I sometimes review books, but rarely on my website. Even rarer is for me to interview another author - it's more likely to be me at the receiving end of a Q&A. But I wanted to tell you about a book. I read a lot, and impressing me is not easy. I read this book in two sittings reading until 2am (there's symmetry for you). I hadn't felt such a compulsion to finish a book for some time. It was particularly refreshing after reading a few books recently that were slogs to get through, including a novel by one of the world's most famous authors.
Housebroken by The Behrg (Amazon UK / Amazon US) is controversial. It has many great reviews. Also some that warn of cruelty, toxic scenes, and people who stopped reading before the end. You know what? When something polarises opinions it interests me more. If something only gets five star reviews I am suspicious of either manipulation, or of the fact that a thing that pleases everyone can only do so by aiming at the lowest common denominator. I don't want bland books; I read to feel things.
So I'll review the book. And occasionally digress into talk of writing in general. Then I'll include an interview I did with the author. I hope you'll enjoy this combination.
The Review Of Housebroken
Notes I made on a pad before I was halfway through the book:
- Currently reading a horrible but brilliantly-plotted novel that surprises me (and sometimes sickens me).
- Every word earns its place.
- Straddles the fine line between restrained and gratuitous. Horrible and riveting.
- Characters peeled back, surprise me but believable.
- Ha! Not what I expected!
This is a bleak/hopeful tale. Like The Road but rather than unconnected vignettes, it is more of a traditional tightly-plotted thriller. Unlike many mainstream thrillers where I find it hard to care about the characters, this also allows transformation and depth so you do come to care, more than just the inevitable sympathy for the victim of violence. It's relevant though. I wrote a guest article recently about why people should read horror. I gave three reasons. Up to the halfway point this book reminded me of a fourth: to close a book and be thankful for what you have. Not the possessions, but the freedom, the health, and - most important - the loved ones. To remember that nothing else matters as much as those last three. Appreciate them now: don't wait until their birthday, don't wait until Christmas, don't wait until they're ill. Do it now.
The book is expertly plotted. As an author I can appreciate the careful placing of every reveal and every twist, each foreshadowed element. I respect the ability to do that so consistently. In fact, that does enough to stop this just being a book in an often-tired and cheap genre (the house invasion); it manages to take it, polish it, and make it stand out as an impressive example of this particular fear, at the top of the pile. That takes a rare gift. Two of my books are built around continuous drama, must-read-on-to-find-what-happens-next plots (Turner and Harvest Festival), but if I attempted Housebroken's story I am pretty sure I couldn't have pulled it off as successfully as The Behrg. It takes some effort to say that, but it is only fair to do so. When I encounter another writer that impresses me I am happy to doff my hat in their direction. Particularly as it is difficult for me to read a book as a reader - I can't help but analyse the dialogue, the effects, the structuring, the flow, the style. For at least some of the time this book distracted me from those workman evaluations and pulled me back to the story. That's a laurel wreath right there.
(An aside on the plotting: only one scene in the whole book didn't fully convince me. It's an incredibly tense scene, sickening too - the nastiest thing in the book. I don't want to give spoilers so, for those who have read Housebroken, if I say net, pool, running on air, you'll know what I mean. My issue was that, plotwise, the author wanted the scene to be a dramatic reveal - but really the character would have woken not to silence, but to screaming; intended dramatic effect over-rode realism. The discrepancy could have been solved with heavy gagging. For this to be my only issue is actually praise for the novel.)
Well-crafted writing often has depth, by which I mean there can be multiple references from the same word/image/motif. The worst stories and novels have only one layer, the surface. You can still enjoy some of them if they do the surface layer well, but depth and multiple layers are better. For example, The Road's surface layer is the journey and the destination, but that's hardly what the book is about. It is layered with familial love and duty, questions of what a good person is, responsibility, how to act, the environment, our current values, and more. The road that is walked, but also the one that us lived. For all my praise of Housebroken I am not saying it has all those layers; a book aimed at such a designed experience can't. But it is nonetheless well-crafted. For example, at first it seems like just a random home invasion but it's not. Like all aspects of the plot, other things are going on below the surface, and it is all connected satisfyingly. There are layers concerned with:
- corporations and greed
- technology and possessions versus the important values
- getting at the core of your personality
- psychological control and playing a role and using words (one of the themes of my first novel Turner)
- a game of "What if?", where you ponder what you would do (and visualised in an extended metaphor near the novel's end)
- entertainment (of the reader - don't underestimate the importance of this)
I want to talk about settings. It is important to have a variety. It's very hard to keep a book compelling if all scenes are set in one (or a few) locations. It was a criticism I had of two books I read recently. In many ways this is why books about being on the run, or a journey, are popular, and have been ever since The Odyssey (the more entertaining sibling of The Iliad, partly because of the variety and changes). You'd think with a book that seems to be about a home invasion this would be a real problem, mostly set in one house, maybe a few rooms. But this is where I was again impressed by the author. Scenes take place all over the house and grounds, and even when a room is repeated the context changes, and the decor changes as a result of past scenes. It's cleverly tied to the theme - by letting the story spread through each room it also takes chaos with it, destroying what was there before, the past, the possessions, and seeing what is left when the layers are peeled back. Scenes later go even further afield, to other surprising and interesting locations (see, I said it isn't just a home invasion story). There is never a sense of "seen it", of the tedium of confinement that so many authors would have fallen into, thinking it helps with empathy when really it only makes the reader's eyes glaze over. When we read a book we want to let go; we want to trust the author to take us on an exciting journey but not crash the car; to conjure and perform magic tricks and not drop the ball. Yep, I felt that security here, and could sink into the story.
In the end? A well-written, superbly plotted novel. The Behrg always has an eye on the reader and their experience, carefully controlling and manipulating and foiling expectations. I don't feel like there's a word wasted in this story. The author doesn't over-explain, or do the reader's work for them in this tale (partly) of redemption. I think this book does a LOT right when it comes to pace and plot twists. It's not for the faint of heart, yet it is also cleverer than I anticipated. If you feel like being challenged and also going on an emotional rollercoaster, give it a go. It's horrible in parts, an uneasy read, but I'm impressed.
(Warning: some people can't read a book where an animal suffers, so I have to warn you that there is one scene of that in this book.)
Interview With The Behrg
Karl: Please don't tell me Housebroken was your first novel. Or at least tell me it was your first published one, but you wrote another fifteen first and had to trash them. It wouldn't be fair if you got so much right on the first attempt!
The Behrg: It was actually my first, though I'm no novice to writing. Previously I spent my time writing and studying screenplays. As I transitioned to a more narrative structure I was surprised at the similarities, though really I shouldn't have been. What I really enjoyed, however, was the freedom it opened up to explore these characters, without the need to hit a certain "plot-point" by XX amount of pages.
Karl: Okay, I feel better. Even though I know screenplays and novels are different disciplines, I imagine there is a lot of overlap from the fact that they both aim to tell an interesting story, concisely.
This may seem weird, but bear with me - I sometimes imagine how great it would be to be able to somehow sit in readers' heads as they read one of my books, seeing the exact points where they were excited, bored, confused, scared, tense, pleased and so on. Although you can't shape everything to the demands of others, because then you'd end up fitting everything to the same template like a malignant focus group, it's still good to have an awareness of what King's "dear reader" might feel at each point, because then you can lead them round and satisfy or frustrate their expectations. So few authors genuinely consider what the reader is thinking during each scene, instead often falling back on self-indulgence, just writing what they want. But while I was reading Housebroken it often felt like you'd really considered and guessed at what the reader would be thinking and expecting at each point, controlling their reading experience like a Hannibal Lecter of words. Were you conscious of doing that as you wrote, or maybe earlier when you plotted?
The Behrg: Not weird at all -- I think every author would love to know especially where things stop working for a reader. For me it comes down to not forcing the characters but rather trusting them and their decisions. It often leads to darker places than I'm comfortable with, but not following them down those paths would eliminate the authenticity I feel we, as authors, seek.
Love your article on Linda's Book Bag btw, exactly how I feel about horror. Too many people think it's just the cheap slasher / gore splashing everywhere / no character development type of garbage that B-movies are made of. My idea of "horror" is much broader. Well executed "argument" you had there.
Karl: Thanks. Just curious, what was Housebroken's word count? I knew it was a Kindle Single and for some reason thought they were all novellas and expected Housebroken to be a quick read. It was, in that I ploughed through it in two nights, but not quick in sense of feeling short. If anything, every time I felt I'd had my money's worth, you threw another twist into my trolley, as if you wanted to give not 90% value, but 150% value. Which makes me wonder if part of it was my expectations to do with length.
The Behrg: Actually Housebroken wasn't a Kindle Single but was rather one of the first books selected in Amazon's new "reader-powered publishing platform," Kindle Scout. As far as the twists in the novel go, most were uncovered through the writing process, rather than pre-plotted. I honestly expected a much different ending to the story than where it eventually led.
Karl: Apologies for my mistake about the Kindle scheme, I probably got the Single mixed up with Scout's requirement for 50,000 words or more (and skimmed the "or more"). Writers, eh, never trust them to be able to read as well.
Penultimate question: your craziest writing experience, experiment or method. Ever co-wrote with someone else? Written to a time limit? Written while drunk? Gone through an experience of a character so you could write about it more truthfully (e.g. climbing into a dog cage)? I can't list many more, since I don't know what I don't know, but an answer might seem obvious to you.
The Behrg: My craziest writing experience? Like writing under water or while standing on hot coals? Or maybe the short story I penned while sky-diving? :) While it often feels I've got a gun to my head when writing (metaphorically, of course), I can't say I've done anything too crazy. I let most of that insanity onto the page rather than into my own life. That being said, I do try to challenge myself by switching things up, whether that be trying to write a novel longhand or blurring the lines of genres, etc.
Karl: Something off-topic. I'm not going to ask ask about your name, since I saw you'd covered it on your site - no doubt a question you got tired of! So instead, music. Lead guitar, or rhythm, or both? Do you sing and play? What style and songs? I'm still a beginner in many ways (my nemesis is the F chord, well named; or maybe having to stretch my fingers across 5 mid-neck frets for Revolution by the Beatles). So: any guitar or general music tip, something that you wished you'd known and might help me or others?
The Behrg: Ah, the name thing! :) It is an odd one and yes, I wrote a blog article about the decision, but no one's EVER asked me about playing music, so kudos for the original question. I picked up the guitar when I was fourteen after a rock-climbing accident where I shattered my femur bone two weeks before summer vacation began. With nothing to do but watch endless loops of The Price Is Right, it was a great way for me to invest my time and has become a huge part of who I am. Funny how the tragedies in life often carry us down paths we would have otherwise never ventured. I've played in various different groups from wedding bands to originals, and at one point even had a production contract that came close to "making it," I suppose. I'm a big believer that everyone should play a musical instrument. It's like learning a second language - it expands your mind, gives you an opportunity to lose yourself in something creative, and is a far more productive use of time than playing some absurd app on your phone. As far as advice, I'd just say play the music you love. Stick with it because it does get easier. Don't be afraid of making mistakes or changing what someone else has written in the way you play it. That's the beauty of music, is that it's never finished. Never complete. It's always a work in progress. The same could be said of writing, to some degree.
Karl: I agree so much. I wish I'd started learning years ago. Actually I did have a few lessons as a kid (guitar and violin) but didn't enjoy it. I only started to understand the pleasure when I began making music with friends. Now one of my favourite evenings is when we get together and have a crack at playing songs - one drummer, me on lead guitar, one singer, and a fourth either playing bass, keyboard, or tambourine. It's social, it's creative, and we laugh a lot. I have sometimes altered and simplified songs to bring them down to my skill level, so I'm glad I needn't feel too bad about that. In fact, I'm tempted to go do some finger picking practice now. Thanks for your time!