Ghost Novel Review: In Honor of Lunar New Year

I wanted to get a review out in time for Lunar New Year, which begins tonight. Notice I didn’t say Chinese New Year. In addition to China, Lunar New Year is celebrated in Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea.

As they say in Korea, “Sae hae bok manhi pah de saeyo!” (May you receive many blessings in the new year!)

In honor of Lunar New Year, I had planned to review Water Ghosts and dutifully read that novel. But in my reading I discovered that author Shawna Yang Ryan weaves in such intriguing mythology surrounding the Ghost Month that I decided to save this review for Ghost Month, which takes place in the seventh lunar month, roughly mid-August. Stay tuned for that one.

So, as a self-confessed Koreaphile, I went in search of a Korean ghost story. I was hoping to find a Korean author writing in English. What I found was Demon’s Door by Graham Masterton.

Our protagonist Jim Rook is a kindhearted, self-effacing, rather shy teacher of remedial college English who sees dead people. I sort of fell in love with this character and his wry wit, and I think I might enjoy reading a different novel in the Rook series.

However, I cannot recommend this book.

Part of this stems from personal taste. I really prefer my ghosts troubled and vulnerable rather than evil and vengeful. I rarely make an exception in my preference (and in this perhaps I am doing a disservice to the author who chooses otherwise). The one demonic ghost novel I heartily recommend is The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, simply because his mastery of character, prose and plot warrant it.

The other part of my disregard for Demon’s Door stems from sloppy writing.

On the first day of class, Jim Rook is confronted by a malevolent presence that mutilates and tortures pets and humans alike. Rook suspects student Kim Dong Wook of harboring the evil spirit that the narrator terms “kwisin” or Korean ghost.

Unfortunately, the character Kim is a caricature–an impassive, stoic, article-dropping stereotype unworthy of the role assigned him.

Concerning this kwisin or Korean ghost that possesses Kim, the portrayal of this demon character didn’t mesh with my understanding. (And this is critical since I write my own version of kwisin in my novel Moonlight Dancer.)

I sat down to lunch with my friend Eun Kyung to double-check my own research. (Generally speaking, we authors are a self-doubting lot.) Eun Kyung verified my suspicion that the author Masterton doesn’t know a ghost from a demon from a mythical fox-woman spirit, but had mixed these Korean archetypes together like so many pick-up stix. My credo–if you’re going to borrow culturally, then please do your research!

The biggest problem with the novel, however, concerned the final third. The first two thirds were funny and rather sweet. I was just getting to know this quirky, dry-witted narrator (other readers will have the advantage on me as he’s been around in other novels of this series), when boom! We skim toward the climax with all the speed of a luge race. And that would be okay except for the fact that we don’t really know Kim at all, and suddenly, as a kwisin conduit, he’s purging himself of decades-old family secrets—a kind of verbal diarrhea, if you will. Neither pleasant nor credible.

The beginning of the novel is charming as are the narrator’s endearing attempts to connect with students and potential love interests. I also very much enjoyed the literature lessons the narrator provides his students. What worked less well was the pell-mell hurtle toward the climax with its attendant Hollywood style special effects sans character development.

As an educator, I would have to give this novel a C-.

Should You (Or I) Self-publish? Decision!

I have reached a decision in the self-publishing issue we’ve been discussing: Should You (or I) Self Publish Parts One and Two.

Drum roll, please.

With the encouragement of my husband, I have decided to self publish my novel Moonlight Dancer.

Yikes!

Many factors informed this outcome including the current turmoil of the traditional publishing industry and the unworkable delays in securing an agent/publisher.

I’ve been thinking a lot of the book The Animal Family by the renowned poet Randall Jarrell. As the hunter sits on a rock, pole in hand, the mermaid asks him what he’s doing. When he tells her he’s fishing, she laughs and says “It’s–it’s such a roundabout way of catching fish.” To her mind, the best way to fish is to decide what species you want and then to swim after it and catch it in your mouth. I’m sort of feeling that way about publishing. Fishing for an agent, hunting for a publisher, baiting and waiting with no guarantee you will ever even hook something.

There are no guarantees in publishing, but I would like to get on with the process.

Of course, I am excited and nervous. The good news is that I’m going to bring you along on the trek.

At Writer Unleashed, I will include the incremental steps, inevitable stumbles and, hopefully, victory leaps on the road to indie publication. If you are in the same indie process, I hope you will chime in with comments and insights.

So, without further ado, I’d like to highlight a blog post by Jody Hedlund on the barriers to successful self-publishing. In essence, she advises studying writing, hiring an editor, engaging in critique groups, and enlisting beta readers. You can read the full post here.

I have done all of the above with the exception of beta readers, which I’m going to rectify tonight by distributing my manuscript to my reading group. Next month we will discuss the same, and I will let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all.

So, fasten your seat belts, kids. We’re about to jump out of the nest.

Ghost Novel Review: The House Next Door

The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons

Simon & Schuster, Inc., 356 pages.

Colquitt and Walter Kennedy pursue a complacent lifestyle in an idyllic suburban enclave. Stimulating workdays. Patio cocktails. Garden parties. Tennis doubles.

You get the idea.

All that is threatened when an outsider buys the adjacent wooded lot, hires a brilliant architect and erects an imposing structure. Colquitt frets and bemoans the disruption of her perfect life and unobstructed sylvan view until I wanted to strangle her. Perhaps there is more than one malevolent motive afoot?

Disturbing events followed by uber disturbing events lead Colquitt to question the ambiance of the house next door. Could the house be haunted? The lives of those connected with it imperiled by an evil force?

In general, I like my ghosts troubled and bemused. Hateful and demonic spirits don’t move me. Of course, there are exceptions like The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, a book teeming with compelling characters and dynamic prose. Unfortunately, The House Next Door does not prove the exception, bogged down as it is by wooden characters and flat writing.

I was excited to begin this book because I’ve enjoyed other of Siddons’ novels–most notably Peachtree Road, which I loved. Because I didn’t love The House Next Door, I tried to figure out why. I discovered it was originally published in 1978. For me, The House Next Door is tainted with the same Stepford nimbyism redolent of the 70s decade–what we (those of us who weren’t in it) used to call “the establishment.”

Should You (Or I) Self-Publish? Part Two

Welcome back to part two of our self vs. traditional publishing discussion in which we endeavor to toss together disparate musings/factoids and grind out a new truth.

Since our last communication, another eminent author has crossed over to the indie side–John Edgar Wideman. (If you’ve never read his novel Sent For You Yesterday, convey yourself post haste to book store or reading device for your very own copy.) In an interview at Goodreads, Wideman points to a blockbuster mindset in traditional publishing. “The publisher’s list gets shorter and shorter, and that’s destructive of quality and variety. I think the American imagination has been impoverished by the choices that have been offered as a substitute for what was once real selection.”

Perhaps with such defections as Wideman’s from traditional publishing, the indie taint will disappear. Certainly in this current climate of stick-it-to-the-man self-empowerment, it feels kinda-sorta good to sidestep the evil gatekeepers. Am I right? However, Victoria Strauss notes on her blog that “it’s risky to assume that others’ success stories will apply to you. ‘Anyone can do it’ are dangerous words. Look for the story behind the story–it may be as instructive as the story itself.”

Interesting. As writers, we’re all about the story.

For instance, what is the story with agents? Once we’ve paid Charon‘s coins, can the agents really deliver us to the other side? Check out this straightforward description of what a literary agent can do for you from Adler & Robin Books, Inc.  For many writers, access to money and distribution are the primary assets an agent brings.

For me, the partnership is what I crave. The mentoring, the career path guidance, the industry eyes and ears. In her first (and best) novel, The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan thanks her agent Sandra Dijkstra for “saving [her] life.” Now that’s a relationship!

But here’s the rub: a good (or not so good) agent is hard to find. Emily Hill, indie publishing apologist, describes the probability statistics of landing an agent at a non-New York agency as one tenth of one percent. Grim, yes? To read the full article, click here. She also decries the interminable wait times of querying, landing an agent, waiting for the agent to shop a manuscript,  waiting for the publisher to publish. That’s the best scenario. In the end, three or five or ten years later, there may be no book.

Did we grind out a definitive answer for all writers? Probably not. It seems the opposite–there are more choices and directions than ever. The good news is that writers now more opportunities to be read and to allow readers to determine the value of their work.

Let us know about your own journey. What did you decide? Was it the right decision for you?