Thursday, September 15, 2011

Book Review: Woke up in a Strange Place by Eric Arvin

Reviewer: Victor J. Banis
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
ISBN 978-1-61581-795-5

Joe wakes up in a barley field with no clothes, no memory, and no idea how he got there. Before he knows it he’s off on the last great journey of his life. With his soul guide, Baker, and a charge to have courage from a mysterious, alluring and somehow familiar Stranger, Joe sets off through a fantastical changing landscape to confront his past.

The quest is not without challenges. Joe’s past is not always an easy thing to relive, but if he wants to find peace—and reunite with the Stranger he is so strongly drawn to—he must continue on until the end, no matter how tempted he is to stop along the way.

I confess that I found myself of two minds while reading this book, part of me quite enchanted and part of me – the writing coach part – perturbed by some bad writing habits, particularly in the first 20 or 30 pages. Indeed, I nearly stopped reading and tossed the book into my “No, thanks” pile.

Let me quickly say I’m glad I did not, because once we got past a slow start, the book turned out to be a magical and often highly original interpretation of the mythical journey for the truth, the hero quest.

So let me start by waxing eloquent on what is good—make that very good-- about the book. First, as I said already, it’s a fresh and original take on an oft used theme (though not so often in gay or m/m fiction). Joe, the protagonist, wakes up in what he thereafter insists on thinking of as Heaven, although his spirit guide, Baker, keeps insisting that this isn’t that, at least not in the sense that he perceives it.

And like all seekers after truth, Joe sets out on a journey, without really understanding where it is he’s headed. At the onset, Joe’s memory seems mostly to have vanished, but as he journeys, memories come back to him, he meets people from his past, some of them changed, some of them not, and he sees scenes from his life in a different light.

I can’t get into all of Joe’s adventures here, and I wouldn’t want to anyway. Following them for yourself, taking your own journey, is way more fun, and more instructive, too, but the author displays a vivid imagination, sometimes humorous, sometimes profound, and nearly always charming. It would be very difficult, for example, not to be enchanted by The City of Thought, where people fish in the clouds with crystal poles for dreams and ideas. I’d book a vacation there any day. What gay male wouldn’t enjoy a stopover with “the brethren,” a sort of Heavenly fraternity house peopled with all the drop-dead gorgeous men of one’s dreams, all super endowed, all there for nothing more than the joys of endless sex? Hey, it may not be what they sing about in Sunday school, but it sound pretty heavenly to me. You can have the golden slippers.

Not everything is brightness and light, of course, in this journey any more than in your own life. There are some dark patches, some genuinely scary interludes, and some painful lessons to be learned.

There is that slow start, however, and the problems I mentioned earlier, and while I can’t exactly do a blow by blow (and what would be the point, since the book is already published?) it would be unfair to the writer to mention them and not provide a few examples of what I mean. Anyway, they are the sort of thing that a diligent writer can and should correct, which is to say it will benefit him in the longer run.

First, though, it will help if I explain that good fiction, short or long, is like a dream shared by the author and the reader. The author wants the reader to forget that he’s reading a book, and sink into the dream, experiencing it for himself. So, the cardinal sin for the author is anything that jars the reader out of the dream, reminding him this isn’t real, it’s only a book.

That is why, however clever it makes the author feel, this is not the time to show off one’s impressive vocabulary. The reader may be impressed, but he will also be jarred out of the dream. Even if he doesn’t jump up and rush to the dictionary, it will still give him pause to come across a word that makes him puzzle. Anyway, if he has no clue what “aureate grass” is, you’ve wasted your description. When given a choice between fancy, scholarly words or phrases, or the common language of everyday, choose the everyday. Most of your readers will be everyday people, and they will stay entranced, as you want them.

Victorian writers were fond of addressing the reader directly: “Little did she know, dear reader, when she climbed the stairs…” The author doesn’t do a lot of this, but phrases like “he could remember nothing of before, our hero…” smack of Victoriana. Remember the dream – when you are addressing your reader directly, you are reminding him this is only a book, a story you’re telling him, and not something he’s living as he reads it.

And there’s a lot of just plain old-fashioned overwriting. When Baker extends his hand to Joe, “…it secured a tight grip around Joe’s own…” It would be much simpler and clearer if he just took Joe’s hand in a tight grip, wouldn’t it? Or, when Baker “took a bite from his apple, first remembering to remove the cigarette that still hung from his lip…” I suspect most readers wouldn’t imagine him chomping on cigarette and apple together, but if the cigarette must be dispensed with, couldn’t the horse go before the cart?

Also, the book goes on a bit too long after the real story –which would be Joe’s journey—is ended. There’s an art in knowing when to bring down the curtain. No matter how clever what you add in after that point, it’s doing handstands just to show the reader you can do them. Save that for the lawn party when the book comes out.

Okay, yes, nitpicking, and I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t think the author had a genuine talent – but talent alone is not enough. If a writer wants to get better, he must work at his craft as well. The real problem with these problems is that they are first-book mistakes, and this is not a first book—which raises the question, is the author learning? Or content to slide along? Now, I do know that not every writer wants to get better at it. There are those who really aren’t interested in getting good, just in getting successful – they are two different goals, and don’t always go together. This author is good enough, however, that I can’t help thinking he will want to do better. I hope so.

Still, this is a delightful book, one that I think most readers will enjoy aplenty. And, yes, you will probably guess before he gets there where it is Joe is journeying to. Or perhaps not even journeying to, since the author is offering an alternate universe in which all the logical rules needn’t apply—which is to say, maybe he’s already there, maybe always was, just not conscious of it. I am reminded of Stephen Levine’s description of the desired state of being: “Nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be.” Which, maybe, is what Heaven means.

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