Monday, January 9

My Review of Shira Anthony's Blue Notes

by Shira Anthony        


Here are the rules:
1.      I’m not out to eviscerate anybody in public (or private for that matter).
2.      But my goal isn’t mindless flattery either.
3.      This exercise is really for me. I am picking apart other writers’ work looking for the “ingredients of fiction”— (a-character/character development/POV, b-setting/world building, c-plot/subplots—which includes lots of good conflict—and d-good writing. I’m not adding in theme because it’s just one of those things I’m fuzzy on.)  The idea is that if I can find them elsewhere, I will be better able to identify them (or their lacking) in my own work.
4.      Most importantly to you, the reader: there will be some spoilers. I will endeavor keep them to a minimum…but bearing in mind that I just don’t do bittersweet, we all know going in that there’s going to be a Happily Ever After. The point isn’t the ending, it’s how they get there. I don’t want to spoil that for anybody, but just the same, you have been warned…

Let me begin by saying that one of the basic components of Blue Notes is something that some readers object to vehemently: Gay for you—or perhaps bi for you. Or just plain confused. I’m not one of those people. Why? Because life and love are damned confusing! 

Now, did I believe Jason accepting Jules into his bed (admittedly on the heels of a pretty rough breakup) with only minimal resistance quite as easily as it ultimately happened?  Maybe not 110% but what I did buy whole heartedly was Jason’s reactions the next morning—and that got me past any little doubts that these two (and the author) knew just what they were doing.

Reading with a critical eye is a lot harder than reading for pleasure—and I admit that at a certain point, I stopped making notes, because I got so totally swept up in the story. (Note to Shira: there was, having nothing to do with you, it was just a formatting thing with the ebook, such a HUGE frickin’ gap between the end of chapter 17 and the beginning of chapter 18 that I was scrolling like a mad-woman petrified that I’d reached the end, that it ended at the end of ch. 17.  Yikes, lady you’ve had me up past my bedtime tonight!)

All right, back to thinking like a critical reader  ;-)

Blue Notes begins by with clearly marked alternating third person narration—but it’s Jason’s story we hear the most about (in fact, the bulk of the book is told from his perspective). There is a short bit of quick flipping back and forth between Jules’s and Jason’s perspectives as the author weaves together their first meeting—and the chemistry is instant.

Then for the rest of the first third of the novel we’re in Jason’s head almost exclusively. While I was momentarily annoyed (we’d been given glimpses into both men’s cerebral processes for the first bit), I quickly realized that it was exactly the right choice. Jules was, for me imminently more interesting as a character than Jason, but the “mystery” of Jules would have been lost if we’d seen him through his own eyes. Watching him through the lens of Jason’s perspective was ultimately much more satisfying.
Within about thirty pages, I felt I knew Jason—or Jaz to friends—pretty well. He’s not an especially complicated guy, even if he’s discovering that maybe he bats for “the other team” after all. He works hard, he lives a good life, he’s a little embarrassed by his own success, and trying desperately to get over his ex. There are a few surprises (a good thing) about him, but for me, it was Jules who stole my heart away. He is everything I like in  a character: sweet, vulnerable, tough… he’s had it rough, but his heart is pure gold (but without being a Mary Sue, he’s not perfect).

By about page sixty, POV begins to shift seamlessly back and forth between Jules and Jason; I don’t know if that was by design or if it just “wrote itself” that way, but it worked, (and this is where my critic’s hat will disagree with others’ critics’ hats) because by then Jules and Jason have begun to seriously “click”—even though Jason will only be in Europe another seven weeks and Jules knows he’s setting himself up for heartache when Jason leaves. But take what happiness you can get while you can, right?

My fanfic readers who stumble across this will get it when I say that Jules reminded me of Kam—which is probably why he stole my heart away so utterly and completely. (Seriously guys, if you love Kam and Jack you’ll really appreciate Blue Notes.)

All right. Back to business.

From a strictly technical standpoint, Jules and Jason come across as fully rounded human beings with thoughtful backstories. They did not simply hatch out from under a cabbage leaf; there is history, families, skeletons, the works. The chemistry between the men instant (but believable) and undeniable. It was palpable. It was beautiful. I love “love at first sight” when it works. It worked.

Secondary characters:

I love Jason’s sister Rosie, even if she’s a bit of the stereotype “sister” (in fact, someone in my own critique group said to me, of the family I’d created for one of my WIP something to the effect of “so which sister knows he’s gay? The gay guy always has a sister who’s his best friend!” And would you believe, I re-wrote it so that one of them was!) Rosie is, perhaps, a little too perfect, her timing is a little too good, and she’s a touch too successful and too generous, but she is also quirky and funny and likable. I have mixed feelings about her role in the end (not gonna give too much away), but I am pretty sure that those are just personal feelings. (And somebody has to hit stubborn boys upside the head, right?)

Rosie and Jules’s bandmates, Henri and David, also felt real to me; they were solid, they had backgrounds, we just didn’t get to see much of their backstory because they were secondary characters.
The “supporting cast” of extras was made up of well-constructed and properly used minor characters and stereotypes. No, really, good writers use stereotypes for a reason, so we all know them when we see them. Nobody has to work hard to picture the over worked, underappreciated social services employee. I really liked Sam and I hope we get to see him again someday.

Before I move on, let me say that I have an absolute pet peeve about “bad” dialogue. Seriously. I did not once cringe over something someone said in Blue Notes… let me rephrase. Of course I cringed when people said dumb things, but I never once groaned because of “bad” dialogue. Everybody sounded human, even the secondary and minor characters.  

This is where I really would have liked to have seen more, at least in the first two thirds or so of the novel. Every time some external conflict came up, I thought ah-ha, this is it, the Big Hurdle. But each time the hurdle was jumped over with relative ease, and while as a reader I cheered that our heroes had gotten over another one of life’s obstacles, the critic in me wanted more. All I could do was picture my own critique group telling me to ratchet up the tension, don’t ease up, make it more than a beach read… and there were some places in Blue Notes where the hurdles could have been harder to overcome. There were also a few things that I would have liked to have seen rather than hearing about, particularly right after the business with Guy (not wanting to give too much away, just wanting to give a point of reference)

If some of the events in the middle had been drawn out, some of the hurdles harder to overcome, as a casual reader I would have been flying through the pages, anxious to see the boys back together. But as a critical reader, I kept wondering why the external conflicts seemed to get resolved relatively easily and with very little work.

Finally toward the end of Jason’s stay in Paris, there was a major issue that did require a lot more work and all I can really say is that when I saw that huge gap of white at the end of chapter 17, I swore that that had better NOT be how it ended! (Rest assured, it isn’t).

Where conflict existed (both in the beginning and toward the end) it was yummy! I was on the edge my seat, dodging phone calls, conveniently forgetting about household chores… I knew things would work out, but until they did, my stomach was in knots. Well done!

World Building and Writing
I’m putting those two together, because I don’t have a whole lot to say. Both the world building and writing were excellent.

Again, when I say “good writing”, I mean more than the ability to cobble sentences together, I mean the ability to artfully bring together the right words, in the right way, to convey real meaning. Shira Anthony absolutely knows how to do that. Language and sentence structure are well used throughout.
As for world building, all five senses were regularly engaged; I felt as if I could see, touch, smell, hear, feel places I’ve never been. (And part of that is good writing, knowing where to add details like the smell of grease, cigarette smoke and dish soap!)

Blue Notes is definitely a book that I’m glad I read and one that I would gladly recommend to friends. 

On Amazon and Good Reads I'm stuck with a five star system, so I'll end up giving Blue Notes four stars.

Working with more room on a 10 star system, I'd call Blue Notes at 8.5 stars. (Now, to put that into perspective, I can only think of maybe two or three books that I'd ever consider rating over 9 stars, because nobody but nobody is perfect). 

All right, I'm off to bed. I have a ton of work to do tomorrow... bloody migraine screwed up my day today, but I leave you with this... neither violin nor piano, but well... darned talented kid!

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