Why I Threw the Book

Had to throw a book across the room the other day. Had to.

It was not something I did lightly or without thought. I love books and respect the effort required to write them, even when they let the reader down. This was only the second time I have ever done it.

But boy, this book deserved it, and it felt good.

Most nights I read to Tori when we go to bed. It’s relaxing. The only problem is that my voice is apparently so soothing, my dulcet tones so soporific, that she’s usually asleep within a couple of pages. On occasion we’ll make it through a whole chapter, but she’s more likely to fall asleep within a few paragraphs. It took us something like six months to get through Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” that way, and “Good Omens” took us almost a year.

Maybe a mystery, I thought. That might keep her interest piqued enough to battle off Morpheus for a chapter or two. So I brought home from the library what is referred to as “a cozy,” a subgenre of the mystery field in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.

This one had “beignet” in the title and I figured it must be set in New Orleans, since beignets are a particularly New Orleans thing. But no, it turns out the story is set in Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. So strike one.

There’s a smugness to the cozy style. They apparently tend to feature amateur sleuths who work in quirky, trendy jobs. The kind of jobs that people in Hallmark Channel movies seem to flock to. In this one, the woman had just gone through a divorce and had opened a beignet and coffee shop in a small town. Because small towns deserve beignets too, I guess.

The author, who has apparently quite a lot of success in the “cozy” genre, has a peculiar style. If you or I were writing dialogue, we might choose to write it in a coherent, chronological fashion. He said this. I said that. He asked me a question. I answered it. You know, a conversation.

Not in this book. In this book, someone would enter the shop, approach the counter and say something, often just one or two words. Then there’d be two paragraphs of exposition and/or a completely irrelevant digression, then the other person would answer with one or two words and you’d have to go back because you couldn’t remember what the question was.

For me, the crowning example was when the a character walked in and asked, “Am I too late?” What followed was FOUR PARAGRAPHS about the javelina, a pig-like animal that runs wild in the American southwest. Four paragraphs. 223 words. On javelinas. There was also a bit about a local artist, but it was mostly about javelinas. Then the main character asks, “Too late for what?” and I have to flip back a page to remember who was talking. For my money, the ONLY way this makes sense is, after the murder eventually takes place, it turns out that the crime was committed by a pack of javelinas. Or the mystery is solved by them. Or something.

One of Elmore Leonards’ “rules” for writing novels is, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” By that standard, this book is a failure by page 11.

Tori was more taken with this passage, when the dreamboat of a local, unmarried sheriff walks in. “His brown suit and tie were dull, but his M&M brown eyes were as scrumptious-looking as the candy-coated chocolate morsels.” Seriously. At least Tori wasn’t sleeping. The ridiculousness of the book had her attention. (And I have to point out, scrumptious looking should not have been hyphenated because it’s not used as a compound modifier. If the author had written “his scrumptious-looking eyes,” yes, that would have been correct. So the author is both ridiculous and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.)

But neither of those were what prompted the launch of the volume across our small bedroom. It was two pages later. The hunky sheriff says he’s going to some Halloween party with a woman who appears to be the arch rival of the book’s hero. She and the sheriff are doing some kind of matching Victorian costuming. The following ensues.

“‘Like Lady Audley?’ I quipped,” … (Seriously? “Quipped?” Just say the line and let the reader determine if it’s a quip or just more useless information. But I digress.) … “in reference to a Victorian-era novel called Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. I had read the sensationalistic story in my downtime between clients while working as a hairstylist over in Phoenix. The lurid novel had made an impression on me.” Apparently so, since the next paragraph – 42 words – offers a precis of the plot and why it would be a good comparison to the sheriff’s date.

There really is such a book, I looked it up. It was published in 1862 and it’s impossible to see how this presents any information that will be helpful later when the murder occurs. But I’ll never know, because that’s when I snorted and threw the book across the room. Tori applauded. It was the most entertainment we’d gotten since we’d cracked the damn thing open.

I have to keep in mind that this author is very successful. Lot of titles in several different series. That doesn’t excuse such a – there’s only one word for it – ridiculous book. It’s kind of maddening.

So why haven’t I given the name of the author or the title or anything? Simple. I made a vow a long, long time ago that I would never directly pan a book or attack an author’s work. Life’s too short and karma’s a bitch. I know how hard writing a novel can be, it’s hard bloody work, and I honor the effort that goes into it, even when the result is disappointing, or in this case, ludicrous. And hell, it’s not even the worst book I’ve ever read. That was a pirate novel sent to me by the author to review about a dozen years ago. It featured as nonsensical plot, a main character who was so unpleasant that her best character trait could charitably be called pigheadedness (Pigs? Javelinas?), and significant, almost hilarious historical inaccuracies. And if I never named that one, I’m not going to do that now to this absurd waste of paper and ink.

Just know that it has beignet in the title and it’s set at Halloween in New Mexico. You’re on your own.

One other way you might be able to tell is, if you are looking at the Jefferson Parish Public Library, there might be a slight dent in the spine – where it collided with my dresser.

Agony at the Barnes & Noble

It was agony. Exquisite agony.

I have a gift card from Barnes & Noble. It’s really a nice gift from my kids, and Monday evening we went down to the big store on Veterans Boulevard to spend it.

But it was not as easy as it sounds, not by a long shot. Everything looked so good!

“I’ll take one of those, and one of those, and one of those,” I thought as I wandered the aisles. But that was impossible, of course. $35 – possibly two books, if I ponied up a few bucks of my own.

My first choice was “City of Death,” James Goss’s novelization of a Douglas Adams script for “Doctor Who.” The story (for the fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker) is sort of legendary. On a Friday they realized they were supposed to start shooting a four-part episode on Monday, but they had no script. Adams said the producer, “took me back to his place, locked me in his study and hosed me down with whiskey and black coffee for a few days, and there was the script.” The four-part show is still among the most successful in the 50-plus years of Dr. Who. The novelization came out this summer.

I found another couple of paperbacks, any one of which would have padded out the purchase if I went into pocket for about five bucks. But then I saw the Elvis Costello memoir, “Unfaithful Music.” Costello is a great artist and an interesting guy, and his life is apparently quite – unusual. So I thought maybe that and something cheap.

But then I wandered through the young adult section. I write young adult/middle school, and it’s always a good idea to keep abreast of your field. What’s selling? What’s the style, the subject matter, that the middle school crowd is going for? No vampires or zombies for me, no fantasy magic (or magicke, if you prefer,) no dystopian futures. I have nothing against the genres, you can’t argue with success. They’re just not my thing. I saw several books I thought might be both entertaining and instructive.

But then I went upstairs to the history section, and I was lost. There was a new book on the battle of Waterloo, a book on Nixon, another one on Queen Victoria’s mysterious daughter, Louise. Basically two out of every three books in that section looked like it’d be a great read.

And then I remembered a book I’d seen in the library. I already had a book checked out when I noticed it, but I took a note to make sure I remembered it next time I went to the library. (These days, when I “take a note” of a library book, I take a picture of the cover.) I looked it up on my phone, got the title, and found it.

“They All Love Jack,” Bruce Robinson’s new book on Jack the Ripper. It’s a massive tome. He starts by lining up the “Ripper-ologist” industry and mocking them. Then he tears into the hypocritical morality of the Victorian era (I read the first couple of pages) before setting out for his quarry. It looked fascinating. And it was exactly $35. That would be the one.

I went back downstairs with it and started collecting the family But the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I was with my choice Great book, hours and hours of reading. But did I want to spend $35 on a book I could borrow for free from the library? Why would I do that? That’s the point of the library.

It also doesn’t seem like a book I’d read frequently. Shelf space in our house is limited, and most of the books on them are ones we’ve read more than once. Some of them, such as “The Lord of the Rings,” “Stardust,” “Dog On It” and “If Chins Could Kill” we’ve read repeatedly. I suddenly wasn’t feeling as good about the planned purchase.

And then it hit me. A book I’ve read two or three times, had been thinking about just recently, and which I knew for a fact was not available at the local library. I took “They All Love Jack” back upstairs and replaced it on the shelf. (I’m like that, I worked several years in bookstores.) Then I went down and found it.

“Good Omens,” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The funniest book ever written about the end of the world, better even than Douglas Adams’ “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” And the more background you have in religion, the funnier it is. I’ve read it several times, everyone in the family has read it at least once and expressed interest in reading it again. Great book. We’d left our copy on St. Croix three and a half years ago when we move back to the mainland.

And unlike most other titles by Gaiman and Pratchett, this one is not anywhere in the Jefferson Parish Public Library System. It’s just a guess, but I suspect the fairly sacrilegious nature of the story, with the forces of Good and Evil poised to do final battle. The infant anti-christ has been misplaced and there’ll be hell to pay if the big boys downstairs find out. So the demon in charge teams up with his opposite number. The angel and demon have been on Earth 6,000 years and really don’t want their cushy assignments to end.

And that’s what I bought. I’m delighted, and am already halfway through the book – and even spotted a joke I never noticed before!

But there’s a snag – there’s always a snag, isn’t there? The book was only $15. I’ve still got $20 on the gift card and am going to have to go back and go through all this again.

There’s also this. The gift card was NOT a Christmas present! I got it half a year ago, for Father’s Day. It took that long to decide how to use slightly less than half of it.

Some may be shaking their heads and saying, “John, you’re an idiot. This is NOT a problem.” Well, I probably am an idiot. But just because this is a good thing, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem (you may quote me.) It’s a good problem, but still a problem.

But I won’t dwell on that today. I’ve got a great (re)addition to my library, one that I’m sure I’ll read several times and the rest of the family will enjoy as well. And next week I’ll have to get to the library to return the book I’ve been reading the last few weeks and look for that Jack the Ripper book. A guy’s gotta keep occupied.

Houma, Sweet Houma

The tricky part about being an author at a book festival is remembering that you’re there to sell books, not buy them.

At Books on the Bayou in Houma, Louisiana, Saturday, there were some really interesting looking books, some that sounded like good reads. It was all I could do to keep from picking up several of them, took a lot of self-control, discipline. Not qualities that come naturally to pirates.

John and Tori – or Ol' Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.
John and Tori – or Ol’ Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.

When we did the event two weeks ago we had a small setup at the back of the room. The other two authors at that event had much fancier spreads, and we knew we’d have to step up our game. Tori took it on with her usual passion, and Saturday we had far and away the most eye catching, fanciest display. The small chest we had picked up a year ago at a yard sale specifically for displaying books. Tori added a burlap table cover and netting. She painted our easel and we had a poster made of the cover photo. And she added all the little stuff, the beads and the old-looking doubloons. Even the sign-up sheet got the treatment. Instead of a yellow legal pad, she found a leather-bound journal that fit the theme and seemed to make people eager to give us their names and email addresses.

So we sold some books and went home with fewer books than we came with. That’s the ideal.

But we didn’t sell as may as the priest.

Sitting right next to us was an older gentleman, Father Todd, selling a book of daily devotionals, stories for each day of the year with a message. And everyone walking through the lobby of the (very, very nice) Terrebonne Parish Public Library knew him, stopped by to chat with him and – usually – forked over the $25 for his book. How do you not buy your parish priest’s book, especially when he’s sitting right there looking at you and telling you how to use it?

One book we did end up getting was “Before the Saltwater Came” by Wendy Wilson Billiot. It’s an illustrated children’s book on saltwater intrusion – yeah, sounds like something the kids are clamoring for, right? But it’s a terrific way of introducing an important subect – care of the environment – to young learners. It tells the story of an otter whose life is changed by the effects of human development in the freshwater marshes and asks its young readers “What will YOU do?” Good book.

Houma is about an hour southwest of New Orleans, in the heart of the bayou – Cajun country. They are colorful people, those Cajuns. During a lull in the proceedings Darryl DiMaggio, one of the local authors, whose book “Swamp Eagles” was a compilation of stories from his years as a seaplane pilot in the bayous, turned to us and said, “I haven’t had this much fun since the hogs ate my little brother.”


We had a good time and sold some books in Houma, met a lot of interesting people – a former sniper selling his adventure novels, a retired teacher who now has a slew of funny kids books out, and the irrepressible DiMaggio. We learned a few things from everyone. And I saw a book title that tickled an idea in my mind. I emailed my pirate partner, Cap’n Slappy, about it, and he’s gun ho, and already at work on the concept. More information on this, I hope, to come.

We finished the day with a late lunch at Big Mike’s BBQ Smokehouse, where they have great ribs! So all in all, a terrific outing. And we sold some books!

(And a big thank you to Captain John Swallow, for alerting me to this event, and the Terrebonne Public Library for making it happen!)