Moriarty and Martin and Mastery

Liane MoriartySome novels FOAC. Some don’t.

By FOAC, I mean “fire on all cylinders.” Yes, some novels get all or most things right — excellent prose, believable dialogue, three-dimensional characters, interesting plot, maybe a memorable surprise or two, etc. Those books just flow. Other novels? Not so much.

Obviously without planning to, I consecutively read two novels during the past week that exemplified each extreme.

Yesterday, I finished 2018’s Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. At 53, the Australian author is at the peak of her writing powers, and Nine Perfect Strangers is among the best of her eight novels — maybe second only to 2014’s Big Little Lies.

The newer book is set in a health resort where nine guests experience MUCH more than they bargained for, and Moriarty expertly makes all 12 major characters memorable, very human individuals. (The main cast also includes has-a-screw-loose resort owner Masha and two staffers.) The nine guests are to some degree “types” — a romance novelist (perhaps partly based on Moriarty?), a former athlete, a depressed divorcee, an extremely handsome gay lawyer, a young couple who won the lottery, and a teacher and a midwife and their Generation Z daughter — yet they all feel like real people.

Moriarty’s prose in Nine Perfect Strangers is, well, perfect — plus there’s intense drama, heartbreaking backstories, plenty of humor, always-smooth transitions, and more. The length of the book is also, well, perfect — 450 pages in the paperback edition I read.

A bonus is that Nine Perfect Strangers evokes other great novels — such as T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville (set in a sanitarium) and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (about 10 people stuck together in an isolated place) — while still feeling totally original.

Then there’s the novel I read immediately before the Moriarty one: Martin Cruz Smith’s The Siberian Dilemma (2019) — the ninth installment of the suspenseful crime series starring weary, principled, sympathetic Russian investigator Arkady Renko that began nearly 40 years ago with 1981’s Gorky Park. The first eight books all ranged from excellent to enthralling as Smith transitioned from Brezhnev’s to Gorbachev’s to Yeltsin’s to Putin’s Russia — with side trips to the U.S., Cuba, and a ship. Then the series fell off a literary cliff with The Siberian Dilemma. Too short, blah plot, very disjointed, strained dialogue, and underdeveloped secondary characters — plus the novel quickly dissipated whatever little suspense it occasionally built.

Things happen, of course, and I would definitely try Smith again if he wrote another novel. (He’s also authored several great non-Renko books, including Rose.) In Smith’s case, The Siberian Dilemma may have been a clunker at least partly because of his advancing age (he’s 77) and health issues (he has Parkinson’s disease). And many a notable author of ANY age can occasionally write a bad book — whether that happens in early career (such as the great Jack London’s laughable A Daughter of the Snows), mid-career (such as the great Stephen King’s disappointing Cell), or late career.

The wonderful author Willa Cather’s last novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl was atrocious, and the also-wonderful author Richard Russo’s most recent novel Chances Are was so-so. In the case of those authors, reading their peak works — such as Cather’s My Antonia and Russo’s Empire Falls — is the way to go.

Of course, late-career novels don’t always have to be clunkers. While I haven’t read it yet, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019) — The Handmaid’s Tale sequel released just before the author’s 80th birthday — got excellent reviews. And Billy Budd, begun three years before the author’s death and published posthumously, is one of Herman Melville’s best works. Last but not least, how about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov for an author’s final novel?

Among other living authors still firing on all cylinders are J.K. Rowling and Lee Child. Rowling’s four recent crime novels starring investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are fantastic — just a small step below the author’s iconic Harry Potter series in quality and appeal. And Child’s Jack Reacher thriller series, which dates back to the 1997 debut novel Killing Floor, is now well past 20 books yet the recent ones are as good as the early ones.

Some novels you’d like to mention that do or do not “fire on all cylinders”?

The terrific Canadian podcaster Rebecca Budd once again interviewed me about literature and writing. In this 15-minute segment, we discussed the comfort of books during a difficult time, how people become authors, how great authors were often not great at first, the need for authors to read books, how to deal with writers’ block, and the growth of indie publishing.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about a new rent-regulation measure and more — is here.

40 thoughts on “Moriarty and Martin and Mastery

    • Thank you, catonthedovrefell! “….will there ever be enough time to read all recommendations?” Absolutely not. 🙂 😦 My to-read list has been out of control for years. Maybe I get to one of 10, even though I read about 50 novels a year.

      I LOVE “Daniel Deronda”! Riveting and heartbreaking. In some ways, my favorite George Eliot novel. What do you think of it?

      Great question about how easy or not it is to spot late-career novels. “Daniel Deronda” has so many dimensions and is such a mature piece of writing that it seems almost impossible that it could have been an early-career book. Instead, as you know, it was Eliot’s last novel — yet not tired or past the author’s peak in any way. I guess Eliot was still in her 50s when writing it, and she only wrote seven novels so less chance of burnout.


  1. FOIC? How about Lionel Shriver? I’ve only read her We Need to talk about Kevin but was engrossed from the very first sentence. So much so that when So Much For That was shouting at me that it would be the perfect light and fun read to go with Ulysses I decided to give it a go, even though I think it might have greatly exaggerated its own fun factor. Oh well, even if it’s not exactly light, I’m expecting to be completely swept up in Shriver’s writing and taken away from the real world for a bit…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Lionel Shriver is indeed a GREAT author who’s often at the top of her game. I haven’t read “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” but have read her “So Much for That,” “Big Brother,” “The Mandibles,” and “The New Republic.” You’re right that “So Much for That” is not exactly light, but it IS partly comedic — and one of my very favorite novels published during the past 10 years. Brutal takedown of America’s often-nasty/expensive medical system, and a superb conclusion.


  2. Ever the ol’ contrarian, I will mention 2 examples of authors who were no longer FOAC when their last books were written: Agatha Christie and Jack Kerouac.

    “Academics at the University of Toronto studied a selection of Christie’s novels written between the ages of 28 and 82, counting the numbers of different words, indefinite nouns and phrases used in each.

    They found that the vocabulary size of the creator of Poirot and Miss Marple decreased sharply as she neared the end of her life, by 15 to 30%, while repetition of phrases and indefinite word usage (something, thing, anything) in her novels increased significantly.

    “We found statistically significant drops in vocabulary, and increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns in 15 detective novels from The Mysterious Affair at Styles to Postern of Fate,” said the academics, Dr Ian Lancashire from the English department and computer scientist Dr Graeme Hirst. “These language effects are recognised as symptoms of memory difficulties associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

    The most abrupt decline was seen in a novel Christie wrote aged 81, Elephants Can Remember. The book showed, they said, 30% fewer word types than Destination Unknown, which she wrote aged 63, 18% more repeated phrases, and almost three times as many indefinite words.”

    Then there’s Mr. Kerouac, who on the eve of his death by esophageal hemorrhage, had sent his publisher “PIC”, a novel in Black dialect that had been written even before “On the Road”, but left unfinished. The ending he tacked on has been described as a deus ex machina type, but did little for the rest of the novel save for make an ending, and a quick one. Pic was the nickname of the main character, a Black boy he named Pictorial Review, after a 1930’s magazine. More than anything else it is a precursor to “On the Road”, featuring an adventure-filled trip up from the South to New York, and if read today, mostly enjoys the attentions of Kerouac completists.

    Stay safe!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! I knew that some late-career novels can be rather bad, but those Agatha Christie word-usage statistics were eye-opening. The human brain does not always age well.

      And white authors trying to sound black and/or make a big statement about the African-American experience often don’t succeed — as was the case with the Kerouac novel you mentioned. It can be rather embarrassing.


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    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,

    I’m sure I’m not alone when I say my TBR list consists of hundreds of books. I try to stick to my list as much as possible and not amuse myself with guilty re-reads, or get distracted by the new and shiny thing. But unbelievably, in this time of stress and isolation Ulysses is my latest literary companion. I’ve never read Joyce before, and while I’m finding it an easier read than I expected, there’s definitely not a lot of FOAC going on. Maybe a half cylinder?

    And so I think I will allow myself one of those guilty pleasure reads. I’ve read two Moriartys in the past, and am greatly looking forward to getting to Nine Perfect Strangers which I expect will have the same FOAC writing, but with a different plot than I’ve come to expect from Liane.

    I’m also tempted to pick up George R.R. Martin’s Hunter’s Run. Martin will never win a Nobel for his writing, but his characters are definitely FOAC and might be just the distraction I need.

    Re The Casual Vacancy I may have liked that even more than Harry Potter. I was very hesitant to try something so different, but those unlikeable characters just spoke to me. I was one of the few people at book club who actually enjoyed it, and it was at that time that I realised I do actually prefer my characters to be a little bit broken. I think I’d assumed that was normal, but most people’s problem with the book, like VocareMentor below, was that they just couldn’t get behind the characters. For me, that was most of the appeal!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! I’m VERY impressed that you’re trying “Ulysses,” and happy that it has been a little easier going than expected. I still haven’t had the ambition to tackle that novel, though I did like Joyce’s more straightforward “Dubliners” collection — including its best story, “The Dead.” If June 16 is “Bloomsday,” I wonder when is “Cylinderday”? 🙂

      Yes, a pleasure read after a challenging read is well-deserved!

      I see your point about “The Casual Vacancy,” and, even though I liked it less than J.K. Rowling’s seven “Harry Potter” books and four crime novels, I still found it to be an engrossing read. (Rowling seems incapable of writing a bad novel.) The downbeat nature of “TCV” was part of its fascination, and there were a few characters that, while not super-likable, were at least mixed. And the depiction of the intrigues, anger, and sadness that comprise part of small-town life rang true.


      • Dave, I probably shouldn’t admit this in public, but this is a safe space right? I remember one of the middle aged mums in TCV obsessing about a teenage rock star which I could kind of relate to. If I remember right, she ends up coming on to one of the teenage boys at a party, which is a bit gross, but I thought it had been fun up until then. Now that I think about it, I really, really did like that book. All the different POVs of the same events coming together. Very different from the Harry centric series, and expertly handled in my opinion.

        When I say I’m finding Ulysses easier than expected, please don’t misunderstand me and think that it’s easy! I was half expecting it to be in a language other than English. But I’m pleased to say that I understand all the words. But it’s a struggle after that. I think you’ve recommended short Joyce stories to me before, and maybe I should have started with them, but my long and twisted and convoluted TBR had Ulysses first, so that’s where I’m starting. I think I will start another fun book before I get too much further in though. If I’m only reading one book that I’m not enjoying, then all of a sudden the TV starts calling to me and I don’t progress though my TBR at all. Maybe a re-read of The Casual Vacancy?

        Liked by 1 person

        • This is definitely a safe space, Susan, and many people have their celebrity crushes — of various ages. 🙂 And, yes, “The Casual Vacancy” was very different than the “Harry Potter” books. For one thing, “TCV” had almost no humor, but was still a compelling read.

          Thanks for that “Ulysses” clarification! I guess there’s a difference between impossibly difficult and almost-impossibly difficult. 🙂


  5. Such an interesting topic for a post! For me, books that FOAC have food, wine, romance, a little mystery thrown in, and France! One that fits those qualifications is “A Good Year,” by Peter Mayle. He had a wonderful way with words and makes you feel like you are walking along the path in the vineyard. I’ve enjoyed all his books, fiction and non-fiction, but for me this one has it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Such an interesting discussion! A related phenomenon I’ve noticed is FOAC debut novels that are followed by more polished books that just don’t have that same raw spark of life and power. The best contrast I can think of for FOAC and not-FOAC would be Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I’m convinced that Go Set a Watchman is an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Liz! That’s a great observation! Some debut novels are a bit ragged, but they can indeed have a lot of life and power. The author is usually relatively young, and a lifetime of ideas have been percolating before that first novel was written.

      Some debut novels are my favorites in the canons of those authors — Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” etc.

      While I’ve never gotten to “Go Set a Watchman,” everything I’ve read about it does seem to indicate that it’s a not-that-great earlier draft of the tremendous “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


  7. FOAC – haha nice! I haven’t read many of the mentions here this week. Not even the Testaments, although I did hear all the good reviews and did have my hands on a copy at the library. I put it back at the last minute, simply because the first book did its job a little TOO well! I still get a bit disturbed when I think of that novel, I was never able to watch the recent TV series. I also still haven’t worked my way to JK Rowling’s other books, although I would like to at some point. As for recent reads that didn’t quite do it for me, I might make myself a bit unpopular by mentioning “the Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris. I know the reviews were amazing and most people seem to like it, but it didn’t quite “FOAC” for me. I guess I felt the approach was a bit too light for the horrific setting in which it takes place. I of course realize that people met and fell in love even in terrible places like Auschwitz, it’s one of the beautiful parts about humanity and love, but I didn’t quite feel the writing did justice to just how awful life was in those camps. However, one look at the reviews on Amazon will show you how far in the minority I am with that opinion, so maybe it’s all a matter of perspective! 🙂 And although I absolutely loved “the Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer, I didn’t much care for her new one, “the Flight Portfolio.” The prose was a bit too cumbersome and slowed down the story too much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! All well said!

      I hear you about “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a superb novel, but very painful to read.

      I also hear you about how some widely praised novels can make a person wonder why they were so widely praised. I haven’t read “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” but something with a bit of a light touch concerning the Holocaust can be tricky indeed to pull off.

      One widely praised novel that didn’t do much for me was Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I found it deathly boring and even kind of offensive, despite being a big fan of that author’s earlier “Housekeeping.” Authors don’t always FOAC with every book, as was your experience with Julie Orringer.

      J.K. Rowling’s crime fiction, recommended to me by the frequent commenter here “elenapedigo,” has been VERY compelling to read.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I have added a new phrase to my urban dictionary FOAC, “fire on all cylinders.” Every time I stopped by, your post and subsequent discussions, inspires me and fires all cylinders to add more to my reading stack of books! Another most excellent post.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Excellence post Dave – There’s a lot here for me to check out for possible additions to my to read list.
    I’m very particular, researching each book before I take the plunge. Not story details, but to just make sure it’s a good fit.
    I came to pleasure reading late, and have always been a ‘slow’ reader.
    Last year I read, Empire Falls – a really good novel. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman was another I enjoyed.
    There aren’t many ‘readers’ in my circle, so when I get chatting with someone new, I’m thankful when I find one, asking what they’re reading, and ask for a recommendation.
    The CFO where I work offered Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I enjoyed that Thriller.
    One big disappointment for me was JK Rowling’s, The Casual Vacancy. I prefer to have some character to root for, but really didn’t find any in that book. I enjoyed the Harry Potter series so I’ll check out her crime novels on your recommendation in this post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, VocareMentor! Glad you liked the post. 🙂

      I totally agree about Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls” (which I read a couple years ago) and Fredrik Backman’s “A Man Called Ove” (which I read a couple months ago). Both terrific novels.

      I liked “The Casual Vacancy,” but it was my least favorite of J.K. Rowling’s 12 major novels. Sort of a B+ in my mind. Certainly not light reading, and you have a point that it was hard to find characters to really root for.

      As you probably know, Rowling’s four crime novels (“The Cuckoo’s Calling”/2013, “The Silkworm”/2014, “Career of Evil”/2015, and “Lethal White”/2018) are written under the alias Robert Galbraith.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I like that you include the misses! It does happen, right? The FOAC novels I’ve read in recent years are: The Human Stain by Philip Roth, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, LaRose by Louise Erdrich, To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne, Inland by Téa Obreht, and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I’m sure there are more 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I often don’t write about “misses,” but couldn’t resist doing it this time — partly because “The Siberian Dilemma” was so disappointing from an author I love.

      Impressive list! Many books to add to my to-read file, when my local library reopens at some point. I’ve only gotten to “Woman on the Edge of Time,” which is indeed an excellent novel with a lot to say about mental illness (real or alleged), poverty, gender, and the difficulties faced by many people of color in the U.S. — all with a sci-fi twist! I’ve read novels other than ones you named by Roth, Hosseini, and Lewis.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Goodness, you couldn’t have picked a better topic for today than this one! I adore Liane Moriarty’s novels, all of them, and most are on my shelves. I’m missing three of them, which puzzles me because I can’t find my very favorite of all, “What Alice Forgot.” Nor do I have “Truly Madly Guilty,” my least favorite, but I’d like to reread it someday in case I just wasn’t in a good mood that day. I was going through a “Best Mysteries of…” list of some sort on Goodreads the other day, and I wondered why I hadn’t read Smith’s “Gorky Park,” as well as many other books and authors. I’ll have to remedy that sometime soon after reading your thoughts on the subject. The only three authors I can add are Ruth Ware, Louise Penny and Lisa Genova, all of whom I’ve mentioned before on other comments and who always “fire on all cylinders!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Liane Moriarty IS such a great writer, isn’t she? 🙂 I also thought “Truly Madly Guilty” wasn’t quite up to her usual standards, though it was still an A- or B+ in my “book.” I hope you find your missing Moriarty novels!

      I’ve read three of Lisa Genova’s novels (“Still Alice,” “Inside the O’Briens,” and “Left Neglected”), and strongly agree that she was “firing on all cylinders” in each.

      “Gorky Park” is a terrific novel, and several of the sequels are almost as good.

      Liked by 1 person

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