Kill Smartie Breedlove: Joni Rodgers | Review by Consuelo

A romp with a noirish underside

Posted originally on Amazon and Goodreads, December 19, 201281NaiAnHL+L._SL1500_

Joni Rodgers has enough chutzpah to turn a crime mystery tale with the requisite hard-boiled ex-cop and gutsy female protagonist into a romp with a noirish underside. I adored Smartie Breedlove and the way she really, really,  loved her dog, and the hilarious turns of phrase that flowed so naturally, even at moments of high drama.

Rodgers allows her main character to act in a `fa-woosh!’ fashion without too much interference (good writing makes it seem that way!). Would the blowsy wit of phrases like “fracketty froo” and “fribbles in a snivet” have made it past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing? Probably not. Instead we get to chuckle out loud and be entertained. Some of the dialogue was so great I kept on getting the urge to share it with someone by reading it out loud.

With all the witty dialogue it’s easy to forget the opening scene. But Rodgers does a weirdly smart thing; interwoven with the investigation and writing of her own pulp fiction book are frequent mentions (by Smartie) of Hebrew rites and rituals for death and mourning, and somehow it’s effective. It makes Smartie a real person with a big heart, and it adds an uneasy painful layer to the frenetic action scenes. I thought the idea of Shiva – 7 days to mourn a loved one – was something Western civilization should adopt.

The obfuscation of the real story with Smartie’s fiction writing works brilliantly; the two versions continually appear to coalesce and then separate again. I couldn’t help wondering if Smartie wasn’t going to confound everyone by returning from the dead to participate in another near-fictional adventure of her own making.

Kill Smartie Breedlove is a great holiday e-book read!

See Joni Rodgers’ other fiction here.

1581591430/06/2013 Footnote: The original cover had super-long sexy legs in black pantyhose and stilettos which I thought stood out head-and-shoulders above the crowd in terms of ultra-cool eye-catching design, but it suggested a noir thriller. The new cover version on Amazon and other sites featuring the very cute dog with jowls should attract readers who enjoy mystery novels with a smart, very human protagonist (more in line with Joni’s other novels). It would be interesting to know how the cover change affects sales.

Your story needs two hearts | Roz Morris

I love Roz’s original take on what I call the chiaroscuro effect – playing with the unbearable lightness of being (forever grateful to Kundera!) and keeping the darkness at bay is what fiction is all about. Roz’s idea gives a different more architectural perspective that suggests a 3D way of walking around within the story. 

Nail Your Novel

heartsStories need two hearts. I’m going to call them the warm heart and the dark heart.

The warm heart is the bond we feel with the central characters. It is the pleasure of spending time in their company. I hesitate to call it liking; it may not be so simple. Our attachment may be to just one person and their flaws and troubles, or it may be to a web of relationships. It is affection, but rough-edged. It is warm, but it might not be cuddly. It’s push and pull, trouble and strife, idiocies and idiosyncrasies. But it is where the reader feels at home.

And then there is the dark heart. The dark heart is jeopardy. The shadow at the end of the alleyway. The characters may have other problems in the story. They may fight miscellaneous foes. But the dark heart is an ultimate disturbance that will…

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Throwing away paper stars

A year ago I decided to start doing more reviews of the books I read, partly to gain exposure, and partly out of curiosity. How could I understand reviewers if I’d never walked in their shoes?

My favourite genre is literary fiction. The longer the better. I’m attracted to big fat books that will take forever to read and will end up giving me neck-pain from carrying them around. The more serious and enigmatic the better. The only books that made me laugh in a sustained belly ache fashion were P.G. Wodehouse‘s Jeeves books and Gerald Durrell‘s animal family books. John Irving has made me laugh in a different way; with Irving laughter is painful because it highlights what being truly human involves. I find most books which aim to be entertaining boring. I like them complex, devious, mysterious. I’m apt to wallow in all that chiaroscuro atmosphere like a kid in a mud pond. I guess you could say I’m a niche market voracious reader.

Today a voracious reader is called a rabid reader; that tells us something about a new generation of online consumers. In the small towns of my growing up years there were no bookshops, only libraries: plain covered volumes were extracted from plain shelves in plain local libraries and handed to plain librarians week after week, year after year.  Mostly we’d take a chance on the story title. A new author was an adventure waiting to unfold; their books wouldn’t be in the library if they couldn’t write. What mattered was what was inside, not the packaging. There was one thing though that was the same. We took those free books as our due. So why are we so surprised by the Internet model?

How does one shift one’s perspective to get away from a lifetime’s subjective absorption  and review the work of others in a fair and discriminating fashion? The life of a writer is a work-in-progress. Asking someone to review one’s novel or short story or poetry collection is an act of faith; the writer trusts that the reviewer takes their work seriously or why do the review?

gold star

If one assumes that the acknowledged masters of English Literature (such as Brontë, Faulkner, HemingwayShakespeare etc.) are what we (as serious writers and readers) aspire to, then the old literary favourites are logically the only 5’s there can be – the pinnacle of the star system.

De kinderjaren van Jezus_Coetzee

Where does that leave us with novels by Atwood, Coetzee, Irving, Mitchell, Oates, Ondaatje, Shriver and others who exhibit exemplary dedication, skill and that something ‘extra’ again and again? Where does that leave us with up-and-coming writers who with brilliance, ingenuity, word dexterity and bravado energetically pursue the prizes and take on the current generation of literary greats?

On a different, but no less confusing note, is it fair to compare a superbly composed novel (with all the gravitas of a major publishing house behind it) with an Indie novel which is rougher and rawer but is more accessible  (usually an e-book) and has sold more volumes  (although net sales worth may be far less than a traditionally published book).

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The more reviews I undertook the more my head spun; it was an impossible task to do justice with stars; I was allowing myself to be seduced by a consumer-orientated star system which demanded simplistic judgements based on a highly personal read. Adding objective criteria didn’t help. I still couldn’t fathom how an Indie bestseller could be fairly evaluated on the same star chart and by the same criteria as Lionel Shriver‘s meticulously crafted We Need To Talk About Kevin or David Mitchell‘s monumental epic achievement Cloud Atlas.   I became increasingly convinced that review stars were false symbols which collapsed meaning.

Why isn’t the work of visual artists measured with stars? Because it would be a meaningless pointless exercise. Every painting exerts a unique force of push and pull on the observer. Or the work of a composer? Because it would be ridiculous, laughable to assign a concerto 3 stars as it is being performed on the stage. It is recognised for what it is; its own unique design and execution. Why should a piece of writing be any different?

It’s liberating to throw away a whole influential star system and try being a different kind of reviewer. It feels like the only thing to do if I want to be worthy of the writer’s act of faith.

***A different view on  reviews: “I’ve decided to stop calling these ‘reviews’. I’m not trying to be a professional reviewer…”.

Short Story Day Africa 2013

The Interview

We’ve compiled twenty-one questions our followers want to know about writers in Africa. Please post your answers on your blog before 21 June 2013, in celebration of Short Story Day Africa.’ – SSDA email

Note: I assisted with the assessment of manuscripts in the first round of SSDA in 2013.

  1. Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?I consider writing a novel as similar to penning an excrutiatingly long poem; it’s a highly detailed labour-intensive activity that you’d have to be crazy to attempt. But somehow I find the whole process, from the first word to the splurb for the back cover of the published novel, immensely satisfying. There’s a curious feeling of dissociation from the finished product once it’s beyond my control.
  2. What are you reading right now? And are you enjoying it? (No cheating and saying something that makes you sound like the intelligensia).I’m reading The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee as course material for my university studies (doing an Honours course in English Literature at UCT). It has a simple biblical feel to it as if it’s getting back to the distilled essence of story. It’s very accessible and quick to read on the surface but will take me months of mulling over and revisiting to get to any kind of grip with the high idealism of its themes.
  3. Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?Yes and No. I can’t say too much because it would be a spoiler for those readers who haven’t yet read Lady Limbo, my second novel. It nearly broke my heart to kill off a certain character who was intensely alive and fascinating, but it was a necessary tactical decision. I regretted the demise of my lovable character on an emotional level, but in logical story terms I had no choice.
  4. If you could have any of your characters over for dinner, which would it be and why?It would have to be Daniel de Luc, the missing husband in Lady Limbo. He always insisted that I tell the story from his wife Paola’s point of view, wanting to accept responsibility for his role in the unraveling of her neatly ordered existence. I tried telling it in his voice (he has a delicious French accent), but he refused to co-operate until I gave in and told it in her voice.
  5. Which one of your characters would you never invite into your home and why?I wouldn’t invite the child abductor Albert Sarrazin or his wife Nada in Lady Limbo to my dinner table. On the other hand I wouldn’t mind meeting up with them at a dark bar somewhere far away from normal life and finding out more about their childhood, and how they became who they are. The nature of villainry is endlessly interesting.
  6. Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?I’d say the reverse is true for me. I have to have a completely clear head to be able to listen to the multiple voices clamouring for attention, and then in the editing process I have to trust that the editor knows better. Sometimes that feels like throwing the baby out with the bathtub so I need to cultivate an air of heedlessness to read those evening emails – cut, cut, cut! Unfortunately alcohol gives me a bad headache, so its all imaginary.
  7. If against, are you for any other mind altering drug?I’m susceptible to any chemicals or drugs so it doesn’t work for me. But hey, it worked for Hemingway and the world would have been poorer without his literary genius.
  8. Our adult competition theme if Feast, Famine and Potluck. Have you ever put food in your fiction? If so, what part did it play in the story?My first novel The Good Cemetery Guide has plenty of food scenes related to the state of mind of Anthony Loxton (a guitar strumming funeral undertaker); my personal favourite being a rollicking Kalk Bay snoek feast on the rocks in the final scene. In fact my alternative title (a new e-book edition with a different cover and title is on its way) is A Meal for the Broken Hearted.
  9. What’s the most annoying question anyone’s ever asked you in an interview?I was asked in a live radio interview by a very superior book critic if I didn’t consider my novel The Good Cemetery Guide to be a bit flaky? This was a long time ago when the word ‘flaky’ was quite new so I was totally stumped, on-air in a national broadcast, for an intelligent response. I’m not sure she knew what it meant either but it certainly put me off live interviews.
  10. If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?
    John Irving. I adore his emancipated fearless imagination. His stories are as ridiculously outrageous (he’d say ‘true’) as real life.
  11. If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?
    I would change the title of The Good Cemetery Guide. An elderly businessman cum writer I encountered told me my publishers were crazy to let the book go out with that title and he was totally right.
  12. What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?
    When I started out I would tell myself that I wrote for my own pleasure and it didn’t matter if nobody bought the books. It’s not true; stories only live if they are enjoyed by others.
  13. If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?
    I haven’t yet, but it will probably happen someday.
  14. What’s your favourite bad reviewer revenge fantasy?Bad reviewer decides she can write better novels than the people she’s interviewing. In a live radio interview the radio reviewer asks her if she doesn’t think the novel she’s slaved over for x years (which she considers to have deep and lofty themes) is ‘flaky’? Ex bad-reviewer now novelist stammers and stutters and they hastily cut over to the next book.
  15. What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?There is a feeling of being irrevocably corralled by our colonialist apartheid past. The requirement for ‘relevance’ promoted in academia and the media makes it difficult to cultivate an African audience if those are not the themes that inspire one. And yet one needs to sell well in Africa before international publishers will consider one’s work.
  16. Have you ever written naked?No, it is not an inclination from which I suffer. However, Anthony Loxton’s lover Akuaba in The Good Cemetery Guide is a photographer, and she is prone to working at her art in a state of total undress.
  17. Does writing sex scenes make you blush?Yes, always. And most especially on re-reading how awful and trite my best efforts are at describing what is essentially an indescribable experience.
  18. Who would play you in the film of your life?Ana, a Brazilian girl I met on a film script course.
  19. If you won the Caine Prize for African Fiction, what would you do with the money?
    I would hire a great editor I’ve worked with before (through a publisher) to get Volume II of the Lady Limbo trilogy ready for publication.
  20. What do you consider your best piece of work to date?
    Lady Limbo.
  21. What are you doing on 21 June 2013, to celebrate Short Story Day Africa?I’ll be reading Jeri Walker-Bickett’s short story collection Such Is Life on my Kindle.