A different kind of book review – Deeply Odd

Memoirs and historical fiction are my normal reading choices. But every so often, I enjoy trying something different. Recently I caught a Dean Koontz interview on the CBS Sunday Morning show. Though I’d seen his books on bookstore and library shelves, I’d never cracked one open. A recent road trip gave me plenty of listening time, so I chose Deeply Odd, from Koontz’s Odd Thomas series.Deeply-Odd-MM

If you haven’t read any of the books, here’s the premise: Odd Thomas is a young man who can see and talk to dead people. He uses this skill to combat evil in the living world. In the process, he helps these dead people, including such luminaries as Elvis Presley and Alfred Hitchcock, resolve whatever earthly issues they have so they can pass on.

As a reader, I found the story a real page turner – or since I was on the road – a miles burner. As a writer, I was blown away by Koontz’s skill.  So here, in a book review of a different type – are some of the techniques I noticed in Deeply Odd and Brother Odd, another book from the series.

Complex, vivid, characterization
Koontz develops fascinating characters who are revealed through physical and personality descriptions, which are reinforced throughout the book. Odd Thomas, for instance, frequently describes himself as: “only a fry cook, currently unemployed.” This self-deprecating description is reinforced by Odd’s dialogue. For instance, Odd uses polite formality when he addresses others. He addresses others as, “ma’am” and “sir.” Every time, even if someone asks him to use their first name.

Attention to details of clothing and place
Koontz pays great attention to how people look, what they’re doing, and the physical surroundings. He dribbles this information in over time so the reader isn’t tempted to skip over paragraphs bogged down in description.

Here’s how Odd describes a policeman:

  • “In the side mirror, the man who got out of the patrol car looked like Hercules’ bigger brother, a guy who at every breakfast with his dozen eggs and pound of ham drank a steaming cup of steroids.”

A few paragraphs later, Odd adds:

  • “A massive cop loomed at my window blocking the morning sun as effectively as an eclipse. He bent down and looked into the car, mouth puckered in a frown, grey eyes squinted as if the Mercedes were an aquarium and I was the strangest fish that he had ever seen. He was a handsome bull, I’ll give him that, even though his head was as big as a butcher’s block.”

The writing is fresh and unexpected. Never cliched. With each paragraph, Koontz paints people and scenes so vividly, I grinned as I listened.

Interweaving physical traits with character traits
The physical traits Koontz chooses for a character have purpose and come into play both in how the person acts and also how Odd Thomas is affected by those traits.

Here’s Sister Angela, a nun with periwinkle-colored eyes:

  • “With the power of her personality, Sister Angela can compel you to meet her eyes. Perhaps a few strong-willed people are able to look away from her stare after she has locked on to their eyes, but I’m not one of them. By the time I told her all about bodachs, I felt pickled in periwinkle.”

Vivid back story in tantalizing bits:
Koontz shares back story in tiny snippets that are woven in with powerful effect. In his first description of Sister Angela, he says:

  • “Her eyes are the same merry blue as the periwinkles on the Royal Doulton china that my mother owed, pieces of which Mom, from time to time, threw at the walls or at me.”

Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Now I know Odd had a problematic relationship with his mother, and I’m not likely to forget.

Fixing time and place
A lot happens in each Odd Thomas novel but often in a very short period of time. In the course of a chapter, only a few minutes may pass. It would be easy for readers to get disoriented, but Koontz makes sure readers stay with him.

  • “From the time I had unlocked the bronze door with my universal key until I entered this room, not even two minutes had passed.”

These are a few of the writing gems I took away from reading two of Koontz’s novels. Is Koontz writing great literary fiction? No. Is he writing novels based on great characters and solid plot lines using original language? You bet.

As a reader, it’s a delight to try out a new author and come away a fan. As a writer, it’s inspiring to find an author who models writing techniques I aspire to use as well. I now count myself a Koontz fan, both as a reader and as a writer.

What about you? What new authors have you found that surprised and delighted you?

Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.

It’s “I Grew Up Country Day” – How will you celebrate?

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We expect you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Hopefully with enough restraint to leave room to celebrate a far newer day. Since Iowa Governor Branstad signed a Proclamation declaring March 18, 2015, “I Grew Up Country Day,” 50+ folks have joined our … [Continue reading]

I Grew Up Country – New initiative encourages storytelling

IGUCD Proclamation Signing 3w

On Monday, March 9, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed a Proclamation declaring March 18, 2015, “I Grew Up Country Day” - in Iowa and wherever food is produced. Haven’t heard of “I Grew Up Country”? Let alone a day to celebrate it? Not … [Continue reading]

From high above – Perspective

Geometric lines of a farm field reminded me of Iowa.

Hot air balloons float over my house in Des Moines with some regularity in the summer. I've watched from the ground and wondered what it would be like to go up in one. What would it feel like? What would I hear? What would I see? How would it be … [Continue reading]

Can you believe your eyes?

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Seeing something with your own eyes is proof. Right? At one time or another, most of us have said: “Seeing is believing.” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We’ve also said the opposite when reality goes against what we know or believe to be true … [Continue reading]

What’s the value of taking a closer look?

Cadillac Ranch from a distance

"You have got to be kidding," I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance. I shook my … [Continue reading]

Soaking in natural beauty

Cactus frame red rocks.

Some places encourage - perhaps even demand - that a person stop thinking, stop talking, and simply soak in nature. Sedona, Arizona, is one of them. I had the pleasure of spending two days this past week in the natural beauty of red rock splendor. A … [Continue reading]

From indie author to Amazon Publishing

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My life as an indie publisher went in a dramatic new direction when a senior editor from Amazon Publishing contacted me last November about acquiring Go Away Home. I share how it happened and what it means to me on the Women's Writing Circle. Thanks … [Continue reading]

Marketing a book with a “Use By” date

Simon or Peter Cartoon

This  cartoon circulated on Facebook, and I laughed because it hit me where I was. When I indie published Go Away Home this past July, I geared up for intensive marketing over the long term. I didn’t realize my new book would have a “Use By” date. I … [Continue reading]