Anyone can write a book, but not everyone can write a good one. Many, however, with sufficient study, practice, perseverance and editorial support, will produce a book worth reading, but only a few write books that can be truly called brilliant. Though I haven’t written reviews for a long time, I think that such rare books are worth talking about, especially if I can use them to highlight what makes a book take that step from good or great to brilliant.
I recently joined Kindle Unlimited, the Amazon loaning system where readers pay a monthly fee and read any books listed as Kindle Unlimited for free. Such ebooks have to be exclusive to Amazon, and authors are paid for the number of pages readers read. I’d resisted doing that because I didn’t want to be restricted to indie books, and most, if not all, books in Kindle limited I believe are indie books. I have nothing against indie books, of course, I’m an indie publisher myself, but I am aware that there are still self-published authors that publish books that should never have been published, at least not in the state in which they were published. However, I found myself spending far too much money on books—despite the fact that I only ever bought books on special for 99c or free—and I wanted to get away from the fantasy and science fiction that I’d been reading for the last few years. I figured I could, at least, try Kindle Unlimited as a reader.
So I did.
How do you find books on Kindle Unlimited?
I typed Kindle Unlimited in the Amazon search bar and looked at what came up. The way the Amazon algorithms work is that the best sellers in any category come up first. I hoped that the best sellers were also quality books, but since they were all free, I could happily give up reading after a few pages if I wanted to. I’ve actually only done that with two books in the last 3 months. One because the story was simply far too depressing and the other because the author had fallen into a hack-writer habit of overusing ‘ing’ ending participles at the start of sentences. For example; ‘Watching the road as she walked, she tripped over the tree root.’ The grammar is fine so long as you have a comma before the subject of the sentence, but stylistically it’s not something you want to be using more than a few times in a book, and I can’t abide books that use that construction on every other page. The construction is cumbersome unless used skilfully, and prose in books where it is overused simply becomes tedious.
That aside, the genres I saw at the top of the Amazon sales algorithm for Kindle Unlimited were thrillers, romance and contemporary fiction. No surprises there, except that the kind of contemporary fiction listed in those first few pages appeared to be literary in quality, with reviews mentioning beautiful prose and deep insights. I’d thought that lit fic wasn’t that popular, but clearly it’s popular with Kindle Unlimited readers.
‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘This is what I’d like.’
Catherine Ryan Hyde
One of the first authors I discovered this way was Catherine Ryan Hyde. After reading Take me With You and finding myself very impressed with both the story and its execution, I looked for more books by the same author and read Heaven Adjacent, Allie and Bea, Don’t Let me Go, Where we Belong, and When You Were Older almost immediately afterwards—that’s what readers do when they find an author they like, and that’s why the more books you write, the more books you’ll sell. I found every single one of these books impressive. The stories are of ordinary people meeting life-changing challenges, which often include a damaged or autistic family member, a shortage of money or change of circumstances, and an animal. You’ll not find any graphic violence, sex or excessive cussing; the end is always positive, and the subject matter always handled with sensitivity and insight. And the prose was beautifully written and tightly edited—exactly my idea of a good read.
Next I chose Walter’s Purple Heart and it blew me away. All Catherine’s books are excellent, but this one, I soon realised, is one of those truly great books. The subject matter of reincarnation and a spirit trapped between this world and the next gave the author the perfect subject matter for deep metaphysical reflections. It begins with Walker dying.
Gems ranged from single sentences such as:
‘So, who’s stronger, the man who looks truth in the eye, or the man who tells himself lies to make it go away?’
To passages like this narrated by Walter (who’s dead):
‘It just recently struck him that nothing ends, and that there’s a real sense of safety in reincarnation. Okay it’s true, nothing ends. But everything changes. And in those changes something is gained but something very important is lost.
‘I shouldn’t be feeling sorry for myself now that I’m finally about to move on. And I’m not, really. It’s more that I’m noticing the value of what I was given now that I have to give it back.
‘I’d like to tell you that I properly appreciated every single moment of the life I was given, but I’m just like everybody else. Most of the time I forgot to bother.
‘But sometimes it broke through. I can look back now and see the whole ride, those moments stand out like sunlight reflecting off the Atlantic Ocean. One little sparkle each.’
Catherine’s stories are told through the voices of her characters. Each character narrates their own chapter of the story from their own perspective, so it’s like seeing what happens through their eyes. This is third-person intimate point of view, and the power of this point of view to engage and move readers is why I steer people away from third-person omniscient point of view in favour of the intimate version of third person. The intimate views draws us into the story more and makes the story touch us more deeply than most authors can achieve with an omniscient point of view.
We get an intimate, insider knowledge of the characters. We know what they’re thinking, feeling and sensing, and we know their hopes and fears, their weaknesses and their strengths.
The plots of Catherine’s stories are character driven, but they also have plenty of action. Not the kind you’d have in a thriller, but enough events happening to the characters to keep the story moving along. And her stories, though you can trust that they’ll turn out well, are rarely predictable and always believable.
Because of the beautiful prose, her books are a pleasure to read from start to finish. What makes beautiful prose? It doesn’t come from trying to write beautiful prose – that would come off as too contrived – rather I think it comes from simply letting the character express themselves, through their eyes, in a natural way. There’s something very beautiful about the integrity of that approach.
Apart from that, she’s just a good enough writer to avoid the pitfalls that make prose dull – not enough variety in sentence structure, rhythm that doesn’t flow or doesn’t do so in a way that reflects the subject matter, passive writing, over writing and so on.
Could I write a book like this?
If you’re an author, the question you might be asking yourself if whether you could write a book that would get such praise from me – let alone a whole bunch of books worthy of my accolades. The answer to that is, ‘Yes, it’s quite possible.’ I know because I have at least one book from the three I’ve just published that are about to hit the shelves that I’d place in that category. The Awakening of Russell Henderson, for me, fits squarely into the same category as Allie and Bea by Catherine Ryan Hyde (and has similarities in that it entails a road trip). How did author Ed Lehner do it? I’d say he just wrote what made his heart sing.
Only when you delve deep into yourself, immerse yourself in your writing, and are willing to share your insights through the eyes of your characters can you write a book that might slip over the line between good and great. That’s not enough by itself, of course, since you also need all the plot elements and so on in place, but one thing is for sure, you can have all the technical details right, but without the depth of your personal insight, your individual voice, your book will never slip over that line.
How does an author find their voice? By writing and writing and writing and not being in a hurry to publish. I wrote 5 novels before I found my voice, and now that I’ve found it, I couldn’t really say what it is. It’s a hard thing to pin down. It’s just that my books sound like my books and no one else’s. No one else anywhere in the world has a voice like mine, and no one has a voice like yours.
It’s like Walter says:
‘There’s nothing remarkable about me. Except that I’m Walter. And I’m Walter in a way that nobody else ever has been or ever will be again. And I honestly believe that Walter-ness counts for something. No more than anybody else’s them-ness counts, but that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make.’
So write from the you-ness of you and you never know, you might just manage to slip across that line between good and great, at least for some people.
About Walter’s Purple Heart
Michael Steeb is an aimless twenty-one-year-old pot farmer in Central California in the 1980s. He has no real plans or interests…until the day he connects with memories of a life that seems to belong to someone else. That “spirit” is Walter, a young American soldier killed in World War II.
Michael’s task is the near-impossible: to lead Walter’s family to closure and peace, to deliver the real truth behind Walter’s Purple Heart, and to somehow achieve the forgiveness absent for so many years so Walter can move on. Michael sets out to find Walter’s best friend Andrew, and Mary Ann, the fiancée Walter left behind. Mary Ann recognizes Walter in Michael immediately. But Andrew sets out to prove that Michael is the worst sort of con man.
Narrated in large part by Walter from beyond the grave, WALTER’S PURPLE HEART is a fast-paced war drama and a deeply felt romance, with a unique twist on the prospect of multiple lives. Catherine Ryan Hyde paints an enduring portrait of a life prematurely lost, and the endless ripples of consequence to those who loved him, in a microcosm that sheds light on the true gravity of war.
“Hyde is a remarkable, insightful storyteller, creating full-bodied characters whose dialogue rings true, with not a word to spare….it’s compelling enough that readers may find themselves finishing it at a single sitting.” -Library Journal