REVIEW #1 - LOSING TOUCH - Christian A Larsen

Released: June, 2013 | Published by: Post Mortem Press

Have you ever read a book so good you were compelled to grab the nearest person, slap him or her across the face like Cary Grant knocking sense into a hysterical dame (the social norms in old movies didn’t age well at all, did they?), and demand they stop whatever they’re doing to read it so you can bask in their inevitable euphoria?

No? Well, I’m doing that to you right now. Don’t mind me. I’ll just be watching from over here, mouthing my favorite passages as you read and occasionally looking over your shoulder to tell you when you’re getting to the good parts.

Fine. If you’re getting creeped out, I guess I don’t have to do that (my slapping arms aren’t long enough to reach you, anyway), but I hope you'll at least consider the following earnest appeal:

Buy Losing Touch by Christian A. Larsen. Read it. Squeal with delight. Then buy it again and give it to someone else to enjoy. You’ll be glad that you did, as will starving Chris Larsens across the Midwest.

I’m not prone to hyperbole and I’m aware that overhyping a book can be just as damaging as condemning it, but I can’t help myself in this case. Losing Touch struck a chord with me. It was hilarious, sincere, suspenseful, well-written, and profound. As a writer, it made me jealous. I wasn’t prepared for it at all, which is probably why I’m so excited about it. In more ways than one, the book took me completely by surprise.

To give you some background, I picked up Losing Touch when Chris and I were both selling books at a convention in Grand Rapids. Chris is a great guy, but for the sake of full disclosure, Losing Touch didn’t sound like my “type” of book when I read the back cover. I’m a big sci-fi nerd. I love horror. I’ve got mixed emotions regarding fantasy and thrillers which often tend towards enjoyment. Urban fantasy, though? Not so much. I recognize it as an important sub-genre in the speculative fiction world, but it’s never really excited me enough to take a chance on it.

While Losing Touch isn’t solely urban fantasy, it still didn’t sound like it was quite in my sweet spot for reading material. In fact, there were plenty other books at the Post Mortem Press booth alone that skirted closer to my personal preferences, and it’s not like money was burning a hole in my pocket. I had, however, resolved to pick up some new Indie books at the convention to review for this website and I liked Chris enough that I figured it was worth a shot. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t review it. Nothing personal, I just wanted to be sure my first Indie review was a book I really cared about.

On that note, a brief aside. My goal for this site is to celebrate authors that I love, so I probably won’t be posting many negative reviews simply because I’d rather spend my time affirming great authors than criticizing ones I don’t like. I do believe negative reviews can be extremely helpful and I’m certainly not claiming they shouldn’t be written. They absolutely should be written so long as they’re given in the proper spirit. For the sake of my sanity, though, I prefer to spend my time on positivity.

Anyway, I read Losing Touch in two days. It would have been less if I hadn’t started it the night I returned from the aforementioned convention with a few hours of travel weighing down my eyelids. I fell in love with it instantly. It might take you a couple of chapters to feel the same way if you’re squeamish about bodily functions, though. The first pages involve a pooping scene which some may find low-brow by its very nature, but I can assure you it is without a doubt the best pooping metaphor I’ve ever encountered and sets the tone of harsh reality for the rest of the story. In fact, that passage alone is what sold me on the book. From then on, I knew Chris hadn’t set out to write a bland, re-hashed superhero origin story where Clark Kent saves a bus full of drowning students in the nick of time. He deals with the real, often graceless consequences of adapting to a superpower (phasing through matter, in this case) as a middle-aged husband and father struggling with unemployment and all its associated guilt. His motives are usually well-intentioned enough, though he occasionally gets side-tracked into baser matters along the way (his wife, Corrine, apparently also has a superpower which allows her to deal with all of Morgan’s mistakes and neglect).

Still, the novel is a stark reminder of that old superhero maxim: With great power comes great responsibility. And temptation. And a lot of discomfort. Think it would be great to pass through walls? Well, maybe it would be, but don’t forget it means you’d probably have to invest in some adult diapers, too, since excess food would phase through your body as well. Oh, and your clothes won’t come with you through the wall, so I hope you’re comfortable being naked in front of strangers.

The aptly-titled Losing Touch reads like Philip K. Dick writing an X-Men origin story. The main character, Morgan Dunsmore, is slowly losing touch with reality, his marriage, his kids, his finances, and in a literal sense, the physical world around him. What I found most compelling about the book is Chris’s writing. You can feel the desperation of the main character. It’s not forced. You’ve felt the same guilt yourself when you thought you were letting someone down. You’ve had the same arguments with your parents and your significant other. You’ve squirmed through interviews where you felt you weren’t getting a fair shake. You’ve thought about all the selfish things you could do if only you had a superpower. I connected so completely with Morgan’s struggles that I literally laughed aloud and teared up while reading. That’s not an exaggeration, and it’s slightly embarrassing to admit.

As heavy as the subject matter of the story is, Morgan’s ruminations and the peculiar situations in which he finds himself provide just the right amount of humor to keep you from closing the book in favor of something lighthearted and predictable. To be honest, I wish I could straddle the line between humor and despair half as skillfully as Chris has done in Losing Touch. I cannot recommend this novel enough. I’m not sure at what point I stopped thinking of the story as being good for an Indie book and started thinking of it simply as a good book, but maybe you can let me know once you’ve finished reading it yourself. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

As both a reader and writer, I always have loads of questions for the author after I finish a book. I also think it’s important to give writers an opportunity to explain some of the how and why of their work, since they aren’t afforded that opportunity elsewhere when potential readers are considering their novel. To that end, I reached out to Chris with some questions that had been eating away at me since I finished Losing Touch.

JW: Chris, Losing Touch at times seems like the worst-case scenario for discovering that you have a superpower. What triggered your interest in phasing and—more specifically—its consequences?

CL: When I was in junior high, our science teacher said that if you could line up your molecules just right, you could pass through solid matter. That stuck with me as something delightfully odd and mundane at the same time. When I started writing short stories in earnest in 2008, I wrote a bunch of homage short stories to the old Universal monsters. Some were more obvious than others, but when it came to the Invisible Man, what else could you do but copy? Well, what if, instead of being invisible, you were intangible. And so the seed of the story was sown.

JW: Part of what makes Losing Touch so impactful is Morgan’s struggle with unemployment and the guilt he feels for not providing well enough for his family, which I think is very relatable to readers. It’s really the driving force for everything that happens in the book. Is there something in particular that drew you to this internal conflict for Morgan rather than more traditional tropes for characters with superpowers, such as avenging the death of a loved one or being an outcast?

CL: I had just gone through a couple of career changes, including two stints of unemployment, and our finances were not looking all that hot. By the time I was writing Losing Touch, I was earning again, but the memory was very fresh. The torment he goes through is very much me. It was the struggle I had just gone through. But I think Morgan is an outcast. It's not because he's a physical freak. It's because of all the distance he's put between himself and his loved ones, between where he is and where he should be. That's the struggle he has to overcome.

JW: It was interesting to read Losing Touch right after I met you because there were lots of references in the book connected to conversations we’d had over the weekend (the Bears, Yes, cabins in Michigan, etc). How much of Morgan—if any—is actually Chris Larsen?

CL: It is not autobiographical. I obviously didn't do the things that Morgan does in the book, but his personality, his affinities--it's pretty much a "what if" memoir. He's a Bears fan, a Yes fan (Chris Squire, RIP), and vacations in western Michigan regularly. The other characters in the book are pastiches of people I know, but Morgan is all me, for better or worse. For the most part, he says and does the things I would have said or done in those particular situations, if I could have. Even the embarrassing things.

JW: Do you see yourself ever writing a sequel or do you feel Morgan’s story is told?

CL: I've never had plans to write a sequel. A few people have asked, but I don't have the inspiration right now. I suppose I could do a "Dr. Sleep"-type thing thirty years from now, and make one of the kids in the book the central character, but I'll let that story tell me if it wants to be told. Right now, I don't think the story even exists, but it might someday. You can never rule it out.

JW: What was your process for writing the book? For instance, do you outline heavily? Did it take you fifteen years to complete or fifteen days? Do you have any rituals when you sit down and write?

CL: I wrote Losing Touch in about four months doing about 500 words a day. It's not much. I just sit down, open a file, and type. I'm not a big outline guy, and I'm terrible at editing my own stuff. I write on a laptop in my bedroom after work, usually. My kids are at an age now where they don't need my constant attention, so late afternoon, before dinner, is when I do most of my work.

JW: What project are you working on right now? Do you have anything in the pipeline for release?

CL: I have a few manuscripts in various stages of editing and rewriting, such as it is, but I'm so bad at editing, most days they just get ignored except the one that I'm actually writing at the moment.

JW: Where can people find more information on your books?

CL: I have a blog at www.exlibrislarsen.com, Facebook, Twitter, and of course, my Amazon author page. I guess I should be more active on Goodreads.com, too. I have a profile, but I don't do much there. Social media has become such a "thing", and a wonderful one at that, but I think I might be half a generation too old to be all that good at it. But I try. How I do try.

JW: Thanks, Chris!

PRODUCTION

This section relates more to the publisher’s choices than the author’s, but with any release by an Indie author/publisher, I believe the production information is relevant. Print readers judge books not just by their covers but also by the overall physical experience of reading it. For me, reading is an interaction with the text even more so than the author, at least in fiction. If I’m too focused on the author, then I’m too aware that it’s contrived and am not fully immersed in the story. Several factors in production can affect that. It sounds strange (and it is) but I feel an attachment to the books I’ve read when I see them on my shelf which is largely based on their physical characteristics. I’m instantly transported back to the time in my life when I read them, and all sorts of memories and emotions are tied into that experience. With that in mind, I’ve decided to compile my thoughts on the paperback versions of each book I review in an attempt to track what works for me and what doesn’t.

COVER: I’m a big fan of well-done, original cover art that actually relates to the story. Well-done is key, of course, since cheap cover art that the author made him or herself (unless they’re actually good) can be a huge turn-off, just as bland covers unrelated to the text (like a fuzzy picture of a field accompanied by giant words) and stock photos don’t particularly resonate with me.

Losing Touch has interesting cover art that really pops, particularly with the paperback version. The color works well on the gloss and the depiction of Morgan’s skin breaking away in pieces is a perfect metaphor for the story itself. As far as Indie covers go, this one is a winner.

TEXT: For better or worse, font really affects the way that I read. Like covers, a bad or cheap-looking font—especially in an Indie book—will immediately alter the level of respect and attentiveness with which I approach a text. As a reader, the author and publisher need to earn my time by proving to me that they have respected the book enough (and me as a reader) to warrant my attention. I don’t consciously evaluate books this way while I’m reading or even as I’m browsing in a bookstore, but the cogs are turning somewhere in my subconscious and affect whether or not I take a risk on the book or throw it angrily into a lake. I wish it weren’t true, but it is. I also wish I could tell you which specific fonts and text sizes to avoid, but I don’t think there’s a formula for that (outside of Comic Sans…fine in inter-office memos (maybe) or your church bake sale, but not in a serious work of fiction). It’s a case-by-case thing for me. I hope to develop a more scientific answer for you through these reviews, but only time will tell.

Strong books will be able to overcome a bad font, of course, but any flaws that already exist in the story will only be magnified. I’m much quicker to write off an author or publisher as an amateur when I see a bad font (and bad production in general), and things like typos and poor editing on top of that will turn me off from picking up books by either of them in the future.

The font in Losing Touch was perfect for me, though. It wasn’t garish and it wasn’t cheap. It was innocuous enough that I wasn’t distracted from the story but was also pleasant enough that I wanted to keep reading because of it. The text was on the small side, which can sometimes be a turn-off in a trade paperback (as opposed to a mass market) because you start to feel like you’re not really making any progress. There’s something to be said about the physical act of turning a page to jolt back to attention before your mind starts to wander (we’re only human) and I think publishers sometimes forget this as they're calculating the production costs of a novel (which is a worthy concern, yet one which needs to be weighed carefully against the oft-overlooked Reader Experience).

Losing Touch skirted the line for me on font size but the book was short and compelling enough that I didn’t feel lost in an endless, droning sea of words. Which leads me to the next section…

LENGTH: This may seem like a strange category to place in the Production section rather than the review itself, but since publishers often reject works based on word count, and especially since it has an impact on which books I buy, I figure it’s worth exploring.

By my estimates (and they are very rough), I would say Losing Touch falls somewhere in the 60 to 70,000 word category (*edit: I've been informed that the novel is actually around 83,000 words, but the sentiment holds true nonetheless). To me, this is the sweet spot for a debut novel. I know many large commercial publishers would disagree and prefer something north of 85 to 90,000 words (at least) in genre fiction, but as a reader, do I really want to invest the extra 50 pages of reading on an author I’ve just met? It’s like taking a long weekend trip to a ski resort for a first date rather than just having dinner and drinks together. In fact, I’ve been less and less inclined to take chances on behemoth books as the years go by, even by veteran authors. Unless you’re writing a successful series that already has me hooked or your book is just so goddamned good that I beg you to write 1,000 pages of it as I would with Stephen King or George RR Martin, I’m probably going to pass on it. That’s surely my shortcoming and inattentiveness as a reader, not yours as the writer, but time is valuable to me…especially as a fellow writer with his own projects to work on and people like Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin (who both wrote fabulously short books for the most part) competing with you for my readership.

Also, while this isn’t a rule, I am often suspicious that Indie books over 100,000 words are poorly edited (again, unless they are later volumes in a series). They make me wonder if there are unnecessary chapters, subplots, flashbacks, etc. Before I even start the book, I'm worried that I’ll lose steam halfway through and never wind up finishing it, in which case I should have just stuck to my tried-and-true authors with enormous backlists. Losing Touch was just long enough that I felt like I’d been on a satisfying journey with Morgan yet short enough to leave me wanting more. Now, Chris has earned enough trust from me as a reader that I’ll be willing to stick with his sophomore effort even if it's well north of 120,000 words. Basically, I don’t think the length could have been any better for this book.

INTRODUCTION: You never know what you’re going to get with a novel introduction, especially when it’s included in the first print run. Most times, first-run intros for fiction seem completely unnecessary since the novel hasn’t made any major societal impact and it can often distract the reader before he or she has a chance to form an opinion about the text for him/herself. I understand how having a Big Name associated with the book can draw in readers and legitimize the work, and like blurbs, I think they can contribute a lot when done correctly. Oftentimes, however, it seems like the publisher knows that the book isn’t good enough to stand on its own merits and requires an extra push from an outsider to get serious attention. At worst, it’s insulting to the reader, as though he or she cannot identify a worthy book without someone else telling them what to like. At best, it’s something most readers will skip, at least until they finish the book.

In this case, however, the introduction works splendidly. Piers Anthony teases just enough of the plot to whet the reader’s appetite without digressing into an overlong backstory about when he published such-and-such book or relaying a conversation he had with the author once upon a time. Although Mr. Anthony is a New York Times Bestselling Author many times over with every right to boast of his achievements, he cuts straight to the point and touches on what makes Losing Touch so special. If you’re going to do an intro for a first novel upon its release, this is the right way to do it. It actually contributes to the reading of the novel simply by priming the reader for the themes of the story itself rather than its historical context. Well done, Mr. Anthony. Well done.

OVERALL: The production for this trade paperback is solid. I was initially turned off by just how bright the contrast of the cover is but was pleasantly surprised with how well it worked once I actually held a copy. I typically prefer the matte covers that Post Mortem Press has started to use, but I think the gloss works well with Losing Touch and a lot of the detail would have been lost to convert it to matte.

To summarize, the interior of the book was superb, the cover worked, and it was a perfect length for a debut novel. All in all, a great acquisition for Post Mortem Press with great execution.

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