Before You Read Before the Fall

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You know how you read a book and you really don’t like it but you can’t decide what it is exactly you don’t like? The prior sentence is written in second person plural, a particular point of view rarely used in novels because it can be annoying to the reader and ineffective in conveying a story.

Point of view (POV) is one of the most important techniques a writer employs to tell a story. A skilled writer applies critical analysis and thought when choosing the best perspective so it serves the characters and the story. When a writer chooses the wrong or weakest viewpoint to tell a story, the story fails; fails to engage, fails to satisfy, fails to evince the realization of the writer’s inspiration.

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall suffers from the worst choice for POV, enlisting an omniscient voice to tell the story of what happens when a private airplane belonging to a wealthy media mogul crashes in the Atlantic shortly after takeoff, killing all aboard except for one man and the mogul’s four-year-old son. Scott, a long-distance swimmer, hauls little JJ on his back and swims fourteen miles back to shore, becoming a hero and then a suspect when the reason for the crash comes under scrutiny.

Why the plane crashed is the central mystery of the 390-page book. Each of the nine dead passengers’ stories comes to life,  their chapters alternating with chapters about Scott and JJ navigating the after-disaster media attention and fame.

And here is where the omniscient POV proves a poor choice: First, in every chapter the reader is subjected to the thoughts of all the characters as scenes play out. This proves difficult because the reader doesn’t know with whom to place allegiance–all characters are treated as equally important, even though they aren’t. It is confusing and makes the reader feel uneasy and adrift.

Second, the natural result of “head-hopping” is skating on the surface of the action instead of delving into any meaning or depth. In separate chapters devoted to each of the nine dead passengers, Hawley reverts to telling about  their lives, details their backstories ad nauseum, and trying (but failing) to gin up some kind of suspense about reasons any of them might have had to cause the plane to crash. These chapters–and most of the book–read like a script treatment, and perhaps the book resulted from an idea Hawley had for TV or a movie (Or maybe it’s the other way around: he wrote the book hoping to sell it for screen rights.)

Third, where is the editor? How does this book pass muster when submitted to the publishing company? Hawley’s jacket copy shows he has written feature films, several TV series, and four novels. Does that mean he doesn’t need editing?

When a book this amateurish is nominated for an Edgar Award in the Best Book category, the question again arises about the process Mystery Writers of America uses to screen potential nominees and the criteria they apply.

On a scale of one to ten, I rate this book a one.

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Book Lovers’ Spring Training

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Those of us in the freezing Midwest anxiously await when baseball players report for spring training because it signals a thaw, and intimates hot summer days quaffing cold beer and cheering when a player cranks one out of the ballpark. Likewise, when Mystery Writers of America announces the 2017 nominees for the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards, it signals a spring of sorts: a fresh batch of books for the lover of mystery novels, multiple categories from which to choose, and enough titles to be relished all summer while quaffing a cold beer and cheering when a writer hits the proverbial home run.

This year I will read and review 11 books in two categories:

Best Novel:

  1. The Ex by Alafair Burke
  2. Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman
  3. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
  4. What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin
  5. Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Best Original Paperback:

  1. Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott
  2. Come Twilight by Tyler Dilts
  3. The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni
  4. Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty
  5. A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum
  6. Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin

Each novel will receive a ranking on a scale of one to ten after its review, and I will predict each winner in the above-named categories. MWA announces the winners on April 27th. My writing buddy, Karen Burgess, is already several books ahead of me with her Literary Lunchbox blog reviews of the Edgars. In her annual attempt at the same feat, Karen is more ambitious than I am (and a devotee of Evelyn Wood speed reading, I suspect), reading and reviewing an additional category, Best First Novel, for a total of 17 books. Sometimes we agree in our estimations, sometimes we arrive at completely opposite opinions regarding the same book. Either way, we both love reading and writing, and enjoy a great friendship as a result. We hope our friendly competition provides you with entertaining reviews and new writers to investigate.