Friday, June 15, 2018

TELL US SOMETHING TRUE


Review of TELL US SOMETHING TRUE by DANA REINHARDT
(based on a review copy)

I almost gave up on this book, but I’m glad I didn’t. I struggled relating to the protagonist for perhaps even the first half, but it’s such a short book that I kept reading and was pleasantly rewarded with a satisfying character arch.

The premise of this novel is that teenage boy River feels completely lost when his girlfriend Penny dumps him. He shaped his life around her, became completely reliant on her. Left wandering without a ride home after Penny cuts him loose, River meanders into, of all things, a support group for teens with addictions. As his relationship with Penny demonstrates, River kind of goes with the flow, so he stays for the meeting, even convincing himself that he belongs. After all, he was more or less addicted to Penny and could now be considered “going clean” and suffering “withdrawal.” (Of course, he tells the group that he’s addicted to weed.)

My problem with River is that he seems like a boring guy with a boring problem. He doesn’t have interests or hobbies. He had friends, but he lost touch with them after he started dating Penny. He barely has a personality. Then, of course, it frustrated me how much he believes the world is ending upon his breakup and, even stumbling into the addiction group, doesn’t grasp any bigger picture, like that his life might be okay after a breakup or that other people might have much bigger problems.

What redeemed this book for me is that my complaints about River are kind of exactly the point. This coincidental, random tug towards an addiction group acts as a catalyst for him and it’s very gratifying experiencing his shift in mindset not to mention his expanding awareness of a bigger world full of, well, other people with other problems.

The story also pulls together in a way near the end that I found entirely unexpected, but it was very well executed and affecting. If your experience is like mine, this book may not pull you in early on, but it will be well worth the read anyway.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Art of Reading: Slumps


All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post’s theme: slumps. Do you consider yourself a book addict and yet you’ve gone for long, disappointing stretches without even picking up a book? Or you continued reading, but either didn’t enjoy reading or what you’re reading as much as usual?

It’s frustrating, to say the least, when your interest level for an old passion wanes (or in some cases, you just don’t have the time).  Like anything else in life, reading can come in waves with ups and downs as well as more steady, stable periods: ups being when you tear through book after book that you adore and downs beings when nothing hits your literary cravings or you stop altogether. We have up and down waves with what we watch on TV, too. In relationships, be it romantic partners, family members, or friends. Job satisfaction. Hobbies. I’m focusing on reading slumps, but ups and downs in general are simply a part of life.

There’s obviously a huge difference between not reading because you don’t have the time versus not reading because you’re losing interest in doing so. In some cases, maybe you have a lot going on in your life that’s zapping your attention and energy away from favorite pastimes. Or maybe you read several books in a row that you didn’t like and you need a break from that disappointment.

For my part, I usually manage to keep reading despite whatever’s going on in my life, but certainly the amount I read drops when I’m really busy. Also I’ve definitely gone through content slumps where I read a lot I don’t like very much before finally stumbling into something so gush-worthy it reminds me why I’m obsessed with books in the first place.

True readers always find their way back to books. I know people who read a lot as teenagers, fell out of the habit in college, and then picked it up twenty years later. Long slump, sure, but that’s part of what I love so much about books. They’re always there when we need them.

How about you? Is your life a tale of reading ups and downs? Anything in particular cause the downs? Do you do anything about it or wait for reading to naturally sweep you up again one day?

Friday, June 1, 2018

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL


Review of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: INSIDER ADVICE FOR TAKING YOUR FICTION TO THE NEXT LEVEL by DONALD MAASS

Recently, I started reading more books on writing. Generalizing, I find there’s not a lot that’s new conceptually for me (which explains why I didn’t read writing books much before). However, buried beneath more familiar advice I always find something especially worthwhile, whether it’s a truly new perspective or merely an original phrasing of an already accepted idea.

There are several approaches to writing about writing. I very much believe that writing advice and discussions can be subdivided into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business is more about the publishing industry than actually about writing a story. Craft is more about, well, writing the story. And philosophy is more about mindset and is often motivational: how to keep your spirits up in a rejection filled business, etc.

Maass’ book is definitely a book about craft, though even that can be subdivided into specific approaches. I would say that Maass talks more to the big scale aspects of a novel in generalized terms. That is to say, this is not a book full of writing exercises but rather insight on an overarching level in terms of what tends to work and what doesn't. (And by work, I do mean sell.)

In particular, Maass focuses a lot on how to write engaging stakes, characters, and conflict. He phrases some of his stakes advice in uniquely accessible terms. As for characters, he breaks down exactly what makes us invest in individual characters, both protagonists and antagonists. With conflict, he lists the disparate elements of conflict that must each work well to fuse into a can’t-put-down story.

I made note of two opinions with which I very much agree. 1. Don’t write what you know; write what you care about. I’ve heard that advice before and it changed how I write. Your passion for any topic will seep into the story far more effectively than your apathy for anything you think “should be” exciting. 2. The craft of writing is only a mystery as much as we let it be; it can be broken down into a science and the data we collect used to deliberately create bestsellers. I have never much been a fan of the elusive muse mindset that makes accountability for one’s work external. I, too, believe you can deconstruct what’s working and what’s not and use this evidence to more scientifically, not mysteriously, improve your work.

I believe long-time writers, myself included, often fall into the trap of thinking someone has nothing new to tell us. That’s pretty much never true. As this very book tells us, we’re all telling the same stories again and again but the same thing said in a slightly different way can still be revolutionary.
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Friday, May 25, 2018

BE NOT AFRAID


Review of BE NOT AFRAID by CECILIA GALANTE
(based on a review copy)

This book is not my usual taste: a story about demonic possession. I like speculative fiction, but that’s a wide net and, like most people, my individual taste is more specific. I have never been a fan of: possession, ghosts, and the undead (think zombies and vampires), to name my strongest dislikes. Nevertheless, I found myself pulled into BE NOT AFRAID thanks to the book’s high suspense.

Much of the plot felt contrived and predictable to me, and it’s definitely a novel that puts plot before characters, another reason it goes against my usual taste. However, the author keeps the story plugging away at a fast pace with mystery woven into every page, so I still liked the book and would recommend it to others, especially those who think it sounds more like their taste to begin with.

Let me back up and describe the premise some more. Ever since Marin’s mother committed suicide Marin gained an unusual gift (or is it curse?). When she looks at people, she sees colored shapes indicating places where they’re experiencing pain, and, yikes, is the world ever full of pain. Suddenly, Marin’s life turns into a kaleidoscope of other people’s physical pain, making her retreat into herself socially. Then popular girl Cassie, with whom Marin has some unpleasant history, stands up in the middle of an assembly, points at Marin while whispering, “YOU,” and proceeds to have some kind of bizarre seizure. From there, Cassie’s older brother pursues Marin’s help in figuring out the cause behind Cassie’s increasingly concerning behavior. 

Aside from somewhat underdeveloped characters, I believe the main reason I struggled suspending my disbelief enough is that the story seems to assume the reader believes in God, demons, and possession rather than starting off with the assumption that we don’t and then working to convince us. As someone especially skeptical on all three points, I felt perhaps even more distanced from the story than someone who fully believes in or at least considers possible any or all of those three things.

I really liked that Marin’s grandmother plays a central role in her life and found that one of the more distinctive aspects of this story. Not everyone has grandparents active in their lives, but I have a suspicion that most real life teenagers interact with their grandparents far more than most fictional teenagers.

This novel doesn’t break molds by any means, but not every book has to. If you’re looking for something fun to do with your free time, you can add reading BE NOT AFRAID to your list of possibilities.

Friday, May 18, 2018

THE BEATRICE LETTERS


Review of THE BEATRICE LETTERS by LEMONY SNICKET

Oh, you thought Snicket’s thirteen-book-long series was over, did you? Not quite. Here the puzzles continue with a collection of letters between the mysterious Beatrice and our fictional author Lemony. The letters, of course, include the characters’ usual efforts at coded messages as well as the rambling, subtextual wit that I consider the signature of this series.  

I found this installment a little too young for my tastes, but expect the target audience of middle grade readers will thoroughly enjoy analyzing each letter for hidden messages. The book is also a little more interactive with pop-up and fold-out pages as well as pockets for things like a poster. Definitely a fun addition for young fans of the series.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Art of Reading: Recommendations


All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post’s theme: recommendations. How often do you read something at the recommendation of someone else? Do you tend to like books that have been recommended to you? Or does it really depend on who recommends them? Is there a particular person whose recommendations you especially trust? Do you yourself recommend books to others? Do those recommendations usually go over well or not so much?

Anyone who follows my blog regularly likely noticed I’ve been in a blogging slump lately. Well, silver lining is that it did give me an idea for this non-review post about recommendations.

The truth is that I have been reading, just as much as always, but sadly I haven’t been liking a lot of what I read, and, although I always mention my criticisms, I only review books if I like them. Given this spree of disinterest in what I read, I had to ask myself, “Is it me? Is it them?” Perhaps after decades of addict level reading, I’m becoming a more cynical, critical reader. I do think that’s true, but I also noticed a trend. Lately I’ve mostly been reading books people recommended rather than ones I picked out myself. And all the ones I haven’t liked are ones someone else urged me to read. To clarify, I do read plenty of recommendations that I love, including some I’m still finishing now, but my point is that there was a common trend in the ones I wasn’t liking: someone pushed me to read it and, despite this small, internal voice that suspected I wouldn’t like it, I caved to the reader peer pressure.

Next I wondered about the difference between the recommendations I liked and those I didn’t. I do think recommendations are far more likely to be a hit if the recommender and recommendee already have similar tastes. Certain people, such as booksellers and I like to think reviewers like myself, have a distinct skill for knowing who will like which books even if they themselves feel differently. However, most people tend to assume that if they like something other people will, too. In my case, I have eclectic tastes but a special draw towards speculative fiction. I am utterly and completely guesstimating but I would say 75% of what I choose myself is spec fic while only 25% of what people recommend to me is spec fic. Given that I’m almost done with two non-spec fic novel recommendations that I cannot wait to rave about in reviews, a book not being spec fic is not a deal breaker for me. However, I do think it demonstrates differences in my average taste versus the average taste of those recommending books to me.

Now the last thing I want to suggest with this post is that we all know exactly what’s good for us and should never consider anyone else’s opinions. Word of mouth is the single most powerful advertising tool in the world. We make most of our purchasing decisions, not just with books, based on recommendations by those whose opinion we trust. The truth is that I have had plenty recommended to me that I thought I wouldn’t like and found myself happily proven wrong. It’s wonderful, in fact, to broaden your horizons that way, but my point is that it’s equally disheartening when you try broadening your horizons and don’t feel anything more uplifting from the experience than that apathetic “meh” response.

I want to mention some recommendations that pleasantly surprised me. First, Jane Austen. In all honesty, I now realize I was making a judgment about the type of person who raved about her novels: from my experience, often young women gushing over the romantic male leads. Then when I finally read one of Austen’s books, I was startled by how much feminism I encountered. Second, a friend recommended Abarat to me and a peek at the illustrations had me thinking, “Boy, this looks weird. “Little did I know I would consider it the best kind of weird and find myself dreamily pulled into this fantastical world. Third, a publisher sent me a copy of The Original Ginny Moon. I don’t read everything people send me for review, especially when I didn’t ask for it, but neither am I someone to turn my nose up at free books so I try to give as many of these review copies a decent chance as I can. The premise didn’t sound to my taste by description alone, but - wow, oh wow - what a compelling and unique narrator voice.

No surprise given the nature of this blog, but I recommend books to people constantly, sometimes upon request, sometimes unsolicited. I also worked as a bookseller for four years where that was the nature of the job. Recommending at the bookstore was even trickier than recommending to a friend, because you have to attempt assessing someone’s taste within a brief, few minutes long conversation. I like to think that I have a knack for recommendations. People usually come back to me for more suggestions and sometimes there’s impressed surprise, because they were skeptical and then found my pick for them to be spot on. Of course, I have had experiences where someone doesn’t like what I recommended, but, if I’m really honest, I think I saw it coming in those cases. Every now and then I push a book on someone not because I truly believe they will love it but for more selfish reasons. I love it, and poor me but I cannot find anyone else I know who’s read it so I’m all alone in my quiet adoration. I don’t do this on purpose, but when someone admits they didn’t really understand the appeal of something I recommended I often realize that small, internal voice warned me: “This isn’t really their taste...but maybe, hopefully we’ll both be surprised and then we can gush over the book together.”

Speaking of recommending books for selfish reasons, I want to end this post on a funny note. I have a friend who several times has pushed and pushed me to read a book: “You have to read this. Have you read this yet? You have to read it. I really want to hear what you think.” Then when I finally read the book...I hate it. So I say to this friend, “Well, sorry, but...I didn’t really like it.” only to hear, “I know! Isn’t it awful? I hated it, too!” Did your brain just explode the slightest bit, too? Turns out when this friend encounters a book he really detests, he plays the same game I do when I encounter one I absolutely adored: he goes looking for someone else, anyone else, he can get to read it so they can talk about it together. Well, needless to say, I don’t read books recommended by this friend anymore.

So how about you? How often do you read based on recommendations? How often does that work out for you? Do you recommend books to others, and do they like the ones you suggest?

Friday, March 30, 2018

PERFUME


Review of PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER by PATRICK SUSKIND
(translated from German by JOHN E. WOODS)

Jean-Baptiste is not like other humans. He lives for smell and smell alone. Yes, you read that right. Everything else about the world is immaterial to him. All that matters is scent. His sense of smell borders on something superhuman as he can pick it apart down to its base elements as well as separate out and follow one smell amid a chaotic environment overwhelmed with different complex scents. This fixation leads him to a life as an extraordinary perfumer. However, Jean-Baptiste cares nothing for fame, fortune, or even his work. His true, secret goal is more sinister, rooted in a dark experience from his youth when he tracked the most exquisite, perfect scent to a young girl and unsuccessfully tried to take her scent for himself.

I would call this story magical realism. It’s not fantasy as it doesn’t explicitly call anything magic, but rather the magical elements are catalysts for unusual characters and plot threads. However, I consider the novel some branch of speculative fiction without a doubt since what Jean-Batiste does lies beyond the bounds of realism as we know it and his whole character is portrayed almost as a type of demon.

I hesitate to comment on the writing, since I know this book is translated from the German, but I will assume the English translation bears some reflection of the original German. I cannot call the writing anything other than luscious, skillfully taking us inside a very warped, tunnel vision obsessed mindset. The story is filled with vivid, unusual metaphors putting Jean-Baptiste’s bizarre view of the world into some comparison most of us can understand. Also as a writer myself, I struggle with scent more than any other sense. I know smells, but putting a specific smell into descriptive words a reader can understand is very difficult. Yet Suskind (and/or Woods) finds the words, over and over and over again, to describe a small fraction of the countless distinct scents we encounter in our daily life.

This is a weird story to be sure, but weird can be good or bad. Some will find Jean-Baptiste’s creepy obsessions merely off-putting while others, like myself, see the story as an exceptionally unique point of view. I believe most everyone will agree this novel is one of a kind.