Monday, September 29, 2014

ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD

 
Review of ALL MY FRIENDS ARE DEAD by AVERY MONSEN and JORY JOHN

I first discovered this book sitting on staff pick shelves at an independent bookstore. It’s a riot.

Though stylized with picture book reminiscent illustrations, this is no children’s book. Rather it’s a twisted take on simplistic picture book refrains. Except rather than a sentence like “My friends and I went to the park,” we get the wry “All my friends are dead” beside an illustration of a befuddle dinosaur.

Turns out that, contrary to picture book idealization, a lot of creatures (and objects) have friend problems. “All my friends expired on Tuesday,” laments the milk cartoon.

Another great book to leave sitting around your house as a conversation starter.  If you like this one, be sure to look for the sequel ALL MY FRIENDS ARE STILL DEAD.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Book Elements


Discussion Topic: Book Elements

Sometimes I read a book that utterly wows me...and then I discover another reader who was unimpressed. How? I think. How could you possibly not adore this incredible work? I’ve also noticed over the years how personal recommendations still do better than algorithms invented by big companies. Why? Perhaps because if you read a mermaid book the algorithm might suggest five other mermaid books for your next read while a bookseller or librarian will consider the book’s strengths and realize that particular mermaid book had a strong heroine or mindboggling worldbuilding or plenty of vivid sensory detail. The point is that readers seek out different factors. When a book blows me away it usually emphasizes my favorite factors. When someone else doesn’t like that same book, perhaps it’s because they focus on different elements when they read.

Today I want to break down what I consider the book elements: characters, plot, themes, writing, tone, worldbuilding, and setting. I’ve listed and will discuss them in order of my own preference.

First, characters. I’ve mentioned in reviews that I like character-driven stories. I recall reading a scene with nothing more than characters eating breakfast, but - because I care about these characters - for me it’s a riveting scene with characters eating breakfast. The reverse is also true: I can name books that had fast-paced, potentially gripping plots, but I found I just couldn’t care about all the carefully timed twists and revelations if I didn’t care about the characters experiencing them. I read in great part to understand and connect with other people. I like discovering motivations behind actions, whether real or imagined, and I love gaining new perspectives that I hadn’t considered. If a character’s perspective feels forced or artificial that drowns the whole book for me.

Second, plot. Because I do care about what actually happens in the story. Perhaps it’s because I write myself, but I’ll sometimes pause while reading a book and mentally demand an explanation from the author: But how is this moving the story forward? It makes me sad when I find a book with refreshing characters...but nothing’s happening to them. I don’t need lots of action, drama, or twists to hold my energy, but I do need to feel there’s some form and purpose to the story. While it’s true that life can feel random and meaningless at times, I definitely don’t enjoy novels that feel random and meaningless.

Third, themes. Sometimes we seek out particular types of books. Aside from reading and writing, my interests include animals (primarily dogs), Japanese language and culture, fitness, and women’s issues. With that information, it’s no surprise that my reading list from the past few years includes a book about women and working out, a mystery series narrated by a dog, and books like MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and SHOGUN. Our interests often overlap. While I have other interests aside from reading, I adore reading about those other interests. I would also classify genre as part of the themes element. Though I have quite eclectic reading tastes, I tend to particularly seek out fantasy and young adult novels - whereas someone else might prefer historical fiction, romance, mystery, political nonfiction, or memoirs, to name a few. Themes can also include issues and abstract questions. Like the issue of domestic violence or one of many abstract questions about death. Some people are drawn to specific topics and will seek out books that address those topics.   

Fourth, writing. I toyed with whether this should go above or below themes for me. I settled on below, because - while I care about writing more than themes after reading a book - commentary on the book’s themes is more likely to make me read it in the first place than people raving about the writing. The problem with “good writing” is that it’s a subjective concept. The reason I don’t care much if someone tells me a book is well written is because I have read plenty of books that someone said featured noteworthy writing...and I disagree. For one thing, I think some people use the term “writing” to refer to the book overall rather than the specific word choice and sentence structure. So if they liked a book, they will say it was well written. The truth is I’ve read some books I liked while still thinking the writing was terrible. However, even if I don’t pay much attention to which books people are praising as a beautifully written, I love discovering one where I think as much. I often say in my reviews that I think there are two types of strong writing: the type that is so subtle and unobtrusive that you forget about the writing and only think about the story and the type that keeps making you pause to admire original and apt turns of phrase. Buzz about a book’s writing won’t make me read the book (because it’s no guarantee I’ll feel the same), but I do love when I open a cover and find myself unexpectedly held captive by a single sentence.

Fifth, tone. Is the book light or dark? Funny or serious? I read more dark and serious books, but I seek out more light and funny ones, probably because I need those palate cleansers so I can delve back into my heavier selections. However, I know readers who dislike books that are even remotely sad. My original point for this post was that we read for different reasons. I read, above all else, to think and, only secondly, to feel, but I let the author decide where to steer my thinking and feeling. Others might not pick up a book that they think will make them cry, no matter how much reviewers praise it. Maybe they want to laugh. Maybe they merely want to be entertained with something that doesn’t demand a draining amount of emotional connection. Maybe they want a sweet, unrealistically tidy happily-ever-after as a refreshing escape. Of all the elements, I think we vary - within ourselves - the most on tone. Funny, sad, heartwarming - what we want in terms of tone can vary depending on the day.

Sixth, worldbuilding. (For those not familiar with the term, worldbuilding refers to the fictional universe the author has invented. Fantasy and science fiction novels especially require a lot of thought about the politics, culture, language, food, clothes, architecture, etc. for the imagined world. Mainstream fiction might seem exempt from this element, but fiction authors are still worldbuilding when they make up a town or even plop fake characters into a real town.) I’m reaching the elements that I don’t care about as much. Sure, I find myself impressed when I start wondering how many hours an author must have spent brainstorming all this impressive detail for their world, but more often than not I find too much worldbuilding detail detracts from what I care about more: the characters and the plot. Yet I know readers, mostly speculative fiction readers, who would probably list worldbuilding as their favorite element. They want all that detail. They might not even care so much about who is doing what in the story, but they want a world where they can retreat, one that feels as real as our own. Worldbuilding also lends itself to fandom. Think of all the necklaces with iconic literary symbols, similar tattoos, or even drinks and dishes taken from the pages of a favorite novel.

Seventh, setting. I definitely care least about this one. In general, I care about the who the most, the what second, and the where barely. Oftentimes when someone raves about a book and I don’t understand their fixation, they will make a comment like, “But didn’t you love the description of the village? With the old brick building and the river and all those sycamore trees?” As strange as it sounds to someone who loves setting, I often think you can take the same story, relocate it, and I would enjoy it just as much. While occasionally I find myself impressed with setting description, I usually tie that back to strong writing. I do concede that sometimes setting is interwoven with another element such as plot but for the most part, I find setting description dull and skim-worthy and feel baffled by authors who will go on for pages and pages about location.

So the next time you’re reviewing or recommending a book, I suggest thinking about these elements a little. When you really adore something, it’s hard to understand how someone else might not feel the same way. Try looking at what elements feature the most in this book and what elements seem most prominent in the reader’s favorites.

How about you? What elements do you care about the most in a book?

Friday, September 19, 2014

A FISTFUL OF COLLARS


Review of A FISTFUL OF COLLARS by SPENCER QUINN
(fifth in the CHET AND BERNIE mysteries)

A FISTFUL OF COLLARS opens with an unusual case for private investigator Bernie and his dog (and our narrator) Chet. When a famous movie star arrives to shoot a big-budget movie, the mayor has hopes of turning the town into the next Hollywood. Except Thad, said movie star, has a reputation for trouble, and one misstep could wreck the whole plan. So the mayor hires Bernie to essentially bodyguard and babysit Thad. Simple, right? Of course not.

This particular premise didn’t hook me right away. The case simply didn’t garner my interest much and for over half of the book I would have said it’s my least favorite of the series. Note, though, that saying a book is my least favorite in a series I love doesn’t mean it’s bad, just not up to the standards I’ve come to expect. However, as the story progressed I revoked that assessment, anyway. Mystery novels are often a kind of puzzle and this puzzle didn’t make much sense to me...until suddenly it did. There’s a lot more to this case than Bernie or the reader could possibly expect, but be patient with the author. All will be revealed in due time.

As I may have mentioned before in reviewing this series, the unique narration style with a dog telling the story is very taste specific. Some readers will find the style adorable and others irritating. Chet’s easily distracted, goes off on tangents, rambles, and struggles focusing. I personally love the unique spin of a dog describing the mystery, especially in dramatic irony instances where Chet observes but doesn’t understand something that the reader will.

I loved Chet from the very start of the first book, but I’m growing increasingly fond of Bernie, too. I never disliked him, but it takes a lot for me to bond with a fictional character to the extent that they feel closer to an actual friend than ink on the page.

These books can easily be read out of order, but it’s fun following the subtle developments in overarching series plot threads, mainly Bernie’s various relationships. Suzie, Leda, and Charlie all play a role in this installment with some small and not so small shifts in their relationships with Bernie.

I don’t have much critical to say of this series, besides the warning that the dog viewpoint and silly tone isn’t for everyone. However, I increasingly dislike the violence scenes. They make me squeamish and uncomfortable, especially when either Chet or Bernie act violent. It’s not unrealistic that a man in Bernie’s line of work will have violent encounters. What bothers me is the underlying message that violence is okay if the person deserved it (and this is a general complaint I have with many books, not only these ones).

Reviewing series can be tricky, because sometimes I don’t have much new to say about each additional book. A FISTFUL OF COLLARS is more of the same, and in this case “the same” is good.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Does a Fast Read = a Good Read?


Discussion Topic: Is finishing a book quickly proof of its merit?

In other words, does a fast read equal a good read? I often hear readers say, “I finished it in one day!” as testimony for a book’s brilliance. Except when I look back over books I finished in one day, they’re not my favorites. Either they’re short books or my schedule that day happened to allow for almost entirely reading.

In fact, when I’m falling in love with a book I don’t speed up the reading process; I slow it down. If I’m really crazy about a book, I don’t want to hurry up and finish it faster but rather stretch out being part of that world for as long as possible. What we call “page turners” often bait the reader with staggered withheld information. For me, that’s not nearly as wonderful as when I emotionally connect with a novel, especially in such a way that makes me want to slowly savor the story.

How about you? Have you ever finished a book in one day? If so, was that because it was amazing, because it was short, or because you had a lot of free time?

Friday, September 12, 2014

VICTORY OF EAGLES


Review of VICTORY OF EAGLES by NAOMI NOVIK
(fifth in the TEMERAIRE series)

Warning: this review contains spoilers for the first four books.

The fifth book in this delightful series keeps the dragon Temeraire and his human companion Laurence separated for a good chunk at the beginning. Their decision at the end of EMPIRE OF IVORY to curb Britain’s efforts at bioterrorism and secretly deliver the cure for a weaponized dragon plague to France earned Laurence a treason sentence and Temeraire a direct ticket to the breeding grounds. As certain officials take such pleasure in reminding them, the only reason Laurence hasn’t been executed yet is to keep Temeraire, a formidable dragon by most any measure, corporative.

On a larger scale, Napolean finally succeeds in landing on British soil, a development that certainly makes Laurence’s crimes little more than a distraction. Speaking of distractions, Temeraire keeps up his persistent and insistent inquiries into dragon rights. He wants pay, he wants housing, he wants ranks and titles, and above all else he wants to do away with all this condescension towards dragons. As in the previous book, this brings forth all kinds of debates about patriotism and civil rights, especially the question: is there ever a good time for someone who loves and respects their country to demand change?

I continued to admire the style in which these books are written. Sometimes the overly formal word choice made me snort with amusement, especially when juxtaposed against touchy subject matter. In other words, the phrasing is as important to the humor as the content. The following quote isn’t nearly the funniest, but it’s the only one I remembered to actually bookmark when a line made me laugh aloud: “privately he could not help a certain resentment that a conscience seemed to be so very expensive, and yet had no substantial form which one might admire, and display to one’s company.” Along this point, the writing always remains so understated with a sense of restrained formality that it really lets emotions speak for themselves. This is one of those books where what isn’t being said often counts for more.

I enjoy the addition of the young, fire-breathing dragon Iskierka to this wonderful cast. She fits in well with established characters and I love the contrast of her fearsome capabilities with her immature recklessness. She’s scary and cute at the same time.

VICTORY OF EAGLES ends with an intriguing setup for the next book. I personally hope this series doesn’t actually end anytime soon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Grammar Nerds: OK vs. okay


If you don't care much about grammar specifics, here's your warning that this series of posts won't interest you. However, I know plenty of fellow grammar nerd readers: people like me who feel thrown out of a good story by a misplaced comma or sudden tense shift.

Today's focus: OK vs. okay.

Both are acceptable uses. However, many grammar nerds like myself prefer one over the other and will passionately argue their selection. In terms of publications, OK vs. okay comes down to house style. Both appear in print and both are considered correct. It’s only a controversy among grammar nerds.

I prefer okay. I associate OK with texting. I also dislike seeing abbreviations in the middle of a sentence. Of course, the truth is that, while OK is indeed an abbreviation, it’s not an abbreviation of okay. OK dates surprisingly far back from the Old English phrase “oll korrekt” meaning “all correct.” Okay is a more recent evolution from the 1800s when people started spelling OK phonetically.

OK vs. okay is an unusual debate for me, because I often side with more traditional, old-fashioned grammatical approaches. This is one of the few cases where I opt for the more modern spelling. I suspect it’s mostly aesthetic. The capitalized OK looks tacky plopped in the middle of a sentence and always trips me up when reading. Okay might be a more modern development, but I think it reads much more pleasantly.

Do you prefer OK or okay? Why?

Monday, September 1, 2014

BIG LITTLE LIES


Review of BIG LITTLE LIES by LIANE MORIARTY
(review based on an advance reading copy)

Wow, wow, wow. I expected this would be a good book and that I would like it (otherwise, I wouldn’t have read it in the first place), but I massively underestimated how good. The novel pulled me in immediately with a hilariously satiric portrayal of wealthy mothers and then snuck up on me with a slow, steady slide into something far more serious.

We know from the very start of the novel that someone was killed at the elementary school’s parent trivia bee. Then the story backtracks to the start of the school year with excerpts from present-day police interviews regarding the inevitable crime tagged on at the end of each chapter. The chapters are short, too, adding to a sense of an extremely fast pace. 

The premise sounded silly to me, almost trite even. Once I started reading, I decided it is a little silly, in the best sense, and threw out that word “trite” altogether. For one thing, it’s silly in an incredibly smart and sophisticated sense. Moriarty describes these mothers' questionable priorities with a laugh-out-loud dry wit. Some of the funniest lines are the most insightful. Then, slowly, the novel takes a more serious turn. The shift sneaks up on you. Moriarty opens with almost entirely humor and gradually interweaves heart-wrenching sincerity into her formula. The story tilts ever more towards the serious end the farther it progresses until what I would have described in the first few chapters as a hilarious book turns in to what I would call a grave, unflinching story with some comic relief.

Though entirely unique, BIG LITTLE LIES joins a long established collection of tales about how we all put on public faces that hide the hidden complications we suffer in private. One school project emphasizes this disparity. A kindergarten teacher requires her students to draw a family tree and, wouldn’t you know, most parents hate this assignment. There’s the little boy who is the product of a one-night-stand and tells his mother that the teacher said he has to put a name down for his father. There are the divorced families with new stepparents and half-siblings that can leave one scratching their head at all the extra lines on their tree. Then there are the families with perfect trees that fit expectations to a tee, except the implied perfection is a deceit.

BIG LITTLE LIES features a large cast of parents and their children, but primarily focuses on three women: Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. Madeline and Celeste are already fast friends at the start of the novel, but they both meet newly arrived Jane for the first time when she helps Madeline with a twisted ankle. Madeline is the one with the complicated family tree. She had a daughter (Abigail) with her first husband who one day decided he couldn’t handle parenthood and left them. Now she’s happily remarried with two more children from the second marriage. Except her ex-husband had to move back to town with his young, infuriatingly sweet and polite (and sincere about it) new wife and their daughter. To rub salt in the wound, Abigail not only forgives her father for the abandonment but seems to prefer his family to Madeline’s. Celeste is the perfect-on-the-surface character. Absolutely gorgeous with an equally handsome, rich, charming, and generous husband and two adorably rowdy twin boys. The only thing Madeline doesn’t envy about Celeste’s life is the boys’ ceaseless shouting. Celeste is quiet and sometimes comes off a little inane with the way she’s constantly daydreaming and losing track of the conversation. In her viewpoint, though, it becomes apparent that behavior that might seem ditsy is actually just distracted as she considers her life and her options. Jane’s name was obviously deliberately selected to put the reader in mind of “Plain Jane.” She’s a single mother who wants nothing more than to hunker under the radar and avoid others’ scrutiny...which turns out to be hard after she unintentionally befriends outgoing Madeline. Incredible, dynamic characters, all of them.

You need to be patient and trust the author with a construction that involves any jumping back and forth in time. Each chapter ends with snippets of interviews regarding the impending death. We don’t know who died yet let alone why the police suspect murder and who they suspect. Like the rest of the book, these snippets are mostly funny at first when interviewees make catty remarks or obsess about the trivial in a murder investigation, but the comments become more meaningful as the reader figures out who everyone is and how they fit into the bigger picture.

Speaking of the death, I worried a little about that part. You know right from the beginning that someone will die and I feared a cop-out sense if Moriarty killed off a trivial character after so much build-up or didn’t handle a more prominent character’s death satisfactorily. I refuse to hint at who dies, but I will say that I felt entirely satisfied with how the author handles her selection. 

I made a few correct predictions far in advance, but didn’t like the book any less for that. I still felt the anticipated revelations with my gut and didn’t call perhaps the biggest twist revealed in the chaotic climax.

This is an extremely discussion-worthy novel. Moriarty’s debut novel, THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, has been selected for countless book groups and now I understand why and hope the same happens with BIG LITTLE LIES.

My only warning has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Moriarty depicts her characters with such raw, heartfelt honesty that I fear some themes of domestic abuse and other violence will likely be triggering for anyone who has experienced something similar in their own life.

An unassuming book, BIG LITTLES LIES is smart and well-written. I expect I will reflect back on this one for years to come.