What I gleaned about the story: Ten years ago, Gwen’s sister stormed out after a family fight and disappeared. Since then, Gwen has put her life back together. Or at least, she had done. Because now it seems like the sister might be back.
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Analysis: The story begins with an engaging theory about the symbolism of coffee in a police station, but despite my interest, I stumbled a bit when the narrator flashes back to her teen years without benefit of a past perfect verb escort. So when we returned from deeper simple past to the current simple past, I stumbled again. The line was: “Until that day, I hated coffee…” But which day? The day she’s just finished flashing back to? Or the day she is speaking from now, at the later time?
Note: Turns out it may not have been after the flashback. It was a point in the flashback that could have been read as a return to the present, but turned out to be more of the flashback. And this is the reason time transitions have to be handled smoothly.
Analysis: The opening line of Chapter One is: I’m working on a theory that police station coffee is really condensed misery. Note the verb tense. I AM working on a theory. Shortly after that, we drop into a reminiscence from her teen years, with my previously mentioned verb tense fumble. That flashback runs the entire length of Chapter One. Chapter Two then skips ahead a few years, but we’re still in the deeper past, as compared to the introductory present. I would have thought nothing of these time jumps if we had begun with our feet firmly planted in the teen years, and then skipped ahead to the end of college. But as presented, as multiple, unbroken digressions to the past, there’s a psychological tension building up. I want the story to get out of the past and get on with the present. It takes mental energy to hold that door open, waiting for the return. So when I finally realized why I was on edge, I had to go back and examine the time tracks. And that meant I was no longer immersed.
Analysis: The whole past perfect thing arises again and again. Sometimes because it is missing, at other times because it hangs around too long. There have also been a few bonus words and some awkward phrasings. All the kind of stuff a decent editor should be smoothing out. This story seems to have a very solid and emotionally engaging core, but it’s like watching a sunset through the grime of a dirty window. You know there’s something beautiful going on there, but you keep getting distracted by the stuff in the foreground. And now that my irritation has risen enough to comment on it, I have to throw the flag.