading to confused readers or to readers who end up sneering at the writer’s ridiculousness.

An example: At age six, Johnny’s mother gave birth to twins. Think about it. One sees similar errors everywhere. It’s as if writers and copy editors think, oh, the reader will figure it out. But the reader shouldn’t have to! Stopping reading for even a fraction of a second to figure it out interferes with the critical suspension of disbelief that creates enjoyable reading. Don’t we want readers to enjoy our work?

On the other hand, the biggest problem I see in fiction writing isn’t a grammar issue but one of craft: recognizing what’s not on the page. That is, what you intended to show or have the reader understand versus what you actually show, so the reader fails to grasp what you meant. Even multi-published, successful writers face this problem. Good critique groups can be vital in pointing out where something—motivation, rationale, emotion – didn’t translate from imagination to page.

Question:  Conan the Grammarian is a funny book. It’s hilarious in many ways, including in its bluntness and certainty. But you also make it clear that the rules can be broken. Can you point to some good examples of rule breakers? And how to break the rules in the correct way?

Susan Mackay Smith: All good writers break the rules: e.e. cummings’s no capitals; James Joyce’s loaded run-on sentences; Shakespeare’s neologisms; Elmore Leonard’s skipping dialogue tags; Kent Haruf’s neglecting quotation marks; Dorothy Dunnett’s using foreign languages and atypical viewpoints; Carol Berg’s dropping -ly in most adverbs…

Breaking the rules correctly is quite a droll concept, but my maxim – Conan’s maxim – is that writers have to know a rule to break it effectively. Sometimes a fragmented sentence is merely strange and hard to read, but in a good writer’s hands, a fragment gives evocative emphasis to the prose.

Question:  How did you come to care so much about the right and wrong way to put sentences together?

Susan Mackay Smith: Isn’t that a writer’s job? Writers should care – words and sentences are how stories get told. Words and sentences are how we humans communicate.

Question:  As a longtime judge for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold contest (and other contests, I’m sure), can you tell within a page or so whether a writer has a firm grasp on grammar? And has a good writing “voice”? How?

Susan Mackay Smith: Less than a page, for the basics. That first mistake alerts me, and if more crop up, I look for those instead of focusing on the story. “That’s not fair,” some contestants may say; but life isn’t, editors and readers aren’t, and that’s reality. Contests are a teaching tool – teaching entrants how their work is perceived by readers who are strangers, readers who see only what is on the page. If what’s on the page is replete with errors, that’s no one I care to read, however great the story buried in the mistakes may turn out to be. Mistakes make for hard reading. Life’s too short.

As for voice, those who have a good one, whether their own storyteller’s voice or a good character voice, are immediately apparent, from a great first line that flows organically into the next line, then the next, consistent and real, with some spark that says, this character is a person, or this writer has a unique clarity and way with words.

Question:  You’ve been writing the Conan the Grammarian column for RMFW’s newsletter for years. How did you go about the process of culling through those and shaping them in book form?

Susan Mackay Smith: I reread all the columns and sorted them into rough categories – punctuation, grammar, craft, and so on – then realized I had several that were pep talks or moral support rather than about mechanics or language. Those became the introductory and concluding sections, which provided a starting place and a goal for the rest. Then it became a process of combining or deleting duplicate columns from within the rough categories, and working for a good flow from topic to topic. It was fun (I’m a re-writer anyway).

Question:  I learned a new word I did not know reading this book: swivet. Good one! There were many others as well, especially in the “Toward More Colorful Writing” chapter. How does a writer know when a choice word is the right one and not just, you know, showing off?

Susan Mackay Smith: Why not show off? But the trick is, make sure your word fits your character and/or your time period and genre, and be sure odd words or non-standard uses are clear in context. (Critique groups help here!) For example, if your scene shows your protagonist freaking out, and another character tells her, “Don’t get in such a swivet,” it will be clear in context. But if the opening line of the novel says, “Mary Sue was in a swivet that morning,” not so much.

Question: In the age of Twitter abbreviations and emoticons, where is grammar heading? What is the future of grammar? What will the nuns be concerned about if they don’t have grammar to fire up their sense of order and discipline?

Susan Mackay Smith: I’m not a psychic, nor do I play one on TV, but (easiest point first) I don’t think emoticons will ever substitute for evocative writing. Emoticons set tone in a Tweet or email, where the brevity might not allow the writer’s intent to be clear otherwise.

As for Twitter, etc., pray we never get to the stage where novels are written full of three and four letter acronyms! Tweets ignore punctuation because of character limitations, but I sincerely hope that doesn’t become standard in all writing, because punctuation serves Conan’s God of Clarity, making communication easier.

That said, limiting yourself to 140 characters can be a useful exercise in clear and concise writing, which helps any writer hone basic skills.

Question: What are you working on now? What’s next?

Susan Mackay Smith: I am finishing the revision of a YA fantasy, the first of a projected two-book set. What should be next is starting the submission process again. A couple of years ago, I had given myself a vacation from submitting, then life got in the way, as it is wont to do, so I’ve neglected the be persistent aspect of a writer’s job. Time to get back on the horse named Never Give Up.


Conan the Grammarian  cover-conan

Podcast interview with Susan Mackay Smith on The Rocky Mountain Writer.




Do the rules of grammar turn your knees to jelly? Do you cower at the mere mention of relative clauses, the past perfect tense, or participial modifiers?

Me, too.

But I’m getting better. And now I’ve got Susan Mackay Smith’s Conan the Grammarian: Practical Guidelines on Grammar and Craft for Fiction Writers on my side. I mean, right by my side.

Drawn from Smith’s decade of writing the ‘Conan’ column for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ monthly newsletter, this book is not only handy and useful, it’s inspiring.

Yes, grammar can be inspiring.

If you think that reading this would be the equivalent of getting your knuckles rapped by an irascible nun, think again.

Conan the Grammarian is funny, breezy, and wicked smart. (Wickedly smart?)  Smith places the idea of understanding and appreciating grammar in a more powerful context. And that, quite simply, is the desire to help writers tell their stories with more sharpness, precision, and impact. Thinking about grammar is thinking about writing—and writing clearly.

Writes Smith in the introduction: “To begin at the beginning, this book examines the craft of fiction from the perspective of grammar and usage. This is not a book of Rules. Though it includes many grammatical terms, the purpose isn’t to teach terminology but to elucidate how the language works so Careful Writers can wield their tools to best advantage for their stories For what matters isn’t only the story; it’s how the story is told.”

The book is divided into six parts: On Language; In the Beginning Was the Word; Structure and Bone: Grammar; The Sinews: Punctuation; Heart and Soul: The Novelist’s Craft; and Battle Scars.

Smith writes in second person as “Conan,” an alter-ego with a stern sensibility.  But Conan is nothing if not funny and entirely self-aware and “his” particular, enjoyable voice makes this volume eminently readable:

Herewith, three examples

Example 1:

On Euphemism

“A euphemism is the substitution of a less negative or more general word or phrase for a blunt or embarrassing one. Conan, as readers are learning, prefers specifics for fiction, which is why euphemism comes under Bad Habits. Lots of swear words are euphemistic—drat and darn for damn; heck for hell; shoot for—you get the idea.”

Example 2:

The Passive Voice

“What is passive voice? Why is it uniformly castigated as Bad Writing? Why is it wrong, and why should you care?

“First, let’s discuss what passive voice is not. Someone has perpetrated a heinous canard that passive voice equates to using the verb to be, e.g., was and were. Whoever is responsible, please stop! While Conan has elsewhere explained that to be forms are state of being words and, when used instead of more muscular verbs, may impart limpness in writing, that doesn’t mean they are passive voice. Got it? Stop spreading this pernicious fallacy, or Conan will get grumpy, and that’s something nobody wants. It’s never a pretty sight.”

Example 3:

The Serial Comma

“Conan believes the serial comma is never wrong. You the writer aren’t the best judge of your text’s possible ambiguity, since you know what you intended to say. Make a habit of the serial comma and let the editor remove it, the lunkhead.”

Writers, Conan the Grammarian will give you a few dozen different ways to approach your revisions and self-editing, from clichés of characterization (watch those head nods) to dialogue tags to that dreaded first sentence. It’s also a handy reference guide (with a thorough index to boot).

Conan approaches grammar as a writer who cares about good writing and not as a authoritarian technocrat only interested in The Rules. In fact, Conan makes a good argument about knowing the rules first in order to break them. And, along the way, Conan shows a depth of knowledge about the history of language and the power of good writing with references to everyone form Shakespeare to Flannery O’Connor. A bibliography runs for a couple of pages; you will be very busy trying to keep up.

Finally, Conan is beautifully designed and I did not spot one typo or word out of place.  You have to figure, on that basis alone, that Conan knows “his” stuff.Q &

Conan the Grammarian only costs $10.  Okay, to be as precise as Conan, $9.95. A steal. Get it.

You’ll have a goldmine in your hands.